By Susan Kang / Truthout
Well, we’ve entered what is supposedly “the most wonderful time of year” — a span that might rather be called “the most exploitative time of the year,” if workers had anything to say about it.
Holiday retail sales have been increasing steadily since 2020, and U.S. retailers are hoping for a strong winter retail season this year, but the labor issues that have plagued the pandemic economy — supply chain issues, worker shortages, demanding schedules, insufficient pay and a lack of workplace representation — continue to challenge workers, the backbone of the “magical” holiday season.
The conditions faced by workers in the retail, retail support and logistics industries are harsh and often punishing during the holidays, as they are expected to work long shifts, extra hours and face expectations of fast turnaround. Public facing retail workers are also at risk of abuse and even assault from customers, who find themselves frustrated when problems with supply chains and understaffing lead to less-than-optimal customer service.
In addition, most workers do not have adequate pay. And all this, while many workers in non-unionized sectors lack a voice at work and may be paid as little as $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. While large employers like Amazon set a $15 minimum wage that pressured other employers to raise their wages, many retail workers in the U.S. still make less than $15/hour, including the majority of big box and discount retail workers, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. These low wages continue despite the difficulties that employers face in recruiting and retaining workers in our tight labor market.
Despite the many labor demands of in-person shopping, this year many retailers refrained from hiring seasonal workers in physical stores, and instead hired mostly warehouse and retail-support workers. There is a vast network of retail supporting jobs necessary to prop up brick and mortar retail, as well as the growing e-commerce retail industry, which faces similar issues.
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Amazon, for example, hired 150,000 workers for the 2022 holiday season. These temporary workers, whether in public facing or support roles, are more likely to face wage theft, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Warehouse workers, whether regular or temporary, face grueling conditions including over 60 hour weeks on their feet, intense monitoring of their time and speed up demands, and thus suffer from high turnover and vacancy rates. Leading up to Prime Day 2022, an October pre-holiday season sale event at Amazon, three Amazon warehouses caught fire, leading workers to walk off the job and demand full pay for the day.
Workers face challenges to creating a more humane system during the holidays, but they are not solely victims. In fact, workers continue to fight back through organizing, job actions, coalitions with community groups and work with unions.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has worked to strengthen the bargaining position of workers in the broader retail industry through various organizing projects. This includes the international day of action, Make Amazon Pay, during which workers in Amazon warehouses all over the world engaged in actions ranging from walkouts to protests. Eighty unions in 32 countries (including many European countries where workers have better protections) participated in actions targeting Amazon. Workers organized another dozen actions in the United States, including protests in front of Jeff Bezos’s penthouse in New York City, and apicket line at the Bessemer, Alabama, facility.
In addition, RWDSU continues to work with community groups and workers centers to improve the lives of warehouse and other non-unionized workers, through efforts such as New York State’s Warehouse Workers Protection Act, which passed the state legislature in June 2022. This historic legislation would create baseline workplace protections and safety standards for all larger warehouse employers. As Chelsea Connor, director of communications from RWDSU told Truthout, “RWDSU has a long history of working to protect non-unionized workers. We have been working and we continue to work with community groups to improve the conditions for all workers.”
E-commerce has grown steadily over the past decade, with a significant uptick since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. 2020 and 2021 were years of massive e-commerce spending during the holiday seasons, each growing over the previous year by 33 percent and 8.6 percent respectively, and while market experts expect only “modest” e-commerce spending growth for 2022, the numbers are still staggering, with an estimated $260 billion and $264 billion in sales for the holiday season. These hundreds of billions of dollars in sales go through multiple rounds of delivery and sorting before the packages end up at a consumer’s address, avoiding the crowds and frustration of traditional retail shopping.
Hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers join the existing regular staff in the logistics industry, aiding in the variety of jobs ranging from unloading goods off trucks, sorting and managing packages in the warehouse, loading and sorting packages onto trucks, and participating in deliveries. Workers, whether regular or seasonal, work long hours often for six days a week during this busy season, which starts around Black Friday and lasts through the “returns season” in early January. Temporary workers, less experienced in their roles, also suffer from great risk of injury on the job.
Sean Williams, a 22-year veteran worker at UPS, longtime Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) activist and executive board member of Teamster Local 71, explained in an interview, “In normal, non-peak time, you may do 100 stops a day (deliveries and pickup). But this time of year, you may be asked to do 170. You do get helpers from time to time, however, you’re still asked to do more, almost in a shorter period of time to accommodate the tasks at hand.”
While Teamsters and other unionized workers enjoy protections under their contracts, this has not necessarily trickled through the industry. UPS drivers, who are Teamsters members, have gained many protections for themselves over the years, including the right to opt out of forced overtime. Unionized workers can freely speak up at work, push back against speed ups, and voice concerns about health and safety. But this is not the case across the industry. As Rand Wilson, a longtime organizer with TDU, told Truthout, “Workers with pretty identical conditions at an Amazon facility, without a union contract … they do what they are told or they can get fired.”
While most of us take the same day and next day shipping of the e-commerce revolution for granted, the workers who deliver our packages ask us to consider their positions as we enjoy buying and sharing gifts. Rand Wilson wants consumers to “appreciate the complexity of the diversity of the supply chain that gets that package to them on the next day. The cost of all of that convenience, of clicking on some website for your new shirt, it’s hard for people to appreciate what the cost of that is in terms of people’s lives and the pressure that they’re under in a just-in-time economy. And do we really need to have golf balls delivered tomorrow?” While shopping for our loved ones and gift giving during the holidays is not inherently a bad thing, on a large scale it has many social, environmental and human costs that we often do not consider.
Sean Williams wants consumers and the public to be patient and understand a bit about how the logistics industry works. The peak date for deliveries is “the 17th or 18th. People’s last-minute shopping, last minute push to get things by Christmas.” (So, make your orders soon.) But rather than see logistic workers as a hindrance, he asks that consumers understand the position that UPS and other delivery workers find themselves in.
He told Truthout that there are “a lot of dedicated people in this industry who work very hard who care about getting these packages to who they need to get to. We ask consumers to have a little grace when getting them.… We are not at full staff.… Anything can happen and we are human, mistakes can happen [but] we put our best foot forward every day to supply the consumer what their needs are, our industry partners as well.”
Delivery workers are often extremely dedicated service professionals, and as they support our holiday dreams, these workers will need our support in their 2023 contract fight, where they will push for greater equity among all UPS workers, and a more humane and just economy for all.