Recently I approached a checkout lane in a local grocery store when I overheard the clerk and a sacker having this exchange: “You’re still making $9.25? You’re kidding! Why would I stay here as long as you have and hope for checker job, when that’s all you make?” These two guys, likely about 21 (clerk) and 17 (sacker), hadn’t seen me approach. The clerk then said, “Why don’t you advertise that a bit loader so even more customers can hear you!” He turned to me with a facial and verbal apology. I then told him I was sorry to hear that his wages were so low because I had worked for Kohl’s 50 years ago and checkers were making considerably more per hour then than he is now. When I left, I gave him a tip larger than his hourly wage. As salve for my conscience it did not work.
This particular family-owned food store chain does quite well catering to the middle and owning classes. Members of the family that owns the stores are hard-working and are actively involved in the business. As a group they are as rich as King Croesus. Unlike the people who work for them, these family members don’t need to consider if they can afford to have an education, buy a car, or start a family. All of these things were funded for them before they were born. I wonder if any of these family members consider that, while they do in fact work, maybe even work hard, they do not earn what they have. It seems that our popular capitalist expression of earning suggests that earnings come from investments, risk-taking, profits, and/or labor. It might be useful to hold that understanding up to the light of reason.
These store owners’ failure to consider the value of labor shows up in other ways besides the wages they pay. This failure is evident in how they treat customers’ purchases. I have asked the sackers repeatedly to put berries on the top of the bags they pack. I have explained that sometimes these little beauties cost 25 cents a berry and that they bruise easily, even when in thin plastic containers. It would be easy to berate these boys and girls, but they have explained that they were either never trained to sack a bag or alternately that they were told to put square things on the bottom, like berries and cartons of pasta or broth. Then the bulky items like potatoes and onions can go on top. Bread? Since it is neither bulky nor quite square, it can go in the middle somewhere. Their supervisors, managers, and the store owners do not care about how their customers spend their earnings. They do care where they spend them.
I am not the sort of guy who would save a piece of rotten produce to take it back to the store for a refund — too much bother. This past year, however, I did keep a receipt for a box of rotten produce that I had purchased. When I presented the receipt, a manager asked if I had brought back the produce. Having shopped at this store two or more times a week for over 25 years, I was a bit taken back by his response and I told him to just skip it. This past week, however, I was checking out of Trader Joe’s only a dozen blocks from the offending business, when I saw that a product I had recently purchased, but not yet used, was recalled because of faulty packaging. The sign said it was safe, but poorly packaged. I said something like, “Oh, I bought that a couple of weeks ago. Is that the same stuff?” The clerk said he was not sure, but he would just take the amount off my current bill. I could enjoy my previous purchase or toss it out. Apparently at this store, not only are clerks trained how to sack bags, they are also given the discretion to provide store credits.
The store was a dozen blocks but light years away.
I use these examples of an offending food purveyor and Trader Joe’s as a metaphor for the Calvinistic or Free Market System (The offender) and a Liberal or Progressive System (Trader Joe’s). Like all metaphors, mine have their limits. But I will explain my analogy. Trader Joe’s has been changing the way we shop as a group over time. It is not unusual to see folks in the store who are clearly on tight budgets and also those with lots of discretionary income. They are all there because people need to eat. They are all there because people like good, affordable products that are clearly labeled and tastefully presented by workers who actually seem to like their jobs, like each other, and like us. When customers meet clerks, they are asked if they need help, about their day, what their plans are for the weekend. At Trader Joe’s there are easily accessed electric carts for people with mobility needs and miniature shopping carts for children shopping with their adults. Families wander through the store looking at new items and seasonal offerings, talking about food and learning how to shop.
The offending store has aisles that are too narrow to pass fire inspections legally, check-out lanes too narrow for a wheel chair and thus for ADA, dinner ware, cloth napkins, glass bottles filled with M&Ms, disinterested and underpaid staff, and absent managers and owners. After buying the same color roses from their floral department for five years, I was told a year ago that they would cost twice as much now as a special order. Alternately I could take my chances that they would be there. Even though I had never failed once in that time to pick up my order on time, there was nothing to do about it, “Central office” had decided it. (“Central office” was across the parking lot.) Like all Calvinist systems, it is expected that those who shop there will not complain because nice people don’t complain because they can afford not to do so. If you don’t look like you belong there, you don’t. Owners will find others who can afford to eat their losses, and they will out-spend you to show you how it is done. They will double park in front of the door, leave their carts in parking spaces, and leave their Gucci bags in unattended carts. They will always look like they are in a hurry, their husbands will not come to shop with them because they are inconvenienced by it, and their bored children will come home from college texting through the aisles because they are being forced to look like a family member.
In this Calvinist/Free Market emporium shoppers don’t mind all that much about how poorly they are treated and how staff are treated, because they deep down believe — like the store owners do — that they are better than the people who take their business or their labor elsewhere. Calvinism punishes many for the privileges and exclusivity it provides to a few.
I don’t know the politics of these two businesses. For my purposes, it does not matter. Middle class and many working class people in the US continue the pretense that we are not a class society. But we know the right cars, the right shops, the right eateries, the right fashion, the right anything that confirms to which tribe we belong. I once heard Tim Gunn say that fashion faux pas happen because we fall into a trap of getting used to a look and don’t think about it critically. He said it was like the monkey house at the zoo. When you first walk in, you think it smells awful. But once you’re in it for a while, it doesn’t stink anymore. We look at ourselves in a mirror, squint a bit, look again, and it seems fine when it is not. The Calvinist/Free Market system is the monkey house.
So, here’s what I am getting at: We do not benefit from low paying jobs. None of us do. Not really. The young woman who cannot afford to go to school or to stay single will not be the worker or parent that she could be. The young man deeply in debt to provide what he cannot to a family that is as much of a strain as a joy will not be the thinker or nurturer that he could be. Young people and older people in service positions know that their labor is worth more to us than we acknowledge. Our duplicity about it is a catalyst for resentment. I do not believe that we can actually see the reality of our economic system and sleep at night. So, we refuse to see it. Or, if we have wealth, we elect a Calvinist perspective (read objectivism, free market, or Tea Party) of the working class as a lazy and inept drain on society. We see the middle class that way, too, gutting unions and teachers and universities and medical professionals. And we consume to forget.