Here’s a little shopping season question for you. That sales associate at Nordstrom, the nicely decked out woman who sells those $400 purses and $600 blazers: How much money does she probably make, roughly, per year?
Well, it’s Nordstrom, it’s a class outfit, a cut or maybe even two above Macy’s… She must make decent coin, right?
Not likely. According to indeed.com, your average apparel associate, cashier, or cashier/sales clerk at the chain makes something around $11 an hour. That’s $385 a week, or right around $20,000 a year—before taxes. Of course, with experience, people make more, but even the highest salaries aren't great. And that $20,000 is virtually a poverty wage. And that’s assuming they’re letting them work a full 35-hour week, which of course a lot of places don’t because it means they have to pay benefits (I don’t know Nordstrom’s particular practices in this regard, but we’ve all read plenty of stories about how common enforced part-timing is in the retail world).
Remember how Henry Ford famously paid his workers enough so that they could buy one of his cars? Ford was generally conservative, and ragingly anti-Semitic, but he had enough sense to know that as a capitalist he would be better off if more workers could afford the Model-T, so on that front he practiced an enlightened capitalism.
But what about the guy at Nordstrom in the men’s department? He certainly looks smartly turned out. I suppose he gets a hefty employee discount that enables him to buy his suits at the store where he works. But an employee discount isn’t the same thing as a living wage he can raise a family on.
As we come to Black Friday and the shopping season, we (to the extent that we still patronize physical stores) steel ourselves for the parking lot hassles, and the lines, and the interminable waits as we perfect various passive-aggressive techniques to get some bedraggled store clerk’s attention. I counsel that before we get all huffy, we walk a mile in their shoes and those of service workers of all kinds. They have it rough, and they make terrible wages.
I guess they always did—retail was always one of the few lines of work open to women, those matronly ladies selling gloves at B. Altman’s in all those old New York movies, and women as we know have always been paid less than men. But in the age of the Uber economy, it’s gotten worse, with all the things you know about: unreliable scheduling, working off the clock, misclassification of workers as independent contractors (a huge problem), and more.
If the Democrats’ job number one heading into 2020 is to win back some of those white working-class voters who deserted them in 2016, this general problem of wage theft seems like an awfully good place to start. It affects many millions of Americans of all races and in all places. Yet I don’t hear many Democrats talk about it. No one in the broader public even knows what “wage theft” means. Somebody stole your pay packet as you walked home from work? No. It’s what employers extract from employees in not paying them what they’ve earned.
There are two notable exceptions to this silence that I’m aware of (though one is not a Democrat). Bernie Sanders has a bill that would impose a 100 percent tax on large employers for every dollar an employee needs in public assistance like food stamps; he has singled out Amazon, whose warehouses are going to be stuffed to the gills with part-timers for the next month. As is Bernie’s wont, that seems a bit grandiose, but at least he’s trying to get the issue discussed, so good on him for that. (I wonder why a lot of more main$tream Democrat$ are aver$e to $ocking it to Amazon….)
And Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is a Democrat, has legislation that would similarly tax companies (though at a lower rate than Sanders) whose employees need public assistance and would offer some tax credits to companies that did the right thing and raised wages. So, stick and carrot, in other words. The Senate actually voted on it during the farm bill debate last June, and while it lost, it got the support of every Democrat. Note, every Democrat: Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, everyone. Democrats are and will be divided on some cultural issues, but on something like this, they can be 100 percent united.
Wages, work, and the idea that if you work full-time you deserve a decent life have to be the cornerstones of what Democrats present to people in 2020. Medicare for All and free college, which constitute most of what I’m hearing out of the newly energized left that will be seated in the next House of Representatives, are secondary. Medicare for All failed in Vermont, and free college does nothing for the 65 percent of young people who don’t go to college. But everybody (mostly) works. Everybody is entitled to a good wage. If the Democrats haven’t firmly associated themselves with these simple ideas by 2020, they have failed.
In the meantime, please strike a small blow for proletarian decency when you do hit the mall this year by remembering when you’re angry at the sales clerk: She makes $20,000 a year. She may work a second job. She may be on food stamps.
So chill out. Check your emails. Go to the Cheesecake Factory and get a drink. She’s trying her best. She already has the contempt of the Republican Party, whose members regularly make fun of food stamp recipients. She doesn’t need yours.