Sitcoms are an underrated way of portraying the economic challenges faced by average people. “Atlanta” shows the travails of working-class black Americans navigating a world of hassle, insecurity and poverty. The Canadian program “Kim’s Convenience” depicts immigrant small-business owners and their second-generation children off to a rocky start on their rise into the middle class.
Broad economic trends form the backdrop to both of shows -- the loss of dependable manufacturing jobs, the geographic concentration of economic opportunity, immigration, prejudice and social mobility. But perhaps no show captures the reality of the modern American workplace as well as NBC’s “Superstore.”
The premise of “Superstore” is charmingly simple -- the misadventures of the employees of a big-box discount store called Cloud 9 (a fictional analog of Walmart). They represent a diverse cross-section of the American populace: young, old, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. One is disabled, one is an unauthorized immigrant, one is homeless, another is a teenage mom. They’re not the burly hard-hat-wearing men that one might associate with the term “working class.” But perhaps that stereotype ought to change because retail workers have outnumbered manufacturing workers in the US since 2003.
The Cloud 9 workers are both benefiting from and suffering from the big change that US retail has undergone in recent decades as local, family-owned stores were replaced by national chains. Between 1948 and 1997, the share of single-establishment retail companies fell from about 70 percent to less than 40 percent.
That shift has raised efficiency, but often at the expense of workers. Bargaining between employees and managers that might have been done face-to-face at a mom-and-pop is done at arm’s length behind a protective veil of corporate policy. When a manager in “Superstore” dares to violate corporate policy and gives a new mother paid time off, he is promptly fired by his supervisors. This sort of faceless, pitiless way of dealing with employees reduces their power, allowing companies to squeeze them in a thousand small ways. It also probably makes the average store a colder and more forbidding work environment.
Another way retail companies squeeze their employees is with irregular scheduling. The workers in “Superstore,” like many real workers, have little assurance that they will be given enough hours to earn enough to live on. But when they do get lots of hours, they often find themselves working unpaid overtime. This is technically illegal, but employers have many ways of getting around the rules.
The obvious way to fight back against corporate exploitation would be to form a union. A number of “Superstore” plots revolve around efforts to do exactly this. But it’s an uphill struggle for several reasons. First, retail jobs don’t require years of training to master, and striking workers can be replaced relatively easily. Second, a unionized store will be at a competitive disadvantage versus nonunion competitors, which could lead to job losses or even a shutdown. And third, big chain companies are very skilled at dissuading workers from voting to unionize.
These problems could be solved by government policy. If the US government mandated that all the retail workers in a given region be represented by a single union -- a policy known as sectoral bargaining -- it would mean one less reason for employers to fear unions because all stores would be competing on a level playing field. Extending union agreements to nonunionized workers would be a way to rapidly restore labor’s power without the cumbersome process of voting in unions everywhere. These fixes would require an extensive rewrite of US labor law, but it might be a way to make retail work as good as the manufacturing jobs of the past.
Regulation can also help. Restricting irregular scheduling doesn’t just improve workers’ quality of life, it boosts productivity. Tightening up the rules regarding unpaid overtime and ensuring adequate parental leave should also be a priority.
Even sectoral bargaining and regulation, of course, won’t protect retail workers from the onslaught of technology. Walmart’s most formidable competition comes from Amazon.com, which has much lower overheads in terms of land and personnel. If unions force physical stores to raise wages so much that consumer prices start going up, customers could have even more incentive to shop at the online giant, putting stores out of business. Plenty of chain stores have closed in recent years amid what some refer to as the retail apocalypse and retail employment is declining as a share of the population, much as manufacturing did.
Presumably, sectoral unions would be smart enough to hold down wages to fend off the threat, but this means less money in workers’ pockets.
So in addition to retail workers’ trials and tribulations, “Superstore” shows a way of life in decline. No matter what happens with labor laws, stores will keep closing if online retail becomes cheaper than it already is. In that case, the US economy will simply have to find something else for all those working-class people to do.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.