One of the sideways parts of my brain—parts that are always going off laterally when I’m trying to think linearly—notes how frequently I’ve said that sentence in the past few months.
I’m mid-conversation with a young woman at a retail store. She’s disenchanted with the labour demanded of her, and when I ask if the measly 10 per cent staff discount the billion-dollar conglomerate she works for inspires her to shop at that store, she laughs.
“I can’t,” she says. Simply, but not sadly. She’s accustomed to this: exploitation in return for a pittance, and none of the perks that her managers and their parents grew up with.
I tell her that Shoppers Drug Mart staff get a 30 per cent store discount, and she’s shocked. We both realize how little she would need to feel appreciated at her job. But she doesn’t see her power because she’s been lied to about who earns the profit. The line grows behind me and she calls to a retreating manager that she needs help at the cash.
I do the only thing I know how to do in situations like this: I make eye contact, I tell her it shouldn’t be this way, and I don’t waste her time.
Income disparity is growing in ways that are literally setting off alarm bells all over the planet. My own management at the women’s shelter uses the phrase “churnover” to describe the difficulty in hiring and retaining new staff. We are burning out just as the planet is burning up. We’re in trouble, friends.
It’s actually kind of stupid for corporations to not offer higher employee discounts—the idea has always been to make sure that your staff, who are contained within your walls for up to a third of their hours in existence, take the money you (under)pay them and spend it on the products they spend all day ringing up.
When the discounts are low, employees see no reason to spend their money in that store, especially if they feel unappreciated or abused. As this young woman noted, “It doesn’t even cover tax.” Where are the perks?
All over town I see perky little signs in the store windows. “Join our team!” Short descriptions of what will be expected of you and testimonials from Definitely Real Employees describing how much they love the job they want you to apply for. But what are the perks? Is being part of a team enough?
Well, I’m back reading comments on Facebook, I’m sorry to say. And every time a job posting comes up, there are people asking how much it pays. I love to see this. It is a tool of the money-hoarding classes to discourage us plebs from discussing how much money we make—and how much money they make off us. This small rebellion is actually quite revolutionary. Working-class people are saying, ‘I will not be silent about the financial harms done to me and my community.’ I see them, I feel them, and it’s not acceptable.
We are opening up the conversation about income, and it isn’t pretty. But it’s necessary—we all need to know what’s at stake.
People are done talking about minimum wage. We’re not even that convinced about a living wage anymore. We are waking each other up to the undeniable fact that we only get one life on this beautiful, beleaguered planet, and that there is enough money and water and housing and food and love to make sure each and every one of us can have a life in which we thrive. So if we are stuck talking about money, now let’s demand a thriving wage.
In Canada, scarcity is fake. There is enough to go around. But some people aren’t sharing, and that’s not okay. Nobody earns a billion dollars—that money is made off the back of the workforce. Which makes it theft. And it is not acceptable.
So when you see a little sign subtly pleading you to “Join Our Team!”, ask them, what are the perks? What will they do for you? How much will they pay you? What about benefits? What about equity and fairness and safety? What about your wellbeing? What’s in it for you?
I think we’ve all been waiting for this moment. A time in which the people have the power. Think about almost any department in any box store right now—there are keystone people holding the entire place together. It might even be you. That’s power. You may need that job, but your boss needs you more. I want to see them negotiate. I want to see epic offers. I want to see co-operatives and unions and incentives and creative ways to make sure people love their work. I want to see work, work for us.
Because the time of wringing every ounce of labour out the workforce until there’s nothing left is ending. It’s our turn now.
The tables are turning, and it’s time they are set with enough food for everyone who sits down to eat.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.