Retail Workers’ Rights: It’s a Family Issue

3.December.14

This piece was originally published on The Huffington Post.

By: Mark Ortiz

“There has to be a law against this,” I said to my mom when she called to vent to me about working 12 days in a row at her job in Texas–the state I grew up in. This feeling that workers should be protected stayed with me as I tried to understand the rights for myself and my working friends and family in a state that promises little of anything to its workers.

There is no law in Texas that limits how many consecutive days an employer can schedule you. In fact, there are few laws protecting workers at all in Texas. Texas is an “employment at will” state, meaning if you do not like something at your job, you have one course of action–you can quit.

If there is something my early work experience reinforced in me over and over, it was that I deserved no say in my work. My whole life, I was trained to be an unquestioning member of the Texas workforce. When things looked dangerous, unreasonable, or illegal as a worker, you are taught to put your head down and keep doing your job. Those who did not faced cut hours or even termination.

I continued to work hard, but after six years in the Texas workforce, my frustrations and lack of options reached a boiling point. In 2011, I decided to move to San Francisco to try my luck there. Those years of oppression and frustration came in handy once I realized I had the right to speak up at my new unionized job at Macy’s in San Francisco. One of the first things I noticed about my new job was the amount of respect that managers had for their employees. I could hear it in their tone and selection of words. They did not scream at me or use intimidation to get tasks done. The condescending, rude ways that I was so used to my previous managers speaking to me were gone.

I was also surprised to find out that I could take a break and even was given some sick time in case I missed work. For someone who worked years to gain two weeks off and never had sick days, this was incredible. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that I was part of a union called United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. But once I realized that these perks I enjoyed so much had been fought for by previous members, I immediately felt responsible for my contract. Having felt so helpless for so many years in Texas, I was proud of my new-found voice in my workplace and decided to be a shop steward.

Having a Union and an active membership can do wonders for workers. It has allowed me to support myself in one of the most expensive areas in the United States. Being a part of a unionized organization has also given me a consistent schedule every week for three years and two weeks’ notice if any changes are made to my schedule, which makes it easy to continue my education and still have time to live a normal life. But most importantly, it made me realize that all those feelings of wanting a voice, wanting a change and wanting to be treated with respect were not so alien in California. People here believed they deserved certain rights and were not afraid to fight for them.

With my recent experience in labor, I joined a small coalition of workers and activists to try to pass the Retail Workers Bill of Rights (RWBoR) in San Francisco. Locals are not the only ones excited about this bill– many groups nationwide have watched the votes hoping that this legislation will have a trickle-down effect across the nation. Workers from all walks of life joined the movement, many coming to public forums to share a piece of their hardship with Board Supervisors in San Francisco. It did not take long to realize that lower-income families would benefit with such legislation as parents and family advocates stepped up to the pew to express their struggles finding daycare, trying to work two jobs and managing the many short-notice shifts that they were expected to show up for.

On Tuesday November 25th, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass the second and final piece of legislation that makes up the Retail Workers Bill of Rights after unanimously passing the first portion the week before. If signed into law by the mayor, these bills would be the first in the nation to promise workers two weeks’ notice on schedules and give workers the right to turn down any shifts given to them with less than two weeks’ notice. They would also work to create a more full-time workforce by offering existing workers more hours, instead of hiring more part-time workers. This will create a more stable workplace for families who find it hard to find time to invest in their children, and it will give them an opportunity to finally have a full-time job instead of juggling multiple part-time positions. This legislation, along with Prop J, a bill that raised San Francisco’s minimum wage, will create some of the best working conditions for retail workers in the United States.

I, like many other workers in the United States, have seen companies continue to invest less and less in their workforce and expect more. For many, this is a class issue, but for me it is a family issue. The work practices of companies have slowly forced workers to change their family practices and this means less time to invest in their children and families. With an increasing amount of families moving out of San Francisco, city leaders have created a multitude of bills that attempt to create conditions in which working-class families can continue to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of living and change low-wage work in industries that are notorious for abusive practices. My hope is that such legislation will trickle down across the nation and maybe someday, my mother will not have to wait almost two weeks to have a day off.

Mark Ortiz is a retail worker, an undergraduate student and an activist living in the Bay Area. He is currently working as a Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change.