Today I’m posting a link to an article from the blog CivilEats.com by Adrien Schless-Meier called “Why Grocery Store Workers Are Making Less While Big Chains Make More.” It’s a topic on my mind because one of the songs on the record I’m working on is about the economics of supermarkets. The song is called “King Piggly Wiggly,” named after the first supermarket chain that invented the format of the modern grocery store. I first read about the King in Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved, where I pulled some of the information in the song from. You’ll see pictures from the Piggly Wiggly Wikipedia page scattered throughout this article as a symbol of the larger corporate phenomenon.
The theme of the “Corporate Welfare” series of posts on this blog has been the hypocrisy of the backlash against public benefits to the working class, given the massive government largesse that is shoveled into the mouths of super rich corporations. In addition to the obvious tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors, corporations indirectly benefit from the very public assistance that business interests typically deride.
Many of the posts in this series have shown how the people who work at places like ballparks, fast food chains, and retail giants like Wal-Mart are reliant on public benefits to survive because the corporations they work for refuse to pay them a living wage, while raking in enormous profits. These companies could not function without these workers, and the workers cannot do their job without food and shelter. Much like the food aid given to the poorer nations, which is routed back to line the pockets of US agribusiness firms, public housing and food assistance are indirectly enriching the richest corporations in the country. Here’s a block quote from the article that shows how food chains like Publix – and general retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, who are capturing an ever-increasing slice of the grocery business pie – fit into this picture:
“When food retail companies refuse to pay workers adequately, it’s not just their colleagues who have to fill in the gaps. Taxpayers must also make up the difference to ensure their neighbors can get by. According to a new report called Shelved: How Wages and Working Conditions for California’s Food Retail Workers Have Declined as the Industry has Thrived (PDF), 36 percent of California’s food retail workers receive public assistance to meet basic needs, costing the state $662 million annually.
The report points out the cruel irony: “Workers who sell food in California, the largest producer of food in the U.S., are twice as likely as the general populace to be unable to afford sufficient quantities of the food they sell or the healthy kinds of food their families need, despite the financial health of the food retail industry.”
Shelved paints a grim picture of the overall California food retail sector (i.e., grocery stores): As big manufacturers reap ever-growing profits, workers in the industry actually lose money. Based on research from the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, the report found that a nonunionized, low-price, low-cost business model has gripped the state’s food retail industry, causing a widespread decline in employee wages. And the implications stretch far wider than California.”
It’s pretty much impossible, debatably, to not be caught up in all of this, even if you get to a farmer’s market as often as you can. Much like Amazon, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods enjoy a liberal reputation in contrast to the older chains that is not always well deserved. The piece notes that these two chains are largely nonunion workplaces. I once worked for Bread and Circus, a regional chain in Massachusetts, during the time when it was bought out by Whole Foods. There was a guy named Rick with a braided ponytail and beard who worked in the produce section who schooled me on what was really going on. He told me that there was a trend across the country for national chains like Whole Foods to swallow up regional chains like Bread & Circus, consolidating control of the food industry in fewer and fewer hands. He told me that there were a handful of conglomerates that owned almost all the supermarkets in the country. That trend has only continued since 1993. (Just like in the music industry.) He predicted that benefits would be cut, along with other anti-labor practices, while the percentage of the produce section that was truly organic would drop. (Indeed, the CEO of Whole Foods later became infamous for comparing “Obamacare” to Fascism.)
Rich wasn’t alone. Sometimes I bagged groceries for a cashier named Kamel who came from Algeria. He would crack jokes about “Bread & Profit” during pauses in the action. We used to speak French at our station to maintain some distance from the customers. I remember fondly the gestures he used to finish his statement, “Le capitalisme, d’un côté, c’est bon, mais de l’autre côté…” (not so much.)
Around that time, Bread & Circus, which was soon renamed Whole Foods, bought a space owned by a bigger supermarket at the Fresh Pond mall. That shopping area lies next to Rindge Towers, an affordable housing development near the Alewife T Stop in Cambridge, but lies within easy striking distance of the tonier sections of Cambridge and suburbs like Lincoln and Lexington because it sits directly on Route 2. The move generated a lot of criticism from the community. It was said that the poor people living in the towers would be forced to shop at the expensive Whole Foods chain, or travel to another neighborhood to do their shopping. Meanwhile, wealthy people from Huron Village or Lexington conveniently shop to their heart’s content and speed off in their cars.
Rich quit Whole Foods and began working at Cambridge Natural Foods, a small family business on Mass Ave. I ran into him there once and he said that he made less money but he spent less because he didn’t go out drinking at night to deal with the stress of working for a company he hated. Unfortunately, Cambridge Natural Foods went out of business several years later. I don’t know exactly why, but my guess is that the kinds of tax breaks and favors granted to chains like Whole Foods were not available to them, forcing them to charge higher prices and be undersold.
I’ve often thought of the film The Wrestler as a parable about the relationship between labor and ownership in the US today. I was reminded of it again while reading about grocery chains because the main character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, works at a supermarket outside of the ring in the film. I liked how the movie moved back and forth between the experiences of humiliation he endures at the hands of his customers while working at the deli counter and the performances he puts on in the ring. I could relate after being told “The customer is always right” when I started working at Whole Foods for awhile back in 1993. This maxim held true even when a large man – who looked like a professional wrestler – returned a bottle of Vitamin E lotion at the customer service counter because he said it made him come too fast when he used it to masturbate.
Randy at the counter and The Ram in the ring are both paid to absorb blows. The pleasure he gets out of wrestling seems to have to do with the way he can perform what happens to him at work in an outrageously exaggerated way that makes the abuse he suffers at there more visible, even as it kills him at the end of the film. Maybe the audience relates to this drama because that dynamic is not unknown to them. Unlike the anonymity of the deli counter, he receives thunderous ovations for being pounded by staple guns and folding metal chairs.
Much of this applause is highly politicized. In his final match, he revisits his rivalry with a wrestler known as The Ayatollah. The iconography is racist and imperialist, with Randy waving a US flag at one point and breaking an Iranian one across his knee at another. The audience eats it up. We never learn The Ayatollah’s real name or see him outside the ring, as we do with Randy. The film was criticized heavily in Iran, but I didn’t read the film as endorsing this visual jingoism. The most striking point in the match was when “The Ayatollah” pauses in the middle of their routine to ask if “The Ram” is alright when he is visibly faltering. (Earlier in the film, he undergoes coronary artery bypass surgery. After the surgery, the doctors tell him never to wrestle again because his heart couldn’t take it anymore.) The contrast between the audience’s oblivion to what is happening to Randy and The Ayatollah’s concern make the Ayatollah come off as the most humane character in the building. It reveals the dehumanization of his stereotypical characterization to be a lie. His concern is especially striking because of the lack of concern Randy feels towards himself, as he refuses his enemy’s (or should I say his partner’s) advice to take his foot off the pedal, and does himself in in the process.
One of the expressions of this lack of concern towards himself is his dismissal prior to the match of the concerns expressed by his love interest, a stripper named Cassidy. (Who also knows something about being humiliated at work.) It’s interesting that the only other person besides The Ayatollah who expresses concern about his health is another “other,” this time along gender lines. The mostly male audience roars enthusiastically when he tells them he will not listen to those who tell him he’s too old to wrestle and that he should retire. When Randy dismisses her entreaty not to go on, he tells her that no one in the world cares about him outside of the ring. When she tells him that she’s there, disproving his idea that no one cares, he tells her “this is where I belong.” The film seems to draw a connection between his lack of faith in relationships and the treatment he receives as a worker. It also seems to draw a connection between a resignation to that status and a bogus version of “Patriotism,” whose code asks unconditional allegiance to organizations that mistreat you.