The petit bourgeoisie begs for spare change
On Monday, Feb 5, local small business owners met at Union Station to talk with a statewide Retail Task Force, whose focus is to “to review and report on efforts to strengthen the local retail sector in the commonwealth.” Shoestring co-editor Will Meyer and I felt we should attend so we could hear in person exactly how small shops in Northampton, and around the Commonwealth, intend to save Main St.
When we entered the posh banquet hall—which is often used for weddings and the like—I was struck by the business casual vibe, that for service-workers-turned-aspiring-commie-journalists, is pretty alienating. We were noticeable black sheep.
In the city’s recent surveillance debate, local business owners decided to stay silent on the issue. Rather than engage with community members, many of whom are their employees and not to mention customers, on substantive issues about surveillance, the local Northampton downtown business community allowed the Chamber of Commerce to speak on their behalf. Over and over again, Chamber President Suzanne Beck, with no proof that surveillance cameras would do anything to improve local business, asked the City Council and the community to embrace Police Chief Jody Kasper’s $83,000 surveillance camera project—or at least remain open minded about the proposal. And former Chamber Board member, now City Councilor, Dennis Bidwell was an outspoken opponent of the Ordinance to Restrict Surveillance. Even in the face of overwhelming community testimony that cameras would make people want to avoid downtown and mounting evidence that surveillance cameras indeed do not prevent crime, Mayor David Narkewicz was also seemingly hellbent on pushing Kasper’s project through. What was that all about? Why did these economic and political actors want to implement a policy of surveillance that would likely turn people away from downtown?
We sat in the front row so we could hear and see the panel—who appeared to be eleven white men and one white woman. The task force, made up of state senators, chamber of commerce types, union reps, and proprietors of local business, heard the concerns of retailers so they can write a report in June that will make recommendations on improving the retail sector. Similar events are taking place all over the state. Also in attendance were Mayor David Narkewicz, Northampton City Councilors Gina-Louise Sciara (Ward 4), Alisa Klein (Ward 7), Marianne LaBarge (Ward 6), Jim Nash (Ward 3), and Dennis Bidwell (Ward 2). There were about 50 people in attendance, the majority of whom were local business owners. As if workers were irrelevant to the retail sector, their presence was non-existent, save for their presence in countless business owners’ testimonies, in which employees’ basic human needs were put on the chopping block.
Following customary schmoozing, the open forum began. The desperation in the room was palpable. A couple dozen business people took the opportunity to speak in front of the task force. Here, they advocated new workplace attacks on their employees, requesting the legislature enact life-threatening social policies, like ending time-and-a-half pay on Sundays, reducing employee sick days, stopping minimum wage increases, creating two-tier wage systems, in which teenagers would not get paid a full minimum wage, and lamenting health insurance costs. This should not have been surprising, but, in person, it was shocking and disturbing. My face burned. We thought we might not make it.
Dave Ratner of Dave’s Pet and Soda City, who recently stood beside 45 as he signed an executive order to undermine the Affordable Care Act (and then claimed to regret it), got the bitter party started. His remarks sparked a chain of comments by fellow retailers, all of whom begged the task force to save their businesses by designing legislation that will impose the austerity measures described above.
Another request by attendees was to make online retailers like Amazon pay a sales tax which they are currently not required to do, causing customers to shop online rather than on Main St. This was the one bit of damn sense that was discussed during the meeting. Though its feasibility was soon to be shot down by task force member Jon Hurst, who later in the meeting dashed hopes with great bluntness when he said: “We’ve been trying for two decades to get these online guys to pay sales tax and it’s not happening.”
The most concerning theme of the meeting was the resounding support to create more precarious working conditions for teenagers. Commenters listed reasons why this age group deserves lower wages, including claims that teenagers are unskilled, unreliable, do not support families, and the tautology that they are not yet adults. And thus implied that teenagers, and others on the margins of the workforce, are not only unworthy of decent pay, but also don’t need it. We heard consistently of “teenagers,” “retirees,” “moonlighters,” and “part-timers,” who were invoked as a straw man, a justification of these retrograde proposals. One can easily imagine a meeting in our country’s not so distant past, in which “teenager” could have been replaced with “woman” or “immigrant.” And no doubt, women, immigrants, and people of color disproportionately make up the working-class, especially in the service industry, shattering the myth that teenagers don’t need the money.
Attendees shared more than just gripes: They shared their personal anecdotes about their businesses. Many attendees’ businesses appeared to be entwined with a multi-generational history in retail, cementing both personal and familial identities. Through their stories and testimonies, we could sense a group of people grasping onto to their livelihood and their past. It was impossible to not feel empathy for them as they embodied their sense of accomplishment, and revealed their fear that it could soon be lost.
After audience comment, the task force responded. For the most part, their response was a half-hearted assurance that their report in June would help to assuage the audiences’ urgent concerns. In addition to admitting that the sales tax idea was a lost cause, other responses evoked an infomercial sales pitch, encouraging businesses to do more collective sales, like Local Business Saturday; get savvy with social media; and take advantage of online government educational resources. One task force member reminded everyone that they could always close on Sundays to avoid paying their workers time-and-a-half.
In her response to a scathing critique of sick day reduction made by The Shoestring, task force member Judy Herrell sought to attack the universal principle of sick days by referencing a literal once-in-a-lifetime-event, in which the majority of her employees called in sick to see the recent total eclipse. The room erupted in sympathetic claps. Rather than close the shop based on worker preference, she called in a backup crew and, after driving by employees watching the eclipse, she got out of her car to personally confronted them in Look Park. The moral of her story was that people prefer a total solar eclipse to a shift of scooping ice cream.
The myopic narrative in the room lacked the ability to confront the realities of the storm ahead. Rising inequality, automation, and climate change pose existential threats to not only Main St., but also to life on earth as we know it. It didn’t occur to many at the event, save a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representative who served on the task force, that throwing workers further under the bus would likely exacerbate economic problems, not solve them. With rising debts, home ownership further out of reach, and social mobility serving as a myth for capitalists and politicians to fall back on, precarity is the norm and the policies being proposed won’t help anyone.
The whole thing felt like a scam. This task force didn’t have any answers, and they seemed to be serving as a buffer of bad news. Without the fall of capitalism and something better taking its place by June 2018, it’s hard to imagine this report will keep business doors open except for its use as a door stop.
Until these retailers realize that they have more in common with panhandlers and workers than with Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, we’re all fucked.