Friday, February 12, 2010

JOB STORIES: Why the Air Conditioning Won’t Get Fixed, Ever

By X - 360096

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 print edition of Paper Heart (Issue #1).

In the hopes that tales like this from our membership will become a regular feature of the Paper Heart, I share with you an example of cost-benefit analysis in action at my old retail job.

Late last spring, things were getting hot at the camping supply store where I had worked for about a year and a half. The building was a huge 2-story box, and when the air conditioning would fail, the temperature inside the store rose even higher than outside. Whenever the AC broke, it would be days before someone came in to fix it. Since we were a centralized corporation, the store manager had to fax a Repair and Maintenance form to headquarters, sometimes more than once, and wait for HQ to send their preferred HVAC company down to our location. These workers would do their best and the AC would resume humming, but in a week or so it would stop working again. And so the cycle begins anew. As spring turned into summer and the heat just got worse, customers started complaining about it. I lost
count of how many shoppers stopped by the registers on their way out the door to tell me they wished they could stay and spend money, but just couldn’t handle feeling like they were about to pass out. Of course, if the temperature was uncomfortable for customers, you can
imagine what things were like for those of us who had to be there all day long. Underneath our store aprons, mandatory collared shirts, and often undershirts, we all got pretty sweaty.

Carrying boxes of inventory up and down the stairs, hanging up bicycles, climbing 20-foot ladders to change the light bulbs or stock merchandise, re-sorting and restocking products—including canoes, and generally running all around the store and doing repetitive physical motions - this is real exercise. (If you keep in mind that our unpaid meal breaks were only 15-
30 minutes long you’ll have an idea of how exhausting this routine can be in an 80-degree environment.) If we’d had a union at the store, maybe we could have collectively put a demand to our managers, or the higher-ups at corporate, to fix the problem. The action taken by Starbucks workers at the IWW-organized shop in the Mall of America is really inspiring. They had a similar problem with the store getting too hot, and management only made excuses and told baristas to stop sweating. Eventually the morning shift walked off the floor, went out to buy a box fan, came back and plugged it in. This convinced their bosses to finally install air
conditioning. Brilliant. If my store had some level of organization among the workers, perhaps we could have tried something like that. Hell, we even had three different types of fans for sale sitting around. But we weren’t organized, so we didn’t get together to do something. We were on our own.

One day in June, I was in the back room sorting coat hangers. I asked my manager, who was doing something on the computer at the managers-only desk in the corner, why the air conditioning was giving us so much trouble, and what could be done about it. He explained that it was broken beyond repair (obviously), and could only be replaced. Unfortunately, the
company’s lease on the building would be up in two years, and it didn’t make sense to spend a few grand on a new AC. Instead, we had to make it through the next 24 months without a functioning cooling system. I could understand his point of view, couldn’t I? Admittedly,
there is a perfect logic to it. There’s no reason for a business owner to sink money into a store that won’t be there for long. It makes more sense to just let workers and customers sweat it out over the next two summers. That’s the rationale of capital, and it shows why we need to destroy capitalism. I agreed with my manager that leaving the AC broken was pretty reasonable under the circumstances, and told him I was sure the customers I talked to would see it that way too, if I explained it to them like that. At that point his face took on a disappointed, somewhat disgusted expression, and told me calmly, “You have a bad attitude.” A week later I was fired.

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