From the Editor's Desk: The Cautionary Tale of Sears
By: Brian McLain
What caused the beautiful and thriving businesses, hotels, and shops from the Sixties to turn to ruins and blight? Why were once quality goods now indistinguishable from the cheaper items found at discount stores, save the higher price tag to cover the cost of the brand? Ask anyone these questions and it is certain fingers will start pointing and wagging this way and that towards a number of culprits. It’s because more people are shopping online. No, it’s because Walmart is stealing market share with their cheap goods. Or, my personal favorite, Millennials are murdering damn near any industry they can get their cruel hands on.
The answer, however, is not so complex.
It wasn’t long ago that one could make a career at of working at the local Sears. Get benefits, vacation time, good wage, a pension. One didn’t need to be high skill or have a college degree to do so either. Janitors, salespeople, stockers, drivers all could earn a living and enjoy the security of a retirement and, led to workers taking pride in the jobs they did. Everyone benefited, including the corporate heads. People could actually afford to shop in the stores that they worked at.
However, these same corporate heads thought better to replace that successful business model with one reliant on skeleton staffing with minimum wage workers that couldn’t earn a living, didn’t get benefits, didn’t get any vacation time, and didn’t have any reason to really stay because a paycheck here is a paycheck anywhere else. It wasn’t long before the middle-class retail staple was bought out by discount store Kmart, another company grasping for whatever blades of grass they could to slow their decline. The stores, once filled with quality goods sold by successful and productive workers, look like barren wastelands as the parent company teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Sears is a cautionary tale because the story of the middle class is reflected in their own success and failure.
In the Sixties, workers were getting paid well, treated well, and were earning a living doing even the most unskilled tasks. Workers had money to spend and time to spend it. Workers were happy and productive, and corporate board members were still making a pretty sizable wage to live very wealthy lives. Caps and safeguard regulations were in place to avoid hoarding of wealth and resources and spur innovation and economic expansion. Unions were prevalent to help make sure that labor was properly compensated as a resource of the economy and avoid suppression of wages.
Now we have the poorest living conditions of the developed world and it’s getting worse. There are no bootstraps to pull yourself up by. The rungs of the ladder have been broken out of the middle. We have other countries sending charity missions to the US, and free clinics and dentists with limited hours and days have people lining up days in advance and sleeping in their car. When poverty wages are the norm for jobs that once paid middle-class wages and benefits, there is no money to be spent at those businesses. When poverty wages are the norm no one is going to those once thriving marketplaces to spend $20 on a name brand shirt when each errant dollar spent could mean not being able to cover the electric bill next month?
It is understood that the Sixties did not offer the same economic opportunities to everyone equally. Most of these jobs were reserved for white men and misogyny and racism was rampant. However, it still does show work at all levels being valued and the benefits that paying a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay has on people and the economy as a whole.
So when someone incredulously asks me “Do you really think people should get paid $15 per hour to flip burgers?!”
Do I think workers should be compensated fairly for their labor and 40 hours of life energy per week when the corporation is profiting hand over fist off of that productivity?
Fuck yeah, I do. And the country would be a lot better off for it.
We do better when we all do better.