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Levi’s Labor’s Loss

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Posted on Mar 14, 2014

Photo by smkybear (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Alexa Sue Amore

In the 21st century, young people know that the concept of public and affordable higher education is nothing but a dream of a long-gone age. Academic programs across America have been sucked dry of funding while tuition rates at public universities converge with those of traditionally more expensive private institutions. Now more than ever, students depend upon “unskilled” service jobs to make up for cost-of-living deficits while in school and in the wake of graduation.

For two and a half years, my undergraduate education overlapped with a part-time job at Levi Strauss & Co.’s flagship store in downtown San Francisco. Levi’s ad campaigns seemed to promise gainful employment at a company with a monumental history—the store’s window displays proclaimed the opportunism of the 19th century, evoking the conquest of the western frontier with slogans like “Go forth” and catering to populist sentiments with the marketing declaration “We are all workers.” Born out of the demand for sturdy work pants during the California Gold Rush, Levi jeans’ local roots made the corporation a living testament to the American Dream.

My co-workers were mostly in their 20s and almost exclusively enrolled in or recently graduated from college. Like the gold miners who put Levi Strauss in business, most of us fled our hometowns and came to San Francisco searching for opportunity. The company initiated employees with mandatory seminars like the “Denim Leadership Initiative,” which charmingly tapped into the historical affinity between Levi’s jeans and the common man. I recall one tale glorifying the legend of the American cowboy, telling how the position of a rivet in the crotch of the 501 style was relocated to accommodate cowboys who complained that their scrotums were burned when it was heated by the warmth emitted from a campfire.

Today, Levi’s jeans are not principally associated with laborers or frontiersmen, but with leisure and fashion. Still, the “Commuter” line for men appeals to the bike messenger, the hippest and most contemporary incarnation of the common man, whom Levi asks to pay $88 for a pair of jeans that feature pockets dyed to match San Francisco’s Day-Glo green bike lanes.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s strategies and policies for inculcating employees with the market ethos were just as often malicious as they were absurd. Over the course of my time there, San Francisco’s minimum wage increased at nearly the same rate used to factor pay increases earned at Levi for “work merit.” I earned 25 cents above the minimum hourly wage when I was hired versus 27 cents at the time I quit, receiving a mere 2 cent merit increase over a period of two and a half years. The increase in the minimum wage was exploited to preserve the appearance of offering merit raises to veteran employees while keeping hourly rates of pay as low as possible. When I asked for a more substantial raise to correct the loophole through the rising minimum wage, my managers’ faces hardened as they pointed to the fixed policies for determining pay rates. There was no rule requiring merit increases to reflect changes in the city’s minimum wage, so my appeal had no traction.

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At work, “policy” is a monolith enshrined as if it were a law of physics. When potential profit is at stake and a discrepancy exists between policy and reality, reality is ignored and suppressed to favor the interests of policymakers. For example, policies governing stocking tasks were often at odds with time saving interests in the sense that if one were to follow the policy literally, one would never complete the assigned task. I began to propose solutions for carrying out projects more efficiently, but managers treated my suggestions as insurrectionary defiance. In time I understood that trivial policies at work served no purpose but to keep workers from thinking independently. In spite of how often corporations throw around buzzwords like “innovation,” Levi discouraged innovation and improvisation because those habits, valuable as they are, have the power to cultivate a tendency in employees to either forget or resist the company’s hierarchy, in which a small number of higher-ups dispatch often meaningless orders to a much larger group of poorly paid “unskilled” laborers.

As “team members,” Levi employees were taught to accept policy with thoughtless obedience, and the denial of reason became instinctive for survival. Those who became wise to the insufficiency of policy to address real issues choked on their dissent while the rest suffered damage to their bullshit detectors. The enforcers of policy presented their rules as inerrant truth and discreetly punished those who questioned by exploiting our vulnerabilities as young people. If you were a student, management might suddenly refuse to schedule your shifts around your classes and force you out of the job. Otherwise, you might simply be denied the number of weekly hours you needed to pay your bills. Employees were rarely fired, but if you weren’t wanted, you could be made to leave.

On the other hand, Levi made a big show out of so-called employee appreciation. Employee discounts and other “privileges” were used to curb demand for tangible compensation such as better wages, sales commissions, more hours and benefits. Offering “gifts” as compensation increased revenue by keeping labor costs low, and the hype over employee appreciation and company gift giving clouded our sensibilities to what we plainly deserved for honest work.


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