Levi's Labor's Loss
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.
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.To appease their sense of being cheated, some employees took to miniature rebellions. On occasion the stockroom would be vandalized with profane graffiti and miserably scribbled notes such as “Levi’s sucks” and “I need a beer.” Sabotage was the only defense they had against the existential crises of work, and so the despicable environment selected for retributive thievery. If employees ever stole from the store, it was at least partly out of a desire for agency amid helplessness and abuse. Resources were then diverted to micromanagement, while theatrical demonstrations like mandatory bag and locker searches reinforced notions that employees were dishonest even when there was no evidence to support such claims. Levi countered the injustices perpetrated against employees with a parade of aggrandized support for humanitarian causes, periodically pledging small donations to local schools, advocating for AIDS research and claiming to reduce water consumption in jean production. The company resorted to charity when it could be advertised to win the loyalty of customers and employees in a perversion of our real desires for a better world.
Like every other high-volume retail store, Levi had a daily monetary goal. When the store did not meet its day-to-day target, sales associates were made to absorb whatever might be deemed a missed profit opportunity in the form of cut hours and depressed wages. Since the purchasing power of customers was theoretically unlimited, sales associates endlessly paid the price for unmet “potential gains” represented as actual business losses. We were taught to treat every person who walked into the store as an overfull wallet that would pour forth endless flows of cash if sugared with the right sales pitch. Eventually, Levi would spit us all back out into the world, a little less able to relate to one another with our empathies wounded.
The assimilation of workers into the mindset of corporate financiers through service sector work constitutes a kind of anti-education for marginalized young people. The identification of policy with reality, employee “appreciation” with compensation, and a missed theoretical monetary gain as an actual business loss systematically undermines and diminishes imagination, fellow-feeling, and reason. Service sector work ultimately becomes counterproductive to an education sought to escape the market’s dehumanizing power, while the cost of schooling and sparse chances for employment lay for us yet another trap.
With youth unemployment on the rise and student loans menacing the path to a four-year degree, diminishing prospects for young people abet the success of the business management model used by Levi and countless other corporations. The employees who despairingly scribbled on Levi’s stockroom walls understood they were being exploited, but they kept to their quiet, solitary rebellions because they were alienated from one another and degraded by propaganda and manipulation. As young people join the ranks of a population failed by corporatism, workplace marginalization becomes an increasingly universal experience. Turning the tide is a matter of uniting many scattered grumblings into a single sustained cry for change.
Editor’s note: We contacted Levi Strauss for a comment on this story and will update this space if we hear back.
Alexa Sue Amore graduated with a degree in history from San Francisco State University this winter. She will begin a graduate program in New York City in the fall.