Checkout line philosophy: what working a minimum-wage job has taught me

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Courtesy of Creative Commons/THE REVIEW
Music and Society Editor Edward Benner shares his insights while working minimum-wage jobs.

BY
Music and Society Editor

I vividly remember going to my first day of work at age 16 and being overwhelmed. There was a long number I had to learn to punch into a timeclock. Coworkers were gruffly complaining about their liquor being thrown out from the breakroom fridge and a customer began cursing at me after the credit card system went down. This was a world in which I felt lost, legs buckling beneath me as I tried just to stay afloat, and all in the pursuit of a few green slips of paper.

I was a good student in high school: I earned high grades and the respect of my peers and teachers, but as soon as I started working I was at the bottom, a nobody, a vehicle to complete a task. This toppling of ego into a position of relative inadequacy was startling and hard to cope with for a long time. Above all, I was stunned by the way humans treated other humans, especially in customer service.

Flash forward four years and I have put in time cashiering, landscaping and making sandwiches in varying combinations. In this time I’ve had profanities hurled at me, worked twelve hour shifts with barely enough time to use the restroom, suffered various minor injuries, dealt with workplace conflict and had to leave a job for mental health purposes. While often times miserable, challenging and leading me to question the capitalist system we subsist on, I’ve come to the realization that I would not trade any of these things. Minimum wage labor has taught me more about the world than my college experiences in many respects.

As soon as I began truly listening and looking at the people I was serving and working with, my attitudes towards working changed. Forming bonds with coworkers out of initial commiseration that quickly became empathy has led me to hear stories of high school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, abuse, poverty, alcoholism and life in general in all its beauty and hardship, giving me insight and perspective. Inside every person is a story that is waiting to be shared with the right audience, sharing the resilience of human experience. Something about working hard in close proximity to others paves the way for trust and genuine connections, which is the path to understanding and cooperation.

I’ve learned more from and about people by listening fully and authentically. Nine times out of ten, when a customer is rude or nasty, there is something going on in their life causing them to behave in such a way. Inquiring and expressing warmth has led to some surprising responses of reciprocated affection and emotion (and also more vileness, but such is life). It can be profound to consider customer service and the power it holds as two strangers come in contact with one another over some essential aspect of life, be it food or a chore, and have the chance to interact. There are few other circumstances where people in this day and age just take the time to talk to one another, and especially with someone they don’t know.

Customer service is often still a headache and working hard for little monetary gain is still a nuisance, but I see it as an important facet in the fabric of society that has a lot of potential to do good by modeling respect, good listening and empathy. There’s a lot we can learn about ourselves and others in the checkout line.

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    It is the capitalist system that has alienated us from our work, ourselves and our fellow human beings. It forces us to work grueling shifts in order to make enough just to survive all the while making us feel like nothing but cogs in a machine. The fact that you took the time to listen and care about your coworkers hardships and struggles speak volumes about who exactly is being left behind in a system that values profit over humanity. It’s from there that you can realize that with strength in numbers, you can achieve anything. I urgently recommend that you and your coworkers form a union to combat your inhumane working conditions and get more out of your job as a collective. You can find some very fine people at phillyiww.org who will help you organize. The IWW is a radically democratic labor union that is run by the rank and file workers and strives to abolish the wage system in favor of worker cooperatives.

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