As a “Sandwich Artist” at Subway, I was paid $8.00 an hour. I wore a standard, garish green uniform and black pants, along with a pair of kitchen shoes and a black apron. Under slanted panes of glass, I quickly grabbed neatly sliced meat and vegetables, cooked it in an oven and put it on a language. Coming home every night, I smelled like onions, tomatoes and toasted bacon. It was hard work, to be sure, and no one felt they were paid enough. But I certainly wasn’t an artist — I was just a food service employee.
Instead of coming up with fancier titles for their employees, perhaps they should seek to pay them what they're worth. Perhaps the title “sales clerk” or “cashier” doesn’t sound as genteel, but those terms honestly describe their work and signal, in its deadly boring accurateness, that they are worthy of the dignity of fair pay.
When I ask for something off the shelf, the “team member” is paid — and probably not enough. When I order a turkey club sandwich on flatbread from Subway, I expect it to be made according to a formula, not creative work of a “Subway Sandwich Artist.” Guests don’t pay for purchases; they receive gifts. Team members evoke the idea of being in school or perhaps in some extracurricular group. And artists create beautiful objects for aesthetic enjoyment, not standardized sandwiches. None of these titles describe what happens when I engage in transactions of modern capitalism.
Corporations want their employees to feel like they are part of a team. But they are drones, not “team members,” in the drive for profit. Target’s “team members” beckon me to the register but they are told what to do, and they don’t have a say in the broader picture of the company. “Associates,” whom I doubt own any stock in the store, offer to help me try pants on at stores such as Banana Republic. Hiring and directing employees to perform basic tasks for the store isn’t bad, but it contributes to a false sense of camaraderie that doesn’t accurately depict employer-employee relationships in capitalistic societies. They are often contingent labor working part time hours with few benefits at the mercy of automated scheduling software, when many seek full-time work.
Moreover, these terms paper over the injustices that many of these corporations commit while mistreating their employees. As someone who anonymously identified themselves as a Target employee wrote, “At my LA Target, they slashed hours for us lowly "team members" so the ETLs (store managers) could get larger bonuses.” Stores like Target, Home Depot, and Costco, for example, have contracted with trucking companies that make their workers drive up to 20 hours a day while paying them pennies per hour. The National Labor Relations Board ruled against unlawful interference by Target when employees tried to organize their store into a union in 2013. Many employees quit the Subway I worked at, unable to afford working at or just above minimum wage for fewer hours than they needed. Even the department name that manages these corporations — Human Resources — suggests that our work is to be exploited like a diamond mine.
Perhaps these corporations should look back to the bygone manufacturing era for advice on how to treat workers. Those days — along with the generous pay and pensions negotiated by unions that helped employees live well — have declined steadily since 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While there was certainly acrimony between workers and management, these corporations fundamentally understood that their workers directly contributed to helping them earn profit, down to their utilitarian titles of “steel worker” or “operator” or “technician.”
The labor of stocking shelves and helping customers bag their purchases is no less real in the service of shareholders and other wealthy stakeholders. Corporations shouldn’t hide who their workers are or what they do, and definitely shouldn’t pay them less than what they are worth.