For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight — the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers — has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More “Working at 40” stories can be found here.
When Working’s Babe Secoli started as a supermarket checker at 12, there were no cash registers — she used to write the prices of items down on a paper bag. She told Terkel, “The customer is always right,” though she disliked it when shoppers were condescending to her or tried to speed up the checkout process.
Aubretia Edick also tells In These Times’ Jeff Schuhrke that “The customer is always right.” She is, however, quick to add, “Except when they’re wrong.” She’s been a cashier at her company for 14 years; she currently works at a supermarket in Massachusetts. Her friends know her as “Windy,” thanks to a 1967 song by The Association about “a person who smiles at everybody and talks to everybody.” This interview has been edited and abridged.
I’m 64 now. I started as a cashier when I was 16 years old, but I’ve done other jobs since then. I like people, and every job that I had was dealing with people.
Most of the time — like 99 percent of the time — we have to bag items ourselves. I’m not fast. If customers complain about my speed, I’ll tell them that if they want speed, they should go to so-and-so’s line. If you want personality, then you come to my line. Today, lots of customers bring in reusable bags, and to me, that’s a pain in the ass [laughs]. At the store we have a carousel that the plastic bags are attached to, so they’re easier to fill up. But those reusable bags flop over, and we’re not used to those bags, so we’re not aware of how items are gonna fit into it.
Customers also complain, “Why can’t I get this on food stamps?” Well, I don’t know why you can’t get it on food stamps. The government made up that rule. So ask them.
Years ago, management would tell us about anything that was going on in the store or any policy changes affecting us, like food stamps. Today, they tell a few people about it and let everyone else find out through gossip or whatever.
Managers today, they don’t take a personal concern about us. We’re simply a number to them. The only time we see a manager is if there is a problem with us, or if we have a problem.
For example, our company policy says that if a customer’s trying to buy alcoholic beverages and they have four other people with them, I have to see ID from all five of them. That’s what the policy says, and it also says that no one can override my decision. But once, I wouldn’t sell a customer beer because not everyone with her had an ID. So the manager came over, and he told me to go ahead and sell her the beer. Afterward, he punished me by making me take a “computer-based learning test”: a video telling you the right way to do things. I had already taken it a couple of times, but I had to take it over again. I actually called the corporate office about it, though, and corporate made him apologize to me.
Or when I work in the express lane that says “10 Items or Less.” If a customer comes up to me with a basket full of 40 items, as far as management is concerned, I’m supposed to take her. So what’s the sense of having an express lane? It makes no sense. I know that if I were standing in an express line with one or two items and the customer in front of me had 40, I’d be pissed. And chances are I’d say something to the cashier. The cashier would explain to me that the manager says she has to take them and whatnot, but I’d still be annoyed at her.
Plus, I was always taught that it was management’s responsibility to tell me when to go on my break, but if I leave it up to them I’m not gonna get one. So instead of waiting for them, I punch in some numbers on my register, and they’ll see on this handheld device they carry that I’m going on my 15-minute break.
I’m a very outspoken person, so if I’m supposed to get a lunch break, I’m taking my break whether you like it or not. I had one manager give me a hard time about that. She said, “Well, your break time depends on how busy the store is.”
I said, “No, it doesn’t depend on how busy the store is. Legally, this is what I’m allowed.”
I think the more outspoken you are and the more determined you are, the less they will take advantage of you. And it’s just not at this company; I think it’s in all other stores as well.
Right now the schedules are really stupid [laughs]. There was a time when you had a 40-hour week, and you worked 40 hours, all right? Today, your schedule changes from day to day. Sometimes it’s like a five-hour shift, sometimes it’s a four-hour shift; another time it could be an eight-hour shift.
You also see a lot of senior citizens working as cashiers now. Years ago, the cashiers were mostly kids, like I was. I went every day after school to my store, and they trained me how to be a cashier. They didn’t just stick me on the floor; we were trained how to put the money in the drawer. We were trained to put money facing up with the face going to the left. And the bigger bills went underneath the drawer, and we kept the drawer neat.
But we were trained! We were trained. In order to get the job to begin with, we had to take a test. We had to know math. Today, they basically just hire you. And they don’t care how you put the money in the drawer.
And these days, everything is like a robot. Y’know, it’s mechanical, it’s computerized. When I first became a cashier, we had to punch everything in by hand instead of scanning it. And we had to count the change back to the customer. Now, the change comes out automatically. Cashiers, they don’t know how to count the change out.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about being a cashier?
[Laughing] I could tell you my least favorite thing is punching in and my most favorite thing is punching out at the end of my shift.
My least favorite thing is actually people putting me down because I am a cashier. Just because I’m a cashier, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an education or anything. I graduated from Columbia University. I studied literature. In this economy today, people need jobs, y’know. If being a cashier is the only job that’s available, well, that’s what you’re gonna take. But that doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or you’re an idiot or anything like that. It doesn’t mean that you’re not educated.
I had one customer tell me, “You’re just a cashier.” Well, the way I see it is, maybe I’m just a cashier, but I’m working. I might be a cashier, but you can’t leave the store until you deal with me — you have to go through me first before you can get out that door. They say that the customer is always right. I say that the customer is always right, except when they’re wrong.
But when a customer is smiling when they come up to me, it’s like the sun coming through the clouds after three days of rain.
One time, a lady was here with her daughter, who was buying all kinds of makeup. The woman was complaining about how expensive it was. What I meant to say was, “It’s not cheap to look expensive.” But what did come out of my mouth was, “It’s expensive to look cheap.”
As soon as I said it, I covered my mouth and started apologizing to this woman. I was lucky; she laughed and everything. She said, “I know what you meant.” The following week, she came back to the store and she got in my line. And she said to the customer in front of her, “Be glad you’re not buying any makeup.”
Little things like that make you smile. Good customers are — y’know, they’re special. You can remember the bad customers and whatnot, but you can also remember the good customers.
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Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke