Letter from a Young Worker: Would you Like Butter on That?

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It feels fantastic to walk up to a parent and tell them that you got “THE JOB.” There is a sense of pride on both sides; now you can buy small goodies for yourself, or even better, help support your family.

Since the average teenager does not have the privilege of having a college degree before getting their first job, they must take “cash-register jobs.” Management prefers to hire the youth because of their obliviousness to the world of labor, which makes them easier to control. This, along with the minimum wage and not providing health care, equals legal child abuse.

After my first day at Movie Theaters I learned 3 things: 1) People in suits (managers) demand respect; 2) I must keep my mouth shut no matter what a customer says; and 3) There is no such thing as “formal training” at a cash-register job. I had to learn the ropes on my own. Some fellow teens helped me along the way, but never did I have a manager provide any teaching. After a month of being shifted around in duties, from box-office cashier to hot-foods handler, as if I was a pawn, I was placed as a cashier in a concession stand.

As a cashier I got to see a lot of the corruption. Many female workers were harassed by assistant managers. They would stand too close behind the girl, sometimes “accidentally” grab a body part, ask too personal questions, etc.

Many times before night-shifters were to sign out in the main office, a senior assistant manager would be having sex with a female employee. So what did the anxious worker on the other side of the door wishing to go home have to do? Wait outside until he “finished” and opened the door. There were times where workers had to wait over an hour to finally be let in.  Do you the reader believe that means around 10 o’clock? No, how about 2:30 a.m., when legally the managers should be brought to justice for keeping a minor past 12:30 a.m. We had to stay so long because we had to leave the entire concession area spotless. Even if there was the slightest smudge of oil residue on a popcorn kettle and it was caught by the supervising assistant manager, we were forced to wipe it down till our hands hurt.

Shifts were insane. Shifts were suppose to be 7 ½ hours to a maximum of 8, but were bound to be extended past 10 total. It was common to only get a 30 min. break at around 4 p.m. when your shift started at 9 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m. Assistant managers were known to take longer breaks than workers by leaving for an hour at minimum. So what do you get when you leave a bunch of kids by themselves at a concession stand with no assistant manager? We had no key to the supply room with foods that are consumed rapidly, so we had to stand there like hitch-hikers waiting for some employee of the floor crew to possibly walk by and let us borrow their walkie-talkie to get in communication with the main office.

Not only would supplies run out, but also money. Our registers would be short coins or one-dollar bills, so we needed some requests or else you would be giving an angry customer $12 in quarters. I was once given a warning to be fired because I had two counterfeit $20 bills in my money cache next to my register. I was taken to the office by two security guards and brought into the general manager’s office where they brought in those counterfeit lamp detectors along with four assistant managers to review bills that I “should” have examined during an assembly line process of 14 customers in line, with no 2nd cashier assigned to help me.

We took all the abuse from the customers. No manager, no assistant manager stepped up to defend what was morally correct. The customer could use the most offensive insults and even racial slurs but to management “the customer is always right!” I was called a “stupid b*tch” on several occasions just for not processing a transaction at the speed of light. Some managers were verbally abusive, as well. In my case the general manager, the head of the theater, threatened to “shoot my brains out with a shotgun” just because I did not open the office door without peeking through the hole for a second. Think he was joking? No one in the room was smiling but me.

After working there for a half a year, I could take no more. I threatened to quit to an assistant manager after I heard about my girlfriend, who also worked there, being harassed by another assistant manager and a couple of employees. “Don’t quit, Roberto! We had a meeting today and your name was brought up as next potential assistant manager!” I could have believed the promotion idea, since I was regarded as one of the quickest cashiers, until I remembered that I was still 5 months away from being 18. So what does that mean? I would have had to wait another half a year until I would even be considered for an assistant manager position. Now do you think the general manager would promote the very same guy whose brains he threatened to blast out? I don’t. You know what’s funny? They said the same thing to other workers who were about to quit. Ever happen to you?

About five of us friends quit at around the same time, even putting in our two weeks’ notice in advance to be courteous. To me, the unity of an established friendship was the only positive that occurred in that place. These select individuals I am thankful to for giving me the ability to smile during my stay at The Theaters: Jeremy, Kathy, Wayne, Elbert, Laarni and Raymond. Jeremy was always left with the responsibility to act as a temporary assistant manager when management would be off taking advantage of their break. Kathy and Raymond worked an area entitled “satellite,” where you had to not only ring up the customer but also serve every food item they ask for, double the work. Wayne was very quiet and loyal, a perfect fit for being pushed to do the most difficult tasks when cleaning. Elbert was a combination of all of us. We were told on our first day that the main office is the safest place to keep one’s belongings; there were only about 18 cubbies in the break room while they employed over 80 workers. Elbert left his backpack one day in the office and when he came back to get it after work, his iPod had been stolen. He immediately turned to the general manager, who was in the office, and said, “My iPod was stolen.” All the general manager did was point to a sign that said “Management is not responsible for lost and stolen items.”

Working at the theaters taught me one thing at the end of it all: the youth embody a big piece of the struggle of the worker in the 21st Century. Something must be done to help protect the dignity and the overall health of the young employee. Not one time during my stay did I see an inspection by a government official. Instead, we were left to an abusive higher power that could do whatever they wanted to us. I have heard many accounts from workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Sears where the conditions are similar. Why do the innocent and hard-working get hurt the most? This shows that one common trait in our society remains:

The struggle of the proletariat…

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