U.S. Retail Jobs Are Bad — But It Doesn’t Have to Stay That Way A new book co-authored by UCLA Luskin urban planner Chris Tilly challenges the “myth of inevitability” for poor working conditions in America’s largest employment sector

Chris Tilly

By Stan Paul

“The United States has a bad jobs problem, and retail jobs are at the heart of it.”

That’s the first line of a new book, “Where Bad Jobs are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies (Russell Sage Foundation),” co-authored by UCLA Urban Planning professor Chris Tilly.

But, Tilly argues in the book, it does not need to be the last line for retail employment, especially when compared to the same jobs outside of the U.S. There is room to improve, according to Tilly and co-author Françoise Carré, research director at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

What is responsible for this perception of the largest — and still growing — employment sector in the nation? Low wages, unstable working hours and flat advancement prospects top the list, as well as high turnover rates for employees and a drop in productivity. The current outlook is worse for women who fill lower-paying, entry-level jobs primarily in food retail as opposed to their male counterparts who fill the vast majority of higher-paying retail positions in management, according to Tilly and Carré.

In addition, the authors point out, “It is worth emphasizing here that the evidence is strong that employment in stores is here to stay for a long time to come, in spite of recent predictions of the imminent displacement of store-based retail by online sales.” Their book also touches on a number of current topics, including election-cycle debates on raising the federal minimum wage.

Searching for solutions, the authors started with a comparative “global shopping trip,” in which they made a rigorous study comparing the U.S. retail industry with the same sector in five Western European countries and Mexico. In doing so, they asked what national institutional settings make a difference in job quality and what “room for maneuver” retailers have, by country, to manage for better jobs.

In the richer countries in Western Europe, the authors found more job productivity, better and more regular hours and higher pay than in the U.S. in comparable jobs. For example, the pay was notably higher in France, and notice of work schedules was markedly better in Germany. The differences in social norms and the role of institutions and regulations in these countries have led to relatively better job quality than in the U.S., according to Tilly and Carré.

“Improving retail jobs does not necessarily mean turning them into unambiguously good jobs; retail jobs in our comparison countries are not terrific, but they are better in significant ways,” the authors report.

Tilly and Carré also assert that the U.S. can choose whether service jobs in retail will be bad or good. “Put in the simplest terms, U.S. bad jobs in retail and other low-wage industries will improve when changes are made in the institutional environment — laws, labor relations structures, and broadly held values — followed by changes in managerial approaches.”

The situation in Mexico, a poorer country when compared to the U.S. and the other countries studied, can be instructive. The authors note that the economic gap between Mexico and the U.S. might be the determining factor in comparing retail jobs. But, they add, this is only partly true. Using Wal-Mart as an example of a company that dominates retail sectors in both countries, they find that “even this behemoth behaves differently in terms of choice of market segments and labor strategies across countries.” For example, they point out that in the U.S., Wal-Mart is 100 percent non-unionized, whereas in Mexico, it pays higher wages than its competitors and is mostly unionized.

They explain, “Wal-Mart is not the exception to the influence of societal effects around the world, but rather demonstrates that influence. Even Wal-Mart provides better jobs where rules are better.”

The authors demonstrate that, by understanding where and why bad jobs are better, “we can learn how to make them better across the board.”

More about “Where Bad Jobs are Better,” including the complete introduction and a supplemental chapter, may be found online.

Helping America’s Domestic Workers: ‘We Must Do Better’ In Regents Lecture, Ai-Jen Poo talks about compassion, care and rights for those who take care of others’ families

By George Foulsham

Ai-Jen Poo’s voice fills with joy when she talks about her immigrant family, especially her 90-year-old grandmother, who lives in the same San Gabriel Valley apartment she shared with her now-deceased husband for many years. Her grandmother, Poo says, taught her how to appreciate and cultivate laughter.

“My grandmother is living life on her terms,” Poo said. “She is the author of her own story.” That’s not the case for millions of other immigrants, however, and that’s where Poo’s career path begins.

Poo is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign. The 2014 MacArthur Fellow has devoted much of her life to rights for domestic workers, especially those who take care of our aging population.

In a Regents Lecture sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ departments of Social Welfare and Urban Planning, Poo spoke about women, the future of work and race. “The heart of it,” she said, “is the question of care: How do we take care of each other, our families and one another in this economy?”

In his introduction of Poo, Urban Planning professor Chris Tilly described her as “one of the nation’s foremost thinkers and doers on worker rights, the care crisis and how to build a society that cares for its elders, its children, its disabled, but also cares for those doing the caring.”

Poo told the story of Ms. Sun, a home care worker who tends to Poo’s grandmother’s needs — lifting, cleaning, shopping and even cooking when needed. “We truly count on Ms. Sun to be there for us,” Poo said. “It’s the work that makes all other work possible. In our family, it makes everything possible. What could be more important than caring for the people we love? Yet, it’s among some of the most undervalued and vulnerable work in our economy today.”

She also told the audience about Mirla Alvagado, a Filipina caregiver in Chicago who helps elders in the community to live independently. “She’s had over 20 clients, working 24 hour shifts, four days a week, lifting her clients in and out of bed, bathing, administrating medicine, helping do physical therapy, cooking and cleaning,” Poo said. “For this work, Mirla takes home between $7 and $9 per hour. With these wages, she supports five children in the Philippines. With that plus the cost of rent for the room she lives in, some weeks Mirla barely has any money to pay for food.”

A recent study by the Public Health Institute revealed that the median wage for home care workers is $15,000 per year. “I don’t know a single town in this country where you can survive, yet alone raise a family, on $15,000 a year,” Poo said. “We can do better than this in America and, as the country changes, we must do better.”

Poo spoke proudly of the progress being made by the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance.

“In 2010, we had our first big policy breakthrough when domestic workers, after a seven-year campaign, were successful in winning the very first domestic worker bill of rights in the nation,” she said. “Since then, five additional states have passed laws to protect the rights of domestic workers — including the state of California where we are working really hard in Sacramento to make our domestic worker bill of rights a permanent law.”

In 2015, after many years of advocacy by Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, the Department of Labor changed a rule that brought 1.8 million home care workers under minimum wage and overtime protections after being excluded for eight years.

“We’re making progress, but it is not enough,” Poo said. “The future of work is at stake.”

People are living longer than ever before, she pointed out, because of advances in health care and technology, and Baby Boomers are starting to reach retirement age at a rate of one person every eight seconds — 10,000 people per day, 4 million people per year turning 65. The challenges will be daunting.

“We are going to need so much more care and support in the home that we’re going to need a very strong caregiving workforce to support all 21st century working families,” Poo said.

Home care workers are the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. workforce, she added. By 2030, caregiving, child care and elder care combined will represent the largest occupation in the workforce.

“Perhaps the most important lessons we can learn from domestic workers is about care itself,” Poo said. “Care connects us to our most basic and universal needs as humanity. Coming together to bring value, dignity and worth to caregiving work and our caregiving relationships to help bring out the best in us as a nation.”

Learning About the ‘Magic of Public Policy’ Mexico City’s Secretary of Economic Development speaks to UCLA Luskin students about minimum wage and other public policy issues

By Breanna Ramos

“It’s important to have the skills to make ideas actually happen.”

That was the advice from Salomón Chertorivski Woldenberg, Mexico City’s Secretary of Economic Development, speaking to UCLA Luskin students during an April 6 presentation at the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Chertorivski was the keynote speaker at the event, “Minimum Wage, Inequality, and the Challenges for Public Policy,” organized by Luskin’s Global Public Affairs and Department of Public Policy, as well as the UCLA Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Latin American Institute and the Center for Mexican Studies.

Focusing on his experiences in Mexico, Chertorivski shared ideas from his book, “De la idea a la práctica,” and explained the challenge of the public policy process. “The magic of public policy is simply implementation,” Chertoivski told the students and others in attendance.

With experience in both the public and private sectors in Mexico, Chertorivski has held various leadership positions, from social, health and educational programs to his current tenure as a key member of the Mexico City governing board. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in economics, as well as a master’s of public policy.

Urban Planning professor Chris Tilly also spoke at the event, providing comparisons between the U.S. and Mexico on minimum wage and labor unions.

“In the United States, although the minimum wage problem is not as big as it is in Mexico, enforcement of the minimum wage has to be strategic, it can’t be universal,” Tilly stated.

Chertorivski also addressed the issue of minimum wage in Mexico, explaining why it should be raised. “Whenever someone says increasing the minimum wage will increase inflation, it’s  because that’s what happened in the past, but today is completely different.”

Participants were also encouraged to think about how Mexico and the U.S. are similar. Luskin Senior Fellow Michael Camuñez encouraged participants to take what they heard from the event and apply it to today’s controversial rhetoric on Mexico.

“This is about more than the presentation topic,” Camuñez declared. “This is about a relationship, as Mexico and the U.S. share common interests, history and culture.”

New Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy to Launch with Series of Events Feb. 4-5 Inauguration will include panels with scholars, activists and organizers, plus a Luskin Lecture and special screening featuring David Simon, writer and creator of “The Wire” and “Treme”

By Stan Paul

A new kind of Institute has come to UCLA.

Led by Ananya Roy, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor and center director, the newly established Institute on Inequality and Democracy will launch on Feb. 4-5 with two days of events at UCLA and the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

“We analyze and transform the divides and dispossessions of our times, in the university and in our cities, across global South and global North,” is stated as part of the mission of the Institute which will encompass multidisciplinary, collaborative work led by UCLA faculty. Planned areas of work include: multi-disciplinary research collaboratives to advance knowledge about key social problems; contributing to policy frameworks via activist practices and community organizing; graduate student working groups that foster connections across and beyond UCLA; and offering intellectual space for debates within progressive thought.

From discussions on “Markets, Race, and the Aftermath of Slavery” to “Decolonizing the University,” the upcoming launch, titled “Urban Color-Lines,” will serve as an introduction to key themes to be explored at the new Institute based in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and made possible by a generous donation from Meyer and Renee Luskin.

Daytime events for both days will be held at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and will include eminent UCLA scholars as well as intellectuals and activists who are actively working on human rights and social justice issues — locally, nationally and internationally.

Day 1, Feb. 4

First-day events begin at 11 a.m. at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, room 2355, with Why Think About Inequality & Democracy Together? Luskin Interim Dean Lois Takahashi will provide welcome remarks followed by Roy’s introduction of the Institute and events.

Markets, Race, and the Aftermath of Slavery
11:30 a.m., Room 2355, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Chair: Leobardo Estrada, Chair, Academic Senate, UCLA

Speaker: Cheryl Harris, UCLA School of Law and Chair, African American Studies

The Right to the City: From South to North
1 p.m., Room 2355, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Chair: Chris Tilly, Urban Planning, UCLA


Toussaint Losier, Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co- founder, Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign

Raquel Rolnik, Urban Planning, University of São Paulo, Brazil

Richard Pithouse, Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa

Gautam Bhan, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, India

Day 1 Evening

The Feb. 4 evening presentations and performances will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. (with a reception from 6 to 6:30 p.m.) at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles. Round-trip transportation from UCLA will be provided.

The program includes:

Black, Brown, and Banished: Ending Urban Displacement in 21st Century Democracies

Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles 


Bodies on the Line: Artists Fight Back
Curator: Dan Froot, 501 (see three) ARTS and UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance

Dance by Bernard Brown

Dance/Spoken Word by Sandy Vazquez and Ericka Jones

Excerpts from Oral Histories of Displaced Angelenos, by Dan Froot with Dorothy Dubrule



Laura Pulido, American Studies and Ethnicity, USC, and Ananya Roy, Director, Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin


Ashraf Cassiem, Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, South Africa

Willie (JR) Fleming, Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign

Patricia Hill, Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign

Pete White, LA Community Action Network 

Day 2, Feb. 5:

What Do We Hope to Achieve Today and Now?
10:15 a.m., Room 2355, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Ananya Roy, Director, Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin

Debtors’ Prisons and Debtors’ Unions: Direct Action in Finance Capitalism
10:30 a.m., Room 2355, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Chair: Robin D.G. Kelley, African American Studies and History, UCLA

Speaker: Hannah Appel, Anthropology, UCLA

Decolonizing the University
Noon, Room 2355, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Moderator: Ananya Roy, Director, Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin


Gaye Theresa Johnson, African American Studies and Chicana/o Studies, UCLA

Camalita Naicker, Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa

Carlos Vainer, Chair, Forum of Science and Culture, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Marques Vestal, History, UCLA

Day 2 Evening program (7-9 p.m.)

The Audacity of Despair

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Screening: Show Me a Hero

Keynote Lecture: David Simon, writer and creator, “The Wire,” “Treme,” and “Show Me a Hero” 

Information and Registration

Registration, a detailed program of events, and more about the Institute may be found at:  challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu

Chris Tilly

Chris Tilly studies labor markets, inequality, urban development, and public policies directed toward better jobs.

He is particularly interested in understanding how combinations of institutions and markets generate unequal labor outcomes, and in how public policy and collective action can successfully be directed toward improving and equalizing such outcomes. Within this framework, Professor Tilly has examined part-time and contingent work, gender and racial disparities, job mobility, and other issues.

While continuing to conduct research on workplace issues in the United States, Professor Tilly has increasingly undertaken comparative research on countries including Brazil, China, India, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa, along with several European countries.  His areas of greatest expertise are the United States, Mexico, and Latin America.

In addition to conducting scholarly research, he served for 20 years (1986-2006) as a coeditor of Dollars and Sense, a popular economics magazine, and frequently conducts research for advocacy groups, community organizations, and labor unions. He served on the Program Committee and later the Board of Directors of Grassroots International from 1991-2003, ending that time as the Chair of the Board.

Before becoming an academic, he spent eight years doing community and labor organizing.

For more about Tilly’s current research, view his web page.