Secrets of the Big Box
Secrets of the Big Box: Workers Tell All!
Gloria: a funny, sarcastic female employee
Chris: a middle-aged, knowledgeable, bold woman who has worked for the company for 8 years.
Melanie: a 20 year-old woman who has worked for the company for just 10 days
Ray: an employee at the company
Carl: an employee at the company
News Announcer: voice that sounds like a newscaster
Sarah/Steve: Supervisor (could be the same actor as the announcer)
Setting: The lunch room of a big-box department store. Employees are sitting around a table, just beginning their lunch. Chris and Gloria are at one end, with an empty chair between them. Ray and Carl are at the other end. The side of the table nearest the audience is vacant; no one has their back to the audience. On the table in front of the workers are brown bag lunches brought from home, fast food lunches they have purchased, water bottles, sodas, newspapers, magazines, etc. A TV or radio is playing loudly in the background giving the news.
The “Real News” captions should be displayed at the time they appear in the dialogue. The text can be written out on a poster and held up by a stage hand, or can be made into PowerPoint slides and projected beside the stage.
News Announcer: (heard, not seen, from a TV or radio that is playing)
Now in business news. Oil companies are announcing record profits as gas prices rise over $4 a gallon at the pump. The market is up following Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s (bur-nan'-kee) statement yesterday that he expects unemployment to climb. Stock prices rose broadly and vigorously yesterday, as the Dow Jones industrial average closed sharply higher, up 165 points for the week thus far. Today on the New York Stock Exchange, advancing issues have outpaced declining shares on heavy volume.
Gloria (interrupting the newscaster) Blah, blah, blah. Who understands that stuff?
Ray: Who believes that stuff? Maybe the stock market is doing fine but people aren’t. At least nobody I know.
Carl: Those reporters on TV. They’re doing fine, I’m sure.
Chris: But no body else.
Carl: You got that right. My brother just moved back home – a 26-year-old guy moving in with his parents. He just couldn’t make enough to cover rent, car payments, food, and gas. He works full time in construction.
Gloria: I hope we don’t have to do that – my parents are great but they probably wouldn’t appreciate me, a husband, and two kids moving in with them. My husband is hoping the job interview he had yesterday will turn into something. It’s been 7 weeks since he was laid off.
REAL NEWS: One in 10 people who want to work can’t find a job, or can only find part time when they want full time.
Chris: Used to be most construction jobs were good jobs. Not now.
Gloria: (to Carl) Maybe your brother can build us a house in his spare time. We sure can’t afford to buy anything and rent is killing us. Not to mention paying for heat. And now the hot summer’s coming on – I am starting to sweat just thinking about it. (laughing) I could pay him in marked-down clothes bought on my employee discount!
Carl: (very sarcastically) That will tempt him. He’ll be right over to get started.
Gloria: (opening her brown-bag lunch, brought-from-home lunch) What did I put in here today? With the price of food soon it will be nothing but bread and water. Hey, maybe I would lose some weight.
Enter Melanie – she is carrying nothing.
Melanie: Hi, how ya all doing?
Chris: Melanie, hi. Sit down and have lunch with us. (Melanie sits down between Chris and Gloria) How is everything going?
Melanie: Fine, fine, really great.
Ray: You’ve been here how long now? A week or so.
Melanie: Yeh, a week and a half.
Gloria: Have you got some lunch, girl. You can’t walk as much as we do, do all the lifting and bending without eating.
Melanie: I’m not really hungry. (she then breaks into tears)
Chris and Gloria go to her, put their arms around her.
All: What’s wrong, it’s ok, don’t cry, etc.
Melanie slowly stops crying.
Chris: Melanie, what’s wrong, maybe we can help you.
Melanie: I’m ok, nothing is wrong, really. (pause, while everyone waits) I’m pregnant and nauseated a lot – I can’t eat right now.
All: (surprised, trying to make the best of what seems to be a confusing situation) Congratulations; wow, that’s great, you go girl.
Chris: But are you ok? Is something the matter?
Melanie: Well, Tom and I are very happy about the baby. I hope everything is going fine. But I haven’t been to a doctor yet. We don’t have any insurance. Tom’s employer doesn’t give insurance and I was hoping to find a job with insurance… but I couldn’t. I was lucky to find this. I don’t know how we’re going to pay the medical bills. I hope the baby will be ok. (starts crying again)
REAL NEWS: 82% of people without health insurance live in working families
Ray: Don’t you worry. I am sure there are places where you can go, you know, clinics, where you don’t need insurance.
Melanie: I know. I found a place. But I wanted to go to a real doctor’s office. I wanted this baby to start off right, with insurance, and all she needs. (looks at everyone, smiling, tear-y eyed) We hope it’s a girl.
Carl: Most of the people I know don’t have insurance.
Gloria: If they paid us more, we might be able to buy some but on this pay, no chance.
Chris: Just take good care of yourself. But doing all this walking – is that going to be good for you?
Melanie: Can I ask you something?
All: Sure, of course, whatever you want, anything.
Melanie: Well on Friday I was scheduled to be off at 6 o’clock. But just before six, Sarah (Steve), she’s (he’s) my supervisor, you know, came up and told me to clock out. Fine. So I came back here to do it and she (he) followed me. After I punched out she (he) told me to go back to work. I worked for two more hours. Are they going to pay me for that?
Carl: Probably not.
Gloria: Welcome to the real world.
Chris: It’s illegal but they do it all the time. And they don’t pay us for overtime either. If you work more than 40 hours in a week, by law, in this job you’re supposed to get time and a half. But we don’t.
REAL NEWS: Wage theft is epidemic -- things like making people work “off the clock” and not paying overtime.
Ray: Heck, during Christmas I have worked 60 hours in a week. But have I ever been paid overtime? No.
Melanie: But if it’s illegal, how do they get away with it?
Carl: Who’s going to stop them? Can you make them change?
Gloria: Girl, I’ll be behind you all the way if you want to try.
Carl: Yeah, far behind her probably.
Gloria: (to Carl) Not true!
Carl: Sorry, Gloria, you’re right.
Melanie: What we need is a union.
Everyone somewhat hunches down, looking around behind them, drawing close together)
Ray: Don’t say that word.
Carl: They fire people who talk about a union.
Ray: Just before I started some people here tried to start a union and when management found out, they fired the two leaders. Really shut down that plan.
Chris: It’s illegal to fire someone for trying to start a union but it happens all the time. The laws aren’t enforced and when they are, the penalties for breaking the law are miniscule. So the companies do what they want. And fewer and fewer people belong to unions.
REAL NEWS: One in 5 active union supporters is illegally fired for their union activity during a union organizing drive.
Gloria: Take a look at my pay stub – low pay and no benefits – you know I don’t have a union.
Melanie: And working without getting paid -- you know I don’t have a union
Ray: And no overtime pay. You know I don’t belong to a union.
Melanie: (to Chris) How long have you worked here?
Chris: Eight years.
Melanie: You seem so knowledgeable, you know all the procedures. I really appreciate all the help you’ve given me – (looking at them all) that you all have given me, as I’m trying to learn. (looking at Chris) I would think you would be a supervisor by now.
Chris: Well, I don’t think my supervisors like me very much.
Gloria: She doesn’t kiss their ..
Carl: (interrupting) Keep it clean.
Chris: They promote whoever they like – there is no fairness to it. But I don’t really mind too much. Supervisors aren’t paid much more than we are. All these jobs, even the supervisors’, they’re dead end jobs. You aren’t going anywhere much from here. They might give you another job with a fancy title…
Gloria: (interrupting) We already have a fancy title (she sits up straight and proud) – Customer Ambassador. (She twirls her finger indicating “whooptee do”) Somebody probably got paid thousands and thousands of dollars to think that one up. (sarcastically) Soooo good for morale.
Chris: (smiling) As I was saying, they might give you (turns to look at Gloria) a fancier title (now looking at everyone) but it is really just a chance to ride you even more than they do already.
Ray: And make you do the illegal stuff.
Melanie: So, where are the good jobs, the jobs with benefits and decent pay. I finished two years of college. I have good references. I have always been a good employee. You would think I could do better than this. (becomes very embarrassed about what she just said and is nearly crying again) Oh, I am so sorry. You are all good employees, you’re smart, you work hard. I don’t know what I would have done without you these past few days. People think these jobs are for idiots. It’s not true. It is hard to learn everything and to be running all over this place at the same time. This job is not easy. (She is nearly crying again)
REAL NEWS: One-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages.
Gloria: It’s ok Melanie. We’ve all been through what you’re dealing with.
Carl: I never saw my future like this either.
Chris: But there are no better options. Many of the good jobs have gone overseas, and many of the ones that are left are low-paid, dead ends with no benefits, like this one. A college degree doesn’t even guarantee you a good job. There are too many bad jobs and not enough good ones. Once all the good ones are filled, everybody is left fighting over the bad ones. And the government agencies that are supposed to enforce the laws that protect workers – they don’t do their jobs. And the laws are too weak anyway. So more and more of the good jobs that are left are being turned into bad jobs – low pay, no benefits, bad treatment of workers. No wonder corporate profits are at record highs.
Gloria: (to Melanie) She actually knows what she is talking about. She even understands all that economics talk on the news.
Melanie (to Chris) Maybe you can explain it to me.
Gloria: Don’t ya know, when I was a kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, somebody must have thought I said: broke and overworked. Look how well I’ve fulfilled that dream. Nightmare’s more like it.
Melanie: Gloria, you’re so funny.
Ray: Shhh. I hear Sarah/Steve.
Sarah/Steve: Hi Ambassadors (everyone looks are each other and rolls their eyes). I’m looking for Robert. Sandy said she saw him come in here.
Carl: Robert Patterson?
Sarah/ Steve: Remember him? He’s been off for about three months now.
Ray: He hasn’t been in here, not in the past 20 minutes or so.
Carl: (looking around at everyone and lowering his voice) Do you know what happened to Robert?
Ray: After he fell off the ladder? Do you know how he is?
Carl: His cousin is married to my neighbor’s sister. They’ve been keeping me up to date on how he’s doing. (to Melanie) He climbed up a ladder, like we all do all the time, to get down a box of something or other. Well, that ladder broke and he fell about 12 feet onto the cement floor.
Melanie: Oh my God
Carl: He hurt his head, badly, and also his back. Once he came out of his coma (turning to Melanie) that lasted about 4 days, (now speaking to the group again) his head injury pretty much cleared up at least as far as anyone can tell. Now his back is the main problem. He can hardly walk. Sarah/Steve must have really pressured him if he came in here today. The company has fought him every step of the way. First they tried to say it was his fault.
Melanie: (incredulous) That the ladder broke?
Ray: That he should have checked it before climbing up.
Gloria: (sarcastically) Yes, we can tell whether a ladder is going to break just by looking at it.
Chris: If they didn’t buy such cheap equipment maybe it would hold together.
Carl: Then they tried to make out like he was faking it – doing fine, just not wanting to return to work. But he’s not. He really can’t walk without a lot of pain. I told him to get totally well before coming back.
Chris: (to Melanie) That’s another common feature of these great jobs of ours … injuries.
Melanie: So what can we do?
Ray: (looking at his watch) Get back to work so they don’t fire us or dock our pay.
Everyone gets up, gathers their things, general conversation.
Just before they leave the room, Chris pauses, looks around, motions everyone to get close.
Chris: (her voice gets low and everyone gets close in a small group) There are two things we could do.
Melanie: What? ..
Carl: What do you mean …
Ray: What’s that?
Gloria: Tell us.
Chris: Call the Department of Labor and blow the whistle on this place (the others look at each other with puzzled looks on their faces)
Melanie: What is the Department of Labor?
Ray: How do we do that?
Chris: We have some friends at a Worker Center who will help us do it and some churches are on our side.
Carl: What’s the other thing?
Chris: Form a union.
REAL NEWS: Surveys show that 60 million U.S. workers would like to join a union.
All: Gasps, oh my gosh, could we?, should we?
Ray: Do you think we could?
Chris: If we want to bad enough. It won’t be easy but we might be able to. There is no other way to improve these jobs.
All: (All together) “Yes!” (as they high-five each other just before they leave the lunch room)
News Announcer (heard, not seen, from a TV or radio that is playing):
The Commerce Department today announced rising profits in the retail industry. This comes on top of news earlier this week of strong gains in pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. Corn prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are up $1.35 cents a bushel and agricultural exports are also strong. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 10 points at noon while the S&P was up 25. That’s it from all of us here in New York.