By Felix Allen
Ever get mad at a delivery driver for bringing your pizza late? I used to. Now I assume it’s late because an overpaid boss is probably making two employees do the job of 10.
What changed? I worked for two years at a company with the kind of chronic understaffing that plagues many of America’s largest retailers and fast food corporations.
My job was to build merchandise displays at Lowe’s, the home improvement chain. I wasn’t supposed to deal directly with customers. But when people asked me for help, I was often the only employee available. So I wound up doing everything from sawing lumber to cutting keys — all the while worrying about finishing my assigned projects.
Such understaffing leads to frustration for customers and burnout for employees who have to hustle like mad for a paycheck that barely covers their bills. CEOs argue they just don’t have the money to hire more workers or pay family-supporting wages. But their actions say something else.
A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that Lowe’s spent nearly $35 billion over the past three and a half years on stock buybacks. This is when a company takes money that could go towards worker wages or other productive investments and uses it to artificially inflate the value of their stock — and the value of their CEO’s stock-based pay.
In 2022 alone, Lowe’s spent $14.1 billion on buybacks. That would’ve been enough to give every one of the company’s 301,000 U.S. employees a $46,923 bonus. Instead, a typical Lowe’s worker made less than $30,000.
And the CEO? He’s sitting on company stock worth about $108 million.
Other big retailers aren’t much different. Walmart, Home Depot, Target, Dollar General, and Best Buy all spent more than $5 billion on stock buybacks over the past few years.
CEOs say buybacks are a good way to return “excess cash” to shareholders. I’m pretty sure frontline workers could come up with far better ideas for investing those billions. But nobody’s asking them. None of these big retailers are unionized, meaning their workers have no voice in major decisions affecting their lives.
We wanted a way to address understaffing, unfair pay, and a lack of grievance protections. We were tired of seeing employees have no recourse after getting fired for showing up a few minutes late for reasons beyond their control, like a broken-down bus or a child care crisis.
Not surprisingly, the road to organizing the first big box store union has been bumpy. We’re proud that we overcame intense management opposition and gathered enough signatures on a petition to form a union. We also helped pressure Lowe’s to give out some modest raises and bonuses.
But due to a technicality, we had to withdraw our petition. And then, a couple months ago, I was fired in what I believe was retaliation for my pro-union activities. The National Labor Relations Board has already ruled against Starbucks and Amazon for illegally firing union organizers. They are now investigating my firing and several other complaints about Lowe’s labor practices.
The deck is clearly stacked against ordinary workers at big powerful corporations. But we know that every employee contributes to the value of a company — not just the CEO. And we will keep fighting for the respect we deserve.
Felix Allen is a former Lowe’s employee and musician based in New Orleans.