Sociology Professor Peter Ikeler Discusses Organized Labor and Economic Inequality in America

Peter Ikeler against white brick wall

As an undergraduate at New York University, Associate Professor and acting chair (Fall 2022) of Sociology, and author of Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains Peter Ikeler majored in Philosophy. Ikeler believes that his current focus on political economy and class consciousness was informed by his early studies in ethics and philosophy of mind. A native of Massachusetts, Ikeler reflects fondly on his time as a student in Manhattan. “I learned a lot and made a lot of personal connections. I was exposed to a much broader culture than I had experienced growing up in suburban Massachusetts,” he recalls.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in 2007, Ikeler attended Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. He earned a mixed social science degree which focused on the culture and economy of the European Union. Ikeler notes that the tuition was practically free – there was only a nominal fee to pay each semester. While getting his degree, Ikeler lived in the neighboring city of Essen. The cost of living was low, and a part-time job teaching English at a language school was enough to cover living expenses. Buses and subways were free with a student ID, and the rent was inexpensive.  

Ikeler returned to New York to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he studied under the renowned labor scholar Ruth Milkman. His early research focused on employee-management dynamics in the retail sector. As a doctoral student, Ikeler sought to find practical and humanistic applications for the abstract philosophical concepts he studied in college. Sociology was a natural draw, and Ikeler’s political engagement led him to the labor movement. He notes, “Unions and labor organizations are extremely powerful vehicles for equalizing employee/management relationships and creating better conditions for workers. The labor movement has the potential to address many of the injustices we see in society. The early 2000s were a difficult time for organized labor in the United States. I began to wonder how the labor movement could rebound and once again play a role in reducing inequality.”

Ikeler decided to focus his research on the experiences of retail workers. He’d done some reading on the topic and had experience working part-time in retail stores in high school and college. During his time at the CUNY Graduate Center, Ikeler received a small research grant and used the funds as interview incentives for subjects in the retail world. He proceeded to interview 75 workers at Macy’s and Target, learning about their daily routines, relationships with management, and experience with unions. 

Workers were very generous with their time, and Ikeler ended up with thousands of pages of transcribed interviews. As Ikeler recalls, “These workers knew their respective stores inside and out. I used their words to examine how retail companies work. I wanted to see how workers felt about their relationship with management and what they were willing to do to make things better.”  The research Ikeler conducted as a doctoral student formed the basis of his 2016 book Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains

He notes that the book was largely descriptive. When Ikeler was interviewing workers, there weren’t many successful attempts at organizing new unions in the retail sector. In Ikeler’s view, the biggest change in the retail sector since 2016 is the tremendous growth of e-commerce. This trend was accelerated by the pandemic. The dramatic increase in online commerce makes the current drive to unionize Amazon workers even more significant. In April, workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse known as “JFK8” voted to form a union with the newly established Amazon Labor Union. Ikeler believes this represents a sea change for retail workers. “Honestly, I was surprised,” says Ikeler. “The vote was a clean win – 60% of workers were in favor of organizing a union. However, the vote isn’t the end of the story. The next step is for workers to negotiate a contract. It also remains to be seen if Amazon will try to stop the push for unionization from spreading.”  

As a sociologist, Ikeler was struck by the way the pandemic heightened economic inequality in the United States. “The effects of the virus and shutdowns were grossly exaggerated by race, class, and gender,” he explains. “People of means were able to get away from densely populated areas and were often first in line to be vaccinated. Those who had jobs that could not be done remotely and faced child care challenges faced more disruption.” Ikeler observes that remote work was not an equal opportunity proposition. Shutdowns and business closures caused many frontline service workers whose jobs could not be done remotely to become unemployed. Those who were unable to work often had to forego paying rent and relied on eviction moratoriums and other forms of economic relief from the state and federal governments.  

Ikeler points to America’s opioid epidemic as another health crisis that highlights economic inequality. In 2020, the journal Addiction Research and Theory published Ikeler’s article, “Labor Relations and the Overdose Crisis in the United States.” Using a CDC report that tracked opiate overdose deaths since 1999, Ikeler used regression modeling to find a significant correlation between rising overdose deaths and a decline in manufacturing jobs. Alternatively, regions of the country with higher rates of self-employment had a lower rate of overdose deaths. In Ikeler’s words, “Fighting the opioid epidemic isn’t exclusively a public health issue. We need social and economic reforms to give people more control over their working lives. 

People need more fulfilling work and better compensation.”  

Ikeler enjoys teaching the Research Methods and Senior Seminar classes required for all Sociology and Criminology majors at Old Westbury. He describes them as “How-to” classes where students acquire the tools to conduct their own research. Students learn how to formulate a hypothesis, review background literature, and gather data. This process culminates in an independent research project conducted for the Senior Seminar class. Two of Ikeler’s former students, Jefferson Charles (Sociology, class of 2018) and Felicia Crivello (Criminology, class of 2019) have been collaborating with him on a film analysis that focuses on the depiction of working-class characters. Ikeler, Jefferson, and Felicia have been gathering and analyzing data for several years. 

They have found that two-thirds of popular films have working-class characters who play a central role, and 40% feature working-class lead characters. However, portrayals of working-class characters in popular films are highly stereotyped. The characters are usually white and male and are nearly always paired up with a more upscale co-lead. An article titled “Nostalgic Resignation: Working-Class Characters in Neoliberal Film” is now undergoing revisions to be published in Sociological Forum.

In Ikeler’s view, Sociology and Criminology are great disciplines that allow students to learn how social forces and institutions, as well as factors like race, class, and gender, affect people’s thoughts and behavior. He notes, “The Social Sciences one of the most complex forms of science because there are so many variables at play.”