Earlier today, I shared with some friends that, in the whole scheme of things, I’m not terribly pissed about Walmart opening their doors at 6:00 PM on Thanksgiving day. I shared this thought after having read several posts condemning the retail giant for denying their employees the ability to enjoy the holiday with their families. I suggested that perhaps the efforts of those circulating petitions would better be put to use rallying those in their personal networks to confront the corporation on more substantive issues, like employee pay. (As we’ve discussed in the past, in spite of raking in over $17 billion in corporate profits last year, Walmart continues to lead the list of America’s worst employers, routinely directing its in-store “associates” to public assistance programs as part of their standard human resources protocol, and investing millions each year in fighting attempts to raise the minimum wage.)
At this point, I should probably note that, as a rule, I don’t shop on Thanksgiving, or the day after, commonly referred to as Black Friday. (I honor Buy Nothing Day to the best of my ability. While I appreciate that retailers need to make sales in order to stay in business, and compete with their online competitors, I’m in no hurry to contribute to the Black Friday death count.) Furthermore, I don’t shop at Walmart, choosing instead to do my rare big-box retail shopping at Costco, where employees, on average, are paid about three times more per hour, and are much more likely to receive company-funded health care. (Costco, by the way, will be closed on Thanksgiving.)
At any rate, I expressed my frustration to my friends. “While it sucks that Walmart employees have to work on Thanksgiving, I wish people would focus instead on the fact that they’re paid shitty wages,” I said. “I mean I think it’s cool that folks on Facebook are up in arms about people having to work on Thursday, but I think, relatively speaking, that’s a small part of the problem.” And, as good friends are known to do, several of them challenged me on the issue… Here are some of their responses. [note: I’m not using their full names as I didn’t ask them whether or not I could quote them here.]
SG: It’s not a small part of the problem. It’s a different problem. If we make Thanksgiving day sales non-profitable for Walmart, they won’t continue the ridiculous expansion. On the other hand, I don’t know if we the consumers can really get behind a “boycott Walmart altogether” campaign. People want cheap stuff. That problem is probably better solved by a strong union.
LF: I think the working on Thanksgiving thing is symbolic of the problem or rather a very visible manifestation of the problem. The real problem is that workers don’t have any power. If I thought the workers were there by choice, I would be ok with shopping on Thanksgiving but when your wages are so low that you must work if the shift is offered to you, that isn’t much of a choice. I don’t know the answer other than to support strong unions and more small businesses… If we could get a significant number of the labor force to become self employed in a way where they can actually earn a living, people would have more options and once they have more options, they’ll have more power. Walmart (and others) get away with their labor policies because workers are in a situation where although technically they have a choice, the reality is that they don’t have much of one. They choose one bad situation (working Thanksgiving at Walmart for near min wage) because there other options are so bad. Change the other options part.
JH: Many people welcome the opportunity to work the holidays because they don’t work full-time the rest of the year. So eliminating T-Giving sales and doing nothing else would actually make their lives more difficult. Walmart likes to keep them hungry and trapped.
JC: I agree that it’s minor compared to the overall treatment of working people (at WalMart / in the country), but I also think it’s symbolically resonant, and that’s why it’s worth the attention. Thanksgiving represents certain values: time with family, a break from the hustle-and-bustle to show gratitude for the earth’s bounty, etc. It suggests community and sharing: we all bring to the table what we can and no one is left out. When the big corporations make people work on Thanksgiving, they’re displaying their true colors and a set of values that so clearly contradict those of family and community: “FUCK you and your family; get back to WORK!”
RR: It’s the latest example of the race to the bottom led by Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, which for years has scheduled work on Thanksgiving. The expansion of hours will take more than a million employees away from their families during the holiday. The big retailers say it’s their employees’ choice, but it’s hardly a choice: If they’re scheduled but don’t work, it’s counted as a missed day, and too many missed days mean they’re fired. If they’re working part-time (as an increasing number are) they can’t afford not to work when they’re scheduled to. Last week the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board found Walmart had “unlawfully threatened, disciplined and/or terminated employees” at stores in 13 states, for protesting pay and working conditions in the last year’s “Black Friday” walkouts. Please support Walmart workers – and, by extension, low-wage workers across America – by boycotting Walmart this Friday. You might go a step further: Don’t shop in any big retailer Thanksgiving Day. Spread the word.
OK, I kind of cheated on that last one. That was from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who isn’t technically a friend… Anyway, as I thought that a number of good points were raised, I thought that I’d share.
And, yes, I’m kind of conflicted about this. I hate Walmart. I’ve seen first-hand how they’ve destroyed small towns that I love in Kentucky, killing established businesses that have served communities for generations, decimating historic downtowns, and driving down wages. I hate how they treat their employees. And I hate their insatiable need for more, at all costs, as demonstrated by this most recent move to push the holiday sales cycle into Thanksgiving day. With that said, though, I think in this case, a lot of the folks who are pissed at Walmart are pissed not because the company operates on the blood of its malnourished workers, but because they’re projecting themselves into the narrative. It seems to me that, to a great extent, they’re probably thinking about their own non-retail jobs, and how much they’d hate it if their boss came up to them and said, “You’re going to have to work on Thanksgiving, while your family eats turkey and watches the Lions game without you.” And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that empathy will open doors and lead to more substantive change. But I can’t help but see it as a diversion. Moving the start time of Black Friday back a few hours, with all due respect, wouldn’t change a damn thing.
And, to be completely frank, there’s a bit of hypocrisy at play too, as I know that many who are complaining about Walmart being open on Thanksgiving will themselves be going out to the movies Thursday evening and hitting the bars Thursday night. The truth is, a lot of folks are working on the holiday… It’s just that Walmart is at the forefront of the War on Thanksgiving, constantly inching the battle lines closer to Thursday morning. (Target, Kmart and Best Buy, among others, have said that they’ll be opening at 6:00 on Thanksgiving this year, following the lead of Walmart.)
In conclusion, here’s my message to all of you who hate that Walmart is opening at 6:00 PM on Thursday. Just remember your anger two weeks from now, when you want to buy some cheap piece-of-crap toy for your kid to take into school for the annual gift exchange, and go to that little shop downtown instead. And, if you can, let the folks in Bentonville know. Let them know that they lost a sale because of how they treat people. Let them know that you’re tired of subsidizing their “everyday low prices” with your tax dollars, paying to keep their employees fed because they refuse to pay a living wage. Let them know that this is bigger than just Thanksgiving.