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OP-ED | Black Friday Creep Illustrates Workers’ Vulnerability

by Susan Bigelow | Nov 24, 2012 10:32am
(9) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Business, Economics, Jobs, Labor, Opinion

The newspaper arrived with a heavy thunk on Thanksgiving, packed like an overstuffed turkey with flyers and ads for Black Friday sales. We sorted through them at our leisure, keeping ones that seemed interesting and recycling the rest. It’s another piece of a middle class tradition; the flyers and ads are reminders of the shopping frenzy that follows the sleepy calm of Thanksgiving. But for far too many retail workers this year, that newspaper was a prelude to another day at work.

By now you’ve heard about Black Friday’s creep into Thanksgiving, what some people are apparently calling “Gray Thursday.” Retailers are opening Thursday evening, now, instead of early Friday morning. You may also have heard that there are retail workers and their families who tried to fight back against yet another intrusion of work into family life, but their petitions and complaints have largely gone unnoticed by retailers desperate to squeeze as much money out of a busy shopping day as possible. Workers, many of whom are part-time and therefore don’t receive much in the way of benefits, need the hours and the overtime too much not to show up. And so another holiday slowly erodes. Retail workers will now be able to give thanks by working a cash register and earning overtime instead of spending time with their family and friends.

Every year there’s a lot of hand-wringing about capitalism’s intrusion into what we’d thought was a safe space, a day when the usual rules were suspended and we could have a guilt-free meal at home with our families, but every year the stores seem to open earlier. And the thing is, despite all the head-shaking, people go shop. When we put on our consumer hat, we always want cheap goods and we want them right now. Retailers are desperate to oblige us. I’ve stood in lines outside department stores in the early hours on previous Black Fridays with hundreds of people itching to spend hundreds of dollars. Is it any wonder that the stores, many of whom hover on the brink of insolvency all year long, want to grow those lines, to start the engines of commerce a little earlier?

Our overwhelming need to buy cheap stuff and retailers’ quest to sell it to us is one of those vast, nearly uncontrollable forces that define not just our own lives, but the lives of billions across the globe. In order to provide those goods at ever-cheaper prices, companies cut costs by outsourcing production to countries where they can pay factory workers a pittance, and by underpaying their increasingly part-time retail force here at home. It’s profit-driven, to be sure: Walmart and stores like it rake in enormous profits every year. But this force is consumer driven, too; the stores always have lots of customers. It’s a vicious, destructive cycle, bad for small business, American manufacturing and both the working and middle class.

Efforts to change pieces of this picture haven’t had a lot of success. Retail workers need their jobs too badly to go on strike, and there are always plenty of unemployed workers ready to take their place. Groups like OUR Walmart tried organizing walkouts and demonstrations on Black Friday, but many employees were too fearful of losing their jobs to take part. The anti-union climate in this country, as well as the general weakness of organized labor, means that they’d be pretty much on their own if they did try to strike, so they stay at work. It’s no wonder, given all of this, that the gap between rich and poor is wide and growing.

At first glance, it seems like there’s not much the state can do to help. But of course there is, if we allow ourselves to have a little vision. We could make higher education and job training programs cheaper and more accessible, which might give workers a way out of low-wage jobs and fill the constant need for workers with specialized skills. We could bolster public transit, allowing workers to travel farther to find work. We could raise the minimum wage, and we could find ways to uncouple a basic benefit, health care, from employment. We could reinforce the social safety net, so that there’s help for workers who need it.

And for crying out loud, maybe we could pass something like the old Blue Law they have in Massachusetts, barring any work until Friday proper. We ought to have one day, just for ourselves.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(9) Comments

posted by: realhunter | November 24, 2012  12:05pm

There is a way workers can have “one day,just for themselves”. They can quit and go find another job. Good luck with that in this Obama economy.I,ll bet that most of these striking workers voted for Obama—-the guy who has kept continuous unemployment in the US the highest since the great depression. The main reason workers are so weak in this country is that there are NO JOB. So wake up America and start voting for people who know how to create jobs and get the country going again. Then you will be able to quit when you don’t like what your company requires you to do and go get another job

posted by: shinningstars122 | November 24, 2012  12:37pm

shinningstars122

Yes you kinda of miss those blue laws. Stores not opening till noon on Sundays and other major holidays and I think stores used to be closed more than two days a years as well.
The sad reality is until the American consumer says enough is enough it won’t change at all.
Now with cyber Monday we all think that one click shopping has no consequences but the conditions these workers endure, as pickers of our free shipping orders, is even worse.
I highly suggest your readers find out more about it.
We do have one force this holiday season that can slow the wheels of endless commerce, a good ole fashion nor’easter.

posted by: Matt Zagaja | November 24, 2012  1:30pm

I think the problem has less to do with the anti-union environment and more with the fact that retail workers are not a sympathetic group of people. With maybe a few outliers people do not get excited or enjoy their encounters with retail employees. They ignore disaffected cashiers, at Best Buy they dodge the sales people roaming floor, and god help the guy trying to upsell you that extended warranty you do not want. We don’t remember the quick memory card purchase that seamlessly worked but if we got overcharged for something we do remember that. Who in America wants to stand up for the guy trying to get you to buy that $40 Cat5e cable with your laptop when everyone knows full well you can buy it for a dollar or two online. Obviously not all places are like this, but for the most part America’s relationship with its retail workers is adversarial.

Secondarily retail is not viewed as a permanent career. It is the province of students working part-time, stay-at-home Moms that want some extra cash, and retirees looking for something to do. Gov. Malloy does not attend Wal-Mart or Dick’s Sporting Goods openings and proclaim how great it is they are bringing jobs to the community. He goes to Jackson Labs and talks about genomic sciences. Congresspeople do not talk about how people should be retail floor employees, they try and create policies that encourage them to go into precision manufacturing or solar panel installation.

This is not to say I’m opposed to finding ways to end the encroachment of Black Friday. Holiday creep in retail is reaching ridiculous levels. If there is a war on Christmas, Christmas seems to be winning. It has taken Thanksgiving and seems to be advancing on Halloween. A law prohibiting work on Thanksgiving might seem nanny-statish, but maybe it is what we need.

posted by: CubeSpawn | November 24, 2012  1:54pm

While I agree that commercialization erodes dignity and normalcy in people’s lives. and I feel you step in the right direction toward the end of your article by saying “we could allow ourselves a little vision…” but then you regurgitate the same old nonsense that is the ROOT of the problem…:

More training? “better” jobs? that is utter crap, and mearly postpones the solution.

After nearly 150 years of continious acceleration in both the developement of larger, faster mass production, whose capacity far outstrips the pace of population growth (and resources - but thats a different discussion)

why is there this slavish adherence to an 18th century model of wage slaves and robber baron corporate owners?

There is enough surplus production capacity in the United States alone to give every man, woman, child and housepet a free Lamborghini every year.

Don’t believe me? Waste disposal statistics put just the recyclable aluminum that makes it to landfills is enough to replace the entire domestic airline fleet… EVERY QUARTER!!!

We a a society that has to WASTE resources and a mind blowing pace to adhere to the outdated market model we have adopted. we throw away more wealth (in materials) annually than the world needs.

If smaller scale regional manufacturing centers were set up to create products from digital designs using recyled materials - robots and automation could do 90% of the work and products (and the power plants to run them) could become free in less than a generation.

if you thisk I am a crazy-eyed idealist - you should watch these websites - I intend to prove it (i already have, but its not well documented yet)
http://cubespawn.com
http://self-sufficient-future.com

Lets put and end to this endless labor/wages/exploitation discussion that has been on-going for two hundred years by re-defining the problem with a different objective: the displacement of work-for-pay by work-for-direct-benefit.

The future is what we make it.

posted by: GMR | November 25, 2012  11:21am

GMR

People want to shop on Thanksgiving and Friday (why I have no idea, I couldn’t imagine going to the stores those days, but then, I’m not most people).  So stores open.  If they don’t, people will go to other stores, and if we have blue laws, people will buy online.  That’s the demand side of the equation.

Then there’s the supply side: if there were fewer unskilled workers, then it would be more expensive to open stores on holiday weekends.  One reason there are so many unskilled workers is that there are a lot of immigrants (they don’t necessarily work retail, but they work in other unskilled positions, driving down unskilled wages in general).  Raising the minimum wage would just drive up unemployment (how many retail jobs pay minimum wage vs. a little higher anyway?).

posted by: Joe Eversole | November 25, 2012  7:45pm

Once again Ms. Bigelow misses the mark.  I am sure that everyone here utilized some service provided by workers (skilled ones at that) on Thanksgiving day. Telephone?  Internet? Television?  Not to mention the Police, Fire, EMS and military members that were working on that holiday.  Stop weeping for the retail worker who is working at will.  If you don’t want to work on Thanksgiving, don’t.  No one can compel you to work.  You may lose your job as a result, but you do have the choice. 
I am not a big black friday shopper, but I don’t have an issue with those that do their shopping on that day.  Nor would I have a particular issue if stores were opened all day on Thanksgiving.  Store owners wouldn’t open if they didn’t think they could make enough money to at least break even.  You don’t like your situation at work, go elsewhere.

posted by: 17beachboy | November 26, 2012  11:41am

Funny how there are people complaining lately about retail stores opening early for “Black Friday” sales. Where were these same protesters when grocery stores started opening on Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.?  How about sticking up for the workers at gas stations, bakeries, coffee shops, etc.  Don’t these workers have rights? Don’t they have families that they would like to spend the holidays with?  Seems like these protests are hypocritical.  Truth is when you work in retail, you work when others are relaxing.  Deal with it or find a new career.

posted by: ConnVoter | November 26, 2012  1:16pm

How many Black Friday protesters ate Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant?

It’s the same principle, except eating is exchanged for shopping, yet no one in his or her right mind would suggest that it be illegal to go out to eat on any night of the year.

This is an absurd subject and an obscure point for protesters.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | November 26, 2012  6:22pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Susan, sounds like you’re sort of trying to have it both ways here—either that, or I’m misunderstanding you. On the one hand it’s terrible that these stores are open and that employees have to drag themselves away from their families and the dinner table.

On the other hand, they need the hours and want the overtime. Which is it?

I used to work in retail (many years ago, admittedly) and I can tell you most everyone wanted to work on Sundays because they liked the wages (typically time and a half). Protests from social conservatives notwithstanding, no one was dragged kicking and screaming into the store to work on the Sabbath.

In order to make more money, we all have to make sacrifices. Last week, I had to put in hours on Thanksgiving morning and on Saturday night. So be it.