When you think about Walmart and the deep dark cave of crazy that is Black Friday, you can’t help but recall mayhem and violence—mobs rushing the store in the middle of the night, fighting one another for toys and video game consoles, even pulling knives or guns. Over the last ten years, it’s become a strange and terrible part of the day, so much so in fact that this year Walmart has foregone a one-day “Black Friday” sale in favor of a five-day event.
What you probably don’t think about when you think about Walmart and Black Friday is the employees who are forced to leave their own Thanksgivings early (or this year are forced to work through Thanksgiving) to deal with our collective bouts of insanity.
But this year, they might not be so easy to ignore. In Los Angeles yesterday, employees at two stores staged the first-ever sit-in of a Walmart. With tape over their mouths to protest Walmart’s history of retaliating against any employee who speaks out in favor of higher salaries or unionization, these employees sat for hours near registers and racks, holding signs asking for a living wage and for 40 hour work weeks, while hundreds of others outside chanted “Stand Up, Live Better.” The event was promised as a prelude to Black Friday, when employees at dozens of stores around the United States (listed here) will protest if Walmart does not act.
Protests like these have been happening more and more over the last five years. And the reasons are hard to refute: Walmart claims profits of $16 billion and its owners the Waltons are the richest family in America; but more than half of its 1 million plus store employees make less than $25,000 a year – and its part-time employees (who constitute almost half of its work force) far less. The company is notoriously stingy not only about salary but about hours; when the company announced in October that many of its employees would be asked to work Thanksgiving Day, it assured them that they’d be paid extra. But employees noted that last year, those who worked the holiday had shifts cut from earlier in the month, reducing or erasing any extra pay.
Just this week the New York Times ran an article about a recent report from within Walmart, citing the general mess and lack of adequate stocking of shelves at many stores. The report attributes the problem in part to a lack of employees; yet one assistant manager told the Times he was not being allowed to hire more staff. And the report also pushed managers not to increase employees’ hours or generate overtime.
Though to date the employees from 2,100 stores are calling for changes, and last Black Friday there were actually 1,500 protests, the press by and large seems uninterested in the story. Most TV and newspaper stories about the protests last night spent more timesaying peoplehad been arrested than it did saying anything about why. The Los Angeles Times reported that according to “authorities” the protest was “part of nationwide efforts to organize the retailer’s employees.” But who those authorities were – members of the OUR Walmart employee group? or administrators and flacks from Walmart itself? – went unsaid.
As the holidays descend, it’s easy to become wrapped up in our own needs and pressures. In fact it’s often a necessary coping mechanism. But these protests are an important reminder that all those “deals” we’re wrestling over are coming at the expense of others just like us.