Thanks and giving: Why Wal-Mart “Black Friday” strikes are important

BLOOMBERG Costumers wait in line to pay for their merchandise inside Wal-Mart de Mexico SAB de CV’s Suburbia store in … Continued


Costumers wait in line to pay for their merchandise inside Wal-Mart de Mexico SAB de CV’s Suburbia store in Mexico City, Mexico on Nov. 17, 2012. El Buen Fin, Mexico’s equivalent of Black Friday, when the year’s biggest discounts are offered by participating stores, is held on the third weekend of November and will run through Nov. 19.

Let’s call it “consumption creep,” the drive by retailers to jump-start the huge shopping day called “Black Friday” (the day retailers’ balance sheets are supposed to go from red to black) on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.

Every single thing that is broken not only about the American economy, but also about American values can be seen in the drive to force workers to give up their Thanksgiving holiday to promote “door-buster” sales and tempt inadequately paid Americans to use credit to get these “deals.”

This is why the planned “Black Friday” strikes by Wal-Mart workers are so important. These workers are planning to strike at 1,000 locations cross the U.S., saying they are “angry that Wal-Mart stores are opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.”

These workers are saying, first and foremost, that they want respect for their lives, their dignity, and their rest. Thanksgiving is the most widely shared American holiday, and it is traditionally a time to rest from our labors and spend time with family and friends.

In 1621, Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians feasted for two days to give thanks for a good harvest. Instead, today some retailers would have them jump up after a quick bite and go harvest some more.

Being able to rest from your labors and give thanks with family and friends is crucial in this treadmill economy, where the vast majority of workers work longer for less pay, take fewer or no vacations and retire later. Americans work “more than anyone in the industrialized world,” perhaps as much as “month more” than they did in 1970.

You probably know this yourself. This is a pattern that crosses sectors from pink to blue to white collar.

But the poster child for this kind of treadmill labor is Wal-Mart with part-time labor being common, hours subject to change, little or no benefits, and no real hope for significant advancement. The average Wal-Mart employee works just at or slightly above the poverty level. An internal Wal-Mart document, titled “Field Non-Exempt Associate Pay Plan fiscal year 2013,” “details a rigid pay structure for hourly employees that makes it difficult for most to rise much beyond poverty-level wages.”

This has got to change, and Wal-Mart employees are trying to use tried-and-true labor actions to change it. As a Christian minister, and one who cares about those driven to work harder while being kept at the poverty level, I support them.

But “Black Friday” sales reveal another crisis in the American economy and American values.

It’s the other treadmill of buy, buy, buy at sales. But in reality, most people are now having to buy on credit, and the depressed American wages over time have been somewhat hidden by buying on credit. This can be easily seen in a chart I use in “#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power” in the chapter on “The Jubilee, or, Jesus Had an Economic Plan.”

Our moral and economic crisis in this country is a debt crisis, where those who have benefited hugely from the rise in wealth of a few (the “1 percent”) now lend that money at interest to those who are slipping farther and farther behind in terms of real wages (the “99 percent”).

“Black Friday” sales are debt traps for people to rush out and buy on credit.

But we can fix this on both the wage and profit ends of the continuum. It’s not that complex a fix, but it requires seeing our country as a whole, as one people who rise and fall together.

We can fix this whole mess and have something for which we could really give thanks, if we just paid workers a little more.

Demos, a policy research group, has just released a study, Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy, that shows the “broad benefits that would be gained if the nation’s largest retailers established a voluntary wage floor of $25,000 for full-time, year-round employees.”

What? Yes. As Bob Herbert writes, just paying workers comparatively a little more would lift the whole economy and benefit American companies overall. It’s not a “pie-in-the-sky” approach, but a real, private sector solution. In fact, writes Herbert, this is one way the U.S. got to be the powerful economy it is.

“There is a tendency as we look back through the comforting mists of memory to forget that the manufacturing jobs that lifted so many millions of Americans into the middle class in the 20th century started out as lousy jobs. They paid little and the working conditions were often atrocious, even life-threatening. The transformation of those jobs into well-paying, secure employment — with benefits — helped drive the American economy to heights that made it the envy of the world,” he wrote.

Think about that as you gather, as you are able, at your Thanksgiving tables or as you have to rush out to work yet another shift.

We could fix this if we had the moral and political will.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

Related content from On Faith:

Bronfman: A day devoted to gratitude

Lamott: ‘What I’m really thankful for this Thanksgiving’

Nielsen: Thanksgiving?

Speckhardt: Thanks to humanity!

Thistlethwaite: Thanks and giving: Why Wal-Mart “Black Friday” strikes are important

Schneier and Ali: Muslim, Jews feed thousands across North America


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • underhill

    ‘We could fix this if we had the moral and political will’.

    Bravo. Our decline is not inevitable, but is engineered to benefit the few, who want us to believe that it is inevitable. But we could fix it, and remain a capitalist, democratic society– Contrary to propaganda.

  • Thinking human

    Dear underhill
    Would love to hear this plan to fix this problem. From the sound of it you want someone who made good choices pay for someone who didn’t lol.

  • one nation

    When you shop, do you shop with the principles you as a person believe in or just get the lowest price no matter who it hurts or who it benefits. Bear in mind the number of women that burn to death yesterday working for 21 cents a hour making products for the likes of you as those that sell them to make higher profits from your purchases. Should employees receive a just wage? What is a just profit? Think.

  • oldbrownhat

    One Nation Under God….. Unfortunately the god has become Mammon. The Puritans celebrated Thanksgiving in favor of Christmas, but both celbrations have been usurped and ruined by The Quest for the Almighty Dollar. (This is not helped by each “holiday” being only a month apart.)

    This isn’t just a Christian or even a religious issue, either. Agnostics and atheists are not immune to being thankful for what they have, even if their “thanks” may internalized rather than directed to a deity.

    The Walmart situation is despicable. (And they’re not the only ones, just perhaps the worst.) “No, no- you can’t have Thanksgiving off because we have to take every opportunity to flog cheap crap to the seething masses.”

    First there was Black Friday; now we have Gray Thursday. What’s next, Mint-Green Wednesday? (Or maybe a color that more accurately describes the color of our bills?)

  • buffyj63

    I shop online because I can find made in USA clothes more easily there. Yes, I pay more; a women’s polo cost me $26 and I had fewer choices of colors vs. the $9.99 in the local department store (but comparable to the better-known catalog brands that also charge around $25 for made in China). Not everyone is willing to make that trade-off, and don’t discount the pressure online shopping puts on the bricks-and-mortar stores to stay open even on holidays.

  • N.Kennedy

    Should employees receive a just wage? What is a just profit? Yes they should. You must remember who has most at stake in this situation.

    The employee, Mostly HS drop-outs working on the floor. Never satisfied with the working conditions. Terrible shifts, having to work on Holidays. No benefits, no retirement, no insurance. Stuck in a vicious cycle of never ending (POVERTY) some call it.

    The management, Degrees from at min a two year college. Upper management four year college degrees without experience or the entry level management two year college with in store experience being promoted up the chain.

    The Walton family has simply used common sense handed down from one generation to another with the business sense of Hiring people that know how to run a business.

    Now you say that Walmart is a terrible company. Employee PAY & BENEFITS = HIGHER COST OF GOODS……. If you can afford to buy all your items with a “MADE IN THE USA” label, You are the one that’s blessed. Most American’s can’t afford 100% of their purchases of “Made in the USA” products.

  • jct4

    I try to shop small businesses in my community rather than the chain stores (such as local hardware stores instead of Home Depot), and rather than buying things, I would rather purchase services because that helps the local economy.

  • West3

    I just don’t get the Black Friday and shopping on Thanksgiving and being willing to kill or hurt you fellow shopper just to purchase some cheap crap and never will.

    This is supposed to be for Christmas but how does any of this exemplify the Christmas spirit?

    If I shop Black Friday at all it’s to support my locally-owned merchants and small businesses.


    Black Friday is a terrible precedent to be setting in America – the land of the consumers padding the pockets of the rich and richest and that is because 4 members of the Walmart family are among the richest of the rich, even before this shopping frenzy they have created at the expense of their workers and their families being able to spend valuable time together on the annual family day holiday of the year. We know that they were all with their families on this day. Most of their workers make less than a living wage at $16,000 a year and are forced to rely on the states to supplement their income because these low salaries qualify them for desperately needed public benefits. Therefore, while Walmart enters communities and put small businesses out of business bringing these primarily low wage, part-time jobs, and still forcing the states to pay those workers because they still do not a living wage. So are these communities really benefitting by offering Walmart all kind of incentives and still have to supplement their own residents. Are communities and states really benefitting when they bring in Walmarts? Not really when you examine the bottom line which is only putting more millions and billions into the family owners pockets.
    The vast majority of workers work longer for less pay, take fewer or no vacations and retire later. Americans work “more than anyone in the industrialized world,” perhaps as much as “month more” than they did in 1970.
    Wal-Mart is the prime example of the exploited American worker with part-time labor being common, hours subject to change, little or no benefits, and no real hope for significant advancement. The average Wal-Mart employee works just at or slightly above the poverty level. The “1 percent” now lend all the money they have amassed by not paying any taxest to those who are slipping farther and farther behind in terms of real wages (the “99 percent”). “Black Friday” sales are debt traps for people to rush out and buy on cred

  • bableson1

    I think the workers have a great point.

  • bableson1

    And I also think Black Friday is nothing like it used to be.

  • humbleandfree

    4 of the 10 richest people in America are Waltons.
    This is the company that pays dirt wages, and now leads the way in forcing their staff to forego “Thanksgiving” with THEIR families, so the Waltons can get richer.

  • humbleandfree

    The ten richest Americans includes FOUR Waltons
    They do not care one iota for their employees — just mammon.

  • one nation

    The consumer holds the key but buying made in China goods is a cancer to our country account the consumer is cutting their own throat.

  • snoocks2

    You must have been sitting on your Thistletush when you wrote this thing. First of all, Wal-mart workers are 3rd tier workers: Most have little education, no ambition to get ahead, or want to work part-time in the first place. 2nd: If the liberal press and Hollywood had not put the notion of family into the rubbish bin long ago, with their idolizing of same-sex marriage, liberal abortion for anyone who wants it, and encouraged bastardized births across the land , then perhaps we’d have a glimmer of the country we were meant to be…God fearing and honest.

    Honor is no longer cherished by our society, and cheating, bullying, ruined schools are now the norm. Unions are no longer what they once were, and
    because of their thuggish leadership, they will no longer be revered by the working man and woman. Teachers are no longer teachers, they are takers of the few dollars left in the districts…give them benefits,, pensions for ever, and all the money they can grasp in their greedy hands and the hell with the students. I*’m formerly from tyhe Detroit area, and what has happened there under Dem leadership over the years insults one’s intelligence. Look at all the large, crime-ridden cities in this country and note they are bankrupt, spiritually berift, and all run by unions and Democrats.

    Religion is no longer something to aspire to, for geeks, nerds, and Bible huggers are nothing but denigrated by those elitists who look down their short noses at everyone they consider beneath them…including immigrants of all sorts, the entire black population and the perpetually ignorant.

    I just recently stumbled across a column in Pravda recently noting that Obama was recently elected by the illiterate masses and that columnist is right on! Free abortion, free lunch, subsidized housing, free health care…all at the expense of those working at Wal-Mart and other places.

    You should be danged glad there’s a Wal-Mart. for people with limited or no skills whatsoever to work. They’ll n

  • SeattlePioneer

    The resounding failure of the United Food and Commercial Worker hate campaign and strike against Wal-Mart was a loud and emphatic failure, proving once again that the zeitgeist remains with Wal-Mart.

  • Chippewa

    This is simple. The employer says, “These are the hours and pay I offer.” No one is holding a gun to the head of the employees to work there. If they don’t like the pay or hours they can look elsewhere. Or to quote line from Ghostbusters, “Janine, someone with your qualifications would have no trouble finding a top-flight job in either the food service or housekeeping industries.”

  • painsetpoissons

    While you are thinking, Thinking, think about those who never had choices. Lucky you if you did.

  • one nation

    All business have a right to be organized and to a just profit . All employees have a right to be organized and to a just income. The consumer holds the key.

  • anti-elitist

    you have no idea what it’s like to look for a job in this economy do you

  • Fritz Strand

    I never thought I would live to see the day when WaPo had something positive to say about labor.

  • Pogo4

    Sounds pretty mean to force employees to work on Thanksgiving. If they wanted to pay an extra bonus for t hose who wanted to do it on a voluntary basis with full right of refusal, that would be different.

    I doubt that it is a good idea for boycotts or government regulation to punish Walmart for paying low wages. Walmart gave very good quality products to consumers at low prices, helping people with low incomes to stretch their dollars farther. They squeezed suppliers to get low prices.

    I am not horrified that they made a fortune with a good idea. Perhaps it is good to have some publicity on their labor practices to see if they are justified. But paying minimum wage may be appropriate for the skills they reqjuire for this job.

    If they are paying lower wages than McDonalds I would say that is a problem. But a career path? probably should not be guaranteed to every worker there. Walmart is a huge American institution and deserves some public scrutiny if they are doing inappropriate things, such as requiring their workers to work on Thanksgiving. Requiring them to work on Black Friday is normal, I would say.

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