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
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