"Black Friday" is known for its big markdowns and big crowds — will it be known for big protests too?
The worker organization OUR Walmart hopes so. To draw attention to the work that retail employees are asked to do on Thanksgiving, they are, for the third year in a row, designating the day after the holiday as a day of protest. Why not use the nation's largest retailer's most profitable 24 hours against it?
As more and more companies have begun extending Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday itself, workers at major retailers have also begun to push back against the demand that they work on the holiday. Last year, Whole Foods workers in Chicago, part of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago that grew out of the Fight for $15 fast food strikes, walked off the job and demanded that working on Thanksgiving be voluntary. They won.
Quite a few national chains plan to be open on Thanksgiving day, from Starbucks to Best Buy to Sears to, yes, Walmart stores. Over 600 Kmart workers are petitioning, on the site Coworker.org, for the store to change its plan to be open 42 continuous hours from 6 am Thanksgiving day. Jillian Fisher, whose mother Donna works at Kmart, started the petition because it wasn't enough that the store worked with her mom so that she could be home for dinner.
"Now someone else has to choose between working and spending time with their family," Fisher said. Kmart has said that it asks for volunteers to work on the holiday, but other workers, like Kekoa Wailehua from Hawaii, said that they have been explicitly told they cannot request off on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. The petition has almost 10,000 supporters.
(As an aside, at my family's small business, which is open for a half day on Thanksgiving, customers would call up, express surprise that we were working, then proceed to ask for a delivery. Something about this seems to perfectly capture Americans' relationship to holiday and vacation time — we both expect and are surprised that people work on holidays in order to ensure ours are perfect.)
Thanksgiving has a particular emotional resonance for people that has helped workers in their fight. A secular holiday wrapped up in notions of American history and identity, it is a day that many people feel strongly should be spent amongst family at home.
But the reality for many low-wage retail workers is that paid holidays of any kind (or even time-and-a-half pay on holidays) are a distant dream. The United States, as Rebecca Ray, Milla Sanes, and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research detail in their report "No Vacation Nation Revisited," is the only major industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid vacation. "The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger," they note, "if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world's rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year."
This means that 23 percent of Americans have no paid holidays — and most of them are low-wage or part-time workers. Workers like the ones at Kmart, Walmart, Whole Foods and Starbucks.
Time off at the holidays is something that people in white-collar jobs and professions take for granted. The poor, on the other hand, are shamed for taking such leisure time — they should be busy yanking away on those bootstraps, not thinking about a holiday or a vacation.
It is hard for workers to claim they deserve a vacation. It is even harder to do so by walking out on strike, risking their jobs in order to say they deserve to have their time valued. That Walmart and Whole Foods workers have been willing to do so — to so publicly claim their own time and make decisions about when they will and will not work — is to say that respect is as valuable to them as compensation.
The question of holiday scheduling should be understood in the context of a broader struggle that is happening, as David Bensman points out at The American Prospect, over the issue of working time. It may be only a faint echo of the early 20th century's eight-hour day movement — when workers demanded a shortening of the working day with no increase in pay, a demand that was eventually codified into U.S. law in the Fair Labor Standards Act — but it is an echo nonetheless.
Working time is central to today's workplace and economic justice struggles. We continue to face high unemployment, and the jobs that have been created since the financial crisis and recession have been more likely to be low-wage, low-security, or part-time.
For part-time workers, unpredictable scheduling — often controlled by a computer program adept at analyzing sales data but uninterested in the humans it manipulates — is perhaps the most visible symbol of how little they are respected at work, how little they are valued. Their attempts to claim their own time will shape the economy and help determine what work looks like in a future of automation, where the jobs that existed 10 or 20 or 40 years ago are gone and not coming back, and fewer human workers are needed.
And so in the demands of retail workers for their holiday time, I hear the beginnings of a labor movement that looks beyond labor, a movement that asks as much for time as money.