It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means a day of home, family, togetherness and, if you’re unlucky enough to have a job at one of an increasing number of retailers, going in to work that evening.
The creep of Black Friday’s consumer orgy into Thanksgiving itself, called “Gray Thursday,” is still relatively new, but it’s growing fast. Kmart, which apparently started the trend about 20 years ago, is now opening at 6 a.m. on Thursday and staying open for the entire holiday. More department stores and other retailers are jumping on the bandwagon all the time.
The bad news for people working low-wage jobs like fast food and retail doesn’t stop there. There’s been plenty of news lately about the bad relationship between massive, wealthy companies and workers. Walmart in particular is notorious for treating its workers poorly; one Walmart actually had the gall to hold a Thanksgiving food drive for “associates in need.” Why not pay them a livable wage or provide better benefits? Maybe they’d be less needy that way.
Fast food is just as bad. McDonalds recently took heat for making a website that gave its employees shockingly awful advice for making ends meet, like selling unopened Christmas gifts on eBay, “breaking food into pieces” to make it last longer, and, believe it or not, “quit complaining” to reduce stress.
Workers are fighting back. This summer, fast food workers in 60 cities went on strike to demand higher wages, and retail worker groups like OUR Walmart are planning strikes and walkouts on Black Friday.
It would be great if this country had a healthy labor movement to advocate for them.
This isn’t to say that these groups don’t have labor support; they absolutely do. The United Food & Commercial Workers have close ties to OUR Walmart, and the fast food strike’s organizers received training from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But I’m left to wonder why more unions didn’t join in mass action to support retail and fast food workers, or enjoin their members to actually stay out of Walmart and McDonalds. “Count on the full support of the millions of working people who belong to our unions,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at a press conference announcing plans to mobilize workers on Black Friday.
I wish I could believe that, for most people, that support will be anything but token. The labor movement is neither strong nor united enough to really force change. It’s not entirely their fault; unions have faced a decline in membership and clout for decades, not to mention a constant barrage of vicious, negative attacks from conservatives who blame unions for just about everything that’s gone wrong with this country. Anti-union “right-to-work” legislation has made gains in many states.
Unions sometimes haven’t helped their cause; the inexplicable behavior of unions during Connecticut’s 2011 budget fight comes to mind. Some unions seem more interested in preserving and expanding what they have instead of fighting for justice for all workers. They are, in some ways, victims of their own success. It’s unfortunate (and probably not a coincidence) that when fast food and retail workers need support, the labor movement is at a low ebb.
So, absent a strong labor movement, what can we do to support American workers who work hard, have jobs, take responsibility for their lives, and yet still can’t manage to make ends meet thanks to low wages?
One thing we can do is continue to raise the minimum wage. Massachusetts’s state senate recently passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage there to $11/hour. This far outpaces Connecticut’s minimum wage hike, which will increase to $9/hour in 2015. This is still much better than the federal minimum wage, which currently is $7.25/hour. Only about 25,000 workers in Connecticut make the minimum wage, but pushing that wage higher often has the effect of raising wages elsewhere.
Another step people can take is to not patronize places that treat their workers poorly. If you’re going out on Black Friday, maybe think about going to Costco instead of Walmart, if you can manage it. Not everyone can do this, of course; budgets are tight everywhere.
Maybe the most important thing people can do, though, is to keep spreading the word. Companies who treat workers badly rely on consumer ignorance; when customers start becoming informed and outraged then things may, at last, change.
As for Gray Thursday, Massachusetts has a law forbidding stores to open on Thanksgiving. It’s a great law. Connecticut ought to think about passing one just like it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.