This year, when you go out shopping in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, spare a thought for the retail and fast food workers whose struggles have largely been forgotten as the world tilts ever downward toward disaster.
But 2015 has been rough, especially this latest stretch. Syria’s brutal civil war, terrorism in Africa, atrocities by ISIS, unrest and agony over police killings here at home, a presidential contest dominated by a lying demagogue . . . you name it, if it’s awful it’s happening now. Connecticut, too, is mired in even more pessimism and worry than usual.
The holiday season is usually a bright spot, a way for us to distract ourselves from the torrent of misery we see in our lives and in the news. But for retail workers, the holidays mean long hours, time away from family even on Thanksgiving, and exhaustion. It also means overtime pay for many, although because wages are still so low this extra holiday work is necessary just to make ends meet.
And for some, they don’t have a choice. Stores are all but requiring workers to come in on Thanksgiving and work long hours, and workers don’t dare try to change their schedules in fear of losing their jobs.
That’s why workers in retail and in fast food have been fighting for years to either unionize, raise wages, or both. They’ve had some success here and there; many states, including Connecticut, have raised the minimum wage above $10 an hour. However, a new study suggests what a lot of people have been saying for a while: $10.10 an hour isn’t enough to live on. That’s why workers are now fighting for $15 an hour.
Wal-Mart is a perennial target of worker complaints about wages, and some workers there are fasting for up to 15 days to draw attention to their plight. Some even brought their grievances directly to the campaign headquarters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Wal-Mart workers aren’t the only ones standing up; there have been labor actions at IKEA and fast food franchises as well.
However, that struggle for a real living wage has taken a back seat as other issues come to the fore, and it’s possible that the long-running campaign may not gain much ground.
Labor and the economy seem like sideline issues in the presidential campaign right now, even though Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, has been talking about them more than most. The biggest problem that retail and fast food workers face, though, is the fact that the labor movement has been in decline for decades. There’s a wide gap between middle-class members of powerful government employee unions and low-wage workers, and unions have only so many resources to spare.
There’s also a lot of opposition to raising the wage. Obviously most companies, especially ones that are teetering on the edge of oblivion, hate the idea. But so are other workers who make barely more than $15 an hour for much more specialized work. The thinking is this — If they don’t get a higher wage, then why should low-skill workers?
Economic instability doesn’t help. The recovery feels so fragile, and traditional jobs that come with good pay and benefits seem so hard to find. And of course, Americans’ addiction to cheap goods and cheap food means that raising wages, which would likely raise prices, might end up being a disaster for everyone.
And yet raising pay to something that people can actually live on is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. This, to me, is the strongest argument for higher wages. We as a society are morally obligated to help those who need it, especially people who embody the values of hard work and perseverance that we claim to treasure so much. We can pay a little more for those clothes or that hamburger.
Meanwhile, after several years of worker complaints and customer disgust, it does look like finally the awful trend of stores opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving is slowing. Stores aren’t opening any earlier, and a few that were open before are actually closing for the day. Maybe there’s a little life left in labor after all, or maybe it’s just that Black Friday is less important than it used to be.
Still, it’s good to see that at least some workers will have a little more time with their families this year.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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