A new holiday tradition: workers’ rights

Pub date December 3, 2013

The holiday season has officially started, and if you’re any kind of American, you know what that means. Hordes of wild-eyed shoppers have descended upon us.

If early morning stampedes at chain retailers and other hallmarks of the Black Friday phenomenon seem like a peculiar tradition, recent offshoots of the trend may prove even more bizarre. One is business’ attempt to claim other Thanksgiving week calendar slots as holiday-shopping bonanzas in their own right. Cyber Monday is the busiest online shopping day of the year, we’re told, while a growing number of intrepid early-birds skipped out on Turkey Day altogether to go bargain hunting on the woefully titled “Brown Thursday.”

Then there are the growing ranks of cynics who’ve found creative ways to critique in-your-face consumerism as a cultural deficiency, a sort of anti-Black Friday tradition. There’s Buy Nothing Day, an alt standby appealing to the conscience of the thoughtful consumer.

The web-based Black Friday Death Count (www.blackfridaydeathcount.com), documenting six years of violent incidents stemming from holiday shopping frenzies, reads like a stark condemnation of petty greed. Viral YouTube videos of squabbling gift buyers, meanwhile, suggest that a mass audience of Internet viewers is reaching for the popcorn and taking it all in, perhaps with the glee of blood-sport spectators.

Yet a different aspect of Black Friday 2013 deserves a second look. This year, low-wage employees who generally make Black Friday profits possible got louder in their demands for better working conditions.

Look at Walmart. It’s the nation’s largest employer, but its employees earn notoriously low wages — a fact highlighted by Black Friday protests staged outside Walmart stores nationwide, including in the Bay Area. For low-wage retail workers who can barely make ends meet let alone leave gift-wrapped digital devices under the tree, momentum seems to be building. The National Labor Relations Board recently announced its intention to pursue complaints against Walmart for illegally threatening and firing employees who participated in last year’s Black Friday protests.

Further up the supply chain, the Port of Oakland saw a work stoppage from a group of truckers last week who have fallen into dire straits financially. Classified as owner-operators instead of employees and therefore unable to unionize, many face potential job loss because they can’t afford engine retrofits needed to comply with new environmental regulations. The timing of their quasi-strike, just as container ships were coming into port with cargo destined for Black Friday sales shelves, was no coincidence.

All of which begs the question: If Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Buy Nothing Day can all be incorporated as modern American traditions that directly follow Thanksgiving, why not claim a slice of the pie as well for workers putting themselves at risk in the name of better conditions? If these struggles are effective, it will be one more thing to give thanks for.