For many American families, Black Friday sales are almost as traditional as turkey on Thanksgiving. As a vegetarian, I tend to pass on the latter holiday custom, and this year I’m asking you, my reader, to pass on the former too.
First, there is the simple practical reason that Black Friday really isn’t really the bargain bonanza it’s cracked up to be. The Wall Street Journal found that while some items, such as watches and jewelry, reach a low point price-wise the day after Thanksgiving, many items are actually much cheaper the nearer one gets to Christmas, or in the post-Christmas “everything must go” season. This only makes sense – if a business already has you hooked in with the myth of Black Friday, they’re going to try to maximize their profits, and selling at rock-bottom prices isn’t going to do that very effectively.
More problematic, however, is the fact that this myth of Black Friday, and the consumer frenzy that has come to characterize it, is beginning to turn Black Friday into Black Thursday. In the recent past it has become common for stores to open their doors at five, four, even three in the morning or earlier on Black Friday. This year, however, Walmart has upped the ante by opening their doors at 8:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day, and competitors such as Target and K-Mart, threatened by the prospect of losing sales to the retail giant, have followed suit.
This means that workers are now having to come in to work on Thanksgiving Day, are having to sacrifice one of the few days traditionally reserved for family, friends, and food in order to service the ravenous throng of shoppers.
Retail outlets try to make working Thanksgiving Day attractive by offering time-and-a-half. Why should we object to an opportunity for employees to make more money? After all, it’s not as if anyone is forcing them to work Thanksgiving – they’re choosing to, based on the incentive of time-and-a-half. Right?
No, actually. Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones writes, “[M]any big-box workers have no choice to but to be flexible. The compliant get rewarded with more hours; the rigid quickly get downgraded to part-timers, union leader say.” Quite apart from corporate bullying, the fact of the matter is that when you’re pulling down the average Walmart salary ($15,500 a year, according to Making Change at Walmart), an extra $100 for a few (read: as many as twelve) extra hours on Thanksgiving looks awfully enticing.
As it turns out, economic necessity is hardly less coercive than outright coercion. If the Marts Wal- and K- really cared about their “associates,” as they call them, they would pay them more in the first place, not make them choose between overtime pay and their family on freaking Thanksgiving.
It is for precisely reasons like this that Walmart workers across the country are planning a series of nationwide strikes this Friday, a first in the 50-year history of the Bentonville, AK supergiant. And it is because the American consumer is willing to bite on the hook that retail giants cast that workers now must risk their jobs to stand up for their right to a fair wage, for their right to be treated like human beings rather than commodities. It is because of our rampant consumerism (spurred on by Walmart, Target, and their ilk) that Sara Gilbert, a customer service manager at a Seattle Walmart who only makes $14,000 a year, has to choose between spending Thanksgiving around her family table or risking not being able to put food on that table at all.
It is that image of the family table that I want to zoom in on for my third and last reason for asking you not to buy in to the Black Friday hype this year. Thanksgiving is, ideally, a time for us to express our gratitude for all the good things we have in life: family, kids, friends, food, our health, our communities, a steady job, the chance simply to be together.
I know that for many families, Black Friday is an annual ritual, a way to spend time together. I honor that. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply perverse about being thankful one day and, the very next day (or now even the very same day), jostling through seething masses of humanity to buy more mass-produced crap we don’t really need.
So what can we do?
Instead of mall-ing it up this Black Friday, consider these alternatives from Reclaim Democracy:
- Enjoy friends and family on Black Thursday/Friday and shop without the frenzy;
- Choose locally-owned independent businesses for your purchases when you do holiday shopping;
- Consider these ideas for Great Gifts Don’t Have to Be “Stuff,” almost all of which bypass the corporate production chain;
- Encourage friends and loved ones to make similar choices by planning other activities for Thursday and Friday;
…or in the spirit of the season, Sponsor a Striker by contributing to a solidarity fund to make up wages lost by Friday’s strikes.
And whatever you choose to do, have a Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you may spend it.
–Tom Emanuel is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center