Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

July 30, 2014

In The News

Outside Walmarts, that Black Friday cult hears an old hymnal

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted November 25, 2012


Sharing with loved ones and those less fortunate. Gifts as an expression of love. These are ingrained virtues for holidays and all year -- a human expression of community.

Such nobility also makes us vulnerable to impulse and greed. Profit-seekers charge in to take advantage. Marketers call it the “excitation factor” -- concocting a window of opportunity to goad that bull-rush for goodies, for one-time rewards that save a penny on that coveted electronic gadget assembled in Asia, for making your kids and teens the first on your block to parade the cutting edge in toys or clothes, to indulge the credit card and worry about payback later.

The phrase is borrowed from Hollywood’s “excitation factor” of causing early aggression at the box office. The dawn belatedly arrives -- all these movies will soon be available through cheaper, less exhausting means.

This one-day shopping frenzy – which retailers now routinely extend into all-nighters and weekenders -- is supposed to stir a steady buying spree throughout the holidays. But it has turned the Black Friday concept into a worrisome stampede and spiritual ritual.

These worshippers care not who falls under the cattle-like hordes or how fellow citizens may be exploited. Even if the consumers care, bargain ads insist they cannot afford to go slow. They are taught not to care enough to wait or to at least hold back.

This is the new cultural reality that underlies the Black Friday protests and their lingering aftermath. Forget Christianity. Black Friday shopping has become the new religion.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin recorded protesters outside the 27th St. Walmart in Milwaukee on Black Friday.

All this talk about economic justice and fairness for workers “just gets in the way,” one angry shopper at Walmart on Capitol Drive told me November 23, the day that workers walked out and community activists carried signs in support.

She in effect likened those who questioned her motives to infidels -- religious defilers storming the temple of the free market.

She is not alone in worshipping Black Friday as a higher will necessity. Her almost biblical view does not reflect what a legion of moderate economic ministers quietly point out – there are far more efficient methods to find bargains, to create savings and move the economy forward.

Black Friday now has institutional religiosity. The mall has become the church, synagogue or temple of devotion. While protesters felt they had virtue and humanity on their side, there were mobs of shoppers who, rather than whipping the money-changers out of the temple, were flocking to these temples to find the vendors.

The protests certainly had a more traditional spiritual appeal to human dignity. And while the protests didn’t reach the proportions sought – mass walkouts by workers at 1,000 Walmart stores – they did impede shopping at dozens upon dozens of normally profitable Walmart outlets even when workers knew they faced outright firing.

The movement led by OUR Walmart and other non-union workers supported by community activists and aided in organizational skill by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) were sizable enough to leave dumbstruck and sounding silly all those cheerful executive faces Walmart made available to TV cameras to assure the world of hungry shoppers the protest was having no impact. Not just anecdotes but videos from around the nation gave the lie to their statements as they made them, with blocks upon blocks of protesters around the nation wearing distinctive lime green shirts or sporting ant-Walmart banners.

Some shoppers halted. Some flinched and kept going, reflecting how deeply the new religion has developed cult status.

In the Milwaukee area, the protests began at 6 a.m. at the Walmart store at 5825 W. Hope Ave. with 100 protesters and religious leaders in numbing cold scrutinized for “infidels” by a half-dozen police vans and a squad of Walmart managers and lawyers. This was followed by protests and marches at the stores at 401 E. Capitol Drive and 3355 S. 27th St., followed by protests in Kenosha and then radiating across Wisconsin all that Friday November 23.

Despite Walmart corporate statements given full play by establishment media – well, of course, they had to be nice to one of their largest advertising accounts -- workers by the hundreds walked out at stores in Dallas; San Leandro, Calif.; Clovis, N.M. and also in groups at Ocean City, Md., Orlando, Quincy, Ma., and Baton Rouge, La., according to news outlets with video cameras. More than 70 walked out of Los Angeles stores. In the Midwest, workers paid $12 an hour (some had worked eight years to reach that level) openly defied managers to suspend them. In Maryland and Florida, hundreds of union workers wearing "OUR Walmart" T-shirts marched with “Associates” outside stores. OUR stands for "Organization United for Respect."

Some shoppers stayed home rather than deal with the protests – but scads of others, most choosing outlets not targeted, spurred Black Friday. The determined at Walmart -- still seeking to save $10 on an Asian electronics product or a dollar on Mexican-made diapers, ducked their heads and ignored the protesters . . . even if they sympathized. This is the pain of the new religion – the buck trumps the recognition of rights.

Will this over time unfold into an inescapable corrective, assaulting the new shopping cult? Initial figures aside from orchestrated TV news reports indicate that Black Friday sales were percentage points and millions of dollars lower than previous years, even at a time when the economy and jobs are rising and consumer confidence is back.

“This is only the opening salvo,” one community organizer in Wisconsin told me, supplying some numbers. “It went well, but let’s not pretend it won’t take time and steady pressure to make Americans grow up about shopping and so-called bargains won on the backs of fellow citizens and provided by sweatshops around the world.”

Yet Walmart corporate policies still prioritize profit over the rights of their employees -- to the point that company spokesmen can no longer tell truths that conflict with the sales pitch.

The pitch is military style compulsory meetings around the opening bell at stores.

Or distrusting employees’ own ideas about helping customers or staffing deep enough to offer help.

Or retaliating against independent thinkers.

Or refusing the organized voice at work because headquarters in Arkansas has better ideas, though sales experts note that such union friendly stores as Target, Kohl’s and Costco are actually doing better.

Walmart pioneered in a distribution and sales code methodology. Its stores are the mere tip of an iceberg of warehouses and a transportation networks speeding products, many made overseas and rip-offs of US intellectual property. Internationally its operations have forced the company to admit violation of Walmart “ethical standards” because those executives engaged in bribery and corruption in Mexico, South America and Asia.

(Forced hours, minimal pay and corporate insulation to worker input are not the only reflection of homeland “ethics” at Walmart, which announced in November it’s imposing a 36% increase in employees’ share of health care premium costs, while further restricting eligibility for health insurance.)

The Walton heirs – who fill the 6th to 9th list of America’s richest citizens and hold more billions than the lower 40% of Americans combined -- also heavily fund right-wing causes both national and local. That touches on the considerable cash clout that rolls Walmart merrily along in American politics. Such wealth also lends credence when Walmart argues that people attempting to expose its behavior will have no more impact than ants trying to move a boulder.

Walmart commands so much advertising money, the company actually doesn’t have to rely on the truth. It can count on its biggest customer, establishment media, to swallow its statements. At one time, the journalist side of newspapers, radio and TV would not let this revenue stream affect objective coverage. Editors would insist on the separation between news gathering and advertising. But no more.

Thus there were unquestioning reports in the media before and after Thanksgiving that pooh-poohed the impact of the walkouts on the bottom-line. It was an advance offense to assure the shopping public that no more “Walmart Associates” (the euphemism for those grim greeters, abused retirees and low-paid overworked minions) would fail to show up for work than reflected in the 2011 “sick call.” It was a falsehood by hundreds.

The company also said midday Black Friday was its best in history. It will actually take months of analyzing amounts of sales, not just number of sales, for any retailer to know. What is clear is that Internet-only outlets flourished, that many shoppers sought ways to avoid the crowd and the criticisms. What is also clear is that motivated crowds of Walmart workers walked out, joined by many community activists and determined consumers seeking another way.

There are many reasons the holiday sales season will do well – some of it centered on belief in the positive America that helped Obama win the presidency again. Hiring has increased beyond a seasonal boom. Acquiring wealth is not as vital as helping the nation with fair share. Obamacare is the law. Consumer confidence is soaring. Citizens are clearly more in a buying mood – but actually more conscious of environmental issues, local organic appeal and other trends that large retailers including Walmart are struggling to be a part of.

There are strong indicators that the public has become alert to the issues and this is changing behavior if more slowly than many progressives want.

Walmart workers were not alone in anger over Black Friday tactics in a retail industry that so far has thrived on competitiveness and low pay coercion. In American society, almost 70% of economic activity is represented by consumer buying, which gives retailers a lot of power in a struggling economy.

Protests also broke out among better paid (but still low paid) unionized workers at Target, when that company decided to compete with Walmart by opening shopping on Thanksgiving eve, spoiling family plans for thousands of employees. Employees at retail outlets began protest petitions online in response.

As told to Union News Service editor Mark Gruenberg, Wal-Mart’s Thanksgiving opening so angered one company worker, Mary Pat Tifft, a 24-year employee from Kenosha, that she got 31,000 supporters to join her online protest in one day.

“My son is coming home from (military service in) Afghanistan for the holiday,” Tifft said. “I would have been devastated if scheduled to work. I see the disappointment and heartbreak in the eyes of my co-workers.”

The Walmart protesters sought to put moral justice and fairness before the shopping faithful. They did succeed in putting fear in the company’s eyes.

Walmart concern was reflected not only in those overly confident media reports but also in running to the NLRB to try to prevent the walkouts from happening. It demanded an injunction knowing few journalists in their thrall would report what a wild stretch the complaint was and how the NLRB does not like to be stampeded by either side and will weigh the legalities in due course.

Walmart argued that all this folderol was a UFCW stalking horse to force recognition of that union, claiming OUR Walmart and all the other angry worker groups were representational pawns of UFCW rather than workers determined to use every avenue to improve pay and working conditions. Weirdly after years of ignoring the union, Walmart was treating UFCW as a giant – and also as its master headache though civil rights lawyers and federal attorneys for decades had been attacking the company’s hiring methods and sex discrimination practices.

The NLRB refused to bite on the company’s long animus toward the UFCW, which included closing a Quebec store that voted to unionize. In fact, many in the protesting groups are technically not Walmart employees since the company uses temp agencies to staff its warehouses. There they pay minimum wage in remote locales, fire workers who complain, use an endless pool of available strong backs to haul boxes. (In one recent case where warehouse workers complained, Walmart was forced for provide water for workers at a desert facility, but only at the minimum state law demanded, hardly a sign of generosity by management.)

Remember, too, why Walmart does pay one group of its workers well – the truck drivers who busily transport goods from ports and warehouses to the stores. Their benefits and pay exceed those offered by the Teamsters and have for decades. This was Walmart’s strategy to keep the powerful Teamsters union out and retain an essential experienced workforce.

In the current surplus labor market, where human beings are cheap resources, Walmart is not forced to provide good pay and benefits for Associates – until the shopping congregants wake up to ask why those ushers at their New Church look so cowed and grim.

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