At 5:00 p.m. on most Thanksgivings, my family is just finishing dinner — aunts and uncles poking at the last strands of turkey on the platter and all of the kids jiggling pumpkin pie with their fingers or forks. It's during those precious waning moments of the meal when we finally stop eating that we get to talk, to catch up on our lives, share our triumphs and our troubles from the year, and really connect with the loved ones for whom we're most thankful.
But this year, around 5:00 p.m. in cities and towns across the United States, low-wage workers in retail jobs will be leaving their families heading to work — their holidays ruined by companies like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy that insist on starting their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving night.
It's true that these folks are fortunate to have found work during tough times. But unemployment across our country remains stubbornly high and is especially so among the low-income communities of color from which most large retail companies draw their staff. One of the most troubling phenomena of our slow but steady economic recovery is that the decent middle-class jobs we lost in the recession have been disproportionately replaced by low-wage jobs.
Large companies, especially retail giants like Walmart, have taken advantage of our temporary economic downturn to increase the permanent underclass of low-wage workers in America — where even those who work 60, 70, and sometimes 80 hours per week still don't earn enough to pay their bills and get by.
Walmart associates, for instance, earn an average of just $8.81 an hour. At Walmart's definition of "full-time," the equivalent of 34 hours per week of work, Walmart store associates earn just $15,500 per year, which means Walmart workers fall well below the poverty line, even further below that line if they're supporting children. The company even admitted that over two-thirds of its workforce is making less than $25,000 annually.
That's not just bad for those workers, it’s bad for every American taxpayer who ends up picking up the slack. A recent study by the House Education and the Workforce Committee found that taxpayers pick up the slack, subsidizing Medicaid and even food stamps for impoverished Walmart workers. In other words, taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart — the world's largest corporation, with over $500 billion in annual revenue — simply because Walmart refuses to pay its workers a living wage.
Last year, Walmart workers across the United States protested their poverty-level wages and horrid working conditions by walking out on the job. Walmart’s response? The company threatened workers involved in the demonstrations and fired more than 100 of them in stores around the country. Just last week, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that it will be pursuing a case against Walmart based on workers’ claims that the retaliation violated their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
The law is catching up with Walmart, and public sentiment is as well. Many feel that Walmart has also violated a core value of our nation — that a fair day's work should be recognized with a fair day's pay, one of the basic principles of hard work and economic opportunity on which our nation was founded.
The shift in our country’s economy and culture means that fewer and fewer working people enjoy stable schedules, decent benefits, and a career spent with an employer who respects hard work and commitment. Today, we’re governed by the relentless pursuit of profit by mega-corporations. And while there's nothing wrong with profit and private enterprise, the corporate bottom line cannot be the sole guiding principle of our society. It has quickly become a convenient excuse to mistreat workers and drive down the standard of living for too many Americans, all while increasing the incredible gulf between the very rich and the rest of us.
The truth is, corporations like Walmart can do well in America and also do good — turning a healthy profit while also providing basic wages and benefits to the workers who help create that success. Sure, Walmart workers are technically choosing to work on Thanksgiving — supposedly they could say no, although that would likely mean risking being fired altogether. But just because people will do something for money doesn't make it right. Walmart's low prices don't have to come with low moral standards too.
The evidence is everywhere. Major retailers like Costco pay a living wage to their sales associates. And companies liked Nordstrom and REI are respecting their workers and not opening until Black Friday. You too can help stand up for decent wages, fair treatment and protecting our real holiday traditions by supporting these retail workers this season and taking a moment to recognize that the lives — and livelihoods — behind these great bargains are worth celebrating too.
Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs with Justice, an organization leading the fight for workers' rights and an economy that benefits everyone.