Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Are You Doing Black Friday?

Look, I won’t be one of those hectoring nags who insist that you not spend a dime this Friday or throughout the Holiday Season or else be guilty of murdering the planet and exposing yourself as a crass mammon worshiping materialist not fit for association with the righteous.  A lot of my fellow Unitarians Universalists already heard this from the pulpit, or can count on hearing it, perhaps repeatedly throughout the coming season.  The lingering Puritan within us sometimes finds its only true joy in wrapping austerity with sanctimony. 
I’m no fan of ostentation or of the crass commercialization of a festive and holy season.  But you needn’t outfit yourselves in sack cloth and ashes.  If you choose to honor those you love with some gifts that are within your ability to give and appropriate for the recipients, go ahead.  I won’t stop or scold you.
And sure, I would prefer that we all shop locally and support the mom and pop stores that lined Main Streets in the semi-mythical America of our imaginations.  As if all of those smiling merchants were paragons.  But, like it or not, in much of this country those local shopkeepers have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.  Many of the independent store that remain are specialty stores—great for knick-knacks, home d├ęcor, the odd and unique—but not where you can find that sweater for grandma or the electronic gizmo for your grandson.  So go ahead, go to the Mall if you have to.  Check out a big box store if you have to.  You have my permission.  Tell the nags in your life I gave it to you.
But whatever you do, you can at least avoid one malevolent chain.  Don’t shop at Wal-Mart.  Especially on Black Friday or the hours on Thanksgiving that they have opened for “your convenience.”
Wal-Mart is not the only bad actor.  But it is demonstrably the worst by virtue of its enormous size and its reach into almost every community in the country.  By itself its sales equal and surpass the gross national product of many sizable nations.  Its very presence in many towns and cities is what wiped out those shops we are so nostalgic for.  Its low, low prices have driven American consumer manufacturing nearly to the brink of extinction, and have enslaved workers in China and Third World Countries in grinding poverty, brutal exploitation, and dangerous conditions.  The same prices are also made possible by the parsimonious mistreatment of its own workers.
This year those workers are beginning to fight back.  And they really need your help.
The United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions have been trying to organize Wal-Mart workers for years.  They have been met by not only a stone wall of resistance, but a well oiled anti-labor machine quick to call in authorities to prevent leafleting or informational picketing at the stores carefully isolated by mass parking lots from public sidewalks and streets where some semblance of freedom of assembly and expression might be exercised.  That requires “associates” to attend anti-union meetings that amount to a combination of brainwashing and blatant intimidation.  Employees even suspected of union sympathy or associating with any one find their hours cut or purposefully re-assigned to times that conflict with family obligations, other employment, or school.  They are written up for the tiniest violation of policies and fired.  Relatives employed at the same stores are also subject to harassment and termination.  And, as happened once in Canada, a union wins a representation election, Wal-Mart simply closes the store entirely.
Added to the difficulties for organizers were rapid turn-over of employees, and the recession that made it harder for workers to dare to take actions that could lose them irreplaceable jobs.
Recently the UFCW and their progressive allies have taken a different approach, “backing two groups, OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, and waging a media campaign and mounting protests comprised of activists and Wal-Mart workers at stores and warehouses around the U.S.” as Bloomberg news service explains it to it business press subscribers,
The campaign has gained traction among Wal-Mart workers and attracted wide spread media attention.  It has even resulted in a spate of local strikes by workers at stores and in Wal-Mart chain-of-delivery operations demanding an end to harassment and punishment for union activity.
Although the company and the business press have dismissed these actions over the past few months as insignificant, they have breached the company’s image of invincibility.  Wide spread publicity has brought more workers on board across the country and has mobilized support through the social media of the broader pro-labor and progressive community
An announcement of nationwide strike action this Friday, November 23 and a consumer boycott literally struck terror into the heart of the empire.  The company has sought a preliminary injunction from the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union and its supportive groups of “violating federal labor laws by inappropriately picketing, demonstrating, trespassing on company property and intimidating customers and employees—or making threats to do those things.”  It seeks preemptive restrictions on basic freedom of speech that the NLRB is highly unlikely to grant.
The company also unexpectedly altered the time frame for their Black Friday sales.  It announced that stores across the country would open at 8 pm Thanksgiving evening in an attempt to circumvent planned strikes and demonstration and to lure customers with even deeper discounts as usual.
The business press smugly assumes that the tactic will succeed.  “Shoppers in the parking lot will say ‘Oh, that’s terrible—OK, where do I get my discounted electronics,’” Zev Eigen, an associate professor of labor law at Northwestern University was quoted as saying. “That’s one of the big challenges for the labor movement. We’ll sign online petitions, but we won’t vote with our wallets.”
Let’s prove him wrong.  Actions are being planned across the nation and more are being added almost by the hour. A partial, but far from complete list of announced actions can be found on the CANACTIONCENTER web page.  But you might find picket lines, demonstrations, and guerrilla leafleting popping up just about anywhere you find a Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club store, distribution center, or corporate offices. 
Keep your eyes.  Join if you can. It’s not even too late just to call up a few friends and hit the bricks in front of your local facility on your own. 
And when the dust settles, let’s make America’s leading family of plutocrats shaking in their boots.