Throwing light on Black Friday

By James Anderson

Shopping on Black Friday seems to have benefits, but it is not without problems. It seems to me the same holds true for rampant consumerism.

While we love always low prices, they always seem to come at a price.

Wal-Mart, whose ad slogan says something like that, I think, consistently rolls back prices, along with working conditions.

The one-stop shop for all your consumption needs – and for apparel produced in egregious conditions – has issues, from forced overtime to no pay for forced overtime.

Thankfully, Black Friday offers an escape for some. Sort of. One Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday in 2008, as were the paramedics that tried to help her. If the flimsy regard for human life in the quest for flimsy electronics amounts to a viable way forward, then Wal-Mart and Black Friday festivities can offer ephemeral happiness – or eternal rest for a few.

And around this time last year, Wal-Mart workers organized a nation-wide strike to protest low wages, excessive work hours without adequate compensation, too few work hours for full-time employees, poor working conditions and otherwise poor treatment from the company.

Former secretary of labor Robert Reich said the action last year gave employees an opportunity to air grievances that affect not only them – but the economy writ large.

“More broadly, the widening inequality reflected in the gap between the pay of Walmart workers and the returns to Walmart investors, including the Walton family, haunts the American economy,” he wrote.

A recent study shows that as workers continue to work harder and longer for less, with stagnant or declining living standards despite increased productivity, the Wal-Mart corporation, which employs more than a million US workers, turns a $17 billion annual profit. It spent $7.6 billion last year to buy back its own stock. This money could be redirected to pay employees a living wage of $25,000 per year, the study notes. Graduate Assistants and SIUC and elsewhere almost certainly could see the value in that, just as they certainly could see the value in being guaranteed an equivalent living wage themselves.

Another round of Black Friday protests at Wal-Mart are planned for this year.  The forthcoming demonstrations follow a viral image that circulated through cyber-space last week featuring a sign taped to a table that read: “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”

Wal-Mart stresses the gesture shows the company cares about its workers – just not enough to pay them enough to enjoy Thanksgiving. “But critics say it reveals the low wages Wal-Mart pays them,” as Amy Goodman reported.

One critic is a former Wal-Mart employee, Barbara Collins, who was terminated after participating in a Wal-Mart protest in June. Collins made $12.05 an hour after almost 8 years at Wal-Mart.

By contrast, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune control more wealth than the bottom 30 percent of Americans put together, as economist Sylvia Allegretto illustrates. Allegretto also illustrates the issue of growing inequality that drives many Black Friday protests.

Rampant inequality drove Tyrone Robinson, an activist with the UFCW-affiliated Our Walmart organization seeking to ensure all associates of the company are treated with respect and dignity, to walk out by himself of the Wal-Mart store he worked at on Chicago’s South Side last Thanksgiving in protest. And it drove him to protest in front of the Palmer House this past summer when the American Legislative Exchange Council held its 40th annual conference with hundreds of activists outside the hotel not exactly wishing them a happy anniversary, given ALEC’s anti-union agenda.

So Black Friday actions continue apace, but companies aren’t exactly sitting around napping after too much turkey. Wal-Mart, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, McDonald’s, Monsanto, Shell and others have been engaging in private surveillance work targeting non-profits involved in areas as diverse as social justice work and pesticide reform.

Whether this “Spooky Business” has any impact on business come Black Friday remains to be seen.

Drop the Shopping or Shop till You Drop?

In one sense, a Keynesian perspective could suggest increased demand and consumption – assuming enough of the population had substantial purchasing power and the extant wealth divide was flattened – on Black Friday (or whenever) would be a boon for the economy.

But perhaps we need to parse out the often abstract notion of what is good for the economy. Then, perhaps, we problematize the economy and labor to give us real food for thought to digest along with that Thanksgiving feast.   

If the stock market is up, business profits are soaring and revenues are through the roof, then the economy is considered healthy. But sometimes those economic indicators do not adequately indicate the health of the people for whom the relations of production, exchange and consumption are supposed to support.

Hence, a whole host of ideas have emerged to move from living and being based on market imperatives to emphasis on affective human relations of concrete useful doing not dictated by the dollar or the drive to buy more and more stuff, as awesome as some stuff – like the iPad with Retina Display tablet for just $499 at Wal-Mart come Friday – undoubtedly is.

Adbusters, an experimental group of artists and culture jammers, has a strong Buy Nothing Day campaign, promoting a post-consumer ethos. The global network entreats everyone the day after Thanksgiving to “go cold turkey on consumption for 24 hours,” as “you just might have an unexpected emancipatory epiphany!”

Most years, you can find the Reverend Billy, along with the Church of Stop Shopping, his activist performance group, preaching the gospel of economic justice in front of major department stores on Black Friday. The star of the new film, “What Would Jesus Buy?” might miss his gig this year, however, for a musical protest he staged outside of JP Morgan Chase Bank in Manhattan.

But the spirit of the Reverend’s message lives on. And there’s movement afoot to actually substitute massive buying and selling with something decentralized and more intimate.

More and more necessities of human life are met through the global economía solidaria (solidarity economy), wherein relations of exchange are not organized by constant accumulation or by the pursuit of profit, but through cooperative networks and horizontal relationships.

And as John Holloway wrote, “there has always been an ‘other labour movement,’” that seeks to assert a different, more meaningfully and socially self-determined type of doing to move beyond alienating abstract labor.

In fact, the drive toward self-determination is strong throughout the labor movement. People want to decide together what kind of concrete useful doing they do. They do not want the market deciding for them, especially in matters of public education.

The desire to democratically control productive work, have some say in the way our creative capacities are used and decide for ourselves – independent of exchange values – when we shall recognize our interdependency through consumption of goods extends beyond Black Friday. Emancipatory epiphanies and global solidarity are more than just your aunt’s odd-smelling cranberry sauce tacked on to the Thanksgiving meal.

Yet what about the pressing decision on whether or not to take advantage of those sweet Black Friday deals? After all, isn’t the best way to burn the calories from the previous day’s gorge fest to try to burn a hole in your wallet and work up a sweat swiping that plastic while sweating about your ever-deteriorating credit rating?

Trampling over people for pink Furbies is one way to try to lose that Thanksgiving weight – and possibly lose some teeth while suffering bumps and bruises. But, there are always alternatives, as discussed above. 

Whether you buy a lot or nothing this Friday, perhaps those alternatives are worth pondering.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.






Labor and Gender

Thanksgiving is laborious. At my house, my grandmother cooks from dawn until dusk where, the following day, she cleans up after the festivities. In my house, the divisions in labor were deeply gendered.  Although we may culturally imagine a world of gender equality, unfortunately, such imaginative practices ignore one important truth: labor is gendered and labor is not equal.  This becomes potently clear when leaving the table and entering the public spaces of Black Friday shopping.

genderlaborAlthough a quick glance around your local retail store like Wal-Mart or Target may reveal a seemingly equal amount of men and women workers, Sian Moore warns that there is still an “entrenched division of lobour [sic]” in the work place. Corporations or work places more generally place women in positions with high levels of what’s called “emotional labor.” This idea refers to jobs with more face-to-face or interpersonal interactions; thus, because women are seen as being “uniquely qualified” for these encounters, occupational norms place women in such positions. Ask yourself how might this limit work place success while continuing to relegate women to laborious positions that are devalued both monetarily and socially?

A deeper issue, sadly, is women lack recourse to resist such discrimination. In June of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart and against a class action suit of over 1 million women. The Supreme Court claimed that even if the 1 million women were correct in their assessment of gender-based discrimination, it did not implicate the corporation as a whole. Nine Martin argues, “the ruling upended decades of employment discrimination law and raised serious barriers to future large-scale discrimination cases of every kind.” In other words, not only are myths of gender equality false, discrimination based on gender have regressed. So as you buy your turkey and stock up on cheap electronics, ask yourself, who’s cooking and who’s cleaning up?


Meggie Mapes is a PhD student in the department of Speech Communication

Queer Labor on Black Friday

A fact: queer people of color (QPOC) disproportionately live in poverty. The populations that I identify with, align my politic with, and function in solidarity with are largely comprised of queer poor white and people of color. Said in a much more different and far more inclusive way: the bodies that constitute my communities are folks who do not pass as normative and as a result are often denied paid-work opportunities. In the neoliberal shift to homogenize the consumer experience, employers demand a seemingly amorphous workforce. “We” simply stand out too much. As a result, “we” sometimes turn to survival sex—you know, the practice of getting paid for sex because no one will hire you for socially respectable labor. As a queer body who has turned to survival sex in the past and whose primary partner is an adult film worker, I approach non-traditional paid labor practices with sensitivity and openness. I also continue to fight for sex work to be respected and unionized. However, that might be better suited for summer time writing.

loveUnlike the dominant representation of happy gay white men (who abhor femininity to be sure) who praise the repeal of DADT and the overturn of DOMA, “my” queer communities are excluded from (and resist) institutions of respectability like US military imperialism and marriage respectively. Why, you might wonder, do “we” reject these HRC-certified1 political items? Because they do little to progressively change our collective material realities and hardships. Yes, marriage may help those who already have access to material success (e.g., healthcare, inheritance, money, etc.) but it does not help those of us who do not have the same items to “pass” on to our loved ones. In fact, way back in 2010 President Obama signed a memorandum urging The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to reconsider its hospital visitation practices.2 As a result, DHHS now defines “visitors” as those designated by a patient: “including but not limited to a spouse, domestic partner (including a same-sex domestic partner), another family member, or a friend.”3 The ol’ argument that marriage equality will secure hospital visitation rights is no longer valid. What’s more, the patient can name “friends,” which opens the possibility to polyamorous relationships like my own and allowing multiple lovers in to a hospital space. At the same time, the repeal of DADT is productive in a number of ways. However, it ultimately grows the US military industrial complex and thus perpetuates Western imperialism. Some claim that the military was “their only choice” or “the only way of getting out.” I do not deny this. However, the queer politics that “we” fight for are a politic that broadens opportunities so that the military is never the only “choice” or the only “way of getting out.” A rhetorical question: how does this relate to Black Friday?

HRC, which defines (without “our” opinion) the mainstream US gay political schema, grades businesses for their inclusion of queers. This includes businesses that may temporarily hire queer poor white and people of color for seasonal holiday work. The HRC maintains a “corporate equality index.” The rhetorical belief follows: If I support corporations on the HRC list, then I am supporting equality for LGBT people. Right? Wrong. Of the items that the HRC measures, none of them account for economic justice or for organized labor potential.4 If you considered the HRC list, you’d have to also look into each of the hundreds of companies to see which ones promise organized labor. In addition, seasonal and/or temporary work—of which many queer bodies are able to access in the immediate moment—does not promise secure, long-term work. In short, the corporate equality index does little to improve the lives of those who need secure work and a living wage most. Those who are willing and able (nay, lack the choice otherwise) to work the holidays, including Black Friday, are those who need organized labor and economic justice most. Allow me to list some of the corporations that HRC recognizes with highest honors (a score of 100/100): American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Chevron, GameStop, JPMorgan Chase, Monsanto, and Morgan Stanley. These are only a couple of the hundreds of corporations. How can we, in good conscience, consider these evil corporations as beacons of justice? I simply do not. “Equality” is never enough. When I hear “equality” I cringe because I am unsure as to what it means and what it entails. Equality has become a buzzword that secures sales, and thus, profit. These are corporations, to be sure, who have no vested interest in the progress of my queer life. They only care about “being on the right side of history” in order to ensure profits. Until a “corporate equality index” accounts for economic justice I will not fall prey to its selling ploy to ease consumer guilt. So what do I do on Black Friday?

I am not demanding a boycott of Black Friday and all consumer practices. Nay, that is for another article. In this article, I am asking that we attend to the many nuances that define and distinguish “good” business practices. What sorts of bodies are hired? Where are the various bodies positioned in a given business (e.g., are queer, disabled, and/or bodies of color kept behind the scenes?)? Is the business itself temporary and thus boast no support for its staff? Is a living wage offered? And these are questions that apply to big box stores and local businesses alike. Admittedly, a large majority of my holiday shopping takes place online. I locate independent artists, crafters, and workers who sell (or trade) their goods and services. Those folks typically share my political beliefs. For instance, I locate shops on etsy that are owned and operated by queer people, people of color, disabled people, women, and others who might share some of my political commitments. I am not of the mind that we are able to stop big business. We can, however, continue revolutionary practices by becoming increasingly conscious of our consuming practices at as many levels as we can.

Benny LeMaster is a doctoral candidate in the department of Speech Communication


  1. HRC is an acronym for the Human Rights Campaign. HRC is the largest political action group lobbying on behalf of LGBT folks. Unfortunately, these efforts are largely not union friendly nor do they account for the most vulnerable queer populations in the US.

Saying “Just Stay at Home” Does Not Solve the Problem

As we approach November 29th, shoppers across the U.S. are looking forward to the blood-sport of Black Friday shopping. The day after, some will still be basking in the post-shopping glow of a deal well found while others will watch the antics of shoppers on the weekend news. This yearly performance will elicit the usual finger-wagging from political pundits who decry how selfish and consumerist we’ve all become. We, the audience, will nod sagely and promise never to shop on Black Friday again, a promise that will be kept for precisely 364 days.

retail-black-fridayAs a person who studies contemporary American life, I must say that the whole Black Friday experience is fascinating. It’s a ritual—like going to church or watching Sunday football—and it creates and sustains ideas about what we think is valuable and important. However, unlike political pundits on mainstream news, I’m not really interested in talking about how people who shop on Black Friday are terrible, selfish, or greedy. In fact, I think that although obviously people can choose to shop or not on Black Friday, most of the responsibility for the consumerist practices that we witness can be laid squarely at the feet of corporations.

Have you ever been in a fight? Maybe at a bar or at a late-night party? The last time I was in a fight was in high school. I was in off-season training for football, walking back with friends from the weight room. A guy walked behind me, continuing the daily ritual of calling me names and trying to trip me. One day, it was too much and I swung around and confronted him. We started smack-talking each other and, as the exchange grew more heated, the people around started yelling “fight, fight, FIGHT!” As the crowd cheered he pushed me. I regained my balance, threw a right hook, and knocked him to the ground. To this day, I remember people cheering as I stood over him.

Now, you may be asking “What does this have to do with Black Friday.” Just like I was responsible for hitting another student (and I have the detention slip to prove it!), shoppers are responsible for continuing the ritual of no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all shopping. On the other hand, the crowd is guilty of creating the social pressure to fight in the same way that corporations are guilty of spending millions of dollars to pressure shoppers into thinking that this is the “only” day to get a good deal. What if those students, instead of cheering, had stepped in and separated us? What if corporations, instead of whipping up shoppers into a frenzy with artificial claims of scarcity, had those deals for weeks, months, or (heaven forbid) year round?

This is why it’s so hard to do something about Black Friday. It’s easy to see the wrongness in throwing a punch, but so much more difficult to see the complicity of the crowd. That’s why saying “just don’t shop” doesn’t really fix the problem. It’s like saying “don’t hit another person.” I knew that it was wrong and (I’m assuming) the other boy knew it too. But we did it anyway, the ritual continued despite our knowledge because there’s always a crowd, always that social pressure to slug it out. And if it hadn’t been us, it would’ve been someone else. It always WILL be someone else until we do something about the crowd, about the corporations who continue to cheer us despite our broken bones and bare bank accounts.

So what can we do about it? As someone who does activist work on the behalf of the union, my answer is that we must cultivate better relationships with one another. Central to this claim is the idea that we cannot replace love with money, care with toys, or empathy with TVs. Instead, we must (re)recognize the love that we have for one another and, through that act, come to understand how we can find hope, faith, and meaning outside of the aisles of Wal-Mart or Target. Doing so won’t get rid of the crowd; instead, it will create a new one—a crowd based on peace, cooperation, and solidarity. Finding value in each other on Black Friday? That sounds like the best bargain for this holiday season.

C. Kyle Rudick is a doctoral candidate in the department of Speech Communication

GAU Gives Thanks

Those of us at Graduate Assistants United would like to offer our sincere and heartfelt thanks to all our members, your family and loved ones.  We are thankful for what you do to make our lives as GA’s a little bit better.

Please enjoy a safe and relaxing holiday break.  Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah!

With respect and thanks,

Matt Ryg, President

Union Election, Not NLRB Vote

By Scott Jaschik; published on 11/27/2014 at Inside Higher Ed.

Graduate teaching assistants at New York University could be represented by a union as early as next year, under a deal announced Tuesday afternoon.

Under the deal between NYU and the United Auto Workers, an election is expected next month on whether graduate teaching assistants would like to be represented by the UAW. If they vote yes, as is expected, NYU would become the first private university since 2005 with unionized TAs. Under the agreement, both sides agreed to withdraw a case currently before the National Labor Relations Board on the legal right of private university graduate students to unionize. That case had the potential to set a new precedent on the issue, which is currently governed by a 2004 ruling denying that right.

To read more click here.

GAU is seeking…

Graduate Assistants United is seeking a member-representative to the Illinois Education Association’s Political Action Committee for Education (IPACE).

The Higher Education Grassroots Political Action’s (GPA) goal is to keep members up to date on all government action that is going on in Springfield. 

The position calls for three weekend trips to Springfield, paid for by IPACE (Illinois Political Action Committee for Education) where the GPA receives the latest updates on educational issues and how our legislators vote on them.  Members recommend politicians and keep track of their voting records via our lobbyists.  

The position is for 6 years but a representative does not have to serve that long.  The GPA must be a member of IEA, and gets a $1000 stipend for travel expenses and a $900 budget for events they may want to sponsor. It is a lot of fun and the information is face paced.  The representative must attend Regional council meetings and give a monthly report. 

Contact GAU for more information.