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.






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