Black Friday is best known as the day when big-box retailers rake in money, but it has also become a time for some of their employees to demand a share of the proceeds. At Walmart, this year's Black Friday protests will be the widest-reaching ever, organizers say, with pickets and strikes planned at 1600 stores in 49 states to remind shoppers that the people serving them often can't afford to feed themselves.
"I have to depend on the government mostly," says Fatmata Jabbie, a 21-year-old single mother of two who earns $8.40 an hour working at a Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia. She makes ends meet with food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid. "Walmart should pay us $15 an hour and let us work full-time hours," she says. "That would change our lives. That would change our whole path. I wouldn't be dependent on government too much. I could buy clothes for my kids to wear."
The nation's largest employer, Walmart employs 1.4 million people, or 10 percent of all retail workers, and pulls in $16 billion in annual profits. Its largest stockholders—Christy, Jim, Alice, and S. Robson Walton—are the nation's wealthiest family, collectively worth $145 billion. Yet the company is notorious for paying poverty wages and using part-time schedules to avoid offering workers benefits. Last year, a report commissioned by Congressional Democrats found that each Walmart store costs taxpayers between 900,000 and $1.75 million per year because so many employees are forced to turn to government aid.
The group behind the Black Friday protests, the union-backed Organization for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) was founded in 2011 to pursue a new approach to improving labor conditions at the retail giant. Rather than try to overcome Walmart's union-busting tactics, OUR Walmart has focused on publicly shaming the company through a relentless PR campaign and mass demonstrations. Organizers say the approach is working: Since 2012, Walmart has instituted a new pregnancy policy and a scheduling policy that helps workers get more shifts.
Like the holiday retail season, this year's Walmart protests actually started before Black Friday. On Wednesday, Jabbie walked off her shift along with other workers who are demanding a $15 wage and full-time hours. Other Walmart workers walked off the job in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Here's what the strike looked like:
A strike this week at the Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia Jamie Way, OUR Walmart
"It felt great," Jabbie told me. "I feel like doing it over and over again until they get the message."
On Thanksgiving Day, 12 striking Walmart workers and community members began a 24-hour fast to protest wages so low they leave employees hungry.
Today thousands more workers will be at it again—and tweeting under the hashtag #WalmartStrikers. I'll be posting updates below.
UPDATE 3:06 a.m. EST: A protest is already underway at the Walmart store in Long Beach, California.
UPDATE 11:07 a.m. EST: On a press call with OUR Walmart, Shomari Lewis, a worker for a Walmart store in Dallas, said 100 picketing employees attempted to enter the store but were denied access. "I'm 32 and I am nowhere near where my parents were at this time in their lives," he said. "I thought getting a job a the nation's largest employer would be a great way to start a career, but boy, was I wrong." He makes around $9 an hour and can't afford a car. "I can't just go out and buy food during the pay period because I don't even know how much I'll have money for… I don't know how we are supposed to have families or raise them when Walmart is keeping us in poverty."
"We know that the Waltons can afford to pay us better," says Ronee Hinton, a Walmart employee who participated in a sit-down strike in Washington, DC, this morning. She gets paid $8.40 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week, and her schedule arbitrarily shifts "all the time." This forces her to choose "between going to a doctor's appointment and missing a shift at work," she says. "It's not a choice that I want to make especially now that I am expecting a baby… I don't know how I will raise a child on Walmart's pay."
At a Walmart in Los Angeles, community members and Walmart workers are continuing a 24-hour strike to protest the company's hunger wages. "The hunger I'm experiencing right now is all too familiar," says Richard Reynoso, a stocker at the store who hasn't eaten since yesterday. "Many Walmart workers experience it every day… [but] nobody who works for the richest company in America should ever experience that kind of thing."
Many of today's protests have a festive feel. There's a live band in DC, and a Santa Claus in Denver who will deliver coal to managers.
In Chicago, seven Walmart workers were arrested while blocking traffic on the road on front of the store.
In Washington State, there are protests at 64 stores—every store in the state.
Here are more protest scenes from around the country:
Michelle Flores thought she had everything worked out for Thanksgiving. The 20-year-old San Francisco State junior was planning to join friends this Thursday to make pineapple-crusted ham, a family favorite. But last Friday, the Safeway where Flores works as a part-time cashier informed her that she'd be expected to work during on the holiday. She reluctantly called her friends to cancel their Thanksgiving plans.
Flores is well acquainted with the stressful unpredictability of part-time work. Last semester, she found out just three days before her midterm exams that the supermarket expected her to work 30 hours that week, 25 percent more than what she typically put in. One night, she got off work at 9, made it home by 10, and had to study all night for a 9 a.m. exam. "I definitely would have done better if I'd had more sleep," she says. "Had I been notified sooner I could have studied more beforehand."
For millions of retail workers, similar disappointments are all too common. According to a recent study by Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, nearly half of young part-time retail employees receive their work schedules less than a week in advance. This is partly a symptom of retailers' increasing reliance on computerized "on call" scheduling systemsthat track weather predictions and real-time sales data to schedule work shifts—maximizing efficiency but wreaking havoc on workers' ability to manage their personal schedules.
But for Flores and 40,000 other retail workers in San Francisco, that's about to change. Yesterday, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed two lawsthat will sharply curtail "on call" scheduling at the city's major chain stores.
Nearly half of young part-time retail employees receive their work schedules less than a week in advance.
"We see this as one exciting way to address the inequality gap and pull low-wage workers out of poverty," says Gordon Mar, the executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco, a coalition of community and labor groups that has lobbied for the measures for more than a year. He sees them as important complements to San Francisco's new $15 minimum wage. While the wage is highest in the country, it still "isn't enough on its own to really create security for low-wage workers that are struggling to survive," says Mar.
The bills, known as the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, will make sweeping changes to how large service-industry employers hire, schedule, and retain their workforce. The new rules require employers to post worker schedules at least two weeks in advance. They discourage arbitrary or inconvenient "on call" shifts by requiring employers to pay workers when the shifts are canceled at the last minute, which can happen when real-time sales slow down. Employers are essentially banned from relying entirely on part-time workers, a common strategy to avoid paying benefits; they must now offer available shifts to existing employees before hiring new ones. And they must offer part-time workers the same opportunities for promotions, raises, and time off as full-time employees.
"It's really exciting to see San Francisco break ground on solutions for low-wage workers," says Carrie Gleason, the director of the Center for Popular Democracy's Fair Workweek Initiative. "The workweek has changed a lot in recent years, but the last time we legislated workplace standards on these issues was 75 years ago. It's long overdue that we set new standards."
More than five years into the recovery, the economy has added middle-class jobs much more slowly than part-time service positions such as cashiers and fast-food clerks. Consequently, since 2007, the number of part-time workers who'd like to work full-time positions has doubled. As Jodi Kantor reported in a gripping New York Times profile of a Starbucks barista, the shift towards part-time work and "on call" scheduling has had the effect of "injecting turbulence into parents' routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families."
"It's more convenient for them, without considering what is a better option for you."
Several states, including California and New York, already have "reporting pay" laws that require employers to pay workers extra if they send them home early from a shift. Last year, SeaTac, an airport town between Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, became the first in the country to require employers to offer additional hours to part-time workers before hiring new employees. But San Francisco's Worker Bill of Rights goes much further than these efforts, and labor organizers expect it to help catalyze similar worker rights laws elsewhere.
Jobs for Justice, the group that lobbied for the San Francisco bills, is pushing similar measures in the Washington, DC, and Boston. Minnesota and New York are consideringtighter regulations of "on call" shifts. Those two states and Michigan may also adopt laws that would bar employers from discriminating against part-time workers who request more stable schedules. The Service Employees International Union is pushing for a mandatory 30-hour workweek for security and janitorial workers in multiple states.
The Schedules That Work Act, introduced in this July in Congress by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), mirrors many of the provisions of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, including advance notice for shifts and pay for workers sent home early. Labor groups don't expect the bill or a companion measure in the Senate to pass, but see them as rallying points for other state and local legislation.
The new San Francisco laws go into effect seven months after the mayor signs them and apply to chain stores with more than 20 employees and 20 global locations. For Flores, the changes come as a relief, albeitnot soon enough to salvage her Turkey Day. The current system "does deteriorate your quality of life," she says. "It's more convenient for them, without considering what is a better option for you."
Remember the holiday formerly known as Thanksgiving? It had a pretty good run for about 390 years—until around 2011, when it began to be replaced with a shopping extravaganza. In the past few years, the traditional dividing line between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the official start of the holiday retail season, has blurred. At many major retail stores, this Thursday won't be a day of turkey and family time but a mad rush for XBoxes and iPhones. Here's how Black Friday's Thanksgiving creep became a full-blown takeover:
Wilson at a City Council meeting in February 2014.
Grand jury decides not to indict: The grand jury reviewing Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's case in St. Louis County announced on Monday night that Wilson will not be charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The decision came more than three months after Wilson shot and killed Brown, the unarmed black teenager whose death on August 9 triggered weeks of protests that included sporadic violence and looting.
Twelve jurors—nine whites and three African Americans—reviewed Wilson's case. Their decision continues a long-running pattern of police officers involved in fatal shootings going unprosecuted.
Brown family issues statement: Mike Brown's parents released a statement following the grand jury decision asking protesters keep their actions peaceful:
Restricted air space: The Federal Aviation Administration confirms to Mother Jones that it restricted air space over Ferguson at 10:15 p.m. local time "due to gunfire." The resrtiction was in effect from the surface to 3,000 feet above sea level (about 2,500 feet off the ground), so that's why some news feeds were still working above the area.
President Obama reacts: Shortly after 10pm Eastern time, the president spoke, urging a peaceful response to the news. "Michael Brown's parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes."
Attorney General issues statement: Attorney General Eric Holder has released the following statement, saying the federal investigation into the shooting is still ongoing. (Read more about the Department of Justice's investigation here):
In recent years, more and more big-box retailers have begun forcing their employees to work on Thanksgiving Day. Now, some Ohio state legislators have had enough. They're introducing bills that would give workers the right to refuse to punch in on Thanksgiving, and, if they do agree to show up on the holiday, to receive substantial overtime pay.
"Thanksgiving Day is supposed to be a day when we retreat from consumerism," says Cleveland's Democratic state Rep. Mike Foley, the author of one such bill. "It's a day when you hang out with your family, go play touch football, have a big turkey dinner, and complain about your crazy uncle or cousin—but you don't think about super blockbuster sales at Target."
Foley was inspired by news circulars advertising Thanksgiving Day sales. "My wife said, 'You're a legislator, do something about this.'"
Foley's House Bill 360 would allow stores to open on Turkey Day but ban them from retaliating against workers who opt to stay home with their families. Workers who do show up would be guaranteed triple wages—which would also apply on Black Friday if stores open earlier than normal (12:01 a.m. and earlier openings have become common).
Foley says he was inspired to write the bill last year while leafing through newspaper circulars advertising Thanksgiving Day sales. "My wife said, 'You're a legislator, do something about this,'" he recalls. "And I thought, 'Well, I am.'"
If employers want to treat Thanksgiving as "an opportunity to make money or get above the black line, so be it," say Democratic Rep. Robert Hagan, the bill's cosponsor. "But the fact still remains that they have that responsibility to take care of their workers."
In Middletown, Connecticut, Democratic state Rep. Matt Lesser has pledged to introduce a similar bill next year. "The idea is to discourage retailers" from opening on Thanksgiving, he told the Hartford Courant. "And if they do require their workers to come in on Thanksgiving, that they would at least be paid overtime to compensate."
Laws restricting Thanksgiving Day commerce aren't without precedent. For decades, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island have completely banned most retailers from opening their doors on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rules date back to colonial-era "blue laws" that restricted commercial activity on Sundays. More recently, some labor advocates have called for a federal blue law to protect Christmas and Thanksgiving. (Don't hold your breath).
Although the GOP likes to think of itself as the party of family values, Foley and Hagan say that the Republicans who control the Ohio Legislature want nothing to do with their Thanksgiving law. Their bill, first introduced last year, was quickly tabled. It's not expected to come up for a vote this year either. "They are on the side of the retailers, the restaurant owners, the people making the money, as opposed to working families," Hagan says. "That's the bottom line."
Still, the backlash against Turkey Day retail has gained some steam. The Boycott Black Thursday Facebook page has more than 100,000 likes. And more than two-dozen retail chains plan to stay dark on Thanksgiving this year, including Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dillard's, Nordstrom, GameStop, and Costco. "We don't believe that we will lose ground to competitors," GameStop president Tony Bartel told the New York Times. "Even if we lose ground to competitors, we are making it corporate principle—we have committed to associates that we will not open on Thanksgiving."