Brave New World is one of my favorite novels because it portrays a very different kind of tyranny from the one found in Nazi Germany. I won’t spoil the book, but the theme of Huxley’s masterpiece is that our base desire for trivial distractions is a more powerful tyrant than any Austrian with a funny mustache. However, every year Black Friday comes, I am reminded how very close that Brave New World is to our own world.
The similarity appears to be growing as retail chain stores across the country have decided to open their Black Friday Sales on the previous Thursday night, on Thanksgiving. It is the ultimate irony that the holiday for being thankful for what one has is being used to buy more junk. I wonder if Walmart managers will understand the irony when their employees began striking this week.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and their subsidiary, OUR Walmart, have organized strikes in twelve states across the country in protest of Walmart management retaliation against workers seeking better working conditions. Walmart employees are part of a union because Walmart relies on about half a dozen temporary job agencies to fill the mega retail corporation’s employment needs. The first strikes have already begun in Southern California, where warehouse workers for a Walmart distribution contractor have protested the lack of safety and health equipment. Walmart has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; Walmart is demanding that the strikes be declared unlawful for disrupting business.
The basis of Walmart’s legal challenge to the strikes is that the National Labor Relations Act, the law which governs national disputes between employers and unions, prohibits picketing over thirty days if the workers protesting are seeking to be part of a union. The strikes, however, stem not from a desire for a union to represent the protesters, but for better working conditions and retaliation for requesting such conditions. Warehouse workers in California complain about heavy amounts of dust they have to breathe in as they unpack boxes from China for thirty hours a week. Retail store workers allege that Walmart managers often cut work hours when the employees ask for sick leave or time off to take final exams in college.
Fortunately for the protesters, the NLRB has declined to make a decision until after Thanksgiving. The strikes will continue through Walmart’s Black Thanksgiving sales (that was not a typo), although Walmart will likely call local law enforcement to keep the protests away from store fronts.
There has been much internet debate about which party has responsibility for unsafe working conditions or poor work hours. Some place the burden on the workers, nothing that workers are free to quit and find better work elsewhere. Likewise, if a person wishes to move out of retail, that person should either get more training to find a better job or start their own business. The opposite side of the debate point out that given the state of the current job market, finding another job may not be an option. And if Walmart management won’t reschedule a shift for finals, it would be hard to get the necessary degree to advance out of retail.
The law appears to place the burden on employers though. Laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act require employers to provide equipment and warnings for unsafe work areas. Given the power and information asymmetry in employer/employee relationships, the employer is typically the one holding all the cards in this relationship; therefore, it is the employer who should take responsibility. Employers often reap most of the benefits of controlling society’s resources, so they should be prepared to take on the costs as well. One of those costs should be taking care of the workers who harvest and distribute those resources.
Walmart is taking most of the heat for the upcoming Black Thanksgiving Weekend, but Target, K-MART and Kid’s R US are also participating in the early “celebrations.” Although working on holidays isn’t illegal, it does produce tension between management and lower-level employees. The American people ought to remember that capitalism, for all its competition and profit-driven margins, shares one essential trait with democracy: the people on the top depend on the masses to remain where they are. Just as voters put people in office, consumers are the ones who keep corporate executives wealthy.
An old friend of mine once shared this piece of wisdom with me, “At the end of their lives, most people don’t wish they could have made more money or purchased more stuff; their regrets are usually about family, friends or lost opportunities.” So this Thanksgiving, I plan to stay home with the family. I hope anyone who reads this will do the same. If we remember what Thanksgiving was suppose to be about, maybe we can avoid this Brave New World of trivial materialism.