Editor's note: Judy Ancel is a labor educator and the director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute for Labor Studies. She hosts a weekly radio show, "The Heartland Labor Forum," on KKFI 90.1 FM, Kansas City Community Radio.
Kansas City, Missouri (CNN) -- Big-box stores are stealing Thanksgiving, and their workers aren't happy about it. After Target decreed that Black Friday would start at midnight Thanksgiving night and that employees must report to work at 11 p.m., an Omaha worker, Anthony Hardwick, posted a petition at Change.org asking the company to move the official start of Christmas shopping back to 5 a.m. Friday. Response from workers and others has been stellar: 192,000 signatures by Monday.
Best Buy will also be opening at midnight, so Rick Melaragni, a Tampa employee, posted a similar petition. It currently has 14,000 signatures.
Why did this hit such a nerve? Hardwick's petition says, "A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation -- all Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night's rest on Thanksgiving!" But he will have to cut out on the family to grab some sleep, because he'll be up all night working. Melaragni told The Huffington Post that Best Buy will be showing a Harry Potter movie to customers camped outside, so some employees will have to report to work by 8 p.m. to set up.
Walmart is the leader in this year's great race to gobble up employee turkey time. It announced its opening at 10 p.m. Thursday. Since two-thirds of Walmart's hourly workers are women, many will arrive exhausted after cooking the family feast.
Americans already work longer hours than in most countries, and as incomes shrink, lots of low-wage workers have multiple jobs. Many families' work schedules make it impossible to have weekends or even dinner together. That's why holidays provide the only opportunity for so many extended families to see each other. Our current obsession with corporate values, however, leaves no space for human values anymore. The just-in-time workforce means just no time for the family.
If these workers had unions, companies would have had to negotiate these schedule changes and a lot else too, but the retail giants hate unions worse than missing Black Friday. Just last summer, Target workers in Long Island tried unsuccessfully to get a union. Their last pay increase amounted to eight cents, according to the union. Target did all it could to get the no vote, including a veiled threat to close the store.
It's Walmart that sets the pace in union busting. One former employee told me that when Walmart found out he was trying to organize at his store in Texas, it assigned him his own personal supervisor, who stuck to him like glue.
A January 2011 report by Nelson Lichtenstein and Erin Johanson found that Walmart is also the leader in driving down wages and working conditions for the nation's 14.4 million retail workers. The median hourly retail wage is $10.58, which is considerably less than the median for all workers of $15.95. Without unions, workers have no leverage to get raises or even livable schedules.
But retailers say they can't help it. Shoppers are the ones demanding that workers sacrifice Thanksgiving. A Target spokeswoman says, "We have heard from our guests that they want to shop Target following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night." You'd think these box-full-of-billions retailers are just little mom-and-pop corner stores at the mercy of shoppers' whims when in fact the biggest eight of them control 85% of the general merchandise market.
A National Retail Federation representative says shoppers will "dedicate themselves manically to finding the best deal." Pitting shoppers against workers is much easier than looking into why shoppers sometimes act like mobs or why workers want some voice in their work lives. In fact, big-box shoppers and workers have a lot in common. Most are barely getting by.
A recent study of Walmart found that 28% of sales are to people making less than 200% of the federal poverty line ($44,100 in 2010 for a family of four) . Meanwhile, 22% of Walmart workers make less than $9 an hour, and 64% make less than $12. While some Black Friday shoppers may indeed be fixated on the cheapest new Nintendo game system, even more have to stretch their slim paychecks just to buy necessities for the family plus an occasional toy.
There are solutions. One retail employee, commenting at the Best Buy petition site, suggested that the company take out an ad and say it's giving Thanksgiving back, but it'll be open Friday and all weekend with great deals. Simple. Show some leadership, appeal to something besides greed and reverse the trend.
That study of Walmart showed that raising workers' minimum wage to $12 would have minimum impact on prices, even if Walmart passes all its increased costs on to consumers. It suggested that cities set minimum wages and standards for big-box stores. Some communities are passing community benefits agreements to set standards for big-box stores.
To get these things, and also long-overdue labor law reform, we need more workers willing to stand up like petitioners Hardwick and Melaragni and the Long Island Target workers, and we need consumers to recognize that they're workers, too, and that paying the lowest prices has a hidden cost for their children and our society. That cost is less opportunity for good jobs, more job offshoring and an ever-declining standard of living.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Judy Ancel.