Black Friday, the Waltons, and the Working Class

C/o Wikimedia
C/o Wikimedia

C/o Wikimedia

George H.W. Bush once hilariously declared that he would try to “strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” Bush was speaking, of course, about The Waltons, the television program about a family that struggled during the Great Depression, and not the Waltons, the folks behind Walmart and the wealthiest family in the world. But it would be nice if we could all be billionaires. The Simpsons are a one-income, blue collar, solidly middle class family. Clearly the Simpsons have become an anachronism.

Today, typical American families are more like the TV Waltons than at any time in recent memory. The median household income, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1989. Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with serious economic difficulty for at least part of their lives. America lost ten percent of its middle class jobs between 2000 and 2010. An entire generation has swallowed a lie and taken on crippling student debt. I could go on. But we have low, low prices; who would need anything more?

Apparently the workers in a Canton, Ohio Walmart, where a sign read “please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy a Thanksgiving Dinner.” Walmart has responded to the negative criticism and enlisted some employees in their unpersuasive public relations effort. One is reminded of propaganda featuring visibly anxious prisoners of war thanking their captors for their hospitality. The food drive may have been sad, but it was inspiring to see an act of solidarity and mutual aid in an environment where solidarity is a four letter word. Walmart’s dystopian response, however, reads like an editorial in Rodong Sinmum.

Black Friday, already an ugly phenomenon, has been creeping into Thanksgiving. Some retailers, to their credit, have managed to resist this trend. Erek Tinker of the Occupy movement summed it up when he remarked that “Thanksgiving is now a class based holiday.” The bosses enjoy nice meals with their families, while everyone else either works or clamors for bargains. Walmart, one of the retailers that was open this Thanksgiving day, has described Black Friday as “our day—our Superbowl.” It is no surprise, then, that OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart workers demanding respect and dignity,  promised 1,500 protests on Black Friday. OUR Walmart organized actions last year, too. As expected, management thugs did everything they could to stop the protests. The National Labor Relations Board issued a statement on November 18, condemning Walmart’s illegal decision to threaten workers with reprisal. According to the NLRB, Walmart “unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees.. in anticipation of or in response to employees’ other protected concerted activities.” One distinguished scholar describes Walmart as “the principal emporium at which Americans purchase the aforementioned prison- and slave-manufactured goods whose ‘outsourcing’ to China and elsewhere has thrown American labor out of decently paying work in the first place.”  The Walton family’s wealth is equal to that of 42% of Americans.

The Walton family has exploited a variety of legal loopholes to preserve their vast wealth across generations. Essentially, Sam Walton’s progeny have avoided paying estate taxes. This is how a recidivist drunk driver like Alice Walton can amass a thirty three billion dollar fortune while she spends her days participating in the movement to dismantle public education.

What is to be done? Is there a legal solution to this problem? These struggles are mostly a matter of organizing. This kind of change will not come from above. But closing tax loopholes and forcing the Waltons to pay their fair share would certainly help. So would protectionist trade policies. It would also help if labor law allowed the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to organize directly, rather than having to rely on non-union proxies.

Low prices, low wages, free trade, and shady supply chains have had a corrosive effect on American society. One family becomes unfathomably wealthy while everyone else becomes so poor that they either work on Thanksgiving or stand outside eagerly awaiting the opportunity to buy goods made by oppressed workers overseas. Maybe the low median income is part of the reason these sales are so enticing. One imagines that if they had their way, the Waltons would pay their employees in Walmart gift cards. I have a lot to be thankful for this year. It could have been much worse than outlining casebooks and eating a turkey sandwich.