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Walmart’s Hunger Games

Unlike previous Hunger Game Black Fridays, this time the working poor are fighting back.

Black Friday at Walmart, November 24, 2011. (Photo: George Artwood / flickr)

Every year after Thanksgiving, the nation’s wealthy elite, still fat-bellied from turkey and cornbread stuffing, tune in to their local news outlets and observe what has become an annual tradition of bloodletting and frenzied consumerism.

We call it “Black Friday.” But to those like the Walmart heirs who together own more wealth than the bottom 40% of the nation combined, it might as well be called their very own “Hunger Games.”

It’s their stores, after all, that play host to this one-day battle – waged by poor and working class people – to get discounted appliances, clothes, and toys for their kids.

Like Suzanne Collins’ dystopic future portrayed in The Hunger Games, in which impoverished teenagers battle each other to the death once a year for the amusement of Panem’s wealth elite, Black Friday “Battle Royales” often end in death as well. In just the last few years, we’ve seen shoppers and retail workers shot to death, trampled to death, pepper-sprayed, bitten, punched, and kicked, all in their pursuit for Black Friday shopping deals.

This year was no different. Two people were shot outside a Walmart in Tallahassee, Florida. Another two people were run down by a car in a Walmart parking lot in Covington, Washington. And at a Sears store in San Antonio, Texas, one man punched his way to the front of the line only to have a gun pulled on him by another man.

Every year around this time the phrase, “clean up on aisle five,” takes on a much more disturbing meaning.

All while the wealthy elite look down on the spectacle before them with amusement and the knowledge that the entire spectacle is fattening their bank accounts.

This Black Friday “Hunger Game” is a relatively new phenomenon. Though the term has existed since the 1960’s, mostly used by factory managers referring to the number of workers who called in sick after Thanksgiving, it was in the 1980’s that retail outlets co-opted it after noticing how their balance sheets would be awash in black ink at the end of that Friday – which was considered the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season.

After years of relentless marketing to lure shoppers to their stores for bargain prices, Black Friday officially became the number one busiest shopping day of the year in 2005. That year, nearly half the nation, more than 140 million Americans, went shopping on Black Friday. This year, that number swelled to more than 240 million Americans participating in the stampeding chaos.

But to blame the rise of Black Friday on effective marketing is to miss half the story. Black Friday, in reality, is a symptom of the plight that thirty years of Reaganomics has brought to working people in America.

Coinciding with the frenzied rise of shoppers willing to fight each other in retail outlets across America, we’ve seen the destruction of labor unions. Where a third of the workforce was unionized just two generations ago, only a tenth is today. Alongside the drop in unionization rates, the middle class’ share of national income has dropped off significantly, as reflected in their wages. Adjusted for inflation, in 1988 (before Black Friday was in its modern form) the average American worker made $33,400. By 2008 (with Black Friday taking off), the average American worker was actually making less – bringing home just $33,000 a year – while virtually every cost of living borne by the working class, from housing to food to pharmaceuticals have risen.

All the while, the wealthy elite, the top 1%, have seen their incomes rise 275% since 1979.

With declining wages, more and more working Americans have to make tough choices: Christmas presents or the heating bill?

And that’s where the retail giants stepped in. The retail industry, which employs more than a third of the nation’s low-wage workers, created Black Friday with a promise that shoppers can save big if they hit the stores on one special day (although several studies have shown that shoppers can actually get better deals on different days). The only thing shoppers have left is to enter themselves into Walmart’s “Hunger Game,” where they literally claw and bite each other to get one of those 40% off kitchen appliances.

With only “limited quantities available” (the eternal asterisk for so many advertised deals), and thousands of people waiting in line outside, then the message given to the young warriors in the Hunger Games applies to the shoppers readying themselves for the mad dash to the Kitchenware section: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

But to the 50 million Americans in poverty and the fifth of the nation living in economic insecurity, what other choice is there if they want their kids to have a Christmas comparable to the one their more fortunate classmates have?

We have Black Friday today because the wealthy elite have strangled their workers for three decades. TIME magazine in 1966 saw a future of rising productivity thanks to machines, and thus rising wages for workers, and suggested that a “Leisure Society” was on the horizon in which Americans would be working fewer hours yet earning larger paychecks. It was calculated that the average worker would be taking home somewhere between $100,000 and $120,000 a year by 2000.

And sure enough, productivity did increase significantly, just as the TIME magazine article predicted. Unfortunately, all the extra wealth created by that productivity boom was pocketed by corporate executives instead of being shared with all the workers. Thus the “Black Friday” “Hunger Games.”

It’s fair to assume that Americans earning six figures or more are far less likely to pull guns on each other at Walmart just to grab a handful of buy-one-get-one-free DVDs.

But unlike previous Hunger Game Black Fridays, this time the working poor are fighting back. Right alongside frenzied low-wage shoppers, our nation saw striking workers and activists demanding higher wages. In more than 100 cities in 46 states, hundreds of Walmart employees walked off the job, and were joined by thousands of supporters to raise awareness of Walmart’s low-wage, low-benefit work environment.

At one store in Paramount, California as many as 600 protesters showed up. And at another store in Hanover, Maryland 400 store employees, union workers, and activists joined together to speak out against Walmart.

This is the movement that could put an end to the Black Friday horrors that Americans watch every year. It’s time to give the desperate working poor in this country a ladder of high wages, benefits, and union representation so they can climb back into the middle class and find economic security once again.

No more post-Thanksgiving Hunger Games in America.

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