Jeff Couillard: What if retail workers took a two-week break – starting on Black Friday?

mug-couillard-webIt’s that time of year when retail executives get excited about the kind of record profits they will be raking in from mid-November to the end of the year. Retailers have been pushing out their deals earlier and earlier so consumers have more and more choices to cash in on a “super” deal ahead of the mania that is Black Friday. As consumers we benefit from the expanded number of “savings” we can get, so why we would ever complain?

Maybe consumers won’t complain but take a look at who’s providing those goods and services so Johnny can have the latest cool toy for Christmas. They’re workers – laborers – putting in long hours for low pay and generally little to no benefits. Many are single parents forced to work 2 to 3 jobs in addition to collecting public assistance, who hope to be able to provide a decent holiday meal for their children.

The greatest barrier for these workers is almost none of them are organized. Richly compensated corporate lawyers take advantage of laws written by politicians who are bought and paid for by the same corporations. This system of “legal bondage” keeps the pay for most service-sector employees at or just above minimum wage, and it almost always prevents these same workers from ever having a chance to organize. The logic of how this actually works is beyond me, since on paper it is legal for workers to vote on whether they want to join or form a union. It is very ironic how the interpretation of different laws provides a mechanism for companies to systematically prevent workers from getting together and organizing without fear of employer retaliation – or termination.

What can workers do? They have to feed themselves and their families. They need to provide shelter and clothing for their families. Most don’t want to do anything “insubordinate” for fear of employer reprisals. Incidentally, Walmart actually includes propaganda about the evils and excesses of unions in their official orientation video. I remember watching it when I worked for Walmart as a temporary employee back in 2001. My guess is the anti-union message is still a part of the video.

Worker advocates, community organizers and other supporters can only do so much. In order to truly disrupt the machinery of big business, all non-management workers who work for large retail chains and restaurants should simply not show up to work the last week of November and the first week of December across Minnesota. Imagine the chaos and uncertainty this would create for corporate executives who wouldn’t possibly be able to make up the millions in lost revenue. Sure, the workers could be replaced but there’s no way new employees could be hired and trained to assist customers like seasoned professionals in the span of two weeks.

Maybe literally nothing getting done would finally demonstrate to corporate executives and corporate boards the value of labor. Maybe it would demonstrate that labor is more than an expendable commodity. Maybe – just maybe – it would be an inroad for long repressed workers to have a voice at the table again.

Something has to happen; otherwise, this country will truly be a country where 2 percent of the population has everything, and 98 percent of the population has nothing. It is painful to admit, but if things don’t change soon this will be the case in the U.S. before too long. I don’t want that future to become a reality for generations of Americans to come.

– Jeff Couillard is a member of Local 306 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He also serves as a delegate to the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and on the AFSCME Council 5 Executive Board.

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