Retail Giants, Consumerism and Thanksgiving: How Extending Black Friday Undermines Workers’ Rights

As more and more retail giants open their doors on the family holiday that used to be known as “Thanksgiving,” more Americans are ditching their families for what is now called “Grey Thursday”, or worse,  “Thanks For Shopping Day.”

The number of Americans shopping on Thanksgiving is increasing each year. An eye-popping 33 million Americans plan on shopping on Thanksgiving Thursday, according to the National Retail Federation – a huge ally of Walmart and other retail giants. A different poll conducted by the research firm Harris Interactive found nearly 1 in 7 admitted rushing through Thanksgiving dinner, skipping it entirely, or even blowing-off relatives, so they could shop.

But what these obsessed consumers don’t grasp is the fact that more and more low-paid retail workers are clocking in on Thanksgiving and well into Black Friday, offering these workers no time with family. On Thanksgiving day, Toys “R” Us will open at 5 pm, Best Buy at 6 pm, Target at 8 pm, and Macy’s will now open at 8 pm, breaking a 155-year tradition of not opening on the holiday. Even Burger King will be open.

The biggest corporate turkey this year has to be Kmart which is America’s third largest retailer behind Walmart and Target. Kmart is opening at 6 am on Thanksgiving and staying open 41 straight hours until 11 pm on Black Friday.

Kmart used to close its doors at 4 pm on Thanksgiving to allow employees several hours to be with family and friends. Kmart told Toward Freedom their decision is defensible because they’re staffing stores on Thanksgiving with seasonal temporaries and associates who allegedly volunteered to work.

“Kmart has opened at 6 am on Thanksgiving for shoppers for the last three years continuing a 22-year tradition of serving members and customers on Thanksgiving Day,” said Glennie Janssen, a spokesperson for Kmart. “With this in mind Kmart stores do their very best to staff with seasonal associates and those who are needed to work holidays.”

When asked whether she was working on Thanksgiving, or Kmart’s CEO and other corporate staff were working, Janssen refused to respond.

Usually the greediest and stingiest corporate turkey of the year is Walmart considering they employ the most in retail and pay them the least. But this year Walmart said it’s serving a turkey dinner to 1 million employees on Thanksgiving, which gives new meaning to the concept of a soup kitchen, especially if you consider the number of Walmart employees supported by some type of government subsidy or charity to get by.

Indeed, just this month in Canton, Ohio, Walmart associates held a food drive for other associates so they “can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” according to a placard near plastic bins.

Nevertheless, Walmart’s executive vice president Duncan Mac Naughton recently said with a straight face that associates are “really excited to work that day.”

Even so, there is a small group of Walmart associates helping to pushback on “Grey Thursday” and its gradual creep into Thanksgiving – and its exploitation of low-paid retail workers.

For several years now the United Food and Commercial Union (UFCW) has financially backed a drive to organize Walmart’s low-wage workers and target Black Friday for a day of protests and strikes. The UFCW has quietly convinced a small number of Walmart associates across the nation to form a non-union organization called OUR Walmart, or Organization United for Respect. They feel their cause to be historic as they speak out for a living wage and greater benefits. But they seek an even bigger concession, and it won’t cost the Waltons or their stockholders a cent – greater respect.

OUR Walmart is calling for an end to the disrespect and bullying of lower-tier associates. These associates often complain how their schedules fluctuate weekly from full-time to barely enough hours to put food on the table.

Thus, OUR Walmart is also calling for every associate to be paid a minimum of $25,000 a year. Coincidently, Walmart has been tooting their large horn in a nationwide commercial blitz by slapping themselves on the back for the number of Walmart associates making over $25,000 a year. The UFCW, however, says most of these associates are in management.

“These commercials are a direct response to the pressure and engagement put out by OUR Walmart,” says UFCW spokesperson Derek Plummer from the union’s Washington office. “This organization is growing every day, and when we first started, Walmart ignored us. But if you look at Walmart’s recent actions, they’re beginning to pay attention. The Walmart PR machine has been in overdrive in response to OUR Walmart.”

For two years a Walmart associate and a member of OUR Walmart from Kentucky has documented his workplace struggle on Facebook. Aaron “Reppin,” not his real last name, has put on the OUR Walmart signature lime-green shirt and picketed outside his Walmart on Black Friday and will do so again until he feels associates are not treated like second-class citizens.

“We have thousands of members,” claims Reppin who spends his vacations traveling with OUR Walmart on recruitment missions. “We are trying to get 100,000 workers signed up nationwide and all the UFCW locals and different organizations like Jobs with Justice are helping us out.”

Walmart of course is retaliating against OUR Walmart, says Reppin, as some members have been terminated or suspended. But most OUR Walmart members remain on the job as they’ve turned to regional National Labor Relations Board offices for protection. Just like union workers, non-union workers under labor laws cannot be disciplined for walking off the job when protesting conditions that fall under federal Unfair Labor Practices.

Even so, most Walmarts on Black Friday will not be picketed or flash mobbed by lime-green shirted Walmart associates near the checkout aisles. In Ohio, where Walmart has marginalized entire small towns, only one protest was listed on

A UFCW organizer whose region is in the Midwest said the UFCW only has so much reach and influence over a juggernaut such as Walmart, and perhaps a bigger challenge to overcome, is the appetite of the American consumer.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said the UFCW organizer who refused to offer his name for publication. “The labor movement is not what it used to be. Organizers and staff are spread thin. Unions don’t have the unlimited funds they used to have. It’s sad, it really is.”

Also see these related articles from Toward Freedom:

Walmart’s Summer of Discontent: Retail Empire Faces Worker Dissent in US and Bangladesh

Taking on a Giant: Walmart Workers Organize for Massive Black Friday Strike

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.