The Dark Side of Black Friday: Low-Wage Workers Fight for Rights at Target and Walmart

After a decade of gradually taking the Thanksgiving holiday away from the lowest-paid employees, a backlash is finally rising against the American retail industry.

Using the crowd-sourcing power of, Target employee Anthony Hardwick of Nebraska started an online petition, Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving. Target, like many big-box stores, is making their employees come in at 11 pm on Thanksgiving.

The 29-year-old Hardwick and his petition have gone viral, as nearly 200,000 have signed-on, and it’s hard not to be stirred-up when you consider many Target cashiers make just $7.96 an hour.

Yet the Minneapolis-based Target responded to the petition saying the decision to make employees come in on Thanksgiving is all about their customers.

“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,” said spokesperson Molly Snyder in response to the petition. “By opening on midnight, we are making it easier for our guest to shop…when they want to shop.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) isn’t buying Target’s response.

“Ultimately, they are doing this for one thing – profits,” says UFCW spokesperson Nicky Coolberth.

Over the past decade, retail stores in America have gradually been opening earlier and earlier for the “Black Friday” pig out. The UFCW is now calling it “Black Thanksgiving”, and believes the down economy is forcing the retail industry to open on Thanksgiving Day instead of at the crack of dawn the following day.

It is a sign of the times: the retail industry is desperate to keep a handful of Scrooge-like shareholders in a greedy mood, while heartlessly denying hundreds-of-thousands of employees – many of them earning a low wage without benefits – time with the family.

Coolberth says many of the retailers strong-arming employees out of a holiday have one unfortunate thing in common; they’re not unionized.

“Target or Walmart employees have no control over their schedule on holidays. They don’t have control if the security at their store is substandard, for instance. Three years ago a Walmart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday,” Coolberth explained. “Unionized Macy’s workers in New York City actually have a say in whether they want to work on a holiday. They are guaranteed double-paid time or time-and-a-half, and have a say in making this premium wage. They have a say about their safety concerns.”

“The difference between these two situations is a union contract,” she told Toward Freedom. “When workers have some power, or at the least a path, a legal contract stipulating their rights and allowing them to air their concerns, they have some control. And when they don’t have that voice or power, Target has the gall to do this.”

Target of course isn’t the only corporation ruining Thanksgiving for workers. Walmart is opening at 10 pm on Thanksgiving, and their Sales Associates make roughly $9 an hour with no benefits. Old Navy is opening at midnight and many of their “Customer Experience Associates” make $6 an hour with no benefits. And then there’s Kmart, where the lucky cashiers who make $7.50 an hour and can work up to the entire day, as stores will be open from 6 am to 9 pm on Thanksgiving.

Other unions agree that if the slow degradation of unions could be reversed, and more workers unionize, they would at least have a chance against powerful forces.

Tim Burga is director of the Ohio AFL-CIO and he’s spent the last year battling an attempt to privatize many government workers and take away their union-earned right to collective bargaining, which essentially allows employees to band together so to negotiate wages, safety and hours. One of the most intimidating opponents Burga faced in this last fight was Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Kasich is pro-Wall Street, pro-business, pro-privatization, and anti-union. He once promised to “break the back of the of the state’s teacher union.” Earlier this year Kasich helped pass an Ohio law that curbed collective bargaining rights for the state’s public workers, even police and firefighters.

But Ohio unions, both private and public – including unions representing police, firefighters and teachers – quickly went on the attack. There are roughly 300,000 government employees in Ohio, but the union-led effort gathered 1.3 million signatures to put a referendum on this last election’s ballot.

The referendum to squash Governor Kasich’s anti-union law won by a landslide, as the Governor continuously sidestepped media questions such as: Why not help boost the wages, benefits and job security of private employees to match those of government employees?

Burga says if Target employees had the power of collective bargaining, they’d probably have the full day off on Thanksgiving. And the fact that Target is doing this is yet more evidence that corporate America and their bought-off politicians are aiming to keep the American worker down.

“[Kasich’s anti-union law] was part of a broader agenda of the super wealthy and corporate elite to gain control of the public policy agenda and to marginalize organized labor,” Burga said, asking, “For what purpose?” He explained: “To create a permanent low-wage workforce.”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.