Last year, for the first time ever, retail giant Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, decided to launch its annual Black Friday sale a day early, ensuring that more than a million of its workers were forced to spend their Thanksgiving holiday with crazed shoppers instead of with their families.
In what has become an annual Black Friday tradition, workers and labor organizers in more than 100 cities across America protested outside their local Walmart stores in response. Unlike years past, however, those rallies received international media coverage—largely due to the sympathetic news peg that companies were forcing workers to come in on Thanksgiving Day.
Yet despite the swath of the protests and the media coverage they received, last year’s actions did little to affect Walmart’s Black Friday bottom line.
“We don’t release specific sales numbers,” Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg tells TakePart, “but our Black Friday event last year put up the best numbers we’ve ever had.”
Lundberg says the company set internal records by selling 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions, and 250,000 bicycles. He adds that the notion of protesting Walmart’s Thanksgiving Black Friday sale somewhat mystifies him.
“Most of our stores are open 24 hours a day since 1988," Lundberg says. "We’re open every day except Christmas. So for us to be open on Thanksgiving is nothing new. If you’re looking for that can of cranberry on Thanksgiving morning, we want to be there to serve you.”
Walmart employees earn holiday pay when they work on Thanksgiving, and Lundberg suggests many of them are happy to earn the bigger paycheck. (Editor's Note: Imagine how happy they'd be with bigger paychecks year-round.)
Labor organizers with the advocacy group Jobs With Justice tell TakePart they plan to launch an even bigger Black Friday protest against Walmart this year. One hundred cities will be targeted, and in 10 of those cities, protesters are planning direct civil disobedience that will likely result in arrests.
A major question remains, however: If those protests aren’t hitting Walmart’s pocketbook, can they still make an impact?
Jobs With Justice campaign director Erica Smiley says they absolutely can. The point of the Black Friday action isn’t to launch a boycott against Walmart or ruin its Black Friday sales numbers—the point is to fight for higher wages and better treatment of workers year-round. Black Friday is simply the day that gets the most attention.
“We’re trying to reach workers, consumers, and families to let them know if we all come together, we can change this company’s practices,” says Smiley. “Black Friday is a way to reach a lot of people, let them know what’s happening, and request support as workers try to get the company to change.”
Smiley says that despite doing little to touch Walmart’s bottom line, the movement for higher pay and fair working conditions only gained momentum in the wake of last year’s Black Friday actions. Walmart workers didn’t limit their protests to Black Friday in 2013; they repeatedly rallied across the country for a minimum $25,000-a-year salary.
The movement spread from there. Over the summer, fast-food workers launched a widely publicized national strike to earn a $15 living wage.
Smiley says these efforts have seen results.
In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation raising the state’s minimum wage to $10—the highest in the nation. In early November, voters in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac passed a measure to raise the wages of airport-related workers to $15 an hour. The city of Seattle is now considering a blanket $15-an-hour minimum wage. Just this week, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer declared he intends to fight to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour, with subsequent automatic boosts tied to inflation.
Other efforts have targeted Walmart specifically.
The D.C. Council passed a living-wage bill in September specifically targeting big box employers like Walmart. The mayor vetoed the measure, but Smiley says advocates are fighting to revive the effort.
“I think that what we’ve been able to do in the past year since last Black Friday is demonstrate that this company, which many considered unbeatable, has shown some cracks in the armor,” says Smiley.
While she certainly understands the desire of many workers to earn extra holiday pay on Thanksgiving, Smiley says the whole point of the Black Friday protests is to win workers better pay all year-round, so they don’t have to make that sacrifice come holiday time.
“This isn’t a protest against Black Friday,” she says. “It’s a protest against exploiting workers.”