Policy: Labor

Macy’s joining Walmart on Thanksgiving energizes labor

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Labor unions,Labor,Walmart,Bloomberg News

Macy’s Inc., whose annual Manhattan parade is a cherished Thanksgiving tradition for millions, is starting a new holiday ritual: It’s asking its employees to show up for work.

Pressured by competition, a shorter shopping season and lackluster consumer spending, at least a dozen U.S. mega-retailers are opening for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, such as Macy’s, or opening earlier that day than in previous years. They are following Walmart Stores Inc., the largest U.S. employer, which has been open for business on Thanksgiving for more than 25 years.

“Another holiday bites the dust in favor of retailers,” Candace Corlett, president of New York consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, said in a Nov. 12 phone interview. “Our culture now is to shop, and to get the best deals. Thanksgiving as a day of rest was another culture, another time, not today.”

The expansion of hours will take more than a million employees away from their families during the holiday. Organized labor has been encouraging low-wage employees to join unions for years to stem membership losses, and now wants to use the Thanksgiving hours to encourage workers to band together to improve working conditions.

“It plays into the larger themes that we’ve been pushing around low-wage workers who don’t have a lot of job security,” Amaya Smith, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said in an interview. “Thanksgiving, Black Friday is one example of one holiday but throughout the year this is an ongoing issue. These workers need to have a voice on the job.”

The stores say they are simply giving shoppers, and employees, what they want. J.C. Penney and Kohl’s Corp. will join Macy’s opening for the first time on Thanksgiving.

Opponents of the holiday work schedules have online “Save Thanksgiving” petitions.

Martha Sellers, a Walmart cashier in Paramount, California, says she’s risked her job to protest for better pay and working conditions at the world’s largest retailer. Working on Thanksgiving Day only hardened her resolve.

“Workers are going to be in that store all day Thanksgiving,” Sellers, 55, said in an interview. “Walmart claims it’s such a family-oriented business and they’re taking away the family holidays.”

Walmart associates, as the store’s hourly employees are called, are given the option to be off on Thanksgiving or work for holiday pay, 25 percent good-in-December store discounts and free hot meals during breaks, said company spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.

“A lot of folks really enjoy it because of the benefits they get,” Buchanan said in an interview.

Sellers refuted that version.

“When you’re scheduled, you work or it’s a missed day,” Sellers said. “So many missed days and you’re fired.”

Holiday shifts at Macy’s, where some employees are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, will be staffed by people who volunteer to work and some temporary workers, according to Macy’s spokesman Jim Sluzewski. They will earn overtime pay and be provided with free meals.

“The difference between someone who has a union contract and doesn’t have a union contract is you have a voice in your schedule all the time,” Nicky Coolberth, a spokeswoman for the UFCW, said in an interview. “Is it really an option to not work if you don’t have a full-time schedule, if you’re only getting a few hours a week? It’s kind of a false choice.”

With shoppers expected to visit fewer stores this holiday, sales for November and December are projected to increase 2.4 percent from a year earlier, the smallest increase since 2009, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based researcher.

Expanding Thanksgiving Day hours pulls purchases forward from Black Friday, rather than driving additional sales, according to Pam Goodfellow, a director at Prosper Insights & Analytics, a Worthington, Ohio-based research firm.

“This year is going to be pivotal,” Goodfellow said in a phone interview. “Retailers that held back last year felt that they kind of got burned. You’ve got to be open when the consumers are out shopping.”

Our Walmart, an association of Walmart employees, said it will press the battle for better working conditions and higher pay in demonstrations on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

After holding protests at 1,200 Walmart stores last year, the group is promising acts of civil disobedience at 1,500 stores on Friday. Community organizations such as MoveOn.org, and Color of Change, a group representing African Americans’ economic interests, have pledged to join in.

“This is a battle of impressions,” Gary Chaison, a labor law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in an interview. “People may think poorly of Walmart but will they still work for it and will they still buy from it?”

The National Labor Relations Board said Nov. 18 that the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer has illegally disciplined workers for protesting pay and working conditions during the last year. Walmart “unlawfully threatened, disciplined and/or terminated employees” at stores in 13 states, a decision that could force the company to rehire workers with back pay.

The NLRB decision covers about 117 people who were fired or faced other penalties for taking part in protests on Black Friday last year and for joining a demonstration at the company’s shareholder meeting in June.

“We believe that our actions were legal,” Buchanan said.

The company also was ridiculed following a report that a Walmart in Canton, Ohio, was holding a food drive that asked employees to donate items so fellow associates could enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Helping co-workers facing hardship is part of the company’s culture, Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesman, told cleveland.com.

The story reinforced complaints that Walmart does not pay a living wage and prompted comedian Stephen Colbert to post on Twitter that “Some critics out there say @Walmart isn’t doing enough. They’re wrong, Walmart isn’t doing anything.”

Sellers, who regularly attends Our Walmart protests, plans to take part in Black Friday protests again this year.

“The company makes $17 billion in profits,” Sellers said. “They can afford to do better. We just have to keep fighting one day at a time until the customers are out here protesting with us.”

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