“A pretty high energy day” for employees. That’s how a Walmart executive described Thanksgiving after the corporation announced that this year’s “Black Friday” would begin on Thursday evening, leaving many of its workers (known as “associates”) unable to spend the holiday with family or friends.
Walmart’s wages and employment practices can rightfully be described as “Dickensian.” What, we wondered, would the Victorian author make of this latest development?
It was the night before Thanksgiving. Walmart’s top brass had assembled in the executive boardroom for a last celebration before heading home to their families. Amidst the din of laughter and chatter, nobody noticed the thin figure silhouetted in their doorway.
“I am a Walmart Associate,” the figure finally called out, “and I beg your pardon for the intrusion.”
The revelers stared in amazement. “A Happy Thanksgiving to you all!” added the shadowy Associate.
“Happy Thanksgiving? Happy Thanksgiving?!?” came an answering voice from inside the boardroom. “What right have you to be happy? Why would you be be happy? You’re poor.”
The stranger’s request.
“Why are you even here?” the shadowy figure was asked.
“I’ve come to request better wages and working conditions,” came the reply. The shocked silence was finally broken by the Chairman of the Board, one Mr. Rob Walton.
“Are there no food stamps?” Walton asked.
The figure stood silently.
“And housing subsidies for the poor?” he demanded. “Are they still in operation?”
The silhouette nodded its head.
“Medicaid is still in full vigor, then?”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop these government programs in their useful course,” said the Chairman. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“I, too, am glad that taxpayers are bearing the cost of our miserly wages,” added the company’s CEO.
A lesson in gratitude.
“I was hoping you would behave more wisely and kindly this holiday season,” the figure said. “You, sirs and madams, run the largest corporation in the nation, employing more than two million souls. Your behavior shapes the entire labor market, for good or for bad — “
“Then bad it will remain!” said a Board member to enthusiastic nods all around.
“We are proud to be the worst paying company in America!” said another Board member.
The figure stood, silent.
“And we did something for our employees. We held a food drive for you, so our customers could give you their charity while giving us our profits!”
“What is Thanksgiving, anyway?” another executive ruminated. “A time to be grateful for all that this land has given — “
” — to us!” another injected to general merriment.
“Do you understand, Associate?” said the first executive. “We will be thankful tomorrow. But you have nothing to be thankful for, therefore you have no reason to spend Thanksgiving with your family.”
The corporation’s humbug.
“You know what I said to a reporter?” said an executive who sounded like a salesman. “I said ‘Walmart associates are really excited to work that day.’ I really said that.”
“Good one!” another executive replied.
“Thanks! I even told the reporter that employees could decide for themselves whether to work on the holiday. But I didn’t tell them we’ve manipulated their hours so that they’ll be docked if they don’t work that day, or that we’ve rigged their work schedules so that they’ll make less than they should even if they do.
“I even said,” he added, “that employees who work on Thanksgiving will get 25 percent off on any single item they purchase.”
“As if our employees could afford anything valuable!”
“You out there!” a voice summoned imperiously. “Associate! Are you going to buy something expensive with your discount? A flat-screen TV, perhaps?”
“Food, sir,” the figure responded. “and barely enough for that.”
“Well, then,” came the answer, “you’ll have to learn to economize.”
“Economize?” the figure said gravely. “Do you believe in ‘family values’?” The assembled executives nodded.
“Then come, good people. Come, and see how your Associates’ families must spend the holiday!”
The ghost of Thanksgiving present.
The boardroom was suddenly shrouded in darkness. The executives and Board members found themselves looking in at a walk-in kitchen and dining area. The biting winds of a Chicago snowstorm slipped through the worn insulation around the apartment’s single window.
“Your mother and daddy will be home later,” a grandmother said to a crying child, “when the late shift ends.”
“More than seven million American children live in minimum-wage homes,” the figure told the executives. “That’s nearly one American child in ten.”
“I’m worried about their health,” the older woman said to herself. The figure turned to the people in the boardroom.
“Minimum-wage workers experience high levels of stress,” said the Associate, “especially when they’re also the parents of small children.”
An older child, a girl, walked into the room. “Where’s the turkey?” she asked. Her face fell at the sadness in the old woman’s eyes. “No turkey again this year,” she said with a sigh. “Will we at least have enough to eat tonight?”
“I hope so,” said the older woman, “if we’re careful.”
The figure turned toward the hushed assemblage in the boardroom. “A food bank here in Chicago found that 61 percent of Chicago’s working poor experience food insecurity,” the Associate said, “and figures like that are common all across the country.”
All around the great oak table, the executives hung their heads.
Our story concludes.
“So,” said the shadowy Associate, “can I count on all of you to have a change of heart, pay us a living wage, and give us back our holidays with our families?”
There was a moment of silence in the darkened boardroom. Then a voice rang out — it might have been the salesman, or the Chairman, or the CEO — and answered in a booming voice.
“Nah,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” another voice said.
“Stop bringing us down,” someone else chimed in. “We have parties to attend.”
The figure shook its head in disbelief. “You’re supposed to become somber,” it said, “and have a change of heart.”
“No way,” said the executives and Board members.
“But it worked for Scrooge.”
“Scrooge!” scoffed the CEO. ”We’re more bottom-line driven than that sentimental old softie. And he had to look his employees in the eye. We don’t… not usually.”
“Well, if all this human suffering doesn’t make you somber,” said the silhouette in the doorway, “maybe this will.” The silhouetted figure drew itself up to a full and commanding height.
A gasp arose in the boardroom as the figure vanished into the November night, its final words lingering in the crisp boardroom air:
“Look for us at Friday’s demonstrations. It’s going to be a pretty high energy day for us.”