Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping events of the year. We’ve all heard the stories of people stampeded, shot, and just generally the lack of humanity the shopping spree centered pseudo-holiday inspires. Despite the disappearance of the most outlandish examples from earlier years as shopping moves online, the disturbing effects might be less visible but are still egregious and while the ease is experienced from the side of the consumer the workers behind it are ever more distressed. The deals draw shoppers and in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, American retailers still saw over $9 billion dollars in sales. However it is built on the back of desperate exploitation. Over 180 million people shop on Black Friday, but the workers that make it all possible are rarely a part of the equation.
Black Friday’s mythology claims the day is so dubbed because it’s a day of significant sales that “bring businesses into the black.” Based on that notion there are some people who view the day as necessary for the economy, pushing businesses into profitability and also providing an opportunity for consumers to access reduced prices, bringing some gifts into the realm of affordability that might not otherwise be available. That’s the positive spin on Black Friday, but it’s the worst day of the year for effected workers and the money spent is not worth the real human cost. Especially when it’s manufactured – and could be more evenly spread out to account for a busier season, without cramming so much of it into a few days (or a few weeks rather). The workers are what make it all happen.
Millions of retail workers stock shelves, scan items, and just make the machine that is Black Friday turn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average wage of a retail worker is $14.87. Warehouse workers and those in the shipping industry make slightly more, but as we’ve seen in the current global supply chain crisis, many of those workers are severely underpaid as well. It’s not just about pay either, the hours these workers are forced to work to make this shipping and shopping possible are increasingly unsustainable. These are some of the most undervalued workers in our economy but are vital to make sure everybody can get their cheap consumer goods come Black Friday.
Something Has Got To Give
However these workers sit atop one of the most profitable days of the year for retail giants and they are at the mercy of the prospect of billions of dollars, and the consumers that drive it all. I’m not usually one to advocate “voting with your dollar” or just generally making the claim that unified consumer action can win political goals, but it does work in some cases, and the need for a boycott of Black Friday is clear. Many already defacto boycott the day, especially as it has bled over into Thanksgiving, justifying their opposition to the shopping experience as a general one in favor of the workers and more time with their families. We need a lot more of that if we are going to liberate wage workers from the hell that is Black Friday.
It might seem obvious to some on the left, of course those deals are just rank consumerism that puts workers last in almost every case. But to the broader public, Black Friday is viewed as a necessary evil, if it’s viewed negatively at all. According to a recent Harris poll some 70% of Americans choose to shop on Black Friday or the following weekend. Again, that is a weekend and shopping experience built on the back of ruthless exploitation, long hours worked by workers who should have the choice to be with their families, forced to sell goods created and distributed by some of the most exploited workers in the world. The focus should always be on the workers because to the extent people view Black Friday as necessary, it’s very important to force them to contend with the question, is it really worth the human cost?
That’s a question people are being forced to reckon with in terms of our access to cheap goods delivered quickly more generally. The exploitation present in places like Amazon fulfillment centers consistently makes headlines, detailing conditions that treat workers more like robots than people. Popular media mocks the omnipresent nature of Amazon, yet it becomes more and more ingrained into the bedrock of American consumption each year. Amazon’s Black Friday sales in 2020 illustrated exactly that, accounting for over half of total sales from that day, raking in over $4.8 billion. The exploitation of Amazon workers is clear, well documented, and on display for all to see, but that hasn’t stopped people from shopping there. The case against exploitation of workers should be made in earnest, alongside a labor movement fighting to change those very conditions. Until that is a reality, it’s morally unjustifiable to shop basically anywhere on Black Friday, but especially at Amazon.
It’s Not Just Amazon
That’s another point worth making, it’s not just Amazon. Black Friday is an institution and it’s not just the biggest most exploitative firms that give it its cultural status. Smaller businesses that open up and depend on the sales and traffic uphold the status quo as well and help create the myth that Black Friday is somehow necessary or beneficial for the economy. The sales made on that day are very real, the money spent is very real, the impact that has on the economy, also real, but what needs to be said is Black Friday is an economic construct that does not need to be stuck on one day, it’s a social creation that those smaller shops aid and abet in as well. This is a structural problem to the extent retailers and consumers both depend on it to make ends meet.
It’s not the only structural problem and the entire global supply chain that makes Black Friday function is immoral. Thanks to the US led international trade regime, international labor is some of the most exploited in the world, a deal that many American policymakers never question, allowing exploited labor with no protections to drive prices down. Workers on the shipping side of things are similarly taken advantage of, as illuminated by current supply chain issues. Truckers here in the United States are not paid for time waiting at port, effectively cutting their wages in half. Warehouse workers for retailers like Amazon and Walmart are pushed to the limit every hour and hyper-surveilled to ensure their production goals are met. And the Biden administration solution to supply chain issues is to make these workers work longer shifts to accommodate 24 hour operations. That’s egregious and inhumane, but it’s also the case that many workers in these same industries are similarly pressed without the pressure of supply chain issues, just to meet the ever growing demand for quickly delivered holiday season consumer goods.
These broader supply chain issues can’t be solved by simply refusing to shop on Black Friday and it will certainly take a broader multifaceted structural approach to make real headway in many of these areas. However, refusing to shop on Black Friday can ease up the industry for workers this time of year and make an already hectic few months a little better. It might not seem like a lot but taking all the stress of holiday shopping and condensing it to a few days of the year and subjecting millions of workers to it, doesn’t have to happen. They are already subjected to longer hours the unrealistic demands and added pressure of the holiday season, there’s no need to condense and amplify those horrors on Black Friday.