Black Friday: At What Cost to Workers?
By Victoria W. Ni
This Friday—Black Friday—marks the official start of the holiday shopping season. On the minds of retailers and shoppers alike is this question: “How low can you go?” Retailers want to know how to lower their prices and still make gobs of money. And shoppers want to know if those prices are as low as they’ll go.
But on my mind is how those low, low prices affect my clients, who are the workers who help bring retail goods to market. For workers in the retail supply chain, low prices come at a high cost—they drive down their take-home pay.
This year, workers in the supply chain are making their own preparations for Black Friday. Walmart workers are organizing walkouts at 1,600 stores across the country on Black Friday. They’re striking to protest their wages being so low that they can’t put a proper Thanksgiving meal on the table. And the truck drivers who help move imported goods from our ports to places like Walmart have walked out to protest being treated as “independent contractors” rather than what they really are—employees with rights to fair pay and treatment.
Discount prices on Black Friday (or, really, any other day) mean that corners have to be cut, and often it’s at the expense of the workers. Take my clients who are port truck drivers, for example. To cut costs, their bosses started labeling them independent contractors even though they were doing the same job they did as employees. Because of the label, they started getting paid by the load, rather than by the hour.
They didn’t get protections from employer-paid workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance. They didn’t get health care benefits or retirement plans. And they started to bear their bosses’ cost of doing business—they were forced to pay for the registration, insurance, taxes, fuel, maintenance, and tires for the trucks they drove, even though they didn’t actually own the trucks.
This means that after business costs are deducted from their paychecks, drivers are left with minimum wage or less for 50- to 60- hour workweeks, and are sometimes left with paychecks having a negative balance.
But our labor laws protect workers from this kind of exploitation. Hundreds of port truck drivers in L.A. and Long Beach have gone on strike to protest working conditions—more than once in this year alone. Hundreds have tried to enforce their legal rights by filing administrative claims of wage theft with the California Labor Commissioner.
In retaliation, companies have fired drivers and sued them to enforce contracts that supposedly say they must take any labor dispute to arbitration, a secret forum stacked in favor of the companies that would cost a driver thousands of dollars just to get a hearing. So we’re showing solidarity with the drivers on this Black Friday by helping them stay out of arbitration and keeping their grievances in the public domain, with this brief we just filed.
How will you mark the occasion of Black Friday?