Forget the stampeding shoppers, the half-priced waffle irons, or the pepper spray wielding wackos: barring a federal intervention, the main event this Black Friday could turn out to be a showdown between organized labor and its arch corporate nemesis, Wal-Mart.
After organizing the first retail workers' strikes in the company's 50-year history last month, a union-backed group has promised to lead work stoppages and demonstrations at Wal-Mart stores around the country this holiday weekend in protest of its famously aggressive labor practices. Nobody truly knows how big the turnout will be, or if even more than a handful of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million U.S. employees will actually walk off the job. We might witness something historic, or we might witness a sideshow that shoppers ignore while brawling for bargains. Either way, the threat has made Wal-Mart nervous enough to ask the National Labor Relations Board for an injunction stopping the protests. Should they go on, they will be a test of whether, after years of failing to organize the country's largest employer, labor groups still have the wherewithal to take it on.
To put these figures in perspective, the federal poverty line for a family of three is $19,090. You would have to work 40 hours a week, every week of the year at Best Buy to clear that figure. Since about 42 percent of low-wage retail employees at large companies only work part time, according to a recent study by Demos, it's not a surprise that about a quarter of them live in or near full poverty.
The problem at Wal-Mart isn't simply that it's stingy with workers. The company has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle claims that it denied workers pay and benefits, for instance by forcing them to work through breaks. But we shouldn't pretend that it is a singularly malign influence anymore when it comes to wages.