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American Workers: From Bounty to Bleakness

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At the first Thanksgiving, there was no expression of the sentiment: “I built this feast by myself.” Native Americans sat side by side with pilgrims – religious leader by huntsman, chief by planter. They shared the bounty they’d all worked to create.

This Thanksgiving will be very different for too many American workers. They won’t share in the bounty they helped create. The perfect symbol of that is an Ohio Walmart placing bins in an employee-only area asking low-paid workers to donate Thanksgiving food to their low-paid colleagues.

The six Waltons who own Walmart are the richest family in the world. They’re worth $102.7 billion, more than America’s poorest 49 million families put together. The Waltons’ turkeys will be served with gold leaf on gold platters. By private chefs. On very, very private estates. There won’t be any Walmart greeters or cashiers or stock boys sitting side by side with Waltons at their opulent celebration of bounty. Meantime, the Waltons pay such poverty wages that Walmart workers can’t afford their own Thanksgiving meals. The Walton heirs’ gluttonous, aristocratic attitude betrays the promise of the New World.

It’s not unique to the Waltons, although they bear special responsibility as the nation’s largest private sector employer, one that made $15.7 billion last year.  Other highly profitable corporations, particularly fast food restaurants, also pay poverty wages to workers while handing to CEOs and stockholders virtually all of the benefits derived from front-line labor.

McDonald’s, like Walmart, is so immersed in this patrician philosophy that it offers its 700,000 U.S. workers clueless advice instead of decent wages. Earlier this year, McDonald’s provided workers with a budget to help them make ends meet on pittance pay. McDonald’s told them to take a second job, work 80 hours a week! Even then, the budget didn’t account for heating bills.

A raise would work much better for most workers. That’s exactly what McDonald’s gave its CEOs last year. It tripled the pay of its new and retiring CEOs. The new guy, Jim Skinner, now gets $27.7 million. That’ll buy a lot of turkeys.

Now, on the eve of Thanksgiving, McDonald’s has offered its workers some more advice – including breaking their food into small pieces so they’ll feel full after eating less. Good advice for workers who can’t afford a Happy Meal, let alone a turkey and trimmings.

Also, McDonald’s McResource site tells workers not to whine about their low wages and empty stomachs. Don’t worry, be happy, it warns: “Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining.”

Many McDonald’s workers are ignoring that counsel. Like Walmart workers, fast food workers are taking to the streets in strikes and protests. They want their employers, who are wealthy from the sweat of laborers, to share the bounty workers helped create.

The biggest single action by Walmart workers was last Black Friday – that big shopping day after Thanksgiving. Since then, Walmart workers have taken to the streets in increasing numbers across the nation.

Similarly, fast food workers began a wave of strikes last November in New York City, and those protests now have spread to 60 cities.

Participation takes valor from workers who can’t make it paycheck to paycheck. They know striking means risking everything. Many have suffered for demanding decent treatment.

Just last week, the Office of General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board found merit to allegations that Walmart unlawfully surveilled, threatened, punished or fired workers who engaged in legally protected strikes and protests in 14 states. Resolution for these workers could take years, however.