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Occupy Black Friday, says Laurie Penny

The yearly sales are a short-term sugar rush, in a world where true security is impossible.

Discount shoppers are not the 1% - and activists must remind them that another world is possible.

It's 1am on a Friday morning, and all over America, as the country jerks and plunges towards economic calamity, people are fighting each other over cheap chocolates and discount shoes. This is Black Friday, an annual festival of cultish consumerism with some shops marking down their wares to 50 per cent, and it is as much a part of the Thanksgiving holiday as cranberry sauce and football.

This year Black Friday has started earlier than ever -- just after midnight in some cities. People pitch tents and queue outside their shopping temple of choice for hours. This is one unauthorised public camping party that city officials like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are happy to indulge, despite the fact that in previous years people have died in stampedes to get into major stores. So much for health and safety concerns.

Outside Macy's, the New York department store, a handful of protesters from Occupy Wall Street have attempted to "Occupy Black Friday": standing in front of the main doors to block the queue before being moved along by security, chanting "shame!" and "stop shopping!" at the throngs of people rushing into the store. "We stopped Black Friday!", one of them tells me. "We won!"

It is unlikely, however, that the people queuing outside Macy's all night in the hopes of getting their hands on a half-price handbag are members of the "one per cent". The one per cent don't have to wait in the cold or shop in sales to get pointless bits of flashy kit. The thousands of people who surge into Macy's after the doors open, flocking excitedly around racks of belts and bags festooned with teasing red stickers that suggest people on an average wage might just about be able to afford them -- those people are not Senators, bank directors or hedge fund managers. They are office workers and small business owners and tourists and temps and teachers. They are the American middle class, and countless thousands of them are prepared to stay up all night during their precious holidays and enter the special circle of hell that is sales shopping. Yes, it is somewhat galling to those who have begun to invest time and energy in building a ground-up anti-corporate counter-culture that so many human beings can be roused from their beds for shopping, when they might be striking or occupying a major urban thoroughfare. One suspects, however, that the required level of socio-economic consciousness-raising will not be achieved by twenty activists with the look of people who have been sleeping outdoors for most of the past two months, shouting at them in the street.

There are a lot of lazy metaphors I could use to describe the organised chaos inside Macy's. I could talk about the shoppers, bundled in their winter coats and milling mindlessly around piles of sweaters and jeans, some of them already loaded with swag-bags from Gap and Forever 21, as sheep, or cattle, or zombies. But that's too easy, both as a conceit and as a reading of consumerism. Yes, there is a certain glazed abstraction to the eyes of those cheerlessly turning over labels to look at prices, jostling and shoving past fellow shoppers without really seeing them -- but it is not inhuman.

It is, in fact, painfully human. It's about craving, and the chase. It is about wanting to seize small pieces of luck and luxury for yourself and your loved ones in a world in which real wealth -- secure, comfortable places to live, safe and supportive communities, decent healthcare and education -- is almost universally the territory of the rich. It's the short-term sugar-rush of twenty-five per cent off a Michael Kors tote that feels like just enough to keep you from crashing. This is why we go shopping for things that we don't need and can't afford, even when quite a lot of us know better.

One of the remarkable things about the Occupy movement is how it has evolved into an alternative economy of care as well as a static series of protests. Earlier in the day, I spent time at the Thanksgiving celebrations in Liberty Square, where thousands of meals were distributed for free to the homeless and needy. Music played; people danced and smoked and chatted and made human connections whilst sticking it moderately to the man. If the movement wishes to continue to win hearts and minds, it is this generosity of spirit that its members must nurture. Outrage and indignation are not enough, and nor is yelling at shoppers in the street; activists must also persuade everyone else that another, better way of life is really possible. From my experience, free food is never a bad place to start.

In Macy's, thousands of stony-faced late-night bargain hunters scramble for the escalators under huge, sparkling holiday store signs, convinced that they are enjoying themselves. The store signs are round and red and animated by one enormous word, writing and rewriting itself in illuminated script. The word is "believe". Just that -- "believe" -- something between an exhortation and a plea for meaning. If activists can offer an answer to the implicit question "-- in what?", they will come closer to winning hearts and minds than any amount of street-corner shouting will achieve.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.