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Bargain brawlers aren't blind 

Pendulum starts swinging back to the left

Like a lot of you, I watched the videos of Walmart shoppers fist-fighting in the aisles over Black Friday bargains. I chuckled a little and even laughed out loud at a couple of fights that turned into pretty good slapstick, until it hit me how damned sad the whole thing was. It's not what the fights said about our degraded culture that bothered me, it was the shoppers themselves. Here they were, some of our fellow citizens — our brother and sister Americans, if you will, and no doubt underpaid ones — cramming into the butt-ugly airplane hangers that Walmart calls stores. All for the sake of low-priced deals on cheap plastic toys and gizmos from China and clothing made by quasi-slaves at a death-trap factory in some hellish corner of Bangladesh. Merry Christmas.

This year, many Walmart Thanksgiving bargain hunters were greeted by a new group of people: Walmart employees and supporters protesting the store's policies toward its workforce, such as the company's notoriously low wages and making its "associates" work on Thanksgiving day. The protests against Walmart and other big-box stores that pay their workers monkey wages took place across the country and into Canada, resulting in at least 110 people being arrested, although you'd never know it from the minimal mainstream press coverage. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the protests was the reaction of Walmart, a company that made $17 billion in profits last year while at least two-thirds of its workers were paid less than $25,000 annually. The company simply denied that it has a low-wages problem, never mind its don't-give-a-damn-about-workers public image.

That image took a beating in the days before and just following Black Friday, starting with a photo that went viral, showing a sign at a Canton, Ohio, Walmart asking employees to donate food "so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner." Ahem. Memo to Walton family (worth $144 billion): Ya think paying your employees a living wage might've helped avoid this kind of embarrassment? Cartoonist Brian McFadden of the New York Times got into the act, producing a beauty that showed Walmart execs' "advice to our associates," including a suggestion that employees needing health care check out the company's "leave-a-pill, take-a-pill tray in the break room," or that workers who need a vacation should "take a trip to our lovely garden center during one of your breaks."

This all brings us to the subject of the minimum wage. Momentum to raise it nationwide has grown lately. So many stories have been produced about America's disgraceful-and-still-growing income inequality, even a few congressional Republicans are talking about the need to raise the minimum wage. President Obama last week threw his support behind a Senate push to raise it from $7.25 to $10.10 — still inadequate, but you take your partial victories where you can. Of course, today's grassroots push for increasing the minimum wage has been lambasted by conservatives who, as always, claim that setting a minimum wage violates every invisible-hand-ish rule of the sacred, unfettered free market blahblahblah. As economist Paul Krugman pointed out in a New York Times column, there is a ton of very solid, documented evidence that hiking the minimum wage has virtually zero effect on hiring, while it winds up boosting workers' wages as well as the overall economy.

As if to give a push to the pendulum tentatively beginning its swing away from the fundamentalist free-market fantasies that drove the world's economy into a ditch, even the Pope got involved. In a major address two days before Thanksgiving, Francis called unfettered capitalism "a new tyranny," attacked the "idolatry of money," and asked politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare." The American right wing went utterly nuts, as Rush Limbaugh said Francis was espousing "pure Marxism," while the far-right WorldNetDaily site declared that "Jesus is weeping in heaven" over the pontiff's remarks. It's funny what the prospect of social justice does to some people.

Meanwhile, things keep getting worse for the working class, and it's especially bad in ol' Dixie, where the GOP's Tea Party rulers have been busy shredding what little is left of their states' social safety nets. Thankfully, a few Southern pols are bucking the Tea Party tide. In a special congressional election in Louisiana last month, businessman Vance McAllister beat a Tea-bagger by saying that since Obamacare is the law of the land, it might as well be put to work in Louisiana by expanding Medicaid. A major factor in McAllister's win was the support he received from one of the stars of the decidedly working-class show Duck Dynasty. I bet some of those Walmart fist-fighters would agree with McAllister. Just because you might battle for a Duck Dynasty doll doesn't mean you can't tell on which side your bread is buttered.

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