Death of Wal-Mart Worker – The System is to Blame

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On Black Friday, November 28, the largest shopping day of the year in the U.S., a worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York was trampled to death by hordes of shoppers.

Many are shocked and outraged that the typical marketing and consumer frenzy of the holiday season could reach this low, and are asking, “What type of society have we become, where people are willing to trample others to death to get good deals?” For us as socialists, the blame for this tragedy lies with the capitalist system as a whole.

Jdimytai “Jimmy” Damour, 34, a temp hired by Wal-Mart, was killed in a stampede of 2,000 shoppers around 5am Friday morning as Wal-Mart opened its doors. One shopper said that people at the store behaved like “savages.” She told the Associated Press, “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning.’ They kept shopping” (NY Times, 11/28/08).

This type of dog-eat-dog behavior by other people is quite upsetting. Yet as the NY Times wrote, “It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday” (11/28/08).

The type of crass consumerist behavior exhibited on Black Friday is the artificially produced result of the system of capitalism. It has nothing to do with humanity’s supposedly innate competitive, greedy, or materialistic nature. Corporations must create a market for the goods they produce, and they do this through massive amounts of advertising. This reaches its most frenzied peak around the holiday season, and in particular, on Black Friday. For retailers, the holiday season provides as much as 40% of annual revenue and up to 75% of yearly profits.

As the NY Times writes, “For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop. China, Japan and other foreign powers have provided the wherewithal to purchase their goods by buying staggering quantities of American debt. Financial institutions have scattered credit card offers as if they were takeout menus and turned our houses into A.T.M.’s. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have excelled at persuading us that the holiday season is a time to spend lavishly or risk being found insufficiently appreciative of our loved ones” (11/28/08).

This holiday season also comes at a time when Americans face a mounting economic recession. Coming after a period of economic growth that saw real wages stagnate or decline for most workers, this has caused many to depend more than ever on bargain hunting for deep discounts. Thus the frenzy on Black Friday was compounded this year by a growing nervousness and insecurity amongst all Americans, from workers worried about how to pay the rent or their mortgage and still afford presents for their kids, on up to the upper class, worried about losing their yacht or third or fourth home.

Again, to quote the NY Times: “Much of the distress is less the product of extravagance than the result of the fact that in many households the means are nowhere near enough for traditional middle-class lives. Wages for most Americans have fallen in real terms over the last eight years. Pensions have been turned into 401(k) plans that have just relinquished half their value to an angry market. Health benefits have been downgraded or eliminated altogether. Working hours are being slashed, and full-time workers are having to settle for jobs through temp agencies.”

Thus, the tragic death of Jimmy Damour is at least in part the product of the current political economy of world capitalism, in which U.S. consumer spending has been the lifeblood of the entire world economy.

Yet it is also a product of the value system created by capitalism. The capitalist system encourages values such as greed, selfishness, and competition. Corporations are forced to compete against one another in an endless quest to maximize profits for their shareholders, or else face bankruptcy. This forces them to slash wages and benefits, lay off workers, speed up work, squeeze their suppliers, and ignore the environmental impacts of production. It forces nations, representing the interests of these corporations, into wars for oil and to secure markets for their goods.

These values of capitalist society are transmitted throughout society, through the schools and the media. As Marx and Engels wrote, “The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.” This system also pits worker against worker in a competition for jobs, and, on Black Friday, for bargains.

Some will attempt to blame Wal-Mart for this catastrophe and single them out as a bad apple. Certainly, they are to blame and should face punishment for failing to ensure the safety of their workers. Bruce Both, President of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 in Long Island, New York, said, “This is not just tragic; it rises to a level of blatant irresponsibility by Wal-Mart. UFCW Local 1500 will demand a full investigation by all levels of government to ensure both justice for the surviving family members and to ensure the safety of current employees and the general public. This can never be allowed to happen again and those responsible must be held accountable.”

Yet the owners of Wal-Mart are not the only ones responsible for this tragedy. Similar scenes on Black Friday are repeated in front of countless other stores across the country, with similar dangers and numerous injuries reported to shoppers and workers.

Wal-Mart is only a symbol, as the largest corporation of the world, because it has most ruthlessly followed the logic of capitalism. The tragic death of one worker should also serve as a reminder that the profits of Wal-Mart and all other corporations comes at the cost not just the life of Jimmy Damour, but the lives of millions of workers around the world, wasting away toiling in sweatshops, some for 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. These are Santa’s real elves, the tens of millions, including many children, working for pennies, with no benefits, no job security, and few if any safety protections on the job.

In reality, it is the entire system of capitalism that is to blame. This system is based on ruthless competition, and a dog-eat-dog mentality, which can only ensure us more crises, wars, environmental devastation, and workplace deaths.

The major economic recession that the U.S. and world economy are now suffering through will create even more competition among workers around the world for the jobs that remain, and the capitalists will attempt to pit workers and communities against each other in order to weaken any fightback against their system.

In contrast to the rat race promoted by capitalism, we, as socialists, believe that a better world is possible, one based on solidarity and cooperation. In response to the economic crisis bred by capitalism, we need to promote solidarity among workers and communities, which means rebuilding the labor movement and organizing campaigns that harness the collective power of students, community members, and workers to demand the right to a decent life. Ultimately, it is only by taking economic power out of the hands of the Wal-Marts and other mega-corporations, and putting them under the democratic control of working people, operated in the interests of human need rather than profit, that we can end the dog-eat-dog mentality bred by capitalism and build a cooperative, just society.

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