Droves of customers stampeding through large department stores on Black Friday was once a uniquely American phenomena. But the traditional day-after Thanksgiving shopping sale event has recently gained traction in other countries that have no connection to the American holiday. The insatiable consumerism that fuels American capitalism, it seems, is a more viable export than ever.
Black Friday has caught on big in Europe the last few years, despite grumblings about the marketing madness from local critics of the American model. Large U.S.-based multinationals, like Amazon, have undoubtedly accelerated the spread, with online shopping convenience for what is otherwise a regular working day in the rest of the world.
But this year, there looks to be the first tangible backlash. In Europe, where workers tend to enjoy greater social protections, the frenetic drive to increase sales at all costs — online and off — is being met with resistance. Labor unions in Germany and Italy chose to target both Black Friday and Amazon plants this year with strikes to undermine one of the busiest sales days of the year.
“[Employees] need to perform their best on Black Friday in the service of Jeff Bezos [Amazon’s founder] and the customers,” Ronny Streich, a strike leader in Leipzig, told the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “And all this under working conditions that make you sick in the long run.”
Amazon represents “a new model of exploitation” of workers around the world, Daniele Boroli, an Italian senator from the center-left Democrat party, told the Rome-based La Repubblica. Francesca Benedetti, a union leader at an Amazon plant in northern Italy, concurred, stating further that the joint strike in two European countries “gives even more value” to the protest. “It shows that it isn’t just our site that has problems with this company,” she said. “All around the world Amazon creates work conditions that are absolutely not compatible with our culture of protection” for workers.
The tension is not just a question of worker’s rights, however. Several countries and large cities have sought to protect entire industries from creeping American-led, digitally-driven neoliberalism. Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have faced opposition from entrenched taxi industry interests in European countries. At the same time, local competitors in markets such as Russia and China pose another challenge to the U.S.-based leaders.
The American “economic way of life” dominated throughout much of the 20th century, capped by the fall of Communism in 1989. Will the explosion of Silicon Valley over the past two decades mean a sequel in this century? Steven Hill, an economist and author of Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers, has his doubts, pointing to Uber’s troubles as a good example of how success may not last. Speaking this week with the French daily Le Monde, Hill said the digitally connected economy “threatens the economic model that was successfully implemented after World War II by Europe and the United States. The biggest threat is in the way that people work and the future of work itself.” A thought for Americans enjoying their holiday, and for the rest of us busy shopping at the office.