Working on Holidays: The New Class Divide?

Shoppers may appreciate the extra hours, but what about all the people who will have to end their Thanksgiving meal, or forgo it altogether, in order to man the cashiers and stock the shelves?

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

An employee restocks a shelf at a Walmart Supercenter in Troy, Ohio

As the holiday season gets underway, I think back to my childhood and the times enjoyed with my family. We were lucky. My immigrant parents realized the American Dream, and on the fourth Thursday of every November we had much to be thankful for. Even if my dad sometimes wasn’t there because he had to work, we didn’t mind. As a doctor, he and his fellow health care professionals knew that sickness takes no holiday. Policemen and firemen, plumbers and 911 operators: all kinds of Americans know well the sacrifices and pride that comes with providing essential services.

But while the right to one’s health and safety may be inalienable, the right to shop is not. Yet Walmart recently announced that it would open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day; Target and Toys “R” Us followed suit, with plans to open at 9 p.m. They are hardly alone. Gap Inc. stores (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic) will be open Thanksgiving Day, as will Sears and Kmart. Shoppers may appreciate the extra hours, but what about all the people who will have to end their Thanksgiving meal, or forgo it altogether, in order to man the cashiers and stock the shelves?

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Working on holidays has always presented something of a class divide. From the 1870s through the 1920s, middle- and upper-class Americans often lived with “the help” — mostly women of color whose job it was to cook and clean and care for others, day and night. While shows like Downton Abbey seek to give life to servants, they also sanitize what was a brutal, backbreaking existence. It was common for a housemaid’s day to begin well before the family rose and extend until after they retired for the evening. They did so seven days a week; working more than 80 hours a week — more than the 65 hours worked by most factory workers at the time. While we often imagine that these women were young and single, Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s research on such care providers has shown how over 30% of them were married, many with children. As they toiled for families not their own, they left their children, parents, siblings and husbands behind. November and December was no doubt one of the hardest times of the year, and their own families felt their absence.

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The labor movement was central to changing this sorry state of affairs (though labor laws almost never cover domestic workers). Unions raised wages, lowered hours, instituted worker protections, guaranteed a minimum wage and secured holidays off for workers. Those who did have to work on national holidays were guaranteed overtime pay. As Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have shown, when unions were strong, such benefits even extended to nonunionized workers. But as unions have declined, part-time work has increased. And this has meant lower wages and greater uncertainty. Working at $11 an hour for 25 hours a week means making $14,300 a year. For most retail workers, that’s one of the better jobs available. And still, it’s a job without health insurance, or a retirement plan, with constant scheduling changes that make it hard to take additional employment. Most of these workers wish they could work more, but employers would rather hire other part-timers. So when the boss says, “Can you work Thanksgiving?” workers have no real choice but to be “willing.”

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Today, working on holidays carries no guarantee of extra pay, and not working can mean losing one’s job. Some workers are fighting back; Walmart employees have planned over 1,000 Black Friday strikes because of stagnant wages and health care premiums that will soon triple. Americans have a choice of helping these workers regain the protections, or walking past them in order to shop for more things. And that is the irony to the trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving. On the same day that we give thanks for all we have, why must we also rush out to buy more? Observers might say, “It’s just the logic of the market!” But the logic of the market is not some mystical process. It is the result of the decisions that we make. People work on Thursday so we can be thankful for all that we have. Perhaps it’s time for shopping moratoriums so that everyone can give thanks, instead of just those who have more to be thankful for.