Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love food and I love my crazy-ass family, and on a Thursday toward the end of November, I get them both in abundance.
But when I was a minion in the retail mines, I often found myself having to either cut short—or miss altogether—the experience of stuffing as many helpings as possible down my gullet while trying not to chuckle at my Baptist minister uncle’s attempts to persuade my new-agey mother on the merits of Christian orthodoxy.
The reason for the abbreviation of my celebration was simple. Black Friday—which is to the retail world what Mother’s Day is to the restaurant biz—was upon us, and all hands were required on deck. People were lined up outside the store or mall (I’ve been involved with both), chomping at the bit for the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime deals, and we had to be ready.
For the most part, there was no bonus, no extra pay, and no real reward for the duty of wrestling with the unhappy crowds, aside from continued employment. And I never understood the motivation of said crowds.
Didn’t they know that the most desirable deals were purposefully stocked in low quantity so the store would run out quickly, forcing most people to choose other (more profitable) items? Or that the items that were well-stocked were not really discounted any further than they would be in the dozen or more other sales that occurred throughout the year? Or that, especially when it came to electronics, nearly all the prices could still be beaten by searching for the best online deals?
I suppose they didn’t know those things, or if they did, they didn’t much care. For them, lining up in the middle of the night is as much a part of the holiday tradition as getting sloshed on eggnog and accidentally stepping on errant ornaments. And they certainly have every right to the exercise in mindless consumerism, regardless of my opinion about it.
But things have just gone too damn far.
Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Sears, and Target—among others—are all opening their doors on Thursday night this year, starting the Black Friday madness when most people should be loosening their belts and sawing drool-soaked logs on the couch. Again, I don’t begrudge the deal-seekers their activity, if that’s what they want. And, in principle, I don’t have a problem with a business choosing to open its doors on a holiday.
The problem that comes into play here is that for the already underpaid retail employees who must bear the brunt of the consumer tidal wave, participation is not an option. With few exceptions, all employees are required to work a shift on Black Friday.
It was bad enough when stores were opening their doors at midnight. Then, working in retail meant you needed to eat earlier in the day and try to get a few hours of sleep before the madness. But this new development in revenue chasing on the part of big-box retail is undoubtedly going to have the effect of preventing a large number of people from being able to celebrate with their families altogether.
With everything going on in the world, it may seem like a rather inconsequential issue, but it speaks to a larger problem that plagues our society. Whether the business is retail, hospitality, or food service, industries that rely on low-wage labor continually treat their workforce with an astonishing lack of respect for their human dignity and family life.
It’s bad enough that businesses with gaudy profit margins get away with barely paying their workers enough to live on. But to then unilaterally preempt those workers’ holiday celebrations is a slap in the face.
Therefore, this year, I will not be doing any sort of holiday shopping at any of the stores that open on Thursday night or in the wee hours of the morning on Friday. How we spend our money is the greatest influence—such as it is—we can hope to have on society, and I refuse to allow my meager holiday spending to support the continued erosion of respect for workers in this country.
I am under no delusions that withholding my humble cash will cause these corporate behemoths to rethink their business strategy and culture, nor would they even notice the difference as herds of consumers will surely respond enthusiastically to the sales. But one of the fundamental reasons our society has come to the state it has, in regards to economic equality and opportunity, is because, on an individual level, we let convenience justify our continued support of business practices that erode those things.
So this holiday season, on this issue, I’m drawing a line in my tiny patch of sand, regardless of the negligible difference that it may make. Change has to start somewhere.