The newspaper arrived with a heavy thunk on Thanksgiving, packed like an overstuffed turkey with flyers and ads for Black Friday sales. We sorted through them at our leisure, keeping ones that seemed interesting and recycling the rest. It’s another piece of a middle class tradition; the flyers and ads are reminders of the shopping frenzy that follows the sleepy calm of Thanksgiving. But for far too many retail workers this year, that newspaper was a prelude to another day at work.
By now you’ve heard about Black Friday’s creep into Thanksgiving, what some people are apparently calling “Gray Thursday.” Retailers are opening Thursday evening, now, instead of early Friday morning. You may also have heard that there are retail workers and their families who tried to fight back against yet another intrusion of work into family life, but their petitions and complaints have largely gone unnoticed by retailers desperate to squeeze as much money out of a busy shopping day as possible. Workers, many of whom are part-time and therefore don’t receive much in the way of benefits, need the hours and the overtime too much not to show up. And so another holiday slowly erodes. Retail workers will now be able to give thanks by working a cash register and earning overtime instead of spending time with their family and friends.
Every year there’s a lot of hand-wringing about capitalism’s intrusion into what we’d thought was a safe space, a day when the usual rules were suspended and we could have a guilt-free meal at home with our families, but every year the stores seem to open earlier. And the thing is, despite all the head-shaking, people go shop. When we put on our consumer hat, we always want cheap goods and we want them right now. Retailers are desperate to oblige us. I’ve stood in lines outside department stores in the early hours on previous Black Fridays with hundreds of people itching to spend hundreds of dollars. Is it any wonder that the stores, many of whom hover on the brink of insolvency all year long, want to grow those lines, to start the engines of commerce a little earlier?
Our overwhelming need to buy cheap stuff and retailers’ quest to sell it to us is one of those vast, nearly uncontrollable forces that define not just our own lives, but the lives of billions across the globe. In order to provide those goods at ever-cheaper prices, companies cut costs by outsourcing production to countries where they can pay factory workers a pittance, and by underpaying their increasingly part-time retail force here at home. It’s profit-driven, to be sure: Walmart and stores like it rake in enormous profits every year. But this force is consumer driven, too; the stores always have lots of customers. It’s a vicious, destructive cycle, bad for small business, American manufacturing and both the working and middle class.
Efforts to change pieces of this picture haven’t had a lot of success. Retail workers need their jobs too badly to go on strike, and there are always plenty of unemployed workers ready to take their place. Groups like OUR Walmart tried organizing walkouts and demonstrations on Black Friday, but many employees were too fearful of losing their jobs to take part. The anti-union climate in this country, as well as the general weakness of organized labor, means that they’d be pretty much on their own if they did try to strike, so they stay at work. It’s no wonder, given all of this, that the gap between rich and poor is wide and growing.
At first glance, it seems like there’s not much the state can do to help. But of course there is, if we allow ourselves to have a little vision. We could make higher education and job training programs cheaper and more accessible, which might give workers a way out of low-wage jobs and fill the constant need for workers with specialized skills. We could bolster public transit, allowing workers to travel farther to find work. We could raise the minimum wage, and we could find ways to uncouple a basic benefit, health care, from employment. We could reinforce the social safety net, so that there’s help for workers who need it.
And for crying out loud, maybe we could pass something like the old Blue Law they have in Massachusetts, barring any work until Friday proper. We ought to have one day, just for ourselves.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.