For various reasons, I try never to shop on "Black Friday Weekend", avoiding the post-Thanksgiving madness and the media-constructed frenzy of shop-til-you-drop consumerist Americans and their lemming-like trip to the malls. I've worked in retail too long to see the romance, I don't like crowds, and frankly, the "bargains" of this shopping holiday are overstated.
It's also the case, these days, that I will probably also be working for most of it.
Black Friday this year was notable for a couple of things - one was the encroachment of the shopping into the actual Thursday of Thanksgiving, and the second was a planned, notable, if debatably successful attempt at labor actions outside of many Wal-Marts around the country. Even by the organizers' generous assessments, the number of workers participating in these protests was in the hundreds, though media coverage did clearly amplify the noise and the effect of the protests.
The remarkable thing, really, is that it's taken much of my lifetime for Thanksgiving to be breached by retailers as sacrosanct; only Easter Sunday - and Christmas Day, I suppose - remain as the day of no shopping, and that anachronism may be the hardest to topple, but it's also the one that makes the least sense (at some point, Christian traditionalism will be damned). Literally 20 years ago, I was having conversations with family and friends that one day, obviously, retailers would launch the "Thanksgiving Day Sale" - I mean, heck, one day, Macy*s was sure to notice that there was a crowd of people outside the store after that darn parade, if nothing else - and one more domino would fall on the notion that for one day, at least, we could forestall the real American pastime (shopping, not football).
Let's be clear: we don't close stores for the sake of shoppers. Keeping shopping out of Thanksgiving wasn't some kind of "have respect for this important American holiday, consumerism can wait." No, the point of closing stores was simple human decency for the American worker. Let's take one day, just one day, and nobody, or almost nobody, should have to work. The problem with Thanksgiving, arguably, started with my company, Starbucks; we're the most major corporation I know of that sees no particular reason to close its outlets on any holiday at all. Almost all Starbucks are open on Thanksgiving, for at least some portion of the normal day. Many are open on Christmas. We are almost all open on Easter, normal hours. We close early on days like New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July. But we are open. Always open. And people get bewildered when we close, even for obvious practical reasons, like a hurricane.
But Starbucks isn't just a restaurant - food being the general exception to "closed on the holiday" - we are a retailer, and we are located in shopping centers and malls like the other retailers and we sell more than just drinks and food and we're helping, I think, to erode the idea tbat there's one day, any day, when a retailer should be closed.
And the people who get punished, when we lose even one day of being closed... are workers.
I was struck, this year, by the fact that, however small, people (and the media) seemed to take nte of the workers. It wasn't a big story, and it was surely subsumed by the stories of stampedes and fights and all the attendant madness of crowds. But the Wal-Mart action and the Thursday opens did get people talking, and talking about what these things mean to workers. Which is, after all, almost all of us. We are a nation of service workers, now, and it means that many of us work to serve the rest of us. It's a different equation about work and what we think of people who serve and it's complicated... and I think we're only just beginning to sort out the cultural and social implications, never mind the political and economic ones.
The Wal-Mart action revived the favorite liberal topics of how bad the big W is, how badly its workers are treated... but Wal-Mart in many ways is really just a stand-in for most of retailing, where the wages are low, the hours are long, and the rights of workers mean but so much. Attempts to unionize most retail workers, in or out of Wal-Mart, are rarely successful, and are unlikely to succeed en masse or long term. To say this is to be labeled "anti-union", and I'm not; but the realities are stark. I've been in retail a long time, and I've known many, many of the women (mostly) and men who work there. Don't take my word for it... but most of them are not interested in a union. And won't be. They are students and mothers and transient and free thinkers. Not being organized provides a kind of flexibility and set of options many workers want, and even need. Unions have not found a way to convince retail workers, generally, of their value long term. And still, that's unlikely to change much.
Even more to the point, as I've said before, because we are no longer a nation of mostly manufacturing jobs, Unions do not really respresent the majority experience of most workers in this country now. Yet "Organized Labor" is allowed, mostly by Democrats, to serve as the "Working Person's Voice" even when the policies unions promote don't necessarily refelects the needs and opinions of most workers. What we need, really, is a change in how we talk and think about the issues of work and labor in this country, and try harder to develop a sensible labor policy that reflects who we actually are and what we actually do. That's why, I suspect, the Affordable Care Act has managed, quietly, to be a key selling point of President Obama and the Democrats this past election - it's not perfect, but it makes sure many workers will get health insurance, a practical slution many people need. Similarly with the debates of contraception and abortion - in the place where airy philosophical debates mean less than the practical issues of real people actually face.
I don't think we can "save Thanksgiving" from the retail encroachment; the wall has been breached, business needs have overtaken simple decency and humane respect for workers and their families. We will, as we do, work around these new relaities. We are workers, after all. But I think this year may mark another, more refreshing turning point, one where the discussions around our working lives, and the pratcical need for a life beyond work, begins to become more public, louder, and more insistent. It doesn't mean service workers will unionize, and new laws may not be the answer (certainbly, that's not the whole answer); the change we need is cultural, social... not just political, and not just economic.
And I could go on... but I really have to get on with my day - I have to work this evening.