Monday, November 18, 2013

Thanks for Nothing

"Dear Lord, we thank Thee for bringing us all together and for the gift of Purell, that our hand-holding might be that much less disgusting. Amen."
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”
Saint Anthony the Great, presumably foreseeing the rise of Black Friday sales

Thanksgiving is traditionally a holiday in which Americans (and Canadians, whose freakish October observance doesn't count) gather together, feast until they're stuffed and/or diabetic and pass out watching football and/or parade coverage. They're also thankful to God for all their of their food and blessings and stuff. Traditionally, the next day, Black Friday, officially begins the Christmas season and is marked by orderly, cheerful holiday shopping and—

Yes, that. Almost every major retailer, from Walmart, to Best Buy, to Macy's, is opening on Thanksgiving Night, officially extending Black Friday into Thursday. The most egregious offender is Kmart, which will open at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and close at 11 p.m. Black Friday — a full 41 consecutive hours (a fact they outright advertised in their press release).

"There's smart, and then there's Kmart smart. We also consume the souls of children."
Forgetting for a moment the absurdity of Staples being open on Thanksgiving ("Mummy! I want a ream of paper from Father Christmas this year! I simply must have one!"), how poorly does the urge to shop on a time-honoured holiday reflect on us? The "need" to be open on Thanksgiving is a false demand manufactured by the retailers themselves. There was no clamour for extended Black Friday hours on the part of the public. The move to expand shopping hours into Thanksgiving was a conscious decision on the part of retailers, in part due to the losses they are now incurring to online sales.

Now, that's not to say that there should be some sort of State intervention to mandate the closure of retail stores on Thanksgiving. In fact, stores in Massachusetts are subjected to the other extreme: Its blue laws forbid stores from opening for even a few hours on Thanksgiving Day, even if all employee attendance is strictly voluntary and wages doubled, as Whole Foods wanted to do.

But at least Massachusetts means well (as most government busybodies are wont to say) with its blue laws. For all of the valid complaints one might have about State intervention in commercial matters, there is something to be said for the unity a society feels when there are universal days of rest, if not on regular Sundays (the genie is out of the bottle on that one), then certainly on a few holidays. Our British friends across the pond, along with the Commonwealth nations (you still don't count, Canada), colloquially refer to their sizeable number of public holidays as bank holidays. Ironically, despite being markedly more secular than we Yanks, even Good Friday is a day of rest for the Brits.

We have long been subjected to the annual hand-wringing of those who protest the commercialisation of Christmas: "Jesus is the reason for the season!" It is not a new argument, which is precisely why it is so easily ignored: People, even if they agree, are tired of hearing it, so they slip into complacency, and then, this happens.

To clarify, Thanksgiving is neither an observed holiday of the Church, nor does it have worldwide significance. Its origins are, if anything, decidedly anti-Catholic, considering the much-lauded Pilgrims of the First Thanksgiving were fanatically anti-Papist and even outlawed celebrating Christmas and Easter. (Fun fact: Many of the lies about the innate "paganism" of both holidays atheists love to throw at Christians today were originally Protestant fictions used against Catholic worship. We will address these in future posts.)

But history aside, the celebration itself can be universally appreciated and has been happily adopted by Protestants, Catholics and non-Christians alike. Many stores already stay open on Easter. Is Christmas itself next? The unique nature of the busiest shopping day of the year falling right after Thanksgiving admittedly opens up the holiday to such abuse, but who would have thought even a decade ago that Thanksgiving would be absorbed into Black Friday?

Of course, the reason for expanded shopping hours is not malice against God or even (intentionally) retail workers themselves. It's about money. We must note that earning money and even wanting to earn money is not a bad thing. Money is a necessity for an ordered society. The problem is when the worship of money supersedes all else. Love of money is the root of all evil. Christ Himself says that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. Christ actually uses a synonym for money, wealth or material possessions to refer to Satan! (Incidentally, this is why I find all of the nervousness about Pope Francis' economic views so amusing. Do his detractors honestly expect the Vicar of Christ not to sound like, well, Christ?)

I don't expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, I know many do not. The most common counterarguments pertain to the right of businesses to self-regulate and dismiss the grievances of those employees who do not want to work on Thanksgiving. I shall address these point by point:

"What are you complaining about? Plenty of people work on Thanksgiving, like police and nurses. Why are you so special?"

Because people don't stop committing crimes and getting sick on Thanksgiving. Those are jobs with irregular hours, serving the necessities of society. No store needs to be open on any particular day. The retail industry operated under a gentleman's agreement with society that certain days (Christmas, Thanksgiving and usually Easter) would be treated as sacrosanct.

As Pope Leo XIII promulgated in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, the rights and duties of the employee are intertwined with the rights and duties of employers. One of the rights of the worker is time off for religious and family life — days like Thanksgiving.

"Plenty of people would love to work on Thanksgiving! They get paid time-and-a-half! Everyone wants more money!"

(SIGHS) Do I have to remind you again about loving money more than what really matters? First off, the only hours typically eligible for time-and-half are those on Thanksgiving itself. So, say your shift starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 4 a.m. Only the first six hours of your ten-hour shift are subject to the 1.5 multiplier. Plus, your meal break is unpaid, so out of ten hours, you are paid extra for just over half of the time worked.

Under Federal law, meal breaks do not have to count as paid work time. If you are being paid the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, you have disrupted your Thanksgiving for an additional... $20 or so. Although, your wages for the hours between midnight and 4 a.m. may be boosted an extra dollar for working a night shift, so let's be generous and say you earned an additional $24. To ruin you and your family's Thanksgiving. How generous.

Not pictured: Actual retail wages.
"Can't you just go to work after eating? It's only a few hours out of your holiday. It doesn't really conflict with your schedule."

I say again, Kmart is open for 41 consecutive hours. Will others follow suit? (Of course, Kmart has fallen on hard times and has the longest hours due to their own economic difficulties, as well as the fact you know your business is for those of lower income when Walmart patrons look down on your clientele.)

In Laborem Exercens, Blessed Pope John Paul II asserted that the worker ought to feel his work means something and the (theoretically obvious) fact that people are more important than things. The worker is not a thing; he is a person, with the unique dignity afforded everyone as a creature made in God's own image. This dovetails with what Leo said in his encyclical, that the employer is to respect the dignity of the worker and not regard him as a slave, as property. We do not live to work; we work to live.

"If you don't like your job, why don't you just find another one? No-one is forcing you to work there!"

Right, because it's so easy to find a job in this economy. Over eight million Americans work part-time who would otherwise work full-time. When someone takes a job, particularly in retail, it is usually all that he can find. The worker has responsibilities and isn't infallible, but he deserves a modicum of rights. In the United States, the only developed country with no guaranteed vacation time for part-time or full-time workers, it should not be seen as a burden on an employer to leave free one day. It's not as if they were struggling to turn a profit before (and again, seeking a profit is not inherently evil). Of note is that of all of the arguments, this is the one most often cited by dismissive TV pundits, all of whom have job security that low-wage workers do not.

There is also a perhaps unexpected feminist angle* to the reasons one ought to be outraged by the retail madness. Although millions of workers, of all backgrounds, male and female, are affected by retailers' decision to invade Thanksgiving, the majority of the burden will be shouldered by women. Over half of all retail sales workers are women, and over three-quarters of cashiers are women. Many of these workers are mothers with young children. Many are working multiple jobs. Many do not have a husband to bring in additional income to feed and clothe their children. Until the last few years, Thanksgiving was a welcome respite for them and other workers to cook, enjoy a meal with family and then relax. Now, if you work at Kmart, that no longer holds true, and even those retailers with evening hours are encroaching on that time, with their hours creeping earlier and earlier into the day.

The ravenous behaviour exhibited by shoppers on Black Friday is well-documented. I once wrote an article for my college newspaper in which I remarked that many stores put out their Christmas decorations on Halloween and joked that the Christmas season should start on Black Friday, when the Walmart greeters are trampled to death by crowds of sales-hungry shoppers.

Shortly after that issue went to press, that actually happened. Worse, it happened on Long Island, where I live and went to college. And this was before the trend of extending Black Friday hours. Now, we're adding to the time spent fighting for the best deals — deals which, it should be noted, are inferior to sales held earlier in the year. But your child's few minutes of happiness on Christmas morn are worth stepping on someone's skull, so go for it, honey.

And please understand: This is not some angry rant on behalf of the poor, beleaguered retail worker. I worked in retail for nearly seven years. I can and will happily testify to the generally fair and sometimes incredibly accommodating treatment I received in my store and appreciate the charitable contributions retail corporations take out of their profits. I worked a super-early Black Friday shift last year and didn't die, and I even had the smug satisfaction of knowing that the store's extra hours weren't even worth it. About thirty people lined up Thanksgiving Night to get in at 9 p.m., and the store was dead after that until regular shopping hours. My 2-7:30 a.m. shift was actually a hidden blessing, as I avoided the shopping rush!

In short, the real bosses here aren't the CEOs of the companies screwing over their workers and generally adding to the coarsening of our society: You, the consumer, are the boss. By all means, spend, spend, spend this holiday season! A healthy economy is a good thing, and everyone, including the retail worker, benefits when you buy toys, gadgets and disturbingly anthropomorphic Sesame Street dolls for your hideous urchins adorable children. As I note at the end of this post, the Church rejects the inhumanity of socialism and seeks to advise employers as to how to treat their workers, not coerce them. The cornerstone of society is the family, and it is a sign of disordered mores when workers are forced to choose between their families and their livelihoods. A moral obligation need not be a legal mandate.

For those of us from the Anglican tradition, Thanksgiving is similar to the Catholic concept of a Holy Day of Obligation. It is customary to attend Mass that day, even if one usually only attends on Sundays and Christmas. For us and many other Christians, to work on that day conflicts with both duty to God and family. With that in mind here is the collect of that day:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*With apologies to our resident anti-feminist, Anna Skarzynska.

Further Reading:

Rerum Novarum (1891), by Pope Leo XIII, is considered the seminal document addressing Catholic social teaching. Leo lays out the framework for the rights and duties of workers, as well as the duties of employers.

Laborem Exercens (1981), by Blessed Pope John Paul II, expands on Leo's writings. JPII was the main proponent of the philosophical school of Christian personalism, the notion that persons are meant to be respected and loved, not merely used, like so much machinery.

Centesimus Annus (1991), by Blessed Pope John Paul II, coincided with the hundredth anniversary of Leo's encyclical. Released at the close of the Cold War by a Pope whose native Poland had long suffered under atheistic Communism, it carefully critiques the deficits of capitalism, even as it rejects socialism.

Caritas in Veritate (2009), by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is the most recent social encyclical. Benedict explains that the Church does not offer technical solutions to economic issues but rather, a set of general moral principles for relevant actors to use for guidance.

Finally, much has been made of the difference in wages and benefits workers receive at Walmart versus Costco (one of the few retailers not open on Thanksgiving), with critics of the former upholding the latter as an exemplar of just corporate treatment of workers. Journalist Megan McArdle has written a brilliant series of articles on why placing the two businesses side-by-side is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Read parts I, II and III.