Thanksgiving for workers

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Thanksgiving is one of those rare days when many Americans will pause and reflect on their good fortune – and remember those who aren’t so lucky. The homeless, of course, immediately come to mind, because their plight is the most dire: hundreds of thousands of people will spend today on the streets, or running out the clock in shelters and food kitchens until they’re pushed back into the cold.

But even more Americans will spend the day somewhere in between. They aren’t homeless, but they’re often on the verge of homelessness. They aren’t unemployed, but they work for paltry wages in miserable conditions. They won’t be forgotten, but they won’t have our empathy either — we’ll just pay them at the cash register and head home without a second thought.

This is our country’s working class, many of whom will spend today as they spend every other day: working. They work multiple shifts for multiple jobs, every day, without weekends or vacations or holidays. They spend an extraordinary amount of their lives in a bland corporate uniform, repeating the same phrases and stocking the same shelves over and over. Statistically most of them will never have any chance to do anything else.

In recent years, liberal Americans have become increasingly conscious of this quiet tragedy, and have mobilized to oppose it. But their failure to challenge capitalism directly has done little to help the working class – and only proves how deeply injustice is embedded in the American economy.

Shameless exploitation

ThinkProgress, a publication of the influential liberal Center for American Progress think tank, has led the way in the campaign to shame companies that force employees to work on Thanksgiving. Their “Buyer Be Fair” listing of such companies, while falling short of an actual boycott, relies on an identical premise: consumers should use the market to punish some stores and reward others.

In practice, the effort is unlikely to succeed. Millions of American still plan to shop on Thanksgiving day, according to consumer surveys — more than enough to justify staying open from a sales perspective. And even those protesters who choose to stay home on Thursday will be back soon enough, if the transience of historical boycotts are any indication.

The problem has nothing to do with malevolent or greedy managers and everything to do with the shameless logic of capitalism. Insofar as the boycotts succeed in shutting some companies down, other companies will gain a greater share of the business that remains. This creates a perverse dynamic in which the only companies that take a financial hit are the ones that close, while the more ruthless and exploitive companies win more of the market.

Furthermore, as Matt Yglesias points out on, many employees want to work on Thanksgiving. This isn’t because they’d rather work than enjoy a day at home with their families – it’s because they desperately need the money.

“This is a tragic fact of life, and perhaps a good reason to hope for a utopian socialist future. But keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving won’t usher in that utopia,” he writes.

What’s the solution?

Yglesias is right that boycotts and ethical management can’t fix the problem. But he also dismisses solutions to the problem as “utopian” – and that’s where he’s wrong. There are in fact a full range of solutions at the disposal of anyone willing to question capitalistic dogma.

For instance, a relatively simple and pragmatic solution would be to simply outlaw business operations on Thanksgiving. There are plenty of objections to this approach, but none that can’t be solved without simple pragmatic fixes. For example, let essential businesses operate by issuing exemptions. Give tax breaks or returns to compensate employees for lost wages.

Which suggest another solution: tax the rich and use the funds to build a social safety net so generous that no one can be economically coerced into working on Thanksgiving. Guarantee the basics, like food and housing, and let people make decisions about work schedules from a place of financial security.

Of course, once we recognize the role that financial coercion plays in forcing people to work on Thanksgiving, the best solution becomes obvious: give workers control of their own workplace. The abstract rights that wealthy capitalists claim over our entire economy shouldn’t trump our right to have a democratic voice in decisions that have an immediate impact on our daily lives. Americans have always fought to protect our vote outside of the workplace; give us a vote inside the workplace, too.

That would be something to be thankful for.

Photo courtesy mahat64.