Shopping on Thanksgiving kills poor workers’ holidays

But labor gets short shrift in too much of the coverage of encroaching commercialization

Perhaps I’m feeling a little wistful as I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving outside the U.S. for the first time.

As I told Brooke Gladstone this weekend on On the Media, it’s my favorite day of the year. You know, turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie, grandma’s house, backyard football, crisp autumn air—all that bit.

Just as important: It’s been the last holdout from the hyper-commercialization of the American culture. The marketers have commandeered Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July, and blue laws are mostly a thing of the past. They even figured out a way to exploit President’s Day. Abe Lincoln wants you to buy a Lincoln, see.

But in an America obsessed with both work and consumption, there’s been nothing much to do or to buy on Thanksgiving. Cook, eat, talk, nap, maybe watch a little football. And just about everybody but Waffle House and Walmart workers got the day off.

That’s changing as Black Friday sales become Thanksgiving Night sales. More retailers than ever will open this year on Thanksgiving Day, a phenomenon that has led to quite a bit of hand-wringing in the press—and rightly so.

It’s revealing, though, that the hand-wringing is largely about us—the folks who are fortunate enough to not have to work Thanksgiving. In this narrative, the sales are invading our sacred family time and screwing up our schedules: Now we have to go shopping on Thanksgiving because that’s when the big sales will be.

But what about the workers? You know, the poorly paid people who have to leave their families and friends to go to their shitty jobs because you can’t wait to buy stuff on Friday? They call it the service industry because they serve you, you know. Shoppers aren’t much thinking about these people and neither is the press.

USA Today never bothers to mention workers in its story headlined “Thanksgiving shopping a sacrilege for some.”

Here’s a New York Times story with this grating lede:

Teenagers and college students can spend only so much time cooped up with their families on a holiday like Thanksgiving.

This year, some retailers are betting that this target spending group dashes out the door after dinner, perhaps dodging dishwashing or other duties, and in all likelihood ditching their parents.

Destination: the mall.

Teagan Marshall, 20, of New York City, said shopping on Thanksgiving definitely had appeal. As she stood in a Forever 21 in Manhattan, she added, “That seems like a good way to celebrate to me.”

The Times relegates concerns about workers to the 26th paragraph.

The Ann Arbor News (nee, nee The Ann Arbor News) doesn’t even mention any backlash to the Thanksgiving encroachment in a rewritten press release about the local mall opening early. Nor does the Washington Post in this piece.

This piece leaves it to the 21st graph of a piece with the angle, “Will turning Thanksgiving into new Black Friday pay off for retailers?” while the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel completely neglects the labor angle, as does the Stamford Advocate, the Abilene Reporter-News, and many more.

ABC News rewrites a Walmart press release and comes out with “Walmart to Give Workers Turkey Dinner on Thanksgiving.”

While ABC quotes a worker’s anti-Walmart petition, it gives most of the room to Walmart flacks, who assure it that “associates are really excited to work that day. It’s a pretty high-energy day for associates as well.”

CNBC, naturally, runs with the retail industry’s line, headlining its piece “Retailers sweeten the pot for Thanksgiving workers.” It’s similarly assured that “At Macy’s, employees have been responding positively to the retailer’s decision to open for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, said Jim Sluzewski, senior vice president of corporate communications and external affairs.”

Fortunately there have been a lot of exceptions to this poor coverage.

The Huffington Post wrote a piece about Costco, BJ’s Wholesale, and Nordstrom standing against the Thanksgiving incursion. Here’s what Costco, which pays its workers roughly double what Walmart pays, had to say:

“Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families,” Paul Latham, the company’s vice president for membership and marketing, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “Nothing more complicated than that.”

No word if Costco workers were beating down the doors to volunteer to work like those at Walmart and Macy’s.

The Seattle Times has a good story that covers the labor angle prominently. Amy Martinez gets this great stuff from an actual worker (!):

A local Sports Authority worker said he’ll miss out on Thanksgiving dinner with his family because he has to report for duty at 5 p.m. Thursday for the store’s 6 p.m. opening. He said the holiday shift comes with no extra pay or perks.

“My family doesn’t plan to eat dinner until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so I won’t be spending Thanksgiving with them, basically,” said the twenty-something worker, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, citing a fear of getting fired. “The whole thing seems over the top. I don’t see why you can’t just open at 6 a.m. on Black Friday and close at 10 p.m.”

By doing a little reporting, Martinez got the Times a perfect example of the serious problems with stores opening on Thanksgiving.

Finally, Bloomberg News has a very good story on the Thanksgiving labor angle, reporting that unions are being energized by the backlash and putting retail creep into context:

Macy’s Inc., whose annual Manhattan parade is a cherished Thanksgiving tradition for millions, is starting a new holiday ritual: It’s asking its employees to show up for work.

Pressured by competition, a shorter shopping season and lackluster consumer spending, at least a dozen U.S. mega-retailers are opening for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, such as Macy’s, or opening earlier that day than in previous years. They are following Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest U.S. employer, which has been open for business on Thanksgiving for more than 25 years.

“Another holiday bites the dust in favor of retailers,” Candace Corlett, president of New York consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, said in a Nov. 12 phone interview. “Our culture now is to shop, and to get the best deals. Thanksgiving as a day of rest was another culture, another time, not today.”

The expansion of hours will take more than a million employees away from their families during the holiday.

That’s what I’m talking about!

The selling-on-Thanksgiving story is many things: it’s a business story, a cultural story, a local story—but it’s an important labor story too.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.