“Do You Have to Work Later?”

by James Mcelroy

A family, a table, warm food – these seem to be the basics of Thanksgiving.  That Thursday, and the string of days imbued with sentiment in the weeks that follow, can occasion the extension of familial ties to friends, acquaintances, and, for the most generous, to strangers.  Around a table large or small, people gather to share a course or several.  The exchanges that mark the occasion often involve more than the food: conversations that may veer into the contentious, but also kinder sentiments realized, perhaps, by a day away from work. For some, the performativity may straddle the thin line between ritualistic comfort and the rote. (Photo: pennlive.com via the AP)

For many, the spirit of the holiday overshadows the politics of that week.  The other side of the wholesome celebration is, after all, a deliberate nationalist project the purposes of which are much less often interrogated. On the occasion of its 2017 iteration, let’s ask a question or two before indulging in the gravy, stuffing, and pie.

It’s been my recent experience that a popular topic of conversation around that Thursday table, as well as in the media this time of the year, surrounds the hours of operation of certain brick-and-mortar retail spaces – apparel, appliance, and electronic and electronic stores – on Thursday evening and Friday morning.  Intertwined with Thanksgiving is Black Friday, a nationalist project of its own sort, and one that used to enjoy several whole hours of removal from Thanksgiving.  Once there existed a peaceful pause in the November predawn chill, goes a common lament, before wholesome family sacrament transformed into absolute consumerist frenzy.

The first to breach this barrier between hallowed holiday and capitalist chaos was Sears in 2010, when the department store opened its doors to customers on Thursday evening.  Since then, the creep, or more accurately the steady recession of Black Friday hours into Thursday, has been a source of anxiety for some and produced a backlash among others.  That’s just a shame, maybe an aunt or uncle opines over the turkey and cranberry sauce.  Don’t they care about their workers?  “Do you have to work later?” was, for a number Thanksgivings in a row, a question of concern posed to my cousin who worked part-time at an electronics store, the answer to which was always an affirmation marked by casual acceptance.  Yes, retail workers work holidays, and yes, if you’re employed by a store chances are your Thanksgiving experiences are necessarily inflected with that embodied knowledge – the soreness in the legs of a supermarket worker following the five busiest days of the year, or perhaps the early, unelaborate meal eaten away from the family to allow for the rest necessary to be back at the shop by 9pm.  And, certainly, retail workers are far, far from the only people laboring away from loved ones that Thursday: soldiers, nurses, drivers; police and firefighters; restaurant and theater employees; so many others.

Why, then, do the working conditions of retail clerks occasion attention and apparent concern regarding the Black Thursday trend – working conditions generally unthought of by many for the rest of the year?  Several stores in the last few holiday cycles have eschewed the obscenely early opening time, and they would like you to know that they really do care to have their employees spend Thanksgiving with their family.  An alternative reality might be that, operationally, opening stores for Black Friday at midnight or earlier on Thursday has not proven cost effective for many stores.

The answer may lie in the discomfort with, or the latent anxiety exposed by, the news reports of the first Black Thursday contraventions, stories that (as good news stories do) put faces and names to events. Those faces and names were the workers seemingly most affected by the stores’ adjusted scheduling.  Scenes of Black Friday mobs had for many years provoked a mix of bemusement and consternation, but represented an accepted anomalous moment for the outrageous acting out of commercial impulses.  But, what if that madness could no longer be contained and channeled through the authorized period of the weeks leading up to the Big December Shopping Event?  Worse, what if that pathos pierced our secular version of “Holy Thursday”?  Might such a transgression threaten to portend a psychic confrontation with the question, what exactly are the limits of American capitalism? And, when should we start to talk about this?

Anyone who has worked for a grocery store during the Thanksgiving holiday can laugh at the absurdity of the notion that commercial hysteria was ever in any real way deferred until after Thursday.  And, if there was a cause for concern that retail workers would like more people to give a shit about, it would be their wages, their job security, and their health insurance, not whether they have to work at 4am on Black Friday.  Contrary to the discourse that normalizes certain kinds of work as “unskilled” (which not only creates condescension but more importantly an outright delusion about the nature of work, and therefore militates against  solidarity, a unity needed now more than ever), the cause for alarm is not the character of the clerk’s workday.  Rather, it’s the routine by which those at the margins of employment, and those who live in precarity, are ignored in all other instances; those who are the least supported by the nation-state and American capitalism on Thursday and Friday are the people without whom a “holiday experience” would be impossible.  In the presence of family and over some warm food on a table, these questions and conversations – though less comfortable – are worth exploring and could shake up the rote this year.