Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Which Retail Stores Are Helping to Destroy Thanksgiving?

Retailers join the restaurant industry in exploiting a legion of low-wage workers who are being forced to work on Thanksgiving.

There’s an old American tradition rearing its head this holiday season, but it’s not warm and fuzzy and family-friendly. It’s capitalist exploitation of a legion of low-wage workers who are being forced to work on Thanksgiving, as national retailers are joining the travel and restaurant industry with mandatory work and longer hours.

In recent years, many big-box retailers, led by Walmart, have opened at midnight, in the first seconds of what’s called Black Friday. But more recently, a trickle of retailers have started opening after dinner on Thursday. Now, even some chains that did that last year—but closed for dinner hours—are opening early and staying open all day.

Kmart gets the award for rushing to the head of this dismal trend. To try to be fair, the chain—like many retailers—has struggled since the economy crashed in 2008. But is opening at 6am, staying open all day, and requiring employees to work extra-long shifts the way for Kmart and other struggling chains to rebuild their brands? Must low-level employees always bear the brunt of management’s profit-centered decisions?

“No requests off will be accepted for the following holiday dates,” read a sign posted at a Chicago Kmart, then listing November 27, 28, 29, and December 22, 23, 24. When asked by the Huffington Post about these draconian hours, a company spokeswoman said the sign “appears a rogue and unauthorized posting,” adding that workers are paid overtime and the company was asking for volunteers for dinnertime shifts.

It’s not rogue; it’s company policy. Kmart is not alone in turning Thanksgiving into Thanksbuying. Kmart workers quoted by the Post said they were going to disappoint their kids because they couldn’t see their relatives, as the chain would be open for nearly two days straight. Others spoke about having to leave dinner last year—the last time that they saw a parent who passed away soon afterward. That employee quit and went to work for Radio Shack, which is closed on Thanksgiving.   

“By the time that we get home on Thanksgiving, we’re just going to be passing out and then we have to wake up the next day to work a 12-hour shift on Black Friday,” Tyler Sieger, a 20-year-old clerk who makes $8.75 an hour, said, complaining about how the bargains seem to incite the shopper equivalent of road rage. “It gets way out of hand.”    

Virtually every big city newspaper has had stories this week promoting the longer hours and listing when stores are opening. “Shopping on Thanksgiving evening has become a tradition to be shared with family and friends,” the Arizona Republic said, adding that shopping is a good option for people who don’t want to sit around or watch television. “Shopping is a sport and this is our Super Bowl,” a Phoenix resident said.

If this is a sport, it’s a bit of a race to the bottom, including the eyebrow-raising irony that many of the salespeople working couldn’t afford to buy the products they are selling. As Forbes pointed out, a Walmart in Canton, Ohio, is holding a Thanksgiving charity food drive for its employees and praising them for being generous. In 2012, Walmart’s pre-tax earnings were $24.4 billion and it paid $4.6 in taxes—meaning it can afford to pay its employees more.

“That captures Walmart right there,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University told Forbes. “Walmart is setting up bins because its employees don’t make enough to feed themselves and their families.”

The newspapers covering consumerism’s newest frontline say the reason these stores are doing this is because of a quirk in the calendar that has fewer shopping days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They also say that longer hours will prevent bad behavior by the public, such as stampedes when doors open that have landed some workers in the hospital and killed one Walmart worker in New York.

But more sober-minded business page reporters are correctly pointing out that retailers are anxious, because profits have been down ever since the economy crashed in 2008 and the response by corporate executives is to force their workers to skip one of the few family holidays left in America.

“It’s one thing to be economically afraid. It’s another to be cut off from fully celebrating America’s all-race, all-religion family holiday because you and your fellow Americans are fearful economically,” wrote the New York Post’s Nicole Gelinas. “That’s what’s happening to millions of retail workers who had to work on Thanksgiving for the past decade. Stores aren’t opening on Thanksgiving because they’re doing well: They’re open because they’re not doing well.”    

Who are the worst offenders in 2013? Kmart and Sears appear to be opening earliest, at 6am and 8am on Thanksgiving. Old Navy follows at 9am, but closes at 4pm for a few hours. Then there’s a rush by many retailers to open before the dishes are clear. Toys R Us opens at 5pm. Best Buy, BrandsMart USA, Sports Authority and Walmart open at 6pm. Then a whole bunch at 8pm, such as Target, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Kohls, Disney Store, etc.. “Are you ready,” asked the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this week. “The big event kicks off in just three days.” 

Retailers may be the latest industry to destroy Thanksgiving as a family holiday. But they are not alone. The restaurant industry will be making millions of meals, which means that kitchens and wait staffs and busers will be serving others instead of sitting at a table with their friends and families. The National Restaurant Association predicts that another 18 million people will be buying Thanksgiving dinner from restaurants, with 4 million people ordering “a full takeout meal” and 14 million who “plan to order parts.”

Hotels and airlines are also blindingly busy on the holiday, as are well-paid police and firefighters. But, as the Post’s Gelinas noted, “Saving someone’s life is different than selling a LeapPad2. And yes, hotel and restaurant workers toil, too—but that’s no reason to make more people work than necessary.”

Not every big retail chain is open on Thanksgiving. Nordstrom will begin its holiday sales season on Friday, a decision which was “liked” by more than 20,000 of its Facebook friends. You can bet its employees also liked that decision, and it lifted their morale as their busiest shopping season begins.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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