How much is the American worker supposed to put up with? Ordinary Americans are already overworked and underpaid, but major retailers like Wal-Mart are pushing their “Black Friday” sales into Thanksgiving day, some starting at 10 p.m. on the holiday. These stores are invading one of the few holidays many workers get anymore.
Thanksgiving is about family and friends rejoicing together, relaxing after all the hard work of the year. But now workers in these stores are even losing that option; if stores continue the drive to start “black Friday” on Thursday, some employees will have to literally get up from the Thanksgiving table and head in to work.
Our economy has become a treadmill for both workers and consumers alike, locked in an awful race of overwork and consumption. If the retailers don’t get into the “black,” that is, turn huge profits during the pre-Christmas sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving, then there is the threat that more workers will lose their jobs. Consumers, with their salaries flat or even cut in recent years, think they need the sales in order to afford gifts for the holidays. Workers are locked on to this same treadmill, having to service the consumption in order for the machinery of the economy to “improve.”
This system is profoundly immoral. First, the basic premise is false. These retailers don’t need to encroach on Thanksgiving in order to survive. Corporations are making huge profits, and they are increasingly doing so on the backs of American workers. “In the past 20 years, the US economy has grown nearly 60 percent,” according to Dan Gilson of Mother Jones. This is not only due to the Internet and automation, but also as a “result of Americans working harder—often without a big boost to their bottom lines. Oh, and meanwhile, corporate profits are up 20 percent.”
Second, the human toll of this increased “productivity” is “heartbreaking and harrowing,”as shown by personal stories of overworked Americans. The stories are crucial to understanding the human cost of our skewed economic values. From warehouse workers to surgeons, from teachers to mental health technicians, the stories in this article show how few escape the productivity treadmill powered by human overwork.
Let us be clear. Squeezing profits out of the American worker in this way not only violates standards of basic human dignity, from a faith perspective it also is an affront to the God who created people in God’s image. This is why I appreciate so much the work of John Paul II in laying out a theology of work. In his famous encyclical “On Human Work,” the Pope John Paul II wrote that work is fundamental to the truth of the human condition. Through work, people become who they are intended to be. Through work, human beings share “In the activity of the Creator “(Laborem Exercens, V.25).
When, however, work becomes grinding toil for flat or reduced wages and workers are afforded little rest, it violates human dignity; this has serious consequences for people’s sense of self-worth. It can contribute to a sense of helplessness and despair, and can spill over into family and society as people are more and more tired and stressed. Work today is becoming an attack on the fundamental dignity and worth of human beings as expressed through their work.
These retailers need to re-think not only their proposed intrusion into their workers’ Thanksgiving holiday, they also need to be pushed to find a decent balance among work hours, compensation and profits for the whole year. Just a decent balance, is that too much to ask?
“People before profits” say the signs at #OWS. They’re right.