I’ve been traveling to and from my hometown since the middle of last week, and so I got a little bit behind in my reading, both here and elsewhere. I mention this as a means of acknowledging at the outset that much of what I have to say has already been said hereabouts. However, having been encouraged to go ahead and post something anyway, I may as well proceed.
The burr got stuck under my saddle reading about Wal-mart’s holiday woes in The Daily Beast.
“We don’t call it Black Friday, we call it Black Thanksgiving,” said Michael Ahlef, 22, a Walmart cashier who said he was willing to risk arrest at a protest in Minneapolis because he was so desperate for the company to introduce a living wage. “They’re going to have to start listening to us soon,” he told The Daily Beast.
Ahlef said there simply were no other employment opportunities where he lived in the town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. “If you don’t want to work in manufacturing, it’s either Walmart or fast food, and fast food pays even worse,” he said. Ahlef, who works late shifts five days a week, earned $17,000 before tax last year. [emphasis added]
I certainly hope the protesters can come up with a more compelling spokesman for their case than Mr. Ahlef. Because Mr. Ahlef is not doing their cause any favors.
If you don’t want to work in manufacturing, then you must deal with the offerings left after you’ve opted to slim down your pickings. I don’t know what’s wrong with the various different manufacturers in Sauk Centre, but on the face of it working to make wind turbines or custom trailers seems like gainful employment to me. If not working on Thanksgiving is of paramount importance to you, then see if the creamery is closed that day and put in an application. If the entire manufacturing sector is anathema, however, then you take what remains on the job market.
I am not writing this post to go to bat for Wal-mart per se. I find many of their business practices somewhat suspect and have no particular love for the company. For that matter, I find the entire notion of wanting to spend holidays in a packed shopping center with your fellow crazed consumers bizarre, to say the least. But I don’t understand this anger that seems to have taken hold surrounding the specific question of making your employees work on holidays. That simply does not strike me as an injustice.
Which brings me to Ethan’s post on the subject. He writes:
Even if some people prefer to work holidays, or a majority, there doesn’t seem to be anything confusing about the fact that those who don’t are nevertheless forced to, if not by material circumstance like their “willing” counterparts, than by the threat of being fired by their employers.
It’s not as if businesses put working on Thanksgiving to a vote, and abide by the wishes of the majority of their workers, opening on holidays only if there are enough willing to do so of their own accord. A Pizza Hut general manager abided by the popular will of his employees, refusing to call them into work tomorrow, and was fired for it.
Of course he was fired for it! He cost the company money! If our head medical assistant took a poll of her colleagues and, based on the result, tried to close our office, we’d fire her, too. (She is far too sensible to do such a silly thing.)
Employers make their employees work on holidays all the time. Our office is closed for six major holidays, but is open for many state holidays when other businesses are closed. Showing up for work on those days is not optional, unless an employee chooses to take a vacation day. Is there something unjust about that? Our employees are paid well, we value them, and we do our best to be good employers. (I suspect many of Wal-mart’s critics would stipulate that the company does not do thusly, which is a separate matter.) We don’t force anyone to work for us, and if working on Columbus Day is a deal-breaker, then we wish you well somewhere else.
Can someone help me see what’s wrong with this? I suppose we could close for state holidays, but then we would be less profitable. If we were less profitable, we would likely not be able to consider raises for employees, new hires or holiday bonuses. Those latter things seem on balance worth the small risk we take with regard to employee satisfaction by staying open, and so far so good.
Ethan goes on to say that the very employees who most need a political solution to their quandary have least resources to devote to a political cause. Perhaps so. But I don’t get what specific policies that he would like to have enacted. As a relatively liberal guy, I certainly want to see workers treated well. But as a partner in a small business, I’d fight like hell any law that mandated closure on certain days.
I could understand an argument for mandatory holiday pay. If Wal-mart’s critics want to rally around that specific point, they’re welcome to. But they then have to keep in mind that any mandatory holiday pay enacted would impact profits in a manner similar to being closed, with all the considerations I note above. I know arguing in favor of profitable business means they’re going to come shred my “good liberal” card any minute now (I donate to NPR, I swear!), but profits let companies do all kinds of good things. We mustn’t play too fast and loose with them.
As someone who has worked in hospitals open 365 days a year, myself often on holidays, I was bound to be skeptical of this particular woe. Yes, hospitals provide a necessary service, but that may not come as much comfort to the low-wage employees who are made to show up to deliver food trays, even if they’d rather not. And surely we’re not going to make businesses pass some ill-defined moral test of public good to determine if they have a right to be open. Why is providing shoppers with a chance to shop (confounding as I may find it) not good enough reason for a retailer to unlock its doors?
I suspect the “Black Thanksgiving” criticism has taken hold as a proxy for Wal-mart’s larger problems as an employer. It has a patina of unfairness to it for everyone who is fortunate enough to have holidays off. But it does not bear much scrutiny as a placeholder issue, because I think the arguments for its unfairness are thin. Working on Thanksgiving (or Christmas, as I’m slated to do next year) is no fun, to be sure. However, that doesn’t make it wrong.