Working on Holidays is Rarely a Choice
The extent of the post, which is less than 350 words, is Ygelsias talking to two working class people, one of whom sees working on holidays as a way to pick up some extra pay, and another who would prefer not to, “ovterime pay be damned.”
Based on this brief survey, Yglesias declares the question of having employees work holidays a complicated and morally ambiguous one.
This Thanksgiving there are going to be people with jobs at the Gap who wish they weren’t working Thanksgiving but feel that they’d lose their jobs if they weren’t willing to take an extra shift. There are also going to be people with jobs at Radio Shack who wish they could earn some extra cash and get out from under that credit card debt. I’m not persuaded that there’s a first-order question of social justice here one way or the other.
Apparently, he was too busy rolling his eyes (up to seven times by his count) at ThinkProgress‘ list of stores that are open on Thanksgiving to double, triple, or even quadruple his sample size, and in the absence of any concrete data, Yglesias seems to think that 1.) it’s not a clear-cut case of worker coercion, and 2.) even if it is it’s not an instance worth devoting time or energy to.
(Note: Yglesias is putting forth these claims not from behind the checkout-counter at a RadioShack, or as someone in close contact with anyone who works in retail. One would think if he was, he might have enlisted them in his research.)
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.
After all, it’s not as if the employees Yglesias dialogued with had any real choice in the matter. They needed the money and/or it was obligatory.
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.
But I think the larger issue isn’t that Yglesias thinks the possibility exists that quasi-wage slavery can be, in any meaningful sense, voluntary. It’s that he sees whatever injustice that’s associated with this sort of worker exploitation has “second order,” the indirect result of bigger problems like the lack of: full employment, universal healthcare, and affordable housing.
I don’t see the individual demands of one group of retailers on their workers as an issue easily segregated from the rest of the liberal policy agenda. In the end, how are we supposed to achieve those policies? By winning elections where opposing candidates are financially backed by that very same group of companies?
Is there any meaningful political space in which the asymmetric relationship between worker and employer isn’t just as dutifully reflected?
Many workers are forced to work holidays because they can’t afford not to. They need to pay for the necessities of life and continued high unemployment means they lack the bargaining power they require to negotiate, in a free market, without a union, for more flexibility and higher wages.
The same workers who don’t have off on Thanksgiving are then expected to find the time and the loose change to adequately fund and support political candidate who will represent them in the state legislature or Congress, winning for them the concessions they lacked the power to achieve on their own.
This doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success.
The economic circumstance which makes holiday labor for many mandatory aren’t simply a symptom of inadequate access to “affordable” health care and housing, they are also partly the cause of continued political failure on those fronts.
The material conditions of a “middle class” weren’t simply created by a band of do-gooder technocrats who happened to find themselves in power one day, nor can they just be reverse-engineered on a case by case basis. They were fought for and earned through hard work and sacrifice. Yglesias might advocate liberals do a better job of choosing their battles, but for those behind a check-out counter “choosing” never had anything to do with it.