Is It Wrong to Require Work on Black Friday?

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There’s always the choice of boycotting businesses that require work on Turkey Day. The choice to opt-out exists, for both shoppers and workers.

By James E. Miller @ Mises

Supporters of workers’ rights have two tropes they constantly revisit. The first is the argument for higher wages – either an increased minimum wage or the dreaded “living” wage. The demand for higher government-enforced pay seems incapable of dying a much needed death. The other liberal sound bite is more seasonal: the call to eliminate required shifts on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Every year, as the weather adopts a certain chill and Christmas ornaments start emerging from the garage, a slew of editorials and online campaigns crop up, denouncing the inhumanity of requiring work on Thanksgiving and the day after known as Black Friday. The Thinking Housewife blog recently published a note posted at a local Toys “R” Us that asked workers to choose one shift for each day. The posting informed employees they “must” choose a shift and that “no one will be permitted off!”

Thanksgiving has traditionally been a holiday reserve for families to come together and give thanks for one another and their blessings. In recent decades, there has been a trend among retail stores that open early the day after Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday shopping season. Opening time used to be 6 AM. Over the years, “doors open” was moved back by certain retailers in order to beat the competition. Most recently, Walmart decided to open up its stores at 8 PM on Thanksgiving Day to take advantage of the growing demand for cheap Christmas gifts.

The cutting short of the family feast has driven labor groups to protest required shifts for low-wage workers. The ire is understandable. Consumerism can be spiritually debilitating if not kept in check. Interrupting a day meant for togetherness with sales on big screen televisions rubs traditionalists the wrong way, and for good reason. But what’s forgotten in the hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving shopping is the economics of the event, which coincidentally creates a new tradition.

But first, a personal experience. For one year after college, I worked the early morning shift at a major department store. It was expected that everyone would work on Black Friday, regardless of availability. After all, the day following Thanksgiving was one of the busiest days of the year. During the hiring process, employees were warned that of all days, it was unacceptable to take off Black Friday, barring a serious emergency. Weeks in advance, the store’s schedule was built around the solitary day. Honestly, does anyone think this is inappropriate behavior for a retail business?

There was no duplicity involved in having employees work in the early hours following Thanksgiving. The demand for working on Black Friday is upfront. Those who accept employment almost always agree to the stipulation beforehand. Why would management ever employ anyone who refuses to work on the day that staff is needed the most?

It should also be pointed out that corporations are not all monolithic entities run by unfeeling, stone-faced Glenngarry Rosses.The warning that all employees are expected to work the day after Thanksgiving is almost never concrete. Special circumstances can be made. No business wants the PR disaster that is denying an employee a day off when their immediate relative is dying, or their spouse is giving birth. Exemptions are possible, if requested. That was certainly the case based on my own short-lived stint in retail.

The late economist Ronald Hamowy once remarked that in Canada, if “you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk.” This was a problem, Hamowy reckoned, because the clerk is seen “as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” This is an over-exaggeration that may be true on some level, but is stretched to prove a point. Much in the same manner, the employee-employer management relation is seen. The worker is looked upon as helpless compared to his heartless, greed-driven supervisor. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that the employment agreement is both mutual and beneficial to both parties. It can be severed at any time. There is no forced servitude involved in market interactions.

It may seem insensitive, or even inhuman, to tear apart families for the purposes of selling high-end appliances at fire sale prices. But there’s another side to the coin. Black Friday also provides families with the the chance to spend additional quality time with each other. The day provides an auxiliary tradition to the feast of turkey and stuffing among family. Not only that, but the deals on Black Friday also provide the opportunity for shoppers to purchase gifts for loved ones that would ordinarily be out of reach on normal occasions.

Black Friday is a human creation like any other. There is not some hidden oppression behind the event. It’s unfortunate that some people must work on the day rather than spend time with their families, but no worker goes into the holiday weekend blind. They know what is expected. And they know their labor will be put toward making someone’s Christmas Day that much better.

In a wonderful 2008 article for National Review, Jim Geraghty wrote that the Thanksgiving holiday demonstrates “some parts of American life are gloriously impervious to change.” National football, the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City, local sports, in-laws bickering over dinner – these things and more symbolize the fourth Thursday of November. But like it or not, Black Friday has become a sacred ritual for many families. It provides another activity to bring people together, even if it’s over buying flashy electronics.

Black Friday might represent greedy consumerism at its worst, but it’s still a growing tradition. It’s also the biggest shopping day of the year for many brick-and-mortar store locations. For some businesses, it provides much-needed relief in the form of an influx of cash. At the core of the issue is that if an employee of a chain store doesn’t want to work on Thanksgiving or the day after, they can always find another position that affords them the day off. “Them’s the breaks” as they say. No amount of protesting can change what has become a widely celebrated event. There’s always the choice of boycotting businesses that require work on Turkey Day. The choice to opt-out exists, for both shoppers and workers.

Perhaps even the most well-meaning of observers will remember the freedom of choice before scrawling “people before profits” across their computer screen this year.

This article originally appeared at Mises