Thanksgiving Day conjures images of turkey, football and, for better or worse, time with family. But for an increasing number of retail workers, it's just another Thursday.
Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, Bruno, also the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago, discusses the trend of retailers opening their doors to holiday shoppers on Thanksgiving Day.
What's your take on some retailers having normal business hours on Thanksgiving Day in anticipation of Black Friday?
I think it's a particularly pernicious form of labor exploitation, and it's a really unfortunate move on the part of those retailers.
I also think it speaks volumes about the labor practices of those retailers. If they can squeeze more profit out of compelling their employees to work during a holiday, their attitude seems to be, why not? Especially if consumers are willing to show up and shop. It shows they're making decisions consistent with the way they treat their employees, and it's just a natural extension of the cost of doing business.
With increased competition from online shopping, brick-and-mortar retailers are constantly looking for an edge. Staying open on Thanksgiving Day is one way they can differentiate themselves. The holidays generate the bulk of their profits, and they're looking to wring any and all additional dollars they can out of consumers. But it's really harming their employees, the people who are the public face of their companies, and their families.
A recent social media trend has users signing an online petition vowing not to shop on Thanksgiving Day. Will such a tactic have any type of effect?
We shouldn't undervalue the kind of organizing that can be done through social media - nor should we overvalue it. The consumer market for retail goods during the holiday season is so huge that to make any significant dent in a company's bottom line would take an enormous number of people choosing not to shop at a particular store.
The U.S. economy is a consumer economy, and a great deal is made about the power of the consumer. But frankly, what determines the way a retailer treats its employees is more a function of what's happening inside those stores and whether those workers are organized. If we begin to see petition drives from groups that were being linked to a push for a higher minimum wage or other job actions, then perhaps those campaigns would have more teeth.
But the less it's tied to what's happening in those stores, the less I'm confident it makes much of a difference. It's more of an awareness campaign, really. But it is an incremental step that brings some attention. People will start talking about it, and that dialog could contribute to a longer-term movement that attempts to sensitize the American public about the realities of retail work.
I think what could possibly turn the tide would be those same retailers being open on Christmas Day. I think that would really make consumers a lot less comfortable walking into a particular store.
In terms of job security, how vulnerable is the average retail worker?
They are highly vulnerable workers who don't have a lot of job security and can't afford to refuse work.
The retail economy is huge, and it's a big part of where work has been created in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession. Two out of every three jobs created are in the low-wage retail industry. These jobs are largely nonunionized, and most workers earn minimum wage or slightly more. Most retail workers also contribute to a family's income - more than one-third are raising children along with working. And most can't afford the health care plans their companies offer.
They're also not provided with career development paths. And because of the hours they're putting in - which aren't guaranteed, and usually aren't set week-to-week, so their schedules may change with less than 24-hours notice - they have little opportunity to plan for a different future.
And yet they are generating tremendous revenue for their employers. I just hope the consumers who choose to shop on Thanksgiving Day appreciate the person behind the counter or cash register.
The U.S. has been dubbed the "no-vacation nation." It's the only major industrialized country where employers are not required to provide employees with paid time off. Do you foresee that changing?
It certainly does need to change. The U.S. trails the rest of the industrialized world not only in not providing paid vacation, but also in not providing paid sick time. So a lot of those workers who are slogging through the holiday season are going to work sick because they can't afford not to work, which is another real embarrassment for the U.S. economy.
The one silver lining is the movement that we've seen in cities and states around the country to raise the minimum wage. That's heartening, especially the degree of voter support for that movement, not just in states like Illinois, but also in red states like Arkansas. Large majorities of citizens, sometimes more than two-thirds of voters, are saying increase the minimum wage. That suggests the American voter, who also is the American consumer, believes that workers deserve a raise.
That's not inconsistent with talking about giving those same workers some paid time off. Those really go together, and getting a minimum number of paid days off may well be the next campaign to get legislative support. There's definitely a conversation to be had about paid time off and the American worker.