Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, revolves around the communal family meal. With Americans' increasingly busy schedules, it is a rare occasion to slow down and be with your nearest and dearest. But if some retailers have it their way, Thanksgiving will soon be more about shopping than family togetherness.
Increasingly, stores are opting to open on Thanksgiving in an effort to extend Black Friday sales. Worse, at Kmart, employees say they've been prohibited from taking time off during the holiday shopping season and fear getting fired if they don't work on Thanksgiving. And it's not just big-box retailers that are participating in what some are calling "Gray Thursday". Walden Galleria in upstate New York will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving and retail tenants who fail to open their doors may be punished with a fine.
For the bargain hunter looking to save money on their holiday shopping, getting a jump on Black Friday deals may sound great, but what about the employees who will have to staff the stores? When shopping for a bargain is more important than working families being able to spend a holiday together, it's time for Americans to take a hard look at our priorities.
The "holiday creep" -- when the holidays are pushed on consumers earlier and earlier each year -- is reaching new levels of ridiculousness. Retailers rationalize being open on Thanksgiving by saying they are responding to customer interest. And the holiday shopping season is when a lot of stores make the bulk of their sales, so from an economic standpoint, adding another day makes sense, right? Maybe not. Experts say the trend may actually cannibalize sales from Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. And new research from the National Retail Federation suggests that only 11% of Americans even plan on shopping on Thanksgiving anyway -- so sales may not even be that great.
While making employees work on Thanksgiving may not seem like the most egregious employer offense, this problem is indicative of the overall erosion of workers' power in this country. With the decline of union membership, Americans increasingly lack the basic workplace protections that they once enjoyed. Research shows that employees are being intimidated from being able to organize for their own rights, leaving workers to have to rely on the goodwill of their employers for everything from health insurance to a day off for Thanksgiving.
So what can we do about this disturbing trend? First, let's put shopping off for a day. Spend time with your family and with your friends. Eat some turkey and pie. Slow down and take a moment to be thankful for what you have. Second, let's tell retailers that it goes against the very essence of Thanksgiving to prevent workers from spending time with their families on the holiday.
Sign a petition, contact your policymakers, show up to a protest, donate money to workers organizing for better treatment and fairer wages or just ask about what conditions are like for workers where you shop or dine. Americans say they they value family and morality above all else. Well, then, let's prove it. Thanksgiving is a perfect time to put those collective values to work by pushing employers to treat working families with the respect they deserve all year long.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.