Social Commentary

Thanksgiving Work

Working the Garden
Working the Garden

LAKE MACBRIDE— It became clear the planned Thanksgiving dinner was not going to happen when the well outage persisted into its third hour. We live in a rural subdivision with a public water system managed by volunteers. They took prompt action when the water stopped around 12:15 p.m., but the contractor lives in Toddville, so it took an hour or so for him to arrive once contacted. After the second hour of no water flow, we decided the gallon jug plus a few on-hand containers of water were not enough to finish preparing the menu in yesterday’s post. We rescheduled the vegetarian feast for Saturday, and I made a pizza requiring only a cup of water for the dough. Life is change and adaptation.

The cause du jour this holiday weekend is retail and restaurant workers called in to work on Thursday so people could shop after Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t get it.

Having lost count of the number of holidays I have had to work, I know what it’s like to sacrifice family time for a job. Working holidays included the only Thanksgiving my mother spent with us since our wedding. Even so, it’s hard to share the sense of moral outrage others express about low wage workers having to work on Thanksgiving. And I plan to continue the off and on annual trek to Farm and Fleet with a friend from high school later today, Black Friday or no. But maybe I do get it.

There is a progressive movement to increase the minimum wage, and selected low wage Thanksgiving workers have been used as a prop by unions and progressive organizations to call attention to the issue.  It’s advocacy 101. To the extent low-wage workers support it, I’m with them. I’m not convinced the vast majority do.

There are complicated reasons why a person would accept a low paying job. It’s always partly about the money, and who couldn’t use more of that? But it’s also about social networking, a sense of self-esteem, and the systemic reliability of the paycheck. The latter is almost never discussed, but it is important.

There is a stark difference between working for a small business and a large corporation with an established compensation program, and adequate cash flow. When a person begins work with a large corporation, there is a detailed and consistent process for generating a paycheck, one that is usually well explained during orientation and training. There are hiccups, but over the long haul, having such a process benefits both the employer and the employee. Working for a small business is different, and given a choice, people often choose to accept low wages and work for a large corporation. What you see is what you get, less subject to personality and its inherent inconsistencies, both of which are often found in small businesses.

That said, U.S. workers have a right to organize and form a union. Why is it that so few (6.6 percent in 2012) private sector workers form a union? Why is it private sector unionization efforts so often fall flat? The simple fact is that for low wage workers, union organizers represent one more thing to deal with in an already complex cultural fabric. Because a union can’t make any promises, there is little reason to join an organizing effort unless one is already disposed to do so. Too, the potential fluidity of lowly paid work is such that rather than deal with the drama of a union organizing effort, a person can easily move on to another position. As I have written previously, unions must become more relevant to low wage workers to have a chance to organize them. This is something they have failed to do, at least in my experience.

As the sun has risen, there is work to do before taking off to meet up with my friend. He’s a union member so I’m sure we won’t cross any picket or protest lines today. We may buy something, but if we do, it will only be something we need. I’m thankful for the working life that put me in this position… and not only on Thanksgiving.