The idea of spending time with family and friends on holidays has been under assault for decades. Corporate lobbyists pay politicians big bucks to oppose legal holidays and paid time off. Unions are only recently fighting back after a long retreat. Mega-shopping events like Black Friday carve holiday time away from retail workers. E-commerce giants like Amazon push workers to the limit.
Today, 23% of the “civilian” workforce – meaning workers who are not firefighters, cops, EMTs, or other emergency responders – do not get federal holidays off. The lower your wage, the higher chance you have of working a holiday. Half of the country’s lowest-paid workers (those in the bottom 25% of wages) don’t get any holidays off.
Corporate lobbyists have succeeded in making the US the only advanced capitalist country that does not legally mandate time off for any holiday. In other countries, the labor movement and workers’ parties won the legal right to relax on holidays. Spain requires 12 paid holidays, Austria and Portugal get 13, and Canada requires 9.
The holiday season is often more stressful for workers. A 2021 survey of retail workers found that 59% say that customers’ behavior worsens during the holiday shopping season. The condition could get even more stressful for the 40% of workers who said that they were afraid their employers wouldn’t have enough workers to handle the busy retail season, and 43% who said that their employers haven’t done anything to prepare for increased workloads.
These are not new issues for working-class people. The rise of capitalism alongside the Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of work. More profits could be earned by keeping factories open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. One of the reasons early capitalists in England and the US embraced protestant Christianity was to increase production by cutting down on the more numerous Catholic holidays.
Likewise, workers have had to fight for the right to relax. Karl Marx’s first revolutionary writings were about the alienation industrial workers experienced as their lives were forced to conform to the needs of the machines and processes of modern capitalist production. The first Chapter of the Communist Manifesto talks about workers becoming “He becomes an appendage of the machine”. A century and a half later, Amazon workers at the JFK warehouse in Staten Island who won a breakthrough union election expressed similar issues in their slogans, like “we’re working to live, not living to work,” and “we are not robots”.
Over a hundred years ago, workers fought (and died) for the eight hour day so they could spend time with their friends and families. Unions fought for paid holidays for every worker regardless of belief for similar reasons, though some union leaders have given ground. Today, 85% of union workers still get some paid holidays, but the problem is only one in twenty private sector are in unions today.
In the eyes of the bosses as a class, workers are seen as tools in the process of production, to be used when there are profits to be made and discarded when it is no longer profitable. If the bosses had their way, they would have complete flexibility over scheduling, zero responsibility for paid time off or injury, no pay for parental leave, etc. It took three supernatural interventions to convince Scrooge to change his greedy ways. Workers can’t wait for that. In the real world, we need to organize unions at every job, and fight for the right to relax.