October 22, 2015

Gabrielle Gurley had a fascinating piece in Commonwealth yesterday, The pushback against T-Day openings, about liquor store owners who oppose a legislative proposal to allow packies to open on Thanksgiving Day. As perhaps the last Blue Laws enthusiast in the commonwealth I always find such stories of interest. Also, it brings together commerce and morality, an area where commerce almost always wins.

Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut has filed legislation to allow liquor stores to open on Thanksgiving because New Hampshire permits it. As all parents understand, if your neighbors allow their kid to do something stupid, you should immediately authorize your own child to do it too. But many Massachusetts liquor store owners have testified against the legislation – they’d rather spend the day with their families, and they want their employees to have the same option.

Ms. Gurley describes the conflict in terms of workers’ rights; her opening sentence is “Workers want their lives back.” But owners seem just as troubled: “package store owners  . . . don’t want to sell alcohol on Turkey Day, but, being good capitalists, may be forced to open if their competitors do.” Rick Curtin, who owns a liquor store on the South Shore, stated his opposition because “it’s a sacred day to me and my family.” Thanksgiving Day retail openings have been described as a moral issue too, as some national corporations struggle with the decision of opening on Thanksgiving.

Workers and capitalists, morality and the sacred – that’s a lot to unpack in a simple story about border booze peddlers competing with New Hampshire liquor stores.

As the late political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams argued, America has two languages: the prevailing language of individuality and commerce, and the older but muted language of Scriptural morality. Family time for workers may indeed be sacred and it is liberals who usually speak up for the rights of workers. As Jonathon Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind, the spiritual left uses the moral foundation of sanctity to criticize capitalism. But, since many liberals are uncomfortable with religion, they deny themselves the most available language of moral justice.

Conservatives are more comfortable with Biblical language and with the moral foundation of sanctity. Haidt says that American conservatives often discuss sacredness in terms of the “sanctity of life” or the “sanctity of marriage.” That frame does not usually extend to workplace rights. As my own experience as last man standing in favor of the Blue Laws attests, the language of commerce usually wins out over the language of justice for workers. Live free or die, just don’t expect to enjoy the first part if WalMart needs you to cover a Thanksgiving Day shift.

The small Massachusetts liquor store owners don’t want to open on Thanksgiving – they want to preserve the sacredness of the day for their own families and the families of their employees. In writing of the moral foundation of sanctity, Haidt describes a commercial transaction so appallingly disgusting that all find it objectionable. Is forcing workers to come in on Thanksgiving such a case?  It may be for small retailers who know and are close to their employees. But Gurley writes: “Many of the nation’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Target, PetSmart, and Family Dollar, will be open.”

Will Thanksgiving become just another day on the commercial calendar? This may be one bad decision we can't just blame on the booze.

Colleen Garry, Thanksgiving Day, Gabrielle Gurley

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