On Slavery

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said,

‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons,

the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

(Numbers 11:4-6)

At its most recent meeting, Sudbury City Council passed a motion to de-regulate store hours entirely. Within 2 days of the vote, our local SuperStore announced that it would be the first 24/7 store in Greater Sudbury. I have not commented on the matter up to now, except to say that I voted against this in the referendum included on the ballot in the last municipal election. Well, now that the matter is settled, the battle lost, I’d like to highlight a couple of silly reasons attributed to those of us who voted in opposition, then explain why I did vote the way I did and finally, what I will do to express my deep concern that this is a mistake.

First, the non-reasons. I need to highlight these because throughout the campaign, people who opposed the measure were caricatured as “anti-choice” and “religious zealots.” Both charges are false. I did not vote to oppose the change because I am anti-choice, but because retail workers, among the most vulnerable workers in our economy, need to have space to make choices. The deregulation of store hours effectively removes some of those choices by now making every hour of every day a potential work hour, controlled by someone other than retail workers, namely their employers. Second, I did not vote to oppose the change because I am a religious zealot. I do care about this issue in part because I am a clergyman, but not because I desire to force my faith on anyone who does not want it.

Now the reasons. The first one is a desire to protect a vulnerable segment of workers in our community, namely, retail workers. I have no desire to take away their choice to work, nor to prevent them from being paid a greater hourly wage for working difficult hours. I doubt, however, that the people who work retail have the freedom to regard the question of whether or not to work a graveyard shift with such dispassion. Because of the crap wages they are already paid, some will feel compelled by “market forces” to “choose freely” to work such shifts. I can’t see that as a good thing. An employer might not be saying, “work these shifts or I’ll fire you,” but the market exercises control over all of us in much more subtle and insidious ways. And those ways are every bit as compulsive to their victims as they are unseen by many of us. In deregulating store hours, our city council has promised our most vulnerable workers “meat and fish” but at the cost of “making bricks without straw.” (That’s religious language, of course. It comes from the Exodus narratives in the Old Testament and I’ll come back to that in a minute). For now, I want to say that there is a general principle in the religious language here that has to do with markets. The deregulation of store hours effectively says, there is no time that is not potentially work time. The market will decide whether a worker gets leisure space or when or how much. But if the market is deciding, then workers aren’t. And if workers aren’t then, all the while using the rhetoric of choice, we’ve taken choice away from them.

Now, to the religious language, and the second reason. I don’t expect WalMart or Superstore workers to come flocking to church because I spoke out against 24/7 shopping. I grimly note that that battle was lost long ago in hockey arenas across the country. My concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with protecting my own turf. But, the critics are right to point out that it is a religious argument. Here’s my response: So what? If my faith teaches me to care for the poor and disadvantaged and vulnerable, how is that a bad thing? And why is it ruled out of public discourse before hand? My concerns flow out of my faith, and are directed toward care for the community, not putting bums on pews. What is often missed, here, is that the pro-market arguments are every bit as religious. They speak of “the market” as having agency. The market will decide. The market will regulate. Let the market preserve freedom of choice. How the hell (yes, really) can “the market” do those things? The market can only do those things if, in some way, it is given personal agency by those who serve it. Hmm. A disembodied person who demands allegiance and who makes decisions for people. Sounds like a divinity to me. And an enslaving one at that. It seems to me that the pro-market arguers must explain why their arguments are not finally religious in just the same way mine are, why it is not the case that our arguments simply happen to serve different deities.

So, I continue to remain opposed. I will no longer be shopping at SuperStore. And as the list of 24/7 retailers grows, so will my list of places I will not patronize. It is a small and finally meaningless gesture. My grocery bill is not going to affect anyone’s bottom line. But for the sake of my conscience, I have to keep one day in seven when someone will not have to serve me. Because everyone deserves a Sabbath. Everyone deserves a rest from work. And I cannot see how this isn’t a return to Egypt, an embrace of slavery.

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