In a recent ad for the Las Vegas tourism industry, a woman in a drab work outfit climbs on top of her desk to make a Norma Rae-style announcement: She has 47 vacation days, and she intends to use them. “We come in day after day!” she exclaims to her gobsmacked colleagues. “That ends now! They’re our days! Let’s take back our summer. Who’s with me?” Cautious at first, the overworked crowd eventually explode into cheers.
In another recent ad series, McDonald’s encourages workers to stick it to the man by … taking a lunch break. The campaign, called “It’s your lunch. Take it,” employs mildly revolutionary taglines like “It’s time to overthrow the working lunch.” But is eating lunch a special perk? Is taking the vacation days she’s earned something that an employee should have to fight for?
The New York Times raises this question in an article surveying the recent trend of ads meant to tap into employee frustration. The trend taps into Occupy Wall Street’s anti-corporate attitude, and the frustrated sense of powerlessness bred by years of high unemployment. (When the economy is doing well, employees can simply quit a job that doesn’t encourage them to take their vacation days.)
Here’s how the Times describes one of the McDonald’s ads:
A woman gets up from her desk and announces, “I’m going to lunch.” Her co-workers try to dissuade her, telling her that the days of taking lunch are long gone.
In a scene reminiscent of “Jerry Maguire,” an inspired colleague stands up and says, “I’m going with her.” The music swells, he tears off the lanyard around his neck and adds, “I don’t want to be chicken, I want to eat it.”
Cute, I guess? But how pathetic has the American work experience become if we consider a lunch break, or vacation days that are part of a compensation package a special privilege that requires a revolution to claim?
The ads are tapping into something real. Unlike England, France, Japan, Mexico, China, and many other developed nations, the US doesn’t offer workers any guaranteed vacation days. And those lucky enough to get them often don’t use them. CNNMoney reported recently on a study that found “57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, and most of them left an average of 11 days on the table – or nearly 70 percent of their allotted time off.” Meanwhile, overall profits-per-employee in this country are at a 10-year high.
We’re being played for suckers, people. Taking a vacation day should not be a victory for worker’s rights. Leaving your office to pick up a Big Mac does not strike a blow for economic equality. These ads imply that we should be satisfied by a rock-bottom definition of human dignity. Within a few years, they’ll be telling us that taking a bathroom break is a revolutionary act.
There’s another part to this story: The workers in these ads are victimizing themselves. They have vacation days. They have lunch breaks. They’re just not taking them. They’re acquiescing to a workaholic culture. So let’s have some perspective here: The character of Norma Rae, the hero of the movie that the Las Vegas ad spoofs, was based on a real woman named Crystal Lee Sutton. Sutton earned minimum wage folding towels in a dangerous factory in North Carolina in the early 1970s. She had started working there at 17, selling Avon products on the side to try to make some extra cash. When she tried to unionize the factory for better pay and conditions, she was fired. For her sake, quit complaining and take your lunch break.