Work don’t get no respect.
That sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Don’t we goodstrongproud Americans value hard work and honest living? An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and all that?
Work, like every other goddamned thing in this country, has become tribalized: tell me how you vote and I’ll tell you what you think about what counts as work and how much it’s worth.
It’s not quite that simple, of course, not least because this late tribalization a) has a long history; and b) is laid over all other kinds of fights, presuppositions, prejudices, and disorientations. And, to be fair, there are folks on all sides of the political spectrum who are uneasy with the disappearance of decent working-class jobs.
Still, there used to be at least a veneer of agreement that wage-work, at least, should be respected, and that a person was performing something of value even in low-wage work. The problem that Ronald Reagan had with so-called welfare queens, for example, wasn’t that they worked at McDonald’s, but that they didn’t work at all. Only when they (and it was always “they”, never “we”) worked, it was argued, would they learn the habits required for achieving a decent life.
Yes, there was a lot of bullshit packed into this argument, but I mention it to highlight how the long push for welfare reform hinged on the presumption that all (paid) work, even low-wage work, was worthwhile both to the worker and to society at large.
Now, however, low-wage work is a problem, and not in the way that you’d think, i.e., the “low-wage” part. No, to a dismaying number of political and economic elites, the problem is with the work itself, and thus also with the worker.
Exhibit A: Brad Schimel, the Republican candidate for Wisconsin’s Attorney General:
“I want every one of our neighbors to have a job again, a well-paid job, so we don’t have to argue about minimum wage for someone working at Burger King,” he said. “Let’s get them a real job.”
Precisely so, because busting your ass to get cheap food fast to hungry people is fake-work.
Exhibit B: That lovable lug, Governor Chris Christie!
I gotta tell you the truth, I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage, I really am,” Christie said during an event at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, according to a recording of his remarks by the liberal opposition research group American Bridge.
“I don’t think there’s a mother or father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, ‘You know honey, if my son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized,” he added. “Is that what parents aspire to for their children?”
The governor went on to say that parents aspire to an America where their children can make more money and achieve greater success, according to The Hill. He said those aspirations weren’t about a “higher minimum wage.”
It’s true, I wouldn’t want my imaginary children to work for minimal wages, but I damned sure would want the work they do perform pay them well enough to live a decent life. And if my kid were only capable of flipping burgers, that s/he were not able to perform more highly-skilled labor wouldn’t make flipping burgers somehow not-labor.
Work is work, and deserves compensation.
Exhibit C: My favorite governor, the union-buster Scott Walker, who doesn’t see the point of the minimum wage nor, apparently, of the jobs which pay minimum wage:
“Well I’m not going to repeal it but I don’t think it serves a purpose because we’re debating then about what the lowest levels are at,” Walker said during a televised interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I want people to make — like I said the other night — two or three times that.”
Walker went on to say that the policies his administration has been pushing are meant to raise Wisconsinites above the minimum wage level.
“The jobs I have focused on, the training we’ve put in place, the programs we’ve put in place is not for people to get minimum wage jobs,” Walker continued. “It’s the training whether it’s in apprenticeships, whether it’s in our tech colleges, or our UW system —it’s to try and apply the training, the skills, the talents, the expertise people need to create careers that pay many many times over.”
Again, the idea of increasing education and training is a fine one, and I think both the federal and state governments should do more to provide free life-long training opportunities to all workers.
But, again, the idea that because some work doesn’t pay well that work isn’t worthy, may not be real work (as per Christie) at all, attacks the notion that work qua work has any value at all—and thus not even deserving a mandated minimum wage.
It’s a nice tautology: Real work pays real (i.e., high) wages, so any work performed for a low wage isn’t work at all.
And you can add another loop to this vicious, vicious circle when those low-wage workers require food stamps or other forms of public assistance to make it through the month: they’re moochers who, because they need assistance, clearly don’t deserve to make more money for the not-work they do.
As a Marxisch, I should perhaps welcome this open hostility to work as capitalism finally showing its true face, such that what matters is not the work, but the wage, always the wage—and the higher the wage, and the greater the accumulation of wealth, the more the person matters.
But I am not orthodox, and while a part of me is glad that some elites are abandoning useless paeans to the “inherent dignity of work”, a part of me knows this abandonment will only increase the burden on those who do labor for little, and further degrade what dignity they deserve to have as human beings.
After all, if you don’t respect the work, you ain’t gonna respect the worker.