Op-ed: There's No Dignity in Working the American Way

NOBODY WANTS TO WORK [for starvation wages] ANYMORE

They are popping up everywhere. You’ve probably seen them. It started with the innocent “NOW HIRING” signs and then moved on to the more nefarious “NOBODY WANTS TO WORK ANYMORE! We’ll just have to close our small business if all of you choose to live on unemployment checks and do not accept our low wage jobs” notices that people captured and shared on social media.

Illustration by J.Taft

The Internet was quick to point out the strange conundrum of these signs: Employers are admitting that their business model is only successful if they pay workers poverty wages and provide limited to no benefits. Rather than recognizing the flaw in their business model or their moral failing to compensate workers at a living wage, they blame the existence of unemployment benefits as the reason people will not accept low-paid work. To this end, the business community has called on state governments to slash unemployment checks, claiming a national worker shortage as justification for cutting off millions of people from financial assistance in an effort to force them to go back to work. The GOP was quick to heed the call. The governors of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and 14 other Republican-led states will be cutting the benefits of over 1.9 million people - this brought to you by the same folks leading the charge to cut off transgender people from healthcare and bathrooms, and Black, Brown, and low-income communities from voting rights.

The infliction of additional financial harm on those already suffering based on the dubious claims of a worker shortage is despicable on its own merits. However, to cry foul without pausing to unpack the corrupt foundation of American industry would be a missed opportunity, and I’m never one to miss an opportunity for esoteric philosophical debate. So, here it is: The latest round of pro-business and anti-worker/ anti-human political maneuverings is premised on the belief of a “natural dignity” of work and the assertion that all business, by virtue of offering jobs for the masses to work, should be protected. This leads to the relinquishing of control of our personal lives and political selves to companies that stretch far beyond the power of any singular government to control. The net effect is an economy that is unimaginative at best and a humanitarian nightmare at worst, relegating families and communities to the permanent status of “working poor.”

The glorification of work is an American staple, as essential to our identity as apple pie and baseball games. It is the belief of many, from pastors to politicians, that it is only through work that our lives have meaning and we have dignity. Not any kind of work qualifies as meaningful and dignifying though. Artistic endeavors, child-rearing, community building, and family-provided at-home elderly care - activities that are not compensated in the traditional transactional ways and so absent from the national GDP - are not deemed valuable. Missing entirely from this “dignity of work” argument though is whether there is actually dignity in work. What gives most of our lives meaning and dignifies us as humans is the ability to cultivate connectedness with our families, friends, and communities, and feel sound in body and mind. Autonomy and agency in our lives to do what we choose are meaningful fortifies our humanity and is dignifying - not work.

What we give up of our dignity, the business sector takes. The primacy of business of any kind and any size in our society leads to the infantilization of the workforce. We as employees must ask permission from our employers to do a whole host of perfectly reasonable things: take time off to go to the doctor, nurse a cold, care for a sick child, go on vacation, attend a funeral, stand in a wedding, attend a child’s recital, engage in outside learning, etc. We leave our parents’ home and exit childhood to fall under the watchful and dictatorial eye of employers that, for many of us, believed until March 2021 that work could only be done in front of them in the office where they could monitor our speech, movements, and productivity. This control employers have over our personhood, from the value of our time to the placement of our corporeal selves, is extensive and dehumanizing.

Finally, what we give up in personal lives to businesses, we also relinquish in our political lives. The American workplace, which is the model adopted in many other places, is inherently anti-democratic - ironic given our obsession with the right to individual contribution and control over the levers of government. Corporations reach well beyond the borders of any one country. This means that companies can, to some degree, barter our dignity and labor to their advantage, promising governments around the world jobs in return for devaluing the cost of our labor on one end and decreasing their tax burden, which would support public services for those workers on the other. The desire for jobs - work - is so strong on the part of governments, that we, the workers, are a pawn in the equation, not a beneficiary. And, unless governments all of a sudden unite to hold companies responsible for how they treat labor, the business will continue to hold the upper hand. Thus, our political selves are sacrificed along with our personal selves to support the narrative of the dignity of work.

There is no labor shortage. There is a shortage of people willing to continue to sacrifice their humanity and dignity to work for poverty wages and unfair treatment. There are ways to save the American workplace and secure good work for people. Cutting unemployment benefits isn’t the policy option to pursue. A better place to start would be for political leaders to recognize workers like humans, imbued with dignity because they are humans and not because of what they might produce as workers. Ideally, this would lead to a much broader overhaul of public policy, centered on preserving first our humanity before heeding the demands of employers to have the right to our labor. In the meantime, stay focused and keep organizing. We are more than the work we do.

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