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Labor Day, 2012: Thank Goodness Labor is its Own Reward!

A couple of nights ago I had dinner with friends I have known for a long time. I think all of them – an inner city teacher, an artist, a retired doctor – would describe themselves as liberals. I would not describe them as progressive thinkers – not a litmus test – but I would recommend them all as decent, generous and trustworthy.

I cannot put my finger on the precise trigger – one often finds oneself in a heated discussion without knowing who first turned up the heat – but standing in the hosts’ kitchen we were suddenly debating the idea of a “living wage.” My position was that any adult who is willing to work should be paid at least a living wage – no matter what the occupation.

Emma Tenayuca Awtt Portrait
AWTT portrait of labor organizer Emma Tenayuca

A living wage should be the minimum wage, and it should be constantly adjusted to meet the amount of money necessary to support oneself and a family at a decent level. A decent level simply means the wherewithal to pay a modest rent, buy healthy food and appropriate clothing, and have access to transportation to the job. A living wage does not include access to competitive and self-indulgent consumption, but it does mean a wage enabling the dignity to care for oneself and those one loves, to exist above poverty and constant financial anguish, and to have enough free time to practice good citizenship in one’s community, enjoy recreation, nature, and the arts. Who would begrudge a person that?

Who could not see that to offer hard-working people a wage that condemns them to poverty, in spite of their labor, is to condemn them to wage slavery and to cripple the idea of democratic community?

I soon discovered that my liberal friends would indeed begrudge such a wage. Why?

Because, they said unanimously, we must insist that people have an appropriate work ethic, and that such an ethic, coupled with honest labor, is its own reward. A good work ethic, even when working for pay below a basic living standard, builds character, self-respect, determination, and a good social fabric. In other words, the work ethic is like a religious ethic; it may not put a roof over your head and feed your children, but you won’t need those amenities because you will be such a good person.

My response – in words that may have elevated the temperature in the kitchen for I was surprised to be having this argument with my friends – was:

Isn’t a person who works an eight hour day, who has to choose between paying the rent and paying for food, who is being mired in poverty (no matter how much self-respect they have attained), learning that the economic system does not respect him or her? Indeed, isn’t the lesson that the system prefers to exploit them (while counseling them to be grateful for the job) and to marginalize them both as workers and citizens?

And we all know that at the other end of the spectrum some people are making more in one hour than the wage slave makes in a year. What are the rich being taught about the work ethic? What is a victim of this noble work ethic taught about dignity? What is such a person to teach her children about the value of work? How is she supposed to describe such a system as fair? Or the government that supports it?

My friends stuck to the moral rigor of their position. My blood pressure was up and, I presume, my face red. I was their guest and thought it polite not to come to a friend’s home and be the cause of rancor or angry debate. Better to relax into the privileged comfort, enjoy the French cheese and Greek olives on the patio, the abundant choices of wines, grilled Alaskan salmon, polenta, and imported baby asparagus, followed by lemon tart with a lemon cordial.

Eugene V Debs Awtt Portrait
AWTT portrait of labor advocate Eugene V. Debs

Later, I wondered how good, fair-minded people can hold such – how else to characterize them? – mean and ideologically judgmental views. I’m not going to attempt to fully answer that question now. Perhaps to be fair myself, I should. But it seems a much longer inquiry. But, in a broad way, it seems that many liberals have been infected with this nasty attitude – as though Monsanto has genetically altered their moral vision to be punitive rather than compassionate, to blame the victim rather than seek to understand the social and economic context that created the victim in the first place. Was it our great President Reagan, heaping blame on “welfare queens” for dragging down the economy, who implanted in the citizenry something akin to the Round-up Ready gene in corn, making it easy for so many people to attribute the demise of the American Dream to the hapless and lazy – unwilling to ennoble their souls with virtuous, poorly paid work? How hard should a man or woman run on a treadmill that is rigged to relentlessly pull them backward? What pure, existential ethic triumphs while the kids starve?

The problem, of course, is not a failure of people to have the work ethic – although, nothing teaches contempt for the work ethic faster and more surely than a society that mocks one’s efforts with un-livable compensation. Americans work more hours for less pay and fewer benefits and less vacation time than the citizens of all the European democracies. The problem is predatory capitalism, its determination to maximize profit at whatever human and environmental cost, and to demonize the victims. At its core is a meanness of spirit, a glorification of arrogance, and an insistence that everyone purposely excluded from its lavish rewards should delight in supporting the expansion of inequality.

Ai-Jen Poo Awtt Portrait
AWTT portrait of domestic worker advocate Ai-jen Poo

There was a time, not so long ago, when white Americans were taught to relish the quasi-religious notion of Manifest Destiny – that this continent would not attain its moral pinnacle and highest purpose, the peak of its God-ordained evolution – until white men owned it all. Sea to shining sea. Only then, when those lesser breeds, indigenous people and Mexicans, were eradicated, would the true nature of exceptionalism be manifest. (A person like me might say the true nature of racism.)

It would seem that the current manifestation of that idea is to colonize the conscience, the moral DNA, of every person to accept the toxic belief that each one gets what he deserves. If the only job available to you degrades your spirit, shames you with your inability to support your children, then work harder! Exhaust yourself failing. That’s good for your character. The virtue of this exploitation will hurry your demise but ensure you a place in work-ethic heaven. The truly exceptional – the rich – will honor you for your sacrifice.

It’s important to remember that the middle class in the U.S. was created by the organized demands of labor, not the generosity of capital. We will really be able to celebrate Labor Day when the workers of this country remember that, and students are taught it.

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