Respecting the dignity of all jobs

The way in which we conceptualize labor through the lens of capitalism has supremely failed us. “Little Johnny, what do you want to be when you grow up?” the teacher prods. “Well,” begins Little Johnny, thoughtfully, “I would like to be honest, kind and a great person.” “No, Johnny, I mean what job do you want to have when you are an adult?”

No, the teacher actually meant, “How would you like for your body to contribute to production and economics when you are of working age?”

This problematic conceptualization leads to the dehumanization of labor. For instance, along similar lines, we would equally frown upon Johnny if he responded that he would fancy being a janitor or a fast food worker. We would look down upon those responses because in our narrow understanding of labor, those are not “good jobs,” and we fear that those jobs will make Johnny less of a person. However, rather than fight to improve the quality of jobs like these, we become intent upon demonizing and devaluing those who work them.

This piece won’t be full to the brim with convincing statistics and studies – although there are plenty – to convince you to fight for higher wages and be pro-union, but rather it will contain a number of stories, from people very near and dear to me, all true, and all not far from those of the typical worker in certain industries. Read and ask yourselves why some people deserve less livelihood based upon how they contribute to capitalism.

One of the men I have connected with through this journey is 55 years old. He stopped formal education in the eighth grade in order to work and supplement the income of his single mother. He has worked low-income jobs for most of his life with few exceptions. He found it difficult to support a family of four with his income, even with his wife working. Even though the family composition has now changed since his divorce, he still has a son in college whom he cannot afford to financially support. He managed to attain his Certified Nursing Assistant licensure. However, between home health care work and nursing home shifts, he still finds it difficult to support just himself with utilities, a mortgage, food and a car payment. He currently works a job at Publix for extra income.

Another woman I am fortunate to be acquainted with is a middle-aged woman who is an immigrant from Latin America. She works hard as a housekeeper for a major hotel chain in the U.S. She is expected to clean an impossible number of rooms per day – so many that she suffers physically from the amount of repetitive motions each day. However, she doesn’t have adequate health care options offered through her job. She has been trying to unionize workers in order to negotiate better wages (which she desperately needs) and a more manageable number of rooms to clean, but her bosses have told the employees “Somos una familia y la unión nos rompería” (We are a family and the union would break us apart).

The third of the stories I have to tell is that of a part-time college student who works at a popular fast food chain. However, between poor scheduling and low wages, he often does not have enough money to manage paying for school and taking care of his necessities. He spends all day dealing with rude and impatient customers, and he is drained after a full day of balancing several different tasks. Last week he suffered a burn from a hazardous setup in the cooking area. After telling his boss that the first aid kit was nowhere to be found, the boss told him to put mustard on it and keep working because it was a busy hour. People keep telling him that he should “get an education” in order to make better wages, but he’s trying.

Remember that these people are not hypotheticals. They and their stories are real, and they and their stories matter.

In college, we are taught if we keep our course, we will never have to worry about low-paying jobs and terrible working conditions, but just remember that there are over half a million people with a degree being paid the federal minimum wage. We are not exempt, and it is time to start fighting for dignified labor, regardless of the job. The life of a doctor is worth no more than that of a fry cook. They both deserve to be able to afford necessities and provide for a family if they have one. Neither deserves to be stuck in a cycle of dependence upon government assistance. Both of them deserve dignity.

A.J. James is a senior majoring in biology. His column runs biweekly.

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