Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part Five

[Author’s note: Let me repeat my invitation at the end of Part Four of this
series. Readers are invited to submit short essays, about 1,000 words, about their work. What do you do? In what ways is your work satisfying? In what ways is it not? How could it be made better? Send your essays to me at <

In the Part Four, I began a lamentation about work. I believe that most of the work we do is physically and mentally debilitating. I believe that most of the work we do is not worth doing. I believe that most of the work we do kills our spirits and destroys our
earth. I lament these things.

Consider the exceptional history teacher, Ira Solomon, teaching in East Saint Louis, Illinois, a town extraordinary in its poverty. This is what he tells Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities:

“This is not by any means the worst school in the city,” he reports, as we are sitting in his classroom on the first floor of the school. “But our problems are severe. I don’t even know where to begin.  I have no materials with the exception of a single textbook given to each child. If I bring in anything else — books or tapes or magazines — I pay for it myself. The high school has no VCRs. They are such a crucial tool. So many good things run on public television.  I can’t make use of anything I see unless I can unhook my VCR and bring it into the school. The AV equipment in the building is so old that we are pressured not to use it. . . . ”

“Of 33 children who begin the history classes in the standard track,” he says, “more than a quarter have dropped out by spring semester. . . . I have four girls right now in my senior home room who are pregnant or have just had babies. When I ask them why this happens, I am told, ‘Well, there’s no reason not to have a baby. There’s not much for me in public school.’ The truth is, . . . [a] diploma from a ghetto high school doesn’t count for much in the United States
today. . . . Ah, there’s so much bitterness unfairness there, you know….”

“Very little education in the school would be considered academic in the suburbs. Maybe 10 to 15 percent of students are in truly academic programs. Of the 55 percent of the students who graduate, 20 percent may go to four-year colleges: something like 10 percent of any entering class. Another 10 to 20 percent may get some other kind of higher education.  An equal number join the military. . . .”

“Sometimes I worry that I’m starting to burn out. Still, I hate to miss a day. The department frequently can’t find a substitute to come here, and my kids don’t like me to be absent.”

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the following memorandum sent by a supervisor to a group of workers in a daycare center.  Remember that these workers, all with considerable experience and many child-raising skills, are paid less than parking-lot attendants:

Now, more than ever, we as a business are under scrutiny by our clients. They will be watching us, and questioning us to reassure themselves that their children are safe and secure in our care.  Your role is to do the best you can when it comes to customer service. They have made a choice as to where they want their child to be. And we need to reassure them that they have made the proper choice. We need to give them what they pay for every minute of the day. Parents and children must be greeted by name when they arrive in the morning and when they leave at the end of the day. You need to be working with the children, using your AM and PM lesson plans at the beginning and the end of the day. You are not permitted to sit on tables, chat with other staff people, or be cleaning or doing anything but interacting with the children. . . . Remember, the customer always comes first and we always need to do what’s best for children. . . . A pre-school classroom is a special place.  It takes a special person to make great things happen for children. Always remember that we are tank fillers for the children.  And that we owe it to the little people!

Consider Larry McAfee, who became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident.  Like tens of millions of other disabled persons, he wanted to work and could have if society had seen fit to
provide him with the means to do so.  Instead it sent him straight into the nightmarish and ugly world of health “care,” whose main assumption was that making Larry able to work was too costly. Larry got to the point at which he petitioned the courts to let him die, something which the courts, the doctors, and the insurance companies, following in the footsteps of the adherents of social Darwinism, seem to be encouraging.

McAfee told Joseph Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report that he hated losing control of his body but that losing control of his life was worse (“Invisible Man: The Agonizing Fight to Prevent Legalized ‘Suicide,'” 19 February 1990). McAfee had hoped to remain a valued participant in society, but found his way blocked at every turn by catch-22’s.  The lack of PAS [personal assistance services] meant that McAfee had to be institutionalized; institutionalization meant that McAfee could not respond to want ads or take computer courses; no job retraining meant no chance for employment; and employment itself could mean that work disincentives built into disability policy would risk the very support he needed to survive. Wouldn’t any motivated person become despondent over such overwhelming obstacles?

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Mike Lefevre, a “common” laborer.  Here is what he said to Studs Terkel, author of the exceptional book, Working:

I’m a dying breed.  A laborer.  Strictly muscle work . . . pick it up, put it down. We handle between forty and fifty thousand pounds of steel a day.  I know this is hard to believe from four hundred pounds to three- and four-pound pieces. It’s dying. . . .

It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross.  In a door you’re never gonna open.  You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result. I worked for a trucker one time.  And I got this tiny satisfaction when I loaded a truck.  In a steel mill, forget it. You don’t see where nothing goes.

I got chewed out by my foreman once.  He said, “Mike, you’re a good worker but you have a bad attitude.”  My attitude is that I don’t get excited about my job. I do my work but I don’t say whoopee-doo. The day I get excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker.  How are you gonna get excited about pullin’ steel?  How are you gonna get excited when you’re tired and want to sit down?

It’s not just the work.  Somebody built the pyramids.  Somebody’s going to build something.  Pyramids, Empire State Building these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it.  I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor.  I put the steel beam in.”  Picasso can point to a painting.  What can I point to?  A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider finally this chorus of pained voices:

For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent.  The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot welder.  “I’m caged,” says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steelworker.  “A monkey can do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker.  “I’m an object,” says the high-fashion model.  Blue collar and white collar call upon the identical phrase: “I’m a robot.”  “There is nothing to talk about,” the young accountant despairingly enunciates.  It was some time ago that John Henry sang, “A man ain’t nothing but a man.”  The hard, unromantic fact is: he died with his hammer in his hand, while the machine pumped on.  Nonetheless, he found immortality. He is remembered.

How can we live in a world like this?

For now we have no choice but to live in a world like this.  But in the
future we have no choice but to struggle for a new world, one in which work is once again fully human.  The nature of this struggle will be considered in future essays.  However, before we can conceive of struggle, we must first know the cause of our present misery.  Most social scientists would say that modern work is the price we have to pay to have a modern world.  I disagree.

To be continued. . . .

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.