The way we understand and talk about work and, more particularly, jobs, has a lot to do with how we as a society imagine economic justice. It informs how we imagine possibilities for organizing an economy designed to meet the collective human needs of our world, and how we craft economic policy to achieve that goal.
At the heart of the language we use to talk about jobs is the way we value work. We, as a culture, use phrases like “low-wage work” or “quality job” to distinguish not just good work from bad, but also to make distinctions in how we value particular types of work.
This kind of job talk has disarmed us in our efforts to create the most just and humane economy. It does so by conditioning the gross misperception that the way we value work has something to do with the inherent nature or value of the work itself. When, in fact, it is largely a reflection of our social values, of the values our economy itself produces—particularly class values that emphasize maximizing private profit at the expense of socially produced wealth. To create a just economy requires not that we interrogate the work itself but that we interrogate the value system through which we characterize and put a price on the work we do.
To get at this issue, let’s think about the job talk from the recent election.
Issues of jobs and wages were front and center last election season for candidates of both parties. Donald Trump complained that we no longer have quality jobs in America and that we need to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Hillary Clinton’s economic plan, her “new bargain for a new economy,” similarly focused on bringing back manufacturing jobs, identifying manufacturing jobs as quality jobs with typically higher salaries.
This political discourse that associates “quality jobs” with particular kinds of work in particular industries, manufacturing or otherwise, presents an erroneous view of what constitutes and creates a “quality job” and how our economic system determines the value of work.
If we were to define a “quality job” in minimal terms as one that pays a respectable living wage, offers a safe work environment in which workers have some control over the work process as well as a voice in the workplace, and provides some degree of fulfillment as opposed to being harmful to mind and body, then we have to recognize that these conditions are not tied to the type or nature of the work itself.
Let’s take the sacred cow of manufacturing jobs as an example. Jim Tankersley, in a “Wonkblog” published in the Washington Post last May reported that, in fact, the families of many production workers actually rely on public assistance to supplement their wages, which between 2009 and 2013 cost state and local governments $10 billion per year on average, according to a study by Ken Jacobs, Zohar Perla, Ian Perry, and Dave Graham-Squire, which Tankersley cites.
Jacobs, chair of Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, underscores that while these manufacturing jobs were once a ladder to the middle class, now “the reality is production jobs increasingly resemble fast-food jobs or Walmart jobs.” What accounts for this trend of degrading manufacturing jobs? Jacobs makes clear that the decline in the quality of the job is not a factor of the nature of the work itself but of the decline of workers’ power, namely of unions.
“The new production jobs,” he stresses,” are less likely to be union and more likely to be low wages.” About 6 million production workers, including metal workers, assemblers, and machinists, which account for roughly half of all U.S. manufacturing jobs, receive public assistance. Putting Jacobs’ analysis in the concrete terms of actual human lives, Tankersley tells the story of Philadonna Wade who works at the Detroit Chassis Plant in Avon, Ohio, where she earns $9.50 per hour with no benefits.
The key role of unions in ensuring jobs are quality jobs cannot be underestimated. We can see this fact exemplified by looking at hotel workers in Las Vegas. Until they organized, non-union workers at Trump’s hotels made $3 less per hour than workers in similar jobs who are represented by Unite Here Culinary Workers Union Local 226. However, since winning their first union contract, the Trump hotel workers say they will have substantially the same contract as other Las Vegas hotel workers, including pension, health care and job security benefits. The Culinary Workers Local 226, the largest labor union in Las Vegas, “has done a spectacular job catapulting thousands of dishwashers, hotel maids and other unskilled workers into the middle class,” according to the New York Times.
These examples tell a compelling story that, one, bringing back or re-creating manufacturing jobs is not equivalent to creating “quality jobs,” and, two, that a key factor in ensuring the work we do finds form in a quality job is having strong unions.
The question we fail to ask and take up as a culture is whether a quality job has to do with the nature of the work itself or instead with the working conditions created and wages paid for any particular job. In short, we have not as a culture seriously interrogated our measures for valuing work or the dictates of humanity regulating the conditions in which people perform socially necessary labor.
Our society needs people to pick our cabbages. Why do we allow that work to be done in pesticide-ridden fields in conditions hostile to human life? Why do we allow the work to be done for substandard wages? The work is not only socially necessary, it is vital to making all of our lives possible in the most basic of ways. We need to ask ourselves if the nature of this work itself merits a low wage and a biologically harmful and humanly antagonistic workplace.
Changing our language from talking about work in terms of education or skill-level to other terms, such as its necessity to our lives, might—and likely would—begin to alter the way we think about and value work. This change in thought and language won’t itself alter our wage structure and working conditions, but it will begin to foster a popular consciousness that supports unions and the rights of all workers to a quality job.
A critical part of the solution to economic inequality and persistent wage stagnation is not to ask workers to increase their value but to transform the way we as a culture value the work people do to make our lives possible and to generate wealth. Perhaps such a shift in our thinking would pave the way for the very necessary redistribution of wealth.