Service Work Is Skilled Work. Get Over It.
Hanna Brooks Olsen

This skilled/unskilled dichotomy is one which has been a part of the United States for a long time now, and we would need a massive re-think in order to change it. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which is still one of the most important American labor organizations in it’s current form as the AFL-CIO, got its’ start as an organization for craft laborers. These were “skilled” workers, carpenters and tradesmen who saw themselves as being a cut above those dirty people who went to work in the factories, mines, and docks. The AFL branded itself right from the beginning as being anti-Socialist, to help differentiate themselves from those same workers they looked down upon.

When the AFL started to become a large and important organization in the political arena in the late 1800s, they tried to start expanding in the direction of these “unskilled” factory workers and others like them, but after meeting some early setbacks they concluded that attempting to organize “unskilled” laborers was a waste of time.

This idea of there being a distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” laborers would remain an integral part of labor organization in the US. The AFL would begin to experiment with organizing factory workers again in the early 1930s, but then turned around and expelled all of these new members in 1935 in another bout of prejudice against the “unskilled” workers. This led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO), which would go on to be very successful on its’ own.

This prejudice against low-class, “unskilled” workers persisted even after the AFL and CIO re-merged in 1955. The only difference was that who was seen as “skilled” and “unskilled” changed, so that “unskilled” came to mean any job done mainly by women, blacks, or other minority groups. Service-based jobs made up the majority of these, and coincidentally these were also the last jobs to begin receiving any Social Security benefits.

Looked at in this light, the subtle put-downs about “unskilled” workers are a part of this nation’s long history of classism, misogyny, and racism in labor attitudes. What we are experiencing now is part of something that has been going on for over a century, and we should be aware of this history as we try to confront our modern problems.

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