“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Perhaps you’ve heard “the dignity of work” used as a rallying cry by both Democrats and Republicans in this country. Democrat Sherrod Brown used it as a major theme of his listening tour earlier this year when he was said to be exploring a run for President. Brown runs his campaigns attuned to the struggles, values, and needs of the blue collar workers in his constituency. Republican Paul Ryan invoked it when he claimed that the Affordable Care Act would rob people of the “dignity of work” by potentially allowing them to work fewer hours if they weren’t dependent on an employer for health benefits.
It’s an evocative phrase; calling to mind the hard-working man or woman putting in an honest day’s labor, whether in a factory or behind a desk, returning to the security of a home and family with cars in the driveway and food on the table. It’s an appealing and wholesome image, and you’d be forgiven if the cars you pictured in that scenario were from the 1950s or 60s.
Work has clearly changed since then. Factory work is more automated and less unionized. Long-term careers at the same company are mostly a thing of the past. It often takes two income streams to maintain a household. Child care is expensive, inflexible, and too often unreliable or hard to find, putting pressure on working parents. Housing prices mean longer commutes for affordability; it can be harder and more stressful to get to work because of traffic-congested roads and paltry investment in public transportation. There are more flexible, temporary, and contract jobs that do not provide benefits or other forms of stability, and wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living. Many retailers and other low-wage employers never offer benefits or manage their schedules so workers never qualify as full-time, benefits-eligible employees. Hourly workers don’t have paid sick time or other leave; salaried workers are finding their annual raises eaten away by the increase in healthcare premiums and large-deductible plans that employers are using to pass more of the cost to their workers.
During the government shutdown earlier this year, a stark light shone on how many middle class families are living paycheck-to-paycheck. A CareerBuilder Survey put the number at 78 percent! It’s been widely reported that 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in savings to cover an emergency. In most counties in the United States, a minimum wage job does not support the rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
None of this sounds like dignity. It sounds like stress and struggle. Add in college debt, the income inequality that women and people of color face, and the numbers of people working more than one job, and it paints a picture of the vast majority of Americans never, ever getting ahead.
Of course our leaders want people working to keep the engines of the economy running. That’s understandable. Yet, why do so many of them seem to want to make it as difficult as possible?
This is both a private and public sector problem. The best companies do understand that supporting employees attracts the best talent and leads to lower turnover, satisfaction that those employees pass on to the company’s customers. Too many companies however, promote cultures based on a fundamental mistrust and devaluing of employees. Their workers are poorly paid, skimped on in numerous ways, and largely treated as expendable.
On the public side, it’s not just health care that could be better supported. The Trump Administration has been stripping worker safety protections in a number of industries. His Education Department seeks to cut funding for student loan forgiveness programs. There has been little to no movement on public infrastructure projects that could ease congestion and reduce commuting time and Trump has been actively sabotaging public transit programs already under way.
This lack of public investment is not just hurting workers, but employers as well. Having a public, portable healthcare plan enables more people to be flexible so that contract work, used increasingly by companies, looks more appealing to those who would fill those roles. It would help restore some meat and meaning to salary increases as well. Access to affordable, reliable childcare, education, and public transportation would help ease the strain on employees, allowing them more mental energy for creativity and productivity at work. At the very least, a living wage and safe working conditions are key to the dignity of work.
The dignity of work implies honor, respect, and pride. Instead, too many American workers are stretched, overextended, and exhausted; a situation that is unhealthy for employees, the companies in which they work, and eventually, our economy, which relies heavily on consumer spending.
Labor should uplift humanity. Changes in both corporate culture and public policy could help see that it does.