Labor Day in a pandemic

What does it mean to honor labor at a time when work is in disarray?

Here we are, on a day to honor organized labor — and by extension, workers more generally — at a moment when everything about the way we work is in complete disarray. The unemployment rate is still at recession levels, millions are still working from home, and now that school has started, parents are, in many places, working as unpaid teacher’s aides at home while also doing their normal jobs.

The university where I teach as a part-time adjunct is holding classes today, as it will do on Columbus Day, in an effort to have no in-person classes after Thanksgiving. (I don’t teach on Mondays, so there is no effect on my schedule.) I am teaching my one class in a strange “hyflex” model, in which some students are in the classroom and others are simultaneously on Zoom. If it were up to me, I would teach entirely by Zoom from the safety of my home. But it isn’t up to me.

I teach a writing class with a thematic focus on social and ethical issues to do with work. This week, my students will begin reading and talking about the dignity of work, a concept American politicians talk about a lot even though there is no agreement about what it even means. The students will read Booker T. Washington’s claim that “there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found.” They will read an article about how black workers are overrepresented among “front-line” and “essential” workers — jobs that disproportionately make less than a $16.54 an hour living wage for a family of four. (Which surely contributes to the disproportionate death rate due to Covid among black Americans.) They will read an argument that to promote the dignity of work, the government should not reinstate the $600-a-week unemployment supplement. And another argument that calling front-line workers “heroes” is pretty empty if those workers don’t get greater protections (of all kinds).

I am eager to hear the conversations that come up, since the students and I will be trying to make sense of conditions that are changing all around us — conditions they and their families and their professor are undergoing in the midst of our conversation. Who knows where it will lead?

One thing I’m sure of is that it no longer makes sense to say that your dignity — your social worth, your right to “count” in American society — depends on your having a job. As I wrote in a short article for Journal of Religious Ethics (if you click that link, scroll way, way down for my contribution to this symposium),

When tens of millions lose their jobs virtually overnight, and through no fault of their own, the link between employment and dignity begins to look absurd. It simply can’t be the case that 15% of the country’s working‐age adults suddenly had no dignity. A waitress whose employer closed down in March was no less worthy of respect than she was in February.

Workers across the board need better conditions, and organizing is one way (a difficult way) to secure them. I don’t think it’s enough, though, on its own, to make the changes we need in the way we work. There also has to be a change in how we connect work and dignity. As I have argued many times and in many places, we have to see each other’s lives as dignified even before we work a single day, and even if we never do. Then we can argue that our jobs need to live up to our dignity, and not the other way around. And we can imagine models of the good life that don’t depend so much on work at all.

I had a great conversation recently with Danny Anderson, who teaches at a small college in Pennsylvania, prompted by my recent Commonweal magazine essay, “Drinking Alone.” And in fact, Danny recorded the conversation as an episode for his podcast, “The Sectarian Review.” We talked a lot about the class and cultural divides in the country and what role churches and colleges can play in bridging them. We also discussed those “best steakhouses in America” ads in airline magazines.

One person who thinks very intelligently about the erosion of workers’ rights is Elizabeth Anderson, a philosophy professor at University of Michigan. Her book about workplace tyranny, Private Government, is well worth reading. She has also written a book about integration, and she recently spoke with Yascha Mounk on his “The Good Fight” podcast about integration and much more. Anderson offers some criticism of Mounk and his Persuasion project on the podcast, and I appreciate both her critique and the fact that Mounk seems to have heard her out. The whole interview is an excellent example of intelligent disagreement.

Finally, I have been reading the essays of Elisa Gabbert, who is best known as a poet but whose essays are really beautiful and incisive. It shouldn’t be surprising that a poet is a great essayist, since, as Gabbert has said, in opposition to critics who think poetry is essentially different from prose, “Poetry is just prose chopped up into lines. I mean this to be final, categorical, and no slight on poetry.”

Gabbert’s new collection is The Unreality of Memory, and deals with various failures of knowledge, particularly knowledge of self and knowledge of disasters — like the disaster we are currently living through. I’m convinced that our multilayered crises are really, deep down, the result of a crisis of knowledge, and Gabbert makes a good case for how our minds are just not constructed to function in the environment they have created. I loved The Unreality of Memory so much, I started rereading it as soon as I closed the book, because I wanted to see how the essays were put together, paragraph by perfect paragraph. Then I reread Gabbert’s earlier collection, The Word Pretty. Obviously, I recommend both.

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