The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

A Pleasantly Illegal Side-Effect Of A Humanized Interaction

For almost three years now, during those weekdays that I spend in the CUNY Graduate Center library trying to get some reading and writing done, I have, on occasion, been a participant in the following ‘encounter’ or ‘exchange’: I pour myself a cup of coffee at the dining commons and on arriving at the cash register to pay for my ‘purchase,’ I am waved through by the lady who works there with a cheery ‘you good babe.’ The coffee is on the house. I have not seen this ‘favor’ extended to any other customer of the dining commons; this ‘gift’ is sporadically given, with no regularity to it. Quite simply, every once in a while, I get a ‘free coffee.’ I know the worker in question: that is, I know her name, which is written on her name tag. She does not know mine; she has never asked me for, and I have never volunteered it. I feel unsure about whether she knows that I’m faculty or whether she thinks I’m a graduate student. We do not really know each other; we are acquaintances of a sort. I wish her a ‘good morning’ when I enter, and occasionally ask her how her vacation or days off went. She answers with a brisk ‘all good!’ Once in a while, in response to her asking me how I am, I mutter something about my lack of sleep. When I receive my ‘gift’ from her, I beam and say ‘thanks’ and wish her a good day; she reciprocates. I sometimes wonder, uneasily, about whether what we are doing is ‘legal;’ it clearly is not. I do not know why I am the beneficiary of this minor largess.

But I can venture a guess. My ‘donor’ is used to anonymity in her job; she rings up purchases, gives back change and receipts. Her interactions with her customers are brisk and efficient; they can easily shade into brusqueness. Customers walk over to her counter with food; they pay, they move on, perhaps offering a quick ‘thank you’ before they leave. There are few to none conversational niceties visible in these interactions. I did not follow this template in my initial interactions with her; I used her name, smiled, inquired into how her day was going, and then thanked her as I left. My interactions with her were perfunctory and still remain so to this day, but in retrospect, they strike me as being orders of magnitude more personal than the interactions she might have been accustomed to. I would like to think the little freebie I receive on the side every once in a while is an acknowledgment of the slightly elevated personal level of our encounters with each other; tiny islands of recognition and greeting and response in a sea of anonymous exchange.

My ‘friend’ works, like most people do, in a job that renders her faceless and nameless even when surrounded by thousands of fellow human beings; like them, she acts to dispel her workday state of affairs with little affirmations of her humanity. I’m ready to aid and abet her–for partially self-serving reasons–in the commissioning of the minor illegality her so acting entails.