June 12, 2003

The Dignity of Labor

In this discourse on academia's latest shenanigans, Amritas highlights a passage from a much-talked-about John Derbyshire article on immigration and meritocracy, which ends:

We no longer believe in the dignity of labor. We all want our kids to go to law school, and have convinced ourselves that they have a right to do so. What do you think the slogan “No child left behind” means

To that Amritas says:

I hope he's wrong I hope he's wrong I hope he's wrong.

I don't know that he is... but there has always been a rather schizophrenic view of manual labor in this country. It seems to be part of common immigrant aspirations for most immigrants to wish their children could get into college and get a nice "clean" job in an office. And there is definitely a divide when it comes to the educated classes, though I think it breaks down by region as well. (I can't be sure, but I think that it is more common in the South than the North for academics to be willing to let their hair down -- so to speak -- and hang out with "good old boys" such as mechanics and so on. My example is my teacher father, who preferred the company of the "working class" to hanging out with his fellow academics -- though most of them could be found down at the bar as well. But that was then, this is now. Things might have changed.)

Anyway, I've known people who had decided to dump their college careers to go into their fathers' less-academic (but monetarily more lucrative) fields, such as mechanics. There was also an element of satisfaction they found in the more manual job that was lacking in the classroom. So I think there will always be people who will prefer manual labor to the pristine confines of an office or classroom.

Posted by Andrea Harris at June 12, 2003 12:14 PM

I believe in "the dignity of labor." All jobs contribute to the society at large. That's why I believe in unions, raising the minimum wage to non-poverty levels, and protecting the 40-hour work week.

For example, the current "Family Time Flexibility Act" being discussed in Congress would allow employers to compensate workers for time over 40 hours with simple hour-for-hour comp time, not time-and-a-half pay. That's something that everyone who truly believes in "the dignity of labor" should be against.

Posted by: Adam at June 12, 2003 at 12:49 PM

Unfortunately, raising the minimum wage as you suggest, Adam, will price people out of the job market who are trying to get established in the work force while not yet supporting a family.

There is nothing undignified about working for less money while you're still relatively inexperienced and need to prove yourself. There is everything undignified about being unable to find a job because even the greenest newcomers to the workforce cost too damn much to hire.

Apparently, "the dignity of labor" doesn't mean what the sum of the words means -- it's now a euphemism for an agenda whereby union members currently employed can say to everyone else, "I've got mine, to hell with you."

Posted by: McGehee at June 12, 2003 at 01:47 PM

Actually, a substantial amount of research has shown that raising the minimum wage doesn't cause job loss. Some other stuff:

-The minimum wage hasn't increased since 1997. Imagine if white-collar salaries hadn't increased in six years.
-68 percent of minimum-wage workers are adults. 40 percent are sole wage earners for families.

I'm also interested in what you think about eliminating overtime, one of the cornerstones of hourly blue-collar employment.

Posted by: Adam at June 12, 2003 at 02:41 PM

Great post, Andrea. A life of quiet contemplation, a job in the fresh air, hard labor, etc,. are all individual choices. A person's worth doesn't have anything to do with how they earn their living.

A couple years ago I had a reason to meet a client at one of their corporate towers. They were having some sort of "team" meeting where they basically did nothing except blather for 2 hours. Everyone seemed really stressed and unhappy.

When I was leaving the building, there was a guy with a heavy toolbelt, his buttcrack showing, making some repair to the tooie fountain in the lobby. I thought to myself, "at least one guy in this building is happy and earning an honest dollar."

Posted by: Mrs. du Toit at June 12, 2003 at 02:48 PM

Washington state has one of the highest minimum wages in the country.

Washington state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Nope, no connection here.

Posted by: David Crawford at June 12, 2003 at 03:44 PM

Correlation isn't the same as causation. I admit not much knowledge of Washington State's economy, but some internet searching turned up this:

"The biggest job losses across the state, according to Pauer, occurred in finance and insurance, local government — including school districts — and aerospace and related business."

Not exactly minimum wage jobs.

Posted by: Adam at June 12, 2003 at 04:08 PM

High unemployment does not stem solely from job loss. People also count as unemployed if they're making use of job service resources and not finding work.

...perhaps because they're priced out of the job market.

Don't take this the wrong way, Adam, but it's easy to say that research contradicts what we're saying, but we'd kind of like to look it over for ourselves before we accept the assertion. I suspect that any such research will be found to have serious methodology issues.

Most of the work I've done has been in jobs with curtailed overtime. I didn't like it, but it was better than <ahem> NOT WORKING AT ALL.

(Sorry, Andrea. I'll use my indoor voice from now on.)

Posted by: McGehee at June 12, 2003 at 09:16 PM

"Anyway, I've known people who had decided to dump their college careers to go into their fathers' less-academic (but monetarily more lucrative) fields, such as mechanics."

I would have done so if only I weren't such a physical klutz.

When I see someone repair something, I think, "Wow, how did they do THAT?"

If I tried, I'd get electrocuted or something.

I have far more respect for manual laborers than for academics. The former build this country and keep it running. The latter ... no comment.

Posted by: Amritas at June 12, 2003 at 09:57 PM

Adam, I really fail to see how comp time assaults the "dignity of labor". 80% of unionized workers prefer comp time to overtime (recent poll), it's the union leaders that try to use it as a political weapon.

A few years ago, California allowed companies to use comp time for work over 8 hours in one day (still requiring overtime pay for over 40 hours). This allowed for four 10 hour days and 9/80 schedules, giving workers more days off and a lot of three-day weekends. No union workers were affected since they were covered under contracts that required the overtime. Everyone was happy except the union leaders. They got Gray Davis and the Dims in the legislature to rescind the law simply because the unions use it as a bargaining chip and don't care about what the workers want.

Posted by: Ken Summers at June 13, 2003 at 12:08 PM

I think the problem here is twofold: not giving workers a choice between comp time and actual money; and eliminating time-and-a-half reimbursement for overtime. If you don't pay someone more for overtime, the concept of "overtime" is dead. And I do think that's a bad thing for people who work hourly jobs.

Posted by: Adam at June 13, 2003 at 01:52 PM

Well, of course, Ken: the union leadership would much prefer the rank-and-file members get paid more rather have more time off because the more their members make, the higher the dues the union can charge them. The union can't take a cut of someone's comp time.

Posted by: David Jaroslav at June 13, 2003 at 04:17 PM

I know this got rolled off the front page, but you're right of course, David.

Adam, giving workers what they want is more important than "overtime". I agree that not paying extra for actual overtime is wrong for hourly workers, but if they prefer comp time, why should anyone else arbitrarily decide they can't have it?

Posted by: Ken Summers at June 15, 2003 at 12:37 AM

At least in a "manual labor" job you can leave the job at work and not take it home with you.

Posted by: Richard Cook at June 26, 2003 at 11:27 AM