The dignity of work is a topic of much discussion in the sphere of politics. I often wonder what dignity I am supposed to glean from low-wage work that currently does not pay a living wage in my city, and does not provide anything resembling full-time hours. I bounce between jobs, never quite making enough to subsist, grateful that my wife also works and together we cobble together a living between us. But, the phrase “dignity of work” always grates on me. I recall a past profession, when I was a part-time gallery attendant at an art museum. I stood in the galleries for eight hours, observing the patrons passing through – if there were patrons – who would get too close to painting. I gently approached and asked people to please set back. My co-workers were mostly retired men, drawn to the museum because it got them out of the house and filled their days with the work they believed in with religious fervor. Work was important. The young men there, all of us, shrank into ourselves like our souls were turtles. We were rendered quiet and mute by hours of boredom. Our minds sank into the pain in our cheap shoes. One of them doodled constantly; he had majored in painting in college and graduated with honors. Another one secretly played video poker on his iPod for hours to stay alert. Neither man dreamed of anything but this. We wore suits. We were given breaks. We even had a retirement package that wasn’t bad, if we stuck around long enough. It was dignified, I guess. I spent days staring at priceless masterpieces, until they became meaningless. I couldn’t imagine anything about them but standing there, observing, and waiting for the end of the day. I was working, and I was earning a paycheck. But, did I feel dignified? I felt like I was a turtle, trapped inside his shell. I felt like I was a piece of the wall, itself, and the least desirable piece. Nobody wanted to talk to us, really. We were the people who were politely ignored, at best, or told off at worst.
Before that, I remember temping at various places. I remember what it felt like to be told that there was no money to hire me full-time, but I could continue on as a perma-temp indefinitely. I sat in an office doing administrative work, listening to co-workers talk about their vacations, their camps with their kids, and I was so low-paid I couldn’t afford to move out of my parents’ house.
Before that, I recall working at Starbucks, going from days where I started at 4:30 am to days where I closed the store after 11:00, so blasted from the broken sleep schedule that I thought I was going to lose my mind, and my boss, at the time, was a horrible human who would send her brother in to spy on us, yell at us constantly, and find ways to set us all up for failure however she could, so she could complain about us to customers right in front of us. I don’t recall much dignity, there.
The dignity of work sounds like the mantra of people who are asked to do things that matter to them, who have had careers where there have been successes than failures and more dignity than abuse. It speaks of privilege for the speaker of these words. It means they probably haven’t had to set their pride aside very much, and when they tried to build something, somewhere, the outcome was good, and the physical and emotional pain was not so great.
The real argument about the words “Dignity of Work” speak more to the culture of working than anything. Everyone must keep working. If a poor person isn’t working, they don’t deserve to be helped, right? In a future where some are working and some are not, it is the one who is working who is doing good, even if that work pollutes the air, fills our phone lines and inboxes with unwanted spam, or otherwise sucks the fat off the top of the economy like a hedge fund. Is there dignity working at GuitarCenter, whose crippling bond payments in a complex corporate shell game determine that the company will cease to exist very soon, and in such terrible conditions. Is there dignity in toiling for the bond credit holders, and nothing else?
The reason I really, truly believe it is a bullshit term for politicians levying their judgment upon the poor who are guilty of being poor is not only my own personal experience with most of the work I’ve had, in life, but also because nobody talks about making the idle rich pick up a plow and start picking strawberries. Nobody turns around and says, “You know, these rich people who don’t do anything, who don’t work at anything, well… We need to make sure everyone has the dignity of work and a paycheck! Let’s get these lazy retired people to work, too! We can find something they can do, right? They can sew wallets in a factory if they can’t walk. They can answer phones and make sales calls if they can’t use their hands. Let’s get everybody working, and I mean everybody, because work is where you find dignity!”
The old men of the museum, retired all of them and trying to keep busy, stood around the galleries for hours, staring off into space, ticking down the minutes of their life until their next break, then until day’s end. They were almost always men and white and proponents of working hard. They talked a lot about how the changes of the city were no good for families and kids. They continued to work long after it was necessary for them. They held space as full-timers that young men and women desperately needed to stay afloat, stay off the public dole, move out of their parents’ houses and start lives. But, I do not actually think anyone should retire if they do not wish to do so. I merely suggest that standing in a museum and staring off into space for eight hours is a horrible way to earn the dignity of a paycheck. The mind goes numb and soggy and becomes a flaccid, useless lump. At home, dreaming of nothing, watching television and attending church services and watching children fail to launch, fail to see the dignity of work, and complaining about children and grandchildren who don’t understand the values that raised them, that the children and grandchildren critique with their very lives: There is no dignity in work. There is dignity. There is work. Sometimes, the two might intersect. Usually, they don’t. A paycheck is not an act of dignity, but a necessity in a world built on collective taxes, collective cost, privatized lands, and the rising cost of food.
The way full-time employment worked at this museum was tenure-based. If you were part-time long enough, and a full-timer retired, you’d be offered a full-time position. The full-timers were almost all folks who were retired and continuing to work for the dignity and enjoyment of a paycheck in a nice museum. So, the part-timers – the struggling artists and musicians and writers that tumbled into the building from whatever need drove us there – were kept waiting for someone to reach death or the brink of death before we could be offered a full-time position. It worked enough times that there was hope enough to keep one around long enough to stick it out. But, it was a dull job. You were pushed inside of your coat, imagining yourself smaller and smaller in your nice suit until only the suit remained. You spoke as little as possible. You tried not to make eye contact. Guests found it disconcerting to make eye contact with security guards. It could lead to complaints that could lead to a termination of the non-binding, right to work contract there. Between touring exhibitions, the gig dried up to a sniffle. One day a part-timer would be on out of maybe every four weeks. The full-timers had nothing to worry about. They worked on these slow, quiet afternoons in the museum between shows, waiting for anything to happen.
Die on your feet like a man.
Whatever you do, be self-reliant, or delusional enough to believe in your own self-reliance because no one is actually self-reliant.
And if one is to be poor, for all that is good and holy, be sure to keep your poverty dignified with work.