On the Devaluation of Labor

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine who happens to be an administrative assistant at a small postsecondary institution in southern Ontario. Over mayonnaise-slathered sandwiches, we discussed the implications of the global economic crisis for higher education in our country. Most Canadian universities have reported dramatic losses in their endowment funds in recent weeks, virtually all departments have implemented hiring freezes to stem budgetary hemorrhaging, and most unions have had to enter into contract negotiations under the threat of cuts to existing benefits and wage rates.

“I guess it’s understandable,” my friend lamented between bites. “People like me are expendable; the professors aren’t. They’re the ones who do the research and create the jobs. If it weren’t for them, there would be no university.”

There seemed to be a certain logic to her assertion. Yet something about it did not sit right with me. As we arrived back at her office, I noticed that nearly every square inch of floor was covered with reams of file folders. Spiral-bound ledgers lay open everywhere; yellow adhesive notes neatly framed her computer screen, each with a hurried reminder scrawled upon it in ballpoint: call her, e-mail him, fax both. She shrugged. “It’s a busy time of year.”

I nodded slowly, mesmerized by the scene. “What would happen if you got sick and had to take a week off?”

She pondered the question a moment. She’d been sick before. The daily workings of her department had slowly unravelled, she recalled. Tasks had bottlenecked; delays had snowballed. While attempts had been made to train temporary personnel in her responsibilities, only she had the firsthand experience necessary to expedite the specific outcomes that students and faculty sought when they knocked on her door: cataloguing sensitive materials, ensuring that various communiqués reached the appropriate parties, clinching the attentions of fickle bureaucrats.

Were it not for her, in other words, and all others in her position—laboratory technicians, archival technicians, groundskeepers, teaching assistants, webmasters, dishwashers—there would be no university.

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The union-bashing and labour-trivializing that has come into vogue of late has typically been predicated on a small set of dubious assumptions:

The first is the notion, extensively debunked on this site and elsewhere, that the wages and benefits enjoyed by unionized workers are undeservedly generous, and have served only to exacerbate the economic downturn. Aided by the kinds of subtle rhetorical techniques beloved by news editors everywhere—the strategically positioned photograph, the passivized headline, the carefully selected metaphor—this perception has achieved a commonsensical flavour amongst unsuspecting readerships throughout the West. Narcotized from years of propaganda, we have been conditioned to scapegoat those who produce the wealth rather than those who have mismanaged it. The relationship between personal wealth and personal worth, we are assured, is a linear one: the more money a person has, the more he’s contributed to society, so let him be. Those who have literally given their lives to their industries, by contrast—often enduring lurid occupational hazards along the way, such as daily exposure to toxins and radiation—are called overpaid parasites.

The second of these assumptions is the notion that there is a qualitative distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” labour whereby certain kinds of activities (e.g. picking apples) inherently merit less remuneration, because one does not need special credentials to undertake them, while other kinds of activities (e.g. marking essays) merit more remuneration, because such positions do require special accreditations. I will not here examine the legitimacy of this belief. I will say, however, that the dichotomy—designed as it is to engender feelings of envy and resentment—lends itself beautifully to the managerial divide-and-conquer tactics familiar to labour organizers. When a cafeteria server’s wage is perceived to be too high, the teaching assistant is supposed to gaze ruefully at her hard-earned B.Sc. diploma and become indignant. When a laboratory technician loses her job, the bricklayer is supposed to feel a frisson of delight at the revelation that education does not confer immunity. We are all supposed to seethe bitterly when those less “skilled” than we refuse to know their place, and to smirk when those more “skilled” than we are brought down a notch or two.

The third of these assumptions is the conviction that university diplomas and professional degrees confer uniqueness and irreplaceability. Janitors are, allegedly, all more or less interchangeable; PhDs are not. This is the logic upon which my friend, the administrator, was drawing in lamenting the dispensability of her position. But is this even remotely true? When a university department sets up a hiring committee in order to fill a vacant professorship, one of the first things they do is determine what kind of specialist they are looking for: someone who studies land tenure systems in East Africa, for instance, or an arctic archaeologist. A formal job search is then launched, and, for each and every one of these vacancies, hundreds of roughly identical applications pour in. For each and every professor—or lawyer, or doctor—who retires or resigns, someone equivalently qualified is waiting in the wings. Does this mean that all arctic archaeologists are interchangeable? No. What it means is that, in an economy that treats us all as utilities, formal education in itself accords neither indispensability nor individuality.

We ought not delude ourselves. We all wield skills that are vital to our collective survival: the construction worker no less than the engineer, the lab technician no less than the endocrine surgeon. When a waste collector finds himself unemployed, society does not screech to a halt, true—nor does it when an architect finds herself unemployed. There are no unalterable or essential criteria behind these distinctions, whatever the economists say. Labour is labour; we are either all replaceable or all irreplaceable.

*   *   *

“What will you do after you graduate?”

My friend is asking me a question that has become an inside joke amongst my circle of acquaintances. I usually respond that within a couple of years I will almost certainly be living in a grocery cart with a pack of dogs, and so the question is moot. On more optimistic days, I announce an intention to become a traveling minstrel. Chuckles are elicited, and I am able to breathe a sigh of relief at having skilfully dodged the question.

I am in a less whimsical mood today, however, and so I tell her the truth: I don’t know. With the increasing casualization of labour at the postsecondary level, and the growing number of jobseekers with expensive acronyms on their business cards, the eventuality of my becoming a nomad looks likelier as time goes on. It does not bother me; I am not convinced that chasing tenure is a more valuable use of my time. But the implications of our society’s tactic of increasingly devaluing labour—manual, technical, and otherwise—while increasingly relying upon it cannot be trivialized. It is now possible to earn a Bachelor’s degree at some Canadian universities without ever encountering a professor in person: all of the core classes are taught by underpaid, overwhelmed contract lecturers who are usually students themselves. It is now possible to run a laboratory like an assembly line: plush corporate grants are put toward the purchase of cutting-edge technologies, while technicians are denied promotion on the logic that it is the machines, and not them, who undertake the specialized work.

Meanwhile, the managerial classes continue to divide and conquer. Moralistic overtures about the need for “everyone” to make sacrifices in these hard times continue to suffuse campus newsletters everywhere: the research assistant with the M.Sc. is invited to scowl at the administrative assistant with the B.A., who is enjoined to smirk at the autoclave operator with the high school diploma. Be aware that none of you deserve what you earn, we are warned; and be prepared to work ever more for ever less. There is someone better qualified standing right behind you.

EUGENIA TSAO spends her leisure time studying medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at tsao.eugenia@gmail.com.

EUGENIA TSAO is a Ph.D. candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Toronto and a CGS Doctoral Fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She can be reached at tsao.eugenia@gmail.com. A full list of references, sources for the quotes and figures cited in this article can be obtained by emailing the author.