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What does Labor Day mean anymore other than another day off, another store sale and, in some cities, parades ever smaller and more devoid of passion for elevating the well-being of working people?
Philosopher/mechanic Matthew B. Crawford, in his recent, embracing book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft has a thoughtful consideration. He deflates the high-prestige workplace and makes the case for millions of Americans who still make and fix things with their hands.
“I want to suggest we can take a broader view of what a good job might consist of, and therefore what kind of education is important. We seem to have developed an educational monoculture, tied to a vision of what kind of work is valuable and important — everyone gets herded into a certain track where they end up working in an office, regardless of their natural bents.
But some people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning to build things or fix things. Why not honor that? I think one reason we don’t is that we’ve had this fantasy that we’re going to somehow take leave of material reality and glide around in a pure information economy.”
Dr. Crawford has a PhD in political philosophy and is a mechanic who runs Shockoe Moto, an independent motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. This gives him a deep sense of skill and broader perspective with which to evaluate these ways of satisfying one’s value of locally-rooted work. He contrasts these traits with the deadening assembly line and computer focused office work, both of which can be outsourced on the whims of a boss.
The Winsted, Connecticut Deck’s Fix-It Shop, operated joyously by an aunt and her nephew, until they retired last year, would have been exhibit A for Dr. Crawford. They fixed hundreds of different products brought to them by the townspeople. Their small shop was filled horizontally and vertically with items donated, about to be fixed or were unfixable by the manufacturers’ design. They could have charged a museum entrance fee for browsing if their shop had more room. Oh, what pride they regularly took in their work.
Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, painters, tailors, car and bike repairers, restorers of stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, furnaces, locks, windows, sidewalks and streets enjoy a special kind of personal job gratification that is alien to the pre-designed, robotic labors of their friends who come home every day with clean clothes.
I’ve often wondered why the knowledge of tradespeople about the best, middling and worst brands of equipment, products and materials they work with or have to install (such as furnaces) isn’t collected by some magazine or consumer group. After all Angie’s List is surveying what their customers around the country think about the quality of the service.
Along with the repairers, we should recognize the inspectors—millions of them working for government agencies and companies to assure that health and safety laws are observed and quality controls are maintained. They are the meat and poultry inspectors, OSHA and Customs inspectors, sanitation inspectors of food stores and restaurants, motor vehicle inspectors, nuclear, chemical and aircraft inspectors, inspectors of laboratories, hospitals, clinics, building code inspectors and the insurance inspectors assigned to loss prevention duties.
The more conscientious of these inspectors are vulnerable to being over-ridden by their less committed superiors (such as meat inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture) or harassed (inspectors for the U.S. Forest Service on corporately exploited federal timber land.) Sometimes inspectors so commit their conscience to their work that they become whistle-blowers about safety hazards or hanky panky, which too often invites career-ending retaliation.
How little attention we devote to those inspectors who are sentinels for the well-being of the American people. As a result, the courageous are not honored—if only to motivate the young to choose these careers. Moreover, a culture of corruption, that can erode their alertness or burdens them with weak standards to enforce, escapes exposure.
Then there are the near invisibles—the cleaners who do their thankless but essential jobs in hotels, airports, bus and train stations, office buildings, factories, schools, libraries, museums, streets, restaurants and homes.
Strange how we don’t react to cleaners—rarely thanking them or greeting them with salutations. Notice how airline passengers rush past them on the jetway while they wait to clean up the messes under severe time pressure. People who babble incessantly at airports or bus and train stations, while waiting for their departure, ignore the sweepers and dusters, automatically averting their eyes, and almost never acknowledging their work.
Taxi drivers are often tipped and thanked. How many hotel maids, who clean twelve or more soiled rooms and toilets a day, receive any thanks or tips by the guests? Cleaners are among the lowest paid workers, often handle not the safest of chemicals, and receive very little respect or recognition. Their lowly status has to affect their morale and maybe their performance.
Yet what would we do if these workers went on a general strike from the nursing homes to the garbage trucks? We’d feel it a lot more than if the overpaid Wall Street traders went on strike.
One day I was at BWI airport and went to the crowded men’s room. As I entered, the elderly cleaning man erupted in frustration. “I’m sick of this job,” he shouted to no one in particular. “Hour after hour I clean up, come back, see the crap, clean up some more. It never ends,” he wailed. The men who were wiping, flushing, washing, drying and zipping were stunned and silently shuffled out, as if he wasn’t there. I thanked him for his work and candor, calmed him down and gave him a gratuity. The others looked at me blankly as if I was dealing with a ghost they never see as a human being.
Cultures can be astonishing. The hands-on workers who harvest our food, clean up after us, repair our property, look out after our health and safety conditions and serve as nannies to our children receive few honors, status or anywhere near the compensation of those who gamble with our money, entertain us or drive us into wars they don’t fight themselves.
Shouldn’t Labor Day be a time to gather and contemplate such inverted values and celebrate those who toil without proper recognition?
RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.