To this day one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had was a retail gig I had for about a year after college. It was at a small neighborhood liquor store owned by a family that’d been in the neighborhood for decades. On my first day, my boss (the owner) was training me on the different cleaning work he’d need me to do and took me into the beer cooler. Cleaning the beer cooler was terrible. Why? Beer bottles would break and if we didn’t get there quickly enough the beer could almost get syrupy on the floor and became almost impossible to clean up. Plus if it spilled under one of the shelves, you had to manually take out individual shelving units to get to the spot, which also meant moving all the beer off the shelves.
As he was showing me how to remove shelving units and reinstall them, Wayne stopped at one point and said, “you know, I’ll never ask you to do something I haven’t done a million times myself. If it’s not something I’m willing to do, I’ll never ask an employee to do it. So if you ever need help, just let me know.” That kind of personal attentiveness and reciprocity was characteristic of the store.
One of the points that needs to be made in our ongoing conversations about work, is that blue-collar work, retail work, service-sector work, and so on can be good and dignifying work. This is an important thing to say to the bloodless meritocrats who think working such a job is a sign that one has failed at life. Yet there’s another error that I find similarly alarming—and it’s lingering in the background of Marco Rubio’s response, published this week in National Review, to President Biden’s proposed child allowance included in the latest COVID stimulus bill.
Rubio is right, of course, when he says that healthy families need more than money to be healthy. He’s also right when he says that one of the other things they need is work. Where he goes wrong is in the assumption that a job one can list on a tax return and receive a wage from is always the kind of work that helps create stability for families. Too often in their paeans to the goodness of work, conservatives like Rubio fail to reckon with how alienating the modern workplace is for many Americans. They fail to realize that the greatest threat to American families may actually be work itself—if the work is dangerous, alienating, and dehumanizing.
That it is Rubio making this mistake is especially odd. Rubio has surpassed the vast majority of Republican senators in recognizing that dignified work is work that pays a living or family wage. But the issue with American work is about more than just wages. And in all his writing on common good capitalism, I’ve yet to see him connect the dignity of work to anything aside from wages, save in some fairly vague comments about certain industrial jobs being “dignified” but even there the reader is mostly left to guess at what, beside wages, is in view. It’s all the more striking because one of the popes Rubio has recently made a habit of quoting, John Paul II, was clearly concerned with the broader conditions of labor that make it either dignifying or alienating:
It must be emphasized, in general terms, that the person who works desires not only due remuneration for his work; he also wishes that, within the production process, provision be made for him to be able to know that in his work, even on something that is owned in common, he is working “for himself.” This awareness is extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization, which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above, that he is for more reasons than one a mere production instrument rather than a true subject of work with an initiative of his own. … If this is not done, incalculable damage is inevitably done throughout the economic process, not only economic damage but first and foremost damage to man.
Most Americans in blue-collar work (and many in white-collar work) do not have employers that offer them the degree of personhood and agency that I enjoyed at that small neighborhood liquor store. Rather, they work for the sort of ghouls who think employees don’t need bathroom breaks or who surveil their employees with invasive machines and software that monitor everything from their location when they are working remotely to how quickly they are picking items from warehouse shelves. Indeed, in some kind of grim, bleak irony befitting our age, working for some of America’s largest companies is increasingly dangerous—which, given the dysfunction in our nation’s health system, can create stress on a family not only due to the injury but also because of out-of-control medical bills. Far from strengthening the families of these injured workers, work may well be one of the greatest threats to the family’s life.
In fact, Amazon is supporting efforts to raise the minimum wage because they already pay something like $15/hour (or more) to many workers and they know that a higher nation-wide wage would likely give America’s behemoths yet another advantage over family-owned small businesses who will have a much harder time affording a $15/hour wage for their employees.
If Sens. Rubio and Lee’s objection to child allowances is going to be something more than a de facto shove out of the household and into the strangling arms of Amazon or some other faceless mega corporation, then their call to tie family aid to work must also come with a renewed effort to protect American workers from workplace surveillance as well as other forms of abusive workplace behavior practiced by many of America’s largest employers. It must come with a robust defense of workers rights and quite possibly a commitment to try and help smaller, family-owned businesses have a better chance at surviving during an era when such firms face more challenges than ever. It must come with a commitment to advancing a paid family leave plan, something Rubio has attempted in the past and should return to, and a renewed commitment to re-establishing American unions as a valuable tool for protecting American workers. It must come, in short, with a commitment to restoring the personhood of American workers. Rubio needn’t repudiate his commitment to common good capitalism to do any of these things; he just needs a greater accent on the “common good” part of the equation.
Absent a commitment to that difficult and complex work of reforming the American workplace, I think simply giving families money and not objecting when some use that money to opt out of alienating wage slavery is the next best thing.