Over the 13 years I worked as a union organizer, I used the phrase “dignity of labor,” most every time I met with workers. When it came to risking the wrath of their bosses by joining a union, I found that workers cared as much about pride as they did about pay.
This week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D‑Ohio) announced he would not run for president in 2020. He had just recently wrapped up his “dignity of work” tour across the country, telling audiences “hard work should pay off.” He decided not to run for a number of reasons, but seemed pleased that other Democratic candidates for the White House were borrowing his worker-centric themes and approach. Brown had tailored his message to “regular” folks — fry cooks, nurses, construction workers, people who were once the political base of the Democratic Party.
The importance of “honoring labor” has a long lineage in the United States. The early Puritans and Quakers, who settled New England and Pennsylvania, brought with them a Protestant ethos that equated hard work with personal virtue and public morality. Discipline, strenuous labor and the horrors of idleness were values and fears preached from pulpits, taught in schools and editorialized in newspapers.
In his book, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850 – 1920, Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers points out that this belief — connecting work to moral virtue and personal redemption — permeated American society at the time.
Protestantism “spiritualized toil and turned usefulness into a sacrament,” Rodgers explained, while at the same time providing ideological comfort to capitalists and the comfortable professional class as the United States entered the industrial age. If the gospel of work decreed that sustained labor was not only a necessity but also brought you closer to God, such a protestant ethic posed, why would workers need the protections of unions or the promises of socialism?
As the factory system took hold over the 19th century, while union organizers and radicals shared the view that there was honor in manual labor, they also recognized the gulf between rhetoric and reality. Exploitation at work — some called it “wage slavery” — was a central theme of those who challenged the capitalist system.
In recent times, nearly every president, Democrat and Republican alike, has proclaimed his belief in the “nobility of labor.” President Bill Clinton praised those who “worked hard and played by the rules,” assuring them that he was a fighter for their interests. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has justified building a wall along the southern border as necessary to protect “hard-working Americans.”
But despite all the talk of honoring hard work, blue-collar laborers have seen their wages stagnate over the past several decades. Corporate hostility to unions, offshoring of jobs and antiquated labor laws has helped reduce private sector unionization rates to a dismal 6.4 percent. Income inequality has grown so vast that historians and political scientists are speculating whether democracy will be able to survive.
In his book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, journalist Robert Kuttner argues that contrary to the template of Karl Marx, workers of the world do not naturally unite. When national economies don’t function fairly, or can’t adequately integrate new immigrants, they often turn to ultra-nationalist politicians with a talent for fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia. Such was Trump’s game plan for winning in 2016.
Regular working people have defended economic democracy before and moved our country in a progressive direction. It was the massive strike wave of the 1930s New Deal period that brought economic security to millions and helped legitimize the idea that government should play a strong role in regulating the economy. The years following World War II witnessed the biggest strike wave in American history. Rather than destroying the economy, workers’ demands for higher wages led to an era of post-war prosperity that did not end until the 1970s. Today, workers are again getting restive.
Over the past year, we’ve seen another massive strike wave. Tens of thousands of teachers have gone on strike in red states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona as well as California, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Hotel workers across the country went on strike late last year in eight cities against the Marriott hotel chain, marching under the slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough.” And, remarkably, 20,000 Google workers, many in the bastion of high-tech and anti-union Silicon Valley, walked out of their jobs last November to protest sexual discrimination by their managers.
While these strikes have generally centered on traditional issues of wages, healthcare costs and pensions, beneath the surface there is a desire for respect — a revolt against abuses of power and affronts to pride.
We’ll be hearing a lot during the primary season about the dignity of blue-collar work. For President Trump, dignity is for chumps. He has, so far, successfully sanctioned rage as the emotional cement that unites his base.
Politicians generally prefer progress to be “managed,” planned by experts and rolled out in orderly stages. The drama of social change is never so tidy. As 2020 Democratic candidates make their way through the early primary states, let’s hope that when they praise the “dignity of labor,” they also understand that this dignity has been fought for over generations by workers — not handed out by politicians.