The Dignity of Work

It’s easy to forget the historic meaning of Labor Day, lost as it is in the haze of BBQ smoke, back-to-school sales and that last long weekend of summer’s vacation season.

In the diminished ranks of organized labor, now down to 8% of the working population, the holiday, once a celebration of victory over corporate greed and heartless work reveals nostalgia for days gone by, a nostalgia haunted by worries about the future.

Unless you are a savvy entrepreneur, talented specialist or fat-cat equity holder, you are probably concerned about the future of your work, your finances, and the quality of your life. If not, you should be. The erosion of human values at all levels, in mainstream work is so pervasive and heartless, that even to have a chance at rewarding work, you will need to reconsider everything you know about companies, jobs, work, skills, careers and personal mobility. And included in that is redefining your own self-definition: union member, hourly worker, factory worker, supervisor, manager or “I’ll do anything.” What you call yourself is how you see yourself, and how you see (and define) yourself shapes your future.

So, my vote is for Labor Day as a holiday for all, and not as a model for our future. This doesn’t mean that I am anti-union or won’t fight for the right to organize; what I am most interested in is the way work can expand human dignity and encourage development, learning, pride of self and accomplishment. That’s where the real payoffs will come for individuals and for our nation. And that is what we need to focus on to enhance our competitive edge.

The dignity of work is a human right; it goes to the essence of human value. When this dignity is present in employment, loyalty, productivity and creative solutions leap forward. Continuity and shared outcomes rise, civility and pride increase, and the company and its workers become an empowered community.

Joe Biden, in his recent speech at the Democratic National Convention, defined the dignity of work this way: “That’s how you come to believe, to the very core of your being, that work is more than a paycheck. It’s dignity. It’s respect. It’s about whether or not you can look your children in the eye and say: We’re going to be all right.”

Unfortunately working in mainstream corporations today is often the furthest thing from dignity or community. Millions of Americans are questioning the ethics and purpose of today’s winner-takes-all capitalism as they struggle to make ends meet and worry about their future. According to national studies, the vast majority feel they are playing by rigged rules and cooked books that, far from giving them a fair deal, leave them short-changed. Employees are giving more and getting less from their work. Whether you look at job security, career opportunity, income, time spent on the job, health care, retirement security, or the right to organize, it’s indisputable that most working people are far worse off today than they were a generation ago.

Given the political season, we have and will continue to hear about the American Dream. Perhaps it is time to revive it. The American Dream stands for a place and time when opportunity invited hard work, optimism and vision, and our nation encouraged people to do their best, and supported them, regardless of class, wealth or political connections. Its forerunner was the Declaration of Independence and the particularly American form of capitalism (Democratic Capitalism) that rose out of it.

This popular ideal was far more generous in its abstraction than in its reality: (racism, gender and ethnicity were barriers that only dedicated opposition has broken); nevertheless the belief in a bright, optimistic working population with mobility, development, stability and rewards has been woven into our collective consciousness and is still alive in the thinking of millions. Unfortunately, many now realize, as I do, that this dream, based on America’s core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is sinking fast, and to a growing part of the population is being replaced by a nightmare of heartless work.

How do we get it running again? The community of work, where all players are stakeholders in the game, is one way; emphasis on the importance of education aligning with people’s life needs is another; and providing employees the basic protections of health benefits, family time, learning time and freedom from poverty and depletion is another. And, along with this it is important to raise our guard against the negative effect on the workforce from the widespread practice of “deskilling.”

Corporate kingpins are fattening their bottom lines by consciously stripping away uniquely human talents — judgment, reason, imagination, and learning — from the work of the broad middle ranks of the workforce and replacing these with jobs that are mechanical, scripted, shallow and by the numbers. By downgrading the aspirations, talent and potential of their workers, industry monarchs trash the resourcefulness of the nation as a whole.

Well over 50 million jobs have been deskilled, decoupled and relegated to commodity status in the past decade. Millions of people a year, including a high population of college graduates, are shunted away from the once broad field of corporate citizenship to jobs that entrap them into digital assembly lines, using only a small portion of their talent and education and rewarding them with marginal incomes with little upward mobility. Deskilling is a known practice, justified by stockholder demands to cut the human cost of productivity regardless of the deadly consequences.

So, here at the juncture of summer’s end and the challenge of going back to school, I propose we acknowledge the values and needs for organized labor to continue to fight for workplace rights, and also add in the 21st century imperative for revitalizing the American workplace, improving its role in the whole society, and to press more strongly for the inherent dignity of work.

About the Author: Tom Jackson has authored eleven books in the field of careers and the quality of working life. He has created, developed and executed hundreds of popular programs, software, lectures, corporate initiatives, and consultancies on career transition, performance enhancement, resumes, job search, and entrepreneurial development. His own life is a testimony to self-direction and to moving with shifting values: from pilot, to consultant, to computer pioneer, from author and lecturer, and to entrepreneur. His theories are born from his own hero’s journey and his inspired work with tens of thousands.Tom’s books combined have sold well over a million copies. He has presented hundreds of workshops, lectures, and speaking engagements at conventions and colleges, from the state universities in California, up to McGill in Canada, over to William and Mary College and Duke University, out to the University of Michigan, and down to Austin, Texas. With his interviews on “Good Morning America,” “Regis & Kathie Lee,” “Nightline,” and other TV shows, he has pushed human technology to people at every level and profession. His work introducing outplacement and career counseling to hourly workers opened a new chapter in how unions serve their members. For the last ten years, Jackson has worked in the application of breakthrough thinking applied to personal and corporate cultures. The Breakthrough Method™ has inspired major changes in the way fresh ideas are translated into extraordinary results. This work is woven throughout the new book. Jackson has been a pioneer in the development of interactive capability and skills development software and web sites, and continues to stay close to this field. Currently Tom is studying the revolutionary shifts in the nature of careers, jobs and work itself, and the implications for workers at all levels.

Note: Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.