My first paid employment brought me 40 cents an hour for picking weeds at a plant nursery in Valley City, N.D., four hours a day, six days a week, and at the end of the Saturday morning shift a check for $9.60.
It would have been less if we had been docked for picking the plants we were supposed to be nurturing instead of the encroaching weeds. “Hey Selmer,” we’d call out to the gruff man who supervised us. “Is this a weed?” we queried, holding what might have become a flowering crab tree if we had let it be. Selmer would shake his head and mutter and threaten to deny us water breaks, but that probably would have been against the law even back then.
I don’t remember how many weeks I toiled in those nursery rows some 60 years ago, but I remember feeling mighty proud when I got that weekly check. I remember how far $9.60 went back then when you were 10 or 12 years old – how many Dilly Bars that would buy at the Dairy Queen, how many boxes of Milk Duds at the Omwick Theater, how many hours swimming at the municipal pool.
I didn’t know the phrase at the time, but I would have understood if someone had spoken it: a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. I was tired, dirty and sometimes sunburned when I collected that $9.60 at quitting time Saturday, but I knew I had earned it.
And I knew then, though again I didn’t have the words: All work is honorable.
I saw that again when I looked at my father, an under-educated immigrant who worked long hours for low wages as a bartender but went proudly to work each day in a clean, starched white shirt and whistled as he walked home for lunch.
And I saw it again – the nobility of work – in the faces of men who signed on at a daily labor shop in Minneapolis to spend long, hot, grueling hours washing dishes at busy restaurants or doing laundry from nursing homes. Spend eight hours over an industrial sink or folding sheets for minimum wage and try to tell me that isn’t honorable work.
Daycare workers. Coffee shop baristas. Home cleaners. Assembly line workers. Restaurant cooks, servers and hostesses. Those, too, are necessary, honorable workers, and all worth a living wage.
And they all are worthy of help when disaster or plague strikes. Dismiss it if you will as socialism, it is part of the social contract that protects workers – protects America – from the worst aspects of unfettered capitalism. Like Social Security. Like Medicare.
To ease some of the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the most vulnerable among us, we – we, the people – have provided additional resources, including increased unemployment benefits. Now those are going away in many states, including North Dakota, as companies struggle to resume operations but face a labor shortage. Heather Long, writing in the Washington Post May 7, noted that some business leaders and Republican politicians are blaming those unemployment checks for “making people less likely to take low-paying fast food and retail jobs again.”
Here in North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum directed the state to stop offering those supplemental federal benefits on June 19. Employers are eager to hire, he said, and the extra benefits “have accomplished their goals but are now counterproductive.”
The safety net, one conservative commentator offered, has become a hammock.
“But another way to look at this is that there is a great reassessment going on in the U.S. economy,” Long wrote. “At the most basic level, people are still hesitant to return to work until they are fully vaccinated and their children are back in school and day care full time. For example, all the job gains in April went to men. The number of women employed or looking for work fell by 64,000, a reminder that child-care issues are still in play.”
And there is growing evidence, she wrote, “that a lot of people want to do something different with their lives than they did before the pandemic.”
She cites a recent Pew Research Center survey that found that two-thirds of the unemployed “had ‘seriously considered’ changing their field of work. …. Or they want a job that is more stable and less likely to be exposed to the coronavirus — or any other deadly virus down the road.”
A massive shift in labor has been occurring for years: good, honorable jobs that won’t come back because they are being automated. You who are so annoyed with “people who don’t want to work” – where are you on retraining programs? Or is that creeping socialism, too?
I know many people like to check their own groceries. I don’t, and not just because I usually fumble something. I like a human smile with my receipt. But that ship has sailed. On autopilot.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.