To Be of Use

Perusing Facebook today, I noticed several Labor-Day-themed messages. Many of these were variations on the "brought to you by the Labor Movement" theme: weekends, occupational health and safety, paid holidays, an end to child labor, retirement security and more. All great things. And I thank those who fought for these changes and benefits. At a time with most of these gains are under threat, it is important to remember the struggles that made such gains possible. And the need to move those struggles forward, in ways that address current threats to workers' rights and wellbeing. With a sense of solidarity, I shared these sentiments with my virtual friends.

Then, I saw the following comment: “If you are in the 'system', you are golden. And if you aren' sucks!” As the sad truth of this comment sank in, I starting thinking about the many kinds of workers who are excluded from the system of labor laws and practices that provide a measure of security. And beyond that, I thought about the many groups of people who have been discarded by current labor markets --- the invisible, marginalized workers who are no longer considered to be working people (and, in some cases, perhaps never were considered to be workers). On this Labor Day, I encourage us to think about each of these kinds of workers, and about what it would take to bring everyone into a much better 'system.'

Who is Excluded

Several categories of workers were left out of the system of labor laws established as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, in particular, farm and domestic workers. This was part of the compromise made with Dixicrats in exchange for their support for New Deal programs; race was a major factor in determining who would be excluded. These categories intersect with, and often are maintained through, the racialization of labor: excluded workers are disproportionately people of color. And many, like domestic workers, are predominantly women. Thanks to some good worker organizing and social media campaigns, we as a society are becoming more aware of the plight of excluded workers. We are seeing some movement toward extending labor laws to include domestic workers, for example. That gives us something to cheer about on Labor Day.

Also among the ranks of the excluded are workers with undocumented immigration status. Being undocumented makes significant segments of the paid workforce vulnerable to numerous labor violations, including wage theft. In times of economic downturn, the undocumented are the first to be scapegoated. For political purposes, their status as workers too often is trumped by their status as undocumented "others." There are divisions, however, among different segments in the corporate-conservative infrastructure about immigration reform. Many corporate leaders want a version of reform that increases employers' access both to highly skilled workers who will take lower pay and to lower-skilled guest workers who can be dismissed when they are no longer needed. But the extreme right-wing forces that corporate-conservatives have unleashed upon our nation may scuttle their attempts at corporate-friendly immigration reforms.

Who Is Invisible

For the most part, we don’t really see the people who have been marginalized from labor force participation. For the most part, the marginalized are not even considered to be working people (or even as potential working people). This includes the chronically unemployed, the incarcerated, the institutionalized, the people who are deemed "unemployable" for a variety of reasons. These, too, are excluded workers. They are not just excluded; they are invisible. This invisibility reinforces the many ways in which marginalized people are dehumanized in a society that only values what a person has, in terms of wealth, and what a person earns, in terms of income.

I spent part of this Labor Day weekend at a consultation between organizers and theologians* about the narratives and structures that drive the twin crises of mass incarceration and mass deportations. During this consultation, a presenter put forward a challenge around how we think about labor, about who is a worker, and how we value and support the inherent worth, dignity and potential in all human beings, whether or not they are working within recognized labor markets.

Even though these groups of people usually are working, in one way or another, to carve out a niche for themselves, to take care of themselves and others, to create a sense of belonging, and/or simply to survive, day to day, they are not seen as workers, and this often pushes them outside of the circle of concern. This designation as ‘not workers,’ suggests they are not productive, and, ultimately, not useful to society. This fragmentation of people and their value as workers (or 'not workers') has a historical trajectory, and it is a history bound up and intertwined with the racialization of labor. 

With all of this in mind, we need to ask ourselves: if we want to build a society in which the capacities and potentialilities of every human being are honored and nurtured, we may need to start recognizing all the different ways in which people can contribute to building our commonwealth. We all are working, in one way or another; but our value as a ‘worker’ need not be tied to how we are valued by the current, fragmented and exploitative labor market.

Each of us wants to be of use, working together, to make our society whole.


* The consultation was convened by the Center on Race, Religion and Ecomomic Democracy at the Union Theological Seminary, with support from the Grassroots Policy Project and the Institute for Pragmatic Practice.


** The title, "To Be of Use" is taken from a poem of the same name by Marge Piercy.