Lately I've been thinking about the phrase "the dignity of work." It has been flying around a lot lately in the media. Most often in the mouths of people talking about welfare and work programs. Newt Gingrich brought it to light quite famously back in November when he repeatedly made the ridiculous spit-ball of of a statement about "giving" poor young (presumably black) school kids “the dignity of work” by making them part-time janitors for the school grounds. He went on later to make a special point of the fact that these kids (the presumably black ones) in urban neighborhoods "where nobody has worked and nobody has any habit of work"
More recently though, it has come from the mouth of our presumed presidential republican candidate, Mitt Romney in what could be called the "mommy" battle the media recently went on a giant frenzy about (I won’t go into it but man is THAT a can of worms in and of itself).
Romney wants mothers to have “dignity of work”. But what does that really mean? The term itself has been sloshed around so much and has been used as if it has a nearly iconic power. According to the ol reliable wiki the phrase originates in Catholic teachings.
“Employers must not ‘look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but ... respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character’."
Now don’t get me wrong, employers respecting their employees sound great, but notice that the initial definition is includes only men and relates only to those in an employer-employee relationships. It was originally only used to refer to and include only the transactional definition of workers and work.
After researching the actual historical context of this phrase I’ve sussed out my previously ambiguous squicky feelings about the modern use of the phrase “dignity of work”.
Its original establishment as well as the current use of the phrase "dignity of work" is rooted in an employer-employee relationship. It actually has very little to do with personal or communal sweat, progress, or projects (which I personally believe constitute work). The classic and current definition of this type of “dignity” denies and excludes any non-paid work a person might do.
Transactional (paid) work is something we do privilege in this country. We honor respect and ideologically legitimize the work a person does for pay. This assumption exists in the common introductory question"What do you do?" The implied actual question being asked is "What work are you paid to do?"
I have written previously about how our culture propagates, in many pervasive ways, the idea that folks without money don’t matter or that money is the equivalent of moral or philosophical value. The phrase "the dignity of work" is just one more divisive way that this is being done. It is especially effective because the semantics of this phrase really does resonate. I believe in the semantic meaning of the dignity of work. Working hard and investing in your own progress as well as the progress of those with whom you work is really awesome amazing and powerful. It is something I believe everyone deserves to feel.
However, when Romney says these words so iconically it or Newt says it or even when the Catholic church said it all the way back then, they sure as hell did not mean non-transactional labor. They do not mean babysitting your younger siblings because your mother can’t afford a sitter, or taking care of your grandparents/parents as their physical health deteriorates with age. They certainly don’t mean changing your own baby's diapers, or helping out with the community pea patch. These thing are not covered by the phrase “dignity of work”. What they actually is mean going out to someone else’s business and committing hours of work to an employer who has more privileged that you. They mean being paid to do alienated labor.
"The dignity of work" historically as well as currently is being used to legitimize work within pre-existing structures of capitalism. "The dignity of work” means “the dignity of participating in our current paradigm of jobs.” It means submission to a punch-clock, salaried, or hourly system of pay. "The dignity of work" actually means the submission the the current hierarchies and relationships of capitalism. “The dignity of work” as Newt and Romney talk about it is about putting your faith in capitalist systems as a mode of feeling dignity.
Anyone who has been unemployed (there’s 8.2% of us right?) or felt cheated by the system know that this is the opposite of empowering. It is, in fact, and a great display of magical semantics, asking oppressed folks to accept their role in capitalist hierarchies. Whenever I hear someone in the media using the words “dignity” and “work” I am going to be suspicious of possible capitalist and/or Catholic idealism about transactional work. Although, I will be listening hopefully for signs of actual human dignity; for faith in commitments to actual personal and collective progress.