The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work

The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work

The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work

An unanticipated civics lesson, courtesy of President Trump.


Over the last month, the government shutdown produced an unanticipated civics lesson: The public began to realize that museum workers, park rangers, air-traffic controllers, Coast Guard members, and others who came out of the shadows to declare, “We want to work!” do work of crucial importance to the nation.

The lesson takes place against the background of a rising discussion of the crisis of work itself. It could accelerate recognition of the dignity and public value of work.

The Ford Foundation has a new program on the future of work. “The nature of work is changing–and at a magnitude that we have yet to fully grasp let alone respond to,” reads the foundation’s website. “Many types of workers are affected by these seismic changes but…women, people of color, migrants, and people with disabilities disproportionately bear the brunt, exacerbating inequality overall.”

Former president Barack Obama made similar remarks last summer in South Africa, emphasizing the dignity and purpose of work. “The pace of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job,” he said. “It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose.”

Obama recalled a progressive tradition stressing the dignity and value of work which has receded in recent decades.

I thought about this tradition when I attended the “Celebration of Citizenship” last November in St. Paul. More than a thousand people from 93 countries were naturalized as legal citizens. The group included my South African wife, Marie-Louise Ström. The presiding federal judge gave a stirring speech about the diversity of American traditions and cultures that could have come out of the pages of Jane Addams, the great settlement leader who was a leading figure in espousing cultural pluralism and the value of immigrant craft and labor traditions.

Employees of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services guided people to their seats, answered questions, and handed out a booklet, The Citizen’s Almanac, at the end of the ceremony. It includes Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” celebrating the mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker, wood-cutter, as well as “the delicious singing of the mother…or of the girl sewing…each singing what belongs to him or her.”

Whitman wrote in 1860, but his celebration of work continued to animate democratic politics through the 1960s. When Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps to address public needs for forestry, flood control, new programs on soil erosion and other conservation projects, he also emphasized the importance of work itself. “More important than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work,” he said in his speech to Congress in March 1933. “The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans who are walking the streets and receiving relief would infinitely prefer to work.”

In his 1951 book, The Conduct of Life, the literary critic Lewis Mumford drew on a variety of government public-works programs in the New Deal to propose a “public work corps” that would put each young woman and man to work “doing a thousand things that need to be done.” Such citizenship education through public work was crucial, in his view, to create a counterweight to the consolidation of a top-down, technological civilization that was increasingly “inept in everything that involves reciprocity, mutual aid, two-way communication and give and take.”

In the 1960s civil-rights movement as a field secretary for Martin Luther King’s organization, I saw Southern blacks claiming the dignity and value of their work as a central part of their struggle for justice. King repeatedly stressed the dignity of work, as in his speech to sanitation workers on strike in Memphis on March 18, 1968. As he put it, “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

When I began civic-engagement efforts in 1987 through the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, I brought the emphasis on the dignity and value of work which I had learned in the movement. For more than 30 years, first through the University of Minnesota and more recently through Augsburg University, we have developed public-work projects and partnerships not only with policy-makers and politicians but also with teachers, nurses, extension workers, bankers, therapists, scientists, and others in many settings beyond government.

Public work involves collaborative work with public purpose and impact, inside or outside government. Professionals working in this way, citizen professionals who work collaboratively to turn their classrooms, schools, businesses, clinics, nonprofits, or government agencies into empowering, humane, and purpose-filled environments are inspiring models in a time when growing numbers of low-paid workers and professionals alike feel disempowered.

“Technological developments like the internet have undermined claims to expertise,” wrote Noam Scheiber in his New York Times article last year, “When Professionals Rise Up More than Money Is at Stake.” “Shrinking budgets have left teachers and other government workers with fewer resources. Consolidation in the health care and media industries has made doctors, nurses, and journalists feel like cogs in corporate machines.”

The self-assertion of government workers during the shutdown shows a spreading labor restiveness evident also in the teachers’ strikes.

Renewed attention to the dignity and value of work crosses partisan divides. In last year’s election, Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown, emphasizing “the dignity of work,” won handily in Ohio, with support from many Trump supporters.

In his new book, The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass, Mitt Romney’s policy adviser in 2012, argues that politicians and economists left and right have long neglected the value of work, seeing workers as consumers and production units, not as producers of value to the society. Cass calls for strengthening unions and for a “productive pluralism” in which “people of diverse abilities, priorities, and geographies…can become contributors to their communities.”

In addition to Whitman’s poem, The Citizen’s Almanac contains the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” All are civic covenants that marked new stages in American history.

The times call out for a new civic covenant that reaffirms the dignity and value of work.

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