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Working, Workers and Words

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September 8, 2011 by wcobserver

Work is a basic human reality and for most people is experienced as an unavoidable fact of life. Work was just as real for the primitive hunter waiting at dawn by the water hole for the first kill of the day as it is for the modern office worker booting up and logging in.

Like all human activities, work is understood in different ways by different people in an endless variety of situations. It can be noble, even spiritual in nature. It can be just a necessary economic reality. Some, perhaps many, people consider work humiliating. It was William Faulkner who pointed out that you can’t eat, drink or make love for eight hours a day, only work, “Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

People talking about their work are the subject of a book by Chicago author, broadcaster and Pulitzer Prize winning historian Studs Terkel (1912-2008), “Working; People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” Terkel had a knack for getting everyday people to talk about their everyday work lives and categorized interviews into types of activity: people who clean up, make things, count things; quiet work, bureaucracy work, driving work and other types. There are interviews with “people in charge,” with creative workers, with housewives, athletes, retail clerks, stockbrokers, CEOs, therapists, teachers… It’s a big book.

The vocabulary we use to describe all this basic human activity changes over time and like all language influences our shared understanding of reality. Is toiling and laboring different from thinking and creating? How is a salaried wage earner different from a contract freelancer? Why isn’t a skilled computer user called a craftsman? Why do people who operate a computer for eight hours a day not consider themselves machine operators?

Some economic theorists argue the modern industrialized world is divided by a person’s relation to the production process. On the one hand is Capital; on the other is Labor, each vying for a bigger slice of the product pie. Capitalists want to accumulate capital. The other side wants what?…benefits and fair wages, safe working conditions, security in their old age, family time, dignity?

The capital class which organizes itself using industrial monopolies, interconnected boards of directors, and money driven political influence understands that if the people who are actually doing the production work ever get themselves organized, things might not be so rosy for them.

They don’t want workers talking about something as ominous as a working class.
If workers start identifying themselves as workers instead of employees, temps, consultants, contractors, associates or of all things a “human resource” the capitalist class has a problem.

The bosses want to avoid using any word that might give the workers the idea that they are anything other than one isolated cog in the giant profit producing machinery of production. It’s something out of their control.

“Hang together or hang separately” may have sounded good to colonial revolutionaries but takes on another meaning when talking about workplace democracy.

Other than a few history shows and articles don’t expect much to be said about the Labor Movement and the Working Class from the media this Labor Day Weekend. After all, it’s the end of summer, hot dogs and picnics, a holiday.

Words like labor, worker, class, proletariat or organize don’t get much usage in the vocabulary of the national media which is controlled by about six corporations who depend on thousands of workers/employees to channel profits to the capitalist class.
We’re s surprised there hasn’t already been an effort to remove the word labor from the holiday’s name altogether and start referring to it a Leisure Day.

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