Economy: We Should Honor Work

by Judy Ferro

Do Americans honor work? Do Idahoans?

When my husband worked in Seattle many years ago, employers appreciated that he was willing and able to work with his hands. Washington Iron Works began paying him as a journeyman boilermaker months before the union recognized the status. Later, when he needed a few months work between his electronics studies and moving to Idaho, a shipbuilding company put him on a crew of four that earned double-time for eight hours of a 40-hour work week.

His first year back in Idaho, Bill found a totally different work culture. One company paid him substantially less than the promised wage and then claimed there was a “month-long probationary period.” Later they said that he’d given up his claim to higher pay by cashing his first check.

Another fired him for insisting that a second person be in the building while he built a lid over a giant vat of moving lye to build a lid

At a third company, the boss had the men bypass the safety features on a metal cutter so they could speed up the work; predictably, it cost one worker several fingers.

There was, and is, shame in talking about these experiences even though we now know many friends with stories that “one-up” Bill’s.

And it didn’t help to see these employers honored in the community. An article in Forbes magazine convinced me that this wasn’t unusual. They honored a businessman for moving his white collar workers to tiny cubicles in a windowless basement, doing away with their health care, and investing the savings in the stock market.

This man had not in any way improved the lives of others. Yet, he was praised as an example for all—he had gotten rich with little effort.

Now my husband and friends managed to quit bad jobs and move on to better employers. Yet, the massive out shoring of jobs, Idaho’s adoption of “right-to-work,” or the recession of the last decade must have made that more difficult for many.

A recent National Review article accused today’s young people of not having a clue about work. Some of the commenters suggested the fault was with parental coddling.

I wonder if the fault isn’t with our money-centered culture. Just what lessons are learned when kids see hard-working parents degraded while those who game the system are honored? It’s hard to instill a work ethic—be on time, on task, respectful and reliable—to kids who see hardworking parents belittled while struggling to make ends meet.

A girl recently died of carbon monoxide poisoning while napping in her car between shifts at her first and second jobs. A Facebook friend of a friend commented that it was her own fault for not getting a decent-paying job to start with.

I want to kick him. It’s bad enough when people think it’s okay that people working 40+ hours a week can’t afford decent housing without anyone suggesting they deserve to die.

I wish I knew of a cheap, easy solution. I don’t.

How do we see that workers have as much say in our democracy as the uber-rich? Most don’t have time enough to figure out who is spinning what nor money enough to influence elections.

A livable minimum wage would be a start. Many Idaho employers can’t afford the $15 an hour that is gaining support today, but we might phase-in raises to $10.10 an hour.

And we can fight every tax that falls heavier on the wage earner than on the rich. Why are earnings from capital taxed at a fraction of earnings from labor?