Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Trashing experience and skill is just one more weapon in the war on workers

October 1st, 2012 | Laura Clawson

The role of training and experience was glaringly obvious in the National Football League’s lockout of its longtime officials. Glaringly obvious as in, the scabs the NFL brought in to replace the experienced referees were first a national laughingstock and then even more widely reviled for their errors on the field. It turns out not just anyone can officiate a professional football game. But what about other kinds of workers?

We’re told that part of the American character is to work hard and take pride in it, and that’s reflected in what we see around us. It’s not just people whose work results in big paychecks or offers the chance to climb the career ladder quickly or get public recognition, it’s a value as alive among low-wage workers as among the highest-paid. But something you hear a lot less about than the value of hard work is the value of skill. This is weird, because presumably if you’re working hard, one of the things you’re working at is getting good at what you do. If you’re taking pride in your hard work, it’s not just pride in how tired you are at the end of the day but at how well you did things, how accurate or efficient you were, how you got something right that not everyone would have gotten right.

But when there’s a labor dispute, or when Republicans are trying to undermine how voters think about other workers to set the stage for taking away pensions or collective bargaining rights, suddenly, to hear them talk, you’d never know that this was a nation that values hard work, because in those moments we’re told it’s not that hard, any idiot could do this job. It’s not that hard to referee a professional football game, so call up the guys who washed out of the Lingerie Football League. Experience is overrated for teachers, so throw people into the classroom after a few weeks’ training, they’ll do fine. More than fine! The youth and energy of the barely trained new teacher will be better than the experience of that useless old teacher. Suddenly, the drive to denigrate the workers becomes so strong that the CEO or the governor asks us, expects us, to forget the years of work that these workers have put into learning their jobs, learning how to teach or to run a snowplow or a cash register.

As the AP’s Paul J. Weber writes, “Professing expertise can also bring on suspicions of elitism and scratch an itch to knock someone down a peg”—an itch that the Roger Goodells and Scott Walkers and Mitt Romneys of the world and the generations of union-busters and racers-to-the-bottom who laid the groundwork for them will hasten to throw poison ivy onto. Hell, if you’re not itching, they’ll sneak up behind you with the poison ivy. But as Weber details, it’s not just on the football field that experience and the commitment that comes from doing a job for years matter.

— In Houston, Adrianna Vasquez makes $8.60 an hour doing what she knows people think is the world’s most replaceable job: She’s a janitor. When the 37-year-old returned in August to resume cleaning the 100 toilets on 10 floors in a downtown Chase Bank tower after a citywide janitor strike that won a 12 percent raise, Vasquez said the bathrooms cleaned by replacement crews looked like stalls in a seedy bar. “I just wanted to cry when I saw it,” she said.

— In New York, Consolidated Edison locked out 8,000 workers in July and brought in replacements from other states to work power lines and operate the grid. It ended just as severe storms hit and threatened power outages. “Not enough people that knew what they were doing,” said John Melia, a spokesman for the Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America.

Most people are willing to concede that it’s better if you have some training and experience before working with power lines, but cleaning toilets? There’s a job that gets basically no respect. But even aside from the toilet-related unpleasantness, it takes physical stamina and attention to detail. Yet among Republican politicians and at Republican think tanks, to say nothing of at big corporations trying to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of their workers to maximize that CEO bonus, the fact that janitors working for the government make a living wage and get benefits is an outrage.

Another piece of the 1 percent’s disrespect for the work of the 99 percent is disrespect for the very real training it involves. At the same time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to impose harsh new evaluation systems on his city’s teachers, for instance, the teachers had to fight for training so that they would be able to get better at what they do. But training is something workers often fight for, and it’s something that in many industries sets union workers apart—not their work ethic or their drive, but the fact that their unions have been able to bargain for training in the workplace or have put money into union-run training programs. The AFL-CIO’s Alison Omens details just a few of the union training and safety programs you might find:

Remember Captain Sully and “Miracle on the Hudson?” He was a huge safety advocate through his union, serving as the Air Line Pilots (ALPA) representative during a National Transportation Safety Board investigation and as a local air safety chairman.

How about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center? The people who are thousands of feet in the air are union members, as well as veterans. The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department’s (BCTD‘s) training program Helmets to Hardhats works across the country to train veterans for high-skill construction projects, including at the World Trade Center. […]

The president of a Chicago-based construction company who works with union workers says this about his experience: “Here’s what [the union’s] training center means to me: We’re getting the highest caliber craftsmen in the business. It’s going toward productivity and attitude.”

But when those same workers who are, through their unions, bargaining for and investing in the best available training are in the way of corporate profit or a Republican governor looking to make his mark, they’re portrayed as greedy, lazy, corrupt, doing a job that anyone could do with a day’s notice and expecting to be able to feed their families and even go on vacation every couple years.

Forty years of the war on workers has led us to this deeply dysfunctional, contradictory place where workers and their labor are concerned. Hard work is great. If you’re not rich and you don’t work hard, brutally hard if your boss requires it, you’re a bad person who deserves poverty. If you’re not rich and you expect your hard work to be valued with pay or benefits those at the top don’t want to give, expect to see your work and experience and skill mocked as nothing. And if you’re at the top? Your wealth is justified by your hard work, supposed or real. About other people’s hard work, the only question is how cheap you can get it.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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