The Myth of “Unskilled Labor”

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If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

– Wallace Shawn

For those of you who know Wallace Shawn simply as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, or as the Grand Nagus in Deep Space Nine, it might be surprising to discover the thinker behind the actor. If you haven’t read his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” I encourage you to follow the link above and do it, now.

In the meantime, a thought:

A post I wrote last week touched on the topic of “unskilled labor.” In an election cycle defined, at least partly, by the question of the minimum wage, and the level to which it should or should not be raised, I think this is a rabbit trail worth following.

You’ll notice that I place the words “unskilled labor” in quotes. That is because, simply, I do not believe such a thing exists. In reality, this is a distinction we make in order to justify valuing the work of certain individuals at lower levels of pay than that of others.

A professional is someone who does their job well, regardless of the line of work they are in. A barista or a waitress possesses a different skill set than my job demands, but it’s a skill set nonetheless. And their expertise is worthy of our respect.

Sadly, though, what they usually get is our scorn and impatience. They get to not only serve us; they get to put up with us in all our vainglory, as well. If the waiter, say, takes just a little too long to refill our water glass. Or if the gas station attendant is cleaning the restroom right when we need a pit stop. (Of course, had we arrived and found dirty facilities, we would have complained about that, too.)

There is a Spanish word that springs to mind: menospreciar. Literally, it means “to assign a lower price.” To value less, a habit born out of a false sense of superiority: after all, they are “unskilled,” right?

And yet, our day is built on the backs of these “unskilled laborers.” The woman who rings us up at the gas station or the fast food joint; the man who cleans the lint traps at our laundromats; the people who stock the shelves at our grocery stores, so that we don’t have to visit the warehouse each time we want a can of tomatoes or a stick of butter; or the folks who pick the apples that we so conveniently find, laid out and ready, in the produce section–in short, our lives as we live them would be impossible without these amazing and ubiquitous people.

Furthermore, if added value is the criterion by which cost is determined, then these lovely people deserve more than most “skilled” workers receive. Think about it: how important is what you do, really? None of us bats an eyelid when our favorite actors or sports figures threaten to walk out because their paycheck is too low on zeros. But perish the thought that the people who serve us our food or keep our workplaces clean get any more money than they should.

I catalog books, which requires a certain level of skill. But at my most skillful, I’m not nearly as indispensable as the guys who collect my trash or make sure the milk on the shelves hasn’t gone bad. These people are in disease prevention, just like the doctor who charges you $100 an hour to take your temperature. They are, in their own way, healthcare professionals.

Me? I just make sure books line up in alphabetical order. Helpful? Sure. But not exactly “Save the cheerleader, save the world” material.

“Unskilled labor” is the backbone and foundation of our existence. How dare we then begrudge these people, these professionals, an actual living wage? The $15/hr demand carries a moral weight that far outstrips the statistical considerations with which we counter it. What does it matter that more jobs are created if the ones that already exist cannot support the people who fill them?

What it comes down to is this:

These “unskilled laborers,” professionals all, take care of us day in and day out. So is it really too much to ask that we take care of them, too?

6 thoughts on “The Myth of “Unskilled Labor”

  1. I love my Barista. When you find a good one, you buy their coffee and give them a little respectful bow of the head as you collect your daily treasure.

    When I went through IVF, there was a cafe near the clinic and I dubbed the Barista “Doctor Barista”. He had this way of looking at me and in an instant determining how my treatment went and decorating the top of my cappucino accordingly. If I’d had a good day, he just gave me chocolate powder. If I was crushed by the journey, the little silver sugar balls and syrup came out and he drew zig-zags or flowers on top. It was the kind of coffee you want to share on instagram.

    I still have no idea how he could tell all that from a second looking at my face. That’s worth way more than $15/hour.

    1. Indeed. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can make any sort of espresso related beverage in under half an hour–which is about what it takes me…

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