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A year ago, just a few weeks before San Francisco locked itself down for the pandemic, I fell deeply in love with a 50-year-old. The object of my desire was a wooden floor loom in the window of my local thrift shop. Friends knowledgeable on such matters examined photos I took of it and assured me that all the parts were there, so my partner (who puts up with such occasional infatuations) helped me wrangle it into one of our basement rooms and I set about learning to weave.
These days, all I want to do is weave. The loom that’s gripped me, and the pandemic that’s gripped us all, have led me to rethink the role of work (and its subset, paid labor) in human lives. During an enforced enclosure, this 68-year-old has spent a lot of time at home musing on what the pandemic has revealed about how this country values work. Why, for example, do the most “essential” workers so often earn so little — or, in the case of those who cook, clean, and care for the people they live with, nothing at all? What does it mean when conservatives preach the immeasurable value of labor, while insisting that its most basic price in the marketplace shouldn’t rise above $7.25 per hour?
That, after all, is where the federal minimum wage has been stuck since 2009. And that’s where it would probably stay forever, if Republicans like Kansas Senator Roger Marshall had their way. He brags that he put himself through college making $6 an hour and doesn’t understand why people can’t do the same today for $7.25. One likely explanation: the cost of a year at Kansas State University has risen from $898 when he was at school to $10,000 today. Another? At six bucks an hour, he was already making almost twice the minimum wage of his college years, a princely $3.35 an hour.
It’s hard to explain the pleasure I’ve gotten from learning the craft of weaving, an activity whose roots extend at least 20,000 years into the past. In truth, I could devote the next (and most likely last) 20 years of my life just to playing with “plain weave,” its simplest form — over-under, over-under — and not even scratch the surface of its possibilities. Day after day, I tromp down to our chilly basement and work with remarkable satisfaction at things as simple as getting a straight horizontal edge across my cloth.
But is what I’m doing actually “work”? Certainly, at the end of a day of bending under the loom to tie things up, of working the treadles to raise and lower different sets of threads, my aging joints are sore. My body knows all too well that I’ve been doing something. But is it work? Heaven knows, I’m not making products crucial to our daily lives or those of others. (We now possess more slightly lopsided cloth napkins than any two-person household could use in a lifetime.) Nor, at my beginner’s level, am I producing anything that could pass for “art.”
I don’t have to weave. I could buy textiles for a lot less than it costs me to make them. But at my age, in pandemic America, I’m lucky. I have the time, money, and freedom from personal responsibilities to be able to immerse myself in making cloth. For me, playing with string is a first-world privilege. It won’t help save humanity from a climate disaster or reduce police violence in communities of color. It won’t even help a union elect an American president, something I was focused on last fall, while working with the hospitality-industry union. It’s not teaching college students to question the world and aspire to living examined lives, something I’ve done in my official work as a part-time professor for the last 15 years. It doesn’t benefit anyone but me.
Nevertheless, what I’m doing certainly does have value for me. It contributes, as philosophers might say, to my human flourishing. When I practice weaving, I’m engaged in something political philosopher Iris Marion Young believed essential to a good life. As she put it, I’m “learning and using satisfying and expansive skills.” Young thought that a good society would offer all its members the opportunity to acquire and deploy such complicated skills in “socially recognized settings.” In other words, a good society would make it possible for people to do work that was both challenging and respected.
Writing in the late 1980s, she took for granted that “welfare capitalism” of Europe, and to a far lesser extent the United States, would provide for people’s basic material needs. Unfortunately, decades later, it’s hard even to teach her critique of such welfare capitalism — a system that sustained lives but didn’t necessarily allow them to flourish — because my students here have never experienced an economic system that assumes any real responsibility for sustaining life. Self-expression and an opportunity to do meaningful work? Pipe dreams if you aren’t already well-off! They’ll settle for jobs that pay the rent, keep the refrigerator stocked, and maybe provide some health benefits as well. That would be heaven enough, they say. And who could blame them when so many jobs on offer will fall far short of even such modest goals?
What I’m not doing when I weave is making money. I’m not one of the roughly 18 million workers in this country who do earn their livings in the textile industry. Such “livings” pay a median wage of about $28,000 a year, which likely makes it hard to keep a roof over your head. Nor am I one of the many millions more who do the same around the world, people like Seak Hong who sews garments and bags for an American company in Cambodia. Describing her life, she told a New York Timesreporter, “I feel tired, but I have no choice. I have to work.” Six days a week,
“Ms. Hong wakes up at 4:35 a.m. to catch the truck to work from her village. Her workday begins at 7 and usually lasts nine hours, with a lunch break. During the peak season, which lasts two to three months, she works until 8:30 p.m.”
“Ms. Hong has been in the garment business for 22 years. She earns the equivalent of about $230 a month and supports her father, her sister, her brother (who is on disability) and her 12-year-old son.”
Her sister does the unpaid — but no less crucial — work of tending to her father and brother, the oxen, and their subsistence rice plants.
Hong and her sister are definitely working, one with pay, the other without. They have, as she says, no choice.
Catherine Gamet, who makes handbags in France for Louis Vuitton, is also presumably working to support herself. But hers is an entirely different experience from Hong’s. She loves what she’s been doing for the last 23 years. Interviewed in the same article, she told the Times, “To be able to build bags and all, and to be able to sew behind the machine, to do hand-sewn products, it is my passion.” For Gamet, “The time flies by.”
Both these women have been paid to make bags for more than 20 years, but they’ve experienced their jobs very differently, undoubtedly thanks to the circumstances surrounding their work, rather than the work itself: how much they earn; the time they spend traveling to and from their jobs; the extent to which the “decision” to do a certain kind of work is coerced by fear of poverty. We don’t learn from Hong’s interview how she feels about the work itself. Perhaps she takes pride in what she does. Most people find a way to do that. But we know that making bags is Gamet’s passion. Her work is not merely exhausting, but in Young’s phrase “satisfying and expansive.” The hours she spends on it are lived, not just endured as the price of survival.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris arrived at the White House with a commitment to getting a new pandemic relief package through Congress as soon as possible. It appears that they’ve succeeded, thanks to the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — a maneuver that bypasses the possibility of a Republican filibuster. Sadly, because resetting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour doesn’t directly involve taxation or spending, the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled that the reconciliation bill can’t include it.
Several measures contained in the package have aroused conservative mistrust, from the extension of unemployment benefits to new income supplements for families with children. Such measures provoke a Republican fear that somebody, somewhere, might not be working hard enough to “deserve” the benefits Congress is offering or that those benefits might make some workers think twice about sacrificing their time caring for children to earn $7.25 an hour at a soul-deadening job.
As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein recently observed, Republicans are concerned that such measures might erode respect for the “natural dignity” of work. In an incisive piece, he rebuked Republican senators like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio for responding negatively to proposals to give federal dollars to people raising children. Such a program, they insisted, smacked of — the horror! — “welfare,” while in their view, “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.” Of course, for Lee and Rubio “work” doesn’t include changing diapers, planning and preparing meals, doing laundry, or helping children learn to count, tell time, and tie their shoelaces — unless, of course, the person doing those things is employed by someone else’s family and being paid for it. In that case it qualifies as “work.” Otherwise, it’s merely a form of government-subsidized laziness.
There is, however, one group of people that “pro-family” conservatives have long believed are naturally suited to such activities and who supposedly threaten the well-being of their families if they choose to work for pay instead. I mean, of course, women whose male partners earn enough to guarantee food, clothing, and shelter with a single income. I remember well a 1993 article by Pat Gowens, a founder of Milwaukee’s Welfare Warriors, in the magazine Lesbian Contradiction. She wondered why conservative anti-feminists of that time thought it good if a woman with children had a man to provide those things, but an outrage if she turned to “The Man” for the same aid. In the first case, the woman’s work is considered dignified, sacred, and in tune with the divine plan. Among conservatives, then or now, the second could hardly be dignified with the term “work.”
The distinction they make between private and public paymasters, when it comes to domestic labor contains at least a tacit, though sometimes explicit, racial element. When the program that would come to be known as “welfare” was created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, it was originally designed to assist respectable white mothers who, through no fault of their own, had lost their husbands to death or desertion. It wasn’t until the 1960s that African American women decided to secure their right to coverage under the same program and built the National Welfare Rights Organization to do so.
The word “welfare” refers, as in the preamble to the Constitution, to human wellbeing. But when Black women started claiming those rights, it suddenly came to signify undeserved handouts. You could say that Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in 1980 in a Cadillac driven by the mythical Black “welfare queen” he continually invoked in his campaign. It would be nice to think that the white resentment harnessed by Reagan culminated (as in “reached its zenith and will now decline”) with Trump’s 2016 election, but, given recent events, that would be unrealistically optimistic.
Reagan began the movement to undermine the access of poor Americans to welfare programs. Ever since, starving the entitlement beast has been the Republican lodestar. In the same period, of course, the wealthier compatriots of those welfare mothers have continued to receive ever more generous “welfare” from the government. Those would include subsidies to giant agriculture, oil-depletion allowances and other subsidies for fossil-fuel companies, the mortgage-interest tax deduction for people with enough money to buy rather than rent their homes, and the massive tax cuts for billionaires of the Trump era. However, it took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to achieve what Reagan couldn’t, and, as he put it, “end welfare as we know it.”
The Clinton administration used the same Senate reconciliation process in play today for the Biden administration’s Covid-19 relief bill to push through the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was more commonly known as “welfare reform.” That act imposed a 32-hour-per-week work or training requirement on mothers who received what came to be known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. It also gave “temporary” its deeper meaning by setting a lifetime benefits cap of five years. Meanwhile, that same act proved a bonanza for non-profits and Private Industry Councils that got contracts to administer “job training” programs and were paid to teach women how to wear skirts and apply makeup to impress future employers. In the process, a significant number of unionized city and county workers nationwide were replaced with welfare recipients “earning” their welfare checks by sweeping streets or staffing county offices, often for less than the minimum wage.
In 1997, I was working with Californians for Justice (CFJ), then a new statewide organization dedicated to building political power in poor communities, especially those of color. Given the high unemployment rates in just such communities, our response to Clinton’s welfare reforms was to demand that those affected by them at least be offered state-funded jobs at a living wage. If the government was going to make people work for pay, we reasoned, then it should help provide real well-paying jobs, not bogus “job readiness” programs. We secured sponsors in the state legislature, but I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that our billion-dollar jobs bill never got out of committee in Sacramento.
CFJ’s project led me into an argument with one of my mentors, the founder of the Center for Third World Organizing, Gary Delgado. Why on earth, he asked me, would you campaign to get people jobs? “Jobs are horrible. They’re boring: they waste people’s lives and destroy their bodies.” In other words, Gary was no believer in the inherent dignity of paid work. So, I had to ask myself, why was I?
Among those who have inspired me, Gary wasn’t alone in holding such a low opinion of jobs. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, had been convinced that those whose economic condition forced them to work for a living would have neither the time nor space necessary to live a life of “excellence” (his requirement for human happiness). Economic coercion and a happy life were, in his view, mutually exclusive.
One of the lies capitalism tells us is that we should be grateful for our jobs and should think of those who make a profit from our labor not as exploiters but as “job creators.” In truth, however, there’s no creativity involved in paying people less than the value of their work so that you can skim off the difference and claim that you earned it. Even if we accept that there could be creativity in “management” — the effort to organize and divide up work so it’s done efficiently and well — it’s not the “job creators” who do that, but their hirelings. All the employers bring to the game is money.
Take the example of the admirable liberal response to the climate emergency, the Green New Deal. In the moral calculus of capitalism, it’s not enough that shifting to a green economy could promote the general welfare by rebuilding and extending the infrastructure that makes modern life possible and rewarding. It’s not enough that it just might happen in time to save billions of people from fires, floods, hurricanes, or starvation. What matters — the selling point — is that such a conversion would create jobs (along with the factor no one mentions out loud: profits).
Now, I happen to support exactly the kind of work involved in building an economy that could help reverse climate devastation. I agree with Joe Biden’s campaign statement that such an undertaking could offer people jobs with “good wages, benefits, and worker protections.” More than that, such jobs would indeed contribute to a better life for those who do them. As the philosopher Iris Marion Young puts it, they would provide the chance to learn and use “satisfying and expansive skills in a socially recognized setting.” And that would be a very good thing even if no one made a penny of profit in the process.
Now, having finished my paid labor for the day, it’s back to the basement and loom for me.
Rebecca Gordon teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.