Friday, March 18, 2005

Class, Part VII: Hands, Brains, and Working Therewith

I realized, as I reread the Bruce post, that I've blurred an important distinction about types of work and class. "Working class" used to mean:
  • people who worked with their hands--men (typically) who were plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, etc.
  • people who worked in factories
  • people who worked in jobs that did not require a lot of formal education, e.g., secretaries

"Workers" were distinguished and distinguishable from "professionals," supposedly, and, needless to say, the latter was regarded as preferable in a number of ways, at least by professionals. (I wrote several hundred pages about how public school teachers and their bosses fought about whether teachers were "workers" or "professionals." This became an especially important argument when teachers wanted to unionize and thereby get a decent living wage and better working conditions. School boards and school administrators and business associations tried to argue that unionization was inappropriate for "professionals.") (Assume the quotation marks around worker and professional from here on out, okay?)

You probably already see that this is a complicated arena. Some kinds of workers make as much or more money than some kinds of professionals--a good auto mechanic is going to make a lot more than a file clerk, and probably more than a lot of secretaries, and probably more than a fair number of college professors. Many workers solve difficult problems on a regular basis, and have more autonomy and independence in their work than many professionals. The amount of drudgery in a job perhaps factors in, as does how much sucking-up is required. To how many people are you subordinate? As Charlie noted in comments below, there's a difference between "clients" and "customers," and what's required to deal with either.

Then there's the whole question of what it is you're doing when you work. Are you making? Fixing? Writing? Parenting? Negotiating? Selling? Teaching? Serving? Building? Or does your work have no obvious end, as it does not if you are, for example, a dishwasher or a clerk? (There are always more dirty dishes and more people lining up at the cash register.) And here is where some more stories would be helpful, I think.

I like to make things, and most people in my family do. My brother is replacing the addition on his house, and has done a substantial amount of the work himself. My father made ductwork (among other things). My maternal grandmother was a dressmaker--she could describe clothes that she and her sister had made 40 years before. My mother also made clothes, and knit, and she's a good cook. I know how to do a lot of fancy needlework, and I particularly like to design and execute needlepoint. (If I ever figure out how to post pictures, and get a digital camera, I'll post some of my work.) I love to cook and bake. Even the writing I've done--for work, for school, for pleasure--falls into that mode for me; I'm giving voice to something, creating something with words.

And that, really, is what I find so soul-killing about drudgery, about work that involves, for example, cleaning up the ladies' shoe department at Wal-Mart after the customers have gone home. Factory work can certainly fall into this category, though it doesn't necessarily, as does just about any "customer service" position where the powers that be (and that sign your paycheck) are more concerned with shareholder profits than with true customer satisfaction. Some might argue that lawyers trying to make partner, for example, are similarly immersed in drudgery, and they probably are, but they're getting well-compensated for it.

All of this is to say, I think, that we have certain expectations about the satisfactions we can or should be able to get from the work that we do--that we'll enjoy something about the work, that there will be a market for our services, that the work will engage us in some way, that we will be compensated fairly. For some people, presumably, the perceived societal status of the work is relevant. At the same time, the arena in which these expectations get played out is much less simple than a worker/professional (or working class/middle class) interpretive schema suggests.


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