In the week before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown announced his “Dignity of Work” tour, with events in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and his home state, Ohio. The tour placed the working class at the center of Brown’s potential bid for the U.S. presidency in 2020. The legacy of King’s unwavering support for workers and unions lies at the center of Brown’s message, as Brown makes clear by quoting King on his website: “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
Deep springs refresh the enduring idea that work has dignity, a source that could inspire workers to stop the relentless assaults on their lives and their labor. While we may not think of “dignity” as a religious concept, it has many familiar religious and theological dimensions that resonate with how many workers think about their work and their own work ethic. Brown’s message draws not only on Reverend King but also on his mother’s Lutheran faith and Pope Francis’s emphasis on the dignity of labor.
At the heart of these ideas is an understanding of work as a calling. As King said, just before the more familiar claim that no work is insignificant, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” The idea that work is a “calling” is rooted in Martin Luther’s Reformation idea that all workers have a vocation, and that God places everyone in a station in which they undertake their labor. This defines work as not just a product of an economic arrangement but as central to the created order. These ideas about work, which we can trace through the half-millennium journey from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., may echo through much of the next presidential campaign.
But however we might welcome attention to the dignity of work, this way of talking about work does not directly address the precarious character of the contemporary workplace in this age of automation, outsourcing, “gig” employment, deregulation, and union busting. Brown’s potential candidacy will not reach uprooted workers if it does not reckon with the unrepentantly neoliberal economy in which this work occurs. Merely repeating the phrase “dignity of work” without thoroughly upholding the dignity of workers risks romanticizing work to the peril of those who actually perform it.
The United States Catholic Bishops suggest a better direction. In their 1986 “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” they prioritize the dignity of humans: “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.” One should judge an economic system “by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it.” They also argue that human dignity can only be realized and protected in community:
Basic justice demands that people be assured a minimum level of participation in the economy. It is wrong for a person or group to be excluded unfairly or to be unable to participate or contribute to the economy. For example, people who are both able and willing, but cannot get a job are deprived of the participation that is so vital to human development. For, it is through employment that most individuals and families meet their material needs, exercise their talents, and have an opportunity to contribute to the larger community.
The link between work and community may find no clearer exemplar than in labor unions. Here, too, Brown shares a perspective with King, who was also thoroughly committed to unions and the labor movement. King’s “street sweeper” was likely a member of Memphis-based Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. King’s last days were spent in Memphis, advocating on behalf of sanitation workers who were on strike against dangerous working conditions and unjust pay. In his TV ad, Dignity, Brown notes that “whether you collect minimum wage, punch a clock, or earn a salary, your hard labor should pay off.” He has a strong record of fighting for that idea alongside organized labor. But workers engaged in participatory solidarity in their unions or in union-organizing create a class-based form of dignity whether the work has dignity or not. In this way, regardless of their own religion, such workers model the Roman Catholic notion that our dignity as humans is profoundly related to our active role in the economy and in our communities.
Work itself may not always feel dignified, of course. But even if “dignity of work” feels a bit tenuous, workers can create dignity-at-work themselves through participation in creative and collective efforts to wrench the workaday world from its least dignified forms.
Presidential politics set an example for other office-holders and the campaigns for those positions. The last two years of the current administration have strayed far from even a hint of dignity. How welcome it would be if the next election cycle could focus its attention on the working class rather than the billionaire class. Attention to class, not crass, might just elevate us all. The dignity of working people and their struggle is a precious pearl for the Rebel Girl in all of us.
Ken Estey, Brooklyn College