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Opinion Biden promotes a radical idea: Everyone deserves dignity at work

President Biden arrives to speak at the Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

At an event to promote his economic policies in Cleveland on Thursday, Joe Biden did something unusual for a president: He talked pointedly about work and dignity.

That may not sound radical; after all, don’t conservatives talk about “the dignity of work” all the time? They do. But when they say it, they mean people can only achieve dignity through labor, and if for whatever reason you aren’t working, you lack that value. You most often hear them say it when they’re proposing cuts to food stamps or Medicaid, on the theory that some salutary deprivation will push the indolent masses to get off their duffs.

Biden, on the other hand, drew attention not to the dignity of work, but to dignity at work. Which in America today is indeed a radical thing for a president to say.

This is an important argument about the role of government in a capitalist system; the liberal claim is that to create a situation in which workers are treated with dignity, you need rules governing what happens on the job and social supports that enhance people’s freedom and options to move between jobs.

This comes at a moment when Republicans are worried that Americans are lazy and might be getting paid too much. As the economy rapidly recovers, particularly in sectors such as entertainment and food service that were hard-hit during the pandemic, many employers say they’re having trouble finding workers at wages they’re willing to pay. So GOP-run states are cutting back unemployment benefits to force people to immediately take any available job.

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But if an employer is having trouble finding workers, the answer is for them to offer more money. That’s how supply and demand works in a market economy: When the demand for labor increases, the price of labor increases as well. Biden argued that this is a good thing, and related it to the idea of dignity:

Let me tell you something. My sole measure of economic success is how working families are doing, whether they have jobs that deliver dignity. That means we have to focus on wages like we used to.
When it comes to the economy we’re building, rising wages aren’t a bug; they’re a feature. We want to get — we want to get something economists call “full employment.” Instead of workers competing with each other for jobs that are scarce, we want employers to compete with each other to attract work. We want the — the companies to compete to attract workers.
That kind of competition in the market doesn’t just give workers more ability to earn a higher wage, it gives them the power to demand to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. And it helps ensure that America — when you walk into work, you don’t have to check your right to be treated with respect at the door.

For many employers, talking about “power,” “dignity” and “respect” when it comes to workers sounds awfully dangerous.

Conservatives have had remarkable success spreading their preferred economic model throughout the country, one in which collective bargaining is but a memory and all power rests with employers. In that model, if you have a job you’re supposed to be thankful, no matter what the job entails.

You often hear them say that because unemployment was low when Donald Trump was president (the continuation of a decade-long decline that began under Barack Obama), that meant we were experiencing the best economy in history. But if you had an $8 an hour job at a fast-food joint where you had to sign a contract preventing you from getting a job at another fast-food joint, a job with meager benefits, no paid vacation, a boss who sexually harassed you, surly customers who berated you, and the constant threat of being fired, it probably didn’t seem like the greatest economy in history.

It’s a long way from there to jobs that “deliver dignity” to everyone. As an illustration, this week Biden’s Department of Agriculture reversed a position taken by the Trump administration that eliminated limits on line speeds at pork processing plants, an almost surrealistically villainous policy that put workers’ health and safety at even greater risk than it was already.

As The Post’s Kimberly Kindy noted, “Illness and injuries for people who work in meatpacking plants are about 16 times the average for all other industries in the nation.”

There will undoubtedly be many more such policy changes from the executive branch, since the agencies that regulate the workplace are now staffed by people who actually care about the well-being of workers. But it’s vital to understand that Biden’s efforts to beef up the welfare state are also about giving people dignity — not just by making their lives less financially tenuous, but by changing how they relate to their jobs.

That’s because a more robust system of social supports gives workers the ability to demand fair treatment. Nobody has less power on the job than the person whose entire life will fall apart if they miss a paycheck or two.

For instance, in the United States your health insurance is tied to your job and subject to the whims of your employer, who decides what kind of coverage you have. If you have serious health needs, it gives your employer enormous power over you. No other wealthy country in the world has such a system.

While the Affordable Care Act did a great deal to mitigate “job lock” — people being forced to stay in jobs they want to leave because they fear the loss of health coverage — it’s still a reality for many people who aren’t sure whether they could get the same coverage elsewhere.

That fear, that losing your job will have a cascade of disastrous consequences, makes it harder to ask for better pay and working conditions.

Now imagine something different. Imagine you lost your job, but because your health care, your child care and other supports weren’t immediately yanked away, you could take a little extra time to find a good job to replace it, not just any job.

Imagine, say, that you’re a computer programmer, and instead of taking a job waiting tables to avoid losing your home, you could wait until you found a better job that suited your skills and experience. Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

But our system of weak supports makes you as insecure as possible, keeping you on a knife edge of desperation that forces you to take whatever you can get — and not complain or make demands. That’s a system without dignity.

There’s a lot standing between us and a system where every worker is treated well (including a conservative Supreme Court majority determined to give more and more power to employers). But the first step is spreading the idea that dignity on the job is something every human being deserves.

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