By DAVID A. COOK
As the country continues to reel as the coronavirus continues to change our way of life, Americans are slowly beginning to change how they see the world around them.
It’s not just that some of our most basic behaviors have changed in ways we couldn’t imagine a few short months ago — handshakes and hugs are a thing of the past, our churches have closed their doors and restaurants are no longer a haven for a simple evening out of the house — it’s that this “new normal” is changing our expectations and in some cases for the better, changing how we see one another.
I’ve spent my entire adult life in the Labor Movement, and that means I’ve spent more years of my life than I can remember trying to help hard-working people earn more money. Often, it meant sitting at the bargaining table and trying to find every nickel we can to put in the pockets of our brothers and sisters.
But that also meant appealing to voters at the ballot box. As you know, Missouri was successful just two short years ago when roughly two-thirds of this state voted in favor of raising the minimum wage.
ESSENTIAL WORKERS DESERVE BETTER
During fights for better wages — or benefits and working conditions for that matter — it’s common to see the same argument tossed around about why a particular group of workers doesn’t deserve more.
You’ve probably heard people refer to working men and women as having “low skill” jobs, or being “unskilled” workers. Endlessly we are told that if a hard-working person wants to make more money, they ought to go to school, learn a trade or find a better job. And while there is nothing wrong with education or learning a skilled trade, that argument is thrown in our faces by people who are disguising what they really think: that some workers simply don’t matter that much, and don’t deserve any more than they already have.
It’s strange, but I haven’t seen a lot of people referring to grocery workers as “unskilled” these days. On the contrary, all we hear is praise for the hard-working men and women that are keeping these “essential businesses” functioning.
RETAIL CLERKS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ESSENTIAL
It’s time for the public to understand something: these workers were always essential.
Not even a global pandemic can change the fact that the men and women working in grocery stores and pharmacies were always essential and critical parts of our workforce.
Those workers didn’t wake up one day in March and magically become heroes that were essential to their communities. And they won’t wake up one day in a week, a month or a year when this is all over and magically stop being essential or critical.
We don’t yet know how our country will change long-term when this is all over, but we do know how much it is changing the way that some people see the world. A few of the same people that turned up their noses at grocery workers are the same people sharing photos on Facebook hailing those workers as heroes.
Perhaps a silver lining for this crisis will be a renewed appreciation of certain workers that Americans sometimes ignore or degrade.
Perhaps this will awaken a national moment where we understand the importance of a true living wage for all workers in this country.
Perhaps it will bring a new sense of political energy to provide all workers, every single one of them, with a living wage, good benefits, and respect and dignity on the job.
Whether it’s through an act of union organizing, an act of political courage or the act of a company responding to public pressures to do what is right by their workers, this moment might serve as an essential reminder of where America’s greatness truly lies: in the hearts of the hard-working men and women who keep it running every day.
You have always been essential. You will always be essential. You are essential.