Pride at Work

The value of treating the employed and the jobless with respect

| January-February 2011

I grew up in a working-class community. We had our own social distinctions: Were you a logging company operator’s daughter or a girl whose father pulled on the green chain at the sawmill? A cattle rancher’s son or a stump rancher’s boy? My father even had his own definition of royalty: A man with compassion as well as integrity was “a prince of a guy.” But our families were working people, or wanted to be. Having work was important.

Today, with official unemployment rates in double digits for months on end, nearly 15 million Americans would like to be part of a “working class” again.

One of those millions of people is my brother Joe. “When I got my first job at 17,” he told me once, “I decided to treat people the way I wanted to be treated myself.” No wonder management in Joe’s last job was excited about his abilities. His coworkers liked him; his customers trusted him. But he worked for a Saturn dealership, and in November 2008 that job, like so many others, disappeared.

“I have bad days,” Joe says, “but I get through them. I have to—there’s no alternative.”

What is it like to be unemployed? I got a taste of it 20 years ago when, in the midst of another recession, a late-May tax levy failed and my teaching position was eliminated. “Going down the road talking to yourself” was the expression the men in the lumber camps of my childhood had used for such an experience—accurately enough, I realized as I drove the pickup loaded with books and kitchen chairs away from the home my husband and I thought we had permanently created for our family.

By September I was past the initial shock and grief that losing a job can bring, but I wondered how to cope with the feeling of uselessness. I had been a good teacher, yet here I was, sweeping the kitchen floor one more time before I sat down to write another letter begging for a job. If I wasn’t a teacher, who was I? Anyone who has been unemployed has asked some version of that question.