This Labor Day has me thinking about the dignity of work, of all sorts.
On the first day of Labor Law class in my second year of law school, my professor asked us why we were taking that elective class. My classmates demonstrated their interest and passion for the subject: “I believe the rights of workers are under-represented and that management wields too much power,” “My Mom’s in the nurses’ union,” “My Dad used to pick grapes and wishes they had had a union.”
Then came my turn. “My Mom was in labor with me 23 years ago,” I wisecracked. Not necessarily an auspicious beginning to the class, but it may have been somewhat prescient, as my Mom would become president of her teachers’ union a few years later.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis that almost brought down the entire global economy because of the reckless gambling by some of the world’s most “brilliant” minds, I had asked one of the geniuses who put the ‘douche’ in ‘fiduciary’, how he felt about the economic trauma left in the wake of such behavior. His response was callous and dismissive, putting the blame on people much less financially savvy than those on Wall Street who actually made grotesquely irresponsible personal financial decisions. (Without diving into who bears more responsibility—both sides bear culpability here—people were easily manipulated by far too many decision-makers entrusted with our money who either ignored or explicitly took advantage of this imbalance of power.)
I was angered by his tone—far too Ayn Rand for my belief system. He felt vastly superior to the “peons” on whom he and his compatriots peed on. It made me think about my own arrogance and the superiority and arrogance so many of us feel about certain segments of our society. Though it’s easy to be judgmental, I strive to recognize the dignity of everyone, whatever their status in life.
What if we were more empathetic to those whose work some people dismiss as “lowly”? Take janitors or custodians, for example. What if we recognized that they don’t just clean toilets and scrub floors, but that they are people responsible for public health and safety?
“Custodian” more clearly connotes guardianship and protection and a seemingly “higher” level of responsibility. While “janitor” has come to be somewhat of a pejorative, its origin is more noble: doorkeeper or gatekeeper. As described in The Free Dictionary by Farlex, the Latin word “iānus” means “archway, gateway or covered passage;” “Janus” was the god of gates, doorways and beginnings (as in, January). Saint Peter was called the “Janitor of Heaven.” (I was so tempted to say that the cleaning products he used were “heaven-scent,” but that would be a gratuitous pun…and I wouldn’t do that to you…much…)
Many janitors/custodians work late hours, after everyone else has gone home to their families. These folks come in, many leaving their own families, driving in the wee hours of the day or night, encountering abandoned streets, dealing with the loneliness of massive edifices, the roar of vacuum cleaners, the reckless tossing of garbage, and accumulated filth and detritus of people who have left their mark on toilets and sinks. We take for granted that our office bathrooms, kitchens and common areas will be clean and hygienic, that we will not become sick from the microbes left behind. But what if that work went undone? What would our lives be like then?
This Labor Day—and every day—let’s not take anyone for granted, especially our janitors/custodians. Let’s honor their dignity by valuing their hard work and their important contribution to our well-being.