There’s No Such Thing As ‘Unskilled’ Labor, So Stop Using It As An Excuse

Bob Simpson | FlickrA protest in Chicago fighting for a $15 minimum wage in 2014.

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The idea of “unskilled labor” is an insidious and pervasive one — it’s creeped into our thoughts and infected it without most of us even realizing it. Hiding in the shadows of every jocular remark featuring the word “burger-flipper,” is this idea of unskilled labor. 

It’s one of the common arguments leveled by completely normal people, opposed to the idea of raising the minimum wage. Why anyone would spend their time on Twitter defending exploitative capitalists is beyond me, but I digress. 

Avoiding the job of an unskilled laborer — cashiers, fast food workers, janitors, etc. — has been hammered into our generational psyche so hard, anyone who doesn’t follow the traditional post-high school path of higher education gets dirty looks.

One kid from my high school chose to go to trade school, a perfectly valid choice but became the focus of vicious gossip once his choice went public in school.

When people use the unskilled labor argument to justify poverty-level wages, it often follows similar patterns. Because if we take a look at everything at face value, unskilled labor makes sense, right?

After all, how could we possibly compare a janitor to a firefighter? A fry cook to a physician?

But let’s think of it this way — aren’t both jobs essential to the functioning of society? Not just the pandemic version of “essential worker” but a more general definition: could we survive without them?

Arguments for automation aside, if we woke up tomorrow in a world without janitors or fry cooks or baristas — do you think we’d function normally?

If the pandemic taught us anything it’s that there are a lot more jobs considered essential than people realized, and those people doing essential work can barely afford to survive.

Going beyond that, what’s the deeper meaning of paying someone poverty wages for jobs like that of a barista, cashier or fry cook?

We’ve made a value judgment in calling these jobs essential, but only have empty words and platitudes with which to back it up.

But calling someone a “hero” and thanking them does nothing to address the immediate material needs of the economically marginalized. 

Unskilled labor is a myth used by capitalists to justify the poverty wages of a $7.25 per hour worker. It’s an epithet used to sow discord among the working class. 

If a billionaire CEO — Jeff Bezos for instance, who’s worth about $178.9 billion — tells his workers they don’t deserve a raise, people would easily call out the hypocrisy.

But when regular workers fight against a living minimum wage, either to their representatives or in vitriolic comments on Twitter, they push a false narrative — the narrative of the same people robbing them of their wages. 

It’s classic divide and conquer tactics, and I’ve had enough of it. 

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