Doesn't All Work Deserve Dignity?

Apr 29, 2014Lydia Bowers

A subway ad provides a reminder of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second bill of rights, which called for a living wage and access to leisure.

I recently saw an advertisement for Grubhub on the New York City subway. For the unfamiliar, Grubhub is a food delivery website used to place orders online. Grubhub focuses its ads on creative reasons you should order delivery tonight from “You refer to your oven as Manhattan Mini Storage” to “Your friends in the Midwest share photos of their kids. You share photos of dinner”. Grubhub has purchased enough ad space in the NYC subway system to make their ads fixtures of NYC commutes.

This ad was different. “Sure, you could go out for dinner. And walk in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. Someone else can do it for you! Order In. You Deserve It.” The case for why you should order delivery tonight is still there (it’s cold, it's uphill!) but there’s more. Pay someone else to deal with that unpleasantness, you deserve it! In our new society, where 1% of the population controls more wealth than the bottom 80% combined, dignity comes from money and, more importantly, what that money can pay others to do for you.

Am I making too much of one ad? Possibly – but it’s emblematic of widespread and growing issues. Look at recent examples of fast food restaurants underpaying their employees or denying them benefits while concurrently paying CEOs obese incomes. Look at Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe being sued by their employees for colluding to keep wages low and maximize corporate profits. The idea that a fair day's work equals a fair day's pay is eroding at every level of our society, except for those controlling it all at the very top. We have become a society where we are sorted into those who deserve fair pay, benefits, and empathy, and those who don’t. And at the end of a long day, the deserving few deserve to have someone being paid exploitative wages (the average delivery worker in NYC is paid minimum wage at $8.00 an hour or roughly $15,300 a year) bring sushi to their front door.

Am I advocating the end of delivery? Of course not. What I’m asking for is a restoration of the basic social contract, where we agree as a society to value all our workers and their right to happiness. This is not a new idea. In his 1944 State of the Union address Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated for a second bill of rights. He argued that the political rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the purist of happiness.” In this new version, Americans would have the right to employment with a living wage, housing and food, and clothing and leisure, among other things.

What an incredible concept. That beyond simply feeding and housing ourselves, Americans should have the right to leisure – to enjoyment and happiness. That while there will always be delivery people and fast food workers, we all deserve to pay rent off the earnings of a single full-time job. But this is not an issue only impacting minimum wage workers in America. The Apple collusion case referenced above and recent reports that the American middle class is no longer the richest in the world indicate a pervasive mindset has taken root in America, that only those at the very top deserve anything at all. The rest of us can fight for what they leave behind.

The solution? Restore the basic social contract and raise minimum wage. Rather than continuing to argue for the failed policies that wrongly argue equality trickles from the top down, acknowledge that wealth flows when we all do better. Raising our most vulnerable workers above the barely-scraping-by level of living betters our society as a whole, from both economic and social justice standpoints. The recent increase in the New York state minimum wage and political will at the national level for a federal increase are good first steps. But until politics prove otherwise, I will continue to overreact at billboards that reinforce the concept that any workers in our society are "undeserving."

Lydia Bowers is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Operations Strategist.

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