All Work Has Value

On Martin Luther King, jr. Day, one the administrators of Union Cab’s facebook page posted this quote:

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 3, 1968

Dr. King was murdered the day after giving this speech. It is a great sentiment from a great leader. One perfect for today. Of course, the sanitation strike was about more than labor, it was also about human dignity and the continued efforts to force the south of the United States to shed its racist past. It was also part of Dr. King’s recognition that the issues facing America were more than racism, but that class and global economics played a role in the oppression being felt in Memphis.

It reminds me of a quote from another great leader: Don Arizmendiaretta. His translates roughly as:

“The world has not been given to us simply to contemplate it but to transform it and this transformation is not accomplished only with our manual labor but with first with ideas and action plans.”


“The human person that proceeds to cultivate his or her ideas with the only objective of being productive, insensibly and fatally, becomes a slave to the productive machine.”

It is not uncommon, I have found, in our larger worker cooperatives for the division of labor to breed animosity and distrust. This is especially true when it involves those workers who either have cultivated their skills and talents, or simply have an affinity for managing the governance of the organization.  Because we come from a larger economic community where the role of the “boss” is suspect, it seems easy for us to distrust anyone in our cooperatives who might actually take on some of the necessary tasks look like the work of the boss. I don’t know how many times I have heard the tired analogy from Animal Farm expressed whenever a worker is upset with a decision of the board or a committee (I generally wonder if the person making the comment has actually read the book or has merely memorized the Cold War anti-communist mantra).

The point of all of this is that all work has value. As Dr. King points out to the sanitation workers, it doesn’t matter the job may be, it has dignity and worth. Ironically, it is a lesson that we often need to re-learn in our co-ops (which often tend to be in the small job industries). The members who engage in planning and moving the co-operative towards its goals and vision, should earn just as much dignity and worth as those who operate in the revenue producing segment.

I think that both Dr. King and Don Arizmendiaretta would agree that, at the heart of it all, all work is worthy of dignity and worth because it is performed by human beings. It is really the human, that makes work worthy and dignified. In a world that determines success by the bottom line, that point gets lost quickly; however, in our co-operatives (which exist specifically to create human and dignified workplaces), it must be embraced.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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