What Workers Really Want

I asked my dad, a NYC bus driver of 43 years*

Photo by Callum Hill on Unsplash

*That’s not my dad in the picture. That’s a stock photo of a worker on a train. My dad hates his picture taken and hates the Internet more. But my dad has that hat.

I have spent most of my life very aware of just how different I am from my father. He grew up on the streets of Queens; I went to a preppy independent school in the green hills of Staten Island. He skipped college and went to work; I was a literature major at Harvard. Yes, I’ve had a job since I was 13, but for most of my late teens and early 20s you could find me reading books under a tree. I am gay; he is most definitely not. And now, I spend my days, at 43, writing essays about the pandemic, and modern life, and how to build a “Happiness Fence;” my father rolls his eyes at my happiness fence and spent 43 years as a school bus driver in New York City — a union member, with a time card, counting the days ’til he could collect his pension. Along the way, he moonlighted (moonlit?) as an Italian-bread baker, poring over dough, flour, and a hot oven into the wee hours of the night.

Two jobs, sometimes three, plus my mom’s full-time salary, kept our family of five afloat. My mom was a secretary for a shipping company. She would bring home a bulky Smith-Corona typewriter from the office every night, in the trunk of our Pontiac, so she could do over-time work at the kitchen table after dinner. I would meet her in the front of the house, in the assigned parking spot outside our condo, and help her lug it up the 13 steps to the door. That overtime paid the $2,500 a year that my scholarship to that preppy independent school didn’t cover. And the three of us — my sisters and I — all had braces, at the same time. That shit is expensive. After nearly 50 years at the same company, she is about to retire. My dad retired last year. I have watched them both work tirelessly for decades on end. Needless to say, I am the son of the working class.

As a post-vaccine world brightens at the end of this long, strange tunnel, and as our national conversation heats up about the minimum wage, what “work” is in our country — and how it is valued — are center-stage once again. President Biden recently tweeted that “This is our moment to rebuild an economy that rewards work, not just wealth.” At the same time, in a matter of mere months, workers have been recast, by the business class and a select group of our elected officials, from “essential” to “lazy,” as 38 states have pulled unemployment supplements in order to force workers back to the job. Apparently, workers are not all that interested in returning for starvation wages.

In the midst of all this, I had a frank conversation with my father this morning about work, workers, jobs, employment, and unemployment. It seemed, after nearly an hour, our morning chat was just the tip of the iceberg — in a great ocean — of thoughts he has about what is happening in our country. As you might imagine, we vote very differently. We argue about politics, but we try to do it with humor and whatever grace each of us can muster when faced with the opinionated other. But we talk openly. This morning, I had one question: What do workers really want? His immediate response: “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

I pushed him to elaborate. To be fair, the words that follow are mine not his — the synthesis of today’s talk and what I have seen, heard, and felt for the 43 years that preceded it. When my father says “fair,” he means that workers want:

  1. Medical, dental, and vision. They want benefits. They want coverage that actually covers them and their families, not “cheap” policies that skimp on the essentials and force them to make choices between co-pays, medications, and whether they can order pizza that night. And they want dental and vision so their kids can have clean teeth and glasses.
  2. A secure pension. They want to retire with dignity and with money in the bank so they don’t have to fear ages 70–95. They are not looking to buy a summer house with their retirement money. They just want to be able to afford their later years, or the visiting nurse, or medications that Medicare doesn’t cover. Yes, golf would be great. But that’s not the point.
  3. Opportunities for raises and overtime. They want to make more as their bosses make more, as the company profits more, and as the nation gets richer. An annual raise is not only extra cash, it is the “thank you” they barely get from most bosses and business owners. Overtime pay, too, is a chance to make just a little more, so they can send their kid to dance class.
  4. Groceries that are affordable. They want day-to-day living to be doable. They want to be able to go to the grocery store and buy food for the week without any major surprises at the cash register. They’re not looking to have dinner at “fancy” restaurants. They want to buy orange juice for less than $6 per carton. And maybe a good cut of meat once in a while.
  5. Time off without guilt, shame, and fear. They want a break when they need it. They want enough vacation time to take their kids on a summer trip, even if that trip is a 24-hour car ride to Florida (we took many 24-hour car rides to Florida; stories for another time). They want off when they are sick, when a family member is sick, when they have a funeral to go to, when they have a baby — all without being made to feel bad about it.
  6. Respect for seniority. They want to know their years on the job matter. They want employers to honor those years with rewards for their loyalty, like better schedules, shifts, and bonuses, based on their seniority. They’re not interested in a branded pen, a watch, or a chair when they hit employment milestones. They want real rewards that make life easier.
  7. Unions to protect them. They want a voice to speak for them and negotiate in their best interests, without that collective action being demonized. They know they have little power up against big business interests, so they loathe politicians who try to break up unions. And they loathe unions who take dues and don’t actually do the job right.
  8. Bosses who keep their word. They want honesty and predictability. They want to know that you, Boss Man or Boss Woman, will do what you said you would do. Your word is everything. If you said they could have Thursday off, they want Thursday off. Most of the time, they have promises and commitments to keep to their families, and when you break your word then they have to, too.
  9. Not to be a number. They want to know their employers give a shit. Or at least fake it. They don’t want to be anonymous in the place they spend the majority of their living and breathing. The time-card-punching is dehumanizing enough. It would be nice to feel seen, heard, and valued. They know they are replaceable, but they don’t need to be constantly reminded.
  10. You not to flaunt your wealth. They know their manager makes more, their boss is putting way more in the bank, and the owner is getting rich off their backs. They are not unaware; they know how capitalism works. They just don’t want you to flaunt it. If you’re not going to share the profits, then don’t be showy and flashy. It’s humiliating.

That’s just ten. I am sure there is a longer list in the brains and hearts of my father and the millions across the country who get up and go to work every day. If we’re bitching in the press and on Twitter that workers do not want to come back to work, maybe we should address why. How are we treating them? How are we talking about them? How do we value — or de-value — them?

Be well. Enjoy the weekend. You have every right to relax in the Hamptons. I’ll be on Fire Island. My dad will be lighting the grill in New Jersey. We all deserve the break after this horrendous year. But please think twice about getting snippy with the cashier at the market, or the gas station attendant, or the waiter. They have to work on Monday.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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