It was Labor Day in the U.S. yesterday, and if you noticed how many hourly wage employees spent it doing service work for people who were lucky enough to get the day off from their office jobs, you’re not alone. Although the holiday was established in the late 19th century as a commemoration of the American labor movement, the bare facts of it—namely, that salaried workers often have the day off while service workers, who have made the news recently for organizing unions at companies including Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s, do not—don’t quite seem to add up.
This discrepancy is exactly the kind of thing that author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who died last week at the age of 81, made her living writing about. In Ehrenreich’s hit 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, she takes aim at the false promise of welfare reform, setting out to learn how unskilled workers survived on their wages by taking a series of minimum-wage jobs across the country.
While the term “unskilled labor” has somewhat fallen out of favor in progressive circles since Nickel and Dimed came out 21 years ago (after all, isn’t all labor skilled?), the core of her message feels like it was written for the moment we’re currently living through: While inflation is on the rise, the U.S. minimum wage has stagnated at a ludicrous $7.25 an hour. (It’s double that in some states, including New York and California, but in many parts of the country, you could work a full day for the minimum wage and still barely be able to afford a tank of gas.)
One of the most striking things about rereading Nickel and Dimed in 2022 is the total lack of condescension with which Ehrenreich approaches her task. She acknowledges the good fortune that has allowed her to merely experiment with low-wage work, rather than rely on it to eke out a living as some members of her family did: “To me,” she writes, “sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.”
When news of Ehrenreich’s death spread on social media last week, many of my female friends recalled how her writing had been pivotal to the development of their class consciousness, and the same was true for me. Before I read Nickel and Dimed in high school, I was well aware that many, many people worked extremely hard for not much money all over the world, and that their labor in particular powered the systems I relied on every day (from my days at school to the subway I rode to get there). But I was a privileged kid whose only context for work was occasional babysitting gigs. I don’t think any book is a substitute for the lived experience of performing service work, something I wouldn’t do until college, but Ehrenreich taught me more about empathy, economic justice, and the specific hardship of being an underpaid woman in America than I learned in any of my classes.
In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich managed to communicate the fundamental unfairness of the minimum-wage worker’s predicament in a way that felt urgent; I’d learned, from my parents and from my history and civics classes, that things were nowhere near fair in America, but I hadn’t really gotten the sense that there was much to be done about it. Ehrenreich changed that for me, illustrating the near-impossibility of getting by on $6 or $7 an hour while taking care to note that “low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.” (Why do I feel like there are some present-day writers who need to hear this?)
While I wish her legacy were no longer quite so relevant—and that the minimum wage had risen at least a few dollars since Nickel and Dimed was published—we’re lucky to have Ehrenreich’s words guiding us as organizations like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance do their best to ease the outsized burden placed on service workers in this country. Perhaps the best way we can honor her memory is committing to help them.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America