R.I.P., Barbara Ehrenreich

She took what they were giving ’cause she was working for a living.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist, activist, and author who never lost touch with her working-class roots, has clocked out. She was 81.

Her New York Times obit draws from the introduction to “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” in which she recounts wondering with a magazine editor how the unskilled survive on the wages paid them and then blurting out something that she “had many opportunities to regret: ‘Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism — you know, go out there and try it for themselves.'”

Which is exactly what Ehrenreich did, of course, working and living as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing-home aide, and Walmart “associate,” among other things. Then she came back and told us all about it.

And though she would be writing it up, she wasn’t phoning it in:

People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.

She was not, and is not, alone. And in her Evaluation at the end of the book, Ehrenreich proposed that those of us who live in comfort while others barely scrape by should feel not just guilt, but shame.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.

What a gift was Ehrenreich’s life. Peace unto her, her family, friends, and readers.

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22 Responses to “R.I.P., Barbara Ehrenreich”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    A sad day for those of us left living here. I recall her story about working those service jobs and then telling us about it.

    My first job, other than a couple weeks schepping shit for Manpower, was as a hotel janitor for the summer between high school graduation and starting college. Very hard work, low pay. I was 18. I saw the rest of the staff of housekeepers, far older than me, also working their asses off and going home for the same few bucks an hour.

    That’s probably why I open my wallet for extra whenever staying in a hotel, or getting up from a restaurant dinner.

  2. Pat O’Brien Says:

    Minimum wage is a poverty wage, subsidized by the our tax dollars, for the benefit of the wealthy. Just ask the Waltons or Bezos. But, they make jobs they scream. Yes, jobs, not careers. Plus we subsidize their new plant,store, or office construction with tax write offs or no taxes at all. Then they mostly give back less then the promised, or nothing at all. Politicians, and those that elect them over and over again, should feel shame, not us.

    • SAO' Says:

      “Careers, not jobs” should be someone’s campaign slogan.

      • khal spencer Says:

        One doesn’t have to have that kind of white collar terminology (I’m trying to be nice) to have a good life. My old man never called his machinist job at the Chevy plant a “career”. The plant did offer a bit of a hat tip, calling his work “skilled trades”.

        It was a pretty good blue collar “job” in the age of pretty good blue collar jobs. It paid the bills, paid off the house, paid the taxes that paid for good schools and libraries, and left him sufficient dead presidents in the pocket at the end of the month to pay for his toys and ours. And as long as Chevy sold cars, he knew he had a job and a paycheck. That was then and…

        Needless to say, all those factories in Buffalo are long gone, as are the good, union scale jobs and job security.

        He always kinda resented going to work, given his favorite place was off in the woods hunting or fishing, but he worked there for something like 35 years and only got disillusioned with GM when they stopped maintaining the plants and spent the money “diversifying”; the public blamed the workers for the shitty fit and finish of the cars. That was the beginning of the end of the “blue collar holler”, with apologies to the late Stan Rogers.

        Nothing wrong with a job if it is a job that pays well, has workplace justice, and reasonable job security. UAW provided a lot of those things Back in the Day, as did a different national climate less into absolute greed. Before outsourcing and robber baronry took over. Me? The proof is not in whether they call it a “career” or a “job” but what is in the fine print. Words alone can be mean and deceptive things.

        • SAO' Says:

          I guess it depends on your background. My family was proud to have a career in coal mining, a career in farming, or a career in pounding pickets. And no one ever looked at our muddy boots or black fingernails and said, must be nice having a white collar job.

          The way we used the word was, a job was what you did while you were still looking around, and a career was what you had if you put the same job down on your 1040 two years in a row.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        It’s an interesting topic of discussion. Is it a job or a career? Do we tend to think of “jobs” as something we do to pay the rent and “careers” as something larger and more significant (if only to us)?

        “I’m not a bartender, man. This is just something I do. I’m a fuckin’ poet.

        I had a series of jobs (six daily papers and one weekly) that kinda-sorta added up to a career (journalist). But that lasted only 15 years, not long enough to get a pension, if anyone was handing them out, which mostly they weren’t, especially if you changed jobs every few years.

        But I suppose you could say I was on a “career track,” until I veered off-road in 1991 and became a “freelancer,” which morphed into “independent contractor,” which is synonymous with “fungible,” “replaceable,” or “interchangeable.” That nonsense lasted until 2022. So the job I kept the longest was actually no job at all.

        I feel as though I had a career. But it could’ve just been a shitload of jobs.

      • Pat O’Brien Says:

        1. This job might lead to a career. I see a path ahead, and my boss and company want to help me on my way. In the meantime, we are living OK and able to save a little.

        2. This job is a dead end. No path forward, and no one to help me if there was.

        Seems there is more number 2 than 1, but I could be wrong.

        • Patrick O'Grady Says:

          There is always more No. 2. And some people have to eat it all day long.

          What’s the old gag? “Life is a shit sandwich — the more bread you have, the less shit you eat.”

          • Shawn Says:

            I guess that means you’re in a world of hurt if you’re allergic to gluten.

          • Pat O’Brien Says:

            I never heard that gag! I like it!

          • SAO' Says:

            “Shit in one hand, wish in the other, see which one fills up faster.”

            Grandpa Joe MacLaren, who made a career as a day shift worker bee, Put two girls through college, paid off his house before he was 35, paid cash for every car he ever drove, and retired with a pension and gold watch.

      • khal spencer Says:

        What’s a job and what’s a career? Here’s one dictionary.
        “the job or series of jobs that you do during your working life, especially if you continue to get better jobs and earn more money: ”

        Every time I wrote a job ad for a new person, whether technician, scientist, or post-doc, it was called a “job description”. Every day I went into the U of H labs or the Bomb Factory, I figured I had a job to do. Jesus, that was 35 years of nonstop jobs.

        My old man started out on the assembly line and got hurt. After surgery, the factory retrained him to be a machinist. He worked that machine shop job more than 30 years. He did machining for most of his working life, got raises, and got seniority. Is that a career? He never saw it that way, but saw it as a job. Maybe that’s because he was a high school dropout and it was a blue collar job. But boy, could he read. My wife, the English professor, looked at me once and said “I thought you said he was a high school dropout”. I guess a lot of young men were who came out of the Great Depression never finished school.

        I think job satisfaction, whatever you call it, is in the eye of the beholder. In every way and perhaps more so, he had just as much or more of a critical job/career and skill set as some bean counter sitting in a white shirt and tie. Someone had to keep the plant running and if not for the guys in the machine shops, a lot of the machines that made GM drive trains would grind to a halt.

        I had all that graduate school shit but at the U of H, was 50% soft money and therefore non tenure track. LANL job had more stature, but was also keeping the lights on and the mission cooking. Academia always felt, and was, second class status to the “career” people with their tenured positions. On the other hand, I was, like my old man, the guy who kept the instruments running so we all could publish rather than perish. Funny how the old man and I, with such different lives, ended up doing basically the same thing.

        What it really seems to come down to is the value of work, being recognized for the value of one’s work, owning one’s work, being treated as a critical part of work, and rewarded for it. I think the person who decides whether its just a job or a career or whatever the fuck we call it depends a lot on whether there are fuckheads up the food chain who steal the value of one’s work. That sounds weirdly Marxist, but maybe there is truth to that.

  3. Shawn Says:

    I haven’t read Ms. Ehrenreich’s book (s), so I’ll add it to my list. Since my interest is so easily drawn to the excitement that is on the shelves of my local library, I don’t always get around to reading current best sellers until they have aged 10 years or so.

    Regarding the subject though, my first regular job was washing dishes in a fine eating establishment in a small boom town north of Canada. It was a fine job and I felt that I was well paid. Of course I was still snot-nosed and lived with Mom and Dad so life was good. I hope to find a job like that again in a few years when I discover my career path faded away last century. I’ve still got my mask and they say that there’s a pearl in every sink.

  4. Hurben Says:

    This has been posted before.

    I worked in I.T. for 42 years until I hit my ‘use by date’ & got thrown under the bus.

    Nowadays I work as a Bicycle Mechanic & although I’m earning a shit ton less money, I’m far happier.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Maybe it’s childish of me, but I think happiness should be part of the work-life calculations.

      When Herself and I quit our jobs in Fanta Se and moved to Bibleburg to keep an eye on my mom, we were both more or less unhappy with what we had been doing (retail and newspapering). It was a gamble, but not a desperate one — we lived rent-free in my mom’s house, and drew a small stipend that cushioned the impact of plummeting from FTE to joblessness in one fell swoop.

      It was Ground Zero for what became my 30-year freelancing “career” and confirmed Herself’s belief that she needed to do something other than retail to enjoy her work; thus the hard-won advanced degree and a succession of ever-better library gigs culminating in the Sandia job, which will see her through to retirement.

      If I had stayed in newspapering, I might have made more money, but probably would’ve followed my old man’s well-worn path along Whiskey River to the grave. If Herself had stayed in retail she would have insisted that I take her with me when I went.

      Instead we got to be happy in our work. A luxury? Maybe. But it really shouldn’t be.

      • Pat O’Brien Says:

        You are right. It shouldn’t be. My last three years of work had some good moments, helping others get ahead, but not many. But, I would stood on my head and spit wooden nickels that whole time to get the pension with health insurance I now enjoy. And, I know how fortunate I am.

  5. Herb from Michigan Says:

    “Instead we got to be happy in our work.”
    How many can say that?
    For reasons that elude me now, back around 1974 I stopped using the terms “Where do you work?” or “I work at ….” Maybe it was a Maynard G Krebbs affliction? I did and do ask “How do you make your living?” or “I made my living doing…” Living is what we all hope to do eh? The word “make” seems to me to suggest the word “build” which somehow seems worthy of what one should/could do with their time on this planet. Get off your arse and build a life worth living. The job you might have to show up for may not be what you want to do all day/everyday but if you are building a happy life around that sacrifice- for you and yours:you most likely won’t end up being a jerk. These days, that is high praise.

  6. khal spencer Says:

    Heh. For me, working in the laboratory was the next best thing to playtime. Like my old man, I am an introvert who likes things more than people. Why I usually ride alone on my bicycles. Or as my first wife said as she walked out the door, “you love your mass specs more than you love me”. So moving to LANL was a good move because it was close to 100% Lab Rattery. No career or job is without potholes. You fill them or drive around them.

    I think the Old Man never let on that he actually took ownership of his work at the plant. One of these days I’ll have to ask him. He was happy when he had enough seniority to go on the day shift and live like a normal human being. He has bought a Chevy or GM vehicle exclusively for the last half century. That job had him coming home with home-made tools to solve problems at the reloading bench. Perhaps it was the hard early life–Great Depression, his old man dying when he was a pre-teen, and never finishing school. It must sometimes be hard to wonder “what if” life had been better. Contrast to his moodiness, my mom, who also grew up sans her dad (he augered his motorcycle into a streetcar when she was a kid) always tried to see the glass as more than half full.

    “The job you might have to show up for may not be what you want to do all day/everyday but if you are building a happy life around that sacrifice- for you and yours:you most likely won’t end up being a jerk.” –Herb from Michigan

    And ain’t it the truth?

  7. Thomas Timlen Says:

    Yeah, just when I “met” Barbara, she died. I was enjoying her book Living With A Wild God, thoroughly enjoying the tale of her journey. Finished it yesterday. Read the acknowledgments. Read the author’s bio. She’s living in Virginia, it said. Then, curious to know what she is doing now, what other books and articles of hers I should venture into, my Google search informed me that she had died four days earlier, while I was absorbed in some of the most gratifying pages of her book. But dead? Hardly. She has given us plenty of inspiring work that will keep her alive for decades to come. She can even enliven our living rooms thanks to all her talks and interviews available on YouTube. Now that she is dead, or despite her death, I’m looking forward to really getting to know her.

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