We’re all in this together. Right?

Arms holding hands

I don’t think of myself as the type of person who uses self-actualizing mantras, but maybe I’ve been going soft in the last few years. Over a period covering two different jobs I’ve gotten into the habit of muttering “we’re all in this together” while at work. Rinse, repeat. It’s a fluid thing; sometimes a declaration, an aspiration, or when my patience wears thin, a private ‘woosah.’

More recently I’ll use it in post-shift parking lot discussions with coworkers, when the duty befits us to vent about the night and broader conditions. In those moments I am most stubbornly rooted in a belief, and perhaps a need, that something like an informal code for low-end service work that promotes solidarity makes the job easier for everyone — until later, when I realize it’s too much like most firm’s endeavors to promote a team atmosphere that might increase productivity. But we’re not a team. We aren’t a group of individuals united under a common goal, in spite of placarded mission statements and block-quotes in the handbook.

No, the reason we’re all in this together is because we all have to be there in order to live. Yeah, under ideal circumstances, as the business churns and you’re left standing shorn clean-cut into a customer service T-1000, promotions allow some to also thrive. Mostly, though, we’re there to survive, which tends to undercut any greater claim to purpose. We are in this together because we don’t have a choice, or at least not a meaningful one, and the consolation is that the place we’ve chosen offers better odds than most.

I was reminded of all this after reading a Washington Post piece by Anne Hall that had long been sitting in an open tab. It’s about Hardee’s workers in a small Iowan town, similar to the one that served as an character anecdote in Senator Joni Ernst’s Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech this year. Her story tapped the usual vein of escaping the muck — “working the morning biscuit line […]” to pay for college. Creston’s stories are about those who are less fortunate:

Of the 17 employees at the Hardee’s in Creston, only two use the job to pay for college. “One day, I hope to teach biology or chemistry,” says Chrystal Patten, 19, who works the evening shift and attends the local community college. But she’s the exception. The rest are working to live. Almost all rely on some form of government assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid. Some have made a career out of a low-wage job that two decades ago was considered temporary and transitional. Like Bobbie Lyons, the biscuit baker, who started at Hardee’s when her daughter was in the sixth grade; now, that daughter is 20 with her own job as a security guard.

The social contract Ernst valorizes never really existed as it’s popularly deployed, but even then higher ed’s upwardly mobile ladder was only available to a compartively select few. This is actually still how college works — a small path of socioeconomic ascent for a small demographic. Most folks still don’t have a university degree. For the rest there was (somewhat) secure work, but that golden age has long since been eclipsed by the precariousness of an hourglass economy.

This is real life for those left behind, rooted in a place some scant minority will use as a stepstool to greater glory. It will always be just a job, or another job, but never a bad memory on the way to becoming a fabled origin story. Maybe then it becomes easier to understand the mentality of prioritizing immediate needs, both because there isn’t necessarily a choice, and because honestly whatever it takes to fight off the soul-siphoning drudgery of spending every day asking “[m]ay I interest you in a combo?” More, that this doesn’t even touch upon how the biology of poverty itself reinforces these choices.

Still. Coursing through the miasma at the bottom of the hourglass, a legitimate sense — however tenuous, or film-thin —of solidarity can emerge among those walking, riding, or hitchhiking their way to a thankless, crap job.

Like this:

A crew worker named Josh, who walks to work, arrives with snow on his face. Trina wipes off the snow. Josh tries to sum up his workplace. “In essence, Hardee’s is not about one person,” he says. “It’s about a collective of people who come together to fix food for other people. It’s like the military. Right, Brandi?”

Brandi is scooping hash rounds. “What?” she says.

“We’re family here,” Josh says.

“Basically,” Brandi says.

If there’s an argument for my mantra, it’s derived from moments such as these — an interaction that I’ve seen and been a part of so many times.

These instances are not a motivational poster (I strongly dislike those things). And obviously I’m often unconvinced of the very sense of community I seek to reinforce within myself and others. Yet it is a recognition of similar circumstances, whatever the story that brought us together. It doesn’t always, or even most of the time, work as an argument or salve to the inevitable drama. The one thing I do know it is that’s better than being an asshole, which is a basic standard far above most of the debates surrounding the working poor. Perhaps we can build on that in the pursuit of making a bad situation better.

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