Sunday, February 20, 2011

Worker or Employee?

Writing about labor issues makes me think about the language I use to talk about it.

When I write about the union members affected by the situation in Wisconsin, I have a choice. I can call them employees, or I can call them workers. Employee defines them in terms of who they work for; worker in terms of what they do.

Years of reading newspapers and other media produced in our culture leave me with connotations for worker: It brings to mind socialist or communist rhetoric, and using it automatically makes one's writing sound biased. Workers of the world are always uniting at a rally with picket signs within my brain's cesspool of connotations.

Employees, on the other hand, are working.

Why does a very simple, ostensibly neutral word like worker (how much more neutral can you get, really?) imply something radical, while a bureaucratically inspired, top-down term like employee sounds neutral and wholesome?

Employee dates from the mid-1800s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. My OED says that the French employé was the original term, from 1834, and that it usually applied to clerks. In English, it was used for "persons employed for wages or salary by a house of business or government." The OED also says that employee (with that spelling, no accent, and those two feminine letter Es) "is rare except U.S."

Thoreau, writing in Walden, is the first example cited for employee, and his use is far from neutral: "They take me for an employee."

Worker, in the OED, starts out as much more neutral. Going back to 1382: "One who makes, creates, produces..." "In emphatic uses, esp. as opposed to idler."

But finally, the last definition reveals the source of the connotations: "One who is employed for a wage, esp. in manual or industrial work, now often in the language of social economies, a 'producer of wealth,' as opposed to a capitalist." A handful of cites are provided from 19th century texts where worker is claimed to apply only to those who work for wages.

This also defines the people doing the work in relation to the entity that pays them, rather than by the work itself.

But the strength of the verb work overrides those attempts to make work about something other than getting something done. When we speak about ourselves, we don't say "I'm an employee of..." We say, "I work for..." Employee is inherently passive, while work and worker are active.

As a person who likes to get things done, I think I'll stick with worker from now on.

1 comment:

Diane Schirf said...

Journalists and the like use "worker" and "employee" as though this is a class of people unlike them, you, or me; it's all very detached. Yet, with few exceptions, we are all workers, all employees, from executive vice presidents of mighty corporations to the person who turns off the lights after cleaning. When we stop seeing ourselves as workers, then what do we see ourselves as?