Boney Fingers: Why Should Work Be Life-Sucking?

“Work your fingers to the bone — whadda ya get? Boney Fingers.”

This 1960’s Hoyt Axton folk song mocking the vaunted virtue of working hard is being sung today with new meaning by all kinds of employees — from those in construction to high tech, food service to education, health care to media. And it’s not just manual labor and frontline employees singing the “Boney Fingers” blues, but also many midlevel career climbers and even a few upper-floor executives.

The rebellion here is not merely a matter of more pay, but particularly about the unrelenting nature of work itself — the all-consuming “job imperative,” as if that’s your life. Go 40 to 60 hours a week (plus online availability after hours) 50 to 52 weeks a year for half a century or more… then die. Is that all there is? Is that all we are?

Amazingly, in 2022 America, this fundamental existential, truly revolutionary question is one millions of hardworking people at various levels in our top-down corporate system are asking themselves, their families, co-workers, bar buddies, et al. Why are we working like this, why does it matter, what else is there?

Airline pilots, for example, have stunned American, Delta, Southwest and United by prioritizing non-monetary demands in their current contract negotiations with the monopolistic airline giants. The bosses have offered 14% pay hikes, but pilots are demanding something more meaningful: structural changes to improve their quality of life. They’re routinely frustrated by management’s inept scheduling, inadequate staffing and onerous work rules that leave them stressed out, dangerously fatigued and often stranded far from home. The bottom line is not another dollar but being able to plan and enjoy a non-work life. “You absolutely cannot address quality of life with money,” says the president of the pilots’ union at Southwest Airlines. “You’re never going to pay someone enough for a lost piano recital with their daughter or a lost baseball game.”

There are many compromises required to make a living these days, but at last we humans are beginning to say: Enough — you can buy my hard work, but not my life.

America’s stringent system of corporate capitalism keeps carving out new depths of worker exploitation. Walmart, Amazon, Uber and McDonald’s are not even the mingiest in this plunge to the bottom.

Take Chick-fil-A, a right-wing, Atlanta-based, fast-food operation boasting its “biblically-based” principles. Like slavery? Well, Chick-fil-A hasn’t gone quite that biblical yet, but one of its franchises pioneered a novel, modern-day labor compensation innovation that teeters that way, paying some workers “chicken feed.” This franchise of the $11-billion-a-year chain called on area residents to sign up to staff its new Drive Thru Express — but in lieu of wages, they were paid in chicken sandwiches! Each of those who joined the Express team received five fast-food chicken items per shift, which worked out to less than minimum wage.

What we have here is one more absurd incident illustrating that America’s sanctified work ethic is a fraud, a shibboleth to make millions think they can get ahead if they just work hard enough, keep their nose to the grindstone, stay loyal to the corporate order for life — no matter how vacuous.

But the game is up, for workers across the economy are rejecting this idea of “Boney Fingers” and work as a false idol. Such emergent groups of dissidents as “Rest is Resistance” and the “Nap Ministry” are going right in the face of corporate workaholism. Yet, the corporate schemers ought not mistake these passive resisters as a few puckish slackers. Today’s widespread shortage of workers (from truck drivers to teachers) is not a momentary economic blip, but a defiant declaration of independence from a form of work that is life-sucking.

People are not afraid of hard work, nor averse to long hours… if the task and the cause are worth both the time and effort. And “worth it” is increasingly being measured in higher values than dollars alone — compensated by a sense of purpose, community, respect, fairness and fun! In short, true worthiness… not a Chick-fil-A sandwich.

Jim Hightower