Warren erroneously described her dad as a janitor, and twitter had lots of takes about it. Too bad what janitors themselves think about this has no bearing on what pundit-types think about janitors.
The discourse going around twitter earlier this week was that Elizabeth Warren has always referred to her dad as a maintenance worker, but during the election season, she started referring to him as a janitor.
In December 2019, Warren’s brother said that he didn’t like how she described him as a janitor, because he wasn’t a janitor. This statement from her brother slightly boiled up into a talking point, but it wasn’t a big enough deal to become a “thing”.
Then, a couple days ago, Warren’s campaign released an ad where she again described her dad as being a janitor. This time, it did boil over into more of a talking point.
There’s a lot to unpack with this, so first I’m going to explain why Warren’s use of janitor is a cynical ploy. Then, I’ll unpack why a lot of takes from the twitter users were bad, and finally go more into how actual janitors and janitorial labor ties into this whole thing.
Warren erroneously describing her dad as a janitor is a cynical ploy. She’s imposing a working-class identity onto someone who was not part of that profession. She’s using the word “janitor”, which evokes quite possibly the most “working poor” imagery of any profession, to cloak her dad in it.
Warren’s dad could have been literally any profession except for a janitor, no matter how similar they are to a janitor, and it would still be disingenuous. This isn’t an semantic gaff, this is them focus-researching what words people respond to and exploiting it.
You may ask, “what’s the difference between a janitor and custodian?”
The glib answer is “a few dollars an hour”.
But in reality, there are several differences in duty. At different workplaces, these duties will vary. I’ve worked as a janitor in two very different work environments (one at a homeless shelter, one at a casino), and although they were both very different types of janitors, they were also very different than the equivalent maintenance jobs at the same places.
Having said all that, it’s not that big of a controversy. It’s a cynical ploy, but not anymore so than half the shit politicians try to pull. If anything, all it indicates is that Warren has a history of making things up.
For me, the element I have a bigger issue with is not that she’s mislabeling her dad’s job, it’s the fact that no one uses the job title “janitor”. It’s always euphemized. When I’ve been a janitor, I’ve had the titles “Environmental services specialist”, and “custodial representative”. When I worked as a “cafeteria kitchen janitor”, I was actually called a “kitchen utility worker”.
Warren defenders have brought this up to defend her. But that’s not the defense they think it is. The reason job titles don’t include the word “janitor” is the word has negative class implications. It’s used to demean janitors. So, it frankly shouldn’t be exiting the mouth of a multi-millionaire Harvard professor.
There’s no way someone that rich, especially a politician, has the credibility to use janitor in a value-neutral way. When you’re that removed from the reality of the working class, you only use it to demean workers, or exploit them for clout.
The bigger issue with Warren’s use of janitor, is, like everything, the discourse that arose around it.
It created a torrent of people, who clearly have little to no ties to the janitorial sector, giving their declarative opinions about what being a janitor is or isn’t.
I saw someone online make the point that Elizabeth Warren cynically used the label of janitor to conjure up the image of the working poor (true), they then said it was a gaffe because janitors actually make a decent living (false).
Sure, janitors used to make more money, as did many jobs in the US. But they certainly don’t make a decent living today.
I don’t want to nitpick this sentiment too much, because it’s a well-intentioned defense of janitors, but it also approaches it wrong.
Imagine if Warren said it the opposite way: her dad was a lowly janitor and she described him as a maintenance worker. Both jobs are equally “working class”, but it would be less egregious to inflate her dad’s perceived job title than deflating it. Whether or not janitors make decent money, which they don’t, is kind of besides the point. It’s perceived as the quintessential “poor person” job.
The worst takes were coming from Warren supporters defending Warren.
This shouldn’t be surprising, considering how dismissive Warren supporters are to Native Americans who disapprove of Warren’s Native American fiasco. Warren supporters, like most democrats, are notorious for throwing out any principles they may claim to have to defend a candidate.
Their position was really dismissive, saying this is a non-issue. They were accusing Sanders supporters of scandalizing the issue as a political smear.
But that betrays a very presumptuous, middle class mentality, where they assume everyone online is middle class like them, or at least, has the same cold, detached, myopic middle class worldview that they have.
They can only view janitors from a distance, and they embrace that distance like a badge of honor.
For instance, I saw several people saying things like “Well at my office, the janitors and maintenance workers are in the same department. They might as well be the same thing, we ask them to do the same duties!”
This is a pretty benign thing to say from the mainstream middle class. It’s the type of thing the middle class says all the time. But there are several reasons statements like this are pretty repugnant.
For one, statements like this don’t perceive janitors or maintenance workers as being on the same level as the pencil-necks. This level of understanding has a cold distance to your fellow coworkers, indeed, not even perceiving them as coworkers at all, even though they’re in the same work environment.
It reduces any working poor worker to one undifferentiated mass. Imagine if someone was like “Well, the data entry workers and the accountants both work in the financial department, so they’re practically the same.” No one would do that, because we, as a society, have deference towards middle class positions.
The other main way this is a bad position, is it doesn’t matter that the workers are in the same department, they still definitely have different duties. Within the department, they obviously are differentiated. The working poor don’t get the same type of respecting differentiation within their jobs and duties as the middle class: “They’re all poor, they don’t have skills, so they all do the same thing!”
If you’re a pencil-neck administrator, and you are like “This thing is dirty, get one of the janitors to clean it,” and you get a maintenance worker, then I can guarantee they hate you.
I’ve primarily worked in two different cities: Portland, OR and Philadelphia, PA. In Portland, people are polite and would probably passive-aggressively do the job anyway. In Philadelphia, the maintenance worker would often be like “I’m not cleaning that, that’s not my job.”
The reaction really depends from city to city and workplace to workplace, but as a whole, that worker either secretly or openly will hate you.
So far, I’ve critiqued several perspectives on this situation. I don’t want to seem like I have a grudge, or I particularly have anything against any of the people involved.
Although Warren’s use of “janitor” is a cynical ploy, it’s not unique. Politicians have always gained a lot of power purely from cynical ploys, and this isn’t one of the worst examples.
I don’t have even ill-will in my critique of the typical middle class reaction to this discourse. Because it’s so benignly integrated into the American middle class worldview that it’s hard to fault specific people.
So, what do I really want from this situation? It’s simple.
I want janitors and maintenence workers to speak for themselves. I want them to be an authority on this discourse, and for people to defer their understand of what does, or doesn’t constitute janitors, to actual janitors.
But we can’t just achieve that within our current society. It requires some more foundational reformatting of economic power. It requires janitors to have enough collective power, to then exert that power into the ideological realm of discourse.