Michael's essay: We don't value 'menial' work, and we should
February 9, 2018
CBC Radio


A woman named Mona Piper died the other day, at the great age of 88.

Her photograph presents a smiling, bright-eyed, almost laughing woman, chin leaning on her right hand, as if waiting for you to stop talking so she can get a word in.

I suppose that in the long sweep of history there is nothing very special about Mona Piper. Except — for 43 years she was an elementary school crossing guard in the big city.

For 43 years, in all weathers, twice a day, she guided little kids safely from one curb to another.

Parents entrusted their children to this woman's care for 43 years.

Many of those children now have children of their own and perhaps those children were under the protective wing of Mona Piper.

For her, being a school crossing guard was more than a job that brought in a few dollars — it was a mission.

She was also a vigorous advocate for small children against the dangerous vanities of Toronto motorists, who we know are the most incompetent in the Canada.

She wrote a letter to a newspaper condemning the practice of drivers on cell phones roaring through her school zone.

On its face, being a school crossing guard doesn't take very much skill. You get a whistle, a red stop sign, maybe a safety vest.

Some of us might dismiss the job as menial.

We seem to throw that word, menial, around a lot these days when referring to people in the lowest cohort of workers.

People who, as one U.S. writer put it, shower at the end of the day, not in the morning.

I looked up menial in the dictionary. It says work "not requiring much skill and lacking prestige."

Juxtapose that definition with the phrase "dignity of labour" and you have to wonder where that leaves the people who do menial jobs.

For instance, there's a man who works in the tunnels below the city's big money skyscrapers. His job is to clean the glass, polish the door handles and occasionally run a large mechanical sweeper over the walkways.

I usually pass him in the morning on my way from the subway. He works at his so-called menial job with the care and attention of a diamond cutter.

Like Mona Piper, he is focused on getting it right. He works unsupervised. He could easily slough off the work, do it sloppily or not do it at all.

Or the Mexican immigrant whose job is to clean and maintain the men's washrooms of a large office building.

He has a big family, the father of five or six children. He cleans the sinks, the toilets, the mirrors and replaces the toilet paper and the hand towels.

He is effusive, constantly smiling and loves to be called "Amigo."

A menial worker? Perhaps, but much needed and sadly, much ignored.

There are others whose paths intersect with ours daily. We turn away or look past them or through them and give them no more thought than we do to the homeless men or women sleeping on our sidewalks.

But I wonder. What would have a greater impact on our diurnal lives? A strike by garbage workers and school crossing guards, or a strike by chartered accountants or lawyers?

The city would cease to function without the Mona Pipers of this world, many of whom are immigrants. Ms. Piper herself was born on the Island of Guernsey in the middle of the English Channel.

There was a memorial held for her yesterday.

A year ago, a local church bought a piece of land which will have a playground.

The playground will be named for Mona Piper whose so-called menial job touched the lives of thousands of children.

How many of us can say that?