We have told workers that their labor is essential but their lives are not. So why are we expecting anyone to return to work under unlivable conditions?
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From film sets and hospitals to warehouses and manufacturing floors, the American labor force is awakening. Workers are pushing for higher pay, better hours, and commitment to safe and supportive working environments from employers. People are walking off the job, or never walking on to begin with. And while we are subjected to the resentful admonitions of employers whining about a labor shortage, the country is witnessing a labor renaissance.
The Great Resignation was never supposed to be like this.
For months, the great labor revolt was a story about the privileged classes, their anxieties and worries, their newly received perspective on the hours they could put into family and self rather than tapping away at screens for hours for the benefit of some distant apparatus. We heard over and over again about office workers uninterested in commutes, seeking more flex time, and even abandoning their secure incomes to pursue freelancing or hobbies. We were supposed to be immersed in the scant new possibilities for an intellectual caste yearning for an emotional freedom that matched their financial autonomy.
Instead, our national navel-gazing has inspired a reevaluation of work and its value for the workers with the least power and most responsibilities. At a tremendous cost, they were the ones who had been deemed essential, keeping the cities running, the streets clean, and the intellectual workers fed and watered. In return, we have forced our economy back open, regardless of the damage, and demanded their silent and willing cooperation.
Conservative state governments have cut life-sustaining benefits to force people back into the workforce; employers have tried cajoling and bribery to convince people that the work is worth it. National media discussions focus first on the presumed lack of decent work ethic than the conditions under which people are being asked to labor. In every way, our society has told the people whose work we cannot live without that their labor is essential but their lives are not. And having been asked to return to this paradigm indefinitely, American workers of every stripe have said that they aren’t paid enough for this.
Well before the pandemic turned the world upside-down, the market insisted that the cost of survival far outweighed the value of our labor. While wages have stagnated despite massive productivity gains, it costs more money to simply exist now than it possibly ever has in American society, given the casual hyperinflation of common staples that sustain life: housing, food, education. Rents are now the costs of mortgages; monthly groceries can run up to hundreds of dollars, and it takes at minimum five-figure debt to graduate college—just to maybe settle in a good job. The pandemic didn’t create these conditions; it simply exposed the decrepit nature of the situation. As intellectual and managerial workers hold on to economic stability by their fingertips using copious amounts of debt, their hourly service, manufacturing, and creative counterparts have no access to it at all, and likely never will.
Once the façade started to crack, once we could peer inside this economy we were told was built for our own protection, there was no turning back. We are in the midst of an inevitable hew and cry at the conditions that have broken and abandoned us. This blowback is the cumulative effect of stacked shifts, wretched conditions, the heaps of abuse and attacks with little compensation and merely token recognition. This awakening is for the bills we can’t stay ahead of, the dreams we had to set aside, the joyous hours of our lives eaten up making money for other people. We have accepted that the system has broken us, and we are desperate to break it right back. There is only so long any person can tolerate being told that they were born to be used up and thrown away.
In the midst of the greatest cataclysm of human disease in a century, if all we can offer essential laborers is that the most valuable thing about their existence is their work and they are worthless without it, then we cannot be surprised when they demand the dignity of humanity through the force of solidarity and resistance. It is their work that kept the world alive as it has attempted self-destruction, built and executed the logistics of receiving crucial packages safely when interaction was a death sentence, provided us with food when delivery was the only option, made magic out of art when we had no place to go. If the lives behind this labor have no value, then how broken is our measurement?
This is the reckoning we have denied as a society, and workers this emerging labor movement has revealed its unsustainability. We can longer pretend that the services we consume, the care we receive, and the labor that maintains our society are separate and untethered from the people who provide it. The work-life balance of the upper classes cannot continue to be purchased at the expense of essential workers’ survival; we are either all free, or all disposable.
We have left these workers unheard and unseen in an attempt to deny their humanity, to pretend that the “essential” nature of their work is in the receiving and not the doing, that dollars measure worth and their lives are cheap. The Great Resignation never intended to wrestle with this paradigm; it was conceived as a privileged position, an opportunity for the empowered. We were to be concerned with the world of remote work and shifting work-life balance time toward personal fulfillment; we were never supposed to look beneath the surface. But for all the consideration and pondering at the top of the economy, the measure of the Great Resignation may be in how it shifts our foundations.
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