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The Post-Pandemic Future of Work

The current crisis is forcing us to reconsider what it means to have to work to live. It's long overdue.

Intercontinentale/AFP/Getty Images

The empty refrain around “heroes” in “essential” jobs—the people expected to continue to show up to work, from health care to grocery retail and sanitation, while everyone else shelters in place—has by now become familiar. But increasingly so has its counter: One thing I’ve heard over and over since the coronavirus lockdown first started has been, They say I’m an essential worker, but they don’t treat me like one.

I’ve heard it from fast-food workers on strike in North Carolina and a sanitation worker in Memphis, Tennessee; from grocery store workers in West Virginia and nurses—so many nurses—who are tired of being called “heroes” and would like some basic protective equipment, please. “We’re nobody when it’s not essential. We’re just workers. They could care less about us if this virus wasn’t out here,” Bertha Bradley, a 60-year-old food service worker from Durham, North Carolina, told me. “I don’t get health benefits. I don’t get sick time. I don’t get paid vacations. I don’t get a living wage. So what do they want from me? What more would they do? If I die right now, their business is still going to go.”

Calling workers “essential,” after all, is just another way of saying you can’t stop. Health care workers and teachers have long known the particular pressures of being “essential” even as their work is devalued: Dare to make demands for yourself, dare to go on strike to back up those demands, and be demonized to the world by the same politicians who’ve slashed your budget. But now more and more workers are being subjected to that double bind of being told that they are invaluable, even as their conditions worsen and grow more dangerous. The coronavirus crisis is drawing the veil away from the true nature of work.

When going to work every day is touted as an act of heroism on billboards and in politicians’ announcements and the daily news, workers are reminded of what they are risking. In this moment, the coercive nature of that work is more obvious—and the fact that we do not have any right to demand people do it is becoming more clear. As workers in industry after industry strike, protest, and quit rather than put their lives on the line, as previously tolerable jobs become suddenly hazard-laden, we should consider what it really means to have to work in order to live.

We are, now, roughly drawn into threes: The “essential” workers still leaving home to go to their jobs; the work-from-home brigades juggling childcare and lousy internet connections to keep up “productivity”; and the laid-off and furloughed, waiting and wondering what the economy (that strange inorganic word we use for the matrix of human interactions that make up the way we produce and distribute the things we need and want) will look like when it reopens. For all of us, conditions have gotten rapidly worse.

The walls close in at home when our jobs, too, take up residence there, when our employer, as philosophy professor Fiona Jenkins wrote, has essentially requisitioned our personal space. The already porous boundaries between work time and nonwork time collapse when “WFH” is the new order of things. (It is strangely evocative that “WFH” also stands for Wages for Housework, a campaign that noted that the home had always been a workplace.) For the laid off, time suddenly stretches out, with nothing to do but click and click and click and wait for the unemployment page to load, if it ever does. Wait for the check, if it ever comes.

But for the “essential” worker right now, perhaps previously accustomed, like Bertha Bradley was, to being told they were easily replaced, the world has perhaps changed the most. The job might have been dangerous before—certainly the essential workers of the food production chain risked injury and illness even before plants like Smithfield Foods became hotspots for the virus. But now serving hot dogs and sodas to drive-up customers, as Bradley does, comes with a side risk of serious illness. Passing prescriptions over the counter, as Travis Boothe does in a Kroger in Beckley, West Virginia, might pass the virus back over. And that’s sparked a new militancy in many of those workers. Kroger, Boothe noted, was raking in profits in the midst of the crisis and conceded to hazard pay at the workers’ demand. “Co-workers who never would’ve thought about the idea of refusing work or potential strike actions have been saying to me, ‘What do we have to lose? They need us. We’re essential, we’re necessary. Their profits don’t exist without us showing up to work,’” he said.

Going to a low-paying job was always done under a veiled threat: of poverty, homelessness, hunger. Go to work or starve, particularly as bipartisan governments of the past four decades have carved away at the welfare state. Our unemployment benefits system was designed to make sure that people worked if any job was offered, rather than to allow them to wait to find something they’d like or that actually paid a decent wage. And even as the social safety net was hacked to shreds, the pressure on workers to like their jobs was ramped up—workers now expected not just to show up on time but to do so with a smile, as if their highest ambition in life is to serve.

But the threat now is more acute, more obvious.

The protests demanding that states “reopen” after all are protests demanding that working people head back into jobs that risk their health. The now-infamous “I Want a Haircut!” sign brandished by a Wisconsin woman underlined the point: These people aren’t simply protesting curtailments of their own movement. They are protesting a lack of people to serve them. They are demanding other people get back to work. And when we look at that sign and flinch at it, we are recognizing that we have no right to make that demand. That everyone should have the right to say no. Call it, perhaps, a right not to work.

Absent such a right, calling workers “essential,” as an organizer friend of mine noted the other day, is just another way of calling them “expendable.” It is a way of saying their lives can be forfeited to other people’s needs and wants.

In an article titled “The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability,” in 2004, Sunny Taylor noted that in the transition to capitalism, we began to see members of society who cannot do what we think of as work—due to illness, physical impairment, or age—as disabled, unproductive, extraneous to the capitalist system. It is hard not to hear these echoes in the repetition, from certain corners of the political world, that some people might just have to die in order to keep the economy running. “There are more important things than living,” declared Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The disabled, the dependent, Taylor pointed out, are considered expendable to American capitalism; yet in the world of Covid-19, even Dan Patrick and the haircut sign lady are in fact reminding us by their demands for “reopening” that everyone is dependent on someone else’s labor.

We live in an intertwined society that requires certain kinds of work to be done in order for us to live and be comfortable: We do not have the right to demand anyone do that work at the risk of their life. This is the tension of this moment. How do we resolve it?

Globalized capitalism doesn’t really have any analogous experiences to the thing we are currently surviving, said labor historian Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. The influenza epidemic of 1918 didn’t result in this level of economic shutdown. But the layoffs and changes to people’s working lives we’ve already felt have surpassed anything in our previous understanding. Though Loomis cautions it’s too far in the past to be comparable, the Bubonic Plague, because of the sheer number of deaths, did leave workers with more leverage than they’d had. “It freaked out the classes that had dominated workers,” he said, and they moved to pass laws restricting movement and compelling people to labor.

A more recent comparison, though the causes are very different, is the Great Depression. Before the crash, Loomis noted, the American labor movement had been nearly crushed—not too far off from its precarious position today. It was galvanized by the Depression, but only over a period of years. Before the surge in worker organizing, though, there was widespread desperation, and the kind of uprisings that come with it. “People don’t know what to do. They’ve been told these lies about capitalism,” Loomis said. The early organizing, then, was as much about rent strikes and rallying the unemployed—both movements backed by the Communist Party—as it was about the workplace. These movements laid the groundwork for the rise in labor organizing and, importantly, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

It was the interaction between legislation passed to alleviate suffering—which included what was, at first, “a throwaway line” in the National Industrial Recovery Act giving workers the right to unionize—and the growing militancy among tens of thousands of people who realized that their unemployment was not their fault, that made the change. And then workers managed to organize despite high unemployment, coming up with new tactics like the sit-down strikes that were designed for the moment.

What will those tactics look like in the time of the coronavirus? As Loomis pointed out, fewer workers are in massive factories where hundreds or even thousands can down their tools together. Yet the distributed nature of the workforce—and, of course, the nature of the pandemic—has made the sick-out powerful once again, as Amazon workers showed with an all-day digital action accompanying sick-outs by workers up and down the company’s supply chain.

The grassroots movements in the Depression era, Loomis said, were often about “just keeping somebody in a home and saving their life.” Life-saving action is even more relevant in a pandemic, even if social distancing requires new tactics (and ironically allows the protesters who scorn the need for social distance to look as though their movements are bigger than those who respect the need not to spread the virus). And workers who might look to refuse to work now have the moral high ground in a new and unexpected way.

As in the Depression era, we have mass unemployment at the moment, but the desperation for work is mitigated both by (limited, though still important) government action in expanding unemployment benefits and, importantly, the very real risk to health and safety by returning to work. Congressional Democrats have even acknowledged the latter by floating the idea of a “Heroes Fund” for hazard pay for essential workers. Those health and safety fears mean, Loomis noted, that “the person who has been the waiter or the hairdresser or the personal trainer—they’re not thinking really, in a serious way about moving into a meatpacking plant.” Food-processing work has been for years—think back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—some of the most unpleasant, dangerous work out there, and is even more so now, as the shoulder-to-shoulder conditions of many meatpacking workers make spreading the virus nearly certain. And it remains some of the lowest paid—even before Trump’s proposal to lower pay even further. Workers with any better options, even staying home, were unlikely to choose to take those jobs even before a potentially deadly virus hit.

Those meatpacking workers, then, have tremendous leverage even as they face unprecedented risk. The food supply chain is fragile. (A Tyson executive warning that it was “breaking” this week was not being entirely hyperbolic.) Yet these food plants have relied upon undocumented workers, whom they could doubly oppress, and the rock-bottom wages they were able to get away with paying. If those workers begin to refuse to work in those conditions, what would those plants have to do to convince other people to pick up the slack or for those workers to return to the production line? Actually provide hygienic conditions and decent pay, perhaps?

Trump’s solution to all of this is to use the Defense Production Act—which health care workers have been begging him to use to produce more protective equipment—to compel meat-processing plants to remain open in the crisis. These are plants that already have virus outbreaks, and as far as protecting workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shrugs: “In the event of an investigation, OSHA will take into account good faith attempts to follow the guidance and doesn’t anticipate citing employers that adhere to the recommendations.” It’s a neat way to skirt the thorny problem of employers not wanting to make improvements but wanting to keep making profits, unless those workers decide to stop showing up.

To Travis Boothe, the hazard pay that his company briefly agreed to should now become the norm, now that the company’s had to admit how essential those workers really are. And if they don’t, his newly radicalized co-workers might just walk out. Being called heroes will only go so far. After all, the companies have treated them as replaceable for so long, as “supermarket analyst” Phil Lempert told The Washington Post. “We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’”

The strike has always been the ultimate refusal of work, the way to demonstrate that without the laborers, the capitalist can’t accumulate wealth. In order to maintain the illusion of freedom that overlays the system of work, we are told, capitalist firms should raise wages and improve conditions when they cannot find workers even in times of high unemployment. They have largely refused to do that, seeking other ways to keep pay low—outsourcing, a just-porous-enough immigration system to allow new workers in but strip them of any rights.

As the crisis continues, workers will have to figure out the new tools for organizing that take advantage of the unique structures of the workplace under social distancing and the way most people have been forced online. The ripple of strikes since lockdowns began is an inspiring start, but they are just a start, even as they have won some results. The stakes are higher, now, than perhaps at any time in many of our lives. The Depression-era history reminds us that high stakes can bring innovation, but they are also likely to bring renewed pressure from the top to “return to normal.”

Even in a crisis that has forced them to admit just how dependent we all are on workers doing their jobs, the wealthy will not agree to raise wages unless forced. They are, after all, at least in the short term, still getting richer. They are not about to grant working people a right not to work, nor is Congress, even as Nancy Pelosi is now gesturing toward a basic income. Granting such a thing, after all, would give everyone the right to live whether or not they worked. And with such rights, would anyone ever go to work again?

That is the question at the heart of these struggles, after all the layers have been peeled back. Some work must be done to keep society functioning—the work, as social reproduction theorists have it, of life-making and sustaining—but what are the conditions under which people do it? If everyone had the right to live, to a home and health care regardless of whether or how much they worked, what would the incentives be for people to take up that socially necessary work? Would we distribute it equally, perhaps, rather than deciding that certain people are “essential” workers and the rest of us something else entirely? This moment, this crisis, is showing the brutality inherent in so many kinds of labor, and showing how unnecessary other work is. Perhaps it can also be an opportunity to question our most basic assumption: that work itself should be at the center of our lives.