Pearl River Remember the pandemic? Remember when there were “essential” workers and everyone pretended to care about them? Right, that was so 2020, wasn’t it? Talking to Middlebury College sociologist and former labor organizer Jamie McCallum on Wade’s World about his recent book, Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice, he believes we need to understand the pandemic proletariat as a permanent feature of the American workforce with the potential to shape the future of the US working class.
His argument is that first we need to understand how much of essential work, as it came to be called during the pandemic, is basic service sector work, but with a disturbing difference. Many of the burgeoning gig workers, rather than being a new kind of worker, as the boosters of late-stage capitalism might term them, are actually a “servant” workforce doing tasks that are certainly important, but are also doing what historically servants might do: giving rides, delivering food, facilitating shopping, handling tasks, and on and on. Furthermore, it’s “wealth work”, servicing the exploding demands and manufactured needs created by the vast inequity that characterizes America now. When more wealth is created at the top, more jobs are created at the bottom to serve the rich. This is also the current contradiction in the economy where job growth is still exploding, but mostly in lower wage categories, like food service and hospitality, as businesses continue to bounce back from the earlier shutdowns and disruptions of the pandemic.
None of this was great for the pandemic proletariat. These workers weren’t unemployed, and that was a good thing. At the same time, they were asked to absorb the risks, working in unsafe conditions, but also, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, without adequate personal protection equipment. In some cases, this led to independent efforts to organize and build unions. Amazon Labor Union’s Chris Smalls led an early walkout over this issue, which later blossomed into the only successful Amazon warehouse union drive, finally. One interesting statistic we discussed was the fact that one-third of the strikes in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, were independent worker actions unconnected to labor unions. This “risk shift” in McCallum’s view created worker response.
Did unions take advantage of this uptick in worker militancy and collective action? Not really. McCallum in fact was critical of many of the big labor unions endorsing the status quo promoted by business and government, which might be termed “welfare without a welfare state”, rather than seizing the opportunity to demand more and something permanent for workers. It’s ironic, because McCallum and other researchers, in an exhaustive and comprehensive study of nursing home care work, which defined the most serious and dangerous work in the pandemic, found that if nursing homes were unionized, the death rate was 11% lower and Covid infection rate was reduced by 8%.
Will this recognition of the importance of essential workers continue? We can’t be sure, and, frankly, it’s hard to be optimistic. Will unions and employers learn lessons for the future of either daily work or reacting to public health crises? The facts are clear, but the jury is out, and hope is not a plan.