labour day 2021: workers want to work less and live more

Lying Flat
We're told there is a labour shortage. Businesses can't find workers. No one wants to work.

Why the shortage exists and what should be done about it are the subjects of much debate, and no small amount of disinformation.

Within this shortage, there are two different streams: one a shortage of workers wanted to perform part-time, low-wage, repetitive jobs, and the other, unfilled positions that come with higher earnings and benefits packages. 

These are different issues, with different causes and consequences -- but they share a root cause: the capitalist work ethic.

Work vs benefits: a baseless claim

There is an idea out there that young people -- so-called millennials -- don't want to work. 

We are told millennials are lazy divas who think work is beneath them. They are immature and irresponsible, so they can't find and keep a job. (This myth also provides an opportunity to blame everyone's favourite scapegoat: mothers.) And of course, the favourite hobbyhorse of the right wing: government aid. People are supposedly living the good life collecting covid benefits. Why work when you can live it up on the gravy train?

No evidence is given for this claim. It never is among people who despise governments that help people, rather than those that strictly to corporate welfare. But in fact, the evidence suggests much the opposite. Economist Paul Krugman asks: 

But have unemployment benefits actually had a major adverse effect on employment? No. State-level job numbers released Friday reinforced the conclusions of earlier studies that found at most a small negative effect.

This time, Republicans inadvertently provided the data needed to refute their own claims. Many red states rushed to cancel enhanced unemployment benefits earlier than their scheduled September expiration. If these benefits were a major force holding back job creation, these states should have seen noticeably faster employment growth than blue states that kept benefits in place. They didn’t.

In reality, much evidence shows that Americans have struggled to access assistance during the pandemic. From The Guardian

Workers across America faced long delays in receiving unemployment benefits as state systems were quickly overwhelmed with the mass influx of applications that caused months-long backlogs. Meanwhile, workers who made errors on their applications, had missing records or had their claims flagged had their benefits stopped – and often had difficulty restarting them once problems were resolved.

About 9 million Americans are estimated to have lost work due to the pandemic but received no unemployment benefits.

Sharon Corpening, 60, a freelance writer in Roswell, Georgia, lost all her work contracts when the pandemic shutdowns occurred throughout the US in March last year.

As a gig worker, Corpening’s initial unemployment application was denied by the Georgia department of labor, until the Cares Act provided pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers a few weeks later. She spent weeks trying to process her application and encountered issues with the unemployment website, and would sit on the phone for hours daily failing to reach a service representative.

Like thousands of Americans having trouble with their unemployment applications, Corpening joined a Facebook group and got involved in helping others through the unemployment process, advocating for systemic reforms and countering narratives that try to portray unemployed workers as “lazy” and “not wanting to work”.

. . . The impacts were detrimental to workers around the US, who fell behind on rent or mortgage or car payments, experienced utility shutoffs and relied on food banks and assistance programs to feed themselves and their families.

The story above mentions a family that was forced to put their special-needs child in a group home -- putting her health in jeopardy -- because they could no longer afford to care for her at home. It mentions a single mother who lost both her jobs through covid but was unable to access benefits from the state of Florida -- a system that Governor Ron DeSantis admitted was purposely designed to be difficult to access. There must be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of stories like these all over North America.

Low-wage work sucks... but if it paid better, it would suck a lot less

I'm willing to concede that some low-wage earners might live better on government assistance than on their crappy jobs. If that's true, the problem is not the benefits. It's the jobs.

I can't possibly say this any better than "Canadian writer Lori Fox in her recent essay in the Globe and Mail: I’m one of the service workers who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Serve yourself". Fox's essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but here's a teaser.

I was a server for 15 years. When the pandemic struck a year-and-a-half ago, I was one of millions of food service workers – cooks, bussers, hosts and servers – who were furloughed as the world shut down. I’m also among those who chose not to return to the industry when things began to open back up. I’m one of your missing service workers.

Let me shed some light on the “mystery” of this labour shortage: With an abysmally low rate of pay, bad (often erratic) hours, no sick days and near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia, working in service sucks.

And yet that hasn’t stopped pundits, and even some restaurateurs, from decrying our lack of good ol’ fashioned work ethic and blaming the government dole for keeping us from returning to our rightful place: tableside, making them money and waiting on our betters.

What has been said about us – that CERB has kept us from re-entering the work force, that we are lazy and unambitious, that we simply don’t want to work – is ridiculous.

It’s also indicative of the way much of society thinks about working-class bodies: as expendable, interchangeable, replaceable parts of a capitalist machine over which it has ownership. Some people not only feel entitled to our labour, but to pay as little for it as possible.

Let’s be clear, then. It’s not that we don’t want to work – it’s just that we don’t want to work a physically demanding job in substandard conditions without benefits for minimum wage. And we especially don’t want to do that during the rising fourth wave of a pandemic. A study published earlier this year found the risk of death during the pandemic increased 40 per cent for food and agricultural workers in California.

Some of your “missing” workers are not missing. They’re dead.

And Fox is writing in a Canadian context, where the average minimum wage is one-third higher -- and in some cases, double -- that in most US states. And Canadian workers have their health care covered. 

Is it any wonder that workers don't want dead-end, repetitive, poorly-paid jobs, where they are treated like crap, their wages stolen regularly, with no benefits and with no possibility of advancement?

Who would want these jobs? Would you?

Being married to your career also sucks, but in different ways

The other labour shortage involves thousands of vacant positions for people with formal education and work experience. 

Our society abounds with fields where professionals -- never called workers, but if you work for a living, you are a worker! -- are expected to put in horrendously long hours, never or rarely take time off, and often when they do, to be on-call. Lawyers, doctors, and all manner of professionals are expected to "pay their dues" by prioritizing their careers over all else. For many, that's a "choice" never ends.

Then there are the workers who are expected to subsidize their employers with unpaid labour -- educators expected to grade papers at home, social workers whose caseloads are a physical impossibility, health practitioners rushed off their feet and worn out, all day, every day. 

All manner of support staff and public servants fall into this category because of chronic understaffing. Staffing needs are constantly sacrificed to the bottom line, whether that is controlled by profit or by the constant pressure to maintain ever-shrinking budgets in an austerity economic climate. 

In so many fields, workers are expected to sacrifice their personal lives, their family lives, and their mental health, because work is always expected to come first.

Lying flat

Writer Cassady Rosenblum was a producer of a major NPR show; she quit her job, left the city of Boston, and now lives with her parents in rural West Virginia. Obviously, a move like that requires a great deal of privilege. But if we care about the needs of all workers -- indeed, of all people -- that includes people who are well-paid, but over-stressed. 

Rosenblum writes:

As of June, there were more than 10 million job openings in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the Labor Department — the highest number since the government began tracking the data two decades ago. While conservatives blame juiced-up pandemic unemployment benefits, liberals counter that people do want to work, just not for the paltry wages they were making before the pandemic.

Both might be true. But if low wages were all that’s at play, we would expect to see reluctant workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and content workers at the top. Instead, there are murmurs of dissent at every rung, including from the inner sanctums of Goldman Sachs, where salaries for investment bankers start at $150,000. According to a leaked internal survey, entry-level analysts at the investment bank report they’re facing “inhumane” conditions, working an average of 98 hours a week, forgoing showers and sleep. “I’ve been through foster care,” said one respondent. “This is arguably worse.”

In China, young people choosing to work less and live simply has taken the form of a movement: tangping: Lying Flat.

A generation ago, the route to success in China was to work hard, get married and have children. The country’s authoritarianism was seen as a fair trade-off as millions were lifted out of poverty. But with employees working longer hours and housing prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they will be the first generation not to do better than their parents.

They are now defying the country’s long-held prosperity narrative by refusing to participate in it.

Mr. Luo’s blog post was removed by censors, who saw it as an affront to Beijing’s economic ambitions. Mentions of “lying flat” — tangping, as it’s known in Mandarin — are heavily restricted on the Chinese internet. An official counternarrative has also emerged, encouraging young people to work hard for the sake of the country’s future.

“After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine,” Mr. Luo said in an interview. “And so I resigned.”

To lie flat means to forgo marriage, not have children, stay unemployed and eschew material wants such as a house or a car. It is the opposite of what China’s leaders have asked of their people.

It's what the ruling class has asked of us for centuries. 

Meaningful work can be a great source of satisfaction and fulfilment. But those of us lucky enough to derive challenge, joy, and fulfilment through paid employment know that even the best work can destroy our lives. The human-resources buzzword "work-life balance" makes it very plain: work is not life. Work is a part of our lives but isn't all of our lives.

And for most workers, work is something that, if we're lucky, pays the bills. 

It's time for a four-day workweek

It's no wonder the movement for a four-day workweek is popping up all over the internet -- not just among us lazy socialists but in the business media.

Think of how much more balanced our lives would be with four days of work and three days for ourselves and our families. Think of how much more productive we'd be if we weren't running down the clock every Friday.

Once upon a time, there was no workweek. There was only work. Workers who wanted to spend their sabbath day resting were told "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday" -- meaning if they took a day off, they would be fired. We owe the five-day week -- a once-radical idea that is now enshrined in labour codes the world over -- to labour activism.

It's time to take it one step further.

We toil in a world that does not support us

There are other reasons for the labour shortage: neither American nor Canadian society offers the supports needed to make working possible.

Child care, a basic need of millions of workers, is either nonexistent or unaffordable. 

Public transit is a disgrace, and many workers cannot afford the costs of auto insurance and maintenance. They spend hours transferring from one overcrowded bus to another. Others who can afford cars spend those hours locked in traffic.

Millions of women still face "double duty" -- working full-time plus bearing all family responsibilities. Although this has changed in past decades, it should have gone the way of the rotary phone. But it is still far too common.

And if it weren't for the ridiculously high cost of housing -- the strange fact that the most basic human need is subject to the for-profit system -- I have no doubt that the labour shortage would be exponentially worse. 

Capitalism, internalized

If the idea of a four-day workweek seems foreign and radical, you are experiencing a symptom of a different pandemic: internalized capitalism. Much as we absorb stereotyped gender norms, we have been absorbing capitalist values throughout our lives.

I've been seeing and enjoying this meme in many places.

[By "feeling lazy," we can assume @therapywithlee means believing we are lazy when we need time off from work -- not "feeling lazy" in a pleasant and cozy sense.]

Labour shortage or learning curve?

Ten minutes into the global pandemic, all the cracks in the capitalist system were exposed. The cracks turned into an earthquake. Now we're surveying the wreckage.

The global pandemic has taught us many lessons. Taken together, the lessons have led to one big conclusion: the system doesn't work.  

What will be done with this knowledge is unknown. And it won't happen by accident. 

The ruling class will line up in force to resurrect and maintain the old order. Workers -- working people, all of us -- could prevent that, but only if we are organized and intentional.

Will we use our covid learning to build a better future? One that values our physical and mental well-being over productivity?

It's Labour Day. Demand More.


With God's Help said...

Excellent post, thank you!

laura k said...

Thank you, WGH!

Amy said...

Another great post, Laura. I had read both Krugman's piece and the piece by the Canadian restaurant worker already, but your insights and intergration of those points adds so much.

As the mother of a restaurant worker, I know all too well how they are overworked and underpaid. Even though she is now a manager earning a salary, she still is overworked and underpaid. And she is struggling to find people to work as servers and hosts in the restaurants she manages. And when people make those comments about people sitting home on unemployment instead of working, it makes my blood boil. All my daughter wanted to do for the months her restaurants were shut down was get back to work. She actually was making almost as much on unemployment (with the extra payments and the COVID incentive checks), but she wanted to be working.

And my other daughter and son in law are so much happier working from home and not having to leave an hour early to get to work and get home an hour later for the same reason. They now know the joys of eating dinner as a family, something they rarely were able to do before.

So through my kids' eyes, I've seen both examples you wrote about---the less skilled workers who are underpaid and overworked and the professionals who make plenty of money, but would prefer the quality of life over the higher incomes if possible.

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy! It was challenging to write, and I appreciate your feedback.

And when people make those comments about people sitting home on unemployment instead of working, it makes my blood boil.