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For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work

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By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required minimum in her upstate New York town— currently, $12.50. Lily was living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She hadn’t given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a creeping suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a customer service agent, then as a New York contact tracer — jobs that paid nearly double what she had been making. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m worth more than minimum wage,’” Lily says. (Lily is a pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future employers.) “I didn’t even realize how bummed I was. A plane ticket was 25% of my net worth. I was worrying about putting gas in my car to get to work.” 

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered an extra $2.50 after negotiation, but Lily turned it down—the venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to cover gas. 

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over a month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a job that allows employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. Her goal is a $20 wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a “big, revelatory moment” when she was earning more money, she says: “I started eating healthier. I bought myself workout clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the way you feel about yourself.” 

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like Lily—who ask for a decent wage and marginal flexibility from an employer—are simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for a job or to accept any offer).

But the 26 mostly red states that recently terminated the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work regardless of any “incentives”—one of the top reasons being the exorbitant cost of child care. As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure to Covid-19.

To be fair, there’s evidence that for some people, pandemic relief measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice. A June survey by the jobs website Indeed.com found a fifth of job seekers were not urgently searching for work because of their “financial cushion.” A Morning Consult poll that same month found 13% of people receiving unemployment checks had turned down job offers because of that short-term stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior “lazy,” however, one must be predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how much they work—to decide their own fates. In light of this profound shift, perhaps it’s understandable that workers are unwilling to settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating what role work should have in their lives, whether it’s important to their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise. Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs,” work “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” After such a revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to business as usual?

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S. culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand “our needs and desires beyond their usual objects”—to understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our “highest calling and moral duty … as the necessary center of social life.” It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly “co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,” Weeks tells In These Times. Employers attempted to make work “more participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.”

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

“So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity—for example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,” Weeks says. “The overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they will.”

Without work taking up 40 or more hours each week, those who lost their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their time. Baking bread became such a popular quarantine hobby that it verged on cliché, but many who tried it found it comforting and deeply satisfying. One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for once—they got to eat the bread at the end. Others found themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga, gardening and roller skating.

“I … got really into cooking at home, because I really do love to cook,” Caleb Orth, a 35-year-old in Chicago, told the New York Times’ podcast The Daily in August. “It was a hobby of mine before I lost my job,” he said. But at the restaurant where he’d worked 80 hours a week, he’d tired of making “somebody else’s food, the same thing over and over and over. So during Covid, I’d be making meals at home, and I got really into it.”

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March 2020, she set about creating a small art studio in her home in Kansas City, Mo. She filled a corner of her living room with drawing and book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a friend and assembled a small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan’s boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two collected unemployment—about $325 weekly, each, plus a $600 weekly federal supplement—they fell into a routine. They would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their respective spaces.

“Sometimes I would just mess around and not really do anything,” says McClanahan, 37. “But I got to be like, ‘Oh, do I want to draw a picture? Yes. I’m gonna do that. Do I want to paint? Make a book? Take photographs? I also taught myself how to embroider. It was just a free-for-all for creativity, which I haven’t had in a long time.” She made a leather-bound sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a guestbook for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to friends across the country.

McClanahan, who has a master’s in library science and went to art school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits. When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans. While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn’t on the clock, troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened—but quickly realized she couldn’t return to the lifestyle she had as a manager. “I was really stressed all the time, and I kept saying to myself over and over, ‘I don’t know why I am spending so much time worrying about something that isn’t even mine,’” McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed gave her “freedom and peace of mind.”

“That really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about what I’m willing to tolerate at my job going forward,” McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15, but a growing number of companies have begun offering it (including giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under Armour). In a press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie Pugliese called the move a “strategic decision … to be a competitive employer.”

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out. Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as a bartender.

“After having five different jobs during the pandemic, I’ve come back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I want to be doing if I have to work at all,” McClanahan says. “But my attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has definitely changed.”

About the Author: Marie Solis has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

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The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.


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