Pluralistic: 29 Nov 2021

Originally published at: Pluralistic: 29 Nov 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow


Today's links



A worn VHS copy of 'Take This Job and Shove It,' a 1981 film.

The once and future mass-resignation and what it means for working people (permalink)

Once upon a time, a terrible disease swept the lands, prompting a great wave of resignations as low-waged workers walked off the job, rejecting offers of pay raises that would have been unthinkably lavish just a few years earlier. Their bosses went nuts.

The former employers of these workers slammed them as lazy and greedy, and called upon their fellow bougies to take up "unskilled" labor and scab those proles back into the workplace. When that didn't work, they passed laws that banned desperate bosses from bidding up wages. That didn't work either, so new crimes were put on the books that made it easier to slam unemployed people in notoriously cruel prisons. That failed, too, prompting cuts to the already grossly inadequate welfare system, trying to starve workers back into their jobs.

That also failed. In the end, the situation led to a mass redistribution of wealth and a period of unheralded pluralism and opportunity for workers whose families had been stuck in low-waged, dead-end work for generations.

This isn't a covid story. It's the story of the post-Black Death labor markets in England, where desperate noblemen passed the country's first labor law, the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers. Chroniclers of the day urged "knights and churchmen" to get into the fields and shame their social inferiors back into harness.

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/seth/ordinance-labourers.asp

This threat didn't get the peasants back into the fields, so the law threatened out-of-work people with prison, capped wages at pre-Black Death levels, and banned begging at funerals ("practically the only form of social welfare available").

The failure to force workers back into the fields left landholders unable to profit from their lands, prompting sell-offs that created the middle class. Real incomes doubled. This is a pattern that follows every pandemic, according to an NBER paper that found that after every pandemic, wages shoot up and the return on capital tanks:

https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w26934/w26934.pdf

I learned about all this from David Dayen's brilliant longread for The American Prospect, "The Great Escape," featuring the voices of workers who have – or are thinking of – walking off the job.

https://prospect.org/labor/great-escape-why-workers-quitting-pandemic-trauma/

As Dayen points out, the great resignation includes workers in all kinds of jobs, not just low-waged ones, but resignations are concentrated at the bottom of the wage-scale. It's not hard to see why: Dayen recounts the stories of workers in national chains that were bought out by private equity looters whose much-vaunted "efficiencies" boil down to slashing wages and imposing cruel and dangerous conditions on workers.

There's Caroline Potts of Murfreesboro, TN, who loves dogs and was excited to get at job as a groomer at Petsmart. It seemed like a dream-job, but Potts learned she was expected to meet impossible quotas, working at a rate made the experience traumatic for dogs. She also learned that Petsmart management was only paying lip-service to its policy of excluding dogs with seizure disorders or problems with stressful environments. She worried that she was going to preside over the death of one of these dogs. To make things worse, her customers were routinely abusive to her and her employer did nothing to shield her from their bad conduct.

Potts was locked into a two-year noncompete contract and was only able to quit for a rival company by begging her manager to release her from it. Needless to say, many workers in noncompetes won't be so lucky – and fast-food restaurants lead the nation in the use of noncompete agreements.

Zella Roberts worked in fast food – she was a Sonic carhop in Asheville, NC. When Sonic got scooped up by Roark Capital, the new owners switched to exclusive app- and credit-card-based ordering, with no facility to tip employees. But Roberts was being paid $5/hr, a "tipped minimum wage" premised on the worker being able to make up the difference from tips. It's illegal to pay tipped minimum wage to workers who can't collect tips, but that didn't stop Sonic.

It's not just fast-food and pets. Ed Gadomski was a 32-year veteran of the IT department in CT's Waterbury Hospital. When Leonard Green & Partners bought the hospital, they laid him off and then offered him his old job at $13.46/h, a third of his former wage, with no pension or health-care (at a hospital!).

Predictably, regular large-business abuses are sinking to the level of private equity. Reina Abrahamson of Salem, OR was a Wells Fargo customer rep working from home. She was put on minimum salary for six months while Wells processed a request to supply her with a 100 foot Ethernet cable that would reach from her home router to her computer (she supplemented her wages driving for Doordash).

Amazon is a leader in labor abuses. At Stephanie Haynes's job at an Amazon warehouse in Joliet, IL, she was given tasks that were literally impossible to perform while maintaining six feet of social distance – like lifting a pallet with a co-worker. Haynes lost her fiance to covid and decided it wasn't worth risking her own life to help Jeff Bezos grow his fortune, so she walked off the job from March to July 2020.

We know only a fraction of what goes on at Amazon warehouses, and that's by design. Monica Moody was fired from her Amazon warehouse in Charlotte, NC for talking to the press about her labor conditions.

The "essential workers" of the pandemic died in droves – a study found that the highest covid mortality among working-aged people was among cooks, warehouse workers, construction workers, bakers, etc:

https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.21.21250266v1.full.pdf

Dayen writes that as intolerable and dangerous as these workers' jobs were during lockdown, they got worse afterward, when stir-crazy, traumatized, short-tempered customers showed up to scream at them and even assault them as they tried to enforce masking rules and vaccine requirements for entry.

No wonder workers are quitting. But they're not just quitting – they're also striking, with or without a union. America has experienced a vast, wildly under-reported wave of wildcat strikes. Take the Jack in the Box franchise in Sacramento where un-unionized workers struck twice. As Leticia Reyes – a worker who took part in both strikes – tells it, the first strike was prompted by management's refusal to fix the AC during a 109' heat wave. "The first time, she wouldn’t listen to us, she ignored us. The second time, she told us it wasn’t high temperatures, it was us workers going through menopause."

The workers got the AC fixed…and their manager got fired. And then the workers struck again, in protest of wage theft (they weren't getting their mandatory paid breaks and overtime). The owner and his cronies crossed the picket line and tried to do the workers' jobs…and couldn't. After three days, management caved.

Says Reyes: "I am no longer scared to speak up. Big companies need us as workers and we should not be afraid to speak up."

Practically the only place you'll learn about stories like this one is in Payday Report ("Covering Labor in News Deserts"), a crowdfunded site that has chronicled 1,600 walkouts throughout the pandemic:

https://paydayreport.com/

Viral phenomena like #QuitMyJob and photos of handwritten "We all quit" signs hint at the true scale of the great resignation, and they inspire others to do the same. There's good indications that employers are finally responding with better pay, benefits and conditions, but there's no reason to think they've had a true change of heart. If the labor market changes, they'll claw back those gains in a heartbeat.

But as with the 14th century post-plague labor markets, our workforce's unwillingness to go back has proved remarkably sturdy. For example, red states that canceled covid relief early in a bid to starve workers back into dangerous, degrading, underpaid jobs are experiencing the same shortages of low-waged workers as blue states where benefits continued without interruption. Part of that might be due to a genuine worker shortage – 2m workers took early retirement during the pandemic, and a legacy of Trump's ethnic cleansing policy has starved many sectors of precarious and desperate workers.

Cementing these gains over the long term will require institutional shifts: the threshold for a wildcat strike is very high, but labor action gets easier as labor gets organized. New unions are popping up across the country, and existing unions are finding unsuspected reserves of militancy. 1.3m Teamsters have new leaders who are committed to organizing grocery stores and Amazon warehouses:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/11/19/hoffa-jr-defeated/#teamsters-for-a-democratic-union

And striking nurses and Teamsters, and workers at factories from Kellogg's to John Deere, are pushing to eliminate the disastrous "two-tier" contracts that destroy union solidarity, rendering unions toothless:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/11/25/strikesgiving/#shed-a-tier

Companies that seemed immune to unionization, from Amazon to Dollar General to Starbucks, are now fighting pitched battles against their workers using tactics that grow thinner and less credible by the day, as John Oliver documents with characteristic scathing hilarity:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk8dUXRpoy8

Provisions in the Build Back Better bill don't go as far as the PRO Act, but they will still add to the union movement's tailwind.

But it's workers, not law, who ultimately control the outcome. I'll give the last word to Christine Johnson, a historian at Washington U in St Louis, whose work on the Ordinance of Labourers is cited by Dayen:

"If you don’t actually change the structures of power, and you don’t actually enact some changes in the labor and social hierarchies, it’s not going to produce lasting improvement in conditions of labor."



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Why the Harry Potter movies disappoint some fans https://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/earchive_2001_11.html#5058

#15yrsago HOWTO make a D20 out of pecan pies https://web.archive.org/web/20061201022212/https://www.instructables.com/id/E0ITVPSI3WEV1BEH2D/

#15yrsago IHOP’s “no ID, no pancakes” policy https://www.redorbit.com/news/oddities/746680/ihop_changes_policy_of_asking_for_ids/index.html/

#10yrsago Report: top Toronto police ordered campaign of illegal arrests during G20 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/man-arrested-during-g20-settles-lawsuit-against-police-1.1027282

#10yrsago Podcast: “Another Time, Another Place,” mixing space like time with Harris Burdick in a YA story https://craphound.com/news/2011/11/28/another-place-another-time/

#10yrsago Stross: publishers’ insistence on DRM “hands Amazon a stick with which to beat them” https://web.archive.org/web/20111129072220/http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/11/cutting-their-own-throats.html

#10yrsago JWZ: you don’t need to sleep under your desk to succeed in a startup, but if you do, it’ll make your VCs plenty rich https://www.jwz.org/blog/2011/11/watch-a-vc-use-my-name-to-sell-a-con/

#10yrsago Senate set to pass bill that redefines America as a “battlefield,” authorizes indefinite military detention of US citizens without charge or trial https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/detention/senators-demand-military-lock-american-citizens-battlefield-they?redirect=blog/national-security/senators-demand-military-lock-american-citizens-battlefield-they-define-being

#10yrsago Kidnapper sues victims who escaped for breach of contract https://loweringthebar.net/2011/11/man-sues-couple-he-kidnapped.html

#5yrsago Projecting leaked NSA docs on the side of AT&T’s windowless NYC spy-center https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trlH_QEoD5Q

#5yrsago As North Dakota governor orders “emergency evacuation” at Standing Rock, Water Protectors ask court for an injunction https://theintercept.com/2016/11/29/standing-rock-demonstrators-file-class-action-lawsuit-over-police-violence/

#5yrsago NTP: the rebirth of ailing, failing core network infrastructure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjSzVAKJkqU

#5yrsago The Internet Archive is putting a Trump-resistant mirror of the web in Canada https://blog.archive.org/2016/11/29/help-us-keep-the-archive-free-accessible-and-private/



Colophon (permalink)

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