Grit Nation

Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice - Jamie McCallum

January 17, 2023 Jamie McCallum Episode 47
Grit Nation
Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice - Jamie McCallum
Show Notes Transcript

On todays episode I have the pleasure of speaking with professor of sociology at Middlebury College and author Jamie McCallum.

Jamie’s latest work titled, Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice, digs deep into the of today’s working class rage and uncovers the unravelling of the nation’s social safety net and regulatory standards.

Essential is an in-depth look into how the Covid -19 pandemic changed the American labor movement and how an unprecedented recognition of a largely invisible and undervalued workforce took place.

Essential, posits that the pandemic revealed the urgent need to improve conditions for American workers, and makes the argument that the lousy jobs held by so many in our country are a liability for everyone.

The Show Notes

Jamie McCallum
https://www.jamiekmccallum.com

NW Carpenters Union
United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Regional Council in the Pacific Northwest

Union Home Plus
Union Home Plus helps union members save money when they buy, sell, or finance their home.

Grit Nation Webpage
https://www.gritnationpodcast.com

Email Grit Nation:
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Joe Cadwell:

Welcome to Grit Nation. I'm Joe Cadwell, the host of the show and on today's episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College and author Jamie McCallum. Jamie's latest work titled

Essential:

How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice digs deep into today's working class rage and uncovers the unraveling of the nation's social safety net and regulatory standards. Essential is an in depth look into how the COVID 19 pandemic changed the American labor movement and how an unprecedented recognition of a largely invisible and undervalued workforce took place. Essential posits that the pandemic revealed an urgent need to improve conditions for American workers makes the argument that the lousy jobs held by so many in our country are a liability for everyone. After the episode be sure to check out the show notes to learn more about Jamie McCallum and his work and now on to the show. Jamie McCallum Welcome back to grip nation.

Jamie McCallum:

Thank you for having me.

Joe Cadwell:

Yeah. Thank you so much, Jamie, for taking your time to come back. I think it was what a couple of years ago we had you on talking about your book. I remember at the end of that conversation, I asked if you were working on anything else? And you said, Yes, I am. The pandemic was just starting off at that, that the that time and you've put out a new book called essential. And I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about your new work, which is now out for purchase.

Jamie McCallum:

Yeah, so I was reading that other book worked over, which came out in 2020. And it almost raised more questions than answers. Because of the state of the economy, the state of the working life was was different. So I thought I'll just write another law. And I was already interviewing people who were like deemed essential workers Anyway, before that phrase became rather popular. So it started to make sense to try to think about it more systematically. I started out globally. And then I wanted to focus in on the states. So I read workers in healthcare, education, logistics, food processing, retail, whatever else other essential industries, and crafted a book that was based upon their interviews and sort of a mountain of other data.

Joe Cadwell:

And so what did the data show and then to get into a little bit further, the book's title is essential how the pandemic transformed the long fight for worker justice. And the fight for worker justice has been going on for ever. So this was sort of a pretty big spike in the in the plight of the workforce, and how did this spike? Or how did this event go right for the for the working middle class? And how did it go wrong?

Jamie McCallum:

So we think of essential workers as sort of appearing in 2020, almost ether. So the book starts out by talking about the decade before, essentially, it's the Great Recession, people are laid off, they're laid off in record numbers, especially middle class people. And so how do we recover from the Great Recession? The answer is to weak recovered by creating low wage, precarious jobs, and mostly service sector jobs, you'd have the arrival of the gig economy, which essentially began in 2009. The gig economy requires an unemployed pool of atwill workers to work at random hours during the day. So the Great Recession sort of has like, it's almost like kindling for a new kind of labor force. And it's essentially, fast forward a decade later. And it's those people who bore the brunt of the crisis, either by becoming essential workers themselves, or by getting fired. And so I sort of jump off at that point in the first chapter is about those who lost their jobs, and what the what the implications of that are early on. People face destitution. I mean, they faced homelessness, and they lost health care in the middle of a health crisis. And they lost their you know, obviously income. Slowly but surely, the pandemic welfare state began to repair some of that. And you know, if you talk to me Well, they say, Well, you know, we only about two or 3 million workers lost their health care. That's true. And it's a small percentage. But that that is only that it was small, because 10s of millions of people never had health care to begin with, right. So you have an essential labor force that is essentially vulnerable, unprotected, almost not have a union, and almost not have a cushion to fall back on. And so it's like what happened, they basically relied on early on an unemployment assurance system, which is, it's a patchwork of dilapidated programs that don't work, or that are designed, essentially not to work. And, and that was the case until we got pandemic uninsured, unemployment insurance. And so that's how the book starts, and then turning the corner to talking about the people for the for the rest of the book, the people who faced the workplace,

Joe Cadwell:

there's a crossroads in your book, and the crossroads of the essential workers, the pandemic, the gig economy, the people that are, are striving for a better way of life through better treatment, more, more regular hours, better pay on the job, and also this fight for racial justice. That seems like there was a crossroads of those two events with George Floyd happening and the rest. So how did how did these reinforce each other's causes? Or did they?

Jamie McCallum:

Yeah, so that, to me is one of the most interesting ways the, as the subtitle suggests, as the pandemic transformed the labor movement, which was not totally, by the way, the book I set out to write, like, the publisher sent me the title at some point. And I was like, Oh, interesting, you know, this is gonna be the title of the book. So I better figure it out, right? Because you for that you need an aerial view. And I was very much in like the day to day I was thinking about like, march 2020, for like a year, and where everyone else was kept moving on. And so the pandemic transformed the way people organized in a couple of key ways. The first one is that the pandemic working class was so was so not siloed by occupation, because there was so many little essential industries sort of going on, that they began to see each other as sort of class collaborators rather quickly. And that created a pandemic labor movement, which was broadly dispersed across different industries. So it wasn't just like a strike wave of education, or a strike wave and healthcare or whatever. Or teachers, yeah, just teachers, like there wasn't 2018 2019. This was far more, you know, bubble percolating up here and there. And then you had outside the movement, you had movements, like, as you said, Black Lives Matter, using the language of labor strike for black lives. The protests that summer were the largest protests in American history, like the largest street protests in American history. And to large extent, because there is so much overlap between the black LED essential worker movement, and the black LED, obviously BLM Movement, which there was a lot of overlap. And I mean, Christian smalls, who was president of the Amazon labor union, who was a figure early on the essential worker movement was also a notable figure in BLM. And so it's like there was all this cross pollination that happened. The other thing that happened was that workers took matters into their own hands in a way that we don't typically see in the US labor movement, which is mostly led by, like top down labor unions, about a third of the strikes or protests are walkouts and 2020. were led by workers without unions, which is crazy. Like that almost never happens. Yeah. And so there was only there was only eight large strikes in 2020. If you look at the official data on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you would think that nothing happened, essentially, like you would look, if you came from space, you'd be like, oh, there's no problem. No one's no one's unhappy. No one's doing anything, you know. But if you talk to people, and you go out and interview them, you know, almost by chance, I would call people not expecting to talk about labor activism. And they would, I would say, How's it going? Are they big? Oh, there was a walkout yesterday, but there was a senator yesterday, or a protest, or people were on strike for a couple hours or a couple of days. And I was like, there is nowhere else you found this data unless you randomly call random people. So that's one interesting part of the book whereby, like the sort of, you know, ethnographic or journalistic methodology really does like illuminate something that was missed in the official statistics. So the bottom up openness of that labor movement, meant that even unions had no idea what was going on sometimes, right even like unions were like What like the meatpacking workers struck? Why how right like they didn't even talk to us about it. And I think some of that bottom up, like grassroots militancy, helped give rise to Amazon labor union, and helped give rise to Starbucks labor organizing, which was in the very beginning, just wildfire, just like hot shops that didn't really need unions to lead anyway. So I think there's some interesting moments where the pandemic really sort of birthed or gave rise to a spirit of labor organizing that we're seeing become more popular now.

Joe Cadwell:

are definitely seems like there's a wave of unionism washing over the country, and that unions are more favorable now, according to the polling than they have been in the last 5060 years. You said it before, you know, people were, were just primed and ready sort of kindling, you know, based on the great recession. And then leading into this the gig economy, the loss of so many basic fundamentals, such as a set schedule, or health care, that used to be part of the American dream, for decades and generations.

Jamie McCallum:

Well, it was part of it rhetorically, I mean, the the American dream, in other words, ie upward mobility, intergenerational mobility, died around the time I was born, probably perfect timing, for that for me. And so since then, we've had this sort of bootstraps rhetoric and kind of, you know, we there's a certain assumption made about the way that wealth gets generated and transferred. And it's pretty at odds with the material reality, if you're going to Denmark, the American Dream is alive and well. In other words, you know, your, your your income, or your station in life is not determined by your parents. And in America, to some extent, there is incredible class stickiness, if your parents are poor or working class, you are far more likely to be poor and working class. And so that is something that obviously we have to change, the only way to change or the main way to change is probably through worker organizing. I mean, in other words, the worker was going to put pressure on Biden to put pressure on who's ever in power, I think we often think that, oh, we need to pass the ProAct so that workers can organize, or we need to pass, you know, card, check neutrality, so that workers can organize. And history is not favorable to that view. Like what is far more likely, is that in order to get the ProAct, we will have to organize, like bananas. Like if you look back at the New Deal, the New Deal, we think of it as like the liberal dream come true. And in fact, it was just a compromise with the socialists, communists, and Labor Party type activism, you know, so, and they and their level of strike activity and militancy in organizing far surpasses what we see today. And so the state will probably not give us what we need, we will probably have to create a crisis, where the state is forced to give us the law, which then makes it easier to do to do stuff.

Joe Cadwell:

And it seemed like the pendulum had been swinging in that direction with the pandemic and with the the essential worker movements and worker rights movements. But, but over time, and it's been a relatively short time, it seems like you know, we've lost sort of the upper hand and big businesses getting back to sort of being big business.

Jamie McCallum:

Yeah, the pendulum was swinging. I think we all thought it was swinging. And then it reached the apex, I guess if it swing far sooner than we had wanted. And, you know, so yeah, the pendulum swung. It's it. Maybe it's swinging back a little bit. I mean, I know I use the pendulum metaphor in the book, too. And it's useful in some ways, but it gives the impression that like, it's just a clock that occasionally moves as if it's not being controlled. And of course, like someone's swinging the pendulum and so for a while workers were pushing it and then at the end, you know, basically employers and state now began pushing it back doesn't just swing on itself.

Joe Cadwell:

So the the essential workers, we talk about people being essential and the essential ness of these workers seems to have faded away, whereas the labor movement setting now after, you know, and again, the pandemic is still here. It's not gone away, but our attitudes towards a pandemic have definitely waned what Are we stronger? Now after coming out of this? Or we were we weren't, we take a step back. What is your take on this, Jamie?

Jamie McCallum:

I mean, it's tough to know how to. Obviously, the question you're asking is like, how do you measure power. So one way to think about it is like, workers are in some ways better off than they were before the pandemic. None of this is to say the pandemic has silver lining or something, I mean, 5000 healthcare workers lost their lives, who would not have died otherwise, hundreds of 1000s were sick and suffer from long COVID. We don't even know how many workers and other essential industries died because we didn't count them, because we didn't care enough to collect that data. But, you know, the Cares Act and the American rescue plan to dramatically reduce poverty. And they dramatically added money to workers bank accounts, and they reduced the count the debt indebtedness of Americans. So like, all those things are basically good. You know, we have a greater understanding now that like, we need paid sick leave, and whatever, whether we get it or not, is one thing, but like, at least it's sort of in the mainstream. But power does not come from the so called objective conditions. And I think organizationally, the labor movement isn't a time of transition, like some of the bottom up unionism that we are sort of excited to talk about now, really does like challenge union officialdom. And it doesn't integrate seamlessly with the labor movement. Some of the major unions were staunch opponents of vaccine mandates in health care. Like that's a bad policy, you know, in a lot of health care. B, a lot of people, a lot of Americans looked at them. And we're like, these people are backwards. They're from another era, you know, and I think so some of that contributed to that sort of classical anti unionism that we all know and love or know and hate. However, also unions kept people alive during the pandemic. I mean, you know, I did research with a number of other scholars during that time that showed that in unionized nursing homes, resident mortality was pretty dramatically reduced when you had a union of their worker infection rates were dramatically reduced. Teach schools became safer, like from COVID outbreaks and infection rates, when people had unions when teachers had unions. So there's, I think, a number of different ways in which the, the labor movement has come out, you know, different, but not necessarily, like, stronger or weaker. So I know it's kind of a, basically a cop out answer to that question. But I do think it also has the benefit of being right. And I think the extent to which it's stronger, will be decided, you know, by whether or not these new insurgent movements can have, like a positive net effect on the rest of the movement.

Joe Cadwell:

Right. And again, when we talk about essential workers, we talk about unions, we talk about groups of like minded people coming together to push back against some of the grievances they have with their employers. You know, the employers are not always just the local folks, when we're talking about pushing against the greater tide it is the large corporations, how did they fare the billionaires in our in our country that sort of control the the economic progress, if you will, of our of our nation? How did they fare,

Jamie McCallum:

there's no tears for billionaires these days, I believe there's always do well, in the worst of times, the best of times, somehow, miraculously, we got more of them. That's one way to measure. I don't remember how many more it's in the first chapter of the book about, you know, we've added X number of billionaires to our ranks and, and X number of people without health care. For a couple of months, that was a very bad situation. You know, there were some of the tax breaks that were passed to ease was for the middle class, or larger for people in the upper class.

Joe Cadwell:

So who didn't really need those tax breaks? What, who didn't need those tax breaks?

Jamie McCallum:

We don't, who don't need them and should actually be taxed at a higher rate, frankly. And so it's like, we weren't upset as much because middle class and working class people were getting a better deal than normal. So it was sort of like, we sort of turned a blind eye when Yeah, these other people were also getting a better deal, in a way. And so that, you know, did expand the general measure of economic inequality that we have. However, I will say that corporations probably had a net negative, like, public perception problem. And if you look at data that shows this research Jim Aaron Aaron Sojourner did a great project where he measured essentially, public's perception of corporations, like at a record all time, low, and public perceptions of unions that are record all time high. And so that that difference is an important part of the picture. I think, I mean, to really dumb it down, like people began to get really pissed off at corporations and bosses, and really sort of have greater affection for workers. That does not translate into policy. It doesn't translate into anything, actually, unless we can take advantage of it. But it's like, nonetheless, a data point that we use when we talk to policymakers.

Joe Cadwell:

Absolutely. So speaking of taking advantage of it, what what steps should we be looking at now to capitalize to keep whatever momentum we do have at the present moment for the labor movement moving forward?

Jamie McCallum:

Well, there was a time in 2021, or the entire year, where the number of, you know, election petitions filed at the NLRB was significant. Like, I think it was up by two thirds, about 66% increase in people wanting to join unions, the NLRB cannot even keep up. Like they can't even process the petitions, you know, in the old MLK is all slogan that Justice delayed is justice denied is true. And so we need to make sure that people who want to union can get one right now, soon. And that will take probably sanctioning Amazon and Starbucks to force them to come to the table, which will be hard, but is doable. The other thing we need to do, is to make it easier for everybody else to do that. And that does mean, you know, like, despite what I said, you know, before that means some sort of complimentary labor organizing and policymaking from the top. Right. You know, we are in desperate need of labor law reform, we haven't had it in 90 years, essentially. And we've changed it, it's just not been in the right direction. So we need to reform it in the other direction, essentially, interaction that supports workers.

Joe Cadwell:

So before we before we move on, is there anything else, Jamie that, you know, we we may have passed over that you'd like to reinforce with the listeners,

Jamie McCallum:

I mean, we typically think of COVID being sort of synonymous with the pandemic. And I disagree that COVID is a disease and it's a problem and we need to deal with it, whatever. The pandemic was, like, a social event that was that that we experienced, because of all kinds of other factors. And I think the enduring lie of the pandemic was that it created this crisis. And in fact, what it did was really like illuminate our pre existing vulnerabilities and weaknesses and social fault lines, and it exacerbated them. And books like mine tries to have a happy ending, essentially, an ending where workers are Ascendance and blah, blah, blah. That's only that's sort of part of the story, the real. One of the other reality is that we learn nothing from the pandemic, actually. And we learn nothing at our own peril. And we transmit that lack of understanding and that failure into the future. And so like, you know, my main thing I'm always harping on to people is like, if you want better nursing care, like if you want yourself in however many years to have better nursing care, like you have to vote for people who are going to provide nurses have better care, whether that means union activism or policymaking. Like the working conditions of the essential working class, are our living conditions. And people often think that like, oh, we screw essential workers like, No, we higher profits will trickle down. No, it doesn't. It spreads risk. And it literally spreads disease. It makes us sick, like literally. And so our fortunes as human beings are tied to the fortunes of the of the lowest paid among us, the people who are who will be taking care of us in the middle of a crisis and we want those people to have good jobs. So in other words, it is, you know, that all expression and injury to one is the injury to all has is like literally true. Like the pandemic made sure that it's, it's not just a slogan, it's true. And we have to make sure that that is our reality. And so doing whatever we can to contribute to that, in our own small way is part of our civic obligation.

Joe Cadwell:

Absolutely. And I think reading your book is a good way to get yourself educated on the matters that that have transpired. And the matters, the issues that are ahead of us after someone reads your book, would you? Is there something you'd like them to take away?

Jamie McCallum:

My hope is that people do two things. They read the book, and they begin to realize that like workplace organizing is important. And so getting involved with that, in some capacity is really important. The other thing I hope people take away is that dig deeper, it's sort of like an introduction to a critical perspective on American political economy. So, you know, readers that are already versed in that will get that perspective and, and, you know, it will deepen their understanding of it. People who aren't familiar with that perspective, will read more and broaden their interest and begin to look up what's going on in the footnotes, like stuff like that, like it will open a door to a window where there's so much more to read, know and understand. Right. And so I wrote the book for a general audience hoping that it performs that sort of tool function.

Joe Cadwell:

All right, well, I thought it was a fantastic read. And I really appreciate you being on the show today. Where can people go, Jamie to find out more about you and your work?

Jamie McCallum:

I'm pretty findable online, you can google my name and usually get to my website or my Twitter or my whatever Twitter is at Jamie Kay McCallum. But feel free to email me via my website, which is publicly accessible. And I'm happy to talk to any of your listeners who want to chat more.

Joe Cadwell:

All right. Well, thank you so much. Again, my guest today has been Jamie McCallum author of Essential: how the pandemic transformed the long fight for worker justice. Jamie, thank you so much for taking your time to be on the show.

Jamie McCallum:

Thanks so much for having me, Joe.

Joe Cadwell:

I guess today has been authored Jamie McCallum. To find out more about Jamie and his work, be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, or by visiting the grit nation website at www grit nation podcast.com. Till next time, this is Joe Cadwell, thanking you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.

Jamie McCallum:

But those other things are actually what they care about, like they care about not being killed by an airborne virus at work when the next one arrives. Because the next one is, is arriving. Right. And we just covered 30 to 3200, new coronaviruses a year. One of those is bad. You know, and you know, when it makes the zoonotic leap to human beings from wild animals. It's just Yeah, it's inevitable. So we want to make sure that like when that happens, like OSHA has a standard on airborne infectious diseases, which is does not have yet, we will make sure that everyone has six weeks paid sick leave, which they don't have now, right? We want to make sure that like we're not we don't live in like a barbarian backwater. And we compete with our peers to have the best jobs in the world. And right now, we are on par with like, you know, Trinidad and Tobago, Laos, a few African countries, no one's ever heard of, for places that offer that don't offer paid sick leave, that don't offer a certain amount of time time off. We are a bottom feeder in that in that world.

Joe Cadwell:

Okay. Can you reframe that, again, because this, this is an important point, I think for a lot of people to get, you know, in their heads, that arguably the most wealthy nation in the in the history of mankind cannot provide basic health care for its citizens. Well, if you look at

Jamie McCallum:

I'm actually typing my, into my book now to see where I say this, like you get it, right. If you look at for example, how much the country spends on health care and the health outcomes of its residents. Like, you can imagine a two by two table. Sure, the United States is almost alone in the bottom sell in that we spend the most and get the least any person that walks into the situation blind and say, oh, there's four possibilities, like spend little get little spend a lot get little that kind of thing. Sure. No one would ever choose ours. Like it's the worst a lot. Again, little IFRS is the least is the least common option, or the least preferable one. And that's

Joe Cadwell:

not saying that we don't have good health care. It's just the abundance of the healthcare, the equity of the health care across the general population, and the fact that it is so expensive in comparison to other nations.

Jamie McCallum:

Right, there are some places where people enjoy decent health outcomes. But a, it should not be. That phrase I just said should not exist. Like, you know some people, some places like that's not what we should be doing. It's just such a no brainer. When you look at all our peer countries that they do it better for less is like from a purely capitalistic standpoint. universal health care is a bargain.