Year in Review: Employees Are Redefining Work and Labor
This piece is part of our 2021 Year in Review, a reflection on the issues and causes that mattered most this year – and the tangible ways you can support before year-end.
December can be a time of restful paid vacation or a blur of overtime and stringing together shifts at seasonal jobs. Discussions about privilege and oppression often leave out the world of work and wealth: who makes it, who keeps it, and who dies from its absence. But white supremacy was built on enslaved forced labor and genocide to steal arable land for white homesteaders. Racism was good business for the 17th-century Virginia Company. It’s good business for every office building cleaned by a Black and Brown custodial crew making poverty-level wages. Racism makes financial sense for the college applicant unconcerned with competition from underfunded public schools, for the white male graduate who gets put on the managerial track his first day, or the white American who believes people like them aren’t the ones who work blood-slicked slaughterhouses. Today, almost all Americans describe themselves as middle-class, including most millionaires. If everyone were middle-class, then class would be inconsequential for American life. This misconception obscures the reality that George Floyd was an unemployed delivery driver. Breonna Taylor, an EMT. Walter Wallace drove for Uber. Ahmaud Arbery worked in his family’s car wash. Our economic system thrives off of the labor of communities of color while facilitating their kidnapping and murder. Taking action against economic injustice allows us to build racial justice as well.
This year, wages rose sharply for many sectors as business owners compete for workers in the face of inflation and severe labor shortages. New hires can expect to make $15/hr at many entry-level positions, though business owners had long declared that a $15 minimum wage would be economically catastrophic. Workers are also questioning unjustified pay disparities in the workplace, inequalities that often fall along racial and gender lines. We can’t address these disparities if we don’t use our right to speak openly about how much we make.
Every pandemic is a social crisis, too. The spread of infection depends on the regulated movement of people while the distribution of vaccines is a political art. The trust we have for state mandates or health authorities carries historical weight. The health of U.S. residents is determined by the fact that it’s one of the 7% of countries that don’t provide paid sick leave for workers. Those working the frontlines are at the highest risk of infection but often have the least capacity to take time off for their health or the health of their loved ones. These workers disproportionately hail from communities denied equitable working conditions and healthcare for decades or centuries.
Who is “a worker”? A white man with a hardhat? Perhaps a miner or construction worker? In the early 21st century, this archetype can make pro-worker politics seem archaic at best, vaguely regressive at worst. But American workers are disproportionately female and people of color. In June, a group of Black TikTok creators used an old labor tactic to fight appropriation and erasure on one of the newest major social media platforms. Whether we’re talking about factory profits or the latest dance craze that’s driving user engagement, work stoppages are a forceful reminder of whose labor makes the whole enterprise possible.