- A Conversation about Work, Precarity and Political Possibilities During COVID-19
Paul, one aspect of COVID-19 that I have been thinking about is how much it has made very visible the utter dependence of middle- and upper-middle-class folks on the labors of those who are now deemed “essential workers”. In March, John Niccollai, President of Local 464A of the United Food and Commercial Workers in the New York metropolitan region commented, “Workers in food stores are the ones keeping this nation from going into civil unrest.” For months, I heard folks at the grocery store thank their cashiers and those stocking the shelves for “being there.” The danger of engaging in their work has been born by these essential workers as is evident by the disparate infection rates in working class communities. Do you think more people will start to see their comfort as inextricably linked to these workers and the risks they bear on our behalf?
I think more people might do so, Keally, but I certainly don’t believe that will happen automatically. We can’t just expect more comfortably situated people to have sudden epiphanies about the relational quality of class, simply because the media are running a lot more stories now than they typically do about working-class occupational safety and health hazards, as shocking as the figures are. The media thrive on the cycle of inciting shock and then letting it abate. Structurally, the stories are meant to flare up and fade away, rather than producing sustained flows of consciousness or sensation. For example, amid all the coverage of COVID-19 outbreaks in US and UK meatpacking plants, there has been no serious discussion, and sometimes not even a mention, of the long-term, endemic character of workers’ endangerment in these factories. News stories about health and safety problems in the meat industry have regularly appeared, and just as routinely receded from view, for decades now.
Nor do I think can we expect the kind of new awareness you speculate about, just on the basis of interpersonal encounters like the expressions of gratitude in grocery stores that you mention. Sure, those concrete moments open real opportunities for an individual to have a different kind of affective and critical response to other workers’ suffering. But in my research with migrant workers, I have seen how easily such personal encounters can reify rather than de-stabilize [End Page S-76] conventional responses of deafness, thoughtlessness and lack of feeling. Day laborers and domestic workers will tell you stories about employers who look them in the eye and tell them to do risky jobs, with the full, if unspoken, understanding on both sides that the point of the deal is for the worker to face the danger so the employer can stay safe. (Parenthetically, it’s stories like these that make me skeptical when I think about Butler’s Levinasian account of precarity.)
What does make a difference is organizing. Not just protest, although that is vital for building the spirit of solidarity among workers and challenging the community to listen, but also creative organization. So, for example, one struggle the pandemic actually makes particularly timely is over the basic question of who a “worker” is in the United States—a worker understood to be a person in a full sense, whose needs and non-work capacities matter, rather than simply considered a source of labor. US political culture, of course, has traditionally defined the nationally iconic worker as white and male, as Daniel Martinez-Hosang and Joe Lowndes discuss in their excellent book on race, precarity and right-wing nationalism. That’s why I see it as significant that a powerful coalition of some 430 immigrant and labor justice organizations recently succeeded in getting Washington state to recognize unauthorized migrants as workers by setting up a $40 million pandemic relief fund to replace at least a small portion of these workers’ lost incomes, plus a special $3 million fund for food production workers—who are mostly immigrants in Washington— stricken by the virus. Even with a liberal Democratic governor like Jay Inslee, that took...