The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic devastated the working class from the start. Those deemed “essential workers” in the service, medical, transportation, agriculture, and other sectors were hit particularly hard. While the sacrifices of workers were paid lip service in the early days of the pandemic, the rhetoric rapidly shifted towards denunciations of a “labor shortage” as worker resistance mounted with time. As the capitalist class continues to espouse a dominant narrative of the pandemic that insists that the worst is over and workers ought to accept diminished real wages and deteriorating conditions, the need for a counterhistory of COVID-19 becomes increasingly urgent. At a joint book event hosted by Red Emma’s in Baltimore, sociologist Jamie K. McCallum and TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez sat down to discuss the effects of the pandemic on the working class as told through their respective books, Essential and The Work of Living.
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
John Duda: Okay, I think we’re going to go ahead and get started with tonight’s event. So welcome, everyone, to Red Emma’s. How many people are here for the first time? Anybody? Awesome. Well, welcome. We are a worker-owned business. We’ve been around since 2004, and one of the things we’re really proud of is the fact that we’ve been able to grow. This is now our fourth location. We’ve actually been able to buy this one, so this will be our permanent home, and a place for all of the people who run this business, who are the owners, who make all the decisions democratically, to be able to continue to do what we do for who knows how long. At least another couple of decades, if not longer.
Really thrilled about that. And really thrilled to see all of you out on, honestly, a really dismal night. I really, really appreciate that. I appreciate our speaker, Jamie, who drove here through all of this nastiness from like up near Allentown, Pennsylvania, or something like that. So a heroic effort to get down here, so I thank him for that.
This is our last book event of the year, so we’ll be open. We have a wonderful bookstore downstairs. If you haven’t checked that out already, it’s full of lots of great books. If you’re inclined to buy books around this time of the year for other people or for yourself, please do so, because that’s one of the ways we’re able to host events like this and keep them totally free, is because we have awesome coffee and beer and food and lots of books, and you buy those things, we pay ourselves, and we get to do things like this. It’s a really nice system, but it only works if you support us.
All right, so tonight we have two amazing speakers in the house for what’s going to be a really amazing discussion. Jamie McCallum, he’s a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, but more importantly, somebody I’ve known for an embarrassingly long period of time. I was trying to think about this and I was like, have I known Jamie since George W. Bush was president? I think the answer is yes. Besides all of the amazing books and scholarship he’s done, he’s also, for me, somebody who was part of a really vibrant group of troublemakers working in the small-A anarchism, small-M marxism circuit of the late ’90s through the 2000s. When somebody writes a history of it, it’ll all become clear. I think Jamie played a big role in that ecosystem. He was also the guy who was the cool guy at Left Forum, whenever we went up to table with Red Emma’s, which I mean, it’s not saying much, because a lot of people, especially back then were a little old, a little crusty.
Jamie McCallum: It’s a dubious distinction.
John Duda: Maybe not something you want to put on the book cover. This is why nobody asks me to blurb things.
Max Alvarez: The least crusty guy at Left Forum.
John: Jamie’s book, though, is amazing, the book he’s here to talk about tonight, Essential. I think it does a really, really good job of talking about workers on the front lines of the pandemic, but also understanding that those front lines are also fault lines, that the people who were on the front lines of the pandemic, the people who were deemed essential and then discarded, marginalized, devalued, exposed to premature death and illness, those people represent some of the chasms of inequality in our society. Who gets to stay home and learn how to bake bread, and who gets to risk their life wrapped in a garbage bag trying to keep patients alive?
What’s great about this book is that it doesn’t stop there. But just as in the classical Marxist analysis, the proletariat forms its class consciousness because they are mass workers in a factory together, the people who are on the front lines of this pandemic recognize each other, and come together to fight in new and interesting ways. They become a subject of history and not just an object of it. It’s a really, really, I think, rich and exciting look at the last couple of years of really intense and unprecedented labor organizing, and where we can understand that coming from.
He’s going to be in conversation tonight with Maximillian Alvarez, who I’ve known for less time. I think I first heard of Max when there was a note in I think it was like February of 2020. There was a note behind the books calendar of Red Emma’s that said, hey, I just moved to town, and I have this podcast about workers. Maybe we can do something here at Red Emma’s. At the time, I was like, oh, that sounds great. Maybe we’ll do that next month, in March of 2020. Yeah, yeah. Subsequently, I have had the great fortune to get to know Max really well both as a podcaster and an author, now my colleague at my other gig working at The Real News Network where he’s the editor-in-chief. And he’s here today to talk about The Work of Living, which I think if you’ve listened to his podcast, you have a sense of what this is about.
His podcast, Working People, goes into really, really amazing depth talking to people who work for a living. And not just about like, oh, what’s the soundbite about this thing that might be interesting on a superficial level, but really diving deep into what actually brought people to the place that they’re at. What shaped them as a human being? What are they afraid of? What are they worried about? What are they hopeful for? What do they dream about? He’s doing that with just this incredible sense of humility and intellectual curiosity, and refusal to treat workers as an abstract cipher for something else, but really, really unpacking what makes working people human beings.
I think honestly, as politics go, that kind of revolutionary humanism gives you a much firmer solidarity than anything that’s based on abstract categories. I think if you’ve seen Max’s reporting, you’ve listened to his interviews, you can really understand that. Working People is a collection of interviews along those veins, looking at much the same front lines and fault lines that Jamie does. This is going to be, I think, an incredible, incredible conversation, because both of these people, really the starting place of their work is listening to workers and taking what workers say really, really seriously. On behalf of myself and all the other workers here at Red Emma’s, please join me in welcoming Max Alvarez and Jamie McCallum [applause].
Max Alvarez: Thank you, John. Wow, thank you so much, John. I’m getting a little misty-eyed. It’s a real honor to be here with Jamie, someone whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Kind of like John was saying, I feel like Jamie and I were talking about, when his last book came out, hey, let’s do something on the podcast. That was February of 2020. Like all of us, life changed dramatically soon thereafter. I just wanted to say what an honor it is to share this space with all of you at the end of what feels like an impossibly long year. It’s been an incredible year of struggle, and the struggle very much continues, and we’re going to talk about that today. Thank you all so much for braving the shitty weather. Thank you for coming to listen to us chat.
Like John said, this is going to be more of a back-and-forth conversation between me and Jamie about our two books that have just come out, both of which focus on workers during COVID-19, but there’s also a lot more there. Like John said, when I talk to folks, and I made it very clear to OR Books when they asked me to do this book, I said, I don’t want to just talk to people about the pandemic. I want to talk about them. I want them to be the subject of the book. I want to talk about who they are, how they came to be the people they are, what they were doing up until COVID, then we’re going to talk about COVID. We’re going to talk about how they experienced it.
Jamie does something very similar. He starts with talking to front-line workers, and then more front-line workers, and then more essential workers. But then he gives really deep, essential context to what created such a crisis for working people in this country that, when we all saw COVID coming, I think a lot of us here probably felt the same. I feel like a lot of us, especially those of us on the left, those of us who’ve studied a little bit of American history, when we realized that COVID was real and it was coming here, there was this sort of rot in your gut because you knew how fucked working people were going to be.
You knew how much the social safety net had been rotted, how much the labor movement had been destroyed. You knew how much corporate pillage had just taken away all of the resources people were going to need to survive. That’s what, I think, one of the many incredible contributions that Jamie makes is that he really brings those threads together, brilliant sociologist that he is.
With all of that in mind, I want to start by not presuming that anyone here has read the book. If you have, awesome. If you haven’t, please go buy copies. Let us know what you think. Just to make sure we’re all on the same ground here, I wanted us to start with giving a little synopsis of our books from our own mouths, and also talk a little bit about the process of putting these books together. And a question that Jamie and I both were talking about before this started, which is, who do you write for and how does that shape the way that you write? Jamie, I’m going to toss it to you, then I’ll hop in after.
Jamie McCallum: Cool. Thanks so much, Max. Thanks everyone, and everyone here at Red Emma’s. I’ve been a fan and a friend of Red Emma’s since their first store. I don’t know how long ago that was. I consider it one of the most successful radical space projects in America as an amazing space, and so I’m really honored to be here. Max also is one of those. There’s a handful of what I call New Labor journalists out there who do something different than what Steven Greenhouse did from The Times, and started to write and cover labor in a new way. When I first started reading Max’s work, he became central to that crew, and has been useful to me, as a scholar who relies on people to go out and do some of that really critical reporting on a very regular basis. Enough of that. But thank you all for coming.
About the book. I teach at Middlebury College in Vermont. I was teaching a course called Capitalism and Social Theory in… when was that? February of 2020. One of my students was like, do you think this whole COVID virus thing is going to be an issue for labor? I was like, I think so. That’s a good point, actually. That’s a good point. I had just written another book on working issues, on work time. Basically, the subject of that book was that, for over a hundred years, the hours of labor declined in America, from 14-hour days to eight-hour days, and then in the ’70s it reversed course. So why did that happen?
When I wrote that book, I thought that, well, it came out in September of 2020, right square in the middle of the pandemic. Everything’s going to be wrong that I wrote. It was a real concerted, polemical push to shorten the length of the work week, the work day, and the work year. Yet, all of a sudden, tens of millions of people were unemployed against their will and with horrible recourses. I thought that maybe this book would land kind of wrong, actually. It turns out that everything that was wrong before the pandemic was just way worse during the pandemic. It had this interesting effect, and it gave rise to continuing to think about some of these issues, especially working time.
Early in the pandemic, labor hours for the people working continued to shoot up. We worked during times we saved during commutes. We increasingly worked at more precarious times. Not 9:00 to 5:00, but like 9:00 to 9:15, and 9:45 to 10:35 and stuff like that, and then throughout the whole day. We increased our time after midnight and before 6:00 AM to alarming rates. That interested me first. And then I began interviewing essential workers, really in Wuhan and then Lombardy and then the United States. The book is mostly about the US.
To Max’s specific question, I am a public sociologist. I write peer-reviewed academic stuff, but my real passion is writing pop social science, I guess. Like we were saying before, we both write books that our parents will read, in a way, and to kind of Trojan-horse in some Marxist theory and left critique and labor history into a mainstream thing. That was the polemical point of the book, and to take this mountain of interviews I was doing and subject it to a more critical left lens, I guess. Max, you want to talk about this too?
Max Alvarez: Yeah, yeah. I’ll hop in there. I’ll do the reverse order, starting with the who do you write for question, because that’s really where the work that I do came from. I got into media as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and I got to the University of Michigan after everything just went to shit with the recession. Our family struggled mightily, like millions and millions of others did. We eventually lost the house that I grew up in. In that slow process of losing everything, my dad, who was the first person I ever interviewed on my show, Working People, he described it as water flowing through your hands. It’s gone. It’s all gone. Everything you’d worked for your whole life is suddenly gone.
That was us 12 years ago. I was working low-wage jobs, whatever I could find. I was a temp in warehouses in Southern California, working alongside a lot of other young guys who had been incarcerated, undocumented guys, and we were very much the majority in that warehouse. It was like 80% temps, who could be fired just like that [snaps]. I also did retail service, was waiting in Chicago.
So it was a couple years ’til I found my way back to academia. I feel like something had changed irrevocably when I got there, because I felt like, oh, thank God I’m back. I’d got back to the ivy-covered campus, where in my past life I’d thought, oh, well the world can’t touch me here. This is a safe space. It wasn’t the case. That was always a fiction, and I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. Even as excited as I was to study the things I was studying, to read the books I was reading, have the conversations I was having, I felt incredibly uncomfortable with the fact that I couldn’t easily communicate what those conversations were about to the guys back home in the warehouse, to my friends, to my family.
That’s where teaching, I think, really saved me. Teaching has always been where I felt most intellectually alive, because you’ve got to work with the people who are in the room with you, and everyone has something to contribute. My writing grew out of that, but it was almost like a safety valve, to keep me sane and keep me connected to my world outside of the university. That’s why I started doing public-facing writing even though I was told by all my advisors, don’t do it. It’s not going to get you a job. No one takes it seriously. Then the academic job market cratered, and I was one of the few to actually get a job, but it happened to be in media. To any academics out there, don’t listen to anyone who’s telling you they know how to navigate the job market. Everyone’s fucked. It’s all luck. Do what makes you happy.
Anyway, to make a long story shortish, that was why I started doing the podcast. That’s why I started doing my public writing. I had to make the work that I was doing usable to the people who meant the most to me, otherwise it didn’t feel worthwhile at all. Then I just kept interviewing more and more working people around the country, and just constantly being in awe of their stories, of their struggles, of the insights that all of us have to offer, the incredibly rich histories that we’ve walked in life. Every one of us is sitting on the greatest story ever told, which is our life story, but so seldom do we actually turn to each other and ask about it and listen to one another. I’ve been reminded of that time and time again, every time I interview another worker for my show and now for this book.
Why did I want to do the book? Well, I knew when COVID hit, like I said, I think we all knew, that working people in this country and around the world were just in for a terrible time because of everything we had witnessed, because of the erosion of the social contract, of any semblance of an equitable society. All of that had been chipped away, and we were left with bare bones, facing down a global pandemic.
I start the book by saying I didn’t know what I wanted this book to be, I just knew that it had to be, because I was seeing already in the early months of COVID how quickly we went from celebrating front-line workers, banging pots and pans on our balconies – Which I think was a beautiful gesture. But then within a matter of months we just started to accept what had been so horrifyingly unacceptable to us weeks prior, like workers not getting proper PPE, going into their shifts wearing like a bag over their head, essential workers being pushed onto the front lines even though their work was by no means essential, but there was no government assistance or workable… At that time, the unemployment system was crashing. It felt like people had nowhere else to go.
I wanted to just get people’s voices on the record, A, in case they died, in case I died. There was a time where I felt like maybe this is the last mark I can leave on this world, but I think it’s important. Also, yeah, because I think as we came to accept hero pay getting ripped away from workers after the media celebrated Amazon for, out of the goodness of its own heart, giving this hero pay. We should not accept that, and we need working people’s voices on the record. Otherwise, the media, corporate politicians, they’re going to start the process of amnesia, to make us forget what we all went through in those early days of COVID.
Jamie McCallum: This is great. About interviewing workers, there’s a couple of things. There’s something qualitatively exciting about talking to people about their jobs, because everyone’s an expert in their thing. You’re always talking to people who are basically the best people to talk to about their thing. From a researcher standpoint, that’s amazing. You can’t beat that. The other thing it does, however, is there’s a way in which certain kinds of research is more useful than others at certain times.
Let me give you an example. In 2020, if you looked up the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, what you would see is that nothing happened. There were eight strikes in 2020 according to that data. Four were led by nurses. That’s it. Yet when you call people, let’s say chicken processing workers in North Carolina and you talk to them, offhandedly they’ll say, oh, well, there was a strike yesterday. I’m like, there was? You guys don’t even have a union. They’re like, oh, well we just struck, or we walked out, or we sat in, or people are organizing, or our union rep finally found us yesterday in the parking lot, and we’re doing the stuff.
There was all this stuff going on that was completely not captured by the official data. If you were using that data, you would come out with a totally different result than what me and Max found. I’ll just speak for myself. What that finding was is that labor activism was taken into people’s hands in a way that is just totally not normal in America. Workers don’t walk off the job without a union. It just doesn’t happen that often. Filings for union elections were up 60% last year, a fact that really emerged from the depths of the pandemic. And that stuff made the news here and there, but trying to turn it into a story, trying to make something coherent out of that dispersed… Because workers didn’t even know what was going on themselves.
And I would say, oh, well I talk to teachers who did that yesterday. And they’re just like, I don’t know. So, this slow to form working class consciousness began to really appear to me over the phone. And despite all the death and destruction and despair of the whole moment, there was some degree of, I have to say, excitement or interest in what was going on.
Max Alvarez: Yeah, I think that very much tracks with my experience too. Not just talking to folks for this book, but the interviews that I do with The Real News, for my show Working People. I now do a labor segment on Breaking Points called The Art of Class War. I also hear that from so many different people in so many different industries.
And in fact, we’re going to conclude our portion of the talk before we open up to Q&A talking about how those dynamics, those class dynamics that working people experienced in the most immediate way during the COVID-19, what connection does that have to the increase in strikes, the increase in new union election filings, the creative forms of struggle that we’re seeing from union and non-union workers around the country?
But before we get there, I wanted to drill down on this section that I’ve only circled as before the storm. Because I think Jamie said something very crucial, which was that everything that was wrong before the pandemic only got worse during the pandemic. And I think that that’s really important to highlight, because it was something that was really frustrating me this time last year when I was doing interviews. I remember we had Striketober, then Srikevember.
Suddenly the mainstream media wanted to know what’s going on. Why are Kellogg’s workers on strike? Why are John Deere workers on strike? Why are Columbia graduate student workers on strike? What is going on? And I think one of the things that I really tried to emphasize for people is that the fact that you are seeing these strikes happen now, or these unionization happen now, does signal that there is something shared about this moment that is contributing to this boiling over of energy.
But what you also need to understand is that a lot of the people who are hitting the picket lines right now have been at their jobs for 5, 10, 15, 20 years. This didn’t just happen. This was a slow build. And this is what you’ll hear. You heard it from the Kellogg’s workers. They said, we remember when they imposed two-tier systems. That was the big volley that really split the workforce and built up resentment over time. Now they want to create another tier of workers, and we are fighting now, otherwise they’re going to take everything from us.
Because essentially what they were saying is Kellogg’s wants to phase out the well-benefited, well-paid union workers and just keep creating lower tiers till eventually they can revert back to a non-union, low-paid workforce. That’s what every capitalist wants to do. If they could pay us nothing, they would. Their ultimate goal is to pay us nothing. To get as much labor out of us as they can for as little as they possibly can, so on and so forth.
Same thing, I’ll give another example. You may have heard me screaming on this or that radio show or news outlet recently about the crisis on the railroads. And if I repeat myself, I apologize. But I’ve been screaming to anyone who will listen, because most people just realized we have a crisis on the railroads like yesterday.
And I think that the corporate media has done an incredible disservice. But every railroad worker that I’ve talked to over the course of the past year, because we’ve been reporting on it consistently at The Real News Network, the first thing they always say is, you have to understand this goes back years, if not decades. This whole corporate takeover of the railroads, this whole precision scheduled railroading cult. That means cutting our operating costs, cutting labor year after year after year, increasing stock buybacks and shareholder dividends year after year after year.
This has culminated in the current crisis, but it has been brewing for a long time. So, I say all that to toss it back to Jamie because, again, I think he does an incredible job in his book showing how the weaknesses in our society that didn’t just come out of nowhere made working people, not all of us, we were not all in the same boat when COVID hit, and I think that that became apparent. But I think for working people in this country, those weaknesses made them incredibly vulnerable. So Jamie, why don’t you talk a little more about those pre-conditions that made us uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.
Jamie McCallum: Yeah, that’s a great place to start here. So, the first chapter of my book is about the Great Recession, which the editors did not like. And they’re like, we want to talk about the pandemic. And I’m like, this is about the pandemic. And so if you can imagine, it’s 2008, Obama’s president, and the crisis is ongoing, the recession and global recession. And how did we recover from that recession?
And the way we recover from that recession is to erode the section of middle wage, middle income jobs and replace it with the majority of jobs, which are lower paying jobs, non-union, in the service sector. If you can imagine, that is the birthplace or the birth time of the gig economy. The gig economy needs a pool of unemployed people in the middle of the day that can do all kinds of tasks, and all of a sudden we had that.
There were real conditions that created that group of people. Those people became either essential workers 10 years or 12 years later, or unemployed, depending on where you were in the service economy. The COVID recession, as we remember, was the first services sector driven recession in recent American history. In other words, the ranks of low wage, almost a servant class were the ones which either kept their jobs and faced the ultimate sacrifice, or were laid off. And in the beginning of the pandemic, faced the ravages there.
For a while, the news began reporting that only two or three million people lost healthcare when they lost their job in 2020. That actually is a small number. But what it doesn’t tell you is that there were 20 million people working without healthcare already. So, in the biggest health crisis in a century, you had tens of millions of people without any connection to employer-sponsored health insurance, which itself is a longer standing… I don’t know. We don’t have to go into that.
But all to say is that employers created, in the ’50s, a system whereby healthcare would be distributed by them. And then when that became too expensive, they began to dismantle it, and the state never picked up the drag. And so we have a situation where you’ve got more people who are insured, but far more people who are underinsured.
Now, if you don’t have enough money or good enough insurance to go to the doctor, you don’t go at all, basically. So, all this is to say is that essential workers did not appear out of nowhere, and there was a class of people who were, of course unknowingly to all of us, but being readied to be sacrificed in 2020. And the brutality of that early year, I would say, was made. It did not just happen accidentally.
Max Alvarez: Well, and I think to just add to that picture, again, talking about how the position that workers were in going into COVID both made so many of us so uniquely vulnerable to what was going to happen. And when I say vulnerable, I mean vulnerable to death, vulnerable to getting ill, having long-term issues, losing your livelihood. The vulnerabilities we’re talking about are, again, we’re talking about the lives of real people, many of whom are gone now because of these societal failures.
I won’t go into that, otherwise I’ll get very upset. But on top of that, I think what we’re going to roll into is talking about how the experience of COVID helped spur an emerging class consciousness from people who were experiencing COVID a certain way. If you, as Jamie writes in his book, if you were closer to risk, your proximity to risk, in a way, defined your class, not what you were making, but whether or not you were part of that sacrificial class.
And so we’re going to get to that at the end. But I think that what I wanted to stress is that shift that happened in COVID-19, as I have heard it through the voices of the many, many people I’ve talked to over the past few years, and as I’ve felt it myself, I think there is something really important that gets lost in a lot of the media discussion about labor and COVID.
Because, think about where we were before COVID. Think about any low wage job you had had before COVID-19 ever existed in public consciousness. I don’t know about you guys, but I mentioned some of the jobs that I was working in the past decade. I got treated like shit. I got talked to like I was a piece of trash, as did everyone else I worked with. We got worked to the bone. We were constantly told that we shouldn’t complain, because we should be grateful to have the jobs in the first place.
We were told that there were masses of guys waiting outside at 4:00 in the morning in case any of us didn’t show up so that they could take our place. I still remember standing on the floor of one warehouse drenched in sweat. This is Southern California we’re talking about. So, you’re working in a 120 degree hot box for 12 hours a day. And no matter how hard you work, no matter how good your work was, every day they made you line up in a row with your coworkers and the managers would walk down the line and point to the people they wanted to come back the next day.
So, you never had a semblance of job security. You were always reminded of how expendable you were. That was the norm. In many ways it’s still the norm, let’s be honest. But that was the dominant hegemonic mental space of how we perceive working class people in this country.
And on top of that, there are the larger systemic facts of working people. Even though we have been more productive over the past 40 years than we’ve ever been, wages, for most people, have been stagnant. The cost of living keeps going up. The minimum wage has gone the longest amount of time without being raised in this country’s history. All the while, the more that working people are working harder and longer, the more that the fruits of that productivity are not being equally distributed. They’re all going to the top. And at the same time, you’re seeing the decline of unionization over these past 40 years to historic lows now, or near historic lows.
So, all of this is happening over these past four decades. Working people working longer, working harder, less unionization, more productivity that’s getting siphoned off into the pockets of the 1%, or the 1% of the 1%, while neoliberalism, deregulation is running rampant. Corporate consolidation means everything is owned by like five fucking companies now. Pardon my language.
So, this is the backstory to us walking up to COVID-19. Then the crisis really came. And I wanted to talk about that, Jamie, and bring it down to eye level. Because I think that the thing that we are probably most proud of, I don’t want to speak for you, but I would say as someone who’s read both of our books, probably feel the same. The humanity in it is what I’m most proud of.
The first three pages of Jamie’s book are some of the most beautifully and heartbreakingly written pages I’ve ever read, because it’s human. It talks about the human toll of what we’ve all gone through. I don’t think we’ve really acknowledged that as a culture. And that’s what workers have told me throughout this pandemic, is what you need to understand is we’re not just numbers on a spreadsheet.
Everyone who’s gone was a fellow parishioner, was a coworker, was a buddy, was a T-ball coach, was a part of our community, and now they’re just gone. And now magnify that by millions. And we’re just trying to go back to normal and pretend like that didn’t happen. And I think that that sense of, again, the replaceability, the disposability, all while people were still being praised as essential, there was a real cognitive disconnect there.
And I wanted to ask a little more about that, Jamie. What, in talking to the many people that you spoke to for this book, really started to emerge about how the experience of COVID-19 contributed to this? I guess the pushback, the rebellion, the rising class consciousness?
Jamie McCallum: Yeah. Both of us, I think this comes out when you read the books, that the sense of class as an experience as opposed to class as a quintile of income, or opposed to class as a measure of educational attainment or something like that, which is the typical measure of it. But class really as an experience of the day-to-day quotidian insults and injuries and victories and whatever comes out really clearly during the pandemic.
For me, I tell that story through the old labor slogan, that an injury to one is an injury to all. Or the socialist version, which is we’re all better off if we’re all better off. And reality really had a left bias in 2020. That was actually true. If those around us were sick, we were screwed. And if those around us were healthier and had what they needed to work better, to work safer, then we were safer.
And so the working conditions of essential workers are the living conditions or the survival conditions of the rest of us. In 2020, I became an essential worker in this weird way, and that is I became a volunteer firefighter. In Vermont, there’s not that many fires. It’s not actually that dangerous of a job. It’s more like a civic organization. But every time there’s a 911 call, fire gets called along with the cops and the EMTs.
So, I got to see a little bit firsthand some of the medical stuff and the hospital stuff firsthand. And what you quickly begin to realize is that if workers don’t have masks or PPE or whatever else, a break, if they have to work multiple jobs, then those places are more vulnerable to COVID, and then so are we. This general realization ended up being more of an empirical thing. So I did research with a couple other folks that ended up making into the book on, for example, nursing homes. Early in the pandemic, nursing homes were the epicenter of the pandemic, as you probably remember.
So, just to give one example. I was a nursing home organizer with SCIU for a long time, and for some reason I’ve been obsessed with union nursing homes for 25 years. And during the pandemic that ended up making sense. So, if your nursing home had a union and you were a resident at a nursing home, you were about 12% less likely to die of COVID across the nation than if there was no union there.
If your staff was unionized, staff were about 8% less likely to be infected by COVID. And the answer, or the reason, was obvious. I interviewed a lot of nursing home workers, and they would say, as much as I’m here saving people’s lives at a nursing home, I’m spreading COVID from home to home to home. They routinely recognized that they themselves were the vectors of this disease, because they made $9 an hour. And to make $9 an hour, you have to work in multiple places. And if you have a union, well you make $17 an hour, and that difference is enough to make sure you work in one home. And that difference is also enough to make sure that you had access to PPE on March 8, because unions had access to that stuff before other places. So they were safer.
Industry-wide unionization in the nursing home industry, we calculated, was equivalent to about 8,000 excess deaths. Fewer deaths, could have been saved by industry-wide utilization. It’s an illustration that we’re all better off if we’re all better off, or an injury to one is an injury to all, which is the Wobbly slogan? I don’t even remember who that was, but all of a sudden it came back in a way that made very clear sense to me. And I get the impression that the people you’ve interviewed had a similar story to tell about that experiential-ness and how that changed to either unions or anger or organizing or something like that, right?
Max Alvarez: Yeah. Again, with the approach that I try to take with these interviews, it’s really important to me that, as I often say, my goal is to make it impossible for anyone to ignore the whole human being behind every name tag and job title. To make it impossible to, as we have done so well in this culture, this capitalist culture, so much of what that culture has to recommend it is that it obscures the pain of that system from us. It makes us feel like we don’t have to see that stuff, to the point that your packages just show up on your door. You don’t have to think about what Amazon workers or delivery drivers pissing in bottles are going through. It’s just there. Same thing goes with so many other types of jobs and services.
I think, in many ways under capitalism, the whole nature of labor is to become invisibilized. And this goes all the way to domestic labor, care work, manufacturing. So, it’s this shadow realm that’s created to make us feel like we are just consumers passing through a world of infinite choice, when I think what we’ve started to see is that you can’t maintain that fiction in perpetuity. Eventually the labor side is going to come up and it’s going to become visible, and I think one of the things that was so paradigm changing about COVID is that it really made labor visible.
Oh, go ahead.
Jamie McCallum: Yeah, no, no, [inaudible].
Max Alvarez: Well, I was going to say, just in the sense of… I don’t blame anyone for staying home and staying safe. Everyone who could have absolutely could have and could have just gotten the support they needed. That’s what we should have been able to support and give the few people who actually had to be outside as much protection as they can. We didn’t do that. We fucked up the whole thing.
But again, in those circumstances, it was so clear who was holding the world up and who wasn’t. While the bosses and CEOs were hiding in their third or fourth homes calling in from Zoom, it was working people who showed their mettle. It was working people who kept others with food delivered to their door. It was people in those meat packing plants that became hot beds themselves of COVID, farm workers in the fields. And there were so many other people doing essential forms of labor who weren’t designated as essential, maybe weren’t even eligible for extended unemployment benefits and stuff like that. But the point is that COVID forced capitalism to admit how much it needs us.
That’s where the essential title came from. Because that’s what I meant when I said, imagine going from being told you’re expendable your whole life by your boss to suddenly being told, no, no, you’re essential. Please stay. We need you to keep this place going. We need you to keep society afloat. They’re banging pots and pans for you. That’s a mental shift.
Even though, as Jamie writes in his book, there’s so much that was cynically deployed about the essential term. There was so much theater and performance, and a lot of corporations like Amazon really made hay out of celebrating their frontline workers while not giving them the PPE that they needed, not giving them a say in top down managerial decisions that had life or death consequences, so on and so forth. But before I continue, you wanted to hop in on the visibility question?
Jamie McCallum: Well, yeah. I don’t know where we are in our little [crosstalk].
Max Alvarez: Eh, we’re good.
Jamie McCallum: Where’s John? Anyway, I’ll say two things about this that Max brought up about the invisibility thing. The one thing I found interesting when I talked to people was that the home as a place of work became a pretty interesting public thing. The social reproduction theorists have ably described the old haven in a heartless world. It’s the hidden abode, blah, blah, blah. And all that’s true and great. The pandemic did, however, put a spotlight on the work-from-homeness of our lives and, I think, illuminated the fact that, well, if you’re a working family and you’ve got kids running around, there’s no work getting done. And that illuminates not only the incredible power and utility of childcare workers who never get seen, as Max is talking about, but also parenting and caretaking and caregiving as essential work. And yet incredibly, obviously, predominantly uncompensated.
The classical Marxist understanding of that work is not pay us for this work. That’s one of the demands. Pay us for housework, wages for housework, the old rallying cry. And some people have always taken that seriously. And other people, Kathy Weeks springs to mind, it was always argued that, well, once you make a demand to pay us for housework and you quickly realize that you can’t pay us actually the money we deserve for housework, it calls them the question the complete foundation of the system which we have, the legitimacy of that system. We have a word for unpaid forced labor. And so to me, the crisis of the pandemic was really illuminated through the lens of social reproduction, through the lens of the caring class, or whatever you want to call them.
If you look at, again, I hate to do this, the whole BLS data stuff, and you look at where are our jobs going, we always think of the future of work as Twitter or whatever, tech, buildings and flying robots and shit. The biggest jobs we will create in the next 25 years are nursing aids, women of color in scrubs working for $16 an hour. That’s the future of work in this country. And those are the people who were also on the front lines of the pandemic, which gave them, for a time, as you were saying, the cynical pots and pans thing. We did, for a brief moment, value that labor. And granted, we forgot about it. I don’t know about you, but when I started doing my interviews, people were like, we can’t believe people love us. By the end of that year, people were like, they hate us.
They used to say, last year’s heroes, this year are zeroes. And everyone expressed because I would call people repeatedly, oh, how’s it going? And six months later, they were like, it’s going shitty. It’s back to normal. And I think that early in the pandemic, the dissonance between the pots and pans and the treatment was a source of class and class resentment, frustration organizing. And then later in the pandemic, having been dumped out of the spotlight and back to normalized, was also a sense of resentment. And to me, both things, again, resonate with that experience thing we were talking about.
Max Alvarez: Yeah, I think that definitely tracks with the folks that I’ve talked to as well. And I can say more about that when we do the Q&A. But I guess just my final thought on that front, two things that I really wanted to emphasize connecting to the why was it so cynical that corporations were tapping into, again, this genuine, I think, grassroots fervor, not fervor, this spirit of solidarity that people felt. And I wanted to capture that in a non-cynical way, and I could not be happier that the great Molly Crabapple designed that on the cover of the book. That’s what it is. I asked her. I was like, could you do a tableau of that moment? And she did it in a more beautiful way than I could have ever imagined.
But I said earlier that I think what became clear in the pandemic as opposed to, say, the financial crash is that we were not all in the same boat. It felt that way in the beginning because it was so scary. No one knew what the hell was going on. And so there was a sense that we were all experiencing the crisis together. But then as things wore on, it became more apparent that some of us, or most of us, were enduring this while others were taking advantage of this crisis. And I think that that has also become more apparent as we even look back. Again, I think connecting the experience of COVID to the labor energy we’ve been seeing, the rage, the organizing, the unionization efforts, the strikes, so on and so forth, I think that there is a lot of connective tissue there. It’s not all the same. It depends on certain industries.
But I think one trend that people are seeing is, again, why are John Deere workers on strike? 10,000 John Deere workers were on strike this time last year. The company was more profitable than it had ever been. It had just had its most profitable year ever, and it was trying to take more from workers. The railroads, as I mentioned, they’ve been trying to take more from workers, and they’re more profitable than they have ever been. This is a trend. I interviewed striking workers at Frito-Lay. They’re like, during the pandemic, people aren’t going out to eat. They’re eating a lot more junk food, so we’re busier than we’ve ever been. Frito-Lay is making more than they ever have, but they treat their workers so poorly that those of us who have stayed are being pushed into forced overtime, and we never get to see our families. We’re worked to the bone. Warrior Met Coal, workers there have been on strike for over 600 days, and they had made that mine more profitable, more productive than it had ever been. Their biggest investor is BlackRock in New York.
So a picture that has started to emerge is that the capitalist vampires who took advantage of this situation did so at the expense of their workforce. And they have done so to pull off what I think, in retrospect, we’ll realize is one of the greatest heists in all of history. The transfer of wealth upwards that has happened over the past three years is incalculable, in my opinion. So I guess in Marxist terms, we say the dialectic is heating up. And so as much as you’re getting concentration and pillage on one side, you’re also getting resentment, anger, mobilization on the other side.
Then you think about the ways that this heist manifested in the day-to-day realities that working people lived in. You had so many of the struggles that we’ve seen. And geez, there’ve been so many. Just think about it. I mentioned Kellogg’s, John Deere, but remember IATSE workers were ready to go on strike, Hollywood workers. Kaiser Permanente workers almost went on strike last year. Lot of strikes in academia, like the University of California, The New School, Columbia University, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University student graduate workers are unionizing right now. Shout-out to JHU.
Jamie McCallum: Shout-out.
Max Alvarez: Shout-out. Warrior Met, Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle. We are seeing a lot of energy here, and a lot of the common themes that I hear is that with COVID, it became very clear why we need a say on the job. Because when managers say, oh, you don’t need a sneeze guard, or, customers don’t need to mask, that puts you at risk. And if you don’t have a say in that decision, then what are you to do? Chris Smalls was fired for leading a protest against Amazon’s COVID mitigation policies.
So that was one big connective factor, was the recognition, A, that we are essential, that we’re the ones who are keeping the shit running, not management, not the bosses; B, that we deserve a say in how things are run because these consequential decisions are impacting our lives, but they’re being made above our heads, so on and so forth; and then also, again, this sense that we are being asked to do more with less while the people at the top are taking everything from us, picking the bones clean in practically every industry. And so the only thing I would add to that, and what I hope my book contributes, because I think that some of that comes through, but what I tried to tap into for this book is the deeper existential experience that we’ve all gone through, the fact that we’ve been forced to confront our own mortality.
So many workers in this book and elsewhere have told me, I had to stop and think, if I get this thing and I die and I leave my wife and kid, will I be able to say I’m proud of what I did with my life? Is this all I wanted to accomplish with my one time around this planet? And I think that that has contributed to the great resignation, record numbers of people quitting their jobs, but also people saying, I want to stay and fight and make my life and my workplace better for myself and my coworkers. And yeah, I think as insufficient as they were, the government aid that people got through the form of eviction moratoriums, the student debt pause, the extended unemployment benefits, the child tax credits, that did help.
A lot of people did tell me, I could make more not going to work than going to work. That was the first time in my life that ever happened. One person, I think it was Courtney Smith, brilliant, brilliant woman, told me. She was like, that was the first time that I got a chance to breathe. And I feel guilty saying that because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but this was the one chance I had to stop the grind. Because up until COVID, my daily reality was just working my off and barely keeping a roof over my head. I didn’t have any room to step back and say, can I do something better? Can I look for something better?’ That wasn’t an option for me. And so, I’m going to shut up now. And Jamie, do you have any final thoughts before we open up the Q&A?
Jamie McCallum: Yeah. Yes. I read your book not front to back. I don’t know why. But the first chapter I read was a guy who’s like, yeah, I’m going to take $400 and spend time off. You know what I’m talking about with that? What was that guy’s name?
Max Alvarez: I think that was Kyle.
Jamie McCallum: Yeah.
Max Alvarez: Yeah, Kyle Killabrid, the sheet metal worker in Louisville.
Jamie McCallum: Yes. And I was like, oh, good, here’s somebody who’s being honest about this. Because for so long, the left was like, nah, Biden’s unemployment benefits are not making people stay home. It’s like, of course they’re making people stay home. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And then it’s working, actually. It’s decent. It’s happening. Why are we hiding from this basic fact? We should have it now.
And so on this existential thing, I became interested in, obviously, the concept of essential work. And at some point, I began asking myself, well, what is not essential work? What’s up with that? And how much of our economy is taken up by non-essential work, and why are we doing it all that much? And if you add up non-existent paid sick leave, shitty vacation time, short breaks, weekend work, precarious scheduling, if you add up all that stuff, we do so much more work than people with comparable standards of living that it’s insulting.
And I think there was a moment during the pandemic when policymakers and whoever began to experiment at least, or think about what would… You can’t complete social reproduction with a 40-hour work week. It doesn’t work. And I think during the pandemic, we began to ask ourselves, well, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe that should be one of our main priorities. So in the book, all books that people like me write end with the what-is-to-be-done chapter, which is always very thin because we don’t really know. But at the end of it, there is a call to divorce work from a life with dignity, which doesn’t sound like a radical demand. But in America, it is, in a sense. And what kinds of policies and programs and shifts would have to happen for us to do a little of that? One, obviously, is labor.
Whenever I talk to people, it’s always like, well, do you think we should pass the PRO Act? It’s like, yeah, of course pass the PRO Act. Of course, we should make it easier for people to organize the union. Of course. And I think what’s typically thought is that, well, if we pass the PRO Act, it’ll be easier to organize, and then we’ll all join the labor movement. We’ll join unions.
And I think if you’re a laborer history person, there’s a disconnect with that. And that is that, historically, we have only won things as good as the PRO Act by organizing to begin with. And if we’re ever going to get the PRO Act, it’s not going to trickle down. It’s going to be a compromise that they’ll be forced to make by stuff that’s trickling up. And so I think, how do we start talking about a labor movement narrative that is really… We’re starting to now. Actually, I think what’s going on now is pretty incredible. But it’s really focused, not just, oh, let’s make it easier to do this, but what do we have to do to create the crisis to get the thing that we need to make it really easy to do this?
And that’s a slightly different conversation, but one, I think, that might be starting to be had. And I get the sense that probably a lot of people here are invested in labor, organizing in some capacity, and maybe that’s a good segue into asking folks if they have any questions or comments or thoughts. John, is that a good idea?
John Duda: It is a good idea. But first of all, let’s give these folks a big round of applause [applause]. And before we get into the, no doubt, deep, ponderous questions of revolutionary labor strategy, I wanted to take a second and ask you both a question. It’s more of a book event question, which is, what’s the most memorable or surprising thing that a worker said to you in the course of putting these books together?
Max Alvarez: Do you want to go first, or do you want me to go?
Jamie McCallum: I want you to go because I want to think.
Max Alvarez: Okay.
Jamie McCallum: I’ll think.
Max Alvarez: Okay. So for the book specifically, I’m so incredibly grateful to everyone that I spoke to for this, everyone who helped me connect with the different folks. It’s a much easier task to do a podcast like this, because you can always add more episodes. And so it feels like a living archive. And if in a certain season you didn’t cover this area enough, you could always do better next season. When your publisher tells you you got 10 people to interview, it’s very nerve-wracking. The original draft of the introduction was twice as long because I spent the whole thing apologizing for all the people who weren’t in the book. And eventually, my editor was like, we get it. Just focus on the people who are there.
But I say that as a preamble to say that I do want to recognize that every person in this book has a unique story. And in being in conversation with them, I opened up a lot of myself, because I feel like to be an ethical interviewer, you need to give as much as you’re taking. It needs to be an actual discussion, not an extractive thing. And I think that’s where the best conversation comes from. And there were parts where we cried while we were recording this stuff. And I still think about some of the things that I talked to with Rebecca, the educator in Arizona, Willie, the gig worker in Texas, Chili Yazzie on Navajo Nation, Amanda, a bartender in Portland, Pucks, a burlesque performer and producer in Seattle, just an incredible group of folks. But I think that the interview that I recorded with Nick Galupo, the gravedigger in New Jersey, which is the first chapter of the book, it was the first interview I recorded for the book, and it really set the tone for everything.
And Nick is an incredible guy. He’s got a great central New Jersey accent. He does very gruesome work, as you can imagine. We don’t go into full gory detail, but you get some gory details when he describes how, working at the cemetery he’s working at, when suddenly the number of burials triples overnight. And you got guys running all over there. He describes it as a fast-paced construction site for the dead. You really feel Nick’s words when he is describing the conditions in the graveyard during COVID.
But I think what really stuck with me was just how, Jamie, you mentioned that, everyone is the expert on their own life experience, and we have so much expertise to offer, not just at our jobs, but in so many other realms. And you really see that with someone like Nick. This is a guy who was even given the chance to leave his job at the graveyard for a higher paying job and didn’t before COVID.
And he explains why. He says, I feel bound to this now. I feel duty bound to it. He takes a lot of pride in what he does, and he understands that what he does is not just digging holes and putting dead bodies in the ground. He says, you have a responsibility. You are sending people off on their last ride. You are giving families that last chance to say goodbye. If you fuck that up, you’ll never forgive yourself. And so he takes what he does very, very seriously.
But he’s also seen so much doing the work that he does, again, gruesome, gory stuff that I won’t describe here. And I think there was such a tender moment when we spoke where he said, I understand that my job is to provide peace for people who are at their worst moment in their life, when they’re losing a loved one, and they want to send that loved one off into the great beyond, say their goodbyes. And you want to maintain a peaceful atmosphere as much as you can. But he’s like, I have lost that peace. I’ve seen too much. And so my job is to give people the peace that I can no longer have, but I feel like this work has given me something that they’ll never have, which is, I think, a really complex but beautiful philosophy on life and death, what it means to live and who we live for. And so I think that being stunned at a moment when I was sitting in my office talking to Nick on the phone, fearing death myself, hearing him talk about that, I think it grounded me in a way that I haven’t forgotten. Jamie, what about you?
Jamie McCallum: That’s a really great chapter of your book. And there is that section on the grave cave-ins, which I did find pretty gruesome, actually.
The thing that sticks out for me, I’ll say two quick ones, they’re both about fishing weirdly. The only interview I did in-person for the book was finally… I was so sick of doing interviews on the phone. I don’t like talking on the phone. I don’t like the computer.
So finally, when I got the chance, I went to Alaska to interview fishermen. And I interviewed one woman in particular. I was on her boat fishing for salmon. And we’re out in the, what’s it called, the Naknek, Bristol Bay, chest deep in the shitty water in Naknek Alaska, which is the New Jersey of Alaska. No offense to New Jersey, actually. And I was standing there untangling fish from this gill net. And I’m like, so what do you think is the most important thing that’s changed? And she said, nothing. Nothing’s changed. And that’s the most crazy part of it. We just lived through this insane catastrophic crisis that we always thought would be the thing that finally forced us to face the music with sober senses, and we learned zero lessons. And I was like, Jesus. And so now, whenever I’m asked to say, oh, what did we learn from the pandemic? What’s the main lesson? And they always want something optimistic, I’m like, there’s not a great ending of the story. And she told me that.
And the other fishing one was I was just fishing last summer in Montana because I like… Whatever. And my guide, I was telling him about my book, and he was like, oh, I was an essential worker. And I was like, oh, really? What was your job, then? And he was like, ah, I was a fly fishing guide. And I was like, why were Montana fly fishing guides essential? And he was like, well, we’re the backbone of the tourist economy. And I was like, what’s the other reason? And he’s like, there’s no other reason. And he’s like, we all got COVID. We all hated it. And yet, clients pay a lot of money to do this kind of thing. My book was going to publish, and I was like, you got to sneak this in the introduction, that fly fishing guides in Montana were deemed essential, because that category, as we were talking in the beginning, was so capricious and so subjective. Obviously, fly fishing is not… In no universe is it essential, and I love it. And so that, to me, was the important story to squeeze in at the end, I guess.
John Duda: Awesome. Thank you. All right. Who’s got a question? Over there? All right.
Cecila Gonzalez: Hello, my name is Cecilia Gonzalez, and my question is, what do you hear, and I guess what do you learn, when you were thinking about this from the perspective of women? I heard even in the academic world that women publish way less than men, or maybe publish less books than men during this time. So what are your thoughts about that, and how do we move forward to a better place?
Jamie McCallum: Yeah, that’s a great question. When you talk to essential workers, I talk to a lot, a pretty fair sampling, and the essential working class is disproportionately Black and Brown, and disproportionately female. What that means is most interviews in my book were with women of color, essentially. In the end of your question was I think about the craft of writing the book and how that has a gender component to it or in the publishing, in the academic publishing realm. That’s a great question.
There’s, I think, two ways to answer it. In labor studies today, I think it is a field that has traditionally been dominated by men, and that is no longer the case. Young labor journalists are, in some ways, majority women. There’s increasing overlap between the feminist scholarship and labor scholarship. If you think of the crisis as a crisis of social reproduction, a lot of that research is done by women. In my situation in particular, I don’t know, it’s tough to… In other words, are you asking, was there actually more scholarship produced by men during the pandemic explicitly because women had other responsibilities? Is that not your question? No?
Cecila Gonzalez: The responsibility at home with the children, and so what are the experiences? And I guess I was just giving academics as an example of the fact that even for women who stayed at home, now they were the caretakers, the main caretakers, many times.
Max Alvarez: I have a hypothesis about this too, but I promise I’ll get to the substantive answer to your question in a second. But again, if we’re talking about the invisibility of labor, Sylvia Federici writes about this beautifully. Women have been doing the invisible labor that keeps the rest of the labor market going and the rest of society going since time immemorial. And so in many ways, the very foundations of our societies are the unacknowledged labor of women at home in the domestic sphere, but also so many other realms. It’s still, in the grand scheme of human history, very recent that women were able to get professional jobs that they could sustain their own lives without binding themselves to a partner. I say that to say that I think that, a lot on the negative side, I think that our society, I’m talking about the US specifically here, I think the US has a lot of unresolved issues, to put it mildly. I mentioned one –
Jamie McCallum: It’s like a psychoanalysis thing all of a sudden. Have a seat on the couch.
Max Alvarez: I genuinely don’t think that we have allowed ourselves the ability to grieve all that we have lost over the past two years, and I think that that’s going to manifest in a lot of different ways. When you lose so much and you lose so many people and your society tells you, we’re going back to normal. We’re moving on. The economy’s better than ever it was… Again, I remember that feeling sitting at home with my family, sitting in a living room that we were going to lose in a couple months, hearing the TV say, oh, the economy’s booming. The economy’s back. And I just sat there thinking, well, I guess we’re not part of that. And so that does things to you.
It really makes you feel like less of a human being. It makes you feel less connected to the society that you see on the TV, and so on and so forth. You feel more alienated from other people. I think that something similar happened during the pandemic, where a lot of people, even well-meaning people, were suddenly forced to reckon with their dependence on the invisible labor of women, and they were even forced to do it themselves, and they flipped the fuck out. I think that that is partially why you saw such a vicious backlash against teachers over the past two years.
Rebecca Grelli, the educator that I interviewed in this book, she talks about this. She’s like, teachers, we know that we are the backbone of the economy, because without childcare, without a place to dump your kids off, the rest of the economy doesn’t happen. And so we had a lot of power because of that, but we were also put under a big microscope, and we were vilified in the media for this or that, so on and so forth. And I think that, again, not to get too Freudian about it, but just in the conversation I’ve had with people, I think it is a factor that professionals who were able to work from home but also had to juggle childcare reacted violently to that.
When the teachers that they wanted to dump their kids off to were saying, no, we’re not going back until it’s safe to do so, I think the reaction was stronger than even teachers expected. Again, I don’t want to armchair analyze people, but I do think that there is an unresolved sort of thing there, where people take for granted that a profession that is primarily dominated by women is going to pick up that slack. And if we’re asked to do it, there’s only so long we can do it before we start freaking out.
But on the positive side, this is what I’ll say, and I’ll shut up, is I also think that that has contributed vitally to the organizing that we’re seeing. I just was in DC doing a live event with a great group of workers, including Michelle Valenti Neves, who was one of the primary organizers of the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, and she made a very clear point. She was like, Chris Smalls, Derek Palmer, yeah, they get a lot of publicity, but a lot of our organizing committee are women, and women of color, and even single mothers, like Michelle is.
And what she would say is, she’s like, that helped us organize. Because people like Derek or Chris, but there are a lot of older people in their late 30s and early 40s, people who have kids, they’re going to listen to Michelle. Because they’re like, oh, you have a kid too. You know how essential this job is, and you don’t want to mess anything up that’s going to screw with you being able to feed your kid. And so Michelle and so many others were able to connect with their fellow workers through that. They cared for each other. They brought food. And all the stories we’ve heard of the Amazon Labor Union, I think that there’s also a very, very positive side where women and non-binary folks and all types of folks have been contributing to the creativity, the grassroots creativity we’re seeing. Look at Starbucks, right? Starbucks… Oh, I’m not going to keep talking, but it’s happening there too.
Jamie McCallum: All right. We have time for at least one more question, maybe two. Who’s got a question?
Jamie McCallum: Over there.
Speaker 2: All right. Thank you both for being here. This has been a really awesome discussion. I’m one of those vilified teachers, and when I think about the past two, I don’t know, three… I don’t remember… Years, and I think about my fellow teachers all across the country, a lot of us were going through the same thing, but the organizing and the responses that happened were incredibly uneven. And I know you all highlighted a lot of really amazing stories of people struggling and fighting back, but there’s also so many stories of people struggling and then not having an outlet to fight back.
And I wanted to get a sense from both of you, were there any guiding threads or themes you saw from the people or stories that you heard of what caused someone to say, you know what, instead of quitting my job, I want to form a committee, and I want to take this risk that seems irrational to an average worker? What kind of themes or anything came to mind when you saw these people repeatedly standing up in those situations?
Max Alvarez: I just talked a lot. You go. I’ll follow up.
Jamie McCallum: That is such an amazing question. What do you teach?
Speaker 2: Chemistry.
Jamie McCallum: Oh, cool. K through 12?
Speaker 2: I teach sophomore.
Jamie McCallum: Sophomore. Okay, cool. Yeah, not K. Chemistry for kindergarteners. In some ways, answering that question is difficult, because at a certain point, at least when I was doing my research, I began seeking out people who were actually organizing. So there was kind of like, I’d have to talk about a counterfactual, I suppose. But in those times, I think there were a couple of things. One was what we talked about earlier, I think the cognitive dissonance between being hero-ized and treated like garbage. Superheroes, by definition, don’t need help. They don’t need protections, they just rise above the fray. They don’t organize for better conditions. That’s not what we typically think of heroes as doing. And so that feeling was a driver.
In education in particular, I feel like there was an incredible amount of educational organizing that really was inspired by the ability to bargain for the common good. In other words, teachers did a lot of public sector organizing that was about COVID issues, that was not about their contracts, not about wages or hours, but was about, can we get our families first in line for vaccines? Can we get immigration… Keep the cops out of our neighborhood protections for schools with large immigrant populations? Can we use our bargaining power in the public sector to expand public provisioning for the families in this neighborhood?
They did that stuff. They’d been doing it for 10 years before the pandemic, but I think people glommed onto it, and I think that kind of trans-workplace organizing, teachers really saw it. I’m actually on the school board in my county in Vermont, and so I began to be interested in school boards. I actually negotiate against the teachers union, which is super awkward for me, though they always get good contracts.
So teachers unions during the pandemic that had stronger unions were more likely to adopt mask mandates in their districts, were more likely to fight for better social distancing in classrooms. Again, all this is to say is that teachers especially were probably the test group for, can we use labor power to expand the public good? And I think that positive, aspirational thing was an important… They recognized it and took hold of it, and I think that was one inspiration that teachers had, especially.
Max Alvarez: I’ll soap box for a sec, then I promise I’ll shut up and we can let everyone go home. But I think this is a really important question. Because I try to be as positive as I can be, optimistic. I try to at least point out the optimistic things so that people don’t get demoralized. I think that, especially those of us in media, we have a responsibility to not sow resignation and make people feel like the only option is to give up. If that is the cumulative effect of what we do, then I think that we’re not doing our job, we’re not serving the world in the way that we want to.
There is a lot of heartbreak and disappointment that comes through in the reporting that I do. I don’t think it gets as much attention, but it’s something I’m very attentive to, because that’s the stuff that sticks with me. The victories are great, and I love celebrating them. I love seeing people win. You may have noticed, but I don’t subscribe to the kind of old world fiction of unbiased reporting. When working people are fighting for a better life, a better workplace, a better world, I want them to win, and I want to help however I can. I will apply rigorous journalism to that noble cause. But I think that there are as many, if not more, defeats than there are victories, and that, in many ways, is labor’s story. It is always an uphill battle.
I think that this is something where all of us have a stake in this question and in this story, in this conversation. Because when people ask me all the time, and I imagine they ask you all the time too, Jamie, where’s this going? Where’s the labor movement going? What’s going to happen next year? I started just saying, you tell me. You tell me. Because what happens next depends on what we all do now. This isn’t happening to other people. This isn’t happening somewhere else. It is happening around you. It is happening with your neighbors, with your coworkers. It is happening at your schools. It is happening in your communities. And you can help make sure that people win.
Because if people win, that’s going to inspire people to fight in other areas. I think that that’s one of the really historically significant things about the Starbucks Union wave. Because it was just last week, a week ago from tomorrow was the one-year anniversary of the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo becoming the first Starbucks of the company’s 9,000 corporate owned stores to unionize. Since then, we all know the story, we’ve seen a wave of grassroots worker organizing in stores from Vermont and Maine to Hawaii.
Just over 250 stores have won their union elections fair and square. And everyone’s excited. They’re like, oh, shit, another one’s unionizing. Another one voted to unionize. And then we forget. We forget about them when the managers start turning the screws and they start firing organizers, they start descheduling them so they get less than 20 hours and get kicked off their healthcare. They can’t pay their rent. They’re putting GoFundMes out on Twitter, and people are ignoring that because they’re chasing the story of another store that said they want to unionize.
Or when stores like the College Avenue store in Ithaca, New York, or the store in Seattle that both unionized, they just get closed for the flimsiest of reasons. Starbucks will always say, none of this is union busting. We all know it is. What do we do then? Because here’s what I want to leave you with. As miraculous and incredible as the Starbucks wave has been, and I think that every Starbucks worker that I’ve talked to has said, when we saw Buffalo, we thought, why not us? So the visibility of it, that was a catalytic thing. It did inspire people in other stores around the country to say, hey, we could do this too, and they were shocked at how quick it happened.
So there is, I think, a cascading effect that is something to be very hopeful about. But we should also be concerned about the reverse, which is that new union election filings dropped from 70 in March to less than 10 in August this year. Starbucks, its scorched earth union busting campaign, the express goal of which is to stop this wave, to demoralize workers back into subservience, is working. More people are giving up more. More people are saying, well, I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want to lose my job. I’m seeing that these other workers who were celebrated three months ago are now forgotten, and now they can’t pay rent.
That is our duty. That is our responsibility. That’s where we come in. That’s where we make sure that people win, that companies are held accountable, that we don’t forget about these struggles. I just did a live stream last night with railroad workers, strikers at Warrior Met Coal, CNH Industrial, the University of California. You can go watch it at The Real News Network. I actually highly recommend you do, because it was a really beautiful conversation.
But Marcus Derby from CNH Industrial in Iowa, this is what he said. He’s like, you guys go on with your lives after you listen to my interview with Max. This doesn’t stop for me. It’s negative degrees at the picket line in Racine, Wisconsin. It’s 10 degrees here in Iowa. We have to be out there. And if people aren’t talking about us, we start thinking, well, maybe we should just give up. Maybe we should just give in and accept the shitty contract that we’ve been striking over all this time.
I can tell you, from talking to so many different workers, that that shit matters. Material support, even just not immaterial support. Just being there, not forgetting about people, not forgetting about the Warrior Met Coal strike, not forgetting about Starbucks workers, not forgetting about CNH Industrial, not forgetting about… Geez. I mean, I had a heartbreaking interview with this man, John Hogset, who worked at G&D Integrated, and they wanted to unionize with the ironworkers, and the management just closed their whole store.
And this guy, he’s a Trump voter, he’s a tough-looking guy. He starts crying on the recording saying, they fucked us, and now there’s nothing to do. Who is standing up for these people? As pro-labor as the Biden administration says they are, are they going to the mat for these people? Are they dragging Howard Schultz’s ass down to Congress and making him answer for his crimes? No. We have to force that onto the list of national priorities, and I think that we can. That’s the hopeful thing I would leave people on.
No one wanted to cover Amazon until they won. They forced themselves into national attention. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to them. We can actually break the vice grip that corporate media and corporate politicians have on our discourse, on our imagination, but we have to actually be there for each other. Everyone was asking me, oh, are the railroaders going to go on a wildcat strike? And I say, why would they when we haven’t shown up for these other workers who have been on strike for over 600 days?
Because if we are asking railroad workers to take that fateful step, to risk their jobs, their livelihoods, even their freedom, they could get arrested if they go on a wildcat now, are we going to be there for them? They are taking that risk. So what skin do we have in the game? But I promise you, if you get in there and if you inspire people to stay on the line one day longer, one day stronger, that is how we keep the movement growing. And every worker I’ve talked to will tell you the same. It matters. So do whatever you can. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something [applause].
Jamie McCallum: Amen, brother.
John Duda: That’s it. Thank you both so much. We have both books for sale in the back. Please support Red Emma’s by buying them here. Please support these authors by buying them, getting them signed, and telling them how great they are. So thank you.
Jamie McCallum: Thank you, John, and thank you, Red Emma’s, too.
Max Alvarez: Thank you.