Essential Workers’ Next Move

Factory workers, grocery workers, delivery drivers, first responders and medical-facility personnel, garbage workers, gas-station employees, pharmacy staffs, mail carriers, public-utility employees, daycare and nursing-home attendants are essential to keeping necessary services running, now more than ever. But many have been viewed historically as expendable instead and have not seen adequate pay and benefits for that work.

In this chart from the Pew Research Center in 2016, minimum-wage pay in nominal dollars (not adjusted for inflation or productivity) finally met minimum-wage pay in inflation-adjusted dollars. This was not a good thing. In fact, it meant the minimum wage was equivalent again to what it had been in the early 1960s. If the minimum wage had kept up with national productivity, it would have been $18.42—in 2014.

We are in a moment where that shortfall has been made more obvious. Even as economic disparity has widened, the conditions for pandemic have been building. Now, they coincide, when the current dangers and stress of COVID-19 may force essential workers to ask for what is fair, now and in future. But what will happen if they ask, resolutely, during a national emergency?

On Monday, workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia walked out due to potentially infectious conditions ignored by management. “We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” an employee said.

On Wednesday, Pittsburgh sanitation workers rallied and stopped picking up trash, claiming their department lied about COVID precautions, and demanding masks, gloves, boots, and hazardous-duty pay.

Dr. Costas Azariadis, a macroeconomist at Washington University, and the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, told me by email, “Working in a critical job under today’s difficult conditions certainly entitles people to a better-than-normal deal, including hardship pay, protective equipment and good medical care.

“Strikes and work stoppages are one way to get that deal,” he said. “One downside is that public opinion may regard work stoppages as extortion. Worse yet, you can lose your job to someone who really needs work.”

I asked Dr. Azariadis about the strike by coal miners during WWII as historical precedent. He said, “John L. Lewis and his UMWA union broke labor’s no-strike pledge in October 1942 to near universal condemnation.” Because of coal’s importance to the war and the home front, “87% of the public disapproved of the stoppage.”

The strike is often seen as disastrous. In terms of capital, the National Archives says, “[T]he loss of production in the bituminous mines alone, as a result of the total sum of work stoppages during 1943, was estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 7,510,397 man-days of idleness and 39 million tons of coal.” For the UMWA, it “spurred the passage of the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act (1943) and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), both of which placed new restrictions on labour unions.”

In any case, union membership is not what it was in the US, and without organization workers will be left to negotiate for better pay and conditions on a site-by-site basis. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (“a proud union family that feeds, serves, and provides for America’s hard-working families”) did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Azariadis told me, “On balance, I would say that hardball organizing in our current conditions may help skilled workers protected by strong labor unions (like nurses or truckers). It is unlikely to bear fruit for supermarket shelf-stackers and other manual laborers.”

Meanwhile, capital is concerned mostly  for itself. “What’s happening has not happened in our lifetime before,” billionaire Ray Dalio, founder, co-chairman and co-chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, told CNBC a week ago. “A lot of people are going to be broke.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.