12 May 2021

Viruses, waitresses, and a new order

The Black Death which struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, killing anywhere from one-quarter to three-quarters of the population in whole regions, was certainly one of the great disasters of European history.  Scholars have long recognized, however, that this ill wind did blow some good.  At least in England, the labor shortage resulting from the massive depopulation, along with the disruption of the economy, sharply changed the relations between the powerful and the formerly powerless.  Peasants who had formerly been little better than slaves now found themselves in such demand that they were able to sell their labor to the highest bidder, simply leaving in search of a better offer if their local landowners refused to change with the times.  Laws were passed to restore the old feudal arrangements, but were unenforceable in the face of the new economic reality.  The later part of the fourteenth century saw a substantial rise in the standard of living of the poorest.

It's starting to look as if the covid-19 pandemic, on a more modest scale, may have an analogous effect in the US.  Before, millions of Americans in bottom-tier jobs worked under grossly exploitative conditions for a minimum wage barely half of what's typical among developed countries (or, for tipped workers, even less), subject to ever-more intrusive monitoring, pressure to work at inhuman speed, and the risk of being fired or disciplined for taking time off sick or similarly outrageous reasons.  The pandemic initially made these workers' lot even worse -- millions of jobs were eliminated, and for those that remained, conditions grew more dangerous as bosses flouted basic precautions to protect workers from the new disease.  Hapless floor employees were regularly forced to deal with anti-maskers' belligerent assholery, while waitresses suffered decreasing tips and increasing sexual harassment by customers, doubtless a function of what type of people most often dismissed covid-19 and continued going out.

But the pandemic also brought higher unemployment benefits (for many), a series of "economic impact payments" (for practically all), a new child tax credit, more help with health-insurance costs, etc.  Perhaps equally significant, it seems to have brought a greater awareness of the raw deal such workers had been getting.  Now that restaurants and other customer-service-intensive businesses are re-opening, expecting workers to come back to the same shitty working conditions (actually worse, since the covid-19 danger is far from gone) for the same shitty wages, many are finding few takers.  A couple of samples of the types of sentiment I've seen widely expressed:

Predictably, in an echo of the fourteenth century, some Republican state governments are trying to cut off federal unemployment-benefit supplements in an effort to force the serfs back into their traditional bondage.  In reality, getting people back to work isn't that simple, and cutting benefits will weaken the consumer-spending boom which is really driving the economic recovery.  Bullying and scolding are, so far, not enough to drive people back into underpaid jobs which are now not only miserable but actually dangerous.  This is all the more true given that Democrats hold the presidency through at least January 2025 and Congress probably through at least January 2023.  While the drive to bring the US minimum wage closer to developed-country norms has stalled for now, that issue is still far from dead, and there are other measures a willing government can take to help.

For white-collar office jobs, too, things have changed.  The old model of dragging everybody into an office to do jobs that were basically being done on the internet anyway has been technologically obsolete for at least a decade, but little progress was made in transitioning to a work-from-home model due to management conservatism and desire to maintain tight control and supervision.  The pandemic forced along the change that should have happened long ago.  Everyone has now seen that such jobs can be done from home just as well and often more productively.  Employees have had a year free from the misery of commuting, the idiocy of dress codes, and the harassment of petty, nitpicky office rules and policies which were inescapable because the boss was right there in the workplace with you.  Survey after survey has shown that large majorities of office workers want to keep working from home after the pandemic is over.

Many upper-tier managers seem to think they can force everybody back into offices as if nothing has changed, hiding anxiety about the erosion of their control-freakery behind a squid-ink cloud of "teamwork" and ineffable magic of face-to-face conversations in hallways.  I have been doing that kind of work myself for over thirty years, and that stuff is horseshit, and we all know it's horseshit, and they know we know it's horseshit, and it's not going to fly.  The balance of power has shifted.  For months I've been barraged with e-mails from employment agencies I used to work with, trying to interest me in this or that job despite my repeatedly telling them I already had a job which I wasn't interested in leaving -- and I'm almost at retirement age, hardly the most desirable employee profile.  The post-pandemic boom will only increase the competition for workers.  Employers who don't offer work-from-home will find themselves at a real disadvantage in that competition.  Even if some do manage to force their workers back to the office, every minute spent stuck in traffic will now be accompanied by the knowledge that the hassle is an unnecessary one forced on them by management for no good reason.  Good luck with "employee morale" when every work day starts and ends with that.

I've long believed that the political left in the Western world has somewhat lost its way, getting distracted from its focus on class struggle due to identity politics and differences between the cultural values of the working class and the college-educated.  If the pandemic has awakened a greater level of self-awareness in workers and given them a lever to force changes in the way things are, the Democrats in the US must be ready to support them in every way possible -- and, in so doing, may find their soul as a party again.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I was just thinking about this yesterday. I was about to email my coordinator and ask him if we're 'going back' in the Fall.
And I keep hearing people complaining about the worker shortage. They do not stop to think that many of those five hundred thousand people who have died of COVID19 are most probably frontline workers, many working in shitty conditions.
"Predictably, in an echo of the fourteenth century, some Republican state governments are trying to cut off federal unemployment-benefit supplements in an effort to force the serfs back into their traditional bondage."
The Repugs. Always the worst of the worst. And the people who keep complaining about the hand-me-downs are always, ALWAYS Repugs.


12 May, 2021 02:59  
Blogger Jack said...

I hope you are right about workers at all levels exerting their power and demanding more from employers, as well as the Democrats not blowing what should be a source of strength. As someone who will soon be forced back to the office (to be covered with horseshit), I'd be lying if I said it wasn't leading me to re-evaluate lots of things. I have a feeling I'm about to become a real pain in someone's ass.

12 May, 2021 04:00  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

I'm not convinced that there will be long-term meaningful change in employment and labour conditions because of the pandemic. Short-term maybe.

12 May, 2021 08:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: If they want you to go back to the office, it might be worth checking into what other jobs are available in your line of work. You don't owe anybody anything.

And a party which fires its own leaders for not going along with what they all know is a lie, is pretty much guaranteed to be shitty about everything.

Jack: I hope you look into options at least. Especially in a red state with the high levels of vaccine resistance and anti-mask foolishness, there's a real element of danger in going back to an office.

Debra: We will have to fight for change, but that's always been the case. The pandemic has unfrozen the playing field and created some new realities which are there to take advantage of.

12 May, 2021 11:04  
Blogger NickM said...

A very thoughtful post. I work from home (have done for years). Sometimes the client's home but more generally my own because all my stuff is here! Nobody in their right mind likes commuting.

I have spent a lot of time in the USA over the years and there is much to love about the place - the people (largely), the scenery, the culture... But if I were to single out one thing it is tipping. It is demeaning to all involved. I mean I know that waitress can't afford to put food on her own table without the 15-20% but God help me she ought to have a higher hourly rate.

I'll add one from left-field here. I taught GMAT maths at Leeds University for a while. Now this is a US exam so calculators are not allowed! But the questions involving percentages were all based on 15% or multiples thereof. Why? Because you Americans can't go out for a couple of beers and a pizza without working out 15%. Unfortunately I wasn't teaching Americans - mainly Russians and Chinese.

It is a pain for the customer (especially when said customer is me - a former astrophysicist - and did enough maths in the day-job without having to do it on a break or on a date or whatever) and it is demeaning for the staff. It's just wrong. My brother has lived in Japan. You try and tip there and folks take offence. OK, maybe that is extreme but it does reflect the simple fact people in Japan are actually paid a realistic wage.

Finally. If where you are is anything like here then a lot of these heavily customer-service orientated businesses are basically no more. So the waiters, bar-tenders, shop-workers et. al. simply don't have a job to return to.

12 May, 2021 11:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: Thanks. I know there are countries where people don't normally tip, but it feels very weird. Living here you get used to it. I used to tip at least 25% because I know how underpaid waitresses are and it's a tough job (I wouldn't be able to do it myself), so I didn't mind going more toward the high end.

A lot of restaurants and similar businesses have gone under in the US too, but among those which are now re-opening, they are apparently having a lot of trouble getting enough staff. So however much the number of service-type jobs has shrunk, the number of people willing to do them for the wages and conditions on offer has evidently shrunk even more.

12 May, 2021 12:18  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I don't think most work related things are going to change all that much from the pre-covid conditions that we had. When I saw that some state are cutting off the extra money for the unemployment because so many jobs are open and looking for workers, I just thought that a lot of people probably had loved ones or friends that worked in some of the jobs that are looking for people and that might hold people off from applying to those jobs. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

12 May, 2021 12:27  
Blogger Bathwater said...

That is one thing that bothers me. I will be 57 this year. I am wondering if I should stick it out here due to my age. I am not an outdated employee, though. I can still hang with the young ones, and my experience allows me to work more efficiently.

And you are so right about working from home. I like solitude. It allows me to concentrate.

12 May, 2021 12:43  
Anonymous annie said...

I, too, have been hoping that the huge disparities in our society exposed by the pandemic will lead to lasting change. I’ve been thrilled by Biden’s big plans, which I think are just what are needed now. His demand that government contractors pay their workers $15 an hr is a good step forward.

But I worry that there will generally be improvements for white collar workers that don’t reach others. One problem is the slim Congressional majority. Another is that it’s problematic for improvements to occur without greater union strength, and so far we’re not seeing that. Despite your feeling that identity politics is blocking economic progress, recent attempts to unionize in the South—which could have ripple effects nationwide—have failed because too many white workers didn’t join their Black coworkers in supporting union formation. I recommend Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, which discusses the zero sum game attitude that repeatedly prevents societal progress that would benefit all people.

12 May, 2021 19:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary K: Yes, we'll see. A lot of the federal help is stuff like the child tax credit that state-level Republicans can't do anything about.

Bathwater: You're the best judge of employment conditions in your industry. But however easy or hard it is to get another job, there may well never be another time when it's as easy as it is now.

Annie: We'll see. So far it's the blue-collar workers who are pushing back hardest, by refusing to take jobs under unacceptable conditions. There aren't yet so many cases of companies trying to force office workers back to the office, so we haven't yet seen how much resistance there will be.

We need to get away from the vision of government being the primary actor and workers being the passive recipients of aid from government policies. The greatest changes have been achieved when workers took the initiative themselves, though it's always helpful when government is on their side.

I didn't say that "identity politics is blocking economic progress", I said identity politics is one of the things which has distracted the left from focusing on class, which isn't the same thing at all. But if it's true that too many white workers have failed to support black workers in forming unions, then that would actually be a perfect example of "identity politics blocking economic progress".

13 May, 2021 01:04  
Anonymous Annie said...

Touché, Infidel. Although you are clearly correct about identity politics, my perception has been that when most people on the left use the term, they are speaking of what they regard as excessive attention to race, ethnicity, or gender—among people on the left.

13 May, 2021 05:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That may well be the case -- but using different words for the same thing, depending on which side it doing it, is the type of twisting of language that Orwell warned us about. If it's the same thing, I use the same word to describe it, regardless of who is doing it.

13 May, 2021 06:08  
Blogger Martha said...

A lot of things have surfaced with the pandemic but I'm not sure much will change long term. Humans have a way of forgetting...and not learning from history! A hard push for change is necessary.

13 May, 2021 13:50  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I just want to say that, like "Trumpism" in the Republican party, this is not a recent phenomenon. I remember many people like this during the Vietnam War days who were utterly focused on single issues, and essentially denied the importance of the wider (and far more important) struggle against domination by the hyper rich. Having thought about this for a long time, I believe that this is not even a political thing; like Evangelical Christianity, it is a way for some people to convince themselves that they are morally superior to others, without really inconveniencing themselves too much.

And may I add that this sort of thing, being apparently a consequence of human behavior, has a history that goes back well before the Vietnam era. Similar behavior is revealed for what it is in Lenin's "Left Wing Communism-an Infantile Disorder," which should be essential reading for all people who consider themselves progressives.

14 May, 2021 10:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Martha: We'll see. There have already been cases of businesses raising pay because otherwise they can't get workers. It's not a matter of raising the bosses' consciousness, it's a matter of exerting power.

Green: it is a way for some people to convince themselves that they are morally superior to others, without really inconveniencing themselves too much

That sounds like what we now call "virtue-signalling", which there certainly is entirely too much of.

The wealthy have proven very capable of using money to get power. The workers need to be able to use power to get money.

15 May, 2021 01:11  
Blogger Sue said...

Oh, but if restaurants start paying living wages, (greedy) owners will raise - significantly - the food prices. That won't go well. Perish the thought of customers only buying one super-sized (ugh!) whatever, instead of wolfing down two or more.

19 July, 2021 14:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

There are certainly plenty of people who could benefit from eating less junk food. But in other developed countries that already have a much higher minimum wage, restaurant food and even fast food is only slightly more expensive. Evidently it's possible to make it work, business-wise, if the will is there.

20 July, 2021 00:11  

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