Listening to What Workers Say

This week in North Philly Notes, Roberta Iversen, author of What Workers Say, provides stories and voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement.

A common question when meeting someone new is asking them, “What do you do?”

People’s work, and the labor market more broadly, occupy millions of people’s lives in the U.S. and around the globe. But why is “What do you do?” often the first question? Of course it’s partly because most people need the money that work provides—and often need more money than their particular labor market job offers. It’s also because what we “do” is often shorthand to others for “who we are.”

Yet “who we are” does not begin to touch the lack of opportunity in many of today’s labor market jobs, whether in manufacturing, printing, construction, healthcare, clerical work, retail, real estate, architecture, or automotive services. These are occupations and industries that have employed nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce since 1980, as workers in these areas since the 1980s until today vividly describe in What Workers Say. I talked to 1,200-plus people at length for this book since the early 1980s, some of them repeatedly, regardless of what occupation they hold or industry their job is in. They have all recognized that there’s little to no opportunity for promotion or advancement in their jobs, despite the fact that people, their communities, their families, and their country as a whole, need what these workers do. At the same time, too many of them are also not paid a living wage.

The workers in the above-mentioned occupations and industries—regardless of socioeconomic characteristics—typify the types of struggles, discouragement, and on-the-job injuries that continue to affect millions of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Just as Studs Terkel’s Working (1972) valuably introduced the populace to what many jobs and occupations were like across the U.S. up to the early 1970s, the workers in What Workers Say describe their jobs and occupations from 1980 to today—a period of rapid and tumultuous labor market change. For example, Tisha [a chosen pseudonym, like all of the worker’s names] in manufacturing, Joseph and Randy in construction work, and Kevin in a printing job, are among those workers who vividly illustrate the shift to service occupations from the earlier, higher-paying manufacturing occupations.

In one of the most dramatic examples of this shift, 40-year-old, African American, Hard Working Blessed, experienced multiple eye injuries on his manufacturing job, which resulted in demotion and severe wage reduction. He ended up as a Fast Food Manager, with lower pay and a job that did not make use of his extensive work experience in manufacturing. Clerical workers, such as Roselyn, Wendy, Ayesha, Susan and others similarly describe struggling with frequent recessions and layoffs over the period. Others, including Noel, Tom, and Shanquitta (for a period), describe frequent job disruptions and store closures from the increase in offshoring jobs to countries that pay workers even less than the U.S. does. And many healthcare workers, such as Laquita, Tasha, Martina, and Annie and others experience “credential creep,” where higher-level education became a hiring requirement, even though the demands of the job were suited perfectly to these applicants’ current credentials. This, of course, resulted in new forms of inequities in hiring.

In short, the workers tell the real story about today’s jobs so others can know what these jobs are really like. The richness and depth of the workers’ words help readers to understand that the formal definition of “unemployment” is very strict and does not cover many people who have been laid off or who aren’t able to look for work. Their words also illustrate the fact that since the 1980s there often haven’t been enough jobs for all who want labor market work, and that the default social policy response to low pay has been person-oriented: that more education and more skills are what is needed for greater equity in the labor market. In some cases, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the low-pay issue, to the benefit of current workers, but not in all cases and not necessarily to the level of a living wage. These workers also vividly describe what they’d really like to be doing, which leads in the final chapter to a solution that I call “compensated civil labor.” 

Drawing on German sociologist, Ulrich Beck’s idea of civil labor, I add “compensated” to the idea of civil labor. Compensated civil labor expands what we think of as work, how we do work, and particularly, how we do paid work. Compensated civil labor would allow the many people like Teresa to work at her rental car company part-time and satisfy her “heart-string” (aka her passion) of part-time food catering to her church, children’s school, and community and also be compensated for doing it. Compensated civil labor could also enable expansion of the notion of “work” well beyond the labor market in ways that can tap into today’s workers’ desire to engage in environmental protection activities, broader family participation, community contribution, and the like. In short, compensated civil labor would mean compensating people for their non-labor-market work, whether by actual money, exchange, or other forms of compensation. Data in the 2000s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics Survey and the Current Population Survey, together with numerous existing civic examples, aim to stimulate civic leaders, philanthropic foundations, educators and others to consider compensated civil labor, which could benefit workers, families, communities, and countries alike.

Overcoming Isolation in the Great Depression

This week in North Philly Notes, Abigail Trollinger, author of Becoming Entitled, writes about how workers in the 1930’s shed the stigma of unemployment and gained a sense of entitlement, and what we can learn in the age of COVID.

Unemployment is often hugely isolating, even when it happens en masse. It was for workers in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. And considering recent debates over unemployment insurance, it seems that COVID-related unemployment has left many jobless workers facing economic insecurity alone.

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform During the Great Depression tells the story of jobless workers and the urban reformers who worked to redeem them. It was an uphill climb: in the 1930’s, workers faced an American culture that was slow to defend the jobless and a federal government that was unwilling to fund the relief they needed, situations that only seemed to reinforce a jobless worker’s feeling of personal failure. As one worker described in Chicago of that year, “I was out of work two years last month. I have never gone for charity. I was ashamed to go.”

In 1932 Chicago reformers rightly sensed, then, that an unemployed worker’s first step toward survival might be the small step of seeing others like them and shedding their sense of shame. Which is why, in Chicago, the newly founded Workers’ Committee on Unemployment (WCOU) hosted seven hearings across the city that allowed workers to tell their stories, and to hear the stories of their neighbors, their landlords, their grocers, and their kids’ teachers. Once workers saw themselves as part of a group, rather than part of the problem, they were able to craft solutions to the economic crisis facing them. As members of the WCOU, workers offered collective action to solve both immediate and long-term problems.

Was a jobless worker’s electricity shut off suddenly, leaving their family in the dark? A formerly employed electrical worker could come turn it back on! Was a family unable to pay rent and thrown on the street? A WCOU member with a truck could help them move! Was a caseworker routinely cutting clients relief funds? The WCOU was there—protesting at the relief site! And were the state and federal governments failing to provide relief where it was highly deserved and much needed? The WCOU was ready to protest—like the 1932 silent march through Chicago.

What emerged from the hearings, the mutual assistance, and the protests was a sense of worker entitlement, or the belief that jobless workers had the right to ask for protection from the state—that when the economy fails, the state is responsible for preserving the dignity and livelihood of those most impacted. As a WCOU pamphlet on declining relief budgets said, “You are entitled to live.… We can not beg all the time. We must ask and demand.”

Unemployment and isolation. These are not unfamiliar concepts for many Americans right now, as the nation has faced unemployment rates between 8-14% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobless workers in the U.S. have had support in the form of the CARES Act and some stopgap emergency funds, and yet they, too, face questions about how much relief they really need. Debates in Congress over stimulus plans (the Heroes Act and the Heals Act), in which legislation has stalled over how much weekly income the unemployed should receive (ranging between $200 and $600 a week), suggest that either jobless workers have a miraculous economy of thrift or that they earn more than they say. And on October 5 the Wall Street Journal reported that some states are requesting that workers who were inadvertently paid more than they were allotted should return as much as $8,000 to the state.

Workers in 1932 did not have a pandemic to reckon with, but their story is a reminder of the fact that entitlement is not a given, even in the midst of national crisis. As we approach the 2020 election, let us call for a generous entitlement that offers both relief and dignity to the many thousands of Americans who currently feel isolated in their economic insecurity.

%d bloggers like this: