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Jamie McCallum on the Campbell Conversations

Jamie McCallum
Jamie McCallum

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Jamie McCallum about the rights and interests of workers. McCallum a sociology professor at Middlebury College and the author of, "Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice."

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. We've heard a lot during the pandemic about the difficult situations and exhausting demands placed on workers deemed essential. How did COVID change struggles for workers’ rights and workers interests? My guest today has written a recent book on the topic titled, “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”. Jamie McCallum is a sociology professor at Middlebury College and also the author of, “Worked Over: How Round the Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream”. Jamie, welcome to the program and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Jamie McCallum: Thank you for having me.

GR: Yeah, it's great to have you. So let's start with your more recent book, about, “Essential”. And I want to unpack some of the title of the book. So, worker justice, that's obviously a big contested term. What does worker justice mean in the context of your book?

JM: It just means that the American economy, the American social system treats workers like just like their disposable, like they are a servants class. And so, you know, the idea, I guess if you're thinking about the end game here, is for workers to have a voice, for workers to have power on the job, for workers to be able to live a dignified life without working 60 hours a week, frankly, without working 40 hours a week. And so I think that, you know, the pandemic revealed if we weren't, if we didn't know it before, the extent to which workers lives are dramatically and wildly unjust. And so we have to do something to right that wrong.

GR: And so how did you get the idea to write this specific book? I do know that you regard yourself both as an academic and an activist, so worker justice is a passion of yours. But why this specific book? How did this come about in your head?

JM: Well, I wrote the other book as you said, in the beginning, “Worked Over”, and then it came out in 2020. But it was not about the pandemic. So I thought that, you know, there was a chance that everything I said in that book was going to be wrong. And so I thought, well, I better write another book pretty quick about the economy. And it turns out that I was not wrong. Everything that was bad before the pandemic was just worse during the pandemic. So that other book seemed actually sort of prescient. But the issues that were in that other book were mostly about labor time and worker voice and power and what not. And those issues were really on the table during the pandemic. So I started interviewing people about their health and safety conditions and working time and I quickly realized that there was also a real political justice angle to what they were going through that wasn't just about safety or long hours, but it really was about what workers were doing on the job to make better jobs that were better for them and for the rest of us. So that sort of became the focus of the book. The other thing is that I'm a volunteer firefighter, and so I was technically an essential volunteer worker during the pandemic. And so you interact with the cops and with EMT and EMS and some health care workers here and there, and you get a sense of, some sense of what people are doing and that became interesting to me too.

GR: And I want to go back to what your impression of is what the status of the worker justice issue in flight was just prior to the pandemic. So, before and then I want to ask you about how the pandemic changed the dynamics of those struggles. But at least before the pandemic, what was the trajectory of worker justice advocacy leading up to 2020? Was it kind of at a low point where workers, relatively speaking, historically at a particular kind of point of weakness in 2020 would you say?

JM: Well, there was a couple of different things. One is that the American working class is poorly organized. And so they are, even at their peak, there are often comparably weak to other, when you think about other peer countries. However, if you think about pre-pandemic, you have a couple of factors. You have the 2018-2019 strike wave of teachers, which was a serious high point for worker militancy, worker organizing and worker power that really did drive up standards and conditions in schools for a lot of teachers, those who were on strike and those who weren't actually. You have the Fight for 15 which gave momentum over the previous decade and had significantly increased low wage work, it increased wages across the economy.

GR: When you say fight for 15 you mean the $15 minimum wage right?

JM: Yeah, the $15 minimum, which is supposed to be $15 and a union, but mostly we forgot about that part and mostly we were talking about wages. But it did succeed in pushing wages up, in some cases doubling the minimum wage. You also had a tight labor market, so in 2018-2019 unemployment was pretty low, which also tends to drive wages and conditions up. However, you know, the labor movement was unprepared, I would say, for those things. You also had a pretty heavy gig economy. You still had an economy that was basically addicted to low wage work. And there was, you know, I would say if you were, you know, you had longer hours than we'd ever had before, you had like skyrocketing hours, stagnating wages. So some of those things did not change over the previous decade since the sort of recovery from the Great Recession. And so I would say the pandemic hit workers, not at an absolute low point but certainly, you know, things weren't great when that happened before.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Middlebury College professor Jamie McCallum about his recent book, “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”. So let's get into COVID now. The pandemic hits and obviously there's a lot of attention paid to these essential workers. How does the pandemic transform then, this fight for worker justice in broad terms?

JM: So it did a few things. First, the labor movement has rarely been more aligned with a racial justice movement because the essential working class was so disproportionately black and brown and so female. And there was there was so much unrest that had to do with racial justice during the pandemic. The labor movement, you know, essential workers were the only people in public life during those first, you know, six or seven months. And so people began to really understand that social issues were in many cases fundamentally about workplace disputes and workplace power. And the summer of 2020 had the, you know, Black Lives Matter protests, some of the biggest protests ever in American history. The leaders of those protests were also leaders in the essential worker movement. So it made sense that there was a lot of cross-pollination between the black freedom struggle and the movement for worker justice in the workplace. So that was really important. Another thing was that the pandemic, the urgency of it really drove workers to take matters into their own hands. In ways that don't often happen. So a third of the strikes in 2021 were led by workers without a union, which means they just, they were (unintelligible), some are spontaneous, some were very short, sort of uber-democratic, very grassroots and bottom up and workers really had to rely on each other to take action. Another way I think it transformed these fights was that the public sympathy or public support for labor really did climb a little bit in 2020 in the last couple of years. We're now at a decades long high for support for unions in the public and a decades long low against support for corporations which is a pretty dramatic shift. It lent more credence to the need for larger labor law reforms which we haven't gotten yet. And I think that the public understanding of the significance of the labor movement was increased during the pandemic. So I would say those three things were important in 2020 and 2021. Now we have seen the sort of long tail of the pandemic and some of the experimental campaigns that were born in 2020 around the Amazon stuff, low wage workers in service sector, we see it coming to fruition with the Starbucks campaign and even some of the grad student workers across campuses across the country. So there was a lot of strategic experimentation that was born in 2020 that is now sort of becoming visible.

GR: It's interesting you mentioned the grad student workers. I just say this as an aside, but I'm here at Syracuse University and the grad students at Syracuse University just this past week voted to unionize. It's been something that, I've been on the faculty for decades and it's been talked about for years and years and years and this is the time now where it finally happened. So interesting that you mentioned that. I'm curious to know whether there were important differences in these kinds of dynamics that you're talking about and the increased voice and power of workers between different sectors or types of essential workers in terms of, you know, improvements in their condition and pay and how those things were dealt with and adjusted were, you know, were health care workers in a more favored position than teachers and police? Were there sector dynamics that played out?

JM: Yeah, so I talked to health care workers, teachers, delivery drivers and logistics people, food workers, like in meatpacking factories, so those kinds of folks. And you know, it was pretty clear that everyone knew that health care workers were essential, especially nurses. The nurses got like, you know, they were the most recognized probably. But, you know, I talked to fast food workers who were like who were also home care workers because both of those jobs pay so little that they worked them both. And they often said, well, the public received us well, as in our caregiving capacity, but as fast food workers, we deemed just as worthless as we were before the pandemic as during, right? Yet, they were doing face to face work giving people food, right? Which is a pretty important job. And so I think that we look back now and we think, oh, well, we know who was essential, who was not. But in 2020 it was pretty capricious who fell under that distinction and who didn’t. And to some extent, if you did, clearly you had some, you had a little bit more power. Like people gained power from being called essential because they were keeping the rest of society alive. And people were like, oh, they deserve rights or a raise or sick days. But if you weren't, if you were just a fast food worker or in this case recently just a railway worker, you don't deserve those things. And I think that, so the distinction between who was in and who was out of the sort of essential working class mattered more for just, more than just what we called them. It mattered what they were able to get in the workplace politically, etc.

GR: That's interesting. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Jamie McCallum. He's a Middlebury College sociology professor and the author of, “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice” and we've been discussing his book. So I've heard and read the following labels of what happened to the workforce during the pandemic. We've heard the great resignation, the great retirement, the great job switch, I'm sure there are some others out there that have “great” in front of them. Which are these are correct? Are they all correct or, you know, how do we characterize that piece of it?

JM: You're talking about the sort of wave of quitting and rehiring and all that stuff?

GR: Yeah.

JM: So there's a few things. One is that America has a very unique unemployment system where we just laid everybody off. And what happens if you just lay tens of thousands of people off is you can't just rehire them all back six months later in the same job. You have like what economists call a massive reallocation problem, because people change jobs and jobs disappear and rolls are no longer needed and people take other jobs, whatever. And so that was one problem that contributed to our inability to bounce back with hiring in a way that, you know, northern Europe, Western Europe did not have because they furloughed people, they didn't lay them off. The other thing is that, yes, there was a wave of quitting, it was historic, but it was really also a wave of rehiring. People were not rejecting work. Like I think there was this moment when everyone thought, oh, everyone's like turning their back on the workplace. It's like they were just getting other jobs that were hopefully better paid and the data was pretty clear. In fact, the hiring outpaced the quits. So the other thing, the word the great resignation is, I think, an interesting term which I think was unintentional early on. But it suggests that people were resigned to the way things were in a sense. I think it suggested that people were yes, they were resigning from their jobs, but they were not, there was sort of a resignation subjectively, too. And in fact, that that great resignation corresponded to Striketober, one of the largest strike waves of the pandemic. People were by no means resigned to business as usual. And so they took that opportunity of a really tight labor market to push back. And there was a lot of gains won during those times. Now, if we look at what happened since then, you know, we've recovered about 88% of our child care capacity and about 90% of our elder care capacity, which means there is still an incredible amount of unpaid care work that is keeping people out of the labor force. So we still do have a tight labor market. There is still the idea that, you know, nobody wants to work anymore, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fallout from the pandemic that we just, there was a lot of people who simply cannot go to paid work right now because they're doing essential caregiving for friends, family, kids, elders, whatever.

GR: And that, the last thing you said there reminds me, you know, when you when you drive around here in Syracuse, you will see billboards advertising signing bonuses and higher starting salaries for nurses in particular I noticed but usually it's health care workers. And I think that creates also the impression of this, you know, great resignation that people have turned their back on work because they see these billboards and they say people don't want to, you know, gee, you don't want to work for $30 an hour or something.

JM: Right, right. I mean, yeah. If you look at the census, the census asked you each week, why don't why didn't you work last week? And have people tell you and you know, they don't say, I don't want to work this week. They say, I have caregiver responsibilities, you know, there's all kinds of other reasons why people are right now still kept out of the labor market. So, you know, the other thing about that is, is like, yes, you know, people are offering higher wages and signing bonuses or whatever. But, A: everyone knows that those things there easily take-away-able, if you do take that job, you know, it’s six months down the line. And B: it might simply just not be enough. Like we have a lot of registered nurses in America, they're not working as nurses, you know? We don't actually have a shortage of registered nurses. They're leaving the profession because the jobs are so horrible. And when people are like, well, we did make the jobs better, it's like, well, they're not good enough, I guess, you know, like that's the only - in a capitalist economy, we have a very easy answer to a labor shortage, is money. Like money is a cure for a labor shortage. And if you say, well, pay nurses $1,000,000, it's like, oh, well that's too much. Well, what is the right amount? And we have to figure that out. And right now, we keep expecting people to accept something that they're unwilling to accept. And I just think that's not, it's clearly not a working model.

GR: And I want to ask you a question about President Biden. He has always, I think, characterized himself as an advocate for the working man and the working woman. Has his presidency made an important impact in this struggle that you write about?

JM: I mean, you know, I think we all thought, I mean, I think I would have characterized him a little bit differently. Like Biden was Clinton-light a little bit, for a lot of his career. And Clinton was not exactly, you know, he presided over the end of welfare as we know it. He presided over NAFTA, CAFTA and everything AFTA. And I think that we thought he was going to be like austerity, you know, insane. Instead he came in with this kind of like, oh, I'm the next Lincoln, the next FDR kind of thing, you know? And we're all like, oh, okay, that's cool, that's good, you know? And I think what he did was he read the room really well in 2020 and like, you know, milquetoast Socialism was like the thing that people were talking about. It was like higher wages, time off, paid sick leave, child care, all this stuff. And he was like, let's do that. But I think over the last year, he has showed his true colors. I mean, fighting the railway workers, the way he did on paid sick days, the one thing we thought we would get out of the pandemic was a pretty low blow. And so you know, he came out in support of Amazon workers and that's cool, that's great. But, you know, he did not lean on his own party enough. To push them to pass the Pro Act, which would have revolutionized labor law in America. So I think, you know, he is better than we thought he would be. But there is a long way to go. Also, you know, being the most pro-union president in American history is like the lowest bar you can possibly aspire to, because the standards are just, you really have to look back like about 100 years to get someone who's done something that's really, really changed the landscape in a pro-labor direction. And the fact that Biden did some of those things a little bit two years ago, you know, I think is like, doesn't let him off the hook, basically.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Middlebury College professor Jamie McCallum. So I'm curious now, a lot of the economic conversations are about inflation, obviously. And related to that, a desire on the part of, I think a lot of analysts and some policymakers to see wages and prices take more of a pause, do you think that's put some headwinds into this struggle right now?

JM: You mean the tension between workers wanting more money and corporations saying we don't want to? Yeah. I mean, that is the, I think that is the tension. I think that, you know, workers and the labor movement developed a sense of momentum and a sense of rightful entitlement, which sounds like a conservative buzzword. But it's like you're entitled to a good life, you know? This is America. And so I think that they don't want to let that momentum die. And they want to build on some of the, you know, power and bargaining power and leverage that they gained in 2021-22. And corporate America is like not so fast, we are addicted to low wage jobs. And the labor movement's job is to break them of that addiction. And so I think that has set us up for an extended, protracted, I don't know, class struggle. I mean, we see this happening. Right now there's I think ten campuses of grad workers on strike, you know? I think almost a third of Starbucks campaigns that are unionized have been on strike at some point. Union organizing petitions are up 65% from the year before. So people are really pushing back. And I think, you know, management is pushing back, employers are pushing back as well. And I think that is, you know, causing that strife is a real source of a lot of the friction that we're seeing.

GR: We've got about 4 minutes left or so. But I want to try to squeeze in a couple kind of bigger questions at the end here. And the first one is, obviously you came to this study that has resulted in this book, “Essential” with a lot of prior knowledge of work force issues. You're a sociologist of labor, you've been part of the labor movement. I was just curious, in the course of your research and your field work for this particular book, did you come across anything that just completely surprised you, even given your level of prior knowledge, like, wow, you know, I did not realize that.

JM: I mean, I think it's remarkable that workers were actually able to organize in the middle of a global pandemic. Labor organizing is hard anyway, like in the best sunniest sky blue day, it's very, very hard and very, very difficult. And the fact that they led strikes in nursing homes at the epicenter of a pandemic that raised wages and standards to protect patients is like, it's mind blowing. I mean, I been an organizer in nursing homes and hospitals, it's really hard to do that and they did it. And, you know, we absolutely need nurses at the bedside. We also need them at the bargaining table. Like we need CNA’s in nursing taking care of people and we need them on picket lines every once in a while to raise standards so that our loved ones that are in there get a better deal. And the fact that they did that was totally remarkable. I did not think it would happen. You know, I interviewed Chris Smalls in 2020, he's like, we're going to unions to Amazon. I was like, okay, you know, and I hung up the phone. And then they did it, you know? So some of those victories and some of those movements were totally, you know, kind of unprecedented. And I don't think there's a great historical parallel for what happened at Amazon. And so I think those things were remarkable. The pushback against them, totally predictable. And so I think there is like, you know, you have to keep, I try not to be too Pollyanna-ish about it, but yeah, some of that stuff that happened in in the heat of the pandemic was pretty surprising.

GR: And then finally, we got about a minute and a half left. This last question is somewhat vague, and I apologize for that. But I wanted to just see if you had any thoughts about this issue, and you mentioned it before, you mentioned the phrase milquetoast socialism. I think when you were talking about Joe Biden and it sort of comes out of that, is that some of the people I've talked to about the pandemic who didn't have the good fortune that you and I have as faculty members to be kind of immune from worrying about layoffs and losing our jobs, at least for things like this. The pandemic was a financial windfall for them. I mean, they were either late, they laid off and qualified for the federal bump in unemployment gave them a large, effective raise on top of the stimulus money that their families were getting. So they experienced this federal government largesse and they in their minds, they came out ahead. I was just wondering, does that change the dynamic in any way, maybe take some of the urgency out of this? And I've only left you with about a half a minute to answer this question. (laughter)

JM: Well, I mean, just to take you know, you mentioned our jobs. You know, my university, our endowment went up by a third, which is a lot. We have a billion dollar endowment and my wages have been cut pretty significantly during that time. So, you know, and then you factor in inflation and you're talking about a different ballgame. So, yes, there was some, you know, it changed the dynamic between those who worked in person, those who did not. But I think still there's reason for, you know, optimism.

GR: Well, I'm sorry you got a pay cut, I didn't know that. We'll have to leave it there. And this was very interesting. That was Jamie McCallum, again, his book is titled, “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice”, it's got a lot of interesting stories in it. Jamie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

JM: Thank you for having me.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.