Something about work has changed. South Korea just had a general strike. India had one last year. Thousands are currently on strike in the US. In the past few weeks we also saw strikes in Scotland, France, and Poland. All the while the corporate world is abuzz with talk of four-day work week and r/antiwork is bursting at seams. And yet, with the end of the pandemic in sight, politicians and business leaders are going on about ‘returning to normal’.
Except workers around the world are realizing that normal was bullshit.
In the past couple of years I’ve been examining my own and the society’s relationship with work. I talked to experts and to fellow workers and I only ever grew more disheartened. By 2019 developed countries had pretty much eradicated unemployment but everyone was either burned out in a corporate job or struggling to make ends meet doing gigs and hustles. Many of us hated work as it was, but were resigned to just rolling with it until the system collapsed or the planet burned down. Eventually, the system did collapse.
During the pandemic, many people lost jobs. Others literally risked lives to keep theirs. White-collar workers became confined to home office overnight, with no chance to prepare. All of this has taken a toll, physically and emotionally, on billions of working people worldwide. Meanwhile, our corporate overlords made unfathomable amounts of money. And now that it seems the worst is behind us, they are telling us to come back and carry on as if nothing ever happened.
Honestly, fuck this.
The value of your company doesn’t come from the CEO. It doesn’t come from the boardroom or from shareholder meetings. All of it comes from the workers’ labor. That’s why we deserve better. We deserve time outside of work for our families and passions. We deserve wages that support a fulfilling life regardless of the type of work we do.
A window of opportunity has opened — a workers’ moment, if you will. To seize it, we need solidarity. Because workers’ solidarity is one of the most powerful economic and political weapons in the world. It can change workplaces, laws, and governments.
What do we do?
Join a union. If your workplace isn’t unionized, you can seek out a trade or industry union. Unions can teach you how to organize and they can offer support via casework but most importantly, they offer strength in numbers. Unions bring together people with whom you can discuss your workplace issues and whose experience you can lean on. Unlike an HR department or a manager, these fellow workers are not in service of your employer.
Ultimately, organizing isn’t about whether you’re a card-holding member of a union or not. Talk and listen to fellow workers. Understand common issues and sources of frustration. Make sure those who are often silenced are heard: people from marginalized groups (LGBT, disabled people, people of color), contractors, employees at the bottom of the corporate pyramid. Even if you earn six figures as a senior engineer or a big shot journalist, you still have more in common with a warehouse worker or the person serving you food in the office cafeteria than you do with your boss.
That’s where our collective power comes in. In many places (retail, hospitality, caretaker jobs) improvements are obvious and desperately needed, from higher wages to employment protection. But even if you have a cozy corporate job, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t demand more. Four-day work week, full-time employment for contractors, dropping customers in oil and gas and military industries, cutting emissions, more representation in leadership positions — there’s so much even the companies hailed as ‘the best places to work’ should be doing. Particularly those of us in well-paid jobs at those companies have an obligation to make noise. We should use our privilege to pressure corporations to improve workers’ lives not just for our own benefit but because when they do, others will follow.
Don’t cross picket lines
If workers decide to go on strike, stand in support. If workers call for a boycott, stand in support. Yes, it might inconvenience you. That means it’s working. If you can afford it, always be on the side of the workers. This also means supporting legislation that makes workers’ lives easier and safer especially in precarious jobs: be it increasing minimum wage, banning zero-hour contracts (or equivalent), or decriminalizing sex work.
The labor unrest currently sweeping the world is an opportunity we can forge into safer working conditions, shorter hours, and livable wages for all, not just a lucky few. As workers, we can wrestle some power back from the already rich and powerful and we can curb the exploitation of the people and the planet. You don’t need to be a revolutionary to make a difference. Solidarity starts with small gestures. With talking to fellow workers and standing by their side. With knowing that workers have never been given anything they hadn’t fought for.
For the first time in years I am not disheartened when I think about work. I am hopeful.
Want to read more?
- How to organise your workplace — advice from Industrial Workers of the World Ireland.
- Why join a union? — benefits of being a union member explained by Utility Workers Union of America.
- Crossing the Picket Line: What You Need to Know About Strikes — a column about striking and solidarity from Teen Vogue.
- On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs — a brilliant piece by the late David Graeber explaining why so many jobs feel meaningless.