When I was a kid, there was a snippet of song you’d hear in the playground: “Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Bony fingers!” Even before we left primary school, there was a sense that the world of work waited to strip the metaphorical flesh from our bones.
And those were the days when many of our parents had jobs that gently rocked them from university to retirement, padded with humane benefits and pensions. They weren’t frantically hustling all the time, juggling side gigs and split shifts, battling algorithms that rejected their résumés and bosses who e-mailed at all hours of the day and night.
For a while, it looked like things were going to continue down this demoralizing path, as profit-seeking employers tried to extract more and more value out of workers, especially those at the bottom of the wage scale. But the pandemic has been a wonderful shock to this system, galvanizing workers to come together to fight for their rights. Or to reject the system entirely.
You’ve probably heard of “the great resignation,” which has seen a record number of workers in the U.S. leaving their jobs. (So far we haven’t seen quite the same phenomenon in Canada, as The Globe and Mail’s Matt Lundy recently reported.) People are questioning the very idea of selling their labour in a rigged marketplace to employers who only recognize their utility to the bottom line. A popular subreddit features workers’ delightful parting shots at their bosses as they abandon abusive jobs. It’s as if everyone started singing along with Johnny Paycheck at the same time: “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more.”
The rupture was a long time coming. As Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times, “the pandemic led many U.S. workers to rethink their lives and ask whether it was worth staying in the lousy jobs too many of them had.”
But it’s not just in the U.S. Employers and politicians here can also hear the rumblings of discontent, the sound of voices raised together. In Ontario, where I live, Premier Doug Ford is busily scratching out the words “here for small business” on his shingle and replacing them with “friend of the working folk.” The employment amendments that his party are currently proposing are grouped together in an act called “Working for Workers.”
The problem is that these scraps, which are being tossed out just in time for next year’s election, do not go nearly far enough in addressing the underlying inequalities and lack of autonomy that too many workers experience. It’s like handing out lollipops when people need a three-course meal.
Mr. Ford announced this week that the province would be raising its minimum wage to $15 – three years after cancelling the previous Liberal government’s plan to do exactly that. It’s not like anyone could live on that money anyway. According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, people need to make $22.08 an hour in Toronto, or $18.60 in Ottawa, in order to “cover the actual costs of living in their community.” We’re not talking about saving for the future or for children’s education, or anything as wacky as possibly owning a home. That’s just the cost of existing.
After years of being nickel-and-dimed to death, workers are once again understanding their collective strength. Unions are helping gig workers organize to win desperately needed protection, such as being classified as employees rather than individual contractors. These are not popular measures with owners who like to strip-mine workers to provide value for investors, but possibly we’re realizing that people, like this planet, are not infinitely extractable resources.
That’s the view of the democratizing work movement, which argues for a whole-scale reconsidering of the way we approach employment. Last year, three female academics wrote a manifesto based on simple, rehumanizing principles around democratizing work: that workers should not be considered mere resources; that they should be given more control of their workplaces; and that environmental and social concerns should be prioritized above strictly financial goals. That’s the three-course meal rather than the lollipop.
Last month, a global forum was held to discuss democratizing work, where some leading scholars gathered to talk about how employment might be reconsidered postpandemic and in light of drastic action needed on climate change. The proposals are visionary, from the idea of a job guarantee for all people who want employment to the notion that workers’ collectives should have a central place in negotiations over climate goals. (British unions, for example, have protested the exclusion of workers’ voices from the COP26 talks.)
Thomas Piketty, everyone’s favourite inequality boffin, talked about how collective action was the driver of progressive social change in the 20th century, and how similar wide-ranging coalitions would be necessary now: “Everybody is part of the solution,” he said.
Isabelle Ferreras, one of the co-authors of the democratizing work manifesto, spoke about increasing the participation of a company’s workers – or “labour investors” – in the management of those companies. Why should people who invest their minds and bodies not have as much of an oversight role as those who invest only money?
If it seems radical, that’s because we’ve been trained to view the structure of our economic system in a particularly limited way – a way that does not benefit the people who actually create value. It took a crisis for other roads to become clear. As Dr. Ferreras put it, “democratizing work has a long way to go, but the avenue is real and possible.”
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