“For over 50 years management has tried to teach workers that they should feel lucky to have a job. For the next 50 years we need to teach management they should feel lucky to have our work.”
Sara Nelson—President, Association of Flight Attendants—CWA, AFL-CIO
While Nelson’s declaration shows the labor movement’s growing strength, she surely knows that bosses have always been aware of their good luck in finding workers. Her point now is to make workers aware of that fact. Of course employers are lucky to have employees, which is why they actually pay people to go to work. They know how horrid the hours and conditions are. If there was any fun to be had in paid work the bosses would do it themselves—although speculation abounds whether bosses know what fun is. In truth, practically every human endeavor that someone must pay someone else to do is by nature substantially unpleasant. Management, having always been aware of how lucky they are to get people to perform tasks under those circumstances, have always sought to change their luck by devaluing the work their employees do.
In reality, most people are willing to work, being happiest when productively occupied. There are some “good jobs” that actually have some pleasant aspects in the nature of the work. There are some people who are particularly cut-out to cheerfully perform certain tasks that management still cannot coax anyone to do for free. There are a blessed few who get paid for doing what they love. But work for the vast majority of people the world around is so hard and boring that people must be paid. Human beings perform these drudge tasks, every day over lifetimes, because there is no other way for them to survive. And merely being paid is not always enough to get workers to keep working, at least to management’s satisfaction. Managers patrol workplaces constantly, justifying their positions by scaring workers, reminding them how lucky they are to have jobs, how lucky they are that the bosses let them travail. Meanwhile, the bosses ask, if these people are unhappy working, why do they keep showing up? They have freedom to quit…and starve. So why not be happy? But not too happy, you aren’t getting paid to have fun.
Nelson, like everyone in the labor movement, is aware of the almost universal necessity of working for a living, and that labor conditions depend on overall perceptions of those conditions. When workers agree with managers that they are lucky to have jobs, they will submit to whatever conditions, no matter how harsh, managers impose. Because no one had a choice, chattel slavery was commonplace in “civilized” cultures long before the sixteenth century, when it became the centerpiece of New World European economies. In the nineteenth century, industrialization replaced chattel slavery with wage slavery, which still predominates—a kind of social progress, because wage slaves, unlike chattel slaves, can—if they are willing to face the consequences—quit. Therefore, employers must make employees feel lucky to have jobs by reminding everyone that having no job is close to a death sentence. By keeping the labor market tight, management usually succeeds in getting labor to submit. For the last forty or fifty years, many workers have tended to agree with employers that being employed at any cost is a matter of good luck and management’s kindness. Automation, along with an exploding labor market in the Third World, has caused a speed-up process in a shrinking workplace, leaving the laboring class with little time or energy to question how thoroughly they are being used up and discarded.
No wonder corporate leaders have been publicly gloating since the eighties. History just kept sending success their way. There was even an attempt to declare history was at an end (almost recycling Marxist theory for capitalism’s use) since a world of, by, and for big business had become so firmly established as to be everlasting. In the “new order” there would, of course, be universal plenty, for anyone who went along with the program. As for rebels, there was simply no other game, and anyone employed in the new utopia was lucky. The titans of industry overconfidently ruled the world. Their “socialist” enemies were forced to kneel, at home and abroad. The titans ruled for their exclusive benefit, while assuring everyone else that the benefits would trickle down…although if the benefits stayed with the upper crust, that would be okay too. At least the lucky proles had jobs.
The benefits of freewheeling capitalism did not trickle down, and workers, those lucky enough to still have jobs and those whose luck had run out, accepted their fate. After all, history was over, and history bores most people anyway. Then came COVID-19, kickstarting history by unraveling the capitalistic “millennium.” Suddenly, with hospitals overcrowded and victims dying faster than the system could bury them, the machine stopped, but history restarted. The structure of unfettered capitalism, built on blind faith and little else, was bound to unravel. The pandemic was merely the catalyst that began the unravelling. The global social, industrial, and economic infrastructure, starved for years to increase profits, only awaited an inevitable global crisis to crumble. During pre-COVID times, some astute observers had been warning us that public resources were insufficient to handle a major breakdown, but the mantra of “government bad, private good” had become so firmly established that it held sway in the public mind. That mantra is still popular, as American elections demonstrate. But reality has a way of asserting itself, despite popular belief.
Workers who had been generally considered lowly, nearly useless, were suddenly deemed “essential”—as the plutocracy attempted to keep them working, no matter how many sickened and died. Nonetheless, workplaces soon became so dangerously contagious that most commerce came to a standstill. Medical facilities, underfunded for years, were overwhelmed with desperately sick patients, with neither the material nor human resources needed to handle the crisis. Millions of jobs vanished, while transit, commerce, and socializing ground to a halt. People fought over toilet paper. In fits and starts, society took slow, constructive steps to reduce the threat, and the pandemic eased (though it has never left) letting the world return to a new normal. As the economy revived, employers began to realize how much they needed employees, and employees agreed. Now workers are acting on their new awareness by unionizing, striking, and demanding living wages with at least a bit of respect and dignity on the job. An opportunity to establish a functioning economic democracy has arrived.
Rather than ending, history is in some ways repeating itself. In the fifties and sixties, as I was coming of age (growing up started much later and is still in progress) many adults encouraged us to find jobs that we liked doing. Once we got into the workforce during those revolutionary times, taking seriously those promises, the establishment stopped those pipe dreams cold. The military-industrial complex used prevailing media to scare most Americans of all ages, and society quickly returned to the “lucky to have a job” mindset. Now, social, economic, and political conditions similar to those of my youth are once more obvious, and again people are rebelling. Workers are again demanding their basic rights, making demands which again challenge profits and the prevailing power structure. History again shows that when people are distressed they rise to reassert their rights. Maybe we should encourage more people to study history.