discuss the union organizing of the Student Workers of Columbia and workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and REI, and the future of work
“Spadework” and “Labor Without Love” by Alyssa Battistoni
and “Debt and Study” in The Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
Wednesday, October 26, 2022, 6:15-8:45 PM
Jerome Greene Annex, Columbia University
Something is happening among workers in America. We are in a time of turmoil and change. Moments like this have great promise.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered what people now call “the Great Resignation,” or what NPR labeled the “Great Renegotiation.” Beginning in early 2021, workers started quitting their jobs en masse, some of them retiring, others looking for better jobs, yet others working at home. That year, 47.8 million workers quit or changed jobs, an all-time high. The pace continued in 2022, and it has now extended into a new phase that people are calling the “Quiet Resignation.” According to Zaid Khan, who popularized the notion on TikTok, quiet quitting is “where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties,” Khan explains, “but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”
At the same time, there have been increasing movements toward unionization, as evidenced by the successful union vote at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, at R.E.I. in Soho, and at many Starbucks stores. The National Labor Relations Board reports a 57% rise in the number of filings of union election petitions for the five months following October 2021. “More than 250 Starbucks locations filed petitions, and after notching a first win late last year, 54 Starbucks company-owned stores have formally organized,” according to CNBC. “Google Fiber contractors in Kansas City successfully voted to unionize their small office in March becoming the first workers with bargaining rights under the one year-old Alphabet Workers Union.” This year, so far, the unions have prevailed in about 77% of the union elections, which is the highest rate in recorded history. For the first half of 2022, 78,000 workers have gone on strike, which is three times more than for the same period in 2021. Moreover, since 2010, there has been a steady increase in public approval of labor unions—from a low of 48% to a high of 71% in 2022, the highest approval rating for labor unions since 1965.
The Times They Are A-Changin’.
As Alyssa Battistoni shows in her essay “Labor without Love” in The Nation, all of these changes and transformations need to be placed within the larger arc of broad societal shifts in labor associated with deindustrialization, automation, and the rise of the service industries. The number of manufacturing jobs in the United States declined continuously since the mid twentieth century, thereby reducing the type of work that came with solid benefits, stability, and even, in some cases, pensions—replaced by more precarious jobs in the service sector. Automation has always been the source of both utopic and dystopic visions of the future. At one end, some believe that it will ring in the end of work and leisure time for everyone. That was always part of the ideal of a communalist future. At the other end, some believe it will come with scarcity, even greater inequality, and a collapse of social structures.
Welcome to Utopia 3/13!