Work Won’t Love You Back: Wanted: An Anti-Work Movement
By exposing the very human frailties of our bodies and how much we depend on the work of others to survive, the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the very old truth that, in the end, many of us work to meet our needs. other needs, not because the work is meaningful or enjoyable in itself.
An anti-work movement could begin to coalesce around actions with real effects that make people feel empowered and attract new people.
It is because of this revelation of the sadness and misery of so much of our wage labor that there has been a rush to attach great importance to the “Great Resignation”, commentators often exaggerating the extent to which workers are part of something that could be called the “anti-work movement”. This feels true in our bones these days that work sucks, and that we would rather do something else.
As Alice Herman shows in her interviews with quitting workers on page 40 of this issue, most of these workers are not necessarily interested in joining a collective struggle to end wage labor as we know it. . Instead, they leave jobs where conditions have become unbearable in a relatively tight labor market and seek new jobs. The great resignation is, as labor scholar Rebecca Kolins Givan recently put it Noted on my podcast relentless“Mostly the great job turnover.”
Just because some people who can quit their jobs doesn’t mean there will be a massive shift in power relations at work. Really changing these relationships will require larger-scale conflict.
And yet, as Herman’s article also shows, some of these workers are indeed asking bigger questions about the “American financial and capitalist machine.” While the Great Resignation and the phenomenon called “Striketober”, which I wrote about in my last column, are barely big enough or organized enough to qualify as a general strike, the time seems ripe for the rise of a real movement. anti-work. But what would such a thing look like?
In his new book, Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization, the political philosopher Rodrigo Nunes pleads for an ecological vision of movements. Rather than imagining that every organized labor movement should look like a union or a political party, or be a relatively unstructured horizontal network, Nunes suggests that there are many different shapes and forms that political organizing can take. . These groups, parties, clusters and networks of different forms will influence each other in their action.
In other words, no method works by itself. “We will all have to / push the thing from all sides / to bring it down”, poet Diane di Prima wrote in “Revolutionary Letter No. 8”. None of us individually or even in our small groups know exactly what it will take to radically transform the world of work into something that is run to meet the needs of humans rather than the accumulation of capital, but the answers come out of the process of struggle, and even our losses teach us important lessons. Organizing, writes Nunes, “gives each individual the opportunity to extend their limited capacity for action by pooling resources with others, building up a capacity for collective action, and extending its duration over time.”
The things we think of as revolutions are sometimes open conflicts – think of the American, French or Russian revolutions – but other times are the aggregate results of many changes over a relatively short period of time.
The sexual revolution, for example, began with a sense of unease, driven by widely shared conditions. Sometimes political struggles have led to changes in laws, such as overturning prohibitions on homosexuality or establishing no-fault divorce. But there have also been more personal and intimate struggles and realizations that have led groups of women to decide to help each other change their lives. The two types of changes, notes Nunes, reinforce and complement each other. But there has to be some kind of consolidation, scaling up, and institutionalization of the changes for them to last.
Based on Nunes’ ideas, what does the anti-work movement look like? Most people point to three things: the upsurge in strikes this fall among private sector workers, primarily health care and production workers, sometimes referred to as “Stricttober”; the massive job quits known as the “big quit”; and the growth of r/antiwork online community on Reddit. I would add to this the waves of unionization in creative and white-collar work, art museum workers to programmers for architects; the growth of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, which are certainly critical of labour; the work of think tanks such as Autonomy in Britain and the push for the four-day working week; a wave of anti-work books starting with Kathi Weeks The work problem and including, more recently, Amelia Horgan’s lost at work (which I reviewed for The progressive“Favorite Books of 2021” in the latest issue) and Jamie McCallum’s Reworked; community organizations that provide a gathering space for the unemployed and precarious workers; and, if somewhat unevenly, existing unions. One could also include organizing around universal basic income, a movement that has its own overlapping ecology. (See interview with Michael Tubbs, page 58.)
Others might have alternative suggestions on what might constitute the outlines of an anti-work movement. Different structures will meet the needs of different people: Are you relatively comfortable in your current job, but come to the conclusion that the current system is toxic to human (and planetary) well-being? You can start by reading books, joining a Reddit page, sharing memes, and thinking about unionizing your workplace.
If you are currently working in a dangerous or untenable job, you could quit or, if you have a union, you and your co-workers could go on strike. If you’re already unemployed, maybe you’re looking for a new, better job, or you can organize a childcare co-op in your neighborhood, or struggle with the unemployment system or people support programs. disabilities and try to find help with these things from a community group or online community.
Not all of these actions can be considered “organizing”. Quitting a job is often a personal decision that can feel deeply isolating and scary, and hanging out on a Reddit page isn’t in itself an action. It is the job of existing organizations to make themselves visible to people who might need their support, to provide policy analysis as well as practical advice, and in turn to learn from those people how best to respond to their needs.
This is how people come to political consciousness and action; it’s how classes are made up, how groups of people become more than frustrated individuals, and how ideas floating in the ether become enshrined in law.
What would that look like in practice? Take the example of Kellogg’s workers to hit this past fall.
In October, the workers walked out, demanding that any potential new contracts end the hated two-tier wage system, in which new workers were paid far less. The workers held the negotiations for two months, gaining support from other unions and other strikers, DSA groups and even US Senator Bernie Sanders, who sent a fundraising letter to his mailing list for the strike fund.
The workers rejected a potential contract negotiated by their union leadership in early December, and it was then that the company announced that it would hire “permanent replacement” workers. It is also then that the Reddit Communitypreviously a network of intellectual discussion and informal support, came into action.
According to The Washington Post“The user ‘BloominFunions‘ kicked off Antiwork, posting links to Kellogg’s factory job boards. . . and urging readers to “clog their toilets with an app pipeline”. “Sean Wiggs, a Reddit regular and programmer, created a program to spam the company with fake apps, and thousands shared it. “A year ago, I had no idea I was able to get involved in something like that,” Wiggs said. Recount the To post. “Now there are ways to help even if you can’t go and demonstrate for labor rights.”
The workers accepted the following contract offer, which decreases, but does not end, the two-tier system; conditions for Kellogg’s workers improved in modest but material ways. It’s an example of what a movement that thinks ecologically can look like – creative contributions that don’t require permission to join, but have the best interests of those primarily affected in mind.
And so an anti-work movement could begin to coalesce around actions with real effects that give people a sense of their power and attract new people. Online organizing often ends up dispersing as quickly as it comes together, but connecting with other groups built for longer-term survival (such as unions with dues and membership structures), it can add something to the ongoing struggles.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says in her classic Golden Gulag“When capabilities resulting from deliberate action are combined for purposes greater than mission statements or other tentative boundaries, powerful alignments begin to shake the ground. In other words, movement occurs.