Work and Risk: What is Wrong with the Labor Market? Or, is it the Work itself?

Working from home is the new employment dilemma for many employees and bosses, in some industries anyway. I see a growing number of articles about whether and how many workers can, should, or want to return to the office as the pandemic gradually winds down. Yet, it is clearly not that simple.

Dilemmas of Work, the Economy, and Life

In the first place, as infection, hospitalization, and death rates decline, many folks have begun to engage in wishful thinking, if they have not already been doing so since the first COVID peak began to subside. Epidemiology tells us a far more complex story. Already we see spikes here and there.

Failures of public health policies around the world and especially in the US, have allowed the virus to spread wildly in many places. This enabled it to mutate many more times in many more ways, resulting in even more varieties.

The new Delta Variant is far more infectious and potentially lethal than earlier strains. So, it is at least possible, especially in places where all public health restrictions have been lifted or where vaccination rates are low, that a new surge of infection will break out.

Working from home offers a far lower risk of infection than going to the office every day. Yet, many jobs require that the worker be present at the workplace, simply because that is where the work needs to be done. That is the obvious case with restaurants, bars, and all manner of entertainment venues. Many other workplaces require physical presence. Nevertheless, many people hesitate to return for important reasons.

First, when schools are not fully open, childcare becomes problematic if parents return to work. Second, the risk-reward ratio is not conducive to physical return to work when the enhanced unemployment benefits approach the ‘rewards’ of a minimum-wage job that entails lots of contact with the public with unknown risks.

Reactionaries (who call themselves “conservatives” but are actually authoritarian elitists) complain that workers are lazy. In private at least their attitude might be expressed as, “The masses are asses.” They assume that because workers resist returning to jobs that pay so little that they offer no incentive for abandoning the unemployment check, they must prefer a handout to pay for honest labor. These elitists assume that long hours of backbreaking work for pay that is not enough to cover both rent and food for their children is reasonable. After all, these folks deserve no more because that is how the “free market” values their labor.

Many retail businesses have fought against a modest $15- per hour minimum wage, claiming that they would have to pass on the cost to their affluent customers (who may routinely pay $30- to $50- for lunch or $7.95 for a cusomized Latte) and would cause them to lose those customers, which I seriously doubt. As Bernie Sanders has said, if you want workers to come back to work, then pay them a living wage. In cities where the minimum wage has been raised to $15- per hour or even more, no such loss of business has resulted.

Privileges of Mobility

Over recent decades, we have heard many forecasts of the “paperless office,” the “post-industrial society,” and even the merging of human consciousness into the digital intelligence of “the Singularity,” thereby realizing the techno-industrial utopian vision of humanity fully released from the travails of life on Earth. Well, sorry, but that is all a big load of intellectual crap.

We produce more paper documents than ever, using the wireless printers and plotters that fix electronic images to physical media. Manufacturing does not appear to be disappearing; only well-paying jobs have vanished behind automated factories and international outsourcing. And the utopian dreams of delusional technocrats will not enable the subsuming of human consciousness under some kind of super-smart digital life-force. Nor am I interested in their self-driving cars–how boring.

The evolution of fossil-fueled human mobility since the industrial revolution has fostered some pretty fanciful illusions, along with some remarkable achievements, including “Big Data” mobility surveilance. We have produced vehicles of all kinds that go ever faster and farther than previously imagined. We have extended communication to the point where almost every form it takes—except direct human interaction in the presence of others—can be conducted at almost any distance and tracked by both governments and corporations.

At the same time, some things just do not change. So many forms of work require physical presence and actual work with physical materials. With the exception of highly technical work requiring extensive education and/or training, most physical jobs do not come with a living wage. Until the pandemic aftermath, the supply of workers far outstripped the supply of jobs. Combined with the destruction of labor unions, this allowed corporations and small businesses alike to drive down the wages of workers to and below subsistence.

Meanwhile, most talk in the mass media has focused on the dilemma of working from home versus returning to the office—as if all those on-site jobs were irrelevant. That dilemma has not been cast as a privilege, but it is. Workers who have to labor within specific physical contexts have no mobility; they do not have the privilege of negotiating where they will work.

Tragedy or Transformation: Can We Construct a Workable World?

Our world is in transition in too many ways. Not only are many forms of labor being eliminated for the average worker. Not only are technical-intellectual workers more mobile than ever. Not only is wealth concentrating among the corporate and financial elites, with many middleclass Americans forced into a growing poverty-class. At the same time, the Earth System is destabilizing due to all the extractive-industrial-consumer activity that is changing the nature of work for some and constraining its rewards for many others. Unbeknownst to many, the industrial era is ending due to the limits to growth and planetary stability; and we do not have a Plan B.

We must change the nature of work to avoid the consequences of the catastrophic convergence of economic, ecological, and climate crises that we now increasingly feel directly. The current extreme heat in the Northwest (Portland, Oregon at 116 degrees F.?) is not an anomaly; it is part of a larger trend that will make many of the issues we fight over today, entirely moot. 

We are suddenly becoming aware that our pretentions to power over Mother Nature (and other humans) were and are a dismal fraud. We must now form a new vision of humanity in harmony with the Earth System upon which we depend in order to survive and flourish. That will require an entirely new concept of work.

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