Covid, Class, and Consciousness: Reflections from the Third Year of the Plague, by Edward Dunsworth

The restauranteurs are worried.

Two years into the pandemic, and it’s getting harder and harder to find good workers.

“It’s not about the money anymore,” Paolo Oliveira, owner of two Montréal restaurants, told the Montreal Gazette in November. “We’re offering more money than ever in our industry, which we can’t afford…. [Restaurant workers] just don’t want to do this anymore. They took a step back with COVID and they’re saying — OK what’s going to make me really happy?”

For Oliveira, the culprit is clear: the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), the federal program that provided $2,000 per month to workers losing most or all of their income due to Covid-19. The CERB was in effect from March to September 2020, when it was replaced with a broadly similar (albeit more restrictive) scheme that extended until October 2021.

“The CERB triggered this,” Oliveira explained. “[Restaurant workers] got easy money for the past year. Twelve months of free money gives you time to reflect about what you want to do.”

“What COVID made people realize is that we’re in the most difficult, most precarious industry.”

For fellow Montréal restauranteur Raegan Steinberg, blame should also be placed on a shift in values among workers, especially young ones. “It’s a generational thing,” Steinberg explained. Whereas when she entered the restaurant business, she was willing to work for any wage and even “volunteer” her time, nowadays “there’s this kind of entitlement. I guess it’s good in the sense that they’re trying to get their worth. But it’s about doing the least and getting paid the most.”

As a result of these labour problems, both restaurant owners have had to scale back their establishments’ opening hours.[1]

It’s not only Montréal restauranteurs who are concerned. Across the rich world, people are quitting their jobs in droves, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit.” In the United States, over 47 million people quit their jobs in 2021, with the trend accelerating in the year’s final quarter. In the United Kingdom, workers are quitting at the highest rate since 2009. In the European Union and Canada the trends have not been as stark, though they are visible in certain sectors. But with the mutually reinforcing trends of tight labour markets and rising inflation prevailing in both, it might simply be a matter of time before the phenomenon takes hold across these economies too.[2] The Big Quit has been joined in the United States by an uptick in labour militancy, with workers at various high profile health care, manufacturing, and food and beverage firms going on strike in recent months.[3]

Though some early, over-eager commenters were quick to label the Great Resignation – and its simultaneous labour actions – a “general strike,” it most certainly is not that.[4] For starters, people aren’t simply quitting and withholding their labour from the labour market altogether. For the most part, they are quitting in order to take better, higher paying jobs elsewhere. And those who have left the labour force either permanently or for an extended period of time are either retirees or people who have left their job in order to provide care for family members. Second, a bare minimum threshold for something to be defined a “general strike” must surely be for its “participants” to actually identify as participants in something resembling a general strike. Even the minor strike uptick in the United States, encouraging though it may be, does not come anywhere close to being “general.”

And yet, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here. Up and down the ladder of wages and working conditions, from baristas to brand consultants, workers are taking action to improve their lot, on individual and collective bases alike. And it’s not simply about workers acting upon material macroeconomic conditions (though of course it is that too).

What, then, can we make of the Great (or, in some places, not so Great) Resignation?

Without running the risk of romanticizing, I think we can reasonably make at least one (guardedly) optimistic argument: that, across the labour force, the pandemic and its compounding effects – the syndemic – has wrought an upsurge in class consciousness, specifically consciousness about the class relationship between workers and employers. That is to say that, for many workers, the experiences of the last two years have made abundantly clear what waged work, at root, is about: exploitation and domination.

As low-wage “front-line” workers got sick and died, while either being denied pay increases or given nearly-as-insulting temporary pay bumps; as health care workers were praised out of one corner of politicians’ mouths, and then – out of the other – told sternly that they would have to sacrifice decent pay and working conditions for the good of society; as office workers received resounding confirmation of what they had long known, that the 9-5 work regime has little to do with actual job performance and much more to do with hierarchy and control; as all these things happened, long standing ideas about work – from “do what you love” to the notion that jobs are gifts to be grateful for – found themselves buckling under renewed scrutiny.

Everywhere, it seems, workers are refusing – or at least questioning – these logics and asserting the value of their own lives, wellbeing, dignity, and humanity over the profits of employers, in the process sidestepping the ubiquitous work-valorizing ideology that has predominated in our society for many decades.

R/Antiwork logo, Reddit.

Some of these are stories of individual actions taken by workers to improve their lot. Taking advantage of a tight labour market (in part due to all those workers staying home to care for their children or parents), workers in a wide range of sectors have been able to switch jobs to get better wages and conditions, or use the situation to extract improvements from current employers. We can draw one example from the Reddit community, “Antiwork” (more on that later). In January 2022, user -herekitty_kitty- (whom we’ll call Kitty), wrote a post entitled, “My work is getting nervous about people leaving. Guess who’s about to ask for a big raise?” Here’s Kitty’s story:

I’m definitely getting underpaid. I took the job a year ago because I’m very very new to the field (career change) but I’ve learned A LOT in that year…. There has been a recent surge in people quitting and the executives are sh*tting bricks. I overheard the CEO talking to the CFO about budgeting extra staff raises and bonuses. I’m going to use this opportunity to get a large raise…. Several [upper managers] have made comments that the Great Resignation are just lazy people wanting free money from the government. I can’t roll my eyes any harder…. Luckily, they can’t say sh*t to a Latina or they’ll be seen as ‘racist.’[5]

Kitty’s post does not suggest someone who believes themselves to be a lone individual actor, but instead demonstrates something that looks a lot like class consciousness.

A few weeks later, Kitty updated Redditors with the result of her request: she succeeded in securing a 46% raise with added perks.[6]

Not all quitting stories are such happy ones, of course, particularly for workers in sectors where quitting (or using one’s leverage) is less about maximizing income and more about escaping, or even surviving. Nowhere is this more on display than in the exodus from healthcare – nursing in particular. In the United States, one out of every five health care workers has quit their job since the start of the pandemic.[7] Precise resignation statistics for Canada are not available, but the trend is the same: hospitals and clinics are bleeding nurses at an alarming rate. And many of those who remain are planning to quit: a 2021 survey revealed that 4.5% of nurses plan to retire either very soon or immediately after the pandemic is over; even more stunningly, 13% of nurses between the ages of 26 and 35 are “very likely to leave the profession” once Covid abates.

The reasons are not mysterious: chronic underfunding, stagnant pay, and abysmal working conditions have made nursing – the linchpin of our pandemic response, or our response to any health issue – an incredibly unattractive job. Sonja Bernhard of Hamilton, Ontario, who quit her full-time nursing job in order to take a part-time position combined with lower-paying teaching work, explained that she could no longer work under such “dangerous” conditions. “I’m tired, done, finished, mentally checked out. I am 100% burnt out,” Berhnard said.[8]

Alongside such individual tales are the collective ones: strikes or threats of strikes by healthcare workers, in Canada (New Brunswick), New Zealand, Australia; and strikes or unionization drives in the United States by healthcare workers too, along with workers at John Deere, Kellogg, various coffee chains, and elsewhere. In at least some of these campaigns, workers make an explicit distinction between individual tactics of labour mobility and collective action. As Jordy Vargas, a barista participating in a union drive at a Philadelphia coffee shop, explained: “I thought to myself, I don’t feel like going from job to job, recognizing that things could be better here, I could be paid more, rather than going to another job and potentially feeling the same things.”[9]

Accompanying the surging action – whether individual or collective – is what appears to be changing attitudes towards work – or, at minimum, in the discourse about work.

As one emergency responder in the United States reportedly said, “When you realize your boss will kill you, it changes your relationship to work.”[10]

Although Covid posed a vastly lower risk to office workers, the pandemic has still occasioned a wave of reconsideration of the role of work in white collar workers’ lives too.

For many in ruthlessly demanding office jobs, Covid has pushed them to their breaking point. One such workplace is Amazon, which readers will be shocked (shocked!) to learn squeezes their white collar employees just as hard as their blue collar ones, even if the pay is (wildly) better. Programmers, engineers, and others are commonly expected (unofficially of course) to work past midnight and be permanently on-call. Senior program manager Sarah Schnierer described the stresses that led her to leave her position in January, after five years with the company. “The pressure often feels relentless and at times, unnecessary. Employees are burnt out,” Schnierer wrote in a goodbye message to a group of fellow working mothers at Amazon that was also shared with her bosses. With “all the stress of raising two kids, Covid and daycare closures,” Schnierer explained in a subsequent interview with Bloomberg, “I was so wiped…. Since the pandemic it wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse.”[11] Schnierer was not jumping right into a new job. “This is an especially important moment for me as I give great thought to balancing my pursuits with parenting during a pandemic,” she explained.[12]

“Bullshit Jobs on Bellenden Road,” Image by Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Other white-collar workers hold very different sorts of jobs, the sort that the late, great anthropologist David Graeber brilliantly explored in his book Bullshit Jobs. In the opening paragraph of a 2013 essay that led to the book, Graeber introduced the “bullshit job” phenomenon: “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular,” he wrote, “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”[13]

From HR consultants to financial strategists to corporate lawyers, Graeber uncovered a teeming mass of people across the wealthy world who were working jobs that they believed had very little good reason to exist – in some rich countries, as many as 35 per cent of workers (!) report feeling this way about their jobs. Rather than being thrilled to have jobs for which they are well-compensated and which often allow ample “free” time while on the clock, Graeber instead found that the overwhelming majority of people working “bullshit jobs” are instead made utterly miserable by the situation.

While Covid is unlikely to have made many people realize that their job is “bullshit” – one of Graeber’s key points is that almost everyone working a bullshit job is painfully aware of it – it is possible that the pandemic has afforded people greater license to openly discuss it, in contrast to the state of affairs as Graeber saw it in 2013 (and upon the book’s publication in 2018) – and perhaps even to take action to remedy the situation.

I didn’t have to look to far to find someone who had quit a “bullshit job” in part as a result of the pandemic. A dear friend of mine, Richie, did just that in December, leaving a job in the civil service without a clear idea of what would come next. Richie had disliked his job from day one, but persisted simply because it appeared to be the best option available. When Covid first hit, it had the effect of keeping him in the job, given the unattractiveness of leaving a well-paying position during a moment of such profound insecurity. As the pandemic wore on, however, it forced Richie to a reckoning. “What [Covid] did was: it removed all the release valves, all the escape valves that I had before. [Before], yes, my job was shit, and I hated it. But at the end of the day, I could go to a movie, or I could go for dinner, or go to a bar and go to a concert. And my income from my job provided me with the means to do that.” The pandemic removed these “escape valves,” but also prompted Richie to consider that, “Ultimately, [these activities are] just a distraction… a paltry recompense for all the time that I’m giving away to this thing that I don’t believe in. And do I really need those things?”

It was a conversation with a government-employed financial planner (one of the “perks” available to civil servants) that gave Richie the final push to quit. In outlining a retirement savings strategy, the planner matter-of-factly stated, to Richie’s recollection, “Well, presumably you’re going to keep working here for 29 more years, and when you reach 65 you’ll [have a certain retirement arrangement in place].” Hearing the years enumerated like that was something of a wake-up call for Richie. “Twenty-nine years. Wow. That’s a really long time. If I’m still there… honestly, I will kill myself. This cannot be my life. I cannot spend all of my most active and useful years contributing to this absolute nonsense. It doesn’t benefit anybody. And it just makes me feel dead inside.” The number one reaction he has gotten in telling people his story is: “Oh man, I wish I did that.”[14]

One of the most exciting examples this newfound openness for criticism of work – and even for the declaration of jobs as “bullshit” – comes from the Reddit community “Antiwork,” from which we drew Kitty’s story. The community – or “subreddit” in the parlance of the site – boasts the tagline, “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” and explains that it is “A subreddit for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.”[15]

“Antiwork” has soared in popularity over the course of the pandemic, with its userbase increasing by a factor of ten between October 2020 and now (from 180,000 users to 1.8 million). Subreddit moderator Doreen Ford explains that “Everyone has hit their limit with COVID, overwork, their mortgages, rent payments and so many things with capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a break from that and do less of it.”[16] (In China, a fascinating, parallel movement, called “laying flat,” has taken off over the same period.)[17]

On the Antiwork subreddit, stories abound that are remarkably similar to those chronicled by Graeber – people doing pointless jobs and feeling miserable about it. Many of these narratives now have a pandemic twist (and some very recent ones a Russia-Ukraine war twist), with commenters identifying new lows in self-esteem brought on by doing a pointless job in the midst of crisis.[18] For others, as was the case for ex-Amazonian Schnierer, the conditions of the pandemic forced them to make a change.

Many left-wing commentators tend to place these two categories of worker agency – individual and collective – in a ranked relationship, with individual tactics such as Kitty’s being understandable but ultimately besides the point in the struggle against capitalism, while collective action is valourized as the truly righteous and meaningful path. Of course, we all know that societal change almost always requires broad-based action of one sort or another.

“Unite Here: Local 1 Hotel Workers on Strike Downtown Chicago Illinois 9-17-18,” Image by Charles Edward Miller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But I think it is a bit short-sighted to adopt such a moralistic ranking of worker activity. Instead, I contend that we can see both trends – “fuck you, pay me” and “fuck you, pay all of us” – as part of the same general phenomenon, a growing awareness – and expression – of the classed relationship between employee and employer. To be sure, this is only part of “class consciousness” and the other, more commonly considered part is about recognition of one’s membership in a larger collectivity (class) of similarly positioned people. But it seems to me that the first part of class consciousness is an important step towards the second part, and that “individual” tactics might often not be nearly so “individual” as we tend to think.

Consider again the case of Kitty and the Antiwork subreddit at large. Kitty’s story – like so many others on the site – is indeed one about a single individual. In Kitty’s case, it was success story, but many more on the subreddit are stories of employer abuse or callousness or idiocy. But, importantly, these are individual stories shared with a community, a community whose members are constantly learning from and supporting each other. As Kitty wrote when she announced her triumph: “Thanks to all for giving me the courage!”[19]

Historically, a churning labour market and worker militancy often go hand in hand – a symbiosis of individual and collective actions rather than a neat separation. Think for example, of the full employment and rising wages in World War I-era Canada that led into the postwar “workers’ revolt,” whose biggest – but far from only – expression was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.[20]

Like the Montréal restauranteurs we met at the start of this article, some bigger business interests are concerned, with a Goldman Sachs report worrying that “the Antiwork movement may be a long-run risk to labor force participation.” The report went on to explain that: “We see some risk that some workers will choose to stay out of the labor force for a longer period if they can afford it.”[21]

To be sure, we don’t want to overstate the situation here. The anxieties of Goldman Sachs and small-time entrepreneurs notwithstanding, capital is not exactly cowering under the covers.

But maybe, just maybe, one of the happier outcomes of this dreadful period of time will be an increase in class consciousness, one that helps to deliver a better life for workers, from Burger Kings to boardrooms.

Edward Dunsworth is assistant professor of history at McGill University.

[1] Brendan Kelly, “Cultural shift to blame for staff crunch, Montreal restaurant owners say,” Montreal Gazette, 4 November 2021, Link to source.

[2] Jennifer Liu, “Roughly 47 Million People Quit Their Jobs Last Year: ‘All of This Is Uncharted Territory,’” CNBC, 1 February 2022, Link to source; Grace McGrenere, “The Great Resignation & Canadian Workers,” The Leveller, 1 February 2022, Link to source; Bernhard Warner, “There’s Never Been a Better Time to Ask for a Pay Raise, Economists and Recruiters Now Say,” Fortune, 18 February 2022, Link to source; Oscar Williams-Grut, “‘Great Resignation’ Sends UK Quit Rate to Highest since 2009,” Evening Standard, 23 January 2022, Link to source.

[3] See the stellar labour coverage of Jacobin’s Alex N. Press, some of which is cited later in this article, at Jacobin Magazine.

[4] Out of many examples, see Nelson Lichtenstein, “Are We Witnessing a ‘General Strike’ in Our Own Time?,” Washington Post, November 18, 2021, Link to source.

[5] -herekitty_kitty-, “My work is getting nervous about people leaving. Guess who’s about to ask for a big raise?” Reddit, 10 January 2022, Link to source.

[6] -herekitty_kitty-, “UPDATE/My work is getting nervous about people leaving. Guess who’s about to ask for a big raise?” 9 February 2022, Link to source.

[7] Ed Yong, “Why Health-Care Workers Are Quitting in Droves,” The Atlantic, 16 November 2021, Link to source.

[8] “Canada Headed for Nursing Shortage ‘beyond Anything We’ve Ever Experienced’: Experts,” Global News, 6 January 2022, Link to source.

[9] Alex N. Press, “Baristas of the World, Unite,” Jacobin, 30 December 2021, Link to source.

[10] Alex N. Press, “US Workers Are in a Militant Mood,” Jacobin, 15 October 2021, Link to source.

[11] Brad Stone , “Burnt Out Amazon Employees Are Embracing the Great Resignation,” Bloomberg Newsletter, 24 January 2022, Link to source.

[12] Sarah Schnierer, untitled post, LinkedIN, accessed 7 March 2022, Link to source.

[13] David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), xvii.

[14] Richie (last name withheld), interview by author, 3 March 2020.

[15] “Antiwork,” Reddit, accessed 7 March 2022, Link to source.

[16] Alex Mitchell, “‘Anti-Work’ Threads on Reddit Are Fueling the Great Resignation,” New York Post, 17 January 2022, Link to source.

[17] Ivana Davidovic, “‘Lying Flat’: Why Some Chinese Are Putting Work Second,” BBC News, February 16, 2022, Link to source.

[18] See, for example, Strange_Knowledge_98, “I make 6-figures and my job is literally pointless,” Reddit, 2 March 2022, Link to source.

[19] -herekitty_kitty-, “UPDATE.”

[20] Craig Heron, ed., The Workers’ Revolt in Canada, 1917-1925 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

[21] Kathleen Sanford, “‘Anti Work’ Movement May Be Long-Run Risk to Labor Force Participation: Goldman Sachs,” Lee Daily (blog), 16 November 2021, Link to source; Taylor Nicole Rogers, “Reddit ‘Antiwork’ Forum Booms as Millions of Americans Quit Jobs,” Financial Times, 9 January 2022, Link to source.

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