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The great U.S. political fight of the 2020s is over the future of work | Will Bunch

A year-plus of coronavirus lockdown has millions re-thinking the meaning of work. Democrats want to help. And Republicans are panicking.

A protest in support of McDonald's workers at a drive-thru in Monterey Park, Calif., last year.
A protest in support of McDonald's workers at a drive-thru in Monterey Park, Calif., last year.Read moreGabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times

At first blush, the minimum-wage crowd manning the drive-thru at a Wendy’s in the small town of Wadesboro, N.C., wouldn’t seem to have much in common with the cosmopolitan staffers of Washingtonian, a magazine that serves the D.C. area. But for a time earlier this month, workers at the two joints inadvertently found a kind of solidarity: They were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore.

Hungry residents of the North Carolina Piedmont were stunned recently when they pulled up to the drive-thru window craving a Baconator, only to find a handwritten note on the speaker box that read: “We All Quit!! CLOSED!! Bye Alisa! Love Wendy’s :).” Journalists with the local newspaper struggled to even find where the former fast-food workers had vanished to, and could only locate a Twitter post purportedly from a cousin of one of the men.

“Him and ALL his coworkers turned in their headsets and uniforms because their manager hadn’t given anyone a raise in five years,” he tweeted, adding, “This is the revolution and it’s definitely being televised.”

Nearly 400 miles to the north in the nation’s capital, staffers at the Washingtonian had issues after the magazine’s CEO, Cathy Merrill, published an op-ed in the Washington Post that criticized the culture of working from home that had arisen — at her publication and many other white-collar businesses — during the more than one year of pandemic lockdown. Merrill’s argument that those reluctant to come back to the office shouldn’t be entitled to the all the benefits of full-time employment triggered a swift reaction from her own workers.

“As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our C.E.O. to understand the risks of not valuing our labor,” multiple staffers posted on Twitter, arguing that Merrill’s op-ed came across as endangering their benefits or job security. “We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today.”

These were two early, isolated skirmishes in what is shaping up — as the nation can finally see a near future that’s not dominated by the COVID-19 outbreak — as a battle over what it means to be a worker in 2020s America. A year of lockdown has scrambled our ways of thinking about the workplace and where our paycheck fits into the broader meaning of life, our concept of what a job is worth, and — and here’s where things get really interesting — who hold the upper hand? For the first time in decades, American workers are wondering ... who’s the boss?

This conflict had been brewing on the back burner until last week’s release of new monthly unemployment numbers — experts had expected the economy to add 1 million new jobs, but the actual number was just 266,000 — as well as new data suggesting employers are posting more jobs than there are people willing to take them.

The moment — coming at a time of optimism over falling coronavirus counts — caused both liberals and conservatives to start digging trenches around the issue. Top Republicans — making a mockery of recent claims that they’re now “the working-class party” — quickly sided with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders to blame the pandemic’s increased unemployment benefits for creating a culture of not working. Yet the Biden administration and progressive allies continue to push an agenda — such as a massive expansion of child care, and greater power to form unions — that would empower rank-and-file workers.

To look at it more broadly, the shock of massive changes created by the deadly pandemic — when workers in industries from supermarkets to hospital cleaning gained recognition as the “essential workers” they always were, while office workers question workplace rituals or long commutes that no longer seem necessary in an internet era — is becoming political. Some Democrats (not you, Sen. Joe Manchin) want to make some changes stick and while creating new space for worker empowerment. Now we’re seeing a big-time GOP backlash, as governors in red states like Mississippi and Wyoming race to end extended unemployment benefits, to bolster the right-wing storyline that big government creates sloth.

But the broader social and economic trends may transcend the ability of government actors to stop them. Kati Sipp, a Philadelphia-based consultant and labor activist who writes frequently about the future of work, told me that the 2020-21 pandemic “has the ability to be as disruptive an event in the economy as World War II was in the 20th century.”

If so, that would be quite a change. At the tail end of the Great Depression, the 1940s’ global conflict created an industrial war machine — forcing the removal of some barriers to women and people of color in the workforce — that ushered in both middle-class prosperity and social change, aided by the power of labor unions and a supportive Democratic government.

The changes wrought by the deadly crisis of COVID-19 are a threat to a long era of late-stage capitalism in the United States in which rank-and-file workers have had little power — with disappearing unions, absurdly low minimum wages, and social restraints like employer-based health insurance or high college tuition that make it hard to quit a bad job. Those issues still exist. But the radical lifestyle changes of the last year have nonetheless prompted millions to wonder whether, and why, they should go back to their old situations.

Not surprisingly, trend-story-seeking journalists have devoted a lot of electrons to telling stories about people like them — college-educated professionals who’ve developed a new lifestyle or even moved to the lower-cost countryside to work from home, and who aren’t eager to return to five-days-a-week commuting now that the virus is waning. But the more profound change is likely to occur at the bottom of the jobs pyramid.

Sipp said that the social media websites she monitors are full of low-wage service workers writing that the health risks and difficult working conditions of laboring through the worst of the pandemic are essentially the last straw. “People are complaining now about masking,” she said. “‘They’re asking me to come to work for eight hours and stand up serving coffee, and you can’t even put a mask over your nose?!’” In addition to health fears, many low-wage workers have struggled with child care, especially as most schools moved online.

The growing difficulty in the fast-food industry in bringing back workers as the economy re-opens is prompting something for which activists had marched and picketed for a decade with mixed results: Higher pay, and better working conditions. Literally as I was writing this on Thursday morning, McDonald’s announced a roughly 10% pay raise at its 660 company-owned stores, to an average of $13 an hour, with a $15-an-hour goal by 2024.

» READ MORE: What Europe’s soccer revolt tells us about Biden’s plan to tax the rich | Will Bunch

More money in the pocket of America’s working class should be a feel-good story, but conservatives are apoplectic about changes in a job market they apparently liked just the way it was, pre-pandemic. The right-wing critique is that an overly generous $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package signed by President Biden — particularly, a $300-a-week federal boost to unemployment benefits through September — gives workers no economic incentive to go back.

Economists like the Nobel laureate (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman who’ve dug into this claim say it falls apart on closer scrutiny. The evidence is that social factors like the ones mentioned above — fears about contracting the virus, inability to find child care — are much bigger drivers of job hesitancy than the economic ones. That said, the rapid changes in the American way of work is becoming a political fight.

Simply put, the Biden administration’s agenda — both the relief package that’s already passed but especially its proposals now pending before Congress — is arguably the most pro-worker plan since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. For example, his proposal to spend $225 million over the next decade on child care — which could save some families nearly $15,000 a year — would give primarily women workforce options they simply don’t have today. Likewise, free community college and currently debated plans to eliminate some of America’s $1.8 trillion college debt would open up new opportunities for 20-somethings.

Beyond the economic package, Biden and most Democrats are supporting legislation called the PRO Act — which has passed the House and awaits action in the 50-50 Senate — that would greatly strengthen the ability to organize a union and would swing the pendulum back towards labor for the first time in decades. If Team Biden can somehow run the table and enact all of its agenda, more companies like McDonald’s will feel more pressure to pay their workers a living wage, because Americans will have both more power to collectively bargain and more life options, with better child care or schooling. My only complaint with the 46th president is that he’s not doing more to sell this big picture to the average worker.

That’s because we know Republicans and their 1000-watt megaphones of Fox News and talk radio are very good at fighting these new deals with the power of fear itself — screaming “socialism” so that the everyday workers who’d benefit the most from a day-care center in their community or sending their kid to free community college will fight against their own interest. But this time, the battle lines between America’s overpaid, buying-a-yacht-for-their-yacht billionaires and the rank-and-file have never been clearer. It’s not that hard to pick a side.

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The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.