On The Edge Of A Worker Revolt

Ed Zitron 7 min read

So, yesterday I withdrew my company from the Consumer Electronics Show at the start of January here in beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a decision I should have made earlier, but based on the growth of Omicron COVID-19 cases and the fact that many reporters are already canceling - and frankly, I don’t know if I’d have wanted us to go even if they weren’t canceling. One person who works for me tested positive, meaning he’s quarantined through Christmas, and another had a scare.

The problem with all of this is that it was so obvious, and I feel stupid for not seeing it coming. Since the pandemic's beginning, America (and many other countries, but this is the one I live in) have taken half-hearted approaches to lockdowns and mask mandates. Still, some people have acted as if their civil liberties are being eroded because they have to cover their mouths or can’t go somewhere without a vaccine.

Despite what some may believe, we never really did “lock down.” A real lockdown would’ve been a consistently-applied and incentivized process where people were literally paid to stay home, where businesses were funded through the pandemic (and were legally bound to keep people retained so that they didn’t go out), and it would have involved everybody having at-home testing for COVID in 2020. Instead, we had 50 different versions of mask mandates (or not, in some cases), half-baked plans for outdoor dining that mostly involved building an indoor dining experience but with windows, and we didn’t bother to shut down international travel until it was too late.

And today, as Omicron rips through everybody (though hopefully, it’s not as severe), it’s overwhelming hospitals with the unvaccinated, meaning that everybody suffers.

This whole article isn’t going to be some COVID-related thing, but I will say that you should get vaccinated, it’s a “choice” in the sense that nobody is forcing you, but to not do it - and I do not care if you think “you have a strong immune system” or “you’re not sure if it’s tested” or some other crap - mask up indoors, and generally be aware of yourself. It is, however, the responsible thing to do as a human being, as COVID is both deadly and you could get someone else sick even if you don’t get sick yourself. These are not facts up for debate.

No, the principal discussion here is how obvious so many things are and how so many powerful entities do all they can to avoid taking responsibility for any of the actual problems they cause and enable. COVID is very contagious, and the easiest way to stop that contagiousness is to not be around other people. Still, nevertheless companies and some states are demanding that people return to the office for no reason other than they like having people around, with a thick air of “okay, fun’s over.”

And, of course, the Consumer Electronics Association (the people that run CES) are “standing firm” with “strong safety measures.” The reality is they should’ve canceled it earlier or skipped 2022 entirely - it was apparent that COVID was not “beaten” months ago, or even a year ago, but, like many profit-seeking entities (and an alarming amount of people), the CEA is pushing forward using the “it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it” mentality that has killed over 5 million people globally.

The thing is, capitalism is okay with a bit of death and misery. There is no reason why airlines shouldn’t require a vaccination or negative test other than the firm knowledge they have that some people will go insane, which is bad for business. Nobody who could work remotely should’ve been sent back to the office before delta was discovered. So many companies acted as if COVID was over now that the vaccine existed. Vaccine mandates have been a total nightmare because of the fractured politicizing of the pandemic, giving people new and inventive things to form half-baked opinions about.

People don’t know what to do, and the people that can take responsibility aren’t. Walking through Vegas casinos, you’ll see most people are masked, but you’ll see quite a few that aren’t, with nobody seeming to stop them and tell them to do so because it’d be bad for business. Airlines aren’t mandating vaccines or negative tests because they’d lose people flying when they’re barely recovering from the beginning of the pandemic, despite flying being a really easy way to spread COVID. And while yes, a negative test can miss a potential case of COVID, it would at least slow down the spread.

Now, one of the big reasons a negative test might be hard is because the company making the tests decided to destroy inventory and equipment when people stopped needing as many tests.

Companies are not supporting their workers - the ones that have to mandate wearing a mask - because it’s bad for business and because security people also cost money. Companies are not treating this seriously, because it’s annoying and frustrating to have to tell people to pull their mask over their nose, or put a mask on, and thus they pass on the misery and pain of angry, dangerous people to the workers. Over half of restaurant workers say they’ve been abused, nurses are quitting over violence and anger from their patients, and retail workers are desperate as customers become hostile and abusive.

The whole great resignation conversation we’ve been having continues to miss the obvious problem - that so much of our current capitalism is dependent on people being willing to accept bad wages and bad working conditions. 64% of retail workers don’t get paid a living wage, despite how important retail sales are to the economy, and as Omicron grows within the states during the biggest shopping season of the year, they’re at risk, which is why 685,000 retail workers quit in September.

What I am sloppily constructing here is a series of events that leads to a massive worker revolt - a reckoning like we have never seen in modern society. America’s response to the pandemic has always been half-measures - insufficient stimulus, insufficient PPE, insufficient testing, insufficient safety standards, insufficient everything, all of which most directly hit the people that had to leave the house - retail workers, restaurant workers, hospitality workers, nurses, and so on.

As I’ve said before, this was a time when corporations could’ve proved to their workers that they mattered - that the danger they put themselves was appreciated - and treated them with dignity, by which I mean more money and better working conditions. Instead, members of the government spread a lie that they weren’t working because of increased unemployment benefits, and companies proceeded to do just about anything other than pay them more.

And now Omicron is here, and these workers are in danger again, except there are very few protections left - it’s back to business as usual for the people that own the company, and thus workers are back in a similar position with little to show for it. In fact, their position is a little weaker - despite over a thousand people dying a day, (squeezing twice the deaths from September 11 into each week), nothing seems to be closing, nobody seems to be reacting, wages aren’t increasing, and nearly 90% of workers in America aren’t in a union to contractually demand their workers are protected.

If you think that the great resignation is going to ease, you are totally mistaken.

America runs on the backs of poorly paid-and-treated workers, with several of the top 10 companies in America relying heavily on these kinds of poorly-paid customer-facing roles. And yet they seem incapable of accepting their hand in the deaths of these workers, or at least said acceptance doesn’t extend to paying them an actual living wage - $16.40 an hour, by the way, is not close to what a living wage is in most states.

This entire transaction of bad pay for awful work has worked for so long because these companies know that many of these workers don’t have a choice. Except the additional variable of crazed, violent customers and an invisible, murderous virus is enough to make these jobs untenable. It’s grotesque to say, but so many companies calculated pay and conditions for workers based on how little dignity their workers had, and now that calculation is going to bite them on the ass hard enough to make sitting impossible.

I am 100% certain that we’re going to see a bigger, nastier great resignation in 2022, because customers act like animals and workers are treated like animals. This holiday season is going to be a super spreader of both COVID and self-involved maniacs that believe that anyone providing a service owes them a blood debt. While I’m speaking in generalities and hyperbole to an extent, the number of stories I’ve heard about retail workers being mistreated is enough to convince me that no sane person would stick around.

I will say that the one positive I’ve noticed the power of unions at work - the successful Kellogg’s and Wirecutter strikes are wonderful news that show exactly how and why unions exist - to push management to actually respect the work they’re making money off of. What’s great about these (other than the fact they’ve happened and the successful strikes) is that they’re also very public, which means that more people are now aware that unions exist and are good.

I will add that it is disgraceful to make workers strike for three months when you’re making hundreds of millions of dollars of profit in a quarter. Or ever, really.

That’s the main calculation that companies are making - that people are desperate enough (thanks to our lack of universal healthcare or any social safety net) to keep their jobs despite worsening conditions. What they’re going to find is that many of these workers are going to keep quitting because the job sucks, and while they may need the money, their actual lives are being ruined by working for it.

And when corporate stooges and workplace reporters write their “why are people still quitting?” articles in February or March, they’ll find any reason to justify it other than corporate greed. Corporate greed that wouldn’t close stores or mandate masks or treat workers well, corporate greed that makes record profits and passes nothing onto their workers, corporate greed that lives lavishly as the people that enriched them suffer and die.

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