COVID-19 and labor history: A guest post by Leon Fink

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected work and has amplified existing labor issues. We asked Leon Fink, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, how the journal is responding to the COVID-19 crisis and what role labor history scholarship plays in conversations about the pandemic.

As the leading journal in our field and intellectual representative of the Labor and Working Class History Association, we have indeed taken note of the pandemic’s relevance to labor history. COVID-era headlines inevitably invoke many different workers and occupations. In the forefront of the nightly cable news roundup are the medical professionals—doctors and nurses and their virtual army of supporting role players: EMTs, ambulance drivers, aides, janitorial and dietary staff, etc. Also suddenly prominent are a host of service occupations—such as grocery clerks, home health care workers, nursing home aides, restaurant staff, and delivery drivers.

Less noticed, but equally relied upon and designated by their state governments as “essential workers”—i.e., those working at critical infrastructure operations required to remain open—are the warehouse workers from Amazon, Walmart, and Target filling in otherwise-broken supply chains. Also deemed essential, upon a direct order from the president, are the meatpacking and food processing plants.

Two other professions have also received heightened attention. Especially as parents attempt to cope with the still-uncertain trajectory of the current school year, the central role of teachers (and day care providers) to the national economy is highlighted. Finally, of course, we have all been reminded of the impact on our civic health of the actions of the municipal police—not to mention special forces deployed on presidential orders—in either containing or exacerbating social conflict.

If together composing a ‘public’ workforce—not by source of employment, which encompasses both public and private employers, but by common impact on the public welfare—this parade of workers is otherwise highly differentiated. Quite apart from issues of pay, itself a subject of vast differentiation, a considerable disparity—one might even say a vast chasm—separates these work groups on a spectrum of workplace authority. Each of these groups faces not only a distinct micro-environment based on the product or service rendered but is governed by different sets of industrial relations, whether shaped by collective bargaining contracts, government laws and regulations, or one-sided employer determination.

How much voice … should employees themselves have over their jobs, their health and safety on the job, and their employment security?

Given the tensions accentuated by pandemic conditions, the inequalities of workplace voice—quite apart from the material disparities of economic reward—take on enhanced prominence and wider public repercussion. How much voice and/or control, we are obliged to ask, should employees themselves have over their jobs, their health and safety on the job, and their employment security? These are all issues which will inevitably help to compose the coming generation of labor history research and scholarship.

The journal has already responded to the current crisis in two significant ways. First, and fortuitously, we were able to move a magnificent article by Liz Faue and Josiah Rector on an SEIU nurses campaign for protections from needlestick injuries during the HIV crisis into our next issue (vol. 17, issue 4). But we also quickly decided to go for broke with a future special issue on Pandemics and Labor History, for which we’ve recruited a most distinguished group of contributors. They include Samuel Cohn (University of Glasgow), an authority on the Black Death; Aditya Sarkar (University of Warwick) on the bubonic plague in Bombay 1896–1901; Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Harvard University) on Mexico City health politics; Laura Goffman (University of Arizona) on the colonial Middle East; and Jacob Remes (New York University) with a summary piece connecting the COVID-19 pandemic to the North American working-class history of disaster. Although still in a formative stage, we expect this issue to be one of our most important yet.

Learn more about Labor: Studies in Working-Class History or subscribe.

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