Yesterday, we paused to celebrate International Workers’ Day. It commemorates when, on May 1, 1886, “more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history.” (https://archive.iww.org/history/library/misc/origins_of_mayday/ )
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of workers and the labor movement, not just in our economy, but in our communities. The eight hour workday changed not just our factories and offices, but also our homes and free time.If you’ve forgotten, or never learned, the history, it might surprise you to know that 100 hour work weeks were common in the late 1800s. Overtime pay wasn’t required until 1938, when the Fair Labor and Standards Act passed, and you couldn’t assume that your employer would be held accountable to providing safe working conditions until the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. All of these gains had to be won through courageous and creative organizing. And while it is true that we have lost ground when it comes to wage stagnation and union membership, the movement to secure a minimum wage that is also a living wage is grounded in the labor movement. It was that same 1938 Fair Labor and Standards Act that both established a minimum wage and limited child labor.
It took decades of persistent, and sometimes violent, struggle to reduce some of the economic exploitation. A popular pamphlet distributed ahead of that May 1, 1886 action read:
“Workingmen to Arms! War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS. The wage system is the only cause of the World's misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE. One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS! MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.” (https://archive.iww.org/history/library/misc/origins_of_mayday/ )
You might be shocked, or disagree, with the strength of the language and the convictions, but you should remember that it was in response to the violence of exploitation. Such a poster or social media post today would probably earn you an uncomfortable visit from a government agent, but none of those words would have been spoken or deeds done if oppressors would have been reasonable and supported economic, social, and ecological justice. Working people had to fight for their lives and their rights, and our lives are better because of the labor movement, unions, and workers.
I confess I may have some bias here: I am the child of a factory worker; I’ve worked in the fast food industry, as a day laborer on farms and vineyards, as a construction worker, and as a roofer; and I’ve spent a significant chunk of the last 10 years of my life as an unpaid caregiver. Community, sustaining human lives, requires work, and a lot of it is manual labor. Working people, paid and unpaid, are essential and our labor is beautiful. All labor should be treated with dignity and respect.
So it’s not a small thing that President Biden signed an executive order last Monday that created a task force focused on how to use existing federal policies and programs “to help workers organize and collectively bargain in the public and private sectors,” or that he included the PRO Act in his address to congress last Wednesday, saying:
“The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America, that’s what it says. And, it recognizes something I’ve always said. The guys and women on Wall Street, Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class … . And that’s why I’m calling on Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, the PRO Act, and send it to my desk to support the right to unionize. By the way, while you're thinking about sending things to my desk, let’s raise minimum wage to $15 … .” (https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/550845-biden-calls-for-passage-of-pro-union-pro-act-and-15-minimum-wage?rl=1 )
This is especially significant in the midst of this pandemic year, when the whole world has witnessed a powerful reminder of the importance of the worker, paid or unpaid, in creating and sustaining human society. It is imperative to remember, as Kim Kelly wrote, “who exactly kept the world turning while the government twiddled its thumbs and the superrich raked in record profits.” (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/covid-essential-workers-were-always-important-don-t-abandon-them-ncna1263341 )
“The Inequality Virus”
Which brings us to the importance of this very moment. Many of us in the United States have recently breathed a little sigh of relief. We endured a yearlong nightmare, watching the pandemic being mishandled with tragic results. We continue to manage the constant stress of trying to keep everyone, especially vulnerable people and essential workers, as safe as possible. And we continue to grieve the hundreds of thousands who have suffered and died. To be able to see a glimmer of hope, such as when we finally reached important milestones in vaccinations and saw our fatalities start to decline in the last few months, has been so important. When I received my covid vaccination, I remember thinking, “humans might actually get through this!” I felt so sad and so happy at the same time, recalling all the suffering of the last year and daring to hope that we might be turning a corner.
At the same time, we know our work is far from over. The US still has a long way to go, it’s true. But we’re also watching the same disparities and tragedies unfold around the world. Brazil and India have been particularly hard hit. The latter passed the 200,000 official death count mark, and actual, unrecorded deaths probably make that number much, much higher. Difficult news will continue, as they’ve recorded over 300,000 new cases of covid every day, closing in on 18 million official cases. Meanwhile, oxygen supplies, the very breath of life, are critically low, fueling the black market exchange of vital resources. And the images of emergency crematoriums have filled our news headlines. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56919924 )
What doesn’t get spoken of as often is the context for this tragedy. Oxfam released a very important report in January that helps give shape to this context, aptly named The Inequality Virus. It covers a lot of territory in over 80 pages, but a theme is that the rich and powerful are exploiting the pandemic to become even more rich and powerful. Their survey of economists revealed that 87% of their respondents think that the pandemic will increase income inequality in their home country, and 56% think that it will increase gender inequality (8). Many of the key insights detailed in the report connect these trends to the way that debt burden, austerity measures, and structural adjustments have, in their words, “hollowed out public spending and health systems.” The result is that user fees and out-of-pocket health costs have skyrocketed and have made healthcare out of reach for the poor and marginalized.
You’re sure to recognize that trend here in the US, but it is also a driving force in India. India is in the bottom fourth in terms of health budget as a government expenditure, and its citizens “pay for more than 70% of health expenses themselves”. This has created a situation where only 50% of the population can access basic healthcare, because only people who can afford out of pocket expenses can afford healthcare. The result is “poor health outcomes, “and an increased risk of death during the pandemic; a provisional review of data from 147 countries suggests that when private health expenditures are 10% higher, COVID-19 mortality rates are 4.9% higher.” (32) (https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/inequality-virus ) That statistic should be shocking: “when private health expenditures are 10% higher, COVID-19 mortality rates are 4.9% higher.” And it reminds us again that health care is a human right, and we need to treat it as such.
The report also details that 90% of nations reported that essential health services were disrupted by the pandemic. Poor and working class people rely on those services the most, and have been faced with the choice between financial stress to access private healthcare or rolling the dice on their own health. The wealthy, on the other hand, just access the private care they need without interruption. This is what is commonly called a “two-tier healthcare system.” The Oxfam report gives South Africa as an example, where “the public healthcare sector serves 84% of the country’s population but is staffed by only 30% of its doctors, while the private healthcare sector serves 16% of the population and is staffed by 70% of the doctors.” (ibid)
These are the kinds of things we are talking about when we keep saying that the pandemic has highlighted the injustices that already existed in our societies. As Oxfam put it, “all over the world, health outcomes are strongly determined by preexisting social and economic inequalities.” The poor, for example, are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, because: they often live in crowded conditions; they tend to have less reliable (or no) access to clean water and sanitation services; and they are more likely to have essential jobs that make them more vulnerable, or to lose jobs if they take leave.
“Studies from several countries show that COVID-19 infection and mortality rates have a clear social gradient. COVID-19 mortality in the most deprived 10% of areas in England is twice that of the least deprived 10%. Similar trends have been reported in France, Brazil, Nepal, Spain and India.” (32-33) (https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/inequality-virus )
We could, and the report does, highlight the ways other oppressive systems have made the pandemic more catastrophic. Social and economic injustice, and the disparities they create, are deadly. The pandemic has amplified their deadliness.
Waking From a Dream
There are no silver linings to such injustice and tragedy. There is no way to make it okay. A significant percentage of the illness and death would never have happened if our societies were organized in healthy, just, equitable, inclusive, and compassionate ways. Greed, hatred, and delusion are powerful motivators, and the pandemic has powerfully revealed to more people that this is the world humans have collectively created.
But we have also seen that this is not the only world that we have created. And I am cautiously optimistic that more and more humans are becoming aware that things do not have to be this way after all. In April, the Pew Research Center published a report that indicates an opportunity to act. While support for major economic changes continues to be divided, 19% somewhat and 75% of US respondents strongly supported the proposition that the national government provide more job and skills training (9), 34% somewhat and 44% strongly supported an increase in public housing, and 30% somewhat and 47% strongly supported expanded government benefits for the poor (10). Moreover, 25% somewhat and 45% strongly supported increasing taxes on the wealthy (12). That is a huge indication of broad support for social programming with the potential to impact the roots of oppressive systems. (https://www.pewresearch.org/global/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/04/PG_2021.04.22_Economic-Grievances_FINAL.pdf )
These were some of the kinds of shifts that were on David Graeber’s mind before his unexpected death last September. He pointed out that a similar shift in attitudes happened after the 2008 financial crisis, which provoked “a brief moment of questioning.” He wrote -
“The window was almost instantly shut by those insisting we shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work, or at least start looking for it. / Last time, most of us fell for it. This time, it is critical that we do not. / Because, in reality, the crisis we just experienced was waking from a dream, a confrontation with the actual reality of human life, which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings. It is imperative that we not slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense, the way senseless things so often do in dreams.” (https://jacobinmag.com/2021/03/david-graeber-posthumous-essay-pandemic )
A Glimpse of Another Way
These words bring us back to lessons we have continually been reminded of throughout the pandemic, especially of how interconnected we all are, whether we like it or not. We remembered that we not only share the same air, but also the same manufacturers and trade partners. And a disruption in one place could lead to death in another, just as a new policy that opened up funding or distribution could save a life somewhere else. Similarly, both social and ecological justice issues reminded us that our worlds are intimately connected, even if we create artificial boundaries that give the illusion that harmful actions don't have consequences. The torrent of anti-trans legislation around the USA has stirred not just fear, but solidarity in communities all over the nation. And the BlackLivesMatter movement continues to unmask the cruel lie of White supremacy and challenge us to observe and dismantle racial injustice in our own cities, organizations, homes, and hearts. For many people, the pandemic pulled the thread of the illusion that we can separate our personal well-being from our neighbor’s well-being, a stranger’s well-being, an enemy’s well-being, or even the well-being of the earth itself.
Graeber’s wonderful description of humans as “a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another” points us to the possibility that we can organize society to value mutual respect and prioritize mutual care. Many indigenous communities have been organized along these lines, and marginalized communities have also done this – and will continue to do this – in order to survive. Mutual care is an act of resistance in a society organized around greed and violence, subverting oppressive norms and creating space for genuinely just and equitable communities to emerge. These responses, usually organized by marginalized communities for marginalized communities, are typically called mutual aid.
Mutual aid is a simple concept: instead of responding to crisis or oppression with fear and greed that creates more scarcity, we can respond by sharing and supporting one another. It emphasizes solidarity in a way that charity typically does not, as well as self-determination and collective liberation. Mutual aid networks often operate with a keen awareness of the systems that produce injustice and try to redistribute resources, dismantle oppressive systems, and cultivate communities where people can thrive.
There are so many examples that we are “a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another” during just this past year, a combination of charity and mutual aid that has helped people cope and survive. To get a glimpse of how widespread this community organizing has been during the pandemic, I visited the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief website’s Resource Page (https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/collective-care/ ). They have collected 551 distinct websites representing autonomous and self-organized projects, ranging from how-to manuals to volunteer sign-up forms. There are instructions for sewing cloth masks, setting up grief support groups, advocating for prisoners, organizing for tenant’s rights, supporting immigrants, organizing food banks, managing quarantine needs, and so much more. 45 states and Washington, D.C. had individual entries, plus Canada, Europe, and the “Wider World.”
As extensive as this list is, I know it is still incomplete. That is because none of the local mutual aid networks I personally have participated in or known about during the last year are included in that resource list. For example, The Sweet And Mutual Aid Fund collected and distributed donations to transgender and queer folx in Missouri, knowing that the pandemic was going to worsen challenges in employment, housing, and food security. Friends of the GLO Center established a QTBIPOC emergency fund for the same reason. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of organizations and volunteers mobilized to provide emergency housing and food to thousands of people, much of it using The Connecting Grounds as our hub. Since most places to get out of the weather were closed and it became basically illegal to be homeless during the pandemic, day shelters were organized and opened. Then, as cold weather set in, crisis cold weather shelters opened, at least two turning empty church buildings into life saving places of warmth. Springfield Tenants Unite mobilized resources to help people fight illegal evictions and connect people with safe housing. And there are at least two mutual aid networks in the Springfield area that are diligent about getting essential and life-saving items to people as they are needed, The Southwest Missouri Solidarity Network and Touch One, Touch All.
In the midst of all the suffering, we humans still dared to care for one another and insist that another world was possible. When Jenny Zhang, writing for Harper’s Bazaar, asked mutual aid organizers about their dreams:
“The answers often involve gardens; communal space; fresh water; unpolluted air; land that is nurtured not extracted from; accessible, nutritious food; homes people can afford without fear of eviction or displacement; meaningful systems of care instead of carceral punishment; self-determination; and basic human dignity. / To some, the work might seem immense—to do what entire systems of governance have never been able to do. Ultimately, ‘it’s worth it,’ [Mesiah] Sweetgrass [an organizer on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming], says, as Little Wind nods in agreement. ‘It’s not a hassle. I want us to actually feel accountable for one other’s wellness. I want to reestablish a sense of care and love through being like, “Wow, I’m so interconnected to everyone’s safety and everyone’s healing.”’” (https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a35232889/mutual-aid-groups-covid-19-pandemic/ )
Our Whole Selves
So here we are, carrying all this grief and all this possibility. This is the opposite of greed and hatred: a sense of responsibility and accountability, grounded in compassion, care, and love. “I want us to actually feel accountable for one other’s wellness. I want to reestablish a sense of care and love through being like, ‘Wow, I’m so interconnected to everyone’s safety and everyone’s healing.’” This is our way forward, if we are willing.
It can’t be assumed; most of us our exhausted, and this year has especially taken a toll on our well-being, individually and collectively. Our lives have always been made up of loss, and we haven’t even begun to process the grief and pain of the last year. From the pandemic to the perils of climate change, from impeachment trials to capitol riots, from police brutality to anti-trans violence and more, we have born so much suffering and grief. But we've also witnessed wonderful acts of creativity, compassion, wisdom, and community. We carry both that pain and that joy with us as we take tentative steps toward creating communities of care in a post-pandemic world. This is our ongoing work: to commit ourselves again to creating communities where compassion, justice, and joy, can thrive.