Forcing workers back could reignite class warfare

Bosses shouldn’t be surprised by worker resistance during a pandemic that threatens their lives
Photo: The Creative Exchange
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Renewed class consciousness among workers may quickly show those pushing to hastily reopen workplaces that they have bitten off more than they can chew.

From “stay home at all costs” to “get back to work,” the pandemic narrative and key messaging coming from government and business leaders has dramatically shifted in recent weeks.

Some voices, especially from more conservative corners, have even called into question the work ethic of the underclass, suggesting that low-income workers are lazy and must be coerced into returning to their jobs, as Ethan Cox notes in a recent article for Ricochet.

The same mechanisms brought forward by government to encourage and enable workers to participate in a project of collective care, the social project of “flattening the curve,” have become a cattle prod.

The kinds of workers under attack are those in precarious situations, minimum-wage workers, migrant workers, and workers in low-wage industries. This includes workers in manufacturing and production — like at the Cargill slaughterhouse, which has been front and centre in news reports as the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America — and service industry workers, such as retail staff, cleaners, child care providers, gym attendants, and others in workplaces that function through high levels of contact with the public. Often these workers are not unionized and have few protections from exploitation. They have little job security with respect to raising concerns with employers while facing high levels of risk for infection.

Employment lawyers are keen to point out that workers do not have the right to refuse to go back to work if they are recalled from layoffs, even in the midst of a pandemic. If they do refuse, they will be considered to have quit their jobs and thus be ineligible for employment insurance or the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit.

Workers must, so the narrative goes, be threatened and then punished for any resistance to the demands of employers. By threatening to make a worker ineligible for EI or the CERB, an employer threatens that worker with destitution. And so the same mechanisms brought forward by government to encourage and enable workers to participate in a project of collective care, the social project of “flattening the curve,” have become the cattle prod.

But then what?

There is a major error in the thinking of those howling to reopen the economy and coerce workers back into jobs that put them at risk. In their zeal to prove who is in charge and to put profit ahead of the health and wellbeing of workers, they neglect to consider what may happen after such a display of arrogance.

The contemporary workplace and contemporary management principles are grounded in notions of corporate social responsibility and social purpose. At some point in the last few decades, it became not only unpopular but impractical for any company to openly admit that their only reason for existing was to make money. Forcing workers back into jobs during a pandemic destroys that veneer, proving to employees and to the public the company is inauthentic.

Leaving aside just this reputational damage, coercing workers back into jobs, and using government mechanisms to make that happen, also rips away the veil to show that workers today are no different than their counterparts of generations ago. It shows workers that they are not free agents or freelancers “gigging” their way to prosperity, but are still fundamentally serfs bound to wage labour, just like the coerced workers of earlier industrial phases of development.

In effect, this coercion demonstrates to workers that they are part of a particular class, while the owners are part of a different class, and the interests of these classes are not the same. It pops the bright balloons of corporate social responsibility and workers as engaged stakeholders in companies, reinstating class antagonisms that these balloons were supposed to mask.

The new normal is the old normal

Following this line of thought, in the newly reopened economy there may be a significant number of unhappy workers being coerced back to jobs, and some of these unhappy workers will return to these jobs with an emergent class consciousness. How will they act in the workplace?

Likely they will act in much the same way as their counterparts acted two generations ago. They have learned a little about employment law and about the mechanisms of government being used against them, and some of them will look for similar mechanisms to use against employers, like calling for inspections over health and safety concerns. Some of them will find ways to use the system against those employers who treat them poorly or coerce them. It is only natural.

Unhappy workers will be more apt to absenteeism and calling in sick, and will use any and all legal means at their disposal to bend the rules in their favour. They will also not be enthusiastic in their work or as representatives of the company in their dealings with customers or clients.

But not all workers will be in a position to enact resistance openly, and so some may resort to more subtle methods of sabotage. Any workplace is susceptible to sabotage, since workers simply need to find a weakness or choke point in the workflow and production.

Coerced, unhappy, and threatened workers will also be much more likely to see the benefits of organization and collective power in unions.

All of these strategies and tactics — quagmire, sabotage, organization — are old and proven.

And while there is no guarantee of their success in achieving workers’ aims or in any broader struggle, workers can execute them in a decentralized manner, without needing any direction.

Maybe we should thank them

Obviously, it is morally bankrupt for employers to coerce workers back into jobs during a pandemic. My hunch is that it is as much a power play as a necessity, in the sense that some economic interests are eager to assert their dominance and re-establish the hierarchy and social order that has been disrupted by the crisis.

But nefarious as it is, perhaps we should thank the ideological puppets for dutifully playing their roles. They couldn’t help themselves, so intrinsically are they tied to their dogma, and have done so without seriously considering the unintended consequences it may bring with respect to labour unrest.

It is true as well that not every business will act in this coercive and callous manner. It is an opportunity for any company with authentic foundations in corporate social responsibility and social purpose, and any company seriously committed to the wellbeing of workers, to show its true colours.

Either way, the narrative has shifted and the new normal of class antagonism is being thrust upon many workers. And let us be clear that workers did not create this antagonism or bring it to light in this instance. Employers and their ideological puppets did that all on their own.

As usual, they will be shocked and aghast at the creative ways workers resist — to the point they may wish they never went down this road in the first place.

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