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The future of the labour movement in the face of coronavirus and pseudo-“wellness”



Mark Bergfeld,

Work was negatively affecting both our physical and mental health long before the coronavirus came onto the scene. This is no surprise. What is surprising is how capital and employers have sought to address the current crisis in work, which now runs so deep that the World Health Organization has decided to include “burnout” in its list of illnesses. Yet rather than acknowledge the copious amounts of medical research evidencing the disastrous health effects of working long hours, capital continues to vigorously promote the idea that work fosters well-being and helps individuals flourish.

Mark Bergfeld is the Director of Property Services & UNICARE at UNI Global Union - Europa. He runs a regular newsletter on the world of work and the labour movement. 

In Britain, this ideology has led to a meteoric rise of suicides among healthcare professionals in the last seven years, with more than 300 overworked nurses taking their own lives. Meanwhile, disabled persons and those on benefits are forced to undergo assessments whether they are “fit to work”. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s Health & Safety Executivereports that in the 2018–2019 fiscal year 12.8 million workdays were lost due to stress, anxiety, or depression, while concurrently the Office of National Statistics found that only 273,000 working days were lost due to labour disputes—the sixth-lowest annual total since records began in 1891.

The Crisis of Work and Wellness Ideology

 Some more “progressive” employers have recommended moving towards shorter working hours. A possible reason why, as a recent article in the men’s magazine GQ underlines, is that a reduction in working hours increases productivity. In times of a global pandemic and world economic crisis, this proposal resonates with ever larger sections of capital. However, the current pressures on employers also mean that they need to squeeze workers harder to instil shareholder confidence.

One means to achieve this is to make the labour force more resilient to stress and improve its ability to engage in deep thinking. It is against this backdrop that the rise of “wellness” ideology can be understood. Large companies have also gone over to holding 60-second-long mindfulness sessions before meetings. Elsewhere, companies offer yoga and mindfulness courses, promoting wellness instead of health and safety with the aim of increasing employees’ resilience. During the Brexit negotiations, British civil servants were provided with mental health and stress support, as well as on-site wellbeing exercises. These developments are not limited to white-collar workers. The US restaurant industry—notorious for its harsh and extreme working conditions—is now writing a new chapter by introducing on-site yoga and other wellness measures to reduce high labour turnover. 

Mindfulness plays a central role in capital’s attempts to turn us into perfect employees. In his book McMindfulness,Roland Purser argues that the practice of mindfulness has been stripped of its Buddhist essence and ethics of radical empathy, while Sanam Yar shows that mindfulness fails to tackle workers’ working conditions or racism within the workplace. Instead, mindfulness epitomises self-optimization in an ever-harsher world. The trendy phenomenon privatizes stress and destroys public life. Mindfulness and wellness are thus central ideological tenets to understand the contemporary crisis of work and the way capital imagines the future of work. Employers use wellness, positive psychology, or mindfulness to make us work longer hours in a more efficient way.

Workers against and beyond Wellness

Yet capital’s offensive is being contested. According to Lena Solow, disagreements over an obligatory wellness programme were at the heart of the West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2019, a wave of action that continued to spread through the entire country all the way to Los Angeles.

The LA teachers and their supporters evidenced how the strike established new forms of solidarity beyond wellness. As the 34,000 school teachers (with approximately 700,000 students) took on their superintendent—who also happens to be a Wall Street banker—they pioneered new forms of solidarity that countered the very Californian ideology of wellness. A “Tacos for Teachers” fundraiser raised more than 30,000 dollars to feed the striking teachers, showing how the strike fostered “wellness” on the picket line and beyond. Even the anti-union news channel CNN had to acknowledge the sweet taste of solidarity.

Public school teachers are not the only ones battling the wellness ideology and creating new forms of solidarity in its place. Last year, the very workers providing yoga and wellness services to companies and clients formed a trade union. As yoga has developed into a multi-million-dollar industry, it is no surprise that yoga teachers now want a piece of the pie. 

The reasons for their organizing efforts are numerous. According to an article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, teachers at a company called YogaWorks have to spend more than 3,500 dollars on their training. Yet there are neither standardized hiring practices, remuneration scales, nor HR systems. According to the New York Times, yoga teachers work for two or three different employers as “self-employed” or “part-time” workers without access to health insurance, and earn roughly 175 dollars per day. Moreover, teachers are expected to prepare classes on their own time. Interestingly, they joined the Machinists’ Union, showing how new groups of workers join old unions seeking to expand their power in the wellness economy. Consequently, the Machinists’ Union will strike a collective agreement with YogaWorks covering more than 100 employees across four sites in New York City, and is now targeting other sites across the US. As YogaWorks is not the only company facing criticisms for labour violations, it is quite likely that other groups of workers will organize across the wellness economy.

The New Labour Movement Is Female

There is an apparent contradiction at the heart of the wellness economy: namely, its products and services are primarily marketed to women, who in turn continue to face discrimination on the labour market and are more likely to join trade unions. This is most apparent in the care sector. Despite the growing importance of wellness and well-being to reproduce capitalist social relations, it has not resulted in improved working conditions for health care workers. In Connecticut, for example, one third of home care aides are immigrants, with the vast majority being women of colour. They are expected to be on call 24 hours per day, 27 days per month, yet they only earn 10 dollars per hour.

With an ageing population, more complex care needs, and no sustainable financing model for homecare services, workers have taken up the baton to create decent work and decent business models in the form of cooperatives. SEIU 1199 union and workers’ cooperatives have been working together to improve the working conditions of home care aides across New England. Unfortunately, the New York Times reporter portraying the workers on the frontlines seemed more interested in the meditation apps they downloaded than current organizing efforts.

Renewing the labour movement will require a broader ecology of organisations to emerge. Such organizations and organizing efforts are growing across the world. In Japan, women of the #Kutoo movement—playing on the Japanese words kutsu (shoe) and kutuu (pain)—have been petitioning and campaigning for companies to disband the discriminatory practice of forcing women to wear high heels. 

Forms of new resistance among the women workforce are leading to changes in what Karl Marx called the “organic composition of capital”, or what can simply be labelled “automation”. A study in Britain has revealed that the retail sector—one of the largest sectors for women’s employment—is automating frontline jobs and replacing women with self-checkout counters. Employment growth has shifted to e-commerce and logistics, in which especially women with poorer levels of education or those seeking part-time work face an uphill battle. In turn, the British retail industry is looking to move some of these jobs up the value chain by turning retail workers into “influencers” within their premises, reproducing old gender stereotypes. 

Organizing in the Belly of the Beast 

The IT sector, where the wellness ideology was born, is rapidly becoming a hotbed of worker radicalism. The Google walkouts over sexual harassment were not only inspirational, but definitively ended the notion that collective action was not possible in Silicon Valley.

In another example of the new tech worker organizing wave, after the walkouts IT workers at the outsourcing company HCL, responsible for running Google Shopping, voted to join the United Steelworkers’ Union. These trends show that younger groups of workers have not only developed a political consciousness, but are organizing new unions attacking the entire edifice of the brave new world of work Silicon Valley promised.

“Oh-so woke” Google is not making women workers’ lives any easier, as two of the organizers of the walk-outs are now facing “demotion”. Yet tech workers are not giving in. At Microsoft, workers have called on the giant company to cancel its nearly 480-million-dollar contract with the US Army, as it “crossed the line” into weapons development. In a letter to management, Microsoft engineers wrote: “We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the US military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built. We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

The beginnings of a new form of political unionism are evident. More than one 1000 Amazon employees have pledged to take action for climate justice. They demand that the company no longer fund climate-denying politicians, that Amazon Web Services cuts its ties to the fossil fuel industry, and that it cuts its emissions to zero by 2030. Whether the Google walk-outs over sexual harassment or this action by Amazon employees, it appears that the tech industry’s workforce is sitting at the source to solve the multiple crises the world faces—not through disruptive technologies, but collective action.

Class Struggle and COVID–19

The coronavirus pandemic is now fundamentally reshuffling the deck for workers across industries, national borders, and even continents. On top of the many challenges already facing the nascent labour movement, workers now face months of deep employment insecurity, growing health risks at work, and a looming economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

The political response so far has been mixed and even incoherent: in countries like Spain and Denmark, comparatively worker-friendly governments have passed legislation to support workers and ensure that the coronavirus does not lead to mass unemployment—at least for the time being. In the US and UK, where current administrations are anything but pro-worker, the economic burden of the pandemic is likely to be shouldered by and large by the working class. The new labour movement is not yet powerful enough to define the terms of struggle or challenge these governments in a fundamental way. But times of crisis are always also times of opportunity, both for the rulers as well as the ruled. There is no better time for labour to go on the offensive and demand that the billions being dispensed as emergency aid to corporations be diverted to the workers—the people who built our economy and keep it running through the pandemic.