Episode 131: The "Essential Worker" Racket - How 'COVID Hero' Discourse Is Used To Discipline Labor
"Elon Musk sent a thank-you note to Tesla's workers returning to work," Business Insider squeals. Walmart teams up with UPS to air an ad "thanking essential workers." "Jeff Bezos Just Posted an Open Letter to Amazon Employees About the Coronavirus. Every Smart Business Leader Needs to Read It," insists an article in Inc.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate leaders, politicians and celebrities have been quick to paint "essential workers," and those often described as "frontline" workers, as heroes — laborers conscripted, presumably against their will, into a wartime-like scenario of heroism and sacrifice as our country battles the ongoing coronavirus scourge.
The sentiment behind this rhetoric is understandable, especially from everyday people simply trying to express their deep appreciation for the underpaid labor doing the work to feed, house, care for and treat everyone else. But when deployed by powerful politicians and CEOs, the "essential workers as heroes" discourse serves a more sinister purpose: to curb efforts to unionize, preemptively justify mass death of a largely black and brown workforce, protect corporate profits and ultimately discipline labor that for a brief moment in spring of last year, had unprecedented leverage to extract concessions from capital.
As Wall Street booms and America’s billionaires see an increase of $1.1 trillion in wealth since March 2020 — a 40% increase — while the average worker suffers from unemployment, depression, drug abuse and a loss of healthcare, it’s become increasingly clear that “essential” never meant essential to helping society at large or essential to human care or essential to keeping the bottom from falling out, but essential to keeping the top one percent of the one percent’s wealth and power intact and as it turned out to be the case, massively expanded.
Indeed, 2020 saw the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in decades, a transfer largely made possible by the essential worker as hero narrative, with little discussion or debate. In March 2020 everyone agreed in this wartime framing that was going to send off millions of poor people to their deaths for a vague, undecided greater good of the quote-unquote "economy," when really it was for the seamless maintenance of Wall Street profits.
On this episode, we explore the origins of the concept of "essential work" and those deemed "essential workers"; how it's been used in the past to discipline labor during wartime; how hero narratives provide an empty, head-patting verbal tip in lieu of worker protection and higher pay; and why so few in our media ask the more urgent question of all: whether or not low wage retail, food, farming, and healthcare workers ever wanted to be heroes in the first place.
Our guest in Ronald Jackson, a worker and organizer with Warehouse Workers For Justice.