Great Resignation or Great Revolution
Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Sarah Jaffe and Saru Jayaraman
Since the pandemic, people have quit their jobs in record numbers, with around 47 million people leaving their jobs in 2021. Many of these workers are Black and Latinx; many of them women.
In this episode, we examine what it means to have a healthy relationship with work, and we hear a radical new way to define the role of work in our lives. Angela speaks with Sarah Jaffe, the author of "Work Won't Love You Back," and welcomes back Saru Jayaraman, founder of One Fair Wage.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center fellow and an independent journalist covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many others. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, as well as a columnist at the New Republic and New Labor Forum. Jaffe was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. She was also the web director at GRITtv with Laura Flanders. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Loyola University New Orleans. She lives in Philadelphia.
Saru Jayaraman is the President of One Fair Wage and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. After 9/11/01, together with displaced World Trade Center workers, she co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which grew into a national movement of restaurant workers, employers and consumers. In 2013, she launched One Fair Wage as a national campaign to end all subminimum wages in the United States. The story of Saru and her colleagues' work has been chronicled in the book The Accidental American, and the story of the One Fair Wage campaign has been profiled in the documentary films Waging Change and The Great American Lie, by CA First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Saru is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was profiled in the New York Times “Public Lives” section in 2005, named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2008, was 1010 Wins’ “Newsmaker of the Year” and New York Magazine’s “Influentials” of New York City. She was listed in CNN’s “Top10 Visionary Women” and recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2014, a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2015, and the SF Chronicle ‘Visionary of the Year’ in 2019. Saru authored Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press, 2013), a national bestseller, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (Oxford University Press, 2016), Bite Back: People Taking on Corporate Food and Winning (UC Press, 2020); and One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America (New Press, 2021). She has appeared on CNN with Soledad O’Brien, Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, Melissa Harris Perry and UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, the Today Show, and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. She attended the Golden Globes in January 2018 with Amy Poehler as part of the Times Up action to address sexual harassment.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:05
Welcome to the Radical Imagination Podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Since the pandemic people have quit their jobs in record numbers with around 47 million people leaving their jobs in 2021, many of these workers are Black, Latinx, many of them women with the highest rate being Latinx women. In this episode, we examine what it means to have a healthy relationship with work and we hear a radical new way to define the role of work in our lives.
News Clip 1: 0:40
Millions of Americans are leaving their jobs over 4 million every month.
News Clip 2: 0:44
It's what's being called the Great Resignation.
News Clip 3: 0:47
I'm done. I am not working here anymore. I don't feel safe.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:52
We're now joined by Sarah Jaffe. She's an independent labor journalist and author of Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Sarah, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Sarah Jaffe: 1:06
Hi, thanks for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:08
Sarah, give us a sense of the history of how our relationship to work has evolved. How do we get to this idea that we should be loving our work?
Sarah Jaffe: 1:17
It's a really interesting question, right, because it feels really natural to think that we should be looking for jobs that we love and that are fulfilling and meaningful. But it's not actually that old a concept. When I started looking at the history of this , um, really started to date it to about the 1970s and the shift from mostly industrial jobs in places like the US to a service economy. They bragged about it being the exciting creative knowledge economy. Most people are doing some form of service work that's actually a much bigger part of the economy than the the cool knowledge jobs, and even the cool knowledge jobs have been getting worse –if you look at academia journalism – the conditions have just been steadily declining over the , that same time period. But so as you get rid of the industrial job, that was probably not fun and you didn't get it because you really, really wanted to work at a car factory putting the same, you know, door on the same kind of car every day for 40 years of your life and then retire, But what you had there was you had probably a union, you had decent benefits, you got weekends off, you got overtime if you worked over 40 hours a week, you could put your kids through school, you could buy a house, take a vacation once or twice a year, and you had an alright life that didn't require you to love your job or to be terribly emotional about it at all. If you're working on an assembly line , you don't have to smile at the car as it goes by. But when that goes and suddenly more and more people are working in grocery stores at the checkout counter or working in restaurants, working in food service, working in healthcare , which became a much, much bigger part of the economy , um, that comes with it. A whole bunch of changes in the expectations of your emotional involvement with your job and your emotional presentation on the job where you don't have to smile at the car as it goes by. You do have to smile at every customer that goes by, even if the customer is a royal jerk to you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:14
That's very interesting. Your book complicates the idea of "do what you love." Share with us how the concept of loving our work can be harmful and what impact does working for the love of it have on us.
Sarah Jaffe: 3:31
I mean, the short version is the more we work for the love of it, the less we get paid. I'm thinking about the Amazon workers unionizing and all of these stories about, you know, the boss says we're a family. The boss says we have an open door policy. The boss says everything's great. The boss throws you a pizza party. Um, so how dare you complain? How dare you say that you work too hard, you work too long. But when you actually thinking about the power that you have in the workplace that comes from organizing, it doesn't come from your boss being nice to you cuz your boss can choose to not be nice to you the next day. The story of loving your job, it's pressure to not just smile, right? Not just put a happy face on when you come to work, but actually be more dedicated to it. Take calls, get called in on your day off or take emails at midnight or any number of things that expand the job more and more into the life that you used to be able to have off the clock. We look at the way that work basically is taken over our whole lives.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 4:43
The pandemic has made us keenly aware of so many things that we were not paying attention to before. How has the pandemic made people rethink their relationship to work?
Sarah Jaffe: 4:54
Yeah, I mean the thing about the pandemic, right, is that it just made work worse for pretty much everyone unless I guess you're Jeff Bezos. Um, people got fired, right? A lot of people were just pushed out of work and onto unemployment or you stayed home and you worked from home and work got more stressful because you're dealing with your family in the house at the same time. You're having to figure out how to adapt your job to doing it all online. You're on Zoom calls all day or you continued going to work and it just got a lot more dangerous, right? So if you were working at the grocery store, suddenly you're worried that you're a customer might cough on you and give you covid . So now not only do you have to sort of smile at the customer, be nice to the customer, but also you're kind of afraid of the customer in a new way, which is to say that they could get you sick. We also saw that the government could do something about it. That the unemployment benefits could be expanded really quickly so that you could actually survive on your unemployment benefits. And in fact, in some cases, because they were expanded, they were actually above minimum wage. And so people who had been working for minimum wage were actually making more money on unemployment. So you could actually like take a deep breath and maybe pay down some debt for the first time in your life, especially combined with suspending student loan payments, things like that. We saw that the government could send us all a check several times actually, and that you could actually get $1,400 in the mail from the government to help tide you over. And so it both showed us the sort of ugly, nasty, coercive side of work and it also showed us in a way that it doesn't have to be this way.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 6:31
Interesting that those two things happened together. One challenging the idea that we are all a family and it said that there really is another way and government does have a role to play in the wellbeing of labor. And people talk more about this great resignation as it's been called, or workers really resigning what's going on.
Sarah Jaffe: 6:52
Mostly they are doing what , um, Labor Scholar Rebecca Givan called the Great Job Shift. Um, so that kind of movement, while it's it's definitely a sign of something going on in the workplace, it's mostly individual people making individual moves to try to make their individual situation better. Whereas what we also saw this year is increase in strike activity and unionization a little bit – although not as much as maybe the hype would make it sound – the difference between leaving your job when it makes you mad, individually being upset, trying to find something better and doing it by yourself and working with your coworkers once again to actually improve those conditions, change things for the better and change the power relationship in that workplace more permanently. That's a different situation. It's a different story.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 7:44
What does this thing that we are in mean for the future of work?
Sarah Jaffe: 7:48
That's a big open question. It's a question of organizing and struggle, right? At the end of the day, the future of work is gonna be determined by whether we see a lot more events like the Amazon workers unionizing, the Starbucks workers unionizing and actually winning some demands against some of these really massive corporations or whether they get crushed and people just learn to continue lowering our expectations like we've been doing for the last 40 years.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:15
One of the things that I'm picking up is that you are thinking is constantly evolving and I can only imagine how over the course of your career you have had leaps and you've grown and you've had new insights. I wonder at this point, what advice would you give your younger self?
Sarah Jaffe: 8:32
Oh my goodness, <laugh> , How much younger are we talking? I've seen old friends from 20 years ago that I'm still friends with that we still get along , um, that we all are doing similar political work, which is interesting. The advice I'd give my younger self is that like, it sounds so corny to just say like, don't give up. It will matter what you've been doing. It will matter that you have bashed away this , um, miserable industry and tried to convince her that stories about working people matter.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 9:08
Sarah , thank you for talking with us.
Sarah Jaffe: 9:10
Thank you for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 9:12
Sarah Jaffe is a journalist and author of Work Won't Love Your Back, How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. Saru Jayaraman is president and co-founder of One Fair Wage, a national organization campaign and coalition fighting for a full fair minimum wage. She's also the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, and she's here to talk to us about a concept she calls the Great Revolution. Saru , welcome to Radical Imagination.
Saru Jayaraman: 9:59
Thank you so much for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:01
First of all, have you heard the new Beyonce song Break My Soul?
Beyonce Clip: 10:06
I just quit my job. I'm gonna find new drive. Damn near work me so damn hard!
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:06
Do you think she's really telling people to quit their jobs?
Saru Jayaraman: 10:16
<laugh> ? I gotta say she's so brilliant. I don't think we have to worry about this encouraging people to quit. People are quitting! People are leaving already. She's tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment where everybody is feeling this. Well , at least working people who've been accepting these conditions and wages for so long are feeling this sense of you will not do this to me anymore. I, I know my worth. One of our members said, It's not a great resignation, it's a great revolution. We know that you can't do this to us anymore and so we're leaving and we won't come back unless you permanently change wages and conditions. So it's a amazing, amazing moment and amazing that she tapped into that moment and was able to basically vocalize what people are feeling right now .
Angela Glover Blackwell: 11:15
I'm so excited about One Fair Wage. Could you tell us about the campaign, how it's going and what the essence of it is?
Saru Jayaraman: 11:21
There's near universal agreement among people that in America of all races and frankly of both parties – working people, at least – that when you work, you deserve to be paid enough to feed your family. You deserve to be paid by your employer enough to feed your family, enough to survive, enough to live. We are taking advantage of the moment. We decided that we are going to move legislation and ballot measures in 25 states. Half of the the country by the United States 250th anniversary. 2026 is the United States 250th anniversary. It's a 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We wanna declare independence from legacies of slavery, from poverty and sexual harassment, from the idea that people are disposable and can work only for tips. We wanna be independent from all of these antiquated ideas, frankly, that most of the country doesn't agree with. And so we're moving these bills and ballot measures in battleground states in half of the country, and we're putting them on the ballot in a way that will mobilize hundreds of thousands, if not millions of low wage workers, unlikely voters, voters of color, women of color, people who feel disillusioned right now with the political system, with both parties to come out and vote. And when they vote, when they vote themselves a raise, which they'll be able to do when we put this on the ballot. They'll also be voting for people who then are supportive of that raise and typically people who are supportive of wage increases also are supportive of addressing climate change, also are supportive of the basic, fundamental ideas of a democracy, are also supportive of women having reproductive rights. There is a way in which if we actually address the most basic needs of most working people in this country – and I mean their ability to feed their families – they can engage politically in a way that might then just help us on a whole host of other issues that we're worried about right now.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 13:30
Saru, women , especially women of color, have been most affected by the pandemic under leaving the workplace at higher numbers. Why is this happening?
Saru Jayaraman: 13:39
Well, I'm gonna talk specifically about the service sector because I know it the best, but I also think it really is the epitome of what is happening in the broader economy for women. In the restaurant industry, you know, during the pandemic, all of the things that were so problematic in the service sector just became unlivable. So pre pandemic, the restaurant industry had a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, a direct legacy of slavery, still $2 and 13 cents an hour at the federal level. This is a huge industry, like 14 million workers. And so we were basically allowing this one of the largest employers of women to pay them as little as $2 and rely on tips. Well , that became unlivable. During the pandemic Workers reported tips went way down because sales went down and customer hostility and harassment went way up. And really the breaking point for so many women , uh, in the service sector was being asked to enforce Covid protocols on the very same customers from whom they had to get tips. You're asking me to do so much more for so much less, we have experienced the highest levels of Exodus in the history of the, the service sector in this country in this moment.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 14:56
I really appreciate what you're saying about the conditions really getting exacerbated during the pandemic. It's not surprising that we're seeing more workplaces organizing and workplace unionizing really expanding. As the founder of One Fair Wage, what's the significance of this?
Saru Jayaraman: 15:16
First, I think it's so important to understand the historical significance of this. I mean look , look at our sector really, the restaurant industry and the hospitality sector mutated tipping at emancipation from being what it had always been an extra bonus on top of a wage to becoming a replacement for wages as a way to hire Black women for free. It's so historic, this rejection of a legacy of slavery. And you're right, it's a part of a huge wave that yes, at one end workers are unionizing, forming formal unions, but even beyond that, there's such a much broader universe of people organizing in all different kinds of ways, standing up collectively and saying, We're all walking out. We don't take these wages anymore. People are speaking about working conditions. People are speaking up about leave and sick days. I mean, people are organizing in the broader sense of that word, broader sense of that word is not just unionizing, it's people coming together and collectively demanding something better for themselves, something better for their collective. Wages are going up. Thousands of businesses, many of whom said it would be impossible for them to raise wages are now raising wages. And that has changed the political landscape in terms of wage increases. This is a long time permanent restructuring of the economy. It's a pretty miraculous and hopeful thing.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 16:45
That is so exciting. Saru, I have great admiration for you and your colleagues, and I know that you have been engaged in this for some time and you have seen other campaigns and you have seen change. At this point in your life. What advice would you give your younger self?
Saru Jayaraman: 17:05
<laugh>? Oh, that's such a great question. I lack patience. I would tell myself two things, one, two , to hold on, to have patience. To know that as Martin Luther King said, you know, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. You have to keep believing that otherwise, you know you can't go on. But at the same time, I would tell myself to have compassion for myself with my impatience because if we didn't have impatience for change, it wouldn't drive urgency for change. There's nothing wrong with saying, you know, really this should have happened yesterday and it needs to happen now.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 17:44
Saru , thanks for talking with us.
Saru Jayaraman: 17:45
Thank you so much for having me .
Angela Glover Blackwell: 17:48
Saru Jayaraman is president and co-founder of One Fair Wage, fighting for a full fair minimum wage for all workers . Are we in the middle of a Great Resignation or a Great Revolution? History will answer. What I do know is that workers in workplaces are expressing and experiencing something important. Workers are using their agency individually and collectively to demand fair wages, decent working conditions and voice. They are leaving jobs that exploit and dehumanize finding better jobs and organizing to change what is unacceptable. And employers are responding. Faced with disease and massive death stemming from the pandemic, many people, including workers, have reevaluated what's really important: family, health, community life, and people have been awakened to the essential role of government: to provide for the basics and ensure dignity and fairness. It feels revolutionary to me . Radical Imagination was produced for Policy Link by Futuro Studios. The Futuro team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Joaquin Cotler, Stephanie Lebow, Juan Diego Ramirez, Liliana Ruiz, Sophia Lowe , Susanna Kemp , and Andy Bosnack. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Vanice Dunn , Ferchil Ramos, Fran Smith, Loren Madden, Perfecta Oxholm, and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time and in the meantime you can find email@example.com . Remember to subscribe and share Next time on Radical Imagination Alternatives to 9 1 1.
Speaker 7: 20:07
Again, there there's been this dis hesitation to think about giving people the option of not involving police to crisis situations and, and in the city of Chicago, we continue to see that as a challenge.
Speaker 8: 20:18
For me, the greatest gift of abolition has been grace. It is , it has been a different way to negotiate my conflict. It's also been a different way to acknowledge that conflict exists.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 20:29
That's next time on Radical Imagination.