Author Jamie McCallum delivered a book talk on his latest book “Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice” at the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, or IRLE, on Feb. 1.
McCallum, an IRLE fellow and professor of sociology at Middlebury College, delivered a talk and question-answer session hosted by the IRLE, UC Berkeley Labor Center and UC Berkeley Sociology, addressing an audience of over 30 attendees.
McCallum began his focus in the sociology of work and labor in the United States after having been a union organizer for many years. According to McCallum, his goal was to create a scholarly yet accessible book for anyone to be able to understand the explosion of labor unrest and demands in the United States — and more importantly, the importance of strong unions for workers’ voices to be heard.
McCallum recounted reaching out to frontline workers throughout the country to provide firsthand accounts in “Essential.” Intimate conversations with essential workers during the pandemic provided McCallum “a keen sense of what was going on” for workers who remained unheard.
“The more horrible things wouldn’t end up on the news or on the internet,” McCallum said. “These conversations make you grateful for people sharing and to trust you with translating their stories.”
In his discussion with audience members, McCallum analyzed the dimensions of labor organizing and how COVID-19 became an occupational hazard during the pandemic.
While there were only eight large strikes at the end of 2020, McCallum states, there was a “cross pollination” between the Black Lives Matter protests and labor strikes. This, according to McCallum, culminated in workers taking non-union strikes into their own hands.
McCallum discussed workplace safety as an outcome of class struggle, noting in his book that workplace safety had gone largely uninvestigated during the pandemic. To McCallum, the conditions of work during the pandemic supports the importance of unions as a guarantor of workplace safety.
“Whether or not you have a bad job, lousy jobs for others creates a society that is more vulnerable to crisis, havoc and chaos,” McCallum said. “Conditions of the working class are the living conditions of everyone else.”
He noted that one of the key takeaways of “Essential” is to understand that poor working conditions and work lives are not inevitable.
McCallum added that it has been within the last century that American society has seen a decline in the protection and quality of working-class jobs.
“It’s really important to see that political economy is subjective and determined by people’s actions,” McCallum said. “It’s the premise of sociology, but it bears repeating.”