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The Debate Over Service Work and Unemployment Benefits Shows Why Marxism Is Right

More than any Marxist text ever could, the COVID-19 emergency cash relief programs — and the furious reaction to them from employers — lay bare the raw truth about capitalism: bosses' profits depend directly on workers' remaining terrified of destitution.

The pandemic and the wider discussion around government benefits it’s currently inspiring are a stark reminder that much of the economy depends on keeping essential workers in a state of permanent precarity. (Michael Browning / Unsplash)

Working as a line cook remains one of the single most grinding and unpleasant experiences of my life. Besides my brief stint as a telemarketer making calls on behalf of the good folks at Discover Card (an experience I still wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy), nothing even comes close. The latter, whatever else might be said about it, did at least take place in a cubicle where the risk of injury was purely emotional and came exclusively in the form of verbal abuse transmitted through my headset. In the kitchen, I was physically injured all the time. Cuts and oil burns were quite common, as were burns from a stove, grill, or searingly hot utensil left on a burner for too long (these wounds would be treated, and those hurt would generally be expected to resume their shifts as quickly as possible). On one occasion I was asked, with zero guidance or training, to slice meat in the basement using a machine you might expect to see in a torture chamber owned by Vlad the Impaler, which very nearly sliced my fingers off the moment I plugged it in.

As you would expect, the work was badly paid and the environment hyper-exploitative: minimum wage to stand in a tiny, poorly ventilated room (where the temperature would occasionally exceed 40 degrees Celsius in the summer) for ten hours, twelve hours, and sometimes more. Once, I even remember being told to stop punching in until I’d changed into my kitchen uniform (the act of getting dressed generously took about ninety seconds, so with the hourly wage being something like CAD$8.75, I’d estimate that this habit had been costing the owners the princely sum of about 2 cents per night). Kitchen staff did get a share of the tips, but when I returned to my old job after a year’s absence, I was promptly told that a “new rule” meant I no longer qualified. Conservatively, this amounted to a unilateral pay cut of 10 percent — and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I don’t share these experiences because I think there’s anything unique about them, or because I believe they were even particularly bad by industry standards (many women in the restaurant industry, for example, could probably add countless experiences of sexual harassment to the kinds of things described above). With very few exceptions, low-wage work is a meat grinder designed to extract the most labor for the least compensation permitted by law, less scrupulous owners and managers cutting corners or skirting regulations wherever they think they can get away with it. By and large, it’s not something any rational person would choose to do (let alone enjoy) unless they had no other option — a reality impressed on me again last week as America’s business and restaurant lobbies complained of worker shortages and elected politicians dutifully regurgitated their talking points.

The complaint, in this case, has to do with an alleged dearth of workers thanks to a suite of benefits contained in the recently passed American Rescue Plan. David Rouzer, a Republican House member from North Carolina, rather usefully summed up the awful argument as follows:

It’s in exactly this spirit that the US Chamber of Commerce has just kicked off a massive lobbying effort designed to kill the $300-per-week federal jobless benefits, which its analysts say is giving one in four recipients more money in unemployment than they earned at work (and thus inspiring them to stay home).

There is, of course, at least one other major reason why workers — particularly in the restaurant industry — might prefer staying home to pouring drinks at their neighborhood watering hole or staffing the deep fryer at their local steakhouse. Restaurants have been an especially dangerous place to work during COVID-19, the morbidity rates of line cooks increasing by some 60 percent, so that it’s now quite literally the deadliest profession in pandemic America. The National Restaurant Association, for what it’s worth, cites a host of factors that may be keeping some among the unemployed from seeking out employment, among them safety concerns, the need for caregivers to stay at home, and the various government supports still in place.

In any case, it’s a fairly safe assumption there are plenty of workers who are indeed staying home because they recently had the good fortune of receiving a government check or two in the mail. Last summer, a report from the Congressional Budget Office found that five out of six recipients of the expanded unemployment benefit (then worth $600 a week rather than $300) were likely to get more money from the program than they would by returning to paid employment. Then, as now, some Republicans (and indeed some Democrats) issued anguished warnings about the benefits being a disincentive to work.

This kind of line might be pretty standard fare in American politics, but it’s also a very revealing statement about how a large swath of the US economy actually functions — the implication being that the only thing keeping many businesses in low-wage sectors going is millions of people forced to sell their labor at bargain-basement prices because the alternative is quite literally destitution. It all brings to mind a passage written in the 1990s by the late Christopher Hitchens on the dual meaning of the word “incentive” in post-Reaganite America: “As we are endlessly instructed, while rich people will not work unless they are given money, poor people will only work if they are not. These are the two modern meanings of the term ‘incentive’: a tax break on the one hand and the threat of a workhouse on the other.”

Right now, there are plenty of obvious reasons for unemployed people to prefer government checks over seeking out a minimum wage gig as a line cook or grocery store clerk. But the pandemic and the wider discussion around government benefits it’s currently inspiring are a stark reminder that much of the economy depends on keeping essential workers in a state of permanent precarity, lest they decide they’d rather not be screamed at by a tyrannical manager, ordered to perform unsafe tasks for pennies, or spend their best waking hours toiling away to make some rich jerk even richer.

This, not the oft-cited sham concerns about profligate government spending or unsustainable debt, is the real reason so many in America’s gilded political class oppose the construction of a genuine welfare state. If the threat of destitution were removed, millions of workers would doubtless opt to stay home over performing grinding, tedious, or dangerous tasks for next to no money — and employers might, just for a change, have an incentive to make employment a more attractive and better-compensated option.