Expanded Opportunities in the Wake of COVID-19

a road map for changing workplaces and society

Expanded Opportunities in the Wake of COVID-19
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Right now as the pandemic sweeps through our societies, we are experiencing drastic and fundamental changes to the ways we live and work. As a citizen of the US, I’m seeing a sudden explosion of interest in those ideas which very recently might have been considered “idealistic” and “liberal” but which are now, during this crisis, being looked to as necessities.

What I’m interested in is not so much the “silver linings” of the situation we find ourselves in, but rather I believe that now is an important time to look toward the future and see what direction our society is heading. We have the opportunity afforded us by the COVID-19 crisis to make some lasting societal changes, if we put our minds to it.

What could be changed in my industry?

Right now, many of us are finding ourselves displaced from our working environments. Others, fulfilling jobs often seen as “lesser” are finding themselves labeled “essential” and therefore being placed on the front lines of the crisis (whether they wish it or not). One of the major bulwarks to positive change is the concept of “what is possible” and “what is realistic.” When considering major systemic changes, we frequently hear the phrase “well, that’s a nice idea but it simply isn’t realistic. It’s not possible.” Well, many of those “impossible and unrealistic” things are suddenly being mandated — and, lo and behold, they’re working out just fine. Many who work in professional careers are finding themselves perfectly capable of doing their job from home (and doing it just as well, or better, than they would have at the office). Others in more service-oriented positions are suddenly aware of their importance (as is everyone else) in a way that is somewhat unprecedented for our capitalist society. And “gig-workers” who many conservative pundits have heralded as the new type of American worker, are realizing that the options open to them are actually awful unless strong social safety nets and protections exist and are enforced.

Going ahead, I want to look at some of the changes which might come about due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what positive outcomes might occur if we demand them.

Photo by Manny Pantoja on Unsplash

What happens if we continue using the remote work?

Remote work has been a problem for a while. There are many, many jobs which require employees to show up physically despite the fact that they don’t actually need to be physically present to do their job. The downsides of this are not merely the physical toll on the workers, either. The financial cost of commuting to work — which almost always gets foisted on the worker — is usually large (think of the costs of transportation). The environmental cost of a commuter lifestyle is also incredible. Here in California, some elements have been actively promoting highway expansions as if that was a good thing while simultaneously trying to defeat further legislation promoting alternative means of transport (such as the extension of our limited rail system).

Working from home would allow people to spend more time with their families, it would give people a huge psychological break, and it would also keep cars off the roadways. Considering that the setbacks across the world in meeting environmental safety limitations, and the egregious rollbacks which the conservative elements of the US government have undertaken in environmental protections, it is more important than ever to seek out new means of decreasing our personal environmental impact.

How do we do this? As individuals, we organize. Once the COVID-19 crisis abates, we cannot simply return to work as normal. The precedent set by this pandemic affords us the opportunity to make serious headway in demanding conditions from our employers that are personally beneficial and environmentally sound. And, for business leaders, this is a chance to restructure how you operate — ensuring that your employees are fairly treated and that your primary “bottom line” is the welfare of the society as a whole.

How does COVID-19 change our relationship to work?

Ours is a culture obsessed with productivity. We are a goal-orientated people, intent on pushing ourselves to the brink of exhaustion to succeed. But how many of us ask why that is? What is the benefit of working hard, really, if that hard work damages our health, relationships, and the fragile ecosystem on which we depend?

There are some people out there who champion an “individualist” philosophy of self-reliance, but the truth is that we all rely on one another constantly. Society itself is a web-like structure where threads of mutual support create and define the whole. We might not be aware of all of those threads, but they exist nonetheless.

As this crisis grips us, we need to be asking ourselves if we really want to return to life as “normal.” We do no have to. COVID-19 has shown us that we need to accept the old answer “things are just the way they are.” Want to spend more time with your family? Want to be free for artistic fulfillment and self-betterment? Our world can actually support these things, it just requires a few changes to our outlook and habits — and it requires those of us closer to the bottom of the capitalistic pyramid to organize. So, as yourself: “What kind of workplace do I want to have? What should my work look like?” Now’s the time to make those changes into reality.

Photo by Shubham Verma on Unsplash

The renewed importance of unions

I’ve mentioned organization a few times already, and that’s one of the most important things that we can do. As we’re seeing across the country, new unions are already taking shape; workers are preparing strikes in all sectors of the economy, and their collective will is being felt and heard (even by the people in the most privileged of positions). COVID-19 has revealed a glaring truth about our society, one which the major media organizations and centrist politicians wish us to forget: together, collectively unified, the people are unstoppable. If we want a different sort of life, we can make the change that makes it possible.

For decades in the United States, union membership has dropped and union power has dwindled. Partially this is due to the mass outsourcing of our production capacity to other countries, but the political side of things at home is just as much to blame. The corporate mindset currently active in our society decries the concept of worker power, and for half a century we have seen an insidious and concentrated effort to revoke protections for workers and limit their ability to organize. Well, COVID-19 has create a much-needed “pause” and has given people both time and cause to organize once more. When the pandemic is over there is no need to return to “work as normal.” If enough people refuse to allow the system to keep spinning on its merry way, then change is possible.

It all starts with talking openly to friends and co-workers. Many of us are sheltering in place and all of us are (or should be) practicing social distancing. But we have this miraculous technology called “the internet.” Services like Republic Wireless are offering unlimited monthly data for just $20 during the crisis so the net is more open and accessible than ever. Use this time to organize via video conferencing with others in your workplace, industry, or simply with other workers around the globe. Get involved on social media. Ask questions. Dare to suggest that “normal” is what we choose to make it.

Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

The political fight for UBI

Finally, I want to bring up the topic touted by former Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang and seriously explored by brilliant political representatives like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and 2020 Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders. That is: Universal Basic Income.

Long considered the wet pipe-dream of far-left liberals, it is now being seriously considered as the only intelligent option in an increasingly tech-focused and automated economy. With COVID-19, the discussion has gone from serious-but-theoretical to “actively considered.” In some sense, the extremely limited pay outs currently on the way to a percentage of US citizens is actually a form of UBI, but the discussion goes much father and deeper. As we move farther into 2020 the need for large sums of money for those effected by the pandemic will become a serious necessity. At the very least a massive expansion of unemployment benefits will be called for. But why stop there?

We know that massive amounts of money can be found by the government in times of need. We also know that most of this money gets immediately funneled into major for-profit corporate entities. Instead of allowing this, we can demand that every single person in the country be afforded the basic income needed to ensure a high quality of life. This will need to come with much-needed secondary legislation, such as a national scaled-rent-ceiling, but it is perfectly possible. Again, we have the opportunity to organize, let us not waste it while it’s here.

Like this piece? Check out my discussion of work through the lens of Bertrand Russel’s philosophy. Hard Work: The Greatest Con

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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