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Work and workers in the United States: A historic turning point?

Chris Rhomberg
Traduction(s) :
Travail et travailleurs aux États-Unis : un tournant historique ? [fr]


The extraordinary collision of crises in the United States in 2020 – biological pandemic, economic recession, and mass protests – presents a unique juncture from which to consider the development of relations of work in the United States in the first decades of the 21st century. In this article, I begin with a brief review of the peculiar institutional context of American labor and employment relations, as the setting for change. The discussion then follows along three dimensions: 1) labor markets, 2) the labor process, and 3) social reproduction. Finally, I consider the implications of recent trends for the current juncture.

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1In December 2020, the United States reported more than 16 million cases of COVID-19 and over 300,000 deaths from the disease (Johns Hopkins University, 2020). Social distancing orders imposed in March shut down much of the economy, causing unemployment to jump to 14.7 percent in April; by October there were still 10 million fewer jobs than in February (Gould and Bivens, 2020). Finally, in May the murder of African-American George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recorded on phone camera video and broadcast over social media, sparked demonstrations by an estimated half-million people in more than 500 locations across the U.S, in what has been described at the largest wave of civil protest in American history (Buchanan, Bui, and Patel, 2020).

2This extraordinary collision of crises – biological pandemic, economic recession, and civic upsurge – presents a unique standpoint from which to consider changes in the relations of work in the U.S. in the 21st century. In this article, I sketch just a few of these transformations, using a broad analytic framework of political economy that emphasizes the inequality of structural positions, norms of group identity, and relations of power among actors in the labor market and the workplace (Dickerson von Lockette and Spriggs, 2016; Branch and Hanley, 2018; Howell and Kalleberg, 2019). In addition, feminist scholars have shown how relations of paid labor are deeply connected with social reproduction, including both paid and unpaid service and care work typically performed by women, and social provision by the state (Gottfried, 2013; Grimshaw, Fagan, and Hebson, 2017).

3Elsewhere (Rhomberg, 2010), I have proposed the concept of a “signal juncture” to analyze moments of crisis in an institutional order when latent contradictions become intensified or burst into the open. Unlike the more familiar concept of the critical juncture, a signal juncture does not necessarily imply a radical turning point as a consequence of events. Rather, even when brought on by a seemingly exogenous shock, it highlights endogenous tensions and resistance within normalized institutional patterns, that may prefigure further contention and change. It is too soon to know if the current moment may develop into a more transformative critical juncture, but we can identify here some of the specific conflicts and critical issues at stake.

4The focus is on the U.S. experience since the 1990s, albeit in global context. I begin with a brief discussion of the peculiar institutional context of American labor and employment relations, as the setting for change. The discussion then follows along three dimensions: 1) labor markets, 2) the labor process, and 3) social reproduction. Finally, I consider the implications of recent trends for the current juncture.

The institutional context: Worker rights and social provision

5Among advanced capitalist nations, the U.S. has some of the least-inclusive labor market institutions, including collective bargaining laws, minimum wages, access to health insurance and paid leave, and assistance for jobless and low-income households (Schmitt 2010). Most private sector unions are governed by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Collective bargaining is generally decentralized at the firm- or shop-level; the government certifies unions as bargaining agents and sets rules for negotiations but rarely intervenes to ensure settlements. Most non-union private-sector workers are employed “at-will,” meaning they can be discharged at any time for any reason not prohibited by law, or for no reason at all (Summers, 2000). Certain categories of workers are protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and other reasons. The process of enforcement is separate from the laws governing unions, however, and usually depends on workers pursuing individual litigation (Stone, 2004).

6Since the New Deal era, however, a parallel, more restrictive order has persisted under American federalism particularly in the former Confederate states of the South, which for much of the postwar period remained under a legal system of racist apartheid. At the insistence of Southern members of Congress, the NLRA excluded agriculture and domestic service, the largest sectors employing African-American workers before World War Two (Quadagno, 1996). The 1947 Labor Management Relations (Taft-Hartley) Act allowed states to pass so-called “right to work” (RTW) laws, which undermine unions by allowing employees covered by union contracts to “free ride” without paying union dues or “fair share” fees. By 1960, nineteen states, mainly in the South and the prairie and desert West, had passed RTW laws (Gordon, 2016). Public sector collective bargaining emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, often led by racial minority and women workers, and governed mainly by state laws that vary across states. Again, the same Southern and Western states severely limit public sector workers’ union rights (Hebdon, Slater and Masters, 2013).

7Employers across the country have generally resisted unionization in unorganized sectors, but by the 1980s even unionized firms began to reject collective bargaining, backed by the administration of President Ronald Reagan and the federal courts. Decades of NLRB and judicial rulings now give employers wide freedom to prevent workers from organizing, using legal and often illegal methods, while harsh sanctions threaten unions that go beyond strict limits on collective action (Rhomberg, 2012). As a result, private sector union density fell from 24 percent of employed workers nationally in 1973 to 6 percent in 2019, with the lowest levels in the Southern states (Hirsch & MacPherson, 2020).

8Other forms of worker protection and social provision have similarly lagged or declined. The federal minimum wage is set by Congress but has no automatic adjustment for inflation; its 2020 level of $7.25 per hour was below the federal poverty line for a full-time worker with a family of two. States can set higher minimums, but 21 states, mainly in the South and Midwest, remained at the $7.25 rate (Cooper, 2017). Unemployment Insurance (UI) was established in the 1930s but normally lasts a maximum of 26 weeks. Due to outdated eligibility restrictions, as few as a third of those out of work from the 2007-2009 Great Recession actually received UI benefits (Mettler 2018, 49).

9Slightly more than half of workers obtain private (tax-subsidized) health insurance as a job benefit through employers, down from more than 70 percent in the 1980s, and for low-wage workers the share is closer to one in five (Mettler, 2018, 34). Government-operated, single-payer Medicare and Medicaid programs offer health insurance for the elderly (age 65 or over) and the poor, respectively. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) created new regulations and subsidies for private health insurance and expanded Medicaid, reducing the uninsured rate from 16 percent of adults in 2010 to 10.9 percent in 2016. The ACA preserved the market structure of most health insurance, however, and 24 states, again mainly in the South and Midwest, initially refused to expand Medicaid after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed them to opt out. By 2018, around 28 million persons remained without health insurance (Quadagno and Lanford, 2019).

10Finally, the 1996 “welfare reform” law imposed work requirements, time limits, and sanctions for noncompliance on recipients of federal cash assistance for poor families, and a cap on federal funding for the program as a whole. The law was intended to push participants (mainly single mothers) into paid employment, but fewer than two-thirds found stable work on leaving the program, typically in low-wage jobs that did not lift their families significantly out of poverty. Nevertheless, average caseloads fell dramatically and remained low even during the high unemployment in the Great Recession (Edin and Shaefer, 2016, 30-31).

11Altogether, the institutions of labor governance and social provision in the U.S. are weaker than in most other advanced capitalist nations. Workers have limited rights on the job, and are normally forced into the market to obtain basic income, health care, and other needs. A divided institutional terrain based on legacies of racial inequality creates a competing, low-wage regime that undercuts social welfare, and government aid often fails to provide assistance or to produce counter-cyclical impacts during recessions. These conditions form the context for the changes that have occurred in recent decades, in the labor market, the organization of work, and the support for households in social reproduction.

The labor market: employer demand and labor force composition

12Both employers and employees have been affected by structural trends in the American labor market, driven by neoliberal globalism, deregulation, and corporate strategies. These have coincided with a spatial reorganization of production and the demand for labor, as well as demographic shifts in the composition of the labor force. The intersection of these processes with societal norms of gender and racial inequality has produced distinct patterns of labor market segmentation and a remaking of the American working class.

13In sociology, the analysis of global commodity chains (GCCs) helped illuminate the transformation of production, drawing from world systems theory and development studies (Bair 2009). The GCC approach examines unequal positions in spatially dispersed but functionally integrated production chains, and the forms of governance and control by lead firms. Unlike traditional producer-driven commodity chains (PDCCs) in more capital-intensive, vertically-integrated manufacturing, large retailers and brands like Walmart and Nike use their purchasing power to dominate buyer-driven commodity chains (BDCCs), impose flexibility and cost-reduction on legally-independent suppliers, and maintain just-in-time inventory control. Now, even capital- and technology-intensive producers like Apple have become more buyer-like and network-oriented through outsourcing and modular linkages between buyers and suppliers (Gereffi and Fernandez-Stark, 2016). In retail, the logistics system pioneered by Walmart has been taken further by Amazon, combining an online marketplace, warehouse and shipping functions, and cloud computing infrastructure (Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese, 2020).

14For the U.S., global integration was accelerated by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the 2001 entry of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). After NAFTA, U.S. foreign direct investment in Mexico grew from $17 billion in 1994 to nearly $110 billion in 2017, and in sectors like automobiles, electronics, appliances, and machinery the supply chains are now integrated across the border (Villareal, 2019; Rothstein, 2016). While manufacturing had declined for decades as a share of the American economy, employment fell sharply after the 1990s, from 17.2 million in 1999 to 11.4 million in 2011 (Acemoglu et al., 2016). The loss of jobs undermined the industrial unions, yet globalization has also driven the spatial re-ordering of manufacturing within the U.S. Production in the auto industry has increasingly shifted from the Midwestern/Great Lakes region to the Southern states, led by foreign-owned transplants and lured by lower regional wages and state government financial incentives. Between 1983 and 2011, automakers like BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen opened assembly plants in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, all of them non-union (Platzer and Harrison, 2009).

15On the labor side, major structural changes include the long-term rise in women’s labor force participation, from 43 percent in 1970 to a peak at 60 percent in 1999 before tapering off since then (Gottfried, 2013, 48). Around 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 years are employed or looking for work, including two-thirds of mothers with pre-school age children under 6 years (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). While gendered occupational segregation has declined somewhat, women remain underrepresented in authority positions, technical fields, and elite professions, and concentrated in interactive service work and jobs involving emotional labor and care work stereotypically identified as feminine. In 2010, four of ten women were employed in occupations that were at least 75 percent female, including secretaries (96 percent), childcare (93 percent), registered nurses (91 percent), and elementary school teachers (82 percent) (Gottfried, 2013, 56-57).

16Conventional theories of human capital, productivity, and skill-biased technical change fail to explain persistent gender and racial inequalities. Rather, sociologists emphasize employer demand and labor market institutions, embedded in larger economic and cultural processes. Since the 1970s, Black unemployment rates have remained around twice the level for whites, despite educational gains for Black workers, and Black/white wage inequality is aggravated by declining unionization and the stagnant value of the minimum wage (Rodgers, 2019). Experimental studies of hiring have found that employers show as much or more interest in white male job applicants with a criminal record than in similarly qualified Black and Latino male applicants with no criminal record (Pager, Western and Bonikowski, 2009). At the same time, the redundant labor of young, less-educated men has been absorbed by an extraordinary rise in incarceration. In 2008, Black men under age 35 without a high school degree were more likely to be incarcerated than to be employed (Western and Pettit, 2010).

17Social constructions of race and gender shape job quality, the evaluation of skill, and the allocation of workers to positions, linking jobs and skills with distinct groups of workers (Branch and Hanley, 2018). For degraded, low-wage work, employers prefer dependent, subordinate groups like immigrants with lower education and few alternatives but whose job-specific skills and ethnic networks provide a stable labor supply (Waldinger and Lichter, 2003). Under NAFTA, competition from U.S. agribusiness led to a net loss of 2 million Mexican agricultural jobs from 1991 to 2007, and immigration from Mexico to the U.S. surged: Mexican-born residents living in the U.S. rose from 4.5 million in 1990 to a peak of 12.6 million in 2009, while the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants grew from 2 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2007 (Weisbrot et al., 2014; Passel & Cohn, 2019). Unauthorized immigration from all countries more than tripled from 1990 to 2007 but has since declined; in 2017 there were 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. including 4.9 million from Mexico. Unauthorized workers were 4.6 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2017, and are concentrated in lower-wage, manual labor jobs: by some estimates they form around a quarter of dishwashers, maids and housekeepers, and workers in food processing, a third of construction trade jobs, and up to 80 percent of farm labor (Loscocco, 2017; Gleeson, 2016).

18These trends have reinforced patterns of rising income inequality and relative wage stagnation for the broad majority of workers (Howell and Kalleberg, 2019). The re-composition of the labor force, however, calls for a re-thinking of images of the American working class. Draut (2018, 7-9) finds that people of color form more than 41 percent of the working class, defined as workers with less than a Bachelors’ degree level of education, and are employed increasingly in food and retail, blue-collar service, office and clerical, and care work jobs.

The labor process: Flexible production and precarious work

19The macrosocial processes described above come together in the workplace, in the organization of the labor process, and in everyday relationships on the job. Different labor segments experience different forms of control, reinforcing unequal outcomes. Since the 1980s, the financialization of the economy and the demand to maximize investor returns have led to the “hollowing out” of the large corporation, as firms shifted from a welfare-capitalist model of job security, internal labor markets, and employer-provided benefits to a network model of flexible production and downsized employment (Davis, 2009; Applebaum and Batt, 2014).

20Flexibility has been achieved through at least two methods: “flattened” internal organizational structures for core functions, and “fissured” work practices with outsourced production and externalized costs (Peck, 1996; Weil, 2014). The “flattened” workplace replaces formal bureaucratic hierarchies with decentralized decision-making, fewer tiers of management, and employee participation in problem-solving, often through self-monitoring work teams (Stone, 2004). Workers experience shorter job tenure, broader job classifications, and job rotation or movement among projects within or between employers. Rather than job security, employers offer opportunities to develop skills, networks, and “employability,” while transferring risk and responsibility to employees (Stone, 2013). The broad, indefinite job duties and diffuse accountability within organizations can also reinforce exploitation, allow the formation of powerful informal cliques, reproduce racial and gender exclusion, and make anti-discrimination enforcement under Title VII more difficult (Loscocco, 2017; Stone, 2004).

21Studies show that a “high road” flexible workplace, with high rates of participation, productivity, job security, and sustainable wages, is economically possible but underused. Implementation is strongest with unionization, but as unions have declined there are fewer pressures for firms to adopt high road practices (Osterman, 2018; Kochan and Kimball, 2019). This underlines the conflict that remains at the core of the flexible workplace. Murray and Schwartz (2019) argue that American automakers in early 20th century Detroit actually employed the flexible production model, later adapted by the Japanese, only to abandon it for a dispersed production system in order to counter unionization and workers’ power.

22In high value-added industries, flexible production often relies on the spatial agglomeration of producers and suppliers, with dense informal networks and access to labor, information, and other inputs. Sassen (2019) has analyzed the role of cities as production complexes for finance, media, information, and other producer-service sectors. American cities have also sought to revitalize their economies with cultural industries like film and television production, museums, performing arts, and tourism. Such industries depend on the co-presence and coordination of diverse skilled and less-skilled labor to produce an original product, performance, event, or experience, but Gautney and Rhomberg (2015) argue that strong labor market institutions like unions and state regulation remain necessary to sustain a high road model even for highly-skilled labor.

23Without strong governance, employers can also pursue a low road to flexibility, through what Weil (2014) calls the “fissured” workplace, including subcontracting, franchise ownership, the use of staffing agencies, and other means. Fissuring shifts costs to contractors and franchisees, puts competitive downward pressure on wages and benefits, and insulates lead firms from responsibility for compliance with labor and employment laws. Employers also misclassify millions of workers as independent contractors, who typically are denied benefits like health insurance, and are not covered by federal wage and overtime laws, social security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, or rights to unionize under the law (Carré, 2015). Even large formal establishments, like factories, warehouses, and hotels, have adopted in-house practices of precarious work, using subcontractors, staffing agencies, temporary hires, or other forms of fissured employment (Weil, 2014; Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese, 2020).

24For workers, this often means precarious working conditions including low pay and few or no benefits, job insecurity, and increased violations of basic labor standards (Howell and Kalleberg, 2019; Bernhardt, et al., 2009). Although on-line “gig” work using digital platforms like Uber or TaskRabbit remains as yet relatively small, an estimated one out of eight American workers engage in some form of alternative, non-standard work, with perhaps more in under-reported informal jobs. Non-standard employment often reflects secondary, part-time or short-term work for multiple-job holders whose main jobs do not provide sufficient income (Katz and Krueger, 2019). Abraham and Houseman (2019) report that more than one-quarter of adults engage in some informal work outside of a main job, with Black and less-educated workers more reliant on income from informal work.

25Fissured labor forces workers to consent to conditions or face the discipline of the market. Interactive service work, however, introduces a triadic relationship among employers, employees, and their clients, customers, students, or patients, and implicates the worker’s sense of self, emotions, and body including racial and gender identity in their performance on the job (Leidner, 1993; Gottfried 2013). Sherman (2007) and Sallaz (2009) show the tactics of consent and control that skilled service workers like concierges and croupiers use with customers in luxury hotels and casinos, respectively. By contrast, Ikeler (2016) shows how “big-box” retail firms like Walmart impose deskilled, collectivized, and standardized service interactions under a management regime of “contingent control”, using company paternalism, vigorous anti-unionism, and a secondary, high-turnover workforce with low identification or attachment to the job, to prevent oppositional class consciousness among employees.

Social reproduction: households, work, and public policy

26No less than in the labor market and workplace, inequalities of gender, race, and status shape the process of social reproduction. This includes conflicts between employers’ demands and the responsibilities within households for domestic labor and childcare. The lack of public support programs leaves most of the burden on families and particularly women, who must use either their own unpaid labor or commodified care services. The latter are themselves gender-typed and racially segmented with typically low wages and precarious conditions.

27Since the 1980s, the dominant pattern for families with children has been a dual-earner couple or employed single parent, yet many employers continue to demand a normative “ideal worker”, committed to the job and available full-time and for long hours on short notice. As Williams (2000) argues, this presupposes a gendered division of labor in which wives and mothers perform the unpaid reproductive labor of cooking, cleaning, and caring for family in the home. While men have increased their share, employed women continue to do the majority of household and caring labor. The imbalance has hindered progress in the gender pay gap: younger cohorts of women now begin their careers with wages roughly equivalent to men but face a “motherhood penalty” as they have children and experience discrimination in promotions, reduced hours, or exit from the labor force (Doran, et al., 2019).

28Higher-paid professional and managerial employees often work long hours but have more access to employer leave policies, “family-friendly” schedules, and telecommuting (Boushey 2016). Many low-wage workers, however, struggle with involuntary part-time employment, unpredictable hours, and increased use of “just-in-time” scheduling. In industries like retail stores, hotels and restaurants, airline travel, and package delivery, employers calibrate employee hours with variable consumer demand, leaving workers with irregular shifts and little advance notice of when they must work (Cauthen 2011). Unpredictable work hours can make it hard especially for low-wage workers to earn an adequate income or respond to their health care or children’s needs, contributing to worker stress and work-family conflict (Lambert, Fugiel and Henly 2014).

29The U.S. is the only member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that does not offer paid leave to new mothers, and no permanent federal law requires private-sector employers to provide paid leave of any kind (Donovan, 2019). The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family caregiving or medical needs, but only around 60 percent of workers are eligible and many cannot afford to take it. For childcare, only 11 percent of civilian workers have access to assistance through their employers. Government subsidies and tax credits are available to low-and middle-income families but are not widely used, and publicly-funded childcare services reach only a small share of preschool age children (Doran et al., 2019: U.S. Department of Labor, 2016, 11). Lacking formal support, low-wage workers depend on informal arrangements with co-workers to cover absences and extended-family members to provide childcare (Clawson and Gerstel, 2014).

30As women and mothers have moved into paid employment, demand has grown for commodified caring and domestic services, both inside and outside the home (Gottried, 2013, 112). Yet, care work and domestic labor are heavily gender-typed and devalued, and the workers are some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable. At least 2.2 million workers are employed in private homes as housecleaners, childcare or home care aides. More than 91 percent are women, 57 percent are Black, Latinx, or Asian American, and more than a third were born outside of the U.S., compared with 17 percent of the rest of the workforce. Hourly compensation is low, and annual earnings are around $16,000 or less than half of that for non-domestic workers with similar education and demographic backgrounds (Wolfe, et al., 2020). Outside the home, some 580,000 assistants are employed in nursing homes, helping an average of 12 elderly residents per shift with daily tasks such as dressing, bathing, eating, and mobility. Wages are also low, 92 percent are women, more than half are people of color, and 21 percent were born outside of the U.S. (PHI, 2019). Both nursing assistant and home care jobs are projected to grow significantly as needs increase with an aging population, yet workers experience low wages and precarious conditions.

31The trends in American labor markets, labor processes, and social reproduction have contributed to rising inequality and conflict among groups, at work, in households, and in the political arena. Together, they have intensified struggles for power and governance over relations of work in the 21st century.

The struggle for governance: The 2010s

32In the U.S., the 2008 financial crash led to the election of President Barack Obama and a Democratic Party majority in Congress. Unlike the New Deal of the 1930s, however, the Obama administration’s economic recovery measures did not fundamentally alter prevailing patterns of corporate power and neoliberal policy (Young, Banerjee & Schwartz, 2018). Instead, conservative business elites led a political counter-movement that capitalized on economic nationalism and racial backlash and in 2010 won control of state governments in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The new right-wing state governments drove the anti-union regime deep into the formerly pro-labor industrial Great Lakes region: By 2015, 15 states had passed new restrictions on public sector workers’ union rights, and between 2012 and 2017 five states enacted new RTW legislation, including Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin (Lafer, 2017). In 2018, the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision established the equivalent of RTW in the public sector nationwide, though the long-term effects on union membership remain to be seen (Rainey & Kulgren, 2019).

33In the past few decades, the American labor movement has expanded its strategic and organizational repertoire to counter falling union density and barriers in the law and the fissured workplace (Rhomberg 2020). One innovation has been the rise of non-profit worker centers as advocates for domestic workers, undocumented immigrants, independent contractors, and others without access to collective bargaining rights. Although most are small, lack formal memberships, and rely on external funding, worker centers have fewer legal restrictions than unions and greater flexibility to mobilize protest. For example, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully pressured fast food corporations, as the lead firms in agricultural commodity chains, to pay vegetable growers enough to support living wages for farmworkers (Gunn, 2018).

34Some campaigns aim to mobilize public support for local and state regulation. The Service Employees International Union’s “Fight for $15”, launched in 2012 with a symbolic, one-day demonstration strike of 200 fast food workers in New York City, raised demands for a $15 per hour wage and the right to form a union. By 2019, seven states had passed laws to phase in a minimum wage of $15 per hour, more than twice the federal level (Rhomberg, 2018; Marr, 2019). Other state and local campaigns have won regulations including paid sick days and family leave, advance notice of scheduling, and regular hours for workers in retail, food service, and health care (Donovan, 2020; Gould and Cooper, 2020; Wykstra, 2019). Since 2017, voters in five states (Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah) have approved ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid, against the opposition of conservative Republican governors (Kliff, 2020).

35Labor militancy also returned to the workplace, in a resurgence of strike activity. In Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, where public sector workers have few or no labor rights, mostly female public schoolteachers in 2018 led the largest U.S. strike wave in decades, targeting state governments to restore education funding after years of austerity (Blanc, 2019). Nearly half a million American workers were involved in major work stoppages in 2018, including hotel workers in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and California demanding wage increases so they would not have to work multiple jobs to meet basic needs. The teacher strikes continued nationally in 2019, along with mass walkouts of grocery workers in New England and autoworkers at General Motors, whose 6-week strike was the longest U.S. automotive strike in 50 years (Rhomberg, 2020).

36These efforts revealed both structural tensions in the existing order and workers’ capacity for resistance, while taking conflict into new arenas. At the same time, mobilization has encountered the divided institutional terrain described above. In the South and Midwest, conservative state governments have preempted their cities from requiring higher standards. Twenty-six states prohibit local adoption of higher minimum wages, and 23 states prevent mandates for paid sick days or paid family leave (Economic Policy Institute, 2018). Many of the same states have also imposed new restrictions on the right to vote, including complex identification requirements, barriers to registration, limits on absentee ballot, mail-in, or early voting, and others (Brennan Center for Justice, 2019).

The crises of 2020: A signal juncture?

37The failures of neoliberalism and the rightward turn in American politics set the stage for the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. After campaigning on appeals to economic populism and white Christian nationalism, Trump governed with a pro-business agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and hostility to organized labor (Kerrissey, et al., 2019). As President, he benefitted from an economic recovery that lasted a record 127 months through January 2020. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and Trump’s refusal to address it, exposed the unequal effects of the system of work in the U.S.

38Black and Latinx people were up to 3 times more likely than whites to become infected and nearly twice as likely to die from the coronavirus. Black, Latinx, immigrant, and women workers were more likely to have essential front-line jobs in health care, public transit, groceries, and warehouse and delivery services at higher risk of exposure to the virus, or to work in low-wage service industries more vulnerable to layoffs. Non-white populations were often concentrated in viral “hot” spots, living in dense, segregated urban housing, working in nursing homes or meatpacking plants, or incarcerated in prisons (North, 2020; Rho, Brown, and Fremstad, 2020). People of color were also more likely to lack health insurance or face limited access to health care, and Black residents were more likely to live in states that refused to expand Medicaid (Artiga, Garfield, and Orgera, 2020).

39Economically, total nonfarm employment fell by 20.5 million in April 2020, as unemployment reached 14.7 percent. In-person, non-essential services saw drastic losses: Employment in leisure and hospitality fell by 7.7 million or 47 percent, and the union representing hotel and food service workers (UNITE HERE) reported that 98 percent of its members were out of work (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020; Tomasky, 2020). By November, 10.7 million workers were still officially unemployed, although an estimated 8.3 million more were misclassified, undercounted, or had dropped out of the labor force (many to take care of children or families), and another 7.1 million experienced reduced hours and pay (Shierholz, 2020). Without additional federal aid, state and local governments faced severe budget shortfalls and the prospect of mass layoffs of public workers, potentially aggravating social tensions and the economic slump.

40As the pandemic took hold, Congress was finally compelled to address the inadequate system of worker protection and social provision. Lawmakers in March passed the first-ever federally mandated right to paid sick days and family leave, targeted for workers and families affected by COVID-19. Unemployment benefits were temporarily increased and eligibility widened to include independent contractors and others normally excluded from aid. Loans and grants were offered to help small businesses cover payroll and other expenses to retain employees, and additional emergency funds were provided for childcare programs and providers (First Five Years Fund, 2020; Gould and Bivens, 2020).

41The relief measures passed by Congress set an important precedent, but initially lasted only a few months or to the end of 2020. The unequal impacts of the pandemic and shutdowns, and the anxiety and forced idleness that followed, created volatile conditions for the civic uprising in summer 2020 (Buchanan, Bui, and Patel, 2020). The upsurge drew from a broad cycle of protests over the previous decade led by African Americans, women, immigrants, and young people against racist policing, sexual abuse, deportation, gun violence, and the environment. In the November election, high levels of engagement and polarization, along with expanded mail-in and early voting set up under the pandemic, drove the highest turnout rate in more than a century (Montanaro, 2020). The centrist Democratic candidate Joseph Biden defeated Trump for the presidency, with younger and racial minority voters providing critical margins in the industrial Midwest and in states like Arizona and Georgia (CIRCLE 2020), but the polarization of American politics is far from over.

42Many challenges remain. COVID-19 infections and deaths reached record highs in December 2020, leading to renewed shutdowns, and a growing share of job losses were becoming permanent (Gould and Bivens, 2020). High unemployment rates gave greater leverage to employers, and unions were forced to try to defend workers’ jobs (Shierholz 2020). The lack of childcare forced many women out of the labor force; in July, nearly a third of non-working women ages 25-44 with children cited childcare demands as the reason (Heggeness and Fields, 2020). More comprehensive reforms have yet to be achieved, including universal access to health care, childcare, and paid leave; modernized unemployment insurance; support for minority and vulnerable workers; and others. Labor law reform has been notoriously hard to win for generations, but new proposals call for strengthening the right to strike, sectoral collective bargaining, preventing misclassification and fissured employment, and repeal of Taft-Hartley provisions allowing RTW laws (Marvit 2019).

43Such efforts face powerful opposition. In 2019, California passed a landmark law to prevent gig economy firms from misclassifying workers as independent contractors and denying them rights to minimum wage and other protections and benefits. Uber, Lyft, and other gig employers spent $205 million on a successful 2020 ballot initiative to overturn the law, and promised to take the campaign to codify drivers’ contractor status to other states (Siddiqui and Tiku, 2020). The shock of coronavirus pandemic cast a harsh light on the inequalities of the system of work in the U.S. Will the crises of 2020 lead to a critical juncture, or remain a signal juncture continuing the pattern since the Great Recession. In many ways, the future may be a test of American democracy.

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Chris Rhomberg, « Work and workers in the United States: A historic turning point? »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Chris Rhomberg

Professor of sociology and urban studies, Fordham University

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