From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.

- - -

More for More Than Me
by Tracy O’Neill

As a child, I was prone to theatrics meant to corroborate my own value. An aunt owned a brown coffee tin stamped with the faces of the presidents, and I’d recite their names to prove I was intelligent enough to sit with the adults at family gatherings. When I recited prayers, I thought their declamation demonstrated that my virtue exceeded that of those who failed to memorize theirs. And when my mother permitted me to audition for dance performances, I would shimmy in front of people with clipboards, intending to perform charm sufficient to ensure my future performance of charm over the other hopefuls. I was, like most hams, attached to the cult of the individual.

Back then, I had no reservations about competitive individualism. I picked up a non-team sport and viewed its contests as equally distributed opportunities to exact willpower on empty futures. I wanted my place, whatever it took, and I did not worry about who would be excluded because I was certain inclusion was always possible, that you could net whatever you wanted through personal endeavor. In my days as a praying, tap-dancing anthropomorphic memory palace, I believed human effort limitless and limitlessly available to everyone equally, even as I accepted the position that value was tied to a scarcity of resources. I did not see that neoliberalism’s love affair with the laissez-faire hinged on supernatural beliefs.

But, like many children, at a certain point I had to abandon magical thinking. In various jobs I have held as an adult, I have learned, for example, that:

  • (1) A day has an endpoint. Therefore, an infinite number of tasks cannot be fit into a workday, no matter what an employer chasing efficiency might believe.
  • (2) Bodies require calories. Calories cost money in a capitalist society. Therefore, a baseline living wage is required to do a good or even mediocre job.
  • (3) A dead person cannot perform. Therefore, healthcare provides the necessary conditions for producing value.
  • (4) Babies are not self-sufficient. Therefore, paid family leave matters immensely to those interested in the simultaneous continuation of humanity and a functioning economy.

For many workers, however, persuading employers of these fundamentals proves immensely difficult. Individual grievances—and accomplishments—do not tip working conditions into reason. Abstract fantasies of efficiency, austerity, and market freedoms obscure the most basic facts about the requirements of human life. The non-biological entity of the company must be kept “alive,” even at the expense of its living, breathing laborers. If the terms of employment are insufficient, employees are often told they should work more in the nonexistent additional hours of the day; make their bodies healthy enough, without medical care, to not require medical care; need less; lean in; and so on. It becomes the worker’s burden to disprove that the lack of survival necessities has been precipitated by individual failings.

Organized labor, however, offers an alternative. Where the prevailing logics of neoliberalism shame individual workers for their inability to thrive under the unlivable conditions it produces, labor unions are able to bring these collective struggles into view. They open up space for solidarity rather than making rights contingent on solo spectacles of worth. And they can harness the power of the group to push for change.

The data is clear. Union workers earn more than their non-union counterparts. They pay less for benefits. There is a smaller gender wage gap for union members than for non-union laborers. And union members are more likely to have fully paid family leave.

The path to collective bargaining is not always easy, of course. When graduate student workers at Columbia University voted to unionize—and when the union was recognized by the National Labor Relations Board—the university retained legal counsel at Proskauer Rose in an attempt to break it. And in the gig economy, labor organization faces several challenges, including the fact that under the National Labor Relations Act protection for engaging in collective action is not provided to independent contractors.

But there are several ways we can support labor unions. We can start one ourselves. We can refuse to cross a picket line. We can communicate to our alma maters that we will not give to institutions that refuse to bargain with unions. We can reject politicians who aim to weaken unions. And we can push for laws that recognize the right of gig workers to organize.

We can outgrow competitive individualism. We can embrace worker solidarity. We can.

- - -

Take action today:

Embrace worker solidarity. Urge your representative to prioritize the right to unionize in the new NAFTA.

- - -

Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful, a columnist at Catapult, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Epiphany.