Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Natasha Lewis spoke to Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (Bold Type Books).
Natasha Lewis: You’re a labor journalist, so you spend a lot of time covering labor struggles, but a lot of the people you write about in this book aren’t in unions. Could you tell me a bit about that choice?
Sarah Jaffe: In some of these cases it’s people who can’t have unions, right? I start out with a mom. The artists that I talk about are trying to form an artists’ union, but there isn’t really one for them to be part of. So, in those cases, that’s the story: how do you organize when you are aren’t really recognized as needing or deserving a union?
In other cases, they’re in organizations like United for Respect and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where they’re organizing as workers, but they’re not proper union members. Others are founding members of new unions like the game workers, or the hockey players who are forming their worker organization.
This is what the workforce looks like now: a whole bunch of people who don’t have access to traditional unions, don’t have access to organizing help, and don’t have traditional-looking workplaces.
Lewis: You call teachers the “ultimate laborers of love.” And you also argue that the way that they are expected to love their job makes them dangerous, which is a theme that runs through the book. What is it about teachers that makes them dangerous?
Jaffe: Teachers have done the best job of weaponizing the labor of love narrative. We’re talking a week and some odd days after we lost [former Chicago Teachers Union President] Karen Lewis. I’ve been thinking a lot about the first interview we did with her for the Belabored podcast, where she says, “Explain to me how the billionaires who don’t believe in public education, don’t send their own children to public schools—all of the sudden they care deeply about Black and brown children?” Teachers like Karen Lewis understood that it’s just not true that the Walton family and Eli Broad care more about kids on the South Side of Chicago than the teachers of Chicago do. And it’s even more ridiculous when [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot’s trying to force them all back into the classroom, saying “Oh, we care about the kids.” Okay, then why do you want them all to get coronavirus? Reopening schools is not caring for children or for anyone else, because this thing will never end if we keep reopening everything.
Lewis: You also talk about these connections between parents and teachers. There’s one line that stuck out to me: when a parent finds out that there’s only one nurse at the school, she said, “I went to war.”
Jaffe: She said, “I have one biological child at that school, and I have 588 adopted children at that school.” That kind of feeling was the thing that I really wanted to capture, her feeling of investment in it—that all of those kids are her kids.
Right now, Black and brown parents are the last ones who want to send their kids back to school, because their communities are the ones that are dying. And they know that mayors aren’t pushing to reopen because they care about Black and brown kids. Imagine how much worse it would all be right now if we hadn’t had Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union and CORE [the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators] change the narrative.
Lewis: You also include history of a teacher’s union from the beginning of the twentieth century looking at tax rolls.
Jaffe: The Chicago teachers! They were combing through the tax records to find out who wasn’t paying and clawing back tax revenue in order to put it into the public schools. This is the same damn thing the Chicago Teachers Union is doing one hundred years later. And in New York in the 1940s, the Communist-run Teachers Union was arguing for culturally relevant curricula for Black students in Harlem and in Bed–Stuy. These were mostly white Jewish teachers who were going into Black and brown communities and organizing with their parents.
Lewis: There’s an ongoing debate in which one side argues that bringing identities into unions is a distraction and it’s more important to focus on economic issues. I read your book as an argument against this idea—you show that embracing identity can be a source of power.
Jaffe: In the days around and following the Flint sit-down strike at the General Motors auto factory [in 1936–1937], the women who worked at the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store decided that they were also going to have a sit-down strike. Woolworth’s was the Walmart of its day; it was the place where working-class people shopped. These women sat down and occupied the store for over a week. They knew that in order to beat this massive corporation, they had to do battle in the press. They got hired by Woolworth’s because they were cute—Woolworth’s wants cute girls selling its stuff—so then they gave all these charming interviews. They were very aware that they weren’t going to get taken seriously the way that the men at the General Motors plant were. But like the teachers using their care and their closeness to the students, they were able to use that strategically.
If there’s one argument that I want to make with this book about the working class, it is that we always have to understand class isn’t a static identity. Class is always in a process of being composed both by the shape of capitalism and by the workers themselves. The bosses at Woolworth’s probably didn’t think of these women as being part of the same working class as the dudes at the General Motors factory, but the Woolworth’s workers sure did, and they made sure everybody else knew it, too. They thought, if you can do this, so can we. They took a step to become part of this organized working class that was fighting for union rights and raises. And they won basically all of their demands.
If we think that class is one thing on an identities checklist and it is the most important single thing, then we don’t understand what class is at all, because class is the summation of all of these other things, and it’s an experience, and it’s a thing we do.
Lewis: You write about domestic workers, teachers, retail workers, and then Colin Kaepernick, people who we might not think of as being in relation to each other, necessarily. But your book brings these different workers together.
Jaffe: Colin Kaepernick, in relation to you or me, is fabulously wealthy. In relation to some of the workers in this book, even more so. But in relation to his bosses, he’s still an employee, and he’s an employee that they have decided is a pain in the ass, and so they’re not going to hire him. This is also how class works. These are relationships, and the relationship that matters in that story is not whether Colin Kaepernick is richer than me. It is whether his boss thinks that he can wipe his shoes on him or not.
Sports unions are useful in terms of understanding how power and class operate and also because they win a lot of the time. Not always; the men’s hockey union is always getting its ass kicked. But they can be very useful for talking about the fractal way that inequality exists in our society. Colin Kaepernick is a multimillionaire, he’s not broke. He’s got a Nike sponsorship, even without an NFL contract. We’re not worried that Colin Kaepernick won’t be able to feed himself because he can’t work. But in relation to the incredibly rich, horrible human beings who run the NFL, he’s an exploited worker. Tom Brady, even, who is much less sympathetic than Kaepernick—he’s very good at football, but he’s very bad at being a person—even he is making exponentially more money for his team owners than he is making. They are profiting way more off of him than the cut that he gets. That is still exploitation.
Lewis: This book is separated into two halves. The second half is titled “Enjoy What You Do!” after our favorite Wham! song.
Jaffe: RIP Comrade George Michael.
Lewis: Tell me about the book’s structure.
Jaffe: When I was thinking about the laborers of love, they seemed to break down into two very broad categories: one was caring workers, the other was creative workers. Athletes get put in the latter section, because they do something that is considered fun.
In the first half, I start with women’s unpaid work in the home and draw all these arguments out of Wages for Housework, the welfare rights movement, and brilliant women who, at various times, have organized around the fact that the work they do in the home is work.
The artist chapter in the second half was really fun, because I didn’t know much about it. I just had this theory about how we talk about creative work based on reporting that I’d done on workers in film and journalism and also the narratives around academia. When I actually started thinking and writing about art itself, I read so much and got to talk to all these people for hours and hours about how we think about art.
Lewis: You describe this theory of art as a collective enterprise. I was reading that chapter at the same time as I was reading Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack; he has a chapter on the way that reggae culture developed in the UK through sound systems, which also pushes back on that idea of creativity as something individual.
Jaffe: The Mexican muralists thought a lot about this. If you’re painting a giant mural on the wall, Diego Rivera isn’t the only person who worked on it, even though it’s got his name on it. Who is the artist? What is the collective practice? How do you create these spaces in these studios? David Alfaro Siqueiros was always creating places for collective art projects, even though he was a pain in the ass, and so his attempts at collective practice often ended up with somebody trying to murder him—literally, in the case of Jackson Pollock, who tried to strangle Siqueiros at a party once.
These questions around artistic practice push back against this white, masculine, European idea that art is a thing that comes out of the brain of a genius man. No, it’s work, and it’s collective and it’s international and it’s complicated and messy.
Lewis: What books did you carry around with you while you were working on Work Won’t Love You Back?
Jaffe: The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks, who is my intellectual godmother. Angela Davis is one of the first citations in the book and the last. My favorite essay of hers is “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation.” She wrote it in prison, which always blows my mind.
I was just reading Bethany Moreton’s new article in the Capitalism journal, so I’ve got her To Serve God and Walmart on the brain even more than usual. Stanley Aronowitz’s The Last Good Job in America. Dave Zirin’s sports books. Alice Kessler-Harris’s Women Have Always Worked for the chapter on nonprofits. Everything Eileen Boris has ever written, I do mean everything; in addition to all her writing on care work, I read the book that had been her dissertation, Art and Labor, which is on the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States.
Lewis: Do we want to talk about the PMC [professional-managerial class]?
Jaffe: I think it’s sort of useful as a category, but the more you try to correct people on it, the worse it gets. That’s why we should throw it out. Sort of like privilege: it has been so distorted that it is not useful.
I’m reading Aaron Benanav’s book right now, and he writes about the disparity between the top of the managerial class—the executives and CEOS—and everyone else. That’s actually the most useful way to use it—not for professors, for whom things have largely gotten worse.
So often PMC ends up as shorthand for “college educated,” which isn’t terribly helpful. Kate Wilson, the adjunct in the book, has a partner who is the same age as her and works at the same school. Because of accidents of timing and luck, Kate is adjuncting, and her partner is tenured. They have drastically different working conditions with the same education level.
Lewis: Your last chapter begins with a question that I’m now going to put to you: what would you do with your time if you didn’t have to work?
Jaffe: Write a screenplay about Harry Bridges, which would definitely also be work. But that’s the thing: that question gets back around to another question: do these things have to be work? What would a society look like if we had space for people to be creative in all sorts of ways that didn’t require it to be your job in order for you to do it?
Who would read labor leader fan fiction? Somebody must’ve done this before. I’m going to go home and Google slash fiction of Harry Bridges and Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis.
Lewis: If we keep this in the transcript, we might get recommendations. In the last chapter, you answer this question in a collective way, by thinking about what it means to be a citizen and how democracy itself takes a lot of time.
Jaffe: In writing the arts chapter, I learned more about the Works Progress Administration. I already knew about the arts funding where they paid Dorothea Lange to take photos and famous artists to paint murals. I didn’t know that there was a whole program of building community art centers. That’s great, because it wasn’t just that you could democratize access to the arts by having a great artist paint a mural at your local post office, but there would also be an art center in your community where they would pay the artists to teach classes. You could learn how to paint your own damn mural. You might never be as good as Diego Rivera, but it would be fun and exciting and stimulating and would make you feel more like a human in the middle of the Great Depression.
I want more of that. I want less time at work, so that we can all have time to figure out what those things will be. Part of what happens when you transform it all into your job is that if you aren’t great at it, then you’re considered a failure. Everyone should be able to write bad poetry and make bad paintings. If your idea of art is gluing painted macaroni on a paper, then I want you to be able to do that. And I want you to not have to feel you have to have some goal at the end where you will one day get paid for it. We have to break art out of the commodity relationship.