About The Work of Living:
As COVID-19 swept across the globe with merciless force, it was working people who kept the world from falling apart. Deemed “essential” by a system that has shown just how much it needs our labor but has no concern for our lives, workers sacrificed—and many were sacrificed—to keep us fed, to keep our shelves stocked, to keep our hospitals and transit running, to care for our loved ones, and so much more. But when we look back at this particular moment, when we try to write these days into history for ourselves and for future generations, whose voices will go on the record? Whose stories will be remembered?
In late 2020 and early 2021, at what was then the height of the pandemic, Maximillian Alvarez conducted a series of intimate interviews with workers of all stripes, from all around the US—from Kyle, a sheet metal worker in Kentucky; to Mx. Pucks, a burlesque performer and producer in Seattle; to Nick, a gravedigger in New Jersey. As he does in his widely celebrated podcast, Working People, Alvarez spoke with them about their lives, their work, and their experiences living through a year when the world itself seemed to break apart. Those conversations, documented in these pages, are at times meandering, sometimes funny or philosophical, occasionally punctured by pain so deep that it hurts to read them. Filled with stories of struggle and strength, fear and loss, love and rage, The Work of Living is a deeply human history of one of the defining events of the 21st century told by the people who lived it.
“Maximillian Alvarez doesn’t just report; he listens like an organizer, and pulls the fundamental challenges of humanity from the people he interviews so that it’s never just about storytelling or setting a narrative. It’s about finding what really binds us together in those struggles so that we can fight our way forward with real love and solidarity.” —Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, essential workers lashed out against low wages, long hours, and safety risks, attracting a level of support unseen in decades. This explosion of labor unrest seemed sudden to many. But Essential reveals that American workers had simmered in discontent long before their anger boiled over.
Decades of austerity, sociologist Jamie K. McCallum shows, have left frontline workers vulnerable to employer abuse, lacking government protections, and increasingly furious. Through firsthand research conducted as the pandemic unfolded, McCallum traces the evolution of workers’ militancy, showing how their struggles for safer workplaces, better pay and health care, and the right to unionize have benefitted all Americans and spurred a radical new phase of the labor movement. This is essential reading for understanding the past, present, and future of the working class.
“Essential _shows how we, essential workers, were sacrificed during the pandemic—how we were told we were essential but not given workplace protections, how we had to choose between our jobs and keeping our families safe from the virus. _Essential _catalogs the increase in worker militancy during the pandemic, especially by Black and Brown workers who bore the brunt of the virus, police violence, and economic injustice. This book shows us without a doubt that labor struggles are racial justice struggles. Most importantly, _Essential is a call to action: we need increased workplace militancy to challenge capitalism. As workers, our labor—and our ability to withhold it—is our power.” —Chris Smalls, president and founder, Amazon Labor Union
Maximillian Alvarez is the Editor-in-Chief of The Real News Network in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today.” Prior to joining The Real News, he was an Associate Editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and graduated with a dual-PhD in History and Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan. His work has been featured in a range of outlets, including The Nation, In These Times, Boston Review, Truthout, and The Baffler.
Jamie K. McCallum is an author, teacher, and activist, focusing on labor and work issues around the world. He is currently associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College. His work has won scholarly awards and appeared in The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Jacobin, Dissent, In These Times, and other magazines. Follow him on Twitter @jamiekmccallum for infrequent retweets of socialist cat memes.