I was at the grocery store the other day checking out when a white woman at the self-checkout, who was not wearing a mask, was reminded politely by the clerk that state policy required she wear a mask inside the store.
The white woman snapped back with disproportionate rage, while continuing to scan her grocery items, that she wasn’t going to be deprived of her freedom and, next thing you know, she won’t be allowed to buy food for her family.
Her rage, like the white rage seething across the country fueled by Republican ideologues, blinded her to the most basic elements of the reality of the situation in which she found herself.
Among these basic elements was the fact that I and the many others wearing masks and unproblematically shopping for food for our families felt, I’m sure, absolutely no fear that our ability, or “freedom,” to purchase food was threatened in the least. And while it’s hard for me to fully speak for others’ feelings, I imagine many, if not most others, felt, as I did, perfectly free in our masks walking around the store, without impediment, selecting items and filling our carts. Democratic civilization was not about to collapse; we wearing masks were not experiencing the iron heel of tyranny coming down upon us.
Just as those of us who drove to the store likely braked at stop signs and red lights and otherwise followed the rules of the road to protect ourselves and others and ensure we respected each other’s well-being and ability to get safely where we were going (as I venture the raging patron did as well), so we wore masks to protect ourselves and others from the real threat of a dangerous virus.
Another basic element of this situation’s reality we need to highlight perhaps most of all is that person most under siege, whose liberty was most threatened, was the store employee. This angry patron who felt her freedom was threatened was actually depriving the worker of her right to a safe workplace, as dictated by the law.
The worker had much less freedom. Sure, she could leave her job if she doesn’t like the working conditions, giving up her salary, not qualifying for unemployment because she quit, facing a duration without a paycheck. Under our economic system, we tend to define “freedom,” particularly on the economic terrain, as the right to bring one’s labor freely to market. Of course, the balance of power is not equal. Workers need to eat and provide for their families, and employees largely set the terms of employment, particularly in non-unionized workplaces (and only about 11% of the U.S. workforce is unionized).
The grossly unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. puts a vast number of Americans in a position in which they are living paycheck to paycheck, such that economic necessity, the struggle for survival, does not leave them a lot of freedom, a lot of options, when it comes to working or trying to keep a job.
The raging patron, feeling wearing a mask made her “unfree,” even as the rest of us freely wandered the aisles, had little recognition of the very material constraints and lack of freedom the clerk was experiencing at this moment and likely had during the pandemic when “essential workers” were pressured if not mandated to return to the workplace to do the work to make our lives possible. If it wasn’t exactly forced labor, there was an element of that.
Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, in a piece in The Atlantic, captures this dynamic in her experience as a grocery worker. She acknowledges some satisfaction from the momentary recognition as a hero, writing, “Working in a grocery store has earned me and my co-workers a temporary status. After years of being overlooked, we suddenly feel a sense of responsibility, solidarity, and pride.”
But their feelings about themselves aside, she views this larger social recognition as not just fleeting but as serving the more dangerous psychological purpose of absolving consumers of guilt and enabling the same system of exploitation to continue:
Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.
And yet as a society, we tend not to recognize this workplace exploitation and lack of freedom.
Like the patron, blinded by her rage, we don’t see it.
And ignoring the real threats to freedom and confusing the promotion of civilized behavior that recognizes the rights and well-being of others with an assault on one’s freedom is a dangerous recipe for enabling authoritarianism.
For any number of reasons, workers are experiencing options, not driven completely by economic necessity and survival to take any job they can get at any wage, having to put up with any conditions.
Facing shortages of workers, businesses are indeed recognizing their dependence on workers and hence the value of that labor.
Our freedom really, if we examine our situation smartly, depends on the work we all do. The rageful patron did not recognize that her freedom to shop and eat and not have to worry about food supply depends on the health and willingness to work of that clerk she didn’t care about.
As workers realize and assert their real power, rooted in the fact that we all depend on each other’s work and can’t live without each other’s work in many cases, we can potentially achieve democracy in the workplace, a voice and share of control in the place we spend a great deal of our lives, and a wage that frees us from the grossly unequal labor market so we can have greater choice and thus better options in choosing work.
I’ll wear a mask til the day I die if we can realize this kind of freedom, in which labor’s role is so key.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.