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Sociologist Jamie McCallum visits UMass Lowell to speak about essential workers during the pandemic

(Photo courtesy of Radio New Zealand) Dr. McCallum is a sociology professor at Middlebury College.

Lillie Zate
Connector Contributor

American sociologist, author, teacher and activist Dr. Jamie McCallum visited UMass Lowell on Thursday, March 3, and spoke on issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic from the point of view of essential workers, and how it affects everyone from all parts of life in his presentation, titled: “An Injury to All: Labor Time, Union Struggles, and the Future of the American Working Class.”

McCallum opened with a story about one of the workers he interviewed– a female traveling nurse named Kim. Having been a nurse in Brookline during the height of the pandemic, Kim explained to McCallum that “Back then, we saved the ones we could, and tried to stay alive ourselves… staying alive was harder than it sounds… Covid-19 is an occupational disease.”

McCallum drew on several important topics surrounding the pandemic and the workforce. He went in depth about how the pandemic revealed the power of workers’ unions, explaining how unionized workers are essential for every industry in the fight for a voice. Using data from his own research as well as others, he focused on healthcare workers and how they were the most affected.

McCallum emphasized that when essential workers are unhappy, everyone is unhappy, “Bad income jobs are bad for all of us…. essential workers’ working conditions are our living conditions.” McCallum said. “By shortchanging essential workers, we formed a collective ouroboros – a snake devouring its own tail [and destroying itself].”

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were three things that McCallum felt characterized the activism sweeping the globe.

First, he explained the mutual aid societies forming in nearly every nation, where people came together to share and save resources for everybody – donating supplies for healthcare workers, shopping for the elderly who were more in danger of the virus, etc.

Second, people began forming what McCallum called “self-defense” groups within hospitals, where people went around the community helping those who needed it because the hospitals were overrun with covid patients.

Lastly, social justice strikes occurred everywhere concerning racial disparities, social class disparities and people deserving better working conditions amidst the pandemic.

“When the entire country went on strike, they accomplished something of great individual significance,” McCallum said. “Workers can only win when they create a crisis for employers and for supply chains all around the world,” which is exactly what happened in Fall 2021.

The biggest places that resistance and labor shortages occurred was in healthcare and education. McCallum found that last year, a great majority of Covid diagnoses and deaths in the nation were within nursing homes. Because of the low wages and poor treatment of workers in these facilities, workers often needed to work 2 or 3 more jobs, increasing the chances of transmission between facilities. Roughly 200,000 residents and staff within nursing homes had died of covid – making nursing one of the most dangerous job in the world.

“The labor shortage doesn’t account for nurses, as the US has plenty of them – hospitals simply have always understaffed and overworked their nurses to maximize profits, and they make more money by cutting life-saving professionals,” McCallum said. “The result was an ‘epidemic’ of long hours, overworking, abuse, low pay and record high nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.” This problem leads to a decline in care for everyone, emphasized McCallum.

McCallum conducted research on 15,000 nursing homes in the US and found that labor unions in nursing homes led to a 10% lower resident death rate and 8% lower infection rate than those who did not have labor unions. Union workers had better access to PPE, reducing transmission of the virus.

Schools across the nation were also a large subject regarding labor unions and the fight for better working conditions. McCallum said that teachers’ unions played an essential role in having safe classrooms for students, and his research found that districts with stronger teachers’ unions were more likely to adopt mask mandates. In short, strong unions were important in slowing the virus.

The biggest takeaway from McCallum’s talk is that essential workers are more important to everybody than most people realize – a fact that before the pandemic most people would not have agreed with. The pandemic extended a certain kind of power towards workers that wasn’t there before.

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