Pandemic Pangs: May 1, 2020

Sorry We Missed You, American Factory, and the ever-elusive dignity of work and a living wage in America

 

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In February, in that land before time, a friend and I attended a New America Foundation Social Cinema event, at Betaworks Studios, around the corner from the Whitney Museum. A warm and sleek open space, Betaworks was both a perfect and slightly off-putting venue for the screening and panel that followed. It is a start-up incubator, a place for innovation and disruption – two words now almost completely perverted by the unintended consequences of a tech gold rush that has enabled so much of our current broken labor model (and the belief that solutions are best left to the private sector).

 

That night, a hundred or so gathered for a preview screening of Ken Loach’s most recent production, “Sorry We Missed You” (now available as a rental from Film Forum) about a family in Newcastle caught in the purgatory of “independent contractor,” gig economy, struggles. Loach, one of the more strident Cassandras of socially engaged narrative cinema, has, since the 1960’s, been producing unflinching portraits of the economically, politically, and socially disenfranchised. He sends up broken systems through the lives of the individuals navigating them. Thankfully there’s ( just enough) intimacy and charm to make these unrelenting stories engaging  (But I really don’t recommend watching more than one Ken Loach film at a time – they are so bleak that they either paralyze you completely or have the opposite of their intended effect, where you just shut off because you are being barraged with a “message”).  This great Guardian list ranks all of his 37 movies, for a quick snapshot of his prolific output. He does not like to leave many stones unturned.

 

In “Sorry We Missed You,” we find Ricky and Abby Turner, parents of two, still recovering from the 2008 crash, in which they lost their house and incurred unbearable debt. Critically,  many of those laid off in 2008 and its aftermath, were never hired back full time. Instead, they returned as independent contractors, allowing businesses to avoid having to pay for health insurance and other basic benefits. Gig work filled this vacuum without any attendant government protections. The Freelancers Union did arise to meet some of these needs but its umbrella could not cover many classes of workers.

Grasping for work in this new landscape, Abby and Ricky turned to the new economy’s promise of autonomy and entrepreneurship. They decide to sell Abby’s car so that Ricky can buy a van to become an independent warehouse delivery worker (not unlike an Amazon warehouse – an order fulfillment center where workers are essentially held hostage by scanner guns recording their every move). The eventual reward would be outright ownership of a delivery franchise. In the meantime, he gets paid per delivery. Abby, who works as a home health aide, paid per visit, has to trust that the added difficulty of traveling to her patients on public transportation will eventually pay off.

We soon see that as independent contractors they seem to have none of the autonomy and all of the risk; none of the security afforded by having an employer, such as sick days, set hours, or a minimum wage, but all of the obligations of being beholden to quotas and others’ schedules. And in Abby’s case, not only does this structure degrade her, but her patients as well – the independent contractor structure provides very little incentive for home health aides to spend ay significant amount of time with them before rushing off to their next paid visit. This degrades Abby further. She refuses to treat her clients as anything less than human, and it is at her own and her family’s expense.

 

A warm and loving family, we watch as the stress and unrelenting schedules fray the Turner family unit. The physical and emotional exhaustion is palpable, and the toll it takes easy to foresee. In his patronizing review in the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that the dramatic device in “Sorry We Missed You” seems to be Murphy’s Law. But of course, as we now all plainly see, so many are just one small crisis away from having it all go completely wrong – there is no room for error. And the irony for American audiences watching this bleak downward spiral is that at least the Turners wouldn’t go bankrupt from any medical issues (the drama of Ricky’s injury in the film is that he does not have the time to tend to it properly, leaving the hospital before being seen; an American worker would envy that Ricky had a choice at all).

The film illustrates one of the gig economy’s central issues: misclassification. By incorrectly classifying workers as “independent contractors,” individuals don’t receive the protections afforded “employees.” In the U.S. (UK experts can chime in), minimum wage does not apply to those classified as independent contractors, and the NLRA — National Labor Relations Act — specifically excludes them. However, some states have made headway in addressing misclassification. California has already passed a law — AB5 — that sets a new standard: a three factor “ABC Test” that places the burden on the corporation to give the worker certain conditions in order to allow him or her to be classified an independent contractor. If they do not meet these then the worker is considered an employee. The NY Direct Coalition is trying to achieve the same here. And of course, the ripple effect of misclassification is that those classified correctly have less leverage. It is a completely unsustainable model for any that want a society based on more than mere survival. The hard-won workers’ rights that so many fought for, for so long, seemed institutionalized and taken for granted.

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We see this plainly in “American Factory” (now streaming on Netflix), this year’s well-deserved documentary Oscar winner. The desperation of the American worker – and whom he or she should look to for any solutions – is beautifully and tragically portrayed. Reinventing the rustbelt, and America’s languishing manufacturing base, are for many the poster child for America’s labor and economic woes (they are certainly the face of the Midwest voter being fought over).

When a Chinese company reopens a shuttered GM plant near Dayton, Ohio, it seems one answer to the devastation of America’s industrial base. However, along with broader culture clashes, some quite hilarious, early optimism gives way to resignation and defeat. While incredibly grateful that they have a job again, the workers have to contend with much lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and punishing work schedules and expectations. A non-union shop, the American managers and Chairman Cao (the factory owner) are extremely displeased when Senator Sherrod Brown – invited for the grand opening – encourages the workers to organize if they need to.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell the story masterfully – with the nuance and context it requires.  Living outside Dayton, they have been observing and living in this post-industrial landscape for years. This film revisits their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Few are better positioned, committed, and talented enough to capture this portrait of American labor. We should be incredibly grateful for their work.

The pitfalls of the gig economy, and “share price above all” corporate dictates, have been crystal clear to many, but the coronavirus and quarantine have helped ensure the rest can no longer pretend or look away. The American apparatus that ensures basic workers’ (and basic human) rights is broken. A living wage, health insurance, and reasonable working conditions are just no longer part of the social contract. And strangely, as government oversight and protection have eroded, the market and private interests have not filled the breach.

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