This essay is part of the forum on Social Reproduction


In recent years, there has been a resurgence of social movements with myriad, intersecting demands ranging from Black Lives Matter to climate justice. Within these movements, differently positioned workers have organized to demand better working conditions, but perhaps more importantly, to demand higher wages and the right to collectively organize to meet the necessities of life and to envision a different future. Fast food workers (FFW), nurses, adjunct faculty, and home health care workers, amongst others, have centered in their demands what Mitchell, Marston, and Katz (2003) call life’s work. Importantly for our purposes, each of these workers perform paid social reproductive work or labor that contributes to the reproduction of everyday life (see Glenn, 1992; Duffy, 2010). As more social reproduction responsibilities shift from the shrinking welfare state onto individuals and as access to and conditions of paid work become more unpredictable and precarious, the (in)ability to meet life’s needs through waged work becomes more concerning (Strauss and Meehan, 2015). The division and relationship between work and life become increasingly charged, politically, socially, and economically. In this forum, we discuss FFW and nurses and their union organizing campaigns as a way to understand the importance of using social reproduction as a focus-point for organizing for better working conditions, increase in pay, unionization, and to shed light on the broader, societal devaluation of social reproduction. In other words, we want to focus specifically on how social reproductive workers are using unions to seize more control of the means of reproduction and to use their positions to make demands beyond the workplace.

Feminists have long called for the blurring of lines between masculinist political economic analyses that produce such dichotomies as home/work, unpaid/paid, female/male, and social reproduction/production. With the decline of Keynesianism and the family wage, feminists began to theorize the offloading of socially reproductive work from the state onto individuals and families and how particular types of work—i.e. commodified socially reproductive work—were devalued by virtue of being feminized (e.g. Mitchell, Marston, & Katz, 2004; Fraser, 2009). However, Black and Third World feminists such as hooks (2000) and Mohanty (2003) have been problematizing such understandings of social reproduction by stating that women of color around the world have always worked outside of the home, often in carework positions, for the survival of their families. Historically, they have worked in low-paid socially reproductive positions such as nannies, housekeepers, and cooks at the expense of their own families’ social reproduction (see for example Ong, 2006; Arat-Koc, 2006). At the same time, ‘higher skilled’ types of social reproductive work, what Duffy (2010) refers to as nurturant care work, has been predominantly the work of white women, a persistence of Glenn’s (1992: 1) “racial division of paid reproductive work.”

Commodified socially reproductive work puts life’s work and necessities in the spotlight: the paid work that happens, the life’s work that paid labor enables, and the organizing work to collectively demand such conditions. In this commentary, we explore how demands by those engaged in commodified social reproductive work can further disrupt the binaries of work and life by foregrounding the necessity of social reproduction throughout their campaigns to thrive in doing life’s work. The two groups of workers that each of our research focuses on brings together these often separate work spheres: racialized FFW in cities across the U.S. like Milwaukee and disproportionately white nurses. They seem to have little in common, engaging in different work involving different skills, payscales, and differently classed and racialized workforces. One job is seen as unskilled and done by high schoolers while the other is understood as a coherent profession of skilled and professional work. While both interface with precarity in different ways, both confront their precarity collectively around issues of social reproduction. FFW and nurses are both paid, reproductive workers, performing labor that sustains everyday life for others. And yet their work continues to be devalued through the depression of wages, degradation of working conditions, and discursively through who engages in such work. Their demands can be read as incorporating a critique of the present as well as reconfiguring a more just future that prioritizes social reproduction for not only themselves, but for society as a whole. Their demands draw attention to the pervasiveness of life’s work throughout their lives and the blurry binaries of work/life, paid/unpaid, and production/reproduction in their paid work but also their organizing work.

Bringing these two sectors together can be fruitful, given each’s use of the necessity of social reproduction to demand conditions for thriving. FFW are not only demanding better pay, working conditions, and the right to unionize without retaliation, but they are also bringing together a coalition of workers around a broader, intersecting analysis of racial justice, economic justice, and immigrant justice. Not only are nurses unionizing and bargaining for better working and patient care conditions, but they are also situating themselves as defenders of healthy communities, allying the profession with myriad social justice movements. Both groups of workers are organizing to improve their working conditions as well as their living conditions, and, because of their structural position as social reproductive workers, both struggles can be usefully understood as provocations against a broader devaluation of social reproduction.

Fast Food Workers and the Fight for $15 an Hour

The Fight for 15 is a national movement of FFW and other low-wage workers who are campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to unionize without retaliation. The movement began in November, 2012 with a few dozen FFW going on strike in New York City. From there, the movement spread across the United States to cities like Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago. In the past few years, they have rallied at both Democratic and Republican debates about wages and joined forces with Black Lives Matter and the immigrant justice movement to highlight the complex intersections between issues such as policy brutality, economic injustice, and deportations (Hashimoto’s fieldnotes; Interviewee #2). For FFW, these issues operate simultaneously and therefore a focus on wages or unionization alone is not enough. Collective bargaining provides collective power to demand set schedules, access to child care, a workplace free of sexual harassment that “ultimately create stronger and healthier neighborhoods and communities for all of us to live in” (Hashimoto, Interviewee #2).

FFW campaign on the issues of wages and unionization to highlight myriad contradictions that arise with the expansion of the low-wage service sector. In the popular imagination, FFW are often portrayed as high schoolers trying to earn extra pocket money. The reality, however, is much different as can be seen through who participates in organizing and actions: predominantly Black and brown, a wide age range, and families (Hashimoto’s fieldnotes). Moreover, through conversations with workers, it is apparent that long term underemployment and unemployment in the service sector is highly common with many workers having to piece multiple low-wage jobs together to barely make ends meet. As one key informant states, FFW are “hanging on the edge of hopelessness” and they are “one medical emergency away from falling off a financial cliff” (Interview #4). They have also centered the contradiction between fast food corporations making record profits while the vast majority of their workers require food stamps and other social assistance programs to barely survive (Allegretto et al., 2013). When asked about the importance of unionization, FFW organizers and union organizers alike describe the need to to be able to fight for even better conditions for thriving because when FFW’s workplaces and lives are better, their communities’ lives improve.

The New Nurse Union Movement

Nurses in the United States, historically, have been a non-unionized profession. Most nurses were legally exempt from unionization from 1947 to 1970; also the main professional body, the American Nurses Association (ANA), adopted a no-strike policy from 1946 to 1968 (Malka, 2007). This status began to change in the 1980s, however, as a more radical wing of the ANA began agitating for nurses to more aggressively unionize. Feeling the effects of a chronic nurse shortage and neoliberal economic cuts to health care and nursing education, Malka explains that nurses began to draw on the lessons of the women’s movement of the 1970s. They started demanding more respect, and unionization was a key way to achieve that goal. This agitation also represented a broader tension in nurses’ image as either skilled workers or angels, a disagreement rooted in the historical devaluation of social reproduction and the feminization of nursing (Gordon & Nelson, 2005). Growing out of California and Massachusetts in the 1980s and eventually spreading to states across the US today, the nurse union movement is alive and well, so much so that The Atlantic characterized them positively as the new autoworkers for their bold and innovative unionization and labor action tactics (Semuels, 2014). Nurses are unionizing to protect their jobs, the health care system, and patient safety, demanding respect for themselves as both skilled medical workers and as caregivers (Malka, 2007; Henry, forthcoming).

Both the National Nurses United (NNU) and other independent nurse unions are utilizing their positions as caregivers and patient advocates to improve their own working conditions and patients health care experiences simultaneously. Nurse unions are positioning themselves as defenders of health care, from more progressive legislation such as the Affordable Care Act to struggles in the courts and the streets against community hospital closures (Henry, 2015). Unions are also situating themselves as defenders and promoters of healthy communities, expanding the scope of what they can and should be bargaining for. Unions are inherently exclusionary; not everyone can be a member. Unions represent their members first, and many unions have a history of racist, anti-feminist, and anti-immigrant politics that have made them decidedly regressive (Hill, 1996; Cobble, 2010; Rosenfeld, 2014). But unions can represent progressively a broader group than their members. For example, with the Main Street Campaign, the NNU is expanding the scope of their demands to focus on healthy communities for everyone, grounded in principles of economic justice (NNU, no date). Unions foreground patient care in demands for better working conditions, positioning themselves as defenders of quality patient care; their working conditions are the conditions under which patients receive care. Individual nurses talk of their jobs in this way, too: “you should always be your patient’s advocate and always listen to your patient.” This depends on good working conditions, as this nurse continued to explain that if working conditions are poor, “you gotta take care of all these patients, yet you can’t take care of yourself” (Henry’s interviews).

Organizing for Social Reproduction

Both FFW and nurses’ struggles foreground the precarity of life in late capitalism. Though they may or may not frame their demands in these terms, the precariousness and fragility of everyday life is present in their rhetoric: the politics of quality of care, a living wage to support families, workplace safety, and healthy communities. While nurses employ language about defending working conditions in order to ensure healthy communities, FFW talk about about raising the minimum wage and improving quality of life for all workers.

Importantly, their demands demonstrate the centrality of precarity to social reproduction. Without health care services and insurance, people struggle with untreated conditions, live shorter and harder lives, etc. Without safe working conditions, workers and the people they serve can get hurt or sick. Without a living wage, workers and their families are unable to meet the necessities of life, and as a consequence suffer from what, as one organizer put it, “PTSD of poverty” (Hashimoto, Interviewee #15).

Precarity, or life lived with uncertainty, insecurity, and vulnerability in terms of the security of living conditions, brings the relationship between life and work into stark relief. Lauren Berlant (Puar et al., 2012: 166) specifically points out social reproduction as one condition of precarity where “there are not enough hours in the day: making a life has become more precarious in fantasy and materially.” The examples of nurses and FFW offer a chance to reconsider and reformulate the role of social reproduction in our world.

Importantly, social reproduction as a theory has a dual temporality: the present and the future both animate it. The concept sets a baseline for what people need affectively and materially and also provides an analytic for understanding how processes, relations, and geographies make such necessities unevenly accessible, filtered through race, class, sexuality, gender, and religion. In both the nursing and fast food sectors, these workers are drawing on their status as socially reproductive workers to demand the conditions for thriving in life, to demand the fullness of social reproduction for themselves, but also for society more broadly. Both nurses and FFW are making demands that foreground a politics of the possible, and importantly, the possibility for thriving and a different future.

Demands, as Kathi Weeks (2011) explains, are political acts in and of themselves. In analysing the Wages for Housework campaign and the feminist demand for a basic income, Weeks argues that these demands “[pose] a critique but also a remedy” (2011: 143). Demands in this context can be a way of making visible the connections between precarity, family life and work structures, the state and production, waged and unwaged work. Demands, like the basic income, can be provocations “for freedom…an occasion to contemplate the shape of a life beyond work” (Weeks, 2011: 145). Nurses and FFW are demanding more than what falls in the traditional scope of their union tools of collective bargaining, such as contracts or wage increases. They are making demands for a more just society via the tools they have as workers by expanding the scope of labor bargaining. FFW organizers state that their demands are meant to be provocative and precipitate in societal conversations about wages, unionization, and social reproduction. One organizer even recalled being called “crazy” for demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage before cities like Seattle and San Francisco began raising their wages (Hashimoto, Interview #2).

Although neither worker uses such language, social reproduction is a useful concept for capturing the fullness of their demands and the fullness of the future their demands envision. Their demands to improve quality of work and life rest upon an understanding of a more just future by meeting more than just the necessities of life. Workers connected their struggles as workers as inseparable from their struggles as Black and brown people and communities constantly surveilled, removed, incarcerated (Hashimoto, fieldnotes). Campaigns from the NNU demand not just better conditions for working and patient care, but also safe housing for everyone, universal health care, improved funding for public schools, and a wholesale restructuring of the tax system (NNU, no date).

The politics of making demands has a similar dual temporality to that of social reproduction. Demands can be short and long term, with parties demanding immediate reprieve as well as long-term broader justice and systemic change, or to open up space for conversation about pressing issues. Nurses and their unions are demanding health care reform and universal healthcare in the US (NNU, no date). As one unionized nurse exclaimed in an interview that “we all need health insurance!” In the case of the Fight for 15 in Milwaukee, one legislator interviewee described sponsoring legislation at the state level to raise the minimum wage knowing that it would not pass based on bipartisan opposition, but that its “purpose is to cause people to dream and to cause conversation” (Hashimoto, Interviewee #1).

Rethinking the Focus of Labor Organizing

Rich bodies of literature exist on home and work, paid and unpaid labor, non-factory labour activism and work-life balance: paid and unpaid work happen both in formal workplaces and the home (Nagar et al., 2002); work time spills into life (England & Lawson, 2005); significant wage increases mean real work-life balance through less time working and economic security (Murphy, 2016; Cobble, 2010); and when people thrive in life, they thrive in work, and vice versa (Hochschild, 1997). Rather than simply a struggle to achieve balance, workers are using their conditions as workers as a tool for improving life materially and affectively for themselves and hopefully others. There is a long history of this in labor activism. Consider historical demands that organized labor has made: the 8-hour working day, health insurance, maternity leave, retirement plans, day care. All of these are demands that support the socially reproductive work of workers.

These workers represent a new era of labor action, and what distinguishes their demands from those of earlier days is that while many of the demands, such as wages, workplace safety, dignity in work, and consistency in scheduling, are similar to ‘traditional’ trade unionist demands, FFW and nurses are reframing these demands by connecting them to their paid, socially reproductive work, as well as their lives beyond work. Feminized jobs, such as nursing and food service, is work that employers have justified paying lower wages by virtue of being feminized (Duffy, 2010; Murphy, 2016). Feminization of work is based on a logic that these workers could rely on a family wage earned by a man through ‘productive’ work, such as manufacturing, when the reality is that their pay and working conditions continue to decline. Instead, workers are demanding that these become breadwinning jobs, with wages and conditions that support healthy families and communities (see Murphy, 2016 on flight attendants struggles to reframe their jobs as breadwinner jobs). Without explicitly employing the language of social reproduction, they blur the lines between production and social reproduction, connecting their workplace conditions as integral to being able to live life outside of work. Without workplace conditions being met, such as earning a living wage or having a safe work environment, workers are not able to fully engage in life. Thus, nurses and FFW workers are not just organizing the ‘shop floor’, but organizing to improve conditions of life for their families and communities. The case of nurses and FFW is unique because of the type of paid work in which they engage is a form of commodified socially reproductive work.

In doing this, their demands challenge what constitutes valuable work and what being a worker means, foregrounding social relations and reproduction in their demands: a living wage for all workers; a safer environment for nurses and patients. Moreover, they are reproductive workers making demands on the basis of reworking and re-envisioning social reproduction more broadly. It is useful to understand what these workers are doing and demanding in terms of social reproduction. Social reproduction offers more than a critique of the conditions of the working conditions or of the relationship between labor, capital, and the support system that underpins those parties.

Social reproduction is life’s work and such a naming reminds us that focusing both organizing and political analyses on social reproduction presents an opportunity to envision a different world, to reproduce something different. By making demands grounded in social reproduction, workers are calling for a disruption in the capitalist social relations with their demands. If capitalism depends on social reproduction being free or very cheap (Federici, 2004), then raising its value shakes the foundations of such a system, one that is racist, anti-poor, patriarchal, and heteronormative. While we have highlighted a theoretical and empirical intersection between social reproduction and labour organizing, unionization is not the only way to organize workers or to revalue social reproduction. Yet, these workers’ efforts show that there is potential in this avenue. They are raising their value and the value of social reproduction by demanding greater power, compensation, safety, and job security. They are demanding the reproduction of a different future, now.




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Caitlin Henry is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on the intersection of health care, labor, social reproduction, and crisis. Her current research project investigates the changing landscape of health care service provisions in the US and its political and economic impacts on health care workers and communities.

Yui Hashimoto is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through critical geographies of race and feminist economic geographic perspectives, her dissertation research examines economic development, fast food workers, labor, and social reproduction in Milwaukee.

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