Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Gen Z’s Social Capitalism: Striking for Dignity in Labor

Piece co-author and Brooklyn, New York playwright, Erin Gruodis-Gimbel. Photo is the property of Erin Gruodis-Gimbel.

Brooklyn Playwright Erin Gruodis-Gimbel was holding court on behalf of Gen Z. I was in her audience that day. Erin first entered my orbit when she applied as a Drew University student to present a short, one person play at Gettysburg College’s annual undergraduate Jewish Studies conference, Tree of Life. It was her play that inspired us to change the name of the conference from Limmud to Tree of Life. While talking about her striking friends, I suggested she write down her thoughts to co-author the piece below. When “I” is referenced, it’s Erin.

Gen Z is On the Picket Lines (and I Am At the Grocery Store)

When I say “I deserve this,” I am usually talking about something I do not. During last week’s grocery run, I “deserved” chocolate pudding, lime popsicles, and a family-size loaf of Challah, all of which were gone in a short amount of time.

Our social notion of “deserving” has broadened at the same time it has narrowed. Deserving a little treat for getting through the day is a pervasive, and often viral, idea that turns casual gluttony into an act of self-care. To be fair, in a world wracked by climate disasters, a pandemic our government is ignoring, some frightening police local departments. Perhaps we all deserve a treat.

Many are convinced that we deserve nothing, that we do not owe and are not owed anything by anybody. This presents itself on an interpersonal scale, with regular debates about whether friends should be asked to pick one another up from the airport (yes if you are not willing to do this for your friends, go live in a cave, although if you can’t do it, that’s also okay) or help loved one’s move (again, cave-dwelling is the correct choice for you if you won’t help your friends with something less than enjoyable, unless you have a bad back).

But figuring out what we deserve from each other goes beyond stupid arguments about being too mature to move a couch. If we don’t deserve care or help from the people we love, then what do we deserve from the people who employ us? What do we deserve from the companies that have interests other than in us as people?

Some people will say nothing. That you should sleep on the floor at your job to prove how committed you are, but shouldn’t be hurt when they lay you off with no notice (the real case of Twitter director Esther Crawford). If your employer feels they don’t owe you anything, then unsafe workplace conditions are fine. Accidents are fine. Mental health crises are fine because you don’t deserve anything different. In fact, you don’t deserve anything at all.

Strike One, Two, and Three

Mia, a 26-year-old member of the editorial staff at HarperCollins who just spent over two months on strike, disagrees. “We don’t deserve this,” she told me. “We don’t deserve to be working all hours of the day for a small check, and we don’t deserve to kill ourselves to not get that back when they say ‘we’ve made record-breaking profits’”.

The HarperCollins strike is just one of several high-profile strikes in the past year. NYC nurses, the University of California system, the New School, NYU, and Starbucks have launched strikes with varying lengths and reaches. The federal government denied rail workers a strike in 2022, and in February 2023, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, causing yet unknown public health and ecological consequences.

Workers going on strike is not a decision taken lightly, especially for younger workers in insecure or entry-level roles. “Going on strike is way more stressful than doing my job,” says Emily, a 23-year-old Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis who was on strike with the University of California system in 2022, and also runs a TikTok account about labor issues. In many cases, strikes result in devastating retaliation–Temple University graduate students who went on strike in 2023 had their tuition waivers revoked, and UC graduate students are finding that after the strike, promised funding for their programs or research projects is being taken away or limited.

Living wages, which have been catalysts for many of the recent strikes, are only part of that dignity, which signals that what we deserve is not just economic. “I, personally, felt like it was our responsibility,” says Mia. “It was making me really frustrated and annoyed to be going into these DEI meetings, where it’s like ‘how can we be more friendly, and how can we be more woke’ and then you see the same shit happening.” Emily also says that these movements are about more than money. “Without us, there would not be a University of California — we are its backbone… Everything we have fought for and are still fighting for essentially boils down to the fact that we deserve to be treated with dignity and legitimate respect.”

With Dignity and Justice for… All?

Striking is not an expression of greed, nor is it anti-capitalist, it is capitalist. Strikers are exercising the social contract embedded in the philosophies of 18th century philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith. Striking is an attempt to balance the relationship among all levels of organizational participants, ensuring we get a reasonable amount of the products we produce. John Locke argues our labor is our property, private property. When the HC Union went on strike, it was not because they wanted to have the salary of upper management, it was because they wanted to afford to live in the city in which they work. They want the fruits of their labor, a bit more of their property.

HarperCollins’ revenue fell in the first quarter of the 2023 fiscal year, to the meager sum of $487 million. Given that the HC union was asking for an entry-level salary of $50,000, which was a $5,000 raise from the previous base salary of $45,000, and still $6,000 below the estimated living wage of a single person in New York City, they could have asked for more. They didn’t. The HC Union was in contract, asking for more money. What they were asking for was to be treated better than the printing presses.

Gutenberg designed the printing press. Gutenberg didn’t have to design the printing press, he chose to. He could have designed the world’s first mechanical rodeo, The GutenbullTM, but he didn’t. In selecting to invent the printing press, Gutenberg created the foundation of modern literacy. He also created Gutenberg.

As Locke and Smith argue, human beings are defined by what we do. Even before the self-classification brought on by capitalism’s division of labor, a human being was defined as a leader, as a mother, as a preacher. Acting is the way we create ourselves. Shouldn’t we have a say in the role for which we’re cast?

The poor working conditions that lead to strikes hinder self-creation because what we do is not relegated to our jobs. The fullness of our lives, the choices we get to make, the people we become, endow us with dignity. When a real person is treated as a human resource, it leads to the diminishment of their dignity.

Human beings need dignity. Maybe not a lot of it, all the time; on the subway at 1:15 on a Saturday morning, you’ll see a real-time loss of dignity (and also the loss of someone’s dinner). The strikes, inspired by demands for lower-level workers, are as much about the ability, their labor, reclaiming their property, their dignity through self-creation as they are about the difference between $45,000 and $50,000. In fact, they’re the same thing.

If You Give a Person a Popsicle

When workers go on strike, are they asking for a popsicle, or for their friends to help them move? HarperCollins and the University of California want you to think that the unions want popsicles for everyone, whether or not they’ve earned them. What the unions want, though, is for their companies to help them move, to respect their property. When companies do not respect people’s property, people strike.

The worrying thing about the modern “deserving” discourse is how it conflates material acquisition with human relationships. Philosopher Martin Buber worried that this way of living alienated us from one another, most notably through our use use of technology. Buber explains this right after World War l, devoting a whole book to it, I and Thou. While a job may be transactional in nature, it is still a human relationship, the connection between beings brimming with their inherent dignity.

The worrying thing about the modern “deserving” discourse is how it conflates material acquisition with human relationships. Philosopher Martin Buber worried that this way of living alienated us from one another, most notably through our use of technology. Buber explains this right after World War l, devoting an entire book to it, I and Thou. While a job may be transactional, it is still a human relationship, the connection between beings brimming with their inherent dignity.

It is much more convenient for upper level management to treat lower-level workers like objects. If you saw them as humans, you would have to consider their natural dignity, which costs a lot more. And, strikers are demanding both Lock and Smith set what in motion. Our labor involves our dignity.

Are we wrongly convincing ourselves that we deserve material goods to make us feel better? Why do so many think that we don’t deserve the connections that make us feel human? Unions remind us, often in uncomfortable ways, that our jobs are not to be defined only by those at the top. Unions are an important part of our self-determination. They are also a means to an end–a way to afford our self-creation. If workers are not paid enough to live, not just survive, they are being stripped of their property, and the ability to transcend. They are not just selling their labor, they are selling their souls and in doing so, many of us find ourselves alienated from each other.

This opinion was co-authored with Brooklyn Playwright Erin Gruodis-Gimbel

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the WIcked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College