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Galey Modan & Katie Wells: Masking Faces, Un-masking Work

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Galey Modan & Katie Wells: Masking Faces, Un-masking Work: New Labor Relations and Washington D.C.’s Covid Landscape

"These signs in the Adams Morgan neighborhood are gestures toward a new way of thinking about labor relations. Rather than the exchange model of buyer and seller, these signs promote a model where both parties are additionally connected by membership in a community."

On March 13th, 2020, Washington, D.C. shut down. The once lively streets in central-city neighborhoods like Adams Morgan became empty, the sound of footsteps and conversations replaced by birdsong, wind, and a feeling of foreboding. Forty blocks south of Adams Morgan sat an unmoored president desperately trying to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus and refusing to invoke any kind of national policy to halt its spread. At the local scale, the effect of the federal abdication of responsibility was reflected in a local upscaling in the semiotic landscape of the city, where businesses relayed messages that in other countries were relayed in public spaces by local and national governments.

The empty streets and shuttered shops adorned with signs constituted a reversal of pre-covid commercial relations: In the Before-times, the inner workings of the economy --- including the opaque figure of labor --- were backgrounded in business-client interactions. But now, the economic struggles, health concerns, and, simply, voices of local business staff were ubiquitously displayed on storefront signs. Made in seeming haste with temporary materials, soon the signs began to curl up or the ink began to run on rainy days. These material qualities contributed to the sense of disquiet that the covid crisis has produced. Things had changed; we were in a strange new world, and no one knew how it would play out and how long it would take until we reached some sense of equilibrium.

In the interstices between the institutional policies and messages communicated on the signs, and the eerie experience of walking down empty streets lined with these tattered, makeshift signs in a time of communal distress, a new, covid structure of feeling emerged (in the sense of Raymond Williams). As part of this structure of feeling, the Adams Morgan signs promoted and continue to promote a reconceptualization of labor relations that’s deeply tied to solidarity, public health, and communal responsibility. These signs made visible the typically-invisible low-wage workforce. Worker power, during the Covid-era, has been--- however narrowly --- re-politicized.

In the U.S., the pre-covid configuration of labor rests on an exchange relationship encapsulated in the sayings, “the customer is king” or “the customer is always right.” In this Discourse, businesses often frame their raison d’être and highest priority as serving clients -- rather than, for example, advancing a mutually beneficial relationship.

In pandemic signs, however, businesses articulated this set of relations quite differently. In various ways businesses highlighted their own positive face, at the same time as they reconfigured labor relations. This sign in Figure 1, for example, created a positive face for the business by (a) assigning responsibility for closing to the virus itself and (b) showing care for customers’ and staff’s health and well-being. This sign and others like it generate the implicature that business staff are concerned about the virus and doing their part to stem its effects. A number of signs even explicitly stated, “We’re doing our part.”

Figure 1: Businesses doing their part

These signs in the Adams Morgan neighborhood are gestures toward a new way of thinking about labor relations. Rather than the exchange model of buyer and seller, these signs promote a model where both parties are additionally connected by membership in a community. The reframing of an economic relationship into one of community membership and mutual responsibility is also evident in business signs that entreat people to take covid-19 precautions [see Figure 2].

Figure 2: Public health messaging

A number of signs reconfigured labor relations through use of the imperative voice. Signs like “stay home” or “wear a mask” put the businesses in a one-up position. In using the imperative, such signs unapologetically privilege worker perspectives and show no appeal to customer face wants. One sign on a pizza place in another neighborhood known for irony in its advertising went so far as to declare, “Don’t be a maskhole,”(a wordplay on the epithet “asshole.”) These serve as forms of discursive empowerment in the buyer-seller framework -- though the extent to which the relations are reconfigured depends on the sequential prioritization of one party or the other (e.g., “to protect our employees and customers) and what’s said about each.

As of July 2021, virtually all businesses in the Adams Morgan neighborhood have kept their masking signs up, and some still declare capacity limitations. One business even presupposes resistance to the mayor’s dropping the local mask mandate, by asserting, “We still require a mask for entry.” The stress that the pandemic has caused especially to small businesses can be seen in signs that say “Save Restaurants” [see Figure 3].

Figure 3: Save Restaurants

We could write these signs off as a blip, as evidence of one neighborhood’s political leanings, business strategies, or late-night decisions that don’t reflect those of a wider geography or nation. But to do so would ignore the reality that these signs --- at the micro-scale --- emerged alongside a sweeping macro-level shift in national political discourse about essential workers, unemployment insurance, the participation of women in the workforce, the right to strike, paid sick leave, bathroom breaks, and rising rates of eviction. In the U.S., more workers (roughly 500,000) went on strike in 2018 than in any of the previous 40 years.[1] Then Covid hit and the labor movement’s resurgence seemed to gather steam. In 2020, Amazon workers organized in Alabama.[2] Uber spent $200 million to defeat a California pro-worker law.[3] And TeenVogue fashion magazine hired a labor reporter.[4]

In summer 2021 alone, New Yorker magazine workers picketed their editor’s home[5], writers at the highbrow Atlantic magazine unionized[6], and the New York Times, four Saturdays in a row, had front-page Business Section articles about low-wage workers for ride-hail and grocery-delivery services. This year we’ve seen strikes by workers at a South Dakota pork plant[7], Virginia Volvo truck factory[8], Massachusetts nursing home[9], Alabama coal mine[10], and hospital in Hawaii[11] The list goes on and on, but the message is unusually consistent: Low-wage work does not exist a priori. A society chooses to arrange itself in such a way that certain people’s labor is less valued and less protected than others. Covid signage is both a remnant of those labor choices and a challenge to them. Questions of labor and work are not separate from moral and political ideas about how we should live our lives and take care of each other. These covid signs remind us that we shouldn’t pretend they are.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

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