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Labor in the Time of Coronavirus

The Coronavirus pandemic has me thinking about labor–as a concept, a social process, a political constituency, and the driving force of our economy–in a way that I haven’t in my lifetime. It’s become alarmingly clear (as if it wasn’t before) that we all need food, supplies, and services to survive past next week, and that there are real human beings out there working to produce and deliver these things. No amount of entrepreneurship, innovation, or financial sleight of hand will help us through the coming months if people are not working to provide the basic requirements for life as we know it.

This blog post draws from  images in our digitized library collections to pay tribute to all of the essential workers who are keeping us afloat during these challenging times. As I browsed these photographs and mused on our current situation, a few important and oft-overlooked questions came to mind.

Who grows our food? Where does it come from and how is it processed? How does it get to us?

Bell pepper pickers, 1984 June. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Prisoners at the county farm killing hogs, 1983 Mar. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Worker atop rail car loading corn from storage tanks, 1991 Sept. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Manuel Molina, mushroom farm worker, Kennett Square, PA 1981. Frank Espada Photographs.

What kind of physical environment do we work in and how does that affect us?

Maids in a room of the Stephen Decatur Hotel shortly before it was torn down, 1970. Paul Kwilecki Photographs
Worker in pit preparing to weld. Southeastern Minerals Co. Bainbridge, 1991 Aug. Paul Kwilecki Photographs
Loggers in the woods near Attapulgus, 1978 Feb. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.

How do we interact with machines and technology in our work? Can our labor be automated or performed remotely?

Worker signaling for more logs. Elberta Crate and Box. Co. Bainbridge, 1991 Sept. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Worker, Williamson-Dickie plant. Bainbridge, 1991 Sept. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Machine operator watching computer controlled lathe, 1991 July. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Worker at her machine. Elberta Crate and Box Co. Bainbridge, 1981 Nov. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.

What equipment and clothing do we need to work safely and productively?

Cotton gin worker wearing safety glass and ear plugs for noise protection. Decatur Gin Co., 1991 Sept. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Worker operating bagging machine. Flint River Mills. Bainbridge, 1991 July. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.
Worker at State Dock, 1992 July. Paul Kwilecki Photographs.

Are we paid fairly for our work? How do relative wages for different types of work reflect what is valued in our society?

No known title. William Gedney Photographs.

How we think about and respond to these questions will inform how we navigate the aftermath of this ongoing crisis and whether or not we thrive into the future. As we celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 and beyond, I hope everyone will take some time to think about what labor means to them and to our society as a whole.

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