What’s next? ‘Yes, and…’

By Catherine Conlan, Labor World Editor
Sometimes, in the Labor World production schedule, there is a gap of three weeks instead of two between issues. Every once in awhile I’ll get a call from someone wondering where their paper is, when it’s simply “that time” in the schedule — a small break that happens just because of how we set up our publishing dates.
March was such a month, and it’s amazing to see how much has changed since the issue that came out on March 5. It almost doesn’t even feel like the same year. The cascade of news has been hard to digest — and usually I thrive on breaking news.
First, some housekeeping issues: You may notice that the Labor World looks a little different than it usually does. I’ve been working at home almost exclusively, and slight differences in software editions, available typefaces and other behind-the-scenes production requirements mean I’ve had to cobble together what I can to finish the paper. It’s not your eyes, it’s the newspaper itself — the headlines especially will likely look a little lighter.
And because I’m working at home, I’m missing the
comings and goings at the Labor Temple. If there’s something you want me to know, please email me at laborworld@qwestoffice.net or feel free to call or text my cell phone: 218-590-4414. I will be in the office very rarely for some small chores, so email, text or phone are the best way to get ahold of me.
I’m grateful to the Labor World Board for its flexibility during this time. I’m committed to getting this newspaper out as long as our vendors continue their work and I’m able to get it together.
It feels weird to say “during this time” because we don’t know how long this gestures vaguely will go on. With the situation changing so quickly, things that were unthinkable two weeks ago are normal. One of my kids is home from school, one is home from college. My husband, a union Carpenter and foreman, is home from his work on the road.
All it leaves is questions, some of which are immediate and practical. How will my child’s grades be figured? Will professors understand if students at home don’t have access to high-speed internet at home? How will unemployment be figured now, and how will this span of not working figure in to future unemployment formulas?
Some of them are individual: Is that itch in the lungs from a virus, or is it seasonal allergies? My chest is tight — should I worry, or am I simply stressed? Is that a fever or a hot flash?

And a lot of the questions are a little more creeping and sinister. What if I get sick and go critical? What happens if the company I work for never recovers? What if we lose our health insurance? We have all had these questions at some time in our lives, but now we all are. And some of us will be dealing with barriers we’ve never had to before — housing crises, lack of transportation, underemployment, a new disability. This can be a time to remind ourselves that some among us have been struggling with these barriers since before the crisis.

It’s time to remove barriers for all of us.

This crisis has been a crash course in how close each of us is the losing it all. It has exposed the fault lines in many of the systems we rely on almost unthinkingly: health care, education, government, as well as the basic societal, social and cultural norms we take for granted whenever we interact with someone else. It’s a reminder that these systems, like all systems, need nurturing and tinkering. They have failed the most vulnerable among us since the beginning. Now they are failing all of us — and that can require dismantling and rebuilding.

Thinking about doing so can be overwhelming, especially during this dark and scary time. But it can also be the best time to ask the big and hopeful questions we’re sometimes too busy to even consider.

What if we decoupled health insurance from working?
What if people who needed food could get it, no questions asked?
What could child care look like if we provided it to people who need it?
What if the employers viewed their employees with the best of intentions and and benefit of the doubt, instead of the worst?

During this crisis, we’ve already seen that many things we thought were impossible were right within our grasp all along: Forgiveness of untenable debt. Food for the hungry. Instant changes in pollution levels. A grace bestowed on contracts, understandings, connections, systems.

We are all trying. We are trying to make things work.

What if we brought that attitude toward writing policy?
What if we provided healthcare and services and education in new ways?

There’s a concept in improv comedy called “yes, and.” (I am definitely not an improvisational speaker, but I’ve heard of the concept and find it fascinating.) It means accepting what your improv partner has said and expanding on it to keep the flow of the scene going.

Businesses like to talk about it as well, saying it improves innovation and brainstorming.

As we talk about what we can do, right now, to help others, as well as prepare for the long weeks and months ahead, it’s a phrase we can embrace.

No one likes to be opportunistic in a crisis. But being opportunistic now can do two things: Make progress and avoid a revolution. There is a lot of chaotic energy that needs direction. Some people — politicians, mostly, but bosses and employers — are using that energy to push for things like property tax relief, “loans” and bailouts for big businesses, and raids on unemployment funds and pensions.

What if we bailed out people, directly, no questions or means testing required? A cash infusion could goose the economy, keep people in their homes, help pay for health care when it’s needed — and keep people from working when they need to be physically isolating themselves.

All I know is that when politicians start throwing around numbers that end with “billion” and “trillion” when talking about bailing out businesses, we can never allow them again to say programs with those numbers would be impossible to implement for you and me.

“Possible” must look different from now on. It’s bigger and better than we hoped for.

We’re likely headed for a recession, if not a depression. And that’s a scary thing to think about. But again, it’s an opportunity. The Great Depression inspired Social Security, regulations on big businesses, a resurgence of the Labor movement. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we can “yes, and” it — yes to a better safety net, yes to a better healthcare system that helps people instead of generating profits, yes to work that is fulfilling and can support a rewarding way of life, and yet is not devastating to step away from when crises hit or circumstances

We can use the world of three months ago as a baseline and instead of trying to revert “back to normal,” we push farther and use the incredible wealth, resources and potential of this nation to provide for more people rather than just a few.

This crisis has smashed any blinders any of us have had about how our society is built — who is vulnerable and why, and who’s to blame. Labor has always tried to lead the way on that front. And as we struggle through the times ahead, Labor can continue to lead by holding corporations accountable, plugging cracks that people might fall through, and advocating for us all.

— Catherine Conlan, Labor World Editor

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