Keeping It in the Family: On Sarah Jaffe’s “Work Won’t Love You Back”

February 12, 2021   •   By Maggie Levantovskaya

Work Won’t Love You Back

Sarah Jaffe

LOVE IS A requirement of my job as a university instructor. I’m expected to love my students, my colleagues, my university, and my profession. This love must be pure and in no way contingent on my working conditions. And yet contingency has been the defining feature of my experience in academia, where I’ve been precariously employed since receiving my PhD nearly a decade ago. In fact, the more precarious my situation, the more I’ve felt the pressure to profess my love to prove that I deserve even my contingent employment. To better our working conditions, my colleagues and I have spent the past three and a half years organizing a union. At my very first event as an organizer, I heard a top-level administrator say that we don’t need a union because “we’re a family,” a relationship that is, ideally, defined by love. Ironically, “we’re a family” is a rhetorical move so disingenuous as to elicit jokes about abusive and dysfunctional families from those who seek to unionize. More importantly, if an employer uses the language of love to stifle its employees’ fight for labor justice, then does that employer genuinely love its employees?

Sarah Jaffe’s new book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, has an answer to this question and it’s a sobering one that all workers need to hear. The language of love, passion, and care, which permeates our work culture, creates the illusion that if we work hard enough, we will be rewarded with advancement, belonging, affinity, and self-worth. What Jaffe’s book sets out to show is that this language helps to not only create and reinforce emotional attachments to our workplace, profession, or employer, but also to justify oppressive working conditions. The rhetoric of work-as-love acts as a powerful weapon of economic exploitation wielded by the managerial class and by workers who lack class consciousness.

A former staff writer at In These Times, Jaffe has long written about labor, protest movements, and grassroots organizing. Her previous book, Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt (2016), explores the emergence of such disruptionist movements as Occupy and the Tea Party, analyzing them against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. With Work Won’t Love You Back, Jaffe focuses her attention on workers from various sectors of the economy, all of whom are alienated from their labor but expected to love as they toil, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process, she defines an ethos already familiar to anyone who has heard cliché phrases like “labor of love,” “this is not a job but a calling,” and “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

According to Jaffe, in the neoliberal capitalist context, the work-as-love ethos impedes class struggle by promoting these and similar notions: it is incumbent upon all members of society to find work they love; the failure to do so is individual and personal; some forms of labor, including care work, don’t require professional training but extend from supposedly inborn capacities, including love; those who work jobs framed in terms of love and sacrifice must not be financially motivated, even if that motivation is about putting food on the table; workers who criticize their workplace and who organize to improve their working conditions are selfish ingrates who don’t truly love their work.

The rhetoric of work-as-love is pervasive and insidious. As Jaffe states in her conclusion, in conducting research for the book, she talked to workers in different professions: “[A]ctors, hairdressers, bartenders, therapists, social workers, museum staffers, lawyers, nurses, political organizers, elected officials, and other journalists.” Unable to include every sector, she chose to focus on professions already thought of as labors of love, such as teaching, art, and caretaking, and jobs where the connection is less established, such as tech and retail. Importantly, she begins with work that is traditionally feminized and unpaid: that of caring for one’s children. Childcare and housework within the family have long been considered to be both duties and expressions of love outside the labor market, even though they contribute to the gender wage gap and to unemployment. Jaffe bases her analysis on interviews with an inconsistently employed artist and single mother in the United Kingdom, and a discussion of the bipartisan supported “welfare reforms'” that were signed into law by a Democratic president. She suggests that the very laws and institutions designed to do “the double duty of upholding the work and family ethics'” have left single parents and families with threadbare safety nets and perpetuated the idea that labor performed in one’s home is not, in fact, labor.

Even when it comes to paid care work, the line between love and labor is blurry. When speaking with a female childcare worker in New York, Jaffe learns that employers “don’t treat her as a skilled worker who has professional experience with children.” Most childcare, paid or unpaid, is performed by women, so it’s no wonder that the common assumption is that the work comes naturally and does not deserve authority and respect. This is the problem with “intimate labor,” Jaffe reminds — even when compensated, “it brushes up against the line between what we think should be done for love and what we think should be done for money.” Moreover, as employees working in the homes of their employers, care workers, a significant number of whom are immigrants, often undocumented, have a harder time learning about their rights, organizing, and negotiating fair contracts, if using contracts at all. But difficulty does not mean impossibility. Many home care workers who are employees of their states are unionized, with SEIU representing “something like seven hundred thousand of them.” The childcare worker Jaffe follows does not work for the state but she, too, has found practical support, community, and empowerment by organizing with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. COVID-19 has only clarified the value of domestic work. As Jaffe’s informant states, “If domestic workers don’t show up for work, then the majority of the workforce can’t show up for work. I love my work because my work is the silk thread that holds society together, making all other work possible.” Unfortunately, that love has yet to be reciprocated by our society beyond mere thank yous.

One of the major strengths of Work Won’t Love You Back is its commitment to tracing the relevant labor history of the professions it scrutinizes. For example, some readers may be surprised to learn that the nonprofit sector is yet another site of economic injustice and union busting. Jaffe shows that in the United States, institutionalized nonprofit work evolved from charity work conducted by independently wealthy individuals. Now that the nonprofit sector is where, according to Jaffe’s sources, 12.3 million Americans make a living, we find companies pitting employees against the very communities they serve. It is not uncommon that when nonprofit employees “ask for higher wages or organize or threaten to go on strike, they are accused of being insufficiently caring, of neglecting their jobs.” In perhaps the book’s most egregious example of work-as-love weaponization and ideological hypocrisy, Jaffe traces the labor struggle of workers at PPRM (Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains), who faced an aggressive anti-union campaign from an organization that takes pride in serving communities and empowering individuals by giving them reproductive choice and care. Even after the workers won their election, PPRM appealed their vote to the NLRB, though ultimately withdrew through an agreement with SEIU. Despite this victory, or rather because of its hard-won nature, the health assistant and organizer followed by Jaffe ended up quitting her job, unable to continue working alongside those who “didn’t believe she deserved a living wage.” Her work, in other words, didn’t love her back.

But there’s another problem with charitable organizations that Jaffe uses her book to highlight — “they are funded with the leftovers of the very exploitation the nonprofits may be trying to combat.” I’ve witnessed the backlash against those who say no to donations of capital generated by the exploitation of workers and the environment. When my university received a hefty gift from the Koch Foundation and the community lobbied for its return, we were called uncaring toward the students who would miss out on entrepreneurial opportunities and the social justice mission of the university that could allegedly be furthered with the funds. Nothing was said about the selfishness, lack of care, and greed of the foundation trying to greenwash their reputation.

While the rhetoric of work-as-love generally operates against workers, it can also be strategically reclaimed for organizing purposes, as can be seen in her case study of public school teachers. As Jaffe explains, they’re “the ultimate laborers of love.” They’re also less likely to switch careers for better compensation, which only fuels the narrative that sacrifice is a necessary part of teaching and that discussions of material needs only sully the profession. When it comes to public conversations about teaching and pay, the either/or fallacy is strong, under the auspices that teachers are either “in it for the money” or for the love of the students. This ethos is perhaps best embodied in a now notorious meme: “Teachers don’t teach for the income. Teachers teach for the outcome.” Jaffe, whose focus on struggle is always about both hardship and resistance, dedicates ample space to demonstrating that, starting with the 2012 Chicago teacher strikes, unions flipped the narrative by appealing to teachers’ ties to local communities and their roles as caretakers. When unions used the slogan “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions” in strikes across the US, they suggested that taking material care of teachers was indispensable to educating and caring for students. When in 2019, the Los Angeles teachers’ strike resulted in a new contract, they got the district to not only give them a six percent raise but also to “lower class sizes, put a nurse in every school, reduce standardized testing by 50 percent, hire more counselors, invest in more green space on campus, [and] cut back on random searches.” It’s difficult to imagine such a victory without both the power of collective bargaining and the sway of teachers’ image as laborers of love.

In my own organizing work, I’ve often appealed to the work-as-love ethos. I’ve given speeches and sound bites beginning with the words “I love my job.” I’ve always felt conflicted about saying this. Whether or not I feel genuine affection toward my work, I know that I utter them to reassure my colleagues, students, and administrators that I’m not a greedy and entitled person, that I’m not an infidel. Jaffe dedicates a whole chapter to university instructors in similar positions to mine or even worse off. She reminds us that being a professor was once the “last good job in America.” To an ever-shrinking class of academics, mostly white and male, this is still true. However, that privilege is built on the backs of academic gig workers — adjunct professors who make up over 75 percent of the academic workforce. There is no easy or fast way to turn back this tide, yet not trying is not an option. Workers in all sectors, including care work, retail, health care, and tech, must continue to come together, build solidarity, and fight against neoliberal exploitation. This is the implicit call to arms in Jaffe’s book. Reading it will likely leave some wondering: am I not allowed to love my work? But this is the wrong question. A better question is: Can my love for my work be separated from my unjust working conditions? It’s high time for all of us to start changing those conditions and, in the meantime, to find love elsewhere, be it in hanging out at a communal art space, spending time with our actual families, or dancing on the picket line. But looking for it at work is looking for love in all the wrong places.

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Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer, editor, and professor based in the Bay Area.