Barbara Ehrenreich helped make inequality visible – her legacy lives on in a reinvigorated labor movement

Have you heard of Jaz Brisack, Liz Fong-Jones and Chris Smalls?

Those names might not be familiar to all Americans, but their recent accomplishments amount to a potential sea change in labor rights.

As union organizers or advocates for better work conditions at some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world – Starbucks, Google and Amazon, respectively – these three young people have highlighted just how far out of whack the balance between workers and organizations has grown.

I believe that their work, part of a surge in labor organizing and other kinds of community-building efforts, has its roots in the scholarship and journalism of Barbara Ehrenreich, who died on Sept. 1, 2022.

Opening a window on inequality

Ehrenreich is best known for her 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”

It begins with a deceptively simple premise: investigating whether and how workers can live on what they earn from low-wage jobs. Operating essentially undercover by taking on retail jobs, cleaning houses and waiting tables, Ehrenreich chronicled her experiences and observations as she roved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota. She showed readers that it was virtually impossible to make a living with this work.

Once hired, Ehrenreich refused to rely on her savings or assets, instead paying for rent, food and utilities out of her hourly wages. She quickly found out that doing so left her uninsured, in poor health, sometimes hungry, often tired and always struggling.

“Nickel and Dimed” is an unforgettable best-selling expose that highlights what many low-wage workers already know: It’s impossible to get ahead when you can’t even break even.

A model for sociologists

I first read “Nickel and Dimed,” one of 21 books she published in her lifetime, in 2002 when I was finishing my coursework for a doctorate in sociology. Ehrenreich’s work resonated with me because of her focus on the grind of low-paying jobs.

She earned her own doctorate in cell biology and had no formal training as a sociologist. But she adopted what I like to think are the strengths of my discipline.

That is, she asked questions to help understand various groups’ experiences, as well as the relationships between institutions and individuals. She also forcefully recommended policy changes that could potentially improve the lives of people who are suffering due to powerful forces, such as corporations, the government and school systems.

In my view, Ehrenreich’s ability to document in clear, accessible prose exactly how low-wage work forced people into an unavoidable grind is the best kind of sociological research.

Opening a path

Her work also set an example for many other sociologists studying workers, labor markets and the economy. Ehrenreich laid a clear path for sociologists who have examined the inner lives of employees, the obstacles they face and the strategies they use to survive.

Subsequent studies of how autoworkers try to thrive in a declining industry, why workers blame themselves when they struggle to find employment, or of the relationship between union decline and pay differences for Black and white workers – all of that research followed Ehrenreich’s lead.

This body of work can push people to look at the consequences of these economic arrangements.

It also casts light on how “right to work” laws hamper union operations in 27 states. In addition, this research is scrutinizing short-term, contract work without job stability or benefits. The growth of gig work is adding to the gap between “good jobs” and “bad jobs,” and those with the bad ones are suffering.

This research, like much of Ehrenreich’s work, forces readers to ask why economic inequality has become so severe in the U.S., with wages stagnating while wealth concentrates among those with the most.