Amid ‘disruption,’ the people deserve their share

PHOTO: Epic Top 10, Flickr CC-BY

Our language pulses with buzzwords, twists of phrase that sound substantial but can’t be defined. One such word is “disruption.”

The last 10 years, it would seem, have been a time of disruption. Disruption, we are told, is really just an opportunity for the bold, the brilliant, and the worthy to seize success. LinkedIn, prosperity gospel and investment newsletters drown in such talk. 

But the undercurrent of this philosophy is something very old. When major change happens, those with money and power — even just a little bit more — generally have a leg up on everyone else. They react more quickly to seize opportunities and declare themselves geniuses. Others find their vision of the future obscured by stressful work schedules, family obligations, and financial hardships.

It’s not hard to document big changes in our economy, politics and culture. Automation now affects everything from fast food restaurants to retail stores. Artificial intelligence threatens the jobs of people who might have believed themselves irreplaceable just a few years ago. (Watch as I nervously add unique words like “potica,” “Sax-Zim Bog,” and “estrus” to my writing to throw off the A.I. scrapers).

A.I. and digital effects spurred the recent Screen Actors Guild strike based in Hollywood. Likewise, the lack of streaming royalties from changing TV viewing habits caused screenwriters to strike months earlier. Both strikes might last a long time, and will soon affect all the distracting little shows we like to watch on our phones and big screen TVs. What will we do with our time?

Statistically, most of us will work.

Workload is at the heart of several big recent labor actions. Nurses in Minnesota almost went on strike last winter over staffing levels. Legislation to require more staffing in hospitals and care facilities met enormous resistance from big health care providers, stripping the teeth from the proposed new laws. Despite a much ballyhooed progressive agenda in St. Paul, many nurses are still working mandatory double shifts tonight. 

Perhaps it’s because members of my family faced health challenges this past year, but I can’t think of an industry that touches more people on the Iron Range than health care. For a large part of the population, quality of life ties directly to quality of care.

But it’s not just service sector jobs facing this so-called “disruption.” Workloads, even more than money, are driving labor challenges in old school industry. 

On July 15, Teamsters at the Blandin Paper Mill in Grand Rapids went on strike. At the heart of the union’s argument is understaffing. The lack of staffing creates difficult schedules and less time off, disproportionately hitting younger workers with families. 

We all know the paper industry has changed enormously during the rise of the digital era. Economic threats abound. Workers would not have risked a strike without just cause. 

What do screenwriters and paper makers have in common? Or nurses and fast food workers, for that matter? They all work in industries that have seen more profits this year and yet did not recognize the rising cost of living and hardships facing their workers. 

The economy is getting better. Our lives are not. The system is working. We are broken. 

No single grand policy would solve the problem, but several ideas would help. 

We must lead with empathy for the people who make our society operate properly. We should orient our goals around improving quality of life rather than the profitability of private companies. And we might better recognize that increasingly dangerous political rhetoric is a tool used to prevent the simplest solution of all: free and fair democratic redress of our shared grievances.

Change will come, and, thus, I suppose so will “disruption.” But the human race does better when we approach challenges together, dismissing those who would put their personal interests ahead of the many.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the July 22, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.