Several years ago, I received a call letting me know that a friend had died. I cried for two hours. Then I wrote a blog post that I had promised to deliver that evening. I’m sure I could have gotten out of my deadline, but I was a freelancer—my contract didn’t include time off, and I needed to publish to get paid. My situation probably sounds familiar to millions of gig and freelance workers who lack any form of paid leave. But it also mirrors the experiences of many full-time workers whose bereavement provisions are cruelly inadequate: Often, employees can only get time off to mourn if they lose an immediate family member, and even then most are expected to return to work within three days. This is enough time to attend a funeral (though not to sit shiva), but it barely scratches the surface of the expanse of time that it takes to grieve. The existing regime of bereavement leave also offers nothing to workers whose grief is too diffuse to fit accepted social scripts—who feel incapacitated not by the death of a loved one, but, for example, by the collective losses of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the ecological losses we are witnessing day by day.
In a deeply researched essay of sweeping moral force, first published in our Rest issue, writer and historian Erik Baker asks what it would mean to take seriously the idea that workers—and all people—have a right to grieve, “not on the employer’s schedule, but in whatever time one’s own act of mourning requires.” He argues that this proposal strikes at the foundations of our current social and economic order, in which the demands of work are expected to trump other obligations, and only the family—never the broader collective—is permitted to make a competing, if limited, claim. “The experience of grief is fundamentally at odds with the anthropology of capitalism, and with the mode of personhood it expects from its subjects,” he writes. Baker traces the history of the US labor movement’s fight for bereavement leave and shows how it has stopped short of mounting a sustained challenge to the assumptions that undergird the status quo. He also draws on the writings of more radical anti-work movements from the 1960s and ’70s, including the “operaismo” current of Italian Marxism and the socialist feminist call for “wages for housework,” urging us to consider the radical transformations that could come from insisting that people—our lives and deaths, griefs and joys—are more important than productivity. “To call for the right to grieve,” he writes, “is not merely to urge the enactment of universal bereavement leave protections, but to demand, in a more fundamental sense, the abolition of an organization of labor that subordinates life and love to work.”