Millions of workers are quitting their jobs each month. Millions more have simply declined to return to pre-pandemic jobs as businesses reopened. Thousands more have walked off the job in a wave of strikes in the past few years. All the while, economists are scratching their heads, and politicians are doing little to assuage workers’ concerns.
Those afraid of workers asserting their power — corporate interests, conservative politicians, conservative media — predictably blame working people for this predicament. They say workers are lazy, would rather collect unemployment and COVID benefits, and are more interested in drugs and video games than work.
But if you stop to listen, waves of workers across the country are clearly telling us they’re fed up. And who can blame them?
Think for a moment about what the American worker has experienced over the past few decades, and you will quickly get a sense of what’s driving the resignations and strikes. Wages have been essentially stagnant since 1980s, even as the rich have accumulated untold wealth. Low wages, disrespect, and no hope of advancement are driving people out of their jobs.
What’s it like actually going to work? After replacing vacation pay and sick leave with a relative handful of paid time off (PTO), corporations have squeezed workers in a vice, with forced overtime on one end and short hours to avoid paying benefits on the other. Workers with children often cannot afford to go to work because childcare costs so much. Fewer and fewer workers experience the forty-hour week as the norm, as more and more workers are subjected to wildly variegated scheduling — meaning more are struggling to make ends meet every day.
The abuse heaped on American workers is almost limitless. You come to work and your job is purposefully misclassified so the boss doesn’t have to pay you for the work you actually do. The job you are being underpaid for is overloaded and understaffed, so you’re working harder than ever for wages that never seem to keep up with your bills. Your health care benefits have been cut or eliminated, or your premiums and co-pays and deductibles are so high you cannot afford the insurance you do have.
If you’re lucky enough to have a union, management comes after your health care in every round of contract negotiations. You worry about your employer-sponsored health care benefits disappearing like pension plans. Your employer, in a sickening attempt to cushion the blow of low wages, offers helpful suggestions like “look in the trash” for things you can’t afford after taking years of pay cuts. You search and search for a job with a living wage and keep seeing employers who demand a college degree for jobs paying less than $20 an hour — less than your parents made doing factory work that required a high school education when you were growing up.
You watch in horror and in fear as your friends and relatives are driven to depression, drugs, and suicide from overwork and low wages. You watch the cavalier destruction of the jobs, communities, and lives of working Americans through bankruptcy, rampant wage theft, and income inequality not seen since right before the Great Depression.
Add to that anxiety-inducing everyday experience the fact that corporations and their top executives have stolen virtually all the value created by gains in worker productivity over the past forty years. For the first seven decades of the twentieth century, wages and productivity rose in tandem. Until, that is, conservatives during the Ronald Reagan years led a crackdown on unions along other economic policy changes aimed at siphoning money out of the pockets of working Americans and into the hands of the idle rich.
Foremost among these changes was a rollback of prohibitions that prevented stock buybacks. That one change took billions out of corporate earnings and funneled them into shareholders’ pockets. Money that once was reinvested in companies, or used to improve wages and benefits, was simply taken off the table. Now, as much as 90 percent of corporate operating profits goes to nothing but enriching shareholders above and beyond the appreciation of their stock holdings.
Since then, productivity has continued to climb at roughly the same pace, while workers’ wages — their share of that productivity — have fallen stagnant. The net effect is a historically unprecedented transfer of wealth to the elite.
After all that, the corporate elite and their politicians cannot act surprised when people refuse to come to work. After ignoring safety and health issues during the pandemic, after telling workers they should “feel lucky to have a job,” after creating a culture that says “if you don’t like it you can quit,” after laying off workers and outsourcing work abroad, the only question is: Why did it take so long for workers to react?
It’s not the temporarily enhanced unemployment compensation. It’s definitely not laziness. It’s the crushing weight of gloves-off capitalism. The bosses pushed the system too far, and now they’ve broken it. Over four million people quit their jobs in June, the most recent month for which data has been released. June made it a full year with quits exceeding four million each month, over forty-eight million workers quitting their jobs. Viewed differently, that would be the biggest strike in US history — forty-eight million people would have said, “I’m not going to work for you today.”
Even after just one month, workers started seeing the results of their action. Wages are ticking up a bit, finally, because the resignation wave and other factors have led to worker shortages. But the Federal Reserve is already hard at work trying to stop this. Some of the workers who have quit have done so to take advantage of better pay elsewhere. So, naturally, business wants the Fed to slam on the brakes to stop workers from gaining higher wages.
Parallel with the wave of resignations is a wave of union election wins driven by many of the same factors, with workers at companies like Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks leading the way. A new generation of workers is realizing that unions hold the answers to remaking their work lives. Union elections are up 56 percent this year over 2021. Pay gap? Union women make more than nonunion men. Discrimination? Union contracts promote equality. Unfair treatment? Grievances and arbitration rights give workers a fair hearing. Low pay, inconsistent schedules, job security? Union contract negotiations give workers a seat at the table and the leverage to win improvements.
Those workers organizing their unions are learning that you don’t have to quit to find a better job; you can join or form a union and make the job you have much better.
As workers begin to recognize what decades of exploitation has done to them and their families, there’s no going back. Cesar Chavez, the twentieth-century labor leader who helped organize the nation’s farmworkers, said, “You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” The pundits have it all wrong. It’s not “the Great Resignation” we’re seeing — it’s the Great Uprising.
Workers have begun to open their eyes to decades of mistreatment and exploitation, and what they can do about it. They have seen during the pandemic that many employers don’t even care if they live or die. Workers are beginning to organize at the grassroots level to demand fair pay, better treatment, job security, and a decent retirement. Workers are beginning to feel their power. There’s no going back.