The “Great Resignation” has certainly come to be a trending news cycle hashtag—and one that reflects an indubitable reality. Indeed, over four million people in each of the months of August and September, quit their jobs.
And when it comes to Americans being empowered to say, “Take this job and shove it!”—well, more power to them. For decades wages have stagnated and workers have increasingly lost their voice and power in the workplace, as the percentage of workers represented by unions has declined by nearly half since 1983. This decline overwhelmingly benefits the profit margins of employers, as unionized workers bring home wages roughly 19% higher than workers bereft of union representation and the worker solidarity such representation fosters.
A labor market experiencing a stark shortage of workers paired with relief monies are two key factors among many that have enabled Americans to re-assess their work situations and conclude, with an abundance of higher-paying jobs open, that they no longer need to suffer the abuse of poor working conditions and less-than-livable wages.
Liberating workers from the coercion of economic necessity that left them squarely and vulnerably in the grip of employers and corporations seeking profits at the expense of human welfare, this development, this opportunity to re-assess their employment, is a key step toward actually endowing Americans concretely with this condition of being we call freedom and tend to talk about so abstractly.
And we know from the current labor conditions, the “war for workers,” that the unlivable wages and exploitation American workers endured were indeed a function of this coercion rather than a matter of necessity and survival for businesses.
Indeed, as Eric Rosenbaum wrote for CNBC on the heels of Target and Walmart announcing they will cover 100% of employees’ college tuition, “The war for workers isn’t only benefiting the labor force in the form of higher employee wages, but a benefit arguably as, if not more, important to their economic mobility and long-term success: access to education.”
What we see in this current war for workers, leading to higher wages, is not that businesses can’t or couldn’t afford to remunerate workers with better wages and benefits but that they were in a position of power where they didn’t have to.
We often hear businesses cry that they will have to shut down if they have to pay workers a decent or livable wage.
Now we see that isn’t the case at all. Indeed, even as wages rise, corporate profits are hitting record highs.
Businesses have simply been behaving according to the chief value or priority of the U.S. market economy, which is achieving and maximizing profit rather than meeting need.
Still, we need to recognize that the empowerment of individual American workers we’ve witnessed during this Great Resignation is likely a passing condition resulting from temporary fluctuation in the labor market resulting from an unusual confluence of historical and economic factors. This empowerment of individuals due to temporary conditions is not in itself sustainable; we need to recognize the need to institutionalize and concretize—make permanent–worker rights in social, political, and cultural organizational forms—like ones we already have: unions.
And to do this, it would really help if our media focused on how workers have been able to secure better wages, benefits, conditions in the jobs they have, in their current workplaces because they representation and voice, because they have power that guarantees some modicum of workplace democracy.
The story of the underdog American workers being able to tell a boss to ‘Take this job and shove it!” tends to be a feel-good tale, but it’s not log lasting; and it doesn’t guarantee that the job one worker was able to leave will get better for another.
As we approach the day to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Junior, we should remember his assertion that “all labor has dignity.”
While some employers may create poor working conditions and pay low wages, that’s not because the work isn’t important or dignified—or to use a current term, “essential.” It’s because we as a society let those employers get away with exploiting people.
It would have been nice to see our media—including progressive but nonetheless corporate-produced shows like those of Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Joy Reid—invest in close coverage of the weeks-long strikes by workers at John Deere and Kellogg’s, or cover the successful unionization efforts by Starbucks’ workers.
In particular what we saw in the strikes at John Deere and Kellogg’s was workers who were unwilling to allow management to create two tiers of workers in which new and more recently-hired employees would not have pensions and would not receive the same level of compensation and wage increases.
Meanwhile, John Deere and Kellogg’s were experiencing flourishing profits; they just felt no need out of any basic value of fairness and decency to share that wealth with the people on the ground actually producing the product and generating the wealth.
Their solution was not resign but to follow another important and much less often-told tale in America—that of collective organization and unionization, as we are seeing with the workers at Starbucks.
The workers at John Deere and Kellogg’s understood the value and dignity of the work they did, and they fought for that dignity and value to be recognized.
This recognition that “all labor has dignity” is key for democracy and empowering workers.
The words of Casey Moore, a Starbucks employee who took part in the unionization effort, makes this point clearly.
The unionization struggle, as she describes it, is key for American just to realize they deserve democratic rights. Just listen to this:
“My dad is in the teachers union, but I had only ever really associated unions with teachers and nurses and mainly construction workers in the building trades. So when I first started I was like, ‘Really, a union for baristas?’ But then the more I learned about it, the more I thought, ‘Why not?’ There’s no reason that baristas shouldn’t get the same benefits and quality of life that other workers do.”
All workers deserve workplace democracy and a livable wage, not to mention a fair share of the wealth they help produce.
And we need to tell the story of unionization and collective action at least as much as we tell the story of resignation.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.