The first thing you should know about Caroline Potts of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is that she loves her pets. “I have five cats and three dogs,” she told me, proudly. “The only thing I don’t have is birds.”
So when she needed a job, PetSmart seemed like the perfect solution. “My sister worked at PetSmart and I was in there so much,” she said.
She started as a bather, and showed enough promise to be invited to the company’s dog grooming academy, where they teach how to cut hair. “I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life,” Caroline said. “I was really passionate about animals and I loved grooming.”
There was only one problem: PetSmart. Groomers were pressured to complete as many dogs as possible, through a constant whirlwind of commotion and barking and often verbal abuse and harassment from customers. Without enough staff available, Caroline sometimes worked seven days in a row.
Company policy was supposed to prohibit grooming dogs with seizure disorders or those that couldn’t handle the stressful environment. Managers in Murfreesboro continually pushed Caroline to groom them anyway. “Some can die in the kennel from stress,” she said. “One dog was terrified of the dryer, and they wanted me to dry her straight through. They said, ‘Figure it out.’”
For someone who loved to be around animals, inflicting pain on dogs for a living was a nightmare, Caroline told me. “Every day when I was driving to work, I was hoping for a car accident so I didn’t have to go in. I talked to friends about it, they said, ‘Yeah, that was my thought too.’”
Before going to the academy, PetSmart made groomers sign a two-year contract, without the ability to work for any rivals. Caroline approached her district manager and said, “I want out of my contract. You didn’t give me the training I needed and you made this experience so bad.” Amazingly, the district manager ripped up the contract.
She went on to Petco, where things are a bit better. But if Caroline gets her way, she won’t be there very long either. She has a vision of going out on her own as an independent groomer. A friend of hers just rigged up a mobile grooming van and has seen the business take off.
“That is all I can ever think about,” she said. “It’s the dream. That’s how you can make an amazing life for yourself.”
IN SEPTEMBER, 4.43 million workers followed Caroline Potts’s lead and quit their job, a new record high. That represents 3 percent of the American workforce leaving their jobs, after 2.9 percent quit in August. In lower-wage sectors like leisure and hospitality and food services and accommodation, the numbers were as high as 6.6 percent, around 1 in every 15 workers.
Things could accelerate from there. According to a July survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 41 percent of U.S. workers are either actively searching for a new job, or planning to do so in the next few months. Two-thirds of those searching have considered a career change, rather than moving within their industry. Bankrate’s job seeker survey in August found even more turbulence; 55 percent of the workforce said they would likely look for a new job in the next year.
This trend has been characterized as the Great Resignation, and just about every economist and pundit has taken their crack at teasing out why it’s happening. Explanations have included health and safety fears, child care needs, a tight labor market, boosted savings from stimulus funds or reduced ability to spend money on bars and movies, enhanced unemployment benefits, increases in business formation, desire to work from home, early retirements, restrictions on immigration, demographic shrinking of the prime-age workforce, and my personal favorite, expectations of a labor shortage creating a labor shortage.
Some of these ideas have merit, though none can quite explain everything. In these moments, it’s best to actually ask the workers themselves. I did that, talking to dozens of people who have recently quit their job, or experts who closely track workers who have. And some patterns emerged.
Work at the low end of the wage scale has become ghastly over the past several decades. With no meaningful improvements in federal labor policy since the 1930s, employers have accrued tremendous power. Workers were afraid to voice any disapproval, taking whatever scraps they could get. “The U.S. needs a reset, needs a big push, to get to a place where work is more secure and livable for a lot of the population,” said MIT economist David Autor, who has tracked the misery of American deindustrialization and the shock of China’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse.
The most vulnerable people in America have started the closest thing we’ve seen in a century to a general strike.
The pandemic functioned as that reset, creating a mental escape hatch from the immiseration and even danger of ordinary work. If you call someone an “essential worker” for long enough, they start to believe it. They start to wonder whether they deserve more, given their essential nature. Gaining courage from social media, the most vulnerable people in America have started the closest thing we’ve seen in a century to a general strike.
For now, it’s working to deliver higher wages and better conditions. But from my talks with workers, they’re really seeking something more ineffable than a couple more bucks an hour. Work is the largest time block of the day, in a moment where we’ve all learned how precious time can be. People simply want to spend that time getting the dignity and respect denied to them for so long.
WORKERS ARE QUITTING ACROSS the labor force; people I’ve talked to range from minimum-wage employees to senior executives. But quit rates and job-to-job transitions in the Great Resignation are mostly taking place among workers with less than a high school education, whose daily toil is typically spent in dead-end low-wage jobs, an engine for corporate profits that produces some of the grimmer existences in the industrialized world.
The particulars of low-wage work have been well documented for years: stagnant wages, short staffs, poor conditions, erratic schedules, no benefits, overbearing managers, and the constant fear of losing your job. The low-wage worker must fend off thieves who are writing their paychecks; a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that wage theft steals $50 billion from low-wage workers every year. The uniquely American innovation of constant worker surveillance, perfected by Amazon, now has workers’ every move tracked, every ounce of performance measured, every slip punished. All for 15 bucks an hour, if you’re lucky.
The point of this is to deliver lower prices and higher profits on the backs of labor exploitation. Low-wage employers rely on an endless reserve of desperate workers willing to break their backs for a pittance. Unsustainable wages are a problem for government benefit programs. High turnover is not a problem as long as there’s one more job application in the door.
As of 2020, nearly one-quarter of U.S. jobs were low-wage, the highest percentage in the developed world. “We think it has to be this way,” said Autor. “But look at peer countries, it doesn’t fit. All have rising educational attainment and drops in worker power. But many have higher wages and lower economic insecurity at the low end of the spectrum.”
GONCALO COSTA/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO
A disproportionate number of quits during the Great Resignation are happening in dead-end low-wage jobs.
Overfinancialization has added to the pain. More than 11.7 million U.S. workers, most of them low-wage, now work for companies owned by private equity firms. (One of those workers was Caroline Potts; PetSmart is owned by BC Partners.) With a business model of extracting as much cash out of portfolio businesses as possible, private equity has turned even more jobs into low-wage nightmares.
For example, Ed Gadomski worked at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut, in the IT department, for 32 years before Leonard Green & Partners, a Los Angeles–based private equity firm, took over. “In the first year, layoffs became a household word,” Gadomski said. “Longevity employees were particularly targeted.” He lost his job in July 2020 and was offered it back at just $13.46 an hour, just one-third of his previous salary, without health insurance or retirement accounts. He declined the offer; now an outside contractor has his job. “The fear among the current hospital workers is that Leonard Green will outsource department by department and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he lamented.
The pandemic took the drudgery of low-wage work and turned it up several notches. In the initial phase, retail and restaurant establishments laid off everyone and shut down. But essential businesses, as the saying goes, continued on, offsetting the risk of viral exposure with a few bucks of hazard pay, if that. “I worked the entire pandemic as an essential worker and got a T-shirt out of it,” Collin Keehn, a beer sales representative in Harper Woods, Michigan, told me.
You can measure a worker’s worth by how they were treated in the pandemic. Reina Abrahamson of Salem, Oregon, was a customer service representative with the credit card division of Wells Fargo. A transgender woman, she had medical issues and asked to work from home. But Wells Fargo would only provide a 50-foot network cable, too small to hardwire from the DSL router to where Reina could perform her job. “I was like, ‘Can we get approval for a 100-foot cable?’” Abrahamson explained. “So [the manager] put in the request, and six months later he got approval. I was on leave for that six months.” The leave offered a minimum salary, but Abrahamson couldn’t acquire bonuses for quality assurance, which comprised a significant chunk of her take-home pay. She ended up driving for DoorDash to pick up extra cash.
Zella Roberts had a separate problem while working as a carhop at a Sonic in Asheville, North Carolina (another private equity–owned firm, part of the Roark Capital empire). Customers ordered either though an app or through a device at the drive-in stalls. When she got there, neither option gave any way for customers to tip carhops when paying with a credit card. And yet Roberts was making a tipped minimum wage of $5 an hour. Not only was she exposed to hundreds of unmasked customers, she was doing it for an illegal wage, only allowed because it was supposed to be subsidized through an impossible payment. “The business model seems to be dependent on paying their hardworking staff poverty wages,” Roberts said. “It was awful knowing I had to go in every day, risking my life for five bucks an hour.”
Health and safety in the workplace went from an afterthought to an all-consuming fear. Stephanie Haynes, a sorter at an Amazon warehouse in Joliet, Illinois, who lost her fiancé to COVID, noted that she would have to team up to break down a pallet of goods with a co-worker. “A pallet isn’t six feet,” she said. Amazon wouldn’t tell warehouse staff when colleagues contracted COVID; Haynes had to find out from friends. She walked out at the end of March 2020 and didn’t come back until July.
“In the beginning, we didn’t receive no masks,” said Monica Moody, at the time a packer at an Amazon warehouse near Charlotte, North Carolina. When Moody started talking to reporters about the conditions, she was fired. She started driving for a subsidiary of Amazon, where the explosion of people wanting home deliveries, and continued surveillance to hit work rates, made the job unbearable. “At my facility alone, each driver was getting over 300 packages,” Moody said. “Imagine getting to work at 11, in the middle of summer, load my van, go get 300 packages, and get 300 packages out. I’m being overworked and underpaid.”
A study from the University of California, San Francisco found that the professions seeing the highest number of working-age deaths from COVID-19 were cooks, warehouse line workers, agricultural workers, bakers, and construction workers. All of them are low-wage jobs with inevitable contact with co-workers. Employers knew this and saw it as an acceptable loss. A lawsuit last year alleged that Tyson Foods managers in Waterloo, Iowa, placed bets on which of the plant’s meatpacking assembly-line workers would contract COVID.
When lockdowns ended and patrons finally started to return, low-wage workers had a new role: policemen. Stir-crazy from months at home, customers came out angry, with many resisting face mask or vaccination policies. Frontline workers, with no training in conflict resolution, had to enforce these policies, thrust into the heart of the culture wars. The jobs were bad enough before the tension and hostility. Now, the pitched battles, the fighting and shouting, thudded against the brainpans of already stressed-out workers.
“It’s a horrible place to work,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, about her own profession, which has seen some of the most high-profile incidents of rage. This is a job with union support pushing people to such a limit that one flight attendant told The New York Times, “I don’t even feel like a human anymore.” Imagine how those with no such help feel.
Once you understand what workers are going through, then you can see the pandemic as kindling for a fire. As my colleague Harold Meyerson recently wrote, the two largest strike waves in American history occurred in 1919 and 1946—right after World Wars I and II, when infantrymen returned from Europe hailed as heroes and then found that their jobs were significantly less than heroic. They rebelled against menial work inappropriate to their sacrifice. Today’s low-wage workers, shattered by collective trauma, have similarly been punched once too often, after being exalted all too briefly as America’s backbone.
LETICIA REYES of Sacramento, California, has been on strike twice. But she doesn’t belong to a union; she works at a Jack in the Box franchise.
The first strike was due to malfunctioning air conditioning amid a historic heat wave, causing temperatures in the kitchen to rise as high as 109 degrees. “We asked the manager to fix it,” Reyes told me through an interpreter (her primary language is Spanish). “The first time, she wouldn’t listen to us, she ignored us. The second time, she told us it wasn’t high temperatures, it was us workers going through menopause.”
Reyes had never organized anyone before. Her colleagues were constantly told that they could have their hours cut, that they could lose their job. But her manager’s disrespect motivated her to try. The shift workers at Jack in the Box united, and with help from Northern California Fight for $15, they walked out. They not only got the air conditioning fixed, they got the manager fired.
But low-wage work in America requires eternal vigilance. Reyes and her colleagues weren’t getting their required ten-minute breaks, or lunch breaks or overtime, while toiling in peril during the pandemic. They decided to strike again for three days. “On the second day, the owner decided to meet with us. He said he was losing a lot of money,” Reyes said. “The owner and a few other people, they actually opened the store and were preparing the food themselves. It made them realize that they need us.” When the workers returned, they started getting their breaks and their overtime, and more pay as well.
Shana Blackwell posted a TikTok video of her quitting a Lubbock, Texas, Walmart over the store’s PA system.
“I am no longer scared to speak up,” Reyes said. “Big companies need us as workers and we should not be afraid to speak up.”
The Sacramento Jack in the Box is just one among a shockingly high number of pandemic-era walkouts at non-union workplaces. These small mass actions are the corollary to millions of individual actions of workers shoving off, unafraid of the consequences. A switch has gone off. “The pandemic activated this latent insecurity that was growing as a result of the gig economy, in which no one is an employee,” said Michael Duff, a former Teamster who now teaches at St. Louis University School of Law. “If work is so bad, I will do anything to not do it. What do you have to lose, your crappy, dangerous gig job?”
Mike Elk, a labor journalist and founder of Payday Report, has been tracking strikes on an interactive map since the onset of the pandemic, in March 2020. He has counted over 1,600 separate walkouts, in places like a donut shop in Kansas, or an IHOP in North Carolina, or a tortilla plant in Illinois. Nearly 100,000 workers have been involved. Every other day, it seems, there’s a strike at McDonald’s or Instacart or some other avatar of low-wage America. A sign outside a Burger King in Lincoln, Nebraska, went viral for its message: “We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
The real number of walkouts is likely even higher, as they are often uncovered by local media. “We check viral stuff on TikTok,” Elk said. “You see teenage Black kids who say, ‘Let’s roll out’; we wanted to put it on the strike tracker but we can’t do it because we didn’t know where.”
This is where the Great Resignation meets the digital age. Walkout signs posted outside businesses routinely go viral, feeding a near-insatiable anger with low-wage work. #QuitMyJob videos have been trending on social media sites for more than a year. On any given day, a nurse, an office drone, a Foot Locker clerk, or a preschool teacher (“Life’s too short to be stuck”) can be seen taking the jump. Though the act of quitting is often individual, social media collectivizes it, creating community from an atomized and dislocated workforce. In a splendid dialectic, the same digital technology that facilitates speedup and second-by-second monitoring by the boss facilitates acts of collective consciousness, organizing, and rebellion.
Though the act of quitting is often individual, social media collectivizes it, creating community from an atomized and dislocated workforce.
One of the more well-known quit videos came from Shana Blackwell, an $11.22-an-hour night stocker at a Walmart in Lubbock, Texas, who filmed herself announcing her resignation over the store’s PA system. “Attention, all Walmart shoppers,” she began, going on to call out managers and colleagues by name for inappropriate behavior. “This company fires Black associates for no reason. This company treats their employees like shit … Fuck the managers, fuck this company, fuck this position … I fucking quit.” The video has over 35 million views and over 125,000 comments.
The week that I caught up with Blackwell, another woman, Beth McGrath of Lafayette, Louisiana, made essentially the same video, condemning her managers and quitting Walmart over the PA. I asked Blackwell if she’d seen McGrath’s video. “I got a notification three days ago,” she told me. “Everybody was tagging me in it.”
Blackwell, who now lives in Delaware, still hears from people who’ve watched her video, thanking her for her bravery and telling her their experiences at work. “When you watch these videos, you feel that same adrenaline,” she explained. “I think everybody is sharing their experiences and realizing there is something better out there for themselves.”
DESPITE OFFERING WAGES that would have attracted people a couple of years earlier, employers get no takers, and have to do the job themselves. This bit of comeuppance has popped up occasionally on social media during the current labor shortage. But it was also found in a cathedral priory chronicle of 14th-century Rochester, England. “Such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment,” reads the account. “As a result, churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.”
TRÈS RICHES HEURES DU DUC DE BERRY, OCTOBRE, C.1412-1416
Medieval chronicles after the Black Death indicate that peasants and serfs bargained for cash wages, lower rent, and less hazardous conditions.
This was the time of the Black Death, which in its most highly affected areas wiped out half the population between 1347 and 1351. The extreme labor shortage gave serfs and peasants, who worked the land for the wealthy, power they had never seen before in their lives: the ability to bargain for cash wages, lower rent, less hazardous conditions. They could find opportunities at artisanal craft guilds in the cities, or just at the neighboring lord’s village. They could use the market for labor to pick and choose their circumstances, for the first time.
Christine Johnson, the history professor at Washington University, St. Louis who unearthed that chronicle, told me that a member of the higher classes going into the fields was such a “dreadful possibility” that few actually carried it out. Since subverting the social hierarchy was unthinkable, lords could only grumble at this turn of affairs.
“The thing that you see so often today is ‘Why won’t these people work for $14, $15 an hour?’” said Spencer Strub, an associate research scholar at the Humanities Council at Princeton University. “You see the same thing from chronicles of these abbeys, the major employers of the day. ‘They aren’t working for what they worked for two years ago.’ It’s a moralized statement that they are lazy, uppity, have forgotten their place in the natural order.”
Where exasperation failed, the nobility appealed to the government. England’s 1349 Ordinance of Labourers, later codified into statute as the nation’s first labor law, set wage controls in rural areas at pre–Black Death levels, restricting the ability to bargain for more pay. (It also included price controls, so no excess profits would follow.) Everyone under the age of 60 was required to work, in bounded contracts if they were unpledged, against penalty of imprisonment. “If you were found to be free of employment, I can compel your service for a year at the 1346 prevailing wage,” Johnson said. Serfs could not depart their lord to seek out a better deal. And no employers could hire “excess” workers, allowing the labor pool to be spread evenly.
Finally, the ordinance sought to limit practically the only form of social welfare available: beggars who frequented funerals to receive alms from the rich. “Because that many valiant beggars … do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice,” the ordinance read, “none upon the said pain of imprisonment shall, under the color of pity or alms, give any thing to such … so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.”
It was an audacious move to prevent competition among landowners for scarce workers, and to maintain the prevailing social order and keep the serfdom’s newfound power tamped down. It was also a failure. “We know that employers would pay more, they would cook the books,” Johnson said. “Landowners would say, ‘We will pay you more but we don’t want it acknowledged officially.’” Employers in the city of London set higher wages despite being expressly forbidden. Thousands of cases with local justices of the peace show an unwillingness from the lower orders to submit to the ordinance. People refused compelled service; in one case, an individual claimed he could not be taken into service by another because he was already a serf.
“A poem I study is Piers Plowman,” said Strub. “There are scenes about working in the fields, and they just stop: I’m not going to work in the fields unless you pay me a real wage, give me the real food.” This primitive sit-down strike was a recognition of real worker power, despite a heavy-handed effort to snuff it out.
The peasantry’s refusal to accept suppression led many landowners to sell off small plots to the lower classes. Eventually, this created a rising middle class, an entrepreneurial explosion, and the end of feudalism, according to some historians. Real incomes doubled in Europe over the next several years. And this is what we’d expect from such a cataclysmic event, actually. An April 2020 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research surveyed 19 pandemics stretching back to the Black Death, finding that real wages consistently went up and the return on capital consistently went down, something not paralleled in similarly traumatic events like wars. Pandemics are a leveler for inequality.
What’s most interesting about this finding is that it holds even absent organized mass action; in England, the Statute of Labourers remained mostly in force, with revisions, throughout a period of higher wages and relative prosperity. The change was more informal, seen in an ad hoc undercurrent of commotion, with peasants learning amongst themselves who pays more and who needs labor. It is a social movement as much as it is a political one.
However, the rise of industrial capitalism led to a new cycle of repression of workers. As small farmers were driven off the land, the British Parliament in the 1830s “reformed” the Elizabethan poor laws that had protected peasants from destitution, took away benefits, and compelled people to work in factories for the going wage or be sent to the workhouse. Will today’s workers be more like those of an earlier age, who used scarcity to increase rights and earnings, or will they end up exploited like those of more recent years?
THE PARALLELS BETWEEN 14th-century Europe and the present day are downright eerie—and hopeful. A catastrophe creates new opportunities and a new mindset for workers, and the employer class can’t take it.
First, like the English aristocracy, employers added a few scraps to attract workers, and then more and more. The Body Shop dropped its educational requirements, background checks, and work experience for new hires. UPS now makes offers after applicants fill out a ten-minute online questionnaire.
One pizzeria in Alabama announced it would “literally hire anyone.”
Bidding wars for people transitioning to new jobs are routine. Minimum wages at a number of retail establishments are rising, and the average wage at restaurants and grocery stores just hit $15 an hour. Starbucks has raised average pay to $17 an hour. Flight attendants working holiday shifts at American Airlines are earning as much as triple pay. Wage growth overall in the key low-wage leisure and hospitality sector is at 12.4 percent year-over-year, well above even the elevated rate of inflation.
Grumbling business owners followed the lead of their 14th-century brethren: They tried to use the law to force people to work.
Amazon is now dangling free college tuition for its workers, as are Macy’s, Walmart, Target, and several other retailers. Tyson Foods has experimented with offering 40 hours of pay for 36 hours of work. Other meatpacking companies are offering $3,000 signing bonuses; a hospital network offered $40,000 up front for nurses.
When few of these tactics actually worked to fill open positions, the mood soured, and grumbling business ownersfollowed the lead of their 14th-century brethren; they tried to use the law to force people to work. Over the summer, 25 states ended enhanced unemployment benefits early, on the theory that this would starve people back into the workplace. As in the aftermath of the Black Death, it didn’t work; statistics show that states that ended UI had essentially no difference in payroll growth compared with states that kept it going until September.
Republican lawmakers, infuriated by any stirrings of worker power, went to more extreme lengths. Wisconsin’s state Senate passed a bill in October to allow 14-year-olds to work as late as 11 p.m.; Ohio soon followed suit. Businesses started advertising for young teenagers to work in their fast-food stores. Rather than offer decent jobs, employers and their allies in government would rather roll back the 20th century. That’s not likely to work either; younger workers have been instrumental to non-union walkouts.
And then there’s the ever-present specter of robots taking all the jobs, something raised every time workers find themselves in a decent bargaining position. This also happened in the medieval post-pandemic period, with advancements in smaller sailing ships, the printing press, and other labor-saving devices. Such enhancements to productivity should be welcomed, as long as everyone benefits from them.
Despite employers’ meager efforts, quits keep rising, buoyed by a few factors. The endurance of the delta variant continues to keep a subset of workers off the job, reducing the available labor supply. Millions of parents are staying home to watch their children, though that’s a chicken-and-egg scenario; one major reason for the crisis involves how many child care workers have quit. There are 108,000 fewer workers in the field than in February 2020, according to a University of California, Berkeley analysis.
PAMELA DE MARION SILVA DIAZ
Construction worker Candido Batiz-Alvarez is working to create an essential workers board in Houston, giving low-wage workers a voice in their own future.
People do still have money in the bank from the various COVID relief programs, including three stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance. Combined with the forced savings of a lot of places not being open for months, it totals extra savings of roughly $2.4 trillion, giving people time to make career decisions. “I’ve always felt that if you give working people the ability to survive, you give them a choice,” said St. Louis University’s Michael Duff.
We’re also seeing a thinner labor force, from an aging society and severe Trump-era restrictions on immigration. Over two million more workers retired during the pandemic than would have been expected. All of this tips the balance in favor of those remaining in the labor market.
Employers, seemingly, have only put forward carrots or sticks, when workers are seeking something more. Mark Bolino, a business professor at the University of Oklahoma, talks about a “psychological contract” that workers have rewritten. “Historically, from the 1950s on, we had more of a relational psychological contract,” Bolino told me. “You look out for the company and the company will look out for you. In the ’80s, there was a shift to a more transactional psychological contract. We’ll look out for our interests and you will too.”
That transactional contract worked for employers when they had workers essentially trapped, with few options for escape. But in the current environment, “workers are renegotiating the terms of the contract, and employers aren’t equipped for that,” Bolino said. What is on that list for renegotiation, I asked Bolino. “I do sense, anecdotally, that people want meaning.”
MEANING LOOKS DIFFERENT to different workers. For Collin Keehn, the Detroit-area beer sales representative, he felt adrift in “a failed career … I was eight, ten years in, making $40,000 a year with a college degree.” His entire family was involved with organized labor, and he wasn’t. He craved that connection to collective action, even taking a class in organizing at a local college. “I was the only non-union person in my class, they thought I was a rat or a mole,” Keehn said, chuckling. “I wanted to do more, I wanted to help people. Fulfillment was a big thing for me.” He managed to land a position at a nonprofit that worked with local unions.
Reina Abrahamson, the call center worker at Wells Fargo, eventually went back to her job after spending months on leave due to technical snafus. “Getting back into the rhythm, it was a whole reminder of how much I disliked customer service,” she said. So she applied for and landed a job as a school bus driver in Salem, and her stress melted away. “It was way more in line with my want and desire to be able to help people,” she said. “It got me into a place where I can make an impact on people, help kids, be that positive influence.” She’s considering getting a teaching license and moving inside the school.
An October Harris Poll showed that half the U.S. workforce wants to switch careers, and in the business pages you can almost every day find stories about short-order cooks turning into software engineers, or waitresses becoming longshoremen. “I’m hearing a general dissatisfaction with work-life balance following the pandemic,” said Fran Berrick, a career coach for professional development. “People are saying, how did I get here, why am I staying here?”
In addition to switching careers, some have become their own boss. Shana Blackwell, who quit her Walmart job in a TikTok video, moved to Delaware with her husband, who’s in the Air Force. She finished a cosmetology course, got her license, and now rents out a small booth at a beauty salon near her house. “Since I was young, I’ve been working since I was 14, I’ve been against the whole setup,” Blackwell told me. “The goal was always to work for myself.”
This has been a pronounced trend paralleling the Great Resignation. Business formation through three quarters of 2021 is on trend to set an all-time high, with over 1.4 million applications to start new businesses filed through September. This is a complete transformation from the anemic business formation out of the Great Recession. “It’s pervasive across the country and across industries, which I think is telling,” said Kenan Fikri, director of research at the Economic Innovation Group, which tracks startups and entrepreneurship. But a disproportionate number of new business applications are in the retail, food, accommodation, and hospitality sectors hit so hard by the pandemic, and so freighted with low-wage workers.
Fikri attributes the startup boom to people having more wherewithal to take risks, thanks to the pop-up COVID safety net. But he also noted a desire for personal renewal. “With the push of job losses and the existential push of the pandemic, people were wanting to make big choices in their lives,” he said. “The country’s inherent dynamism was subdued in the 2010s, but it wasn’t out. It took a shock to rekindle it.”
Other people I talked to focus on the conditions of their work. James VanderZanden worked at Pentagon Federal Credit Union in Eugene, Oregon, for 12 years before quitting recently. He saw co-workers retaliated against and forced to either relocate or lose their jobs because they tried to start a union (which he publicly supported). VanderZanden quit and found a job with the state of Oregon, involved in financial regulatory matters. Being able to work from home three days a week was a big factor. At Pen Fed, “upper management was parroting, we have to keep people in the office,” he said. “It created pressure. The king likes to see the serfs picking through the fields.”
Monica Moody, the Amazon delivery driver, told me about a close friend of hers who dispatches semitrucks from her home. “She showed me what she does, and I’m like you know what, I think I can get jiggy with this,” Moody told me. “You don’t have to be in a uniform, just booking loads. And you’re home! You don’t have to put your gas money into your budget.”
The lack of appreciation, the lack of integrity, the feeling of being used pervaded all my discussions with workers.
Forty percent of U.S. working hours are spent in the home, The Economist estimated, changing the rhythms and geography of work and introducing desired flexibility. “People have seen that they can do their jobs pretty well on their own schedule and in their own home,” said Mark Bolino. “That was a revelation to a lot of people: I don’t need to do all these things that were frustrating, like commuting.” People are valuing fitting work around their life, not the other way around.
All of these are manifestations of the same yearning for simple dignity on the job. The lack of appreciation, the lack of integrity, the feeling of being used pervaded all my discussions with workers. More money could fill that gap, but more likely what’s needed is fulfillment, recognition, and humanity.
Candido Batiz-Alvarez, a sheetrock installer in Houston, who contracted COVID on the job, put it to me succinctly. “Just recently we were rebuilding homes after the freeze in Texas and told we were essential workers,” he told me through an interpreter. “But it’s hard for me to understand that phrase because I don’t see any benefit from being called essential.”
Batiz-Alvarez is with a group in Houston called Workers Defense Project that is attempting to create an essential workers board in the city, which would be only the second of its kind in the U.S. (The first is in Los Angeles.) The board would provide worker perspectives and policy recommendations to local regulators, and give a low-wage sector that has been muzzled for years a voice in their own future. “We want to be treated as the people who build this city and keep the economy running,” Batiz-Alvarez said.
IN MAY OF 2020, as the pandemic was just cresting its first wave in the United States, our colleague Paul Starr wonderedhow society would change after the shared ordeal of the COVID crisis. The smallpox epidemic from Spanish invasions in the New World triggered a loss of faith within Aztec and Inca communities, that their gods and their leaders were never as powerful as they boasted.
Have the scales fallen from the eyes of the low-wage workforce? Will this change be permanent? Will the expansion of low-wage service work, relative to Europe and other industrialized nations, snap back and correct itself?
These trends are really positive for workers’ financial and emotional well-being. Plus, it’s hard to roll back wages once they’ve been delivered, at least in the immediate term. And many of the enhancements to hiring might prove popular enough that companies will need to keep them around. But ultimately, social transformations are hard to sustain. The rush of the Great Escape is enlivening, and could signal a real shift in how people want to be treated. But it’s mostly an individual action. The loose confederation of social media and market forces cannot substitute for a strong labor movement that brings collective power to entire workplaces and sectors.
As it happens, labor unions are in the midst of their own walkout wave, triggered by the same level of degradation and pandemic hazardousness on the job as the rest of the workforce. Hundreds of strikes in 2021 have been identified by researchers at Cornell University, a paltry number historically but a spike of action compared to recent years. More important for the future of a desiccated labor movement, organizing in new businesses, like a Dollar General in Connecticut and a Starbucks in Buffalo, suggests a moment for union expansion, buoyed by stronger public sentiment and anger at the experience of work. That this expansion is rooted in low-wage service work seems appropriate for the moment.
What’s notable is that rank-and-file union members are the ones unilaterally shutting down workplaces, and even rejecting contracts negotiated by their own leadership. There’s a level of distrust and disappointment in the status quo among workers that extends even to their elected representatives in unions.
I asked Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants what the labor movement should be doing to support the record-high quit rate in the low-wage economy. “We have a short period of time here to lock this in,” she replied. “We should be looking where we should be striking for recognition. If you have people who are completely ready to walk off the job, why wouldn’t we run in there with everything we have to tell them to take on the boss, and get a better job for the long term? If you’re willing to walk, let’s make sure everyone else is willing, strike for recognition and find your demands, and you get your contract overnight!” She related it to the sit-down strikes of 1934 that helped lead to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO’s willingness to fight to open up new worksites that year set it apart from an American Federation of Labor that didn’t want to commit the resources.
Without such an action, the labor movement is simply too small to drive labor changes on its own. It needs to organize many, many more workers to get to a level of countervailing force. Government has also failed to capitalize on this shift thus far. Changes in labor law that would fine employers for unfair labor practices for the first time are slated for passage in Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, and that would help. But the aggression Nelson identified would have to be followed through by a labor movement that isn’t in the habit of conducting organizing on the scale needed, and doesn’t have the resources available to get it done.
Non-union workers can say no, maybe for a while. But without the resources and support of an organized workforce, they will not make enduring changes. The labor shortages that yielded prosperity and choice out of the Black Death did not uniformly reach all societies stricken by the disease. Authoritarian Eastern Europe and Russia maintained serfdom for centuries after the plague, stunting economic development in those regions. And even the gains in Western Europe didn’t completely survive as the labor situation shifted.
“More important for the long-term possibilities and opportunities than individual decisions or a mass inchoate movement, you need to make sure you have a recognized voice in decision-making going forward,” said Christine Johnson. “If you don’t actually change the structures of power, and you don’t actually enact some changes in the labor and social hierarchies, it’s not going to produce lasting improvement in conditions of labor.”
In the meantime, Caroline Potts still daydreams at her job of a better life. “We have just been neglected and forgotten and used and abused by the corporations,” she said. “I think I would walk out now, and even if I had no money, it would be 10,000 times better.”
Edited by riseabovethought, 07 January 2022 - 12:06 PM.