Power to the (working) people: The Great Resignation could change how we relate to work

Only time will tell if working people, both those organized in unions and those who are not, will be able to take advantage of this moment to overthrow the mini dictatorships so many labor under.

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Over the last few years, a number of ideas preceded by the word ‘great’ have come to the fore in the intellectual life of English speaking countries. By far the most dangerous of these is the ‘Great Replacement’, an increasingly mainstream conspiracy theory with its origins on the European far right. Those popularizing this theory like Tucker Carlson on Fox News claim that migrant flows caused by a variety of factors from war to climate change are actually part of a sinister plan by so-called ‘elites’ to permanently alter the demographics of western nations for political reasons.

Then there’s the ‘Great Reset’ brought to the world by the wealthy Davos set as a way to deal with the fallout of the global pandemic, which is also subject to a variety of conspiratorial interpretations on the right. Despite the flowery rhetoric and enthusiastic reaction of the corporate press to the concept, the ‘reset’ seems to be little more than branding exercise based on a bit of tinkering around the edges of the neoliberal economic system than an ideological shift that might more effectively deal with the causes of unrest in richer nations like income inequality.

Over the past few weeks another term that’s more based in reality has been making the rounds: the ‘Great Resignation’. This is being used a shorthand by some in the press to try and explain a labor shortage affecting industries from healthcare to hospitality to trucking. Concurrently, unions are showing increasing clout in some places as part of what’s being called ‘striketober’.

As Anthony Pahnke noted this week on the website Counterpunch, the strikes are coming at a fortuitous time due to the labor shortage and are more likely to succeed in their aims than other protests because they are not limited to a single day but can last weeks or months, increasing the pressure on employers and in some cases, governments. 

As Pahnke wrote, “It’s called leverage, and for the for time in decades, it seems that US workers [have] got it.”

Although there seem to be a variety of factors at work in producing the labor shortage referenced by the ‘Grea Resignation’, the main reason for large numbers of people either quitting or not returning to their places of employment is undoubtedly the pandemic that gave many the time to rethink or even reinvent their working lives. In those jobs deemed ‘essential’ at the height of the crisis like nursing, the idea that worker shortages are also the direct result of burnout and exhaustion should not be dismissed. 

As Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M management professor told CNBC in regards to the former group of workers who were forced to take time away from their jobs, “We were all able to take a step back in the last year and spend more time doing other things and really question the value of what we’re doing at work. A number of people have made the decision, ‘I need to make a change.’” 

Many people were able to use the time afforded them by increased unemployment benefits in the U.S. and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) across the country’s northern border, with large numbers of those who suddenly found themselves unemployed able to see how much or little they were valued for their work.

“For almost everyone, the pandemic put an acute focus on… how has this company I’ve given a lot to handle me or my health or happiness during this time?” Ross Seychell of Personio, a German tech company focused on Human Resources explained to the BBC, “I’m hearing it a lot: ‘I’m going to go somewhere I’m valued.” 

The choice being made by traditionally lower paid workers, especially in retail and the service industry, is not only related to their employers but also the increased stress of dealing with the public, including being made to police people’s behavior without compensation due to things like mask mandates. Most of us have seen many examples of rude and over demanding customers over the past year, both online and in our everyday lives.

In regards to this, Lisa Miller, a consumer strategy specialist recently told NBC Miami, “The labor shortage right now is certainly being impacted by consumer behavior, and I think all of us need to acknowledge that.”

While some of the problems these workers face are the result of mental health issues created or exacerbated by the pandemic, long term systemic issues like sexual harassment have been rendered less acceptable in the Me Too era and other kinds of abuse on the part of customers and management are leading many workers, especially women, to seek better employment free from these kinds of harmful behaviors. 

These kinds of cultural shifts are part of the reason why the Great Resignation is demographically linked to younger people and may point to more permanent changes in the way people relate to their jobs in the future.

The numbers show this clearly as LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky explained in an interview with Time Magazine, “The global workforce is changing. I talked about how we see a 54% increase year over year in job transitions across the platform [LinkedIn]. When you look at Gen Z specifically, that number’s up 80% year over year, when you look at millennials that number is up 50% year over year, when you look at Gen X, that number’s up 31% year over year. When you look at boomers that number’s only up 5% year over year.”

Rather than noting that it seems that working people are finally reclaiming some power after decades of soaring productivity and declining wages, some in the media have reacted to the labor shortage related to these issues in cruel ways.

Speaking to Fox News host Laura Ingraham in the late Summer, ‘Bar Rescue’ host Jake Taffer, made it clear how many business owners view working people, saying in reply to a statement about hunger being a powerful tool to bring them back, “They only feed a military dog at night, because a hungry dog is an obedient dog. Well, if we are not causing people to be hungry to work…” 

While the changes in how many people relate to the third or more of their life they will spend at work might have happened regardless, there’s little doubt that the health emergency sped up the process. Beyond sharing in the profits and receiving better benefits like paid sick days, the idea that workplaces should be more democratic is bubbling up on the margins as shown by strikes throughout North America. Only time will tell if working people, both those organized in unions and those who are not, will be able to take advantage of this moment to overthrow the mini dictatorships so many labor under.

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