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How Can Workers in “The Great Resignation” Harness Leverage Long-Term?

Wage gains could be short-lived unless accompanied by legislation addressing structural inequalities, experts warn.

Activists with One Fair Wage participate in a “wage strike" demonstration outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant on May 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

In 2021, public resignations began going viral. Across platforms like Twitter and Reddit, workers began sharing text exchanges celebrating the exact moments where they reached a breaking point with their employers. One exchange that went viral earlier this year was this:

Boss: Hey Brandon. We’re short staffed for rest of year because Sarah just quit without any warning. We’re really backed up so I’m going to need you to come in during thanksgiving this year. Don’t be shocked if you have to come in on christmas eve and day too.

Worker: I already told you 3 weeks ago I need that week off and you agreed. Now you’re changing your mind? I will not be working Thanksgiving, and if you ask again I will not be working for you at all anymore.

Boss: We’ve had to set expectations with you multiple times this year. Coming in is the least you can do. Your PTO request has been denied. I’m not asking you to come in, I’m telling you that you have to.

Worker: And I’m telling you that you’ll have no worker at all now. I quit.

As Emma Goldberg wrote in The New York Times recently, it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of broadcasting the decision to quit a job was seen as unwise. “Career coaches traditionally advised their clients not to disparage former employers online. Though there was always a subset of workers who quit loudly on principle, recruiters often raised their eyebrows at candidates who’d gone public about negative experiences in their previous roles. But after over a year of laboring through a pandemic, protests over racial justice, and all the personal and societal tumult that followed those events, some workers are ready to reject stale professional norms and vent.”

The development that Goldberg describes isn’t just some social media fad, it’s one part of a much wider trend that some economists have dubbed “The Great Resignation.” U.S workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. According to statistics from the Labor Department, 4.3 million people ditched their gigs in August, 4.4 million in September and 4.2 million in October. These are by far the highest rates seen since the Department started tracking such information two decades ago. The majority of these departures have been initiated by low-wage workers in the service sector.

Now, a new study indicates that The Great Resignation could be having an important economic impact for many such employees. A report put out by the business research group the Conference Board estimates that wages will increase by 3.9 percent in 2022, the biggest jump since 2008. These raises are expected to materialize across the board and therefore include gains for low-wage hourly workers. While the study acknowledges that inflation may be part of this story, its authors cite labor shortages and high turnover rates as the driving factor.

“It is likely that severe labor shortages will continue through 2022. During that time, overall wage growth is likely to remain well above four percent,” Gad Levanon, vice president for labor markets at the Conference Board, concludes. “Wages for new hires and workers in blue-collar and manual services jobs will grow faster than average.”

While this is welcome news for millions of workers, experts warn that these gains could prove to be short-lived unless they’re accompanied by legislation that takes aim at more structural inequalities.

Yannet Lathrop is a senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit group that promotes policies to benefit low-wage workers and the unemployed. “Right now, workers are in a better position to demand higher wages than they have been in a while,” she told Truthout. “There is certainly tightness in the labor market — particularly in sectors such as leisure and hospitality, which traditionally pay low wages — and that seems to be a factor in why, anecdotally, we’re seeing an increase in the wages that employers are offering. But the leverage that workers have is temporary. Eventually, the economy will rebound, and job market conditions will be less favorable for them to demand higher wages on their own. That’s why it’s important to make sure workers continue to have leverage to demand more.”

This sentiment was echoed by Jerry Carbo, professor of labor relations and business and society at Shippensburg University and president of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition. “I would turn to a really traditional labor analysis.… When labor is scarce, you have power,” he told Truthout. “You can make yourself scarce, and we see that with The Great Resignation. We have that potential leverage, but if we don’t organize it, it’s all going to be lost.… If we don’t organize and either get living-wage laws passed, or minimum wage drastically increased, and we don’t get a strong labor movement again? All of these gains, especially adjusted for inflation, are just going to be lost.”

Lathrop identified the Protecting the Right to Organize Act as an important pro-worker policy that could solidify employee leverage, expand collective bargaining rights, help raise wages and make it easier for workers to join a union. Members of Our Revolution, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Worker Power Coalition are currently on a nationwide holiday tour to drum up support for the legislation. Their first stop was a protest outside the office of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), one of only two Democratic senators who has yet to endorse the bill.

“The idea is that it’s not just directed at one or two people,” Dan Mauer, the director of government affairs for CWA, told Politico. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of attention on a couple senators who haven’t signed on yet, but we really think that it’s the responsibility of the whole Democratic caucus. Obviously we’d love Republican support, too, but that seems less likely. So we’re trying to build momentum to show that no matter where you are — a swing state or a blue state or anything in between — that this has got to be a priority for you.”

Carbo’s organization, National Workplace Bullying Coalition, is currently trying to push the Dignity At Work Act at the state level. Versions of the bill have already been introduced in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The legislation aims to hold employers accountable for abusing workers and supply victims with affordable legal avenues. “Our workplace harassment laws just don’t work,” Carbo says. “The idea is that we have to address all the things that are abusive for workers and all the things that violate their basic human rights.”

The momentum for pro-worker bills isn’t only being generated by record turnover rates, but by an increasing number of high-profile strikes and work stoppages. When about 100,000 workers threatened to strike in October 2021, many began referring to the month as “Striketober.” Workers at Kellogg’s just ended an 11-week strike with a new contract on December 21, and on December 9, workers at a Buffalo, New York, Starbucks voted to form a union, a historic first for the coffee chain.

“The leverage is there, but we need to organize right now,” Carbo tells Truthout. “If we lose this moment, I’m not sure we’re going to see another one again.”