I love the headlines I read about The Great Resignation. Leaving your job and sticking it to a bad boss has appeal. I should know; I have quit several jobs. For anyone resigning, though, the individual motivation can vary. Many employees are frustrated by inflexible work policies and mismanagement during the pandemic. On the other hand, the waves of recent resigning staff often have some financial resources, another position lined up, or are boldly taking the plunge to self-employment.
However, the option to resign is not in everyone’s hands. There is new hope for those who have to continue with a less-than-ideal employer! With rising labor shortages, employees have new bargaining power. A silver lining in the post-pandemic world is a slow-growing trend of employees organizing. The effort to improve working conditions is both inspiring and telling. There is no perfect way to go about creating significant changes. For the man in the arena, I have enormous awe and respect.
In shipping, food and beverage, and even academia, people are working to improve employee rights. An eruption of discontent resulting from a classic imbalance between labor and capital is bubbling underneath the surface. Employees are fed up with picking up the slack for understaffing and inconsistent work schedules. Many feel quite literally like cogs operating under impersonal corporate controls. American wages have been stagnating since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the disparity in compensation between workers and their employers is widening.
The Last Mile
If you have been waiting for the delivery of an online purchase, you probably have looked up issues about the supply chain. A top story there points to delays in delivery. Through the pandemic, it has become commonplace to hear about the conditions for workers at Amazon. For example, it appears that their staff regularly pee in cups. The best news on this front is that groups of Amazon workers are unionizing. Led by Christian Smalls, one group has organized without the help of old school union professionals. Smalls was initially fired for staging a walk-out at Amazon. Instead of accepting this fate, he managed an effective and historic response.
Underpaid workers roll silverware for less than minimum wage in the restaurant industry. For them, unionization is an essential step in the right direction. Employers, though, are not huge fans. They rely on a culture of tipping which grows from a post-Civil War practice, to avoid paying a living wage. Starbucks is not a safe space for its own workers though many Americans consider it a favorite place to hide between work and home. Starbucks staff are unionizing for better work conditions. Along the way, union organizers are losing their jobs. Howard Shultz has returned to Starbucks to fight off the moves to unionize; still, workers are staying firm on their demands.
TA for Free?
Well-educated academics are not immune to this trend. In the last few years, Temple University faculty have found support within the student body for better working conditions. Across the country, the standard is rising for universities. Recently, an unpaid teaching position at UCLA created an uproar. It is a running joke that Ph.Ds are the free labor of academic institutions. A student union at Columbia thinks otherwise.
In the past, unionizing was most readily associated with manufacturing work. For large multinationals, it was easy to quell unionization efforts. Thanks to globalization, and corporate-friendly tax policies, it was possible to send manufacturing work abroad. With mixed results, our American economy has changed. There is invariably some work that requires location-specific help. For example, staffing a café, physically delivering goods, or teaching in person requires a warm, local body. These are the places where union organizers are needed today.
A Brave New Way
An ideological shift is underway. Through radical imagination, we are beginning to see solutions. In addition to unions, there are other ample opportunities to balance the employee-employer relationship. I see growth in cooperative organizations, the power to technology to support self-governance, and the exercise of courage in imagination. Indeed, shareholder activism, organizing workers, and the rise of B corporations suggest that we all want more from our workplaces and our dollar.
I agree worker discontent is bubbling up after decades of capital getting its own way. My hope is that this swing of the pendulum will incorporate the hard won lessons of the past and lead to a better relationship between money and people.