A new specter is haunting rich countries—the specter of an acute labor shortage. In the pandemic’s wake, all across Europe and North America, employers are pulling out their hair because they can’t find the workers they need. Recruiting and retention, they say, is most difficult in blue-collar and manual labor service jobs.
On the one hand, there is nothing new about this reported allegation. Employers have always complained when they can’t fill jobs for which they offer substandard wages. The problem is typically the low pay, and not the scant supply of labor, and so we would expect to see this “shortage” resolved when the wages on offer are increased. In the most recent instance, however, we are not seeing the kind of substantial wage growth that customarily arises to remedy the problem. Its absence is a sign that this is not a classical shortage. Nor is there much of a gap between job openings and the numbers of those who, according to official data, are looking for employment. If anything, there are more of the latter, since the official surveys routinely undercount the unemployed by millions. So something else is going on.
One of the preferred interpretations of the shortage in the U.S. is that women who exited the workforce en masse during the pandemic were not returning because of the lack of affordable child care. Yet there is little evidence to back it up. Women with children have returned at the same rate as those without. So, too, the favored explanation of business and Republican elites is that too-generous unemployment benefits have discouraged the return to work. But the outcome has been similar in European countries where there was no comparable bump in benefits. Another explanation is that fear of contracting COVID-19 is stalling the return to public workplaces. This may be the case in regional pockets of the unvaccinated and anti-maskers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the phenomenon is spread more widely across all locations.
More progressive minds have concluded that workers are refusing to go back to their humdrum, low-quality jobs after experiencing the profound potential of free time during the COVID lockdowns. For some, the sequestering alone was traumatizing, but for many others, spending quality time at home with families and loved ones delivered an unforeseen bonus. Putting the world (and its ceaseless economic demands) on pause allowed people to imagine a more gratifying kind of life, and they have been loath to give it up for the bitter grind of capitalist wage labor.
The pandemic has given fresh meaning to the platitude that life is short, inspiring many to conclude that there are better ways to spend it than toiling away at demeaning, poverty-wage jobs. As a result, people over 50 are retiring early, and those who endured the regimen of “essential work” as frontline workers (especially in health care) are quitting or shifting their career goals in the direction of more humane livelihoods. In September 2021, 4.4 million Americans left their jobs, the highest quit rate for more than two decades, amounting to what the American media calls the “Great Resignation.”
A more florid version of this explanation is that we are witnessing an unofficial general strike, or a refusal of work itself, of the kind we have not seen for several decades, at least since the onset of the neoliberal era. Evidence for this view is hard to come by, though in the U.S., the number of organized strikes has seen a significant increase over the past year in a broad swathe of sectors (including health care, education, film and television, mining and waste disposal), with actions against large companies like John Deere, Kellogg, and Amazon, along with hundreds of smaller firms. According to this interpretation, these public strikes, many of them in the form of unauthorized walkouts, are only the more visible face of a mass withdrawal of work.
If this is the case, it is happening in the throes of a recession, at a time when economic recovery is shaky. The coronavirus scourge is still taking its toll, and its future morphology is uncertain. In the U.S., the political will to provide government support to those struggling to make ends meet is largely exhausted. The eviction moratoriums have been lifted, rents are soaring once again, and the suspension of student debt payments is scheduled to terminate in January. The generous social measures packed into the government’s stimulus bills by Bernie Sanders and his cadre of junior socialists are being gutted, not by red-meat republicans but by corporate Democrats. The wolves of austerity and insecurity are at the door.
When such precarious conditions present themselves, market economists confidently forecast that workers are so desperate they will take any kind of paying job. In the current conjuncture, this confidence is misplaced. The latest job figures show a notable hike in nonfarm payrolls, no doubt because of the downturn in COVID cases, but the workforce increase is still not enough to keep pace with population growth, and wage growth is barely keeping with price inflation of basic goods, driven by bottlenecks in the supply chain. In European countries facing a new pandemic surge, and an ageing workforce that is not being replenished, the figures are even more dismal.
If workers are not dutifully obeying the economists’ laws of supply and demand, what alternatives are they drawing on? Are we seeing a disenchantment with work per se, as aficionados of Jules Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy have long advocated? Or are the current symptoms just a temporary COVID side effect?
The last great refusal of work took place in the 1970s, in an altogether different economic landscape. Conditions of near-full employment had generated a seller’s labor market: rising discontent with the alienating nature of routinized factory-line work came to a head; and the values-driven revolt of the middle-class counterculture was beginning to resonate with working-class refuseniks. Chronic absenteeism and sabotage were the indirect symptoms. Italy saw its first autunno caldo, and, in the U.S. a wildcat strike at GM’s Lordstown plant in Ohio (the fastest assembly line in the world) garnered widespread media attention because it was about “dignity” and not wages and hours. Political organizers sezed the moment, perceiving auto workforces in particular as ripe for radicalization. Fiat’s factories were a seedbed for revolt, while Detroit’s factories hosted branches of a “revolutionary union movement” (DRUM). Operaismo took root as a praxis of workplace organizing, while Herbert Marcuse provided a general theory of the “great refusal.”
Elites wilfully misinterpreted these tendencies as a technocratic call for “a redesign of work,” and so employers responded by rolling out a variety of “quality of work life” programs, aimed at increasing worker participation in the work process: worker teams, quality circles, job rotation, total quality management (TQM). But the long-term responses were more consequential. Plants were moved offshore, and capitalist profit was more and more pursued in the social factory, outside the walls of the physical workplace. As the balance of power shifted, and job loss took its toll, a buyer’s labor market emerged, and workers’ leverage was lost. Wages stagnated, households survived only by taking on increasingly high debt loads, and the mass carceral system emerged to warehouse “dispensable” portions of the Black and brown workforce.
High-wage sectors did offer a somewhat more humane, self-actualizing workplace, especially in the technology sector, where the “no-collar” mentality pioneered in the dotcom era promised unprecedented opportunities for self-management and creative problem solving, albeit at the expense of 70-hour work weeks. But the burgeoning service sector—especially in retail, tourism, and care industries--was another story. An occupational ghetto, with no prospect of career advancement, this sector generated a multitude of dead-end jobs with routinized scripts, brainless tasks, and meager returns in the way of rock-bottom wages and zero benefits. For the best part of three decades, any trace of dignity, the watchword of the Lordstown strike, was squeezed out of the McJobs half of the economy.
Are we finally seeing a mutiny? The Fight for $15 campaigns began in fast food workplaces and have spread outwards and upwards with surprising rapidity. The rhetoric behind these struggles for a living wage has been as much about dignity as equality. For many workers, $15 is a big hike, though in most locations it still won’t fill the housing gap. In Osceola County, the poorest in Central Florida, where I wrote a recent book, a tourist industry worker would need $19 to afford a single-room studio apartment. Those who lack the bridge money (for first and last month’s rent) needed to make an upfront payment are living in budget motels on a long-term basis, a predicament shared with millions of American households.
The Fight for $15 and the uptick in organizing drives are the clearest signal that the fully employed are fed up with what’s on offer. These drives are happening among workforces that were, until recently, considered unorganizable. What’s more worrisome for employers is the prospect of a mass exit, even in the face of rising wages. What if these jobs prove unpalatable, even at a living wage? The structural advantage of the employer class would surely fall part. At-will firing would no longer be wielded or feared as a disciplinary measure. The self-assurance of workers would receive a great boost.
But just as the main capitalist action has shifted to the social factory, we need to see the current withdrawal of labor as a response not simply to thin paychecks and demeaning work conditions but in the context of a demand for a fuller social wage. In the American version of creditocracy, access to basic social goods—healthcare, housing, education, child care—is only possible through taking out loans and submitting to long term debt servitude.
The most predatory factions of the non-productive economy have seized on the financialization of these social goods as a recipe for extreme profit-taking, drawing on future returns wherever the possibilities of generating revenue in the present are limited or exhausted. When the cost of these basic goods—widely socialized in other industrialized countries—is inflated by market forces, a living wage has to rise in tandem, and, in most occupational sectors of the economy, it is lagging far behind.
That is precisely why radical reform initiatives, such as the Green New Deal, have assumed a programmatic form. The urgent need to transition to a low-carbon economy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to systematically restructure economic livelihoods and social services. The most utopian advocates see change in every corner of our lives, in the face of which the issue of wrangling over wages and hours is an understandably limited concern, and one which has to be approached with the principle of climate justice in mind.
In that same spirit, the other great transversal program of our times is decolonization. More like a prairie fire mentality than a technocratic program, the race to decolonize is sweeping through cultural and social institutions, forcing elites to address the legacy of colonialism’s past harms. In the economic sphere, this movement confronts the history and ongoing practice of racial capitalism. In this respect, it is no coincidence at all that the current “refusal of work” is occurring predominantly among workers of color, the demographic majority in low-wage service sector workforces.
There has been very little media attention so far to the ethnic or racial constituency of the current labor withdrawal, yet its significance would not have escaped the southern Italian immigrants who played a central role in Torino during the autumn caldo, nor the members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers who formed DRUM a year earlier in Detroit. The colonial question is never absent but is sometimes hiding in plain sight.
Andrew Ross is an NYU professor and social activist. He is the author or editor of more than twenty-five books, including, most recently, Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing