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

Public resignations started to go viral in 2021. Workers began sharing text messages on platforms like Reddit and Twitter to celebrate the exact moments when they reached breaking points with their employers. One exchange that went viralThis was earlier in the year

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 told you three weeks ago that I needed that week off, and you agreed. Now you’re changing your mind? I will not work Thanksgiving and, if you ask me again, I will not work for you.

Boss: We’ve had to set expectations with you multiple times this year. This is the minimum you can do. Your request for PTO 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.”Record numbers of U.S. workers are leaving their jobs. According to statisticsAccording to the Labor Department 4.3 million people left their jobs in August, while 4.4 million did so in September and 4.2 millions in October. These are the highest rates since the Department began keeping track of such information 20 years ago. These departures were mainly initiated by low-wage service workers.

A new study has shown that The Great Resignation could potentially have an important economic impact on many of these employees. A reportAccording to the Conference Board, wages will rise by 3.9 percent in 2022 according to their research group. This is the largest increase since 2008. These increases are expected to be universally realized and include gains for low-wage hourly employees. The study acknowledges inflation as a factor, but its authors point to labor shortages in the workplace and high turnover rates for the driving force.

“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, a senior researcher at the National Employment Law Project and a policy analyst, is a non-profit group that promotes policies that benefit low-wage workers as well as 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. However, the leverage workers have is temporary. The economy will eventually rebound and workers will find it harder to demand higher wages. That’s why it’s important to make sure workers continue to have leverage to demand more.”

Jerry Carbo, professor at Shippensburg University of labor relations and society and president of National Workplace Bullying Coalition, echoed this sentiment. “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 to work for workers. It could increase worker leverage, expand collective negotiation rights, raise wages, and make joining a union easier. Members of Our Revolution and Communications Workers of America, (CWA), as well as the Worker Power Coalition are currently touring the country on a holiday tour to garner support for the legislation. Their first stop was a demonstration outside Sen. Kyrsten Silena (D-Arizona), which is one of two Democratic senators who have 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 Actat the state level. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have already introduced their versions of the bill. The legislation is designed to hold employers responsible for their abuses of workers and provide 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.”