Labour’s in the US

“All happiness depends on courage and work” — Balzac

A PARADIGM shift is taking place in the labour market of the world’s richest economy. Attributed to the shift in the mindset of workers, spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, the New Collar work and an upsurge in unionising are reshaping the US workforce.

After the lockdowns and the end of enhanced unemployment benefits they received from the state during the pandemic, workers have been re-evaluating their priorities and rethinking their work-life balance. Many have found the courage to take the plunge out of low-paid, stressful work, to learn something new and transition to ‘new-collar’ work, search for online, work-from-home options, or find a better paid, less stressful job. Others are opting for a work-free life, joining the anti-work movement, not with an aim to a lifetime of idling but “to start a conversation, to problematise work”.

In addition, thousands of white collar workers — in traditionally non-union sectors (ie technology, academia, culture, services) — are unionising and striking, demanding fair wages and better work conditions. Workers at major corporations, including Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Google, REI and Verizon have formed unions. The most recent strikes — in November 2022 — included University of California (48,000 academic workers); Harper Collins Publisher (250 copy editors and other employees); Starbucks (2,000 workers in 112 stores across America). In a recent survey, 68 per cent of workers approved the role of unions, the highest percentage in the last 57 years.

The Great Resignation began in early 2021 and by the end of 2021, 47.8 million American workers had left their jobs for other positions. The pace has continued in 2022. Who are these workers and what are the reasons for quitting? Mostly they belong to working and middle-class families. A greater number are from Gen Z (born between 1996 and mid 2000s) followed by Millennials (born between 1980 and 1995 ie workers in the 25-45 years age group. The highest rate of quitting, according to a survey, is in the accommodation and food industry (6.9pc), followed by leisure and hospitality (6.4pc) and retail (4.7pc). People are resigning in other sectors too, including technology, professional and business.

The discontent at the US workplace has come out in the open.

Analysts say the main reason for the Great Resignation or ‘quiet quitting’, is the toxic corporate culture, or ‘hustle culture’ as termed by American workers — where the boss (the great boss) is at your throat, controlling, pushing for productivity, robbing you of autonomy, status and respect, all the while making for himself a profit manifold times your wage which is barely minimum.

The great discontent at the workplace in the greatest capitalist economy has finally come out in the open. Precarious employment had been on the rise long before Covid-19. A 2021 study at University of Illinois Chicago indicated an increase in precarious employment in the US not just among the marginalised segment of the labour market but also among people with a college education as well as higher-income individuals. A recent research says about 74pc of US workers are considered at-will employees, which means an employer can fire them for no reason, without warning or establishing just cause.

American universities and research institutes, business and corporate circles, print, electronic and social media are all astir with discussions, research, surveys and polls, analysing trends, digging at causes, teasing out factors and predicting the social and economic impact. The phenomenon, resulting in workers’ shortage, has made corporate bosses sit up, congregate, draw up plans and initiatives to retain em­­ployees — fa­­c­ilitated by beha­vioural scientists and organisatio­nal psychologists on how to make the workplace congenial and in what way management styles should change.

The factors workers cite for quitting mostly fall in the realm of human feelings or human nature, such as lack of fulfilment, loss of self-control or autonomy, not feeling they can be their true selves at work or that their team cares about them — feelings akin to estrangement or alienation as theorised by Marx. A time comes when “the life which he [the worker] has conferred on the object [labour]confronts him as something hostile and alien”. Though it does not mean capitalism is in trouble, perhaps workers are realising what it means to put too much value on work and money, neglecting the values that are pertinent to the state of being human — self-fulfilment, dignity, autonomy, caring and companionship of loved ones and the other finer things in life.

It’s no surprise this realisation has dawned finally on First World workers as they have the wherewithal, preconditions, resources and courage to question labour relations built on inequality

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. Better late than never.

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