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Robert Reich: The General Strike Of 2021 – OpEd

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On Tuesday, the Labor Department reported that some 4.3 million people had quit their jobs in August. That comes to about 2.9 percent of the workforce – up from the previous record set in April, of about 4 million people quitting.

All told, about 4 million American workers have been leaving their jobs every month since last spring.

Add this to last Friday’s jobs report showing the number of job openings at a record high. The share of people working or actively looking for work (the labor force participation rate) has dropped to 61.6 percent. Participation for people in their prime working years, defined as 25 to 54 years old, is also down. Over the past year, job openings have increased 62 percent. 

What’s happening? You might say American workers have declared a national general strike until they get better pay and improved working conditions. 

No one calls it a general strike. But in its own disorganized way it’s related to the organized strikes breaking out across the land – Hollywood TV and film crews, John Deere workers, Alabama coal miners, Nabisco workers, Kellogg workers, nurses in California, healthcare workers in Buffalo.

Disorganized or organized, American workers now have bargaining leverage to do better. 

After a year and a half of the pandemic, consumers have pent-up demand for all sorts of goods and services. But employers are finding it hard to fill positions. 

This general strike has nothing to do with the Republican bogeyman of extra unemployment benefits supposedly discouraging people from working. Reminder: The extra benefits ran out on Labor Day.

Renewed fears of the Delta variant of COVID may play some role. But it can’t be the major factor. With most adults now vaccinated, rates of hospitalizations and deaths are way down. 

Childcare is a problem for many workers, to be sure. But lack of affordable childcare has been a problem for decades. It can’t be the reason for the general strike. 

I believe that the reluctance of workers to return to or remain in their old jobs is mostly because they’re fed up. Some have retired early. Others have found ways to make ends meet other than remain in jobs they abhor. Many just don’t want to return to backbreaking or boring low-wage shit jobs. 

The media and most economists measure the economy’s success by the number of jobs it creates, while ignoring the *quality* of those jobs. That’s a huge oversight. 

Years ago, when I was Secretary of Labor, I kept meeting working people all over the country who had full-time work but complained that their jobs paid too little and had few benefits, or were unsafe, or required lengthy or unpredictable hours. Many said their employers treated them badly, harassed them, and did not respect them.

Since then, these complaints have only grown louder, according to polls. For many, the pandemic was the last straw. Workers are burned out, fed up, fried. In the wake of so much hardship, illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.

To lure workers back, employers are raising wages and offering other inducements. Average earnings rose 19 cents an hour in September and are up more than $1 an hour – or 4.6 percent – over the last year.

Clearly, that’s not enough.

Corporate America wants to frame this as a “labor shortage.” Wrong. What’s really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage.Unless *these* shortages are rectified, many Americans won’t return to work anytime soon. I say it’s about time.

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Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

2 thoughts on “Robert Reich: The General Strike Of 2021 – OpEd

  • October 15, 2021 at 12:12 am
    Permalink

    Also, when half your check disappears to taxes and billionaires pay nothing in taxes, it wears thin. As Buffett said, “My secretary pays more in taxes”. Give Warren credit for that supreme honesty.

    Reply
  • October 16, 2021 at 3:33 pm
    Permalink

    Getting up everyday and going to work and having to work a second job or at the very least having to scrape by on low wages is not the American dream. The dream of having a house, having kids and being able to have weekends off to spend time with the family and socialize with friends is just that, a dream.
    Workers in America are looking at the wealthy and wonder where their slice of the pie is at. We pay our taxes we pay our dues we pay with the sacrifice of our time away from families and in the end hate the whole system for what it is. We are not looking for a handout as the Republicans would have everyone believe. Give us a wage so that all of us can afford a little slice of the American pie. I am in a decent job with a decent wage and have just a short time to go to retirement. I have managed to save and be just fine and not a burden to anyone. I have not had a raise in 5 years and that is just not right. Our CEO make 300 times or more than the lowest paid workers. Come on people that’s not right.

    Reply

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