How COVID Despair Helped Workers Gain Power

Workers' rights and solidarity have been severely undermined in recent years, but it seems that only the existential confusion of the pandemic has succeeded to shake up the capitalist order a bit

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Sign of the times. It can’t be ruled out that the so-called big quit is a transitory phenomenon.
Sign of the times. It can’t be ruled out that the so-called big quit is a transitory phenomenon. Credit: Ted Shaffrey / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

One of the most significant developments in the neoliberal age has been the decline in the power of the workers. Their bargaining strength has been in a tailspin since the 1980s. Even if a few unions have been able to retain their clout, the proportion of unionized workers in the West is far lower than what is was in the mid-20th century. One reason for this is the large-scale relocation of industries, as well as services, to developing countries in Asia and Latin America, along with entry by many non-unionized migrants into the labor force.

A second reason involves the difficulty of organizing workers in the present structure of the economy. Every society has workers who are employed in diverse types of jobs: freelancers, contract workers and salaried individuals with various kinds of tenure. As a result, workers’ solidarity has been eroded. When a union declares a labor dispute, it’s far from certain that the members will cooperate and not become strike breakers.

Moreover, in the recent past employers have begun to repackage jobs as providing “experience” and “challenge.” In contrast to the situation in the middle of the last century on the factory floor or in the office, in the neoliberal era many workers see their career as something that gives meaning to their life. Work is presented as an expression of creativity and a way to follow one’s passion, with workers being treated by their employers to “fun days” and team-building activities. In this situation, many workers don’t want to strike; without work, in many cases, they feel their life has no point.

Organized labor, then, is in a permanent crisis, and it’s the workers who are paying the price. Low-paying temp jobs have supplanted the stable positions that characterized the postwar decades. Social benefits have deteriorated, and employees are required to work or at least be available beyond the regular hours. Wage levels stagnated even when the economy surged. And until not long ago, it looked as though nothing threatened employers’ growing power.

However, in the past few months something seems to have changed. Since last summer, economic pundits here and abroad have been taking note of a phenomenon that has the employers concerned: Workers are leaving their jobs in droves. The phenomenon has been dubbed the “great resignation” or the “big quit.” It’s happening mostly in the United States, but not only there. Millions of workers who were furloughed during the COVID lockdowns have no interest in returning to their old jobs, while even employees who continued to work are also resigning in large numbers. Last September, 4.4 million people in the United States resigned from their jobs – around 3 percent of the workforce. But what is especially interesting is that this trend is not confined solely to wealthy countries: Workers in textile factories in Vietnam also don’t want to return to their jobs.

In Israel, too, employers are complaining about staff shortages. The situation is affecting a range of fields: the education system, the tourism industry, high-tech, public transportation, the retail industry and so on. For the first time in decades, employers are in distress and are coming up with some wild suggestions: Avi Shumer, CEO of the Tzomet bookstore chain, has called for abolishing unemployment benefits for young people. Many managers are having to make an effort to attract workers: allowing more work from home, improving conditions, and even – wonder of wonders – raising salaries.

In the wake of the structural reordering of the work place sparked by the pandemic, many employees are apparently simply refusing to cooperate with the bad deal they once accepted in the past. That deal may have been marketed by employers as a great adventure or a thrilling challenge, but in practice it was sheer exploitation. Also contributing to this has been the erosion in the value of work in comparison to seeking income from other sources, such as real estate, investments and so forth.

Cosmic pessimism

But economic conditions are evidently not the only explanation for the current situation: Something in the psychic structure of many of us changed in the last year or so. Large numbers of people pause and wonder: What, actually, is the meaning of all this? Many have tired of the rat race of notching up career achievements and are ready to forgo a pay raise – even if that would allow them to buy a new car or make more trips abroad. Surveys indicate that young people in this era are putting less emphasis on careers when defining their identity.

The situation can also be described in less optimistic terms: There’s a general feeling spreading around the world that there is really no point to making an effort to move up the ladder in the workplace. In any event, recurring epidemics and environmental deterioration portend a gloomy future. Capitalism is based on faith in the future, and today it is harder than ever to sell us the dream of personal advancement and self-fulfillment. There also appears to be a connection between the lack of desire to invest in one’s career and the drop in birth rates in large parts of the world. In a period of unrelenting uncertainty, many are moving into a mode of survival and contraction. Such phenomena as climate depression and pessimism about the future of humanity are spreading to increasingly broader segments of the population.

An evil wind is blowing over the labor market: an evil wind of melancholy. Society itself has clearly been stricken by a kind of post-COVID depression. No one is spreading this sentiment deliberately. No union is calling on its workers to stay under the blanket and watch Netflix, or to go water the plants. If anything, the sense of lassitude is surfacing spontaneously in response to what is happening around the world. It’s a melancholy response, but actually quite a healthy one. With the world going to hell, the sanest reaction is to feel confused and helpless.

It can’t be ruled out that the so-called big quit is a transitory phenomenon. Possibly in another few months many workers will be compelled to go back to their old jobs under the same, if not worse, conditions. It’s also possible that the owners of the corporations will find ways to coerce their employees to return, or alternately, will develop new strategies to impel and energize the melancholy ones.

In the meantime, one should take note of the irony in the current state of affairs: It is precisely the elusive sentiments of despair, apathy and cosmic confusion that have infused workers with power that decades of organized labor did not achieve.

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