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Hundreds of Thousands of Workers Are Quitting Their Jobs. But a “General Strike” Is Something Much More Powerful

In a recent opinion piece, former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich argues that the September jobs report shows evidence of an “unofficial national general strike.” But that is a contradiction in terms.

Madeleine Freeman

October 16, 2021
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The photo depicts the general strike in Myanmar in 2021.

In a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, economist and former secretary of labor Robert Reich posits that the United States is in the midst of an “unofficial strike.” Responding to the bourgeois media and economists’ panic over the U.S. Department of Labor’s September jobs report — which showed the lowest number of jobs added for all of 2021 and an increasing number of workers dropping out of the workforce — Reich explains that the hiring challenges facing many industries results from the fact that more and more workers are “reluctant to return to or remain in their old jobs mostly because they’re burned out” and are holding out for better prospects.

While conservatives wring their hands over how big government spending on benefits is incentivizing people not to return to work now that the bosses and politicians decided the pandemic is over, Reich offers another explanation for the “labor shortage.” Pointing to high numbers of workers quitting their jobs each month, and to the numbers of people “in their prime working years” leaving the workforce entirely, Reich sees these trends as a sign that after a year and a half of pandemic lockdowns, layoffs, lack of childcare, and increased precarity, workers are less willing to accept the low wages, inadequate or nonexistent “benefits,” and long hours their employers offer. This is particularly evident in the tourism and logistics sectors, such as hotel work and trucking, both of which report hiring difficulties and are not rebounding as fast as economists predicted. He writes: 

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 healthcare shortage.

Here Reich is correct. There’s no shortage of labor, but rather the conditions of that labor have become — or in many cases already were — untenable. As even Reich admits, this is not a new problem, nor one that can be explained solely by the pandemic. In response to years of attacks on their living conditions that were then exacerbated (or brought into stark relief) by the pandemic, an increasing number of workers have decided they will no longer put up with the ways they’ve been required to work for the last several decades. “Many just don’t want to return to backbreaking or mind-numbing low-wage shit jobs,” Reich writes.

But workers aren’t just “fed up.” Most people don’t have a choice. Many can no longer work under the conditions they faced before the pandemic, especially now that the capitalists’ response to the pandemic has made it all the more likely that the pandemic and its effects will extend for years to come. For example, lack of access to childcare has effectively forced hundreds of thousands of people — most of them women — out of the workforce for the foreseeable future. According to the most recent jobs report, more than 300,000 women left the workforce in the last month, many citing lack of childcare. So while there may very well be plenty of open jobs, such as in the service industry, many people can’t afford to pay for childcare on the low salaries that have become standard in those sectors. 

And it’s not just childcare. As a National Low Income Housing Coalition report stated this July, no one working full time at a minimum-wage job can afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. Millions of people in the United States can’t afford to pay their utility bills, and energy prices are only expected to rise this year. It’s not that people are simply “rethinking the way they work” after a year and a half of the pandemic, as many opinion columnists would like us to believe; many people cannot continue to work under the same pre-pandemic conditions. Many see no other choice than to drop out of the workforce to take care of loved ones or to seek higher-paying, less-demanding jobs.

Yet in the hundreds of thousands of workers quitting or not actively seeking work, Reich sees a sort of “disorganized” resistance to the pre-pandemic status quo. He writes, “American workers are now flexing their muscles for the first time in decades. You might say workers have declared a national general strike until they get better pay and improved working conditions.” He even goes so far as to put this on par with the tens of thousands of workers currently on strike, or about to strike, across the country, from the 60,000 IATSE workers in the entertainment industry who just announced a tentative strike date after a 98% strike authorization vote, to the 10,000 John Deere workers who just went on strike in three states, to the Kellog’s workers on strike in four states, to the Warrior Met coal miners who are entering the seventh month of their strike.

But let’s be clear: hundreds of thousands of people individually leaving the workforce or quitting their jobs isn’t any type of strike, unofficial or not.

It is a response to the same factors that have forced workers across the country to stand together and go on strike for better conditions, but characterizing it as a strike misses an essential part of what gives a general strike its power: the ability of workers to organize themselves across sectors to withhold their labor and bring capitalist production to a halt, collectively, on a large scale. A “disorganized” strike is a contradiction in terms. In ignoring this, Reich glosses over what could actually bring about the changes workers so desperately need — and for which many workers are already fighting.

Contrary to Reich’s claims, individuals leaving the workforce in droves and hoping that employers will raise wages as incentives to come back doesn’t exactly give all workers the best “bargaining leverage” to fight for better working conditions. It’s true, as Reich points out, “Average earnings rose 19 cents an hour in September and are up more than $1 an hour – or 4.6% – over the last year.” The bosses are feeling the pressure of unfilled positions and are making some concessions in an effort to boost hiring. Large companies and local governments that can take the hit are even offering sizable, one-time “signing bonuses” to lure workers back into the workforce. 

But these are only temporary concessions that allow the bosses and the state to set their own terms, offering just enough to entice workers back — or starve them until they have no choice but to return. But more importantly, they leave workers without the strength to fight for what they deserve and protect themselves when the bosses look for ways to squeeze them later. What really gives workers leverage is their ability to stand together, withhold their labor, and organize themselves to fight for their demands — and potentially so much more. 

Of course, Reich isn’t really interested in workers recognizing the full potential of their strategic position in society. In fact, the ruling class and its mouthpieces much prefer workers confronting the systemic issues that face them as a class individually, rather than organizing for their rights together in unions and striking until they get what they deserve. Ultimately, though it may be cloaked in progressive language about workers’ power, Reich’s analysis is a thinly veiled warning to the bourgeoisie: if capitalism is to continue relatively unchanged, then the powers that be must offer the working class some concessions to preempt more class struggle later. And that’s a door the ruling class doesn’t want to open.

After all, it was a general strike in 2019 in Chile that grew from explosive protests over rising subway fares into nationwide class struggle that saw the rise of workers’ health and safety committees and ultimately a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution.

Just a few months later in Ecuador, a general strike and mass protests forced the government to backtrack on its plans to cut fuel subsidies, which would have doubled the price of fuel, and forced the government to seek a restructuring deal. In the process, they denounced the catastrophic foreign debt and the IMF.

Just this year, workers organized in unions were at the forefront of resistance to the military coup in Myanmar. They came out in millions across the country to defend their rights and defy the junta. 

These are “official” national general strikes, and they show just how much power the working class has when it organizes itself to fight back against the capitalist state using its own methods. 

Thousands of workers currently leaving the workforce each month doesn’t get the working class any closer to building this type of power. Contrary to what Reich would have us believe, the fact that many workers see no other alternative is not a sign of the strength of the working class in the current moment, but its weakness. It is an expression of and adaptation to the attacks on unions over the years and the collaborationist policies of the union bureaucracies that pull every maneuver possible to avoid a fight and make nice with the bosses. Only 11 percent of U.S. workers are unionized, leaving the vast majority without a clear path to fight for their interests collectively. Added to this is the fact that the 14.3 million workers who are in unions are pacified by union leaders who are in the pockets of politicians and the bosses, refusing to put up little more than symbolic fights. Again and again they move to deprive workers of their greatest weapon against the bosses — the strike. They agree to contracts with “no strike” clauses and the prohibition of solidarity strikes. They half-heartedly threaten strikes, only to pull out at the last minute. They use union financial resources that could go towards strike funds on their bloated salaries and to make campaign contributions to capitalist politicians. In short, they do everything possible to undermine the participation of rank-and-file workers in a fight to defend their own interests. 

It’s no wonder that many workers see no alternative but to quit their jobs. But recent rumblings in the labor movement offer a spark of hope that could light the way ahead. We see this in recent union drives in the tech industry and elsewhere. And nowhere is this more clear than in the tens of thousands of workers currently walking picket lines across the country. But for these recent labor struggles to build into a towering wave capable of winning much-needed concessions for the working class, workers need to put their collective power into audacious fighting strategies that challenge their misleaders and build the power necessary to turn this “unofficial” national general strike into an official, unstoppable one.

Imagine if the 60,000 IATSE workers preparing to strike this month tied their own demands for higher wages to the fight of Kellog workers to get rid of the two-tier wage system, and to the demands of 10,000 John Deere workers for bigger raises. This could pave the way for other sectors to join them, such as Amazon workers breaking their backs for $15 an hour. Imagine Uber and Lyft drivers, who take home a fraction of what they earn for those companies each day, were to walk off the job as well; or if restaurant workers, working more hours for less pay after a year of shutdowns, were to walk out. Banding together, these workers could win so much more than pay increases for individual contracts in individual workplaces. They could demand better working conditions for all workers, unionized and unorganized, employed or unemployed. They could demand a rise in the minimum wage to one that actually reflects the cost of living. They could put an end to the disastrous two-tier wage systems that pit workers against each other. They could demand free and universal healthcare, child care, and housing. 

That is the power of the general strike. It is a weapon the working class will have to wield if we want to make the capitalists pay for the crisis they’ve created. We need a massive, organized workers’ struggle that can fight for our demands — to the end.

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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