fast food workers, workers on strike, minimum wage,

Underemployed Strike is Winning

Ideas and Issues
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June 2, 2021

New Orleans

The hand wringing and gnashing of teeth over so-called labor shortages are louder than the roar of cicadas, and it is as rare as the seventeen year uprising of the insects to see workers being able to exert so much power, even if passively. I heard one report that there are now 1.4 jobs waiting for every person unemployed. Some eight million jobs are on offer in another report. Various businesses from restaurants to hotels to retail and even some small manufacturing plants swear they can’t find enough workers.

Politicians, especially Republicans are blaming the supplemental unemployment benefits. Twenty-four states, mainly Republican, have announced that they are cutting off the benefits earlier than the Labor Day expiration, though most of them are dragging their feet while doing so as they try to tiptoe through the heat from employers and the popularity of the program for their people.

Some employer giants have gotten the memo that the real issue is that underemployed and unemployed workers can do the math. Like superstar athletes, they are holding out for something better. Walmart and Amazon have all raised starting wages significantly across the board. Given that the two of them are the largest private sector employers in the USA, that puts pressure on others to match their money. Many businesses from the giant McDonalds to smaller outfits, are trying to play bait-and-switch and offer signing bonuses or other incentives for workers to return or apply in order to keep from raising wages, since another thing that all workers know and most bosses understand, is that once wages go up, there’s no going down.

There is a popular tactic still practiced by some called “work to rule. Unemployed and underemployed workers are turning this tactic on its head and employing “don’t work to rule” to put pressure on employers to up the ante on jobs now seen as essential that were bottom of the barrel before the pandemic. There may not be Lech Walesas that are standing in front of the cameras for interviews and leading the masses, but millions are in a mind meld right now and quietly demanding better wages and benefits. A strike is a refusal to labor. You can say tomato, and I can say tomato, but this sure seems like a strike to me.

Even better, every once in a while, I get to say, I told you so. I was pleased to see an op-ed in the New York Times by Daniel Alpert called “Americans Don’t Want to Return to Lousy Jobs” that in addition to doing the math, as I had in an earlier report “Are Unemployed Workers Striking”, notes the huge number of jobs that are below the water line when calculating wages against unemployment and stimulus.

The majority of the jobs that aren’t back to pre-pandemic work force levels are very low-income jobs…Through March of this year, most of the private sector jobs eliminated during the pandemic that haven’t been restored are production and “nonsupervisory” jobs that offered weekly pay averaging less than $750 pre-pandemic. There are more than 45 million low-paying jobs like these, constituting roughly 43 percent of all production and nonsupervisory jobs in the country…. Twenty-three million of these jobs paid under $500 per week pre-pandemic: That’s $26,000 per year. Not only are the wages low: Many of these jobs offer well below 30 hours of work per week.

The numbers are huge and right now millions of workers aren’t moving until they see employers put more on the table to make it worth them taking the risk and breaking their rest.