Workers Walkout for Wages

Ideas and Issues
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June 21, 2021

New Orleans    

The silent strike of lower-wage workers doing the math on minimal pay versus unemployment plus stimulus payments continues, but, importantly, a record number of workers are also walking off their jobs looking for greener pastures.  It’s hard for conservatives to make their case that labor shortages are due to high benefits when workers are voluntarily quitting, knowing full well that that they will not be eligible for unemployment under any circumstances.  At the heart of conservative political philosophy is Adam Smith’s individualistic pursuit of self-interest, but instead applauding this real life application, they are left trying to defend abysmally low wages and a frozen national minimum wage by raising the specter of inflation as the boogey man.

I’m not pretending that these workers walking off the job are driving the unemployment numbers.  Nearly four million people quit their jobs in April, the most on record, pushing the rate to 2.7% of the unemployed according to the DOL.  That’s not a stampede, but four million is definitely a big enough number to be noticed.

Some employers are getting the message and sweetening the pot.  Many are still digging deep into the trick bag offering gift cards, bonuses, and perks, hoping to avoid making wage increases permanent, but workers are increasingly onto that scam.  For example, according to the Wall Street Journal…

 

“Average weekly wages in leisure and hospitality, the sector that suffered the steepest job losses in 2002, were up 10.4% in May from February 2020, Labor Department data show, outpacing the private sector overall and inflation.  Pay for those with only a high school education is rising faster than for college graduates, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.”

Where workers can change lanes to move their pay up, realizing that the labor shortage is their ticket to ride, we’re going to see more and more of this.

Smaller businesses are worried about their inability to compete with the Amazon’s, Walmart’s, McDonalds, and Starbucks that have already moved wages up in many cases to fill their staff counts.  It’s a problem, particularly in the wake of the pandemic when so many smaller outfits were hammered.  A bunch haven’t opened yet.  Companies on contracts with public bodies are also caught in a squeeze.  Airport stores that haven’t reopened are often on leases based on a percentage of sales.  With workers demanding more and public bodies not renegotiating leases, some may have run the numbers and can’t see a way clear.

Our union deals with an interesting contradiction along these lines.  Garbage companies are on a fixed contract with the city that is based on the number of households served.  We represent the hoppers, the laborers on the back of the truck.  Our contract is with the labor supplier, a temporary labor company, ironically controlled by the primary city garbage contractor.  The workers are on a daily rate that we were able to increase during the pandemic, but now with more options, the garbage company can’t get enough hoppers, and garbage is sitting on the streets of New Orleans with thousands of complaints.  Fewer workers mean longer hours for our hoppers who show up for work on the trucks, which reduces their hourly pay as routes are extended and doubled up, and in the heat and humidity makes working more days to qualify for Chinese overtime, as it’s known, for over forty hours, almost impossible as well.  When the company calls us to complain, all we can really say is “put more sugar in the coffee,” but we know that the city is not giving them more money to implement the contract, so we’re all caught short.

Regardless, workers across the country are doing the math, whether looking at stimi-pay or what’s on offer, and they are muscling up in this economy through silent strikes and walkouts.  In many ways, it’s wonderful to see.