Pandemic Labor Shortages Have Helped Workers Before. Will They Again?

The Great Resignation — the phenomenon of Americans leaving their jobs at record rates this year — reached a fever pitch in August, with 4.3 million Americans, or nearly 3 percent of the work force, calling it quits. Economic forecasters do not expect the situation to improve substantially anytime soon; some predict continued labor shortages in the coming months, exacerbating supply chain delays.

Why are so many people quitting? In part it may be that they don’t need the money — a consequence of federal stimulus checks, the suspension of student loan payments and months of reduced spending. In part it may be that people are concerned about workplace safety in a country whose population is still less than 60 percent vaccinated.

But it also may be that the Great Resignation is a kind of spontaneous, informal labor strike — a collective demand by workers for substantial raises and other gains after decades of wage stagnancy and suppression. If so, history suggests that the Great Resignation could be the beginning of a meaningful transformation of working conditions in this country.

Consider the situation in France in the first decades of the 20th century. The country experienced labor deficits during World War I because of increased industrial production and a decreased labor supply (a result of mobilizing troops). When the war ended, the influenza pandemic of 1918 further decreased the supply. The labor shortage persisted after the pandemic started to wane in 1920, largely because of the huge wartime and pandemic death tolls and a continually low birthrate.

Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau attempted to address the labor shortage by facilitating immigration to France by mostly male workers and by encouraging Frenchwomen and young people to join or rejoin the work force. This influx of workers allowed many employers to keep wages low despite the overall shortfall, which in turn stoked worker resentment, leading to a period of wildcat and general strikes throughout France between 1917 and the immediate post-pandemic period.

Hundreds of thousands of French workers orchestrated a nationwide series of “big quits” in the form of factory walkouts, assembly line slowdowns, union-organized strikes and other actions designed to put pressure on employers. Voluntary unemployment — deliberately leaving the labor force for extended periods — was also an effective, if less commonly used, strategy.

Eventually, these large-scale acts of protest and work refusal led to meaningful change in labor law and in some cases, higher wages. In 1919, to quell unrest in a period of rapidly rising postwar inflation and to discourage the growing enthusiasm for communism, Mr. Clemenceau enacted an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour workweek — about 20 years before the United States would do the same. This achievement did not solve all labor issues, and it was frequently undermined by employers in the following decade, but French workers had used the labor shortage to their advantage, as both a catalyst and a core bargaining tool for achieving better working conditions and wages.

If the 2021 labor shortage is, as many suspect, in part an expression of widespread worker dissatisfaction, the French example is encouraging. It shows that workers during periods of labor deficits possess considerable leverage to bring about meaningful change in wages, labor law and working conditions.

But unlike the labor shortage in France a century ago, the current shortage may not be temporary. American workers could possess even more leverage in the future, given a rapidly aging work force and the striking drop in birthrates during the coronavirus pandemic.

Will businesses continue to fill vacant jobs by tapping the teenage and senior employment pools and by purchasing labor-saving technology such as A.I. and robots? Or will the United States borrow a page from the playbook of World War I-era France, facilitating increased immigration to relieve long-term labor deficits?

Even if employers are able to mitigate labor shortages, growing anti-work sentiment and widespread voluntary unemployment among members of Generation Z suggest that the character of work will continue to change. During the Great Resignation, employers have managed to retain some blue- and white-collar workers with increased wages, flexible hours and remote work options. In the event of a prolonged labor shortage, more sweeping changes — a minimum-wage hike, more paid vacation days, the formal enactment of a shorter workweek — may be needed to lure workers back.

Abigail Susik (@AbigailSusik) is an associate professor of art history at Willamette University and the author of “Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work.”

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