I’m tired of this dirty old city
Entirely too much work and never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today
So goes the first verse of Merle Haggard’s classic 1982 tune “Big City,” an ode to the working man who has had enough. It’s not what has spurred some 5 million American workers to walk off the job since COVID began — 3 million of those aren’t even looking for work now, according to The New York Times — but some may see themselves in the lyrics, nevertheless.
As COVID began ravaging the country last year, some quit risky positions out of legitimate fear of infection. Others were let go when their industries shrank.
Many others just seemed to have had enough.
Plenty of jobs are available, we hear, 10 million by some counts. And employers have tried hard to lure workers back by offering increased salaries and benefits, one infamously promising, “I’ll even pay a living wage!” (Leaving some to wonder why he didn’t pay a living wage in the first place.) Nevertheless, many businesses — especially in service industries like restaurants — have closed their doors, perhaps permanently, not because of a lack of business — people are eager to eat out now — but because they can’t staff their kitchens and dining rooms.
It’s easy to project the Hag’s spirit onto the proceedings — many of the abandoned jobs involved hard labor and little pay, and some had the added frustration of dealing with entitled “the customer is always right” attitudes from the public.
But it’s not just low-wage industries that are having difficulties. It’s a serious problem that’s affecting the overall economy.
Early on, some conservatives claimed that the failure to return to work was an effect of generous unemployment benefits, increased by federal contributions, intended to keep people safe from exposing themselves to COVID while we quenched that beast. Some North Carolina legislators reflexively weighed in with their standard claims of “laziness.”
But the states that ended payments early have had no significant success at forcing workers back into workplaces. Millions of workers are avoiding the 9 to 5 even after their unemployment benefits have run out, relying on savings or alternative, part-time gigs to survive.
In August, a record 4.3 million people quit their jobs, led by food and retail workers, according to the U.S. Labor Department, many of them apparently taking the conservative advice, “If you don’t like your job, get a better one.” Some 534,000 of them, unsurprisingly, left health care positions. Surveys suggest that COVID has led many to rethink their priorities — and whether they want to give significant portions of their lives to jobs they despise.
Many of those who are returning are asking for more: not just higher pay, but flexible hours and better working conditions. Many, like members of the United Auto Workers who work for Deere & Co., makers of John Deere tractors, are on strike, asking for a larger share of the company’s profits.
“It’s like the whole country is in some kind of union renegotiation,” Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist, told the Times. “I don’t know who’s going to win in this bargaining that’s going on right now, but right now it seems like workers have the upper hand.”
To which we must say: Good. While they have our attention, we should hear what they say.
It’s not that Americans don’t want to work; they’re among the hardest-working people in the world. Most take pride in a good job done well.
But they want their rewards to be commensurate with their efforts. Compared to their contemporaries in other countries, Americans have for a long time come up short in workers’ rights, protections and compensations. In the last few decades, though the people at the top have done extraordinarily well, lower-tier salaries stagnated, along with the federal minimum wage, while housing prices, child care, health care and college tuition have gone up, up, up. All of this leaves the American Dream out of reach for quite a few Americans.