In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis spoke movingly of the workers keeping the world turning in dark times:
People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone.1
These workers have done everything we’ve asked of them and more. They have been through hell, particularly those who have risked their health and well-being to care for the sick, educate the young, feed the hungry, and deliver the things the rest of us need to get through this period of grinding uncertainty. Employers, politicians, and talking heads have lauded them as essential workers, but the stark gap between the praise and the grim realities of working life in the United States — which was already miserable for millions before the pandemic — have pushed many to the breaking point. Indeed, record numbers of American workers have quit their jobs in what the media has dubbed the Great Resignation. According to the US Labor Department, 4.5 million workers voluntarily left their jobs in November 2021. The number of monthly quits has exceeded three million since August 2020, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.2 Job switchers span the employment ladder, but turnover has been largely concentrated in the low-wage service sector, where workers are taking advantage of the very tight labor market to get a better deal for themselves. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, workers with high school diplomas are currently enjoying a faster rate of wage growth than workers with bachelor’s degrees, a remarkable situation that has not occurred in decades.3
Worker discontent is not only finding expression in the form of quitting and job switching. In 2021, we witnessed a modest increase in the frequency and visibility of collective action in the workplace. Tens of thousands of workers, union and nonunion alike, challenged employers through protests and strikes across sectors and in many different geographical regions. Workers in health care and social assistance, education, and transportation and warehousing led the way, but they were joined by workers in hotels and food services, manufacturing, and other industries. Protests and strikes tended to be concentrated in states where labor is relatively stronger, namely California, New York, and Illinois, but some states with low union density, like North Carolina, saw an uptick in labor action, too. Pay increases were easily the most common demand, but health and safety, staffing, and COVID-19 protocols were high on the agenda as well.
The year 2021 was less a strike wave than a strike ripple, and it has not yet resulted in any appreciable increase in unionization. A few trends stand out. The first is that labor protest and strike action were heavily concentrated among unionized groups of workers. Unionized groups of workers accounted for nearly 95% of all estimated participants in labor protests and more than 98% of all estimated participants in strikes. The second is that protests and strikes were concentrated by industry — namely health care and education, which together accounted for roughly 60% of all labor actions. Finally, protests and strikes were heavily concentrated geographically. Just three states with relatively high levels of union density — California, New York, and Illinois — accounted for more than half the total estimated participants in protests and strikes. In short, collective workplace action is by and large taking place where organized labor still retains residual sources of strength. In this context, spreading protest and strike action beyond its current industrial and regional confines depends on unionization in new places.
Conditions conducive to labor action — rising inflation, pandemic-related pressures, and a tight labor market — are likely to persist into 2022, and the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been meaningfully supportive of worker organizing. US labor is probably not on the verge of a historic breakthrough, but in this context, workers may have an opportunity to make modest material and organizational gains.