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Perhaps I am reading overmuch into an in-passing observation at a new Wall Street Journal story on the continuing high quit rate in jobs deemed to be low level by virtue of being not terribly well paid, irrespective of the actual skill level involved. But it ring so true that I think not. It effectively says that employers have not adjusted to the fact that in an era when going to work means risking life and limb, aka Covid hazards, they need to be treated better, as in more pay, more respect, more perks like sick days.
The Wall Street Journal article, As American Workers Leave Jobs in Record Numbers, a Closer Look at Who Is Quitting, not only presents some new data on these departures, but also makes clear that there’s no end in sight for higher turnover. This tidbit is important because it flies in the face of what managers and investors want to believe: that adults need paychecks, that even if they refuse work (or even merely try to refuse work that they deem to be beneath them) that sooner rather than later, strained finances will force them to relent. Apparently they haven’t met many guerrilla grazers.
Recall that conservatives were upset about the Covid-tightened job markets and called for an end to enhanced unemployment insurance, convinced that it was turning once-diligent workers into new welfare mom equivalents. But when the benefits were cut back, the uptick in employment fell far short of what they’d expected based on the number losing support.
Key points from the new Journal sighting:
American workers’ stampede toward the exits hasn’t let up…low-wage workers, employees of color and women outside the management ranks are those most likely to change roles. The findings signal that turnover isn’t evenly spread across the U.S. workforce…
While front-line and low-wage positions typically see high rates of turnover, for example, employees in those roles are especially likely to leave now, Mercer found in a survey of 2,000 U.S. workers conducted in August.
And a survey of 3,600 U.S. workers released recently by software maker Qualtrics found a growing share of women open to changing roles. Some 63% of female middle managers said they intended to stay in their jobs next year, a drop from 75% in 2021, while 58% of women in nonmanagerial roles said the same…
Among front-line and low-wage workers in Mercer’s survey, 37% of food, retail and hospitality staffers are thinking of quitting, up from a historic norm of 27% among eight million employee responses collected by the company over the past five years….
Nearly half of low-wage and front-line workers surveyed said their pay and benefits were insufficient while 41% said they felt burned out from demanding workloads. Some 35% of Black employees and 40% of Asian employees said they were considering leaving, compared with 26% of white employees. Historically, Black and Asian employees have reported considering quitting at rates just under 30%, consistent with the general workforce….
The Qualtrics survey found even higher rates of people considering leaving their jobs than Mercer’s research did. Some 62% of workers planned to stay in their current jobs next year, the survey found, down from 65% in 2021.
Notice this is occurring even as Mercer’s survey found that the overall level of planned job departures hadn’t changed. That suggests that the higher ups are more likely to stay put than usual, perhaps the result of some being able to continue working part or full time at home.
So what caught my eye? Despite these surveys finding what should be obvious to anyone with an operating brain cell, that many hourly workers want more pay and/or better conditions (as in more realistic job loads and pacing), employers think the answer lies in finding more desperate prospects:
In a labor market where job openings outnumber applicants, companies have been brainstorming how to get more candidates in the door. The hiring overhaul signals a potentially broad rethink of job qualifications. The change could help millions of people get jobs previously out of reach, according to economists and workforce experts.
And where is this mythical pool of candidates-we-would-have-rejected-before-but-we-now-will-deign-to-hire to be found? Ex-cons? High school leavers? The handicapped (don’t pretend that many employers avoid hiring them)? The elderly? Oh, but the latter two groups would be desirable only for less than 30 hours a week, they are undesirable for their potential to raise health care premiums.
The Journal a couple of years ago published a feature on adults who’d permanently left the workforce. A significant group was middle aged men who’d once had good union or low level management jobs. They were unable to find anything approaching their former type of role, and they weren’t willing to become WalMart greeters or equivalent, so they dropped out. The article didn’t explore how they got by, but they’d been out of the workforce long enough that they had clearly cobbled together a way to survive.
The profound reluctance of companies and managers to accommodate reasonable demands of employees they’ve been able to squeeze harder and harder over decades isn’t about commercial logic or inability to pay more. Corporate profit share as a percentage of GDP has been at insanely high levels for over a decade. Most can pay more, which is the change that would demand least of managers. It’s that it offends their sensibilities. Remember that the last decade in particular has featured the worst sort of Taylorism: employees being monitored intensively and held to explicit output standards. After being able to impose sadistic work pacing (see Amazon warehouses), facing a worker revolt is like stepping on a rake and having it hit your face. They can’t believe it happened and reassure themselves that it won’t happen again.
This revolt against the boss class is a repudiation of what are taken as the normal power relations. We hope you’ll find this big hoist from a 2013 post, The Coercive Power of Capitalism, to be germane:
One issue I’ve long been bothered by is the libertarian fixation on the state as the source of coercive power. The strong form version is that the state is the only party with coercive power (and please don’t try denying that a lot of libertarians say that; there are plenty of examples in comments in past posts). Libertarians widely, if not universally, depict markets and commerce as less or even non-coercive.
What is remarkable is how we’ve blinded ourselves to the coercive element of our own system. From Robert Heilbroner in Behind the Veil of Economics:
This negative form of power contrasts sharply with with that of the privileged elites in precapitalist social formations. In these imperial kingdoms or feudal holdings, disciplinary power is exercised by the direct use or display of coercive power. The social power of capital is of a different kind….The capitalist may deny others access to his resources, but he may not force them to work with him. Clearly, such power requires circumstances that make the withholding of access of critical consequence. These circumstances can only arise if the general populace is unable to secure a living unless it can gain access to privately owned resources or wealth…
The organization of production is generally regarded as a wholly “economic” activity, ignoring the political function served by the wage-labor relationships in lieu of baliffs and senechals. In a like fashion, the discharge of political authority is regarded as essentially separable from the operation of the economic realm, ignoring the provision of the legal, military, and material contributions without which the private sphere could not function properly or even exist. In this way, the presence of the two realms, each responsible for part of the activities necessary for the maintenance of the social formation, not only gives capitalism a structure entirely different from that of any precapitalist society, but also establishes the basis for a problem that uniquely preoccupies capitalism, namely, the appropriate role of the state vis-a-vis the sphere of production and distribution.
What struck me about Heilbroner’s discussion, as if he was tip-toeing around the issue, and it was not clear whether because he could not formulate a crisp description of the power relationships, or that it was clear to him but he really didn’t want to come out and say what he saw.
Ian Welsh ventures where Heilbroner hesitated to go:
The fundamental idea of our current regime is one that most people have forgotten, because it is associated with Marx, and one must not talk about even the things Marx got right, because the USSR went bad. It is that we are wage laborers. We work for other people, we don’t control the means of production. Absent a job, we live in poverty. Sure, there are some exceptions, but they are exceptions. We are impelled, as it were, by Marx’s whip of hunger. It took a lot of work to set up this system, as Polyani notes in his book “the Great Transformation”, but now that it has happened, it is invisible to us.
We have to sell our labor (or be supported by someone who does that) as a condition of survival. Now that may not seem peculiar since that has been the state of affairs in most advanced economies for generations. The seeming exceptions, like farmers and even fishermen, are now little capitalists; they own equipment and sell their goods to wholesalers of various sorts. This order was imposed after the feudal era. As Yasha Levine explained, citing Michael Perelmen’s The Invention of Capitalism:
Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.
“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’
Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.
Back to the present post. The usual way employers kept the upper hand was via creating Marx’s reserve army of the unemployed: enough hungry people out of work so as to make jobs scarce enough to make workers a little or even a lot desperate. The Fed starting with Volcker helped by triggering recessions when worker bargaining power, um, inflation, was getting too high for comfort.
I don’t have a good enough crystal ball to foresee if there will be a small or perhaps even a big reset in workplace relations. It isn’t surprising to see that employers are very dug in, as confirmed by the Deere strike, where union demands for more say over factory conditions are being met with a deaf ear.
However, our forecast is that absent the development of a near or actually sterilizing vaccine, like the promising but still not ready for prime time Novovax nasal vaccine, Covid is not going away any time soon, as the big surge in Europe confirms. So the pandemic may eventually wear down stingy, abusive managements.