The Sacrifice of Essential Workers During Pandemic Led to Mass Resignations and Labor Strikes

Interview with Mike Elk, senior labor reporter and founder of PayDayReport.com, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The coronavirus pandemic has caused major disruptions of everyday life in the U.S. — and globally — in many different ways. One effect was the shake-up in the labor force, with millions of workers choosing to leave their jobs — and being in no hurry to take a new one. Another is the massive “pandemic strike wave” that has washed over the country.

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter and founder of PayDayReport.com. His outlet was the first to recognize the U.S. strike wave and he has compiled a database of more than 1,600 walkouts since March 2020. His reporting found that as many as 100,000 workers had participated in strikes, including fast food workers, hospital staff, and manufacturing workers. Elk believes that this wave of labor strikes is different from past worker uprisings because, he says, “instead of calling upon unions and going on traditional strikes, many non-union workers organized on social media and simply walked out.”

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Elk about the scope of this year’s labor actions and the reasons behind them. He begins by discussing the importance of the term “essential workers.”

MIKE ELK: One out of every three people were essential workers. And it was like in one of those dystopian novels where you read there’s some sort of lottery and who draws the pick. And so a lot of folks were essential workers and they risked their lives for not much money. And those folks are pissed. They’re traumatized. And I think that’s a really big part of what’s occurring now, that during the pandemic so many people realized their worth. They realized, Oh, I’m an essential worker. The government considers me an essential worker. They had to keep the doors open, so you need folks, you need custodians, you need security guards, you need administrative staff. People that they’re only paying $14, $15 bucks an hour. And those folks kept coming in during the pandemic doing their job, as did grocery workers, retail workers, a host of other workers.

The two biggest periods for union organizing in American history were right after the Civil War and right after World War II, because after every period of collective pain we’ve ever experienced as Americans, we realized that as Americans there’s something that we fought for, but after every big war, there’s a sense that we sacrificed because we felt a deep belief in this country, a deep belief that things could change in this country. And I think at the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers were made to feel they were patriotic heroes, and folks who had to keep working remember that, and you can’t erase that feeling from anybody any time soon. And so we’re looking at a labor market where things are tightening. The pandemic has reordered the economy. We saw approximately two million workers retired early during the pandemic. And then a bunch of workers, because of unemployment [benefits], left the workforce because 60 percent of workers were making more on unemployment as a result of the Bernie benefits – I say Bernie benefits because Bernie Sanders pushed through the enhanced unemployment benefits, which were three times what they were.

And so, for a lot of folks looking around are like, why do I want to risk my life in retail when I can go get unemployment? I don’t disagree. Why would you want to risk your life for $8 an hour? So there was this period when there was a lot of social insurance, and that helped. And on top of that, a million and a half left the workforce to care for their families. And then there were 3 million people who realized during the pandemic, Yeah, you know what? I’ve been making crappy money and we’ve been paying so much money for child care. Our family might take a bit of a hit – we’ll probably make about $10,000 a year less by just staying home. So that’s a big part of it, and now with the Biden benefits that’s even not as bad a hit, because with the Biden benefits around child care, a lot of folks are getting like $3,000 or $4,000 a year. So if you’re already looking at child care bills of $20,000 or $30,000 a year in some cities, and you’re thinking, OK, I may not work anymore and we’re going to make about $8,000 less a year.

And so we’ve seen all these dynamics occurring, and so right now there’s a huge shortage and workers know it. And they also know when they walk out and post signs on doors of retail establishments, these signs, they go viral. What’s become popular on Instagram and TikTok and others, is that workers will leave – everybody will quit in a whole retail establishment – and then somebody will take a marker and write up a sign saying, This is why we quit, and they’ll post it on the door. And so, I think things are changing in a very big way, the same way they changed after World War II, the same way they changed after the Civil War.

MELINDA TUHUS: Mike Elk, I wanted to ask you about the wave of teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other places that occurred before the pandemic. Now, because of Covid, teachers are incredibly stressed and risking their health on top of often earning low pay. Have there been many teachers’ strikes during the pandemic — because I don’t remember hearing about them like I did that earlier wave of strikes.

MIKE ELK: A ton of them. I just saw a statistic yesterday, there’s 600,000 less education workers in the workforce this year than at the beginning of the pandemic, because of how scary it was. And we’re seeing teachers’ strikes. We’re seeing school bus drivers’ strikes all over. School bus driving has become an occupation where you make $12, $13 an hour and work a couple hours a day. It used to be a big unionized job, so we’re seeing bus drivers’ strikes all over.

MELINDA TUHUS: Anything else you want to add?

MIKE ELK: We’re coming up on Thanksgiving. A lot of people in this country are thankful for what essential workers did. And I think we all need to sit around at Thanksgiving and think about how many people we know in our own families, in our own lives, because there’s a lot of them, and we should be thankful for essential workers every day.

For more information, visit Pay Day Report at paydayreport.com.

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