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

The Great Quit — the phenomenon of Americans leaving their jobs at record rates this year — reached its peak in August, with 4.3 million Americans, or nearly 3 percent of the workforce, describing it as quitting. Economic forecasters don’t expect the situation to improve dramatically anytime soon; Some expect continued labor shortages in the coming months, exacerbating delays in the supply chain.

Why do so many people quit? It may be partly because they don’t need the money — as a result of federal stimulus checks, student loan payments on hold, and months of low spending. In part, the reason may be that people are concerned about safety in the workplace in a country where the population is still less than 60 percent immunized.

But it may also be that the Great Resignation is a kind of spontaneous, unofficial strike – a collective demand by workers for a significant increase and other gains after decades of stagnant and suppressed wages. If so, history suggests that the Great Resignation could be the beginning of a meaningful shift in business conditions in this country.

Consider the situation in France in the first decades of the twentieth century. The country experienced a labor shortage during World War I due to increased industrial production and a decreased supply of labor (as a result of mobilization of troops). When the war ended, the 1918 influenza pandemic reduced supply. Labor shortages continued after the epidemic began to subside in 1920, in large part due to high wartime and pandemic death tolls and an ever-lowering birth rate.

Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau attempted to address the labor shortage by facilitating immigration to France by mostly male workers and encouraging French women and youth to join or join the labor force. This influx of workers allowed many employers to keep wages low despite the overall shortage, which in turn led to worker discontent, which led to a period of unbridled and general strikes across France between 1917 and the immediate post-pandemic period.

Hundreds of thousands of French workers organized a nationwide series of “big resignations” in the form of factory strikes, assembly line slowdowns, union strikes and other actions designed to put pressure on employers. Voluntary unemployment—deliberately leaving the workforce for extended periods—was also an effective strategy, although not commonly used.

Ultimately, these large-scale acts of protest and refusal to work led to a meaningful change in labor law and, in some cases, an increase in wages. In 1919, to quell the turmoil of a period of rapidly rising inflation after the war and to discourage the growing enthusiasm for communism, Mr. Clemenceau promulgated a system of an eight-hour and forty-hour workweek—about 20 years before the United States did the same. This achievement did not solve all labor issues, and was frequently undermined by employers in the following decade, but French workers used labor shortages to their advantage, as an essential incentive and bargaining tool to achieve better working conditions and wages.

If the labor shortage in 2021 is, as many believe, a partial expression of widespread worker dissatisfaction, the French example is encouraging. It shows that workers during periods of incapacity at work have great leverage to bring about meaningful change in wages, labor law and working conditions.

But unlike France’s labor shortage a century ago, the current shortage may not be temporary. American workers could hold more leverage in the future, given the rapidly aging workforce and the staggering decline in birth rates during the coronavirus pandemic.

Will companies continue to fill job vacancies by taking advantage of employment pools for teens and seniors and buying labor-saving technology such as artificial intelligence and robotics? Or will the United States borrow a page from the playbook of World War I-era France, to facilitate increased immigration to alleviate the long-term labor deficit?

Even if employers were able to alleviate the labor shortage, the anti-work sentiment and voluntary unemployment prevalent among members of Generation Z suggest that the nature of work will continue to change. During the “Great Resignation” period, employers were able to retain some blue-collar workers and employees with increased wages, flexible working hours and telecommuting options. In the case of prolonged labor shortages, more sweeping changes – an increase in the minimum wage, more days of paid vacation, and formal legislation for a shorter work week – may be needed to entice workers back.

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