A new era for the American worker

American workers have power. That won’t last forever.


By Rani Molla, Vox Recode

Jan 11, 2022


More than any other time in recent memory, the present moment offers many Americans a chance to make work better.


American employees in 2022 have more leverage over their employers than they have had since the 1970s, the result of a confluence of factors. The pandemic that began in 2020 has prompted a widespread reevaluation about what place work should have in the lives of many Americans, who are known for putting in more hours than people in most other industrialized nations. There’s also been a groundswell of labor organizing that began building momentum in the last decade, due to larger trends like an aging population and growing income inequality. This movement has accelerated in the past two years as the pandemic has brought labor issues to the fore.


“I feel like there’s a change in the culture of Americans” to become more pro-labor, said Catherine Creighton, director of the Co-Lab at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school.


“The pandemic created a huge shift where people can take the time to say, ‘What’s going on in my life?’ And it just stopped the clock for a moment, for people to say what’s important and not important,” she said.


Huge numbers of US workers have been quitting their jobs or leaving the workforce entirely, as a booming economy has created more demand for workers. This so-called Great Resignation, or Great Reshuffle, has continued even as expanded state and national unemployment benefits have run out. The ensuing labor shortages have shifted the balance of power from employers to employees — at least for those with in-demand skills or in in-demand industries.


These conditions create a fertile ground for Americans to seek higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions. But that leverage will only last as long as the worker shortage. Whether these improvements continue into the future for all workers will require a mix of policy change and union growth. Considering that lawmakers are currently at a standstill in the Senate over everything from the infrastructure bill to voting rights, union organizing seems like the most promising way to push these kinds of changes forward.


“I’ve been working for the union for 40 years and there’s never been a better time to organize than right now,” D. Taylor, international president of the hotel and food service worker union Unite Here, told Recode, citing a pro-labor administration, labor shortages, and growing economic inequality.


He said that while workers are using the current situation to eke out better pay and benefits, those gains are temporary and could be wiped out in coming years by inflation and layoffs.


“The only fundamental way to change the economic livelihood and the rights of workers is through the union movement,” he said.


Why now is the time ...


The share of the population that's working or looking for work hasn't recovered ...


What the American worker stands to gain ...


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