In November of last year, I was managing the checkout area of a large grocery store in Utah when a 22-year-old bagger quit on the spot. It was a busy night a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Customers wanted to get in and out quickly while my exhausted colleagues and I were urging the clock to tick a little faster. Staff turnover had always been high, but a coworker walking out in the middle of a shift was a first.
The employee, whose name I can’t even remember, had only been at the store a few weeks. She was bagging for a 60-year-old cashier I’ll call Layla, who left her previous job in a drug store after a customer pulled a knife on another worker and demanded money. Layla thought the grocery business might be safer. The bagger said something to the older woman, who looked confused and then glanced in my direction.
“I submitted a request to work only after 4 o’clock,” the woman said as she approached me. “But twice this week I’ve been scheduled to come in at 3.” I explained that I had nothing to do with the schedule. “I’m just the night supervisor,” I said. “If you call the scheduling manager tomorrow, she’ll probably give you what you want.”
The employee wasn’t satisfied. My eyes were already drifting to the line at Layla’s register. The bagger seemed annoyed. “Since my schedule request has not been respected,” she continued, “I’m walking out right now.”
I didn’t have much time to consider what had just happened. It was the holiday season, and I needed to open another checkout lane to accommodate the growing crowd of customers. But a question popped into my mind: “Was what I just witnessed part of the ‘Great Resignation’ that I keep hearing about?”
Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, coined the term, which has become one of the media’s preferred phrases to describe the millions of people walking out on terrible jobs. A record 47 million workers quit in 2021. According to The Washington Post, 4.5 million left their jobs in November alone—more than in any single month in the last 20 years.
Yet something about the Great Resignation did not sit right with me. I was bothered by the way journalists hailed the trend as a sign of growing worker power. Nothing had changed in my workplace. Employees still struggled to make ends meet, and the job was as physically brutal and mentally draining as ever.
Journalists seemed to be living in a different reality. The New York Times quoted a labor historian who called the Great Resignation a “worker uprising” indicative of a rejuvenated labor movement. In another Times piece, Abigail Susik, an art history professor at Willamette University, wrote that we were witnessing a “spontaneous, informal labor strike [that could lead to] a meaningful transformation of working conditions.” In The Washington Post, the University of California, Santa Barbara, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein speculated that the Great Resignation was a kind of “general strike” that he loosely compared to enslaved people fleeing plantations during the Civil War.
Fed-up workers handed in their notice on “QuitToks,”and posted #IQuit manifestos on Facebook. One clip featured Beth McGrath, a Wal-Mart worker in Louisiana, quitting over the store’s public address system. “I’ve been working at Wal-Mart for almost five years,” she announced. “And I can say that everyone here is overworked and underpaid.” McGrath decried how the company “treats their elderly associates like shit” and accused her boss of being a “pervert.”
At first, I was inspired by stories of the downtrodden and abused giving the finger to their overlords, and for a while, I delighted in scrolling the #greatresignation hashtag for tales of swaggering rebellion. The phenomenon felt personal. While employees in various industries have quit in the last year, Insider confirmed that those in retail, leisure, and hospitality have been leading the trend. The Wal-Mart worker’s diatribe was a voice of reason and compassion from one of the grimmest employment sectors in the industrialized world.
Some journalists took a cautious approach to the phenomenon, attributing the Big Quit to short-term adjustments like stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment. Noam Scheiber threw cold water on the more ecstatic claims by pointing out that bad jobs were not getting any better. “There is little evidence that service workers are winning any meaningful, long-term gains,” he wrote in The New York Times. Labor policy reporter Timothy Noah was even more incredulous. “We are not witnessing a historic moment for the American labor force” he wrote in The New Republic. “We are witnessing only a “momentary respite from the ghastly long-term shift of national income from labor to capital.”
By 2022, some of the shine of the Great Resignation had worn off, but the habit was hard to break, especially after Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that 4.3 million people had quit in January, a rate 23 percent higher than before the pandemic. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson proposed that “the low-wage service-sector economy is experiencing the equivalent of ‘free agency’ in a professional sports league,” a phenomenon he called “the Big Switch.” On the CBS Mornings show, Jill Schlesinger explained that “most of these people are going from one job to another” and offered “the Great Reshuffle” as a more accurate descriptor.
Though journalists couldn’t decide on a name, there was broad agreement that workers were exercising newfound collective authority. Even Noah rethought his position. “The Great Resignation is such a wonderful development,” he wrote, “that I’ve had some trouble believing it’s real.”
Noah’s early skepticism may have been correct. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers were paid 5.6 percent more over the past 12 months. But inflation is also at historic highs, with prices an average of 8.5 percent higher in March. Celebrations of workers’ gains seem downright bizarre given that daily life has become significantly more expensive.
At low-wage workplaces, pay raises are often complicated. At my store, a cashier with 30 years of experience whom I’ll call Diane received a wage hike in 2021, from $15.00 to $15.40. I congratulated her, but she said she was insulted. “The lot fees for my trailer go up $50 every year,” she told me. “An extra 40 cents barely covers that.” Higher housing costs meant that Diane’s wage was actually decreasing, but she was expected to feel grateful.
A deeper look at low-wage America reveals an even more sinister reality. According to the Brookings Institution, a record 44 percent of US workers have low-wage jobs in March of 2020, with nearly one-third living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, employers are flush with cash. A 2021 FactSet report showed that companies in the S&P 500 posted the highest profit margins since 2008, far exceeding Wall Street’s rosiest expectations. Companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle responded to the windfall by offering cash buybacks to investors, while the cost of fast food rose 8 percent in a single year.
Sold as an economic stimulus, the Cares Act was a corporate bailout that not even reporters at the Financial Times could deny. “While Wall Street has been stabilized…and the wealthy have received substantial tax benefits that in some cases could last for years,” a 2020 article noted, “the economic fate of America’s middle and lower-income households remain very much in limbo.” Thanks in part to the trillions put up by the Fed to backstop the corporate bond market, billionaires saw their wealth climb 70 percent since the pandemic began.
A broader historical view is also instructive. To speculate on where today’s “quitagion” might lead, David Dayen reviewed what happened to serfs and peasants in England after the Black Death wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century. The resulting extreme labor shortage, he wrote in The American Prospect, gave workers “the ability to bargain for cash wages, lower rent, [and] less hazardous conditions.” For a time, resources flowed from the nobility to workers.
But the gains were short-lived. The rich took their grievances to the government. The result was the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers, a labor law that “set wage controls…at pre-Black Death levels, [and] restrict[ed] the ability to bargain for more pay.” The law also rendered unemployment for those under 60 a crime punishable by imprisonment and made it illegal to give alms to the poor. The former social order returned with a vengeance.
The parallels to today are clear. The rich are again figuring out how to siphon money to themselves. An analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that a majority of low-wage employers raised CEO pay by an average of 29 percent in 2021—a period of pandemic-induced mass unemployment. The report points to Hilton Hotels CEO Christopher Nassetta, who made more than $55 million after his company laid off 32,000 workers.
Not all the news is bad. Two-thirds of Americans now support labor unions. A recent teacher strike wave, labor actions by health care workers, and thrilling organizing drives at Starbucks stores are all worthy of celebration and support. The recent win at JFK8, an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, suggests that the battle between labor and capital is heating up. But these rebellions are occurring while the unionization rate is falling. Today, just over 10 percent of workers are represented by a union, a number that has dropped by more than half in 40 years.
It’s clear that over the past two years, the Great Resignation has not disrupted that dynamic. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unionization rate increased in 2020, but only because most of the jobs lost during the pandemic were in the service and hospitality sectors, which are less likely to be unionized. By 2021, the unionization rate had fallen again, because the jobs that came back were the same non-unionized ones that were lost, a phenomenon EPI called a “trampoline effect.” The evidence suggests that new, better jobs aren’t being created. Workers who quit are moving laterally to the same employment sectors they left.
There is a reason Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls has used his new media platform to mock journalism’s obsession with the Great Resignation. “When you quit your job, guess what?” he told NPR. “They hire somebody else. So you’re jumping from one fire into the next.”
Smalls’s problem raises the question: Why have so many media outlets framed the Big Quit as good news for employees?
The social position of journalists provides one answer. The people who report the news are disproportionately from privileged backgrounds. A 2018 study showed that nearly half of journalists employed at The Washington Post and The New York Times attended elite universities, and 20 percent attended an Ivy League institution. In “The Social Identity of Journalists,” scholar Daniel Kreiss noted that professional journalism also has a geographic bias. Journalists, he wrote, are “clustered in the urban and exurban areas that have often fared economically better than their rural counterparts.” Another way to put it is that most journalists have never had a working-class job.
A suspicion of the mainstream media was one reason I soured on the Great Resignation framing. I now see most coverage of the Big Quit as part of what Adolph Reed has called a “cultural politics” that shares the entertainment industry’s “fetishization of heroes and penchant for inspirational stories of individual Overcoming.” It’s no accident that cultural politics is the preferred terrain of the professional managerial class to which most journalists belong.
Writing others’ lives requires more than imagination. Take the viral video of the Wal-Mart employee’s departure. As courageous as it was, McGrath’s act likely did nothing to improve her colleagues’ circumstances. It may have even made their jobs worse, as bosses who had been publicly humiliated may have taken their anger out on staffers who supported McGrath. Anyone who has worked a retail job know that punishments come in many forms, including unpredictable schedules and the worst shifts. News outlets rarely follow up with the workers left behind.
It’s no surprise that the media shapes the world that it purports to describe. What has been less well understood is how high the stakes are for low-wage workers. Last year’s organizing campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is a case in point. After months of preparation and massive press coverage, organizers held a vote on whether workers there wanted to form a union. With almost two-thirds voting no, the campaign was a flop.
In The Nation, longtime organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey wrote a postmortem on the campaign. She noted that organizers did not have an accurate count of how many people worked at the site and were more concerned with giving employees a digital platform for expressing their discontent with Amazon than with building grassroots support for a union.
McAlevey also blamed the media for superficial reporting. There was a lot of emphasis in the press, she explained, on the “percentage of workers who are Black in the Amazon warehouse, suggesting that demography is destiny.” Reporters also failed to notice “an absence of major local faith leaders publicly supporting the workers,” suggesting that Bessemer organizers had not convinced community members to support the unionization drive. “The media…should have never overhyped this campaign,” she wrote, when “impending defeat was evident everywhere.”
McAlevey’s critique is a call for a clear-eyed assessment of low-wage workers’ losses as well as their gains. It’s time to take stock of the fact that there is still no federal $15 minimum wage, no universal health care, and no paid sick leave. Indeed, those demands seem further away now than they did before the media began heralding the Big Quit as a turning point for workers.
Given the disparity between what people want and what they get from politicians and policy-makers, I can’t offer an easy solution to the predicament. My argument is that elite journalism is part of the problem, and its dismantling must be part of the solution.
My own disillusionment with the Great Resignation was solidified the night the bagger walked off the job. To my colleagues and me, the woman’s departure meant nothing but more work for the rest of us. Layla would have to bag orders herself, adding more strain to a job whose physical demands are known only to those who have done it. The store was now down a bagger, which guaranteed additional labor for everyone during one of the busiest grocery shopping seasons of the year.
That night, I approached Layla’s register to break the bad news. But she already knew what had happened. “She left me, didn’t she?” my coworker said. “She quit,” I replied. Layla started ringing up the next customer. “I guess we’re on our own.” I nodded. “We are on our own.”