In retrospect, the mistake might have been in telling people they were essential.
It’s one explanation for the string of disruptive events that has rippled through the U.S. labor market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes successful efforts of workers to unionize at major companies as well as the Great Resignation—the record wave of millions of people quitting their jobs through 2021 and into 2022.
When millions of people were deemed essential workers during the pandemic, despite not working in lifesaving medical care, they saw how directly they contribute to the profits of their employers, says Kate Ward, an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University.
“Workers are the ones contributing to a company’s success, and they have a lot of power,” she says. “Spiritual and values-based ways of looking at work have changed in the pandemic. . . . It really just feels like this moment where people are saying we don’t have to take whatever the employer is dishing.”
Whether it’s quitting one’s job, joining a union, or finding another way to relate to one’s work, these “signs of the times,” as St. Pope John XXIII applied the term, paint a picture of a landscape in transition. On that landscape, workers are reclaiming their dignity in ways that have been accelerated by the experience of the pandemic and that are strongly reflected in Catholic social teaching and tradition. Where this leads and whether any lasting change ensues are still open questions, but they are also ones based in part on what people are willing to accept.
With the onset of the pandemic, the initial shutdown resulted in catastrophic job losses for millions of people in the United States, including many members of UNITE HERE Local 11, a union in Southern California and Arizona representing more than 30,000 workers in hotels, restaurants, airports, sports arenas, and convention centers. Hannah Petersen, one of the union’s organizers, says this disruption carried with it an energy to change conditions that had been deteriorating for some time.
“The pandemic just lifted the mask for us to really see it, and for workers themselves to not only see it but to do something about it,” says Petersen. “These past two years have been opportunities to change our lives. . . . That’s a really faith-based vision. We’re fighting for something that we can’t even see.”
When pandemic restrictions loosened and many people returned to work, the wave of resignations that followed also had its roots before the pandemic, says Charles Clark, a professor of economics and finance at St. John’s University in New York.
“Certainly COVID-19 made people look at things, but the trend was already there,” he says.
The monthly rate of people quitting their jobs had been slowly creeping up for about a decade prior to the pandemic, amid a long economic boom.
“What’s going on now is certainly significant, different than the overall trend,” says Clark, who notes that 2012 saw about 2 million people a month quitting, as opposed to 4.5 million a month witnessed in the first half of 2022. The record quits in late 2021 were fueled, he says, not only by the principle that tighter labor markets make it easier for people to quit their jobs, but also by the reality that the massive Baby Boomer cohort has begun to retire, creating a big drop in labor force participation. “Unless we loosen immigration, we’re going to be looking at . . . extreme labor shortages,” Clark says.
Clark also sees long-deteriorating conditions at work. “The middle and lower parts of the labor market do not have the protections they used to,” he says, such as labor unions and other ladders to the middle class. “You’re just not as committed to where you’re working, so people leave and try something else.”
Ward notes that putting one’s life and health on the line for a job during the pandemic also likely played a role in the record turnover.
“That certainly does give perspective to how I want to spend my time, what I am willing to put up with,” she says. “We’ve all been facing [death] a lot more starkly than maybe we’re used to.”
The pandemic also played a key role in the successful efforts of workers to unionize, including Starbucks employees in Mesa, Arizona, and those at an Amazon warehouse in the Staten Island borough of New York.
“Those folks were working like crazy to make sure that others didn’t have to go out,” says Adrienne Alexander, director of intergovernmental affairs for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 in Illinois. “There is undeniably something that happened where we recognized folks were out doing the work—in restaurants, in health care, at places like Amazon . . . so that society could continue to function.”
And the rhetoric of “essential” finally collided with reality.
Joseph Fahey, a cofounder of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and Pax Christi USA, dislikes the term Great Resignation, in part because he doesn’t think people are “resigned” to anything.
“I don’t see people resigning. Looking for better jobs is what they’re all doing,” he says. “I really call it a Great Awakening rather than a Great Resignation. What it shows me is that workers are waking up to the fact that their employers don’t care about them. They don’t have to be insulted on a daily basis, lied to, and cheated out of wages and things like that.”
Fahey also sees trend lines preceding the pandemic, namely the wave of teacher strikes across the country in 2018, which he found remarkable and hopeful.
“I followed that very carefully because I see that as a sign of awakening,” says Fahey, who also organized the faculty union at Manhattan College, where he taught religious studies for 50 years. “Every 25 or 30 years we see an awakening by workers.” However, since the only end of capitalism is to maximize profits, he adds, “As soon as they can, [employers] take away the gains made by workers.”
A Catholic concern
The Catholic Church’s concern for labor goes back much further than Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), the landmark 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII addressing the moral dimensions of the industrial revolution.
“The Catholic Church championed in the medieval period both merchant guilds and craftsmen guilds,” says Fahey.
The thread continues to the present day when workers have the structures and conditions to preserve and center their dignity—or walk away in the absence of these protections.
“The church applauds that,” says Ward. “It’s good in a Catholic sense because the human person, not the economy, is God’s creature. Human dignity, at or away from work, is of the utmost importance.”
And so it tracks that people doing labor organizing often find their faith playing an animating role.
Alexander says Catholicism is “integral to the work that I do.” She is a Black cradle Catholic for whom social justice was built into the fabric of her church experience. Three of her four grandparents were in unions.
“It was clear that that was part of their story about how they made it,” says Alexander, whose maternal grandfather could remember decades later every contract his union negotiated. “The union gave him dignity. . . . He was very explicit about what the union was able to do, and the difference the union made in his life.”
This formation led to a sense of vocation for Alexander to go into labor rights.
“This is who I am. This is part of me,” she says. “People at work know that I’m at church on Sunday morning. . . . These are two things that go together and that I’m public about.”
Petersen spends her days accompanying the cooks, servers, housekeepers, and other deeply faith-filled people who, like her, are Catholics and members of her union.
“I’m really proud to be part of a movement where we do what we know best, which is coming together and organizing, but we do it by incorporating all in our community,” she says. “We really got to go to the margins, to the people we never thought would be the leaders of our movement.”
Petersen directly links her work to the churchwide synodal process initiated by Pope Francis, noting that both involve “listening to people and their concerns and fighting for a future that will work for us.” She adds, “We have to have brave and safe spaces to do that. Unions are places to do that. And the church is hungry to do that.”
More unequal than others
One thing that a term like Great Resignation misses is that it’s not an across-the-board reality, or even one that’s accessible to all people.
“There’s still an imbalance in who can walk off and what kind of job they can get,” says Alexander. “I’m not sure that all the people I represent are in that place.”
The difference is that a person in a service-sector job is most likely going to move to another service-sector job, with difficulties surrounding that such as inadequate tipping and being yelled at, as opposed to leaving one’s job to leverage more pay. “That’s a different kind of power,” Alexander notes, one that still eludes a critical mass of people.
This disparity motivated UNITE HERE to advocate for the Right to Return bill, signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in April 2021, which guarantees that hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers will have the legal right to return to their former jobs when tourism returns.
Alejandro Roldan, one of many members of UNITE HERE to lose their jobs at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles at the beginning of the pandemic, notes that this law will especially benefit his older coworkers.
“They’ve been there for 30 or 40 years. The only job they know is there. It’s like a house,” Roldan says. “For me, I’m young. I could find something else. But for the older people, if they’re turning 60 or 65, it’s kind of hard to get a job. . . . If we don’t speak up now, who’s going to speak up?”
Another big disparity in resignation statistics is regional. Clark notes that, in the spring of 2022, the South had a quit rate of 3.3 percent, above the national average of 3 percent and higher than northeastern states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, which had quit rates around 2 percent.
“They’re much more worker-friendly regulatory regimes,” says Clark. “If you have job protections and can offer some security, then people are more likely to stay. . . . Whereas down south, they’re less worker-friendly, they’re more employer-friendly.”
Clark adds, “There’s a long history [in the South] of trying to keep unions out, and a lot of it is racist.”
Petersen attests that animosity toward unions extends even beyond race.
“We’re people of faith in a world full of materialism, consumerism, individualism, and division. The people with capital, the people with money, don’t want regular working-class folks coming together,” she says. “They’re really threatened by that. That’s why they throw millions of dollars into a pot to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
But Fahey, who has witnessed many votes by workers to unionize throughout the years, doesn’t see money at the center of the issue.
“The number one thing that workers really want is not money—it’s respect,” he says. “You would think that Catholic institutions would champion this, would be the leaders of this.”
Seeds of hope
How can Catholics themselves be leaders in championing the dignity of workers? Alexander has some suggestions.
“We’re all workers in some capacity,” she says. “No matter what kind of workplace you’re in, we can all improve. . . . There are all kinds of things you can evaluate in your life in how you’re treating workers.”
She notes the importance of little actions such as tipping and just being generally mindful in interactions. This can extend even into one’s parish as a workplace by encouraging an environment that supports days off, parental leave, and other benefits that the Catholic Church supports through its social teaching but not always in its personnel practices.
This mindfulness and persistence are what Ward sees as necessary if the changes brought about by the pandemic are to lead to any lasting improvements in the situations of workers.
“It hasn’t produced some magic workers’ utopia,” she says. Even though people are less willing to accept poverty wages, there hasn’t been a groundswell calling for flexible hours, fewer hours, and other lasting reforms to how society approaches work.
“People are happy for things that feel normal,” says Ward. “There are not many voices saying, wait, before we move on, what can we do differently this time?”
Clark sees employers at least anecdotally realizing that they can offer flexible and reduced hours without hurting their profitability. Like Ward, he sees the collective brush with mortality as something that has stirred people’s creativity. At its heart is the realization that they don’t have to be tied to a job they hate just because it’s a job.
“I think a significant number of them are starting their own businesses,” he says, “They’re becoming consultants, using whatever specialty they have, turning that into a service they can provide, and giving them much more control over all the other aspects of their lives.”
Along these lines, Fahey points out that 120 million people in the United States already belong to a workers’ cooperative of some kind, in which the employees own the business together.
“I think this is really the future,” he says. “I see this as the next great development phase. While I am still a strong union supporter, it still keeps the worker–employer divide. . . . You don’t need the union when the workers own the thing.”
Alexander says that what’s really beautiful about church teaching and labor is that the “whole orientation is toward [the] collective.”
“Power is really what it comes down to, and that’s really critical, life-changing, empowering,” she says. “Once people get a taste of that or see other folks in similar positions have that opportunity, then it’s a lot easier to take the risk. . . . That’s definitely what we’re seeing. You can’t put that back in a bottle, and people are powerful together. There’s energy that comes from that, and that’s what we’re seeing across the country.”
This article also appears in the September 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 9, pages 22-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Adapted from a National Youth Administration of Illinois poster. Joseph Dusek/loc.gov