In Australia, Covid has not tipped the scales in favour of labour and against capital. Our challenges remain the same as ever.
One of the running themes of these crisis years has been the various attempts to make virtues out of necessities. If the upsurge in mutual aid networks at the start of the pandemic was inspiring from a grassroots organising perspective, we have also seen ‘disaster capitalism’ rear its ugly head, most recently in the attempt to create a profitable industry out of the removal of humans from human interactions. Amid the struggles of regular people to turn ourselves from the objects of external forces to the protagonists of our own lives and societies, perhaps the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ represents one of the most significant and contested trends.
From an American perspective, this is hard to deny. The number of workers who quit their jobs hit a historic high in September at over 3 per cent of the total workforce each month, before levelling off. Across a range of industries, but especially blue-collar ones, participation rates have seen a steep decline, and many open roles are not being filled. The trends in white-collar industries have been rather mixed, with many workers quitting only to take up higher-paid, less stressful roles. Dubbed the Great Resignation, this has been considered by many as a movement set to transform workplaces across America.
An employers’ discourse
The intellectual history of the phrase appears to begin in May 2021, when it was coined by management professor Anthony Klotz. However, the history proper of the concept as a tool to further an employer agenda goes back further, with a range business groups reporting ‘labour shortages’ across the US from the beginning of 2021. As Episode 135 of the Citations Needed podcast details, there were indeed shortages across the teaching, trucking and nursing industries at the time. However, the primary reasons for these were that employment relations and pandemic policies were making blue-collar work not only more precarious and underpaid (one may suggest the term ‘wage shortage’ an alternative), but also more dangerous and traumatic (in the case of healthcare workers). The point of the ‘labour shortage’ discourse is, as it has been throughout other points in history, to shift the focus away from such issues and instead blame unions and chastise the working class for being ‘lazy’. A similar strategy has seen ‘supply chain disruption’ being used as a catch-all discourse that obfuscates the reasons for worker shortages in warehousing and transportation industries, as well as the extent to which the economies of the West rely on cheap goods from Asian countries.
A piece in Jacobin by Alex N Press takes issue with the more recent white collar-fixation of the Great Resignation narrative, particularly as exemplified in a New York Times piece that focusing on the ‘peer effects’ supposedly driving it. These effects have been the subject of research into US workforce trends (conducted by, among others, a professor at the University of New South Wales) that frame these decisions through a vulgar psychologism, using terms such as ‘turnover contagion’ and quitting ‘hot spots’.
Press’ main critique of this fixation mirrors that of the Citations Needed podcast, in that it obscures the deteriorating working conditions of blue-collar work. One may add that the change in narrative from ‘labour shortage’ to the Great Resignation reflects and further entrenches the divide in the way that society regards and treats blue collar work as opposed to white collar work. One might also add that reducing the Great Resignation to a network effect obscures the way agency is being exercised by white-collar workers, and pathologises this tendency to the extent that it may appear resolvable through measures such as mindfulness training and gym perks. In other words, it turns it into an employers’ discourse.
Workers of every stripe are no strangers to co-option of their movements and strategies by managers and business elites and, when it comes to the Great Resignation, there are few better examples of co-option than Blind. As outlined by Josh Gabert-Doyon in The Baffler, Blind began as a workplace discussion board in South Korea, and over several years came to host some of the major corporate scandals and whistleblower leaks in the US and South Korea. A 2018 investment in Blind by Japanese investment manager SoftBank foreshadowed a change of direction for the company, and last year it launched a ‘company insights’ service geared towards HR departments as well as a corporate recruitment service, shamelessly leveraging for profit the knowledge gained from the various complaints by employees. As more employees and managers have joined the platform, its forums have also recently taken on many of the problems characteristic of white-collar workplaces, including sexism and harassment of whistleblowers. No doubt many professionals have taken advantage of these scandals and the sharing of inside information to further their upward mobility. But for anyone without the personal clout to force the hands of recruiters and managers, Blind represents merely an extension of capital’s home turf.
A false dawn for white-collar workers
Another piece in the New York Times by Abigail Susik calls this phenomenon ‘a kind of spontaneous, informal labour strike’. This represents the other side of the liberal response, and is backed up by David Dayen’s assertion in The American Prospect that the ‘most vulnerable people in America have started the closest thing we’ve seen in a century to a general strike.’ The underlying assumption here is that there is a fabric that undergirds the simultaneous, seemingly co-ordinated nature of these decisions, whether common interests or anti-work culture. Susik compares the Great Resignation to the ‘big quits’ by French workers in the midst of WWI and outbreaks of the Spanish Flu, although she concedes that the majority of these were co-ordinated strikes while voluntary unemployment was less common. The implicit admission seems rather obvious—that there is very little union organisation, or co-ordinated protest action, behind today’s resignations. If workers quitting represents any exercise of class power and consciousness, we have to ask whose interests are being served, and what the limits of this ‘exit’ strategy are.
There may be some important links between blue-collar resignations and industrial action. The timing of the ‘Striketober’ wave of strikes suggests that unions across various industries view recent labour shortages as an opportunity to educate and organise swathes of the workforce, and force the hands of employers. Yet Press’ point that the mainstream perspective on the Great Resignation fixates on white-collar experiences is again relevant here, as there has been much less coverage of these strikes.
There is, of course, a rich history of cultural items that elevate the ‘exit’ strategy as tool of wielding power and aim for a loose kind of class consciousness. The most obvious examples are 90s films such as The Matrix, Office Space and Fight Club. What was considered then a symptom of middle-class ennui has perhaps since matured into a pandemic-age reflection on burnout, and the possibilities of alternatives to the 9-to-whenever-your-employer-sees-fit-to-end-the-working-day job. This is no doubt a positive development insofar as it has increased the power of workers at the recruitment and renegotiating tables, and normalised a series of arrangements amounting to shorter working weeks.
However, any collective aspects to this development are hamstrung by its limitations and contradictions. Primarily, not all white-collar workers, let alone blue-collar ones, have the financial, social or organisational safety net required to properly reassess and reorient their position in the labour market. It is also significant that, in the discussion regarding the effects of work on people’s personal lives, there has been little attention paid to the social utility of different forms of labour, even to the modest degree that David Graeber did in Bullshit Jobs. Indeed, the discourse of ‘frontline jobs’ does little to challenge the idea that office jobs serve a kind of economic rear-guard. Rather, in Great Resignation discourse, work is often viewed as a kind of holding pattern for individuals to navigate the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought. Given these issues, it is little surprise that the /r/antiwork subreddit, which was covered in the media as an important cultural pillar of the Great Resignation, was recently made private (ie rendered irrelevant) when the appearance of its leading moderator in a Fox News interview sparked a series of uncivil disagreements on the forum.
Much of this analysis has centred on the discursive and speculative aspects of Great Resignation discourse. Yet it does reveal the inherent limitations of white-collar labour movements, insofar as they remain at a distance from the material realities of life under capitalism that are the primary focus of working-class movements. Wherever white-collar workers come together as a ‘professional managerial class’, it is not a class that leads, but follows. This is particularly true in Australia.
A Great Resignation with Australian characteristics?
In Australia, the business rag of record, the Australian Financial Review, ratcheted up coverage of what it considered a parallel trend emerging here, with all the fervour of a self-fulfilling prophecy (mirroring the kind of discursive market intervention that has become the AFR’s bread and butter in property market reporting). The magazine finally admitted in a more recent article that the trend has not gone the way of the US and Britain, and in doing so it has caught up with the opinions of other Australian economic commentators, who have observed that Australia’s overall workforce participation rate hit historic highs during the pandemic. Yet the narrative has received enough widespread acceptance in Australia that one must ask—to what extent is it true? The short answer is clearly ‘very little’, but its emergence has brought to the surface issues within our workforce, much as it has within the US. However, and more importantly: who is this narrative actually for?
The Australian left has a rich history of wrestling with the influences of struggles overseas. Throughout the upsurge of class conflict following the Second World War, the development of black power movements (and more recently Black Lives Matter), and the movement to institute a ‘Green New Deal’, there have been recurrent questions of whether these represent actual material struggles or simply the importation of cultural and organisational forms from the US. The truth lies somewhere in the middle: these movement signifiers tend to serve as organising principles for real shifts in political alliances and activist strategies. The question over how we should handle Great Resignation discourse in Australia is not trivial, but has important implications for the struggle for a hegemonic class consciousness.
In Australia, professions such as law, consulting, IT, finance and accounting have indeed seen a drop in participation rates comparable to those of the US, though in the medium term those rates may stabilise as professionals return to the workforce. These professions have over recent decades come to share much of the ‘burn and churn’ culture associated with teaching, retail and healthcare. As in the US, much of the recent dissatisfaction within these white-collar professions has been framed through the discourses of mental health and burnout. For workers in these professions, their high levels of education and specialisation give them opportunities to find better conditions in emerging sectors. However, for these same reasons, many professionals see unionisation as an outdated model with little to offer individuals who can drive favourable bargains with employees, despite significant evidence to the contrary. Moreover, specialisation tends to suppress the level of solidarity required for these groups of professionals to drive change as a class. This has certainly been my own experience in attempting to mobilise workers in the legal industry around the possibility of industrial action.
Perhaps we should instead be looking to the public education sector, which is currently undergoing one of the most important periods of labour militancy in recent memory. In December last year, NSW teachers held their first statewide strike in a decade and, more recently, teachers went on strike in South Australia. The fact that these strikes are taking place despite hesitancy and hand-wringing among the leadership of the NSW Teachers’ Federation and despite the fact that many teachers are actively making plans to shift to private schools demonstrates the power of collective self-organisation in this sector even where exit may appear a more viable strategy. The recent nurses’ strike in NSW mirrors many of these trends.
The decision to channel’s one’s desire for better conditions and upwards mobility into collective action is not an easy one to take in a country where unions and the right to strike have been in retreat for decades. However, the fact that the last year has seen a doubling of working days lost to industrial disputes should be taken as a sign that many workers are willing to challenge the status quo. This fact has certainly not been lost on the Australian Financial Review.
The fact that these ‘last ditch’ strikes are happening in the majority-female education sector is also significant since, as economist and Jacobin contributor Alison Pennington has observed, there is a gendered version of the Great Resignation happening in Australia. This has been the case across the administration and retail sectors, and most concerning, the healthcare sector, which has seen overworked rural workers resigning in droves in the middle of a pandemic. Pennington notes that these trends are being driven by chronic underpayment and overwork across these sectors, alongside the high cost of childcare, which disproportionately impacts women.
Given that the idea of a white-collar Great Resignation has not been met with the same optimism in Australia as in the US, what remains of that narrative is akin to the employers’ discourse observed in US media—a top-down attempt to manage the decline of employer-employee relations. The imperative remains for the Australian left, in the face of the precarious, atomising and often dangerous reality of work in this country, to build alternatives with mass appeal. What the viewpoints and trends surrounding the Great Resignation show is that a divided workers’ movement will find great difficulty in contending with the forces that lead many to resign from their inherent power to participate in and transform society. As ever, unity, class consciousness and a strong social safety net must be fought for at all costs.
Image by Viktor Forgacs