A stereograph taken three miles underground in Pennsylvania shows two men in a mine shaft. (Photo credit Strohmeyer & Wyman, New York, c. 1895 from Library of Congress)
“No one wants to work,” business owners claim. Workers are leaving their jobs. Those staying are going out on strike.
Sounds like 2023. But rather, it’s the late 19th century, the beginning of what is now known as the Progressive Era, when mine workers in America were in the forefront of a movement to create safer job conditions and living wages.
Today, workers in many sectors are again refusing to work under previously acceptable conditions. While these changes have been brewing for some time, COVID-19 seems to have been a catalyst. The furloughs many employers enacted at the beginning of the pandemic demonstrated to workers that they were not valued partners. “The Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting” followed. Employers are again complaining that “no one wants to work.”
As the nation adjusted to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, workers also learned they could do their jobs, and be productive, under more flexible models which improved their quality of life. Workers today are expecting more — fair pay, flexibility and hybrid work, stability, and job satisfaction. Ideas like the four-day work week are being explored here and abroad. Are we on the verge of large-scale changes in the way we work and earn a living? Are we in a moment similar to the Progressive Era, which resulted in the end of child labor, and the beginning of the idea that it was not acceptable for workers to die on the job?
Maybe. Employers are beginning to insist that their staffs return to the office, and we are also watching many industries conduct additional massive layoffs, particularly in the tech industry. People who thought they were ensconced in their dream jobs with companies that valued them have been disavowed of that idea.
Rates are rising but not political will
The situation is highlighted and exacerbated by the recent actions of our government. The Federal Reserve has been relentlessly raising interest rates as a traditional way of controlling inflation. This model admittedly seeks to cause one kind of financial pain — rising unemployment, difficulty borrowing money, and falling wages — to prevent another kind – inflation. Implicit in this model is the idea that when we cannot borrow money, and are laid off from our jobs, we will have less to spend, and will be willing to take lower-paying jobs.
But employers have taken steps to meet their employees’ needs, and workers are less likely to accept a step backwards. Employers may need to find other ways to deal with rising prices. The Fed’s actions may not have the intended effect — and we may be getting the pain, without the benefit. Rhode Island’s elected officials are among the many who recognize this.
Thinking about our lives in new ways, and adjusting to change is historically hard, in part because we must ask ourselves to put aside assumptions and practices that seemed to work in the past.
In his generally optimistic remarks about delays in financing the Tidewater Landing Stadium project in Pawtucket, Gov. Dan McKee suggested one source of the recent difficulties was the actions of the Fed. “I question whether or not they’re doing the right thing frankly,” McKee told reporters in late March. “I would encourage the Fed to stop these interest increases and start getting into the understanding of what it means on the ground: for families, jobs, communities in terms of how important these projects are.”
Thinking about our lives in new ways, and adjusting to change is historically hard, in part because we must ask ourselves to put aside assumptions and practices that seemed to work in the past. This is perhaps especially true of governmental bureaucracies. Gov. McKee has written to the Fed; he joins a growing chorus of voices – including Rhode Island’s Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse – who are urging the Fed to look forwards for new solutions.
America has been poised at many inflection points in our history. Perhaps we are on the verge of another one. It is worth noting that conditions and wages in coal mines are still pretty brutal, and the protests begun over a hundred years ago have continued into today. The question is, will we, as citizens, continue to push for change?
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