October has ended with Scranton educators and Las Cruces bus drivers announcing job actions, along with the on-going strikes of miners in Alabama, nurses in Worcester, MA, hospital workers in Buffalo, NY, 10,000 John Deere workers and  Kelloggs’ workers, but #Striketober is far from over. But we both see this optimistically.

Certainly these are labor disputes, however, seen in contrast to all the news around The Great Resignation (also known as The Big Quit), these workers are actually demonstrating an enduring commitment to their work via their united voice. These workers have had every opportunity to walk away from their work permanently, like those who have done so amidst the Great Resignation. However, they are using their collective agency to commit to their jobs by telling their employers (after trying every other way of making their point) how to be a place that will retain them and how to make their workplaces better. These workers are so committed to their work that they are willing to strike to get their employers’ attention, and to make their work bearable so they don’t have to quit. They are walking out rather than walking away and by doing so, giving their employers the opportunity not to be another Big Quit statistic.

At 6 percent, U.S. private sector collective bargaining is near the bottom of the world’s democracies. In part the quit rate celebrated in the media is directly connected to the slugfest with employers that workers must endure in order to organize and bargain. Passage of the PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act and further reforms would help, along with increasing union support for the organizing upsurge now evident across the private sector.

Strikes, new organizing and workers heading out the door are one connected story, but those connections are rarely made in mass media reporting.

In the consternation over so many open positions with too few applications, we implore employers not to overlook the workers right in front of them continuing to do their jobs. Don’t assume they don’t think about leaving just because they are still showing up for work. Do ask them what their ideas are for modernizing their work or attracting applicants to be their colleagues. Most importantly, employers must realize that without tolerance for union organizing and collective bargaining, their commitment to acting on the issues that matter most to workers are hardly believable. 

Now is the time to rebuild. There is an opportunity to change the culture of the workplace from the inside out, and welcome new employees into a culture that has been co-created by colleagues committed to a mutual mission. If you are in a room alone, or with a few others in management, and are brainstorming ways to attract employees, you’re doing it wrong.

During the pandemic, many workers were called heroes. Workers were identified as essential. After you are done clapping for workers entering the building and when the appreciative clanging of pot and pans has faded, are you actually listening to the workers? Do American workers have the rights of similar workers globally? The answer to both questions is no.

The voices of workers, both those walking away and striking, have led to necessary discussions about pay and benefits and working conditions. Here’s one example from the education sector. Last month Education Week shared a story about school staffing shortages. They revealed that, of the school leaders they asked, school leaders reported bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teaching positions being the hardest to staff, with teachers and cafeteria workers coming in next. Now is the time to reimagine these positions, so that their wages, benefits and work is recognized and appreciated as a vital part of students’ days.

Administrators say they are trying “a wide variety of approaches to addressing the issues—15 percent are offering recruitment bonuses; 22 percent are turning to contractors; 18 percent are hosting job fairs; 17 percent are asking volunteers...” These are good places to start, but these professions need rebuilding. It takes all of us to meet the needs of our students. We all play different roles and offer different expertise. Bonuses don’t buy the respect bus drivers, substitutes and paraprofessionals deserve. Living wages and benefits that recognize the importance of these positions are a start. Each position needs to be treated as an integral part of the team. When the bus ride is treated as the start of the school day, with just as much attention to rituals and routines, the experience is better for both students and the driver-educator. Substitute teachers must be brought into school communities so students AND staff get to know them, work alongside them, and build mutual trust and commitment to each other. They must be offered up-to-date professional development (PD) alongside their peers and other professional opportunities. Teachers’ aides, paraprofessionals, and other education support professionals must be recognized as an important link to schools, families, and communities they have become since this work was first recognized decades ago. Unfortunately, they are often treated as an afterthought. They need access to PD, too. Fortunately there are bus drivers, substitutes and paraprofessionals on the job now who can share ideas for a path forward. Administrators should ask, listen, then act alongside these professionals to take this opportunity to reimagine these professions.

Recently Robert Reich postulated that these mass resignations and anemic applications could be seen as a spontaneous general strike. What if we saw the actions and voices of workers, who are walking out and walking away, collectively? We have an extraordinary opportunity to move beyond wordsmithing missions and visions—creating workplaces of exceptional satisfaction, where workers feel safe, are meaningfully recognized for the contributions they make, leave work to a home they can comfortably afford, and understand their contributions to the common good of their communities.

Quite frankly, given the confluence of data from the Harvard Business Review showing the greatest increase in resignation rates among 30 to 45 year old workers and polling showing union approval among 18-34 year olds at 77 percent, this is a largely unparalleled moment  for the labor movement. Collective worker voices, especially those organized in a union, are the future of labor stability and a decent life for millions of working people.

- Mary Cathryn Ricker and Larry Cohen