The Big Quit
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
How workers got fed up and bosses got scared
By Jacob Rosenberg and Noah Lanard. Illustration by Guillen Casasús

A few weeks after the end of World War II, New York City came to a standstill. Thousands of elevators hung without operators, doors stood without doormen, and buildings languished without repairmen. Business districts closed down; the Garment District emptied out. Almost all deliveries other than the mail stopped coming into Manhattan. America’s commercial center was shuttered. “Make yourselves comfortable,” one union officer publicly warned. It wasn’t a government shutdown; it was a strike—one that started with the elevator operators, doormen, and maintenance workers, and spread to other unionists across the city. (“Fur workers do not want any scabs to run elevators in fur buildings,” declared one sympathy striker.)

While their collective action was monumental, it was also somewhat routine. After the war, these kinds of strikes were de rigueur: In 1946, 4.6 million people—nearly 10 percent of the American workforce—took to the picket line. General strikes rocked entire communities across the country, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Oakland, California, to Rochester, New York. “It was after the war and I think we needed to get our share,” one Oakland striker later explained. “Industry had sure made theirs during the war.”

Many of the country’s major waves of strikes have occurred like this, as postscripts to shattering events of the 20 th century—in 1919, 1934, 1946. Each catastrophe redefined our sense of “normalcy.” It left workers wondering why they had to sacrifice so much for their country—or why some people got so much while they worked for scraps.

A strike usually results from a specific conflict over employment. One group of workers wants one employer to pay better wages or improve conditions. Mass strikes, however, occur when the push for a contract is wrapped up in a larger political moment. Rosa Luxemburg, the turn-of-the-century socialist revolutionary, said that “to go house-to-house canvassing” for a mass action would be “idle and profitless and absurd.” Instead, history—whether war or economic collapse or virus— presses in. As an old world splinters, a new one suddenly must be made.

In the postwar era, this resulted in large strikes from unions nearing the peak of their strength. But today, with our dreadfully low rates of unionization, long-stagnant wages, and threadbare social safety net, something else has happened: A lot of people have up and quit. In 2021, one report estimates, one in four workers chose to leave their jobs. In September alone, about 4.4 million people quit—a staggering 3 percent of the total US workforce. The past two years saw a hodgepodge of resistance: some organized labor action, but also early retirements, forced “labor shortages,” fast-food walkouts, general malaise, burnout, remote work, parents dropping out to care for children. Together, they formed something less like a global worker revolt than a wildcat year of “enough.” Millions of people, by choice or from unrelenting pressure, decided they were done.

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