Suddenly workers have all the leverage—and now they’re getting their revenge

Retail and fast-food workers have some power now. And you truly love to see it.

Workers quit en masse at a McDonald’s in Bradford, Pa., where they’d been making $9.25 an hour, according to a detailed feature story in The Washington Post. A wage so low, at least one of them had had to tap public benefits just to get by. They easily found other jobs—at a Burger King nearby willing to pay $10, a lumber mill for $11.50, and other retail shops.

“Due to lack of pay we all quit,” wrote Dustin Snyder, the restaurant’s now-former assistant general manager, in a sign for customers. He put it up as he locked the doors to the restaurant and led his mini-rebellion.

Before the pandemic, employers treated low-wage workers badly. Millions earned rock-bottom wages, and didn’t get sick pay or health benefits. Workers didn’t know more than a few days out what their schedule would be. I’ve spoken to pregnant women who weren’t allowed bathroom breaks; other women report they were routinely sexually harassed.

Meanwhile some of the big low-wage employers, like Walmart and Kroger, raked in record profits even as so many workers came in every day fearing for their well-being. Many low-wage workers were made to feel lucky to even have a job and treated as less-than-human because they weren’t “skilled” laborers.

For all the praise of essential workers during COVID, most employers did not up their game: As I reported last year, hourly workers at Walmart had trouble getting sick time—in a pandemic. Kroger ended its “hero pay” in May 2020—that’s just two months in, you guys. (Restaurants, of course, often furloughed or fired most of their staff. Arguably the best move considering the quality of the unemployment benefits on offer, but still—jarring.)

Meanwhile employers raked in record profits, even as so many workers came in every day fearing for their well-being. Workers got sick. They died. I’ll say it again. They died.

So it’s been nothing but delightful to see signs of worker revolt and, frankly, revenge. Not unlike when your boyfriend dumps you, then comes crawling back—but you have moved on.

Employers are desperate now. Help wanted signs abound, advertising higher pay. I’ve gotten emails from retailers, not advertising a sale, but asking if I wanted to apply for a job. Heading into the holidays, Amazon is offering $3,000 signing bonuses, Walmart is paying $17 an hour and Macy’s, dangling $500 referral bonuses, according to a report in the New York Times on Monday.

Even the meatpacking industry—where workers were forced to the line at the height of the pandemic at worksites that became COVID hotspots—is now offering bonuses and perks, and raising pay.

“[T]here’s a war for talent at the front lines,” Macy’s CEO told the Times. “My sense is we all have to raise our game.”

Yes, indeed.

There’s a straightforward way to explain the surge in worker power: The labor market is tightening. Workers are in high demand. The unemployment rate fell to 4.6% in October, the government reported last Friday. The U.S. economy added more than a half-million jobs.

And to be sure, though workers appear to have some power now, not everyone is benefiting. Older workers and those with less experience still say it’s hard to find work. And a lot of people—particularly women—can’t step back into the labor market, with caregiving responsibilities much more intense now. There is still a shortage of child-care workers. The Black unemployment rate is high—7.9%.

But there’s also a bigger picture change that’s possibly taking place: A Great Rethink, as Paul Krugman recently called it. The pandemic might have shaken something loose for a lot of people, serving as a wakeup call for workers up and down the income spectrum.

The disruptions wrought by COVID have caused all kinds of people to rethink their lives, including those who were toiling for near minimum wage in retail and fast food. Those folks might have underestimated how bad their jobs were, explained economist Arindrajit Dube in a Twitter thread recently, citing previous work.

The pandemic certainly did prove to a lot of workers in the U.S. that when the going gets tough at work, they’re the first to go. You may have been told by the boss to work hard, and that we’re all part of a family—but when the economy shutdown in March 2020, millions of people got tossed aside. (And that family line didn’t pan out.)

Seems weird now to remember this but more than 3 million people filed for unemployment benefits in just one week in late March 2020. The New York Times published an unforgettable graphic that weekend that showed the spike in a dramatic chart that ran down the entire front page.

If you lost your job then, and were stuck at home figuring out how you’d afford to feed your family and keep the lights on, you likely haven’t forgotten. If you lost coworkers and loved ones to COVID-19 you will never forget.

Telling the boss to take the job and shove it won’t repair any of that harm, but a little payback sure feels nice.

Emily Peck

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub. And read more here:

1 quote, 1 story, 1 number

  • “So what we need to do is to encourage people to appeal to their patriotic sense that we need them. Workers are needed to help in the continued recovery of our economy.” —
    Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary and current Kroger’s board member, on how to get people back into the workforce.
  • Sick days are disappearing for remote workers, reports Axios’s Erica Pandey. Companies are going to have to get more creative and proactive to prevent worker burnout.
  • 100,000 — Number of workers UPS plans on hiring in about a month to deal with the upcoming holiday shopping season.

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