Some call it “The Great Resignation,” others a “strike wave.” It’s hard to know what to make of the enormous churn now taking place in the American workplace. There have been a few high-profile strikes, but these are overshadowed by the 4.4 million workers who quit their jobs in September, the latest month for which we have data. That’s the highest number in more than 20 years. Restaurants and stores are understaffed, while employers put out help-wanted posters and jack up wages.
Economists and historians are puzzled. What’s the best analogy? World War II, when the war industries sucked labor off the farm and out of the kitchen? Or maybe the boom of the late 1990s, when unemployment sank below 4 percent and neither the big box stores nor Silicon Valley could stop workers from jumping to a better job?
W.E.B. Du Bois may have the answer. He was the greatest scholar of African American life in our nation’s history, and in 1935, Du Bois published an epochal study, “Black Reconstruction in America,” that revolutionized our understanding of the Civil War and the effort to build a truly democratic and racially inclusive South in the years afterward. Narrating an era of unprecedented social turmoil, his book sheds a penetrating light on our own moment of economic upheaval and the power so many workers, of all races and ethnicities, have won to reshape their lives.
Chapter Four of Du Bois’s book, titled “The General Strike,” told the story of how hundreds of thousands of enslaved people fled the plantations and flocked to those parts of the South dominated by the Union army. “There was no plan to this exodus,” wrote Du Bois, “no Moses to lead it.” In Virginia, along the Mississippi River and throughout the sea islands of Georgia, thousands fled to the forts, ports and encampments of the Union army.
Declared “contraband” of war, they were employed and paid wages according to the gendered norms prevalent in the North: the men building fortifications and hauling military supplies, the women cooking, washing and mending clothes for soldiers along with the multitude of others fleeing Southern plantations. By depriving the Confederates of their labor power, argued Du Bois, Black Americans crippled the Southern economy and struck a decisive blow for their own emancipation.
Union victory in 1865 greatly enlarged the strike movement. Now millions of formerly enslaved African Americans abandoned the plantations and exercised newly won freedoms: to travel, to reunite families, to attend church services and put their children in schools. Some Whites called this an “aimless migration,” but many who left Virginia and the Carolinas for Texas and Louisiana found higher wages there. In cities all across the South, formerly enslaved people saw that the presence of the Army and the new Freedmen’s Bureau, a kind of federal welfare agency for the formerly enslaved, offered some support and protection.
Like some employers and politicians today, White plantation owners complained that the emancipated African Americans were lazy, “insolent and refusing to work.” In rejoinder, Du Bois wrote: “This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work.”
Among the most dramatic improvements in their life was the determination of Black women to cease work in the fields. “Every negro woman wants to set up housekeeping,” wrote a disdainful White resident of upcountry Georgia. Women and children still worked, but now it was the family, not the White enslaver, who decided where and when.
Du Bois saw this as entirely salutary: “Negroes worked fewer hours and had more time for self-expression.” The result was a huge “labor shortage” in the South, the product of a one-third decline in the supply of Black labor as measured by total hours worked. That drove up wages and improved working conditions. To attract laborers in 1866 and 1867, many planters found it necessary to promise additional pay for harvest work and offer land for garden plots.
On the Laurel Hill plantation near Natchez, plantation owner William Mercer found that freedmen and women insisted on the right to leave his grounds, grow vegetables for each family, educate their children and set their own pace of work. But nearby planters offered even better wages and conditions, including the use of teams and horses to ride to Natchez on Saturdays. In January 1867, nearly all of Mercer’s field hands abandoned Laurel Hill, reported the White overseer there, “and we cannot blame them, in view of the tempting offers made to them.”
By defining the great shift from slavery to freedom as a “general strike” in his 1935 book, Du Bois was undoubtedly influenced by the industrial turmoil of the Great Depression. General strikes led by dockworkers in San Francisco, truckers in Minneapolis and textile workers in the Piedmont South were taking place as he wrote.
But his deployment of the strike idea also had a 19th-century meaning. One of the hallmarks of the “free labor” idea propounded by abolitionists and the new Republican Party was the right to quit work, individually or with others. This was how Abraham Lincoln saw a strike of New England shoemakers just before the Civil War. He was “glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I wish to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.”
The rest of the planet would have to wait, but in the United States, a great war soon turned on this very issue. Today, historians understand the Civil War not just as a series of battles and conflicts over states’ rights to maintain slavery, but as a revolutionary struggle that redefined the meaning and status of a multiracial, multiethnic working class, North as well as South. The failure of Reconstruction, at the hands of a white-supremacist elite, proved an enormous setback to that cause.
Today’s fast-food workers, hotel chambermaids and nursing-home employees are not enslaved, but as both Lincoln and Du Bois would have understood, they perform labor under a system that has become increasingly unfair and unfree. Sure, they can quit their work — and they are doing so in droves — but the quality of the jobs at the bottom end of the labor market has become radically debased compared with the kind of employment that sustained many working-class families during the half century that followed publication of Du Bois’s book.
It is not just that their pay is low. Hours are episodic, security is nonexistent, benefits are paltry and prospects for advancement are nil. And in recent years, an electronic algorithm has often come to stand in for the boss, measuring and hurrying the work as plantation overseers once did.
No wonder such workers are quitting work, making complaints and joining unions in what some have likened to a strike wave. They don’t have a Union army to offer protection, but the trillions of additional federal dollars that flowed through the economy during the pandemic provided some basic support. Once shielded from the lash of absolute economic necessity, these “wage slaves” have sought their own emancipation.