Labor history in the making

Oct 24 JDN 2459512

To say that these are not ordinary times would be a grave understatement. I don’t need to tell you all the ways that this interminable pandemic has changed the lives of people all around the world.

But one in particular is of notice to economists: Labor in the United States is fighting back.

Quit rates are at historic highs. Over 100,000 workers in a variety of industries are simultaneously on strike, ranging from farmworkers to nurses and freelance writers to university lecturers.

After decades of quiescence to ever-worsening working conditions, it seems that finally American workers are mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.

It’s about time, frankly. The real question is why it took this long. Working conditions in the US have been systematically worse than the rest of the First World since at least the 1980s. It was substantially easier to get the leave I needed to attend my own wedding—in the US—after starting work in the UK than it would have been at the same kind of job in the US, because UK law requires employers to grant leave from the day they start work, while US federal law and the law in many states doesn’t require leave at all for anyone—not even people who are sick or recently gave birth.

So, why did it happen now? What changed? The pandemic threw our lives into turmoil, that much is true. But it didn’t fundamentally change the power imbalance between workers and employers. Why was that enough?

I think I know why. The shock from the pandemic didn’t have to be enough to actually change people’s minds about striking—it merely had to be enough to convince people that others would show up. It wasn’t the first-order intention “I want to strike” that changed; it was the second-order belief “Other people want to strike too”.

For a labor strike is a coordination game par excellence. If 1 person strikes, they get fired and replaced. If 2 or 3 or 10 strike, most likely the same thing. But if 10,000 strike? If 100,000 strike? Suddenly corporations have no choice but to give in.

The most important question on your mind when you are deciding whether or not to strike is not, “Do I hate my job?” but “Will my co-workers have my back?”.

Coordination games exhibit a very fascinating—and still not well-understood—phenomenon known as Schelling points. People will typically latch onto certain seemingly-arbitrary features of their choices, and do so well enough that simply having such a focal point can radically increase the level of successful coordination.

I believe that the pandemic shock was just such a Schelling point. It didn’t change most people’s working conditions all that much: though I can see why nurses in particular would be upset, it’s not clear to me that being a university lecturer is much worse now than it was a year ago. But what the pandemic did do was change everyone’s working conditions, all at once. It was a sudden shock toward work dissatisfaction that applied to almost the entire workforce.

Thus, many people who were previously on the fence about striking were driven over the edge—and then this in turn made others willing to take the leap as well, suddenly confident that they would not be acting alone.

Another important feature of the pandemic shock was that it took away a lot of what people had left to lose. Consider the two following games.

Game A: You and 100 other people each separately, without communicating, decide to choose X or Y. If you all choose X, you each get $20. But if even one of you chooses Y, then everyone who chooses Y gets $1 but everyone who chooses X gets nothing.

Game B: Same as the above, except that if anyone chooses Y, everyone who chooses Y also gets nothing.

Game A is tricky, isn’t it? You want to choose X, and you’d be best off if everyone did. But can you really trust 100 other people to all choose X? Maybe you should take the safe bet and choose Y—but then, they’re thinking the same way.


Game B, on the other hand, is painfully easy: Choose X. Obviously choose X. There’s no downside, and potentially a big upside.

In terms of game theory, both games have the same two Nash equilibria: All-X and All-Y. But in the second game, I made all-X also a weak dominant strategy equilibrium, and that made all the difference.

We could run these games in the lab, and I’m pretty sure I know what we’d find: In game A, most people choose X, but some people don’t, and if you repeat the game more and more people choose Y. But in game B, almost everyone chooses X and keeps on choosing X. Maybe they don’t get unanimity every time, but they probably do get it most of the time—because why wouldn’t you choose X? (These are testable hypotheses! I could in fact run this experiment! Maybe I should?)

It’s hard to say at this point how effective these strikes will be. Surely there will be some concessions won—there are far too many workers striking for them all to get absolutely nothing. But it remains uncertain whether the concessions will be small, token changes just to break up the strikes, or serious, substantive restructuring of how work is done in the United States.

If the latter sounds overly optimistic, consider that this is basically what happened in the New Deal. Those massive—and massively successful—reforms were not generated out of nowhere; they were the result of the economic crisis of the Great Depression and substantial pressure by organized labor. We may yet see a second New Deal (a Green New Deal?) in the 2020s if labor organizations can continue putting the pressure on.

The most important thing in making such a grand effort possible is believing that it’s possible—only if enough people believe it can happen will enough people take the risk and put in the effort to make it happen. Apathy and cynicism are the most powerful weapons of the status quo.


We are witnessing history in the making. Let’s make it in the right direction.

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