If there’s one thing that the Black Death and the COVID-19 pandemic share—which isn’t all that much, thankfully—it’s workers wanting more from their bosses.
When the Black Death ravaged England in the mid-14th century, it also wiped out a significant chunk of the workforce, since 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population had died. But the peasants who survived had a sudden opportunity to call the shots and, realizing the economic situation was on their side, were far more confident in negotiating with the lords, according to Benjamin Dodds, an associate professor of history at Florida State University.
Their ask, according to some documentation, was double or triple whatever they’d earned before the bubonic plague. And they might’ve gotten it: average weekly earnings in the United Kingdom shot up after the population dramatically declined.
“The lords need them more than they need the lords or the employers,” said Dodds, who also noted it’s likely that many communities lost more than half their residents. “And maybe this is the situation that we might be getting into now.”
Going into Year Three of the global coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have left their jobs in recent months, either to retire or to search for better ones, and they’re attempting to gain ground in wages or benefits whenever possible. While burnout, health concerns, a lack of childcare options, and a desire for higher pay have contributed to what’s been termed the “Great Resignation” or “Great Reshuffling,” it’s also undeniably a consequence of the pandemic.
The employers left behind have few options during the labor shortage: They can meet the demands of those willing to work, or maybe buy more robots.
There’s evidence that workers are benefiting from this dynamic. Hourly earnings have risen, particularly for those in low-wage service sectors like leisure and hospitality. Companies are planning raises for 2022. Some workplaces are offering new perks, like paid parental leave and bonuses.
But gaining a bit of leverage in the workplace cost American workers, particularly those who couldn’t perform their jobs from home during the pandemic. They were sickened or traumatized by the virus, then expected to return to business-as-usual. Billionaires’ wealth, meanwhile, has soared during the health crisis.
So it’s not just that employees want to politely ask for higher wages—they also sometimes want to express their disdain for a system that’s failed them.
“A lot of people have realized that we’re in a state of great income inequality, and maybe they feel like a serf in the Middle Ages,” said Catherine Creighton, director of the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations Buffalo Co-lab. “Most of the income goes to the top—and the wealth certainly goes to the top 10% or 1% of the American population—so young people who are extremely burdened with debt and are looking at a low-wage life with poor health insurance and very little pension benefits are fed up.”
The result, Creighton said, is a wave of worker mobilization unlike any she’s seen in her lifetime. Her “own personal Starbucks” in Buffalo, New York, just recently became the first in the country to unionize. And the baristas’ union campaign hasn’t stopped at that location.
“These are employees on their own deciding,” Creighton said. “This is a real employee, grassroots-driven movement.”
The passion behind that fight is everywhere. Consider the Reddit forum r/antiwork. (“Do not stay at a job out of some warped sense of loyalty or thinking it will get better,” the title of one recent post there read. “Find a new job and leave as you'll move up faster for more money.”) Then there are the thousands of workers at Kroger’s King Soopers stores who went on strike this month to demand better pay and a safer workplace.
Evidence that English workers wanted better conditions from their employers after surviving the Black Death is also pretty stark, and often kind of hilarious. In 1349, during the throes of a labor shortage caused by the bubonic plague’s widespread death and devastation, an English ordinance attempted to quash workers' sudden demands for “excessive wages'' by freezing their pay at pre-plague levels. When that didn’t work in the following years, an English statute grumbled about how people had totally ignored the first ordinance.
Peasants, who were already pretty miserable before the Black Death—this was an age where feudalism existed, after all—had realized their considerable leverage. No one else was really left to do their work, should their bosses object to workers’ demands. Employers could pay the uppity peasants more, or do the job themselves.
“You get this language, ‘How dare they? They refuse to work for anything less than double wages,’” said Christine Johnson, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. “And you’re like, ‘Well yeah, I mean, you refuse to work at all.’”
One chronicler wrote of the time, for instance, that laborers were turning down work almost out of laziness and abundance of resources—such as some governors seemed to believe last year when they cut extra unemployment benefits to try to boost economic recovery.
“Such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at unemployment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages,” the anonymous chronicler wrote. “Instead, because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time for idleness, thieving, and other outrages, and thus the poor and survival have become the rich and the rich impoverished.”
On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how Black Death-era workers felt during their period of better pay or if there was a period-appropriate equivalent to the Twitter account @fuckyouiquit. Records from the time were primarily kept by the privileged in England.
“A lot of people have realized that we’re in a state of great income inequality, and maybe they feel like a serf in the Middle Ages.”
But it’s still obvious the real incomes of wage workers rose, ushering in a temporary period of greater economic equality, Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and history at Stanford University, told VICE News. (Outcomes differed from country to country, Scheidel said. The labor scarcity that accelerated the decline of serfdom in Western Europe entrenched it on the other side of the continent.) That made a difference in what peasants could afford to eat—maybe they could drink beer and eat meat rather than subsisting on porridge, for example—and how they could afford to dress.
“The poor are less poor and the rich are less rich—that’s the bottom line,” Scheidel said. “At least in countries where the employers are forced to be responsive to these new market dynamics.”
Still, it’s not like lords went away. Worker shortages aside, they remained wealthy and powerful, as the heads of major companies do today. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos added more than $72 billion to his net worth in 2020, when the economy was in freefall, according to CNBC.
Now, the question is: How long can this period of worker-led advances in America last?
After the Black Death, employers didn’t just simply succumb to the laborers’ wishes. They also responded to their workers’ demands by turning to methods that increased productivity or efficiency so they could get more done with less, according to Andrew Latham, a professor of political science who teaches a course on plagues, pandemics, and politics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“In the short- to medium-term, if you’re the supplier of labor, you’ve got the upper hand,” Latham said. “You can negotiate a better wage for yourself. But the guy on the other side of that bargaining table is also thinking, ‘OK, I don’t want to be in this disadvantaged situation. I don’t want to pay $20 an hour for somebody to do this. Can I automate it?’”
By later pandemics, like the Great Plague of London in 1665 and 1666, the wealthy had found a way around laborers’ pesky demands. While workers’ post-Black Death wages stayed high for a while—in part because the plague kept coming back and keeping the population low—they began to decline in the 15th century, according to Scheidel. Once laborers lost their leverage, those in power wanted to make sure they never got it back.
“They developed new strategies of keeping people down more effectively. And we know this because there was a big resurgence of the plague in the middle of the 17th century—which wasn’t much less severe epidemiologically than the one in the 14th century—and yet it did not have comparable effects on inequality,” Scheidel said.
The reason, potentially, was policies designed to screw over workers, including regressive taxes and new inheritance arrangements for the wealthy, according to Scheidel.
Other pandemics also failed to largely benefit workers after the Black Death. When European colonizers brought Old World diseases like smallpox and measles to the Americas, for example, they wiped out 80 to 95 percent of Native Americans. That depopulation, coupled with the many lucrative crops that still needed harvesting, a labor shortage, and racial prejudice, contributed to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade.
So despite current workers’ fierce desire for change, the ongoing pandemic’s labor shortage, and period of increased wages likely won’t bring long-lasting positive benefits, said Elise Gould, a senior economist, at the Economic Policy Institute.
After all, laborers can’t exactly turn their current leverage into concrete bargaining power, since unionization has declined over the past several decades. Plus, as workers have seen higher wages, they’ve also broadly seen more devastation from COVID-19.
All that adds up to bosses probably winning in the end.
“The ability for workers to lock in these wages long-term is pretty minimal,” Gould said. “This moment is very short.”
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