Free Labor Today
Imagine the gun rights movement without the Second Amendment, and you get
some idea how strange it is for the labor movement to be limping along without
the Thirteenth. Until the 1950s, the Thirteenth Amendment—known then as “The
Glorious Labor Amendment”—sustained workers’ rights in much the same way that
the Second Amendment supports gun rights today. When employers or the government
interfered with the rights to organize and strike, labor leaders and activists
invoked the Thirteenth Amendment. They declared yellow-dog contracts, labor
injunctions, and antistrike laws unconstitutional. They sought labor rights
legislation to enforce the Amendment. If the American Federation of Labor had
had its way, the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act would have commenced with
Every human being has under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the
United States an inalienable right to the disposal of his labor free from
interference, restraint or coercion by or in behalf of employers of labor,
including the right to associate with other human beings for the protection and
advancement of their common interests as workers, and in such association to
negotiate through representatives of their own choosing concerning the terms of
employment and conditions of labor, and to take concerted action for their own
protection in labor disputes.
Like the gun rights movement today, the old labor movement did not turn to
the Constitution expecting court victories in the short run. Nor did the
movement use the Constitution to appear more respectable in the eyes of “the
public.” Instead, workers and unions invoked their constitutional rights in
order to mobilize supporters, stiffen their resolve, justify confrontational and
even illegal tactics, and signal elites that workers were fighting over issues
of fundamental principle that would not be traded away for a wage hike.
Beginning in 1909, it was the official policy of the American Federation of
Labor that a worker confronted with an unconstitutional injunction had an
“imperative duty” to “refuse obedience and to take whatever consequences may
ensue.” Every attack on workers’ rights was met with an impassioned defense of
the constitutional rights to organize and strike. When the state of Kansas
banned strikes in key industries, for example, the AFL declared the law
unconstitutional and ten thousand coal miners staged a four-month protest
strike. Conservative business unionists like Samuel Gompers backed radicals like
Alex Howat, the Kansas miners’ fiery leader, in their open defiance of
Many intellectuals—including some who claimed to be “friends of labor”—joined
employers in pooh-poohing the movement’s Thirteenth Amendment claims. They
pointed to the text of the Amendment, which states: “Neither slavery nor
involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall
have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place
subject to their jurisdiction.” How in the world, they sneered, could workers be
in a condition of “slavery” or “involuntary servitude” when they enjoyed the
individual right to quit their jobs? But labor leaders and activists held firm
and insisted that without the rights to organize and strike, workers could not
Immigrant Rights and the Thirteenth Amendment
When thousands of immigrants and immigrant rights supporters took to the
streets on May 1, 2006, it felt like the coming-of-age of a social movement akin
to the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s or the labor movement of the
1930s-40s. Just as sanitation workers in Memphis, supported by Martin Luther
King, Jr., carried signs proclaiming “I Am a Man” to support their fight for
labor, civil, and human rights, immigrant rights groups have also invoked a
range of moral justifications. Immigrant rights groups speak about human rights,
workers’ rights, citizenship rights, and civil rights. Immigrants, especially
immigrant workers and their families, might as well draw on the language of the
The Thirteenth Amendment provides a compelling moral and analytical description
of the immigrant rights issue. A case can be made that that the Amendment
prohibits abusive work relationships that interfere with workers’ rights,
citizenship rights, human rights, and civil rights in ways similar to the
institution of chattel slavery. Currently, two labor arrangements affecting
immigrant workers arguably violate this holistic vision of the Thirteenth
Amendment—the limited remedies available to undocumented workers and the
treatment of “guest workers” on temporary visas.
Moreover, the Thirteenth Amendment offers an organizational bridge connecting
citizenship rights groups with liberal constituencies focusing on workers
rights, human rights, and civil rights. The Amendment’s history, social meaning,
and case law weave together and highlight the interrelatedness of these four key
rights. Too often they are advanced independently by four different groups.
Labor unions and other labor organizations currently advocate for workers’
rights. Immigrant rights groups focus on citizenship rights. Various human
rights organizations, including “nongovernmental organizations,” fight on behalf
of enslaved workers, trafficked workers, and workers employed in coercive work
relationships. Finally, civil rights groups combat discrimination against racial
or ethnic minorities. The time is ripe to bring these constituencies together,
and the Thirteenth Amendment provides the means to do so.
Contrary to popular belief, the Thirteenth Amendment goes far beyond the
elimination of chattel slavery as practiced in the South prior to the Civil War.
Its prohibitions against “slavery and involuntary servitude” sought both to rid
the country of an immoral, inhumane social system and to eliminate oppressive
labor arrangements. By ending slavery, it sought to help the slaves and improve
society by eliminating certain types of evils, which we currently think of as
human rights or civil right violations, such as the selling of human beings,
forced labor, lack of family autonomy, and racial inequality.
Why Labor Needs a Plan B: Alternatives to Conventional Trade Unionism
The recent consolidation of democratic majorities in both houses of Congress
(albeit by only one vote in the Senate) has revived the fortunes of the Employee
Free Choice Act (EFCA), the labor movement’s signature proposal for labor law
reform which would reinvigorate the Wagner Act by enshrining card check
recognition into law. No one really expects the president to sign it and there
may not be enough votes in the Senate for it to pass there, but labor has placed
EFCA at the very top of its legislative agenda in order to open up a much
broader conversation about how impossible it has become for workers to choose
unions, and to make clear that it expects this democratic congress to be
accountable to its chief benefactors.
The firing of workers during union organizing drives has become a daily, in fact
an hourly occurrence. According to American Rights at Work (ARAW), every
twenty-three minutes, in the United States, a worker is fired or discriminated
against for her support of union organizing. While vicious employer opposition
is a main reason that unions are struggling, it is not the sole culprit. The
mismatch between union models and contemporary business and industry structures
as well as the mismatch between union models, firm structures, and New Deal
labor and employment laws are major obstacles.
Today, most jobs are “born” nonunion, and nonunion firms are in the majority in
most industries. As a consequence, it is extremely difficult to successfully
organize individual companies that are embedded in largely nonunion industries.
In this context, a one-firm-at-a-time worksite approach to organizing stands
little chance of success. Instead, unions are endeavoring to organize across
multiple firms within regional labor markets at once—“whole market” or “labor
market” unionism. While a minority of unions have been developing effective
strategies for unionization in this environment, the vast majority are
struggling to stake out fixed points in the radically transformed world of work.
The decomposition of the vertically integrated firm with an embedded internal
labor market has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in subcontracting and
other nonstandard work arrangements. To maximize profit and minimize risk, and
to avoid social insurance obligations and unionization, firms in many industries
have increasingly turned to part-timing, subcontracting, and classifying workers
as independent contractors rather than employees. Many workers have less job
security and are less likely to access health insurance, pensions, and job
training through their employers. It isn’t just contracting out that is the
issue. Even those workers still in traditional employment relationships are
seeing their benefits packages curtailed. Only 50 percent of all private sector
employees today receive their health insurance through their employers.
Meanwhile our public policies are still stuck in the 1930s.
Most workers still need and want unions but they need the kind of union
membership that helps them fill in the benefits and training that is not
available to them at their place of work, that is flexible and fully portable
Construction or De-Construction: The Road to Revival in the Building
“Brothers and sisters, we are at a crossroads,” announced IBEW president Ed
Hill to over three hundred thousand union electricians across North America.
“There are only two ways we can go. We can continue on with business-as-usual
and have a front row seat to our own demise, or we can put the IBEW back on the
path of success.” That kind of candor may be rare among contemporary labor
leaders, but it reflects a perspective held by many building trades unionists
who share Hill’s view that “we have a hammer over our heads. Call it a crisis.
Call it a threat. We could become insignificant in our industry.”
According to Peter A. Cockshaw, a national labor analyst who has been covering
the construction industry for forty years, “The unionized construction sector is
in a battle and a war for economic survival. I have never seen a situation so
The building and construction trades have historically been one of the most
stable and secure sectors of the American labor movement. In the period
immediately after World War II, their power in the construction industry was
legendary, controlling over 80 percent of the work and setting standards that
were the envy of workers everywhere. How did the building trades’ position
devolve so dramatically that it is now commonly described as a crisis of
survival? How has the construction industry evolved in ways that have undermined
the strength and vitality of building trades unions? How have construction
unionists responded to the changed circumstances of their industry and their
weakened position in it? How has the larger context of a labor movement in
crisis influenced the strategic options of building trades leaders on both sides
of the national split?
The Construction Context: An Industry in Transition
Construction is one of the most important and least understood sectors of the
American economy. It is a one trillion dollar industry, a solid barometer of
general economic performance, and the only goods-producing sector that continues
to post job growth. Between 1994 and 2004, employment grew by 2.5 million—from 5
million to 7.75 million—while mining and manufacturing lost about that many jobs
during the same period of time. Over the next decade, construction employment is
projected to grow by another seven hundred ninety thousand jobs, lagging behind
only retail trade, health care, employment services and food services. The
opportunity for union growth is enormous.
Latin America Leans Left: Labor and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism
After almost twenty years of living with the Washington Consensus of free
trade policies, a broad opposition to the political economy of neoliberal
globalization developed throughout Latin America in the late 1990s. As the
Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (of the ICFTU) meeting in
Cochabamba, Bolivia, in December noted, “The victories of Evo Morales [in
Bolivia], Lula [in Brazil], Chávez [in Venezuela] and Rafael Correa in Ecuador,
create an opportunity for the establishment of an integration process different
from the neoliberal model…and an opportunity to confront the free trade
agreements that are being negotiated in the region.” Some workers see an
opportunity to build a more humane capitalist system, while others see a chance
to construct socialism in Latin America. Whatever their long-term political
agenda, all see opportunities in the present dynamic situation to advance
The change in Latin America has been driven by massive protests involving
general strikes, sometimes violent uprisings, and a left-wing military coup. By
2006, these protest movements brought to power new left-of-center governments in
several countries. The presidents elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil,
Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay in this period came to power by
opposing, at least nominally, the free market policies pushed upon them by the
United States and the world financial institutions—the IMF, World Bank, and WTO.
While the visions, programs and actions of these governments vary significantly,
taken together this development represents an important shift in the politics of
Latin America vis-à-vis the United States and its free trade agenda. More
important, this block of nations and of peoples represents a search for an
alternative to the destructive and dehumanizing regime of savage capitalism
masked by the term globalization.
Working people, organized in many fashions, have been pushing from below to
create governments that will stand up for them against Washington and the
international financial institutions. The shift leftward has been anything but
simple, and the labor movement is far from being the only factor. Unions as we
know them are not the only, nor even necessarily the most important,
organizations of working people. In Latin America, labor unions exist in complex
relations with many other social movements and political parties, and sometimes
with armed guerrilla movements and left-wing military officers. Relations
between unions, peasant organizations, indigenous movements and left political
parties are complex and dynamic and each nation’s experience is unique. Only in
Brazil has the labor movement been central to the political shift, while in
other countries military leaders with broad popular followings, indigenous
people, or even students have been more important. Labor and social movements
have used tactics and strategies ranging from protest demonstrations and strikes
to national uprisings, that verged on becoming revolutionary upheavals.
The Coalition to Win: Gomperism for the Twenty-first Century
A quick history quiz: It is a period of U.S. History in which fewer than 10
percent of private sector workers belong to trade unions. The embattled labor
movement can expect no support from a hostile or indifferent government. The
A) 1896, as the young American Federation of Labor (AFL) led by cigar maker
Samuel Gompers struggles to survive and grow
B) 1936, as the emerging Committee on (soon to be Congress of) Industrial
Organization (CIO) led by mineworker John L. Lewis charges out on the great
organizing campaigns of the twentieth century
C) 2006, as a labor movement much diminished from its mid-twentieth-century peak
struggles to right itself and resume growth
If you answered either (A) or (C), of course, you are correct. Enchanted by the
spectacle of a split in the national labor federation by a dissident “Change to
Win” grouping of trade unions—proposing aggressive organizing with a new
structural approach—many observers have been quick to draw comparisons with the
explosive 1935 rupture that led to the foundation of the CIO. That split
resulted in an unprecedented tripling of trade union membership in a single
decade, and soon thereafter propelled American union membership to its historic
plateau of about one-third of the workforce.
Yet, as Jack Metzgar concluded in this space two years ago (“Is This the Second
Coming of the CIO?” New Labor Forum, Summer 2005), this is probably not the best
historic parallel for understanding Change to Win. The organizing breakthroughs
of the era were made possible by two essential conditions: a massive upsurge of
rank-and-file activity among American workers, and the support of a sympathetic
government in Washington. I suspect that the absence of either factor—this
bursting grassroots enthusiasm for organization or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal
Democracy—would have crippled the CIO initiative. Many on the left have insisted
that genuine organizing will be impossible without the former; more importantly,
many in the AFL-CIO have argued that it will be impossible without the latter.
But neither condition obtains today, and since no one has demonstrated an
ability to conjure up either condition in the next month or year or perhaps
decade, the argument is academic.
We are not in the world of John L. Lewis and the CIO, I would argue, but that of
Samuel Gompers and the AFL. And now for the good news: although the AFL in its
early decades enjoyed neither the sustained spontaneous self-activity that
characterized the mid-1930s working class, nor the solicitude of a friendly
government periodically intervening on its behalf, the federation and its
affiliates found a path to steady if unspectacular growth, and built a labor
movement capable of enduring in these challenging circumstances. Confronting a
hostile state, and employers prepared to use violence where necessary to defeat
them, a handful of trade unions representing a mere 150,000 workers marshaled
their meager resources to form the American Federation of Labor.
Response to ”The Coalition to Win: Gomperism for the Twenty-first
There are some things on which Clayton Sinyai and I both agree—the Wagner era
is over; labor organizing did not begin with the Labor Board; the AFL under
Gompers (actually William Green, who took the helm in 1924 upon Gompers’ death
and remained president until he died in 1952) never matched the growth “that
made the industrial union movement of the 1930s legendary;” and the Justice for
Janitors campaigns (under the able leadership of Stephen Lerner) are exciting
and have lessons for all working-class organizations.
But there is much on which we disagree. It is impossible to comment on all of
Sinyai’s examples here. For example, his statement that the main predecessor of
the UFCW is the retail clerks—by most accounts it is both the Amalgamated Meat
Cutters and the Retail Clerks; or the implication that only the Change to Win
unions appreciate how little the NLRB election process works for workers; or
that the difference between the AFL-CIO and CtW unions can be neatly reduced to
legislation versus organizing—both groups engage in electoral politics and
organizing. Instead, I’ll focus on the larger issues upon which Sinyai’s article
relies: historical context and the role of unions in the working class.
The Historical Context of the AFL’s “Success”
Sinyai posits that the path to rebuilding union density involves taking a page
from the AFL “voluntarist” playbook. As Sinyai states, “[t]he key insight of the
old AFL voluntarism [was that] we cannot rely on the government to solve our
problems.” The AFL steered clear of both engaging in the social issues of the
day as well as “entrusting labor’s fate to political panaceas and friendly
politicians. “[I]nstead relying on tools … and devices under their control” and
focusing on their members’ needs, the AFL “created a labor movement capable of
enduring hard times and even flourishing in them.” This program, Sinyai
suggests, allowed the AFL to succeed while other unions like the IWW, the
Knights of Labor, and American Railway Union collapsed under hostile employers,
Pinkertons, and Republican and Democratic governments alike.
There is, however, more to the story.
Organizing Wal-Mart in China: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Surprise, surprise, it is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU),
the trade union notorious throughout the world for being “useless,” that has
taken on Wal-Mart and succeeded in setting up workplace union branches at
twenty-two Wal-Mart supercenters in China within four weeks. The Western mass
media and some of the Chinese media coverage of the incident have been generally
dismissive, on the presumption that the ACFTU does not really act like a trade
union. Western reporters have indicated that Wal-Mart has finally found a union
that it can live with. But has nothing positive emerged from the organizing of
Wal-Mart’s stores? Is the ACFTU a dinosaur that never changes? Or, could there
be reformers from within the ACFTU pushing for change?
After analyzing eighty reports from Chinese newspapers and magazines, it became
obvious that in taking on Wal-Mart, the ACFTU attempted to do something it has
not endeavored since the early 1950s—grassroots union organizing. How the first
few union branches came to be formed within such a short period provides
intriguing insights into this new phenomenon.
Before all else, it is necessary for us to understand that the Chinese press
today is no longer totally under state control. On their own initiative,
newspapers cover stories they consider newsworthy. For more than three years,
the Chinese media has followed closely the jostling between the ACFTU and
Wal-Mart and has, helped shape Chinese public opinion on the issue. At least
some reporters have adopted the stance—why should we Chinese give in to this
giant corporation, which comes to China, throws its weight around, and openly
defies the law of the land.
Setting up Unions from the Top
Wal-Mart miscalculated in thinking it could use the same antiunion tactics in
China that it does around the world. If, like its main competitor in China, the
giant European retailer Carrefour, Wal-Mart had welcomed the ACFTU to establish
union branches in Wal-Mart superstores, those union branches would not have
challenged management. The process would have been similar to so many other
workplace union branches set up by the ACFTU in foreign-funded enterprises—from
the top down.
Nannies in New York
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the nannies begin to swarm Manhattan’s
Washington Square Park. They’re mostly the watchers of downtown children—the
Tribeca and Soho and Village nannies. In search of camaraderie and relief from
the boredom that comes from spending large amounts of time with the preverbal,
they wheel their charges around on a circuit that goes from the River Park
Playground, at Chambers and Greenwich, to Bleecker Playground, Madison Square
Park, Union Square, and homeward through Washington Square Park.
The playground at that final destination has special appeal. Riffs from conga
drums, acoustic guitars, and saxes drift in from other parts of the park. The
noise of soap box ranting against the war in Iraq enters with sufficient volume
to energize adults but not loudly enough to spook babies. “It just seems
livelier,” says one nanny of Washington Square. “Like Union Square,” says
another, “but cleaner, and there’s cops to protect us from drug dealers and
weird men.” “I’ve seen Uma Thurman,” notes a third. “She just acts ordinary,
playing with her kid.” “Upper West Side nannies dress too fancy, and on the East
Side they wear labels. Here it’s tee shirts, flip flops; we’re more relaxed.”
“There aren’t so many mothers to spy on us. And the ones who do come are artists
and things like that, so they’re nice.” “The diversity! There are people from
Indeed, Washington Square Park is a nanny United Nations. Trinidad, Jamaica,
Barbados, Poland, Russia, Ireland, China, Chile, Honduras, the Philippines,
Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan—on a random day, a visitor can count women from these
countries and a half dozen others, not to mention natives of Alabama and Great
Neck. But unlike UN delegates, nannies tend to segregate themselves along strict
racial, ethnic, and national lines. Those from the English-speaking Caribbean
and South America congregate on the north side of the playground, by the swings
and the gate. Latinas cluster on the south side, near the jungle gym. Asians sit
to the right of the Latinas, or exit the playground at naptime with sleeping
children, to form grouplets elsewhere in the park. Non-Hispanic white nannies, a
rarity, seldom bunch up. Instead, some sit quietly here and there. Others stand.
Some wander near the sandbox, looking lost.
Carolyn is from Guyana. She favors sensible denim jumpers, glasses that are too
big now that little ones are in vogue, and a poker-straightened page boy hairdo.
She’s friends with Susan, who is a deep shade of black with natural kink in her
hair to match. Susan’s home country is St. Vincent. She and Carolyn are members
of the city’s biggest nanny cohort: those hailing from former colonies of Great
Britain in the tropical Western Hemisphere. These nannies tend to have green
cards or U.S. citizenship. Many got high school educations in their native
countries, and even some college. English is their native tongue. They can sing
“London Bridge is Falling Down” to American tots without missing a beat, and
help older kids with language arts homework. They’re the nanny elite.
Youth Unemployment Rising, with Hundreds of Millions More Working
but Living in Poverty
The number of unemployed youth aged fifteen to twenty-four rose over the past
decade, while hundreds of millions more are working but living in poverty,
according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
While the number of young unemployed increased from 74 million to 85 million, or
by 14.8 percent between 1995 and 2005, more than 300 million youth, or
approximately 25 percent of the youth population, were living below the US$2 per
day poverty line.
The ILO report estimates that at least 400 million decent and productive
employment opportunities—simply put, new and better jobs—will be needed in order
to reach the full productive potential of today's youth. The report also says
youth are more than three times as likely to be unemployed than adults, and that
the relative disadvantage is more pronounced in developing countries, where
youth represent a significantly higher proportion of the labor force than in
"Despite increased economic growth, the inability of economies to create enough
decent and productive jobs is hitting the world's young especially hard," said
ILO director-general Juan Somavia. "Not only are we seeing a growing deficit of
decent work opportunities and high levels of economic uncertainty, but this
worrying trend threatens to damage the future economic prospects of one of our
worlds' greatest assets—our young men and women."
The report emphasizes that today's youth face serious vulnerabilities in the
world of work and warns that a lack of decent work, if experienced at an early
age, may permanently compromise their future employment prospects. The report
adds urgency to the UN call for development of strategies aimed at giving young
people a chance to maximize their productive potential through decent
Among the report's key findings:
Of the 1.1 billion young people aged fifteen to twenty-four worldwide, one out
of three is either seeking but unable to find work, has given up the job search
entirely, or is working but living on less than US$2 a day.
While the youth population grew by 13.2 percent between 1995 and 2005,
employment among young people grew by only 3.8 percent to reach 548 million.
Unemployed youth make up 44 per cent of the world's total unemployed despite
the fact that their share of the total working-age population aged fifteen and
over is only 25 percent.
The youth unemployment rate was far higher than the adult unemployment rate of
4.6 percent in 2005, rising from 12.3 percent in 1995 to 13.5 percent last year.
“Idle youth is a costly group,” the report says, noting that an inability to
find employment creates a sense of vulnerability, uselessness, and redundancy.
There are costs, therefore, to youth themselves, but also to economies and
societies as a whole, both in terms of lack of savings, loss of aggregate
demand, and less spending for investment as well as social costs for remedial
services such as preventing crime and drug use. “All this is a threat to the
development potential of economies,” Mr. Somavia said. "Today, we are
squandering the economic potential of an enormous percentage of our population,
especially in developing countries which can least afford it. Focusing on youth,
therefore, is a must for any country."
This article is reprinted from
Making the Federal Minimum Wage a Living Wage
The Democrats moved rapidly after taking control of Congress to make
good on their 2006 campaign promise to raise the federal minimum wage.
The minimum wage is now scheduled to rise in three steps up to $7.25 an
hour as of mid-2009. This is the first federal increase since 1997, when
the $5.15 minimum was enacted. (As of this writing, the final version of
the law still awaits reconciliation between the House and Senate bills
that have passed. President Bush’s approval will almost certainly follow
a House/Senate agreement.)
Congress passed the $7.25 minimum wage because the political support for it
outside the Beltway was rock-solid. Its foundation was the living wage movement
that has organized and won victories throughout the country for over a decade.
In the November 2006 election, six states—Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana,
Nevada, and Ohio—passed minimum wage increases with a 65 percent average level
of support. This means when the new federal minimum wage becomes law sometime in
mid-2007, twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, representing nearly
70 percent of the total U.S. population, will already be operating with minimum
wage standards above $5.15. Beyond this, more than 140 municipalities now
operate under some version of a living wage law, with the living wage minimum
generally set between nine and eleven dollars per hour.
Voters throughout the United States clearly support the principle of living wage
standards. But do we really know what a reasonable “living wage” minimum is for
the country today? And if such a figure were to be enacted into law, would it
lead to job losses for low-wage workers, as critics persistently assert? These
are the questions that move us usefully beyond the official Washington frame of
reference that is culminating with the new $7.25 minimum.
What is a Living Wage?
Let’s first be clear that $7.25 an hour as of mid-2009 is not close to a living
wage. After controlling for inflation, $7.25 as of mid-2009 will likely
represent an increase of only about 4 percent over $5.15 as of 1997, when $5.15
became the federal minimum.
Caught in the Web
When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved, the language
of globalization quickly emerged to describe a world no longer divided by walls
and political barriers. No more would there be a First World, a Second World,
and a Third World. Instead, the tripartite division would be replaced by an
invocation of unity: a single global community, united by free markets.
Yet, the transformation of the world into a vast marketplace came at a cost for
working-class people. Where capital appeared newly free, mobile, and capable of
opening factories or outsourcing labor, workers remained reliant on social and
political rights for their economic power—and these rights depended for their
enforcement on national governments. What was more, virtually all labor
organizations were national or at the most regional (like the “international”
unions of the United States, which include members in Canada). Despite the rise
of an international economy that highlighted the continued divisions of class,
workers’ organizations remained separated by the boundaries of nations and the
political ideologies of the Cold War era.
On the last day of October 2006, the labor movement took a major step towards
building truly international institutions for working people. The International
Conference of Free Trade Unions dissolved itself, merging with other
organizations to create a new global labor federation: the International Trade
Union Confederation. The organization will consist of member unions representing
more than 190 million workers around the world. The new group’s website—which
contains English, French, Spanish, and German translations—testifies to the
astonishing diversity of the global labor movement—the press room feature has
links to articles about migrant workers, repression of union activists in Iran,
exploitation in Hong Kong. ITUC also does its own research and reports, on
subjects such as Estonian migrant workers.
Sometimes a Great Notion: The Democrats and Their Rendezvous with
The Courage of Our Convictions
By Gary Hart
Henry Holt, 2006
Take It Back: A Battle Plan for Democratic Victory
By James Carville and Paul Begala
Simon and Schuster, 2006
Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for
By Thomas Edsall
Basic Books, 2006
Rapture is a ten million vote margin. Lifted up by the windfall in the
midterm election, Blue America has good reason to celebrate its long sought
deliverance. Happy Days Are Here Again. Well, not quite. Rephrase: happier days
are here, until Red America binds up its wounds and brings it on in the next
election cycle. The decisive repudiation of Conservatism and the Bush
Administration means the Party Of The People has another shot at the brass ring
of political dominance.
Of course, the Democrats could blow it, succumb to majority-whip temptation,
become Beltway Bandits every bit as greedy and heavy-handed as pay-for-play
Republicans. Already there are disturbing reports about inner-circle lobbying
hires and welcome wagon campaign contributions. But it is not hard to imagine
the Democrats toeing the ethical line, and refraining from the kind of
pimp-my-office influence peddling that distinguished the gangsta tenure of The
Hammer and his K Street Project.
More ominous perhaps is the ease of victory itself, shades of Baghdad revisited.
Toppling the statues of George W. Bush and Karl Rove proved something of a
cakewalk. The flanking army of moderates and independents—more awe than
shock—spoke with one clarion voice: Out of Office Now.
One can hope that Red America will accede to the will of the heartland and go
gently into that good night, but don't bet on it. Look for the Rove Punishment
Guerilla (RPG) to regroup and fight another day, on terrain it knows only too
well: Bloody Kansas. Statute 527 outriders and firebrands will surely turn the
2008 presidential campaign into scorched earth, particularly if Hillary Clinton
runs. In short, the Dems have only a small window in which to secure the
election before it is hijacked and turned into shrapnel.
As brevet Majority Party, the Democrats are at sea, trying to see through the
fog of war long enough to get a bearing or two. This way lies a Hobson's choice
and that way a double bind, and Iraq is a Gordian knot composed of no less than
seventy-nine tightly interwoven strands, according to the Iraq Study Group.
Staying the centrist course means point-by-point reckoning, hugging the shore
via the celebrated zigzag originally laid down by Bill Clinton—call it left
Reaganism. There be demons and dragons should the Party dare go boldly where
none but Lyndon Johnson has gone before. Red America can be expected to sabotage
the steering mechanism in any case.
But if the books under review are any compass, the Party may have no choice but
to put caution to the wind and push on to the antipodes. Gary Hart, Thomas
Edsall, James Carville, and Paul Begala, a brain trust of no little authority
and experience, agree that the Party is in serious if not mortal jeopardy. In
their collective analysis, the Party has reached its nadir, lacks wisdom,
direction, and (above all) courage. It even lacks a soul.
Love of God Among the Ruins
How the Other Half Worships
By Camilo José Vergara
Rutgers University Press, 2005
How the Other Half Worships, by Camilo José Vergara, focuses on the religious
lives of African Americans and Latinos/as who create churches in some of the
nation’s most impoverished inner city neighborhoods. It is beautiful to look at,
stimulating, original, and altogether commendable within the limits it sets for
itself. At the same time, these limits make it feel incomplete in ways that may
be frustrating for some readers.
A critical study of inner city religion would be a welcome addition to recent
public discussions of religion, which too often imply that most U.S. religion is
either conservative or otherworldly and politically disengaged. Pundits have
exaggerated both the supposed decline of liberal Christianity and the supposed
monolithic and conservative nature of evangelical Christians. True, evangelicals
are disproportionately conservative, but at least a third of them are
politically moderate or left of center, especially if we include nonwhite
churches. Moreover, although liberal churches have slipped in power relative to
other groups, they retain more momentum than is often acknowledged. I once
worked in an inner city Minneapolis church that sponsored a homeless shelter and
taught English to Hmong refugees; its minister and key parishioners were active
in community organizing efforts. A map of religion in this church’s neighborhood
that excluded it would be misleading—and more pointedly, an organizer informed
by this map might make serious mistakes.
The great virtue—and at the same time the frustration—of Vergara’s book is the
way it relates to rethinking such maps: both its straightforward contributions
and the opportunities it misses. Vergara was born in Chile and studied sociology
at Columbia University. Since 1977, he has been using photography and
ethnographic observation to document changes in U.S. cities, with special
attention to architecture and uses of space. Earlier books, notably The New
American Ghetto (Rutgers University Press, 1995) and American Ruins (Monacelli
Press, 1999) established a foundation for the current project. His work has
gained wide attention; the BBC has produced a documentary about him, the Nation
has published his articles, and museums have exhibited his photos. In 2002, he
received a MacArthur Foundation genius award.
Is Free Trade Globalization Defensible?
Globalization and Its Enemies
By Daniel Cohen
MIT Press, 2006
The world may be flat, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has
famously argued, but it certainly is not fair. The big question in the current
debate on globalization is whether making it flatter, so to speak, will make it
fairer. Daniel Cohen, professor of economics at the elitist Ecole Normale
Supérieure, advisor to the French prime minister, and columnist for Le Monde,
can be found on both sides of the issue.
On the one hand, Cohen strongly rejects the traditional exploitation arguments
of the left. He essentially argues that more, not less, participation in the
global economy is necessary for the development of the “periphery,” i.e. the
developing countries and emerging market economies. This is a standard argument
of globalization apologists. However, what distinguishes Cohen is that he
carefully examines the consequences of connecting places of human dwelling, i.e.
of making the world “flatter”—be it with roads, seaways, or the Internet.
Theoretical considerations and economic history lead him to predict considerable
negative consequences for places on the periphery, if a simple strategy of
reducing barriers to trade and capital movements is followed. First,
historically, they were not protected against the cultural and ecological
effects of industrial society. Second, the historical and in part current
unwillingness of employers to accept local workers’ demands for higher wages in
exchange for increases in productivity as legitimate—the “spirit of colonialism”
as Cohen calls it— prevents the entry of peripheral societies into a virtuous
cycle of production and consumption. Last, Cohen argues that it is not just
comparative advantage but economies of scale that drive the specialization of
countries. Why does most trade take place between developed countries (in fact,
mostly within and between transnational enterprises), and why are most products
being traded practically identical, e.g. different kinds of cars rather than
textiles and wine as in Ricardo’s classic example? The developed centers are
productive enough to supply each other, and increases in productivity pressure
them to expand their markets to supply the rest of the world. Even when the
countries of the “center” focus on the design and delivery of products and
services and leave the manufacturing to the low-wage “world’s workshops,”
peripheral countries can be trapped in this specialization in the new
international division of labor, just as many have been trapped in the delivery
of natural resources.
Is there a way out for countries on the periphery? Only one, according to Cohen.
Democracy and the New Capitalism
The New Spirit of Capitalism
By Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello
The New Spirit of Capitalism, by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, professors
at the Ecole d’Histoire et Sciences Sociales, is a lengthy and dense opus. The
book is too theoretical for all but academic sociologists concerned with the
fine points of sociological theory. Its primary sources are exclusively French,
namely the managerial literature generated by French corporations and their
publicists. And one-third of the book is devoted to a portrait of a new
capitalism that, for Americans, is hardly new. We have had our fill of baloney
about project-oriented and communal workplaces, “the creative class,” flexible
production, so-called lifetime learning, “networks” and “networking” that
replace bureaucratic hierarchies, along with distinctions between the “new”
entrepreneurialism and the “old” managerialism.
Yet, despite these flaws, this is a valuable book, partly because of its many
detailed insights. It usefully underscores the differences between French
capitalism and its American counterpart. French corporations can engage in
strategies of permanent reconstruction that hurt workers and the labor
movement—downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, casualization of labor, export of
production to the Third World, opting out of pensions and other benefits like
health care—and be assured that they will not destroy the fabric of French
society via inequality. What the corporations relinquish, the French government
assumes, namely the social costs of production. As recent immigrant riots in the
suburbs and student-worker protests over new employment laws amply demonstrate,
the French government cannot declare, as Bill Clinton did, that “the era of big
government is over,” or discard the French welfare state.
The authors also argue that in spite of massive de-unionization in France, just
as in the United States, the two major French unions—the Confederation Generale
du Travail and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail—are more
influential than their membership in local enterprises would indicate. Because
of the Auroux laws put in place in the early 1980s and the continued existence
of French social democracy, the unions are seen as broadly representative of all
workers in France, even though most workers no longer belong to unions. Both
unions have contributed to their own decline in membership by tacitly or overtly
accepting what Boltanski and Chiapello describe as capitalist displacement
techniques: negotiations at the local level where unions are weak rather than at
the national level where they are strong, the elimination of specialized job
descriptions, and the creation of new forms of management—quality circles and
workers’ discussion groups—that bring employees closer to their bosses than to
their union representatives.
Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed
A Common Thread
by Beth English
University of Georgia Press, 2006
This study tells the history of the shift of the New England textile industry to
the South, with a particular focus on one company.
by Stacy Mitchell
Local businesses and working people are paying a hidden price for the shift to
mega-retail chains. Mitchell details how nearly two hundred big-box developments
have been stopped by local coalitions, and discusses local policies that can
promote strong communities.
By Joe William Trotter, Jr.
University of Illinois Press, 2007
This is an updated edition of the 1985 study that analyzes the development of
the urban African American working class, using one city as an in-depth case
by Joe Miller
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006
This eye-opening profile of a groundbreaking debate team at a poor black high
school in Kansas City describes not only how these students overcome the odds
against them but also how they begin to challenge racism and classism in the
debate community and beyond.
Hadi Never Died
by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson
Trades Union Congress, 2006
Iraqi unionists were brutally persecuted under Saddam Hussein and continue to
face antilabor policies under the current government. This book tells the story
of the Iraqi union movement and one of its leaders who was tortured and murdered
Is Iraq Another Vietnam?
By Robert K. Brigham
Partisans on both sides, from labor opponents of the war on Iraq to proponents
such as John McCain, cite America’s experience in Vietnam to bolster their case.
A Vassar professor looks carefully at the actual similarities and differences
between the two wars and in the process provides a useful short analysis of
both. One key conclusion is that military might ultimately cannot resolve
fundamental political and economic issues.
by Nomi Prins
In conversational style, a former Goldman Sachs manager compiles in one place
the way working people she met around the country are being hurt by Bush era
Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution
by Elena Poniatowska
Cinco Puntos, 2006
An insightful essay shedding light on Mexico’s cultural roots by one of the
country’s leading writers accompanies archival photos.
My Body Politic
by Simi Linton
University of Michigan Press, 2006
A must-read autobiography by a woman whose legs were paralyzed in a car accident
on her way to an antiwar demonstration during the Vietnam War. Through her
warmly engaging, honest, and often humorous account of her own life and the
experiences of friends and colleagues, Linton increases the reader’s sensitivity
to the obstacles people with disabilities face at work and in everyday life. She
asks why their struggles for more equitable and inclusive social policies are
often ignored by progressive activists who support challenges to other kinds of
Not Quite White
by Matt Wray
Duke University Press, 2006
Even among liberal whites who would never use derogatory epithets to refer to
African Americans or Latinos, terms like “redneck” continue in common use as a
reflection of disdain for working-class white people. This monograph explores
the early history of the stigmatizing of poor rural whites as “white trash” by
dominant elites protecting their own status.
On The Picket Line
By Mary E. Triece
University of Illinois Press, 2007
Working class women developed their own tactics and leadership styles to
challenge economic injustice and discrimination during the Great Depression.
This study looks, for example, at the way female organizers often used a more
personal speaking style to connect with audiences.
Red Stick Men
by Tim Parrish
University Press of Mississippi, 2000
Nine short stories describe working-class characters in the shadow of the oil
industry in Baton Rouge who keep their humanity despite low wages, layoffs, war,
pollution, and other challenges.
by Julius G. Getman
Plain View Press, 2006
The rhetorical sounding title doesn’t do justice to this entertaining and very
insightful novel about a paper workers’ strike in a small town in Maine in the
late 1980s. The novel gives a rare inside view of human dynamics inside a local
union as the decline in the strength of the industrial labor movement is
The Spirit of Disobedience
by Curtis White
Whether talking about Wal-Mart or about our work lives, a social critic in the
tradition of Thoreau asks in these out-of-the-box musings where we are really
trying to go as individuals and as a society.
The Working Life
By Nan L. Maxwell
Upjohn Institute, 2006
A survey of more than 400 employers finds that so-called “low skill” jobs often
require problem-solving, communications, physical, and mechanical abilities that
companies cannot easily find.
Tim Hector: A Caribbean Radical’s Story
by Paul Buhle
University Press of Mississippi, 2006
While focusing on the life of this long-time leader for self-determination and
social justice in Antigua and throughout the Caribbean, Buhle also provides a
broader history of workers’ and progressive movements in the region.
by Katherine Archibald
University of Illinois Press, 2006
This reprint of a 1947 book by a woman who spent two years working in an Oakland
shipyard during World War II chronicles the obstacles faced by women, African
Americans, and “Okies” from the South, and serves as a useful reminder of
discrimination in the union movement that still must be overcome.
All sides get their say in this documentary about the border, from immigrants
who try to cross the desert, to farmers who need their labor, to political
groups who oppose or support immigrant rights.
Filmmakers spent a year documenting the complex interaction of Mexican
immigrants and residents of a small suburban New York town, where immigrant
labor is an economic necessity to some and a threat to others. The town had
attracted national attention after the attempted murder of two immigrants.
A twenty-three-minute video produced by the Alliance for Justice shows how
right-wing extremists have placed activist judges on the courts to undermine
well established rights and protections. News clips show the Right’s message
discipline. This will be of most interest to law students and liberal activists.
Walking with Tillie: A Remembrance of Tillie Lerner Olsen, January 14,
1912—January 1, 2007
Tillie Olsen, author of Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondio: From the Thirties,
Silences, inspired teacher, catalytic friend to The Feminist Press, champion of
human rights, and pioneer writer of and for the working class, has died.
Tillie had a strong gait, a physical assurance that mirrored her power of
observation and attention to the world. Yet, walking with her took time. Whether
on the congested streets of San Francisco or New York, she stopped frequently to
recognize those who lived on the edge of others’ material worlds. She carried
dollars in her pockets, and, as she walked, she folded those wrinkled bills into
the hands of homeless strangers. She refused to walk in self-isolation or
without connection, perhaps to the consternation of her family and friends who
knew she did not possess that many dollars herself. To call it charity is to
miss something essential about Tillie’s capacity to embrace other people. To
share a meal or ride in a cab with her meant getting to know, through Tillie,
not the generic but a particular waitress or cabby or shopkeeper. She
imaginatively and empathetically internalized the lives of others. I wonder how
many strangers felt her always-extended hands of human fellowship.
To experience the physics of Tillie’s world—whether through her writing or her
presence—involved entering a space of paradoxical compression and expansion. She
burrowed unflinchingly into the deepest recesses of human experience. She opened
up the folded, hidden, and ignored. The stakes were high, for the reader, and
always, for her. Tillie created a palpable reality where the separations between
feeling and thought, imagined writing and lived experience, fell away. Her
writing is a great uncoiling like the convoluted ear in “Tell Me A Riddle,” an
“infinite mile on mile, trapping every song, every melody, every word, read,
heard, and spoken.” In a transcribed conversation with her daughter Julie, she
recalls from “Tell Me a Riddle”—the expression on the lips of that dying woman
strong with the not yet in the now, that was what keeps us going, because we are
part of that not yet in the now. We are part of what can be. Tillie viewed art
as awakening—an active catalytic process. Her powerful compression was literally
visible in her famously diminutive handwriting—perfectly formed letters in
miniature—her signature “o.” She contained worlds and she also could not be
contained, whether in her spoken words, her long-goodbyes on the phone, or her
willing inclusion of others. She affirmed human potentiality. She perceived
creativity “as an enormous and universal human capacity.”
Knowing intimately the hurt of class, she wrote privately, I am so old so class
conscious have lived so with the gargoyling. She was generous with her love,
often closing her notes and letters with—“best love”—an embrace-in-writing
borrowed from Agnes Smedley.
Indeed, what luck to have walked with Tillie Olsen. o tillie, best love.