The Past and Future of American Workers

This excerpt from "Labor Rising" discusses the history that is directly related to the economic and political crises American workers face today and calls for a revitalized 21st-century labor movement.
By Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald
June 2012
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“Labor Rising” reveals the themes of today’s labor movement, asks of the readers how we might imagine a different future for all Americans, and demonstrates why the labor movement can, and must, be saved.
THE NEW PRESS
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In the midst of America’s struggle for labor justice and social equality, Labor Rising (The New Press, 2012) is a powerful and timely contribution of pieces by top labor historians, social critics and activists, whose unique visions and interpretations of the labor movement show how the transforming economic changes of industrial capitalism run counter to labor’s vision. They state that the labor movement is not doomed, and that the mistreatment of America’s labor workers can be avoidable. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. 

Last winter, when the nation’s eyes were on Wisconsin, many of the writers in this volume could not help but think about the past. Newly elected governor Scott Walker, together with a new majority of Republicans in the legislature, sought to strip public sector unions and labor workers of their legal rights to bargain collectively. Many of the nation’s labor leaders sat on the sidelines, while local union members and some unexpected allies began to rally, then march, then occupy the halls of state power. Thousands around the state, then around the country, poured into Madison as the national and world media finally took notice.

It has been a long time since there was that kind of attention paid to unions, let alone the daily coverage of workers spontaneously rising up. And what coverage there had been was dedicated to defeat, decline, and division. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union. And for at least a generation now, it has been a bumpy downward spiral. What made Wisconsin so remarkable was that it seemed, at least for a moment, that tectonic plates were shifting. Labor, organized labor, was fighting back. Images of public employees occupying the statehouse brought back memories of the sitdown strikes of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations, the great CIO that ushered in a new day for American workers during the Great Depression. Students, farmers, community activists, and average citizens demanding accountability joined Wisconsin union members. One hundred thousand people chanted a refrain from the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization a decade earlier, “This is what democracy looks like!” Many of us thought that maybe Wisconsin was the start of another new day.

What the Seattle WTO demonstrations highlighted and we hope too for Wisconsin, though it is still too soon to tell, is a long tradition in American history where labor workers mobilized at the forefront of some of the most important, transformative social reforms in our history. Indeed, workers’ rights and their rights to organize have been critical for the health and growth of American democracy. When members of the Missouri Volunteers’ Turner Brigade marched to stop the plundering of the arsenal at Camp Jackson by secessionists on the eve of the Civil War, they carried a banner depicting a workman’s hammer smashing the shackles of slavery. When Mother Jones organized the Children’s Crusade in 1903, a march to abolish child labor, from Philadelphia to President Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, she struck a blow for the rights of all children, universal education, and workers’ health and safety. Garment workers traumatized by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire won precedent-setting demands for statewide fire safety laws, protecting people of all classes. The rise of the CIO in the 1930s resulted in the largest union surge in American history and a slew of New Deal reforms, including Social Security, that helped set the stage for a vastly expanded American middle class who understood these “entitlements” as rights. And when Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement in 1941, he forced FDR to sign Executive Order 8802. That action barred employment discrimination in all government agencies and military contractors, opening up opportunities for generations of workers and professionals of every race to rise in wealth and power.

Now, organized labor as a whole did not always support these efforts. And sometimes, frankly, they were dragged kicking and screaming into the fray. But when unions did get behind an issue, they helped move the national agenda in important ways. They provided institutional, organizational, and monetary support, not to mention political heft, which helped these movements make history. One just has to remember that the 1963 March on Washington, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, was co-sponsored, supported and funded by the United Auto Workers, among other unions. In short, labor helped make America a better place to live and work for most Americans.

Social transformations in America have always moved forward in fits and starts, and unevenly. But efforts at reform have succeeded when working people gathered their resources and fought back during economic, political, and social crises. We believe that we are now living through one of these transformational moments.

More labor workers find themselves in a desperate place. They haven’t had a raise, a real raise, since 1979. They are working, according to economist Juliet Schor, longer hours than ever before, in a constant struggle just to preserve what they might once have had. They have it harder in many ways than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The effective unemployment rate in the United States hovers near 18 percent. The income disparity between rich and poor is now larger than it was during the Gilded Age. And in a postindustrial America, there are simply too few good jobs left in the blue-collar world. Women still make only 69 cents for every dollar a man makes. The income gap between black and white is at a twenty-five-year high and, as many urban centers gentrify, the poor are further marginalized and often hidden—out of sight and out of mind of the wealthy and privileged.

Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic politicians continue to erode the social safety nets of the New Deal and Great Society programs that unions helped to create. Workers today do not have nationally recognizable advocates. Politicians have given up on them, preferring to talk about middle-class issues, never about the working class, or at most referring sometimes to working families. And their unions, our unions, are in decline, weak and fractured, with few leaders willing or able to rally the troops, to fight the good fight. While there never was a golden age for labor, times were certainly better than today. In the 1950s and 1960s, few governors would have openly attacked unions; that would have been the realm of fringe groups. But now the media consider attacks on workers mainstream, when they consider them at all. At a time when class seems to matter most, the language for discussing it has dropped from the vocabulary of public discourse. When certain pundits and politicians bring class into the conversation, they are accused of promoting class warfare. We have lost our ability to put issues of class, and also equality, back on the table. Our culture is silent on matters of class, spending more time discussing reality TV.

As we write this, the recession rages on and the stock market is a roller coaster. There are still 11 million undocumented workers and their families working and living in the shadows and the margins of the American economy. Estimates are that nearly 30 percent of the workforce is now contingent, including day laborers, contract workers, freelancers, and consultants. As political scientist Jacob Hacker has put it, we are living through “The Great Risk Shift.” Economic risk, which used to be borne by corporations and governments, now has been shifted to individuals. Gone are retirement and health care plans. So too are concerns for safety and health. Today’s workers hope they stay healthy and know they will work till they drop, as there is little alternative. As Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have stated, we are reverting back to an earlier age of history, when workers were independent actors and had little protection.

What is at the root of this shift? Well, clearly one element is globalization. While we have lived in a global economy for hundreds of years, its lived effects have not been felt on this scale. Starting in the late 1970s, the world either flattened or sped up (you choose your metaphor). In either case, as the federal government loosened regulations, American corporations jumped borders looking for cheaper labor and soaring profits. The United States hemorrhaged millions of jobs. And not just any jobs; these were too often unionized jobs, high-wage jobs that offered security and what we might call an American standard of living. In the wake of this industrial exodus, what was left was the Rust Belt. Cities like Flint and Detroit in Michigan, Akron and Cleveland in Ohio, and hundreds of other communities abandoned and wounded as jobs left. Many of these cities and towns never recovered, leaving scars that have never faded.

Another root cause is the intensifying neoliberalism that has dominated domestic economic and international trade policies for the last few dozen years. More attention is paid to the stock market, to interest rates, than actual work. Politicians pace nervously when the market falls as unemployment dips below 5 percent, and the corporate media cheer when company prices soar after layoffs are announced. The stock scroll has become the nation’s collective heart rate, measuring the health of the nation. The Federal Reserve’s meetings and pronouncements on interest rates, and Standard and Poor’s credit rating for the United States, overshadow the lived economy of average Americans. The market-driven political system forgets people in favor of economic efficiencies. And privatization of public resources further siphons wealth and services from working people, and lays waste to public unions, the last significant organized sector left.

Politically, workers are simply unrepresented. In 2008, in the wake of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, the media’s gaze turned to, and stayed on, banks (commercial and investment), not in anger but in worry. Major companies like GM and AIG were bailed out and banks were bolstered, but workers were virtually ignored. Sure, unemployment was extended, but only for a time. And nothing else of serious consequence was done for working people during the crisis. Where was Barack Obama’s Works Progress Administration or his Wagner Act? The president who came into office with such “hope” became just another consensus politician right before our eyes. His most powerful economic policy makers—Geithner, Summers, and Goolsbee—are all Wall Street stalwarts and neoliberal champions. Labor workers have watched as high-profile mine and oil rig disasters unfolded, realizing that if only proper enforcement of existing regulations occurred workers would not have died or been injured. We have watched as Obama failed to push for card check.

American workers know that the current system is broken, at least for them. Politically they have little voice. Culturally they are isolated. And economically they are suffering. Workers also know that the current model of labor organization doesn’t serve them. We are living within the shadow of what was once a great social movement. Many of the names (UAW, Teamsters, AFSME, IBEW, etc.) are the same, but the fire is out of the beast’s belly. Instead, many unions have spent the last decade embroiled in what can only be seen as a personality disorder, as mergers and splits, especially in the AFL-CIO, have destabilized what is left of the movement. And, more importantly, it has distracted unions from the real work that needs to be done: organizing and protecting workers.

The good news is that we have been here before and the rumor of labor’s demise has often been exaggerated. The thrilling moments of labor’s rise have just as often succeeded long periods of despair. As scholars of labor’s past, we are well aware that small, perhaps even seemingly isolated, moments of resistance during those times can turn out to be the foundations on which future organizations are built. There have been sporadic bursts of energy from labor unions in recent years to give us glimmers of hope. During the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization meeting, unions and environmental groups, the so-called Teamsters and turtles moment, suggested a new momentum and a new partnership. There are new models of workers’ organizations happening in our midst. Alternatives to traditional unions have emerged. Worker centers throughout the country that organize workers not in the shop or workplace, but rather in the community, have begun to grow among immigrant workers. In New York State, Domestic Workers United, also a grassroots organization of immigrants—nannies and household and home care workers—succeeded in passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights law. In 2006, we witnessed the largest strike and labor protest in our history, the May Day immigrant rights demonstrations. Millions of workers came out to make their plight visible and to forge bonds in their communities. This protest was designed to send a political signal to state capitals and Washington. But these developments received far too little support from traditional labor unions. In fact, most unions failed to recognize them as labor organizations and missed opportunities to rekindle a broad-based labor movement.

As scholars interested in labor’s past and hoping for labor’s future, we know that history does not repeat itself. Every epoch has its unique circumstances. But the study of familiar patterns and forgotten responses can inform and inspire creative new collective action, or just as likely help activists and leaders recognize moments of opportunity when they emerge. On close inspection, virtually every community of workers and their allies that has acted offers insights that are useful as workers, activists, and labor leaders strive to rebuild and reimagine a new labor movement. Labor Rising accesses forgotten victories of the distant, not so distant, and recent past. But through these essays we are also reminded that labor’s failures and frustrations were not always complete or inevitable and can obscure winning strategies that could, perhaps should, be revisited.

There are certainly overlapping and complementary themes across these essays, but each author brings a unique vision and interpretation to this volume, sometimes at odds with one another. That is as it should be. We invited authors to be opinionated, to use their particular understanding of labor’s past to inform their best prescription for how working people in America need to move forward and not to worry about whether their ideas mesh with one another. Each author identified the problems he or she thought were most critical. For some, the central question for labor was how to reposition movements for American workers’ rights within a global labor movement. For others, the question was how to redefine the scope of American labor to include undocumented and casual workers and employees of sectors traditionally ignored by unions. And yet others concentrated on relationships between unions and communities of allies, organizing strategies, or labor’s relationship to the state. All authors here are concerned with seeking collective solutions to the problems of working people’s declining fortunes and power. And most agree that the complexity of problems requires a multiplicity of responses on many fronts.

The intended audiences for this collection of essays differ, sometimes subtly, as each author has imagined who might show up for his or her particular soapbox oratory. Some of the essays are directed to the leadership of established unions and their respective federations. Others are aimed at local communities of union activists or their allies. But the volume as a whole casts the widest possible net to include those concerned with all kinds of working-class organizations as well as traditional labor unions, national leaders and local activists, scholars and ordinary people with a deep curiosity about labor’s future.

We are at a crossroads and this must be a moment of pushback in a postindustrial America and an age of global assembly lines. Any reinvented labor movement will have to have a different structure and philosophy from what exists now, just as the CIO differed from the AFL in the 1930s. Taken as a whole, then, the essays in Labor Rising argue for a new labor movement that is simultaneously transnational and community-based, that is fully inclusive and supports a broad social agenda, and that will lead toward greater democracy. In a global society, worker organizations need to find common cause with similar groups all over the world. They need to understand and respond to global challenges, but do so in ways that make sense locally and sustainably. They must also build a movement of workers who may not be linked by a common mass workplace.

Labor Rising brings together twenty-four profound thinkers who point at signals, directions, or moments of hope or action. Collectively, they believe the labor movement is not beaten, not a relic of history, but rather a central feature in a democratic society. It needs to rise again for democracy to have meaning in America. But, as these authors demonstrate, it will not and should not look like your father’s union.

We have structured the book into five broad themes, as suggested by the authors. Part I, titled “Community and Coalitions,” addresses the need for working-class organizations to build a labor movement by cultivating community-based partnerships that create lasting coalitions. The authors identify communities that offer potential for working-class power, support local and transnational struggles, and grapple with how best to nurture and sustain those relationships. The authors in Part Two, “Place Matters,” focus their attention on how working-class power must also be understood by the physical and geographical place where labor workers toil. They suggest reconsidering strategies that are especially important to an increasingly contingent and isolated workforce. In Part Three, “State and Policy,” the essays discuss the ways in which workers and unions can assert their power to affect the distribution of local resources and global trade. The authors propose demands that labor needs to make on the state regarding labor law, equal opportunity, and fair labor standards. In Part Four, “Political Economy,” the authors suggest that the complexity of the current global crises, including the financial system meltdown and climate change, requires equally complex responses. They argue in different ways that labor needs to publicly challenge assumptions about neoliberalism and reimagine the state as a vehicle through which workers can achieve a measure of social justice. Finally, Part Five, “Beyond Borders,” speaks to the need for labor to reimagine itself as part of a global movement that supports the organization of workers across political boundaries and embraces all workers in the United States regardless of citizenship status.

The events of 2011 have indelibly linked the cities of Cairo, Madison, Madrid, London, and New York as flashpoints of a broad popular pushback against the global neoliberal economy. As we conclude the production of this volume, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are heating up. Within days of this writing, labor unions in New York City have begun to declare solidarity with the protesters and are planning mass rallies. The corporate media, unable to ignore any longer what began as a handful of protesters sleeping in Zuccotti Park, are still “confused” that there does not seem to be any one leader or specific set of demands. Yet in late September, thousands who did understand the links—between the privatization of public resources, corporate greed, home foreclosures, union busting, and tax breaks for the rich—found common purpose and demonstrated at One Police Plaza the day after the Transport Workers Union officially voted to join the protests. On October 1, seven hundred demonstrators were arrested as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And as we walked through the park, listened to the speeches, and marched with union members, unemployed workers, indebted students, and worried middle-class professionals, we noticed that the themes of Labor Rising were reverberating throughout. Activists, more pouring in each day, are connecting with protesters across the country and around the globe, continuing to construct a global movement. Through the “occupation” of the park, they consciously build a democratic space open to all, dominated by no one person or group. They are building coalitions among all groups with common grievances. The demands for government and corporate accountability to the “99 percent” of the people who are disenfranchised from the political system in the United States and around the world are being articulated clearly. And as unions help to swell the crowds and grow the movement, we see concrete hope for labor’s rise in the twenty-first century.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. This piece originally appeared in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America edited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. 


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