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Fall 2014 Edition

How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty

By Frances Fox Piven

The fifty-year anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty has sparked a new round of right-wing attacks on social policies for the poor. The arguments are familiar. Ronald Reagan set the tone with the quip "we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won." Now it was people like Paul Ryan who led the chorus, loudly claiming that despite trillions of dollars spent, and hundreds of programs, 47 million Americans remained poor. The problem, according to these critics, is that we relied on government, especially the federal government, to fight the war. What we should have done then, and should do now, is slash taxes and roll back regulations so as to free business to solve the problem by expanding employment. Or government should pay businesses to run poverty programs. Ryan points approvingly, for example, to an initiative of Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, to make government grants available to employers to develop job-training programs. These are not new ideas and they are not mere rhetoric either. In fact, an increasing number of government functions, including welfare and welfare-to-work programs, prisons, and public schools, have been contracted out to for-profit agencies on the grounds that where government inevitably fails, business can get the job done.

It is not just conservatives who bash the war on poverty. Many commentators on the left are not ready to celebrate the anniversary either. Not only is poverty still with us, and in fact growing, but a good number of left critics think War on Poverty programs were at least partly to blame. Too much of the war was directed to trying to change the people who were poor, teaching or preaching to them to change their attitudes and behaviors regarding work and school and childbearing. Too little had been directed toward the economic conditions these people faced, especially unemployment and low wages.

There's a measure of truth in this last point. Inevitably, much of what was done was shaped by what had been done before, by social workers or educators or job trainers, for example. Nevertheless, I think the war on poverty deserves more appreciation. We need to separate the effects of the poverty programs from the impact of the detrimental changes in the economy associated with the hyper-capitalism we call neoliberalism. To be sure, the economic changes of the past few decades were influenced by government policies, including regulatory, trade, and tax policies. But the programs of the War on Poverty were not the culprits. And once we parse the programs' effects, it becomes clear that the war on poverty actually scored big gains for the poor, especially for poor children and the elderly. Moreover, the programs helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

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on the contrary
  • Should Labor Boycott Israel?

    Whose Side Are You On?

    By Andrew Ross

    The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign is shaping up as one of these historical moments when everyone has to choose which side they are on. Trade unionists have good reason to know what this feels like. Labor history is punctuated with similar contests, when nuanced views on strategy have run their course and we are left with a stark moral choice. For too long, the debate about how best to oppose the occupation of Palestine has been clouded, often intentionally, by strenuous deliberations over tactics. As for those in official positions, the formidable sway of pro-Zionist lobbying has been disturbingly effective.


    Engage, Don't Divest from Israel

    By Jo Ann Mort

    Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its continued control of movement in Gaza is unjust and inhumane. It must be ended as quickly as possible. Israel and Palestine must exist as two states side by side. How can this be achieved? I don't believe that boycotting Israel, or the overall BDS prescription for change, is the correct response-not for the labor movement, nor for other movements or individuals.

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If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Save the Earth

By Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein

We are on a climate change path that, unless radically altered, will lead to an unsustainable global warming of seven degrees Fahrenheit or greater. We also face the most serious employment crisis since the Great Depression, with wages that have stagnated for four decades and economic inequality now at levels not seen since the 1920s.

Many leaders and activists at different levels of the labor movement recognize the challenges we face in creating a more just and sustainable economy. A few unions have supported strong climate protection policies and have actively participated in the climate protection movement; many have stood aloof; a minority have feared their members' jobs are threatened by some climate protection measures.

Organized labor's approach to climate change has been primarily employment-based. Unions like green jobs; but they fear the potential job losses from phasing out carbon-fueled industries. This should not be surprising since unions are organized primarily to look after the specific employment interests of workers. Even the most far-sighted trade union leaders have a very difficult job: They must represent the immediate interests of existing members, some of whom may face job losses in the transition to a low carbon economy, while keeping in mind the longer-term social and ecological concerns.

The AFL-CIO and most unions have failed to endorse the basic targets and timetables that climate scientists have defined as necessary to prevent devastating global warming. They have promoted an "all of the above" energy policy that supports growth rather than reduction in the fossil fuels that are responsible for global warming. While they have supported some climate legislation, they have opposed most policies that would actually begin cutting back on fossil fuel emissions. And they have fought climate action designed to block major carbon threats like coal-fired power plants and the Keystone XL pipeline.

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Curbing the Consequences: Achieving Better Outcomes for Workers in Municipal Bankruptcies

By Iris J. Lav

If you listen to the media and some politicians, you might erroneously believe that public sector wages and pensions are the primary cause of recent municipal bankruptcies. While the trigger for the bankruptcies (by definition) is the inability to pay obligations to employees or bondholders, the causes of the shortfalls are found elsewhere. Causes include the failure of politicians and managers to adjust to loss of population and industry over time; the imposition by states of limitations on local revenue raising and cuts in aid to localities; inept and corrupt management; and the failure of employers to make required pension contributions. Yet public employees in most bankrupt jurisdictions pay a heavy, disproportionate, and unnecessary price for circumstances they did not create.

The Great Recession magnified pre-existing structural problems. Local revenues dropped due to plunging property values, falling incomes of residents, and weak consumption that undermined real estate, income, and sales taxes respectively. Declining state revenues led to sharp cuts in local aid. Financial market losses made pension plans look far more underfunded than they had appeared before the recession. And national policies to keep interest rates low had consequences for jurisdictions locked into complex financial contracts dependent on interest rates remaining high.

A recent statistical study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, comparing distressed cities, confirms this view. It finds that pension costs or guarantees have little to do with the causes of municipal fiscal stress. Rather, it found that management problems (poor fiscal management in particular) and economic problems (including loss of population, high unemployment, and foreclosures) were far more important in generating fiscal stress than pensions.

This article considers the causes and consequences of bankruptcy filings that have taken place since 2008 in Detroit, Michigan; San Bernardino, Stockton, and Vallejo, California; Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama; and Central Falls, Rhode Island. It also suggests federal and state policy changes that could, in the future, yield fairer and more appropriate outcomes for workers in bankrupt municipalities.

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Dirty Jobs, Done Dirt Cheap: Working in Reality Television

By Gabriel Winant

Like clockwork, a crisis in a major social institution today produces a monstrous representation of that institution's operations through the form of reality television. Given their proliferation into the hundreds and their enormous success, reality shows-the most popular of which regularly draw between five and ten million viewers-amount to the most significant novel cultural form unique to neoliberal society. While the emergence of reality television has been driven on the supply side by a straightforward search for cheap and fast production, something altogether more contorted seems to be driving demand. What many of these shows dramatize is the demoralizing experience of neoliberalism itself.

Some of these shows deal with the crisis of mass consumption ushered in by the recent financial collapse and subsequent anemic recovery. Others seemingly engage the experience of work-particularly dangerous, physical, and dirty work-in the age of the failed job hunt. At a moment of acceleration in the deskilling and destabilization of the labor market-when the labor force participation rate is at a 35-year low-it makes sense that we would develop a televised fantasy life about those exotic jobs that, as one show has it, "make civilized life possible for the rest of us." Some of the last decade's most prominent entries have included "Dirty Jobs," "Undercover Boss," "Coal," "Ice Road Truckers," and "The Deadliest Catch."

These shows seem to share a nearly social-realist preoccupation with the proletarian decency and stoicism of hard labor. In its press materials for "Dirty Jobs," the Discovery channel actually refers to the show's host as "everyman Mike Rowe." If this seems unusual in a culture that tends to demean labor, it is because these shows are working a more indirect angle. While they deal in a rhetoric of working-class heroism, they systematically push the human beings whose labor they nominally valorize to the margins. They both awaken the set of (largely nostalgic) desires associated with work before neoliberalism, and they reenact, in each episode, the dynamics of class power by which work has been destabilized and workers made invisible.

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Domestic Workers Go Global: The Birth of the International Domestic Workers Federation

By Eileen Boris and Jennifer N. Fish

"My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that's why I'm a unionist, a unionist, a unionist." Filling the stately auditorium of the Montevideo City Hall for three days in late October 2013, nearly 200 domestic workers sang what began as the anthem of SADSAWU (South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union) but came to express the aspirations of a worldwide movement. Joined by observers, advocates, and technical staff, representatives from 48 organizations and 42 countries arrived in Uruguay to forge a new international labor federation. They traveled to that nation of European immigrants to honor its place as the first state to ratify "Decent Work for Domestic Workers," Convention 189 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), passed some eighteen months before. Uruguayan President José Mujica underlined the importance of prioritizing labor and social standards for this sector. "Service workers and domestic workers, you can find them by the thousands, and they have started to have rights as any other worker does," he told the Congress. State protection of domestic worker rights fulfills the dictates of C189, which after ratification binds a nation to its provisions like any other treaty. The fight for C189 and its implementation has generated global solidarity and transnational action to advance the rights of migrant domestics.

Trade unions and governments alike long ignored domestic workers, even though "their work makes all other work possible," as international leader Elizabeth Tang explained. "It is our work in households that enables others to go out and be economically active," Tanzanian trade unionist Vicky Kanyoka points out. In the process of securing global protections, domestic workers defied those who took them for granted. They came together in 2006 to build a transnational network (the International Domestic Worker Network, IDWN). Then, with technical assistance and funding from unions and feminist allies, they transformed this loose association of national and regional groups into the first international labor federation run by women for work dominated by women. On October 28, 2013, the International Domestic Worker Federation (IDWF) officially launched, marking a critical step in the struggle to assure that those who often work in isolation are included in policy and law. IDWF insists that the essential value of household labor, or social reproduction, be recognized.

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