Two Reports from the Murphy Institute:
Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the "Second Wave"
The Occupy movement thrilled many who long for stronger progressive movements, and
then its wane reminded us of the lack of continuity in the American left. That discontinuity
produces a damaging social amnesia about what can be learned from past movements,
and none of that memory loss is greater than that surrounding the socialist feminism
that formed a particularly transformative part of the New Left. What follows is
a brief attempt to rectify that amnesia. "Second wave" feminism was the largest
social movement in U.S. history-at its peak, polls reported that a majority of U.S.
women identified with it. From the mid-1960s through its decline in momentum in
the 1980s, it was also unusually long as far as social movements go. A movement
of that size naturally encompassed diverse strands, so, unsurprisingly, many scholars
and journalists saw only parts of it, like the blind men feeling the elephant.
What's more surprising is that leftists, mainstream scholars and journalists, and
even right-wing adversaries have shared similar misconceptions. One of these is
missing the strong socialist feminist stream within women's liberation. This mistake
is symbolized by the anointing of the protest at the Miss America beauty contest
in 1969 as the founding moment of the movement. The canonization of that event derives
from taking two particular parts of the elephant as the whole: feminism's struggle
against the sexual objectification of women in mass culture, and the particular
forms of New York City feminism. The two are related, because New York City's feminist
leadership was long dominated by journalists and others in the media business, so
they were especially irritated by media sexism and particularly well positioned
to challenge it.
The Politics of Debt Resistance
Like others who committed themselves to the fledgling debtors' movement, I have
experienced the major occupational hazard of single-issue activists—we tend to see
our issue everywhere. Oftentimes, it's the only thing we see, and our more ecumenical
allies have to find ways to remind us, either gently or more rudely, that issues
and struggles are always connected. That said, debt really is everywhere right now.
No one can ignore how prominently it is featuring in the public politics of our
time or how sharply etched it is on the daily economic landscape of almost every
household. Democracies—and not just those in the Southern Eurozone—are failing because
the claims of creditors are prioritized over the needs and rights of citizens. More
and more individual debtors are sliding into the emotional netherworld of mass default
and many are being packed off to the newly resurgent debtors' prisons all across
the U.S. National economic managers are hard-pressed to figure out how to sustain
a consumer society when there are still mountains of toxic debt left over from the
housing crash, and when the steadily rising burden of student debt is blocking the
access of a generation of graduates to the standard components of the American Dream—homeownership,
children, and middle-class status.
So ubiquitous are the hardships generated by indebtedness that the struggle between
debtor and creditor can often appear to be casting a larger shadow than the grand
conflict between capital and labor. This is illusory, of course; the debt relation
and the wage relation are fundamentally entwined, and always have been. The use
of debt to deepen every form of labor exploitation has been systematic; from the
debt peons and debt slaves of antiquity, forced by creditors to bond their labor
through servitude; down to the sharecroppers of yesteryear, unable to pay off loans
advanced on their harvests, or the factory workers subsisting on company scrip;
to today's transnational migrants, toiling to work off their transit and recruitment
fees, or the payday loan borrowers, targeted because they are the least likely to
afford the extortionate interest rates; or victims of wage theft, who are effectively
financing their employers. Debt bondage or bonded labor is a predicament that still
affects tens of millions today worldwide.
Getting the Left out of Debt
The problem with attempting to build a politics of debt resistance is that our crisis
of personal indebtedness isn't really about debt. It's about neoliberalism, the
inequality it reproduces, and the borrowing it necessitates. This isn't to say that
debt itself is irrelevant. A generation of college students and subprime mortgage
holders can testify otherwise. It is, however, intended to suggest that mitigating
the anxiety and material hardship that debt is inflicting on increasing numbers
of us will require focusing less on the fact that we owe loads of money and more
on why we owe it. And the reason we owe so much isn't that we've borrowed excessive
sums, it's that we can't afford the things we need without borrowing.
Our success in ending the nasty social impact that crushing levels of personal debt
now effects will thus hinge on our ability to build a movement around access to
basic necessities—jobs with a living wage, housing, education, healthcare, transit,
childcare—so we don't need to rely on credit to get by. Instead of a politics against
debt, that is, we need a politics for a social wage.
A historical perspective helps to clarify this point. Personal debt really began
to balloon in the 1970s, when inequality started to increase after a generation
of reasonably distributed economic growth. As historian Louis Hyman has noted, the
key change in the 1970s was that, for the first time since consumer credit had become
widely accessible in the years after World War II, people found themselves unable
to repay what they owed.
Between 1948 and 1973, real wages for the average worker grew at an annual rate
of 2.6 percent, almost as fast as productivity improved during that period. This
rising income enabled working-class Americans to secure the credit needed to purchase
homes, automobiles, and all those household amenities, like televisions and washing
machines, that were previously out of reach.
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Trading Away the Future: An Analysis of the Trans-Pacific
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) dwarfs the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) in both its economic scale and its potential to undercut wages and worker
power throughout the globe. As a measure of its threat to organized labor in the
United States, the AFL-CIO Executive Council adopted a policy statement on the TPP
this February asserting that reversing race-to-the-bottom trade deals is "as important
as our work to promote freedom of association and collective bargaining." The disastrous
corporate agenda for the TPP is something that working people must-and, thankfully,
A Free Trade Behemoth
The TPP is an international trade and investment pact currently under negotiation
between the United States and eleven other countries throughout the Pacific Rim:
Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore,
and Vietnam. Just among those twelve, its rules would govern approximately 40 percent
of the global economy -magnitudes larger than any similar proposal labor has faced
in recent years.
Moreover, the TPP is being explicitly negotiated as what is called a "docking agreement,"
which other countries can join over time. In just the last year, Thailand's Prime
Minister announced that he was in discussions with the Obama administration about
the pact; the Philippines unveiled a policy "roadmap" for joining the TPP; and South
Korea has entertained overtures from U.S. trade officials. Even Chinese officials
have said they're considering joining.
Public Sector Unionism under Assault: How to Combat the
Scapegoating of Organized Labor
The Great Recession struck with ferocity in 2009 just as public employees, for the
first time, became the majority of union members in the United States. The coincidence
was significant. In the climate of fear that accompanied the economy's implosion,
long-time opponents of unionism saw an opportunity to go on the offensive against
what was now the largest sector in organized labor. And take the offensive they
did. The battle to roll back public sector unionism has been going on for decades,
but suddenly it erupted with a new ferocity in one-time union states like Wisconsin
and Michigan. As the dust from the first round of these battles settles, both public
sector unions and the labor movement as a whole are facing a deteriorating situation.
If the attack on public sector labor is not blunted in the next few years, organized
labor's largest stronghold risks being outflanked and rolled back, with devastating
consequences for both the labor movement and the nation.
Targeting the Public Sector "Elite"
The Great Recession plunged government workers' unions into a situation they had
not experienced before. It was not a question of stalled union growth or holding
ground against the privatization movement-issues unions confronted during the fiscal
crisis of the 1970s. Instead, labor now faced a catastrophic economic contraction
that radically altered the balance of power in public sector labor relations and
offered anti-union forces an unprecedented opportunity.
The crisis allowed anti-union forces to open up a new line of attack. Over the years,
critics had tried out a series of arguments against public sector collective bargaining.
In the early 1970s, the anti-unionists such as the libertarian Sylvester Petro renewed
an argument that dated back to the years following the ill-fated Boston Police Strike
of 1919, alleging that public sector collective bargaining would compromise the
very sovereignty of government, allowing unions to usurp a share of the government's
Teachers on the Offensive: A Strategy for Transforming
the Educational Reform Debate
Public school teachers are under attack. The assault being waged by the so-called
"education reform" movement-embraced by both millionaire conservatives and neoliberal
Democrats-is more than a skirmish affecting a single profession. Rather, it is a
struggle with great consequences for the survival of the U.S. labor movement, the
future of the middle class, and the fate of American democracy-a system that relies
on quality public schools for its sustenance.
With the stakes so high, it is imperative to discern a plan by which teachers unions,
which have overwhelmingly been on the defensive, can get ahead of public debate.
They must alter the political context in which educators are being treated as scapegoats
rather than as professionals whose contributions will be essential in ensuring world-class
public education for future generations of students, regardless of religion, race,
To this end some have argued that teachers, taking inspiration from the 2012 strike
in Chicago, need to embrace a new attitude of militancy, rejecting false offers
of "partnership" with school boards that amount to mere concessionary bargaining.
This insight is sound, as far as it goes: increased militancy will no doubt be necessary
in the resurgence of teachers unions. But to focus only on this recommendation is
to put tactics before strategy.
The bigger issue for teachers is the need to showcase their vision. Whatever tactics
they embrace at a given time, the goals must be clear. And, to take the offensive
in the education debate, three goals are essential: first, repositioning teachers
as champions of quality public education; second, reclaiming the right of teachers
to define and maintain standards of excellence for their profession; and third,
breaking with the traditional labor movement approach to politics, both locally
The point in exploring a strategy built around these three objectives is not to
second-guess those who have persevered amid austerity budgets and well-funded ideological
campaigns against teachers unions. Rather, it is to hold up some of the best practices
from around the country-cases in which unions have been able to reshape discussion
of both classroom standards and public policy-and to suggest that they can be brought
together as a comprehensive framework for guiding action.
The Light and the Dark: Taking Stock of the Year in Labor
For much of the traditional labor movement, the last year included major defeats.
A so-called "right to work" law, which makes it illegal for union contracts to oblige
workers to pay dues, went into effect in Michigan, the birthplace of the United
Auto Workers. In New York City, where government workers in relative terms hold
significant political power, nearly all public sector unions are operating on expired
wage agreements while they organize to pick the next mayor with whom they will bargain
the specifics of such a colossal economic mess. A long anticipated East Coast longshore
workers' strike, expected to invigorate the idea of using the power of cutting off
the supply chain, was averted when the union and coalition of ports extended bargaining
at the end of 2012, and on the West Coast, the more radical International Longshore
and Warehouse Union is dealing with lockouts and scab labor.
Clouds have darkened at the national level as well. The United States Postal Service's
proposal to switch to five-day mail delivery has been seen as the first critical
step toward undoing the power of the postal unions. Its big unionized corporate
competitor, the United Parcel Service (UPS), happens to be on the employer end of
the nation's largest private sector collective bargaining agreement. In its recent
nationwide agreement with the Teamsters, UPS got away with modest pay raises, which
raise deductibles on health care, a move that has angered much of the membership.
Leaders James Hoffa and Ken Hall responded that disgruntled members should find
comfort in the inferior medical plans of their non-union counterparts. Ken Paff,
national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, said, "Members have low
expectations, and Hoffa and Hall have met them."
In a time of economic stagnation, failure to offer bosses major concessions at the
bargaining table has opened unions up to the accusation that they are impeding recovery
for the rest of the nation. Last fall, Hostess, which owned Wonder Bread and Drake's
brands, shuttered its operations after members from the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco
Workers and Grain Millers' International Union went on strike after rejecting concessionary