Fall 2011

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Contents

From the Editorial Team

Under the Radar
By Ben Becker
Unreported and under-reported news and views that matter.

On the Contrary
A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment
By Stephen Lerner

The Anatomy of Austerity
Marching Backwards: The Consequences of Bipartisan Budget Cutting
By Josh Bivens
Slashing federal spending is a recipe for disaster

State and Municipal Alternatives to Austerity
By Robert Pollin and Jeff Thompson
How governments can preserve social services and help jumpstart economic recovery

The Egyptian Uprising: The Mass Strike in the Time of Neoliberal Globalization
By Michael Schwartz
Why the labor movement was critical to the unfinished Egyptian revolution.

Will Today’s Excluded Workers Midwife Labor’s Rebirth?
Worker Centers: Entering a New Stag e of Growth and Development
By Janice Fine
Do worker centers represent the next stage of labor insurgency?

The Excluded Workers Congress: Reimagining the Right to Organize
By Harmony Goldberg and Randy Jackson
A report from the founding convention. 

Mexico Since NAFTA: Elite Delusions and the Reality of Decline
By James M. Cypher
Talk of Mexico as a new middle-class society is a myth.

Christianity and Class Consciousness: Searching the Pews For Labor’s Allies
By Ken Estey
Can labor find support among white evangelicals?

Working-Class Voices of Contemporary America
How The P’urhépechas Came to Southern California’s Coachella Valley
By David Bacon

Roots of Rebellion
By Peter Dreier
A guide to insurgencies from coast to coast. 

In the Rearview Mirror
By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
Revisiting the past to illuminate the present.

Caught in the Web
By Liza Featherstone
Labor news, views, and resources online.

Books and the Arts

The 1970s Revisited: Is the Working Class Dead or Alive ?
Stayin’ Alive : The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
By Jefferson Cowie
Reviewed by Steve Early

Servitors of the National Security State?
AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?
By Kim Scipes
Reviewed by Paul Garver

Seizing the Moment
Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Be low During the Long 1970s
Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow
Reviewed by Matt Witt

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed
By Matt Witt

Poetry

About Our Contributors

 

from the editorial team

Once upon a time—so the storyline used to go—global, free market, finance-driven capitalism was destined to open up a passway to universal prosperity and social progress. Now a grimmer narrative prevails. Austerity and marginalization are the benchmarks of a society caught up in a relentless march backwards. Naturally enough, resistance to this undertow of retrogression has emerged. This issue of New Labor Forum begins an examination of these linked experiences of austerity, marginalization, and resistance.

Virtually every state of the union, not to mention the federal government, has committed itself to draconian budget cuts aimed almost entirely at those social services and income supports that make life livable for ordinary working people. Governing elites do this as if they had no other choice, as if the country had been struck by some natural—not manmade—disaster, and as if there were no alternatives. But the catastrophe of the Great Recession was not a natural one. It was instead caused by dominant financial institutions and their political facilitators. Budget deficits are a direct outcome of that collapse of finance capitalism. And there are alternatives to solving the havoc left behind that don’t entail excising the vital organs of everyday life. Robert Pollin and Jeff Thompson lay out a menu of such possibilities that state governments might adopt which would not only address the deficit problem, but also contribute to real economic, job-creating recovery. Josh Bivens analyzes the same austerity regime at the national level. He paints a disturbing picture of how federal budget slashing will not only undermine everything from getting educated to staying healthy, but will also—by eliminating thousands and thousands of government jobs and the economic recovery they help make possible—actually aggravate the deficit that the cuts were ostensibly designed to remedy.

Marginalized labor has typified global capitalism for a long generation. Work in underground economies—in sweatshops here and abroad, labor occurring outside or beneath the radar of labor laws, the mass conversion of peasants into migratory birds of passage headed either into the vast urban slums of their own countries or into the transcontinental tides of immigrant labor—is becoming the new normal in an age of long-term economic decline and austerity. Such a condition has afflicted the Mexican political economy for decades and especially since the advent of NAFTA. James M. Cypher explores that dynamic which threatens to turn Mexico into a failed state, despite the efforts of its ruling oligarchy to depict the country as a haven for a new, mass middle class. David Bacon’s photo essay (appearing in our “Working-Class Voices” section) depicts a trailercamp mixed community of Native Americans and Mexican migrants working the fields of the Coachella Valley in California. It provides an intimate look at how people struggling to get by and sustain their own community perceive their lives. Meanwhile, in the heartland of Rust Belt America, white working-class families cope with their own social descent, some taking solace in evangelical Christianity. Ken Estey explores whether or not that means they are lost to the cause of social justice.

Whether or not white working-class evangelicals are about to enlist in the struggle against austerity and marginalization, clearly others are, both here and abroad. A cluster of articles examines different facets of this resistance. Michael Schwartz describes the unfinished Egyptian revolution, noting how deeply rooted it was in that country’s labor insurgency and how much, in turn, that insurgency was embedded in the dynamics of international capitalism. Worker centers have become a more and more conspicuous way workers, mainly immigrants, have struggled against discrimination and exploitation in the “informal economy.” Janice Fine assesses their strengths and weaknesses, and their growing connection to the organized trade union movement. In June 2010, nine independent organizations of such marginalized workers—from day laborers to domestics—founded the Excluded Workers Congress to improve working conditions for those who fall outside U.S. labor protections and to expand the legal framework for workers’ rights. Harmony Goldberg and Randy Jackson explore the possibilities of this alliance and its increasing ties to the organized labor movement. Two pieces also deal with the question of resistance to this new forced descent into austerity. Stephen Lerner’s “On the Contrary” essay argues that the established institutions of progressive opposition—trade unions, civil rights organizations, and others—are too vested in conventional political and bureaucratic mechanisms for resolving conflict. This leaves them incapable of initiating the sort of creative, audacious, and risky mass actions that are necessary to disrupt the prevailing balance of power in our society. This issue of New Labor Forum also inaugurates a new feature which aims to survey the landscape of local organizations of resistance and rebellion, groups too often unknown or ignored. We are calling it “Roots of Rebellion,” and are most pleased to announce that Peter Dreier—Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College—will be in charge. In this first offering, Dreier examines one of the more notable of such organizations, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

Robert Pollin’s column, “Economic Prospects,” doesn’t appear in this issue because he and Jeff Thompson had their hands full composing their feature article on alternatives to austerity. All the other regular columns are present and accounted for. Liza Featherstone’s “Caught in the Web” includes items on protest music, Internet watchdogs of mainstream media bias, and sites that keep up with the upheavals in the Middle East. “In the Rearview Mirror” looks at how public employees’ right to engage in collective bargaining has evolved over the course of the last century. Ben Becker’s “Under the Radar” provides some eye-opening statistical measures of how tough things are becoming, a scatological comment of intense frustration from the head of the American labor movement, and some welcome signs of fightback here in the U.S. and elsewhere. In “Books and the Arts,” two book reviews assess what became of working-class resistance in the closing decades of the twentieth century and another explores the role of the AFL in frustrating resistance by workers in developing countries. Matt Witt’s inventory of little-known books and films is again full of wonderful discoveries. And the issue closes with poems by Major Jackson and B.H. Fairchild that recapture disparate working-class childhoods lived, respectively, on the teeming streets of Philadelphia and the open roads of Colorado.