The 2016 election season has simmered with both an inchoate and occasionally crystal clear sense that there is something intrinsically wrong with the U.S. political economy. Despite macroeconomic indicators of post Great Recession recovery, the 99 percent remains strangled by low and flat-lined wages, increasingly precarious work, mountains of personal debt, and political disenfranchisement. The resulting anger and distress, of course, can lead to constructive possibilities or to dangerous outcomes. The current issue of New Labor Forum gazes down this fork in the road toward both the transformational potential of the present moment, as well as at its plausible jeopardy.
We begin with a proposal for large-scale new organizing aimed at asserting control over wealth and capital in the interest of poor and working-class people, engaging them where they confront a rigged system: as consumers, students, neighborhood dwellers, voters, the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, and workers. In their article, “Organizing in a Brave New World,” Stephen Lerner and Saqib Bhatti make an argument for bold campaigns that confront financialized capitalism head-on and address the racial disparities at its core. In these efforts, they challenge organized labor to do what it has mostly failed to do: recognize and join forces with incipient movements, like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.
The Sanders campaign, some might argue, offers the most recent, glaring example of an incipient movement that organized labor refused to join. With the primaries now over, Bernie supporters and progressive activists face a number of quandaries as they imagine the future. Among those questions: Why didn’t most unions or African Americans feel the Bern? What will it take to transform an electoral campaign into a social movement? And what degree of coordination on the left seems either useful or possible now? In “Is Class Warfare Back? The Sanders Phenomenon and Life After Neoliberal Capitalism,” Bob Master examines these and other urgent questions. And Ted Fertik, in his piece entitled “The New Political Arithmetic: Who Voted for Bernie, Who Voted for Hilary, and Why,” takes a close look at the 2016 primary election results and grapples with the implications of these trends for progressive politics.
As we contemplate new political possibilities on the left, Donald Trump’s candidacy — however unlikely it seems at present — serves as a reminder of the very real and persistent peril of right wing populism. And we are not alone. A global economy in service of mega corporations and the superrich, as well as mass migrations resulting from war and economic crises, have contributed to the ascendance of a European radical right. Walter Baier describes Europe’s growing and emboldened right wing parties, simultaneously divided by competing nationalisms and united by the sort of anti-European Unionism apparent in the June 2016 Brexit referendum. His article, “Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neo-Liberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism” also offers a dim view of European labor’s ability to effectively confront right-wing populism.
In China, where competing political parties are verboten, an impoverished populace is increasingly turning to wildcat strikes and experimentation with new forms of protest to combat the same global economic system. In “Rising Inequality and its Discontents in China”, Kevin Lin chronicles the mushrooming wealth and income gaps resulting from dismantled state-sector employment and policies that have created a vast, hyper-exploited rural migrant labor force.
Political shifts in the U.S. are now providing the occasion to consider audacious policy remedies to poverty and an actual unemployment rate that exceeds the official count and especially plagues youth and people of color. The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) and Full Employment are two such ideas, contemplated on and off for roughly a century, now receiving greater attention. They are evaluated here by Trudy Goldberg in her article “Employment or Income Guarantees: Which Would Do the Better Job?” Many proponents of an income guarantee view the technological displacement of workers and the expanding gig economy as powerful arguments for the sort of supplemental income offered by BIG. Such workforce trends have given rise to a far-flung global network of high-tech piecework. It is precisely this new form of distributed tech work that Juliet Webster examines in “Microworkers in the Gig Economy: Separate and Unequal.”
What new strategies might offer proliferating numbers of on-demand workers the greatest control over the conditions of their labor? This question provides the grist for a useful debate in the current installment of “On the Contrary.” Jay Youngdahl argues that the “Good Work Code,” pioneered by the National Domestic Workers Association (NDWA), offers a seal of approval for companies, like DoorDash and Care.com, with questionable track records. NWDA Director Ai-jen Poo counters that the code serves as a roadmap for companies, rather than a seal of approval and defends her organization’s efforts to tackle a challenge that organized labor has mostly shirked: advancing the interests of legions of precarious workers in a rapidly changing environment.
For a host of reasons, even expanding its ranks in traditional sectors of the economy has evaded organized labor’s efforts. In 1995, when John Sweeney assumed the presidency of the AFL-CIO in the first contested election in the federation’s history, mass organizing became labor’s top priority. Two decades later, union membership has continued its decline to the present rate of 11 percent. In this issue, Shaun Richman provokes discussion on the reasons for this consequential fact, offering musings based on his work as a union organizer. Three labor activist-organizers: José LaLuz, Jane McAlevy, and Jonathan Rosenblum respond with competing explanations.
Our columns in this issue reverberate with the challenges that face a weakened labor movement, nascent endeavors to organize new forms of work, and a political system in the hands of powerful corporate interests. Among the stories covered by Sarah Jaffe, in “Under the Radar,” is the recent call by immigrant rights organizers for the AFL-CIO to end the affiliation of the National Border Patrol Council, which has endorsed Trump and proclaims its opposition to the federation’s support for undocumented immigrants. In “Roots of Rebellion,” Mariya Strauss describes successful campaigns by Columbia and New York University work-study students to bring the Fight for $15 to their campuses in order to raise their own paltry earnings. Max Fraser’s installment of “Organized Money” reveals the huge sums that Bill Clinton’s landmark Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement appropriated to the country’s ballooning prison system and the current support for Hilary Clinton from key corporations enriched by those allocations. And in “Earth to Labor,” Sean Sweeney examines the reasons why the much the trumpeted commitment of certain corporate leaders to “zero emissions” amounts to ineffectual posturing.
In this issue, we welcome Gabriel Winant, our new Books & the Arts editor, who has assembled an engaging selection of book and film reviews. A discussion by Tim Barker of old and new visions of utopia and radical democracy contemplates Kristin Ross’ Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune; Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein’s The Port Juron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto; and Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement. Allyson Brantley examines Juan Thomas Ordoñez’ Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA and Vanesa Ribas’ On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives in the Making of the New South, books that reflect on migrants’ jumble of experiences with low-wage work, race, and national status. Molly Cunningham reviews Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, by Victor Chen and Christine Walley, and Chris Boebel’s Exit Zero, two ethnographies that examine the lives laid-off workers enduring in the shadow of deindustrialization and bad debt. And Jennifer Taub assesses the disparate contributions of the films The Big Short and 99 Homes to an understanding of the crisis brought about by the bursting housing bubble. We end with three poems: “The Family Solid,” “Upon Seeing Spiderman on My Way to Work,” and “Fade,” by Gary Jackson, a young poet whose fascination with comic books provides a vehicle for contemplating tough truths many might prefer to ignore, but which, in fact, connect us to “the whole goddamn world.”