We write this on the day following Donald Trump’s electoral triumph. That stunning victory raises more questions than it answers. To what degree is the election outcome attributable to an anxious and enraged white working class that feels by turns neglected, misunderstood and insulted by mainstream and progressive organizations and pundits? And how should labor and progressive activists understand and respond to the racism the campaign exposed? What did the 2016 election tell us about the wisdom and viability of the Obama coalition, which depends on demographic changes presumed to be advantageous, rather than on birthing a multi-racial working-class? Did the AFL-CIO impact the election, particularly in the rust belt? We’ll take up these and related concerns in subsequent issues of New Labor Forum.
One thing seems clear, however. Addressing any of these concerns will take place outside the corridors of power. The Sanders campaign was an important overture in that direction. Our “On the Contrary” features a debate about whether the Sanders primary campaign was a lost opportunity for the labor movement. This debate is joined by Larry Cohen, ex-president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and Randi Weingarten with Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Our lead article by Phil Thompson examines the prospects for building on an already active “urban populism” which has established a foothold in a healthy number of American cities. Thompson raises the challenges implicit in maintaining and strengthening Obama-type coalitions, comprised of working-class blacks and Latinos and largely white millennials that constitute core metropolitan constituencies. Urban displacement is one issue that must be addressed if this new social chemistry is to work. Karen Chapple writes about how cities might develop in the interests of all instead of at the expense of their working classes.
Those working classes would probably be making a mistake to rely on anyone but themselves in the months and years ahead. One encouraging sign of that resourcefulness was the Verizon strike of last summer. Dan DiMaggio provides an anatomy of that victory, explores the multiple forces at play from the political as well as from the industrial arena, and poses the dilemma unions like the CWA face in dealing with frontier changes in technology and industrial organization. Farm work, not known for recent technological innovation, presents another challenge altogether, given the fact that it remains beyond the reach of most labor laws and protections. Julie C. Keller, Margaret Gray, and Jill Lindsay Harrison describe the efforts of immigrant dairy workers laboring at some of the dirtiest, most hazardous jobs to win some protection and justice from their employers. Mariya Strauss devotes her “Roots of Rebellion” column to another sub-sector of the food production sector, examining organizing efforts by seafood workers in New Orleans.
Widening the orbit of working-class influence is, in part, a function of political imagination. Once the labor movement embraced the cause of trust-busting which excited the passions of millions not necessarily part of the labor movement. Those days are long gone, but Carl T. Bogus argues they should not be. He lays out the reasons why anti-trust prosecutions have declined, how working people nonetheless pay a heavy price when mergers and acquisitions are allowed to proceed without government opposition, and why the labor movement should take up that forgotten cause. Another way to broaden the reach of the progressive movement would be to champion the cause of wounded and traumatized veterans who are, by and large, drawn from the country’s working classes. Ann Jones illuminates how major business interests, including the Koch brothers, are whittling away at government health care for veterans in an effort to buoy up their bottom lines. In “Organized Money” Max Fraser devotes his column to exposing another covert way major financial players are trying to gut or do an end-run around the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
One way not to win friends and influence people is on display within the labor movement. On the critical issue of environmental regulation and transformation–a cause that mobilizes many millions far removed from the ranks of organized labor–the movement is deeply divided, one faction siding with those most guilty of despoiling the earth. Sean Sweeney analyzes this split in his “Earth to Labor” column. A more welcome if small sign of the opposite appears in Sarah Jaffe’s “Under the Radar” reporting on a less well-known protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The “black box” of the workplace is a phrase bearing many meanings. It connotes tyranny, for example, as it does in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Paul Christensen sheds some desperately needed light into that hidden world. His essay is a primer for all those who wonder what’s happening to the Russian working class and its sporadic efforts to break out of that black box. Here at home the phrase also signals the closed off word of the prison industrial complex. There prisoners first of all, but then too those charged with their day to day imprisonment, face a vexing dilemma. Prisoners confront horrific conditions and often horrific treatment by prison guards. Guards deal with danger and an overhang of job insecurity as talk of prison closures grows. Austin McCoy wrestles with these conflicts and how they might be resolved.
Our Books and the Arts section begins with a review by Zora Ahmed of a closely related subject, namely the endemic racism of the criminal justice system in Cook County, Chicago: Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court. Echoing the theme of financial trickery in “Beg, Borrow, or Steal”,” Andrew Elrod reviews two books about the entanglement of people by merchants of debt, Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance, and How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy .Thinking about the future life of progressivism in the Clinton years and beyond is a book of essays called The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century, reviewed here by Kate Aronoff. Whatever else that future will entail it must rest on grassroots organizing, so we have included a review by Steve Early of two books that bear on that experience: The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement, and America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. And echoing the urban theme of this issue’s cover, we feature Li-Young Lee’s poem, The City in which I Love You, both a paean to and lament about “storied, buttressed, scavenged, policed city I call home, in which I am a guest.”