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Winter 2011 Abstracts

Under the Radar

By Ben Becker

Under the Radar“[Slavery] started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there, and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there and, before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade.”
—Glenn Beck, during his October 1, 2010 radio program

“The slowdown has reached such a wide range of countries that they're now feeding on one another.”
—Alan Ruskin, chief international strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital, on the global economy


$1.8 trillion
The amount of cash that the five hundred top non-financial corporations are “sitting on,” roughly one-quarter more than at the beginning of the recession. But they aren’t hiring. (Source: content/article/2010/07/14/AR2010071405960.html)

The number of anti-Muslim discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the year 2009. The number is up 20 percent from 2008, 60 percent from 2005, and is expected to be higher in 2010.

The maximum amount of covered health expenses offered to McDonald’s employees who purchase the company’s $700/year “mini-med” plan. While the 2010 insurance reform legislation was supposed to outlaw such extortionate rates, the corporation has already received a waiver from the White House to continue the program.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 6-9, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000002

We Can't Go Home Again: Why the New Deal Won't Be Renewed

By Jefferson Cowie

Spilled across the title pages of progressive journals are demands for a new New Deal, a global New Deal, a New and Improved Deal, a reNewed Deal, and even New Deal 2.0. After Obama’s election, political cartoons—most notably, but not exclusively, on the cover of Time magazine—featured a jubilant, toothy Barack Obama with a cigarette holder, posing confidently in an open limousine à la FDR. Elsewhere, otherwise sober commentators began speaking of “Franklin Delano Obama.” Even before the coming of the Great Recession, but accelerating ever since, the era of Roosevelt has become a metaphor, political principle, and guiding light for all that must be returned to American politics. Then, inevitably, comes the shock of reality: the new Gilded Age seems to have a lot more traction in American political culture than did the hope of a new New Deal.

For a historian (and social democrat) like myself, this puts me in a bind. I’d love to see a triumphal return of the New Deal. Many of the policies of the 1930s represented the best of what the United States might be as a nation—caring, sharing, secure, and occasionally visionary—while few issues seem more important today than bringing the concerns of working people out of the shadows and into the political and economic light. But bad history makes for really bad political strategy, so we must face up to a key fact: the creation of the New Deal was pretty tenuous to begin with, and the decades following—often called “the New Deal order”—were pretty close to an aberration in American history.

Indeed, the political era between the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt through the administration of Richard Nixon, as my co-author Nick Salvatore and I have argued, marks a “long exception” in American political history and culture. During this period, the central government utilized its considerable resources in a systematic, if hardly consistent, fashion on behalf of non-elite Americans. One can visualize the outcome in the statistical graphs as an anomalous historical hump that rises in the forties and declines in the seventies: economic equality improves then tumbles, union density rockets upward and then slowly falls, working people’s income goes up before dwindling, and the percentage of wealth possessed by the most affluent dips before roaring back with a vengeance. Even the minimum wage rises to a useful figure in the late sixties before fading.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 10-14, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000003

Out of the Smoke and the Flame:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy

Why No Fire This Time?: From the Mass Strike to No Strike

By Stephen Pimpare

Economists tell us that the United States finally emerged from its worst decline since the Great Depression in June 2009, although evidence of that seems scarce. Unemployment was still at 9.5 percent a year later, and at 16.5 percent by the Labor Department’s more comprehensive measure. Long-term unemployment was at an historic high, and poverty was rising again after declines during the boom of the 1990s: just between 2004 and 2007, more than 30 percent of Americans were poor at least once. Since official measures understate poverty and these figures do not include the Great Recession that began in December 2007, the situation was surely worse.

By 2008, 40 percent of the forty million poor Americans were very poor, getting by with incomes below half the poverty line, which was then $17,600 per year for a family of three. According to a new Economic Security Index, one in five Americans saw their incomes fall by 25 percent or more in 2009. Personal bankruptcy claims were at their highest since the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act was passed in 2005, and foreclosures were up 35 percent from mid-2009 to mid-2010, by which point 30 percent of homeowners owed more on their houses than they were worth, making them essentially bankrupt, too. Homelessness hit record levels, and families with children were the fastest-growing share: their numbers were up 30 percent from 2007 to 2009. Meanwhile, “tent cities” and other makeshift encampments sprung up as echoes of the Hoovervilles of the 1920s and 1930s, and thirty-seven million Americans relied upon soup kitchens and food pantries, our modern breadlines. Conditions were worse for African-Americans, as they always are: for them, this recession was a depression. Simon Schama, with ominous reference to the French Revolution, wondered in the pages of the Financial Times if the world was at a “tinderbox moment,” from which global economic crisis might erupt into a “social fury” that could “bring down the governance of the American republic.” But for all Schama’s breathlessness, and notwithstanding the occasional violent outburst, a rise in right-wing extremist organizations, and the theatrics of the Tea Party caucus, the public has seemed curiously passive compared to past periods of distress.

It is commonplace to note that the U.S. has the bloodiest labor history of any Western polity; in the first two decades of the twentieth century our strike rates were up to five times higher than in other industrialized nations, and the half-dozen years after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire count among the most violent of that long, dark epoch. The years before and after the fire were host to a kaleidoscopic array of activism: farmers agitating for regulation of the railroads; city-dwellers fighting for clean water and unspoilt milk, or for parks and playgrounds and street lights; women—black and white, North and South—joining in political, social, and cultural reform movements, from those demanding suffrage (or opposing it), to temperance crusaders, consumers’ leaguers, settlement house reformers, union organizers, and anti-immigrant nativists. Businesses organized for more power and influence with government and over labor, while labor agitated for shorter days, higher wages, and safer working conditions.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 17-25, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000004

Out of the Smoke and the Flame:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy

From the Triangle Fire to the BP Explosion: A Short History of the Century-Long Movement for Safety and Health

By Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner

After thirty years of attacks by conservative and business critics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is starting to show more signs of life. And it’s happening none too soon. The catastrophic disaster at the BP oil rig left eleven men dead, and numerous others injured and traumatized; the 2010 explosion in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine left twenty-nine men dead. But this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As David Michaels, a renowned epidemiologist and labor advocate—and, most significantly, the new head of OSHA under the Obama administration—reminds us, “these catastrophic events are powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers across the country every day. Fourteen workers die on the job each day, far from the headlines, often noted only by their families, friends, and co-workers.”

The constant hum of deaths on construction sites and among long-distance haulers is a dangerous harbinger of what’s to come, as the captains of our shrinking industrial economy wring whatever they can from a susceptible, largely unorganized workforce. Deaths and injuries from accidents have been on a steady decline as jobs in steel and auto production, metal mining, and other heavy industries have been shipped overseas. But the ongoing incidence of long-term industrial diseases from exposure to dust, chemicals, and other toxins that are a part of high-tech industries has put new generations of American workers at risk. As Michaels points out, “every year more than four million workers are seriously injured or sickened by exposure to toxic agents.” Meanwhile, OSHA’s infrastructure and funding have atrophied over the past several decades.

Workers’ safety and health have always played a part in labor struggles, although they have usually been subsumed within broader campaigns for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions. In recent decades, workplace safety’s importance as a serious public welfare matter seems to have faded. But at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 (well before OSHA’s establishment in 1970), there was already growing concern about safety and health in the wake of revolutionary social and economic changes in the United States. In lit­tle more than three decades, Americans had wit­nessed the rapid growth of cities and manu­facturing centers. Speed-ups, repetitive motion tasks, exposure to chem­ical toxins and dusts, and unprotected machinery made the U.S. workplace among the most dangerous in the world. In response, workers, unions, middle-class reformers, muckraking journalists, and social workers created a movement that changed the nature of U.S. capitalism.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 26-32, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000005

Out of the Smoke and the Flame:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy

Feminism and the Labor Movement: A Century of Collaboration and Conflict

By Eileen Boris and Annelise Orleck

A century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, women have become nearly half of the unionized labor force. They work in the growing service and public employment sectors as nurses, home attendants, teachers, and clerks. Previously labeled women’s issues—maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, and work-family balance—have become union issues. Women hold leadership positions in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. With the disappearance of manufacturing and the growth of service labor, women of color—both immigrant- and U.S.- born—have become the driving force in the labor movement for safe jobs, living wages, and dignity at work, leading women-dominated unions and worker associations. It is not an overstatement to say that the future of the labor movement appears up to the women.

It hasn’t always been this way. For at least a century, labor feminists have fought for the interests of wage-earning women and working-class housewives, both within the feminist and the labor movements. Still, the priorities of the women’s movement for sex-based rights and those of the labor movement for class solidarity often diverged during the twentieth century. Working-class feminists struggled against middle-class feminists who focused primarily on achieving equality with male professionals and executives. They also battled men who sought to exclude women from unionized jobs and who denied organized women workers a full share of power in the labor movement.

Highlighting key moments when feminists and unionists came together over the last century, this essay offers a usable past drawn from the fraught—but often productive—relationship between feminism and labor. An examination of the contact between organized women’s groups and organized labor, women’s organizations within the labor movement, and feminist labor organizing shows that when feminists and unions worked together, both benefited. Labor gained when it understood women’s issues as crucial for the advancement of the working class. The women’s movement was at its strongest when its membership and agenda crossed class lines. Recognition of this history may help to revitalize feminism as much as organized labor.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 33-41, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000006

Out of the Smoke and the Flame:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy

The Rag Trade as the Canary in the Coal Mine: The Global Sweatshop, 1980-2010

By Robert J.S. Ross

The global sweatshop has emerged from the integration of super-exploited labor in the Global South with the brands and retailers of the Global North. Beginning in the 1960s, apparel industry production migrated away from the high-wage nations. This trend is linked with the more general globalization of manufacturing, and is accelerated by the immensely concentrated power of the department store chains, especially the big-box discounters like Wal-Mart. All of this, in turn, is a product of the 1960s class conflicts in Europe and the United States, in which workers’ wages rose and corporate profits were threatened.

Thus the global sweatshop is a dramatic symbol and particular manifestation of an evolution of capitalism in the older industrial regions—from high-price/high-wage competition among a few large firms to price-competitive, low-wage competition that incorporates many more locations on a global scale. Global capitalism makes it harder for workers in traditionally low-wage industries to maintain the decent conditions of the post-World War II Global North such as those briefly obtained,by apparel workers. It has also decimated the job stability, wages, and benefits of manufacturing workers in formerly well-paid capital-intensive industries like auto and steel.

The current form of globalization is specifically a product of employers’ resolve to evade and weaken organized labor and, so far, it has been successful. That is why the old miners’ tell-tale—the canary indicating the presence of toxic gases—is so apt. The vulnerable rag trade is the most obvious sector in which globalization’s impact on labor standards has made itself felt—but it is not alone.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 42-49, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000007

A Twenty-First Century Organizing Model: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign

By Ai-jen Poo

*From 2000-2009, the author served as the lead organizer for Domestic Workers United.

The August 31, 2010 landmark signing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights by New York State Governor David Paterson recognizes New York’s domestic workforce and establishes basic labor standards. The first legislation of its kind in the country, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights provides: overtime pay of time-and-a-half of workers’ regular rate of pay (after forty hours for live-out workers and after forty-four hours for live-in workers); protection from discrimination and harassment; a minimum of one day of rest per week; and a minimum of three days of paid leave per year.

This decree affects more than two hundred thousand women, most of whom are immigrants of color who labor as nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly. Prior to the movement that led up to the legislation’s passage, domestic workers were excluded from labor laws and largely invisible—the question asked was whether they should be covered by labor law at all. Today, there are two questions asked: how will the new benefits and protections be enforced, and how might they be extended to domestic workers nationwide?

The World of Work Inside the Home

Domestic workers—who care for our families and our homes—are among the most vulnerable workers in the United States. There are an estimated 2.5 million women who labor as domestic workers. In the New York metropolitan area alone, they leave their homes early in the morning, often in the dark, in order to arrive at their work sites before their employers depart for work. Some live in their employers’ homes, caring for these families throughout the day and night. The more hours these women spend working in their employers’ homes, the fewer hours they have to care for their own homes and families. Many domestic workers have had to leave their children behind in their home nations. While the entire economy rests on their work, their labor has long been taken for granted.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 51-55, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000008

Citizens of the Global Economy: A Proposal to Universalize the Rights of Transnational Labor

By Jennifer Gordon

Unions in the United States have made great strides toward viewing immigrants already in this country—documented or not—as part of the labor movement. But what labor’s position should be on immigrant workers yet to come has proven a much harder question.

For the better part of the last century, most unions advocated restrictionism, on the theory that wages would be higher with less competition for work. Troubling as it is from a global perspective, this might make sense from the point of view of native workers—if restrictionism predictably translated into a meaningful reduction in the number of new arrivals. Yet for the past twenty years at least, despite restrictive immigration policies and increasing funds for border control, hundreds of thousands of low-wage labor migrants have poured into the United States annually, most of them undocumented.

In a globally interconnected and vastly unequal world, so long as there is low-wage work on offer in the United States, large numbers of people will continue to migrate to take those jobs. If an ongoing flow of new immigrants is unavoidable, the real question for labor advocates is how to restructure low-wage labor migration so that it supports—rather than undermines—the rights of all workers, and their ability to organize together to fight for better working conditions. This article sets out one proposal—Transnational Labor Citizenship—that would link migrants with unions, worker centers, and advocates before they even left their home countries, and tie the right to migrate for work to a commitment by migrants to report violations of baseline workplace standards in the U.S. It also explores other forms of “mobile labor citizenship” emerging from union experiments around the world today.

The Labor Movement’s Current Position on Future Flow
The two major United States labor federations were, until recently, deeply divided over the “future flow” issue. The conflict surfaced most publicly in the immigration debate in the years following labor’s 2005 split, when the AFL-CIO rejected the idea of temporary immigration programs, while Change to Win unions—such as the Service Employees International Union—called for some form of short-term program as an alternative to ongoing undocumented migration, and as a bargaining chip to offer the business lobby in exchange for its support of legalization. In 2009, with comprehensive immigration reform off the table in Congress for the time being, the federations negotiated a compromise, calling for the government to create an independent commission to assess labor market shortages and, in response, determine how many immigrants to admit. The accord rejects the idea of creating any new temporary worker programs or expanding existing ones.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 57-64, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000009

Neither Walls Nor Open Borders: A New Approach to Immigration Reform

- Rodolfo O. de la Garza

The government’s failure to realistically confront immigration has created a political and policy crisis. Getting beyond this quagmire requires changing how we think about immigration. We must begin by viewing it as an ongoing socioeconomic process, rather than as a national security issue to be attacked and controlled. This will help us acknowledge that extreme measures—such as “closing the border” or allowing the status quo to continue—offer (at best) pyrrhic solutions, and that it is possible to influence immigration and mediate its effects through new policies that address all major facets of the problem. It is also essential to recognize that immigration significantly affects virtually all key aspects of society—the nation’s demography, economy, culture, and politics—in ways that generate potentially unbridgeable political cleavages. Add to this the multi-dimensional impact of the nation’s current economic crisis, and it is easy to understand why the politics of immigration reform have become so complicated that policymakers have essentially opted for inaction—either by doing nothing or by proposing solutions that will never be formalized (despite the obvious failure of extant policy).

Making reform more difficult is that successfully managing immigration will require more than overcoming domestic conflicts. Immigration is an “intermestic”issue—that is, it simultaneously involves politics in the U. S. and the immigrant-sending states. Managing it, therefore, requires international collaboration, without which it will be impossible to stem the flow of immigrants—a key component of any immigration management policy and its attendant problems.

What measures must be taken to create a new policy? First, we must establish its dual focus: the economic and social well-being of the nation, and respect for the civil and human rights of immigrants. The former will provide the basis for meeting employer demands for low- and high-skilled labor. The latter will validate our overstated claim of being a nation that welcomes immigrants, which requires ensuring that anti-immigrant discrimination is reduced and immigrant-worker rights are respected. No reasonable interest group should reject these objectives.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 65-71, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000010

Land of the Open Shop: The Long Struggle to Organize Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

On January 29, 1993 workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunny­vale, California filed out of its doors, one last time, before the plant was closed."We said at the beginning that if the company was going to shut down, let them," said Sandra Gomez, a Ver­satronex striker."But as long as the plant was open, we were going to fight for our rights."

Versatronex was the first Silicon Valley plant struck by production employees, and these were the first Silicon Valley strikers to win recognition for their union. Their struggle demolished some of the most cherished myths about the high-tech workforce, and showed that Silicon Valley workers—like workers anywhere under the right circumstances—are willing to fight to end sweatshop conditions.

Corpora­tions like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and National Semiconductor told their workers for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists called the electronics industry a massive, growth-fueling industrial engine, benefiting workers and communities alike. No unions were needed.

Those promises were worthless. Today, many giants of the industry own no factories at all. Contract manufacturers build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary. In the valley’s remaining factories, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 73-80, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000011

Survival in the Shadows

By Neure Clarke

When I was sixteen, I got a summer job working at a supermarket. At the time, I didn’t really have any financial obligations, so I just saved my daily wages and bought my first pair of shoes. That pair of shoes was my first and last piece of independence back home in Kingston, Jamaica.

A year later, I graduated from high school without the slightest clue about what to do next. After my parents told me they couldn’t afford to send me to college, they gave me a choice: either move to America or stay in Jamaica and support myself. I chose America. My parents planned to move there too, and agreed that my mother would migrate first.

In 1990, I came to the U.S. on a visa, bearing no gifts. My suitcase had so few belongings, it could have passed for carry-on luggage. Although, as a child, I dreamed of becoming a pilot, I had never flown on a plane before and the experience made me feel important. As I thought about how I would miss visiting my grandmother in the country—where we would eat mangoes and jackfruit—that summer, I hoped for a better life than the one I had previously led.

When I arrived in New York, taking in the sheer width of the streets, the height of the buildings, and the pace of the people sent instant messages to my brain that I was not in Jamaica anymore. It took about three months to get reacquainted with family members who were already living in the area and to familiarize myself with the streets of Brooklyn. It dawned on me one morning, as I looked into the empty suitcase I had brought with me, that I needed a job. I had no knowledge of the necessary procedures or paperwork, but quickly realized that trying to get a job without the right papers would be daunting. I needed to become resilient.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 81-85, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000012

Economic Prospects
Can We Please Stop Blaming Immigrants?

Hostility in the United States toward immigrants has risen sharply in recent years. The strongest sign of this was the law signed last April by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, which gave the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Two U.S. Senators, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have gone so far as to propose repealing the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants automatic citizenship to all babies born on U.S. soil, regardless of the citizenship status of the baby’s parents. Of course, these actions are primarily a response to the economic wreckage caused by the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse. But they fly in the face of evidence, which shows that immigrants are by no means responsible for mass unemployment or the cutbacks in social benefits that U.S. residents are now experiencing.

Immigration into the U.S. has been rising steadily since the 1970s, after having fallen for sixty years from its peak level around 1910. At present, immigrant arrivals—running at about 1.25 million people per year—account for 40 percent of population growth nationally, and a much larger share in some regions. Something like 35-40 percent of new arrivals are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America with low education and limited English skills.
According to polling data, large majorities of native U.S. residents hold much more favorable attitudes toward immigrants, including undocumented workers, than Governor Brewer and Senators Kyl and Graham. Still, politicians do not make a habit of taking actions that lack popular support. The anti-immigration sentiment is real, even if among only a minority of the population, including those supporting the right-wing Tea Party insurgency.

Nobody should be surprised by this development. Due to the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse and ensuing recession, the official unemployment rate averaged 9.7 percent for the first eight months of 2010, although a more accurate figure would be close to 20 percent. State and local governments throughout the country are sharply cutting education, health, and social safety net programs. This is all after the recession ended in mid-2009, at least according to the official declaration of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 86-89, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000013

In the Rearview Mirror
Trading Places: Protecting American Industry Is So Yesterday

By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman

The current recession has been brutal on manufacturing workers. Between December 2007 and December 2009, over two million of the country’s 7 million manufacturing jobs disappeared. Six million industrial jobs have vanished since 1998 and manufacturing employment today is only 60 percent of its peak in 1979. Walking around the mall, it sometimes seems impossible to find a product made in the U.S.A.

It is a piety of present politics that the United States needs to rebuild its manufacturing base, an idea that the labor movement, the president, and most of the public support. But the financial interests that increasingly dominate our economy tend to see greater profit opportunities in globalization than in domestic manufacturing, which is one reason why little has been done to staunch the flow of jobs abroad. Indeed, these peak financial institutions grew to their present preeminence in part by systematically looting and shutting down American industry over the past quarter century. Policies aimed at reviving domestic industry—tariffs, currency revaluations, state-sponsored reindustrialization schemes—were, until recently, relegated to the margins of political discourse and situated largely outside of the realm of democratic governance.

This was not always the case. From the earliest days of the United States, promoting and protecting manufacturing jobs was a rallying cry for workers and a hotly debated electoral subject. With little exaggeration, one might say that industrializing America constituted the core of public policy for more than a century. One reason artisans—both journeymen and the masters who employed them—supported the ratification of the Constitution was their belief that a strong federal government would be better able to enforce restrictions on imports than the individual states, thereby protecting their markets, jobs, and wages. “Taxes on imported goods,” wrote one Philadelphia plebian, “can distress none but the rich.” As artisans hoped, the newly created Congress did pass a tariff, and—during the decades that followed—labor groups continued to agitate for high tariffs.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 90-93, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000014

Caught in the Web
By Liza Featherstone

Quitters as Cultural Heroes

In a recession, not many people can afford to quit their jobs. But jobs are just as bad as ever—indeed, many are worse, with even unionized workers losing benefits and being forced to accept pay cuts—so many have continued to dream of quitting. Many resent being told they’re “lucky to have a job at all in this economy.” Sure, working is (usually) better than unemployment, but people get tired of the pressure to suck it up.

Enter Internet heroes Jenny and Steve. The strikingly attractive Jenny quit her job via a series of thirty-three photos of herself holding a dry erase board, enumerating her boss’s sexism, bad temper, bad breath, and—despite having paternalistically monitored his employees’ Internet use—habit of playing FarmVille at work. (See: The series, “Girl Quits Job Via Dry Erase Board,” was an immediate Internet sensation. “You go, girl!” was the almost universal reaction.

There was just one problem with the folk heroine who quickly came to be known as “Jenny DryErase”: she didn’t exist. The girl in the photos is an actress named Elyse Porterfield. “Girl Quits” was a hoax dreamed up by the publishers of a website, hoping to draw traffic. The site has pulled off several successful hoaxes in the past, including a “report” that Donald Trump had left a $10,000 tip on an $80 bill at a restaurant. Watching their website go from 15,000 to 440,000 unique page views in just one hour, the men behind certainly achieved their goals, and offered a beacon of hope—or at least a laugh—to millions of fed-up office workers.

Although she was made up, Jenny’s instant popularity spoke to genuine dreams. The same day Jenny went viral a (real) JetBlue employee lost it and quit his job even more dramatically, in an outburst that he said was prompted by abuse from a passenger. Steven Slater exists, but his story may prove to be just as fake as Jenny’s, since no witnesses to corroborate his version of the story have been found. But to his Internet public, such details didn’t matter. Steven Slater has more than fifty different Facebook fan pages, with a total of more than fifty thousand fans and names like “Can Steven Slater Get More Fans than Justin Bieber?” (Putting the latter effort in perspective, pop-music phenom Bieber has more than 10.5 million fans.) Several of these pages hail Slater as a “Working-Class Hero.”

None of these Internet enthusiasms are about the facts. They reflect the perennial dream of telling the boss to take this job and shove it.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 94-97, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000015

Homeless in Academe

A Carpenter’s Daughter: A Working-Class Woman in Higher Education
By Renny Christopher
Sense Publishers, 2009

Reviewed by Nicholas Coles

Renny Christopher began writing about the hazards of class mobility through education in the essay “A Carpenter’s Daughter” in This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (1995). Now with the publication of her own book, we have the full story of what she’s been through and what she’s figured out as “a working-class woman in higher education.” It makes for powerful reading, packed with insight for those of us who teach working-class students or work on class issues, in any field of study. If, as Janet Galligani Casey argues, “the working-class student’s difference, implicitly constituted as lack, is what college is designed to erase,” how can she resist that erasure, and what are the costs of that struggle? And for those who stay and make a career in academe, what are the resources and responsibilities we bring to our teaching and scholarship?

A Carpenter’s Daughter is an educational memoir, sharing kinship with Lives on the Boundary (1989) by Mike Rose and Hunger of Memory (1982) by Richard Rodriguez, fellow academics from the working class who have informed Christopher’s own self-understanding. Their books—like hers—are narrative, analytical, and polemical by turns, vivid stories of schooling that broaden out into arguments about class, race, and education. Like Rose, having gotten through the gates of the academy, Christopher has stayed in higher education, committed to working out what is possible for the students Rose calls “underprepared” in classrooms that take their histories and their intelligence seriously. Like Rodriguez, whose academic career dead-ended in the dusty archives of the British Museum, Christopher focuses on the pain and losses of what Rodriguez calls the “radical self-reformation” enforced by education. Much as the alienation of the bright working-class student is intensified by Rodriguez’s racial status as a Mexican-American scholarship boy, gender plays a similar role in the experience of a bookish and isolated working-class girl from rural southern California who is now, to her amazement, in a university position of “power and responsibility.” A Carpenter’s Daughter represents, in one sense, a woman’s version of those two men’s well-known accounts. And like them, in writing about her “battles in the academic world,” Christopher is telling “a story about more than just me.” She is writing on behalf of those for whom educational mobility entails a form of homelessness. Her book is, she says, “a critique of the educational system—starting with elementary school—that has made me what I am” (p. xvi).

In school, she was bored by a drill-and-skill curriculum designed to train children of the working class for their future roles. “Earmarked for success” by her teachers, but set apart from peers by this and by her tomboy ways, she was essentially friendless through her school years. She enjoyed working alongside her carpenter father, and was fascinated by space travel—the ambition to reach “escape velocity” and discover what was out there. She escaped as far as Oakland to attend Mills College, “the most beautiful place I had ever seen,” but struggled there socially, academically, and financially (p. 41). Her clothes and speech clashed with those of the children of privilege on campus, her high school had not prepared her for the critical thinking and independent work required at a liberal arts college, and there was never enough money. Her college years were punctuated by long periods of dropping out, working low-wage jobs, and then going back to school for the opportunity she’d glimpsed but missed before—to read, think, and write. After an eventual B.A. from Mills and an M.A. from San Jose State, that opportunity seemed to arrive with a teaching fellowship in English at UC-Santa Cruz.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 98-101, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000016

Demythologizing Mexican Immigration

Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border
By David Spener
Cornell University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Mary Romero

As violence among drug cartels in Mexico is sensationalized in the U.S. media, those who enforce immigration law use both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror to justify expanding budgets and the use of excessive force and surveillance of Latino immigrants. Scapegoating Mexicans as the source of high unemployment rates and the loss of federal and state benefits available to citizens divides workers across borders—which is a crucial tool for generating support for legislation that benefits capitalists and places U.S. and Mexican jobs in jeopardy.

U.S. immigration policy, law enforcement practices, and sensationalized media coverage have successfully blurred the distinction between immigrants, terrorists, and criminals, erasing the true story of Mexican immigrants seeking employment for family survival. In Clandestine Crossings, David Spener cuts through anti-immigration claims that those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are armed criminals engaged in drug smuggling, human smuggling, and human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking). He places the largest contemporary migration between any two countries in the world in a historical, economic, and cultural context. His analysis unravels the myths and propaganda used by nativist and anti-immigration activists to fuel the militarization of the border and exacerbate the human suffering that comes with crossing the border to work.

The journey to el norte is a century-old story, as Spener explains, which has been passed down through several generations and is embedded in border folklore. Making little distinction between citizens and immigrants, the Texas Rangers were notorious for their violent enforcement of the law, which always favored whites. Blocked from equal access to the law and to economic resources, Mexican bandits and raiders became folk heroes. Relegated to second-class citizenship in the U.S., Mexican-Americans residing in the border areas conducted their lives on both sides, visiting family and transporting food, textiles, and other goods from Texas to Mexico.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 102-105, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000016

The Celluloid Economy

The American Ruling Class
Directed by John Kirby
Bullfrog Films, 2007

The People Speak
Co-directed by Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Howard Zinn
Voices of A People's History of the United States, 2010

What’s the Economy for, Anyway?
Directed by David Batker and John de Graaf
Bullfrog Films, 2010

Reviewed by Kathy M. Newman

Will the revolution be televised? Or will it simply be turned into a commercially successful radical documentary, of the sort distributed by companies like Bullfrog Films and the History Channel? Over the last ten years, scholars (such as Nick Couldry and James Curran, authors of Contesting Media Power) who study the relationship between media and dominant power structures have urged critics and audiences to consider the power of alternative media. We get a glimpse of that potential in three recent documentaries that take on some of the central questions about how economic power works in American society.

The question of whether or not America has a ruling class makes for a provocative “documentary musical,” The American Ruling Class. Lewis H. Lapham, just before giving up the reins of Harper’s Magazine in 2006, wrote the script as a latter-day fairy tale about two fictional graduates of Yale University who can’t decide if they “want to rule the world, or save it.”

The film is quirky—a kind of inverted reality show, in which the characters are fictional but the circumstances are real. As the opening disclaimer explains, “any resemblance to real life is entirely intentional.” One of the Yalies—Jack, from a wealthy family—accepts an offer to work for Goldman Sachs after graduation. The other Yale man—Mike, from a more modest background—works as a waiter and wants to be a writer. Mike is the character we are rooting for to save the world, and most of the film consists of Mike’s tour of the ruling class, from Wall Street to Hollywood to Mexico. Along the way, the two young men meet an astonishing number of actual members of the ruling class—including Bill Bradley; James A. Baker, III; Lawrence H. Summers; and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.—most of whom deny the existence of their own kind. Mike also meets some of the great progressive intellectuals and artists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Altman. At the end of the film, one of our country’s greatest living treasures, Pete Seeger, plays the banjo while walking Mike down the path to either his job interview at Goldman Sachs or something more noble—we’re not entirely sure. What we are sure of, however, is that Lewis Lapham has an impressive rolodex. To see James A. Baker, III placidly deny the existence of a ruling class is to see something rather extraordinary indeed.

The music, Pete Seeger’s included, is one of the most original elements of the film. There’s an infectious dirge performed throughout the film about the “great and mighty Wurlitzer” (a reference to propaganda efforts of the CIA, if you follow that sort of thing), and a musical tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. The music adds a sophisticated and absurdist element to something that occasionally feels too naïve—like a college student’s senior thesis project—especially when the amateur actors playing the Yale men pontificate about the meaning of life. The question of whether or not those of us in the privileged middle and/or upper middle classes should work from the “inside” or the “outside” of the system seems less compelling during our current Great Recession, in which having any sort of work at all is a lucky break.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 106-108, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000016

To Work Is to Pray: Faith and Working-Class Resilience

Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches
By Robert Anthony Bruno
The Ohio State University Press, 2008

Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate)
By Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger)
Ignatius Press, 2009

Reviewed by Brian R. Corbin

Something unique happened whenever César Chávez of the United Farm Workers entered a room: you felt a presence, an aura. You could feel how Chávez’s Catholicism influenced his worldview. He sought an integration of his faith and his everyday work life. Many contemporary labor leaders, members of the working-class rank-and-file, and white-collar employees still exude their faith both on their “day of rest” and in their jobs.

Lately, faith and workers often seem divided. Some scholars maintain that faith no longer matters in working-class life, while on the other side, organized religion’s adherents tend to be more socially conservative and less inclined to work for justice. Some argue that faith has become too focused on the personal level, forging a chasm between one’s religious life and the everyday world of work. Interestingly, during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church declared that one of the most serious errors of the modern era is the false dichotomy between one’s faith and the world in which one lives. Faith should form a person’s understanding about the cosmic questions of life and death, but also about the grungy details of daily toil.

Robert Anthony Bruno and Pope Benedict XVI share a common hope: to show how faith does and should impact one’s perspective and praxis. They call for a stronger sense of and commitment to justice in workplaces and in the general economy. Bruno’s goal in Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches is to demonstrate “how a small number of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim working-class believers used their faith to inform their lives” (p. 9). He investigates, through hundreds of interviews with working-class individuals in Chicago, how people view their work as having inherent religious meaning. Bruno is concerned that many secular and religious leaders do not recognize the religious value of everyday work and few want to talk about the relationship between faith and labor. His true fear is that the only group interested in religion and work consists of corporate executives and evangelical leaders who want to insert religion into the workplace in order to justify and pacify workers to the capitalist system.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 109-113, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000016

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.


13 Bankers
By Simon Johnson and James Kwak
Pantheon, 2010
This book explains in convincing detail how Wall Street destroyed the economy, why elected officials and regulators in both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to take the necessary action, and what ought to be done now.

1877: America’s Year of Living Violently

By Michael A. Bellesiles
The New Press, 2010
1877, like 1968 or 2001, was a year in which events converged to change the course of U.S. history. An historian writes in accessible style about a year of economic depression in which white mobs attacked African-Americans and Mexicans, a national railroad strike headlined a series of major battles between working people and big capital, and the U.S. Army faced stiff resistance from Native Americans.

A Shameful Business
By James A. Gross
Cornell University Press, 2010
Politicians of various stripes occasionally find it useful to decry human rights abuses in other countries. This book details the human rights abuses built into the American workplace, where property rights are consistently valued over workers’ rights.

By Tim Wise
City Lights, 2010
America needs not to “move beyond” race but to adopt innovative public policies that directly address it. Wise gives specific ideas of what those policies might be.

Dreams of Repair
By Eleanor Rubin
Charta, 2010
As Howard Zinn suggests in his introduction to this collection of works by a longtime printmaker and watercolor artist, Rubin’s art responds to suffering in the world on a life-affirming, emotional level rather than as propaganda.

Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan
By David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis
Olive Branch, 2010
In question-and-answer format, analysts from the United Methodist Church and the Institute for Policy Studies provide essential background on the real reasons for the Bush invasion of Afghanistan and the continuation of the war by President Obama. They also address the question of how the U.S. can bring its involvement to an end.

Green Gone Wrong
By Heather Rogers
Scribner, 2010
Many Americans feel that they are taking meaningful action about climate change by substituting cloth shopping bags for plastic ones or buying organic food. But having real impact requires joining together to win government action to control greenhouse gas emissions, develop and distribute alternative energy, invest in mass transit, encourage sustainable local food production, and address the global wealth gap.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 114-117, Winter 2011
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000017


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