Category: Fall 2010

Are The Democrats The Right Choice?

The question whether an Obama-era Democratic party may offer opportunities for labor and left-of-center political interests presumes that Obama's Democratic Party offers potential for significant departure from the rightward tacking we've seen since Bill Clinton's presidency. There is little in anything Obama's said or done to warrant such a presumption.

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Fall 2010

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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

Why Labor’s Soldiering for the Democrats Is a Losing Battle
By Adolph Reed

Engaging with Democrats
By Bob Master

Forecasting the Midterms

The GOP in the  Age of Obama: Will the Tea Party and Republican Establishment Unite or Fight?
By Gary Gerstle
How a fading minority party turned the tables on its vanquisher.

The Democratic Party in the Age of Obama: Yes We Can or No We Can’t?
By Thomas F. Schaller
What will it take to make the 2008 Obama triumph endure?

The Greening of America Revisited: Can the U.S. Create High-Skill Green Jobs?
By Andrew Ross
The U.S. is a Johnny-come-lately to renewable energy manufacturing.

Work and Inequality in the Global Economy: China, Mexico, and the United States
Chris Tilly and Kent Wong, guest editors

The China Road: Why China Is Beating Mexico in The Competition for U.S. Markets
By Ian Robinson
Public-sector investment, not low wages, gives China the edge.

American Chicken Feet, Chinese Tires, and the Struggle for Labor Rights
By Anita Chan
The Chinese labor federation has a mixed record protecting the interests of Chinese workers.

Confronting Globalization: Lessons from Puebla
By Graciela Bensusán and Chris Tilly
In the absence of stronger systems of international labor solidarity, employer-led worker protections may hold more promise for improving jobs.

A Good Job Is Hard to Find: U.S. and Mexican Autoworkers in the Global Economy
By Jeffrey S. Rothstein
Globalization has undermined labor relations in the auto industry and the decent jobs they defend.

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

Economic Prospects
By Robert Pollin

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

Books and the Arts

Unfinished Revolution
Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City
By Jane LaTour
Live Wire: Women and Brotherhood in the Electrical Industry
By Francine A. Moccio
Reviewed by Mary Margaret Fonow

The China Watch
New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in Chin a
By Yan Hairong
Reviewed by Katie Quan

Working-Class Self-Defense
Taking Back the Workers’ Law: How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights
By Ellen Dannin
Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families
By Wade Rathke
Reviewed by Marc Dann

Contemporary Working-Class Poetry: Lots of Light, Very Little Heat
Odes to Anger
By Jason L. Yurcic
Velroy and the Madischie Mafia
By Sy Hoahwah
Blood Will Tell
By Craig Paulenich
Bar Book: Poems and Otherwise
By Julie Sheehan
Reviewed by Peter Oresick

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

Poetry

About Our Contributors

 

Work and Inequality in the Global Economy: China, Mexico, and the United States

Why focus on work and inequality at a time when other crises and conflicts dominate the headlines? We posed this question as we convened a recent conference bringing together labor researchers and practitioners from China, Mexico, and the United States.1 After all, Mexico is being torn apart by a disastrous war on drugs. China’s economic development, trade, and currency policies engender international controversy. The paramount issue in the United States since the economic collapse of 2008 is the Great Recession. In the shadow of these multiple crises, each of the authors in this special section makes her or his own case for why inequality in the world of work is, indeed, critically important.

A closer look at the headline issues in China, Mexico, and the United States reveals that, in fact, work-based inequality is a driver behind many of the other crises claiming public attention. China’s export orientation is driven by the need to create jobs for a huge underemployed rural population. This model depends, in part, upon lower wages, thus constraining China’s ability to expand a much-needed middle class of consumers. Similarly, Mexico’s drug war recruits soldiers on both sides because of the severe shortfall in job creation and inequality in opportunity, leaving informal—and even illegal—employment as the main alternative for many. The world economic crisis originated in the United States due to the disappearance of middle-class jobs and the resulting dependence on speculation and financialization to keep our economy afloat. So undercompensated work and inequality are a major part of the problem, and their remedies will be a major part of the solution In addition, we can no longer talk about any country in isolation. China, Mexico, and the U.S.A. are connected by so many links of trade, competition, capital flows, and flows of people that the only way to start taking apart these problems is to look at them, and work on them, together.

The following four articles call our attention to global labor inequalities, both across borders and within them. Ian Robinson’s examination of China-Mexico competition emphasizes cross-border differences in pay and working conditions; Anita Chan analyzes China’s labor standards and labor movement in the global context; Graciela Bensusán and Chris Tilly compare differing labor standards within Mexico’s export-assembly sector (spotlighting within-country inequalities and their connection to the operation of transnational corporations and global labor); and Jeffrey S. Rothstein diagnoses the North American auto industry.

International labor inequalities have sparked fears of a global “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions. But these articles demonstrate that the reality is more complicated than simple unbridled labor-cost competition. Robinson points out that labor costs are a small percentage of final-product prices, and that China’s besting of Mexico is based at least as much on “high-road” technology and public investment in infrastructure as on low labor costs. Bensusán and Tilly argue that when skills are important and labor costs a small percentage of total costs, companies may find it profitable to treat workers well.

Labor unions, of course, are crucial to the improved treatment of workers. Each of the articles in this cluster highlights the varied roles played by unions in these three countries. Bensusán and Tilly depict Mexican labor organizations ranging from company unions that negotiate behind workers’ backs, to militant grassroots insurgencies. Rothstein shows how differing labor-management histories—at General Motors plants making the same product—can result in distinct production processes. Chan focuses on the strategic choices facing the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has taken some important steps toward representing the interests of Chinese workers, but also some steps back. The evidence presented in these articles indicates that the balance of power on the ground—between labor, management, and the state—as well as international solidarity, can prove decisive.

The options before China, Mexico, and the United States today are stark. One is continued growth of inequality—with the accompanying economic and social exclusion of large parts of the population—leading to instability, erosion of democracy, and the risk of a social explosion. The other is—through the efforts of unions, NGOs, and progressive forces within government—a concerted attack on inequality within and across borders. The authors in this cluster explore key challenges and opportunities for steering our world in that second direction. We hope the readers of New Labor Forum find their contributions useful in thinking through these questions.

 

Notes:

1. The October 8-10, 2009 “Work and Inequality in the Global Economy: China, Mexico, and the United States” conference took place on the campus of UCLA. It was sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (including its Center for Labor Research and Education unit) and a variety of additional co-sponsors, including the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. For more information, see http://irle.ucla. edu/workandinequality2009.htm.

 

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008

 

The Democratic Party in the Age of Obama: Yes We Can or No We Can’t?

In the years preceding the electoral earthquake triggered by the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress and Barack Obama’s 2008 election, political junkies were treated to a full shelf of books diagnosing what ailed the Democratic Party. If that catalog of publications is any indication, the party’s problems were many and insurmountable. Among other critiques, national Democrats were deemed too soft to trust on foreign policy and defense issues including, and especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the handling of the growing threat of global terrorism.1 Democrats and liberals were chastised for losing voters otherwise sympathetic to their economic policies by being “out of touch” with Americans’ social and familial values,2 and specifically for a secularized politics that offended voters’ religious sensibilities.3

Democrats were blamed for both having lost the center by becoming too liberal,4 and for losing their liberal base by becoming too corporate or centrist.5 The party was faulted for its inability to attract sufficient support from white voters, particularly suburban whites6 and white men.7 Regionally, national Democrats were advised to either find a solution to their festering Southern problems,8 figure out ways to win outside the former Confederacy,9 or try to swing key voting blocs regardless of region.10 A new campaign finance law sponsored by Senators Feingold and McCain, that banned the soft money donations Democrats had relied upon for years to maintain some degree of fundraising parity with Republicans, was pronounced the “Democratic Party suicide bill.”11 More broadly, Democrats and liberals were pilloried for allowing Republicans and the conservative movement to dominate them not only strategically and tactically,12 but rhetorically as well.13

By election night 2008, however, the political narrative had reversed—the focus of the partisan doubt shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, and the national punditry began asking how the Republican Party had fallen so far, so fast. Now, with Democrats expected to lose significant numbers of Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative seats across the country in the 2010 midterm elections, the post-Obama future of the Democratic Party is causing center-left critics to wring their hands again. Were the very successful Democratic cycles of 2006 and 2008 in fact an affirmation of Democratic policy prescriptions and politics, or merely a rebuke of Republicans during the George W. Bush era? Did Obama save his party or was his election merely the result of a terrific campaign waged by a superior candidate during a favorable electoral cycle? Is there such a phenomenon as “Obama Democrats,” and what is the meaning of this movement and its future?

The Obama Coalitions

Perhaps the best way to begin answering these questions is to deconstruct how the 2008 Democratic coalition assembled by Barack Obama differed from previous winning Democratic formulas. As Phil Klinkner and I demonstrate,14 then-Senator Obama built two new coalitions in 2008: one for the Democratic primary to defeat Hillary Clinton, and another for the general election to defeat John McCain.

The first coalition was unlike that of any previous winning Democratic presidential nominee. Obama paired the historically insufficient so-called “wine-track” voters—the liberal core of young voters, urbanites, and college-educated whites—with strong support from African-Americans and a sliver of independent and moderate Republicans. Clinton’s residual support among the so-called “beer-track” coalition of older whites, Latinos, non-black women, and rank-and-file Democrats helped her amass roughly eighteen million votes, about the same number Obama received. But because Obama more efficiently translated his votes into Democratic delegates, the Illinois senator manufactured a small but insurmountable delegate lead.

Obama built his second unprecedented coalition outward from the first, capitalizing on the recent growth of African-American and Latino voting populations, and ratcheting up their turnout along with that of younger and first-time voters to forge a winning combination Democrats had long dreamed about but could never quite assemble. Among the many contrasts between the Obama electorate and the one that sent Bill Clinton to Washington in 1992, the most obvious is its racial composition. For the first time in U.S. presidential history, non-white voters comprised more than a fourth of the electorate, thanks in large part to the 19 percent increase in the number of nonwhite voters between 2004 and 2008. Meanwhile, McCain’s support was limited to a rump Republican minority of older and whiter voters: 90 percent of McCain voters were non-Hispanic whites, and 54 percent were non-Hispanic whites over age forty-five.

Obama also performed well among secular voters, the unmarried, and residents of the cities and inner suburbs. Combined with his support among younger and non-white voters, these groups are notable for one important reason: each is rising as a share of the American population. For example, Latinos now outnumber African-Americans in total population, and will soon surpass them among total voters; half of all American women over age sixteen are presently unmarried, and soon half of all men will be; and by some estimates the number of people who are atheistic, agnostic, or do not identify with a particular religion has doubled in the past two decades. Put another way, if support for Obama or future Democratic nominees among these various demographic subgroups were held constant moving forward, by dint of their growing share of the population and (presumably) electorate, winning margins for future Democratic presidential candidates only stand to widen. This is the so-called “Emerging Democratic Majority” that John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, among others, had forecasted for some time. The most notable exception to this trend is union membership: although voters from union families have held relatively steady as union workers retire, eventually the shrinking unionized share of the American workforce will catch up with the Democrats—if it has not already.

The shrinking unionized share of the American workforce will catch up with the Democrats—if it has not already. 

Obama’s two new coalitions long held a latent potential that was not fully realized until Obama arrived on the scene. A candidate whose biography differed in important ways from that of earlier African-American Democratic presidential hopefuls—he is mixed-race, his father was continental African rather than African-American, and his rise up the more traditional political ladder via law school and the Senate departed from the clericalactivist backgrounds of previous contenders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—Obama was able to change the calculus within the Democratic primary and break the racial glass ceiling in the general election. His uniqueness, however, raises the question of whether such a coalition can be mobilized by future, presumably white Democratic presidential candidates or nominees. Put another way, are the so-called “Obama surge” voters “surge” voters or merely “Obama” voters?

Although the 2010 midterm and 2012 presidential cycles should provide preliminary answers, the long-term implications of this newly-mobilized cohort of voters remain unknown. Organizing for America, the arm of the Democratic National Committee built out of the Obama campaign’s mybarackobama.com website, is working hard to cultivate, train, and mobilize the voters and volunteers it collected in 2008 to ensure that they remain active in non-presidential contests and off-year cycles. Should these voters remain politically active—especially in near-term midterm cycles when Obama is not on the ballot, or future presidential contests once Obama’s presidency ends—they could transform party and electoral politics in the United States in the Democrats’ favor. Their latent potential contrasts sharply with the fate of the Democratic majorities “New Democrat” Bill Clinton inherited in 1992, which promptly disappeared two years later because of low turnout in 1994.

The “New” New Democrats?

Bolstered by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, “New Democrat” Bill Clinton promised a new, “third-way” or “triangulated” approach to governing that would draw the best ideas from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Although Clinton was more liberal than his Democratic predecessors in the White House on social issues like abortion and gay rights, his economic policies were generally business-friendly and, in some cases, hostile to the regulatory state. Clinton raised marginal income tax rates and attempted to overhaul the national health care system, but most of the economic benefits and middle-class gains during his presidency resulted from deficit reduction, the Federal Reserve’s dedication to low interest rates, and the technology market and early housing market booms. Other than targeted tax incentives for working-class voters, there was little in the way of directly redistributive policies—and, of course, Clinton supervised the supposed “end to welfare as we know it.” Whatever his record, Clinton’s third-way politics—devised as a solution to the Democrats’ electoral struggles in the 1970s and 1980s15—seem to have been validated: he left office with the highest approval rating of any modern president.

Do Obama’s governing approach and ideological posture signal a newly reconstituted Democratic Party for the new century, or are they warmed-over versions of Clintonian triangulation? The stimulus plan signed into law in early 2009 and the health care reform package passed in March 2010 demonstrate a willingness to spend big on new investments, to spur economic growth and rectify the socioeconomic disparities caused by the asymmetrical access to affordable health insurance. But in other ways Obama has disappointed his ideological base, which by dint of his electoral coalition is more liberal than Clinton’s. Latinos are frustrated with Obama’s foot-dragging on immigration reform; economic populists are deflated by Obama’s appointment of Timothy Geithner to Treasury and the toothless prosecution of Goldman Sachs; gay rights activists are angry about the president’s refusal to press their legislative agenda; and foreign policy liberals are fretting aloud about everything from Obama’s Afghanistan troops increase to his torture and Guantanamo policies. Analogizing the new president’s cautious approach to none other than president Herbert Hoover’s governing style, Harper’s magazine critic Kevin Baker produced a laundry list of complaints about the disconnect between Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his governing choices. “Obama has done nothing to pass ‘card check’ provisions that would facilitate union organization and quietly announced that he would not seek stronger labor and environmental protections in NAFTA,” Baker wrote six months into Obama’s young presidency.16 All of which has led some to wonder if Obama is a new kind of Democrat, or kind of a New Democrat?

Given his and his administration’s proximity to Wall Street and other special interests he railed against during the campaign, and his affirmation of tax cuts for virtually all but the very rich, Obama bears some striking similarities to the New Democrats of the Clinton era. On the other hand, his support for a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, along with passage of health care reform legislation that promises to expand coverage for younger, poorer, and uninsured Americans, Obama looks like a more liberal version of the post-Great Society Democratic Party. Readers of his book, The Audacity of Hope, will find this splitting-ofthe-difference quite familiar, for this is how the new president’s intellect generally operates. In that regard, though his conservative critics dismiss his policies as “socialist,” the stimulus was a capitalismpreserving Keynesian response to the economic recession he inherited; conversely, though some of his liberal critics worry that health care reform provides unnecessary financial windfalls to insurers, the new legislation extends coverage to millions of working-class and poor Americans who are presently uninsured. All of which is to say that Barack Obama is too liberal to be classified as a Democratic Leadership Council-style centrist—but not as liberal as opponents portray him.

What this means for the Democratic Party of the Obama “brand,” insofar as it exists, will obviously hinge on Obama’s ability to get re-elected. But it will also depend upon what he does with the mandate for change he asserted in 2008, and the degree to which his policies represent a major break from those of his recent predecessors. A “reconstructive” president, as presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek argues, uses the presidency and his political capital to fundamentally disrupt the politics of the past. Shifting America’s foreign policy posture from interventionist to diplomatic; re-regulating the financial sector in ways that prevent or at least mitigate future market bubbles; and creating a new entitlement for health insurance—these are the types of large-scale transformations out of which reconstructive presidencies are made. Thus far there is a clear intent to achieve the first two; the verdict on the third—given that so many of the health care reform provisions do not kick in until 2014—may not be known until after Obama’s presidency ends.

Ideas and Infrastructure

A political party’s standing is judged first and foremost by its electoral and governing success—by offices won and policies enacted. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats forged new majorities in both the

Shifting foreign policy from interventionist to diplomatic and creating a new entitlement for health insurance are the types of large-scale transformations out of which reconstructive presidencies are made. 

House and Senate—and among governors and state legislatures—and recaptured the White House. In the three years since taking over Congress, they shepherded into law a minimum wage increase, new consumer protections, a $787 billion stimulus package, and the landmark health care reform package; and they are presently pushing for new regulations on the financial industry, banks, and securities trading. But electoral gains can be reversed, and much of the Democratic agenda took the form of responsive measures to lingering problems. To permanently realign American politics a party needs something more—specifically, the Democrats need broadly popular new policy ideas and the political-electoral infrastructure to sustain the majorities necessary to enact those policies. What are the Democrats’ new governing ideas and how well organized are they for the political-electoral battles ahead?

On the ideas front, the problem with Obama’s “hope” and “change” themes is that such vagaries are better suited to campaigning than governing. Obama complicated his electoral mandate and ratcheted up expectations for his presidency by promising to fundamentally disrupt partisan politics and interest group influence in Washington—a promise far easier to make than deliver. After closely observing Obama’s first year in office, Jonathan Alter writes: “Unfortunately, for Obama, the means of achieving that vision— pragmatism and a long-term horizon—did not yet add up to a coherent governing philosophy. Obama’s policy prescriptions were complex and defied easy summation, which made it harder for him to explain them than it was for [Ronald] Reagan, Clinton, and even Bush. The rocket fuel of his campaign was his personal story; developing a powerful story about America and where it was going proved more elusive.”17

If Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress proved better at building a partisan majority than developing a coherent governing philosophy, it’s because Democrats were blessed

Obama ratcheted up expectations for his presidency by promising to fundamentally disrupt partisan politics and interest group influence. 

by the public rejection of Bush-era politics and policies. But this blessing also implies the curse of an ambiguous policy mandate, one further muddled by certain Democratic policy choices that appear to perpetuate rather than break with those of the recent past. The near-term fortunes of the national Democratic Party thus turn on how well the president, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and other national Democrats can make an affirmative, forward-looking case for retaining their power. The menu of tectonic policy changes might include a reconfiguration of income and payroll tax rates to shift the tax burden away from work to income and wealth; a shift in anti-terrorism policy that includes a new philosophy on how to use American power without tilting toward interventionist and preemptive attack; and a wholesale reconsideration of immigration and amnesty policies that venerates both human rights for illegal immigrants and the protection of U.S. borders.

Certain Democratic policy choices appear to perpetuate rather than break with those of the recent past. 

The battle for new ideas and agendas remains an uphill struggle. Critics would say the lack of new ideas proves there’s little meat on the “hopeychangey” bone, to borrow language from 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Defenders would counter that so much of Obama’s early presidency (aside from health care) needed to be reactive because of the messes he inherited and had to fix. Whatever the case, the good news for Obama-era Democrats is the downhill speed with which they reversed the infrastructural disadvantages they once suffered relative to the Republicans. Within a single presidential cycle, the Democratic Party—under the stewardship of Obama and 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe—has been converted from a beleaguered, underfunded, disorganized, strategically myopic, and technologically-deficient party into a lean, mean, political-electoral fighting machine.

Obama raised and spent roughly a quarter billion dollars in the Democratic primary, then promptly raised and spent another half billion for the general election. In addition to these record sums, Obama revolutionized the way money was raised: because so much was raised so fast online, the campaign dramatically reduced the overhead costs of old fundraising models. The Obama campaign also built a state-of-the-art campaign operation that used regression analyses to identify potential supporters, cutting-edge technology to communicate with those supporters, and creative social networking tools to connect those supporters to each other. The campaign’s sophisticated mobilization model not only created economies of scale, but permitted the Obama campaign to shift significant get-out-the-vote and fundraising costs onto volunteers and surrogates. The ideal supporter, in fact, was persuaded to perform three functions—vote, donate, and organize. Just four short years after White House adviser Karl Rove and Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign manager Ken Mehlman created a revolutionary field operation and a state-of-the-art “seventy-two-hour program,” Republican operatives had to concede that their organizational model was already eclipsed by the Obama campaign.18

After the election, that campaign operation was converted into Organizing for America (OFA), run by the Obama political organization from within the Democratic National Committee. OFA controls demographic information and donor profiles on an estimated thirteen million supporters. If recharged and updated properly by 2012, Obama could push that figure closer to twenty million and become the first $1 billion presidential candidate. Elsewhere, the Democratic Party’s progressive allies have built new political infrastructure, ranging from think tanks like the Center for American Progress to the media watchdog group Media Matters. No longer do pundits speak of a slow-footed, disorganized, and underfunded center-left. When Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie announced, in May 2010, the creation of five new, overlapping organizations designed to rectify the GOP’s structural deficiencies in order to help Republicans recapture Congress and the White House, it was clear that the partisan playing field once tilted decidedly against the Democrats has tipped, for now at least, in their favor.19

Obama and the Prospects for Democratic Realignment

As the 2010 midterms and the midpoint of Barack Obama’s first term approach, the Democratic Party— nationally—is better positioned than at any time since at least the early 1990s, and probably as far back as the mid-1960s. Of course, by November 1994 Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was watching helplessly as his party lost its congressional majorities—a storyline that could repeat itself in 2010. What’s different for Obama-era Democrats is that they are buffeted by a demographically-favorable electorate and a formidable political-electoral machine. What’s still absent—and it’s a key missing ingredient—is a more comprehensive and coherent national policy agenda.

No longer do pundits speak of a slow-footed, disorganized, and underfunded center-left.

Thus far, an “Obama Democrat” is a discernable electoral phenomenon. But an electoral victory does not a partisan or political realignment make and an “Obama Democrat,” from a policy standpoint, is less obviously distinct. In order to cement their recent electoral victories and create such distinctions, following a reasonable period of reactive policies to solve inherited problems, Obama and his Democratic allies must fashion a new policy agenda that satisfies and builds upon their electoral majorities of 2006 and 2008. The early outlines of this disruptive break could be seen in a less aggressive defense posture and a more humble, diplomatic foreign policy, as well as in the domestic investments aimed at reducing the onerous burdens of health care premiums in order to achieve productivity and wage gains for businesses and the workers they employ. But again, these are policies that are largely retrospective-looking responses to failures by Obama’s two immediate predecessors. Less clear is what an affirmative, prospective agenda—around which a new, dominant political coalition can be built—for the longer term would look like. Assembling a majority to correct errors and failures of the past is far easier than building a majority to prosecute a hopeful, change-oriented agenda for the future.

If Obama-era Democrats can resolve some of these festering problems and still survive the 2010 midterms and 2012 presidential cycle, at that point they will have a chance to reconstitute themselves as “Obama Democrats” in a way that not only brings closure to Reagan-era conservatism, but also represents a striking departure from earlier periods of Democratic governance. Failing that, today’s Democratic Party will merely have revived its former self under new, more effective management than an embattled Bill Clinton was able to achieve at a moment when Republicans and conservatives enjoyed greater political momentum than they do today. Of course, if Obama and congressional Democrats fail to offer an affirmative, forward-looking, policy-based warrant for their leadership, and if they permit their current political-electoral advantages to slip away, the party could find itself yet again in retreat.

 

Notes:

1. Peter Beinart, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (New York: Harper Collins, 2006); and Matthew Yglesias, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008).
2. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
3. Amy Sullivan, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (New York: Scribner, 2008); and Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: Harper, 2005).
4. William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, “The Politics of Polarization” (2005 paper, available at www.third-way.com); and Zell Miller, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat (Macon, Ga.: Stroud & Hall, 2003).
5. Matthew R. Kerbel, “Conclusion: Blueprint for Progressive Change,” in Get This Party Started: How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win, ed. Matthew R. Kerbel (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 177- 192; and Mike Lux, “The DLC, Past and Present,” August 14, 2007, available at http:// www.openleft.com/showDiary. do?diaryId=770.
6. Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
7. William A. Galston, “The White Male Problem,” Blueprint, July 12, 2001; and David Paul Kuhn, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
8. Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out (New York: Touchstone, 2006); and Bob Moser, Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority (New York: Times Books, 2008).
9. Thomas F. Schaller, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). 10. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (New York: Scribner, 2002).
11. Seth Gittell, “The Democratic Party Suicide Bill,” Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2003, 106-113.
12. Matt Bai, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (New York: Penguin, 2007); and Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
13. Glenn Hurowitz, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party (College Park, MD: Maisonneuve Press, 2007); and Paul Waldman, Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006).
14. Philip A. Klinkner and Thomas F. Schaller, “LBJ’s Revenge: The 2008 Election and the Rise of the Great Society Coalition,” Forum 6, no. 4, article 9, available at http:// www.bepress.com/forum/vol6/iss4/art9.
15. Kenneth S. Baer, Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000).
16. Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama,” Harper’s, July 2003, 31.
17. Jonathan Alter, The Promise: President Obama, Year One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), xvii.
18. Michael McDonald and Thomas F. Schaller, “Voter Mobilization in the 2008 Election,” chapter 4 in The Change Election: Money, Mobilization, and Persuasion in the 2008 Federal Elections, ed. David B. Magleby (Provo, UT: Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, 2009).
19. Mike Allen and Kenneth P. Vogel, “Rove, GOP Plot Vast Network to Reclaim Power,” Politico, May 6, 2010, available at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/36841.html.

 

New Labor Forum 19(3): 32-39, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000006

A Good Job Is Hard to Find: U.S. and Mexican Autoworkers in the Global Economy

For generations, the auto industry has been a model for high-wage, secure, industrial employment, with the auto worker emblematic of the blue-collar middle class. Even with the declining fortunes and near collapse of U.S. domestic automakers, the auto industry continues to offer among the most sought-after opportunities for blue-collar employment, maintaining its status as a key driver of economic development. In both the U.S. and Mexico, politicians scurry to offer automakers incentives to build new plants or save aging ones. And the reason is clear. Regardless of location, firm, or union status, auto work provides a stable source of income unmatched by other manufacturing or service-sector jobs.

Still—as this analysis of my fieldwork at three General Motors (GM) assembly plants in Wisconsin, Texas, and Silao, Mexico shows— the value of those jobs has declined. Decades of policies associated with globalization have weakened labor in both industrialized and developing countries. As a result, the pace of work has intensified while wages and benefits have declined. This reality, that even the best jobs are getting worse, highlights a concern far broader than the need to halt the proliferation of sweatshops in the global economy. It points to the need for a new model of globalization that shores up, rather than undermines, traditional labor relations institutions.

Lean Production and the Intensification of Work

Post-Fordist scholars of workplace change claim that globalization has spread manufacturing systems that improve working conditions by reorganizing workers into teams and reengaging their intellects, all the while improving efficiency and product quality. However, evidence from these plants confirms the fears of critics that, rather than empowering workers, lean production has merely intensified the pace of work in the auto industry.

Each of the three plants I studied was under orders to implement a common Global Manufacturing System (GMS) based on the lean production system that GM learned from Toyota at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), the two automakers’ joint venture in Fremont, California. The GMS incorporated into workers’ jobs all the key characteristics of lean production: standardization of work, teamwork, Andon systems to allow workers to stop the assembly line, and employee participation programs to solicit ideas for improving the system.

In both the U.S. and Mexico, politicians scurry to offer automakers incentives to build new plants or save aging ones. 

However, the only component being fastidiously implemented at each of the plants was the meticulous standardization and intensification of work. Each factory mapped the steps of the production process to be performed, and the order in which they had to be completed. Line operators were then expected to repeatedly perform their jobs as choreographed. The goal was to keep each assembly worker busy for fifty-five seconds of each minute with as much work as could be squeezed into that time.

The GMS was implemented far more thoroughly in Silao than in the U.S. In Silao, teams of six workers rotated through a series of jobs and administrative tasks under the guidance of a quasi-supervisory team leader responsible for managing all the team’s work. However, in both Janesville (Wisconsin) and Arlington (Texas) each worker performed the task at one designated work station. And though team coordinators in Arlington assumed a small portion of their Silao counterparts’ responsibilities, in Janesville they served mostly to spell workers who needed an unscheduled break.

The style and extent of teamwork practiced at each plant affected the Andon system, which is meant to allow workers with a problem to signal for assistance and halt production if need be. In Silao, the entire team converged on the worker to quickly group problem solve, address the problem, and typically resume production within a matter of seconds. In Arlington, team coordinators responded to the Andon system, addressed the problem, and alerted a supervisor if necessary. In Janesville, however, workers mostly ignored the Andon system to avoid being scolded by supervisors for slowing production.

These differences among the plants suggest that both proponents and critics of teamwork may be overstating its impact on workers within lean production. Lean enthusiasts cast teamwork as a boon for workers, making their labor more varied, cerebral, and ergonomic. Critics claim teamwork employs peer pressure to manipulate workers into driving the intensification of their own work. However, this research suggests that teamwork does not fundamentally change assembly-line work for the better (as proponents claim) or become the source of intensifying work (as others fear). Instead, other aspects of lean production are key in shaping job quality.

To be sure, the teamwork practiced in Silao provided a modicum of relief from the never ending repetition of the assembly line and better ergonomics than in Janesville. But contrary to the professions of lean production advocates, the intellectual component of the job was dwarfed by the physical. Likewise, teams in Silao did appear to regulate themselves, as lean production skeptics fear. However, they did not appear to have been manipulated into working any harder than in Janesville, where GM used the threat of plant closure to motivate workers.

The common emphasis on standardized work routines in Silao, Arlington, and Janesville exposes lean production for intensifying work in the auto industry, rather than enhancing work through teamwork and participation. But the variation in these components of the GMS reflects the different ways that organized labor has been undermined in each country to force concessions in wages, benefits, and the work rules that stood in the way of intensifying work.

Globalization and Mexican Labor

In Silao, teamwork and employee participation were part of GM’s broader labor relations strategy that began by closing a plant in Mexico City and opening a new one in Silao, where the company hand-picked a union to represent its workers. The move by GM to Silao followed a national trend of weakening organized labor in the auto industry.

For roughly sixty years, and continuing into the early 1980s, Mexico practiced Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies that protected automakers from foreign competition by closing the country to imports. Under ISI, Mexican autoworkers enjoyed steadily rising wages and were among the highest paid blue-collar workers in the country.

Economic crisis in the early 1980s led to the abandonment of import substitution strategies in favor of those embracing trade and globalization. In the name of international competitiveness, the government pressured union officials to sign national “pacts,” limiting pay increases even as inflation spiraled. In response, labor activists seeking to democratize their unions organized strikes to challenge the concessions, the process by which they were handed down, and to demand reform of the labor movement.

The common emphasis on standardized work routines exposes lean production for intensifying work in the auto industry, rather than enhancing work through teamwork and participation.

Both to escape the labor unrest and resituate themselves closer to their new market in the United States, the automakers began migrating north. Starting afresh with inexperienced workforces like those in Silao, the companies hand-picked unions that renounced labor militancy, embraced globalization and labormanagement cooperation, and ceded control of the shop floor to management.

And so, in Silao, the union provided services to help workers acclimate to factory work and take advantage of their steady incomes, a function carefully aligned with GM’s own goal of maintaining low labor turnover. However, it steered clear of any interference with the day-to-day running of the shop floor, or GM’s broader labor relations strategy that fixed a wage hierarchy among the automaker and its local suppliers. GM offered the highest compensation—$200 a week—to men with a ninth grade education. Down the road, Delphi’s wire harness plant paid women with a sixth grade education $7 a day.

When they started afresh with inexperienced workforces in Silao, Mexico, automakers hand-picked unions that renounced labor militancy and embraced globalization. 

So, in Silao, standardized work routines were accompanied by teamwork and employee participation in an environment in which workers knew no other way. GM efficiently ran its assembly lines with a core workforce, while outsourcing many other tasks. Union activism was minimized, as was any challenge to the intensification of labor or meaningful demand for better wages and benefits among GM’s employees and those of its suppliers.

Globalization and U.S. Labor

Just as GM’s fresh start with a new workforce in Silao facilitated the wholesale adoption of the GMS, workers’ reluctance to embrace the model in Janesville and Arlington reflected the experiences of U.S. autoworkers in the global economy and the manner in which they had seen their way of life undermined. Since the early 1970s, the Big Three’s share of the U.S. automotive market shrank precipitously. As “foreign” nameplates claimed an increasing share of the market, the automakers began building factories in North America to produce their vehicles. By 2005, these nonunion “transplant” factories accounted for 30 percent of all auto production in the United States,1 leaving roughly one hundred thousand autoworkers unorganized.2

As the Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) sought to regain their competitiveness, they restructured their corporations to become leaner, shutting plants and shedding nearly half a million jobs. Even before the 2009 bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, buyouts had left the United Auto Workers (UAW) with an active auto industry union membership of about 172,000, down from nearly 670,000 in 1978.

In turn, the UAW found itself backpedaling. Whereas industry-wide pattern agreements once took labor costs among the Big Three out of competition and allowed the union to bargain with relative indifference—to the fate of the individual automakers—the inability of the UAW to organize any of the transplant factories left it dependent on the very same companies that responded to the declining popularity of their vehicles by seeking relief from their labor costs. The most recent manifestations of this were the formation of a union-run trust fund—to which the Big Three offloaded responsibility for their retirees’ health insurance—and the union’s acceptance of a two-tier wage system which cut “new hire” wages in half, to $14 an hour.

In addition to wage and benefits cuts, workers have been faced with whipsawing. As the automakers have downsized, they have used the threat of plant closure to play local unions against one another in a competition to relinquish work rules to facilitate the reorganization and intensification of work. In Janesville, these threats had been ongoing since 1985, until GM did close the plant at the end of 2008. Arlington “won” perhaps the most public case of whipsawing by GM. After announcing, in late 1991, that the automaker would close either its Arlington or Ypsilanti, Michigan plant, GM spent several months entertaining concessions to work rules by local union officials, and tax and infrastructure incentives from regional politicians, before announcing that the Arlington facility would stay open and add jobs.

The rolling back of labor standards in the auto industry highlights the overwhelming, negative impact of globalization on workers. 

So, in Janesville, the union and the workers accepted harder work. But workers did not buy into a GMS they viewed as GM’s latest attempt to make them work harder and cut more jobs. In Arlington, attitudes were a little different than in Janesville because the plant still had long-term prospects, which provided incentive for workers, their union, and management alike to navigate the most palatable way to implement the GMS—notwithstanding the intensified pace of the assembly line and resentment many workers felt toward GM.

Looking Ahead for Labor

In spite of the gradual deterioration of wages, benefits, and working conditions, the auto industry still offers betterpaid, more stable, and more desirable work than many other industries, and far better conditions than found in sweatshops around the world. But this rolling back of labor standards in the auto industry over the last couple of decades, even as auto work remains among the most sought-after jobs, highlights the overwhelming, negative impact of globalization on workers. Globalization’s ills cannot be addressed through consumer awareness, corporate codes of conduct, or pressure from NGOs, state actors, and international bodies like the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a basic respect of labor rights. Even calls for protecting core labor rights within, or as a side agreement to, trade pacts will not reverse the decline.

Instead, this research points to a more fundamental problem with globalization, and a greater challenge for labor advocates. Globalization undermines the labor relations institutions that shape labor markets and through which workers have traditionally claimed a standard of living otherwise unavailable. Therefore, for globalization to be an overall benefit to workers, policies that shape globalization must shore up, rather than undermine, these institutions. This requires replacing neoliberal policies that treat workers as commodities and corporations as global citizens with international bodies empowered to hold states and firms responsible for protecting workers and promoting collective bargaining through which labor can claim a share of the profits associated with increased global trade. A good place to start would be to codify all ILO conventions into international law and establish an enforcement mechanism to address violations. This won’t happen anytime soon. But, for labor activists, it should be the long-term goal.

 

Notes:

1. Ward’s Automotive Yearbook (Southfield, MI: Ward’s Communications, 2005).
2. The Contribution of the International Auto Sector to the U.S. Economy: An Update (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Automotive Research, 2005).

 

New Labor Forum 19(3): 70-74, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000012

 

 

The Greening of America Revisited: Can the U.S. Create High-Skill Green Jobs?

There have been very few silver linings to the Great Recession, but one of them has been the prospect of launching a new industrial revolution powered by renewable energy. In the absence of any other candidates, green industrial policies have been prioritized as a recipe for economic recovery and the key to job creation, whether for building and operating the new energy infrastructure, or weatherizing the existing built environment. The urgency of the climate crisis raised the stakes much higher. Shunning the call for sustainability would not simply be a missed economic opportunity. It would be tantamount to a death sentence for large portions of the world’s population. The desperation of the jobless may have been the proving ground for green planning, but a humanitarian calamity of epochal proportions would be its final verdict if the transition from dirty to clean did not turn out right.

All previous attempts to jumpstart a green economy in the U.S. were effectively shut down by the decisive lobbying of the oil, gas, and coal giants. These efforts included the solar boomlet which prospered amid rising oil prices all through the 1970s, and the so-called “peace dividend” after the ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Both were nipped in the bud by policies long committed to regarding the safe passage of oil through the Straits of Hormuz as a matter of national security. In countries with their own fossil fuel supplies, it is often argued that the “resource curse” takes a heavy toll on democracy and environmental well-being. Though the phrase is usually applied to authoritarian nations like the Gulf States or Nigeria, the U.S. has its own version of the affliction, with a sizable number of state legislatures and congressional representatives in the pockets of the large energy combines. Labor, of course, has not escaped the curse. Over the years, unions in the energy and utility sector have dragged their feet, or actively opposed, any significant effort to tilt in a renewable direction.

When the Obama administration came into office, all the ingredients for a fresh start were in place. The pressing threat of global warming had taken up residence in the public mind. The bailout of the financial industry established an appetite for government Keynesianism that included warm federal support for sunrise industries producing clean electrons. Swayed by evidence of the long-term profitability of green capitalism, corporate and political elites looked to assuage the national shame at being left behind in the global competition for clean energy. Last but not least, green jobs were held up as the solution to rebuilding a national workforce hollowed out by offshore outsourcing, destabilized by the rise of temping, and knocked to the ground by the recession.

Green industrial policies have been prioritized as a recipe for economic recovery and the key to job creation.

By the spring of 2008, there was talk of a new speculative bubble in clean energy—some were even calling it the Good Bubble.1 Hot money, alienated from the collapsed real estate markets, poured into venture funds for backing alternative technology startups. In a highly-touted move, Al Gore (the original Atari Democrat) joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Silicon Valley’s premier venture-capital firm, to oversee its “climate change solutions group.” It was even reported that Heidi Fleiss (the erstwhile Hollywood madam) had dropped her plans to open a bordello for female clients in Nevada because she had decided to invest instead in renewable energy. When asked why, she echoed the famous words of bank robber Willie Sutton. “Because that’s where the money is.”

Obama had already made campaign promises about “clean coal”—a euphemism cooked up by industry lobbyists to re-brand the fossil fuel as environmentally friendly. No less circumspect were the signals he sent, through appointing Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, about restarting the nation’s nuclear energy program. But he campaigned most solemnly on the promise to create five million green jobs, and the renewable energy agenda was pushed at every opportunity in the first eighteen months of his administration. Beginning with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus package in the spring of 2009, which allocated $80 billion in clean energy funding, he rolled out a series of federal subsidies and incentives to support a broad range of initiatives for the manufacturing of renewable technologies. With federal funding came the requirement that the green jobs would have to be well paid. Wherever this was observed, it was a welcome upgrade from wage scales in the existing solar and wind sectors, which lagged far behind the average paycheck in the mature energy industries.3

Naturally, most of the labor movement swung into line behind what looked like a savvy industrial policy, and commentators were not slow to conclude that the long-hoped-for alliance between labor and greens had finally seen the light of day. Even so, the new groups and initiatives like the Blue-Green Alliance, the Apollo Alliance, and Emerald Cities were hardly starting from scratch. The points of division between the two movements had always been magnified out of all proportion by jobs blackmail on the part of employers and, besides, there was a busy history of earnest efforts to unite on a range of issues and campaigns. Notable among the early initiatives were Environmentalists for Full Employment (formed in 1975), the Labor Committee for Safe Energy and Full Employment (in 1980), and the OSHA/ Environmental Network (in 1981). Among the more concrete union proposals to address job loss was the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) president Tony Mazzocchi’s idea, in the early 1990s, of a “Superfund for Workers,” which would provide four years of retraining at full wages and benefits to workers displaced by environmentally-driven shifts in production—the costs to be borne by employers in the extractive or fossil fuel industries.4

Division between the [labor and green] movements had always been magnified out of all proportion by employers’ jobs blackmail. 

Nor did the high-profile activities of the new alliances signal a complete makeover for labor. The AFL-CIO (which had stood apart from the international trade union movement in its vigorous opposition to the Kyoto treaty) threw its support behind Copenhagen and climate change legislation, but it still advocated for the most minimal levels of carbon reduction. Many forward-looking unions initiated their own green policies, while others fought hard to retain high-carbon jobs in industries that are plainly destructive to land and public health. As Sean Sweeney reported in the Fall 2009 issue of this journal, the mineworkers’ union played its part in weakening the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June 2009, even though its influence was dwarfed by the large corporate members (GE, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Dow, Rio Tinto) of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, who framed the final version of the legislation.5 The fierce lobbying which produced huge concessions to fossil fuel industries in the House bill escalated as the Senate took up climate change legislation after the passage of health care reform.6

But the labor-green bandwagon was not the only one in town. By September 2009, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a significant player in the Tea Party movement, won the ouster of Van Jones, just nine months after he took office as Obama’s official green jobs consultant. The mainstream media consensus concluded that Jones was Glenn Beck’s first scalp, and an African-American one at that. But it soon became clear that AFP had masterminded the campaign. Primarily funded by the Koch family, mega-investors in oil and gas (Koch Industries is ranked #10 on the Political Economy Research Institute’s “Top 100 Toxic Polluters” list), AFP adopted as its top goal the defeat of climate change legislation. Jones may have been red-baited by Beck for his past associations with radical organizations, but that was not the reason why he was deposed. In recent years, he had become a highly effective public advocate of the benefits to rich and poor alike of the clean energy economy. Pushing green jobs as a solution to the plight of low-income communities, poisoned by pollution in their backyards, he brilliantly argued the need for environmental, labor, and social justice groups to find common cause in overturning the destructive order of fossil fuels. The coalition of forces imagined under Jones’s banner, Green For All, was a clear threat to business as usual for the fossil fuel lobby.

With or without Jones, green jobs were on the increase at a time when almost all other employment sectors had troughed. But the appearance of some of the new jobs in the renewable energy sector brought an interesting turn of events. In November 2009, Suntech, China’s largest solar panel manufacturer, announced plans to build a facility in the metro Phoenix area. It was the first such plant to be built in the U.S. by a major Chinese clean energy company. Business media commentators made comparisons with the first Japanese auto factories in the 1980s, touching off all the usual alarms about the loss of U.S. competitiveness. With formidable state backing and central industrial planning, and with cheap labor to draw on, China’s clean-tech firms had indeed sprinted ahead in recent years, establishing an unassailable lead in solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing. But the historical comparison with Toyota and Honda was flawed for many reasons. For one thing, the main losers to China were Germany and Spain—the U.S. lost its lead in renewables many years earlier. In addition, there was an appreciable downgrading in the kind of jobs expected of this new wave of Chinese investment. Manufacturing (and design) of Suntech’s solar cells would continue to be done in Wuxi, China, where wages are ten times lower. The jobs that were coming to Arizona were for assembling panels that would be sold regionally and that were not cost effective to ship from Asia. The panels would be stamped “Made in the U.S.A.,” but only the least-skilled portion of the manufacturing process would occur on American soil.

A week before the Suntech announcement, Senator Chuck Schumer opened a new front in the protectionist wars by assailing the use of ARRA stimulus funds to generate “Chinese jobs” for a 646-megawatt wind farm in West Texas. Notoriously, in an era of free trade, China had built up its clean-tech industries by insisting on the use of domestic materials and labor. Politicians, like Schumer, who cut a prominent profile for deploring the outsourcing of American manufacturing to China several years before, repackaged their appeals to economic nationalism by calling out the administration for not backing American-built products. In March 2010, he and three other Democratic senators introduced legislation that would apply a “buy American” standard to all renewable energy projects seeking stimulus funds, requiring them to rely on parts manufactured in the United States.

For the best part of two decades, U.S. corporations had treated China as a cheap assembly platform for export goods. Now, it seemed, the favor was being returned. Anyone who has followed the career of Sino-American trade relations, or business trends in clean-tech, for that matter, would have expected this outcome. But the rapidity with which the tables had been turned came as a surprise, and offered evidence— for those looking for the signs—of a decisive shift to the East in the economic balance of power.

Greater Phoenix Economic Council president Barry Broome, who had helped woo Suntech, was not at all concerned about the jobs imbalance, nor had he much patience for nationalist grandstanding. A Cleveland native, he didn’t want to see Arizona “make the mistake that Ohio made with the Japanese and Koreans.” “As an American,” he felt “competitive toward China,” but did not want “these patriotic instincts to interfere with the right economic decisions.” I asked him if Arizona was about to become an offshore assembly base for Chinese companies. “If we’re lucky,” he replied. “That’s how tough things are right now.” While the Phoenix business community had dreams of reviving the glory days of its attenuated high-tech sector, Broome was focused, more pragmatically, on the mass of livelihoods in a region where poverty levels had skyrocketed, and joblessness was chronic. “In Arizona, we have to put a million working-class Hispanics to work,” he observed. “Fifty percent of these children speak English as a second language and it is unrealistic to think that they are all going to be at Google. Our preference has been to think of manufacturing in aerospace and semiconductor [industries],” he added, “but a big part of it is going to be in simple operations like solar panel assembly.”

Broome’s matter-of-fact acceptance of China’s commanding lead in the new industries was at odds with the breast-beating of those lamenting how far behind the U.S. was in the race to dominate the clean-tech sector. Prominent among them was the erstwhile champion of corporate globalization, Thomas Friedman, who had become a zealous advocate for U.S. industry to rise up and challenge the Chinese lead. On more or less the same page were the Apollo Alliance, and the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank, both of whom issued reports (“Winning the Race: How America Can Lead the Global Clean Energy Economy” and “Out of the Running? How Germany, Spain, and China Are Seizing the Energy Opportunity and Why the United States Risks Getting Left Behind”) that sounded the same note of urgency about losing the race for global supremacy.

Fear of being dominated by China [in the cleantech industry] has fed into a new version of recessionary Sinophobia. 

Behind all the nationalist bluster were real concerns about missing out on a new generation of manufacturing jobs. In the early 2000s, the storm over job loss from offshore outsourcing had been laced with anti-Chinese sentiment (“they are taking our jobs”). Never mind that it was U.S. corporations ordering the job transfers and reaping the profits. It was safer to blame the Chinese—one of the most reliable ethnic instincts of white America. Now, the fear of being dominated by the Asian behemoth was feeding into a new, and arguably more ominous, version of recessionary Sinophobia. Yet even if U.S. firms were somehow to become leading players in the renewable energy field, what would guarantee their provision of American jobs? And what would ensure they were quality-pay jobs? It seemed that only a raft of sizable, long-term subsidies could persuade corporate America to reinvest in the domestic workforce.

Tempe-based First Solar was a case in point. A pioneer of thin-film modules, and one of the world’s leading photovoltaic (PV) producers, the firm was headquartered in Arizona but produced elsewhere, mostly in Malaysia, but also in Germany, where a friendly government climate existed, with a feed-in tariff that obliges utilities to buy renewable power from eligible producers. Only with the recent dangling of federal and state incentives did the company look stateside. In the fall of 2009, it inked a deal with California’s PG&E Corporation for a large 550-megawatt solar farm, in a state that was the first to institute a feed-in tariff; and, in January 2010, the firm snagged $5 million in Advanced Energy Manufacturing tax credits to expand its token U.S. manufacturing plant, in Toledo. But it was by no means clear that these manufacturing jobs would be kept in the U.S. With the price of PV panels falling so rapidly, U.S. firms who entered the field with government help were already transitioning to Asia. Evergreen, a Massachusetts-based solar startup, which opened its doors with $58 million of state backing in the fall of 2008, began to transfer operations to China only a year later.7

Shiny new technologies tend to command the lion’s share of media attention. But green jobs are much more likely to open up in existing industries. 

As long as the government stuck to subsidizing green initiatives, employees and host communities could reasonably expect some degree of employer accountability when it came to the provision of decent pay and benefits. But the job quality standards attached to the subsidies varied widely—by state, city, and county—and in right-to-work states like Arizona, those guarantees were especially precarious. Rebekah Friend, the AFL-CIO regional president, was happy to report that, at the very least, legislators were now obliged to set a place at the table for labor. “Before this administration came in, we were not even acknowledged. Now the state has to sit down with us, whether they want to or not. They need our signature on their federal grant proposals.” But she did not expect the welcome carpet to lie around for too long after the grants and tax incentives were secured.

The typical suburban American home is an energy pig. 

Friend envisaged that substandard jobs in the new clean energy sector would edge out well-paying union jobs at the utilities’ power plants. “My concern is that international solar companies will come in with a completely different set of work ethics, and that they will go non-union and also way below scale. Like other industries,” she added, “such as the call centers, they might be coming here because we are a right-to-work state.” Hers was a longstanding concern and, in the past, it had often put energy sector unions on the wrong side of the green aisle. For sure, the replacement of dirty with clean energy should not be pursued on the backs of working people or at the expense of labor power. On the other side were studies dating from the 1970s to the present day which have shown that investment in decentralized and labor-intensive green enterprises would create many more jobs than in the highly automated, capital-intensive and geographically centralized facilities of the old energy sector. These estimates punctured the employers’ myth, re-circulated by some unions, that green industrial policy would only result in job losses.

Investors and national managers are fixated on shiny new technologies, and so gee-whiz developments in clean energy tend to command the lion’s share of media attention. But green jobs are much more likely to open up in existing occupations or industries—HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) contracting and home insulating, organic and local agriculture, salvage, waste management, mass transit, and infill construction. Sizable energy efficiencies can be gotten very quickly from weatherizing the homes thrown up to profit from the housing bubble. Such energy retrofits are a clear alternative to the practice of renovating homes to boost resale value—a popular custom that generated mountains of waste material during the real estate boom. In the post-war era, merchant builders adopted nationwide construction templates with little regard for regional climate variation, and so profitable models of mass production preempted the appropriate siting of houses to conserve energy. As a result, the typical suburban American home is an energy pig. Plugging

Labor advocates have hardly been in a position to question a consumer system that engages so many workers in the manufacture of so many unnecessary items. 

leaks, realigning ducts, repairing roofs, sealing gaps, and insulating furnaces can slice in half most utility bills. As Van Jones put it, “the main piece of technology in the green economy is the caulking gun.”8

Like many of the stimulus programs, funds for weatherization have been notoriously slow in working their way through states’ bureaucracies. Yet, dollar for dollar, the program still promises to be the most effective way of creating jobs quickly. In addition, it entails employment in local communities through budgets that mostly go to hiring personnel rather than to equipment purchase. In other respects, the change in public consciousness prompted by weatherization promised to be as momentous as the new mentality ushered in by recycling. For those who grew up in the throwaway consumer society, the novel task of separating waste on a daily basis amounted, over time, to a profound alteration of common sense. For many people, recycling was the first step in considering the environmental consequences of their consumption. The crusade—if it turns into one—for homegrown energy efficiencies and carbon reduction is the second phase of this long revolution in consciousness. Arguably, it will be more socially sustaining in the customs and relationships it fosters than the top-down geoengineering schemes and other macro technical fixes currently being proposed to reduce the planet’s carbon stockpile.

No less far-reaching are the consequences for labor. Long shut out of decisions about production, labor advocates have hardly been in a position to question the wasteful premise of a consumer system that engages so many workers in the manufacture of so many unnecessary items. But green employment in the service of repairing, preserving, and extending the life of existing things and natural processes is becoming a growth economy in its own right, and there’s more than enough of it to go around. The labor movement needs to embrace this ethos of restoration as a sharp corrective to the current damage-prone system of growth. Labor’s heroic, masculine birthright was forged in the foundries of high-carbon production. A softer, more life-sustaining profile is in the offing.

 

Notes:

1. Eric Janszen, “The Next Bubble: Priming the Markets for Tomorrow’s Big Crash,” Harper’s, February 2008.
2. Henry Brean, “Heidi Fleiss Gives Up on Plan for Brothel for Women,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 10, 2009.
3. A report from Good Jobs First—commissioned by Change to Win, the Sierra Club, and the Teamsters and Laborers unions— found jobs in the renewable energy sector paying $11 an hour, almost half the average wage in the durable goods sector (at $19 an hour). High Road or Low Road?: Job Quality in the New Green Economy (February 3, 2009), available at http://www.goodjobsfirst. org/pdf/gjfgreenjobsrpt.pdf.
4. For some of these earlier efforts, see Richard Grossman and Gail Daneker, Energy, Jobs, and the Economy (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1979); and Richard Grossman and Richard Kazis, Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment(New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982).
5. Sean Sweeney, “More Than Green Jobs: Time for a New Climate Policy for Labor,”New Labor Forum 18, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 53-59.
6. “By last year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had soared by more than fivefold since 2003, to a total of 2,810—or five lobbyists for every lawmaker in Washington . . . Only 138 of the lobbyists were pushing for alternative energy—the rest were heavily weighted toward the old fossil-fuel mafia, most of whom oppose tough carbon caps.” Jeff Goodell, “As the World Burns,” Rolling Stone, January 6, 2010.
7. Erin Ailworth,“Evergreen Solar to Shift Some Operations to China,”Boston Globe, November 4, 2009. An additional $5 million loan was pledged by MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency, on the basis of Evergreen having exceeded the target number of jobs it had promised to create in Massachusetts. See Todd Wallack, “Struggling Evergreen Rewards CEO,” Boston Globe, March 12, 2010.
8. Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems(New York: HarperOne, 2008), 15.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 41-47, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000007

The China Road: Why China Is Beating Mexico in the Competition for U.S. Markets

In 1998, China and Mexico had the same share of U.S. apparel imports: 13 percent each. By 2008, Mexico’s share had fallen to 6 percent, while China’s had increased to 34 percent. This was a stunning contrast with the previous decade (1989-1998) when Mexico’s share of U.S. imports quadrupled from 3 percent, while China’s share rose by just one percentage point.1 Why did Mexico do so well against Chinese competition in the first decade and so badly in the second?

Critics of neoliberal globalization, myself included, have argued that suppressing worker rights is a powerful—though ultimately self-destructive—source of international competitive advantage for both firms and nations.2 We have used the term “race to the bottom” as a shorthand for this argument. There is no question, I think, that the vast difference in compensation rates between the countries of the global North and countries such as Mexico and China in the global South—combined with diminishing labor productivity differences— has played an important role in gutting apparel and electronics industries in the global North.

But is Mexico now losing those same industries to China because its workers are paid “too much”—that is, considerably more than China’s, though only about one tenth of U.S. wages? If so, then the race to the bottom (RTB) argument applies to competition among countries in the global South as well as to North-South competition. Many firms, government officials, and media pundits in Mexico make this argument. So does the World Bank when it asserts that Mexico’s labor law must be reformed to eliminate severance pay and other provisions that make Mexican labor too expensive and “inflexible.”3 Some on the left also believe in a China-driven South-South RTB.

This version of the RTB argument doesn’t stand up to the evidence. One problem has already been noted: Mexico-based firms were beating China-based firms in the 1989-1998 period, despite the fact that the China-Mexico wage difference was greater in that decade than in the subsequent one. So much lower wages were not enough to enable firms based in China to compete successfully in the first decade, and the reduction of that wage gap in the second did not stop those firms from competing much more successfully. This was true even in the apparel sector, where labor costs are a much higher share of production costs than in industries such as electronics or auto assembly.

Another kind of analysis leads to the same conclusion. In 1997, according to economist Robert Pollin and colleagues, the cost of producing a typical men’s shirt in Mexico was about $4.45 in U.S. dollars. Of this, wages and salaries accounted for about fifty cents.5 At this time, China’s hourly wage was about one fifth of Mexico’s, which means that the labor cost

A Mexican-made shirt went from 10 percent more expensive than its Chinese counterpart in 2000 to 38 percent cheaper in 2010.

of the same shirt made in China was just ten cents.6 So the cost of making the same shirt in China, all other things being equal, was $4.05.

Other things were not equal, however. Between 1995 and 2000, the peso lost 48 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, while the value of China’s currency (the yuan) remained stable; between 2000 and 2010, the peso lost another 33 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, while the yuan increased by about 18 percent. This means that a Mexican-made shirt that cost $4.45 in 2000, cost only $2.98 in 2010, if the costs of inputs had remained constant in peso terms, a savings of $1.47 (i.e., almost four times the savings from China’s lower wages). If the costs of Chinese apparel inputs had also remained constant in yuan terms, the U.S. dollar cost of the Chinese shirt would have increased to $4.78 because of the exchange rate change. Taking labor cost differences and exchange rate movements together, the Mexican shirt went from 10 percent more expensive than its Chinese counterpart in 2000 to 38 percent cheaper in 2010.

In reality, labor and other production costs, measured in their domestic currencies, increased in both countries over these years. By one estimate, the rate of wage increases in the two countries in the last three years of this period (2005-2008) was about the same, resulting in a five-percentage-point reduction in the cost advantage of manufacturing production in both China and Mexico, relative to the U.S.A. But in Mexico’s case, this change was more than offset by the twelve-percentage-point improvement in Mexico’s cost advantage caused by the fall of the peso against the dollar; by contrast, the rise of the yuan against the dollar reduced China’s cost advantage by another nine percentage points.7

According to an AlixPartners study,8 by 2008 these shifts made Mexico a lower-cost producer than China for all six of the types of manufactured goods that they considered. Nevertheless, China greatly improved its export competitiveness—measured by its share of U.S. imports—against Mexico between 1998 and 2008, both in the apparel sector and in the more capital-intensive electronics sector. (Chinese export competitiveness also improved dramatically in Mexico in these years, despite the fact that the peso’s fall against the yuan was even greater than its fall against the U.S. dollar. By 2009, for every dollar of Mexican exports to China, China exported $15 of goods to Mexico!)9

These Chinese export gains had to be due to factors other than lower Chinese wages and in spite of adverse exchange rate movements and rising transportation costs, relative to Mexico. What were those factors? China benefited in these years from less restricted access to the U.S. market, due to its admission to the World Trade Organization in November 2001 and (for apparel) the termination of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement’s system of country quotas in January 2005. But these changes did not give China anything that Mexico did not already have, and Mexico still has advantages under NAFTA that China lacks.

There must be something else. A 2004 World Bank survey of big U.S. and European apparel buyers operating in multiple Asian economies found that most believed that Chinese factories have “the best skilled workers and productivity, quality, speed, production capacity, product development, technology, storage facilities, and transportation.”10 Analysts responding to the 20-30 percent wage increases that have occurred this year in China’s highly industrialized Guangdong province echo this point. Financial Times reporters Tom Mitchell and Kathrin Hille

By 2009, for every dollar of Mexican exports to China, China exported $15 of goods to Mexico.

state that the manufacturers they interviewed “argued that better wages would reap other rewards, including higher worker retention rates and increased efficiency. Combined with first-rate infrastructure and dense ‘clusters’ of components suppliers, which tended to group round big assemblers such as Foxconn, China would remain a formidable manufacturing power.”11 Pansy Yau, deputy chief economist at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, agreed: “Well established industrial clusters, a highly efficient and skilled labour force, and infrastructure systems are able to offset the disadvantage of rising [labour] costs.”12

China has pursued a low road on worker rights and wages, but a high road on public investment. 

High levels of workforce and infrastructure development are characteristics normally associated with the high levels of public investment found in rich countries pursuing “high road” competitive strategies. Thus, China has pursued a “mixed” competitive strategy: a low road on worker rights and wages, but a high road on the range of factors noted by the World Bank. Mexico’s government has likewise repressed labor and kept wages low, but without making infrastructure investments on the same scale. The high-road components of China’s mixed strategy gave it a decisive edge over Mexico in the competition for U.S. apparel and electronics markets.

It might be argued that another key factor was the undervalued yuan. Most analysts agree that the Chinese currency is significantly undervalued against the dollar. Estimates of the scale of that undervaluation range from about 10 percent to 50 percent, depending on methods used and assumptions made.13 If China revalued the yuan upward by 20 percent, that might be enough to offset fully the advantages deriving from the high-road component of its competitive strategy. It is difficult to estimate such effects with precision, but such a move would give Mexico even more room to raise wages, provided that it also adopts China’s policies on investing in worker skills, infrastructure, and the like.

The analysis, so far, has several important implications. First, Mexican labor repression was not sufficient to win the competition against China for U.S. markets; nor was it necessary, even in the apparel sector. If the Mexican government had adopted policies that matched China’s improvements in the areas noted by the World Bank survey and the Financial Times, wages in the sector could have increased significantly without undermining Mexico’s competitiveness, because of the competitive advantage deriving from its devaluations. Second, what is true for the highly labor-intensive apparel industry holds even more forcefully for more capital-intensive industries, such as electronics and auto, where worker compensation is a smaller share of production costs.

Mexico’s government has repressed labor and kept wages low, but without making infrastructure investments on the same scale [as China]. 

So Chinese competition is hurting Mexican exports to the United States and elsewhere. But the main source of that competitiveness is not low Chinese wages, and Mexico cannot recover its competitiveness by pushing domestic wages lower or making them more “flexible.”

It follows that Mexican governments and manufacturing sector employers are not forced by RTB dynamics emanating from China to continue suppressing worker rights and wage increases. If they persist in such policies, rather than investing in the sorts of human and infrastructure development that have made Chinese competition so formidable, they must bear the responsibility for this choice.

None of this prevents employers or governments from invoking China as a threat to induce workers and their unions to settle for less. Such threats can be effective in securing concessions when the probability of the threatened outcome is difficult for workers to gauge. If they are effective even some of the time, they could drive down wages and/or induce workers to give up some of their rights. But the principal cause of such a dynamic is the employer that makes these threats. China serves as the bogeyman, not the real cause of the problem.

The South-South RTB argument provides political cover for private and public actors who repress worker rights in such countries. We must put the blame for labor repression in Mexico and elsewhere where it belongs: on those who support these policies, and the larger neoliberal paradigm, when they could do otherwise.

The neoliberal model has failed in Mexico. It has not generated rapid growth and large-scale, trickle-down improvements in income as its supporters predicted; it has not even generated sustainable competitiveness and profitability.14 China and the other success stories of East Asia have advanced by pursuing a very different model, characterized by a much more extensive state role in economic development.15 Not all variants of this model are democratic or consistent with worker rights, but the success of South Korea demonstrates that such a “developmental state” is compatible with a powerful, independent labor movement that substantially increases workers’ share of national income, while also contributing to a higher-quality democracy than is yet found in Mexico.16

But is the Mexican state capable of developing and implementing that kind of industrial policy? And if it is, does the Mexican state really have the autonomy—vis-à-vis global markets, the United States, and the International Monetary Fund—to pursue such a course? If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Mexican state could implement such policies, investing in worker skills and infrastructure takes time. China needed a decade to get to the point where it could compete successfully with Mexico in the U.S. apparel sector. It took a second decade to begin driving Mexico out of the U.S. electronics market.17 To get Chinese autos to world competitive levels has taken even longer, though it appears that significant exports of this kind are not far off.18

Does Mexico have the time it needs to realize the kinds of human and infrastructure investment required to save its electronics and auto sectors, and (perhaps) regain some of its rapidly shrinking apparel sector? Maybe, if China allows the yuan to appreciate to more appropriate levels. This seems quite possible over the next year. Chinese wages are now rising faster than Mexico’s, which will also help, though (as argued earlier) the importance of wage differences and trends to overall competitiveness should not be exaggerated.

But Mexico’s policymakers must resolve to take full advantage of the window of opportunity such shifts would create to begin making the investments necessary for either a mixed or a high-road competitive strategy. If they fail to do this—and the current trade regime remains in place—it’s only a matter of time until most of Mexico’s manufacturing exports are crowded out of the U.S. market by China and/or other countries following its strategic lead.19

Which path Mexico pursues will largely depend on choices made in Mexico and the United States, rather than in China. Mexico depends upon the U.S.A. for about 85 percent of its exports and imports, not to mention jobs for some 10 percent of its people who send back remittances roughly equal in value to the sum of all Mexican manufacturing exports.

The Obama administration could make a big difference in enabling Mexico to adopt a successful high-road strategy, although—at present—it shows no signs of abandoning the neoliberal model of continental economic integration. The administration’s support—for stronger worker rights and higher worker compensation in all three NAFTA countries, and backing for Mexican infrastructure development on the model of the European Union’s social funds—would enable the Mexican government to move in this direction. If the United States government shows no such commitment, we must hope that ongoing struggles to improve the quality of Mexican democracy yield a government that is willing to put the matter to the test. Many Mexican activists are making great sacrifices to this end, but progress is slow and uneven. Unfortunately, on the international economic front, time is not on their side.

 

Notes:

1. Trade data are from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Trade Stats Express, available at http://www.export.gov/tradedata/index.asp.
2. Ian Robinson, North American Trade as if Democracy Mattered: What’s Wrong with NAFTA and What Are the Alternatives? (Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Ontario: International Labor Rights Fund and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 1993).
3. Regulatory Transformation in Mexico: 1988-2000 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group, 2008).
4. Robert J.S. Ross and Anita Chan, “From North-South to South-South: The True Face of Global Competition,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2002): 8-13.
5. Robert Pollin, Justine Burns, and James Heintz, “Global Apparel Production and Sweatshop Labor: Can Raising Retail Prices Finance Living Wages?,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 28, no. 2 (2004): 153-171.
6. Erin Lett and Judith Banister, “China’s Manufacturing Employment and Compensation Costs: 2002-2006,” Monthly Labor Review (April 2009): 30-38.
7. AlixPartners, 2009 Manufacturing Outsourcing Cost Index—Overview and Highlights (May 2009), 13-14.
8. See ibid.
9. Thanks to Enrique Dussel Peters, in personal correspondence, for these Mexican statistics. Dussel Peters’s analysis of Chinese export competitiveness, and its implications for Mexico, is found in China and Latin America: Economic Relations in the Twenty-First Century, eds. Rhys Jenkins and Enrique Dussel Peters (Bonn: German Development Institute & Centro de Estudios China-México, UNAM, 2009).
10. Amy Kazmin, “Garment Buyers Prefer Cambodia,” Financial Times, December 4, 2004, 5.
11. Tom Mitchell and Kathrin Hille, “Salary Deals Raise Questions over China’s Workforce,” Financial Times, June 4, 2010.
12. See ibid.
13. Vikas Bajaj, “Coming Visit May Signal Easing by China on Currency,” New York Times, April 1, 2010.
14. Eduardo Zepeda, Timothy Wise, and Kevin Gallagher, Rethinking Trade Policy for Development: Lessons from Mexico Under NAFTA (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009), available at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/ publications/?fa=view&id=24271.
15. Ha-Joon Chang, Globalization, Economic Development and the Role of the State (New York: Zed Books, 2002).
16. Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003), 161.
17. Enrique Dussel Peters, “La Manufactura Mexicana: Opciones de recuperación?” (2008), available at http://www. dusselpeters.com/dussel-tema-nuevos. html.
18. Keith Bradsher, “China’s Factories Aim to Fill the World’s Garages,” New York Times, November 2, 2003.
19. Huberto Juárez Nuñez, in an unpublished essay co-authored with Amellali Salgado Cortés entitled “The Aerospace Industry in Mexico: Outsourcing and Regional Development in a Global Context” (Puebla, Mexico: CEDES, Autonomous University of Puebla, 2010), notes that the Mexican government has invested more in human and communications infrastructure in the auto sector, and is now doing the same in the aerospace industry. This should assist Mexican competitiveness in these sectors. However, in contrast to China, Mexico has not insisted on technology transfer, joint ownership, or sourcing from Mexican parts companies with a view to building “backwards linkages.” These omissions—largely ruled out by NAFTA’s Chapter 11—limit Mexico’s capacity to transform international competitiveness into national economic development.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008

 

The GOP in the Age of Obama: Will the Tea Party and Republican Establishment Unite or Fight?

A dispirited lot of Republican senators gathered at the Library of Congress in early January 2009 to size up their situation as a confident and purposive President-elect Barack Obama prepared to assume office. These Republicans had reason to be in a dark mood, having seen their party suffer, in November 2008, one of its worst electoral defeats in modern American history.1

Obama had won a larger percentage of the popular vote (almost 53 percent) than any Democratic candidate for the presidency in more than fifty years. The Democrats had gained twenty-one seats in the House to give them a sizable majority (257 to 178), and their fifty-seven seats in the Senate had put them within reach of that all-important, filibusterproof supermajority of sixty (a status they would gain in early 2009). Political opportunity had not looked this good for the Democrats—and this bad for the Republicans— since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964  landslide victory against Barry Goldwater.

The Republicans seemingly had little going for them. Their president and party had presided over one of the worst financial crashes in American history. Even before the crash, George W. Bush had become a reviled figure as Americans began to view W.’s war of choice in Iraq as a form of adventurism for which America was paying too steep a price. Americans began questioning, too, the core Republican approach to the economy—a commitment to freeing capitalist markets from government “meddling”—as it became apparent that this was what had given Wall Street the license to behave like a Las Vegas casino. For all these reasons, independent voters had abandoned the Republican Party in droves, rendering it a small, and besieged, institution.

It is hard now to recall that early 2009 moment of Democratic hope and Republican dejection. The first two years of the Obama presidency have gone worse for the Democrats and better for the Republicans than most had imagined they would. A large part of the Obama administration’s failure to deliver on its early promise was due to the damage that the financial crash caused the economy, and to the sheer difficulty of figuring out ways to repair it. Had the Democrats been able to reduce unemployment to 6 or 7 percent, they would be heading into the November 2010 elections with a great deal of confidence and expectation.

But two other factors contributed to Democratic stumbling: first, the ability of Republicans in Congress, and especially in the Senate, to deploy a clever strategy of delay and obstruction against Democratic initiatives; and second, conservatives’ success in capturing the populist insurgency that began to rumble across the land in 2009. The key Republican was minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a lifer in the Senate and a wily master of its complex rules and moods. While he paid lip service to bipartisanship, McConnell was, in fact, determined to saddle the Democrats with legislative defeats—and thus show the country that they were unable or unfit to govern. The populist insurgency has no single figure like McConnell; to the contrary, part of its character is that it obeys no single master or commander. But in its various manifestations—the Tea Party, the town hall meetings about health care, the Tenthers and the Birthers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Ron and Rand Paul—this insurgency has rocked American politics and thrown all kinds of obstacles in the Democrats’ path. Both the McConnell-led Senate Republicans and the various groups of right-wing populists have legitimated their opposition in terms of being true to the first principles of conservatism: small government, low taxes, and fiscal solvency. How well the Republican Party establishment and the populist insurgency can get along, and whether their joint embrace of conservative orthodoxy will succeed in returning the GOP to power, is not yet clear. But there is no doubt that the Republicans have done far better these past two years than almost anyone in November 2008 expected they would.

Holding the Line

McConnell’s greatest achievement as Senate minority leader from 2008 until now is the unity he has maintained in his caucus. Beginning with the vote on the stimulus package in February 2009, McConnell has yet to lose more than three of his forty-one (and, for a time, forty) Republicans to the Democrats on a major piece of domestic legislation; and in what he made the most important test of party loyalty—the health care bill—he didn’t lose anyone at all. He forged this hard and unified line in the midst of a national economic crisis, when “the best interests” of the nation, one would have thought, would have prompted a significant number of Republicans to cross the aisle, especially given Obama’s desire to draft bipartisan, red state-blue state, legislation.2 And he maintained unity even as he urged Republicans to reassert hard-line conservative positions.

Republicans understood this reassertion of orthodoxy as an appropriate reaction to what they regarded as the apostasy of George W. Bush. They blamed the November 2008 debacle on W., and they located the roots of his unpopularity in his abandonment of conservative principles. While they conceded that Bush had been true to conservatism in his support of large tax cuts in 2001, they argued that his subsequent initiatives were all liberal. They regarded Bush’s signature education policy, “No Child Left Behind,” as an illegitimate federal intrusion into an area of policy properly left to state and local governments. They denounced Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug-benefit plan as the largest single expansion of welfare entitlement since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. And they assailed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that Bush pushed through Congress in October 2008 as a massive federal bailout for and takeover of the banks that violated the rules by which free markets operated. As the conservative writer Deroy Murdock put it in November 2010: “Comrade George W. Bush has spearheaded the most aggressive federal expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a delivery system for socialism, he has been the most effective Trojan horse since that pine steed rolled into Troy.”3

Of course, Republicans were disingenuous in their criticism of Bush, given how many of them had lined up behind him during the years when he was America’s most popular Republican. Yet, despite its evident problems, this new conservative narrative of the Bush years had a coherence and power to it. As Senator Tom Coburn noted shortly after the election: “The more Republicans abandoned conservatism, the more voters abandoned Republicanism.”4 This was the story that McConnell embraced. It allowed him to tell his fellow Republicans in the Senate that the GOP finally had an opportunity to put its house in order. And, if it did, it would draw America back to its cause.

McConnell’s goals were modest: hold the line against Obama, frustrate him, and tempt him into missteps. The Obama administration was slow to grasp McConnell’s strategy. Indeed, the Obama administration’s decision to tamp down on the Democratic Party’s own progressive wing in the interests of reaching across the aisle played right into McConnell’s hands.

That the Republicans had gained a strategic step on the Democrats became clear in Obama’s first month in office, as congressional Republicans turned the debate on the president’s stimulus bill into a referendum on government pork. By early February, support for the stimulus plans among the public at large had already fallen from 45 to 37 percent.5 Buoyed by these polling numbers, the Senate GOP set its face against the stimulus package. Obama and the Democrats emerged with a victory, but not before the GOP had sown doubts about the legitimacy and efficacy of what they were doing. Rick Santelli, a CNBC correspondent reporting from the Chicago Board of Trade, delivered his now-famous call for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the stimulus package. Santelli’s rant would soon become the rallying cry for a new populist movement.6

Confident that the polls were moving in the GOP’s direction, McConnell now called on Republicans to show a similar unity in opposing the Democrats’ health care initiatives. In a technical sense, McConnell’s task had become more difficult as, by June, the Democrats’ majority in the Senate had risen from fifty-seven to fifty-nine: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania had switched parties, and Al Franken had finally been declared the winner of the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota. Because socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont was prepared to provide the Democrats with the all-important sixtieth vote on domestic legislation, the Republicans no longer had a cloture-proof minority. What the Republicans had gained in spring 2009, however, was a new partner: a populist insurgency.

The Populist Surge

Populism is a recurring political tendency in American history, usually appearing at times of economic stress and cultural dislocation. It almost always features groups who portray themselves as “ordinary Americans,” and often as the “true Americans,” who have suffered at the hands of powerful elites who control the economy and/or government. Populists take it upon themselves to oust the elites from power and to reclaim America for its people. Populism has, on the one hand, supplied a language for articulating and protesting disparities in wealth and power in American life; on the other hand, this movement has been prone to conspiratorial views of politics and to excluding immigrants, racial minorities, and other outsiders from its vision of a restored American republic.

In the first half of the twentieth century, populism had largely allied itself with the Left. But amidst the racial upheavals of the 1960s, it veered right. Populists at this time became preoccupied with the “undeserving poor,” a group whom they saw as largely black and whose access to welfare and other government handouts had allegedly allowed them (the black poor) to maintain a cozy style of life that they had not earned. Populists still drew on anti-elite discourses, blaming privileged groups of university-educated liberals—who had become Great Society administrators—for promoting this “perversion” of American life. The mission of “true Americans,” therefore, became to roll back the liberals’ government expansion and impart moral education rather than handouts to the poor.7

Conservative thought dominated populist discourse through the rest of the twentieth century, and it has shaped the populist surge of 2009–2010. Those involved in this surge have been angry, of course, about Wall Street chicanery, and about the bailouts to the very financial institutions that caused the crash. But the dramatic expansion in the scope of government power is what set their smoldering political resentment ablaze. The Constitution itself became the populists’ battering ram. Government elites, they argued, were treating the country’s most sacred document with contempt. The “Tenthers” proclaimed their fealty to the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, which sharply limited the scope of central government power; the “Birthers,” who did so much to sow doubt about Obama’s right to occupy the presidency, likewise found their authority in the Constitution, specifically Article II, Section One, which stipulates that only a “natural born citizen” can be president of the United States. Populists deployed the Constitution to argue for a central government that is small and limited in its powers.

Populists have always posed as defenders of the true principles of the Republic, but their constitutional turn represents something new. And it has legitimated as deep and as sustained an attack on the legitimacy of the central state as anyone has mounted in the last fifty years. TV and radio populist rock star Glenn Beck repeatedly invokes the Constitution in his campaign to roll back the federal government to the small institution it was in 1900. He loathes not simply the Great Society and the New Deal but Progressivism, too, even though its earliest national leader, Theodore Roosevelt, was himself a Republican. Beck has called for dismantling virtually every major government program from Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’s time forward, including the Federal Reserve and the federal income tax. Beck disparages Obama as the heir to this “unconstitutional” tradition, and he stigmatizes the Obama-led growth in government as a “cancer” that must be eradicated.8

For Beck, Tea Partiers, and others in this populist phalanx, proposals for national health insurance exemplified this “cancerous” growth of government power. The populist surge gained force as the health care debate climaxed. Conservative populists packed the four-hundred-plus town hall meetings that members of Congress held in August 2009 for their constituents. They repeated endlessly Sarah Palin’s charge that the House health care bill was going to set up “death panels” to “kill Grandma.” They portrayed Obama as Hitler, and the Democrats as Nazis. They shouted down pro-health care Senators and Representatives and, in some cases, hung them or tarred and feathered them in effigy.

Glenn Beck followed up these guns of August with a September 2009 March on Washington. Estimates of the march’s size varied widely, from a low of seventy thousand to a high of 1.5 million. Even skeptical observers conceded, however, that the march was big. The mood of the protesters was festive, with many outfitted in tri-cornered hats, carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and holding aloft humorous signs such as “Billionaires for Wealth Care.” But there was a darker side to the protests, too, as evidenced in the Obama-Hitler look-a-like posters and in the words of a protester who told a reporter that he had come to Washington to stop the “Deliberate Destruction of America.”9

The Obama administration and the Democratic Party underestimated the power of this march and the broader populist insurgency of which it was part. They had been surprised by the numbers that showed up at the town hall meetings and by the vehemence of their protests. And they were shocked when, in January 2010, Republican Scott Brown defeated the Democrat Martha Coakley in a special Massachusetts election to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy in the Senate. Running a populist campaign with strong Tea Party support (“I’m Scott Brown, I’m from Wrentham, I drive a truck…”), and pledging to use his critical forty first vote to filibuster health care legislation to death, Brown won a Senate seat that had been Democratic for more than fifty years. Brown would never get the opportunity to filibuster health care. Each house of Congress had passed its own comprehensive health care bill before the Brown election. Democratic Party strategists, led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, devised a way of reconciling the Senate bill with the House bill without having to reopen debate in the Senate. On March 21, 2010, the Affordable Care Act became law.10 

Despite its defeat, the Republican Party, critically aided by the populist surge, had put up a remarkable fight. While the bill’s passage stopped Obama’s slide in the polls, it has not, as of this writing, given him much of a boost. The bill itself makes enormous concessions to the market principles that the Republicans have historically championed. That a bill so suffused with Republican principles and ideas could be stigmatized by the Republican Party today as socialistic is a measure of how far to the right the GOP has succeeded in moving political debate in America across the last generation.

What Lies Ahead

That populist politics have remained so resolutely conservative at a time of extensive malfeasance by centers of economic power provides further evidence of what we might call a continuing era of Republican ideological hegemony. Obama may have missed an opportunity to reclaim populism for the Democrats when he entered office. What if he had sought, in winter and spring 2008, to unleash rather than contain the political passions that had thrust him into office? What if he had himself embraced a populist position, taking on (or taking over) the banks rather than playing by their rules? Might he have been able to reconnect populism with its left-wing roots? Perhaps. But we should not underestimate how hard a task this would have been to accomplish, given that it would have required reinvigorating a tradition that has been dormant in American politics for sixty to seventy years.

If the most important question for the Democrats is whether a left populism can find its voice, the most pressing issue for the GOP is whether party leaders can continue to ride the conservative populist wave. The social base of conservative populism, which ranges from the white working class to the white upper middle class, lies a significant distance away from the corporate interests that form another key Republican constituency. While conservative populists are unlikely to turn against capitalism, some have attacked the partnership that has grown up between the highest levels of government and business, which they see as responsible for the bank bailouts and the government’s huge debt, both of which they loathe. Tea Party militants at the state convention of the Utah GOP yelled “TARP! TARP! TARP!” as they were ending Robert Bennett’s bid to be renominated in May 2010 to run for another term in the Senate.11 Bennett had voted for TARP; so had most of the rest of the Republican leadership, including McConnell who, when not busy aligning Senate Republicans with the populist insurgency, spent a great deal of his time accommodating the wishes of the corporate lobbyists who regularly parked themselves outside his open Senate door. These corporate clients want a free hand to run their enterprises as they see fit but have little interest in eliminating all government regulation or in returning American capitalism to its anarchic nineteenth-century roots, as populists like Beck say they want to do. Given this divide between the corporations and the populists, will McConnell, and the Republican Party leadership more generally, be able to continue balancing their commitments to both?

The results of a Republican Senate primary in Kentucky in May 2010 actually suggest that they will. The Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul), defeated the Republican Party establishment candidate (and McConnell favorite), Charles “Trey” Grayson, by a staggering 24 percent margin (fifty-nine to thirty-five).12 Paul is a libertarian who shares Beck’s hatred for that other symbol of elite government-business partnership, the Federal Reserve, and who believes that the federal government as a whole ought to be returned to the limited entity it was a hundred years ago. Paul made multiple appearances in high-profile media outlets in the days after his election, but ran into trouble when he told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC that he had serious reservations about the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A few days later, Paul had not only retracted these views but withdrew his earlier acceptance to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” At the behest of national GOP insiders, he was muzzling himself until he could more successfully align himself with the party line. McConnell told CNN that Paul had “said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage.”13

We don’t have access to the behind-the-scenes negotiations that persuaded Paul he had “said quite enough,” but one suspects that threats to withhold financing for the fall election had something to do with it. Across the last twenty years, the costs of elections have continued to soar; over the same period, the Republican Party has centralized control of fundraising, concentrating an ever greater portion of party money in the hands of a progressively smaller number of power brokers. These power brokers include both elected leaders such as McConnell (and Tom DeLay in the House, before his ouster) and non-elected leaders such as Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, whose skill at networking has brought them substantial influence in GOP affairs. These power brokers’ control of the flow of campaign finances gives them a great deal of leverage over candidates and suggests that they will find ways to keep Rand Paul and most other Tea Party candidates sufficiently in check to serve party purposes.14

Another key question is whether the populist insurgency, even if successfully domesticated, can turn out enough voters to return the GOP to national power. The Tea Party movement is overwhelmingly white, as are its various populist allies. Can such a movement become the cornerstone of a GOP campaign to gain majorities in both houses of Congress and win the presidency at a time when America is becoming ever more colored? The last Republican to win the presidency and preside over a Republican Senate and House of Representatives thought not. George W. Bush believed GOP success required the support of large numbers of immigrants and their children, and he ardently and successfully pursued Latino votes.15As conservatives have recoiled from Bush, they have disparaged his “Big Tent” strategy. A snickering Glenn Beck declared to Republican conservatives in February 2010: “All they’re [Bush and his advisors] talking about is, we need a big tent…. Can we get a bigger tent? How can we get a big tent? What is this, the circus? America is not a clown show. America is not a circus.”16

This thinly veiled equation of a GOP open to Latino immigrants with a circus full of clowns and freaks expresses a deep anxiety among conservative populists that the days of America as a majority-white republic are numbered. These same sentiments have informed the steady intensification of anti-immigrant sentiment these last several years. On questions of immigration, one liberal Republican after another—Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and George W. Bush himself—has fallen silent. To find another time when the GOP so resolutely set its face against the New America, one has to go back to the 1920s, when Republican majorities in Congress closed America’s immigrant gates to most of the world; then the foreigners identified as threats to America were not Mexicans but Eastern and Southern Europeans. If the Republicans of that era got their way in the short term, they hurt themselves in the long term: Millions of immigrants became citizens in the 1920s and 1930s, determined to vote nativist Republicans out of office. The New Deal rose to power on the backs of these new Americans and their children, costing the Republican Party its hold on national power for forty years.17

With Republicans across the country today clamoring to compete with Arizona for the distinction of having the toughest anti-illegal alien laws in the country, the GOP once again is driving immigrants and their children into the Democratic Party. Even Latino groups with long Republican pedigrees, such as Cuban-Americans in Florida and long-settled Mexican-Americans in Texas and Arizona, are having second thoughts about the GOP. Without at least a significant fraction of Latino votes, the GOP might not be able to win a presidential election in 2012 or 2016, given the pivotal importance of Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and other swing states with large Latino populations. GOP leaders, including McConnell himself, have tried to draw the party toward a centrist position on immigration. Maybe they will succeed in doing so by 2012. But thus far they have failed. On immigration, the populist tail is wagging the GOP dog. It may not hurt the Republicans in November; historically, off-year elections tend to be decided much more by the party’s success in turning out its base than by reaching out to the general electorate. But by 2012 the GOP’s nativism may impose on the party a set of electoral obstacles that it cannot surmount. The populist insurgency that has so animated the GOP has not yet carried the day.

 

*The author would like to thank Monte Holman for his invaluable research assistance

 

Notes:

1. Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney, “Senate G.O.P Leader Finds Weapon in Unity,” New York Times, March 16, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes. com/2010/03/17/us/politics/17mcconnell. html.
2. On moderates in the Republican Party who might, at one point, have made common cause with Obama, see: Jonah Goldberg, “The GOP Looking Glass,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2008, available at www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-goldberg11- 2008nov11,0,3592009.column; Rod Dreher, “Here Comes the Conservative Civil War,” Real Clear Politics, November 10, 2008, available at www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/11/here_comes_the_conservative_ci.html; and David Brooks, “Darkness at Dusk,” New York Times, November 11, 2008, available at http:// www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/ opinion/11brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion.
3. Deroy Murdock, “GOP Needs to Excommunicate Its Heretics,” Real Clear Politics, November 10, 2008, available at www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/11/the_gop_needs_to_excommunicate.html.
4. Tom Coburn, “Hands Across the Aisle,” Forbes.com, November 6, 2010, available at http://www.forbes. com/2008/11/06/coburn-obama-conservatives-oped-cx_tc_1106coburn.html.
5. Michael Hirsh, “Losing Control: Obama Needs to Reassert Command of the Agenda in Washington,” Newsweek, February 4, 2009, available at http://www. newsweek.com/2009/02/03/losing-control.html.
6. Brian Stelter, “Reporter Says Outburst was Spontaneous,” New York Times, March 3, 2009, available at http://www. nytimes.com/2009/03/03/business/ media/03cnbc.html.
7. On the transition within populism from left to right, see Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
8. “Full Transcript of Glenn Beck’s Keynote Speech at CPAC, February 20, 2010,” Gather, February 22, 2010, available at www.gather.com/viewArticlePF.action?arti cleId=281474978060978.
9. Christopher Beam, “You Lie!,” Slate, September 13, 2009, available at http:// www.slate.com/id/2228110.
10. Jonathan Cohn, “How They Did It: The Inside Account of Health Care Reform’s Triumph,” New Republic, June 10, 2010, 14–25.
11. Frank Rich, “The ‘Randslide’ and Its Discontents,” New York Times, May 23, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes. com/2010/05/23/opinion/23rich.html.
12. Nate Silver, “What Tuesday Really Meant,” FiveThirtyEight.com, May 19, 2010, available at www.fivethirtyeight. com/2010/05/what-tuesday-really-meant. html.
13. Mary Lu Carnevale, “Staff Shake-Up at Rand Paul Campaign,” Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2010, available at http:// blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2010/05/26/ staff-shake-up-at-rand-paul-campaign/; and Jonathan Martin, “Paul and McConnell Work on Their Uncomfortable Marriage,” Politico, May 22, 2010, available at http:// www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/37644.html.
14. On the rise of power brokers and the centralization of finance within the GOP, see Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), chapter 5.
15. Gary Gerstle, “Minorities, Multiculturalism, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” in The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, ed. Julian Zelizer(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 252–81.
16. See “Full Transcript of Glenn Beck’s Keynote Speech at CPAC, February 20, 2010,” supra note 8.
17. Gary Gerstle, “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation: The American Experience,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 78 (Fall 2010), forthcoming.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 82–85, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095–7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000003

Contemporary Working-Class Poetry: Lots of Light, Very Little Heat

Odes to Anger
By Jason L. Yurcic
West End Press, 2009

Velroy and the Madischie Mafia
By Sy Hoahwah
West End Press, 2009

Blood Will Tell
By Craig Paulenich
BlazeVOX [books], 2009

Bar Book: Poems and Otherwise
By Julie Sheehan
W. W. Norton, 2010

Reviewed by Peter Oresick

The lack of revolutionary sentiment that has been the norm among workers in the United States is countered this year, astonishingly, by a new brand of revolutionary zeal—Tea Party rage. A CBS News/ New York Times recent survey claims that nearly 20 percent of Americans support the Tea Party movement. Yet the movement’s populist anger is largely white and male (according to these pollsters), over fortyfive years of age, Republican, and wealthier than the average Joe. So where is old-fashioned, multicultural, working-class wrath?

High-octane class anger and indignation is largely absent among the usual suspects: trade unionists, minorities, college students, feminists, and in both the “liberal” print dinosaurs as well as the new electronic media. It is also missing, not surprisingly, from most contemporary literature. I surveyed quite a few new books of labor poetry this year. Most engage directly with issues of class, but I found little fury. Craig Paulenich’s Blood Will Tell, for example, casts a wistful spotlight on his forlorn industrial heartland; Sy Hoahwah’s Velroy and the Madischie Mafia employs a wry humor to dramatize the Native American experience in contemporary Comanche country; while Julie Sheehan’s witty hero in Bar Book, a cocktail waitress, is an American every woman—smart but powerless, and abused by every man—in a perverse service economy.

Perhaps this is why Jason Yurcic stands out; he is the angriest young American poet that I have encountered in years and rare in his display of class-consciousness. A former boxer from New Mexico with a troubled past, Yurcic, a worker-writer who now pours concrete for a living, offers up a poetic antidote to the silence of the working class in his third collection, Odes to Anger.

His book is divided into three parts: “Odes to Anger,” consisting of six unusual renderings of that classical form, followed by “Meditations on Breath” and “Walking into My Mind,” two extended poetic sequences. “Ode to Society” (p. 4) begins:

I want to
Bash
Abuse
And batter you
Until you become
Nothing
Like you have
Bashed
Abused
And battered me.

In the book’s first movement, the Yurcic persona is a literal fighter. He flirts with drugs and gangs and jail. According to the jacket copy, his own father—after release from prison—was murdered in a brawl. “My culture/Is violence/One I did not choose” (p. 13). Yet Yurcic’s lyric rants are not always external jabs. He’s also full of self-loathing and self-doubt and rage about his personal failures to connect in a healthy way with his inherited traditions: Chicano, Native American, and Yugoslav. All of these cultures in modern America lead “to alcohol/Drug addiction/And pain,” (p. 13) he laments. Yurcic’s poetry here is raw, unstudied, and powerfully authentic.

The shift in “Meditations on Breath” is striking. Not quite a formal Eastern meditation, the thirteen-part poem is nevertheless an unflinching look inward, a study of the poet’s breath during a ten-day period. It is an attempt at soul-searching and confession and moral inventory: “I snapped car antennas from new cars, bent one end up, made a pipe to smoke crack . . . When I smoked meth in a broken light bulb and a hollowed-out pen, I stopped because the flavor of burning chemicals made it hard to taste my pain” (p. 26). Eventually the breath becomes a teacher or a small-voiced god for the poet, and it leads him to a sobriety and sense of well-being he has never known.

“Walking into My Mind” concludes the book’s three-part movement. This long poem offers a more mature Yurcic persona, now a single father, a working stiff in Albuquerque who pours concrete, who wears leather gloves, safety goggles, ear plugs, and sunblock in order to preserve himself for his children at least. The poem is also a fascinating reflection on his worker-writer practice and its transformative power in his life and in his community. He gives away his books to people—working stiffs like himself—who don’t read books. Odes to Anger is, as Simon Ortiz has written, “a working man’s blues” and, as such, I agree that they are blues heart-wrenchingly sung.

Sy Hoahwah is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and a poet with academic training; he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. His debut booklength collection bears the strange and intriguing title Velroy and the Madischie Mafia. Who is Velroy? A young Comanche leader of a gang of local toughs. Where is Madischie? It’s a neighborhood of Comanche Tribal Housing in southwestern Oklahoma. That’s all that a reader needs to know before Hoahwah spins out—in mostly narrative verse—a riveting tale of contemporary Native youth. The book opens with a lyric portrait of the crew:

Velroy de-jays the séance-turntables,
spinning black water,
scratching out full moons
with red and blue curves of hip hop.
In the dance club, bodies are a collection
of sunrise songs in reverse.

Corey wears her cat-eye contacts
and no panties.
There’s a bathroom-stall
eagle medicine with Ecstasy
placed on the tongue.
She handles the lace like a
Kiowa church hymn.

The Madischie Mafia seeks power within local subcultures in usual and not-so-usual ways. In the poem “White Clay” (p. 25) Stoney, who deals peyote, takes on a rival gang inside of a WalMart store and earns his stripes:

Weeks later, in Wal-Mart, we made
fun of this Mexican gang

who were getting their haircuts.
The fight started,

Stoney went off down the cereal
aisle to prepare himself.

At the right time, he charged
and turned the tide,

killing the one called Taco Tom

and the Wal-Mart door greeter.

After that Stoney became famous.

Hoahwah’s craft as a writer is evident throughout this collection. His economy of language and his line breaks are impressive. Often his images are wild: “Quilt-size stampedes of tarantulas scurried across the road” (p. 31); or simply funny, as in the poem “Moment at the 2004 Miss Indian U.S.A. Pageant with Velroy: A Man Who Never Sees a Pretty Girl That He Doesn’t Love Her a Little.” Yet after the surreal or comic relief, Hoahwah zeroes in, time and again, on the debilitating effects of mass culture, and capitalism, in his tribal case study. Velroy’s gang may be descendants of the Lords of the High Plains, but it’s a gang that can’t shoot straight. His Native American teens and thugs aren’t quite ready either for the management track in the tribe’s casinos. Today the Comanche Nation numbers only fourteen thousand members. Hoahwah’s unflinching and often humorous look at Native American youth in this endangered community is an example of how working-class poetry can be accommodated without sacrificing political rigor or artistic craft.

Blood Will Tell by Craig Paulenich reads like an elegy to an industrial way of American life that’s slipped into the past. The book’s cover photograph is of the poet’s immigrant Slovenian grandfather, circa 1904, posing with his work crew at a factory. Each man holds a glass of beer and toasts the viewer. Welcome to our world of steel, they seem to say—no more Eastern European clodhopping for us. Let the good times roll: National Malleable, Youngstown Sheet, and Tube, Republic Steel.

Paulenich is a steelworker’s son and a professor of English at Kent State University. He hails from the western Pennsylvania quadrant of the Youngstown metropolitan area about seventy-five miles north of Pittsburgh. The moniker “Steel Valley” refers to the valleys of the rivers Mahoning and Shenango. The region is post-industrial in the twenty-first century and yet is still home to six hundred thousand people, but the project of Paulenich’s book is to look back, sometimes with nostalgia and celebration, sometimes with disgust (“Scab”), but always with respect for family and the value of work during the region’s heyday (“Bring Your Face,” p. 51):

On Number Five cluster
knuckles and sideframes and men.
A twenty-ton ladle
labors along the pouring floor,
iron mother lumbering among the flasks.
It kisses each with a yellow tongue,
showers men with spittle of steel.
They do not flinch from their work,
do not straighten their hunched backs,
fingers spinning straw to gold.

Industrial work poems are followed by poems of family history and, in some cases, of European history. The AustroHungarian Empire, which expelled so many of its Slavic peasants who came to form the core of the industrial workforce in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is the subject of “How It Happened.” It is a remarkable prose poem about the assassination of the Archduke by Gavrilo Princip in 1914. There are also poems of nature here and the working-class sport of fishing (“Allegheny Quartet,” p. 53):

We hooked something one afternoon
that pulled us downstream,
cement block anchor and all.
It never surfaced, though
the bamboo pole dowsed it,
and we knew it was there.
The river requires faith in nothingness
until the fish breaks the windowpane
of water.

The best of Paulenich’s work savors and sings of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of uncles and dead grandmothers. He curses those who opposed them: “Drink to their impotence,” he writes in “Scab” (p. 39). In the final analysis, Paulenich is more than a chronicler of industrial history. His poems question the value of the work that we all do. He’s a skillful poet and one of great heart.

Bar Book by Julie Sheehan is an experimental and ambitious collection of service work poems. Written in a playful, postmodern key, it is a book-length narrative sequence about a barmaid in twenty-first century New York City. The volume is comprised of poems, some lyric, but also of woven snippets from other genres: barroom anecdotes, recipes for cocktails, jokes, clever diagrams, prose excerpts from other books, and—most interestingly (for my money)—footnotes. Mostly these serve as a dramatic device, an aside, revealing the backstory of the disintegration of her marriage.

We meet the waitress’s husband-to-be in a footnote of a poem in the first section, “Lunch Shift” (p. 14):

1. The first time I waited on him, he ordered a Suffering Bastard, and another, and another. Then, could he have the grilled vegetables on rice, only as a salad, and with the grain somehow transubstantiated into French fries at no extra cost? Could he? By closing time he was drinking Black Bush and joking that my tip would double if only I’d kiss him . . . . We married soon after.

By the eighth footnote our narrator is pregnant and “hoisting cases of Amstel Light and garbage cans of ice right up until the point when I realized the sous-chef was interrupting his fricassee to help” (p. 33). These tensions in her work life and personal life fracture in “Swing Shift,” the second section of the book. Here her marriage is on the rocks. The demands of the toddler at home and the bar patrons at night test the limits of the heroine’s work ethic.

In the concluding section, “Night Shift,” things go from bad to worse, as evidenced in the opening stanzas of the poem “Whiskey Sour” (pp. 77-78):

Called in sick. Stayed home
sick. Could be the oysters,
that asshole behind the bar

a glob of Tuesday’s special
on Wednesday’s fork,
par for a nonunion joint

Could be getting dumped
over coffee. She never gets
coffee, I should have known.

Divorce papers are served, eventually. Even the couple’s young child, Marguerite, weighs in with an opinion on the breakup of this young family. The narrative arc of Sheehan’s Bar Book, though predictable, is witty, readable, well executed, and mostly entertaining. Its lack of class-consciousness, feminist or otherwise, is a bit disappointing, however.

So the lack of revolutionary sentiment continues in America among workers and writers. But I applaud these poets, who all observe the dictum of William Carlos Williams to write about what one knows firsthand; who offer us an insider’s understanding of waitressing and steelmaking and concrete pouring and boxing and even the work of hooliganism; who employ a literary language that is direct and energetic and idiomatic. I applaud the light they shine on their local conditions, the beauty, the comedy, and the strangeness. I applaud the light.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008

 

 

Working-Class Self-Defense

Taking Back the Workers’ Law: How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights
By Ellen Dannin
Cornell University Press, 2006

Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families
By Wade Rathke
Berrett-Koehler, 2009

Reviewed by Marc Dann

Congress’s tabling of the Employee Free Choice Act is among the many troubling signs that the political process, even with Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, is not going to be sufficient to protect, let alone improve, the status of working Americans. In fact, the recent health care and financial services debates show that the grip of corporate lobbyism on Capitol Hill and the White House may be stronger than ever. And, as always, the voices of those who work for a paycheck continue to be drowned out by the overwhelming resources of American corporations. This imbalance is certain to become worse, as the long-term impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (which removes limits on corporate political spending) plays out. Two recent books outline strategies, outside of the traditional political process, that can protect workers from wage theft, consumer fraud, and corporate abuse of the legal system, while helping to provide working-class families with improved access to health care and the legal system.

In Taking Back the Workers’ Law: How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights, Ellen Dannin proposes a legal strategy, one that’s much like those employed by the NAACP during the civil rights movement, that challenges anti-worker precedent in the enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and other laws enacted to protect workers. Such well-intentioned legislation as the NLRA, the Davis-Bacon Act, and the Service Contract Act has shifted from operating as a sword designed to protect the working class to a corporate shield that prevents low-wage workers, and all those who seek collective action, from asserting their rights in the workplace.

Dannin’s book focuses on one consequence of the legal budget tightening that has resulted from the several-decades-long decline in union membership. Labor lawyers, concerned for their clients’ solvency, have been restrained from bringing cases (and making additional arguments within existing cases) that test some of the unintended consequences surrounding worker protection laws that current legal precedents have created. In some cases, such restraint takes the form of conceding issues that aren’t likely to be won until the appellate level. In others, it means foregoing the type of creative and innovative legal arguments that might end up changing such rigid precedents in the future.

Dannin also encourages lawyers, union leaders, and workers’ advocates to think out of the historical boxes when considering how to improve the law for workers. Lawyers representing unions and workers must renew their determination to test and challenge the contorted meanings behind the often ill-worded federal collective bargaining wage laws that some courts have applied. It is time for those of us who represent unions and workers afflicted by corporate wage theft to reread the statutes and reconceptualize arguments before submitting the same canned briefs that our firms have been filing for twenty years.

An important premise of Dannin’s book is that lawyers representing labor unions and individual workers have to look for opportunities (while still meeting their fiduciary duties to clients) to get off the defensive and advocate for more creative—and often more historically accurate—applications of existing federal and state labor laws, particularly the NLRA. She begins by encouraging us to reread the language of the statute, which can easily be read as unambiguously protecting the rights of workers. Dannin quotes from the NLRA itself:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment and other mutual aid or protection. (National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. 151)

For example, Dannin points out that while the “right” to replace striking workers is a product of decades of unfavorable judicial precedent, the words of the NLRA that ban the replacement of striking workers are unambiguous. Even labor leaders and lawyers who deal with the NLRA on a daily basis might be surprised to read Section 13 of that act: “Right to strike preserved: Nothing in this Act [subchapter], except as specifically provided for herein, shall be construed so as either to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike or to affect the limitations or qualifications on that right” (29 U.S. 163). The NLRA clearly says that the right to strike will not be interfered with or impeded or diminished in any way. It is virtually impossible to suggest that such statutory language allows companies to replace striking workers. Dannin persuasively argues that practitioners should go back to basics by persistently reminding judges of the NLRA’s (and other, similar statutes’) plain language.

Taking Back the Workers’ Law provides a playbook for a strategy—similar to that of the civil rights movement—to convince courts to apply the NLRA, and other laws designed to protect workers, in a way that actually protects workers. Dannin argues that lawyers representing workers and unions should identify the areas in which judges have genuine discretion—and then take on the exhausting task of convincing them to use it. Even in those cases where courts take the easy way out, she encourages practitioners, particularly National Labor Relations Board General Counsel lawyers, to insist on building factual records, using experts (such as economists) to support their claims. This is something the Obama administration could accomplish, totally under the radar screen of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other anti-worker advocacy groups.

In the civil rights movement, the NAACP and other civil rights advocates carefully chose incremental targets. Rather than directly challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s facially unconstitutional 1896 decision to allow racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) chose to challenge its application, assuming correctly that states would not allocate the resources to fund the “equal” standard of “separate but equal.” By exposing the real costs of segregation, the LDF influenced public opinion and created other forms of legal precedent, preventing the concept of separate but equal from ever becoming a practical reality. That, in turn, established a legal and societal environment in which the discriminatory Plessy precedent could be overturned.

The success of those who advocate for gun rights is a more recent (and more aggressive) example of how the willingness to bring seemingly hopeless cases and make unconventional arguments has—years later—resulted in significant changes to the law, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision to embrace the literal meaning of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller.

But Dannin doesn’t stop at offering strategies geared toward bringing the NLRA back to its originally intended purpose. She explores the idea of fashioning judicial precedent that recognizes a private employee’s property right in his or her job. This is not a stretch from the application of contract law to commercial transactions. A company with a verbal contract to purchase or sell widgets at a particular price has a court-protected property interest in its right to do so. It defies logic that a verbal agreement to provide labor at a particular rate of pay is not afforded the same degree of protection. Consider the extra layer of protection given to public employees who have constitutionally-protected property rights in their jobs. Public employees have leveraged the U.S. Constitution’s proscription against a due-process-free governmental seizure of personal property to gain better protection in the workplace. Why shouldn’t workers and their unions be able to convince the courts to turn the tables and allow workers to reasonably (and legally) rely on the promises of their employers?

An extension of what Dannin proposes is the encouragement and support of more entrepreneurial efforts by lawyers who file minimum wage and overtime suits under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Lawyers could use the Federal False Claims Act to enforce Davis-Bacon, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and other worker protection laws; and they could use regulatory enforcement tools to hold nonunion and cheating employers accountable.

All that said, it is also important to be cognizant of the short-term risks associated with novel cases and legal theories. Bringing the wrong case before the wrong court can easily exacerbate existing anti-worker legal precedent. Dannin should have offered some of the same admonitions (such as the importance of picking targets carefully) that Wade Rathke provides in Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families. Rathke draws on his forty-year experience with ACORN to propose several tough-love routes toward developing win-win partnerships with the business community to improve the conditions of the working class.

In Citizen Wealth, Rathke argues that working-class and poor Americans can build better lives for themselves by working outside of the political system. It didn’t take ACORN too long to realize what it faced within that system when, after ultimately false accusations about its operating practices were released, almost every politician in America disclaimed the organization. In Citizen Wealth, Rathke lauds the type of work that ACORN did best—blending the unrecognized economic power of workingclass and poor people with political and community organizing (unlike its role in administering government contracts for which it was widely criticized). He theorizes that the design of a new community organizing and activist playbook (much like Dannin’s proposed next-generation legal playbook) is central to any constructive reform. Focusing on creating alternative advocacy strategies, Rathke trumpets the potential use of already-available means that aren’t often considered part of the conventional toolbox.

Citizen Wealth encourages activists to mobilize outside of the union realm to improve the economic security of those at the bottom of the income scale. Arguing an unlikely perspective for a lifelong community and liberal political organizer, Rathke promotes the value of cherrypicking future battles by embracing the self-interested mindset of institutions and corporations that profit off of the poor and working class. He suggests that middleand lower-class workers’ economic empowerment is best secured by identifying competitive opportunities within particular industries, especially those that draw large profits from poor and middle-class consumers. He recommends targeting specific industries—from student loans to home lending to consumer goods—to find political and public relations mechanisms that can shift the balance of economic power far enough to benefit poor and working-class families, but not so far as to keep potentially cooperative business partners from responding favorably.

To illustrate this point, Rathke identifies several cases that brought attention to outrageous and unfair—even by anti-worker conservative definitions—acts of corporate conduct, like charging 372 percent interest on payday loans or engaging with stores, like Wal-Mart, that prey on the working class and poor. Organizers’ persistent determination led to resolutions that allowed everyone involved to save face and increased the wealth at the bottom of America’s economic ladder.

Rathke also encourages the labor movement to redefine itself as a broad movement, representing workers across companies and industries rather than viewing itself as merely a collection of bargaining units that serves workers in specific strata. He then proposes using the purchasing power of those workers. The AFL-CIO has begun to move in this direction by organizing non-members for political and grassroots purposes. A practical sign that this process will work is the fact that, in recent years, the AFL-CIO has only been able to balance its books as a result of revenue streaming in from union-branded credit cards.

ACORN’s (and other groups’) success in enacting state minimum wage laws was an important first step. Advocacy at the local political level and through public relations campaigns for living wage laws may be the next step. Some of Rathke’s proposals are new, but many have already been employed by efforts like the AFL-CIO’s Working America program. Many of these tactics have been staples of political and labor organizing for nearly a century. What Rathke adds to the mix is a keen understanding of how to identify opportunities and pick battles that make sense, both for the people whose interests he seeks to advance and for the targeted industries or institutions.

The new model for community organizing should harness the buying power of working-class and poor people (who spend virtually all of their earned income)—it’s vital that these consumers get to the table with the companies that serve them. Activists and worker organizations must convince such companies that it is more profitable to provide services and goods at a fair price, using transparent and ethical business practices, than it is to deceive and exploit this huge market of potential consumers. Rathke recounts his efforts to convince the thriving income tax refund advance industry to adopt more equitable measures for its mostly poor and working-class clientele.

Both books emphasize the importance of leveraging the obvious, but unrealized, promise of existing law. As Dannin looks to the NLRA, Rathke looks to the hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible for already-enacted programs—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—but are not availing themselves of this available government support. Rathke correctly points out that organizing resources should first be allocated toward making sure that eligible families take advantage of the fruits of battles already won. He proposes harnessing technology and modern marketing practices to make sure the benefits of such programs get to those who need it.

Both Citizen Wealth and Taking Back the Workers’ Law provide good starting points for figuring out how to enhance the quality of life of those below the median income line, now that the stark realization has set in that the political process—in and of itself—will not be enough. The labor leaders and community organizers of the future (and the lawyers who represent them) need to rethink their business models and incorporate more creative and entrepreneurial strategically-targeted tactics if they hope to advance the economic security of the people they serve.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008