Category: Fall 2011

Fall 2011

Access FULL Issue


From the Editorial Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books and the Arts

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

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

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

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


About Our Contributors


from the editorial team

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

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

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

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

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

Seizing the Moment

Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s
Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow
Verso, 2010

Reviewed by Matt Witt

Why have progressives been unable to take full advantage of historic opportunities—including the current economic transformation—to build a broad, sustained mass movement and win fundamental social change?

That’s the question provoked by Rebel Rank and File, a collection of essays by left-leaning academics and veteran labor activists. Their analysis concerns the largely forgotten workers’ rebellion that took place in America from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, but many of their thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

Many younger activists know that during what the authors call the “long 1970s” national movements fought for civil rights, women’s liberation, environmental protection, gay rights, and ending the Vietnam War. But few know about the revolt among working people that would make the pro-union protests in Wisconsin this year look like a church picnic by comparison.

As Robert Brenner and Judith Stein explain in their chapters about the economic changes that set the stage for the workers’ revolt, Americans who grew up during the expansion that followed World War II had high expectations for living well and being treated with respect. By the mid-1960s, the economic expansion was slowing, global competition was increasing, and workers’ expectations clashed sharply with a drive by corporations to maintain profits by imposing unreasonable workloads and limiting pay and benefits.

Many of the Rebel Rank and File essayists’ thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

It may be hard for those who didn’t live through it to imagine the long 1970s upsurge illustrated in Rebel Rank and File by countless examples such as these:

• From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, the number of illegal strikes (“wildcat” walkouts not authorized by workers’ unions) more than doubled, to about fourteen hundred per year. In industries such as auto, the increase was even greater. For example, wildcat strikes per year at Chrysler more than quadrupled during that period.

• In 1970 alone, there were 5,716 strikes (legal and illegal) involving more than three million workers—and one out of six union members in America. Examples include a 197-day strike by twenty-seven thousand construction workers in Kansas City, a sixty-four-day walkout by twentythree thousand rubber workers, a work stoppage by thirty-five thousand airline employees, and a strike by forty-two thousand taxi drivers in New York.

• More than two hundred thousand postal workers conducted an eight-day, illegal nationwide wildcat strike in which they had to overcome the deployment of thirty thousand National Guard troops.

• In 1972, young workers shut down the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio for three weeks over a doubling of assembly-line speed—a struggle that the twenty-nine-yearold local union president called “the Woodstock of the working man.”

• Farm workers in California struck the major vegetable growers despite a disagreement over strategy with their union president, Cesar Chavez, who wanted them to rely on a boycott campaign among urban liberals instead.

• Coal miners shut down most of the mines in West Virginia in a political strike protesting rising prices at the gasoline pumps, and independent truckers blockaded major highways throughout the Midwest and East Coast over the same issue.

• Four thousand nurses in northern California struck forty hospitals and clinics.

• Longshore workers on the East and Gulf Coasts struck for 116 days. Three years later, their counterparts on the West Coast struck for 123 days.

• Nearly fifty thousand telephone workers conducted an illegal statewide strike in New York.

During this same period, state and local public employees, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act passed in the 1930s, demanded the legal right to collective bargaining, often engaging in illegal strikes to force politicians to act. Young insurgents in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) established some of the first public sector collective bargaining precedents that were then built upon by activist teachers. In 1966 alone, there were at least fifty-four illegal strikes involving almost forty-five thousand teachers. As a result of this upsurge, the National Education Association (NEA) grew by more than one million members by the end of the 1970s, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) experienced a substantial increase as well.

Reform caucuses sprang up in many local and national unions as many entrenched leaders proved unable to respond to rank-and-file discontent. The conflict between old guard officials and courageous reformers drew national attention when Jock Yablonski, an executive board member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), challenged the reelection of UMWA President Tony Boyle in 1969. Boyle was a leading symbol of “business unionism” who explained to Congress after seventy-eight miners were killed at an unsafe mine in West Virginia: “The UMWA will not abridge the rights of mine operators in running the mines. We follow the judgment of the coal operators, right or wrong.” After a campaign in which votes were stolen and reformers threatened with violence, Yablonski and his wife and daughter were murdered as they lay sleeping in their home in Pennsylvania. Boyle was eventually convicted of ordering the murders, and the rank-and-file Miners for Democracy slate won a government-super vised rerun election—an historic victory that inspired reformers in other unions.

The most sustained reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, began during the long 1970s, preparing the way for the eventual election of a reformer as president in 1991 and the groundbreaking national strike by 180,000 United Parcel Service workers in 1997 that directly challenged corporations’ strategy of converting good full-time jobs into lowerpaid, part-time jobs without benefits.

As retired Communications Workers staffer Steve Early writes in the conclusion to Rebel Rank and File, the insurgents of the long 1970s laid the groundwork for change in some unions “through the institutions they created, the reforms they won within unions, the continued participation of many of their militants, and the continuing relevance of their ideas” (p. 358). The increased emphasis by some unions on helping nonunion workers organize, the AFL-CIO’s gradual shift in its positions on immigration and war, and some increase in diversity in the ranks and leadership all had their roots in the long 1970s rebellion.

But as researcher Aaron Brenner points out in his introduction, “The rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s did not in the end halt the employers’ offensive, transform the bureaucratic torpidity of the official labor movement, or reverse the downward trend in private sector union density” (p. xiv).

The reasons for the rebellion’s limited success are explored by a number of the contributors to this collection. Dan La Botz looks at rank-and-file movements in the Teamsters. Frank Bardacke traces the history of the United Farm Workers. Kieran Taylor considers radical black organizing in Detroit’s auto plants. Paul Nyden analyzes Miners for Democracy. Marjorie Murphy describes tensions between AFT leaders and black activists seeking community control of the schools, and Sue Cobble examines feminist movements that emerged among flight attendants, clerical workers, and household workers.

Across these analyses, three principal reasons emerge for the rebellion’s dissipation—all of which remain relevant today. The first has been explored thoroughly by many other analysts: what Brenner calls “the sheer power and ferocious opposition of capital” (p. xv) that moved jobs to the mostly nonunion South and abroad, undermined workers’ rights with sophisticated union-busting tactics, and financed the growth of a powerful right-wing political force to implement the corporate agenda.

The second argument also will be familiar to many readers. The rankand-file insurgency failed because, as Brenner puts it, “it could not overcome the bureaucratic business unionism that emerged during World War II” (p. xv). Union leaders’ desire “to preserve both the unions as institutions and their own positions at the helm of those institutions drove them to accommodate employers’ requirements for profits, on the one hand, and eliminate opposition from the membership, on the other” (p. xvi).

Reluctance to rock the boat contributed to “the unions’ failure to create and sustain an independent class-based political party, and their embrace of the Democratic Party instead,” Brenner writes. “This dependence on a party dominated by business and still heavily influenced by its largely racist and conservative Southern wing helps explain why the official labor movement failed to give much support to the mass social movements of the period, leaving both the labor and social movements weaker” (p. xvi).

The third reason for the rebellion’s limitations—the “debilitating weaknesses” of the rebellion itself—has not been written about as much, making it the special contribution of this volume to today’s strategy debates. One weakness was that reformers accepted the basic framework of labor relations and the political system. Thousands of rank-and-file workers, elected leaders, and union staff worked hard to make collective bargaining and the contract grievance procedure work better, to help a few more workers organize, and to elect Democrats who were marginally better than their opponents, but none of that challenged basic power relations in the workplace or within society at large.

A second weakness was that reformers accepted, in contributor Kim Moody’s words, the “fragmentation and disunity” built into the labor movement with its “maze of jurisdictional boundaries” (p. 144). Even well-developed reform movements within individual unions had little organizational contact or connection, so “the various forms of rebellion never became a single movement like the civil rights, women’s, or antiwar movements” (p. 141).

A third weakness, writes Brenner, was that “the rank-and-file struggles and groups that emerged in this period mostly failed to build material alliances with the era’s social movements” (p. xvii). They weren’t able to build a unified progressive movement that went beyond challenging a single employer or industry to consistently and effectively articulating a vision and fighting for broad social change.

Today, all but the richest Americans have lost economic security and vital public services as a result of unregulated greed on the part of Wall Street and other corporate special interests. The time is ripe for unions and other progressive institutions to offer a collective alternative vision and program. This would include production jobs that promote sustainability and reduced energy use; universal health care; public education that prepares students to think and to participate in society; affordable housing; efficient and fair public services; a foreign policy based on the mutual interests of working people around the world; and much more.

Some unions are involved in these larger issues in mostly token ways. But for the most part, unions’ human, financial, and organizational resources remain focused on negotiating contracts, handling grievances, fighting off budget cuts, and slowing the erosion of benefits—all understandable activity, but no more likely to reverse the corporate agenda than similar efforts in the long 1970s. This constricted definition of institutional purpose is not unique to unions, of course; many other public interest groups continue to conduct business as usual in their own silos, pursuing worthy but narrowly defined issues and trying to attract enough grant money to stay afloat.

The question that lingers, from the long 1970s through today, is where the leadership and resources will come from to build a united movement capable of winning progressive public policies comparable to or better than those enjoyed in most other industrialized countries. What should we do so that thirty years from now, a similar collection of authors, producing a book about our era, won’t write that in a time of potential upheaval, a lot of us worked really hard and with great sincerity for the particular organization, issue, leader, or party that was our focus, but we failed to build a united movement that could challenge Wall Street and global corporations and change the course of history?


THE EGYPTIAN UPRISING: The Mass Strike in the Time of Neoliberal Globalization

As the Arab Spring became an Arab Summer, the failure of other uprisings to replicate the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt has raised important questions about these increasingly impressive successes.

With this in mind, I want to scrutinize Egypt carefully, looking for the points of leverage that allowed and impelled the movement to oust Hosni Mubarak in only eighteen days of protest with low mortality counts, particularly in light of the much longer and far more lethal and less successful uprisings in other countries.

The outcome in Egypt was in large part a conjunction of several visible, but rarely scrutinized, aspects of the Egyptian political economy:

• Egypt is the poster child of neoliberal reform in the Middle East. Its rapid integration into globalized capitalism since 1990 made it vulnerable to a savvy mass movement that could exploit the pressure points in the current world system.

• Egypt’s recent history produced a legacy of working-class militancy and organization that provided a tangible foundation for the Tahrir Square movement.

• This combination of political-economic vulnerability and a savvy mass movement created a strategic bind for Egyptian and global capitalism in which abandoning Mubarak was the least dangerous exit from an intractable crisis.

What is notably absent from this list of key factors is the most visible feature of Egypt’s almost-peaceful regime change. The Egyptian armed forces, unlike their Libyan and Syrian counterparts,1 decided not to attempt to crush the rebellion; this forbearance may have been a key factor in enabling the protest to succeed.

However, making military forbearance a central explanatory factor in Egypt’s outcome doesn’t answer the causal question. It simply raises two related issues:

• Why was the military so restrained this time around, when—as Egyptian scholar Shashank Joshi put it—for fifty years Egypt’s army had “stood at the core of a repressive police state”?2

• Why couldn’t the government, with or without a military ready to turn its guns on the protesters, endure a few more days, weeks, or even months of protest, while waiting for the demonstrators to exhaust themselves, and—as the BBC put it—“have the whole thing fizzle out”?3 This waiting game has been applied with at least some success in Yemen.4

The answers to these questions began to appear at the start of the uprising on January 25, 2011.

The Initial Economic Impact

Once the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo attracted the world’s attention, the international media began recording and decrying what the BBC called the business “paralysis induced by the protests” and its “huge impact on the creaking economy” of Egypt.5 As Finance Minister Samir Radwan complained after fourteen days of protest, the economic situation was “very serious”6 and “the longer the stalemate continues, the more damaging it is.”7

It is important to note that this complaint was not registered with any regularity in the many other countries that were subsequently swept up into the Arab Spring. Even in Libya, where the uprising inspired a $30 rise in world oil prices, the New York Times coverage of the price increase carried this ironic headline: “Turmoil in Libya Poses Threat to Italy’s Economy.” No mention was made of the Libyan economy.8

Unlike comparably large rebellions in neighboring countries, the Tahrir Square uprising had the sledgehammer effect on the Egyptian economy of a general strike or—perhaps more appropriately—the impact and demeanor of the “mass strike” codified in Rosa Luxemburg’s classic analysis.9 Starting on January 25th, the first day of the protest, tourism—the largest industry in the country, which had just begun its high season—went into free fall.10 After two weeks, it had “ground to a halt,” leaving a large portion of its two million workers with reduced or nonexistent wages, many horses dead due to lack of food, and the few remaining tourists rattling around in empty hotels and resorting to viewing the pyramids on television.11

Since Egyptian sites attract more than a million visitors a month and account for at least 5 percent of the Egyptian economy,12 it is not surprising that news reports soon began mentioning revenue losses of up to $310 million per day.13 In an economy with an annual GDP of well over $200 billion, each day of disruptive protest produced a tangible and growing decline in the annual GDP. After two weeks of this ticking time bomb, Crédit Agricole, the largest banking group in France, lowered its growth estimate for the country’s economy by 32 percent.

The Neoliberal Contradiction

These devastating losses were initially concentrated in the tourist, hotel, and travel sectors of the Egyptian economy, industries dominated by huge multinational corporations and major Egyptian business groups. Tourism was also a showcase for the success of the neoliberal reforms engineered by the Mubarak regime starting in the early 1990s. During this twenty-year period marked by drastic privatization and rapid economic growth, previously state-owned enterprises were integrated into domestic and international business networks. The exemplar was the industrial empire of indicted billionaire Ahmed Ezz, built upon the acquisition of the state-owned steel industry in the 1990s. By 2010, he had achieved a virtual monopoly in supplying structural steel to international investors in tourism and related industries.14

With tourism as its core sector, the neoliberalized Egyptian economy was particularly vulnerable to the kinds of disruptions the Tahrir Square demonstrations created. One element in this vulnerability is the specific nature of globalized tourism. With vacationers from around the world planning relatively brief sojourns, the reality that sightseeing might (or would) be impractical leads quickly to the sort of cancellations that Egypt experienced. When this critical cash flow dies, vast expenses remain: hotels must still be heated, airline schedules must still be kept, and many employees—especially executives—must still be paid. In such a situation, even the largest companies can face a crisis quickly. In tourist-driven sectors, the situation is especially ominous; even a short hiatus can cancel the whole tourist season.

This fast-breaking crisis was made considerably more severe by the global integration of the Egyptian economy, especially the tourism-related industries which had been fueled by infusions of international capital eager to participate in what some called “the Egyptian miracle.”15 In the neoliberal universe, the costs of expansion are paid from current revenues, and therefore the crashing tourism industry deprived Egyptian and foreign capitalists of the cash flow needed to pay lenders, construction companies, and other economic components of their expanding domains. The disruptive protests therefore threatened much more than profits: they threatened the viability of various new projects, while raising the specter of loan defaults turning into widespread bankruptcy.

Very quickly then, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square undermined the financial standing of major capitalist interests inside and outside of Egypt. The most influential representatives of this business community were the captains of Egyptian business groups, recently nurtured by the privatization process, which gave them control of various domestic industries.16

These activists of the capitalist class might have urged the government to suppress the protests. This option, however, was precluded by the emergence of a mobilized civil society shedding thirty years of passivity. The protesters’ brave response to initial police attacks—in which repression was met by masses of new demonstrators pouring into the streets17—made it clear that brutal suppression could not quickly silence the protest. Once the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands, approaching millions, a huge and bloody suppression guaranteed longterm economic paralysis that could threaten the tourist season in 2012.

When Do Armies Become Pacifistic?

The paralysis of the tourism industry was, in itself, an economic time bomb that threatened the viability of the core of the Egyptian capitalist class. Recovery could only begin after a “return to normal life.”18

For President Mubarak the equation was somewhat different. His grasp on power was at stake, he was under the threat of prosecution and imprisonment, and he feared the confiscation of his estimated $70 billion financial empire. These factors must have made the economic calamity of suppression the lesser evil. It is therefore not surprising that, in the early days, Mubarak attempted to clear Tahrir Square with successive waves of violence involving police, security forces, and hired thugs.19 When these efforts failed, it became clear that only the army could possibly suppress the growing mass strike.

However, the traditionally compliant military leadership refused to order an attack. This refusal may have been based on the plausible fear that the enlisted personnel—faced with firing on demonstrators with whom they sympathized or to whom they were even related—would mutiny. Indeed, this may well have been decisive in Tunisia; though the same threat failed to deter military leaders in Libya and Syria.

But beyond the fear of mutiny, the Egyptian military had a unique set of interests that helped account for its reluctance to undertake a massive repression. Unlike any other military in the world, the Egyptian army’s peculiar development had made it a central institution in the neoliberal expansion underway since 1990. By 2008, it had become, as a U.S. diplomatic cable put it, a “quasi-commercial enterprise” at the hub of a “large network” of “military-owned companies often run by retired generals . . . particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel, and gasoline industries.”20

In other words, the military as an institution was itself integrated into the globalized Egyptian economy, including the ultra-vulnerable hotel industry. To offer just a few examples of its far-reaching interests, the following should be noted:

• The military’s involvement in the tourism industry involved major hotel holdings, vast Mediterranean beachfront properties under development as tourist destinations, and key construction companies involved in tourist-oriented road building and other projects.21

• Its ownership of a Jeep assembly plant, originally funded by U.S. military aid, had—over the years—expanded into the major Jeep dealership servicing armies and private citizens throughout the Middle East.

• A fleet of Gulfstream Jets, also originally part of U.S. military aid, had morphed into a charter airline, capturing a substantial share of travel by executives of Middle Eastern and European corporations.

• A U.S.-funded military hospital had developed into a regional tertiary-care center, accessible to prosperous patients who flew in from North African and other Middle Eastern countries.

These enterprises, and many others, gave the army a huge stake in minimizing the impact of the mass strike rippling outward from Tahrir Square. Moreover, the generals had much less to fear from a victory for the protesters, whose demands had few negative implications for the military’s role either in the economy or in Egyptian society more generally. Like the business elite, the military had little to gain and much to lose from forceful repression.

Why Did the Protest Maintain Its Momentum?

Left without the weapon of an all-out attack on the demonstrators, Mubarak and his shrinking coterie of institutional supporters might have tried to wait out the protest. This strategy was indeed attempted, and made visible by Mubarak’s promises to step down or initiate various reforms at future dates. After a few days of this waiting game, however, the regime collapsed.

The failure of these efforts was rooted in the pre-history of the Tahrir Square protests, especially the way they were embedded in the working-class institutions that had been developing for a dozen years. As neoliberalism spread across the Egyptian economy, workers’ material conditions deteriorated, while their latent institutional leverage grew. By 2004, these contradictory processes translated into increasingly viable organizations and growing strategic savvy.22 Despite laws that made only government-controlled unions legal, an “unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes” swept through the textile industry and into other sectors, continuing unabated for over two years.23 The epicenter of this movement was in the textile city of Mahalla where, in late 2006, mass rallies of workers faced down police that had been sent to disperse them. After decades of vicious repression of even modest demonstrations, the Mahalla workers reestablished for themselves and others “the right to assemble in their thousands to protest, debate, and organize.”24

Inspired by this victory, a new strike wave exploded, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. This movement was also centered in the textile industry, but soon established itself in the railroad, longshore, steel, and cement sectors (and among the all-important Suez Canal employees).25 They cast aside the state-controlled unions, forming their own, illegal organizations. Victories began to pile up: workers at a state-owned factory in Mahalla won a long-promised pay raise after only a five-day strike; workers in an Italian-owned cement factory quadrupled their salaries with only a four-day strike; thirty-five thousand tax assessors duplicated the cement workers’ victory, achieving a 325 percent pay raise; tobacco workers quickly won shorter hours, higher pay, and less oppressive working conditions; and Suez workers reversed the firing of two union activists, kicking off a sustained union drive in and around the industrial center of Suez.26

During 2007, the working-class movement widened its reach and appeal, taking up broader political demands while continuing trade union actions. Mass protests, multi-site strikes, petition campaigns, and the full range of public demonstrations marked the Egyptian political landscape for the first time in decades. On April 6, 2008, when Mahalla workers—always at the center of ferment—initiated a nationwide campaign to demand that the national government establish a minimum wage that would quadruple the pay of a large proportion of workers, their initial demonstration attracted tens of thousands of Mahalla residents. Their march became the target of police violence, leaving two protesters dead and many injured, a precursor of the attacks experienced in Tahrir Square.27 And, as with Tahrir Square, the police violence did not dampen the protest, but instead broadened it, inspiring—among other new protest organizations—the creation of the “April 6 Movement” made up of middle-class students who, thirty months later, would be credited by the international media as the “catalyst” of the Tahrir Square movement.28 The minimum-wage demand has now become a major national campaign in the post-Mubarak era.29

When the Mahalla textile workers stared down the police, they triggered an epidemic of civil disobedience. Their ability to do this was rooted in the structure of the industry. Once the textile factories were integrated into the larger networks of global capital, employers could not endure a long shutdown. Organized workers held the trump card as long as they were willing to violate the dictates of their state-controlled official leadership.

The textile workers neutralized the army, reduced the police to sporadic violence, and inspired workers and protesters in other sectors to test the endurance of their own institutional adversaries, often discovering that they could win the contest quickly.

The strike wave that began in 2006 established a triple legacy: a history of protest that could stare down the police without fear of overwhelming violence; the knowledge that sufficient leverage could force concessions from powerful institutions, public and corporate; and the organizational experience necessary to mobilize a large proportion of the productive workforce.

Strangling the Egyptian Economy

The Tahrir Square protesters quickly grasped the lessons of the labor insurgency, underscored by the visible collapse of the tourism industry and media calls for a “return to normal life.” Other signs of viable leverage included the capitulation of Vodafone, the major cell phone provider, one week into the protest. Told by the government to participate in a total “Internet blackout” aimed at depriving the protesters of critical communication capacity, the firm reopened after only a few days, apparently against the wishes of the Mubarak regime, delivering a visible victory to the protesters.30

The attack on the tourism industry spread quickly to collateral sectors. The transportation system, local and inter-city, became unreliable and sporadic due to a combination of shutdowns aimed at hampering the protests or because the protests interfered with normal operations. And such disruptions quickly rippled outward to many sectors of the economy, from banking to foreign trade.31

As the demonstrations grew, employees, customers, and suppliers of various businesses became ever more consumed with preparing for, participating in, or recovering from the latest protest, or protecting homes from looters and criminals after the government withdrew the police force from the streets.32 On major demonstration days especially, many people left work33 to join the protest after noon prayers,34 leaving their offices undermanned or closed completely.35 As long as the protests were sustained, the economy continued to stagnate, and business and political elites became ever more desperate for a solution to the crisis.

The Marriage of Political and Labor Protest

Rosa Luxemburg characterizes the most productive instances of the mass strike as those that combine broadbased political reforms with concrete economic demands.36 From the beginning of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, large numbers of workers—both previously active and new to the movement—had participated, but not as workers. After ten days, however, they began spreading the uprising into their workplaces, fulfilling Luxemburg’s model of combining political and economic protest.

On February 9th, reports of a widening wave of strikes in major industries began pouring in,37 as lawyers, medical workers, and other professionals joined the traditional union movement in expressing their grievances with street demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes.38 In a single day, as many as twenty thousand employees39—in textile factories, at newspapers and other media companies, and in government agencies, including the post office, sanitation workers, and bus drivers—began demanding economic concessions as well as the departure of Mubarak.40

Since the Suez Canal is second only to tourism as a source of income for the country, a sit-in there—involving up to six thousand workers—was particularly ominous. Though the protesters made no effort to close the canal, the threat to its operation was self-evident.41

A shutdown of the canal would have been both an Egyptian and a world calamity: a significant proportion of the globe’s oil flows through Suez, especially critical for energy-starved Europe. A substantial oil-economy slowdown threatened a possible renewal of the worldwide recession of 2008-2009, even as it would choke off the Egyptian government’s major source of revenue.

As if this weren’t enough, the demonstrators turned their attention to various government institutions, attempting to render them “nonfunctional.”42 The day after Mubarak’s third refusal to step down, protesters claimed that many regional capitals—including Suez, Mahalla, Mansoura, Ismailia, Port Said, and even Alexandria (the country’s major Mediterranean port)—were “free of the regime” (purged of Mubarak officials, statecontrolled communications, and the hated police and security forces). In Cairo, they surrounded the parliament, the national media, and other centers critical to the government. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known political blogger, told Democracy Now that the crowd “could continue to escalate, either by claiming more places or by actually moving inside these buildings, if the need comes.”43 With the economy choking to death, the demonstrators were moving to put a hammerlock on the political system itself.

By that point, the business elite began deserting the sinking ship of state. Several large companies took out ads in local newspapers “putting distance between themselves and the regime.”44 The London Guardian reported widespread “nervousness among the business community,” and that “a lot of people you might think are in bed with Mubarak have privately lost patience.”45

Any impulse Mubarak may have entertained to crush the movement with overwhelming firepower was vetoed by a growing array of military leaders, major businessmen, foreign investors, and foreign governments. They saw a far more appealing alternative solution.

Wael Ziada, head of research for a major Egyptian financial firm, spoke for the business and political class on February 11, 2011 when he told Guardian reporter Jack Shenker that:

Anti-government sentiment is not calming down, it is gaining momentum…This latest wave is putting a lot more pressure on not just the government but the entire regime; protesters have made their demands clear and there’s no rowing back now. Everything is going down one route. There are two or three scenarios, but all involve the same thing: Mubarak stepping down—and the business community is adjusting its expectations accordingly.46 

The next day, Mubarak resigned and left Cairo.

The Struggle Goes On

The mass strike in Egypt (like its predecessor in Tunisia) was an uprising, perhaps even an insurrection. But it was not ultimately a revolution. Its initial accomplishments—removing an autocrat and laying claim to a huge range of political rights—were only a small portion of the demands raised by the demonstrators. As the dust settled on this initial stage of what promised to be a lengthy process, the Egyptian economic and military establishments remained in place. Even Egypt’s weakened—but not overthrown—political establishment had survived, at least until the forthcoming elections and probably for the foreseeable future.47 Nevertheless, Mubarak’s departure left behind a highly experienced mass movement—made up of the Tahrir Square veterans, their compatriots in other cities, and the union movement—with a clear understanding that further change would depend as much on mass action as on institutional maneuvering.

The Egyptian working class has become the operational core of the ongoing effort.48 Days after the fall of Mubarak, the workers insisted on drastic labor reforms and at least a partial reversal of neoliberalization. Strikes by newly independent (but still unrecognized) unions “exploded” around the country, reraising old demands and issuing new ones for “wage increases, changes in management, and solutions to long-running disputes.” Textile mills, banks, airports, electrical facilities, and hospital services were hobbled. Even police and journalists struck for improved conditions and higher wages.49

Economic demands merged with the broader issues raised by the Tahrir Square demonstrators. The linchpin of the old April 6 Mahalla protest, a drastically increased national minimum wage, became a national campaign.50 When the provisional military government failed to respond, “protesters reiterated their demands to sack Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Cabinet, release political detainees, dismantle the State Security apparatus, and annul the emergency law.”51

In response, the provisional government enlisted the leadership of the Muslim Brothers to join a chorus of establishment figures calling for the mass movement “to quit protesting and return to work, for the sake of the economy.”52 When these appeals failed, the government followed up with a series of rhetorical concessions, including: a promise that Mubarak officials would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; a declaration that a commission on women’s rights would be established; the creation of a planning board to develop plans for one million low-cost housing units; a promise to deny visas to low-wage foreign workers imported to fill jobs traditionally held by Egyptians; and a wholesale revision of labor laws (including the critical demands for union recognition and a national minimum wage). In the meantime, the government promised an immediate 15 percent increase in all wages across the economy.53

None of these promises have yet been fulfilled, and their implementation is by no means guaranteed. But the struggle continues in the context of the new reality created by the Tahrir Square uprising. As long as the mass movement retains its ability to sustain targeted disruption, it can force the implementation of already-promised concessions and pursue new demands.



1. Re: the Libyan Army’s posture, see (for example) “Libyan Army ‘Marching to Cleanse Country,’” Sydney Morning Herald, March 14, 2011, available at www.smh.
2. Shashank Joshi, “Egypt Unrest: Military at Heart of Egyptian State,” BBC News, February 4, 2011, available at
3. “Egypt Unrest: Mubarak Moves to Restart Economy,” BBC News, February 5, 2011, available at world-us-canada-12372397.
4. Dexter Filkins, “Letter from Yemen: After the Uprising,” New Yorker, April 11, 2011, 39-51, available at www.newyorker. com/reporting/2011/04/11/110411fa_ fact_filkins?printable=true¤tPage= all.
5. BBC News, “Egypt Unrest: Mubarak Moves to Restart Economy.”
6. Ibid.
7. “Egypt’s Finance Minister Says ‘Coup Is Very Bad for Everybody,’” Iloubnan, February 11, 2011, available at politics/actualite/id/56160/titre/ Egypt’s-Finance-Minister-says-%22coupis-very-bad-for-everybody%22.
8. Rachel Donadio, “Turmoil in Libya Poses Threat to Italy’s Economy,” New York Times, March 5, 2011, available at www. europe/06italy.html?pagewanted=print.
9. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, translated by Patrick Lavin (Detroit: Marxist Educational Society of Detroit, 1925), chapters 1-2, available at luxemburg/1906/mass-strike.
10. Scott Mayerowitz, “Unrest Hits Egypt During High Tourist Season,”Associated Press, January 31, 2011, available at www. travel-news.
11. “Egypt’s Tourism Industry Grinds to a Halt,” ABC News (video), February 6, 2011, available at video/2011/02/08/3132845.htm.
12. Jennifer Conlin, “Options for Travelers Headed to Egypt,” New York Times, February 10, 2011, available at travel/10egypt-travel.html.
13. “Protests Cost Egypt $310 Million a Day,”Associated Press, February 4, 2011.
14. Kareem Fahim, Michael Slackman, and David Rohde, “Egypt’s Ire Turns to Confidant of Mubarak’s Son,” New York Times, February 6, 2011, available at www. middleeast/07corruption.html.
15. Matein Khalid, “Woes of Inflation and Succession in Egypt,” Khaleej Times, July 12, 2008, available at asp?xfile=data/opinion/2008/July/opinion_July46.xml§ion=opinion&col.
16. Fahim et al., “Egypt’s Ire Turns to Confidant of Mubarak’s Son.”
17. “Egyptian Voices from Tahrir Square,” Yahoo News, February 6, 2011, available at yblog_exclusive/20110206/ts_yblog_ exclusive/ egyptian-voices-from-tahrir-square.
18. Edmund Blair, “Army Asks Egyptians to Return to Normal Life,” Reuters, February 2, 2011, available at www. egypt-army-statement-idUSWEA517720110202.
19. Yahoo News, “Egyptian Voices from Tahrir Square.”
20. United States Embassy, Cairo, “Academics See the Military in Decline, but Retaining Strong Influence,” Diplomatic Communication to Department of State, Washington, D.C., ID #08CAIRO2091, September 23, 2008, released by Wikileaks, 2011, available at d=08CAIRO2091&hl=scobey+quasi.
21. Ibid.
22. See Joel Beinin, “Striking Egyptian Workers Fuel the Uprising After 10 Years of Labor Organizing,” Democracy Now (video), February 10, 2011, available at
23. Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order” (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Research and Information Project, March 25, 2007), available at www.
24. Anne Alexander, “Inside Egypt’s Mass Strikes,” International Socialism, March 31, 2008, available at uk/index.php4?id=428&issue=118.
25. Sameh Naguib, “Interview: Egypt’s Strike Wave,” International Socialism, September 28, 2007, available at uk/index.php4?id=363.
26. Beinin, “Striking Egyptian Workers”; Naguib, “Egypt’s Strike Wave”; Anne Alexander and Farah Koubaissy, “Women Were Braver than a Hundred Men,” Socialist Review, January 2008, available at www. php?articlenumber=10227.
27. Beinin, “Striking Egyptian Workers”; Joel Beinin, “Egyptian Workers Demand a Living Wage,” Foreign Policy, May 12, 2010, available at http://mideast.foreignpolicy. com/posts/2010/05/12/ egyptian_workers_demand_a_living_ wage. 28. Jijo Jacob, “What is Egypt’s April 6 movement?” International Business Times, February 1, 2011, available at
29. Michelle Chen, “Beyond the Media Radar, Egypt’s Arab Spring Pushes Forth,” In These Times, May 5, 2011, available at entry/7269/ beyond_the_media_radar_egypts_arab_ spring_pushes_forth.
30. Raphael G. Satter, “Vodafone: Egypt ‘Forced’ Us to Send Text Messages,” Associated Press, February 3, 2011, available at headline/2011/02/03-7.
31. “Egypt in Turmoil—the Practical and Legal Implications for Trade and Shipping,” Reed Smith Client Alerts, February 4, 2011, available at publications/search_publications.cfm?widCall1=customWidgets. content_view_1&cit_id=30379.
32. Jack Shenker, “Egypt’s Economy Suffers as Strikes Intensify,” Guardian, February 11, 2011, available at egypt-economy-suffers-strikes-intensify.
33. Tom Perry and Jonathan Wright, “Cairo Protesters Slam ‘Stubborn’ Mubarak,” Pretoria News, February 8, 2011, available at cairo-protesters-slam-stubbornmubarak-1.1023324.
34. Richard Spencer, Colin Freeman, and Alex Spillius, “Egypt Crisis: Cairo Braced for Conflict after Friday Prayers,” Telegraph, February 3, 2011, available at Egypt-crisis-Cairo-braced-for-conflictafter-Friday-prayers.html.
35. Ibid.
36. Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 13-19, 29-35.
37. Beinin,“Striking Egyptian Workers.”
38. Shenker, “Egypt’s Economy Suffers.”
39. “Workers Boost Egypt Protests,” Al-Jazeera (English) online, February 9, 2011, available at http://english.aljazeera. net/news/middleeast/2011/02/20112913546831171.html.
40. Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Labor Actions in Egypt Boost Protests,” New York Times, February 9, 2011, available at www.nytimes. com/2011/02/10/world/ middleeast/10egypt.html.
41. Ibid.
42. Shenker, “Egypt’s Economy Suffers”; Al Jazeera (English) online, “Workers Boost Egypt Protests.”
43. Alaa Abd El Fattah, “We Are Not Going Home Until This Regime Leaves,” Democracy Now (video), February 11, 2011, available at www.democracynow. org/2011/2/11/ we_are_not_going_home_until.
44. Shenker, “Egypt’s Economy Suffers.”
45. Ibid. 46. Ibid.
47. Joshua Stacher, “Egypt Without Mubarak” (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Research and Information Project, April 7, 2011), available at www.merip. org/mero/mero040711.
48. Kareem Fahim, “Freed by Egypt’s Revolt, Workers Press Demands,” New York Times, February 16, 2011, available at middleeast/17labor. html?_r=1&pagewanted=print.
49. Ibid.
50. Ibid.
51. Rania Al Malky, “Egypt’s Battle for Democracy,” Daily News Egypt, February 25, 2011, available at
52. Stacher, “Egypt Without Mubarak.” 53. Ammar Shikhani, “Egyptian Prime Minister: Economy Moves in Right Direction,” Global Arab Network, March 8, 2011, available at egyptian-prime-minister-economymoves-in-right-direction.html.



State and Municipal Alternatives to Austerity

The pitched battle in Wisconsin last winter over the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers was only the most dramatic expression of a struggle that is ongoing throughout the country over the future of state and local governments. For generations now, state and local governments have been the most important providers in the United States of education, health care, public safety, and other vital forms of social support. State and local governments are also, collectively, the largest employer in the country, responsible for creating thirty million jobs, either directly or through purchasing supplies or services from private businesses. This is 20 percent of the U.S. workforce. The stakes in this battle are obviously huge.

The budget crisis caused by the 2008- 2009 Wall Street crash and the ensuing Great Recession is driving the dramatic transformation of state and local government policy. The recession blew a massive hole in state and municipal government finances. Tax receipts— particularly income and sales taxes—dropped severely along with household incomes, spending, and real estate values. Meanwhile, demand for public services, such as Medicaid and heating oil assistance, rose automatically as the recession created worsening circumstances for tens of millions of people.

Leaders of the hard Republican right have eagerly pounced on this Wall Street-induced crisis as a trigger for their agenda to radically downsize state and local governments by cutting taxes, slashing wages and benefits for public workers, and even selling off state-owned facilities, including state prisons. This movement, of course, includes Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his financial backers, the notorious billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. But even preceding the Wisconsin battles, Republican luminaries Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich had already begun to single out public school teachers, nurses, and other state and local government employees for attack, writing in the Los Angeles Times last January that “The lucrative pay and benefits packages that government employee unions have received from obliging politicians over the years are perhaps the most significant hurdles for many states trying to restore fiscal health.”1

Still, the far right is not alone in advancing various sorts of austerity agendas for states and municipalities. Thus, Jerry Brown, the recently reinstalled (after a twenty-eight-year hiatus) Democratic governor of California is proposing to cut state spending by about $13 billion, or nearly 17 percent of the state’s current budget. 2 Moreover, Brown’s proposal is widely perceived as representing the outer limits of a politically possible progressive agenda, even in Democratic Party-dominated California. What gives Brown’s proposal its progressive sheen is that he also supports tax increases to close the other half of an overall $26 billion budget deficit, as opposed to closing the full $26 billion gap through spending cuts.

The fiscal crisis facing states and municipalities is real. However, the dismal austerity options being advanced by Democrats and Republicans alike are by no means the only solutions. We propose here some alternative approaches that can accomplish three things: 1) Close the budget gaps in the short term; 2) Promote a sustainable recovery over the next few years; and 3) Over the long term, help insulate state and local government budgets from the effects of recessions. We develop these proposals after first taking a fuller measure of the causes and severity of the crisis.

How Severe Is the Crisis?

Due to the sharp falls in incomes, spending, and property values tied to the recession, tax revenues from the two main sources for state governments—income and sales taxes—declined precipitously, and even local property taxes, after expanding continuously for decades, went flat in 2010. By 2010, state tax revenues (adjusted for inflation and population growth) had fallen by fully 13 percent relative to where they were in 2007. By comparison, revenues fell only 7 percent following the 2001 recession. Even during the 1981-1982 recession, the most severe post-World War II downturn prior to 2008-2009, the decline in state tax revenues was less than 2 percent.3 State tax collections did start growing again in early 2010. But as of the most recent figures for the last three months of 2010, they still remain 4.2 percent below their level for the last three months of 2006, before the recession hit.

The recession also meant that people’s needs for state services rose sharply. Thus, four million more people will receive health insurance through Medicaid in 2012 relative to 2008, as people have lost their jobs and employers have cancelled coverage.4 The number of people seeking assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) rose by 53 percent between 2008 and 2011, from 5.8 to 8.9 million households.5 That is, about 8 percent of all households are now seeking this assistance.

The net result of the collapse of tax revenues and the rising demand for state services generated budgetary shortfalls of $191 billion in 2010, $130 billion in 2011, and a projected $112 billion in 2012. The 2011 shortfall is equal to 19 percent of all state spending commitments.6

What Didn’t Cause the Crisis

It is obvious that the Great Recession caused the state and local government budget crisis. But this has not stopped numerous pundits from claiming otherwise. They assert that the real underlying problems are excessive government spending and/or outlandish public sector pay scales. Thus, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore write in their introduction to the 2009 Annual Report of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), “The real problem facing states is the fundamental issue of overspending taxpayers’ dollars.”7 Yet, in fact, state and local spending has remained remarkably stable for decades, without having ever produced anything close to the severe budget crisis tied to the 2008- 2009 recession. Thus, in 2006, just prior to the recession, spending by state and local governments was 22.2 percent of total personal income, only slightly higher than the average figure over the mid-1990s of 21.5 percent.8 State and local government spending levels do fluctuate on a short-term basis as the overall economy alternates between phases of growth and recession. Over the longer term, state and local governments do also face rising cost pressures to cover health care expenses. But this is an economy-wide problem, with the federal government and private businesses experiencing similar pressures resulting from the excessive administrative burdens of the U.S. health-care system relative to those of other advanced economies.

It is also untrue that state and local government workers are overpaid, despite widespread claims to the contrary. One widely cited 2009 Forbes magazine cover article reported that “State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33 percent higher than the private sector’s $19… Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42 percent.”9

What such figures fail to reflect is that state and local government workers are older and substantially better educated than private sector workers. Forbes is therefore comparing apples to oranges. As John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently showed, when state and local government employees are matched up to private sector workers of the same age and educational levels, the state and local government workers throughout the U.S. actually earn, on average, about 4 percent less than their privatesector counterparts.10 Moreover, the results of Schmitt’s apples-to-apples comparison are fully consistent with numerous studies examining this same question over the past twenty years.

Where to Go from Here?

Today, there are viable alternatives to continuing down the austerity path. We present here six possible approaches for managing the crisis, both in the short and long run.

Federal Government Support

The best single short-term solution is for the federal government to provide funds for state and local governments to cover their recession-induced budget deficits. The simple reason is that the federal government is able to borrow to cover its operating deficits caused by recessions, while the state and local governments are not permitted to do so. The February 2009 Obama stimulus plan—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—along with supplemental funds for Medicaid did provide significant support, covering about one-third of the total budget gap generated by the recession.11 But that did still leave two-thirds that needed to be filled by other means. ARRA funds have now also run out and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will almost certainly block further such initiatives. This means that the states and municipalities must seek out solutions that they can pursue on their own.

Raise Taxes on the Rich

In 2010, roughly 15 percent of the budget gap was covered by twenty-nine states raising taxes and fees for services.12 In general, raising taxes during a recession is not good policy, since what is needed most during recessions is for spending to increase from both the public and private sectors. This requires people to have more money in their pockets, not less. But if tax revenues must be raised to help fill deepening budgetary holes, the sensible way to proceed is to focus these increases on wealthier households. Their ability to absorb such increases is obviously the strongest, which means that, unlike other households, they are not likely to cut back significantly on spending in response to the tax hikes. In fact, ten states—New York, Illinois, Connecticut, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Delaware—have raised taxes progressively in some fashion in 2009 and 2010.13

Of course, the wealthy do not want to pay higher taxes. But over the economic expansion and Wall Street bubble years of 2002-2007, the average incomes of the richest 1 percent of households rose by about 10 percent per year, more than three times that for all households. As such, the richest 1 percent received fully 65 percent of all household income growth between 2002 and 2007.14 Moreover, poll numbers throughout the country consistently find that sizable majorities would prefer to raise taxes on affluent households than enact further budget cuts. Thus, a Marist Poll of New York State residents found that 64 percent—including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—favored keeping that state’s higher tax brackets on millionaires.

Such increases could also make a large difference.15 For example, in Connecticut, a 2 percent surcharge on incomes above $200,000—which would apply only to the richest 5 percent of households—would generate $900 million.16 This would eliminate one-third of the anticipated state budget shortfall for 2012.

One charge against raising state taxes in a progressive way is that it will encourage the wealthy to pick up and leave the states that impose higher taxes. But research on this question shows that this has not happened in the past and is not likely to occur in the future.17 We can see why by considering the 2 percent surcharge on Connecticut’s richest 5 percent of households. This would reduce the average after-tax income for these households—i.e., money they have available to spend or save— from $440,000 to $431,000.18 In other words, it would hardly make a dent in the living standards of these households, much less push them to relocate out of state.

Pressure Banks to Stop Hoarding Cash

One of the biggest single barriers to a robust recovery is that, as of the most recent June 2011 figures, private banks are sitting on a $1.4 trillion hoard of cash reserves. This is nearly 10 percent of total U.S. GDP and more than double the entire military budget. It’s true that a major cause of the financial crash was that the banks let their cash reserves dwindle to dangerously low levels during the financial bubble years. But the current $1.4 trillion in reserves is a good $1.2 trillion higher than necessary to provide an adequate safety cushion. Channeling perhaps $800 billion into new investments would provide a huge boost, given that this figure is equal to roughly half of total investment spending in the U.S. in 2010. Moreover, the banks obtained most of their $1.4 trillion in reserves almost for free, because the Federal Reserve has held short-term interest rates at nearly zero for the past 2 ½ years.

State and local governments have no control over Federal Reserve policy. But they can exercise leverage over private banks because they are themselves, in most cases, among the most prized customers for any individual bank. This is because private financial institutions handle about $8 trillion a year of state and local government funds in various ways. This includes their spending accounts as well as their pension funds and social insurance trust funds.19 The basic policy approach here would be straightforward: in selecting the financial institutions to which they will award business, state and local governments should give strong preferences to banks that are aggressively committed to injecting credit into local communities to finance job-generating investments. Crucially, such initiatives will entail no new government outlays and can be implemented quickly, in most cases through an administrative decision rather than requiring the passage of new legislation.

Some states have already begun taking steps in this direction. Massachusetts is the most notable thus far, with an initial program to move $100 million in state deposits to banks with a strong small business loan making record.20 The initial reaction by the Massachusetts banks has been so responsive that the state now anticipates expanding beyond the initial $100 million threshold.

An argument that is frequently made against such measures is that the private bankers would be making loans for job-generating investments on their own, without requiring government inducements, except that conditions in the market are still too risky and demand for credit from private investors therefore remains weak. But state and local governments do also have the power to reduce these perceptions of excessive market risk, through expanding their existing loan guarantee programs. If managed properly, loan guarantees are a low-cost strategy for state and local governments to significantly reduce the risks of new private investment projects financed by bank lending. The loan guarantees can therefore provide the carrot of reduced risk, while the banks would also face the stick of governments threatening to withdraw business if the banks keep sitting on their cash hoards.

Put Rainy Day Funds to Work

State and local governments have the ability to accumulate budget surpluses during economic expansions, which can then be drawn down during recessions as “rainy day funds.” The rainy day funds thus enable governments to maintain relatively stable spending levels even as their tax revenues fall during a recession. When well managed, state and municipal rainy day funds can operate similar to deficit spending at the federal government level as a tool for fighting recessions.

Some states have used rainy day funds effectively. Thus, in 2006, near the peak of the last economic expansion, the states (overall) were holding a total of $70 billion in rainy day funds, equal to nearly 12 percent of total spending for that year.21 As appropriate during the recession, most states have been drawing down these funds. As of 2010, reserves were at 2.4 percent of total annual spending. Indeed, some states have fully depleted their funds. But other states do still hold significant reserves which they should use now to both avoid further budget cuts and to spur recovery. For example, New York still has well above half of its pre-recession reserve levels available for spending, totaling $1.2 billion.22 However, in New York as well as other states, the use of rainy day funds remains highly restricted. This limits their effectiveness during recessions—precisely when they are supposed to be mobilized to help counter a state’s downturn.

The oil-producing states were able to accumulate the largest reserves during the last expansion, but they have been unwilling to draw on these funds during the recession. Texas is the most egregious case in point. The state currently is still holding $9 billion in rainy day funds, while it faces a projected $14 billion budget deficit for 2012. However, Governor Rick Perry and the Texas legislature are willing to spend only $3 billion.23 They are choosing instead to enact severe spending cuts in basic education and health care programs rather than mobilize more of their rainy day funds to avoid such cuts.

Push Infrastructure Investments Forward

While state and local governments are mostly prohibited from borrowing to cover operating deficits during a recession, they are permitted to borrow for new capital projects. This includes school buildings and hospitals as well as new infrastructure investments such as roads, bridges, and ports. Indeed, a recession, when the costs of supplies and interest rates are lower, is a favorable time to begin such projects. However, the typical pattern is that state and local governments reduce their capital spending during a recession.

This has been the pattern over the most recent recession. Overall, state-level infrastructure spending did actually increase—specifically between mid-2008 and mid-2010—but only by 1.4 percent, from $62.2 to $63 billion.24 However, even this slight increase was due to the additional federal government funds provided by the 2009 ARRA stimulus program. But to create an overall stimulus capable of significantly boosting the economy out of recession, it is counterproductive for the state and local governments to cut their capital spending budgets while the federal government is increasing its support. Rather, state and local governments should also be borrowing more to help finance new infrastructure projects as an anti-recession measure.

Eliminate Business Giveaways

Over the past four decades, states and municipalities in the U.S. have competed, sometimes intensively, among themselves to attract businesses to locate within their borders. The main weapon in this competition has been various types of tax incentives. These efforts have achieved some minor successes in their primary aim of attracting businesses to their location. But these gains have been achieved almost entirely on a zero-sum basis—that is, by reducing job creation in neighboring states and localities that have not offered the same incentives.25 These programs have also brought a declining tax base for the state or municipality offering these incentives, which in turn has meant declining budgets for state-level public investment or similar worthwhile activities. One recent estimate sets the revenue losses at more than $70 billion per year.26 That is, eliminating these incentive programs would itself close roughly half the expected budgetary shortfall for 2012. Of course, it is too late for any such initiatives to help close the existing state budget gaps. Moreover, some states, such as Wisconsin and Maine, are considering new rounds of corporate giveaways as a means of pushing their economies out of the recession and onto a strong growth trajectory at the expense of their neighboring states. But the fact is, for all the states, taking a cooperative approach to advancing new tax, spending, and regulatory measures will yield far more favorable results for all.

Austerity is Not The Solution

The fundamental matter at play here does not concern any specific policy initiative but rather the establishment of what is the real problem that any given set of policy initiatives is trying to solve. Is the goal to manage the budget crises for state and local governments in ways that maintain the integrity of educational, health care, and public safety systems, as well as a decent social safety net; and to perhaps even create conditions under which such programs can expand and improve once the economy has moved into a sustainable recovery? Or is the crisis merely a pretext for dismantling state and local governments as viable institutions supporting their communities? There is little doubt where Wisconsin Governor Walker, Newt Gingrich, the Koch Brothers, and many others of their ilk stand on this matter. But for those who are committed to maintaining decent public schools, hospitals, and the many other programs operated by state and local governments, we have tried to show that there is no reason to surrender to any version of an austerity agenda—neither that of Scott Walker in Wisconsin nor the Jerry Brown scenario in California. Austerity is not a solution, and viable alternatives are at hand.



1. Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, “Better off Bankrupt,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2011, available at la-oe-gingrich-bankruptcy-20110127.
2. Governor Brown’s budget proposal is available at http://documents.latimes. com/jerry-brown-proposed-budget-2010- 2011.
3. Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau state and local government tax revenue data. The data are available at govs/qtax.
4. Michael Leachman, Erica Williams, and Nicholas Johnson, Governors are Proposing Further Deep Cuts in Services, Likely Harming Their Economies (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 21, 2011), available at www. cfm?fa=view&id=3389.
5. LIHEAP program usage statistics are from the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, available at www. 02-08PressReleaseEnergyAssistance.pdf.
6. Elizabeth McNichol, Phil Oliff, and Nicholas Johnson, States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 9, 2011), available at index.cfm?fa=view&id=711.
7. The ALEC report is available at www. REPORT_full.pdf.
8. PERI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
9. Stephanie Fitch, “Gilt-Edged Pensions,” Forbes, February 16, 2009, available at forbes/2009/0216/078.html.
10. John Schmitt, The Wage Penalty for State and Local Government Employees (Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2010), available at wage-penalty-state-local-gov-employees.
11. Between FY2009 and FY2011, the cumulative state-level budget shortfalls were $468 billion. Over that same period, the federal aid to states in the ARRA legislation was $158 billion. See McNichol et al., States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact.
12. National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO),“Fiscal Survey of the States,” Fall 2010, Table 21, available at C6q1M3kxaEY%3d&tabid=38.
13. Ibid. and NASBO, “Fiscal Survey of the States,” Fall 2009, Table A-11.
14. Emmanuel Saez, Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Berkeley: University of California, Department of Economics, July 17, 2010), available at ~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2008.pdf.
15. The Marist Poll results are described at http://maristpoll.marist. edu/131-nys-budget-down-the-deficitsay-voters.
16. PERI analysis of IRS income and tax distribution data by state. IRS data available at article/0,,id=171535,00.html.
17. This research is reviewed in Jeff Thompson, The Impact of Taxes on Migration in New England (Amherst, MA: Political Economy Research Institute, April 2011), available at www.peri.umass. edu/236/hash/a26b58a25398181f04eb- 843ca7c32171/publication/458.
18. PERI analysis of IRS income and tax statistics, described in Jeff Thompson, Prioritizing Approaches to Economic Development in New England, Table 16 updated (Amherst, MA: Political Economy Research Institute, August 2010), available at d2221409d39332894e8e2e0c72/ publication/422.
19. The resources held by state and local governments in commercial banks include total expenditures, employee pension fund assets, and assets in Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, and other state-administered social insurance programs.
20. The Massachusetts program is described at sbbpPR05052011.pdf.
21. Elizabeth McNichol and Kwame Boadi, Why and How States Should Strengthen Their Rainy Day Funds: Recession Highlighted Importance of Funds and Need for Improvements (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 3, 2011), available at www.cbpp. org/files/2-3-11sfp.pdf.
22. NASBO, “Fiscal Survey of the States,” Fall 2010, Table 4, available at ttp://
23. See “Texas to Use $3.2 Billion from Rainy Day Funds,” Associated Press, March 15, 2011, available at$3.2-billion-from-rainy-day-funds.
24. PERI analysis of NASBO data, published in NASBO, “State Expenditure Report: FY2009,” available at w%3d&tabid=38.
25. The research literature on tax incentives and economic development policy is reviewed in Thompson, Prioritizing Approaches to Economic Development in New England.
26. Kenneth P. Thomas, Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).


THE EXCLUDED WORKERS CONGRESS: Reimagining the Right to Organize

Even before the recent assault on the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin and across the Midwest, millions of workers in the United States were excluded from the basic human right to organize. Whether it’s due to policy or practice, they cannot organize without facing retaliation, bargain collectively to transform their workplace conditions, or access basic labor protections. In short, millions of workers have been robbed of their dignity.

These “excluded workers” include: more than a million and a half farm workers; nearly two million domestic workers; millions of public and private sector workers in the twenty-two states that have right-to-work laws; nearly three million tipped workers in the food service industries; hundreds of thousands of guest workers and day laborers; hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers; hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people; and hundreds of thousands of workfare workers.

The majority of excluded workers are workers of color, including African-Americans and immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. These workers are concentrated in three areas: the low-wage service industries of the “global cities” across the United States (i.e., taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and domestic workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago); urban communities with high rates of unemployment; and in regions and industries with historically weak labor protections (i.e., public sector workers in the Southern right-to-work states and farm workers in rural areas across the country). While the underground nature of their work makes it difficult to determine the proportion of excluded workers in the broader working class, we do know that low-wage service industries are growing at a faster rate than other sectors of the labor market,1 and the labor rights of workers in many other sectors are coming under attack.

Some of these workers are excluded through explicit policies—farm workers and domestic workers are cited as exceptions to the right to organize, while restaurant workers are defined as “tipped workers” who are excluded from minimum wage laws. Taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors. Since they’re explicitly excluded from the legal definition of “employee,” they’re also excluded from labor protections (an exclusion that also impacts workfare workers who are defined by law as “welfare recipients” and not as workers with the right to organize). The laws in the twenty-two right-to-work states (concentrated in the South and the Midwest) explicitly limit the ability of workers—particularly in the public sector—to organize and collectively bargain.

Many other workers are excluded from labor rights and protections by practice— either because existing laws are not enforced or because these workers’ precarious economic and legal status makes it dangerous for them to claim even their guaranteed rights. Workers in other sectors—i.e., those who were once incarcerated—are often excluded from access to work because of discriminatory policies. Whether these exclusions are explicit or implicit, they undercut workers’ ability to organize. This leads to exploitative and degrading working conditions, including poverty-level wages, frequent wage theft, long hours without the benefit of overtime pay, racial discrimination and sexual harassment on the job, and unsafe workplaces, in turn, lowering the floor for all workers.

Contemporary exclusions developed as a result of two converged social dynamics: the legacy of racial exclusions in U.S. labor law (i.e., the exclusion of farm workers and domestic workers from the National Labor Relations Act as a concession to 1930s segregationist Southern senators); and the impact of globalization, which has rendered much of current labor law structurally ineffectual in addressing the changed dynamics of workplaces worldwide. Fundamental political and economic power shifts have transformed working conditions in the United States and around the world. These shifts—the decline of the U.S. manufacturing economy, the development of a U.S. service economy, and the rise of international migration—have created new and challenging conditions for workers.

While the traditional labor movement has long reflected on the severe limitations of collective bargaining rights—as expressed in the National Labor Relations Act—the recent assaults on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers demonstrate that the broader trajectory of labor law is toward the exclusion of workers from even these inadequate protections. Workers need a new framework for the right to organize.

The Rise of a New Workers’ Movement

Over the past two decades, nearly two hundred independent worker centers have emerged in these historically excluded sectors. At first, these organizations were primarily seen as hopeful upstarts, but many have now grown and matured into well-respected organizations with sizable membership bases and significant victories under their belts. Some of these worker centers have affiliated into national sector-based networks (i.e., the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network). Others have expanded into national membership organizations (i.e., Restaurant Opportunities Centers United).

Independent worker organizations have waged a number of inspiring campaigns over the past twenty years, and each provides an inspiring story of triumph against all odds. These hard-won victories suggest that we’re inching closer to the emergence of a new, twenty-first-century framework for labor rights and worker power. For example:

• The successful passage of New York State’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has inspired the introduction of similar legislation in California and the beginnings of similar campaigns in other states. This Bill of Rights not only challenges the decades-long exclusion of domestic workers from basic labor protections—through its provision of paid sick days, the Bill of Rights goes beyond governmental mediation of “collective bargaining” between workers and employers to suggest a model of state-mandated “collective standards” for all workers.

• The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance waged a dramatic confrontation with immigration authorities, and they were able to win full legalization for guest workers who had been trafficked from India by the Signal corporation. This victory demonstrates that contemporary worker struggles should move beyond narrow workplace battles and civil rights frameworks to incorporate a broader human rights framework that can address the full range of international dynamics impacting workers’ lives.

• The HOPE Coalition tenaciously confronted a North Carolina law that bars public employees from collective bargaining. Although it has not been able to defeat these policies yet, this fight demonstrates that the labor movement’s long-term battle to end right-to-work policies in the South is far from over. The multiracial composition of this latest struggle also confirms that the vibrancy that’s now mostly attributed to immigrant worker struggles is alive and well among African-American and white workers.

These positive developments demonstrate excluded workers’ potential to help rejuvenate and transform the broader labor movement. But they also suggest that a new, transformative labor rights framework must not only bring an end to explicit exclusions that intentionally restrict worker rights—labor laws must be reshaped to reflect twenty-first-century workplace structures and workforce composition.

The Formation of the Excluded Workers Congress

During the June 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network brought together nine sectors of excluded workers—domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guest workers, workers from Southern right-to-work states, workfare workers, and formerly incarcerated workers—to found the Excluded Workers Congress. It was formed to bring “the human right to organize” to life, to win a new era of rights and policies for workers, and to transform the U.S. labor movement.

The current frameworks for labor law— collective bargaining and worker organizing—were developed in the 1920s and 1930s. In response to a changing economy and changing working conditions, excluded workers are now leading transformative campaigns and building the foundation for a new workers’ movement. By coming together to build the Excluded Workers Congress, these organizations hope to form a shared basis of power that will allow them to work with established unions to strengthen the labor movement, reform federal labor law, and enable all workers to exercise their human right to organize.

During the first gathering of the Excluded Workers Congress, more than four hundred workers engaged in hours of storytelling to educate each other about conditions within their respective sectors and their innovative campaigns to expand labor protections and build worker power. Building on the foundation of unity established in Detroit, representatives from each of the nine sectors came together in Washington, D.C. in October 2010 to develop a shared analysis, a vision, and some collective strategies. During this meeting, the members of the Excluded Workers Congress formalized their federation, made a commitment to engage in shared campaign work, and defined the group’s mission—to bring about a modern-day expansion of all workers’ right to organize (with a recognition that contemporary worker struggles must be international in character).

In addition to developing an interim structure and planning for collaborative campaign work, the Excluded Workers Congress took advantage of its time in the capital to network with the Department of Labor (DOL), members of Congress, and national labor leaders. Member organizations convened congressional hearings and held an extended meeting with the DOL to alert officials about working conditions in their industries, share strategies for improving those conditions, and discuss the possibility of establishing an Excluded Workers Task Force within the DOL.

The Excluded Workers Congress also engaged in strategic dialogue with high-ranking representatives from the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, as it began to establish itself as a meaningful force in national labor politics. The Excluded Workers Congress met again in May 2011 in New York City, this time bringing excluded workers together with U.S. labor leaders and worker organizers from Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The 2011 conference opened with the AFL-CIO signing two historic partnership agreements—one with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the other with the National Guestworkers’ Alliance. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka heralded the agreements.

Looking Ahead

At the D.C. gathering, the Excluded Workers Congress identified several broad areas for shared work.

Collaborative Campaign Work

Spearheaded by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, state and federal campaigns will seek to raise and index the minimum wage. These campaigns will include workers who are currently excluded from minimum wage protections, including tipped workers, home health care workers, and agricultural workers.

The POWER Act campaign—initiated by the National Guestworkers’ Alliance—will lobby for federal legislation that would grant legal status to victims of serious labor violations or those who pursue workplace-based claims. The POWER Act would shield undocumented workers from the threat of retaliation.

Strengthening and Expanding the Labor Movement

Several of the Excluded Workers Congress’s principal alliances—including the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Guestworkers’ Alliance, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—have now developed formal partnerships with the AFL-CIO, demonstrating a shared commitment to rebuilding the labor movement. While the specifics of these partnership agreements are still being worked out, the partnerships provide a foundation for the development of concrete solidarity work that will allow the labor movement and the independent workers’ movement to bring their different strengths to the table. The AFL-CIO has already successfully supported National Domestic Workers Alliance efforts to develop basic international labor standards for the domestic work industry in the ILO Convention.

Developing Twenty-First-Century Frameworks for the Right to Organize

In March 2011, the Excluded Workers Congress convened a series of scholar-organizer roundtables at an International Excluded Workers Congress to help flesh out what a twenty-first-century model of worker rights should look like. The roundtables underscored the insufficiency of developing a new “right to organize” framework—the Excluded Workers Congress must simultaneously reconceptualize a new approach to worker power that reflects current political-economic conditions.2 Relationships with labor movements from around the world—including organizers working to establish a floor wage for garment workers throughout Asia, activists from South Africa working to build an international network of informal workers, and labor leaders from Latin America working to form international connections between workers along the food chain—will enable the Excluded Workers Congress to learn about innovative organizing models and hone its vision. More importantly, these relationships help lay the groundwork for the long-term emergence of an international worker movement with the power to respond to the transnational dynamics of the global economy.

Turning Hope Into Reality

In an era where a worker’s right to collectively organize and exercise power in the workplace is increasingly coming under attack, the future of a workers’ movement rests on an alliance between the traditional labor movement and the organizations representing sectors that have historically been excluded from labor rights and protections. The Excluded Workers Congress is determined to turn that hope into a reality.



1. A Year of Unbalanced Growth: Industries, Wages, and the First 12 Months of Job Growth after the Great Recession (New York: National Employment Law Project, February 2011), available at www.
2. “Excluded Workers: What is Victory?” Organizing Upgrade, May 2011, available at excluded-workers-what-is-victory.




*The authors would like to thank the Steering Committee of the Excluded Workers Congress ( for its contributions to this article.

OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM: Books and Films You May Have Missed


A Dream in Polar Fog
By Yuri Rytkheu
Archipelago, 2005

In this touching story, a Canadian sailor is stranded in the northernmost tip of Siberia and gradually becomes part of a native community there. As he learns more about the natives’ relationship with the natural world and their tradition of helping each other survive in the harsh Arctic climate, he begins to question the cultural values and future of his own civilization.


Civil Rights History from the Ground Up
Edited by Emilye Crosby
University of Georgia, 2011

This powerful anthology challenges established myths about the civil rights movement—that it started with an unplanned impulse by Rosa Parks to sit in the front of a bus, that it was the product of Martin Luther King’s vision, that it took place only in the South, and so on. Contributors also examine debates within the movement over sexism, nonviolence, and other issues.


Crossing Zero
By Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
City Lights, 2011

Journalists who have been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than twenty years explain the history of American policy toward those countries. Bush’s policies in the region were counterproductive, they argue, and Obama’s are even more so.


Drowning in Oil
By Loren C. Steffy
McGraw-Hill, 2011

A columnist for the Houston Chronicle does an excellent job of both exposing BP’s “reckless pursuit of profit” that preceded the oil disaster off the Gulf Coast and giving voice to some of the oil workers and communities who have been affected.


Failure by Design
By Josh Bivens
Cornell University, 2011

Economic inequality is growing in America as a result of public policy choices influenced by corporate lobbyists. Working people are paying an “inequality tax” as these policies drive down their incomes and savings.


Fields of Resistance
By Silvia Giagnoni
Haymarket, 2011

A writer provides an engaging personal account of seven months spent in Immokalee, Florida, “tomato capital of the world,” during a campaign to pressure Burger King to increase migrant farmworkers’ pay. Through the stories of people she met, Giagnoni explores the human reality behind issues such as immigration, workers’ rights, corporate accountability, the real cost of our food, and more.


Green Is the New Red
By Will Potter
City Lights, 2011

Since 9/11, corporate interests have intensified a drive to have civil disobedience and other methods of protest labeled “domestic terrorism” under state and federal laws. Much of this coordinated effort has initially been focused on those who have engaged in direct action on environmental and animal abuse issues. The author does not approve of all tactics these activists have used, but he makes a strong case that new restrictions, drastic penalties, and selective prosecution represent a revival of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Once new precedents are established, he argues, other types of protesters against corporate abuses will be targeted as well.


The Sacred White Turkey
By Frances Washburn
University of Nebraska, 2010

A Lakota medicine woman and her granddaughter find a white turkey on their doorstep on Easter morning. Is it a spiritual sign, or just an unusual bird? So begins this entertaining novel about one native community.


There Is Power in a Union
By Philip Dray
Doubleday, 2011

This 674-page history of industrial unions in the U.S. provides a useful introductory overview by compiling information from many other accounts in one place. Covering nearly two hundred years in one volume, its weakness is that it only skims the surface of many events and barely mentions the rise of public employee unionism, rankand-file reform movements in a number of major unions, and many other key topics.


When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home
By Paula J. Caplan
MIT Press, 2011

When veterans who make it home from Afghanistan or Iraq have psychological issues, the standard response is to prescribe therapy and psychiatric drugs. A Harvard-based psychologist argues that in many cases what they are experiencing is a healthy reaction to an inhumane experience, and that therapy and drugs isolate them at a time when they most need honest communication with loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers. She gives detailed, practical advice for non-veterans about how to ask the right questions and how to listen, both so veterans will be able to share what they’ve been through and so the society that sent them into battle will have a better understanding of the wars’ realities.


Work Song
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead, 2010

In the tall tale style of the Old West, this novel describes Butte, Montana, right after World War I. A newcomer to town unwillingly gets caught up in the ongoing battle between Anaconda Copper Co. and its union miners.


Working the Night Shift
By Reena Patel
Stanford University, 2010

Call centers in India are staffed primarily by women who work at night to accommodate the time difference with the U.S. and other countries. This academic study explores the social impacts.



Araya, 2011

A recently restored, stunningly visual, black-and-white documentary from 1959 shows the daily lives of families on a remote peninsula in Venezuela, where for four hundred fifty years the only way to make a living besides catching fish was to collect, stack, and ship salt from the sea.


Benavides Born, 2011

A Mexican-American student on a girls’ high school powerlifting team desperately tries to earn an athletic scholarship so she can afford to go to the University of Texas. This feature film shows how poverty and racism limit the options she and her friends and family members have despite all their best efforts.


Budrus, 2009

When Israel began constructing a barbed wire “separation barrier” on Palestinian land, olive trees that villagers depended upon for their livelihood were uprooted. As this documentary shows, Palestinians decided to mount a campaign of nonviolent resistance, blocking bulldozers with their bodies. In a break from cultural traditions, women took an active part in the demonstrations. The protesters were joined by hundreds of supporters from Israel. Israel eventually was forced to reroute some of the barrier so it would not intrude on Palestinian land, but the dispute continues.


Hot Coffee, 2011

Americans are losing the right to get justice in the courts as a result of a coordinated campaign by corporate interests and their political allies. This exceptional film tells four stories about individuals who exemplify these attacks on our legal rights. One is the woman who sued McDonald’s after being severely burned by coffee heated to an unsafe temperature—a case many Americans have heard of and few understand. Another is a female employee of Halliburton in Iraq who was raped by fellow employees in a male barracks where she was required to live. She was blocked from suing until recently because of a requirement in her employment contract that she abide by mandatory arbitration (with the arbitrator chosen by the company). Such requirements have become standard not only in many workplaces but in the fine print most Americans sign when they acquire consumer products such as phones and credit cards


How to Die in Oregon, 2010

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, terminally ill people can get prescriptions for lethal medications so they control the timing and circumstances of their death. This documentary tells the intimate stories of several people who have used this law, including a fifty-four-year-old woman with incurable liver cancer.


Human Terrain, 2009

When the U.S. military realized around 2005 that it was losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it brought in sociologists and anthropologists to teach American soldiers about local customs. The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to training programs where young U.S. recruits do roleplaying and use video simulators to practice encounters they are likely to have overseas. The film also features recordings of military units and their embedded social scientists engaged in field operations in Afghanistan. Social scientists who have chosen not to assist the military argue in the film that the wars are misguided to begin with and that programs to encourage soldiers to grow moustaches so they will look more like the locals really miss the point.


Inside Job, 2010

The 2011 Academy Award winner for best documentary explains what Wall Street did that destroyed jobs, put millions out of their homes, and led to massive cuts in schools and other public services. There are a few flaws—it spends too much time on how academic and administration economists are bought off and too little on corporations’ attacks on workers and their unions, for example. But overall it provides a dramatic and understandable account that makes it a great organizing tool.


Louder Than a Bomb, 2010

Six hundred students from sixty high schools in Chicago participate in the largest youth poetry slam in the world. This documentary follows four of the teams from the beginning of the school year through the competition and shows what they learn about themselves and about students from other parts of the city.


SoLa, 2011

An hour-long documentary shows massive destruction of wetlands along the Gulf Coast to serve the interests of the oil and gas industry, and how that greatly increased the damage from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.


The Big Uneasy, 2010

A good companion film to SoLa, this documentary chronicles the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers that allowed Katrina to destroy whole neighborhoods in New Orleans.


Triangle, 2011

This film reminds us what happens when there are no public safeguards that all corporations must follow. It marks the one hundredth anniversary of the killing of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York. Ways to prevent such deaths—sprinklers; fire drills; adequate exits, stairways, and elevators—were known at the time but were not required and therefore not provided by the factory owners (who collected their insurance money after the slaughter and resumed business as usual). The deaths led to a new understanding of the need for safety regulations in New York and eventually in the nation as a whole. An unusual feature of this documentary is that virtually all the narration and commentary is provided by descendants of Triangle workers and managers.


Waste Land, 2010

In this Academy Award-nominated documentary, a successful Brazilian artist living in New York goes home to create a major art project in collaboration with garbage pickers who pull recyclable materials out of the world’s largest dump. The film explores many questions about class, sustainability, personal transformation, and the nature of art.


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






Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden
By Major Jackson

When you have forgotten (to bring into
Play that fragrant morsel of rhetoric,
Crisp as autumnal air), when you
Have forgotten, say, sunlit corners, brick
Full of skyline, rowhomes, smokestacks,
Billboards, littered rooftops & wondered
What bread wrappers reflect of our hunger,

When you have forgotten wide-brimmed hats,
Sunday back-seat leather rides & church,
The doorlock like a silver cane, the broad backs
Swaying or the great moan deep churning,
& the shimmer flick of flat sticks, the lurch
Forward, skip, hands up Aileyesque drop,
When you have forgotten the meaningful bop,

Hustlers and their care-what-may, blasé
Ballet and flight, when you have forgotten
Scruffy yards, miniature escapes, the way
Laundry lines strung up sag like shortened
Smiles, when you have forgotten the Fish Man
Barking his catch in inches up the street
“I’ve got porgies. I’ve got trout. Feeesh

Man,” or his scoop and chain scale,
His belief in shad and amberjack; when
You have forgotten Ajax and tin pails,
Blue crystals frothing on marble front
Steps Saturday mornings, or the garden
Of old men playing checkers, the curbs
White-washed like two lines out to the burbs,

Or the hopscotch squares painted new
In the street, the pitter-patter of feet
Landing on rhymes. “How do you
Like the weather, girls? All in together, girls,
January, February, March, April…”
The jump ropes’ portentous looming,
Their great, aching love blooming.

When you have forgotten packs of grape-
Flavored Now & Laters, the squares
Of sugar flattening on the tongue, the elation
You felt reaching into the corner-store jar,
Grasping a handful of Blow Pops, candy bars
With names you didn’t recognize but came
To learn. All the turf battles. All the war games.

When you have forgotten popsicle stick
Races along the curb and hydrant fights,
Then, retrieve this letter from your stack
I’ve sent by clairvoyant post & read by light,
For it brought me as much longing and delight.
This week’s Father’s Day; I’ve a long ride to Philly.
I’ll give this to Gramps, then head to Black Lily

—from Hoops (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006

Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest
By B.H. Fairchild

In his fifth year the son, deep in the backseat
of his father’s Ford and the mysterium
of time, holds time in memory with words,
night, this night, on the way to a stalled rig south
of Kiowa Creek where the plains wind stacks
the skeletons of weeds on barbed-wire fences
and rattles the battered DeKalb sign to make
the child think of time in its passing, of death.

Cattle stare at flat-bed haulers gunning clumps
of black smoke and lugging damaged drill pipe
up the gullied, mud-hollowed road. Road, this
road. Roustabouts shouting from the crow’s nest
float like Ascension angels on a ring of lights.
Chokecherries gouge the purpled sky, cloudswags
running the moon under, and starlight
rains across the Ford’s blue hood. Blue, this blue.

Later, where black flies haunt the mud tank,
the boy walks along the pipe rack dragging
a stick across the hollow ends to make a kind
of music, and the creek throbs with frog songs,
locusts, the rasp of tree limbs blown and scattered.
The great horse people, his father, these sounds,
these shapes saved from time’s dark creek as the car
moves across the moving earth: world, this world.

—from Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower
Midwest (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)

ON THE CONTRARY: A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment

We live in a dangerous time when large corporations and the super-rich are restructuring the nation’s economy. There is a crisis for most Americans, but not for the elites who dominate the political economy of the country. Unfortunately, organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.

Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. But despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members, leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement, unions are just big enough—and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure—to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.

Campaigns challenging corporate power can’t be held in check by institutions with too much to lose. Unions with hundreds of millions in assets and collective bargaining agreements covering millions of workers won’t risk their treasuries and contracts by engaging in large-scale sit-ins, occupations, and other forms of non-violent civil disobedience that must inevitably overcome court injunctions and political pressures.

This isn’t an abstract or theoretical problem; we are already living it every day:

• In city after city, a project labor agreement—or a collective bargaining agreement covering a small percentage of a corporation’s total workforce—can make a union want to veto any demonstrations and actions that might upset its relationship with a particular employer.

• A recent demonstration in the Northeast— against corporations that damage the economy by not paying taxes—ended up taking place in an isolated area, where nobody could see it, because a number of unions feared that a more visible site would offend an employer.

• In Ohio, a set of unions actively worked against a recent multi-state mobilization at a JP Morgan Chase shareholder meeting. The unions said the planned demonstrations seemed “too anti-corporate,” with the potential to turn off independents and buoy conservative fundraising efforts. They feared all of this would undercut the passage of a ballot initiative to regain bargaining rights for public employees.

And what was so anti-corporate? In the case of the Ohio demonstrations it was the demand that JP Morgan and other big banks stop foreclosures, pay their fair share in taxes, and renegotiate toxic loans that are bankrupting cities and states. These issues are critical to building a broader movement that engages tens of millions of people from across the political spectrum. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to connect efforts to destroy public employee unions with the broader economic problems caused by the Big Banks (and the resulting loss of jobs and revenue in Ohio), the unions unnecessarily chose a narrow path that weakens them in the short and long term.

If our goal is to offend no one, we’re in danger of doing next to nothing. It is understandable that unions don’t want to risk their own relationships with certain employers or politicians. But that shouldn’t restrain a broader effort to hold those corporations and politicians accountable. Unions continue to act as though they represent 30 percent of the private sector workforce and that bargaining for those workers drives wages for the whole economy. Decisions are made based on how to protect the 7 percent of private sector workers who are unionized (instead of the 93 percent of private sector workers who aren’t in unions). The last thirty years prove that this strategy doesn’t make sense for the remaining unionized workers or the overwhelming majority of workers who aren’t in unions.

As the stakes are raised and the intensity of campaigns increases, these problems will be magnified. The solution isn’t to try to defy institutional gravity by convincing people to do something they aren’t willing to do. Instead, we need a different model. We need to develop a movement-based organizational model that taps into and builds on union resources—both financial and organizational—but denies unions’ “veto power” over campaign activities. Unions should support, help set up, launch, finance, and ultimately engage directly in campaigns based on their comfort level—but they shouldn’t have the ability to control or shut down activity because of legal risk or pressure from an employer or politician.

If our strategy is to turn the tables so workers and regular people feel more secure, hopeful, and powerful—and so the elite feels less sure of its control over the country’s politics and the economy—we can’t tamp down momentum when someone wins a victory or gets pressured to back off. As a practical matter, if unions cede control and are not able to exercise veto rights, they are able to resist political and employer pressure. Taking it a step further, if unions have contributed money in advance to community organizations, they lose the ability to shut down activity later. Far from being a threat to winning smaller fights and victories, open-ended escalating activity that can’t be shut down is exactly what will force powerful corporate interests to make real concessions. This doesn’t mean individual unions or organizations shouldn’t make settlements that arise in the context of bigger battles; they just can’t shut down the broader fight.

With the SEIU’s 2006 janitors’ strike in Houston, we built incredible momentum—a Houston-based mini-movement—by tapping into issues that went way beyond the specificities of the strike. We won the strike because it was seen as part of a bigger fight that scared the hell out of Houston’s business elite. If we had taken it a step further—engaging and supporting other organizations with the capacity to expand the fight beyond janitors—the movement would have grown (instead of having dissipated) when the strike settled.

So what sort of movement-based model might address these issues? What does recent activity suggest about how to take advantage of the resources that only labor can offer, without allowing those resources to restrain the civil disobedience, radicalism, and creativity necessary to challenge the corporate elite? One example is what happened in Madison, where the work of the teaching assistants and students was critical to launching, sustaining, and expanding the campaign. Along with community groups, they led the occupation of the state capitol building, which helped define and propel the campaign. The student and community activity inspired unions to take bold actions that probably never would have been launched if the decisions had been made at a traditional labor coalition table.

A movement-based model should welcome the energy, creativity, and nimbleness of existing and emerging social justice groups, newly activated students, as well as people and organizations steeped in non-violent direct action. While it is not yet clear when (or from where) the organizations and people that can potentially lead and drive such a movement will emerge, we do know that more people, communities, and organizations have been impacted and politically marginalized by the reorganization of the economy than at any time in recent history.

We need to take a leap of faith. During past surges of activity in the civil rights, peace, women’s, environmental, and gay rights movements, new leaders, formations, and organizations emerged, accomplishing things that previously seemed impossible. By avoiding the pitfalls that stifle the creation of movements, we can help generate conditions that increase the likelihood of new activists, leaders, and organizations propelling us forward.

Protesters spearheaded more than eighty street blockings, lobby occupations, flash mobs, and other creative activities in the days leading up to the twenty-thousand-person May 12th New York City march to Make Big Banks and Millionaires Pay. This has led to discussions, among a number of unions, about the potential of engaging both their members and the public around a different set of tactics organized to address a broader set of issues.

Instead of a one-day march, corporate players—including all the major banks, the Koch brothers, and key private equity and hedge fund operators—were confronted by angry citizens on a daily basis. The march broke other patterns as well. Groups gathered in ten different locations, according to their focus on a particular constituency or sector damaged by economic reorganization (i.e., there were groups centered around students, housing, transportation, human services, education, people facing foreclosure, the unemployed, and those at risk of losing health care and other critical services). We saw this march as something bigger than a labor rally—it painted a big picture about who is responsible for the economic crises our families face.

Instead of listening to hours of speeches, each group hosted a teach-in before taking to the streets and converging into one giant march that shut down much of the Wall Street area. Organizers combined the mass turnout of union members with the direct-action approaches—i.e., lobby occupations and street blockings—that had been used earlier in the week. This series of marches and actions offers a window into how to think about a movement model of activism that builds on, but isn’t limited to, what unions are comfortable with, while creating conditions that expand their comfort zone.

The Make Big Banks and Millionaires Pay approach illustrates that there may be three concrete ways to resolve the contradiction of “We can’t do it with unions and we can’t do it without them”: Prolonging protest. We need to commit ourselves to the idea that intensive escalating activities—designed to challenge and disrupt unfair corporate abuses of power—are needed. These activities shouldn’t be limited to one-day marches or rallies—they must go on for weeks, growing in size and intensity like the protests in Madison.

Weeks of creative direct action and activities. Just as unions escalate from one-day symbolic strikes to longer strikes that have a real impact, so must we expand from one-day marches and demonstrations to weeks of creative direct action and activities. There are two potentially overlapping ways to do this. The first is to build these kinds of longer and more involved protests around students and community groups that have the energy and willingness to take time off from their day-to-day lives to engage in more intense activity (which includes the risk of getting arrested). Secondly, unions must revive (and reinvent) the strike. Strikes consistently bring thousands of people together in full-time action mode. During Justice for Janitors strikes (i.e., in Boston in 2002 and in Miami in 2006) workers became full-time activists and organizers. Instead of just picketing, the strikers led escalating actions with a creative intensity that disrupted the status quo and led to political crises for building owners and their political friends. Imagine combining traditional, short-term strikes with larger-scale, ongoing community mobilization efforts that continued (and escalated) activities on broader issues even as the strike settled.

Labor support without control. Unions need to help finance and launch these kinds of activities with the explicit agreement that they won’t control or call them off because of outside pressures. There are national and local organizations with bases that can move thousands of people; but they lack the financial resources to do so on a sustained basis.


Unions need to explore creative ways for their members to organize, mobilize around, and engage in these activities. While it will be unnerving for many unions to allow and encourage other organizations to engage and mobilize their members, this is a key ingredient to scaling up activism. Unions could encourage their members to join partner-community organizations, with the intent of sharing membership lists and enabling community groups to recruit and mobilize union members. Many community-based organizations fighting local battles like foreclosure are not tied to collective bargaining relationships—so they’re in a stronger position to organize and lead the escalating activities that are needed to challenge corporate economic and political power.

The mass mobilizations we’ve witnessed in Wisconsin, Ohio, on Wall Street, and across the country can’t just be a flash in the pan. Ordinary Americans understand that the economy is rigged against them. They are angry, and ready to mobilize and engage in ways we haven’t seen in generations. Unions can help make this happen, and their greatest contribution may be to support—not control—a new wave of direct action and mass activity. Only then can we rebalance power and start winning again.




IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR: A Brief History of Opposition to Public Sector Unionism

There is nothing new about opposition to public sector unionism. It has been a feature of American life for over a hundred years. But in some ways, the current wave of anti-unionism is a departure. Three different eras of opposition to public sector unionism, including the current one, have been distinguished by distinct core arguments against collective bargaining for public employees.

From the early 1900s through the 1960s, opposition to public sector unionism largely rested on the idea that it undercut the sovereignty of government. Unions of government employees were unusual during this period, though non-union associations of government workers—which engaged in lobbying, advocacy, and fraternal activities—were fairly common. When government workers tried to engage in private sector-type unionism, they ran into fierce opposition. The 1919 Boston police strike—which occurred in the middle of the post-World War I “red scare” and an extraordinary year-long series of militant strikes in virtually every industry—showed how far public employers would go to block public sector militancy and the political gains to be made in doing so. The Boston police commissioner did not object when police officers joined a local, independent association. But when they affiliated their group with the AFL, in effect claiming the same rights and status as private sector workers, he suspended nineteen officers, precipitating a walkout. Governor Calvin Coolidge, in the name of defending “the sovereignty of Massachusetts,” fired all the strikers, brought in state troops to patrol the city, and recruited a new police force from demobilized soldiers. He rode his strike-breaking into the 1920 Republican vice-presidential nomination and ultimately to the White House.

Many liberals shared Coolidge’s belief that government employees should not be allowed to unionize, or at least not engage in private sector-style unionism. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a letter to the head of a federal employees group, proclaimed that:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service…The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or bind the employer…The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives. 

This is the essence of the sovereignty argument against public sector unionism—that collective bargaining undercuts the inherent power of the state as a sovereign representative of the people, and therefore is anti-democratic.

To this day, a few states, clustered in the South, completely ban collective bargaining by state and local government workers, while others limit it in various ways, often resting on the same state sovereignty argument Coolidge and Roosevelt made many decades ago. But over time, in much of the country, sovereignty objections to public sector unionism diminished. The vast expansion of the labor movement in the mid-twentieth century made everyone, including political authorities, more accustomed to the central presence of unions in American life.

Starting in the late 1950s, a set of ideas and laws emerged which created in the public sector a variation of unionism that granted workers different, and usually reduced, rights compared to private employees.

In most of the country, when public sector workers won the right to unionize, they did so under rules and systems designed, in part, to address the sovereignty issue. In 1959, Wisconsin—with its long history of progressive labor legislation and a recent increase in Democratic power—passed the first state law granting the right to public sector collective bargaining after a campaign by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The law exempted public safety workers—the Boston police strike cast a long shadow—and forbid government employees from striking. In New York City, which pioneered municipal unionism, public employee strikes were illegal, too, though they nonetheless occurred. The federal government, which allowed collective bargaining beginning in 1962, likewise banned strikes. Some government employers also forbid collective bargaining over public policy, again addressing the sovereignty issue. In New York City, for example, after a 1965 strike when social workers demanded and won improved benefits for their clients, the city government specifically forbid bargaining over the level of services city agencies delivered, diminishing the possibilities for alliances between service providers and service users.

Such arrangements lessened concern over government worker unionism. When, in 1970, postal workers engaged in the largest public worker strike in U.S. history, Richard Nixon called out the National Guard but also allowed Secretary of Labor George Shultz to engage in collective bargaining to end the walkout. Reflecting the new consensus on public sector unionism (at least outside of the South), and the still formidable power of the labor movement, Congress endorsed most of the agreement Shultz and the unions worked out and allowed future bargaining. But it also denied postal workers the right to strike or have a union shop.

The next wave of opposition to public sector unionism, just a few years later, saw new arguments deployed. In the mid-1970s, a deep recession left many states and cities in fiscal difficulty, with New York City capturing national attention as it hovered on the edge of bankruptcy. (Cleveland actually did default on its debt.) But even at the height of the fiscal crisis, political conservatives—like Secretary of Treasury William Simon—and bankers—like First National City Bank’s Walter Wriston—who fiercely opposed municipal unions, by and large did not call for a withdrawal of their bargaining rights or question their basic legitimacy. Rather, they opposed what those unions had concretely achieved through bargaining and militant action. Their core argument was that public sector unions had won wages and benefits beyond what government entities could afford. Accordingly, they demanded wage and benefits concessions from the unions, which they achieved, but achieved through collective bargaining.

For some fiscal-crisis-era opponents of the public sector unions, the argument was not simply about budgets, however. Simon and many other conservatives detested what they saw as the growth of an overly-generous social welfare state, exemplified by New York City. They targeted what, in their view, were excessive municipal employee pay rates and benefits as part of the broad problem of an overly-generous social wage. For conservative critics of government unionism, high municipal pay rates and pensions were of a piece with free tuition at the City University of New York, cheap mass transit, and rent control, all of which—except for the last—they managed to chip away at. Many private employers wanted to weaken public sector unions, too, or at least roll back their contracts, because the benefits (though not the pay) their companies offered paled in comparison. They did not want an ample benchmark of employee benefits set by the state. The fight over public sector unionism was thus part of a broader class struggle, an attack on the working class by ruling elites in the face of global economic stagnation.

In New York, municipal unions made preserving collective bargaining a central goal. Their ability to do so—they actually strengthened their institutional rights when they got the state legislature to agree to the agency shop (requiring workers who decline to join the union representing them to pay a fee in lieu of dues)—was a measure of their power, but also of the diminished importance of the sovereignty argument questioning the very legitimacy of public sector unionism. The most high-profile attack on publicly-employed unionists since the Boston police strike, Ronald Reagan’s firing of the PATCO strikers in 1981, had a more fundamental effect in the private sector, emboldening employers to break strikes and attack unions, than in the public sector, where unions continued to grow.

Which brings us to the third, current wave of opposition to public sector unionism. What we are seeing now is the recapitulation and revival of all the old arguments against public sector unionism, and then some new ones. Budgetary problems have been the occasion for reopening the question of public sector unionism and the justification for seeking to lower pay, benefits, and bargaining rights. Some harsh anti-union officials, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have been pretty much willing to stop at reducing the cost of publicly-employed labor. But as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker demonstrated, even when unionists have addressed budgetary concerns anti-unionism has continued, suggesting that the recession—perhaps together with the drastic decline in the power and reputation of the labor movement generally—has been an opportunity for as much as a cause of the revived assault.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, the sovereignty argument has reemerged in several forms. It is often recast as an efficiency issue; government leaders need flexibility to provide the best and most cost-efficient services as possible. Particularly in regard to teachers’ unions, critics have argued that seniority systems and tenure impede the workings of meritocracy, which they claim makes the private sector more efficient than government. And the sovereignty-cumdemocracy argument is now revived as an effort to take on unions as a special interest that has hijacked the people’s government in its own behalf. Some of the proposals for revising state public employee bargaining laws specifically ban bargaining over public policy issues.

But other arguments and motivations have emerged, too, some unspoken. Part of what we are seeing is a partisan strategy to defund the Democratic Party, which has received massive amounts of money from the union movement in recent years, especially from public sector unions (which, nationally, now represent a majority of union members). Thus the new push to deny public sector unions bargaining rights is largely a Republican phenomenon. In Massachusetts, though, Democrats led an effort to deny municipal workers the right to bargain over health care benefits, infuriating their union backers.

Finally, there is one more basis for the current push against public sector unions, and that is that they are seen as representatives of the state itself, which is now cast in almost completely negative terms. Government worker power and pay, so the argument goes, should be chopped down to size because government should be chopped down to size. Government is bad because it impedes liberty and sucks resources from its citizenry. This is almost the reverse of the old sovereignty argument. The problem with government employee unions is not that they undermine the power of the state but that they are part of it—symbolically and practically. Unions hamper the disassembly of the state: lay-offs, agency closures, budget cuts, privatization, and the elimination of welfare benefits. So unions have to go.

So today we face layer on layer of anti-public sector union arguments. It is a tough challenge. But, of course, the amazing mobilizations that occurred in response to anti-union attacks in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere make it clear that there is another side to this story. Americans, by and large, do not hate school teachers or policemen or the highway crew. They may think government is too big and their taxes are too high—though it is not clear most do—but they do not share the broad anti-statism that informs much of the current attack on public sector unions. Some low-paid workers no doubt resent paying taxes to finance government worker benefits like pensions and health insurance that they themselves do not receive. But today’s attack on public sector unionism is not a populist revolt—it’s a movement from the top down, led and financed by some of the wealthiest people and corporations in the country. The solidarity displayed in Madison, which extended beyond the public sector unions to the entire union movement and to students, activists, and common citizens, suggests that—although the public sector unions and their allies confront both a fiscal crisis and a thick layering of arguments against them—there are good reasons for hope.


WORKER CENTERS: Entering a New Stage of Growth and Development

Worker centers—community-based organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing to provide support to low-wage workers—play an indispensable role in helping low-wage immigrant workers navigate the world of work. They are vehicles for collective reflection, voice, and action, and the vast majority of these centers serve predominantly or exclusively immigrant populations. However, there are a few centers that serve primarily African-American populations or bring immigrants together with African-Americans. In the largely nonunion service economy—lowend construction, meatpacking, light industry, and what’s left of the garment trade—worker centers are calling attention to exploitative industry practices and pioneering creative strategies, especially in the context of widespread subcontracting. Hyper-competitive labor market conditions—once thought to be confined to industries like agriculture—are characteristic of many other sectors, thus the strategies worker centers are using to target sub-contractors, joint employers, and independent contracting arrangements have much broader application.

In their monitoring and enforcement of federal and state labor standards regulations, worker centers attempt to fill the void created by an ineffectual and disengaged state. Their labor market interventions—through direct economic action and public policy reform—are pioneering new strategies for protecting low wage workers. Their local advocacy builds bridges between immigrant workers and the larger communities in which immigrants live and work, often effectively reframing the way these workers are perceived and transforming hostility and fear into empathy. Worker centers have also been building organizations, developing leaders, and launching campaigns in the “too-difficult-to-organize” sectors unions gave up on long ago.

Along with their considerable strengths, I have argued in previous work that worker centers possessed certain limitations. Most had small membership bases, or in many cases, no formal membership structures at all. Many resisted charging dues because they feared workers could not afford to pay and they did not view dues as an important way for workers to demonstrate organizational commitment. Even many of those who did believe in the importance of formal membership had not made it a day to day priority.

Worker centers are almost entirely reliant upon foundation funding. I have argued that the unpredictability of the foundations’ backing and the lack of funding-source diversification made these centers financially vulnerable and unstable. Until fairly recently, immigrant worker centers were also under-networked. At the local, state, and regional levels, organizations might have come together on specific campaigns, but they were not working together on an ongoing basis. The limited networking was problematic because centers were unable to coordinate strategy and project a national presence. Coordination also matters for fundraising purposes—many national funders hesitate to fund at the local level, preferring to go through regional or national intermediaries.

As labor market institutions, many centers were not engaged in detailed industrial or labor market research and analysis. Finally, despite mounting some extremely innovative campaigns to intervene in labor markets through direct economic action against employers, most centers have had a limited impact this way. Worker centers have made their greatest impact on labor markets and industries by catalyzing government action and initiating local and state public policy initiatives. Today, worker centers and their national organizations are overcoming some of these limitations I posited while others, such as the extensive foundation funding, may (with the benefit of hindsight) have actually been strengths.

Some of worker centers’ strategic shortcomings are indicative of a broader challenge faced by all worker organizations, including unions, as they confront twenty-first-century global capitalism. But, in the past five years, worker centers and their networks have significantly evolved and matured, institutionalizing themselves and substantially expanding their strategic capacities.

Targeting the State

Despite a 1995 AFL-CIO leadership change—that presaged a renewed focus on organizing—and the federation’s 2005 split (which proponents hoped would catalyze membership growth), union density has continued to decline. This is not solely a consequence of globalization and the decline of manufacturing. Table 1 shows that U.S. union density in the private sector’s non-footloose industries has been flat or declining as well.

As with worker centers, many of labor’s most significant organizing successes have come through targeting the state through politics and public policy. Much of its membership growth is due to political clout that has enabled the organizing of workers whose positions are paid through government funding streams. For example, the home care, nursing home, and child care workforces have gained collective bargaining rights through unions’ political interventions. This is also true for the building trades, whose most reliable work involves public construction tied to prevailing wage laws. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of unions’ political—versus economic—strength can be seen in the stark contrast between public and private union membership rates. In the aggregate, government workers are five times more likely to belong to a union than today’s private sector employees.

Until the recession and the assault on the public sector workforce, both unions and worker centers—faced with the challenges of twenty-first-century capitalism—have been looking to the state as their most viable option for securing improvements. What will it take to see a renewal of private sector organizing?

Altering the Climate

Since private sector unionism has declined so drastically and public sector unionism has come under vicious attack, it would seem that altering the larger climate is a prerequisite for winning policy remedies or union organizing campaigns. This is precisely what worker centers—and their close research and policy allies—have been able to do regarding the enforcement of labor standards and basic rights for low-wage immigrant workers.

A 2009 study carried out by Annette Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman, and Nik Theodore found that 26 percent of low-wage workers in the nation’s three largest cities suffered minimum wage violations, and over 76 percent of low-wage workers who labored more than forty hours in the prior week were not paid according to overtime laws. In some regions, the Department of Labor itself has recorded Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) noncompliance levels at above 50 percent in the nursing home, poultry processing, day care, and restaurant industries. By weaving low-wage immigrant workers’ stories into a collective narrative about work in America, and connecting these stories to statistics that demonstrate the shockingly widespread nature of workplace violations, worker centers have successfully cast workers’ struggles in moral terms. While moral power is certainly not equivalent to labor market power, since it has been so tough to build economic power, reframing worker issues expands the space through which workers can make their case and may be a prerequisite for engaging in other, more contentious forms of action.

Beginning in 2009, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), an organization with a vibrant network of worker centers, popularized the phrase “wage theft” and launched a national movement to pass state and local ordinances. According to IWJ, anti-wage theft legislation— and laws that strengthen protections against workers’ misclassification as independent contractors—has been passed in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Washington State. A county wage theft ordinance was passed in Miami-Dade County, Florida and there are municipal ordinances underway in Little Rock, Arkansas, Central Falls, Rhode Island, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and other cities. IWJ has also worked with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) to draft the federal Wage Theft Prevention Act. Labor standards enforcement work has been dismissed as an inferior alternative to union organizing—“it only enforces existing laws, it doesn’t raise standards,” was a predictable refrain. But given the dearth of union presence at the bottom of the wage scale and the high incidence of wage theft, this work has moved out of the margins—in addition to winning some measure of recompense for workers, it’s now a powerful means of casting low-wage-worker organizing in a sympathetic light and placing the need for stronger regulation of decent work on the public policy table. By publicizing widespread non-compliance with basic wage and overtime laws and targeting the government to enact reforms, worker centers have mounted a compelling case for a rejuvenated state role in governing the labor market

Federation and Capacity Building 

In 2007, the flagship New York Taxi Workers Alliance brought taxi workers together across eighteen U.S. cities and from cities around the world to form the International Taxi Workers Alliance. The organization has affiliates in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Providence, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Spokane, Northern Virginia, and West Virginia as well as Montreal, Nepal, the Punjab region of India, Sydney, and Toronto. The opening convention featured statements of solidarity from transportation worker unions across the globe and a keynote address by then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Likewise, over the course of the past few years, the movement for domestic worker organizing—in the United States and globally—has expanded. In 2010, after many years of publicizing the abuses suffered by nannies and domestic workers, Domestic Workers United (DWU) won the passage of the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the first bill of its kind in the U.S. DWU helped bring organizations together to found the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in 2007. By early 2011, NDWA had thirtythree affiliate organizations in seventeen cities and eleven states, and a staff of nine people. The organization has entered into a strategic alliance with the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, Jewish Funds for Justice, National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, and National People’s Action, along with many other prominent national organizations and scores of local community organizing groups to launch a campaign to transform the caregiver industry through the establishment of labor standards, career ladders, pathways to legalization, and a new tax credit to support the cost of caring for others’ families.

On the restaurant workers front, the founders and leaders of Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY)—who have established rigorous requirements for affiliation—formed ROC-United in 2007. According to ROC-NY co-founder Saru Jayaraman, in 2008 the organization set up a national organizing committee and opened four affiliates. From the outset, the organization’s goal has been to establish affiliates in the top ten U.S. restaurant markets. By 2011, ROC-United expanded to a total of eight cities (New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.), had a ten-person national staff, and sponsored its first national lobbying day in the nation’s capital on the same day the National Restaurant Association was lobbying. ROC-United trains the groups in accordance with its three-pronged organizational model: a worker-led approach to organizing for workplace justice; labormanagement partnership to promote the high-road approach, which includes training programs and research; and policy work to highlight problems in the industry and set forth solutions.

Strategic Alliances and Institutional Partnerships

Whereas unions looking to mount large-scale industry-based leverage campaigns had seldom viewed worker centers as an effective means to that end, there is now a growing trend among worker centers, unions, and the government to forge institutional partnerships. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)— which was founded in 2001 and now has twenty-nine affiliates—was the first worker center network to form a national partnership with the AFL-CIO (in August 2006). In a formal resolution passed by its Executive Council that year, the AFL-CIO explicitly recognized the role of worker centers and made a commitment to help defeat anti-day laborer center bills in Congress and support immigration reform that includes legalization and a pathway to citizenship. The AFL-CIO president was also authorized to issue certificates of affiliation to worker centers interested in joining state federations and central labor councils. A short time later, very similar national agreements were signed with IWJ and ENLACE. In May 2011, the AFL-CIO entered into partnership agreements with the NDWA and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance.

The most extensive organizational partnership thus far is the one between NDLON and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). A landmark February 2008 partnership document drafted by LIUNA made clear that it understood and valued the worker centers’ dual mission of establishing a minimum set of wages and other employment conditions, and forcefully advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. The union also sent an equally clear signal that it understood the large-scale immigrant organizing implications for its own leaders and members:

LIUNA’s interest in organizing construction workers in the immigrant community is not limited to improving the bargaining leverage of its current members. LIUNA understands that successfully organizing immigrant workers will fundamentally change the composition of its membership. That, in turn, will have far-reaching ramifications for what the union [will] look like ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. But the union has a long history of undergoing dramatic shifts in the composition of its membership.

Senior officials at LIUNA held a series of meetings with regional networks of worker centers to discuss various approaches for how the union and the worker centers might work together. The group’s Eastern Region (covering New Jersey, Delaware, New York City, and Long Island) has been a national trailblazer in supporting immigrant worker organizing. In June 2008, it reached a historic agreement with a set of worker centers—including New Labor, a ten-year-old worker center based in New Jersey—to work together on organizing efforts, principally in the residential construction sector. The Laborers’ regional leadership worried that bringing newly organized residential construction workers into existing locals would prove contentious—new workers would have to wait their turn at the bottom of a long hiring list, forcing them to acclimate themselves to locals’ strongly established cultural norms and procedures. There was also the very real possibility that some existing members would be hostile toward Latino immigrants joining in large numbers. To avoid these potential pitfalls, the Laborers established two new union locals—Local 55 in New Jersey and Local 10 in New York City—and appointed worker center leaders to the board and staff.

It is also important to recognize the innovative work of New York City’s Make the Road by Walking organization and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). They have jointly launched path-breaking, community-based organizing campaigns, targeting stores and chains that have been systematically underpaying their workers. They have won significant back-pay awards and, in some cases, collective bargaining agreements.

Partnerships are also evolving between worker centers and government agencies. In 2006, California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) established the Janitorial Enforcement Team (JET). JET has a close working relationship with the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), a janitorial watchdog organization—established in 1999 by Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union and its signatory contractors—that functions as a worker center for nonunion workers in the industry.

The MCTF provides state inspectors with specialized knowledge of industry structures and sub-contracting arrangements, and plays a critical role in helping to assemble the documentation necessary for the state to bring cases. Understanding that few workers will come to them or to the government, MCTF inspectors routinely go to worksites at night, during janitors’ peak working hours. They build cases through systematic “reconstruction” when workers lack pay stubs, identifying and interviewing each worker, determining which contractor employed them, and establishing the dates and hours worked. State investigators now accept cases and documentation from the MCTF. This is a significant departure from tradition—government investigators are typically discouraged from accepting information from organizations or working closely with them.

At the national level, President Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has given particular attention to Latino workers, knowing they are at very high risk of injury on the job. Working in the state with the highest rate of construction fatalities, the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral (PDL)—a worker center in Austin, Texas—signed a formal agreement with OSHA and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). The agreement allows PDL to submit complaints directly to OSHA and WHD on behalf of workers, ensures these complaints are given priority, and requires their investigation within forty-eight hours. OSHA and WHD engage in more targeted and proactive investigations, in partnership with PDL, rather than simply responding to complaints.

Movement Building

In the past five years, worker centers and their networks have been at the forefront in a variety of new national formations around global worker justice, immigrant rights, the right to organize workers that have been historically excluded from collective bargaining rights, food justice, and the right to decent working and living conditions in America’s cities. Here are a few examples:

1. The Excluded Workers Congress (EWC) was established at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum by the Inter-Alliance Dialogue, Jobs with Justice, and others. The EWC represents worker organizations historically excluded from the right to organize across nine sectors: domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guest workers, workers from states with so-called “right-to-work” laws, workfare workers, and formerly incarcerated workers. (See “The Excluded Workers Congress: Reimagining the Right to Organize” in this issue of New Labor Forum.)

2. The Food Chain Workers Alliance was created in 2009 with the goal of creating a crossindustry network throughout the food system, including agricultural, meatpacking, poultry, food-processing, warehouse, food service, and grocery workers. According to Joann Lo, the national coordinator, the vision of the organization is to elevate food worker issues to the national level, through research and policy work and the launching of a national campaign that would cover most—if not all—of the food system’s sectors (along with inter-connected targets). The Alliance is developing fair trade government procurement policies for food, building off the anti-sweatshop movement’s efforts to win sweat-free procurement for uniforms.

3. Alto Arizona! is a national campaign that was created in response to the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allowed the police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and required immigration documents to be carried at all times. “My organization doesn’t have a choice. We have become the public face of this debate because we are highly visible. If that is the case, then our fight has to be the example as well,” said NDLON Executive Director Pablo Alvarado. “When cops are given the power to enforce immigration law the first place they go is day labor corners, so this is a matter of life and death for us.”

NDLON strategists realized early on that anti-immigration campaigners would use Arizona as a testing ground for strategies that would then be exported to other states. In response, they developed a national list of fifty thousand activists and established a rapid response text messaging system with more than ten thousand people living in the Phoenix area. They also created a vibrant web presence, launched a national boycott effort, and likened this struggle to the civil rights movement, inviting longtime African-American activists to come to Arizona and advise them on strategy.

A Growing Force for Worker Justice

Worker centers have been able to develop as free spaces of experimentation in part because they have been unencumbered by the strictures of American labor law. It’s also arguable that their incorporation as tax exempt organizations has provided new avenues for organizational development. By learning to write grants, solicit foundation support, and build individual donor programs, centers have established a new financial infrastructure for immigrant worker organizing at the community level. Nevertheless, it is still worth contemplating what kind of capacity is lost when a low-wage worker organization relies upon external sources rather than internal sources (dues) for its core support; fundraising that requires constantly talking to workers creates a different type of culture, capacity, and accountability than fundraising that focuses on external sources.

Strikingly, almost all of the networks that are growing and federating within the worker center world are occupation- or industry-specific. Although common ethnicity or language are important constitutive elements that have paved the way for recruitment, it seems that sector and occupation have still been instrumental to the durability of organizations and the growth of larger federations and networks. The sectorally-specific nature of the federations also seems to have aided some national unions in reaching an understanding and acceptance of worker centers. Additionally, these industry-specific networks—i.e., taxi drivers and domestic workers—are demonstrating a growing interest in acquiring collective bargaining rights.

While the national AFL-CIO has provided strong legal, policy, and political support, only a small number of worker centers have been granted certificates of affiliation with local central labor councils and—with the exception of the Car Wash Worker Campaign in Los Angeles, and the RWDSU’s and LIUNA’s efforts—there are few joint organizing campaigns on the ground. Hopefully, with the inauguration of a joint home care policy and organizing campaign between the NDWA, SEIU, and AFSCME, this is about to change. But to organize enduring forms of representation at the local labor market level, worker centers need new laws and administrative procedures retrofitted to the realities of the new economy—subcontracting, joint employers, misclassification, contingent and temporary employment arrangements—as well as new organizational structures within the labor movement that ease organizing across multiple small workplaces and among workers who lack long-term attachments to employers. Successful organizing of these work forces will require a longer-term view on the part of national unions and their local affiliates.

Many labor scholars have forcefully argued that no single culprit has been more responsible for American labor’s decline than unions’ collective purge of the left in the wake of 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, which involved them in bloody fratricide and divested them of some of their most talented and committed organizers. The national labor movement’s embrace of worker centers, especially in light of that painful history, is extraordinarily encouraging.