Category: Fall 2016

Fall 2016

Volume 25  Issue 3



From the Editorial Team

Under the Radar
By Sarah Jaffe
Unreported and under-reported news and views that matter.

On the Contrary

The “Good Work Code”: Greed-Washing the On-Demand Economy?
By Jay Youngdahl

New Business Models Demand New Forms of Worker Organizing
By Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah

Organizing in a Brave New World 
By Stephen Lerner and Saqib Bhatti
What can labor and its potential allies do to rescue the political economy from the super-rich?

Electoral Shock: Analyzing the Bern

Is Class Warfare Back? The Sanders Phenomenon and Life after Neoliberal Capitalism 
By Bob Master
What will it take to transform the Sanders campaign into a social movement?

The New Political Arithmetic: Who Voted for Bernie, Who Voted for Hillary, and Why
By Ted Fertik
Which primary voting patterns offer essential lessons for progressive political activists?

Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neoliberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism
By Walter Baier
What does the rise of the European radical right indicate about dilemmas confronting global capitalism?

Microworkers of the Gig Economy: Separate and Precarious
By Juliet Webster
Is it possible for high-tech pieceworkers workers to overcome their isolation to defend themselves?

Rising Inequality and Its Discontents in China 
By Kevin Lin
As wealth and income gaps widen, Chinese workers invent new ways to challenge employers and the state.

Labor Wars

Two Reasons Why Most Unions Don’t Do Large-Scale Organizing
By Shaun Richman

New Organizing in a New Economy
By Jonathan Rosenblum

Time to Set New Priorities? 
By José La Luz

Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing 
By Jane McAlevey

Shaun Richman Responds
By Shaun Richman

Employment or Income Guarantees: Which Would Do the Better Job? 
By Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg
It’s time to reconsider bold policy solutions to poverty and unemployment.

Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate Battleground 

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There? 
By Sean Sweeney

Roots of Rebellion: A Guide to Insurgencies from Coast to Coast 

The Fight for $15 Goes to College 
By Mariya Strauss

Organized Money: What Is Corporate America Thinking?

Hillary Clinton and the Jailhouse Gang
By Max Fraser

Books and the Arts

Visions of Utopia
Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune
By Kristin Ross
The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s
Founding Manifesto
Edited By Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein
The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement
By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
Reviewed by Tim Barker

Borderlands of Work
Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA
By Juan Thomas Ordóñez
On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South
By Vanesa Ribas
Reviewed by Allyson P. Brantley

Afterlives of the American Dream 
Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy
By Victor Tan Chen
Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story
Produced and written by Christine Walley and Chris Boebel
Reviewed by Molly Cunningham

Nightmare on Main Street
The Big Short
Directed by Adam MacKay
99 Homes
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Reviewed by Jennifer Taub

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


The Family Solid
By Gary Jackson

Upon Seeing Spider-Man on My Way to Work
By Gary Jackson

By Gary Jackson

Letter to the Editors

Labor Wars: Shaun Richman Responds

Article 5 of 5

Link to previous article in series –

The respondents have expanded the discussion far beyond the parameters of my initial article. I have written elsewhere about union structure[1], strategy,[2] and legal reform[3], but my preceding article does not purport to offer an all-encompassing solution to labor’s organizing woes. Rather, I intended to highlight two institutional conflicts that I have seen little open discussion about, and which are clearly impediments to maintaining a commitment to an organizing strategy.

Simply put, institutional priorities matter and I don’t just mean the budgetary commitment to do organizing. Jonathan Rosenblum, for instance, identifies mass organizing as the only choice for labor. Sure. I’d add reviving the strike weapon to our wish list, but both strategies are more easily said than done. The historical reality is that the U.S. labor movement has mostly grown through brief periods of worker-led, seemingly spontaneous mass strike activity. The efforts of the last 20 years to increase union density by gaining new members as quickly and easily as possible was doomed to never live up to expectations.

It would be better to find a balance — and a connection—between smart contract campaigns aimed at increasing the power and membership engagement of existing unions and strategic and potentially iconic new organizing fights that might inspire more non-union workers to think about their power and how best to organize.

The best example of that kind of external campaign is, as Jose La Luz points out, the Fight for $15. The campaign offers a model of unions thinking outside their institutional boundaries, it also enables supposedly powerless workers to experience the power that comes from withholding their labor. Along these lines, an “internal” organizing campaign that gives me hope is Bargaining for the Common Good[4], an effort by public sector unions to line up contract expirations and bargaining demands with community demands like progressive taxation, affordable housing, and government transparency, taking dead aim at the largest banks and power brokers while organizing a very real strike threat.

La Luz is correct that the failure by unions to engage in a “serious ongoing conversation” with members about the organizing imperative contributes to institutional roadblocks. Too many unions limited the conversation about the need to engage in organizing to convention delegates, and then just to get dues increases passed.  Among admirers, there’s a fear that SEIU might stop funding Fight for $15 if it doesn’t start producing new members. I think Fight for $15 organizers have been thoughtful about getting existing union members to join the rallies and picket lines in solidarity. Such actions can be the most serious education in why we need to organize.

I must admit that I found Jane McAlevey’s response to be unsporting . She twists a few of my points in order to knock them down as strawmen and only seems to offer do more good organizing as an alternative. Don’t get me wrong; if McAlevey and I were tasked with working together to organize a single bargaining unit, I doubt we would substantively disagree on strategy. But reviving our movement will take more than just running more good single unit campaigns, especially if those campaigns want nothing more of their umbrella organizations than to “stay out of the way of good local leadership.”

Affiliation and federation are proven methods for pooling resources to take on larger employers and industries and connecting local fights to national struggles. They’re a pain in the ass, but retreating to provincialism is the worst possible response to the institutional tensions described in my article.



[1] Richman, Shaun. “The Promise and the Peril of Members-Only Unions.” In These Times. November 4, 2015.

[2] Richman, Shaun. “As Attacks on Unions Continue, Bringing Back the Strike May Be Our Only Hope.” In These Times. January 13, 2016

[3] Richman, Shaun. “It’s Time for the Labor Movement To Pursue a New Judicial Activist Agenda.” In These Times. March 21, 2016

Labor Wars: Time to Set New Priorities?

Article 3 of 5

Link to previous article in series –

I strongly disagree with Brother Richman’s assertion that the inadequate resources devoted to external organizing is the result of a conscious choice −strategic or tactical − made by labor leaders because they have opted instead to dedicate all or most of their union’s resources toward “winning better pay, working conditions, and rights for existing union members”.

It is entirely possible that many of these leaders have not even considered these two seemingly opposing priorities in the face of a sustained and escalating attack by corporate interests and their political allies. Many may simply be maneuvering to defend their unions by helping to elect a “friend” to the White House who could work with them to usher in a program of modest labor reforms and provide some needed oxygen to their embattled institutions.

It should be noted that, while most unions are not spending enough on organizing, a few − such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) − have continued to spend on large scale external organizing campaigns, such as efforts to organize home and child care workers or independent providers, and plants of foreign automakers in the south.

Even more significant is that some unions are funding campaigns not focused on their existing members like the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or movements to improve labor standards for workers in low wage industries. This also includes the struggle to support immigrant rights among unions like UNITEHERE, SEIU, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) which could also be seen as an enlightened self-interest approach to create the conditions for growth among Latino and Asian workers in certain industries and labor markets across the country. It could be argued that even if these campaigns do not bring in new members in the short run, they pave the way for growth in the immediate future.

It is evident that these campaigns for worker rights and enhanced labor standards have generated increased public support for unions as champions of fairness, equal treatment, and social justice for all workers —not only their existing members. However, it is critical to understand why most unions have failed to invest more resources in external organizing. Many of the unions that were engaged in the Change-to-Organize process during the incumbency of John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO made a strategic choice to invest a lot more resources in organizing the unorganized, but only a handful of these unions reached the mark set by Richard Bensinger to devote 30 percent of the entire union budget to external organizing. The hard truth is that the majority of the unions didn’t even get close to the 10% that was set as a minimum goal.

What could be the reasons to explain this failure?  One veteran organizer Ben Gordon organizing director with CSEA-AFSCME in New York argues that “it is hard to make the case to existing members of the value of external organizing if there is not a larger political and economic framework within we are working.” Gordon insists that “without a political and economic framework that ties the interests of all workers together….in which existing members see the value to themselves in growing the union….it is unlikely that union leaders will devote the resources needed…. They will simply back down when members question the use of precious dollars for organizing versus hiring more grievance reps and lawyers.”[i]

In July and August 1995 pollster Peter Hart conducted multiple focus groups among members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions in several states across the nation. Here is one of the findings that may be relevant to this argument: “These members generally have little or no ideological orientation that would link economics, government and politics. Few can articulate any explanation for what has gone wrong, who is responsible or what should be done about it……when they try to identify the causes of the nation’s problems they often reach for conservative explanations such as immigration, welfare and government waste…left to their own devices they tend to employ fairly conservative analyses and categories.”[ii]

It is also conceivable that these same existing union members lack a basic “political and economic framework” that would help them “tie their interests with the interests” of unorganized workers as Ben Gordon suggested. Perhaps their understanding of the union’s mission is only confined to negotiating better contracts and resolving grievances to protect existing members.  This may help to explain the choices made by the leadership of many unions that, in order to avoid tensions with the existing base and perhaps risk losing their offices, many of them have chosen not to invest more resources to grow their unions.

The path taken by a handful of unions to raise wages for all workers and protect the most vulnerable is part of the answer. To the extent that unions advocate concretely and publicly on Main Street, and not only in the halls of Congress, for a broader social justice agenda, support for unions will likely increase among the public as well as existing members.

But unions leaders will also need to engage their existing base in a serious on going conversation about the meaning of building a union that not only represents the 10 to 15 percent that uses the grievance and arbitration procedures all the time. It will require a conversation about how power is built and why a shrinking membership base has direct consequences on wages and benefits for all. Now may be the perfect moment to engage members when economic populism has gained prominence in the nation as part of the presidential campaign. It has captured the attention of millions of workers and can set the stage for a mass organizing agenda based on innovative and non-traditional forms. A new wave of growth for organized labor in America could be in the horizon.

Link to next article in series –


[i] Interview with Ben Gordon, Never Quit Blitz, Syracuse, NY, April 2016.

[ii] Peter Hart Research Associates, Executive Summary of Focus Group Findings on Union Members’ Political Attitudes.

Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing

Article 4 of 5

Link to previous article in the series –

Late one night in the fall of 2015, a nurse named Michael Winn was facing the same situation he had faced too many times: patients in his hospital’s unit were at risk because of dangerously short staffing. Frustrated with his hospital management’s profits-before-patients approach, he decided to cold-call nearby Temple University Hospital, which is unionized, and ask about its night shift conditions and its union. It was four a.m. Michael didn’t know the nurses he was calling; he only knew something had to change. When he reached the switchboard, he asked to speak with the charge nurse in the emergency department.

“Hi, Temple E.R. May I help you?” “Hi, my name is Michael. I’m a nurse over at Hahnemann’s and we are having an incredible staffing crisis. I want to pick your brain for a minute: I know you have a union at Temple. Do you like your union? Does your hospital get away with substandard care and nurse abuse the way our hospital management does?”

The answer: “We’d never tolerate those conditions, and I love my union!”

With a single phone call and the answer he heard from the night-shift charge nurse he spoke with at a unionized hospital, Michael and his co-workers decided they needed a union as fast as they could build one. Within days, union nurses from Temple University hospital began meeting with their nonunion counterparts at Hahnemann Hospital. Within months, on January 20, Michael and his 850 co-workers voted overwhelmingly yes (516 to 117) to forming a union through a National Labor Board Relations (NLRB) election. Yes, an NLRB election.

Had Michael reached a nurse who responded, “Union, yeah, there’s one in here, I don’t know much about it. I think they got us a raise, but our conditions sound like yours (or worse) …,” it is fair to say Michael would not have called the Temple hospital workers’ union the next day.

So often, the debate about unions omits the most important people, workers, and their issues—such as those Michael and his co-workers faced on that night shift a few months before deciding to form a union. Shaun Richman’s “Labor Wars” article revisits two long-standing debates in the contemporary labor movement. He makes some good points—for example, “Positing internal organizing against external organizing is a false choice….” But he fails to offer solutions. In fact, Richman’s main solutions don’t include a much-needed discussion about union governance, and they’re centered on needing to run more external organizing campaigns. Almost bizarrely, he suggests that the national AFL-CIO should be the ones to do something about the mess: “Finally, the AFL-CIO does have a role to play here,” Richman writes. “The smaller international unions that have not yet engaged in comprehensive campaigns need the federation’s leadership.” Huh? I think we watched that movie recently and the film got eaten in the reel.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Richman’s focus on national unions and the national federations obscures the fact that almost everything interesting in unions (and most groups) happens at the local, regional, or state level. And his focus on mega campaigns—what he calls comprehensive campaigns (without defining them)—omits the many less well-known efforts like those of a small, smart, independent union called the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), the union that Michael and thousands more just fought to join.

Whether in eastern Pennsylvania, Chicago and Los Angeles (teachers), Boston (nurses), or Hartford (nursing home and other health care workers)—to name just a few—the hard work of whether unions shrink, expand, or are relevant to anyone (save the national leaders) is determined more by what happens when one pissed-off worker picks up the phone and reaches another worker—not which union aligns with which in the ever-changing turf wars.. At Temple University Hospital workers—who clearly communicated with one another—went on an open-ended, all-out, 28-day strike in 2010 to win their high standards

In my forthcoming book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,(Oxford University Press, 2016), I offer up several examples of local unions and locally based actions that do win and explore the key factors that promote success. Does it help if national unions stay out of the way of good local leadership? Of course. Is it even better when national leaders encourage robust, high participation and highly democratic forms of local trade unionism—the exact kind of locally based unions where workers spread the word about their great union the old-fashioned way—by talking? Absolutely!

Although Richman’s article discusses some important ideas, I think he misses a more fundamental lesson from the recent twenty years of failed attempts at top-down change in the labor movement: it’s time to embrace an old idea—think globally and act locally. Richman states, “The great push to organize and grow that began 20 years ago with the start of the Sweeney administration (AFL-CIO president 1995-2009), and, which intensified ten years ago in the Change to Win split has frankly and obviously stalled.” I think Richman has this wrong. For a couple of brief years (way too brief) at the outset of the changed national AFL-CIO, from 1996 to about 1999, there were real attempts at organizing. And an important word Richman way too casually intersperses in that sentence—grow—took over by the new millennium and certainly by 2005 when the Change to Win coalition Introduced reforms for the AFL-CIO.

In No Shortcuts, I write about my own experiences during this era, and also cite interviews of many key people, including Peter Olney, the former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He sums up the situation disturbingly well, “Just before the split at the AFL-CIO, the conversations [that New Labor was driving] were about how workers really got in the way of organizing. We [the national organizing directors] would actually sit in rooms, in annual meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way of union growth deals.”[1] It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of the organizing versus growth trade-off.

Twenty years ago, New Labor leaders correctly assessed that winning union elections and running strikes was getting more and more challenging. They declared they would rebuild the ranks of unions by organizing the unorganized. But if organizing the unorganized ever stood a chance, it barely got off the ground. Despite New Labor’s rhetoric, the ranks of existing members were sidelined right along with unorganized American workers. Pollsters, communicators and polling replaced organizers and face-to-face organizing. New Labor’s top officials look and sound different from the generation they replaced and they are more identity-politics polished, but behind their twenty-year strategy is a core assumption: Workers aren’t needed as central actors in their own emancipation. Strong on polling and well-crafted narrative, New Labor leadership is weak on actual worker agency.

We urgently need a back-to-basics organizing that places workers and worker capacity at the center of the fight, not as window dressing. There are no shortcuts.

Link to next article in series –



[1] Author interview, Peter Olney, recently retired Organizing Director, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, March 20, 2014.


Labor Wars: New Organizing in a New Economy

Article 2 of 5

Link to previous article in series –

A little more than thirty years ago, I first heard the debate: Should we prioritize organizing more workers into unions or focus on representing and raising standards for current members? And who should be in charge—local unions or their international bodies? At the time, I was a union member on the way to becoming a full time organizer. One in every five U.S. workers belonged to a union. The movement was on the ropes, bleeding badly, but fighting back.

Three decades later, Shaun Richman posits the same questions in considering how to turn the union movement around. Only today, union density is half of what it was in 1985. Three million fewer U.S. workers hold union cards, and the trend continues inexorably downward.1

At this rate, we could keep debating these issues as we get swept into history’s dustbin.

Certainly, the tensions that Richman describes have had an influence on organizing in the last decade—sometimes positive, at other times not. But, as even Richman allows, his essay “merely nibbles at the edge of the problem.”

Far more vital to the movement’s survival is the existential question of vision and purpose. We should seek answers not from the institutional vantage point of academia or union headquarters, but from the street-level perspectives of the 89 percent of U.S. workers who do not belong to unions—the precariously employed Uber driver, the permatemp Nissan auto worker, the undocumented sheet rocker, the minimum wage fast-food worker, the charter schoolteacher on the permanent tenterhooks of one-year contracts, and the part-time, food stamp–dependent Walmart associate.

The important question is this: What sort of forward-looking vision, organizational form, and array of strategies will inspire these millions to unite in a movement for a just economy?

For these and so many other workers, the idea of the American Dream—stable employment and opportunity for upward mobility—is a cruelly quaint notion from a bygone era. Even education, increasingly corporatized, no longer provides a reliable handhold to secure lifetime employment.

Today’s unforgiving reality has only an indirect relationship to the structure of unions. Rather, it is the product of two major influences: first, an unceasing corporate drive to maximize profit by breaking worker power and by privatizing and monetizing everything, both here and around the world; and second, the U.S. union movement’s limited scope—a collective bargaining model focusing on worksite-by-worksite organizing and standards fights, along with political engagement that largely contents itself with marginal change.

The corporate vision—profits for them, poverty and precarity for the rest of us—is eminently clear. What has been lacking and is urgently needed from U.S. unions is a countervailing powerful vision, one that imagines an economy in which workers have a powerful voice, and the needs of people and community come before profits.

The single-employer bargaining regime that dominates U.S. union-management relations remains a vital battleground to retain hard-won standards and to activate workers in struggle. But, it is just a start. We live in a global economy. Capital and entire industries move with agility across borders. The political system is slow to catch up with corporate executives who contrive increasingly elegant ways to escape their legal obligations to workers and communities.

Given those realities, the contract fights must be waged but workers will not win at the bargaining table without also undertaking exponentially greater organizing activity. The priority of existing unions, then, at both the local and national levels, must be to accelerate traditional organizing where possible, while supporting prototypes of a bolder unionism that motivate and inspire the 89 percent of U.S. workers who do not hold union cards today.

Examples abound. They require ongoing nurturing and development: Uber drivers parking their cars in protest, domestic workers and day laborers creating and enforcing area standards, teachers uniting with parents to demand quality education for all, and the growing call for “$15 [an hour] and a union!” among others.

Richman appropriately calls out the posturing within unions around organizing versus servicing as a “false choice.” But, he fails to identify in its place the real choice: mass organizing or irrelevance. Plummeting union membership numbers, the ascendance of anti-union laws, and declining wages do not lie.

Yet, even the most active organizing unions fall way short. In 2000, the Service Employees International Union raised eyebrows within the movement by establishing a mandate that local unions devote 20 percent of their resources to new organizing. That is an impressive number compared with other unions. But, it is paltry when contrasted with the challenge: If applied across the movement, it would leave 80 percent of resources going to meet the needs of 11 percent of the workforce. Instead, the lion’s share of union funds should go to support new organizing.

The notion of devoting 60, 70, even 80 percent of the union movement’s resources to new worker organizing may seem unrealistic, even laughable to some of my colleagues in labor leadership. This is an especially daunting idea given the entrenched model of business unionism, an exceedingly expensive operating system that fosters membership dependency on professional union staff. To grow, unions will have to break the business union habit. That is going to be enormously difficult. Are you less-than-sanguine about that prospect? You are going to like extinction even less.

Richman’s second frame—decision making by international unions versus local unions— also suffers from a narrow, outdated perspective. What are labeled international unions in the United States are really only North American unions. In today’s world, it is inadequate to build worker organizations that concentrate their efforts almost exclusively within 18 percent of the world’s economy.2

Corporations certainly do not operate so provincially. Boeing is an iconic American brand, but the airplanes are made from parts designed and manufactured by workers on four continents. Your AT&T customer service representative is in Manila. Uber drivers operate in 58 countries. Your son’s late-night emergency room x-ray was read by a health care worker in Australia, or maybe India. The fates of workers around the world are indeed linked.

U.S. unions have made positive, though tentative, steps toward internationalism over the last generation, building solidarity alliances with unions and federations on other continents. But, as with new organizing, not nearly enough has been done. We need a truly international approach.

Richman is not wrong to shine a light on institutional tensions within unions. But, dedicated labor activists, while acknowledging the formidable problems inside unions, need to operate with a much wider lens. In the final analysis, our purpose is not to save an institution from its own entrenched inertia; it is to inspire people with a bold vision to revive a working class movement. If today’s unions can push aside the barriers and make the adaptive leap, fine. They will make great foundations for the new movement. But if not, we will have to create new forms of unions to fight for the interests of today’s workers.

Link to the next article in series –

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



  1. Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, “Union Membership and Coverage Database from the CPS,” available at http://unionstats.gsuedu/. See “All Wage & Salary Workers” in “U.S. Historical Tables: Union Membership, Coverage, Density and Employment, 1973-2015.”
  2. Quandl Financial and Economic Data, “GDP as Share of World GDP at PPP by Country,” available at ions/economics/gdp-as-share-of-world-gdp -at-ppp-by-country.

The Family Solid

We were barely out

of middle school

when Stuart showed me the scar—

an S branded in his brown arm.

Solid, Stuart said,  fresh

from his initiation.

They held him down

in a basement, seared his skin.


He wanted another family.

One that encouraged his want

for the blood of possibility,

that heart-pumping rage

that wraps us in a noose,

impossible to untie.


We have ties to Bloods.

I didn’t need that family,

had heard enough stories

about my father,

how when I was seven

months old, three men came to his home

in Inglewood. He pleaded

with them to let his mother,

girlfriend and son go before

they did whatever

they were going to do.


When Stuart told me

My niggas can hold me down,

the image of him in darkness,

pinned by three strangers,

burned into my mind.

Like the white-hot needle

as it pierces skin.


The ending, I no longer

remember, but the desire died

and he escaped. Surprising,

I know, but black kids

find a way out without

getting locked up or put down.


Years later, he’d absently rub

his scarred skin like an itch.

The S on his bicep

lingering above the blood.

Visions of Utopia

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.
By Kristin Ross
Verso, 2015
ISBN: 9781781688397

The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Lefts Founding Manifesto
Edited by Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8122-4692-6

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.
By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
Oxford University Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780199313914


Reviewed by: Tim Barker

A time-honored trope of left-wing rhetoric works by identifying radical projects with the barest common sense. Witness the secondwave slogan, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” or Guatemalan reformist Juan José Arévalo’s declaration, “We are socialists because we live in the twentieth century.” More generally—and cryptically—Lenin counseled a politics “as radical as reality itself.” Effective as these formulations are, the rhetorical move involves a fundamental ambiguity. Is it that radicalism is not so radical, because it is only recognition of something everyone already accepts? Or is it that to achieve even the simplest and most obvious goals, we need to take an ax to the root of the whole system?

There is a version of this trope associated with participatory democracy. “We understand democracy to be that system of rule in which the people make the decisions that affect their lives.” Depending on your reading, this could be a high school civics lesson or a call for social revolution. Three recent books about episodes in the history of radical democracy—the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1962 Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society, and the Occupy Movement of 2011-2012—show how the tension between the obvious and the otherworldly remains unresolved in important ways today

The sequence begins with Kristin Ross’ Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. The Commune itself—a revolutionary government composed of the popular classes of Paris, which existed for seventytwo days in 1871 between the defeat of Napoleon III’s Second Empire at the hands of the Prussians and the violent foundation of the liberal Third Republic—is well-trodden historical ground. Ross’ contribution stresses the sheer radicalism of the Communard vision, which she finds too explosive to be contained within the narrow confines of French nationalist or Marxist historiography. In her clearest summation, Ross writes, “The Communal imagination operated on the preferred scale of the autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon. It had little room for the nation, or for that matter, for the market or state.” The Commune would revolutionize all aspects of life, all over the world, without throwing up any mediating institution besides voluntary association. Ross’ Communard vision centers around the transformative reconciliation of all binary oppositions—not just global and local but mental and manual labor, city and countryside, human industry and nature, and past and future. “Everything,” Ross sums up, “is in everything.”

Fortunately, Ross uses these grand themes to bring together a fascinating constellation of specific historical experiences. There is supposed to be something practical about the Communard vision, as indicated by Ross’ repeated endorsement of Marx’s conclusion that the Commune’s greatest achievement was “its own working existence.” Likewise, Ross shows that her protagonists’ ambitious visions were sparks thrown off in the course of concrete, and even dull, existence. A good example is Eugène Pottier, a spokesman for the Commune’s Artists Federation (more famous for later writing “The Internationale”). “Communal luxury” was Pottier’s name for the Federation’s program, which called for a world in which art was reunited with useful craftsmanship, and aesthetic seriousness extended to the humblest everyday objects. This wild dream emerged from Pottier’s zigzag life: As a teenage apprentice, he discovered a grammar in an old armoire and taught himself to read, writing poetry at night; by 1871, he ran a polyglot workshop of skilled artisans turning out everything from wallpaper to ceramics. Sympathetic observers abroad, William Morris chief among them, recognized with a thrill that their aesthetic politics were briefly embraced by the sovereign people.

But the dialectics of having it all have their drawbacks. Anything that falls short must be fully rejected. “There was no question for any of them,” Ross writes of her subjects, “of any reform or of a piecemeal solution.” So what do you do when “the complete dismantling of international commerce” is not on the table? The all-embracing scope of the Communard imagination reveals itself as brittle and, indeed, hostile to the reality of life after the fall. In a telling detail, Ross mentions that one of her central figures, the ex-Communard geographer Élisée Reclus, was said to hold “a kind of hatred for the people of Paris” and avoided the city even after his amnesty. The one limit to the Universal Republic, apparently, is “horror of the bourgeois, opportunistic republic,” so Ross’ protagonists turn after 1871 to the barren climes of Iceland and Siberia in search of alternatives to capitalist modernity.

If Ross sharpens the uncompromising edge of Communard democracy, the thrust of the essays collected by editors Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein in The Port Huron Statement is that the radical democrats of the early American New Left were far closer to the mainstream than generally acknowledged. The volume’s major theme, attested to by both participants and scholarly observers, is that the vision propounded in the 1962 founding statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) flowed from American traditions in general and from a healthy respect for early 1960s liberalism in particular. Many of the essays address different dimensions of this “symbiotic relationship,” including Robert Cohen on the New Left’s “love-hate relationship with the university,” Daniel Geary on SDS’s working relationship with activist liberal academics, and Nelson Lichtenstein on the ties between student radicals and the Reutherite wing of the labor movement.

This shared theme of left-liberal proximity can lead to different conclusions. Geary, for example, explores the close relationships between the early SDS and older liberals grouped around antinuclear activism and the Committee for Correspondence Newsletter, The Correspondent. Reminding us that the Port Huron Statement called for alliances with liberals, Geary also shows that Correspondence liberals like sociologist David Riesman were surprisingly sharp in their criticism of liberal reticence and Cold War verities. But Geary can only bemoan the alienation that set in within a few short years, acknowledging that the hostility came from both sides but concluding that liberalism and leftism can only succeed in a “synergistic relationship” characterized by mutual respect for both pragmatic and utopian approaches to politics.

The broad left-liberal alliance Geary describes is attractive. But in his contribution to the volume, Nelson Lichtenstein acknowledges the same descriptive overlap but finds the divorce not an unfortunate contingency but the result of a deeper underlying tension. Just as Geary showed how close early SDS came to dissenting liberal academics, Lichtenstein shows how the authors of The Port Huron Statement were on the same wavelength as their elders on United Auto Workers (UAW) staff. The connection was, first of all, practical; it was a last minute call by Michigan SDSer Sharon Jeffrey to her mother, UAW staffer Mildred Jeffrey, that found a home for the student conference at the UAW’s FDR Labor Education Center on Lake Huron. There were also substantive similarities, as the erstwhile socialists in the UAW, who had once undertaken direct action to expand democracy onto the shop floor, looked with hope on the emergence of new radicals. But Lichtenstein, in contrast to Geary, finds that the quick end to the liberal-left alliance was too overdetermined to regret. “Accommodative and coalition-building politics,” he writes, were “antithetical to the early New Left in its most creative and attractive moments” (p. 105).

One might reasonably object that nineteenth century French radicals and American baby boomers have little meaningful in common. But if nothing else, Communal Luxury and the Port Huron collection share a common contemporary reference in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its offshoots. The movement receives more extended treatment in the Flacks/Lichtenstein collection, but both books try to make sense of the present according to the political orientation with which it approaches the past. Accordingly, Ross stresses the similarity of late nineteenth century penury to today’s “collapse of the labor market.” Like the men and women who made up the Commune, more and more people today spend their time “not working but looking for work,” and like Ross’ Communards, they have neither a heroic national bourgeoisie nor state socialism to inspire them. What is (or was, or perhaps will be) important about Occupy were those elements that, however short-lived, recall the revelatory flares of 1871: the immediate experience of “living differently now,” and a solidarity that bypassed the nation to link local spaces (Zuccotti to Tahrir) on a global scale.

The commentary in the Port Huron volume does not ignore how much has changed since 1962. “It simply was nowhere in our minds,” recalls Jane Mansbridge in a memoir of her time in various participatory collectives, “that there might not always be readily available low-paying, relatively interesting jobs that would let you pay the rent now and perhaps lead to better paying jobs later” (p. 194). The popping of this postwar bubble means that any contemporary upheaval will be “fueled by despair, not hope.” But Mansbridge concurs with the volume’s other contributors in stressing that, despite changed circumstances, the internal dynamics of participatory democracy are as fraught today as they turned out to be in the 1960s. Although these warnings suggest moderation, the contributors also take care to remind liberals that utopian desire remains a resource for motivating progressive change. Inevitably, perhaps, their calls for a return to the left-liberal symbiosis of the early SDS suggest only the sketchiest of blueprints. One might easily finish the book convinced by the historical claims but unsure that the “moment of convergence” will return in a world where Walter Reuther has no real equivalent and Clark Kerr has been replaced by hedge fund managers.

Readers eager for a more sustained reflection on contemporary radical democracy can profitably turn to Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers. The book offers a detailed history of the not-quite-two-months-long occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011, with a brief prologue, epilogue, and excursuses to other encampments. Gould-Wartofsky is both a sociologist and an activist who participated in Occupy from the start, and his book aims to combine both perspectives. The bulk of the book, however, is a chronological recounting of events, and I found that the limited sociological analysis seemed sound but added little to the narrative. We learn, for example, that “a plurality” of Gould-Wartofsky’s respondents thought of Wall Street as “a kind of cypher for capitalism,” and that the interviewees were “nearly unanimous” in embracing “some or another form of radical democracy.” Interesting, but nothing you would not already suspect.

The biggest barrier to analysis is that, as Gould-Wartofsky concedes at one point, “it is still too early to tell” what impact OWS has had on American politics. He ventures the suggestion that Occupy is “not in itself a social movement” but part of a larger “political potentiality” he labels the “99 percent movement.” The definition of the “99 percent movement” remains unclear, at times seeming to encompass the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)– led Fight for $15 and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The inchoate nature of the movement, or movements, is clear in Gould-Wartofsky’s abstract speculations about paths forward. “One such path,” Gould-Wartofsky writes with clear approbation in his concluding paragraphs, “would be the construction of independent bases of power—from popular assemblies and democratic unions to national formations and international networks—which could generate the collective capacity to advance a concrete political program.”

Leaving aside a certain vagueness, this sounds great to me, as I suspect it will to you. But it is not a goal that seems any closer to reality now than it was before September 17, 2011. It does not follow obviously from the vision expressed by the book’s many interviewees, nor does it resonate with the shape of subsequent popular protest. For better or worse, the participatory form of OWS seems so far to have proved less persistent than its anti-inequality content. The phenomena which most obviously follow in the OWS chain are not occupations but the unexpectedly enthusiastic receptions for social democrats. Sanders supporters, Piketty readers, and Occupiers share a desire to deepen democracy by attacking inequality and endemic corruption, goals which seem stronger forces at present than the desire for an entirely new way of living.

Meanwhile, if anything that like a “99 percent movement” outlived the Occupy camps, it has surely been eclipsed in the world of movement politics by Black Lives Matter (BLM), which had not reached anything like its present force when The Occupiers went to press. Diffuse by design, the BLM phenomenon now includes everything from DeRay McKesson’s corporate-sponsored campaign for mayor of Baltimore to “collective bargaining by riot,” an Eric Hobsbawm coinage revived by the British journal Endnotes to describe the popular unrest that helped secure indictments and Department of Justice investigations on behalf of the residents of Ferguson and Baltimore. But from margin to mainstream, BLM so far has not yet emphasized direct democracy or the permanent occupation of physical space.

It seems safe to say that our own social world is somewhere between the prosperous optimism that birthed the Port Huron Statement and the postwar destruction that engendered the Paris Commune. It is likewise true that OWS and Sanders’ “political revolution” have both been simultaneously more successful than anyone would have guessed and clear failures on their own terms. This suggests that both souls of radical democracy—Ross’ utter rejectionism and The Port Huron Statement’s left-liberal alliance—remain compelling and as yet inadequate. Imagining ways to square the circle should keep us busy for years to come.


Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neoliberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism

The current crisis of burgeoning right-wing populism in Europe is a multi-dimensional one comprising the decline of the political center made up of social democrats, Christian democrats, and liberals who have governed since the war. At the same time, the left and right poles of the spectrum are growing, though asymmetrically. While, in the elections held in the EU and Switzerland in 2015, 11 percent fell to the parties to the left of the social democrats and Greens,[1] the vote share of radical right parties reached 22 percent, and this trend is continuing in 2016 as seen in the elections held in four German states resulting in double-digit results for the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). So far, political scientists were convinced that the share of the vote right-wing parties can attain in Western Europe cannot exceed 30 percent. In contrast the leave-vote in the referendum in the UK shows that they can break through that ceiling, by capturing the political agenda and reaching out to constituencies which cannot be wholesale written off as right radicals.

The influence of right-wing radical parties in Western Europe

Surprisingly for many people, the recent successes of right-wing radical parties across Europe have put the working class back into the locus of wide-ranging analyses. The same working class that many political scientists until recently thought had exhausted its role is now being held responsible for the rise of the radical right.

At first sight, empirical research appears to confirm this new reality. Thus, according to analysis of Austria’s presidential election in May 2016, the share of working-class votes for the right-wing radical and nationalist Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs,

FPÖ) candidate amounted to 86 percent. [2] Analyses of France’s December 2015 regional elections reveals similar data.

Indeed there is much evidence that right-wing radical parties have made significant advances among the traditionally social democratic working-class electorate. However, these findings remain one-sided as long as the published investigations do not also reflect the vote shares in other segments of the electorate. In Austria’s presidential elections, the results which the FPÖ candidate achieved in agricultural and tourist regions demonstrate that he succeeded in penetrating a traditionally Catholic conservative segment of society, and the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse reported growing support for the FPÖ by members of the national lobbying group, the Association of Austrian Industrialists.[3]

Author and political commentator Richard Seymour draws a similar picture for England in describing the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as a genuine cross-class party that, acting like a wedge, has shifted national politics to the right. For the 2014 elections Seymour finds a roughly equal distribution of the party’s influence over broad social segments, so that one-quarter of the party’s support is made up of blue collar workers, one-quarter small entrepreneurs, one-quarter high-level managers, and one-quarter large-scale entrepreneurs.[4]

The rise of right-wing radical parties has complex causes, which include numerous political and cultural factors: Alongside fiscal crisis, precarity, and the middle strata’s fear of downward social mobility, there is the decline of social democratic parties; and the disillusionment over this —when the left fails to offer a credible radical alternative—ends all too easily by delivering people to the mills of the radical right. In her work on the French National Front party, left-wing author Elisabeth Gauthier pointed out that its high vote share is statistically and politically the result of electoral abstention and demobilization of a left disillusioned by the politics of the Parti Socialiste  (Socialist Party in France) and unfortunately also of the Front de Gauche (Left Front in France).

Here we have a sense of déjà vu, recalling the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who described the political crisis of the 1920s in Europe as an interregnum in which “the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe. . . .”

The Recent Austrian Experience

In the May 2016 Austrian presidential elections, Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing  Freedom Party of Austria earned 49.6 percent of the vote and came within a hair of being elected.  Had Hofer won, Austria would have been the first western European country to have elected an openly radical rightist as head of state. In one important detail, the Austrian FPÖ differs from other nationalist parties in Europe: Its nationalism does not relate to its own nation. As a representative of the German-National tendency of the Austrian right, it considers German-speaking Austrians to be part and parcel of the German “ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community”[5] which in itself not only contradicts Austria’s constitutional law, but also is out of synch with Europe’s post-war order.

But German nationalism and the affinity to the political doctrine of the Nazi Party of Germany National Socialism, alone do not explain the FPÖ’s ongoing success, which began in 1986. Insight into the complex causes of this development can be gleaned from a post-election poll published right after Vienna’s City Council elections in fall 2015.


The statement ‘Vienna is very livable’ was shared by (per cent):[6]
SPÖ (Austrian Socialist Party) voters 89
ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party (Christian Democratic)) voters 71
Green voters 94
NEOS (The New Austria and Liberal Forum) voters 81
FPÖ voters 30

In this off-year election, Vienna showed it was split in two. Whereas the voters of all parties appeared to feel comfortable in their city, 70 percent of FPÖ voters were not happy with their quality of life in the city. Here we see a de-facto monopoly by a right-wing radical party in representing the discontented in times of rising unemployment, growing fear of downward social mobility, and the growing precarity of living conditions .

A Europe-Wide Trend

The spectrum of far-right parties is multifaceted. In political science an important distinction is drawn between right-wing extremism and right-wing radicalism. Right-wing extremism indicates parties and groups that position themselves on the margin of the political spectrum, use violence, and in most cases relate ostentatiously to the tradition of National Socialism, that is, take up that party’s symbolism and rhetoric. They include Greece’s nationalist party Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik party, and the British National Party. In contrast to them, there are parties we call right-wing radical or right-wing populist which rhetorically distance themselves from extremism and claim to operate in the framework of parliamentary democracy. Modernized far-right parties camouflage their racism by the theory of ‘cultural difference’ thus trying to present themselves as a part of the mainstream. However, the basic idea remains the rejection of any sort of blending or living together of people of different cultural backgrounds within one society. This group of parties comprises, for example, the UKIP, France’s National Front, Denmark’s People’s Party, Democrats of Sweden, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the [True] Finns (of Finland), and the FPÖ.

The spectrum of the right-wing radical parties is fragmented. However, the common characteristics, which exist in different combinations in all cases, justify speaking of a family of parties. These characteristics are:[7]

  • a populist political style
  • an authoritarian conception of society;
  • ethnic nationalism (xenophobia, racism, and anti-Europeanism);
  • social chauvinism (the social state seen as exclusively for nationals)

How Populism Works

The question is: Can we call modernized right-wing radicalism fascism? I must confess that my answer is ambivalent. On the one hand, it makes no sense from a political point of view to address electorates making up nearly one-third of the population of certain countries as potential accomplices of mass murder, all the more so that the parties in question will tirelessly assert the opposite.

However, analyses of the 1920s and 1930s, in which Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Arthur Rosenberg, Walter Benjamin, and Otto Bauer tried to interpret what was then a new and paradoxical phenomenon of a ‘conservative rebellion’, reveals disturbing parallels with what contemporary political science terms right-wing ‘populism’.

Right-wing radical parties that are successful in deploying populist methods try to present themselves as rebellious outsiders. They discursively construct an antagonism between a corrupt elite and a betrayed people but exclude from their critique the actual connection of domination—consisting of the unequal distribution of property, income, and the resources of power. Instead, they present a criticism of existing conditions from the standpoint of the existing capitalist relations. The ‘anti-system’ rhetoric is not aimed against capitalism, which is taken as a given objective, but against the system of liberal representative democracy. What Walter Benjamin said of fascism from his Parisian exile in 1935 is true of today’s right-wing populism: it “attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”[8]

Quite contrary to the impression it tries to give, a populist discourse is not critical but exceedingly conformist. Its standard is not common sense, as it claims, but reactionary prejudice.

It aims at the maintenance and stabilization of socio-economic inequality by naturalizing it, offering, in periods of crisis and of political threat to rule, new authoritarian, repressive means and providing the appropriate ideology and the needed ruthless political personnel.

Thus, it makes sense that the first thing France’s National Front is demanding—under the heading ‘a constitutional reform for the re-establishment of democracy’—is to lengthen the term of office of the president whom the French system already provides with enormous powers.[9]

The ‘direct democracy’ of which they speak aims at producing a direct and exclusive relationship between the public and the charismatic leader, paving the way to a state which is governed according to the ‘Führer’ principle: He who is against the leader is against the people.’[10]

Competing Nationalism

Nationalists, whether they are French, Italian, or Hungarian, or other, see the world through the same eyes. They see their country as threatened by external forces and groups. Nationalism, or more accurately, nationalisms, represent a narrative that claims priority for the interests of one’s own country. In the case of major nations, the fulfillment of one’s own nationalism is seen as possible only at the cost of the nationalism of the others. Paradoxically, Europe’s radical right is divided through competing nationalisms at the same time as it is politically united by a strong anti-Europeanism.

Ever since the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU has not only represented an economic and currency union, but also a system of institutionalized political relations between states and nations resulting from both the Second World War and the victory of capitalism during the Cold War. According to the European treaties, all states of the EU are equal. In practice, the EU proved to be a hierarchical system, which in a capitalist context is not very surprising. The growth of nationalism in Europe is an indicator of a dramatic deterioration of national relations in Europe, between center and periphery, south and north, Germany and France, etc. Consequently, without ending austerity—or without initiating a broad pan-European movement against austerity—nationalism cannot be pushed back.

Within the European Parliament, the party family of the radical right has found homes under different roofs. Right-wing radical parties are members of three different groups:

  • ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists). Here under the same roof there are, among others, Britain’s Conservative Party, Poland’s Law and Justice party, the Alternative für Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns, and the New Flemish Alliance of Belgium.
  • EFDD (The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy). This group was largely formed by the MEPS (Member of the European Parliament) of the UKIP (Great Britain) and Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (Italy).
  • ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom). This group established in 2015 includes the National Front (France), the FPÖ (Austria), PVV (Netherlands), Lega Nord (Italy), and Vlaams Belang (Belgium)[11]

The composition of these groups is not the result of any recognizable overriding strategic calculation but rather reflects tactical considerations by the parties, often in relation to domestic politics and, in some cases, interpersonal competition at the European level and the personal aversions of leadership figures (for instance between Marine Le Pen of National Front and Nigel Farage of UKIP). These divisions however  simply do not weaken the radical right-wing phenomenon as a whole; instead, we see that their differentiation makes possible a diffusion of right-wing radical influence within a spectrum that reaches into the center of European politics—epitomized by the Hungarian civic Alliance (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége) FIDESZ, a right-wing radical party that has nevertheless found its place within the European People’s Party, alongside Christian Democrats.

The Fight for a “New Common Sense” 

While the struggle against right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism in most cases is a struggle at the margins of the political spectrum, the battle against right-wing radicalism by now has become a struggle for majorities at the center of society.

One experience of the inter-war years continues to have current relevance. The triumphal march of the radical right, specifically in Germany and Austria, was triggered by the mass unemployment and immiseration of the middle strata. This means that without a struggle against unemployment, and for the defense, expansion, and reconstruction of the welfare state, for adequate professional training and legally regulated work conditions, for the right to housing, and for the public services, right-wing radicalism cannot be defeated. However, doing so also requires a sustainable economic policy, control over the financial markets, a policy of industrial reconstruction, and a conversion to ecological sustainability conversion.

This kind of policy shift is not possible without a confrontation with the ruling parties and prevailing interests, as in the current struggle of France’s working class against the labor market reform introduced by the social democratic government. Although at the beginning of the year Marine Le Pen was leading the polls for the upcoming presidential elections, today a majority of the French view the General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT)  as the ‘most important opponent of the government’. [12] Overnight the National Front is watching itself being pushed to the margins of politics. Militant trade unions and social movements are indispensable in the confrontation with the radical right, but the trade-union movement in Europe is not up to the challenge, especially in terms of  Europe-wide cross-border solidarity.

There is, however, also a gap that needs to be filled by renewed left political parties.

The power bid by right-wing radical parties is indeed a threat to liberal democracy that is perceived by many people irrespective of political party allegiances. Right-wing radicalism, however, is not the only danger that threatens democracy today. The authoritarian means with which austerity policy is being carried out in the EU, the arming of a security and surveillance apparatus under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the anti-Muslim racism amplified by the media, and borders closed off to immigrants—all not only creates a climate in which right-wing radicalism thrives, but also represents limitations on and threats to democracy and freedom.

In this context the left finds allies in civil society, churches, anti-fascist groups, and among political liberals. However those who advocate a refugee policy consistent with human rights, or LGBT rights, that is, those who are combatting racism and defending bourgeois freedoms, do not automatically fight for a redistribution of social wealth from the top to the bottom . Nor is the inverse necessarily true. A left that wants to successfully wage a battle against the radical right has to stand the test in both spheres, and only if it succeeds in combining the struggles into a common political project, establishing a ‘bottom-middle alliance’,[13] can it succeed in building a new left hegemony for a social transformation.

Finally, the crisis of European integration has opened up the decisive arena of confrontation between the left and the radical right. Europe is a political fait accompli and therefore an arena of the struggle for democracy. The EU can only be defended in the face of nationalism if it becomes a democracy with a full-fledged parliament.However, pan-Europeanism, cannot be the only perspective of the left on Europe, in which states and nations exist and will continue to do so; therefore the only European democracy that will be accepted by the populations is one that respects democracy in the Member States. The brute force with which a new Memorandum was forced on the Syriza government shows that this kind of respect is not the established policy. It is the state leaderships just as much as the European technocracy in Brussels which are responsible for this.

The struggle against the radical right will only be won if the prevailing regime in Europe is ended. Europe will either be democratic and social or it will founder on nationalism.

In the last analysis, there is another aspect to this European malaise. Europe’s societies as a whole are unprepared for the Great Transformation [14] which the world is currently undergoing. It must be understood that this prospect, broadcast into people’s living rooms through television and the Internet, is frightening for them, because there is not enough understanding of the underlying social processes.

This socio-economic transformation necessitates the fight for a ‘new common sense’ referred to by Gramsci, without which  the regression to primitiveness, which is the aim of far-right parties, cannot be prevented.



[1]This includes the above-average successes of left parties in Greece (Syriza, KKE, and Popular Unity: 44 per cent) and Spain (Podemos and IU: 24.4 per cent).

[2]See ‘Wer hat wen gewählt‘, Der Standard, 22 May 2016, <>.

[3]See Die Presse, 2 May 2016,  < 4978742/ Hort-die-Signale-der-FPO? _vl_backlink=/home/>.

[4] Richard Seymour, ‘UKIP and the Crisis of Britain’, Socialist Register 2016, London, p. 35.

[5]           Literally, in the FPÖ’s current programme: ‘Austria’s language, history, and culture are German. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are part of the German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community’. Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ) enacted at the Federal Party Congress 18 June 2011 in Graz’, <>.

[6] ‘Wahltagsbefragung’, Source: ISA/SORA, 11 October 2015; quoted from orf-online: <https:/>.

[7] See Cas Mudde, ‘The Far Right and the European Elections’, Current History Magazine 03/2014.

[8]  Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, transl. Harry Zohn), New York: Shocken, 1969.

[9] ‘Notre Projet’ – Programme Politique du Front National (2012), pp. 44 ff.

[10] Hans-Henning Scharsach, Rückwärts nach rechts – Europas Populisten, Vienna : Wirtschaftsverlag Ueberreuter, 2002, p. 213.

[11] The MEPs of the explicitly neo-fascist Golden Dawn (Greece) and Jobbik (Hungary) could not find a home in any of the three far-right groups and registered as non-attached members.

[12] <>.

[13] Michael Brie (2010), ‘Einstiegsprojekte in eine solidarische Politik‘, <>.

[14] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. New York:Farrar & Rinehart ,1944.



In this article, views of Jay Youngdahl are expressed followed by a response from Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

Greed-Washing the On-Demand Economy: The NDWA’s “Good Work Code”

By Jay Youngdahl

Readers of New Labor Forum are familiar with the depleted state of America’s unions, workers’ depressed living standards, as well as of the emergence of responsive ideas, strategies, and struggles.  The current ferment will surely to lead to successes, but in the process a number of counterproductive strategies are emerging.[i]

Though led by smart, empathetic activists, one of the oddest and most problematic of the new efforts is the Good Work Code (GWC or the Code) for the on-demand or “gig” economy, formulated by the National Domestic Workers Association (NDWA).[ii]  While the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in particular, are engaged in unionizing strategies in the tech sector, and enterprising wage and hour lawyers are confronting the sector’s wage theft, the NDWA, working with a number of corporate partners such as the Uber-like delivery company DoorDash, has created an aspirational code for tech-sector employers.

An analysis of the GWC is a lesson in the problematic nature of a number of trends in the Philanthropic Labor Movement (PLM).  Unfortunately, within the non-profits in the foundation-funded PLM, worker agency, power, and democracy, the bedrocks of a strong movement, are often hard to find.[iii]

The Code was unveiled last fall with a splashy website and media campaign, after the well-respected NDWA canvassed “on-demand” employers.[iv]  Signatory companies committed to endorse general “values” for their work forces Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Living Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, Growth and Development––and to make public a few sentences about what “progress” they will make in relation to two of the eight values.[v]  Nothing more was required. In exchange, they received a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to trumpet on promotional materials, backed by the progressive reputation of the NDWA.

Codes which inure to the benefit of workers are sometimes developed for areas in which worker power is lacking and protection at work sorely needed.   But like codes for organic food or product safety, many are simply corporate greedwashing.2)  As the trajectory of the Fair Labor Association has shown in the garment supply chain, “many companies adopt codes to assist with their reputational risks over questionable labor practices,” says Ben Hensler, Deputy Director of the Workers Rights Consortium.[vi]

Good codes exist, but to work, Hensler continues, they “need several attributes including legal enforceability, independent and transparent monitoring of compliance, and meaningful involvement of worker representatives.” One successful code is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord) in Bangladesh negotiated between international trade unions at such companies as Fruit of the Loom and Benetton.  Coming on the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which, scandalously, more than one thousand people were killed, the Accord is a legally binding agreement covering over two million workers. To ensure a safe working environment the Accord includes inspection programs, public disclosure of reports, a democratically elected factory-based health and safety committee, and a right to refuse unsafe work.  Fruitful codes are present in the U.S. as well.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, through a strategy of farmworker organizing, consumer education, and boycotts, has forced a number of retail companies, including Walmart, to sign onto its Fair Food Code of Conduct, which contains labor protections.  And, the NDWA’s original caregiver’s Bill of Rights is a solid type of code, whose use has advanced efforts to protect in-home labor.

It is easy to see why tech companies would like the Good Work Code.  NDWA’s anointing of DoorDash as a company that provides good work gives the company a powerful weapon when questioned about the compensation of its drivers.[vii]  And, for a troubled public company like, the reputational boost from its NDWA seal of approval is valuable.[viii]   But why would the NDWA, a very well-respected organization, leverage its prestige with this mealy-mouthed GWC, even as an experiment?[ix]

First, the sparkly potential of the “on-demand” economy glimmers for many schooled in social entrepreneurship, and is seducing too many labor advocates.[x] The Good Work Code is based on the Silicon Valley utopian vision featured in TED talks with breathless paeans to “innovation” and “disruption.”  In this Garden of Eden, it is claimed, wonderful “new opportunities” exist for workers featuring “flexibility” and “freedom.”[xi]

Further, the GWC is a manifestation of the Good Capitalism movement.  Here, the “rich can save the world,” and “capitalism itself can be philanthropic, working for the good of mankind  . . . by [innovating] to benefit everyone, sooner or later.”[xii]  In what the writer Anand Giridharadas has called the “Aspen Consensus,” generosity becomes a substitute for justice. Companies are exhorted to “Do More Good,” but never, “Do Less Harm.”[xiii]  And, in Good Capitalism, “the business approach is the only thing that can change the world.”[xiv]

Worker power is Lilliputian in Good Capitalism, and worker “betterment” is mediated by well-meaning politicians, foundation program officers, and PLM leaders.  Ideas of confrontational unions, with their worker solidarity and messy democracy, is shunned. Describing the GWC, Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA told Forbes, “Our goal is to create a new story—a new narrative– that’s not about abusive employers and downtrodden workers, but rather that brings companies front and center into the conversation about the future of good work.”[xv]  Given the realities of life for Silicon Valley workers, this brings to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing on the perils of positivity as “an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy;” lower-rung “gig” workers are simply “modern” day laborers.”[xvi]  Even one of the signatories of the GWC admitted that in the “new economy” “the basics remain much of the same … a time clock used to be something that was mounted on the wall of a factory; now it’s a mobile app.” [xvii]

For those who would say that criticizing the Code is just “old labor” negativity, consider Poo’s statement to Forbes that, “We see a moment of opportunity right now because the gig/online economy is relatively new and its values and principles regarding work are still forming.”[xviii]  There is much to chew on here, but it is farcical to claim that the “values and principles of these Silicon Valley creations are still forming.” Silicon Valley has a well-formed negative ethical code– raw profit-seeking individualism.  Their leaders are constantly in the news for some kind of unethical actions whether in their personal lives– cheating a sex slave or closing public access to beaches for their private use– or in their business–cheating workers out of their wages.[xix] As to the “evolving ethics” for employees, advocates and discharged workers know that many business models are based on “exploiting workers and disregarding employment laws.”[xx]  The bigger on-demand companies such as Uber and Instacart have recently cut pay to their drivers. And, an “occupational segregation” exists in the Silicon Valley as full-time jobs are replaced with low-wage subcontracting work staffed by predominantly black and Latino workers.[xxi]  A recent report found that the average blue-collar subcontracted worker has an annual income of $19,900.  A living wage for a single mother with one child in this area, for example, is at least twice this amount.[xxii]

New ideas for worker justice and power are needed and certainly a thousand flowers should bloom, but the Good Work Code is a bad strategy even though advanced by good people.



[i] For a light “taxonomy” of these “new labor” formations and commentary of their promises and perils, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Is a Progressive Phoenix Rising?  The New Labor Movement is Approaching,” Social Policy Winter, 2016.

[ii] The NDWA is led by Ai-jen Poo, who is on the Board of the New Labor Forum.

[iii] Recent events have shown that success may come in areas of personal identity and work culture from PLM activities, such as shown petitions demanding the right of retail workers to dye their hair blue, red, or pink.  Challenges to income inequality do not fare as well.


[v] Palak Shah, the leader of the GWC, said that each signatory commits to “focusing on at least two of the eight as priorities over the next year. The idea is to kick off a conversation– it doesn’t mean these companies will get to all eight right away, but it means they aspire to do so, and they are taking public steps to do so. And it means they won’t have to do so alone, but rather in a community of practice grappling with the same questions.” Michael Zakaras, “Can the Online Economy Become a Labor Leader,” Forbes, November 13, 2015

[vi] The Fair Labor Association has been called a “fig leaf” to cover supply chain labor abuse.

[vii] Lyft recently was forced to admit in court that it has taken $126 million in compensation from drivers through its classification of them as independent contractors.

[viii] The case of and NDWA is especially interesting.  Given’s business space and the mission of the NDWA, their closeness is understandable.  Like the UAW and GM or the APWU and the USPS, unions often stand by their employers.  Unfortunately though, unlike GM and the USPS, staff is not unionized.

[ix] I want to thank Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah for speaking to me as part of my writing in this area.  I salute their openness.  Shah, to her credit, told me that the GWC is an “experiment,” to “shift the conversation to workers.”

[x] A close look at the public relations push behind the “Portable Benefits” movement and efforts to replace worker “employee status” with a form of “independent contractor status” highlights this attraction to Silicon Valley language and thought.  See, and Jay Youngdahl and Darwin Bond-Graham, “When Labor Groups and Silicon Valley Capitalists Join Forces to “Disrupt” Protections for Employees,” Working In These Times blog, December 4, 2015

[xi] As to flexibility, when asked, “Legal arguments aside, why is DoorDash opposed to having its drivers classified as employees?” the company responded that: “Our goal at DoorDash is to provide meaningful, flexible work for people across the country. When we speak with Dashers we regularly hear that one of the most important benefits of their work is flexibility and we want to ensure we continue to provide them with that option. We are proud to have created opportunities for a growing community of tens of thousands of Dashers that offer them flexibility, freedom and a meaningful source of income.”  In fact, this flexibility and new opportunities remind one of the famous quote of Anatole France in “The Red Lily.”  “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

[xii]  See, Recently, the former head of BP, the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in the U.S., wrote on how companies can “tackle big social problems,” lauding Walmart’s success in this area.

[xiii] While a fellow at the Aspen Global Leadership Network, Anand Giridharadas gave a speech which included these remarks.

[xiv]Unfortunately, the NDWA is not the only organization that has been seduced by this “business case.”  In “old labor”, for example, many labor Capital Strategies activists use the term “human capital” to describe workers, even their own members. And the labor program at Harvard, partially financed by unions, is starting a “human governance” research program “Human Governance as a management paradigm that emerges when an organization recognizes and seeks to fulfill a commitment to the never-ending pursuit of societal value through realizing the full potential value of its entire human capital.”

[xv]  At a recent White House forum Poo told President Obama that NDWA found that many on-demand employers “just wanted to do the right thing and it wasn’t clear what that was.”  Poo followed that there were “no standards, no guidelines” for employers.  The President responded that he was a fan of collective bargaining.

[xvi] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” Picador Press, 2010.

[xvii] See, Cole Stangler, “Meet the Gig Economy Companies That See Investing In Workers As a Smart Business Strategy,”  March 17, 2016  International Business Times

[xviii] See, Greg Bensinger, “Grocery-Delivery Startup Instacart Cuts Pay for Couriers,” March 11, 2016 Wall Street Journal


[xx]; recently a lawyer for Wage Theft Coalition echoed the former Zirtual employee: “In Silicon Valley, exploitation is part of the business model.”  Jennifer Wadsworth, “Recent Cases Highlight Silicon Valley’s Wage Theft ‘Epidemic,’” March 9, 2016 SanJoseInside





RESPONSE: New Business Models Demand New Forms of Worker Organizing

Response by Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

We welcome the opportunity to discuss the merits of the Good Work Code (GWC) and engage with Jay Youngdahl’s critique. As we read it, Youngdahl poses three main objections to the GWC: (1) The values framework articulated is aspirational and unenforceable; (2) it “greedwashes” companies engaged in bad labor practices; and (3) it is based on the notion that “Good Capitalism” can be mobilized to solve the problem of worker exploitation. In the course of his critique, Youngdahl also targets what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement,” that is, those of us with the temerity to organize workers outside the frame of traditional labor unions.

Digital technology and on-demand hiring platforms are rapidly transforming how workers engage with various sectors of the labor market and their terms and conditions of work. Domestic work is among the many occupations impacted by new technology. Increasingly, workers and employers are matched online for child care and eldercare jobs through companies like, and the on-demand economy has penetrated the housecleaning market through companies like Handy and TaskRabbit.

NDWA turned its attention to Silicon Valley not because, as Youngdahl implies, we were bedazzled by the bright, shiny objects dangled by tech companies, but because, the fact is, these models are transforming labor markets. Increasing numbers of domestic workers, and other low-wage workers, access work through these companies. This phenomenon is in its infancy and our expectation is that it will grow. We believe these workers deserve the best wages and conditions of labor. We assume that Youngdahl agrees with us, at least on this point.

The labor movement is still in the early stages of determining how best to meet the multiple challenges posed by companies that aggregate and deploy workers through digital platforms. Mechanisms for exploiting labor are proliferating and changing far more rapidly than our capacity to organize workers and represent their interests. Tech companies are building new business models, often creating ever more precarious conditions of life and labor, lowering wage floors and job quality. However, with the exception of the ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, most gig-economy companies are in early stages. It is in this environment, that the labor movement is called upon to develop interventions on many fronts, fearlessly exploring traditional and nontraditional means of articulating, defending, and expanding workers’ rights.

It is in this context that NDWA initiated the Good Work Code. We quickly saw the structural similarities between domestic workers and so-called ‘gig’ workers. Both groups face inconsistent hours, working without contracts, lack of benefits, little to no labor law protections, and no clear path to unionization. At the same time, those who follow the gig economy know that it has been tech companies, not unions or labor advocates, driving the national conversation. By releasing a simple values framework, we have successfully inserted the demands and voices of workers into a narrative dominated by tech companies, with the intention of creating space for a conversation about what better employment practices could look like in the digital economy. That conversation is not meant to obscure problematic or patently illegal practices. It does not take the place of workers organizing, through unions or other forms, to improve conditions. And it does nothing to resolve critical issues like worker classification–it was not meant to. It does, however, broaden worker-driven demands without unscrupulously cutting deals. Our framework consists of eight simple values that we think are foundational to good work in the online economy: Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Livable Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, and Growth and Development.[1] The values were developed based on in-person interviews with workers in the tech economy about their experiences working on platforms— though the overarching values and principles are fairly commonsense. To participate, companies identify their current practices related to two of the values and their commitments going forward.[2] The GWC is not a seal of approval.[3] Its purpose is to function as a framework and an initial roadmap for companies to assess and improve working conditions for their employees. The GWC, or any derivative of it, can also begin to serve as a demand framework for all of us in the labor movement as we seek to better understand how work is changing specifically in the online economy.

So far 12 companies have chosen to affiliate themselves with the Good Work Code–launched in October 2015– and publicly endorse the eight values. Our own experience in the domestic worker movement has shown us that organizing strategies complemented with norms and culture change strategies can yield great results.

Over the last six months, we have seen the national conversation about work in the online economy advance from an exclusive focus on employment classification to what workers need and employer obligations to meet those needs. We believe we contributed to this important shift, and that the ground has been softened for a diverse range of interventions that will improve online work and increase worker power in the future.

How will this improve the lives of workers? The simple answer is that we don’t know yet. The vision of the GWC is to articulate aspirational values that extend beyond the rights and protections provided to workers by law, even when those workers are classified correctly as employees rather than independent contractors. But of course these are values, not yet measurable standards or specific rights enforceable by contract, though we support the emergence of concrete standards and enforceable contracts. Not being represented by unions, these workers currently have no contracts. NDWA and the GWC do not stand in the way of union efforts to organize these workers or any other efforts to realize gains for workers. And we understand that the ultimate arbiters of how these companies are doing are neither the GWC nor NDWA, but the workers themselves. However, what Youngdahl interprets as “greed-washing” we offer as one tactic or intervention, in a rapidly changing environment, which we believe has the potential to improve the work lives of tens of thousands of workers. Organizers and advocates would do well to keep their eyes on both long-term goals and on the full range of ways to improve working conditions in the current context.

Youngdahl suggests that we suffer the illusion that “Good Capitalism” will somehow reform itself and begin to operate in the interests of workers and all humankind. To the contrary, we understand that digital technology has, in most cases, exacerbated already stunning levels of inequality in our economy. But our own experience has taught us that an orientation toward collective bargaining or nothing at all is counter-productive and limiting. In the absence of an aggregated workforce, domestic workers have experimented for decades with multiple tactics and strategies to win better wages and decent work. Further, we believe– as we assume most workers do— that some companies are better to work for than others. They pay better wages, they don’t sweat their workers, they provide avenues for advancement, they encourage and incorporate worker input. Perhaps their owners adhere to a set of moral and ethical values that ultimately lean contrary to the demands of capital, and they actively engage that contradiction. Whatever the case, short of a comprehensively unionized workforce or universal worker control of production and service provision, we orient toward making consistent progress on impacting the framework of dialogue and meeting new challenges with new tactics.

We would remind Youngdahl of something he surely knows: Unions have had the opportunity to organize domestic workers since the dawn of the U.S. labor movement. They have chosen not to. Worker organizers outside traditional union structures, with the welcome support of foundations, have pioneered ways to organize neglected sectors of the working class to exercise their power and win better conditions of labor. Youngdahl’s cut at what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement” seems to imply that it would have been better to leave these workers unorganized, or to continue to wait until traditional unions determined that organizing domestic workers was a worthwhile endeavor. We disagree.

As for the notion that those who fight for the rights of workers within the context of non-profit organizations squelch worker agency, power and democracy, we invite Youngdahl to meet the worker leaders and members affiliated with NDWA and dozens of other worker centers. Their power, voice, initiative, creativity, strategic thinking and commitment are the foundation for multiple victories that have expanded the rights and lifted the dignity of previously unrepresented workers.

We understand ourselves to be part of one labor movement, unified in its interest in winning the best deal for workers. We depend on our friends and long-term allies in traditional unions to stand with us in our joint effort to build a powerful and inclusive labor movement. We expect that there may be tactical disagreements among us along the way, but reject Youngdahl’s troubling assertion that we are deluded and that our methods are dangerous.

The reality is that none of us, including Youngdahl, know what it will take the rebuild the power of the labor movement in this country. What we do know is that the future of technology and the future of work are inextricably bound, and that the best work happens in the field. We contend that simply protecting and promoting a model of traditional trade unionism is not sufficient, nor is it working. We need many experiments, new forms of organizing and organization. And, we believe that changing the conversation–the cultural and narrative environment around work– is a key part of creating the context for the ultimate success of a new workers’ movement in this country. Capital is adaptive and sophisticated; at minimum, we must be as well.



[1] See:

[2] Each company and their public commitments are listed here:

[3] We are puzzled by Youngdahl’s consistent misrepresentation of the structure and nature of the Good Work Code as an initiative. We have consistently clarified that the Good Work Code is a commitment made by companies, not an endorsement by NDWA. Misrepresentation of these facts changes the nature of the initiative and we can only imagine is being employed to better suit Youngdahl’s argument.