Category: Featured

Bernie Sanders addressing CWA members

Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology and the Future of American Politics

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, contrary to all expectation, has become the most important left insurgency in the United States in nearly half a century. A year ago, even his most optimistic supporters might have hoped that Sanders would enliven the presidential debates by challenging Hillary Clinton on issues of Wall Street power and big money corruption, and perhaps garner a quarter to a third of the primary vote. Instead, Sanders won

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Behind the Scenes with the One Percent

The pop culture genre of “secret look into the lives of the upper class” dominates representations of the wealthy in the United States. In the 1980s, Robin Leach guided us through the “lifestyles of the rich and famous”; now whole swaths of reality TV programming are dedicated to the trials and tribulations of “real” house- wives, the roller coaster of luxury real estate, and celebrities behaving badly. These voyeuristic portrayals paint the rich as fundamentally “different from you and me.” Their lifestyles are exotic and take place in foreign lands like “Richistan” (the title of Robert Frank’s 2008 book on the lifestyles of the “new rich”).

These portrayals offer the wealthy as objects of aspiration, in some cases, but also of moral judgment, positive and negative. “Over-the-top” life- styles seem excessive and materialistic, marked by greed and disdain for the feelings of others. Stories of love and loss, on the other hand, can humanize them, eliciting compassion and empathy. Two recent books, on wealthy Manhattan mothers and Hollywood nannies, are the latest to promise the “inside scoop” on the lifestyles of others. They are similarly marked by ambivalence about the moral worth of upper-class people.

In Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday (née Wendy) Martin recounts her story of struggling to fit in with the other mothers of the Upper East Side after she relocates there from downtown with her husband and young son. The narrative arc is familiar. New girl comes to (up)town; the “mean girls” shun her, and she cannot understand them. These women seem quite superficial, in addition to cold and status- conscious, but Martin still wants them to accept her—mostly, she repeatedly asserts, for the sake of her son. She grows accustomed to their status hierarchies and their fashion requirements, and learns insider tricks about how to buy an apartment, get a child into preschool, and skip the waitlist for an Hermès Birkin bag. But in the end, a tragedy (in this case, her mis- carriage) teaches her that these women are generous and caring, as they rally around in her time of need, revealing their own heartbreaks.


The twist is that Martin frames this account as an anthropological investigation (hence the title). She describes her project as “an academic experiment” of studying Manhattan mothers, who constitute “a tribe apart” (pp. 7-8). She makes many, many analogies between the members of this “tribe” and non-human animals, including chimps, baboons, bonobos, Capuchin monkeys, rhesus monkeys, birds, and bees, as well as human animals such as African hunter- gatherers and Kwakiutl noblemen. She offers the reader several sections of “field notes” in which she describes the “island dwellers” of Manhattan in their “habitat.” She describes being repeatedly “charged” by women on the street asserting their own superiority. And she draws on other ethnographic concepts, identify- ing her “native informants” and describing her own process of “going native.”

But the anthropological conceit is, not surprisingly, just a sexy hook for a memoir. Martin did not attempt to carry out any real research. If she had, she might have theorized these issues in terms of another set of concepts having to do with power, not primates. She would also have had to be much more careful with controversial distinctions between hard-wired “nature” and more malleable “culture,” a tension she does not so much as acknowledge, even as she invokes Japanese geishas and prairie dogs for the same purpose (to describe the habits of the “natives” she is talking about).

As a memoir, the book was criticized when it came out (notably in the New York Post, in a piece headlined “Upper East Side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies”) for major inaccuracies. These included the length of time she lived on the Upper East Side (three years, not six), how many children she had while she lived there (one, not two), and the existence of some businesses (the lengthy story of her devotion to the ballet-based workout studio Physique 57, for example, could not have happened as she suggests, because Physique 57 did not exist at the time). Most famously, she has been accused of inventing the “wife bonus” she describes— the end-of-year payment from high-earning husbands to their non-earning wives. Some of these missteps matter more than others, but they highlight the uncomfortable genre confusion between “memoir” and “study.”
My main problem with the book is that it feels like a missed opportunity on both counts. There are very few systematic studies of or memoirs by wealthy people addressing how they think and feel about their lifestyles and their social position. As a researcher who has been working for years to interview wealthy New Yorkers on these issues, I envy Martin. She was lucky to have access to these people, as her peers, neighbors, and friends. She also has a keen capacity for observation and an active, compelling writing style. Her descriptions of these privileged mothers are vivid and disturbing. They are anxious, exhausted, insecure about their economic dependency on their husbands, and obsessed with the “right” apartment, school, bag, or pair of shoes. They starve themselves, exercise constantly, and depend on wine and benzos to get through the day.

But we learn very little about their inner lives, especially the answer to the crucial question: why do they put themselves through this? These are highly educated women with professional skills and histories. Why do they give up their jobs and become desperately invested in these empty, self-destructive, status competitions? She does not address these questions, and beyond some scenes featuring a couple of female friends, she does not develop any real characters besides herself (the motif of one ice-cold “Queen Bee” weaves through much of the story, but we have no idea what might motivate this person and others like her). Ultimately, her account reproduces the stereotypes we already have of these women as essentially shallow (though also anxious and terrified), because their motivations are never explored.

These questions are not answered to my satisfaction for Martin herself either. Why does she desire this lifestyle, which she has described as so unpleasant? She talks about “going native” as a process of “habituation” and wants her son to fit in to his new community. But she never really explains why she comes to desire a Birkin bag, feel the need for a shot of Botox, and regret not getting a bikini wax before giving birth. The faux-anthropological frame actually prevents this kind of investigation by reproducing constructions of otherness throughout the book (though it seems unlikely in any case that Martin started out as different from these women as she claims to have been).

The gender and class dimensions of this story leap off the page, but she rarely explores them as such. It is clear that Martin sees the problems generated by women’s economic dependency on men, and, to her credit, she discusses this issue in some detail. But she turns away from any possibility of politicizing these accounts or linking them to cultural gender norms as well as, say, job structures that limit wealthy women’s incentives to stay in the labor force. She also blithely mentions her many class advantages, which fit together like yellow bricks on the road to total Upper East Sideitude: wealth, family connections, graduate education, Hamptons rental, full- time child care, and $100,000 annual beauty regime (she does the math on this with a friend). But Martin offers no sustained reflection on living with inequality in the most unequal large city in the United States. Instead, Primates of Park Avenue primarily investigates intra-class differences of style between uptown and downtown Manhattan (Marc Jacobs vs. Chanel, for example) as if there were something significant at stake, but Martin never tells us what it is.

Whether as a focused study or a more honest memoir, an exploration of the real experiences and feelings of these Upper East Siders, including Martin herself, would have made for a much more interesting and important read. The most emotionally open part of the story is the last quarter, in which Martin becomes unexpectedly pregnant, decides not to have an abortion, but ultimately loses the baby. Here her chatty, ironic narration gives way to a more sincere, contemplative voice, which speaks almost in slow motion. To have written about these other aspects of experience with similar attention and truth would have added to the public under- standing of how wealthy people choose and inhabit their privileged lives. As it is, the book reproduces the limited dual narrative of “look how insane and shallow rich people (especially women) are” plus “hey, actually they’re not that bad, because they have problems too.”

The Nanny Chronicles of Hollywood, co-written by Julie Swales and Stella Reid, also promises a “behind the scenes” account, this time of the work of the Hollywood nanny (the cover image depicts a baby holding an Oscar). Reid is a former nanny and now star of the reality show “Nanny 911”; Swales directs the child care division of a high-profile Hollywood employment agency. Like Primates of Park Avenue, this book alternates among voyeurism toward, critique of, and empathy for wealthy people. The authors offer the “Hollywood-obsessed public a peek into our decades of experience with Crazywood” (p. 7). Yet they also paint celebrity employers as busy, stressed out, and insecure.

The book is organized to describe the course of a nanny’s employment with a single family, and the story is told primarily from the nanny’s point of view. Each chapter addresses one moment or theme, such as getting hired (featuring the matchmaking role of the agency, which includes making sure the candidate is appropriately dressed), the children themselves, sex and luxury consumption on the job, creating bound- aries with employers, and leaving the position. After some general discussion, about half of each chapter consists of narratives of four composite nannies, one of whom is male, whom the reader is also following through these moments of their employment.

The authors recount many “true stories” of outrageous employer behavior: not allowing the nanny to speak directly to the employers (she has to go through the assistant), forcing the nanny to share a bed with the child and go to bed at the child’s bedtime, employers of both sexes offering nannies money or perks for sex, firing nannies for no reason, and not allowing them to say goodbye to the children. But ultimately the book suggests that nannies just have to put up with this kind of thing because, well, celebrities are so crazy! Plus, celebrities are preyed upon and so naturally suspicious and thus deserving of empathy: “both they and their nannies are victims of celebrity culture” (p. 193).

Indeed, Swales and Reid write, the choice of whether to “make a career as a nanny work” or “suffer” within it is “always within the nanny’s control” (pp. 211-12). The authors enjoin nannies to draw strong boundaries and say no when they have to, yet describe in detail how little it takes for them to get fired (such as putting a Barbie spoon in the Barbie fork drawer). Indeed, the authors blame the nannies if they get too close to the children, wear insufficiently conservative clothes, or fail to save their earnings, since they should see that these are the rules of the game— employers can do whatever they want.

The authors briefly recognize that issues of “power, class, and manipulation” (p. 9) often mark these relationships. But class difference also becomes a source of reward, through rich- people perks like traveling internationally aboard private jets and inheriting designer out- fits from the employers. In the end, the nanny has to recognize that these are “borrowed lifestyles” (p. 62) both in terms of the relationship with the child and the luxury consumption. Again, nannies are temporary visitors to this world, and if they cannot handle that, there is something wrong with them.

Not surprisingly, then, Swales and Reid do not discuss the systematic problems in the occupation that have been extensively documented by researchers, or any possible reforms that could protect workers doing these jobs. This lack of attention stems from two linked assumptions, I think. First, the authors seem sure that nannies benefit from this arrangement materially even beyond the luxury perks, earning six-figure salaries plus benefits, bonuses, and clothing and housing allowances (a claim Martin also makes about the nannies of the Upper East Side).

Second, they indicate, using a butterfly metaphor, that these jobs are temporary. These college-educated nannies will go on to bigger things; it will be many steps down class-wise, but they will return to their natural social stratum and succeed therein. Two of the composite characters we follow leave the industry to start a business or go to graduate school, and the other two are reconsidering their futures. The one who seems like she might be a career nanny is gently admonished by the authors for putting her employer’s family before her own happiness, because she has said no to love in order to say yes to her job. The message is clear: The career is not to be upgraded—it is the nanny herself who should be. This stance is problematic for any worker, of course, but perhaps more so for the vast majority of real-life nannies, most of whom are immigrants without much education who do not have these options. In different ways, these books express ambivalence in representations of the wealthy, who come across as alternately entitled and vulnerable. Both discourses serve the ideological function of making non-rich people feel better about themselves, either because they have moral superiority over nasty, status- conscious snobs or because they have avoided losing their grip with the onset of celebrity. Money cannot buy happiness, as we are told by these books (and many other sources). We are thus distracted by these moral evaluations of individuals—of the wealthy and of ourselves— from the material realities of radical inequality. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that books in this pop-entertainment category could interrogate unequal social arrangements and structures. But it is important to recognize that they reproduce ideas that sustain and legitimate those arrangements.

The Internet vs. the Labor Movement: Why Unions Are Late-Comers to Digital Organizing

Over the past decade, the importance of digital organizing has soared in electoral and issue based campaigns on the left. The idea that an electoral field organizer need not be a capable database user is patently ridiculous at this point. Political campaigns understand that they need to invest in staff with expertise in digital organizing—whether those are people who can write e-mail subject lines that will...

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Contingent Faculty of the World Unite! Organizing to Resist the Corporatization of Higher Education

The once hallowed and secure work life of American university faculty has for the past quarter century been in turmoil. Being a professor was once a respected, stable profession, but is now increasingly characterized by low pay, minimal benefits, and no job security.

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Debtors’ Island: How Puerto Rico Became a Hedge Fund Playground

You could call it a perfect storm: a fiscal crisis converging with a deep secular economic decline.1 Once touted as the showcase of U.S.- led economic development, debt-strapped Puerto Rico is currently embroiled in a struggle for survival. During the mid-twentieth century, Puerto Rico grew at a rapid pace, betting on cheap labor, privileged duty-free access to the U.S. market, and tax incentives for U.S. companies. By the 1970s, however, the formula had lost steam and ...

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The Black-Labor-Left Alliance in the Neoliberal Age

The report, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Labor, brings together the perspectives and voices of significant black American trade union leadership to contribute to the important conversation concerning ways forward for labor and allied movements in these perilous times. The collective authors of the document, which was released in July 2015, bring a wealth of experience and standing in the trade union movement to ask: “What is it that workers need and want? How can this then become not the ‘special interests’ of an isolated labor movement, but a robust agenda that can rally the bottom 99 percent to collective action?” Their responses seek with mixed success to advance our strategic thinking with regard to building the broad movement necessary to “rally the bottom 99 percent.”

Those questions have occupied the labor-left for decades, at least since the systematic business attack on unions and social wage policies became visible in the 1980s. These issues drove the insurgent mood that grew out of the anti-concessions and NAFTA fights in the 1980s and early 1990s and the organizational expressions that emerged from the cauldron of those fights. The latter included the effort to build a politically independent Labor Party centered in the union movement, the more electoral, less specifically class-based approach of the New Party and then Working Families Party, the sometimes quasi-syndicalist styles of activist organizing and politics associated with the “new unionism,” and most of all the sea change in the AFL-CIO represented in the New Voices alliance embodied by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson—who were swept into the Federation’s leadership in 1995. Of course, many, if not most of the authors of A Future for Workers were involved in some or all of those currents, and the analyses and strategic thinking they present reflect that experience.

The document has three components–an assessment of the political situation that confronts us; an extensive list of policy and program recommendations in the areas of Jobs and Economic Development, the Environment, Criminal Justice, Distribution of Wealth, Education, Tolerance and Equity, and the Labor Movement; and a more general argument about the approach necessary to build a movement capable of winning those objectives. A Future for Workers underscores the massive increases in inequality that have occurred since the 1970s and that have intensified since the 2007/08 financial crash. The policy recommendations are, for the most part, initiatives that would make life demonstrably better for working people and the society as a whole and that could be readily adopted with only a change in government priorities and the prevailing terms of political debate. Most of those proposals are in the vein of general policy directions rather than nuts and bolts initiatives, and they are in line with the broad current of progressive policy proposals that have been circulating for some time now. Among labor activists, they would not be controversial.

The specific reform proposals are less significant than their source, however. Especially in light of the controversy sparked in the past year by Black Lives Matter activists concerning the relation between black and working-class political agendas, a statement from black American labor leaders articulating a perspective that connects racial injustice and broader economic inequalities suggests a programmatic and interpretive framework that could help bridge tensions and divisions that only benefit corporate power and the political right. A Future for Workers points to challenges we face in generating and sustaining the broad solidarities necessary to turn the political tide in a direction that makes the interests and basic concerns of working people the top priority. It likens black workers to the “canary in the mine” because they commonly are hit earliest and especially hard by economic crises and assaults; yet what happens to them as the most vulnerable workers will before long affect those somewhat less vulnerable, and so on until all workers and our living and working conditions are under full-scale attack.

In linking race and class inequalities, A Future for Workers follows in a tradition of black trade union activism that reaches back to A. Philip Randolph and the black-labor-left alliance that was a crucially important force in American politics through the first three decades after World War II. In its understanding of what those links are and what we can do about them, however, it also reflects the degree to which neoliberal notions of equality and social justice have in crucial and unhelpful ways compromised the terms of working-class resistance to injustice. For example, embrace of the presumptions of contemporary anti-racist politics leads the document’s authorsto contend that increasing diversity in the union movement is pivotal for reversing labor’s decline, even though both membership and leadership have become more diverse precisely in the period of steepest decline. Moreover, it is unclear even what a “genuine national dialogue on race and racism” could be, much less how it could proceed and what impact it could have on congealing a broadly based working-class movement.

Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led the original March on Washington Movement that pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802 barring discriminatory employment practices among defense contractors and federal agencies. The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, a collection of analyses by prominent leftist, centrist, and conservative black public figures edited by historian Rayford Logan, indicated a consensus among black racial advocates across the ideological spectrum that a strong industrial union movement and expansion of social wage policies were essential for black Americans’ continuing success in pursuit of racial justice and equality.[i] That alliance was crucial in winning the major victories of the civil rights movement–from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was pivotal, through Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC), in mobilization for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, and in the struggle for state and federal Fair Employment Practices legislation. The alliance was also instrumental in the struggle for social wage policies such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.

In 1966 Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, anchored by the objectives of reducing unemployment to less than 3 percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than 1 or 2 percent by 1975.[ii] The Freedom Budgetcalled for: increase of the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty, provision of guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work, guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all, access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintainenance of adequate environmental standards, and expansion of public transportation.[iii]

Randolph had pointed out at the March on Washington that the “Civil Rights Revolution is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty…Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education–all forms of education.”[iv] In publicly introducing the Freedom Budget he stressed that, although blacks would benefit disproportionately from its proposed interventions, the Budget should not be seen as a civil rights initiative. He noted that “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”[v]

Arguably, that mid-1960s moment was the apogee of the social-democratic black-labor-left alliance as the social movement that Randolph and others had struggled for so long to build and sustain. The Freedom Budget can be seen, although only in retrospect, as a last-ditch effort to assert a politics based on commitment to full employment against an emerging Democratic liberalism that began moving away from that commitment in the Kennedy administration, when policymakers began to disconnect both poverty and racial inequality from the larger dynamics of American capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget initiative did not gain traction, and by the middle of the 1970s the germs of what would later become neoliberalism had begun to take shape. Our current political situation–including the dominant perspectives on the relation of race and class in American life and politics—has evolved from that shift, which solidified as a new regime based on the absolute priority of business- and investor-class interests under the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.

One difference is that today it is no longer true that the poor are 75 percent white. The waves of immigration initially made possible by the Act of 1965 have changed the racial make-up of the American population, with the result that in addition to the over 18 million white and the over 11 million black poor, around 5 million Latinos and 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders are living in poverty.  Which makes it even more urgent that we recognize the need to galvanize a broad political alliance capable of shifting the center of gravity in American politics to give priority to the interests, needs, and concerns of working people and their families—who are the substantial majority of the American population–of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and every immigration status. Randolph and the black labor-left of his time proceeded from a political understanding that racial inequality is most consequentially rooted in the workings of capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget advanced that view, for example, through an argument concerning the disparate impacts of increases in unemployment, which, it notes, tend to be concentrated among the most vulnerable populations.

These would be the older workers; the young people seeking to enter the labor force for the first time; the semi-skilled and relatively unskilled; the nonwhites rather than the whites, and the women rather than the men, insofar as discrimination against nonwhites and women remained, or because discrimination during the past century and longer has prevented nonwhites and women on the average from having the degree of training and education which others have. But to say that this would be the reason why they became unemployed would be like saying that, if half of the people in a lifeboat died from exposure because they were not as strong as the others in the boat, the cause was the condition of their health, not the shipwreck. Likewise if there were too few lifeboats, and the strong kept the weak out….

To state all this in a different way, the fact that Negroes tend to be the first fired and the last hired when jobs are insufficient should not prevent us from recognizing that this phenomenon, so central to the racial problem, would not exist if there were jobs for all. This, of course, does not deny the need for anti-discrimination efforts; excessive unemployment is no excuse for discrimination in the imposition of the evil.[vi]

A very different perspective on pursuit of racial justice has arisen since the 1990s. As with any ideology, one element of neoliberalism’s triumph, its broad internalization as unreflected-upon common sense, has been its success in reinterpreting the past in ways that read its worldview back and forth across historical eras as the deepest truth of social life. That is one mechansim through which the infamous TINA–There Is No Alternative –dictum is implanted and reproduced. In light of that dynamic, it is significant that the dominant interpretive tendency in both scholarship and commentary concerning black American politicsstresses celebration of black “agency” and reduces black political history to either inspirational stories of individual triumph over obstacles,accounts of “resistance” to an essentially unchanging, transhistorical racism or white supremacy or pursuit of fundamentally quietistic goals such as “autonomy,” “community,” and “family.” This perspective severs black politics from its historical and social contexts and to that extent fits comfortably with and reinforces–in line with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women andthere are families”[vii]–the neoliberal denial of historical specificity, the significance of political institutions, and, most of all, class dynamics.

In particular, a revisionist understanding of the heroic period of postwar black political struggle airbrushes out its class character and reinvents both the civil rights insurgency and the Jim Crow social order without their political-economic foundations. The reinvention projects instead a purely moralistic conflict between racism and its victims, a narrative of generic black suffering and occasionally overcoming, sprinkled with encomia to the accomplishments and magnetism of larger than life, great black individuals.[viii] That could not be more fundamentally at odds with the vision articulated by Randolph and the black labor-left. Yet it is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism’s market-based moral order of a world made up of good people and bad people and in which the social collectivity is replaced by voluntarism and self-reliance led by exemplary individuals.

In the same vein, during the last decade or so an antiracist politics that stresses exposing and challenging apparent racial disparities has risen to the fore in public discourse as mediated through the corporate mass information industry, including the blogosphere. This politics, as exemplified most recently in the current associated with the Black Lives Matter slogan, rests on a racial expressivism that is at least evocative of the race-first Black Power nationalism that emerged from the defeat of the black labor-left alliance in the late 1960s. And, like Black Power, it is more performative than strategic. It also insists, perhaps even more emphatically than Black Power radicalism, that all apparent injustices experienced by black Americans must be understood to stem most fundamentally from reified notions of racism or white supremacy–ideas stripped from historical context and treated as forces capable of acting to produce outcomes in the world.

But the black political insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s did not battle an abstraction like racism. It certainly congealed around a commitment to improving black Americans’ circumstances.  However, the objectives that mobilized and sustained that insurgent politics as a movement were concrete and historically specific: from challenging segregation of public transit in Montgomery and in public accommodations generally in Greensboro and elsewhere, to the ongoing fight for legislative and judicial prohibition of codified racial discrimination in employment, education, housing (including state enforcement of nominally private discrimination, as in restrictive real estate covenants that depended on legal sanction of housing discrimination and the federal government’s subsidy of the real estate industry’s racialized system of valuation and mortgage brokers’ racialized system of financing) and other areas, as well as for federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.  As Randolph and others made clear, the movement’s objectives were not reducible only to specifically racial issues because most black Americans are working class, and therefore anything that advances the interests of the working class is pertinent for them.

As Randolph observed, a focus on disparities without simultaneous attention to the larger structures of inequality and dispossession is self-defeating. That criticism should have more force now than it had then because overall inequality has intensified exponentially, and challenging disparities does not address that intensifying inequality.[ix] Instead, contemporary anti-racist politics proceeds from a notion of justice based on the premise that social and economic costs and benefits should be distributed on a principle of racial parity, which is consistent with the liberal anti-racist ideal of genuine equality of opportunity. That view sidesteps the class-based political vision articulated by the black labor-left, and in some cases actively rejects it as a racially inauthentic, “white” or “brocialist” expression of white supremacist privilege, and thus a discourse of oppression. As I have pointed out elsewhere, according to that anti-racist perspective, the society could be just if one percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 12 percent of the one percent were black, half were female, and so on. That is the quintessence of what we might call the left-neoliberal ideal of social justice–sharp and intensifying inequality combined with (more or less sincere and enthusiastic) commitment to diversity. [x]

Randolph, his and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Bayard Rustin and others also understood that attacking the larger dynamics of capitalist inequality requires a broadly- based social and political movement anchored to a social-democratic agenda. That sort of movement can be built only on the basis of solidarities grounded and cultivated on perception of shared social position, experience, and objectives, and that perception can take hold only in the context of common struggle for shared goals. However, a politics that elevates challenging disparities over fighting for broad social wage policy and redistribution along social-democratic lines is incompatible with the project of building those solidarities. And that incompatibility stems ultimately from the fact that anti-disparitarian anti-racism is not an alternative to a class politics; it is a class politics. It is just not a working-class politics.[xi]

In reasserting the project of that historic black labor-left politics, A Future for Workers can encourage us to consider carefully the nature of the system and regime we are up against, how the structures of intensifying inequality are reproduced, and in particular, how it makes sense to think about the relation between racial and class inequalities and how race and class dynamics–including how we think about race and class dynamics– can affect our sense of the political options available to us and the directions we should pursue.



[i] Rayford Logan, ed., What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

[ii] For a  very good discussion of the Freedom Budget, its genesis and the politics around it, and the defeat of the campaign for it, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget For All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

[iii] A. Philip Randolph Institute, A “Freedom Budget” For All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources 1965-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want,” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), 2-3.

[iv] “Address of A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 261-262.

[v]For Jobs and Freedom, 286-287.

[vi]Freedom Budget, 29-30.

[vii]Margaret Thatcher interview, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, p. 18, at  .

[viii] I do not intend to suggest that the dynamic generating this cultural hegemony is orchestrated, though it sometimes is advanced through self-conscious propaganda, as in films like the pro-charter school documentary, Waiting for Superman and its fictional counterpart Won’t Back Down. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the ideology travels through more naïve repetition of common sense narratives. I have discussed the role of widely disseminated black-themed popular culture in illustrating and propagating neoiberal common sense dressed up as racial pride and authenticity in several essays in recent years. See Adolph Reed, Jr.: “Three Tremes,”, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,”, February 25, 2013; “The Real Problem with Selma: It Doesn’t Help Us Understand the Civil Rights Movement, the Regime It Challenged, or even the Significance of the Voting Rights Act,”, January 26, 2015 and “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum 24 (Spring 2015): 32-41 and “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin # 18 (Summer 2015).

[ix] The late historian, Michael B. Katz provides a useful and accessible account of the evolution of urban and metropolitan racial and economic inequality since World War II that decomposes the historical and political-economic processes driving it in Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[x] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (Winter 2013): 53-54. Also see Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[xi]See, e.g.,  editorials on “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” at, February 11, 2016.


Author Biography

Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is aprofessor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is completing a book on the decline and transformation of the U.S. Left since World War II, and recently co-authored, with Mark Dudzic, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” in the Socialist Register.


Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[1] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that several unions opposed the DAPL, of this writing the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. They have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[i]

Split, Coup, or Both?

It is important to note that the AFL-CIO issued its statement on the basis of a generic ‘pipelines’ Executive Council (EC) resolution passed in Feb 2013. Does this DAPL statement therefore speak for the 55 affiliates of the Federation? Hardly. The use of a vague EC resolution to support the DAPL is therefore something of a coup for NABTU, one that will further damage the reputation of the entire US labor movement both at home and abroad.

In this column a year ago I tried to draw some of the lessons for the labor movement following the acrimonious fight among union leaders around the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. I said KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious leadership-level conflict in the years ahead, and that this could be avoided if certain union officers were to rethink their close relationship to coal, oil and gas industry groups (the so called Black-Blue Alliance) and take the lead in driving a different conversation about ‘extractionism,’climate change, and jobs.

The DAPL fight suggests that the split in labor is deepening. McGarvey’s letter to Trumka warrants careful study. Referring to the fact that many of the unions that opposed KXL are now opposing DAPL, McGarvey writes, “It seems the same outdated, lowest common denominator group of so-called labor organizations has once again seen fit to demean and call for the termination of thousands of union construction jobs in the Heartland. I fear that this has once again hastened a very real split in the labor movement at a time that, should their ceaseless rhetoric be taken seriously, even they suggest we can least afford it.” [ii] For now, NABTU has managed to align the federation squarely with the fossil fuel industry.

So what is Labor’s Climate and Energy Policy?

The AFL-CIO’s statement on DAPL says that it is ‘neither effective nor fair’ to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects. So what kind of climate policy does the AFL-CIO support?  The 2013 Executive Council ‘pipelines’ resolution begins, “The AFL-CIO supports a comprehensive energy policy focused on investing in our nation’s future, creating jobs and addressing the threat of climate change.” Fine words, but have there been any actions to back them up?

At the global level, the Federation has never supported the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) commitment to the science-based emissions reduction targets proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every other major national labor body supports these targets, but not the AFL-CIO. Similarly, it was the only major national trade union center to oppose the Kyoto Agreement in the 1990s and, again, the only one to applaud the State Department’s voluntary ‘pledge and review’ approach to emissions reductions expressed in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Global labor was unanimous in its condemnation of the weak, non-binding and science-denying content of the Accord—with the AFL-CIO once again being the exception.

During the 2008 Congressional debate on the (failed) climate bill during president Obama’s first term in office, the AFL-CIO, urging  ‘a cautious approach’, could only support the weakest bill, one that ensured more free pollution allowances for the fossil fuel sector than any other bill drafted. Following the defeat of the climate bill in the Senate, the AFL-CIO essentially stepped away from energy climate policy altogether. And with Congress obstructing action on climate change, the Obama Administration ordered the EPA to take the lead. The EPA developed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that seeks to achieve a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. The CPP was the basis of the US contribution to the Paris Climate talks in late 2015 and in the more recent bilateral climate talks with China.

In a June 2014 statement, Federation president Trumka expressed concern about the CPP’s impact on the US coal industry and warned that climate protection not “be another excuse to beat down working Americans.”[iii] But in the absence of both a coherent policy and a clear lead coming from the AFL-CIO, key affiliates have moved in to stake out their own space. Several energy and construction unions have signed onto a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the CPP regulations, with SEIU siding with a broad set of groups who seek to defeat the legal threat.[iv]  Led by West Virginia and more than 20 States, the challenge to the EPA would bar the agency from regulating GHGs from existing power plants altogether. If successful, this would essentially wipe out any federal climate policy because the Administration is relying almost exclusively on the EPA to comply with the commitments made in Paris.

Exporting Carbon

Meanwhile, in mid-2015 LiUNA and the Operating Engineers successfully linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the US Chamber of Commerce and the API in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on US crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. The two unions stated that, “Lifting the ban will result in increased domestic crude production and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs across all sectors of the American economy.”[v]

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had publicly stated his opposition to lifting the ban in January 2014.[vi] Significantly, the reason for Trumka’s opposition had nothing to do with concerns about ‘carbon lock in’ or the need to support the US’ climate commitments. Rather, the main concern was the impact lifting the ban would have on US refineries, which have been well organized by the United Steelworkers (USW). In a July 2014 statement, the Federation said, “The surge in U.S. oil production should fuel a surge in U.S. refinery investment, creating highly paid construction and refinery jobs. American ingenuity and hard work have put the United States in the fortunate position of being the world’s top oil producer and given us more energy security than we have had in decades. The AFL-CIO believes the nation should build on this success to create prosperity and restore the middle class.”[vii] ­­­In lobbying against lifting the ban, the USW (joined by the Sierra Club) acknowledged that, aside from threatening the jobs of US refinery workers, exporting US crude would also lead to 22 million metric tons more CO2 emissions on an annual basis.[viii] Within six months of the ban being lifted (December 2015 to May 2016) US crude exports have risen 9% to 501,000 barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Avoiding The F Word

With US oil exports rising, LiUNA and other unions have helped the US oil industry meet the growing global demand for US crude. Union concerns about climate change were blindingly absent in this campaign (as was the case in the effort to acquire a permit for Keystone XL). Instead, lifting the export ban would, we were told, help the US become “an energy superpower.”

More recently, LiUNA developed its own Clean Power Progress, an initiative apparently driven by a desire to “fuel a realistic, fact-based conversation” in order to “advance responsible policies that reduce GHGs and reach the climate change goals advanced by the Obama Administration.”

With Clean Power Progress, LiUNA is attempting to project a new and greener message. But the union’s plan is focused on helping the US meet its climate commitments—by promoting gas. According to Clean Power Progress, “Transitioning from higher-carbon energy sources (read: coal) towards abundant natural gas will help the United States meet its ambitious and responsible clean energy targets and our country’s growing electricity needs.”[ix] This is pretty much the gas industry line. It is also clear that the industry and LiUNA are united on the need to export more gas (maybe to help the world fight global warming?)[x]

Clean Power Progress deserves a more detailed critique, and will be the subject of a future column. But there are some obvious red flags. For example, nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of the word ‘fracking.’ Fracking for gas in shale rock is producing a higher proportion of US gas every year as yields from conventional gas drilling steadily decrease. This can hardly be explained as an innocent omission. It is as if, by not mentioning fracking at all, LiUNA hopes to sidestep rising concerns regarding the health-related and other impacts associated with fracturing. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has not taken an official stand on fracking, but in states where drilling has proceeded the Trades have moved several State AFL-CIO’s behind a pro-fracking stance.

Greenwashing with the union label?

Equally remarkable is that LiUNA is keeping alive the discredited idea that gas is a ‘bridge fuel’ that is good for the climate because, when compared to burning coal, gas generates only half the CO2 per unit of energy generated

But peer-reviewed studies over the past several years have shown that, when methane leakage associated with fracking is accurately measured, gas harvested from shale rock is worse than coal from the standpoint of generating greenhouse gas emissions.[xi] Respecting the science, most of the major environmental groups stopped talking about gas as bridge fuel some years ago. Globally, methane emissions levels are increasing, and scientists have estimated that 40 percent of the increase in the US is due to the growth of the oil and gas sector.[xii] The EPA’s ‘inventoried’ methane emissions levels are based on company’s reporting their own methane leakage rates. However, the actual atmospheric concentrations have been found to be much higher.[xiii] This gap suggests that gas companies have underreported the levels of methane being vented or leaking from drill sites, and have funded ‘studies’ that have been used to provide ‘scientific’ data suggesting the levels of methane being released are far lower than they actually are.[xiv]

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this issue. Even a modest level of methane leakage from drilling sites — between 1.5%-3% — would erase all of the climate-related benefits of burning gas instead of coal.[xv] Statistically, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel have fallen in the U.S. since 2007 due to the recession and switching to natural gas from coal to generate electricity. Leading climate scientist Robert Howarth told the White House recently, “Total greenhouse gas emissions – after dipping slightly in 2007 – have been rising since at their most rapid rate ever, due to shale gas development and large methane emissions…Reliable data from satellite and airplane surveys show much higher emissions and indicate that global increases in methane in the atmosphere over the last decade may well be the result of increased emissions from the United States.”[xvi] According to Howarth, “If the U.S. wants to meet the COP21 target – to which we have agreed – we need to recognize that natural gas – and shale gas, in particular – is not a bridge fuel” [xvii]

That LiUNA might be unaware of the data on methane is, frankly, inconceivable. Overall, Clean Power Progress looks like union greenwashing of the most irresponsible kind, a poor attempt to sanitize an industry that resists even the weakest of regulations and refuses to allow independent verification in the chemicals it uses during the fracturing process.

Progressive Labor’s Construction Project

The unions that opposed Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with those who have opposed fracking and coal and gas export terminals, are becoming ‘energy unions’ because energy fights will largely what type of future we can look forward to.

For NABTU, having unions in health care, public transport, and public services, etc. invade and trample on the sacred territory they call home is beyond infuriating.

Progressive labor must, however, develop its own vision of an energy future, one grounded in fully-unionized public renewable power systems, scaled up low-carbon mass transit, and radical energy conservation in the country’s housing stock and commercial buildings.  This is a political ‘construction’ project that, if implemented, could create millions of ‘climate jobs.’ But this will require consistent engagement. Many in the Trades can and will support such a progressive approach to climate and energy policy.

For now, having waged a successful putsch, NABTU is the voice of the AFL-CIO regarding a big chunk of labor’s energy policy. On environmental issues, the Federation’s reputation is now so low that it seems to be no longer concerned about ‘reputational damage.’ By linking arms with Standing Rock Sioux, progressive labor is keeping alive the best traditions of labor environmentalism pioneered by Tony Mazzocchi and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in the 1970s. If it is constructed, the DAPL will require union labor digging a ditch, and the only difference between a ditch and a grave is that one is normally a little deeper than the other.





[ii] Sean McGarvey NABTU, letter to Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO, Sept 15, 2016



[v] LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, Sept 9, 2015;  See also:; Leadership Chairman: Sean McGarvey, President, Building-Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Secretary/Treasurer Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute






[xi] Scientific American, November 26, 2013

[xii] Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase: Study reveals relationship between oil and natural gas production in the USA and increase in atmospheric methane.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 March 2016. <>.


[xiv]  See also:

[xv] Alvarez, Ramon A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, and William L. Chameides. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. 109.17 (2012): 6435-6440. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Howarth, Robert, et al. Climatic Change, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 679-690. 6/11. “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations;” Lovett, Richard A. Scientific American. 2013. “Study Revises Estimate of Methane Leaks from U.S. Fracking Fields Leaks are minimal during removal of fracking fluids but increase once gas is flowing.” Retrieved 1/15/14 from:; Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. Climatic Change. 1/10/12. “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.” Retrieved 1/15/14 from:

[xvi] Howarth Alerts White House of the Growing Methane Danger, See also: Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase: Study reveals relationship between oil and natural gas production in the USA and increase in atmospheric methane.” Science Daily. Science Daily, 15 March 2016.