Category: Spring 2011

PROMISES, PROMISES: Assessing the Obama Administration’s Record on Labor Reform

The 2008 election cemented a Democratic congressional majority. Having helped elect Obama, labor had high expectations for the administration and hoped the new president (and Congress) would protect working-class Americans’ interests. It seemed a perfect opportunity to advance a progressive agenda, including strengthening participatory workplace democracy and raising the floor of social and economic rights for workers. This essay provides an overview of what was accomplished, what was not, and where the hope still lies.

Obama’s Key Appointments: Too Little, Too Late?

Obama initially made good on his promises to appoint experts committed to enforcing workers’ rights to key positions. California Representative Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor and former Department of Labor (DOL) policy advisor Seth Harris as Deputy Secretary were popular with labor. Obama also appointed several DOL under-secretaries, including Congressional Senior Labor Policy Advisor for health and safety, Jordan Barab, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA and former Senior Policy Advisor to Senator Kennedy, Jane Oates, as Assistant Secretary for the Employment & Training Administration. Labor praised the appointment of former United Mine Workers safety official, Joe Main, as Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Labor also praised Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—former SEIU Associate General Counsel Craig Becker and union-friendly labor lawyer Mark G. Pearce. Obama designated former Bricklayers Labor Counsel, Wilma Liebman, as NLRB Chairman. This was the first time in nearly a decade that the Board was made up of those committed to enforcing the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). These appointments remained in congressional limbo for fourteen months after Obama took office. The Board had operated without a quorum for twenty-seven months. When the Supreme Court, in New Process Steel, held that the NLRB was without authority to issue decisions on cases during those twenty-seven months, hundreds of decisions (and many more workers) were adversely affected.1 According to the NLRB’s website, as of February 2011, the Board had closed or otherwise resolved 346 of the over 550 affected cases.

Workplace Democracy

At the top of labor’s agenda was the expansion of workplace democracy. Labor strongly backed the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), seeking to amend the NLRA in three significant ways. First, EFCA sought to facilitate union organizing by eliminating an employer’s right to insist on a secret-ballot election and requiring the NLRB to certify unions when a majority of employees signed valid authorization cards. Second, EFCA would have facilitated agreement between the newly certified union and the employer on a first contract, by mandating binding arbitration upon failure to reach agreement after ninety days of bargaining and thirty days of compulsory mediation. Third, EFCA strengthened NLRA enforcement by requiring the NLRB to request injunctive relief against employers who act unlawfully in some instances; back-pay damages would have been tripled for employees discriminated against during an organizing campaign or first-contract drive.

These changes would have been profound because the NLRB’s election process is often misused to discourage workers from joining unions. Many employers use the approximately five weeks between filing a petition and election to present anti-union speeches to captive audiences. In one study, “[u]nion win rates declined dramatically as the number of [captive audience meetings] increased . . . .”2 Even if the union wins the election, employers often respond by refusing to bargain. In fiscal year 2008-2009, 52 percent of all charges against employers involved refusals to bargain.3 One MIT study found that only 56 percent of union-election wins result in agreement on a first contract.4 Those statistics, coupled with a weak remedial system, reveal that the NLRA is no longer meeting its primary objective of “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining . . . for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of [workers’] employment . . . .” EFCA met fierce opposition from the business community, much of it hyperbolic and irrational. Former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus called EFCA “the demise of civilization.” “We like driving the car and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us,” remarked former Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott.5The Obama administration has done little to push for EFCA; President Obama himself has presented virtually no prepared remarks on EFCA during his first two years in office.6

The NLRA exempts a large portion of the workforce. Accordingly, a second way labor sought to expand workplace democracy was through the RESPECT Act. The RESPECT Act would have extended NLRA coverage to many more workers simply by narrowing the definition of “supervisor.” Business opposition to the RESPECT Act—which has failed to move since Obama assumed office—derives primarily from the faulty assumption that employers are entitled to the undivided loyalty of even the lowest-level supervisors.

Labor’s third major legislative initiative was to close the NLRA’s “free-rider” problem. The NLRA’s Section 8(a)(3) permits employers and unions to enter into union-security clauses, mandating all bargaining-unit employees to become union members or pay union dues for union services as a condition of employment. The NLRA’s Section 14(b) limits this mandate by authorizing state-level “right-to-work” laws that prohibit employers and unions from agreeing to union-security clauses. Rightto-work laws present a free-rider problem because unions are bound by a duty of fair representation to represent non-members in their bargaining unit. Right-to-work laws also chip away at union solidarity. For these reasons, unions have sought to revoke states’ authority to enact right-to-work laws to eradicate the free-rider problem. This legislative initiative (H.R.6384) also died in committee.

There is some good news, however. First, the newly constituted Obama NLRB recently issued a proposed rule requiring every workplace to post a summary of employees’ labor rights.7 Given that many other important workers’ rights (such as those under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Railway Labor Act) are posted by law, the NLRB’s proposed rule may be long overdue. Second, the National Mediation Board issued a rule democratizing union election procedures for railroad and aviation workers under the Railway Labor Act.8 Finally, in 2010, Labor Secretary Solis launched a “We Can Help” campaign to educate low-wage and vulnerable workers about their rights. The campaign, spearheaded by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, focuses on reaching workers in construction, janitorial work, hotel/motel services, food services, and home health care jobs.9

Protecting Workers on the Job

Labor’s platform for protecting workers on the job established several priorities.10 Labor successfully pushed for the appointment of experts committed to protecting workers’ rights to top OSHA and MSHA posts. Labor also sought tougher enforcement of existing regulations, adoption of higher workplace health and safety standards, expanded coverage of safety and health laws, and increased funding for agencies like NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) to train safety and health care professionals, and engage in significant health and safety research. Recognizing the importance of reporting all work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses as vital for public-health enforcement, labor pushed for better public reporting mechanisms. Labor also advocated reforming workers’ compensation laws; eliminating higher rates of workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses among minorities and immigrants; and reducing widespread use of toxic chemicals. Finally, labor advocated greater worker participation in identifying and correcting workplace hazards, and protecting those workers from retaliation.

Bills touching upon these goals were introduced into Congress but none passed. The most comprehensive, and labor’s favorite, was the Protecting America’s Workers Act. It would have extended OSHA protections to employees not currently covered, increased penalties for violations, further involved employees and unions in citation settlements, and expanded whistleblower protection.

Other bills targeted specific health and safety issues. The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act would have required OSHA to issue standards to help prevent explosions like the one at a sugar refinery in Georgia that killed thirteen workers, and critically injured many others, in 2008. The Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act would have required OSHA to adopt standards on diacetyl, a food product often used in making artificial butter flavoring; diacetyl can cause serious lung disease in exposed factory workers. The Nurse and Patient Safety & Protection Act would have required OSHA to reinstate ergonomic regulations for the health care industry. The proposed amendments to mine safety legislation focused less on increasing standards and more on accountability, enforcement, and whistleblower protection. The Private Sector Whistleblower Protection Streamlining Act also would have expanded whistleblower protections (including a reinstatement remedy) for employees who report violations of federal laws, rules, or regulations; or of state or local implementation of a federal law governing working conditions and benefits.

However, comprehensive workplace safety and health legislation made little headway during Obama’s first two years. Still, the safety-and-health regulatory agenda has gained momentum, thanks in part to Obama’s early DOL appointments. In the spring of 2010, the DOL announced its Plan/Prevent/Protect initiative.11 The DOL designed this initiative so that “[e]mployers and [other regulated entities] ‘find and fix’ violations—that is, assure compliance—before a Labor Department investigator arrives at the workplace.” The purpose of this strategy is to change the prevalent catch-me-ifyou-can behavior in favor of the goal of “good jobs for everyone.”

As the name suggests, the DOL’s Plan/ Prevent/Protect initiative has three parts. Under the Plan aspect of this initiative, the DOL proposes to require employers to “create a plan for identifying and remediating risks of legal violations and other risks to workers—for example, a plan to search their workplaces for safety hazards that might injure or kill workers. The employer or other regulated entity would provide their employees with opportunities to participate in the creation of the plans.”

The DOL’s Plan/Prevent/Protect initiative is one of the boldest and most proactive workplace measures taken by any administration in recent memory. Plan/Prevent/ Protect’s emphasis on prevention and inclusive self-monitoring encourages all workers, supervisors, and managers to have some “say” in workplace safety decisions. Coupling Plan/ Prevent/Protect with a regulatory floor of rights could force workplace fatalities and serious injuries toward zero. However, Plan/Prevent/ Protect is not likely to accomplish anything unless bolstered by whistleblower protection and opportunities for workers’ voices that are not diluted or co-opted by management’s voice.

Job Security: Baby Steps Forward, Big Steps Backward

Labor’s agenda also included measures to create good, living-wage jobs with retirement security. Two bills that potentially touched on these themes died in committee. The Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act would have amended federal bankruptcy law to protect workers’ and retirees’ wages and benefits.

The WARN Act currently obligates employers of a certain size to give sixty days notice of a mass economic dismissal or plant closing. The FOREWARN Act would have amended the WARN Act in five significant ways. It would have expanded coverage—by redefining the statutory terms “employer,” “plant closing,” and “mass layoff ”—and increased the notice period from sixty to ninety days. That notice would have included: (1) a statement of the number of affected employees; (2) the reason for the plant closing or mass layoff; (3) the availability of employment at other establishments owned by the employer; (4) a statement of each employee’s rights with respect to wages, severance, and employee benefits; and (5) a statement of the available employment and training services provided by the Department of Labor. The Act also would have required employers to provide information to affected employees regarding available benefits and services such as unemployment compensation and COBRA; employees would have been permitted reasonable on-site access to training and other services. Finally, the Act would have doubled back pay for each calendar-day violation.

While the bankruptcy amendments are potentially meaningful in the current recession, the FOREWARN Act, if passed, would only take a baby step toward job security. Of all actions Congress could have taken to give workers job security, advance notice of job loss is weak. A progressive Congress should be backing a bill promoting consultation or bargaining over mass economic dismissals, with a view toward reaching agreement on such important matters as saving jobs, the order of layoffs, and retraining. Unfortunately for American labor, such wide-sweeping changes have never even been on the legislative table—although such policies are par for the course in the European Union.

Along these lines, only one bill—the Patriot Employers Act—would have incentivized employers to cooperate with labor. That bill made “patriot employers” eligible for preferential tax treatment. Patriot employers are those who maintain headquarters in the United States, pay “at least 60 percent of each employee’s health care premiums,” remain neutral “in employee organizing drives,” maintain or increase “the number of full-time workers in the United States relative to the number of full-time workers outside the United States,” pay each employee a salary “not less than an amount equal to the Federal poverty level,” and provide a pension plan.

The Patriot Employers Act also died in committee. The chances of such a bill passing are exceedingly small until our government is willing to come to grips with the core conflict between such legislation and free trade. President Obama supported the recent U.S.- South Korea trade pact as a job creator that will promote faster economic recovery.12 According to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, that pact does little (except in the auto industry) to discourage “offshoring.”13

Employment Discrimination

In the area of employment discrimination, the Obama administration worked to overturn Supreme Court precedents that were adverse to workers’ rights. The first bill Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, making it easier to sue for alleged pay discrimination. That law overturned the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision, which limited a worker’s right to sue for what labor contended were subsequent acts of pay discrimination. Given that employees must file EEOC charges within 180 or 300 days, depending on the jurisdiction, the practical impact of this holding was considerable. It often takes years for victims of discriminatory pay practices to discover the wage disparity. Making those practices unlawful each time the paycheck is issued preserves those claims.

The administration claimed the Ledbetter Act as a victory for the working class, especially minorities and women, who are paid less than their white-male counterparts. But the victories ended there. Several employment discrimination bills went nowhere and the Democratic Congress failed to pass new civil rights legislation. The Paycheck Fairness Act would have amended the Equal Pay Act to enhance penalties for wage discrimination against women as well as facilitate enforcement of the Act by, for example, placing the burden on employers to prove that wage differentials were job-related, not gender-based, and consistent with business necessity. A Senate filibuster ended hopes for enactment.

The Civil Rights Act of 2008 died in committee. It would have overturned the Supreme Court’s 2001 Alexander v. Sandoval decision, in which the Court found that private parties did not have a right to sue to enforce disparateimpact regulations. The bill also would have broadened the Fair Labor Standards Act’s anti-retaliation provisions; limited employer defenses in some anti-discrimination cases; and expanded coverage for recouping attorney and expert witness fees under civil rights fee-shifting statutes—laws that compel losing defendants to pay plaintiffs’ attorney (and other) fees. The bill also sought to broaden remedies for equal pay violations and restored back pay (and other remedies) to undocumented workers victimized by unfair employment practices. The bill incorporated the Equal Remedies Act which would have removed damages caps (currently between $50,000 and $300,000) awarded under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There were also three bills, all of which died in committee, introduced to extend or enhance protection to workers facing discrimination on the basis of immigration status, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. The Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act would have prohibited employment discrimination and retaliation against immigrants; the Employment Non-Discrimination Act sought to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants because of the person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; the Workplace Religious Freedom Act would have nullified the Supreme Court’s 1977 Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison decision. In Trans World Airlines, the Court held that Title VII’s “undue hardship” requirement permitted employers to refuse to accommodate an employee’s religious practice when the accommodation placed more than a de minimis burden on the employer. For purposes of taking time off or wearing religious clothing or hairstyle, the Act would have redefined “undue hardship” to mean “only if the accommodation imposes a significant difficulty or expense on the conduct of the employer’s business . . .”

Finally, the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2009 would have reversed Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams. In that case, decided in 2001, the Supreme Court held that employers, as a condition of employment, could lawfully mandate employees to enter into binding pre-dispute arbitration agreements requiring them to arbitrate employment and civil rights disputes. Significantly, Circuit City Stores allows employers to essentially remove workers’ rights to trial in employment discrimination cases simply by mandating that their employees enter into these agreements.

Under these circumstances of legislative inaction, the most effective action that Obama could take would be to diversify the judiciary by appointing judges who understand workplace discrimination, and educate all judges about workplace bias, perhaps by offering diversity training as a precondition of judicial appointments. However, even this course of action requires cooperation by the Senate, which has delayed many judicial appointments because of partisan politics.14

Missed Opportunities Punctuated by Success

The first two years of the Obama administration have been marked by missed opportunities for labor. Obama’s primary failure was his inability to stimulate congressional action on bills that would improve workers’ lives.

There were, however, some successes. The Obama NLRB has been proactive in proposing a rule requiring the posting of labor rights in all workplaces. The DOL has also set a proactive tone through its Plan/Prevent/Protect initiative and “We Can Help” campaign.

With a Republican-led House, pro-worker legislation will languish for at least two years. That should not stop President Obama from strongly advocating pro-worker legislation and appointing fair judges to the federal bench. The best hope for positive change now resides in the DOL and other federal agencies charged with administering labor statutes. Labor must also neutralize a renewed anti-labor strategy that uses the language of blame to divide and conquer our workforce and pits union workers against non-union workers. In reality, union workers who have freely bargained for protections have lost fewer jobs during the recession than the biggest losers in this economy—their non-union brothers and sisters. Progress in protecting and advancing the livelihood, health, and safety of America’s workers will not be achieved unless the Obama administration and the labor movement work together to advance their common interests.

 

Notes:

1. New Process Steel, L.P. v. NLRB, 130 S. Ct. 2635, 2644-45 (2010).
2. Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, “Employer Behavior in Certification Elections and First-Contract Campaigns: Implications for Labor Law Reform,” in Sheldon Friedman et al., eds., Restoring the Promise of American Labor Law (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994).
3. National Labor Relations Board, “74th Annual Report” (FY 2009), available at www.nlrb.gov/sites/default/files/documents/119/nlrb2009.pdf.
4. John-Paul Ferguson and Thomas A. Kochan, Sequential Failures in Workers’ Right to Organize, March 2008, available at www.americanrightsatwork.org/ dmdocuments/sequential_failures_in_ workers_right_to_organize_3_25_2008. pdf.
5. Thomas Frank, “It’s Time to Give Voters the Liberalism They Want,” Wall Street Journal (online), November 19, 2008, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB122705706314639537.html.
6. Mike Elk, “Abandoning EFCA Is Obama’s Political Suicide: Lessons from Three Presidents on Workers’ Rights,” Huffington Post, January 7, 2010, available at www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-elk/abandoning-efca-is-obamas_b_414209.html.
7. National Labor Relations Board, “Proposed Rules Governing Notification of Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act,” 75 Federal Register 245, 80410 (December 22, 2010), available at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/ pdf/2010-32019.pdf.
8. National Mediation Board, “Representation Election Procedure,” 75 Federal Register 26062 (May 11, 2010), available at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/ pdf/2010-11026.pdf.
9. Department of Labor, U.S. Labor Secretary Sends Message to America’s Under-Paid and Under-Protected: “We Can Help!,” news release, April 1, 2010, available at www.dol.gov/opa/media/ press/whd/WHD20100411.htm.
10. For an example of such a platform, see American Public Health Association & National Council for Occupational Safety & Health, Protecting Workers on the Job (2009), available at http://masscosh.org/ files/Protecting_Workers_on_the_Job_ Jan_2009_0.pdf.
11. Department of Labor, “Department-Wide Regulatory and Enforcement Strategies—‘Plan/Prevent/Protect’ and Openness and Transparency” (Spring 2010), available at www.dol.gov/ regulations/2010RegNarrative.htm (accessed on January 9, 2011).
12. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President Announcing the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement” (and attached fact sheets), December 3, 2010, available at www. whitehouse.gove/the-pressoffice/2010/12/03/statement-presidentannouncing-us-korea-trade-agreement.
13. Statement of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, recorded in “AFL-CIO Opposes South Korea Trade Agreement,” Huffington Post, December 9, 2010, available at www.huffingtonpost. com/2010/12/09/afl-cio-south-koreatrade_n_794529.html.
14. There are many studies showing that gender and race make a difference in judicial voting behavior. See, for example, Pat K. Chew & Robert E. Kelley, “Myth of the Color-Blind Judge: An Empirical Analysis of Racial Harassment Cases,” 86 Wash. Univ. L. Rev. 1117 (2009); Jennifer L. Peresie, “Female Judges Matter: Gender and Collegial Decisionmaking in the Federal Appellate Courts,” 114 Yale L. J. 1759 (2005).

 

It’s an Academic Question: Why Progressive Intellectuals Should Not Stay Out of Internal Union Battles

As an academic beginning to engage with the labor movement, if there was one point on which everyone was clear, it was this: you absolutely, positively cannot get involved in the internal politics of the labor movement.

I disagree. If we are to study and work with labor at all, we almost inevitably are involved in its internal politics. Even if it were possible to avoid doing so, I don’t think it would be desirable.

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The Continental Plan

Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life
By Thomas Geoghegan
New Press, 2010

Reviewed by Thomas Greven

This should be a good time for a book that essentially asks Americans to learn from Europe, and especially from Germany. Few Western countries have managed the global financial and economic crisis as well as Germany, it seems, and its successful crisis management has a lot to do with those features of the German model that Thomas Geoghegan highlights as “blueprintable.” During the crisis, the institutional strength of the unions led to measures designed to maintain the high-skills backbone of the German economic model of high-quality exports. For Geoghegan, German industrial relations (and similar systems in other European countries) explain why not only the bottom two thirds of Americans would be better off in Europe; for him, that is a given, especially regarding the unemployed and people on welfare. No, he argues, “Europe is set up for the bourgeois,” too (p. 11), for the upper middle class, who get the same benefits, like six weeks of vacation, maternity leave, good pensions, and so on. His thesis is “that even people who are at the top or are in the top 20 percent by income are better off in a European social democracy than in a country like the U.S.” (p. 260).

While U.S. per capita GDP is higher than in most European countries, the quality of life is not. Just “go outside and walk around,” Geoghegan wants to tell the “Cato types” (p. 12). Thanks to the strength of the European unions, there is an “invisible GDP” (p. 14) of lower inequality, better public services and goods, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of an American professional, lower working hours—the average German worked almost four hundred fewer hours than the average American in 2006. Geoghegan marvels at the fact that, with these far fewer hours, Europeans manage to get to nearly the per capita GDP of Americans, and he ponders the question of what could be done with all these saved hours—reading, traveling, learning foreign languages? As someone who once unsuccessfully tried for months to find a co-worker in the congressional office of Bernie Sanders—an American socialist after all—to go have an actual lunch break in a restaurant instead of eating microwave-heated noodle soup at the desk, I am definitely with him.

Writing well before the 2010 midterm elections, but already in the midst of the Tea Party frenzy, Geoghegan must have known his arguments would be a hard sell in the U.S., even without the Greece crisis. He thus opens his book by repeatedly assuring his readers that he is “no European socialist.” I doubt very much that this will help him in a country where a sizable minority of the population, without being ridiculed daily in the media, upholds the belief that a harmless middle-of-the-road Democrat like Barack Obama is, indeed, a socialist. And, of course, American exceptionalism is not an ideology reserved for the right. So there is definitely the danger that this treatise will be a case of preaching to the choir.

Now, as a European socialist, am I part of that choir? Let’s just say I would very much like to agree with Geoghegan, but I do have my reservations. First, like almost any American liberal that I have ever talked to about his or her European experience, Geoghegan goes somewhat overboard in his description of the achievements of European unions, the wonders of the welfare states, the quality of life, and so on. “In a way, Germany of today is where the New Deal went on to live,” he states (p.119). Without much reference to scholarly debate, Geoghegan identifies what is at the heart of the German success story and embraces it wholeheartedly for the U.S.: “In the end, it’s socialism that is the reason Germany is competitive. Because German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen; they have hung on to—well, a highly skilled tool—making culture” (p. 112). In turn, the industrial base sustains (social) democracy as unions make sure that people have a stake in the big decisions. Unfortunately, Geoghegan omits the costs of the export-driven economy that is the direct consequence of the German emphasis on manufacturing, both internally—where workers have had to accept meager wage increases for decades (only to see Germany’s competitiveness being eaten away, time and again, by the strong Euro)—and externally, in terms of foreign governments complaining bitterly that Germany is exporting not just goods but unemployment.

In fact, all the achievements he mentions have been under constant attack and all of their foundations are suffering from erosion. Under pressure from global competition, Germany and Europe have deregulated, neoliberalized, and privatized, and are bound to do so even more. Recent EU-level court rulings clearly put the freedom of capital above the right to organize, and while unions remain strong in many individual European countries, they remain weak at the EU level. Or, to imitate the personable style of the book—which I would like to see more of (or, rather, at all) in the German book market—the Berlin system of commuter trains that Geoghegan raves about has been in total shambles lately and I, like many, have switched to the subway. Why, you ask? Management had all but stopped maintenance in order to deliver profits ahead of a planned privatization of parent company Deutsche Bahn. Well, at least they did get caught—by a government agency. In sum, it does not appear that the German model of social democracy, with its emphasis on strong unions and human capital development, is going to be the role model for a unified Europe.

Geoghegan does concede the erosion of European social democracy, but is right to point out continuing and important differences from the U.S. He finds a good contrasting image—“And here’s the real clash of civilizations: ‘Christian America,’ where churchgoers work and shop on Sunday, and ‘post-Christian Europe,’ where Ascension Thursday is [a day] off” (p. 240). Only, given the fact that even a unified Democratic government in the U.S. was unable (or unwilling) to break the Republican hegemony of low taxes, any blueprintable ideas from Europe are a moot point now that the Republicans are back.

An inspired debate is all Geoghegan can hope for now, I think. And while his research and writing style, focused on personal experiences, makes for a good read and produces many valuable insights, he cannot fully avoid dealing in clichés (though, as we know, clichés can be helpful). More importantly, I cringe at easily avoidable factual errors. A fact-checking intern with a web-browser could have found out that the German left party is called “Die Linke” and not “the Links.” The German word for law is not “Gerecht.” German unions, until very recently, have not had organizers. Düsseldorf is not the heart of German manufacturing. The IG Metall has its problems with organizing highly skilled workers. All in all, Geoghegan’s story is too much centered on the powerful metalworkers’ union. In the service sector, most of what he writes about the power of unions, centralized bargaining, and the division of labor between unions and works councils is no longer true, if it ever was. There is something to be said for caution and humility when one lacks local language skills. Still, given Geoghegan’s apparent lack of these skills, I marvel at the many profound insights he is able to provide. It is, indeed, the “very existence of the CDU [Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands]” (p. 120)—the German conservative party with its adherence to Catholic social teachings—that explains the ingrained social dimension of German capitalism, which persists even when the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) is weak. And, yes, the German political conversation is more about collective decisions of “big things” than it is about horse races and celebrities—at least for now.

As I am writing this, sitting by the pool at my temporary home in West Africa, where the state does not exist in the sense we talk about it in Europe, or in the U.S. for that matter, I ponder my luck of being born on the right continent. Here, the privatization nightmare has come true; you are seemingly fine as long as you can afford to buy privately the goods that should be public. But, in the end, nobody can escape the fallout from the exclusion of the many, which results in poverty, crime, and the careless burning of trash at the roadside, the smell of which wafts over the pool. But Geoghegan’s enthusiasm for the European way of life, and his American optimism, help to balance my German gloom and pessimism. So I endorse his call to “help European social democracy… [i] n the 1930s people on the left went to die in Madrid. In the same way, it’s our duty to spend in Berlin” (p. 234). All right, I am thinking, come to Berlin, we will have a good time. Just don’t spend your dollars at places like “I mog di” on Oranienburger Strasse, which caters almost exclusively to clueless Americans who can see nothing wrong with a glitzy fake Bavarian outfit in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte.

 

 

 

 

The Closing Window

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit
By Michael Zadoorian
Wayne State University Press, 2009

American Salvage
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Christopher Barzak

Fiction that examines the lives of ordinary working people was particularly fruitful in the 1980s and 1990s, when writers of short stories—such as Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Toni Cade Bambara—were published alongside novelists—such as Russell Banks, Carolyn Chute, and Richard Russo—who wrote about working-class settings, characters, and problems. In the first ten years of the twenty-first century, though, it seems that fewer and fewer writers (or perhaps publishers) are exploring working-class people and issues in fiction. Occasionally, a novelist will appear on the scene with a naturalistic view of working-class life, as Philipp Meyer recently did with his debut novel, American Rust. But fiction that gazes intently upon the lower and working classes has had a difficult time surfacing in the new century.

In an essay called “Never Give an Inch,” published in the Fall 2010 issue of the literary journal Tin House, Gerald Howard states that this infrequency of attention in fiction may have something to do with the social class of those who generally work in publishing houses:

As relatively modest as their salaries may be, people in publishing are still by birth and education and cultural assumptions members of the emerging American overclass, self-replicating and increasingly isolated from the conditions of American life outside the big cities and campus enclaves . . . All of which means that voices from and on behalf of the working class have that much harder a time getting read, understood, and published.

Absent some unforeseen cultural shift, these voices are likely to remain unfashionable. Other factors may contribute to Howard’s analysis, but the claim that working-class fiction is unfashionable or misunderstood by editorial gatekeepers may apply primarily to large, corporate publishing houses, because working-class fiction is alive and well at small presses and university presses. Even more interesting is that short story collections outnumber working class-oriented novels from such publishers. Maybe that reflects Raymond Carver’s explanation of the short story form: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” For a writer whose life may require a job (or several jobs) beyond writing in order to live—the sort of writer who may be more likely to write about working-class issues—the short story can be especially attractive. Small, yet allowing a writer to focus with precision on characters whose lives are also circumscribed by work (or the lack thereof in some cases), the length of the short story allows working writers the benefit of accomplishment within the limitations of their freedom of time. Two writers who have recently turned to this form are Michael Zadoorian and Bonnie Jo Campbell.

In his 2009 collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, Zadoorian delivers a showcase of characters that ranges from a woman who puts animals to sleep at a pound—slowly accreting an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness in her daily tasks—to a young man who “had left his wife back in Detroit and had heard that she was looking for him. Not to kill him, or even to hurt him, though sometimes he told people that because it sounded a lot more interesting” (p. 18). He befriends a woman who suffers from dyskinesia and has used her loss of muscle control as a way to create rather than suffer, flinging paint on a canvas, Jackson Pollock-style. She calls her paintings “meaningless” but later tells him: “You’ve got to use it . . . Otherwise it’s just wasted energy, nothing.” The advice seems especially appropriate for a young man who couldn’t understand how to be married and hold a steady job.

This line of dialogue might sum up the theme of Zadoorian’s fondly assembled cast of Detroiters, who live in particular sections of the city. Zadoorian has parceled out their stories into a West Side, East Side, and Downtown structure, giving the book a feeling of being a small world contained unto itself, mapped, known. An impulse to name sometimes comes when a place begins to erode, and Zadoorian has done well to begin naming the places and people of the city of Detroit as it faces an extreme period of decline. His characters reflect the human response to losing a native place. Some are obsessed with the past as embodied in their parents’ old furniture and antiques from their childhoods in the 1960s, like the narrator of “The World of Things.”

But this isn’t just a story about personal memory. As Zadoorian explains, “Of course, the American dream changed in Detroit after the 1967 riots. Lots of those good white middle-class folks headed north of 8 Mile Road afterward and just kept on going into the suburbs and beyond” (p. 46). He continues, putting his family’s experiences into the broader landscape of Detroit: “But not my mother, who continued to live in that good middleclass neighborhood even after it became a neighborhood of crack houses—main streets lined with the faded exoskeletons of burned-out mom-and-pop stores and boarded-up car dealerships with weeds growing between the concrete slabs where bright Chryslers once stood” (p. 48). In this discussion of the white flight from Detroit after the riots, place functions so tenderly as a background to, or an origin of, the narrator’s compulsion to preserve the remnants of a world that has since deteriorated after the white middle class fled. This kind of sociological landscaping shapes Zadoorian’s descriptions of the environment his characters inhabit in ways that chart degradation rather than progress (a sometimes unexamined fictional belief that things move forward instead of regressing). These details are familiar to those who inhabit such settings, of course, and who are not represented in fiction as often as they once were. But in any guise these characters are the working class, the workless, and the poor, trying to hold onto some semblance of a world.

Like Michael Zadoorian, Bonnie Jo Campbell is mapping her own native land in her 2009 collection, American Salvage, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Instead of the urban decay of Detroit, though, Campbell describes the more rural socioeconomic landscape of Southwestern Michigan and reports on the lives of the people who continue to live there. Left behind by industries that have abandoned the region, the characters who populate Campbell’s stories work part time as school custodians, live in salvage yards among rotting sheds and piles of scrap metal, stow away in cabins owned by more well-to-do folks from the city, become addicted to meth, try to keep their marriages together despite the crushing stress of poverty, and usually fail. They hunt, fix their own cars, fight with one another, try to keep their children from having sex at too young an age, join militias, fear the imminent collapse of the world economy (rightly, since they have witnessed their own local world’s economy collapse just as easily, and within the span of only a couple of decades), and try to salvage what they can of the American Dream, the myth that keeps them going while simultaneously eluding them. These are embattled and embittered people living in post-industrial rural America.

Campbell’s perspective is less nostalgic than Zadoorian’s. Her characters are less hopeful, rougher around the edges. They drink alot of beer while sitting on the tailgates of their trucks, and they worry about credit card bills. An older salvage yard man tells a younger one, “When I was a boy, this was a going concern. Mid-American Company, wasn’t it?” and speculates as to why the old woman whose family owned the company continues to allow it to exist, rusting away as a salvage yard. The storytelling process reveals that, even if Campbell’s perspective is less nostalgic than Zadoorian’s, her characters aren’t immune to that feeling: “He said the old lady worked in her grandpa’s company as a girl, fell in love with some job superintendent who was killed in an accident. Hammermill used to claim the woman came to visit him sometimes. Visit him, if you know what I mean” (pp. 24-25).

In “The Inventor,” a hunter accidentally hits a thirteen-year-old girl as she steps out in front of his vehicle. The story hinges both upon a description of the girl’s desire to not die young like one of her uncles, whose memory haunts her family, and even more strongly upon the hunter’s past as a foundry worker. He was badly burned while working long ago, leaving his face scarred in a way that frightens people. He is thirty-five, but his inner life feels much older, and he is without the sort of hope the girl carries. He is turned away by a passing car when its driver sees his scars, and again at the door of a nearby house as he attempts to find a phone in order to call an ambulance to come to the girl’s aid.

Eventually he’s permitted to use the phone at an elderly woman’s house, but not without her training her shotgun on him the entire time. After placing his phone call to 911, he returns to the girl’s side, where it seems the ambulance will never arrive, and ponders his suffering at the hands of both industry and post-industry, as well as the suffering of the girl he has hit:

If the foundry, where he worked above vats of molten steel for sixteen years, has become obsolete, then shouldn’t the world outside the foundry be noticeably more advanced? He had intended to work at the foundry forever (his burns were a pact the foundry made with him), but they disassembled and dissected the equipment with torches and sold it as scrap iron in a world unprepared to reshape those materials into advanced medical machinery . . . What point is there in a world like this one, he wonders, where working machinery must be melted down, where the cleverest scientists drown, where he and this girl must wait in the dirty slush alongside the road and stare into the face of pain? (p. 47)

Heady stuff for a displaced steel worker, but Campbell places this scene against the subtle back story of the hunter’s former desire and success as a high school student who had wanted to be an inventor. Having gone to work in the foundry right out of high school in order to make money for college, and then being burned badly at the foundry, thus cutting him off from the social world that flinches at the sight of him, his life has been committed to work that, sixteen years later, abandons him. Campbell’s an expert at writing about a working class that is without work, providing a reader with the small window of a short story that looks out on a much larger world that is eroding.

It seems natural that Wayne State University Press published both collections under its “Made in Michigan” series. In a socalled global world, the faded and raggededged local worlds that exist within the dominant culture of middle- to upper-class life are often lost. The publication regularity of working-class novels and collections released in the 1980s and 1990s has begun to narrow, almost as the world of the working-class transforms into a landscape of people without any work at all. The publication of naturalistic novels or novels of social realism by large corporate publishers has slowed to a trickle as the world’s economy slows, and readers tend to flinch at fiction that forces us to look at the victims of shifting political and economic tides in the global world. The novel looms large in New York publishing, where the belief that short story collections cannot make money prevails. In an oddly synchronic manner, as the short story begins to fade from the view of wide audiences, it seems to have not abandoned the lives of the working class and those who live in postindustrial landscapes. Perhaps the closing window that working-class people face in these hard times calls out to be written about in this particular form now, in the circumscribed window of the short story.

INDIANS ON STRIKE: Caste and Class in the Indian Trade Union Movement

The working-class movement in India can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when the country was still a British colony. At that time, there were extremely draconian laws in place, and the onerous task of organizing was so fraught with risk that it was only undertaken by committed political activists.

The first national trade union—the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)—was established in the 1920s, during the colonial period, amid tremendous working-class upheaval. Until 1947 (the first year of national independence), the AITUC served as an umbrella organization for trade unions all over the country—workers and political activists of all leftist persuasions (communists, socialists, left-wingers), some of whom belonged to the Congress Party. Still, its writ did not go unchallenged. In the late 1920s, in Mahatma Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat, the textile mill workers saw the birth and development of a peculiarly Gandhian trade union, committed to his philosophy of “trusteeship,” whereby capitalists held wealth in “trust” for their workers.

The union was led, interestingly enough, by the sister of one of the biggest mill owners. She was, however, fairly uncompromising in her opposition to the mill owners, remaining committed to the workers’ cause within the Gandhian framework. The Communists were also a formidable rival in this state. In fact, in most of the big textile cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Indore, Kanpur, and Ahmedabad—and wherever else there were industries like jute production and engineering—it was the Communists who provided the backbone to the AITUC. The colonial government did everything in its power to break their influence.

Thus, the trade union movement in India has been linked to political and ideological organizations since its inception. This characteristic has remained unchanged even after independence, and it has helped make Indian trade unionism prone to splits and divisions. Today’s trade unions—even those that proclaim their independence (from both political parties and ideological constraints)—owe their existence to and are still led by political activists with strong ideological and political associations.

After independence, a pro-government trade union—led by leaders of the ruling Congress Party, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC)—formed as the beneficiary of government and employer largesse (and bias). In Bombay, the Trade Union Act itself was worded in a way that made the INTUC textile union the only union to win recognition and, therefore, the only accepted bargaining agent. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were more than one million Bombay textile workers, and their long history of organization and struggle (not to mention their sheer numbers) had negative implications for the trade union movement as a whole. The textile industry was the earliest organized industry to be established in India. Since it employed such a large number of workers, the earliest unions were formed within this sector. The workers launched militant struggles not only on trade union issues, but also in support of the national struggle for independence. Soon, the Socialists also split from the AITUC and formed a trade union center of their own. A couple of decades after independence, a right-wing party, swearing allegiance to the Hindu nation, came into existence and soon after launched another trade union center. In the 1960s, new regional parties developed and successfully formed state governments, many of which also started trade union wings. In the same decade, the Communist Party split, first into two and then into three. In the 1970s, the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) broke away from the AITUC and, much later, several smaller trade union centers were formed by other splinter groups. However, the CITU—belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—became, by far, the largest and most influential communist-led trade union center.

In addition to these central trade union organizations, there are also industry-wide independent federations for those who work for insurance companies, certain banks, the defense and telephone industries, the postal system, and the local government (railway workers, teachers, etc.). Most of these employees work in the public sector—for state-owned enterprises—and while some industries are represented by a single union, others are represented by several.

Private (Indian and foreign-owned) banks, insurance agencies, airlines, the telecommunications industry, and most branches of the IT sector do not have trade unions. This is for two reasons: state and central governments give employers their full support in not allowing the formation of unions (or in helping to crush those that do emerge); and myths engendered by globalization and neoliberal apologists have successfully affected the thought processes of the highly educated youths who have been employed in these sectors. In a country like India, with abysmal levels of poverty and high unemployment, it is not unheard of for people who technically belong to the working class, or who come from working-class backgrounds, to identify as middle class. In fact, even among unionized workers, there is a strong sense of middle-class identity—except during actual struggles and strikes.

This is not just a result of “false consciousness.” A huge chasm separates many workers from the vast masses of the poor, the unemployed, those working for a pittance in an unorganized sector, and members of the rural proletariat. Furthermore, most of these unlikely middle-class identifiers belong to the upper castes, creating an additional distance from those nearer to the bottom of the heap. The “new workers” that have been created by neoliberal policies—including privatization, unregulated entry of multinational corporations (MNCs), the setting up of call centers and IT hubs, and a service sector that is growing exponentially—are even further removed from any kind of working-class consciousness, and feel privileged enough to not “need” trade unions or recourse to improve their working conditions. The creed of “individual endeavor leading to individual success” (and its reverse) is strongly ingrained in most of them, and depression and suicide are more likely responses to unfair management practices than organization and opposition.

The trade union movement’s fissiparous tendencies have been further strengthened by the ways in which the caste system functions in India. Caste is a peculiar feature of Indian society that is linked to birth and an unchangeable fact of an Indian’s life. Caste oppression and the exclusion of both the former “untouchables” and the backward caste people—the lowliest and most numerous members of the caste system, who nonetheless enjoy a status higher than “untouchable”—have, naturally, given birth to various kinds of resistance and response. The Constitution of India reserved government jobs, and seats in public educational institutions, for those formerly known as the “untouchables” (who are now designated as the “scheduled castes”). The scheduled tribes (living mainly in remote forested regions of Northeast India)—another sector of Indian society that has suffered the worst kind of oppression and exploitation—are also entitled to these rights. As far as the working-class movement is concerned, the important aspect of this constitutional provision is that workers and employees belonging to the scheduled castes are now 25-35 percent of the government workforce.

This sector of society, logically, should have been at the vanguard of struggles against an oppressive social system and on behalf of working-class movements. However, the dynamics of the caste system have largely excluded them from playing crucial leadership roles in the workers’ movement. There are many reasons for this. One is certainly the attitude of the upper-caste employees who often dominate trade-union membership. So, too, has the promotion of opportunistic “identity politics” created separatist organizational tendencies among the scheduled castes—most state-owned industries and departments are now home to scheduled caste/tribe associations which often parallel the trade unions. The relationship between the two groups is, at worst, confrontational and, at best, mutually exclusive. Government espousal of privatization, however, has recently brought the two closer to each other.

The Unorganized Sector

I t is very important to remember that, in the context of workers’ struggles in India, only a fraction of workers are organized. A government report states:

About 7 percent of the total workforce is employed in the formal or organized sector (all public sector establishments and all non-agricultural establishments in the private sector with ten or more workers) while the remaining 93 percent work in the informal or unorganized sector . . . It is estimated that 369 million workers are employed in the unorganized segment of the economy whereas only 28 million workers (7 percent) are engaged in the organized sector.

The term “unorganized sector” does not begin to describe the conditions of work or the remuneration levels for this vast army of 369 million men and women. Suffice it to say that the minimum wages in most parts of the country have only in the last year been raised to one hundred rupees a day (fifty rupees = one U.S. dollar)—i.e., to the level at which the United Nations Development Programme has set the poverty line. It is important to remember that many workers do not receive even this minimum wage.

There are various important categories of workers in the unorganized sector in addition to those working in small factories or cottage industries, performing contracted work in their homes, or working as contract laborers. One group is comprised of poor, rural men and women who have been enlisted under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This was a very significant piece of legislation pushed through by the Left from 2004 to 2009, when the existence of the Congress Party-led government was dependent on left-wing support. The Congress Party and the main party of opposition—the rightist, “Hindu,” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—are both deeply committed to neoliberal policies and obeying the diktats of the IMF and World Bank. This legislation, therefore, bucked the trend of the government’s shrugging off of its responsibilities to provide employment and minimum welfare measures for its citizens. The legislation provided for one hundred days of guaranteed employment per rural family at 60 to 130 rupees a day (depending on the minimum wage in different states). At least 30 percent of beneficiaries were to be women. The work they were to be given was extremely backbreaking—eight hours of hard labor in the open, digging ditches and creating other kinds of rural infrastructure. The fact that hundreds of millions of poor men and women have been queuing up for this scheme gives some indication of the extent of rural poverty and unemployment.

Not only are vast numbers of people demanding work under the NREGA but, in many parts of the country, they are also being organized—by the Left, for the most part, and also by some committed NGOs—so they get the work that’s been promised to them, and then also get paid. While the effort to organize these workers has not yet reached massive proportions, the fact is that these workers have engaged in struggles, protracted and sporadic, throughout the length and breadth of the country. Since the NREGA is implemented through the elected village councils, these are very local struggles involving hundreds of thousands of very poor people. This is an extremely important development for the working-class movement that can lead to a tremendous widening and deepening of future struggles. Every passing year is witness to this.

Another development critical to the Indian working-class movement, and Indian women in particular, has emerged in the health and education sectors. Privatization of health services and educational systems has had a severe impact on general well-being. It has also led to much retrenchment of relatively secure, well-paid government jobs. It has had another consequence as well—the government, following World Bank prescriptions, has hired contract, ill-paid, “temporary” laborers to carry out permanent tasks. Millions of poor women—most of whom have at least ten to twelve years of formal education—now work for rural health systems as auxiliary nurses and health care workers (especially involved in monitoring pregnant women and ensuring institutional deliveries); as providers of a few hours of “crèche services” and nutritional supplements to infants in cities and rural areas; as cooks and servers in the “midday meal scheme” at government primary schools, which several states have extended to municipal schools as well; and as “helper teachers.” All of these jobs entail a full day’s work but are deliberately treated as temporary jobs of a part-time nature, to deprive workers of a minimum government salary. The pay range is five hundred to twelve hundred rupees a month! And the twelve hundred upper limit has been reached only after many struggles, demonstrations, and strikes. What is important is that many of these ill-paid and thoroughly exploited women are getting unionized and are participating in increasingly militant struggles. Once again, there is the possibility of widespread movements, transgressing urban-rural boundaries.

Important Struggles of the Past Year

Despite the fact that, in absolute terms, the number of workers in the organized sector is relatively small, the impact of their struggles is felt not only among the unorganized sector workers but in society as a whole because of the way in which these struggles affect government policies.

The thrust of neoliberal policies has, of course, been most directly felt by the organized working class, which has seen its numbers, its organizational strength, and its very social importance diminish considerably under neoliberalism’s impact. In the recent past, however, the intensity of the attack on the organized working class’s very existence seems to be providing this group with some new weapons and cleaning the rust off some of its traditional ones. As a result, 2010 witnessed some significant battles.

The most important battle was the one-day general strike of September 7th (and the campaign leading up to it). The CITU called a meeting of all the central trade unions, and all India federations of employees, at which the decision to strike was made. The reality of the attacks they are facing—in the form of government policy and the unprecedented rise in prices over the last two years that has tremendously eroded workers’ living standards—spurred them to come together and adopt a common charter of demands: 1) take urgent steps to curb the continuous price rise through universalization of the PDS (public distribution system) and by banning speculation in commodity markets; 2) strictly enforce all basic labor laws without any exception or exemption, as well as stringent punitive measures for labor law violations; 3) adopt concrete, proactive measures to make employment protection in the recession-stricken sectors a condition of the stimulus package that’s being offered to entrepreneurs, while also adopting concrete steps against retrenchment, layoffs, contractorization, and outsourcing; 4) remove all restrictive provisions respecting eligibility of coverage under the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, and create a national fund for the unorganized sector that provides a national floor-level social security for all unorganized workers (including contract/ casual workers); and 5) end the disinvestment of shares by central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) to meet budgetary deficits and use their growing reserve and surplus for expansion, modernization, and revival of sick public sector undertakings.

The strike was an enormous success and more than one hundred million workers participated. Total bandhs (closures of shops, public transport systems, restaurants, etc.) were observed in the three Left Front-governed states of West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. This is not unusual or unexpected, but what was astonishing was that at least five other states also witnessed bandhs. In a city like Mumbai (Bombay), all means of public transport—including taxis and autorickshaws—were off the roads. The following sectors were involved:

• The entire financial sector—covering the banks and insurance companies—witnessed almost a complete shutdown throughout the country, involving around two million employees.

• More than ten million state government employees, teachers, boards, and corporations—covering almost all of the country’s states—participated.

• Around two million central government employees—covering about 80 percent of the workforce—struck (in the defense sector, the strike was also about 80 percent effective).

• About 80 percent of the six hundred thousand coal-mining workers—in nine companies— joined. In the non-coal-mining belt (granite, graphite, iron, phosphate, limestone, and other minerals)—spreading across Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh—the strike was near total.

• Strikes led by the telecom workers—under the telecom giant BSNL—were more than 70 percent effective.

• In the petroleum sector—in upstream operations, refineries, and at the marketing end—the strike was nearly complete in the eastern, northeastern, and southern parts of the country, and partial in Northern and Western India.

• In steel, the strike was massive in Durgapur, IISCO, and Visakhapatnam, and partial in other places. • At the ports in Kochi (in Kerala) and Kolkata (in West Bengal), the strike was massive, while at other ports it was partial.

• In the plantation sector, the strike was near total.

• Unorganized-sector workers in brick kilns, head-load workers (who carry loads on their heads and are identifiable by their red shirts and bandanas), beedi workers (who make paperless hand-rolled cigarettes from tobacco leaves), and mandi workers (who load and unload goods at wholesale markets) took part, organizing rail-roko and rasta-roko (rail and road stoppages, by sitting on the rails and highways) throughout the country.

• Construction workers—organized and unorganized—responded to the strike call in a big way, and construction workers in all the hydel projects under construction in the state of Himachal Pradesh struck.

• More than one million anganwadi workers (women who provide nutritional and other support services to infants and new mothers) actively participated.

• Hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk and fishery workers took part throughout the country.

• The transport workers—from both the state and the private sector—magnificently responded.

• Electricity workers took part in most of the states.

• One hundred and fifty thousand of the country’s medical representatives (sales employees of drug companies) chose to strike.

• The special economic zones in Visakhapatnam and West Bengal were shut down.

• The industrial areas of Gurgaon and Dharuhera—in Haryana—witnessed almost a complete stoppage, despite attempts at suppression.

Another very important struggle was in a special economic zone in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where many MNCs have set up manufacturing units and where trade union activity is banned by law. Here, workers of the Foxconn Technology Group—which has witnessed seventeen worker suicides in the past couple of years—went on strike, demanding the right to form a union of their choice. These workers come from the rural areas around the factory, and many are women. They are exposed to poisonous gas emissions and work overtime without getting properly compensated. The workers finally decided to organize themselves, formed a union, got affiliated with the CITU, and demanded recognition of their union. When negotiations foundered, the workers went on strike (there were also large-scale solidarity actions by other workers in the area). Hundreds of workers, along with their leaders, were temporarily imprisoned. An uneasy peace now reigns at the factory, but no one has any doubts that the workers will renew their struggle in the near future. This struggle has tremendous significance since it mobilized workers who had once been quite averse to trade unionism and collective action.

Women workers have, perhaps, been the most active organizers and struggle-participants in the last year. Tens of thousands of them—health workers, midday meal workers, crèche workers—have organized conventions and conferences all over the country, and have participated in (small and large) struggles and strikes. They have been successful in winning small victories—an allowance here, a wage increase there—but, most importantly, they have won recognition for themselves as people entitled to rights that the government was determined to deny to them on principle.

The challenges posed by globalization and neoliberal policy implementation have created many setbacks and roadblocks for the working-class movement in India. But they have also opened up some new avenues for advance, new avenues for bridging rural-urban divides, new avenues for the militant entry of women workers into the forefront of political activism, and new avenues for unity in a much-fragmented movement.

 

 

About Our Contributors

Subhashini Ali joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1969 and is now one of its Central Committee members. She has been part of the women’s movement since 1981, and can be reached at subhashiniali@gmail.com.

Stanley Aronowitz is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he has taught since 1983. He has authored or edited twenty-five books, and can be reached at saronowitz@igc.org.

Christopher Barzak is the author of two novels, One for Sorrow (which won the Crawford Award for fantasy and was nominated for the Great Lakes Book Award) and The Love We Share Without Knowing (a nominee for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel). He teaches in the Northeast Ohio MFA program in Creative Writing at Youngstown State University and can be reached at christopherbarzak@gmail.com.

Ben Becker is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He can be reached at bbecker@gc.cuny.edu.

Dan Clawson teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he was president of the faculty union. He is the author of The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements and (with Max Page) The Future of Higher Education. He serves on the board of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and can be reached at clawson@sadri.umass.edu.

Liza Featherstone is a contributing writer at the Nation and her writing on labor issues has appeared in Slate, Salon, Newsday, the New York Times, and many other publications. She is the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart and the co-author of  Students Against Sweatshops. She teaches in the Union Semester program at the Murphy Institute and in NYU’s journalism school, and can be reached at lfeather@panix.com.

Steve Fraser is a historian, an editor, and a writer working on a book comparing America’s two gilded ages. He can be reached at fraser927@aol.com.

Joshua B. Freeman teaches history at Queens College, the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Murphy Institute. He is currently writing a history of the United States since World War II, and can be reached at JFreeman@gc.cuny.edu.

Thomas Greven is an associate professor of political science at the Freie Universität Berlin, Senior Research Fellow of the German Institute for International Relations, and a freelance union consultant. He can be reached at tgreven@zedat.fu-berlin.de.

Marcus Jackson was born in Toledo, Ohio. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, the Harvard Review, the Cincinnati Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among many other publications. His debut collection of poems, Neighborhood Register, will be released in the fall of 2011, and he can be reached at marcustothejackson@gmail.com.

Herbert Jauch has been with the Namibian labor movement for over twenty years, and served as the founding director of the trade union-based Labor Resource and Research Institute in Katutura, Windhoek. He can be reached at vivaworkers@gmail.com.

Anne Marie Lofaso is an associate professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, where she teaches courses in employment law, labor law, and jurisprudence. Prior to teaching, she served as an attorney in the Supreme Court and Appellate Court Branches of the National Labor Relations Board. She can be reached at anne.lofaso@mail.wvu.edu.

Peter Olney is the organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and he has been organizing workers for almost forty years in Massachusetts and California. From 2001 to 2004, he was the associate director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley. He can be reached at peter.olney@ilwu.org.

Erik Peterson is the Director of Education and Labor Programs for Wellstone Action, and an associate professor in the Masters Program in Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He can be reached at Erik@wellstone.org.

Bernard Pollack has developed communications programs for labor organizing all over the U.S. and has worked extensively with media reporting on workers’ issues. He has organized state and national campaigns for the AFL-CIO, and can be reached at bernardpollack@yahoo.com.

Robert Pollin is a professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He can be reached at pollin@econs.umass. edu. J. Phillip Thompson is an urban planner, a political scientist, and an associate professor of Urban Politics and Planning at MIT. He is currently working with labor unions, community groups, and local officials on strategies for building “sustainable cities,” and can be reached at jthomp1613@aol.com.

Matt Witt is the director of the American Labor Education Center and coordinates TheWorkSite. org, a website that provides educational tools for more effective communications and grassroots organizing. He can be reached at mwitt@amlabor.org.

Janet Zandy is a Professor of English and American Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her authored and edited books focus on American working-class culture, including the award-winning Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. She currently writes about photography and can be reached at jnzgsl@rit.edu.

One, Two, Many Madisons: The War on Public Sector Workers

In the mad race to the bottom that has gripped American politics, no sector has been more targeted and maligned than the government and its employees. Buffeted by the shellacking the Democrats sustained in 2010—largely because of their failure to make a serious dent in the appalling jobs picture—in January 2011, President Obama announced a two-year federal-employee salary freeze.

Read more

Spring 2011

Access FULL Issue

Contents

From the Editorial Team

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

On the Contrary
It’s an Academic Question: Why Progressive Intellectuals Should Not Stay Out of Internal Union Battles
By Dan Clawson

ONE, TWO, MANY MADISONS: The War on Public Sector Workers
By Stanley Aronowitz
Are we entering a new era of union fight-back?

 

IS THERE LIFE AFTER SHELLACKING: A Post-Election Program for the Democratic Party
By J. Phillip Thompson
The future of the Democratic Party is in play. 

INDIANS ON STRIKE: Caste and Class in the Indian Trade Union Movement
By Subhashini Ali
The story of the Indian labor movement and how it recently managed to overcome its historic divisions

THE WORKING-CLASS EYE OF MILTON ROGOVIN: A Retrospective Photo Essay
By Janet Zandy

CHINESE INVESTMENTS IN AFRICA: Twenty-First Century Colonialism?
By Herbert Jauch
The Chinese road to economic development is a dead end for African labor.

BUILDING A LABOR MOVEMENT IN A FAILED STATE: The Case of Zimbabwe
By Bernard Pollack
A pathbreaking attempt to unite workers in a deeply depressed economy.

PROMISES, PROMISES: Assessing the Obama Administration’s Record on Labor Reform
By Anne Aarie Lofaso
A record of executive accomplishment is combined with legislative paralysis.

BATTLE IN THE MOJAVE: Lessons from the Rio Tinto Lockout
By Peter Olney
How to turn union-busting tactics into a victory for labor.

Economic Prospects
By Robert Pollin

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

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

Books and the Arts

The Closing Window
The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit
By Michael Zadoorian
American Salvage
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Reviewed by Christopher Barzak

The Continental Plan 
Were You Born On The Wrong Continent?: How The European Model Can help You Get A Life
By Thomas Geoghegan
Reviewed by Thomas Greven

Power To The People
Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group
By John Atlas
Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing
By James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge
Reviewed by Erik Peterson

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

Poetry

About Our Contributors

 

THE WORKING-CLASS EYE OF MILTON ROGOVIN: A Retrospective Photo Essay

Milton Rogovin photographed the people of the neighborhoods and workplaces most of us never enter. He didn’t use the language of war to describe his photographic practices—no casual “shooting,” no “capturing” his subjects, no “arsenal” of cameras and films. Instead, in thousands of photographs over fifty years, he built a human landscape by seeing those who are the least visible and least powerful.

Rogovin—who died in January 2011 at the age of 101 in his Buffalo, New York home—was born on December 30, 1909 in Manhattan to Russian-Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, and was persuaded by his family to follow the career path of an older brother and become an optometrist. As a Columbia University graduate, he did not fit the stereotype of the working-class laborer. Yet, as the son of a bankrupt small store owner who died suddenly, as a young man experiencing the no-safety-net suffering of the Great Depression, and through his lifelong self-education in literature, political philosophy, economics, music, and the visual arts, Rogovin taught himself how to see the worlds of workers. “The radical movement shaped me into a new person,” Rogovin once recalled.

The artistic expression of that “new person”—and his evolution from a politically-left optometrist to a masterful photographer—was fueled by the energy, chutzpah, and humanity of his wife Anne, a teacher, whom he married in 1942, after moving to Buffalo in 1938. Rogovin served three years in the army during World War II, joined the Optical Workers Union, practiced optometry in a working-class Buffalo neighborhood, and—with Anne—continued such political work as voter registration drives and hosting political reading groups associated with the Communist Party. The Rogovins were not “salon socialists” (as Agnes Smedley once described theorists without actions). In the increasingly oppressive political climate of the 1950s, however, their lives changed. In 1957, Milton was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and refused to answer any questions other than his name and occupation. In this climate of fear, his optometric practice diminished, and his whole family was affected—economically and socially—as the three Rogovin children faced the isolation imposed on them when their father was labeled “Buffalo’s Top Red” in the Buffalo Evening News.

That oppressive time became a turning point for Rogovin as a photographer. He and Anne traveled to Mexico several times during the 1950s, where they became acquainted with the Taller de Grafica Popular printmakers, and where Rogovin composed stunning early portraits of Mexican workers (especially women). In 1957—at the invitation of his friend William H. Tallmadge, a music professor at Buffalo State College who was recording the music in the “Holiness” churches within Buffalo’s African-American community—Rogovin began taking photographs inside the storefront churches of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. Emerging from the near silencing of his political voice by HUAC, Rogovin—the Jewish outsider with a camera—photographed the humble spaces African-Americans created for exuberant worship. Those storefront churches were anchors, Rogovin realized, whereby a “scrubwoman” or “dishwasher” could become “a preacher who sways the members of his [or her] little church.”

Melding technical prowess, imaginative aesthetics, and political consciousness, Rogovin produced a body of work situated within and nurtured by human relationships among the poor and working class, in Buffalo and around the world. His lineage as a humanistic photographer can be traced back to Lewis Hine (particularly his portraits), to the artistic expressions of Käthe Kollwitz (who had the capacity to “see into” the lives of common people), and to the worker-poetry of Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. Although still not given sufficient recognition in courses on the history and aesthetics of photography, Rogovin’s work can be compared to that of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers of the 1930s—such as Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn—to the American modernist Walker Evans, to the German portraitist August Sander, and to the Mexican photography of Paul Strand and Tina Modotti. Noting these influences, future historians of photography will still be challenged to find categories adequate enough to encompass the distinctive contribution of Milton Rogovin.

Looking down into the lens of his Rolleiflex camera, asking permission of his subjects, allowing them to pose themselves in their own surroundings, and providing them with prints, Rogovin achieved a mutuality of human relationships that produced his extraordinary body of work. He did not dominate his subjects or control their narratives. His work/ home studies, triptychs, and quartets trace presence and absence—lives, not “lifestyles.” He created interpretative spaces so that the viewer can infer possibility rather than presume defeat. His portraits are not evidence or types; they do not confer dignity, they reveal it. Gainfully employed or not, Rogovin’s people are always more than their jobs.

In addition to the Buffalo “Storefront Churches” series (1958-1961), Rogovin’s body of work includes: photographs of Mexico (1950s-early 1960s); residents of Buffalo’s East and West Sides (the latter over a period of decades, resulting in a series of triptychs and quartets); Native Americans of Western New York and parts of Canada (1963-2002); workers and families of Chile (1967); Appalachian Americans (1962-1987); Yemeni immigrants (1977-1979); working people on the job and at home (1976- 1987)—especially steel workers when they were employed in the mills and after the mills went down; and miners and their families from ten countries (1981-1990). The critical subject of these photographs is not the photographer—his techniques, style, and fame—but rather those who, in Rogovin’s words, are “the forgotten ones who make the world go ‘round.”

Milton Rogovin is a pivotal figure in the history of photography because his work offers an alternative visual vocabulary—of “finding,” not “capturing”—and an aesthetic that challenges the viewer to see with a working-class eye. It is a model of photography as inquiry, not domination: a vision for photographers and video artists of the twenty-first century. The photographs herein appear through the collaboration and courtesy of Mark Rogovin (Milton’s son). For more information and photographs, please visit www.miltonrogovin.com, the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography website—http://ccp.uair.arizona.edu/item/38129—or (until June 30, 2011) “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” exhibit at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery in Chicago.