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
Contested Futures: Labor After Keystone XL
by Sean Sweeney
The extraordinary story of the political battle over the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline that began in the summer of 2011 came to an end when President Obama finally rejected the project on November 6, 2015. President Obama’s decision was met with anger and derision from many unions in the Building Trades (North America’s Building Trades Unions)–the Trades, but was a cause for reserved celebration for the handful of unions that opposed the project.
Time to Kiss and Make Up?
Labor’s part in the fight over KXL was lazily portrayed in the mainstream media in ‘here we go again’ jobs vs. environment terms. But this was no ordinary squabble, and there are no plans for a ‘group hug’ moment of reconciliation for the principal officers of a number of key unions now that the saga is seemingly over.
KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead. Referring to the split in labor over KXL, the pro-pipeline president of Laborers’ International union of North America (LiUNA) Terry O’Sullivan said in early 2013, “That divide is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.”[i]
Can future KXL-like fights be avoided? Yes, but it will require that certain unions rethink their relationship to coal, oil, and gas industry groups and take the lead in driving a different conversation about ‘extractionism,’ energy, and climate change.
Energy Wars and the Black-Blue Alliance
Today, the fight over the energy future of the U.S. is clearly defined. On the one side there are those who feel that the country’s rich coal, oil, and gas resources will ensure the U.S.’s economic prosperity in the years ahead. World prices today are low, but over the longer term demand for these fuels is assured, unless of course climate commitments to reduce emissions get in the way. A significant number of unions share this “Saudi America” vision of the future. In 2009, the Building Trades forged an explicit partnership with the oil and gas industry to develop North American energy sources, via the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (later described by some as the “Black-Blue Alliance”.)[ii]
On the other side of the U.S.’s energy war is the growing movement that sees the social and environmental costs of drilling, blasting, mining, moving, and burning of fossil fuels. The extraction, transporting, refining, burning, and waste by-products associated with fossil fuel use is inflicting intolerable damage on communities and ecosystems; further destabilizing the earth’s climate, and will ultimately weaken the U.S. economy over the longer term. Unions are in this camp also, and one or two have become proactive in moving members into key fights around coal, oil, and gas infrastructure, and fracking in particular. These unions see potential allies in their long-term fight for social and economic justice, in the movements against fossil fuels and against climate change.
Done Deal Undone
When TransCanada Corporation had applied for a State Department permit to build the 1,700-mile KXL pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to two oil refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, four unions signed Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) with the company, and joined the oil industry to lobby Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue the permit to build KXL.[iii] Few at that time doubted that the permit would be issued; the industry wanted it, labor wanted it—Keystone XL was a ‘done deal.’[iv] For the Trades, there was much more at stake than the jobs involved in building KXL. TransCanada and the oil industry expected unions to use the jobs argument in order to deliver a permit to construct the pipeline, and to do the same for a string of future infrastructure projects related to tar oil, coal export terminals, and fracking. If KXL had been approved, other “KXLs” would have followed and that meant PLAs for years to come—a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why KXL became a top priority for construction unions like LiUNA.
But opposition to KXL grew dramatically in 2011 and 2012, led by indigenous organizations, farmer and rancher groups, and environmental, environmental justice, and climate advocates like 350.org. Normally cautious and beltway-constrained environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were also important players in putting KXL into the national political spotlight. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) were the first U.S. unions to say no to KXL in August 2011.[v] National Nurses United (NNU) and the New York State Nurses Association also issued strong statements, and in mid-2013 more than 2,000 nurses and other union members marched over the Golden Gate Bridge carrying placards that read “No the KXL, Stop Climate Change.” The National Domestic Workers Alliance, Domestic Workers United, United Electrical Workers and 1199 SEIU would complete the group of unions that would oppose the pipeline.[vi]
Other unions chose not to explicitly oppose KXL, but were concerned to protect President Obama from GOP efforts to use KXL as a way of hammering the President on jobs in a presidential election year. In January 2012, SEIU, Steelworkers, CWA, UAW, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSW) backed the President’s decision to delay a ”yes or no” on the pipeline until the environmental and economic impacts had been fully investigated by the State Department.[vii] Reacting to the President’s decision to delay, the Trades lined up with Republican critics like Mitt Romney in criticizing President Obama for turning his back on the unemployed and blue collar America.[viii]
It is important to note that the decision on the part of several unions to oppose KXL was anything but pro forma or routine, especially for the AFL-CIO affiliates. They knew that the reaction would be both harsh and swift. In a series of statements, LiUNA president Terry O’Sullivan railed against the ATU, TWU, and the NNU. Unions opposing KXL, said O’Sullivan, had no right to take food from the mouths of work-deprived union members, and “should come out from under the skirts of delusional environmental groups which (sic) stand in the way of creating good, much-needed American jobs.”[ix]
The Black-Blue Alliance is still very much the compass that guides the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), but it is worth noting that the BCTD no longer identifies with the Federation—as a simple search for “AFL-CIO” on the BCTD’s website will immediately confirm. At its 2015 legislative conference of the North America’s Building Trades Unions it was announced that the Trades would endorse candidates based on how supportive they were of the kind of industries that employed their members. In an interview, the Trades’ leader Sean McGarvey stated, “We’re not about political parties. We’re about construction workers…Both parties have changed, and we have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.” When asked about big GOP- and Tea Party-backers Koch Industries, McGarvey responded “They’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries.” [x]
In recent months LiUNA and the International Union of Operating Engineers have linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on U.S. crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. Letters supporting the bill to remove the ban described how the U.S .could become an ‘energy superpower’ and create jobs along the way. Noting how union members worked a record number of hours on pipeline projects in 2014, LiUNA and the Operating Engineers 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.” [xi]
Realignment from Below?
But the pro-industry positions of the BCTD and individual union leaders cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that many union locals in the Trades have shown creativity and leadership around environmental issues, and they continue to work alongside others on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste management, and related initiatives. This suggests that ‘realignment from below’ is possible. Meanwhile, the collapse of oil, coal, and gas prices has led to huge layoffs and a dramatic plunge in investment levels. In Alberta, 63,000 jobs were lost in the first 8 months of 2015 due in large part to falling oil prices and rising costs of tar sands extraction. In the U.S., the closure of coal-fired power stations has led to thousands of layoffs for members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America AFL-CIO (UWUA). All told, the U.S. lost 122,000 energy and mining jobs in 2015.[xii]
Many members and leaders in the Trades cannot be comfortable playing the role of attack dog for fossil fuel interests, including the likes of the Koch brothers. They realize that even if prices rebound in the coming years and “Saudi America” looks to become a reality, only a few unions will benefit and many of the labor movement’s sworn enemies will become a whole lot stronger than they are today. They will have also noted that the defeat of TransCanada and KXL has emboldened the movement against fossil fuels, and resistance to ‘carbon lock in’ and extreme energy is rising, and the number of victories against the industry is growing.
The Trades Can Lead a Policy Shift
Realignment on the part of the Trades could also allow for labor to pursue a different approach to climate policy in the U.S. and to the whole question of ‘just transition.’Clearly, one of the unintended consequences of the closeness of the Trades to the oil, coal and gas industries is that when unions in the Trades or the energy sector raise legitimate worker and societal concerns they are often interpreted as acts of opportunism aimed at promoting fossil fuel interests or are simply viewed an attempt to preserve the status quo. Similarly, by supporting unpopular right-wing initiatives like Proposition 23 in California—which again saw unions side with groups like Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity in order to repeal California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32 or AB32)—it undermines the important role unions could play in highlighting the many serious flaws in current liberal and market-based approaches to climate and energy policy.
This has been illustrated in the present debate around President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The EPA’s new federal regulations on power plants mandates a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. Mainstream green groups and mostly non-union wind and solar companies are staunch advocates of the regulations, which also featured prominently in the current Administration’s commitment on emissions made at the COP (Conference of Parties) 21 Paris Climate Talks in December 2015.
However, the IBEW, Boilermakers and Operating Engineers have signed on to a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the regulations. At first glance, opposition to the EPA’s regulation looks like another example of key unions aligning with fossil fuel interests and GOP leaders to prevent bold action to address climate change. But this is too simplistic. IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson is right when he says, “Human-caused climate change is real, and a real threat, but focusing on power generation in isolation–leaving out industry, agriculture, and transportation—ignores three-quarters of the problem…Everyone will benefit from an effective response so everyone should share in the cost.”[xiii]
Energy unions are acutely aware of the fact that the U.S.’s power generation sector is in a deep crisis, with cheap shale gas from fracking having led to thousands of job losses in coal-fired power stations. The deregulation of the sector has led companies to neglect both the physical and human infrastructure that sustains the system—a point also made forcefully by the UWUA. Meanwhile, renewable energy is mostly non-union and its levels of deployment are low; therefore renewable energy is not ready to fill the massive loss of power generation capacity, and energy conservation is also another woefully neglected area.
Renewing Labor’s Energy for Change
Unions in health care and public transport opposed KXL because they saw it as their responsibility to advocate for, respectively, their patients and passengers as well as the interests of their own members. They understand that they have an obligation to do more than ‘just say no’ to environmentally damaging projects, and they have begun to engage with members on energy and climate issues. Unions’ visibility in the local struggles against fracking, ‘bomb trains,’ coal export terminals, etc., has grown significantly in the past two or three years, with union nurses leading the way. And in these struggles, unions have been on the winning side more often than not.
Beyond ‘blockadia,’ progressive approaches to energy and climate are also expressing themselves in national politics. Of this writing, unions like CWA, NNU, and the Postal Workers (APWU) are backing Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries—and Sanders just happens to be the first national politician to oppose KXL. Sanders, in turn, has proposed legislation (Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act) that would advance an energy and climate protection agenda that protects workers and takes on the political power of the large fossil fuel companies.
So the choice is clear: Labor’s KXL fight could be the precursor to more disunity and acrimony in the labor movement in the years ahead, especially if the Black-Blue Alliance remains in place and “Saudi America” imaginings continue to shape labor’s discourse. Alternatively, unions in all sectors—the Trades, transport, health, etc. –can work together to support an approach to energy and climate that is needs-based, grounded in the facts, and independent of both industry interests and the mainstream environmental groups that support renewable energy ‘by any means necessary.’ Such a coalition could unite labor behind an “energy democracy” agenda that rejects the expansion of fossil fuel use; seeks to reclaim key parts of the energy economy to public ownership and democratic oversight; and shifts control over energy toward workers, communities, and municipalities.
[ii] http://www.ongil-mc.org/about Leadership Chairman: Sean McGarvey, President, Building-Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Secretary/Treasurer Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute
[iii] Importantly, the four union presidents counterpoise jobs and the environment—choosing the former while dismissing the latter. The letter acknowledges the fact that “further development of Canada’s oil sands puts in jeopardy U.S. efforts aimed at capping carbon emissions and greenhouse gases” and that “comprehensive energy and environmental policy should strive to address climate concerns while simultaneously ensuring adequate supplies of reliable energy and promoting energy independence and national security.”
[v] ATU and TWU, 2011
[vi] NDWA, et. al. 2011
[ix] Statement, LiUNA, September 9, 2011. On November 11, O’Sullivan wrote in Nebraska’s Journal Star:
LIUNA members are angry and surprised that some of our fellow union brothers and sisters, who don’t have any members in the pipeline industry and who themselves have never worked on a pipeline, now speak out as pipeline experts in their attempt to block Keystone. For thousands of LIUNA workers, the stakes are too high to not hold them accountable.
[x] http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/washingtonbureau/2015/04/union-builds-bridges-with-business-and-even-some.html. The full quote: “Even if you look at Koch Industries — they’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries, They’re a huge client of ours. Do we agree with some of the things that they supposedly support? No. Do we understand why they do it? Yeah, OK, because they’re looking for political advantage for a political point of view, and the Democrats don’t see it the way they see it. And other unions in the labor movement tend to be much more Democratic unions. And if you can hurt the labor movement, i.e. you hurt the Democratic Party. It’s just a system that we really don’t want to be engaged or involved in .
[xi] LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, Sept 9, 2015; https://energycommerce.house.gov/news-center/letters/letters-support-hr-702-adapt-changing-crude-oil-market-conditions. See also:
Sean Sweeney is director of the International Program on Labor, Climate and Environment at the Murphy Institute, and coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.
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.
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...
I work nights, and he was awake.
When he saw me, he said, “I’m not going to
make it.” Well when they say that
they know. People can tell. You don’t
argue with an expert. I wet the cloth
and bathed his face, but it didn’t do him
good. So I took his hands in my two
and we held on. No one
was alone in that motion. The way water
is a part of itself, we were the going
until his hands went slack in mine.
Still I held on, some final acknowledgment
beginning its climb out of the body,
his skin resilient still, that shine
across a taut thing—then I saw it sag
and go flat. His body had a clearness
about it then, the clean weightlessness
of a crucible completely empty,
in which you hear the air ticking
against the glaze. Then I heard another
sound, like when you’re a kid, holding
a shell to your ear, hearing
the ocean. I held on, and then I understood:
it was the sound of my own blood.
Reprinted with permission of Marilyn Krysl.
Volume 25 Issue 2
From the Editorial Team
Under the Radar
By Sarah Jaffe
Unreported and under-reported news and views that matter.
On the Contrary
Class Struggle in Robot Utopia
By Peter Frase
By Tom Gallagher
How did an avowed socialist manage to challenge the Democratic Party’s anointed leader?
By Adolph Reed Jr.
What Black Lives Matter should take from A. Philip Randolph.
Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of the Chilean Labor Movement
By René Rojas
How miners and port workers are leading the revival.
By Jennifer Wolff
Can Puerto Rico’s labor movement provide an alternative to austerity?
Does Labor’s Future Rest on Justice Scalia’s Replacement?
By Charlotte Garden
Has the threat to the labor movement passed away with Scalia?
The Marikana Massacre: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in South Africa
By Rajendra Chetty
Will a new labor and political movement end the reign of the ANC and the COASTU?
The Marxist Moment
Full Circle: Was Marx Right After All?
By Simon Head
Why the logic of a neoliberal economy invites a Marxist critique.
A Year to Remember: Reviewing Labor Movement Highlights and Lowlights
By Tom Juravich
By Kati Sipp
Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate Battleground
Contested Futures: Labor After Keystone XL
By Sean Sweeney
Roots of Rebellion: A Guide to Insurgencies from Coast to Coast
“We actually stopped the raids”: Puente’s Crusade Against Family Separations
By Mariya Strauss
Organized Money: What Is Corporate America Thinking?
Politics, Guns, and Money
By Max Fraser
Books and the Arts
Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir
By Wednesday Martin
The Nanny Chronicles of Hollywood
By Julie Swales and Stella Reid
Reviewed by Rachel Sherman
The Insecurity State
Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times
By Marianne Cooper
The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity
By Allison Pugh
Reviewed by Leslie Bell
On Whose Authority?
Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements
By Chris Dixon
Reviewed by Stephanie Luce
Down and Out in the Homeland
$2.00 a Day: Living on Nothing in America
By Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
Reviewed by Sudhir Venkatesh
Our Bookshelf: Recent Publications by Members of New Labor Forum’s Editorial Board and Staff
Edited by Kent Wong and Nancy Guarneros
Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed
By Matt Witt
By Marilyn Krysl
A Twenty-Four Week Preemie, Change of Shift
By Belle Waring
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 ...
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.
[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,” nonsite.org, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,” nonsite.org, 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,” nonsite.org, 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 nonsite.org, February 11, 2016.
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.
When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president, his assertion that he was in this to win seemed like maybe the kind of statement a candidate feels he has to make. If you followed this sort of thing, a more modest and reasonable hope seemed to be that he’d at least fare better than Dennis Kucinich, the last candidate of the left to attempt a significant candidacy, in 2004 and 2008. As a U.S. Senator, self-identified socialist, and the longest serving independent member of Congress, Sanders hopefully could...