Category: Spring 2017

The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .


1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at

2. Source:

3. Source:

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.


Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.


1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at

Spring 2017

Volume 26 Issue 2, Spring 2017


From the Editorial Team

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

On the Contrary

The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”
By Mark Dudzic

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’”
By Julie Kushner (and Kitty Weiss Krupat)

Mark Dudzic Replies

Over the Rainbow: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Politics
The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution’, Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party
By Micah Uetricht
What is the role of ‘Our Revolution’ in the struggle against Trump?  

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics
By Michael Zweig
What should progressives make of the fact that large sections of the white working-class voted for Trump?

A Listening Tour with Labor’s Trump Voters: Post-Election Union Strategy
By Gordon Lafer
Why did organized labor’s sway over union voters decline and what must be done?

Measuring the Rainbow: A Response to Richard Alba’s The Likely Persistence of a White Majority
By G. Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz
Why Richard Alba’s expansive definition of whiteness seems inaccurate and counterproductive.

How Census Data Mislead Us about Ethno-Racial Change in the U.S.: A Response to G. Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz
By Richard Alba
What’s wrong with the majority-minority Census Bureau projection and why it’s so important to get it right.

Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute Unpaid Care Work: How to Close the Gender Gap
By Diane Elson
Why the gender gap stopped closing and what to do about it.

IT is Watching:  Workplace Surveillance and Worker Resistance
By Dan Clawson and Mary Ann Clawson
How electronic spies permeate and intimidate the workplace.

The Ebbing Pink Tide: An Autopsy of Left-Wing Regimes in Latin America
By René Rojas
Did right-wing assaults or internal weaknesses doom the Latin American revolutions?

Disabled Workers and the Unattainable Promise of Information Technology
By Andrew Ross and Sunaura Taylor
What explains increased unemployment and poverty among the disabled in the information age?

Working-Class Voices

A Home Care Worker Battles Cancer and Helps Pass Overtime Protection
By Emma Yang with Kressent Pottenger

 Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate Battleground

Why Clinton’s Embrace of the U.S. as an Energy Superpower Should Matter to Those Seeking to Reform the Democratic Party
By Sean Sweeney

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

Building a Multiracial Working-Class Movement Through Civics Unionism and Potluck Dinners
By Mariya Strauss

Organized Money: What Is Corporate America Thinking?

Billable Hours Up, Labor Law Down
By Max Fraser

 Books and the Arts

Life After the Great Industrial Extinction
Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America
By Tracy Neumann
From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City
By Chloe Taft
Reviewed by Lily Geismer

The Winner-Take-All Economy
The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization
By Richard Baldwin
The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War
By Robert J. Gordon
Reviewed by Andrew Elrod

In Our Hands Is Placed the Power
The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working America
By David Rolf
No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power
By Jane F. McAlevey
Reviewed by Samir Sonti

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


The Border: A Double Sonnet
By Alberto Ríos

White-Working Class in Action

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there have been hundreds of reflections written on the behavior, attitudes, needs, and prospects of the “white working class,” a segment of the population that will prove vital to any progressive coalition that stands for both social and economic justice. But what do we mean by "white working class"?

Read more

How Census Data Mislead Us about Ethno-Racial Change in the United States: A Response to Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz

I am pleased to open a conversation with G. Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz about census data and what they indicate about ethno-racial change

in this issue of New Labor Forum. To forestall misunderstandings, I think it advisable at the outset to make clear the framework within which I am operating. I take it from the way that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz formulate their critique that their starting point is critical race theory, with its normatively inflected concerns about the deep and persisting structures of American racism and the pathways to eventual racial justice. That is fine. But I am operating from a different standpoint, that of sociological realism, which has the goal of identifying and understanding important ongoing social processes and discerning their implications. This, it should be obvious, does not mean that I am unconcerned about racial justice, just as critical race theorists generally are not unconcerned about empirical patterns and their consequences.

It does not help the conversation that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz tend throughout to downplay the significance of the concerns behind my analysis, which they characterize as narrowing “debates to the issue of ‘methodological accuracy’.” I find this an unfortunate attempt to reduce my argument to mainly technical issues (granted, these are part of the story); they miss that I, too, am talking ultimately about social power, even if I do not place it in the foreground in the piece I wrote for The American Prospect (it is more clear in other writings, some currently under review [1]).

As if in further challenge to my arguments, Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz caution that “demo- graphic projections must be handled with care.” But I could not agree more; that is in fact why I wrote The American Prospect article. Has any demographic projection received more widespread credence than the one that America is heading inevitably toward a majority-minority society, in which whites will finally be reduced to numerical minority status? According to the Census Bureau, this outcome is destined to occur before the middle of this century [2]. At the end of the last century, this transition was already heralded by then-President Bill Clinton, who declared in a widely quoted 1998 speech that in fifty years America would not have a “majority race.” Since 2000, Americans have grown more confident about this outcome, supported by regular communications from the Census Bureau that seem to support it. For instance, whites are now a minority of U.S. babies, according to one Census Bureau report (the claim in my view is false, or at least deeply misleading, because the majority of U.S. babies have a white parent) [3]. The confidence that a majority-minority society is on the near horizon has produced websites advising whites how to handle this new situation, given white supremacist groups an appeal for recruiting, and perhaps spurred over-confidence among some multi-culturally disposed intellectuals.

To clarify my problems with this vision of the American future, I have to correct some impressions conveyed by Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz. They appear to think that I am arguing that Hispanics who report their race as white on the census should be regarded as white, and so should individuals from mixed racial backgrounds (more specifically, those whose families include white and minority parentage). Neither supposition is correct. And, in the case of Latinos who check the “white” race box on the census, I agree with Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz that the reasons for this choice are variable, and it can be a sign of resistance rather than of membership.

Yet one of the big stories of the early twenty-first century has to be the growing group of Americans, disproportionate among children and young adults because of the recent rises in the frequency of mixed unions, who come from mixed majority-minority families. Due to the limitations in census data, which are particularly severe for Latinos, this group can be most unambiguously identified among infants because one can in most cases examine the ethno-racial backgrounds of the parents (or, in the case of single-parent families, compare what the parent says about the child with what she, in the usual case, says about herself). Analyzing census data from 2013 with PhD candidates Brenden Beck and Duygu Basaran Sahin, I estimate that this group amounts to 10 to 11 percent of infants; about half are part Anglo and part Latino, a group central to the exchange with Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz [4]. These are larger numbers than one would obtain by looking only at the reports parents provide for infants. This is true for two reasons: parents sometimes report only a single race for mixed-race children, and, more important, the ethno-racial questions on the census do not permit reports that individuals are partly Latino and partly something else. (A proposed change for the 2020 census—merging the race and Hispanic-origin questions—might ameliorate this problem.)

I contend that the group of mixed-[race]origins is of great significance for discerning ways that ethno-racial boundaries may be blurring and for contemplating the American future, at least that of the next several decades. Its members straddle these salient boundaries and possess close family ties on multiple sides of them. Their experiences can reflect a potent new form of conviviality, which brings together family members from across ethno-racial divides, at least for important symbolic occasions such as weddings and funerals. Yet these experiences may also be deeply colored by power differentials, in which the less powerful experience forms of distancing such as micro-aggressions. This seems particularly apparent in the cases of individuals who are partly black.

I acknowledge that we do not yet know a great deal about the mixed-origins group. But what evidence we have is highly suggestive: to start with, an examination (in census data) of the income and residential characteristics of the families of mixed infants indicates that, on the whole, they resemble much more all-white families than they do the all-minority families that share the same minority origin. Families that have a white mother and a black father, which make up the great majority of white-black unions, are the exception to these generalizations [5].

If we examine the adult characteristics of individuals from mixed majority-minority family backgrounds—and, admittedly, the evidence is sparser here—we find a picture consistent with integration into the white mainstream for most, with those of partly black ancestry again the prominent exception. Social identities appear to be more fluid and contingent than are the identities of individuals with unmixed backgrounds. For individuals who are partly white but not black, this fluidity often “tilts white,” in the sense that they incline more to the white side of their ancestry than to the minority side—for instance, in their sense of acceptance by others [6]. The social worlds of individuals with white and non-black minority parentage also tilt white. For example, individuals whose parentage is partly white mostly marry all-white partners. In the case of individuals who are white and either American-Indian or Asian, about 70 percent do. Even in the case of adults who are partly white and partly black, a majority takes white partners [7].

This picture of the group from mixed majority-minority backgrounds leads to the hypothesis, empirically verifiable in the future, that a white majority is likely to persist longer than the widely believed census projections indicate. Indeed, I believe that we should understand the majority-minority society the Census Bureau projects for the future also as a hypothesis, rather than a predictable certainty.

What is the rationale for my hypothesis? It does not, as Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz seem to believe, rely on analytic reclassifications (i.e., forcing individuals of mixed background into the white category). Rather, the instability of the social identities of these individuals implies that they will appear in the census more often as white and non-Hispanic than we would expect based on current data. We have direct evidence on this point: in a meticulous analysis that takes advantage of a unique Census Bureau data set linking individual records from 2000 and 2010, sociologists Carolyn Liebler, Sonya Porter, and their colleagues show that individuals of mixed background frequently appear as mixed (or white Hispanic) on one census and unmixed—most often as white and non-Hispanic—on another [8]. Granted, we do not understand precisely the mechanisms of this instability, which could reflect shifting individual identities or the varying perceptions of other family members (those who complete the census form), but it occurs on a sizable scale. Moreover, for Mexican-Americans, who are the majority of the Hispanic population, we have in addition the finding of labor economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo that, in the third generation, the identification with Mexican origins falls off sharply in accordance with the number of Mexican-born grandparents, a relationship that reflects the occurrence of inter-marriage in the second generation [9].

This identity instability is likely to produce more non-Hispanic whites in future censuses than one would expect because Census Bureau projections start with current census data. Individuals of mixed family background are over-represented among children, whose ethno- racial backgrounds are reported by parents, who in turn are highly likely to indicate mixed backgrounds for them. But the Census Bureau classifies these children then as non-white, and this exaggerates the growth of the minority portion of the population and ramifies through the projections (since non-whites beget non-whites). In criticizing these census practices, I never envisioned, despite what Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz suggest, that these children should be reclassified as whites. Rather, I have urged the Census Bureau to abandon binary thinking, which is not appropriate for this important and growing group. Preferable, in my view, would be to treat its members as neither white nor minority; they deserve a new category. In the event, speaking strongly against viewing them as simply minority is the degree of integration with whites that they typically evince, as described above.

Let me come now briefly to the question of power, on which Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz focus. I argue that the patterns of identity and social affiliation evidenced by individuals with mixed backgrounds are one indication that the white-dominated mainstream is expanding, taking in some individuals of minority origins. (Although space limitations prevent me from exploring historical analogies, it is worthwhile to point out that this has happened before, most notably, in the post–World War II period, when what was originally a white Christian, that is, Protestant, mainstream absorbed large numbers of Jewish and Catholic ethnics.) This expansion is not only limited to those of mixed background, but also includes many socially mobile minorities, especially from immigration backgrounds, who are entering white-dominated spaces—such as workplaces and neighborhoods—and integrating there. This is not a frictionless process—it certainly was not historically—but it is expanding and altering the mainstream, making it visibly more diverse, at least in some regions of the United States.10 Perhaps these new members of the mainstream continue to suffer some disadvantages vis-à-vis established whites, but that was true also of the white ethnics in the beginning.

This expansion is likely to have political consequences, effectively extending the political power of the white majority, if the electoral behavior of new members of the mainstream comes to resemble that of whites—determined less by minority origins than by such factors as income, education, and residential location. Based on history, this seems a plausible hypothesis [11].

In closing, I urge Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz to rethink their argument in light of some of their own concerns. They are, for instance, concerned with the ability to use census data to measure ethno-racial disparities; so am I. Under current census practices, minority categories are increasingly heterogeneous—in the case of Latinos, census data prevent the identification and separate classification of individuals who are partly Hispanic and partly non-Hispanic white (except when they are children living with parents), and consequently, the Hispanic category includes a rising share of individuals who are integrated with whites and, in many cases, not very different from them. This heterogeneity gets in the way of measurements of disparity, which would be sharper if the portion of a group most exposed to systemic disadvantage could be identified.[12]

Their concern for social justice leads me to a different, quite political point. One of the forces that has driven our electoral politics far rightward is the anxiety many whites feel about demographic change and the prospect of losing power as they become a numerical minority in parts of the country and in the United States as a whole. Indeed, white supremacy is feeding on these anxieties, which have in turn been nourished by the Census Bureau’s projections of a majority-minority future. But the projections, I argue, are based on absurd classification decisions, such as treating children with one white and one non-white parent as non-white, as if the one-drop rule of nineteenth- century racism was still operational. It is time for census data—and other data, for that matter—to reflect more accurately the social mixing across the white-minority boundaries that is taking place on the ground in many parts of the United States. Whether greater accuracy in this respect will allay the concerns of whites, I cannot say. I have no doubt, however, that the current distortions in demographic data contribute to the toxic miasma in our political discourse enveloping questions of diversity.


  1. Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” The American Prospect,  January 2016. Cf. Richard Alba, Brenden Beck, and Duygu Basaran Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again,” under review; Richard Alba and Jan-Willem Duyvendak, “What about the Mainstream? Assimilation in Super-Diverse Times,” under review; Richard Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse. But Democrats May Not Benefit.” The Monkey Cage, The Washington Post, January 6, 2017.
  1. Sandra Colby and Jennifer Ortman, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060” (current population report, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2015).
  2. D’Vera Cohn, “It’s Official: Minority Babies Are the Majority among the Nation’s Infants, but Only Just” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016); cf. National Vital Statistics Report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2015” (Atlanta, GA: National Center for Health Statistics, 2016).
  3. Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority.”
  4. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”
  5. Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean, The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in Twenty-First Century America (New York: Russell Sage, 2010); Pew Research Center, Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers (Washington, DC, 2015); Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race (New York: Russell Sage, 2008).
  6. Michael Miyawaki, “Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness? A Look at the Marital Patterns of Part-White Multiracial Groups,” Sociological Forum 30, no. 4 (2015): 995-1016; Telles and Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion.
  7. Carolyn Liebler, Sonja Rastogi, Leticia Fernandez, James Noon, and Sharon Ennis, “America’s Churning Races: Racial and Ethnic Response Changes between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census” (Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2014).
  8. Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo, “Intermarriage and the Intergenerational Transmission of Ethnic Identity and Human Capital for Mexican Americans,” Journal of Labor Economics 29, no. 2 (2011): 195-227.
  9. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”

11. Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse.”

12. Richard Alba, Tomás Jiménez, and Helen Marrow, “Mexican Americans as a Paradigm for Contemporary Intergroup Heterogeneity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (2014): 446-66.

A Response to Richard Alba’s “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority”

That politics undergirds censuses is a truism. At least since Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism in 1983 [1]. scholars have accepted that censuses are both political and scientific enterprises. Census racial classifications are a case in point because they have historically become instituted through political efforts. For example, “Mulatto” became a census classification in 1850 after politicians, alarmed by racial miscegenation, demanded that the Census Bureau enumerate those of black/white parentage [2] More recent ethnoracial categories have arisen as a result of the political efforts championed by community stakeholders. To wit, the Hispanic/Latino classification emerged as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other community leaders pressured the Census Bureau for official recognition during the 1970s [3] And if a Middle Eastern/North African category is added to the next census in 2020, as is predicted, it will be because activists, academics, and others have lobbied over two decades for its inclusion. In effect, rather than reflecting an existing reality, all census racial categories emerge, or are negotiated, in such a political fashion—none exists in nature.

Despite the political origins of our official racial and ethnic categories, lay and academic prognostications about the country’s demo- graphic future rarely take politics seriously.

Take, for example, sociologist Richard Alba’s provocative commentary published in The American Prospect, “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority.” [4] Alba argues that recent reports

about the looming “browning of America” and the development of a “white minority” are over- blown. His claim rests on two points, the first of which involves how the Census Bureau presents racial statistics to the public. Specifically, because it classifies Latinos and mixed-race (i.e., white/ racial minority) Americans as non-white by default on census reports, the Bureau, according to Alba, “produces the smallest possible estimate” of the size of the white population. Alba contends that at least some Latinos and some persons of mixed racial heritage would be more accurately classified as white. Doing so would increase the size of the white population and thus generate a less “biased” portrait of America’s racial future.

Alba’s second point concerns the Bureau’s racial forecasts, specifically its recent contention that America is moving toward a minority majority future. He argues that the Bureau’s (and other analysts’) prognosis ignores the extent to which Latinos, immigrants, and mixed-race persons are assimilating into the white-dominant mainstream. He points to increases in mixed-race marriage (white/non-white) and higher levels of individual social mobility among minorities to make his case. The “likely result” of assimilation, Alba contends, “will be to alter the circumstances under which individuals are seen as belonging to marginalized minorities.” As a result, the “longstanding processes of assimilation could produce a white-dominated mainstream at the national level.”

Neither of Alba’s points, however, deals squarely with politics. His claim about census reporting conventions ignores the implications that racial classifications have for racial justice. After all, various activists still fight for these categories to include whom they do for specific political reasons relating to the needs of their communities. Moreover, his argument about assimilation and the enlargement of the white mainstream overlooks the sociopolitical complexity of race, especially the role of privilege and hierarchy. This failure to grapple with politics hinders broader conversations about census race data because it narrows debates to the issue of “methodological accuracy,” a concept that itself is not devoid of politics [5]. As a result, conclusions about who racial minorities are and what census race data represent become decontextualized and incomplete.

In response to Alba, we bring politics to the fore, specifically as it relates to knowledge construction and the issue of racial incorporation. Our response focuses primarily on Latinos, as this population is a key category in Alba’s analysis and is the subject of our sociological expertise. We begin by considering the politics of census reporting conventions, highlighting the much-neglected issue of racial justice. We then move on to a discussion of census data and assimilation. We conclude by addressing racial forecasts, demonstrating how politics, rather than simply demographic inevitability or the dynamics of social mobility, will also ultimately determine the country’s future and the status of its ethnic and racial populations.

Census Statistics and Racial Justice Projects

Alba critiques the Census Bureau in the interest of producing more “accurate data.” He writes,

“Not only do its rigid and illogical classifications distort important new realities, the bureau is also not forthcoming about the errors and uncertainties involved.” This language of accuracy and validity—language the Census Bureau itself embraces—treats census classifications and reporting practices simply as technical and methodological matters. Accordingly, it narrowly assesses census data in relation to statistical procedures and presentation. But there are other ways to evaluate census statistics, such as looking at them “in terms of their practical utility for social projects.” [6]

What practical utility do census race statistics have today? The answers vary, as different stake-holders use these data for different ends. Government agencies use race statistics to assess the social landscape and inform policymaking. Corporations rely on race data to market their products to different demographic communities. Social scientists draw on the statistics in their analyses. Census categories and statistics even foster narratives of community and belonging, not to mention a sense of moral worth, for those seeking an identity or recognition.

In addition, activists and social movements, particularly in the wake of the civil rights era, have turned to racial statistics to expose social inequality. In a political context that values numerical forms of knowledge, statistical evidence of underrepresentation and inequality has been indispensable to racial justice campaigns. For example, although Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists in the 1960s argued continuously that their communities suffered from poverty and low levels of education, it was not until they possessed official census figures showing disparities that their arguments gained traction in many government sectors [7]. Census race data have also been—and continue to be— vital for monitoring voting districts and curtailing the gerrymandering practices that often disenfranchise people of color. If there is any question about the importance of racial statistics for these efforts, we implore readers to follow what has happened in Texas and North Carolina—states where the revamping of districts effectively diluted the political clout of racial minorities.

Racial statistics, as the preceding examples illustrate, are employed to make visible the systems of domination and punishment that affect communities of color at material and cultural levels [8] Indeed, black and Latino classifications help to provide evidence of how these communities suffer from limited access to quality education, grapple with mass incarceration and racial profiling, and remain underrepresented in major centers of power, from the academy to elected office. In many ways, our census race data show that the cultural scripts and institutional barriers that treat minorities as morally and professionally inferior to whites are still very much operative.

Given this racialized system, census statistics and issues of classification cannot from our perspective be assessed narrowly in terms of statistical procedure. Questions of accuracy and validity are important, but exclusively focusing on these issues ignores larger matters. We argue that proposals for making changes to census categories or reporting practices must address the political utility of race statistics for racial justice. In other words, questions and analysis of racial classification must also grapple with the issue of how changes in reporting, classifying, and collecting race data will affect racial justice projects.

Evaluating census statistics with these overt political criteria reveals the limitations of Alba’s suggestion that some Latinos and mixed-race individuals would be more accurately classified as white. We believe that adopting this practice could make it more difficult to uncover certain forms of ethnoracial inequality, given that the distinct patterns of these communities may be lost when subsumed within the broader white data. Indeed, this lack of identifying information was precisely the problem prior to the adoption of the “Hispanic” category. Only when Hispanic data were disaggregated from the white category did it become possible to statistically track the discrimination and disparities facing the Latino population. In other words, classifying Latinos as white imperiled rather than aided their fight for racial justice. Undergirding Alba’s suggestion, we believe, is an unserviceable conception of whiteness. This conception ignores the institutionalized complexity of race, including patterns of hierarchy, privilege, and domination. Thus, we now turn to the issue of precisely how to conceptualize race and whiteness within census analyses.

Assimilation and the Meaning of Whiteness

In government and marketing reports, whiteness is just another variable, a racial category among many: a self-selected identity with certain correlated attributes (e.g., education level, income). Whiteness, in other words, is a statistical artifact that distinguishes a certain population from others.

However, as conceived in racial justice projects, and for race scholars more generally, whiteness is about privilege and hierarchy [9]. Being white in America is not simply about identities or individual attributes that can be gained or lost, but rather about a privilege that has been reified within most institutions in America—from schools to workplaces to jury rooms to police forces. Moreover, it is about a hierarchy that attaches narratives about moral worth and legitimacy to images of whiteness. As such, those deemed “white” can lose income, status, or other individual attributes but not necessarily become divested of the privilege that whiteness affords, benefits that the pre-eminent sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “wages of whiteness.”

 These two competing conceptions of whiteness have different implications for how we theorize the present and potential future position of Latinos and mixed-raced individuals. Viewing whiteness as linked to power and privilege complicates claims about assimilation into the white mainstream. We do not deny that people of color can become more upwardly mobile and gain access to spaces that have historically excluded them. Alba emphasizes this in his essay, noting that many Asians and other minorities now constitute a larger part of the upper class. Nor do we wish to trivialize growing rates of inter-marriage among some Latinos and mixed-raced persons. However, we are critical of those analyses that are quick to link mobility and marriage patterns to blanket statements inferring white boundary blurring.

Our criticism of these assimilation conclusions is based on the fact that America’s racial scripts and hierarchies are still heavily institutionalized in ways that validate whiteness [10]. The recent incorporation of white nationalist (sometimes euphemistically called “alt-right”) groups within the present White House administration is but one clear example. Moreover, these racial scripts persist despite the fact that people of color have experienced improvements in social mobility. As such, even those folks of color who attain high professional status are often devalued because they are not white. Professors and other professionals of color, for example, are often presumed less competent than their white counterparts [11] President Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, and the first family were subjected to overtly racist tropes splashed across the covers of high-profile publications. And while we agree that a certain strata of minorities may become (or has already become) what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “honorary whites,” [12] we insist that the broader racial scripts and systems of domination remain by and large intact.

With respect to Latinos in particular, the suggestion that on the whole they are becoming white underestimates the ongoing racial stigmatization and exclusion faced by many in this community. Such arguments do not account for present-day anti-Latino and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Should we assume that mass deportations, which, too, often lead to the separation of Latino families, or inflammatory electoral campaigns will have no effect on how Latinos identify and understand their place in U.S. society for years to come? And what of the widespread presumptions of illegality that Latino citizens must contend with?

Moreover, scholars who see the growing number of Latinos selecting “white” on the census as straightforward evidence of Latinos becoming white rarely contextualize such data within political history or current social dynamics. To be sure, some Latinos understand themselves as racially white. This identification may be interpreted as aspirational—a kind of racial passing—but it does not necessarily provide blanket evidence for the inevitable social inclusion of Latinos in the white-dominant mainstream. In fact, Professor Julie Dowling of the University of Illinois shows that Mexican Americans identify as “white” on the census not because they are accepted as white or even because they see themselves as white. Rather, by reframing the borders of whiteness to include them, Mexican Americans resist racial “othering,” in an effort to be accepted as fully American [13]

Political sociologist Mara Loveman uncovers a similar dynamic in her research on early twentieth-century census enumeration in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico [14] These examples suggest that white self-identification—the very evidence some scholars have used to make claims about the whitening or assimilation of Latinos—may in fact register conditions of ethnoracial exclusion. In other words, choosing whiteness is also related to the perils of living as a minority for many.

Our discussions about assimilation and racial identification, then, must entail more than inter-marriage and social mobility patterns, however important these might be. They should also recognize that in the U.S. ethnoracial order, entrenched privileges and opportunities are afforded to some and not to others. Only once this is understood can scholars begin to interpret the relationship between social mobility and racial identification, for example. These realities of power and inclusion must also be accounted for when forecasting trends, as Alba does. Such analyses, however, also need to attend to the ways that forecasts themselves shape the political context in which assimilation or integration unfolds.

Racial Forecasts in National Politics

It is one thing to classify and report on current trends, another to make projections and forecasts about the nation’s future. We hesitate to join the chorus of commentators who proclaim one demographic future or another, as Alba and others do. Our reluctance stems from the fact that demographic projection typically ignores political context. Politics are, quite literally, not factored into the predictive statistical models. But this is not our only source of hesitation. Demographic prognosticators also tend to ignore or be less concerned with the political impact of their projections.

Indeed, forecasts have real consequences for national politics, both on the left and right. On the liberal left, the “browning of America” prognosis has quickly fueled a race to secure the Latino and Asian vote, because these communities are believed to be the impetus behind the nation’s demographic changes. Therefore, the Democratic Party has steadily built a ground game in states such as Nevada, Virginia, Arizona, and Florida with a focus on securing Latino and Asian support. These moves seem promising, but far too often, such efforts seek to simply capitalize on these populations rather than invest in or support them. Rarely, if ever, do electoral campaigns genuinely take on issues of racial domination and privilege, instead holding communities of color captive to the slow, almost glacial, progress of electoral politics.

On the right, arguments about the browning of America can fuel paranoia, backlash, and hate campaigns [15] The forecasts become twisted into narratives that minorities, especially immi- grants, are “taking over” and thus diminishing the values and morals upon which the nation was founded [16]. Alba himself makes the point that “the anxieties about the end of white majority status have fueled a conservative backlash against the growing diversity of the country.” This script has historically helped to shore up Republican Party support: President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Mexican immigration brings in “criminals” and “bad hombres” is a case in point. Such nativist resentment is fueled in part by a sense that the country is no longer majority Anglo.

Given this context surrounding demographic projections, our analyses must begin to factor in the real political consequences for how we understand race and for how Americans understand their position within the nation. Racial forecasts are not neutral; they are politically charged, particularly as they travel beyond scientific contexts. When we forget this, focusing instead on which forecast is more unbiased or more accurate, we reinforce the tendency to take projections as an inevitable truth rather than a contingent prediction. Moreover, in concerning ourselves with matters of accuracy, we may inadvertently contribute to the nativist backlash and fuel the very political trends that reinforce racial inequality. Of course, we do not contend that racial forecasts are the only, or most important, influence on national racial politics. However, we do believe that ignoring the political context and consequences of such forecasts leaves us blind to one of the factors that may be shaping the political conditions of incorporation for non-white populations.

For these reasons, demographic projections must be handled with care. No future scenario, including the white minority thesis, should be viewed as inevitable. Taking a stance against one forecast by offering another, as Alba does, simply perpetuates the faulty logic of assuming that there is a “true,” scientifically valid mode of interpretation. In addition, such an approach ignores the very ways that census forecasts play a role in reifying America’s pernicious racial scripts.

Let us reiterate the centrality of politics in demographic analyses. Racial classifications and race census data are political constructs that nonetheless help to code past and present forms of inequality and discrimination. They can provide vital measures of the exclusionary power structure, data that can bolster racial justice projects. However, when analyses and discussions about race data fail to acknowledge the central role of politics, arguments about accuracy, bias, and measurement will fall dangerously short. It is only when scholars begin to take politics seriously that our analyses of census data will more comprehensively reflect how race is lived in America.


  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Press, 1983).

2. Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004).

3. G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

4.Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” American Prospect, January 19, 2016.

5. Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

6. Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics and the Census of Canada, 1840-1975 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 34.

7. Mora, Making Hispanics.
8. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial

Formation in the United States (New York:

Routledge, 2015).
9. Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal

Construction of Race (New York: New York

University Press, 2006).
10. Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

11. Gabriela Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Nieman, Carmen Gonzalez, and Angela Harris, Presumed Incompetent: the Intersection of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Salt Lake City: Utah State University Press, 2012).

12. Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “From Bi-racial to Tri-racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27, no. 6 (2004): 931-50.

13. Julie Dowling, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 7.

14. Mara Loveman, “The U.S. Census and the Contested Rules of Racial Classification in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico.” Caribbean Studies 35, no. 2 (2007): 79-114.

15. Melissa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, “Temporal Politics of the Future: National Latino Civil Rights Advocacy, Demographic Statistics, and the ‘Browning’ of America,” in Department of Sociology (Providence: Brown University, 2015).

16. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

Over the Rainbow: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Politics

The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution,’ Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party

When Bernie Sanders conceded the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in July 2016, he likely assumed that in a few months, after Hillary Clinton won the presidency, he would return to a role similar to the one he played on the campaign trail: a kind of social-democratic gadfly to a largely neoliberalized party, capitalizing on the unprecedented popularity he drew in his presidential campaign to pull President Clinton—and the entire party—to the left.

Alas, to his surprise and ours, this arrangement was not to be. But rather than seeing his role as an oppositional figure diminish under President Donald Trump, Sanders’ opportunities to affect the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly may have actually increased.

For one thing, the party appears rudderless, adrift, and still shell-shocked at November’s results. Perhaps no one better exemplified this fact than Clinton herself, whose top post-election priority seemed to be wandering in the woods beyond the New York City suburbs. Sanders, meanwhile, has taken action: publishing numerous op-eds and a book, debating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Obamacare and single-payer health care, speaking out against Trump’s policies. The party seems to lack real leadership right now; if anyone holds it, it seems to be a wild-haired, self-described democratic socialist who has deliberately rejected the party his entire life.

Despite his professed disdain for the Democrats, Sanders has long been a pragmatist, dating back to his days as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont.[1] It should come as no surprise, then, that a new organization that has emerged in the wake of Sanders’ primary loss and bears his blessing (though not his day-to-day involvement) is, despite its to-the-barricades name, actually a deeply pragmatic one.

Our Revolution (OR) is that organization, backing political candidates in races ranging from local school boards to Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair and attempting to affect a transformation of the party at the state and local level from the bottom up. It is also running progressive campaigns like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and demanding Democrats not vote to approve President Trump’s cabinet nominations.

The organization is young but has already experienced its share of turmoil, with a major staff revolt within weeks of its founding. Still, Our Revolution has positioned itself to absorb a large portion of the energy from Sanders’ campaign, raise large amounts of money through small donations and distribute the money to progressive candidates at all levels throughout the country.  It could play a major role in progressive campaigns and Democratic candidacies in the near future. Its overall aim appears to be nothing short of a major realignment of the Democratic Party in the very near future, pulling the party away from its pro-business, neoliberal shift of the past several decades toward a more robustly pro-worker agenda.

Much of the progressive and radical forces to the left of the Democrats expected to find themselves in a position in 2017 in which they could offer full-throated critiques of a rightward moving Democratic Party and a centrist-neoliberal president in Hillary Clinton. Instead, those forces—many of which have found a home in Our Revolution— now find themselves in a more delicate position in which they must balance building a united front approach to opposing Trump while confronting the party, the Democrats, which is currently the only viable home for those forces.

Right now, however, the organization seems to lack a stomach for the second part of that equation, the very thing that has made Sanders’ political career so unique: a deep-seated opposition to a party believed to be hopeless, corrupted, and unable to genuinely represent working and poor people’s best interests.

Candidates and Beyond

The scope of Our Revolution’s focus is broad, reaching far beyond individual candidates and even beyond the progressive campaigns du jour. The organization’s platform does not make for light reading: it features twenty-one separate issues ranging from “big money in politics,” affordable housing, and “Medicare for all” to disability rights and resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, many at great length and in significant detail.[2] As Sanders did during his speeches in front of massive crowds on the campaign trail, the group appears to trust the average American’s hunger for substantive, progressive politics will outweigh their short attention spans.

The group was involved in over 100 campaigns in the 2016 election cycle, including three in the Senate, fifteen in the House, and dozens at the state and local level. By the organization’s own count, they appear to have won slightly more than half of the races they became involved in. Our Revolution also backed seven ballot initiatives, such as a single-payer measure in Colorado and a campaign finance reform bill in Maryland. [3]

In an election off-season, the group has moved to focus more on issue-based campaigns, including support for the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota and various efforts to oppose Donald Trump’s new administration (as well as centrist-leaning Democrats that they consider too milquetoast in their resistance to the president). Our Revolution issued broad calls for more vigorous debate over and opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees, for example, after many Democrats put up little resistance to their confirmation early on. (The organization has not, however, targeted any incumbent Democrats with its email blasts or messaging since November’s election.[4]) Before Trump’s inauguration, they encouraged President Obama to commute the prison sentence of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has spent 35 years in prison for a number of charges related to bomb-making and armed robbery as part of a campaign for Puerto Rican independence. (Shortly before leaving office, Obama did pardon Rivera.)

The group is also the inheritor of Bernie Sanders’ massive and famed email list, which helped produce the highest number of small donations in a political campaign in U.S. history. The Democratic National Committee is desperate to gain access to the list and the potentially huge number of activists and donors it would bring them; so far, Our Revolution has remained unwilling to turn it over.[5]

One election the group stayed involved in after November, however, was Rep. Keith Ellison’s unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chair against former Labor Secretary Tom Perez—a contest that was billed as a referendum on the future direction of the Democratic Party. Given the current state of affairs in the party—with Sanders’ campaign revealing and stirring to action a massive section of progressive and even socialist-curious voters, (many of whom still feel that party’s leadership unfairly stole the nomination from him); and with Clinton and her centrist brand of politics being clearly discredited by the Republican sweep across the local, state, and national levels — one might have assumed that the Democratic leadership would finally be willing to toss this newly riled base a bone in the form of appointing Ellison as DNC chair.

But instead of reaching out to that base through such a choice, party leaders rebuked them, mounting a full-on campaign for Perez over Ellison—even after he was endorsed by much of the labor movement, including by the United Auto Workers ( UAW), American Federation of Teachers (AFT),  Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and AFL-CIO. In the internal party vote that took place in Atlanta on February 25, Perez came out on top. Ellison embraced Perez after the vote and encouraged his backers to do the same. In a supposed show of unity, Ellison was named “deputy chair” of the DNC. But as AFT President Randi Weingarten noted on Twitter, just hours after Ellison’s appointment to this position, the Democratic Party’s official account tweeted a graphic of their new leadership slate with Tom Perez at the top; neither Ellison’s name nor the title “deputy chair” appeared anywhere.[6]

The contest may offer some clues about the kind of disdain with which progressives and leftists will continue to be treated as they go about trying to transform the party. While these activists may feel like they have the only momentum within the party right now while Democratic centrists have been thoroughly discredited, this does not mean the party will hand over the reins without fighting tooth and nail.

Perez is certainly more progressive than someone like Hillary Clinton and was praised by unions as an effective labor secretary. But Ellison was an early backer of Sanders and is one of the most progressive members of Congress. If there is a left wing of the Democratic Party, Ellison is certainly on it, making his endorsement by Our Revolution a no-brainer. The rubric for determining which candidates qualify as progressive enough to gain the organization’s stamp of approval, however, remains confusing.

For example, Our Revolution endorsed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in her successful reelection campaign. Gabbard was one of the few members of Congress that backed Sanders in the primary and has spoken out against the war on Iraq after serving in a combat zone there through the Army National Guard, opposed a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

But Gabbard’s foreign policy stances are scattershot. Despite a handful of progressive stances, she also voted in favor of a 2015 Republican bill to ban Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, has visited Donald Trump in the White House and said her meeting had been “frank and positive.” Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, told the press the two had “a lot of common ground.” Gabbard also has close ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist who “bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India” during his term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, including a massacre of 2,000. The Atlantic called Gabbard “The GOPs Favorite Democrat.”[7]

Sanders’ campaign caught fire mostly thanks to his domestic policy agenda; his foreign policy, while far to the left of most in the Democratic Party, left much to be desired for many leftists, especially on issues like Israel-Palestine. Still, how could an organization dedicated to carrying on Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” within the Democratic Party continue to back a politician like Gabbard who has joined the GOP’s opposition to refugees?

The Exodus

Our Revolution was born in chaos. Within weeks of its founding on August 24, 2016, eight of the organization’s fifteen staff resigned in protest of the appointment of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and longtime associate, as the organization’s president.

Mainstream coverage of the staffers’ exodus adopted a bemused tone at the new organization of lefties who were at each others’ throats before their work was even up and running. The staffers who left laid the blame for Sanders’ defeat at Weaver’s feet, accusing him of mismanaging the campaign by focusing too much on television ads. They also emphasized a disagreement with the decision to adopt a 501(c)(4) tax status, which could allow the group to accept “dark money” from wealthy donors who would not have to disclose their donations—a perceived hypocrisy given Sanders’ relentless critiques of such campaign finance arrangements during his campaign.

“As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie’s supporters with his mismanagement,” former OR organization director Claire Sandberg told the Washington Post. We’re organizers who believed in Bernie’s call for a political revolution, so we weren’t interested in working for an organization that’s going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV.”[8]

In addition to philosophical disagreements with this arrangement, Our Revolution’s tax status led to difficulties in coordinating with the candidates it endorsed. 501(c)(4) organizations can give unlimited donations to candidates as long as these groups do not directly coordinate with the campaigns that they have endorsed.

This supposed firewall between campaigns and “dark money” groups has been widely criticized as both thin and unrealistic, with obvious opportunities for violation by both sides. But no one appears to have explained how to violate this law to Our Revolution in a key House race in Florida.

Tim Canova, who was endorsed by Our Revolution in his bid to challenge former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for her House of Representatives seat, and his former staffers complained about first a duplication of work by Our Revolution and Canova’s campaign due to that lack of coordination; Canova then accused the organization of abandoning him, aiding his loss in the race. The incident led The Atlantic to ask “whether Sanders, Our Revolution, and his supporters will be able to give candidates inspired by [Sanders’] call to action what they need to win.”[9]

Still, Canova’s complaints are isolated. If other Our Revolution endorsees share his campaign’s sentiments about the group, they have not yet voiced them aloud. And even over the course of its brief life, the group can be credited for some impressive victories.

State Takeovers

The group has led some impressive state-level victories in just a few months. The Wall Street Journal characterized Our Revolution’s strategy as focused on “infiltrate[ing] and transform[ing] the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.”[10]

Perhaps the most impressive of these campaigns is the recent takeover of the California Democratic Party by “Berniecrats.”

Our Revolution ran what The Hill called “an on-the-ground get-out-the-vote effort to make sure supporters attended caucuses in each of the state’s 80 assembly districts” during an “ordinarily sleepy” event, electing 650 state party delegates out of 1,120, giving them a majority in the choosing of the state party’s officials including its chairperson.[11]

The organization’s operation reflected the ability to engage in the nitty-gritty of actual politicking that Sanders’ campaigns have always focused on. Our Revolution claimed to have sent over 100,000 emails and 40,000 text messages, and over 800 Bernie supporters signed up to run for delegate seats, according to The Hill, transforming a usually staid affair into one buzzing with excitement. Activists’ express purpose was to aggressively push one of country’s most progressive states into playing a vanguard role pushing for even more progressive policies that other states could emulate.

Our Revolution-backed candidates also won the chairmanship of the Washington-state Democratic central committee after defeating an incumbent, “seized control” of the party apparatus in Hawaii and Nebraska, and “swept” local Democratic Party officer positions in Florida. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Florida activist, Stacey Patel, who was elected Brevard County’s Democratic Party chairwoman; she can’t quite seem to wrap her head around the group’s accomplishments: “We didn’t know that 60 folks would be enough to take the majority” of the local party, she told the paper.[12]

In addition to the state-level party takeovers Our Revolution has led through its numerous state organizations, it has also enlisted local groups as affiliates. In January, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a left-wing organizing and electoral group in the Bay Area city, joined Our Revolution.  The group is one of the more promising local, independent political formations in the country, scoring major victories on a wide range of issues from police reform to fighting corporate-backed politicians to winning rent control in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.

To do so, the RPA has gone toe-to-toe with centrist, business-friendly Democrats in Richmond that reflect many of the problems of the Democratic Party nationally. Our Revolution has supported RPA candidates in the past. In the most recent city council races, an OR email blast netted around $5,000 for each RPA endorsee as well as close to 900 donors’ contact information—a testament to the power of Bernie Sanders’s vaunted email list. If Our Revolution wants to transform the political landscape nationally, its leaders should take the RPA’s lessons on the need for independence from—and thus a level of combat with—the Democrats seriously, especially in one-party cities like Richmond.

The group also has the support of many of the former members of Labor for Bernie, a grassroots organization of union members and staffers around the country who backed Sanders’ campaign. Many did so in defiance of the decisions of their international unions, which either endorsed Hillary Clinton or stayed neutral in the election. National Nurses United (NNU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (whose former president Larry Cohen now works for Our Revolution) have also worked closely with the group; both endorsed Sanders in the primary. The California Nurses Association has even given Our Revolution California a full-time staffer.

Given the complete lack of institutional mechanisms for establishing the party’s fealty to unions (unlike, say the Labour Party in the U.K., in which unions have a far greater say in the party’s direction) and the disdain with which much of the Democratic Party treats organized labor, this could be an important base from which organized labor pushes for its agenda within the party. In addition to the NNU and the CWA, the wide-ranging group of union staff and rank and file— many of whom also make up the most important activist and progressive wing of U.S. labor — that made up Labor for Bernie has now become Labor for Our Revolution, and could continue to play a role in pushing both the party and their own unions leftward.

Transforming the Party

Our Revolution organizers see the group as a vehicle for realigning the Democratic Party so it meets the needs of the working class rather than the one percent— something perhaps more closely resembling a twenty-first century labor party.

“We’re looking to transform the party,” said Our Revolution executive director Shannon Jackson after the California party takeover.

This is not the first time leftists and left-liberals have attempted to affect such a shift. Such attempts have a long history in American politics, ranging from Walter Reuther and the New Left in the 1960s to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988. None have been particularly successful, as the party has drifted further and further in a neoliberal direction.[13]

There are structural barriers to the transformation of the Democrats, both in the party’s history, its current composition, and the diminished power of organized labor. Many labor parties in Europe are rooted in breaks from bourgeois parties from earlier in the twentieth century, and took place at a time of rising strength of the industrial working class. That break never happened in the United States, leading to the Democratic coalition including several strongly conservative elements like various sectors of capital and Southern white racists alongside workers, unions, and (later in the twentieth century) African Americans and other people of color.

This has led to the classic dilemma endlessly debated by American radicals for decades: Should they struggle within a hopelessly compromised Democratic Party in order to make the greatest possible impact on the world, or should they abandon the party in favor of creating an alternative but risk complete political isolation? It’s a question that has never been an easy one to answer, and now is no exception. On the one hand, in the wake of November’s devastating results across the board for the Democrats and Sanders’ successful insurgent and unapologetic left-wing campaign, the party’s centrism has never appeared more bankrupt and the need for a real alternative never greater. On the other hand, faced with the extreme reactionary revanchism of the Trump administration and the immiseration its policies have already brought, the impulse for many is to put such battles to the side in favor of building the unity needed to defeat the Right.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders’ career so unusual is that he is the most successful politician in the past half-century or more at striking a balance between these two poles. He has been a steadfast critic of not just the party’s rightward drift but of its inability to ever serve as a genuine vehicle for working-class interests. He only joined the party in order to have access to a mass audience, and even then, he continued to make many such criticisms.

But he also has long caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate, and works closely with many in the party. After Hillary Clinton’s campaign criticized Sanders’ stance on health care reform during the primary, the Sanders campaign released a photo of the then-representative in a meeting with the paragon of centrist, pragmatic deal-making herself, Hillary Clinton, in 1993, with a handwritten note from the then-First Lady thanking Sanders for his role in pushing health reform.[14]

No one else in recent American political history has walked this line as deftly as Sanders has. That he has managed to do so is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of his political career. It is also what defines him and is most responsible for his campaign’s success. Any other established, longstanding Democratic politician attempting to capture the current populist mood would likely have failed because of the compromises being a member of that party requires of its members.

At a time when most of the Democratic Party was pushing welfare reform, Sanders was denouncing it; when Bill Clinton led his party into passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sanders spoke out in vehement opposition. Even the most progressive members of the party have been compromised in important ways. Keith Ellison, for example, receives large amounts of campaign contributions from large corporations like TCF Financial—companies Sanders has spent his whole career opposing.

Over the span of Sanders’ career, a fair number of Democrats have joined him in breaking with certain aspects of the party’s rightward drift, and many have decried the pernicious influence of corporate money in politics. But no one has held as consistent of a left-wing governing record and as complete a rejection of corporate cash as Sanders has. Part of this surely has to do with Sanders’ personality. But it also has to do with his consistent independence from the Democratic Party.

Our Revolution has played a key role in amplifying some of the leftmost voices within the Democratic Party; it may help launch the careers of some talented young progressive politicians, and it may even help steer the Democrats away from the disastrous neoliberal course it has been on the better part of the last half-century.

But will it help inculcate the level of hostility toward not just the right wing of the party but also the party itself? At a moment when the first instinct of many in response to the nonstop depravity of a Trump administration will be to forego a necessary confrontation with the Democrats, will Our Revolution buck the tide? Will it produce any future Bernie Sanderses—not just broadly defined progressives but bone-deep leftists whose politics include a commitment to do battle with the Democrats from a place of independence, even when it is often forced to work within and around the party? The organization is in its infancy, and its path it still wide open. But it will soon have to make a choice about how close its relationship to the Democratic Party will be. 



[1] Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the White House. Verso Books, 2015. Katherine Q. Seelye, “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist.” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2015.

[2] Our Revolution, “Platform.”

[3] Kate Aronoff and Ethan Corey, “Welcome to the Next Incarnation of the Bernie Sanders Campaign.” In These Times, September 12, 2016.

[4] Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel, “Democrats bracing for town hall protests directed at them ask Bernie Sanders for help.” Washington Post, February 14, 2017.

[5] Daniel Marans, “Bernie Sanders Has a Massive Email List. But He Has Good Reason to Think Twice About Sharing It.” Huffington Post, February 9, 2017.

[6] Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten). “What happened to the new deputy chair?” February 26, 2017, 12:26 am. Tweet. The Democratic Party (@TheDemocrats). “There’s a tough fight ahead of us, and our newly elected DNC officers are here for it. Let’s do this. #DNCFuture.” February 25, 2017, 8:34 pm. Tweet. Later tweets from the party’s account included Ellison.

[7] Alex Seitz-Wald, “Democrat Tulsi Gabbard Defends ‘Frank and Positive’ Trump Meeting.” NBC News, November 21, 2016. Ivy Ashe, “Gabbard Supports GOP Bill on Syrian Refugees.” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, November 21, 2015. Aditya Chakrabortty “Narendra Modi, a man with a massacre on his hands, is not the reasonable choice for India.” The Guardian, April 7, 2014. Krishnadev Calamur, “The GOP’s Favorite Democrat Goes to Syria.” The Atlantic, January 18, 2017.

[8] David Weigel and John Wagner, “Bernie Sanders launches ‘Our Revolution’ with electoral targets — and a few critics left behind.” Washington Post, August 24, 2016.

[9] Clare Foran, “How the Political Revolution Failed Tim Canova.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2016.

[10] Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal. “Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time.” February 22, 2017.

[11] Reid Wilson, The Hill. “Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party.” January 19, 2017.

[12] Epstein and Hook, Wall Street Journal.

[13] Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party.” Jacobin, Issue 20: “Up From Liberalism.” Winter 2016.

[14] Peter Wade, “Hillary Questioned Bernie’s Record on Health Care and The Internet Made an Epic Correction.” Esquire, March 12, 2016.

Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute Unpaid Care Work: How to Close the Gender Gap

In September 2016, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, in which Hillary Clinton was expected to become the first woman U.S. president, the media announced that progress on a signature campaign of women’s rights advocates—closing the gender wage gap–had sputtered, if not actually stalled, in the U.S. as well as in many other countries. The annual earnings ratio between women and men in the U.S. was 79.6 percent in 2015, only marginally higher than it was 2007, when it hit 77.8 percent. At this rate, one study concluded, it will take 45 years, until 2059, for men and women to reach parity. Globally it was even worse. The U.N. 2015 Millennium Development Goal Gender Chart estimates that globally women earn 24 percent less than men and perform two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

Since at least the early 1970s, women’s rights organizations have campaigned to improve the terms and conditions of women’s paid work, of which the wage gap is the most visible symbol. By the middle of the 1990s, this effort was embraced by trade unions in many countries and by 2005, working together or separately, they had secured the passage of laws forbidding discrimination against women in the workplace in most countries. The proportion of countries with equal pay legislation rose from around 33 percent in 1975 to 86 percent in 2005. The vast majority of firms no longer use different pay scales for women and men, and globally the gender wage gap narrowed by about half from 1991 to 2014, largely due to gains in women’s education. But progress has slowed steadily over this period, and in high income countries it has largely stalled. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, after narrowing somewhat in the period 2000-2008, the average gap between the wages of men working full time and women working full time has remained at around 16 percent since 2009, meaning that women’s wages have remained on average around 86 percent of men’s.

One of the key reasons for stalled progress on the wage gap is that women continue to have greater responsibility than men for unpaid care and domestic work in families and communities, looking after people, providing for their daily needs, caring for children, frail elderly people, people who are ill, or living with disabilities. In all regions of the world, mothers with dependent children on average earn less than women without dependent children and less than fathers with similar household and employment characteristics. The gender pay gap is much larger among parents than between women and men who have no children. In the U.S. childless women (including married and unmarried) earn 93 cents on a childless man’s dollar, but among full-time workers, married mothers with at least one child under age 18 earn 76 cents on a married father’s dollar.

Unpaid work responsibilities also result in a gender gap in participation in paid work: Many women have to withdraw from paid work for long periods to care for family members. As a result the gender gap in lifetime earnings is even bigger than the pay gap between employed women and men, as many women have no earnings at all for substantial periods of time. Globally women’s labor force participation has stagnated, although there are important regional variations, with rises in Latin America but declines in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Socialist feminists have always argued that to achieve equality in paid work, women also need to achieve equality in unpaid work. The strategies that can help to achieve this can be summarized as: recognize, reduce, and redistribute women’s unpaid work. These strategies have been strongest in high-income countries with extensive welfare states and have begun to be adopted in a growing number of developing countries that have introduced some of the social protection policies advocated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). But political and economic changes emerging in 2016 put in question how far these strategies can be sustained, let alone extended to countries like the U.S., where they have been weak.

Recognizing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Recognizing unpaid care and domestic work means understanding how this work underpins all economies and valuing it accordingly. Right-wing commentators see these activities as a private matter, reducible to individual private choices, rather than shaped by social and economic structures, and having implications for wider society, not just the people providing and receiving care. If no one had children, and took care of families and friends, economies would come to a halt for lack of a labor force.

It is possible to calculate the economic value of unpaid care and domestic work, by finding out how much time is spent on this work, using a time-use survey, and then putting a price on the output produced or a wage on the time spent. Between 1966 and 2015 at least 85 countries in all regions of the world have conducted time-use surveys to find out how people spend their time over the twenty –four hours of a day or the seven days of a week. In the U.S .a time-use survey is conducted annually with a representative sample of people over the age of 15, under the auspices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. In 2014 it showed that the average time per day spent in paid work was 4.28 hours for men, and 2.93 hours for women, while the average time spent in unpaid work was 2.33 hours for men and 3.72 hours for women.

It is possible to put a monetary value on unpaid work by asking what it would cost to hire someone to do the work instead. Using this method, estimates were made of the monetary value of unpaid work for 27 OECD countries in 2008, and this was compared with the value of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For the U.S., it was found that the monetary value of unpaid work was 18 percent of U.S. GDP, while for Denmark it was 31percent of Danish GDP and for Sweden 25 percent of Swedish GDP. Differences reflect differences between countries in the amount of unpaid work done, and in the wages used to value this. If wages for paid domestic and care workers are particularly low, as they are in the U.S., then the monetary value of unpaid work will be low. The monetary value is, of course, not the same as the social value of the work, but calculating it highlights what the monetary costs would be if the work were not done for free.

The UK Office of National Statistics released data in November 2016 showing on average UK men do 16 hours unpaid work a week, while women do 26 hours weekly (60 percent more than men). People who have lower incomes do more unpaid work than those with higher incomes. Valuing the work at replacement cost (i.e., what you would have to pay someone to do the same work), men’s weekly unpaid work amounted to 166.63 pounds, while women’s amounted to 259.63 pounds.

Some feminists have argued that women should actually be paid a wage for the domestic and care work they do for their families and friends. The International Wages for Housework Campaign was launched in Italy in 1972 and spread to the UK. Committees calling for Wages for Housework were founded in several cities in U.S, including New York. Today one of the originators of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, London-based Selma James, coordinates Global Women’s Strike, an international network for recognition and payment for all household and care work. However, the demand for Wages for Housework has not become central to women’s struggles for equality, largely because it is perceived as likely to perpetuate the current division of labor, in which housework is seen as women’s work and which is a persistent obstacle to equality in paid work. Also, the proposal would be impossible to implement, as there would be no way to verify hours of work performed, and so in effect would amount to a kind of welfare benefit for housewives rather than a wage. In addition, it does not focus on the questions of how to reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work, and so lacks transformative potential.

Instead, more women’s organizations have struggled for recognition of unpaid work in official national statistics (as in the examples above); and in publicly funded welfare state and social protection systems, such as through tax-funded paid maternity leave, and arrangements that ensure women do not face additional penalties in public pensions because of time spent out of the labor market caring for children.

However, even when statistics on the extent and monetary value of unpaid care and domestic work are produced, they are not used in the design of economic policies. For instance, despite the availability of time use data in the majority of European countries, the design of austerity policies these countries have adopted since 2010 have paid no attention to their impact on unpaid work. Research in a number of countries suggests that cuts to public expenditures have increased women’s unpaid work, especially for low income women, as these women produce caregiving services formerly provided by the public sector, particularly for the elderly and disabled.

Women’s unpaid work has been recognized and supported through cash payments linked to raising children in many countries with a welfare state or social protection system. For instance, in most high-income countries, women employees are entitled to paid maternity leave funded from tax revenue—the U.S. is an exception. However, leave benefits vary greatly across countries. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183),ratified by 32 countries as of August 2016, calls for at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, which most developed economies generally exceed. The average duration of paid parental leave in developed economies is 26 weeks.

Some feminists have expressed concern that long-term paid maternity leave, such as the three years available to mothers in Finland, encourages women to leave paid employment for too long, making it difficult for them to return to jobs comparable in terms of pay and conditions to the ones they have left. A more transformative option is paid parental leave, equally shared between both parents, which is discussed here as one of the strategies to redistribute unpaid work.

Women who take time out of paid employment to care for children and other family members also lose out in pension entitlements. In many countries that have a state- organized public pension based on payroll taxes paid by employers and employees, women have successfully campaigned for the government to reduce their loss by paying some contributions on their behalf when they are out of the labor market taking care of family members. Such payments, known as pension credits, are widely used in developed countries and have recently been introduced in some developing countries, primarily in Latin America, such as in Uruguay and Bolivia. They can be provided in relation to care of children, frail elderly people, and people who are ill or disabled, but in practice they are mainly awarded for care of children. Again there is an issue of whether pension credits are paid only for mothers (as is the case in Latin America) or to whomever is the main caregiver, independent of their sex (as is more the case in Europe). Pension credits for the main care-giver does more to promote the redistribution of unpaid care.

Of course, if there is a universal, non-contributory pension, funded from general tax revenue and available to all, pension credits may not be necessary. Such universal social pensions are available in a growing number of countries, including Bolivia, Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Thailand, and rural Brazil. While these have obvious advantages over work-related contributory pension schemes, which are found in OECD countries, the benefit levels are almost always considerably lower than those in contributory pension schemes.

Reducing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Women’s organizations and trade unions in many countries have advocated for reduction of unpaid care and domestic work through public investment in physical infrastructure, such as the provision of clean water and sanitation, clean energy and public transport; and in social infrastructure, such as care services and health services. Provision of such services is part of the social protection system advocated by the ILO.

In many developing countries, access to clean water and sanitation and clean energy cannot be taken for granted, especially in rural areas; and women and girls spend a lot of time collecting water and fuel. For instance, estimates for 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicate that women spend a combined total of 16 million hours per day collecting water. This unpaid work could be eliminated by investment in water and sanitation infrastructure, provided access is affordable. In South Africa each household is entitled to 6000 liters of free, safe water per month. Similarly, women and girls in rural areas spend a lot of time collecting wood and other fuels and grinding and pounding food grains by hand. Rural electrification in South Africa reduced the time women spent on such tasks, boosting their participation in paid work by 9 percent.

In high-income countries, clean water and electricity is widely available, but women spend many hours of unpaid time caring for their children and frail elderly relatives. This can be reduced by transferring production of care to paid workers. In OECD countries on average , only 33 percent of 0-2 year olds are enrolled in early childhood education and care services. This increases to more than 70 percent of 3-5 year olds , but in some countries , such as UK, this is because compulsory enrolment in school begins at age five. In the U.S. early childhood education and care services are not publically provided until age five in most places . Services for children under three, whether publically or privately provided, are only free of charge to the poorest children in any country, and costs vary widely, with fees in the U.S. among the highest in the OECD. Moreover, services are frequently not designed with the needs of working parents in mind, and may operate for only half the day. In the U.S., contributions to the child care costs of some low-income families are made through cash transfers of some kind, such as the low-income tax credit, and there is no comprehensive public provision of such services. By contrast in Denmark, child care provision is the responsibility of local government, and all children, from 26 weeks to 6 years, are entitled to a full-time place. Fees are related to the earnings of parents.

In countries with aging populations, a growing amount of unpaid care work is devoted by women to looking after frail elderly relatives. Public investment in non-medical services for frail elderly people is low, and in some countries, such as the UK, has gone to finance out-sourced services whose staff are badly paid, poorly trained and lack employment rights. In the U.S., there is some limited funding for non-medical care for frail elderly people through Medicaid, providing they first have exhausted all of their own savings. By contrast, in Denmark services are financed through taxation and provided by local councils to all legal residents, and for permanent long-term care needs, are free of charge.
The publically provided care for children and old people that is available in Denmark, as well as benefiting those who need care, also frees more of the time of working-age women to undertake full-time paid work and reduces gaps in their labor force participation. The gender wage gap in Denmark in 2012 was around seven percent, and had been falling since 2009, whereas in U.S. it was almost double this and stalled.

Awareness of the economic benefits of public investment in child care and elder care services is growing. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called for such investment to provide not only needed services but also millions of good quality new jobs, citing analysis by feminist economists at the UK Women’s Budget Group of the impact of investing two percent of GDP in public provision of child care and elder care services in seven OECD countries. In the U.S., according to this analysis, such investment would create nearly 13 million new jobs, much more than investing two percent of GDP in the construction sector, which would create around 7.5 million jobs. Some 67 percent of the new jobs created by investment in the care sector would go to women, compared to 35 percent of new jobs created by investment in the construction sector. Investment in the care sector would reduce the gender employment gap, while investment in the construction sector would increase the gender employment gap. It is vital to have investment in social infrastructure, such as care services, and not just in physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, if women are to benefit equally with men from such investment.

Redistributing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Neither feminists nor trade unionists are campaigning to eliminate unpaid care and domestic work altogether. Women—and in some countries at least, increasingly men—want both time free from caregiving responsibilities, and also time to care for loved ones. Gender equality requires that we redistribute the unpaid domestic and care work that remains after comprehensive investment in household-related infrastructure and public services, so that men and boys share this equally with women and girls. This can be encouraged by provision of tax-funded paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers. In 1994, statutory paternity leave provisions existed in 40 of the 141 countries for which the ILO had data. By 2015, leave entitlements for fathers were provided in at least 94 countries of 170 with ILO data. But paid paternity leave has an average length of seven days against an average length of 106 days for mothers. Fathers’ use of parental leave seems to be highest when leave is not just paid but well paid—at least half of previous earnings, as in the four OECD countries with the most gender-equal distributions of parental leave—Iceland, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden . Also effective are requirements that fathers cannot transfer their entitlement to mothers. In Iceland and Sweden, which offer a non-transferable “use-it-or-lose-it” fathers’ quota of leave days, men’s uptake is much higher (90 percent) than in Denmark (24 percent) and Slovenia (6 percent), which do not.

Men are beginning to take some responsibility for trying to change social norms about men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. MenCare is a global fatherhood campaign in more than 40 countries in five continents. Largely funded by U.S. and European foundations and U.N. agencies, its mission is “to promote men’s involvement as equitable, nonviolent fathers and caregivers in order to achieve family well-being, gender equality, and better health for mothers, fathers, and children.” Activities vary by country, ranging from small social media initiatives to radio shows, to comprehensive programs of education and training, and campaigns for paid leave for fathers. For instance, in Brazil, Promundo, a MenCare partner, works alongside the government’s ‘bolsa familia’ cash transfer program (which is targeted to low-income mothers) to train staff administering the program to work with fathers as well as mothers. The aim is to encourage fathers, as well as mothers, to take responsibility for children’s education and health. In 2016 MenCare produced a report on fatherhood in the U.S., which in addition to calling for paid parental leave, calls for workplace policies that value what parents do as caregivers as much as they value their professional achievements. Such policies should include, in addition to parental leave: flexible work hours, sick leave, a living wage, and creation of workplace cultures that respect the caregiving responsibilities of all genders.

Changes in the way that paid work is organized are essential if unpaid domestic and care work are to be equally distributed between women and men. It is particularly important that such arrangements should not only focus on women: for instance, creating a ‘mommy track’ of part-time work just for women. It is often overlooked that the hourly gender wage gap tends to be greatest between women working part-time and men working full-time. For instance, as pointed out by women’s rights campaigners in Scotland, in 2014, the gap in Scotland between the hourly earnings of all men and women was 17.5 percent; in full-time work the gap was almost half this, at 9 percent; but the gap between the hourly earnings of men working full-time and women working part-time was 34.5 percent. A study with low-income mothers in heterosexual couples in England found strong support for a shorter full-time working week for both women and men, so that mothers and fathers could share equally in paid and unpaid work.

The gender wage gap will never be closed by measures that aim to make women’s working lives more like men’s. Now we need more radical measures, those that will transform men’s working lives to make them more like those of women, such as equalizing ‘normal’ hours of paid work at about 30 hours a week for both men and women, raising wages where necessary to ensure this brings in a living income.

Closing the Gap

The gender wage gap will persist, and women’s rights will not be fulfilled, unless the gender gap in unpaid care and domestic work is recognized and closed. Public investment is vital to reduce the amount of unpaid work that needs to be done, but we also need measures to redistribute the remaining work, so that it is equally shared by men and women. As well as raising the rate of women’s participation in paid work, we need to raise the rate of men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. This requires action from governments, businesses, trade unions, and women’s organizations to mobilize resources and change cultures. To date, the most effective action has been in developed countries with extensive welfare states and in developing countries that are creating social protection systems. But these achievements are jeopardized by austerity policies and the rise of populist politics that reinforce gender stereotypes and call only for public investment in construction projects not in public services. It will be important for labor organizations and women’s organizations to work together to address inequalities not only in paid work but also in unpaid work.



  1. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, The Gender Wage Gap: 2015, IWPR #446, Washington, D.C., September 2016.
  2. United Nations, MDG Gender Chart 2015, New York, 2015, p. 3;
  3. UN Women, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 (New York: UN Women, 2015) 32-33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Leave No One Behind: A Call to Action For Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment (New York: UN Secretariat, 2016), 33-35.
  7. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, 2016:34.
  8. Michelle Budig, The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay,2014.
  9. UN Women 2015, 75-76.
  10. For instance, Jean Gardiner, Gender, Care and Economics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) shows how feminist in the UK-based Conference of Socialist Economists argued in the 1970s that unpaid domestic labour underpinned both the capitalist economy and the gender inequality women experienced in the public sphere and yet had been largely ignored by economists of the left and the right.
  11. I first suggested the three Rs framework for analyzing unpaid work in seminar organized by the United Nations Development Programme in New York in 2009. This framework was subsequently used by UNDP (see for instance Anna Falth and Mark Blackden, ‘Unpaid Care Work’, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction Policy Brief No.1(New York: UNDP 2009). It has since then been used, albeit with some variations, by a wide range of international organizations – see for instance UN Women 2015 and UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016).
  12. ILO (International Labour Organization) World Social Protection Report 2014-15: Building Economic Recovery, Inclusive Development and Social Justice (Geneva 2014). Social protection encompasses provision of basic income security through minimum wages and cash transfers, and provision of basic social services such as education, care and health services.
  13. As eloquently explained by Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids: Gender and Structures of Constraint (London: Routledge, 1994) and Antonella Picchio, Social Reproduction ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  14. United Nations Statistics Division Time Use data portal. (
  15. Ibid. The time is averaged over the population over 15 years old, including some who do no paid work and some who do no unpaid work.
  16. Ahmad, N., and S. H. Koh. “Incorporating Estimates of Household Production of Non-Market Services into International Comparisons of Material Well-Being.” OECD Statistics Directorate Working Paper No. 42, 2011.
  17. For a discussion of the conceptual issues, see Nancy Folbre, Valuing Non-Market Work (New York:UNDP Human Development Report Office, 2015).
  18. Report in The Guardian,11 November 2016.
  19. See
  20. There are also other problems, such as who pays the wages; how it is decided how big a wage a particular woman should get, given that there are no set hours of work; and whether married women with no children and well-off husbands should be paid for the housework they do.
  21. Hannah Bargawi, Giovanni Cozzi and Susan Himmelweit (eds.), Economics and Austerity in Europe: Gendered Impacts and Sustainable Alternatives (London, Routledge, 2016).
  22. Sharon Lerner, The Real War on Families: Why the US Need Paid Leave Now, In These Times, August 18, 2015
  23. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016) 68.
  24. UN Women (2015) 155. An ILO costing study of basic social protection provision in seven low-income countries in Africa and five in Asia estimated that the annual cost of universal basic old age and disability pensions would cost between 0.6 and 1.5% of annual GDP; K Hagemejer and C. Behrendt, “ Can Low-Income Countries Afford Basic Social Security?” Geneva, ILO, 2008;;jsessionid=v1LfY11PCGvGW4N9dqsKKrcxyWszDNnBNTtcqr2TQqzLfvhBD9gB!79209976?ressource.ressourceId=5951
  25. Ibid. 181.
  26. Ibid. 182.
  27. Ferrant, G., L. M. Pesando and K. Nowacka, .Unpaid Care Work: The Missing Link In The Analysis Of Gender Gaps In Labour Outcomes.(Paris: OECD, 2014) .
  28. Some US cities, such as New York City, have recently introduced publically funded education for 4 year olds.
  29. Although wages are generally low, these services are very labor intensive, in both for profit and non-profit facilities. Women’s Budget Group, Investing in the Care Economy: A gender analysis of employment stimulus in seven OECD countries (ITUC,2016,42).
  30. Ibid. 37,42.
  31. Ibid. 41. There is also some limited funding through Medicare, but limited to three weeks, based on the assumption, which must be certified through a doctor, that the person is likely to improve during that time.
  32. Women’s Budget Group (2016)37.
  34. Women’s Budget Group (2016).
  35. Women’s Budget Group (2016, Tables 13,14 and 15). While it can be argued that investment in the care sector would simply create additional low-wage jobs, it is likely that wages would increase with sufficient investment.
  36. OECD. Backgrounder on Father’s Leave and Its Use. Paris: OECD ,2016).
    family/Backgrounder-fathers-use-of-leave.pdf. These gender differences in how much parental leave is taken reflect the fact that the loss of earnings for men is much greater than the loss of earnings for women, who generally are paid less.
  37. MenCare, The MenCare Parental Leave Platform. (Washington, DC, 2016. MenCare is coordinated by Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice in collaboration with the MenEngage Alliance, Save the Children, and Rutgers University and is funded by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Sida (Swiss Development Agency), Oak Foundation, Summit Foundation, United Nations Population Fund, and UN Women.
  40. MenCare, State of America’s Fathers,
  41. Close the Gap Working Paper No. 14, 2015.
  42. Tracey Warren, Gillian Pascall, and Elizabeth Fox, ‘Gender Equality in Time: Low Paid Mothers’ Paid and Unpaid Work in the UK. Feminist Economics 16(3)193-220, 2010.