Category: Winter 2010

Winter 2010

Access FULL Issue


From the Editorial Team

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

On the Contrary

Taking Over the Enterprise: A New Strategy for Labor and the Left
By Rick Wolff

Scanning the Globe: Politics in Europe, Latin America, and Asia

Empire’s Senescence: U.S. Policy in Latin America
By Greg Grandin
Why the Obama administration can’t break free from the old way of doing things.

Is Social Democracy Dead? The Crisis of Capitalism in Europe
By Norman Birnbaum
What’s left of the European Left?

Vietnam at the Crossroads: Market Socialism and the Vietnamese Labor Movement
By Gregory Mantsios
As the Vietnamese government embraces capitalism, what will its labor movement do?

Looking Backward: International Labor’s Forgotten Plan to Fight the Great Depression
By Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith
Should a program of internationally-funded public works be part of labor’s agenda today?

The (Mis)Measure of Prosperity: Morning in America and the Decline of the Social Wage
By Shawn Fremstad and Heather Boushey
Analyzing the false prosperity of the last quarter century.

Economic Prospects
By Robert Pollin

If We Can Change the White House, We Can Change the Hog House
By Gene Bruskin
Does the victory over Smithfield signal the beginning of the end for anti-union Dixie?

Beating the System: Is the System A Survey of Workplace Violations in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City
By The Workplace Violations Survey Project
Breaking labor laws is the new norm for American businesses.

The Odd Couple: Wall Street, Union Benefit Funds, and the Looting of the American Worker
By John Adler and Jay Youngdahl
Labor’s benefit fund strategy is bankrupt.

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

Working-Class Voices of Contemporary America

Following a Father’s Footfalls: Love and Estrangement in the Alleghenies
By Margaret Costello

Caught in the Web
By Kim Phillips-Fein
Labor news, views, and resources online.

Books and the Arts

And Their Children after Them: Deindustrialization Lit American Rust
American Rust
By Philipp Meyer
Reviewed by Sherry Lee Linkon

Because They Can: Employers and the Payday Heist
Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It
By Kim Bobo
Reviewed by Bethany Moreton

Caution: Writers at Work
Working: An Anthology of Writing and Photography
Edited by Greg Hart, Mary Ellen Mangino, Zoeanne Murphy, and Ann Marie Taliercio
The Way We Work: Contemporary Writings from the American Workplace
Edited by Peter Scheckner and M. C. Boyes
Reviewed by Katherine Sciacchitano

Of Medals and Myths
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Reviewed by Patrick McCreery

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


Letters To The Editors

About Our Contributors


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


Between Barack and a Hard Place
By Tim Wise
City Lights, 2009

In 150 pages, one of the best white voices talking to other whites about racism comments on what Obama’s election does and does not mean.


Breakthrough Communities
Edited by M. Paloma Pavel
MIT Press, 2009

Activists from around the U.S. have been working on the interconnected issues of the economy, the environment, and equity on a metropolitan basis, seeking new solutions for urban, suburban, and exurban communities on such subjects as housing, transportation, land use, and employment. Thirty-three chapters share experiences from various metro areas.


Bricks Without Straw
By Albion W. Tourgée
Duke University Press, 2009

This reprint of a novel published in 1880 is accompanied by a useful historical essay about the author and the Reconstruction period the book depicts. The book shows the human impact of the often violent campaign by the white power structure in the South to undo emancipation.


Gold Dust on His Shirt
By Irene Howard
Between the Lines, 2009

This warm account of Scandinavian immigrant mining families in Western Canada in the first half of the twentieth century draws on the author’s own family memories, as well as archives and interviews in North America, Norway, and Sweden.


Healing Together
By Thomas A. Kochan, Adrienne E. Eaton, Robert B. McKersie, and Paul S. Adler
Cornell University Press, 2009

Intense labor-management conflict at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest Health Maintenance Organization, led to a partnership agreement covering more than ninety thousand employees that has lasted more than a decade. Four academics were given access to document and analyze the experience. Both those who support and those who oppose such partnerships on ideological grounds will find fodder for their views in this detailed account.


Invisible Hands
By Kim Phillips-Fein
W.W. Norton, 2009

After President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made historic changes in the American economic and political system, the DuPont family and other businessmen began a counterattack that culminated decades later in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Such businessmen have been the invisible hands behind what is called the conservative movement.


Organizing the Curriculum
Edited by Rob Linné, Leigh Benin, and Adrienne Sosin
Sense Publishers, 2009

These eighteen essays include some innovative, practical ideas and perspectives about teaching the U.S. labor movement in public schools.


Remembering Scottsboro
By James A. Miller
Princeton University Press, 2009

Death sentences given to eight young black men in 1931 became a major historical event that impacted American arts and culture, as well as politics, and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.


The Looting of America
By Les Leopold
Chelsea Green, 2009

For those who want more than a vague sense that we are in an economic crisis because of manipulation by Wall Street, Leopold goes into the details about the financial industry’s complex schemes that came crashing down on the rest of us.


The Quality of Home Runs
By Thomas P. Carter
Duke University Press, 2009

Politics, culture, and history are mixed in this study of baseball in Cuba.


Tours of Vietnam
By Scott Laderman
Duke University Press, 2009

What first appears to be a narrow academic study—how U.S. guide books and other tourist materials over the past half-century have described Vietnam—becomes an interesting window into Americans’ often inaccurate perceptions about our own country and the rest of the world.



Ask Not, 2008

More than twelve thousand men and women have lost their jobs in the military under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, including many who speak Arabic or have other vital skills that are in short supply. This seventy-three-minute film tells some of their stories. It also recounts how President Clinton considered segregating gay soldiers in separate units, similar to the blacks-only units that existed until President Truman issued an executive order ending the practice.


Everlasting Moments, 2008

This beautifully made Swedish film, set in a working-class community in the early 1900s, focuses on the wife of a longshoreman who finds her own identity with the help of an old camera and a photography store owner.


Inventing L.A., 2009

By tracing the history of the Chandler family that founded the Los Angeles Times, this 116-minute PBS documentary also tells important parts of the history of Southern California, including decades of fierce anti-union campaigns and manipulation of politicians and public resources for personal gain. The film also describes the internal battles between ultraconservative and relatively liberal family members that led to the paper’s rapid decline.


Journey of a Red Fridge, 2007

More than sixty thousand children in Nepal make their living as porters, carrying backpacks and supplies for tourists or transporting goods in a region in which there are few good roads or vehicles. This fifty-four-minute documentary focuses on one of them.


Kick Like a Girl, 2008

A soccer team of third-grade girls in Utah can’t find adequate competition against other girls’ teams and decides to enter the boys’ league instead. The twenty-four-minute film follows their season and the reactions of girls, boys, and parents.


On Paper Wings, 2008

During World War II, Japanese girls were assigned to fold paper for huge balloon bombs that were floated to America. One of the bombs killed a young woman and four children near the rural town of Bly, Oregon. A half-century later, some of the now-grown Japanese women traveled to Bly to meet relatives and friends of those who were killed. Some of the hosts talk about the concentration camp for Americans of Japanese descent that was operated during the war, a short distance from Bly. The film also includes file footage of the massive destruction caused by U.S. firebombing and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, although it doesn’t show Americans traveling to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to express their sorrow.


Prom Night in Mississippi, 2008

Even after a high school in Charleston, Mississippi was integrated, white families continued to hold a separate senior prom. Actor Morgan Freeman, who comes from Charleston, offered to pay for a prom in 2008—if it was integrated. The school accepted, but problems remained. The story provides an opportunity to explore racial attitudes today.


Short Term 12, 2008

This dramatic, powerfully acted short takes viewers inside a residential facility for abused children, and brings both staff and residents to life.


Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, 2009

Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has held an annual rodeo in which inmates compete, to the delight of thousands of spectators. Since 2006, female inmates have been allowed to take part. Many of them are young mothers, separated from their families because of drug-related crimes. The rodeo poses the real possibility of lifelong injury, especially for these amateurs with only minimal training, but both women and men participate to relieve the intense boredom of prison life. This two-hour, heartbreaking documentary introduces some of them, and in the process provides a poignant portrait of the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system.


The Philosopher Kings, 2009

This seventy-minute film profiles eight janitors at various U.S. colleges who have persevered despite serious obstacles in their lives. Service workers like these are often invisible to those they serve. The film shows that they are people with pride in their work, wisdom learned from hard experience, and determination to get the most out of life. It leaves to other films questions about why they receive only poverty wages and how people like them have joined together to improve their situation.


Upstream Battle, 2008

The death of nearly seventy thousand adult salmon in the Klamath River in 2002 focused attention on a conflict over water rights involving Native Americans, Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp, ranchers, farmers, and commercial fishermen. While this ninetyseven-minute film tells the story from the tribes’ point of view, other participants have their say in candid interviews as well.

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 118-121, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000017


Economic Prospects: Industrial Policy and the Revival of U.S. Manufacturing

At a forum last May in Detroit on the economic disaster now facing the United States auto companies, and the Midwest manufacturing sector more generally, somebody asked me a pointed and important question: Why doesn’t the U.S. have an industrial policy? The premise motivating the question was straightforward. The revival of manufacturing in the U.S. will entail a wave of innovations that raise competitiveness, expand job opportunities, and advance the construction of a clean energy economy. To pull this off successfully will require a clustering of largescale public policy initiatives that could, as a combination, fairly be described as industrial policies.

Yet I think my answer at the forum surprised people. I said that the U.S. does already practice industrial policy right now, and has done so for a long time. But the problem is that industrial policy in the U.S. operates primarily through the Pentagon. In fact, this answer was only half-right. Military-based industrial policy has indeed been a major force shaping the development trajectory of U.S. capitalism for at least a century. It has produced epoch-defining technical breakthroughs, including jet aviation, the computer, and the Internet. It has also produced an unending stream of pork-barrel opportunities and scandals. But industrial policies in the U.S. also extend beyond the Pentagon, frequently operating without a clear sense of purpose, sometimes even at cross-purposes.

So a better answer to have given at the Detroit forum would have been that, in fact, the U.S. operates with a variety of industrial policies—in fact, too many. If we are going to successfully confront the crisis of U.S. manufacturing, what we really need are measures that are more carefully designed, focused, and executed. This will entail building from the major successes that have been achieved, as well as gaining greater understanding of and power over the forces that produce failures.

What Is Industrial Policy?

Although there are other ways the term can be used, industrial policy is often associated closely with the concept of a “developmental state.” As one key element within a developmental state, industrial policy generally focuses on promoting research and development (R&D), moving the technical innovations emerging from R&D investments into commercial use, and raising productivity and competiveness by getting businesses to adopt these innovations as rapidly as possible.

Industrial policy in the U.S. operates primarily through the Pentagon. 

But we need to clarify this broad idea further. This is because, with industrial policy as a tool of a developmental state, a range of policy instruments and targets can be put into play. These could include R&D subsidies for government, university, or private-business research centers. It could also include preferential tax treatment, credit opportunities, or direct subsidies for specific sectors of the economy, different regions, or even individual business firms. Some types of business regulations—such as auto fuel-efficiency standards, or financial regulations aimed at channeling credit to preferred sectors, or activities at subsidized rates—could also be seen as industrial policy interventions.

How Industrial Policy Operates in the U.S.

An important feature of much of the U.S. experience with industrial policies has been that these policies have been frequently implemented for purposes other than to promote technology, productivity, competitiveness, and jobs. Since World War II, motivations behind the use of industrial policies have included:

1. Bailing Out the U.S. Auto Industry. In 2008 and 2009, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler received $65 billion in loans from the federal government. The loans were provided both by the then-outgoing Bush administration in December 2008, as well as the newly installed Obama administration in March 2009. This action was taken after both automakers had testified before Congress that, without major federal assistance, they would be forced into bankruptcy. These bailouts had an important precedent in the 1979 government bailout of Chrysler. In this prior case, the federal government provided $1.5 billion worth of loan guarantees (equivalent to about $3.5 billion in 2009 dollars), as well as “voluntary” quotas on foreign cars being imported into U.S. markets.

One can make a reasonable case for both bailouts on the grounds that, in 1979 as well as in 2009, the collapse of GM and Chrysler would have caused massive unemployment and more general economic hardship, especially in the Midwest. But when the tools of industrial policy are cobbled together amid a crisis, we cannot expect the results to be stellar, beyond preventing the firms from shutting down outright. The 2009 GM bailout, for example, imposed devastating concessions on autoworkers, including the elimination of twenty-one thousand union jobs, while the United Auto Workers itself had to accept GM stock of uncertain value to replace $10 billion in guaranteed health care funds.

2. States and Municipalities Competing to Attract Businesses. Over the past four decades, states and municipalities in the U.S. have competed among themselves, sometimes intensively, to attract businesses to locate with them. The main weapon in this competition has been various types of tax incentives. Foreign auto companies have been among the most favored recipients of such support, including, just since 2006: Kia Motors receiving a reported $400 million from West Point, Georgia; Honda receiving $141 million from Greensburg, Indiana; Toyota getting $300 million from Blue Springs, Mississippi; and Volkswagen obtaining $577 million from Chattanooga, Tennessee. These efforts have achieved some success in their primary aim of attracting businesses to their locations. But they have done so almost entirely on a zero-sum basis—that is, by reducing job creation in neighboring states and localities that have not offered the same incentives.

3. National Defense. Unlike with the auto industry bailouts and statelevel tax-break competitions, national defense-related industrial policies have produced spectacular successes. Commercial-level uses of jet aviation, computers, and the Internet—all transformational technologies that define the U.S. and all other modern economies—were products of industrial policies directed and financed by the Pentagon.

Does Industrial Policy Have to Run through the Pentagon to Succeed?

The key factor with Pentagoncentered industrial policy is the combination—on a massive scale and over a sustained time period—of R&D investment spending, plus the maintaining of a guaranteed market through procurements. This idea is the main theme in the important recent book by the late Professor Vernon Ruttan, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development. Ruttan emphasizes that R&D alone would not have brought new technologies to the point of commercial success. It was also necessary that, over the course of decades, the military provided a guaranteed market for new technologies. This enabled the technologies to incubate over time without having to prematurely face the test of the market.

In principle, this combination could be replicated under some auspices other than the Pentagon. An obvious priority here would be to build manufacturing capacity around clean energy technologies, including green buses and rail cars, as well as automobiles. Investments in these areas could be the basis for a revival of a transformed U.S. auto industry.

The U.S. operates with a variety of industrial policies—in fact, too many.

A program to dramatically improve public bus services throughout the country well illustrates the broader possibilities and approach. Let’s say, for example, the federal government commits to doubling the number of buses now operating throughout the country, and requires that all the new buses operate at high energy efficiency levels. Such a program could produce major environmental and social benefits: even at current fuel-efficiency standards, transporting people via public transportation, as opposed to private cars, produces a net reduction in carbon emissions of about 45 percent per passenger mile, while the average costs for passengers of public transportation are about half those of people traveling by car. Meanwhile, the government orders for cleanenergy buses would establish a guaranteed market for manufacturers. Some of these orders could be filled by the current suppliers, all of whom now operate in the U.S. The rest could be supplied by U.S. auto firms, including GM and Chrysler, assuming these companies see the opportunities open to them through converting part of their unprofitable auto manufacturing operations into a newly-expanding market for clean-energy buses.

Similar programs could be advanced for public investments in public rail transportation as well as renewable energy projects, such as developing the offshore wind energy potential of the Great Lakes region. The major question is whether the government can justify the combination of large-scale R&D spending and procurement that would be necessary for such initiatives to succeed. The only basis on which this can occur is in terms of some standard of broadly-shared social welfare. The issue of developing an effective set of industrial policies around an agenda of clean energy, transportation, and manufacturing at this point becomes political. For example, can a strong enough political movement be mounted to mobilize the government’s capacities to build widely accessible public transportation systems and large-scale wind farms in a manner similar to what it has already accomplished so spectacularly through the Pentagon?

Not surprisingly, reaching that level of political influence poses numerous challenges of its own. To begin with, few people outside of elite policymaking circles in the U.S. appreciate the extent to which the federal government has been successful in conducting industrial policies. Instead, as Professor Fred Block argues, U.S. industrial policies have operated as what he terms a “hidden developmental state,” under the umbrella of the Pentagon’s national security agenda, not as an open public policy effort to advance technical innovation, productivity, competitiveness, and jobs.

Conducting industrial policies in the U.S. in this way has meant that the military has exercised disproportionate influence over what passes as legitimate aims of such policies. And precisely because Pentagon-based industrial policies have been sheltered from the normal standards of public review, an adequate system of carrots and sticks has never emerged to regulate the private businesses that benefit most directly from these policies through contracts and subsidies. The egregious non-competitive, gold-plated, cost-plus contracts handed out to weapons suppliers are the most well-known examples of this broader problem.

[The U.S. needs to] design industrial policies to advance clean energy, a reconfigured transportation system, a renewed manufacturing sector, and a revived Detroit. 

Here, then, is the overarching challenge in trying to design industrial policies to advance clean energy, a reconfigured transportation system, a renewed manufacturing sector, and, yes, a revived Detroit. As a technical matter, the federal government has the capacity today to dramatically expand the markets for clean public transportation and renewable energy systems, just as the Pentagon spent forty years nurturing the Internet. But we lack the experience and political will to advance this agenda outside of the Pentagon. The question is whether we can build such capacities over time.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 58-61, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000009

Beating the System: Is the System A Survey of Workplace Violations in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City

At the start of the twenty-first century, America’s core employment and labor laws are failing to protect the nation’s workers. These are laws that most of us consider absolute and inviolate, most of which date back to the New Deal. Employers must pay workers at least the minimum wage, and time and a half for overtime hours. They must follow regulations to protect workers’ health and safety, and carry workers’ compensation insurance in case of injury. They may not discriminate against workers on the basis of age, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. And they must respect workers’ right to organize and bring complaints about working conditions.

In recent years, we have seen growing evidence that employers are breaking these bedrock laws—not just in manufacturing plants outside our borders, or in the sweatshops that flourished a century ago, but in a wide range of core industries inside the United States, from construction to retail, restaurants, janitorial services, and home health care. However, until now, very few researchers have been able to accurately estimate the proportion of workers experiencing workplace violations, or the proportion of employers committing them. As a result, we lack robust benchmarks of the magnitude of the problem, the industries that are the biggest offenders, or the workers who are most affected. The limited data, in turn, hamper effective policy responses at the federal, state, and local levels.

This article summarizes new research findings that begin to fill the gap. In 2008, we surveyed 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities—New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—using a rigorous survey methodology that allowed us to reach vulnerable workers who are often missed in standard surveys.1 We attempted to answer the following questions: (1) How common are workplace violations, such as the percentage of workers earning less than the minimum wage or working overtime without pay?; (2) Which industries and occupations have the highest concentration of violations?; and (3) Who are the workers most affected? We think of this survey as a census of the invisible because, from the standpoint of public policy and government regulation, these jobs (and the workers who hold them) are all too often off the radar screen.

The Prevalence of Workplace Violations in America’s Cities

We found that core employment and labor laws are systematically violated in the low-wage labor markets of the nation’s three largest cities. Low-wage workers are being paid less than the minimum wage and are not receiving legally mandated overtime pay. They are working off the clock without pay, and not getting meal breaks. When injured, they are not receiving workers’ compensation. And they are retaliated against when they try to assert their rights or attempt to organize.

Minimum Wage Violations

Minimum wage laws place a floor under pay for frontline workers in the U.S. labor market. Covered employees must be paid at or above the minimum wage set by federal or state law, whichever is higher.2 In measuring the prevalence of minimum wage violations, we did not rely on respondents’ own knowledge of these laws, but instead gathered detailed information about the work week immediately prior to each interview. We used that information to calculate each respondent’s hourly wage rate for the job(s) he or she worked that week, dividing total weekly earnings by the number of hours worked, after taking into account bonuses, taxes, deductions, and overtime pay. We then compared the result to the relevant state minimum wage standard to determine whether or not there was a minimum wage violation.

Many frontline workers in the low-wage labor market perform “off-theclock” work for which no pay is provided. 

Fully 26 percent of the workers in our sample were paid less than the minimum wage in the previous work week. Moreover, these minimum wage violations were not trivial in magnitude: 60 percent of respondents were underpaid by more than $1 per hour. We also measured minimum wage violations for tipped workers in particular, who in Illinois and New York have a lower minimum wage than nontipped workers. Of the tipped workers in our sample—restaurant workers, car wash workers, hotel workers, and the like—30 percent were not paid the tipped-worker minimum wage.

Overtime Violations

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) stipulates that covered employees must be paid “time and a half ” for all hours worked over forty during each week for a single employer. Over a quarter of our respondents worked more than forty hours during the previous work week for a single employer and were therefore at risk for an overtime violation. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of these workers were not paid the legally required overtime rate by their employers. Like minimum wage violations, overtime violations were far from trivial in magnitude; employees with an overtime violation worked an average of eleven overtime hours in the previous week.

Off-the-Clock Work

In addition to unpaid overtime hours, many frontline workers in the low-wage labor market perform “off-the-clock” work that takes place before or after a regularly scheduled shift and for which no pay is provided. By law, employees must be paid for all of the hours they work. We asked workers whether they came in before their official shift or stayed late after their official ending time and, if they did, whether or not they received payment for this time. Nearly one-quarter of workers (22 percent) stated that they had worked before and/or after their regular shifts in the previous work week, and were thus “at risk” for off-theclock violations. Of these workers, 70 percent did not receive any pay at all for the work they performed outside of their regular shift. Those who experienced this type of violation worked a median of one hour per week without pay.

Meal Break Violations

California, Illinois, and New York have laws that require employers to provide workers with an uninterrupted meal break during their shift (although the length of the required meal break, as well as the minimum shift length after which a break must be provided, varies from state to state). The laws do not require the employer to pay for the meal break, but if the employee works during the break, he or she must be compensated. We applied each state’s specific regulations to determine whether workers received all of their required meal breaks and whether these breaks were of the required length.

The vast majority of our respondents (86 percent) worked enough consecutive hours to be legally entitled to a meal break. However, more than two-thirds of these workers (69 percent) experienced a meal break violation in the previous work week. Nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of respondents with this violation received no meal break at all at some point during the previous week. Half (50 percent) had a meal break that was shorter than the legally mandated length. Workers also reported being interrupted by their employer during the break (16 percent) or working during part of their meal break (17 percent).

Other Violations

The survey documented many other violations as well, ranging from late payment of wages, to tip stealing, to illegal payroll deductions. We also found widespread reports of employer retaliation: of the workers who made a complaint about working conditions or who tried to organize a union during the last year, 43 percent experienced at least one form of illegal retaliation from their employer. Another set of findings involves the workers’ compensation system, which appears to be largely dysfunctional in this part of the labor market. Among respondents who had a recent on-the-job injury, more than half experienced a workers’ compensation-related violation.

Of the workers who made a complaint about working conditions or who tried to organize a union, 43 percent experienced illegal retaliation from their employer.

Weekly Wage Theft in America’s Cities

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of our sample experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. The average worker lost $51, out of average weekly earnings of $339. Assuming a fulltime, full-year work schedule, we estimate that these workers lost an annual average of $2,634 due to workplace violations, out of total annual earnings of $17,616. That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings. But workplace violations also adversely impact local economies. We estimate that, in a given week, approximately 1,114,074 workers in the three cities combined have suffered at least one pay-based violation. Extrapolating from this figure, frontline workers in low-wage industries in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lose more than $56.4 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations.

Explaining the Patterns of Workplace Violations

The workplace violations documented by our survey are ultimately the result of employer decisions about whether or not to comply with the law, and therefore vary significantly by industry and occupation, as well as by other job and employer characteristics. In particular, we found widespread violations in some of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the country, such as retail, residential construction, and home health care. And although large companies had lower violation rates (for example, 29 percent of workers in companies with fewer than one hundred employees were paid less than the legally required minimum wage, compared with 15 percent of workers in companies with one hundred or more employees), violations are by no means limited to the “underground economy,” to marginal businesses, or to a few rogue employers. Nor are these abuses limited to unauthorized immigrants or to other especially vulnerable workers. Although women, immigrants, and people of color are disproportionately affected when employers violate core employment and labor laws, our analysis shows that where a worker is employed—that is, in which industry and in what type of job—is a far better predictor of violations than the worker’s demographic characteristics.3

Sixty-eight percent of [surveyed workers] experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. 

Policy Implications

The high rates of workplace violations that we document in this report raise an urgent, resounding warning that U.S. employment and labor laws are failing millions of workers in low-wage industries. Our analysis, elaborated in other research, suggests that these violations are the outcome of economic drivers and policy enablers—that is, economic changes in trade and competition, some of them economy-wide, some specific to individual industries, interacting with public policies that either enable or fail to mitigate the negative impacts on workers and working conditions. In particular, policy failures over the past several decades in three areas— weak workplace laws, weak enforcement of those laws, and a dysfunctional immigration policy—have combined to enable—and even encourage—the type of systematic violations documented in this report.4 The policy challenge, then, is to move forward on three fronts: improved enforcement, updated standards, and immigration reform.

Improved Enforcement

Government enforcement must be the cornerstone of any viable response to workplace violations.5 However, in recent years, enforcement efforts at both the federal and state level have weakened. There is a pressing need for new strategies to address the reality that workplace violations are becoming standard practice in many low-wage industries. Enforcement agencies should:

  • Move toward proactive, “investigation-driven” enforcement in low-wage industries, rather than reacting to complaints as they come in. This means identifying industries in which violations are systemic, conducting strategic, repeated, and well-publicized workplace audits, and cracking down on employers who are repeat offenders, as well as those who misclassify their workers. The goal should be to send industry-wide signals that the government will pursue violations, and that the likelihood of inspection is tangible.
  • Increase the number of workplace investigators. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of inspectors enforcing federal minimum wage and overtime laws declined by 31 percent, even as the labor force grew by 52 percent. Similarly, the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been cut by $25 million in real dollars between 2001 and 2007; at its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take the agency 133 years to inspect each workplace just once.

Violations are not limited to the “underground economy,” marginal businesses, or a few rogue employers.

  • Increase the reach and effectiveness of enforcement by partnering with worker centers, unions, service providers, legal advocates, and—where possible—responsible employers. Government alone will never have enough staff and resources to monitor every workplace in the country on a regular basis. Community partnerships can help to identify the industry segments in which workplace violations are most concentrated and what types of methods employers use to evade detection.
  • Strengthen penalties for violations. Currently, penalties for many workplace violations are so modest that they fail to deter many employers. For example, the savings to employers from paying employees less than the minimum wage often outweigh the costs, even for those few who are apprehended.

Updated Legal Standards

Strong enforcement is important, but so are strong legal standards that recognize the changing organization of work in the United States. Specifically, we need changes that will:

  • Strengthen legal standards. Raising (and indexing) the minimum wage, updating health and safety standards, expanding overtime coverage higher up the income ladder, and strengthening the right of workers to organize through labor law reform will raise compliance in the workplace and improve the competitive position of employers who play by the rules.

Women, immigrants, and people of color are disproportionately affected when employers violate core employment and labor laws. 

  • Close coverage gaps. Some types of workers—for example, home health care and domestic workers—are excluded from key workplace protections. Closing such gaps in coverage by employment and labor laws must be a priority for policymakers.
  • Hold employers responsible for their workers. Some unscrupulous employers avoid their legal obligations by misclassifying workers as independent contractors or subcontracting work to fly-by-night operators who then break the law. Employers should be held responsible for the workplace standards they control, whether directly or indirectly.

Immigration Reform

Although unauthorized workers are covered by most employment and labor laws, in practice they are effectively disenfranchised in the workplace by their lack of legal status, fear of deportation, and the willingness of all too many employers to exploit their vulnerability. Any policy initiative to reduce workplace violations must therefore:

  • Prioritize equal protection and equal status in national immigration reform. Comprehensive immigration reform without close attention to labor market impacts and workers’ rights will push more workers into the underground economy, leading to greater insecurity for immigrant families and less economic integration.A guiding principle for reform must be that immigrant workers are guaranteed the full protection and remedies of U.S. employment and labor laws.
  • Ensure status-blind enforcement of employment and labor laws by maintaining a firewall between workplace and immigration inspections. Agencies enforcing minimum wage, prevailing wage, health and safety, and other worker protection laws can and should maintain a firewall between themselves and immigration authorities, so that unauthorized workers will not fear deportation if they make a wage claim or file a workplace grievance.


Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has committed to renewing the Department of Labor’s investigative and enforcement efforts. But the labor movement—including unions and the many worker centers that are leading the fight against wage theft across the country—also has a key role to play. Organized labor needs to use its political leverage to help win the fight for strong employment and labor laws that are fully enforced. Most important, unions and worker centers need to continue to expand their efforts to organize the vast population of unorganized workers—especially women, immigrants, and workers of color, all of whom are overrepresented in the industries and occupations with the highest violation rates. In the end, the best inoculation against workplace violations is ensuring that workers know their rights and have the collective power to enforce them.

* This article is based on the authors’ 2009 report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities,” available at (please see the “About Our Contributors” section for a full listing of the authors’ names). This research was supported by the Ford Foundation, the Haynes Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation.


1. We adopted two key innovations in our survey. First, we used a cutting-edge sampling methodology—Respondent-Driven Sampling (RDS)—that allowed us to reach the full range of workers in the low-wage labor market, including unauthorized immigrants and off-the-books workers. Second, we developed a detailed questionnaire that allowed us to rigorously assess whether employment and labor laws were being broken, without relying on workers’ own knowledge of those laws. The survey was administered in 2008 to 4,387 frontline (i.e., workers holding non-managerial or non-professional positions), adult workers whose primary job was in a low-wage industry in Chicago (Cook County), Los Angeles (Los Angeles County), and New York City (the five boroughs). Recruiting began with a small number of workers who fit the study criteria; after they were interviewed, they recruited other workers in their social networks; in turn, those workers completed the survey and then recruited others; and so on, with successive waves of recruitment. As part of the RDS methodology, the resulting data were weighted to adjust for differences in respondents’ social network size and recruitment patterns, and to ensure that the distribution of industries and occupations in our sample fully reflected the composition of each city’s low-wage labor market. The research teams for each city were in the field for about six months during the spring and summer of 2008, conducting interviews at multiple sites, including community colleges, service providers, community-based organizations, and churches scattered across each of the cities. The surveys were conducted in English, Spanish, and eleven other languages. See the full report for more details.
2. In this article we are not able to elaborate on the complexity of employment and labor laws in detail; see the full report for federal and state legal standards and coverage.
3. We used logistic regression models to analyze the correlates of workplace violations, testing for the unique contribution of job/employer characteristics on the one hand, and demographic factors on the other. We found that job/employer characteristics were 4.0 times stronger than demographic characteristics in predicting minimum wage violation rates, 10.0 times stronger in predicting overtime violation rates, 1.8 times stronger in predicting off-the-clock violation rates, and 12.8 times stronger in predicting meal break violation rates.
4. See Annette Bernhardt, Siobhán McGrath, and James DeFilippis, Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2007); Annette Bernhardt, Heather Boushey, Laura Dresser, and Chris Tilly, eds., The Gloves-off Economy: Workplace Standards at the Bottom of America’s Labor Market(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); Ruth Milkman, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008); Nik Theodore, “Political Economies of Day Labour: Regulation and Restructuring of Chicago’s Contingent Labour Markets,” Urban Studies 40, no. 9 (2003): 1811-1827.
5. For analyses of public enforcement and policy solutions, see National Employment Law Project, Rebuilding a Good Jobs Economy: A Blueprint for Recovery and Reform (New York: National Employment Law Project, 2008); Howard Wial, Minimum-Wage Enforcement and the LowWage Labor Market (Harrisburg, PA: Keystone Research Center, 1999); David Weil, “Public Enforcement / Private Monitoring: Evaluating a New Approach to Regulating the Minimum Wage,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 58, no. 2 (2005): 238-257; David Weil, “Crafting a Progressive Workplace Regulatory Policy: Why Enforcement Matters,” Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal 28, no. 2 (2007).

New Labor Forum 19(1): 73-79, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000011

Caution: Writers at Work

Working: An Anthology of Writing and Photography
Edited by Greg Hart, Mary Ellen Mangino, Zoeanne Murphy, and Ann Marie Taliercio
Syracuse University Press, 2008

The Way We Work: Contemporary Writings from the American Workplace
Edited by Peter Scheckner and M. C. Boyes 
Vanderbilt University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Katherine Sciacchitano

Over the last two decades, with the help of the working-class studies movement, class has managed to expand beyond its restrictive perch as a category of political and economic analysis into a broader lens for shared experience. Conversation about class may still be discouraged, even punished, but fewer question the political and social importance of personal struggle and reflection around our class experiences and origins.

Working: An Anthology of Writing and Photography, and The Way We Work: Contemporary Writings from the American Workplace give us a chance to read and think about class (in the case of Working) and work (in the case of The Way We Work). Read together, they also invite us to reflect on how our class experience affects us as readers and writers and how the act of writing, in turn, affects our experience of class.

Working is testimony written by workers. The Way We Work—an anthology of pieces culled from both previously published work and responses to an ad in a literary journal—is self-proclaimed literature. As testimony, Working demands that we remember both the condition of the speaker and the circumstances of the account. As literature, the stories in The Way We Work often conceal both the processes and the experiences of their authors. Reading testimony challenges us to reevaluate our own experience in light of the speaker’s. Reading literature, we know we’re not only entitled to but are, in fact, expected to judge from a distance. Literature offers process and order, imagery and transport, not to mention a celebration of the skill of its creator. As the editors of Working both tell us and show us, sometimes writing isn’t literature, but rather “that complex intermingling of necessity and intellect that marks working-class culture” (p. 7). And some authors are not celebrated, but forgotten.

The authors of Working reach into their experiences of working-class life to make collective sense of their struggles for economic and emotional survival, and intellectual understanding. The power of the more than two dozen short pieces, poems, and photographs in the collection doesn’t come from imagery and order. First and foremost, it comes from the authors’ survival and courage, not only to express their experiences of class but to force us as readers to confront their experiences with them. The result is still transport, but of a different kind: transport that doesn’t focus on specific words or images, but on quiet contact with the complex realities of gender, race, and class that are both brought into existence and strangled into silence by the structures of everyday life.

In short, Working returns us to ourselves by forcing us to listen to others. The result is an immediacy that is slow for the reader to grasp and feel, but hard to let go of.

Working is the product of a writing workshop run for workers in Syracuse, New York, a once-thriving industrial city that—within the last quarter-century—has fallen into the throes of deindustrialization, downsizing, and privatization. Its texts and images deal with work and survival, family and community, the intersection of gender and class, defiance and gratitude, and—most of all—change.

As important as what Working contains is what it doesn’t. There is no escape from family tragedy. No movement from working-class to middle-class status. No “success stories” of financial or professional fulfillment. Most importantly, there are no generalizations of what it means to be working-class. As a reader working in a middle-class job but coming from a working-class background, I experienced palpable relief at not being asked to distance myself from my own felt reality, not being asked to assume my middle-class armor or attitude of intellectual control.

Some stories in the collection are brief, such as one describing the memories of grandparents who take in boarders. One photo shows an alley behind a substance abuse clinic where clients are forced to take breaks because they are not allowed on the sidewalk in front. Longer stories describe entering the workforce and show how supporting a parent shapes one teenager’s sense of manhood and responsibility. A few pieces reflect on an entire life’s work. Another offers a harrowing account of firefighting.

There are surprises. A biting, witty account of class and gender. A former restaurant owner working ten-hour days as a telemarketer—“put your hands on [either side of] your face …. that’s the space I work in” (p. 64)—tells us how she gets through it by sticking Post-It notes of poetry on her cubicle wall, teaming up with co-workers who find any excuse to celebrate, and accepting the surprising companionship offered by many people she calls, people who break all the stereotypes.

But most of all there is a pervasive sense of loss. A poem cries out to us, “The company filled their pockets with a vicious wealth/They did it by taking my best friend’s health” (p. 24). A young girl learns what it means to be trapped in the world of blue-collar work after she leaves each newspaper-bundling shift with one arm covered in welts, because there is no safe way to operate the machinery. Awareness of time only deepens the wounds. A tradeswoman writes of the women who preceded her in struggling with the sexism of their union brothers: “[T]heir sacrifices have not gone unnoticed. Only us women know what it is like—the slow eating away of acid on metal . . . . ” (p. 23).

As important as what Working contains is what it doesn’t. There are no generalizations of what it means to be working-class.

And throughout there is change— change that results from facing (not transcending) necessity and limitations. Children adapt to the reality of work. A videotape editor chronicles changing technologies, knowing he, too, is replaceable and will have to move on some day. A community organizer, the only person in her family to finish college, learns from her father’s death that “a person should not have to die to earn a living,” and from her mother’s life that doing work that is not valued—and especially doing it in isolation—can be psychologically devastating (p. 42). She embraces C. Wright Mills’s belief that “individual” troubles are caused by structures of power that are not easily changed. So while she defines work as contributing to her community, she recognizes that the organizations she works for are too embedded in the governing power structure to achieve much:

When work is degraded or devalued, when the requirements of making ends meet assault the quality of family life, force workers to risk life or limb, prevent us from giving to the very young and the very old the care they deserve, obstruct us from participating fully as citizens, and require us to sacrifice our souls, I fear for our future. We have holy work ahead (p. 45).

Reading The Way We Work after Working feels a bit like getting the bends coming up from a deep dive. There is a ripping away and a loss.

While Working is unabashedly about class, The Way We Work is about work. The occupations represented run the gamut from agriculture to social work, and the concerns include relationships on the job, how work shapes leisure, and even death. Although the diversity of the pieces in this collection seems to invite contemplation of the relationships between work, culture, and society, it also precludes any defined focus. And while an editors’ introduction catalogs contemporary economic changes and their effects on jobs, The Way We Work displays little of the urgency about the decline in living standards that we find in Working.

The Way We Work includes a short work-biography of its contributor after each entry (save one: an anonymous story about a letter carrier who finds he is invisible to the people on his route when they fail to recognize him without his uniform—a sly choice by the author). What we learn from the bios—themselves interesting reads—is what we have already guessed. Virtually all the contributors have done many kinds of work, often menial. But with few exceptions, all are looking back on this early work from the vantage points of academic or literary careers.

The Way We Work represents the American problematic of class transitions and exits, of crossing borders and subsuming identities.

This positioning makes a keen difference in the immediacy of the stories. The standouts of the collection—a piece about driving a city bus route; a stunning poem remembering work as an underground miner; and stories about a young boy’s introduction to peachpicking by older workers, life on a summer construction job, and reporting on sex crimes (among others)—seem to have been written not only from the writers’ actual experiences, but by writers who remain close to these experiences. (A major exception is a strong piece by Tom Wolfe on work in a freezer warehouse.)

A few pieces in the collection reveal what happens to the force of workingclass experience when actual voices are replaced with “literature.” Compare, for example, the roles that class and occupation seem to play in these excerpts:

In Working, a retired firefighter writes:

The heat is rolling under the top of my helmet and burning my forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, neck and ears. My hands are burning . . . I trip. I fall. I fall through ceilings . . . Nails go through . . . my foot. Another trip to the emergency room—but not before the fire is under control.

My lungs hurt . . . Someone is following with a hose . . . .

There is a man in a chair. He is badly burned . . . His skin falls away and he screams in pain. He dies before an ambulance gets there . . . I want to quit (pp. 48-49).

Now, from Rick Bass, a former geologist, in The Way We Work:

There is always excitement and mystery on a fire call. It’s as if these things are held in solution, just beneath the skin of the earth, and are then released by the flames . . . and there are rivers of blood below, and rivers of fire, rivers of the way things used to be and might be someday again—true but mysterious, and full of power, rather than stale and crusty (p. 210).

In the end, however, what defines the tone of The Way We Work is the collection’s emphasis on work, rather than the broader matrix of class. This emphasis is reflected, among other places, in the collection’s last piece—an essay that condemns the American drive for success for leading people into overwork. What is strange about this is not that the pace and volume of work in American society are viewed as anathemas to freedom or threatening to democracy. It’s that the book ends with a piece that seems to ascribe how much we work to culture and personal choice, divorced from economic imperatives and constraints.

Still, The Way We Work leaves lingering questions about its contributors’ work lives and class trajectories, many of which seem to be defined by the struggle to write successfully. Whether reaching back to early class experiences or reaching past one’s experiences to understand the experiences of others, the collection appears to represent the American problematic of class transitions and exits, of crossing borders and subsuming identities.

Several years ago, I designed a writing course that centered on the class experiences of the students and how they saw and experienced whatever transition they were making (or hoping to make) as they got their degrees. I also wanted to help students find their voices as they wrote.

Identifying the primary texts for the course became increasingly problematic as the voices of middle-class authors writing about working-class experience became more and more jarring. Eventually, I settled on The Heat, a forceful collection of stories and poems written by steelworkers; How to Tell When You’re Tired, a book about manual labor written by Reg Theriault, a retired longshoreman who dropped out of a literature program at Berkeley to continue working as a fruit tramp; and Striking Steel, an historical and sociological memoir of the 1959 steel strike written by Jack Metzgar, the son of a participant, who asks how the memory of the longest strike in U.S. history came to be erased from workingclass consciousness and most histories of the period. What these books—and other readings I chose—have in common is that each deals with the direct experiences of its author(s). Each tackles the problems of memory, change, and class with transparency and courage. Each generously shares that courage with its readers and implicitly invites them to join in the feat.

Few of us who make class transitions escape without the emotional and intellectual confusion created by the pressures to forget and to pass. Those of us who teach have a particular responsibility to help students remember. With or without additional texts, Working and The Way We Work give us a chance to reflect on our own experiences and present additional ways to take these questions into the classroom.






Caught in the Web: War Stories

Many websites about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq take the form of news digests or compendiums, gathering articles that are hidden in plain sight within the back pages of newspapers. The stories are there, they’re just overlooked. Perhaps the most thorough of these online “wire services” for news about the wars— and about the resistance to them—is, a site run by people motivated by libertarian principles and “non-interventionism,” in the spirit of the Old Right.

Read by “libertarians, pacifists, leftists, ‘greens,’ and independents alike” (according to the site), it is a rich source of news both about the empire and about the antiwar movement. It reveals a sharply different vision of world affairs; for example, readers could find stories about the Senate Appropriations Committee agreeing to hundreds of billions of dollars more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the pressure on the United States to get involved in a civil war in Yemen. The site also contains links to an archive of resources dealing with abuses at Abu Ghraib (including photographs and a video of prisoner abuse), as well as photographs of American flag-draped coffins that are likely returning from Iraq. The spirit of skepticism toward both political parties on display at is especially helpful. Check it out at

Another strong website is Just Foreign, which goes beyond many others in its activist bent. Instead of simply posting articles about Afghanistan, the site contains a link to a petition that readers can sign to oppose the expansion of the war and adopt a timetable for withdrawal. A piece about British politicians who want to withdraw troops from Afghanistan includes a letter that readers can send to support the resolution. The tone is optimistic and positive, giving readers an alternative to the alltoo-normal mood of anxiety and malaise. Visit the site at For activists, there’s a critical website—belonging to the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)—that describes the activities of one of the most important parts of the antiwar movement. The site contains links to videos of IVAW’s Winter Soldier testimonials; panel discussions at which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan testified about their experiences on the ground and the realities of the wars; and materials from IVAW about counter-recruitment and—especially moving—the writing and art of veterans. Check out IVAW at

The National Priorities Project—whose work on the costs of war has been covered in this column before—has an excellent special website featuring tickers that show the staggering, ever-rising costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. There’s a feature that permits the viewer to break down the total costs by state. I’d report the numbers, which are depressingly high, but they’ll surely have gone up dramatically by the time this column goes to press, so just visit the site at http://

For reporting on the activities of the United States in Latin America, one excellent website is that of Upside Down World, which provides original reporting on the region. Although it has sections on political developments and economic conflicts throughout Latin America—for example, the movement against the privatization of water in Ecuador—one major focus in recent months has been on the coup in Honduras. Check it out at http://www.

Another good site is that of the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch, an organization that monitors the notorious academy at which many right-wing Latin American military leaders have been trained, and also reports on Latin American politics. Most recently, it has devoted large parts of the site to covering the coup in Honduras and the subsequent violence there. There are also action alerts letting visitors know about events such as protests against the SOA, and there is a section containing links to other sites with news and reportage on Latin America. Visit the site at Both Upside Down World and the School of the Americas Watch provide links to other websites covering Latin America.

In the Fields

The push to provide healthier school lunches, that are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables rather than French fries and ketchup, has often been in the news this past year. But the farms of America are themselves filled with children, many of them immigrants whose families have come to the United States and who end up in the fields. Children working in the fields are likely to drop out of school, since they work an average of thirty hours a week, often when school is in session. They face serious health risks—20 percent of all deaths on farms are of young people, and 42 percent of all work-related deaths of minors are on farms. And yet farms are exempted from child labor laws—the legal age for most farm work is twelve, if a parent grants permission or works alongside the child. Children as young as ten are permitted to work in the fields, harvesting crops by hand for eight weeks a year. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs provides excellent research on the problem of underage farm labor, yet another area of our economy that is outside the reach of regulation. Check out the organization’s reports and analyses at http://

Another website of interest on farmworker issues is the National Center for Farmworker Health, a thirty-four-year-old organization that focuses on providing migrant workers with access to medical care. It includes a free and downloadable newsletter aimed at migrant workers, printed in English and Spanish, with descriptions of common health problems and information about how to get treatment for them. There are also sections of the site devoted to the broader plight of farmworkers and the history of this vulnerable community. Visit the site at

Out of Work

As the unemployment rate rises (as of this writing, it’s at 9.5 percent), it’s more important than ever for workers who have been laid off to have access to good information about the resources available to them and about the broader economic and political situation. The National Employment Law Project operates a website called, which provides up-to-date information about unemployment insurance and the broader economic malaise. All around the country, workers are facing the exhaustion of their unemployment benefits—even after a special extension by Congress—as the economy fails to recover. The site focuses on this quiet crisis, and gives regular updates about the status of the law governing unemployment insurance. Being unemployed for a long period of time means that skills atrophy, making it harder to get a new job in the future. The site includes relevant news articles about unemployment benefits—and the debate over how and whether to extend them—and a guide to the programs available to help people who have lost their jobs. It also features a forum where workers can tell their stories, as well as action guides to help people participate in the debate over unemployment benefits and the broader economic crisis. There are links to other websites that address the issue, but http://www.unemployedworkers. org is the best—informative while, at the same time, offering a space for people to tell their personal stories.


New Labor Forum 19(1): 99-101, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000015

Of Medals and Myths

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Focus Features, 2008

Reviewed by Patrick McCreery

On July 30, 2009, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would award a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978. Milk was one of sixteen individuals whom Obama announced he would honor with the annual award. Others included physicist Stephen Hawking; former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor; tennis star Billie Jean King; singer Chita Rivera; civil rights pioneer Joseph Lowery; and Joseph Medicine Crow, a historian of the Crow Tribal Nation. In a statement, Obama said that “These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds . . . Yet they share one overarching trait: each has been an agent of change.”1

We can only surmise what the slain activist, most recently memorialized in Gus Van Sant’s uplifting Milk, would have thought of the gesture. On one hand, as the film makes clear, Milk loved the limelight and surely would have lapped up the attention Obama paid him as the first openly gay elected official of a major U.S. city. After all, this was the man who, when the circus visited San Francisco, donned a clown suit, jumped on a trolley car and told bemused passengers that “I pass laws! I run this city!”2

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine Milk the militant activist using the award as an opportunity to take Obama to task for not pressuring Congress to pass the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.3 One could also envision Milk throwing in a few choice words about the president’s lackadaisical approach to repealing the odious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military employment policy, which prevents openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces.

Milk was a complex person, morphing over the course of a decade from closeted Goldwater Republican to pony-tailed, pot-loving hippie to outspoken gay rights activist. He lost three races in San Francisco before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977, only to be murdered a year later by a disgruntled former colleague. Milk’s short political career corroborated Tip O’Neill’s assertion that “All politics is local.” He finally won office through careful cultivation of important community factions: seniors, organized labor, and—most importantly—the tens of thousands of lesbians and gay men who moved to San Francisco in the early and mid-1970s in search of sexual freedom.4

Van Sant, while taking some liberties with Milk’s actual history, does a solid job of explaining the activist’s political evolution and historical significance. The film relies heavily on Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, and Rob Epstein’s Academy Award-winning 1985 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. It is a fair guess that many viewers will be unfamiliar with those earlier works, however. And for those drawn in solely by Milk’s A-list director (Van Sant also made My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting) or star (Sean Penn, who seamlessly captures Milk’s charm and moral gravity, and who fittingly won an Academy Award for his portrayal), the story will be a revelation.

Van Sant does a solid job of explaining [Milk’s] political evolution and historical significance.

Readers of this journal may be especially intrigued to learn that unions—and stereotypically macho unions, at that— were among Milk’s strongest supporters. That gay-labor alliance began in 1973, when Milk’s help was enlisted by Allan Baird, a Teamster official who was leading a strike against six beer distributors who were balking at a new contract with the truck drivers’ local in San Francisco. Baird had already convinced federations of Arab-American and Chinese-American grocers not to accept deliveries from scab drivers, but that was not enough to force a settlement with the distributors. He needed Milk’s help to convince the owners of gay bars to join the boycott. Milk readily gave it, asking only that the Teamsters find jobs for openly gay drivers. Baird agreed, bar owners joined the boycott, and five of the six beer distributors soon capitulated. Only Coors Brewing Company held out, and Milk made good on his promise that Coors beer would not be served in San Francisco’s gay bars.5 Having proven his support of organized labor, Milk won the backing of the firefighters and construction trades unions as well.6

Milk relays this history quickly and clearly, and Van Sant even gives Baird, a lifelong resident of San Francisco’s Castro district, a cameo. Especially effective is a scene in which Milk speaks to a group of doubtful Teamsters. Milk tells them he “left his high-heel shoes at home” and—after getting a big laugh at the remark— launches into a fiery speech about the need for local politicians to support the city’s working-class families. By the end, the burly union members are cheering.

That scene dramatizes Milk’s ability to engage stereotypes and then play against them. Milk was a proponent of what later came to be called identity politics and, once elected, he was quick to build coalitions with leaders of other minority groups. (He almost certainly would have approved of Obama’s carefully inclusive list of medal honorees—gay men, lesbians, the elderly, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and people with disabilities.) Although always a pragmatic vote-counter, Milk was at heart a progressive who often found himself at odds with San Francisco’s real estate interests (eagerly represented on the Board of Supervisors by Dianne Feinstein) and law-and-order types, embodied by Dan White, the troubled cop-turned-supervisor who ended up shooting both Milk and Mayor George Moscone in City Hall.

For Milk, who had experienced bigotry firsthand as both a Jew and a homosexual, the idea of a comprehensive local law to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination in housing and employment was a natural. The San Francisco gay rights ordinance that Milk crafted and shepherded to passage in 1978 was a major accomplishment, even though the film pays it only passing attention. Van Sant instead focuses on Milk’s role in the struggle later that year over Proposition 6, a state-wide voter’s initiative that would have forced the firing of public school teachers who came out as homosexual or who advocated for gay rights. Popularly known as the Briggs Amendment after its sponsor, California state senator John Briggs, Proposition 6 came in the wake of singer Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in Dade County, Florida, in 1977, which overturned a gay rights law there—and the subsequent repeal of gay rights measures in other U.S. cities.7 The political movement now known as the Christian Right was rapidly coalescing then, and Milk and other gay leaders understood its threat.

A scene [in which Milk speaks to a group of doubtful Teamsters] dramatizes Milk’s ability to engage stereotypes and then play against them.

Milk was the chief spokesman against Proposition 6, and he and Briggs debated each other across the state. In appointing himself to that role, Milk once again annoyed more established and moderate gay leaders, who feared that public debates would incite social conservatives who otherwise might not vote. (In Milk, the character of David Goodstein, publisher of the gay news magazine the Advocate, serves as something of an archetype of the cautious gay politico. In truth, many established gay leaders loathed Milk, viewing him as a reckless interloper.) Moderates wanted to conduct a publicity campaign focused on claims to human rights. Milk, knowing such a campaign had failed in Dade County, sought instead to humanize the homosexual figure through stories about his own life and the lives of gay teenagers he claimed would face despair if the initiative passed. Ultimately, a multi-faceted campaign against the measure overwhelmed Briggs’s own weak organization. Residents voted down the initiative by a three-to-two margin.

Less than three weeks later, Milk was dead. In The Mayor of Castro Street, Shilts dwelled on what probably were mere casual musings by Milk about his own mortality. In Milk, Van Sant wisely eschews any similar mystical mumbo-jumbo. However, his film opens with a scene of Milk sitting alone at a table. It is November 1977, the activist has just been elected to office, and he is dictating a political testament to be made public if he is ever assassinated. “I have never considered myself a candidate,” he intones. “I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy. I’ve considered the movement the candidate. I think there’s a delineation between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement.”8

Milk actually made such a tape, which his closest aides played only three hours after his death. However, Milk seems to have made it not because he had some special insight into his future, but simply because he was a thoughtful and careful politician. He had already received death threats, he wanted to preserve the culture of gay radicalism in San Francisco he had helped create, and he was concerned about how history would portray him. Milk surely realized that assassination was a possibility, though unlikely, and that not to have made such a statement would have been an abandonment of his beliefs. It is the message that Milk put onto the tape—his absolute concern for his movement—and not the fact that he made the tape in the first place that is worth noting. Indeed, it is messages like that one, as well as Milk’s symbolic value as a pioneer and his very public death, that have rightly caused him to be mythologized within progressive politics.



1. “President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients,” White House press release, available at office/president-obama-namesmedal-of-freedom-recipients (accessed August 22, 2009).
2. Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), 220-21. 3. For more on ENDA, see Chai Feldblum, “The Federal Gay Rights Bill: From Bella to ENDA,” in Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy and Civil Rights, ed., John D’Emilio et al. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 149-87; and Patrick McCreery, “Beyond Gay: ‘Deviant’ Sex and the Politics of the ENDA Workplace,” in Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, eds., Patrick McCreery and Kitty Krupat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 31-51.
4. For scholarly studies of San Francisco’s emergence as a gay urban center, see Nan Alamilla Boyd, WideOpen Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration,” GLQ 2, no. 3 (1995): 253-277. For a popular treatment of the subject, see Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996).
5. Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, 81-84.
6. Milk was not a knee-jerk supporter of unions, however. He pointedly refused to endorse a march by the United Farm Workers because Cesar Chavez had refused to endorse gay rights initiatives. See Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, 104.
7. For more on Bryant and Briggs, see: Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, chapters 10 and 14; and Fred Fejes, Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America’s Debate on Homosexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
8. Milk made three audiocassette tapes from a general outline, and the tapes have slight variations. Shilts provides a complete transcript of one tape in The Mayor of Castro Street, and this quote comes from that transcript. Van Sant quoted small portions of a tape in his film. See Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, 372-75.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 102-116, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000016

Vietnam at the Crossroads: Market Socialism and the Vietnamese Labor Movement

One of the first things that struck me upon my arrival in Saigon1 was the enormous billboard for Coca-Cola. The year was 1996: just two decades after three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in a war against capitalist exploitation and foreign domination. My partner, Paula, turned to me and said, “I thought U.S. capitalism lost the war in Vietnam.”

In fact, in 1996—one year before the Asian economic crisis—the World Bank reported that Vietnam had a higher level of foreign investment than any other developing country in the world.2 That was also the year the Nike Corporation began to move its sneaker operations to Vietnam because—as Nike’s CEO Philip Knight explained—labor costs in Indonesia were “skyrocketing.” Workers in Vietnam, at the time, were paid $30 a month.3 What’s more, Thanh—our friend and host in Saigon—was an American Studies scholar dedicating her life to satisfying the curiosity of university students for everything American. For me—someone who cut his political teeth in the anti-war movement, trying to get the U.S. out of Vietnam—the world, at that moment, seemed to have been turned on its head.

How did it come to this? What do these changes mean for Vietnam’s workers and unions, and what are their broader implications? Here, I offer some observations based on several trips to Vietnam. I made my first trip in 1996 as an independent traveler/ scholar, and the last two trips—in 2005 and 2008—as a member of delegations hosted by the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), the country’s national labor federation.

How Did It Come to This?

Vietnam has experienced enormous changes in the course of a lifetime—colonial rule, war, reconstruction, a socialist planned economy, privatization and a shift to a market economy, and rapid economic growth. The legacy of foreign domination and war comprises an inescapable backdrop for understanding Vietnam today. There isn’t anyone over the age of forty in Vietnam who doesn’t have a wrenching story about the War.

There isn’t anyone over the age of forty in Vietnam who doesn’t have a wrenching story about the War. 

I first met Chau Nhat Binh in April 2005, when he hosted our trade union delegation to Hanoi: a war veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, a Communist Party member, and a dyedin-the-wool unionist, he serves as the deputy director of international affairs for the VGCL. He is also fluent in English and has a warm heart, a gentle manner, and an uncanny way with American colloquiums. In private moments, Binh talks about his transformation from a shy, quiet child to a soldier in a war against U.S. aggression. He inherited his sense of justice and national pride from his parents, who fled to the jungles to join the insurgency against the French occupation—a decision that cost his mother her right arm when the French army attacked their encampment. The end of the French Indochina War split the country in two, North and South, but provided enough of a reprieve from war activity for his parents to raise five children—not an easy task for a mother with only one arm, and a task that became increasingly difficult when his father left to fight the American troops. The Americans came, they said, to prevent the fall of the South to communism: as Binh’s father saw it, they came to exploit Vietnam and prevent its reunification. With his family scattered across the country, Binh joined an army of children forced to trek hundreds of miles through the jungles for their own protection. In the course of the evacuation, he witnessed a U.S. bombing attack that killed hundreds of children. At the age of seventeen, Binh enlisted in the People’s Army of Vietnam; his friend did too, cutting his arm with a knife so that he could sign his papers with his own blood. Binh survived the war—including a bombing attack that left him completely buried under mud and rubble—and was eventually discharged to a hospital when he contracted malaria. There were twenty-four boys in Binh’s class: only seven of them survived the war—and some of those who did were left with so many physical and mental scars that their lives remain in ruin.

The personal tragedies and horror stories one hears from the Vietnamese were heartbreaking. So, too, were the visuals: the amputees in the street that were so prominent during our first trip; the devastating exhibits chronicling the atrocities (one told solely through the words and photos of Life magazine). So, too, was the knowledge that Vietnamese civilians—many of them children—are still killed or maimed by land mines left by American troops.4 Agent Orange, the toxin used by U.S. troops to defoliate the countryside during the war, has left many of Vietnam’s children mentally ill, missing limbs, or struggling with cancer.

Nearly sixty thousand U.S. soldiers lost their lives, and countless more—mostly poor and working-class youth—were maimed, injured, or otherwise suffered and sacrificed so much for one of the most stupid, horrific acts of aggression my generation ever witnessed. It’s hard not to get emotional in Vietnam: it’s hard not to shed tears.

The war’s end in 1975 left Vietnam’s population destitute, its economy dysfunctional, its countryside chemically poisoned, and its factories reduced to rubble. While the Soviet Union provided some relief, a U.S.-led embargo cut Vietnam off from Western aid and trade. Not helping matters was a bumpy reunification: leaders in the North failed to recognize and promote Communist Party loyalists in the South, and farmers and small business owners in the South resisted government efforts at collectivization. If all this wasn’t bad enough, in 1979, violent Cambodian forays into Vietnam, including one that resulted in the massacre of nearly two thousand Vietnamese, dragged the country back into war—a war that led to the ouster of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but preoccupied the nation and drained its resources for what was to be another ten-year period. So impoverished was Vietnam in the 1980s that it had one of the lowest standards of living in the world.

Debates within the Communist Party began to rage between those who were committed to socialist ideals and those who argued for a more pragmatic approach. Pragmatism in these debates came to mean experimenting with the market economy, something that China had already begun to do. Compromises were struck to allow farmers to keep or sell their surpluses; the government stopped nationalizing small- and medium-sized businesses, and preserved—at least temporarily—capitalist activity in the South. Then, in 1986, famine and spiraling inflation (775 percent) led the party to formally establish a new set of controversial policies—called doi moi or “renovation”—thus beginning Vietnam’s transition from a socialist economy to a “socialist-oriented market economy.” The changes took nearly a decade to take hold but, in the end, doi moi abolished agricultural collectives, removed price controls on agricultural goods, established private business, changed regulatory and tax laws, and encouraged foreign investment. The idea was to maintain government planning and control, and introduce market incentives.

Doi moi had a profound effect on all aspects of life in Vietnam, not the least of which was attracting foreign-owned enterprises onto Vietnamese soil. If introducing a market economy wasn’t controversial enough, a policy that encouraged companies from foreign nations—including former colonizers—to set up shop in Vietnam ran counter to deep feelings of national pride. Worse still, to lure investors, Vietnam had to succumb to the race to the bottom, loosening environmental laws, eliminating labor protections, and offering significant tax advantages—all of which made Vietnam “business friendly” at the expense of the hard-earned gains of its people. But multinationals loved it—and, in 1994, the U.S. lifted its trade embargo.

More recently, foreign investment in Vietnam received another boost with the emergence of “China Plus One”—a strategy increasingly adapted by corporations seeking to mitigate the risk of overdependence on factories in one country. For companies seeking to establish an Asian base outside of China, Vietnam became an obvious choice. Besides, China was no longer the bargain it used to be. Both land and labor are cheaper and more readily available in Vietnam. Wages in China average $1 per hour, compared to $50 per month (including Saturdays) in Vietnam; and a labor shortage in China is increasing wages there by nearly 25 percent annually. China is also making it increasingly harder for companies to avoid paying benefits. At the same time, China is phasing out lower corporate taxes for foreignowned companies. Vietnam, on the other hand, has a zero-tax policy for the first four years, and 5 percent (rather than the usual 10 percent) for the next four. Perhaps most importantly, companies doing business in China fear labor strife or widespread civil unrest, and a base of operations in Vietnam allows them to hedge their bets and shift production to another locale.5

The Vietnamese economy has been growing at a rate of approximately 8 percent annually for the past decade,6 making Vietnam one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and placing it alongside China as a global economic wonder. In 2008, foreign investment in Vietnam totaled more than $64 billion7—more than triple what it was the previous year, despite the world economic crisis.8 It’s not just Coca-Cola on the billboards of Saigon; multinationals now doing business in Vietnam include Pepsi, Citibank, Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Shell, Honda, Nestle, Sheraton, and Intel. All this has made Vietnam the poster child for neoliberalism.9

So how did a country that fought so hard for its independence come to rely so heavily on foreign investors? “We had no choice,” Binh told me.10 It turned out to be a common, although not a universal, response. Communist Party Leaders—rightly or wrongly—believed there was no alternative for a nation on the brink of mass starvation. Others were quick to point out that, despite Communist Party leadership throughout the war with the U.S., the war was more about nationalism and self-determination than it was about socialism. And no colonial power dominates Vietnam today, they will add. So did U.S. capitalism lose in Vietnam? One U.S. business journal put it this way: “America lost, capitalism won.”11 Perhaps.

How did a country that fought so hard for its independence come to rely so heavily on foreign investors?

What Does All This Mean for Vietnam’s Poor and Working-Class?

T he delegation that brought me to Vietnam in 2005 was mostly composed of union leaders; the one in 2008 was largely made up of labor educators. Both were led by Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center. The delegations met with miners, garment workers, public employees, machinists, railroad workers, hospitality workers, and maritime workers. We also met with national officers and leaders from regional and central labor councils, as well as with faculty and researchers at Vietnam’s National Labor College. In both cases, one member of the delegation spoke fluent Vietnamese, helping us negotiate street life and ad hoc conversations. Thanh, our friend in American Studies, translated on the first trip.

Nearly everyone we spoke to offered at least partial praise for doi moi and its benefits. New residences, vehicles, cell phones, and appliances— modest as they may be—were being put to good use. The improvements I witnessed over the decade were clearly evident in the street life itself. Hanoi’s and Saigon’s bustling streets have always been clogged by the “two-wheel madness”—the dizzying assault of bicycles and motor scooters (often carrying four or five family members at a time) that fill the streets, often twenty or thirty deep—in a seemingly endless stream of constant motion. But in 2005, there were far fewer bicycles and far more motorbikes than in 1996; and by 2008, there were far more automobiles on the road than I had seen on the past two trips combined. Cell phones, too, were everywhere—and not just among the affluent young people or business types. Stores selling televisions, refrigerators, and other major appliances have sprung up. So, too, have department stores. Fancy restaurants, hip art galleries, flashy hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury items are evident now in both Hanoi and Saigon. Resorts catering to vacationing Vietnamese are also expanding. In Halong Bay (170 miles east of Hanoi), hotels catering to Vietnamese vacationers are thriving.

Statistics support the impression of a better life in Vietnam. Annual income rose from $220 per year in 1994 to $1,024 per year in 2008. Vietnam now boasts over ten million motorbikes.12 Over 110,000 cars were sold in Vietnam in 2008—a 37 percent increase from 2007.13 The poverty rate declined from 58 percent of the population in 1993 to approximately 15 percent in 2007.14 And deep poverty (i.e., the percentage of the population earning less …

Deep poverty [in Vietnam] declined from 51 percent of the population in 1990 to under 8 percent in 2008— an advance that bests both China and India. 

than $1 per day) declined from 51 percent of the population in 1990 to under 8 percent in 2008—an advance that bests both China and India. While prosperity is mostly concentrated in urban areas, the proportion of rural households living in poverty also declined from 66 percent in 1993 to 36 percent in 2002. Infant mortality stands at only sixteen per one thousand births, compared to twenty-three for China, the high twenties for most of Latin America, and 150 for the sub-Sahara. Adult literacy has now reached 90.3 percent of the population. Households with electricity doubled since the early 1990s to an impressive 94 percent in 2008.15 Life expectancy in Vietnam today stands at seventy-four years. This compares favorably to the sub-Sahara where it is forty years, sixty-four years in India, seventy years in Thailand, and seventy-two years in China. Even the U.S., with all its advanced medical facilities, has a life expectancy of seventy-eight years—only four years higher than Vietnam’s.16 Many of these human development gains began to emerge before the shift to the market economy,17 but accelerated quickly after doi moi. Looking at almost any indicator on the UN’s human development scale, Vietnam shows impressive gains (especially given its low per capita income).

But all is not well in Vietnam. As one union activist told us, “Vietnam’s success masks serious problems.” Another was more specific: “The upside of the market economy is the reduction of poverty; the downside is the growing gap between rich and poor.” Increased car sales, he pointed out, are a sign of both rising income and a growing economic divide. And while millions of Vietnamese have been left behind in the economic boom, others have accumulated previously unheard of levels of wealth and the conspicuous privileges that come with it. The UN’s most recent statistics show Vietnam’s richest 10 percent of the population accounting for 28 percent of the national income, a level that is fast approaching the level of inequality in the U.S. (where the richest 10 percent accounts for 31 percent of the national income).18 Furthermore, class polarization in Vietnam has been exacerbated by tax breaks for the wealthy. One researcher suggested that increases in income inequality threaten to give Vietnam—previously one of the most economically egalitarian societies in the world—one of the highest Gini coefficients (the indicator that measures inequality) in all of Southeast Asia.19 Prosperity has clearly come to Vietnam at the cost of equality.

Increasing, too, are disparities between men and women; and gaps between the ethnic majority and minorities persist. Women, for example, still earn only 63 percent of what men earn, have a lower adult literacy rate (87 percent vs. 94 percent), and hold only 26 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and 22 percent of senior-level official or managerial positions. 20 As for ethnic minorities, one study showed their life expectancies to be two decades below that of the majority.21 Given the impact the global economic meltdown is having on Vietnam’s economy, we are likely to see the indicators of inequality rise even further.

There are other problems as well. Unemployment, much of it fueled by the closing of state-owned enterprises, has been rising and those state enterprises that remain are suffering a drain of talent to private firms where professionals can earn much higher salaries.22 Urban and rural underemployment is now estimated to be between 25 percent and 35 percent during non-harvest periods.23 The safety net that was once the pride of Vietnam has, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated. Public spending on education is abysmal (both as a percentage of government expenditures and as a percentage of GDP)—other countries spend three times as much. The health care system has deteriorated significantly, and a housing shortage now plagues Vietnam’s urban areas.

Prosperity has come to Vietnam at the cost of equality.

To the embarrassment of those we spoke to, corruption too is a serious problem. Transparency International ranked Vietnam the 121st most corrupt nation out of 180 countries—a reputation that was hardly enhanced by a recent scandal involving the siphoning of economic stimulus funds by petty bureaucrats.24

Even the “upside” of the market economy— that is, the reduction of poverty—is subject to challenge. Ironically, one of the world’s fastest growing economies has left much of its population in—or near—poverty. Poverty estimates range from 15 percent (according to Vietnamese and U.S. government estimates) to 28.9 percent (UN estimates). Perhaps more significantly, gains in the reduction of deep poverty hide the large portion of the population that is clustered just above the deep poverty line. For example, although the proportion of the population that earns less than $1 per day has decreased to 8 percent, the proportion that earns less than $1.25 per day is 21.5 percent, and the proportion of those who earn less than $2 per day is 48 percent.25 A study conducted by the Vietnamese Academy of Social Science concluded that further reductions in poverty will require higher growth rates than in the past because the remaining poor are well below the poverty line, while those who recently crossed it did not have far to go.26 Clearly, there is significant poverty in the midst of runaway growth. As one researcher put it, “The sustainability of Vietnam’s achievement in reducing poverty is not assured, since greater inequality may undermine both the efficiency with which future growth will reduce poverty and make it politically more difficult to pursue pro-poor policies”27—the latter a reference to the growing political influence of affluent Vietnamese.

The safety net that was once the pride of Vietnam has, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated. 

Aggravating the plight of the poor and working-class is a walloping rate of inflation. In 2008, inflation was reported to have skyrocketed to 25 percent28 (the highest in Asia), fueled in large part by increases in food prices that spiraled to 74 percent—over the course of one year29—and the rising cost of housing and building materials. The global economic crisis impacted all of Asia, but the inflation rate in Vietnam is nearly double that of other countries in the region. Galloping inflation hurts the poor, and low- and mid-wage workers, the hardest. The price of gasoline to fuel all those motorbikes, for example, increased by 31 percent in 2008, reaching an all-time high of $4.50 per gallon—a considerable amount when per capita income is $1,024.(30) While the government has recently met with some success in corralling it, inflation has wiped out many of the gains made over the last few years. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the National Assembly last year that the number of households going hungry had doubled in one year.31 Unable to sustain urban life on factory wages, many of Vietnam’s factory workers are now reversing their migration and returning to the countryside.

Can Vietnam consolidate its gains and stabilize its economy, while simultaneously reversing growing inequality and doing right by its workers and its most disadvantaged? Managing the interplay between economic growth, poverty reduction, and equalitarian values is the Vietnamese government, led by the Communist Party.

Who’s in Charge?

Vietnam is a single-party state with its executive leadership resting with a triumvirate consisting of a president, a Communist Party leader, and a prime minister— all of whom have to reach accommodations with an increasingly independent National Assembly, and a host of other forces. There seems to be little cult of personality in Vietnamese politics, and decision-making is more collective and consensual than it is in comparable Communist states. Elections for the National Assembly are held every five years, and a record number of self-nominated independent candidates ran for seats in the last election.32Approximately 20 percent of the seats are currently held by non-Communist Party members. The Assembly meets twice annually—for seven- to ten-week sessions—and has been increasingly more vocal and assertive in exercising its authority. Government policies are debated, procedures are scrutinized, and serious criticisms of the government are not only aired, but also reported in the press.33

The Communist Party is led by a general secretary who convenes a National Congress of approximately twelve hundred deputies once every five years. A central committee of 160 members and a Politburo of fifteen members conduct Party business between sessions. Ideological debates within the Party are common and, in the past, have included spirited conflict over privatization, foreign investment, and abandonment of the nation’s safety net—issues that were especially touchy for the many surviving heroes of Vietnam’s independence wars.34 More recently, there have been debates over independent unions, the press, and a multi-party state. The press has reported strong pressures from inside the Party for more pluralism.35

Yet the government also seems afraid of political disintegration, and frightened of any real challenge to its monopoly on power. While small opposition groups are tolerated, alternative political parties are prohibited. There are reports that some anti-government activists, who are perceived to be genuine threats to Communist Party leadership, have been detained or arrested. This includes labor activists attempting to organize a labor movement independent of the Communist Party. Human Rights Watch reported that eight independent trade union advocates were imprisoned in 2006-2007 on dubious national security charges, joining more than 350 other individuals jailed for political or religious activity since 2001.36 So while individual acts of dissent are tolerated, movements of political opposition are prohibited. By violating human rights, the Vietnamese government undermines the credibility and legitimacy of its leadership, both domestically and internationally.

While the Vietnamese leadership shuts out opposition parties, it has opened its doors to Communist Party membership. In 2006, the Party allowed capitalists to join and allowed its three million members to operate capitalist enterprises. The rationale was that the Party would have greater control over capitalists if they were within the Party, and that Party membership could help orient capitalism toward making greater contributions to poverty reduction and higher labor standards.37 But the policy change was very controversial and as one unhappy Party member who reluctantly embraced the market economy said, “That was a big mistake: where’s the socialist orientation?”

With alternative political parties prohibited and the Communist Party embracing business interests, the role of the Vietnamese labor federation grows all the more significant. Is the Union willing and able to help shape the ideological debates and policies of the Party, as it redefines the meaning and nature of socialism in Vietnam? Can the Union help reverse the trend toward increased inequality and protect workers from the harshest realities of the market economy? Can the Union adequately represent and defend the interests of workers in an environment fashioned to meet the needs of global capital? In Part II of this article, to be published in the Spring 2010 issue of New Labor Forum, I will explore how the VGCL is—or is not—adapting to these seismic changes.

*The author would like to thank: Beatriz Gil for her research assistance; Paula Rothenberg for her editorial advice; Chau Nhat Binh, Jan Jung-Min Sunoo, and Kent Wong for sharing their knowledge and valuable insights; and Le Than, and members of the author’s labor delegations, for sharing their ideas and perspectives. Conclusions, interpretations, and any inaccuracies in this article are the author’s alone.


1. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, but the name never quite took hold and the city is still called by its colonial name through most of Vietnam.
2. Hossein Varamini, “Foreign Direct Investment in Vietnam and Its Impact on Economic Growth,” International Journal of Business Research (November 2007).
3. Bob Herbert, “In America; Nike’s Pyramid Scheme,” New York Times, June 10, 1996.
4. “Vietnam: Land Mines Still Line 16 Million Acres,” Associated Press, July 31, 2009, online edition, available at id/32236846/ns/world_news-asiapacific.
5. John Foley and Jeff Segal, “Lesson for China in Smoot-Hawley,” New York Times, June 18, 2009.
6. Seth Mydans, “Inflation Delivers a Blow to Vietnam’s Spirits,” New York Times, August 24, 2008.
7. “Foreign Direct Investment in Vietnam Triples in 2008,” China Post, December 27, 2008.
8. U.S. State Department, “Background Note: Vietnam,” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (March 2006), available at http://www.state. gov/p/eap/ci/vm.
9. “Half-way from Rags to Riches,” Economist, April 24, 2008.
10. Interestingly, these were the precise words used by my host in China when I asked him why China abandoned socialism. See Greg Mantsios, “What Are They Thinking! Ideologies and Realities in the United States and China,” New Labor Forum 15, no. 3 (Fall 2006).
11. “America Lost, Capitalism Won,” Economist, April 28, 2008.
12. Clare Arthurs, “Vietnam Sees Car Sales Soar,” BBC News, January 15, 2003.
13. “Vietnam Auto Sales Rising Again,” Earth Times, July 9, 2009.
14. See Mydans, supra note 6.
15. See supra note 9.
16. United Nations Human Development Report 2008-09, available at
17. Scott Fritzen, “Growth, Inequality and the Future of Poverty Reduction in Vietnam,” Journal of Asian Economics 13, no. 5 (2002): 635-657.
18. See supra note 16.
19. See Fritzen, supra note 17.
20. See supra note 16.
21. See Fritzen, supra note 17.
22. See supra note 9.
23. U.S. State Department Country Reports, available at
24. See Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2008, available at http://www.transparency. org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2008/ cpi_2008_table.
25. “List of Countries by Income Inequality,” Wikipedia (the free encyclopedia), available at http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_inequality.
26. “Vietnam’s Remarkable Recovery,” Economist, April 24, 2008, available at
27. See Fritzen, supra note 17.
28. Jim Erickson and Martha Ann Overland, “Vietnam’s Prime Minister Tackles Inflation,” Time, June 23, 2008.
29. See Mydans, supra note 6.
30. See U.S. State Department, supra note 23.
31. See Mydans, supra note 6.
32. “Plenty to Smile About,” Economist, March 29, 2007.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid.
36. “Not Yet a Workers’ Paradise: Vietnam’s Suppression of the Independent Workers’ Movement,” Human Rights Watch report, May 4, 2009, available at http://
37. “Vietnam: Communist Party Holds 10th Congress,” Green Left, November 17, 1993.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 32-39, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000006

Because They Can: Employers and the Payday Heist

Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—and What We Can Do About It
By Kim Bobo
The New Press, 2009

Reviewed by Bethany Moreton

Readers of New Labor Forum are no strangers to the uncanny illogic of the American economy. If we needed a refresher course, we got one recently by trying to explain that health care is already rationed, or that “too big to fail” is an oxymoron coming from a big, failed bank. But if the title of Kim Bobo’s Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—and What We Can Do About It strikes labor insiders as old news, consider this: Bobo’s book may be the single most effective grassroots organizing tool available during this crucial window of opportunity for labor.

Her first accomplishment is to gather the evidence of wage theft in one place; the result may rattle even those already familiar with workplace injustice. Employers steal billions of dollars annually from millions of workers by illegally denying overtime rates; tampering with time cards; refusing mandated breaks; underpaying the agreed-upon wages or the legal minimum; paying minimum wages on federal projects and pocketing the difference between the prevailing wage and the minimum; avoiding employer contributions to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation insurance; deducting specious charges from paychecks; seizing tips; or flat-out refusing to pay for work performed, period. Studies by the Department of Labor, the Government Accountability Office, the Urban Institute, Human Rights Watch, and even the business-backed Economic Policy Foundation reveal that these tactics of theft can be found across industries, with particularly high incidences in nursing homes, garment factories, large-scale farms, restaurants, residential construction sites, and poultry processing plants.

Management apologists cannot hide behind individual mom-and-pops hopelessly confused by byzantine regulations, although Bobo advocates common sense revisions that would eliminate this genuine hazard. But the scale of the larceny demonstrates that wage theft is largely a deliberate method of cost control. Employers display their knowledge of the laws they are breaking by the ingenuity of their tactics. One car wash in Nashville clocked workers out when customers were not present. A Wisconsin cook worked eighty hours a week in two different restaurants within the same chain; the employer denied him overtime rates by counting these as two separate jobs. A packing house in California required every worker to provide two Social Security numbers, splitting their hours between the two to avoid paying for overtime work. Lawsuits successfully prosecuted or settled have involved tens of thousands of workers at nationally known companies: $6.5 million to fifty-six thousand Wal-Mart employees who had been forced to work off the clock; $65 million to thirty-two thousand misclassified “permatemps” at IBM; $120 million to three thousand insurance adjusters at Allstate.

Employers steal wages for the same reason that dogs—well, you know: because they can. Bobo performs a second mitzvah by systematically laying out the appalling non-enforcement of labor laws that creates the abuses. If an employee steals from an employer, she typically loses her job and her right to unemployment insurance, and likely faces prosecution and jail time. If she takes anything valued at over $1,000, she has committed a felony; if she racks up three of those, in many states she has bought herself life imprisonment for the bargain price of $3,003. If, on the other hand, her boss steals twice as much in wages from her over five years, it is headline news if he even agrees to comply with the law in the future. With one federal wage and hour investigator for every 170,000 workers (the comparable number in 1941 was one investigator for every nine thousand workers), the employer is virtually invited to disregard the law; indeed, the state of Florida got the point across with admirable clarity by disbanding its Department of Labor altogether. Even in the unlikely event that the employee has the resources to pursue a private lawsuit, the most the boss risks is an order to pay back two years’ worth of stolen wages, with no interest and no additional penalties. In short, if we applied drug laws the way we apply labor laws, we’d be handing out bongs in kindergarten.

Bobo’s book may be the single most effective grassroots organizing tool available during this crucial window of opportunity for labor. 

Imagine instead if a few willful wage thieves were led off in handcuffs, Madoffstyle. Imagine if the enforcement of this particular property crime were not outsourced to the handful of victims in a position to launch a private lawsuit. Imagine if we took this crisis seriously enough to rebuild the federal Department of Labor (DOL) with the same gusto as Homeland Security, or allowed organized labor the same weight in the DOL that organized capital enjoys in the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and Energy. Even experienced labor hands will find a wealth of new ideas in the concrete suggestions Bobo offers, from “mechanics’ leins” to presentations on wage theft in college business classes. The recent hiring of 250 new wage and hour investigators, while well short of the numbers Bobo recommends, is a heartening sign that her message is getting through at the new Solis-led DOL.

But what makes Kim Bobo’s voice so uniquely effective is her ability to communicate this routine moral outrage to those who have never experienced it and, in the process, possibly transform public debates about labor. Bobo writes for the broadest national audience, those with no personal exposure to labor unions and more faith in faith than in government. Her book includes a congregational-style study guide, imitating best-selling evangelical manuals like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Using denominational resolutions about labor rights and Biblical and Quranic references, she awakens readers to violations of labor laws as sin, crime, and violence.

[Instead of asking whether the secular Left] can afford to break bread with the family values crowd, Bobo suggests the real question is, “Can it afford not to?” 

The messenger in this case is as important as the message, for Bobo has earned her credibility among people of faith. Raised in the hardline Church of Christ, and currently serving as the choir director at Good News Community Church in Chicago, Bobo is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), the premier organization for America’s religious Left. A national network of nineteen worker centers and sixty religious groups focused on labor issues, IWJ has: tapped into pent-up interest among Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant congregations across the country; coordinated religious support for workers, both organized and unorganized; and pioneered innovations like “Seminary Summer” to bring clergy into direct contact with labor struggles.1

But for a labor Left that is still struggling to overcome its own foundational exclusions, is there danger in partnering with religious allies after four decades of family values activism that has turned “Christian” into a code word for anti-abortion and anti-gay? The fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the eclipse of Catholic liberation theology by “masses for life” and purges of gay seminarians, the Mormon fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and California’s Proposition 8, and the broader evangelical and Pentecostal defense of reproductive marriage have created a very different context than that faced by forerunners like the Catholic Labor Schools of the 1930s.2 The secular Left is the lonely guardian of sex equality and sexual liberation. Can it afford to break bread with the family values crowd?

Bobo’s work suggests that the real question is, “Can it afford not to?” Eighty percent of Americans are religious, while fewer than one in seven is represented by a union.3 When a labor poll asked working women: “Who do you turn to if you have a problem on the job?,” God won out over unions, secular women’s organizations, and governmental agencies.4 Labor’s dynamism today comes from sectors like janitorial services, health care, and public employment, where men and women of color, immigrants, and white women predominate.5 These are also the people most likely to identify as religious, as are low-income Americans generally.6 How can the labor Left respect low-wage America while queasily avoiding many low-wage Americans’ most cherished beliefs—loving the sinner, in effect, while hating the sin?

IWJ is living proof that effective religious coalitions can be built around worker justice, and that doing so transforms priorities among religious believers. It took massive, organized, sustained effort to make homosexuality and abortion—two issues on which the New Testament is utterly silent—more important to Christian America than the hundreds of scriptural exhortations to alleviate poverty, eschew personal gain at others’ expense, and deal fairly with those who work for you. It will take more work to redress this distortion of morality, but the conservative takeover shows that change is possible, that religious priorities are truly mutable.

Moreover, the post-1970s elevation of family values was itself a statement about worker justice, with “work” perceptively understood as including reproductive as well as productive labor. Much as we may abhor this apparent reduction of all human ethics to censuring other people’s sex lives, it speaks to a shared moral outrage against the neoliberal economic order. Labor’s infatuation with the independent workingman essentially wrote off reproductive labor—the work of care that reproduces the labor force, from childbirth to housework to tending the sick and the aged. In contrast, religious emphasis on households actually put reproductive labor in the limelight and, as services became the leading sector of the American economy, even held it up as an ideal for men on the job and at home.

In short, labor arguably has as much to learn from religion as the other way around—and little to lose. We should be looking for ways to get Kim Bobo’s work into as many hands as possible. If prayers of thanksgiving come easily to your lips, this book is the occasion for one.



1. Joseph A. McCartin, “Building the Interfaith Worker Justice Movement: Kim Bobo’s Story,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 6, no. 1 (2009): 87-105.
2. See Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Martha Sontag Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005); Angela D. Dillard, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America (New York: New York University Press, 2001), chapters 3 and 4.
3. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Affiliations,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 25, 2008, available at http://religions.
4. Karen Nussbaum, “Working Women’s Insurgent Consciousness,” in The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor, ed., Dorothy Sue Cobble (Ithaca, NY: ILR/ Cornell Paperbacks, 2007), 171.
5. For an overview, see Ruth Milkman, “Two Worlds of Unionism: Women and the New Labor Movement,” in Cobble, The Sex of Class, 63-80.
6. See “African-Americans and Religion,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 30, 2009, available at docs/?DocID=388; and “Income Distribution within U.S. Religious Groups,” January 30, 2009, available at docs/?DocID=376.
7. Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 86-124.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 102-116, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000016

And Their Children after Them: Deindustrialization Lit American Rust

By Philipp Meyer
Spiegel and Grau, 2009
Reviewed by Sherry Lee Linkon

Reviewed by Sherry Lee Linkon

Deindustrialization is not a short-term condition. Consider the example of my city, Youngstown, Ohio. The steel and auto industries shaped this community, defining the landscape, local culture, and the city’s identity. Mill closings and downsizing in the auto industry have had an equally powerful impact, creating a landscape of decay and erasure, a culture of self-defeat, and a reputation as the poster child for deindustrialization. Youngstown’s story has become America’s story, and journalists and scholars keep asking what the rest of the country, indeed, the rest of the world, can learn from Youngstown. Perhaps the most important lesson is this: we can’t just get over our history. Our past makes us who we are, and that is as true for young people who were born long after the steel mills closed as it was for their parents and grandparents.

If you want to understand the long-term effects of factory closings, an emerging genre of novels—what I call “deindustrialization lit”—is a good place to begin. Writers such as Tawni O’Dell (Back Roads, Coal Run, Sister Mine), Shauna Seliy (When We Get There), Dean Bakapoulos (Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon), and Christopher Barzak (One for Sorrow) explore the experiences of the children of former coal miners, autoworkers, and steelworkers in regions that have been decimated by plant closings. In most of these novels, family dysfunction and individual psychological struggles intertwine with economic limitations and decaying landscapes, illustrating the ways in which deindustrialization is at once personal, social, and economic. Philipp Meyer’s American Rust follows the same pattern, tracing the physical, economic, and emotional tolls of deindustrialization on two families long after the mills closed.

Set in Buell, a fictional town modeled after the many small steel and coal towns in the hills surrounding Pittsburgh, the novel captures the landscape of deindustrialization in vivid descriptions of abandoned, crumbling industrial structures, places where, after years of disuse, nature is reclaiming the land with weeds and mud. An old steel car factory is described as “half-collapsed, bricks and wood beams piled on top of the old forges and hydraulic presses, moss and vines growing everywhere” (pp. 9-10). Meyer highlights the struggling commercial landscape in town as well, where a few businesses remain open—small medical facilities, a gun shop, a drugstore; but many have closed—“Montgomery Ward, the closed pharmacy, the closed Supper Club, the closed McDonald’s” (p. 61).

Meyer captures the landscape of deindustrialization in vivid descriptions of abandoned, crumbling industrial structures. 

While Meyer describes the place vividly, his characters don’t seem to feel much connection to it. The narration moves among six characters, but almost nothing they see evokes a positive memory. The one exception—police chief Bud Harris’s contentment with the hilltop cabin in which he lives outside of town—emphasizes the disconnection from place that shapes many of the characters’ lives. Harris’s log cabin reflects nostalgia for a pre-industrial past, as well as separation from the community. So much for solidarity.

The story centers around the experiences of two young men, a few years out of high school, both of whom have stayed in Buell almost out of inertia. Billy Poe had been a high school football star, and he turned down both college athletic scholarships and job offers from local football fans. He worked for a while at a local hardware store, but ever since he was laid off he doesn’t do much except hang around with his friend and former tutor, Isaac English. Despite Isaac’s intelligence—and the offer of assistance from a friend of his sister’s to help him get into Yale—he, too, has stayed in Buell, ostensibly to care for his father, Henry, who was partially paralyzed in an accident in the steel mill. Neither Poe nor Isaac likes being in Buell, and both feel ambivalence toward the family members with whom they live; yet both struggle to find a path out. Poe is repeating his mother’s pattern. Grace chose to stay in Buell when she was offered the opportunity to take a state job in Pittsburgh and, like her son, she regularly wonders why she didn’t pursue that chance. For Isaac, a complex mix of guilt, confusion, and uncertainty keeps him immobilized.

The only character who has left Buell is Isaac’s sister, Lee, who went to Yale on a scholarship, married a wealthy classmate, and is preparing to start law school. She feels guilty for dumping the care of her father on Isaac, and she has returned home to hire a private home health aide so that her brother can go to college. Like the other characters, she feels little connection with her hometown.

The only character who has left Buell is Isaac’s sister, Lee, who went to Yale on a scholarship, married a wealthy classmate, and is preparing to start law school. She feels guilty for dumping the care of her father on Isaac, and she has returned home to hire a private home health aide so that her brother can go to college. Like the other characters, she feels little connection with her hometown.

Meyer makes clear why everyone would want to leave Buell, painting it in unrelentingly grim hues. Rust Belt readers will recognize the landscape presented here, but they may also notice what’s missing: the webs of human connection and community memory that tie many local residents to struggling towns even when it isn’t in their economic interest to stay. One scene of Grace meeting friends for a drink hints at the human quality of life that, for many, compensates for the difficult economic conditions in places like Buell. Henry English must rely on his son to care for him, but in a real steel town, the family would probably have a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins nearby to help care for an injured man. People stay in such communities because they value those connections, or simply because they appreciate the safety of the familiar. But that sense of community is absent here.

The story follows the characters’ responses to an adventure gone wrong. Isaac has stolen $4,000 from his father and is preparing to hop a railroad car and head west, pursuing an unrealistic dream of landing in Berkeley and going to work at a physics research institute. He has asked Poe to come with him to catch the train and, on the way,they stop into an abandoned factory building to warm up. There, they have a run-in with three homeless men, one of whom grabs hold of Poe and threatens to kill him. Isaac throws a large ball bearing, killing one of the men and allowing Poe to escape. But Poe leaves his jacket behind, and he becomes a suspect in the killing.

American Rust shows how deindustrialization affects not only those who lose their jobs, but also their children, who have been taught to expect failure. 

Poe is arrested and he refuses to tell the real story, in part in order to protect Isaac, but also out of a sense of defeat. His life is going nowhere, so why bother to defend himself? While he awaits trial, he is sent to prison, where his efforts to ingratiate himself with a white gang (that seems to offer protection) ultimately lead to more trouble. Meanwhile, Isaac finally takes off, walking, riding rails, and hitchhiking to Michigan, getting beaten up and robbed along the way but discovering both the extent and the limitations of his own self-sufficiency. For Grace and Lee, Poe’s arrest and Isaac’s departure raise new questions about their own futures, though neither makes any move toward change. The only character who seems capable of taking productive action is Harris, but his only option will protect Poe—and thus Grace, his lover—at the risk of his own career. That his actions seem inconsistent with his character makes them even more problematic.

Meyer seems unsure of how to end the novel. On the one hand, no one’s choices seem to matter much. Isaac decides, for vague reasons, to return home, though Meyer does not make clear what he will return to. Grace seems willing to sacrifice Harris to protect Poe, though the fates of both her lover and her son are left undetermined. Little seems to have changed. Ultimately, American Rust makes clear the limited choices, as well as the self-inflicted harms, of people whose lives have been shaped by deindustrialization.

The novel is flawed by a number of improbabilities and minor internal contradictions that prove distracting. For example, Meyer introduces but never develops the story of Lee and Isaac’s mother, an assimilated, educated Mexican immigrant. She is mentioned twice in the entire novel, with little elaboration. Her Latina background seems to have had no effect at all on their lives, something that is hard to imagine in a small Pennsylvania steel town.

Meyer misses a similar opportunity in the story of Lee’s escape from Buell. When she journeys into the elite world of the Ivy League, she hides her background and finds her peers occasionally irritating; but she also chooses—with little apparent struggle or self-doubt—to cast her lot with the elite. For many working-class young people, the acts of leaving home and joining the middle-class (much less marrying into an upper-class family, as Lee does) create guilt, confusion, and a sense of displacement. Lee feels some ambivalence, but that is mostly about having left her family behind, not about fitting into her new world.

American Rust shows how deindustrialization affects not only those who lose their jobs, but also their children, who have been taught to expect failure. Despite its flaws, this novel—and others like it—makes the experience of growing up in the Rust Belt visible and personal. As communities around the country collapse in the face of foreclosures and job losses, these novels warn us of the long-term consequences of the current economic crisis.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 102-116, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000016