Category: Winter 2011

WHY NO FIRE THIS TIME? From the Mass Strike to No Strike

Economists tell us that the United States finally emerged from its worst decline since the Great Depression in June 2009, although evidence of that seems scarce. Unemployment was still at 9.5 percent a year later, and at 16.5 percent by the Labor Department’s more comprehensive measure. Long-term unemployment was at an historic high, and poverty was rising again after declines during the boom of the 1990s: just between 2004 and 2007, more than 30 percent of Americans were poor at least once. Since official measures understate poverty and these figures do not include the Great Recession that began in December 2007, the situation was surely worse.

By 2008, 40 percent of the forty million poor Americans were very poor, getting by with incomes below half the poverty line, which was then $17,600 per year for a family of three. According to a new Economic Security Index, one in five Americans saw their incomes fall by 25 percent or more in 2009.1 Personal bankruptcy claims were at their highest since the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act was passed in 2005, and foreclosures were up 35 percent from mid-2009 to mid-2010, by which point 30 percent of homeowners owed more on their houses than they were worth, making them essentially bankrupt, too.2 Homelessness hit record levels, and families with children were the fastest-growing share: their numbers were up 30 percent from 2007 to 2009. Meanwhile, “tent cities” and other makeshift encampments sprung up as echoes of the Hoovervilles of the 1920s and 1930s, and thirty-seven million Americans relied upon soup kitchens and food pantries, our modern breadlines. Conditions were worse for African-Americans, as they always are: for them, this recession was a depression.3 Simon Schama, with ominous reference to the French Revolution, wondered in the pages of the Financial Times if the world was at a “tinderbox moment,” from which global economic crisis might erupt into a “social fury” that could “bring down the governance of the American republic.”4 But for all Schama’s breathlessness, and notwithstanding the occasional violent outburst, a rise in right-wing extremist organizations, and the theatrics of the Tea Party caucus, the public has seemed curiously passive compared to past periods of distress.

It is commonplace to note that the U.S. has the bloodiest labor history of any Western polity; in the first two decades of the twentieth century our strike rates were up to five times higher than in other industrialized nations, and the half-dozen years after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire count among the most violent of that long, dark epoch.5 The years before and after the fire were host to a kaleidoscopic array of activism: farmers agitating for regulation of the railroads; city-dwellers fighting for clean water and unspoilt milk, or for parks and playgrounds and street lights; women—black and white, North and South—joining in political, social, and cultural reform movements, from those demanding suffrage (or opposing it), to temperance crusaders, consumers’ leaguers, settlement house reformers, union organizers, and anti-immigrant nativists. Businesses organized for more power and influence with government and over labor, while labor agitated for shorter days, higher wages, and safer working conditions.Those frenetic years saw great advances. From 1917 to 1920 alone, states enacted four hundred new public welfare laws: there were mothers’ pensions, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance measures, housing and workplace health and safety codes, efforts at child protection, public works projects, and wage and hour laws. One in ten Americans were receiving public or private aid by the eve of the Depression.6 And much of this innovation can be traced to the actions of poor and working-class men and women, dissatisfied with their conditions and spurred on by desperation and indignation.

Why not now? If we have experienced the worst economic crisis since the Depression, why have we not seen similar turmoil? With 250,000 veterans sleeping on the streets over the course of a year, military families depending upon food stamps at twice the civilian rate, and escalating suicide rates among military personnel, where were the modern bonus marchers, descending upon Washington and demanding their due? As the official unemployment rate neared 20 percent for black men (and over 40 percent for those aged sixteen to nineteen), why weren’t any cities on fire? The Progressives fought for social justice—why don’t we?7

We might begin an answer by remembering that the Progressives weren’t all progressive. Many skeins of the Progressive tapestry were efforts by the powerful at self-preservation, struggles to slow change and retain as much of the old social, political, and economic order as they could in that industrializing, urbanizing world. Shelton Stromquist credits the movement with legitimizing the idea that the class war was not a battle to be fought and won, but one to be rendered moot by negotiation, accommodation, and benign, limited state intervention. Many Progressive innovations were not expansions of rights, but a contraction of them. Take electoral reforms: new voter registration rules, the introduction of the secret ballot, and non-partisan and at-large elections—all enacted in the name of Good Government—ultimately pushed new immigrants out of municipal politics. The consolidation of corporate power in the late nineteenth century is as much a hallmark of early progressivism as efforts to minimize the disruptive effects of that very consolidation, and attempts to regulate business often shifted oversight from legislatures to civil servants, moving power further from democratic control into back rooms where businesses could more readily “capture” the agencies that were meant to monitor them. Remember, too, that much of the Progressive project (especially temperance) was a repressive mission of blue-nosed moralists. While some of the anti-alcohol fervor was meant to protect women from the violence and household penury of a drunken, spendthrift husband, it also constructed new norms against drinking on the job, making for more efficient and better-disciplined workers. To distinguish social assistance from social control is not always easy, but middle-class moralizing is as much a hallmark of the era as women’s suffrage and the income tax. Remember, finally, that many Progressives opposed FDR.8

What’s more, what may appear to modern eyes as a sudden upheaval unfolded over many decades. Change proceeded in fits and starts, and to the participants it often looked slow, unsatisfying, and maddeningly compromised, just as it does today. While the Triangle Fire— the result of lax enforcement and a local politics that better served factory owners than factory workers—drew, for a time, renewed attention to the plight of some laborers, the owners were acquitted of criminal charges (though not of civil liability), Triangle remained an open shop, and not until 1935’s Wagner Act would there be a right to form a union. Yet the fire served Tammany Hall’s political purposes, and to the extent that it helped them woo new voters, it gets credit for twenty-five New York labor laws enacted in 1913, including a host of new fire codes.9 Not a trivial accomplishment, but not a momentous one. We could likewise trace passage of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (CPA) to the financial meltdown of 2008, while conceding its weaknesses and recognizing its usefulness to Democrats seeking to cultivate populist bona fides. Still, if the CPA is, as many claim, the most significant regulation of the financial sector since the 1930s, we might wonder how we are failing our Progressive-era forebears.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised not to find more rebellion among the dispossessed given that so much—if still not enough—was being done to improve their conditions. Norman Ornstein described the 111th Congress as “on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society” and asserted that “Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president.”10 These are arguable but plausible claims. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) might earn such status by itself, whatever its insufficiencies, by extending Medicaid to fifteen million more Americans, subsidizing insurance for as many again, and erecting the institutional framework, finally, for a national health program. Before the ACA, the nearly $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) included a de facto nationalization of private student loans; tax cuts and credits targeted disproportionately at the working and middle classes; subsidies for COBRA benefits for the unemployed; $2 billion for community health centers; expansion of the SNAP (food stamp) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs; $350 million for emergency food, school lunch, and meals-onwheels programs; $1.5 billion in rent subsidies for those at risk of homelessness and $2 billion for Section 8 housing vouchers; increased funds for child care; an infusion of money into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) emergency account that supported some 240,000 jobs; and extended (and increased) unemployment benefits. It sent checks for $250 to Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients and to some disabled veterans.11 It’s not the alphabet soup of the first years of the New Deal (FERA, AAA, TVA, NRA, PWA, etc.), but it nonetheless marks an unusually expansive moment in the modern history of American social policy. Even in the absence of mass unrest—and perhaps with some intent to stave it off—the U.S. government has responded in “progressive” fashion.

That said, it’s reasonable to complain that, given the magnitude of the problem, the response was too meek and did too little to relieve the immiseration of too many: in the judgment of the then-chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, the ARRA should have been closer to $1.2 trillion.12 And, as with Progressive achievements, it is difficult to disentangle provisions that benefit families, workers, or homeowners from those that render aid to banks, brokers, and other K-Street interests: whatever its public virtues, the ACA will create millions of new customers for private providers and insurers, while TANF and the EITC are indirect subsidies to those who hire low-wage laborers. Many historians identify Progressivism as a middle-class movement of experts with cautious instincts, culminating in a kind of radical centrism.13 We might eventually look back upon the current era with a similar kind of ambivalence, applauding its successes while lamenting its domination by Ivy-credentialed technocrats who were, like their predecessors, willing to alter the status quo only enough to preserve its salient features.

But, however inadequate, the actions of government have made the lives of millions less awful. Had the neo-Hooverist caucus prevailed, had other large banks been allowed to fail as Lehman did, had the automobile industry been permitted to collapse into the rubble of an already-devastated Detroit, and had we enacted an across-the-board spending freeze instead of the ARRA, perhaps then we would have seen people taking to the streets and Obamavilles erected on the Washington Mall. We do not generally judge the programs of the New Deal a failure because they did not end the Great Depression, and just as federal intervention then eased suffering and quieted protest, so might more recent action have blunted the impulse for resistance and rebellion.

In that vein, the Triangle Fire may itself help explain apparent calm if it bears some responsibility for reforms that make most (though hardly all) workers safer, healthier, and more secure than they were in 1911: the United States now has a regulatory state, a welfare state, and an elaborate private social service sector that, however imperfectly, limit some of the dangers of for-profit enterprise and soften the worst effects of economic disruption. There were, for example, thirty-five million people receiving food stamps in June of 2009, a year in which thirty-eight thousand soup kitchens and food pantries also supplied food to families in distress.14 These programs can be demeaning and they do not reach everyone, yet they grant most families access to nearly enough food to get through the month. While hunger is common in the U.S., starvation is rare, as are the more desperate acts of a starving man. The safety net that has been stitched together in the years since the Triangle Fire, small and frayed though it is, matters. People now have options other than a food riot.

These conditions are not post-crash novelties, of course, but rooted in decades of rising inequality and insecurity, stagnating wages, and a sufficiently grievous decline in the well-being of working Americans that nearly 25 percent of those who were poor in 2007 were nonetheless employed full-time.15 The assault on the working and middle classes has been a steady barrage, begun in earnest during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s to discipline labor after its postwar gains, and given succor under Reagan and his successors. By 2009, only 12 percent of American workers were represented by a union, down from 23 percent in 1980 and 33 percent at its peak in 1954.16 This has import beyond workers’ ability to exert leverage against their bosses: the strength of labor parties is the best predictor of the size of the welfare state in advanced democracies, and the fact that we do not even have a labor party is in part why our public safety net is cheap and spare—there’s little of sufficient weight to push back against the entrenched business interests who continue to occupy a “privileged position” in policymaking.17 And racial party politics have helped divide the middle and working classes against each other today, much as they were divided by race and ethnicity in the late nineteenth century, diverting them from more threatening class-based alliances.

It’s not just union power that has been eroded: so has membership in civic organizations, especially over the last decade or so, further distancing many from networks that could facilitate collective action.18 The shallow, combative political discourse of cable news erodes viewers’ trust in government, alienating them even more from politics and exacerbating decades-long declines in participation.19 When voting rights were formally extended to the last large excluded block in 1965, one important focus of mobilization efforts was lost. The legalization of the strike has reduced conflict, with contests in the postwar period channeled into the familiar, safer rituals, each party playing its role on the picket line, in the press, in the courts, and at the negotiating table. And the offshoring of production and the statelessness of corporations may make it harder to identify a target, and harder to strike, shut down, or threaten profitability.20

More important, poor Americans may be more effectively isolated and contained than they were in the Northern industrial cities of a century ago: there is another side to the welfare state I credited with easing the misery of so many, a state that quiets resistance not with aid, but with surveillance, terror, and confinement.21

The militarization of American police forces begun by Nixon and subsequent “quality of life” and “zero tolerance” policies have made many poor neighborhoods occupied territories. Thanks to practices that target even the pettiest offenses in select areas, as well as vagrancy and anti-loitering statutes, virtually anyone can be detained and questioned at any time. Stop-and-frisk practices, for example, strip poor men of any right to privacy; resistance, or mere disrespect, can lead to arrest, or to torture and death thanks to the spreading use of Taser (stun) guns: since 2001, 351 people, most unarmed, have died after being “tased” by law enforcement personnel.22 In 2009 over 575,000 New Yorkers were stopped by police: 91 percent were people of color, and roughly 90 percent were guilty of nothing.23 African Americans, disproportionately poor and more segregated now than in 1900 before the Triangle Fire or in 1954 before Brown, live under a kind of martial law, which dissuades some who might otherwise rebel. Michelle Alexander has described the whole edifice only hinted at here, calling it a “new Jim Crow.”24

For those who do not submit, there is the prison. The data are by now familiar: with the highest incarceration rate in the world, at the end of 2008 the U.S. held 2.4 million people in its prisons and jails. They are disproportionately male, African-American or Hispanic, poor, less educated, and likely to be unemployed at the time of their arrest; half of those incarcerated are there for non-violent drug, property, or public order offenses. When released they remain under surveillance: 4.3 million were on probation and 828,000 were on parole at the end of 2008, for a total of some 7.5 million under the control of our criminal justice system, an increase of 300 percent since 1980. Felon disenfranchisement statutes—first enacted in the South after the Civil War—still affect 5.3 million Americans and render 13 percent of black men unable to vote, while their prison records make them ineligible for most government assistance.25 Although it has received little attention, states have simultaneously been cutting or ending their General Assistance programs—relief that, although always paltry, has been a fallback for single men—while time limits and work tests have been added to the food stamp program. These men are made desperate for work they have slim odds of getting even if they are without prison records; but under the constant gaze of the state, those who might lead disruptive protest can swiftly be locked away.26

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—welfare reform—imposes upon poor women its own disciplinary apparatus. American welfare policies have always sought to monitor and manage them, but those controls have now been expanded. Recipients in many states submit to drug testing, while their benefits are decreased or cut off if they refuse to prove the paternity of their children. Relief may be reduced if their children miss school attendance targets, and in some jurisdictions applicants are fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks. Thanks to “work-first” policies, tough sanctions for rule-breaking, and “work readiness” programs, they are made economically desperate while trained to be docile and compliant, preparing them for a low-wage labor market where those are the virtues rewarded, and the mechanisms of surveillance and humiliation will seem familiar as they submit to drug tests, ask permission to use a bathroom, or are forbidden to fraternize with their fellow workers.27 In some cities, workfare workers have replaced more expensive, and presumably more assertive, employees of public unions.28

The effects of the new welfare regime extend further, for its mandates depress organizing in low-income neighborhoods by forcing non-profits to redirect their energies to the training, employment, and child care needs of those pushed off the rolls, while setting agencies in competition with each other for funding. As Sandra Morgen and Jeff Mashovsky summarize: “neoliberal welfare policies have particularly insidious effects as organizations are changed in ways that dampen collective action by the poor and that foster individual, entrepreneurial, or apolitical self-help survival strategies.”29 In this context the recent assault on ACORN makes sense, given its reach into poor neighborhoods and its successful efforts at low-income voter registration, fighting evictions and predatory lending practices, and other varieties of community organizing, empowerment, and education.

Even during its expansionary phase, the manner in which Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) treated applicants reduced their trust in government, faith in movement activity, and willingness to speak out against perceived injustice. A growing body of research shows that how bureaucracies function affects citizens’ willingness to engage as citizens: some programs, like the G.I. Bill, have fostered civic virtue, political participation, and trust in government, while others, like welfare and the prison system, demobilize and disempower.30 Poor Americans, and especially poor Americans of color (already disinclined to vote and mistrustful of state authority), are further alienated from a government that is “utterly unresponsive” to their needs as it is. The government can safely ignore them because they can’t be counted on for votes or campaign contributions, and any threats to disorder seem, for now, held in check.31 Taught hopelessness from the institutions they are most likely to interact with, their cynicism is reaffirmed with every bureaucratic or police encounter. The dilemma is exacerbated by a mass media that demonizes them as thugs and welfare queens, and delegitimizes their claims just as effectively as the political system ignores their voices.

All this said, there are, as there always are, people fighting back. Early in the recession, a Cook County, Illinois sheriff refused to enforce some evictions—becoming, for a time, a national hero of sorts—while groups working under a Take Back the Land umbrella have occupied foreclosed houses and public lands throughout the country, providing us with modern models of the “indignation marches” and the eviction resisters of the Great Depression. The World Social Forum has been helping activists around the globe build new alliances.32 Wall Street bonuses, Arizona’s immigration law, and the BP oil spill all engendered public protests, some quite large. Such work can seem fruitless, but when we look back to past moments of turmoil, what appear as outbursts are only the final eruption of long-simmering grievances made possible by decades of organizing and institutionbuilding.33 In an especially tight economy where a job, any job, is an increasingly prized commodity, and the state has demonstrated that it can and will take away your relief check or your freedom, compliance and displays of deference are adopted out of necessity, though they usually hide more subtle forms of resistance.34 But that American cities are not now ablaze does not mean that they will not be: already states are letting loose their prisoners because they can no longer afford to house and feed them, and if hunger and poverty and unemployment and hopelessness continue to grow, many people may find that they no longer have anything left to fear, or anything left to lose.


1. Bureau of Labor Statistics data is available at, U.S. Census Bureau poverty data is available at www/poverty/poverty.html, and Index of Economic Insecurity data is available at; see also Sara Murray, “Chronic Joblessness Bites Deep,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2010. 2. See housedebt; “Consumer Bankruptcy Filings Up 14 Percent Through First Half of 2010,” July 2, 2010, available at ContentDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=61270; Alex Veiga, “Foreclosure Rates Surge,” Associated Press, April 15, 2010; and 3. See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress” (June 2010); Jesse McKinley, “Cities Deal with Surge in Shantytowns,” New York Times, March 25, 2009; James Mabli, Rhoda Cohen, Frank Potter, and Zhanyun Zhao, Hunger in America 2010: National Report Prepared for Feeding America (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, January 2010); and Orlando Patterson, “For African-Americans, a Virtual Depression—Why?” Nation, July 19, 2010. 4. Simon Schama, “The World Teeters on the Brink of a New Age of Rage,” Financial Times, May 22, 2010, available at s/0/45796f88-653a-11df-b648-00144feab49a. html. 5. Philip Taft and Philip Ross, “American Labor Violence: Its Causes, Character, and Outcome,” in The History of Violence in America: A Report Submitted to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, eds., Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969); see also Robert Justin Goldstein, “Political Repression of the American Labor Movement During Its Formative Years—A Comparative Perspective,” Labor History 51, no. 2 (May 2010). 6. Michael Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1996); James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900- 1994 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). 7. See; Bryan Mitchell, “More Troops Relying on Food Stamps,” July 22, 2009, available at more-troops-are-relying-on-food-stamps.html; Jamie Tarabay, “Suicide Rivals the Battlefield in Toll on U.S. Military,” June 17, 2010, available at php?storyId=127860466; Sylvia Allegretto, Ary Amerikaner, and Steven Pitts, Black Employment and Unemployment in June 2010 (Berkeley, CA: UC-Berkeley Labor Center, July 2, 2010). 8. Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (New York: Free Press, 1977); Shelton Stromquist, Re-Inventing ‘The People’: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order: 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, ed., Who Were the Progressives? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002); Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003). 9. David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (New York: Grove Press, 2003). 10. Norman Ornstein, “A Very Productive Congress, Despite What the Approval Ratings Say,” Washington Post, January 31, 2010. 11. See the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ “Economic Recovery Watch,” available at cfm?fa=topic&id=142; and 12. Ryan Lizza, “Inside the Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House Economic Team,” New Yorker, October 12, 2009. 13. See McGerr, A Fierce Discontent. 14. See Population Reference Bureau data, available at usfoodstampenrollment.aspx; Mabli, Cohen, Potter, and Zhao, Hunger in America 2010 (by May 2010, 40.8 million were on the SNAP rolls, which were projected to top forty-three million by 2011); and an August 5, 2010 News article, available at food_stamp_use_hit_record_408m_in_may. 15. Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), table 2.1, 39-40. 16. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Membership 2009 (Washington, D.C., January 22, 2010); Douglas S. Massey, “Globalization and Inequality: Explaining American Exceptionalism,” European Sociological Review 25, no. 1 (2009): 9-23.

17. John Myles and Jill Quadagno, “Political Theories of the Welfare State,” Social Service Review 76, no. 1 (March 2002); Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets (New York: Basic Books, 1980); Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States,” Politics & Society 38, no. 2 (2010). 18. Theda Skocpol, “Voice and Inequality: The Transformation of American Civic Democracy,” Perspectives on Politics 2, no. 1 (March 2004). For discussions suggesting that political blogs and other online communities may offer new opportunities for organizing, see Matthew R. Kerbel and Joel David Bloom, “Blog for America and Civic Involvement,” International Journal of Press/Politics 10, no. 4 (2005); Eric Lawrence, John Sides, and Henry Farrell, “Self-Segregation or Deliberation?: Blog Readership, Participation, and Polarization in American Politics,” Perspectives on Politics8 (2010): 141-157. 19. Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves, “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 (February 2005). 20. Or perhaps not—see Frances Fox Piven, “Can Power from Below Change the World?” American Sociological Review 73, no. 1 (February 2008). 21. It’s a pattern Piven and Cloward have long described: sometimes the poor get bread, sometimes bullets. See Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “Humanitarianism in History: AResponse to the Critics,” in Walter I. Trattner, ed., Social Welfare or Social Control?: Some Historical Reflections on Regulating the Poor (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983). 22. See 23. See stop-and-frisk-practices. 24. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Richard D. Kahlenberg, “The Return of Separate But Equal,” in James Lardner and David A. Smith, eds., Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences (New York: New Press, 2005); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). 25. U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics are available at; the Sentencing Project’s “Facts About Prisons and Prisoners” (various years) is available at 26. Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

27. Jane L. Collins and Victoria Mayer, Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001). 28. Laura Wernick, John Krinsky, and Paul Getsos, New York City’s Public Sector Sweatshop Economy (New York: Community Voices Heard, 2000). 29. James Jennings, “Welfare Reform and Neighborhoods: Race and Civic Participation,” in Randy Albelda and Ann Withorn, eds., Lost Ground: Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Beyond (Boston: South End Press, 2002); Sandra Morgen and Jeff Maskovsky, “The Anthropology of Welfare ‘Reform’: New Perspectives on U.S. Urban Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era,” Annual Review of Anthropology 32 (2003). 30. Suzanne Mettler, Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Joe Soss, “Lessons of Welfare: Policy Design, Political Learning, and Policy Action,” American Political Science Review 93, no. 2 (June 1999); Joe Soss and Lawrence R. Jacobs, “The Place of Inequality: The Place of Nonparticipation in the American Polity,” Political Science Quarterly 124, no. 1 (2009); Suzanne Mettler and Jeffrey M. Stonecash, “Government Program Usage and Political Voice,” Social Science Quarterly 89, no. 2 (June 2008); Vesla Weaver, “The Impact of the Carceral State on Citizenship and Sense of the State” (paper presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association). 31. Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (New York and Princeton: Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2008). 32. Azam Ahmed and Ofelia Casillas, “Sheriff: I Will Stop Enforcing Evictions,” Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2008;; Jose Correa Leite, World Social Forum: Strategies of Resistance (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005). 33. Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). 34. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).


The Celluloid Economy

The American Ruling Class
Directed by John Kirby
Bullfrog Films, 2007

The People Speak
Co-directed by Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Howard Zinn

Voices of A People’s History of the United
States, 2010

What’s the Economy for, Anyway?
Directed by David Batker and John de Graaf
Bullfrog Films, 2010

Reviewed by Kathy M. Newman

Will the revolution be televised? Or will it simply be turned into a commercially successful radical documentary, of the sort distributed by companies like Bullfrog Films and the History Channel? Over the last ten years, scholars (such as Nick Couldry and James Curran, authors of Contesting Media Power) who study the relationship between media and dominant power structures have urged critics and audiences to consider the power of alternative media. We get a glimpse of that potential in three recent documentaries that take on some of the central questions about how economic power works in American society.

The question of whether or not America has a ruling class makes for a provocative “documentary musical,” The American Ruling Class. Lewis H. Lapham, just before giving up the reins of Harper’s Magazine in 2006, wrote the script as a latter-day fairy tale about two fictional graduates of Yale University who can’t decide if they “want to rule the world, or save it.”

The film is quirky—a kind of inverted reality show, in which the characters are fictional but the circumstances are real. As the opening disclaimer explains, “any resemblance to real life is entirely intentional.” One of the Yalies—Jack, from a wealthy family—accepts an offer to work for Goldman Sachs after graduation. The other Yale man—Mike, from a more modest background—works as a waiter and wants to be a writer. Mike is the character we are rooting for to save the world, and most of the film consists of Mike’s tour of the ruling class, from Wall Street to Hollywood to Mexico. Along the way, the two young men meet an astonishing number of actual members of the ruling class—including Bill Bradley; James A. Baker, III; Lawrence H. Summers; and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.—most of whom deny the existence of their own kind. Mike also meets some of the great progressive intellectuals and artists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Altman. At the end of the film, one of our country’s greatest living treasures, Pete Seeger, plays the banjo while walking Mike down the path to either his job interview at Goldman Sachs or something more noble—we’re not entirely sure. What we are sure of, however, is that Lewis Lapham has an impressive rolodex. To see James A. Baker, III placidly deny the existence of a ruling class is to see something rather extraordinary indeed.

The music, Pete Seeger’s included, is one of the most original elements of the film. There’s an infectious dirge performed throughout the film about the “great and mighty Wurlitzer” (a reference to propaganda efforts of the CIA, if you follow that sort of thing), and a musical tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. The music adds a sophisticated and absurdist element to something that occasionally feels too naïve—like a college student’s senior thesis project—especially when the amateur actors playing the Yale men pontificate about the meaning of life. The question of whether or not those of us in the privileged middle and/ or upper middle classes should work from the “inside” or the “outside” of the system seems less compelling during our current Great Recession, in which having any sort of work at all is a lucky break.

One of the most surreal moments in the film occurs when Mike takes a tour of the People’s History of the United States with Howard Zinn. In this scene, Mike boards a streetcar to find that Zinn is his tour guide, and the world outside the streetcar becomes an animated version of Zinn’s landmark history. This bizarre interlude hints at the larger film project Zinn was working on when The American Ruling Class was being made. At the turn of the millennium, Zinn was approached by Fox to do a TV series based on his continually best-selling People’s History. The Fox series never materialized, but a film version of Zinn’s classic history finally came to fruition when Matt Damon—who had grown up next door to Zinn in Cambridge, Massachusetts—helped to produce a series of stage performances in which big name actors and musicians speak or sing the voices of the “people” in Zinn’s story.

The resulting effort, The People Speak, has a rock concert feel to it. As Howard Zinn ascends the stage, the crowd goes wild. He starts the show with a wry message to his fans: “Now that’s enough.” The film is jam-packed with stars who, I was surprised to learn, were Zinn groupies, including Jasmine Guy, Viggo Mortensen, Benjamin Bratt, Danny Glover, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Eddie Vedder, and Marisa Tomei. The film is organized around a series of edited live readings of historical letters and speeches, intercut with photos, lithographs, document scans, and archival footage. Most of the actors play according to type, but not without some imaginative casting: Viggo Mortensen plays a bitter, poor, wounded Civil War veteran; Rosario Dawson reads the words of Sojourner Truth; John Legend sings an old slavery lament; and Eddie Vedder performs Bob Dylan’s 1960s-era “Masters of War.”

The film has an especially timely relevance in the wake of Zinn’s death in early 2010, and the subsequent summer release of his FBI file showing that the FBI started tracking him in 1949—just four years after his decorous service in World War II. Seeing Zinn himself—so lucid, and so hale—just a few years before his death is somehow comforting.

The film will do well in high school and college classrooms, but for most of us who are fans of progressive American history, The People Speak will not contain much that is new or surprising. At the same time, I was most moved by the voices of people I had never heard of, including a runaway slave who wrote to his former owner to tell her that he had every right to his own personhood, as well as to the horse he stole from her as he escaped. Just as Zinn hoped, the “nobodies” in this film often pack the greatest punch.

Interestingly, the film in this cluster that had no celebrities whatsoever is the one I found the most informative and, in the end, the most entertaining. Bullfrog Films’ What’s the Economy for, Anyway? was released in 2010 and—now more than ever, it seems—we need to think about the economy, not as a force of nature but as something made by (and hopefully for) people. The film’s creator and narrator, David Batker, is a balding goofball, and also an ecological economist. He and his co-creator John de Graaf made this film in order to explore Gifford Pinchot’s (Secretary of the Interior under Teddy Roosevelt) assertion that the job of the economy is to create “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.” The film is divided into more than a dozen segments, including categories like “health,” “security,” and “happiness.”

Ordinarily, when presented with a raft of facts and figures, I can quickly become bleary-eyed. But Batker’s comparisons of the U.S. with other wealthy, Western nations—and sometimes the entire globe—were startling. Is the U.S. really the only Western country that doesn’t have a law guaranteeing paid vacation time? Yes. Is the U.S. really one of four nations in the world that has no federally mandated paid maternity leave? Yes. Are Americans more likely to be depressed and/or suicidal than Europeans? Yes.

The film presents facts like these with dopey, animated graphics and corny sound effects, like the slide whistle. But despite this, What’s the Economy for, Anyway? is the most visionary of these three films. It does not just critique, it also imagines solutions—solutions that are working for millions of people in other countries, such as lowering the number of hours per week that people work during times of unemployment in order to reduce job loss (as they do in Holland and Germany). The film gives me the sense that we could control our economic and ecological destinies to a degree we never imagined.

In terms of star power and production values, The People Speak is beautifully done. And for sheer creativity and gutsiness, I’ll take The American Ruling Class. But the film that best explains the mess we are in, and imagines a few ways out, is What’s the Economy for, Anyway? It is a deceptively simple question, and the film that asks it—as Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting said of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—“will blow your socks off.”


Demythologizing Mexican Immigration

Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border

By David Spener
Cornell University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Mary Romero

As violence among drug cartels in Mexico is sensationalized in the U.S. media, those who enforce immigration law use both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror to justify expanding budgets and the use of excessive force and surveillance of Latino immigrants. Scapegoating Mexicans as the source of high unemployment rates and the loss of federal and state benefits available to citizens divides workers across borders—which is a crucial tool for generating support for legislation that benefits capitalists and places U.S. and Mexican jobs in jeopardy.

U.S. immigration policy, law enforcement practices, and sensationalized media coverage have successfully blurred the distinction between immigrants, terrorists, and criminals, erasing the true story of Mexican immigrants seeking employment for family survival. In Clandestine Crossings, David Spener cuts through anti-immigration claims that those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are armed criminals engaged in drug smuggling, human smuggling, and human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking). He places the largest contemporary migration between any two countries in the world in a historical, economic, and cultural context. His analysis unravels the myths and propaganda used by nativist and anti-immigration activists to fuel the militarization of the border and exacerbate the human suffering that comes with crossing the border to work.

The journey to el norte is a centuryold story, as Spener explains, which has been passed down through several generations and is embedded in border folklore. Making little distinction between citizens and immigrants, the Texas Rangers were notorious for their violent enforcement of the law, which always favored whites. Blocked from equal access to the law and to economic resources, Mexican bandits and raiders became folk heroes. Relegated to second-class citizenship in the U.S., Mexican-Americans residing in the border areas conducted their lives on both sides, visiting family and transporting food, textiles, and other goods from Texas to Mexico.

U.S. employers have regularly recruited Mexican immigrant laborers to work in the fields, mines, canneries, and railroads. At the same time, immigration policy and law enforcement have long been used to regulate labor and meet the needs of U.S. employers. For example, during the Great Depression, deportations—referred to as “repatriation” by the U.S. government— were aimed to reduce the labor force. Less than a decade later, in response to agricultural labor shortages during World War II, the U.S. signed the Bracero Program agreement with Mexico. While the war ended a few years later, the program continued for twenty-three years. As several generations of families crossed the border to work and mail money back home, the journey to work in the U.S. became an adult rite of passage in many states of Mexico. Over the last three decades, this practice—rooted in a U.S. strategy to provide employers with inexpensive labor—has been characterized by U.S. law enforcement as “smuggling” and “illegal immigration.” As NAFTA created more demand for workers in the U.S., migration became common in new areas of Mexico.

Clandestine border crossing in Texas involves financing one’s trip to the border, determining a place to cross the river to avoid detection, hiking through the brush around immigration checkpoints and away from the border region, and then hitching a ride to one’s destination. Frequently, immigrants travel in small groups, which include first-time and experienced migrants. Taking a bus to the border is not without its hazards. Mexican immigration officials sometimes extort money. At the border, migrants must avoid gangs of robbers as they purchase food and water for their trek through South Texas.

The river must be carefully surveyed for shallow areas, and crossing might involve inner tubes. Drowning is always a real danger. To avoid motion sensors, migrants need to move away from the bank as soon as they cross and begin the trek through dense brush, where they are exposed to extreme heat and cold. With no surface water, migrants drink from cattle troughs. Arrangements are made to have drivers pick migrants up, but the drivers risk being charged with “harboring and transporting illegal aliens,” so they may be cautious and abandon the plan if the migrants do not arrive on time. If the group becomes disoriented and unable to locate its pick-up site—or too exhausted, hungry, or sick—it may seek out Border Patrol detection and agree to be “voluntarily returned” to avoid possible death in the brush.

Given the dangers of migration, Spener’s discussion of the role of coyotes—the term used to refer to a person hired to arrange the border crossing—is especially significant. The use of coyotes reflects the changing states of immigration policy and law enforcement in the U.S. Prior to Operation Blockade in 1993—later changed to Operation Hold the Line—and Operation Rio Grande in 1997, migrants often crossed without hiring coyotes. As the border patrol increased, areas where migrants had long relied upon relatives and friends saw an increase in the use of coyotes. As NAFTA created more demand for workers in the U.S., migration became common in new areas of Mexico.

Coyotes use three strategies in the southern Texas migration process: bureaucratic evasion, labor brokerage, and clandestine crossings. As Spener explains, hiring someone to deal with bureaucracies to avoid delays is common throughout Latin America. Consequently, migrants do not think of hiring a coyote as criminal activity but, at the same time, are cautious that they might be taken advantage of. As labor brokers or middlemen for U.S. agricultural businesses that need workers, coyotes are no different from labor recruiters who helped provide turn-of-thecentury coal mines with Italian, Welsh, and other European laborers. Serving as migration guides and facilitators in clandestine crossings, coyotes play an important role in the labor brokerage service. Their expertise helps migrants find the safest places to cross the border, avoid legal ports of entry, and get to their final destination.

Those who seek support for more draconian immigration laws and increased enforcement rely upon headlines and images that echo Homeland Security rhetoric: “ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Busts Massive Human Smuggling Ring That Stretches Length of U.S.” Instead of defining immigrants as fellow workers striving to earn a living and support their families, such headlines construct them as criminals and terrorists who pose a threat to U.S. citizens’ safety and economic livelihood. Breaking through the heavy fog of criminalization presented by public officials, anti-immigrant groups, and the media, Spener uncovers coyotes as individuals who provide specialized services to assist relatives and neighbors to cross the river, to reach roads and trails on the Texas side, or to arrange for a driver to pick up migrants. For a small fee, MexicanAmericans residing near the border may act as coyotes by assisting migrants who knock on their door for water and food, or by providing rides to nearby cities. A few coyotes sell counterfeit documents or have contacts within the U.S. consulate and immigration bureaucracy, which are used for obtaining visas to cross the border at checkpoints and other means of border-crossing transportation, eliminating the need to walk long distances.

Law enforcement tends to characterize each segment of the journey with another coyote as evidence of “human trafficking.” Coyotes are sensationalized in the media when migrants are found hidden in the cargo compartment of a car or in a large commercial vehicle on the way to a safe house in the U.S. However, as Spener shows, the elaborate organized-crime operation suggested by terms like “smuggling ring” does not fit the arrangements described by migrants, coyotes, and most law enforcement agents. A group of individuals may work together at various points, each receiving a certain amount of money, as the migrant is transported. Spener argues that coyotes engaged in drug and sex trafficking have no relationship to coyotes assisting migrants who want to work in the U.S. Rather, relying on family and friends on both sides of the border for assistance is an important safety component.

Just as in the U.S. working poor’s underground economy—i.e., fixing cars, selling food, and housecleaning—migrants rely upon trust, reciprocity, collective knowledge accumulated over decades of crossing, and solidarity. As in any business, coyotes depend on their reputation to succeed. Migrants rely on information from family and friends to decide which coyotes are safe. An aunt, uncle, cousin, or family friend may have helped a migrant contact and negotiate with a coyote. If a coyote engages in theft, rape, or abandonment, he won’t be hired and will make less money. Coyotes involved in “human trafficking” rarely, if ever, travel with a weapon. Coyotes who do not fulfill their informal contracts, or engage in violence, lose the trust of the community and are ostracized. Maintaining a reputation of fairness and competency is crucial in getting referrals, and coyotes are unlikely to be identified to authorities if their customers are satisfied. As coyotes provide a service that migrants seek, they rely on a bond of solidarity to avoid capture or prosecution. U.S. law enforcement attributes migrants’ unwillingness to identify coyotes as a consequence of fear, but Spener shows that migrants have a vested interest in maintaining their networks in order to cross again.

Through interviews with migrants in the U.S., Mexicans who have returned to Mexico, and law enforcement officers on both sides of the border, Spener draws a picture of clandestine crossings that is drastically different from the sensationalized images of violence used in the media and by politicians. Instead, we come to understand migrants and coyotes as workers seeking employment. Both migrants and coyotes are earning money to care for their families in Mexico. As border crossings become more dangerous, fewer migrants will risk returning to Mexico. The option to make enough money to build a house or start a business in Mexico is being destroyed by militarizing the border and increasing the risks in crossing the border. At the same time, corporations easily cross borders and have no allegiance to any workers.

Spener has conducted an important study that does not support the need for tax dollars being used to expand ICE’s budget or to increase human suffering. Instead, “protecting our borders” actually assures capitalists the flow of cheap and vulnerable labor.

The Rag Trade as the Canary in the Coal Mine: The Global Sweatshop, 1980-2010

The global sweatshop has emerged from the integration of super exploited labor in the Global South with the brands and retailers of the Global North. Beginning in the 1960s, apparel industry production migrated away from the high-wage nations. This trend is linked with the more general globalization of manufacturing, and is accelerated by the immensely concentrated power of the department store chains, especially the big-box discounters like Wal-Mart. All of this, in turn, is a product of the 1960s class conflicts in Europe and the United States, in which workers’ wages rose and corporate profits were threatened.1

Thus the global sweatshop is a dramatic symbol and particular manifestation of an evolution of capitalism in the older industrial regions—from high-price/high-wage competition among a few large firms to price-competitive, low-wage competition that incorporates many more locations on a global scale. Global capitalism makes it harder for workers in traditionally low-wage industries to maintain the decent conditions of the post-World War II Global North such as those briefly obtained by apparel workers. It has also decimated the job stability, wages, and benefits of manufacturing workers in formerly well-paid capital-intensive industries like auto and steel.

The current form of globalization is specifically a product of employers’ resolve to evade and weaken organized labor and, so far, it has been successful. That is why the old miners’ tell-tale—the canary indicating the presence of toxic gases—is so apt. The vulnerable rag trade is the most obvious sector in which globalization’s impact on labor standards has made itself felt—but it is not alone.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911—which killed 146 people—is an iconic moment in U.S. social history. Triangle Shirtwaist—one of the largest companies in New York City at the time—has come to symbolize the bad old days of sweated labor. This connection persists, despite the fact that tenement home workshops—not a relatively modern factory like the Triangle company—were what gave rise to the term “sweated labor,” here and in Great Britain.2 The Triangle firm was a center of strike leadership in 1909’s Uprising of the 20000, but it was one of the large firms that did not settle with the “girl strikers” in 1910. The cruelty and abuse to which workers of that era were subject is forever captured in the stories of the infamous locked door during the fire. Piled against the back exit—which was locked, the employer claimed, as a security measure against workers’ theft of dresses—were the bodies of women trying to flee the conflagration. After witnessing their sisters’ failure to escape, others jumped to their deaths from the ninth-floor windows.

In the thirty years that followed, the scaffolding for worker decency was erected in the apparel business. It had three central pillars of support: the first pillar involved workers’ own unions with sufficient leverage to bargain effectively and gain a voice in the political arena. In turn, this allowed the formation of de facto political alliances with social forces outside of the labor movement itself (i.e., with the Progressives of that era). Together, this social bloc was able to erect an infrastructure of law—including social security, minimum wages, and health and safety regulations—that protected workers from the cruelest vicissitudes of the market or whims of their employers. By 1938, Life magazine declared the era of the sweatshop over. In a touching cover picture, the magazine showed two young women on vacation at the Jersey Shore—a paid vacation.

For a brief forty years, garment workers became part of a larger, political-and-socialinclusion story about manufacturing workers. In the late 1940s, they earned about 85 percent of the manufacturing sector’s median weekly wages and, in turn, manufacturing workers were entering the era when their income earned them, at least in popular parlance, middle-class status. Figure One shows apparel workers’ average weekly wages as a fraction of manufacturing workers’ average wages. Masked in Figure One is the subsequent decline of manufacturing workers’ wages in general, hammered by the same forces that were hitting apparel workers—the global race to the bottom in labor standards. Figure Two shows the loss and stagnation of manufacturing workers’ earnings in the last twenty-five years.

Swiftly, in the postWorld War II era, the fabric of garment workers’ decent living standards unraveled. Sweatshop conditions reappeared at the heart of the ILGWU’s (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) once impregnable Manhattan turf. As a contractor reported to New York magazine in 1979:

A manufacturer will tell me he has two thousand twelve-piece blouses he needs sewn. I tell him I need at least $10 per blouse to do a decent job on a garment that complicated. So then he tells me to get lost—he offers me $2. If I don’t take that, he tells me he can have it sent to Taiwan or South America somewhere, and have it done for fifty cents. So we haggle—sometimes I might bring him up to $4 per blouse. Now you tell me, how can I pay someone ‘union scale’ ($3.80) or even the minimum wage ($2.90), when I’m only getting $4 per blouse? With overhead and everything else, I may be able to pay the ladies $1.20 per blouse, but that’s tops. There’s nothing on paper. I get it in cash. 3

Recall that apparel making always featured what has now become the norm for modern management: the outsourcing of central production functions, so that the final “brand” might only function as a licensing or assembly apparatus. For example, almost none of the most recognizable brands of clothing own their own production facilities. Nor does Apple own assembly or parts production facilities for its iPhone.

Pressured by outsourcing to lower-cost export platforms—where workers were paid small fractions of the U.S. minimum wage (which is considerably below prevailing or union wages)—by the 1990s, 60 percent of cutting and sewing shops in New York and Los Angeles failed to pay the minimum wage or overtime (or both).4 For a time, the U.S. had its own domestic sweatshop issue—in the mid- 1990s, there were about four hundred thousand sweatshop garment workers in the U.S.5 The revelation that children in Honduras were among the laborers behind Kathie Lee Gifford’s supposedly child-friendly clothing line—and that other Kathie Lee items were produced amidst sweatshop conditions in Manhattan’s Chinatown—helped to create a “conscience constituency” for a new anti-sweatshop movement.6 But the replacement of U.S. labor with cheaper labor abroad has, by now, reduced the entire garment-production labor force in the U.S. from over 1.3 million people in the 1970s to under two hundred thousand people just before the Great Recession.

As cultural and fashion mores have changed, so has the sweatshop landscape. As Americans and Europeans started favoring more casual clothing items—jeans and T-shirts, instead of suits and dresses—the skill component involved with apparel making generally declined. At first, for a brief period, nonunion Los Angeles—where the laidback and outdoorsy look was invented and captivated the nation— was the center of U.S. apparel production.7 Then, as they say, it all went south.

Some of today’s “new sweatshop” labor abuses are reminiscent of those that led to the Triangle tragedy. The night of November 25, 2000, forty-five workers (including ten children) burned to death in a fire at the Sagar Chowdury Garment Factory in Bangladesh— almost eight thousand miles away from New York City. In grotesque symmetry with accounts from the Triangle Fire, “Witnesses told newspapers [that] workers were trapped because the only exit door on the ground floor was locked for security reasons and had to be broken open by firefighters.”8

On April 11, 2005, again in Bangladesh, hundreds of Spectrum garment factory workers were trapped under rubble when their building collapsed around them—sixty-four people died.9 More recently, on February 25, 2010, a fire broke out on the first floor of Bangladesh’s Garib and Garib sweater factory. The thick and toxic acrylic smoke quickly rose to the eighth floor. The exit doors were locked. Twenty-one workers died.10

Bangladeshi garment workers earn among the lowest wages in the world—and as the global export trade within the apparel industry continues to (d)evolve, their employers have gained high market share in the Global North (as have employers in China, Vietnam, and other Asia-based low-wage export platforms). These workers work twelve-hour days and live amid crowded, unsanitary conditions. Yet their employers are often considered national heroes for boosting the country’s economicdevelopment status. In 2009-2010, over threequarters of Bangladesh’s export earnings came from garment production.11

Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia are part of a low-wage, Big Asia bloc of apparel exporters to the U.S. and Europe. They control 55 percent of the U.S. import market, which amounts to about 95 percent of the U.S. apparel market (see Figure Three for information about the evolution of U.S. import market shares). How and why this happened is a tale worth telling.

Geopolitics and the Global Sweatshop

Ellen Rosen has elegantly documented the way apparel trade concessions were used as markers in the global board game of the Cold War. First Japanese (in the 1950s), then Korean (in the 1950s and 1960s), then Central American (in the 1980s) apparel exporters were granted privileged trade access as an attempt to cement their middle classes to U.S. foreign policy objectives. As each of these initiatives ramped up employment opportunities in these countries American strategists hoped to blunt any radical, anti-imperialist hostility toward the U.S. The global strategic contest with the “Communist” Soviet Union was a higher priority than saving U.S. garment workers’ jobs.12 In the U.S. Congress, representatives from Southern textile-producing states had more influence on policy than representatives (and lobbyists) from Northern garment-making states.

Up until the last minute, the apparel unions—led by the ILGWU—were willing victims of this gamesmanship. Their anticommunist zeal led them to an “internationalist” position that sacrificed the interests of their members. In 1995, Gus Tyler—longtime labor intellectual and assistant to ILGWU president David Dubinsky—noted that outsourcing (via contractors and “runaway shops”) had been the scourge of labor standards in the industry but, by 1966, the term “outside” began to mean “outside of the United States.”13

The neckwear workers’ local had been the first ILGWU local affected by the changing circumstances. Its manager proposed a convention resolution to stop or restrain imports—that were “choking his members to death”—of silk scarves from Japan. Tyler responded with the union’s traditional position—in favor of free trade and working-class solidarity—but with a social-democratic Cold War twist. Tyler explained that the war “had badly damaged the Japanese economy, that such economic distress would breed communism, that [the local manager’s] protectionism would put him, an old Socialist, on the side of the American capitalists and the Japanese Communists.”14 Later, as the U.S. apparel industry was bleeding out—and the generation of Cold Warriors who wanted to fight the Communists (whom they had defeated within their own unions) was moving on—the apparel unions became more concerned about protecting their members’ jobs. But to no avail.

After the Korean War, when South Korea became a client state of the U.S., its manufacturers gained favor in Washington. Nike Chairman Phil Knight moved Nike’s production facilities from Japan—where wages were rising—to Korea, where wages were still quite low.

Still later, in 1983—during the Central American civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador—the Reagan administration crafted the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The CBI gave birth to apparel export sectors in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. These places were politically useful to Cold Warriors in Washington and economically attractive to major domestic retail and textile interests.15 Other trade deals were intent upon creating a manufacturing export sector in Northern Mexico, which culminated with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated by George H.W. Bush but pushed through Congress by President Bill Clinton. Retailers were strong NAFTA supporters during the 1994 congressional trade pact deliberations.

Since the end of World War II, U.S. elites had championed a global regime of free trade. This eventually brought about the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994, which subjected international trade to a new set of rules and protocols. Employers and investors in the rich countries of the Global North found these rules useful in two ways: imports to their markets could not be excluded on the basis of poor labor standards; however, their investments in manufacturing or services abroad—such as retail stores or advertising campaigns—were entitled to the same treatment accorded to local establishments.16

When the WTO was formed, one of the compromises between developed and developing nations concerned the global apparel and textile industry. The (rich) importing countries agreed to let imports to their countries expand at a regular rate, and to allocate quotas—quantitative ceilings—to each of a growing number of developing-country exporters of apparel and textile products. The original agreement was negotiated in 1974 among members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—the WTO’s predecessor. There were various versions of this pact—the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA)—which was later called the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) when the WTO was established. Though the developing countries—and free trade ideologues in the U.S.—often derided the MFA as “protectionist,” two things happened while it was in effect: the apparel industry all but disappeared from most developed economies; and the restless search for quota capacity led the rag trade to become the most far-flung industry on the planet. More than one hundred countries exported at least one million dollars of clothing to the U.S. prior to 2005. During the MFA/ATC period, the U.S. lost 1.1 million (about 80 percent) of its apparel production jobs.

This MFA/ATC system expired in 2005, according to a schedule that had been agreed upon at the WTO’s establishment. Then came the cries of distress from countries that had previously complained of the MFA’s protectionism, and were now afraid of Chinese competition. Employers and government  officials in Cambodia and Bangladesh—two desperately poor countries that have depended on apparel exports for large fractions of their foreign exchange earnings—were near panic. In Latin and Central America, job loss to China had begun before the expiration of the MFA and it reached a fever pitch in the months leading up to the expiration date of the quota ceilings. Central Americans feared they would lose market share to China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India—and they did (again, see Figure Three).

The Global Sweatshop and the Dynamics of Capitalism

If the global sweatshop is partially the result of Cold War geopolitics, it is also a product of employers’ response to the challenge of organized labor. In the late 1960s, faced with union power in the workplace—and in the political arena—companies responded by restructuring industry and shifting its locale. Structurally, more work was outsourced—thus the “ancient” subcontracting hierarchy of the apparel industry suddenly became quite modern. Employers also moved their own facilities and their favored sources of contractors to places—including, most recently, the sweatshops of China—where the right combination of low wages, weak political challenges, and adequate infrastructure could be combined.17

The reappearance of super-exploited labor in the clothing commodity chain—from the cotton field to the retail rack—created a backlash effect on garment labor in the U.S. (The exportation of engine construction to Mexico, Brazil, and China has similarly disciplined and humbled U.S. autoworkers.18) The last halfcentury has been an era of class struggle, most aggressively initiated by corporate managers and investors, and most singularly implemented by geographic shift.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the “race to the bottom” involved the miserable conditions of tenement workshops, which reduced the power and labor standards of factory workers. In 1951, an ILGWU historian noted that control over the “outside system of production”—the contractors—had been key to upgrading garment workers’ standards.19 Now, the “outside system” of production is used by the big retailers and brand names to offset each advance by workers (anywhere) by lowering the conditions of other workers somewhere else. In this regard, the global sweatshop has been a canary in the coal mine—or, as the Police song goes, “first to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect.”20



1. See Robert J. S. Ross and Kent Trachte, Global Capitalism: The New Leviathan (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).
2. Annie Marion MacLean, “The SweatShop in Summer,” American Journal of Sociology 9, no.
3 (1903): 289-309; Duncan Bythell, The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Batsford Academic Press, 1978). 3. Rinker Buck, “The New Sweatshops: A Penny for Your Collar,” New York, January 29, 1979. 4. See U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Public Affairs, “U.S. Department of Labor Compliance Survey Finds More Than Half of New York City Garment Shops in Violation of Labor Laws,” news release, October 16, 1997, available at media/press/opa/archive/opa97369.htm; and “U.S. Department of Labor Announces Latest Los Angeles Garment Survey Results,” news release, May 17, 1998, available at opa/archive/opa98225.htm (both accessed on September 16, 2010).
5. Robert J.S. Ross, Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).  
6. Ibid.
7. Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum, Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); and John Laslett and Mary Tyler, The ILGWU in Los Angeles: 1907-1988 (Inglewood, California: Ten Star Press, 1989).
8. For more information about this Bangladeshi garment factory fire, visit (accessed September 14, 2010).
9. “Spectrum Disaster—Six Months After the Collapse,” Clean Clothes Campaign, October 5, 2005, available at www. (accessed September 14, 2010).
10. “Twenty-One Workers Die and Thirty-One Are Injured Sewing Sweaters in Bangladesh for H&M, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, and Other Labels, ” National Labor Committee, March 5, 2010, available at (accessed September 14, 2010).
11. “Bangladesh Fetches $16.20 Billion from Merchandise Export in 2009-10 Fiscal,” People’s Daily Online, July 20, 2010, available at html (accessed September 16, 2010). 12. See Ellen Israel Rosen, Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
13. Gus Tyler, Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 265.
14. Ibid., 266.
15. Import concessions depended on using U.S. textiles and yarn. See Kent Shigetomi, Kelsey Rule, and Danielle Osler, Eighth Report to Congress on the Operation of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act(Washington D.C.: Office of the United States Trade Representative, December 31, 2009), available at www. CBI%20Report%20FINAL_0.pdf. 
16. For information about the principles of WTO agreements (and especially “national treatment”), see “Principles of the Trading System,” available at www. tif_e/fact2_e.htm (accessed October 1, 2010).
17. See Ross and Trachte, Global Capitalism.
18. See Robert J.S. Ross and Kent Trachte, “The Crisis of Detroit and the Emergence of Global Capitalism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 9, no. 2 (June 1985): 186-217.
19. See Emil Schlesinger, “The Outside System of Production in the Women’s Garment Industry in the New York Market,” an unpublished study for the ILGWU, 1951; See also Tyler, Look for the Union Label.
20. The “Canary in a Coal Mine” lyrics are taken from the Police’s 1980 Zenyattà Mondatta album



“[Slavery] started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there, and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there and, before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade.” —Glenn Beck, during his October 1, 2010 radio program

“The slowdown has reached such a wide range of countries that they’re now feeding on one another.” —Alan Ruskin, chief international strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital, on the global economy

10 Percent of U.S. Post-Docs Now Have a Union

Higher education workers scored a rare union victory in August 2010 when University of California (UC) post-doctoral researchers ratified their first contract with the administration. The post-docs’ PRO/UAW union was officially recognized in 2008, but the union charged the administration with negotiating in bad faith—over proposed pay scale rates—for nearly the next two years.

Post-docs organized direct action protests at chancellors’ offices, refusing to leave until a call had been placed to the UC president; filed unfair labor practice charges with the state; and pressured members of Congress to investigate UC’s stalling. After the House Committee on Education and Labor convened an investigation on the sluggish process, the Government Accountability Office initiated an audit of UC’s finances to investigate the university’s spending of federal research money. Finally, the UC administration entered into productive contract negotiations.

As with graduate student unions, postdoctoral researchers face numerous arguments that seek to disqualify them from unionization. Most revolve around the apprenticeship model of higher education—post-docs are “paying their dues,” receiving training, or accessing a “privilege” by working for full professors. In fact, post-docs—who have already earned Ph.D.s—work long hours for low pay, often as little as $10 per hour. They are responsible for a great share of the country’s scientific output (particularly in projects funded by the National Institute of Health), but receive few of its rewards. The number of post-docs more than doubled from 1981 to 1997 and has since accelerated, far outpacing the hiring of tenure-track faculty.

Around half of all post-docs come from overseas and have visas particularly suited to their work. Many have kept quiet about workplace concerns so as not to jeopardize their status.

The new five-year contract will improve pay, benefits, time off, and labor protections. The PRO/UAW union, representing sixty-five hundred UC post-docs, is by far the largest of its kind in the United States, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all such researchers nationwide.

Franchise Restaurants Are Impossible to Unionize—or Are They?

In early September, nine Jimmy John’s restaurants in Minneapolis, Minnesota experienced something that franchises rarely do: a work stoppage. Walking out to demand better wages, sick days, workers’ compensation, and overall better conditions, the Minneapolis workers announced the creation of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU). Affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World—which still exists in small grouplets across the country—the newly formed union filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

JJWU has not been recognized by the franchise ownership. Franchise management implied that it would soon be making layoffs through its announcement that it would be hiring at all of its restaurant locations. As a result, JJWU supporters picketed outside Jimmy John’s in thirty-two states on Labor Day—one of the few real labor actions to take place on the day. On October 22, the union lost a very narrow citywide vote, but it is now appealing.

Franchise restaurant workers have been notoriously difficult to organize for a variety of reasons: high turnover, low concentration of workers at each site, structural roadblocks, and unremitting corporate opposition. In a 1994 trial, McDonald’s executives acknowledged that in the early 1970s alone, they defeated some four hundred unionization efforts. It remains to be seen whether the Jimmy John’s effort will be a bellwether for further labor actions in this historically difficult sector.

Take Back the Land Movement Stirs During National Housing Crisis

n 2006, a group of activists caught national attention when they seized public land in Liberty City, Florida to build what they called the Umoja Village Shantytown. The direct-action tactic of seizing land or abandoned buildings probably had not been seen since the Depression era, but it has begun to spread to other cities in the last two years. In May 2010, activists were arrested while attempting to “liberate” a property as part of a “Right to Return Weekend” in New Orleans, where there are twenty thousand homeless people and sixty thousand abandoned homes. In July, activists set up a similar tent city in a vacant lot in Washington, D.C., defying police orders to disburse for months.

More spontaneously, tent cities have begun to crop up in Northern Virginia, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. Cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness since 2007, but tents have even become more common in U.S. suburbs, where foreclosed homeowners have simply camped out in front of their former properties. Many of the country’s new homeless are not completely accounted for, as they have moved into their cars or RVs.

Global Warming + Free Market = Food Riots

Public outrage over high grain prices erupted on September 1 in Mozambique, leading to three days of rioting that left thirteen dead. In a country where 90 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day—and which recently experienced doubledigit increases for water and energy costs—the grain price shock was simply too much to take.

The spike in prices resulted from major fires on Russia’s grain fields, which in turn were caused by climate change. Russia, which produces 8 percent of the world’s wheat, issued a temporary export ban to satisfy its domestic market, leading to buying panics, shortages, and speculative price hikes worldwide.

In 2007-2008, food riots in thirty-one countries captured worldwide attention and led many commentators to proclaim that, despite major technological advances in agriculture, the world had seen the end of the “era of cheap food.” Food commodities had once been considered unshakeable, but importers are now starting to talk more openly about food self-sufficiency.

The Return of “Debtors’Prisons” in the United States

Outlawed by most states—and at the federal level in the 1830s—a pre-industrial penal institution has made a shocking return to the United States: the imprisonment of insolvent debtors. According to a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a growing number of people in at least thirteen states have been incarcerated for failure to repay legal fees. The ACLU study found that states especially target those who have just completed their criminal sentences. Seven states suspend voting privileges for those who cannot repay, while eight suspend driving privileges.

Of the handful of cases highlighted in the ACLU report, the most shocking is that of Kawana Young, a 25-year-old single mother in Michigan jailed five times for being unable to pay her fees. Young attempted to use her community service hours to satisfy her debts but was rejected on the grounds that she had volunteered for a non-profit organization.

State governments have justified this practice, which was ruled unconstitutional in a 1980 Supreme Court case, by pointing to growing budget deficits. Even the economic logic is spurious because, as the ACLU report made plain, there is a much greater taxpayer cost involved with sending someone back to prison.

Chicago Parents Launch Weeks-Long Sit-in to Demand Public Library

Only a few weeks into the 2010-2011 school year, a group of fifteen to twenty parents in Chicago occupied a school field house (dubbed “La Casita”), demanding that the building be converted into a public library rather than be demolished (as the city has ordered).

According to the parents at Chicago’s Whittier Elementary School, which serves a predominantly Latino community, the neighborhood lacks a library and the planned demolition will be more expensive than the cost of converting the building. The parents have even offered to run the library themselves, collecting donations to buy books, paint, curtains, and other supplies. They fear the lot will be sold to a nearby private school and turned into a soccer field.

The parents have been supported by the Chicago Teachers Union and a variety of community organizations. 

CAUGHT IN THE WEB Quitters as Cultural Heroes

In a recession, not many people can afford to quit their jobs. But jobs are just as bad as ever—indeed, many are worse, with even unionized workers losing benefits and being forced to accept pay cuts—so many have continued to dream of quitting. Many resent being told they’re “lucky to have a job at all in this economy.” Sure, working is (usually) better than unemployment, but people get tired of the pressure to suck it up.

Enter Internet heroes Jenny and Steve. The strikingly attractive Jenny quit her job via a series of thirty-three photos of herself holding a dry erase board, enumerating her boss’s sexism, bad temper, bad breath, and—despite having paternalistically monitored his employees’ Internet use—habit of playing FarmVille at work. (See: girl-quits-her-job-on-dry-erase-board-emailsentire-office-33-photos.) The series, “Girl Quits Job Via Dry Erase Board,” was an immediate Internet sensation. “You go, girl!” was the almost universal reaction.

There was just one problem with the folk heroine who quickly came to be known as “Jenny DryErase”: she didn’t exist. The girl in the photos is an actress named Elyse Porterfield. “Girl Quits” was a hoax dreamed up by the publishers of a website, hoping to draw traffic. The site has pulled off several successful hoaxes in the past, including a “report” that Donald Trump had left a $10,000 tip on an $80 bill at a restaurant. Watching their website go from 15,000 to 440,000 unique page views in just one hour, the men behind certainly achieved their goals, and offered a beacon of hope—or at least a laugh—to millions of fed-up office workers.

Although she was made up, Jenny’s instant popularity spoke to genuine dreams. The same day Jenny went viral a (real) JetBlue employee lost it and quit his job even more dramatically, in an outburst that he said was prompted by abuse from a passenger. Steven Slater exists, but his story may prove to be just as fake as Jenny’s, since no witnesses to corroborate his version of the story have been found. But to his Internet public, such details didn’t matter. Steven Slater has more than fifty different Facebook fan pages, with a total of more than fifty thousand fans and names like “Can Steven Slater Get More Fans than Justin Bieber?” (Putting the latter effort in perspective, pop-music phenom Bieber has more than 10.5 million fans.) Several of these pages hail Slater as a “Working-Class Hero.”

None of these Internet enthusiasms are about the facts. They reflect the perennial dream of telling the boss to take this job and shove it.

“Friending” the Enemy

Elsewhere on the Internet, we find that “friending”—the Facebook gesture that often warms the heart—can also be an innovative weapon against a bad boss. Workers in a Mott’s applesauce plant in upstate New York were on strike for several months last spring and summer, demonstrating exceptional endurance and solidarity. But the union’s creative use of social media was also impressive, as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) encouraged supporters to “friend” Mott’s on the company’s fan page, and use the comments feature to express solidarity with the workers and criticize the Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s greed. The company’s status updates—recipes for children’s snacks, for example—briefly became forums for exposing corporate practices, as Mott’s new “friends” weighed in on its disgraceful practices.

Let’s hope the tactic will be used on a host of other offensive companies. As Audra Makuch— director of strategic organizing for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—says, “It’s a good way to embarrass the company on [its] home turf. You can’t stop people from commenting!” Of course, none of the Facebook campaigning could substitute for in-the-flesh picketing, and the Mott’s workers did plenty of that. But you had to be in upstate New York to join the picket line; the Facebook activism, says Makuch, was a “fun way for people [who were not there] to participate.”

The Triangle Fire, a Century Later

The one-hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is upon us. While the event could be better remembered in our everyday political discourse, the online resources devoted to it are tremendous. The ILR School at Cornell’s Kheel Center ( has an excellent summary of the disaster, along with photos, illustrations, newspaper accounts, witness testimonials, reports by contemporary investigators, lecture excerpts from former U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and even audio recordings of oral histories from key players. There is also an excellent, yet small, collection of photos at the New Deal Network Photo Gallery (www.newdeal.feri. org/library/d_4m.htm).

Stop Waiting for Superman

A documentary by Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, called Waiting for Superman, tells a simplistic story about our nation’s schools. You’ve heard it before: everything’s the fault of the teachers’ unions, and charter schools are the last, best hope, especially for poor children. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has put up a good website (www.aft. org/notwaiting) that responds to the film’s claims, and highlights the many great public schools in which their members work and the ways that teachers’ unions are actually working to improve education. The Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) of New York City has a YouTube video (, debunking the hedge fund-sponsored school “reform” movement that the film glorifies. And if you see Superman and find yourself seduced by its faith in charter schools-as-panacea, you’ll also want to visit a site called “Charter School Scandals” (www.charterschoolscandals., a relentless and well-updated compilation of the ways some charter schools have abused the public trust, mostly through gross misappropriation of tax dollars for things like Caribbean junkets or wide-screen TVs for employees’ homes. At least 150 of the schools are run by a sketchy religious cult. Others have names like the Cato School of Reason. You can’t make this stuff up.

Her Majesty the Candidate

The 2010 California gubernatorial race inspired some labor unions to use social media far more creatively than usual. The members of the California Nurses Association and the California Labor Federation were terrified of the prospect of former eBay CEO—now right-wing activist—Meg Whitman becoming governor of their state, but they also realized that there was rich comedy in this non-voting billionaire’s sense of entitlement to public office. Thus several websites were born, all dedicated to exposing the absurdity and horror of gubernatorial Whitman (who was defeated by Democrat Jerry Brown in what turned out to be the most expensive statewide election in the nation’s history).

Wall Street Whitman, an online “newspaper” (, contained information about the candidate’s Wall Street ties, including her stint on the board of Goldman Sachs, where she was directly involved in the very decisions that contributed to the most recent financial meltdown. Labor groups also created a character named Queen Meg. Marrying street theater and online activism, high school teacher and activist Elaine Burn toured the state and showed up at protests as Queen Meg—a satirical impersonation of the Republican gubernatorial candidate. With the help of the California Nurses Association, Burn created a Facebook fan page (www., which includes videos of Burn’s performances as well as royal exhortations to the public (e.g., “Happy Laid-Off Day!”). Sometimes carnivalesque street protest antics have a limited audience, consisting of those who could make it to the march, rally, or picket. With social media, some of these creative performances have a life—and impact—beyond the protest itself.

Labor Movement News

Looking for news coverage of labor? It’s not easy to find these days. Daily newspapers, even before they went on life support, had been getting rid of their labor reporters for years, with Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times being one of the last survivors. The blogosphere—despite its much-vaunted grassroots, little-guy perspective—has in no way filled the vacuum. But there are a few excellent sources of Internet labor news.

Working In These Times is a blog brimming with original reporting and commentary by professional journalists and labor experts that can be found on the Working In These Times website. Stories have included hotel workers’ strikes, the current plight of Harley-Davidson workers in the United States, the corporate abuses that led up to the Chilean mine disaster, the IWW effort to organize Jimmy John’s workers, as well as even more under-reported stories, like the repression of organized labor in Iran. You can sign up for e-mails with links to all the week’s stories at

Working In These Times has some good international stories, but focuses mostly on the United States. For a truly international perspective, check out LabourStart (“where trade unionists start their day on the net”), at You can read it in twenty-four different languages (including Bahasa Indonesian and Czech) and there are three new stories posted every day. Unlike Working In These Times, LabourStart doesn’t produce original content. It’s an aggregator, compiling news—a mix of journalism and press releases—from around the world: strikes in South Africa and Cambodia; exploitation of Indonesian migrants in Malaysia; the nearslavery conditions of Middle Eastern domestic workers; protests over newspaper closings in Ireland; anti-G-20 protests in Korea. An additional good aggregator is the AFLCIO’s blog (, which has a useful feature called “Daily News Clips”—another one-stop source for the day’s labor news.

IN THE REARIEW MIRROR Trading Places: Protecting American Industry Is So Yesterday

The current recession has been brutal on manufacturing workers. Between December 2007 and December 2009, over two million of the country’s 13.7 million manufacturing jobs disappeared. Six million industrial jobs have vanished since 1998 and manufacturing employment today is only 60 percent of its peak in 1979. Walking around the mall, it sometimes seems impossible to find a product made in the U.S.A.

It is a piety of present politics that the United States needs to rebuild its manufacturing base, an idea that the labor movement, the president, and most of the public support. But the financial interests that increasingly dominate our economy tend to see greater profit opportunities in globalization than in domestic manufacturing, which is one reason why little has been done to staunch the flow of jobs abroad. Indeed, these peak financial institutions grew to their present preeminence in part by systematically looting and shutting down American industry over the past quarter century. Policies aimed at reviving domestic industry—tariffs, currency revaluations, state-sponsored reindustrialization schemes—were, until recently, relegated to the margins of political discourse and situated largely outside of the realm of democratic governance.

This was not always the case. From the earliest days of the United States, promoting and protecting manufacturing jobs was a rallying cry for workers and a hotly debated electoral subject. With little exaggeration, one might say that industrializing America constituted the core of public policy for more than a century. One reason artisans—both journeymen and the masters who employed them—supported the ratification of the Constitution was their belief that a strong federal government would be better able to enforce restrictions on imports than the individual states, thereby protecting their markets, jobs, and wages. “Taxes on imported goods,” wrote one Philadelphia plebian, “can distress none but the rich.” As artisans hoped, the newly created Congress did pass a tariff, and—during the decades that followed—labor groups continued to agitate for high tariffs. During the Gilded Age, workers carried on a no-holds-barred, often violent battle with employers over the distribution of income and power on the shopfloor. Yet they found themselves allied politically inside the Republican Party in defense of the protective tariff. That irony is one of the reasons labor remained so weak politically, at least at the national level. In the 1880s and 1890s, the tariff became a leading electoral issue. The debate pitted the protection tariffs provided for domestic manufacturing against the lower prices that might come from reducing the penalties on foreign-made goods, and the advantages—to international merchants and commodity exporters—of low trade barriers. (Farmers felt doubly disadvantaged by import duties, resenting the high price of manufactured goods and fearful that other countries would raise tariffs on agricultural goods.) Generally the Democrats, strongly influenced by their Southern wing, wanted to lower tariffs while the Republicans sought to keep them high, retaining the support of working-class voters, even in 1896 when populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan won considerable union backing.

The Great Depression and World War II changed the politics of trade and pushed the issue of protecting domestic manufacturing to the back burner. Most New Dealers believed that high tariffs, and their retarding effect on international trade, contributed to the depth of the global economic downturn of the 1930s. Also, Southern Democrats—an important component of the New Deal coalition—generally supported free trade because they did not want other countries imposing tariffs on exported cotton. When the Roosevelt administration moved to negotiate bilateral agreements lowering tariffs, it won backing from internationally oriented banks and manufacturing companies, and from oil companies, all of whom backed free trade. As the labor movement exploded in size and cemented its ties to the New Deal, it largely abandoned its earlier protectionism.

World War II further changed the calculus of trade. The United States emerged from the conflict as the world’s unchallenged industrial power. Rather than facing a threat from imports, American companies had the opportunity for a massive expansion of exports and overseas investment. American policymakers pressed for lower tariffs and reduced trade obstacles, which they believed would benefit the American economy and promote international stability. But sometimes they departed from this goal in order to strengthen the economies of American allies, with an eye toward the Cold War contest with the Soviet bloc. So they looked the other way when Japan and the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union) put up barriers to imports from the United States. With unemployment rates low during the quarter-century after the war and the United States exporting more goods than it imported, even unionists expressed relatively little concern about the foreign threat to domestic manufacturing jobs.

Trade issues reemerged with a vengeance when the period of post-World War II prosperity ground to a halt in the 1970s. By then, Germany and Japan had rebuilt their industries to become formidable competitors to the United States and many American companies had set up overseas operations, which—in some cases—shipped goods back to the United States. In 1971, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—hit hard by the growing importation of apparels—launched a long, unsuccessful drive for protectionist legislation.

When the automobile and steel industries plunged into deep crises in the late 1970s and early 1980s, unions representing their workers joined the debate about protecting domestic manufacturing. The United Automobile Workers called on the public to “Buy American” and promoted legislation to require specified levels of domestic content in vehicles sold in the United States. But the consensus in support of low trade barriers had become so strong that—even as the balance of trade reversed and, in 1971, the country became a net importer for the first time since 1893—no fundamental move away from free trade occurred.

What did change, however, was the international currency system. Under the Bretton Woods agreement, worked out during World War II, most capitalist countries pegged their currencies at fixed rates to the dollar, which the United States in turn backed with gold reserves, also at a fixed rate. In August 1971, President Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, which had the effect of replacing fixed currency exchange rates with floating rates. Once currency exchange rates became variable, they could protect or undercut domestic manufacturing.

Nixon initially pressed Japan to raise the value of the yen in relation to the dollar to help U.S. exports and win him workingclass votes in the upcoming election. But later administrations often preferred a strong dollar, which benefited consumers and Americans investing abroad.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the labor movement and its allies continued to oppose the movement toward free trade, but with only modest success. The relocation of American industrial and financial investment abroad commanded the allegiance of both parties. President Bill Clinton broke with unions when he pushed the NAFTA treaty through Congress with only fig leaf protections for labor. The movement against corporate-oriented globalization reached a high point in the protests at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. But the protests were not strong enough to reverse the basic thrust of American economic policy. In recent years, pressure from the labor movement and domestic manufacturers occasionally has gotten the federal government to pursue charges of unfair trade practices against other countries, but there has been little debate about the principle of low tariffs.

Which leaves currency exchange rates as one of the few tools that might be used to protect domestic manufacturing from foreign competition. Whereas late-nineteenth-century arguments over the gold standard verged on civil war that pitted debtors against creditors, today such debates remain confined to circles of experts, despite the fact that the value of the dollar in relation to other currencies—the Chinese renminbi, especially—has a fateful impact on the health of American manufacturing. As in the Cold War, domestic manufacturing gets sacrificed to foreign policy concerns (like Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea and Iran), and to the interests of American financial institutions and corporations with investments and suppliers abroad (including domestic icons like Apple and Wal-Mart, whose businesses essentially consist of selling goods manufactured in China).

Of course, there are steps other than currency manipulation that would help U.S. manufacturing. The only long-term strategy for supporting domestic American manufacturing—and, in the process, for reversing the generation-long underdevelopment of the national economy—is a state-sponsored program of high-tech, energy-efficient reindustrialization. Infrastructure development, worker training, targeted government investments and credit, research programs, and domestic content provisions in government procurement are among the steps that could be taken. Unlike in the past, when Congress openly debated and set tariff rates and currency policies, today they are largely outside the realm of public control, controlled by opaque, insulated agencies. Not many liberal politicians or activists seem very interested. The Obama administration’s “Framework for Revitalizing American Manufacturing” never even mentions currency rates. Some labor supporters, including Robert Pollin in the Fall 2010 issue of New Labor Forum, are skeptical that tariff or currency adjustments would make much difference in restoring manufacturing. But with the fate of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of manufacturing jobs at stake, trade policy, currency rates, and national industrial policy need to be placed at the center of political debate and democratic decision-making, much as the tariff was during the first century-and-a-half of the Republic.



To the Editors:


I liked Bob Master’s analysis in the Fall 2010 issue’s “Engaging with Democrats.” Nevertheless, I challenge one brief segment of it—the statement that reads: “With the spring 2010 recess appointments to the NLRB, there is hope of prolabor rule-making that might ease the way for organizing.”

I beg to differ—and have done so for over four decades. In 1968, as Southern Director of the ILGWU, I joined with leaders of other organizing unions (i.e., the Teamsters, Textile Workers, and IUD) in preparing testimony—for the House Labor Committee—that called for the abolition of the NLRB. Our “elders and betters” at the AFLCIO vetoed the idea.

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is likewise fatally flawed. It does not challenge the federal ruling that the law’s prohibition of employer interference with workers’ free choice of a union was superseded by a company’s “free speech” right to hold captive audience meetings with “predictions” of shutting down or moving if the workers chose to unionize. (Shades of Citizens United!) Another federal judge undermined a worker’s “right to strike” by inventing an employer’s right to “permanently replace.” EFCA does not pretend to undo any of these setbacks and it “permits” a fine of up to $20,000 for repeated violations. (This sure will scare the shit out of Wal-Mart!) A Radio Shack store in Toronto, under a law which copied the Wagner Act word for word, was fined $100,000 in 1980—back when that was still real money.

Nor would EFCA eliminate the drawn-out process of NLRB administrative and appellate delays. In 1968 we filed an unfair labor practice charge, which we “won”—in 1981! The effectiveness of EFCA depends on its provision for first contract arbitration. Does anyone imagine that this Supreme Court will tolerate such infringement of private property rights? We don’t even impose a contract when the government bars workers from striking.

In the late 1960s, the Southeast Region of ILGWU abandoned all hope for the NLRB and organized with the awareness that without a credible threat of a strike, you don’t get a contract—which is what, after all, workers struggle and take risks for. They’re not fighting for paper recognition.

Master’s political insight into how we might change the electoral/legislative arena—through “massive working-class mobilization” and the devotion of “greater resources and energy to popular mobilization”—is right on. As we reexamine our approach to political reform, should we not rethink our organizing, union building, and survival strategies? How many union leaders (or lawyers) have considered the “labor reform” strategies of Thomas Geoghegan or have read Julius Getman’s Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement? Might the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute, and its New Labor Forum, be the site for such a no-preconceptions review?

—Martin Morand, Professor Emeritus, Industrial & Labor Relations, Indiana University of Pennsylvania





ECONOMIC PROSPECTS: Can We Please Stop Blaming Immigrants?

Hostility in the United States toward immigrants has risen sharply in recent years. The strongest sign of this was the law signed last April by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, which gave the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Two U.S. Senators, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have gone so far as to propose repealing the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants automatic citizenship to all babies born on U.S. soil, regardless of the citizenship status of the baby’s parents. Of course, these actions are primarily a response to the economic wreckage caused by the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse. But they fly in the face of evidence, which shows that immigrants are by no means responsible for mass unemployment or the cutbacks in social benefits that U.S. residents are now experiencing.

Immigration into the U.S. has been rising steadily since the 1970s, after having fallen for sixty years from its peak level around 1910. At present, immigrant arrivals—running at about 1.25 million people per year—account for 40 percent of population growth nationally, and a much larger share in some regions. Something like 35-40 percent of new arrivals are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America with low education and limited English skills.

According to polling data, large majorities of native U.S. residents hold much more favorable attitudes toward immigrants, including undocumented workers, than Governor Brewer and Senators Kyl and Graham. Still, politicians do not make a habit of taking actions that lack popular support. The anti-immigration sentiment is real, even if among only a minority of the population, including those supporting the right-wing Tea Party insurgency.

Nobody should be surprised by this development. Due to the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse and ensuing recession, the official unemployment rate averaged 9.7 percent for the first eight months of 2010, although a more accurate figure would be close to 20 percent. State and local governments throughout the country are sharply cutting education, health, and social safety net programs. This is all after the recession ended in mid-2009, at least according to the official declaration of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Immigrants Don’t Take Away Jobs from Everyone Else

All kinds of people are justifiably enraged and frightened by the dismal economy. Some have concluded that immigrants are taking away the jobs that they themselves need. The logic seems straightforward. Let’s assume that, at any given time, there are a fixed number of jobs available. If immigrants take a significant share of the available jobs at low wages, that will mean fewer jobs are available for U.S. natives. The increased competition for the given number of jobs will also weaken workers’ bargaining power, and thus drive wages down.

But does this simple logic accurately describe what is really happening out in the world? In fact, after decades of debate, including studies by researchers from a wide range of disciplines and political persuasions, the weight of evidence strongly supports the conclusion that immigrants—including undocumented workers—are not hurting job opportunities or wages for native U.S. workers.

Some of the most innovative research on the jobs question has been done by the UC-Berkeley economist David Card. Focusing on data from the 2000 census, Card compared local labor market conditions in the seventeen largest metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. There were two reasons for making this comparison. First, the immigrant population in these cities is very high, at nearly 27 percent, which is roughly twice that of the country as a whole. So if we are going to observe the effects of immigration on jobs anywhere in the U.S., it will be in these large cities. In addition, the percentage of immigrants varies dramatically between these different cities, with Philadelphia and Detroit at a low of 8 percent of the total population while the figure is 35 percent in Los Angeles and Miami.

If immigrants are indeed making conditions more difficult for native workers, we would therefore expect that native workers would be relatively worse off in places like Los Angeles than in Philadelphia, after we control for other factors affecting the labor markets in these cities, such as the relative levels of business investment, or changes in population, or the city’s overall unemployment rate. In particular, we would expect such problems to show up especially with regard to jobs available to people with low educational credentials, such as restaurant workers, hotel workers, taxi drivers, cleaning people, practical nurses, and gardeners. This is because immigrants tend to have less formal education than native workers, and would therefore be relatively more active in competing for these types of jobs. However, Card showed that there are no significant differences from city to city in terms of either number of jobs available or wage levels for native workers, regardless of the proportion of immigrants living in the city. Other researchers have reached basically the same conclusion, using different methodologies and data.

But skeptics nevertheless raise the issue: why hasn’t the increased immigrant population forced down job opportunities and wages for low-credentialed natives? If economists cling to any core precepts in their thinking, the first has to be “the law of supply and demand.” This includes the idea that if the supply of something goes up while demand stays the same, prices will fall and some of the excess supply will go unsold. If we are talking about immigrants increasing the overall supply of workers looking for jobs, their impact within this supply-and-demand logic should be to deliver lower wages (as the price of labor falls) and more unemployment (as workers become unable to sell their labor services to businesses). Thus, without repealing the simple logic of supply and demand, how is it possible that a rising supply of immigrant workers in the U.S. does not cause lower wages and higher unemployment?

As many researchers have shown, one key factor is that immigrants do not just increase supply of labor—they also increase overall market demand. Immigrants living in the U.S. buy consumer goods and cars in this country, and they either own or rent homes. These purchases create more buoyant U.S. markets. This, in turn, encourages businesses to invest more and hire more workers. In addition, immigrants start their own businesses at a higher rate than native U.S. residents. This raises demand for business-related supplies—such as computers and office furniture—and services such as bookkeepers, accountants, and lawyers. Indeed, the large immigrant populations in cities like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York have drawn foreign investment into these cities. All of these factors also help support wage rates at least at the levels they would be in the absence of the increased levels of market demand created by immigrants.

Jeannette Wicks-Lim and I have recently updated this research and found that these same results have held up over the 2008-2009 recession. One additional important factor here is that immigration rates vary with the economy’s overall cyclical swings. The recession has thus led to an accelerated rate of reverse migration—i.e., immigrants returning to their home countries precisely because opportunities in the U.S. have declined.

Immigrants Pay Taxes but Receive Few Government Benefits

Do immigrants—particularly undocumented workers—drain the public treasury, paying little or no taxes while benefitting from our public schools, government health care programs, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Social Security? Here again, the weight of evidence points in the opposite direction: most undocumented workers are paying significant amounts of taxes, while receiving few social benefits. One survey of undocumented Mexican migrants— conducted jointly by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Guadalajara— found that three quarters did pay taxes, with 66 percent having had social security taxes withheld, and 62 percent having income taxes withheld. At the same time, only about 10 percent said they ever sent their child to a U.S. public school and 5 percent, or less, said they ever received food stamps, welfare, or unemployment compensation. Along similar lines, the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration roughly estimated that for 2007, the Social Security Trust Fund had received a net benefit of somewhere between $120 billion and $240 billion from unauthorized immigrants—a remarkable 5–10 percent of the trust fund’s total assets of $2.2 trillion, as of 2007.

The explanation behind these figures is straightforward: undocumented workers know their situation in the U.S. is precarious. Therefore, they do not protest when—just as with legal employees—taxes are withheld from their paychecks. They also know it would be foolish to press their luck attempting to get government-provided social services or Social Security checks.

Fighting for Real Solutions

Of course, immigrants do receive major benefits through living and working in the United States. Even those with low-end jobs receive far higher incomes than they would in, say, rural Mexico, Guatemala, or Vietnam. A high proportion of immigrants also send back large remittances to their families in their home countries, enabling the families to purchase land and homes, and generally live better. The remittances are a major source of overall income in large numbers of developing countries.

But focusing on impacts within the United States economy, the bottom line is clear: there is simply no evidence supporting the idea that immigrants are to blame for the mass unemployment and the cutbacks in social benefits facing U.S. residents today. On balance, immigrants are now, and always have been, a positive force within the U.S. economy. There could possibly be situations in which high levels of in-migration could generate negative economic effects. For example, an extremely rapid increase in the immigrant population, combined with a sharp slowdown in the rate of out-migration, could reduce job opportunities and wages for natives, especially those looking for work at the low end of the wage scale. But this combination of events has not happened to date, even amid the ongoing economic slump.

If we are serious about solving the severe problems we face, we then need to focus on what really matters: fighting for full employment at living wages and defending our rights to high-quality education, health care, and public services. To scapegoat immigrants is nothing more than a dangerous and inhumane distraction from the formidable challenges at hand.


From The Editorial Team

Organized labor and its progressive allies are alarmed and demoralized by the results of the midterm elections. And they should be. When the world capitalist system nearly crashed and burned a few years back, there was every good reason to believe the meltdown might inspire mass protest capable of reversing the last generation of corporate domination of our public life. Protest arose, to be sure, but mainly in the form of the Tea Party. Whatever else one might say about the Tea Party, it cannot be dismissed as the creature of a handful of conservative billionaires. While it has real connections to such circles, the anger and resentment it expresses—although fueled by festering forms of racism—are partly grounded in the real failure of bipartisan capitalism. Those emotions could have been, but were not, enlisted by the Obama administration, despite the extraordinarily favorable circumstances for doing just that. Now we must reckon with the seriously dangerous possibilities that a politics of resentment rooted in the middling classes can offer up; indeed, Nazism arose, in part, out of such festering resentment of business- and liberal-minded elites.

If the Tea Party offers one form of resistance, however grotesque, this issue of New Labor Forum is devoted to its polar opposite of a long time ago. March of this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. For an amnesiac culture like our own, this is one of those rare moments that endure in the public memory—our readers hardly have to be reminded of it. So we are instead publishing four articles that commemorate that tragedy by examining its various legacies. Although sweatshops characterize today’s global low-wage economy, we see precious little of the kind of mass protest that preceded and followed that tragic day. That’s an important mystery to solve and Stephen Pimpare makes some provocative arguments about why that has proven to be the case. The fire, of course, highlighted how extraordinarily unhealthy and unsafe industrial work was back in those days. Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner examine the successes and failures in addressing that bloody and often fatal problem from the time of Triangle to our age of toxic chemicals, mine disasters, and repetitive stress injuries. Union organization of the garment industry at the turn of the century—at Triangle and elsewhere—depended on a strategic alliance between the labor movement and the crusade for women’s emancipation, in part because the industry’s workforce was heavily female. What became of that collaboration in the hundred years that followed is the subject of an article by Eileen Boris and Annelise Orleck. The uproar over the Triangle Fire was, in part, a cry of outrage directed at the sweatshop (even though the Triangle company itself was not one). Robert J.S. Ross analyzes the rebirth of the global garment sweatshop in the post-World War II era, but especially over the past generation.

Most of those garment workers of long ago were immigrants. Today, too, our economy relies on the exploitation of immigrant labor, with many of the immigrant workers here “illegally.” This state of affairs, and all of its ramifications, will continue to bedevil immigrant communities, labor unions, employers, and both political parties. This issue of New Labor Forum offers two dissimilar proposals—from Jennifer Gordon and Rodolfo O. de la Garza—about how the particular question of undocumented immigrant workers might be addressed in ways that would benefit those immigrants, the American labor movement, and the public interest. We invite our readers to debate the merits of these two approaches. And Robert Pollin’s “Economic Prospects” column addresses another aspect of this issue by debunking the notion that immigrants—undocumented or not—take away jobs from American citizens.

It is not too far-fetched, moreover, to compare the plight of those Triangle workers to the afflictions U.S. domestic workers face today. Like then, these mainly women and mainly immigrant workers are extremely vulnerable to the tyrannies and exploitative practices of their workplaces. One of the most heartening signs that this may be changing is the remarkable organizing and political success of Domestic Workers United. Ai-jen Poo—the organization’s former lead organizer—writes about the recent landmark passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State. It would be additionally cheering if we could say the same about efforts to unionize the high-tech electronics industry. Sadly, Silicon Valley and its kindred centers remain almost entirely unorganized, while vital to the power of what remains of American industry. David Bacon looks back to the 1980s and 1990s—when efforts to organize the Valley were underway—and assesses what was done right and what went wrong.

Jefferson Cowie and our columnists all contribute to the broader themes running through this issue. In addition to Pollin’s article on immigrant labor, Cowie’s “On the Contrary” essay argues that we should stop fantasizing about the return of the New Deal, as it was an exceptional moment in American life—fragile even at birth—and not likely to repeat itself under today’s quite different circumstances. Liza Featherstone’s “Caught in the Web” highlights the use of the Internet in the midterms and in recent union campaigns, places to go to find out more about the Triangle Fire, and the gallows humor that sometimes accompanies economic misery. In this issue’s “Working-Class Voices of Contemporary America” section, Neure Clarke writes about his experience navigating the treacherous waters of trying to get work while living in the shadowy world of the “undocumented.” Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman’s “In the Rearview Mirror” recalls how, once upon a time, protecting American industry was at the center of public policy debate and analyzes how and when that changed. Ben Becker’s “Under the Radar” captures some wonderful under- or non-reported items about promising union campaigns, and includes a funny (if grim) cartoon and a quote you won’t believe—or maybe, given the times, you will.

Our “Books and the Arts” section includes a consideration of the problems faced by a working-class woman entering the upscale world of academia; the often-demonized role of the Mexican coyote in bringing migrants across the border; the importance of religion in the work lives of ordinary people; and three documentaries that critically examine the U.S. economic power structure. We end with two elegiac poems in honor of the Triangle Shirtwaist workers.