Category: Winter 2012

On the Contrary

Earth to Labor: Economic Growth Is No Salvation

The notion that economic growth is, almost by definition, a good thing has been subjected to serious and well-informed criticism in recent years. Diverse organizationally, geographically, and ideologically, those challenging growth are united by one realization: the world’s ecosystems are in a state of extreme distress and the planet will be unlivable in just a few decades. Climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, desertification, ozone depletion, and alarming levels of water contamination and scarcity are part of a long list of crises that have their origins in one thing—economic activity that increasingly raids the world’s stores of “natural capital” and pollutes and degrades everything in its path.

The message emerging from the critique of growth is loud and clear—human civilization must quickly put a check on economic expansion and allow the ecosystems to repair themselves before it is too late.

Indisputably true, but what can unions do? Workers are, of course, part of the very economy that seems to be causing the environmental problems, both as producers and consumers. How can unions, even in theory, be against economic growth? And unions and workers do not feature much in the talk about an ecological post-growth society (the few eco-socialist writers being the exception). The overuse of insipid terms like “green jobs” cannot hide the fact that the ecological crisis is not on the agenda of the U.S. labor movement. And those who raise ecological issues are likely to be reminded that labor is too embroiled in a struggle for its own survival to have much time and energy to commit to planetary survival. However, labor has much to gain by addressing, rather than avoiding, the ecological crisis and its causes—many of the solutions would help, rather than harm, unions and workers.

Green Capitalism and Ecological Modernization
Thus far, unions that have been engaged in ecological issues (mostly outside the U.S.) have tried to repackage growth as part of a green economic agenda, looking at growth the way an internist would read a patient’s cholesterol levels. Just as there is good and bad cholesterol, there is good growth (the “real” economy, green investments, rebuilding infrastructure) and bad growth (financial speculation, asset bubbles, etc.).

But what is green growth, exactly? The world’s leading green growth theorist and spokesperson is probably former World Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern. In 2006, Stern authored a major study on the economics of climate change, known as the Stern Review, which rejected the idea that growth must inevitably lead to more emissions and ecological stress. Human civilization does not have to learn to get by with less, he says, nor does capitalism itself need to be fundamentally restructured. Low carbon production and environmentally-friendly growth is technically possible. All we need to do now is make it a political reality. This perspective, known as “ecological modernization,” rests on the premise that technological and other efficiencies can “dematerialize” economic activity. We can get more output from fewer material inputs, thus decoupling economic growth from environmental damage. Perhaps the main policy plank in the platform of ecological modernization is the pricing of externalities like carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Once priced, the markets will work their magic and the economy can keep growing indefinitely. Government is important, but only as an enabler of green economic activity and not in any direct command-in-control sense. Unions, globally, have operated on the premise that the real-world historical options are essentially twofold. Either humanity will transition to some form of green capitalism, or we will face a “suicide capitalism” scenario where fossil-fuel corporations and major industrial, agricultural, transportation, and retail interests are successful in extending “business as usual” past the point of no return. The former allows space for unions; the latter does not. Unions have therefore generally accepted Stern’s green growth perspective and are, whether truly conscious of it or not, ecological modernizers. However, unions question whether private markets can drive green growth, and they have sought to move the debate toward a global Green New Deal (GND) through which governments—supported by labor—play a leading role, particularly in setting emissions targets and timetables. In a similar vein, many U.S. unions support Obama-initiated green investments and a green industrial policy as a means to restore both U.S. competitiveness and its manufacturing base. This was the message of the Apollo Alliance and it is now the main message of its successor organization, the Blue-Green Alliance. It is also the message of the mainstream environmental “Big Green” organizations. The green growth perspective therefore dominates the trade union discourse, both domestically and internationally.

Green Gone Wrong?
Today, however, ecological modernization faces a double crisis—a striking loss of political momentum coupled with an erosion of its main theoretical underpinnings. In fact, the two are deeply connected. Green business is not driving capitalism’s main agenda. In the U.S., the fanfare around the Climate Action Partnership (CAP) and other green corporate initiatives is now just a dim echo, stretching back to the more hopeful early days of the Obama presidency. The prospects for an effective economy-wide price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system have been dashed in the U.S. and in most of the developed world. The Koch brothers, rather than Google and Nike, are shaping both politics and policy. Meanwhile, the green economy has stalled. This is reflected in a recent Brookings Institution study which noted that “the clean economy grew more slowly in [the] aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010.”

In the U.S., environmentalists blame the woes of green business on Big Oil and Big Coal’s shoot- to-kill approach to carbon pricing, EPA regulations, and renewable electricity standards. Oil companies have made $1 trillion in profits in the past ten years, so spending $30 million on a lobbying campaign to defeat climate protection legislation is a smart business move. But the political power of fossil-fuel corporations is not simply determined by the number of lobbyists on the payroll. It derives from the availability of the fuels, the returns on investments, and the stability of demand. It also speaks to other large corporations’ weak and fleeting commitment to their stated environmental and climate protection goals. The Fortune 500 companies that formed the CAP could have easily matched the fossil-fuel lobby’s spending several times over if there was a sound business incentive to do so. The problem is that no such incentive exists. The entire theoretical framework of ecological modernization and green capitalism was developed around a presumed certainty—that natural resource scarcity would make more efficient use of those resources the key to competitiveness and, therefore, success. But that certainty has since been downgraded to a remote possibility as new sources of fossil-based power emerge. In North America, this entails the further exploitation of Canadian tar sands oil, the harvesting of apparently large stores of natural gas embedded in shale formations by a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” and the expansion of surface coal mining in states like Wyoming and Montana where the Wyodak coal bed—the U.S.’s leading source of coal—covers ten thousand square miles in the Powder River Basin. These new sources of fossil-based energy are in the process of changing the global political economy of energy and helping to strangle the global green growth agenda. But even if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow, ecological modernization would still have to deal with what has been called “the rebound effect,” by which savings from increased efficiency get ploughed back into the economy in the form of greater investments, more growth, more consumption, and more environmental stress. This effect was observed during the time of the steam engine, when Victorian-era economists realized that a more efficient engine made the use of coal more cost effective, which led to an increase in the demand for coal. In short, the idea that capitalist accumulation—driven by profit, consumption, and growth—can become truly green has become as frail and unstable as Arctic ice in the summertime.

Ecological Unionism
Three years ago, a global climate agreement and an eco-Keynesian future seemed likely—today this is a fantasy. The resurgence of neoliberal policies since 2009 has politically uprooted green capitalism, and the way back will be difficult. Meanwhile, union resistance to the neoliberal attacks on workers and social protections appears to be growing, and other social movements are also mobilizing. Labor is now in a position to openly break with ecological modernization and craft its own Green New Deal as part of a new policy agenda. This agenda must be more ambitious than the standard “demand-side” Keynesian policy response to economic recession with a green tint. Unions can develop a GND that is green enough to slam the breaks on the present levels of ecological destruction, while providing a pathway toward more sustainable living standards and a deep restructuring of economic life—a truly transformational multi-decade project. How can it be done? Clearly, achieving economic security and environmental sustainability will require a series of bold policy interventions. Unions can be confident that the ecological case for the public ownership and democratic control of carbon- and pollution-intensive industries and services—beginning with power generation and energy-delivery systems—is cast iron. Given the impact of privatization on workers and communities, the social case is similarly strong. The goal should be to expand democratic control over major investment and production decisions, and over financial institutions and transactions, while asserting a new set of social and environmental conditions on private capital for the good of workers and the environment. This could put an end to “ruthless growth” and drastically slow the rate of ecological damage, while establishing a platform for an even deeper restructuring of economic life over the longer term. But without a qualitative increase in economic democracy, a transition to a truly sustainable economy is, at this point, inconceivable.

How would such a GND shape trade union politics and workplace demands? Work sharing, shorter hours, and more flexible work schedules can help achieve environmental goals and bring about an improved quality of life for working families. Unions can now use ecological arguments to push back against conditions of modern slavery (mind-breaking as well as back-breaking work).

Unions have done their best to defend the “social wage” as well as money wages. A new program to expand the social wage would involve using ecological arguments to promote policies to improve both the quantity and the quality of leisure. This would include investing in public mass transit, parks, sports facilities, and cultural institutions; making changes in land use policies to build communities and not megastores; and expanding opportunities for biking and walking. Fighting to shift taxes on income to taxes on carbon can also help redistribute wealth and reduce emissions.

A tricky issue for unions is the question of consumption. For labor-based economists, the fact that wages have not kept up with productivity increases is a key factor in creating and perpetuating the recession and high levels of unemployment, and unions link calls to restore labor’s share of the wealth to the need for more consumption to restore economic growth. But from an ecological perspective, the picture is more complicated. Real wages may be stagnant, and the real cost of housing, education, and health care has skyrocketed in the past thirty years. However, consumer and household goods have become much less expensive. Cheap wear-it-once clothing, electronics, and other goods create a pleasant illusion of wealth. Food costs half as much—in real dollars—as it did in 1966, and up to a third of all food purchased in the U.S. gets thrown away. The ecological impact of the skyrocketing consumption of these goods needs to be acknowledged. Unions can play their part in promoting lifestyles that eschew unsustainable and unnecessary spending. Living well and securely is not measured by trips to the mall, “bargain buying,” and rising credit-card debt.

As a guiding principle, ecological unionism can begin by acknowledging that workers are connected to and dependent upon the ecosystems that are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The same economic system that abuses and commodifies the environment also abuses people, animals, and all organic life. Today’s labor movement could benefit enormously from a fresh narrative, one that is deeply ecological and capable of connecting workers’ needs to a vision for a truly sustainable society. An ecological narrative conveys the urgent need for radical change and new relationships between production and consumption—a realignment of society’s relationship to the natural world. Let there be growth—in human development, social solidarity, and building an economy based on sufficiency and cooperation.

ECONOMIC PROSPECTS: Fighting Seriously for Jobs and Social Security

As the severe unemployment crisis drags
into its third year, proposals for
solving the crisis are proliferating.
Even more ideas will be tossed into the
mix as the 2012 election season intensifies.

Some of these proposals are good, some are
less good, and some are truly awful. The plan
offered by President Obama last September
included a mix of some good ideas, such as
more spending on infrastructure and education,
along with some bad ones, like cutting
Social Security taxes (otherwise known as
payroll taxes). The single worst idea in the
mix, supported by deficit hawks in both the
Democratic and Republican parties, is that
we are facing a fiscal train wreck and we
therefore, above all, need to cut government
spending. At the same time, there are actually
some major avenues still open for stimulating
job creation—both because they could create
lots of jobs relatively quickly and because they
could do so cheaply—that most policymakers
and politicians have thus far ignored.

{There Is No Federal debT

The official debate over the
economy shifted decisively last summer,
away from proposals for job creation to
obsessing over the size of the federal government’s
deficit (how much we are borrowing
each year) and debt (how much we owe overall).
The federal deficit has, indeed, been historically
large since the recession began, running at
about 10 percent of GDP for the past three
years, as opposed to the historic average of 2
percent of GDP. But that is only because the
jobs crisis itself is of historic magnitude. Solving
the unemployment crisis would accomplish far
more than any other measure toward bringing
the federal deficit down. This is simply because
when more people have jobs, they also pay more
taxes and rely less on government support, such
as unemployment insurance and Medicaid.

There is another point to emphasize here.
Despite the historically large fiscal deficits,
the federal government is now paying interest
on the total outstanding debt at a rate that is
historically low, not high. This is for the simple
reason that the interest rates on U.S. Treasury
bonds are themselves at historic lows, at around
2 percent. As such, while it is true that the
government will need to reduce its borrowing
once the recession is behind us, there is no
immediate crisis whatsoever in terms of the
government paying off the debt obligations it
faces now or over the next few years.

{CuTTINg soCIal seCurITy
Taxes as a Jobs Program
Is PerIlous}

Since its inception in 1939, the
political right in the U.S. has been trying
to kill Social Security. These efforts have
failed up until now because the program has
maintained overwhelming political support.
The enduring popularity of Social Security
follows from the fact that, over seventy-two
years, it has succeeded in reducing poverty for
retired people and those with disabilities, and
has done so at minimal administrative expense.

“Cutting [payroll taxes
compromises] the
principle that Social
Security is a selffinanced,
program, whose
funding is inviolate.”

The 2011 cut in the payroll tax, from 6.2
percent to 4.2 percent, that applied to workers
is costing the system $112 billion, or 15 percent
of total expected revenues for this year. Obama’s
proposal for 2012 would reduce the rate further,
which could bring the overall loss of funds
for Social Security to more than 25 percent of
committed outlays for 2012.
The Obama administration says that the
lost Social Security revenues resulting from
the payroll tax cuts will be replenished from
general revenues. It is no doubt sincere in this
intention. But cutting the traditional source
of Social Security revenues, even temporarily,
entails compromising the principle that
Social Security is a self-financed, stand-alone
program, whose funding is inviolate. If funding
for Social Security starts being treated regularly
in the same manner as all other government
programs, it then becomes vulnerable to the
types of attacks that have already occurred
over the past year with public education, public
safety, and pension programs for state-level

{small busINesses
Need CredIT}

The biggest single drag preventing
a recovery from taking hold has
been the dramatic contraction in credit
flowing to smaller businesses—i.e., those with
five hundred or fewer employees. Beginning in
2008 and continuing into 2011, non-corporate
businesses as a whole have undertaken zero net
borrowing to finance business expansion and
job creation. This was in contrast to 2007, the
last year before the financial crisis, when they
borrowed more than $500 billion to expand
their operations and hire new workers. This
pattern is especially damaging for prospects of a
jobs recovery since smaller businesses account
for more than 60 percent of all jobs in the U.S.
economy. They are also the main source of both
job expansions and contractions.

One major factor holding back small
businesses is the recession itself. They continue
to experience weak demand for their products
in the marketplace, so they are unwilling to
put money at risk by expanding their operations.
But the other overarching problem is
that small businesses are getting locked out

“The biggest single drag
preventing a recovery
has been the dramatic
contraction in credit
flowing to smaller

of credit markets even when they are ready
to start spending. A summer 2011 survey by
Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School
of Business and Management found that 95
percent of business owners report wanting to
execute a growth strategy, but only 53 percent
were obtaining the funding they needed to
execute that strategy. Meanwhile, bankers were
reporting that they were rejecting 60 percent
of their loan applications. Getting money into
the hands of small businesses that are primed
to invest and hire workers should be an idea
that all Democratic and Republican politicians

{CommerCIal baNks
are holdINg massIve
Cash hoards}

While small businesses continue
to be short of investment
funds, the U.S. commercial banks
are now sitting on an historically unprecedented
cash hoard of $1.6 trillion, equaling more than10 percent of U.S. GDP. In previous recent
periods after recessions, the banks’ cash reserves
averaged well less than 1 percent of GDP.
The main reason the banks have built up
this unprecedented cash hoard is that, since
the recession began, the Federal Reserve has
pursued an aggressive policy to stimulate
the economy, accompanying the Obama
administration’s other efforts at stimulus.

The main tool deployed by the Fed has been
to hold the short-term interest rate that it
controls—the “federal funds rate”—at near
zero since mid-2008. As a result, the banks
have accumulated their massive cash holdings
precisely because they have been able to obtain
these funds virtually for free. Fed Chair Ben
Bernanke has also recently announced that it
will continue to hold this interest rate at near
zero through 2013.

But the point of the Fed’s zero-interestrate
policy is obviously not to just provide
the commercial banks with unlimited free
cash which the banks then hoard, but rather
to have these funds moved into productive
investments and job creation. The banks claim
that they are unable to expand lending now
because they also see weak market demand
and a high-risk environment. Such concerns
are real, but not to the extreme where banks
should reject 60 percent of loan applicants while
they continue to receive unlimited free cash
from the Fed. Another factor here is that the
banks have become more adept at various forms
of financial engineering and speculation, as
opposed to seriously exploring possibilities for
underwriting the growth of small businesses.
Until smaller businesses start receiving these
funds and putting them to productive uses, all
other efforts at pushing the economy out of its
slump will be greatly weakened.

{PushINg The baNks To
suPPorT Job CreaTIoN}

Two straightforward and
inexpensive policy initiatives—one
carrot and one stick—could themselves
transform the landscape. The carrot is an
expansion of existing federal loan guarantees
by something like $300 billion. This would
roughly double the number of annual guarantees
provided by the federal government. In
a stroke, it would dramatically lower the risks
facing both small businesses and banks as they
calculate their prospects for investing in what
remains a highly tenuous environment. Of
course, some businesses will default on these

“Injecting $800 billion
[into the hands of small
businesses] should lead
to the creation of about
twelve million new jobs.”

loans. But even if we allow for an implausibly
high default rate of, say, 12 percent—which
is three times higher than the rates on the
government’s existing guaranteed loans—the
costs to the government would still be only
about 1 percent of its overall budget.

The stick is for the government to tax
the excess cash reserves now held by banks,
to push the banks to become more bullish
on loans for job-creating investments, again
especially for small businesses. The tax rate
only needs to be high enough to persuade the
banks to stop hoarding mountains of cash. A
1 percent tax on money they received for free
may well be adequate. The revenues from the
tax could also cover the costs of the defaults
on guaranteed loans.

If administered effectively, these two
measures should be capable (over about
three years) of moving at least half of the idle
cash now sitting with the banks—i.e., $800
billion—into the hands of the small businesses
that are prepared to expand and hire workers.
The total impact of injecting $800 billion
should lead to the creation of about twelve
million new jobs, which could help drive the
unemployment rate down to around 5 percent.

It would thus serve as an effective complement
to the types of public spending proposals—
for infrastructure, the green economy,
state and local governments, and unemployment
insurance—proposed by Obama. The
success of this initiative could therefore provide
the foundation for delivering what working
Americans need and deserve right now—an
environment supporting the long-term defense
of Social Security, along with the basic right

New Labor Forum 21(1): 82-85, Winter 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/12 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.202.0000013

Winter 2012

New Labor Forum

4 From the editorial team

6 Under the radar
By Be n Be c k e r
Unreported and under-reported news and views that matter

10 on the Contrary

10 earth to labor: eConomiC Growth is no salvation
By Se a n Sw e e n e y

15 the assaUlt From the riGht

15 tea Party ameriCa and the born-aGain PolitiCs oF the PoPUlist riGht
By Da r r e n Do c h u k
The unholy marriage of economic and Christian fundamentalism.

22 the riGht-to-work oFFensive: traCkinG the sPread oF the anti-Union virUs
By Pe t e r ra c h l e f f
What used to be a peculiar Southern institution is threatening to go national.

30 the Feminization oF aUsterity
By Mi M i aB r a M o v i t z
Women are the frontline casualties in the war against the public sector.

41 eUroPe’s PolitiCal niGhtmare: why the Christian and soCial demoCratiC Parties
have sUrrendered to the bond market By Jo r D a n Sta n c i l Europe’s political
establishment turns a deaf ear to mass street protests against austerity.


49 what we don’t talk aboUt when we talk aboUt Jobs: the ContinUinG sCandal
oF aFriCan-ameriCan Joblessness By a n Dy k r o l l In good times and bad,
black unemployment has remained disproportionately high.

56 let’s talk aboUt the Jobs GaP:
a resPonse to andy kroll
By arlene holtBaker

61 mobilizinG the UnorGanized: is “workinG ameriCa” the way Forward?
By a M y D e a n Exploring alternative strategies for rebuilding the
House of Labor.

71 FlorenCe kelley: Pioneer oF labor reForm
By Peter Dreier

77 workinG-Class voiCes oF ContemPorary ameriCa

77 workinG on the railroad, walkinG in beaUty: the voiCes oF navaJo railroad workers
By Jay YoungDahl

82 eConomiC ProsPeCts
By roBert Pollin

86 roots oF rebellion
By Peter Dreier and chuck collinS
A guide to insurgencies from coast to coast.

92 in the rearview mirror
By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
Revisiting the past to illuminate the present.

98 CaUGht in the web
By Liza Featherstone
Labor news, views, and resources online.


102 books and the arts

102 the FUtUre doesn’t work
some place like america; Tales form the New Great Depression
By Dale Maharidge (Photographs by Michael S. Williamson)
Reviewed by Connie Schultz

105 inside the blaCk box
a shameful business : The Case for Human Rights in the American Work Place
By James A. Gross
Reviewed By Ellen Dannin

108 what haPPens when Care workers enter the marketPlaCe?
iNTimaTe laBorS: culTureS, TechNoloGieS, and The poliTicS of care
edited By Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar ParreñaS revieweD By GeralDine GorMan

112 Out oF the mainstream: books and Films yoU may have missed By Matt Witt

116 Poetry

118 aboUt oUr ContribUtors

Winter 2012

from the editorial team

As we go to press, occupy wall street has electrified the world. to even hazard
a guess as to its future would be foolhardy in the extreme at this formative moment
in the movement’s life. but we can say a few things. First of all, hallelujah! three
years into the most severe economic collapsesince the Great Depression, a strange
silence had settled over the countr y. Many had reasonably predicted a great rising
of resistance and rebellion against what Karl Marx once called “the Vatican of
capitalism,” by which he meant the elite world of high finance and its political
enablers. But nothing much happened. And then it did, as if out of nowhere, beginning
with a small encampment of several hundred young people in a small park a block away
from Wall Street. One month later, in a thousand cities around the world all on the
same day, millions occupied their own symbolic Wall Streets. Nothing like that has
ever happened. Not ever! There are at least two great mysteries of human history.
One is why people endure what they endure from the powers that be for so, so long.
The second is why, one day, they don’t. We have just been witness to both.

For the labor movement OWS is, potentially, a chance at resurrection. And we are
pleased to report that (with little delay) many unions recognized that possibility,
quickly endorsed OWS, marshaled their members to march in solidarity, and have explicitly
connected their own struggles against corporate domination to the central insight of OWS:
namely, that a multitude of miseries—joblessness, poverty, mass foreclosures, environmental
poisoning, unprecedented inequality, tyranny at work, deindustrialization, imperial war,
sweatshops, inaccessible health care—must be addressed at their root. A pathological form
of finance capitalism headquartered on Wall Street has sustained itself for a generation
by eating the American (and not only the American) economy alive. This notion that there
is a system at work creating all this devastation is actually not alien to the labor
movement, but it has been muted within its ranks for far too long. Among the many
accusations hurled at OWS is the charge that it is waging “class warfare.” Yes,
indeed! Finally! And this has opened up spacefor the labor movement to engage
openly in that battle—something even its otherwise cautiousfounder, Samuel Gompers,
took for granted as an everyday fact of life under capitalism.Already, we can happily
mark the first tangible victory in that war; namely, theoverwhelming vote to repeal
Ohio’s anti-collective bargaining law in this past
November’s election.

In future issues of New Labor Forum, we hope to write extensively about OWS and the
various forms this still protean movement is likely to take on in the months and years
ahead. In this issue, many—although not all—of our articles examine the dark side of
what’s been happening of late.

Until OWS erupted, most of what passed for rebellion
was happening on the right, a grim development to be sure. Darren Dochuk provides a
penetrating analysis of the rise of the Tea Party. He argues that its combination of
economic and Christian fundamentalism has been percolating away for a long time and
accounts for its enormous throw-weight inside the Republican Party. Jordan Stancil
explains why, even in the face of mass street protests, the governing parties in Europe
(both Christian and Social Democratic)—who once mounted serious criticism and resistance
to the worst abuses of free market capitalism—have surrendered to the bond market. In an
article about the broad, state-by-state assault on the labor movement, Peter Rachleff
documents the epidemic spread of “right-to-work” legislation andreminds us how in the
past the labor movement and its allies have sometimes managed to defeat this kind of
anti-union attack. We might now rename America the “United States of Austerity.”
Mimi Abramovitz dissects the particulars of this new order to expose the way its
impact will be felt disproportionately by women. For African-Americans, the financial
meltdown has deepened an entrenched crisis. But, as Andy Kroll points out, the black
unemployment rate has for generations stood unchanged at double the rate of white unemployment.
The AFL-CIO’s Arlene Holt Baker responds to Kroll with some thoughts about what the labor
movement should do about this national scandal. Like many of the promising beginnings of
the Obama administration, real action to avoid the looming environmental Armageddon of a
fossil-fuel driven economy has died on the vine. In “On the Contrary,” Sean Sweeney
provocatively argues that the whole model of economic growth powered by a green capitalism,
‘a model to which parts of the labor movement have been attached for some time, is itself a
dead end.

We are happy to note, however, that this issue is not all gloom and doom. For
some years now, “Working America” has been an ongoing experiment by the AFL-CIO on how
to mobilize those millions of working people outside the union movement without actually
enlisting them in trade unions. Amy Dean provides a close analysis of that experiment, in
what ways it has succeeded, in what ways it has not, and how it remains a work in progress.
One of our columnists, Peter Dreier, is publishing a book this spring comprised of biographical
sketches of people he considers the most noteworthy progressive leaders of the last one hundred
years. We are proud to publish an adapted version of his mini-biography of Florence Kelley, a
pioneer of labor reform. Dreier’s regular column, “Roots of Rebellion,” also appears in this
issue (co-written with Chuck Collins) and is devotedto applauding “traitors to their class,”
meaning rich people who have invested their money and time in helping build local movements
for democracy and social justice.

Our other columns also provide reasons for hope.Jay Youngdahl,
in our “Working-Class Voices” feature, tells the story of Navajo railroad workers, whose lot
has been a hard one for generations, but whose cultural traditions have sustained them through
those privations. Robert Pollin writes about viable alternatives to the kinds of austerity and
“recovery” measures that both the Republican Party and the president have suggested. On the web,
Liza Featherstone sends us to sites that can inform people about the vital economic role of
immigrant labor, immigrant-rights activism, and anti-sweatshop developments, among other matters.
Ben Becker’s “Under the Radar” shows off the wit on display at OWS, shines a light on little-reported
fightbacks, and (as usual) contains statistics and quotes that may leave you gasping. Steve Fraser and
Joshua B. Freeman recount in “In the Rearview Mirror” the remarkably imaginative and courageous ways
people have responded to the trauma of unemployment since the antebellum days of industrial capitalism.
Our “Books and the Arts” section contains reviews of books about human rights in the workplace; the
mostly female workers who provide various kinds of intimate, caregiving services that were, once upon
a time, unpaid and confined to private households; and the way economic hard times have spread from
blue- to white-collar America. And Matt Witt’s ever-popular “Out of the Mainstream” highlights a host
of recent books and films that deserve your attention. We end with the blues, a selection of poems
that chronicle the human toll of unemployment, from the abandoned slag heaps and factories to the
local bars and backyard gardens.

New Labor Forum 21(1): 4-5, Winter 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-

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


A Moment in the Sun
By John Sayles
McSweeney’s, 2011

In a 955-page novel, Sayles captures a major slice of American history from a working class perspective. During a five-year period at the end of the 1800s, his vivid characters are involved in the U.S. war with Spain over the Philippines and Cuba, the gold rush in the Yukon, continuing battles over racism in the South, and much more.


Black California
Edited by Aparajita Nanda
Heyday, 2011

Contributors to this anthology that begins with the founding of California and moves to the present day include many well known African-American writers, from Langston Hughes and Chester Himes to June Jordan and Devorah Major.


Death of the Liberal Class
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2011

In a convincing and bitter rant, a former New York Times reporter details how the corporate elite has defeated and co-opted the Democratic Party, universities, the news media, unions, religious institutions, and other pillars of the liberal class that once provided a buffer between working people and raw corporate power. Like most recent books about the sorry state of the world, it does not end with suggestions of what to do.


Local Economic Development in the 21st Century
By Daphne T. Greenwood and Richard P.F. Holt
M.E. SharpE, 2010

In very readable prose aimed at community activists and public officials, two economics professors argue that “economic development” can no longer simply mean attracting big corporations on whatever terms they dictate but must take into account environmental sustainability, quality of life, and economic and social equity.


Re:Imagining Change
By Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning
PM Press, 2010

This short paperback is a useful tool to help activists think about campaign strategy and how to effectively frame issues.


Roses for Isabella
By Diana Cohn, illustrated by Amy Cordova
SteinerBooks, 2011

In this beautifully illustrated children’s book, a young girl in Ecuador tells about her life. Her parents work on a large farm that grows roses for export to the U.S. They recently switched from a farm where they were exposed to toxic chemicals to a Fair Trade producer that provides a safer work environment and pays more. A teaching guide is also available.


The Fear Within
By Scott Martelle
Rutgers University Press, 2011

Throughout American history, crises have been exploited to take away freedom of speech from those whose beliefs challenge powerful economic interests. A former Los Angeles Times reporter looks back at the 1949 trial of the leaders of the Communist Party U.S.A. who were prosecuted not for actions they had taken but for their ideas and beliefs. His goal is not to lionize the defendants, but to remind Americans, in the age of the Patriot Act, how easily our freedoms can be taken away in the name of protecting them.


The Great American Stickup
By Robert Scheer
Nation Books, 2011

The editor of Truthdig provides one of the most readable accounts yet of how Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama allowed Wall Street to enrich itself while jeopardizing most Americans’ economic security.


The Man Who Never Died
By William M. Adler
BloomsBury, 2011

Joe Hill, the subject of the famous song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” was a songwriter for the International Workers of the World who was executed in 1915 by Mormon authorities in Utah for a murder he did not commit.


The Ringer
By Jenny Shank
Permanent Press, 2011

This engaging novel is based on an actual incident in which Denver police mistakenly killed an innocent Mexican immigrant. The story begins with the killing and follows the families of both the victim and the police officer who was responsible.



Where Men Win Glory
By Jon Krakauer
DoubleDay, 2009

This may be the best introductory book on the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The core of it is the story of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who volunteered to serve in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman was killed by friendly fire—a fact the Pentagon and Bush White House deliberately covered up. Krakauer provides a gripping account of Tillman’s life, warts and all; the circumstances of his death; and the attempt to exploit him as a martyr supposedly killed in battle. At the same time, the book provides thorough yet accessible historical background behind Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan.


Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights
Edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard
The New Press, 2011

This anthology of writings by many of the leading progressive media critics provides thoughtful perspectives on how Americans will get information in the future, how to promote a diversity of voices, and whether there is still an important role for professional journalists.


Amigo, 2011

John Sayles’s new film is set in a village in the Philippines in 1900. The U.S. has taken the country from Spain and made it an American territory. Insurgents are fighting to regain control of their nation. The war’s principal effect, Sayles suggests, was to make many in the younger generation of Filipinos hate the United States. Some viewers may see parallels to America’s more recent wars.


Anpo, 2010

The unusual way this documentary is made makes it particularly interesting. The subject is the popular movement in Japan from the end of World War II to the present day to protest the continued presence of large scale U.S. military bases. The story is told not by a narrator but through interviews with Japanese painters, photographers, and filmmakers, along with images from their work related to this subject.


Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos, 2009

More than a thousand workers from a town in Guatemala have moved to Jupiter, a coastal town in Florida. Jupiter responded by creating a center where immigrants can learn English, get training, and connect with employers. Some local residents object, saying the center encourages law breaking and drives down wage levels. This hour-long documentary, shot in both communities, shows why the Guatemalans come and gives voice to all perspectives on the immigration issue.


Even the Rain, 2010

This innovative feature tells the story of a Spanish crew that is making a dramatic film to show the truth about the conquest of the Americas. They decide to shoot their film in Bolivia where they will be able to pay most of the actors only two dollars a day. Their film, as we see it being shot, succeeds in bringing the conquest alive from the natives’ point of view. But the production schedule is threatened when one of the indigenous people the directors hired as an actor becomes involved in leading protests against the government over access to drinking water. The film we are watching and the film within it become intertwined as the directors’ core values are challenged.


I Am a Man, 2009

A twenty-seven-minute documentary features participants, as well as their descendants, from the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King was visiting when he was killed. The strike, sparked by the deaths of two workers on an unsafe truck, added momentum to a nationwide drive for unionization and better treatment for city and county workers who were paid poverty wages. The film and a study guide can be downloaded from the project’s website.


Locked Out, 2011

This hour-long documentary shows, from beginning to end, a four-month battle by nearly six hundred borate miners in a remote desert town in California against drastic takeaways demanded by Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world.


The Welcome, 2011

Several dozen U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam (nearly all of them white) met for several days and, with the help of a professional facilitator, talked and wrote poignant stories and poems about their traumatic experiences during and after their service. This should be a must-see film for all non-veteran Americans to get a glimpse of this aspect of the damage these wars are doing.


There But for Fortune, 2011

Phil Ochs was one of the most influential songwriters of the 1960s. His songs became anthems of the anti-war and social justice movements, but as the social upheaval of that period lost momentum, he became depressed and plagued by alcoholism until, at age thirty-five, he committed suicide. The film is a touching requiem for the man and the movement he was part of.


Unnatural Causes, 2008

Americans’ health and life expectancy are closely related to whether they have a job, how much money they have, where they live, and the color of their skin. A seven-part series documents this reality that has been largely unmentioned in national and state-level debates about health care reform. One segment is an hour long and the others a half-hour each.


William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, 2009

Kunstler was one of the most important lawyers of the 1960s and 1970s, from major civil rights cases to the Chicago 8 to the Attica prison revolt to the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. This profile was made by his daughters, Sarah and Emily, who are activists themselves. They use their special access to present a nuanced portrait of a controversial figure whose choices many people, including friends and family, did not always agree with.

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

Working on the railroad, Walking in Beauty: The Voices of Navajo Railroad Workers

Those who drive along Interstate 40 from Albuquerque, New Mexico through northern Arizona and into the Southern California desert are treated to a rainbow of colors in the mesas and through the mountains. They encounter the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, a stunning descent into the canyon of the Colorado River, and the subtle variations of a cactused landscape. While the beauty delights travelers, this natural view is often interrupted by the consistent stream of trains—owned by Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad—rolling over the double-tracked rails that parallel much of the highway. If you drive past these rails, you’ll often see large gangs of men—some working with hand tools, others operating machinery—maintaining the rails so the tracks can absorb the constant pounding that the trains dish out. Travelers in the Southwest often don’t know that many, if not most, of these men are Navajos. The Navajo Nation, occupying a landmass north of these tracks that’s nearly the size of the state of West Virginia, has been their home for roughly seven hundred years. Nearly a quarter million Navajos live here.

Railroad work has been one of the only forms of continuous wage labor available to Navajo men since their return to this reservation after the infamous U.S. government-enforced “Long Walk” of the 1860s. While Navajos and the Western railroads have a constant connection, an upsurge in Navajo railroad employment began after World War II, when companies were forced to send Mexican “bracero” workers home. In order to supply labor to the railroads a paternalistic triangle was formed. It was comprised of the U.S. government, mainly represented by the Railroad Retirement Board, an obscure federal agency based in Chicago; the Western railroad companies; and the owners of the trading posts that dotted the reservation. The Navajos had no say in the arrangement. Leroy Yazzie Sr., a pleasant sixty-year-old man with a sparkling Navajo sense of humor, found work on the railroads through his trading post. He got his job on the Rock Island Railroad after talking to a trader at the local trading post who told him to “round up some Navajos.” Leroy found some men willing to go work at the railroad. All of the Navajo men got in the back of a pick-up truck and the trader drove them to the embarkation site.

Railroad work is generally dangerous and, with few exceptions, Navajos are offered only the most difficult work on the major Western railways—track maintenance. Injuries are commonplace, as track work is still performed much as it was well over one hundred years ago. So, to this day, after the snow begins to melt in the spring, Navajo men leave their reservation and travel between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River, in gangs of up to one hundred, maintaining and replacing aging railroad tracks.

Jerry Sandoval, the brother of a traditional medicine man, lives in a family compound at the end of a road on a beautiful small mesa overlooking a small settlement in the “checkerboard” area of the Navajo Nation. Jerry, a pleasant stocky man in his fifties, went to work for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1978, travelling throughout the Southwest and the southern Midwest off and on for the next eight years, rising at one point to the position of assistant foreman. He is a family man, and his house is festooned with artwork made by his kids. One of them now serves in the U.S. military.

Jerry thought it was “pretty nice to see a lot of places” during his railroad work and to meet a lot of different people. Most of his work was as a trackman on a steel gang laying rails. He worked on some gangs that had Navajos, Anglos, blacks, and Mexicans.  But usually he worked on steel gangs that were all Navajo, consisting of more than one hundred men, mostly from the Arizona side of the reservation, living in railroad cars and often working twenty days without a day off. He is proud of the work of the Navajos saying, “We Indians were the best.”

Jerry stayed employed over several winters, working on curb gangs and replacing switches. However, like many workers who fall out of the world of wage labor, he suffered an accident, breaking his leg in a car wreck on his way back from work. He never recovered well enough to return to the railroad.

Track work takes its toll on workers, physically and psychically. Navajos are unionized, but their relationship with their union has not completely satisfied them. While these men have the same legal rights as non-Navajo railroad workers, Navajos turn to their cultural traditions to survive the relentless demands of industrial capitalism. Rituals and ceremonies are employed to find personal protection at work and to maintain or restore beauty and balance, an integral concept of Navajo existence, known as hózhǫ́. Jerry told me about a variety of his co-workers’ rituals and ceremonies—given the brutal schedule that is life on a track gang, however, the men could only occasionally get away for these practices. Some workers used corn pollen before work, ritually applying it to their bodies. Some “churchgoers” used anointing oil before work in a similar manner. Native American Church practitioners had medicine pouches, and they would often (after work) put herbs on the diesel stoves in the bunk cars, filling the cars with the aroma from their smoldering. On Sundays,

Christian men would try to go to nearby churches. Co-workers who practiced traditional religion sometimes went into the mountains after work to “do their stuff” (i.e., traditional singing).  Some mornings Jerry could hear some of them praying.

Hoskie Pinto started working on the Union Pacific Railroad in 1957, as a laborer with a shovel and a pick. His gangs included Navajos, other Native Americans, whites, and Mexicans. While he worked all over the Union Pacific system, on and off, for more than twenty-five years, he was never able to accumulate the months of service required to earn a pension. Again, as with many others, his railroad service ended when he got hurt. In the 1980s, while he was laying ribbon rail in

Cheyenne, Wyoming, a piece of rail fell on his foot. When he was taken to the hospital, a company claims agent came to his room and told him to sign something. According to the agent, it was a good deal. Hoskie was never given a copy of the paperwork, but it was most likely a settlement agreement, in which Hoskie gave up all his rights to sue or collect compensation. The railroad made no plans for what he should do after this. As soon as he was physically able to travel, the railroad put him on a plane to Denver. When he got there he did not know what to do, and he speaks little English. Fortunately, he met a Hispanic man from Santa Fe who recognized his plight. Hoskie followed him and they flew to Albuquerque, where Hoskie boarded a train and got off near the reservation. Due to the inadequate medical treatment he received, his leg still hurts. After his accident, his grandfather taught him and his brother the craft of becoming a medicine an.

Kee Spencer, who lives on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation, is especially adept at these traditional strategies for combating the rigors of railroad work. Kee, a medicine man in both the traditional and peyotist religions, often was asked to hold ceremonies for railroad workers. Several years ago he held a “meeting,” the term used in the peyotist tradition for what Christians would call services, for a worker who came to him complaining of harassment on the job. The worker expressed a fear to Kee that the railroad was hurrying people to work too fast and that injuries would result. The men understood from their Anglo bosses that the railroad wanted their gang to install two thousand railroad ties each day on a section of track, resulting in a speed-up that guaranteed serious safety problems. In response, Kee performed a traditional Goodway ceremony and a peyote meeting for around twenty-five people who gathered in Burnt Corn, Arizona. As it was summer, the meeting took place in a tepee, and lasted through the night. It was important, Kee told me, that those in the ceremony “think good thoughts.”

During the ceremony, participants were able to “look into the fire and see things,” he said. Some days after the ceremony, the workers came back to Kee and told him that the railroad had changed its production quota for the men, reducing it from the requirement to lay two thousand railroad ties a day down to a manageable five hundred ties a day. There is now less harassment and more safety. Kee says the ceremony is responsible for the improvement. “My prayers were answered,” he said.

Railroad life puts great stress on Navajo families, as well as on the workers themselves. The family of Dickie and Marilyn Sandoval is one such example. Dickie worked for Union Pacific from 1988 to 1994. In 1988, he hitched a ride with his uncle, who was working on a Union Pacific gang in Wyoming. He was hired onto this mixed gang, which included Anglos, Mexican-Americans, and Navajos. With much difficulty, his wife Marilyn and their two children followed the gang in the summertime when the children were out of school, staying in a motel near the work site. Later, Dickie worked on steel and tie gangs, and his railroad career took him and his family to Nebraska and Kansas. However, Dickie lost his job because transportation difficulties prevented him from consistently getting to work at the appointed hour. The Navajo Nation reservation is a sprawling piece of land and few surfaced roads cross it. At the time, Dickie did not own a car and had a hard time getting to the gangs when he was recalled after seasonal layoffs. He was eventually fired for not showing up to work, even though he says he notified the railroad whenever he could not make it. His Anglo boss maintained there was no record of notification efforts.

As is the case with many American working families, young Navajos often go into the military. Jared—the son of Marilyn’s sister, Patty—was serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army when we talked. Patty had a hogan—a small, round building like those that can be seen throughout Navajo land—built near her house in which ceremonies to protect her son were performed. Patty made sure that a Blessingway ceremony was performed for Jared when he left for Iraq and when he returned from military duty. While Jared was in Iraq, Patty acted as his “stand-in.” People sung over her while traditional ceremonies were performed to better ensure his safe return. After each of these ceremonies, she had to stay “holy” for two to three days. This meant, Marilyn told me, that she could not cut meat, chop weeds, or shake hands with people. Finally, for Jared’s protection, she had a medicine man perform a ceremony on an arrowhead that she found. When Jared returned home on leave, Marilyn gave the arrowhead to him and he wore it for the remainder of his military assignment. When Jared finally returned for good, he was alive but had two pieces of shrapnel lodged in his body.

Navajos don’t shun collective labor action or legal rights. Strikes by Navajo workers, especially in Western coal mines, are not uncommon and today they often seek lawyers for help with their workplace injuries. But, like all of us, Navajo people struggle—in culturally specific ways—to find methods to resist the onslaughts of the system in which we live.

Life is a constant negotiation of forces that must be faced, through actions that aim to reintegrate and replenish. All workers seek well-being through practices and resources that are available to them and, as such, seek to satisfy common needs and desires in what often seem like uncommon ways to others. For Navajo railroad workers, in spite of their many obstacles and continuing difficulties, their practices have allowed them to stay cohesive, balanced, and even cheerful—states of mind we all aspire to attain.

Mobilizing the Unorganized: Is “Working America” the Way Forward?

Given the dramatic decline of union membership, the U.S. labor movement needs to reach out to a broader base of working- and middle-class Americans. Now more than ever, non-union workers need an advocate, within both the economic and political realms.

This idea is at the heart of Working America, a national initiative established in 2003 as the “community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.” Working America now claims more than three million members. Eight years after its creation, the organization has demonstrated some impressive capabilities; but, at the same time, it raises questions about the limitations of labor’s vision in using community outreach and organizing to build an inclusive base of power.

Working America has been successful as an independent political operation in battleground states. But unless unions address the challenge of forming a common agenda in realms that go beyond narrow electoral campaigning or political issue advocacy, and unless they are willing to invest in reviving labor’s local infrastructure, efforts to reach out to a constituency wider than the movement’s dues-paying members will continue to be constrained.

Creating a Battleground Canvass

Ideas that laid the groundwork for Working America initially developed in the 1980s out of a discussion about how federations like the AFL-CIO could re-establish themselves as bodies representing the interests of all working people in the country. Economists—including Harvard’s Richard Freeman—recommended developing an “associate membership” program, and the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work propelled the idea with its 1985 report, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.” Subsequently, through the 1990s and 2000s, labor leaders recognized that reversing a declining rate of overall unionization needed to be a priority; but they also recognized that labor needed to be able to establish a base of support that went beyond dues-paying members covered under collective bargaining agreements.

By 2003, electoral politics emerged as an arena in which labor should reach beyond its membership base to represent working-class communities. The electoral operations of affiliate unions had grown more sophisticated than ever before. Labor field campaigns demonstrated that they could create very high turnouts among their members, and that—when organized— approximately 70 percent of members would vote for candidates endorsed by their organization. This represented an historic high—but it also appeared as something of a limitation, given the declining rate of unionization. Thus, both the ability as well as the need to reach out to a broader base was clear.

To take the success of labor’s existing voter outreach and replicate it among non-union members, Working America established a door-to-door canvass in electoral battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, and New Mexico. The organization targeted moderates and swing voters, especially members of the white working-class who, starting with the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, had been the first to flee the Democratic Party. Dues would be voluntary, as the organization sought to reach out to the largest possible base. The question, says Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, was whether this constituency could “be part of a sphere of influence” the same way that union members were?

Electoral Successes

The answer, Working America demonstrated, is “yes.” The strengths that the organization can now claim are based in its political focus. It has established that it can go into battleground electoral districts and deploy an effective political canvassing operation, run by paid staff. Working America has appealed to blue-collar voters in areas of declining union density and rallied them to a more progressive agenda.

In its analysis following the 2008 elections, the organization reported that: “Working America members voted for Barack Obama at much higher rates than their counterparts in the public at large…For example, while white men voted for McCain by sixteen points, white male Working America members voted for Obama by twenty-seven points.” Overall, voting patterns among Working America members were comparable to those of union members.

Not only has the organization been politically persuasive, it has excelled at turnout. Following the 2010 elections, Working America’s preliminary analysis shows that people canvassed “voted at an average 7 percent higher rate than their neighbors. In some states, that difference was as high as 20.4 percent among certain segments of voters.” The difference such an effort can make in a given race is profound. In Colorado, Working America knocked on the doors of seventy-nine thousand voters in advance of the 2010 midterms. Representative Ed Perlmutter, an endorsed candidate, won by just twenty-four thousand votes.

Longtime labor journalist and Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes, “The particular niche that Working America occupies is not one that the rest of the liberal coalition can occupy. They are going after white, working-class swing voters. Who the hell else could do that?”

Building Capacity, door to door

Currently, Working America has a staff of approximately twenty-five people in Washington, D.C. and a field staff that fluctuates somewhat, but is now near 150. In the past year, it ran on a budget of approximately $20 million. About half of that funding came from unions, the other half from outside supporters and the organization’s members. Nussbaum states that Working America’s field organizers, collectively, have twenty-five thousand in-person conversations with members and potential members every week.

In contrast to many political operations, Working America does not merely open field offices for a few months in the lead-up to elections. Political Director Matt Morrison explains, “Our primary means of reaching out to members and recruiting them and renewing them is via the canvass operation. We have canvass offices spread throughout the country that operate at different sizes. But, generally speaking, we’ll have an operation up and running for about a year and a half within the cycle. Most of that happens well before election season.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka adds, “After Election Day was over we used to dismantle the mechanism that we had in place, and there was no way to do accountability. We are changing that to do year-round mobilization and education, so that we can move seamlessly from electoral politics to advocacy, and from advocacy to accountability. Working America is obviously part of the process.”

According to Nussbaum, about 40 percent of Working America members give canvassers their e-mail addresses, so the organization maintains an active online program, sending issue e-mails every seven to ten days. Yet the organization has recognized that, in order to broaden the base, there is no replacement for walking the neighborhoods and creating face-to-face connections.

Working America’s Pittsburgh Regional Director Jenn Jannon explains how the canvass operates:

Many of [our three million members] signed up when a canvasser came to their door, had a fairly brief conversation with them about an economic issue, [and] got them to sign on as a member. Then from there [the canvasser] actually engaged the person in some sort of action right at their door. Our canvas staff [is] doing things like generating hand-written letters or having people call their legislators, normally about some sort of state or local or federal issue we are working on that has an economic impact on our members.

Nussbaum adds:

We say, “Here’s what Working America stands for,” and there’s a list of five issues: good jobs, a secure retirement, quality education, health care for everyone, corporate accountability . . . . Two out of three people join, and that’s been true since the day we started . . . . 25 to 50 percent of people we talk to will take an action that night. If you’re doing an action like a petition, 75 percent of people will do it. But even writing letters, making a phone call right that minute to a congressperson or your state legislator—big numbers of people will do that.

Less than a quarter of Working America members pay dues of $5 per year. However, Nussbaum argues that this is by design—the purpose of the organization is to be as large as possible. Speaking of the principles that guided Working America’s development, Nussbaum says, “We were intended to be a mass organization, not a cadre organization or a community organization that really puts [an] emphasis on leadership development. We were about being big.” The descriptions of the organization’s intentions and ambitions go far in explaining the type of operation it has become and the areas in which it has achieved the most success: electoral and political advocacy. The question—both to critics and supporters alike—is whether this represents the full potential for labor’s expanded involvement in community affairs.

Unfulfilled Potential?

Working America is widely admired for what it does well. But even some who are generally supportive see it as limited to a political focus. It is around questions of how Working America can live up to a fuller potential that some outsiders have raised questions and the organization itself has strived to “go deeper.” Ultimately, there are political and financial reasons why Working America has developed in the manner it has so far. The AFL-CIO’s affiliate unions have been far more willing to accept leadership from the federation in the realm of politics than in the realm of organizing. Richard Hurd, Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, argues: The AFL-CIO has proven that it cannot play a role in organizing, that its role has to be in the political realm, that’s where unions accept the leadership and guidance and coordination of the federation. The AFL-CIO tried to promote organizing from 1995 until 2005, for most of the first ten years of Sweeney’s reign . . . but it was very clear that the member unions resisted in the effort to assign jurisdiction, or in any effort to coordinate any organizing.

Hurd may overstate his case a bit. In addition to politics, member unions have accepted a role for the federation in mobilizing movement-wide support for affiliates during major strikes, for example. But overall he makes an important point, one that is echoed by others.

Labor strategist Steve Rosenthal notes that some affiliates’ enthusiasm for Working America, and for providing funding for the group, increased as it asserted a political focus. Others, however, believe Working America’s political and electoral work is also a limitation. They are critical of its emphasis on informing and mobilizing working-class communities instead of developing grassroots leaders. Responding to such concerns, Working America launched a “member coordinator” program in the spring of 2010, focused on deeper leadership development.

Jannon says:

“We’ve really worked to give people a place with
Working America where they can become activists
on economic issues. In Pennsylvania we did a
long campaign on the budget this year. We began
getting our members really deeply engaged at
the door through our canvass, but then also our
member coordinators would call a certain subset
of our members back, ask them to do letters to
the editors about the budget. They ask them to do
direct lobby meetings with legislators about the
budget. We also asked them to get their friends
and family involved, sort of working their own
networks. What we found is that our members
come back, they want to do more action with us.”

While Nussbaum takes exception to depictions of Working America as an entirely electoral operation, she acknowledges that the organization is most focused on the arena of political/legislative advocacy. “We’re not likely to send people to a picket line,” she says, “because that’s not really how our members identify themselves. But we are likely to invite people to a rally about the state budget or lobby their state representative on health care” or other issues relevant to working people.

Experimenting with New Forms of Representation

It is important to note that, in discussions going back for decades about how labor might experiment with representing people outside of collective bargaining, political mobilization represented only one of many possibilities. It is beyond the scope of this article to undertake a thorough survey of various ideas for how labor might experiment. Nor does any one proposal today serve as a useful prescription for how Working America should change. But, by way of comparison, it is useful to mention some other relevant initiatives.

One alternative vision for labor outreach pictures a program that would engage working-class people to create organizations that might more directly lead to traditional union organization. Hurd proposes that such an effort “would be very active in places where unions might have an opportunity to organize, and it would be used not only as a way to connect with people politically, but also as a way to develop organizing campaigns that resulted in workers being recognized in the workplace.” Such organizing has been attempted by several internationals on a small scale. The most ambitious current effort in this vein is probably the United Food and Commercial Workers’ investment in “OUR Wal-Mart,” an advocacy organization for all Wal-Mart employees. This type of drive might also incorporate tactics being used by the “workers’ centers” that have emerged across the country in the past decade. These tactics include pursuing wage and hour lawsuits, or mounting public pressure campaigns against targeted employers to compel them to address grievances in workplaces not covered by collective bargaining agreements. Distinct from this first alternative, another vision sees the labor movement undertaking community organizing around economic justice issues in the mold of groups like ACORN. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently launched a “Fight for a Fair Economy” campaign, which in many ways parallels the efforts of Working America. However, instead of focusing on predominantly white swing voters in battleground states, it appears that the SEIU will be targeting people of color and other core constituencies of the Democratic Party, with the goal of creating an activist force that can demand accountability from politicians. Nussbaum distinguishes the two projects, characterizing the Fight for a Fair Economy as “more like the ACORN model of going through neighborhoods that are probably somewhat lower income than ours, looking for really lathered activists, and turning it into a kind of very confrontational activist base.” A third model of labor experimentation with non-traditional members focuses on providing services to workers not covered under traditional collective bargaining agreements. These include the Freelancers Union, which attracts many consultants and contingent workers by offering a group health insurance plan, as well as efforts to provide “union privilege” credit cards or other benefits to non-union members. This model has the advantage of being largely self-sufficient in terms of funding—something neither Working America nor Fight for a Fair Economy can claim. The difficulty with this approach is converting a consumer relationship into leadership development and significant organizing.

Labor’s Electoral Mobilization Meets

Community organizing using any of these visions as a predetermined model for Working America’s future development would be a mistake. For her part, Nussbaum acknowledges that there are no easy answers about how to establish Working America as a more full-bodied community organization. She expresses a desire for a broader organizing program to form organically out of Working America’s existing work. Furthermore, Trumka expresses a desire to bolster funding for Working America to allow for growth. “It’s been underfunded at the beginning, and now we’re trying to properly fund it,” he says. “They’ve only recently begun spreading out and talking union at the doors and finding organizing leads. So, we think that’s a real potential for it in the future as well.”

Allowing for the organic development of Working America in the way Nussbaum suggests makes sense, and Trumka’s desire to increase funding is a positive sign. At the same time, if the organization is going to grow to scale and achieve a fuller potential outside of battleground states, the labor movement must address three challenges: the first concerns the ability of different unions to work together in a disciplined way on initiatives that fall outside the realm of politics; the second involves the willingness of affiliates to invest in state and local structures; and the third pertains to labor’s expectations for the Democratic Party.

First, Working America must be allowed to become more than an electoral or political vehicle. And this means overcoming the hesitancy among unions to work together on anything except politics—a trend discussed earlier.

If labor is going to go beyond moving people to the polls, it must combine its capacity for electoral mobilization with organizing around issues of central concern to people’s everyday lives. Community organizing has the strength of meeting people where they are and engaging them on the issues that matter to them most on a day-to-day basis. The national community organizing networks are mobilizing people around things like foreclosures, refinancing, payday loans, and improving public schools. Even as it maintains a national program, labor should be seeking to link up with such campaigns.

In localities and metropolitan areas where labor has been able to revive its central labor councils, form deep coalitions with progressive partners, conduct innovative research into local economies, revamp its political program, and work around community issues—a program I call regional power building—it has been able to make strides despite difficulties on the national political scene. Even amid tight public budgets, using leverage over zoning, land use decisions, tax incentives, and other mechanisms of local governance has provided an avenue for labor to take up activism in other areas that directly affect people’s lives: transportation, housing, and community development.

Such a program has important implications for unions’ political strength. For we know that if labor is seen as a narrow special interest, we lose. If it is seen as a force that is consistently acting in the common good for local communities, and consistently delivering, its base of support widens.

Infrastructure for Change

Second, if the labor movement is going to scale up its community outreach and organizing it must address the challenge of infrastructure. The best chance for Working America to grow dramatically and take hold outside of battleground electoral states would be for it to integrate itself into the existing local and state structures of the labor movement. Instead of pursuing only a political agenda determined by leaders in Washington, D.C., local branches should be allowed to advocate for community needs at the level of specific cities and regional metropolitan areas. This means that affiliate unions must confront their reluctance to invest in building the movement’s local infrastructure.

The internationals have been wary to invest in developing the capabilities of central labor councils and state federations, and thus expand their ability to run ongoing, independent political programs in municipal regions. Indeed, if they had believed that the local institutions could develop their own community outreach programs, they would not have invested in Working America in the first place.

A real investment in local infrastructure would take resources, but this issue goes beyond financial commitment. Already, the state and local structures of the labor movement are consuming resources. But, with few exceptions, they are not receiving the type of support that would allow them to develop robust local political programs or organizing drives around community needs. Instead, national campaigns are designed that circumvent them and draw top talent from elsewhere.

Unions therefore have a choice. They need to make labor’s municipal councils and state federations real or abandon these structures altogether.

A Clear Demand to Democrats

Even as labor’s electoral operation has grown more sophisticated in recent decades, we have seen that simply electing more Democrats to office on lesser-evil terms, or on the basis of friendly posturing toward unions, has failed to produce the results unions need to survive. President Trumka has recently responded to this reality by publicly asserting that the federation will maintain greater independence from the Democratic Party, working only on behalf of candidates who will champion the interests of working people.

The challenge is to be specific about what this means. While we can be imaginative within local areas, labor must narrow its demands at the national level and have a clear litmus test for candidates. Labor’s endorsement of candidates must be based on a single criterion—whether candidates will treat social movements as a partner in governing and strengthen their ability to shape public policy. The mechanism for pursuing this goal (whether it’s passing the Employee Free Choice Act or adopting other reforms) might change, but the end goal should always be the same. At the national level, politicians who receive labor’s support must be committed to making changes that can shift power relationships in this country and help movements build an institutional counterbalance to the influence of corporations and moneyed elites.

Working America’s development thus far has demonstrated the extent to which the AFL-CIO’s affiliates have been willing to get behind a coordinated approach to political action in battleground states. Its accomplishments have been significant. But if labor is going to reach beyond selected swing states and seek to expand its base among working families on a much broader scale, unions must be willing to invest financially and strategically in reviving the movement’s local infrastructure, take extra measures to make sure they are not just electing more Democrats to office, and overcome their hesitancy to work together on the issues that matter most at a community level. Organized labor must provide concrete reasons for people to see it not as a special interest group for a few sheltered workers, but as a leader in crafting solutions to community problems.

Together at Last!

Down in New Zealand, a country with an unusually cohesive (though struggling) union movement, affiliates of the national union federation have launched an innovative thing called “Together.” We’re calling it a thing because it doesn’t really fit into any of the usual drawers. It’s not a union, not an NGO, not an organization, not a network, not an association, club, sect, faction, fraction, tendency, or movement. What it is, above all else, is a potential solution to several of the quandaries that unions have been trying to solve for at least ten years.In the New Zealand Council of Trade Union’s own words: “Together aims to connect workers in un-unionized workplaces with the union movement and the union experience.” In order to do this, it provides “help with issues like workplace bullying, sick leave, holiday pay, employment agreements, and sexual harassment.” Together is a national service that is being developed for the “precariat”—that rapidly growing cohort of workers who do not fit into the standard laborist model of industrial capitalism. Because it is being developed at the national level, with affiliates’ buy-in, it cuts across regional, sectoral, and strategic lines. In particular, it aims to bring together: people on casual contracts; those in industries like IT, tourism or in small shops, or driving taxis; contractors and workers in remote areas and small towns who don’t currently have access to a union; and the families of current union members. Membership costs just $NZ 1 per week, which is roughly 20 percent of typical union fees in New Zealand. (One kiwi dollar is equivalent to about $US0.87 or £UK0.53 or ¥68.) Family membership is also on offer, bringing a still larger audience back into unionism’s traditional orbit. In fact, the word they use here is “whānau,” which is a Maori word suggesting something more like “extended family.” So, or instance, if mum or dad is a union member, they can also arrange union support for their children, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, and grandchildren. As affiliated unions sign up to sup- port and promote the system, they sign a “Memorandum of Commitment” ( This is the key document to read, if you want to understand how Together works. Needless to say, there are all kinds of potential conflicts and pitfalls and fishhooks in a project like this. It is a credit to the kiwis that they’ve managed to negotiate such concerns and get Together off the ground.

*The full version of this excerpt (available at was originally printed on the New Unionism Blog on July 26, 2011.

Inside the Black Box

A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace
By James A. Gross
Cornell University Press, 2010

Reviewed by Ellen Dannin

These days, much of politics and values in the United States gets filtered through the views of the right-to-life movement. But when it comes to the right to have a decent life, too many of our leaders are deaf and blind to taking action on the desperate conditions of so many in this country. Among those pressing for change, Cornell University’s James A. Gross has been a strong and consistent voice for the “ought to be” of work.

Starting roughly a decade ago, Gross began exhorting us to bring worker rights under the umbrella of human rights. His newest book, A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace, is the fruit of this vision. There is no question which side he is on. The author’s voice is passionately present in every line of every page. The book covers issues of race and human rights, the ascension of market economic values over worker rights, the clash of property and labor rights, and safety and health issues in the workplace. This book is a no-holds-barred indictment of economic laissez-faire theory, its underpinnings, and its effects. The title of Gross’s concluding chapter (“Crimes against Humanity: Concluding Thoughts about Choosing Human Rights”) best captures his position.

Gross covers intellectual and legal developments that most of us have forgotten or never learned. For example, in his chapter on the triumph of the market economy, Gross describes how law and power evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to support the structure of employment in the U.S. That evolution, under the influence of capitalism, created a system in which the master-and-servant doctrine enforced inequality, while claiming that employers and employees had reciprocal rights and obligations. Here, and throughout the book, Gross shows how law has been used to enforce the subordination of workers. Partnership law gives employers the power to become a collective entity, and corporation law gives employers eternal life, simply by filing legal documents. While employees can also become a collective entity, that process is far riskier and more difficult than simply filing legal documents, and its existence is under constant assault.

Gross puts this into an historical perspective, noting that entrepreneurs, characterized later by muckrakers as robber barons, needed to reconcile the values they preached of the free individual competing in the atomistic free market with the reality of concentrated corporate economic and political power” (p. 68). He describes this condition as Darwinian power that has used Christian principles to justify itself, as in Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 “The Gospel of Wealth.” “That was accomplished by combining Darwinian survival of the fittest theories and Christian principles into a justification of wealth and power. Darwin and Jesus were woven together and, in turn, interpreted through a combination of laws: the Scientific Law of Competition and the divinely ordained Law of the accumulation of Wealth” (p. 68). Gross questions why employers are allowed to have inherent rights, while workers have none. Thus, although we talk about bargaining agreements, the result, he says, can never be a bargain between equals.

Gross reminds us that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—which was enacted to promote employees’ collective strength and achieve equality of bargaining power—was perceived as a serious threat to management. However, conservative judges tried to strangle the new legislation at its birth by developing doctrines that undercut its clear language through decisions that permitted captive-audience speeches, limited the right to bargain, and limited remedies in cases such as Darlington, which allowed employers to close part of their businesses to retaliate against employees for choosing union representation—and yet suffer no meaningful sanction.

Gross traces the effects of court decisions that reversed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions that had enforced rights protected by the NLRA. These chapters provide details of legal developments that may have slipped from most of our memories if, indeed, we ever learned them. Gross ends his case analysis in the 1980s and thus leaves the George W. Bush-era NLRB free from scrutiny. The book would have benefited from revealing the pernicious role courts have played in weakening remedies.

Many people are unaware that conservative Supreme Court justices pushed to weaken NLRA remedies as soon as the ink was dry on the new law. As a result, many now believe, incorrectly, that Congress approved an NLRA with only limited and weak remedies.

Gross’s book has many strengths, but teachers using it will need to update and supplement his discussion. For example Gross includes workplace safety—or actually the lack thereof—in his book, an issue that often is not given as much attention as it deserves in books on labor rights. Gross criticizes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) failure to promulgate more regulations. There is no question that the Occupational Safety and Health Act needs to have more effective enforcement, but it is important to understand why this is not the case. OSHA all but gave up on issuing new health and safety standards after it became clear that court-created barriers made it nearly impossible to uphold them. OSHA’s prospects for issuing new standards were further dimmed when, in 1996, Congress enacted the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, which gave Congress and the president the power to review and reject OSHA standards. Its first target was OSHA’s proposed ergonomics standards. Rather than take the risky route of promulgating OSHA standards, Congress eventually enacted the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act in 2000, but only as a result of years of lobbying by health care workers and especially nurses. Another important ally on this issue was the Center for Disease Control, which found that six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand needlestick injuries involving contaminated needles occurred each year. In addition, seventeen states had already passed needlestick laws. There are undoubtedly problems in promulgating OSHA standards, but OSHA is as much a victim as it is a source of the problem.

Gross criticizes OSHA for relying on fines instead of criminally prosecuting employers for serious injuries. However, this is a story that involves more than mere neglect or failure of will on the part of OSHA, although that has certainly been the case under some administrations. The Occupational Safety and Health Act authorizes criminal penalties that have rarely been used. The PBS Frontline investigation in A Dangerous Business (see does a good job of exposing the human toll caused by an under-resourced, timid OSHA when faced with a malign employer operating in a very dangerous industry.

However, that is not the whole story. Assessing OSHA’s performance requires understanding the effects of the structure Congress created to encourage states to assume full responsibility for workplace safety and health. Roughly half the states took on that responsibility, and some have been creative in using their criminal codes to prosecute employers for deaths and serious injuries, with varying degrees of success. The September 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina fire—which killed twenty-five Imperial Food Products workers—is an example of what can happen when states take over workplace safety and health oversight, but then fail to meet their obligations. According to a United States Fire Administration report, “During the eleven-year operation of the plant, no inspection was conducted by [the] North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Unfortunately, the book does not discuss the states’ role in promoting workplace health and safety and the wisdom of devolving workplace health and safety responsibilities to the states.

Those assigning the book to their students might want to supplement it with materials on mining. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) once had a good record for making a very dangerous industry much safer, but not in recent years. Materials on that devolution would amplify the story of workplace health and safety in recent years.

Gross draws on his deep experience as an arbitrator to show how arbitration has increasingly failed to keep workers safe. He criticizes it as a corrupt system in which arbitrators are beholden to employers and unions for their next case. He points out that the “term parties, moreover, referred only to the employer and the union that negotiated the contract, who agreed to submit an issue to arbitration, and selected and paid the arbitrator” (p. 140). As a result, arbitrators were not concerned with workers’ rights and placed management rights over employee rights. As Gross observes, “This approach, therefore, considered only collective interests and rights but not the rights of workers as individuals.” For example, the standard for deciding whether employees could refuse work that was too dangerous has devolved from requiring an employee to show a reasonable belief that the work is dangerous to requiring the employee to prove—by objective evidence—that the work is dangerous, a standard of proof that is almost impossible for an employee to meet. More problematic has been the development of an employer defense that, by accepting work, employees assume the risk of injury. Gross points out the control that employers—not employees—have over workplace conditions and advocates aligning worker safety and health standards with human rights standards that would make employers responsible for protecting worker safety and health. Gross develops his themes using philosophy and economic theory. Readers and teachers might also want to examine recent behavioural economic experiments and socio-economic research, much of which tells a different story than does neo-classical economic theory. While teachers who assign the book will want to consider providing additional materials to update it, and some may be concerned about its strong partisan tone, A Shameful Business offers valuable new insights into the state of American workplaces and how we tolerate business practices that will certainly injure workers.