From The Editorial Team | Winter 2011

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.


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