From The Editorial Team | Spring 2011

From Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin, the political climate has changed. After years and decades of quiescence and acquiescence to the domination of powerful elites, resistance suddenly erupts. Who can say why exactly? Why now, why not before, why ever? Historians will ponder this. For the moment, it is enough to know that it can happen, that all across the Middle East and across the American Middle West it is happening. What will be the outcome? At this writing, and for some time to come, no one can say for sure. But as the thousands upon thousands of demonstrators at state capitols and in the streets of American cities have made clear over the last several months, people are prepared to do more than just wait and see.

An accounting and assessment of the Egyptian revolution will appear in the fall issue of New Labor Forum. (It is at least already clear that the Egyptian labor movement played a critical role not only recently, but in the years leading up to the events of this past winter.)

Our lead article in the current issue examines the events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere. There, a right wing, emboldened by Obama’s “shellacking” in last fall’s midterm elections, launched a no-holdsbarred assault on the rights and material well-being of public sector workers and their unions. At least four features of that attack—and the massive blow-back it inspired—stand out. First, it happened in precisely that region—the country’s industrial heartland—gutted by a generation’s worth of deindustrialization at the hands of Wall Street financiers. Where once there were well-paid, skilled, and unionized workers—and a more equal distribution of the tax burden, able to support a decent level of public services—now there are corporate tax delinquents, ghost towns, legions of the permanently unemployed, and a workforce that’s lower paid, less skilled, downwardly mobile, just hanging on. Second, the insurgency simultaneously highlighted how perilously weak and defensive the labor movement had become. After all, the public workers’ unions in Wisconsin made every tangible concession demanded of them by the newly elected “Tea Party” governor, Scott Walker. They only balked when he and his Republican cohorts threatened to drive these unions out of existence. Third, once Wisconsin’s state employees did get their backs up, the spirit of resistance spread like a prairie fire, not only enlisting the sympathy and solidarity of private sector unions that could see the handwriting on the wall, but all sorts of “non-labor” folk—students, church groups, community organizations, even small businessmen. This is a portentous sign of the viral spread of a social emotion: empathy. On its intangible basis, the labor movement once was and could be again the magnetic center of a movement for social justice. Last but not by any means least, Madisonians and others skirted or broke the law. They occupied buildings, didn’t show up for work, high-tailed it out of the state to avoid the local constabulary. For an institution that has been tied up in knots by all the rules and regulations of state law—and by the byzantine machinery of conventional collective bargaining—this signaled desperation. But it was also a symptom of returning good health. A movement that has seemed moribund for some time now needs to display just this kind of energy and imagination to make its presence felt once again. Stanley Aronowitz explores these and other critical issues that the events in Madison busted open for urgent debate.

Other articles in this issue orbit around the same questions, as they have arisen here at home and abroad. J. Phillip Thompson examines how the progressive wing of the Democratic Party might recover from the notorious beatdown the Party received in the recent off-year elections. Instead of caving in to right-wing, anti-socialist mongering, Thompson proposes that labor and its allies push for ambitious public-private investments in a green economy. Anne Marie Lofaso takes a detailed measure of the first two years of the Obama administration’s record when it comes to delivering the goods to its most faithful ally: the labor movement. She finds the balance sheet mixed—on the legislative front, nothing but lost battles or battles the administration never even faced up to; but in the arena of executive branch action, real progress was made. Obama’s rhetorical sympathy for labor union rights during the Madison blow-up was encouraging, but his overall strategy for getting re-elected seems to move in the opposite direction. So, increasingly, the labor movement must rely on itself and on its friends who are not in high places. That is just what happened recently in the Mojave Desert. Peter Olney describes how unionized borate miners turned a concerted anti-union offensive by one of the largest mining corporations in the world into a union triumph.

Overseas, in Africa and Asia—not to mention the Middle East and Egypt—there is a new restiveness among organized working people. Pretty much all of India was on strike during the past year or so. Subhashini Ali provides a meticulous dissection of the Indian labor movement, examining its caste and political divisions—as well as its sectoral strengths and weaknesses—and offers an itemized rendering of its recent, remarkable combativeness. As a deeply depressed economy run by a megalomaniacal, geriatric tyrant, Zimbabwe is an unpromising locale for just about anything having to do with human welfare. Yet as Bernard Pollack describes, the labor movement—both among waged workers and among the vast population struggling to survive in the country’s informal economy as peddlers, handicraftsmen, and the like—has made great strides of late. Throughout Africa, Chinese investment—from both the state and the private sector—is promising to transform the continent. Herbert Jauch analyzes the pros and cons of this phenomenon. On the one hand, Chinese capital is contributing to the modernization of everyday life, building infrastructure, and providing employment. Yet at the same time, the Chinese seek to establish a neocolonial relationship that discriminates against and exploits African workers, short-circuiting real economic development. Labor movements in various African nations are struggling to come to grips with the Chinese presence.

If we are entering—or have already entered—a new period of labor movement combativeness, the role of “outsiders,” particularly intellectuals and academics, may grow in significance. Should they get involved in intramural union conflicts? Dan Clawson argues in “On the Contrary” that—under the right circumstances and with all due respect for their trade union comrades—indeed they should. Mounting a more robust resistance to the powers-that-be will also entail taking on Wall Street, which is riding high these days despite its woeful record of incompetence and greed. Robert Pollin argues in his column that although Dodd-Frank—the new financial regulatory law—has many shortcomings, it also provides real room to rein in the Street. Liza Featherstone’s “Caught in the Web” column alerts readers to sites that both inform and help mobilize resistance to the war on the public sector and its unions. “In the Rearview Mirror” travels back in time to explore the connection between historical memory and mass social insurgencies. And—in addition to some heartening stories about grassroots insurgency—Ben Becker’s “Under the Radar” column compiles some written witticisms of Madison’s pro-labor protesters.

Milton Rogovin, a renowned photographer of great artistry who made it his life’s work to capture on film the hidden lives of ordinary working people, died recently at the age of 101. Janet Zandy has put together a photo essay about Rogovin, which includes a sampling of his work that’s on display at Chicago’s Gage Gallery/Roosevelt University until June 30, 2011. This issue’s “Books and the Arts” section continues that theme with reviews of two collections of short stories featuring working-class characters, a book about how the European social welfare state makes America’s seem anemic and heartless, and an analysis of two books about community organizing, including one about ACORN. We end with the young poet Marcus Jackson, whose carefully crafted poems parody the wealth gap, pay playful tribute to Kool-Aid, and reckon with a Friday evening shift at the grocery store.