Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Getting the Working Class Right

The below Washington Post piece ran just as my new book launched on Labor Day: Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide Check the book out here.


The Media Still Gets the Working Class Wrong

by Lane Windham

This will be the first Labor Day since America rediscovered its working class – or, more accurately, one part of its working class. If there was any consensus in the aftermath of last November's election, it was that elites had lost touch with working people. Yet ten months later, most commentators still get the working class wrong.

We hear a lot from pundits about working-class white men, conjuring images of blue collars, hard hats and simmering resentments expressed through votes for Donald Trump.

But in reality, America’s working class is largely female and disproportionately black and brown. Service jobs now outstrip those in manufacturing; the jobs with the highest-projected job growth are typically woman-dominated working-class jobs like nursing, home health care and food service. Significantly, the majority of members of the working class do not see President Trump as their defender.

Post-election analysis overlooked both the complexity and creative energy of the nation's working class. Increasingly, working people are organizing a new kind of workers' movement that combines traditional unions with organizations that build worker power beyond the weakened collective bargaining system.

In fact, we may stand on the cusp of a new surge of worker activism unlike any the U.S. has witnessed since the 1970s. Historians have missed that pivotal decade's working-class promise, instead painting it as an era of division and defeat. School busing riots seize center stage in their tale, as do highly visible male construction workers beating up Vietnam War protestors.

This story isn't wholly wrong, but it's incomplete. The focus on a hard-hatted "silent majority" obscures the millions of workers who were part of a newly diversified working class in the 1970s and who actively organized unions. How we understand working people and their politics, both in the past and today, matters deeply for how we perceive the causes and solutions for the nation's economic divide.

White men haven't been the epicenter of the working class since the 1960s. Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, women and people of color finally gained more access to jobs at the economy's core. Once this diverse group of workers got those jobs, they demanded unions. A half-million working people per year voted in private-sector union elections in the 1970s, pushing for the full economic security that came with a labor contract.
Employers, however, manipulated aging and outdated labor laws to thwart their efforts. Even unionized industrial employers began to resist new organizing in the 1970s, backed by a vastly expanded anti-union consultant industry.

Globalization and mechanization eroded union membership, but so too did the fact that workers couldn't win union representation over employer opposition. In the 1940s, workers won 80 percent of their union elections. By the late 1970s, employers had the advantage, winning more than half of these elections and blocking workers' access to collective bargaining, a key economic equalizer. Union membership has since continued to slide — a mere 6.4 percent of private-sector workers today have a union.

As unions declined, so did our nation's democracy. After all, organized labor devotes tremendous energy and resources to getting voters to the polls. Groundbreaking research by sociologist Jake Rosenfeld reveals that since 1984, election-day turnout among private-sector union members without a college degree has been seven to eleven points higher than that of similar workers who aren’t union members.

Unions also educate their members on economic and political issues, and so counterbalance the temptation among workers to let divisive cultural issues determine their votes. That is especially true among white union members, who tend to vote more conservatively than do union members as a whole. Far fewer working people today are privy to these kinds of workplace conversations than in unions' heyday.

Unions’ shrinkage also fed the nation’s growing economic divide. Researchers find that between one-fifth and one-third of wage inequality is due to the drop in union membership since the 1970s.

Today’s key working-class concern isn't whether Trump saved a few manufacturing jobs in Indiana. The most burning question seems to be off his radar entirely: how can the majority of working people build better lives when jobs are so bad and unions are so weak?

Part-time, poorly-paid jobs are the new norm, especially in the service and retail sector. Workers often find that they are legally considered independent contractors — and therefore unprotected by labor laws — even when they drive the same truck route each day, or sweep the same office floors. Also excluded from labor law protection are the millions in the gig economy. And when “protected” workers try to form unions, employers routinely fire, harass or threaten them.

Yet despite these challenges, America's diverse working class is even now building a new workers' movement, often far outside the media spotlight. It’s different from the twentieth-century labor movement, which consisted of traditional unions alone. Workers today are blending unions with new organizations that experiment with innovative ways to circumnavigate the nation’s broken labor law system.

Women and immigrants lead these worker centers, public wage campaigns and occupation-based organizations, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Such groups make creative use of public opinion, wage and hour laws and tried-and-true community organizing tactics to rebuild workers' economic security, even within the changed twenty-first-century workplace. Without ever engaging in collective bargaining, New York restaurant workers have used this array of tactics to win sick days, and Massachusetts domestic workers have won a “bill of rights” guaranteeing overtime pay and fair treatment.

Workers still want unions. Witness the upsurge of unionism on university campuses where adjunct faculty, graduate employees and food service workers are all demanding their right to bargain collectively.

Working people also are pioneering entirely new ways to raise wages and win benefits, often leveraging the power of local government. Sixteen states and localities have approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour since 2013. San Francisco, Seattle and New York City have all enacted fair scheduling rules to protect certain workers from erratic shifts and insufficient hours. Unions, worker centers and community groups have banded together to buoy these wins.

Much depends on the success of such experiments. In the twentieth century, we learned that healthy democracies require economically secure citizens. For a generation, we have witnessed the erosion of both. This Labor Day, working women and men are increasingly fighting to reestablish a basic economic foothold. Yet their struggle will remain largely invisible to us as long as we fail to see today’s working class in all of its diversity.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Women Hold the Keys to New Working-Class Prosperity

Women Hold the Keys to New Working-Class Prosperity

Posted on July 3, 2017 by Working-Class Perspectives

America rediscovered its working class during the 2016 election, and many Democrats and progressives now call for fresh policies to address the nation’s crisis of bad jobs and stagnant wages. Twenty-first century working-class prosperity, however, must involve a reinvigorated labor movement. And women, especially women of color, will be more central than ever before.

Pundits and politicians often use “working class” as code for a white guy in a hard hat. Yet America’s working class is primary female and is disproportionately brown and black. This is true no matter how we define the working class.



The media usually defines the working class as people without a four-year college degree, which includes two-thirds of Americans. By this measure, women are the majority of the U.S. working class. In fact, 52 percent of people over age 25 without a four-year degree are women, according to census data, and a disproportionate number are women of color. If we describe class by education, people of color will be a majority of the nation’s working class by 2032, earlier than in the overall population.

But is a college degree the best marker of what it means to be working class? Many people who are high earners don’t have a college degree. If we use income as our lens, then women still are overrepresented in the working class. Though government data often subsumes women’s earnings within household data, women are disproportionately among America’s lower earners. A recent GAO report found that though women make up nearly half the nation’s workers, they make up nearly 60 percent of the workers in the lowest wage quintile. We all know about the wage gap – – the median woman worker is paid 83 cents on every male dollar, and for black and Hispanic women it’s even worse. Even when women and men hold the exact same working-class job – – like as a housekeeper, trucker, or nurse – – men still earn more than women.

Maybe the kind of job you do is the best way to gauge class status. Here again, women are increasingly central. Eight of the ten occupations with the highest projected job growth by 2024 are women-dominated, working-class jobs, such as personal care and home health aides, nurses, food preparation and serving and retail salespeople. The jobs women hold are at the heart of an economy that is more based on service and finance than on industry.

Perhaps the best way to measure class is to just ask people about their class status. The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently tabulated data from the General Social Survey that polls Americans about class identification. While white women and men were equally likely to say they were working class – – about 40 percent made this identification – – a full 56 percent of black women and 62 percent of Hispanic women identified as working class.

Any way you cut it – – by education, income, job, or class identity – – the U.S. working class tilts female, and clearly it is not just white.

Today’s workers are women, and they’re also mothers and caregivers. Four in 10 American households with children include a mother who is either the sole or primary wage earner. Yet the nation has not yet dealt with women’s basic issues as workers, and societal and economic structures still assume a male, industrial breadwinner. Unlike other industrial nations, the U.S. doesn’t have robust child care and family leave policies. Working-class people often face long hours and unpredictable schedules that are impossible to square with family life. In most households, women still do most of the cleaning and cooking, doing the double duty of paid work and family caregiving. One recent AFL-CIO report found that women have less than forty minutes a day of personal time after fulfilling all their other responsibilities.

This is why issues that matter for all working families — universal child care and pre-K, paid family leave, free college and guaranteed fair scheduling, affordable housing, and fair wages — are especially important for working-class women. Wealthier families can afford privatized versions of these essential tools. They can hire nannies, afford unpaid leave, pay for college, and cover the mortgage. But working-class women are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly precarious economy.

Women are the core of the new working-class, and their concerns make up the nation’s most pressing working-class issues. That’s why women’s leadership – – especially among women of color — will be critical for a new working-class movement.

This is the goal of a new joint project by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University’s Center for Innovations in Worker Organization. WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) will identify, nurture, and train a new generation of women leaders for today’s workers’ movement. Participants will benefit from training and mentoring, apprenticeships, fellowships, and a public advocacy and research platform. The project will help seed a new generation of women leaders who can help convene and lead a cross organizational collaboration to mobilize the full potential of today’s working class.

WILL Empower builds on the fact that women are already at the leading edge of the resistance. With five million global participants, the Women’s March on Washington was perhaps the largest political mobilization in history. Women’s leadership mobilized both men and women to express their outrage at the new political order. Women have continued to march, huddle, strike, and organize since January, among them legions of young women workers. A Day Without a Woman further spotlighted women’s role in the economy, and working-class women also drove a Day Without Immigrants.

The project will amplify women’s emerging role as the face of the 21st century workers’ movement, a movement that blends traditional unions and “alt-labor” organizations, like workers’ centers and wage campaigns. By 2023, a majority of union members will be female, and women are already leading many of the nation’s largest unions, like the NEA, AFT and SEIU. Women have been key leaders in new worker organizations, especially young women of color – – like at the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance.

A newly-mobilized working class could reshape the nation’s economic and political landscape. Yet in order to build a winning movement for these times, working-class women’s issues and leadership must be front and center to progressive core strategies, policies and organizations. Women, it seems, hold the keys to the way forward.

Lane Windham

Lane Windham is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (K.I.) for Labor and the Working Poor where she jointly directs the K.I.’s WILL Empower partnership with Rutgers. She holds a doctorate in U.S. History.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

From Pink Collars to Pink Hats: Working-Class Feminism and the Resistance

By Lane Windham


Photo from Women Firefighters Contingent to the Women's March on Washington

Tightly gripping a “Firefighters for Women’s Rights and Equality” banner at the Women’s March on Washington, a group of women who had once made history as New York City's first female firefighters roared up Independence Avenue. There, they joined a new generation of labor activists: teachers, nurses, government workers, restaurant servers, home health-care aides, communications workers, and thousands of other working-class women and men who turned out to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration in what was perhaps the largest global political mobilization in history. Women have continued to march, huddle, strike, and organize against Trump since January, among them legions of young women workers. Is it possible that women—including working-class women—can generate a powerful-enough grassroots movement to overcome Trump?

It’s not immediately obvious that a new women’s movement will spell the Donald’s downfall. The corporatized feminism featured in the popular media seems a particularly poor basis for opposition. If Dove soap, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and Ivanka Trump are our modern-day feminist icons, there is little hope that the women’s movement can be a cross-class organizing tool. Even many progressives doubt the power of women’s issues to transform the political moment; some branded the call for women to strike on March 8 as elitist, for example.


Feminism too often gets a rarified label; it’s considered the property of elite women with their eyes on glass ceilings. Yet working-class feminists have long been potent champions for women’s advancement, and 1970s second-wave feminism had deep cross-class roots. The late-night huddle in Betty Friedan’s hotel room that first sparked the National Organization of Women (NOW) included a number of union activists, among them Caroline Davis and Dorothy Haener of the United Auto Workers and Catherine Conroy of the Communications Workers of America. NOW’s founders were fed up with the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s refusal to target gender job discrimination while enforcing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Working women activists formed more than a dozen organizations to improve “pink collar” office work in the 1970s. Women Employed in Chicago and 9to5 in Boston upended cultural expectations that secretaries should pamper and fetch coffee for their male bosses. Women like those roaring NYC firefighters fought their way into all-male blue-collar enclaves in the 1970s and 1980s, filing lawsuits and demanding respect.


Today, women once again lead a wave of labor and class-based organizations, and together these groups make up a new iteration of working-class feminism. Women are at the forefront of “alt-labor” groups like the Restaurant Opportunity Centers, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance, and all brought troops to the Women’s March on Washington. Women are key activists in traditional unions, too. Three of nation’s largest unions—the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Service Employees International Union—have female presidents, and women will make up a majority of U.S. union members by the year 2023. Women are far more likely than men to hold the sorts of part-time and contingent McJobs that are becoming the economy’s norm, and they are fighting back from the helm of the Fight for 15 campaign. The Black Lives Matter movement’s analysis includes a savvy mix of class and race; its three founders are all women. In fact, Black Lives Matter activists will demonstrate alongside workers leading Fight for 15 on April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Young women also power much of the immigrant workers’ rights movement, yet no one thought to label the recent Day Without Immigrants strike as elitist.

A big difference between the working-class feminism of the 1970s and that of the 2010s has to do with the economy. When those firefighters and pink-collar secretaries fought for inclusion 40 years ago, they demanded access to an economy marked by broad prosperity. Working people’s share of the pie had been steadily growing for decades, and they saw no reason why that wouldn’t continue. Since that time, working people’s prospects have dimmed and their wages have stagnated; the United States has largely traded manufacturing jobs for low-paid, contingent service jobs.

Women constitute four out of ten breadwinners in American families, yet they still make far less than men and hold the worst jobs in the emerging precarious economy.
Today’s working-class feminists must fight not only for economic inclusion, then, but also for economic transformation, demanding an economy that works for all. Women constitute four out of ten breadwinners in American families, yet they still make far less than men and hold the worst jobs in the emerging precarious economy. Working women’s top concerns include good family leave, a decent wage, fair scheduling, and paid sick leave, and all these are potential wedge issues that could break apart Trump’s blue-collar coalition.

After all, many working-class women voted for Trump. While the majority of females voted for Clinton, a full 61 percent of white women without a college degree walked into a voting booth and filled in a bubble beside the name of a man who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without consent. The breadth of white working-class women’s support for Trump was one of the many 2016 election shocks that a flawed polling system failed to predict. While analysts will long debate these voters’ thinking, it’s clear that many of these women share the sense of dislocation and despair that drove white, blue-collar men’s votes. Common-sense economic solutions for working women will be key to turning around those votes for progressive candidates in 2020 and beyond.

That’s why the robust working-class feminism bubbling up among women, particularly young women workers and women of color, holds the power to reshape the nation’s economic and political landscape. Young women are leading the most exciting and dynamic aspects of the 21st-century progressive movement, and they’ve been at this for a while now—well before the sea of pink pussy hats riveted the world’s attention. Progressives who seek to oust Trump should nurture and support today’s intersectional working-class feminism; far from elitist, it speaks for so many Americans that it may provide the key to long-lasting change.

You can find the piece at the American Prospect here

Monday, December 5, 2016

Workers’ Menace Becomes a Threat to Commuters

Elaine Chao, Bush’s Labor Secretary, is Trump’s Pick for Transportation


By Lane Windham

First appeared in The American Prospect


Donald Trump's big swamp drain has dredged up Elaine Chao, a right-wing ideologue who was George W. Bush's Secretary of Labor. Tapped by Trump for Transportation Secretary, Chao is a consummate Washington insider who was the only member of Bush's cabinet to serve throughout his entire eight-year presidency. Chao is also married to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

I was at the AFL-CIO during Chao's entire tenure, and witnessed first-hand the havoc her policies wrought on workers and unions. Political at every turn, she saw her role as Labor Secretary as cooperating with corporations, rolling back overtime protections, weakening enforcement of wage and hour laws, and pursuing labor organizations - - especially those that had supported Democrats. John Sweeney, then AFL-CIO President, called her the most anti-labor labor secretary he had ever seen.
If you ask many labor leaders what they most remember about Chao, they'll tell you about the time she brought a thick dossier detailing union-related corruption to the 2003 AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, and then read it aloud to the nation's top labor leaders. She singled out the International Association of Machinists, spotlighting investigations that the union itself had flagged for the Department of Labor.

Chao also successfully urged Bush to issue a back-to-work order in a West Coast ports lock-out that ground shipping to a halt. It was the first time in 30 years a President had invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to end a labor dispute.

Chao's tenure, however, ultimately did more damage to average workers than to labor leaders and unions. She rolled back workers' overtime protections, allowing employers to reclassify rank-and-file workers as "team leaders" or "professionals," so they wouldn’t qualify for overtime pay after 40 hours worked in a week. Under Chao's overtime "fix," many restaurant and retail workers who spent most of the day ringing up customers were suddenly "executives" exempt from overtime. The Economic Policy Institute later estimated that Chao's rules robbed as many as six million workers of overtime pay.

The Obama Administration's Labor Department has since issued new rules on overtime that would repair much of Chao's damage. By raising the salary threshold under which workers must receive overtime pay to $47,000, the Obama Labor Department sought to restore overtime rights to millions of those "managers" whom Chao had excluded. A Texas federal judge has since ruled that the DOL didn't have the proper authority to raise the overtime salary threshold, and the Obama Administration has fought back with its own lawsuit. Ironically, Chao's Labor Department also raised the salary threshold for overtime, using the same rule-making authority rejected by the Texas judge. Chao, however, set the bar so low that it helped few exempted workers.

Workers were also no safer on the job after Chao's tenure. One of her first actions was to champion Congress' roll-back of an ergonomics rule aimed at reducing repetitive-motion injuries, like those suffered by poultry workers on wickedly-fast disassembly lines. The rule had been in the works since the presidency of Bush's father, and Bill Clinton issued the rule in his final months in office. Instead, Chao's Labor Department issued ergonomics "guidelines" with little worker protection.

The Labor Department is responsible for mine health and safety, and yet it put forward no meaningful mine rules or regulations until after the 2006 Sago mine explosion that trapped a dozen West Virginia mineworkers in a methane-filled passageway. All but one died. Wilbur Ross, Trump's pick for Commerce Secretary, owned the mine at the time and had little to fear from Chao's Mine Safety and Health Administration, even though before the explosion workers at Sago had been injured three times as often as workers in similar mines.

Indeed, most damaging to workers was what Chao did not do as Secretary of Labor. The Labor Department is supposed to enforce the rules that protect workers, such as those guaranteeing a minimum wage. Chao's Labor Department was a cop that refused to lift a finger to enforce the law. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a blistering report in early 2009 that detailed the multiple ways that Chao's Wage and Hour Division had left low-wage workers vulnerable to wage theft and abuse. The report found that under Chao, the Labor Department had failed to investigate workers' reports that they had been denied minimum wage, overtime pay and even their last paycheck. It even cited a report of child labor that Chao's department had never investigated.

As Secretary of Transportation, Chao will have enormous influence over how a Trump Administration impacts average people's lives. She will oversee enforcement of the rules that govern our nation's roads and airways, and will determine whether corporations' needs take precedence over public safety. She will weigh in on decisions about whether new infrastructure is built by unionized workers, and will be in charge of policing new technologies, like self-driving 18-wheeler trucks. If the labor movement's experience is any guide, it may be time to start depending on your bicycle. As Transportation Secretary, Chao is likely to stick closely to a right-wing ideology that will have her bowing to big business' needs at every turn.

Lane Windham is a fellow with Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She served as AFL-CIO media outreach director until 2009. Her book, Knocking on Labor's Door, is due out from UNC Press in 2017.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Union Erosion Crumbled the Blue Wall
by Lane Windham

Here's my latest piece on why the decline in union membership, and collective bargaining, enabled Trump's victory From The Hill

Democrats had good reason to believe that Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would remain a solid fixture in their "blue wall," the bulwark of states that had voted their way in the previous six elections.

The race seemed tight in Pennsylvania in early November, but national polls consistently gave Clinton the edge, and hardly anyone thought Michigan and Wisconsin were truly in play. What a difference a couple of weeks makes. The thunder of that blue wall's crash has since shocked the world.

What brought the Democrats' wall down? Much of the post-election commentary blames the white working class. Economic anxiety was key, especially among the lower middle-income voters most likely to vote for Trump. Trump lassoed their fear of falling economically to regressive views on race, gender and immigrants. We now know that this strategy was enough to turn key states red, in part because many decent people became willing to look the other way. Almost no election analysis, however, has taken a deeper look at the structures that supported the blue wall in the first place.

Labor unions long served as the blue wall's load bearing bulwark, and their steady erosion finally allowed it to give way. It's not just that union members and their families tend to vote more Democratic. They did so again in 2016, albeit by smaller margins than for Obama.
What matters most is that we've reached a tipping point at which unions are too weak to effectively improve large numbers of workers' lives, and that void leaves working people vulnerable and angry in the face of tumultuous economic changes.

America has long had a fraught relationship with its unions. The idea of workers' collective power holds an uneasy seat within a culture that prizes an up-by-the-bootstrap mythology. Yet collective bargaining was central to the mid-twentieth century prosperity that Trump supporters idealize. Strong unions balanced corporate power and set higher wage and benefits standards not only for union members, but for much of the economy. Unions made sure that rising productivity translated into rising wages and so made sure that the economy's fruits were widely shared.
Inequality started to grow in the 1970s. That's when a more globalized and financialized economy took root, and when well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector started to lose ground to far worse jobs in retail and service. Meanwhile, unions shrank and fewer workers benefitted from collective bargaining's equalizing effects.

Thirty years ago, nearly one in four working people in Wisconsin was a member of a union. Today, a mere eight percent have a union. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, union membership has dropped by half. Private sector union membership has reached a paltry 6.7 percent, a nadir not seen in the United States since 1900.

Unions did not just fade away, but came under heavy attack. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and the state's GOP set their sights on unions in 2011, and effectively stripped unions of their base. Public-sector workers must now vote each year on unions and can't even volunteer to have dues deducted from their paychecks.The national offense against unions started decades earlier, however, when employers began to squeeze unionized workers and began to break labor law more frequently. Democrat after Democrat did too little to defend workers' access to unions, and so quickened labor's demise.

We are now living through the latest contest over the terms of a new global economic system. What will be the rules and whom will they serve? It's part of the same struggle that undergirded Brexit and is fueling right-wing parties throughout Europe. We find ourselves at a dangerous moment. Diverse and inclusive democracies thrive best when prosperity is broadly shared, yet today inequality thrives and backlash surrounds us.

The Republicans' sweep means that they will be a position to rewrite the rules for the new economy, and it's clear they will soon escalate their attacks against workers' unions. They will attempt to do to the nation's union members what they did to Wisconsin's union members.
Shoring up unions must be at the core of the Democrats' plans at a deeper and more meaningful level than at any time in the last 30 years. Our democracy depends on economic equality more than ever, and unions remain one of our best tools for achieving it.

Windham holds a PhD in history and is a fellow at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Her book, Knocking on Labor's Door, is due out from UNC Press in 2017.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Best Read for Labor Day 2016

Lane Windham

Best Read for Labor Day 2016: Tamara Draut's Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016)



Like me, are you bone weary of hearing non-stop news coverage of Donald Trump? Do you roll your eyes when the pundits “discover” the working class at election time, and then groan when you realize that by “working class” they really only mean white guys? Are you itching for an entirely different public conversation?

Tamara Draut’s Sleeping Giant offers a sharp and widely-accessible discussion about the future of America’s working class, and so brings welcome relief in this election season. Her premise is that there is a “new” working class, compared to that of thirty years ago, that is more racially and ethnically diverse, more female and more likely to work in retail and service. Pointing to the Fight for $15 and the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, Draut posits that this “sleeping giant” may be in the beginning of effecting larger social and economic change.

In a swift and conversational style, Sleeping Giant distills much of the current research on inequality, bad jobs, and precarious work, and couples it with original interviews with workers and activists. We learn, for instance, that only five of the thirty fastest-growing U.S. occupations will require a bachelor’s degree; so much for the elite’s insistence that education will be the great leveler. The chapter on the “New Indignity of Work” could serve as an undergraduate primer for perils in today’s economy such as subcontracting, just in time scheduling, franchises and the “1099” independent contractor relationship.

Unlike many in the punditry class, Draut has read her history, and we see the work of Nelson Lichtenstein, Kim Phillips-Fein, and Judith Stein woven in here as she traces how America’s working people became so economically insecure. She tackles the legacy of racial and ethnic exclusion, and correctly finds great hope in the combination of the immigrant workers’ rights, fair wage and racial justice movements of today.

Yet in Draut’s insistence that today’s is a “new” working class with a new level of activism, she ultimately may do the “sleeping giant” a disservice. First, such a framing erases the extent to which people of color and women have long struggled and organized as part of the working class, as wage workers, enslaved people, and through their neighborhoods and families. In the long arc of history, mid-twentieth century steelworkers were anything but normative. Fight for $15 activists are part of a centuries-long struggle against capitalism, and they should benefit from owning that.

Second, Draut misses the major working-class activism of the 1970s. What we are seeing today is not a “new” working class, but a continued reconfiguration of the working class that started in the 1970s and grew from changes wrought by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As these women of all backgrounds and men of color got new access to the full employment market in the 1970s, they made up a reshaped American working class that organized for more social and economic justice, including by pushing to form private sector unions. Draut covers how employers ramped up their resistance to unions in the 1970s, but somehow skips the decade’s worker’s movements that inspired the corporate resistance. When we re-write the 1970s struggles back into the story, it becomes more clear that today’s labor activists are part of a much longer movement by women and people of color to gain full access to the New Deal’s economic promise, a story that grows more even more rich with the inclusion of new immigrants since 1980.

Despite these omissions, this is a commendable and inspiring book that covers an enormous amount of material in a short space. Do yourself a favor this Labor Day: put down the Washington Post and pick up a copy of Draut’s Sleeping Giant.

Lane Windham holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History and is a fellow with Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Global Threat from the Right: Labor's Trans-Atlantic Conversation

The Global Threat from the Right: Labor’s Trans-Atlantic Conversation

By Lane Windham
for LaborOnline, the Labor and Working-Class History Association blog

The timing couldn’t have been more apt: a trans-Atlantic conference on the rise of the right, just days after Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.

Leaders from the labor movement in ten nations gathered to strategize in the face of the new threat from the right. That threat’s drivers are clear: a dangerous fear of immigrants coupled with an overwhelming sense of economic dislocation among working people.

But how much of today’s populist right-wing turn is truly economic, and how much is more based in xenophobia and racism? U.S. progressives have been divided on this question. The New York Times’s Paul Krugman, for instance, recently argued that Trump’s rise isn’t mainly about “economic anxiety,” but is more driven by white resentment about race. In fact, Trump’s supporters come from a broad economic spectrum; their median income is higher than that of the U.S., though lower than the Republican median income.

Yet the extent to which economic and racial / ethnic issues are deeply intertwined across the globe was center stage at the May 10 conference, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO, Working America and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a non-profit German foundation.

Participants in country after country described how the rising populist right is a reaction to the neoliberal policies that were the bulwark of the right wing for the last 30 years - - policies that the left elite also often embraced. Too few political and economic elite addressed the issues of dislocation by trade, the new “precarious” work and the shifting of the entire economic relationship.

Economic anxiety feeds the anti-immigrant sentiments. As Thorben Albrecht, State Secretary of the German Labor Ministry put it, the resentment against refugees grows in part from the fact that there has not been sufficient attention paid to housing, schools and jobs, even before the massive migration waves. It was a sentiment echoed by the AFL-CIO’s Policy Director Damon Silvers: “An ambitious economic agenda… has been kept off the political playing field by the hegemony of the neo-liberal agenda.”

“Don’t blame and shame workers,” urged Luca Visentini, the Italian who is now General Secretary of the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation). Rather, he argued that labor and the left must offer viable alternatives for tackling the systemic economic problems. It’s not enough to just be against austerity, he argued. We must understand that the people attracted to the right, especially young people, truly do not feel protected in the market.


So what is to be done?

In the immediate future, the conference participants discussed the need to have a new level of conversations with working people. Neither false promises nor moralizing will work; rather, labor must engage people on the issues that matter most to them. Karen Nussbaum, director of Working America, described talking with working people in Pennsylvania who were all over the map in their support of presidential candidates. She sees there an opening to talk with many people who may have been closed to a left-leaning message in the past.

Antonia Bance, head of Campaigns of Communications of the TUC (Trade Union Congress) in the UK, pointed with great hope to the recent election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor. A British Muslim, he campaigned on improving public housing and transportation, and pushing back against extremism.

Sharan Burrow, the Australian who serves as General Secretary of the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation), offered a long-term solution: building a new “global architecture” for labor that will hold corporations accountable and will demand a new level of economic sustainability, including on issues of climate.

The May 10 conference was primarily a North America / European conversation. What might global South trade unionists have brought to the conversation on the political push from the right? Perhaps an expanded conference will be next on labor’s agenda.

Lane Windham is a post-doctoral scholar with Penn State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights. She has also worked as a union organizer and communicator. Her book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, is forthcoming from UNC Press in 2017.