Tag Archives: Unions

Working-Class Voices Silenced

The last couple of weeks have seen the silencing of two important voices on working-class issues in the UK. Within the space of seven days, the deaths were announced of union leader Bob Crow and veteran Labour Party parliamentarian Tony Benn. Neither may be familiar to readers outside of Britain, but in their very different ways they always maintained a working-class perspective in everything they did.

While Tony Benn was born into a liberal dynasty and solidly middle-class family, he gradually moved to the left over the course of his long and eventful career. Benn entered Parliament in 1950.  By 2001, when he famously stood down to “devote more time to politics,” he was the longest serving Labour MP.  Benn had been a cabinet minister during the 1960s and 1970s. becoming increasingly frustrated with his party’s rightward list. He became a totemic figure on the left of British politics, the champion of ordinary people and of democracy. Benn’s legacy will be secured in part by his diaries, which he kept from a very young age and daily from 1964.  These writings chart Benn’s changing political stance as well as his reflections on the rising tide of neo-liberalism outside and inside his own party. He remained actively engaged politically almost until the last.

Benn’s death at the age of 88 was sad but not unexpected, but Crow was only 52 when he died from a massive and sudden heart attack. Bob Crow was the leader of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), the main union representing general transport workers, especially those working on the railway and London Underground. Unlike Benn, Crow came from a solidly working-class background. Born into humble conditions in the early 1960s in the east end of London, he joined the Underground at the age of 16 as a junior track worker. His rise through the union was rapid, but Bob never lost touch with his roots and working-class culture.  Nor did he lose his accent, which was delightfully working-class London, or cockney as it is sometimes described. Crow was incredibly successful, recruiting 20,000 new members in the context of near universal decline in other unions.  He was also brilliant at securing improvements in pay and condition that most other organised workers could only dream of. As a result of this success, Bob Crow was hated with a visceral passion by the middle-class establishment in the UK, particularly in London. Former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, himself the victim of sustained character assignation over his political career, noted that he could not think of another group of working-class employees who had seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years apart from Crow’s railway workers.

The explanation for the vilification of Crow – at one stage he was labelled the most hated man in Britain -  lies in the fact that he understood the logic of market forces. He knew instinctively that in a fully or partially privatised work environment his members possessed and could exercise tremendous power if they acted, or event threatened to act, collectively. Bob Crow’s RMT were able to call industrial action on the London Underground that could bring a city of 10 million to a halt with relative ease. Politicians and media commentators condemned Crow and the RMT and often highlighted what they perceived as the ‘scandalously high wages’ that he secured for his members. Op-ed columnists scrambled to remind their readers that train drivers earned $65,000 or more a year. During the last London-wide strikeright of centre columnist Simon Jenkins decried these workers and their status.  I have always wondered if the people of London would be happier if those performing safety critical jobs were on minimum wages with few fringe benefits.  I for one am comforted to know that the driver at the front of my train and the signal worker controlling its passage under the streets of the Capital don’t have to work two jobs just to make a living wage.  Just when did it become acceptable to decry working-class living standards as being too high?

But Bob Crow’s story tells us something else about class, namely the way journalists wrote and spoke about him. His broad working-class London accent was an object of derision, but this always said far more about the elite class background of those making the comments than it did about Crow. With Crow, journalists and politicians were in most cases talking to someone unlike anyone they had ever met before. In one interview several years ago, the journalist Jim Pickard in the weekend ‘Lunch with the FT’ (Financial Times) column, wrote about an interview he did with Crow: “Does he ever hit people, I ask?” This was in the context of a series of descriptions of Crow’s appearance – “pugnacious face, shaved head, thickset build.” Now while I regularly read the FT and that column, I cannot recall a captain of industry being posed such a question. My favourite anecdote about Bob Crow, however, dates from just prior to the second Gulf war when he appeared on the BBC Radio flagship Today Programme. Crow was asked by the thoroughly middle-class presenter James Naughtie to agree to the proposition that the union had called a strike to coincide with the start of hostilities and was by implication being unpatriotic. Innocently Crow asked, “What war?” at which point Naughtie rose to the full height of condescending best and said “Come, come, Mr Crow — the Gulf war obviously.” Crow’s reply over a decade on still makes me smile, without missing a beat he retorted “Oh, I thought you were talking about the class war.” What was beautiful about the exchange was that the attempt to patronise Crow had backfired so badly. Crow’s intelligence, wit and quick thinking left Naughtie floundering, and the journalist knew that he had been had by someone he could not conceive of as his equal.

Bob Crow’s passing was widely mourned in Britain, and for a brief period he was paid some richly deserved complements even by those diametrically opposed to him, though often through gritted teeth. To the last, Bob Crow provided a genuinely working-class perspective in British public life.  While Tony Benn’s passing is obviously sad, it is perhaps Bob Crow who will be missed more for what he achieved, what he stood for, and the lost potential his death robs us of.

Tim Strangleman

Inequality After Occupy

When the media became aware of the protest centered at Wall Street during the fall of 2011, a predictable line of questioning immediately appeared – whatever in the world are they protesting? “The cause . . . was virtually impossible to decipher,” intoned the New York Times, joining the bulk of the mainstream coverage of the protest in its early weeks, which together professed confusion at the sight of the rag-tag group of occupiers.

Of course, to crib Liza Featherstone, covering the protests for another NY daily, the opposite was closer to the truth: everyone who came near Zuccotti Park knew exactly why the protesters were there.  Given the scale of the economic crisis, Main Street’s bailout of Wall Street, and ongoing oligarchy, the “only surprise [was that it took] so long for the citizenry to take to these particular streets.” The graphic polarization of their chant, “We Are the 99%” made it all the more clear:  it’s the (unequal) economy, stupid.

In the years since the destruction of the occupations, this critique of inequality – one, broad part of what Occupy was all about – has only broadened and deepened in the US.  Occupy should claim credit for getting it on the map, while political iterations old and new have been keeping it there.  Today, the fight against inequality is taking greater institutional shape, and seemingly exerting more leverage, in places inspired by Occupy but moving beyond its initial tactics.

Studying Occupy Wall Street in New York from its inception and through 2012, my colleagues and I traced the “enduring impact” of OWS through various measures, including the ongoing movement participation of core participants and the proliferation of “Occupy after Occupy” efforts – what journalist Nathan Schneider described as a “productively subdivided movement of movements.”

Joining most observers, we noted that Occupy’s impact was most easily traced in the extent to which it had shifted the discourse in the United States.  “Income inequality” was suddenly in the headlines.  We included a graph that showed how frequently the phrase was invoked by the media pre-, during, and post-Occupy.  We found that news mentions of “income inequality” rose dramatically with the outset of Occupy, and in the aftermath remained substantially higher through the end of 2012 (up about a third from pre-Occupy levels).

I ran the numbers again this week, and I have to admit I was surprised by the results.

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

As we’d seen before, in the year after Occupy’s peak, the numbers stayed higher – 30-50% of the pre-Occupy discussion.  But beginning in the fall of 2013, the numbers reached Occupy levels again, and this time rising to over 2000 mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in December 2013 – over 50% more than Occupy’s peak.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this rise. The occupations have gone away, but neither the crisis nor the resistance has disappeared.  Low-wage and precarious workers are at the forefront of the fights today, and they are keeping inequality in the spotlight.  This past fall and winter we’ve seen fast food strikes and the “Fight for $15”; other minimum wage fights around the country; Walmart workers demanding $25,000; university adjuncts organizing and striking.  Workers, unionists and Occupy veterans, through both traditional labor and “alt-labor” organizations are elevating the fights around income inequality and pushing for concrete change.  Tailing these developments, figures from President Obama and the Gap are now simultaneously pushing for (highly inadequate) wage increases.

Media attention to inequality reflects recent electoral shifts as well.  Mayors who ran left were decisively elected in New York, Seattle, and Boston.  (Occupations existed all over the country, but it would be interesting to probe the relationship between those Occupations and new electoral outcomes. Certainly, these three cities were home to sustained and popular occupations in fall 2011.) Labor’s candidates and initiatives did well overall, in the 2013 local election cycle; and in Seattle, Occupy activist and socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council.  While many of the core Occupy activists eschewed electoral politics, we nevertheless see the outlines of their critique emerge in race after race.

As important as Occupy’s inspiration has been as the carrot encouraging these new movements and electoral shifts, the ongoing crisis that working people are experiencing and the desperate straits that unions and other progressives find themselves in provide the stick. . Labor, in particular, has been working hard to shift course for many years.  Occupy’s eruption was a major shot in the arm, but many of the campaigns we see today have their roots pre-Occupy.

However, the energy and audacity in today’s movements are fueled in part by the experience of Occupy (and the organizers who started the occupations and emerged from them). Direct action and prefigurative practices inform many of the efforts that contribute to today’s groundswell, such as the strikes and walkouts.  But unions are also exploring worker cooperatives, community groups and activists are forestalling foreclosures through occupations, and activists are tying collective student debt refusal to the demand for free higher education.

The Occupy activists we spoke with two years ago continuously echoed each other, saying that the movement needs to “take the long view” and remember that change doesn’t happen overnight.  I haven’t spoken with enough of those activists today to know their assessment of the fights they see and are participating in today.  They are not out there, all day, all week, occupying Wall Street – and it wasn’t enough when they were. The scale of necessary social transformation remains daunting, and questions of both strategy and power loom large. But all day, and all week, more people are talking about inequality and directly fighting against it.  And workplace by workplace, franchise by franchise, ordinance by ordinance, council member by council member, co-op by co-op, the struggle continues.

Penny Lewis

Penny Lewis is an Assistant Professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, School of Professional Studies, CUNY.  She is also the author  of Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory.

 

Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

Nick Coles

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Playing the Union Card: A Big Emmy Win for Netflix’s House of Cards

Some were disappointed when last week Netflix earned only a single “major” Emmy (for Best Director) for its first original series, House of Cards. But it took HBO five years to win its first Emmy, so Netflix’s win is a major accomplishment.

House of Cards is the first major attempt by a digital delivery service to create original programming. It is also an important notch on the career belt of a writer, Beau Willimon, who straddles the world of Greek tragedy and realpolitik. He has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia, but he was also one of the original Howard Dean faithful and worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley. Willimon wrote a successful play about Washington politics in 2008, Farragut North, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film version of the play, The Ides of March (2011).

House of Cards has relevance to those of us who are interested in working-class issues and who also enjoy high quality television for three reasons. The first is what the show has to tell us about Washington D.C. politics. Second, House of Cards is interested in modern day unions, and it portrays them with surprising sympathy. Third, the show engages with questions of contemporary education reform, which is newly in the spotlight this month with Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book on the subject, Reign of Error.

On the political front, as Michelle Dean argues in The Nation, House of Cards, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the centrifugal force of evil, plays into one of our “great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality.” Indeed, Underwood is amoral.  He believes that it is acceptable to murder when the creature in question (a dog or a person) is so pathetic that it doesn’t deserve to live. He manipulates a young reporter for sex, cheats on his wife (with her blessing, to an extent), engineers the downfall of a prospective Secretary of State (when Underwood himself is denied the position), leaks a draft of a bill to compromise its author, provokes the head of the teacher’s union to punch him so that he can accuse him of assaulting a Congress member, takes money from a large oil concern to help his wife’s charity, and the list goes on.

My only amendment to Dean’s argument is that House of Cards does hint that money lurks behind the individual amoral choices of an evil genius like Underwood. Corporations have candidates of both parties in a financial chokehold—or, as Frank Underwood puts it, with his trite homespinnery: ‘[W]hen the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” Everyone is corrupted by money and power, but Underwood is better than most at perpetuating his schemes—in figuring out who is weak, who is narcissistic, and who is stupid.

House of Cards is also surprisingly sympathetic to modern day unions. Early in the season we meet the rugged and sincere members of the Philadelphia shipbuilders union, who are proud that they sent one of their own—Congressman Peter Russo—to Washington. But Russo, snared in Underwood’s web, sells out his union brethren when he is ordered not to protest the closing of the shipyard that employs his friends and family. We are completely on their side when they beat the crap out of Russo when he comes to town seeking their continued support. We see how hard it is for working-class people to win via the ballot box—given the way that capital moves in the nation’s capitol.

House of Cards is even reasonably sympathetic to teachers’ unions, at a time (in real life) when teachers are under attack. The teachers come into the plot when Underwood is assigned the job of passing education legislation for the president, and the key elements of Underwood’s bill—performance standards, charter schools, and collective bargaining restrictions—send a (fictional) national teacher’s union out on strike.

In an unusual display of union solidarity, the teachers’ union convinces a group of unionized hotel workers to boycott Underwood’s wife’s charity banquet, and the Teamsters come out to protest Underwood in person. While Underwood is able to cool their ire with some plates of delicious barbeque, the appearance of a tri-union alliance, portrayed positively, in my “most popular now” queue on Netflix is not an everyday thing.

House of Cards gets much of the education reform story right. In Washington and across the country, education reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates speak from the same playbook—one that insists that the public schools are failing, especially in cities and poor communities, and that blames the failure on the schools themselves instead of on poverty, gun violence, and epic incarceration rates of black, brown and poor men.

While in House of Cards the only force fighting back against the bad education bill is the teachers’ union, in real life, a growing movement of parents, students and teachers are protesting the kinds of reforms that Frank Underwood is pushing his fictional DC. As Diane Ravitch explains in her new book, American schools are mostly succeeding, and, where they are not, poverty and segregation are the real causes.

If there are any idealistic heroes in House of Cards they are not activists but journalists. At the end of season 1 we see that Frank Underwood’s sexual conquest, the journalist-turned-blogger Zoey Barnes, might be the only outsider who has figured out Underwood’s nefarious long con that ends in the death of a fellow Congressman and the redemption (of sorts) of a high-end prostitute. House of Cards, despite its overwhelming cynicism, has a kernel of idealism. This is the idealism, perhaps, that drives most of us with a passion for writing, reading, and activism. And as long as we believe that we can make a difference—we just might be right.

Kathy M. Newman

We Are Worth More

Last month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago.   Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.

A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will.   And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim.   This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.”   You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.

“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image.  But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them.  Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action.  It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly.  In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”

Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions.  I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then.  But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.

For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place among Walmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences.   But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.

There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers.  He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it.  In a 2005 book, The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer.   According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority  or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.

Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case.  There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,” if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.

A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another.  That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well.  It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.

In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition.  Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.

Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be.   It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another.   To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process.  But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them.  The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies

Restoring Traditional America

Over the weekend The Daily Kos highlighted a cartoon from Tom the Dancing Bug (cartoonist Rueben Bolling) that responded to Bill O’Reilly’s election night claim that Obama’s win signaled the death of traditional America. According to O’Reilly, “the demographics are changing, it’s not a traditional American anymore.” Bolling wondered what would happen if Barack Hussein Obama traveled back in time to the world of Leave it to Beaver. In this imaginary scenario, Obama tells the Cleavers of his plan to raise the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, reduce the gap between CEO pay and that of the lowest paid employees, and bolster the social safety net. The “Beave” and his family point out that those features were already in place in their traditional 1960s America. “Golly, mister,” the Beave exclaims, “I think you’re bringing back traditional America.”

I do, too. I am writing a book about how workers and unions were represented in 1950s popular culture.  In Striking Images: Labor Unions on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s, I argue that workers were represented in popular culture more often, and more positively, than we remember. This is, in part, because union membership was at its highest point in U.S. history (roughly 35% of all US households). Unions were also active, not passive. There were more than 30,000 strikes over the course of the 1950s.  In other words, union membership was traditional.

For example, in 1965 Eisenhower, declared that “the protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.” Rachel Maddow once quipped about Eisenhower’s relatively liberal policies that she was “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”

As we return to a more traditional America, how are ordinary workers being represented in popular culture? This is a question we often ask on this blog, and we make our share of withering critiques, as Susan Ryan did when she addressed the phenomenon of “extreme work” reality television and how workers are being exploited in front of and behind the camera.

But there are some other more positive, and possibly even authentic ways in which workers are being represented in popular culture. Here’s a quick run down:

Striking workers are back in the news. Thanks to the massive (and largely successful) Chicago teacher’s strike and a well-organized blitz of Black Friday job actions at Walmarts across the country, the mainstream media has been covering strikes with more sympathy than in years past. Do a search for “Black Friday” and “workers” and more than 2 million hits pop up. While some of the coverage of Black Friday’s job actions underplayed the overall impact of the Walmart actions, other headlines suggested the range and the power of the strikes which took place in more than 100 cities in 46 states.

The Ed Show. Ed Schultz, the one time sports broadcaster and conservative shock jock now spins his blue-collar bluster in a more progressive direction on MSNBC every weeknight at 8:00 PM. Schultz starts every show with the tag line “Let’s get to work.” If you were watching The Ed Show last week you would have seen coverage of the raw deal that Hostess workers were given in the Twinkie show down, a piece about the unionization of exotic dancers, a report on a union on the rise in Phoenix, Arizona, and an exposé on what Walmart really pays its workers. You won’t find this much working-class related news in video form in one place anywhere else.

Blue: America at Work and Blue: Portrait of an American Worker. In a coincidence of naming, two photographers of the contemporary American labor scene have titled their projects “Blue.” Ian Wagreich’s Blue: America at Work was “kickstarted” in August and includes stunning black and white portraits of American workers in industrial settings. The photographs are visually gorgeous, and they are as much as about aestheticizing the industrial landscape as they are about giving a voice to individual workers. They remind me of Charles Sheeler’s arresting photographs of the Ford River Rouge plant. Waigreich’s work photographs are currently on view (until December 10th at Washington D.C.’s Art Museum of the Americas in a show called “On Labor”). Photographer Carl Corey’s photographs from his collection Blue: Portrait of an American Worker are in color, and provide a more literal “close up” of the workers themselves. One of Corey’s goals in taking these photographs, as he explained in an interview with The Wooly Pulpit, was to advocate for American workers: “my hope is awareness will breed support for the American Worker.” The workers look proud, even stoic, and the photographs remind me a bit of the classic worker portraits taken by Milton Rogovin.

Current TV’s profile of the American worker. During the lead up to the election, Current TV posted a new worker profile every day for 30 days. Thirteen of the workers profiled were women, and 10 were African American, Latino, or Asian. The jobs covered included cop, firefighter, graphic designer, bus driver, Boeing mechanic, bartender, CPA, nurse, farmworker, and web developer. The profiles included detailed interviews, includingquestions about union membership and political leanings. Though not all of the workers profiled were working class, the interviews echoed common themes. Everyone who had health insurance was grateful for it, and everyone who did not have it wanted it. When asked “what is the one thing you could change about your job if you could,” almost everyone wanted better pay and/or benefits. One of the most inspiring quotes came from the Boeing mechanic, Monico Bretana, the highest paid union worker in the group: “I would have to say that I’m a working guy; I work for my money. Just like everybody else, I just want to be treated fairly, I just want to have a decent living wage, decent benefits to cover me and my family, and the union has provided that for us. And I want people to know that unions are not what people perceive anymore. We’re here to help the middle class, we’re here to help maintain a good living standard.”

Now doesn’t that sound sort of like the 1950s? Of course, I don’t want to go back to the 1950s altogether. I don’t want to go back to Jim Crow America, or Operation Wetback America, or Mad Men America. But when it comes to taxes on the wealthy (can we get the marginal tax rate back to the 1950s rate of 91%?), the tradition of union membership, and images of proud, beautiful blue-collar workers, I would be happy to go back in time.

Kathy M. Newman