My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

In honor of PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty, please enjoy this article originally published by the Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities) in March 1996, as part of The Brown Paper series. Republished with permission.

Jean hardisty SLIDE

PRA founder Jean Hardisty

As I sit at my desk working my way through a stack of requests for donations and entreaties to renew my membership in various organizations, I am torn about when to write a check and when to save my money. At the moment, the pressing question for me is whether to support the larger, liberal organizations that do what I think of as “mainstream” liberal work—organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The National Organization for Women, and People for the American Way.

For years I have written these checks, almost as an act of dutiful citizenship. After all, I am glad the organizations are there. I want them to continue to exist. That means I have to do my part to keep them alive. But this seems a rather lazy way to make a decision.

I feel I should decide what I really think about liberalism and its prospects in the 1990s. It is clear that in 1996 liberalism is in eclipse—or at least adrift and demoralized. Meanwhile, the Right is in its glory. It dominates the political arena, with an apparent lock on the new ideas, the money, the organization, and the attention that used to belong to liberalism.

Liberalism is nearly an orphan. It has a bad name in many circles. For the Left, it represents a compromised reformism. For the Right, it is socialism in disguise. For the center, it is a label associated with fuzzy thinking and do-gooder incompetence.

Liberals are divided and seem to have lost confidence in their own ideology. The vicious attacks mounted by the Right have scored points with the public by caricaturing liberal programs, their adherents, and their recipients. After fifteen years of such attacks there is now a proven formula: seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The “welfare queen,” the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire—all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.

In the face of these attacks, liberals themselves seem to know on some level that their programs have not worked as planned. Even in defending them, they are forced to appeal to the spirit in which the programs were based, or the benefits they have delivered to their most deserving beneficiaries. Liberals seem unable to mount a vigorous defense of these programs—on their own terms, across the board, without regard to the worthiness of the recipients. By mounting a weak defense, liberals tacitly concede to their Republican attackers that the programs are at least flawed, perhaps even indefensible.

The Swinging Door

I have seen liberalism’s programs and ideology up close for over thirty years. At fifty, I have reached some clarity about liberalism, especially since I have the advantage of a Left perspective—a set of glasses, if you will, that helps to bring the shortcomings of both liberalism and conservatism into focus. Further, I learned my politics during the Vietnam War, a war waged by liberals as well as conservatives.

I know that domestic social programs are intended as amelioration, not real change. I know that the same men who voted for public housing programs voted for aid to the Guatemalan military. I understand liberalism’s self-serving tendency to preserve the status quo, why big business often has found it a useful ally, why its redistributive measures never really disturb the sleep of the rich. I understand why it tolerates police brutality, a rogue FBI, why NAFTA, why GATT. I know all that.

Yet as the Right picks off liberal programs one by one, I mourn each one as if it were the product of a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. My understanding of liberalism’s shortcomings and its history of opportunism is gone. Liberal programs are bathed with a glow of benevolence, set off by a stark contrast with the anti-social and avaricious agenda of the Right.

Take public housing as an example. As it is defunded by the Right and its real estate sold off, I am torn by two conflicting images. In the back of my mind are the towers of Cabrini Green, a massive, notoriously rundown, and dangerous housing project in Chicago. Here the ultimate effect of a liberal program is to segregate poor Black people in a high-rise ghetto. In fact, the numerous high-rise federal housing projects in Chicago form a “wall” that cordons off poor people from the rest of the city. It is difficult to see the result of this liberal housing effort on behalf of low-income families without assuming a malicious intent behind the program.

But in the front of my mind are other images: a broken-down, substandard house in rural Mississippi transformed into a prefab house with indoor water, electricity, and walls that are tight against the weather. Or a range of housing such as scattered rent-subsidized low-income units, low-rise complexes, and rent-controlled apartments that allow people to live in decent conditions even though they have very little money. It is these images that draw me. Perhaps it is sentimental, but I am compelled by the notion of a society that will not tolerate extreme poverty and that responds with redistributive programs—even though the programs are often flawed and sometimes cynical.

This softness toward liberalism is not easy to admit. It can be especially embarrassing to defend liberalism when I am speaking to progressives. It feels like admitting a weakness in my political commitment to Left, progressive values, the values that demand fundamental systemic change and redistribution of power. But this soft-on-liberalism instinct is grounded in my progressive politics. I see the two in relation to each other. I understand the role that liberalism plays in facilitating the work that progressives do. The Left needs liberals to create the breathing room necessary for us to do our work. Liberals, in turn, are given direction and held to some minimal standard of honesty by the Left.

As a progressive feminist, I want to live in a country that understands that some people cannot manage and that is willing to take responsibility for them. I want a government I can believe in; one that is willing to defy the often malicious intent of local power structures and defend the rights of all its citizens with determination. And I am convinced that only the federal government can deliver that protection. That often means that liberal social programs, administered by the federal government, are the only workable answer to social needs. This doesn’t mean I will get the government I want, but it does mean I cannot afford to throw away the idea of government as an important arbiter of justice.

The Right’s current promotion of states’ rights, which argues that power should be decentralized because only state governments provide for the real needs of local folks, ignores the history of states’ rights as a defense of brutal racial segregation and reactionary social policies. Transferring programs like public housing to the states is a sly method of defunding them. Progressives must be careful, when raising pointed criticisms and mounting protests regarding government programs, that we do not let our anti-government rhetoric feed the anti-government campaign of the Right.

I admit that when looking at liberal programs, I have a tendency to accept liberalism’s most appealing face as reality. I am drawn, for instance, by the 1960s social plan called The War on Poverty. I find a certain poetry, idealism, solidarity, and respect in the words themselves. Even when they turn out to be just words (that stand in ironic contrast to the Vietnam War, which was waged simultaneously) they nevertheless represent a glimpse of ideas and programs propelled by humanity and mutual concern. Perhaps two stories from my own experience will help to explain both my attraction to liberalism as we know it and my ambivalence about it.

In Chicago’s 1982 mayoral race, Harold Washington, a progressive African-American Congressman from the South Side, ran against the machine candidate, Jane Byrne, in the Democratic primary. Washington won. The white machine was stunned, and scrambled to find a candidate to run against Washington in the general election. Since Washington would be the Democratic Party candidate, they would have to find a Republican, but they were hard-pressed to locate one, since Chicago is a one-party town. They did find a rather pathetic man named Bernie Epton, who visibly struggled with emotional instability and barely made it through Election Day. Despite the stark difference in the two candidates’ qualifications, most white voters in Chicago voted for Epton. They preferred the unstable white man with no political experience to the charismatic, experienced, progressive, anti-machine African American. Again, however, Washington won.

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

There were several reasons for his victory. First, Chicago at that time had a minority population of 45%—a voting block large enough to create a plurality of votes. Second, Washington put together a rare coalition that drew over 90 percent of the African-American vote and most of the Latino vote. And finally, “lakefront liberals”—primarily white, often professional, definitely higher-income residents who lived close to the Lake Michigan waterfront—delivered the balance needed to put him narrowly over the top. Among white voters, only the lakefront liberals defied their race allegiance and voted for the Black man.

For me, the Washington election captured a clear irony about life in Chicago. I was proud that Chicago was no ordinary racist northern industrial city. Chicago is organized. It is perhaps the most organized city in the country—the birthplace of the community organizing style of Saul Alinsky. All of Chicago’s neighborhoods—especially the White neighborhoods—are organized with the goal of empowering working people, and much of this organizing has been done by liberals.

Yet when those organized citizens were called on to vote for a more progressive future, they were not able to make the connections. The community organizing so conscientiously mounted by liberals did not touch the racism of Chicago’s White voters. Unable to address the basic social problems, especially racism, liberalism came up short in an actual test of its effectiveness in creating change.

But liberalism was not a complete failure in Chicago. The lakefront liberals did the right thing. Faint-hearted, arrogant, complicit, and often self-serving, they nevertheless served as the swinging door against which social change could push. Without them, there was no space, no breathing room, no recourse.

Perhaps the lakefront liberals stood to gain under a Washington Administration that would create more space for their business interests than the locked-down machine offered. Perhaps the communities of color that voted so overwhelmingly for Washington were mostly voting against Chicago’s White political machine. But the reality remains. It was the vote of White liberals that put the progressive Mayor Washington over the top.

Another story comes to mind. In the early 1980s the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Leftist political groupings in El Salvador, mounted a credible attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran political establishment. The context for this effort was El Salvador’s history of economic exploitation by an oligarchy of landowners supported by a military trained and armed by the U.S., and a complicit Catholic church hierarchy. El Salvador’s social and economic system was injustice and oppression itself.

The FMLN was explicitly revolutionary. However, it had an arm that operated above ground, in the electoral arena. Always at risk from death squads, some brave people were willing to put themselves at risk by being affiliated publicly with this above-ground group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR. The president of the FDR, the late Guillermo Ungo, was well-known in the United States.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a delegation of U.S. foundation staff and donors, led by the director of The Philadelphia Foundation, that went to Central America to meet with humanitarian aid organizations, human rights organizations, and others centrally involved in the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. J. Roderick MacArthur, the son of the billionaire donor of the MacArthur Foundation, John D. MacArthur, was part of the delegation. Roderick MacArthur had his own foundation, known as “little MacArthur,” that had been involved in funding organizations opposing government abuses and repression against progressives. Rod MacArthur’s politics were liberal, unusually so for a businessman.

MacArthur met Ungo on that trip and they bonded as prominent businessmen with political concerns. MacArthur was both compelled by Ungo’s story and convinced that there were opportunities for U.S. business in a post-revolutionary El Salvador. When he returned to the U.S., MacArthur arranged to have Ungo come north to tour several cities, meeting with U.S. businessmen. When Ungo reached the Chicago stop on the tour, MacArthur held a reception for him in his Chicago suburban home. It was an opportunity for Ungo to speak to prominent Chicago businessmen. As a courtesy, he invited everyone who had been on the Central America trip to attend.

The meeting was predictably awkward. Ungo was not a charismatic man. The businessmen weren’t sure what the point was, and MacArthur didn’t seem able to sway them to his view. Out of courtesy to MacArthur, the businessmen were politely attentive, but they were not at all open to the revolutionary message of the FMLN, and certainly not able to sign onto MacArthur’s vision of a reformed El Salvador exporting its fabulous beer in profitable quantity to the U.S. The meeting fell rather flat.

Well, I thought, this just illustrates that you can’t promote revolution as a business opportunity. Even to want to do so is so exquisitely liberal! The incident provided more support for my sense of liberalism as complicit and ineffective. Nevertheless, as a result of that meeting, those businessmen were undoubtedly less likely to support a U.S. invasion of El Salvador. They were certainly better informed about the reality of life there, and the unbelievable maldistribution of wealth and the extent of repression. They would no longer give knee-jerk support to U.S. policy toward Central America. Rod MacArthur had made a contribution. He had influenced a sector that is completely inaccessible to progressives. He had begun to create a swinging door against which solidarity work could push.

That Compelling, Illusive Coalition

In June 1982, there was an enormous march in New York City to protest the triumph of the Right Wing of the Republican Party with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration had succeeded in making major changes in the tax structure, lowering the tax rate of the wealthy as one of its first acts in office. The march was so vast that miles of central Manhattan’s streets were filled with people. There were huge puppets, many more than 15 feet high, that eloquently mocked the Republicans and made tongue-in-cheek pleas for decency. A gigantic inflatable whale, emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Humans,” swayed down the packed streets.

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

There is no accurate count of how many people participated. As usual, the estimate by city officials was absurdly low. Perhaps more important, we don’t have an official record of which sectors of the liberal coalition were represented. But emotionally, I know exactly who was there. Everybody.

Or more accurately, all the White middle class reform movements that dominated and controlled the liberal coalition. The feminists, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmentalists, the disability rights movement, the reproductive rights defenders, the liberal unions. The civil rights movement was represented, but in small numbers, reflecting its position within the coalition as just another partner. That march seemed to me the last public display of the united front known as the liberal coalition.

That coalition was the lion that roared. It was a voting block that could propel a liberal to the Supreme Court, stop a war, prevent an invasion, impose curbs on corporate rapacity, force integration, forbid the death penalty, ensure voting rights.

Today it is a fractured remnant of its days of power. The larger, mainstream organizations are bloated, bureaucratic, and riddles with compromise. In order to maintain their programs, they have bowed to donors and corporate sponsors and cleansed themselves of radical voices, excusing their own moderation by pointing to the need to keep themselves alive in a hostile political climate. This applies even to some civil rights organizations. The vigor is gone, the vision is muddled, and the membership is down.

The less-compromised, small organizations are fighting over funds, plagued by professional jealousies and rivalries, and jockeying for position in a context of political defeat and defunding. The leadership is tired and aging and is not being replaced with another generation of dedicated activists.

Perhaps the coalition was doomed from the start. After all, it was frankly reformist, which means that it could take change only so far before it ran into its own contradictions. Nowhere was this more true than on the issue of race. The White-dominated liberal coalition was not about to give up its dearly-held issues because they were not well-suited to the needs of African Americans. Reproductive rights are a perfect example. The demand of African American women for the reproductive rights movement to broaden its agenda to include the concerns of women of color (e.g. that women be assured of the right to have children, as well as not have children) were heard by only a handful of reproductive rights organizations.

But this is just one of the man reasons for the decline of the coalition. Larger events conspired to weaken it and diminish its vision. I don’t pretend to know the exact profile of these forces. Certainly the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals under late capitalism has both elevated the individualism so basic to capitalism and defeated the notion of the common good. The attack by the organized and well-funded Right has been successful in undermining the popularity of the liberal vision. And, in any case, it is harder to hold a coalition together when it is undergoing defeat after defeat. By contrast, the Right’s coalition is enjoying victory after victory, and thus finds that continued cooperation and collaboration is visibly rewarded.

With so few victories and so little satisfaction to be had, each member of the liberal coalition now hangs onto whatever pale reformist policies or benefits can be saved. The sectors of the coalition that cannot survive on these remnants, especially working class wage-earners, have been left to make the best of it. The gutting of The Labor Relations Board, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The U.S. Civil Rights Commission are just three examples of liberal programs now unable to deliver anything resembling social justice. Is it any wonder that so many working people are seduced by the Right’s vilification of liberalism when liberalism has proved unable to defend them and hasn’t appeared to try very hard?

So, the liberal coalition is fractured, aging, compromised, and lacking in vigor or new ideas. It remains White-dominated and predominantly middle-class. Why, then, do I mourn its passing from the center stage of power? Didn’t it deserve to fade?

Something makes me say: “Yes, but…” A part of me clings to a vision of the liberal coalition as it could have been. Also, frankly, I miss the power. Progressives are used to working at the margins, pushing liberals to redress the heinous injustices created by capitalism, and, when liberals create reformist programs, pushing the envelope to open an opportunity for real change. But without a powerful and effective liberal coalition to pressure, there are very few places for progressive policies to exert influence.

It is true that liberalism plays its own role as an aid to reactionary politics, acting as a buffer for capitalism by protecting it from the wrath of the people it exploits. By providing a veneer of caring and accommodation to human needs as well as profits, liberal programs cloud people’s political consciousness. No doubt about that.

But liberalism also serves as a buffer against fascism. In the 1970s we had the luxury of holding liberalism in disdain because it was a sop that prevented revolutionary social change. In the 1990s, liberalism looks more like a line of defense against the final triumph of the Right.

Come Back, Jimmy

By the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, Carter was an easy man to scorn. The populist liberalism of his Presidential campaign had been thoroughly compromised as he “got it” about the Soviet threat. His wobbling political leadership became increasingly neoconservative. It was hard for progressives to find much to like about Carter.

Yet throughout the Reagan administration my mantra was: “Come back, Jimmy. All is forgiven.” What I missed wasn’t a hard-headed political analysis, a shrewd ability to work the system in behalf of social justice goals, an uncompromising commitment to the poor. These we had never had from Carter. What I missed, and had taken for granted, was that the man supported the Bill of Rights.

Carter was a typical liberal in that respect. He understood the role of the Bill of Rights in assuring that in addition to stable democratic institutions, people in the U.S. also have certain concrete rights. Take Article I of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. It reads in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble…” It is meant to protect the individual’s right to protest government actions. In the United States, freedom of speech is a civil liberty.

This guarantee has always been applied selectively. The free speech of racists has always been better protected than the free speech of campus war protesters. In the recent past, it was often necessary for the courts to intervene to protect Leftists from the violations of their First Amendment rights by law enforcement officers, the FBI, or exceptionally hostile Justice Departments, such as those of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Free speech is particularly important to progressives because in my attempt to change the status quo there must be room to unmask and debunk it. Censorship imposed by legal means, or self-censorship in the context of repression, means that the Left’s effectiveness is dramatically limited.

Progressives, therefore, are dependent on liberals’ commitment to the First Amendment. Liberals serve as a buffer protecting us from the Right and its history of attacking First Amendment freedoms. For instance, it is liberal legislators who stand in the way of laws banning the burning of the flag. It is liberals who defend “sacrilegious” art. It is liberal lawyers and judges who defend the rights of “communist sympathizers” and anti-war demonstrators, and keep the airwaves open for the likes of Angela Davis and Allen Ginsberg. Without that liberal commitment to the Bill of Rights, the voice of the Left could and would be silenced.

That is not to say that liberals won’t cut and run. If the accused is too politically unpopular or the cause too radical, liberals will hide behind the justification that these defendants or causes threaten national security, and they’ll allow the Bill of Rights to go. Sometimes they’ll cave in under threats by the Right to tar them with the brush of radicalism. In these cases, only progressives will stand up and fight for our guaranteed rights.

Nevertheless, right now we need liberal lawyers, judges, journalists, curators, abortion providers, legislators, teachers, unionists, affirmative action officers, and day care advocates. We need the breathing room and protection they provide for progressives. So each time one of them is won over by the Right’s prejudice, myth, irrational belief, inaccurate information, pseudo-science, and outright lies, or each time a liberal resigns from office or retires from the bench (to be replaced by a credentialed Rightist, of course), I worry a bit more. It doesn’t matter whether I particularly like, respect, or admire liberals. I care about them because they are endangered, and I care about what that means for me and for our society.

But is it a Relationship?

Liberalism will raise your hopes and ultimately break your heart. Does that mean that it commands no loyalty? Should it be trashed because it is spineless and flawed? My answer is an unequivocal “maybe.”

It won’t do to say that liberalism could be a useful framework for a late capitalist society if only it wouldn’t act so much like liberalism. It is what it is. Nevertheless, it can be more or less effective according to the principles to which it holds.

The principle of “maximum feasible participation” is an example of the boundaries of liberalism’s potential as an open, humane, and egalitarian ideology. Maximum feasible participation calls for the people who are the recipients of liberal programs to also design, control, and implement the programs. It moves “good works” a step further toward actual power sharing.

Maximum feasible participation was an idea that was barely tried, then abandoned by liberals as unworkable. It is at exactly this juncture that liberalism reveals its intrinsic limitations. There is a crucially important distinction between addressing grievances and inequities with humanitarian aid on one hand, and in solving them through redistributing power on the other. All those who are dispossessed, whatever race, class, or gender, will be given only relief by liberal programs. They will not obtain true justice.

But when true justice is not available—in this country, for lack of the ability of progressives to compete effectively in the struggle for power—humanitarian aid makes a difference. It is this difference that the Right is killing off, program by program. The Right knows that without liberalism’s programs, there is less chance for even the myth of social change, not to mention its reality, to thrive. If they can eliminate the swinging door, then it will be even easier to redistribute power upward. This is one of the reasons that right-wing strategists spend so much time demonizing liberals, especially feminists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists, and supporters of multiculturalism.

Liberalism has not proved able to stand up to the reactionary onslaught by the Right. Is that surprising? Should progressive people put time and energy into defending liberalism and its programs? Yes – we must. As a strategic response to the current assault by the Right on every democratic principle, it is an important place to put time and energy.

At the same time, it is crucial that progressives continue to work for a more radical vision of social justice and redistribution of power and wealth. Liberalism is in retreat in part because it is not receiving the sort of pressure from progressives that forced it to pursue reform aggressively in the 1970s. Progressives often set the agenda for liberals, by taking direct confrontational action against unjust laws and policies. It is progressives whose public education truly unmasks the structural and individual racism, repression, and other forms of injustice within the U.S. system.

At the moment, the progressive vision lacks the clarity and certainty of the 1930s or the 1960s. But there is an important distinction between our current muddled state, when clarity and unity are diminished, and the death of the vision altogether. We must not confuse the two. To say that the Left is struggling to find its way in a dramatically restructured political environment is accurate. But the fundamental principles around which the Left organizes its radical critique—liberty, equality and fraternity in the service of justice for those whose voices are not heard—are as alive and needed as ever.

Progressives must analyze how the Left became such a weak force. This promises to be a difficult process of self-criticism. Further, more and more people will have to come to the table to help to refine the progressive vision and correct its flaws and omissions. Meanwhile, liberal reforms have to be defended and pressure has to be applied to the few liberals still standing to keep them from waffling or quitting. This is not best done by disdaining or ignoring them.

Like it or not, progressives now must work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors such as the Greens, to form a united front against the agenda of the Right. Pat Buchanan’s demonstrated ability to draw 30 percent of the vote in state after state in the recent presidential primaries is just one indicator of how important such a front is.

So, progressives, if you are angry and bitter over the loss of another liberal program killed off without even so much as a debate, don’t apologize. Don’t assume you have become soft on liberalism. This is a natural reaction – a product of this moment in history. And try not to dwell on those years past when there was more certainty, more idealism, and more hope; when working for real change was like moving downstream riding a current of historical inevitability. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril. The voice in the bubble of this cartoon is no longer saying “Follow that dream!” Now it is saying, “Time is running out. Focus. Get it together. Unite!”

Thanks to Rosario Morales, Dick Levins, Clarissa Atkinson, Denise Bergman, Pat Rathbone, Ruth Hubbard, and Francine Almash for their comments.

 

The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws for A Century

“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.

 

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”

In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.

Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply).  The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”

On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes.  Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)

Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.

But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.

About Those Raises: Walmart’s Latest PR Stunt to Change its Anti-Worker Image While Resisting Regulation

Depending on whom you ask, up to half a million Walmart associates got a raise yesterday. The raise was won for them by a brave rebel alliance of hundreds of Walmart workers who are interested in the continued survival of Walmart workers. Calling themselves OUR Walmart, these workers have put their own jobs on the line since 2012 by staging sit-ins, strikes, disruptions at Walmart shareholder meetings, press conferences, and other demonstrations to call attention to the company’s abysmal pay and working conditions.

Walmart3.jpg

The raise announced yesterday in a company press release will ensure that 40 percent of the company’s U.S.-based workforce will make at least $9 per hour starting in April, with another raise up to $10 per hour by next February.  (The Daily Beast’s Michael Maiello disputes the idea that Walmart is really giving half a million people a raise, correctly noting that in states such as Rhode Island and California, where the minimum wage is already $9, workers won’t see a bump.)

The company can certainly afford to do it, as the New York Times pointed out: the nation’s largest retailer had a more-lucrative-than-expected holiday season, with its workers earning it 4th quarter revenues of about $131 billion. (Paying 500,000 people a buck more per hour will cost an additional $20 million per week, or a billion and change per year, by my calculator—or less than 1 percent of revenue.)

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

As labor reporter Josh Eidelson and others have noted, Walmart is doing this because it has to. It has taken serious public relations hits for years now, thanks to low-wage employer shenanigans such as stores hosting holiday food drives for its own employees,  and dropping 30,000 employees from its healthcare plan (in October 2014) without offering them any more money to make up for the lost compensation. The OUR Walmart campaign, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has also publicly and successfully shamed the company for its dehumanizing treatment of workers in the areas of pay, benefits, health and safety, and morale. Finally, and significantly, 29 states (plus Washington DC) have passed minimum wage increases that mean Walmart already has to pay those workers more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour anyway.

If you zoom out on the timeline of Walmart behavior in the face of worker unrest, though, a clear pattern emerges—and within that pattern the raise for the 500,000 falls neatly into place. When something bad happens for Walmart workers (like a deadly fire killing 117 workers in a Bangladesh garment factory making Walmart clothing, or news breaking of a pregnant associate being forced to take unpaid leave and lose half her family’s income and drop out of nursing school, or a warehouse owner who packs and ships goods bound for Walmart stores discovered to be paying sub-minimum wages and forcing workers to live in tents in the woods), Walmart responds to the public outcry with a tactical policy shift designed to evade both scrutiny and accountability.

In the case of the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka (and the hideous Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1129 workers at a garment factory outside Dhaka less than a year later), the international outcry became so intense that over 190 apparel brands signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, establishing an independent inspections, retrofitting, and monitoring system for the industry’s 1600-plus factories there.  Walmart also took credit appearing as if it was positively taking steps to prevent such accidents from happening again. But instead of signing the Accord, it continued its resistance toward any mandatory government or independent regulatory oversight of its practices, and set up its own (voluntary) self-inspection system—which most advocates agree is virtually meaningless in ensuring worker safety.

In the case of the pregnant worker losing her income in retaliation for asking for reasonable accommodations on the job for her pregnancy, some OUR Walmart members set up a pregnant workers’ rights campaign called Respect the Bump, publicizing the atrocious treatment of this worker. As a result, the company created a new accommodations policy for pregnant associates—attempting to pre-empt any regulatory oversight that could come from a protracted public fight over its lack of a policy. (This fight over additional regulatory oversight may be coming anyway, as Congress debates the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, introduced in the last Congress and in an array of states—it will be interesting to see if Walmart plays a role there.)

Finally, in case after case involving abusive working conditions for warehouse workers in its supply chain, Walmart has denied culpability and either quietly dropped the warehouse contractor, or adopted better workplace practices in certain warehouses without saying why.  Three separate grassroots workers’ advocacy campaigns have sprouted up around the country to push for better wages and working conditions in warehouses: Warehouse Workers United, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance. All of them focus heavily on how Walmart’s abusive practices push down wages and suppress worker organizing across the supply chain.

The pattern of responding to a workers’ crisis by implementing bare-minimum changes, which can reasonably be described as little more than PR efforts, tells you a lot about Walmart’s attitude toward its workers. Contrast this with the behavior of similar companies—such as Costco, which uses higher wages, a willingness to work with unions, and other similar pro-worker policies to position itself as a leader in big-box retail employment practices—and it becomes clear that Walmart’s anti-worker efforts are not the result of business or economic requisites, but rather an internal culture that ultimately values profit revenues for executives far more than the quality of life for those whose work has made the Walton family the richest heirs on Earth.

What is perhaps most chilling here is that Walmart’s announced slight pay raises for some of its employees will likely succeed in somewhat improving the image of Walmart and its treatment of workers. Yet at the same moment that it is announcing the raise for the 500,000, according to that New York Times report, it is also announcing its intent to shrink its workforce and close stores. How many stores? How many layoffs? Sadly, we won’t know until it happens. The heroes of OUR Walmart and other worker organizing groups who have created the pressure forcing the modest raises deserve praise.  But the company still has much to answer for, and a long way to go.

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Crushing the Dream: The Business Lobby Groups Blocking Your Paid Leave

Since President Obama mentioned paid sick leave and paid “maternity” leave in his State of the Union address, an ever-louder chorus of experts and pundits has echoed the need for such family-friendly workplace policies. But despite ironclad evidence of the economic and ethical soundness of these policies, workers are still lacking these protectionsthanks to a coordinated effort to stop them by the Corporate Right

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Nearly every other developed country provides these forms of paid leave without damage to their economies; in states and cities that already have paid sick days or paid family leave, the effect on businesses has been either positive or neutral; allowing for paid leave helps close the gender pay gap by keeping women continuously employed as they have children or take time to care for ill relatives (The New York Times reported that “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages”). Finally, these policies are so popular that even the House GOP leadership has quietly allowed one congressmember to introduce a paid-leave-lite bill that “would permit all workers to use their overtime toward paid time off,” according to a report in The Hill.

Most GOP lawmakers, though, when asked about passing real paid family leave or paid sick days, either say it is a non-starter (Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently called it “one more government mandate”) or laugh at the reporter asking the question. Indeed, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama there has been zero movement toward federally mandated paid leave. As Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker recently, “The FMLA had all the hallmarks of a first step; the problem was that there was never a second or third one.” Why, despite the evidence for such policies, would the Republicans continue to block them?

The answer is that they—and many Democrats as well—are under constant pressure from an array of business lobby groups and trade associations that are dead set against government mandating any new employment policies that favor workers’ rights. Who are these groups, and why are they working to stop us from having any paid leave?

Working Against Workers

It has nothing to do with business being afraid of having to pay workers more. Workers earn their own sick days in states and cities that have passed paid sick days laws, and research has established that it doesn’t hurt the business’ bottom lines. In California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, the states where paid family leave is already law, the state pays workers who are on leave out of a small additional payroll deduction. Again, this additional $1 or so per week is coming out of workers’ own wallets, not business owners’ pockets. Business lobby groups, then, oppose these policies out of an ideological, not a pragmatic, commitment to stopping all new workplace regulations that give workers additional rights. We need to understand who they are.

The business association that has gone on record most frequently against paid leave policies in recent months is the National Federation of Independent Business, or the NFIB. Though its branding makes it appear to represent small “independent” business owners, it consistently tacks hard to the right on just about every workplace policy issue that comes before Congress. Want to raise the minimum wage for retail and fast food workers? The NFIB hates that idea. Et cetera. What is more, even though it tells the IRS it is politically neutral, the NFIB accepts major donations from the right-wing Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners fund. NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom recently tried to confuse businesses into thinking they would have to pay for paid family leave, telling a reporter from The Hill that “You’re paying twice for the same labor” if business owners must hire a temp worker and also pay the worker who is out on leave.

In the states, the Chamber of Commerce is playing the role of moderate in this debate over paid leave. New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce initially opposed the state’s policy, which was passed in 2009; that policy has proven to be a boon to workers and cost businesses almost nothing. Still, the New Jersey Chamber recently said it “remains opposed to any government mandate of an arrangement “usually negotiated between an employer and employee.” In Rhode Island, USA Today reports that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is “assessing the impact” of the state’s new paid leave policy.

Finally, the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, which claims to represent the views of the 250,000 HR professionals on its membership rolls, has come out against mandatory paid family leave laws in the press. SHRM spokesperson Lisa Horn recently told USA Today that “Her organization supports companies offering paid leave generally, but prefers incentives for employers to offer it, rather than require it.” Although this may sound moderate, SHRM’s opposition to paid family leave is puzzling. SHRM does not explain how exactly paid family leave policies would harm HR professionals. Wouldn’t a policy that reduces employee turnover, results in more equitable pay for women, and keeps employee morale high be a boon for HR professionals as well? And, of course, HR professionals are employees too; they are just as likely as anyone else to welcome a new baby or need to take time off to care for an ill family member.

With both houses of Congress controlled by the GOP, we are unlikely to see movement on national paid sick or family leave policies any time soon. But a handful of states will be considering them this year. As these bills make their way through your state legislature, close observers will note the NFIB, Chamber of Commerce, SHRM, and others weighing in on the debate. Stay tuned to this space for more on these business lobby groups and their anti-worker shenanigans.

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“Employers Feel Wildly Free to Pay People However They Want”: An Interview with Kim Bobo

Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo explains why progressives should be doing more to woo evangelicals; how the Chamber of Commerce is abandoning small businesses by not fighting wage theft; and why some Catholic employers are lobbying for workers to get paid overtime.

This interview is part of the Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), is one of the Left’s luminaries when it comes to the intersection of faith and economic justice. Bobo, who was herself raised an evangelical Christian, and is the author of Wage Theft: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid, and What We Can Do About It, will transition out of leadership at the end of 2014.  Although the problem of wage theft—workers not being paid what they are owed for their work—is rampant in low-wage workplaces, Bobo’s ability to persuade Christians, Jews, and Muslims to support the rights of workers in their communities has even earned her the respect of some employers. But it has also earned her the distinction of being targeted by both the Religious and Corporate Right. In 2012, the Catholic-funded American Life League issued an 80-page “report” red-baiting Bobo. Recently, too, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has challenged IWJ by blocking anti-wage theft laws and naming IWJ in a series of reports claiming that worker centers should be regulated just like labor unions.  Bobo sat down with The Public Eye to talk about her personal journey of bringing together workers’ rights and faith, and about her reasons for remaining optimistic despite the continued suffering of many low-wage workers under the most extreme economic inequality in 100 years.

The Public Eye (PE): How did you come to start Interfaith Worker Justice?

I had gotten involved in 1989-1990 in putting together a religious support committee for the Pittston Coal strike. I realized that there was not much structure in the faith community to be involved in labor issues. That seemed just a missing piece to me, because in faith communities we cared about poverty, we cared about poor people, we were doing soup kitchens and shelters.

Clearly we needed to do something around labor, jobs, wage payment, those kinds of issues, as well. So I did this Pittston work and the folks I worked with at UMWA (the United Mine Workers of America union) were phenomenal and interested in the partnerships with the faith community.  While there was no structure, it was pretty easy to get people to do stuff.

I was living in Chicago, so I put together a group of religious leaders to support labor.  I didn’t understand the politics of labor, but I happened to completely luck out: Don Turner, who was the assistant to the President of the Chicago AFL-CIO, was assigned to be my liaison. He was interested in rebuilding these partnerships. We became this team, with me mobilizing the religious community for labor and him helping me understand labor.

We called it the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice.

PE: What is your faith background?

I grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist home in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what’s called the Church of Christ. I memorized lots of Bible verses as a kid. The heart of the scripture is: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. For me, my whole life is trying to figure out how to put that into actuality. Some would say that’s an odd background to be doing this work. I don’t think so. It was fundamentalist teachings of the core of the scriptures that drove me.

I have been involved in church work my whole life; in fact, I’m the choir director and moderator at my church. I am now a member of the United Church of Christ. (The names sound similar; they’re about as far away from one another as you can get.)

One of the things that has not been smart has been to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists in with the conservative Christian Right. While a lot of people have been confused on things and connect with the Christian Right on stuff, to lump this huge group of people or write them off as not part of our [workers’ rights] movement is dumb.

You see that right now on immigration reform. The evangelical world is completely solid on immigration reform. And at the local level, we see a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals involved in the work.

We need to understand there are some very well-funded, concerted efforts by right-wing forces to continue to capture [evangelicals]. The Heritage Foundation published a small study guide entitled “Seek Social Justice.” It argues that the best way to help poor people is to do it through your church, because we are closer to people, and thus the best way to get there is to cut taxes of rich people and give more money to the church. It also makes these wild statements like, “If people aren’t happy with their jobs, they can just go find another one.”  Really?  It is not a very sophisticated argument.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing. This is a set of folks that have a set of values of their faith that are being contested. I think that we need to be in there contesting for them. It’s hard because the Right Wing understands the importance of the faith community in these issues. They put a lot of money into funding right-wing religious organizations; the progressive world doesn’t.

You look at those of us working in the economic justice space within the religious community and every one of us is struggling for money. The progressive funding infrastructure doesn’t get that this is contested space and that we need to be out there working at it. Most progressive donors do not fund in this world. It is a problem. We get a little money from the unions, but most large donors, the people who are viewed as the larger progressive donors, do not fund in this world. They just don’t believe in it.

PE: How did the worker centers start?

I can remember that in ’96 and ’97, pastors would refer us workers who hadn’t gotten paid. They said, “Oh you got a workplace problem? Oh, call Interfaith Worker Justice.”  So these random workers would call us. I would say, “You haven’t gotten paid? You work at a restaurant? Maybe the hotel and restaurant workers union can help you.” My assumption was if workers weren’t getting paid, I could just refer them to unions, but unions didn’t want these workers that didn’t make sense in their strategic plans.

We produced a workers’ rights manual in English and Spanish. Then, when workers called, I could send them the manual and I could go back to doing my real work – supporting workers’ right to organize.

Yet we had to figure how to create a structure that could support these workers who are not being served by the labor movement.

I describe the work right now in three prongs. One is the work engaging the faith community in supporting workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Second is helping support and build structures that help workers that are not yet served by unions: the worker center movement. We now have 27 worker centers. The third is public policy. How can we be involved in policies that raise the core standards of workers, from minimum wage to sick days to anti-wage theft ordinances?

Our wage theft work, which grew out of the worker center movement, has merged with all aspects of our work. On the one hand, dealing with wages is the heart and soul of worker centers. It’s their number one problem.

But unions are recognizing that the issue of wage theft resonates with workers and makes sense to use in organizing workers. In sectors where they are unionized, the non-union companies are committing wage theft in a way that undermines the standards of whole industries.

Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

We’ve been winning all of these local ordinances around the country around wage theft. Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

PE: Can you name a couple of significant victories?

Fe Y Justicia in Houston just passed a wage theft ordinance that strengthens enforcement at the citywide level and says that when they do city contracts they’ll look at wage theft criteria for city enforcement. Arise Chicago (a worker center) led an effort that allows city government to pull a business’ license if someone is found to be a repeat violator.

PE: Are such ordinances largely symbolic, or do they have real teeth?

I think that a bunch of them have teeth. Some of the state bills have treble damages, which is huge [Ed. note: this means the employer must pay the worker triple the amount owed]. The New York State includes a provision for protection against retaliation. The city ones, it’s early to tell.

PE: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been portraying worker centers as a problem, as crypto-unions that should be regulated in the same way.

The Chamber doesn’t like worker centers because worker centers have been effective in challenging bad practices in businesses. To the extent that unions have a bad reputation in the country, which the polls generally show, the Chamber is trying to taint worker centers by calling them unions. I like unions so that doesn’t taint them in my book, but the truth is, legally they’re not unions and the Department of Labor has been really clear [about that].

Worker centers work with and support labor unions, but that doesn’t make them labor unions—in the same way that they work with religious communities but are not a church. If you want to compare them to something, they’re much more like settlement houses at the turn of the century or the Catholic or Jewish labor schools from the ’30s and ’50s. They are community organizations that support labor.

The Chamber of Commerce would be much better served helping its members address the wage theft problems that they have.

PE: What do IWJ worker centers do beyond helping workers who have been denied their wages?

We advocate in general for higher wages through increasing the minimum wage.

If you have a group of workers who come in and they haven’t been paid or are having problems, we talk to them about their rights in the workplace, including their right to have a union.

Workers make the choice. Sometimes they want to get their money back. We’ll work with them on direct action and help them get their money back. Sometimes, we’ll file claims with the Department of Labor or file a lawsuit. Sometimes, they decide, “we need ongoing representation in our workplace,” and the workers organize a union.

We do education around these issues and tell people what their rights are, but the worker center is not the union.

PE: What is the role of congregations with worker centers?

We are trying to encourage deep engagement of the faith community with worker centers. Some worker centers were started by people of faith or by social justice committees. Some of them had a secular start, but because they are affiliated with us, they want to know how to do a better job. Congregations and denominations provide financial support and volunteers. IWJ’s national headquarters is housed at a church that offers space for modest rent. There are a lot of worker centers in church basements and they provide advocacy. If a group of workers want to get their money back from an employer, local clergy will go with them. Or, if they want to strengthen enforcement at the city level, there’s engagement of the faith community in advocating for that.

PE: IWJ says it aims to address the root causes of economic disparity and indignity in the workplace. What are those causes?

It’s because workers don’t have power.  We are trying to figure out how we get more power through unions and through workers working independently, and through core standards and public policy.

We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

We believe that the economic system in this country, monopoly capitalism, is not serving the common good and not serving the vast majority of workers in the country. We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

How do you put some limits on capital, as it is now?  How do you get higher core standards in the society? How do workers get more power, more ability to influence what happens?

PE: IWJ calls for a proactive and transparent Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. How far are we away from that?

We have great leadership in the Department of Labor. Tom Perez is really great, but he’s new.

[Labor enforcement] also hasn’t been on the top of the list of the White House and that’s a problem. While the Department of Labor touts its expanded enforcement as, “We’ve added 250 more investigators,” [that means that] they went from 750 to 1,000 for 135 million workers in the country. That’s not enough. They’re really working hard and doing creative work—but they’re not scratching the surface of the problems.

If they had 4,000 investigators, I think we could start making a dent, but I’m convinced that wage theft has gotten worse, not better, in the last few years. The economy has gotten rough and employers feel wildly free to pay people however they want.  Calling people independent contractors [so that] they are exempt from all basic laws is another practice exacerbating this. How do we stop that?

It’s outrageous: there’s no sense right now of the importance of paying workers fairly. We’ve got to strengthen this sort of work that worker centers are doing around this, beating up on employers who are cheating people.  [That’s] why the Chamber of Commerce is so upset, but we’ve got to keep doing this.

We’ve got to always stand with unions because if we had more unions we wouldn’t have this crisis of wage theft.

We also need to engage the business community in some conversations around this. The Chamber of Commerce needs to stop these attacks and start having conversations with its members: how can we have a democratic society if we can’t figure out how to pay workers enough to raise their family with dignity?  The Chamber ought to be helping lead those conversations.

PE: Do you see any signs of that actually happening? 

I see several signs. They’re not huge ones, but I always look for the glimmer of hope as a person of good faith. There are some business leaders in construction in Texas who are good Republicans, Catholic businessmen who are saying, ‘We can’t compete against these low-road employers who are calling [employees] independent contractors.’

So they are standing up for the anti-wage theft bills in Houston. [Ed, note: Since this interview was conducted, Houston has begun implementing its anti-wage theft law, and workers have been getting the money they are owed.] They’ve got a commitment from both the public entities and the universities and hospitals to only hire employers in construction that pay people fairly. That’s huge and that’s really being driven by the business community. They may be conservative, but these are ethical people.

We are trying to figure how to lift up employers who are paying fairly. I think that’s encouraging.

I did an interview with human resources professionals who were concerned that they’re being asked to condone [employer] behavior in the workplace that’s not right. What if the Chamber of Commerce were saying, “We’re going to start a conversation with our members about how to pay people fairly and justly?” That would change things. They should be doing that.

PE: On the other hand, the HR people are probably worried about their legal responsibilities and the Texas businessmen are worried about competing with low-wage labor. Does the moral argument ever resonate with people?

I think it’s hard to separate them. Stan Merrick in Houston has really led. There are clearly economic arguments. He’s getting hurt by [low-road contractors], but he also has all these immigrant workers. He’s become a huge advocate for immigration reform, as well, because he knows these guys. He’s hired these guys. They’ve got families. It’s also personal. He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. His values are also a part of this. When you talk to business leaders, some of them are cutthroat and don’t care about anyone else, but that’s not all of them. A lot of them, on the one hand, are hardcore business guys, and, on the other hand, know it’s not right to cheat people. We’ve got to appeal to people on that.

I think figuring out how to pay people fairly is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue in the long term. We can’t be a consumer-driven society if the consumers don’t have any money to buy anything. So, I’m going to make all the arguments. You can’t separate one from another. 

PE: “Can you talk about how IWJ’s economic justice work also intersects with and reflects a commitment to racial and gender justice?”

You see companies using race to separate people and to make economic gain. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative is suing temp agencies that refuse to hire African American workers, and have instead intentionally hired immigrant workers and then stolen their wages from them. The lawsuits seek to recover back wages and stop discriminatory practices. Clearly, the temp agencies believed they could make higher profits that way.

Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

Race and class are intermingled in ways that are used against us. Anybody who is vulnerable is likely to be a victim of abuse in the workplace. African Americans often feel vulnerable and are often victims of abuse. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are even more vulnerable. Women’s wages are not what men’s wages are. Almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and you’ve got this whole sector of jobs that continues to be viewed as women’s work and has historically been paid less.

And these discriminatory practices are embedded in our labor laws. So farm work, which was historically performed by African Americans and then by Latinos, was not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

PE: What can you leave us with that would be helpful in social justice work?

On the one hand, we’ve got to learn from the past. What are the struggles that people have had before us, and what can we learn from that?

For organizers, how do we make sure we spend time with our families so we’ve got the support structures that we need? We need love surrounding us so we can do the work for the long haul.

And how do we keep hope so we can keep going, especially in what’s been really rough times the past few years? How do we have the hope for the future?

How do we in the faith community do more at the congregational level, because there’s a structure. There are so many young people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. So how do we capture engaged people who are spiritual not religious, not connected with a congregation? Is there a way to have people participate?

PE: To have a sense of the common good?

Right! I’m intrigued by all the online stuff that people are doing, like social networking. We need to do that, but I’m not convinced that it’s a substitute for “people stuff.” How do we do the people stuff and the social networking? the only way change ever happens is when people work together.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Labor

Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice.  These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge.  Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas.  Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.

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This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning.  Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored?  Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced?  What values are attached to those ideas and speakers?  How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?

Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise.  While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda.  I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases,[1] and some do argue that collusion has occurred.[2]  Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken.  Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.  These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.[3]

This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force.  According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty.[4]  This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status.  The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university.  A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,”[5] a marked increase from 55% in 1975.[6]

Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty.  (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.)[7]  The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.

Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction.  That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers.  According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.”[8] But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice.  Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes.  Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.

Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life.  Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.

The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation.  Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole.  Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees.  The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over.  Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power.  These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.

These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas.  (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.

Luckily, not everyone has been silenced.  The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories.[9]  Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor.  A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor,[10] and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.[11]

These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded.  Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers.  Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice.  Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society.  Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there.  Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.

For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University.  He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014).  You can visit his website for more information about his work.

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[1] See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.

[2] See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.

[3] See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.

[4] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

[5] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.”

[6] American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.

[7] “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.

[8] American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.

[9] Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.

[10] See “The Just-In-Time Professor.”

[11] Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.

Friedrich von Hayek, Thomas Piketty, and the Search for Political Economy

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Seventy years after the Right embraced von Hayek’s manifesto, does Piketty’s rock-star reception portend a new revolution?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

A European economist travels to America to give a few lectures on his new book, recently published by a university press. Although a successful scholar, he is hardly a celebrity, especially in the United States. Yet almost as soon as he arrives, this economist is swept into a book tour exceeding any author’s wildest dreams—crowds of thousands at his public talks, generous offers from wealthy donors to continue and expand the work, and reprints in popular magazines.

The story is drawn from the life of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who visited the United States in 1945 to publicize his book The Road to Serfdom, considered today as one of the foundational texts of neoliberalism. But it also resonates with the more recent example of Thomas Piketty, the French academic whose 577-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks (as of this writing) following its publication in April 2014.1 Piketty’s American tour this past spring became a news story as much as his book: he met with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and the Council of Economic Advisers and appeared on Stephen Colbert, and Business Week ran a cover feature on “Pikettymania.”

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. Writing in the wake of the Great Depression and in the middle of World War II, Hayek argued that even as the United States, United Kingdom, and the USSR were allies in a fight against Nazi Germany, the real threat to civilization was the move toward economic planning and regulation embodied by the New Deal. “We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past,” he wrote.2 Piketty’s project is entirely different: it is to document the history of inequality over the course of the 20th century; to show that the gap between rich and poor (and especially between the very rich and the rest of the society) has been widening rapidly, especially in recent years; and to argue that the general tendency of capitalism itself may be to generate ever-higher levels of inequality unless political institutions and taxes exist to counteract this. Hayek hardly saw economic inequality as a problem; for Piketty, it is the primary threat to social cohesion and democracy.

Yet the two actually have more in common than might appear, for both books suggest the deeply political nature of economic life.

Hayek’s American journey followed several years of frustration for the Austrian economist. As chronicled by historian Angus Burgin in his study The Great Persuasion, Hayek found himself outmatched in the early 1930s by John Maynard Keynes (his academic rival), as Hayek’s criticism of government involvement in the economy became increasingly out of place in the context of the Great Depression. He began to search for a way to update the old liberal creed of economic liberalism and opposition to the power of the state. As hard as it may be to believe today (as neoliberalism occupies a dominant place in American policy circles), neoliberal thought was born out of a sense that the earlier wave of economic liberalism had collapsed in the Depression years.

Instead of rigidly insisting on economic individualism, Hayek tried to reframe the issues in terms of the need to protect the fragile, creative spontaneity of the marketplace. The real danger of the welfare state and economic planning, according to Hayek, was that no matter how well-intentioned its advocates (the “totalitarians in our midst,” as he put it) might be, they would lead Britain and the United States down a path ending in political disaster.3

His book had some difficulty finding an American publisher but was eventually taken on by the University of Chicago Press, which planned an initial print run of 2,000 for release in September 1944. Front-page reviews in the New York Times Book Review and other publications boosted interest—and only a few weeks after publication, the Press had to scramble to get out a second, then a third, edition.4

Imagine the shy Austrian’s surprise when he arrived in the United States for a five-week book tour in April, 1945, and was met by a crowd of 3,000 at an early speaking engagement at New York’s Town Hall, also broadcast over the radio.5 Conservative businessmen who had been deeply frustrated by the rise of labor unions and expansion of government regulation during the New Deal had been eager to find what one referred to as a “‘bible’ of free enterprise,” a book that could articulate the underlying principles of capitalism in the rhetoric of freedom, giving them a way of opposing the new order without appearing motivated solely by self-interest.6 Hoping to find ways to limit labor’s reach and undermine the welfare state, these businessmen were thrilled to discover The Road to Serfdom.

The book also owed much of its success to Reader’s Digest, which published a condensed version for its readership of 8 million people; Look magazine printed a handy cartoon version, which was then picked up by General Electric’s in-house magazine.7

Hayek was a little chagrined by this success; he worried that he would no longer be taken seriously by scholars, that his admirers in the business community had discarded the subtlety of his arguments. But he was also happy to accept a position—financed by one of the early conservative foundations—at the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago.8 While a bit wary of his business supporters, he was also aware of the potential for an alliance with them. As he wrote in the preface to The Road to Serfdom, “When a professional student of social affairs writes a political book, his first duty is to say so. This is a political book.”9

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity.

It might have been hard for Hayek, writing in 1944, to imagine the world of 2014 into which Piketty’s book appeared. One of Piketty’s major claims is that the level of inequality in a society is determined by politics and social norms—the deregulation of finance, the political mobilization of the wealthy, and even the dominance of the free-market ideas that Hayek once championed—all of which have given rise to the ascendance of the super-elite.

The differences between the two books are not just about their arguments, or even their politics. They’re also methodological: Piketty is an empiricist, whose major contribution lies in his assembling of massive quantities of statistical information about economic inequality. Like Hayek, he was at odds with the economics profession even before his book was published, alienated even as a young assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by its retreat into mathematics and avoidance of history and politics.

Hayek became a theorist, even a polemicist, eschewing narrow mathematical arguments but also by and large avoiding data altogether. Overlooking any possibility that corporations or inequality might limit freedom, Hayek argued that the heavy hand of the state was all that people had to fear.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; "Pikettymania," by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; “Pikettymania,” by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity—and the economy is something that “all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe,” as well as journalists, commentators and social scientists need to understand.10

The response to Piketty from liberal audiences, eager to find an analysis deeper than a Paul Krugman column, reflects not only the economic politics of our own time: the stark, growing separation between the very rich and the rest of American society, a division that affects everything from education and health care to the very terms of political participation (and which may even be starting unsettle elites, such as those who have greeted Piketty’s work with enthusiasm). It also indicates a longing, however tentative, to bring these economic questions into political debate in ways that reflect their centrality to our lives—reviving an approach to economic life that sees it shot through with ideas about justice and indeed even freedom.

Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (W.W. Norton, 2009). She teaches History at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, and in 2014-15 she is a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library.

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1. “Best Sellers,” New York Times, accessed Sept. 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/hardcover-nonfiction/list.html#.
2. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1994 ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1944), 16.
3. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, 199.
4. Bruce Caldwell, “Introduction,” in The Road to Serfdom, Text and Documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 18-20.
5. Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 88.
6. Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands (W.W. Norton, 2009), 30.
7. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 89.
8. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 100-1.
9. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, xlv.
10. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014), 577.

Globalization and NAFTA Caused Migration from Mexico

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

When NAFTA was passed two decades ago, its boosters promised it would bring “First World” status for the Mexican people. Instead, it prompted a great migration north.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Rufino Domínguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, who now heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, estimates that there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca living in the U.S., 300,000 in California alone.1

In Oaxaca, some towns have become depopulated, or are now made up of only communities of the very old and very young, where most working-age people have left to work in the north. Economic crises provoked by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic reforms are now uprooting and displacing these Mexicans in the country’s most remote areas, where people still speak languages (such as Mixteco, Zapoteco and Triqui) that were old when Columbus arrived from Spain.2 “There are no jobs, and NAFTA forced the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore,” Dominguez says. “We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”

Rosalba Maritero is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California.  She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

Rosario Ventura is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California. She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

According to Rick Mines, author of the 2010 Indigenous Farm Worker Study, “the total population of California’s indigenous Mexican farm workers is about 120,000 … a total of 165,000 indigenous farm workers and family members in California.”3 Counting the many indigenous people living and working in urban areas, the total is considerably higher. Indigenous people made up 7% of Mexican migrants in 1991-3, the years just before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2006-8, they made up 29%—four times more.4

California has a farm labor force of about 700,000 workers, so the day is not far off when indigenous Oaxacan migrants may make up a majority. They are the workforce that has been produced by NAFTA and the changes in the global economy driven by free-market policies. Further, “the U.S. food system has long been dependent on the influx of an ever-changing, newly-arrived group of workers that sets the wages and working conditions at the entry level in the farm labor market,” Mines says. The rock-bottom wages paid to this most recent wave of migrants—Oaxaca’s indigenous people—set the wage floor for all the other workers in California farm labor, keeping the labor cost of California growers low, and their profits high.

Linking Trade and Immigration

U.S. trade and immigration policy are linked. They are part of a single system, not separate and independent policies. Since NAFTA’s passage in 1993, the U.S. Congress has debated and passed several new trade agreements—with Peru, Jordan, Chile, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. At the same time, Congress has debated immigration policy as though those trade agreements bore no relationship to the waves of displaced people migrating to the U.S., looking for work. Meanwhile, heightened anti-immigrant hysteria has increasingly demonized those migrants, leading to measures to deny them jobs, rights, or any equality with people living in the communities around them.

To resolve any of these dilemmas, from adopting rational and humane immigration policies to reducing the fear and hostility towards migrants, the starting point must be an examination of the way U.S. policies have produced migration—and criminalized migrants.

Trade negotiations and immigration policy were formally joined together by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Immigrants’ rights activists campaigned against the law because it contained employer sanctions, prohibiting employers for the first time on a federal level from hiring undocumented workers and effectively criminalizing work for the undocumented. IRCA’s liberal defenders argued its amnesty provision justified sanctions and militarizing the border,5 as well as new guest worker programs. The bill eventually did enable more than 4 million people living in the U.S. without immigration documents to gain permanent residence. Underscoring the broad bipartisan consensus supporting it, the bill was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative. — Rufino Dominguez, Director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants

Few noted one other provision of the law. IRCA set up a Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development to study the causes of immigration to the United States. The commission held hearings after the U.S. and Canada signed a bilateral free trade agreement, and made a report to President George H.W. Bush and Congress in 1990. It found that the main motivation for coming to the U.S. was poverty. To slow or halt the flow of migrants, it recommended that “U.S. economic policy should promote a system of open trade … the development of a U.S.-Mexico free trade area and its incorporation with Canada.” But, it warned, “It takes many years—even generations—for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect.”

The negotiations that led to NAFTA started within months. As Congress debated the treaty, then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari toured the United States, telling audiences unhappy at high levels of immigration that passing NAFTA would reduce it by providing employment for Mexicans in Mexico. Back home, he made the same argument. NAFTA, he claimed, would set Mexico on a course to become a first-world nation.6   “We did become part of the first world,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “The back yard.”7

Increasing pressure

NAFTA, however, did not lead to rising incomes and employment in Mexico, and did not decrease the flow of migrants. Instead, it became a source of pressure on Mexicans to migrate. The treaty forced corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico’s own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, who had been subsidized by the U.S. Agricultural exports to Mexico more than doubled during the NAFTA years, from $4.6 to $9.8 billion annually. Corn imports rose from 2,014,000 to 10,330,000 tons from 1992 to 2008. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year NAFTA took effect. By 2010, pork imports, almost all from the U.S., had grown over 25 times, to 811,000 tons. As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56%.8

According to Alejandro Ramírez, general director of the Confederation of Mexican Pork Producers, “We lost 4,000 pig farms. Each 100 animals produce 5 jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the 5 indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs in total. This produces migration to the U.S. or to Mexican cities—a big problem for our country.”9 Once Mexican meat and corn producers were driven from the market by imports, the Mexican economy was left vulnerable to price changes dictated by U.S. agribusiness or U.S. policy. “When the U.S. modified its corn policy to encourage ethanol production,” he charges, “corn prices jumped 100% in one year.”10

NAFTA then prohibited price supports, without which hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products for what it cost to produce them. Mexico couldn’t protect its own agriculture from the fluctuations of the world market. A global coffee glut in the 1990s plunged prices below the cost of production. A less entrapped government might have bought the crops of Veracruz farmers to keep them afloat, or provided subsidies for other crops.

But once free-market structures were in place prohibiting government intervention to help them, those farmers paid the price. Campesinos from Veracruz, as well as Oaxaca and other major corn-producing states, joined the stream of workers headed north.11 There, they became an important part of the workforce in U.S. slaughterhouses and other industries.

U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories, eventually anywhere in Mexico. U.S.-based Union Pacific, in partnership with the Larrea family, one of Mexico’s wealthiest, became the owner of the country’s main north-south rail line and immediately discontinued virtually all passenger service.12 Mexican rail employment dropped from more than 90,000 to 36,000. Railroad workers mounted a wildcat strike to try to save their jobs, but they lost and their union became a shadow of its former self.

According to Garrett Brown, head of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Network, the average Mexican wage was 23% of the U.S. manufacturing wage in 1975. By 2002, it was less than an eighth. Brown says that after NAFTA, real Mexican wages dropped by 22%, while worker productivity increased 45%.13

Attracting Investors, Repelling Workers

Low wages are the magnet used to attract U.S. and other foreign investors. In mid-June, 2006, Ford Corporation, already one of Mexico’s largest employers, announced it would invest $9 billion more in building new factories.14 Meanwhile, Ford closed 14 U.S. plants, eliminating the jobs of tens of thousands of U.S. workers. Both moves were part of the company’s strategic plan to cut labor costs and move production. When General Motors was bailed out by the U.S. government in 2008, it closed a dozen U.S. plants, while its plans for building new plants in Mexico went forward without hindrance.15 These policies displaced people, who could no longer make a living as they’d done before. The rosy predictions of NAFTA’s boosters that it would raise income and slow migration proved false. The World Bank, in a 2005 study made for the Mexican government, found that the extreme rural poverty rate of around 37% in 1992-4, prior to NAFTA, jumped to about 52% in 1996-8, after NAFTA took effect. This could be explained, the report said, “mainly by the 1995 economic crisis, the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices.”16

By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology—half the country’s population.17 The growth of poverty, in turn, fueled migration. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the U.S. A decade later, that population more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million. Approximately 9.4% of all Mexicans now live in the U.S., based on numbers from Pew Hispanic. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; but another 7 million couldn’t, and came nevertheless.18

From 1982 through the NAFTA era, successive economic reforms produced migrants. The displacement had already grown so large by 1986 that the commission established by IRCA was charged with recommending measures to halt or slow it. Its report urged that “migrant-sending countries should encourage technological modernization by strengthening and assuring intellectual property protection and by removing existing impediments to investment” and recommended that “the United States should condition bilateral aid to sending countries on their taking the necessary steps toward structural adjustment.” The IRCA commission report acknowledged the potential for harm, noting (in the mildest, most ineffectual language possible) that “efforts should be made to ease transitional costs in human suffering.”19

In 1994, however, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, U.S. speculators began selling off Mexican government bonds. According to Jeff Faux, founding director the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based progressive think tank, “NAFTA had created a speculative bubble for Mexican assets that then collapsed when the speculators cashed in.”20 In NAFTA’s first year, 1994, one million Mexicans lost their jobs when the peso was devalued. To avert a flood of capital to the north, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin engineered a $20 billion loan to Mexico, which was paid to bondholders, mostly U.S. banks. In return, U.S. and British banks gained control of the country’s financial system. Mexico had to pledge its oil revenue to pay off foreign debt, making the country’s primary source of income unavailable for the needs of its people.

As the Mexican economy, especially the border maquiladora industry, became increasingly tied to the U.S. market, tens of thousands of Mexican workers lost jobs when the market shrank during U.S. recessions in 2001 and 2008. “It is the financial crashes and the economic disasters that drive people to work for dollars in the U.S., to replace life savings, or just to earn enough to keep their family at home together,” says Harvard historian John Womack.21

Immigrants, Migrants, or Displaced People?

In the U.S. political debate, Veracruz’ uprooted coffee pickers or unemployed workers from Mexico City are called immigrants, because that debate doesn’t recognize their existence before they leave Mexico. It is more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration, since that takes into account both people’s communities of origin and those where they travel to find work.

But displacement is an unmentionable word in the Washington discourse. Not one immigration proposal in Congress in the quarter century since IRCA was passed has tried to come to grips with the policies that uprooted miners, teachers, tree planters, and farmers. In fact, while debating bills to criminalize undocumented migrants and set up huge guest worker programs, four new trade agreements were introduced, each of which has caused more displacement and more migration.

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The Art of Activism

Spotlighting the efforts of artists and organizations who are engaged in the struggle for social justice and are helping build the movement through their work.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

For more than 30 years, David Bacon has been writing about and photographing people who are displaced by poverty in Mexico and choose to cross into the United States in search of a better life. David writes:

“For me, photography is a cooperative project. For over a decade, I’ve worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, and California Rural Legal Assistance to document this contradiction. The photographs shown on the border wall, ‘En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North),’ are drawn from this long-term project. They show poverty, the lack of housing for many people, and the systematic exploitation of immigrant labor in the fields. But through the photographs and accompanying oral histories, migrants also analyze their situation. They demand respect for their culture, basic rights, and greater social equality. People in Tijuana are pretty familiar with working conditions in California, and most people I met looking at the show had actually been there, many as workers. The images, therefore, underline the need to change reality, and appreciate our mutual humanity and the importance of our labor.

For three decades, I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the “reality check”—the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration, and displacement. But this documentation, carried out over a long period of time, also presents some of the political and economic alternatives proposed by people who are often shut out of public debate. It examines their efforts to win the power to put some of these alternatives into practice. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice—we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.”


1. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen, “Turning the Tide?” in Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century, eds. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen (New York: New Press, 2006), 23.
2. John P. Schmal, “Oaxaca: Land of Diversity,” ¡LatinoLA!, Jan. 28, 2007, http://www.latinola.com/story.php?story=3908.
3. Richard Mines, Sandra Nichols, and David Runsten, “California’s Indigenous Farmworkers: Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment,” Jan. 2010, http://www.indigenousfarmworkers.org/IFS%20Full%20Report%20_Jan2010.pdf.
4. Mines, Nichols, and Runsten, “California Indigenous Farmworkers Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment.”
5. Brad Plummer, “Congress Tried to Fix Immigration Back in 1986. Why Did It Fail?” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/30/in-1986-congress-tried-to-solve-immigration-why-didnt-it-work.
6. David Clark Scott, “Salinas Plays It Cool After Big Win on NAFTA,” Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 19, 1993, http://www.csmonitor.com/1993/1119/19014.html.
7. Juan Manuel Sandoval, interview with David Bacon, 2006.
8. David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013).
9. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
10. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
11. David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 63.
12. Bacon, Illegal People, 58.
13. Bacon, Illegal People, 59.
14. Elizabeth Malkin, “Detroit: Far South,” New York Times, Jul. 21, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/21/business/worldbusiness/21auto.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
15. Paul Roderick Gregory, “Outsourcer-In-Chief: Obama Of General Motors,” Forbes, Aug. 12, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2012/08/12/outsourcer-in-chief-obama-of-general-motors.
16. José María Caballero et al. for the World Bank, Mexico: Income Generation and Social Protection for the Poor, Volume IV: A Study of Rural Poverty in Mexico, Aug. 2005, (accessed via https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/8286), 9-11.
17. Richard Wells, “3 Ways To Compete Sustainably: Lessons from Mexico,” GreenBiz.com, Oct. 9, 2013, http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/10/09/3-ways-compete-sustainably-lessons-mexico.
18. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
19. Bacon, Illegal People, 60-61.
20. Bacon, Illegal People, 61.
21. Bacon, Illegal People, 64.

Manufactured Emergency: The Neoliberal Assault on Michigan

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Those who want to privatize public services and destroy unions have made some successful incursions into the once union-friendly state. Whether Michiganders can mount an effective resistance remains to be seen.

 

**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

 

When Michigan Republicans decided to push through a so-called right-to-work bill in December 2012, schools in three districts were forced to close for a day because so many teachers went to the Capitol to protest. Several dozen protesters demonstrated in the Capitol Rotunda; nine were arrested.

Misnamed right-to-work laws make a certain type of agreement between a union and an employer illegal: union-represented employees may not be required to pay dues or near-equivalent “agency fees.” By law, the union is still obligated to represent non-paying workers as if they were members, which is why unions call the laws “right to freeload.” Since a certain portion of the workforce will take advantage of the chance to save a few bucks, these laws weaken unions financially—including their political operations—as well as breaking up solidarity. A weaker union has less clout to defend its members at the bargaining table or on the shop floor.

But right-to-work in Michigan was a done deal, signed into law by Governor Rick “The Nerd” Snyder just a week after it was introduced. Unions hastily bused demonstrators to Lansing, bringing the crowd to 10,000, but Snyder remained unmoved. After all, the previous year his counterpart in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, had ignored crowds of up to a hundred thousand who kept the state in turmoil for a month as they protested an anti-union bill.

Thousands of supporters rally at the Capitol grounds in Lansing, Mich., in Dec, 2012. The crowd is protesting right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state Legislature. ((AP Photo/Carlos Osorio))

Thousands of supporters rally at the Capitol grounds in Lansing, Mich., in Dec, 2012. The crowd is protesting right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state Legislature. ((AP Photo/Carlos Osorio))

A central goal of the neoliberal project is to weaken unions, and state legislation is one method. Unions are anathema in the free-market ideology, since they constrain employers’ liberty to operate exactly as they please. Unions also bargain higher wages and benefits and give employees some workplace rights not to be ordered about like indentured servants—thus cutting into potential profits, in the private sector.

A Midwestern Trend

Thousands of supporters rally at the Capitol grounds in Lansing, Mich., in December 2012. The crowd is protesting right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state Legislature. ((AP Photo/Carlos Osorio))

Thousands of supporters rally at the Capitol grounds in Lansing, Mich., in December 2012. The crowd is protesting right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state Legislature. ((AP Photo/Carlos Osorio))

Several Midwestern states have become laboratories for such neoliberal experiments. Wisconsin’s legislature passed a bill in 2011 that required state employees to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance—the equivalent of an eight to 12 percent pay cut in some cases—and eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees on everything except base wages; raises were in practice limited to the rate of inflation.

In Ohio, the legislature passed a measure that effectively took away collective bargaining rights from  state employees, including those in higher education, changed their pay structure, and required many of them to pay at least 20 percent of the cost of their health care plans.  (Ohio voters later overturned this bill in a hard-fought referendum.)

Indiana became the first Rust Belt state to take the right-to-work path, in February 2012, as thousands of unionists shouted their anger from the Statehouse hallways.

Michigan made use of an “emergency manager” law, which allowed the governor—citing any of a variety of triggers—to appoint an unelected overseer to run towns or cities. This included those whose budgets were in the red. These managers used their authority to tear up union contracts. Detroit’s takeover by an emergency manager, and its subsequent bankruptcy, had a similar effect, with city employees taking wage and pension cuts.

Still, Michigan’s sudden move to become the 24th right-to-work state rocked the labor movement nationwide. A birthplace of industrial unionism, Michigan still enjoyed a 16.6 percent unionization rate, the seventh-highest in the country. Its premier union, the United Auto Workers, was treated in the press as a major political player. And yet Michigan had joined the ranks of anti-union strongholds like Mississippi and Wyoming.

Too Divisive

How did right-to-work come about in the seemingly solid union state of Michigan? Governor Snyder had previously said it was too divisive and not on his political agenda. So, union members and supporters were shocked when the governor announced his change of heart. United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King, who had 151,000 members and 190,000 retirees in the state, said the governor’s about-face had “blindsided” him.

But the plan to make Michigan right-to-work was actually long brewing. With its record of voting for Democratic presidents, Michigan was a tempting target for such billionaire-funded national groups as Americans for Prosperity (founded by the Koch brothers) and for the state’s home-grown billionaire, Richard  DeVos of the Amway fortune. As Lee Fang reported for The Nation, Americans for Prosperity’s Michigan chapter quadrupled its spending in 2010, the year Snyder was elected, to $1.1 million. The Mackinac Center, a longtime right-wing think tank in the state, spent $5.7 million on Michigan-based advocacy in 2011. (DeVos is a funder of both groups.)

Mark Brewer, who was then the Michigan Democratic Party chair, dated the plotting for right to work to at least 2007. A video shows former Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser speaking to a Tea Party meeting in August 2012. Weiser, who was  finance chair of the Republican National Committee, described meeting with DeVos, former Michigan Governor John Engler (now with the Business Roundtable), representatives from Americans for Prosperity, and Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma which passed right-to-work in 2001. (The CEO of Oklahoma’s Chamber of Commerce had admitted he can’t name any companies that moved to Oklahoma because of right-to-work.  But that inconvenient fact, which holds true in other states as well, has not deterred the pro-right-to-work forces from claiming to be “job creators.”)

Weiser says the group decided not to move on right-to-work until Republicans controlled both the legislature and the governorship. Those elements were in place by January 2011, but in February the tumultuous uprising against anti-union measures kicked off in next-door Wisconsin, bringing tens of thousands of union members and progressives repeatedly to the Capitol, and demonstrations in cities and small towns across the country.

So Michigan’s neoliberal strategists instead pursued a piecemeal strategy: appointing emergency managers to run financially troubled cities and throw out union contracts; taking away the lifeline of teachers’ automatic union dues deductions; rescinding domestic partner benefits for public employees; defining university research assistants as non-workers; and a host of other measures designed not to rile everyone at once.

Proactive Strategy

To head off the possibility of right-to-work and to nullify all these laws that were interfering with collective bargaining, the UAW’s King and allied unions developed an offensive plan, to pass a constitutional amendment. Proposal 2, on the November 2012 ballot, would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right in the state.

But campaign leaders were reluctant to be specific about any particular laws that Proposal 2 would have outlawed, according to Mark O’Keefe, a staffer for the Detroit Federation of Teachers. O’Keefe said leaders were afraid that any specific was likely to offend someone. Meanwhile, Proposal 2 was opposed by every business interest in the state, some of whom mounted a $30 million disinformation campaign. This included ads from a front group called Citizens for Protecting Michigan’s Constitution claiming that the bill would prevent school districts from firing child molesters. Proposal 2 went down to defeat decisively, 57 to 42 percent.

Locked In

Because of an accident of timing, it’s still too soon to know how right-to-work will play out in Michigan’s largest private-sector contracts, the UAW’s pacts with the Big 3 automakers. The law doesn’t affect contracts already in place, and the Big 3’s won’t expire until September 2015.

UAW leaders, though they decried right-to-work, were oddly complacent about the prospect of losing a chunk of their union’s core members.   The UAW convention this summer—which took place as King retired– even voted to raise dues by 25 percent—surely a disincentive for wavering members to stay on board.

Teachers’ local unions took a different tack, quickly opening up existing contracts and bargaining new ones before right-to-work was due to take effect in March 2013. By signing new contracts under the old law, they locked in dues or the agency fee as a funding stream for the length of the new contracts. In most cases, though, those contracts were concession-filled, as management bargainers took advantage of leaders’ desperation.

A conservative think tank monitoring unions’ efforts to “dodge” right-to-work reported that at least 54 school districts signed contracts before the deadline. In Detroit, teachers signed a pay freeze through 2016—after already taking huge cuts in 2010 and 2011. In Taylor, a blue-collar suburb, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) locked in 10 years of agency fee and took a 10 percent pay cut.

Attack on Tenure

Perhaps the example that shows most clearly how the attack on unions fits with other neoliberal aims is at Detroit’s Wayne State University. Allan Gilmour, then-president of Wayne State (who had been a top officer at Ford Motor Co.), had made headlines a few months before right-to-work was passed, when he proposed that Wayne become among the first major U.S. universities to effectively end tenure. Allies of the union quickly got 6,000 signatures on an online petition, and Gilmour backed down.

But this set the stage for the university to take the offensive during contract negotiations. The union representing 1,950 full-time faculty bargained eight years of dues security but, said chief negotiator Anca Vlasopolos, “We had to make concessions to obtain the length of the contract.”

Decrying the “corporatization” hitting universities everywhere, Vlasopolos said the faculty union was forced to concede on issues that affected the quality of education at Wayne State. “We were not able to hold on as strongly to things that were very dear to our hearts and important for the university to remain a university,” she said.

In particular, under the pressure of settling before the deadline, the question of online teaching—where professors now have no say and may have as many as 350 students in a class—was put off to a committee.

“The aim of the corporate university is to become a diploma mill and rely on a large percentage of part-time teachers,” Vlasopolos said, while the union’s aim is to “make sure we don’t become a University of Phoenix.”

If unions in Michigan do end up substantially smaller, workers will have less bargaining power and therefore can expect even weaker contracts: lower wages, higher payments for health insurance, and less protection against workload increases. After Walker’s successful attack on public employees in Wisconsin, unions there were caught in a vicious spiral: with unions’ right to bargain eviscerated, workers could see less reason to pay dues. As members dropped out in droves, the unions’ infrastructure was weakened and they could do far less to make themselves relevant. Said John Matthews, longtime leader of the Madison teachers’ local: “working conditions have been rolled back to the mid-1950s by some regressive public employers.”

At the Michigan unions’ 2012 anti-right-to-work rally, Teamsters President James Hoffa, who is from the state, admitted that the way back for unions will be a long fight. The slide down has been long, too, but it’s accelerating.

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Neoliberal Feminists Don’t Want Women to Organize

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Lean any way you want; the view from the bottom of the economic system doesn’t change.

 

**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

To say that Sheryl Sandberg ruined my life would be to make the same mistake that Sandberg herself makes—it would be to assume that the successes or failures of an individual woman, feminist or no, equal the successes or failures of feminism.

Nevertheless, writing about feminism and the workplace in the shadow of Lean In has been a task in itself. One must, it often seems, either define oneself as for or against Sandberg. Critique of her was critique of feminism, at least for the heady months around her book’s publication when well-known feminists felt compelled to take sides.

Sandberg is not herself the problem, but she exemplifies it in a way that has been instructive. When Jill Abramson was fired from her position as executive editor at the New York Times, reportedly after she confronted the paper’s publisher over her discovery that her pay was less than that of her (male) predecessor, among the many outraged reactions from feminists was the response that leaning in doesn’t work after all. Abramson’s experience, similar to that of so many women, seemed a rebuke to the idea, promoted in Sandberg’s book, that individual women were holding themselves back. It reminded us that no matter how hard we try, sexism—sexism in the workplace—cannot be defeated individual success story by individual success story.

One of the insidious things about neoliberalism is how it has managed to absorb our vibrant, multifaceted liberation struggles into itself and spit them back out to us as monotone (dollar-bill-green) self-actualization narratives. The way this has happened to feminism is particularly instructive. As I wrote in Dissent last winter, the so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

In fact, the flight of middle-class women into the paid workplace left other women, namely domestic workers, cleaning up the mess left behind, and many of those middle-class women seemed unwilling to deal with the fact that they too, sometimes, could oppress. As Ehrenreich wrote in “Maid to Order,” a piece published in the anthology, Global Woman, which she co-edited with Arlie Russell Hochschild, “To make a mess that another person will have to deal with—the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack—is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms.”

While some women have experienced the workplace as a site of liberation and increased power, for many others, the workplace was never a choice. Particularly for women of color, whose domestic work was excluded intentionally from New Deal-era labor laws, the workplace was and remains a site of oppression. And to this day, women remain concentrated in the economy’s lowest-paying jobs—some two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and three of the fastest-growing occupations in the country are retail sales, food service, and home health care, which are both low-wage and female-dominated jobs. Home health care workers, in many ways the face of the new service economy, were just ruled only “partial” public employees by the right-wing Roberts Supreme Court. More than 90 percent of them, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are female.

Those are jobs at which, no matter how hard one leans in, the view doesn’t change.

And these days, the conditions for more and more workers are beginning to resemble those at the bottom; fleeing the female-dominated workplace, rather than improving it, has left middle-class women more, not less, vulnerable. The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.

Though the movement for paid sick leave has gained some important wins in recent months and years, alongside a growing movement to raise the minimum wage, a more expansive family policy that would actually allow more than a few days’ paid leave or allow workers more control over their own schedules remains a pipe dream.

Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down. You would be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed feminist, even of the most neoliberal variety, who doesn’t argue in favor of equal pay, but this focus has often served, as I have argued, to stifle discussion of other concerns in the workplace. As Marilyn Sneiderman, lifelong labor organizer and director of the New Labor Center at Rutgers University, told me for Dissent, the fight for fair pay might seem an individual struggle for high-end workers like Abramson, but for a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organize with your fellow workers.

Neoliberal feminism is a feminism that ignores class as a determining issue in women’s lives. It presumes, as Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in an article on her personal website, that giving power to some women will automatically wind up trickling if not power, than at least some lifestyle improvements down to women with less power.

This applies internationally as well as domestically. Nancy Fraser, in her book Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, cites Hester Eisenstein’s argument that feminism has entered into a “dangerous liaison” with neoliberalism, embracing critiques of the state and men’s economic power that allowed for deregulation. Fraser sees neoliberal feminism embracing a pro-globalization mentality that regards women in the developing world as in need of “saving” by enlightened Western feminists.

Take Somaly Mam, the Cambodian NGO entrepreneur who built her career on her own fraudulent tale of being sex trafficked as a child. Westerners flocked to her story and her cause, joining her on trips to “save” women from brothels. Sheryl Sandberg was on the board of her foundation, alongside Susan Sarandon. Hillary Clinton was a fan. Mam’s rise to fame dovetailed with the rise, across the U.S., of an obsession with “saving” sex workers and increasing criminal penalties for sex trafficking.

Her fame attracted prominent feminists to a cause that continues, as Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing the Whore, to be supported by the Religious Right and to criminalize women who are trying to make ends meet any way they can. Yet the solutions offered to the women saved by Mam’s organization (currently undergoing a name change after Newsweek published its expose of Mam’s fabrications) were mostly low-wage sweatshop jobs producing clothing for Western consumption. As Anne Elizabeth Moore, who has spent years working in and reporting on Cambodia, writes in Salon of Mam’s organization and others like hers, “What they do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.”

This is neoliberal feminism at its finest. As Gira Grant writes, the idea that women in Cambodia—or in the United States—can organize themselves and change their working conditions is almost always absent from the conversation.

Selma James, one of the founders of the 1970s Wages for Housework movement and a leader in the Global Women’s Strike, criticized how some feminists turned grassroots organizing projects into “jobs for the girls” as a way for some women to have power by creating mechanisms to save others. In today’s political climate, we must be wary of claims that feminism is best served by increasing the power of individual (white, middle-class) women, and question over whom they exercise that power. We must understand the difference between power for a few and a real change in how power affects us all.

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