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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The Shell Game of Contingent Employment

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 subcontractors, freelancers, and independent contractors get hurt or abused on the job, these workers are finding it harder to hold employers accountable. This is no accident—it’s a direct result of a neoliberal labor agenda.

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

In 2011, Host Hotels & Resorts, Inc., a corporate partner of the Marriott hotel chain, used a general contractor that it had hired to renovate guest rooms at the Host-owned Copley Marriott in Boston.   A convoluted web of subcontractors emerged, as the general contractor subcontracted the work to several other companies, and some of that subcontracted work was then further subcontracted, with more than a dozen firms working on the same project.

construction site

A state-led, multi-agency investigation found that 15 contractors on the project committed a wide array of labor law violations. Workers from a church-sponsored rehabilitation project in Philadelphia were paid only four dollars an hour—just half the state minimum wage—and no overtime, though they were required to work 12-hour days and more than 60 hours per week. All told, contractors failed to report or pay taxes on more than $1 million in wages, and at least one of them failed to maintain workers’ compensation insurance policies for the hazardous work. They misclassified many of the workers as independent contractors, thus evading tens of thousands of dollars more in unemployment insurance taxes, workers compensation premiums, and employer-side taxes, while stripping workers of basic workplace rights.[1]

Because so many layers of contractors were involved in the project, investigators had difficulty determining which ones could be held responsible for the violations. Host Hotels, which ultimately benefited from the sub-minimum wages and tax evasion, asserted that it had no legal obligation to the workers and should not be held liable for any of the violations committed by the subcontractors or their subcontractors.[2]

Companies at every possible level of the project avoided accountability for the mistreatment of the workers.  Despite having found that 15 companies had broken the law and abused their workers, authorities only held three subcontractors to the most immediate sanction—Stop Work Orders. The general contractor neither faced significant penalties nor admitted wrongdoing. As a summary of the investigation put it, “The issue of which entity was legally the employer and responsible for the wages was never resolved.”[3]

 An Old Neoliberal Paradigm

We increasingly see businesses like the Marriott (and corporate partner Host Hotels) seeking to shed the burden of government regulation by passing off liability to intermediaries, like staffing agencies, or by falsely claiming that no labor laws at all apply because the workers are either independent contractors or corporations in business for themselves. By restructuring work relationships in these ways, some of the nation’s largest corporations aim to shift much of their workforce outside the scope of employment laws and employment taxes that apply to “employees”—as defined by a set of labor laws that still presume a conventional workplace with one employer and the on-site workers it directly hires.

The isolation from fellow workers that the “independent contractor” designation engenders cuts against workers’ ability to organize to challenge abuses resulting from subcontracted work structures.

This shift in work structures, combined with increased attacks on the labor movement and the de-funding of the nation’s labor enforcement agencies, has depressed workers’ income and weakened their ability to claim basic workplace rights like overtime pay and health and safety protections. Outsourcing and independent contractor misclassification have also drained millions from local, state, and federal coffers, undermining the social safety net just as workers need its protection even more.  The isolation from fellow workers that the “independent contractor” designation engenders cuts against workers’ ability to organize to challenge abuses resulting from subcontracted work structures.

Reorganization of work structures also acts to direct workers’ anger away from the company calling the shots (such as a general contractor) and onto the direct employer, or even to the workers themselves, who may believe their situation stems from their own failings as independent business people.  All of these factors undermine workers’ ability to organize into unions and worker collectives, one of the fundamental goals of neoliberalism and its pursuit of an unregulated free market.

 Free Markets, Unfree Workers

The rise to power of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom ushered in a new era of economic policy. Minimal corporate taxation, privatization of public goods, and the deregulation of businesses became the dominant policies promoted for economic growth. The attacks against organized labor, progressive organizations, and community groups that opposed the new regime were brutal. The percentage of workers in unions plummeted.

Across the country, new formations emerged that tried to deal with this onslaught of attacks on workers.  Coalitions of organized labor, grassroots organizations, and worker centers began fighting back together and winning campaigns using a combination of militant rank-and-file membership, intelligent planning, and strategic organizing. The target of these campaigns was often a clearly identifiable owner of the business, and so workers and community allies knew whom to hold responsible for the conditions of work. This, however, is no longer the case, as seen in the Copley Mariott and other examples where companies pass on liability to their subcontractors and outsourced agencies, making it difficult for workers to hold real employers accountable.

Such interruption in the employer-employee relationship is reminiscent of the neoliberal structural adjustment policies the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have imposed on so-called developing countries.  As the IMF and World Bank required national governments to loosen labor laws and other regulations to promote free trade and supposed foreign investment, corporations have similarly restructured the relationship between employer and employee to avoid government regulation altogether and to create confusion over who is responsible for workers. Ultimately, the result is the same: structural adjustment and debt repayment policies increased poverty and stripped local governments’ ability to provide basic health care, education, and employment for their citizens, while the restructuring of employer/employee relationships has helped create a shadow (or underground) economy free from regulation and has reduced the government’s ability to provide an adequate safety net for the growing low-wage, contingent workforce.

In Massachusetts, the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification has collected more than $55 million in the past five years from individuals and businesses that engage in strategies to avoid responsibility to their workers.[4] The Task Force utilizes existing labor laws and regulations to recover nonpayment of wages and payroll taxes; licenses and permit fees; unemployment and workman’s compensation insurance, and other important monies owed to workers and the state. Despite its successes, the Task Force is limited by existing labor law and is unable to broaden its scope of accountability to include companies who surely profit from workers, but may not be legally defined as their direct employer.

 Toward A New Legal Framework

Extensive use of abusive subcontracting and misclassification schemes and other outsourcing tools are eroding the 80 years of labor protections that many have come to take for granted. Community Labor United and the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative are working to close that accountability gap in Massachusetts with a new legal framework, being developed by the National Employment Law Project, that holds all entities in the labor supply chain responsible—whether they initiate the demand for the work, orchestrate a project, or directly hire and supervise the workers. We call this the “accountable employer” framework.

Accountable employers know what work is being performed, often control the conditions under which it is performed, and have the power to ensure compliance with labor laws and regulations. All entities and creators of supply chain or outsourced work arrangements would then be held liable for performing these key employer functions.

In the Copley Marriott case, the Accountable Employer framework would hold multiple parties responsible because of the labor violations they perpetrated. The Philadelphia church that supplied $4-an-hour workers would be accountable for creating and ending the employment relationship; the general contractor and its subcontractor would be accountable for managing the enterprise internally and externally; and Host Hotels would be accountable because it received the fruits of the workers’ labor.

Similarly, a new Accountable Employer statute would make a large corporate employer like Wal-Mart responsible for wages and working conditions in its supply chain even if it outsources much of the labor (and even management). Wal-Mart controls the timing and manner of delivery of the goods on its store shelves, decides how goods are handled when they are unloaded and delivered, and uses its market dominance to force contractors to keep costs as low as possible. Wal-Mart engenders labor violations in its supply chain and therefore should be on the hook for these abuses.

As corporations continue to look for ways to skirt government regulations and increase their profit margins, many will continue to hire intermediaries or misclassify workers as a way of outsourcing their responsibility and escaping liability. This shift is part of neoliberalism’s broader political realignment towards deregulation of markets and the empowerment of corporations.  However, employer accountability can be restored through legislation that holds all entities throughout the web of contractors and subcontractors responsible for their workers.

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Article Authors:

Darlene Lombos started with CLU in 2006 as a Senior Organizer, became OrganizingDirector then Co-Director in 2008, and finally Executive Director in 2011. She is also the Vice President of the Greater Boston Labor Council.

Sarah Leberstein is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). She advocates for policy reforms promoting the workplace rights of non-standard workers and enforcement of wage and hour and workplace laws.

Elvis Mendez is a coordinator at the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative in Boston, Mass.

 


Endnotes:

[1] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2013. “2012 Annual Report,” p. 6. [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2012.pdf]

[2] Casey Ross, “Marriott Copley Place project flouted pay law.” Boston Globe, 4 September 2012. [http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/09/03/investigators-find-widespread-labor-violations-copley-marriott-renovation/iIRlNeRovG05Dkbta3rOTI/story.html]
[3] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2013. “2012 Annual Report,” p. 6. [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2012.pdf]
[4] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2014. “2013 Annual Report,” [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2013.pdf]

 

To Shock the Heart of the Nation

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

An Interview with Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President, North Carolina NAACP

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

“We had some happy clients when we found out they wouldn’t have to pay the North Carolina estate tax,” Elizabeth Quick, an estate lawyer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told Forbes magazine in July 2013. The state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, had just signed a repeal of the estate tax that removed the obligation for one wealthy family to pay more than $2 million, and another family $680,000, into state coffers.

So that those two families (plus around 20 others) could keep the entirety of their estates intact, the governor and state legislature eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit, depriving 907,000 low-income North Carolinians of state funds that many counted on to pay their utility bills and rent.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are a common Republican tactic, but this wasn’t just a Republican maneuver. McCrory and the GOP-dominated legislature were just getting started on a set of policy changes reflective of a comprehensive and far-reaching neoliberal agenda. Within the first 50 days of the 2013 legislative session, the lawmakers, whose campaigns had been backed by some of the wealthiest families in the state, enacted a string of new laws that transfer wealth from poor to rich. The state moved to refuse federal dollars for expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 more people under the Affordable Care Act; suppress the vote with a restrictive Voter ID law; cut off unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians; and slash teacher salaries to bring North Carolina to 46th place nationwide for teacher pay.

These policies were among the wishes of Art Pope, a retail tycoon and former state representative whose interest in politics is so keen that he became McCrory’s state budget director (a position from which Pope just stepped down amid controversy over how concentrated his power had become).  Pope, along with organizations such as the (billionaires and political allies of Pope) Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity—exerts such influence on Gov. McCrory and state legislators that even some Republicans in the state have suggested it is too much.  In one egregious example, in 2013, Pope entered the statehouse during debate on a bill that would have allowed public funding of campaigns for judgeships and collared a GOP lawmaker who was considering a compromise, reminding the lawmaker of Pope’s past contribution to his campaign and thus personally ensuring the bill’s death.

Pope also funds NC-based think tanks—such as the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation— that generate research to support the neoliberal agenda that has, in two short years, come to dominate the political process in North Carolina. “He drives the budgetary policy goals of this administration,” complained one anonymous North Carolina Republican lobbyist to the Washington Post in July 2014.

But a grassroots movement is underway to fight back against Pope and the free-market incursions he and other neoliberals are making against the state’s hard-won policies for racial and economic justice.  Tapping into the same religious core that fueled the Civil Rights Movement, state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber II has energized a broad swath of people in the state to take to the streets at least 70 times since 2012 to say that enough is enough. Rallying thousands of North Carolinians around a 14-Point People’s Agenda, the Moral Marches (or Moral Mondays, as they were first popularly dubbed) have come to be seen as a touchstone for a renewed social justice movement across the South. As Barber prepared to spread a message of hope and democracy through a week of actions Aug. 22-28 in Raleigh and other Southern state capitals, he talked with me about North Carolina’s free-market ideology and how it has already affected the people who live there.  Barber, referring to the billionaire-backed Tea Party, the national group that pushes free-market policies at the local and state level, says these past two legislative sessions have been a “coordinated, premeditated attempt to undermine progress and engage in regressive Tea Party policies.”

William Barber

Rev. Dr. William Barber II

“This is really Robin Hood in reverse,” Barber told me. “It is government of business, bought by business, for business. And not just business—because lots of business leaders disagree with them—but this is Tea Party greed. This is Koch brother-type greed.”

“This is really Robin Hood in reverse,” Barber told me. “It is government of business, bought by business, for business.

Barber bristles, though, at the notion that conservatism or partisan politics are at the root of the problem. “I fuss against these terms ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’,” he says, “because I want to conserve the essence of our Constitution and then liberally make sure everybody has access to them. What we’re dealing with is extremism, and you can’t just define it as ‘conservative.’”

At the local level, says Barber, the state legislature’s extreme adherence to free-market neoliberal policy is gutting the state’s public school system. “Five thousand teachers being fired, being removed, and local school boards decrying [this] because of the impact that it was having on classroom sizes and students,” he says.

Barber adds that, because of the salary cuts, he sees teachers actively leaving North Carolina. “In fact,” he said, “one state, Texas, sent memos out and said if you’re in North Carolina, come to Texas. And you know that’s kind of sad, considering Texas’s regressiveness, when they actually can offer teachers more than North Carolina.”

Barber also described the legislature’s attempt to shift $10 million earmarked for public schools to voucher programs that could only be used to pay for private schools. In shifting these public funds into private hands, said Barber, the legislature refused to require that private schools benefiting from the vouchers maintain the same non-discrimination standards that public schools must uphold, meaning that private schools receiving voucher funds would have been allowed to restrict enrollment however they chose. A Superior Court judge declared on Aug. 21 that the state’s school voucher program is unconstitutional, citing the lack of accountability inherent in the program, and issued a permanent injunction stopping the voucher program from going forward.

Art Pope and the Tea Party aren’t just alienating teachers and progressives, says Barber. They are also alienating Republicans across the state. Barber says that the legislature and McCrory never made clear, even to their own constituents, what they were planning to do once they achieved a supermajority in the statehouse and won the governorship. “They did not run saying,  ‘Elect me, I’m going to take your health care, cut your public education, and strip you of your unemployment even if you lost your job at no fault of your own,’” says Barber. “So, we’ve had a Republican unemployed person stand on the stage [at a Moral March] and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I’m unemployed—I didn’t vote for this.’”

Even Republicans holding public office are objecting to the legislature’s actions. Adam O’Neal, a self-described conservative Republican mayor from Belhaven, NC, began a one-man march of 273 miles to Washington D.C. on July 14 to dramatize the impact of Gov. McCrory’s and  [House Speaker] Tillis’ refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. O’Neal explained that the lack of Medicaid funds had forced the only hospital in his coastal community to close, creating a “medical desert” that would certainly cost lives. O’Neal also laments the potential economic impact of the hospital closing; he told NPR, “How many people go retire somewhere where it doesn’t even have a hospital?”

I asked Barber what he believes is the neoliberals’ vision for North Carolina. “They believe that the way to a great North Carolina is to deny necessary funds and access to public education.  Attack teachers. Deny unemployment. Deny earned 

“They believe that the way to a great North Carolina is to deny necessary funds and access to public education.  Attack teachers.

income tax credit and other safeguards for the working poor.  Deny affordable healthcare and access to healthcare, even if it allows people to die. Deny labor rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights … And then, if you really want a great America after you’ve done all these things, then suppress the right to vote and attempt to use your power to stay in office.  And then, after you’ve done all of that to create all this tension,  ensure that everyone has access to guns easier than they have access to the polls. Now, that sounds crude and sinister, but those are their policies.”

Having set this grim scene, Barber continued with a surprisingly upbeat message:  “Whatever we’re facing now, it’s not greater than slavery, it’s not greater than Jim Crow, it’s not greater than women being denied the right to vote.  We won those battles.  But we did not win those battles by merely engaging in political arguments. We had to tap into the moral and social consciousness of the nation.”

“I am hopeful,” he went on, “because I believe in the deep moral consciousness at the heart of America. Those of us who believe in justice and who believe in freedom, we are the heartbeat of this nation. Our role now is to be like a social defibrillator, to shock the heart of the nation, to cause it to revive and to remember what the real enemy is: regressive extremism. And it’s not just about winning all the elections, but changing the context in which our politicians have to operate.”

Barber said he hopes that the momentum of the Forward Together Moral Movement (as one of the core groups organizing Moral Marches is currently called) will spread. He sees it moving across the South from North Carolina to help change the political context and create the possibility for the state NAACP’s 14-Point People’s Agenda to be written into legislation both in North Carolina and beyond. The Agenda includes anti-poverty, pro-labor policies; equality and equitable distribution of resources in public education; access to healthcare for all; fairness in the criminal justice system; and protection and expansion of the right to vote and the rights of immigrants.

Barber acknowledges that the neoliberal forces in his state—and across the country—remain powerful. “We’ve got to fight in the courts, we’ve got to fight the legislative halls, we’ve got to fight in the streets, we’ve got to push at the pulpit, and we have to work at the ballot box,” he says. “If we do all of this with what I call a moral critique, so we’re not trapped with the language of Republican versus Democrat, I believe we can continue to work towards the reconstruction of this nation.”

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Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology

When we talk about the privatization of public education, we often think of K-12 education. Certainly, the growth of charter schools and voucher programs and attacks on teachers unions indicate that the “education reform” movement poses a major threat to the traditional public school. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch writes, “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” But discussions of the entrepreneurialization of public education institutions must also be understood within the context of higher education.

IMG_00301-e1321400465457

Image via Turnstyle News.

The current crisis within higher ed is often discussed primarily in terms of rising tuition and student debt, but the debt crisis is just one particularly ugly manifestation of a larger trend involving increased corporate investment in college campuses, the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and a de facto attack on scholarly and professional training that does not  directly lead to corporate opportunities for graduates. Taken together, these seemingly distinct problems in higher education, and public higher ed in particular, point to a common, underlying ideology that is consistent with that of the K-12 education reform movement: a rationale of neoliberal corporatization and privatization.

As Wendy Brown, a prominent political theorist based at UC Berkeley, writes, neoliberalism represents a “unique governmental and social rationality—one that extends market principles to every reach of human life”:

[Neoliberalism] formulates everything in terms of capital investment and appreciation (including and especially humans themselves), whether a teenager building a resume for college, a twenty-something seeking a mate, a working mother returning to school, or a corporation buying carbon offsets. As a governing rationality, neoliberalism extends from the management of the state itself to the soul of the subject; it renders health, education, transportation, nature, and art into individual consumer goods, and converts patients, students, drivers, athletes, and museum-goers alike into entrepreneurs of their own needs and desires who consume or invest in these goods (emphasis is mine).[i]

Neoliberalism is thus a turn away from collectivity and commitment to the public good and a turn toward individualism and an acceptance—embrace, even—of structural inequality. Such ideologies prepare students for life under the domination of large corporations.

But public universities should not act like corporations. They should train students to be great citizens; they should provide academics with resources and security to challenge convention by producing novel ideas and inventions for the public good; and they should be affordable and attainable to any qualified student, and particularly those who come from communities that have historically been isolated from higher ed. Unfortunately, the neoliberal corporatization of public universities is responsible for a number of dynamics that directly undermine these principles.

Rising Tuition = Supply and Demand

Contrary to popular belief, tuition hikes at public universities date back to the 1980s, far before the 2007 financial crisis. According to Salon reporter Thomas Frank, the rise in tuition took off in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the White House. While politicians and journalists have blamed students, professors, and the new demands for a diverse student body from a more liberal society, it’s now clear, Frank says, that the real culprits behind rising tuition are administrators and other decision makers who have long embraced a neoliberal, corporate approach to university administration. This shift was further exacerbated by increasing economic inequality. Indeed, tuition pricing became subjected to “market forces” at the same time that degrees were becoming ever-more important for middle-class employment and upward social mobility.

Donations with Strings Attached

Another reason why universities have increased tuition is the lack of adequate state funding—a trend that has only grown worse since the recession. Disinvestment in state universities has forced colleges to look elsewhere for funding sources, and the corporate sector has eagerly stepped in.

For example, John Allison, former chairman of BB&T Corp.,  has worked through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide schools with “as much as $2 million” under the condition that they “create a course on capitalism and make [Ayn] Rand’s … Atlas Shrugged required reading.” Former hedge fund manager Jim Simons has tried to privatize tuition practices within the SUNY system, wielding an apparently conditional pledge of $150 million at Stony Brook as a bargaining chip. The Koch brothers have also been widely criticized for their politicized contributions (particularly for funding economics professorships at Florida State University); the Charles Koch Foundation can rescind funding for professors’ salaries if their work is deemed “unacceptable.” These donations, which come with ideologically charged strings attached, use a not-so-invisible hand to influence university administrators and to promote development strategies and curricula lauding capitalism and the super-rich.

Squeezing the Workforce

Public universities have also sought to shift financial burdens onto faculty and staff. The rise in the percentage of contingent faculty, the precariousness of their positions, and the effect it has on academic integrity and teaching quality are all characteristics of what Claire Goldstein calls the “emergent academic proletariat.”

In 1970, “78% of faculty were permanent and full time;” now, says Goldstein, “close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people.” Contingent faculty are more likely to be overworked, under-resourced, and left out of important decision-making groups. Lacking job security and other resources, contingent faculty may be less likely to include controversial course material, too. As law professor and free speech activist Marjorie Heins has argued, the dominance of corporate rationality recalls an earlier era of academia, before tenure was a well-established policy and professors could be dismissed for championing scholarship or causes that went against the outlooks of university boards. Now, the public university is again squeezing out those who might otherwise push for some much needed progressive thinking, teaching, and learning.

Entrepreneurializing the Public U

Given the landscape of public disinvestment, rising tuition, and a persistently weak labor market, many have called for the American university to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit they claim is required in an increasingly competitive global economy. As universities take heed—and follow the money—the “entrepreneurial university” is being born before our eyes.

Great public universities can certainly be centers for innovative and pragmatic partnership, and the production of quality goods and services that benefit the larger world should indeed be a part of the university’s activities. But in the long term, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and the development of “marketable skills” is a different and even dangerous project. Private investors and firms that support an entrepreneur are, by their very nature, interested first and foremost in the profitability of their investment. When an entrepreneurial profit motive is the driving force of decisions instead of a desire to make people’s lives better, the university stops being a center for the betterment of society and becomes another means of capital accumulation.

Under this paradigm, certain fields of knowledge yield a higher return than others—as do certain students, namely those who are willing to pay full tuition, accumulate assets of their own as well-paid professionals, and give back to their beloved alma mater. It just so happens that the kinds of learning and teaching deemed most useful—what Henry A. Giroux would call “instrumental pedagogy”—are not those that are essential to progressive social thinking: the critical orientation and self-reflexivity of the humanities and interpretive social sciences pose a threat to neoliberal rationality. And given the price, projects, and results that neoliberal education demands, students from historically marginalized backgrounds or who present points of view challenging corporatization are often shunted aside.

Conclusion

When the market rules, ordinary people and inclusive social structures do not. Instead, rigid hierarchical structures proliferate, free market ideology dominates, progressive and critical thought declines, and disparities among employees abound. Those who have money and influence—corporate billionaires and university administrators—accumulate more of it, while those who do not—students and their families, contingent academic workers— are further marginalized.

In the post-war era, a democratic project began to establish a widely and rigorously educated general public through well-funded and subsidized public higher education. It was an imperfect project at best—African Americans and other people of color were largely denied access to many of these programs—but we should do well to remember the democratic promise of the public university before we relegate it completely to the cold hands of the neoliberal market and corporatization.  The stakes are high: who and how we are educated forges us into the kind of society we become. A vigorous public education system, higher ed included, is the best defense against an ascending neoliberal plutocracy where democracy is deemed second to entrepreneurship and capital accumulation.

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[i] Brown, Wendy. Neoliberalized Knowledge. History of the Present Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011). University of Illinois Press. pp. 113-129

 

The Economic Argument for Raising Women’s Pay

As Amy Traub’s recent DEMOS report shows, women working in the retail industry face stark choices. A typical wage of $10.58 per hour in that industry means women must often choose between buying groceries or paying the electric bill. Traub writes, “if present trends continue, there will be 4.1 million American women working in low-paid retail jobs by 2025—a population larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.”

The situation for these millions of low-wage working women is dire. But why should the rest of America care? What reason is there for someone who is not working and struggling in poverty to take action on behalf of these working women? Many writers on the Left are failing to make the economic argument for raising women’s pay.

This failure is contributing to delayed action on the policy front, and is prolonging the poor conditions that many are enduring in the wider economy. The failure to properly show how depressed wages for some workers contribute to a depressed economy for all is akin to climate writers failing to point out that a coal-fired power plant that pollutes the air is contributing to the melting of the polar ice caps. It is not something people can easily observe, but once it is pointed out, they can’t un-know it.

Fortunately, the Shriver Center’s 2014 report, which uses 2012 data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), can help to make this broader economic argument for raising women’s wages.

14x As Effective As Federal Assistance Programs

From the IWPR: “The total increase in women’s earnings with pay equity represents more than 14 times what the federal and state governments spent in fiscal year 2012 on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).”

In other words, bringing women’s wages to a level on par with men’s wages would result in a transfer of 1400 percent of the amount spent on public assistance programs directly into families’ wallets. The return on investment will be much better than that of public assistance programs, too, since better wages don’t come with the time limits and strings attached that TANF does, and that severely limit families’ ability to escape poverty.

Overall Economic Growth

“The U.S. economy would have produced additional income of $447.6 billion if women received equal pay; this represents 2.9 percent of 2012 gross domestic product (GDP).” When GDP grows, if you own a small business, or run a coffee shop or a summer camp or a real estate company, you’ll have more customers walking in the door with money to spend.

Reducing Poverty

“The poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, falling to 3.9 percent from 8.1 percent. The very high poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half, from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent, and two-thirds would receive a pay increase.” Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, the US doesn’t need a Wizard to eradicate poverty for half of all working women. It has the power to do so already—by mandating equal pay.

Increased Tax Revenues

Women who make more will also pay more in taxes, to be used for police, fire, trash collection, schools, and other county/city services that make communities safer, improve kids’ chances for success, and raise the quality of life. At present, much of that revenue has been drained away by tax breaks given willy-nilly to the same corporations that are employing women at poverty wages. The watchdog group Good Jobs First has tracked many of these public subsidies and tax breaks, and has built an online tool that taxpayers can use to see which corporations are taking public dollars.

Taxpayers and voters should demand of policymakers that they give women a raise and start letting all of these potential earnings–earnings that belong to everyone–flow into the economy. Additional research is also needed to provide a more robust economic argument for raising women’s wages—one that no right-wing Congressional hearing can puncture.

Not Waiting

 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

New research out this month from the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that working women aren’t just waiting for politicians to give them a raise. They’re joining unions and demanding a raise. The graph on the right from CEPR’s Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo shows that women are on trend to become a majority of union members by 2030. Despite the well-documented decline of traditional unions’ membership thanks to conservative attacks, women’s steady climb to overtake men within unions could yield some beneficial results for all of us as their voices grow more dominant in collective bargaining, strikes, and policy debates.

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Strong Grassroots Energy Pushes Congress to Unanimously Pass Anti-Wage Theft Measure

As workers’ rights advocates around the country raise their voices in ever-louder protest of wage theft, it appears some in Congress may finally be listening. This week the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), decided to persist in re-introducing an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that would take away federal contracts from contractors who engage in wage theft.

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via TheStand.org

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via TheStand.org

Just a few weeks ago, House conservatives blocked a similar amendment to deny contracts to employers with documented wage theft violations (see our timeline of attacks on low-wage workers), so nobody was expecting this new amendment to pass.

But as the votes were tallied, the amendment not only passed, it received a unanimous “yea” vote from the Republican-controlled House.

“Sometimes employers ask workers to show up 30 minutes before their shift starts, while others pay workers with debit cards that charge fees for every use,” Grijalva and Ellison said in a statement released Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter which form it takes—wage theft is wrong and it needs to stop.”

Despite President Obama unilaterally raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour back in February, it’s still possible—given the rampant problem of wage theft for all low-wage workers—that some of those earning the minimum on government contracts are still experiencing some form of wage theft.  Rescinding the contracts is a first step to establish the principle that if you’re getting taxpayer money and you’re engaging in illegal activity, then you won’t get taxpayer money anymore.

The National Employment Law Project found in a recent survey that low-wage workers make up about 77 percent of government contract employees who work in food service, retail or janitorial service.

Building on grassroots success

The grassroots energy that pushed Mr. Obama into signing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers also gets the credit for pushing the anti-wage theft amendment. At a time when bankers and corporate executives are hoarding so much of the nation’s cash that they resemble the robber barons of the early 20th century, workers and their advocacy organizations are grabbing headlines with true tales of employers who rob their own workers. Wage theft, as Sally Dworak-Fisher of Maryland’s Public Justice Center told me in an interview for my PRA report on attacks on low wage workers, “has become for many industries the way they do business.” (Even hiphop icon Snoop Dogg stands accused of failing to pay $3 million in wages to his own bodyguards, who are reportedly now suing him.)

“I’m grateful to the President for raising my wage to $10 an hour, but it’s not enough to care for my son,” says Rodelma Acosta, a McDonald’s worker at the Pentagon, in a statement from the group. “As a single mom, I still have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid because there’s nothing left after paying the rent. Most of my coworkers are like me – we’re single moms and barely making it. We need more than the minimum wage, we need a union to win the living wages and benefits necessary to take care of our families and give our kids a chance to succeed in the world.” – Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC

Low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA in Los Angeles are leading the fight to publicize and combat wage theft.

Though the rules for implementing and enforcing Congress’ new anti-wage theft measure for federal contractors haven’t come out yet, the rules did just come out this week for implementing and enforcing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. The workers, many of whom work at fast-food and retail companies housed in federal buildings, were right there to meet the new wage with additional demands. As Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC reported in a blog post earlier this week, Good Jobs Nation is the name of the organization representing the low-wage federal contract workers.

We’ll be watching this summer, as the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans to add the wage theft amendment to every single appropriations bill left in the Congressional session. Will they all get the same unanimous votes from a House that has tended not to care much about workers’ rights?

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