The Long Hurricane – 10 years later

It’s been ten years since the Category 3 hurricane named Katrina came ashore in Louisiana, causing over 1,800 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Five years after the storm, Political Research Associates published the below piece in The Public Eye magazine as a recap of how the U.S. Right had used Katrina as leverage to institute new neoliberal policies. A public hospital that had served the majority of the emergency services for low-income New Orleans neighborhoods was torn down in favor of a much more expensive facility (which opponents dubbed “The Taj Ma-Hospital”). Public schools were shuttered in favor of a charter school system that today boasts some of the lowest educational levels in the country. Union teachers were effectively banned from the system as the State took advantaged of the cheap labor provided by well-meaning young college grads who were flocking to New Orleans to help after the storm. The state also leaped at the opportunity to gentrify some poor neighborhoods, relocating the former residents to various upper-middle class areas where they could be “taught” to live “better.”

Ten years later, New Orleans remains a Black-majority city, and tens of thousands of its working-class citizens have returned in spite of all the exclusionary obstacles and dangers. Movements to re-establish the public schools, health system, and affordable housing are opposing privatization and continuing to organize. Yet many are still battling Hurricane Katrina – a storm that hasn’t yet ended. The storm waters may have receded, but as Darwin BondGraham wrote for us five years ago, the tidal wave of Economic Right policies has yet to retreat. -PRA

The Long Hurricane

The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina

By Darwin BondGraham, Nov 1, 2010

Members of Survivors Village, an organization of displaced New Orleans public-housing tenants, and their supporters occupy the Columbia Parc rental office in June 2010.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the “federal flood,” as locals call the disaster, the new New Orleans is as much the product of decades of antiwelfare ideology in local and national governments as it is of the unique circumstances of the disaster. Since the storm, a resurgent racist business elite has gained power in the city and region, and instituted a new era of urban renewal—or, as community activists termed it the first time around, in the 1960s, “Negro removal.” Privatization of New Orleans’ public sector has proceeded to a degree that real estate, banking, and industry leaders in other regions only dream of. Federal disaster subsidies have enabled reinvestment in the state’s major economic sectors—oil and gas, shipping, military, and tourism. Characterized by low wages and ecocidal byproducts, these industries dominate state and city politics. Yet New Orleans is held up as a model of redevelopment, its innovations made possible by an unfortunate storm called Katrina.

Concurrent with this neoliberal economic project is a neoconservative cultural project, the goal of which is to remold impoverished Blacks and other underclass people—who are portrayed by the redevelopers as living in a pathological state of dependency, turned into irresponsible burdens on society by decades of failed big government—into “productive citizens.” Foundations both liberal and conservative have converged on New Orleans to experiment with housing, schools, parks, and economic development.

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Neo-Confederate South Loses Again – This Time to Free-Market Neoliberalism

After nine Black churchgoers were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag is driving a wedge between neo-Confederates and free-market neoliberals.

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the White supremacist South during the desegregation of the 1960s, has since been flown on several Southern state capitols, and has become an emotionally-charged White Southern cultural icon.  In recent weeks, it has become the target of much of the country’s revulsion at the June 17 assassinations of South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other Black citizens in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The removal of the flag from state capitols, and its image from retail store shelves, has sparked some anger among neo-Confederates who want the symbol displayed prominently in civic and popular culture.

Bad for business

Walmart announced June 22 that it would move to take Confederate flag-themed merchandise off shelves, making it the first major retailer to do so. Other retailers, including Sears, eBay, Etsy and Amazon have since followed suit. Yet Walmart is a company based in the South, and has built its corporate culture around conservative Christian values. One could be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the retail giant’s rush to be first to ban the Confederate battle flag from its supply chain.

In a similar move, albeit with less fanfare, Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered June 24 that all Confederate flags—including the battle flag—be removed from the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, where they had been flown over a Civil War memorial since 19941. The AL.com news site quoted Bentley’s low-key public statement June 24 after the flags came down:

“Asked his reasons for taking it down and if it included what happened in Charleston last week, the governor said, ‘Yes, partially this is about that. This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.’”

It is interesting that Bentley mentioned taxes and economics in his statement, rather than simply condemning the flag as a symbol of the South’s violently racist past.

In the case of Walmart, one might well ask what economic or political benefit the company gets from making such a move. In recent years, Walmart has repeatedly done the symbolic “right thing” as long as it can find another way to benefit financially. For example, Walmart announced in February that it would raise the wages of its lowest-paid U.S.-based employees to $9 per hour – a move that turned out to be mostly a symbolic gesture to counteract its anti-worker image. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, vendors are telling the press that the sales of flag merchandise were never enough to justify angering customers who have been outraged by the South Carolina massacre

What is Neoliberalism? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy. - See more at: https://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.” – See more at: https://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

With Governor Bentley’s move to take the flag down, and his remarks about having “taxes to raise,” we see that neoliberal politicians in the South are coming to the same conclusion. Alabama is becoming more of a player on the global economic stage, and a threat to that ascendancy has to be taken seriously. Foreign-owned corporations such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus all have factories in the state. The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that such foreign investments in Alabama might not have happened at all if not for the 1993 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. “At the groundbreaking for the plant in May 1994, Mercedes-Benz executives told [then Governor] Folsom that it would have been difficult for them to come to Alabama if the Confederate flag still flew over the Capitol.”

Governor Bentley is well aware of the optics.  In fact, travelers on United Airlines in July will find a 32-page supplement in their in-flight Hemispheres magazine titled “Dossier”, which the magazine promises will “examine Alabama’s diverse businesses and industries, and showcase the economies of the state’s major metropolitan regions.” Featured are Alabama business leaders, economic development boosters, and politicians—including Governor Bentley.

Neo-Confederates respond

Neo-Confederates, and others who have nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy, are unhappy with this targeting of their battle flag. They have rallied in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida. One Alabama demonstrator, Ronnie Simmons, called Governor Bentley a “scallywag” – a Civil War-era term for a Southerner who collaborated with Northern forces.

Others condemn the recent killings in Charleston, but say they feel the Confederate battle flag is being unfairly scapegoated. The New York Times reported:

“Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.

‘We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?’ he said.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is using the flag controversy as an opportunity to fundraise and to grow its ranks; in recent weeks, it posted a video on its website offering discounted memberships.

Dr. Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate, White nationalist, and theocratic League of the South, goes further in a blog post, laying the blame for the flag’s desecration at the feet of “Southern ‘conservatives’ who blindly follow the Republican Party.” Hill continues, claiming that the GOP “take sincere Southern conservatives (and others) and lead them down blind alleys to render them harmless to the Establishment, of which the GOP is part. Their time, energy, and money is siphoned off into nothing. If this were not so, America would not be a post-Christian cultural sewer and the South’s symbols would not be under attack, largely by Republicans!” Hill’s League of the South has created an armed paramilitary unit, and he has previously called for the formation of death squads.

The disavowal of the Confederate battle flag by Republican politicians such as Governor Bentley or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could present an opening, or signal a positive coming trend, wherein the mainstream conservative movement breaks its pattern of silence around, and implicit support of, White nationalist violence.  As Naomi Braine, assistant professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, points out in her recent Public Eye article, Terror Network or Lone Wolf?, “Right-wing militants…benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives.”  More specifically, Braine refers to “the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right.”

The Confederacy stood for the preservation of slavery, a violent, dehumanizing economic institution that treated human beings who had been kidnapped from Africa—as well as their descendants—as chattel property. In advocating a return to either a Confederate or segregationist South, neo-Confederates distort the facts about slavery and Jim Crow and, as Braine explains, the perspective they promote helps to create the conditions for a massacre such as the one in Charleston.

But neither let us applaud Bentley and Walmart too vigorously. They acted out of economic self-interest, not out of concern for Black people.  As PRA’s late founder, Jean Hardisty, noted in her 2014 essay in The Public Eye, the neoliberal project of deregulating corporations so they can compete in a free-market race to the bottom on wages has undermined democracy, and produced a present-day underclass of workers around the globe. These workers are paid next-to-nothing, forced to live in squalid and unsafe workcamps, and frequently even forced to leave their home countries in search of work. In its global enterprises, neoliberal capital discards working people, not even registering their human needs in its accounting of overhead costs.

As violent as the neoliberal free-market project is, however, its rejection of the symbols of White supremacist violence could make conservative politicians less comfortable about remaining silent in the face of neo-Confederate and other White nationalist movements.  If this happens, it could be a beneficial side effect of the scorched-earth policies of global unregulated capitalism.

PRA researcher L. Cole Parke contributed to this report.


[1] According to the Montgomery Advertiser, several different Confederate flags have been flown over the actual state capitol since the early 1960s: “Former Governor John Patterson ordered the first national Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, to fly over the Alabama State Capitol in 1961, as part of the Civil War centennial. Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy from February to May 1861.”  Two years later, militant segregationist Governor George Wallace ordered the iconic and controversial Confederate battle flag to be raised over the state capitol as well, where the flags remained until 1993, when they were moved to the war memorial.

Neoliberal Language Lessons

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

How right-wing power—along with free-market ideas—shifted from conservative Christians to the Tea Party

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, political geographer David Harvey traces the triumph of neoliberalism back to a “revolutionary turning-point” in the late 1970s.[1] Figures across the world, including Deng Xiaoping in China and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, began to implement ideas and policies that favored property rights and market exchanges over public investment and government intervention.

In the United States, Harvey notes, Ronald Reagan participated in this early neoliberal wave when he “brought to life the minority tradition that stretched back within the Republican Party to Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s.”[2] This tradition had emphasized not only libertarian economics but also social traditionalism since at least the post-war period. But over the course of the 1970s, it was transformed into a political alliance between wealthy, neoliberal-friendly elites and a grassroots more interested in curtailing women’s bodily autonomy and promoting “family values”—the so-called Christian Right. Why has this latter group, comprised mostly of evangelical conservatives, acted as regular, if not always docile, allies in the Republican Party’s active role in the neoliberal project?

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

People wave signs at a “tea party” protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

Political analyst Thomas Frank, famously, thought the answer was clear: they were being hoodwinked.[3] According to Frank, Republicans talk about abortion and other social issues but do not actually provide much policy action. Yet while their supporters are distracted, Republican officials can erode the social safety net and promote unfettered, free-market capitalism. Still, Frank’s analysis has been criticized for suggesting that grassroots Christians are rubes.[4] In fact, social issues are not just distractions, but rather legitimate concerns for evangelical Christians. Liberalism and feminism are indeed threats to their way of life, or at least to the conservative, patriarchal social structures that their political and religious leaders promote as “natural.”

There also are concrete policy actions that Republicans provide to make neoliberalism “real” for evangelicals. Faith-based initiatives are a key feature of the “compassionate conservatism” so favored by George W. Bush.[5] These policies outsource and privatize welfare by providing grants to religious organizations, creating a kind of “market” where churches compete to provide voluntary support for the poor. (Frederick Clarkson covers this phenomenon extensively in his essay for this issue of The Public Eye.)  Churches remain eligible for federal dollars without having to conform to any prohibitions on discrimination or proselytization, while the neoliberal shrinking of the state proceeds. As both economic elites and evangelical leaders promote their alternative to a supposedly pervasive culture of “welfare dependency,” faith-based initiatives help cement Christian Right support for neoliberalism. As geographer Jason Hackworth notes, “The rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped to bond together elements of the American Right throughout the past thirty-five years.”[6]

Faith-based initiatives also have helped neoliberals by softening the image of their poverty policies; they’re not eliminating aid to poor families and children, but replacing it with a better alternative. (Forget that no evidence exists that these policies produce better results, or that they might actively undermine a democratic civil society.[7])

But Christian conservatives have come to neoliberalism for more than just welfare. Some scholars argue that evangelicals are naturally predisposed toward free markets. Sociologist Max Weber famously tied the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. More recently, historian Mark A. Noll has argued that the rise of evangelicalism in the early United States likely fostered acceptance of free-market principles among religious believers: having largely rejected regulation and authority in religious life, evangelicals were then ready to accept a similar economic program.[8] Sociologist Fred Block has even suggested that a shared commitment to “market fundamentalism” helps unite business elites and Christian conservatives; this latter group is particularly “reassured by its moral absolutism.”[9]

It may be true that evangelicals have an affinity for free markets, but Christian doctrine has also been aligned with social welfare liberalism, as with Catholics and the Social Gospel, or rights liberalism, as with the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement. The missing step is politics—a political force that activates Christian conservatives’ affinity for neoliberalism and transforms it into political action. And this is just what some savvy political operatives within Republican networks have done.

Evangelicals did not magically become Republicans in the late 1970s; the marriage required matchmakers. New Right operatives famously invited Christian evangelicals into the GOP, most publicly with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979.[10] Since then, the wealthy elites who run the GOP have spent years trying to convince the Christian Right to go along with their economic agenda, and have used religious-based discourse and coded language to do it. So the estate tax, for example, became portrayed as a “family” tax that disrupted the bonds of inheritance.[11] Similarly, voucher advocates use the language of “school choice” to enlist religious conservatives in neoliberal privatization efforts.[12]

All of these maneuvers have led to the present moment, when, at the grassroots level, the most active force within the Republican Party is no longer the Christian Right but the Tea Party. As polling by the Pew Research Center confirms, Tea Party activists are also often Christian evangelicals.[13] Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

It remains to be seen how much staying power the Tea Party has, and whether its leaders are engaged in a zero-sum game with the Christian Right in national politics. But their success in driving the American political agenda towards issues of deficits and the proper scope of government cannot be denied. On one level, this is a tremendous victory for economic (or corporate) conservatives. On the other hand, grassroots activists are taking neoliberal ideas to their logical conclusion, possibly damaging the GOP’s political prospects by pushing for government shutdowns and challenging incumbent Republican officials who are insufficiently devoted to their principles.

The obvious Frankenstein parallels may not be lost on today’s Republican elites. Still, Republican neoliberals continue to have one thing in common with their evangelical protégés; they are unlikely to waver in their faith.

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[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 9.

[3] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 6.

[4] Larry Bartels, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2006): 201-226. Frank’s analysis is generally more subtle than his detractors let on; his analysis is less about what voters think than about the kinds of discourses they adopt (referring to an antagonistic “liberal elite,” for example).

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014. https://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/

[6] Jason Hackworth, Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.

[7] David Ashley and Ryan Sandefer, “Neoliberalism and the Privatization of Welfare and Religious Organizations in the United States of America,” in Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance, ed. François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[8] Mark A. Noll, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). British historian Boyd Hilton suggests a similar dynamic for the UK in the same period; see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

[9] Fred Block, “Reframing the Political Battle: Market Fundamentalism vs. Moral Economy,” Longview Institute, Jan. 30, 2007, http://www.longviewinstitute.org/projects/moral/sorcerersapprentice.

[10] Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker, May 18, 1981.

[11] See Richard J. Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” The Public Eye, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2006). Also see Richard J. Meagher, “Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 2014).

[12] “‘School Choice Week’: A Dose Of Facts Debunks Voucher Propaganda,” Americans United for Separation of Church & State, https://au.org/voucherFAIL.

[13] “The Tea Party and Religion,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, Feb. 23, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion.

From the New Right to Neoliberalism: the Threat to Democracy Has Grown

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

The Gloves Are Off For the Right’s Chamber of Commerce Wing

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

The U.S. is in the grip of an unprecedented dominance of right-wing ideologies and policies. Many progressive commentators see that the same band of New Right actors that have long pushed a conservative agenda are up to their old tricks, trying to block any reformist progress under a Democratic president. But what we are experiencing now is not simply “more of the same.” There has been a political shift in the Right’s reigning ideology. The shift is from the Right’s fixation on capturing and consolidating power to establishing rule by the laws of unfettered capitalism.

Activists gather in Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada border in 2012 for a cross-border action protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo courtesy of Caelie Frampton.

Activists gather in Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada border in 2012 for a cross-border action protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo courtesy of Caelie Frampton.

The Right’s current success owes much to its persistent pursuit of a well-established social agenda and its increased emphasis on existing economic goals. To maintain that we are in the “old” struggle alone is to miss the rise of what we might call the Right’s “Chamber of Commerce” wing. This sector has a storied history that many people, aside from economists, often gloss over. Its current manifestation embraces a far-reaching, effective, and increasingly entrenched ideology: “neoliberalism.”

Political Research Associates and many others have documented the Right—from the 1970s and the rise of the New Right, to the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, to the present moment.1 But it is wrong to think that our current condition is simply the triumph of the New Right coalition. The New Right used democratic processes to promote a reactionary, antidemocratic agenda: for example, use of the referendum, partisan redistricting, voter mobilization, new media outlets, and boycotts of companies that support gay rights or reproductive choice. Neoliberal political theory, in contrast, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism can be a difficult concept for most progressives, who may incorrectly understand it as a watered-down version of New Deal liberalism—in other words, part of the platform of the current Democratic Party. But that is not what neoliberalism is. Because neoliberalism best captures the shift we are seeing in the U.S., it is crucial that we understand its actual meaning.

Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called “late-stage capitalism” or “super-capitalism.”

The roots of neoliberalism lie not primarily with the New Deal but in the years immediately after World War II, when a group of U.S. and European economists met to discuss how to prevent another Holocaust. They concluded that the only protection against dictatorship, fascism, or rule by military junta was individual freedom, which only a weak government and unfettered, free-market capitalism could preserve. As pure theory, this describes “classical liberalism,” best formulated by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke and 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. But, in practice, neoliberalism takes this theory to extremes. Unlike neoliberalism, classical liberalism neither explicitly opposes democratic principles nor seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.

A leading U.S. participant in the post-war economic think tank was University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who received intellectual guidance from group members Friedrich von Hayek, of Germany, and Ludwig von Mises, of Austria. They founded the Mont Pélerin Society, which convened neoliberal leaders to discuss strategy and which continues to meet today. Friedman’s ideas became the guiding principles of U.S. neoconservatives, driving the economic “reforms” of the Reagan administration.2 These morally conservative former Democrats switched parties and embraced a “new” conservatism that sidelined blatant racism and anti-Semitism, and touted free-market capitalism.

Later in the 20th century, leftist scholars from emerging countries (and some wealthy ones) adopted the term “neoliberalism” as a pejorative to capture the policies of exploitation, privatization, and inequality imposed on them by the U.S. and other economic superpowers. This was done through trade agreements, and by the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Leftist U.S. scholars – perhaps most prominently, Noam Chomsky – adapted the term to describe the co-optation of economic and political institutions of developing nations.

Neoliberalism became characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled “neoliberal” by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.3

Neoliberalism has now come home to roost, with the people of the U.S. subject to its policies and goals. Here in the United States, we are increasingly not a democracy but a country ruled by an oligarchy. Neoliberals most often exercise power in the U.S. not by working through the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, or the World Bank, but rather by shifting rule from the people to corporations. Voting rights, reproductive rights, the right to a fair and just legal system, a strong and effective safety net for the poor, and even the right to a secular state are all under attack.

Austerity at Home and Abroad

Democratic principles are now under attack. Voting rights (an issue that many thought to be settled through Supreme Court decisions and the remarkable organizing of the Civil Rights Movement) are being limited. A constant drumbeat of the message of scarcity and debt helps “smaller government” neoliberals to justify putting additional budgetary restrictions on government agencies and functions. (A recent example of this was the 2012 “sequestration” passed by Congress, which imposed draconian cuts on federal agencies even as private financial service corporations enjoyed record profits.)

In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court made legal the right of an individual or corporation to exercise disproportionate influence in elections. The “established” right of women to have access to safe and legal abortion is increasingly diminished; moreover, our intelligence services can monitor our most personal movements seemingly without limit or public justification. These trends all point to the Right’s attacks on democracy’s very core.

Today, the neoliberal Right has succeeded in making weak and ineffectual the policies that have long kept the forces of capitalism at least somewhat in balance with commitments to human rights.

Three additional examples illustrate how neoliberals have, by seizing the policy-making roles normally held by representative government, weakened democracy. We see growing dominance by the captains of capitalism in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that elites representing business—including more than 600 from the U.S., and representatives from eleven other “democratic” and “free market” countries— are now negotiating.4 Excluded from this process are any elected representatives. The U.S. representatives, who are negotiating in secret, are primarily corporate lobbyists, whose job is to oppose regulations and protect the aggregation of profit by their companies, and who are, almost by definition, neoliberals. What the rest of us know of the TPP negotiations comes from leaked documents.5

This closed decision-making process, which will affect the people of all twelve countries (the U.S., Brunei, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam, and Singapore) and more, involves only negotiators who support neoliberal principles. TPP’s proposed trade policies, which feature deregulated markets and bans on organizing and safety programs, reveal just how far neoliberals would go to impoverish workers and sideline efforts to promote the general good.

As currently conceptualized, TPP goes beyond North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) promotion of prominent neoliberal policies through the export of jobs to low-wage countries and the simultaneous repression of union organizing. TPP would also ease restrictions on food safety, drug prices, and financial regulation, allowing corporations even greater freedom to make decisions that could harm consumers.

It is possible that TPP, which Congress must ratify, will never be approved, despite President Obama’s commitment to “fast track” the agreement. A coalition of environmental and labor groups and 151 Congressional representatives has formed to oppose it.6 However, the media, by failing to cover the story, has left the general public uninformed.

Cloaked in even greater secrecy is the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). This agreement would set the terms for cross-border “services,” from banking and construction to telecommunications and tourism. It would further deregulate the financial sector and prevent countries from imposing restrictions on foreign financial firms. Even as 50 countries have been in talks about TISA since 2012, all we know of TISA’s draft content is through the material that leaker Julian Assange published via WikiLeaks in June 2014.

A third example of neoliberalism’s opportunistic greed in the private financial sector is the existence of “vulture funds,” which enable a small number of hedge funds to make a profit from the debt defaults of entire nations. Vulture funds purchase the debt of (usually the economically weakest) countries at a reduced rate, then file lawsuits to force the countries to repay the debt at a higher rate. These hedge funds are known as vulture funds because the hedge fund purchased the debt with full knowledge that the selling country could not repay it without implementing debilitating austerity policies. Vulture fund capitalists benefit at the expense of emerging countries’ inability to sustain their debt burden. This example of rapacious capitalism is a dominant characteristic of neoliberalism.7

Challenging Neoliberalism

Some have argued that because “everyone was hurt” by the recent recession, it cannot be true that the current system is rigged to benefit the wealthy. Millionaires lost millions as the stock market crashed, businesses went into survival mode, banks had to be bailed out, and huge corporations nearly went under. But, as economist Philip Mirowski points out, “Unaccountably, the political right emerged from the tumult stronger, unapologetic, and even less restrained in its rapacity and credulity than prior to the crash.”8

Banks, interest groups, corporations, the financial sector, and wealthy Republicans are still able to block attempts to restructure the economic system that brought us the crash. Even the reforms in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010,9 which were designed to correct the abuses of power that led to the recent recession, have done little to counter mounting inequality and the disproportionate political influence of the wealthy. The affluent in the U.S., as a recent study by political scientist Martin Gilens has demonstrated, dominate political and economic decision-making.10

The U.S. is drifting toward oligarchy, while people living here seem to lack the indignation and power to overthrow neoliberalism. Yet there are opportunities for resistance.

The U.S. is drifting toward oligarchy, while people living here seem to lack the indignation and power to overthrow neoliberalism. Foundations, in many cases the life-blood of progressive non-profit groups, now encourage their grantees to pursue “social entrepreneurship” by developing a money-making arm; such groups are increasingly judged by capitalist standards of efficiency and “results.” Yet, there are opportunities for resistance. The Occupy Movement, though flawed (like all movements), was prophetic in its message that people must call out and overturn a power structure run by banks, corporations, and the rich.

If the Left is to mount a defense of the victims of neoliberalism (in other countries, and now in the U.S.), it must base that defense on an understanding of how and why growing inequality is happening. A good first step is to recognize that there has been a shift in the mechanisms and strategies that elites are using to achieve dominance. Using the moniker of freedom, free-market ideologues (who have only the interest of corporations – not people – at heart) have captured, dismantled, and reconstituted the machinery of governance. As these neoliberals pursue their policies, in the absence of either external controls or organized opposition, we see an increasing and alarming decline in democracy.

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1. See: Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York,: Guilford Press, 2000); Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007).
2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), 19-38.
3. Noam Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), 19-62.
4. Roger Bybee, “TPP: Trumping Public Priorities,” Dollars and Sense, March/April 2014.
5. Joseph Stiglitz, “On the Wrong Side of Globalization,” The New York Times, Mar. 16, 2014, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/15/on-the-wrong-side-of-globalization/.
6. “DeLauro, Miller Lead 51 House Dems Telling President They Will Not Support Outdated Fast Track for Trans-Pacific Partnership,” accessed Aug. 16, 2014, http://delauro.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content%20&view=article&id=1455.
7. Carey L. Biron, “U.S. A Favourite Roost of Vulture Funds,” Inter Press Service (IPS), Nov. 7, 2013. Also see: Peter Stone, The Vulture-Fund Billionaire is the GOP’s Go-To Guy on Wall Street,” Mother Jones, Oct. 4, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/07/paul-singer-elliott-republican-fundraiser.
8. Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso, 2013), 1-2.
9. The Dodd-Frank Act was designed to rein in the financial sector that has been made dangerously unfettered by the defanging and ultimate abolishment of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. Lobbyists for the financial industry have largely succeeded in getting Dodd-Frank watered down, especially targeting the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of now-Senator Elizabeth Warren. See: Bob Ivry, The Seven Sins of Wall Street: Big Banks, Their Washington Lackeys, and the next Financial Crisis (Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 2014).
10. Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton University Press, 2012).

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]