Category Archives: Labor Studies

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Ruth Milkman on the Future of Unions in Post-Pandemic America

What’s the future of labor in post-pandemic America? As once-ignored workers are increasingly hailed as frontline heroes, how can the attention translate into a stronger labor movement?

SLU’s Ruth Milkman shared thoughts in an article in The American Prospect, part of the publication’s symposium on “The Future of Labor”:

During the 40 years that I’ve been writing about labor issues, obituaries for the American union movement have been a perennial, punctuated by occasional moments of optimism, like the one inspired by the massive teachers strikes two years ago. Ten years earlier, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s election victory, many observers (myself included) made fools of ourselves with rosy predictions of imminent union resurgence. Instead, organized labor’s main political goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, went down to ignominious defeat in 2009, and union density soon resumed its relentless downward spiral.

While labor’s high hopes soured into bitter disappointment, a new generation of young activists launched Occupy Wall Street in 2011, firmly planting the issue of growing inequality on the nation’s political agenda. Occupy itself proved short-lived, but it did help to ignite the SEIU-sponsored Fight for $15, a campaign that boosted the pay of low-wage workers more than any effort in recent memory. Millennial-generation Occupy veterans also began to enter the labor movement, infusing it with new ideas and energy. Yet unions remained on the sidelines, battening down the hatches as their membership numbers continued to hemorrhage.

Entering the labor market during the 2008 crash and the ensuing Great Recession, many millennials were radicalized. But the present economic downturn is already far more severe, recalling the 1930s in the massive scale of the unemployment and business closings (and there are more to come). The crisis is compared daily to the Great Depression; the metaphor of war is equally commonplace.

Could it pave the way to a new union upsurge like the one that emerged in the New Deal era? Or will we instead see a reprise of the post-2008 “back to normalcy” Obama-Biden regime, if Trump is defeated in November?

For Milkman, such an upsurge will depend on organizing from the usual precincts — but not just there. It will rely as well on leadership from “the new generation of radical activists that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession.” Organizers who emerged out of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and beyond:

Their growing presence in the labor movement has attracted less attention, but they have begun to make their mark there, too, as key leaders in the 2018 teachers strikes as well as in recent unionization drives among journalists and adjunct faculty. They are also prominent in alt-labor groups and in the (non-union) organizing efforts of tech workers. While many older unionists are in the grips of a siege mentality fostered by decades of anti-union attacks, the new generation of activists brings a more optimistic outlook. That they are “digital natives” with legendary skills in organizing through social media only adds to their potential to become the leaders of any future labor upsurge, especially in the face of a pandemic that rules out more conventional forms of mobilization.

Read the full article here.

Photo by K. Kendall via flickr (cc-by)

Stephanie Luce: Essential Work

This article was original featured at Organizing Upgrade.

By Stephanie Luce

IS SEEKING OUT in Prospect Park Brooklyn. So in a few days it’s my birthday and I’m mega depressed enough as it is already spending isolation alone. Now I’ll have to spend my bday alone too. Can anyone help me get stuff to make Mac and cheese and a small cake for myself. I’m just trying to do anything from going into full blown depression mode. – Anna

In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, Anna* wrote to a neighborhood facebook page, asking for help. Within hours, dozens of people had responded offering to buy groceries, donate cash to pay for a birthday dinner, bake a cake, host an online birthday party, take a socially-distant walk in the park, or just to talk.

This wasn’t unusual. During this pandemic lots of people need help and have turned to neighbors (usually strangers). Even more people have stepped up to offer assistance.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many writers have told stories of how people step in quickly to assist in times of disaster. Rebecca Solnit observed this in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005; she learned of similar responses in earlier disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, activists from Occupy Wall Street quickly mobilized into “Occupy Sandy” to get food and medical care to residents in hard-hit neighborhoods. Continue reading Stephanie Luce: Essential Work

Video Seminars on Organizing Responses to COVID-19

SLU’s Departments of Urban Studies and Labor Studies invite you to join us for the following video seminars to discuss some of the organizing responses to the pandemic:
Tuesday, April 14, 7-9 pm: “Urban Warfare: Housing Justice Under a Global Pandemic” with Raquel Rolnik (University of São Paulo, former UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing), Daniel Aldana Cohen (University of Pennsylvania), and Cea Weaver (Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance). Co-sponsored by NYU Urban Democracy Lab, NYC-DSA, Verso Books, and Departments of Labor and Urban Studies, School of Labor and Urban Studies/CUNY. RSVP HERE​
Thursday, April 16, 6:30-8pm: “Labor Justice” with Mohamed Attia (Street Vendor Project) and Ilana Berger (Hand in Hand Domestic Employers Network); Member of Amazonians United; Frontline healthcare worker. Co-sponsored by NYU Urban Democracy Lab and the Departments of Labor and Urban Studies, School of Labor and Urban Studies/CUNY. RSVP HERE
Stay tuned for a confirmed date for “Justice for Immigrants” with Aamnah Khan (DRUM: Desis Rising Up and Moving and Arts & Democracy), Victor Monterossa, Jr. (Covenant House, New Jersey and Immigrant Workers for a Just Response) and Paula Chakravartty (NYU Gallatin and New Sanctuary Coalition). Co-sponsored by the NYU Urban Democracy Lab and Departments of Labor and Urban Studies, School of Labor and Urban Studies/CUNY.
If you have questions, please contact Dr. Stephanie Luce at stephanie[dot]luce[at]slu[dot]cuny[dot]edu

Photo via flickr by A.Davey (cc-by-nc-nd)

Ed Ott: Bail Out the Pension System

By Ed Ott

It is not a secret that the United States has an inadequate and underfunded pension retirement system. And it’s about to get much worse! The private and public sectors’ pension plans are suffering terrible losses as a result of layoffs and investment losses. We are weeks away from a new assault on what’s left of millions of pensions across the country.

There are two kinds of pension plans: (1) a defined benefit plan is when workers retire and get a set amount of money each month (such as 80 percent of their highest wage). This was the gold standard many unions won for their members in the post-WWII years. It required employers to set aside enough money to ensure workers would have adequate income when they retired. (2) Starting in the 1980s, employers began to reject defined benefit plans as too expensive and moved to defined contribution plans — so-called “modern pensions.” In these, the employer and employee make a set contribution to a pension savings each month (often a 401k). Employers preferred these because employees are responsible for their own funds, and they bear all the risk. If the investments don’t yield adequate returns, the employee will have a lower pension income.

Right now, things are looking bad for workers with both kinds of pensions. Continue reading Ed Ott: Bail Out the Pension System

Joshua Freeman: Pandemics Can Mean Strike Waves

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve heard comparison after comparison to the Spanish flu of 1918. But, observes SLU professor Joshua Freeman in Jacobin, we rarely hear about the strikes waves that began at the same time. He writes:

It is rarely noted that the greatest burst of labor militancy in the history of the United States, the 1919 strike wave, overlapped with the worst health crisis in the country’s history, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic. Four million workers struck in 1919, one-fifth of the workforce, a proportion never since equaled.

Strikes that year were startling not only for the sheer number of workers involved but also for the way they fundamentally challenged the status quo. Continue reading Joshua Freeman: Pandemics Can Mean Strike Waves

Diana Robinson Named to City & State’s Top 40 Under 40

This year, City & State inaugurated its list of Labor’s 40 Under 40 in New York City. And SLU’s very own Diana Robinson, coordinator of the Union Semester Program, was one of the labor leaders featured on the list! Congratulations, Diana!

From City & State:

Diana Robinson connects her activism and desire to play a role in the labor movement to the history of her family.

“I come from an immigrant family and social justice was always something really important to me,” she says. “I’m happy to be able to repay (my parents) for all they’ve done.” Her father is from Providencia Island, Colombia, while her mother immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic.

Around 2006, she became involved with organizing protests in support of the federal DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, “when there was a lot of talk around comprehensive immigration reform,” Robinson recalls.

At first, she thought she wanted to be an immigration attorney, but had second thoughts about playing a role in a system that is often dehumanizing for those trying to obtain legal immigration status in the U.S.

Instead, Robinson wound up interning at an association of street vendors in East Harlem, Manhattan, which she describes as “mostly Mexican women selling food and CDs.”

“I saw this very strong connection between immigrant rights and labor organizing,” she says.

That led to organizing work at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 and then with the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

In her current position, she mentors students at CUNY. “I saw this program as really important to help people interested in social justice,” she says. In Robinson’s view, the work being done in the labor social justice movement “has to be centered around racial justice.”