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New Labor Forum Highlights: July 2020

The New Labor Forum has a monthly newsletter on current topics in labor, curated by the some of the most insightful scholars and activists in the labor world today. Check out some highlights from the latest edition below.

Well in advance of the fall 2020 issue of  New Labor Forum , we are releasing an important article by David Unger on the relationship of organized labor to police and carceral work. In “ Which Side Are We On: Can Labor Support #BlackLivesMatter and Police Unions ,” Unger asks whether the highly unionized workforce of nearly 2 million people employed by the carceral state have a right to union representation. And if so, should there be limits placed on their ability to collectively bargain and lobby? And furthermore, do police unions deserve a place within the AFL-CIO, given the role they have sometimes played in strike-breaking as well as controlling and even attacking protests by labor and its allies?  Subscribe now to  New Labor Forum   to join conversations like this and support the work of the journal.

We also include here a cutting-edge talk by Maurice Weeks, of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, presented at a recent forum hosted by NLF publisher, the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Weeks discusses #DefundPolice and its challenge to the structural power of police departments. He also reveals the extent to which police departments dominate municipal budgets, citing L.A., Detroit, and Tulsa, where policing accounts for 52%, 36%, and 30% respectively of those cities’ total expenditures. And, extending the discussion of labor’s role in the fight for racial justice, April Simms, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, examines the impact on black families and communities of ceaseless police killings of unarmed black citizens. She also makes a plea for unions “to do the uncomfortable but necessary work of fighting the white supremacy that is choking us.” We end with a heart-rending poem by Mark Doty, commemorating 12-year-old Tamir Rice, murdered at the hands of the police.

Table of Contents
  1. Which Side Are We On: Can Labor Support #BlackLivesMatter and Police Unions? / David Unger, New Labor Forum
  2. Black Workers and the Triple Pandemic / with Maurice BP-Weeks, June 24, 2020, CUNY SLU forum
  3. “We need you to fight for us to breathe” / April Sims, The Stand
  4. In Two Seconds: Tamir Rice 2002-2014 / Mark Doty, American Poetry Review, vol. 44 no. 03

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Announcing: Digital Media Rising

In 2015, the Writer’s Guild of America, East, had their first victory organizing in digital media when writers at Gawker Media voted overwhelmingly to form a union.

Five years later, it is clear that the Guild’s first organizing victory at Gawker Media was the spark that lit a fire of media workers joining unions across the industry. The Guild has won representation at 21 shops, including Vice, Vox, Salon, Gimlet Media, Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, covering more than 2,000 digital writers, editors and producers. At a time when union density is falling in most industries, the Guild has defied the odds and organized a new industry.

For the fifth anniversary of the Gawker victory, SLU professor Stephanie Luce and SLU labor studies graduate student Haley Shaffer spoke with union members and Guild staff about the gains the union has won in these five years, and how they continue to fight instability in an ever-changing industry.

They’ve published their findings on a user-friendly website and in an information-rich white paper. For a good look at where this movement has been — and where it could go from here — check it out.

The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven

The post was originally featured at Organizing Upgrade. Reposted with permission.

By Marc Kagan

On April 23th, 2020, some 26.5 million Americans were unemployed, and the St. Louis Fed has estimated that 47 million people may be unemployed by the end of June, with unemployment reaching 32%. The Congressional Budget Office expects at least a 9% unemployment rate through 2021 and perhaps beyond. Tens of millions more will have exhausted their savings, facing mounting debt, evictions, foreclosures. All this on top of the existing problems of neoliberalism’s economy of precarity. As is usual, the crisis will hit the working poor, people of color, and youth the hardest.

What strategies and tactics can organizers and working people more broadly draw on today, in order to build social and political power in this crisis? Historically, the unemployed have organized themselves into networks of mutual aid in moments of crisis, but also to make transformative political demands, often with direct action as a central tool. Marc Kagan talked to Frances Fox Piven, author of Poor People’s Movements, about past efforts, and current possibilities. Fox Piven is a prolific writer, a long-time practitioner of the unruly, disruptive behavior she so often advocates, and even an effective lobbyist—she is credited with playing a central role in the 1993 “Motor Voter” Act. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.  

Marc Kagan: Tell me about previous efforts of the unemployed and their advocates during economic crises? Are there commonalities that we should be looking to now?

Frances Fox Piven: Of course there are. When large numbers of people are unemployed they become desperate. Just the fact of unemployment and need and starvation is not exactly what drives people to protest, but if they also think that they have some rights that are being violated in this time of disaster, they are very likely to protest. Continue reading The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven

SLU Alum Nastaran Mohit in Teen Vogue

To get more people organizing labor, more people need to know what organizers actually do. Which is why we were thrilled to see Teen Vogue feature a day in the life of Nastaran Mohit: labor champion, current organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York — and SLU alum. From the article:

It’s a tough time to be in journalism. Revenue sources are dwindling and new layoffs seem to be announced every day — and the COVID-19 pandemic sent another shockwave through the industry. That’s where Nastaran Mohit comes in. As organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, Mohit works to unionize the staff at newspapers, magazines and online publications, so that reporters, editors and social media staff have access to the benefits and protections they so sorely need. The NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers of America, represents more than 24,000 journalists and other media workers across the U.S. and Canada. Mohit has led successful campaigns to unionize publications including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine and BuzzFeed. Here’s a window into the life of a busy union organizer.

Read about a day in the life of Nastaran here.

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

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