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Marketplace Features Prof. Milkman On Organizing During a Recession

The conventional wisdom states that recessions are terrible times to organize. During the Great Recession, union membership continued to decline, while public approval of unions reached a low. But, in a recent piece on APM’s Marketplace, Prof. Ruth Milkman explained that there’s an exception to this rule:

But in this recession, we’ve lost three times as many jobs in just the last few months.

“This is on so much grander a scale,” said Milkman. “And that’s more like the ’30s. That’s the only time in the 20th century when the crisis was this deep.”

It was the severity of the Great Depression that helped give rise to the biggest surge in organizing this country has ever seen.

“There are some very important lessons to be learned from what was definitely an uphill battle in the 1930s,” said Lizabeth Cohen, a historian at Harvard University and author of “Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.”

The union movement was all but dead at the beginning of the Great Depression, said Cohen. Membership was, like today, at historic lows. But the economic pain of the Depression was so deep that it unified Americans in anger, especially the masses of unemployed.

And it was in that moment of anger, hunger and need that the organized labor movement coalesced to become a force of change that transformed the economy. Listen to the full segment here.

Public Domain photo via Wikimedia.

New Book on Immigration from Prof. Ruth Milkman

Distinguished Professor Ruth Milkman has just released her 13th book, Immigration Labor and the New Precariat, published by Polity. In it, she suggests that immigration is not the cause of growing inequality, as promoters of the “immigrant threat narrative” claim. Rather, the influx of low-wage immigrants is a consequence of a concerted effort on the part of employers to weaken labor unions, along with neoliberal policies fostering outsourcing and deregulation. Check it out!

Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat
Ruth Milkman
Polity Book, 2020

Immigration has been a contentious issue for decades, but in the twenty-first century it has moved to center stage, propelled by an immigrant threat narrative that blames foreign-born workers, and especially the undocumented, for the collapsing living standards of American workers.  According to that narrative, if immigration were summarily curtailed, border security established, and “”illegal aliens”” removed, the American Dream would be restored.

In this book, Ruth Milkman demonstrates that immigration is not the cause of economic precarity and growing inequality, as Trump and other promoters of the immigrant threat narrative claim. Rather, the influx of low-wage immigrants since the 1970s was a consequence of concerted employer efforts to weaken labor unions, along with neoliberal policies fostering outsourcing, deregulation, and skyrocketing inequality. 

These dynamics have remained largely invisible to the public. The justifiable anger of US-born workers whose jobs have been eliminated or degraded has been tragically misdirected, with even some liberal voices recently advocating immigration restriction. This provocative book argues that progressives should instead challenge right-wing populism, redirecting workers’ anger toward employers and political elites, demanding upgraded jobs for foreign-born and US-born workers alike, along with public policies to reduce inequality.

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)

Prof. Ruth Milkman Speaks About Workers on NPR

Amid the mounting coronavirus and economic crises, not all pressures are being felt equally. In particular, noted SLU professor Ruth Milkman on NPR’s Morning Edition, the most desperate workers are often those forced into positions that don’t offer paid sick leave at this precarious time:

RUTH MILKMAN: You can imagine that there’s an awful lot of people who have lost their normal livelihoods and are desperate to generate some income to support their families… The whole point of paid sick leave is to not force workers to have to choose between their livelihoods and their health or the health of their kids, but these workers are going to be put in that position.

Listen to Prof. Milkman on Morning Edition here.

Photo by Scott Lewis via flickr (cc-by)

Report: State of the Unions 2017

Organized labor has suffered sharp declines in recent years. So where does this leave the labor movement? And how do New York City and State compare to the nation as a whole?

Murphy Professors Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce have released a new report that addresses these questions. State of the Unions 2017: A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State and the United States looks at how union density has changed nationally and locally across demographics and industries over the past decades, and assesses the challenges and prospects that the labor movement faces now and in the coming years.

Explore this invaluable and accessible report here.