Not Your Father’s Labor Movement

Back in the 1990s, “Not Your Father’s Labor Movement” was meant to signal organized labor’s break with the past—its bid for a new generation of workers, men and women, and for a new identity as a movement of multicultural, feisty vitality.

In 2012, it feels like an epitaph: at least our fathers’ labor movement had some power.


  1. normanbirnbaum August 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm | #

    Sear Corey, The US Labor movement in the first half of the twentieth century and indeed in the last decades of the nineteenth was accompanied by and sometimes was close to any number of radical authors, a few in the universities. For some decades there was a hiatus but as part of a general effort at revitalization, under John Sweeney and now Richard Trumka, things have changed. The AFL CIO has sponsored an excellent new program for a prosperity economy by Jacob Hacker—which merits wide circulation. Of course, changes in the composition of the labor force are being taken account of—and a wider range of issues than wages and hours, as important as these are. Employment security, long term social investment, community health and education problems women’s rights and the status of immigrants are within the ken of the movement and the local unions. (Please feel free to post.) Norman Birnbauml

    • William Neil September 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm | #

      If things are moving in the direction you are indicating Professor Birnbaum, I would expect that the AFL-CIO would be publicly pressuring President Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party to support James Galbraith’s call for a $12,00 federal minimum wage, effective Jan. 1, 2013 – and withholding their “ground troops” unless he gets behind it.

      I’ve never been a big fan of Samuel Gompers or George Meany, but given the present circumstances in the political economy, and the lack of buying power at the lower reaches of the workforce, I find myself saying that they would both support it. It seems that basic to me. Where’s Trumka?

      And regardless of where Trumka is, why isn’t this a winning political proposal for Democrats, given all we know about how local increases in the minimum have gone, and the issue polls nationwide. Additionally, it makes such a nice “Labor Day” contrast to the debt driven world of private equity brought to us in stunning color by Matt Taibbi’s recent post on the hypocrisy of Romney decrying high levels of federal debt after making his fortune with three card shuffle buyout debt depedency.. .

      And, thinking of Labor Day, where are all those Labor Day op-ed pieces? The best last one I remember, and wrote about, was Jefferson Cowie’s one from 2010, which appeared as a NY Times Op-Ed on Sept. 6th, (“That ’70’s Feeling”) which is how I learned about his fine book, “Stayin’ Alive: the 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class.” It was lost in the “drama” of the 2010 Congressional elections, and passed over with little notice, and even less commentary.

      It seems to me this matter of a living federal wage (and a good economic case could be made that the wage should be closer to $20 per, depending on how you do the cost/price comparisons but even I have to admit the “breathless” reaction to the far more prosaic $12.00 figure) is just a basic bread and butter, “more” that has been denied for the past 30 years, in which organized labor finds itself in no different a position today vis-a-vis a Democratic president, than it did in the mid-1970’s, a tired old re-run of Carter, Clinton and now President Obama.

      Can we get this basic measure, common sense economics and just and fair as well, from an MBA-Ivy league law school dominated upper middle class led Democratic Party? I doubt it. Give my best to Professor Hacker. And by the way, much more needs to be done that just this basic starter of a more decent minimum wage. How do you and Professor Hacker feel about the “Kansas City School’s” proposals for a full employment program, pushed by Randall Wray and allies? I heard the AFL-CIO gave him and the proposal a thumbs down? Why?

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg September 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm | #

        Sigh. Minimum wages aren’t going to help the unemployed. Don’t mistake what I’m saying for an argument that minimum wages will increase unemployment: they will if they are high enough, but there’s little chance of that much of an increase. (On the other hand, the argument that an increased minimum wage would stimulate consumer demand is extremely dubious; the wage levels necessary to have that effect *would* increase unemployment.)

        But the serious problem we have now is much that incomes are low, than that there are too many people without any income at all. And realize that besides their plight itself, the unemployed also represent a far more severe drain on the buying power of those with incomes than could be remedied by an increased minimum wage.

        Organized labor has totally abandoned those without income. It was not always the case, but it has been since the time of FDR. *That* is what we must reverse, because the “reserve army of unemployed” is never going to sit back and watch the workers capture more and more of the economy’s product, without getting anything for themselves. They are going to demand a piece of it — even if it means opposing the minimum wage.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg September 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm | #

        That should read: But the serious problem we have now is much *less* that incomes are low, than that there are too many people without any income at all.

        I do wish this blog allowed the editing of posts. Isn’t it a feature that can be enabled? Professor Robin? Please?

  2. Chris August 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm | #

    People made the mistake of allowing the focus on class to be compromised. Anti-racism, feminism etc are worthwhile, but class must come first or everything will just collapse into a mush of competing identities.

  3. William Neil September 3, 2012 at 11:35 am | #

    Well, this is a fascinating commentary on Labor Day, 2012. I went to the Op-ed page this morning, hoping Paul Krugman would have something profound to say about the state of labor’s bearing on the economy, since he religiously repeats that the main problem is lack of buying power, demand. But nothing doing, he’s still bashing Paul Ryan, and are you going to indict him for that temptation?

    Instead, we got a Times piece by one of their former own, Hendrik Smith, lamenting the passing of the good old business leaders, like Henry Ford (and my, how you have to compress that biography to hold up, but wage point conceded – if you forget Ford’s secret police inside the factories) who formerly acknowledged other competing and legitimate interest groups besides the now dominant “shareholders.” Well, I guess that’s the best we’ll do this Labor Day.

    But in a fit of naivete, I then Googled “AFL-CIO’s Labor Day message, 2012,” and failing to turn up anything but the local’s commentaries, I tried “Trumka’s Labor Day message, 2012” but everything indicated just the 2011 address.

    My hunch is that the silence is a reflection of organized labor’s subservience to the Democratic Party, and the timing for today would be awful for an independent message, much less the one I advocate above, running as it does right up against the Democratic Convention starting tomorrow. In my opinion, it would be a wonderful time for a declaration of labor’s indepedence, that their labor, in the form of the election “ground forces,” were not free for the asking as they have been for so long, the time had come for public bargaining and a “just price.” I welcome other interpretations.

  4. Seth Edenbaum September 3, 2012 at 11:38 am | #
    Paul Krugman “Pretty soon, we’ll be having serious, completely un-self-conscious discussions in major magazines about the servant problem.”
    Duncan Black: “I’ve known lots of presumably good liberals who were uncomfortable about hiring certain kinds of household help (the “women’s work” kind)…”

    He’s linking to praise for Amy Pohler

    If you’re willing to hire servants, inevitably you’ll have servant problems. Paying them enough helps, but I’m not going to revisit again Douglas Black’s record on class relations. It’s not good.

    From the About page at “Domestic workers care for the things we value the most: our families and our homes. They care for our children”

    The page needs to be rewritten: “We care for your children. We value our families and our children more than we value yours. Caring for your children is only our job.”

    Concern for the working class is not synonymous with the concerns of the working class.

    • William Neil September 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm | #

      der Gutenberg:

      I am so sorry to have taxed your patience on Labor Day by inserting, mistakenly, a comma for a period, if that’s what you were referring to but it should be clear to any reasonable person that a discussion of raising the minimum wage today means $12.00 per hour through $20.00 per hour, I’ve seen justifications for both.

      As for your criticism about increasing the terrible, unliveable pay at the bottom of the labor market, the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage at the expense of ignoring those millions without jobs at all, I was hoping that at this website I could spare the audience the recent historical and policy context of, for example, Professor James Galbraith’s policy curve: he gave up running into the brick wall of the Democratic Party and professional economic resistance to a genuine full employment policy, such as updated New Deal WPA and CCC type programs built around energy efficiency and alternative energy programs and , God forbid, local instances of environmental restoration. The last time I looked 30 miles to my east the Chesapeake Bay wasn’t doing so well and we could put 250,000 to work quite easily trying to improve it.

      You also glided over the explicit reference to the “Kansas City School” which has been doing the hard professional economic work of justifying what they call guaranteed employment – the federal govt as the employer of last resort for those who can’t find work in the private sector, and as employer and educator whose duel mission would be work and updating the unemployed’s skills. This school was working to meet all the itchy at the trigger intellectual attack lines, of which there are many, against the very notion of such a program and my understanding, especially given the current state of the economy, they can more than meet the professional objections. How, exactly their proposals interacted with the low existing minimum wages and whether the AFL-CIO advanced reasons for their rejection of the overture for support, I’ll leave to proponents of the program to describe.

      From my own point of view over the past four years having written about 1400 pages of essays on the political economy, I too grew tired of trying to interest professional economists and the Democratic Party in FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights,” despite Cass Sunstein having written a book in 2004 of that title with the sub being “And Why We Need it Now More than Ever.” (And until just recently, serving in the Obama Administration. He’s written so many books maybe he forgot this one entirely;seriously, he got in and past the Rep. Right with the blessing of the WSJ for his acceptable views on overregulation – so much for the Second Bill of Rights).

      So I don’t really want to hear it from you about concern over the unemployed, as opposed to the underpaid, please direct your ire up “the chain of command,” not down, which was the adivce given in “Saving Private Ryan.” Despite this list of economic luminaries: Krugman, Stiglitz, Kuttner, Sachs, Greider…Galbraith…Wray…and many others connected to the Roosevelt Institute and so forth, for public employment programs, most gave up long ago and that’s what led Galbraith to his minimum wage proposal of $12.00 per hour, not without a large degree of exasperation over the other recommendations that were spurned.

  5. Bill Wolfe September 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm | #

    Neil v. der Gutenberg

    Wouldn’t all that money in the form of wages create new jobs?

    What was the Union position on New Deal job creation?

    Just askin’.

    • William Neil September 3, 2012 at 10:42 pm | #


      Of course, and Galbraith had a very spirited defense of the good that it would do and the way it fit so well into our semi-deflationary times. He never meant it as a comprehensive critique of the many structural ills in the economy. I’m pressing the issue today not just because of its economic and justice aspects, and immediate relief merits, but also because it illuminates where Corey started off in this posting and the terminally ill relationship labor has with the Democratic Party, still stuck in the same dynamics after thirty years.

      Of course you know that my essays over the past year gave a prominent plut to Nouriel Roubini’s (and two co-author’s) essay from the fall of 2011, “The Way Forward,” which is perhaps the most comprehensive exposition of the deeper structural troubles in the US and World economy. Despite Rounbini’s almost magical track record of calling the directions of our ongoing troubles, this essay, ahem….was virtually ignored by other economists, the Democratic Party and assorted policy wonks. I saw, eventually, a glancing referernce to it by Bill Keller (sp?) of the NY Times, but no substantantive comments on it. It cited the lack of demand here, Europe’s troubles, pending troubles in China and the great trade imbalances (German as well) and – this is what put the economic “pros” off, it suggested that there was now a glut of both labor and production in the world’s economy; he almost cited automation’s rising threat, but didn’t quite say it that way; great gains in efficiency due to the computer revolution cresting at the same time the world has added billions from Asia, India Brazil to the labor market. He had the shocking proposal to stop worrying about the debt and deficit here for five years until a new and massive stimulus could be enacted…. then he made the austerity noises for worrying about long term debt trends….for every deep structural flaw he and his colleagues proposed remedies, including debt forgiveness and use of eminent domain on the mortgage front. I part way’s with him though, when I listen closely to some of his recommendations for making Europe’s labor markets more flexible,then he sounds like a neoliberal.

      So Gutenburg, this one’s coming your way as well; when was the last time your heard or read anyone on the left, labor or Democratic Party (sic) refer to Roubini’s essay? Or Thomas Palley’s fine essays on the causes of the great trade imbalances?

      So you wanted to know how I ended up simplifying things with a $12.00 minimum wage thrust…well, that’s just a sample of how I got there and what I left out.

  6. William Neil September 4, 2012 at 12:31 pm | #

    Just render due dilligence to where this blog started out and my still ongoing astonishment at the lack of an official AFL-CIO statement on Labor Day, in my day-after Labor Day Email box this morning was an invitation from the AFL-CIO to attend their Fall Book series, starting with Hendrik Smith’s “Who Stole the American Dream” on September 13th, at their hdqtrs in DC.

    So it appears to me that Smith’s Labor Day Op-Ed in the NY Times – “When Capitalists Cared” – was a semi-official surrogate AFL-CIO Labor Day message – sort of – with deniability. Judge for yourself.

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