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International Labor Solidarity: The New Frontier

By Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith

Once employers were mostly local; so were unions. When local companies became national corporations, unions too had to go national. Now capital has gone global. Unions have made intermittent efforts at international cooperation, but the obstacles are considerable. To overcome them, bridge building and information sharing across borders need to start long before individual campaigns begin, cementing relationships, fostering solidarity, and developing enough strategic knowledge for unions to provide mutual aid in the global arena. For labor to meet the challenge of globalization, the haphazard international labor cooperation of the past must be buttressed by proactive horizontal linkages between unions and workers at all levels.

Why go global?

Unions all over the world are reeling before the historic changes summed up in the word “globalization.” At the core of most national trade union strategies is the elimination of labor costs as a factor in competition. But globalization has undermined that strategy. As Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen Roach put it, “Wage rates in China and India range from 10 percent to 25 percent of those for comparable-quality workers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world. Consequently, offshore outsourcing that extracts products from relatively low-wage workers in the developing world has become an increasingly urgent tactic for competitive survival by companies in the developed world.”

Roach compares the movement of jobs to the cheapest labor market to the financial practice of “arbitrage,” in which speculators move from one market to another to take advantage of a cheaper price. He calls the result “global labor arbitrage.” But the labor movement has long had another name for it: “the race to the bottom.”

Global labor arbitrage creates competition not just between first and third world countries and workers, but also among those in the third world. Mexico has lost up to 500,000 jobs and hundreds of firms to China, for example. Wages on jobs outsourced from the United States to India are held down by competition from workers in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Some have argued that the labor movement can regenerate itself based on sectors that are immune to globalization. But today, a high proportion of both high- and low-skilled service jobs, whether in the private or the public sector, are as vulnerable to foreign outsourcing as manufacturing jobs. And the job market as a whole is affected by competitive liberalization and the global assault on public services and public pension and welfare programs; transnational ownership of service corporations and the loss of bargaining leverage; the increasing ability to outsource service sector and high-skilled jobs; and the spread of new remote technologies. (McDonald’s now has drive-through service windows where the order is taken by someone far from the restaurant—potentially on the other side of the world.) The result is stagnant or falling wages, cuts in benefits, and increased economic insecurity.

Capital has, in effect, outflanked labor. No matter how strong a national labor movement, no matter how high its union density, it can be rendered powerless if employers can simply move production abroad. That is why unions around the world are looking for new approaches to international labor cooperation.

International labor cooperation can work, and when it does, the payoff for workers can be substantial. Consider, for example, the 735 workers at a nonunion printing plant in Versailles, Kentucky. Their plant is owned by Quebecor World, a global commercial printing company with 35,000 employees in 160 facilities in 17 countries in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Versailles workers tried to organize in 2001 but lost an NLRB election after Quebecor waged an aggressive anti-union campaign.

Fortunately, workers in unionized Quebecor printing plants around the world recognized that their own wages, working conditions, and union security would be threatened if the corporation could simply block unionization and then shift its work to nonunion plants. Working with Union Network International (UNI, the international trade secretariat for service sector workers), they organized a campaign for an agreement guaranteeing all Quebecor printing workers worldwide the right to join a union and bargain collectively. Organized printing workers pressured the company through global days of action. Labor allies pitched in: the National Writers Union, for example, gathered letters of support from prominent writers, many of whose books are printed at Quebecor plants.

After a two-and-a-half-year campaign, Quebecor signed an agreement pledging not to oppose or interfere with its employees’ right to union representation, and establishing a quicker and fairer alternative to NLRB elections. At the end of August 2005, Versailles Quebecor workers voted three-to-one to join the Teamsters’ Graphics Communications Conference.

Obstacles to globalizing the labor movement

Cooperation can be tough even among unions in the same country. Our discussions with labor activists identified some further obstacles that arise when unions try to cooperate across international borders. For example:


Unions are constantly tempted to pursue an aggressive economic nationalism, demanding that their own countries close their markets to foreign goods and services or that other countries open theirs. But in the era of globalization the global economy is less a collection of nations trading with each other than a single market in which corporations compete to exploit labor anywhere. This often renders economic nationalism counter-productive. Bush’s pre-election tariff on steel imports promoted by steel companies and unions, for example, created few jobs for union steelworkers, but led to widespread job losses for American auto workers dependent on cheap imported steel. Recent European restrictions on textile imports from China led not to jobs in Europe but rather to jobs in Bangladesh and Vietnam.

However ineffective in protecting jobs, such approaches have a devastating effect on international labor cooperation. They replace solidarity against employers with a struggle among workers over which countries can keep or lure corporate investment. Employers don’t have to worry about workers in different countries ganging up on them if those workers are ready to cut each others’ throats to beat each other out for jobs. When one of us recently identified ourselves to a Bangladeshi activist as someone involved with the American labor movement, their immediate response was, “Oh, you’re the people who are trying to keep workers in my country from getting textile jobs.”

Differences in global unions

Why not simply extend unions from one country into “global unions” representing workers in other countries? This indeed has happened in the United States and Canada, where law, politics, business structures, and labor traditions are similar. But in most cases, differences in the labor movement, industrial relations institutions, and labor law deter such an approach.

In Scandinavia, for example, bargaining tends to be much more centralized than in the United States. Unions negotiate broad sectoral agreements with employer associations. As is the case in much of the world, health care, vacations, and aspects of the grievance procedure—subjects for collective bargaining in the United States—are addressed by national legislation. In Japan, in contrast, there are more than 30,000 unions, each representing white-and blue-collar employees of one employer. Joint bargaining is rare. Any group of workers in a company has the right to organize, demand recognition, and bargain with their employer, leading to forms of minority unionism unknown in the United States. Strategies that are crucial in one country may be worse than useless in another.

Accumulated distrust

Mutual solidarity is grounded in trust. When American unions approach unions abroad, they face important—and in many cases well-grounded—reasons for distrust.

For many decades, U.S. unions worked hand-in-glove with the CIA and other agencies of the U.S. government to overthrow foreign governments, bribe politicians, break strikes, and favor unions that cooperated with U.S. corporations. Even in the Bush era, most of the money for AFL-CIO international operations continues to come from the U.S. government. How could foreign unionists not be suspicious of U.S. labor activities abroad? (The recent action by the AFL-CIO to demand the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as soon as possible may help open the door to greater trust by foreign unionists.)

More surprisingly, we have learned in conversations with ranking trade union officials in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, in the service, manufacturing, and telecommunication sectors, that global corporate campaigns can themselves sometimes be a source of distrust. In such campaigns, which have been used during strikes and organizing drives for more than a decade, embattled unions often ask unions in other countries for help pressuring an employer. Sometimes, those they ask have good relations with the employer, or are at a sensitive stage in a collective bargaining process, or are reluctant to pressure the employer for other reasons. This can lead to hard feelings rather than long-term alliances.

Campaigns initiated and controlled by unions in one country can generate distrust concerning their long-term commitments and agendas. For example, European trade unionists and allied NGOs questioned us sharply about whether U.S. unions would go the distance in a global Wal-Mart campaign. Their big worry was that U.S. unions are so focused on recruiting new members that as soon as they have organized a few U.S. stores, they’ll call Wal-Mart a model employer and call off the campaign—leaving workers in the supplier firms in China and the developing world high and dry.

Similar problems can arise even in campaigns initiated by a global organization. For example, at an August, 2005, meeting in Chicago, UNI launched a campaign to organize Wal-Mart worldwide. Management people from the French-based Carrefour— the world’s second largest retailer after Wal-Mart—addressed the meeting and were presented as socially responsible employers. Some activists we talked to questioned whether the labor practices of the suppliers to these companies were any different from Wal-Mart’s. Long-term trust building requires taking the interests of allies into account.

These obstacles and many others must be taken seriously—but they are not insurmountable. Here are a few examples of promising strategies for effective international union cooperation.

Horizontal cooperation

Traditionally, unions have relied on Global Labor Federations (GLFs, formerly called International Trade Secretariats) to link unions in broad industrial categories like transportation workers and service workers around the globe. While these organizations have often played an important role in promoting international labor cooperation, they have two problems. First, they are very small, severely understaffed organizations that are equipped to stimulate but hardly to conduct the vast work of international labor cooperation. Second, they are largely bound by rules of protocol that require communication between workers in different countries to pass from an affiliated national union or federation in one country through the international organization to the affiliated national union or federation in another country. This cumbersome procedure can impede as well as promote contact and cooperation among those who work for the same company or in the same industry or occupation in different countries.

More horizontal links are possible. In 2002, French union representatives on the board of France Telecom noticed that a declaration of insolvency for its recently acquired German subsidiary, MobilCom, was on the agenda for the upcoming meeting. The union representatives interpreted this as part of a “rectification plan” to make employees pay for the huge debts incurred by the company’s global acquisition binge during the high-tech bubble. The French unionists immediately tried to contact German workers at MobilCom through UNI, but found that its German affiliate had no members at MobilCom. But some French union activists remembered meeting people from the German metalworkers union IG Metall at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. A few emails later they were directly in touch with some IG Metall members at MobilCom.

Soon, German and French workers developed an aggressive plan to expose France Telecom’s plans. The energy of the French response helped activate the German workers, who had limited experience with unions. Rallies were held with both German and French workers participating. Pressure was put on the German government to help the German company, saving it from imminent closure. An agreement for more orderly cutbacks and a good severance plan were negotiated.

The MobilCom story indicates how horizontal channels of communication can make possible direct cooperation among workers in different countries. Alain Baron, a union representative for the French union SUD-PTT on the France Telecom Board, observes: “The cross border unity established in the France Telecom group is indicative of a new social climate. The attacks of the multi-nationals on jobs, their ability to relocate, do not often meet with an adequate response from the unions. Enclosed in their local routine interests, bogged down in inter-apparatus negotiations, the traditional unions often find it hard to establish contacts which can mobilize employees in several countries against the same employer. The international structures of trade unions, when they exist, are in general too distant from the union activist on the ground.” He adds that new venues like the World Social Forum are important to establish worker to worker links. “The easiest way to cross the Rhine was through crossing the ocean.”

Strategic Alliances

Often, international labor cooperation is marked by campaigns that are short on time and fail to sustain the international linkages that they forge, once the campaign is won or abandoned. Unions also need to consider strategic alliances—commitments between unions with strong common interests to work together on common projects on an ongoing basis.

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) has been at the forefront of building bridges with their Mexican counterparts. In the early 1990s, faced with the passage of NAFTA, the UE entered into what it called a “Strategic Organizing Alliance” with the Mexican Frente del Trabajo (FAT). Together, the two unions instituted regular worker-to-worker exchanges, published a monthly electronic periodical, built worker centers and joint organizing teams, and regularly informed their members about what they were doing and why it mattered to them.

The UE/FAT alliance worked to ensure that workers on both sides of the border benefited from coordinated activities. FAT members, for example, traveled to Milwaukee to provided support for the UE organizing campaign at a local foundry, where they allayed Mexican immigrant workers’ concerns that the UE might be similar to “company” unions they knew all too well in Mexico. On behalf of FAT members, the UE filed the first complaint under the Mexico-U.S. labor rights “side agreement” that accompanied NAFTA—charging General Electric and Honeywell with labor rights violations. It has also built a, alliance between unions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to enforce the organizing rights of Mexican workers at the Echlin auto parts company.

Framework agreements

About two dozen global firms with more than two million workers have signed “framework agreements” that resemble the Quebecor agreement described earlier in this article. These agreements differ from corporate codes of conduct in that they are negotiated with unions and provide for some kind of union participation in implementation and monitoring. The Declaration of Social Rights and Industrial Relations signed by Volkswagen, the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF), and the European Works Council, for example, requires the company to provide its workers worldwide the right to form unions, protection against discrimination, a safe working environment, and minimum wage standards consistent with local conditions. Volkswagen was pressured to accept the agreement by Western European workers who already have those rights; as Robert Steiert of the IMF puts it, the agreement is most important for “workers at plants to be built or taken over by Volkswagen, especially in lesser developed countries.”

Such agreements are no panacea. So far, they cover only those workers directly employed by the companies, not the growing number of workers employed by suppliers contracted by the firms. In the VW agreement, the company pledges to “encourage” its suppliers to abide by the agreement, but it does not stop Volkswagen from contracting with labor rights violators. The auto unions see the need to tighten this language as an important next step. Indeed, if they do not find a way to extend decent wages and standards throughout the supplier chain, they will find that they represent fewer and fewer workers.

Framework agreements are made between big international bureaucracies on both sides of the labor-management divide. The communication that they foster is more likely to be among high union officials and top company officials than among workers, shop stewards, and local union leaders in different countries. This can limit both the effectiveness of the agreements and their capacity to build a movement. Implementation and monitoring of framework agreements can be difficult where no union exists in a workplace.

But, in part because of the limited staff and resources of the federations that sign them, some of the framework agreements have led to the development of global networks of participating unions to directly monitor them. These networks, and the general flow of information which often results from these agreements, help workers identify common interests and problems, and discrepancies in company policies.

Some U.S. trade unionists dismiss framework agreements because they usually have not led to new members—the primary focus of U.S. trade union strategy. In contrast, many trade union officials and activists we talked with in Europe who have experience with framework agreements see them as a first step in global union coordination at the firm or industry level.

Here are some concrete steps unions can take to make international labor cooperation less haphazard and more proactive:

Create efficient communication channels at all levels

  • Increase exponentially the amount of information flowing among workers and their organizations at all levels. This will require significant resources for everything from research to translation services. Regular information exchanges with unions in other countries can be facilitated by internet-based knowledge networks; a Global Labor Solidarity E-Newsletter presenting experiences and analyzing lessons of cooperative efforts; and periodic conferences. Communication—swapping stories and reflecting on issues, strategies, and tactics—should involve local unions, staff at all levels, and membership.

  • Institute regular worker-to-worker exchanges. Traditional labor connections are funneled through national and international federations. But, to build support for the radical shift toward a global labor movement, workers need to be continually “rubbing shoulders” with workers from other countries who work in the same companies, industries, and occupations. Such exchanges will not only build trust and solidarity, but also position workers to assist and encourage their own unions to go global.

  • Build trust overseas by offering concrete services to workers and unions in other countries. One way to overcome suspicions and cement relationships is to begin offering services to unions and their allies abroad. At a recent conference on outsourcing, for example, Indian unionists asked U.S. unionists to provide on-demand information about U.S. companies. Latin American labor networks have similarly requested regular updates on American trade policy and political developments. Initiating networking overseas by offering such services will begin opening doors and building the trust needed for ongoing coordinated action.

Create global networks and alliances before the battles begin

  • Start reaching out to potential allies. Unions need to connect with national and local unions to build relationships far in advance of asking workers in other countries to commit risky acts of solidarity. Such pre-battle networking should also include foreign civil society organizations and allied government officials.

  • Develop “intelligence” about countries, unions, and industries around the globe to spot new trends and construct new strategies. As any global corporation knows, going global requires staying abreast of an increasingly complex set of variables, such as national labor laws, political developments, and economic conditions. Seeking regular “intelligence” about specific countries and global industries can ensure unions that they are not “flying blind” in the global arena.

  • Utilize immigrant members. 15 percent of the U.S. workforce are immigrants. They are playing a critical role in the growth of unions in low-wage service industries. They also form a vital resource for forming links to established and nascent labor movements around the world. Unions should provide resources to help them utilize their ties with their home countries to promote ongoing international connections.

Connect the local and the global

  • Build a global strategy at the local level. Today, even local unions must confront global corporations either at the collective bargaining table or in organizing campaigns as multinational corporations extend their reach in the economy. Unions should develop a set of practices and protocols at all levels to build global perspectives and global action into local campaigns. This should include creating task forces of workers specializing in bringing international pressure to bear in local campaigns through direct contact with unions and workers in other countries. The Quebecor and FranceTelecom campaigns described above are examples of how global actions can help local campaigns.

  • Establish educational programs about globalization so that workers can participate in an informed way in building a global labor movement. Unions need to begin telling workers the facts demonstrating what they already know viscerally: globalization is affecting their lives and is here to stay. Such education is politically essential for dialogues about shifting resources into global networking and campaigns.

Take the offensive on global public policy issues

  • Promote alternatives to neoliberal policies at local, state, and national levels. Globalization has baffled both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. This is an opportunity for unions to take the lead in defining solutions to outsourcing, contingent work, privatization, and other public policy issues. By framing public debates, developing expertise, and proposing alternative solutions, unions have an opportunity to be perceived as innovative and aggressive in solving workers’ problems.

  • Utilize immigrant members to educate the public, media, and politicians. Immigrant workers are a rich source of knowledge and experience about the global economy. They can help labor spearhead a progressive global agenda on migration in the global economy; develop alternatives to destructive trade deals that harm workers in both the North and the South; and launch a new discussion about human, labor, and citizenship rights in the age of globalization.

Unions have tried, with varying success, to utilize international solidarity in particular struggles. Building a global labor movement next requires something further: proactive approaches designed to make international communication and cooperation part of the daily practice of the labor movement at local, national, and international levels.

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Chinese Women Workers Organize in the Export Zones

By Jenny Wai-ling Chan

China’s economic reforms since the late 1970s have brought about an unprecedented surge in internal rural to urban migration. Most transnational corporations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the United States, and Europe, and their subcontractors, recruit millions of peasant migrants, in particular unmarried and young women, to work in export-led Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Limited educational opportunities, especially for females, a lack of village employment prospects, and low prices for agricultural products are some factors that have pushed young girls in their late teens, and the unemployed in general, out of their villages. Some rural women also aspire to escape arranged marriages, familial conflicts, and patriarchal oppression. Still others want to widen their horizons and to experience modern life in cities.

The Fifth National Population Census of China (2000) estimated that the number of internal migrant workers in cities was over 120 million people. Economic migrants have moved from interior provinces like Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, Jiangxi, and Anhui, to the southern and coastal provinces where the SEZs are located. These migrant peasant workers moved, either short term or long term, away from their registered place of residence without a corresponding transfer of official household registration, or hukou. As a result, unlike permanent city residents, they have been deprived of government-subsidized housing, education, employment training, medical care, and social welfare. Migrant workers, women in particular, mostly concentrate in labor-intensive light manufacturing industries such as apparel, electronics, shoes, and toys, and low-end service sectors.

In 2000, China accounted for 21.6 percent of the world’s textile and garment exports. By the end of 2002, textile and garment industry exports reached US$61.69 billion, according to The China National Textile Industry Council in 2003. When the decades-old Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA) was phased out on January 1, 2005, more than 2,000 textile and clothing categories were freed from export ceilings. In the first quarter of 2005, Chinese apparel and textile imports by the United States rose by more than 60 percent over 2004. By 2008, when member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) further eliminate the “safeguard quotas”—special quotas that limit the annual growth of selected categories by 7.5 percent so as to minimize domestic market disruption—China will likely soak up 50 percent or more of global textile and apparel production.

Working Conditions in the Garment Factories

Guangdong province in southern coastal China is the largest production base for Chinese garment exports. In 2004, of the US$60.6 billion that China attracted in Foreign Direct Investment—a 13.3 percent rise—Guangdong alone absorbed a record US$10.1 billion, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce in 2005. Guangdong has seen a fast increase in its population to over 110 million persons, making it the most populated province in a country of 1.3 billion people. Transient rural migrant workers make up more than 31 million persons. But what are the working and living conditions like for these workers in the major garment export factories?

The Chinese Working Women Network (CWWN) was set up in 1996 as a membership-based, nonprofit non-governmental organization (NGO) with the mission of promoting improvement in the lives of Chinese migrant women workers, and developing feminist awareness among them. CWWN conducted research in 10 small-to-medium sized garment factory dormitories in Shenzhen, Guandong. Its reports on women workers’ wages, working hours, and occupational health reveal labor conditions that are punitive and exploitative. The workforce of each factory ranges from 50 to 200 people, over 70 percent of whom are female workers responsible for sewing—young girls in their late teens, and middle-age married women. The smaller factories are mainly owned by small subcontractors, who are mainland Chinese of Guangdong and neighboring coastal provinces. The larger supplier factories for major international brands are funded by Hong Kong and Taiwan investors.

Chinese labor laws stipulate that a five-day working week should not exceed 40 hours, and overtime work must be limited to a maximum of 36 hours a month. But in reality, an average work day lasts between 12 and 14 hours, seven days a week. To cope with the increasingly just-in-time production schedule, workers are often required to work nonstop until the next morning. In extreme cases, they are forced to work for 48 hours, behind locked doors and wired windows. Total working hours in a week can thus add up to between 90 and 110 hours. The most shocking case was that of a subcontracting garment factory which prohibited its workers from taking a day off in a six-month period! While some garment workers do want to work beyond legal limits, they too find it difficult to get a rest day during peak season or when a rush order is being met. Most foreign-owned export enterprises house their workers in dormitories close to factories, which ensure their round-the-clock availability.

Under such pressure, women workers suffer from a variety of occupational illnesses that include menstrual disorders, back pain, headaches, deterioration of eyesight, fatigue, and respiratory problems. The situation is compounded by poor ventilation and sanitary facilities on the shop floor. The weaker girls sometimes faint right next to their sewing machines, and this is common especially during the hot summer. Workers are often treated abusively by management—they are shouted at and called names, and bathroom visits are highly restricted. In serious cases, they are physically and sexually abused by line leaders and the foreman.

There is often no provision for paid sick leave. This is because, to cut costs, most small-to-medium-sized garment factories do not contribute to the social insurance fund that is mandatory under the law. Paid maternity leave, also required by law, is likewise out of the question. Workers are heavily penalized if they fail to give a model answer to factory auditors, and monetarily rewarded for the “correct” answer. For instance, when inspectors ask about working hours, workers are expected to respond that they work a standard eight-hour workday, with overtime of not more than three hours a day.

The biggest problem that almost every interviewed woman garment worker has complained about is the illegal wage rate and the below-subsistence income.

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Can Anything Good Come From This?

By Jeff Crosby

What will come from the split in the AFL-CIO? Was it the death rattle of a movement irrelevant to today’s workers? Or is the “Change to Win” coalition of unions the second coming of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the beginning of a period of growth and rejuvenation for unions? The split will lead to neither of these scenarios, but the split will do more harm than good. The Change to Win disaffiliations will damage the positive national political work done by the AFL-CIO, and cripple the work in local labor councils and state federations if negotiations to allow joint local work are unsuccessful. It will harm organizing in the short run, and opens the possibility of destructive raiding between the federations. It may stimulate more intensive and disciplined organizing efforts by both groups—but could have been achieved without a split. The discussion leading up to the split ignored the key question of combating right-wing hegemony in the world of ideas, particularly the triumph of market theory in all aspects of political and economic life.

Are You for Change? Or Does the World Look Just Peachy As It Is? Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees (SEIU), explained in the Los Angeles Times that his and other unions boycotted the Chicago AFL-CIO convention because “unions must have the vision and the courage to change.” He refers to “principles for change” that were “at the heart of unsuccessful talks with the AFL-CIO.” The “We’re for Change and You Are Not” theme was repeated endlessly. “Change” does not exist as a general good. It only exists in a particular form, and in a particular set of circumstances. Change should not be reduced to a vague corporate mantra as in “we have to change in the face of a brutally competitive global economy.” “Change” was contrasted to the status quo, so no one wanted to be “against change”. But to understand whether to be for or against the disaffiliation of four major unions from the AFL-CIO, we need to look at its actual impact.

Who Cares About the AFL-CIO? As the Change to Win (CTW) unions noted in their brochure sent to Central Labor Councils before the Convention, while one in three U.S. workers were union members 50 years ago, today the number is one in 12 in the private sector. Therefore, by CTW logic, the AFL-CIO needs to be replaced. Not necessarily. The federation has a record of achievements as well as setbacks in recent years. The AFL-CIO contributed to an effective campaign to defend Social Security, one of the great achievements of the New Deal. Prior to its passage, some 60 percent of senior citizens lived in poverty. President Bush named the partial privatization of Social Security the top priority of his second term, using all the familiar arguments about the superiority of the free market. The AFL-CIO and local labor councils organized demonstrations at the doors of investment companies, exposing those poised to make billions off Bush’s plan. The AFL-CIO signed up over 200 U.S. Congressmen in support of major labor law reform that would make organizing easier. They have coupled this with a campaign to make December 10, Human Rights Day, a day to regain the right to organize a union in the United States as a public good. The AFL-CIO has helped turn the tide against neoliberal trade policies. President Bush barely managed to win Congressional approval for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—by only two votes in the House of Representatives. He accomplished this with pork barrel giveaways, threats, and parliamentary manipulation that were extraordinary even by his standards. The impact of the breakup of the AFL-CIO will be disastrous on local Central Labor Councils, if it is not mitigated by a national reconciliation or determined local efforts. Central Labor Councils have been strengthened through the 10-year Union Cities program. While many are relatively inactive, others have been able to elect pro-labor candidates to local office and reduce employer resistance to organizing through street mobilizations and the pressure of regulatory agencies and labor-friendly elected officials. It is through the CLCs and state federations that the AFL-CIO has established a presence in local communities.

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Divided We Stand

Ruth Milkman

The departure of four of the nation’s largest unions from the American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has provoked a great deal of hand wringing. Many fear that the acrimony between the federation and the Change to Win (CTW) coalition that is now home to the newly disaffiliated unions (as well as a few others), will only hasten the labor movement’s demise. Yet, the 2005 schism in the house of labor, the most dramatic such break since the CIO split off from the AFL 70 years ago, instead could spark a much needed resurgence within both camps. As the anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis LLP predicted just after the AFL-CIO’s 50th anniversary convention in Chicago last summer, “The most likely results of the current rift will be an increase in union organizing activity and more aggressive bargaining during contract negotiations by both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition.”

One might discount this statement as little more than a savvy law firm’s effort to capitalize on current events, but the notion that competition between the two union groupings will lead them both to perform more effectively in the future is compelling in its own right. As many commentators have noted, that’s exactly what happened in the two decades when the CIO was an independent entity: this was the period of the greatest union growth in U.S. history, for the AFL and CIO alike. In terms of membership, the CIO was always dwarfed by the AFL, but both sets of unions grew and prospered during the era of their mutual rivalry. Indeed, U.S. union density peaked precisely at the point when the AFL and CIO reunited, in 1955—and it has been declining ever since.

The CIO’s split from the AFL began with a fistfight, when John L. Lewis assaulted the Carpenters union president William L. Hutcheson after a verbal dispute on the floor of the 1935 AFL convention. Although there was no physical violence at the 2005 convention, in many other respects Andy Stern, who heads the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and who led the dissident movement that gave birth to CTW, has stepped into Lewis’ proverbial shoes. As labor’s self-appointed bad boy, Stern has often challenged the authority of the old guard with deliberately provocative statements that have won the attention of the media as well as the wider public. More importantly, Stern’s SEIU is a model of dynamic unionism; it has tripled in size since 1980, and no other union has been more effective in organizing the unorganized in recent years.

There are many points of contrast between the 1935 and 2005 splits, to be sure. For one thing, the SEIU and the three other CTW unions that left the AFL-CIO last summer did so of their own accord, against the wishes of the federation’s leadership, whereas 70 years ago the AFL forcibly expelled the CIO unions. And the nation’s political climate today could not be more different than it was in 1935! Yet there are also striking parallels between the two schisms. Both came at times of profound crisis for labor: although few Americans realize it, union density in the United States is at just the same level today that it was in 1935 (13 percent). Both divorces were nasty ones, marked by venomous rhetoric and ugly behavior on all sides. In both cases, the dissenters were high-level union insiders (both Lewis and Stern were longtime union presidents, after all, not “outside agitators”) who launched energetic efforts to win over other union chieftains, as well as the federation’s top leadership, to their point of view. In both cases, they met with stiff resistance from defenders of the status quo. And crucially, both splits involved profound strategic disagreements on how organized labor should respond to radically changed economic conditions, as well as structural divisions in labor’s ranks.

Those strategic disagreements and structural divisions have been obscured from view amid the flurry of media interest in labor’s travails that immediately preceded the disaffiliations. There was the Oedipal drama of Stern’s aggressive challenge to his erstwhile mentor, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whom Stern had succeeded in the SEIU presidency a decade ago. And many observers were riveted by the rancorous public dispute over how much union money should be devoted to politics and how much to organizing. These issues, however, were not at the heart of the split. The Sweeney–Stern conflict was as much a consequence as a cause of labor’s civil war, and the spat over spending—ultimately a matter of emphasis, not an insurmountable dichotomy— could have been easily resolved if other difficulties had not been in the way. To understand the schism, one needs to look back to an earlier phase, when the SEIU first launched its critique of the AFL-CIO. The rift began with a set of strategic proposals rooted in an analysis of labor’s crisis published in these pages in 2003 by Stephen Lerner, who heads the SEIU’s Building Service Division. Stern is the SEIU leader most associated with these ideas in the public arena, but Lerner was their intellectual author.

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A Response to “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse”

By Adolph Reed

Stephen Steinberg makes an important point that absolutely open immigration is a ruling class policy—no matter how emotionally appealing the “no borders” slogan is to some progressives. In principle, regulating immigration is no different from regulating workplace conditions, wage and hour rates, building codes, interstate commerce or international trade, prohibiting racial or gender discrimination, levying taxes, or any of the many other areas of life that government regulates. Borders mark jurisdictions of authority. Regulating how they are crossed is part and parcel of governing what goes on within them. It is not intrinsically unreasonable or chauvinistic to assume that borders, and, by extension, immigration, should be regulated. The issue for social justice is how, not whether, it is regulated.

Having said that, while I understand Steinberg’s concern about the impact of immigration on black Americans, I suspect that engaging the issue solely from that perspective may fundamentally miscast the process and its impacts, and lead to a political dead end. Part of the problem lies in the difficulty in determining what that actual impact is. To some extent this is, as he suggests, because of the incompleteness of aggregate data, the limits of indirect measures of racial labor force dynamics, and conceptual disagreements about how to define and interpret them. Difficulties of this sort tend to drive debate toward secondary arguments about how to interpret.

However, there’s another significant difficulty surrounding the question of immigration’s impact on black Americans, that may underlie some of the methodological and interpretive debate. It begs a further question: Which black Americans?

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A Response to “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse”

By Maria Elena Durazo and David Koff

Stephen Steinberg ends his article with a small dose of hope and a larger measure of pessimism. His pessimism springs from the “danger” that, as they “become American,” new immigrants will dissociate themselves from African Americans and, by implication, fall or perhaps even dive into the strong currents of racism and prejudice that sweep through American history. To the extent new immigrants choose this course, Steinberg implies, their interests will be at odds with those of African Americans.

But this is too narrow a framing of the question. What Steinberg sees only as an issue for new immigrants is really an issue for us all, whether immigrant or native-born— namely, how do we “become American” in the progressive tradition embodied in the civil rights movement, or, for that matter, in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence? What does it take to combat the atomizing influences of the corporate-controlled media and the educational system, to name but two critical determinants of how any of us “become American,” and fight collectively for justice, equality, good jobs, affordable housing and health care, and other rights to which all men and women are entitled?

Our experience in the contemporary labor movement provides some salutary examples. Here we are seeing immigrant workers honoring and being inspired by the civil rights struggles and sacrifices of African Americans; actions for immigration reform that unite civil rights and immigrant rights organizations; programs to increase the hiring of African Americans in the hospitality industry that are driven by immigrant-led union negotiating committees; and campaigns where African American and other native-born workers take risks and make demands on behalf of their immigrant co-workers.

In fact, the union movement is increasingly the school in which immigrant workers, as well as their native-born comrades, become American in the best traditions of class and racial solidarity. To the extent this is overlooked, as it essentially is in Steinberg’s article, it is understandable that pessimism will prevail.

Here, then, are three case studies of what is possible when conscious organization combines with real struggle.

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A Response to “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse”

By Gary Gerstle

I write this response to Stephen Steinberg as I witness how the United States abandoned the black and poor of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The attitudes that made the racial components of this disaster possible are deeply ingrained in our history: the conviction that African American life is cheaper and more expendable than that of white Americans; the belief that it is best to lock up the black poor either in prisons or in inner cities, where they can be ignored; the myth that when blacks are in charge, only anarchy and violence can result. Katrina has revealed that almost one hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and despite two ambitious Reconstructions (1863-1877; 1954-1980), we are still struggling to eliminate racism as a fundamental fact of American life. Even those of us who have studied the history of race in the United States have been shocked by what happened—or rather what did not happen—in New Orleans.

Periods of racism ebb and flow, and the years from the mid-1990s through the first years of the new century brought some progress in black-white relations. The Clinton era witnessed rising employment rates for African Americans, the growth of an African American middle class, the improving safety of black neighborhoods, and a determination among Democrats to substitute racial comity for the urban racial violence and disorder that Reaganism had bequeathed to America (and that had manifested itself in, among other events, Howard Beach, Crown Heights, the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, the beating of Rodney King, and the LA riots). Then September 11 became an occasion for white and black America to widen their common ground, in order to fight common enemies abroad and their alleged Muslim and Arab allies in the United States. And, finally, some groups of Republicans abandoned the denigration of blacks and other minorities that had been so prominent a feature in the Pat Buchanan GOP of a decade earlier. Despite these developments, however, major problems of racial division and discrimination have persisted; some have worsened, notably the imprisonment rate of young black men and the suffering among poor blacks caused by the assault on welfare. Stephen Steinberg’s determination to remind us of these problems is important and timely.

Steinberg has erred, however, in concentrating his fury about racism so single-mindedly on immigration and immigrants

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A Response to “Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse”

By Peter Kwong

“Immigration, African Americans, and Race Discourse” challenges readers to think about immigration from the African American point of view. The main thrust of Professor Steinberg’s argument is that today’s new immigrants (the majority of whom, it should be noted, are colored) have gotten ahead on the backs of African Americans—just as the European immigrants had so often done—by resorting to racial tactics. The author maintains that new immigrants have taken job opportunities away from African Americans, aborting the promising economic advances African Americans otherwise would have made due to the Civil Rights Movement. He thus pits the interests of new immigrants against those of African Americans.

Professor Steinberg’s sweeping indictment twists what is essentially a class issue into one of race. It should be noted that since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act more than 20 million immigrants of all classes have arrived from all parts of the world based on immigration preferences—either to unite with their relatives in the United States or as skilled professionals needed by the American economy. Others have come “unlawfully,” in response to American demand for a cheap and vulnerable workforce.

The truth is that neither “African Americans” nor “immigrants”—not even “white Americans”—determine who gets what jobs. Employers do! Given a choice, they hire immigrants who are expected to be more tolerant of lower labor standards, less protected by American laws, and, most of all, yet to be organized. Asian, Hispanic, and Eastern European immigrants, who find employment in service, garment, agricultural, and declining industries work long hours. They are paid below the minimum wage and receive no benefits or labor protection. Domestic work and child labor have become common, so too, the withholding of wages. Such jobs are hardly what African Americans have fought for.

Has the influx of immigrants had a negative impact on the African American working class? Of course! That’s exactly what the employers want: the creation of a surplus labor supply to keep labor costs down.

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A Rejoinder from Stephen Steinberg

Part of the reason that racism is so difficult to combat is that people deny the obvious. Racists do so, well, for obvious reasons. Whites in general are loath to confront racism because it calls into question their faith in American democracy and the goodness of the American people. Blacks, too, often prefer to look the other way because they feel diminished or tainted by race talk, and because, especially these days, they are made to feel that they must shed the image of “victim.”

Evasion and denial run across the political spectrum as well. Conservatives engage in denial because acknowledging racism leads to remedial social policies to which they are ideologically opposed. Liberals engage in denial because race talk stokes their guilt, and challenges their sanctimonious claims of racial innocence. And as we see here, progressives have their own reasons for engaging in denial. The responses to my article abound in evasion, distortion, and even name-calling. Plus a dose of realpolitik. This is regrettable. The editors of New Labor Forum had the spine to publish an article that they knew would provoke controversy, because they believe that progressives need to address the thorny issues I raised. I expected dissent, but I also hoped for a constructive dialogue. For the most part, however, my critics have deftly sidestepped and misrepresented the arguments that I put forward in my paper. Still, it is well and good that we are having this exchange, and the readers of New Labor Forum can sort it all out for themselves.

Let me respond to each of my critics. more...

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Changing the Menu

By Rinku Sen

Several weeks into his job carrying food at Cité restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Leonel Baizan had an accident. He’d already had conflict with the executive chef, a screamer whose volatile behavior made a tough job dangerous. Baizan hated hearing him call the workers “f------- wetbacks.” That night, while taking food out on a guéridon, a three-shelf cart with wheels, Baizan slipped. Instinctively, he grabbed the guéridon, toppling it. The chef’s only response as Baizan lay prone: “Somebody save the food!”

From that moment, Baizan dreamt of leaving the kitchen. That would mean getting promoted to back waiter, who takes the dessert orders, then front waiter, who handles the rest. He had immigrated to New York illegally at age seven and gotten his green card as a teenager. His English was perfectly serviceable and he even had experience waiting tables. But Cité featured high-end steak and seafood and attracted a clientele that likes to see its stock exchange company initials tastefully inscribed at the bottom of each check. All the waiters were white and tall. All the kitchen workers, like 5’4” Baizan, were brown and short.

The racialized division of labor in high-end restaurants is so common that most diners never notice it. Of the 165,000 restaurant workers in New York City, two-thirds are immigrants; they comprise the overwhelming majority of low-wage kitchen workers. Those who become servers encounter verbal abuse and racist favoritism. Baizan became the first permanent Mexican front waiter in Cité’s 15-year history, only to fight for decent schedules and table assignments, the measuring stick of a waiter’s earning ability.

Waiters of color expose race discrimination in an industry where it is so ubiquitous as to seem unchangeable. The burden of proof for discrimination cases— requiring evidence that it was intentional and institutionalized—is much higher than for wage and hour complaints. When waiters and kitchen staff organize together, however, as they did in Cité, the full range of the industry’s racial hierarchy comes to light.

Community-based workers centers are now forging this unity. In New York City and San Francisco, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-N.Y.) and Young Workers United have taken up race issues directly. Workers centers have more flexibility than unions, which are subject to a host of regulations. For example, unless a union can get an employer’s recognition, it calls for an election that is often subject to employer manipulation and intimidation. An employer can, with increasing ease, campaign to decertify a union. Unions can collect dues automatically from members' paychecks, but some states have tried to limit political use of that money.

Workers centers, by contrast, actively raise every dime, and are far smaller than unions. Their agreements with employers are not necessarily legally binding. But without many of the controls that dog unions, they are free to use every tactic from street action to media activism to draw attention to restaurant racism. Soon enough, ROC-N.Y. would deploy its arsenal on behalf of Leonel Baizan.

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CyberUnionism: Getting Labor Online

By Art Shostak

In the early 1970’s the AFL-CIO and its international unions were quick to adopt computer technology to help manage records of dues and membership. Since then, however, leaders have remained leery of going beyond prosaic computer uses. Today, however, a small and growing number of far-sighted locals are busy trying out promising web-based services for current and prospective members, and are developing dynamic local union websites that may yet show labor the importance of keeping up with the digital age.

The labor movement is now coming to recognize that the use of the Internet, when in combination with personal tools such as home visits and shop floor chats, can be an effective tool in both day-to-day decision making and meeting the long term goals of organizing. Accordingly, both the AFL-CIO and the Coalition for Change, along with many of their national unions and locals, are busy upgrading their websites’ value for their members. Enthusiasts in the labor movement believe that progress in this area can help "unionize" younger members, for whom computer use is second nature, while helping older members catch up. Among other advantages, they see the opportunity that interactivity offers for improved contact between officers and members, the 24/7 circulation of labor news, the availability of non-labor resources for members, and, overall, the branding of organized labor as a “smart” high-tech user, a player to reckon with in the Information Age.

While many locals are eager to at least get off the starting line, the more computer-savvy locals are constantly seeking ways to significantly upgrade their use of computer power. The twelve field-tested steps sketched below should be useful to both types of users. These are drawn from the experience of pacesetting locals, the level at which one finds the most experimental work nowadays in labor, and will of course need to be adapted to each local’s needs, as one size never fits all.

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The Yummy Pizza Curriculum: Introducing Class into the Classroom

By Bill Morgan

Most social studies lessons in public schools have very little to do with the lives of the children who attend them, who are overwhelmingly from working families. Instead, kids are taught the Great White Man theory of history, and presented with a series of myths and abstractions that mislead, alienate, and bore them.

History, presented this way, ignores among other things the collective movements that have gained whatever rights workers have achieved, and turns the kids into spectators rather than participants. During my own social studies lessons, I focus on social justice movements—especially the labor movement. In the classroom lesson I describe here, we studied labor relations by forming a pizza company.

This lesson, and others like it, are attempts not only to engage children's interest, but to demonstrate the possibilities of united action in everyday life.

That year, I was teaching a grade 3 to 5 Spanish bilingual class in the Mission District of San Francisco—a working class, low-income part of the city. Sometimes my lessons about working people were successful, and sometimes they were not. They were mostly “direct teaching” lessons that relied on lectures and texts. This time, as part of a unit about César Chavez and the United Farmworkers, I decided to try a simulation, the type of lesson that puts the kids in a situation instead of just talking about it. I was familiar with the power inherent in such lessons. For example, in the prisoner-guard simulations at Stanford University, the participants took their roles too seriously and actually thought of themselves as the prison guards they were supposed to simulate. In that case, administrators of the “simulation” had allowed it to go on far too long. For science, I suppose.

But I had also used simulation to good effect in my classroom. In one instance, I asked kids to take up different points of view in a discussion of Native American rights to their land. Kids in my class had also put themselves in the place of judges in deciding cases on other important social issues. In fact, less formal simulations happen any time you say, “Pretend you’re a ____” or, “How do you think that feels when you say that to somebody?” What we’re asking in such cases is that children see things, for just a moment, from someone else’s point of view. I thought a simulation might let kids learn directly something about labor-management relations in the workplace.

Our Pizza Business

As a resource, I relied heavily on Phyllis Chiu’s book, Yummy Pizza. Subtitled “A Labor Studies Unit for Elementary Grades,” it describes how one can organize a company to prepare and sell small pizza cookies made from Bisquick. From the start, my principal was cooperative, even encouraging, and I had an excellent student teacher who took her role as “organizer” seriously.

We had a contest to choose a name. The kids chose Pizza Planet. We started business sometime in January with myself as owner and the kids as workers. I put in $10 to start the company and buy supplies: pizza sauce, Bisquick, cheese graters and cheese, pepperoni, aluminum foil, and cookie sheets. Following the curriculum, I hired workers. They had to fill out job applications for the ten or so different positions (cheese grater, sauce spreader, inspector, etc.), be interviewed, and cite relevant experience (helping parents cook at home, shopping, etc.). I offered a salary of 25 cents for a one-hour shift.

We set up the assembly line—two teams of ten students each, and various support staff including publicity people, order takers, and record keepers. (Of course, I emphasized the importance of hand washing and a serious attitude toward work.) We sent students around the school to take orders. The first day, we made 29 pizzas and sold them for 25 cents each at lunch. I was mildly surprised—I was actually able to meet my payroll. But what happened in the next few days was nothing short of incredible. Word spread, and orders poured in. Every kid in the school, it seemed, wanted “one of them pizza things.” Each day, we sold out in a few minutes and had to turn away many disappointed customers. We accordingly increased production.

In our second week (selling on Tuesdays and Thursdays), we sold 66 pizzas. Within three weeks, we were selling over 200 pizzas per week. Company assets, after overhead and payroll, climbed to more than $100.

Our classroom academics were transformed. I tried using our company accounts (“found numbers” in teacher talk) in our math lessons, and suddenly everyone was engaged, listening, commenting, correcting, and paying attention as never before. This was, after all, not just any money, but money they themselves had earned by their own work and effort. Math time became Accounting Time, and the kids added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, and made graphs with a vengeance, checking and double-checking as we went. They could now see a good reason to do their math.

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Naming the Enemies

Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market

By Immanuel Ness

Temple University Press, 2005
Reviewed by Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval

The U.S. labor movement is in deep trouble. There are many “signs” that its “end of days” may be near. The AFL-CIO split into two rival factions this summer. The overall unionization rate remains extremely low. Jobs—both blue-collar and white-collar jobs—continue moving overseas. Over two million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United States since 2001. Corporate policies, such as outsourcing, subcontracting, hiring permanent replacement workers, and deploying union busting firms have also undercut organized labor. Most unions, given their bureaucratic organizational practices and long history of racial exclusion, have also not been very successful organizing new immigrant workers from Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

This latter topic is the subject of Immanuel Ness’ fine new book. Ness’ work examines this key question (p. 2): why are today’s immigrants “more likely to organize and protest than their native-born counterparts?” Some scholars and activists might contend that this query is counterintuitive because most immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, fear organizing based on the fact that they could be fired and deported for organizing. Despite this well-founded concern, various studies have shown that many immigrant workers, especially within the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, have embraced unionization. Ness suggests that living and working alongside people from the same ethnic group (called “collective social isolation”), working for small businesses, and having limited job opportunities explain greater militancy among immigrant workers. Unions have generally ignored this growing trend. Ness thus “names the enemy”—organized labor itself.

This is a controversial and some would say dubious claim, but the book’s findings illustrate it has some merit. Ness comparatively examined three immigrant worker campaigns (in the greengrocery, supermarket delivery, and black-car industries) in New York City in the 1990s and early 2000s for this study.

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Under Construction

Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits: A Century of Building Trades History
By Grace Palladino
Reviewed by Max Fraser

In light of the declining visibility of skilled labor in mainstream American culture, it is worthwhile to look back at what skill has meant for working people and their unions in a bygone era of union strength. As the title would suggest, Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits:

A Century of Building Trades History—a thoroughly researched and comprehensive

monograph by Grace Palladino, currently the codirector of the Samuel Gompers Papers at the University of Maryland—focuses on the pivotal role played by skill in the emergence of the building trades as one of the most powerful and controversial segments of the labor movement in the twentieth century.

Palladino, an accomplished labor historian who has written previously on the IBEW and Pennsylvania coal miners, begins at the end, in the aftermath of September 11, with a discussion of the momentary praise heaped on the emergency relief and clean-up workers at the World Trade Center, many of whom hailed from New York City construction unions. The description of the “impromptu volunteer army of workers” in the Washington Post was in many ways reminiscent of the proletarian fiction of the 1930s—brimming with images of masculinity and machinery: “They come in carrying Skil saws and wrenches, spades and Halligan tools. They drive loaders, excavators, backhoes and bulldozers. They commit grand acts of improvisation and problem-solving” (p. 1). Palladino points out, however, that such laudatory descriptions are rare for an industry that has a long history of crippling jurisdictional squabbles, and racially and sexually exclusionary hiring practices that have been far more influential in molding the public’s perception of the building trades. “In fact,” Palladino argues, “ever since the building trades unions first organized in the nineteenth century, opponents have portrayed their leaders as corrupt and their members as concerned with nothing greater than their own economic advancement” (p. 3).

Few factions of the American labor movement have been as fiercely and continuously defensive of the prerogatives of their skill as have the building trades. Therein lies the dilemma at the heart of Skilled Hands: is skill one of the few humanizing aspects of an otherwise dehumanizing work world, offering the laborer prestige at the workplace and a bargaining chip at the negotiating table? Or is it a means by which the most conservative elements of the organized labor movement can keep their pie divided into as few pieces as possible, by preventing others—often nonwhites and women—from gaining access to the same set of skills which have granted them a modicum of security and material well-being?

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Crash: Film Noir in Postmodern LA

By Wallace Katz


Directed by Paul Haggis

Crash is a movie about racial divisions and conflict in Los Angeles, a metropolis that now has a larger and more diverse minority-majority population than any city in the country, including New York. Asians, native and immigrant blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, Latinos from the Caribbean, Latin and Central America and especially Mexico, as well as newly arrived white immigrants, particularly Russians and Iranians, now comprise LA’s demographic majority. Crash’s ostensible or initial message is that these minority groups cohabit but do not cooperate; indeed, they dislike and fear one another as much or more as they dislike and fear white Angelenos.

Everybody in the film, one way or another, is or turns out to be a racist, which makes for a disturbing movie. Don Cheadle plays a conscientious and decent black police detective who nonetheless describes and thereby offends his Latina lover (and police partner) as Mexican, when she is in fact El Salvadoran and Puerto Rican. Matt Dillon plays a white cop who stops an upper-middle-class black couple, knowing full well that the van they are driving is not the one reported stolen. Dillon’s character then creates a situation in which he can humiliate the man—a TV director in Hollywood—and grope the woman. The cop justifies his racist behavior in this instance by the fact that he caught husband and wife having sex in public in their big black van. Two young black men are amateur car thieves who work for a chop shop run by a Russian immigrant. One of them is constantly mouthing prejudice against whites, even as he fears them, and it is probably out of racial hatred and fear alike that, on the spur of the moment, he and his pal highjack the SUV of a white couple in a white neighborhood, Westwood, a venue usually off-limits to angry lower-class black youths. The white couple is not harmed, but the woman (Sandra Bullock) and her spouse, coincidentally the District Attorney of Los Angeles (Brendan Fraser), are stunned. The woman is portrayed as nasty, imperious, self-pitying (it is obvious that her husband, the DA, is cheating on her with his gorgeous young black aide) and a racist to boot. When, after the car theft, a Latino locksmith shows up to replace her house locks, she tells her DA spouse—the locksmith is within hearing distance—that it is another immigrant and olive-skinned gangster who will now have duplicates of her keys to distribute to his “homies.” The DA is also a racist, but in a very special way that shows him as a political player, a man of power who will do or say anything to get ahead, but with little regard for the public good or for trivialities like justice or truth. What bothers him about his car being hijacked by two black youths with guns is that he needs black votes and black support for his political career and he fears that if he makes a big deal of the robbery he will seem like a law-and-order and anti-black politician. What is more, in the face of considerable contrary evidence, he wants to make an example of a white cop who has killed a black cop in the line of duty, just so he can make points with blacks. Lastly, there is an Irani shopkeeper who is both the object of racism and a murderous racist himself. When he goes to buy a gun to protect his shop against theft, the gun store proprietor insults him by calling him Osama. Later in the film, this same Irani shopkeeper is robbed because he fails to fix his back door. When his insurance company refuses reimbursement for the robbery because of the broken door, the Irani blames everything on a Latino locksmith who installed a new lock but also advised that the door be replaced. The Irani goes after the Latino locksmith (the same one who came to fix the locks on the DA’s house) with gun in hand and intent to kill.

Paul Haggis, the director, has clearly laid out a complicated story involving many characters of diverse and divided races. This is a good start, but, happily, Crash gets better. It is a great film because it is about many things equally as important as race—for example, socioeconomic class and status. The DA’s wife is not so much a racist as a classist; she despises herself and uses her high position in society to project her anger and self-hatred on immigrant servants—maids, locksmiths, etc. In Crash, class distinctions can be subtle and intra-racial as well as interracial: after a scene in which the upscale TV director saves the life of one of the car thieves, he tells the young hood: “You embarrass me”; and, more important for the kid’s self-understanding and later transformation— “you embarrass yourself.”

Crash is also about the city of Los Angeles itself, especially the spatial geography of this sprawling polycentric metropolis. Contrary to what many people who have never been there think, Los Angeles is not a suburban or exurban city or an aggregation of so-called “edge cities.” It is about the extension of the urban in all directions on an apparently never-ending basis.

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