A dramatic increase in national consumer debt began in the mid-1980s and currently stands at 16.5 trillion dollars, making it a key feature of capitalism in the 21st century. Average household debt today in the U.S. – mortgages, car loans, student, medical, and credit card debt – now exceeds $96,000 and is therefore greater than the median household income. Andrew Ross discusses debt as a crucial labor and social justice issue and describes the groundbreaking work of the Debt Collective.
Solidarity against the odds is what workers managed to achieve at the JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Staten Island and at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks in Buffalo, New York. In this episode, School of Labor and Urban Studies Distinguished Lecturer Heather McGhee gets lead organizers Chris Smalls and Michelle Eisen to recount each of their riveting stories. In captivating detail, they tell a 21st century tale of corporate union resistance, as well as a chronicle of the worker determination and ingenuity that found a way to overcome that resistance.
The fact that current inflation rates are higher than they have been in decades weighs not only on households and businesses, but has also shifted the political landscape. As we head into the 2022 midterms and then the 2024 Presidential elections, understanding the deeper causes of and available remedies to inflation is of paramount importance. In this episode, Samir Sonti and JW Mason offer their insights on questions posed by inflation: If strong demand has contributed to rising prices, what role have constraints on the supply side played? Why have interest rate hikes become the textbook response inflation? What other remedies should be on the table?
Sean Sweeney, Director of SLU’s Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, speaks with journalist Laura Flanders about continued botched efforts by countries around the globe to meet the targets set forth in 2015 Paris Agreement. Pointing to worldwide policies that depend upon private investment, he describes why the profit motive has failed to deliver renewable energy at scale, affordably, or with the urgency demanded by the climate crisis. Much more promising, he suggests, is the Global Public Goods approach increasingly advanced by international unions and their allies.
This episode offers a discussion of Andrew Ross’ recent book, Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing. Ross shares his firsthand account of the burgeoning and largely overlooked housing emergency in our nation’s suburban and rural hinterlands. Reporting from Florida’s Osceola County, he describes families and people of all ages who cram themselves into dilapidated motels or literally pitch their tents in the woods. Adding to these dire circumstances, the people Ross comes to know find themselves also reckoning with psychological trauma, poverty, and nihilism. This compelling interview also examines the causes of the housing catastrophe and suggests what it will take to end it.
Journalist Laura Flanders speaks with Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta, the authors of The Future We Need, Organizing for a Better Democracy in the 21st Century. The book and this conversation explore the great democratizing power of collective bargaining, with potential applications even beyond the workplace in the yet mostly untried realms of housing, public safety, education, healthcare, and environmental justice, to name just a few. In this moment of national democratic peril and the upsurge in worker organizing, these bold new ideas hold both special urgency and possibility.
Commentators far and wide have been sounding the alarm for American democracy. The question of who can vote and who ends up voting is central to this democratic crisis. In a landscape of defensive battles to protect the right to vote and herculean efforts to turn out the vote, comes a new book: 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. Written by Miles Rapoport and E.J. Dionne, the book makes an assertive argument that voting should be mandatory in the U.S., as it already is in 26 countries around the world. With SLU’s Heather McGhee, author Miles Rapoport discusses the case for requisite voting and its likely implications.
In 2021 the pension assets of U.S. workers stood at 35 trillion dollars and amounted to fully 62 percent of all global pension assets. For almost half a century, this money has fueled the growth of the asset management sector, the likes of BlackRock, Vanguard, and Fidelity Investments to name only a few. New Labor Forum author Benjamin Braun casts a critical eye on the investment practices of collectively bargained Taft-Hartley pension funds which have contributed so significantly to the rise of a bloated financial sector. He also discusses efforts to redirect labor’s capital to the benefit of workers and to investment in public goods projects, such as infrastructure and renewable energy.
In this episode, we turn to India’s two-millennia-old caste system that has often been compared to our own structures of racial oppression. A recent book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, provides a sort of memoir of caste viewed through the experiences author Sujatha Gidla’s Dalit family. Speaking with New Labor Forum Editor-at-Large Kafui Attoh, Gidla says she drew motivation and courage to write this personal account by witnessing individual and collective acts of resistance of African Americans. A resident of the U.S. since age 26, Gidla completed the writing of the book while working as a New York City train conductor and member of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union.
Nearly alone among industrialized nations, the U.S. leaves the elderly, the infirm, and their loved ones to fend for themselves in the complex tangle of what passes for a system of elder and long-term care. Our speakers describe the human toll of this for-profit system that is simultaneously unaffordable for those who need care and unsustainable for the low-wage workers who provide it. As social justice visionaries, our speakers also outline bold policy solutions currently being advanced by coalitions that are reimagining elder and long-term care.
Progressive commentators in the U.S. have long debated the primacy of race vs. class in our political and economic life, and therefore its role in organizing strategy. McGhee sees this as a false debate. The stories she tells illustrate the concrete ways in which racism and our deep economic divide go hand in hand. She argues that, at every turn, racism undermines class solidarity and makes it possible in the richest country on earth for so many people lack a living wage, a pension, access to quality healthcare, childcare, and a sustainable environment.
Less than a month into the new mayoralty in the City of New York, we assembled a panel of leading journalists to delineate Eric Adams’s vision for the city, especially as it pertains to working people. Only the second black mayor in the city’s history, Adams was also the son of a housekeeper, a graduate of the public schools, and for two decades the member of a municipal union. Our host, historian and emeritus faculty member Josh Freeman, asked the assembled reporters whether these facts are likely to impact the administration’s approach to municipal labor relations, and more broadly, to governing one of the most deeply unequal cities in the nation.
The poetry of Gregory Pardlo is some of the finest, engaged work written in the U.S. today. He brings us the striking air traffic controller, permanently replaced, selling off everything but his house, his young son outside that house speaking to snowflakes. He conjures up the glory and the grace of girls jumping Double Dutch. And he tells of an impoverished old man who asks to hold the hand of a recovering alcoholic so that together they might toss a coin into a fountain and wish for something else. And Pardlo’s work helps us imagine what that something else might be.
This episode draws on New Labor Forum’s cutting-edge Books and the Arts section edited by Samir Sonti. Here, the book in question is Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism, by Heather Berg. Reviewer Whitney Strub discusses with Berg her insights into work and workers in the 12 billion-dollar porn industry. Workers laboring and organizing in this industry, Berg notes, have largely been dismissed and even scorned by organized labor and the Marxist Left. I trust our listeners will find what Berg says revealing about the priorities and predispositions of porn workers, as well as failures of labor and the left to meet the challenges of 21st century capitalism.
Close attention to the qualities of working-class culture is in short supply in this era of ubiquitous distain for the working-class. This measure of respect is one of the chief contributions of Jack Metzgar’s new book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society. In this episode, Metzgar discusses with New Labor Forum Consulting Editor Joshua Freeman what he views as the distinct values of working-class vs. middle-class cultures. Anyone committed to a resurgent working-class and concerned about the decades-long alienation of segments of the working-class from progressive politics will find Metzgar’s observations and arguments of great interest.
Throughout much of U.S. history, anti-trust movements – joined by farmers, laborers, abolitionists, and small businesspeople – were a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Then, in the late 1970s, anti-monopoly fervor began to subside and remained dormant for the next 40 years. The tides have now begun to change, with the appointment of leading anti-trust experts to the Biden administration, and a growing number of labor and grassroots organizers once again taking aim at monopoly power. This history and the present urgency of anti-trust organizing is the subject of episode 22 of Reinventing Solidarity.
This episode airs as COP26, the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, gets underway in Glasgow, Scotland. Our guest, Roz Foyer, General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, notes that this year’s Conference takes place during a time of growing awareness of market-driven forces’ failure to deliver the scale of energy transition that scientists agree is necessary to sustain life on this planet. She and Sean Sweeney also observe that people across the world have witnessed the necessity of large-scale government action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Both realities have given rise to worldwide calls for a similar, Global Public Goods approach to climate change. Roz suggests the shape such an approach might take as she discusses on-the-ground challenges in Scotland regarding public transportation, retrofitting, and other sectors crucial to climate change.
Samir Sonti interviews Sandy Jacoby, author of Labor in the Age of Finance: Pensions, Politics, and Corporations from Deindustrialization to Dodd-Frank. Jacoby’s book and this conversation offer insights into some of the strategic choices organized labor has made since the 1990s. In response to the shift from industrial to finance capitalism and the steep decline in union density, unions have sought new forms of leverage within the economy. Jacoby observes that those strategies have tended to focus on legislative reform, in the case of Dodd Frank for example, and union pension shareholder activism. In both realms, Jacoby argues, organized labor’s tactics have had the unbidden effect of bolstering shareholder influence in corporate governance.
On September 17th, 2011, approximately a thousand people massed in lower Manhattan at the towering edifices of the “Vatican of capitalism.” This movement, known as Occupy Wall Street, called attention to the obscene inequality and devastation of 21st century capitalism on full display in the wake of the fiscal meltdown. Already by that October, in cities around the world, millions had occupied their own symbolic Wall Streets. Although the encampment in Zuccotti Park was relatively short lived, many have argued that this protest movement changed the language and perhaps the focus of our politics, making “the 99%” part of the lingua franca. On the tenth anniversary of Occupy, this episode offers an assessment of the movement’s long-term impact according to four Occupy activists.
In the first episode of the 2021-22 season, Paula Finn holds a conversation with Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce assessing the U.S. labor movement’s current strength as relates to union density, or the percentage of workers represented by unions. The basis for their discussion is Milkman’s and Luce’s recent State of the Unions Report, which compares national union density trends to those in New York State and New York City. This year’s study sheds important light on the impact of COVID-19 on employment rates, revealing some surprising, disparate effects of the pandemic nation-wide vs. in New York, on female vs. male workers, and on union members vs. non-union workers.
This episode features a debate regarding the role of race and class in efforts to advance a Social Democratic politics. It draws on a panel which was part of a day-long conference held in April 2021 considering Joshua B. Freeman’s landmark book, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II. Longtime social justice activist Deepak Bhargava and historian Touré Reed concur that race and class identity is “the axis on which the Social Democratic project will turn.” They part ways, however, on whether organizing that springs from and emphasizes racial oppression can propel a movement to achieve economic justice in the 21st century U.S.
Discussing three important articles from the spring 2021 issue, New Labor Forum columnist Sean Sweeney hosts a conversation with Sinead Mercier and Dominic Brown on the role of publicly owned energy in halting the climate crisis. Mercier offers as a model the Republic of Ireland’s creation in the 1920s of the fantastically successful state owned and operated Electricity Supply Board; Brown describes advancements made in post-Apartheid South Africa to dramatically expand public access to the state-owned energy system, presently curtailed by measures to privatize the country’s utility; and Sweeney asserts the importance of the AMLO government’s efforts to guard the sovereignty of publicly owned energy in Mexico, arguing that this lays a vital foundation for a transition to renewables.
New Labor Forum Books and Arts Editor Samir Sonti hosts a conversation with Gabriel Winant, author of the recent book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America. Examining the vast expansion of the health care sector of our economy over the past half-century, Winant traces its development to a combination of factors, including deindustrialization, union decline, an aging population, and a shredded social safety net. It is this historical process, Winant argues, that ushered in a burgeoning low-wage health care workforce disproportionately represented by women and people of color , who have become both essential and disposable, a contradiction made blatantly clear by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This episode shines a light on the political and intellectual contributions of Ben Fletcher, one of the most important, yet least well-known African American labor activists of the twentieth century. Peter Cole’s recently re-issued book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, goes a long way toward bringing Fletcher out of the shadows, enabling contemporary activists and scholars to learn from his work to build a militant, multi-racial union among Philadelphia dockworkers during the early 1900s. In his conversation with New Labor Forum Editor-at-Large, Kafui Attoh, Peter Cole paints a picture of Ben Fletcher, a man whose contributions he ranks with the likes of Fred Hampton and A. Philip Randolph.
Barely one week into the Biden Administration, CUNY faculty member and New Labor Forum Consulting Editor Joshua Freeman interviews Heidi Shierholz, Senior Economist and Director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute and Mark Levinson, Chief Economist at the Service Employees International Union. Their discussion examines the marked distinctions – in terms of cause, repercussions, and evolving policy responses – between the current economic crisis and previous fiscal crises.
In this latest episode, Professor Deepak Bhargava speaks to Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of the Advancement Project, and Dorian Warren, President of Community Change, about progressive priorities for the first 100 days of the Biden administration. They discuss top legislative priorities and movement organizing strategies necessary to achieve consequential legislation and executive action.
This episode brings poetry to the crucial task of reinventing solidarity. New Labor Forum Editor Paula Finn hosts a conversation with award winning poet Javier Zamora, who at nine years old left his home in El Salvador and made his way, as an unaccompanied minor, through Guatemala and Mexico and across the Sonoran Desert to reunite with his parents in California. In this interview, Zamora reflects on this experience and on the role of poetry in movements for social justice, and reads poems from his book Unaccompanied.
As the coronavirus surges across the U.S. during this holiday season, the biblical “no room in the inn” has become “no room in the hospital.” This is especially true in rural regions in the Midwest, South and Southwest, where hospital closings imperil whole communities. Today’s podcast explores one of the factors which has exacerbated this crisis: the speculation in health care networks by private equity firms. In his fall 2020 column for New Labor Forum and in this episode of Reinventing Solidarity, Max Fraser examines the profiteering by these firms that has contributed to the proliferation of “health care deserts.” He is joined in conversation by Samir Sonti, Books and Arts Editor for New Labor Forum and faculty member at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
From Durban, South Africa, New Labor Forum columnist Sean Sweeney interviews human rights and environmental leader Kumi Naidoo. In 2009, Naidoo became the first African head of Greenpeace, then went on to serve as Secretary General of Amnesty International, from 2018 to 2020. In his interview with Sweeney, Naidoo rebukes successive U.S. administrations for their failure to play a useful role in halting climate change. He also reproaches leaders in the global South who suggest they should be given a pass on environmental destruction as they seek to increase living standards and develop their economies.
This episode benefits from the exciting public programming we do at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Since the corona virus surged last spring, we’ve been hosting a series of virtual forums on the subject of Covid capitalism. These talks examine what the pandemic has come to reveal about contemporary capitalism, the chronic racial and economic inequality faced by millions of Americans, and the prospects for structural change. A conversation featuring Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal marked a high point in these discussions and forms the basis for today’s podcast. Jayapal discusses her trajectory from grassroots organizer to strategic organizing within the halls of Congress to create a moral economy and a democratic and humane society.
This episode airs on the eve of the 2020 elections, with nearly everything hanging in the balance – from our nation’s ability to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic to our already constricted democracy’s ability to survive the authoritarianism of the Trump Administration. On both questions: the need to strengthen our democracy and overcome the devastation of the coronavirus, labor unions have a major role to play.
Today so many of us live with deep anxiety about the peril of climate change and the fact that so little progress has been made to halt it. This podcast is both a reckoning with and an antidote to such despair. Sean Sweeney discusses with Saket Soni his work with Resilience Force. In Florida and New Orleans, Resilience Force has begun to create living-wage jobs for formerly low-wage, precarious workers, who carry out restoration and mitigation efforts in response to increasingly frequent and severe weather events. Soni lays out the promising, large-scale national implications of this initiative for the creation of a more sustainable, just economy.
Samir Sonti probes Leo Panitch about the character of the advanced capitalist economies through which the Covid-19 pandemic spread so rapidly. What has the pandemic revealed about the toll of neoliberalism on the poor and working-class, on migrants and people of color? And what about the organizations and parties that claim to protect them: namely organized labor, social democratic parties and our own Democratic Party? What signs are there that broad-based social struggle may be in the process of a revival in response to the grim realities that the pandemic has laid bare?
In this inaugural episode, David Unger and Kafui Attoh look squarely at the tragedy of police violence against people color, and at the unions that represent and negotiate contracts on behalf of the police. What role has organized labor played in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement? What role should it play? And what’s the rightful relationship of the labor movement to the police and their unions?