North American Labor History Conference looks at the new working class 

Life for the average working person couldn't be much more different from when the North American Labor History Conference, convening this week at Wayne State University, began back in 1978. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the wages of the typical worker have grown by a measly 10.2 percent since then, while average CEO compensation has ballooned by 937 percent. The gradually worsening situation of the American worker has been most acute for minorities, women, and those just entering the labor market, especially students. In fact, in 1978, a student who worked a minimum-wage summer job could afford to pay a year's full tuition at a four-year public university.

The new working class includes students, minorities, music, and much more at the North American Labor History Conference

Francis Shor, Wayne State professor and head organizer of this year's conference, agrees. He tells us, "Nobody would have imagined, in 1978, when the conference began, that the state of Michigan would have been a right-to-work state. These kinds of attacks on public workers are part of a larger right-wing agenda to roll back all the advances made by people of color and women since the 1960s. The attacks on public sector unions are not just an attempt to somehow save money for the state. They're really part of a larger political agenda that's not very subtly concealed."

Bad as things are during our "jobless recovery," they present an excellent occasion for this kind of gathering, which brings together scholars from all over North America to discuss labor history, yes, but increasingly labor right now, and all over the world, and among all sorts of workers. Forget what you think you know about the labor movement, about hardhats and lunchpails, bearded 19th-century white dudes and factory floors. The labor movement is just like everything else, increasingly diverse, joining forces with other social struggles for social equality, LGBT rights, and respect and dignity for minorities and young people.

Shor says, "I think it's reflective of where we're at in understanding the need to link up the labor movement with these other struggles."

He says that's why many of the speakers at this year's conference acknowledge the important role those struggles have played in the lives of working people. Shor says, "All of us who work in this area realize that there's a much more expansive way of discussing labor as a social movement and understanding it as a larger part of people's lives than merely as a trade union itself." Short points to a roster of young scholars who've published books that reflect those changes. Among the books up for author discussion will be Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein's work on home health care workers, Caring for America; Miriam Frank's Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America; Kim Nielsen's A Disability History of the United States, and whiteness scholar David Roediger's The Production of Difference. Also up for discussion will be Kathi Weeks's The Problem With Work, a radical critique of work itself in Western society.

Just as the economy has expanded over the last 30 years into globalism, the discussion of working people's struggles will encompass the world as well. One keynote speaker, Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, is a globetrotting crusader against sweatshops who has agitated against a who's who of multinational corporations, including Walmart, Nike, Disney, Gap, Alcoa, Victoria's Secret, Kmart, and Target, to name a few.

Shor says, "He is probably among the best-known advocates for justice in the global sweatshops ever since the 1990s, when he brought to light some of the travesties about Kathie Lee Gifford and with her operation. He has gone to all of these developing countries highlighting the awful conditions prevalent there, and trying to promote some kinds of social compacts to protect workers under these conditions. U.S. corporations have been very reluctant to sign on to these proposals that grant workers rights and guarantee against sweatshop conditions."

Also, for a "history" conference, much of the stuff up for discussion will be recent, even contemporary, such as this summer's campaigns to raise the minimum wage and provide a living wage for fast food workers. Shor says those topics are more important than ever, adding that there is "more understanding from more traditional labor unions, like the SEIU, that organizing fast food workers is really important, and establishing the minimum wage, which has been successful in cities such as Seattle, is another element of pushing for a progressive agenda."

Talk about fast food workers deserving a living wage these days, and you'll hear a lot of sky-is-falling rhetoric about workers being thrown out of jobs and businesses being forced to close. Shor says there's too much evidence to the contrary to avoid taking steps that are "absolutely essential to helping people who are trying to survive."

"Even before Seattle enacted its $15 minimum wage," Shor says, "San Francisco had established a health care plan for part-time workers that raised certain taxes. In no way did it drive out businesses from San Francisco. Or, locally, look at Moo Cluck Moo. They're paying their employees a living wage, and they just expanded. While it's not necessarily a template for every small business, it does prove that one can sustain and grow a business and still have workers who are getting a decent wage, while putting out a project that's environmentally sustainable too."

What's more, given today's scarcity of work due to such factors as offshoring and automation, labor's big tent includes not just marginalized workers, but people who can't find traditional jobs anymore. Shor points to increasingly marginalized workers suffering due to the "growth in part-time labor in general, people working for temp agencies and, in academia, part-time contingent labor. There's a need to reach out across these lines between people working full-time, part-time, contingent. Working people's job security has been terribly eroded by an effort to destroy the trade union movement and privatize public services."

It's exciting stuff, if a little on the wonky side. But the cultural programming will play an important role. Events will include screenings of films, such as the 1971 Italian film The Working Class Goes to Heaven, and a new documentary about the Ludlow massacre, in which striking miners were shot down in Colorado 101 years ago. There will be discussions of Detroit music and its connection to labor, featuring Marsha Music and MT alum Carleton Gholz, a discussion of labor songs and Appalachian culture, and another on the music of John Handcox, led by Mike Honey, author of a new book on Handcox called Sharecropper's Troubador.

All in all, Shor calls it "a pretty full conference with a lot of variety and an effort to expand the boundaries, thinking beyond the silo of labor history and opening up to real struggles that are going on."

So why should working folks, especially younger folks, make time to attend?

"Because this is the world they're going to be immersed in," Shor says. "Unless they can make it as a small entrepreneur, and that's not always that easy, they'll have to sell their labor to somebody, and they're going to have to hope that whoever purchases their labor is going to treat them well. But they're not going to treat them well unless they're organized. It's as simple as that. Employers are concerned about the bottom line, and labor costs are things they often try to keep as low as possible. Even if they pay slightly better, there's still a problem of how much job security you have, what kind of healthcare coverage you have, whether you have a pension. All these issues that labor began to discuss 100 years ago are still prevalent. And young people aren't going to escape having to deal with them."

The 36th Annual North American Labor History Conference takes place Oct. 16-18, at Wayne State University. All sessions are free and open to the public except luncheon with Charles Kernaghan. For details, schedules, and registration, see nalhc.wayne.edu.

More by Michael Jackman

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