Labor pains and gains

If you think that things are getting tougher for working people, well, you won't hear any arguments from those of us here at the Hits.

The decline of America's middle class has been pretty well documented. 

But, as history tells us, the struggle is nothing new. Which is why we want to call your attention to the North American Labor History Conference being held at Wayne State University Oct. 18-20.

Over the course of those three days, there will be all sorts of panels dealing with topics as far-flung as "Detroit Workers From the '20s to the '70s"and "Labor and Politics in the Caribbean."

What binds it all together is the theme of this year's event: "Insurgency & Resistance."

As noted on Wayne State's website: 

"Throughout history, workers have engaged in insurgency and resistance from factories to fields, from plantations to plants, from mines to mills, and in cities and in the countryside. Power and authority have been contested on a variety of terrains, both inside and outside of traditional labor structures. More recently, conflicts have erupted in Latin America, the Arab world, southern Europe, China, and across North America. This interdisciplinary conference will explore a broad range of themes under the topic of 'insurgency and resistance' through keynote addresses, book talks, panels, roundtables and other events."

The great thing (aside from the fact that this event is being held at all) is that all of the presentations and roundtable discussions are free and open to the public. There's only a registration fee if you want to hobnob at receptions when all the work is done.

We caught up with WSU history prof Fran Shor, who's coordinating the conference, to get his take on it all. In part, what has him excited about this year's event is the fact that so many labor activists will be on hand, exchanging ideas with authors and academicians.

One consequence of that, Shor says, will be to help people better understand recent events by placing them in a larger historical context. From the Occupy movement to the Chicago teachers strike to the uprisings that took place as part of the so-called Arab Spring to the civil unrest brought about by economic strife in countries such as Greece, we are witnessing the most recent manifestations of an age-old battle.

"In the United States and across the world, in Europe and North Africa, we are seeing a real upsurge of labor activism, and of protest in general" as governments attempt to impose austerity measures, and 30 years' worth of "neo-liberal economic policies" collapse around us.

OK, so Shor isn't gong to be offered any resident scholar gigs at the Mackinac Center. But it's hard to argue with him when he asserts that, as much as any time in recent memory, we are facing a clear choice.

"We are in the midst of some very serious considerations," he says. "Whether or not we wish to have the kind of society that acknowledges the dignity of working people, or whether we want to dive into the dystopian Ayn Rand vision of a society where it is everyone for themselves."

To realize just how much Michigan is in the thick of the fight now under way, you need only look at the November ballot, with voters being asked to decide the fate of an emergency manager law that's seen by many as an attempt to undermine the democratic process itself. There's also a union-led effort to place in the Michigan Constitution a guarantee that workers will retain the right to bargain collectively.

One of the highlights for locals will surely be at 2:45 p.m. Thursday, when Fordham University prof Chris Rhomberg talks about his book The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor.

As Rhomberg writes in the introduction, the book about the protracted labor battle that began in 1995 attempts to address those concerned "about the future of workplace governance in the United States. ... How can we regain a capacity to govern our working relationships democratically and provide for a more just, cooperative, and secure system for all?"

For more information about the event, see