- New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement ed. by Ruth Milkman and Ed Ott
Ruth Milkman and Ed Ott, eds.
Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2014
368 pp., $77.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper)
Edited by sociologist Ruth Milkman and veteran labor organizer Ed Ott, New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement collects thirteen essays written by graduate students enrolled in Milkman and Ott's experimental labor studies seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2011. Though academic in origin, each of the contributions was written in "collaborative partnership" with New York City activists and organizers whose work is the subject of the book, and several of the authors are organizers themselves (viii).
Aiming to produce a guide that would be "valuable to . . . organizers and activists," whose efforts the book documents, the essays collected wrestle with three related questions (viii): How to organize successfully despite a broken system of labor laws? How to organize a rapidly expanding precariat? Why is it vital for the labor movement as a whole to adapt a much more daring and experimental approach to organizing than it has in recent decades? What follows is an extended argument for organized labor to invest time and resources in building community-based organizations, engaging in community organizing alongside immigrant communities and establishing a much more robust network of worker centers.
Most usefully, this book can be read as a manifesto for organizing in the post– New Deal era. In recent years, the twin logics of precarity and neoliberalism have increasingly removed vast categories of workers from even the meager protections of labor law. In order to shift "market risks from employers to subcontractors, or to individual workers themselves," employers have replaced the "relatively stable employment model" that sustained "midcentury unionism" with a "vast population" of independent contractors, who now toil beyond the reach of the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (6). At the same time, employers have waged an all-out war against unions since the 1970s, decimating the power that organized labor once had. The contributors all argue that an organizing model predicated on this sort of stable employment and on the willingness of employers to concede unions' right to exist no longer works.
By contrast, worker centers and community-based organizations described in New Labor in New York are not bound by the same laws that have limited the power of unions since the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. They can "more easily engage in strikes and other forms of direct action" with less fear of legal retribution (4). Though often operating with extremely limited resources, they are more capable of engaging in the sorts of creative organizing necessary to reach a rapidly expanding precariat. Finally, immigrant workers are significantly overrepresented in occupations—such as domestic work and street vending—that are "explicitly excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws such as the FLSA and the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] (12)." [End Page 132] It is vital for unions to expand their community organizing efforts among these immigrant communities if the labor movement is going to grow.
New Labor in New York is also a practical response to calls previously made by both Milkman ("Immigrant Workers and Labor's Future," in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, ed. Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, 240– 52 [New York: New Press, 2012]) and Jefferson Cowie ("Getting Over the New Deal," in Katz and Greenwald, Labor Rising, 164–73) to return to the forms of experimentation characteristic of labor movements in the Progressive Era, before the passage of the Wagner Act channeled labor organizing through the National Labor Relations Board. Though invoking "the precariat," one of labor history's hottest new buzzwords, this collection of essays reveals a historical sensibility that was absent from Guy Standing's original invocation of the term in his 2011 book (The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class [London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011]). As Milkman points out in the introduction, the...