New Labor Forum Highlights: Sep. 20th, 2016

The New Labor Forum has launched a bi-weekly newsletter on current topics in labor, curated by the some of the most insightful scholars and activists in the labor world today. Check out some highlights from the latest edition below.

Many of our readers and much of the country continue to scratch their heads about the rise of Trump and the sustenance his campaign counts on from white working-class voters. In this newsletter, we lead with a fascinating article by Jedediah Purdy, recently published in The New Republic, discussing two recent books that each take an intimate look at contemporary working-class conservative communities. We then offer an article by Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman that we published back in 2010, during the heyday of the Tea Party, that very usefully examines the history of populism in the U.S. – wavering as it has between a desire to create a new order and a yearning to return to an idealized old order — with a pronounced tendency during the last half-century toward old order conservatism. We end with a New Labor Forum film review by Jeremy Varon of three documentaries, including You’ve Been Trumped (directed by Anthony Baxter), a verité style account of Donald Trump’s effort, only recently realized, to build a luxury golf course and grand hotel on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast. As Trump enlists the Scottish national government and police to do battle against local residents, the review reminds us what a bizarre champion of the working-class Trump indeed is.


  1. Red State Blues by Jedediah Purdy, The New Republic
  2. History’s Mad Hatters: The Strange Career of Tea Party Populism by Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman, New Labor Forum
  3. It’s Good to Be King: The Crisis Documentary and the American Dreamscapeby Jeremy Varon, New Labor Forum

Photo by Darron Birgenheier via flickr (CC-BY-SA)

National Strike Draws Attention to Prison Labor Practices

Though you might not know it to look at mainstream news outlets, the largest prison strike in US history is currently in its second week. On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, prisoners at an estimated 40 facilities in at least 24 states have refused to report to their prison jobs in order to draw attention to a range of grievances.

In particular, prisoners are demonstrating against the exploitative conditions that keep them working for slave wages — literally. The thirteenth amendment of the US Constitution outlawed slavery in most cases, but it continues to allow slavery “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

From a 2014 article in the American Prospect:

Employment law is supposed to rely on a three-pronged test to determine whether two people are engaged in an employee-employer relationship: Are they producing something of value? Are they getting paid for their work? Do they have a supervisor telling them what to do? Prison jobs meet all three criteria. “The puzzle,” Zatz says, “is the way in which courts have a strong instinct: No, there’s something different here. And then they run around in circles trying to figure out what that something different is.”

The something different is a moral judgment: Inmate workers are seen as less deserving of a decent job or a competitive wage. The courts, in this sense, are reflecting public sentiment. It’s why the idea that “law-abiding citizens … need jobs worse than inmates” (in the words of one recent Nevada editorial page) resonates the way it does. It’s the same reason people with felony convictions have such a hard time finding a job, why in so many states they’re barred from voting, why a criminal record can prevent you from living in public housing or securing student loans, and why political candidates have long won more votes with punitive rhetoric than with compassion or level-headed talk of prevention. In America, breaking the law has become more than just an occasion to be punished or even rehabilitated. It has become a permanent mark of who you are and what our country thinks you’re entitled to earn.

It’s worth reading through the full piece, here.

Photo by Clemens v Vogelsang via flickr (CC-BY)

New Ruling Protects NYS Workers Paid Via Prepaid Debit Cards

Approximately 200,000 workers get paid via debit cards and have long suffered from the fees that come along with them. From ATM withdrawal fees to charges for paper statements and even inactivity fees, these extra charges add up — and can be have a big impact on workers’ take-home pay.

Now, thanks to new rules released last week, employees can breathe a sigh of relief: starting in early 2017, employees will have the ability to make unlimited withdrawals at no charge from at least one ATM that’s located at a “reasonable travel distance” from their work or home.

From the New York Times:

The rules also prohibit a host of incremental fees, including charges for monthly maintenance, account inactivity, overdrafts, checking a card’s balance or contacting customer service.

Companies will have to offer their workers the option of being paid either by cash or check, if they prefer — employers will not be allowed to require that employees accept a payroll card. Federal regulations already prohibit such requirements, but worker advocates say the rule is routinely flouted.

This marks an important development for the retail and service workers who are, increasingly, finding themselves paid by payroll cards rather than checks.

Read more at the New York Times.

Photo by InfoCash via flickr (CC-ND)

Prof. Steve Brier Publishes Book on Austerity and Public Education

austerity-bluesWe are please to announce the recent publication of a new book from Murphy Institute consortial faculty member Prof. Steve Brier, Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


Co-authored with Michael Fabricant, Austerity Blues examines the social consequences of disinvestment in public higher education, particularly its effects on growing economic disparities in our cities and communities. This book is essential and timely reading for anyone grappling with the question of how public higher education can be an instrument of opportunity and equality.

When he isn’t teaching labor history at the Murphy Institute, Brier is a professor of urban education and coordinator of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the co-founder of CUNY’s American Social History Project and the co-author and co-producer of Who Built America, a multimedia curriculum developed by the Project. His co-author, Michael Fabricant, is a professor of social work at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Vice President of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress.

Community College Faculty Strike, Win Contract

This week, Labor Notes published an article by Union Semester alum Michael McCown, who served as staff organizer for AFT 2121’s recently contract campaign and strike. That article, outlining the campaign strategy and how it unfolded, is re-posted below with permission. See the original article at Labor Notes.

By Michael McCown

For the first time in its 40-year history, the union of full- and part-time faculty at City College of San Francisco recently went on strike—and it worked.

Teachers (AFT) Local 2121 pulled off a one-day strike April 27, despite the administration’s claim that the strike was illegal. By July, to head off another strike, the college agreed to a union contract with substantial raises. Faculty members had been working without one for a year.

Strikes in higher education are rare. Faculty work is isolated, and despite the popular portrayal of academics as having the ultimate job security, most instructors are part-timers with short-term contracts.

Part-timers often have to rush off to other jobs, making it difficult to build the social bonds necessary to take risky action together. And going on strike can be perceived as hurting students, many of whom at the community-college level are quite vulnerable: English-language learners, former prisoners, and the homeless.

At City College, a public community college of nine campuses built to serve 100,000 students, faculty faced the additional threat that the school could be shut down entirely. They organized anyway. Continue reading Community College Faculty Strike, Win Contract

Murphy Event: The Left-Wing of the Possible (9/16)

Join us for our first event of the fall!

Where: The Murphy Institute, 25 W. 43rd St., 18th Floor
When: Friday, September 16th, 8:30am-10:30am


Amid a volatile and unorthodox presidential season, Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters have denounced the outsized political and economic power of the corporate elite, and brought socialism back into consideration, especially among young voters. While this platform energized a broad cross-section of the country, it struggled to earn the broader support – especially among African Americans, Latinos, and organized labor – that an enduring movement would require. What will now be required to maintain the momentum and build a movement of the 99 percent?  How do supporters build on the progressive message carried through the Sanders Campaign?  What are the new possibilities and challenges? What comes next?


  • Steve Cobble, national delegate coordinator for Jesse Jackson for President 1988, political director for the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; co-founded Progressive Democrats of America, the organization that started the “draft Bernie” effort and the first national organization to endorse Sanders for President
  • Mark W. Griffith, co-founder and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a New York State Sanders delegate, and long-time community organizer and activist
  • Bob Master, Legislative and Political Director for CWA District One of the Communications Workers of America, co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party, New Labor Forum author and Murphy Institute student
  • Nina Turner, former Ohio State Senator, a national surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders, and Chair of Party Engagement at the Ohio Democratic Party

The forum is free but registration is required.

A conversation about workers, communities and social justice

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar