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And now, one last excerpt from our April issue. This month Richard Kahlenberg reviews two books on the labor movement: The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, by New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, and State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence, by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Philip Dine. One message of both books, Kahlenberg says, is that one way to regain some of labor’s past strength is to begin promoting the movement in terms of moral values (such as respect for hard work) rather than just in terms of economic interests:
Dine calls on labor to tap directly into the moral righteousness of the civil rights movement. His best chapter recounts a strike in the early 1990s that did just that. The conflict pitted nine hundred poor, black, female catfish packers in Mississippi against Delta Pride, the world’s largest catfish processor, owned mostly by wealthy white men. Many of the women who skinned, filleted, and packed the catfish had once picked cotton. They were poorly paid, and not tremendously well treated — their bathroom visits, for example, were limited to six a week. The workers had little economic leverage and much to lose: Delta Pride officials sat on the boards of the local banks that held the workers’ mortgages and car loans.
The battle shifted, however, when the food workers union representing the women called for a nationwide boycott of Delta Pride catfish. Leading supermarkets complied in order to stay on good terms with their own unions. When reports appeared in the national press, donations began pouring in from unionists and church members around the country who hoped to sustain the workers in their strike. After a protracted battle, the company eventually conceded to a hefty wage increase and eliminated the limits on bathroom breaks. The key, says Dine, was that the movement was put in the context of the broader fight for human respect. It wasn’t just a battle over money; there was a powerful moral component too.
Kahlenberg notes that although the modern progressive movement mostly supports the same goals as the labor movement (better health care, a more generous minimum wage, etc.), most modern progressives don’t really feel much solidarity with labor. But with income inequality skyrocketing and wage stagnation hitting even white collar workers, that might start to change. “Globalization used to hurt just the Bud crowd,” Greenhouse writes, “but now it is also hitting the Starbucks crowd.” Read the whole piece to see what that might mean on the political front.