May Day!

In honor of May Day, a selection of n+1’s writing on work and labor

Writing on labor and class struggle for May Day—and beyond.

New York, 2015. Photograph by Marcela McGreal.

On May Day, which commemorates the 1886 labor rally at Haymarket Square to protest police killings of union organizers, workers across the United States and the world are striking to draw attention to the ongoing fight for economic, racial, immigrant, and gender justice. Below, we’ve collected essays and resources on labor and working class struggle from the pages of n+1.

Solidarity forever!,
The Editors

There Is No Outside by Karim Sariahmed

You don’t have to spend any time inside an emergency room to understand the single most consequential fact about our health system: it is built on a foundation of denying care. This is how the poor have experienced our health care system, and now that experience is—rightly but belatedly—attracting international attention. The pandemic is a moment for health workers to reflect on our own work and our own position in that same system. We must think about our sick and dying patients and appreciate how the nature of our work ties our struggles to those of the poor and the dispossessed.

Spadework by Alyssa Battistoni (from Issue 34)

There is no economic deus ex machina that will bring the revolution. There are still people, in their stubborn, contradictory particularities, as they exist in concrete space and time. It is up to you to figure out how to act together, or not; how to find common ground, or not. Gramsci and Hall insist that you must look relentlessly at things and people as they are, face your prospects with brutal honesty, and act in ways that you think can have an effect.

Sex Class Action by Dayna Tortorici (from Issue 14)

If protective labor laws ultimately discriminated against women, cordoning them off in such a way that made it easier to oppress them, arguments for suspect classification discriminated for women, recognizing a distinction already codified in society to assist in its undoing. Recognizing sex class, in other words, could make up for its unrecognized but real abuses elsewhere. When time came to draw class lines in the law, who held the chalk made all the difference.

Too Fast, Too Furious by The Editors (from Issue 21)

Entire industries disappear with uncanny speed. Even the stock trading floor has been replaced by nanosecond-responsive computerized trading systems, with brokers seeking ever finer time-advantages over competitors, reflective in turn of a corporate world ever more concerned to deliver quick dividends to shareholders. These shareholders enjoy the spectacle of trigger-happy CEOs mowing down workers in mass layoffs. According to one estimate, the white-collar workers in these companies once switched jobs an average of four times over the course of their careers; now they can expect to switch more than a dozen times. These jobs are increasingly self-managed, with workers expected to approach their jobs with a “self-employed mind-set,” in the words of one management theorist. The loosening of the nine-to-five workday and the granting of more “flexibility” has resulted in workers feeling the need to give themselves wholly to their companies.

Code Red by Alex Press (from Issue 31)

Hostility to unions has been foundational to the tech industry. In its idealized self-image, tech is a meritocracy governed by speed, efficiency, and competition, in which companies can acquire and shed workers as needed. Insecurity is a value. There is freedom in hopping from job to job, and the idea that someone might want to remain anywhere for long is unthinkable. By making it difficult to fire employees and limiting other arbitrary company decisions, unions (supposedly) make labor markets less fluid.

Meeting Needs by David Backer and Kate Cairns

It isn’t difficult to see why movement organizations would want to provide childcare. Many activists are parents, who might not be able to attend a meeting without free childcare; many are also unable to afford babysitters, and in any case collective provision is usually part of the ethos of the organization holding the meeting. But beyond its value to any individual child or parent, childcare is essential to the work of reproducing movements—to creating the conditions for activist struggles to continue and thrive.

Cash/Consent by Lorelei Lee (from Issue 35)

Even in those early years I knew the work was not how anti-sex-work feminists described it. I knew it was as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work I’d done. I knew, too, how quickly people stopped listening when they began to feel pity. So I pretended. I pretended all of it was a kind of adventure. That what I gained from it was more than rent. I dismissed how much that rent meant to me. I pretended that I was not so poor, that I had not grown up poor.

The Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike by Andrew Elrod

The outcome of the disagreement in Los Angeles will shape how effectively public school teachers in large urban districts, on their own, can shelter themselves and their students against the national philanthropic and financial headwinds sweeping through the last bastions of universal public services in the United States. On their own, without the city and without the state, they wouldn’t stand a chance. But fighting for something so simple as smaller class sizes, they won’t be on their own.

Street Food by Adriana Camarena (from Issue 14)

The ironworks are gone now, and the docks are rotting. The work the new Latino immigrants find—at construction sites or on the line at restaurants—can’t cover a down payment on a mortgage. They’re renters, not owners as their predecessors were, and so subject to owner move-ins and other means of tenant eviction. The value of properties in the Mission, Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, and Cole Valley, in proximity to the corporate shuttles of Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, LinkedIn, and other dot-com employers, has risen 10 percent over the last six months alone. Latino tenants are moving out to Daly City, Stockton, Richmond, Gilroy, and Hayward—some of these places nearly an hour away on the inefficient and inconvenient commuter rail. But every morning they still come in, to build houses they can’t live in and make food they can’t afford.

After Columbia by Alyssa Battistoni, Maggie Doherty, Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Corey Robin, and Gabriel Winant

Leading up to and following the ruling, we heard a lot from the universities about “mentorship.” Graduate school isn’t a period of employment, the administrations told us; it is an education, an apprenticeship, a learning experience, a labor of love, a process of guild formation, an opportunity for enlightenment and personal growth, or some other obfuscating and mystifying formula, proffered to convince us that what looks and feels like work is in fact something else—luck, perhaps. But the guild model no longer holds. In the absence of a viable job market, “mentorship” and “apprenticeship” are meaningless. “No Future,” once a wicked slogan of hip theory, is now more like a dirge; there is only the present, a time spent working, not waiting for the privilege to work.

While the Iron Is Hot by Dayna Tortorici

A strike can measure the value of work through its absence. We will know what unwaged labor does for society by how much people miss it when it’s gone. Hence “A Day Without a Woman,” the Women’s March on Washington’s slogan for the strike that echoes un día sin inmigrantes, the February 16 strike that sought to reveal how much the US relies on the immigrants it now seeks to deport in ever greater numbers, among them millions of women. “Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?” as Silvia Federici asked Judith Shulevitz in the Times last year? It’s an old question, one that gets answered anew by each generation. The Women’s Strike presents another opportunity to pose it to ours.

Who Works for the Workers? by Gabriel Winant (from Issue 26)

Our accounts of heroic social movements tend to begin at the moment of insurgency, when the cameras show up. The years of bitter, lonely, and seemingly futile struggle get the Ken Burns treatment less often. Even of the heroic age of SNCC in Mississippi, the historian Charles Payne writes, “Field reports are filled with stories of spending day after day dragging from house to house without a single positive response to show for it. Most people were simply afraid and confused but reluctant to admit it.” One organizer reported in 1962 that for every hundred people they spoke to, ten agreed to register to vote, three showed up, “and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff.” This is not the epic narrative we are taught. But it is the marrow of movement work.

Labor & Letters Symposium (from Issue 21)

Magazine and book publishing is still largely unorganized; strikes there, as elsewhere, are not only unheard of, but practically unimaginable; the aura of gentility still attends the industry, and inadequate pay and other poor working conditions are supposed to be accepted in exchange for the chance to work in a “creative” field. As in many other instances, but perhaps more acutely in publishing, the idea of a union — or organizing of any kind at all — is often seen as threatening the supposed prestige of the field: the intimate and apprentice-like relationship between bosses and assistants, and the basic, affable sociability of a white-collar workplace, which putatively eliminates or helps obscure unjustifiable inequalities in power between employers and the employed.

An Awesome Burden by Madeleine Elfenbein and Alix Rule

For grad students to do the hard work of organizing ourselves is rational. To appreciate that, we need to extend our time horizons and to enlarge our circles of solidarity—to see ourselves as part of a struggle for a more just university that reaches considerably beyond the edges of the traditional bargaining unit. If we want the next exciting period in the graduate labor movement to endure, I think that our movements have to start getting much more explicit about both of these things.

Full Employment by Benjamin Kunkel (from Issue 9)

American employees spend more hours at work than their European or Japanese counterparts; their two weeks of vacation are the least in the rich world; many jobs don’t include health benefits; those that do, deprive workers of health care should they become unemployed (a powerful instrument of labor discipline); maternity leave, when women feel they can take it at all without imperiling job security, is minimal by first-world standards; and the crumbling legal standard of the eight-hour day doesn’t actually set much limit on exploitation: nothing stipulates that you can’t work two such jobs. The minimum wage, capable as late as 1980 of supporting a full-time worker at the poverty line, has now fallen 40 percent beneath that line. Among badly paid and often undocumented workers in trades like construction and meat-packing, industrial accidents run into the hundreds of thousands each year.

Undocumented Election Night by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Should Trump win, I want to make one thing clear to my fellow immigrants and children of immigrants: we will not forget this election, and our children will not forget. The giant has awakened for good. As nuestro Nobel Gabriel García Márquez wrote—many years later, as we face the firing squad, we will remember that distant afternoon when our fathers took us to discover ice. Our parents have crossed oceans and swam across rivers and walked across deserts, they have against all odds found homes and jobs and forced us to go to school even when we faked fevers because we didn’t understand the language our teachers were speaking. Their strength is in our blood, and our memories will outlive us. If you must cry, let it come down your face like you are steel. We are going to be okay because we are inevitable.

More Smiles? More Money by Dayna Tortorici (from Issue 17)

The mass introduction of women into the waged workforce has changed the face of domestic work, but the new face has not been a man’s, but another woman’s — or the same woman’s, after hours. The uncompensated labor of housework, child care, and elder care has gone largely unseen, and largely, where seen, unconsidered. Work like Martha Rosler’s Garage Sale does what it can to amend this — making matters plain by way of making them strange — and last year, her show seemed to come at the right time. Media “debates” about child care and work–life balance had been flaring up since Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” and the question of homemaking’s “productive value” felt almost central, as even Forbes shared a study that showed how calculating the value of “household production” would affect GDP. (In 2010, housework would have been valued at roughly $3.8 trillion and upped GDP by nearly 26 percent.)

El Paso by Debbie Nathan

NAFTA created an explosion of big-box store openings in Juarez, and thousands of want ads appeared in the Spanish-language papers seeking more labor for the maquiladoras. These factories enjoy a special arrangement with US Customs. When freshly assembled goods are sent north across the bridge, their owners pay import taxes, but not on the entire product, only on the quantum of value added by Mexican workers earning eight American dollars per day. Lured by the assembly bargain as it burgeoned after NAFTA, factories left El Paso and went south. By the turn of the 21st century, El Paso had evolved from a manufacturing town to a service economy in which unemployment went down—even as poverty went up.

A Labor Movement by Nikil Saval

When I volunteered for the local of the hotel workers’ union in San Francisco, something I’ve done on and off for the last two years, there was a contract fight going on, and my job was to get big hotel customers—academic conferences, corporate meetings—not to cross a picket line. Doing so meant first appealing to their sense of solidarity, and then, when that inevitably failed, suggesting that their conference could potentially be ruined by bullhorns and screaming picketers. I had frustrating phone calls with junior academics, who were usually paralyzed by inaction, who wanted to do the right thing that they’d read about in books, but at the crucial moment found themselves constitutionally unable to do the right thing in real life; it was hard for them to see the relationship between their adjunct, benefitless status and the healthcare issues facing a hotel worker. On the line outside a hotel, handing out leaflets, I struggled to impress upon a German visitor the fact that a worker’s struggle here had relevance to his situation as a worker in Germany. Genosse, I started, taking his hand, but he walked promptly into the hotel.

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