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Amazon Labor Union (ALU) members celebrate after the voting results to unionize Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y. on Friday, April 1, 2022. Image: AP

Reading List September 1, 2022

Solidarity Makes Us Strong

A reading list for Labor Day 2022.

This Labor Day serves to mark the culmination of what Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, has termed #hotlaborsummer. Smalls, who helped lead the ALU to an historic victory at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, is the face of a labor upsurge that has seen thousands of workers across the country form unions at companies such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s.

This wave of organizing is distinguished not only by its success against corporate titans, but also by its cross-class, cross-racial alliances. Consider the importance of “salts”—workers who take jobs with the intent to unionize—in recent organizing drives. As Mie Inouye explains in her recent piece, these workers exemplify “an organic convergence of downwardly mobile college graduates with the existing working class.” She argues that transgressing boundaries of race and class will be essential to rebuilding a strong labor movement.

In adopting such methods, worker-organizers are not so much breaking new ground as they are reviving radical tactics of the past. Salting, as Inouye observes, has a long history—as does militant interracial organizing. In an excerpt from their forthcoming book Organize, Fight, Win, Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean tell the story of Black communist women who, beginning in the 1920s, were pioneers “in using the realities of Black women workers to illuminate the importance of struggling against capitalism and racism simultaneously to shore up interracial worker unity.” According to Burden-Stelly and Dean, “Black Communist women’s political writing can teach contemporary organizers practical and theoretical lessons,” including the importance of learning directly from people’s experiences, providing outlets for workers to speak on their own behalf, and understanding capitalism as central to other forms of exploitation and domination.

These struggles form part of a larger history of labor activism that mainstream discourse doesn’t always associate with organized labor. While Trump’s election in 2016 skewed media representations of the working class toward a monochromatic, factory-bound stereotype, the reality has always been more complex and diverse: mothers, immigrants, care workers, LGBTQ activists, and sex workers have all played vital roles in the ongoing movement for labor rights, united in their desire for freedom from oppressive conditions of work.

We invite you to celebrate Labor Day by engaging with these histories and other trenchant analyses of the world of work, including essays on the fight for free time, anti-work politics, strategies for the labor movement going forward, and more.

 

Charisse Burden-Stelly Jodi Dean

Decades ago, Black communist women decided to organize, fight, and win.

Heather Berg

Sex workers are labor’s vanguard. The left ignores them at its peril.

Mie Inouye

How a new class of “salts”—radicals who take jobs to help unionization—is boosting the organizing efforts of long-term workers.

Harmony Goldberg Erica Smiley

Recent union drives point the way to more effective action against corporate power.

Emily Callaci

As the planet burns and pandemics rage, Selma James’s work with the Wages for Housework movement shows that we ignore the labor of care at our own peril.

Sophie Lewis

Netflix’s Maid and three recent best-sellers depict the agonies and rage of being a low-wage housekeeper or nanny. But all fail to identify capitalism itself as the culprit.

Madeline Lane-McKinley

Intrinsic to what we hate about work is that we can’t imagine life outside of it.

Ruth Milkman

Non-college-educated U.S.-born workers have every reason to be enraged by declining wages and living standards, but more restrictive immigration policies won’t solve these problems.

Nantina Vgontzas

Unions are just one element of a broader push to transform the company. Coalitions forged during the pandemic point the way forward—with a radical vision of worker and community control.

mayday
Mike Konczal

Labor activists once understood time to be a checking mechanism on market activity. In our own era of uncontrolled working hours, this is a vision of freedom worth recapturing.

Samuel Huneke Frank Kameny Eric Cervini Deviants War LGBT employment Supreme Court Title VII
Samuel Clowes Huneke

In 1961 Frank Kameny became the first person to ask the Supreme Court to protect the employment rights of homosexuals. The fact that the Court finally has—sixty years later—points to both the successes and agonies of a legalistic approach to activism.

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