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From the Editors


What will the second coming of George W. Bush mean for the labor movement and for working people generally?  At this very early stage in his second administration, no one can know precisely.  The news is bound to be bad; the question is how bad, and the answer, in part at least, depends on the popular reaction to the corporate and imperial imperatives that we must assume will continue to mark the Bush regime.  New Labor Forum will of course be following these developments closely in the years to come. 

             One prerequisite for building a robust resistance movement is developing a better grasp of why some working people find populist conservatism appealing enough to vote for someone like George Bush whose affections for the corporate elite and hostility towards the labor movement couldn’t be more transparent.  So we begin this issue with James Steele’s anatomy of this historic election.  Steele dissects the electoral demographics, focusing particularly on the whiteness of the Bush majority, the complexity of the “moral values” vote, and the critical importance of the labor movement in shifting the country’s political center of gravity leftwards.   In addition to Steele’s examination of the electoral results, we offer an article by Linda Kintz which explores why religious and free market fundamentalisms have of late managed to convey a real spiritual and emotional charge to people whose material security has been severely undermined by the corporate order. She argues that a quarter century of right-wing organizing and deft media manipulation has “re-enchanted” the corporate economy, re-connected it to deep-rooted American mythologies about the West, about manhood, and about the heroic, self-reliant individual.

             The tenacity of populist conservatism is the bad news.  On the other hand, one recent hopeful sign has been the gathering resistance by local communities, employees, and others to the domineering presence of the world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart. There is considerable talk in the labor movement of making Wal-Mart the strategic centerpiece of a national organizing campaign.  Whether or not that gets off the ground, the conception is a compelling one.  Wal-Mart is not only the country’s largest corporation, it is, as Nelson Lichtenstein argues in these pages, a template for global capitalism in the 21st century.  Just as General Motors once defined the basic contours of mid-20th century industrial life, so now Wal-Mart’s system of production, distribution, technology, and labor relations functions as a model for the global sweatshop, for what’s become a universal “race to the bottom.”  Such a race invites opposition.  A group of female Wal-Mart employees have instituted the largest civil rights class-action suit in American history, charging gender discrimination in the corporation’s pay and promotion policies.  Brad Seligman, the legal counsel for the women suing Wal-Mart, describes here the origins and nature of the suit, and why a Federal judge found the evidence overwhelming enough to allow the class-action to proceed.   Ellen Rosen provides a ground-level picture of work life at Wal-Mart based on her interviews with a great range of workers from store managers to sales clerks.  This cluster concludes with a portentous report by Greg Tarpinian on the shift in the composition of the labor force which confirms that the Wal-Marting of the economy does indeed seem to be the way the future is shaping up.

            Reforming the nation’s labor law would also help galvanize resistance to corporate domination, at Wal-Mart, and throughout the economy.  The prospects for such legislative help are not great, but the labor movement is committed to the crusade.  In this issue, however, Mark Dudzic challenges the prevailing legal and political assumptions that have for many years informed the labor movement’s approach to this question.  He argues the case for scrapping the existing Constitutional basis of the Wagner Act and substituting an entirely different Constitutional rationale.  It would provide the legal foundation for protecting democratic collective rights as opposed to the present emphasis on individual rights which can and has been effectively used to undermine the power of labor.  Our contributing editor, Josh Freeman, and Larry Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), respond to Dudzic’s daring proposal. 

             The movement for a living wage is certainly one of the success stories of the past several years during a time when victories for the working poor were hard to come by.  Stephanie Luce assesses the movement and focuses particularly on the question of the actual enforcement of living wage ordinances.  Looking at Baltimore, Boston, and Los Angeles particularly, Luce teases out the reasons why some movements, but by no means all, have been able to translate good intentions into tangible gains, and explores the relationship of organized labor to these social insurgencies. 

            Everyone agrees that the labor movement has to break with its past, try out new approaches to address its dire dilemma.  Matt Witt analyzes the existing communication skills and methods of the trade union movement and finds them seriously flawed.  He recommends new ways for labor organizations to convey their message both to their own members and to the broader public which continues to view unions with considerable skepticism, thanks in part to the stereotypes regularly circulated by the mass media.  Debate about whether and how the labor movement ought to be re-organized is becoming heated and may soon come to a head inside the AFL-CIO. New Labor Forum will feature a cluster of articles on this historic crisis in its next issue.  Here we publish an interview with John Wilhelm in which he explores the rationale for the recent merger of UNITE and HERE.

            The global dimensions of labor’s predicament are apparent to everyone.  Out-sourcing was enough of a hot-button issue to make its way into the presidential campaign, and promises to remain so.  Thea Lee dissects the free market defense of outsourcing and offers a series of proposals to address the concerns of American workers and the needs of the working poor throughout the developing world.  Also on the international front, Kent Wong’s critique of the AFL-CIO’s policy on trade with China in the last issue of New Labor Forum produced a spirited response from Barbara Shailor, Director of International Affairs of the AFL-CIO. We publish this defense and Kent Wong’s reply. 

     In dark times like these it helps to remember moments in the past when the labor movement proved its capacity for militant struggle and inspiring social vision.  Thus we begin our Books and the Arts section with an excerpt from a new comic book history of the IWW to be published this year, which is the 100th anniversary of that unique organization. Paul Buhle provides a brief introduction, and the drawings that follow do the rest.  In keeping with New Labor Forum’s ongoing interest in popular conservatism, Alice O’Connor reviews the much talked about book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  Ken Peres of the CWA reviews Democracy and Regulation, a provocative study suggesting that American regulatory law, oddly enough, offers the most effective and democratic approach to reining in the power of giant corporations…which is probably why conservatives have been so dedicated to dismantling it.  We close on another upbeat moment from labor’s past.  Dorian Warren reviews Ruth Needleman’s insightful Black Freedom Fighters in Steel which reminds us of the extraordinary capacity of ordinary people to change the course of history.

     New Labor Forum would like to offer a belated thanks to the “How Class Works” Conference held in June 2004 at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from which the articles in our last issue by Jefferson Cowie, Adolph Reed, and Heather Bouchey were drawn.  In this issue we want to note that versions of the three articles on Wal-Mart were first presented at a conference “Wal-Mart: Template for 21st Century Capitalism?” held at the University of California, Santa Barbara in April 2004.