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College Quarterly
Spring 2013 - Volume 16 Number 2
Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Re-Building a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice
Richard D. Kahlenberg & Moshe Z. Marvit
New York: The Century Foundation, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

This book is about rights. It isn’t an easy topic. It is mainly about rights in the United States, but its basic message is widely applicable. It is primarily about labour rights, but it is also about civil rights more broadly defined. And it is about human rights of which civil rights are a subset. Think of rights as the subject of taxonomy. Labour Rights are species of the genus Civil Rights, which are members of the family of Human Rights. Or, to mix metaphors just a little, analyzing labour rights is like carrying out a careful examination of a maple tree. It is fascinating in itself, but it is closely relates to other deciduous trees, and it is connected to coniferous trees at modest distance. Study them all and you get to understand a lot about an entire forest.

The notion of rights is not only layered, but it is also essentially contested. Discussing the merits of particular rights, assessing whether certain rights are being upheld, infringed or abused, and exploring the possibility of resolving conflicts over competing rights are hard enough tasks, but there are more foundational questions. The most important is: “What are rights, anyway?” They are assuredly an important set of concepts in law, ethics, morality and politics, but how are they to be defined and understood?

A primal question concerns the origin of rights. Where do they come from? For the past several hundred years, people have been claiming that they possess various rights. When they do so, they are generally referring to guarantees of liberties and freedoms; they seldom involve duties and responsibilities, except insofar as enjoying certain rights may involve the obligation to help others acquire or protect similar rights. As US President John F. Kennedy put it almost five months to the day before his execution: “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved all are not free.” Some people still believe that.

Some people think that rights are given by God. Some people think that their rights are “natural,” which is just one step away from being divine; after all, as St. Thomas Aquinas would ask us: “Who else created nature?” Some people think that rights are things we just make them up for ourselves—perhaps using our rational minds and our innate sense of empathy for others. And some people simply refuse to think about the question, stamp their feet and holler: “They just are!”

Actually, rights have a long and intricate pedigree. The history of rights is commonly connected to the history of justice—another elusive and essentially contested concept. However they may be conceived and construed, rights have been part of the Western Civilization at least since the Old Testament, when God was called to account in the Book of Job and accused (though not convicted) of being unjust. Job, after experiencing hideous treatment, complained and, although God set him straight on who was the boss, the story ends with something like restitution as a remedy for Job’s suffering. In the tale, we see some of the first recorded intimations that subjects can seek redress for harsh and unfair conduct on the part of the authorities. The mere fact that God showed up to defend himself against Job’s grievances, and that God arrived at a settlement with Job (though not one that involved admission of culpability) puts the story squarely in the Jewish tradition of the “covenant,” which is an agreement between two parties in which each is accorded some form of “rights,” the violation of which is a legal or procedural wrong, and also an moral infringement on justice.

Sometime later, in ancient Greece, philosophers tussled with the general problem of justice and what constituted fair dealing. Socrates’ old pal Thracymachus did humanism no favour when he insisted that “might makes right” (and presumably “rights”). If he was right, then all any discussion of human rights as a normative concept would be rendered meaningless. If the word simply refers to whatever I can force you to do for me and whatever I can prevent you from doing to me, then any moral content is voided. The concept of “rights” ends up being nothing more than pretty talk intended to make the exercise of power seem legitimate and thus to make compliance easier to enforce. As a Chinese gentleman (who should have known better) once said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” In saying so, he lost any claim to moral rectitude and moral authority. Neither Thracymachus nor Mao Tse-tung/Zedong will go down as much of a hero in the history of human rights.

Yet, if we consciously, though reluctantly, jettison traditional and universal sources of rights such as God, Nature, some abstract Platonic absolute, or even an Hegelian idea of inexorably unfolding “reason,” but if we are also unsatisfied with the realization that rights are just expressions of the desires of the powerful, what are we to do?

How are we to justify our claims to the right to free speech, the right to vote, the right to be treated equally under the law, and so on? How are we to give moral weight to statements made by human beings all on their own and without any external criterion of validity? If we abandon transcendent, eternal laws and law-givers, what foundational principles allow us to talk about abstractions called “rights” at all? Can we appeal to a version of rationalism? Can we rely on human compassion? Can we get away with the “golden rule” and insist only that we do nothing unto others that we would not welcome being done to us? Should we slacken off and fall back on Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Shall we be content to say that rights are nothing more (or less) than conventional agreements that make life somewhat safer and a little happier, and should therefore win our acceptance because agreeing to them is “practical.” Is pragmatism the best we can hope to accomplish? It’s a tricky business. Once a solid theological or philosophical basis for rights slips away, it becomes easy to slide into an infinite relativism. From there, it is easier still to end up with a species of nihilism?

The matter is made trickier by events in the past century and events today.

Years ago, Theodor Adorno, the Eeyore of cultural Marxism, said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For him, humanity had descended to a depth of immorality from which nothing—certainly no creative, imaginative and aesthetically pleasing attempt to capture or express beauty—could redeem us. Yet, it was required of us somehow to live on.

The stark realization of the evil which we are capable of committing took the wind out of most high-flying philosophical sails. Consequently, the majority of contemporary philosophers and political theorists lowered their sites and many simply tried to finesse the entire question. Human rights, equity, justice and other core concepts were packed up and stored in metaphysical drawers somewhere in the back of the library. Instead of dealing with them, philosophers of language like T. D. Weldon (1953) declared them “meaningless,” much to the chagrin of commentators before and since who have reacted angrily to the view that discussion of ethical, moral and political themes was merely endless talk about talk.

Surely there must be meaning to our moral concepts, they protested, for if there is not we are surely doomed. Thus, they came dangerously close to endorsing censorship in Encounter, a respected intellectual journal secretly financed by the CIA: “Tenacity of will and clearness of mind, with loyalty of both,” wrote Salvador de Madariaga (1954, March, p. 69), “are the indispensable weapons of the West. At this time of danger,” he continued, “publication of [Weldon's] book can hardly be deemed a service to our learning, our freedom, or even our chances of survival.”

Wow! I had not realized that philosophers of language at prestigious British universities could be such a monstrous threat to human rights that their right to free speech and their academic freedom could be called into question. So it went. So it goes. It’s complicated, and the discourses about rights have changed. Absolute freedom is no longer contemplated. More and more human rights seem negotiable.

Although still concerned with discourses about rights, more recent political thinkers such as Richard Rorty (1991), John Rawls (2001) and others have learned to set aside the issue of final authorities. They spent their time discussing phrases such as “procedural fairness” and considering how human rights might be understood intuitively or as the result of feelings of empathy without reference to ultimate sources or causes. They built upon on down-to-earth, home-made American philosophies such as “pragmatism” to do the best they could with practical problems, leaving fundamental questions and answers for possible future discussion.

There is some merit in “kicking the can” down the philosophical road. If the twentieth century taught us anything, it was surely that sacrificing the current generation in the hope and expectation that the next would live a qualitatively different life didn’t work out very well. That the “absolute” cannot be found in history was a conclusion we drew, with assistance from modest moralists such as Albert Camus (1956), who cautioned us against biting off more of the fruit of the tree of knowledge than we could comfortably chew. Absolute claims to absolute rights are the stuff of totalitarianism and, he suggested, it is better to develop a way of life that allows us to live civilly, even if we deprive ourselves of claims to certainty about what’s right and wrong. Our last best hope is to keep on talking.

At the same time, it is important for us to understand human rights, even in the tentative and endlessly flexible way that we practice them today. One reason that this is important is the fact that we persist in having some pretty firm ideas of rights, even if we lack a firm ground upon which to build them. In fact, in the same twentieth-century that witnessed unprecedented human slaughter, we also erected grand declarations of universal human rights as ideals, goals and guidelines. If nothing else, we use the language of human rights to help sustain our judicial systems and to give credibility to procedures in which important legal decisions are made, remedies to torts are sought and sometimes found, and punishments in the criminal law are regularly meted out. Absent a coherent understanding of such matters as the right to due process and natural justice before the courts, all confidence in such essential institutions would be lost and our society would fall farther into disrepair. So, we create constitutions and even establish international laws and courts of justice to make sure that human rights are addressed domestically and globally. We may have lost confidence in ultimate causes and final sources of judgement, but we are reluctant to abandon human rights altogether. To that end, we compose lists of rights and freedoms, come together to agree upon them, and try to live as if they were actually universally valid and true.

The American “Bill of Rights” gave us an excellent model of what should and what should not be included in such documents. Echoing and expanding its provisions, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many codicils that have been added since its initial passage in 1948 provides an extensive inventory of rights and liberties that, we profess, should be available to all. Upon investigation and reflection, however, it is clear that assertions of rights to free speech, the rule of law, protection from torture, to say nothing of food, clothing and shelter have some problems, not least among them being that even the wealthiest and most advanced liberal democracies seem to have a terrible time guaranteeing them to their own citizens, never mind securing them in countries for which a full-blown catalogue of human rights is a novelty and not necessarily a welcome one. Some of these are obvious: the apparent conflict between, for instance, freedom of religion and equality for women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals is an item of growing importance and enduring controversy and not only in places such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One set of rights that is not so obvious and remain a topic of controversy is the matter of private property and work. The two, of course, are inexorably intertwined and have been since Thomas Hobbes imagined his way out of the “state of nature” and into modern society. Property, we must understand, is necessarily the product of the labour. Yet, neither property rights nor labour rights figure as prominently in our thinking as rights to a free press or a fair trial. Moreover, when we discuss them at all, labour rights are not merely treated as being of a secondary, subordinate sort, but are actually felt to be subversive and, as often as not, seditious. The protection of property, on the other hand, is understood to be at worst the second most important responsibility of the state, second only to the protection of life itself (or at least some lives).

In any case, it is generally thought best to keep even the discussion of both property and labour rights (but especially labour rights) restrained. The sleeping dog must be left to lie, even if it is securely chained should it suddenly awaken and sense the nature of its surroundings. Owners of substantial property are, after all, acutely aware of their possessions and understand fully the status that their accumulated wealth imparts to them; the rest can be induced to foreswear their alternative claims to the fruits of their labour and made to feel grateful that the job creators have generously provided them with a job.

Rights regarding property and work find no place in the Constitution of the United States. They are not mentioned in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They may be implied in the American Declaration of Independence, for it identifies certain “self-evident truths” such as the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” with “happiness” being routinely regarded as “code” for property. Yet, there is a studied vagueness about what might comprise happiness and so we may only speculate about what was in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner, when he penned those words.

If we choose to think about the matter, however, it will quickly become clear that work is a necessary aspect of humanity in its singular manifestations (you, me, the miner, the factory worker, the receptionist and the fast food server) as well as its species-being (the qualities inherent in our common humanity). Even if there are those of us who, through privilege or infirmity, do not personally “work for a living,” we may be assured that someone else does in our stead. In many respects work defines us individually and collectively. If, therefore, humanity consists largely of the work that people do, and if human rights are fundamental to our being human, then there must certainly be a link between them. Labour rights, it turns out, are or ought to be definitive of our existence as free people. Where we do not exercise control over our work, we have surrendered the one right that defines us as human. In our society, work generally means selling our labour for wages, trading our labour time for the money needed for our survival and, in the process yielding control over our time, our bodies and the products of our labour in exchange for the means of maintaining our lives and those of our dependents. Labour rights, therefore, are the most important and, not coincidentally, the least contemplated and debated in our society today.

To reinvigorate labour rights as a legitimate topic of conversation, we might find it useful to examine those rights historically. We may not come to a final destination where everyone will agree, but we may get some insight about where we are located on the path or in the labyrinth, and that could help a little bit.

The roots of most contemporary theories of property and therefore of labour rights can be traced to the writings of John Locke. Put simply, he claimed that the bounties of nature were entrusted to humanity in common, and that what constitutes “property” is the action of human labour to transform some resource into a useful or a saleable commodity. It is, therefore, work alone that permits a claim to some transformed natural matter as personal property. If I cut down some trees and use the logs to make a cabin, that cabin is mine by virtue of the labour I’ve invested in it. The same applies to the sheep I’ve raised, the meal I’ve cooked, the clothes I’ve fashioned out of animal skins or balls of cotton.

Locke’s theory became accepted within the context of “classical economics” as expounded by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others now celebrated by the gurus of corporate business practice, who either do not know or do not care that “the labour theory of value” is also a foundational element in Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism. From this perspective, human rights and particularly labour rights do not come from God or Nature, nor are they just made up. They emerge naturally from the real existence of real people, as a statement of protection for what is, in effect, the essence of our individual and collective being. In this sense, human rights, civil rights and labour rights are all of a piece, and are constructed by self-conscious human beings as recognition and protection for what they truly and fundamentally are.

Work and property rights are not, of course, static thing-like entities. They evolve as societies evolve and must take the shape of work and property in specific settings and contexts. Thinking of society in the declining era of feudalism as an emerging collection of independent farmers, artisans and merchants was possible in 1689, when Locke propounded his theory in his Second Treatise on Government. It was even possible in 1776, when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations and, (not entirely) coincidentally, Thomas Jefferson and his associates penned the American Declaration of Independence. In those days, it was conceivable that the economic marketplace was composed largely of actual “markets,” which people would visit on Saturdays to sell their wares and purchase others. Of course, this was not the only economic activity at the time: plantations worked by slaves who had no rights whatever and large international trading establishments such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Dutch East India Company were thriving at the same time; nonetheless, the economics of Locke, Smith and other classical liberals were rooted in pre-industrial agriculture, crafts and commerce, and therein lies the rub.

Enter the Luddites. Subjected to what Edward Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity,” the Luddites were mainly hand-loom weavers, skilled artisans whose independence was eliminated by the invention of the steam-loom and the organization of the factory system. They are falsely regarded by many people today as irrational anti-modernists, romantic fools whose destruction was justified because they had the audacity to obstruct “progress.” In fact, they were guardians of tradition, but also potentially willing participants in technological innovation if the benefits arising therefrom were equitably distributed. Their grievances were less about the means of production (technology) than about the relations of production (ownership and control). Factory owners, of course, had no interest in equity; so, the Luddites were hanged.

The history of nineteenth-century industrialism is fairly well known. What is insufficiently understood, however, is the way in which the labour theory of value was tossed out and a new theory of property was invented to replace it. No longer was value to be understood as the result of labour, but of investment.

Adam Smith loathed the idea of limited liability corporations which he declared to be anathema to free market economics. He even believed that it was a travesty of good economic relations for investors to own shares in companies that were not located in their own towns. Nonetheless, as the last of the Luddites was cut down from the gallows, legal reforms were taking place to elevate the corporation to the apex of the economy, and to place increasingly deskilled workers at its base.

For upwards of two hundred years, resource, craft and industrial workers fought a prolonged and sometimes violent battle to regain the rights that were surrendered to or, rather, stolen by the reorganized economy during the nineteenth century. Despite fierce repression, however, by the middle of the twentieth century, workers and their trade unions seemed to have made important gains. In the decades following World War II, a “grand bargain” was informally struck among government, business and labour. It produced a large measure of labour peace (unions not only represent workers but guarantee a disciplined and reliable labour force to ownership), unparalleled economic growth and an extraordinary rise in social equity.

The bargain, of course, had serious flaws. In the United States, for instance, the infamous “Taft-Hartley Act” amended the Roosevelt-era National Labour Relations Act of 1935 to severely restrict the rights of trade unions; yet, recognition of workers’ rights to collective bargaining remained and produced good results for all concerned. Likewise, in both Canada and the United States, the participants in the grand bargains conspired to undermine radical trade unions within the Congress of Industrial Organizations and to allow the anti-communist hysteria of the day to facilitate the takeover of many of the more progressive industrial unions and subsume them within the more respectable American Federation of Labor and the Canadian Labour Congress. Still, by ensuring labour stability and industrial peace, trade unions contributed mightily to overall prosperity and the development of a strong and sustainable middle class, affordable health care in all advanced countries except the United States, dramatic changes in education and an emerging “welfare state” to provide assistance to the destitute and the dispossessed. The possibility of endless progress and prosperity began to be jettisoned as early as the 1970s and the bargain began to be broken by about 1980.

At least since the ascendancy of neoliberalism as evidenced in the political regimes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the rights of labour have been under relentless attack. Increasing economic inequality and wage and salary stagnation (even with two or more wage and salary earners in a household) have led to predictions of the immanent demise of the middle class. The added value from increased productivity has been almost exclusively appropriated by the owners of capital. And, in the last half-century, a vicious assault against workers rights has been carried on by business and government throughout the parliamentary democracies.

Industrial union membership has fallen precipitously and the only areas of membership growth have been in the public service and “white-collar” occupations from sales clerks and office workers to social workers, laboratory technicians and, yes, college professors. So, despite the venomous condemnation of teachers’ unions, public sector unions and “union bosses” of all sorts by national, provincial/state, and municipal politicians as well as by corporate-controlled television, radio, magazines and newspapers, the reality is that, in the past 60 years and more, workers’ organizations have been more systematically excluded from participation in public decision making and made to bear the brunt of economic policies designed to inflate the wealth of the already rich and to maintain financial stability in what are now commonly acknowledged to be “uncertain times.”

Enter Richard D. Kahlenberg & Moshe Z. Marvit

Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and Marvit is a prominent labour lawyer. Considering the litany of human rights pronouncements that have been expressed with the utmost gravitas over the past few centuries, they make the simple claim that the right to organize has been left in the shallow water of symbolic rhetoric. Although the right to “freedom of association” appears in documents everywhere, it is seldom upheld when it comes to workers’ organizations. It is, in their words, “a right without a remedy.”

In fact, the minimal right to organize trade unions is one that governments and aspirant political leaders have urged to be withdrawn. So, today, twenty-four of the fifty American states have so-called “right to work” laws that do nothing other than make it almost impossible for workers to form unions. Like capital punishment and the absence of a universal, publicly funded health insurance system, “right-to-work” laws separate the United States from other successful liberal democracies.

In Canada, the attack on unions has also been unrelenting and workers’ organizations are now subject to more than two hundred federal and provincial statutes that limit collective bargaining and trade union rights (Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, 2013; Gindin, 2013; International Trade Union Conference, 2013; Panitch & Swartz, 2008). Moreover, in Ontario, the leader of the Conservative opposition chronically rants against unions and swears that, if elected, he will adopt draconian laws such as those in place in the very poorest American states; meanwhile, in Ottawa a bill to subject even union expenses to unprecedented official scrutiny is too close to adoption for comfort.

Kahlenberg and Marvit, then, must be understood mostly in the unique context of North American and mainly American politics. They must be seen in the especially ironic context of the country that first introduced a radical affirmation of human rights, but is now the most reluctant to embrace the rights of working people. Rather than pursue the theoretical issues surrounding labour rights, Kahlenberg and Marvit have made it their goal to achieve a very practical outcome. Their suggestion is to incorporate trade union rights in the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a choice that is not helped by the recent US Supreme Court decision to gut the US Voting Rights Act of 1965, but that’s another matter). Recognizing and quoting Harvard Law Professor Paul C. Wailer, they note that “no part of American law in the past fifty years has been less amenable to reform that labor law.”

The reason to adopt this tactic, of course, lies with the fact that American legislators have been strongly opposed to tinkering with laws that give such a crushing advantage to employers over employees. Moreover, even Democratic presidents including Carter, Clinton and Obama have been only tepidly open to revisions of the notorious Taft-Hartley Act and called the “slave labor bill” by representatives of organized labour. Lacking political support, Kahlenberg and Marvit have happened upon this way to achieve their objectives by attaching controversial labour rights to the publically accepted civil rights that were won by African-Americans at the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

According to David Midland, Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right “couldn’t come at a better time—just as America is beginning to discuss how to address our record high economic inequality. The future of the American middle class,” she continues, “depends upon rebuilding the labor movement. Kahlenberg and Marvit offer a provocative solution to address the failures with the law that have so weakened unions.”

Adds Amy B. Dean, Principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, and Former President and CEO, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council: “the growing disconnect between productivity and wages in America is not the result of some set of economic physical laws of nature, as some would have us believe, but instead directly linked to the political attacks by the right to undermine the laws of collective bargaining. While today’s labor laws and employment arrangements would benefit from an overhaul, it is unlikely that the political space and will for reform will result without a call to make economic justice the civil rights issue of our day. Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit’s prescription is just what our nation needs.”

Kahlenberg and Marvit say this: “Labor recognizes that individuals should be treated with decency, a core belief of the Civil Rights Movement; their emphasis on a shared humanity explains why labor leaders and civil rights advocates refer to one another as brothers and sisters.”

The authors go back to the basics. Like Locke, the classical liberals and Marx, they are aware that human labour is the source of economic value. And, like unexpected allies in, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, they recognize that the essential dignity of people is intimately tied up in their working lives. Though not widely read and long forgotten even in the places where it caused a bit of a stir in the early years of the “Reagan revolution,” no less a body than the Episcopal Commissions for Social Affairs of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops (1983) declared that “labour unions should be asked to play a more decisive and responsible role in developing strategies for economic recovery and employment. This,” the clergymen went on, “requires the restoration of collective bargaining rights wherever they have been suspended, collaboration between unions and unemployed and unorganized workers, and assurances that labour unions will have an effective role in developing economic policies.”

The opposition to Kahlenberg and Marvit’s proposal comes from predictable sources. Fox News featured right-wing “pundit” Ann Coulter, who in a paroxysm of petulance, cried that “civil rights is for blacks … Now they [Democrats] want to call everything a civil right, whether it’s women or immigrants, and now, labor unions?!”

The proper response to Ms. Coulter, therefore, is: “Yes, precisely!

Of course, the political right refuses to consider human rights to be seamless, arising out of a common sense of human dignity. Coulter and like-minded critics seem oblivious to the idea that human rights apply to all humanity and that their combined purpose is to restore and to elevate our respect, concern and care for each other. In this sense, no matter how carefully parsed and how meticulously distinguished is anyone inventory of rights, liberties and obligations, there is a common bond that unites them all.

Like-minded critics seem oblivious to the idea that human rights apply to all humanity and that their combined purpose is to restore and to elevate our respect, concern and care for each other. In this sense, no matter how carefully parsed and how meticulously distinguished in anyone’s inventory of rights, liberties and obligations, there is a common bond that unites them all.

Kahlenberg and Marvit remind us that the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a tragedy for African-Americans. He was executed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone not to advance the singular cause of equal rights regardless of race and colour, but to participate in a trade union demonstration. He was there in support of municipal workers who “were sick of being derisively referred to by racist whites as ‘boy.’ But in addition, as garbage collectors, they were tired of being poorly treated by management and by fellow citizens, who looked down upon them.”

The workers whom King had come to join had heard King’s message that “wherever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth … All labor has dignity.” It should, for it remains the source of value.

The most difficult problem with which Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right is, of course, the claim that trade unions are obsolete, that they reflect a nineteenth-century reality, an outmoded technology and a set of work relations that no longer describe the reality of today’s economy.

The triumphal neoliberal movement has captured the political and economic agenda and is defining the terms of controversy. The rise in part-time workers, the decline of large factory employment, the switch to service and away from industrial work and the general decline in the working condition and wages of workers are deemed the “new normal.” Few ask why and fewer seek to alter the trend. We are told in the media and in the workplace that we can’t stop progress, even when “progress” entails the loss of our jobs. Attempts to explain our situation come in the form of abstractions such as the technological society, the information society, globalization, and so on. Such terms do not permit contradiction for their substance is ephemeral. Meanwhile, workers at Walmart, fast food franchises, neighbourhood banks and other decentralized enterprises are forcibly prevented from organizing unions on pain of dismissal.

The fact, however, is that unions are far from outmoded. They are more necessary now than ever for the simple reason that there are more people in poverty, enduring unemployment or underemployment and being barred from the dream of economic stability, much less upward mobility.

Kahlenberg and Marvit explain the fundamentals of life in an adversarial, class-based society. They also point the way to the future for unions. Organize the unorganized. Build coalitions with environmentalists, ethnic communities, farmers, consumers, women, the LGBT community, youth and any and all others who are systematically oppressed by existing social arrangements. Their book focuses on the issue of legal reform through the mechanism of civil rights legislation, but their message is far broader for it harkens back to the origins of human rights, extends into the world of exploitation and provides inspiration to carry on the struggle regardless of the propaganda and the odds of success.

As a friend of mine who is, incidentally, a college administrator, signs her e-mails: “never give up, never give in.” Solidarity can be found in the strangest of places.


Camus, A. (1956). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1983). Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis: From the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights. (2013). Summary of Legislation Restricting Collective Bargaining and Trade Union Rights in Canada 1982-2013. Available online at

Gindin, S. (2013). Workers Rights and the Trade Union Movement in the U.S. and Canada. Global Research Centre. Available online at

International Trade Union Conference. (2013). Countries at Risk: Violations of Trade Union Rights 2013 Annual Report. Available at

Madariaga, S. (1954, March). Where Do We Go from Nowhere? Encounter, pp. 64-68.

Panitch, L. & Swartz, D. (2008). From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rawls, J. (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Weldon, T. (1953). The Vocabulary of Politics. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at