"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

March 10, 2008

Labor Pains

The above was the title for the last column I wrote at the Local Buzz print publication. For the piece, I explored the lack of a municipal body that deals with labor and employment issues as they affect the citizens of Northampton, in contrast to an almost endless array of other such Boards and Committees in Northampton that deal with a myriad of other interests and issues on behalf of its' residents. While working on the draft, my editor at the time, Greg Saulmon, suggested I send an email with a few questions on the topic to Gerald Friedman, Professor of Economics at UMass, and a professor of Greg's from his days at UMass. I sent an email to Gerald informing him of the piece I was working on, asking him if he was aware of any other communities in the U.S. that had anything resembling a municipal Labor Council, as well as solicited his comments and opinion.

His response was as follows.

You raise an interested question. In most American cities, there is a Central Labor Council (or some such name) organized by labor unions to represent their interests and, they would say, the general interests of working people. In addition, there are state and, often, local departments of labor which, sometimes, are run by activists and others concerned to improve the position of workers and unions. Unions and some reform minded groups have also sponsored new forms of urban labor centers, especially serving immigrant workers. You are thinking of something else, however, an officially sponsored pro-labor non-government organization. This is similar to organizations found in many European countries, notably the French Bourses du travail. But it goes against the "voluntarist" strain in American labor policy which both privileges union organizations over other forms of working-class action, and limits any form of government support for labor. Another way to see this is that the US makes it harder for workers to organize.

The lack of forms of recognition of workers outside of unions has always been a problem because it denies collective recognition to workers who found it particularly difficult to organize themselves into unions, including the less-skilled, women, minorities, and domestic workers. It has become a particular problem in recent decades with the general decline of the union movement.

I think our economy is hurt and our democracy is impoverished by the lack of collective representation for workers as workers. It would well behoove a progressive community like Northampton to establish a labor council to make a first step towards remedying this gap.

Let me know if I can help in any other way.

Gerald Friedman
Professor of Economics
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherst, MA. 01003
The completed column I wrote as it appeared in the Local Buzz will be posted here soon.

LABELS: public policy, could we should we would we