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Workers in Hard Times

Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises

Leon Fink
Joseph A. McCartin
Joan Sangster
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Workers in Hard Times
    Book Description:

    Seeking to historicize today's "Great Recession," this volume of essays situates the current economic crisis and its impact on workers in the context of previous abrupt shifts in the modern-day capitalist marketplace. Contributors use examples from industrialized North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia to demonstrate how workers and states have responded to those shifts and to their disempowering effects on labor. Since the Industrial Revolution, contributors argue, factors such as race, sex, and state intervention have mediated both the effect of economic depressions on workers' lives and workers' responses to those depressions. Contributors also posit a varying dynamic between political upheaval and economic crises, and between workers and the welfare state. The volume ends with an examination of today's "Great Recession": its historical distinctiveness, its connection to neoliberalism, and its attendant expressions of worker status and agency around the world. A sobering conclusion lays out a likely future for workers--one not far removed from the instability and privation of the nineteenth century. The essays in this volume offer up no easy solutions to the challenges facing today's workers. Nevertheless, they make clear that cogent historical thinking is crucial to understanding those challenges, and they push us toward a rethinking of the relationship between capital and labor, the waged and unwaged, and the employed and jobless. Contributors are Sven Beckert, Sean Cadigan, Leon Fink, Alvin Finkel, Wendy Goldman, Gaetan Heroux, Joseph A. McCartin, David Montgomery, Edward Montgomery, Melanie Nolan, Bryan D. Palmer, Scott Reynolds Nelson, Joan Sangster, Judith Stein, Hilary Wainright, and Lu Zhang.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09597-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Across the industrialized world, urgent questions have been raised and in some cases reopened by recent events. The financial crisis that rocked the global economy and led to a steep downturn in 2008 has caused mass suffering and taken a severe toll on working people and their collective organized strength. The accompanying loss of popular confidence in governments and financial institutions has triggered protest movements against austerity measures in Greece and Spain, and against the depredations of the “one percent”—as identified by the Occupy Wall Street movement—in the United States.

    As the world economy struggles to cope with...

  4. Part I. Depressions and Working-Class Lives

    • 1 Marching under Flags Black and Red: Toronto’s Dispossessed in the Age of Industry
      (pp. 19-44)

      When capitalism is understood not merely as a political economy of development, advance, and progress but also as a social order of destruction, how we view workers necessarily changes. For capitalism is not merely a regime of accumulation giving rise to a complex amalgam of contradictory impulses and episodic clashes of antagonistic interests. It has historically also been fundamentally about crisis, as is abundantly evident in the history of the present.¹

      This insight framed Marx’s oeuvre, the 1873 afterword to the second German edition ofCapital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Productiondeclaring: “The contradictions inherent in the movement of...

    • 2 Working People’s Responses to Past Depressions
      (pp. 45-59)

      Since the founding of the Republic, working men and women have been all too familiar with alternating periods of boom times and hard times, with seasonal unemployment, with marked differences in availability of jobs among various parts of the country, and with general depressions abruptly precipitated by overproduction of wares or by bank panics. Not all downturns struck with the same severity. The crisis of the early 1840s pitched nine state governments into default (primarily in the rapidly expanding cotton kingdom), while the depression that began in 1873 sent ten state governments into default over the ensuing eleven years. The...

    • 3 Soviet Workers and Stalinist Terror: The Crisis of Industrialization
      (pp. 60-80)

      As capitalism scours the globe, leaving no remote rural corner untouched, it is worth noting that its dynamic destruction began almost half a millennium ago. A systemic transformation that began in England in the sixteenth century continues to uproot peasantries, fuel new industrial revolutions, and remake classes and markets today. In the Soviet Union, many of these vast changes, which spanned about four hundred years in the West, were telescoped into a mere decade. In the 1930s, the world’s first socialist state embarked on an economic program aimed at avoiding the inequality, poverty, and urban slums created by capitalism. While...

  5. Part II. Economic Dislocation as Political Crisis

    • 4 The Labor of Capitalism: Industrial Revolution and the Transformation of the Global Cotton-Growing Countryside
      (pp. 83-98)

      A new specter is haunting labor historians: transnational labor history. Wherever we encounter labor history today, it is often pursuing the history of labor across national boundaries.¹ In these stories, workers migrate, capital swooshes around the globe, techniques for organizing work are telegraphed to and from distant labor markets, even working-class political ideologies and institutions transcend boundaries. The story of capitalism itself is now told as one that is fundamentally global. An Indian historian writing in Singapore studies Indian sugar workers on Mauritius, and an African historian describes the links that connect the larger story of labor in Africa to...

    • 5 The Ordeal of Eugene Debs: The Panic of 1893, the Pullman Strike, and the Origins of the Progressive Movement
      (pp. 99-110)

      The American panic of 1893 had origins in—of all places—the fiscal policy of the U.S. Congress. No grand conflict between workers or owners started it; no fear of a growing socialist movement extended it. Yet within a year, the 1893 panic ushered in one of the most famous labor conflicts in American history. The American Railway Union’s support for workers locked out of the Pullman Palace Car Company became a titanic general strike centered in Chicago. What began as international doubt about the dollar’s convertibility into gold became by 1894 a test of Eugene Debs’s new American Railway...

  6. Part III. Social-Welfare Struggles from the Liberal to the Neoliberal State

    • 6 Workers’ Social-Wage Struggles during the Great Depression and the Era of Neoliberalism: International Comparisons
      (pp. 113-140)

      The early working-class movements scorned notions of a “social wage” provided by state programs, extolling equal wages for all workers, though Karl Marx argued that such abstract equality ignored the special needs of individuals and households.¹ The organized-labor and socialist movements disdained early bourgeois proposals for social insurance because these were actuarially based, relying on forced savings of individuals rather than redistribution of wealth. When Bismarck copied Napoleon III’s contributory pension fund (1850) and accident-insurance (1868) plans in Germany in 1883, adding a sickness-insurance plan for the poorest groups of blue-collar workers that covered medical costs and a partial payment...

    • 7 Politics and Policies in the 1970s and Early Twenty-first Century: The Linked Recessions
      (pp. 141-160)

      The Great Recession had its origins in the political economy created by politicians and business leaders in the 1970s. The decisions made and patterns put in place reshaped the structure of the U.S. economy and politics, fostering the wage stagnation, indebtedness, and global imbalances that led to the Great Recession and continue to afflict workers and their unions.

      There were two crises of political economy in the twentieth century, the first in the 1930s, and the second in the 1970s. People trying to understand the Great Recession often look back to the Great Depression. Especially for people on the left,...

    • 8 Neoliberalism at Work in the Antipodean Welfare State in the Late Twentieth Century: Collusion, Collaboration, and Resistance
      (pp. 161-184)

      Neoliberalism is critical to understanding the experience of working people in the crises of capitalism from the 1970s to the global financial recession of 2008. Bob Jessop and others have pointed to its “ecological dominance” in the capitalist world from the late twentieth century.¹ Neoliberalism is a political project supporting competitive market forces. Under its influence, the social and moral economy shifted from a postwar commitment to maintaining full employment to one in which fighting inflation and supporting growth took precedence. Free markets and deregulation promised wealth creation and individual freedom and well-being. The promise was not completely fulfilled, as...

  7. Part IV. Workers and the Shakeup of the New World Order

    • 9 Want amidst Plenty: The Oil Boom and the Working Class in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1992–2010
      (pp. 187-212)

      Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada, had long been the poor cousin of Confederation.¹ By 2008 this all changed, as Newfoundland and Labrador became a “have province” within the Canadian system of calculating federal transfers of income to poorer provinces. Since 2000, average personal incomes have increased steadily, and the unemployment rate has dropped. Much of this good economic fortune has been attributed to the cyclical but steady rise in total oil production from the province’s offshore oil wells since the first Hibernia project began production in 1997 (see map 9.1). The province’s gross domestic product (GDP) has...

    • 10 Whose Hard Times? Explaining Autoworkers Strike Waves in Recent-Day China
      (pp. 213-242)
      LU ZHANG

      In contrast to the generally passive responses of organized labor in the West to the 2008 global economic crisis, China has witnessed a major wave of labor unrest in the forms of wildcat strikes, legal disputes, protests, and demonstrations.¹ A showcase of this autonomous worker insurgency was a wave of auto-manufacturing strikes that rocked China in the summer of 2010.² The historic events unfolded when a nineteen-day strike at Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (a transmission plant that provides 80 percent of automatic transmissions for Honda’s assembly plants in China) in Foshan, Guangdong Province, shut down the Japanese automaker’s...

    • 11 Transformative Power: Lessons from the Greek Crisis and Beyond
      (pp. 243-262)

      In a context of uncertainty and flux, it helps to start from the specific. My starting point is the rise of Syriza, the radical left coalition rooted in the movements resisting austerity that has become the main opposition party in the Greek Parliament. Syriza’s ability to give a focused political voice to the anger and despair of millions has made a breakthrough from which we can learn. This is a matter not only of its soaring electoral support, which rose from 4 percent of the national vote in 2009 to 27 percent in June 2012 on the basis of a...

    • 12 How Workers and the Government Have Dealt with Economic Crisis and Industrial Decline: 1929 and 2007
      (pp. 263-288)

      The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of recessions in the United States, lists some thirty-three business cycles since 1854. On average, every fifty-six months workers in the United States go through a period of growth and expansion and then contraction and crisis. While growth periods have been on average longer and contractions shorter in duration since World War II, the experience of boom-and-bust cycles for workers has not gone away.¹ Both 1929 and 2007 were years of widespread economic collapse that came on the heels of periods of financial innovation, rapid asset appreciation, and growing inequality. In...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 289-292)
  9. Index
    (pp. 293-304)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-310)