By Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta. ILR Press, 2022. 276 pages. $125/hardcover; $24.95/paperback; $16.99/eBook.
We can paint U.S. workers with a range of broad-brush strokes. There’s the great battle story of the historical growth of the trade union movement. There’s the story of today’s White working-class men as a potent locus of racism and extremist ideologies. There’s the pandemic story of heroic, essential workers, embedded in a larger one of low-paid Black and Brown workers struggling for dignity and a living wage in the service industries. There’s an emerging story of a new wave of union organizing—after decades of steady decline—with upstart efforts in places like Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart.
For those of us whose daily existence separates us from meaningful contact with working-class people, and whose perspective may be limited to one or two of these broad-brush portrayals, The Future We Need invites us to a fresh, intimate, and thought-provoking look at this sector of our country’s population. At the same time, it requires us to stretch to consider the implications for all of us of their struggles for economic democracy.
The familiar struggles of the big trade unions with giant heads of industry are consigned, with appreciation, to the last century. In a more complex, multilayered, and globalized system, it can be hard to even identify those whom the authors term “the ultimate profiteers.” One of their major contributions, in response, is a fresh take on the whole concept of collective bargaining. They argue that the central dynamic—required negotiation over division of revenues between profits for owners and benefits for working people—has powerful application far beyond union struggles over wages and working conditions.
One way of moving beyond this more narrowly defined model involves bargaining for the common good. In the West Virginia teachers strike of 2018, for example, the teachers gathered significant community support as they held out for the widely shared value of protecting public education from privatization.
The authors lift up the importance of current efforts outside of unions that support whole sectors of the workforce. Describing the contribution of “worker centers”—among domestic workers, guest workers, food industry workers—they offer examples of getting access beyond the individual employer or franchise owner to that ultimate profiteer. They discuss ways of organizing along whole commodity supply chains, such as the work of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance for transnational wage parity in the garment industry, and that of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that succeeded in requiring fast food chains to address the conditions of tomato farm workers. They offer examples of legislation for a new generation of labor protections to address the oppressive side of the gig economy.
Emphasizing that working people are also householders, consumers, commuters, debtors, and citizens, they offer glimpses of the potential of collective bargaining outside of the workplace. The Montgomery bus boycott, the United Farm Workers grape boycott, and the anti-sweatshop movement offer examples of consumer solidarity to build on. To these can be added rent strikes, student debtors joining together to negotiate with financial institutions that hold their loans, and local citizens negotiating with developers in Community Benefits Agreements.
Scattered throughout the book, as leaven, are long interviews with working people speaking of their struggles and dreams, and the dawning understanding that they had to stand up to the forces that would keep them down. I loved the opportunity to meet these strong women (and one man) and appreciated the authors’ perhaps unorthodox decision to include themselves. These are people that I would choose to have in my life and hold in my heart.
As we open our hearts to the “other,” Quakers have an admirable tendency to reach out to those who are farthest out on the margins. This book provides an opportunity to engage with those “others” who are closer in. If their struggles are not ones we face immediately, we would still do well to claim them as our own. These are the struggles of those whose work our lives depend upon—and ones that may soon be ours.
In comparison with the daunting weight of ever more concentrated wealth and power that our world is experiencing, the hope that this book offers may seem thin at times. But the alternative of averting our eyes, in hopes that the padding of privilege we may still have will protect us, seems fraught with even greater peril to our future and our souls.
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. She is the author of Money and Soul, an expansion of a Pendle Hill pamphlet by the same name. Her newest titles are That Clear and Certain Sound and a volume of poetry, Alive in This World.