Sunday, 15 July 2012

Scranton PA: Organised Labour, Poverty and the US Elections


The role for organised labour has never been greater than in this depressing and depressed era caused, in the words of Marx, when an unleashed and unbridled capitalism ultimately eats itself, leaving workers, their families and communites nakedly exposed in an era of austerity to a second wave attack as the state uses the failed economy as a guise to hammer workers even further.

The town of Scranton, Pennsylvania is written of in this context and appearing over the past few days. First appearing as a blog item 'Screwed in Scranton' in the impressive In These Times website ( and then today in the The Observer in an equally engaging piece by Paul Harris (

The central message of both articles is the same which is that, in one of a number of US cities facing certain bankruptcy, the terms and conditions of public sector workers are seen as first and legitimate means by which deficits can be cut. Naturally also we are witnessing the offshoot of the successful attack on public sector trade unions in Wisconsin being played out under the guise of austerity.

As the In These Times piece argues this short-term vicious assault threatens the-long possibility of emergence from the current era of low growth and joblessness:

Scranton’s problems are actually typical of the financial death spiral facing many mid-sized towns in Pennsylvania and across the United States after three decades of deindustrialization and a halting economic recovery with continuing wage cuts. "Cities like Scranton have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and a loss of population, so that they are left trying to maintain services with a smaller tax base," economist Stephen Herzenberg, director of the Keystone Research Centre, a progressive think tank in Pennsvlvania, says. "But when the quality of services like education fall, better-off families will move out, and these cities won’t attract industry."

Harris agrees:

Instead, recovering from an era of huge borrowing by cities and citizens alike, and the bursting of one of the biggest bubbles in economic history, it seems easier to find people to blame rather than face up to some solutions.

Both articles chronice the response of the trade unions and their members caught in their descent to poverty and chaos as all public sector workers' salaries are slashed to the minimum wage.

Naturally, the plight of Scranton and the many other US cities like it will feature in the foreground of the US elections, not least as Mitt Romney continues to champion smaller governing and the kind of belt-tightening that he has never had to experience himself. Of greater interest will be the response of Obama - particularly in the context of being seen to side, or not, with the response of organised labour to the plight of cities like Scranton. His distancing from the recall vote in Wisconsin was notable.

By sheer coincidence I have been reading a book by Stephen Lopez on the industrial decline of Pennsylvania and what it meant for the future of US unions. Although the book was written in 2005, three years before Marx's prediction comes to life, it's focus on the crisis of organised labour is particularly relevant in its aftermath.

The sharp difference however, from the era of which Lopez writes, is the contrastingly rapid, advanced and naked attack on the position of US workers, particularly those in the public sector. A key difference also from prior periods of economic decline is that in which the impact on organised labour was secondary, not a pre-concceived feature.

Reorganising the Rust Belt: An Inside Story of the American Labor Movement is also well worth a read for those interested in the emergence of social movement unionism as a key renewal and revivial strategy for US labour.

There is a book review from the ILR department at Cornell here

A key message from this post is that solidarity with US unions - and others globally - is as important now as ever, and that evidence of the debilitating, degrading effects of workers/families/communities must consistently be used as part of the case for an alternative to austerity.

In Solidarity


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