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The Worker Institute

Advancing worker rights and collective representation

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Opening Address

Opening remarks from launch of The Worker Institute at Cornell

Since the Second World War, we first had about 30 years of “managed capitalism” in the United States, followed by 30 years of freer market capitalism, driven by an ideology that Joseph Stiglitz has called “market fundamentalism.” In the earlier period, there were no economic crashes; strong unions helped ensure that wages rose in line with productivity, and society was far more equal than it is today. People of color, women and others fought for inclusion and made breakthroughs on a long road that still continues. In the more recent period, beginning in the 1980s, our society has been marked by growing inequality, stagnant average wages, a massive upward redistribution of wealth, and deregulation that culminated in the financial free-for-all that crashed the global economy in 2008.

We have learned from the current crisis that economic governance shaped by market fundamentalist policy, with its extraordinary levels of inequality, is unsustainable even as it maintains policy dominance. It is economically unsustainable for the weak demand generated by the expansion of low-wage work. It is politically unsustainable for the concentrations of power and money that corrupt the life of a vibrant democracy. It is socially unsustainable for the inevitable spread of unrest. And it is environmentally unsustainable, for there will be no stopping out-of-control markets from destroying the environment without a general shift toward greater social regulation.

Contending visions

Yet change never comes easily or quickly. It took a decade after the crash of 1929 to consolidate the New Deal and an era of managed markets. It took a decade after the economic crises that began in 1973 for market fundamentalism to establish its dominance and a “long march” toward the crash of 2008. Now again, we are facing perhaps a decade of conflict, negotiation and struggle between contending visions of the future.

We know what failed economic governance looks like but the alternatives remain less clear, and the wastebaskets are full of blueprints. If we are to find our way to an inclusive, sustainable global society it will be, like every other kind of social order, shaped in struggle.

One thing we do know is that we need solutions not scapegoats. The economic crisis was not caused by workers, unions, high wages, public spending, social programs, budget deficits, ethnic or racial minorities, immigrants, pro-choice activists, gay marriage or President Obama. For long-term solutions, we need the active participation of workers and their allies, a revitalization of collective representation, in both old ways and new.

And so we are here this evening to launch the Worker Institute at Cornell, to bring our research and education to bear on these debates. We believe that a socially inclusive, sustainable society depends upon strong worker rights and representation – to reduce inequality, revitalize democracy, empower our workers and their families.

Focus on strategic innovation

Building on our strengths, we start with the following initiatives:

Equity at Work, to shine light on all forms of discrimination and to promote innovative solutions.

Precarious Workforce, to address the interests of growing workforces at home and abroad that lack any kind of employment security or channels of workplace representation.

Labor, Environment and Sustainable Development, a forward-looking group of colleagues bringing together labor and environmental organizations to promote common interests.

Strategic Leadership, with a signature program, the Union Leadership Institute, that in collaboration with the New York State AFL-CIO has trained hundreds of rising labor leaders in innovative approaches to contemporary problems.

And International Collective Action, to bring together labor researchers, trade unions, and other national and international organizations across national borders.

Partnership and collaboration

It takes more than a village

The Worker Institute thus promotes research and public discourse in the ongoing arenas of a contentious democratic society. We seek not to compete, but to work in common effort with unions, worker centers, NGOs, agencies, foundations, and colleagues at other universities and networks promoting labor research and education.

We live in hard times, but we also have choices. We can gripe and complain or we can seek to understand, and on that understanding we can teach, inspire and lead. It will take far more than a village to reform American and global society, in the interest not of those who control great wealth and power, but in the interest of the vast majority, the working multitudes. For the challenges ahead, we need all hands aboard, including yours and ours.

Lowell Turner, Academic Director 
The Worker Institute at Cornell
Sept. 12, 2012