Cornell University

January 5 2012

Mobilizing against Inequality

Turner gives Countess Markievicz Lecture in Dublin

ILR Professor Lowell Turner delivered the 35th Annual Countess Markievicz Memorial Lecture at the National College of Ireland in Dublin this winter.

Setting the context for current ILR research on immigrant workers and unions in four countries – France, Germany, Britain and the United States – Turner painted contemporary events with a broad brush, including:

The scene.

"And this is where we are now: in a sustained post-crash period of intense political conflict and experimentation that will determine the shape of a new order, if we are lucky enough to get there."

Encouragement.

"This is not the moment to lose heart."

What lies ahead.

" … Perhaps a decade or more of political struggle between contending visions of the future … If we are to find our way to an inclusive, well-regulated, sustainable global society it will be, like every other kind of social order, shaped in struggle."

One path to a more equal society lies in innovative union campaigns to organize workers at the low-wage end, including immigrant workers, said Turner, director of ILR's Institute for Workers Rights and Collective Representation.

He urged the audience of about 100 students, faculty and trade unionists to consider campaigns that have emerged across the global North, he said.

Those campaigns included: in the United States, Justice for Janitors and Hotel Workers Rising;  in the United Kingdom, Justice for Cleaners; in Germany, immigrant worker integration by unions and work councils, and in France, union-led support of undocumented workers.

For several decades, low-wage immigrant workers from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have fueled the economies of northern nations, Turner said.

Their labor has made an enormous economic contribution, but it has also given "… employers a strengthened hand to push for freer labor markets and weaker unions, to play groups of workers off against each other, to fragment the collective cohesion and bargaining power of workers and their organizations of representation."

"We see everywhere in the prosperous global North an expansion of low-wage workforces, populated by immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, women, and young workers, lacking in any meaningful collective representation," Turner said.

"As unions wake up to this reality, decline breeds innovation in renewed efforts at organizing, advocacy and coalition building. Successes foster internal union reform and strategic reorientation," he said in the lecture, "Mobilizing Against Inequality: Unions, Immigrant Workers, and the Crisis of Capitalism."

"Social justice framing highlights the politics of inequality and helps change the discourse that has been so hopelessly misdirected at currencies, deficits, entitlements and scapegoats such as civil servants and immigrants."

The mobilization of workers at the low-wage end, including immigrant workers, Turner suggests, offers potential for overcoming workforce divisions and for reducing extraordinary inequality – in the U.S. and elsewhere – that threatens the sustainability of democratic society.