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Closing Plenary: Labor in the 21st Century National Conference

by Sal Lanci

Isolation. Insecurity. Fear. The Covid-19 pandemic is not the sole cause of these ills which plague society, but merely serves as their latest harbinger. Before Covid, industrialization drove flocks of people from rural communities to the urban unemployment line. Liberalization deregulated social protections to relegate survival to the whims of the “free” market. And nationalism justified new ways to dehumanize marginalized groups. However, the Labor in the 21st Century National Conference inspires activists in all fields to heal society’s wounds and fight the injustices that scar it by emphasizing our collective power to dismantle systems of oppression and offering new tools to those willing to do the work. The closing plenary’s three featured speakers -- Ariel Avgar, Erica Smiley, and Elizabeth Shuler -- discussed the future of the Labor Movement and the role of ILR, activists, and unions in it.

The work ahead requires reflection. Ariel Avgar (Associate Dean for Outreach and Associate Professor at the Cornell ILR School) opened the closing plenary by honoring Lois Gray and ILR’s commitment to the Labor Movement over the past 75 years. 75 years of research on labor and the workplace, of training future leaders, and of influencing public policy. Avgar warned that in celebrating past achievements, we must still challenge ourselves to “reimagine longstanding traditions, public policies, and structures to enhance collective voice and improve outcomes for workers and communities.” Reflection is a tool to understand the past so that we can envision a new way forward.

The work ahead requires dedication. Erica Smiley (Executive Director of Jobs with Justice) discussed how new methods of oppression replaced the slavery system by undermining multi-racial early Reconstruction attempts to actualize democracy for all. Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the War on Drugs prevented and continue to prevent marginalized groups from fully participating in democracy. Activists advanced institutional progress with the Civil Rights Movement by organizing their networks toward a common cause and implementing different plans of action that pressured the state to change the oppressive legal framework. Such change happened over years and decades of organizing and legal challenges to the system and the dedication of civil rights advocates enabled justice to prevail despite the social and political obstacles.

Dedication alone cannot solve our problems, and words without action is compliance to injustice. The recent resurgence of right-wing populism necessitates a comprehensive response. When factories moved overseas and the shareholder mindset devastated communities dependent on good union manufacturing jobs, people felt isolated. The emergence of social media and online right-wing groups radicalized individuals discarded by the system by giving them a sense of community. Smiley encouraged labor activists to exercise their “right to organize, not just unionize.” The Civil Rights Movement emerged out of the church. Contemporary social justice activists must form relationships in their community, beyond just the workplace, to appeal to our intersectional identities and achieve anti-racist solutions.

The work ahead requires support. Elizabeth Shuler (Secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO) reminded us that Lois Gray empowered women by building networks of support and that we must now build networks of support to ensure that the Labor Movement can withstand and overcome the neoliberal onslaught against our rights. We must communicate with fellow workers, worshippers, rec league teammates, and other local connections to form relationships for the purpose of providing mutual aid and protection for all community members that incorporates and uplifts our different identities. As technological shifts threaten an already precarious workforce and climate catastrophe endangers the world, unions and other worker organizations must fight so that workers’ voices impact technological development and guide climate action. We must use networks of support to empower local communities and strengthen national and international structures.

Community. Stability. Empathy. We must treat society’s flaws by reconnecting with our communities, stabilizing income sources and social safety nets, and caring about our neighbors, especially those who most need the help.  Political democracy needs economic democracy to survive. But organizing must not stop at the workplace. We all have a duty to improve our society’s public, social, and political health.

Lois Gray