A posthumous honor for author Randy Martin

This week in North Philly Notes, we reprint Jeffrey A. Halley and Patrick Hebert’s comments honoring the late Randy Martin, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Marxist section of the American Sociological Association.

On behalf of the Marxist section, and its Lifetime Achievement Award Committee (with Art Jipson and Rich Hogan) it is with great pleasure that we present this year’s Award to Randy Martin. Many of you knew Randy and are familiar with his work and contributions. Randy unfortunately passed away this winter, after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 57, Professor and Chair of Art, Society and Public Policy, Director, Graduate Program in Arts Politics, at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University and in his time he accomplished many things.

I met Randy in New York when he was at CUNY Graduate Center finishing his Ph. D. thesis.  Later in the 1980s we both worked together on the journal Social Text. His B.A. was from UC –Berkeley, where he studied Michael Burawoy, who had recently joined the faculty. For his M.S. Randy then studied at Wisconsin with Eric Olin Wright, and was active in the graduate students’ strike.  A Marxist scholar and also a dancer, he came to New York to dance and to study with Mike Brown and George Fisher at CUNY.

His research can be divided a bit arbitrarily into a number of overlapping categories:

Works on Marxism include:

Books critiquing the neo-liberal university include:

Randy might be best known for his pioneering work on neo-liberalism and financialization, in Financialization of Daily Life and in An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management.  And he had just completed Knowledge, LTD: Toward a Social Logic of the Derivative, published posthumously in spring 2015.

Finally, he worked at the confluence of politics and culture, more specifically, dance and culture, in his Performance as Political Act: The Embodied Self; Socialist Ensembles: Theater and State in Cuba and Nicaragua; Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Politics; and the edited Routledge Companion to Art and Politics.

Randy was also an institution builder, as editor of journals, serving on the board of directors of the New York Marxist School, as Chair and acting Dean at Pratt Institute, and finally at New York University, where he was Chair, Professor of Art, Society, and Public Policy, and Founding Director of the Graduate Program in Arts Politics, Tisch School of the Arts.

Randy combined Marxist scholarship, organizational commitment, and a magnetic presence as teacher.

We are honored to confer this award on him.  To receive it, I want to introduce his colleague Pato Hebert from New York University.

Patrick Hebert:

It’s an honor to accept this award on behalf of Randy’s brilliant wife Ginger and his wonderful children Oliver and Sophia, and to represent my colleagues and our alumni in the Art & Public Policy Department at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. Randy ingeniously envisioned, built and chaired our department, and so it is also he whom I have the privilege and challenge of representing tonight.

Although I am honored to be here, I am also deeply saddened to be with you. I so wish it were Randy’s probing, punning, imploring, prancing presence that was before you now. Back home at the department we will soon be embarking on our first new school year without our gentle but fierce leader. This beginning anew in the space of loss will not be easy. Randy was as gifted as he was gracious, and he always made time for everyone even as he shepherded countless book projects, panels, formations and initiatives.

I miss him. He took a chance on me three years ago and made room and resources for my strange, amoebic practice, guiding, pushing and supporting me along with hundreds upon hundreds of others — colleagues, students, strangers, you, our world, the under-commons. Randy was incomparable. At his services last spring were shared many heavy hearts, but mostly endless currents of gratitude, admiration, awe and delight. People still speak continuously of Randy’s kindness, warmth, generosity, his catalytic creativity, principled yet supple politics, and his devastating intellectual acumen. I miss this marvelous mind and spirit, his energy and example. Every day.

But although I am still so full of sorrow, I am also thrilled to be here with you, his comrades, a most special crew among his many magical worlds. I am buoyed by the work that you and Randy have done, or will do, helping us to better understand how we are so interconnected with one another, the messy and sacred intricacies of the social, which here is to also say the political, and the still to be determined. Randy deserved to stand before you tonight, receiving this award and the recognition he has so rightfully earned but would no doubt so modestly deflect. He cannot be with us in the flesh now, but his spirit and wisdom are everywhere. No more committee meetings, deadlines, bureaucracies or brain cancer, just a legacy as lithe as it is large.

I, myself, am just beginning to dip more fully into the work and pathways Randy Martin has left for us. Randy’s dexterity and agility were astonishing. He was able to write incisively about academic administration, progressive dance and financial derivatives with equal grace and grit. He used to tell our students that they were working to create a GPS for a world that does not yet exist, but that they would bring into being through their work and efforts. Conjuring the pulsing plurality of our needed response, he reminded us all that we share not a practice, but a predicament. The predicament of this moment, as well as our communal possibility.

Given this special collective assembled here tonight, I thought I would close with some of Randy’s own words from his article, “Marxism after Cultural Studies,” published in 2008 as the financial crisis crested. Given the market’s bungee jumping the last few weeks, I can’t help but wonder what Randy would’ve analyzed and intuited. But here is what he wrote so presciently some seven years ago:

Financialization is more about technique than idea, more effect than intention, less a consensus than a dispersion of consequences. As such, it is less coherent than a ruling idea and pricklier than a regime whose time can pass. It does not replace these other terms for naming what we are up against, but nestles among them. It surely cannot account for all that transpires in the present, but does insist upon reconciling the vast complexity in our midst through some means of accountability.

Finance culturalizes risk by rendering it a calculable gain from an expected outcome. Risk spreads the culture of accountability and as such forms a way of knowing or epistemological conjuncture that both cuts across disciplines and renders those claims to methodological monogamy mute.

Risk suggests more than an attack on traditional partitions of specialized knowledge and expertise. It also invites another figuration of being.

By examining financial reason ‘manifest as risk management’ across an array of sites from war, to domesticity, to education, a richer trajectory for Marxism and cultural studies can itself be more readily imagined. For Marxism to now emerge as the unrepresentable within cultural studies does not demand a return to the classical formulations with their prior stabilities and separations. Rather, this Marxism makes room for the cultural as it manifests and multiplies in those spaces and affects that capital lives off of but remains indifferent to. This Marxism is also a cultural studies, but one that asks what life we lead together when all that concerns us can be placed at risk. It allows us to pose the question of value, including that of our own theoretical labors, when these would be denied both a history and a futurity. From the little difference that we make can be derived a field of studies to survive and even thrive these pre-criminal crises.



Celebrating University Press Week: The Future of Scholarly Publishing

November 8-14 is University Press Week. Since 2012, we have celebrated University Press Week each year to help tell the story of how university press publishing supports scholarship, culture, and both local and global communities.

Today’s theme is: The Future of Scholarly Publishing

Indiana University Press offers a post by IUP director Gary Dunham.

Oxford University Press features a blog post by Editorial Director Sophie Goldsworthy on broad trends in scholarly publishing.

George Mason University Press has a blog post by Mason Publishing on a global survey of digital tools use in scholarly communication and research workflows.

University Press of Colorado reflects on their 50th anniversary this year, and what the future might hold for us and the UP community in general.

University Press of Kansas UPK Director Chuck Myers will author today’s post.

University of North Carolina UNC Press director John Sherer makes “The Case for Financial Support of Your University Press.”

West Virginia University Press Reflections on the value of acquisitions work and the meaning of curating/gatekeeping in the digital era.

Johns Hopkins University Press A commentary by editorial director Greg Britton.

University of Georgia Press  Post on how UP’s are picking up the slack left by trade publishers because of their aversion to risk when it comes to niches in nonfiction publishing. This post will mention several series we publish but highlight in particular a new series we’re publishing in cooperation with the Library of American Landscape History.

Help us Celebrate!

  • Use the hashtag #ReadUP that presses have been using all year to talk about the work we publish—maybe use it to draw your book into University Press Week conversations.
  • Tell the story of publishing with us with the hashtag #PublishUP.
  • Join our #UPshelfie campaign (we are continuing this campaign from last year if you Google #UPshelfie you will find them!). Show us what university press books are on your shelf!
  • Subscribe to the University Press Week newsletter here, keep an eye out for the 2015 UP Week infographic, and attend one of our online events.

Chronicling the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians

This week, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled likens the Cambodian refugees that are featured in his book to the current exodus of Syrian refugees to show connections of race, gender, and activism.

After they survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by several years of confinement in international refugee camps, as many as 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived to the Bronx during the 1980s and 1990s.

Unsettled chronicles the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians, closely following one woman and her family for several years as they both survive and resist their literal insertion into the Bronx “hyperghetto.” The term hyperghetto refers to the postwar structural decomposition of U.S. cities resulting from massive and compulsory unemployment, public and private disinvestment, and the hyper-segregation and confinement of the city’s poorest Black and Latino residents. It serves as a prime example of how late-capitalism and racial democracy failed far too many in the post-Civil Rights era.

Unsettled_smI wrote Unsettled  to reveal how Cambodian refugee resettlement to the United States did not mark the closing of the refugee sojourn, followed by the opening of a new era of peace and stability for those who fled their homeland. I wanted to show the ways in which the refugees remained displaced, their sojourn unclosed, owing to the false promises of federal policy makers and the unscrupulous actions of their handlers. Politicians talked boldly about delivering refugees into the arms of the free market, but there was never a meaningful economic plan tethered to U.S. refugee resettlement policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offered only one-year of housing and job training assistance to refugees before they were cut loose, told to make it on their own. Meanwhile local resettlement agencies placed Cambodian refugees into ruinous housing units in some of the most economically marginalized neighborhoods in the Bronx. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have held some of the highest welfare and poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Among Cambodian refugees living in New York City, 42.8 percent were living in poverty, 23.9 percent were unemployed, and 62 percent had less than a high school education twenty years after their resettlement. Over the past three decades the vast majority of Bronx Cambodians have subsisted on welfare programs (or what remains of them).

Despite these harsh realities, many Bronx Cambodians engaged in activism. Unsettled explores how Bronx Cambodians resisted conditions of poverty, violence, and housing discrimination. It pays attention to the unique process whereby community members developed an analysis of their conditions, reached consensus on their collective needs, and sought meaningful political redress through community organizing and direct action. Today, such activism continues through the community’s younger generation—the children and grandchildren of refugees—led by organizations such as Mekong NYC. The organization’s work, as told by director and community organizer Chhaya Chhoum is featured in key chapters of the book.

As an urban ethnography, Unsettled offers a new kind of discussion on race and gender in the contemporary city, particularly as it relates to the welfare-dependent and jobless urban poor. In this way, it departs from the core thesis of seminal texts in the sociology of immigration that, in the decade following refugee resettlement, predicted the seamless transition of Cambodian refugees into American labor markets as well as their eventual assimilation into Anglo-American culture. It serves as a rebuttal to research that seeks to ideologically remove the refugee from the grips of a Black and Latino “underclass”—the sociological pejorative used to describe racialized inner city poverty. By examining the ongoing phenomena of refugee poverty—that is, the manner in which Cambodian refugees of the Bronx simultaneously subsist in the welfare state and the sweatshop economy—Unsettled complicates the fixed race and gender identities that structure common-sense notions of the city: the immigrant working-poor on the one hand, the domestic and welfare-dependent underclass on the other.

Finally, Unsettled poses questions that are relevant to the present moment. The current exodus of Syrian refugees represents the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Indeed, not since the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, have so many migrants from one region risked their lives, across land and sea, in search of asylum. Yet what happens after they are resettled to their new homelands? Have their struggles come to an end, or have they only just begun?

Commemorating Katrina Ten Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the natural disaster, we feature various Temple University Press titles on and authors whose work relates to Hurricane Katrina.


Behind the Backlash author Lori Peek, was interviewed on the CBS Evening News on August 24 about the Children of Katrina.

Peek is the author of two books on Katrina,  Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora (with Lynn Weber) and Children of Katrina  (with Alice Fothergill).

Filling the Ark by Leslie Irvine

Filling the Ark sm compWhen disasters strike, people are not the only victims. Hurricane Katrina raised public attention about how disasters affect dogs, cats, and other animals considered members of the human family. In this short but powerful book, noted sociologist Leslie Irvine goes beyond Katrina to examine how disasters like oil spills, fires, and other calamities affect various animal populations—on factory farms, in research facilities, and in the wild.

Filling the Ark argues that humans cause most of the risks faced by animals and urges for better decisions about the treatment of animals in disasters. Furthermore, it makes a broad appeal for the ethical necessity of better planning to keep animals out of jeopardy. Irvine not only offers policy recommendations and practical advice for evacuating animals, she also makes a strong case for rethinking our use of animals, suggesting ways to create more secure conditions.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness by George Lipsitz

Possessive_Investment_rev_ed_smIn this unflinching look at white supremacy, George Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, a problem of property as well as pigment. Above and beyond personal prejudice, whiteness is a structured advantage that produces unfair gains and unearned rewards for whites while imposing impediments to asset accumulation, employment, housing, and health care for minorities.

Lipsitz delineates the weaknesses embedded in civil rights laws, the racial dimensions of economic restructuring and deindustrialization, and the effects of environmental racism, job discrimination and school segregation. He also analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, This revised and expanded edition of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness includes an essay about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on working class Blacks in New Orleans, whose perpetual struggle for dignity and self determination has been obscured by the city’s image as a tourist party town.

Rebuilding Community_smRebuilding Community after Katrina, edited by Ken Reardon and John Forester (forthcoming in November)

Rebuilding Community after Katrina chronicles the innovative and ambitious partnership between Cornell University’s City and Regional Planning department and ACORN Housing, an affiliate of what was the nation’s largest low-income community organization. These unlikely allies came together to begin to rebuild devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The editors and contributors to this volume allow participants’ voices to show how this partnership integrated careful, technical analysis with aggressive community outreach and organizing. With essays by activists, organizers, community members, and academics on the ground, Rebuilding Community after Katrina presents insights on the challenges involved in changing the way politicians and analysts imagined the future of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

What emerges from this complex drama are lessons about community planning, organizational relationships, and team building across multi-cultural lines. The accounts presented in Rebuilding Community after Katrina raise important and sensitive questions about the appropriate roles of outsiders in community-based planning processes.

Coming soon to a Philadelphia library near you

This week in North Philly Notes, we preview three  forthcoming events at Philadelphia area libraries featuring Temple University Press authors.
The Outsider_smWednesday, August 19 at 6:30PM

Dan Rottenberg, The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment

At the Community Room of the City Institute Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1905 Locust Street.
Cost: FREE, No tickets required.

In The Outsider, veteran journalist and best-selling author Dan Rottenberg deftly chronicles the astonishing rises, falls, and countless reinventions of Albert M. Greenfield, a Russian immigrant outsider, and combative businessman.

“With The Outsider, Rottenberg [shows how] Greenfield carefully managed his public image, from the time of his emergence as a real estate trader pledged to the corrupt Vare Republican political gang of the 1910s and ’20s, through his emergence as a banking and retail baron and patron of FDR’s New Deal, to his post-World War II national prominence.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

MayanDriferFriday, September 18 at 7:30PM

An Evening with Juan Felipe Herrera, US Poet Laureate and author of  Mayan Drifter 

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
Ticket and Subscription Packages

Tickets on sale Thursday, September 3 at 10:00 AM!

“Grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual” (New York Times), Juan Felipe Herrera is the virtuosic first Mexican American U.S. Poet Laureate. The son of migrant farm workers, his writing is strongly influenced by his experiences in California as a campesino and the artistic movements he discovered in 1960s San Francisco. His poetry collections include 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007,Senegal Taxi, and Half the World in Light, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of several works of prose, short stories, young adult novels, and bilingual picture books for children, Herrera joins the Free Library for a celebration of identity, cultural perspective, and the verses of a lyrical life.


Wednesday, October 7 at 7:30PM

Beth Kephart | Love: A Philadelphia Affair

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: FREE
No tickets required. For Info: 215-567-4341.

In conversation with Marciarose Shestack

“A gifted, even poetic writer” (New York Times), Beth Kephart is the author of 18 books across a wide range of genres, most notably the memoir. The award-winning Handling the Truth offers a thoughtful meditation on the questions that lie at the heart of the genre. Another memoir, A Slant of Sun, was a National Book Award finalist. A writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kephart is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. From the suburbs to SEPTA to Salumeria sandwiches at the Terminal Market, Kephart’s new volume of personal essays and photos is an ode to all things Philly.

An Interview with Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, from Notchesblog.com

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post an interview with Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, that originally appeared on Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting critical notches Nconversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at Notchesblog.com.

Out in the Union: An Interview with Miriam Frank

Interview by Katherine Turk

Out in the Union (Temple University Press, 2014) by Miriam Frank tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. This book chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s and how these struggles continue to the present day. Frank documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities, organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers. Drawing from 100 interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Out in the Union provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests.

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Katherine Turk: The subfield of gay and lesbian history has existed for more than three decades. Why do you think it has taken so long for scholars to write queer labor history?

Miriam Frank: The field of LGBT history includes many studies of queer working-class communities but very few investigations of the actual work lives of queer working-class people in those communities. Traditional labor history considers the everyday lives of working-class people at their jobs in terms of unionization, job mobility, and racial, ethnic and gender segmentation in the workforce. Queer workers and queer issues have not been a topic.

Before the 1970s, this made sense, because LGBT workers rarely revealed their queer identities on the job or in their unions. But customs have changed. In Out in the Union, I show how workplace cultures, community standards, and union traditions have influenced the ease or difficulty workers experience as they come out at work and in their unions. Contemporary explorations by union activists about working class lives and queer identities have led to LGBT-oriented reforms in organizing drives and collective bargaining, in union service programs, and in politically effective labor/community coalitions.

The US labor movement has a great history of strong political coalitions that have pressed for reform on economic and social problems. I wanted readers to consider how LGBT trade unionists developed alliances to apply their organizations’ principles and resources to queer union members’ economic status, basic civil rights, and workplace cultures. The successful LGBT coalitions that first emerged in the 1970s continue today, influencing collective bargaining priorities, community organizing, regional politics, and trade union ethics.

KT: Your book is organized thematically and chronologically; much of the narrative unfolds through case studies that illuminate the issues that have faced gay unionists as they pursued economic justice and the right to be open at work.  Why do you start the book with a timeline?

MF: Out in the Union narrates untold stories of queer labor based on more than 100 oral histories that I recorded between 1987 and 2010. The collection’s scope follows diverse industries, unions, communities, and political events and ranges through more than 50 years of US labor and LGBT history.

A wise reviewer of the manuscript suggested that this complex narrative of communities, organizations, and events could benefit from chronological markers. I made a timeline based on occasions from the larger narrative that would contextualize political issues and decisions that shaped unions and queer working-class communities during that important half-century. I wanted to highlight locations, conflicts, alliances, and negotiations to demonstrate the astonishingly uneven, yet consistently dynamic diversity of these two movements.

KT: You make a strong case that queer and labor histories are intertwined.  The years you chronicle saw the expansion of queer civil rights and the contraction of labor rights; as queer identities have become more accepted, working class identities have declined.  Do you see any causal relationship between these dynamics or are they merely conterminous?

MF: My book begins with the mid-1960s, before gay liberation emerged as a mass movement. Unions then represented approximately 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. Public and service-sector unions were organizing successfully and their gains offset declines in union participation in the private manufacturing sector. Those losses stemmed from manufacturers’ decisions to shift operations to regions where lower wage rates prevailed and “right-to-work” laws disadvantaged labor’s goals.

During this same period, public opinion on queer civil rights began to favor reform, especially in liberal urban centers – and in states where union drives could not be stopped by right-to-work sanctions. These congruencies are neither causal nor coincidental. Rather they indicate politically liberal values: the acceptance of sexual variance in civil life and the encouragement of fair work rules in economic policy.

One early marker of the growing acceptance of queer civil rights was the 40-year-long state-by-state elimination of anti-sodomy laws in 36 states, by ballot or by judicial decree, a trend that began in 1961. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the anti-sodomy laws of the fourteen remaining states; of those fourteen states twelve maintained right-to-work statutes.

Declines in union membership have steepened, but without real losses in working-class identity. The harm, instead, is economic. Former union members still hold jobs, sometimes two or three, often as part-timers, often at or close to minimum wage. Their positions are precarious: they hesitate to challenge managers about unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, undependable schedules, and scarce raises. An ever-stronger corporate class with ever more consolidated political power threatens the security of working-class people and their unions as well as the hard-won gains of queer communities.

On April 15 of this year, queer and straight skilled laborers in highly-paid unionized jobs rallied in shopping malls and downtown plazas throughout the country. They were joined by queer and straight fast-food workers, big-box store workers, adjunct professors, home health care aids, and others who labor in underpaid and underrepresented jobs. I went to the demonstration in midtown Manhattan. People were demanding a raise in the minimum wage and an end to union-busting harassment during organizing drives. It seemed to me that while decline in union membership remains a serious issue, there is no dearth of people with working-class pride who would gladly reverse the situation.

United Food and Commercial Workers' OUTreach Committee at Local 770 at the LA PRIDE march, West Hollywood, June 14, 2015.    Photos courtesy of Michele Kessl

KT: The book opens with the story of Bill, a covert trans man who worked as a locomotive engine repairman and rose to a leadership role in his union in the early twentieth century.  How does the history of transgender workers relate to that of gay and lesbian workers, thereby rendering the more general term “queer” useful for labor history?  How have transgender workers’ priorities been incorporated or downplayed within broader labor struggles?  

MF: Bill’s fragmentary story of survival and transformation fits in with what little we know about transgender lives a century ago; and his union involvement is unique during an era when transgender working-class people had few options for survival. Some lived openly as outsiders; others would quietly pass. Rarely were any of these experiences recorded.

Decades later, transgender people were active in homophile and early gay liberation movements. But as gay liberation entered the political mainstream during the mid-1970s the strategy shifted from radical confrontation to a lesbian/gay civil rights agenda. Two issues emerged, both of them popular and possibly winnable: legal sanctions to halt sexual orientation discrimination and legalization of domestic partnerships. Anti-discrimination policies were included in unions’ constitutions in the early 1970s and the first collective bargaining agreement to protect domestic partners was ratified in 1982. Lesbian and gay advocates in the labor movement based their claims on union principles as old as the labor movement itself – an injury to one is the concern of all. Absent from the civil rights dialogue was any mention of gender transition or expression.

Nevertheless, transgender workers of the 1960s and 1970s found recourse from straight workmates and union representatives. At one auto plant, a worker who was in transition from male to female suffered hazing from co-workers and supervisors. Her local president broke up the worker-to-worker harassment, then helped her file a lawsuit against the company.

Unions first adopted constitutional resolutions on transgender workers’ rights to equal protection late in the 1980s and then confirmed those rights in their contracts. But not until the late 1990s did any workplaces prioritize health benefits and gender expression as rights specific to the lives and needs of transgender members. A few unions have followed that trail, but many others have yet to highlight transgender workers’ claims in contract negotiations.

Queer progress in the US labor movement has never been easy, but lesbian and gay union members have seen basic civil rights and economic benefits move steadily forward, especially since the mid-1990s. By contrast, transgender union members continue to travel a road that remains remarkably uneven. Now is the time for all queer unionists and their allies to support transgender activists as they press for a trans-friendly bargaining agenda. Their demands can shape improved contracts that will at last address head-on their basic needs: to earn their livelihoods free of harassment, protected from discrimination and supported by good wages and fair benefits.

KT: The second of the book’s three sections emphasizes the significant and often unlikely coalitions among queer and other workers and between queer activists and unionists. But did you also encounter evidence of notable tensions or fissures (sexism or transphobia, for example) within the queer labor community?

MF: Political cultures of the labor movement are actually different from the cultures of many identity-based civil rights organizations. To say it plainly, healthy unions operate with a primary ethic of solidarity when they work with activists from the ranks and with coalition partners from allied organizations.

This is not to say that expressions and issues of sexism, homophobia or transphobia do not exist in the ranks or in leadership. But from my interviews I have consistently found evidence of LGBT union members supporting one another in organizational decisions and working out their differences in frank dialogue. At best that openness flows from the union hall to the workplace and back again. LGBT union members who have come out have usually found fair-minded allies among straight and cisgendered co-workers: on the job and in their organizations

Often what sealed that respect was the willingness of LGBT activists to join in the projects of their unions. Everyday tasks, focused planning, and casual conversations gave people paths for productive collaboration. Queer people were seen less as outsiders and more as compatible volunteers; the energies of new activists lightened everyone’s loads.

That second section of the book consists of two chapters about the politics of coalitions. Labor/queer coalitions have been important to the health of both movements because queer communities, like unions, continue to deal with real and destructive political threats. Both have found reliable allies in one another in national, regional, and local struggles.

I have seen union meetings where waves of mistrust greeted new ideas. But way more often than not, labor’s essential ethic of fairness and equality has made a vibrant difference: “United we stand, Divided we fall — An injury to one is an injury to all.”

KT: Do labor unions still serve a vital role for queer workers, and, if so, is their need greater than other workers’?  Given labor’s precarious position in today’s political and economic landscape, should queer activists continue to pursue the union-building strategies you uncover in Out in the Union? Or should they instead intensify their efforts to boost protections for queer identities in more visible and professional workplace settings?  

MF: Out in the Union shows how unions and queer communities learned to collaborate during a critical 40-year period. During that time, unions were being diminished and weakened by multiple waves of deindustrialization accompanied by right-wing pressures against gains achieved through collective bargaining. And yet the US labor movement has managed to survive.

Currently, unions represent 11 percent of employed people in the US, a sure decline from the high point of 35 percent in the 1960s. Still, in 2013, 11 percent of the number of people represented by unions was 14.5 million. Estimates of how many people in the US are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender vary widely, but if we say 5 percent, we still have 725,000 workers; and that’s not counting partners, spouses, parents, and children impacted by the economic security of their queer family members.

Activists should come to terms with labor’s track record on queer issues and make their own estimations of the value of working in coalition with organizations that still represent 14.5 million people. Queer communities and labor have definitely benefited from mutual support: from the coalitions that overcame anti-gay referendums in California, Oregon, and Washington over a 30-year period to the deliberate and surprising state-by-state adoption of marriage equality reforms between 2003-2013, all in states with union densities of 10-25 percent.

Professional workplaces are increasingly unionized. Adjunct and graduate student campaigns have been popping up on dozens of campuses. Nurses’ unions have been mobilizing aggressively to address current transformations of U.S. health care. And unionized opera singers and orchestra musicians at New York’s Metropolitan Opera made headlines in September 2014 by winning their contract battle just ahead of the annual opening night gala. That fight was professional and militant and community support was very, very gay.

KT: For its subject, scope, and source material, your book is pioneering.  You note that the book is not intended to present encyclopedic coverage or to serve as the last word on its topic.  How do you envision your book as a platform for future scholarship?  What related study would you most like to see next? 

MF: Out in the Union has already served as a research base: for a chapter in a doctoral dissertation in 2014 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by Sara Smith (on efforts by teachers and their unions to defeat the Briggs Initiative of 1978 in California); and for a senior honors thesis at Columbia University by Jared Odessky on union activity during the notorious Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” campaign in South Florida in 1977. It will be influential in graduate studies and down the line could provide a base for other sophisticated projects. I am aware of two graduate seminars being offered this summer that will use Out in the Union as a core text, and I have been invited to speak to one of those groups.

There are a number of paths that scholars could take. Projects that focus on single industries or on a particular region would offer more intensive research opportunities than the structure of my project permitted. I am thinking on the order of two very challenging and wonderful works: 1)Anne Balay’s Steel Closets (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), a fiery and focused study of 40 queer unionized steelworkers, most of them employed at the U.S. Steelworks in Gary, Indiana. 2) Phil Tiemeyer’sPlane Queer (University of California Press, 2013). I have disagreements with Tiemeyer’s exclusive study of gay male flight attendants, but I do admire the book’s dedicated and unswerving focus on the actual work that these men perform.

Earlier this year I posted a NOTCHES entry, Organized labor, Gay Liberation and the Battle Against the Religious Right, 1977-1984, and became acquainted with Bob Cant and Brian Dempsey, both of them veteran British labor activists. They mused on the dearth of historical review about gay/labor organizing in Britain and the absence of queer consciousness in British everyday life. They discussed the possibility of a British trade union oral history project. This would have to be a huge devotion, but what opportunities that material could offer!

And now, a last word about archives: the Out in the Union oral histories, files, and related organizational materials of the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network have been deposited at New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in the main Bobst Library. Some scholars have already been working with what is available. By summer’s end, 2015, the entire trove will be available to the researching public.

2015-05-29 15.19.31

Miriam Frank received her Ph.D in German Literature from New York University in 1977, where she currently is Adjunct Professor of Humanities.  She has taught Labor History in union education programs in New York City and in Detroit, where she was a founder of Women’s Studies at Wayne County Community College. Her book, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America(Temple University Press, 2014), chronicles the queer lives of American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013.

Katherine Turk is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Turk has written numerous articles on postwar feminist politics and the challenges of defining and creating sex equality in the workplace, in the law, and in American culture.  Her forthcoming book, Equality on Trial: Sex and Class at Work in the Age of Title VII, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in early 2016.

Photo: Katherine Turk and Miriam Frank at the “Fighting Inequality” Conference of the Labor and Working Class History Association and Working Class Studies Association, Georgetown University, May 2015. (Photo courtesy of Desma Holcomb.)

December 17, 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Yolanda Prieto, author of The Cubans of Union City discusses President Obama’s landmark Cuban policy change, while reflecting on her own experiences as a Cuban American.

As a Cuban American who favors the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, I choked up with emotion when watching President Obama’s historic television address on December 17, 2014 announcing that he was changing the policy of isolation towards Cuba. After all, Obama explained, more than 50 years of acrimony between the two countries had not accomplished anything. Instead, engagement could lead to a more fruitful relationship, and it could possibly bring economic improvements and more freedoms to the Cuban people. Americans could also travel to Cuba under a broader range of categories, which could generate more contact and understanding between the two countries. These changes would happen even though the economic embargo, imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, would remain in place. To lift the embargo, Congress would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and extended the existing embargo on the island. Regarding the embargo, Obama urged lawmakers in his speech to lift it because the law was anachronistic and it no longer served any real purpose.

At exactly the same time, President Raul Castro made the same announcement on Cuban television. In both countries, the news was received with great surprise. The road ahead would be difficult, but these steps marked a historic beginning.

Cubans of Union CityIn Cuba, people were elated. Praise for President Barack Obama abounded, and American flags were displayed on balconies and bike taxis. In Miami, where most Cubans outside of Cuba reside, the reaction was mixed. Many Cubans approved of President Obama’s plans, but many others disapproved. Relations with Cuba, they think, would only serve to enrich the coffers of the Cuban government in Havana.  But the majority of Miami Cubans favor normalization of relations. A survey conducted by Bendixen and Armandi International in March, 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Cuban Americans support the efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while 49 percent do not. Approval for the politics of normalization is growing among Cubans who do not live in Miami; 69 percent of Cuban Americans who live outside of Miami support normalization.

Although approval is high among younger generations of Cuban Americans, it is declining among the older population. Disapproval is also vociferous among Cuban American Congress members. In Cuba, some dissidents oppose normalization while others welcome it. It is also possible that some in the Cuban government do not agree, especially those hard-liners that see any contact with the United States as detrimental to Cuba.

What led to this change in the American position toward Cuba? According to William Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh’s book Back Channel to Cuba, there has been ongoing, secret, often surprising, dialogue between Washington and Havana. Along with the invasions, covert operations, and assassination plots, there have been efforts at rapprochement and reconciliation. However, most of these efforts had fallen through the cracks. Discussions between the two governments have been largely limited to specific problems, mainly in times of crisis, such as migration talks and more recently, talks about drug trafficking.

Recently, there were rumors that President Obama might tackle the U.S.-Cuba relations issue during his second term. Many believed that the incarceration of Alan Gross, the American contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the main obstacle to a change in policy. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and then prosecuted in 2011 for bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the island against Cuban law.  At the same time, there were three Cubans jailed in the United States. They were part of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in 2001 for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to commit murder. Two had already been released.

The December 17. 2014 announcements were preceded by 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.  They met in Canada and in the Vatican. Canadians helped, as did Pope Francis, who wrote letters to Obama and Castro urging them to work for an end to the impasse. Finally, on December 17, Cuba and the United States announced that they had agreed to exchange prisoners: Cuba would free Alan Gross and a high-level Cuban working for the Americans serving time in Cuba for espionage. The United States would in turn free the three jailed Cubans. Additionally, Cuba would free 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Since December 17, 2014 there have been talks between U.S. and Cuban officials to work out the details of normalization of diplomatic relations. There have been two meetings in Havana and two in Washington, with an additional one scheduled for May 21 in Washington. One topic of concern has been the reopening of the embassies. Simultaneously, a flurry of activity has taken place. Trips and delegations of politicians, businessmen, artists, have arrived in Cuba looking for their space in this new climate. Representative Nancy Pelosi went down with a delegation early this year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, visited the island in April accompanied by business leaders, including some executives from pharmaceutical companies. A number of officials, from government to private industry are urging that the embargo be lifted to completely normalize relations. Other major changes have taken place or are in the works. For example, President Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. There have been advances in the area of telecommunications, banking, trade, U.S. exports to the private sector in Cuba, and travel, both by air and sea.

Among recent visitors was French President Francois Hollande who met with Raul and Fidel Castro.  He also urged the United States Congress to lift the embargo.  More recently, Raul Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The reason for his visit was to thank the Pope for his efforts to promote rapprochement between Cuba and the United States and to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of the Pontiff to the island in September, 2015.

Who benefits from normalization? First and foremost, the Cuban people. One expectation is the increasing economic development of Cuba through investment and trade. Hopefully, ordinary Cubans will gain through an improvement of the economic situation, both in terms of greater possibilities for consumption and possibly the creation of jobs, especially for the poor, who lack material resources due to meager salaries and lack of money through remittances from relatives abroad. The very poor and non-whites are often the ones who do not have family in the United States. There is also a very positive effect on Latin American regional relations. Obama probably had that in mind all along, as the Summit of the Americas in Panama revealed. Most Latin American countries wanted the return of Cuba to the Latin American family. The United States had opposed that. The meetings in Panama showed how the change in the U.S. position positively altered the climate among all nations.

Finally, these changes could be very beneficial for the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and other members of Cuba’s civil society. The Catholic Church already participated in talks with the government in 2010 to release political prisoners. Before and after those talks, the Catholic Church and the government have maintained a constructive dialogue. In the words of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, “for the church, the improvement of bilateral relations will be very beneficial… It will be easier to obtain help that we receive from other world churches to do our charity work in Cuba. The dialogue between church and state will not be broken, it will continue.”

Normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will not be an easy journey. For one thing, the U.S. embargo of Cuba presents legal obstacles to many of the changes that the two governments want to implement. But the process has already started, and it seems that there is no way back.


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