Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: A Review

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

Some readers may opt to skim through some of the technical sociological language, bearing testimony to the origin of the book as a doctoral thesis. But most of Insurgency Trap is made up of detailed and incisive description and analysis of specific case studies of the dynamics of Chinese “trade unions” in their interactions with workers. The chapter on Chen Weiguang, reformist leader of the Guangzhou Municipal Trade Union Federation is brilliant and revealing. Chen gave Eli Friedman full access to study the concrete results of some of his reform initiatives, and Friedman’s research reveals the limited accomplishments of even the most ambitious efforts at reforming China’s unions. Another superb chapter describes and analyzes the wave of strikes in Honda and Toyota auto parts supply plants that resulted in economic gains for workers, but achieved only very limited changes in the plant unions themselves.

Although I remain hopeful that the worker insurgency in China could leave to democratization of the sclerotic Communist Party and State controlled trade union apparatus, Insurgency Trap demonstrates enormous obstacles to real social advance when all avenues for autonomous political activity by workers remain closed. So long as the Chinese Communist Party remains so fearful of any independent political organization that it forbids any move towards genuine worker-controlled unions, the Chinese state will remain caught in its own “insurgency trap,” unable to advance towards a more inclusive society or make a positive contribution towards creating a more equitable global economy.

Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China by Eli Friedman is available from ILR Press, Ithaca, 2014, in paperback or in an Amazon Kindle edition.

Labor in History: Mobtown and the Stirring of America’s Unions

by Bruce Vail


An illustration from an 1877 issue of Harper’s Magazine depicts the bloody confrontation between state militia and Great Railroad Strike supporters that took place on the streets of Baltimore. (Public Domain)

Many historians date the first great industrial upheaval of American labor to July 16, 1877, when workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began refusing to work in protest against a round of wage cuts ordered by the company’s senior managers. Battered by years of economic depression, high unemployment and miserable working conditions, the workers in Baltimore and beyond had finally been pushed to the breaking point.

Even without any broad-based union organization, the B&O strike immediately seized the public imagination. The unrest spread rapidly to other railroads before expanding to include workers at mines and factories in widely scattered locations across the country. At its height, the six-week-long “Great Railroad Strike” involved an estimated 100,000 workers in more than a dozen states, and succeeded in paralyzing much of the nation’s transportation system.

The sudden uprising engendered fear—and more than a little panic—among railroad executives and government officials. Within just a few days, the first great national strike in U.S. history became one of its first great industrial tragedies, as state militia units and federal troops moved to suppress the movement. Soldiers fired on strikers and protesters during epic clashes in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and elsewhere. More than 100 people were killed; thousands more were injured. In the end, the strike was crushed, setting a precedent for the violent suppression of labor unrest that would stain American labor history for generations to come.

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Dan Gallin’s Solidarity: A Review

by Paul Garver

gallinbookcover225Dan Gallin’s career as a socialist and union activist now spans more than six decades.   Child of an exiled Romanian diplomat, he was recruited to “Third Camp” Socialism (Socialist Youth League/International Socialist League) as a college student at the University of Kansas in the early 1950’s.  Forced to leave the USA for his political activities, he rejoined his family in Switzerland where he became a Swiss citizen and a member of the Swiss Socialist Party.  Opting to labor in the international workers’ movement rather than the socialist political movement, he joined the staff of the International Union of Food Workers (IUF), which he served as General Secretary from 1968 to 1997.

Solidarity is a collection of 19 of Dan Gallin’s essays, including  two autobiographical articles, three pieces from the late 1950s and early 1960s, one from his tenure as IUF General Secretary, and the  remainder from the last twelve years.  Dan Gallin’s interview by Eric Lee of LabourStart can serve as an introduction to the book.

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Send In A Sub: Life In The Blackboard Jungle

  “We substitute teachers like to think of ourselves as the marines of the public education system. Whenever a breach opens in our nation’s educational front lines, off we go: The few, the brave, the stupid.” –From Tom Gallagher’s SUB

by Steve Early

SUB Thirty years ago, there was no better progressive state legislator in Massachusetts than Tom Gallagher, who migrated to Beacon Hill after graduating from Boston College and working as a part-time public school teacher.

In 1980, Gallagher won a Democratic primary in the Allston-Brighton section of the city in September. Thanks to Boston being a one party town, there wasn’t even a token Republican on the ballot in November.  As Gallagher recalls in his new memoir, SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (Coast to Coast Publishing, 2014) , his personal profile at the time was:

“reasonably normal for a substitute teacher—I was a guy in his twenties sort of waiting for something to happen….So while I had a big deal political job waiting for me in January, I was flat broke and in no position to be looking for other ‘real’ work during the months of October, November, and December. So I returned to subbing for the interim.”

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Dan Gallin on the international labor movement

by Stuart Elliott

Dan Gallin’s book Solidarity was officially and fittingly launched at the recent LabourStart “Global Crisis, Global Solidarity” conference. Gallin, now in his eighties, is a legendary figure in the international labor movement, having served for many years as General Secretary of the IUF, the international trade union secretariat of food workers union. Gallin transformed, modernized, and democratized the IUF. Unafraid to break new ground, guided by the values of “third camp socialism” he learned in the American Independent Socialist League, he embraced the organization of domestic and informal workers decades ago. Currently, he is  Chair of the Global Labour Institute (GLI), a labor service organization established in 1997 with a secretariat in Geneva, with affiliates in Moscow and New York . In this video, he is introduced by Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart.


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Steve Early on Labor Reporting: ‘Unions Can Be Thin-Skinned About Criticism’

by Mike Elk

Steve Early

Steve Early

Since the 1970s, Steve Early has produced more than 300 pieces of labor journalism for publications as varied as the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, LaborNotes and In These Times. Throughout his career, Early has covered stories of dysfunction and corruption within unions that many labor reporters are afraid to touch out of fear of upsetting high-level union sources.

At time when the labor beat was disappearing from mainstream publications, Early’s writing formed a valuable body of work that inspired many young writers—myself included—to stick with the profession through its highs and lows.

Early sat down with me to discuss his new book, Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, out this spring from Monthly Review Press. Continue reading

Books on Democracy and Education

by Deborah Meier

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the process of putting together a collection of my writings on democracy with my friend, editor and co-thinker, Andy Hrycyna. I’m also in the process of straightening up my house—e.g. getting rid of books I’ll never reread (or read), etc. In the process I’ve rediscovered so many books that are about the topic of democracy that I either never read when I got them or have forgotten. I started pulling them out and scanning them—in astonishment. They either said much of what I was trying to say or had ideas I had not yet even considered but that seemed very relevant.

In short, if we all stopped writing new books for about five years and devoted ourselves to doing the same—reading the books we already have—we’d be amazed at how many wonderful ideas are floating out there in the form of books that haven’t been sufficiently appreciated. (I note that when I’m deciding whether to read a book I eagerly look first to see whether my name appears, or a book I’ve written—then I look for Ted Sizer’s name, then Symour Sarason, Eleanor Duckworth, Maxine Green, Herb Kohl, John Holt, Jonathon Kozol, etc etc). But in fact…there are a whole cast of old “new” (or new old) characters I’m determined to add to my list.

For example. Just yesterday I pulled off my selves the following nine “new” books—all 20-49 years old. A generation ago. They are in no order—just the order of the pile next to my desk at the moment.

silbermanCrisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education, by Charles Silberman. 1971. It was a ground breaker. My falling apart copy has notes and underlinings on every page. (It was published by Vintage and I have no idea if it’s still available—except in libraries.)



ParkerEducating the Democratic Mind, a collection edited by Walter C. Parker. (1996). The introduction itself tries to imagine what a society in which there was no effective “government”—that was based on the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family—what Edward Banfield (in 1958) called “a society of amoral familists.” It’s an interesting place to start. Each of the 18 essays would make good reading for today.


HillReinventing Public Education by Paul T. Hill. Aha, here’s a provocative precursor to what we now know as the Charter movement, proposed by an ally of democratic decision making. 1995. I think Hill’s ideas are thoughtful and resonate with my own, except… He seems obvious to the risks involved—where it might take us. Of course, that could be said for many of my own favorite ideas—like small self-governing schools of choice. However, alas, Hill seems completely blind to the real dangers that his proposals led to in the real world.  Maybe in a more equal society such a plan could be good for us all.  Alas, not in the one we now live in.

Education and Community, by Donald Oliver. 1976. His development of the complexity of the idea of “community” has stymied me at times. It’s not as simple as I pretend when I remind us the importance of community. Oliver examines it in the real world—studying seven different interesting examples.

Living Voices, Proceedings of Common Ground: A Conference on Progressive Education 1992. “A new wave of progressive education is now gathering momentum,” Carol Montag suggests in the Foreword to this collection of essays that were the focus on the Conference itself. I love that phrase, “A common ground.” I also loved its opening two “principles”: ”I’d like the uneasiness to exist; we should recognize it, not cover it up.” And “People who are not alike have the most to say to each other—we don’t want to go away thinking that we all agree.” That’s Maxine Greene who opened the conference and whose speech starts the book.

Open Education, A Sourcebook edited by Edward Nyquist and Gene Hawes. 1972 There’s not a single chapter that isn’t relevant to us today. In one book we can read Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Charles Silberman, Jay Featherstone, Lillian Weber Vito Perrone George Hein, Ann Bussis, Edward Chittenden, David Armington and on. A must re-read—42 year later. (Is it still accessible? Try.)

hawkinsThe Informed Vision, essays by David Hawkins. 1976 (reissued in 2002), Open it up anywhere and you won’t put it down. “I, Thou. And It” is a classic, and on and on. He offers a picture of what the STEM addicts have missed about the nature of science and mathematics and engineering!



lappeThe Quickening of America, by Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Martin DuBois. 1992. They start with a chapter on “The Myths That Limit Us,” move onto “America Coming Alive” (yes in 1992 they were as excited as I was by what was happening, and Part Three, “Living Democracy: The Practical Tools.” As important as it was 22 years ago—when progressive educators are “quickening” again—I hope.


Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story by Michael Klonsky. 1995. A short pamphlet summarizing the existing research and a great bibliography. Mike and I are still small school fans even as we also see how a good idea can become a tool for bad ends!

The Four Roles of Mathematics, A Liberal Arts Approach by George Henderson and Charles Johnson. 1972. This book, like those by David Hawkins, reawakened my fascination with mathematics—and also helped me understand my earlier aversion/ This is not a “how-to” book, but it provokes rethinking what mathematics actually is.

Of course, there are many other too often forgotten old greats—going back centuries–that I’m leaving out. The ones above seem to me just typical good books that we’ve probably mostly never read or forgotten. (The Power of Their Ideas was published, in fact, in 1995. And, if you haven’t read it, quick—buy or borrow it.) The “etc”s are just authors that I haven’t yet pulled off my shelves to reread! You’ll note that I’m taking it for granted that you still “remember” Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, or John Holt’s How Children Fail, or Kohl’s 36 Children, Sylvia Aston-Warner’s The Teacher, Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading. I have to stop myself, I want so much to add, and add, and add—especially when I discover that most would-be teachers have never heard of John Holt or Sylvia Ashton-Warner, etc. But, the GOOD NEWS is the dozens of books coming off the press these days by teachers—more than I can celebrate or even keep up with. It must be a sign of something good. I’ll make a list of the most recent soon too.

Ah well. To all the writers whose work I’ve thrived on, whom I owe so much to, which includes many not noted above!!! Thanks.

Deborah Meier is a senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School. She spent 45 years working in K-12th grade public schools in New York City (East Harem) and Boston (Roxbury) including leadership of several highly successful small  democratically run urban schools–the Central Park East schools and Mission Hill. This post originally appeared on her website Deborah Meier on Education.

When Government Helped

by Gregory N. Heires

whenGOVhelpedThe New Deal era beginning in the 1930s set up the government structure we enjoy today. But ever since, conservatives have waged a protected war on “Big Government.”

The assault on government deepened with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and more recently deficit phobia greatly hindered the Obama administration’s policy response to the Great Recession. The Republican campaign to destroy Obamacare is not so much about health care as chipping away at the size of government.

When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford University Press: 2013), edited by Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, examines how President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government policies established our welfare state and helped the United States recover from the Great Depression. Collins is a professor emerita of political science from Williams Paterson University and an executive committee member of the National Jobs for All Coalition. Goldberg is a professor emerita of social policy from Adelphi University and chair of the national Jobs for All Coalition.

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Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

by Sarah Jaffe

The organizing efforts around precarious employment in New York often focus on combating issues of injustice around race and gender in addition to raising wages, strengthening benefits and improving work environment. (Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York)

The organizing efforts around precarious employment in New York often focus on combating issues of injustice around race and gender in addition to raising wages, strengthening benefits and improving work environment. (Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York)

New York City can sometimes feel like ground zero for the battle over inequality.  Up until a few months ago, its mayor was one of the world’s richest men; it is home to Wall Street and movie stars, and it seems as though every oligarch from every country in the world has an apartment here.

Here, too, are the millions of working people who make the city run, and all too many of those working people are barely making enough to get by. In her introduction to the new book New Labor in New York, out now from Cornell University Press, sociologist Ruth Milkman points out that while New York has the nation’s highest union density, the city also has one of the highest levels of income inequality among large cities.

It is against this background that worker centers and other forms of non-union labor organizing have flourished, won victories, hit setbacks and managed to grow. And it is against that background that Milkman and her colleague Ed Ott, both professors at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, decided to teach a course that would ask students at the Murphy Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center to write an in-depth profile of one worker center or labor organization and its innovations. After two semesters of field research, study, and collaborative workshopping, these profiles were collected into the book. Taken together, they make up a valuable resource for evaluating today’s labor organizing, its successes and failures.

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Review of Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance

by Joe Burns

LoW fcover pf5

Many times in discussing labor issues the tendency is to focus on policy issues or major events far removed from the workplace. In Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance, a couple dozen workers from the US, Canada and Great Britain, loosely affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, seek to turn the conversation in a different direction—to tell stories of work and the workplace. Sometimes they talk about workplace struggles and resistance; sometimes they talk about their jobs and work. There is something refreshing about this approach.

The book contains over thirty chapters with stories ranging from a warehouse worker’s fight against speedup to a clerical worker’s struggle to make her liberal boss at small non-profit understand her class privilege to a liquor store worker’s organizing against sexual harassment. Some of the stories are about organizing campaigns, such as Starbuck workers, others are about personal battles with victories as small as getting workers to celebrate each other’s birthdays over the boss’ objection. All, however, are up close and personal and share a common perspective that talking about time spent at work is important.

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