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The merit of marshmallows

June 26, 2018

Let them eat marshmallows! It turns out the famous marshmallow test of willpower – the association between how long preschoolers can resist one marshmallow now for the promise of two later and higher test scores and earnings – did not replicate. Once the sample expanded beyond Stanford’s faculty daycare, and controls for parental social class and child characteristics were included, the effect of delayed gratification was much reduced.

But why did people take such psychological ideas so seriously in the first place?

At the outset, it is important to clarify that the recent replication failure does not tell us that willpower does not “matter.” It tells us specifically that willpower or delayed gratification measured in childhood doesn’t matter to academic attainment independently of parental social class and other factors. But it is the underappreciation of these other factors that led to a popular, yet misleading, narrative tying willpower to desert.

To understand how this began, let’s look at how Walter Mischel, the man behind the marshmallow test, got started in 1960s Stanford. Mischel set a model for today’s bestselling celebrity-psychologists, such as Angela Duckworth, by publishing popular books that combined simple summaries of their research with personal memoirs and how-to guides.

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Panel – The Fight for $15 movement for low-wage workers

June 6, 2018

Workers and supporters celebrate a $15 minimum wage at Sea-Tac Airport.

Labor Studies Journal recently published a debate on the Fight for $15 labor movement. We are delighted to host a virtual panel including short summaries of the debate by each of the authors, all of whom are leading labor scholars and activists.

Steven Ashby praises The Fight for $15 as “one of the most vital, innovative, and militant struggles in recent US labor history.” He notes that the movement has “created the pressure to win 19 million low-wage workers a total of $61 billion in annual raises through state and local legislation raising the minimum wage, and employers pressured to raise their minimum pay.”

Ashby concludes that the American labor movement must build on the momentum of the Fight for $15 and coalesce around a movement to organize low-wage workers nationwide.

Jonathan Rosenblum points out that although the Fight for $15 movement has been successful in winning pay increases for more than 19 million low-wage workers, in the years since SEIU leaders launched the Fight for a Fair Economy, private sector union density has continued to decline – down from 7% to 6.5%.

Rosenblum asks whether the Fight for $15 movement can channel the energy of the walkouts into the construction of a more durable organizational basis for increased workers’ power.

Tom Juravich agrees that the Fight for $15 has been successful – both in increasing wages and in changing how Americans think about low-wage work. But its gains have largely been in the form of symbolic power. He questions whether the movement can expand beyond the “low-hanging fruit on both coasts?”

Juravich concludes that for the movement to succeed, it needs to find a way to move beyond symbolic power and gain “real structural (economic) leverage,” perhaps by focusing resources on organizing a specific “union city” rather than running “low level campaigns across the country.”


In defense of the stunning Fight for Fifteen movement

June 6, 2018

The Fight for Fifteen movement, launched in New York City in late 2012, is one of the most vital, innovative, and militant struggles in recent US labor history.  As one Fight for Fifteen organizer put it, now many young workers “are looking at the union movement, not as something that’s stodgy, old, and past its prime, but as something that’s exciting and new and the way forward for hope in our lives…Fight for Fifteen is making the union movement cool again.”

Fight for Fifteen has won unprecedented victories.  The National Employment Law Project reports that in its first four years Fight for Fifteen created the pressure to win 19 million low-wage workers a total of $61 billion in annual raises through state and local legislation raising the minimum wage, and employers pressured to raise their minimum pay.

Yet the movement has been the subject of exaggerated, often snarky and dismissive, critical comments from a number of left writers.

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The Fight for $15 campaign of fast food workers: A good start, but not nearly enough

June 6, 2018

Hit “pause” for a moment on the latest Trump outrage and recall the political landscape following the Wall Street-induced train wreck of nine years ago. The Obama administration bailed out the financiers, businesses fired 8.7 million workers, banks foreclosed on more than 14 million homeowners, and unions lost 1 million members.

Labor law reform died in spite of Democratic congressional supermajorities. The Affordable Care Act, stripped of universal coverage and the public option, barely limped across the finish line. Democrats lost control of the political narrative and got crushed in the November 2010 elections.

One in every six American workers was seeking work, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched his union-busting plan, and an ascendant Tea Party–driven national discourse – setting the stage for today’s mess – blamed the economic crisis not on corporate greed but on the federal government, immigrants, and unions.

Amid this deepening crisis, in early 2011 the leadership of SEIU, the union I worked for at the time, experienced an organizational epiphany. To stop the slide into irrelevancy, SEIU swung the union’s resources into a massive, $60 million grassroots campaign in 17 cities, deploying 1,500 organizers to reclaim the high ground in the economic debate and to organize workers into unions on a massive scale.

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The Fight for $15 and the limits of symbolic power

June 6, 2018

Steven Ashby is right to mark the achievements of the Fight for $15. As he reminds us, this national campaign brought wage increases to nearly 20 million American workers during a time when union density fell to below 7%. Equally important is the way in which the Fight for $15 forever redefined low wage work in the U.S.

Much like the occupy movement altered the discourse on inequality, I would argue that Fight for $15 forever changed how Americans think about low wage work

But by looking primarily at the tactics of Fight for $15, Ashby backgrounds an analysis of the larger strategy of the Fight for $15. The closest he comes is when he suggests that “The Fight for Fifteen goal is to create such bad publicity that a company like McDonalds chooses unionization to end the protest and to gain the positive publicity of the first food chain to treat its workers with respect.”

To date, the Fight for $15 had largely worked building symbolic power through one day strikes and media campaigns. They have been very successful in changing public perceptions of low wage work, and in the Gramscian sense of changing hearts and minds of Americans.

The Fight for $15 have very effectively used this symbolic power along with short-term coalitional power to affect change to wage laws and other employment standards. In the process they have realized the power that this “naming and shaming” around the poor wages and horrific working conditions of low wage workers has over progressive politicians and those striving to be considered progressive.

To date we have seen these changes in the most progressive state and municipalities. The question that remains for the Fight for $15 is how far can this movement expand beyond the low hanging fruit on both coasts?

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Race, genetics, and the lure of forbidden knowledge

March 30, 2018

Recently geneticist David Reich published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In it he contends that “differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real”—and what’s more, that “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

The invocation of his status as a natural scientist, the insistence on what is “real,” and the astonishing suggestion that race has been overlooked until now—I’ve seen it all before. Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists) contend that anyone who questions the biological foundations of racial groupings is denying reality, or “sticking their heads in the sand” as Reich puts it. Another recent version of this was New York Times former science reporter Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The Times also published an op-ed by geneticist Armand LeRoi in 2005 making pretty much the same case, so I’m not sure why they felt it was new in 2018. But the conceit is that there has been a cover-up (or “orthodoxy” in Reich’s words) denying the biological truth about race, so we need brave souls like Reich and Wade and LeRoi to reveal the truth (again!) to the public: race is a biological characteristic of the human species.

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Studying precarious work

December 20, 2017

Image: Dave Pearce via Flickr

Profound changes in paid employment have unfolded in recent decades, with serious consequences for millions of workers whose jobs, careers, and family lives have are been exposed to rising levels of risk. Though much of the attention has focused on the advanced capitalist societies, precarious work has also grown through Asia and much of the global south.

Involved here is the spread of work that is uncertain or insecure, in which risks are shifted from employers and governments to workers, and in which workers lack the legal protections and benefits that the standard work arrangement once offered.

Familiar examples of precarious work include temporary and contract work, but growing rapidly now are jobs in the “gig” or on-demand economy, “bogus” self employment in which workers are independent in name only. Working under these conditions can over time have adversely affect individuals, shaping workers’ trajectories in ways that can inflict lasting harm.

Workers often suffer income insecurity. They cannot know when they will be working, if at all. They have little or no access to job training or sick days. And they often feel like outsiders while on the job. Societal effects can also accumulate, as when the weakening of economic attachments drives the social and political instability that has surfaced in recent years, at times seeming to threaten the foundations of liberal democracy itself.

What is known about these developments? One set of answers can be found in Precarious Work, our just-published collection of original papers on the topic.

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