Labor to Harvard: Which Side Are You On?

Labor to Harvard: Which Side Are You On?

Labor to Harvard: Which Side Are You On?

The AFL-CIO’s new president warns that members of the academy should make common cause with the justifiable anger among working people.


Rich Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, obliquely posed this cheeky question for the professors and students gathered last week at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The academy, Trumka warned, should make common cause with the justifiable anger raging among working people, if it wants to stop forces of hatred and racism from overwhelming the public square.

"It is an alliance," Trumka said, "that depends on intellectuals being critics and not the servants of economic privilege." Harvard seemed a good place to make this pitch.

No word on how the scholars reacted to the former coal miner. But it is refreshing to hear labor talking back in such pointed terms. "If you are worried about the anger in our country, if you don’t want the forces of hatred to grow, be a part of the fight for economic justice and a new economic foundation for America," Trumka said.

The AFL president made no accusations of class bias, but he deftly conveyed the great gulf between influential intellectuals and the struggles of working people. The conversation, Trumka explained, has to start with jobs.

"Now you may think to yourself, that is so retro. Jobs are so twentieth century. Sweat is for gyms, not workplaces. For a generation, our intellectual culture has suggested that in the new global age, work is something someone else does. Someone we never met far away in an export processing zone will make our clothes, immigrants with no rights in our political process or workplaces will cook our food and clean clothes.

"And for the lucky 10 percent of our society, that has been the reality of globalization–everything got cheaper and easier. But for the rest of the country, economic reality has been something entirely different. It has meant trying to hold onto a good job in a grim game of musical chairs where every time the music stopped, there were fewer good jobs and more people trying to get and keep one."

Harvard, he noted, is a famous training ground for the people who will run things. "But the stronger the alliance between intellectuals and economic elites, the more the forces of hatred–of anti-intellectualism–will grow. If you want to fight the forces of hatred, you have to help empower the forces of righteous anger."

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