Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Harry Targ

Indiana’s Political Economy

Low wage largely non-union workers in Indianapolis have been organizing against an economy that marginalizes them. Fran Quigley, Indiana University Law Professor describes the victimization and workers’ rising resistance-- union organizing and social movement activism-- in If We Can Win Here: The New Front Lines of the Labor Movement, Cornell Press, 2015.

The book is a case study of Indiana, a state in which local economic trends mirror the national economy: growing accumulation of wealth on one side matched by increased poverty on the other. Reports over the last several years published by the Indiana Institute for Working Families and the Indiana Association of United Ways suggest that Indiana is one of the worst states in terms of providing for its people. Almost 16 percent of the state’s population lives in poverty, including over 22 percent of its children, 17 percent of women, 33 percent of African Americans, 29 percent of Latinos, and 25 percent of Native Americans.

One-third of Indiana residents are low-income and for a decade have experienced a decline in median household income. Even with a recent slight decline in the rate of poverty, the number of low-income Hoosiers (earning less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Guideline (FPG) has risen since 2011. (Indiana Institute for Working Families, Status of Working Families in Indiana, 2012, 3).

In Marion County, where the state’s largest city, Indianapolis, is located, four of the five largest and growing industries pay wages at or below family sustainability ($798 per week for a family of three). In addition, in these industries individual and household wages declined significantly between 2008 and 2012 (Derek Thomas, “Inequality in Indy--A Rising Problem With Ready Solutions,” August 13, 2014, (

Derek Thomas argued that Indianapolis (and Indiana) should take these data seriously because in Marion County “poverty is still rising, the minimum wage is less than half of what it takes for a single-mother with an infant to be economically self-sufficient; 47 percent of workers do not have access to a paid sick day from work, and a full 32 percent are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($29,685 for a family of three).” 

In November, 2014, the Indiana Association of United Ways issued a 250 page report on the state called the “Study of Financial Hardship.” The study, parallel to similar studies in four other states, was prepared by a research team at Rutgers University, who developed an index to examine economic status called Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE). ALICE refers to households with incomes that are above the poverty rate but below “the basic cost of living.” The startling data revealed that a third of Hoosier households cannot afford adequate housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation. More precisely 14 percent of households are below the poverty line and 23 percent above poverty but below the threshold out of ALICE, or earning enough to provide for the basic cost of living.

 Workers’ Fight Back

Quigley, based on participant observation and interviews, presents a painful and lucid analysis of the concrete struggles of what might be called the “new working class” in Indianapolis. He suggests that the urban economy has been transformed from one based on well-paying manufacturing, largely unionized, jobs to one based upon tourism, health care, and food service. Workers in these growing sectors are marginalized and non-union. They experience low wages, changing work schedules, limited health and retirement benefits, and unsafe work places. They are multi-racial, men and women, and young and old. Despite their economic marginalization, the workers report that their most fundamental grievance is that they are treated with lack of respect by their employers virtually every day on the job. 

Much of the volume describes efforts of two unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE/HERE to organize workers in hotels, universities, fast food, and home care positions. Workers and young energetic union organizers face complications because work forces are often not in the same spaces (as was the case of factory workers). There has been no long-standing tradition of union organizing in new service sectors. And traditional divisions by race, ethnicity, language, and gender exist. Finally, and most importantly, workers struggle to organize against opponents that are among the largest multi-national corporations in the world and who exercise significant political influence over city and state government.

Quigley’s study illustrates how union organizing parallels grassroots efforts of the largest labor organizing campaign of the twenty-first century, the SEIU, UNITE-HERE “Fight for $15.” This campaign has connected workers with parallel movements:  Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, Moral Mondays, Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan, and supporters of Planned Parenthood and community control of police. 

In theoretical terms, the economic marginalization of the twenty-first century (“the 99 percent”) in the United States is bringing together workers from the public sector, home care, health care, hotels, teachers, college adjuncts, taxi drivers and others.  The economic ruling class strives to weaken labor, increase barriers to organizing, shift wealth from the vast majority to the super-rich, and reduce the political impact of efforts to mobilize the progressive majority. But yet resistance grows.

Quigley’s book describes in detail efforts in one city to resist the economic hegemony of the ruling class. Youthful union staffers prioritize personal contacts. They work to build grassroots leadership from among workers themselves. And organizers encourage workers to engage in all forms of activism from elections, to demonstrations, to working in alliance with other social movements. Union staffers are committed, energetic, and take a  long view of organizing in the face of losses and victories.     

Fran Quigley has provided activists with a concrete, readable analysis of how the twenty-first century global political economy has shaped the destiny of workers in one urban center and how a “new working class” is organizing to resist their increasing economic and political marginalization.