The Futures of Solidarity: A Discussion with Professors Virginia Doellgast (Cornell) and Michael McCarthy (Marquette)

Our understandings of possible futures inevitably rest in some measure on concepts and institutional formations that we have inherited from the past and continue to perceive in the present. ‘Solidarity’ is one such concept; indeed, it has been a central concern for progressive and social democratic movements and political parties around the world. Is solidarity a thing of the past? Or will it carry forward into the future, and if so, how? What are the institutional and social arenas for and forms of contemporary solidarity?

In this feature, editors Agatha Slupek and Assaf Bondy discuss these issues with Professors Virginia Doellgast (Cornell, USA) and Michael McCarthy (Marquette University, USA), respectively. Both scholars have recently published books with solidarity as their central theme: McCarthy’s Dismantling Solidarity: Capitalist Politics and American Pensions Since the New Deal (Cornell UP, 2017) and Doellgast’s edited volume (with Nathan Lillie and Valeria Pulignano) Reconstructing Solidarity: Labour Unions, Precarious Work, and the Politics of Institutional Change in Europe (Oxford UP, 2018) both represent important studies of solidarity, past and present.

SASE: What was the motivation to work on this book? 

Doellgast: Nathan Lillie, Valeria Pulignano, and I started talking about the idea of Reconstructing Solidarity at workshops organized by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) to discuss research on union responses to outsourcing – which was published in the book: The Outsourcing Challenge: Organizing Workers Across Fragmented Production Networks. One motivation we discussed at the time was the need to compile and curate employment relations industry studies comparing union responses to precarious work. A growing body of research challenged ‘dualism’ arguments that European labor unions were defending privileged core workers at the expense of those in more peripheral, precarious jobs. Findings showed that unions were seeking to organize and represent these precarious workers, but with uneven success. We felt a weakness in these studies (as in our own industry-based work) was the difficulty generalizing findings or drawing out common lessons, given the range of variables and theoretical frameworks used by researchers. So we set out to develop a more broadly generalizable framework that explained different patterns of outcomes, across what ended up being 9 industries and 15 countries. 

McCarthy: I attended graduate school in sociology at NYU intending to study the politics of labor and labor movements. Two years into my training, global capitalism experienced the largest crisis since the Great Depression. Though it led to havoc in productive sectors as well, that downturn was triggered in the sphere of circulation – finance. The financial meltdown made it immediately apparent to anyone looking just how deeply the fortunes of ordinary working people were tied to speculative financial markets. Over the year, the U.S. stock market plunged downward by 37.5 percent, revealing how the decades of legislative deregulation and institutional tinkering mattered for people far away from Wall Street and the City of London.

And nowhere was this more evident than in retirement funds. In a blink of an eye, workers saw their retirement savings vanish. OECD countries together lost 5.4 trillion in savings. In the U.S., 401(k) retirement plans and IRAs lost 2.4 trillion. In crucial ways, the system still has not recovered. Ideas for my book really began to develop in the context of the Great Recession. In writing it, I tried to offer some thoughts on two very different worlds and literatures, labor and finance, with a particular emphasis on the politics of each. But it was motivated, above all else, by a historical puzzle.  How did the fate of workers come to be so intimately tied to the up and downs of speculative financial markets? This puzzled me because even though it was highly inchoate and reproduced gendered and racial inequalities, the New Deal offered the possibility for the realization of a more solidaristic approach to retirement.

Why have you decided to center solidarity as a main concept?

Doellgast: Solidarity is a term that is commonly used in the labor movement as well as by academics and policy makers, but that has different meanings depending on the context. It is useful in analyzing how and why a group decides to make a collective commitment to mutual aid, and where that group’s boundaries are drawn (e.g., workplace, industry, class, nation). Much theorizing in comparative political economy focuses on the economic interests and political power of well-defined groups to explain the origin or persistence of different national models. The concept of solidarity helps to analyze the collective – one might say ideational or identity-based – process through which groups articulate a common interest; typically in a way that involves some moderation of short-term self-interest ‘for the common good’. Of course, solidarity can also be more narrowly defined, in a way that is exclusionary and tied up with defense of insider interests at the expense of outsiders. In our book, we distinguish between inclusive and exclusive forms of solidarity, with inclusive solidarity grounded in forming common cause across groups of workers holding diverse material interests and identities. This has a historic link to traditions of solidaristic bargaining in Northern Europe. We find many examples of this inclusive form of solidarity, and argue that it is essential for unions to fight the erosion of security in core jobs as well as to bring up conditions for currently precarious jobs.

McCarthy: The distinction between public and private tends to overwhelm the conceptual terrain on which we make sense of the state and society. This is also true in research on the welfare state, where the public/private distinction in social policies has long been a key way to make sense of the welfare state itself. My book shows, however, that if we analyze social policies with respect to the degree to which their allocation of support is determined by market processes, we find that both public and private programs can be more market oriented or more solidaristic. To me, solidarity versus the market captures something more fundamental than public versus private about the ways in which people organize themselves and their institutions to meet their needs. Throughout the whole of my life, though, we have been on a long march toward the market. 

What is its current relevance? 

McCarthy: In my work, solidarity describes institutions and social arrangements in which the costs of addressing various social risks we all face are pooled across the population. It is quite the opposite of market-oriented institutions in which people increasingly confront life’s uncertainties alone. In the U.S., the strategies that working people are forced to adopt to survive are highly atomized and increasingly situated in market processes. Middle-class workers increasingly take on debt to meet their consumption, education, housing, and health needs. And at the bottom of the labor market, as systems of welfare provisioning have been retrenched, poor workers turn to check cashing outlets, payday loans, and pawn shops that charge extraordinary rates of interest. So in my view, solidarity is relevant today mainly as an object of aspiration. The dominant institutions of modern financialized capitalism have dismantled and eroded solidaristic forms of risk pooling and have installed marketized versions in their place. But that aspiration certainly exists – though a right-wing populism has emerged, so has a left platform and alternative. Never before have ideas like Medicare for All and democratizing finance been more popular in the U.S. Even the idea of socialism itself has been rescued from popular insignificance.  

Who should read your book and why? 

Doellgast: The book speaks to debates in the employment relations, sociology, and public policy literatures on why precarious work is expanding in the Global North, as well as the institutional conditions for reducing employment precarity. We also hope that our colleagues in comparative political economy, who can sometimes be dismissive of industry-based employment relations research (particularly that which is not focused on the auto industry), will see some value in our attempt to develop a more generalizable framework out of a large number of sectoral case studies. One concrete insight, which draws on a long tradition of employment relations research, is that employer strategies are central to understanding the politics of labor market liberalization, dualization, and union decline. We thus seek to pull macro-theorists away from their focus on producer coalitions at national level, and toward the differentiated (but patterned) politics of restructuring within sectors and across the production chains of firms.

McCarthy: Although it engages in seemingly esoteric issues like pension financing to contribute to debates in state theory, one doesn’t need any kind of special expertise to read and understand this book. Most readers’ personal experiences will make the broad themes very familiar. 45.1 percent of retirement income comes from highly financialized private pensions in the U.S., the OECD average 19.5 percent. I think that the book will be useful both for those that want to understand why this is the case but also those interested in the ways that policymaking is constrained by the demands of capital. 

What is one thing you hope readers take away from the book? What in your findings tends to fuel or undermine solidarity?

Doellgast: Our main argument, and the organizing principle behind our framework, is that there is a positive feedback loop between inclusive institutions and inclusive solidarity – which together influence the respective power resources of unions and employers. In our framework and findings, we emphasize the importance of inclusive institutions, which we define by the degree to which welfare state protections, labor market legislation, and collective agreements extend the pay and conditions secured by employees having relatively stronger bargaining power to those with weaker bargaining power. Of course, the movement in Europe is in the opposite direction: many governments are considering or have recently passed legislation making it easier to exit industry-level agreements or to further decentralize bargaining to the workplace level – building on a trend that has unfolded over some decades. Unions and policymakers concerned with the expansion of precarious work should really be making a concerted (and solidaristic) effort to rebuild more inclusive institutions at national and European levels, and to close loopholes in these institutions where they exist.

Our findings show solidarity is stronger where institutions and union structures make common interests easier to see and act upon; and where it is more difficult for employers to exit encompassing institutional protections. Those are the most obvious structural conditions distinguishing the case studies that succeed from those that fail. However, unions and other worker representatives can also be creative in escaping from the tyranny of structural constraints. Unions build coalitions within the labor movement and beyond; invest scarce resources into organizing migrants and other precarious groups of workers; and engage in campaigns that close loopholes in regulations and collective agreements at the sectoral-, national- and EU-levels. Workers and citizens forge new bonds of solidarity on the front line, as it were, as they fight back against labor market deregulation and company restructuring through strikes and protests. Where these efforts face the most severe constraints in actually institutionalizing their demands – for example, in Greece under ongoing pressure from the Troika – a shift toward more exclusive and exclusionary forms of solidarity is likely.

McCarthy: Using a comparative historical framework, Dismantling Solidarity

analyzes three critical episodes in the decades-long marketization of U.S. retirement security: (1) After WWII, as an alternative to expansions of the public system, the U.S. turned to private employer pensions; (2) after they were established, employer pension funds were then financialized and retirement assets were directed into the stock market, hitching workers security to financial markets; (3) finally, the traditional defined-benefit plans that were won after WWII went into decline and many employers turned to defined-contribution plans, which further offset risk from firms onto their employees.

The aim of this book is to re-center capitalism in discussions of policymaking. To that end, it makes three broad arguments that together form a theory that I term “structural contingency”. The first is the state-regulated marketization argument. I show that the marketization of retirement security in America was political in its most proximate causes, in each case it was triggered by politicians. The second argument of the book is the managing capitalism argument. Policymakers were not motivated to intervene because of their party affiliation, their political ideology, or interest group influence over them. In fact, policymakers weren’t primarily concerned about retirement security at all in the episodes that I studied. Above all else, they intervened to manage perceived crises in capitalism and to encourage capitalist accumulation. The final argument is that how the state matters and what policymakers do is contingent on the balance of class forces in society. State action and the effects of that action quite simply cannot be reduced to the political aim of managing capitalism. Capitalism demarcates a range of possible policy options, class struggle selects from within that range. In the history I study, solidarity is eroded as an inadvertent outcome of this process of structural contingency. 

Besides academic endeavors, do you seek to influence trade union strategies? 

Doellgast: The short answer is: Yes. The arguments and framework in Reconstructing Solidarity build on research that the editors and chapter authors have presented to or carried out in collaboration with unions – and have been shaped quite a bit by those two-way discussions. We also have begun to engage with union audiences on the book’s argument and findings. My co-editors organized a book launch at the ETUI, and over the past year the book was featured in presentations and debates with union researchers, organizers, and representatives in the U.S., Germany, and Korea. In one example, the Korea Labor Institute published translated summaries of the book’s introduction and a few of the chapters in their International Labor Brief. We have a simple message for unions, which tends to resonate with their experiences: precarious work expands when employers exploit divides among groups of workers and within the labor movement; and when they are able to exploit loopholes in collective agreements and regulations. These are overcome through inclusive forms of solidarity, which bridge those divides to mobilize the collective power of workers to maintain or rebuild inclusive institutions. Actually overcoming these divides is of course a challenge; but we can point to a number of cases where unions succeed (or at least fail less badly).

We are living in an age of considerable declining solidarity. How can solidarity persist in the face of increasing liberalization of labor markets and pensions, and increasing gaps between worker earnings? Does your book leave us with hope for the future of solidarity? Why or why not?

Doellgast: I am not sure that solidarity is declining, but rather that its form is changing – and in some cases shifting from more inclusive to exclusive forms. However, this is not universally the case: for example, most European labor unions have rejected past policies that sought to exclude migrant workers from their industries and labor markets, and moved toward a more (if imperfectly) inclusive set of strategies to organize and represent these workers. When we started talking about the book, we initially were going to frame it around ‘new’ forms of solidarity. However, the chapter authors pointed out that their success cases were more often drawing on ‘old’ forms of solidarity, or mobilizing it for new uses, under changing conditions – typically characterized by more concerted employer resistance and the need to extend past structures to new or formerly excluded groups.

I think the book does give hope for the future of solidarity. The more common pattern in our case studies is a ‘vicious circle’ of expanding precarity associated with declining or more exclusive solidarity and increasingly fragmented institutions. However, the advantage of comparative research is that you can also identify the common features of those cases that move against the more typical ‘neoliberal trajectory’ (to borrow a phrase from Lucio Baccaro and Chris Howell). Labor unions and newer worker groups are mounting successful campaigns that show how divides can be overcome: we find examples of these successes in countries as diverse as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, and the U.K. – and in sectors that bridge manufacturing, the public sector, and lower-skilled services. I probably would agree with the more pessimistic analysis that things are likely to get worse for the global labor movement before they get better. But the research findings in our book do show that unions can be creative in building new forms of power across old and new divides. An inclusive labor movement that tries in a concerted way to overcome its own internal conflicts – to unite around a common set of social demands — is probably the best hope for challenging the growing imbalance of economic and political power in Europe and globally.

McCarthy: Though my book emphasizes the ways that solidarity is dismantled, it concludes with a chapter that gestures toward what kinds of labor strategies might be necessary to rebuild solidaristic institutions and relations between people. Capitalist crises, or the perceived threat of one, push policymakers to intervene to support capitalist accumulation and growth. Some of these capitalist crises are the result of collective action failures, mismanagement, or deeper structural changes in the economy itself. Others, however, are driven by the opposite, collective action. Protests, strikes, boycotts, and riots are effective precisely because of their potential to grind things to a halt – sometimes in the relations of the economy itself. 

If there is a prospect for reversing the present market-oriented course, my book suggests that one route toward solidarity lays in these latter forms of crisis. But this is no easy feat. To actually reverse the course in this way, ordinary people need to be strong enough to make a crisis through their disruption of the institutions they find themselves within, but also positioned well enough within the context of that crisis to exact concessions from politicians when they intervene. That working people are able to force policymakers to act through disruption by no means guarantees that those policymakers will intervene on their behalf. The long history of strikes and protests being beaten back with clubs and tear gas suggests quite the opposite.  

By most accounts today, labor traditionally conceived is weaker than it has ever been before. But union density in the U.S. during the first five years of the Great Depression, 1929 to 1934, was about ten percent of the workforce. That is nearly the current U.S. density. And what followed in the halls of policymaking was sharp turn toward solidarity. It might be very unlikely, but in the context of crises, if working class social forces are organized both outside and inside of the state when policymaking interventions take shape, more just institutions and programs might be installed.

Discussions with the authors conducted by Agatha Slupek and Assaf Bondy


* This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2018/19 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page*


This article is taken from
SASE Winter Newsletter 18/19
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