Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
Sewer socialism was a municipal movement in early to mid-20th century America that sought to make the lives of big and mid-sized cities better in several ways. Advocates of sewer socialism municipalized natural monopolies like sewers, trash collection, and electrical grids, and they worked to deliver quality public services to the residents of the cities they served – public safety, fire, education, (public) hospitals, and infrastructure. In addition, they also sought to be good stewards of the people’s money and fought corruption, as this set of politicians knew working class and poor people couldn’t afford to have their money wasted. Sewer socialists also, although not always, supported organized labor.
Any 21st century sewer socialism should include pushes for municipal wi-fi, municipal retail brokerage companies, municipally subsidized housing co-ops, maybe municipally subsidized retail co-ops, and an emphasis on quality fire protection, infrastructure, public safety, and education. A modern version of sewer socialism, like its 20th century ancestor, should emphasize that it can use taxpayers’ money wisely, as many taxpayers have modest means.
Modern sewer socialist movements should promote the cause of a powerful labor movement, and it might not take the AFL-CIO form. Sure, sewer socialists can assure trade unions gain work from city contracts, but it must reach portions of the workforce that are not heavily unionized and not well paid. Amy Qin’s piece New York and California Experiment with Giving Workers a Say in Industry Standards gives those who believe in a modernized sewer socialism a guidebook for empowering working people. The story concentrates on service workers, a big part of our economy, and points out that less than three percent of fast-food workers and one percent of nail salon workers are unionized. California, a state with more than half a million fast food employees (more than any state in the county), is considering a bill to address the exploitation in that industry. The Fast-Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act (FFASRA) would make franchisers liable for labor violations of their franchisees and would also protect workers who speak up. The FFASRA introduces something even more interesting – a workers’ council. The 11-member Fast Food Sector Council, which includes workers, worker advocates, regulators, franchisees and franchisers would be appointed by the state to set sector-wide policy on wages, working hours, and health and safety regulations. The idea is that workers know what violations are occurring, and franchisees know how they’re being squeezed. In addition, the council would let them simultaneously bring their issues to corporate representatives and regulators, who have the power to change profit structures and working conditions.
Since 2018, four states and three localities have instituted workers’ councils in sectors from domestic work to agriculture. In Philadelphia, a domestic workers’ council is facilitating the country’s first portable paid leave system, so workers can accrue time off across multiple employers. In New York, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Act would create a workers’ council with business owners, government delegates, and workers in 15 voter seats. It has the power to recommend a statewide pricing model, addressing the race to the bottom that’s pushing salon owners to cut corners and wages. Sector-based councils aren’t new, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal featured them in the National Recovery Administration (NRA). There were problems with the NRA; some employers cheated on the established rules and the whole program was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Features of the NRA were later included in New Deal pro-labor legislation like the minimum wage and the Wagner Act as well as in the regulation of utility industries – airlines, trucking, and busses. Qin points out that such boards would be a boon to industries that are hard to unionize or where there are few unions.
Sewer socialist mayors, aldermen and alderwomen need to work on creating workers’ councils in their respective municipalities. This would make life easier for the urban, suburban, and rural working class. It might also serve as an example for bigger, federal programs down the road and strengthen social democratic tendencies in our country.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.
Municipal wi-fi is a great idea, Jason! And also what you said about leaders prioritizing a strong labor movement. I additionally see a huge need for grassroots support for worker solidarity, because individuals living hand-to-mouth can only take a stand for so long before they have to buckle under and do whatever they can to feed and house their families.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if sewer socialists could start a program that subsidized striking workers, as well as workers fired for organizing?!! Maybe some have already done this!
And I pray that infrastructural thinking will undergo a major sea change in the direction of funding really good public transport and walkable and bikeable communities with lots of neighborhood grocery stores.