Monthly Archives: November 2012

Restoring Traditional America

Over the weekend The Daily Kos highlighted a cartoon from Tom the Dancing Bug (cartoonist Rueben Bolling) that responded to Bill O’Reilly’s election night claim that Obama’s win signaled the death of traditional America. According to O’Reilly, “the demographics are changing, it’s not a traditional American anymore.” Bolling wondered what would happen if Barack Hussein Obama traveled back in time to the world of Leave it to Beaver. In this imaginary scenario, Obama tells the Cleavers of his plan to raise the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, reduce the gap between CEO pay and that of the lowest paid employees, and bolster the social safety net. The “Beave” and his family point out that those features were already in place in their traditional 1960s America. “Golly, mister,” the Beave exclaims, “I think you’re bringing back traditional America.”

I do, too. I am writing a book about how workers and unions were represented in 1950s popular culture.  In Striking Images: Labor Unions on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s, I argue that workers were represented in popular culture more often, and more positively, than we remember. This is, in part, because union membership was at its highest point in U.S. history (roughly 35% of all US households). Unions were also active, not passive. There were more than 30,000 strikes over the course of the 1950s.  In other words, union membership was traditional.

For example, in 1965 Eisenhower, declared that “the protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.” Rachel Maddow once quipped about Eisenhower’s relatively liberal policies that she was “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”

As we return to a more traditional America, how are ordinary workers being represented in popular culture? This is a question we often ask on this blog, and we make our share of withering critiques, as Susan Ryan did when she addressed the phenomenon of “extreme work” reality television and how workers are being exploited in front of and behind the camera.

But there are some other more positive, and possibly even authentic ways in which workers are being represented in popular culture. Here’s a quick run down:

Striking workers are back in the news. Thanks to the massive (and largely successful) Chicago teacher’s strike and a well-organized blitz of Black Friday job actions at Walmarts across the country, the mainstream media has been covering strikes with more sympathy than in years past. Do a search for “Black Friday” and “workers” and more than 2 million hits pop up. While some of the coverage of Black Friday’s job actions underplayed the overall impact of the Walmart actions, other headlines suggested the range and the power of the strikes which took place in more than 100 cities in 46 states.

The Ed Show. Ed Schultz, the one time sports broadcaster and conservative shock jock now spins his blue-collar bluster in a more progressive direction on MSNBC every weeknight at 8:00 PM. Schultz starts every show with the tag line “Let’s get to work.” If you were watching The Ed Show last week you would have seen coverage of the raw deal that Hostess workers were given in the Twinkie show down, a piece about the unionization of exotic dancers, a report on a union on the rise in Phoenix, Arizona, and an exposé on what Walmart really pays its workers. You won’t find this much working-class related news in video form in one place anywhere else.

Blue: America at Work and Blue: Portrait of an American Worker. In a coincidence of naming, two photographers of the contemporary American labor scene have titled their projects “Blue.” Ian Wagreich’s Blue: America at Work was “kickstarted” in August and includes stunning black and white portraits of American workers in industrial settings. The photographs are visually gorgeous, and they are as much as about aestheticizing the industrial landscape as they are about giving a voice to individual workers. They remind me of Charles Sheeler’s arresting photographs of the Ford River Rouge plant. Waigreich’s work photographs are currently on view (until December 10th at Washington D.C.’s Art Museum of the Americas in a show called “On Labor”). Photographer Carl Corey’s photographs from his collection Blue: Portrait of an American Worker are in color, and provide a more literal “close up” of the workers themselves. One of Corey’s goals in taking these photographs, as he explained in an interview with The Wooly Pulpit, was to advocate for American workers: “my hope is awareness will breed support for the American Worker.” The workers look proud, even stoic, and the photographs remind me a bit of the classic worker portraits taken by Milton Rogovin.

Current TV’s profile of the American worker. During the lead up to the election, Current TV posted a new worker profile every day for 30 days. Thirteen of the workers profiled were women, and 10 were African American, Latino, or Asian. The jobs covered included cop, firefighter, graphic designer, bus driver, Boeing mechanic, bartender, CPA, nurse, farmworker, and web developer. The profiles included detailed interviews, includingquestions about union membership and political leanings. Though not all of the workers profiled were working class, the interviews echoed common themes. Everyone who had health insurance was grateful for it, and everyone who did not have it wanted it. When asked “what is the one thing you could change about your job if you could,” almost everyone wanted better pay and/or benefits. One of the most inspiring quotes came from the Boeing mechanic, Monico Bretana, the highest paid union worker in the group: “I would have to say that I’m a working guy; I work for my money. Just like everybody else, I just want to be treated fairly, I just want to have a decent living wage, decent benefits to cover me and my family, and the union has provided that for us. And I want people to know that unions are not what people perceive anymore. We’re here to help the middle class, we’re here to help maintain a good living standard.”

Now doesn’t that sound sort of like the 1950s? Of course, I don’t want to go back to the 1950s altogether. I don’t want to go back to Jim Crow America, or Operation Wetback America, or Mad Men America. But when it comes to taxes on the wealthy (can we get the marginal tax rate back to the 1950s rate of 91%?), the tradition of union membership, and images of proud, beautiful blue-collar workers, I would be happy to go back in time.

Kathy M. Newman

The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

Jobs and the “Fiscal Cliff”

My relief that Mitt Romney was not going to be our president, with a Republican Senate along with the House of Representatives, barely lasted through Tuesday night.  By my lights, a lot of terrible stuff and a completely wrong direction in our policy and politics have just been avoided.  Whew!  But after months of both Republicans and Democrats talking about the lack of jobs being produced by our lackluster economy, with political reporters, operatives, and pundits hanging on the next unemployment report as if it might be vitally important for the future of the republic — by the end of the week our 8% official unemployment rate (and Romney’s oft-repeated “23 million unemployed and underemployed workers”) was again just one of those inconvenient realities that we’re going to have to live with.

President Obama’s victory speech Tuesday night looked ahead to his second term and promised to focus on “reducing our deficit” along with some other things (“reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil”), with no mention of getting our economy growing at a rate that can reduce our debilitating unemployment and the damage it is doing to all of our lives, some of us much more than others.  Then, as the Wall Street Journal headlined two days later, “Political Focus Shifts to ‘Fiscal Cliff’,” and it’s all about budgets and the need for “shared sacrifice” and a “balanced approach” to easing the economy farther downhill rather than going off a cliff.

The fiscal cliff is not just about deficits.  It’s about jobs – jobs in an economy where there are not nearly enough of them for everybody who wants and needs them.  If the spending cuts and tax increases currently scheduled to take effect January 1st actually would take effect and then remain in place for all of 2013, it would reduce the federal deficit, at least at first, by more than $600 billion – that is, “cutting the deficit in half,” as the President once promised.  But it would also throw us back into recession and eliminate more than 4 million jobs.

Jobs and deficits are related.  Federal budget deficits (spending more than you take in in taxes) fuel economic growth and create jobs.  Likewise, stronger, faster economic growth creates jobs and, thereby, reduces federal budget deficits.  Without the annual $1 trillion deficits the federal government has been running since President Obama took office, we would still be in the Great Recession – or worse.  Right now, we need those deficits.  Cut them substantially, and you reduce economic growth and kill jobs.

Even though some Republicans deny it and almost no Democrats will say it, all the political players, including what is euphemistically called “the business community,” know these basic principles of macroeconomics.  They know that rapidly cutting the deficit in half – whether by cutting spending, increasing taxes, or some combination of the two in a so-called “balanced approach” – will send the economy back into its 2008-09 tailspin.  That’s why all the political players fear the fiscal cliff, and that widespread fear is also why we will not go over it.

But how we avoid the fiscal cliff matters.  And just avoiding it will at best leave us where we are, with a stagnant economy growing at 2% a year and with an official unemployment rate near 7% as far as the eye can see.  We also need to stimulate the economy immediately, get it growing fast enough so that it is creating 300,000 or 400,000 jobs a month (versus the recent trend of 150,000 a month).  This will increase the deficit in 2013, but it will also do more to cut the deficit in the long run than any spending cut or tax increase could do.

For a guide on how to avoid the fiscal cliff, see the Economic Policy Institute’s September policy brief, “A fiscal obstacle course, not a cliff” by Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse.  It’s very wonky and can be hard to follow in spots, but it’s only 13 pages of text.  And it has a wonderful table on page 7 that lists the various laws that expire at the end of this year and shows both how much each expiration will reduce the deficit AND how many jobs it will kill.  The fiscal cliff is not just the Bush tax cuts – which will lop $64 billion off the 2013 deficit if only the high-income cuts expire, but will also cut 102,000 jobs.  The cliff also includes Obama’s special recession-fighting unemployment compensation program (whose expiration will reduce the deficit by only $39 billion but will eliminate 448,000 jobs) and the expiration of the payroll tax cut (which will reduce the deficit by $115 billion but at the cost of killing more than one million jobs).

Bivens and Fieldhouse use these calculations to show how a jobs-sensitive strict cost-benefit analysis would lead to renewing (and even enhancing) federal government spending programs rather than renewing any of the tax cuts, while also showing that tax cuts targeted to lower- and middle-income workers create more jobs than those going to the wealthy and other high-income earners.  Tax increases do kill jobs, just as Republicans always say, but cuts in government social spending kill many, many more.

There is a lot of complicated economics here, and the politics of avoiding the fiscal cliff may be even more complicated.  I sympathize with the President and Congressional Democrats for having to work through these daunting problems while dealing with House Republicans.  But the President started on the wrong foot Tuesday night by focusing on “reducing our deficit.”  That’s a job killer if you do it now and if you do it the wrong way.  With an economy growing at 2% (at best) and an unemployment rate hovering around 8%, the very last thing we need now is to reduce our deficit.  Rather, first we need to preserve our deficit and the jobs it is supporting.  And then we need the President’s American Jobs Act with its increased spending for infrastructure and for state and local governments to hire and rehire “teachers, cops, and firefighters” – namely, the stuff he campaigned on, the promise of “Forward.” Reducing our deficit and a long-term plan for managing our accumulating national debt are for later, not now.  Right now we need jobs, millions of them.  And we need our newly elected President paying attention to that in a way he has not since February of 2009.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Obama Will Cruze to Victory

“And the winner is…”

(Drum roll—sound of envelope being ripped open.)

“…Barack Obama.”

I’m going to be honest about this: when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest I’ve been downright Romneyan.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but unlike the GOP nominee who can’t remember what he believed an hour ago, I haven’t developed a case of Romnesia or tried to Etch-a-Sketch my shifting prognostications out of existence. What hasn’t changed is my belief that the outcome of the presidential contest in Ohio would determine who would occupy the White House for the next four years.

A little over a year ago—and months before he had sewn up the GOP nomination–I believed Romney was on a clear path to victory in the Buckeye state.  He was the least buffoonish character in the cast of clowns that was seeking the Republican nod, he was and would continue to be awash in campaign cash, and his record as a Senate candidate and governor of Massachusetts would enable him to move from the far right-wing toward the center after he secured the nomination.

Other factors also pointed to a Romney win. Though recovering, the economy was weak, unemployment was uncomfortably high, and President Obama was being blamed—his job approval rating was hovering at 42%.   The Democratic Party’s dispirited and disillusioned base had not turned out in 2010, enabling the GOP to capture every statewide office.  White working-class males who had never been enthralled with Mr. Obama remained skeptical if not downright hostile, and the state’s conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to toss him out of office. Ohio was, in my opinion, ripe for the taking.

Obviously, my opinion has changed. Since mid-summer I’ve been calling the race for the President and, despite some trepidation caused by his lackluster performance in the first debate and the public’s and the media’s willingness to give Romney a pass for being the most disingenuous and dissembling candidate to ever seek the presidency, I am confident Mr. Obama will win Ohio tomorrow on his way to racking up a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

Why do I now believe that Mr. Obama will prevail in a contest he could easily have lost?

Regardless of the billion dollars spent by the candidates, political parties, and Super PACs to air more than 1,000,000 TV ads, President Obama will win Ohio and the White House because he thought it was a good idea to save the domestic auto industry and Mitt Romney did not.

The President will win because his commitment to an industry that employs one in eight Ohioans has strengthened both the state’s economy and his standing among working-class voters. This issue has provided voters with an unobstructed view of the difference between the two candidates, their credibility, and the effect each man’s philosophy of government could have on the future of our nation.

The auto rescue demonstrates that government can exert a positive impact on the economy.  Unlike TARP and the President’s overall stimulus plan, which primarily benefited Wall Street, the auto rescue paid off for Main Street, especially Main Streets across Ohio.  It preserved good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs, enabled GM and Chrysler to invest nearly one billion dollars in new plants and equipment, and positioned the companies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Yes, there was pain involved.  The thousands of union members who lost their jobs, the car dealers who were forced to close, and the Delphi retirees whose pensions shrunk will tell you just how much.  But it’s also important to note that the auto rescue forced fat cat members of the 1% to join the working families who make up the 99% in paying the price for mistakes made by corporate America.  Along with being fundamentally fair, the substantial “haircut” that bond-holders and other investors were forced to take was an essential element of the financial restructuring that put the two auto companies on the road to recovery and literally saved millions of jobs.

In the end, the auto rescue bolstered Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects because it produced tangible results for American workers—the type of tangible results that have yet to be generated by the larger stimulus plan or health care reform.  The type of results Romney and the Republicans can’t lie about or distort.  The results are as real as the paychecks that millions of workers receive each week, as real as the thousands of Chevy Cruzes that roll off the Lordstown assembly line each week, as real the pride workers feel when they read that the car they make is the best-selling model in America.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, everything that’s wrong with his politics, his campaign, and his philosophy was encapsulated in his stance on the auto rescue as expressed in these 84 words from an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times:

Let Detroit Go Bankrupt

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.

Clearly, Mr. Romney was dead and demonstrably wrong.  That inconvenient truth and the fact that the op-ed can be read by anyone who visits the Times’s website hasn’t prevented Mr. Romney from attempting to flip-flop on this issue as he has on so many others, including abortion, health care, the environment, and gay rights.

But no matter how he twisted and turned, no matter how much he lied, he couldn’t get out from under the op-ed.  He could never gain traction in Ohio where voters–white working class voters in particular–were living the success of the President’s plan.

How did Mr. Romeny deal with his inability to pull ahead in the state he had to win?

He simply told bigger lies in TV and radio spots that claimed Chrysler was moving production of its Jeep models to China and GM was shipping jobs and capital overseas.  The ads were so misleading and offensive that Chrysler and GM officials vehemently denounced them, the media finally held him accountable for dissembling, and the public reacted with anger and revulsion.

Predictably, his poll numbers started to slip.  Romney had finally been hoisted on the petard of his own mistruths.

Tomorrow, the man who rescued the domestic auto industry will defeat the man who wanted to let it die and then lied about it.  That says a lot about Ohio voters.  Confronted, at last, with the undistorted, incontrovertible truth, they are poised to reward a President who did the right thing with four more years in the White House.

Now that we know who will win, the big question—the one that will obviously be discussed once the dust of the election clears—is what Mr. Obama will do with the opportunity Ohioans are about to give him.  Will he, as he did with the auto rescue, focus on investing in Main Street by making sure that working-class families have a real chance to grab their piece of the American Dream or will he revert to Wall Street-centered policies that undermined his credibility, dampened the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and placed his prospects for reelection in jeopardy?

I have a prediction, but I’m not ready to make it public just yet…

Leo Jennings