Category Archives: John Russo

McDonald’s, FedEx, and Shifting Legal Views of Employment

Sometimes seemingly obscure legal rulings indicate major changes in the struggle for social and economic justice. Two recent rulings involving independent contractors and franchise employers could help enable workers and unions to make breakthroughs in improving wages and working conditions.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” of franchisees’ workers and is accountable for their franchisees’ questionable and sometimes illegal actions. Corporations often use franchise agreements to avoid fulfilling legal personnel requirements by shifting responsibilities to franchisees. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, the NLRB decision exposes large corporations who use franchise agreements to potential liability claims.

In a second decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Western California, Washington and Oregon) overruled a District Court and said that FedEx has misclassified employees as independent contractors. Legally, independent contractors can’t be directly supervised, supplied with workspace or tools, or otherwise treated like employees, and because they are not considered employees under Labor Management Relations Act, Section 2. Consequently, independent contractors have limited legal protections and do not have the right to organize unions.

Companies like FedEx misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying insurance premiums, minimum wages and overtime, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. FedEx reduced its labor costs 25% by shifting expenses to the independent contractors. If the Appellate Court decision is sustained and if it is expanded to include the more than 45 class action and individual lawsuits and the 25 state tax and other administrative proceedings claiming misclassification, FedEx could have to pay hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in back taxes, back pay, and various fines. No wonder the business press has said that the decision could have a “seismic impact.”

While these cases won’t be resolved any time soon, they’re important because they reflect changing attitudes toward work and inequality. Both cases evolved within the larger context of deregulation, precarious employment, cost shifting, and the loss of workplace protections over the last 40 years as employers sought to lower labor costs and undermine unions. For example, building contractors have increasingly used subcontractors to evade union contracts. Especially in deindustrialized areas, displaced manufacturing workers who had toolboxes and pickup trucks became part of a pool of independent contractors. This placed pressure on unionized employees and contractors to lower wages and sign concessionary “project agreements.” As a result, wages, benefits, and working conditions all declined, especially in unionized industries.

Other employers and industries turned to personnel and temp agencies. ManpowerGroup became one of the nation’s largest employers by acting as a hiring hall for independent employees and contractors. Kelly Services has become the largest specialized clerical /technical agency. Smaller niche labor market agencies have also sprung up, such as Labor Ready, which provides day labor for construction and cleaning.

Even employers of professionals, who once thought of themselves as models of justice and fair employment, have embraced the use of independent contractors and temp agencies. For example, universities, hospitals, and newspapers have laid off employees and hired subcontractors to do both professional and non-professional work. Many universities treat adjunct faculty as episodic and easily replaceable independent contractors, and they hire subcontractors to handle maintenance, security, and food services.

These recent legal rulings don’t just tell us about changes in work, though. They also suggest reasons to hope that employment conditions will improve in the future. First, because precarious employment has become more common, most Americans probably know someone who has experienced job loss and/or economic injustice. Coupled with newspaper stories and much-discussed books about inequality and with Occupy Wall Street and its references to the 99%, we now have a national narrative – popular and intellectual — about economic injustice, low wages, and unfair treatment at work. Just as state courts overturning gay marriage bans reflect a broad change in public attitudes, these recent employment rulings reflect a change in public awareness, political views, and, to a lesser extent, actual public policies.

Second, the legal cases dramatize the importance of electoral politics. Despite their failings (which have been well documented on this site), Democrats make significantly better appointments to the court and other legal and regulatory agencies than Republicans do. While Democrats don’t always represent the interests of their base very well, their appointments are still more likely to rule in progressive ways than are judges and regulators appointed by Republicans. In the case of the NLRB, for example, the new board members appointed by Obama are more sensitive to worker and labor rights than were earlier members appointed by Bush. No wonder the Republicans have created a logjam over judgeships given the role of justices deciding social and workplace issues. Voters who care about workplace justice should consider the power of these appointments when they go to the polls.

Third, for a decimated and often moribund labor movement, these rulings and the changing attitudes that they reflect provide the groundwork to test new organizing approaches. We see this in the growth of the fast food workers movement and the willingness of organized labor to embrace pre-majority or minority unionism. These experiments in new organizing approaches provide hope that a revitalized labor movement can help provide a voice for workers whether they are unionized or not. They also also provide support and an education in organizing for young and precarious workers fighting for job security and economic justice in warehouses, restaurants, and big box stores like Wal-Mart.

If the FedEx and McDonald’s decisions had occurred in an intellectual, political, and movement vacuum, they might not matter much. But these rulings both reflect and further enable a broader and growing movement for economic justice that could, indeed, be “seismic.”

John Russo

Can Democrats Win the White Working-Class Vote?

Winning greater support among white working-class voters is critical for Democrats in presidential elections, and it often provides a critical margin for Democratic candidates in statewide races.  For example, in Ohio, loss of white working-class support in 2010 resulted in a Republican landslide, but in 2012 a modest level of support among white working-class voters helped President Obama win the state.

Consequently, with midterm elections coming in November, the electoral politics of the white working class has become a central concern for Democrats and their supporters. Last month, The Washington Monthly and The Democratic Strategist held a roundtable discussionto consider the state of working-class politics and what progressives and Democrats could do to gain greater support among white working-class voters.

To tackle the issues, the roundtable organizers asked prominent pollsters Stan Greenberg, Ruy Texiera, and John Halpin to review demographic and polling data.  While many pundits have claimed that the white working class has shifted its allegiance to the Republicans, Greenberg, Texiera, and Halpin found that the shift occurred primarily in the South and Mountain West states. Further, in these red state regions, white working-class support was weakening not so much because of changing political views but because of demographic changes.   Simply put, white working-class support declined because the white working class had shrunk, while other groups that tended to vote for Democrats – those with more education, younger voters, metropolitan residents, secularists, immigrants, and racial minorities – had grown. Furthermore, research showed no growth in Republican support among white working-class voters in other regions of the country. But even though the white working-class has become less important demographically, the pollsters warned, it remains critical in electoral politics. This is particularly true in preventing the election of Republican supermajorities in off-year elections.

The roundtable organizers then asked a group of “leading progressive and Democratic thinkers and strategists” (including two regular contributors to this blog) to answer this question: What do you think is the most important single step progressives and Democrats can take to regain support among white working-class Americans? Here’s what the commentators concluded.

Within the white working class, Harold Meyerson argues, the Federal government has been discredited in response to repeated Republican attacks on programs that supposedly target racial minorities and on the government’s failure to effectively address the long term economic decline of working people. In part, this is due to Republican obstructionism and the resulting political gridlock. But it is also because Democratic candidates have repeatedly promised the working class more than they deliver. As a result, many in the white working class have lost faith in the Democratic Party.

At the same time, contributors argue that white working-class voters support a range of Democratic policies — minimum wage increases, infrastructure projects, trade policies that limit offshoring, bank restrictions, anti-plutocrat tax reform, and support for domestic manufacturing. This suggests that when white working-class people think of themselves in terms of class rather than race or gender, they are likely to support Democratic social and economic programs.

The current economic situation helps in this regard. Some contributors point to white working-class support for the Affordable Care Act in red state Kentucky, where working-class people benefit regardless of their race or gender. In her roundtable contribution, Joan Walsh points out that the economic crisis has been diverse, and this has moderated white working-class resistance to some social programs.  She suggests that so-called “women’s issues,” like family sick leave, have become important economic issues for struggling families, appealing to voters regardless of gender. Likewise, Medicaid benefits are crucial for many working-class families suffering from economic hardship.

One strategy for tapping into the class and economic concerns of the white working class is to “reposition” Democrats on social issues, especially affirmative action and welfare. Republicans have ridiculed Democrats over these and other social issues, suggesting that liberals favor racial minorities and gays at the expense of the white working class.  Richard Kahlenberg suggests that Democrats could gain working-class support by shifting support away from racial preferences in college admissions and employment to preferences for the economically disadvantaged.

Other commentators, however, warned Democrats against simply repositioning themselves or reframing issues. Andrew Levinson explains that “fine tuning of platforms and narratives” has not helped Democrats win or retain support. In fact, he argues, white working-class voters are already suspicious of political rhetoric. All too often, candidates talk the talk during elections but then fail to walk the walk afterward.

Finally, some contributors suggested that the white working class lacks a group consciousness. Community organizations and trade unions have lost their effectiveness as translators of public policy, creating a vacuum that has been filled by the media. As a result, working-class voters don’t hear coherent arguments from the left.  Short-term organizing efforts, as I have noted before, aren’t sufficient.  We need community institutions that do not appear during campaign season only to disappear following the election. At the same time, social and economic discussions during campaigns should not be didactic. Rather, public policy discussions must explain the benefits of progressive policies for individuals rather than addressing them in broad economic terms.

The roundtable didn’t reach a consensus, but it provides thoughtful observations for the Democratic Party to consider for future elections. The key may not be tracking changes among white working-class voters but rather to understand more fully that thewhite working class has always been more complex than the term implies. While Democrats often saw the white working class as a well-defined and reliable part of an enduring progressive coalition, the white working class never saw itself politically as a single group. Today, perhaps more than ever, the working class is diverse, divided not only by race or gender but also by region and religion. If Democrats want to win this November or in the future, they must build a strategic partnership with the diverse working class.

John Russo

Will “Accompanying” Work as an Organizing Principle?

Liberals and progressives have generally seen union and community organizing as the best tools to resist corporate power and provide the working class with a political voice.  But in this era of neoliberalism, these traditional models of organizing have lost their effectiveness.

Unions have continued to lose membership and are fighting among themselves over organizing and politics. Building trades, manufacturing, and public sector unions seem to be going in different directions despite the efforts of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to bring the labor movement together. When direct attacks on labor occur, the labor movement does come together, as we saw in Ohio in 2011. But not always, as in the struggle over collective bargaining in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where some unions preferred pragmatic, self-interested politics that led to distrust and divisions.

Community organizing has also suffered, especially from fatigue.  In 2012, Obama’s mobilization efforts were incredibly effective in organizing women and people of color. This was no small deal given the political attacks on and the 2009 collapse of the preeminent community organization, ACORN, which required activists to build new community organizations, especially around working-class issues like housing and income inequality. These new organizations have succeeded in campaigns around vacant properties and the minimum wage, but overall, community organizing  has become episodic, and it wins too seldom.

This is particularly important for the Democratic Party and its base. As Michael Tomasky predicts, the Democrats’ problem will be motivating voters. The Democratic Party is terrified that in the 2014 mid-term elections its base (African-Americans, Latinos, women, and young adults) will not show up and it will be unable to gain new support from the solidly Republican white working class. The result would be decisive Republican Senatorial and Gubernatorial gains that will be as difficult to unwind as the Republican redistricting of the last three years.

Today’s conversations and reevaluations, especially about community and union organizing approaches, have been occurring across the political spectrum, but we should pay particular attention to some ideas emerging from the old New Left.  In a review of two new books by Gar Alperovitz and my Youngstown colleague Staughton Lynd, David Moberg notes that Lynd has attributed the current political environment to the American Left’s inability to build real mass movements that can pressure politicians. As Lynd puts it, “Obama is a liberal, a good human being, and we have failed him.” Like Lynd, many in the progressive community have given up hope for the kind of Labor or Socialist Party that exists in other countries to advocate working-class issues. His solution is to move beyond the single-issue politics of an earlier era.  Instead, we should seek greater participation in representative democracy with distinct moral overtones.

Perhaps one way of understanding Lynd’s ideas is through Pope Francis’ teachings and approaches to poverty. In a world of so much wealth, the Pope sees poverty as a scandal that demands justice and requires us to bear witness. The Pope’s vision is not merely an updating of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a call to action that echoes the ideas of liberation theologians from the Global South.  Lynd echoes the Pope’s sensibility, using the term “accompanying” rather than “witnessing” in thinking about organizing — a term associated with the Pope’s murdered colleague, El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Pope Francis warns that witnessing is not about managing, instructing, or judging (like “legalists, scribes, and hypocrites”) but rather about listening, accepting, and validating others. Real power is gained by being a role model “with that zeal to seek people, heal people, to love people.”  Likewise, Lynd sees accompanying as avoiding didactic approaches and the often situational ethics associated with organizing. Rather, accompanying involves deep and extended community obligations and committing to “equality, listening, and seeking consensus and exemplary action.” This includes the free interchange of ideas and modeling personal and democratic behavior. This moral approach can help local organizations build real pressure to move public opinion. As Timothy Weaver suggested at a recent Urban Studies Association Conference, it is time to move beyond “the dead weight of pragmatism and feasibility.”

Forget parachuting in community organizers who work hard during the election season only to disappear after the results. Forget about the current servicing model of unionism or  “hot shop” union organizing that never builds real union solidarity. Pope Francis and Lynd believe that community and labor organizing begins where you are and embraces a moral approach, not just organizing tactics. It engenders real participation and not just cooperation.

This approach is already being used effectively. The low-wage worker and Wal-Mart campaigns and strikes may have seemed minimal and episodic as workplace actions. But these same actions have had strong community support (that included religious figures and community groups to provide moral authority) as well as worker involvement.  Both locally and nationally, these efforts have been crucial in moving public opinion around inequality and living wages. In Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative “brings together neighborhood, faith-based and labor groups to build the capacity necessary to create sustainable change in our community.” The MVOC has provided a moral and ethical model for grassroots organizing around economic opportunity, fighting human trafficking, housing and vacant property reform, and food and health care access. This morally-focused model of accompanying has inspired other community organizations statewide, including religious groups such as Ohio Prophetic Voicesand ACTION, various neighborhood associations, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Lynd’s concept of accompanying as an approach to organizing calls us all to organize where we are, and above all, to assert and sustain strong moral claims to justice, equality, and fairness before we get too quickly to the “pragmatic and feasible.”

John Russo

 

 

Paying Attention to the Precariat

As I wrote in October 2012, the precariat – the growing class of insecure workers whose wages and working conditions do not provide economic stability – ought to be getting more attention in American political discourse. I have urged mainstream journalists covering labor issues to use the term, which is increasingly being used in Europe.  Several reporters have told me that they don’t use precariat because readers would not understand it.  Writers think it’s clearer to refer to this group as the underclass or chronically unemployed. Of course, proletariat is verboten for mainstream journalists.

But last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks broke the pattern. In “The American Precariat,” Brooks tries to explain why Americans, who used to be willing to move in order to improve their economic position, are increasingly likely to stay put, even when that means passing up potential jobs.  According to Brooks, some people are trapped by homes that are underwater and workers have little incentive to move, since labor markets are pretty much the same everywhere, a change from the past, when different regions offered distinct opportunities.

But Brooks also suggests that the major reason Americans are staying in place both geographically and economically is a “lack of self-confidence.” Few workers today are willing to risk “the temporary expense and hardship [of moving] because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward.” Brooks also sees evidence that Americans lack self-confidence in declining fertility rates and in more people staying in the jobs they have rather than voluntarily leaving to look for something better.  He also cites evidence from opinion polls showing that an all time low of only 46 percent of Americans report that they expect their economic condition to improve.  “American exceptionalism,” he writes, “is basically gone.”

All of this leads Brooks to the idea of the precariat, “a concept that has been floating around Europe” for which he cites British scholar Guy Standing. Brooks sees Americans embracing an “uncharacteristic” fatalism, something we’d expect to see in Europe, but not here.

More conservative commentators and think tanks should pay attention to the American precariat. Clearly, the growing number of individuals who lack employment security, job security, income security, skill security, occupational security, and labor market security are threat to conservative benefactors. Among other things, the precariat is long past believing conservative promises, like trickle-down economics or the idea that having five jobs by the time they’re 35 gives young workers flexibility and opportunity.

But like Brooks, most conservatives would rather talk about how individuals lack self-confidence than address the real economic challenges facing many Americans today.  Rather than offering substantive policies, some conservatives suggest that moving vouchers would help poor people pursue opportunities (an approach that would also reduce the kind of the concentration of insecure workers that led to Occupy Wall Street). Their analysis ignores how Wall Street and global corporations have changed work practices and benefit structures, stigmatized the unemployed, and championed the loss of public assistance. Moving vouchers and appeals to self-confidence won’t prevent the precariat’s growing resentment toward the 1% and their apparatchiks.

Like journalists, the academic community has been slow to join the discussion of precarity. A few institutions have hosted Guy Standing as a visiting scholar, and some scholars have organized panels on the topic at disciplinary conferences. But two upcoming conferences suggest growing interest among academics. At Georgetown University, the Lannan Symposium Living in a Precarious World will feature writers, scholars, workers, and activists discussing questions such as “How does the struggle to get by shape our lives, our relationships, and our social institutions? How do we challenge the rise of precarity, and what, if anything, does it offer as the basis for resistance?”  Yale University will host a conference in April on the Conditions of Precarity: Life Work, and Culture, focused on how the humanities can provide “the space to describe current phenomena of precarity, situate what is new in the context of a long tradition of human experience and critically engage with this tradition.”  Both events take an interdisciplinary approach, linking the humanities with political and economic analysis. The Georgetown conference also goes beyond academic talk about precarity.  Its opening panel will include adjunct faculty, low-wage workers, and activists organizing in both the formal and informal economy.

Interdisciplinary analysis of precarity should be expanded beyond elite universities, but academics must do more than talk about precarity.  They should also study and collaborate with community and labor groups like the Excluded Worker Movement that is organizing the precariat, including millions of farmworkers, domestic workers, tipped workers, guest workers, and day laborers. It collaborates with other organizations on campaigns to win immediate improvements in the conditions facing excluded workers; to strengthen and expand the labor movement; and to develop a new framework to transform and expand workers rights to organize in the 21st century. Journalists should be covering these efforts, and academics should be studying them and joining them.

In a world in which we are all increasingly expendable and insecure, we need to join forces. The precariat will not be fooled into blaming themselves for lacking self-confidence. If David Brooks does not believe this, he should notice the empty desks in his newsroom.  Better yet, go talk with the many displaced reporters who cannot find work as journalists and have become part of the precariat.

John Russo

Welfare Reform and NAFTA: The Democratic Party and the Politics of Inequality

In January 2014, we celebrate two anniversaries – the beginning of the War on Poverty (1964) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA 1994).   So it is a good time to consider how these two programs affected the working class and how they continue to shape working-class political attitudes towards the Democratic Party.

The War on Poverty was President Johnson’s attempt to address economic inequality and poverty in America, in part in response to the Civil Rights movement, including the March on Washington, which identified both jobs and freedom as its goals. The War on Poverty included legislation to establish food stamps, the expansion of Social Security to include Medicare and Medicaid, the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (Job Corps, VISTA, Head Start, Legal Services), and various educational initiatives all geared to reducing economic inequality.  But just how much progress has been made? Public assistance did help reduce the poverty rate, and since the early 70s it has vacillated between 12% and 15%. But a recent Pew Study found that income inequality is currently the highest since 1928, leading conservatives to channel President Ronald Reagan’s claim that “We fought the war on poverty and poverty won.”

Over the following six decades, the War on Poverty was increasingly fought within a broader context of globalization and neo-liberal policies, and free trade has been a highly contested element. For example, 20 years ago, using a blizzard of research and marketing, NAFTA proponents claimed that the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico would be a boon for U.S. exports and create high-paying American jobs. Opponents argued that NAFTA would cost jobs (that “giant sucking sound”), erode labor and environmental standards, and undermine national sovereignty. The debate was fairly even until President Clinton became a champion of NAFTA to the dismay of labor and working-class supporters, who saw his support as evidence that the Democratic Party had embraced neoliberalism.

Now, it is safe to say that the opponents were correct on all accounts. NAFTA’s expansion of investor privileges promoted offshoring. Instead of bringing the new jobs promised by corporate and government apologists, NAFTA has resulted in massive job losses — over one million jobs– especially in manufacturing, and export growth has slowed.  NAFTA has also led to lower wages for the jobs that remain in the U.S., so that even with cheaper prices for good and services, workers struggle to get by. Manufacturing communities have been especially hard hit, since the loss of industry and jobs eroded the tax base for schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. NAFTA contributed to increased inequality, and low-paid workers have suffered further from policies that benefit multinational corporations by undermining consumer health and safety, environmental laws, financial regulations, and public interest requirements.

Just as the poor and working class began to feel the impact of NAFTA, President Clinton’s welfare reform initiative began to dismantle a core element of the New Deal Welfare state that the War on Poverty was built upon. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) aimed to increase labor market participation while reducing “welfare dependency,” particularly Aid to Families with Dependent Children. While proponents insisted that welfare reform would promote the work ethic, they also blamed the unemployed and the working poor for their own difficulties. As many middle-class Americans have learned through recent experiences with job loss, unemployment and poverty are often the result of a weak job market and low wages and benefits – conditions created, or at least exacerbated by, NAFTA and other trade agreements. Public assistance would not be necessary if people were paid a living wage and there were Fair Trade Laws.

Ideologically, like NAFTA, welfare reform conformed to neo-liberal principles, and in supporting both policies the Democratic Party broke faith with its historic New Deal principles. Together, NAFTA and welfare reform give poor and working-class voters, and the community and labor groups that advocate for their interests, good reason to feel betrayed by the Democratic Party.

In Ohio in 1992, for example, labor and community groups engaged in massive organizing efforts to get President Clinton elected. Yet within four years, Clinton’s trade and welfare policies had undermined both good paying jobs and social and economic support structures.  Because of this betrayal, it would take more than a decade for Democrats to regain enough support to win statewide offices in Ohio. Meanwhile, at the national level, the Democratic Party seemed somewhat surprised that many trade unionists and community members would not support their presidential candidate in 2000, even though he promised Democratic support of their economic interests. Instead, many chose to vote their “social values” — “guns, gays, and God” — or just stayed home, seeing little difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. While support for Democrats reemerged nominally in 2006 and 2008 in Ohio and nationally, that support remains fragile and often relies on voters suspending their disbelief in Democratic Party politics.

So where are we today? I would like to believe that we are entering into a new era where past welfare and trade policies will be contested.  There is some evidence to suggest a growing critique of the role of neoliberal policies and trade agreements on poverty. For example, Pope Francis’s latest treatise has drawn attention to the emptiness of neo-liberal economics, globalization, and its contribution to global poverty.

As in the 1960s, civil rights groups, community groups, and labor unions are organizing grassroots initiatives and state and local movements to increase the minimum wage and, in some cases, establish a living wage. President Obama has testified that he takes income inequality “personally” and intends to make it a focus of his remaining years in office. Some U.S. Senators are even bucking the Democratic Party’s Wall Street establishment. For example, Elizabeth Warren denounced the Wall Street-backed think tank, The Third Way, for its attempt to undermine Social Security.

But there does not seem to be much movement on trade deals, especially by the Democrats.

The new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently under consideration has been called a supersized and nuclearized NAFTA. The U.S. Senate is having trouble even getting basic tracking information about the TPP, which will dramatically impact both trade and public policy. It seems unlikely that outspoken critics, like Senator Warren, will be able to move fellow Democrats on emerging trade policy. Neoliberal trade policy remains the third rail for Wall Street and their legislative supplicants.

But if they are to regain the solid support of poor and working-class voters, Democrats must take a stronger populist approach and drop their commitment to neo-liberal economics. That is, they must return to the social and moral principles of the War on Poverty.

John Russo

How They Think: The Complexity of White Working-Class Voters

Since the late 90s, political pundits have debated how to define the working class and how to explain their voting patterns. Prior to the 2000 presidential election, a standard definition of the working class combined income, occupation, and education. But Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers made the case for using education as the primary element for political analysis, in part because exit polls didn’t ask for occupation. They noted that 45% of voters were white and working-class, and, when all working-class voters were included regardless of race, the working class was an absolute majority. Political scientist Larry Bartels agreed, though he used an income-based definition and subdivided the working class to show that the bottom third of the white working class by income was strongly Democrat. On the other hand, Thomas Frank argued that the white working class was becoming more conservative and moving away from the Democratic Party, voting their moral interests rather than their economic position. In response to George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, The Nation magazine asked, “Who Lost the Working Class?”  A few years later, Bill O’Reilly claimed that 60% of the country was now working class, based on occupational indicators defined by Michael Zwieg, and he promised that he and other conservatives were “looking out” for them. More recently, Charles Murray argued that the white working class supported Democratic polices involving government and the social safety net because they had lost the “founding virtues” of family and hard work. On the other hand, Salon’s editor, Joan Walsh, explained that the white working class had lost confidence in government and that liberal Democrats had alienated the white working class.

The shifting definitions and perceptions of the working class and its politics often obscured a fundamental issue: racial polarization. As Ron Brownstein has observed about recent Presidential elections, Obama needed 80% of all minorities and 40% of whites to win election. While the working class as a whole gave Obama majorities in both 2008 and 2012, within the working class, whites voted nearly 2 to 1 against Obama.  Because of these patterns, discussions of working-class voting have focused on white working-class voters.

In his new book, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, Andrew Levison tries to move the discussion forward. He points out that most definitions of the working class focus narrowly on educational attainment or on some configuration of income and/or occupation. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and surveys of attitudes, Levison finds that the working class is quite large and urban, and a significant majority is white.  But he also reminds us that there is no one working class, and definitions of the working class that use education, income, or occupation alone have limited value. He argues that political scientists and pundits may do better to consider the political diversity of the working class.  They should pay attention to “how ordinary workers think—how they process, store, and organize political ideas and opinions.”

Looking at political values, Levison finds a diverse range of views among the white working class, ranging from conservative to liberal/progressive to “open-minded.” This echoes the way political operatives think about potential voters: those who are against us, those who are with us, and those who could be persuaded. Most important, Levison suggests that we should see much of the working class as pragmatic – that is, as voters who could be persuaded to support either side — rather than as ideologically committed to specific economic or moral values.  For those pragmatic voters, what matters is policy, not party.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Levison does not believe that shifts in and geography have changed the political orientation of the working class as a group.  Rather, he thinks that the working class should be studied in more individualistic terms in light of shifting values. He concludes that working-class value systems are largely shaped by four institutions — church, education, the military, and small business. Yet this “cultural traditionalism,” as Levison calls it, translates into both conservative and progressive political views.  Both draw upon the same framework, but importantly, different life experiences lead working-class people to different political positions.

Levison also shows that the majority of white working people are not strongly conservative, as some might believe. In polls, less than 50% expressed “strong agreement” with conservative propositions, and on some questions conservative support was as low as 20%.  This suggests that a significant proportion of white working-class voters are sufficiently open-minded that they could be persuaded to support progressive politics and candidates.

Here Levison becomes more partisan and suggests that the Democratic Party should appeal to the large “open-minded” working class through economic and social policies. It can do this in several ways. First, it must eliminate the Party’s elitism and condescension toward the working class. But the Democrats must also replace approaches based on identity politics with a more pragmatic populist rhetoric focused on policies that the working class participates in formulating.  That means rebuilding working-class community and labor organizations and giving the working class more opportunities to participate in policy formulation. None of this will be easy, but it is necessary to counteract the Republicans’ money, pointed critiques of liberalism, counter-narratives, and their own grassroots institutions.  

The White Working Class Today is an important book that should be read by journalists, political scientists, and political operatives. But I have several concerns.  First, I would have liked to see something about how the white working class differs from the white middle class and from people of color of all classes. That more complex analysis might help Democrats solve a core puzzle: how to appeal to the white working class while also mobilizing the young people, educated white women, LGBT voters, and people of color who helped Obama win reelection? This will be particularly important in the upcoming midterm state elections in 2014.

Second, Levison also puts too much emphasis on messaging while largely ignoring specific policies. He recommends ways to talk to working-class voters but offers few suggestions about what to do about the problems they face. Yet Democrats have rightly been criticized for the gap between their populist campaign rhetoric and their often-neoliberal policies. While Republicans are responsible for most recent legislative inaction, Democrats too often get blamed. That frustrates working-class voters and makes them susceptible to Republican appeals to “libertarian populism.” At some point, the Democrats must address the policy gap.

Finally, Levison assumes that Democratic politicians and apparatchiks are committed to improving the life chances of working-class people.  I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, most politicians conspicuously avoid even using the term working class. Rather, their messages subsume the working class under aspirational terms — middle class or working people. Most Democratic politicians understand that while they need working-class support, they cannot alienate their more elite donors.  And too often, that shapes their political behavior.

John Russo

How Kasich Can Win Ohio Again

In November 2011, I published a New York Times op-ed entitled “How Obama Can Win Ohio Again.” Now, with my pundit credentials firmly established (sic), I am opining that Ohio Governor John Kasich will win reelection in 2014. This could play havoc with Democrats’ hopes for the 2016 Presidential election.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are usually thought of as swing states that are gradually but decisively getting bluer.  But the 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for Republican governorships in those states. Four right-wing Republicans came to power and immediately mounted formidable attacks on traditional Democratic supporters, including unions, blacks, and women. Major political struggles ensued in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, but with very different results. Following the 2012 Presidential election, where all four states went for Obama, those attacks continued, especially on issues of immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in 2011, rust belt Democrats counterattacked.  Particularly important were mass mobilizations around collective bargaining changes and recall elections for state officials. While receiving most of the media attention, the Wisconsin actions did little but slow the state’s draconian labor law changes, though they did put Republican legislators on notice for the dangers of overreach.  The same was true in Michigan, where changes occurred on a piecemeal legislative basis. The mobilization in Ohio was more successful, resulting in a stunning repeal of anti-union legislation, SB5. Since then, Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican legislators have scaled back direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining.

This year, Republicans legislatures have once again gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while Kasich is playing a somewhat different game in Ohio.  For example, after the 2012 Presidential election, Michigan Governor Richard Snyder extended the attack on organized labor and broke his promise not to enact a right-to-work law. Republican legislatures in all four states want to push their political advantage in hopes of turning at least two of these four rust belt states red in the 2016 elections. They are doing this by securing their base support on social issues such as abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage while continuing their attack on unions and voting rights.

Kasich has taken a more arms length approach than fellow governors on wedge issues and stayed away from anti-union legislation.  Several conservative Ohio legislators have attempted to push right-to-work legislation, but taking a cue from Kasich, Republican legislators did not provide legislative support for the initiative, and it died in Committee.  No doubt, the last thing that Ohio Republicans want in 2014 is a repeat of the 2011 mobilization that brought together labor and community groups and defeated SB5.

While attacks on labor have decreased, Kasich is touting Ohio’s improving economy. At the 2012 Republican Convention, where Obama’s economic policies were being trashed, Kasich gave a speech touting all the economic improvements, tax cuts, and job creation in Ohio and bragging that Ohio was a great place to do business. Party leaders didn’t much like the speech, but Kasich’s “enterprise” approach made sense. Ohio has seen a substantial but uneven economic recovery, in part due, ironically, to the continuing benefits of the stimulus package and auto bailout and the growth of the oil and natural gas industry. The result has been that Ohio’s economy grew faster than the national average, and since 2011 the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average.

Even though that economic growth has primarily benefited whites, and minorities continue to lag in the current economic recovery, Kasich might have race on his side in 2014. In Ohio and elsewhere, Republican have pinned their 2014 election hopes on attracting white working-class voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Washington Post exit polls showed that about half of Ohio voters fall into this category, and 42% voted for the President. Nationally, only 36% of white working-class voters supported Obama. If Obama brought black and Latino voters to the polls in 2012, Republicans like Kasich hope that they can prevail in 2014 because minority voters won’t show up. Obama won’t be on the ticket, Ohio urban centers are being depopulated, and the Supreme Court has largely gutted the Voting Rights Act.  All of that could depress minority turnout, making the white working-class vote statistically more important to Ohio Republicans.

Overall, Kasich’s strategy of avoiding major mobilizing issues and following traditional Republican fiscal conservatism has resulted dramatic increase in his approval ratings. So solid does Kasich appear that some potentially strong Democratic candidates, such as Richard Cordray, former governor Ted Strickland, and Representative Tim Ryan, have decided not to run against him. The Ohio Democratic Party has been left with a weak gubernatorial candidate, Ed Fitzgerald, a one-term Cuyahoga County Commissioner who some see as a position jumper. To make matters worse, the ODP is being led by the same apparatchiks whom many blame for the 2010 Republican sweep.  That, in turn, led to redistricting that will make it impossible for Ohio Democrats to gain control the legislature in this decade.

So what could go wrong for Kasich? He must keep the most conservative elements of his party under control.  Already this year, conservatives nationally and in Ohio have pushed laws that attack poor whites, seniors, and women. Cuts to food stamps and Medicaid primarily hurt whites, for example.  In Ohio, 65% of households receiving food stamps and 61% of those on Medicaid are white. Also, despite widespread public support for same-sex marriage and less restrictive abortion policy, new Ohio Republican legislation dramatically restricts abortions.  Republicans are also fending off challenges to Ohio’s Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Changes in voter registration, which would primarily affect minorities and seniors, could work against Kasich by sparking another round of organizing and resistance.  Finally, a political scandal like the one that dogged Ohio Republican candidates in 2006 could help Democrats campaign on a clean up government message. One may be brewing over the lack of transparency in Kasich’s privatization of Ohio’s job development agency.

Taken together, these conservative attacks, potential scandals, and union fears of right-to-work legislation following a successful reelection could make Kasich vulnerable to a broad mobilizing effort. But only if Ohio Democrats can develop a strong economic and legislative message and tap into Ohio’s organizing culture. Absent this, it seems likely that Kasich will win Ohio again. And if other rust belt governors follow suit and take a more moderate approach in the short term, this could mean problems for Democrats in 2014 and make the 2016 Presidential election much more competitive in these crucial states.

John Russo