Category Archives: Issues

Worker Coalitions and Organizing around Public Transit

I first got involved in transit-related activism in 2010 through my support for organized labor. A major public funding gap threatened the solvency of Pittsburgh’s public mass transit system, and—in line with so many recent attacks we’ve seen on public-sector unions—the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was taking the brunt of the blame for the projected 30% cut. The myth of the “overpaid” bus driver as an excuse and scapegoat for draconian government austerity measures was hardly unique to Pittsburgh (see, for example, Oregon, Madison, and New York). The gross exaggeration in such accounts of the $100K-per-year driver is beside the point. It’s a line of classist rhetoric that depends upon invoking a sense of meritocratic rage against decent compensation for workers who are perceived to be “unskilled.” Most frustratingly, it shows how easily workers can be divided against one another in a climate where most accept neoliberal economic scarcity as a given.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) was founded as a coalition of riders and drivers to fight rampant layoffs, service cuts, fare hikes, and privatization while building solidarity among the working people who operate and use transit. Indeed, public transit is essential to Pittsburgh’s urban labor force, and over half of all workers in the city’s major employment centers use it for their daily commute, accounting for 86% of all ridership. Service cuts were tantamount to job losses not only for drivers but also for many riders. And yet, the same riders often did not see union drivers as allies in the fight to save their service, lower their fares, and improve the system as a whole.

PPT sought to open the lines of communication and understanding among all people whose livelihoods depend on mass transit. In so doing, we also hoped to reframe the cultural conversation about nationwide transit crises as a funding problem rather than a spending problem, as an issue of human rights and shared needs rather than of profitability, austerity, or “welfare.” Transit workers, users, and supporters came together to draft our core beliefs statement, the Transit Bill of Rights, which the President of the ATU’s Local 85 boldly recited on the marble staircase of the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg before we delivered it with 5,000 signatures to Pennsylvania’s then-governor Tom Corbett.

Now, one major transportation funding bill later (an act, I might add, that passed in spite of a Republican administration and majority in the state legislature), PPT offers a strong case for the power of worker coalitions to change not only the conversation but also the policy around public transit to better serve working people.

The unlikely success of this statewide lobbying effort was a substantial victory, but PPT’s most exciting organizing efforts have taken place after that campaign. Since the passage of the bill that secured most of their jobs, drivers continue to participate in PPT, and the ATU’s support for the organization has not flagged. In the big picture, the ATU International has become an increasingly progressive and activist union in recent years, spearheading events like Transit Action Month. PPT was invited to speak at the concluding D.C. Rally as a representative of the type of union-community coalitions encouraged by the International’s leadership. However, PPT seems unique in its close and enduring collaboration with Local 85.

Since our transit agency has adequate funding to maintain existing service for the time being, we’ve been able to focus on how to improve both our (still woefully insufficient) system—down from 235 routes in 2006 to only 101 today—and our own organization. Specifically, PPT’s current campaigns have emerged out of thinking about how to work together with people at a local level to ensure we all have a meaningful voice in public transit planning processes. In its first few years, PPT led several mass demonstrations and marches against service cuts, but only a handful of committed activists participated in our day-to-day organizing. Now, PPT has begun working with communities to identify their specific needs and help mobilize their own community-led efforts to meet them.

PPT had tried similar tactics in the past, but the response was discouragingly minimal and quickly petered out, making the effort impossible to maintain with our limited resources. Unions are one of the few sources of support available to working-class movements. The volunteer hours of rank-and-file members have made a significant difference for us over time—even more than funding or other forms of institutional support (which often come at a price). Transit workers’ involvement is absolutely central to the success of PPT’s grassroots campaigns. Operators who used to drive routes that were eliminated or who live in underserved communities have taken a lead in identifying neighborhoods and residents that are in dire need of service and have the will to fight for it. Their inside knowledge of the system and relationship with regular riders has been instrumental in mobilizing transit activism.

Rallying with 1000 union members to call for federal transportation funding was an exhilarating moment of movement building, but the most powerful thing I’ve seen as an organizer is members of PPT and Local 85 sitting around folding tables in a borough building auditorium brainstorming with their neighbors about how to bring service back to our communities that have been cut off.

These conversations shape the vision and identify concrete priorities for more inclusive and equitable public transit. To its credit, Pittsburgh’s transit agency has been soliciting public feedback and involvement much more than in the past, but those outreach efforts tend to reinforce the divide between riders and drivers by posing community members first and foremost as customers in a business rather than co-owners of a public service. (For instance, an advisory panel including many finance experts recommended “hospitality training” and improved “service attitude” to “enhance customer experience.” At the report presentation, the panel’s chair noted this as an especially economical improvement since “a smile doesn’t cost a thing.” I doubt that drivers—faced with increasingly demanding routes and passenger loads—agree.)

Public transportation has traditionally had an “image problem” insofar as it was seen as a vehicle of necessity rather than choice. Now that it’s hip to be green and live in cities with compact land use rather than commute from the ‘burbs in gas-guzzling SUVs, public transit is getting a cultural makeover. In the process, mass transit systems sometimes fail to serve those people who have no other option. The focus on innovative infrastructure, like Bus Rapid Transit and transit-oriented development, tends to prioritize those already best served by the system and exclude many dependent riders. Instead of making life better for all residents, transit-oriented development often heralds gentrification that leaves working-class people in a paradoxical bind: they cannot afford to live in places that lack good access to public transportation, but they also cannot afford to live in places that have it.

The riders and drivers of PPT have pushed against such priorities that leave the working class stranded. Public transportation is more central than ever to social, environmental, and economic justice. Worker coalitions organizing locally can help build the cultural movements we need to initiate systemic changes and strengthen public control of resources that are crucial to more sustainable and equitable futures.

Alicia Williamson

Alicia Williamson is a founding member of and former organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She now works as a freelance writer and editor in the UK. You’re invited to sign on to The Transit Bill of Rights!

A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon

What Pope Francis Can Teach the Democratic Party

Most journalists and political commentators covering papal politics have been consumed with the Church’s recent Synod on the Family that concerned social and religious issues of modern marriage and family life. Some conservative commentators warned that Pope Francis and the Synod itself was sowing “confusion” among the flock, while others praised the Pope for providing a breath of fresh air into traditional Catholic thought. Nevertheless, the Synod brought together various groups in a respectful way to build bridges in an attempt to find a common good. While no decisions were made at the Synod, it certainly laid the foundation for future reform within Catholic Social Teaching on family life.

While consumed with the Synod, the Catholic community, journalists, and politicos missed or deliberately ignored an equally important and much more critical populist speech by Pope Francis at the Conference of Popular Movements in Rome last month that concerned the importance of community organizing and poverty.

In the speech, the Pope praises the conference organizers for their community organizing in getting low-income people and the dispossessed to organize and speak out for themselves. He reminded the audience, “The poor not only suffer injustice but they also struggle against it!” He added that popular movements are necessary “to revitalize our democracies, so often kidnapped by innumerable factors. It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the active participation of the great majorities.”

Pope Francis was critical of both liberal and conservative solutions to poverty (such as some welfare programs) that “go in one direction, either to anaesthetize or to domesticate.” Further, he seems genuinely angry with those who use euphemisms to describe poor people, suggesting that to identify the issues as matters of “segregation” or “disenfranchisement” masks not just the seriousness of the problems but the deliberate injustices they involve. As the Pope puts it, “behind euphemisms there is a crime.”

He noted the special solidarity that exists among the poor and explores its meaning beyond “sporadic generosity.” Solidarity means “to think and act like a community” in “fighting over the structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, housing, and the denial of labor and social rights…and to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacement, painful emigration, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are called on to transform.”

He understands that talk like this will lead some “to say that the Pope is a Communist,” but he dismisses such criticism, saying that his critics “don’t understand that the love of the poor is at the heart of the gospel” and that the “struggle for land, roof, and work are sacred rights.” That is, he grounds his belief in no overriding political orthodoxy but rather in religion and human dignity.

The Synod and speech got me thinking about the Pope’s approach in dealing with difficult issues and what model Pope Francis might provide for the future of the Democratic Party. For example, the recent midterm election debacle has been most often attributed to demographic factors. For example, the poor turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and women and the inability to attract white voters and the shrinking middle class have been the most common explanations for its 2014 electoral collapse. But commentators like Harold Meyerson have argued that demographics alone cannot explain the results of the midterm election nor “save” the Democratic Party. Rather, Meyerson suggests that Democrats failed to provide a clear and consistent message regarding economic inequality and wages that appealed to the struggling poor, working and middle classes, Latinos, African Americans, and millennials. Without a clear economic message, Howard Dean asked unapologetically “Where the Hell is the Democratic Party” and chided the Democratic Party leadership and operatives that “You cannot win if you are afraid!” But afraid of what? My guess is Democrats are afraid of angering their corporate and business supporters by addressing issues of inequality and poverty in any but a timid and incremental way.

This is where Pope Francis’s approach could help. First, the Democrats could follow the Pope’s model and bring together various factions for a serious discussion about the future of the party in moral and ethical terms. In the process, they could engage in community organizing and pursue the common good of ending poverty and inequality. They could also build a measure of solidarity and support on moral terms for those experiencing the injustices, the struggling working and middle class and those trying to help organize the struggles. Put differently, less politically expedient efforts to garner electoral support and more solidarity and substantive reform based on moral and ethical stands grounded in human dignity.

Such an approach will worry many Democratic politicians and their apparatchiks who cower in the face of uncertain polling data and angering their corporate patrons. No doubt, some will join with Republicans and call this “class warfare.” Some will claim that Democrats can’t win using populist themes, especially in red and purple states. But politicians like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio prove otherwise.

Today, Ohio Republicans control all executive-branch positions, the state Supreme Court, 12 of 16 U.S. House seats, and huge majorities in the state House and Senate. Yet, despite the Ohio’s Republican dominance and having $60 million against him, Senator Brown easily won his last election with broad community organizing with a working class and populist agenda that helped carry President Obama in Ohio.

The country is distressed over the level of inequality and the forty-year decline of the middle class, and we’re tired of euphemisms surrounding poverty and austerity. The Pew Research Center shows that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with widening inequality. When given an opportunity to reduce inequality, such as increasing the minimum wage, they overwhelmingly vote in favor, even in historically red states. Now is the time for Democrats to follow the Pope Francis’s iconoclastic approach and develop the type of value-based agenda suggested by Meyerson. That could give new meaning to what it means to be a Democrat.

John Russo

Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

Class War in the Tax Code

I know that taxes are a really boring subject, as is talking about billions and trillions of dollars as if any of us could understand such magnitudes. But a one-sided class war is being fought every day in the U.S. tax code, and getting even a glimpse of the amounts of money involved can change our sense of why taxes matter. If the government would stop redistributing income through the tax code and instead tax investors the way it does workers, homeowners, and consumers, many things that we can’t afford today would be easily affordable.

California, for example, doesn’t have enough money to pay home care workers (who are basically state employees) both minimum wage and overtime – the state is short some $350 million. Those workers average about $17,000 a year, with lots of overtime that is paid at straight wages. In Chicago there’s not enough money to have guidance counselors and social workers in the schools where they are most needed or librarians to staff most of the libraries. The Chicago Teachers Union estimates that it would cost about $300 million to remedy these and other deficiencies, but doing so would have a big impact on educational results. In order to save the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection from being sold to get Detroit out of bankruptcy, city workers with $19,000 annual pensions had to give up about $900 each while the state of Michigan found $200 million for a one-time contribution to the city’s pension fund.

These amounts seem very large from an individual perspective. Even the smallest, $200 million, is more than 100 times what an average professional worker earns in a lifetime. The cumulative total of $850 million could fund the payrolls of six top teams in the National Football League. But in the world’s largest economy, whose national government now spends about $4 trillion a year, these hundreds of millions of dollars are the equivalent of nickels and dimes.

I have chosen these state and local situations at random, but thousands of state and local governments are similarly “taxed out” politically, if not economically. States and municipalities compete with each other to keep taxes low in order to attract businesses that, they hope, will create more jobs; few of them are in a position to initiate new taxes on investors. The federal government, on the other hand, has lots of room to run in taxing the top income earners and wealth holders.   Local governments tax property wealth, which is widely distributed among the population, but nobody taxes financial wealth, which is greatly concentrated in the top 10% and 1%. Likewise, state and local governments are highly dependent on sales taxes for things like clothes and meals at Appleby’s, which nearly everybody buys, but there is no sales tax when you buy a stock or bond.

This is how class war is waged in the tax code. If financial wealth were taxed like property wealth, and if buying a stock or bond were taxed like buying a shirt or skirt, all underfunded public pensions could be funded; home care workers could make a living wage; we could have the kind of massive infrastructure program we need; veterans wouldn’t have to wait months to be seen by Veterans Administration doctors; and we could cut our debt and deficit at the same time as we cut other taxes. And if income made from investing rather than working were taxed at the same graduated rates as earned income, we could do even more. We could have smaller class sizes and more teachers. We could staff government agencies at levels that would enable them to actually fulfill their functions – including enforcing our labor laws. Add it all up, and millions more workers could have decent jobs.

So why do we tax income you work for at higher rates than income you don’t work for? Because investors are winning a class war that most workers don’t know is being fought. Why does it seem natural to tax real property (houses, buildings and land) but not financial property (cash, stocks and bonds)? Because investors long ago won a class war that home owners don’t realize was ever fought. And why are meals at Burger King taxed but not stocks and bonds? Because investors are winning a class war that consumers don’t know is being waged.

How much additional money would the government have if unearned income were taxed at the same rates as earned income, if financial wealth were taxed at the same rate as property wealth, and if a sales tax was levied when buying a corporate stock the way it is when buying a pair of shoes? I did a little research and found out that it’s quite a lot – at least $800 billion a year. While implementing an equitable system of federal taxation would involve many administrative, legal, and political difficulties, it could solve financial problems at the state and local as well as the federal levels. None of the difficulties is insurmountable, but first we need to simply ask why investors get discounts and free passes in the tax code. Maybe they really are more valuable and important than the rest of us. But let’s discuss that in public rather than simply assuming it in the tax code.

In the meantime it’s clear that if the government taxed investors like it taxes workers, home owners, and consumers, we’d have more than enough money to do all the things I list above. After all, providing what’s needed for home care workers in California, school children in Chicago, and pensioners and art museums in Detroit would only cost $850 million (with an “m”). We could raise nearly 1,000 times that much — at least $800 billion (with a “b”) — if the government would declare a cease fire in the class war and stop redistributing income.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

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For those who want to check my homework, here’s how I arrived at these big numbers.

Unearned income (capital gains and dividends) is currently taxed at 20% regardless of income level. If it were taxed at the same graduated rates as earned income, United for a Fair Economy estimates it would produce $160 billion in additional federal revenue.

Local governments live off wealth taxes, but these are applied only to “real property” (houses, buildings and land) not to financial property (cash, stocks or bonds).   The average property tax rate is 1.38%. According to Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the total value of outstanding U.S. corporate stocks in 2014 is about $28 trillion. Thus, a 1.38% “property” tax on stocks would produce $386 billion in new revenue. I could not find a number for the total value of bond holdings in the U.S., but a 1.38% tax on bond wealth would surely add enough for a financial property tax to produce at least $500 billion a year.

The Tax Foundation does not compute an average for “combined state & average local sales tax rates,” but among the 47 states that have a sales tax (3 states do not have any), almost all are above 6%. So using 6% as a sort-of-average sales tax and applying it to the $60 trillion in stock trades in 2013, it would produce an astounding $3.6 trillion – nearly enough to fund the entire U.S. Government. This would be wildly unrealistic, as it would wreck the stock market and kill investment, but it gives you a notion of how lucrative even a very small sales tax on stock transactions could be. HR 1000, introduced by Rep. John Conyers, would impose a sales tax of 0.25% on stock trades (that’s a tax of 25 cents on a purchase of $100 in stocks), and that would produce $150 billion in new revenue. This much more modest amount is what I used to get a total of “at least $800 billion.”

 

An Education in Class

When my dad died a couple of years back, I inherited a shoebox with some of the important things from his life. My dad didn’t keep much — some medals his brother was posthumously awarded after the plane his was travelling in ditched into the Indian Ocean in June 1945, family letters, photos, and some other stuff. Alongside this were my five end-of-year reports from my secondary school days. I don’t remember ever talking to my dad about my schooling. Though a bright man, he had not done well at school and left as soon as he could at fourteen in the 1930s, much as I left at sixteen in the early 1980s. After reflecting on the reports, I’m filled with conflicted feelings. First, I regret that he didn’t pick me up on the accurate and well meant criticisms my teachers offered. But this feeling is tempered by the sense that maybe things turned out okay for me in the end. I found employment in a stimulating and secure workplace and later was able to attend Ruskin College Oxford, which aimed to prepare unqualified adults for university education – two structural advantages that a similarly unqualified sixteen year old would not have today.

I’ve been thinking about the contents of that shoebox a lot over the last half year or so as my ten year old son Max prepared for and then took the test that determines what type of secondary school he will join next September. Kent, the English county we live in, still has a state funded secondary school system that divides kids based on test scores into a privileged twenty percent who attend grammar schools and a secondary modern system for the remaining eighty percent. After Max took the ‘Kent Test’ in September, while we waited for his scores, we visited the various schools that he might (or might not) get to attend. I have done these visits with something of a three-way split personality. I toured the schools first as a parent who obviously wants the best for his kid. I also walked around as a professional sociologist interested in class, stratification, and cultural capital issues. But finally, I was there as someone with working-class origins comparing what I saw with my own experience of education.

Our first visit was to our local community school, one where those deemed to have ‘failed’ would have little choice but to go. By my lights, the school looked pretty good. We saw lots of evidence of extra-curricular activity and achievement, and the building looked modern and well cared for. In her presentation to the assembled parents, the principal made much of the caring and supportive atmosphere the pupils enjoy. My younger self would have loved to have gone to a school such as this, and our neighbour’s kids did and seem to have thrived there.

The following week Max, my wife, and I went to one of the elite grammar schools on our list. It was obvious from the start that this would be a very different experience from our local school. We were met at the entrance by some of the senior prefects, the older ones dressed in business suits. We made our way around the classrooms on the organized tour before dutifully filing in to the lecture theatre to hear the presentation. First up, after a jazz piano recital by one of the musically gifted students, was the school’s head-boy who acted at the master of ceremonies for the evening and seemed more confident in talking to a bunch of strangers than most academics are with years of practice. He introduced some of his younger school mates – each in their way equally confident – before inviting the principal to do her PowerPoint karaoke presentation, reading word for word the bullet points on the screen behind her, ramming home the message through a blizzard of statistics and tables that, though a state school, this was an elite place that we should be grateful to have offspring attend.

This presentation, and indeed the entire event, struck me as Harry Potteresque – this was Hogwarts without the owls and magic lessons. This is a state school funded out of general taxation, yet it aped private schools, especially the trappings that go with them. It seems to me that parents and the school administration were in an unholy alliance, each bidding up the elitism of the education on offer, deliberately distancing it from what the remaining eighty percent would enjoy. Rather than break down class differences, this attitude reinforces class polarization by making parents and their kids aim for socially divisive schooling.

Conservative politicians in Kent believe the grammar system is a good one, though it was phased out in most places by both Labour and Tory Parties during the 1970s. Many right of center politicians in the rest of England dream nostalgically of returning to this set up nationally, viewing it as a meritocratic system that gives all kids a chance of an elite education. But this ideal of meritocracy is just wrong. Most of the kids who pass the test have been rigorously coached on how to do so – as my wife and I did with Max. I’ve spent one afternoon each week in term time ferrying him to cramming lessons that we are lucky enough to afford. We have bought him endless test papers and exercise books and spent hours coaching him on the various aspects of the Kent Test. Max is lucky — his parents have the resources, education, and time to devote to this process. As a concerned parent, sociologist, and former working-class kid, I know that many other boys and girls Max’s age are not so fortunate.

Recently we learned that Max had passed the test with flying colors. We are all delighted that he will receive the type of school education that my younger self could only dream of. But this elation and relief is held in check by the fact that many of Max’s school mates have not passed. By implication they have been told by the age of ten that they have failed and that they deserve a less-good schooling, one that will affect their life chances probably for the rest of their lives. This was indeed another education in class and the way it insidiously structures all our lives. For both parents and children, winners and losers, class and the resources that go with it are being played out on a daily basis.

Tim Strangleman

Grime You Can Never Wash Off: Internet Content Moderation and New Frontiers in Labor Exploitation

Scrolling through e-mails and my Facebook news feed one morning last week, I came across two related articles. The first, from Alternet, was about the disproportionate harassment and abuse that women face online. Citing a recent Atlantic exposé on the issue, as well as death threats made to feminist video game critic and “GamerGate” target Anita Sarkeesian, the article underscored the negligence of Facebook, YouTube, and other companies whose content moderators—those employed to flag and delete offensive materials coming across their sites—appeared indifferent to or, perhaps, poorly trained to address the increasing problem of Internet-based violence against women. These moderators, the article mentions, are often “swamped with cases.” But in a tech industry dominated by men at all levels of employment, whether or not a woman is subjected to terrifying forms of online abuse—including, in one case, a Facebook post featuring a woman’s head photoshopped onto a picture of a beaten and chained woman— comes down to “human decision-making” on the part of the people tasked with sifting through the digital garbage.

The second article, from Wired, offered a more detailed look at what Internet content moderation involves. I honestly hadn’t given any thought at all to content moderation as an especially filthy job that, even without the smelly trucks and beeping, is a form of garbage collection. In this case, though, the grime sticks to workers in a way that makes emptying trashcans and dumpsters sound like a dream job by comparison.

Internet content moderation is typical of other outsourced, global forms of labor in that the U.S. relies on poorly paid contract workers from the Philippines to do the vast majority of the work. However, since recognizing what would be offensive requires cross-cultural fluency, most companies have also implemented what Wired reporter Adrian Chen calls a “two-tiered moderation system, [where] more complex screening… is done domestically.” Far better paid than overseas workers—“a moderator for a U.S. tech company can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day”—most U.S. based moderators are culled from the ranks of precariously employed college graduates, many of whom are enticed to take these jobs with suggestions that a more permanent position at Google or Twitter might be on the horizon. In general, however, not only do these better jobs never solidify, but content moderation’s status as labor of the living nightmare variety quickly becomes apparent to employees.

In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild begins her discussion of emotional labor, such as the work of flight attendants, care workers, and others in feminized service occupations, by asking whether there may be a fundamental “human cost of becoming an ‘instrument of labor’ at all” (3). This question illuminates the psychological costs faced by those whose jobs require “[inducing] or [suppressing] feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance” that makes consumers of such labor feel properly “cared for.” This “coordination of mind and feeling” can cause the worker to become alienated from an “aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul—that is used to do the work” (7).

But what if the work demands subjecting oneself to psychological trauma resulting from the continual repetition of horrifying images and sounds? What happens to the “margins of the soul” when a job requires workers to be used in this way?

Chen interviewed a number of former and current Internet content moderators who describe what they experienced on the job, and what they still carry with them. One U.S.-based moderator quit his job at Google when a co-worker exhibited a nonchalant response to a video of a beheading: “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it.” Others, subjected to hours of pornography, report feeling desensitized to the point where they “no longer want to be with their spouses” or, on the other hand, leave work with “a supercharged sex drive.” Many companies ostensibly employ counselors to deal with the psychic fallout from this work, which puts laborers at risk of PTSD much like soldiers and members of specialized police forces, though one former worker claimed to not know anyone who had seen a counselor. “But,” Chen emphasizes, “even with the best counseling, staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll.” After being made to watch a nearly half-hour video of a woman being raped, “blindfolded, handcuffed, screaming and crying,” one Filipino woman content moderator “began to tremble with sadness and rage” (in Chen’s words). Says the woman, who is still doing content moderation work, “I watched that a long time ago, but it’s like I just watched it yesterday.”

As its own devastating aspect of the “heart of human darkness” run rampant on the Internet, online victimization of women is an urgent problem. Yet after reading Chen’s report, I can’t help but feel that the “human decision-making” involved in content moderation is compromised by the utterly dehumanizing nature of the work. The “aspect of self” that many content moderators become estranged from is their own humanity, unable to plug into and feel things they must figure out a way not to feel in order to simply bear the work.

This is not to say that in the male-dominated tech industry, sexism and misogyny aren’t also at play when moderators make that quick decision to either delete or push through abusive content aimed at women. But read in this context, Hochschild’s work provokes us to think about the ways that gender and psychic health intersect in an occupation that requires exposing oneself to trauma as a primary duty of the job. Counseling isn’t widely advertised or used, and a masculine “deal with it” ethos further contributes to the occupational normalization of violence in an industry that, as Chen puts it, “[relies] on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.”

This last observation begs a version of Hochschild’s initial question: if the job of content moderator requires workers to absorb our collective human trauma in order to “protect the rest of us” from the ravages of the Internet, should a job like this exist at all? Should “must expose oneself to violence repeatedly, for days and weeks on end” be an accepted part of any job description? Chen estimates that content moderators “comprise as much as half of the total workforce for social media sites.” Indeed, moderation work is especially insidious in that, unlike labor more typically associated with trauma—sex work comes to mind—it is hidden within an industry stereotyped as the benign realm of particle-board cubicles and sleepy systems administrators.

When we walk down the street, we see waste management workers laboring to present us with a convincing façade of civilized cleanliness. The more thoughtful among us recognize this as the dangerous lie that it is: this waste is never really “disposed” of, only moved out of sight of the privileged. The existence of content moderation work demands that we consider the human costs of maintaining the web’s garbage-free front. If the Internet requires turning human workers into psychic dumpsters for brutalities the rest of us would rather not have cluttering our Facebook and Instagram feeds, then what kind of virtual world are we living in, grime and all?

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Dietrich School Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.