Category Archives: The Working Class and the Economy

Benefits Street, or the Road to Poverty

I got wet last Thursday, very wet.  I was standing on a picket line at my university outside the central administration protesting yet another below inflation wage offer. A one per cent pay raise will mean that my colleagues and I have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of the value of our salary through inflation since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Meanwhile the top pay in the university sector has been rising steadily.  My own Vice Chancellor has been awarded a 1.8% raise this year, but that borders on the hair-shirt compared to her peers where double digit increments are not uncommon.

While comparative pay rates in higher education are obviously important to those of us who work in the sector, the question of pay both at the top and bottom of society more generally has come to the fore in the UK over the last few months. What matters about this debate is how it is rolled up in a whole series of other factors central to the contemporary working-class experience – the link between work, welfare, wealth, and poverty.

In their recent report, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the fact that for the first time on record the majority of those in poverty were in working families, not registered as unemployed or retirees. This trend began to increase in 2003, and the increase in poverty within these working families halted the more general progressive trends to reduce poverty over all. As a result there are more people in poverty in working families than in workless and retired families combined, and that undermines government ministers’ claims that work itself is some kind of silver bullet cure-all for the poor. The problem isn’t simply a lack of work; it’s also about low pay. In 2012, there were around 4.6 million low-paid jobs in the UK, and 39 per cent of these workers were under 30. This means roughly one in six workers in the UK economy lives in poverty.

Low wages contribute to poverty, but so does the structure of contemporary employment, and the JRF report highlights the growth of insecure work and underemployment.  In 2012, an estimated 250,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed a fixed number of hours).  This figure has varied over the years, with a low of 110,000 people on such contracts in 2004.  Drill down into these figures and we find that the average hours worked has declined from 28 hours per week in 2000 to 21 hours in 2012.  Of course, these are averages, with the actual hours worked oscillating one week to another. In addition, 620,000 people who desired permanent contracts are on temporary ones.  They want and need permanent status rather than ‘choosing’ the flexibly of temporary work as a convenient economic lifestyle. These features of the labour market — low pay, in-work poverty, zero-hours, and temporary contracts — are all working-class issues.  All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working-class communities in the past.

Some social scientists in the UK have interpreted these features as evidence of what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘precariat’ (see John’s Russo’s blog about the book here). More recently, UK sociologists Mike Savage and Fiona Devine have developed a widened class schema with a group at the bottom that they also call the ‘precariat.’ In both instances, what unites this new group of disparate people is their common experience of various forms of labor market instability. Their existence has a powerful disciplinary role on others in more secure work. Knowledge that firms might outsource roles to contractors, or off-shore it altogether, leads individual workers and their collective representatives to temper demands for higher wages and better conditions of service.

These findings start to puncture some big holes in the popular political and press accounts of the causes and consequences of the recession. Worklessness (people without work regardless of whether or not they are officially unemployed and drawing benefits) is not the great cause of poverty politicians would have us believe, and intergenerational worklessness – where two or more generations of family members are out of work – is a more marginal issue still. When asked about welfare, most survey respondents think that benefit fraud is a massive problem accounting for large chunks of the welfare bill.  In fact, it represents less than 1% of the total. Surveys also show that most people believe that unemployment benefit makes up the largest share of the benefits budget, when in fact pensions are the greatest cost. The real problem is with the real level of wages and how employment is structured.

Unfortunately, the political and press rhetoric around welfare in the UK is if anything ramping up, with a pernicious demonization of those on benefits. The UK based Channel 4, for example, has come in for a great deal of criticism for its TV documentary Benefits Street, which is based on what the producers describe as one of the most welfare dependant addresses in the UK. They have been attacked by residents of the street, including one couple who had been extensively filmed and who alleged that their in-work status meant they didn’t fit the dependence narrative of the series and were subsequently left out of the program. Listening to a recent BBC radio piece reflecting on Benefits Street, I was struck by the different ways of talking about the people there. While politicians and journalists used the phrases ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘benefit dependent,’ the residents themselves used the term ‘poverty’ to describe conditions in their area.

This rhetorical distinction perhaps holds the key for a more informed and progressive debate about the lives of working people, one where we shift the vernacular from ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefits cheats’ on to the terrain of poverty. Reading Jack Metzgar’spiece a couple of weeks ago about SNAP recipients in the US, I am struck by the similarity in debates about the ‘deserving’ and especially the ‘undeserving’ poor. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians’ reluctance to talk about poverty, its causes and amelioration, creates a vacuum that more reactionary commentators are happy to fill. As the lead character in the HBO show The Newsroom laments, in the past, “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.” Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, we need to shift the vernacular more than ever.  There’s an idea worth getting wet for!

Tim Strangleman

Jobs and Safety Nets

Teaching macroeconomics with a group of union stewards and local leaders last month, I had just finished explaining the enormous economic stimulus the combination of “food stamps” and unemployment compensation is providing to our struggling economy.  When you include the “macroeconomic multiplier effects” of these “automatic stabilizers,” it was about $260 billion in 2012, and that was enough to create or save some 3 million jobs – “possibly including yours.”

Having taught this subject many times before, I was ready for somebody to complain about having seen a “food stamp” recipient use their SNAP card to buy caviar or lobster at the Jewel.  When nobody did, I smirkily recounted my past experience with students anyway, because that experience has caused me to wonder if this widely reported occurrence might be an urban legend.  Over the years most students, when questioned, hadn’t seen such an incident themselves but had been told about it by a relative or friend.  Once I asked, “Do they even sell caviar at the Jewel?” – and nobody knew.

At break David, a youngish Teamster truck driver, told me about a SNAP recipient he had seen buying steak, which troubled him because “we have to stretch every dollar” buying groceries.  He asked: “So you’re saying this shouldn’t bother me because it’s stimulating the economy and creating jobs?”

With what seemed like half the class gathered to hear my answer, I pulled out my standard response: “Yeah, basically that is what I’m saying.  But it depends on the magnitude.  If it was widespread, it might be a problem, but there is no evidence that it is.  Besides how would the government enforce something like that?  It could cost $1,000 to catch someone buying a $20 steak!”

My answer, with its rough-and-ready cost-benefit analysis, satisfied a large group of students, who walked away to go on break, but not David: “But it’s still wrong.  It costs a lot to investigate murder too.”  At which point an older Teamster driver from the same local intervened: “What do you give a shit if somebody has a little steak?  It’s not murder!  More like speeding on the toll way.”  Being the professor, I went all Socratic on David: “What kind of steak was it anyway – London Broil or filet mignon?” (inadvertently implying that London Broil was like speeding while buying filet mignon could be like murder!).  This shut David up, as it was clear from his facial expression that he didn’t know the difference between high-priced and low-priced steak, and it occurred to me that he and his family might never themselves have enjoyed a steak.  The older Teamster put his arm around David and jibed as they started out for break, “Don’t be an asshole.  That steak was probably delivered in a truck.”

On reflection I regret opening this door about what SNAP recipients should be allowed to purchase (they are and always have been allowed to buy steak and lobster) and what they actually do purchase (which nobody knows, but I’m guessing is almost never steak and lobster).  I’m trying to teach about how deficit-spending and the high-powered multiplier effects of social-safety-net measures are crucial for reducing unemployment in a depressed economy.   And I end up in a discussion about whether some poor soul buying a slice of London Broil is “taking advantage” of us hard-working taxpayers.

As a middle-class professional who often eats steak (including filet), I don’t get how anybody might see a  SNAP recipient being a bit extravagant (or even a lot extravagant) as a moral challenge to a policy which creates or saves 3 million jobs – that is, 3 million “livelihoods,” such as they are.   We could argue about the size of the multipliers – or about the potential downsides of deficit-spending.  But the fact is that the $135 average monthly SNAP allotment, especially when combined with an average $300 weekly unemployment compensation check, is nearly as valuable to the rest of us as it is to those who receive them.  These meager individual amounts spread across millions of recipients inject consumer spending power into an economy that greatly needs it because we live in a society where most income flows to the top 10% or 11%.  Without these welfare-state “transfer payments,” unemployment would be much worse and, as a result, real wages and median household incomes would be declining even more than they have been.  And as Benjamin Friedman’s classic The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth exhaustively documents, these minor individual ameliorations correlate with more peace, less war and less crime, as well as with more prosperity for everybody.

I have learned, however, not to be indifferent to the moral concern some people have about cheaters and slackers “taking advantage.”  Even a handful of people gaming the system challenges the hyper-vigilant work ethic of many settled-living working-class people, especially white men, but not only them.  Like David, who is Latino, they tend to be a certain social type: They live frustratingly on the edge of a cliff doing work they often hate and struggling every day to keep themselves together, incessantly delaying gratification, “stretching every dollar,” never “letting themselves go” lest they fall off that cliff, taking their families with them.

There are a lot of people on that cliff, and a large group of them seem to think that a stern prejudice against “the poor” helps sustain the integrity of their own characters.  Along with a superstition that “bad things do not happen to good people,” they hope their good characters will protect them from falling into poverty.   A recent Hamilton Project study documents that at least one-third of working-age families with children (with incomes of up to $60,000) are “one major setback” away from “economic chaos.”   Neither poor nor comfortably middle class, this group is dubbed by the study as “America’s struggling lower-middle class,” what many of us would call “working class.”  It is also roughly the same income group ($30,000 to $75,000, in this case) that is most likely to blame the poor for being poor.

It is something like this complex social psychology that Republicans play into when they seek to justify cutting “food stamps” and extended unemployment compensation.   Their latest efforts are especially hypocritical.  A recent Fox News video of a surfer lad exuberantly buying lobster with his SNAP card evoked the cheaters-and-slackers meme.   But the actual cuts Republicans have achieved and additional ones they are now seeking just cut benefits across the board and lop people from the program without any attempt to distinguish the cheaters from the frugally hungry.  Surfer lad will still be able to buy lobster while bad things will happen to good people.

Worse to my mind, however, is the recent argument Republicans make for not extending unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed.  On the one hand, they insist that the $25 billion it would cost to fund for all of 2014 “be paid for” with cuts from somewhere else, thereby undermining the stimulative job-creating impact it would have.  On the other, they insist on the need to address “the real problem: to find these people jobs.”   Though some Tea Party crazies may not be aware of it, the GOP leadership group surely knows that, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and one of their own economic advisers (Moody Analytics), unemployment compensation has a multiplier effect that creates five times more jobs than corporate tax cuts do.  The only federal government job-creation proposal from either party that has a larger macroeconomic multiplier effect, and thus creates more jobs, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

I have about as much contempt for welfare cheaters as anybody on a cliff, but even surfer lad is a moral paragon compared to these guys.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

A Working-Class Perspective on a Seasonal Tale

As your finger is poised over your mouse ready to make that last minute gift selection for a loved one this holiday, bear in mind the complex web of economic, social, and political networks that solve your problems. Over the last year, a number of critical articles and documentaries in the UK have coupled Amazon’s corporate practices with its employment regimes, and in both areas class issues have figured strongly in the critique.

The wider story about Amazon, in the UK at least, centers on tax avoidance. While the company employs around 20,000 people in the UK, it pays very small amounts of tax – £3.2 million in 2012 on UK sales of £4.2 billion. It has been able to do this – perfectly legally – by designating its UK operation as simply an “order fulfilment business,” while its office based in Luxembourg employs only 380 people. Given the tax advantage to companies such as Amazon who are prepared to offshore, it is no surprise that there is now a crisis on the UK high street with many long established chains filing for bankruptcy due to the corporate penetration of Amazon’s business model. As recent articles and critical politicians have pointed out, Amazon is sucking out the tax base within local, regional, and national economies in terms of business rates as well as wages. In a high profile battle, cosmetics company Lush is even taking Amazon to court over its tactics. Lush refuses to sell through Amazon and yet the company uses ‘Lush’ as a search term in order to capture customers who then get directed to other products.  Indeed such is the power of this corporate behemoth that before it decides to locate one of its Customer Fulfilment Centres, it extracts as much as it can from local authorities and regional economic development bodies.  For example, the Welsh government gave £8.8 million in grants to Amazon to entice the company to locate its distribution centre in Swansea, South Wales rather than some place else. Much like WalMart, an Amazon Customer Fulfilment Centre creates some poorly-paid, high-stress jobs even as it also puts other companies out of business, cutting jobs elsewhere.  And as with WalMart, Amazon’s low wages are subsidized by government welfare programs funded by the taxes that Amazon has avoided paying.

Even more interesting have been critiques of working conditions at Amazon, which suggest a connection between the quality of jobs and the wider sense of sustainability of community. The two biggest issues with Amazon UK have to do with employment status and the intensity of the work. In recent Financial Times and Observer newspaper pieces as well as a recent BBC TV Panorama documentary, reporters have gone undercover, obtaining employment as temporary Amazon workers.  Their reports explain how Amazon’s direct workforce of around 5000 workers in the UK swells to over 20,000 during the holidays, but most of the additional workers are hired  through temporary employment agencies.  Amazon offers these workers a carrot: the possibility of permanent employment, slightly higher wages, and better conditions if they behave themselves. In reality, most temporary employees will never enjoy these carrots.

Most temporary hires work as pickers, walking 8 to 15 miles in a shift as they navigate around the selves to fulfill customer orders.  Amazon’s distribution sites are huge as you would expect – they range from 800,000 to 1 million square feet, as large as 14 soccer fields. Workers report suffering fatigue, stress, and blisters, but more worrying is the pace of the work, which would put car factory assembly workers to shame. Each step, each minute, sometimes even each second of the picker’s shift is closely monitored with a central logistic computer telling the worker what and where to pick next and specifying the number of seconds in which they should ideally perform the task. Workers complain about this monitoring and about the company’s sick leave policy, which allows only three periods of sickness before a worker is ‘released.’

So why do people take these jobs? Amazon deliberately targets locations with high levels of unemployment, usually areas where traditional industries were once based. The South Wales base, for example, is in an area decimated by steel and coal closures. The FT magazine article emphasizes that Amazon’s centre in Rugeley, in the English Midlands, is near the site of Lea Hall Colliery, a once modern ‘super pit’ opened in 1960, which closed just before Christmas 1990. Reporter Sarah O’Connor writes that when the 800 workers were made redundant at the mine, they were being paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 in today’s money.  Today, temp agency workers at Amazon are paid only about £220 per week. Amazon’s low wage tactics reflect a far wider problem with in-work poverty.  This link between low pay and poverty is gaining more attention in the UK, and a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted that of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK in 2011/12, more than half were, for the first time, living in working families.

Like the often cited truism about multinational corporations, there’s only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational and that is not being exploited by a multinational.  This is true for the communities where Amazon is located.  In communities with high unemployment, these are jobs that pay some kind of wage. But I think we have to ask bigger questions about what companies like Amazon are doing to our communities and to working-class work. Workers must have the right to be represented by trade unions, and they should earn a living wage. O’Connor ends her piece by quoting a local estate agent in Rugeley who criticized locals’ negative attitudes toward Amazon: “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?” Well, the miners of Lea Hall enjoyed better terms and conditions and far safer working environments than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations because ordinary working-class people had expected and fought for more — if not a job for life then at least job that would give them more of a life than they currently enjoyed.

So as you scan those seductive Amazon pages, spare a thought for the employment and corporate practices that lie behind your choices. You could take a working-class perspective one click at a time. Now there is a seasonal wish!

Tim Strangleman

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

All in for Inequality for All

Two months ago I learned about the film Inequality for All when I saw a friend’s post about it on facebook. I rushed to the film’s website to find out when it was coming to Pittsburgh. But alas, there was no plan to bring it here. There was hope, however: I could submit a proposal to host a community screening. I would have to find money to pay the film’s licensing fee, but then I could show the film for free. I booked Carnegie Mellon University’s largest auditorium and started poking around the university and the city for co-sponsors. Now, I am proud to offer this invitation: please join us on Monday, November 18, at 6:15 PM for a screening of Inequality for All free and open to the public in McConomy Auditorium. Come early to meet some of the leaders of the Pittsburgh income equality movement and eat some pizza at 5:15 PM.

I organized this screening for three reasons. First, I wanted Inequality for All to be the coming out party for a new network of academics and activists in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Collaborative for Working-Class Studies. We came together this summer after a rousing session at the Working-Class Studies Association conference in Madison, WI in which Michael Zweig called for everyone in the room to return home and start centers for working-class studies. More than 40 people attended our inaugural meeting in Pittsburgh, most of them PhD students! You can join us and see what we are up to on facebook until we get a proper website.

Second, I wanted to work with other groups in Pittsburgh who have been making income inequality their central issue. Chief among these is the Make it Our UPMC campaign, which has been working for several years to pressure the region’s largest health care provider, UPMC, into being a better citizen of the city and into ending its union busting tactics and policies. Make it Our UPMC is the largest community sponsor of the film, and we will be passing the hat to support laid off UPMC workers at the screening. We are also working with the Thomas Merton center, a beacon of progressive activism in Pittsburgh, and the coalition for Great Public Schools, which recently issued a report that includes information about how income inequality is hurting K-12 students in Pittsburgh.

Finally, I wanted to bring college students, academics, activists and union members together in one room to talk about how inequality nationwide is playing out in Pittsburgh. According to Inequality for All, nearly one half of all Americans have zero wealth—no savings, no assets that outweigh their debts, no retirements savings or investments. Here in Pittsburgh, 12% of the population is living at or below poverty—an increase of 8.5% since the Great Recession of 2007. Pittsburgh children have been especially hard hit. A recent report shows that the number of homeless children in Pennsylvania has risen by 7% in the last year, from 18,531 to 19,905. Race is also a discouraging part of inequality in Pittsburgh. Compared with similarly sized cities, Pittsburgh is #1 in income inequality among African Americans.

Inequality for All is explicitly designed to help groups like mine have this conversation. It is organized like an economics lecture—in fact much of it is drawn from Robert Reich’s economics lectures at UC Berkeley—only it is the funniest, most movingly human economics lecture you have ever attended. Using well-designed info graphics, Reich’s own drawings (who knew he was an able cartoonist?), interviews with real workers, and a soundtrack that swells at all the right moments, Inequality for All has moved many an audience to laugh and cry. But Robert Reich and the film’s director Jacob Kornbluth want you to turn your laughter and tears into action. Their website gives three concrete ways for citizens to get involved in movements for greater equality, focusing on living wage campaigns, protecting and promoting unions, and investing in education.

For the most part, Inequality for All, which is being distributed by Hollywood’s powerful Weinstein company, has been embraced by the mainstream media. It won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance and has earned glowing reviews in The New York Times, USA Today, and Business Week as well as many progressive outlets. The film has opened in dozens of first run theaters across the country, and in some places activists have successfully lobbied their local theaters to show the film.

One more critical review, by John Lawrence of the San Diego Free Press, calls out Reich for not being radical enough, complaining that Reich is “basically a Keynsesian who would like taxes raised on the rich with the money spent to rebuild infrastructure thus providing middle class jobs.” Lawrence criticizes Reich for romanticizing the postwar period, during which  inequality in the U.S. was the lowest on record, but which was made possible by contingencies of global history that are not likely to repeat themselves. Lawrence further argues that Reich does not talk about economic democracy, the global cooperative movement, or public banking. Reich returns to education, and, especially college education, as the panacea, at a time when few things burden the middle class more than college debt.

Others complain that Inequality for All “preaches to the converted.” But as a wise mentor once told me, most preaching is to the converted. Preachers likely spend more time invigorating their members than they do making new converts.

Long a scholar of the ways in which the disempowered can use media to promote social change, I have rarely seen a mainstream media product with this radical of a message, in this appealing of a package. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. If it is not in your city, get it to come there. This film is a unique opportunity to have a conversation about real social and economic change. Inequality for All might convert a few, but, more importantly, it will give strength to all of us who are on the front lines of reversing income disparity in the U.S. and beyond.

Kathy M. Newman

Redefining Grit: New Visions of Working-Class Culture

A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us.  Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.

Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining  “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks.  You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.

Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all.  Quite the contrary.  She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people  to help them succeed.

Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s.  He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position.  That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge.  In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories.  When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.

Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive.  Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration.  Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity.  Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.

But surely working-class family values remain, right?  According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing.  For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy.  That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led  the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships.  They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids.  For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also  managing emotional challenges.

Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views.  Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else.  Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down.  They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant.  Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else.  Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy.  Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.

That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others.  It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits.  They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.

I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening.  The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient.  Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope.  She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.”  While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.”  Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism.  What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?

At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.

We Are Worth More

Last month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago.   Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.

A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will.   And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim.   This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.”   You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.

“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image.  But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them.  Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action.  It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly.  In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”

Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions.  I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then.  But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.

For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place among Walmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences.   But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.

There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers.  He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it.  In a 2005 book, The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer.   According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority  or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.

Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case.  There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,” if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.

A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another.  That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well.  It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.

In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition.  Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.

Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be.   It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another.   To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process.  But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them.  The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies