Why Trump Will Lose Ohio

It is always dangerous to publicly predict the outcome of a presidential election, especially in a purple state like Ohio. But I’ve done it twice, in 2011 and 2016, months in advance, when both of my predicted winners, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, were behind.

Photo by Alex Brandon, Trump speaking at a rally at the Toledo airport

This year, I am predicting that Trump will lose in Ohio. That might seem like a somewhat safe bet, since the most recent Real Clear Politics polls for Ohio show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a very slight lead. Then again, at this point in 2016 the Real Clear Politics average showed Trump ahead by less than 2 percent, and Hillary Clinton ultimately lost Ohio by 8 points. So it’s worth considering how the Democrats will overcome the political ineptitude they displayed in 2016 and—as was not the case in the rest of the nation—2018, when the “Democratic Party left Ohio.”

The answer lies in changing demographics, Trump’s failures, the shifting views of some evangelicals, and problems in the Ohio Republican Party.

Even before the 2018 election, I sensed that the Trump fever was breaking, especially in the Youngstown area—what some have called Trump’s “ground zero.” Talking with Youngstown residents, especially working-class voters, I heard rumblings of disappointment and doubt. Trump fever was being doused by a wave of closings, which included a major hospital, the local newspaper, and GM’s Lordstown factory. Trump had told local residents that their economy would get stronger under his leadership, but he had failed to keep those promises or even to offer substantive help as the local economy reeled from these losses. Add the human and economic costs of the pandemic to the state’s already changing demographics and economic struggles, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support is at risk.

Demographics might not be political destiny, but changes in Ohio’s population seem likely to help Democrats this year. Ohio has long been older, whiter, and more working-class than most other states. According to political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, in 2016, white working-class voters made up 55 percent of Ohio voters, but their numbers have since declined to 53 percent. Trump won 63 percent of white working-class votes four years ago, but many are now turning away from him, particularly women and seniors.

As the white working-class share of voters has declined, Ohio has become younger, better educated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more liberal. According to the Ohio Voter Contact Services, there are 912,000 new registered voters since 2016. Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin believes that more than 250,000 young voters will be voting for the first time and most are likely to vote Democratic. As Amy Walter notes in the Cook Political Report, demographic changes together with the president’s low job approval rating in Ohio should make Republicans “worried” about Trump’s growing weakness in the state.

Compounding these demographic changes have been the declining socioeconomic conditions in Ohio. The Trump tax cuts did not lead to substantial job growth and rising wages. Although the national economy had strengthened modestly in recent years—until the pandemic—growth in wages and jobs has been slower in Ohio. A study issued just this week from the Century Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Groundwork Collaborative documents that while the number of manufacturing jobs has increased (by less than 1 percent) nationally during Trump’s term, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they’ve actually declined. Poverty rates are also up in both urban and, more recently, suburban parts of the state. Some rural areas have seen “unprecedented” unemployment, even as Republicans brag that the economy is booming in Ohio.

These economic trends have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. One in five workers in Ohio have applied for unemployment since April—a rate that likely does not include all of those who’ve lost their jobs, since many have reported filing difficulties or are self-employed or independent contractors. Many of those eligible for the extra benefits provided by last spring’s stimulus package experienced late payments.

No wonder Trump’s inflated references to the improving economy are falling on deaf ears. The contrast between his claims and people’s experiences may help explain why Trump’s approval rating among Ohio voters has dropped by 15 percent since his election and currently stands at 46 percent.

In 2016, despite questions about Trump’s own morality and his lack of serious engagement with religious life, religious conservatives embraced him. They believed that he would curb abortion, support religious liberty, appoint conservative judges, protect Israel, and pull back transgender rights. He has delivered on many of these issues, as his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett has again made apparent.

Yet, Trump has been losing support among evangelicals, and some in Ohio feel that they have been “too easily bought.” Phil Heimlich, a member of Cincinnati’s influential Crossroads Church, one of fastest-growing churches in the nation, believes that “Trump’s violations of biblical teachings on sexual immorality, immigration, and fiscal responsibility” outweigh his support for checking abortion. Christian beliefs go beyond any single issue, and some evangelicals are troubled by the insincerity of Trump’s Christian values and his lack of commitment to honesty and decency.

And Ohio’s religious landscape is changing. Church attendance in the state is considered average compared to other states—and it is dropping. Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly more secular in their beliefs than their parents. That might not serve Republicans well in Ohio. Less-religious voters may not support the party’s legislative efforts to expand religious expression in public schools and to accept answers on state proficiency exams that align with creationism rather than established science. Many are increasingly troubled by deeper religious incongruities in Trump’s policies.

Finally, schisms within the Ohio Republican Party have undercut support for Trump in his own party. After the 2016 election, Trump and his supporters ousted Ohio’s most successful Republican chairperson, Matt Borges. While Borges had not worked against Trump, he had supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the bitter 2016 Republican presidential primary. He also provided cover for other Republicans who withdrew their endorsement of Trump in the final stages of the 2016 election.

That conflict has continued to fester as Trump supporters took over the Ohio Republican Party, led by a new chairperson, Jane Timken, and Rep. Jim Jordan. Ohio Republican officeholders, like Gov. Mike DeWine and Sen. Rob Portman, have tried to remain at arm’s length from the more radical Trump wing of the party.

But the conflict has resurfaced with John Kasich’s critiques of Trump and endorsement of Biden, with Borges now working to unseat Trump, and a newly emerging organization, Operation Grant, which was established in July 2020 by the Lincoln Project and other anti-Trump Republicans. The organization (named after Ohio native Ulysses Grant) has been holding events around the state that feature a cadre of Republican former elected officials, military and religious leaders, and small farmers. As “bona fide conservatives and Republicans,” their stated goal is “to assure the defeat of President Donald Trump and Trumpism.”

According to Operation Grant organizer David Little, Operation Grant has attracted moderate Republicans, who in recent weeks have contributed over $30,000 to the group. The project is also attracting media attention in Ohio and international papers.

Given past performances, many Democrats in Ohio have lacked confidence in the national and Ohio Democratic parties. Their skepticism only intensified when the Democratic Party chose not to include Ohio as a battleground state and limited its media buys to the Youngstown and Toledo counties bordering on Michigan and Pennsylvania, while largely ignoring the rest of the state.

But when polls in recent months showed that Ohio was competitive, the party increased its spending. Local ground games finally emerged, led by local Democratic parties. Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) does not have an on-site Biden campaign coordinator, but local organizers have increased online, text, and telephone contacts there dramatically, with special emphasis on absentee voters and people who are registered but have not voted in recent elections.

All these changes—demographic shifts, the struggling state economy, the shrinking share of religious conservatives, and the deep schism within the Ohio Republican Party—have cost Trump a good part of his base in Ohio. It isn’t so much that Biden is winning Ohio. It’s that Trump is losing it.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s claim that Ohio is still contested political territory is proving to be true. The Democratic Party is once again viewing Ohio not as a red state but as a purple one. And without Ohio, it will be difficult for Trump to win the presidential election.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

This piece originally appeared in The American Prospect.

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The “Other America”: The Poverty and Peril of Domestic Workers

America is mired in a crisis of unprecedented scope and depth.  The disruption of the pandemic is draining for all of us, but for many, its consequences are dire.

For the millions of people who’ve had little or no work for pay for as long as six months, life is immeasurably stressed.  Prospects for jobs seem nil.  Their savings, if they were lucky to have them, were depleted long ago.  In this “other America,” to borrow the title of Michael Harrington’s 1962 expose of poverty as our national shame, they confront intolerable burdens. 

The recovery and prosperity of the stock market is generating headlines.  But the market reflects the prospects of the already wealthy; it is by no means the story of the real economy.  Drilling down into new data offers a deeper look into the livelihoods of 2.5 million domestic workers. They are the home care workers assisting our elders and other family members with health conditions or disabilities, nannies who tend our kids, and the cleaners for our apartments and homes. 

Graphic from the National Domestic Workers Alliance

During the pandemic, our colleagues at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) used extensive surveys to portray the condition of domestic workers. The results are stark and confounding.  In one of the richest nations in the world, poverty within one of America’s largest workforces is rampant and deeply damaging.

Domestic workers are facing unrelenting struggles. Their desperation is driven by unemployment rates of over 70% — far higher than what Americans faced during the Great Depression, when unemployment breached 25%. And most of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic have no idea whether their employers will ever hire them back. Most domestic workers surveyed by NDWA are their households main bread winners.  More than half were unable to pay the current month’s rent. Eight in ten now worry about eviction.  And for many, hunger is at their door. One third cannot afford to buy food for the week, and more than half were uncertain if they would have enough to feed themselves and their families. 

The poor job quality and treatment of domestic workers is a pre-existing condition, making these workers especially vulnerable during this crisis. And their situation is getting worse as COVID surges and the economy struggles. The plight of domestic workers isn’t an accident or a calamity of irresistible influences.  Their predicament arises from the choices we made as a society in the form of government policies and our own household budgets.   We must not allow challenging times to numb us.  We should no longer accept a system of laws and regulations or a labor market that robs these workers of stability while also exposing them to illness, harassment, and wage theft.     

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, if adopted at the federal level, would extend pay and leave rights to this workforce, along with health and safety protections. Similar bills are already in place in nine states. And a major segment of the domestic workforce would benefit from better-funded Medicaid reimbursement rates for long-term care services, mandating overdue wage increases for home care workers. We should also do our part to recognize that domestic work is critical to the economy’s functioning. This begins by seeing domestic workers — and seeing what they do as real work. Home care workers, nannies, and housecleaners have long kept our homes and families safe; now we should do the same for them.

Angelina Del Rio Drake and Mark G. Popovich

Angelina Del Rio Drake is Chief Operating Officer at PHI, a Job Quality Fellow at The Aspen Institute, and a former home care worker. Mark G. Popovich is Director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative within the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. He worked in childcare and lower-wage food service, maintenance, and other jobs early in his career.

A longer version of this piece appeared originally in The Hill as “The Peril of Domestic Workers” by Angelina Del Rio Drake (PHI) and Mark G. Popovich (Aspen Institute Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative. This version is authored by Popovich for use in Working-Class Perspectives.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Reality TV and Real Work in the Fishing Industry

Fishing may be the world’s second oldest profession, but the industry is about as visible as a quiet cousin at a family reunion. Unassuming, keeping to itself, it is largely ignored in talk about work and the economy.  All of which belies its oddly large footprint in reality TV. 

Discovery TV's Deadliest Catch

Some of these “fishing industry” shows look at huge, highly capitalized and often nationalized factory fishing fleets.  But most usually focus on much smaller, community and family-based single-owner boat crews that are part of a local fleet. That’s what we see in Discovery/Original Productions’s Deadliest Catch, which has long been the gorilla in the room.  On the other end of the spectrum lies a series showcasing practices closer to sport-fishing, National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna. In between areSwords: Life on the Line and Lobstermen (in various iterations asLobstermen: Jeopardy at Sea, Lobster Wars, Lobstermen: Deadliest Catch in the UK), the British series Trawlermen, and various others. Most of these shows rely on the same basic motifs:  dangerous seas, seafood as hidden treasure, competition between boats. 

All of which raises two questions:  1) why are fishing shows so popular? and 2) how well do they portray their subject and its workers?  One answer actually addresses both: they do a pretty good job of portraying individuals struggling with a job that is not only among the oldest but also the most dangerous. Yet that is also why this genre is itself a bit dangerous. Bringing the working world of the fishing industry to the general public performs a useful service.  Doing so by emphasizing individualistic drama while soft-peddling the industry’s complex socioeconomic structures does not.

The push for drama is embodied in Discovery Channel’s description of its most long-lived and popular show, Deadliest Catch:

It’s the deadliest job on earth: crab fishing off the Alaska coast on the icy Bering Sea, home of the most violent waters on earth. During each crabbing season, a handful of adventurers will battle Arctic weather, brutal waves, and a ticking clock for a chance at big money in this modern day gold rush. Working around the clock, and often going days without sleep, this unique breed of men, part adventurer part fisherman, will set out upon an unforgettable odyssey.

As the last word suggests, this series is ‘epic,’ with all the sociocultural mythos attending it.  Central to that mythos?  Western masculinity and its time-honored themes: competition, violence, death.

This emphasis underpins a format that Discovery has recreated in its East Coast variation, Lobstermen. Even the opening language follows the formula: “The North Atlantic Ocean, one of the most treacherous regions of the open seas.  Here a handful of brave men search for New England’s great-clawed beast:  lobster.” Unfortunately, Lobstermen suffers in comparison, given its smaller boats, smaller crews, smaller traps, and smaller catch.  It’s difficult not to smile at the hype: “great clawed beast”?  Clearly, size matters.

The basic structures and themes appear even in a more divergent example, Swords: Life on the Line, which includes racially diverse crews and female captain Linda Greenlaw (herself an audience draw, being well-known from Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction drama Perfect Storm as well as her own The Hungry Ocean).  But while such factors temper the show’s attachment to Anglo masculinity, they do not eliminate it.

To be fair, most of these series actually do manage to provide brief insights into larger systemic structures affecting fishing-industry workers. Much of the emphasis is on the captains who, even if they do not own their boats, are both management and labor. And the pay scale reflects the on-board hierarchy, with the value of labor decreasing from captain to first mate, and so on down the line.  At the same time, captains face their own structural difficulties within a competitive capitalist system.  Even if they own their boats, many captains are effectively “boat-poor” and regularly on the edge of financial and its related psychological collapse. 

To the shows’ credit, they regularly highlight the financial risks of the industry, and they show how the larger economic structures firmly anchor most crew members and even many captains – especially younger ones — within the precariat class.  Their economic vulnerability is exacerbated by the capital-intensive nature of industrial fishing.  Simply going out requires a large investment to purchase bait, fuel, and equipment. Such overhead literally rests on the key means of production:  a vessel that is either a major investment for a captain — equal to a home — or the property of an absentee boat-owner. While the crew doesn’t contribute to these initial investments, their labor, like the captain’s, accrues no personal value until all of the costs of the trip are covered. Only then will they be paid, in the form of a share of the catch based on their status in crew hierarchy.

As with all forms of fishing, that catch is hardly guaranteed, in part because access to the best grounds are regularly limited.  Among lobstermen, for example, agreements over where a boat’s lobster traps can be laid are often well-established and regularly honored among captains and larger communities.  But even if a boat has access to good grounds, they must compete with other fisheries, including trawlers in search of fin-fish, scallops, and other marketable products.  When these agreements are broached and communities themselves struggle to re-establish them, external regulators in the form of governmental agencies appear on the scene, making the system even more complex.

Unfortunately for the shows, all these economic complexities and forms of regulation also make fishing less dramatic than the risk-taking and rivalries amongst individual adventurers that make this type of reality TV engaging. So the shows present these banal complexities—capital investments, negotiated agreements, traditional hierarchies as more popular forms of competition: sport and games.  An easy example can be seen in Wicked Tuna’sspin-off, Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks, originally and blatantly titled Wicked Tuna: North vs. South

That transformation is further individualized and deepened with Oedipal themes, often through story lines about the younger generation taking over from ‘aging’ captains. For example, in an early episode of Wicked Tuna, the ‘outsider boat’ Pin Wheel, captained by the juvenile and aggressive Captain Tyler McLaughlin, is pitted against Tuna.Com, led by the established and traditional Captain Dave Carraro, a pattern echoed in each of these shows. All these internal dramas are usually ‘resolved’ through the evidence of masculine power embodied in a successful catch. 

Unfortunately, that narrative resolution does not ensure that the crew will be paid. Catching fish is only the first step; the catch must then be sold, and this puts fishers at the mercy of wholesalers, who set prices. This is regularly noted in the series, if only for dramatic effect, as in an episode of Lobstermen.Captain Joel Hovanesian’s Excalibur, a dragger (trawler) out of Port Judith, RI, is having no luck pursuing haddock, a high-value food fish in the restaurant and home-dining market. So Hovanesian decides to go after mackerel, whose US market is mainly as bait fish and priced accordingly. The risk is rewarded with a large, clean catch, a decent price at the dock, and subsequent paychecks. But the very next day, an even larger catch is met with limited interest from wholesalers, and Hovanesian has to scramble for an alternative buyer. Eventually, he must settle for a price approximately half that earned the day before. That, in turn, means that the same labor of captain and crew is worth about half what it was the day before.

These economic vagaries are endemic in a market-driven economy, and to the shows’ credit, they are incorporated into the overall drama. But again, they arise as a component of individual competition–a function of effort, risk, and luck rather than an ingrained deficiency of the fishing industry. That is, of course, the nature of dramatic story-telling: establish representative figures, place them in situations where tension arises, and resolve the tension positively or negatively.

Of course, reality television succeeds by keeping audiences coming back and generating ad revenue.  But while breaking seas and howling winds, risk and personal luck are cinematically justifiable, they also elide the less dramatic but very real struggle of crews with the fishing industry’s practices.  Which raises another question:  how should we weigh this erasure against the positives of raising the profile of fishing-industry labor?  In the end, that’s not an easy question to answer.  But we can always hope there’s no such thing as bad advertising.

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

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What Can Workers Expect from Amy Coney Barrett?

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States poses a difficult question: does her faith commitment as a Roman Catholic preclude an interpretation of the law that is responsive to concerns of the working class?

The Roman Catholic church has a long history of social teaching, dating back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. A response to industrialization and the new demands on workers, it offered qualified support of workers and trade unions. The emphasis on human dignity, the rights of workers, the common good and solidarity has been an enduring tradition in subsequent papal, conciliar and episcopal documents. One might reasonably assume that some of the teachings of this tradition would find their way into Barrett’s decisions.

So far, her record is not promising. The Alliance for Justice recently assembled a briefing document arguing the working class will have nothing to gain from Barrett’s time on the Supreme Court. In fact, we have already lost key decisions in her time on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. For instance, in Wallace v. Grubhub Holdings, Inc., the court considered the claim that Grubhub drivers were owed overtime pay according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Grubhub argued that workers had already given up the right to make such a claim by signing a Delivery Service Provider Agreement requiring arbitration for any claims related to their work. The drivers countered that they were exempt from arbitration that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) would require because they were engaged in interstate commerce. Other circuit courts had ruled that workers were exempt from arbitration if they worked for a company that itself engaged in activity in more than one state, but Barrett ruled that Grubhub workers were not entitled to overtime pay because they did not themselves cross state lines. Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney for the Grubhub drivers, noted that when the FAA was enacted in 1925, Congress “never foresaw that it would be used to stop drivers for a major national delivery company from challenging their employer’s systemic violation of wage laws.”

Michael Duff, University of Wyoming law professor, called Barrett’s decision in Wallace v. Grubhub “long on ‘textualism’ but short on consideration of the implications of applying text mindlessly.” Barrett’s opinion, Duff added, ignored the likelihood that “by 2024 more than 80 percent of private-sector, nonunion workers may be covered by forced arbitration clauses.” Barrett isn’t swayed by such criticism, as she made clear last year in a speech at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Judges should not focus on current conditions but on what the law says. Referring to Scalia with approval, she argues that “textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint.” Scalia’s opponents (and presumably Barrett’s) — the “purposivists” — do not see that hard constraint. As Scalia explained, “It is the law that governs, not the intent of the lawgiver. . . . Men may intend what they will; but it is only the laws that they enact which bind us.” As originalists, Scalia and Barrett are determined to interpret the Constitutional text according to the meaning of the words at the time of its composition.   

Considerations of textualism and originalism bring the case for or against Barrett back to religion and workers’ rights, because they suggest that her understanding of the law has little or no relation to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Perhaps that supports her statement in the 2017 U.S. Senate hearing that her faith would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. On the other hand, in a 2006 commencement address at Notre Dame Law School, she explicitly reminded listeners of the social justice commitments of a Catholic law school. A legal career, she said, “is but a means to an end, and… that end is building the kingdom of God.” She called on graduates to become “a different kind of lawyer,” one whose fundamental purpose in life is not “to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God.”

So it is worth considering how Barrett lives her faith, including her affiliation with the People of Praise Christian Community. Founded in 1971 and originally based in South Bend, Indiana, home as well to Notre Dame University, the group is part of the charismatic renewal movement in Roman Catholicism that arose in the late 1960s. Today, it has 1,700 members in 22 cities across the United States and Canada, as well as one location in Jamaica. Led by lay people, People of Praise describes itself as a “charismatic Christian community” that, like others in the Pentecostal movement, includes members who “have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts” such as speaking in tongues and healing ministries. People of Praise is not based in churches but in the community life that members forge among themselves. Hearkening back to the first Christians, People of Praise adherents make covenant commitments among themselves “grounded in a lifelong promise of love and service to fellow community members.” A period of discernment that lasts several years is necessary before one’s membership can be established in the community. Small groups meet for prayer and the reading of Scripture. They cement their ties by sharing meals and attending at each other’s baptisms, weddings and funerals, and they extend financial and material support to each.

The People of Praise Christian Community’s approach to faith has much in common with the originalism Barrett learned from Scalia. While Roman Catholicism generally considers scripture within the context of its tradition and the teaching authority of the church, conservative Protestants such as the Pentecostal and charismatic believers in the evangelical fold go “back to the Bible” and puzzle over its God-inspired truths. The People of Praise Christian Community, while historically Roman Catholic, incorporates this quest for the original meaning of scripture that, they argue, God intends believers to follow in the present day. An account of how Barrett found her way into both the People of Praise Christian Community and the Supreme Court as Scalia’s clerk would be fascinating, and it might show how the orientation to text and original meaning in both places will remain mutually reinforcing for Barrett.

Liberal-leaning Christians point out that times change and the interpretation of the Bible and applications of its teachings need to be attentive to new contexts. Those who support working-class interests make the same argument, suggesting that new challenges posed by technology and ever-increasing capital accumulation and monopoly power call for updated application of old laws. Barrett’s mentorship under Justice Scalia and her record on the Seventh Circuit do not appear to allow for this possibility. In other words, the issue is not her Roman Catholic faith in some general sense. Her affiliation with a religious community that is anchored firmly in the past makes clear that her rulings will not be friendly to workers and their families.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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A Law and Order Platform to Unite Working-Class Voters

Donald Trump has positioned himself as the “law and order” president, because the term provides a positive framing for the racially-tinged rhetoric he uses to divide members of the white working and middle classes from people of color. The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy explains the tactic as “convincing voters that crime is a threat – scaring them into such a belief, if necessary – and then convincing them only you can stop it.”  For decades, American politicians have used it “to play on racist fears, using code language – ‘crime’, ‘inner cities’, ‘quiet neighborhoods’ – in an attempt to connect especially with white voters.”

Pundits continue to debate how large a role Trump’s explicit and implicit racism and his promises to crack down on crime and criminals—particularly those with dark skin–played in his 2016 victory. He’s now directing his hate-filled oratory at the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that started after the killing of George Floyd and have ramped up again last week after the officers who shot Breonna Taylor were not charged with her murder. Such rhetoric seems more effective than ever at motivating his hardcore supporters and some white suburbanites who are appalled by the violence they see in the news every day.

Trump frames the issue as a binary choice: you’re either for law and order or you’re with the anarchists, rioters, and police-haters. His success with this tactic has painted Democrats into an uncomfortable political corner. How can they stand for racial justice but not be seen as weak on crime?

Fortunately, a new report issued from a group of international journalists could help Joe Biden and his party make the case that they stand for law and order in a way that will unify rather than splinter the working class. The report, presented as a five-part podcast “Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files,” documents how the world’s most powerful banks facilitate the worst of humanity: Citing evidence from “a huge trove of secret government documents,” the report traces “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions, enriching themselves and their shareholders while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins. And the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

While many of the activities uncovered by the journalists are shocking, readers of our past Working-Class Perspectives entries about corporate criminality will not be surprised by this key revelation: not one banking executive involved in this massive money laundering scheme has been charged with a crime — despite the fact that officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, and members of Congress know exactly what is happening.

As Marc wrote in recently in the Akron Beacon Journal, executives blithely break the law because they don’t fear being charged with a crime. This lack of consequences combined with billions of dollars in profits has fueled corporate misbehavior of all kinds. As Martin Woods, a former suspicious transactions investigator for Wachovia, notes, “Some of these people in those crisp white shirts in their sharp suits are feeding off the tragedy of people dying all over the world.” Like the masterminds of the mortgage crisis that nearly cratered the world economy, the makers of Oxycontin who have killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the First Energy executives who paid the largest bribe in the history of Ohio politics, not one of those white shirt, sharp suit-wearing executives has been perp-walked out of their palatial office. Instead, on the rare occasion when a big bank was prosecuted, it simply paid a fine — and continued to engage in illegal activity.

And that gives Democrats a “law and order” opportunity of their own. Biden and a Democratic Congress could ride to the rescue of the millions of people who have been repeatedly victimized by corporate America’s total disregard for both the consequences of their actions and the rule of law.  Soon after the release of “Suspicious Activity,” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders renewed their call for enactment of the “Ending Too Big to Jail Act.” If Joe Biden and other more moderate Democrats express full-throated support for this much-needed and long-overdue reform legislation, they could reunite the factions of the working class and focus their collective ire on the real common enemy: the corporate criminals who have yet to be held accountable for murdering major components of the American Dream.

It might not be easy for Biden to renounce decades of support for the finance and banking industry, especially because the Obama administration failed to prosecute any of the major players responsible for the collapse of the housing market. But we believe he must do this in order to win in 2020 and rebuild the working-class and blue-collar coalition that Trump has torn asunder.

That possibility makes perp-walking some bespoke suit-wearing corporate criminals off Wall Street and into jail the absolute right thing to do.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.

 

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Unsettling

Smoke from the fires in Oregon, photo by John Locher, AP

It’s fire season again.  Two years ago, my parents lost their home in Paradise.  This year, I almost lost mine.  I live in Oregon, where scores of fires were stoked up by unusual Eastern blasts of dry wind over the Labor Day weekend.  As of this writing, more than 1,000,000 acres had burned, and 500,000 people (more than one out of ten Oregonians) were under evacuation orders.  California, Washington, Idaho – also in flames.  While I was fortunate not to be directly in harm’s way, like every other Oregonian I have been choking on hazardous air since September 8th.  In fact, the air quality has been so bad that many of our air quality indicators have not been able to measure the hazard.  By one account, the amount of smoke and ash in the air is equivalent to smoking more than three packs of cigarettes a day.  And all the displaced persons, the firefighters, the helping personnel, and workers who have to be out during the day (such as postal workers) have been breathing this for more than a week.  We are all looking for a break, some blue sky to show itself, even as we worry that this is just the start of fire season

Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington, has been the most outspoken about linking these extraordinary fires to climate change.  He called the scene “apocalyptic” and “maddening.”  In response to the President’s blithe denial of science, Inslee said, “If this is not a signal to the United States, I don’t know what it will take.” But he was not alone.  Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, calls the wildfire a “wake-up call” on climate change.  Touring the wreckage in Oroville, a town very close to Paradise, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, said, “The debate is over in terms of climate change… If you don’t believe that, just come to the state of California.”

In Oregon alone, 40,000 people fled their homes in the face of the fire.  For many, there is nowhere to go.  Community centers, fairgrounds, churches, some hotels, have opened their doors, although COVID is complicating how they do so.  In my hometown, we have opened up our football stadium.  This is not a covered structure.  People are living in tents in the open air wherever they can.  Tents are, in fact, one of the most useful items to donate  and are hard to come by. 

All of this has been very unsettling, both literally and metaphorically.  The events of this past week have thrown me back to memories of my working-class childhood, where bad things could happen at any time.  How can anyone plan for the future when the basic foundations of food, shelter, air, and water are unsettled?  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed in the morning when you are afraid to look out the window, let alone making a decent plan about what to accomplish that day.  For years now, I’ve tried to explain this basic fact to well-meaning middle-class people who have never faced such uncertainties.  Now, it seems, many of them are sharing this experience. 

Those who study working-class life have long drawn a distinction between “hard-living” working-class families and “settled” ones.  This may have begun with Joseph T. Howell’s Hard Living on Class Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families, published in 1972, although other influential endorsers of the concept include Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, Lillian Rubin, and Lois Weis.  Settled living families play by the rules, work hard, abstain from hard drugs and other distractions.  Hard living families act like it’s the end of the world.  I have to admit, I never took to these descriptions, not because they seemed overly judgmental – though they sometimes do – but because they draw too clear a line between these types of families. 

I’ve talked with Jack Metzgar helped me realize that this may be a generational thing.  Growing up in the dysfunctional 1970s, I am of the first generation that did not assume they would be better off than their parents. My generation, the first one without a descriptive identity (Generation “X”), stands between the baby boomers and the millennials and Gen Zers whose lives definitely will not be better off than their parents, due to both a faltering economy (don’t tell Wall Street) and a burning planet.  For working-class people of my generation and later, playing by the rules will not get you security, working hard will not get you social mobility, and there’s no one out there who is going to give you any credit for staying away from drugs.  In fact, doctors will push them on you, and everyone else will assume you take them anyway.  We’re all living hard, not settled lives.  Period. 

As with so much in 2020, the fires unsettle us. The pandemic has made us all lose sense of time.  In the United States, we suffer under a heartless president whose lies and distortions can give us whiplash.  We are riven into two nations, living under different realities, even as “reality” becomes more real with every passing moment – as hurricanes multiply, snow follows heatwave in less than 48 hours, and fires roar across the land, hurling down hazardous ash that spreads in fast-driven plumes across the nation (you can watch  this on zoom.earth if you have the stomach for it).  While nearly one million people have died of COVID-19 – close to 200,000 in the US alone – we are hardly in agreement on how dangerous this virus is, how to prevent future deaths (wear a mask!), or when to expect a return to “normalcy.”  There is little stable ground to hold on to here, for anyone, left or right.  Will school be shut down next week?  Who knows?  Will I have a job next month?  Who knows?  Will my landlord be permitted to evict me in a pandemic?  Maybe.  What then – who knows?  Will we have peace after the election?  Martial law?  Who knows?  What can one reasonably plan for in such a world? 

Let’s not leave on such a gloomy note, although it has been hard to keep positive against the many foul blows of 2020.  My original theme for this blog had been “What the World Needs Now.” Perhaps next time I can tackle that.  But the world is wide open at the moment — otherwise known as a crisis.  Let’s call it the Unsettling.  We cannot live as we have been living, planning for tomorrow as if there is no bill coming due from the toll we’ve been heedlessly, selfishly, putting on the planet.  As all those who live through hard times know, there is no tomorrow if we can’t get through today.  And to get through today will take all our reserves of strength and compassion. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Undelivered: The DeJoy Scandal and Democracy in the Balance

Laborers Vote, Laborers BuildIn this turbulent moment, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy aptly symbolizes the precarious state of both our democracy and the workers on whose shoulder its future rests.  Last week,  a Washington Post team uncovered seven former employees of New Breed Logistics who reported being cajoled by CEO DeJoy or his aides to make political donations to candidates he favored and to attend fundraisers at his 15,000-square-foot gated mansion in Greensboro, N.C.. Such events regularly raised more than $100,000 per event for Republican candidates for Congress or the presidency.  Employees who contributed to the boss’s preferred candidates were rewarded with monetary bonuses, according to this report—which would be a crime if proven in court.

The DeJoy scandal is all the more disturbing because of the context in which it came to light.  At this moment, voter suppression efforts are underway in multiple states, the president is attempting to pre-emptively delegitimize mail ballots, and DeJoy himself is continuing to implement measures that impede the work of the US Postal Service despite his recent promises to Congress that he would cease being obstructive.   Even as polls indicate that Democrats will be twice as likely to vote by mail in this election, the institution that will help make our national election possible in November–the United States Postal Service–is being undermined.      

These headlines recall the early years of the 20th century when, for working people, the U.S. was at best an aspirational democracy.  Back then the carrot-and-stick methods that DeJoy used—repaying loyalty to his political causes with bonuses and favoring those employees who stood with him—were utterly commonplace.  Pioneering sociologist John A. Fitch explored the prevalence of political coercion in turn-of-the-twentieth-century steel towns like Braddock, Pennsylvania.  At election time, the New York City headquarters of U.S. Steel sent instructions to mill superintendents, Fitch learned, who dispatched foremen to escort workers to the polls to do their civic duty by voting for the candidates endorsed by their employer.  During a period of recessionary unemployment, workers reported that management promised to first rehire the most politically loyal employees.

That was also an era of rampant voter suppression.  African-American men had been stripped of the vote in most southern states by 1910, thanks in large measure to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Williams v. Mississippi (1898) decision, which opened the door to literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and a host of other mechanisms to block the black vote.  After more than a half century of struggle for suffrage, women had only won the right to vote in a handful of states.  And even white male workers often struggled to get equal access to the ballot box.  Many states used poll taxes or barred those who received public assistance from voting in local elections, as historian Alex Keyssar has shown.  And when more strenuous methods were needed to minimize workers’ political voice, employers did not hesitate to use them.  During labor conflicts in the coalfields of Huerfano County, Colorado, in 1914, mine operators collaborated with sympathetic local officials to redraw the maps of seven electoral precincts so they were entirely on company property.  On election day, armed guards simply prevented anyone seen as potentially “disloyal” from entering those precincts to vote.

Precisely because workers’ voting rights were so often obstructed in the early twentieth century, their efforts to build a successful labor movement had to be tied to efforts to win political democracy.  The workers’ movement’s ubiquitous call for industrial democracy alluded to that inescapable interconnection of political democracy and a more democratic workplace.  For the half-century between 1918 and 1968, that interconnection was borne out as the expansion of unions and political democracy repeatedly reinforced each other.  Workers’ demands for industrial democracy during World War I helped open the door for women’s suffrage after the war. The rise of an industrial union movement in the 1930s, in turn, created the political space for the “Long Civil Rights Movement” to emerge.  Subsequent civil rights struggles not only won voting rights for African Americans but also helped produce the last big breakthrough for U.S. unions, the organization of public sector workers in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Over most of the last half-century, however, the synergy between unionism and democracy has operated in reverse.  As unions declined, democratic rights eroded, which in turn accelerated the decline of unions, bringing both back to the conditions of  more than a century ago.  If Williams v. Mississippi serves as a marker of the backwardness that earlier era, future historians will someday mark our current low point by pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions as Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which undermined the Voting Rights Act, and Epic Systems v. Lewis (2018), which allows employers to induce workers to sign away their rights to undertake collective action as a condition of employment.  

The long-running deterioration of democracy in both politics and the workplace is what accounts for figures like Louis DeJoy in our time.  Although his methods were unusually crass, his desire to control his workers is hardly unusual these days.  Elizabeth Anderson reports that in recent years one in four U.S. workers describe their workplace as a “dictatorship.” More would use that description, Anderson says, if they realized how much power their employer has to arbitrarily regulate and punish their speech and conduct, not only on the job, but off it as well.  In most workplaces, she argues, “employers don’t merely govern workers; they dominate them.”

Alex Hertel-Fernandez has turned up plenty of evidence of such domination.  In recent years, he finds, corporations have succeeded in coercing workers to adopt their employers’ political causes in ways not much different from those John Fitch discovered in 1908 Braddock.  Whether they are forced to stand behind political candidates who visit to their workplaces for a “photo op,” asked to write letters to legislators protesting bills their employers oppose, or urged to vote for the employers’ favored candidates, workers are increasingly subject to the influence of those who sign their paychecks. 

Is it any surprise that as our workplaces have become less democratic, we’ve become less able to resist political democracy’s erosion?  It is no coincidence that in a country where only 6 percent of private sector workers are in unions, a political party whose candidates have won the national popular vote for the presidency only once since 1988 has nonetheless named most Supreme Court justices; a country where a man who lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any president in history has appointed  nearly one quarter of the circuit court bench; and a country where the party whose candidates received a total of 14 million fewer votes than the rival party controls the majority of Senate seats.  This is a country that not only allows an employer like DeJoy to use his employees to further his political aims, it installs him in a position of power to stifle the political voices of millions more workers.  Is it any wonder that in such a country Joe Biden must not only win the popular vote in November, he must, as Nate Silver reminds us, win by at least three percentage points to be assured of becoming president.

As we enter the home stretch of this fateful political season amid a raging pandemic, as Black Lives Matter protests continue and an increasingly militant resistance to those protests emerges, the DeJoy case reminds us that working people and our democracy face daunting challenges. We should draw encouragement from knowing that our predecessors overcame similar challenges.  Our task, like theirs, must be to revive democracy in both politics and our work relations.  Ultimately, our future will depend less on who wins in November—as crucial as that is—than on how well we wage that larger fight.

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

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Unemployed Workers of the World Unite?!?

Karl Marx’s famous phrase spoke of the unemployed as the “industrial reserve army.” His argument was plain. Creating greater unemployment was a key tool in giving employers the upper hand in forcing down wages and disciplining workers. I can still vividly remember a typical call-and-response from my early organizing days. When I would run into a colleague who was between organizing jobs, I would ask what they were doing these days.  The answer: “I’m in the army.”  Caught off guard in the beginning, I’d reply, “Really?” to which the answer would be, “Yes, the vast army of the unemployed.”  It wasn’t funny, but we would laugh anyway. The joke somehow made being out of a job less personal and more systemic, and the fact that it seemed to have a reddish tint to the phrase made it all even richer in the fading decades of the Cold War.

What now on another US Labor Day? 

The reserve army is indeed vast.   Twenty million jobs were lost in March alone as the statistical unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% to 14.7%.  With one-million new unemployment filers per week, we are now around thirty million unemployed with rates over 10% in record highs since the Great Depression.  The world is in no better shape.  In the European Union, fifteen million were unemployed as of June 2020, and the current unemployment rate is around 8%.  Country to country, the stories are horrific and the numbers are incalculable in places like India and many African countries. 

Reading Francis Fox Piven and Dick Cloward’s Poor Peoples’ Movements, it was always exhilarating to discover the work of the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s, their marches, rallies, anti-eviction fights, and demands for $35 per week and $5 per dependent.  I can still vividly remember ACORN’s own efforts to organize unemployed workers, CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Act) workers, and youth job actions during the 1978 recession during the Carter presidency. We held sit-ins in Denver, organized rallies of over a thousand in Philadelphia, and faced arrests and police brutality in response to an action in New Orleans. 

The Unemployed Councils thought they were harnessing the anger and laying the groundwork for the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression.     The Unemployment Act of 1920 established a benefit for unemployed workers.  The Social Security Act of 1935 encouraged the states to establish individual unemployment insurance schemes that have led to the patchwork quilt of rates and benefits paid now.  The Depression lingered at many levels until WWII, but the protests helped create the changes that last still.

In the Trump Recession, capitalism is barely cracking, and even a Google search can’t find evidence of mass protests of unemployed workers.  At least, not yet. But why?

Now the government’s response to the pandemic job meltdown from almost statistical full employment to depression-scale numbers was radical in its own way.  Not because of action on the streets. More because of fear in the White House and halls of Congress with an election looming and no hope for a cure to the coronavirus.  Money stuffed a sock into mouths that might have roared with rage.  Republican Senators and some corporations have yelled louder that the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits kept potential workers away from demanding abysmally low-waged jobs because they were getting more on unemployment than they did when they were working.  Some justice there!  In Europe, 60 million workers were paid supplements to prevent layoffs.  The price was high, but governments bought labor peace. 

Most of the US’s super-sized benefit payments have now ended.  In Trump’s election desperation, some unemployed workers may get a supplemental $300 a week, and in some richer states, $400, but that’s a stopgap and a poor one for only five weeks.  On this Labor Day, Congress is still divided over restoring larger supplemental payments either until the end of 2020 or the end of the pandemic, whichever comes later. 

Did this experience legitimize the case for something like a guaranteed annual wage or a minimum survival standard in welfare benefits and work and unemployment support? Could that become the legacy of this disaster for workers, as the Social Security Act was for the Great Depression?

I doubt it.

In the 30s, workers and their families didn’t buy President Hoover’s excuses and “good times are around the corner” promises.  They turned him out and ushered in the Roosevelt programs. Today, paradoxically, President Trump’s mishandling of this mess still rates him polling better than former Vice-President Biden in his ability to handle the economy.  Perhaps workers, the unemployed, and others will go to the voting booth or the mailbox this November and turn Trump out in the same way.  Perhaps not.

Even if they do, the lesson of history and all the great victories won for workers is clear.  Unless workers vote with their feet as well as their ballots, significant change is unlikely to come.  Until these forces come together as a vast army to push away the opposition, change is unlikely, and more pain and hardship is inevitable.

Juliet Schor and Samuel Bowles argued persuasively some time ago that workers’ internal calculations about the “cost of job loss” correlated better than unemployment rates with the incidence of strikes. Workers figure the price of action to achieve wage and security gains versus the risk of unemployment. That calculation should encourage action today, as we have masses of workers unemployed with forecasts of more furloughs and permanent layoffs to come. Statistical unemployment is already over 15% for Black workers and 18.5% for young people under 24.  The cost of job loss for millions is now zero, while the gains for action are potentially huge.

Unemployed workers of the workers of the world unite!  You have little to lose and a different world and economy to gain.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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No Class: Why You Should Be Getting Your Labor News from Teen Vogue

Last Wednesday NBA players refused to take the court for their playoff games in order to protest the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who survived the shooting but is now paralyzed. In response, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their scheduled game. This shocking announcement reverberated throughout the sports world, and the Bucks were soon joined by all the other NBA playoff teams, the Women’s NBA, Major League Soccer (MLS), and several Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.

Most media outlets didn’t know how to respond to the job action. They couldn’t even figure out what to call it. Many journalists described it as a boycott, while others simply reported that the games had been ‘canceled’ or ‘postponed.’

You might be surprised to hear about one publication that covered the NBA action with speed and accuracy: Teen Vogue. On Thursday, August 27, Teen Vogue reported that, “[p]layers in four major sports leagues have refused to play games in one of the most high-profile wildcat strikes in modern history.” And, just in case a the average Teen Vogue reader doesn’t know what a strike is, let alone a wildcat strike, the article ends with a link to the magazine’s labor columnist Kim Kelly’s explainer from 2019, “Everything You Need to Know about a General Strike.”

Teen Vogue cover, January 2017

Yes, that’s right, Teen Vogue has a labor column. You might have heard about other artifacts of Teen Vogue’s jaw dropping wokeness, from stories calling Trump the “gaslighter-in-chief,” to Teen Vogue’s guide to anal sex, to their column praising Karl Marx on his 200th birthday in May of 2018. I was gobsmacked by the Karl Marx piece, and nearly equally stunned when, earlier this summer, Teen Vogue labor columnist Kelly explained the importance of class solidarity. I know this, but how does Teen Vogue?

The answer has a lot to do with Kelly herself. She grew up without cable, without the internet, or even the occasional rap CD in Chatsworth, NJ, a place she describes as a “poor, working class, white rural community.” Born in the late 1980s to a working-class family (her dad and her uncles are in construction), she became a devoted fan of heavy metal music in her teen years. As Kelly told me, “Heavy metal is the music of the disaffected working class, and it is not very well understood. Heavy metal was forged in a factory. It is an outcast and underappreciated art form, often trashed by mainstream music critics.”

While working toward her goal of writing about heavy metal for a living, Kelly did virtually every job in the industry, from band PR to merchandise sales, all the while contributing to college papers, zines, and blogs. Eventually she got a job as the heavy metal editor for Vice magazine.

Kelly’s interest in the labor movement started the old-fashioned way: she joined it. According to New Labor Forum, not long after Kelly became a “permalancer” at Vice, a co-worker reached out to her about the idea of unionizing the online publication, and she was “immediately on board.” It took them just two weeks to get a majority of Vice writers to sign union cards, joining up with the Writers Guild of America. The next thing she knew, Kelly was on the bargaining committee and was helping to negotiate their first contract.

A few years later, after doing some freelance work for Teen Vogue, Kelly pitched the magazine a profile of the Gilded Age labor organizer and hell-raiser, Mother Jones. Her editor suggested that the Teen Vogue readers might need an explainer on unions before she could tackle a profile of Jones. And that was how “No Class,” Kelly’s regular labor column for Teen Vogue, was born. This summer alone she has written about embattled postal workers, the need for class solidarity, left and right politics in the building trades, and Rebecca Harding Davis’s classic work, Life in the Iron Mills. She’s also written an explainer on capitalism and a persuasive argument against police unions.

Kelly understands that the magazine’s target audience, young women between 13 and 24, are part of an extremely well informed and politically active generation. She points to phenomena like IRA TikTok and Communist TikTok. “There are kids on Twitter who know more about anarchist theory than I ever will. You can stream any record you want in the course of an afternoon. Information access is contributing to the politization of teens,” she says.

Teen Vogue has come under attack from conservative media personalities such as Tucker Carlson. It has also been called out for turning wokeness into a slick commodity. But the quality — and the success — of the Teen Vogue labor column points to some long-standing contradictions within corporate media, as well as emerging phenomena in American society.

First, the contradiction: capitalist media, especially in times of extreme competition, will sponsor content that undermines and/or contradicts some of the goals of a capitalist agenda. This contradiction allows Teen Vogue/Condé Nast to pay Kelly to write a labor column in which she critiques capitalism while also selling ad space to Target, IBM, Verizon, Light Life Plant Based Burgers, Ulta, and Tressemé (to name a few), all of which hope to win new converts among  young feminists, teens of color, LBGTQ youth, adolescent Democratic Socialists, tween anarchists, and those Communist-curious who are still too young to drink.

The emerging phenomena include a new hunger among younger Americans for useful, accessible information about how to organize. After all, Teen Vogue’s audience today is tomorrow’s labor force. The American working class is, no longer, as Kelly, quipped, “male, pale and stale.” Working-class Americans are younger, and they include a majority of women workers, more workers who identify as LGBTQ, more immigrants, and more workers who are black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). As Kelly puts it, there are “a million ways to be working class.”

As a union member herself, Kelly doesn’t just come from a working-class background. She is a leader of the new working class. And she is gaining positive attention for her work. Since she started contributing to Teen Vogue she has been interviewed by the State of the Union podcast and  the Real News Network, and she has been called the “coolest person on the internet.” This summer she signed a book deal with One Signal to write a history of the labor movement, Fight Like Hell. She plans to feature the labor struggles of women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ workers that do not always get covered in mainstream, academic labor tomes.

As Mother Jones famously said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” And, while you’re at it, read some of Kim Kelly’s “No Class.” Her labor columns are some of the most inspiring writings on class that I’ve read in a long time.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Working-Class Public Housing in the COVID Spotlight

The Covid19 pandemic has highlighted many inequalities experienced by working-class people — insecure work, unsafe work places, access to health care, housing conditions and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of colour. Mainstream media has also covered many of these issues, often demonstrating surprise that such inequalities exist. When (presumably middle-class) journalists and opinion writers present these inequities as if they were new discoveries, this has the effect of dismissing the work of activists and community leaders who have been trying for years to show how inequality and injustice operate and to bring positive change, but have been largely ignored.

Nonetheless, the stories appearing in the mainstream media not only highlight some of the issues affecting working-class people but may also challenge some stereotypes and preconceptions about the working class. This new focus on working-class lives is welcome.

We see it in some recent reporting on people living in public housing in Australia, which we call ‘housing commission.’ People living in housing commissions — sometimes referred to as ‘housos’ — are often stigmatised as ‘dole bludgers’ – unemployed, unwilling to work, and incapable of taking care of their homes. Some housing commission areas have an (unwarranted) reputation as being dangerous and crime ridden. This is especially true for the relatively few high-rise apartment blocks found in cities, whose residents face the greatest stigma and discrimination. High-rise private apartment blocks are sought after, but not these buildings.  Clearly, it isn’t the structure of the buildings that creates the negative stereotypes. It is the class and racial makeup of the residents that seems to bother people on the outside.

The high-rise housing commission blocks in cities like Melbourne and Sydney are home to people from many different cultural backgrounds. This diversity has not been celebrated by the wider community, though. Instead, residents have experienced racism and been targeted by police conducting ‘random’ searches of residents who are Indigenous or of African descent. This racist profiling has created suspicion and mistrust of police.

During a spike of Covid19 cases in Melbourne, several housing commission towers were forced into immediate lockdown after some residents tested positive. Residents were not permitted to leave their homes, and the towers were guarded by police, who were even stationed on each floor of the blocks. Many residents found themselves effectively trapped overnight, with no access to supplies or to their usual support networks. Parents were unable to take their children outside to play. They were confined in their small apartments, sometimes with many young children to care for. The authorities responsible for maintaining the lockdown were very slow to provide the essential supplies required by the residents. When they did send food into the blocks, they supplied food that was inappropriate for religious or health reasons, ignoring the needs of the multicultural communities. When residents ordered food or asked friends and family to bring better options, those delivering the food were not permitted to enter.

The extreme nature of the lockdown in the housing blocks did attract mainstream media coverage, though, thrusting residents into the limelight. And the tone began to change. Reporters displayed some sympathy with the residents. They interviewed people who were unable to leave their apartments, and they quoted residents expressing their frustration with the heavy-handed response of the authorities. Some papers also published full-length pieces written by residents who described the lockdown and the subsequent hardship. Residents also explained why they were upset to have stationing police on each storey. Many residents had been targeted by police without reason in the past, and some were refugees who had escaped imprisonment. The police presence during the lockdown triggered painful memories and created anxiety.

As the stories about the lockdown unfolded, the online version of the Guardian in Australia published a special series on life in high-rise housing commission, Lives in the Sky.  The series included stories on the police targeting of young men of African descent, on life growing up in the towers, positive stories of the resilience and community spirit of the blocks, and the experiences of migrants starting their lives in Australia. Although some pieces took a slightly patronising tone, most were sympathetic, demonstrating the diversity and richness of the high-rise community. I grew up in very similar public housing towers (albeit in London, UK), and reading about working-class people who built their communities and helped each other out reminded me of my own estate. High-rise estate life is very different from the inside, but residents are all too aware of the stigma that follows them.

It was unusual and very welcome to hear the voices of housing commission residents – voices that are rarely heard in a positive manner. It was even better to see pieces published in the mainstream media written by working-class people of diverse cultural backgrounds.  But it is a pity that it took a pandemic and an uneven and authoritarian response to an outbreak in a working-class community for the voices of the residents to be heard.

Representation matters, and this more positive portrayal of working-class people should help to shift the negative language and challenge stereotypes. The Covid19 pandemic has hit housing commission residents hard, but maybe the sympathetic interest in the lives of residents will make it just a little easier for them to feel proud of where they live and not be afraid to list their address. Better yet, I hope we will continue to hear powerful stories told by the residents themselves. We need to hear those strong voices in the post-Covid19 society.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies

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