Chums or Comrades: Working-Class Perspectives after Johnson

While Boris Johnson may have lost his premiership in recent weeks, a fascinating and profoundly depressing new book by Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper reminds us of why the story behind the rise to power of Johnson and his circle matters. In Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, Kuper relates how Johnson and many in his cabinet started forming themselves into a powerful political caste while they were attending Oxford University in the 1980s. I attended my access course at Ruskin College Oxford in 1988, the year that Kuper and many of the key actors in his book ‘went up’ to Oxford as freshers, but while I met some of them, I was only dimly aware of what they were up to. Chums shows how this group of already privileged, largely privately educated and mainly male undergraduates were carefully building a network on the strong bonds of the private school system. They made connections with ministers in the Thatcher government and started preparing for future careers in right-of-centre think tanks which would ultimately allow them to become Conservative MPs a decade or so later. Reading Chums made clear that I wasn’t witnessing irrelevant student politics. These were deadly serious preparations for power.

Kuper’s view of this group reflects his position as both insider and outsider. Although he is a world-class journalist working on one of the best global papers, his origins are solidly middle-class, and he enjoyed a very good state schooling.  As a writer, he looks in on the already sedimented social relationships rooted in a narrow slice of private schools that feed into Oxford. Kuper recalls going to interview David Cameron in 2010, before he became Prime Minister. Both men had attended the same university, and both had gained good degrees, yet Cameron effortlessly made clear their class difference:

The moment the fleshy-faced, expensively dressed David Cameron walked into the poky meeting room at Westminster, I looked up at him and he looked down at me, and we each clocked at a glance, as only Britons can: “He’s upper-class!” “He is middle-class!”. Cameron opened with an ice-breaker: “For the FT, is it? Is it How to Spend It?”. How to Spend It is the FT’s monthly luxury magazine, aimed at investment bankers and their spouses.  I was not a regular reader.  As I began to explain confusedly that I was actually writing for the main paper, Cameron interrupted. “I’m only joking”, he chortled. “My wife works for the Smythson’s. they’re always trying to get into How to Spend It. It’s like ‘the place to be’ if you are a luxury goods business”.

Kuper’s description captures an Etonian’s uncanny ability to soften entitlement with charm, and it is just one instance of class privilege that he includes in Chums. The book portrays a caste of people who just know they are born to rule. They embody such a sense of entitlement that they have naturalised it in their day-to-day encounters and in their approach to national politics. 

But Chums doesn’t just reveal the elitism of the elite. It shows how class relations are like a game of Tic-tac-toe.  Working-class people start off in such a position of inferiority that no matter how bright they are or how hard they work, they cannot win the game. For them to gain power, economically or politically, seems almost hopeless. The only way to do it requires sustained investment in preserving privilege that privately educated kids get pretty much from the get-go. It’s easy to come away from this book with a sense of despair.

But I do see some unexpected reasons for hope in the UK lately as union leaders have spoken out in a series of industrial disputes created by the cost-of-living crisis. Rail Maritime & Transport (RMT) General secretary Mike Lynch’s media appearances have developed something of a cult following.  Nadine Houghton of the GMB union has also gained attention speaking on behalf of baggage handlers at Heathrow who are seeking to have their pay restored to pre-Covid pandemic levels after British Airways cut it by 10% in 2020. Both have offered sound economic, social, and moral arguments. Even better, they use the language of class unapologetically. Their surefooted dealings with hostile media and conservative politicians show them to be confident, highly articulate advocates who are on top of their briefs – unlike the almost completely ignorant middle-class commentariat.  Along with effective public speakers, unions are also gaining support because ordinary people get the class dynamics at work when elites in the media and politics attempt to set ‘union barons’ against ‘normal people’. Books like Kuper’s help create that awareness.

This could be a really important time for the revival in centre left politics in the UK, if only the Labour Party would get on board.  Unfortunately, the Labour Party doesn’t seem certain that supporting the cause of working people will win them votes, though shadow cabinet member David Lammy was criticised for not supporting workers at Heathrow. He made a rapid ‘U’ turn hours later.  Labour wants to be seen as above industrial disputes, but the likes of Lynch and Houghton have shown that being prepared to explain and defend workers can gain both support and, potentially, votes.  

As depressing as it can be to read Chums, it’s worth remembering that the Oxford experience Kuper describes is over three decades old. As he notes, recruitment is more diverse now, and expectations on undergraduates are higher than in his day. Things may well be changing. Instead of fighting on a field chosen by the rich and powerful, the progressive working-class seems to be setting out a popular agenda that even Labour can support.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Media War in Ukraine: Class and Gender

Like all physical conflicts, the current war in Ukraine is also an ongoing war of narratives, in this case one making heavy use of visual imagery.  As they have played out, the threads of these narratives have a telling sequence of their own, revealing the tragic arc of most wars as they confront the ultimate—and ultimately gendered and classed—victims of modern warfare:  women, children, the elderly, the poor and working classes.

War narratives do not open with such storylines of course, and this conflict is no different.  Before the first shot was fired, the West provided satellite images of Russian’s early military buildup along Russian and Belarussian borders.  It was an interesting strategy, a visual foretelling that put Russia in a defensive position from the first, establishing a story-line that made its military moves seem predictable and almost robotic, a product of earlier Soviet mismanagement.

Without dismissing in the least the admirable resilience and capabilities of the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces, it is important to recognize a key motif in this storyline that is part of Western mythos: individualism over collectivity.  In this narrative thread, the unified front displayed by Ukrainian forces is not entirely overlooked.  Rather, stress is laid on the failure of Russia’s military to properly delegate authority, a theme long-stressed in Western narratives opposed to collectivity in general.

On the heels of that media opening, another key thread has been built, one allied with an ethos of individualism as embodied in a regular aspect of most narrative: key characters.  Not surprisingly, the most significant characterizations to date are of the war’s primary protagonist/antagonist figures:  Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin.  As the war’s central hero/villain figures (no matter which side the story is told from) they embody key class and gender distinctions, but with an ironic yet important reversal in storylines. 

Shirtless white man (Vladimir Putin) sitting on a brown horse in front of a rocky hillside

Putin’s early public persona has shifted over time as he has morphed from shirtless romance hero to suited executive, a role more in keeping with both his age and his current role. The infamous pre-war photo of germaphobe Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, separated by a 20-foot-long table, only enunciates Putin’s splendid isolation. The setting, which hearkens back not to a socialist state but to Tsarist excess and luxury, underscores his current persona.

Two white men (Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron) dressed in dark suits seated at opposite ends of a long white table.

As was made clear from the viral vignette of his dressing-down of the Head of Russian Intelligence, Putin now embodies the role of an ironically Western, Apprentice-like corporate executive and member of a masculinist elite—albeit one with nuclear weapons and a penchant for murdering his opponents. 

Contrast Putin’s autocratic put-down with the now-famous selfie video of Zelensky and his cabinet refusing to leave downtown Kyiv.  In occupying the foreground of this informal video Zelensky is not attempting to establish his singularity or dominance.  Rather he is one among equals, visually embodying group cohesion.

At the same time, Zelensky’s visual placement among this band of brothers is augmented by his delivery of what are admittedly formal but nevertheless powerful lines.  As his fixed, hand-held phone captures the small group, Zelensky quietly repeats “tut/tyt”: “here,” “here,” “here” while he names each individual cabinet member, thus solidifying the group’s physical and metaphorical placement together and among the inhabitants of Kyiv.

This video from the first days of the war was a key moment in establishing the ensuing narratives, a strategic rhetorical move equal to the military’s decisive maneuver to deny Russia use of Kyiv’s airport by destroying its runways.  These storylines quickly countered the prevailing expectation of a rapid and thorough conquest of Ukraine by Russia.

The impact of Zelensky’s video on the overall narrative within the West was not lost on the Ukrainian administration.  On the 100th day to the war, Zelensky issued a direct reprise of the first video, again emphasizing not individualism but a unified collective front opposing oligarchic power and using these videos to bolster morale and unite the population as a whole. 

Five white men dressed in dark parkas and hats carrying another white man on a stretcher in front of a brick building with all its windows missing and several bare trees, smoke rising in the background.

At the same time, the changing nature of the conflict has forced the basic storylines to follow two new major threads—the ongoing carnage in Ukraine and the wider devastations to come—which also shift the focus to the war’s real impact. The most horrific details remain images emerging from Ukraine that show the impact of Russia’s use of the non-combatant warfare they tested in Syria (much as the Nazi’s tested their pre-WWII warfare in Spain). They are systematically reducing Eastern Ukraine’s economic structure to rubble and erasing what population is left, mostly people who most lack the capacity to evacuate:  the old, sick, poor and working classes.  In the words of an American military official, the Russians “just bomb the hell out of people, . . .  trying to break the will or the spirit of the Ukrainian people by just leveling large sections or entire towns.”

The devastation of this war will not be told solely through images of destruction, because Putin’s attacks are not all so visible.  Having failed to overcome Ukraine in one quick ‘special military action,’ Putin and the oligarchs who support him have chosen to follow the Western lead and widen the material war in Ukraine into an economic battle with Europe and the West as a whole.  Oil and food are the weapons in this narrative, with the West scrambling to offset the losses incurred through boycotts and Russian blockades.

As the United Nation’s International Labor Organization reported as early as May 1, the war’s impact will be visited on those least capable of creating alternatives to their situation:  namely those with the least social and economic power.  In the dry language of the report, the war “will have a negative impact on incomes and poverty, especially among the poor who rely on wages as their main income source. . . .  Some countries [will] face not only higher prices, but also real shortages, particularly in grain. . . . [T]he World Food Programme estimates that an additional 47 million people are at risk of acute hunger in 2022 on top of a baseline of 267 million people.”

Whatever images and narratives of the war we see, it is clear that the primary victims will be those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  That is horrifyingly visible in the immediate deaths and destruction in Ukraine itself.  Over time, it will be similarly visible in world-wide images of unemployment, hunger, sickness, and unnecessary death among those least able to resist global economic forces.

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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Hope and Concern: The WCSA’s 2022 Award Winners

Great plagues subvert our expectations about how things work, opening up new opportunities and widespread mobilization for social change. According to one massive study of historical epidemics, “civil unrest” often follows – as we are seeing now. Whatever direction the future takes, I think we are in for a bumpy ride.  We are still grappling with a stubbornly mutating virus, facing a looming recession, unequally suffering the effects of climate change, and viewing with horror a conventional war of territorial aggression and brutality in Ukraine.  

If the winners of the 2022 WCSA awards are any indication, we have room for both hope and concern.  Capitalism does seem to be thriving, still.  But so are collective mobilizations against its worst manifestations.  Rhiannon Stevens’s (Cardiff University) dissertation, Young People’s Access to Employment in Disadvantaged Communities in Wales, one of two winners of the Constance Coiner Award, demonstrates this point. In her study, Stevens uses young people’s voices to consider how class stereotypes and low expectations affect their sense of their futures.  As the judges note, Stevens also “show[s] the importance of community and relationships for young working-class people.” They praised her ethnography for its “care and sensitivity” and for “center[ing] the stories of the subjects.” They also noted that the project offers new methods of class analysis of precisely the type we need in WCSA.  “The thesis is clear and accessible, and its message of hope and agency is to be applauded,” wrote the judges. 

The other winner of the Constance Coiner Award was Kim McAloney (Oregon State University), whose dissertation, Virtual Liberatory Women of Color Mentorship, also models unique methods of class analysis and intersectional interpretation.  Combining personal narratives and poetry with more traditional methods, McAloney argue[s] that mentorship is crucial for working-class women scholars of color. The judges described her project as “an affecting narrative that demonstrates the liberatory potential of such mentor relationships (what McAloney calls ‘liberationships’).” They also appreciated McAloney’s attention to ways of mentoring online during the pandemic, as well as her attention to “the value of ‘women of color ways of knowing’ and ‘endarkened feminism.’” Her project reveals “how these ways of knowing operate to resist white supremacy and racial capitalism,” and it helps to “push working-class scholarship to intersectional methods” “the intersections of class, race and gender.” Judges found the work “engaging,” “accessible,” “polished and sophisticated,” and “brilliant and necessary.”  

Gabriel Winant’s (University of Chicago) The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America was one of two winners of the CLR James Award. Winant’s book also considers the intersections of race and class as it links two historical periods in Pittsburgh, where the union-dominated steel jobs have largely been replaced by service jobs in health care, and both have been racialized. The book shows how and why the U.S., with its unfinished New Deal, has diverged from other wealthy deindustrializing countries.  Judges called The Next Shirt “scholarly yet very accessible.”

A second CLR James Award goes to Heather Berg (Washington State University), whose work offers hope for successful organizing during end days of decaying capitalism.  Judges described Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism as “an important study of pornography as work in the contemporary U.S., looking at the industry without stereotypes, as a part of the gig economy.  Porn Work is a well written, theoretically nuanced ethnographic discussion of sex work in terms of precarious labor, shifting class positions, and the rejection of alienated labor.” 

Gretchen Purser and Brian Hennigan’s (both from Syracuse University) study of “job readiness programs” for the poor in Pittsburgh feels less hopeful. Their article, “Both Sides of the Paycheck: Recommending Thrift to the Poor in Job Readiness Programs,” which won the John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award, considers programs in which professional middle class entrepreneurs “train” poor people in job and financial “literacy.” Such programs have become ubiquitous but are almost wholly invisible to most in the professional class. Judges praised the article as “concise and to the point, with a biting critique that pulls no punches.” By combining “excellent field work and personal stories,” Purser and Hennigan present “financially illiterate” subjects with “irony, tenderness, and insight” and their “trainers” as “clueless, classist, and racist.” Judges described the article “as an exemplar of how well capitalism excludes and blames people on the bottom rungs of our economy for their plight.”

Several of this year’s winners take us back to the past, to learn from both losses and wins.  The second winner of the John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award is Matt Nichter (Rollins College), for his article ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain? Organized Labor Says NO!’: The United Packinghouse Workers and Civil Rights Unionism in the Mid-1950.”  Judges noted that Nichter’s reconsideration of the Emmett Till case is “insightful, and seamlessly unites civil and labor rights.” They praised both his research and his “engaging style of writing,” and they wrote that the piece is “particularly relevant to our current social moment” because it “demonstrates the immense solidarity that can occur when labor fights racism.” Nichter’s article reminds us that “the often-noted racism of white working-class workers can be, and has been, overcome to spectacular effect.”

Christine Walley and Chris Boebel (MIT) won the Studs Terkel Award for their digital humanities project ‘The Southeast Chicago Archive and Storytelling Project.’  Judges described the project as “a path-breaking, collaborative digital humanities project” that “uses a range of research methodologies to interpret historical aspects of the working-class experience in the South-East side of Chicago, Illinois.” They praised the project as “accessible to a wide audience as a compelling work of public history” that “will be of enormous interest to labor activists, rank-and-file workers, and academics.” 

The Working-Class Studies Association has long honored the creative arts and their potential to foster change through its Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. Olsen wrote that “Every woman who writes is a survivor,” and that is true for winner of this year’s award, Crystal Wilkinson (University of Kentucky).  Her book Perfect Black “expands the sense of place that many diverse working-class people claim as home.” Through poems and a short prose piece, Wilkinson, Poet Laureate of Kentucky, tells her own story as an Affrilachian woman whose mother is not able to care for her. Judges described Wilkinson’s imagery as “strong and fresh” and her voice as “natural yet commanding.” The poem “Bones” stands out for its imagery and sound and the pure force of capturing her working-class world, while “The Water Witch on Reading” uses dialect to “vocalize Black rural speech. Judges also appreciated the interplay between Wilkinson’s writing and Ronald W. Davis’s illustrations, which added “nuance and energy to the writing.”  Wilkinson “stay[s] true to her roots while on the journey to becoming the writer and academic she has become.” 

Our newest award, the Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award recognizes work by or about working-class academics (WCAs).  Strangers in academic” paradise,” WCAs have had a unique impact on working-class studies, making substantial contributions to our understandings of how both class and academia work.  This year there were two winners of the Ryan and Sackrey Award.  The first is Davarian Baldwin (Trinity College), for In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities.  Baldwin is an historian, cultural critic, and social theorist who is also a first-generation scholar of working-class origins.  Judges wrote that his book “expands the interdisciplinary promise of Working-Class Studies by combining urban studies, critical university studies, and Black and Latinx studies” in its analysis of how  wealthy universities engage with their neighborhoods, not as “responsible community members” but as gentrifiers and landlords.  Baldwin’s work considers the effects on the poor and working-classes and people of color who live in those neighborhoods, people who “might have crossed over into the academy to become scholars themselves but who instead are exploited as low-wage higher education laborers and overpoliced outsiders.” Judges wrote that “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower tells an old story of class warfare in the new context of the knowledge economy, the universities that ground it, and the underclasses who pay.” 

While many award winners are new to the WCSA, the editors of the second winner of the Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award are all former presidents of the Association: Michele Fazio (University of North Carolina -Pembroke), Christie Launius (Kansas State University), and Tim Strangleman (University of Kent). Their book, the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, takes a sweeping look at the field, with key chapters on methods, history, and contributions to the academy and working-class people.  As judges note, the volume “make[s] substantial and impressive contributions,” and many of the chapters “map the many locations and innovations of working-class academics’ scholarship and teaching.” As they write, “the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies shows working-class academics doing their work—on the page, in the classroom, in their communities, and in interdisciplinary conversation with each other” and shows “what is possible now and for future generations of scholars of working-class background.” 

As the coordinator of this year’s awards, I want to thank the 18 WCSA members from around the world who served as judges (see the press release for their names). We celebrate all of our award winners and thank them for showing us some of the ways out of the dark days ahead!

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Class and Education, Class and Health, Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What Does the New Government Mean for Working-Class Australians?

On May 21st, Australians elected a new government. After a decade of conservative rule at the hands of a coalition involving the right-wing Liberal Party and the National Party, Australia now has a Labor government. The election result certainly sparked joy across the country for many people. It brought a new sense of hope, particularly in sectors like education and the arts that the coalition had either ignored or used to fuel culture wars. The new government also brought renewed hope for other underfunded services, such as aged care and health. The election also bodes well for the environment too, since concerns around climate change played a big part at the polling booths.

One source of hope is the diversity of the new ministry. The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, speaks with pride about his working-class background. He grew up in public housing and was raised by his single mother (who received a disability pension). His ministry includes many others from working-class backgrounds and who attended public schools. Almost half are women, and while most are white, this ministry has more racial, ethnic and religious diversity than we’ve seen before. This increase in diversity represents a significant move towards a government that is actually reflective of the Australian population.

But the big question now is what difference this will make for working-class Australians? Despite some working-class beginnings, will Albanese’s government work for the most disadvantaged and marginalised Australians? Or is the party too entwined with neoliberalism for any significant improvements to happen?

It’s early days yet, and governments need time to settle into their roles and draft new policies, much less reverse bad ones left behind by the previous government. But Albanese already faces pressure because, despite winning government, his party actually lost some support as voters turned to the Greens and to progressive independent candidates who ran campaigns focused on climate change and working-class issues.  The Australian preferential voting system meant that those votes flowed back to Labor and secured their win. But Labor also knows that they will need to heed the message from Greens and independent voters: take action on climate change and address the cost of living, housing affordability, insecure work, and low wages.

During the election campaign, Albanese promised to ask the Fair Work Commission (the industrial umpire) to raise the minimum wage. On the campaign trail, he said that his government would support a 5.1% increase to keep up with inflation, and he has kept this promise. He will also have to deal with the Fair Work Commission itself, though, which more often than not rules in favour of the bosses during industrial disputes and is one of the mechanisms that makes taking industrial action so difficult in Australia. Will Albanese change the rules and give power back to the unions? How would this sit with the industry leaders that he will likely want to keep on side?

What will the Labor government do about housing? Analysts describe a crisis of housing affordability in Australia, with young people in particular priced out of home ownership and struggling to find rental properties they can afford. Albanese grew up in public housing, so will his government commit to a sufficient increase in the stock of public housing? They have committed to building 30,000 new homes and create a fund dedicated to public housing. But 164,000 families are waiting for homes, and the situation is very grim in some areas, particularly for Indigenous people who are forced to wait for years for housing with no solution in sight. 30,000 new homes is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough to remedy the situation for the currently homeless.

If, as the pundits say, this was the ‘climate change’ election, then the new government must act quickly to reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy. But to keep working-class support, they also need to create a ‘just’ transition that provides jobs and opportunities for working-class people who rely on jobs in the fossil fuel industries. They also need to invest in infrastructure and services to help prevent floods and fires and to look after working-class people who bear the brunt when fire and floods destroy homes and livelihoods. Working-class people are also on the front lines fighting fires, rescuing people from floods, caring for the injured, and cleaning up once the immediate danger has receded.

There is much to be done to improve the lives of working-class Australians. Will the new government invest in education so that working-class children can attend schools with up-to-date equipment, or will parent bodies still have to raise money to buy soap for the school bathrooms? Will the government make sure that working-class kids have access to the higher education opportunities that Albanese benefited from? Will they address the continuing gaps in education and health outcomes for Indigenous people?

I am always cynical about the willingness of those in power to actually create real change. Let’s hope the working-class backgrounds of the Prime Minister and a number of his MPs at the very least gives them a deeper understanding of the needs of working-class people. Better yet, they should commit to actually addressing disadvantage in Australia.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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Immersed in the Work of Art

This summer, five different immersive Van Gogh opportunities are circulating in dozens of cities around the world, including Detroit, Buenos Aires, and Perth, Australia. If you live in one of the cities that has (or soon will be) hosting one of these exhibits, you have no doubt been bombarded with social media promotions, many involving insufferable “Gogh” puns: “It’s Time to GOGH to see Immersive Van Gogh!” “It’s Safe to Gogh!” “Like Yoga? Try Van Goghga!”

How should this phenomenon be assessed? Popular reactions fall broadly into two categories: 1) excitement about seeing Van Gogh’s work projected, illuminated, animated, and scored or 2) disdain for the flashy, costly exhibits as an Instagram era substitution for genuine art appreciation.

I’m in a third camp; I’m fascinated by the history and appeal of these exhibits, and I also wonder what they can tell us about the relationship between art, social class, and work.  

Immersive art exhibits have been around for nearly two decades. The Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, has been showing “Van Gogh Alive” since 2011. In 2017, MOMA offered a hugely popular immersive version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Beginning in 2021, larger cities like New York, Chicago, and LA had multiple competing immersive Van Gogh exhibits, while in dozens of other cities there was at least one version of immersive Van Gogh. More than 5 million tickets have been sold worldwide, and, with ticket prices averaging $35 a piece, that’s at least 175 million dollars in sales.

The tipping point may have come in early 2020, when home bound Netflix viewers watched as Emily in Paris visited an immersive Van Gogh exhibit. Immersive art exhibits were not designed with the pandemic in mind, but in 2021 immersive Van Gogh became the most profitable form of in-person entertainment in the US.

What makes digital art immersion so popular? Part of it might be the experience of being out in public with a large crowd, especially after so many months of being confined. Josh Jacobs, one of the creators of Immersive Van Gogh, explained that he was inspired by “collective action. And the idea that experiences change based on the people who are going through it together.”

I had my own immersive Van Gogh experience in 2021. During a low point in Pittsburgh’s viral transmission last November, I entered a large hall in a defunct factory on the Southside of Pittsburgh. Van Gogh’s paintings, enlarged to the size of the two-story building, wavered and wafted, appeared and disappeared. Sometimes a cicada or a flock of birds from one of the paintings was animated, flapping their wings toward the ceiling. Iconic songs such as Edith Piaf’s “On, Je Ne Regrette” and more avant-garde works by the Italian composer Luca Longobardi accompanied the images. In a time of doomscrolling and social media distraction, immersive Van Gogh gave me a sense of complete absorbtion, similar to that of an escape room.

But what does all this have to do with class?On the one hand, these exhibits make art accessible, attracting viewers who might not be inclined to visit museums. Still, critics have maligned the exhibits as déclassé, arguing that they dumb down the work of a great artist in order to provide patrons with cool selfies. With tickets running up to $50, these exhibits are not priced for working-class consumers, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

Working-class people many not be able to afford these exhibits, but they are present nonetheless. As I found myself immersed in such paintings like Worker’s Noon Rest from Work in Field, The Sower, The Red Vineyards at Arles, and The Large Plane Trees, I noticed Van Gogh’s attention to ordinary workers. Seeing these workers projected on abandoned factory walls made me want to learn more about Van Gogh’s attitude toward the working class.

Digging around a bit, I learned that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that he hoped his painting, The Potato Eaters, would emphasize the dignity of his subjects: “I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.” He wanted to represent them in their “coarseness” instead of softening their portrait with “sweetness.” He hoped that The Potato Eaters would be seen as a genuine “peasant painting.”

Two workers in the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in Pittsburgh, photo by Kathy M. Newman


Of course, the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit is itself a work space, one that is possible in part because of the economic struggles faced by the cities in which they are staged. Because these immersive productions require large, vacant, and relatively inexpensive spaces, they rely on abandoned warehouses and vacated strip malls for their venues. When an immersive exhibit comes to a particular city, tickets are often sold before the venue has been secured. Organizers argue that this creates a sense of mystery, though, in reality, the process of finding the right space can be tricky. In Nashville, anxious Van Gogh enthusiasts had to wait through several months of delays after thousands of tickets had been sold, as producers sought the rights to a former movie-theater-cum-abandoned-grocery-store from the grocery chain Harris-Teeter.

Mounted in spaces haunted by the displaced 20th century working class, these immersive productions represent a new entertainment genre for the 21st century, as Corey Ross, one of the producers of Immersive Van Gogh, explains. “It’s not specifically an art exhibition as you would experience it in a museum, with the curatorial support that a museum would have.”

As critic Charles Passey argues, this is precisely the problem. In early 2020 US museums laid off nearly 1500 workers. The millions of dollars made by immersive Van Gogh have not benefitted museums, or even the Van Gogh estate, since all Van Gogh works are in the public domain. The profits circulate instead within a small network of digital production companies, such as Lighthouse Immersive, one of the partners behind the Pittsburgh Van Gogh experience.

It’s hard to make a single conclusion about this rising phenomenon. The criticisms are compelling. But, still, I’m fascinated that over the last year millions of viewers flocked to see massive projections of European peasants from the 1880s, painted by the class conscious Vincent Van Gogh. I’m fascinated, too, that these immersive experiences required an abundance of defunct warehouses and strip malls and grocery stores. They don’t profit museums and museum workers, but they do rely on new forms of art-related labor—including promoters, coders, animators, composers, and digital event designers. Where there is art business, there is art work!

In the end, I confess to a certain ambivalence, but I also confess to this: I’ve got tickets to see Pittsburgh’s Immersive Frida Kahlo next month!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Envisioning a 21st-Century Worker-Centered Social Compact

On June 2-3, 2022, my colleagues at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor will host the next installment in a series of convenings, webinars, and discussions we inaugurated in April 2021, inviting a wide range of discussants—activists, academics, and working people alike—into a dialogue about something much grander than we could possibly win in the immediate political battles and union struggles that are now unfolding around us.  We invited them to think together about a much bigger project: the construction of a 21st century social compact that centers the needs, concerns, and aspirations of working people.   

The June gathering, titled, “The Pandemic Worker Wave and a New Social Compact,” invites participants to consider how the rolling wave of worker activism that has been building over the past year has made clear the need for a thorough reconstruction of the limited, exclusive social compact that was constructed in the middle third of the twentieth century, eroded badly by the century’s end, and is now in tatters.  It will look at how recent worker agitation—ranging from union organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks, to an uptick in strikes, and an extraordinary degree of labor market turbulence called the “Great Resignation”—calls for a broad set of policies to de-toxify our economy and politics and empower working people.  

This convening builds on an inaugural conference that drew 120 presenters from around the world last April, where we began envisioning an inclusive 21st century social compact to address workers’ needs for jobs, housing, education, childcare, income support, and other necessary elements of sufficiency while simultaneously expanding democracy, which is currently under assault from the growing forces of concentrated wealth and political power.  We followed up with a series of webinars and discussions over the past year focusing on a wide range of issues including just cause employment, the nation’s deepening housing crisis and the role of finance-driven gentrification, the threats and opportunities posed by the rise of artificial intelligence, models of just transition toward a socially and environmentally sustainable economy, and the role of networks in combatting global inequality.  Steering this developing conversation is a remarkably diverse organizing and advisory committee that includes more than 40 representatives from unions, think tanks, faith communities, academia, and advocacy organizations.

Why have these people come together to promote a visionary conversation about a new social order that centers workers’ needs at a moment when even the more modest vision of Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” program has been stymied; when Democrats risk losing control of the House of Representatives; when apologists for white supremacy, insurrection, authoritarianism, and illiberalism are gaining increasing influence in our politics and culture; when workers are struggling to simply win the right to negotiate with powerful employers like Starbucks and Amazon?  The answer is simple: because they know that without a compelling and plausible vision of the future around which to organize and rally, the powerless stand little chance before the forces of entrenched power.

Moments of vast historical transformation, like the one we are currently experiencing, can unleash discontents that may be harnessed for good or ill. That we have entered such a turbulent moment seems increasingly clear. While insurrectionary Trumpism might be the most malevolent symptoms of this moment, it was not its cause. That lies deeper. Whether we are experiencing the decline and fall of the neoliberal order as historian Gary Gerstle’s recent book suggests, the destruction of liberalism altogether as conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen pray in their substack, the Post-Liberal Order, or the inevitably painful birth pangs of a truly multiracial democracy as Heather McGhee hopes in her book, The Sum of Us, the disruptions are clear. We are living through a turbulent transition whose roots date back decades to liberalism’s failure to put in place durable policies to counter structural inequities and protect workers and our nascent, never fully realized democracy from capitalism’s relentless concentration of wealth and power.  The question we now face is whether the decomposition of the liberal/neoliberal order will lead to the birth of something fairer, more egalitarian, and more socially and ecologically sustainable, as McGhee hopes, or whether it will yield something more illiberal, authoritarian, and anti-democratic in which, as William Butler Yeats put it in 1919 (another transitional moment marked by social upheaval and pandemic), “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

At such transitional moments, imagining a better world is not an escapist indulgence for the intellectual class. It is a political necessity. Consider the great transformation of the late nineteenth century that saw industrial capitalism complete its rise to dominance.  As industrialism spawned its own “mere anarchy,” capitalism’s excesses and inequities called forth not only pragmatic working-class movements, but utopian dreamers like American Edward Bellamy and Englishman William Morris.  Their respective utopian novels, Looking Backward: 2000-1887(1888) and News from Nowhere (1890), stirred the imaginations of workers and their allies on the eve of the deep economic crisis of the 1890s by sketching out visions of a future in which capitalism’s ravages had been replaced.  Bellamy’s novel of a socialist future in which automation had eliminated danger and drudgery from work created a sensation in its time, spawning hundreds of “Nationalist Clubs” whose members were enthralled by Bellamy’s vision.  That book, and Bellamy’s vision inspired many a working-class activist, such as the teen-aged Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  It also encouraged other dreamers, like William Morris, to sketch their own visions.  Morris wrote News from Nowhere to contest what he saw as Bellamy’s technocratic reliance on technology as humanity’s ultimate liberator.  Bellamy’s “only idea for making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery,” Morris complained.  In contrast, Morris envisioned a future in which work was craft and its products more like art.

Nor was Morris the only dreamer inspired by Bellamy to sketch out a utopian blueprint of a more humane future.  A flood of utopian books poured forth in the decade after Looking Backward’s publication.  The imaginative energy unleashed by that torrent of writing and thinking contributed mightily to shaping what Toby Higbie calls the “social history of the working-class mind.”  By helping people envision what might be, these acts of imagination helped galvanize the forces that would, over the following decades, pound the double-edged sword of nineteenth-century individualistic liberalism and laissez-faire politics into the ploughshares of social democracy and New Deal liberalism.  

But the political and policy implements forged through that struggle, it is now obvious, never delivered equitable bounties, and their utility has been lost as financialization, globalization, and the erosion of democracy made capitalism less governable.  The time has come to begin forging new implements from the broken and rusted ploughshares we have inherited, tools that will be adequate to our needs in this century.  That must be the work of many hands and the product of many minds attuned to the needs of today’s working people.  Even as we join the urgently immediate fights of this turbulent time, we must also take time to imagine together the better world that we hope to create. Join us June 2-3 as we envision a new social compact!

Joseph A. McCartin, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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A Movement Moment and a Real NLRB

Finally, it’s a new morning for workers in America.   For at least a brief time, while the Biden administration is alive, even if unwell, and the Supreme Court has not yet brought the darkness and ended our parade, opportunity is bursting out in the most surprising places.  We have a “movement moment” for workers seeking their rights on the job and demanding a union.  Amazingly, we also have a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that has reinvigorated itself with a stiff backbone and finally accepted its mission as protecting workers and their rights to organize.

We all are familiar with the perfect storm that has put the wind to workers’ backs now and is providing leverage to couple with opportunity. The pandemic unveiled workers’ reality and reaffirmed their centrality in all phases of the economy. The labor shortages that have forced some bosses to reckon with the fact that workers are not interchangeable widgets are also creating shortfalls that workers are exploiting. Inflation and shortages have forced wages upward and emboldened workers to take action for more. 

The evidence of this movement moment seems everywhere now. Amazon workers have not only organized in Alabama and New York have won elections and more are pending. Groups like Amazonians United have agitated in another dozen locations on issues inside warehouses, distribution, and delivery centers. Starbucks workers have filed for election in hundreds of stores and are winning most of the elections held to date. Apple retail workers are organizing, as are tech workers at game companies, on-line news platforms, and elsewhere. Google workers have kicked up their heels. 

It’s not just the young, the digital, the hip and the techies. It’s also workers at Dollar General, the ubiquitous store in lower income, minority, and rural communities across the country. Mary Gundel, a Dollar General worker, posted a TikTok voicing her issues with the company. She recently told me that she’s surprised to find herself leading a “movement” of DG workers, though she felt clueless about how to mobilize the “concerted activity” necessary for union organizing, but she also made clear that her emerging understanding and leadership come in part from the “new” NLRB. For once, the Board is actually protecting workers’ rights instead of cowering before the endless manipulations of management.  Part of the credit goes to the new general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, who recognizes that the NLRB should ride this new wave of worker activism, not serve as the dam holding it back. 

Once rare, temporary injunctions against companies have been falling like rain for a change.  Amazon is still stunned and whining about the NLRB filing for an injunction in the case of a discharged Amazon worker before the Staten Island election with the Amazon Labor Union, making it the heart of their election objections.  Earlier the NLRB had consolidated six cases into a national settlement with Amazon, forcing the company to make comprehensive worker notifications and enabling the NLRB to file for injunctions without the delays of a hearing before an administrative law judge.  They filed another one in response to a firing at a Starbucks in Tucson and issued complaints on seven fired workers in Memphis.  This is a sea change.

For labor organizers dealing with rampant unfair labor practices, Gissel bargaining orders used to be the holy grail. A Gissel order forces a company to bargain with the union without an election, based on a Board finding that the company had soiled the laboratory conditions for a fair election by the workers irreparably.The new NLRB is now looking to best that standard by going back to the Joy Silk decision, which the Gissel ruling supplanted, arguing that it should be an unfair labor practice if a union isn’t recognized by the employer once a majority have signed authorizations and demanded such recognition. 

Mandatory captive audience meetings have been a major employer weapon deployed against workers and their unions in organizing drives and election campaigns. The NLRB’s current advisory is that such meetings, if mandatory, are unfair labor practices. That won’t stop all of them, but it will make management lawyers and consultants hesitate to use them too strongly for fear of an election overturn.

All of this is good. How can we make the most of this movement moment? I’ve learned a key lesson from more than 50 years as a community organizer with ACORN and more than 40 years organizing unions with the United Labor Unions, SEIU, and other labor organizations: in times of movement, put the pedal to the metal.  Don’t go slow, go hard!  The moment never lasts as long as you want or need, so you have to do everything you can while the opportunity exists. I think we have every reason to believe that it’s time to push.

Institutional labor may feel that they have to continue to move towards members and contracts, and we should support those efforts. But in this moment, we should also support workers anywhere and everywhere who are willing to engage in collective action to improve their jobs, union or no. A couple of elections at Amazon or Starbucks puts some pressure on their companies, but these are huge operations with hundreds and thousands of locations. Workers are willing and able to take concerted action over their issues right now, and if enough take action, they could increase the pressure for change exponentially. Much as sit-down strikes spread like wildfire in their day, at-work collective worker actions could generate mass organizing. We need to help overwhelm companies with worker action on as many fronts as possible.  We need to keep pushing the NLRB to support workers. 

One way to contribute is by sharing knowledge and resources. We’re taking a small step in this direction by creating an online worker organizing support center using an application that is attuned to individual groups of workers organizing, ActionBuilder. We also have a team of experienced organizers and lawyers willing to handle questions, mentor leaders, and give workers advice.  And we’d love to use our database of 150 million registered voters to help build support for local organizing efforts.  This is a huge opportunity create community-labor partnerships where people work and where they live.

My point is simple.  This movement moment probably won’t last. We all need to do what we can now to stand with workers for a change.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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Paying the Poorly Educated

Joe Biden was right to propose free Pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds and free community college in his initial legislative package, rather than pushing for free public university education and the cancellation of college debt.  All four progressive education initiatives would serve the public good by making education more available to millions. However, policies that promote university education do little to help the working class. They also feed into the false and damaging narrative that college is the right path to upward mobility for most people.

While free public universities could be transformative in the very long term, most of the benefits of this policy would go to higher-income families. They are more likely to live in areas with high-quality K-12 schools, and their children also are more likely to have the kinds of social and cultural capital that are especially advantageous for getting into and succeeding in college.  

Similarly, while forgiving all or some portion of existing student loan debt would likely benefit low- and middle-income young people, who are more likely to have higher levels of debt than their more affluent contemporaries, this too has limited benefit for the working class, because it only helps those who have gone to college. That’s a large group, but forgiving their debts does nothing for the many others who aren’t in debt because they didn’t go to college at all or for very long.

Free public Pre-K and free community college, on the other hand, disproportionately benefit working-class children and adults.  Free Pre-K will not only improve the educational prospects of children, but it also saves families money. For those currently using the cheapest day care, this would save some $10,000 to $15,000 a year – a significant increase in spending power for all income classes, but transformative for low- and middle-income family budgets.  What’s more, for low-income parents who currently can’t afford day care and thus can’t work full time or at all, free Pre-K would allow them to work and earn more in the paid workforce. 

Likewise, free community college would disproportionately benefit low-income adults and young people who cannot go to college full time because they need to work. Community college education includes apprenticeships and other pre-training that is needed for entry into many middle-wage jobs, including in the soon-to-be-expanding building trades.  Free public university would mostly benefit those young people who have more time to take the long road, while free community college is more valuable for working adults who already have work and family responsibilities.   

The class-skewed benefits of these initiatives are relatively complicated, but we should also pay attention to the messages they reinforce.  Prioritizing free college and student debt forgiveness plays into a toxic narrative that has deep roots in our public discourse: that college-educated people are more valuable, more worthy of public subsidy, than the so-called “poorly educated.”  This narrative accepts that college graduates deserve to be paid more, but it also offers a false promise: that the primary way to increase wages and living standards – or more grandly, to restore the American Dream of upward mobility — is for more and more people to get college degrees.  Both these messages are false. The first reflects a nearly impregnable professional-middle-class prejudice, but the second is an intellectual error that, if corrected, could burst a professional-class bubble.

College education cannot be a path for widespread upward mobility because a large majority of jobs in our economy do not require a college education or anything like it.  61% require high school or less and another 11% require an associate’s degree, some college, or other postsecondary education – but not a bachelor’s degree.  Only 28% of jobs in 2020 required a bachelor’s, a far lower percentage than the nearly 40% of workers over 25 who had that degree.

That is why we find so many men and women with bachelor’s degrees as fast food workers; retail salespersons or cashiers; waiters, waitresses or cooks; freight, stock and material movers; janitors and cleaners; and home health care or child care workers.  These occupations are among those with the largest annual job openings , and all of them have median annual wages ranging from $22,740 to $29,510 (that is, less than $15 an hour).

This is a tragedy for college graduates who were told that becoming part of the exam-passing classes would lead to better lives.  But for most people doing those jobs, it probably never crossed their minds that they could go to college.  Still, that work needs to be done, no matter the educational attainment of the people who do it.  The work they do is socially valuable, some of it even “essential,” and those jobs need to be paid a living wage.  To be told that the only way to improve your life conditions is through more (and more) education is demoralizing and, especially for those who work alongside college graduates doing the same work, palpably false. 

Higher education is a circuitous route to improving one’s economic prospects, a route that will not work for at least a third of those who can afford to take it, and a route that is not realistically available for the majority of our population.  If we want to improve wages and conditions, we need to improve them directly, not by producing more college grads.

President Biden’s initial transformative legislative package that got whittled down to Build Back Better (BBB) embodied the understanding that education was neither the answer nor even an important part of the answer for achieving upward mobility.  That initial package included a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the union-empowering Pro-Act that were quickly jettisoned because they could not avoid a Republican filibuster the way budget bills can.  But, equally or even more important, many elements of Build Back Better provided for a series of enhanced social wages that together would have dramatically improved life prospects across the board – none more important than the package of child care subsidies that included universal free Pre-K. 

Social wages explicitly recognize that even with better minimum wages and stronger unions, most wages will not come close to reflecting the collective social value workers provide.  Nor are wages going to be sufficient to provide decent incomes for most people most of the time.  Reducing the cost of health care, housing, transportation, and child care (all of which BBB would have addressed) increases the real incomes of all workers, and it has the most dramatic effect on low-wage workers.

By prioritizing those workers, most of whom do not have college degrees, the Biden package had the potential to pierce the professional-class prejudice that has dominated public policy. Both Presidents Bush and Obama proclaimed that more and better education was the only way to address our savage inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity.  Biden, by contrast, is the first president in memory to actually brag about creating well-paying jobs that do not require any college.

Alas, Build Back Better – let alone the initial, larger version of itself – is dead for now, and the possibility of a truly transformational package becoming law is probably gone for the immediate future.  But a healthy majority of the public and more than 90% of Congressional Democrats supported the core idea of increasing taxes on corporations and the rich in order to transfer money to workers and citizens in ways that could dramatically increase working-class people’s chances for creating better lives.  Hopefully, that support shows a shift away from the idea that education is the only path to improved life prospects.  A public consensus may be developing that even the poorly educated deserve to earn a good living. 

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is author of the recent Cornell ILR Press book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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Why Dems Should Act Now on Pro-Consumer Legislation

Democrats and Republicans these days agree on almost nothing. They rely on separate sets of facts and hold wildly divergent world views. Yet they have reached consensus in one area: consumer protection. And that hasn’t been good news for the working class.

Presidents from both parties have repeatedly supported regulations and practices that protect the financial industry instead of the rest of us. In 1999, Bill Clinton supported the Financial Services Modernization Act, which rolled back major banking regulations. Since then, administration after administration has refused to press criminal charges against CEOs, executives, and board members who have committed serious crimes – not even the Sackler family, whose promotion of opioids amounted to a form of murder.

Rather than perp-walking corporate leaders down Wall Street, the Department of Justice under Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden has settled for “corporate” guilty pleas and non-prosecution agreements. For example, while Chase Bank has paid over $36 Billion in penalties related to 196 enforcement actions since 2000, not a single company executive has been indicted or spent a day in jail. To the contrary, the company’s CEO Jamie Dimon has been welcomed into the Oval Office by every president who has served during his tenure at the helm of the nation’s biggest bank.

The only exception was Enron. But its leaders were brought down not by regulators or the DOJ but by journalists and Wall Street short sellers. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice just came in and swept up the pieces at the end.

As Michael Lewis details in The Undoing Project, the destruction of America’s regulatory framework reached its climax during the Trump administration. Soon after taking office, Trump appointees gutted the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau by replacing consumer advocates with corporate lobbyists who had opposed the bureau’s very creation. This scenario was repeated at agency after agency: critical positions were left vacant or were filled by appointees who had clear conflicts of interest. By the time Trump decamped for Mar A Lago, there were very few cops left on the consumer protection beat.  

This handcuffs-off policy leaves working-class families at the mercy of companies who blithely violate consumer protection and lending laws. It also puts ethical, honest business owners at a severe competitive disadvantage to those who cheat.  

While the situation is depressing and disturbing, it does create an opening for Democrats. They have been losing working-class voters since the late 1960s, but their efforts to bring workers back to the party have been undermined by their own policies. Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, and the working class lost jobs. Obama dealt with the 2008 financial crisis by shoveling hundreds of billions in TARP relief to the big banks, but he did nothing for the ten million people who were losing their homes to foreclosure.

We can’t count on Democrats to develop the backbone to prosecute corporate criminals, and strengthening regulatory agencies simply by trying to appoint personnel who are more likely to go after mortgage and student loan servicers, debt collectors, payday lenders, wage and hour violators, and other financial predators is only a temporary fix. In the short time that Democrats control both the White House and Congress, they need to make two concrete moves to protect consumers: eliminate forced consumer arbitration and update antiquated Consumer Protection Laws. 

There has been a crack in the wall of forced arbitration when on March 3 congress passed the long-overdue Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harrassment Act. This bipartisan legislation enables victims of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace to have their claims and disputes decided by a real court, even if they had signed a forced arbitration agreement. Extending that kind of protection to consumer claims would help level the playing field between consumers and cheating businesses.

Congress should also toughen and modernize the statutes governing debt collectors, credit reporting agencies, robocallers, and companies trafficking in our personal information. Not only would such a move protect consumers, it would also be politically popular. Almost everyone except the most extreme libertarians hates these parasites. 

Substantive changes like these would be difficult for future Republican administrations or Congress to undo. Look at the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: while much has changed since it was passed in 1997, the statute hasn’t seen any meaningful revisions. The Biden CFPB has issued a strong rule interpreting it, but that rule could easily be reversed by the next administration. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act hasn’t been meaningfully amended since before cell phones became ubiquitous. In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme court expressed distain for robocalls and all but begged Congress to fix the antiquated law

If Democrats use their control of the federal government to amend and improve consumer laws, they can directly improve the lives working-class Americans. And if they can unite around the cause of financial justice, they might have something substantive to show working-class voters that they are actually on their side.

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. He is also a founding partner of Advocate Attorneys. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist. They were part of the team that sued DeWine and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

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We Told You So: On Trade, the Working Class Was Right

It seems impolite to say “we told you so,” but the working class and labor unions were so unjustly maligned more than two decades ago—when they fought the push to expand unfettered global trade—that it seems more than fair to serve some humble pie to global trade’s champions.

With today’s broken supply chain and working-class communities across the nation still struggling from the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, it’s important to look back at the consequential trade agreements a generation ago, when then-President Bill Clinton assured “a future of greater prosperity for the American people.”

Back in late 1999, the World Trade Organization held its Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle. It was the first (and, to date, the last) WTO ministerial conference to be held in the U.S. Others have been held in places such as Singapore, Doha, Cancun, Geneva, and Bali – locations inconvenient for American protesters. Some are hostile to the concept of protest itself.

During the Seattle conference, America’s working class could see the storm on the horizon for the American economy. Fifty thousand people showed up to protest the WTO during its Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 1999 meeting and their presence couldn’t be ignored. It became known as “The Battle in Seattle.” The ranks of protesters included thousands of union members who were concerned that  the lack of global labor regulations would encourage even more multinational corporations to shift manufacturing operations to offshore locations with low-paid workers and few labor protections.

A majority (52%) of Americans supported the protesters in Seattle, according to a national Business Week poll conducted after the conference. In another survey, the same percentage predicted that the future global trade economy would hurt average Americans.

The protests of 1999 warned of what might happen to advance the global trade economy. And the warnings were right. In 2000 the U.S. Senate approved permanent favored nation status for China, greasing the wheels for its accession to the WTO in 2001.

The protesters were also correct that the WTO would not help workers. Despite their occasionally welcoming language about labor standards, or their creation of a working group on Trade and Labour Standards at the 1999 meeting, the WTO ultimately took no action. More than 20 years later, it still has not endorsed any labor standards to aid the working class in this country or in any of the member countries.

Again, we told you so.

A fair appraisal at the time would have revealed what so-called “free trade” agreements were already doing to working-class communities across the U.S. In the 1990s, one only needed to look at places like Edison, New Jersey; Willow Run, Michigan; Decatur, Illinois; Van Nuys, California; Bloomington, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Youngstown, Ohio to see how global trade would destroy the American working class. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote in Globalization and Its Discontents, “The fact that trade liberalization all too often fails to live up to its promise – but instead leads to more unemployment – is why it provokes strong opposition.”

But in 1999, despite the evidence in hollowed-out communities across the country and 50,000 people on the WTO’s doorstep, most politicians and the news media cheered on the neoliberal vision. President Bill Clinton and his administration deployed hopeful (if tired) metaphors like “a rising tide lifts all boats” (previously used by John F. Kennedy) and growing a “bigger economic pie.” But we now know that in the structure of the global trade economy, the yachts have the rising tide to themselves, and the captains of the yachts serve themselves increasingly larger portions of the pie.

The mainstream media was all-in on expanding global trade. An NBC report on the eve of the Seattle conference included a warning of the dangers of China’s unregulated entry into the WTO from John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO. But the story concluded by dismissing critics: “Most experts say getting rid of trade barriers on both sides is a good thing, for American workers and consumers. That no matter what comes out of this four-day meeting, and a lot of analysts don’t think it will be much, world trade has such momentum, almost nothing will get in its way.” Conservative critic Michael Medved made the same point in USA Today on Dec. 7, 1999: “a global economy isn’t debatable—it’s inevitable.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has made a career of rhapsodizing about the global economy, ridiculed the 50,000 protesters on Dec. 1, 1999 as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.”

This Bureau of Labor Studies chart on manufacturing employment in the U.S. from 1939 to 2013 shows what happened next: manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 before falling off a sharp cliff after 2000, when trade with China blew open and manufacturing jobs in the U.S. plummeted.

Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the trade deficit with China alone cost 3.4 million jobs in the U.S. from 2001 to 2017, a period in which a total of 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The EPI noted that job losses occurred in all 50 states, as much as 2.57% to 3.55% of total employment in some states. The working class took the hardest hit, of course. As the EPI study concluded,  “trade with low-wage countries like China is largely responsible for reducing wages by nearly $2,000 per worker per year, for all of the 100 million non-college-educated workers in the United States. Most of that income was redistributed to corporations and to workers with college degrees at the top of the income distribution.”

We’ve encountered the results of that over the last two years. When the pandemic struck in 2020, Americans realized with some shock that PPE (personal protective equipment) like masks, gowns, gloves, and test kits are mostly manufactured in China. With shortages and shortfalls for hundreds of those and other products and supplies, attention has turned to the global supply chain.

In 2004, an extensive study by Public Citizen identified the damage a supply-chain based global economy – supercharged with China’s admission to the WTO – had already caused the working class in the U.S. “The loss of manufacturing capacity and jobs is unprecedented in U.S. history and should be triggering an urgent review of this intensifying trend’s implications for U.S. capacity to produce goods essential for its infrastructure and security needs,” the authors wrote. Last year, the U.S. ran a record trade deficit on goods of $1.1 trillion, meaning the U.S. imported that much more in goods from China and elsewhere than it exported. But, the system of low-cost outsourced labor works well for corporate America: The S&P 500 profits margins in 2021 were a “remarkable” 13%, CNBC said.

From media accounts, you would think the global supply chain is a reality that just simply exists for the good of all consumers. Instead, it is a simple matter of capitalism, designed to deliver the highest profits and lowest labor costs to multinational corporations. It’s a system that was put in place by people in power and their patrons in government.

Last November, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Gary Peters (D-MI) took a victory lap as their “Make PPE in America Act” was signed into law by President Biden. “American people should not have to rely so heavily on foreign countries for personal protective equipment,” Portman said. While he is retiring from the Senate this year, Portman has been around Washington for decades. In fact, as a member of the House of Representatives in 2000, he voted “yes” for the resolution on normalizing trade with China—a vote that led to the export of millions U.S. manufacturing jobs, the ravaging of working-class communities across the country, and today’s broken global supply chain.

Next time, it would be wise to listen to the working class.

We told you so.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

 

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