Meeting Labor’s Moment

In my thirty years in the labor movement, I’ve never seen a moment quite like this one. We’re living through a pivotal moment for America’s working class and for the future of U.S. labor, but it’s more than that. This is a major shift in the social and economic order.  

In order to see the path forward, we have to consider what’s different from the system we’ve operated in for the last 40 years. The last time we saw such a shift began in the 1970s, when markets-are-always-right thinking eclipsed New Deal ideas that prioritized checks and balances on capital. 

Now market-centric neoliberal thinking is weakening.  The pandemic is key. There’s far more public awareness about how poorly workers have been treated, and this has driven up public support for unionism. A full 71 percent approve of unions, according to recent Gallup polling, which is the highest level since 1965. Gen Z is the most pro-union generation alive, according to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress.  Gen Zers are more supportive of unions than were Boomers, GenXers or Millennials at the same age.  

Yet the shift we’re living through together actually started before the pandemic with the Great Recession of 2008-09 when new, diverse movements began to challenge the status quo. The Occupy Movement of 2011 united people under the banner of “We are the 99%.”  The Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, the #metoo movement in 2017, and the Day Without an Immigrant in 2017 all laid bare the hollow promise of a neoliberal system in which “equity” merely meant equal access to the market, not fundamental reform. 

Even before the pandemic, labor activity increased to new levels. There were more people on strike in 2018 and 2019—half a million a year—than in any year in the previous thirty.  The #RedforEd strikes brought out teachers in a host of conservative-leaning states, and unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, they enjoyed enormous public support for their walkouts.  Fight for $15 effectively raised minimum wages in many cities and states.

People no longer believe the “Washington consensus” that prioritized unfettered corporate access to global markets, no matter the cost to workers and communities. Our lived reality has revealed the false promises of neoliberalism. Wildfires, floods and heat waves all make us see the climate crisis and the need for structural reform. Workers are pushing back against the kinds of bad jobs that have become the norm over the last 40 years. 

Yet the erosion of the neoliberal order isn’t a guaranteed win for workers. Rather, the shift has helped spark a global political backlash, including the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the UK’s Brexit, and other right-wing, populist fronts that threaten the advance of democratic ideals.  Though Democrats squeaked out the Senate in this most recent election, ultra right-wing voices remained a potent force. 

The post-neoliberal world could move in a direction that is neo-authoritarian and that is fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic.  Or it could be a turn to a communitarian, multiracial democracy that is based in the common good.  In order for labor to help ensure that the second option prevails, we must help forge a new order that lifts all working people.  

New Deal-era labor law and collective bargaining can be part of the solution, but they are not sufficient to handle today’s challenges alone. That’s in part because employers have so irreparably broken the U.S. system for forming unions that it is extremely difficult for workers to jump over all the hurdles it takes to win a union and enter into a collective bargaining agreement. Too many working people are getting left behind, and that leaves lots of room for anger and hatred to prevail.  

Consider that America’s workplaces remain among the least democratic spaces in the developed world.  The only protection for workers in these undemocratic spaces is that hard-to-get union contract.  Worker organizations can lean into this moment by leading the fight to democratize all the nation’s workplaces, unionized or not. 

What would happen if the labor movement fought for just cause employment for all workers, for example? The US remains the only nation in Western world where private sector workers can be fired without just cause. People think they have a right to their job, but in fact they do not, unless they have a labor contract.  Some workers are challenging at-will employment. Parking lot workers in Philadelphia won the right to fight unfair firings when the city council adopted a just cause law for their sector in 2019. New York City approved similar protections for fast-food employees in 2020, provisions that were recently upheld in Federal Court. These wins could be replicated in other cities and sectors.  

It could be time to think about how to bring democracy to all workers in other ways, such as beginning to push for workers’ councils, like in Germany. What about increased rights for union representation on the job even when the union does not yet represent a majority of the workers? We can envision a new system that offers workers many doors to enter many kinds of worker organizations.  

A strong and vibrant labor movement of 2040 will look very different from a strong and vibrant labor movement of 1940.  We need new laws, new structures, and new approaches in order to help direct the nation toward a broad-based economic and social equity, as the nation finally pivots away from neoliberalism.  Labor has young people on its side and the public’s good will.  We can seize this new moment, but only if we meet it on its own terms.   

Lane Windham

Lane Windham, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. She is also co-director of WILL Empower.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Lane Windham | Tagged | 2 Comments

Which Side Are You On? Four Facts and Two Promising Prescriptions for Dampening Inflation

As mine owners and their goons terrorized striking miners and their families during the Harlan County Coal wars in 1931, Florence Reece penned the iconic labor song, “Which Side Are You On.” It pleads for unity and collective resistance. As one verse puts it, “they say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there.” 

I recalled these lyrics while listening to a cable channel business report contending that “skyrocketing worker wages” are driving up prices and inflation. That is balderdash. Workers’ incomes aren’t rising significantly, nor are wage increases causing inflation to accelerate. For some policymakers and commenters, claims like the cable report justify jacking interest rates ever higher and accepting the rising likelihood of a recession, protecting the interests of those with high income and wealth. They would sail onward unmolested, but workers would lose jobs and income.  The little power workers gained recently to win better wages and working conditions would sharply diminish.  Raising interest rates to cause a recession to control inflation is choosing sides against workers and their communities.

Wages are not skyrocketing, nor are they a primary cause of inflation.  As economist Milton Friedman explained succinctly, “inflation is too much money chasing too few goods.” Pandemic-related supply chain woes and geopolitical instability made some goods scarce, and that exacerbated rising prices across many commodities. But if there really is “too much money,” who has it? It certainly is not workers. To understand what’s really going on, we need to remember 4 facts.

Fact 1: Workers’ incomes are barely keeping even with the cost of living.  Between September in 2019 and 2022, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 7.5% on an annual average basis. Wages are up too, but not enough to fully offset inflation. After crushing job losses and soaring unemployment early in the pandemic, the job market tightened as COVID eased. Many workers won modest wage gains while others jumped to new and better jobs.  Despite those trends, wages are barely keeping up with inflation.

As chart 1 shows, the cost of living has risen just about as much as median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers. In fact, workers did better against inflation prior to the pandemic.  Between 2013-2019, median weekly earnings grew ahead of inflation.

The people commonly bearing the burdens of low-wage work are women and/or Black and Latinx.   Black and Latina women would barely make $40,000 a year if they were paid the median usual earnings for 52 weeks per year (an optimistic assumption). That may be above poverty level, however, it is only about half of the “living wage” in many states and cities for a family with two children and one wage earner.

The data is clear. Modestly rising workers’ pay is not driving inflation.  That is not where “too much money” lies.   

Fact 2: Rich households have the resources to “bid up” prices.  Because too many jobs pay at or near poverty, most workers’ families are not the source of the “excess demand” that may push inflation. Rather, they navigate inflation by tightening their budgets and focusing on essentials, not frills.  Many lack savings to cover an unexpected $400 emergency bill.  They are not prepared to weather inflation, and a likely recession will just make things worse. 

As charts 3 and 4 make clear, the income of the rich is rising faster than the cost of living. The bottom two fifths of the household income distribution achieved at best modest gains before the pandemic, and they lagged badly behind in the past two years. The top fifth enjoyed robust pre-pandemic gains and garnered even larger increases in the past two years.  Further, America’s uber-rich top billionaires thrived extraordinarily through the pandemic and recovery. Their cumulative wealth jumped a whopping 58% or +$1.71 trillion according to inequality.org’s analysis of Forbes data. That’s who is responsible for the “too much money chasing too few goods” that drives inflation.

Fact 3: Corporate profits are driving inflation more than labor costs. The Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bliven’s analysis (Chart 5) shows labor factor costs are a minor contributor to inflation. The biggest culprit, corporate profits, contribute seven times more.

Fact 4: Another recession will harm millions of workers and communities. Some may never fully recover. After the recent Federal Reserve interest rate increases, Chair Jerome Powell noted that the likelihood of a recession was growing and the possibility that inflation could be controlled without one was declining. While inflation is harmful to many, a severe or sustained recession will inflict great pain on millions of working people and their families.  The burden is heavier still for white women and Black and Latinx people regardless of gender who are too typically last hired, first fired, and paid less than white male counterparts.

The recent midterm elections will likely lead to pitched battles over the direction of country, including federal economic policies. Now is the time to set the workers’ agenda for the Lame Duck interval before Democrats lose their narrow control of federal policy levers. We need to set some boundaries for negotiations with the Republican House for the two years ahead.  

What should we do to choose the worker side?

Adopt fairer taxes. To tackle inflation, let’s adjust taxes not just interest rates. Tax strategies can help ensure that the sacrifices entailed in controlling inflation are more equitably shared. Higher tax rates at the top rungs and a new wealth tax could dampen their spending and investment. Excess corporate profits are adding to inflation, too. In Europe, excess profit taxes have already been proposed. A parallel proposal could draw from the proposed Ending Corporate Greed Act.    These tax changes could prompt those at the pinnacle of the economic pyramid to cinch their belts for a change, but that’s only fair. We should not expect the poor, near poor, and working class to carry a larger burden of the inflation fight. Added public revenues could also reduce the federal deficit.  That helps because a rising federal deficit increases expectations of higher inflation ahead and may erode confidence in the US dollar.

Ensure an adequate safety net.  Our country should act on the difficult lessons learned through the pandemic’s hard times and earlier recessions.  We must prepare now to help workers and families in or near poverty through the coming crises. Let’s fix unemployment insurance, which failed too many in the pandemic recession. That should include investing in and modernizing the states’ capability to administer the payment system.  We should also raise minimum benefit levels and again extend payments to gig workers and others who are often ineligible.  The larger, refundable child tax credit should also be restored and extended.   And it’s long past time to hike the federal minimum wage – stalled at a paltry $7.25/hour since 2009!  These approaches may support some consumption, but they will soften the blows on lower income families and dramatically cut child poverty. Spending to help families out of poverty or financial ruin is no more inflationary than tax breaks for businesses and investors or spending on defense contractors.  And it is critically important to protect the safety and well-being of our society.

Now is the time to set an agenda that will not exacerbate poverty or class, gender, and racial inequalities.  Let’s not again pick “heads we win, tails you lose” options that impoverish working families while favoring corporations and wealthy investors. We must instead join together on behalf of the many not just the wealthy few.  

Mark G. Popovich

Mark G Popovich is the Director of the Good Companies Good Jobs Initiative at the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.  The views expressed are his own.  The author deeply appreciates the informative discussions about these issues with Maureen Conway, and thanks Sherry Linkon for her assist in shaping and editing the post.

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

Waving the Red Away: Working-Class Mobilization

By all historical measures, a week after the 2022 midterms, Republicans should have been partying on superyachts their own tide had lifted. But the big story is the failure of the red tidal wave to wash out the Democratic party. What held back the widely anticipated Republican deluge?

Few commentators have noted one possible answer: the unrelenting work of union activists in key swing states. For all we’ve heard about new waves of labor organizing, union-based political activism has been under the radar during the campaign season and largely overlooked in mainstream post-election analysis. UNITE HERE, the union of hotel employees, is a key example. In 2020, activists talked to over a million voters in Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. They led with bread and butter issues, and then pivoted to a discussion about the candidates.  Harold Myerson argues that door-to-door canvassers made a difference with swing voters.

Two years later, UNITE HERE reports that 1,200 canvassers knocked on 2.7 million doors in the “largest field operation in the country.” On its website, UNITE HERE states that “We decided to throw down in the 2022 midterms because we knew the stakes were too high. We had no choice but to invest our ground game in critically close swing states where we had recent success in securing wins for Democrats — Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.” The state-by-state members are impressive. In Nevada, canvassers knocked on 1,000,000 doors; in Arizona, 750,000 doors; in Pennsylvania, 950,000 doors; and in Georgia: 17,000 doors knocked. The Georgia canvassing operation is prepared to expand leading up to the run-off for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Raphael Warnock.

Pennsylvania is particularly interesting given the open seat created when Senator Pat Toomey (R) decided not to seek re-election. Into the fray stepped Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) and television personality and doctor  Mehmet Oz (R). Fetterman’s campaign to flip this seat to the Democrats was centered on promises to increase jobs, support American manufacturing and unions, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In his victory speech after defeating Oz, Fetterman said “This race is for the future of every community all across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person that ever felt left behind, for every job that has ever been lost, for every factory that was ever closed, for every person that works hard but never got to ever get ahead.”

It is tempting to think that Fetterman’s economic populism was persuasive on its own. However, UNITE HERE’s Philadelphia “Workers to the Front” organizing effort aimed to motivate potential voters to support Fetterman. Many of the union’s  7000 hotel, gaming, and food service workers were out knocking on doors to education and mobilize voters. As a union that is mostly women and people of color, their political program is centered on organizing working-class people to lead in their workplaces and communities year-round. However, during election season, the skills already gained in advocating for coworkers are then transferred into their neighborhoods to get out the vote.

The Workers to the Front campaign demonstrates what is possible when working people organize to protect themselves rather than being led by the Party, though, as Meyerson writes, that might also help save the Democratic Party.  And it seems this time, it was very good for the Democrats. But as labor unions have learned in the decades since their organizational apex in the early 1950s, they gain strength when they focus on what is best for them instead of operating as an appendage of the party. That is, labor unions should be leading the Democrats instead of taking instructions from the party or the fundraising arm. UNITE HERE’s secretary-treasurer Gwen Mills rightly notes that the infrastructure of regular voter contact “built the Democratic Party and we need to rebuild it.”

UNITE HERE’S organizing model calls for the canvassers to talk about issues first and candidates afterward. The workers featured on the Philly UNITE HERE website speak plainly and directly about their own lives – from their very own working class perspectives. Frederick Hollis, a Local 274 laundry attendant at the Sheraton Downtown in Philadelphia, loves “knockin’ these doors, just trying to make a change, that’s what I want to do for the generation behind me, my daughter’s generation.” Aicha Tahirou, a housekeeper at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, explains that “I’m out there knocking on doors because as a Black woman, immigrant, African coming to this country, I have to fight for what is right. I didn’t have a voice where I came from. So having a voice here, being able to talk to people, change their mind about voting, is powerful to me.”

In politics, determining cause and effect is always a guessing game, but that doesn’t stop pollsters, political scientists, and journalists from trying to explain what’s already happened — much less trying to predict what will come next. Union canvassers like those organized by UNITE HERE may not be solely responsible for Fetterman’s victory, but he may not have won without them.

Will the power of union activists’ example in Pennsylvania and elsewhere convince their allies on the left to keep day-to-day economic issues and on-the-ground democracy at the forefront? Can unions lead the Democratic Party to not just fight for the future of democracy but actually try to shape it?

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Ken Estey, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Deadbeat Creditors and Other Tales of Moral Hazard

Some twenty years ago, three years out of law school, my partner and I attended a friend’s wedding in New Jersey.  Both of us had racked up a lot of debt and were struggling to find permanent jobs in NYC.  I was paying more than half the money I made each month to private law lenders in interest alone, and, as what I earned was barely enough to rent an apartment, I knew something was going to have to change.  Ironically, I had chosen to go to law school because my family needed money and I wanted to help them out.  My dream had been to go to art school, but I maturely rejected that path in favor of breadwinning.  A lot of college students from the working class make similar decisions.  Little did we understand how the system was stacked against our success. 

At the wedding, a bunch of us were lamenting our tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt – trading stories about choices foreclosed, children not born, houses not purchased, dreams deferred, as the educated young from non-privileged backgrounds are wont to do.  We dreamed about debt relief and what it would be like if we could get a fresh start.  Maybe this would allow us to move someplace more congenial or find a job with a real career path.  On hearing this discussion, however, one attendee took to chastising us for trying to avoid our debts.  “Even if they told me I wouldn’t have to repay my loans, I would!” he said fiercely.  We all hung our heads, shamed.

As David Graeber has so masterfully demonstrated in Debt: The First 5000 Years, debt has long been entangled with morality and power.  An element of coercion resides in every loan made, from one with power to one in need.  Or, as Graeber puts it, “A debt is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.”  This is one of the reasons that many societies have created periods of relief, such as the “jubilee” year found in the Judeo-Christian Bible.  Every fifty years or so, all debtors were released from the bondage of their debts (which, in many cases, was actual physical bondage to lenders).  Periodic resets were necessary to ensure that the system did not become so unfair that it no longer worked.  Without these resets there is danger that those with the power to lend will abuse this power and ever more so as time goes on. 

Student borrowers have not felt relief for a very long time, indeed.  And the power of lenders, especially private lenders and companies that “service” loans made by state agencies, has grown over this period as well.  For example, the kind of bankruptcy reform pushed by George W. Bush in 2005 unreasonably took away the possibility of discharging student loans through the bankruptcy process, while making it easier for big businesses to use bankruptcy as a way of evading debts.  Johnson and Johnson, a company making billions in profits, are currently using bankruptcy to avoid paying damages to women who got cancer from using their baby powder.  Trump has filed for bankruptcy six times.  It’s not a fun process, but if you get in over your head, there is a way out.  But not for students!   Even if you do everything you can to better yourself, putting yourself through school, working as much as possible, you might still end up having your social security payments garnished to repay your student loans, as thousands of Americans do.

Bankruptcy reform also made lending to students much more lucrative for private lenders.  For several years, student borrowers, especially those without college-educated parents who could advise them, were unethically directed to private lenders who charged higher rates of interest, added unnecessary fees wherever possible, and failed to provide forbearance measures during times of unemployment or other life hardships.  A person struggling with cancer could easily see an original loan double or even triple in size as interest compounded and late fees racked up.  Something is wrong when the woman suffering ovarian cancer from asbestos in her hygiene product sees her debt triple while the company that gave her cancer gets to keep its profits and shield itself from liability through bankruptcy. 

During its heyday, before the (not-for-profit) federal direct loan program was able to gently push it aside as the primary lender to students in 2014, the giant private lender Sallie Mae made tens of billions of dollars in profits from fees and interest.  Indeed, in some years the fees were more profitable than interest.  Sallie Mae’s CEO, Alfred Lord, was regularly paid $200,000,000 every year.  As with so many “partnerships” between the public and private sector, the US government would ensure defaults, so Sallie Mae’s loans were risk-free.  That encouraged them to market aggressively, especially to to poor, first-generation, and working-class students. 

As the saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Sallie Mae became Navient and its business model shifted from lending to servicing, handling $237 billion worth of loans to more than six million people.  In the words of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “The company has cheated borrowers at every stage of repayment, including servicemembers, veterans with disabilities, low-income borrowers, and seniors.”  After years of lawsuits alleging and demonstrating a host of abuses, the federal government finally “demoted” it as its primary servicer.  Navient is still in business.  In 2021 it made $370,000,000.

Those without knowledge of the astronomical profits made by lenders, the rules that stop borrowers from seeking redress, or how individual borrowing has had to replace public subsidies of higher education as state budgets shrink in the face of “tax relief” for the wealthy may judge debtors who do not repay their debts in full as immoral “deadbeats.”  They also see debt relief as an unfair boon to those “immoral” borrowers.  This is the line being peddled by most Republicans. 

If the system were fairly constructed, they would have a point.  But it’s not. The power has too long been in the hands of those who profit from others’ necessity.  We are not talking about discharging debts incurred over private jet travel, too many houses, or even stupid business practices.  Student borrowers are trying to do the right thing, make the mature decision, become breadwinners.  The fact that they have been used as the goose that lays the golden egg for investment bankers is what is morally obscene. 

Biden’s relief plan is not that great. It is a fairly small broad brush for all borrowers, even those who may not be having any problems repaying their debt, while leaving tens of thousands with unmanageable debt that will follow them into retirement and beyond. Still, it is better than nothing. And it sends an important message that we can do this differently, if we want.  True, it is not a jubilee reset, but it gives me hope we might get there eventually.  And never underestimate the power of $10,000 to rewrite a young person’s history and rekindle their dreams about what is possible for their lives.  For hundreds of thousands of working-class borrowers, this will be an individual jubilee. 

To those working-class Republicans who will benefit from this but who feel guilty about it or who talk about “refusing the relief” – stop!  This is what a responsive government does.  And understand that the Republicans’ fighting against the bill are not standing up for you or the taxpayer, but for the private companies who continue to profit out of our necessity. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How Big Is the Working Class – and Why Does It Matter?

Americans without bachelor’s degrees outnumber college grads 2 to 1. But if you and most people you know and have ever known are college graduates, you might not realize that most Americans are not like you and your cohort.   As a result, you’re likely to think your class of people is much, much larger than it is.

That misunderstanding is crucial for American politics in the early 21st century.  As David Shor and others have pointed out, most political operatives and activists – and perhaps especially Democrats — are college grads who seem to assume that most voters are like them.  Likewise, most network and cable TV reporters and commentators also often seem to assume that almost everybody has been to college.  They might get the right answer on a true-or-false question if somebody asked, but nobody does.  And, thus, there is a feedback loop among the political and pundit class: they don’t realize that they are engaged in a public inter-class conversation that is code-restricted to those who have graduated from college – and maybe even only to those who have graduated from the most elite schools.

For the past two decades, Ruy Teixeira and a handful of other progressive Democratic analysts have been banging their heads against this wall, trying to convince Dems to pay more attention to working-class whites, defined as whites without bachelor’s degrees, and now raising alarms about the erosion of Black and Hispanic working-class voters as well.  Teixeira’s latest effort on the coming mid-term elections shows how the political class shapes issues based on unconscious or semi-conscious class bias: focusing on abortion, Trump’s corruption, gun control, and January 6th – issues top of mind among the college-educated – to the exclusion of economic issues, including inflation and its effects on real wages, that matter most to working-class voters of all colors.

I sympathize with Teixeira’s frustration with the class tilt of Democratic Party professionals and most of the media, but I think he presents too uniform a view of the party, one that may be accurate in the D.C. – New York corridor but much less so across the country.  President Biden has repeatedly emphasized working-class issues, for example, as have several Democratic Congressional candidates, like Tim Ryan in Ohio. 

But the party can’t ignore issues like abortion and Trumpian corruption for both principled reasons and because it is a cross-class, multi-racial coalition that cannot work without all of its parts.

Democratic data firm Catalist makes the challenge clear: Democrats are still a mostly working-class party, as 58% of Biden voters, all colors, did not have bachelor’s degrees.  But the other 42% of the coalition did, and Democrats cannot ignore either group’s interests. The picture gets more complicated when we factor in race.  Catalist groups Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and “Others” together as people of color (POC), and they made up 39% of the Biden coalition.

Many politically informed people would be surprised to see that the white working class made up such a large proportion of the Biden Democratic coalition.  Since 62% of that demographic voted for Trump, how could they also make up nearly a third of Democratic voters? The answer is that working-class whites are a very large group – 44% of all voters in 2020.  So large that while they are about a third of Dem voters, they are also nearly 60% of all Trump voters.  It would be political malfeasance to ignore or walk away from this big a group of voters.

Nor can the Party ignore people of color, especially those without college degrees. Black and Hispanic voters are disproportionately working class, so they share many of the economic interests of the white working class – as well as some cultural and religious proclivities.  When our educated middle class publicly talk about politics among themselves, most people of color, like most whites, are missing in that conversation.  The assumption that secular, cosmopolitan, aspirational values are the only ones that matter grates on some of people in the multi-racial working class, but for others it nurtures cynicism and political indifference – a potentially dangerous political stew where what looks like apathy can quickly turn to rage.

So instead of one intractable problem – class bias among the political and communications elites – I see two.  Democrats need to resist that class bias within their own ranks and at the same time find ways to speak to both working-class needs and values and professional class interests, and without ignoring their own and voters’ interests as women, people of color, and more.  Teixeira is right that anchoring the party in working-class needs and values can unify the varied parts of the Democratic coalition, but only so long as the party also makes room for more middle-class priorities, like abortion and climate change.  I think this is what President Biden has been trying to do – in his (sometimes lame) “from the middle out” rhetoric, but more importantly, in the substantive proposals of his Bernie-influenced Build Back Better plan with its emphasis on industrial policy and the care economy.

To reduce their class biases, our highly educated, allegedly data-conscious political class should memorize a few basic facts:  

  • The working class as conventionally defined by education, and also in a number of different ways around occupation, is a substantial majority of the population, a majority of voters, and a majority of Democratic voters.
  • Roughly 40% of them are people of color, and they have been much more likely than the non-Hispanic-white part of the working class to support Democrats.  
  • The large grab bag of progressive economic proposals that Democrats sometimes shy away from talking about in their campaigns – many of which were in Biden’s original legislative agenda, much of which came very close to passing – help the working class of all races. While people of color benefit disproportionately from these programs, most of those who benefit from higher wages, affordable child and health care, and other policies are white and working class.  This is the rocky road to unifying working-class voters across race.  We need to stay on it and keep at it.
  • Finally, it’s worth remembering that many college-educated people are also struggling financially.  Managers and professionals in the US have median incomes of $77k and $71k, respectively. At least half of them are likely living paycheck to paycheck and would greatly benefit from a progressive economic agenda.

In the end, we all have class interests that shape the way we look at and live in the world, what we prioritize and what we neglect.  But within that shaping process, there’s a lot of room for rational self-consciousness to help us reconcile our interests with what others see as the common good.  You’d think the highly educated would be especially good at this, and they can be. They might just need to get out more among the hoi polloi.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a retired adult educator from Roosevelt University in Chicago, a founder and past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, and author of Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society (Cornell, 2021).

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Democracy Is on the Ballot

“Democracy is on the ballot” must be the most ubiquitous phrase in political speechmaking and commentary during this election season.  One can scarcely go a day without hearing it or reading it multiple times.  It is a phrase repeatedly invoked by President Biden, by virtually event Democratic candidate for office, by union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, by anti-Trump Republicans like Evan McMullen, and by conservative intellectuals like William Kristol.  Even the nonpartisan League of Women Voters agrees that “Democracy is on the Ballot This Year.”

In another time, such rhetoric might have seemed overblown, the product of partisans trying to whip their vote before a crucial election.  But in this tumultuous time, the phrase seems perfectly appropriate.  Rarely has the future of democracy seemed to hang so much in the balance.  In addition to the November election, the continuing repercussions of the January 6 coup attempt make the threat clear. The House committee should soon issue a final report, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four of his comrades are now on trial for sedition, and new revelations continue to emerge.

Meanwhile, according to FiveThirtyEight, 60 percent of U.S. voters will have the opportunity to vote for an election denier this fall.  Indeed, most Republican candidates still refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election. Unfortunately, the threat is not confined to our most conservative regions.  To the contrary, a recent Brookings study shows, states fielding the largest numbers of election deniers are the crucial swing states of Pennsylvania (with 37 deniers), Arizona (31), Michigan (24), and Wisconsin (21), states that could determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.  The Brookings report suggests that 199 of the 345 election deniers on the ballot in November stand a strong chance of winning, including 14 candidates for the statewide and 131 candidates for Congress. 

Fortunately, whether democracy survives this time of peril will not depend only on what happens when the votes are counted on November 8, as important as those results will be. Electoral democracy can also be strengthened by another form of democracy that is also on ballots this fall: union elections and strike votes.  In those exercises of the democratic voice, we are currently witnessing a renaissance of majority rule. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), there were 58 percent more petitions for union elections during the first three quarters of 2022 than there were by this time last year. Baristas have been leading the way.  Starbucks Workers United, the SEIU affiliate leading many organizing campaigns, has managed to turn the badly broken NLRB system on its head.  They have shown not only that organizers can win union elections. They can also use the process of fighting for them to build a democratic spirit.  Since their first union victory, when workers at the Elmwood Avenue Starbucks in Buffalo, NY, voted to unionize on December 9, 2021, a wave of Starbucks organizing has swept across the country. As of October 12, workers chose union representation in 233 of 280 stores where election results have been declared final by the NLRB, with a total of 3,359 baristas voting for union representation and only 1,320 voting against.

Amazon workers are also raising the flag of workplace democracy.  Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse voted to unionize in April, and other sites should hold union votes soon.  Workers at warehouse ALB1 in Albany are voting  in another NLRB supervised election this month, and their colleagues at  the ONT8 distribution center in Moreno Valley, amid the nation’s densest concentration of warehouses, the Inland Empire, recently filed an election petition.

These union fights have seen their own version of election deniers and manipulators.  The NLRB rules that Amazon violated the rules during the first union vote at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse in April 2021, forcing a second election at the plant in March 2022 (which the union lost). Amazon fought to overturn the JFK9 vote in April, but the NLRB rejected that move after five months of appeals and legal wrangling. 

Starbucks has also run afoul of labor law by intimidating its workers.  In September NLRB’s regional staff filed a 19-page complaint against some of the company’s Pittsburgh-area stores for engaging in a “myriad of threats” against the union’s local organizers.  When Starbucks was unable to discourage union sentiment, it followed the lead of Trump’s army of election deniers and attacked the electoral process. In an August 15 letter to the NLRB, it accused the agency of pro-union bias and sought a nationwide pause in mail-in union votes. 

Unionization votes aren’t the only expressions of majority rule that workers have been exercising in recent months.  In September a threatened rail strike mobilized Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh into holding marathon negotiating sessions with rail companies and unions.  Yet early indications are that workers may reject the tentative agreement brokered in those sessions.  The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the nation’s third-largest rail union, announced on October 11 that its members voted down the agreement by a margin of 6,646 to 5,100.  Other rail union members may well follow suit in votes over the coming weeks. 

And rail workers aren’t the only ones holding strike votes.  Within recent days strike votes have been taken by Temple University Nurses; Orange County Teamsters; the University of Washington Library’s union; University of Minnesota service workers; public health system doctors in San Jose; and Milwaukee bus drivers.  In all cases, strikes were authorized by overwhelming margins.           

Amid a national crisis of electoral democracy, these grassroots fights for workplace democracy offer hope. And they are beginning to have an impact on our politics.  This summer, the California legislature passed a bill to allow farmworkers to cast mail-in ballots in union elections.  Governor Gavin Newsom, who clearly hopes one day to occupy the Oval Office, initially indicated that he would veto the act, keeping his state’s powerful and wealthy growers happy.  But his position proved hard to sustain in a country where “democracy is on the ballot.”  President Biden was quicker than Newsom to realize the implication of the farmworkers’ bill and spoke out on behalf of its enactment. “The least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union,” Biden said. “Government should work to remove —  not erect —  barriers to workers organizing.”  Feeling the heat, Newsom reversed course on September 28 and signed the bill

Whether fighting to unionize or exercising the right to accept or reject collective bargaining agreements, the workers involved in all of these struggles are nurturing democracy where we most need it.  For our history suggests that if we are to save our political democracy, we must begin by establishing a secure beachhead for democracy in the workplace. The words of the crusading Progressive-era labor lawyer Frank P. Walsh are as true now as when he spoke them in 1918.  “Political democracy is an illusion,” Walsh said then, “unless builded upon and guaranteed by a free and virile Industrial Democracy.” 

Whatever the outcome of the election on November 8, we need not wait until 2024 to put democracy on the ballot again.  We need to prepare for 2024 by putting it on the ballot every day in the workplaces around this country. 

Joseph A. McCartin

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

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Joseph A. McCartin, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Working 9 to 5: Class Diversity and Clerical Organizing

“Get your 9 to 5 newsletter! Get your 9 to 5!”

The early 1970s was a time of profound economic transformation. Women from across the class spectrum were flooding into the workforce by the millions. I was one of them.  At the age of 22, I was among ten women standing outside Boston’s subway stops handing out the first issue of a new newsletter aimed at women office workers.  Our goal was to shake things up in the banks, insurance companies, law firms, and universities that dominated the city’s economy.  We were young and green, but we sensed that we were on to something big.

In my new book, Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie, I describe how in building our organization we developed strategies and tactics to help women from across the class spectrum to feel welcome.   

Early on, we recognized that to build an organization that spoke to the clerical workforce as a whole, we’d need to appeal to women from a range of class backgrounds.  Meeting that goal strengthened our message and broadened our outreach. Class diversity turned out to be a key to our success.

As was true throughout US society, the concept of class in the office workforce was slippery, and people tended not to talk about it explicitly. Even so, women working in the “pink collar ghetto” of the office fell into two rough groups.  

One large group came from the city’s famous white ethnic neighborhoods. For women from these communities, compared to a factory or domestic job, working in an office felt like a step up. Dressing up, having your own desk in a clean, safe place, working side by side with managers and other professionals – these were some of the elements that made an office job seem like a route to rising up.  What was disappointing – indeed, shocking – was the pay, which turned out to be lower than factory wages. 

Another large group came to offices with college degrees, expecting to land professional jobs. They were angry to find themselves stuck at the bottom of the job ladder with no way up.

Yet no matter our origins or sense of class identity, to a remarkable degree, as we found ourselves sitting side by side, we looked at one another and felt united – as women. Joining together and moving forward together was a thrilling experience.

Not that most of us considered ourselves to be part of the women’s liberation movement.  Many rejected the label “feminist.” Nonetheless, we’d all been influenced by the ideas of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.

The 9 to 5 organization pressed for fair job policies at banks across the country. 

Equal pay had been the first rallying cry of the women’s movement, and now that cry began to be passed from secretary to file clerk, cubicle to cubicle. We fumed over the disrespect we were experiencing, too. As one woman put it, “they call us girls until the day we retire without pension.” We were angry at being treated as a nothing more than a set of ten typing fingers.  

As we built our organization, we strove to make sure our organization was welcoming to office workers from all parts of the class spectrum.

  • We emphasized that office jobs and office workers were worthy of respect.  Our focus was not on helping women to get out of such jobs, but on improving life in the typing pool itself.  We agitated for workplace policies – job descriptions, job posting, job training – that would benefit everyone. 
  • We recognized that most women office workers – especially those from lower-income families – couldn’t afford to lose their jobs, so we created safe ways to make change.  We wrote a Bill of Rights for Women Office Workers. We ran Bad Boss Contests. We pressured government agencies — easier targets for many women than their own bosses. 
  • We made sure that our public face reflected the workforce.  Class markers, of course, were everywhere – in how people spoke, how they dressed, where they’d grown up and where they lived now, what they aspired to and where their sympathies lay. We took care to ensure that our spokeswomen, leaders, and staff represented a range of class — and later racial — identities.

Things began to change. Before long, we were taking on the corporate titans coast to coast and winning millions of dollars in back pay and raises, as well as improvements in working conditions.

Our movement inspired Jane Fonda’s 1980 hit comedy, 9 to 5, in which three brave clerical workers join together to transform their workplace — and ran the place far better than the boss ever had.  The movie was a huge hit and helped us promote our ideas nationwide.   

Unionizing could be a major route to worker power, but few office workers were union members.  We wanted that to change. In 1981, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) granted us a charter to organize nationwide. We called our union District 925. Our organizing techniques and our bargaining strategies drew on the ad-hoc organizing we’d been doing, giving our union the same “Raises and Roses” character as the 9 to 5 organization.  

While we had no trouble finding people who wanted to organize, like other unions in the 1980’s and beyond, we encountered fierce resistance from employers. That pushback took a steep toll. Employers used delays, threats, and other tactics – both legal and illegal – to make it fiendishly difficult to win a contract. Nonetheless, we organized thousands of women and helped spawn a new generation of female leadership in the labor movement.

Multi-class organizing among working women back then achieved a lot. What were once seen as individual, private issues became matters of policy.  Pregnancy discrimination is now illegal. Sexual harassment is illegal.  We no longer have “help wanted male” and “help wanted female” ads in the newspapers.  Managerial jobs have opened up for college-educated women (though career ladders for those on the bottom rungs are still woefully scarce). More bosses get their own coffee.

Of course, much remains to be done. Being a worker in today’s economy can be harder than it was fifty years ago. In the gig economy, it can take a patchwork of two or three jobs to make ends meet. Too many workers suffer from strict computerized monitoring, unpredictable schedules, and paltry benefits.

The good news today is the upsurge of union organizing among retail workers, restaurant workers, warehouse workers, and grad students.  Just like in the 1970’s, these organizing efforts bring together workers from varied class backgrounds and different class identities.  Now, as then, that very diversity may turn out to be a key element in a new era of worker power.  

Ellen Cassedy

Ellen Cassedy was a co-founder of 9 to 5, the national association of working women. She is the author of Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie (Chicago Review Press, September 6, 2022, foreword by Jane Fonda).  For educator discount: mroth@chicagoreviewpress.com. To reach Ellen Cassedy: www.ellencassedy.com

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Work | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Marilyn and Elvis: Dead Labor in the Age of Streaming

When Marilyn Monroe was cast as a spunky cannery worker in Clash by Night (1952), she took “an all-night bus to Monterey to observe cannery workers and to practice being working class.” As biographer Lois Banner noted, she was even offered a job, cutting off the heads of sardines. But Marilyn was already familiar with factory work. During the war, she worked at the Radio Plane Munitions factory, assembling drones and painting cloth fuselages with a toxic lacquer, a job that she later called “the hardest work I’d ever done.” In less than a decade she had gone from the airplane factory, to the dream factory, and, for a few hours, to the sardine factory.

While this particular episode is not featured in Netflix’s forthcoming Blonde, a daring adaption of Joyce Carol Oates’s fictionalized account of Marilyn’s life, the film reminds us that the star who epitomized Hollywood glamour had a broken childhood. Marilyn never knew her father, and from a young age she bounced between foster care, orphanages, and the homes of extended family members. Blonde director Andrew Dominik explains that the film is about “how a childhood trauma shapes an adult who’s split between a public and a private self.”

Blonde isn’t the only biopic out this year that traces the working-class roots of a major star. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, now streaming on HBO Max, draws on the director’s interviews with Elvis’s childhood friends, who remembered playing with Elvis among the shacks and revival tents in the poorest, Blackest neighborhoods in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis also lingers on the singer’s short career as a super cool looking truck driver.

It’s intriguing that two biopics of the 20th century’s most famous—and most working-class—superstars have appeared in 2022. Why? Do they reflect increased interest in workers as baristas, Amazon workers, teachers, railway workers, and many others are on the march? Perhaps. In addition, these films remind us that Marilyn and Elvis were progressives. Marilyn was a left-wing intellectual who, as one writer has pointed out, was more often photographed reading a book than posing naked. When she married Arthur Miller in 1956, FBI agents were concerned that Marilyn was “drifting into the Communist orbit.” In 1962, an FBI report described Marilyn’s views as “very positively and concisely leftist.”

Elvis was also progressive, especially when it came to race and civil rights. He was friends with B.B. King and other Black musicians who frequented Beale Street. Elvis was devastated by the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as the Luhrmann film suggests. And, according Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Elvis supported President Johnson’s civil rights efforts.

It mattered that Elvis and Marilyn were working class. Elvis had a deep knowledge of folk, country, and rhythm and blues music because he had spent his life on the other side of the tracks, where poor whites and Blacks intermingled. This knowledge shaped the originality, and the popularity, of his sound. Likewise, Marilyn had a humility and a frankness that were key to her popularity. When it was discovered that Marilyn had posed nude early in her career, Marilyn weathered the scandal without incident. When she was asked why she did it, she replied simply that “I was broke and needed the money.”

But there’s another and rather ironic way to read these films: Marilyn and Elvis are generating revenue—surplus value—for a struggling entertainment industry. In July, 2022, for the first time, streaming outperformed cable television, accounting for 34.8% of viewing compared with 34.4% for cable and 21.6% for broadcast television. Yet Netflix, one of the pioneers of streaming, lost nearly a million subscribers in the first quarter of 2022. The platform is counting on Blonde to bring viewers back. HBO Max is also getting new subscribers from streaming Elvis (which aired September 2).

Put simply, these streaming companies are using Elvis and Marilyn, two 20th century working-class icons, to up their coolness quotient, increase their subscriber base, and make money. In a strange way, Marilyn and Elvis fit Marx’s definition of “dead labor.” So much capital swirls around them; their images, stories, and tragedies are easy money, endless clickbait, infinite profit.

Exploitation shaped both of their careers, as the biopics acknowledge. While Colonel Tom Parker states in Elvis that the King died from the intensity of love he felt for, and from, his audience, the film also suggests that it was Parker himself who killed Elvis by exploiting and abusing him for the entirety of his career. Blonde offers a similar argument, suggesting that Marilyn’s audience, and, especially, the men who desired her, caused her death. And as David Rooney writes, the film continues that exploitation: “This is a work of such wild excesses and questionable cruelty that it leaves you wondering how many more times . . . are we going to keep torturing, degrading, and killing this abused woman.”

In their own time, Elvis and Marilyn generated tremendous value for a rapidly expanding culture industry. In ways that are both wonderous and grotesque, they continue to generate value—for the teams that produced Elvis and Blonde and for the platforms that stream them. Ironically, perhaps, because Marilyn and Elvis were not born to wealth and privilege, they never mastered the industries that they were helping to create. They enjoyed some short-term benefits from their fame, but they lost control over their own images, and, to some degree, of themselves. They existed for the profit of others. A tragic, working-class ending for both.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Essential Workers Take Action

During the pandemic, the working class that had been invisible to many suddenly became “essential.” In some cities, people came on their balconies in their homes to applaud these workers whose jobs in food service, to health care, transportation, and other fields now seemed both necessary and perilous.  They kept working, often because they had no choice.  Though the virus in its many variants continues to rage, many people have decided that it’s over. They want to return to “normal,” whatever that might be.  What does that mean for the suddenly critical working class? Did becoming “essential” change anything for them?  and their new found recognition as suddenly critical?  What now?  What changed, if anything?

 One change seems to be in what workers will put up with.  We see some evidence of this in the stirring of worker organizing in this “movement moment”: Starbucks election victories, Amazon workers rising, organizing efforts in co-ops like REI and among gamers, adjuncts, and many more. Do workers now have enough visibility to win these battles? Or are these small uprisings inspiring but isolated? Are they exceptions or signs of a coming rule?

 Part of the answer may lie in the rising resistance among some less visible workers. The Workers Organizing Support Center, a project of ACORN International and the United Labor Unions, has been talking to the workers behind the counters of dollar stores around the country.  Dollar stores are ubiquitous in urban lower-income neighborhoods and rural areas. If Amazon is the “everything store,” dollar stores are the “everywhere stores.”

 Dollar General has more than 18,000 outlets and the jointly owned Family Dollar and Dollar Tree operate another 15,000.  In fact, these stores are so common that some cities treat them like nuisances, limiting the number in certain areas and distance between stores as they do with liquor stores and payday lending outlets. 

Yet dollar stores are also often the oases in food deserts, and communities and the government are pushing them to offer more fresh fruit and vegetables.  Dollar General claims that 2000 of its stores now offer some fresh items, and that more are coming.  A recent experimental rollout added ten stores to the fresh alternatives program in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they are also opening a new, giant distribution warehouse.  

Given this, surely we should see the more than over 100,000 workers across these chains as among the most vital essential workers.  Yet the stories we’re hearing from workers who have recently organized Dollar Store Workers United (DSWU) make clear that the business model for these stores views workers as expendable and exploitable.

WISN News, Milwaukee, 2021

Dollar stores start workers at the federal minimum wage, which has not risen in years despite plenty of discussion and activism, or the state minimum wage, if they are lucky to work where that minimum is higher. Workers also start out working far less than a full schedule as well.  One new Family Dollar hire told us that he hardly worked a dozen hours a week, including two one-hour opening shifts.  The company might call it training, but that’s a euphemism for sure.  But the stories we’ve heard go beyond poverty-level wages and ridiculously skimpy hours, conditions workers knew that when they hired on.  Once on the job, workers encounter short staffing, little security even in high-crime areas, bad scheduling, store infestations of rats and other cleanliness issues, air-conditioning breakdowns, and inept to non-existent maintenance are constant complaints.  Reading the Facebook pages that DSWU workers and leaders have created is an experience with doom scrolling in a fresh hell.  A post might sound unbelievable, but a dozen comments from other workers confirm even the worst stories.

The situation isn’t much better for dollar store managers. They make just a few dollars more than what is mandated by new Department of Labor Wage and Hour guidelines for exempt workers.  At around $684 per week, someone working 40-hours per week, 52 weeks per year would earn just $34216.  But most managers routinely work 60, 80, and even 100-hour weeks.  The companies blame this on labor shortages, but low pay and high hours are so embedded in the business model that their claims are hard to believe.  Some store managers are preparing a class action to sue for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so there’s some hope in the by and by.

Many dollar store workers are talking about taking action right now, either walking out or demonstrating in front of their stores.  DSWU has identified as many as 50 stores where workers are planning protests. Obviously, that’s just a start, but it’s encouraging that this is happening all around the country, in cities and towns large (Tampa, Florida), medium (Midvale, Utah 33000), and small (Pulaski, Tennessee 8000). 

Their actions probably won’t be on the front pages like Starbucks, Amazon, or REI, but dollar store workers are saying they won’t take this anymore. If Dollar Store Workers United continues to gain traction and momentum, they may prove that being essential doesn’t give employers a license to exploit. Rather, essential workers deserve a living wage as well as  respect and dignity on the job.  If they make progress, the movement moment will be heard across the country.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Wade Rathke, Work | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Bear and the Contradictions of Work

Hulu’s series The Bear, oddly labeled as a comedy, takes viewers inside a hectic, crowded, struggling Chicago sandwich shop that Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen Wright) inherited from his brother, Michael, who committed suicide. The store is a chaotic mess and deep in debt, but Michael’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and most of the long-time staffers want to keep his “system” in place. Carmy left his career as a James Beard award-winning high-end chef to try to fix things, and one of his first acts is to hire a young professionally-trained chef, Sydney (Ayo Edibri) as sous chef. The Chicago setting (city of big shoulders, hog-butcher to the world), the shop’s identification as home of the “Original Beef of Chicagoland,” and the gritty, sweaty, noisy work make for a clearly working-class story. The series has drawn acclaim for its writing, performances, and depiction of food service work.  Restaurant workers have chimed in on Twitter and in comments on reviews to highlight how well The Bear captures life in the kitchen.

An old, struggling restaurant is an ideal setting for a series about work, and it proves useful for exploring how work has – and has not – changed and how workers feel about their jobs. It captures aspects of both the industrial economy that was long typical of working-class jobs and the service economy that has become dominant in the last few decades. While much has been made of the differences between the two modes, The Bear makes clear that they have much in common. Stress, noise, regimentation and surveillance, physical dangers, and economic precarity make kitchen labor a lot like a factory work.

In a New York Times Magazine essay, Carina Chocano describes the series as a commentary on the problems of many forms of contemporary work – long hours, overwhelming stress, conflicts over control, economic precarity. What we see in the shop reflects the state of an economy where everyone is “in survival mode all the time.” 

For Chocano, The Bear demonstrates that “The notion that hustle will eventually pay off is an insidious pipe dream.” That dream drives the gig economy, freelancing, and entrepreneurship, but their promises are often false. The Bear highlights that tension through flashbacks showing the demeaning surveillance that Carmy encountered in elite restaurants and the contrast between Syndey’s vision of being her own boss and the challenges of running an independent catering business. Both still have nightmares about those experiences.

The tension between workers’ desire to control their labor and the efficiency of hierarchical structure, another pattern that cuts across industrial and service work, is a central theme in the series. To fix the mess of Michael’s system, Carmy assigns Sydney to implement a “brigade,” a rigidly-defined set of roles and rules that make the crowded, stressful kitchen operate something like an assembly line. Each worker has a specific responsibility, and the lines of authority are strictly enforced. Whether the brigade represents a speed up or just unwelcome regimentation, long-time workers resist. Like automobile workers at the GM Lordstown plant in the 1970s, line cooks express their disdain through sabotage – though in this they target each other rather than the shop itself. 

For Sophie Gilbert, writing about The Bear in The Atlantic, the brigade highlights “the ways in which men and male-dominated cultures are set up to fail.” She views it as a form of toxic masculinity, like boardrooms and criminal gangs. Such hierarchical structures, she writes, “poison” these sites “from within.”  Yet in the series, the brigade helps the shop run more smoothly. Gender is involved here, not because of the men’s struggles but because it is a young Black woman who makes the brigade work.

Yet the brigade can’t save the sandwich shop, because it faces bigger problems than chaotic operations or personal conflicts. The building that houses the restaurant is deteriorating, equipment keeps breaking down, the neighborhood is gentrifying, the pandemic disrupted business.  As Chocano puts it, “The system has failed. The place is unfixable.”

Yet the workers refuse to give in, and that is what makes this series so compelling and timely. In this period of the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting,” when so many workers seem to have decided that their jobs are not fulfilling or worth the money, The Bear depicts a crew of workers deeply commited to “this shitty old restaurant,” as Eater reviewer Amy McCarthy describes it. Why? It isn’t that they believe their hustle will bring them great success. The characters seem to understand from the beginning that their best hope, one that is probably out of reach, is to get out of debt and keep the place open.

The answers are visible from the first episode. In between trying to raise enough money to keep the place open for another day and arguing with the staff, Carmy makes his first batch of Italian beef. As he offers tastes to the staff, we see their pleasure at how good it is. That matters to them. They might resist Carmy’s changes and resent Syndey’s presence and authority, but they care about the work itself. That’s why Sydney and the pastry chef both invest extra time to try to create new dishes. Chocano notes that Carmy “can’t spare time” to pay attention, but all three characters – and most of their co-workers – recognize the value of the effort. That their efforts can’t compete with the challenges of just getting through each stressful shift doesn’t erase the underlying engagement with work that is not just hard but often seemingly impossible.

Workers are also committed to each other, and to Michael’s memory. For all the conflict that work generates, one of its most important benefits is human connection. The first episode highlights this, too. We see the solidarity of the long-time staff in their resistance to the arrival of Carmy and Syndey but also in their interactions with each other. We hear it in the way they talk to each other. Reviewers have commented on the yelling and insults that the crew throws around, hearing this as part of the stress and conflict of the kitchen. But trash talk can also be an expression of love among working-class men. To make sure middle-class viewers don’t miss the affection and belonging embedded in all the yelling, episode one includes a scene where the crew gathers for family meal and, perhaps in lieu of grace, do a light-hearted version of the Thanksgiving table ritual. While Richie says he’s grateful for the writer Phillip K. Dick, and the pastry chef expresses appreciation that Richie didn’t put on his usual smelly cologne that morning, line cook Tina (in a great performance by Liza Colón-Zayas) confesses, a little embarrassed, that she is grateful “for all you mofos.” The others tease her for this, but the affection among them is clear.

As all this suggests, reviewers like Chocano and Gilbert are right to see The Bear as a reflection of contemporary work cultures. But as workers express their discontent in multiple ways these days, it’s worth noting that The Bear also helps us see both the struggles that make work difficult and the commitments that make it meaningful. If we want to understand why work matters, and what workers might be longing for, we have to recognize both sides of this contradictory balance sheet.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Work | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments