Grifting the Working Class

Donald Trump, the Snake Oil Salesman that Conned America
Credits: Trump head by DonkeyHotey @
Trump Taj Mahal Casino Entrance background picture by elPadawan @

Since the 2016 election, pundits have pondered how a man who began his campaign by gliding down an escalator in a gaudy Manhattan skyscraper festooned with his name managed to ride working-class resentment and anxiety to the presidency. How did a billionaire steal blue-collar Democratic voters right out from under Hillary Clinton’s upturned nose in broad daylight?

The answer will be obvious to anyone who, like me, has spent a career battling consumer fraud: they were conned.

And not for the first time. Trump, like all great con men, knows when a “mark” is ripe to be taken, but we often overlook how these same voters were hoodwinked first by Bill Clinton and then by Barack Obama. Their con games left  blue-collar voters ready to fall.

Really, who could blame them? They voted for Bill Clinton because he promised to reform health care and ban the use of scabs. Instead he passed NAFTA, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs across the industrial Midwest. Clinton also rolled back banking regulation (with a lot of help from his successor George W. Bush), setting the stage for near-collapse of the global economy.

Then came Obama, who promised hope and change and delivered neither for actual workers. To stop the impending meltdown of the economy he funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to banks instead of the working families who were about to lose their homes. He doled out billions more to save General Motors but didn’t force the company to preserve American jobs—a failure that’s playing out with disastrous consequences at Lordstown and other GM plants across the country. And he also failed to keep his promise to streamline the union organizing process.

The policies of the last few decades left a nation littered with the broken dreams of blue-collar and middle-class workers struggling to cope with stagnant wages, home foreclosures, disappearing pensions, and vanishing opportunity. Trump knew instinctively they could be duped.

So he vowed to make America—and them—great again. He promised to rebuild factories in place like Youngstown, punish companies that shipped jobs overseas, revitalize the coal and steel industries, and build a “beautiful wall” to keep out the Mexicans, whom he insisted were responsible for all the problems. That was exactly what so many people in the disaffected heartland wanted to hear. I wasn’t at all surprised that so many of my friends and clients fell for his siren song.

Like NAFTA and the corporate bail-out, Trump’s cons will fundamentally alter the lives of working families for years to come, even if he is defeated in 2020. Like a master pickpocket, he’s distracted his base with meaningless rhetoric about border walls, kneeling football players, transgender soldiers, and socialism, while deftly robbing them blind—and making them feel good about it.

His track record is perversely impressive. He passed a massive tax cut for the rich disguised as a boon for the middle class. He made health care less affordable and available by chipping away at the Affordable Care Act. He started a trade war that is hurting the economy, and he appointed to his Cabinet a team of spectacularly contradictory “leaders”: a treasury secretary whose hedge fund tossed tens of thousands of Americans out of their homes, a secretary of education who loathes public schools, an EPA chief who worked for the coal industry, and a commerce secretary who just couldn’t understand why federal workers who went without pay during the government shutdown were struggling to buy food and pay their rent.

In just the past 30 days, Trump’s actions have gone even further to undermine policies intended to protect consumers. The Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with General Electric related to predatory lending by the company’s WMC Mortgage subsidiary for $1.5 billion. In the past, the Department required companies not only to pay fines but also to modify borrowers’ loans. Under Trump, not one dollar of the settlement funds will help consumers.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has dramatically reduced its enforcement actions. Under the leadership of Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney and now Kathy Kraniger, who vigorously opposed the agency’s creation as a member of Congress, the CFPB has brought less than one enforcement action for every ten filed by former director Richard Cordray. Recently, the agency levied a whopping one dollar fine against a swindler who was swapping veterans’ pension payments for high interest loans. The CFPB also moved to repeal regulations of the Payday Loan industry that were enacted just two years ago This and other agencies charged with regulating the financial services industry and holding firms that rip off consumers accountable have been systematically staffed with corporate lobbyists and regulatory critics who simply refuse to enforce the rules or the law.

The Trump administration’s all-out assault on regulations and abdication of its responsibility to protect everyday Americans has made consumer protection lawyers the last line of defense for working-class families who are being preyed upon and abused by corporate America. But an insidious provision surreptitiously inserted into the Trump tax cut jeopardizes consumers’ ability to hire their own attorneys to enforce federal and state consumer laws. For the first time, plaintiffs who win a judgment or settlement in a consumer fraud case are much more likely to  be taxed on both the amount of their recovery–usually something that they were entitled to in the first place–and on the fees that are paid to their attorneys for pursuing claims on their behalf.

Trump’s court appointments also threaten the civil justice system, which was designed to level the playing field between the powerful and the powerless. He has been distressingly successful in appointing right-wing, ultra-conservative, corporatist judges to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court. While many who oppose his judicial nominees focus their attention on Roe v. Wade, questions about workers’ rights, the environment, consumer protection, and corporations go unasked and unanswered. As a result, the federal judiciary will be jam packed with judges more than willing to allow corporate America to trample on the rights of the workers.

Trump’s supporters thought they were voting to make America great again Instead, they’ve been bamboozled.  The only question left is will they recognize the scam before the thief skips town?

Marc Dann, Dann Law Firm

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Class and the Dignity of Work

In the week before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown announced his “Dignity of Work” tour, with events in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and his home state, Ohio. The tour placed the working class at the center of Brown’s potential bid for the U.S. presidency in 2020. The legacy of King’s unwavering support for workers and unions lies at the center of Brown’s message, as Brown makes clear by quoting King on his website: “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”

Deep springs refresh the enduring idea that work has dignity, a source that could inspire workers to stop the relentless assaults on their lives and their labor. While we may not think of “dignity” as a religious concept, it has many familiar religious and theological dimensions that resonate with how many workers think about their work and their own work ethic. Brown’s message draws not only on Reverend King but also on his mother’s Lutheran faith and Pope Francis’s emphasis on the dignity of labor.

At the heart of these ideas is an understanding of work as a calling.  As King said, just before the more familiar claim that no work is insignificant, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” The idea that work is a “calling” is rooted in Martin Luther’s Reformation idea that all workers have a vocation, and that God places everyone in a station in which they undertake their labor. This defines work as not just a product of an economic arrangement but as central to the created order. These ideas about work, which we can trace through the half-millennium journey from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., may echo through much of the next presidential campaign.

But however we might welcome attention to the dignity of work, this way of talking about work does not directly address the precarious character of the contemporary workplace in this age of automation, outsourcing, “gig” employment, deregulation, and union busting. Brown’s potential candidacy will not reach uprooted workers if it does not reckon with the unrepentantly neoliberal economy in which this work occurs. Merely repeating the phrase “dignity of work” without thoroughly upholding the dignity of workers risks romanticizing work to the peril of those who actually perform it.

The United States Catholic Bishops suggest a better direction. In their 1986 “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” they prioritize the dignity of humans: “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.” One should judge an economic system “by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it.” They also argue that human dignity can only be realized and protected in community:

Basic justice demands that people be assured a minimum level of participation in the economy. It is wrong for a person or group to be excluded unfairly or to be unable to participate or contribute to the economy. For example, people who are both able and willing, but cannot get a job are deprived of the participation that is so vital to human development. For, it is through employment that most individuals and families meet their material needs, exercise their talents, and have an opportunity to contribute to the larger community.

The link between work and community may find no clearer exemplar than in labor unions. Here, too, Brown shares a perspective with King, who was also thoroughly committed to unions and the labor movement. King’s “street sweeper” was likely a member of Memphis-based Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. King’s last days were spent in Memphis, advocating on behalf of sanitation workers who were on strike against dangerous working conditions and unjust pay. In his TV ad, Dignity, Brown notes that “whether you collect minimum wage, punch a clock, or earn a salary, your hard labor should pay off.” He has a strong record of fighting for that idea alongside organized labor. But workers engaged in participatory solidarity in their unions or in union-organizing create a class-based form of dignity whether the work has dignity or not. In this way, regardless of their own religion, such workers model the Roman Catholic notion that our dignity as humans is profoundly related to our active role in the economy and in our communities.

Work itself may not always feel dignified, of course. But even if “dignity of work” feels a bit tenuous, workers can create dignity-at-work themselves through participation in creative and collective efforts to wrench the workaday world from its least dignified forms.

Presidential politics set an example for other office-holders and the campaigns for those positions. The last two years of the current administration have strayed far from even a hint of dignity. How welcome it would be if the next election cycle could focus its attention on the working class rather than the billionaire class. Attention to class, not crass, might just elevate us all. The dignity of working people and their struggle is a precious pearl for the Rebel Girl in all of us.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College



Posted in Contributors, Issues, Ken Estey, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Should We Mourn the Loss of Industrial Jobs?

On his show, This Is Me Now, comedian Jim Jefferies recently joked that Canada should build a three-foot wall on its border to prevent ‘Americans [who] are crawling over because their lungs are filled with coal from getting all their jobs back’. This joke clearly pokes fun at the US immigration debate and the risks of industrial work, yet it also betrays a sneering elitism about deindustrialisation and displaced workers. Middle-class and elite observers  with no roots or interest in working-class activism often adopt a paternalistic attitude – ‘if only these silly workers accepted that times have changed’ – and accuse workers of being rendered stupid by smokestack nostalgia that idealises the good times and erases the bad.

The toxic combination of neoliberalism and deindustrialisation has devastated working-class communities, organisations, and cultures. Statistics from communities that once relied on a single industry speak for themselves, coldly recording increased crime, poverty, and ill-health as the social fabric unravels. Yet statistics cannot capture the emotional narratives of deindustrialisation.

To capture that, we need to talk with the people who have lived it, as I have done with former Scottish steelworkers. Listening to the voices of workers reveals the complex experience of job loss and economic restructuring.

Steelmaking is a dirty job, performed under intense heat and exceptional danger. Harmful gasses and dust destroy workers’ health, and horrific accidents cripples their bodies. Steelworkers know this all too well.  As former steelwork Brian Cunningham put it, a typical day could switch from ‘mundane, repetitive, monotonous, to absolute terror … When it went wrong, it went spectacularly wrong’. Peter Hamill recalled how a fellow steelworker ‘had been feeding a rope in and it had whiplashed him, cut him, killed him’. Death was a persistent reality for steelworkers. Tommy Johnston’s ‘lowest point’ was witnessing a co-worker ‘strangled in a conveyor belt’.

In light of such stories we might expect workers to be glad to see steelworks close.  But they aren’t. Instead, they say they would not have left if given the choice. As Johnston said, he  would ‘go back tomorrow’ if he could. Why?

These workers are not deluded by rose-tinted nostalgia; they simply recognize that the jobs they have now don’t offer the real, tangible benefits of industrial work. Following a path common to other displaced industrial workers, the former steelworkers I interviewed found new jobs as production line workers, taxi drivers, cleaners, or janitorial staff. Most of these jobs are insecure and low-paid. For James Carlin there was ‘absolutely no comparison whatsoever’ – his wage more than halved in his first new job. Likewise, Cunningham’s annual salary diminished from £24,000 to £10,000. Finding it ‘hard to say’, Johnston admitted that after twenty-five years his annual wage is now just below his steelworker wage of 1991 in absolute terms. It wasn’t just that wages are considerably lower. Workers also lost access to monthly bonuses, union-negotiated wage rises, and seniority-based promotion.  Instead of improving their standard of living, these former steelworkers had to cut household spending and sacrifice hobbies, social outings, and family holidays. Some sold their cars and even forfeited ownership of their homes.

But even more than the economic loss, these workers mourn the loss of a powerful and vocal union and the workplace culture it fostered.  Cunningham described labour relations in his former workplace as ‘respectful’; the authority of the union ‘always put the management on notice’. In stark contrast, his new management was aggressively anti-union: ‘If you joined a union you were sacked, you were out the door’. Carlin observed workforce bullying and harassment by an ‘almost dictatorial’ management which actively suppressed union organising by outright dismissal. Not blinded by nostalgia, workers were in fact well aware that the culture of workforce/management ‘mutual respect’ was not underpinned by benevolence, but rather necessity, as workers’ treatment corresponds to their respective power in the workplace. By contrast Carlin summed up his later non-union workplace by observing – ‘we never had any power, we never had any voice’. The heavy unionisation of the workplace encouraged a culture of solidarity and co-operation.

Indeed, steelworkers felt part of a cohesive occupational community – ‘part of something’ – and took pride in a culture of camaraderie where workers ‘looked after each other’. The workplace was embedded in community life through a plethora of trade union and steelwork voluntary associations, sporting teams, charity initiatives, educational programmes, hobby clubs, and political groups. Cunningham extolled the variety of social opportunities: ‘The social side of it was terrific … we used to do overnight stays, dinner dances, we used to do mid-week breaks for the golf … you had your anniversaries, weddings, engagements, so the social side of it was really good’. Regular socialising fortified a sense of community among steelworkers, as Ian Harris described: ‘you got invited to everything, you were at the fishing club dance, the bowling club dance – I was in the golf club so I was at the golf club dance, the football dance, everything’. Workers’ social life was intrinsically linked to their workplace, and this high degree of social embeddedness fostered an intense sense of communal identity, as Frank Roy commented: ‘it was your identity’.

The material basis of the working-class culture was demolished alongside the steelworks. The absence of the workplace community organisations and social events meant that post-redundancy employment lacked the interwoven social aspect and dynamic culture of solidarity which had defined steelmaking. In his new job, Carlin lamented, ‘there was no camaraderie, there was no team aspect to it, you were an individual and you stayed an individual till the day you went home’. Family histories of steelmaking had encouraged even greater bonds among workers, blurring the lines between workplace and family. Ravenscraig steelworker Tommy Brennan felt like he belonged in the mill: ‘I worked in the Craig, my brother worked in the Craig, my two sons worked in the Craig, my brother’s three sons worked in the Craig’. Also from a family of steelworkers, Carlin saw steelmaking as his natural ‘progression’ after school; it was part of his heritage, a gateway into the labour movement, and central to his working-class identity. The closure of the steelworks ruptured this identity, provoking a sense of placelessness: ‘I just couldn’t settle, I couldn’t settle, you know what I mean, it was always in my head about the steelworks’.

The closure of the steelworks disconnected workers from one another, bringing an end to decades long workplace relationships. Jim McKeown described losing a part of himself, a feeling he believed was even more pronounced among the older generation: ‘There was bit of me missing, because a lot of those people, even though they are living round about, I’ve never seen them again … I think a lot of the older ones … a part of their soul was missing’. Frank Shannon, who was part of this older generation of steelworkers, agreed,  stating that many lost their sense of purpose and found their lives defined by loneliness: ‘I know a lot [of] people that didn’t last a year, dead … maybe drink, gambling … work was their life … it was devastating’.  Deindustrialisation fundamentally shattered occupational communities, rupturing workers’ social lives and bringing an abrupt end to their communal work environment, leaving in its wake social isolation, bitterness, and alienation.

We should, of course, avoid simplistic nostalgia for industrial work, nor should we forget its dangers and adverse health effects. Yet workers are right to remember and value many aspects of industrial employment. The high pay delivered steady social mobility, the work itself fostered a sense of occupational pride and identity, and powerful trade unions provided a culture of solidarity which allowed workers to advance their rights.  Working-class jobs have now become endemically low-paid, exploitative, and insecure. Decades of neoliberalism have crippled the labour movement, delegitimised working-class history, and all but erased working-class collective memory. Most young workers now know nothing else but low paid precarious work. For them, that is the norm.

Memory of and even nostalgia for the rights once held by industrial workers, despite the risks and exploitation, reminds us of what can be achieved by workers when they have strong unions and working-class communities. Those who dismiss workers’ positive reflections of heavy industry as little more than rose-tinted nostalgia are, purposefully or not, undermining a legitimate class memory of powerful workers and stable communities. In the process, they also undermine the potential organizing power of today’s working class.

James Partick Ferns

James Partick Ferns is a Scottish Oral History Centre PhD student studying at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. His research examines the impact of deindustrialisation upon working-class identity and employment.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Work, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Ghosts of Bisbee

Bisbee ‘17 is a documentary about an Arizona town facing its ghosts.  In June 1917, when copper miners organized by the Industrial Workers of the World had gone on strike for two weeks, 1200 striking workers were rounded up and “deported” to New Mexico. The owner of the mine, the Phelps-Dodge Company, also owned the hospital, department store, library, newspaper, main hotel . . . in other words, Bisbee was a company town. In 1917, everyone had been forced to take a side, and only those on the company’s side remained in Bisbee. Like many towns with one employer, family and community were torn apart by the strike and deportation. One hundred years later, as the film shows, the town reenacted the event.

Unfortunately, viewers will learn very little about the historical event from the film. Instead, we witness the former mining community recreate an event from the pseudo memories of transplants to Bisbee and the grandchildren of deported miners and armed deputies who rounded-up strikers and their families. Residents play the roles of strikers and deputies, reenacting the armed capture of peaceful strikers who were herded into the ballfield and then stuffed into freight cars.

As the community planned for the one-hundred-year celebration of the Bisbee Deportation, they chose a path common to American historical sites: create art, sing songs, and stage the event as a tourist attraction. The film shows community members trying to understand both sides: miners striking for more pay and safer working conditions and others who argued the company’s perspective — that the IWW threatened the war effort as well as the livelihood of the town. To capture all sides, the usual tropes prevail. The “Mexican family” is represented by a young man whose mom was deported to Mexico when he was seven and who “nurtured himself” growing up. The woman posing as his mother in the enactment is a Republican Country Clerk who views her acting as “kinda like a novella.” However, labor history is not a soap opera. Bisbee ‘17 shows us how the reenactment can be cathartic as town therapy, but a closer look at Arizona’s recent history of deportation shows the ghosts were not exorcized.

The Bisbee Deportation has been well documented in newspaper articles; local, state and federal government officials’ correspondence; and court proceedings from law suits filed by the deportees and charges against participants in the deportation. Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler had deputized the Citizens’ Protective League or Loyalty Leaguers to roundup strikers, strike sympathizers, and others from their homes, restaurants, stores, and on the street. On July 12, 1917, they were loaded onto twenty-four cattle and box cars and sent to Columbus, New Mexico, where they were met by armed guards who kept them from detraining. The box cars of people were then taken to Hermanas, New Mexico — all without adequate food or water. Later they were returned to Columbus, held by military authorities, and eventually released, but not allowed to return to Bisbee.  Civil and criminal suits were filed against the Phelps-Dodge, persons involved in the kidnapping, and the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad for providing the trains for the deportation. A financial compromise was reached, and no trial was held. Although both federal and state charges were filed against the sheriff and government and business officials for their participation, no one was punished.

The labor history of the Bisbee Deportation may have been forgotten by current Arizona residents, but we don’t have to look back a century to find an Arizona sheriff deputizing a posse to assist in the deportation of unwanted immigrant workers. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who held that post for 24 years, established the “illegal immigration operations posse” in 2011 to round up undocumented immigrants working in construction, landscaping, or restaurants as well as people who were walking or driving to home or work. Although Arpaio claimed these raids were “crime sweeps,” few of the immigrants arrested had criminal records. Along with county sheriffs, members of the posse participated in immigration sweeps targeting and terrorizing Latino communities in Maricopa County.

Protests against the raids were met with same rationale as the “Law of Necessity” used to justify the Bisbee deportation: the immigration system is broken, the federal government is not responding, so the sheriff took control. Federal funding from ICE’s partnership initiatives to work with local law enforcement, the 287(g) agreement, lured local authorities across the county to participate in immigration law enforcement, moreover huge profits are being made by privately-owned detention centers. Over the last decade hundreds of immigrants were held in detention centers, separated from their families, and deported. Remarkably, the organizers of the Bisbee reenactment cast someone who had worked in the private prison and deportation industry to play the sheriff, linking the two events.

Just as in the Bisbee Deportation, lawsuits were filed and eventually the class action lawsuit, Ortega Melendres vs. Arpaio found the sheriff had targeted Latino drivers and passengers in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court mandated changes that the sheriff ignored, and his posse continued to enforce immigration after losing the federal 287(g) agreement to work with ICE. Arpaio was found in contempt of court, but before he could be sentenced Trump pardoned him. Like Sheriff Wheeler, Sheriff Arpaio was never punished for his crimes.

Trump’s policy of zero tolerance has deported many workers and broken up families, including many long-time residents, homeowners, and respected members in their communities. We have witnessed hundreds of asylum seekers deported without due process, families separated, and parents and children detained in privately-owned detention centers. Recently the Southwest Key Program, the largest private operator of shelters for migrant children, came under federal investigation for misappropriating government funds. Many still find deportation to be good for business.

A century from now, will Arizonans stage another play about deportations? Will the actors and residents play migrants and ICE?  Sheriff Arpaio and members of his posse? Will some play the parents and children separated at the border or dragged from their homes during the early morning? Will we, too,  tell this story using a passive voice — “men died,” “life went on,” “mistakes were made”? Clearly, Bisbee and the state have not exorcised their ghosts.

Mary Romero and Eric Margolis

Mary Romero is a Professor at Arizona State University and the author of several books on domestic workers and on intersectionality, including Introducing Intersectionality. She is President of the American Sociological Association.

Eric Margolis is a visual sociologist and the author of numerous works on the hidden curriculum in higher education. Most of his work can be found on his website. 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Working-Class Precarity: An Education

Photo by Tapir Girl

The teacher who most influenced me was Raphael Samuel, one of the leading social historians of his time – though I didn’t know that when I studied with him.  Raph, as we came to know him, had chosen to work at Ruskin College instead of a more elite institution. At Ruskin, he taught people like me, who had no qualifications except for the fact that they had worked in industry, during a time in the late 1980s when many students were the victims of corporate layoffs, downsizing, or deindustrialisation. Raph always held a pencil or pen poised over a notebook ready to record the insights of his class. Most of us were flattered to think that what we had to say mattered to him. And it taught me an important lesson: we can always learn something from the experience of others if only we will listen.

I’ve tried to replicate Raph’s willingness to listen and learn in my career as an educator and researcher. It’s especially important in the course I teach every year on the sociology of work. It has at its heart the idea that my students have experience of the very thing they are studying, and that gives them expertise. I’ve drawn on that by asking them to write about their experiences, and they’ve produced some wonderfully rich autobiographical accounts of work offering insight into joy, boredom, power inequality, class, and respect.

This year, I decided to include a session on precarity at work, but I wasn’t sure how to get them talking in the seminar.  To introduce ideas about order and predictability at work, I usually show a film from the 1960s, which provides a historical perspective, but I wanted to get at the contemporary experience of precarity. With some trepidation I threw down the gauntlet, asking my students to find a short clip on ‘precarity at work’. I had hoped they’d find a couple of clips which would stimulate discussion, but I was overwhelmed by a glorious mixture of material that turned up.

The first submission came from Tracey, a mature student with a long work history, who had found a high quality cartoon Precarity Monster made for the Toronto Public Library workers from 2016.  The video explains the links between quality of working life and wider civic life, illustrating how the hollowing out of good jobs damages us all. I showed that first in class, and it got us off to a great start.

Next up were two videos about workers protesting insecure employment conditions due to tendering out labor previously carried out by people working for the company or organisation itself and zero hours contracts, where workers have no guaranteed fixed hours. I was pleasantly surprised when we started to watch Low pay, long hours, which looks at the experiences of outsourced workers such as custodians and security guards at the University of London. This film showed students how the very institutions they were attending were squeezing the pay and conditions of their most marginalised and exploited workers, often people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is at a time when the students themselves were feeling the effect of a raise in annual tuition fees to £9,250 and university heads are awarding themselves eye-watering remuneration packages. Another student showed a clip of a crowd invasion of a Sports Direct Store, a company with a reputation for poor working conditions and the use of zero hours contracts. The film highlights the link between work and our consumption habits.  Many of my students work part-time in similar retail environments and know the arguments only too well.

Both of these employment strategies undermine workers’ ability to organise collectively, and Low pay, long hours projects a positive message about unions, collective action, and the power ordinary workers have to embarrass their employers to begin to do the right thing. Very few of my students have any experience of unions.  Indeed, when I asked for a show of hands, it turns out that I was the only person who had been in a union. This partly reflects their age but also speaks to the kind of workplaces where they are currently employed and expect to be in the future. We discussed at length why this was as well as what I had gained from being unionised and what they would potentially lose over their working life.

I also prepared a new lecture this session on the gig economy, and one of the students brought in a film that linked this type of work and precarity. In Uber Drivers Aren’t Living The American Dream, we follow the story of African-American Uber driver Abraham, a former taxi driver lured into the gig economy by the company’s seductive promises. This film also stimulated lots of discussion about students’ experiences as workers but also as consumers who use these convenient services.

The international makeup of my students also emphasised that precarity takes on different but recognisable forms across the globe.  A student from Singapore brought in a story from home about 85-year-old Ng Teak Boon, an ice-cream-seller peddling his wares on the streets of the city. The clip made clear how precarity falls hardest on the most vulnerable, including those who can’t rely on a social safety net and whose work can be wiped out by bad weather.

My students uncovered a wide variety of films showing the range of precarity and gig economy work, and their films also raised the complex relationship between work, family, community, and wider civic society. Better yet, the film clips stimulated debate and reflection on the contemporary workplace.

This assignment reminded me that many of my students already have more experience of precarity and the gig economy than hopefully I will ever directly have, but it also reaffirmed the lesson that listening to our students, and to young people more generally, matters.  They are the ones living with and confronting the reality of working-class work on a daily basis, and their perspectives provide important insight – especially for those of us who are older – into the study of class and work.

Tim Strangleman

Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Work | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Time to Make a Deal on the Federal Minimum Wage

AP Photo by Lynn Sladky

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009.  Until last year, when the unemployment rate dropped almost to the level of full employment, wages were stagnant, exacerbating inequality.  In 2018, average hourly earnings went up 3.15% and closed the year with a 3.9% jump.  Even with those recent adjustments, workers still need a federal minimum increase.

The Raise the Wage Act offers the prospect for change.  The bill was introduced in May 2017 by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, but it died in committee in 2018 with 170 co-sponsors, Democrats all.  It proposed a dollar-a-year increase over seven years, eventually reaching $15.00 – more than twice the current minimum.  It would also phase out lower pay for tip-credit workers who are currently frozen at $2.13 per hour as well as disabled worker exceptions.

The Fight for $15 campaign, largely engineered and financed by the Service Employees International Union, has been a key force in defining $15.00 an hour as the goal.  Their work has helped set eight states on the path to establishing minimum wages of between $12 and $15 per hour in coming years, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Washington.  Thirteen cities, including New York City, Seattle, and San Jose, are already at $15 or higher.  While Fight for $15 has created momentum for the new Democratic House majority, today’s leaders should not forget the lessons learned from decades of living wage fights.

On January 18, 1997, ACORN and Local 100, United Labor Unions (then affiliated with the SEIU), presented voters in Houston, Texas with what seemed a radical proposal at the time: a city ordinance to raise the minimum wage to the level of $6.50 per hour for all workers.  Only months before, the federal minimum had finally risen from $4.25 per hour to $4.75.  In a patronizing campaign against us, service industry and general business employers insisted that they understood our demand, but we were going about it the wrong way, and our proposal would cost jobs.  While we won in lower-income and working-class districts, we lost the election 2 votes to 1. In River Oaks, the district where former President George H. Bush lived and voted, we garnered just one vote.

Soon after, ACORN put a similar proposal before Denver voters, asking them to approve a minimum wage of $6.25.  An expensive, blunt force campaign in the final two weeks by the hotel and restaurant association and fast food operators swamped us. Again, we lost two to one loss even as we swept black and brown, lower income, and working precincts throughout the city.

We learned a key lesson from those losses: do the research. In Arizona, Michigan, Florida, and Ohio, we used polling to find out the rate that would gain support from at least 60% of voters. When we did that, even strident corporate campaigns didn’t block our way. Where we couldn’t do polling, we pegged the increase more modestly as a premium above the federal minimum, usually one dollar, which won in New Orleans, Missouri, and elsewhere. Once we learned to propose acceptable target rates, we won many more votes, and no living wage statewide proposition has lost at the ballot box in more than a dozen years. Between 1996 and 2008, we won more than 125 “living wage” campaigns around the country, delivering billions of dollars’ worth of raises to millions of workers. Where we won increases indexed to cost-of-living, like Florida, lower-waged workers continue to benefit.

State and local minimum wage and living wage campaigns have continued in full force and fury.  Approximately twenty states and twenty-three localities now have higher base hourly wage rates than the federal standard, and some 5.2 million workers began this year with a wage increase. Individual bumps in annual pay from $90 to $1300 add up to about $5.4 billion of increased income for workers. This is good news. But workers in twenty-nine states – about 2.2 million people — are still stuck at $7.25 per hour – or less!

It’s time to make a deal.

Reportedly, Democrats believe they now have enough votes to pass something like the Raise Wages Act and demand that the Senate either support, negotiate, or reject raising workers’ wages.  We need to force politicians to finally deliver, whatever the intraparty polarization and squabbles.

We also need to remember the lessons from the past.  In Houston, Denver, and initially New Orleans, we lost support when we proposed raising the minimum 37% over the existing federal standard.  To get to $15 on a fast track would be a jump of more than 100%, doubling the minimum wage.  Pew Research found only 52% support for that big an increase.

It’s just not likely to happen all at once.

Even raising the minimum $1 per year is steep and unprecedented. The last ten-year freeze of the federal minimum, between 1997 and 2007, the raise was seventy cents annually for three years l.  A dollar per year for seven years will be hard to win.

But low wage workers need a deal, and at this point, just about any raise would do. Fifty more cents an hour for a full-time, 2080 hours a year worker is over $1000.  Sure, a dollar would be even better, but any raise would be a godsend. This would be even better if we could finally win some form of automatic indexing for future increases and at least lift the cap on tipped workers’ wages.  Both of those adjustments would be worth paying some real money to achieve at the negotiating table.

Does making a deal hurt the states and cities that are already over the federal minimum wage?  No, indeed.  As President John F. Kennedy argued, raising the minimum wage “lifts all boats,” because workers making $10 or $12 an hour would fight to keep their hourly wages a few dollars higher than the minimum wage. If employers want to keep those workers, they will have to pay more.

Of all of the divisions in the United States now, the wage gap might be easiest to attack.  Even Republicans feel the pressure as the 2020 election comes into view. We need to make it hard for them to defend keeping the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.  They will argue that $15 an hour is catastrophic, and we must be prepared to fight back. Republicans may not like bargaining over a hike in the minimum wage, but other than the stone-cold ideologues, some of whom are in the White House, they will be ready to do so.

It’s time to demand an increase in the federal minimum wage but also to talk realistically about the terms of an agreement.  Lower wage workers must have a raise, and they need it now. We can’t wait for a new President or a new Congress.

Wade Rathke





Posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Wade Rathke, Work, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Blaming Workers Again

Working-class people often get blamed for their troubles. They should have planned better, been less demanding, or just been smarter. Those are just some of the judgments that surfaced again in the weeks after General Motors’ announcement late in November that it would close five plants in the U.S. and Canada, leaving thousands of workers without jobs.

While some expressed concern for the soon-to-be displaced autoworkers, many were quick to point fingers. One person commenting on the Washington Post’s story about the announcement wrote that the autoworkers, many of whom had voted for Trump, “deserve what they get.  To fall for the simplemindedness and con-man character of a Trump makes sympathy hard to muster.” Callers on National Public Radio’s 1A  wondered why GM workers hadn’t realized that their jobs were not secure. How could they be so foolish? Others complained that the workers should have been better prepared. Why hadn’t they gone to college or pursued training for some other kind of working-class job?

That blame extended to working-class communities: why hadn’t distressed rust belt and rural communities diversify their local economies, as Pittsburgh or Cleveland had done so successfully? Others suggested that workers should move to where the jobs are. As Eduardo Porter suggested in a  New York Times op-ed about how to address the decline in rural communities, instead of trying to save dying towns, the government should implement policies to help people move to cities with better economic opportunities.

After two decades of tracking both the social costs of deindustrialization and American discourse about the working class, we found all of this beyond frustrating. In the Youngstown area (where we live part of the year), workers at the nearby GM Lordstown plant knew that their jobs were at risk, because the company had already laid off two shifts. But they remained hopeful. While some may have believed President Trump, who told his supporters in Youngstown that the jobs lost when GM laid off its first shift in January 2017 that those jobs would be coming back. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house,” others thought that GM had an obligation to American taxpayers and to its workers. GM is profitable today because of a Federal bailout and state tax abatements, not to mention union concessions that lowered labor costs.

As for the argument that workers should have pursued training so they would be prepared to move to new jobs, blue-collar workers in deindustrialized communities know from decades of experience that retraining programs often fail. Amy Goldstein documented this powerfully in Janesville: An American Story, her award-winning book about how the 2008 closing of the GM plant affected that Wisconsin community. And despite evidence that college graduates earn more over their lifetime than those without degrees, numerous reports make clear that a college degree is no guarantee of a good job. Nor is college an affordable or manageable option for many workers, especially those who work full-time.

The notion that smaller rust belt communities like the Youngstown-Warren area haven’t tried to diversify their economies reflects basic ignorance. Mayors, economic developers, and business leaders in these communities have done almost nothing but try to attract new industries, but – not surprisingly – they have a much harder time doing that than their larger neighbors, which began the battle for economic recovery with major universities, hospitals, and corporate headquarters already in place. And of course, the popular narrative that cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland are booming ignores the continuing struggles of many in those areas and surrounding towns.

Those who suggest that people should simply leave these communities have also not been paying attention. People have been leaving these areas for decades, starting during the early 1980s when the steel industry closed dozens of plants. As Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson noted in their 1985 book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, deindustrialized spurred a significant migration of industrial workers, many headed to places like Houston in search of new jobs in the oil industry. Since 1970, Youngstown’s population has dropped by about 85,000 people. Trumbull County next door, where the Lordstown plant operates, lost about 30,000 people.

Given the long-term economic struggles of the region, we might expect those numbers to be higher, but many people stayed despite the area’s limited opportunities. Why? Because along with deep roots, they have friends and family who help each other get by in hard times, and a poor economy keeps the cost of living low. For many, their most significant economic assets – their homes – are not portable or worth enough to make selling worthwhile. In the Mahoning Valley, people can often get by on part-time jobs and the informal economy of barter and DIY.

But our frustration isn’t simply about judgment and misinformation. It’s about how blaming working-class people distracts us from the larger problem the GM shutdown reflects: a global economic philosophy that deepens inequality, creating prosperity for some at a cost to many others. As Thomas Friedman noted in a recent New York Times column, a “liberal global order” based on “free markets, free people and free ideas” has spread “prosperity around the world” No doubt, global capitalism has improved the economic conditions, if not the political power, of many of the poorest workers around the world, even as many workers are losing ground. While Friedman acknowledged this, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that a growing inequality gap ought to raise questions about whether the free market works all that well. But inequality is baked into capitalism, and its effects have been exacerbated by technologies, policies, and corporate-centered ideologies. While many commentators blamed workers for not being savvy enough to succeed in a struggling economy, few questioned GM CEO Mary Barra’s upfront statement that her primary focus was on “maintaining shareholder value.”

Blaming the working class has long been a default move for elite and middle-class people. Some have faith in the cultural myth of meritocracy. They see their success as a matter of effort and talent and assume that working-class people just don’t have enough of either. For others, judging workers is a way to displace their own anxieties about the uncertain economy. Both project their biases onto the working class and reassure themselves that they deserve their economic privileges.

No wonder working-class people are rejecting mainstream politics, embracing populism, and, increasingly, taking to the streets.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon




Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments