Essential Work: The 2020 WCSA Awards

At the center of all the chaos and turmoil of 2020 has been the essential worker on the front lines—from healthcare workers treating those infected with COVID-19 to service workers of all kinds who have kept us fed, supplied, and safe while putting their own safety at risk, all too often in jobs which are precarious and underpaid. Working-class life, experience, and precarity have has perhaps not been more central or important in recent memory. And that means that Working-Class Studies has never been more relevant.

Ordinarily, the Working-Class Studies Association would announce its annual awards at its conference, but this year’s conference – marking our 25th anniversary in Youngstown, Ohio – was postponed for a year because of the pandemic. But the awards won’t have to wait a year.

As past-president of the WCSA, I chaired this year’s  Awards Committee. Having served as a reader for various award categories in the past, I know that historically we draw a wealth of strong submissions that reflect the range and diversity of work in this field. This year was no exception. If the work submitted for our annual awards is any indication, Working-Class Studies is in excellent shape as we wind our way into whatever the future holds.

I also know the time and care that goes into reading award submissions. Those gracious enough to offer their time and expertise for this task this year are most appreciated and have my enduring thanks.

The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism were diverse in focus and affirmed the depth of work taking place in the field. The winner, Alison Stine’s “The Last Days of the Appalachian Poverty Tour,” garnered high praise from the judges, who called it “reflective and hard-hitting” and noted that it makes visible “some of the main characteristics of impoverished communities, without over generalizing or stereotyping.” Another judge wrote that Stine “Provides a complex analysis that includes both the oppression and pain but also the resilience and community of working/poverty-class life.”

The depth and breadth of work nominated for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences made for tough decisions, but the winner was Christopher R. Martin’s book No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class.  As one judge wrote, the book “examines the shifts in journalistic trends that parallel both deindustrialization and the conservative political turn from the late 1960s onward.” It considers “the increasing preference for upscale (middle- and upper-class) readers at the expense of labor reporting and stories by and about working people.” Martin traces how conservative politicians and business elites used “the term ‘job killer’ . . . to undermine work meant to protect the social safety net, union efforts, environmental protections, and the like . . . and demonstrates that it is precisely those CEOs lauded in mass media as ‘job makers’ who are the real job killers.” Another judge praised Martin for “identif[ying] reforms that promise to restore the visibility and voice of the working class, to the benefit of the media, the working-class majority, and indeed, the country as a whole. This book deserves the widest possible audience!”

The winner of this year’s John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences was Pamela Fox’s essay “Born to Run and Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” from Popular Music and the Politics of Hope: Queer and Feminist Interventions. As one judge wrote, the essay offers “Rich analysis and very useful movement between the musician autobiographies, theories of autobiography, and how the latter have to be complicated by a class analysis. Popular music narratives and experiences form a counter narrative to power, a ‘politics of hope’ in contrast to dominant narratives of class and disability, class as disability. Her suggestion of ‘reparative practices’ should be taken up in working-class studies and fleshed out.”

The submissions for this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative included short stories, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. The winner was Jodie Adams Kirshner’s Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises. Judges had high praise for the book and its subject matter, describing Kirshner as “a self-appointed defense attorney for Detroit’s leftovers. Her knowledge has depth and heart.” Another judge wrote that the book is “Excellent nonfiction work on the undoing of Detroit” that “follows key players through the story with insider knowledge of the world she depicts. Rigorously researched. Important work. Exemplar we could turn to in envisioning other working-class stories of place.” A final comment highlights the book’s relevance and quality: “Without succumbing to a single point of view, Jodie Adams Kirshner brings together a wide cast of those most affected and thereby opens the case of and for Detroit and our other large cities suffering financial strain. This is a book is worth reading for its essential story as well as its eloquence of style.”

There were two winners for this year’s Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for a Book about the Working-Class Academic Experience: Clever Girls: Autoethnographies of Class, Gender and Ethnicity, edited by Jackie Goode, and Allison Hurst’s Amplified Advantage: Going to a ‘Good’ College in an Era of Inequality. Of Goode’s collection of autoethnographic essays, most by British working-class women, one of the judges writes “It is a wonderfully evocative collection that really opens up the experience of class transition to the reader, positively inviting the reader to tell their own story – a wonderful use of autoethnography, and a great book for working class students and faculty alike, as well as having some appeal to a general public.” The book also garnered appreciation for its focus on female working-class subjects. Hurst’s book was praised as “particular timely in terms of the recent admissions scandals.” A second judge said: “This is a hugely important book. By looking at different types of students in the American liberal arts college tradition, it demonstrates clearly and vividly that the situation for working class students in higher education is not simply one of equal opportunities or even equal access.”

In the final award category, the Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation went to Melissa Meade for her work In the Shadow of ‘King Coal’: Memory, Media, Identity, and Culture in the Post-Industrial Pennsylvania Anthracite Region. The book “considers the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender in its examination of identity formation and also considers the ‘environmental classism’ which is a result of polluted and poisoned landscapes.” One judge commented that Meade’s project shows how working-class stories “provide the working-class subjects with agency.”  Another described the work as “soundly theorized, yet poignantly human and personal.  A new vantage point on an oft-studied region. The trope of the decades-long fire smoldering under this region of the country resonates powerfully in our current political environment.”

Congratulations to all the winners and to those whose work was nominated! This year’s submissions were indeed a strong collection of diverse, powerful work that bodes well for the diversity and the cultivated and consistent interdisciplinarity of Working-Class Studies.

Cherie Rankin

Cherie Rankin is a professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL. She is also a published poet whose work has appeared in Labor: Studies in Working Class History, Dragon Poet Review, and Typoetry, a visual exhibit of poetry at Heartland.

Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Downwardly Mobile: How Some People Lose Class Privilege

We have two narratives about class in this country. Perhaps the most prominent is the American Dream – the idea that hard work and moral fortitude can lead people from rages to riches. The second is that of the rigged class system, one designed to ensure that the privileged remain privileged while the poor remain poor.

There are several problems with these narratives, but I want to focus on one: they both miss a large group of people, the downwardly mobile. In fact, one in two kids born into the upper-middle-class – one in two kids born to a college-educated professional parent – fall out of this class as adults.

I wanted to learn how kids raised with so much could lose the privileges they had. So I poured over interviews researchers conducted with over 100 upper-middle-class Americans who they followed from age 13 to age 28. I found out that my idea that they have so many resources was wrong.

As I write in my new book, Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, being born into the upper middle class doesn’t guarantee that children receive high levels of the three resources that help them stay at the top: academic skills, institutional knowledge, and money. These resources depend on parents having them and passing them down, and that doesn’t happen as often as the rigged class system narrative leads us to believe.

Some upper-middle-class parents do not have high levels of these resources themselves. Not all professionals earn a lot of money, so they don’t have it to pass down. In many families, the parent most involved in childrearing – usually the mother – does not have a college degree or a professional job, so she isn’t well positioned to teach her children how to navigate college or prepare for the professional workforce. Of course, some parents who do have all of the resources of the upper middle class don’t pass them on to their children. They may work so much that they spend little time with their children, become too sick to pass them down, or just believe that children should forge their own path. And sometimes, health issues keep kids from internalizing or using the resources they get from their parents.

Children who receive few resources from their parents realize that they this will limit their ability to gain status through school and work. Many then decide that these resources are not worth having and that they don’t want to spend their time in the institutions that value those resources.  Instead, they form identities based on what their resources allow: as a wife and mother, family man, artist, athlete, rebel, or the like. This gives them ways to gain status, but it also leads to a change in their class. Instead of focusing on school, college, and professional jobs, they opt out of these institutions – putting themselves on a downwardly mobile path.

Virginia is a good example. Her father was an upper-level executive who earned a six-figure income, so she grew up in a six-bedroom house. But Virginia’s dad was so busy working that she barely knew him. They didn’t talk much about school and his work. Instead, Virginia spent most of her time with her mother, who had dropped out of college when she became pregnant with Virginia’s older sister and had been a stay-at-home mother ever since. She didn’t know how to navigate college and professional jobs herself.

Raised without the knowledge that helps students succeed in school or work, Virginia was unlikely to excel in either. So, she opted out. She saw school as a place to pass through, deemed college irrelevant, and framed professional work as immoral as it would take time away from the people she cared about most. Instead of drawing on her community to gain the resources she would have needed to succeed in school, college, and work, she set her sights on fulfilling roles her resources allowed: becoming a wife and mother.

Virginia started working toward these goals at an early age. In high school and after, she tried to enter relationships that would move toward marriage. By her early 20s, she had become engaged and hoped to soon have children. Because she did not attend college, the men she met were not in college either – including the man she married. Despite her father’s high income, education, and occupation, Virginia then did not have the resources she needed to excel in the institutions that lead to class reproduction, and she formed an identity that didn’t require them or encourage her to see them out. Doing so led her out of the institutions that could keep her in her class and onto a downwardly mobile path.

Cory’s case is a little different. Both of his parents had graduate degrees and professional jobs. His mother spent a lot of time with Cory, monitoring his homework, talking to him about how to do well in his courses, and managing his college applications. He learned to do well in school and earned reasonably high grades. But his family didn’t have a lot of money. His father was in and out of employment, and his mother’s job as a school librarian didn’t pay a high salary. Cory felt that he stood out among his classmates because he had to work a part-time job, didn’t have a car, and was the last of his classmates to get a cell phone.

Raised with less money than his peers, Cory formed an identity around not needing it. He identified as an athlete: a type of person who would pursue a passion rather than money. Cory dedicated his time to sports, became known for his success playing soccer and basketball, and often talked of his passion for the game. As he put it, “God is number one and sports are number two.” When it came time to picking a college, he chose one with a sports management major. He spent his time in college learning about sports, playing intramural sports, writing about sports, and interning for a minor league sports team.

But while the identity of an athlete covered for his family’s lack of money, being disinterested in how to make money later hurt him. Cory never researched the labor market for sports-related jobs. He just assumed that once he graduated with a sports management degree, he would be offered a job in the front office of an NBA team. Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, Cory ended up with three part-time jobs – he ran a basketball league, played basketball with kids in an after-school program, and, in the summer, he organized a half-day sports camp. He wasn’t sure if he would ever land a professional sports job, but he remained determined to follow his passion rather than selling out by going in to a different kind of business. The identity Cory formed then reflected his family’s little money, but also encouraged him not to seek out ways to make money himself. This strategy brought him some forms of status, but it also pushed him out of the upper-middle-class.

As Virginia and Cory remind us, there are millions of Americans whose lives are not captured by the stories of the American Dream or the rigged class system. Rather, their stories are ones of snowballing effects – of how being raised without some resources cascades into a series of experiences and identities that lead to downwardly mobile paths.

Jessi Streib

Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Duke University and the author of Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall.







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Universal Basic Income and Working-Class Futures

There have been few good things to come out of COVID-19. We’ve seen a genuine sense of community spirit emerge along with greater respect for blue-collar workers in the front line. In the UK, we’ve seen another less obvious shift: an emerging commitment to the idea that all citizens within a country should enjoy a basic minimum income. While some conservative politicians may hate the idea, the UK has come close to creating a system of Universal Basic Income (UBI). This seems a radical departure from the welfare regimes that we have become accustomed to over the last seven decades. Some may think it smacks of communism. In reality, the idea goes back a long way, and its roots may lie in radical politics and utopian socialism such as Tom Paine’s eighteen century pamphlet The Rights of Man. It has even attracted interest from both the political left and right. Richard Nixon toyed with the notion in the 1970s, and Finland has recently tried out a version.

In the UK at the moment, it takes the form of an unprecedented jobs retention scheme for workers who would otherwise be laid off as businesses closed during the pandemic. Many workers have been furloughed, but the treasury is paying 80% of their wages up to £30,000.  The average wage in the UK is around £25,000, and a minimum wage job would pay around £16,000 for someone over 25 employed full time. At present, 8.9 million workers are on the furlough scheme, and it has cost £19.6bn so far. Another 2.6 million people – those who are self-employed or not classified as employees — have also been helped through other schemes.

These moves to provide support for all laid off workers have cruelly exposed the plight of gig workers and the fiction that they are independent contractors. The Taylor report into the gig economy in 2017 estimated there were then 1.3 million workers regularly involved in gig work out of a UK labour market of 32 million. Though a small proportion, the same report predicted a rapid expansion in this form of work.  These gig workers don’t qualify for the furlough scheme, because it was designed around an older model of work. Their relative invisibility and marginality in the labour market has made them difficult to reach by normal welfare routes, and most of the gig work they rely on has dried up altogether. The World Economic Forum has noted that gig workers were likely the hardest hit by the pandemic.

While the furlough scheme, and other employment support measures are temporary, it should invite debates about the nature of work today and about the potential of UBI, which may represent the answer to a whole series of questions that loom over the contemporary work place. That makes it particularly important for the working-class.

Many commentators on work and technology have suggested that we are entering — or may already be in — an era where the past certainties of work have disappeared.  In my courses on the sociology of work, I have had to teach the concept of a job for life as history for two decades. Stable employment and occupational pensions are also becoming history. They’re being replaced by ideas about precarity, insecurity, the gig or platform economy, and a whole host of novel forms of economic relationship which undermine work, especially for the working class. Along with the by now familiar pressures of globalisation, outsourcing, off-shoring, and information technology, workers face new threats — AI, algorithms, big data, and robotics. These combine to destroy huge numbers of jobs – good and bad – that blue- collar workers have relied on for decade, and they increasingly affect white-collar and professional jobs as machine learning starts to take on medical, legal, and financial judgement in the workplace. Clearly, while efficiency and profits increase, the share of work is increasingly under strain, and this creates anxiety for workers, making them less willing to take risks or explore alternative forms of work.

Under UBI, everyone in a society would be entitled to a minimum basic income throughout their lives – even potentially as children. Welfare payments and the infrastructure of enforcement could be abolished or vastly reduced. The amount UBI would provide is up for debate, and some think that it might help those on middle incomes and even hurt the poorest. However, I think the benefit for working-class people is obvious – security.  Security of income, accessible educational and training opportunities, and the ability to care and be present when their kids grow up or their parents grow old.

A key argument in its favour is that UBI enables people of all classes to make choices — to stay in education, to take a career break, go travelling, look after children while they are small, or look after elders – their own family or friends and neighbours.  It would allow people to take risks in their lives, to start new businesses, or to retrain throughout their working lives rather than feel compelled to stay in jobs they hate in order to get by.  This should be attractive to all regardless of class.  Individuals, families, communities, and the population would all benefit from greater levels of education, knowledge, and skill.

Perhaps the argument that might flip UBI from a utopian pipe dream to something on the political radar is that it could enable fair green transitions.  Too often workers in the high carbon producing parts of the economy feel compelled to defend the continued use and extraction of fossil fuels because they fear losing their jobs. UBI provides an alternative that can underpin a socially just economically viable transition to greener development.

At its heart, UBI is radical because it seeks to address some of the key drivers of inequality in our society – access to good work and a decent income.  Everyone stands to gain but especially the working class – the group that is being most adversely affected by COVID-19. One of the positive things that could come out of this crisis is opening a fundamental debate about the relationship between our work, community, and society.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Racism and the Working Class

When I tell other middle-class professionals who don’t know me well that I’m writing a book about working-class culture, it’s amazing how often they respond approvingly that “white racism” is an important subject.  My reaction, depending on the circumstance, ranges from embarrassment to rage.

It’s frustrating that “working class” reads as all white to so many people who should know better.  And it pisses me off that so many educated people assume that the white part of the working class is either uniformly racist and/or that racism is the most distinctive part of their culture. And it often seems there is a background assumption that little or no racism exists among the educated middle class, that all white racism is contained within the working class.

If there is a common working-class culture across racial and ethnic groups, as I think there is, white racism cannot be part of what is common in that culture, because about 40% of the American working class is not white.  So even if many working-class whites are vociferously racist, racism cannot characterize working-class culture as a whole. Nor have social scientists been able to establish with any certainty that white working-class people are more racist than other whites, let alone measure the difference.  White racism in various forms exists among middle-class professionals. And because they have more power, their racism likely has greater impact than the individual attitudes of working-class whites.

These extravagantly false assumptions are largely based on both educational and occupational snobbery, which plays out in all kinds of ways, some of them inconsequential.  But, as law professor Ian Haney Lopez has documented, they can have a toxic effect on American politics by strengthening racist dog whistles even when you are trying to combat those whistles.

In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Lopez reports on a political narrative project he helped design after the 2016 election.  In an extensive, country-wide set of surveys and focus groups, the project presented several different political messages to respondents.  Researchers found that neither a message focused only on racial justice nor one focused only on economic justice was as popular and as effective against racist dog whistles as a message that combined calls for racial and economic justice – one that presented interracial solidarity as a necessary condition for economic justice.

To understand this, we have to see how white racism in the working class is layered within a class resentment against middle-class professionals, especially those whose exclusive focus on marginalized groups makes them seem unaware that a struggling white part of the working class faces many of the same economic conditions as black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous peoples.  When politicians and progressive advocates focus solely on racial justice, their messages call forth this class resentment. They also stoke fears that citizenship and whiteness may be the only assets these white workers have left.

Similarly, a message that seeks to appeal to broad class interests benefitting people of all races and genders, while attractive, seems to many black and brown people to gloss over injustices that affect only them or that affect them to a much greater degree.  What’s more, colorblind economic populism, while popular among white workers, does not undermine racist dog whistles and their impact among whites.

Paradoxically, when politicians or media commentators denounce the use of dog whistles like “thugs,” “law and order,” and “illegal aliens” – let alone rhyming looting with shooting – the dog whistles actually become more effective. Because most whites do not want to see themselves or have others see them as racist, they hear critiques of this kind of language as dismissive of their legitimate concerns about crime, law and order, and illegal immigration. They resent being labeled as simply racist, and the result is a melding of both class and racial resentments.

Lopez’s research shows that the most effective message went directly at dog whistles but not simply by denouncing them.  Rather, the best message focused on the purpose and effect of the whistles: to make it harder for the vast majority of Americans to see and pursue their self-interest by uniting to confront our economic and political oligarchy.  The winning message explained that attempts to divide us along racial lines undermines any attempt to redress our shared and growing inequalities of income, wealth, and power.  The winning message called for interracial solidarity as the essential requirement for effectively pursuing both racial and economic justice at the same time.

One of the project’s most interesting findings was that the largest group of respondents (59%) embraced an inconsistent mix of progressive and reactionary views – including people who agreed with both a specific progressive view and its conflicting reactionary one.  For example, this majority group, whom Lopez calls “persuadables,” found both racial-fear and racial-justice messages convincing in nearly equal measure.  And this was basically true of all racial groups, as 54% of African Americans and 60% of Latinx found the racial-fear message convincing, compared to 61% of whites.

Lopez concludes: “It’s true that those [persuadables] – most whites and most people of color, too – filter the world through stereotypes and racist ideas.  It’s also true, though, that they simultaneously hold progressive racial ideals.  The job ahead is not to start in educating the broad middle about racism, but to speak to the anti-racist convictions they already embrace.”

Though Lopez does not provide a class breakdown, my guess is that the non-college-educated working class of all colors is over-represented among the persuadables and that middle-class professionals are over-represented among the smaller groups who expressed either consistently progressive or consistently reactionary views.  That guess is based on 30 years of teaching working-class adults of all colors.  In my early years, I insisted on simple consistency as a logical imperative, but I gradually learned that many apparent inconsistencies are not necessarily illogical if you dig deeper, and I came to respect people’s ability to hold what they knew were contrary notions.  I must have heard hundreds of times students saying something like: “I know I’m contradicting myself, but that’s how I feel.  What am I supposed to do – lie?”

College-educated professionals, on the other hand, tend to overvalue consistency and to be much less willing to express contrary notions.  Our earnest efforts to rely on evidence and logic often lead us to neglect how fear and hope are feelings before they are thoughts. Most Americans desperately want racial harmony, I’m guessing, precisely because they have such deep racial fears.

Lopez’s counsel to speak to whites’ anti-racist ideals is important for this moment because it so strongly warns against class-inflected finger-wagging and moral superiority. The inspiring explosion of nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has uncovered a surprising well of interracial solidarity, especially among young people.  As soon as protestors moved from police misconduct to wider issues of racial inequality, they inevitably enter terrain where class inequality merges with racial injustice.  A big part of our endemic racial disparities simply reflects the reality that people of color are disproportionately working class.  We cannot address the magnitude of racial injustice without simultaneously addressing economic injustice, and to achieve economic justice we’re going to need the kind of interracial solidarity that’s been marching in our streets these past few weeks.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

George Floyd and the Costs of Racial Capitalism

George Floyd’s public viewing will be held this afternoon at The Fountain of Praise Church in southwest Houston. A private funeral service will occur tomorrow followed by burial in Houston Memorial Gardens Cemetery about sixteen miles south of Houston’s Third Ward, Floyd’s home for many years. Along with services in Minneapolis last Thursday and Raeford, North Carolina on Saturday, these memorials ensure his life will be remembered. Protests in the District of Columbia, all fifty states, and fourteen countries ensure the manner of his death will never be forgotten.

Another meaningful way to honor George Floyd is to reflect on how he lived his life, including the work he did, paid and unpaid. His work life reflects what many workers experience in this pandemic period — pervasive job losses for some and risky working conditions for others.  Workers of color have suffered disproportionately from both. Floyd’s life and the protests his death sparked reflect the consequences of racial capitalism.

Before he was a symbol, Floyd was  a man known to his family and friends as “Big Floyd” and the “Gentle Giant.”  Much has been made of Floyd’s physical size. But he thought big, too. Even in second grade, at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, he looked ahead with dreams about his life. He wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court judge.” Floyd grew up in  the Third Ward of Houston, in the Cuney Homes where  generations of black working-class families have lived, a housing development named after Norris Wright Cuney, a  prominent nineteenth-century African American businessman and politician in Texas.

The Third Ward, a largely Black working-class area, was also home to Houston’s epic struggle for racial equality. The area includes Emancipation Park, created  in 1872 to commemorate Juneteenth, and the grocery store and luncheonette where Houston’s first sit-in occurred during the Civil Rights movement. The Third Ward was also home to Beyoncé.

After a few years away at college, Floyd returned to the Third Ward, where he began recording with DJ Screw, a central figure in Houston’s hip hop scene. Floyd recorded part of “Sittin’ on Top of the World”: “Welcome to the ghetto, it’s Third Ward, Texas.” Floyd not only made music, he also  customized cars to build in tape decks.

The challenges of living in the Third Ward overwhelmed the opportunities Floyd found there. In 1998, he was arrested on a theft charge. In 2009, aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon landed him in jail in East Texas for four years. But in 2013, he returned home to start anew. He became active in the neighborhood outreach ministries around the Cuney Homes led by Pastor PT Ngwolo of Resurrection Houston. Corey Paul, a rapper, a friend of Floyd’s who was also associated with Resurrection remembers Floyd’s approach to the work: “If it’s God business, then it’s my business.” Floyd helped with set up for ministry events. He was spotted once carrying thirty chairs at once.

Yet Floyd struggled to find work  in Houston. By 2018, he moved to Minneapolis seeking new opportunities. Once there, he continued the ministry of mentoring young people. He also found security work in a Salvation Army store in downtown Minneapolis. Later, he trained to become a truck driver and eventually settled into a combination of truck driving and security work at the Conga Latin Bistro, a restaurant and dance club in Northeast Minneapolis. His boss, Jovanni Tunstrom, said Floyd was always cheerful and had a good attitude. “He would dance badly to make people laugh. I tried to teach him how to dance because he loved Latin music, but I couldn’t because he was too tall for me.”

Floyd held that position for five years until Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order closed down Minneapolis just before midnight on March 27. His job became one of the millions lost to the pandemic in March and April. It was time to start all over again. The day before Floyd died, a friend gave him contact information for a temporary jobs agency.

Floyd’s biography gives us a sense of him as a person, but his work experiences also remind us of how many people struggle in an economy that values flexibility and profit over stability and good pay. In the midst of a pandemic, it is very tempting to engage in nostalgia for a pre-COVID-19 “normalcy.” But such wistfulness ignores how the intertwining strands of white supremacy and capitalist political economy create a virulent racial capitalism.

As Cedric Robinson explains, racialism inevitably permeated the social structures that emerged from capital, including the workplace, the primary site where racial capitalism is materially and painfully experienced. In this health and economic crisis, workers of color suffer the most. Even as the positive May jobs report took experts by surprise with gains in employment for white workers, black and Latinx unemployment rates continued to rise.

The murders of George Floyd and so many others make clear that black lives do not matter under racial capitalism. They are of no consequence at all. The dehumanizing manner of his death leaves no doubt. The Black Lives Matter movement rightly calls for an end to racism and police brutality. This is essential. But the protests cannot stop there.  As the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have amply demonstrated, racial capitalism has long since deemed the bodies of workers of color only fit for whatever capital may have in mind for them. This is especially evident now in the spread of COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry among Latinx workers and among Amazon workers, most of whom are people of color.

As Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor explains “The coronavirus has scythed its way through black communities, highlighting and accelerating the ingrained social inequities that have made African-Americans the most vulnerable to the disease.” Her essay highlights how “the state is failing black people,” but that is not an accident. The state is designed for exactly that.

That is why efforts to suppress the protests – including the military maneuver conducted against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park last Monday to clear the way for Trump’s pathetic photo op — have been so ferocious. Racial capitalism relies on the military and police arms of the state to maintain its version of “peace” and “normalcy.”

The legacy of George Floyd’s life, his contributions to the younger generation, his unpaid and paid labor would have been significant on its own. But his legacy has become bigger that he ever could have imagined. The uplifting of his life in the breath of so many protesters honors “Big Floyd.” And the militarized response has revealed clearly the coiled snake of “normal” racialized violence at the heart of our social compact — and the willingness of the state to support this arrangement no matter the cost.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Ken Estey, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Will Lawyers Stand Up to Defend Working-Class Consumers?

Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. 4.2 million homeowners have placed their mortgages in forbearance. Hundreds of thousands more are in default and have not yet worked out agreements with lenders to fend off foreclosure. Rent, credit card, student loan, and other bills are clogging the mailboxes of working-class families.

While many working-class people feel helpless in the face of all this, socially conscious lawyers can provide a meaningful line of defense, protecting working-class consumers and homeowners and making an honest living in the process.

Both consumers and lawyers missed a similar opportunity during the 2008 recession, when the vast majority of defendants in foreclosure, collection, and eviction cases went without legal representation and many lawyers were unemployed or underemployed. Not only did individual consumers miss the chance to bring consumer protection claims against predatory lenders, they and the lawyers who might have helped them missed the opportunity to reshape the conduct of those bad actors.

My profession mostly stood down in the last recession. One notable exception were
lawyers who graduated from Max Gardner’s Consumer Defense Academy (where I
learned the trade). The overworked lawyers at Legal Aid did what they could, but the private bar has mostly ignored working-class Americans in financial distress. Legal Aid funding has been constantly attacked by Congress, and because many states fund Legal Aid with the interest on attorney escrow accounts, the low interest rates that got many consumers into trouble also undercut poor and working-class people’s access to legal services. Federal law also prohibits Legal Aid from collecting fees from defendants in most circumstances, and that keeps lawyers from pursuing consumer protection claims for their working-class clients.

In many ways this economic crisis could be way worse than 2008. As America’s working class is hurled into the 2020 recession, the Trump administration has disarmed the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and other federal consumer protection agencies. More than ever, working families need lawyers to help them fight back.

Consumers who can’t pay their bills, rent, or mortgage also face some new dangers. More than 60% of mortgages are being collected by thinly capitalized non-bank mortgage servicing companies. National banks realized that the way they handled mortgages during the last recession hurt their reputations, so most have stopped servicing all but the safest and most secure loans. This leaves the 2020 homeowners facing foreclosure in the hands of unknown companies with insufficient capital. Decisions about throwing people out of their homes or modifying defaulted loans will be left to poorly trained, poorly supervised, and poorly paid customer service agents. They will almost certainly do worse than Wells Fargo, Bank of America Citicorp, and smaller regional banks did in the last crisis. And those larger, more sophisticated institutions failed miserably.

If consumers aren’t defended, the pandemic will turn into a housing crisis for working-class families.  Millions could end up homeless and will lose their largest asset.

In Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond lays out a compelling argument that one of the best things society can do to prevent homelessness and to ensure stability for working-class families is to provide them with lawyers if they face eviction. I’m proud to say my hometown of Cleveland has done just that through a public/nonprofit partnership that provides lawyers for every tenant facing eviction. The program will pay and train lawyers to represent tenants who often have defenses to eviction and claims against abusive landlords.

Cleveland’s effort began not a moment too soon. While many places have banned evictions during the COVID crisis, once those stays are lifted upwards of 3 million Ohioans could face eviction proceedings. To ensure high-quality representation, those families and millions more across the country need the support of paid — not pro bono –lawyers.

For all the ways that federal and state governments have undermined protections for consumers, some strong consumer protection statutes remain in place, including some that shift responsibility for legal fees to lenders. From the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act to the Fair Credit Reporting Act to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act and more, literally dozens of policies provide fee shifting remedies. Fee shifting allows working-class people to bring claims without having to pay legal fees, and that makes it easier for lawyers to accept those cases.

Almost 20 years after Barbara Ehrenreich made visible the challenges of working-class life, our clients continue to be “Nickeled and Dimed” every day. Even those who are lucky enough to be current on their rent or mortgage payment face daily abuse from unscrupulous debt collectors, payday lenders, and even their own doctors and hospitals — all seeking payments that working-class people cannot ever afford.

Lawyers need to step up to meet this need.  Those of us who practice consumer law need to train and mobilize an army of colleagues to fight for the working class. Litigating Fair Debt Collection and Equal Credit Opportunity claims or defending foreclosures or evictions may not be glamorous, and it won’t make lawyers rich. But many of us went into law to pursue justice, not wealth. Standing up for the working class in a time of economic crisis gives us a chance to do good while also doing well. And it will let us look at ourselves in the mirror every morning without shame.

Marc Dann, DannLaw

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

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

Deindustrialization as a Template for COVID-19

A long line of cars at a Mahoning Valley food bank in April

As we wrote in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Youngstown’s story is America’s story. That’s true now as we try to imagine American life after the pandemic. No doubt, coronavirus is a natural disaster that is more contagious, widespread, and deadly than the economic disaster of deindustrialization. But the struggles that Youngstown and similar Rust Belt cities faced after the plant closings of the late 1970s offer a stark warning: the economic crash hitting so many Americans now will have long-term costs. Youngstown’s story also makes clear that we can’t rely on private enterprise or individual effort to fix things.

As leaders debate when and how to reopen the American economy, some have warned that the economic crisis will lead to as many deaths as COVID-19. Our research on the social costs of deindustrialization suggests that although this economic displacement is not as lethal as the virus itself, if not adequately addressed, it will indeed cost lives. After deindustrialization left thousands without jobs, heart disease, strokes, and cancer rates increased in places like Youngstown.

So did mental health problems. A lost job doesn’t just mean lost wages, homelessness, or hunger – important as those material realities are. Laid-off workers also lose important networks and routines. For many, losing a job also means losing a sense of purpose and identity. Combine anxiety, isolation, and self-doubt with fear about an uncertain future, and it’s no wonder so many become depressed or seek relief from drugs or alcohol. As Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s by now familiar study of “deaths of despair” has shown, an uptick in alcoholism, addiction, and depression in the early 1980s eventually become an epidemic of disease, overdoses, and suicides.

Youngstown provides a discouraging glimpse of how the economic devastation of COVID-19 could play out for communities as well. Lost jobs reduce tax revenues, so cities struggle to maintain streets, fight crime, and run schools, libraries, and recreation centers. This disrupts the social networks that enable communities to pull together to address problems.

Deteriorating infrastructure, high crime rates, and poor local schools also pose challenges for attracting new business and investments. Residents and local leaders pursue any new opportunity, competing with other localities and offering tax abatements in exchange for jobs. Too often, the result is disappointing, as Youngstown knows all too well. Companies hire few locals, and they move on as soon as the tax deals end, feeding a cycle of local desperation.

Americans may well, like many in Youngstown, lose faith in government, business, labor, foundations, and even religious institutions. They might also lose faith in themselves. Self-doubt undermined our community, in part because people internalized the blame implied in media stories questioning why people failed to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, fell victim to phony economic schemes, or weren’t sufficiently entrepreneurial.

Youngstown’s story had political outcomes, too. Political resentment about insufficient government assistance, led local voters to embrace political demagogues like Jim Traficant. A few decades later, frustration over the community’s continuing struggles and false promises from too many candidates made this traditionally-Democratic area into “ground zero” of Trump country. The current crisis might also generate political effects that could last for a very long time.

People often ask us, what is the answer for Youngstown? Our response is sobering: this place will probably never fully recover. It will survive, but it will not likely thrive. Will that be true for the U.S. after COVID-19?

The answer depends on how we respond. First, we must recognize how the economic policies and business practices of the last few decades created the economic precarity that makes today’s crisis so overwhelming. A society in which so many people live on the edge is particularly vulnerable, as we have seen in recent weeks.

Second, we must expand social welfare programs to provide not only basic food, healthcare, and shelter but also mental health resources to help people recover from the multiple losses of this crisis.

Finally, we must insist that relief programs rebuild the economy from the ground up. We can’t count on business to act in the best interests of communities or workers. History tells us they will act in the interest of investors. We must create a more just and sustainable economy, and that means prioritizing the security of all, not the wealth of a few.

If we fail to recognize that we have the responsibility not only to protect each other’s health but also to protect each other from the devastation of economic collapse, then Youngstown’s story will yet again become America’s story.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor


An earlier version of this piece appeared on NewGeography.


Posted in Issues, John Russo, The Working Class and the Economy, Youngstown | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“People Ain’t Gonna Come to Work if They Don’t Feel Safe”

If you live in Iowa, you get to see a little bit of how the sausage is made, so to speak, especially if it’s pork. It’s a common occurrence to see long semi-truck trailers on the highways, with round pink hog noses poking out through the metal slots, three levels of about 175 hogs. You can smell the truck before you see it.

In northeast Iowa, the full trucks are all en route to the Tyson plant in Waterloo. Tyson has six pork plants (in addition to beef and chicken facilities) in the U.S. Collectively, they process 461,000 hogs per week. That’s nearly 24 million hogs a year.

In Black Hawk County, Iowa, Tyson is the second leading employer (after John Deere), with about 2,800 jobs. The plant has long drawn Latino, Bosnian, Congolese, Burmese, and Pacific Islander immigrant workers, making Waterloo (along with other meatpacking towns) one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest. Students in Waterloo schools speak 45 different languages.

Triumph Foods pork processing facility in St. Joseph, MO. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA.

The work is hard. Meat cutters often work shoulder to shoulder cutting and packaging meat, on their feet the entire time. A current job description notes “heavy/detailed knife work, stunning, and/or saw operation. May require climbing stairs/ladders. Must be able to lift up to 150 lbs (2 people) and push/pull up to 280 lbs.” — all while working in rooms that can be wet and slippery, with temperatures in some rooms as low as 35-40 degrees or over 90 degrees in others. The average hourly rate is $14.96. Shifts can run 10-12 hours, six days a week.

Large institutions with thousands of people in close quarters are perfect places to spread coronavirus. When COVID-19 hit Iowa in mid-March, I was sent home from my university to teach my classes online. On the other side of the county, Tyson workers carried on, in person at the factory. The situation mirrors the COVID-19 class divisions across the country: many middle-class people get to work from the safety of their own homes, while working-class “essential” workers risk coronavirus exposure daily as a condition of their labor.

The work of meatpacking is rarely in the news nationally, or even locally in the Midwest. Although the top four meatpacking companies employ nearly a half million people, in an industry that generates over $231 billion a year, but their difficult work is nearly invisible, off of the radar of the middle-class-targeted news audience. Stories like the Department of Agriculture’s speed-up of pork processing lines last fall are covered as policy debates and rarely include workers’ voices.

The coronavirus has changed that.

A quick review illustrates how the number of stories about meatpacking has skyrocketed. I searched the Nexis News database for the first four months of this year, using the search terms “meatpacker” and “worker.” There were 718 news stories, and the monthly count grew exponentially during the first part of the year, almost like the virus itself:

Jan. 2020:        14 stories

Feb. 2020:       33 stories

Mar. 2020:      59 stories

April 2020:     612 stories

The framing of the stories has changed, too, as a deep concern about workers and communities spread.

The story of coronavirus in Iowa meatpacking plants blew up in the second week of April, as Tyson suspended production at its Columbus Junction, Iowa facility, with at least two dozen workers infected with COVID-19. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said Tyson would make the decision on when the plant would reopen, and that “they are doing everything they can, not just to protect the employees but to continue a really critical part of our food supply chain.” Meanwhile, in Black Hawk County, at Tyson’s largest pork processing operation, workers who have no paid sick days written into their UFCW union contract began a sickout in mid-April, refusing to work in an environment they called dangerous.

On April 18, fearing an enormous outbreak at the Waterloo plant, 20 elected officials from the area pleaded with Tyson to close the plant until all mitigation efforts could be completed. Tyson did not respond, and Reynolds refused to close the plant, lamenting that shutting down the factory might result in hogs being euthanized.

Finally, on April 22, after worker sickouts, community criticism, and more than 180 Waterloo worker COVID-19 cases and one worker death, Tyson closed the plant. That week, Iowa won the ignominious honor of having the fastest virus spread of any state in the U.S.

Hopes to get ahead of the virus lasted only a few days. On April 26, Reynolds announced her first steps to reopen businesses across the state, dismissing a report by University of Iowa researchers that “a second wave of infections is likely” if prevention measures weren’t kept in place until at least mid-May.

This isn’t just a political story. Local news media across the state are bringing workers’ voices into the mix. Like most news organizations across the country, the Waterloo Courier doesn’t have a regular workplace beat reporter. But Courier multimedia reporter Amie Rivers listened to what people were saying in the community and broke the story of the sickout at Tyson in Waterloo. Iowa AP correspondent Ryan Foley wrote moving stories about people who worked at Tyson plants and died from COVID-19. IowaStartingLine, an online publication, interviewed young Latinos and Latinas deeply worried about their parents who worked in meatpacking plants. Local TV stations and Iowa Public Radio featured stories of workers and meatpacking, too, as did CBS, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC. The New York Times podcast “The Daily” featured a heartbreaking half-hour interview with Achut Deng, a single mother, UFCW member, and Sudanese refugee who contracted COVID-19 at the Smithfield factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Iowa’s meatpacking plants are only part of the story. Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of Payday Report, has literally connected the dots by mapping all of the instances of worker resistance. On his COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, he has recorded 184 wildcat strikes that happened since the beginning of March. The actions, all pandemic related, include Amazon fulfillment workers walking out in Tracy, California; fast food workers striking at 50 stores in Central Florida; and Richmond, Virginia bus drivers conducting a sickout.

On May 5, Reynolds finally released data showing almost 1,400 coronavirus cases at three Tyson plants: 221 in Columbus Junction, 444 in Waterloo, and 730 in Perry, the latest outbreak. The local newspaper headline in Perry read “Jaw-dropping 58% of Perry Tyson workers test positive.” Two days later, the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo reopened with plastic shields spacing workers six feet apart. The day after reopening, Black Hawk County health officials reported that 1,031 Waterloo Tyson plant workers had COVID-19, more than 2.3 times the number of the state’s undercount.

I talked with Samuel Stokes, the UFCW Local 431 union representative/organizer in Waterloo, about how the workers felt about going back. “People ain’t gonna come to work if they don’t feel safe. They don’t care about being fired. They care about their lives and their family’s lives.” He said about half of the workers want to return, and about half don’t. “They just pray that Tyson has their back. If they go back and Tyson is not safe, it will be the same thing all over again. They will voice their opinions.”

It is hard to believe that it has been only about two months since the WHO called COVID-19 a global pandemic. Workers face the double threat of a deadly virus and long-term unemployment that increasingly rivals the Great Depression. There is no magical cure (sorry hydroxychloroquine, UV rays, and bleach), so we may well see more examples of workers and citizens forming a mutual solidarity for their own and their community’s survival for months or years to come.

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Fishing Industry Workers Struggle to Beat Long Odds

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing signs of worry about the food supply. Meatpacking plants have closed due to high rates of infection among workers. Farmers plow crops under and pour thousands of gallons of milk down the drain. Closer to home, grocery workers, now seen as essential, face a higher-than-average risk of contracting the virus.

So far though, we’ve heard very little about the fishing industry or its workers. That might be because reports on the fishing industry tend to replace workers with what they produce, gauging the health of the industry in tons of catch and how demand affects prices. But in concentrating on those numbers, industry portraits erase multiple factors that shape fishing and affect fishing industry workers.

Talk of rising catch hides the depletion of wild stocks, for example, an ongoing problem.  The Gulf of Maine hasn’t allowed shrimping since 2013, and this year it banned any catch whatsoever–even for monitoring–in a last-ditch attempt to save shrimp from extinction in the region.  That follows on the heels of the collapse of cod and cod fishing all along the northeast coast of the United States. Head to the northwest corner of the country and you’ll hear that wild salmon stocks are retreating at a rapid rate, so fishing boats based in Gig Harbor, Washington, now have to make the long trek to Alaska to find fish every spring.

Depletion is tied to a larger and somewhat more abstract concern: the environment. The Gulf of Maine is the fastest-warming body of water on our climate-changing planet, and everyone in the lobster business knows it.  Meanwhile, down along the coast of Louisiana oyster producers tell you that their marshes are disappearing more rapidly than any coastal area in the United States.  Add to that an unprecedented volume of fresh water flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi due to massive rains and run off out of the West and mid-West in 2019.  All this in a fishery still dealing with the impact of the BP Horizon explosion and pollution.

Finally, global socio-economic issues are directly affecting independent fishers. Speaking of lobstering in Maine, National Fisherman’s “Yearbook” notes that after 2018 tariffs, lobster exports to China dropped by 46 percent. Politics, economics, the environment—clearly, the seafood industry involves more than just how much fishers catch.

All of this affects the industry’s workers. As Keith R. Criddle writes in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, we should think about fishing in terms of “conditions that promote social and economic well-being, viable resource dependent communities, and an institutional structure that allows for evolution of socio-ecological systems.”

Fishery workers, like others in the food chain, face new threats because of the coronavirus, which will likely create a long-term disruption in the seafood trade. The prices that fishers were getting at the dock from wholesalers and processors were already depressed by those tariffs.  That problem has now combined with COVID-induced shifts in the public’s struggle to answer what’s for dinner tonight. Seafood may not be a ready answer, even where available.

In response, state governors and legislators quickly began pursuing federal assistance for their community-based seafood industries. But although desperately needed, support for continuing production will not solve other hidden problems.  Like farmers who are forced to dump milk or plow crops under, fishers need to sell what they catch, and that is not happening. Instead, as Keith Decker noted in early April, even lobster, “the highest-value fishery” has seen wholesale prices fall dramatically.

Effects of this virus-induced decline will likely be felt long into the summer as fishers and their communities face a drop in summer travel, a prime market for fresh seafood. That will be a damaging blow to fishing and tourist-focused towns, one not likely to be offset by the opening of state economies.  In short, the ongoing pandemic is combining with long-standing challenges in the industry to add force to a wave building on the horizon–one that will further disrupt the lives of fishers.

Nor can fishers count on the CARES act to provide much help, even though it breaks enormous precedent in allowing self-employed and gig workers to collect unemployment. Those payments are stop-gap at best, and many are being swallowed up by large corporations.  As Robert Vanasse of Saving Seafood notes, the $300 million allotted for commercial fishing is “a large amount of money” but, given the scale of the industry, “it will not go far enough.” Without more aid, Vanasse argues, boats will remain at the dock, and “the downturn could drive thousands of commercial fishers, many of them third- or fourth-generation operations, into bankruptcy and adversely affect coastal communities around the country.”

COVID aside, most of the threats to the fishing industry are not new.  But they are all complicated by another aspect of the industry:  the very independence fishers pride themselves on often means that they suffer when it comes to federal and state aid.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, government relief relied on formulas that often did not match well with the fishing activities of independent producers.  Many small, family-owned businesses were disadvantaged by the very process of assessing damages, a situation not likely to go away anytime soon.

All of which makes clear why we need to consider not just how much fish and seafood is caught but also how lost work affects peoples’ lives.  Numbers alone can’t tell the whole story. For other food industries, we have dramatic videos of milk being dumped and crops being plowed under. News reports regularly remind us that it is not only food but farmers’ livelihoods being destroyed. Fishing families face a similar future, but we don’t have visuals to tell their story. Idle boats don’t carry much dramatic impact. But like many invisible dangers, those worker-less boats are symptoms, physical markers of lives and livelihoods being uprooted and quite possibly damaged beyond repair.

James V. Catano

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


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May Day 2020: Workers in the Pandemic Time

Around the world, the first of May, is generally celebrated as a public holiday.  May Day’s origins go back to 1886, when 300,000 U.S. workers in 13,000 businesses laid down their tools in a general strike, joining 40,000 in Chicago to demand the eight-hour workday.  The Haymarket Square riot, days later, marked these events indelibly.  In subsequent years, labor movements acting in solidarity proposed the date to commemorate these events as the International Workers Day.

Globally, May Day is usually celebrated with marches led by labor unions and the political parties and allies that support them.  May Day 2020 probably won’t be remembered for the marches, if there are any, but for the struggle and sacrifice of workers, many of them newly understood to be essential, others newly unemployed. The fragility of work in an unequal economy has been laid bare in this season of the pandemic.

An ACORN food distribution site in Delhi

ACORN’s union of 45,000 hawkers and street vendors in Bengaluru, India, are mostly daily wage laborers.  To eat that day, they must work that day.  With the country shut down with only four hours’ notice, many were pushed to starvation.  In Delhi, where we run more than a dozen night shelters for migrant workers, overnight we had to organize kitchens to serve more than 7000 meals per day.  In Honduras, our members protested promised food rations were not delivered to our neighborhoods by the government in San Pedro Sula, even as the maquilas in that city’s suburbs suddenly closed, laying off tens of thousands. It’s unclear if or when those plants will reopen. In Lyon, France, our union of security workers went on strike to demand – and win — personal protection equipment to do their jobs. In England, Canada, France, and Ireland, we called for the end to evictions for tenants and a moratorium on rents.

Similar stories can be found everywhere around the world.  The plague joins precarity in oppressing workers globally who are now drowning in the pandemic depression. Is there any good news for workers in this terrible time?  Perhaps.

With workers receiving 85% of their pay in France if still employed, 80% in the United Kingdom, and 90% in Denmark, some countries understand that it pays to support workers before they are unemployed.  Some of that recognition is embedded — too little, too late — in the US Paycheck Protection Program.  A door is opening that we should never allow to be closed.

We have reasons to hope.  A divided Congress provided unemployed workers – more than 22 million of them in recent weeks – an additional $600 per week through the end of July on top of often meager state-determined benefits.  This is a form of temporary national basic income maintenance, potentially changing welfare as we have known it.  For many, the supplement means that unemployment pays more than the normally low wages common in many sectors, forcing companies, supported by the stimulus money, to give bonuses and daily hazard pay to keep essential workers on the job.  At Local 100 United Labor Unions, we are fielding calls from employers asking us to agree to higher wages.  Only months before such requests were triggered by labor shortages. Now it’s because these workers are essential, and they cannot be replaced.  How will this not become the new reality for such work in the future? This is ground that will not be surrendered once the pandemic passes.

Has the pandemic killed gig work or just changed it?  App-based work at Uber and Lyft are in freefall, and Airbnb is burning up its remaining cash.  With the stimulus bill bailing out gig exploiters who have built their businesses on the backs of workers by not paying social security or unemployment, isn’t the argument over now about whether they are employees or independent contractors?  They are inarguably workers today.

Local 100 has a contract for 300 workers with ResCare, the giant service company specializing in government subsidized work, in this case for community homes providing supported independent living for the developmentally disabled.  After ResCare refused to provide PPE or to isolate and pay workers exposed to cases of coronavirus in one of its New Orleans area homes, we filed an OSHA complaint.  The law holds that employers must provide a “safe and healthy” workplace, but health and safety standards generally have become as frayed for workers as the rest of the safety net.  OSHA has been forced to step up in healthcare facilities and commit to investigate the facility with our constant prodding. Whether in healthcare, Smithfield meatpacking in Sioux Falls, GM workers in Detroit, grocery store workers everywhere, will employers be able to avoid real health and safety standards in the future past this moment?  We suspect not.

My niece wrote a recent Facebook post saying that it was the time of year when normally she would find out who her children’s teachers would be in the next school year.  She wrote that she “hoped it isn’t me!”  Daily, applause and pot-banging rings out in New York and other cities around the world for teachers, nurses, and other essential workers, two-thirds of whom across this country are women.  Is there any way we can go back to taking all of this work for granted in the way we did before?  Let’s hope not.

The pandemic has brought a terrible time to the working class of the world, but it has also brought a recognition that workers, not business and the rich, are the essential fabric holding our world and our lives together. It is also the opportunity to make these temporary measures permanent and build the organizations and unions that can make these changes stick. This is the lesson we have to make sure that everyone remembers about May Day 2020.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Wade Rathke | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments