Billy Graham and the Evangelical Origins of Organized Labor

When I heard over breakfast that Billy Graham had died, the news ricocheted around my mind and stirred up lots of memories. The counter of George’s Diner on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn was just the place to begin reflecting on the surprising connection between Graham’s legacy and organized labor.

I came of age in the early 1970s during one of the high points of Graham’s influence. A friend of Richard Nixon, and rightly criticized for that relationship, Graham’s world-wide evangelistic “crusades” continued apace. In 1973, Graham preached to 3.2 million people in a series of services in Seoul, South Korea. The final service on June 3 drew 1.1 million people, most of whom had traveled to Seoul on foot to hear him. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, it was the largest crusade his team ever organized. Over the years, Graham eventually preached in 85 countries on six continents, reaching 215 million people.

I recall little of his much-lauded preaching. What caught my ear, rather, was Graham’s singular manner of invitation to come forward to receive Jesus. I can still hear the signature hymn “Just As I Am” sung by the crowd as individuals soulfully walked forward. As they did, Graham would assure the soon-to-be-converted and particularly those who had not yet made a decision that “the buses will wait.” While he made no specific reference to class, Graham’s invitation to receive the good news of Jesus was plain and unadorned, suggesting that you didn’t need to be somebody special. All you had to be was who you were and ready to receive God’s grace. In my working-class household, this was a theology everyone could work with. If the way to receive the gospel was just an old bus, so much the better that it would wait!

Neither a prosperity gospel nor a liberation theology, Graham’s message did not promise riches or a revolution, but rather an everlasting reward in heaven. Heavenly rewards have long been the promise of what IWW bard Joe Hill called “long haired preachers.” Such preachers are long on words but short on food: “You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky; work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” American evangelicalism, with Billy Graham at the lead, thus seems an impoverished place to ponder labor issues. But according to Graham, evangelicals did not forsake labor. Rather, labor has forgotten that its very source is evangelicalism itself.

On the Sunday before Labor Day in 1952, Billy Graham preached in the Great Auditorium at the historic Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. Methodist ministers created this “place of respite where ‘religion and recreation should go hand in hand’” in 1869 to get away from the “stresses and pressures of society.” On that day, before the official kick-off of the presidential campaign between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, Graham told his listeners that millions of Americans were anxiously awaiting to hear what the candidates had to say about the grave issues facing them, including the still raging war in Korea. But he also pointed to an apparent bright spot, “the laboring man and his family.” Noting the extraordinary growth of unions in the past fifteen years, he commented that “perhaps fifty to sixty million American people are directly or indirectly connected with organized labor.” Labor, Graham reminded his audience, had become a “dominant economic and political force” with “tremendous power.” He also admitted to his disappointment that church leaders were neglecting organized labor.

Graham was not simply an evangelist; he was also a consummate organizer. His advance teams would work with churches and organizations in a given city or area well before an evangelistic crusade. After Graham’s appearances, the newly converted would then be directed to area congregations while Graham and his team would move on.

Graham couldn’t understand why ministers would always direct his team to industrialists and political leaders but not to labor leaders. Yes, Graham saw organized labor as a mission field. He argued that the church “should be impartial toward the labor union as well as to other economic groups.” One should not “place halos on the heads of one group and horns on the heads of another. We must treat all with equal fairness and try to be neither pro-labor nor pro-capital.” This may seem like a surprising statement from an evangelical, but Graham’s evangelicalism was quite different from today’s Christian Right. And to be sure, Graham the organizer would not want to alienate a potential soul-mine of redeemable sinners.

But I think Graham also had something else in mind in his non-hostile view of the labor movement that day. He was attentive to history, particularly to an ecclesiastical history that traced a whole bevy of reform movements, including organized labor, to the religious revivals of the early eighteenth century. As he told his Methodist audience at Ocean Grove, who might have been eager to hear about their spiritual forebears, “you should remember that the trade union movement started as a result of a great spiritual revival. The heritage that labor unions have comes from the church and from the great Wesleyan revivals of the eighteenth century.” Graham underlines this point later in the sermon: “Our great labor unions of America today owe everything they have and are to the great revival under Wesley.” In the absence of these revivals, Graham emphasized that there “may never have been organized labor as we know it today.” Graham’s position on labor in the early 1950s was not unique among the evangelicals who spoke to social issues in those years, hard as it is to imagine how an evangelical today could be even provisionally favorable to a labor perspective.

The occasion of Billy Graham’s death reminds us that his organizing prowess helped create the evangelical era, but evangelicalism in the United States has evolved over time, with many branches that seem to be going their own ways. Evangelicals once explicitly distanced themselves from the fundamentalists to their right, despite overtures from leading fundamentalists to join them. To be sure, most evangelicals in the 1950s were pro-capital and anti-labor, as they are now. But evangelicalism fills a very capacious tent, and we should not forget those, like Graham, who saw labor as an inhabitant under that canopy.

Graham’s death calls our attention not only to his long ministry but also to the surprising range of his perspective over the years. There is plenty to criticize in Graham, and most of us would rather focus on the future rather than on this highly problematic figure of the postwar era. Yet if we take seriously Graham’s implicit instruction to pay close heed to history, we can imagine that there might be other instructive connections between working-class perspectives and religion. For a labor movement in free-fall, looking backward might be the best way to look ahead.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

Posted in class and religion, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Have Ohio Democrats Learned Anything About the Working Class?

Cincinnati Enquirer, Mike Nyerges

In presidential elections, Ohio has long been a swing state. Its voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, then swung right in 2016 to support Donald Trump. On the state level, however, Republicans have dominated for the past two decades. Only partly due to gerrymandering, they have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats hold only nine of the 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and only a third of the 99 seats in the Ohio House. Republicans have also held the governorship for all but four years since 1990. Progressive U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, now seeking his third term, remains the only Democratic candidate to consistently win statewide elections.

Why has the Democratic Party lost so much ground in Ohio? To a large extent, it’s because they have lost the support of white working-class voters.

As in other Rust Belt states, a majority of Ohio voters are white people without college degrees. Fully 55 percent of the state’s voters belong to this demographic, while only 31 percent are white and college educated. In the polling booth, the gap between those with and without higher education has steadily increased, according to pollster Ruy Texiera. To win in Ohio, he argues, Democrats must “find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.”

After two decades of losses, you might think that the Ohio Democratic Party would have figured that out. But for the most part, it has not. Instead, the current crop of Democratic candidates has focused on critiques of Trump, Kasich, and the Ohio legislature. They’ve raised concerns about gerrymandering and voter suppression, the opioid crisis, Ohio’s pitiful record on women’s issues, and the almost uniformly bad performance of for-profit charter schools. Valid concerns all, but the Democrats running for office in 2018 have offered almost nothing in the way of concrete economic platforms.

The website of gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, for instance, features only biographies of him and running mate Betty Sutton and a button to donate. It’s not as if he hasn’t had time to develop a coherent policy agenda, since he has been planning to run for governor for more than a year. Nor does the website identify any specific plans for addressing Sutton’s “kitchen table issues”: jobs and wages, education, healthcare, and a secure retirement. Cordray has raised considerable money, but he can’t count on his personal story to defeat primary opponents like Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman and mayor of Cleveland.

Kucinich and Senator Sherrod Brown are the most notable exceptions to this pattern. Kucinich’s website provides the most concrete – and progressive — platform in the Democrats’ gubernatorial field. Similarly, Brown’s 77-page white paper, Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America, lays out a comprehensive and concrete program to raise worker wages and benefits, give more workers voice and power at work, improve retirement savings, and encourage workforce investments.  That he released his plan in March 2017, on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, shows that he understands that the Democratic Party needs more concrete economic programs squarely aimed at improving the economic lives of working people.  

What makes Brown a strong candidate is that he doesn’t just talk about protecting good jobs. He has long been on the front lines fighting plant shutdowns and outsourcing and leading Congressional battles over unfair trade and banking laws. On trade, he has crossed party lines to work closely with his fellow Ohio senator, Rob Portman. His regular meetings in all 88 Ohio counties and direct connections with working people have made him even more credible.

Candidates could also find a good model in the strategies recommended by Policy Matters Ohio, a non-partisan think tank. Its recent white paper, “A New Way Forward,” outlines “10 ways to support Ohio’s working people,” such as  protecting the right to organize, increasing the minimum wage, protecting against wage theft, fixing unemployment and workers’ compensation,  and improvements in work scheduling and paid leaves. Like Brown’s and Kucinich’s programs, PMO’s plan clearly aims to redress the economic losses sustained by Ohio workers.

PMO Executive Director Amy Hanauer says the organization has met with most of the gubernatorial statewide candidates. So far, only Kucinich is focusing on the group’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, neither the Ohio Democratic Party nor the other statewide candidates have shown any indication of embracing such strategies. An argument can be made for avoiding issues that could cost the party votes within the white working class, such as gun control. No plausible argument can be made, however, to downplay economic concerns. But even progressive candidates like Kathleen Clyde are largely mute on the state’s economic troubles. Clyde is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Secretary of State. She has taken her cue from state Democratic leaders and is pursuing a narrower campaign strategy focused on “bringing real accountability and transparency to my office and securing and modernizing our elections.” While voter suppression has been a real problem in Ohio, aimed primarily at voters of color (most of whom are also working class), Clyde has yet to connect the economic concerns of disenfranchised working-class voters with voting rights or access.

Why haven’t Ohio Democrats come out swinging with a populist campaign that could appeal to the working class? First, the Party’s leadership is too conservative to mount a persuasive populist campaign. The ODP is also inbred, relying on a relatively small circle of consultants who have been responsible for past defeats. Furthermore, Richard Cordray has chosen to rely on the same strategic campaign communication specialists that mainstream Democrats have typically hired.

The ODP is controlled by David Pepper, who chairs the state party. Pepper is the son of the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, and his close circle includes downstate lobbyists and operatives. This group has shown no affinity for working-class voters or their concerns. After the disastrous 2014 election, in which Democrats lost seats statewide and Kasich was re-elected, the ODP rejected Brown’s suggestions for changes in the Party as well as his choice for state chair. Since then, Brown and the Party have had an uneasy and transactional relationship. Sources close to Brown’s campaign estimate that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the contributions to the state party are tied directly to Brown’s involvement. At the same time, Brown needs the party to help get out the vote.

Former Ohio Attorney General, Marc Dann says Ohio voters reward strong convictions. Dann won the biggest political upset in recent Ohio political history when he defeated Republican stalwart Betty Montgomery for Attorney General in 2006. In an interview, Dann said that successful Democratic candidates like onetime Governor Richard Celeste and former Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn all demonstrated a strong commitment to their political views. And, says Dann, they won elections, even though Ohio’s slightly more Republican electorate didn’t always share their views, because they stood by their beliefs.

Today’s ODP has not nurtured strong candidates like these. Rather, Dann believes, the Party has encouraged more moderate, Republican-lite candidates and worked hard to defeat their more progressive opponents in primaries. “Straddling the middle is exactly the right strategy for Republicans,” Dann says, “but is a losing strategy for Democrats.”

Brown understands that, which is why he’s been the party’s only consistently successful statewide candidate over the past two decades. If Ohio Democrats would learn from his example and understand the appeal of the working-class economics like Brown, Kucinich, and organizations like PMO, they just might break the Republicans’ stranglehold on the state.

John Russo

This commentary also appeared on the American Prospect blog.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 46 Comments

Working-Class People on the Snowfields: Class at the Winter Olympics

Photo by Lennox McLendon, AP

The combination of renewed interest in Tonya Harding (due to the film, I, Tonya) and the winter Olympics made me think of class and sport lately – especially sports that involve snow and ice. Although winter sports might be considered quite ordinary for some who live in very cold climates (such as Norwegians), most require expensive equipment and travel.

Harding’s story illustrates this quite well. She came from a working-class family and trained in an ice-rink located in a shopping mall. Based on the representation of her life in I, Tonya and in documentaries about the skater, she struggled to fit in with her peers because she lacked the cultural and economic capital. Her costumes were home-made, her hair was too big, and her muscular frame lacked the expected look of a figure skater. This doesn’t excuse any involvement she may have had in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan (herself from a working-class background), but Harding’s ‘rough’ ways made her an outsider from the beginning of her career. In many ways she was an imposter in the sport.

Working-class people remain outsiders in winter sports, as the current Olympics show. Watching the amazing feats of the athletes is quite thrilling. The jumping, sliding, and skating at break neck speeds is impressive. But to get to this level, athletes need significant resources. Unlike Harding, most winter athletes have had enough financial support from their families to enjoy regular visits to ski areas, skating lessons, and expensive equipment. Even if a working-class person lived in a cold climate, near ski resorts, what are their chances of spending time there – outside of working at the resort?

I don’t mean to disparage the athletes I’ve been watching on television. Many have had struggles to overcome, and their stories are presented as inspiring. We hear about the years of sacrifice, the grueling training schedules, and overcoming injury. Hard work and determination are celebrated. While these seem like working-class values, a deeper look makes clear that these are stories of privilege. No doubt, Olympic athletes have worked hard, but their success doesn’t demonstrate that ‘anyone can do it, as long as you dream big’. We hear about families moving closer to facilities or forgoing vacations and leisure activities in order to train. Parents have left their jobs to focus on supporting their athlete children. But these sacrifices require money and networks. A parent earning minimum wage on a casual contract can’t leave their job to spend all day at the ice-rink. Most can’t even afford the lessons. And even if a potential Olympian is scouted and sponsored, most working-class families don’t have the means to move closer to a training facility. Plenty of working-class families work hard and have ambitions, but they need capital to realize those dreams.

Why does the lack of class diversity in Alpine sports matter? Will it improve the lives of working-class people to see athletes from working-class backgrounds? Should working-class people just ignore the winter Olympics and stick to watching soccer, football, track and field and rugby league — sports that we might have a chance of participating in? The answer lies in the value of sports in general. Athletic endeavor inspires us.  We love stories of athletes overcoming obstacles to compete, especially when a competitor comes from a background like our own. Sports people can be important role models for working-class youth, especially if they use their influence to speak truth to power. Think Muhammad Ali, Billie-Jean King, Serena Williams, or Adam Goodes  (Indigenous Australian Rules Football player). For a working-class young person, watching someone like them compete in a sport that is outside of their current possibilities demonstrates that working class people belong in all areas of life. And lack of diversity matters overall, a point that is ironically reflected in the praise for the diversity of this year’s US Olympic team. The 244-person team includes ten Black and eleven Asian-American competitors.

Sport is also important for working-class communities. Support for a team brings people together, helping to create and maintain a sense of collective identity. It provides a release from the grind of everyday life and can even provide a livelihood for some working-class people.

The amazing tricks performed by the aerial skiers or the snowboarders don’t represent possibilities for most working-class people. Of course, a few working-class athletes – like Harding – have made it to the Olympics despite the classed odds being stacked against them. But exceptions don’t counter the rule. For the most part, the glamour of the ice-rink, the sparkle of the piste is out of reach for working-class sport fans and remains another of the domains reserved for the middle and upper-classes. It doesn’t really matter whether the working-class kid in inner-city London, the western suburbs of Sydney, or rural America actually wants to take up the luge. The point is that working-class people should be represented across all aspects of society.

Sarah Attfield

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Low Cotton: A Class on Class

Frank Tengle family, photo by Walker Evans, 1936

I have never picked cotton, but my mother has. She is the youngest of seven children, one of only two who finished high school. My granddaddy was a Scots-Irish sharecropper plowing Georgia red clay. He never owned his own home. William Henry Richardson was a sweet man who grew surly when he drank too much whiskey, and that, I was told, was pretty often back in the day. I never knew much about his farming life because he and my grandmother, Annie Mae Phillips Richardson, kept only a small garden of okra, corn, and tomatoes in their twilight years. I remember helping them pick vegetables and watching my grandmother boil or fry them, served up with some crispy-fried Spam and cathead biscuits made with buttermilk and lard.

My ancestors grew up in a South that I, as a suburban latchkey kid, could never imagine—not even when I sat on the porch listening to my granddad’s stories while sipping a 10-ounce bottle of “Co-Cola” and eating a moon pie. Perhaps my curiosity about that murky past is what drew me to study Southern working-class culture. My work has taken me to the archives and to the field, to south Alabama and to the south of France, where I told stories of my native region to an audience of undergrads eager to learn all about this culture that many an American does not know. My work has taught me the power of narrative, serendipity, and introspection.

In fall 2015, I taught undergraduate and graduate versions of a course called Rhetorical Theory and Practice at Auburn University in Alabama. AU was founded as a men’s college in 1856, but it is now a research university with strong programs in agriculture and engineering. Most of our students come from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, but few are well acquainted with the Southern system of peonage implemented after Reconstruction, a system that relied on a non-food commodity: King Cotton. While landowners lived in “high cotton,” white and black sharecroppers and tenant farmers dug themselves a little deeper with every hard-won crop, mired in a system designed to control them.

They were digging themselves into a hole I have come to call “low cotton.” These farmers were subjected to the disciplinary gaze of landowners and “polite society,” thereby objectified and alienated from their work. They sold their bodies and minds for a pittance, eking out a bare subsistence despite sacrificing their families’ security, health, and well-being. How was this system designed, and why was it perpetuated? How were the oppressed able to discover and enact their agency? These are some of the questions my students and I explored. We considered difficult truths, connected grand ideas to humble stories, and reflected on our own positions and perspectives within today’s global, neoliberal economic reality. To help students wrestle with complex and challenging questions like these, I rely on five principles: proximity, primary, past, provocation, and praxis. While these reflect my training in rhetoric, they can apply in many fields and contexts, not only in classrooms but also in union halls and community centers.

They all rest on praxis, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s understanding of the interplay between “action” (practice) and “reflection” (theory). My students read critical theories that enable them to think dialectically about contradictions such as subject-object, mind-body, master-slave, and male-female; to understand texts as cultural productions shaped by hegemony and ideology; and to see how working-class subjects can gain what Freire calls critical literacy, the class consciousness (Lukacs) of organic intellectuals (Gramsci) that enables people to claim agency and act upon material conditions. Students not only study action and reflection, but they also engage in action and reflection: they act by crafting arguments for public audiences, and they reflect in informal class writings about what they learned and how well their writing strategies worked.

Proximity means focusing on local communities and contexts. When we study global economic systems—and we must—we sometimes have difficulty not only in perceiving the scope and implications of systems but also in applying the global to our immediate lived conditions. Proximity also addresses the need to “think globally, act locally.” As a land grant university, Auburn’s mission is to serve Alabamians, and most of our students call Alabama “sweet home.” That’s why I assign readings that portray communities to which students can relate and issues in which they can engage. In Rhetorical Theory and Practice, we read oral histories such as All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten (1974); social documentaries such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941); and historiographies such as Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Depression by Robyn D.G. Kelley (1990). Agee and Evans especially stirred students’ passions. Agee’s poignant prose, coupled with Evans’s compelling photos, puzzled and agonized them. They valued the exacting descriptions of the three Hale County families’ lives, but they found the overwrought prose tiresome at times.  They loved Nate Shaw’s story of his long life. They admired his keen intellect and indomitable spirit. This story shows how working-class people maintain the dignity and resolve to surmount daunting obstacles, embrace community, and practice solidarity.

Primary texts form the cornerstone of course readings. Beginning with first-hand accounts recovers silenced voices, inspires archival and field research, and encourages students to curate and share what they find with broader audiences. We toured Auburn’s Special Collections and Archives. Undergrads wrote articles for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, an online compendium housed at Auburn. We developed a list of topics explored in Hammer and Hoe but not addressed in EoA, including the Alabama Communist Party, Southern Regional Council, labor leaders Hosea Hudson and Angelo Herndon, Southern Labor Review, The Southern Worker, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Students were pleased with these possibilities, but the EoA staff ultimately rejected their manuscripts. Despite this, I will likely use this assignment again, because it gave students practice in professional/paid public writing and addressing a “real-world” rhetorical situation.

Graduate students performed primary research on working-class communities, and I required them to submit their completed work to a professional publication, providing an opportunity to practice key academic skills like reading submission guidelines and writing cover letters. Their projects included a comparative study of Hale County Schools’ technology education in the 1930s and 2010s; an account of working-class community groups struggling to wrest economic control of Phenix City, Alabama from corrupt elites; an examination of how whiteness is displaced as an “unmarked norm” in contemporary working-class literature; and a short story about class consciousness in Knoxville, Tennessee. In each case, students integrated primary and secondary research with original arguments to give voice to working-class subjects.

When we study the past, our ultimate goal is to gain insight into our zeitgeist. As labor journalist Stetson Kennedy points out, “The past, needless to say, has its place; namely, that of drawing conclusions for use in the present and future.”  I supplemented our historical study with definitions of “the working class” and with contemporary arguments by writers such as Mike Rose (The Mind at Work), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), and Linda Tirado (Hand to Mouth). These and other readings help to engage students’ critical thinking about income and wealth inequality, poor health outcomes, poor job readiness, wage stagnation, and immigration.  Instead of despairing, we focus on how to address working-class struggles. While student evaluations suggest that the reading load was heavy and dense, they valued the ideas and projects, which helped them think broadly and deeply about history, cultural identity, and political economy.

I decided upon a provocative topic in order to shock students to think critically about how history, culture, and experiences that seem natural are shaped by ideology. As Sven Beckert insists in Empire of Cotton: A Global History, cotton farming and trading brought on “war capitalism,” which shifted economic power from Asia to Europe on the backs of enslaved people. For centuries, King Cotton helped keep the Global Souths under the thumb of landowning gentry, Northern business interests, and now, international banking cabals and trade organizations—not an easy truth to accept. By focusing the course on the cotton industry, its workers, and its power, I want to provoke students to analyze propaganda, connect the dots of power structures, understand their heritage, perceive origins and manifestations of prejudices, and ultimately, act through speaking and writing to challenge hegemony.

Teaching these courses has also helped me connect my work with my history. On the first day of class, I tell students that my granddaddy was a sharecropper. And I use these five guiding principles to help them understand where they came from and how that knowledge might shape where they choose to go. At the end of the semester, I gave each graduate student a brick from the J.P. Stephens factory ruins in Opelika, Alabama—where Norma Rae was filmed. I keep in touch with several students who have told me they display the brick as a reminder of the course and how it changed their thinking.

Helen Diana Eidson

Helen Diana Eidson is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, whose research deals with working-class rhetorics, social movements, and community literacy. She is writing a rhetorical biography of Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), a folklorist, journalist, and historian whose 70-year career spanned labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements.


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Tax Justice and Class Warfare

When Trump Republicans passed the historically unpopular Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, they continued a 3-decades long GOP effort to reshape the tax code in ways that are hard to reverse.  Relying on what political scientists call path dependency, Republicans have steadily moved us toward a tax system that increases inequality and that makes it harder and harder to sustain most of what the federal government does to fulfill its Constitutional responsibility to “promote the general welfare.”   What they have done would be more appropriately titled the Consolidating the Oligarchy Act.

Republicans are betting that a reasonably strong economy and a series of small tax cuts for almost everybody in 2018 will make them more popular going into this year’s mid-term elections.  If Democrats want to win this fall, they cannot be satisfied to merely attack the GOP’s “tax reform,” the vast majority of whose benefits go to corporations and the top 1% to 5% .  They need their own bold tax fairness plan that frankly taxes the rich to pay for a wide variety of government activities that majorities of the public firmly desire – everything from a long-term modernizing infrastructure program and increased funding for education and veterans to deficit reduction and real lower-income and middle-class tax cuts.  Such a program would be wildly popular (see recent Gallup and Pew surveys), with the potential to win back millions of white-working-class swing voters as well as to regain huge margins and turnout among working-class people of color.

Simply removing the tax code’s bias that favors investors over workers, consumers, and home-owners would provide enough revenue ($300 to $500 billion a year) for a progressive government to really make a difference in working people’s lives and prospects.  And unless we do that, the government will increasingly lack the resources to address any of our problems that cost money to solve, which is almost all of them.  What’s more, systematically advocating how to unrig the tax code would provide Democrats a rich opportunity to reveal how American oligarchs have been buying and renting our government to suit their purposes – especially when contrasted with the Trump GOP’s hypocritical insistence that what they have done is a “middle-class tax cut.”

Pelosi-Schumer-Clinton Democrats will not put forward such a tax-fairness program, because they’re afraid of losing wealthy donors and affluent suburban white voters.  Progressive Dems, on the other hand, have developed such a program over the past several years (see here, here and here), but rather than highlighting tax fairness, they focus on raising revenues as ”pay-fors” for the progressive programs they want to enact.  This may be practical and even honest, but it isn’t the right strategy — not this year and probably not for the next several years.

The negative public perception of the Trump Tax Cut as a give-away to corporations and the rich, along with Trump’s historically low approval ratings, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make raising government revenue into the class-war social justice issue it deserves to be.  What’s more, no single action of the President more concretely illustrates the distance between his rhetorical populism and his actions to enrich himself and his fellow oligarchs. To take advantage of this unique moment, progressive Democrats need to lead with moral arguments about tax justice and pound away at the gross class bias in the very structure of our tax code.  This before addressing the complex economic and fiscal issues involved, where progressive analysis and argument are also well-developed and very sound.

The signature plank in a tax justice platform would be equalizing the tax rates for earned and unearned income, which both the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ People’s Budget and Bernie Sanders’s comprehensive reform plan propose to do.  Currently, people who work for a living pay higher marginal rates than people who get their income from investing rather than working.  Most people do not know this, and when they find out, they are outraged.  In a country where working hard is something like a national religion, especially among the working class of all colors, a tax code that disadvantages work is a moral abomination.  Taxing investment income (capital gains and dividends) at the same rates as income you work for would produce a lot of revenue, but the more powerful political point is how the current code dishonors work and disdains workers.

Progressive Dems also advocate a federal sales tax on the purchase of stocks and bonds (usually called a “financial transactions tax” or FTT).   A potentially huge revenue raiser and, therefore, a key “pay-for,” an FTT also brilliantly illustrates class bias in that consumers pay hefty sales taxes for clothing, shoes, and meals at restaurants, but investors currently pay nothing when they buy stocks and bonds.

Finally, there is the beginnings of a policy discussion about a “wealth tax.”  It is usually not noted, however, that we already have a wealth tax at the local level where home-owners pay annual taxes on property.  What is untaxed is wealth in the form of financial assets.  Again, investors are given a free pass.  As with sales taxes, they not only do not pay their fair share, they don’t pay any share at all.   Proposals for a “wealth tax” are not nearly as well developed in legislative language as the previous two ideas, but this concept provides a useful talking-point for Dems because it illustrates so concretely how the tax code is systematically rigged not only against workers and consumers, but also against “middle-class” home-owners.

The especially transparent class bias of the Trump Tax Cut also provides a unique opportunity to advance other progressive goals.   Given the huge tax cuts for corporations, a $15-an-hour minimum wage just got more affordable for businesses large and small.  Likewise, Republicans can no longer label various mandates on businesses – everything from paid family leave, sick leave, and vacations to the wide array of employer mandates in Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s “Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America” – as the onerous job killers they were before corporate bottom lines were refreshed with mounds of cash.  Likewise, the Act left a lot of special-interest loopholes in the corporate code, and even added some, that Democrats can and should go after.

Most political strategists agree that Dems should not run on a simple isn’t-Trump-terrible program in the 2018 mid-terms.  At least 60% of voters in 2016 viewed our stable genius unfavorably then and knew he was dishonest, untrustworthy, and unqualified to be president, but nearly 1/5th of those voters voted for him anyway!  To win governing majorities, Democrats need to stand for a compelling program that offers hope and change again.  An us-against-the-oligarchs message focused on tax justice has a double advantage in that regard.  It is a unifying values message that has the potential to rally the bottom 80% or 90% across lines of race, gender, and class.  And if successful, such a program would provide the revenue needed to reverse the ongoing American carnage in working-class life that is shared — unequally to be sure — by workers of all races, genders, religions, regions, and national origins.

The Democratic Party does not seem well-prepared to advance such a vision, but the vacuity of mainstream Dems’ Better Deal platform, combined with the spectacular hypocrisy of the Trump GOP’s “middle-class tax cut,” opens the door wide for progressive Dems to offer the kind of realistic, compelling program that has been articulated by Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  The technical complexities of our tax code hide a vicious class war, and Donald Trump has just put a loathsome human face on that war.  Of all the rigged systems our oligarchy has in place, unrigging this one could rally large majorities and then provide the resources to turn the wheel of fortune toward America’s struggling working and threatened middle classes.

Jack Metzgar


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Uber, the “Metropocalypse,” and Economic Inequality in D.C.

Public transit infrastructure in Washington, D.C. is crumbling. Metro and bus services have been cut. Fares have gone up. And, safety remains a problem. After 40 years of deferred maintenance, poor management, and the lack of decent, long-term funding, the Metro system needs $1.4 billion worth of repairs, and it must close a $290 million budget gap just to continue basic operations. Some call this the “metropocalypse.”

Private taxi services haven’t been much better. It’s often hard to get a cab, especially for people of color or people who live outside of the wealthy, White areas of the city. Racial prejudice among the mostly immigrant taxi drivers means that Black residents are regularly refused service.

In light of these transit problems, Uber might seem like an obvious win for D.C. Ridesharing services are cheap for riders, require no significant public investment, and limit some of the discrimination that has made getting a taxi so difficult for so many people. Our research shows otherwise. Indeed, Uber could undermine the very thing city officials are working hard to address: economic inequality.

In 2016 we conducted 22 in-person interviews with local policymakers, business leaders, transit planners, lobbyists, and labor advocates as well as 40 in-person interviews with Uber drivers in the D.C. metro area. Our project found a close relationship between Uber and the city government, one that actually decreases economic opportunity.

A poster promoting a new Uber office in D.C.’s 7th Ward

Uber’s relationship with D.C. city officials is cozy and widespread. Together they have created promotional videos, held ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and collaborated on transit plans. As an Uber lobbyist put it, city officials have “adopted our view of the world.” The city’s regulation of UberX—the low-cost, digital ride-hailing service—is the clearest example. The legislation, according to Uber, is “one of the best models for us” because it “basically allows us to set out the standards.” To make this happen, Uber spent $300,000 lobbying the City Council, its CEO testified at city hall, and it coordinated 5,000 emails to Council Members within a 24-hour period arguing against a legislative edit the company did not like. As one City Council employee explained, in the three months leading up to the passage of the act, he had “either a meeting, at least one phone call, or at least one email probably every day” with Uber representatives.

D.C.’s bare bones regulation of Uber includes background checks, general vehicle requirements, a mandate regarding insurance, and a requirement that the Taxi Commission collect 1% of all gross receipts for Uber rides. In an unusual step, the legislation also prohibits journalists, researchers, and policymakers from using the federal Freedom of Information Act to access basic information about how many vehicles are on the road during a given week or how many registered Uber drivers live in the city. Uber claims 1.9 million riders and 42,000 drivers in the D.C. region, but this policy makes it impossible for us to verify the claim.

Last year, Mayor Muriel Bower expanded the city’s ties to Uber by announcing a formal partnership with Uber Movement, a service that offers access to certain, anonymized data about congestion and travel patterns. Uber describes its data on 2 billion trips worldwide as a treasure trove for cities and frames itself as a key resource for local governments concerned about transit development. However, the data that Uber Movement offers falls well short of what many planners actually need or want. A recent report by the National Association of Transportation City Officials lists seven types of data that cities need in order to improve the transportation process. Uber has only been willing to share one.

The growing relationship between D.C. and Uber raises four concerns. First, Uber does not promote decent jobs. As we have shown, drivers labor under poor working conditions with high risks and no financial stability. Other research suggests that these jobs may even increase inequality.

Second, Uber is not accessible for everyone or everywhere. Our research found that drivers avoid poor neighborhoods, and, if they have to drop off a passenger in one such area, many turn off the Uber app to avoid picking up new passengers there. As one driver explained, “ I don’t pick up in southeast D.C. or [Prince George’s] County because I don’t know the area. It has nothing to do with racism, demographics, or anything like that.” In Arlington, where he lives, or neighborhoods with many bars and restaurants that he knows, he feels more  “comfortable with finding people.”

Other drivers explained that they concentrate in wealthier neighborhoods because Uber provides them with opportunities to earn more in those areas of the city. Uber maintains that these surges reflect demand, which may well be the case, but this algorithmic pricing nonetheless makes transportation equity elusive, and poorer residents—including many people of color—have less access to Uber. Disability activists have found similar limitations and argue that Uber does not meet federal standards for disabled riders.

Third, Uber can undermine working-class riders’ access to public transportation. New research shows that Uber shifts riders to private cars and away from public transit systems. This pattern can lead transit companies to reduce services, which are critical to working-class residents. It can also lead to cuts to unionized transit jobs, which provide opportunities for upward mobility.

Finally, the D.C. Uber story is not exceptional. In 2016, Uber and Lyft hired 478 state lobbyists—more than Amazon, Walmart and Microsoft combined—to challenge local government regulations in 41 states.

Last year D.C. had the highest rate of income inequality of all U.S. states. The average income for the top five percent of city households is $531,000, but for the bottom 20 percent, the average is only $9,900. That’s a significant divide of both class and race. D.C. leaders want to create an urban future not defined by inequality. Local policymakers have taken steps to mitigate economic and racial inequalities. They have adopted a $15 minimum wage, passed a paid family leave act, and approved a requirement for workers to have paid sick days. Next step? They should take a close look at how Uber’s problematic jobs, limited service, and emphasis on corporate profits rather than a public good fit into their vision of a just and equitable city.

Katie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen

Katie Wells is an incoming Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information, contact Katie at


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Winning Working-Class Voters with State Level Consumer Protection

Donald Trump’s election, made possible in part by his ability to capture the hearts, minds, aspirations, and votes of working-class men and women, has caused confusion and consternation among Democratic Party leaders. Stunned by the outcome, the Party has spent the last year searching for new messages that could lure this critically important constituency back into the fold. So far, that search has been unsuccessful.

PRNewsFoto/Bond Law, PLLC

However, as Democratic Party factions bicker, Trump himself may be handing them the issue they can use to end his presidency—and it doesn’t involve porn stars, Russians, racism, or tax cuts for the rich, none of which seem to matter much to the president’s supporters.

No, the Trumpites won’t turn away from him because of the outrageous things he says, or even the possibly illegal things he’s done. But they might abandon him when they finally realize that he’s betrayed them by gutting the regulatory framework that really made America great for the working class. Trump’s crusade to kill every rule and law he can get his hands on could be the thing that kills his presidency.

Some may scoff at this idea, but consider how these actions, all taken in the interest of his buddies on Wall Street, harm families who live on Main Street:

  • Net neutrality may seem like an arcane issue, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai ‘s decision to roll back Obama-era internet rules will inevitably lead to increased costs for internet access.
  • Betsy Devos, the clueless Secretary of Education, is repealing rules that made it difficult for private universities to rip-off students and making it more expensive for kids and parents to repay student loans.
  • Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who was installed as director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), has submitted a “zero budget” for the agency he absolutely loathes, and instituted a hiring freeze and a prohibition on new regulations.  Just for good measure, he’s also decided to make it easier for the vultures in the payday lending industry to prey on the poor and the working class.
  • The Labor Department’s decision to allow pool-tipping and to ditch rules that would have made hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers eligible for overtime pay will cost working families millions of dollars each year.
  • The unrelenting attack on the Affordable Care Act, which survived repeal but has taken a number of other hits, will lead to premium increases and the loss of coverage in the years ahead.

Every one of these actions will impact working-class Americans disproportionately, especially those who live on the edge of bankruptcy and lack the financial resources to fend off unscrupulous lenders and other scam artists. According to a 2016 Federal Reserve Report 46% of American households could not handle a $400 emergency expense. That makes them prime targets for payday, car title, and predatory mortgage lenders that generate huge profits by exploiting people who barely live paycheck-to-paycheck.

That’s why rolling back regulations on these industries, and especially eviscerating the CFPB, is such a big betrayal of Trump’s base. Since the CFPB was established in 2011 as part of the Dodd Frank Act, the agency has clamped down on predatory bankers, mortgage loan servicers, debt buyers, debt collectors, payday lenders, and credit card companies. It has recovered $12 billion for more than 29 million consumers. It also developed a centralized, transparent system for processing consumer complaints and created a searchable database that enables people to determine if a company they’re about to do business with has a history of ripping off consumers. In short, it has helped level the playing field between average Americans and the finance industry. That’s exactly why Trump wants to kill it, but it’s also why its demise will make life significantly worse for working-class families.

Now that Trump has positioned himself at the edge of the abyss, one question remains: will the Democrats be able to push him off?  I believe the answer is yes, but they must start this year by creating state agencies to take on the responsibilities the feds are abandoning. Montana Governor Steve Bullock is already taking this path by ordering agencies to create and enforce state-based net neutrality rules.

Democratic officeholders and candidates should also press for the establishment of transparent and statutorily independent Departments of Consumer Protection (DCPs). These “one stop shops” should identify potential financial predators, create an equitable process for resolving individual consumer complaints, and have the power to sue companies and industries that target vulnerable consumers or to force other regulators or the state attorney general’s office to do so. DCPs directors or commissions should serve terms that overlap those of the authorities who appoint them, and they should be subject to removal only for malfeasance. They could be funded by a portion of the fees paid to create new companies or to register foreign corporations doing business in the state, from the registration fees paid by regulated industries, and from fines and civil penalties collected via enforcement of state-based consumer protection laws.

We need this kind of independent agency because in most states the responsibility for protecting consumers is spread among multiple agencies or is subject to the political whims of the elected Attorney General.  Even worse, in some cases agencies and licensing boards handle complaints, even though they can be heavily influenced by lobbyists for the profession or industry they oversee — a situation that produces reliably unfavorable outcomes for consumers.

In addition to establishing new regulatory agencies, Democrats should push to bring industries like loan services, payday lenders, debt collectors, and car dealerships under the jurisdiction of the DCPs. Such agencies should also oversee wage and hour enforcement for workers.

Democrats can also protect working-class people by creating laws based on successful consumer protection statutes enacted in other states. That might include a Student Borrower Bill of Rights like that enacted by the legislature in Illinois to create transparency and to outlaw deceptive practices by student loan lenders or a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights similar to one enacted in California. Dems could model fair debt collection practices that prohibit companies that collect their own debts from engaging in deceptive practices on a Florida law. They could propose a bill like the one enacted in North Carolina, creating standards for debt buyers, including those that buy private student loans, to prove that they have the right to enforce the debt before taking legal. Other possibilities include an enforceable payday lending bill that outlaws title loans and protections against data breaches, which now exist in only 14 states.

When combined with Trump’s unrelenting attack on the very things that make America a land of opportunity, these bold, state-based initiatives may provide Democrats with the weapon they need to send Trump back to his tower – and actually make America better for the working class.

Marc Dann

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 , , , | 1 Comment