Announcing the 2021 Working-Class Studies Association Awards

It is my honor and pleasure to share the winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s annual awards. 

The books, articles, essays, stories, and media nominated for our awards this year show a great diversity. Looking at this list of award-winning pieces reminds me of the rightness of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s comment in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation: the “working class is female, immigrant, Black, white, Latino/a, and more. Immigrant issues, gender issues, and antiracism are working class issues” (216). The works we recognize with these awards reveal the richness of working-class history, like Detroit’s Black working-class music; working people’s struggle against reactionary politicians, represented in slurs like “slaggy mums”; and we can see new futures for the field, like Poor Queer Studies.

Many WCSA members volunteered their labor and talents to serve as judges. This is significant, time-consuming work, and I appreciate it very much!

The winner of the C.L.R. James Award for Best Book for Academic or General Audiences is Sarah Attfield, for Class on Screen: The Global Working Class in Contemporary Cinema. As the award judges write, Attfield’s “ambitious survey” demonstrates that “Working-class representation in film matters.” Class on Screen “offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich analysis of the representation of the global working class in contemporary cinema.” The book examines over 150 films from around the world released between 2000 and 2019. Attfield presents them in “thematic chapters on work and unemployment, culture, immigration and diaspora, gender and sexuality, and race, and discusses in a concise, lucid, informative, and insightful manner.” The book demonstrates “the cosmopolitan nature of the contemporary global working class and even suggests the potential for greater internationalism in the future. Class on Screen will undoubtedly be of enormous interest and value to all those concerned about working-class culture and  representation in film during the global era.”

The Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for books by writer(s) of working-class origins or work that speaks to issues of the working-class academic experience goes to Matt Brim, for Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University. The award judges write that this is “exactly the sort of work that the Ryan & Sackrey Award was intended to honor. One of the main insights of writing by working-class academics is that class is imbricated throughout our academic institutions; that there is no ‘escape,’ there is only erasure (mostly at elite institutions that can afford this).  […] This is a book full of insights and powerful personal anecdotes and one that makes an important argument: ‘Poor Queer Studies’ can ‘galvanize interclass [anti-racist] cross-institutional queer formations that do not rely on a unidirectional, aspirational model of progress’ (3). We can remake our institutions so that they serve all of us, and this is one great example of where to start.”

There are co-winners of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing: RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music, edited by Jim Daniels and M. L. Liebler, and also Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Judges write that Respect “is a gorgeous book of poetry and lyrics rooted in the diverse, working-class soul of a city” and “an amazing feat.” A collection of poems and songs about the music of Detroit, Michigan, Respect “embodies itself, it riffs off its own subject; it pushes the boundaries, between poetry, music and history, and dissolves the boundaries between exposition and experience. And RESPECT delivers its messages right to the heart; deep in the heartbeat of the blue soul; and to the complicated tangles of the curious mind.  This book […] sings to you, cries with you, plays with you.  It promises to love you, crooning softly, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ But, watch out! Because then it pelts rivets into your head: ‘And the people rise in anger/And the streets begin to fill/And there’s gunfire from the rooftops/ And the blood begins to spill.’”

One judge describes Winter Counts as an “important narrative of a sector of the working class that is far too often forgotten.” The novel “is part crime-fiction, part anthropological exposé of American Indian life on Reservation land (Rosebud, South Dakota), part love-story and part existential-reckoning.  It is a rocketing page-turner with depth, guts and soul. . . . From revenge to redemption, this novel is a wild ride with a smooth landing that quietly educates.” Another writes that Winter Counts “is pathbreaking in its portrayal of indigenous and working-class life.” Judges praise its attention to the “small details of class” and suggest that it deepens our “understanding of class, colonization, and two-world living as a nation within a nation.”

The winner of this year’s Russo & Linkon Award for Best Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences is “Slaggy Mums: Class, Single Motherhood and Performing Endurance,” by Katie Beswick. Judges write that the article “offers an elegant and intriguing study of performance writing by working-class mothers.” Beswick considers the “historical context of a classed and gendered insult by introducing ‘slaggyness’ and how the working-class mothers stage and perform their experience of endurance.” Another judge notes that “Slaggy Mums” “carefully attends to the subtle ways that the slaggy mum figure is racially codified: despite nearly always being presented as white, the chav mum is a degraded white woman, one who is racially suspect in large because of her widely assumed sexual availability to men of color and lower- or working-class white men.”

This year’s Studs Terkel Award for Single Published Articles or Series, Broadcast Media, Multimedia, and Film in Media and Journalism goes to “Protesta Per Sacco & Vanzetti,” by Joseph Sciorra. A judge writes that the piece includes “extensive research into the songs related to the men’s arrest, trial and executions,” a case they compare with the death of George Floyd. “The balm for xenophobia is knowledge, but the challenge is to bring people to that table. I’m there.” Also, a judge writes that Sciorra has “preserved a vital record of American anarchist history, giving credit to the working-class reproductions of this period’s emotive sounds and sensations of this historical moment.” The essay’s “focus on Italian language items provides an explicit example of working-class experience across languages, cultures, and people.”

There are also two winners of the Constance Coiner Award for Completed Dissertations: Lindsay Bartkowski’s “Figuring Women’s Work: The Cultural Production of Care and Labor” and Michelle Gaffey’s “Subjects of Economy: Social Documentary Poetics and Contemporary Poetry of Work.” Of Bartkowski’s dissertation, judges praise its “sweeping account of representations of what comes to be known as ‘women’s work’ from the antebellum period to the contemporary world of service work.” The study “demonstrates how myths have persisted over time, and breaks those myths down to examine the reality behind the alienating world of social reproduction and the harsh details of labor often assigned by gender.” Another writes that “Bartkowski’s project is laudably ambitious and important.” Bartkowski’s “attention to rethinking the ideology of separate spheres and the distinction between the public and private spheres in understanding women’s work is really interesting.”

Judges write that Michelle Gaffey’s dissertation, “Subjects of Economy: Social Documentary Poetics and Contemporary Poetry of Work,” “attempts to redefine documentary itself, and to redirect our basic understanding of how words, images, style, form, and media combine to structure our understanding of working-class life and of solidarity.” The project “embodies many aspects of the field’s ethos. Her focus on memory-work and her argument that the texts she reads enact textual solidarity are central concerns to the field of working-class studies.  She pays careful attention to the role of the writer/poet/photographer and the ethics of representing the suffering of marginalized groups […]. In short, this project makes a key contribution to the field of working-class studies.”

So again, congratulations to all the winners, and to the writers, thinkers, poets, singers, truth-tellers and radicals whose work was nominated. This work represents the best of our field–happy reading!

Scott Henkel

Scott Henkel is past-president of the Working-Class Studies Association, the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in the Humanities, and associate professor in the departments of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming.

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Re-Placing Class: Community, Politics, Work, and Labor in a Changing World

The global Covid-19 pandemic has brought working-class issues back to the front page, as researchers, journalists, activists, and workers debate workplace safety for frontline employees, the tattered social safety net, wages, child care, and a whole host of issues affecting working-class people around the globe. In fact, the crisis has afforded the opportunity to question the very essence of work, labor, wages, and working conditions. 

At the Working-Class Studies Association, we take these issues very seriously. Our annual conference, which will take place (mostly) virtually from June 7 through June 10, 2021, is an ideal place to learn, discuss, debate, and examine these issues, and much, much more. The conference, which kicks off at 10AM on June 7, features over 50 panels, roundtables, presentations, plenary talks, and performances by over 150 academics, activists, researchers, and performers from across the globe. Registration is only $25.00, and you get access to all events and presentations. So join us and explore topics from working-class literature to the history of social movements to the sociology of class.

The full program is available on our website. We hope to see you there!

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A Working-Class Bill of Rights

The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights have always been aspirational. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was hardly self-evident that “all men were created equal.”  It took almost a century before the 14th Amendment promised “equal protection under law,” and another century before could be seen as anything but a cruel hoax.

Yet these founding documents inspired abolitionists to battle slavery, women to fight for the right to vote, workers to build unions, and the heroes of the struggle for civil rights to persevere in the face of pervasive racism.

Today, many working-class Americans have lost faith in the promises of those documents. And why wouldn’t they when George Floyd could be executed over a $20 bill while the Sackler family walked away with billions after committing the crime of the century. With 85% of the nation’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 10% of Americans, many believe that the opportunity to “secure the blessings of liberty” for themselves and future generations is quickly slipping away, perhaps forever.  Instead of looking forward to the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Constitution, working-class Americans doubt their country’s ability to “establish justice and insure domestic tranquility.”

That doubt has created anxiety among working- and middle-class families. Worse, NAFTA-loving, corporatist Democrats barely acknowledged and failed to address that erosion of belief. Donald Trump filled that vacuum with disingenuous populism, promises of a return to an America that was great mostly for white men, and hate-filled rhetoric that blamed the country’s ills on the poor, minorities, and immigrants. And a surprising number of Americans were eager to drink his toxic brew.

While the Democratic Party has yet to distill an antidote to Trump’s loathsome elixir, we believe its key ingredient must be a comprehensive set of policy initiatives to address income inequality, home ownership, the judicial system, the electoral process, and quality of life issues – a “Working-Class Bill of Rights” that could help secure the “blessings of liberty” for working-class families now and in the future.

The right to organize

Union membership has long been recognized as the path to prosperity and security for working men and women. But as the recent failed attempt to organize an Amazon facility in Alabama illustrates, laws governing union organizing in the U.S. are long overdue for reform. Along with the PRO Act recently passed by the U.S. House, Congress should enact laws that mandate card check recognition in organizing drives and ban the use of scabs and permanent replacement workers.

The right to earn a living wage

As David Leonhardt bluntly put it in a recent New York Times commentary, “worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century.” Only the affluent have seen their incomes increase significantly in recent decades. Increasing unionization is one way to raise wages, but raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and indexing it to inflation is the quickest and most effective way to make work pay in the United States. According to the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage would increase the pay of 32 million workers, generate $107 billion in higher wages, and strengthen businesses, communities, and the overall economy.

The right to equal justice under the law

In the U.S, business executives, billionaires and police officers are held to one standard of criminal culpability and members of the working-class to another. Corporate criminals and public officials, including police officers, should be prosecuted with the same enthusiasm as working-class shoplifters. Wealthy individuals and corporate CEOs who break the law should face the same consequences as criminals who don’t happen to be rich.

The right to free legal representation in civil proceedings

Equal justice requires fair representation. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the assistance of counsel for the accused in all criminal prosecutions, though the right to free legal representation in criminal proceedings was not established until 1963. In that Supreme Court decision Justice Hugo Black wrote that “[L]awyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” We believe the same holds true for our civil courts.

Unfortunately, it does not extend to people involved in civil proceedings, including foreclosures, evictions, and debt collection actions. That means poor and working-class people often find themselves standing defenseless in court against a phalanx of lawyers representing banks, landlords, mortgage servicers, and credit card companies. It also doesn’t apply to domestic cases, as in child custody suits. Without representation by counsel, millions of people are tossed out of their apartments, saddled with crippling judgements and liens, or lose custody of their children.

The right to free public higher education and advanced training

In the 1930s and 40s, in was clear that young people needed a high school education to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to enter the workforce – and public schools were free. Today,

a Bachelor’s degree and advanced technical training, and students and their families have rung up $1.7 trillion in loan debt—an increase of 100 percent over the past decade—to make themselves employable in the 21st century.  If a college degree or specialized training is now the equivalent of a high school diploma, then it should be free.

Oh, and that $1.7 trillion in student loan debt—it needs to be forgiven. Today.

The right to home ownership

Home ownership doesn’t only strengthen and stabilize neighborhoods. It builds wealth. According to the Federal Reserve, the average net worth of a homeowner in 2015 was $195,400, compared to just $5,400 for those who rent.

While buying a home might be impossible for working-class families in some cities, the good news is that in many communities across the nation, including our hometown Youngstown, Ohio, there’s enough affordable housing available to enable low- and middle-income families to enter the housing market.

The bad news: lenders are loath to write the small mortgages potential buyers need. Instead, the available housing stock is bought up by predatory “rent-to-own” companies who peddle the illusion of the American Dream to desperate buyers.

The government has helped Americans afford to buy houses before, and it should do it again. Subsidies and incentives could encourage lenders to offer the micro-mortgage financing of $35,000 to $80,000 that working-class families need to buy an entry-level home. Government programs could also provide cash down payment assistance and make it easy to adjust property tax valuations that make homes less affordable. Such policies would enable hundreds of thousands of families to begin accumulating wealth that can be passed on from generation to generation.

A Working-Class Bill of Rights should also include other provisions to strengthen our economy and democracy. It should include voting rights protections, as in the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,  access to affordable child and elder care, and Medicare For All.

The individual components of our Bill of Rights are all much needed policies and laws, but to remedy both the loss of opportunity and the loss of faith in America that we see today, they must be enacted as a package. Now is not the time for piecemeal solutions, empty rhetoric about the dignity of work, or compromise. As in 1776, now is the time for action.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Leo Jennings, Marc Dann, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Healing Web of Solidarity: Lessons from a Favela

“A spider without their web is like an Indian without land or a community without solidarity.” — Tremembé Indian saying, Brazil

As most of us sat at home during the past year, seeking safety from the pandemic and isolated from each other, we had little to protect us from the onslaught of historic national traumas and anxieties. We watched in horror as over half a million Americans died, millions lost their livelihoods while others had to face the virus at work, an unarmed Black man was slowly murdered by a policeman on camera, and our President encouraged a white rightwing insurrection. All of this is superimposed on the global existential crisis of climate change and the economic abandonment of many places across the country. If years can be ranked by their impact on the mental health and well- being of people, 2020-2021 would easily be near the top of the list.

Even before this terrible year, the nation’s community health and mental health services were in crisis. Funding and access were always limited, and providers struggled to address the “deaths of despair” and ongoing challenges of myriad psychiatric disorders burdening our communities. There was no give in the system before the pandemic. There is even less now.

For working-class Americans, the absence and limitations in mental health services has spawned a culture of self-help and mutual aid outside of formal services, especially for individuals with substance use disorders (see Jennifer Silva’s book We‘re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America). Twelve-step programs are the backbone of this culture. Many have found solace in AA or NA meetings, sharing their stories and their aspiration to heal together. When the pandemic hit, they moved online. These meetings carry the seeds of a new approach to care and caring that goes beyond the traditional individual clinical model.

A drawing of an ICT session held in a favela in Brazil, created by an unnamed participant

In the past year, we have been inspired by the work of Dr. Adalberto Barreto of Fortaleza, Brazil, who proposes a model of community-based emotional and social support he calls “Solidarity Care.” Unlike the individualized and commodified settler colonialist and neoliberal frameworks of psychopathology and management of mental distress and illness, Solidarity Care emphasizes the human investment of each participant in a network — in their own individual wellness, the wellness of each other, and the wellness of the community. Based on the liberatory pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire and the systems theory of Gregory Bateson, Solidarity Care asserts that each individual has a wealth of experience to share with their community, and in return can rely on their community for contributions of wisdom and perspective. Horizontality of relations is central to this approach. The knowledge or professionals or experts is not deemed more valuable or valid than that of other participants. Within this community therapy framework, a facilitator approaches their work as a member and participant of the community instead of as a separate and external entity.

Based on these concepts, Barreto and the residents of the Quatro Varas favela developed an innovative and community-participatory response to their overwhelming needs for mental health care. Terapia Comunitaria Integrativa (Integrative Community Therapy or ICT), is a unique large group open dialogic therapeutic process. It requires only short-term training, can accommodate groups from 10-200 people, and can be performed successfully in an online format. It involves a five-step participatory structure that invites people to share their experiences of suffering and how they have overcome them. The primary benefits are emotional literacy, community building, promoting a sense of “shared suffering,” providing a space of inclusion and diversity, sharing experiences to promote healthy coping strategies, and creating and reinforcing social/support networks. By emphasizing community-building in a shared environment, ICT creates a forum for solidarity, collective healing, and proliferation of resiliency. Participants are encouraged to rely on their internal wisdom, the wisdom of the community, and the wisdom of their ancestors.

ICT does not simply embrace diversity of class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality. It requires it. Diversity of experience enhances the richness and variety of community- sourced solutions to everyday emotional problems. Unlike existing support networks like NA and AA, among others, ICT decentralizes pathology and emphasizes the need for community connection for all people, not just the mentally ill. Within ICT rounds, there is no distinguishing between individuals with a diagnosis and those without. ICT rounds are offered weekly and are open to anyone at any time, with no requirement for future participation.

Finally, a central principle of Barreto’s model is that it is free for all participants. By obtaining funding at the national level, Barreto has moved this model of care away from the fee-for-service medical industrial complex and challenged common reservations regarding scalability due to accessibility and cost.

In the past year, we have begun to bring Integrative Community Therapy to the US, offering the first English language training in this practice. We now have 35 ICT facilitators available nation-wide. In order to create an ICT infrastructure, we must continue to expand our networks and facilitator trainings. While we have found homes within local networks of mutual aid, we face ongoing questions of resources and a hesitation to invest in a non-pathology-based therapeutic model. In order to build a Solidarity Care-based system, we must challenge capitalist models of mental health funding. We must emphasize prevention and people-based primary mental health intervention. This will require community-based service providers to increase their investment in task-sharing and peer support services. Over time, we hope to build a sustainable movement of Solidarity Care-based services to provide safe and reflective spaces for poor and working-class people to develop their internal and interpersonal emotional skills, reinforce the social tissue, and support collective emotional and mental wellbeing through ongoing crises.

Solidarity Care reverses the historic pattern of the West bringing knowledge to the Global South, decolonizing the mental health services system. Models like this have the potential to fill an ever-expanding gap in the social safety net and to restore the social fabric that binds us. By integrating a model of emotional collectivity based in emotional literacy and mutual support, created in one of the most socioeconomically deprived regions of the world, we may find a new way to heal what ails us.

Alice F. Thompson and Kenneth S. Thompson MD

Alice F. Thompson is a fourth-year medical student at the Geisinger Commonwealth Medical School in Scranton, Pennsylvania and Program Director of the Visible Hands Collaborative.
Kenneth S. Thompson is a community and public health psychiatrist in Pittsburgh.

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Labour and the Working Class in the UK

After decades of consistently supporting the Labour Party, voters in Hartlepool recently elected their first Tory MP, in a byelection caused by the previous MP standing down as a result of a scandal. Hartlepool sits on the North-east coast of England in what used to be known as Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ of constituencies straddling the industrial belt of northern England. Hartlepool has been solidly Labour since 1964. This is the first time since the 1970s that the incumbent party in Westminster has taken a seat from the main opposition party at a national parliamentary byelection. To add insult to injury, Hartlepool saw a devastating 16% swing to the Tories. This wasn’t Labour’s only loss in a raft of local council, mayoral, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales.

These elections tell us something important about working-class attachment — or more accurately detachment from left of centre politics. Some in the Labour Party under its new leader Keir Starmer blame the loss on the legacy of previous leader Jeremy Corbyn. But this Hartlepool moment has been a long time coming, and its causes are sedimented over generations of shifts and changes in place and people, work, and industry. Perhaps the most serious issue for Labour is the very fact that they have held power in places like Hartlepool for so long, places where people used to joke about weighing votes rather than counting them.  This led to complacency in a range of communities across Northern England.  Local politicians didn’t have to try, because the London-based leadership took for granted that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. 

They were wrong. Brexit represented a generational change as almost unconscious tribal loyalties were suddenly challenged and perhaps lost for good. This change itself reflected three decades or more of industrial loss that shifted workers away from collectivised employment to newer forms of precarious employment, or to unemployment. That didn’t lead to immediate political shifts. Places like Hartlepool helped Tony Blair win a landslide election in 1997 and keep Labour in power for the next thirteen years.  The irony was that Hartlepool’s Labour MP at the time was Peter Mandelson, chief architect of New Labour (the Blairite rebranding of the Party in the mid-1990s which accepted many of the policies of Thatcherism). Rather than using its power to address economic changes in Britain, New Labour seemed to be embarrassed by its old traditional base, looking upon it like an ageing relative in the attic. The party was content to count on working-class votes but reluctant to invest in the training and jobs that would improve working-class lives. When austerity hit in 2008, the marginal improvements felt since 1997 were quickly reversed. Things didn’t get better.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson have positioned themselves as the party of the working-class.  Again, this has a long history as reflected in more than a decade of debates about ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Tory’, debates that Labour has not seriously addressed. In the 2019 election, the Conservatives were surprised at the scale of their victory in previously strong Labour constituencies dominated by working-class voters.  This has encouraged them to announce headline-catching investments in some of these seats, a move that simultaneously shores up that working-class base and sends a powerful message that if nearby Labour seats follow suit and join the Tory fold, they will also gain new resources. This type of ‘pork barrelling’ has generally not been an important feature of UK politics, but it appears to be on the rise. The government’s Future Towns Fund is a good example. Aimed at levelling up deprived constituencies generally, most of beneficiaries have been communities in Conservative held seats. 

What does this mean for the Labour Party and their relationship with the working-class now? In Scotland, progressive politics has for sometime now been dominated by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP has effectively positioned itself as the progressive left-of-centre force north of the border, and those progressive voters increasingly see separation from the rest of the UK and the dominance of Conservative England as the logical next move. In his new book Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, historian Ewan Gibbs shows how the profound deindustrialisation enacted on the Scots by a remote Westminster government after World War II opened up a new progressive front rooted in independence. The simple logic is that progressive policies will only come about through independence.

The other threat to Labour now is likely to come from the Green Party, and this is where class politics may get interesting. Labour has been far too slow in seeing the advantage in aligning itself with environmental issues.  In the past, it was too willing to down play green industry while placating the highly polluting industrial sectors that employed its trade union base. A deeper, more serious reflection would have recognized a progressive, orderly transition to a green economy as a winning opportunity. Such a transition could have created many more good jobs in high tech industry with great training opportunities for Labour’s core working-class base. It is not too late for Labour to make this shift, but it needs to be genuine and profound move rather than a cynical rebadging.

Finally, the Labour party needs to win back working-class voters by being less timid.  The charge from the Conservatives is that Labour is out of touch, southern centric, and more concern with ‘woke politics’ than the politics of work. The Labour party’s base is now wrongly portrayed by critics as metropolitan graduates and professionals.  Somehow this caricature has positioned the party as anti-aspirational for its older working-class voters. The charge is that Labour now holds people back and looks after people on benefits. To regain power, Labour must stand for and invest in working-class aspiration for better jobs, housing, environment, and education. 

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Amazon and the Southern Key

Though expected, the union defeat at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center was a gut punch to the labor movement not only in the United States, but globally.  Amazon workers in other countries had expressed solidarity with Bessemer through direct action, including strikes in Italy and walkouts in France. Hopes were high, even as the ground defeat seemed inevitable. Winning this vote would have been a miracle, and miracles don’t happen in union organizing. 

 Organizers may disagree on some of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) choices. Should they have filed for the election with a bare showing of interest in an expanding unit? Built a stronger in-plant committee? Done home visits beginning last summer? Tried to block or postpone the election as defeat seemed eminent? But there should be no disagreement that entering an election campaign during the pandemic, against the country’s second largest employer, the world’s richest man, and a company that had become essential was a huge mountain to climb.  That’s not second-guessing.  Those are clear, first-order issues.

It’s almost becoming passe to complain about the disadvantages that are baked into the current legal environment for a union certification election under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Although nothing is new about that decades’ long complaint, and certainly RWDSU knew that when they signed the petition, the situation is now arguably worse than ever.  The NLRB itself, designed to be bipartisan, is short several appointees and fully partisan coming out of the Trump administration. 

Recent NLRB decisions and rule-making create new obstacles for unionizing. One rule would have made it harder for RWDSU to avoid an election and try — in a flight of fantasy – to win voluntary recognition. The NLRB ruled a year ago that “Unions that are voluntarily recognized are no longer immune from challenges regarding their majority support for a ‘reasonable period of time.’” Instead, when an employer agrees to voluntarily recognize a union, it must notify employees, who can then challenge this recognition by petitioning the NLRB. Another rule made it harder to block counting votes by filing an unfair labor practice. Now “elections will go forward and votes will either be counted or impounded, depending on the nature of the charge.” Nothing pretty in any of that. A new Board could rewrite these rules, but that will take years.

Bessemer, Alabama would have been a good place to take Amazon’s measure, but it would have needed a different strategy and tactics based on a deeper, longer term commitment to building organization there with a different model.  The history of unionization in this area is rich and powerful.  The unionized steel industry was central in the nearby Birmingham area that used to call itself the “Pittsburgh of the South.” 

When I think about the paths the Amazon union drive didn’t take and the opportunities it missed, I’m struck by how similar the current dilemma in to what was happening almost one-hundred years ago.  In The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, labor scholar Michael Goldfield reexamines the shortcomings of the CIO’s Operation Dixie – the massive organizing drive begun in 1945.  He blames the drive’s failure on the targeting of textiles, then the largest manufacturing sector in the South. He also faults the top-down strategy of appealing to employers rather than workers, relying on the NLRB and the government mechanisms to win. He argues that instead of dividing workers around race and politics, the campaign should have embraced collectivity and able, experienced organizers rather than their affiliations. 

Clearly, this is not an exact match with our current predicament, but it does resonate in some ways.  Goldfield cites numerous organizing successesin the South at the time of Operation Dixie, including isolated victories in the textile industry, which were obscured by strategic and tactical ineptness, and the hopes of cajoling giant employers into agreement. Goldfield argues that had woodworkers, huge at the time, been targeted and organized more successfully, and if biracial success had been exploited more shrewdly, the South could have been organized. 

As with Operation Dixie, Bessemer and Amazon are likely to dissuade Southern organizing when the story should instead offer lessons about how to succeed with different targets and tactics – ones that have led to plenty of successes.  Other industries — home health and day care workers, school workers, and other service worker sectors and private-public subcontractors — have seen successful organizing drives in the past and in the South.  Building unions that underscore racial justice and unity, rather than separatist appeals is also as smart – and effective – now as it was in the era Goldfield studied.

Where these arguments sting most is the reliance on the NLRB and the government. Whether going after the country’s largest employers like Walmart and Amazon, or targeting smaller ones where the field is more level, we are not going to win until we employ a worker-centered and worker-driven strategy. The NLRB’s legalese skews toward employers, and creating public pressure rather than worker heat to bring companies to the table relies too much on the media maze.

To turn union decline around, we need to pick targets where we have leverage or advantage.  If we’re going to go after the big dogs, we have to be prepared to work for years, not months, and focus on a majority strategy that builds power in the workplace, not a campaign strategy that priorities an election.  We need to reduce the emphasis on collective bargaining, and increase the focus on collective action and community issues to build the union as an independent and sustainable force, but intersecting with the employer.

Goldfield argues that if we want to change the situation for workers in America and in America everywhere, the key is organizing the South.  I agree. But if we want to win anywhere, we have to do things differently than we have been doing.  Amazon just taught us all that lesson again in Alabama, but we knew it already. We just have to decide to finally act on what we keep learning, over and over again, the hard way.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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English Football and Working-Class Culture

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 23rd, 1933, Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) played Liverpool in a match at Tottenham’s home ground, White Hart Lane, in North London. About a mile away, at the same time, my grandmother went into labour with my mother. Spurs lost the match 0-3, but whenever my mother talked about the event of her birth, she always included this note about the football match. The proximity of her family home to the Spurs stadium meant she grew up surrounded by football culture, and she never lost her love for the team (although she reserved her strongest admiration for 60s and 70s Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings). She passed this loyalty on to me, and I have always been a Spurs fan. Despite living in Australia now for two decades, I still follow the team’s triumphs and disappointments, and watch the matches on catch-up TV. Occasionally, matches are played at a time when I can catch them live, and that’s always exciting.

Football has long been a staple part of working-class culture in the UK. When I was growing up, groups of kids were always playing football on the concrete play areas on our public housing estate. Informal games also happened in the school playground before and after school and at lunchtimes. There always seemed to be someone in a group who had a ball. In the 70s and 80s, they were generally boys’ games, though. Girls were usually spectators, but we were still football fans. In those days, some of the Spurs players lived locally, and it was always a thrill to spot them. I cut out large ‘THFC’ (Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) letters and stuck them to my bedroom window. When Spurs won the 1981 FA Cup we were ecstatic.

But football has changed a lot since my childhood. It has become a lucrative industry with top teams making huge sums of money from broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals. Players in the English Premier League now earn millions of pounds each year, and owners of the top English clubs are often billionaires or wealthy corporations. Despite the wealth generated by the top clubs, being a fan is expensive. Tickets to Premier League games for Spurs matches cost around £60 ($80), and securing a ticket usually requires a membership fee (very few tickets go on general sale), which increases the cost further. Following the club to venues for away matches requires resources for travel and accommodation. Rail fares are very high, and petrol prices are twice that of the US. Long-distance bus routes can be reasonably priced, but the journeys take much longer. On my last trip back to the UK early in 2020, I was desperate to see the new Spurs stadium. I had heard that it was beautiful and full of state-of-the-art features. I couldn’t get a match ticket, so I took a guided stadium tour. That cost £36 ($50 USD) and included a behind the scenes look at the players’ dressing rooms and a chance to stand at the edge of the pitch.

Sarah at the Spurs pitch

The new stadium is very impressive. I was in awe at the scale and the design. The guide told the group about the many high-tech features such as the retractable pitch. We sat in seats that our favourite players usually occupied, and we saw their shirts hanging in the dressing rooms. But we were also reminded constantly about how much it cost. Construction cost close to a billion pounds, and maintaining the stadium will be expensive. We visited an exclusive dining area where the rich pay premiums to be close to the pitch and watch the players enter the tunnel. And we saw the corporate boxes where companies entertain their wealthy clients.

The stadium sits on the site of the old one, in White Hart Lane in Tottenham, a working-class and a very deprived area. When you leave the stadium, you are on the High Road opposite discount stores, takeaways, and public housing estates. This area saw riots in 1985 and 2011, both sparked by police violence against Black residents. The contrast is stark.

Even though being a football fan requires economic resources, the sport remains a passion for many working-class people. Football is still a way of life and an important aspect of community. Locals feel pride in their teams, share joy when they win, and commiserate together over the losses. This passion has its negative consequences, too, when rivalry sometimes turns ugly (and there is a history of football ‘hooliganism’). Racism is also still evident in the various leagues, and players continue to experience it on and off the pitch.

But the sport also creates positive working-class role models. Beyond players’ sporting prowess and success, many are committed to social justice and improving the lives of young working-class people. Many of the star players grew up in deprived neighbourhoods like Tottenham, so they understand hardship and inequality. Some speak out publicly, such as Manchester United player Marcus Rashford who is leading a campaign to end child food poverty in the UK. In 2020, Rashford criticised the UK government for refusing to supply free school meals for low-income children over the school holidays. He started a campaign to raise awareness and pressure the government. He also talks about the struggles faced by his mother, who raised her family alone.

The passion for the sport and the culture it has created drew attention recently with the announcement of a new European Super League, a break-away competition for elite European clubs that would bring massive income to the teams involved and allow them to tap into overseas markets. Six English Premier League teams, including Spurs, were among the proposed founding teams.

The announcement was met with almost universal criticism from fans who saw the teams as a selling out and betraying fans’ loyalty. Groups of fans protested immediately. They railed against the takeover of their sport by billionaires looking to make bigger profits. To many, the game is entrenched in the fabric of society, so meddling with it would destroy heritage and a sense of local identity. And even the government attempted to intervene. The football governing bodies threatened to exclude the teams and players from local competition and within a few days, the English teams had all pulled out from the proposal.

The outpouring of anger and protest was both applauded by those with interest in the game and criticised by others who suggested that the mobilisation and the energy expended in the protest should target the fight against capitalism more generally. Some asked why these fans seemed so bothered by greedy football club owning billionaires and not by Amazon owner Jeff Bezzos. I’d suggest that the fans who expressed their anger and disappointment at their teams are aware of the huge disparities of wealth and the unfettered nature of capitalism. They see the inequity and exploitation on a daily basis. They might well be working for low wages in an Amazon depot.

But unlike Amazon, football is something they feel belongs to them. The clubs are nothing without their fans, and club loyalty takes time to build. Club fandom is steeped in history and club mythology. Fans knew that without them, the clubs would fail, and so they saw their power in that moment. Protesting about a new football competition was something they could do without fear of losing their job. Maybe their success with this protest will inspire some to join other anti-capitalist groups.

My mother’s life was shaped by hardship caused by a class system that prevented her from fulfilling her potential – even as a football fan. ‘Born within spit’ of White Hart Lane, she didn’t have the means to go to a match. I’m determined to go in her honour the next time I’m in London. And hopefully when I do, Spurs will win. Not that it will matter. Working-class football fans are very forgiving, and once the furore from the Super League dies down, we’ll go back to following our teams and wearing our colours with pride.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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Is Neoliberalism Dead? Class Struggle and a Wealth Tax

It is heartening to see a wide variety of economists and policy wonks declaring the end of neoliberal austerity based on Joe Biden’s actions during his first 100 days as President.  With the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, it looks like the long, long Reagan Revolution may finally be over. Reagan became popular by criticizing “tax-and-spend liberals” for “throwing money at problems,” but now the Biden administration has turned that around. They are proudly claiming the “tax and spend” mantel and rejecting the Republicans habit of throwing money at rich people. 

Reaganomics theorized that tax cuts for the rich would spur investment and generate jobs and faster economic growth, all while paying for themselves. It was clear that no part of that theory worked even before Trump’s 2017 tax cut for corporations and the wealthy proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. What was probably the first tax cut in history to be unpopular produced almost no new investment, and the wealth of the super-wealthy again ballooned.  The American public has had it with throwing money at rich people in hopes they will create some jobs.  Why not have the government tax the rich more fairly and spend that money on creating jobs directly?   

This simple reversal of economic logic fosters hope for a future that is utterly different from the past four decades of economic stagnation, decline, and misery for the vast majority of the American working class.  But so far, while Biden has been creative and bold in the spending part of his agenda, he’s been pretty timid in his approach to raising government revenues by reforming our tax system.

The tax increases Biden promised while campaigning would raise some $300 billion a year. The American Rescue Plan relies completely on borrowed money, which is appropriate for a stimulus plan, and the American Jobs Plan would increase corporate taxes, providing about $150 billion a year (over 15 years).  Biden plans to introduce another public investment plan that will be in the trillion or two range (over 10 years), and the tax increases he promised in his campaign, on personal incomes above $400,000, would provide an additional $150 billion a year.  But even with these substantial tax increases on corporations and rich individuals, Biden’s plans would still fall about $300 to $500 billion a year short of the spending he has promised and proposed.

So far, Biden has refused to endorse a wealth tax as proposed by Senators Warren and Sanders, and without that, he is going to have a hard time paying for all the promises he has made. The Warren-Sanders wealth tax would impose a 2% tax on net wealth over $50 million and 3% on wealth over $1 billion, producing about $300 billion a year in federal revenue.  It would affect fewer than 100,000 taxpayers, a small fraction of our infamous top one percent, and it would not hurt those taxpayers too much.  Since wealth passively produces income, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, for example, would pay a wealth tax of $5.3 billion on his $177 billion net worth, but if he made only a 5% return on his billions in investments (and he’s been doing a lot better than that recently), he would end up with $180 billion after paying his wealth tax. That’s right: Bezos would come out $3 billion ahead for doing nothing. He’d earn even more for whatever work he actually does.   

Thus, the Warren-Sanders proposal is relatively modest, affecting very few people without harming their life prospects, but even such a modest proposal produces a lot of revenue.  So why wouldn’t President Biden go for it?  The arguments against a wealth tax are relatively insubstantial, and Biden has got to know that. My guess is that he also knows that any wealth tax, no matter how modest, will initiate an underground, one-sided class war that will divide his own party, flood Republicans with campaign money, and ultimately be fought out in a Supreme Court that is the mirror image of blatant ruling-class judgeship prior to the New Deal.

The most substantive argument against a wealth tax is that super-wealthy people will leave the country and/or move their money, but the Warren-Sanders bill has installed disincentives to make this less likely.  The least substantive argument is that a wealth tax would be impossible to enforce and administer.  But since so few people would be affected, we could have a half-dozen IRS auditors completely devoted to each ultra-millionaire and still generate $300 billion in revenue.

Some claim that a wealth tax would reduce economic growth and kill jobs, but that ignores the positive effects of government spending.  The negative impact of a tax on the wealthy, and especially on the super-wealthy, is relatively small, while the positive impact on economic growth of almost all government spending, but especially that benefitting lower-income people, is from three to five times greater. 

Finally, some argue that a wealth tax is unconstitutional. Senator Warren has strong scholarly support that such a tax poses no Constitutional problems, but a few arcane legal arguments on the other side may be strong enough to reach the Supreme Court.  And even the strongest Constitutional arguments for a wealth tax are unlikely to move what is now the most business- and investor-friendly Supreme Court since the 1920s.  

And that’s only the most visible part of the underground one-sided class struggle the rich and their allies would wage.  At least some Democrats and many Republicans are dependent on rich donors who will oppose the tax on principle – either because they would have to pay it or, more importantly, because they fear it would inevitably be expanded.  Behind-the-scenes politicking already makes it hard to get Congressional attention for the idea, despite Warren’s and Sanders’ efforts.  But given its popularity among a large majority of the public, a presidentially proposed wealth tax to pay for a host of very popular programs could produce a two-sided, highly public class struggle that can change political dynamics, even for the Supreme Court.

I would not second guess Joe Biden’s political judgment in managing 2021’s vanishingly thin Congressional majorities.  But neoliberalism will not die in the U.S. until we address our wealth inequality.  Since the Reagan Revolution, corporate and personal income taxes have been severely jiggered to distribute money to the rich, and Biden clearly wants to reverse some of that.  But 40 years of redistributing income to the top 1% has led to a juggernaut of wealth inequality that will proceed on its own even if we have fair and progressive corporate and income taxes. Wealth held by the super-rich is where the money is, and if we are unable to tap even a small portion of it, we will have to trim our promises and prospects or raise politically unpopular taxes on the rest of us.  In the absence of a devastating pandemic and economic depression, the power of wealth will eventually be able to nudge, push, and march us back into neoliberal austerity.  If Joe Biden really wants to be a transformational president, he will include the Warren-Sanders wealth tax among his pay-fors, if not this year, then next.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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Sea Shanties and the Pleasure of Work

I thought that the viral TikTok sea shanty trend had run its course when, just before Passover, I saw a link to a video called the “Red Sea Shanties.” Here the Jewish a capella group, Six13, changed the lyrics of various sea shanties to fit Passover themes. Especially catchy is: “what shall we do with the middle matzah?” sung to the tune of “what shall we do with a drunken sailor?”

The “Red Sea Shanties” made me wonder about the viral craze of the sea shanty. What inspired these songs? And why is a 200-year-old genre suddenly so popular?

The song that kicked off this craze is “The Wellerman.” If you haven’t seen the video, do so immediately. I am obsessed with it, and you should be, too! The singer is Nathan Evans, a “postie” (mailman) from the eastern suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland. His performance is sparse and stripped-down, and, yet, full of emotion. There are some harmonies layered onto Evan’s voice during the chorus, but Evans sings the verses a cappella, looking straight at the camera, while beating his fist against the table for rhythm.

With Evans’s thick brogue, it is easy to imagine how the song might have sounded in the 1800s when it was first sung by whalers in New Zealand. Evans uploaded his performance to TikTok in December, and, by mid-January it had been viewed more than 7 million times. Since then, all of TikTok has been bananas for sea shanties—so much so that there is now something called Shantytok.

The lyrics are about a whaling crew stuck in an endless loop of work. The crew finds a “right whale,” the name for the large, slow moving whale, that was so coveted for its bones and oil in the 19th century that it was fished practically to extinction. The crew harpoons the whale, but it gets away, swimming under the boat with the harpoon still stuck in its flesh.

The crew waits for the “tonguin’” to be done, meaning the final capture and dissection of the whale. They also wait for the “Wellerman” to come, the supply ships owned by the British born Weller brothers, who brought the whaling crews their “sugar and tea and rum.” Sadly, the whalers never get their whale, and, therefore, they will never be able to “take their leave and go.”

Sea shanties are part of the venerable tradition of the work song. Shanties were written for specific kinds of work that was performed by the ship’s crew. As work song sociologist Marek Korczynski has explained, there were unique sea shanties for hauling rope, trimming sails, and working on the ship’s machinery. Another scholar has argued that the sea shanties were literal tools, calling them “akin to a hammer.”

“The Wellerman,” ironically, is not really a sea shanty. For something to be an actual sea shanty, YouTuber Adam Neely explains, the song has to have a call and a response, a form that has its origins in African diaspora work music. Shanties usually begin with a solo chant, the “call,” which is followed by the rest of the crew singing their responses while performing a critical piece of labor, such as pulling on a rope at the same time. The call and response of a typical sea shanty is represented surprisingly well by the introduction to Sponge Bob Square Pants, Neely explains.

But for the love of pirates, how did sea shanties become so popular in 2021? As Neely argues, the genre is particularly good for the duet function of TikTok. After Nathan Evans posted his version of “The Wellerman” in December of 2020, other TikTok users added their images, voices, and instrumentals to his post.

Neely explains that sea shanties are based in a musical principle called antiphony, which means, a “responsive alternation between two groups, especially of singers.” TikTok is rooted in antiphony as well, Neely explains, as users take the content generated by others, alter it, and put it back on the platform. TikTok thrives on “responsive alternation.”

Another likely cause of the rise of Shantytok is, that, like those sailors of yore, after more than a year of a global pandemic, we have cabin fever. As The New York Times noted, sea shanties are weirdly appropriate for 2021. Like “longhaul” sailors, we have, “longhaul” COVID19 sufferers.

Ultimately, Shantytok has brought new interest to the phenomenon of manly men who sing. Many of the men of Shantytok are white, but men of African descent have chimed in as well. In addition, the antiphony of TikTok has allowed women to elbow their way into what once was, no doubt, a sacred space of white male labor and song.

Shantytok also reminds us that singing can be a form of work. Becoming a shanty star enabled Nathan Evans to quit his job at the post office, after all.

Finally, Shantytok reminds us that there can be pleasure in hard work, especially work that is done collectively. Whether on the deck of a 19th century whaling ship, or a Zoom call in 2021, the work we do together, heaving and singing, can be jolly good fun.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Why Burnley Voted for Brexit – and Why It Matters

Burnley in the 1960s

Brexit is often presented as reflecting the politics and direction of the United Kingdom as a whole. But this obscures the great variety of opinions about ‘Europe’ in different parts of the UK. It also diverts attention from how the big ‘national’ news story of Brexit grew out of complex local realities, issues, and trends.

Burnley, about twenty miles north of Manchester, illustrates how Brexit played out locally. I worked in local government there, so I observed – and worked on – some of the political and social dynamics that drew many voters in north-west England towards nativist and right-wing populism. In this region, voting to leave the EU was largely an expression of these outlooks, but they had surfaced years earlier. In 2002, Burnley achieved passing notoriety as the first place to elect a group of far-right British National Party councillors.

Burnley developed as a textiles manufacturing centre in the mid-1800s and is still routinely described as a ‘former mill town’. Along with its defining sector of cotton goods manufacturing, people worked in coal-mining and, after the Second World War, in light-engineering and assembly-line production as part of aerospace, automobile, and munitions supply-chains.

Deindustrialisation set the context for the town’s recent political shifts. During the 1950s, nearly 60 per cent of Burnley’s employed population worked in manufacturing. Factory and mill work declined during the 1970s, but those job losses were offset by relatively secure posts in expanding service industries and the public sector. Then, during Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the 80s, manufacturing jobs in Burnley fell from nearly 18,000 (45 per cent of the town’s workforce) to less than 13,000 (36 per cent). This spelled growing unemployment, benefit dependency, and poverty. Government funding cuts took away the council’s ability to be ‘the employer of last resort’. The 1990s saw further decline, so that by 2003, manufacturing employed just 26 per cent of Burnley workers. There was a gendered recomposition of work as thousands of men lost full-time and relatively well-paid posts while women found jobs in the new service-sector. Because most service jobs were part-time, ‘flexible’, and poorly-paid, average household incomes dropped significantly.

The political consequences of these economic and social changes were not immediate or automatic. The political shift in Burnley reflects how people made sense of these changes, and that in turn reflects the explanations provided by local political actors.

The Labour Party had long dominated Burnley politics, holding the parliamentary seat since the First World War (except for a few years in the early 1930s). Its style of running the local council became paternalist – and complacent. When I began working in the town in 1995, a party member assured me that I didn’t have to worry about the influence of any party other than Labour. The only consequential political discussions took place behind closed doors amongst Labour’s movers and shakers.

But meaningful opposition was already taking shape. One of Labour’s few effective communicators had resigned from the party, holding onto his council seat as an ‘independent’, and voicing increasingly right-wing and illiberal views. This man used his proletarian origins (father a coal-miner and mother a weaver) to present himself as an ‘authentic’ voice of the town’s ordinary people. After a few years, a few other councillors followed, leaving Labour after being caught pressurising public officials not to rent any of the council’s houses to Pakistani-heritage families.

This expanded ‘Independent group’ questioned government-funded projects in ‘certain areas’. The racial dimension to their ‘concerns’ was at first coyly suggested and then explicitly stated. Unmet needs in some neighborhoods were contrasted with other small neighborhoods that were included in regeneration programmes – areas that had become ‘mainly Asian’. The local press amplified the myth that ‘unfair’ levels of government funds were ‘going to Asians’. Resentment sells newspapers, and it also changes politics: Independents began winning seats in local elections.

Racialised politics took hold in Burnley in part because the local Labour Party didn’t respond to it effectively. Party members had never handled Burnley’s changing racial profile with any confidence. They didn’t establish or popularise a local sense of identity that included both ‘indigenous’ people and the immigrant workers who started arriving in the early 1960s, initially taking up vacancies in the cotton mills. Burnley Labour’s social base of formerly-unionised workers was still reeling from the redundancies of the 1980s and 1990s. Unemployed, allocated disability benefits, or in much worse jobs than previously, they were demoralised, demotivated, and – quietly – resentful. That made some receptive to the Independents’ ‘explanations’: someone needed to be blamed for what had happened.

The Independents built a new political identity based on people’s sullen sense of being badly done by, a strategy that also enabled voters to see themselves as ‘white’ and ‘patriotic’, people who had once run an empire and held an identity distinct from that of undeserving ‘outsiders’. These sentiments may have long existed at a subterranean level within Labourism, but they were sharpened in the material conditions of deindustrialisation and people’s perception that they were being culturally and politically marginalised.

When Tony Blair and New Labour gained power in 1997, they failed to address the dreadful economic situation. As poverty in Burnley increased, it was one of three northern English towns which saw serious racialised rioting in summer 2001. British National Party (BNP) activists took up themes which the Independents had pioneered. Harking back to a simplified, nostalgic image of Burnley’s past when people had decent jobs and the co-ordinates of everyday life were familiar and predictable, BNP candidates blamed the growth of Burnley’s Asian community for ‘our decline’. Promoting exclusionary, isolationist nationalism as ‘answers’, they won seats on the local council by recasting and warping class resentments into resentments about race. The BNP were always a minority group, and they never won a single vote in the debating chamber, but they held seats on the town council for ten years, even as a series of Labour and Liberal Democrat council leaders and MPs tried to recover the town’s reputation.

The BNP had used the ‘political space’ which Burnley’s Independents had created, giving people a way to understand why Labour had ‘abandoned’ them. They claimed that Labour had ‘become middle-class, more concerned about so-called victims of racism than it is about your living standards and prospects’. 

Then a bigger and better-funded organisation stepped in and expanded the political space which the BNP had opened up in Burnley and a few other towns. Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voiced concerns about immigration and ‘Europe’ in more polite terms than the far-right BNP had ever used. From 2009, UKIP’s growing popularity in several parts of England, and their influence on the Conservative Party, helped pressurise David Cameron into calling the 2016 Brexit referendum. He fully expected to win a majority for remaining in Europe.

Just over two-thirds of its voters supported Brexit, but by now, Burnley no longer stood out as particularly unusual. In 2019, Burnley was one of dozens of ‘traditionally Labour’ constituencies where the largest number of voters supported Boris Johnson’s party because of his promise to ‘get Brexit done’. This marked the first time that places like Burnley had returned a Conservative for 110 years.

Whatever emotional satisfactions some Burnley voters feel as the UK leaves the EU, Brexit will likely exacerbate the town’s economic challenges. The well-regarded left-leaning think tank IPPR North suggests that Brexit will have double the impact on the north of England compared to the south. The EU has generated over ten per cent of the north’s gross domestic product (GDP), compared to just 7.2 per cent of London’s, and the north west’s significant dependence on trade with the European Union now makes the region susceptible to the major economic shifts which are coming.

Decent jobs and stable co-ordinates for everyday life are unlikely to return to this area anytime soon. Burnley’s politics and prospects will continue to be shaped – at least in part – by the consequences of the deindustrialisation which hit the down in the 1980s and 1990s, and the defensive xenophobia which developed in response to this.

Mike Makin-Waite

Mike Makin-Waite is the author of On Burnley Road: Class, race and politics in a northern English town (Lawrence Wishart Books, 2021).

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