Deindustrialization as a Template for COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An earlier version of this piece appeared on NewGeography.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coronavirus has changed that.

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

Jan. 2020:        14 stories

Feb. 2020:       33 stories

Mar. 2020:      59 stories

April 2020:     612 stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

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

Fishing Industry Workers Struggle to Beat Long Odds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James V. Catano

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


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May Day 2020: Workers in the Pandemic Time

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

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

An ACORN food distribution site in Delhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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

COVID-19 Is a Perfect Storm for Women Workers

With a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready, Neyda Sandoval scans a customer’s reward card (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

America’s women workers have been living in a straw house perched high on a cliff, and COVID-19 is the perfect storm.  Though research reveals that men are more likely to succumb to the virus, women will be disproportionately devastated by its economic impacts, and that’s especially true for women of color.  Women have long held the most precarious jobs, made less money, and done the most paid and unpaid caregiving. The coronavirus exacerbates these inequalities, making female workers particularly vulnerable to economic disaster in the months and years to come.

We all cheer for the doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, and others who are taking great risks to keep America safe, healthy, well-fed, and comfortable during the pandemic.  Many of these super heroes are women, including three-quarters of health care workers and 66% of grocery cashiers. One in three jobs held by women are considered essential, and four in ten workers in frontline industries are people of color.

Less visible, however, are the legions of women who have lost their jobs in recent weeks. The last downturn in 2008 and 2009 knocked the male-dominated construction and manufacturing the hardest, but this time, women made up a full 60% of the first wave of layoffs, which hit the service, leisure, and retail industries particularly hard. Many worked for low wages, often for tips, as hotel housekeepers, waitresses, salon staff, child care workers, home health care aides, and in other service and caring jobs.  These were not family-supporting, stable jobs, even before the current crisis.  Will these businesses close for good, leaving many women workers out of a job permanently?

COVID-19 has hit gig workers especially hard, because they, not their employers, shoulder the bulk of the risk of those jobs.  When a crisis hits, these companies have zero legal obligations to their workers, who have no security net. Though we often think of the “gig” economy as men driving Ubers, women make up over half those in “alternative work arrangements,” such as independent contractors and freelancers. A full fifth of such jobs are in health and education.  Though the federal relief bill is supposed to provide unemployment benefits to the huge numbers of independent contractors who are out of work, many are having a hard time accessing these benefits through creaky and overwhelmed state unemployment systems.

Women earn less money than men, and so they have skimpier savings to fall back on in hard times.  Women make only 82 cents on the dollar earned by men, a wage gap that that’s even wider for women of color. Black women earn just 62 cents for every dollar earned by men, and Latinas only 54 cents. This is true even for medical professionals: female doctors are paid 12 percent less than men, and women nurses earn 8 percent less. A life time of lower earnings means that women have a lower net worth than men, a gender wealth gap that creates real-time anguish when jobs and resources are scarce.

For women now working from home, the pandemic intensifies the gender inequities that shape their lives.  Women have long shouldered more of the unpaid caregiving in the home while also doing more cooking and cleaning.  Research reveals that women carry this burden of unpaid household work, no matter their age, race, or family income. With families hunkered down together, there’s now even more work for mother. In many homes, women are often the ones getting the family stocked up in the face of shortages, home schooling kids, and nursing sickness.  That can have troubling consequences: if women have less time to devote to their paid jobs in the work-at-home era, they may lose out on promotions or other opportunities once everyone is finally back in the workplace.

Finally, the pandemic has fueled domestic violence.  Hotlines are lighting up globally as women are locked down at home with their abusers, prompting the United Nations to issue an urgent call to protect women’s safety.  It’s a crisis that won’t end when we all can finally leave our homes. Women who lose their jobs due to the epidemic and its aftermath may long be more economically dependent on abusive male partners.

Though it’s difficult to imagine now, we will soon begin to rebuild our economy. We can do so in a way that closes deep, structural gender and racial gaps and takes women out of the path of future storms.  Let’s start by doing more than banging pots and pans for caregivers and service workers; let’s pay them fairly.  Then let’s move toward guaranteed health care, sick days, secure retirement, and paid parental leave for all people, whether they have a traditional job or not.  A universal safety net will go a long way to improving women’s lives.  Afterall, curing the coronavirus won’t remedy the its larger harm on women workers unless we begin to treat the root causes of gender inequity.

Lane Windham, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Lane Windham is author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.  She is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership).


Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Crime of the Century: Remembering Sacco and Vanzetti 100 Years Later

April 15th marks the 100th anniversary of the crime that propelled Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into the international media spotlight: the robbery and double murder at the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company Factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Arguably the most famous criminals tried in the 20th century, in a trial that incited a flurry of debates over the manipulation and use of insufficient evidence, questionable testimony, and ethnic bias against defense witnesses, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and spent seven years in jail until their execution on August 23, 1927.

In the 1920s, Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize the failure of American justice, drawing massive outpouring of support, including world-wide protests and a funeral cortege where over 200,000 people lined the streets of Boston. Their story reflects tensions around class, race, and politics that still reverberate in today’s discussions about white supremacy, historical memory, immigrant rights, surveillance, workers’ rights, the Antifa movement, and the right to protest in the name of social justice.

Their story is deeply entrenched in the Italian-American psyche. Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts not too far from the site of their arrest in Bridgewater, I heard my family talk about Sacco and Vanzetti as if they were older, distant relatives. My father and grandmother spoke of them only rarely, in hushed tones over dinner, suggesting a combination of curiosity and fear. Their story highlighted the suppression of labor radicalism and the repercussions of anti-immigration laws, ethnic prejudice, and intolerance during the tumultuous yet formative decades of the early 20th century. Their legacy has long been shrouded in silence—one that has shaped my family’s perspective and, to a larger degree, that of Italian Americans across the U.S.

The banner, pictured here at the Boston Common, used by the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society during marches and events. (2015)

But the story of Sacco and Vanzetti does not belong to Italian Americans alone; the two men have inspired radical resistance in new but familiar ways. For example, the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society (SVCS) works to end “political persecution” and the “scapegoating of immigrants.” The SVCS holds annual public lectures and discussions by scholars and activists about the significance of the case today. In 2015, I attended one of the protests they organized, a march from the Boston Common to the North End (the city’s oldest and a notably Italian neighborhood) directly past the historical marker noting the site where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee met. I was struck by the disconnect between the anarchists holding political signs reading “No to State Repression!” and “Abolish the Death Penalty” and the mildly curious tourists eating at local establishments on Hanover Street. In addition to musical performances, several speakers addressed the fight for international social justice, drawing connections between Sacco and Vanzetti’s struggle and contemporary events, including political prisoners across the world as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement. But the importance of remembering Sacco and Vanzetti seemed lost on the crowd of people walking by, perhaps because people didn’t support the gathering’s overt political message but maybe because they didn’t recognize the names of the two men whose memory inspired the march. Confronting history—even as this march took place on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the story of America’s independence—appeared to be too revolutionary an act.

The plaque in Vanzetti’s hometown, Villafalletto, that reads, “Assassinated by the state because they are anarchists; Your sacrifice reinforces our will to fight.” (2015)

They may not be adequately remembered in Boston, but their hometowns of Torremaggiore and Villafalletto host annual events on “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day.” Family members and activists plan marches, community events, and even revised elementary school curricula to teach younger generations about the case and raise awareness of the persecution the two men faced as immigrants and radicals in the U.S. The Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Association, a political and cultural organization led by Sacco’s grand-niece, Fernanda Sacco, also organizes programs honoring Sacco and Vanzetti. Italy’s reclamation of Sacco and Vanzetti points to a political intervention that emphasizes the intersections among ethnicity, class, citizenship, and activism—difficult lessons learned as a result of the men’s conviction.


In the U.S., we largely ignore the history of labor radicalism and political activism. As historian Stephanie Yuhl writes in “Sculpted Radicals: The Problem of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston’s Public Memory,” only a few commemorative markers of this story exist in the U.S. today. Public history seems to forget, she writes, that “Their actions, both violent and nonviolent, addressed very real historical grievances that are an essential part of the complex national narrative that we strive to represent.” The efforts of men and women across the U.S. who organized strikes and labor protests during the early 20th century labor movement—anarchists, syndicalists, and activists alike—ought to be recognized more publicly. So, too, should those walking off the job today, from striking teachers and nurses to the Amazon and Instacart workers who recently protested the lack of appropriate safety equipment and sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic. These activists show us that ordinary people can effect social change.

Such recognition should go beyond physical markers. We could take a cue from Italy and incorporate the study of work and labor action into K-12 education, teaching young people how essential workers are not only in a time of crisis, but every day. Incorporating a working-class studies approach in curricula early on could make ethnic and working-class history more visible. And that, in turn, might encourage us to recognize more fully how the most vulnerable members of society help all of us survive.

The story of Sacco and Vanzetti can help us to remember and understand the more radical side of the Progressive Era. Even before the Great Depression drew attention to economic inequality, they remind us, immigrant labor radicalism was pushing back against xenophobia, precarity, and the decline of unions. As the centennial of their executions looms ahead in the coming years, it is time to reconsider how we remember Sacco and Vanzetti today. They are not just labor’s martyrs. They were part of a growing international working-class movement—one that built upon solidarity and the pursuit of social justice. Honoring their memories can help inspire working-class activism now.

Michele Fazio, University of North Carolina-Pembroke

Michele Fazio is a Professor of English and a former president of the Working-Class Studies Association. She recently won the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence.

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Working-Class People Hold Society Together: Class and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted class inequalities. Commentators in the US, UK, and Australia are acknowledging that working-class people are more likely to suffer as a result of both the virus and the measures put in place to contain its spread.

Workers face increased risk of exposure to the virus because many have no choice but to be in regular face-to-face contact with people who might be infected. Workers in hospitals are at especially high risk, and while the majority of doctors might be middle class, most nurses, care assistants, cleaners, porters, and the people preparing and serving meals are working class. These front-line workers simply can’t stay at home.

Working-class people also have more difficulty accessing health care. In the US, working-class people often lack access to adequate health care, and they might not be able to afford treatment if they can get it. In the US, working-class people are also less likely to have sick pay and may have no choice but to go into work when sick. Existing health disparities put people of colour in the US at far greater risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The UK and Australia have universal health care systems, but there are still discrepancies in access to treatment. In the UK, for example, Tory austerity measures have severely diminished the capacity of the National Health Service (NHS), so the system that cannot cope with the influx of infected patients despite the efforts of NHS workers. And racial disparities exist in these countries, too. Indigenous Australians are also at greater risk from the virus due to the racial gap in health outcomes.

Testing also reflects class inequities. While many working-class people don’t have access to tests, more elite members of society have had no trouble at all in getting tested and receiving immediate treatment. Prince Charles was infected and isolated himself at the royal family’s private estate in Scotland. No doubt he had excellent medical care available. In Australia the health system is less overloaded, but celebrities there have had no trouble getting tested even as others have had requests turned down.

Class differences also make for different experiences of quarantine, social isolation, and the recommended hygiene routines such as hand washing. Middle-class people are more likely to be able to work at home. Most have good internet access and space for at-home leisure activities such as home-gyms or gardens to escape to. Quarantine looks very different for people living in households with little physical space, and many cannot afford or don’t have access to the internet. The shift to online learning for school and tertiary students has really exposed the digital divide. And the guidelines on handwashing can only be met if people have access to clean running water and soap.

Add to all of this the millions of working-class people who have lost their jobs due to new restrictions on “non-essential” busineses. In Australia, the government announced that all bars and night clubs would close, and restaurants and cafes could only serve take out. Overnight, thousands were unemployed. More people were stood down by retail outlets, the travel industry (such as airlines), and other businesses no longer able to operate due to the restrictions or the sudden and unsustainable drop in trade. This sent thousands of people to Centrelink (the Australian social security offices) to apply for unemployment benefit. The system has been unable to cope with the mass applications, and people have been left without any income. The Australian government’s response in the form of a wage subsidy will help some, but not all, of the laid-off workers.

For working-class people, these inequalities come as no surprise. People on low incomes know only too well how easy it is to be down to their last dollar and understand the implications of precarity. Class divisions are only a surprise to people who have never struggled financially or experienced class discrimination.

At the same time, the crisis has shown that working-class people matter. As others have pointed out, society is learning to appreciate workers whose essential labour is usually taken for granted and ignored. Now the middle classes are realising that retail and delivery workers, cleaners, sanitation, and utility and transport workers are the ones who keep society ticking along. Without these workers everything falls apart. Can the same be said for some middle-class professionals?

The pandemic crisis has also shown how important is it for workers to be organised. Unions have played a big part in pressuring governments and industries to look after workers. In Australia, the union movement has been instrumental in arguing for a wage subsidy and pushing the government to extend them to all workers. Unions have also been lobbying big employers and industries to secure extra sick pay, to ensure that workers on casual contracts also have access to sick pay and carers leave, and to demand that  casual contracts be honoured even if workers are currently unable to work. In other places, workers have been calling wildcat strikes to demand safer working conditions or even for the shut-down of their workplaces.

We don’t know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be, but it’s already clear that working-class people are essential for the running of our societies. The crisis is also showing more middle-class people how class works to create and reinforce inequalities, and it’s revealing the failures of the free market and neoliberalism. Whether this will lead to a change in the way economies are organised remains to be seen, of course. If nothing else, I hope this new recognition of the importance of working-class people will shift attitudes permanently.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies


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