Can the Working Class Trust the Democrats?

Two years ago, we compared the opioid epidemic to the mortgage crisis that nearly cratered the global economy, noting how both were caused by corporate greed. Recent reporting in the Washington Post and other media outlets reveals an important difference between the two: unlike the regulators who were blithely ignorant of what was happening in the financial markets, officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) knew exactly how many opioid pills were being distributed in the U.S. and where they were going. They simply chose to do nothing about it even though DEA investigators and line attorneys were pushing to hold at least one major drug manufacturer responsible for fueling the deadly epidemic.

The Obama administration’s decision to let drug company CEOs and managers off the hook runs parallel with its refusal to prosecute the big bank and brokerage officials who ignited the mortgage crisis. This eagerness to place Wall Street above Main Street is the key to solving the mystery that has confounded pundits, pollsters, and prognosticators since November 8, 2016: why did so many blue-collar and working class voters abandon the Democratic Party and vote for Trump?

In our minds, it’s all about hypocrisy, broken promises, and dashed hopes.

Let’s be realistic. From opposing the Wagner Act, to imposing the Taft-Hartley Act, to proposing right-to-work laws, to firing striking air traffic controllers, to embracing free trade, to supporting anti-worker policies too numerous to mention in this space, Republicans have never hidden their disdain for working people and unions or their love for the rich and corporations.  When a voter casts a ballot for a GOP candidate, they know what they’re going to get.

Conversely, since 1932, Democrats have positioned themselves as advocates for working men and women. For most of that time, they attempted to keep the promises they made. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, all proposed and implemented policies that strengthened workers’ rights and created the opportunity for more and more Americans to grab a piece of the American Dream.

And then came the “Man from Hope,” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, AKA President “Hope and Change.”

When we looked back at all the times these two dashed the hopes of everyday Americans, we weren’t surprised that blue collar and working-class voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What’s surprising is that it took them so long to head for the door. By 2016, they were tired of being screwed over by Democratic presidents who promised one thing but delivered only repeated blows to the working class’s collective solar plexus.  Trump’s ability to recognize and exploit that fatigue along with his opponent’s refusal to acknowledge that Clinton and Obama had made mistakes carried him to victory.

A quick trip down memory lane validates our thesis. During his 1992 campaign, Clinton vowed to reform America’s health care system and outlaw the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes. Those promises energized a labor movement that had been demoralized when Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and was being crushed at the negotiating table by rapidly rising health care costs. Union members turned out in droves and fueled Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

How did he repay them? Not by reforming health care or banning the use of scabs. Instead, he passed and implemented NAFTA, put former Goldman Sachs co-chair Robert Rubin in charge of the economy, and fought tooth and nail to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act.

Anyone who doubts that these actions had any effect on the 2016 election should consider all the hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs that NAFTA erased across the Midwest. In the Mahoning Valley, it wiped out Delphi Packard, General Electric, RG Steel, and other firms. The people who worked for those companies and their families haven’t forgotten who fought for and signed the pact that erased thousands of good jobs–and they almost certainly took note of the fact that his spouse was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2016.

NAFTA-based job cuts were still fresh wounds for many voters in 2016. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, thousands of workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin lost their jobs due to foreign competition and thus qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance programs between October 2015 and September 2016. They would have been particularly susceptible to Trump’s anti-NAFTA message in the run-up to the election.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall, which was enthusiastically supported by then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, set the stage for the mortgage crisis that cost millions of Americans, many of them working-class, their homes. Rubin saw no danger in deregulating the financial markets, only opportunity–for himself. He resigned his post at Treasury to accept a top job at Citigroup just days after the Clinton administration placed its stamp of approval on the repeal.

As some candidates in the most recent Democratic presidential debate had the temerity to point out, Barack Obama’s betrayals of the working class were every bit as egregious as Clinton’s – maybe even worse.

Those betrayals began with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Cobbled together by Treasury Secretary and Robert Rubin acolyte Tim Geithner in the wake of the financial crisis, TARP funneled billions of dollars to banks and financial institutions but directed very little to middle- and working-class homeowners who were left holding shreds of what had been their piece of the American Dream.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was another slap at working families. The drafting and negotiating process was dominated by private insurers and Big Pharma. Single-payer health care advocates weren’t just excluded from the deliberations, they were derided and chided. In the end, the ACA, which did feature some much-needed reforms, was a boon for health insurers and the pharmaceutical industry, which managed to stave off efforts to give the government the power to bargain drug prices. As a result, working-class families are still being squeezed by rising health care costs and skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs, including insulin.

The administration’s decision to support the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 (MPRA) enraged workers and retirees. The legislation gave the Treasury Department, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, and the Labor Department the power to approve unilateral cuts in pension benefits. Throughout 2015 and 2016 thousands of retirees covered by the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund feared that their benefits would be reduced by thousands of dollars a month.  While the cuts were shelved temporarily, retirees continued to harbor resentment toward the Democratic president who signed the bill.

Two more episodes that demonstrate his disdain for the working class: Obama’s support for the Trans Pacific Partnership, another trade agreement opposed by organized labor and his failure to insist that GM commit to retaining jobs in the U.S. in exchange for the bailout that kept the company out of bankruptcy.

View all these incidents from the perspective of a workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas, families who lost their homes because of corporate greed, the thousands of people who live in communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic, or retirees whose pensions are in jeopardy, and it’s really not hard to understand why so many working-class people voted for Trump in 2016. To riff on the old adage, Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a couple dozen times and I’m voting for Trump.

In order to prevent a repeat of 2016, the Democratic presidential candidates must admit that Obama and Clinton took the party in the wrong direction, a case Matt Stoler made convincingly in the Washington Post in January of 2017. Unless they are willing to repudiate the policies that drove a wedge between the working class and the party, they won’t be able to undermine Trump’s core message to this critical constituency: that Democrats have abandoned them.

A clear break with the past combined with a credible economic message that convinces working men and women that they can once again trust the Democratic Party to fight for their interests is the path to victory in 2020.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

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


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Why the Democrats Need to Talk about Race AND Class

Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

In their response to President Trump’s racist tweets telling them to “go back to where they came from,” the four female congressional representatives dubbed “The Squad” tried to shift the debate. Instead of battling over whether the tweets and the subsequent “Send Them Back” chant count as racist, and instead of yet another round of media amazement at the president’s bad behavior, the Squad called for renewed attention to policies aimed at addressing inequality. Too many of their Democratic colleagues, however, including most of those running for president, took Trump’s bait, condemning the president and defending the Squad’s honor as citizens and women of color.

They’d have done better if they had taken up the Squad’s real cause: pursuing policies that address injustice as an intersectional challenge.

The field of candidates for the Democratic nomination is almost twice the size of the senior seminar on working-class literature that I’ll be teaching in the fall. That may seem an odd comparison to make, but if the candidates understood the concept at the heart of my class, they might have recognized that instead of treating race, immigration, and the economy as separate issues, they have to do it all at once. They need to understand, as do voters, that the challenges we face are intersectional.

In “Class at the Intersections,” my students and I will dig into the complex and contested relationships between social class and other categories of culture, identity, and inequality. Intersectional analysis emphasizes that no one is just working-class, or female, or straight, or white. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term 30 years ago as part of an argument that black women were not protected by anti-discrimination laws that focused on race or gender. Because the discrimination they faced was intersectional, they needed legal recognition as women of color. In my course, we’ll focus on how working-class people are never defined only by their class. If we want to understand their perspectives, we need to consider how they are also shaped by race, gender, and other social categories.

If the Democratic class of 2020 read Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” they might see that we cannot make progress if we define injustice as rooted in any single category. But that’s exactly what too many politicians and pollsters do, and the media often echo these perspectives in their stories about voters. The problem may start with polling, which sorts people into neat categories, highlighting how black voters or working-class voters or women see particular candidates or issues. But a single voter could be all of those things. Candidates would do well to realize that a black, college-educated, Christian woman isn’t defined by any one part of her identity, nor are her political preferences. There’s a good chance she’s concerned not only about affordable health care but also the racial wealth gap, the high rates of maternal mortality among black women, and debates over abortion rights. This might seem obvious, but the way many of us talk about voters often underpins inaccurate characterizations—like assuming a reference to “working class” means “white working class,” or that most poor people are black.

Just as no candidate can win election by appealing to any single constituency, so candidates can’t win by appealing to voters based on only one aspect of their lives. They must find ways to speak to the multiple affiliations that shape voters’ views. This might mean not just talking about raising the minimum wage but also noting how it could benefit a diverse range of workers, including the women and workers of color who make up a significant portion of lower-wage and service workers. It might mean critiquing mass incarceration not only as a problem of racism in the justice system but also in terms of its economic impacts.

But intersectional politics is never that simple, as another reading from my class reminds us. David Roediger’s historical analysis of how working-class identity has been shaped and enabled by racism presents a very different version of intersectionality and raises particularly challenging questions for both my students and the presidential candidates. Roediger reminds us that while the working class is racially diverse, it also has a troubling historic investment in whiteness. Of course, racism is not remotely the sole responsibility or property of the working class, but it has helped to shape American working-class identity. That’s part of why it’s so hard for politicians (and the rest of us) to address class and race together.

This is an old problem, and as Roediger reminds us—perhaps inadvertently—tensions around class, race, and gender have been shaping presidential politics for years. He notes early in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness that analyses of “recent” elections have focused on the working class, especially white working-class men, a pattern that was as common when the book was published as it is today.

Nearly 30 years later, we still assume that politicians and policymakers must choose between race and class. They can emphasize inclusion and discrimination, or they can advocate for “working people,” which, as Roediger notes, “often presumes whiteness (and maleness).” Some pundits argue that Democrats must present a strong economic platform in order to win back working-class voters lost to the Republican party over the last few decades (not only to Trump but going back at least to Nixon). On the other hand, some academics and activists argue that class-based politics have too often left behind people of color and reinforced racism, while others insist that political discourse has largely ignored class divisions among African Americans, presenting “black lives” as if they were all the same. Yet, as Roediger argues in his 2017 book Class, Race, and Marxism, “lamentably vague class talk” and “nebulous talk about racial justice” too often just negate each other.

What we need is political discourse and—even more crucially—political action that fully embrace the interconnections between race and class, without ignoring the difficult history of that relationship. It isn’t enough to acknowledge the challenges of fostering an inclusive society, as Pete Buttigieg advocated in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign in May. While he may be right that “what every gay person has in common with every excluded person of every kind is knowing what it’s like to see a wall,” framing the issue in this way reinforces the idea that gay people are white, male, middle-class citizens. Nor is it sufficient to note, as Representative Tim Ryan did on the PBS Newshour, that the workers whose interests he foregrounds are “white, black, brown, gay, straight.” Such gestures to inclusion don’t challenge the problematic idea that “working class” means “white people.”

Intersectional politics requires more overt attention. More critical thinking about intersectionality might help candidates imagine the possibility of inclusive, intersectional justice and political discourse that actively challenges our habit of dividing voters into neatly separate categories.

I’d love to hear candidates not only address economic and racial injustice but also acknowledge how these two problems feed each other. I want candidates not only to point out that workers are diverse but also to challenge voters to reject any politician and question any commentator who promotes the idea that we need to pay special attention to the concerns of the “white working class.” I’m listening for the candidate who makes clear that we cannot protect democracy, create opportunity, or address injustice without addressing all of who we are—as a country, as communities, as workers, and as voters.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

This piece originally appeared on The American Prospect.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What is a “Working-Class Academic”?

Last week, a law professor from the UK was profiled by The Guardian.  In the article, Geraldine Van Bueren, the daughter of a taxi driver and bookkeeper, discusses the need for people like her to come out publicly.  She has formed a group to that end.  Confusedly, however, she has named that group the “Association of Working-Class Academics,” the same name that a group of us, mostly US-based, have been using since 2008.  When Van Bueren’s story hit the virtual newsstand, our AWCA Facebook page was inundated with new likes and comments thanking Van Bueren.  We quickly responded, linking to her piece in The Guardian, explaining the confusion, and welcoming the attention.  We also reached out to Van Bueren, who was quite gracious and apologetic.  The whole situation reminded us of the need for better coordination, organization, and cross-pollination.  It has also prompted me to share some of our history, explain the term “working-class academic,” and spend a little time sharing the strengths of those of us who so identify.

In 1984, two professors, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, published Strangers in Paradise, whose subtitle, “Academics from the Working Class” pioneered WCA concept.  A nice review in The Insurgent Sociologist summarizes the importance of this volume.  For the first time, professors from poor and working-class backgrounds testified about the dislocating experience of moving between classes.  The book inspired many others to share their own stories, and several more collections of autobiographical writing followed, including Working-Class Women in the Academy by Michelle Tokarzyk and Elizabeth Fay (1993), This Fine Place So Far From Home by C.L. Barney Dews and Carline Leste Law (1995), Class Matters by Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek (1997), Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Tracks by Stephen Muzzatti and Vincent Samarco (2005), Resilience by Ken Oldfield and Gregory Johnson III (2008), and Trajectories by Jane Van Galen and Van O. Dempsey (2009).  This collective work has inspired generations of WCAs not only to tell our stories but to think more clearly and critically about class, class mobility, and the promises and perils of higher education in an unequal society.

I myself stumbled upon Strangers in Paradise while a graduate student in the early 00s.  This led me to an active listserv of “working-class/poverty-class academics” and, eventually, to the formation of the Association of Working-Class Academics in 2008.  A collective history of our attempts to organize WCAs can be found in The Journal of Working-Class StudiesIn 2015, AWCA formally merged with the Working-Class Studies Association, and we continue as a formal section within the larger organization.  Anyone interested in joining is encouraged to do so!

But you may be asking “what is a working-class academic?”  Why does it matter that some professors have working-class backgrounds?

You may be familiar with the exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, where Hemingway answers Fitzgerald’s claim that the very rich are different with a curt and devastating reply: “Yes, they have more money.”  Fitzgerald’s explanation makes clear that the difference isn’t just about money. The class you grow up in shapes your character and attitude. The very rich, he says,

possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in way that, unless you were born rich, it is difficult to understand.  They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.  Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.  They are different.

In a similar way, growing up poor also marks a person.  Although as the so-called smart kid in my neighborhood, I always felt a little different, my sense of alienation from school did not really begin until I went to college.  I was caught between two worlds, a stranger in paradise, and all those other clichés that are nevertheless quite accurate.  It was not until I found a group of people with similar experiences, the working-class academics, that I finally felt at home.

Growing up poor or working class and then becoming a tenured professor gives one a unique purchase on the world.  For one thing, we don’t know anyone.  We have no connections with academia or the professional world in general.  Anonymity has its privileges.  Because it took so much to get where we are, we tend to be brave (sometimes stupidly so), barging in where no one like us has gone before, often uninvited.  We are risk-takers, but this is made easier by the fact that we don’t know the rules of the game, so we don’t play by them.  We can color outside the lines, when necessary.  Not having any ancient prejudices or customs, we are not held back by them.  Related to our anonymity, our braveness, our outsider status, we can speak our mind.  And we do.  Often.

Working-class academics work hard.  Granted, so do many of our more advantaged colleagues, but we think of work differently. Working hard is meant to be difficult (physically demanding, rather than mentally engaging, as with middle-class work. And we don’t mind getting our hands dirty.  This is also about expectations.  Years of training and observation of our families’ lives have led us to expect discipline from the boss.  We can balk at this, and often do, but we are not surprised by dickishness from above.  I guess what I am saying is that we don’t hold entitled views.

Although we had to be pretty smart to get where we are now, we don’t attribute our success to it, because we know too many other smart people who are still working at the QuickMart or bussing tables or cleaning houses.  We know luck played a big part in where we ended up.  This, too, makes us feel less entitled than some of our peers, but it also allows us to see things from a more objective, less personal, perspective.  We hold nothing sacred.  We have a better purchase on reality than many of our peers.  All of this makes us deeply suspicious of abstractions that ignore context.  We want to know where people are coming from, especially when they say things about the state of the world or possibilities for the future.  We have a practical bent, preferring to say what we mean rather than hiding behind a label or polite obfuscation.  This also means we prefer to study and teach subjects that matter in the “real world,” often running away from those areas of academia that appear too theoretical, abstract, navel-gazing.

In all these ways, we are different from too many of our peers.  We are still operating in the margins of academia.  For now, many individuals still stumble upon the WCA concept, as Geraldine Van Bueren has done.  I cannot count how many times I been at a conference (sociology, education, labor) where a WCA in the audience “comes out” during Q&A.  Most of the time, this is treated as a one of a kind experience – never shared before, never spoken of since.  It should not be.  We are here.  Please find us! To paraphrase John Lennon, A working class [academic] is something to be.”

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Understanding Class | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why Can’t It Be Like That Now? Remembering What We Had and Could Have Again

‘But why can’t work be like that now?’ my colleague Julia asked when I told her about my research into the former Guinness brewery at Park Road in West London. After working on the project for the best part of a decade and a half, it’s sometimes difficult to sum up quickly. Over that time, I’ve looked at thousands of photographs, scores of staff magazines, and hundreds of documents, and I’ve talked to dozens of workers. But Julia’s question cut straight to the heart of the book.  She got the point straight away, unlike some of my academic colleagues, who have been skeptical about the appreciation the brewery workers I spoke with expressed toward Guinness.  Perhaps this is because they have not had blue-collar jobs.  But I have, and when I worked on the London Underground, I appreciated the conditions that unions and previous generations had won for me, so I recognise what the brewery workers I wrote about valued in their work.

The book describes the conditions that workers had enjoyed at the plant from the end of World War II through to the early 1980s. Along with earning decent wages and good pensions when they were relatively rare features of blue-collar life in the UK, Park Royal workers also had access to a range of sports facilities and cultural activities onsite, subsidised by the company itself. On top of that, Guinness had hired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the premier architect of the day, to design the buildings. The grounds were laid out by some of the top contemporary  landscape gardeners, who planted hundreds of different tree species and thousands of shrubs. All this not because the company had too, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, because they wanted to.

Some academics view these conditions as manipulative management practices. After one presentation at a university in North America, a visiting German scholar told me that they were ‘merely simple propaganda’, while others have described that these conditions as ‘crude ideological control devices lulling workers away from their revolutionary mission’. Such responses ignore the complexity and nuance of workers’ experiences and perspectives, but they also miss why the story of Guinness matters for us now.

I think a lot about the contrast between what corporate strategy looked like in the years after World War II and now. When I ask students in my sociology of work courses to reflect on their work experiences, their stories sometimes make for grim and even disturbing reading or hearing. Most are in their late teens or early twenties and work predominantly in-service jobs such as retail and, increasingly, coffee shops. They ‘enjoy’ very different working conditions, including internationally known brands limiting them to six-hour contracts to avoid having to pay for statutory breaks mandated by weakened employment law.  They describe the abuse from customers frustrated at waiting those extra seconds for their beverage because the company has pared down staffing levels to a minimum. My students also tell me about the training packages they must complete at home rather than getting paid to train in the workplace.

When I talk to them about my Guinness research, I feel a mixture of emotions.  I feel guilty that I am showing what their parents — or really grandparents — thought of as ‘good work’.  Am I rubbing their noses in their own situations, highlighting unobtainable riches they will never enjoy? But I also believe that it’s important to describe the working conditions of the past so that we can understand where we have been and why we are where we are now. Work now looks very different than it did in the past for many people, but those changes have occurred because of structural shifts which are often deliberate choices made by corporate and political actors. Equally the ‘good jobs’ of the past exemplified by those at Guinness came about because of a set deliberate decisions and actions taken by employers, politicians, trade unions, and grass roots workers.

Reflecting on my own guilt about parading ‘good work’ in front of younger people reminds me of a seminal moment in the process of interviewing soon to be laid off workers at the plant. I will never forget one interview I did with a Guinness worker. At the end of a long session, the interviewee came out with pure gold (after I had turned the microphone off, as was so often the case). Reflecting on his early working life at the brewery in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said, “Can you imagine what we used to have here?” The interview had drawn up a whole series of memories and reflections on a working life, his benign contract, the sports and social clubs, the vertical integration of the site, and the workplace camaraderie. The tone of disbelief in his voice was vivid, as if he had enjoyed some illicit pleasure and even remembering and admitting enjoying those features of working life was somehow wrong. He seemed to have a profound sense that the conditions of work in the past, and indeed the other forms of corporate investment, were illegitimate extravagances that were bound to end sooner or later. He spoke for many of his peers in voicing an obituary for a lost world of work.

Perhaps what is more striking is just how deeply neoliberal ideology has penetrated our collective consciousness, to the point where it has completely delegitimized a more expansive, progressive, and humane vision for capitalism. In short, contemporary culture and politics seems to have restricted our imaginations so completely that we cannot see alternatives to the current state of affairs.

And this is why I was so gratified when my colleague ‘got’ the point of my book: in studying the past we chart both what we had and what we have lost.  But we also ask critical questions as to why, not so long ago, ordinary working-class people could enjoy conditions at work that gave them dignity, confidence, and hope that their lives were getting better, decade by decade, and that the children’s lives would be better still. It poses questions for all of us as workers, as voters, stock holders, and citizens: why is treating workers well seen as a cost on the balance sheet to be controlled rather than the right thing to do?

Tim Strangleman, Kent University

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Is ‘Doing Your Best’ Ever Enough When You Are Working Class?

In 2016, I wrote about how Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake illustrated the impact of the draconian British welfare system on working-class people. Watching that film was a visceral experience, so much so that I still can’t bring myself to rewatch some scenes, such as one in a food bank. Loach’s latest film, Sorry We Missed You (2019), produced the same response; I left the cinema feeling angry and sick in the stomach. Once again, the characters could be members of my family. And Loach’s new film again confirms the terrible mess created by years of Tory rule, austerity measures, and neoliberalism. Sorry We Missed You is heartbreaking to watch.

Loach has created another uncompromising story that works as a parallel piece to I, Daniel Blake. They are set in the same city, and the story worlds could easily coincide. Whereas I, Daniel Blake focused on the absurdity and cruelty of the rules around claiming government benefits (welfare), Sorry We Missed You highlights the exploitation of workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ and the impact of funding cuts and privatisation on local council services and the National Health Service. The film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), Abby (Debbie Honeywood), and their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jae (Katie Proctor).

As they often say, they are trying to do their best. They work 14-hour days, have no time together or for the family, and are struggling to stay afloat. Ricky has left the building trade due to the downturn in available work, and he decides to ‘go it alone’ by working as a parcel courier for a fictional dispatch company. The idea is sold to him as a way of starting his own business as a franchisee, to be his own boss and control what he earns. The work requires a van, which he can either can hire for £65 a day from the company or buy himself. He takes out a loan to buy his own after selling Abby’s car to meet the down payment. He starts the job in debt, and the debts increase when he has to skip work for family reasons and is fined by the company, who hold him responsible for the value of goods that are stolen and for broken company equipment. Instead of working for himself, he realises he is beholden to the company’s rules, without any of the benefits of being an employee. He gets no sick or holiday pay, and he is responsible for his own insurance (both for himself and his vehicle). Ricky’s plight is terrible – he is forced to work long hours to simply repay his debt before he can actually start earning. The hours lead to fatigue and unsafe working conditions. But as the manager of the parcel depot makes clear, the customers don’t care whether the drivers are so tired they’ll fall asleep at the wheel. They are only interested in how quickly their delivery will arrive. Ricky is exhausted and unable to think clearly, and the toll on his health builds throughout the film.

Meanwhile, Abby’s day starts at 7:30am, when she begins her rounds as a carer – preparing breakfast for elderly and disabled ‘clients’ (a term she hates) and getting them washed and dressed. Her day ends at 9pm after she has helped her clients get ready for bed. By the time she is home, it is too late to spend any time with her own family. The scenes depicting Abby’s work are particularly heartbreaking. As a contract carer, she works for an agency on a zero hours contract and is allocated limited time to spend with each client. Abby wants to help the elderly and vulnerable people, but the only way she can give them the care she thinks they need is to sacrifice time with her own family – using her unpaid breaks to spend more time with clients. All of this affects her wellbeing, and it reflects the impact of budget cuts to local authorities and the push to privatise and outsource. Local authorities’ budgets have been slashed to the bone, so they cannot provide the in-home care required by elderly and disabled people in the community. Abby’s clients are sometimes left soiled and in distress as they wait alone between carer visits.

I experienced this first-hand when my mother became infirm prior to her death in 2018. She was too frail to take care of herself, and she relied on neighbours (I live on the other side of the world). Despite being completely reliant on government benefits and having no assets (she lived in public housing), the only care available would have required her to pay a local outsourced provider for help with preparing meals, getting up in the morning, and going to bed. The service cost £15 an hour – money she didn’t have. After she experienced several hospital admissions and worsening health, I spent hours calling and emailing the local social services. An in-home care package for her was approved a few days before her final admission to hospital (where she passed away).

All of the carers who visited my mother were wonderful. Just like Abby, they did their best. They were paid minimum wage and did all they could to make my mother more comfortable. They listened to her stories and brought in treats from the shop, but they were working in a system that relies on unpaid caring (from family and neighbours). When a family cannot provide the necessary 24-hour care, like Abby’s clients and in my mother’s case, the over-stretched carers cannot provide the levels of care needed to maintain dignity and quality of life.

Like Loach’s earlier film, Sorry We Missed You provides another punch in the guts. It’s hard to imagine how much longer people like Ricky and Abby will be able to continue ‘doing their best’. Millions are suffering due to austerity measures and unfettered neo-liberalism.Hopefully, Loach’s film will spark some change.

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


Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Across the Border: Teaching Service-Learning as Labor Activism

Summer is already in full swing and with that comes the promise of fresh, local produce available at community-supported agricultural (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets. North Carolina, ranked as the leading producer of tobacco and sweet potatoes according to the USDA, has long held the position of being one of the highest-producing and diversified agricultural leaders in the U.S. Many of my students who live in the rural Southeast region of the state come from farming backgrounds themselves and, as a result, have a strong understanding of what it takes to run a family farm.

However, my students, like most consumers, are far less familiar with the realities of the over 150,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents who labor each year on these farms, contributing to billions of dollars in North Carolina’s economy. These individuals—both H-2A (temporary agricultural workers) and undocumented immigrants—remain invisible to most and are the second lowest paid workers nationwide, making on average $11,000 per year. Without access to overtime, sick leave, workers’ compensation, or the ability to fight wage discrimination, farmworkers have the fewest workers’ rights in the nation, yet, as we know, their labor hand-picking food feeds the world.

Farm work is dangerous work. According to Charles D. Thompson, Jr. and Melinda F. Wiggins, farmworkers suffer from many job-related illnesses due to prolonged exposure to sun, heat, and pesticides and often have limited access to drinking water in the fields. Unsanitary living conditions, including inadequate toilet facilities, also result in multiple occupational hazards that range from dermatitis and Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) to respiratory illness and repetitive work injuries. Farmworkers are also extremely isolated from other communities and face food insecurity, lack access to pre-natal care or health care for children, and suffer from depression.

These matters were exacerbated by the devastation caused by last fall’s Hurricane Florence, which flooded the Southeastern corridor for weeks. As NPR reported, fear over Trump’s anti-immigration policies and inflammatory rhetoric frightened farmworkers away from seeking much-needed food and medical assistance. The severe flooding left many out of work and in need of shelter, but workers were either unable to leave their camps because of their remote location or did not qualify for assistance. Fortunately, local non-profit agencies devoted to promoting migrant farmworker justice, such as the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFwM) and Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), answered the call and provided bottled water and other supplies. They also initiated a fund-raising campaign to support the rebuilding of homes and additional services for the workers and their families.

Most consumers don’t think about the realities migrant farmworkers face, particularly with the recovery efforts still underway, but I want my students to understand them, because they make concrete the local effects of the ongoing political debates over Trump’s border wall, DACA, migrant detention centers, and child separation and deaths. I try to close the gap between national policy and the local community, in part by incorporating service-learning into my classes. In an interdisciplinary honors seminar that I have team-taught several times with Dr. E. Brooke Kelly, our students examine food insecurity and inequality related to the production and consumption of food, and we consider how a globalized industrial food system impacts us as individuals and as a society. The course presents food as a labor and social justice issue, highlighting issues from hunger and food waste to immigrant rights and a labor shortage.

Michele Fazio, E. Brooke Kelly, and several of their students visit a migrant farmworker labor camp in Southeastern North Carolina

Our students work with the EFwM and SAF to promote National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW), a 20-year-old nationwide initiative that takes place annually during the last week of March to raise awareness about farmworker issues. They design final projects like coordinating a social media campaign and a week-long campus-wide event that included a collection drive for clothing, toiletries, and first-aid supplies as well as a screening of the documentary, “Harvest of Dignity,” and organizing a day-long campus visit for children of migrant farmworkers who participate in theatre workshops, mural painting, and learn more about life as a college student. This semester, we visited a migrant farmworker labor camp, where we met with workers, including some who had just arrived earlier that day and others who had been coming to North Carolina for twenty to thirty years. The workers spoke of being detained at the border for over eight hours and paying kickbacks to travel through the U.S., stories that illustrate Fernando Herrera Calderón’s claim that “Crossing the border has become more dangerous and more expensive.” The workers’ testimony revealed their emotional frustrations in having to leave their homes for eight months out of the year just to earn a living.

It’s difficult to capture in words how extraordinary this experience was for my students. Talking with farmworkers about their struggles on the job about topics such as wages, the economy, stereotypes, and work-related injuries placed them at the frontline of social injustice, interacting with a population they otherwise would not have access to. Those conversations also humanized the rhetoric and statistics they hear from the media and the government, providing students with individual faces and names. This interaction illustrates the power of experiential learning and community engagement. Learning teamwork skills and cultural sensitivity, applying course content to real-life experiences, and reflecting upon what they learned in class and in the fields are central to students’ academic success, increasing their perspective and sense of civic responsibility.

As educators, we must continue to provide opportunities to “cross the border” from campus into the real world to address larger conversations about immigration, inequality, social justice, and working-class rights. As a form of activism, community engagement enriches the learning experience and puts into practice the mission of higher education, helping my students understand the vital role migrant farmworkers have not only in North Carolina’s economy but in food production worldwide.

We all could benefit from considering the various social problems related to food to broaden awareness about the labor conditions and class inequities that shape the agricultural industry. As we prepare for the abundance of fresh corn on the cob, strawberries, collards, and squash, remember to give thanks to a farmworker.

Michele Fazio

Michele Fazio is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and co-editor with Christie Launius and Tim Strangleman of the forthcoming  Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies.  Her research centers on the intersections among ethnicity, gender, and class with a particular focus on Italian American labor radicalism.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Talking Class and Race at the Same Time

Most progressive policies have the potential of unifying people around class interests, but a convention in talking about these things often seems to purposely lean against pointing that out. Cory Booker’s baby bonds, all versions of Medicare for All, and the $15 minimum wage, for example, would all disproportionately benefit blacks and Latinxs, a point often highlighted by politicians and in the press, especially the advocacy press.  What they usually don’t say, however, is that though lower percentages of whites will benefit from these policies, very large numbers of them will. What would be wrong with uniformly mentioning that while people of color are disproportionately affected, the largest groups of poor, uninsured, and negative-wealth Americans are white folks?

Maybe candidates and reporters assume that everybody knows this, but I’m pretty sure they do not.  Though I have only anecdotal evidence, I suspect large numbers of white people don’t realize how substantially they would benefit from these policies.  Every time a politician or advocate says proudly that their policy would “especially benefit people of color,” to white folks it can sound like the policy is geared mostly toward people unlike them.  Because whites are still a large majority of the population (67%) and an even larger proportion of voters (72%), this should be seen as political malpractice.  But beyond political pragmatism, there’s a moral and truth deficit to mentioning one but not the other.

Almost any policy, existing or proposed, that aims to improve the economic circumstances of the bottom half of the population by income will end up benefiting larger percentages of people of color (what is meant by “disproportionately”), while the largest group of beneficiaries will be white people.  While whites are under-represented among the bottom half, they are still the largest group as we define our races and ethnicities.  A $15 minimum wage, for example, would benefit the majorities of blacks and Hispanics and only a little more than a third of whites, but of the 60 million people who would benefit, 33 million would be white.

To take a more complicated example, consider this headline from Vox, “Study: Cory Booker’s baby bonds nearly closes the racial wealth gap for young adults.”  The black-white racial wealth gap is huge, and it is clearly tied to a centuries-long history of structural racism that continues today in many forms, including education, housing, and lending practices.  The mean average wealth of white households is nearly 9 times higher that of black households.  What’s more, about 20% of black households have zero or negative net wealth versus only 10% of white households.  But while it may seem paradoxical, more than twice the number of white households have zero or negative net wealth than black households – 7.7 million white households compared to 3.3 million black households. This is simple arithmetic – lower percentages of much larger groups mean more actual people, but most of us can’t and don’t do this arithmetic in our heads.  And, unless it is pointed out, we don’t often infer it as a background fact.

So if Cory Booker says his baby bonds would “especially benefit people of color” in building wealth, is that actually true?  If we look at just those with negative net wealth who would benefit the most from Booker’s means-tested proposal, more than 7 million white households would benefit while only about 3 million black households would.  What is “especially” about that?  Booker assumes that people only go by percentages, and his proposal would indeed substantially reduce the black-white wealth gap in median incomes, but the largest group of beneficiaries will still be white. Booker’s baby bonds scheme reduces not only the racial wealth gap but also the class wealth gap.  Families of color will benefit disproportionately, but white ones will “especially” benefit too.  Wouldn’t being explicit about that make the proposal more attractive, not less, to a big chunk of the two-thirds of the electorate that is white?

Would that be appealing to “white” self-interest?  Yes, in part it would, but it would not appeal uniformly across white income classes, 20% of whom would likely see their benefit from baby bonds as insignificant.  But this is also true of people of color.  By mentioning that a policy “disproportionately benefits people of color,” we might think we’re appealing to the interests of all people of color, but we’re undoubtedly appealing most to those for whom baby bonds could be a generational game changer – a group defined by class, not by race.  Baby bonds benefit almost everybody (up to $126,000 in annual income), but they make the most difference for people of little or negative wealth regardless of race or ethnicity.  Calling out not just how a policy benefits almost everybody, but specifically how it benefits larger numbers of white people at the same time as it benefits larger percentages of people of color is to talk about race and class at the same time – and we need to do more of that.

It feels awkward, because calling white people white can seem provocative.   But if we’re going to divide ourselves into racial groups as we do – white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and other – then we need to stop talking as if all poor people are people of color and all white people have the full array of privileges that come with whiteness.  Though nearly everybody would get it right on a true-false test, well-educated journalists and politicians routinely use “poor” as if it were a racial category and “working class” as if it were wall-to-wall white (and often just blue-collar white men).  This implicit usage not only makes building class unity more difficult, it makes it nearly impossible even to envision.

It also encourages politicians and pundits to pose false dilemmas pitting Trump’s working-class white base against the Democrats’ rainbow coalition, as in suggesting that the Party must choose to “Win Back Trump Voters or Rally the Base?”  It makes it impossible to see that 33 percent of the rainbow are whites without bachelor degrees – the reigning definition of the white working class and the largest single group in the Democratic base.  Dems need class-based policies that appeal across our racial categories, and candidates running for the Democratic nomination have a potpourri of such policies on offer.  But they need to learn how to talk about class and race at the same time.

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 Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple 2000).


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