Some Silver Linings for the Working Class in British Politics?

On the face of it, there is little to make progressives cheerful about in British politics at the moment. In the wake of June’s Brexit vote the Labour party has begun to knock large lumps out of itself with a Mexican standoff between the parliamentary Labour party and the leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Elected with a large majority in September 2015, Corbyn now faces a challenge by backbencher Owen Smith. On the other side of the aisle, the Conservative party made an unexpectedly smooth leadership transition from David Cameron to former Home Secretary Teresa May just days after the Brexit vote.

This all could be interpreted as an unalloyed disaster for the working class and their varied interests, but I don’t think it is. Let me tell you why. On the left, Labour does have some serious and deep seated problems. Jeremy Corbyn, while overwhelmingly the popular choice of the Party’s rank and file, has been systematically undermined by his fellow MPs. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, some saw a chance to unseat Corbyn by blaming him for the out vote. They charged that he had not campaigned sufficiently for ‘remain’ and had not provided effective leadership. A few days after the vote, one shadow minister after another resigned in a coordinated attempt to make Corbyn’s position untenable. The putsch, nicknamed the chicken coup, emphasized the distance between those in Westminster and the activist members in the country. Efforts to remove the leader went further when first Angela Eagle and then Owen Smith announced they would stand against Corbyn and force a leadership election. Recognizing that only one candidate would stand a chance of unseating the incumbent, Eagle stepped aside to allow Smith a free run. The result of the leadership vote will be announced next month.

So where is the optimism there, you ask? Well, here is the thing: both Smith and Eagle before she stepped aside have taken more progressive stances on issues such as ending austerity, tackling social inequality, and being more critical of corporate excess. Indeed, on substantive issues, they seem to support Corbyn’s platform. Where they disagree is on his leadership. In many ways Corbyn could be read as a John the Baptist figure, ushering in a new progressive left-of-centre politics. In the last leadership election, he stood out as the anti-austerity candidate uniquely prepared to resist the further marketization of British society and deeper cuts to public spending. Though heavily criticised by his opponents, Corbyn has in a year dragged the debate onto a far more interesting and progressive terrain. Because of this, Labour party membership has expanded rapidly, with numbers climbing to over 515,000 and counting, making it the biggest left of centre political party in Western Europe.

Something is clearly happening on the left, but what of the right? Here again you wouldn’t expect to find reasons to cheer. Prime Minster May has appointed what is in many ways the most right wing libertarian cabinet in recent times, and there is strong competition for that accolade. But the tone and stance of her brief election campaign and the first months of her tenure have been markedly different from her elite predecessor. Gone is the so called Notting Hill set dominated by privately educated well connected ministers, replaced by a distinctly more middle- even working-class group. May has also replaced talk of austerity and bashing welfare scroungers with standing up for those left behind, the hard working but poorly paid, and perhaps most surprising, a focus on the lack of school opportunities for working-class boys. As she said in her initial speech on the steps of Downing Street: ‘If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home but you worry about paying the mortgage. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school’.

Now, this could be all rhetoric, a cynical attempt to take advantage of the woes of the Labour party by wooing the working-class vote. But I think there is something interesting and serious going on here that reflects why so many working-class voters opted for Brexit in June. I see a clear recognition running through British politics these days of a growing body of people who increasingly feel alienated from mainstream consensus politics over the last two decades. Clearly, politicians now understand that the market has not worked for many working-class people whose wages have been frozen and working conditions undermined. They are also alienated from a political system that seems to be controlled, on both sides of the aisle, by an elite that governs in the interests of the very wealthy.

All of these issue have aligned at the same time, but their roots go back to the 1980s if not before. As someone who studies deindustrialization, I’m especially fascinated that commentators increasingly acknowledge the loss of traditional industrial work and the decimation of working-class communities as at the heart of the problem. My optimism rests on the shift in the vernacular away from the tired slogans that insist on the primacy of the market and on to more fertile ground for those with a concern for working-class issues. We can now talk openly about the effects of austerity and inequality and use the language of class in thinking about the society we live in and how we might change it for the better. Make no mistake — this is a huge shift and one to be welcomed.

Tim Strangleman

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The Education Campaign: Addressing Inequality through Teaching and Learning?

Other than Hillary Clinton’s adoption of Bernie Sanders’s proposal to make college tuition free for most Americans, we haven’t heard much about education in this year’s election. The focus has been on economic inequality, immigration, trade, and national security – all important issues, of course. But the candidates’ silence on primary and secondary education is striking, especially given how much attention education was receiving just a few years ago.

Before the election, before Black Lives Matter, and before the refugee crisis and the rise in terrorist attacks around the world, education was getting plenty of public attention. A national campaign attacked teachers and their unions for protecting ineffective educators and disregarding the needs of students. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolled out a program that promised to strengthen public schools, largely by increasing evaluation of teachers and expanding charter schools. Newark gained national attention for a plan to reform its schools, led by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – a plan that ultimately failed but that reflected a growing neoliberal tendency, embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, to turn to private companies for solutions to public education.

At the same time, we began to hear more criticism of standardized testing as a means of either improving education or evaluating teachers. A grassroots movement, led by parents and teachers, mobilized against standardized testing, the privatization of public education, and in support of better school funding. And public debate erupted over the latest effort to standardize education, the Common Core.

I couldn’t believe that the presidential candidates had nothing to say about education, so I visited their websites to find out what they had to say. Given everything I’d heard about Trump offering only minimal policy statements, I wasn’t surprised to find nothing more than a short video lambasting the Common Core and bemoaning the U.S.’s poor standing in global test scores. Nor was I surprised to find that Clinton had much more to say about education on her website than she had in any of the speeches I’ve heard. She lists a dozen idealistic but clearly-stated claims about education, focused on addressing specific problems, including one I’ve raised here several times — the need for more alternatives to college.

What really got my attention, though, is that Clinton’s site presents education as both reflecting economic and racial inequality and having the potential to reduce it. Of course, neither attention to the achievement gap nor the idea that better education gives people more economic opportunity is new. But the site makes an especially strong case for the importance of inequalities in education. It includes a section with nine charts detailing, in very simple and powerful images, the multiple ways that education mirrors economic and racial inequality in the U.S. The charts document increasing segregation, higher drop out rates and lower test scores among black and Latino students than among whites, the low incomes of kindergarten teachers, and the country’s relatively low rate of college completion, among other things. The page ends with the claim, drawn from the Center for American Progress, that closing the education gap would strengthen the economy.

The campaign also links inequality with teaching, noting the challenges teachers face to “fill gaps that we as a country have neglected—like giving low-income kids, English-language learners, and kids with disabilities the support they need to thrive.” The site also addresses the needs of teachers as workers, promising to prepare and support teachers in this important work and arguing for raising teachers’ salaries — a statement that is especially significant in an era when state cuts to education funding have left so many schools in poorer districts struggling and when public discourse has villainized teachers and their unions.

The campaign doesn’t actually mention teachers’ unions, either as allies or, happily, as scapegoats, though elsewhere Clinton does promise to restore bargaining rights and defend workers from “partisan attacks.”   Also, while I’m pleased to see Clinton suggest that we should treat teachers as valuable professionals, I’m wary of promises to “modernize” the profession, in part because the site doesn’t explain what that means. The site makes some reference to updating schools in order to ensure that every child learns about computers, but it also calls for applying “best practices from community and charter schools.” While I’m glad that Clinton isn’t pushing the idea of creating more charter schools, she needs to look more carefully – and much more critically — at the very mixed track record of charter schools.

Charter schools are just one part of a general push, by Democrats and Republicans alike, to privatize public education. As John Russo and I suggested when Clinton and Kaine visited Youngstown’s East High School recently, I’d like to see Clinton challenge the push to hand control of public schools over to private for-profit companies. As Molly Knefel pointed out recently in In These Times, the Democrats have a problematic record of supporting privatization and business-centric approaches to education reform – policies that have not worked.

Standardized testing generally benefits test-making companies more than anyone else. Unfortunately, Clinton’s site says nothing about the debate over testing. While the charts highlight the well-established fact that poorer students and students of color generally lag behind on test scores, Clinton apparently does not question either the validity or the centrality of standardized testing. Instead, the site treats the testing data as a reliable measure of educational inequity. To be clear, the inequity of public education is real, but I’d like to see policy makers – including the presidential candidates — acknowledge the role that testing plays in reinforcing inequity, as Diane Ravitch – once a proponent of testing and now one of its strongest critics — has shown.

Given the importance of education in civic life generally and in providing opportunities for poor and working-class children, especially, the candidates’ silence on K-12 education in their speeches has been disappointing. After all, free college tuition won’t do much good if students don’t receive a decent education in elementary, middle, and high school. Trump’s all-too brief comments – 40 seconds equals less than 100 words! – suggest that he simply doesn’t care much about education at all. I don’t care how good Trump’s words are, that’s just not enough.

Clinton’s website offers some modest signs of hope. Although she does not take on privatization, especially the turn to charter schools and the continued emphasis on testing, she emphasizes the relationship between education and inequality and acknowledges the need to treat and pay teachers as professionals. It’s not the education policy of my dreams, but it’s a gesture in the right direction.

Still, platforms and promises don’t necessarily translate into real policy change. It’s easy to praise teachers and promise improvements, but it is much, much harder to secure the funds and implement change. Poor and working-class students need a variety of changes in public education, and they need leaders and policy makers who can turn good intentions and incisive analysis into real opportunities.

Sherry Linkon

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Chasing Tax Cheats to Create Jobs: Why Don’t We Do That?

I’m guessing that tax collectors have never been a popular group, but we need thousands more of them, probably about 50,000 more. Why? Because something like $400 billion in business and personal taxes go uncollected each year, and with more employees to do more audits, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would collect a big chunk of that missing money.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their recent book American Amnesia report that for every dollar spent on tax law enforcement the government gets $6 in additional revenue – and even better, if the new auditors were told to focus on high-income groups where most outright fraud and evasion occurs, the return is $47 for each $1 spent on hiring tax collectors. To hire 50,000 new IRS workers to focus on getting the rich to pay what they legally owe, I figure, might cost about $3.5 billion but could produce some $150 billion in new revenue. Why wouldn’t we do that?

With that additional revenue, the government could invest in a 10-year infrastructure program like the one Bernie Sanders wants, including investments in producing and installing green energy technology. This would create 1.3 million jobs a year, mostly in manufacturing and construction. Why wouldn’t we do that?

In the first instance, “we” wouldn’t do any of that because the Republican Party, which currently controls both houses of Congress, won’t allow it. Indeed, the Republican House has been cutting the IRS budget as part of its strategy to reduce the size of government (“starving the beast”).   But along with the huge tax cuts for the wealthy that are part of every Republican platform, the GOP attack on the IRS has the practical fundraising effect of benefiting its donor class.  It’s part of a theory that the only road to economic growth is to throw money at rich people and corporations in hopes that they will use some of it to create jobs – a theory that has not only been refuted by historical experience backed by hard data, but which is highly unpopular with voters.

But the harder question is why Hilary Clinton and the Democrats don’t use a program like this as a rhetorical stick to beat Republicans mercilessly as the party of the 1%, for the 1%, and by the 1%. The GOP is that party, and it wouldn’t take much opposition research to “brand” it as such. Clinton does that a little bit, both rhetorically and in her economic program, but she has eschewed prosecuting the kind of real class war in the tax code that Bernie Sanders advocated – to tax “unearned” investment income at the same rates as the income people work for and to impose a sales tax on buying stocks and bonds that is miniscule compared to the sales tax we pay for a meal at Burger King. Her “fair tax” plan is composed of several little wrinkles that add up to a total increase in revenue of $50 billion a year, all of it from the top 2%. That’s better than throwing money at rich people, but it’s too small to have much of an impact on the economy or on our still increasing levels of income inequality. Prosecuting Bernie’s class war, on the other hand, would have produced at least $250 billion in annual revenues.

Short of that, however, beefing up the IRS to fight “waste, fraud, and abuse” by high-income earners has a number of features that should be useful to Clinton Democrats. First, because it does not address the structural class inequities embedded in the tax code, it might not offend the Democrats’ donor class. It’s simply a good-government, law-enforcement measure designed to catch wealthy tax cheats not “the good capitalists” we all depend on for jobs. Second, it would allow Democrats to give a full-throated defense of what a good government could provide – including well-paying government jobs and key public investments that are good for the economy in both the short- and long-terms while providing many, many more jobs. Likewise, combined with the increased revenue from Clinton’s mini-tax wrinkles, it is large enough to have a significant impact on improving the economy and reducing income inequality. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it would allow Democrats to directly confront what Hacker and Pierson see as a nearly unbeatable Republican strategy: “Say government isn’t doing its job, make it harder for the government to do its job, repeat.”

Despite these clear political advantages – especially as she runs against a presidential candidate who refuses to release his tax returns – Clinton is unlikely to raise this issue for a variety of reasons. But if she wins the election, and especially if she wins big, a Democratic Party that has been moved decisively to the Left will provide favorable terrain for long-term progressive change. Progressives from the grassroots to the think tanks will have new opportunities to advance a bigger, bolder agenda, as the labor movement in the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s successfully pushed on reluctant presidents. Taxes that produce giant revenues have to be a key part of that push, and too often they have not been.

A recent example of this failure is Tamara Draut’s brilliantly optimistic analysis of renewed labor activism in Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America. Before outlining what is by now a pretty standard economic, racial, gender and environmental justice program, she eloquently complains:

For the past several decades we’ve been sold the idea that somehow our country is broke.   That there simply is no way we can afford the investments that would improve the lives of   millions of people, not to mention modernize our nation’s decayed infrastructure. Asking ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ is an inside-the-Beltway paradigm that has seeped into our popular discourse. It’s a question lobbed by reporters and politicians, aimed at exposing the futility of dreaming of something better.

But then Draut’s program does not answer the “pay for” question, and this is fairly common, a convention of sorts among progressive books that make a compelling economic and moral case for the overwhelming value of a particular policy program and then just blindly assert that it is affordable. This is a strategic mistake.

One of the advantages of our outrageous levels of income and wealth inequality is that there is now a treasure trove of income being snatched up every year by the top 1% (about $1 trillion in my estimate) that used to go to workers and could again if we had taxes like we had before President Reagan took office. A class war in the tax code has been rejected by Democratic primary voters for now, but surely there’s a bipartisan coalition of rank-and-file voters out there for chasing tax cheats to create jobs. It beats chasing food stamp recipients for buying steak and lobster, and there’s a lot more money in it.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies

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Greyhound Racing in Australia: The Demise of a Working-Class Pastime (and Why That’s a Good Thing)


The recent announcement that the New South Wales government in Australia was banning Greyhound racing starting in 2017 surprised many. They didn’t expect this from the conservative Liberal Party that runs the NSW government, and many were cynical about the government’s track record of selling off public assets. After all, the publically owned greyhound racetrack in Sydney occupies prime city real estate. But animal welfare organisations have been campaigning for a ban for a long time (with recent support from state politicians from the NSW Greens). They have pointed to the much-publicised cruelty of the industry, including destroying healthy dogs that are no longer winning races and using ‘live baiting’ to ‘blood’ dogs, practices that were exposed by investigative journalists working for the Australian public broadcaster. Their report (which included graphic footage of dogs chasing live animals attached to lures) led to an inquiry into the industry and the subsequent announcement of the ban.

Of course, the NSW greyhound racing industry was shocked and outraged by the ban, which would mean the loss of jobs and livelihoods for a number of workers. They insisted that the industry was improving its practices and could weed out those who didn’t adhere to the regulations. Some suggested that the ban was an assault on working-class culture and aimed at ordinary people who supplemented their incomes via dog racing or took pleasure in the pastime. Dog trainers were described as ‘battlers’ (a favourite Australian term that can refer to working-class people or anyone seen as hard working and not a member of the elite). The NSW Labor party aligned themselves with the industry and also played into this idea.

Although class is not generally discussed in Australia in an explicit way, those in power sometimes acknowledge class differences and use them to justify or sell a particular policy. Suddenly, the working class exists and is under siege by the elites. Australians generally dislike snobbery, so suggesting that the ban reflects elite scorn for working-class activities is a clever tactic. But such arguments hide the wealth tied up in the industry and the money made through gambling. Most of the big players in the greyhound industry are not ‘battlers’.

It is true though that greyhound racing has been a working-class pastime. Some working-class people keep a couple of dogs and race them as a hobby. I’m sure many of these dogs are much loved and well looked after, and they are not necessarily euthanized when they stop being successful on the track. But the cruelty within the industry is systemic, and individual dog owners doing the right thing doesn’t counter the widespread abuse of the animals. And even the most diligent owner can’t prevent dogs from being injured during races or training.

Many of those who have been campaigning against greyhound racing in NSW have been labelled as middle-class greenies with no idea about working-class life. That’s why a working-class perspective is important. Not all working-class people advocate for pastimes that lead to animal suffering, even when the pastime has been an important aspect of their culture. I grew up close to one of London’s most famous greyhound racing tracks, Walthamstow Stadium (The Stow). The pub on my public housing estate was called The Greyhound. Going to the dogs was a common pastime in our neighbourhood, and the stadium was a much-loved feature. The atmosphere was exciting with the bookies shouting odds, dogs barking in the sheds and paraded before racing (as kids we would walk along the rail on the outside of the track and pick a dog we thought was the best, usually based on the colours it was wearing or whether it looked at us as it passed). The punters would study the form (I still have a copy I picked up one night), the lights would dim, and the stadium would go quiet before the ‘hare’ was released, the traps opened and the dogs would come zooming around the track. The stadium would explode as punters yelled names of their dogs, getting louder as the dogs reached the final post. Then the winners would cheer and the losers sigh as they dropped their spent bookies tickets and went back to the bar. It was magic.

As a young person, I didn’t think about the impact on the animals. I hated horse racing, but it was not a working-class sport. I’d never been to a horse race, so it was easy for me to condemn it as a cruel pastime. Greyhounds were close to home – everyone enjoyed the dogs, and it took me a while to make the same association. I remember as a teenager seeing a local newspaper report on ‘hare-coursing’ (live baiting of dogs), and while I thought this to be horrible, I dismissed it as the actions of a rogue few. When The Stow closed down and was sold to a private developer, I was very upset. It was the end of an era, and my community lost jobs and a special part of local culture. The façade of The Stow and some of the internal structure were heritage listed and form part of a new private housing development, but people still lament the demise of the race track.

Years later I realised that my support for greyhound racing was hypocritical. It wasn’t good enough to defend something just because it was associated with working-class culture. In addition to the suffering experienced by the animals, there are other unethical aspects of the industry, namely gambling, which can have a devastating impact on working-class people. The average punter is likely to be a loser and the gambling industry stands to gain

As someone who is proud of my working-class culture, I find it difficult to admit that some working-class pastimes should be banned, especially when the demise of greyhound racing will result in job losses. But jobs in an unethical industry are not good jobs. Instead of protecting these jobs, we need programs to assist employees in finding new occupations.

Arguments opposing the ban on the grounds that it is an attack on working-class culture won’t wash with me. I’m making a stand against this working-class pastime even as I remember the fun I had at The Stow. Not all aspects of our culture should be maintained, and we need to be willing to call out unethical practices. This doesn’t weaken working-class culture, it makes it stronger.

Sarah Attfield

Click here to read “The Manor 2,” a poem about dog racing from Sarah’s 2000 collection, Hope in Hell.

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Why Clinton Could Lose the Working Class in Ohio

Note: As the Republican National Convention gets underway in Cleveland, we’re reposting John Russo’s recent op-ed explaining why Hillary Clinton could lose working-class voters in Ohio and what she would need to do in order to win. The piece first appeared in the Plain Dealer on June 26,2016.

In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tied in battleground Ohio. This suggests a very close race in Ohio in the fall. Economic issues, especially trade, led many former Democrats to cross party lines to support Trump in the Republican primaries. Many who hadn’t voted in recent elections joined them. We’re likely to see a repeat of this in November unless Democrats change their trade policies. None of this should surprise Democrats, especially those in Ohio.

As a professor of labor studies and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University for more than 30 years, I had many opportunities to talk politics with workers there. In 2000, many told me that, after voting for Democrats all their lives, they were choosing guns, gays and God over Al Gore, who had been a primary spokesman for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seven years earlier. In 2002, Northeast Ohio Democrats threw out eight-term congressman Tom Sawyer on the basis of his support for NAFTA, despite Sawyer having a 90 percent voting record on labor issues.

Since the passage of NAFTA, Ohio Republicans have controlled state government save for a brief interlude caused by Republican corruption in 2006. At the same time, two Democrats — Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan, who replaced Sawyer — have been elected and re-elected in no small part due to their opposition to NAFTA and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Clearly, trade policy poses a problem for Democrats and their presumptive candidate. Clinton has been tied to former President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA legislation and its Wall Street proponents. While she has stated that she is against TPP at this time, many Ohioans hear that as weasel words that only contribute to their distrust of Clinton.

It is widely speculated that the Obama administration will push for TPP acceptance in the lame-duck session following the 2016 general election. According to a tweet from CNN’s Dan Merica, Clinton says she will not lobby Congress on the issue. But this will only undermine her credibility and provide Trump with an incentive to continue to demagogue the issue.

In Ohio, about 60 percent of voters in 2012 did not have a college degree, one of the most commonly used (though problematic) proxies for identifying working-class voters. Slightly more than half of them voted for Obama, according to CNN exit polls. But while Obama won a majority of working-class votes in Ohio, he lost among whites, winning only 41 percent of their votes. This suggests that a significant portion of Obama’s working-class support in 2012 came from Ohio voters of color, not white voters. Four years later, the combination of white working-class support for Trump, as we saw in the primary, and expected lower African-American turnout — Clinton is unlikely to inspire the enthusiasm that Obama generated — may swing Ohio’s prized electoral votes to the presumptive Republican nominee.

Clinton needs the support of working-class Ohioans – the very people who have been hurt the most by trade policy. To do that, she needs to stop insisting that trade is good. Her current stance is similar to wooing West Virginia coal miners by touting the benefits of non-carbon fuels. Similarly, she should stop talking about retraining and promising high-tech jobs, which only reminds voters of how hollow such programs have been in the past.

Instead, Clinton should acknowledge that we have lost the trade war and pledge to use every legal means at her disposal to protect American workers and industries from the continued onslaught of imports. This would include initiating trade cases against countries that target American industries by subsidizing their exports, exploiting workers, manipulating their currencies, and polluting the environment.

She should threaten to impose tariffs on every imported product from countries that refuse to implement the same U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations and federal, state and local tax requirements that are imposed on American businesses.

At the very least, Clinton should do more than promise to build a strong infrastructure program. Such a program would put the skills, materials and physical strength of working-class Ohioans to work and improve Ohio’s competitive economic environment. Clinton has identified specific programs but she needs to do more to explain how she will pay for them. Otherwise, her campaign platform will sound too much like an echo of past hollow campaign promises.

Clinton should also stress making college affordable for the working class and those living in poverty. Not everyone wants a desk job in front of a computer, and older workers may not be interested in retraining for high-tech jobs. But they do want more education and training for their kids.

Finally, working people worry about how they will fare economically after retirement. They know that Wall Street oversold 401(k) plans and that traditional pensions are disappearing. Clinton needs to reject Wall Street’s calls for changes in Social Security and offer a specific program to maintain private pension plans without cutting benefits.

If Clinton does not develop a strong and believable working-class agenda, I predict that the Democrats will lose Ohio in November, and that would open the door to a Trump victory nationally.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University

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Defending the Working Class from Financial Abuse

For decades Wall Street’s big banks and the financial services industry have used—and abused–the judicial system to hammer working-class families and erode the American Dream. Left virtually defenseless because they could not afford to hire attorneys to fight back, millions of homeowners and consumers stood by helplessly as they lost their homes to court-ordered foreclosures or had their wages garnished to repay debts they didn’t actually owe.

Now, thanks to federal legislation like the Dodd-Frank Act, aggressive action by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), and rulings issued by federal and state judges, consumers are slowly but surely gaining access to the courts and are now using the judicial system to turn the tables on the financial firms that have run roughshod over them for far too long.

These laws, regulations, and rulings create financial incentives for private attorneys and consumers to take on big banks and predatory lenders. Those incentives include forcing financial firms to pay the attorney fees of consumers who have been wronged, eliminating forced arbitration clauses that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for lawyers to file class action suits against the bad actors in the financial services industry, and making it possible for borrowers to collect significant monetary damages from lenders who violate their rights.

Much like the contingency fee system and class action suits that improved auto safety, forced pharmaceutical companies to remove dangerous drugs from the market place, and held polluters accountable for damaging the environment, the new rules and regulations make it economically feasible for private attorneys to grapple with the teams of high-paid lawyers who represent banks and other lenders. That will bring much needed stability and accountability to the nation’s consumer credit market.

While most of the big banks and traditional mortgage lenders are acting more responsibly these days, because they are bound by consent decrees signed in the wake of the 2007—2008 financial meltdown, new, largely unregulated entities including hedge fund-backed firms like Caliber Home Loans and Nationstar are using tactics as old as the predatory lending crisis itself: moving quickly to foreclosure, losing mortgage paperwork, and delaying or denying loan modifications to terrorize borrowers and toss working-class families out of their homes.

Unfortunately, the ongoing abuses aren’t limited to mortgage lending. Today, millions of people are struggling to repay home equity and other loans they took out as they attempted to keep their heads above water during the great recession. Not surprisingly, predatory debt buyers have purchased those loans from the original lenders and are now using local courts to seek judgments and collect debts that the borrowers may not owe. The debt buyers have been counting on the fact that consumers could not afford to retain counsel to defend themselves. In ruling that Ohioans now have the right to sue abusive debt buyers and the attorneys who represent them, the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court described the problem this way:

A predictable result of debt buyers filing a high volume of lawsuits based on imperfect information is that lawsuits are regularly filed after the right to collect debts has expired or that seek a debt that is not owed; “each year, buyers sought to collect about one million debts that consumers asserted they did not owe.

Like courts across the country, the CFPB is taking action against predatory debt buyers. For example, the agency sued Fredrick J. Hanna & Associates, a Georgia law firm, which it described as a “Debt Collection Lawsuit Mill,” and won a consent entry that prevents the firm from filing lawsuits or threatening to sue unless they can prove that the debt they are attempting to collect is valid.

The CFPB’s willingness to take on predatory lenders, the fact that it is now financially feasible for private attorneys to sue lenders, the enactment of tough new state laws that prohibit unfair and/or deceptive practices, favorable court decisions, and consumers’ ability to seek and secure significant monetary damages from firms that violate the law all combine to create a more level playing field in the credit markets.

The good news doesn’t end there. The CFPB is moving to impose regulations on payday and auto title lenders that will make it harder for the vultures that dominate the industry to exploit consumers. While some have criticized the proposed rules for not going far enough, they represent an important first step toward reining in an industry I fought hard to regulate during my tenure as Ohio’s attorney general.

I’ll be the first to admit that these important changes in the law don’t have the sex appeal of major public policy initiatives like health care reform. But throwing open the courthouse doors to those who have been victimized by big banks, mortgage servicers, debt buyers, and payday lenders and discouraging future abuses will enable millions of working-class families to gain control of their finances and renew their pursuit of the American Dream. And that will, inarguably, have a profoundly beneficial effect on our economy and our society for decades to come.

Marc Dann

Marc Dann is Managing Partner of the Dann Law Firm. He specializes in representing clients who have been harmed by banks, debt buyers, debt collectors, and other financial predators. He has fought for the rights of thousands of consumers and brought class action lawsuits in both private practice and as Ohio’s Attorney General.




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A Working-Class Brexit

I woke up Friday morning to the news that my country decided that it no longer wants to be part of the European Union. With a large turnout of 72% of the eligible electorate, the vote went 51.9% in favour of leaving against 48.1% for remaining – 17.4 million against 16.1 million, in case you wondered. As a result, the clock has begun to tick down on 43 years of British EU membership, creating huge levels of uncertainty. This morning the pound sterling lost 10% of its value against the dollar – the biggest one day decline since 1985 – and a massive £200 billion was wiped off the stock market.

But what was behind this result, which seemed until the eve of poll to be heading towards remaining in the EU? Class was one of the biggest factors. Let me explain. Early analysis of the results shows that if you had a college degree or were young, you were more likely to vote to remain. Geographically, England and Wales voted for Brexit, except for London. Scotland, however, voted overwhelmingly to remain, opening up a very real prospect of another independence referendum and the disintegration of the UK. Many places in England and Wales outside London, often but not exclusively Labour Party traditional heartlands, were amongst the strongest supporters of leaving. This seems to have resulted from a cocktail of resentments against ‘them’, the ‘elite’, the ‘establishment’ or simply the ‘experts’. This resentment has been simmering in these Labour heartlands for decades and predates the banking crash of 2008. Resignation, despair, and political apathy have been present in many former industrial regions since the wholesale deindustrialisation of the British economy in the 1980s and 1990. The election of the Blair -led Labour administration of 1997 masked the anger felt in these areas as traditional labour supporters and their needs were often ignored, while traditional Labour supporters were used as voting fodder. Over the thirteen years of Labour power, that support ebbed away, first as a simple decline in votes, but gradually turning into active hostility to the Labour party. Many embraced the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

This opposition, so skillfully drawn on by the leave campaign, is in part a working class reaction not only to six years of austerity but also to a long and deep seated sense of injustice and marginalisation. Most of the remain side, which was a cross party grouping, didn’t seem to understand this before the referendum and, even more depressingly, doesn’t seem to understand it fully now. A stock characterisation of working-class people who intended to vote leave was to label them as unable understanding the issues, easily manipulated, or worse, racist ‘little Englanders’.

A number of commentators have understood the class resentment underlying the referendum. In his thoughtful video blogs preceding the vote, Guardian journalist John Harris travelled away from the ‘Westminster village’ to the more marginal, often over looked parts of the UK. What he observed was precisely this class demographic of voting intentions, people who were in effect members of what sociologist Guy Standing has called the precariat. Fellow Guardian columnist Ian Jack wrote a similarly powerfully reflective piece linking the working-class vote with deindustrialisation. Both Harris and Jack emphasize the point that for unskilled workers with only a secondary school education, three decades or more of neo-liberalism has left deep scars socially, politically, and culturally, with little hope or expectation that anything would change for the better. In a vox pop radio interview the day before the referendum, a person stopped for their views simply said, ‘The working class is going to get screwed whether we stay or leave, so we might as well leave’.

This sense of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ was heightened by the long line of establishment figures from the world of politics, business, and finance who were trotted out to warn the voters that Brexit would mean Armageddon. Far from helping the remain side, these interventions from the likes of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, and even President Obama merely exaggerated the distance between working-class voters and those who wanted them to vote to remain. Speaking after the official result was announced, UKIP leader Nigel Farage explicitly used the language of class in his celebratory speech, saying that this was a vote of ‘Real people, ordinary people, decent people against the big merchant banks, big business and big politics’.

Many on the progressive left have seen this Brexit result coming and have linked it to a far wider set of issues than those of the immediate problems of the EU. In a video blog two days before polling, Owen Jones linked the marginalisation and alienation felt by many working-class voters and support for populists like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other non-mainstream political movements in Europe. What this all points to is a real rejection of the hegemony of what veteran left-winger Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ that has promoted globalisation and neo-liberalism. In the narrative of the extreme centre, there is no place for those left behind, damaged by the collapse of industries and forced to face the brunt of never ending austerity. Faced with what are viewed as out of touch elites telling an angry electorate that they must vote to remain, there is little wonder that many working-class people opted to vote out. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, over the short, medium, and long term. But one thing is clear: class will play a big role.

Tim Strangleman

Posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Tim Strangleman, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , | 6 Comments