Beyond Policy: Why Democrats Need to Show White Working-Class Voters Some Respect

When I heard Hillary Clinton refer to half of Trump supporters as “deplorables” during her 2016 presidential campaign, I knew she would lose. Her comment exemplified the arrogant, elitist, dismissive attitudes that make many white working-class voters suspicious of the Democratic Party. Four years later, as Democrats try to figure out how to beat one of the least popular Republican presidents ever, they’re still trying to get over their deplorables problem.

Political advisers suggest two strategies for winning this year. One says that “demography is destiny,” arguing that Democrats will win because of the increasing power of voters of color, young people, and middle-class whites, especially suburban women. If Democrats can secure votes from these groups, they don’t need to worry about the white working class. After all, this theory suggests, white working-class voters didn’t suddenly shift to the right in 2016. They had been moving in that direction since the late 1960s with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of emphasizing racial resentment. Further, some argue that as more people earn college degrees, the working class is getting smaller.

The second electoral strategy argues that many white working-class voters remain “persuadable,” especially those who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then switched to Trump in 2016. And even if the working class, as defined by education, is declining, they still constitute a significant portion of the electorate, and Democrats have to win support from at least some of them in order to win in 2020.

In 2016, Clinton counted on demographics, apparently assuming, among other things, that she could rely on support from voters of color, younger voters, and women, especially those who were well-educated and suburban. That won her the majority of votes but left her vulnerable in the crucial states where most voters are white and working-class.

Some candidates and pundits today argue that the Party needs a candidate like Clinton – a moderate who can appeal both to voters of color and suburban, mostly white educated women and who won’t scare off older or more moderate voters. They point to Joe Biden’s consistently high poll numbers as evidence that voters are most comfortable with a middle-of-the-road candidate with broad appeal, not a more activist leftist who promises big changes.

But as the conservative National Review asked, “Are Democrats Sure Biden Is Different Enough From Hillary Clinton?” He may seem like a safe option, and he has the apparent advantage of working-class roots. But will working-class voters trust Biden any more than they did Clinton? Should they? In 2016, Biden didn’t challenge Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters. Indeed, he made a similar statement of his own in 2018. Speaking before a liberal audience at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, he referred to Trump supporters as “virulent people, some of them dregs of society.“ While dismissive comments like that may play well to the well-educated, well-heeled patrons of a progressive non-profit, they may also come back to haunt him.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will need to win in states where most voters are white and don’t have a college degree – the measure most polls use to identify respondents’ social class. As pollster Ruy Texiera argues, “even a slight drop among white non-college voters could negate”  any demographic shifts, in part because the states Democrats need to win remain whiter and more working-class than the rest of the country. In Ohio, 60% of voters are white people without college degrees. In Wisconsin, they make up 61% and in Iowa, 66%. More than half of voters in Michigan (56%) and Pennsylvania (56%) also belong to this group, as do voters in North Carolina (47%), Maine (66%), New Hampshire (61%), and Minnesota (56%). While Democrats made gains in these states in 2018, that trend needs to grow.

If the Democrats want to secure the gains they made in 2018 and win the 2020 presidential election, they need to win back over at least some of these white working-class voters. What will it take to do that? Democrats may hope that their attention to policies aimed at offsetting economic inequality – like Medicare-for-All, increasing the minimum wage, and free college — will be enough to carry these voters, but Andrew Levison sees it differently. Writing in the Washington Monthly, Levison claims that Democrats must establish “a basic level of trust.” Levison identifies a strong sense of class consciousness among white working-class voters, one that is triggered when Democratic candidates make dismissive comments about people like them. If Democrats want voters to engage with debates about economic and social policies, they first have to persuade them that Dems respect people like them. That’s the basis for trust.

Senator Sherrod Brown at a 2014 rally

There’s evidence that this is a winning strategy in the success of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. He has been re-elected several times in that increasingly Republican state despite criticism from its conservative media because he wins support from white working-class voters. He gained their trust in two ways. First, he offered plans that focused on them and the dignity of their work, including a plan to “restore the value of work in America” headlined by the point that people are “Working Too Hard for Too Little.”  But Brown also meets regularly with working people, and he doesn’t just tell them what he thinks. He listens to them. So unlike many other Democratic politicians, working people trust him.

Many white working-class voters believed in 2016 that they could trust Donald Trump, but some  seem to be losing faith in the President. In January 2017, about 42% of Americans disapproved of him. Two years later, his disapproval rating has risen to 53.4%. As FiveThirtyEight  reports, “Trump is the most unpopular President since Ford to run for reelection.” Unpopularity doesn’t guarantee defeat, of course, but it’s worth noting that Trump’s disapproval ratings have increased dramatically in battleground states like Pennsylvania (15%), Ohio (18%), Michigan (23%), and Wisconsin (15%) as well as in increasingly purple states like Texas(20%), North Carolina (18%), and Georgia (20%), according to the Morning Consult. All of this will help the Democrats.

But they can’t rely on Trump’s loss of trust if they want to win back the White House. They need to make clear that they understand, care about, and respect white working-class voters. To do that, they have to stop demonizing or dismissing Trump’s supporters as deplorable or as the dregs of society. Yes, Democrats need to offer policies to rebalance economic inequality, but as Arlie Hochschild suggested in Strangers in Their Own Land, the grievances that motivate white working-class voters can’t be addressed only through policy.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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Working-Class Christmas

During this Christmas season, there is a tweet making the rounds that shows the number of paid vacation days in thirteen different countries by law:

France             30

Denmark         25

Finland            25

Norway           25

Sweden           25

Russia             24

Cuba                22

Australia         20

New Zealand  20

Canada            10

Japan               10

Mexico            6

United States  0

Workers in the US are legally entitled to zero vacation days. Nada. Zilch.

I raise this now because I’ve been doing some research into the history of Christmas holiday traditions, looking at two histories of Christmas, Judith Flanders’s Christmas: A Biography, and Stephen Nussbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. After reading these histories here is what I have concluded: the working-class invented Christmas.

Many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas have their roots in the winter solstice and the agricultural off season that in Northern climates runs from the end of October through the end of February. In The Battle for Christmas, Nussbaum points out that, “December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals— meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled.”

Flanders notes that December 25th was not universally recognized as the day of Christ’s birth until the late 300s, nearly 400 years after he was born. The date was chosen because religious leaders and institutions found that people embraced religious meanings more enthusiastically when they were attached to already existing customs and rituals. Religious leaders linked Christ’s birth with the winter solstice, which had been celebrated in the Roman empire as a holiday called Saturnalia, and which was marked by the cessation of work, the closing of shops, gifts of candles as well as drinking, eating, and gambling.

Winter holidays were also associated with a topsy-turvy element, a carnivalesque switching of roles. From the pagan era, through the European middle ages, and up through the American 19th century slave holding South, a “boy bishop” would be chosen to preside over a holiday service, masters might serve their tenant farmers, and American slaves were allowed to revel for one week. These occasional role-switching customs probably did more to maintain hierarchical order than they did to overturn them, though, as Flanders notes, slave rebellions “often clustered around the holidays.”

One of the greatest myths surrounding Christmas, Flanders points out, is that wealthy landowners and employers gave great banquets to feed the downtrodden. While Flanders did find menus and descriptions of such feasts, such as the Duke of Buckingham’s Christmas Day feast of 1507, only three of the guests on the Duke’s list had “no obvious” obligation to him. Instead of being feasted by their Lords, it was customary during this period for tenants to give gifts of produce, drink, or large birds, such as capons, to those with more power and wealth.

Mummers in Newfoundland

Other Christmas customs that disrupt social rules were invented by working people. Consider the tradition of “mumming,” or walking about at night in large groups, in costume, with men sometimes dressing as women or in blackface. These night walks sometimes became rowdy, even riotous—mostly in the sense of creating mischief and pulling pranks. For a time in the 18th century, young men would prank young women in the streets by pulling up their dresses as far as they could.

Some of the street traditions involved going “house to house,” such as the Caribbean tradition of “John Canoe,” the English tradition of “Wassailing,” and the German tradition of caroling during the St. Martin’s Saint Day in November. In each variation, groups of ordinary workers and performers would sing, dance, toast, and threaten pranks in return for food, alcohol, and money.

Other Christmas traditions can also be traced to the working class. Christmas carols were often popular work songs adapted to reflect more religious themes. Christmas trees, Flanders writes, became common in the late 1800s in the US, a fashion set “not by the aristocracy” but “generated by the people.” “Kissing boughs,” a decorated greenery display common in England, was also a working-class tradition.

In the 19th century, Clement Clark Moore’s infamous poem, The Night Before Christmas, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Thomas Nast’s cartoon of Santa Claus together provided much of the ideology and iconography of the holiday that prevails today. Dickens’s work, especially, reflects a working-class perspective on Christmas. When Dickens was 12 years old his father was sent to prison, and his mother agreed to have Charles hired out at Warren’s boot blacking factory, where he pasted labels onto bottles of shoe polish. Dickens always remembered the pain and shames of these experiences, and he brought that consciousness into his all of his work.

Dickens witnessed the beginnings of the industrial revolution, a period that produced a transition in the customs around Christmas. Suddenly workers could be called upon to work year-round. At the same time, where Christmas had long been structured by top-down and bottom-up relationships between rich and poor, in the 19th century, the hierarchy was shuffled to consist of parents and children—with children being placed in the position of the poor of yore.

These social changes may explain why Dickens argued in A Christmas Carol that workers should be given time off from work to celebrate the day. His rationale in the story is not religious but instead is rooted in the idea that treating workers well is the right thing to do. Scrooge’s nephew Fred suggests that death is the great class equalizer, and that Scrooge should think of the people “below” him as “fellow passengers to the grave” rather than as “another race of people bound on other journeys.”

Many today remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But for centuries, and even before Christ’s birth, December was a time of rest from work. People celebrated the winter solstice with revelry, comradery, eating, gambling, drinking, costuming, and gifting. They took over public spaces with singing, dancing, and mumming; demanded food, drink, and money;  and sometimes rioted.

It is high time we took back the streets for winter solstice. Let’s demand food, drink, money, more vacation time, and, while we’re at it, a lot less capitalism. ‘Tis the season!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Valuing Working-Class Life: Recent Memoirs by Working-Class Women

With the UK general election looming, there has been renewed interest in the effects of years of austerity measures on poor and working-class people. It seems clear that inequality has increased and more and more people rely on food banks and charities to provide the basics. Many children live in poverty, and households cannot heat their homes in winter. Homelessness has been on the rise. Special features in publications such as the Guardian  and documentaries like Growing up Poor have made all of this visible.

Yet even though these articles and documentaries include the stories of those affected, they seem to be created for the middle-class reader and viewer, people who are much less likely to have experienced poverty. They view working-class lives from a distance. But two new memoirs written by working-class women offer insights into poverty and hardship from a more intimate perspective. Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn tells her story of growing up in poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, and Cash Carraway’s Skint Estate relays her more recent experience of living hand-to-mouth as a working-class single parent. These first-person narratives seem to be written for working-class readers, who know how easy is it to slip from getting by to not affording the rent or bills. Such readers will find plenty in these books to recognise, empathise with and get angry about.

Lowborn jumps between Hudson’s early life moving around with her mother from Scotland to the south of England, back to the north, and then ending up in the east of England. She experienced huge disruption to her schooling and a dysfunctional family life. There is a sense throughout the book that Hudson, now a successful author who lives a mostly middle-class life, comes to terms with her childhood poverty. She returns to her childhood homes to recall in detail the experience and effects of poverty and to reconcile with her past. This is not a romantic journey. Her mother did not cope, and at times, Hudson was taken into care by the state. Their relationship was difficult, and they remain estranged, but through the process of writing the book, Hudson finds commonalties and closeness with some of her extended family.

What is striking when reading this book are the small details that working-class readers will recognise: the mad dash from her council flat down to the ice-creak van with a few pence in hand to buy the cheapest treat available, trips across the country on National Express coaches (rail travel was a real luxury), and the sheer delight of occasional fancy foods such as pop and mini-sausage rolls. While the more extreme experiences of being homeless, living in B&Bs, surviving neglect and abuse might not be as common, the working-class reader is likely to have lived in close proximity to families like Hudson’s.

The book also reveals how Hudson and her mother were let down by various institutions and individuals (especially the men in her mother’s life) and how the effects of being left behind accumulate and wear people down. The book includes stories of substance abuse and self-harm, which seem to be symptoms of poverty and life-long disadvantage. Ultimately, Hudson reclaims her working-class origins, but she also shows how the stigma of growing up poor can harm.

In Skint Estate, Cash Carraway also writes about working-class life from the perspective of a working-class adult experiencing poverty and homelessness. Where Hudson’s memoir is serious and reflective, Carraway’s is reflective but also very funny, written in a bawdy and abject working-class voice. Carraway is not afraid to include the graphic and gory details of life when poor, but she also writes about her experiences with sex work, the various privately-rented slums that she lived in while pregnant and with a small child in hilarious detail. This is not gratuitous poverty-porn. Instead, she uses humour as an effective tool to highlight the struggle and show how working-class women survive. She employs razor sharp, incisive observation and brings the reader completely into her world. The working-class reader can feel at home here, and the middle-class reader may feel slightly squeamish.

Lowborn and Skint Estate do not offer stories of happy working-class childhoods, and while the representation of dysfunction is necessary, I’d also like to read working-class memoirs that show how love, affection, and solidarity can hold working-class families and communities together.  I’d also like to see more memoirs that represent the diversity of working-class experience across race and ethnicity, religion and ability. The collection of short pieces, Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, does do this and is also a must-read.

Hudson’s and Carraway’s books are important, timely books.  They bring the reality of working-class life and the effects of poverty into sharp focus at a time when the UK is deciding whether to prevent five more years of austerity measures. They also feature the voices of working-class women. Working-class women are often represented only as victims (if they are considered to be part of the deserving poor) or as uncouth, loud, and obnoxious if they dare to speak out and resist. Hudson and Carraway show that working-class women’s stories are powerful, and the understanding they bring of class and its intersections with gender are valuable and make for page-turning reads.

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

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Amplified Advantage: Why Education Is Not the Answer to Our Class Problems

Thirty years ago, after having dropped out of college after just one term, unable to pay for my dorm room, I was unsure if I would ever leave the working class.  Two years later I was a student at Barnard College, an elite small liberal arts college three thousand miles from my parents’ home.  To this day, I am not sure how I made that leap, but it was smoothed over by significant financial assistance from the college.  Unable to pay for my public university, I was able to graduate from one of the best private colleges in the country virtually debt-free.

Now I study higher education and its connection to what we call intergenerational social mobility, the movement (or lack of movement) between classes, comparing children and parents’ occupational outcomes over time.

I have some bad news.  While the path I took was not easy, gaining social mobility through college education is much harder for young people today.  Ironically, even as more children of the working class go to college, the educational attainment gap between the middle class and the working class continues to grow.

How can this be?  For one thing, the bar for “being educated” continues to rise.  As more people earn college degrees than ever before, the kind of college degree increasingly matters.  What type of institution?  What major field of study?  Also important is the level of education – in many fields a four-year degree is no longer enough to assure a middle-class salaried job.  You need a master’s degree, or even a PhD, for some work, even outside of academia.

Scholars of education (including sociologists like me) have known all of this for a while now, which is why so many of us have studied access to colleges and programs.  Colleges have struggled to open their doors to first-generation and working-class students.  They are paying more attention to ways of broadening access, sometimes pushed and shoved into doing so by state boards of higher education.  At the same time, budget cuts at public colleges and universities undercut many of these efforts.

But getting working-class students into colleges is only half the battle.  Keeping them and helping them thrive has proven difficult.  I explore some of the many reasons for this in my first book, The Burden of Academic Success:  marginalization, impostor syndrome, feeling out of place.  Even at open access two-year public colleges and universities that are the most open to working-class students, middle-class students predominate.

My experiences at Barnard reflect why that matters.  I rarely talked to anyone about my family, and, when I did, I regretted the ridicule, mockery, and disbelief.  I knew I was different.  Most of the time I was too busy juggling off-campus work and an overloaded academic schedule to care, but the isolated feeling was always lurking in the background.  If I hadn’t an abundant scholarship, I know I would have left.  As Tony Jack reminds us, “access is not inclusion.”

Getting working-class students into college and keeping them has proven difficult, but not impossible.  Successes – like me, Tony Jack, all the working-class academics out there —  do exist.  Here’s the real problem: even when we succeed academically, the gap between us and everyone else increases after we graduate, as Debbie Warnock’s remarkably honest account of her move into and through the academy so poignantly demonstrates.

In Amplified Advantage: Going to A “Good College” in an Era of Inequality, I demonstrate the many ways that parental resources and class cultures amplify the preexisting advantages of some students, even as colleges provide all students a solid education, expanded social networks, and useful cultural capital.  Based on a national survey of college students attending small liberal arts colleges, interviews, and a follow-up survey with recent college graduates, I found that colleges like Barnard did a lot of things well for their students.  Students generally had frequent interactions with faculty and peers, ample opportunities for doing research outside of class, abundant extracurricular activities, and a lot of institutional support for individual growth.  Given the quality of education and opportunity provided, the average $50,000 annual price tag for elite schools actually seems worthwhile, especially when low-income and working-class students receive sufficient financial assistance.

And yet, for all these colleges do to provide an equal playing field for students (all live on campus, everyone takes small classes, almost everyone is involved in useful extracurricular activities), once students graduate, their experiences and opportunities deviate sharply.  More elite students can leverage their advantages and resources in ways unavailable to other students.  They may, for example, take a risk on joining a start-up company, knowing that they have resources to fall back on if this risk does not pay off.  Others may rely on parental financial assistance to spend a year in New York City working at an unpaid internship or working for a nonprofit in a position that pays very little, expecting that such work will eventually pay off in a more secure and remunerative position.  Still others call on the friends and social networks of wealthy parents in the financial sector to ensure them high-paying jobs immediately after graduation, despite relatively shaky grades. Where elite students can afford to take big risks with potential big payoffs, knowing that the risk is ultimately ensured, working-class students’ choices are heavily constrained by circumstance and necessity.   Even compared with more middle-class peers, who may owe just as much in student loans, working-class students are much more likely to take jobs that they do not like and that do not match their skillsets in order to repay student debt. They may have accrued a ton of social and cultural capital while in college, but they can’t make use of it in the way of their peers.

In an increasingly unequal world, where elites outpace all others, reforming higher education from within won’t solve the problem. Class inequities shape students’ opportunities from before they enter college and long after they graduate. To the contrary, if we focus on education as the primary tool to level the playing field, we lose sight of the larger battle. As Andrew Sayer cautions, even reform efforts with egalitarian motives “are likely to be twisted by the field of class forces in ways which reproduce class hierarchy.”  In other words, the more we turn to education as a way out of class struggle, the more we may actually end up amplifying advantages of the few.

And we cannot afford to do that now. The time for ignoring the larger class struggle has passed, as we are all implicated in the game that is being played.  Simply put, expanding opportunities does not work because some players start off with extra resources, and they will use all the tools they have at their disposal to amplify their advantages.  Struggles might ensue over the value of those tools, which suit is “trump,” and which advantages accrue the most chips, but as the pot grows bigger and the stakes get higher, the game is still rigged against those who begin with fewer chips.  Do we want to keep playing this game?  Do we know how to stop?  It’s time to stop asking how we can get more people into college and start asking why it matters.

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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

This week, we’re posting something a little different: the call for papers for this year’s Working-Class Studies Association conference. This year’s gathering marks the 25th anniversary of the conference that led to the founding of the Center for Working-Class Studies, the first interdisciplinary research, teaching, and outreach project focused on understanding working-class life and culture in the United States. Over the next seventeen years, the CWCS developed many projects, including Working-Class Perspectives. Like this blog, which presents ideas from academics, activists, and artists, the conference will feature a mix of voices, perspectives, and modes. Please consider joining us at Youngstown State University, May 20-24, 2020.


Call for Papers

Twenty-five years ago, the academic discipline of Working-Class Studies in the US was born in Youngstown, Ohio, as a group of scholars, activists, artists, workers, and practitioners converged around common goals of celebrating the working class in its diversity and complexity and to advocate for a politics of social justice and equity. This year the Working-Class Studies Association returns to the place the discipline began for the 2020 conference at Youngstown State University, at a time of rising social tribalism, class conflict, and politically calculated populisms. As the WCSA re-convenes in a place synonymous with working-class life, we hope to explore the following themes.

How can Working-Class Studies offer models for understanding the ways in which myriad local and global working classes intersect, cooperate, compete or are co-opted by other interests? What is the place of class as an instrument of either division or unification, both historically and now?  How do global, national, and local politics and policies exploit, ignore, or alternately, empower and enable workers? What potentials exist for solidarity amongst and within migrant, global, regional and local working classes?  How is diversity within the working class essentialized, fragmented, or, alternately, harnessed and maximized for social and political agendas? How can we reposition, or “re-Place” class in our current global politics as a site for effective action?

Further, what is the role of “Place” as geographical, social, psychic, and economic formation? How does “Place” defined by social, political and economic attributes, define community, which is underpinned by identity, ethnicity, status and power relationships? How does “Place” in these broad definitions provoke ways of thinking about the locations, spaces and places of the working class and Working-Class studies today?

We welcome proposals from multiple disciplines and perspectives: pedagogical, theoretical, creative, and professional. Themes and topics for papers, panels and presentations might include—but are not limited to:

  • Populisms, Diasporas, and Nationalisms
  • Intersectionality
  • Race, Capitalism, and Empire
  • Environmental Justice
  • Critical Race Studies
  • Policies and Politics
  • De-Industrialization
  • Global, Regional or Migrant Working Classes
  • Urban/Rural Working-Class life
  • The Cultural Politics of Class
  • Place and/or displacement of working-class communities
  • Labor now—Locally, Regionally and/or Globally
  • Class, Education, and Equity
  • Resilience, Resistance, and “Class Warfare”

The CWCS at Youngstown State welcomes proposals from academics and practioners across disciplines, community activists and organizers, and public scholars. Proposal abstracts for papers, creative works/exhibitions, and roundtables of no more approximately 350 words are due by Feb.20, 2020. Please email submissions to

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National Labor Relations Board Twists the Knife in the Heart of Unions and Workers

Nissan workers organizing in Mississippi

It may be hard to remember, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is supposed to ensure the right of workers to organize and safeguard the stated public policy expounded in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which favors collective bargaining. Under the Trump administration, the NLRB is going out of its way to attack the Act. We are not talking about the usual thrust and jab common to any new administration. Trump’s NLRB and General Counsel are gutting the Act like a fish and then stabbing that knife into the heart of workers, their rights, and their unions.

During the eight years of the Obama administration, the NLRB had the opportunity to recast some contentious issues more favorably for workers and their unions.  Progress was made, though less than unions and organizers had hoped to see. Elections were processed more quickly.  Employers could not challenge a unit before the election, so they could not run out the clock and extend their campaigns through unnecessary hearings and fake challenges to specific jobs or bargaining unit descriptions.  The NLRB made a long overdue and significant update to the determinations for joint employer status, a key issue for franchises and their overlords like McDonalds.  Acknowledging joint employer control of the workforce would have finally made the primary, deep-pocketed company responsible for the labor practices of their franchisees.  Graduate student unions were allowed to be certified and protected under the Act.  Email communications by workers complaining about working conditions and organizing their co-workers were allowed and were protected, concerted activity within workplaces rather than solely company-controlled property, and Facebook rants were protected.

Three years into the Trump term, the NLRB now has three Republican appointees and only one Democratic appointee on the five-member board, and these Obama-era initiatives have either been rolled back already or are under attack. Things will not get better any time soon.  The last Democrat’s term concludes at the end of 2019, and it’s unlikely that a new member will be appointed in 2020. That leaves a 3-0 partisan board to steamroll over workers’ rights.  The decisions are guaranteed to become worse.

The actions of the Trump NLRB and the proposals of the current General Counsel go to the heart of generations of organizing practices and do so deliberately. For example, the NLRA specifies that “an appropriate bargaining unit” can represent workers. It does not require “a” single unit. But in the recent Boeing case emerging from the efforts to organize their South Carolina plant, the Board ruled against this time-honored definition, blocking the certification of a 178-member unit with the larger Boeing workforce.

Furthermore, the General Counsel Peter B. Robb has also proposed to flip the script on presumption of units in order to proceed more quickly to elections, a move that encourages companies to try to delay elections by challenging the unit and forcing a hearing.  He has also proposed a laundry list of reasons an employer can now use to challenge the majority of an incumbent union, forcing it to hold an election to prove its majority.

The General Counsel has also indicated he wants to stop the practice of unions filing charges to block unfair labor practices, known as “blocking” charges – usually actions by the company that taint the election conditions — during campaigns. This proposal is a total union-buster.  Instead of allowing the Regional NLRB supervising the election to postpone the voting while it investigates the charge, workers would be forced to vote in the poisoned conditions that the union opposed.  The election would proceed and results would be held “in the box.” If the charges were not found meritorious, the election box would be unsealed and the votes counted, presumably to the union and the workers’ peril.

Collective bargaining is also under attack.  One of the rock-solid foundations of bargaining prohibits employers from making unilateral changes once an organizing drive has begun. Any unilateral change could be a potential unfair labor practice and could lead to an election objection if it materially impacted the results.  Once a union was certified, the ban on unilateral changes meant that the company had to bargain with the union.  No more.  The NLRB wants to allow employers more leeway, turning upside down the rules governing what bosses can do under management rights.  The new rule seems to be “anything goes” for employers.

The NLRB reported another 11% drop in the filing of unfair labor practices in 2018.  The General Counsel for the Machinists has reportedly commented that we shouldn’t worry, because a lot of this will go away if Trump wins a second term.  Personally, I’m not feeling as secure about that as my brother machinist is.  Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute has suggested that the NLRB and the General Counsel have been following the work order set by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce point by point.

Does it matter?  Yes. However, because nothing better is likely to be legislated anytime soon, we need to hold onto everything we can in the current act.

Many unions and organizers have claimed that the failures to improve the protections of the NLRA are so serious that they are not filing for representation elections before the Board, but the statistics indicate otherwise. 1597 elections were filed in FY18 and another 1588 in FY08.  Workers are still organizing under the Act, and that’s a fact.

Like it or not, the NLRA provides both organized and unorganized workers some protections, despite weak and erratic enforcement.  In the contemporary workplace, workers need those protections more than ever.  The rights that remain are themselves organizing tools.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International



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Sanders or Warren? Populist-Progressivism or New Deal? Take Your Pick!

Despite their general agreement on specific issues, the two most left-wing candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have embraced different ideological markers.  Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and his near-miss 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton helped spike the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America (though he is not formally a member) to upwards of 50,000 members, including firebrand Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Warren calls herself a “capitalist to my bones” but one who recognizes that “markets need rules.”  Despite this distinction, both advocate for a single-payer (or socialized) health insurance system, stronger labor unions, a Green New Deal, $15 an hour minimum wage, free public college tuition, and extended childcare and family leave policies, not to mention sweeping immigration reform and gun control legislation.

As Warren demonstrates, one obviously does not need to don the ‘socialist’ mantle to compete for the affections of what Paul Wellstone once called the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” So why has the term ‘socialist’ acquired a mass following among many who, before the past few years, would have called themselves ‘progressive,’ ‘left-liberal,’ or ‘radical democrat’?  After all, as recently as the late-1990s, writer George Packer described how his dispirited encounter with the DSA “acquainted me with the pathos of left-wing activism in twilight.  It was marginal, pedestrian work, based on the eternal postponement of gratification…Sometimes, at a forum or board meeting, I would look around at the dozen or souls who had ventured out into the cold on a weeknight and wonder what made us do it? Why did we spend our lives on this stuff?”

Twenty years later, the program that DSA founder Michael Harrington called the “left wing of the possible” has become a hot ticket. So how is it that an invocation of ‘socialism’ or even near-socialism in Warren’s case can suddenly stir such fervor?

For many, the 2008 economic collapse exposed the dangers of global capitalism in its neoliberal, deregulatory phase for working people. The Democratic Party, even under Obama, had no answers — other than more free trade agreements — to the continuing slide of working-class incomes. That set the table for Sanders’s surprise showing in the 2016 primaries, which also built on the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.  The same deep-set frustrations, alas, also helped fuel Trump’s victory.  While the president’s open racism, scapegoating of immigrants, and flagrantly unethical behavior in office now provide sufficient grist for some Democrats to seek a moderate, arguably “more electable” candidate, progressives draw a different lesson from Trump’s ‘faux-populist’ appeals to white working-class voters.  Both Warren and Sanders argue that only a program that addresses the structural inequality of wealth and power across race and class in American life can rally a convincing majority behind the Democratic Party.

While their goals are similar, Warren and Sanders draw on overlapping yet distinct traditions of American radicalism. Warren might be called a populist-progressive after the two major reform movements of the (first) Gilded Age. Like the populists (farmers and workers arrayed in the People’s Party of the 1890s) who attacked the “monopoly power” associated with banks and railroads, Warren identifies the political influence of big business as the source of “corruption” undermining American democracy.  Her remedy for the structural inequalities built into corporate capitalism relies heavily on government “regulation,” a tool more favored by the middle-class progressives who followed the populists. From mandating worker representation on corporate boards to limiting lobbying and corporate influence over federal agencies, through her trademark “wealth tax” on ultra-millionaires, Warren’s proposals not only reverse the deregulatory push that has dominated our politics since the 1980s but recall in vision and scope nothing so much as Teddy Roosevelt’s quixotic New Nationalist campaign of 1912 for federal stewardship of the private marketplace.

Sanders emerges from the democratic-socialist tradition, rooted in the great democratic uprisings of 1848 and the socialist revolutionary creed of Karl Mark and Frederick Engels that spread gradually among working-class ranks across Europe and was first institutionalized in Germany’s Social-Democratic Party in the 1890s. The socialist critique always stressed class injustice rather than the foibles or corruption of individual malefactors. Although militarized class struggle and even a violent seizure of power still found adherents in an authoritarian backwater like Russia (where the Bolsheviks triumphed in 1917) or amidst the most marginalized of workers (as in the vision of the American IWW), by the beginning of the twentieth century, for most socialists—including the American icon Eugene V. Debs–“revolution” meant a political victory starting at the ballot box and then extending to the ‘socialization’ (or nationalization) of the major means of production. While failing to advance much on their structural demands, Debs’s pre-World War I followers enjoyed some success at the municipal level (as did Sanders in Burlington, Vermont).  In Milwaukee, for example, socialists presided over a graft-free administration that gave city workers the eight-hour day, expanded public education, and sponsored free concerts in a new ring of public parks. Between war-time repression and the decline of craft unions, however, the American movement shriveled to little more than a moral protest.

By the mid-twentieth century, Western European socialism embraced a ‘reform capitalism,’ buttressed by Keynesian fiscal policy and a strong labor movement, with wealth generously redistributed via tax, health, and welfare policies as well as free higher education.  “Social democracy”, a kind of cross between New Deal-style welfarism and state-centered technocratic planning, became the main left alternative across Europe.  Yet the movement did not inspire an American counterpart.  Except among some militants in the civil rights, feminist, and subsequent new social movements, socialism, in both thought and deed, all but disappeared as a force in American public life.

So it is telling that when Sanders explained what he meant by socialism in a June 2019 talk at The George Washington University, he chose not to revive its early twentieth-century Glory Days. Instead, he linked its meaning with New Deal liberalism. “If there was ever a moment when we needed a new vision to bring our people together in the fight for justice, decency, and human dignity, this is that time,” the Vermont senator said. “[We] must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.”  Picking up on the “second Bill of Rights” that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had proposed in 1944, Sanders emphasized every American’s right to a living wage, health care, education, affordable housing, a clean environment, and a secure retirement. “We must recognize,” he concluded, “that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”

While they draw on different historical roots, Warren and Sanders offer remarkably similar platforms. Both are keepers of a progressive reform flame that went out in a political surrender to deregulation, bipartisanship, and the exercise of military might abroad.  Warren’s “capitalism” will likely appeal to as few big capitalists today as did populism and progressivism to the likes of Standard Oil at the turn of the twentieth century. Sanders isn’t proposing Debsian socialism but rather a version of the New Deal re-outfitted for new life.

So will voters go for Bernie Sander’s democratic socialism or Elizabeth Warren’s democratized capitalism?  The difference is likely more in the wrapping than the contents. To switch metaphors, both contestants are fishing in the same waters with different lures.  In either case, progressives will learn soon enough whether they joined another campaign that got away.

Leon Fink

Leon Fink is editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and, full disclosure, a member of DSA and occasional contributor to both the Sanders and Warren campaigns.

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