Playing Chicken: Discovering a Diverse Working Class in Trump Country

Since the election of 2016, much has been written about rural working-class voters who helped elect Donald J. Trump to the presidency.  Most of those stories have assumed that the rural working class is overwhelmingly white.  But if we look at one of the most significant parts of the rural economy – the poultry industry – we get a different picture. Not only do we see more workers of color, we also see more exploitation and greater potential for resistance.

The early leaders of the industrialized poultry trade in the 1950s were eager to avoid the unionized labor model that had developed in the 1930s in pork and beef packing towns like Chicago, Sioux City, and Kansas City.  Based in cities like Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Salisbury, Maryland, and Springdale, Arkansas, poultry producers benefited from mild climates that allowed for year-round production, enlisting farmers in the surrounding regions to raise their chicks as part of vertically integrated operations.  As of December 2016, 314 of the 426 commercial poultry slaughtering facilities in the United States were located in towns of less than 20,000 people and another 21 are located in unincorporated townships.

These small town poultry workers have received little attention, and recent efforts to explain the rural working class have been problematic at best.  In the past few years, for example, McDowell County, West Virginia has consistently been presented as the paradigmatic Appalachian backwater.  McDowell was the subject of a hearing by the US Senate Subcommittee on Health and Aging in 2013, as well as detailed profiles in the media before and after the election.

Focusing on places like McDowell perpetuates the image of rural America as populated primarily by people of white Western European origins, a narrative that fit the media’s interest in white rural working-class voters.  But while the economic suffering in McDowell might reflect the experiences of many working-class people outside of major metropolitan areas in the Trump era, McDowell’s whiteness is less representative.  In the ten U.S. counties with the lowest per capita income as of the 2010 census, whites constitute more than 61 percent of the population in only three. Whites are the minority in four of these counties.

In these rural communities, unemployment has never returned to pre-2008 levels, even though urban employment has grown significantly.  In an effort to alleviate continuing high unemployment, governors and state legislatures have offered considerable financial incentives to achieve the dubious boon of luring new poultry plants to their state or to help upgrade and keep existing facilities open.

Yet working conditions remain troubling in the industry. Standard practice at many poultry operators involves cycling through and then discarding injured workers.  In 1989, Southern Exposure investigated working conditions at Perdue Farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, making it one of the first publications to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of repetitive motion injuries sweeping through the meat and poultry workforce. Around the same time, Donna Bazemore, a production line worker from Georgia who had left her job with crippling carpal tunnel syndrome, gained notoriety when she testified before Congress about the hazardous and unhygienic production practices at Perdue. Changes in USDA rules in the 1980s allowed for a substantial increase in the line speeds in slaughterhouses, allowing companies to accelerate production from 50 birds per minute in the 1970s to 90 birds per minute. leading to what U.S. Representative Tom Lantos described repetitive motion injuries as “the major occupational epidemic of the 1990s.” Over the past decade, the Charlotte Observer, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Oxfam America have all brought attention back to the industry’s ongoing problems.

At the same time, the workforce in poultry and meatpacking plants has shifted away from its African-American and Central American core in favor of international refugees.  Around one-third of the labor force today is foreign born, and even the North American Meat Institute has expressed concern at the Trump Administration’s attempted restrictions upon immigration from Muslim countries.

The poultry business reveals some of the human faces behind the travel ban through its increased employment of Iraqis, Somalis, and Syrians.  Displaced foreign workers don’t disembark at a New York City harbor as they did one hundred years ago; they arrive in rural resettlement centers in places like north Georgia and central Virginia.

In some cases, these workers are highly educated.  A Perdue production manager in Harrisonburg, Virginia described how a Bosnian worker wrote out the equations for the two cleaning chemicals the company was using and warned the manager that “when they came together [they] could be dangerous.”  This same manager had taken it upon himself to learn Spanish several years ago as well as a little Russian and Bosnian.  This encounter might be unusual, but it suggests some hope for an industry that is not impervious to pressure and public opprobrium.

Organizing these workers involves some challenges that progressives must overcome if they are to build some semblance of a coalition to defend workers’ rights.  This will require translating rhetorical support for immigrants into platforms that can advance common goals while also negotiating sometimes very differing cultural sensibilities.  It means listening and learning from immigrant workers and recognizing that their cooperation should be contingent upon them having the ability to shape the agenda and select their own leaders and spokespersons.

The Trump administration’s attempts to translate popular xenophobia into public policy means that the growth of this vital industry in small town America takes on a much greater importance than it appeared to six months ago.  Many have objected to the travel ban with the assertion that it goes against their notions of “what America represents.”  However, in the absence of a travel ban, would we be content with the status quo whereby immigrants and refugees are not welcomed but merely accepted and consigned to the most difficult and unpleasant jobs?  For generations of immigrants, this has been exactly “what America represents.”

Yet undertaking dangerous low-paid labor does not have to be treated as a rite of passage.  We can’t go back in time and change the legacy of Gilded Age employers, but by confronting the poultry business, we could disrupt a present course that threatens to reverse nearly a century of legal protections aimed at protecting the safety of industrial workers.  We have an opportunity to harness the abilities of rural activists and poultry workers and build connections among immigrant rights, food safety, and environmental organizations.  Achieving this would create a bulwark against the poultry companies’ exploitation and a greater movement for economic justice in the heart of “Trump Country.”

Patrick Dixon

Patrick Dixon is a research analyst for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.


Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fractions within the Working Class

This has been a rough year.  After the election, I reposted a few articles on my Facebook wall, as did so many of my friends, about the “working-class vote.”  Did the white working-class just elect Trump?  I didn’t think so, but I also understood that the world can look very different to a working-class person than it does to a middle-class one.  I knew this because I grew up poor, and it is a constant struggle speaking to both sides of my life, my past and my present, my mother and my colleagues.  My mother, let me point out, did not vote for Trump.  She thinks he’s a jackass.  Two of her sisters did, however.  I don’t know anyone else in my extended family who voted for him.  There were lots of Bernie supporters, not many Clinton supporters, and a whole bunch of abstainers.

A friend of mine from college, someone raised on the less wealthy spectrum of the educated middle class, took issue with even the idea of the “working class.” What was this really?  He knew a lot of blue-collar workers, plumbers, builders, who made a lot more money than he or his mother ever did.  I gave him the quick sociological explanations — it’s about power, not money, but his question remained with me.  Based on power at work, two-thirds of Americans can be classified as “working class” (see Michael Zweig’s excellent The Working-Class Majority).  That is a hell of a lot of people.  They don’t all think alike.  It struck me that sociologists, myself included, have spent untold ink arguing over the distinctions within the middle class (lower-middle, upper-middle, professional-managerial, those with economic capital vs. those with cultural capital, etc.) and where the line is between wherever this middle is and the top, and yet we have spent hardly any time  looking within the largest class of them all.

So, I pulled out the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been asking thousands of Americans every year or so all about their lives, political identifications, and voting patterns. I decided to see if there were differences within the working class based on type of working-class job, and not on education, race or  income level.  Working-class jobs are those with little autonomy and often involving the use of one’s body – to wield a hammer, carry a baby, deliver a package from Amazon, stand all day greeting customers.  These jobs are held by a very diverse group of people; there are more people of color in the working class than in the middle or upper class.  When I refer to “the working class,” I mean this whole diverse group, not only white male workers.

Let me give you a snapshot of five fractions of the working class: the Builders, the Makers, the Movers, the Clerks, and those who Serve (I call this category “CookCleanCare” to remind myself of the range of work within this fraction).  Builders most fit the stereotype of “the working class” (three-quarters are men, most are white, and many of them do wear hard hats at work), but it is only one fraction.  A more diverse lot are Makers, including assembly-line workers, tool-and-die makers, sewers, and cabinetmakers.  This is the fraction that has seen the largest influx of women in the past few decades, although still mostly male.  Movers include a wide array of transport jobs, from UPS drivers to ambulance drivers to long-haul truckers, also mostly men.  Most of those in the other two fractions are female. The CookCleanCare group includes those who prepare our food, clean our messes, and care for our children.  The Clerks are our growing retail worker category.  Back in the day being a clerk was seen as a move up, but today’s clerks are generally poorly paid and even less likely to hold a college degree than CookCleanCare workers (the most educated fraction).

Here are some other interesting differences between the fractions.  Builders are the most likely to be living in the same place where they grew up, Makers the least likely.  Movers are the most likely to identify themselves as “working class.”  Twice as many Builders as Makers think of themselves as “middle class.”  Makers, in contrast, are more likely than the others to think of themselves as “lower class.”  In terms of income, Builders make the most money, Movers the least.   If we looked only at white men in each of the fractions, we would find the most instances of sexism, nativism, and racism among the Makers, perhaps reflecting the fact that this group has seen the biggest changes over the past few decades.  But it is important to note that a greater proportion of rich white men and white male managers express racist views than any working-class fraction does.

During the past decade or two, ever since Reagan really, we have been hearing a lot about how “the working class” has turned its back on the Democratic Party.   But this is only true if we limit “the working class” to white men without college degrees.  If we include the whole of the working class, this claim is simply wrong.  According to my analysis of GSS data, there has never been a presidential election in which the majority of the working class voted for the Republican candidate.

If we look at the working class based on broad occupational categories rather than race or education, we get a very different picture from “the working class” that political pundits have been talking about.  We don’t yet have GSS data for the 2016 election, but figures from 2012 suggest the value of analyzing working-class voters based on their jobs rather than income or education.

This graph of voting patterns in the 2012 Presidential Election, arrayed by largest supporters of Obama from left to right, shows that while all occupational groups gave Obama a majority, two working-class fractions were at the polar ends of the spectrum. The Professional-Managerial Class fell near the middle. 

Organizing the data by job categories also helps us understand that white working-class men don’t vote as a unified bloc. If we look only at white men, Obama’s lead lessens, with Romney winning slight majorities with Makers, Movers, and Clerks (not to mention lots of PMC support).  Why were white male Movers, Makers, and Clerks swayed by Romney while white male Builders and CookCleanCare were not?  For one thing, the Democratic Party may have forgotten Movers and Makers.  Women and people of color in these fractions may find other aspects of the Democratic party compelling, but white males less so.  All five fractions took an economic hit during the Recession and, unlike the PMC, none of them have recovered, as you can see from the chart below.  Makers even saw their wages decline before the recession hit.

This points to the second problem with the “working class voting against their class interests” narrative.  Neoliberalism has clearly not been working for many working-class people.  The outrageous vote for Trump may be less an appreciation of his qualities or a heeled response to his dog-whistles and more a giant “Fuck You!” to the establishment.  If we don’t figure out a way to provide security and prosperity for all, we might just get neither for any of us.

Class is a complicated construct.  Each fraction includes millions of workers, living in different parts of America, with different pasts, different futures, different understandings of how the world works. One way to gain deeper insight into the working class is to consider how major fractions within the working class respond to political appeals.  A call for massive infrastructure building, for example, is more likely to resonate with Builders, while a threat to cut the Department of Education may worry CookCleanCare members most.  It is also true that the nature of work changes, sometimes rapidly, as has been the case for many Makers and Clerks.  We owe the working class the respect of paying attention to which fractions are being mowed down on the front lines of neoliberalism.  It doesn’t seem like either major party has been doing a good job of this lately.

Allison L. Hurst

Allison L. Hurst is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University and the author of two books on the experiences and identity reformations of working-class college students, The Burden of Academic Success: Loyalists, Renegades, and Double Agents (2010) and College and the Working Class (2012).  She was one of the founders of the Association of Working-Class Academics, an organization composed of college faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college, for which she also served as president from 2008 to 2014. She is Chairperson of the Working-Class Academics Section of the Working-Class Studies Association.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Neil Gorsuch and Religious Liberty: Class Dismissed

President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch on January 31 to fill the vacant seat of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court may seem like the answer to a prayer for many in the religious right. In an interview on The Brody File (Christian Broadcasting Network) four days before the announcement of his nominee, Trump rightly predicted I think evangelicals, Christians will love my pick.”  A letter supporting Gorsuch signed by more than 60 evangelical leaders suggests that he is right. Even Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who faced backlash for a New York Times op-ed arguing that Trump does not represent evangelical values, signed on to the statement affirming Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy would meet the vital thresholds of protecting “the unborn, the strengthening of religious liberty, and a dedication to human flourishing — which we believe can only be accomplished by a biblical definition of marriage and family.”

But how does such “strengthening of religious liberty” relate to the concerns of working-class people? Are religious liberty claims class neutral? The Hobby Lobby case offers a useful example, as well as a glimpse of Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy at work.

In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled that the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain, and their corporation itself, are entitled to the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (2000) and the Free Exercise Clause (1791) of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the court, Judge Tymkovich argued that as a “closely held family company” organized with “express religious principles in mind,” it would be a violation of their “sincerely held religious beliefs” and contrary to their faith to be forced to provide what they believe to be “abortifacient” (post-conception drugs to terminate pregnancy) contraceptive services as mandated by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby has over 500 stores and almost 13,000 full-time employees, and Mardel has thirty-five Christian bookstores and almost 400 employees. The owners, David and Barbara Green and their three children, believe that “human life begins when sperm fertilizes an egg” and that it is “immoral” to “facilitate any act that causes the death of a human embryo.” The application of the doctrine of religious liberty here means that the religious beliefs of five corporate owners take precedence over the beliefs and interests of nearly 13,400 workers in 535 stores across the country. Further, the ruling grants religious freedom to the corporation, giving it legal status as a “person” whose rights must be protected as well. The court reasoned that as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires, generally, that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and that “[s]uch corporations can be ‘persons’ exercising religion for purposes of the statute.”

Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion focuses, in particular, on the Green family. Affirming the reasoning of Judge Tymkovich above, Gorsuch emphasizes the importance of the Green family’s religious claims to the exclusion of any other parties, including their entire work force for whom access to low or no-cost contraceptive services could have very favorable consequences, morally, economically and otherwise.

Gorsuch also argues that free exercise claims have long protected “unpopular religious beliefs, vindicating this nation’s long-held aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance.” The concept has its source with individuals and groups with unpopular or underrepresented religious beliefs, as in the the U.S. Supreme Court decision (1963) in Sherbert v. Verner. Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, was fired from Beaumont mill, a textile factory in Beaumont, South Carolina for refusing to work on Sundays because of her religious belief that Saturday is a Sabbath day (certainly a minority view within Christianity). South Carolina denied Sherbert any unemployment benefits. In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sherbert, a ruling that expanded the range of religious freedom claims and the rights of workers to have some defense against encroachment from employers.  But that was 1963 and now it is 2017.

If class is primarily about relationships of power in the workplace, as Michael Zweig has argued, this ruling emphasizes how the workplace can also shape the power one has over one’s body and one’s family well after the workday is over. For Hobby Lobby employees, any religious liberty claim they may wish to make (for instance, a deeply held religious belief that a fertilized egg is not a person) is not even hinted at in the discussion. Gorsuch’s concurrence demonstrates that religious freedom claims are not abstract and universal. They are class bound and can be applied selectively.

As Congress considers Gorsuch’s nomination, legislators should know that corporations will continue to deploy religious freedom claims, and state legislatures will continue to put forward Religious Freedom legislation like the bill then Governor Mike Pence’s signed for Indiana in 2015.  U.S. Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer (D-NY) complained in a recent The New York Times essay that Gorsuch would not answer basic questions and argued that the nominee “owes it to the American people to provide an inkling of what kind of justice he would be.” But Gorsuch has a history – a paper trail – on this matter, including the Hobby Lobby ruling.  We can expect that Gorsuch (and other justices, as well) will dismiss class as a factor when pondering the legitimacy and application of religious liberty claims. Gorsuch’s views about the “strengthening of religious liberty” could have repercussions for the working class well into the future.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

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A Working-Class Appreciation for the National Health Service

I have spent a lot of time in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in the southwest of England recently because my mother has been seriously ill. Without the treatment and care she received there, she would not have survived. The NHS is the universal health care system that takes care of millions of people across Britain. Since 1948, British people have had access to all levels of health care through the system and no payment is required at point of service. Individuals contribute to the NHS during their working years through tax and National Insurance payments, and the system also receives government funding. The NHS doesn’t discriminate by class. Anyone can receive treatment, from those with no income at all to the wealthiest. In hospital, my mother is treated exactly the same as any other patient; her very low income has no bearing on the care she receives. Everyone is equal on the hospital ward (although those with a higher income can avail themselves of some extra entertainment services such as pay per use TV).

My mother considers the NHS a marvel. She has used the service since it began, and she is full of appreciation for the treatment she has received from the nurses and doctors as well as the kindness shown by the supporting staff who keep the hospitals clean and the patients fed, among other things. Despite some debilitating illnesses, she has been treated with the utmost dignity and good humour, and this matters to her as a low-income working-class woman. She’s never been looked down on because of where she lives or what she earns. NHS staff show concern for her welfare and suggest ways for her to access services that she can afford once discharged from the hospital. She can relate to the many staff who also come from working-class backgrounds from around the world who, like her, are concerned about the futures of their families. The NHS has saved the lives of millions of poor, working-class people, and for this we are grateful.

But the NHS has been under attack for some time now from the current Tory government, who seem ideologically opposed to the system of universal health care that keeps working-class people healthy and alive. Tories would like to replace the NHS with a system of private insurance and private provision of services that would see hospitals and services run for profit rather than for the benefit of the public. This would be a disaster for working-class people, who would no longer have access to the health services they require.

The Tories have already made significant cuts to NHS funding since they were elected in 2010, and the system is currently experiencing a crisis. There are shortages of beds and of staff, and resources are being stretched to their limits. Patients wait hours to be treated in emergency rooms – known as Accident and Emergency (A&E) in Britain – and non-emergency surgery is being cancelled and postponed. Nursing staff must care for more patients and are run off their feet as they try to provide quality treatment.

Ambulance services are also suffering, with too few crews available to meet demand and increasing waiting times. In some hospitals, patients have to wait on ambulance trollies for hours before they are assessed by doctors in A&E. When my mother was taken into hospital by ambulance, I observed a corridor full of patients waiting to be seen – a backlog that holds up the ambulance crews, who can’t respond to other calls until their patients have been handed over to hospital staff. Patients who can’t afford to ‘jump the queues’ by going to private hospitals and clinics must wait due to lack of adequate resourcing from the government. My mother’s assessment was halted as all the emergency doctors were called in to treat a patient in cardiac arrest. It’s a grim picture: patients suffering and even dying as they wait for treatment.

The true marvel of the NHS are the people who work in the system. Advances in medical science and technology are wonderful, but the most sophisticated treatments need people to administer them and to look after patients on a daily basis. As illustrated by a recent BBC documentary, Hospital, every person who works on the frontline with patients is essential, regardless of what they do. My mother has deep admiration for the doctors and surgeons, but her warmest praise is for the nursing and auxiliary staff who look after her. During her most recent lengthy stay she observed how the nurses managed complicated treatment schedules in wards where there one nurse might be responsible for 8 patients. Nursing assistants took blood pressure readings and monitored patients’ stats, but they also changed bedding and helped patients to wash and to use the toilet. They sat with patients who were lonely or distressed and helped patients locate their glasses or slippers. Housekeeping staff kept the wards spotless and made sure patients had fresh water and good food. The staff displayed genuine care for the patients, and despite being short staffed and overworked, they maintained their professionalism and went about their work with good humour, helping to lift the spirits of patients battling illness and injury.

For my mother, the staff at the busy hospital are heroes, and it saddens her to think of the NHS, the great institution beloved by so many working-class people, struggling under the current government’s policies. She wouldn’t be alive without the NHS, which has remained a constant despite the hardships she’s faced during her life. She knows she can rely on the service, but she never takes it for granted. She thanks the NHS and hopes that those well enough to fight for its continued existence on her behalf will continue to do so until its future is secured.

Sarah Attfield

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Is the Worst Yet to Come for Unions?

With the decline of good paying jobs in the private sector, public employment has been particularly important for working-class people. These state and local workers also provide important public services ranging from street cleaning, to home health to emergency services. Such employment opportunities have benefited African-American workers and their families especially.

This is true even as union membership declines overall. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 10.7% of wage and salary workers belong to unions.  Union membership would be even worse if public sector union membership weren’t more than five times higher (at 34%) than the private-sector rate (6.4%). Like other working-class people, union members, including those in the public sector, have seen both the number of jobs and wages decrease dramatically. The situation is about to get worse as the result of Trump’s election, with the refiling of the Friedrichs case and state Right-to-Work (RTW) initiatives. Both Friedrichs and RTW undermine union membership, which reduces the power of union both politically and in the workplace by taking away the dues money that enables unions to advocate for and protect workers.

Union membership is a working-class issue because it helps workers improve their economic condition and helps to alleviate economic inequality. Even non-union workers benefit from unionization as a result of what economists call “wage pull.” What’s more, public-sector union strength helps prevent private-sector wages from falling further, even as public-sector unions are weakened by the decline in private-sector membership.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved agency fee agreements that cover the costs of union representation without becoming a union member. The Friedrichs case is a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Without agency fees, many unions will collapse economically. They will have less money for organizing, representing, and lobbying for members.

With death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the court was split four-to–four, affirming a lower court ruling that denied the challenge to the agency fees. This is sure to have influenced Trump’s recent nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court as the  conservative justice is  likely to be a deciding vote when Friedrich’s is refiled. Already, conservative groups like the RTW Foundation and US Chamber of Commerce are supporting the resurrection of the Friedrichs case, and the New York Times Editorial Board warns that Gorsuch “spells big trouble for public sector labor unions.”

Currently, there are 27 RTW states, including a number that have strong union traditions. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Ohio all have RTW proposals in the works. Last week in the US House of Representatives, two Republican legislators introduced national RTW legislation.

The effects of RTW laws, especially in combination with attacks on public-sector bargaining, have been devastating. Since Wisconsin banned most public sector bargaining (ACT 10) and passed RTW legislation, union membership has dropped in both private and public sectors from well above the national average to now well below. Nationally, the Service Employees International Union has announced a 30% budget cut over the next year that will include staff layoffs.

Election results show that 24 of the 26 states that, as of November, had RTW policies voted for Donald Trump, along with six non-RTW states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Alaska, Montana, and Kentucky, which has since passed its own RTW legislation.  Conservative organizations like the Allegheny Institute have called the Trump election a “sign that voters have become weary of public sector unions driving government costs and taxes higher than they need to be.” They are urging more state legislatures to pass RTW legislation focused on the public sector.

For many years, public sector wages and benefits were lower than in the private sector. But with deindustrialization, economic restructuring, automation, and the establishment of public-sector collective bargaining, they have finally caught up. In some cases, government jobs are now worth more than private sector jobs, largely because good benefits compensate for lower wages. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that while public workers with higher education earn less than similar private-sector workers, they receive better health benefits and pensions. But this applies only in states that don’t have RTW laws, as the EPI concludes:

Only public employees in states with full collective bargaining make as much as their private-sector peers. In partial collective bargaining states, right-to-work states, and states that prohibit collective bargaining, public employees earn lower wages and compensation than comparable private sector employees, and this low compensation may impede state and local governments from recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees for their many professional and public safety occupations.

No wonder, so many private sector employers have supported RTW legislation.

Beyond improving workers’ financial situations, unions also protect workers by articulating and enforcing labor standards involving wages,  hours, overtime, and subcontracting, that are increasingly in short supply. This is especially important in low wage working-class jobs in the growing service economy. The National Employment Law Project found that the greatest loss in real wages since the end of the Great Recession has been in low-wage occupations such as in food preparation, janitors and cleaners, personal care aides, home health aides, and maids and housekeeping cleaners. It is in these occupations and sectors where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the greatest job growth will be through 2022. Perhaps this is most important reason to fight both state and national RTW legislation.

Put differently, we should fight against cases like Friedrichs and RTW legislation on a moral basis. In Kentucky, the Catholic Bishop of Lexington made a strong moral argument against RTW legislation and support for labor unions. Bishop John Stowe said organized labor supports the common good, arguing that “unions need the support of the workers they represent. The falsely named ‘right to work’ legislation proposed does not in fact create new rights to work, but rather strives to limit the effectiveness and power of the unions.” Just like the recent wave of marches and growing protests that are being framed in moral terms, fighting RTW legislation is a moral imperative.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

For-Profit Colleges: Rough Times Ahead for Working-Class Students

With the promoter of the now disgraced “Trump University” at the helm of the federal government for the next 4 years, we are likely to see for-profit companies playing a bigger role in higher education.  But history shows us that many for-profit colleges can do lasting damage to poor students and families, as well as taxpayers and communities.

During the Reagan administration, for-profit trade schools rapidly expanded across the country.  Federal student aid to for-profit schools jumped from $684 million in 1982 to $4.15 billion in 1988.  Fraud and misrepresentation was widespread in the for-profit sector.  Recruiters used high pressure tactics to enroll students and targeted low-income students and people of color.

Programs were lightly regulated by the accreditors, and many schools closed before students could complete their degrees.  Many of the new programs offered worthless training and credentials and failed to prepare students to find a job in their field of training, and consequently dropout and default rates soared. As Open Secrets has documented, for-profit schools lobbied aggressively for their industry. For example, the parent company to the University of Phoenix was a gold level sponsor of both the Republican and Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Many students victimized by for-profit schools in the 1980s still feel the effects today.  Not only did shoddy trade schools offer inadequate programs in fields like radio broadcasting, truck driving school, or computer repair, they failed to live up to their promises for employment upon graduation.  Students in such programs were less likely to complete their educational program and much more likely to default on their loans.

Those who default also face extraordinary extra-judicial collection remedies implemented by the Department of Education, including having their federal tax refunds intercepted and social security benefits and wages garnished. For working-class people already living on the edge of poverty, the loss of 25% of their net pay or the earned income tax credit can push them off the cliff of homelessness and poverty.

Compounding the financial spiral is a government-sanctioned deal that gives student loan servicers and debt collectors collection fees of 25% of amounts garnished. Many borrowers find it impossible to get out of default even after suffering from years of collections actions.  Even that premium collection fee does not seem to be enough for greedy student loan servicers like Navient, who became the target last week of a lawsuit by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and two states alleging that the company purposefully pushed borrowers into repayment plans that benefited Navient’s profits over the best interests of the defaulted borrower.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education enacted many new regulations to relieve the burden on student borrowers victimized by trade schools.  These include new rules restoring eligibility for Pell Grants to students whose schools closed before they could complete their education and a streamlined process for applying for a loan discharge due to fraudulent misrepresentations by their schools.  The Obama administration also created new flexible repayment plans and made it easier for borrowers who are unable to work because of disability to discharge their federal student loans.

The Department of Education also enacted important new rules to protect taxpayers and students from shoddy for-profit schools, including restricting access to federal student aid for programs with high default rates and low salaries compared with the average debt burden.  The Department also cracked down on accreditors for for-profit schools, which have failed to ensure that programs provide quality education and training.

Unfortunately, much of this progress is at risk under the Trump administration. “Trump University,” an expensive series of get-rich-quick real estate seminars which was recently the subject of numerous fraud suits by former students, bears many similarities to other for-profit education schemes. The nomination of Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate with little experience or apparent knowledge of higher education issues, signals a further erosion for public support of higher education.  In addition, one of  Trump’s first executive orders freezes enactment of new regulations and puts a hold on implementing any that have not yet taken effect.  This includes many important Department of Education regulations, such as the new borrower defense and gainful employment rules. It appears that for-profit higher education programs will flourish again under the Trump administration, likely to the detriment of working-class students and taxpayers.

Emily White and Marc Dann

Emily White chairs the Student Loan Defense practice at the Dann Law Firm in Columbus Ohio and has been selected to edit of the Chapter on Student Loan Law in Baldwin’s Ohio Consumer Law Handbook. 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.

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On Race, Class, and Two Referendums in Richmond

On election night in November, the success of local ballot measures raising the minimum wage, endorsing election law reform, or calling for other much-needed policy changes produced some political cheer on an otherwise dismal evening.

Such measures may be our best form of resistance in the Trump era, but progressives need to be careful about what questions they put before the electorate locally and statewide. Some ballot initiatives aid movement-building in poor and working-class communities. Others can be political poison, even when the rationale for their adoption is unassailable from a public policy standpoint.

Two initiatives backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in 2012 and 2016 illustrate the point, as I recount in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. The RPA is a multi-racial, working-class oriented membership organization that combines electoral activity and year-round community organizing.  Since 2004, it has fielded 16 candidates in “non-partisan” races for mayor or city council in a blue-collar city of 110,000 that is 80% non-white.

RPA candidates won ten of those elections, Richmond now has a progressive city council “super-majority”—five members out of seven, four of whom are Asian, Black, and/or Latino.  RPA won those seats despite well-financed opposition. Since 2012, corporate political action committees have spent more than $7 million trying to elect business friendly council candidates (mainly African-American and Latino Democrats).

The RPA’s recent electoral success represents a major comeback after a crushing defeat at the polls just four years ago. In 2012, only a few months after a fire at the city’s largest employer, a Chevron refinery, sent 15,000 residents scrambling for medical attention, the RPA campaigned in support of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks proposed by then-city councilor, Dr. Jeff Ritterman, director of cardiology at a local hospital. He had treated hundreds of lower-income black and Latino patients suffering from heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other weight-related ailments – problems that were, increasingly, affecting children and young adults.

To address this public health crisis and discourage soda consumption, Ritterman proposed a modest soda levy that would raise $3 million annually, which would support expanded youth sports programs and health education. Some African-American ministers and public health workers endorsed Ritterman’s Measure N campaign, including Reverend Alvin Bernstine, pastor of Richmond’s Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, who proudly maintains what he calls a “no fry/no soda zone” in his congregation’s social hall. Bernstine invokes the historical connection between sugar plantations and slavery.  “Soda companies have been exploiting black people for too long,” he says, “with products that have no nutritional benefit and no community economic benefit.”

That was not the message delivered by local allies of the American Beverage Association (ABA), the powerful industry lobbyist opposed to the soda tax. The ABA’s high-powered San Francisco consulting firm recruited and deployed teams of paid canvassers, all young people of color in need of a summer job. They distributed hundreds of “Vote No on N” lawn signs in black and Latino neighborhoods. They enlisted Latino grocery store owners and hired former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to deliver an anti–soda tax speech to a big audience of African-American ministers and other NAACP members in Richmond.

Measure N was the wedge issue from heaven. It enabled opponents to depict would-be soda taxers as racist, elitist agents of a local nanny state opposed even to the simple pleasures of an ice-cold Coke. As Richmond’s senior city councilor Nat Bates told the New York Times, “They’re using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us. . . . We’re tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve renamed them ‘the Plantation Alliance.’”  Corky Booze, a council ally of Bates, predicted that the RPA would next try to tax sweet potato pie, candied yams, and cupcakes.

The Contra Costa labor council urged its affiliates to reject Measure N because it might reduce employment for Teamster delivery drivers and bottling plant workers. “We can’t make Richmond healthier with a new tax that takes money out of people’s pockets,” said one union official.

Big Soda’s successful racialization of the Measure N debate put local progressives on the defensive, in a campaign year when they should have been capitalizing on widespread public concern about lax Chevron maintenance practices which caused its catastrophic pipe rupture and fire. On election night, the RPA paid a heavy price for soda tax advocacy. Not only was Measure N defeated in a landslide, but for the first time since Progressives started running candidates, none were elected.

Fast forward to 2016 and a local ballot measure empowering Richmond to regulate rents and require landlords to have just cause for evictions. Hundreds of lower-income African-American, Asian, and Latino tenants signed petitions to get rent control on the ballot, in a campaign initiated by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and strongly supported by the RPA.

No one knocked on more doors to talk to Richmond tenants about rent hikes and other landlord problems than 25-year old Richmond-born Melvin Willis, an ACCE organizer and new RPA steering committee member. Four years earlier, Willis was a somewhat reluctant canvasser on behalf of Measure N. As he recently confessed to the Richmond Pulse, a community newspaper, “I wasn’t necessarily for the soda tax, being somebody who drank soda and was low income.”

Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign—and encouraged by the RPA– Willis ran for an open seat on the city council last year. Only three of the nine candidates supported rent control, including Willis and fellow RPA leader, Ben Choi, a local environmentalist and city planning commission member. Both refused any corporate contributions—the only candidates in the field to do so. But their “Team Richmond” ticket received fund-raising help from Bernie Sanders’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, and qualified for Richmond’s modest program of public matching funs.

An estimated 25,000 people in 9,000 residential units stood to gain from rent control in Richmond, so both RPA candidates campaigned tirelessly among them. On November 8, Willis topped the field, finishing 2,000 votes ahead of RPA foe Bates, who was not re-elected. Choi ran a strong second. Jael Myrick, an incumbent city councilor in favor or rent regulation, placed third. Richmond voters also adopted rent control, by a margin of 14,734 to 8,134.

The lessons of progressive defeat in Richmond four years ago remain relevant to other communities of color where corporate America will defend its turf with renewed vigor during the Trump Era. It seems that business has learned the value of minority outreach from campaigns like the ABA’s anti-soda tax efforts. The New York Times reports that Koch Industries plans to spend millions in its “Fueling Forward” campaign,“ reminding black voters that they benefit most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels and have the most to lose if energy costs rise.”

That game plan looks very familiar. Progressives in minority communities who are trying to make electoral gains, while winning environmental and public health protections, will see more ABA-style propaganda campaigns, utilizing minority front groups. Fossil fuel defenders will try to recast much-needed measures to reduce global warming as “regressive taxation” of poor and working-class people.

Countering these strategies may require local organizational retooling. In Richmond, the RPA responded to its 2012 defeat by becoming more attuned to the felt needs of voters. A younger, more racially and gender diverse leadership cadre was recruited and elected to the Alliance steering committee. RPA also consulted with Richmond community leaders about how to make the group more inclusive and welcoming to new people.

Meanwhile, soda taxers in other cities have learned from the ABA’s 2012 win in Richmond. Just two years later, voters in neighboring Berkeley embraced the idea after an “inclusive effort with a very strong diverse coalition” that avoided the bad “racial dynamics of Richmond,” according to Marion Nestle author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda.

Real grassroots organizations with their finger on the pulse of the community, strong canvassing operations and diverse leadership can overcome corporate campaigns. But carefully picking your fights—where possible—greatly improves the odds of beating far better funded “astro-turf” opponents.

Steve Early

Steve Early was a national union representative for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He was a Labor for Bernie volunteer and belongs to the Richmond Progress Alliance. His book about the political transformation of Richmond, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, was published this month by Beacon Press.

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