Working-Class Women Unionists on the Front Lines

Sally McManus leading the march against the war on workers, photo by Peter Boyle, Green Left Weekly

On November 16, 2017, thousands of construction workers walked off their job sites to march through central Sydney in protest against laws designed to limit the power of unions in the construction industry. Workers from many unions joined the ‘Stop the War on Workers’ event, united in their collective demand for the right to strike. I was proud to march with my union – the National Tertiary Education Union – alongside my working-class sisters and brothers from the blue-collar unions. Apparently, the media didn’t notice the thousands of workers in hi-vis marching noisily through the streets that day. The mainstream press ignored us.

If they’d been paying attention, they might have noticed how central women were to this protest, as organisers, speakers, and rank and file union members. When I asked a couple of female construction workers why they had downed tools to join the march, they told me they’d ‘had a gutful’ and were ‘fed up’ with their working conditions and were not willing to accept unjust laws that attacked workers anymore. These women, and many others who have become increasingly active and visible in the Australian labor movement, are strong, assertive, and inspiring.

One of the best examples of the power of women’s leadership is Sally McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the umbrella body for unions in Australia. McManus is relatively new in the job, but she has breathed new life into the union movement. This is not an easy task. Trade union membership in Australia has been on the decline for several decades, and government attacks have diminished the power of unions to strike. Going on strike in Australia is a complicated process, with individual workers and unions engaging in unprotected industrial action facing very heavy fines. Media representations of unions have generally been negative, often focusing on some corrupt individuals and descriptions of union delegates on worksites as ‘thugs’. A Royal Commission set up to investigate unions was intended to further reduce public support, but it did not reveal widespread corruption in the labor movement.

In one of her first interviews as head of the ACTU, McManus argued that the rules relating to unions need to change and unjust laws should be broken. She has since headed a campaign to ‘change the rules’ which is being endorsed by many unions. Her influence shows the power of working-class women as organisers and agitators, in Australia and around the world. McManus is an inspiring speaker. Her directness and emphasis on collective action reflects her working-class background and provides an antidote to the individualist nature of neoliberalism. She demonstrates the benefits of having working-class women in leadership positions.

McManus is the public face of the union movement at the moment in Australia, but she is not alone. For example, the New South Wales President of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Rita Mallia, speaks on behalf of workers in the construction industry. Like McManus, Mallia spoke at the ‘Stop the War on Workers’ Rally, and she roused many cheers from the mainly male working-class membership of her union. Mallia has a law degree, but her working-class immigrant background shapes her understanding of blue-collar work and the lives of her members.

Michelle Parkin, a rank and file member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, spoke at the rally, too, talking about a recent campaign at her worksite. A machine operator at an ice-cream factory, Parkin was one of 140 workers facing reductions in pay and conditions when their employer (a large multi-national) applied to have their enterprise agreement terminated. The union fought back, and with the help of the ACTU mounted a successful boycott campaign of the company’s popular products, following the model of another recent campaign against a brewing company. At the rally, Parkin presented the perspective of a female factory worker – challenging the image of the blue-collar workforce as male.

As women move into leadership, they are also expanding the scope of union concerns. For example, women have pushed for unions’ campaigns to include domestic violence leave into workplace agreements and drawn attention to issues like the gender pay gap and sexual harassment at work. These women workers often describe themselves as feminists, which normalises the term among working-class industries and communities.

Working-class women’s involvement in the Australian union movement is not new, but their visibility as the public faces of labor is. In the past, most union officials have been male, but now working-class women are demonstrating their strength, determination, and skills. The union movement has a much better future with more working-class women at the helm.

Sarah Attfield

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#MeToo Solidarity

Sexual harassment is both a labor and gender justice issue. After all, the workplace is the epicenter of women’s recent outrage about sexual harassment and assault. Hollywood titans, respected reporters, and celebrity chefs all used their power over women’s paychecks in order to gain power over their bodies. Women (and some men) have responded by speaking out individually, yet their inspiration is decidedly collective; strength in numbers is what’s fueling the revelatory headlines. Women’s #MeToo tsunami, in fact, is perhaps the largest collective labor action of the early twenty-first century.  In order for this riveting social movement to have a lasting impact, #MeToo solidarity must impact more than the elite. Workplace culture and expectations must shift for average, working-class women, too.

Women have been struggling to make the workplace safer for decades. They first made sexual harassment an issue in the 1970s when feminist workers and rape crisis activists united efforts, according to one recent account. By 1980, it seemed there was progress. Under the leadership of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first issued explicit guidelines on sexual harassment. But then Ronald Reagan appointed Clarence Thomas chair of the EEOC in 1982, and he led the agency’s back peddling, well before Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexually harassing her in 1991. Hill endured fraught public scrutiny of her claim, and Thomas’s appointment laid bare how little headway women had really made.

It’s worth examining what has changed to make this workplace issue burn so brightly in 2017.

First, of course, there’s the Trump factor.  Many women were stunned and appalled when Trump won the election despite bragging about groping women. The fact that his opponent was the first viable female candidate made the loss all the more bitter. Millions turned out last January for the Women’s March; their sea of pink pussy hats marked the original #MeToo moment.  Incensed, many women have begun to speak out about the injustices they have kept quiet for too long.

But there are larger historical developments at play. In an era of heightened rights awareness, the Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights movements have led the way, launching fresh and innovative attacks on structural racism well before the 2016 election. Millennials are at the forefront of these fights, waging movements online and in the streets, well outside the traditional civil, labor, and human rights organizations.

Millennial outrage may be providing the energy behind the current tipping point on sexual harassment, too.  After all, millennials are now aged 18 to 35 and so have come into their own in America’s workplaces. This generation of women must hold jobs; few really have a choice.  They grew up with moms who worked, and recent research shows that young people are more accepting of working mothers today than even those in the 1990s. Nearly half of mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinners in their families.  If paid work is something you and everyone else expects of you in life, then it’s all the more intolerable when men routinely make the worksite a dangerously sexualized realm. Millennials just aren’t taking it, and many older women find themselves inspired by these young women’s indignation.

Can women harness the solidarity impulse of the millions of women who posted the #MeToo hashtag? Will millennials finish what earlier generations started and build enduring change on the job?  Their success is far from certain.  Elite and professional women are receiving the lion’s share of the attention, and few long-term solutions are being discussed. An effective social movement on workplace sexual harassment can’t stop there. It must broaden to include women of all backgrounds and should channel the outrage into organizational and legal transformation.

While Hollywood actresses and elite journalists dominate the headlines about sexual harassment, research reveals that working-class women are the most likely victims of workplace sexual intimidation and assault. The Center for American Progress looked at a decade’s worth of EEOC claims and found that waitresses and retail clerks are the most likely to face sexual harassment on the job, followed closely by manufacturing workers and those in health care.  A full 80 percent of restaurant workers deal with harassment on the job, including two-thirds who have to fend off management predators. Women are the most likely to work low-wage jobs where power imbalances are sharpest, and that’s especially true for women of color.

Effective solutions to workplace sexual abuse must empower women on the job, especially young, working-class women who are the most vulnerable. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United is playing a leading role, demanding an end to the sub-minimum wage that leave so many tipped workers vulnerable to intimidation.  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have even joined the group’s crusade, speaking out and posting viral videos on the topic.

HERE Local 1 Members

Union women, too, can demand that their organizations lead the nation’s response on sexual harassment; after all, more than half of the nation’s union members will soon be women. The hotel workers union in Chicago found that well over half of hotel workers reported harassment from guests; their #handsoffpantson campaign demands that management equip hotel maids with panic buttons and ban guests who sexually harass a worker.  After many female janitors in California found themselves alone at night in empty buildings alongside abusive male managers, the United Service Workers West won contract language and a law requiring cleaning and security employers to offer training on sexual harassment.

A union isn’t an automatic defense against sexual harassment. After all, some unions have been at the center of the recent storm. The  SEIU and the AFL-CIO have both ousted top male staff for workplace sexual abuse. Unions also have a fraught relationship to the issue because their duty of fair representation requires them to defend workers accused of sexual harassment, even when another union member makes the allegation.

Nevertheless, women union members can — and should — take a leading role, and sexual harassment is an issue through which they can build power for all working women, not only the 10 percent who hold a union card.  They could take a cue from the millennials’ movement against campus sexual assault, for instance, and partner with the new online group Callisto to build an online tool allowing women workers to document harassment and unite against repeat offenders. They could also convene a big tent coalition of unions, workers’ centers, policy experts, and women’s groups to strategize the next best legislative and policy steps.

Many women say they aren’t surprised by the breadth of the accusations that dominate the news headlines. As the #MeToo hashtag wave made clear, millions have endured this in some form. What’s new is that we are openly recognizing and naming the hidden dangers that women have long navigated at work wordlessly and alone. The #MeToo moment demonstrates collective action’s raw power. The question is whether women will be able to turn their next-generation solidarity into a broad-based and inclusive movement that can win enduring workplace transformation.

Lane Windham

Lane Windham is the Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership.) She is author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. 

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Social Class and Trump Voters

Politico’s Michael Kruse visited my hometown earlier this month to get a look at “one of the long-forgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall.”  Kruse concluded that “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help.  They Still Love Him Anyway.”  The story, based on interviews with nine Trump supporters and one man who voted for Hillary Clinton, is part of a stream of articles attempting to explain why Trumpians have remained so loyal to a president who has failed to deliver on any of his campaign promises so far and, for the most part, hasn’t even tried.  Problem is that about the same time as this spate of articles appeared a well-respected poll showed “Most White Workers Souring on Trump.”

Photo by Scott Goldsmith for Politico

This sounds like a potentially important debate, but it never really becomes important because there is such a confusion of categories, often made worse by a lingering white-trash class prejudice that is sometimes used to resolve the confusion.  Different authors are simply looking at different parts of an elephant while thinking they’re seeing the whole thing.

Kruse, for example, is focused on “Trump supporters,” who are often referred to as “Trump’s base” and who appear to be sticking with him come hell or high water.   References to “Trump’s base” usually refer to “working-class whites,” who are white people without bachelor’s degrees and are generally thought to be a reservoir of racist, sexist, and other deplorable attitudes.  But this class language confuses more than it clarifies.  Whites without bachelor’s degrees voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and they are by far the largest group of Trump voters.  But whites with bachelor’s degrees also narrowly voted for Trump over Clinton.  Only 48% of Trump voters were working-class whites, while 38% were middle-class whites (by education), and 13% were nonwhite.

“Trump supporters” or “Trump’s base” are somewhat smaller groups than “Trump voters,” many of whom voted against Hillary rather than for Trump.  But the larger point is that whether voters or supporters, Trumpians are not all whites without bachelor’s degrees – only about one-half of them are.  The identification of Trump with the white working-class is mostly not true.

When Michael Kruse searched out nine people to represent all of Johnstown, he found one retail worker, one retired nurse, two retired teachers, three small business owners, the Johnstown city manager, and a man who would not identify his occupation.  Kruse pays no attention to who does and does not have a bachelor’s degree.  He very sensibly highlights their occupations, not their formal education. That means that Kruse’s interviewees are much more likely to reflect the complex class make-up of Trump’s base than the convenient belief that only un-college-educated white people would fall for a carnival-barker snake-oil salesman like Trump.   In fact, more than 24 million white people with college educations voted for the guy.

While most reports on votes or polling define the working-class by lack of a college education, others define the working class by income (usually households with annual incomes below $50,000). But that definition of class also doesn’t support the idea that Trump won because of the white working class. Whites from households earning less than $50,000 are less likely to vote than other whites, and in 2016 those who did vote did not lopsidedly opt for Trump.

While education, occupation, and income are all reasonable ways to define a person’s social class, each describes a somewhat different group whose voting behavior is significantly different — despite overlap among these three categories.  This generates constant confusion as different commentators make what seem like contradictory claims about the white working class when they are actually focused on somewhat different white working classes.

This is a legitimate intellectual confusion, especially common among well-educated journalists whose higher educations included little or nothing about class in America.  Less legitimate, and much more  false, is the growing willingness of political writers to use an educated/uneducated class binary among whites to distinguish between Trump voters in suburbs whose basic sense of decency can be appealed to and the Trump base which is seen as a hopelessly ignorant stew of economic nationalists who pine not just for lost jobs and economic prospects, but also for the good old days of patriarchy and white supremacy.  The latter group definitely exists and, as Kruse demonstrates, it is not hard to find examples in places like my hometown, but the educated/uneducated binary does not hold, as at least half of Kruse’s sample likely have bachelor’s degrees and some of the weirdest attachments to the man with orange hair seem to reside in white business owners, not workers.

But there are two other problems with contrasting Trump voters from suburbs to Trump supporters from “woebegone spots in the middle of the country” as if they represented a simple educated/uneducated class binary.  First, about two-thirds of adults who live in suburbs do not have bachelor’s degrees, and therefore, would be classified as working class.  The suburban vote in large metropolitan areas is not synonymous with an educated white middle class – and hasn’t been for decades.  Second, and even more elementary, just because you can easily find Trump supporters in woebegone spots doesn’t mean that all white folks in those spots are Trump supporters, as Kruse’s reporting so strongly implies.

Johnstown offers much more interesting fodder for political analysis than its woebegone-ness.   It is in a swing county that in the 21st century has swung from Al Gore to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Mitt Romney and finally to Trump last year.  As British reporter Gary Younge found in his visit to Johnstown, economic desperation and every kind of decline you can think of accounts for both the area’s swingy-ness and its large number of Trump voters in 2016.  Combining my own impressions with this county-wide voting data, here’s how I’d characterize Cambria County’s citizens:

The largest group among the white working class are non-voters, who either don’t care about politics at all or are disdainful of politicians of all stripes. They simply believe voting makes no difference.  This group is itself complex, ranging from people who keep up with the news and have independent-minded opinions about issues to people who never watch or read much news at all and do not form opinions of their own about current issues.  Among regular voters, there are strong Democrats and strong Republicans, somewhat skewed by race and class, but both groups include people with and without bachelor’s degrees.

But most importantly, Johnstown has swing voters, a group that has been growing larger as conditions in their communities and their lives continue to deteriorate.  This group, along with the Democrats, voted for Obama in 2008, and a sizeable part of it voted for him again in 2012.  But when Donald Trump came to Johnstown and promised to bring back coal mining and steel jobs, there was an enormous swing toward him in 2016.  Given what President Obama had produced – a steady, substantial, but exceedingly slow economic recovery during which their already diminished lives either did not change or got worse – and what Hillary Clinton was half-heartedly promising, the Cambria County swing to Trump had a what-the-hell quality to it that was neither pathological nor irrational.  As a former steelworker who voted for both Obama (twice) and Trump told Gary Younge, “I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in.”

Trump tapped into a large well of hateful resentments that were simmering in Johnstown before he showed up, resentments that so far as I can tell are no more common in the white working class than in the white middle class.  But if you focus on the swing voters, not the Trump zealots, you have to ask yourself what might swing these voters back to a more progressive politics. I suspect these alternative focuses are applicable across the Rust Belt states.

And this is part of the problem with the way reporters and other analysts focus on the Trump zealots as if they are the whole of the white working-class: they encourage Democrat politicians to aim to win over what they imagine as “traditional Republicans” in “affluent suburbs” – folks they hope will be increasingly disgusted by the character and behavior of our president.  That approach may yield some votes. But this merely anti-Trump focus allows Dems to avoid hammering out a governing vision, message, and program that could really make a difference to voters like many in Johnstown – those who are desperately swinging back and forth in the vain hope that voting in the world’s oldest democracy might make a difference in the lives they get to live.

Jack Metzgar    

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Food Insecurity and the Costs of College

A display promoting awareness of food insecurity at Ohio State University

Today, more than 500 colleges and universities belong to the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA).  When I spoke at the annual Food Pantry Conference, hosted by U-Michigan-Dearborn this year, I met an amazing group of people from a diverse group of colleges (two-year, four-year, commuter, residential) around the region who were dedicated to ensuring that students on their campuses had enough food to eat.


Think about that for a minute.  Nothing highlights the gap between perception of college as a place of pampered privilege and the reality of college so much as the growth of campus food pantries  — from two in 1993 to around 300 in 2016 to more than 500 today, clear evidence of rampant food insecurity among college students.  According to a recent report by Sara Goldrick-Rab and her team, about two-thirds of college students are not getting enough food to eat.

For the past 35 years or so, since the 1980s, those of us who study education and inequality, especially at the college level, have focused our attention on the cultural obstacles to success for LIFGWC (low-income, first-generation, working-class) students.  Without an experience of college attendance in the family, these students struggle to learn the ropes.  They either don’t fit in or, just as bad, they don’t feel like they fit in.  They are — choose your favorite expression here — fish out of water, strangers in paradise, impostors.  They don’t always want to fit in, either, if that means leaving their families behind.  They are missing the social capital of their more privileged peers, don’t know how to negotiate with their professors, don’t have the family connections to get into a fraternity or sorority which can expand their networks for post-college life.  They participate less in the extracurriculum, not understanding how its use for making connections, building resumes, and marking one as “the right type” for later jobs or graduate school.  And when they do recognize themselves as having a different experience than the majority of their peers, they struggle to connect with others like them, often embarrassed to name the difference as class.  And when it comes right down to it, many working-class college students find all this too much to bear, and end up leaving college at much higher rates than their peers.

The food bank at the University of Michigan

Attending the food pantry conference made me reconsider things, however.  With the return of a Gilded Age, I think our focus on cultural obstacles has led us to miss the renewed importance of the material.  To use Bourdieu’s phrase, we have “put the stick in it” too far in one direction, and it is time to move the stick back.  Of course, money is not everything, as our collective research of the past few decades have shown, but it is a lot.  I’m reminded of a study suggesting that money doesn’t buy happiness after a certain level, but the absence of money necessary for a basic existence does lead to a host of illnesses, depression, and, yes, unhappiness.

Public funding for higher education has changed dramatically since the middle of the 20th century, the highpoint of public funding of higher education. A few comparisons between then and now may be instructive:

In 1950, one could attend a state flagship university, for all four years, for less than the cost of a used car.  The tuition of an Ivy League university such as Penn was $600 per year, less than one-quarter the average salary of a full-time worker in the US at the time ($3,210).

In 2017, the average tuition for four years at a flagship university was $45,000, more than the annual income of most US workers, and certainly much more than the cost of a used car!   The annual tuition to attend Penn was $41,464 in 2016-2017.

In 1973, the first year of the Pell Grant program, grants covered 100% of the costs of attending a two-year college and about 80% of the costs attending a four-year school.  By 1987-1988, the maximum Pell Grant covered about 50% of all costs incurred to attend a public four-year college.  Today, the average Pell Grant of $2,420 doesn’t cover much more than the cost of textbooks.

Debt has turned out to be a great divider.  In the past few years, about 60% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt, an average of $28,400 in 2016.  I suspect that we have not yet fully realized the impact indebtedness is having on those students, because many students graduate debt-free with the aid of class resources – financial assistance from parents and savings accounts set up by family members. For those graduating with debt, the burden can affect everything from the jobs they take to whether they go on to graduate school, get married, buy a house, or have children.  And things are even worse for the thousands of students who leave college without a degree but still burdened by debt.

So, let’s face it.  College is expensive, and it is getting more so.  The loss of public funding and the rise of inequality have worked together to create a situation where a regional conference on food pantries on campus has become necessary.

As Goldrick-Rab’s team reports, more than half of first-generation college students are “food insecure.”  About two-thirds of these students also experience housing insecurity, with fifteen percent reporting that they have been homeless at some point during college.  Half also reported not being able to buy required textbooks.  A quarter dropped a class because of scheduling conflicts with jobs or other expenses.   In human terms, that is a lot of “unhappiness” of the kind that could be solved by more money.  We are talking about tens of thousands of young adults who are trying to make their way through a system that they have been told is absolutely necessary if they want secure and stable jobs in their lifetime. It’s a little too much like the Hunger Games, no pun intended.

What’s the solution?  First, public education should be free.  That’s necessary for a democracy to function properly.  In addition, every person should have access to a basic income, one that provides healthy food and secure lodging.  That so many of our young people (and there are plenty of older adults in this boat as well) must choose between education and food, or education and shelter, or food and shelter while they attend classes is barbaric.  So, too, is the tradeoff many must make between access to education and future financial solvency.  Going to college for far too many means putting a millstone around their necks for their entire future lives.  Asking anyone, let alone eighteen and nineteen-year olds, to willingly choose this debt for life is absurdly cruel.

We can do better.  We have done better. In the years following WWII, we doubled, then tripled, the numbers of students we admitted to our universities.  In 1975, states paid most of the costs of public higher education (60%) while students paid about one-third.  Today, the situation is reversed, with students paying most of the costs of public higher education through tuition, largely financed by loans, while states pay less than one-third.  Recent proposals would readjust the balance, making (public) college affordable – and largely free — for all.  Those who benefited by our past commitment to public education need to step up and demand that the bargain made in the “age of abundance” — those affluent years following WWII when we taxed the rich and built an enviable public infrastructure – must continue, even if this means rejecting some tax breaks thrown our way now and then.

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.

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Miseducation and the Working Class

A couple of weeks ago my daughter passed the ‘Kent Test’, the exam ten year olds in my area sit in order to stream them for their secondary education. In our town, the options are stark.  Those who pass, like my daughter, get to attend some of the best state schools in the whole of England.  Those who ‘fail’ and don’t have alternative means go to the local secondary school which has been in what is euphemistically called ‘special measures’ for a number of years now. This school has seen turnover in teachers and the management team and struggles on just about every educational indicator.

In most of England, the 11+ test, as it is universally known, was done away with four decades or more ago.  The test and the grammar/ secondary modern school binary system persist in a few local authorities, almost always Conservative controlled. In Kent, the test allows the top 20 percent access to a very privileged education, and unsurprisingly, those students do well, as they are the most capable at that age. For the remaining 80 percent, however, the experience is qualitatively different. Without a critical mass of academically able students, the secondary modern schools do not perform well in league tables, government reports that measure success in terms of final grades rather than ‘value added’. In turn these schools find it harder to recruit good staff who will stay in post for any length of time, further damaging the perception of the secondary modern’s status. There are some exceptions to the rule, but non-grammar schools are seen as the option for those with no other choice.

Reviving and expanding the grammar school system has long been at the top of the Conservative Party’s wish list in England and was a central plank of the ill-fated election manifesto fought earlier this summer.  For conservatives, the grammar system rewards merit, talent, and hard work and thus demonstrates individual worth and achievement. The system also appeals to the idea of social mobility that emerged during the post war period. The exam, which kids sit in September of their final year of junior school, is supposed to be preparation proof. Ideally all the children taking the test do so on a level playing field.

The reality is completely different. The system is clearly riddled with class privilege, weighted heavily in favour of the middle classes and their off-spring and against working-class kids. Let me explain. My daughter, along with thousands of others in her cohort, have been preparing for the test for almost two years. This preparation involves resources, what sociologists label ‘capital’ – economic, social, cultural, and political. In Kent, an entire industry of after school clubs, private tutors, and crammers has sprung up to service middle-class parents’ desire to give their children an edge. These families have an enormous advantage. They have the money to pay for tutors and extra-curricular activities, and they often have more time to take kids to these events, and they can furnish students with mock exam papers to help kids practice for the test. These resources make the system heavily classed, long before kids enter the room to sit the test.

As a result, most middle-class students sit the test, while many working-class parents decide, for various reasons, that they don’t want to put their children through the ordeal and run the risk of their being labelled as failures. And class privilege does not stop there. If a child doesn’t do well enough to win a place in a grammar school, there is an extensive appeals procedure. Here, again, middle-class parents can flex their capital, and if that route fails, most can afford to send their children to private school, opting out of the state system altogether.

While the grammar system has limited reach in England, it does expose a growing educational divide in the country which reaches from preschool through to further and higher education in the wider UK. The scandal in the education system has been brutally exposed in a brilliantly angry book by recently retired Cambridge University professor Diane Reay. In her book Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, Reay weaves together the results of decades of research and a pile of educational statistics.  She is fantastically well placed to write this book, having been raised in a large working-class family, the daughter of a coal miner.  She was one of the lucky ones to earn a place at her local grammar school in the 1960s, when the system was universal. She went on to college and to teach for two decades in the progressive inner London school system of the 1970s and 80s. After completing a PhD in sociology of education, she eventually became a professor of education at Cambridge, the most elite seat of learning in the UK if not the world.

If Miseducation were just an academic account of class inequality, it would be a great book, useful in so many ways.  But it is more than that. Reay combines a relentless series of data illustrating how class works with the voices of the kids caught up in a system that fails them. In addition, Reay reflects upon her own experience of the system from the inside, as the optimistic bright school girl enduring classed put downs, the undergraduate who felt like a fish out of water, and the Cambridge professor who was regularly told she had ‘made it’.

In my own writing, I trace both what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb talked about long ago as the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and what I call the ‘hidden rewards of class’. Reay’s book reveals many ‘injuries’ but few if any ‘rewards’. Miseducation is an account of the long cold class war being waged against working-class families, denying generation after generation of kids the chance of decent education while blaming them for the paucity of their aspiration. As my daughter enjoys her final year in junior school, she can look forward to a privileged secondary education even as the remaining 80 percent of her peers, children of 10 and 11, have already been labelled as failures. A miseducation indeed!

Tim Strangleman

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Economic Nationalism and the Half-Life of Deindustrialization

In a 60 Minutes interview in September, Steven Bannon touted his form of economic nationalism and suggested that Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S Representative Tim Ryan understood his economic vision, even if they didn’t agree with him. It was fitting that he name-checked Brown and Ryan, as both come from Northeast Ohio, where the history of deindustrialization began 40 years ago this fall. On September 19th, 1977 — known locally as “Black Monday” — Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced that it was shutting down, kicking off a wave of steel mill closings that would displace more than 40,000 area workers basic steel and steel-related industries.

At the time, some explained deindustrialization as part of the “natural economic order.” Borrowing the term from Joseph Schumpeter, economists and business leaders saw the closings as part of an evolutionary process, a form of “creative destruction” that caused temporary hardships but would lead both capital and labor to more productive activities.  While commentators acknowledged that the process was difficult and uncomfortable, they insisted that the ultimate outcome would be economic growth and a higher standard of living.

Eager to validate such promises, local leaders brought in an array of speakers, including Irving Kristol and Michael Novak from the American Enterprise Institute, who gave public lectures at Youngstown State University. Both insisted that the Mahoning Valley would prosper over time as new industries took root and workers retrained for new jobs. It was all part of what Novak called The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But as time passed, the Mahoning Valley continued to decline economically and to lose population. Journalists and scholars stopped asking “when will Youngstown recover?” and started trying to explain what was wrong with this community. Some blamed the region’s decline on political corruption, union contracts that gave workers too much, or the out-of-date skills of the local workforce. By the 1990s, the idealism of creative destruction had been replaced by the politics of resentment, perhaps most clearly represented by Congressman James Traficant, the first modern politician who voiced a version of economic nationalism and has sometimes been compared with Donald Trump.

The politics of resentment were also fueled by a parade of presidential candidates, each promising to address the problems caused by economic restructuring, and each failing to do so. The most infamous of those was Bill Clinton, whose support of NAFTA, the war on drugs, and welfare reform still generates resentment from voters in this area. As Hillary Clinton learned last year, deindustrialized communities have long memories.

In places like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when employment was high, jobs paid well, workers were protected by strong unions, and industrial labor provided a source of pride – not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes and to be part of the connected, prosperous community that work generated still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers. They long for the sense of purpose that industrial labor brought, even as they stock shelves at Walmart, wait tables at Applebee’s, and try to persuade strangers to make donations from a cubicle at the local call center. They resent not only the instability of largely part-time jobs with uncertain schedules and below-the-poverty-line wages but also the politicians and experts who insist that they should either stop whining, go to college (which for most would involve taking on significant debt), or move away from their homes and families to someplace with more and better jobs. Even more, they resent the educated big city elites who view them as exotic or foolish holdouts from a bygone era. That resentment emerged as support for populism in the 2016 election, and for too many it fuels racist and anti-immigrant positions.

In our 2002 book Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we wrote that Youngstown’s story was America’s story. That seems even more true today, as Americans struggle to adapt to the growing precarity of work and to a changed political landscape. As Youngstown marks the 40th anniversary of its first major mill closing, people here understand that deindustrialization did not end in 1977, or even in 1982, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed the last of its local mills. They know that deindustrialization has a half-life. Like toxic waste, its potency decreases slowly, and it continues to cause harm – to individuals, to communities, and, as Americans increasingly recognize, to the nation as a whole.

Yet it is also worth remembering this: the first response to Black Monday in 1977 was not despair or resentment. It was activism. Busloads of local residents went to Washington to demand assistance from the government. Churches, civic groups, banks, and unions worked together to devise a plan for the community to buy and manage the mills. That part of local memory has faded, but the populism it reflected has returned.

Like the economic changes since the late 1970s, the politics of resentment will not disappear any time soon. New technologies and artificial intelligence will likely displace even more Americans, and workers no longer buy old promises about creative destruction or the great potential of a knowledge economy. The memory of an era when working-class jobs were good jobs has not yet faded, but neither has the hope that new policies will bring back good jobs. In the half-life of deindustrialization, Bannon may be right that traditional party affiliations will give way to a political contest between right-wing and left-wing populist movements, each promising – as so many politicians have before – to create real change for working people.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

A version of this commentary appeared in September on the American Prospect blog.

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The Precariat: Why a Basic Income is Vital

We are in the midst of a global transformation orchestrated by powerful financial interests espousing an ideology of market liberalisation, commodification, and privatisation. The global market system they advocate increases economic and social injustice, including widespread precarity. In the face of this transformation, how can we create new systems of regulation, distribution, and social protection to achieve a more just society?

Central to the transformation has been the owners’ control of physical, financial, and intellectual property from which they overwhelmingly benefit. Unlike the post-war period when shares of income going to capital and labour were roughly stable, in today’s globalised economy, the income distribution system has broken down irretrievably and the share of rentier capital – that is, income from rents, trusts, and subsidies rather than production or trade — has risen sharply.

This economic transformation has enormous implications for a growing class, the precariat. I define this group as a class because it has distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution, and relations to the state. And it is the precariat that will define the counter-movement in the global transformation.

The precariat faces a life of unstable, insecure labour. As we have seen with Uber, Task Rabbit, and other new non-traditional work structures, casualization has been extended by indirect labour relations in the ‘concierge economy’, while online crowd labour in platform capitalism and on-call contracts has spread. Within the next decade, a majority of transactions may be of this type, as labour brokers and apps become more ubiquitous. The old relations of production, built around direct employer-employee relationships, may become the exception.

Many commentators define the precariat simply on the basis of insecure labour, but this misses an important element: the precariat lacks an occupational identity. Further, these forms of precarious work involve increasing amounts of work-for-labour – think of the time an Uber driver puts in to maintaining a car — that is neither recognised statistically nor remunerated. In addition, many do jobs that require less education than they have.

The precariat is also defined by distinctive relations of distribution, in particular exploitation that undermines social income. Precarious workers rely mostly on money wages, which have been falling in real terms while becoming more volatile and unpredictable. They are also losing non-wage benefits, such as paid leave, medical leave, and occupational pensions, which provided labour-based security for old proletariat and, at this point, still do so for salaried workers. Statistics based on money income ignore these losses, and so they understate inequality.

To compound their insecurity, the precariat has lost rights-based state benefits, which increasingly require recipients to meet means tests. This results in a poverty trap, because moving from benefits to a low-wage job often brings only marginal income increases. And if someone loses a job, they don’t begin receiving benefits immediately, creating what I call a precarity trap. The combination means that taking a short-term job brings a small extra income but also raises the prospect of losing income altogether for a while after the job ends.

Yet it is the precariat’s distinctive relations to the state that are most crucial to understanding this growing class. Members of the precariat are losing rights of all kinds – civil, cultural, social, economic, and political. They are reduced to supplicants, without rights, obliged to be obsequious to gain income or benefits and dependent on bureaucrats to make discretionary judgements in their favour. This is humiliating, intensifying feelings of insecurity. These rights are also forms of social income, and their loss represents extra costs of living for the precariat. This, too, adds to inequality in ways that conventional income measures ignore.

The precariat has been hard hit by the collapse of the old income distribution system. It will be even harder hit by the advance of robotization, which will bring more people into the precariat. Robots may not cause mass unemployment, as many in Silicon Valley predict, but they will be disruptive. Wages will decline, and occupational structures will become more fragmented. The salariat will become part of a growing precariat of para-legals, para-medics, fractionals, and the like. The only people who will benefit are a few elites, whose incomes come from rents and investments.

At that point – and it is coming soon – economists and politicians will either have to accept yawning inequality and all the social and political risks that this entails or build a new income distribution system in which wages will play a smaller role. The base of a new system should be a basic income, funded by taxing the rentier income of the elites.

A basic income is a modest amount paid regularly to each individual legal resident (or ‘citizen’). It is a non-withdrawable economic right, without behavioural conditions. This would have several beneficial effects, including acting as an incentive to work in more ecological ways, such as in reproductive or care work rather than in resource-depleting labour, and improving mental and physical health. To afford a basic income system, governments would tax income gained through financial, physical, and intellectual property. Taxes for the majority would not rise, and public services would not be adversely affected. In a basic income system, everybody shares in the collective wealth generated in the economy.

A basic income will be the anchor of the system, but it should also provide supplements for those who have extra costs of living, such as people with disabilities or parents of infants, and to assist those with below-average earning opportunities. The system will still include wages and insurance benefits, as well as income from normal profits from productive activity.

Sooner or later, basic income will be seen as the only sustainable course. That, in turn, will enhance social justice, freedom, and basic social and economic security.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professorial Research Associate, SOAS, University of London. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded and The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay. He will discuss the books at a seminar in Columbia University on October 26, 2017.




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