Toxic Class Encounters

It’s thirty years this autumn since I began my undergraduate degree at Durham University in the North East of England. To tell you the truth I didn’t know much about the city before I applied there.  My visit for the three required interviews was very enjoyable, and more positive than some of the less elite institutions I had applied to. I enjoyed looking about the Norman castle and cathedral set high on a hill surrounded by the moat-like River Wear.  I should have guessed something was up however when the tutor in the sociology department asked me “What’s a good working-class boy like you want to come to a place like this?”. It was meant positively, and I took it in that way, but the penny really dropped when I arrived in the late September of 1990. I think about 60% of students then came from public schools (meaning they were privately educated), but in those first days and weeks of the autumn term it felt like 95% or more.  Someone explained to me that Durham was where the public-school kids who couldn’t get into Oxbridge went. The result was often a toxic mixture of slumbering resentment among people who felt they had somehow missed out on their pre-ordained entitlement.

Class privilege was etched into the University, and the public-school kids took to it like ducks to water. Durham for them was simply an extension of the public-school system with colleges instead of houses, black tie formal dinners, and intense social networks built between their schools through sporting activities. The ‘Rahs’, the pejorative name for the worst-behaved of the tribe, walked around as if they owned the place.  They had their own dress code, they sounded different, and they were often much taller than the students from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds or the local population of Durham City – in short they literally embodied class privilege.

This made Durham an excellent place to study sociology, especially class. It also makes clear how easily those with privilege deny their advantages. Students took offence in seminars where a tutor might gently try to lift the lid on the benefits some of my more upper-class peers might have enjoyed. I remember one woman took my tutor to task for even suggesting privilege by pointing out that her father had “Worked jolly hard to put her and her three siblings through public school at over £10,000 each per year”. I think I remarked that my dad had never earnt more than £10,000 a year in his entire working life, but the irony was lost on the rest of my class mates. The lid was firmly shut.

And there was a darker side to this experience of class. There was the working-class local kid who shared a bedroom in my student accommodation with a ‘Rah’. It was he rather than the ‘rah’ who left quietly after Christmas, never to return, so alienated was he by the whole experience.  Or there was my teacher Ian, a local lad who had gained a first-class degree in sociology and an excellent PhD from Durham University but was laughed at as soon as he opened his mouth to give a large first-year lecture. His was a local North-East accent, something a largely public-school audience could only mock as it wasn’t the educated, received English that they and everyone who had ever taught them, or exercised authority over them, had shared.

Over the last three decades I’ve returned to Durham a number of times.  I somehow assumed that things must have changed over the intervening years, but in the last couple of months Durham University has become the poster child for a form of toxic classism directed at working-class, often local students at the University. One of those students, Lauren White, eventually complied a report detailing instances from petty slights through to more serious incidents. As White noted of her treatment, “At first when they mocked and mimicked my accent, I sort of went along with it, even laughed, but then when I persistently became the butt of jokes about coalmining and started to get called feral because I was local it started to feel malicious.”

Members of the Durham University Working-Class Students Association marching in the city

Other working-class students reported being refused entry to student college bars because their accents marked them as ‘other’. Another highlighted the practice of ‘rolling in the muck’, where a privileged student would attempt to sleep with working-class students, a kind of sexualised slumming. Reading these and other accounts was appalling but it also highlighted for me the persistence of the ‘hidden injuries of class’.  The response to this ‘injury’ takes many forms, including silencing students in class for fear that their accent would mark them out, or moving back to their parents’ home rather than live in proximity to their tormentors. As is often the case working-class people have to check their behaviour, identity, and culture in order to fit in.

But some good has come out of all this. The national press coverage of this story has deeply embarrassed the University and begun a debate in Durham and beyond. Meanwhile, some of the more militant ‘Rahs’ have created a backlash against attempts to tackle the deep-seated structural inequality and under representation at Durham.

But it is young working-class people themselves who are pushing to change things.  They founded their own Working-Class Students Association, and in 2019 they organised a Working-Class History Month and marched at the annual Durham Miners Gala under their own banner. Their activism speaks to the importance of learning from the past and reforging networks among working-class people. I wish I could have taken part in that kind of activism when I was a student. This is a powerful example of mutual help between students from a similar background. It will help change their institution and the wider society.  

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

Influential political analyst Ron Brownstein thinks American politics is all about answering this question: “How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do?”

Hilary Swift, New York Times photo

The question resonates because metro areas vote so differently from small town and rural areas and because our electoral-college leftover from slavery (like the Senate) gives these non-metro places outsized influence in our politics.  Regionally, large majorities on the coasts vote Democratic while the South and Midwest are majority Republican.  But to Brownstein’s readers in The Atlantic, Paducah (population 23,000 and in Kentucky) likely also connotes “hick” or “hillbilly,” terms that are stand-ins for “poorly educated” whites without bachelor’s degrees — or the so-called white working class.  

Brownstein presents the core conflict in American politics as between a backward-looking, aggrieved “coalition of restoration” (Paducah) and a forward-looking, virtuous “coalition of transformation” (Seattle). The unstated assumption is that highly educated folks, the transformers, are the norm as well as the ideal, whereas poorly educated whites are ignorant and backward at best, or deplorable at worst.  Those whites seemed to prove that again last Tuesday by voting 64 to 35 for Donald J. Trump.  (All 2020 election results here are from preliminary and not entirely reliable Edison exit polls as reported in The New York Times.)

At this moment it’s pretty tempting for us highly educated folks to think that all Trump voters are deplorable people resisting the important transformations we are all busy working toward.  But there are different transformations afoot and they’re not all positive.  And there’s also some restoration we could use a lot more of.

Brownstein mistakenly meshes cultural transformations – “growing diversity in race, religion, and sexual orientation [and] evolving roles for women” – with economic ones – “the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age.”  In this formulation if you want to restore some important aspects of the Industrial Age – like 2% annual increases in real wages for three decades, strong unions, and steeply progressive taxes – then you also resist growing diversity and evolving roles for women. 

It’s true that many white men, with and without bachelor’s degrees, rage against all three transformations.  But there is no logical connection between cultural reactionaries and economic ones.  A person can be culturally deplorable and economically progressive at the same time, as much survey research has shown.  Or they can resist diversity but be open to – and in fact, looking for – the government to dramatically improve their economic circumstances.  And that means that Democrats should make a renewed effort to convince workers of all skin tones to look more closely at their economic program.  The one Biden ran on is good enough.

It didn’t get much attention in the media, nor did Biden emphasize it enough. Yet the economic program Biden ran on is potentially transformative at the scale he proposed  – especially trade and industrial policies focused on making more things in-country, a massive infrastructure investment that creates millions of jobs, and a comprehensive enhancement of the care economy for children, elders, and the workers who care for them, all paid for with increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy. If enacted, this program will disproportionately benefit people of color, but the largest group of beneficiaries will be whites without bachelor’s degrees.  

Such a program will be impossible to enact with a Senate still controlled by Paducah, but the overall program could be enormously popular, and it should be the center of Democratic legislative politics for the next two years.  The program – and the focus on economic revival – might be able to pull a handful of Republican senators across the aisle, but that’s not as important as making strong inroads into the Trumpian base of the party – namely, the white working class.  I believe that can be done and is, in fact, highly feasible, but you have to understand the Trump coalition better than our punditry generally does.

A recent New York Times article, for example, described the Trump and Biden coalitions in a way that is quite common shorthand among many analysts and pundits: “A Trump coalition of white voters without college degrees and a Biden coalition of college-educated white voters . . . and minority voters.”

White people without bachelor’s degrees are the largest part of the Trump coalition – 47% — but they are not alone.  Despite what Brownstein and others assume, the white part of the educated middle class are not uniformly right-thinking transformers. Last week they split their vote 49 to 49, making them about a third of the Trump coalition.                 

Trump Coalition
White Working Class47%
White Middle Class33%
“Non-White”20%

While only a fifth of the Trump coalition are not white, “non-white” people make up nearly half of Biden’s coalition. The total “non-white” Dem advantage may be down some from the Obama elections, but it is still huge.   As growing and mobilizing parts of the electorate, racial minorities are clearly the foundation of any viable Democratic coalition.

Biden Coalition
“Non-White”47%
     Black 20%      Latino 17%      Asian & Other 10% 
White Middle Class30%
White Working Class23%

But that 35% minority of working-class whites who voted for Biden are not an insubstantial part of the Biden coalition, making up nearly a quarter of it. That’s the smallest part of the coalition, but it amounts to about 20 million voters, which is more people than reside in all but four of our most populous states.  The educated white middle class represents a somewhat larger group, but they are not the only white part of the Democratic coalition.

Simple democratic arithmetic dictates that you cannot neglect any part of your coalition, but you also need to add to your coalition by subtracting from the opposition’s groups.  The white working class may have gotten over-sized attention from progressive Democrats coming into this election, but that’s because they are the single biggest target.   It didn’t help that a part of the Democratic party has sometimes argued that they should be abandoned and allowed to stew in their own juices – often with more than a little class prejudice.  Democrats’ effort to attract more working-class whites, however, resulted in about a 4-point gain among them nationally, but the gains in battleground Rust Belt states were enough to determine outcomes – 8 points in Michigan, 9 points in Minnesota, 7 points in Wisconsin, though only 2 points in Pennsylvania.

As Michael Sandel has pointed out, “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”   To gain more support from working-class whites, Democrats have to acknowledge that class prejudice — and overcome it.  We can start by simply understanding that the white working class is a very large and diverse group of people. It cannot reasonably be characterized as having one uniform social and political psychology. Indeed, it is so large and diverse that it makes up both the largest piece of the Trump base and an indispensable part of the Biden base. 

Nor should we buy the kind of broad-brush geographical references that Brownstein offers. Working-class whites don’t all live in places like Paducah.  They live in cities, including Seattle, and are likely a majority in the suburbs, even though political reporters often seem to assume that “the suburbs” require a bachelor’s degree and a comfortable income for admission. 

Most important, we need to understand that while some part of the white working class is deplorable in every respect, the largest group among them is culturally conservative but also economically progressive.  The Public Religion Research Institute study that tracked substantial racial and cultural resentments and anxieties among large portions of the white working class also found:

White working-class Americans generally believe the economic system is stacked against them, are broadly supportive of populist economic policies such as raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy—including a larger role for government—and are skeptical of free trade. . . . . Most white working-class Americans believe the best way to promote economic growth is to increase spending on education and the nation’s infrastructure, while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for it.”   

If a President Joe-from-Scranton can unify Democratic legislators around the progressive economic program he ran on, he can rally the diverse coalition that elected him this year while at the same time appealing to that considerable part of the white working class who voted for Trump but who are also open to a transformation toward economic justice that includes them.  

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

After the Election: Finding Our Dignity and a Way Out of This Mess

It’s almost 50 years old, but the 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb accurately identified the problems of class in the U.S. that have fed the divisiveness of Donald Trump. If only we paid attention. Their book also gives us an alternative path – a way out of our current mess.

The two sociologists interviewed white, working-class men in Boston back in 1969 and 1970, a narrow approach that ignores the people who now make up the majority of the working class. Nonetheless, their findings are useful. They identified a growing divide between the white, male working class and the upwardly mobile, well-educated class.

Ideally, human beings in society should be treated as equals. But the interviews revealed something quite different. The social order – fostered in the mostly unregulated American version of capitalism – had created a working class with a deficit of not only economic status, but social status as well. The men Sennett and Cobb interviewed thought that upper-middle-class people would judge them as not worthy of being “respected as equals.”

For Sennett and Cobb, this made clear that “class is a system for limiting freedom.” They asked “What happens to the dignity men see in themselves and in each other, when their freedom is checked by class?” The answer: working-class grievances.

“All of the dreams of individuality now, all the anger and accusations, revolve around the issue of common dignity. The working people of Boston have been denied the presumption, rather than the possibility, of social respect, denied in some way of moving through daily life without being defensive and on guard, some way of being open with other people without being hurt,” they wrote.

We can treat these injuries of class as either a problem to be solved or a problem to be exploited.

You know what Donald Trump decided to do. Hillary Clinton took his bait, in a statement that reflects exactly the kind of judgment Sennett and Cobb’s interviewees feared: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” It didn’t matter that she was speaking against “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” discourse and behavior, not against working-class people in general.

Trump turned “deplorables” into a badge of honor. A Trump ad responded “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard-working people like you.” In his Republican presidential nomination speech in 2016, mimicking the message of fellow Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, Trump fully appropriated the mantle of the working class by saying to “the forgotten men and women of our country” that “I am your voice.”

It soon became clear that Trump wanted to be the voice for only the white working class. And he wanted to be only a voice, not a true advocate. He wasn’t going to deliver an economic policy for working people (despite his claims of building the best economy ever). Instead, he strung them along – not solving their problems but exploiting their grievances.

Trump created a governing administration – a cult, actually – that exploited every grievance ever known to social relations in U.S. history: racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitism, anti-internationalism, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-journalism, anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-government, and embraced authoritarianism, white supremacism, conspiracy theories. And then he lied about everything in such an audacious manner it was almost too difficult for anyone to keep pace.

Aided by a conservative mass media (including Fox News, talk radio, and a network of conservative web sites) and social media that served as his safe space and propaganda arm, Trump has tried to hold together a base of mostly white men without college degrees, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else – despite his recent efforts to bring suburban white women back into his fold.

Trump doesn’t have to court the wealthy, a usual suspect in the Republican Party. They have gone quietly along for the ride, collecting bonuses every time Trump passes Go: wonderful tax cuts, extraordinary opportunities for influence-peddling, and fewer pesky regulations to hold them accountable.

For the working class people who follow Trump, the benefits are mostly psychological. Trump offers them a snarky attitude of superiority: own the libs, suppress women and people of color, screw the international order, deride the legitimate news media, and destroy the truth. These benefits might salve the grievances of feeling disrespected by the elite, but perhaps because he has offered so few economic rewards, his base is now shrinking.

There is another path to reach out to working-class voters who have felt the injuries of class as well as of race, gender, immigration status, and a myriad of other injuries of social exclusion. Biden captured the idea in the last presidential debate in a single word: dignity.

“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” Biden said. “Decency, honor, respect. Treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that.”

Fifty years ago, in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, Cobb wrote that those in power in society set the standards of class, which subsequently create those feelings of indignity. The alternative is to reject the class-based order, and instead value “having different cultures, different values, different developments, different abilities” – different, but valued equally. In other words, class is structure that has meaning only when we enforce its perverse rules.

The right policies could tear down this house: health-care as a right for all; a living wage for all work; equal wages and opportunities for women and people of color; progressive taxation; equal per-pupil funding for all public schools; an inviolable right to vote; and the right to easily organize into labor unions and collectively bargain.

If Biden is elected and follows through on building a society based on human dignity, he could begin solving the problems of class injuries. But no matter who is president, the challenge for working-class people – in all of their wonderful diversity – is to stick together and not let another leader define us and divide us. We can be our own voice.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Contributors, Issues, Understanding Class, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Why Trump Will Lose Ohio

It is always dangerous to publicly predict the outcome of a presidential election, especially in a purple state like Ohio. But I’ve done it twice, in 2011 and 2016, months in advance, when both of my predicted winners, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, were behind.

Photo by Alex Brandon, Trump speaking at a rally at the Toledo airport

This year, I am predicting that Trump will lose in Ohio. That might seem like a somewhat safe bet, since the most recent Real Clear Politics polls for Ohio show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a very slight lead. Then again, at this point in 2016 the Real Clear Politics average showed Trump ahead by less than 2 percent, and Hillary Clinton ultimately lost Ohio by 8 points. So it’s worth considering how the Democrats will overcome the political ineptitude they displayed in 2016 and—as was not the case in the rest of the nation—2018, when the “Democratic Party left Ohio.”

The answer lies in changing demographics, Trump’s failures, the shifting views of some evangelicals, and problems in the Ohio Republican Party.

Even before the 2018 election, I sensed that the Trump fever was breaking, especially in the Youngstown area—what some have called Trump’s “ground zero.” Talking with Youngstown residents, especially working-class voters, I heard rumblings of disappointment and doubt. Trump fever was being doused by a wave of closings, which included a major hospital, the local newspaper, and GM’s Lordstown factory. Trump had told local residents that their economy would get stronger under his leadership, but he had failed to keep those promises or even to offer substantive help as the local economy reeled from these losses. Add the human and economic costs of the pandemic to the state’s already changing demographics and economic struggles, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support is at risk.

Demographics might not be political destiny, but changes in Ohio’s population seem likely to help Democrats this year. Ohio has long been older, whiter, and more working-class than most other states. According to political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, in 2016, white working-class voters made up 55 percent of Ohio voters, but their numbers have since declined to 53 percent. Trump won 63 percent of white working-class votes four years ago, but many are now turning away from him, particularly women and seniors.

As the white working-class share of voters has declined, Ohio has become younger, better educated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more liberal. According to the Ohio Voter Contact Services, there are 912,000 new registered voters since 2016. Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin believes that more than 250,000 young voters will be voting for the first time and most are likely to vote Democratic. As Amy Walter notes in the Cook Political Report, demographic changes together with the president’s low job approval rating in Ohio should make Republicans “worried” about Trump’s growing weakness in the state.

Compounding these demographic changes have been the declining socioeconomic conditions in Ohio. The Trump tax cuts did not lead to substantial job growth and rising wages. Although the national economy had strengthened modestly in recent years—until the pandemic—growth in wages and jobs has been slower in Ohio. A study issued just this week from the Century Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Groundwork Collaborative documents that while the number of manufacturing jobs has increased (by less than 1 percent) nationally during Trump’s term, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they’ve actually declined. Poverty rates are also up in both urban and, more recently, suburban parts of the state. Some rural areas have seen “unprecedented” unemployment, even as Republicans brag that the economy is booming in Ohio.

These economic trends have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. One in five workers in Ohio have applied for unemployment since April—a rate that likely does not include all of those who’ve lost their jobs, since many have reported filing difficulties or are self-employed or independent contractors. Many of those eligible for the extra benefits provided by last spring’s stimulus package experienced late payments.

No wonder Trump’s inflated references to the improving economy are falling on deaf ears. The contrast between his claims and people’s experiences may help explain why Trump’s approval rating among Ohio voters has dropped by 15 percent since his election and currently stands at 46 percent.

In 2016, despite questions about Trump’s own morality and his lack of serious engagement with religious life, religious conservatives embraced him. They believed that he would curb abortion, support religious liberty, appoint conservative judges, protect Israel, and pull back transgender rights. He has delivered on many of these issues, as his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett has again made apparent.

Yet, Trump has been losing support among evangelicals, and some in Ohio feel that they have been “too easily bought.” Phil Heimlich, a member of Cincinnati’s influential Crossroads Church, one of fastest-growing churches in the nation, believes that “Trump’s violations of biblical teachings on sexual immorality, immigration, and fiscal responsibility” outweigh his support for checking abortion. Christian beliefs go beyond any single issue, and some evangelicals are troubled by the insincerity of Trump’s Christian values and his lack of commitment to honesty and decency.

And Ohio’s religious landscape is changing. Church attendance in the state is considered average compared to other states—and it is dropping. Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly more secular in their beliefs than their parents. That might not serve Republicans well in Ohio. Less-religious voters may not support the party’s legislative efforts to expand religious expression in public schools and to accept answers on state proficiency exams that align with creationism rather than established science. Many are increasingly troubled by deeper religious incongruities in Trump’s policies.

Finally, schisms within the Ohio Republican Party have undercut support for Trump in his own party. After the 2016 election, Trump and his supporters ousted Ohio’s most successful Republican chairperson, Matt Borges. While Borges had not worked against Trump, he had supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the bitter 2016 Republican presidential primary. He also provided cover for other Republicans who withdrew their endorsement of Trump in the final stages of the 2016 election.

That conflict has continued to fester as Trump supporters took over the Ohio Republican Party, led by a new chairperson, Jane Timken, and Rep. Jim Jordan. Ohio Republican officeholders, like Gov. Mike DeWine and Sen. Rob Portman, have tried to remain at arm’s length from the more radical Trump wing of the party.

But the conflict has resurfaced with John Kasich’s critiques of Trump and endorsement of Biden, with Borges now working to unseat Trump, and a newly emerging organization, Operation Grant, which was established in July 2020 by the Lincoln Project and other anti-Trump Republicans. The organization (named after Ohio native Ulysses Grant) has been holding events around the state that feature a cadre of Republican former elected officials, military and religious leaders, and small farmers. As “bona fide conservatives and Republicans,” their stated goal is “to assure the defeat of President Donald Trump and Trumpism.”

According to Operation Grant organizer David Little, Operation Grant has attracted moderate Republicans, who in recent weeks have contributed over $30,000 to the group. The project is also attracting media attention in Ohio and international papers.

Given past performances, many Democrats in Ohio have lacked confidence in the national and Ohio Democratic parties. Their skepticism only intensified when the Democratic Party chose not to include Ohio as a battleground state and limited its media buys to the Youngstown and Toledo counties bordering on Michigan and Pennsylvania, while largely ignoring the rest of the state.

But when polls in recent months showed that Ohio was competitive, the party increased its spending. Local ground games finally emerged, led by local Democratic parties. Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) does not have an on-site Biden campaign coordinator, but local organizers have increased online, text, and telephone contacts there dramatically, with special emphasis on absentee voters and people who are registered but have not voted in recent elections.

All these changes—demographic shifts, the struggling state economy, the shrinking share of religious conservatives, and the deep schism within the Ohio Republican Party—have cost Trump a good part of his base in Ohio. It isn’t so much that Biden is winning Ohio. It’s that Trump is losing it.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s claim that Ohio is still contested political territory is proving to be true. The Democratic Party is once again viewing Ohio not as a red state but as a purple one. And without Ohio, it will be difficult for Trump to win the presidential election.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

This piece originally appeared in The American Prospect.

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The “Other America”: The Poverty and Peril of Domestic Workers

America is mired in a crisis of unprecedented scope and depth.  The disruption of the pandemic is draining for all of us, but for many, its consequences are dire.

For the millions of people who’ve had little or no work for pay for as long as six months, life is immeasurably stressed.  Prospects for jobs seem nil.  Their savings, if they were lucky to have them, were depleted long ago.  In this “other America,” to borrow the title of Michael Harrington’s 1962 expose of poverty as our national shame, they confront intolerable burdens. 

The recovery and prosperity of the stock market is generating headlines.  But the market reflects the prospects of the already wealthy; it is by no means the story of the real economy.  Drilling down into new data offers a deeper look into the livelihoods of 2.5 million domestic workers. They are the home care workers assisting our elders and other family members with health conditions or disabilities, nannies who tend our kids, and the cleaners for our apartments and homes. 

Graphic from the National Domestic Workers Alliance

During the pandemic, our colleagues at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) used extensive surveys to portray the condition of domestic workers. The results are stark and confounding.  In one of the richest nations in the world, poverty within one of America’s largest workforces is rampant and deeply damaging.

Domestic workers are facing unrelenting struggles. Their desperation is driven by unemployment rates of over 70% — far higher than what Americans faced during the Great Depression, when unemployment breached 25%. And most of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic have no idea whether their employers will ever hire them back. Most domestic workers surveyed by NDWA are their households main bread winners.  More than half were unable to pay the current month’s rent. Eight in ten now worry about eviction.  And for many, hunger is at their door. One third cannot afford to buy food for the week, and more than half were uncertain if they would have enough to feed themselves and their families. 

The poor job quality and treatment of domestic workers is a pre-existing condition, making these workers especially vulnerable during this crisis. And their situation is getting worse as COVID surges and the economy struggles. The plight of domestic workers isn’t an accident or a calamity of irresistible influences.  Their predicament arises from the choices we made as a society in the form of government policies and our own household budgets.   We must not allow challenging times to numb us.  We should no longer accept a system of laws and regulations or a labor market that robs these workers of stability while also exposing them to illness, harassment, and wage theft.     

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, if adopted at the federal level, would extend pay and leave rights to this workforce, along with health and safety protections. Similar bills are already in place in nine states. And a major segment of the domestic workforce would benefit from better-funded Medicaid reimbursement rates for long-term care services, mandating overdue wage increases for home care workers. We should also do our part to recognize that domestic work is critical to the economy’s functioning. This begins by seeing domestic workers — and seeing what they do as real work. Home care workers, nannies, and housecleaners have long kept our homes and families safe; now we should do the same for them.

Angelina Del Rio Drake and Mark G. Popovich

Angelina Del Rio Drake is Chief Operating Officer at PHI, a Job Quality Fellow at The Aspen Institute, and a former home care worker. Mark G. Popovich is Director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative within the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. He worked in childcare and lower-wage food service, maintenance, and other jobs early in his career.

A longer version of this piece appeared originally in The Hill as “The Peril of Domestic Workers” by Angelina Del Rio Drake (PHI) and Mark G. Popovich (Aspen Institute Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative. This version is authored by Popovich for use in Working-Class Perspectives.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Reality TV and Real Work in the Fishing Industry

Fishing may be the world’s second oldest profession, but the industry is about as visible as a quiet cousin at a family reunion. Unassuming, keeping to itself, it is largely ignored in talk about work and the economy.  All of which belies its oddly large footprint in reality TV. 

Discovery TV's Deadliest Catch

Some of these “fishing industry” shows look at huge, highly capitalized and often nationalized factory fishing fleets.  But most usually focus on much smaller, community and family-based single-owner boat crews that are part of a local fleet. That’s what we see in Discovery/Original Productions’s Deadliest Catch, which has long been the gorilla in the room.  On the other end of the spectrum lies a series showcasing practices closer to sport-fishing, National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna. In between areSwords: Life on the Line and Lobstermen (in various iterations asLobstermen: Jeopardy at Sea, Lobster Wars, Lobstermen: Deadliest Catch in the UK), the British series Trawlermen, and various others. Most of these shows rely on the same basic motifs:  dangerous seas, seafood as hidden treasure, competition between boats. 

All of which raises two questions:  1) why are fishing shows so popular? and 2) how well do they portray their subject and its workers?  One answer actually addresses both: they do a pretty good job of portraying individuals struggling with a job that is not only among the oldest but also the most dangerous. Yet that is also why this genre is itself a bit dangerous. Bringing the working world of the fishing industry to the general public performs a useful service.  Doing so by emphasizing individualistic drama while soft-peddling the industry’s complex socioeconomic structures does not.

The push for drama is embodied in Discovery Channel’s description of its most long-lived and popular show, Deadliest Catch:

It’s the deadliest job on earth: crab fishing off the Alaska coast on the icy Bering Sea, home of the most violent waters on earth. During each crabbing season, a handful of adventurers will battle Arctic weather, brutal waves, and a ticking clock for a chance at big money in this modern day gold rush. Working around the clock, and often going days without sleep, this unique breed of men, part adventurer part fisherman, will set out upon an unforgettable odyssey.

As the last word suggests, this series is ‘epic,’ with all the sociocultural mythos attending it.  Central to that mythos?  Western masculinity and its time-honored themes: competition, violence, death.

This emphasis underpins a format that Discovery has recreated in its East Coast variation, Lobstermen. Even the opening language follows the formula: “The North Atlantic Ocean, one of the most treacherous regions of the open seas.  Here a handful of brave men search for New England’s great-clawed beast:  lobster.” Unfortunately, Lobstermen suffers in comparison, given its smaller boats, smaller crews, smaller traps, and smaller catch.  It’s difficult not to smile at the hype: “great clawed beast”?  Clearly, size matters.

The basic structures and themes appear even in a more divergent example, Swords: Life on the Line, which includes racially diverse crews and female captain Linda Greenlaw (herself an audience draw, being well-known from Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction drama Perfect Storm as well as her own The Hungry Ocean).  But while such factors temper the show’s attachment to Anglo masculinity, they do not eliminate it.

To be fair, most of these series actually do manage to provide brief insights into larger systemic structures affecting fishing-industry workers. Much of the emphasis is on the captains who, even if they do not own their boats, are both management and labor. And the pay scale reflects the on-board hierarchy, with the value of labor decreasing from captain to first mate, and so on down the line.  At the same time, captains face their own structural difficulties within a competitive capitalist system.  Even if they own their boats, many captains are effectively “boat-poor” and regularly on the edge of financial and its related psychological collapse. 

To the shows’ credit, they regularly highlight the financial risks of the industry, and they show how the larger economic structures firmly anchor most crew members and even many captains – especially younger ones — within the precariat class.  Their economic vulnerability is exacerbated by the capital-intensive nature of industrial fishing.  Simply going out requires a large investment to purchase bait, fuel, and equipment. Such overhead literally rests on the key means of production:  a vessel that is either a major investment for a captain — equal to a home — or the property of an absentee boat-owner. While the crew doesn’t contribute to these initial investments, their labor, like the captain’s, accrues no personal value until all of the costs of the trip are covered. Only then will they be paid, in the form of a share of the catch based on their status in crew hierarchy.

As with all forms of fishing, that catch is hardly guaranteed, in part because access to the best grounds are regularly limited.  Among lobstermen, for example, agreements over where a boat’s lobster traps can be laid are often well-established and regularly honored among captains and larger communities.  But even if a boat has access to good grounds, they must compete with other fisheries, including trawlers in search of fin-fish, scallops, and other marketable products.  When these agreements are broached and communities themselves struggle to re-establish them, external regulators in the form of governmental agencies appear on the scene, making the system even more complex.

Unfortunately for the shows, all these economic complexities and forms of regulation also make fishing less dramatic than the risk-taking and rivalries amongst individual adventurers that make this type of reality TV engaging. So the shows present these banal complexities—capital investments, negotiated agreements, traditional hierarchies as more popular forms of competition: sport and games.  An easy example can be seen in Wicked Tuna’sspin-off, Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks, originally and blatantly titled Wicked Tuna: North vs. South

That transformation is further individualized and deepened with Oedipal themes, often through story lines about the younger generation taking over from ‘aging’ captains. For example, in an early episode of Wicked Tuna, the ‘outsider boat’ Pin Wheel, captained by the juvenile and aggressive Captain Tyler McLaughlin, is pitted against Tuna.Com, led by the established and traditional Captain Dave Carraro, a pattern echoed in each of these shows. All these internal dramas are usually ‘resolved’ through the evidence of masculine power embodied in a successful catch. 

Unfortunately, that narrative resolution does not ensure that the crew will be paid. Catching fish is only the first step; the catch must then be sold, and this puts fishers at the mercy of wholesalers, who set prices. This is regularly noted in the series, if only for dramatic effect, as in an episode of Lobstermen.Captain Joel Hovanesian’s Excalibur, a dragger (trawler) out of Port Judith, RI, is having no luck pursuing haddock, a high-value food fish in the restaurant and home-dining market. So Hovanesian decides to go after mackerel, whose US market is mainly as bait fish and priced accordingly. The risk is rewarded with a large, clean catch, a decent price at the dock, and subsequent paychecks. But the very next day, an even larger catch is met with limited interest from wholesalers, and Hovanesian has to scramble for an alternative buyer. Eventually, he must settle for a price approximately half that earned the day before. That, in turn, means that the same labor of captain and crew is worth about half what it was the day before.

These economic vagaries are endemic in a market-driven economy, and to the shows’ credit, they are incorporated into the overall drama. But again, they arise as a component of individual competition–a function of effort, risk, and luck rather than an ingrained deficiency of the fishing industry. That is, of course, the nature of dramatic story-telling: establish representative figures, place them in situations where tension arises, and resolve the tension positively or negatively.

Of course, reality television succeeds by keeping audiences coming back and generating ad revenue.  But while breaking seas and howling winds, risk and personal luck are cinematically justifiable, they also elide the less dramatic but very real struggle of crews with the fishing industry’s practices.  Which raises another question:  how should we weigh this erasure against the positives of raising the profile of fishing-industry labor?  In the end, that’s not an easy question to answer.  But we can always hope there’s no such thing as bad advertising.

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

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What Can Workers Expect from Amy Coney Barrett?

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States poses a difficult question: does her faith commitment as a Roman Catholic preclude an interpretation of the law that is responsive to concerns of the working class?

The Roman Catholic church has a long history of social teaching, dating back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. A response to industrialization and the new demands on workers, it offered qualified support of workers and trade unions. The emphasis on human dignity, the rights of workers, the common good and solidarity has been an enduring tradition in subsequent papal, conciliar and episcopal documents. One might reasonably assume that some of the teachings of this tradition would find their way into Barrett’s decisions.

So far, her record is not promising. The Alliance for Justice recently assembled a briefing document arguing the working class will have nothing to gain from Barrett’s time on the Supreme Court. In fact, we have already lost key decisions in her time on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. For instance, in Wallace v. Grubhub Holdings, Inc., the court considered the claim that Grubhub drivers were owed overtime pay according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Grubhub argued that workers had already given up the right to make such a claim by signing a Delivery Service Provider Agreement requiring arbitration for any claims related to their work. The drivers countered that they were exempt from arbitration that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) would require because they were engaged in interstate commerce. Other circuit courts had ruled that workers were exempt from arbitration if they worked for a company that itself engaged in activity in more than one state, but Barrett ruled that Grubhub workers were not entitled to overtime pay because they did not themselves cross state lines. Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney for the Grubhub drivers, noted that when the FAA was enacted in 1925, Congress “never foresaw that it would be used to stop drivers for a major national delivery company from challenging their employer’s systemic violation of wage laws.”

Michael Duff, University of Wyoming law professor, called Barrett’s decision in Wallace v. Grubhub “long on ‘textualism’ but short on consideration of the implications of applying text mindlessly.” Barrett’s opinion, Duff added, ignored the likelihood that “by 2024 more than 80 percent of private-sector, nonunion workers may be covered by forced arbitration clauses.” Barrett isn’t swayed by such criticism, as she made clear last year in a speech at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Judges should not focus on current conditions but on what the law says. Referring to Scalia with approval, she argues that “textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint.” Scalia’s opponents (and presumably Barrett’s) — the “purposivists” — do not see that hard constraint. As Scalia explained, “It is the law that governs, not the intent of the lawgiver. . . . Men may intend what they will; but it is only the laws that they enact which bind us.” As originalists, Scalia and Barrett are determined to interpret the Constitutional text according to the meaning of the words at the time of its composition.   

Considerations of textualism and originalism bring the case for or against Barrett back to religion and workers’ rights, because they suggest that her understanding of the law has little or no relation to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Perhaps that supports her statement in the 2017 U.S. Senate hearing that her faith would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. On the other hand, in a 2006 commencement address at Notre Dame Law School, she explicitly reminded listeners of the social justice commitments of a Catholic law school. A legal career, she said, “is but a means to an end, and… that end is building the kingdom of God.” She called on graduates to become “a different kind of lawyer,” one whose fundamental purpose in life is not “to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God.”

So it is worth considering how Barrett lives her faith, including her affiliation with the People of Praise Christian Community. Founded in 1971 and originally based in South Bend, Indiana, home as well to Notre Dame University, the group is part of the charismatic renewal movement in Roman Catholicism that arose in the late 1960s. Today, it has 1,700 members in 22 cities across the United States and Canada, as well as one location in Jamaica. Led by lay people, People of Praise describes itself as a “charismatic Christian community” that, like others in the Pentecostal movement, includes members who “have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts” such as speaking in tongues and healing ministries. People of Praise is not based in churches but in the community life that members forge among themselves. Hearkening back to the first Christians, People of Praise adherents make covenant commitments among themselves “grounded in a lifelong promise of love and service to fellow community members.” A period of discernment that lasts several years is necessary before one’s membership can be established in the community. Small groups meet for prayer and the reading of Scripture. They cement their ties by sharing meals and attending at each other’s baptisms, weddings and funerals, and they extend financial and material support to each.

The People of Praise Christian Community’s approach to faith has much in common with the originalism Barrett learned from Scalia. While Roman Catholicism generally considers scripture within the context of its tradition and the teaching authority of the church, conservative Protestants such as the Pentecostal and charismatic believers in the evangelical fold go “back to the Bible” and puzzle over its God-inspired truths. The People of Praise Christian Community, while historically Roman Catholic, incorporates this quest for the original meaning of scripture that, they argue, God intends believers to follow in the present day. An account of how Barrett found her way into both the People of Praise Christian Community and the Supreme Court as Scalia’s clerk would be fascinating, and it might show how the orientation to text and original meaning in both places will remain mutually reinforcing for Barrett.

Liberal-leaning Christians point out that times change and the interpretation of the Bible and applications of its teachings need to be attentive to new contexts. Those who support working-class interests make the same argument, suggesting that new challenges posed by technology and ever-increasing capital accumulation and monopoly power call for updated application of old laws. Barrett’s mentorship under Justice Scalia and her record on the Seventh Circuit do not appear to allow for this possibility. In other words, the issue is not her Roman Catholic faith in some general sense. Her affiliation with a religious community that is anchored firmly in the past makes clear that her rulings will not be friendly to workers and their families.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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A Law and Order Platform to Unite Working-Class Voters

Donald Trump has positioned himself as the “law and order” president, because the term provides a positive framing for the racially-tinged rhetoric he uses to divide members of the white working and middle classes from people of color. The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy explains the tactic as “convincing voters that crime is a threat – scaring them into such a belief, if necessary – and then convincing them only you can stop it.”  For decades, American politicians have used it “to play on racist fears, using code language – ‘crime’, ‘inner cities’, ‘quiet neighborhoods’ – in an attempt to connect especially with white voters.”

Pundits continue to debate how large a role Trump’s explicit and implicit racism and his promises to crack down on crime and criminals—particularly those with dark skin–played in his 2016 victory. He’s now directing his hate-filled oratory at the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that started after the killing of George Floyd and have ramped up again last week after the officers who shot Breonna Taylor were not charged with her murder. Such rhetoric seems more effective than ever at motivating his hardcore supporters and some white suburbanites who are appalled by the violence they see in the news every day.

Trump frames the issue as a binary choice: you’re either for law and order or you’re with the anarchists, rioters, and police-haters. His success with this tactic has painted Democrats into an uncomfortable political corner. How can they stand for racial justice but not be seen as weak on crime?

Fortunately, a new report issued from a group of international journalists could help Joe Biden and his party make the case that they stand for law and order in a way that will unify rather than splinter the working class. The report, presented as a five-part podcast “Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files,” documents how the world’s most powerful banks facilitate the worst of humanity: Citing evidence from “a huge trove of secret government documents,” the report traces “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions, enriching themselves and their shareholders while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins. And the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

While many of the activities uncovered by the journalists are shocking, readers of our past Working-Class Perspectives entries about corporate criminality will not be surprised by this key revelation: not one banking executive involved in this massive money laundering scheme has been charged with a crime — despite the fact that officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, and members of Congress know exactly what is happening.

As Marc wrote in recently in the Akron Beacon Journal, executives blithely break the law because they don’t fear being charged with a crime. This lack of consequences combined with billions of dollars in profits has fueled corporate misbehavior of all kinds. As Martin Woods, a former suspicious transactions investigator for Wachovia, notes, “Some of these people in those crisp white shirts in their sharp suits are feeding off the tragedy of people dying all over the world.” Like the masterminds of the mortgage crisis that nearly cratered the world economy, the makers of Oxycontin who have killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the First Energy executives who paid the largest bribe in the history of Ohio politics, not one of those white shirt, sharp suit-wearing executives has been perp-walked out of their palatial office. Instead, on the rare occasion when a big bank was prosecuted, it simply paid a fine — and continued to engage in illegal activity.

And that gives Democrats a “law and order” opportunity of their own. Biden and a Democratic Congress could ride to the rescue of the millions of people who have been repeatedly victimized by corporate America’s total disregard for both the consequences of their actions and the rule of law.  Soon after the release of “Suspicious Activity,” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders renewed their call for enactment of the “Ending Too Big to Jail Act.” If Joe Biden and other more moderate Democrats express full-throated support for this much-needed and long-overdue reform legislation, they could reunite the factions of the working class and focus their collective ire on the real common enemy: the corporate criminals who have yet to be held accountable for murdering major components of the American Dream.

It might not be easy for Biden to renounce decades of support for the finance and banking industry, especially because the Obama administration failed to prosecute any of the major players responsible for the collapse of the housing market. But we believe he must do this in order to win in 2020 and rebuild the working-class and blue-collar coalition that Trump has torn asunder.

That possibility makes perp-walking some bespoke suit-wearing corporate criminals off Wall Street and into jail the absolute right thing to do.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

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

 

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Unsettling

Smoke from the fires in Oregon, photo by John Locher, AP

It’s fire season again.  Two years ago, my parents lost their home in Paradise.  This year, I almost lost mine.  I live in Oregon, where scores of fires were stoked up by unusual Eastern blasts of dry wind over the Labor Day weekend.  As of this writing, more than 1,000,000 acres had burned, and 500,000 people (more than one out of ten Oregonians) were under evacuation orders.  California, Washington, Idaho – also in flames.  While I was fortunate not to be directly in harm’s way, like every other Oregonian I have been choking on hazardous air since September 8th.  In fact, the air quality has been so bad that many of our air quality indicators have not been able to measure the hazard.  By one account, the amount of smoke and ash in the air is equivalent to smoking more than three packs of cigarettes a day.  And all the displaced persons, the firefighters, the helping personnel, and workers who have to be out during the day (such as postal workers) have been breathing this for more than a week.  We are all looking for a break, some blue sky to show itself, even as we worry that this is just the start of fire season

Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington, has been the most outspoken about linking these extraordinary fires to climate change.  He called the scene “apocalyptic” and “maddening.”  In response to the President’s blithe denial of science, Inslee said, “If this is not a signal to the United States, I don’t know what it will take.” But he was not alone.  Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, calls the wildfire a “wake-up call” on climate change.  Touring the wreckage in Oroville, a town very close to Paradise, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, said, “The debate is over in terms of climate change… If you don’t believe that, just come to the state of California.”

In Oregon alone, 40,000 people fled their homes in the face of the fire.  For many, there is nowhere to go.  Community centers, fairgrounds, churches, some hotels, have opened their doors, although COVID is complicating how they do so.  In my hometown, we have opened up our football stadium.  This is not a covered structure.  People are living in tents in the open air wherever they can.  Tents are, in fact, one of the most useful items to donate  and are hard to come by. 

All of this has been very unsettling, both literally and metaphorically.  The events of this past week have thrown me back to memories of my working-class childhood, where bad things could happen at any time.  How can anyone plan for the future when the basic foundations of food, shelter, air, and water are unsettled?  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed in the morning when you are afraid to look out the window, let alone making a decent plan about what to accomplish that day.  For years now, I’ve tried to explain this basic fact to well-meaning middle-class people who have never faced such uncertainties.  Now, it seems, many of them are sharing this experience. 

Those who study working-class life have long drawn a distinction between “hard-living” working-class families and “settled” ones.  This may have begun with Joseph T. Howell’s Hard Living on Class Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families, published in 1972, although other influential endorsers of the concept include Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, Lillian Rubin, and Lois Weis.  Settled living families play by the rules, work hard, abstain from hard drugs and other distractions.  Hard living families act like it’s the end of the world.  I have to admit, I never took to these descriptions, not because they seemed overly judgmental – though they sometimes do – but because they draw too clear a line between these types of families. 

I’ve talked with Jack Metzgar helped me realize that this may be a generational thing.  Growing up in the dysfunctional 1970s, I am of the first generation that did not assume they would be better off than their parents. My generation, the first one without a descriptive identity (Generation “X”), stands between the baby boomers and the millennials and Gen Zers whose lives definitely will not be better off than their parents, due to both a faltering economy (don’t tell Wall Street) and a burning planet.  For working-class people of my generation and later, playing by the rules will not get you security, working hard will not get you social mobility, and there’s no one out there who is going to give you any credit for staying away from drugs.  In fact, doctors will push them on you, and everyone else will assume you take them anyway.  We’re all living hard, not settled lives.  Period. 

As with so much in 2020, the fires unsettle us. The pandemic has made us all lose sense of time.  In the United States, we suffer under a heartless president whose lies and distortions can give us whiplash.  We are riven into two nations, living under different realities, even as “reality” becomes more real with every passing moment – as hurricanes multiply, snow follows heatwave in less than 48 hours, and fires roar across the land, hurling down hazardous ash that spreads in fast-driven plumes across the nation (you can watch  this on zoom.earth if you have the stomach for it).  While nearly one million people have died of COVID-19 – close to 200,000 in the US alone – we are hardly in agreement on how dangerous this virus is, how to prevent future deaths (wear a mask!), or when to expect a return to “normalcy.”  There is little stable ground to hold on to here, for anyone, left or right.  Will school be shut down next week?  Who knows?  Will I have a job next month?  Who knows?  Will my landlord be permitted to evict me in a pandemic?  Maybe.  What then – who knows?  Will we have peace after the election?  Martial law?  Who knows?  What can one reasonably plan for in such a world? 

Let’s not leave on such a gloomy note, although it has been hard to keep positive against the many foul blows of 2020.  My original theme for this blog had been “What the World Needs Now.” Perhaps next time I can tackle that.  But the world is wide open at the moment — otherwise known as a crisis.  Let’s call it the Unsettling.  We cannot live as we have been living, planning for tomorrow as if there is no bill coming due from the toll we’ve been heedlessly, selfishly, putting on the planet.  As all those who live through hard times know, there is no tomorrow if we can’t get through today.  And to get through today will take all our reserves of strength and compassion. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Undelivered: The DeJoy Scandal and Democracy in the Balance

Laborers Vote, Laborers BuildIn this turbulent moment, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy aptly symbolizes the precarious state of both our democracy and the workers on whose shoulder its future rests.  Last week,  a Washington Post team uncovered seven former employees of New Breed Logistics who reported being cajoled by CEO DeJoy or his aides to make political donations to candidates he favored and to attend fundraisers at his 15,000-square-foot gated mansion in Greensboro, N.C.. Such events regularly raised more than $100,000 per event for Republican candidates for Congress or the presidency.  Employees who contributed to the boss’s preferred candidates were rewarded with monetary bonuses, according to this report—which would be a crime if proven in court.

The DeJoy scandal is all the more disturbing because of the context in which it came to light.  At this moment, voter suppression efforts are underway in multiple states, the president is attempting to pre-emptively delegitimize mail ballots, and DeJoy himself is continuing to implement measures that impede the work of the US Postal Service despite his recent promises to Congress that he would cease being obstructive.   Even as polls indicate that Democrats will be twice as likely to vote by mail in this election, the institution that will help make our national election possible in November–the United States Postal Service–is being undermined.      

These headlines recall the early years of the 20th century when, for working people, the U.S. was at best an aspirational democracy.  Back then the carrot-and-stick methods that DeJoy used—repaying loyalty to his political causes with bonuses and favoring those employees who stood with him—were utterly commonplace.  Pioneering sociologist John A. Fitch explored the prevalence of political coercion in turn-of-the-twentieth-century steel towns like Braddock, Pennsylvania.  At election time, the New York City headquarters of U.S. Steel sent instructions to mill superintendents, Fitch learned, who dispatched foremen to escort workers to the polls to do their civic duty by voting for the candidates endorsed by their employer.  During a period of recessionary unemployment, workers reported that management promised to first rehire the most politically loyal employees.

That was also an era of rampant voter suppression.  African-American men had been stripped of the vote in most southern states by 1910, thanks in large measure to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Williams v. Mississippi (1898) decision, which opened the door to literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and a host of other mechanisms to block the black vote.  After more than a half century of struggle for suffrage, women had only won the right to vote in a handful of states.  And even white male workers often struggled to get equal access to the ballot box.  Many states used poll taxes or barred those who received public assistance from voting in local elections, as historian Alex Keyssar has shown.  And when more strenuous methods were needed to minimize workers’ political voice, employers did not hesitate to use them.  During labor conflicts in the coalfields of Huerfano County, Colorado, in 1914, mine operators collaborated with sympathetic local officials to redraw the maps of seven electoral precincts so they were entirely on company property.  On election day, armed guards simply prevented anyone seen as potentially “disloyal” from entering those precincts to vote.

Precisely because workers’ voting rights were so often obstructed in the early twentieth century, their efforts to build a successful labor movement had to be tied to efforts to win political democracy.  The workers’ movement’s ubiquitous call for industrial democracy alluded to that inescapable interconnection of political democracy and a more democratic workplace.  For the half-century between 1918 and 1968, that interconnection was borne out as the expansion of unions and political democracy repeatedly reinforced each other.  Workers’ demands for industrial democracy during World War I helped open the door for women’s suffrage after the war. The rise of an industrial union movement in the 1930s, in turn, created the political space for the “Long Civil Rights Movement” to emerge.  Subsequent civil rights struggles not only won voting rights for African Americans but also helped produce the last big breakthrough for U.S. unions, the organization of public sector workers in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Over most of the last half-century, however, the synergy between unionism and democracy has operated in reverse.  As unions declined, democratic rights eroded, which in turn accelerated the decline of unions, bringing both back to the conditions of  more than a century ago.  If Williams v. Mississippi serves as a marker of the backwardness that earlier era, future historians will someday mark our current low point by pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions as Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which undermined the Voting Rights Act, and Epic Systems v. Lewis (2018), which allows employers to induce workers to sign away their rights to undertake collective action as a condition of employment.  

The long-running deterioration of democracy in both politics and the workplace is what accounts for figures like Louis DeJoy in our time.  Although his methods were unusually crass, his desire to control his workers is hardly unusual these days.  Elizabeth Anderson reports that in recent years one in four U.S. workers describe their workplace as a “dictatorship.” More would use that description, Anderson says, if they realized how much power their employer has to arbitrarily regulate and punish their speech and conduct, not only on the job, but off it as well.  In most workplaces, she argues, “employers don’t merely govern workers; they dominate them.”

Alex Hertel-Fernandez has turned up plenty of evidence of such domination.  In recent years, he finds, corporations have succeeded in coercing workers to adopt their employers’ political causes in ways not much different from those John Fitch discovered in 1908 Braddock.  Whether they are forced to stand behind political candidates who visit to their workplaces for a “photo op,” asked to write letters to legislators protesting bills their employers oppose, or urged to vote for the employers’ favored candidates, workers are increasingly subject to the influence of those who sign their paychecks. 

Is it any surprise that as our workplaces have become less democratic, we’ve become less able to resist political democracy’s erosion?  It is no coincidence that in a country where only 6 percent of private sector workers are in unions, a political party whose candidates have won the national popular vote for the presidency only once since 1988 has nonetheless named most Supreme Court justices; a country where a man who lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any president in history has appointed  nearly one quarter of the circuit court bench; and a country where the party whose candidates received a total of 14 million fewer votes than the rival party controls the majority of Senate seats.  This is a country that not only allows an employer like DeJoy to use his employees to further his political aims, it installs him in a position of power to stifle the political voices of millions more workers.  Is it any wonder that in such a country Joe Biden must not only win the popular vote in November, he must, as Nate Silver reminds us, win by at least three percentage points to be assured of becoming president.

As we enter the home stretch of this fateful political season amid a raging pandemic, as Black Lives Matter protests continue and an increasingly militant resistance to those protests emerges, the DeJoy case reminds us that working people and our democracy face daunting challenges. We should draw encouragement from knowing that our predecessors overcame similar challenges.  Our task, like theirs, must be to revive democracy in both politics and our work relations.  Ultimately, our future will depend less on who wins in November—as crucial as that is—than on how well we wage that larger fight.

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

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