Governor DeWine: It’s Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing for Ohio’s Workers

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, the time is always right to do the right thing. In a case where formerly unemployed Ohioans are seeking the reinstatement of pandemic benefits, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has the opportunity to prove he can tell time.

Two years ago, DeWine terminated two Federal programs that would have provided 900 million dollars of enhanced unemployment compensation to workers affected by the pandemic. His callous, politically motivated decision needlessly heaped financial hardship on hundreds of thousands of Ohioans already devastated by COVID.

A lawsuit filed in July, 2021 challenged DeWine’s decision. The governor could have done the right thing then, but instead, over the past 20 months, he and Ohio Attorney General David Yost fought and lost multiple times — first in Common Pleas Court, then in the Tenth District Court of Appeals, and finally in the Ohio Supreme Court. Now the case is back in front of the trial judge who said back in 2021 that he would have ordered the state to accept the benefits but could not because DeWine and Yost had lodged an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court.

How much longer will DeWine and Yost use the judicial system to wage war against the people they were elected to serve? I have no idea. I do, however, have a suggestion. Instead of wasting lots of time and taxpayer dollars plotting their next legal maneuver, they should devote a few hours to reading the thousands of messages posted on the DannLaw Facebook page by Ohioans who have been hurt by DeWine’s steadfast refusal to do the right thing.

Those messages make two things clear. First, his argument that cutting off the payments would discourage people from working was ludicrous. Many of the messages were written by distraught men and women who had never filed for unemployment in their lives and wanted desperately to return to work. They couldn’t because their companies or their jobs had been consumed by COVID. Those messages show how badly the economy was still struggling when DeWine cutoff the supplemental benefits. According to a study released by the Congressional Research Service, in July of 2021 the labor participation rate was below pre-pandemic levels, unemployment was higher, and aggregate employment remained 5.4 million jobs below pre-recession levels. That’s not exactly what anyone would call an environment rich in employment opportunities.

The messages also show that people are still suffering. Consider this: when COVID-19 hit 69% of Americans had $1,000 or less in savings and 45% had none at all. And while unemployment benefits helped millions weather the storm, many families spent what little savings they had but still fell behind on mortgage, auto loan, and credit card payments. They are now awash in debt that could be at least partially paid by the supplemental benefits the state refuses to disperse.

Combine that with high inflation and the end of several other pandemic assistance programs, including increased SNAP benefits, expanded Medicaid eligibility, rental assistance, mortgage forbearance, and universal free lunch programs, and it’s easy to understand why so many people tell us that they are on the brink of financial disaster.

Here is a sample of the heartrending comments I read every day:

This whole situation has made us seriously start talking about moving our family out of the state, because God forbid anything like Covid ever happens again, I can’t trust my state to take care of its people or put citizens above politics. An absolute shame.

I know people are getting more and more frustrated, believe me, my home is the next thing I’ll be losing because $4 an hour serving is just not pulling the money I need to catch up after losing my $20 an hour job because of Covid.

DeWine had no business taking this money away from the unemployed. I was one of them through no choice of my own. The first time in 45 years I ever filed for unemployment benefits. I appreciate all the efforts to get this money back to those that earned it.

Why does he [DeWine]hurt those that are truly in need?? What kind of man does that to people?? Normal functioning people do NOT go around destroying & hurting others I just need a little help. Not a handout. I don’t understand people who have so much and are in power & can make a positive difference in other lives refuse to do it. 

Ironically, as my firm battles to force DeWine to accept the available Federal funds, a subcommittee created by the General Assembly has been charged with ensuring that the funds remaining from $26 billion of Federal pandemic relief funding — money the state gladly pocketed — is used, as subcommittee co-chair Republican Jamie Callendar put it, in ways “consistent with the legislature’s will.” Anyone who knows anything about the GOP-dominated House and Senate knows that means the $7 billion left of those funds will be headed into the pockets of big business while Ohio working families face financial devastation.

Dr. King famously observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With the stroke of a pen, Governor DeWine can bend that arc and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The choice is, as it always has been, his.

Marc Dann

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. He is also a founding partner of Advocate Attorneys.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Marc Dann, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Labor Spring 2023: Making Campuses Platforms for Labor Renewal

Everywhere you look this spring, you’ll find evidence that campuses are becoming sites of labor organizing and struggle.  In recent months, faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago staged recently a successful week-long strike, adjunct faculty at the New School won a three-week strike, 50,000 graduate assistants staged a six-week strike across the entire University of California system, staff at American University struck, and undergraduate workers at a growing number of campuses have begun organizing unions and, in some places, even preparing to strike.   And this is just a small sampling of what has been afoot.  

Now, just as the labor question is bubbling to the surface on campuses across the country, a movement is emerging to connect that energy across multiple campuses: Labor Spring.  At this writing more than 60 campuses in 30 states and the District of Columbia are hosting teach-ins and related educational and organizing events under this banner.  On February 28, the AAUP chapter at Rutgers University held a rally that included Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union; Sara Nelson, of the Association of Flight Attendants; and Rutgers faculty, graduate assistants, and students, educating the campus in advance of a strike vote for the AAUP chapter, whose members have been working without a contract for over a year.  On March 1, Georgetown University students held a teach-in on the conditions face by food service and maintenance workers there. On March 3, the non-tenure track professors of Howard University joined with their allies to host a panel featuring long-time race and economic justice advocate Bill Fletcher, Jr.  The Duke Graduate Student Union was featured in an event at Duke University Law School on March 7. 

Similar events will unfold non-stop in coming weeks.  United Students Against Sweatshops will lead a teach-in at the University of Maryland on March 14 in which students will engage in a mock collective bargaining session.  Georgetown Law is hosting one on March 20 featuring Starbucks workers and leaders such as Erica Smiley of Jobs with Justice, Sara Steffens of the Communications Workers of America, Elissa McBride of AFSCME, and the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo.  Many other events are still being planned. The Labor Spring website has a complete list of participating campuses and their events. 

These events are reviving the teach-in tradition that was forged in the 1960s by civil rights, students’ rights, and anti-war activists.  In some ways, the Labor Spring teach-ins can be seen as a reprise of labor teach-ins that were held in 1996, following reformer John Sweeney’s election to the presidency of the AFL-CIO.  Sweeney, who won the first contested election in the labor federation’s history, made it a priority to heal the lingering divisions that had developed between unions and student activists in the era of the Vietnam War. In the summer of 1996 Sweeney’s AFL-CIO launched Union Summer, an effort patterned after the rights movement’s 1964 Freedom Summer, appealing to young people to get a taste of labor organizing. That fall, a series of labor teach-ins were held at Columbia University, the University of Virginia, and eight other campuses that built on Union Summer’s appeal.  The New York Times likened the Columbia teach-in to a rock concert. As Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman, two of the organizers of that Columbia event, recently recalled, those teach-ins helped overcome the by then decades long estrangement that had developed between organized labor and the left.

The 1996 labor teach-ins planted important seeds. They led to the formation of Scholars, Artists and Writers for Worker Justice (SAWSJ), which in turn helped create the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) in 1998. The teach-ins also helped propel organizing efforts by graduate assistants in the University of California system, paving the way for a system-wide strike in December 1998 which led to the union’s successful election of graduate assistants at UCLA, Berkeley, and six other UC campuses in 1999.  It also contributed to the formation of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the Worker Rights Consortium, and even the 1999 Battle of Seattle, that brought together the “Teamsters and turtles” alliance of labor, environmentalist, and anti-corporate-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization. 

Unfortunately, the labor revival that began to coalesce at that time was short-lived.  The Supreme Court’s December 12, 2000, decision handing the presidency to Republican George W. Bush followed nine months later by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, threw these nascent efforts into disarray.  The crash of 2008, the Great Recession, and most recently, the COVID pandemic made it difficult for the movement to recapture the energy that has been coalescing among labor and young people in the late 1990s.  

Now, however, abundant evidence suggests that the obstacles that had delayed a resurgence of campus-based labor activism are giving way.  Just how much present conditions favor the revival of campus-based labor activism is demonstrated by the breadth of support for Labor Spring. 

While the 1996 labor teach-ins focused on a small group of mostly elite campuses, the teach-ins taking place this spring are happening on a broad cross-section of campuses across the nation.  Geographically, Labor Spring will take place on dozens of public and private campuses from Massachusetts to Hawaii.  Teach-ins will occur in states of varying political character, from the union-dense blue states like New York and California to anti-union red state bastions such as Idaho and Alabama.  Public institutions both large and small, from the University of Michiganto New York’s Dutchess Community College, will host events.  So will small liberal arts schools like the College of the Holy Cross and HBCUs like Tuskegee University.  A range of law schools — including the City University of New York, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford—will host events.  So will Vanderbilt Divinity School and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

That such widespread interest in labor is coming to such a broad spectrum of campuses at precisely the moment when so many who work on campuses—including undergraduates— are beginning to identify as workers and recognize the value of organizing is a potentially momentous development. Higher education constitutes one of the “commanding heights” of our present day economy.  In many places campuses serve as “anchor institutions” in their communities: their practices broadly influence local labor markets for good or ill. They can act as engines of economic development, job creation, social mobility, and inclusivity. Yet they can also exacerbate the worst tendencies of 21st century capitalism: they saddle students with ballooning debt, they contract out an increasing number of services to lower-waged workers, they rely increasingly on the precarious labor of adjunct instructors, and they are too often ruled by boards of trustees and regents who have benefitted the most from the trends of financialization, tax evasion by the wealthy, and surging inequality that are weakening higher education overall. 

If Labor Spring can coalesce and magnify the interest in labor organization that we’ve been witnessing both on and adjacent to campuses over recent months, then we are bound to see an exciting year of organizing ahead.

Joseph A. McCartin. Georgetown University

Joseph A. McCartin is professor of history and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.  His most recent book, co-edited with Luis Aguiar, is Purple Power: The History and Global Impact of SEIU.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Joseph A. McCartin, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Why Veterans in Labor Should Not Be Ignored

Even in the era of identity politics, one category of identity has largely been ignored: what UK journalist Joe Glenton calls “veteranhood.”19 million former soldiers — most of them working class — share a strong sense of personal identity as vets, but the media usually notices them only when they are involved in right-wing militias, white supremacist groups, and other MAGA-land formations. Some have noted their over-representation in U.S. law enforcement, which does reinforce  militarized policing, along with the better known Pentagon-to-police equipment pipeline.

Largely ignored is the positive role veterans from working-class backgrounds have played in key labor and political struggles since the mid-20th century.  In the heyday of industrial unionism in the 1950s and ‘60s, tens of thousands of World War II veterans could be found on the front-lines of labor struggles in auto, steel, electrical equipment manufacturing, mining, trucking, and the telephone industry.  Today, about 1.3 million former service members work in union jobs, and women and people of color make up the fastest growing cohorts in these ranks.

Veterans at a CWA Common Defense Organizing weekend institute

Veterans are, according to the AFL-CIO, more likely to join a union than non-veterans. In a half dozen states, 25% or more of working veterans belong to unions. Vermont AFL-CIO President David Van Deusen sees veterans as “an underutilized resource for the labor movement,” particularly in high-profile organizing campaigns. No one, he believes, is better positioned to “expose the hypocrisy and duplicity of ‘veteran-friendly’ firms like Amazon and Walmart, who wrap themselves in the flag, while violating the rights of working-class Americans who served in uniform and the many who did not.” 

That’s why former SEIU organizer Jane McAlevey recommends that unions today learn from the example of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the post-war era. . CIO organizers understood that former soldiers have “strategic value” in strike-related PR campaigns. Veterans also have “experience with discipline, military formation, and overcoming fear and adversity,” all very useful on militant picket-lines.

Tony Mazzocchi was a good example. After World War II,  he became a catalyst for change within the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the broader labor movement for five decades. A survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, Mazzocchi spearheaded labor’s fight for the 1972 Occupational Safety and Health Act, which now provides workplace protections for 130 million Americans.  During his storied career, Mazzocchi also campaigned for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, labor-based environmentalism, and single-payer health care.

Mazzocchi also helped found the Labor Party in the 1990s and popularize the demand that public higher education should be free for all. He was inspired by the liberating experience of veterans from his generation, who were able to attend college as a result of the original GI Bill, which he regarded as “one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation in the 20th century.” According to his biographer  Les Leopold, Mazzocchi believed that an all-inclusive 21st-century version of the GI Bill could plant the “seeds of the good life” for millions of poor and working-class Americans today.

Today’s veterans continue to fight to make college accessible for more people. For example, Will Fischer, who served in Iraq as a Marine before becoming director of the afl-cio Union Veterans’ Council, was able “to graduate from college and do so without the yoke of student debt.” Fischer favors universalizing such benefits. He’d like  all student debt canceled and public higher education, including vocational schools, made tuition-free. As Fischer  sees it, this would free lower-income young people from having to choose between “putting on a uniform and participating in never-ending U.S. wars or taking on crushing debt.”

Vets have also worked within organized labor to create and promote targeted job opportunities.  Fischer’s successor at the Veterans Council is Will Attig, a member of UA Local 160, Plumbers and Pipefitters in southern Illinois,  He helps fellow Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans find building trades jobs through the  Helmets to Hardhats program.  Attig also introduced the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the IBEW to Common Defense, a post 9/11 veterans group, which has helped train members of CWA’s “Veterans for Social Change” network. Unveiled three years ago by CWA President Chris Shelton, a former telephone worker who served in the Air Force, this program seeks to “develop and organize a broad base of union activists who are veterans and/or currently serving in the military.”

As CWA notes, veterans, active-duty service members, and military families “are constantly exploited by politicians and others who seek to loot our economy, attack our communities, and divide our nation with racism and bigotry so they can consolidate more power amongst themselves.” CWA hopes to counter this on-going right-wing threat by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in grassroots campaigns with community allies.

That includes working with veterans fighting privatization in two of the federal agencies that employ many former soldiers, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which serves nine million patients in the nation’s largest public healthcare system, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which delivers mail to 163 million homes and businesses. Both have long been the target of corporate-backed efforts to reduce their staff, downsize their operations, and outsource their functions to politically connected private firms. 

During the Trump Administration, right-wing political appointees at the VA launched a major assault on the workplace rights of 300,000 workers represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), National Nurses United (NNU), and other unions. A White House advisory panel on the future of the Post Office called for the elimination of collective bargaining to help pave the way for privatization and job cuts that would affect more than 100,000 veterans.  

Like privatization foes at the VA, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) have tried to counter-out-sourcing threats through a grassroots campaign which declares “The US Mail Not for Sale!” As part of their collective resistance  to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee still on the job under Joe Biden, postal unions and their allies are fighting for better utilization of public infrastructure, rather than its dismantling and sale to the highest bidder. And among the leaders of that effort is a former Marine, Keith Combs, president of  a Detroit-based APWU local with 1,500 members.

One-fifth of the postal workers threatened  by privatization efforts are Black, like many who belong to Combs’ local For them and other participants in these  labor-community campaigns,  multiple identities come into play in their labor activism. NNU member Mildred Manning-Joy is a VA nurse in Durham, N.C. and, like one-third of the VA’s care-giving workforce, a veteran herself. She’s also the mother of a VA patient. Multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq left her son with “the invisible scars of his time in combat.” Last spring, Manning-Joy was among the many unionized VA care-givers around the country who enlisted patients and their families, veterans’ groups, and other labor organizations in a successful fight to block President Joe Biden’s proposed closing of many VA facilities.

Similarly, 38-year old Iraq war veteran Adam Pelletier transitioned from the Marine Corps to public sector union jobs—becoming a shop steward, AFGE local president, and then labor council leader in Troy, N.Y. After using the GI bill to finish college, Pelletier joined the Social Security Administration, where he and his co-workers assisted retired and disabled Americans who depend on federal benefits. Meanwhile, as a VA patient himself, he was active in AFGE’s campaign to “Save The VA” from would-be privatizers.

In upstate NY, Pelletier has  confronted members of Congress who favor VA out-sourcing and has become a valued advisor to the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a Bay Area-based research group that works closely with AFGE and Veterans for Peace (which Pelletier has joined, along with  Democratic Socialists of America).

“Congress continually votes to outsource VA services, pushing people into more expensive and less effective care,” Pelletier said, in a message to fellow Labor Council members last year. “They do this instead of adequately funding the VA and looking at it as the model by which we could all, someday, enjoy universal health care. We must mobilize to stop this!”

Just as Tony Mazzocchi was a key builder of late-20th century alliances between labor, peace, environmental, and healthcare reform groups, younger post-9/11 veterans like those profiled above are following in his footsteps, by forging similar connections to broader social movements. Their example shows that progressives should recognize the important role that former soldiers can play as a working class counter-weight to right-wing “veteranhood” and its malign discontents.

Steve Early

Steve Early has been active in the Communications Workers of America since 1980 and is the co-author (with Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven) of Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs from Duke University Press. He can be reached at

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Gaslighting, Oligarchy, and Other Media Forecasts

 “Gaslighting” was Merriam-Webster’s 2022 word of the year, a selection based on the frequency of searches in their online dictionary. The term makes good sense on cultural grounds as well, given the ongoing influence of political and economic chicanery on the US psyche. But “oligarch” was number two, and it may well prove to be the more consequential term–particularly for the working class.

Experts have long debated the reliability of language use as evidence of deep cultural beliefs, but in today’s information and media-saturated world it’s reasonable to assume that words trending in the metaverse have real analogues in—and even impacts on—cultural thinking.

So it seems natural that both gaslighting and oligarch were central to popular social consciousness in 2022, mainly due in the US to media-enacted antics of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the like. Musk’s particular Twitter tantrums managed to unite gaslighting and oligarchy in ways heretofore seen mainly in the behavior of Gaslighter-in-Chief and oligarchic mini-me Donald J. Trump. As economist Paul Krugman recently declared “we’re clearly living in the age of the petulant oligarch.”

That linkage of childishness and oligarchic behavior can provide some dark humor, with Musk’s blurring of the line between real world and mediated world suggesting that he finds the whole process amusing. In his recent fraud trial, Musk cheekily testified that, “Just because I tweet something does not mean people believe it or will act accordingly.” 

But viewing oligarchic gaslighting as mere childishness papers over the real economic devastation wrought by extreme wealth. The fading middle class and subsequently expanding working poor, underemployed, and poverty-stricken remind us that we should take oligarchic power seriously, particularly given its ubiquity and wide-ranging enactors.

As Merriam-Webster itself notes, it is not just Musk and Bezos who are trending.  It is also Vladimir Putin, who enables and has been enabled by Russian oligarchs. The war on Ukraine has turned gaslighting into very concrete and real devastation. But the insidious behavior of the oligarchy in the region had already been dramatized by the Ukrainian television series Servant of the People–a satire that offered not merely humor but also biting discussion of current social issues.

It is commonplace to focus on Servant as a near-perfect foretelling of Volodymyr Zelensky’s real-world rise to the Ukrainian presidency, an ironic prediction of his fictional character Goloborodko’s election to the post. Clearly life does imitate art; language and media truly do mirror reality.  But the focus on Zelensky overlooks the series’ emphasis on the destructiveness of extreme wealth and power.

Oligarchs appear early and often within Servant. At first we see them in fragments — the backs of heads, partial faces, devouring mouths, and disembodied hands manipulating the action from afar. As the series develops, they are gradually revealed as specific figures.  The ensuing—and sarcastic—semi-fictional portrayal of oligarchic power and its societal damage is both prescient and more than somewhat horrifying in light of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The tragic effects of that war offer immediate, material proof of the dangers of the unholy alliance of political demagoguery and extreme wealth, state-based gaslighting and oligarchic power.  And these dangers extend far beyond the war’s immediate victims, as economic strain and food shortages ripple outward to working and poor people world-wide.

Further, long-term damage to working classes and their interests is likely even after the war, particularly in regard to unionization.  Recent headlines — “Ukraine Corruption Scandal Stokes Longstanding Aid Concerns in U.S.” — read like an already familiar story-line from Servant’s second season.  In the fictional world, Zelensky/President Goloborodko battles oligarchs not only to end corruption, but also to satisfy investment-oriented interests such as the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.  In Servant, Ukraine gets to tell them and their economic planners “to go to hell.”

Shifting to the real world, Patricia Cohen notes that current discussions about rebuilding a post-war Ukraine are rooted in very similar neo-liberal economic attitudes. The same European Bank for Reconstruction and Development satirized in Servant has called for “Promoting privatisation and commercialisation in the public sector to increase competitiveness and good governance,” a stance that Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-prize winning Columbia University economist, finds “just gobsmacking.” Such strategies “brought inequality, environmental degradation, and insufficient housing and medical care in the United States and other countries,” yet they are being “promoted as a model for Ukraine.”  

Unfortunately, redevelopment narratives foregrounding privatization will find ready acceptance within neo-liberal, conservative, and even centrist circles in the West.  But as Stiglitz’s comment suggests, this approach to rebuilding will likely lead to oligarchic imbalances. Privatization often fosters not sound economies but failure of governmental control and related despotism, as we’ve seen in Russia and, as Krugman implies, in the U.S. as well.

None of this is good for workers and workers’ rights, in part because these approaches often translate to union busting. While unions do come under comedic attack in Zelensky’s Servant (most notably Episode 15, Season 1), they do so within the larger argument that corruption at the top inevitably bleeds down to the worker in the street because oligarchic wealth poisons society as a whole.

A more hopeful narrative line, and one that Servant suggests, concerns social activism and involvement, communal engagement and collective action — hallmarks not of privatization but of union and community organizing. With that storyline in mind, it would be nice if 2023 or any year’s word of the year were ‘activism.’

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.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, James V. Catano, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Upward Mobility: Improving Conditions, Not Just Opportunities

I’m old enough now to have grandnieces and nephews, and almost all of them have lower living standards and worse working conditions than their parents.  And their parents had it worse than their grandparents.  The one exception is Carrie, who recently graduated from college and works as a medical technologist, making one of the best salaries in three generations of our extended family.  She grew up in poverty, the child of a teenage mother who was a ward and prisoner of the welfare system for the first decade of her motherhood.  Carrie and her mother worked hard to climb out of poverty, and Carrie’s success is heartening in a family that has seen so little of it.

My extended family reflects patterns of upward mobility in the US today.  Only a handful of people born in the bottom half of the income hierarchy move up, but they are often seen as evidence of the continuing promise of the American Dream.  Most people born since 1980, however, are living diminished lives compared to their parents.

This situation shows why absolute upward mobility is more important than relative upward mobility. Understanding the difference makes clear why we should focus on the conditions of people’s lives, not just their opportunities to move up a social class ladder.

Relative upward mobility is when people born into a lower income quintile rise to a higher quintile.  It has stayed roughly the same for more than 50 years.  Most people born into the top two quintiles at any point since 1970 have stayed there as adults, while fewer than 1 of 10 born into the bottom quintile, like Carrie, make it to the top 20%.  This means we’re getting no closer to equal opportunity than we were a half century ago.

Absolute upward mobility measures whether people earn more than their parents did.  And it has been declining for more than 50 years.  Over 90% of children born in the 1940s, for example, earned more as adults than their parents did, regardless of whether they moved up any quintiles. As real wages and family incomes increased across the board, almost everybody lived better than their parents. But only about half of those born in 1980 have family incomes greater than their parents, and it’s even worse for those born since then. 

Carrie illustrates both kinds of upward mobility, but it is what her income provides, not the quintile it puts her in, that matters the most, for her and for our society. Absolute mobility measures changes for the population at large, not just where individuals land relative to where they begin.  Rather than referencing heartening individual stories of struggle and success, absolute mobility is a dry statistic that tries to capture the macro-level whole.  Is a rising tide lifting or sinking most boats?  As the graph below shows, most of us have been sinking for quite a while, and there is nothing heartening about that.

We know all this because of heroic research conducted by Raj Chetty and his colleagues.  Chetty runs Opportunity Insights at Harvard University, a research center that “uses big data to study the science of economic opportunity: how we can give children from all backgrounds better chances of succeeding?”  After decades of researching both relative and absolute mobility, Chetty has recently published two highly influential studies that collapse the distinction, but end up focusing exclusively on the micro level where individual success might be achieved rather than on the macro where broad conditions affect almost everybody.  This is a mistake. Instead of encouraging us to look for ways to improve conditions from the bottom up and across the board, it emphasizes the narrower goal of equal opportunity.

Increasing opportunity sounds great. It aims to help more people move up into that top 20% or 40%, but there are two problems with that.  First, because relative mobility is a fixed hierarchical system, moving some people up doesn’t increase the size of the higher categories.  When one person moves up, someone else has to move down.  Conditions do not change, only who occupies which places in the income hierarchy does.  More importantly, focusing only on improving opportunities for relative upward mobility doesn’t address stagnant incomes, much less the declining incomes that the lower quintiles in the US face today. The gap between the lower and higher income quintiles may well increase, so that most people’s lives get a little or a lot more difficult year by year even as a few make it into higher income quintiles.

It isn’t just that Chetty’s analysis focuses on only one kind of mobility. He also proposes “solutions” to income inequality that don’t address the real challenges facing most Americans. He calls for local changes that would expose more poor and working-class people to affluent middle-class professionals, from whose social capital they might benefit.  Chetty would increase “economic connectedness” and reduce “friending bias” by eliminating tracking at a high school in California, redoing the architecture of a high school in Texas, and purposely mixing social classes at a Boston weightlifting gym.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest 1% among us keep piling up mostly passive income such that in 2021 their total wealth was more than double all personal income earned by all US individuals.  Instead of debating what kind of wealth tax might buy which policies to improve the conditions of almost everybody, Chetty would have us focus on feel-good local efforts to increase interactions between people of different social classes.   

The big-data research Chetty and his colleagues have done is extraordinarily rich in local detail, mapping economic connectedness and friending bias at specific zip code, high school, and college levels.  It is designed to help people take immediate local action to improve individuals’ prospects for upward mobility.  But Chetty is an especially influential voice in discussions of income and wealth inequality, and his decisive shift to an equal opportunity framework (embodied in the name of his institute) threatens to erase attention to the historical trajectory of actual conditions – a discussion that he once helped initiate.

Equal opportunity is a worthy primary goal for groups that have and continue to face discrimination and exclusion – Blacks, women, and many others.  But it is NOT the right goal for addressing income and wealth inequality, which is not about having an opportunity to have a decent life, but about having that kind of life if you simply work hard and play by the rules.  When life is getting worse from generation to generation for more than half the population, we need to focus on actual conditions, not opportunities. That means big national policies that enhance the common good and substantially improve most people’s lives, not local efforts to “better [individual] chances of succeeding.”  What’s more, we are very unlikely to improve our opportunity structure until we make actual conditions of life more equal, beginning with income.

We are a very rich country with most of our wealth piled up at the very top.  To achieve upward mobility for most of us, not just a few of us, we’re going to have to move some money around – to take relatively small amounts from the tax-advantaged rich and redistribute what will be large amounts of money to the rest of us, starting with those bottom quintiles.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a retired adult educator at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A founder and past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is author of Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered and, more recently, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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Fair Time Legislation Is Achievable, Not Just for Rail Workers But for Everyone

Even as President Biden signed legislation imposing a contract without paid sick leave on 115,000 rail workers, he made it clear that the fight for paid leave — not just for rail workers but for everyone — wasn’t over. As he often reminds us, America is one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t have paid leave for its workers. 

But the problem goes beyond sick leave, as the rail strike last year made clear: Americans face an epidemic of long-hour, family-hostile jobs. We are overworked and over-controlled.  Workers lack such basic economic freedoms as the right to say no to overtime and the right to time off to care for themselves and those they love.  We need fair time legislation that restores these rights to all Americans.  

Achieving such a breakthrough is not an impossible dream.  But it can only happen if we build a fair time movement that links the long fight of the women’s movement to value family work with the labor movement’s equally long fight for shorter hours and more control over work time.    

I come from three generations of railroaders who risked their lives making sure goods and people got where they needed to go.  And they were proud of it. My dad started railroading in the 1930s, sorting letters in the train’s special mail car as it whizzed between small towns in Georgia.  Then he “fired” on the steam locomotive, often shoveling fuel into the coal box next to his engineer father. Finally, he moved into the driver’s seat himself. He loved his job, and he made enough money to buy a small house in downtown Atlanta.

But he also had plenty of control over when and how much he worked, thanks to something he called the “extra board,” a system of work distribution negotiated between the unions and the railroad companies. On the extra board, he could remove his name (or plug) from the board when he didn’t want to be called for a job and return it when he did. For him, it was glorious. He read as much as he wanted, studied for the bar exam and passed, and kept active in his union, his church, and his Masonic Lodge. And, of course, he could spend time with me.  When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was often my Dad who greeted me after school.  I knew he’d be there, not my grandmother, because he blew the train whistle three times as he drove past Peachtree Station near my Atlanta elementary school. 

How different is the world of the railroader now. The money may still be “good” (though it’s nothing like what the billionaire rail CEOs rake in). But what difference does it make if your job treats you as less than human, as someone whose health and life apart from work has no value? 

The situation of railroaders today is unsustainable.  The industry’s current lean-and-mean business model generates record profits for the few, but it is creating record heartache for the many.

A diminished workforce is now chained to 60-hour weeks and routinely penalized for taking time off for family or medical emergencies. This system endangers the safety and health of the exhausted men and women charged with keeping our rail deliveries moving. It disrupts family life, thwarts civic participation, and makes a mockery of our commitment to democracy and shared decision-making.  

Sadly, while the railroad industry may be the current poster boy for the corporate strategy of job degradation, it is only one of many. Americans now spend more annual hours in paid work than in almost any other industrialized nation, including Japan, famous for its culture of overwork.  And with the rise of just-in-time scheduling and the continuing shift of decision-making upward, worker control over time has plummeted.

We can fix this. We have a long history of fair time movements in the US to build on.

Ending long hours was the top demand of American workers in the nineteenth century. As the labor movement argued then, shorter hours increased productivity, encouraged technological investment, and reduced worker illness and job injury. Limiting the supply of work time increased its value, and employers could afford to pay workers more.  Shorter hours also meant a fairer distribution of work.  It tackled the problem of too much work as well as too little. As AFL president Sam Gompers put it in 1887, “So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.”

The political and social case for shorter hours was just as important as the economic. Without time for education, reflection, and civic engagement, American workers could not participate fully in the American experiment in representative democracy.  Shorter hours, the labor movement argued, would enable workers to be better citizens, better family members, and better people. 

This first great movement for shorter hours brought us the 8-hour day. In 1916, faced with the threat of a national walkout of 400,000 rail unionists, President

Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for legislation instituting the 8-hour day on the railroads. Soon after, he signed the Adamson Act, the first 8-hour federal law for nongovernmental employees.  Although ten, and even twelve, hours a day remained the norm in many unorganized workplaces into the 1930s, the 8-hour standard spread as unions gained power.   

The right to a voice in workplace governance, including setting fair work schedules and gaining time off, were at the heart of labor’s revival in the 1930s and 1940s. With close to a third of the nonagricultural workforce organized by the 1950s, unions wrested paid vacations, holidays, sick leave, and pensions from America’s major employers. In addition to shorter workweeks, they won a shorter work year and a shorter work life. Unions also institutionalized job-sharing, job registries, union hiring halls, and other mechanisms to distribute work more fairly and give workers more say over when and how much they worked.

Reform-minded women from all classes led the second great time movement. These activists, a group I call “full rights feminists,” fought for the right to family time as well as the right to a good job. That meant, among other things, jobs that paid enough to support a family, more control over where and when they worked, and state support for household and care labor. By the 1920s, they won laws in the majority of states that regulated the hours of women and children and granted state aid to single mothers. In 1938, against great odds, they pushed through the Fair Labor Standards Act, the first federal law setting wage floors and hour ceilings for men, women, and children. In 1963, John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, an initiative championed by a new generation of full rights feminists, called for federal action to establish paid maternity leave, limits on involuntary overtime, better part-time jobs, affordable child care, and state compensation for unpaid caregiving.

Today, the struggle for fair time is gaining ground.  As workers organize, they are insisting on their right to participate in deciding the rules under which they work. They are rejecting rigid, inflexible scheduling and demanding an end to the mal-distribution of work, with forced overtime for some and too few hours for others. They increasingly have the support of the public too, with Gallup reporting a whopping 71% of Americans sympathetic to unions.  Paid family and medical leave laws now exist in eleven states, and even more states offer paid sick leave. Campaigns for “fair workweek” and “fair scheduling” laws have cropped up around the country and show no sign of waning. The time movements of the past were right: fair time regimes are essential if individuals, families, and democratic societies are to flourish.  

It’s crucial to strengthen these efforts. We need an inclusive, transformative time movement – one that is powerful and far-seeing enough to insist that Congress pass not just sick leave but fair time legislation for all workers.  But we’re only going to get it when we come together as one movement.

Dorothy Sue Cobble

Dorothy Sue Cobble is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Labor Studies and History at Rutgers University. Her most recent book is For the Many: American Feminists and theGlobal Fight for Democratic Equality (Princeton, 2021).

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Loved and Lost: Working-Class People We Lost in 2022

While it might seem rather maudlin to start a new year by writing about death, the loss of favourite musicians, actors, and athletes reminds us of the pleasure they’ve given us. Some losses are especially important for working-class people, for whom entertainment is not just a source of pleasure but also of inspiration. While many notable celebrities died in 2022, a few stand out.

Football fans recently enjoyed the World Cup, a tournament that finished with a wonderful final, full of tension and glorious play. But the tournament was also mired in controversy due to its location in Qatar. Due to the extreme heat in Qatar, it had to be played in November rather than during the usual middle of the year, disrupting northern hemisphere local leagues. There were also concerns about the human rights record of Qatar and whether LGBTQI+ fans would be safe there. The event also highlighted the terrible treatment of the mostly immigrant workers employed to construct the stadiums, often in unsafe and exploitative conditions. None of this stopped the tournament, despite calls from some activists to boycott the Cup. Football fans from around the world cheered on their teams and joined in with the highs and lows of wins and defeats.

If this seems like a lack of solidarity with the ill-treated workers, it ignores the incredible power of football in working-class communities. The game is very important to many working-class people, and players can take on legendary status. This is definitely the case with Brazilian player Pelé who delighted world fans with his incredible play in the 1960s and 1970s. Pelé’s death was not only mourned in Brazil, but across the world. Football is a truly global game and often played in some of the most impoverished communities (yes, it does also attract huge amounts of money in the professional leagues which is a tension understood well by fans). Like many star footballers, Pelé grew up poor, but he didn’t forget his origins and spent much of his post-football career involved in charity and advocacy work. During his career, he was also held up as an example of Black success – an important status particularly at a time when Afro-Brazilians were fighting for racial justice. Obituaries of Pelé suggest that he remained humble and unassuming and was not tainted by his fame. Pelé may have played football a long time ago, but he continues to inspire and influence young players and fans.

Popular music has fans of all classes, but some acts have been associated with working-class fans. the UK ska band The Specials is one such band. The death of lead singer Terry Hall touched many working-class Brits. Hall grew up in the working-class town of Coventry in the west midlands of England and joined the band in the late 1970s.The Specials’ career took off in the 1980s and their music spoke to many working-class kids in the UK. One of their hit songs, ‘Ghost Town’, released in 1981, summed up perfectly the mood in Thatcher’s Britain with its references to youth being ignored by the government, the decline in places for young people to let off steam, and unemployment as well as its sinister musical tone. Hall’s dour expression when performing fit the mood of the time perfectly. As the song was released, riots were breaking out across the country as young people vented their frustration at the many injustices they faced. Many of the band’s other songs were aimed at young working-class people, those who spent all their money on booze or have kids too young, or young men heading towards a life of crime. The multi-racial band spoke to Black and white kids alike. ‘Ghost Town’ takes me back immediately to the early 1980s in Britain and the grim reality of working-class life for many under an uncaring Tory government. It still gives me shivers.

We lost other notable entertainers, as well, including American country star Loretta Lynn, the daughter of a coal miner who advocated for working-class people. Her politics may have been  a mixed bag – she was a Trump supporter – but her music was loved by millions of working-class fans.

Sidney Poitier also died last year. He came from humble beginnings and had to fight to gain a place in the theatre and movie industries. The characters he played often wrestled with issues around class and race, and most of his films are now considered exemplary cinema exploring social issues of the times they were made.

In Australia, the much-loved Aboriginal singer songwriter Archie Roach died. Roach was of the Stolen Generations who were taken from their Aboriginal families at a young age and sent to live in white institutions or fostered by white families. Roach battled with addiction and homelessness, and his songs tell the stories of hardship, struggle, and survival. These are just a few of the many I could mention – too many, unfortunately.

I’ve left some out intentionally, like Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve written about the royals before, and I generally have little time for them. To me they represent the great inequalities that exist in the UK. But I know that many British working-class people were sad about her passing, and I don’t wish to disparage their genuine feelings of grief. But those I have mentioned have had more on an impact on the everyday lives of working-class people than the Queen or the royal family in general.

My intention isn’t to focus on mourning. The deaths of these working-class icons remind us of the importance of music, film, and sport in the lives of working-class people. We enjoy listening to and watching people we can relate to in some way, whether through the lyrics they sang, a character they played, or their skill on the pitch. We appreciate them even more when we know that we share a working-class background. They speak for us, but they also remind us of how talented working-class people are — and how powerful they can be when given the opportunity.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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Not My President: The Rise of the Working Class and Decline of the Heroic CEO

In late November, Bob Iger returned to the post of chief executive officer of Disney. He had retired in 2020 after 15 years as the media megacorporation’s CEO,  where he was hailed for the company’s acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. In the year before his retirement, Iger’s annual salary was $65.6 million, and he had an estimated net worth of $690 million.

But after the Disney board ousted his hand-picked successor last month, Iger – now 71 — was suddenly back in the job. At a Disney town hall meeting a few days later, CNBC reported that “Iger joked his wife, Willow Bay, told him he should run Disney again so that he wouldn’t run for U.S. president — something Iger has thought about in the past.” In a 2022 interview, Iger explained why he had considered a presidential run:  

I had this notion that every kid in America should grow up believing that they could be me, meaning that they could follow their dreams and achieve them, that they could start off with nothing and become something . . . and that America would provide them with opportunity, whether they were Black or white, rich or poor, suburban, urban, rural, you name it. That’s what I would have wanted for America.

Reports didn’t say how Iger’s joke was received at the Disney meeting, but the funniest thing about his story is Iger’s own overestimation of his political appeal. It’s very likely that working-class America doesn’t want him — or any other CEOs — as presidential candidates.

In the past 30 years, emerging from rising neoliberal pro-business, anti-government, and anti-worker ideologies, CEOs experienced soaring compensation and developed an equally soaring estimation of their value to society. For such big egos, a step up to the White House seemed possible, despite their complete lack of experience in public service.

Years before Iger considered plans for a presidential run, Texas businessman Ross Perot was the first of the generation to do it. As the Associated Press reported in 1992, “Perot said neither Bush nor Clinton had the boardroom experience to run the country like a business.” While he didn’t specify what that might mean, Perot ran the most successful third-party candidacies in modern times in 1992 and 1996. But he still lost. Nevertheless, since that time, many other business millionaires – both Republicans and Democrats – have campaigned on the same undefined notion. Steve Forbes tried it (1996 and 2000), and he was followed more recently by Herman Cain (2012), Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (2016), and Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang (2020). Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz considered an independent candidacy in 2020.

Of course, I’m leaving out Donald Trump, the one business executive who ran for the presidency and actually won (2016), then lost (2020), and now is the first declared candidate for 2024.

Yet when People magazine profiled the 26 leading contenders for the White House in 2024, it didn’t include a single corporate leader. What happened?

The short answer is Trump, who has finally shown us what it means to run the government just like his business—which, incidentally, was convicted of all 17 charges of tax fraud and related felonies on Dec. 6. The Manhattan DA concluded that Trump’s business was a criminal enterprise: “We got to see the inner workings of the Trump organization: the greed, the lies, the cheating.”

The longer answer is heightened working-class consciousness. As other Working-Class Perspectives contributors have noted, we are in a momentous time for the U.S. labor movement. Public support for unions is higher than it has been in almost 50 years, labor strikes are at a 30-year peak, and workers are organizing new workplaces and industries. All this despite legal constraints and well-funded corporate anti-union campaigns.

This worker reappraisal and uprising has shaken people to their senses about corporate leaders.

The long-standing media myth depicts the “heroic CEO and entrepreneur,” savvy self-made  men (and less often women) who work smarter and harder than the rest of us.

But that myth has faded in recent years. But we have witnessed Howard Schultz, Jeff Bezos, and other CEOs spending millions of dollars to ensure that their low-paid workers will remain that way and keep them from organizing unions. We now know the utter emptiness of Starbucks’ corporate mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” and that Amazon is definitely not “Earth’s best employer, and Earth’s safest place to work.”

Many people are sick of their bosses. A 2022 Pew Research Survey indicated that “low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected” were the three top reasons people quit their jobs in 2021.

Those sound like the concerns raised by many Disney employees. Disney’s Iger has been praised by the corporate class (the New York Times fawned over him as “Hollywood’s nicest C.E.O.”),  but he doesn’t come off so well in a survey of workers. A 2018 study by the Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and the Economic Roundtable Report titled “Working for the Mouse: A Survey of Disneyland Resort Employees” found that “more than 85% of union workers at Disneyland earn less than $15 an hour.” That may explain why so many indicated that they were struggling with homelessness and food insecurity. Workers also complained of “ever-shifting work schedules, extra-long commutes, and low wages.” One single mother who worked at the park full-time said “financially, I’ve seen several people lose homes, live in their cars, fail relationships and the list goes on, due to the lack of monies earned at the greatest place on Earth.”

A 2022 study by the Harvard Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS) and the Edelman Trust Institute confirms a general lack of faith in business and CEOs. The survey suggests that people in the U.S. and 13 other countries believe that companies are failing nearly everyone – employees, customers, future generations, and their communities – except owners and shareholders. They would like business to play a greater role in the reduction of problems like wage inequality, climate change, prejudice, racism, and job loss due to automation.

The gloss has worn off the CEO. People would like businesses to do better, but they don’t trust that they will – and that is especially true for low and middle-income workers, who recognize how they are harmed by corporate practices. It’s no wonder people don’t want their country run like a business.

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

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Accompanying Staughton

Since his death last month, Staughton Lynd has been lionized in the national media as an icon of radicalism. Labor historians, leftist scholars, and long-time comrades have recalled his anti-war efforts, his writing about worker activism and radical history, and his direct involvement in multiple fights for justice. While the stories of these remembrances reflect many of Staughton’s accomplishments, I don’t think he would appreciate being singled out as a progressive hero any more than Archbishop Oscar Romero would have liked knowing that he had become a saint. For both men, the heart of their commitment was, more than anything else, belief in accompaniment.

Accompaniment has roots in the Catholic Liberation Theology that guided the work of Romero and other Central American priests and activists. It equally guided Lynd. In his 2012 book, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, Lynd quotes Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, explaining the core idea: “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while.” Accompaniment involves being as patient and present as those sitting quietly together in a Quaker meeting house, but, as Lynd makes clear, it is also a tool of activism and a stance of solidarity, standing with someone in a battle that is not your own, helping them to keep fighting. 

I had many opportunities to see how Staughton accompanied others. We first met in 1980, when I became coordinator of the Labor Studies program at Youngstown State University and moved my family to a city that was reeling from major steel mill shutdowns. Staughton and I knew of each other’s involvement in anti-war activism, he for leading protests and a trip to North Vietnam that ended his academic career, me for my first wife’s court battle when she was fired from her teaching job for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. When we moved to Youngstown, Staughton and Alice, his wife, were the first people to invite us to dinner, and we began a decades-long conversation about social movements, labor unions, and community organizing.

I first witnessed him accompanying those fighting for justice when I served on the board of Northeast Ohio Legal Services, where he worked as a lawyer. The Legal Services Board provided Staughton a measure of cover in representing steelworkers fighting against shutdowns – at least until the Reagan Administration clamped down on legal services agencies for operating outside the mission of providing civil legal assistance to low income persons. But Reagan policies wouldn’t stop Staughton from standing alongside the workers. Together with steelworkers like Ed Mann, I saw the power of accompanying as we crisscrossed the Midwest to tell the Youngstown story — to Shout Youngstown, as another local steelworker, Ed Barbero, put it. We urged workers, unions, and communities to organize for the next phase of industrial and economic restructuring.

Organized labor didn’t always support these efforts, so Staughton and others formed the Workers Solidarity Club (WSC), a group of committed Youngstown unionists and others who wanted to stand with them. Our purpose was simple: accompany individuals and small groups of unionists as they fought for labor rights. Many of those battles were with corporations, but sometimes workers had to fight their own unions over failures to protect their rights through the grievance procedure. Workers also pushed back when union wage standards where threatened by appeals to worker ownership and cooperatives.

These efforts often involved unannounced picketing in support of workers, which put us in conflict with labor and political leaders who preferred a less confrontational approach. But in a way, we were also supporting them, as many would tell me later. We had provided “breathing room” to negotiate improvement in working conditions and worker treatment.  A decade later, some steelworker staffers apologized for not joining the fights when the union was still strong.

Lynd’s writing, much of it with Alice, was also a form of accompaniment, because, like the efforts of the WSC, it kept workers at the center. Labor historians didn’t always appreciate Lynd’s focus on the rank and file and worker activism. While his book, The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, together with Howard Zinn’s Peoples History of the United States, both published in 1980, laid a foundation for progressive thinkers, by the 1990s, some argued that Lynd’s methodology and conclusions were too influenced by his own activism. For others, the close link between analysis and activism was the greatest strength of Lynd’s work.

In addition to labor issues, Staughton and Alice also became involved in prison reform. They interviewed prisoners who had taken control of the Lucasville prison to protest their living conditions and treatment. By the end of an 11-day siege in 1993, one guard and eleven prisoners were dead, but officials had agreed to the protestors’ demands, including a promise of fair treatment in any subsequent administrative or criminal proceedings.  The state didn’t follow through on that commitment, and Lynd met with the five men identified as the leaders of the uprising, a story he chronicled in Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. Staughton also stood with prison workers, though. A few years later, he and the SWC helped to organize corrections officers at a new facility in Youngstown, creating the first private prison union in America.

Staughton was a complicated man, committed to dialogue but also at times dogmatic about his approach to social change and labor history. For example, he questioned the value of my work in building an academic field focused on studying working-class life, culture, history, and politics. He thought we should focus more on worker justice and activism, not education and culture. Yet he accompanied me and my academic colleagues, attending and sometimes helping us plan events at Working-Class Studies Conferences. Every now and then, he would stop by the Center for Working-Class Studies just to check in what we were doing. Eventually, he acknowledged that our approach had some value. At the last Working-Class Studies conference that he attended, he used the film The Green Mile as part of a talk about prison reform. In middle of the presentation, he stopped and turned to me and said, “See John, you can teach an old dog new tricks.” This reflects the essence of accompaniment: to listen, talk with, respect, and support others.

Staughton Lynd’s work deserves all the appreciation its various eulogists have offered in recent weeks. He inspired, taught, and encouraged many scholars and activists over the years. But in addition to the lessons we take from him about the nature of radicalism, the power of solidarity unionism, or the injustice of the prison system, we should also hold on to Staughton’s model of accompaniment. We should honor his memory by regularly asking ourselves the question that begins meetings of the Workers Solidarity Club:  Who am I accompanying?

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

This piece will also appear in the January issue of Social Policy: Organizing for Social and Economic Justice.

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A Working-Class Christmas Story Christmas

If you have an extra 10 million dollars lying around, little Ralphie Parker’s house from A Christmas Story (1983), is for sale. The iconic mustard colored house, located on the outskirts of Cleveland, is currently owned by Brian Jones, a superfan of the film. Over the last twenty years, Jones has turned the fictional Parker homestead into a museum, hotel, and gift shop complex devoted to A Christmas Story. It’s a highly rated attraction that draws more than one million tourists per year!

Jones may have timed the sale of the house to coincide with A Christmas Story Christmas (2022), a sequel to the original film, which debuted on HBO Max in November. The sequel was co-written by Peter Billingsley, the actor who played Ralphie in the original. To save money, the film was made in Bulgaria! Now 51, Billingsley plays a grown-up Ralph who is trying to publish his first sci-fi novel, mourn the death of his father, comfort his mother, and give his wife and kids a decent Christmas. After the “old man” dies, Ralph brings his family to Hohman, Indiana, where he grew up, about an hour south of Chicago, circa 1973.

A Christmas Story Christmas has me thinking about some of the rules of the American Christmas Movie, and, especially, what kinds of stories we tell ourselves at Christmas about love, money, capitalism, and class.

Rule #1: American Christmas movies are big business based largely on repeats, spin-offs, and merchandise. A Christmas Story, according to Vanity Fair, started as a “low budget fluke.” It cost a paltry 3.3 million in 1983 and made nearly 20 million at the box office, but it was quickly forgotten. It became a sleeper hit when, in the 1990s, TNT and then TBS started running it as a Christmas Eve marathon. Today the Christmas Story universe is holiday gold for everyone who has a piece of the action. A stage production currently running in Pittsburgh is sold out. You can buy a full sized leg lamp, leg lamp Halloween costumes, leg lamp cookie cutters, and a statue of Flick with his tongue stuck on a pole. There is even merchandise related to this year’s sequel—a Blatz beer Christmas star. Fan love, and fan labor, are crucial to the meta-popularity of A Christmas Story, which you can see on this incredible Facebook page started by A Christmas Story actors.

Rule #2: In Christmas movies, we were all once working class – and we are still struggling financially. Set in 1940, A Christmas Story lovingly imagines a time when the typical American family had an icebox instead of a refrigerator, a monotonous nightly meal of red cabbage and meatloaf, a furnace that never worked properly, a car that frequently broke down, and a kitchen in which the family took most of its meals. In the sequel, we’re in the 1970s, and everyone is just barely getting by. Ralph’s boyhood friend Flick owns the Hohman town bar, and it’s full of working stiffs hiding from their families. His pal Schwartz is so hopelessly in debt to Flick that he must risk his life on a dangerous sledding dare in order to pay it off. Ralph’s broke status is self-imposed; he’s quit his job for a year to try to make it as a novelist. He has to break into Flick’s bar to get the Blatz Beer star for the top of his family’s Christmas tree, and his car is such a jalopy that the trunk won’t close and someone steals all the family’s Christmas presents.

While Christmas movies often begin with the struggles of being working class, they often end by reminding us that love matters more than stuff. In the original A Christmas Story, when Ralphie finally gets the Red Ryder BB gun, he nearly shoots his eye out — as everyone told him he would. The film ends with Ralph’s mom and dad enjoying a tender moment, happy even after the Bumpus hounds ruined Christmas dinner and Ralphie broke his glasses—a difficult item to replace for a family like theirs in 1940. As they watch the snow fall, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” plays in the background.

A Christmas Story and its sequel are mostly not sentimental—Santa and the elves are jerks, Ralphie and his dad are cursing fools, little brother Randy is weird and gross, and Ralph’s mom doesn’t stand up for herself in her marriage. But in this moment, we believe in this couple and in this family.  All seems right with the world.

Rule #3: The American Christmas Movie rejects consumerism. The wealthiest characters in these filmsusually have the least access to love and happiness. In Elf, when Walter Hobbs has to meet with his boss on Christmas Eve, he realizes that the true meaning of Christmas is embodied by his son, Buddy, a bizarro Christ figure if ever there was one. For working-class characters, Christmas movies insist that focusing too much on presents is a problem – as we see Ralphie and his family don’t have a lot of stuff, and as a result, they have more love.

But love and stuff also come together in Christmas movies. In A Christmas Story Christmas, after the presents are stolen, Ralph’s old man saves the day from beyond the grave: before he died, he had purchased and wrapped Christmas presents for everyone and hidden them in the basement. As that plot line suggests, Christmas is “really” about love, but gifts can be a manifestation of love and connection.

For one season, for one, silent night, American capitalism lies to us about what it values. Sandwiched between ads on television or for sale on the latest streaming platform, the American Christmas Movie promises us that love matters more than money, that cruel bosses are bad but also lonely, that family togetherness is more important than the perfect dinner — and that BB guns cause actual harm. The Christmas Movie business might exploit our desire to believe all this, but we do – and we should.

As a radical activist who also loves Christmas, this can be a confusing time of year. I don’t love economic exploitation, but I do love Christmas. I love Christmas movies, too. They work to sell me stuff and ideology, but they also critique commercialism and exploitation. See what subversive messages you can find in a holiday classic. I triple dog dare you!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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