Labour and the Working Class in the UK

After decades of consistently supporting the Labour Party, voters in Hartlepool recently elected their first Tory MP, in a byelection caused by the previous MP standing down as a result of a scandal. Hartlepool sits on the North-east coast of England in what used to be known as Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ of constituencies straddling the industrial belt of northern England. Hartlepool has been solidly Labour since 1964. This is the first time since the 1970s that the incumbent party in Westminster has taken a seat from the main opposition party at a national parliamentary byelection. To add insult to injury, Hartlepool saw a devastating 16% swing to the Tories. This wasn’t Labour’s only loss in a raft of local council, mayoral, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales.

These elections tell us something important about working-class attachment — or more accurately detachment from left of centre politics. Some in the Labour Party under its new leader Keir Starmer blame the loss on the legacy of previous leader Jeremy Corbyn. But this Hartlepool moment has been a long time coming, and its causes are sedimented over generations of shifts and changes in place and people, work, and industry. Perhaps the most serious issue for Labour is the very fact that they have held power in places like Hartlepool for so long, places where people used to joke about weighing votes rather than counting them.  This led to complacency in a range of communities across Northern England.  Local politicians didn’t have to try, because the London-based leadership took for granted that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. 

They were wrong. Brexit represented a generational change as almost unconscious tribal loyalties were suddenly challenged and perhaps lost for good. This change itself reflected three decades or more of industrial loss that shifted workers away from collectivised employment to newer forms of precarious employment, or to unemployment. That didn’t lead to immediate political shifts. Places like Hartlepool helped Tony Blair win a landslide election in 1997 and keep Labour in power for the next thirteen years.  The irony was that Hartlepool’s Labour MP at the time was Peter Mandelson, chief architect of New Labour (the Blairite rebranding of the Party in the mid-1990s which accepted many of the policies of Thatcherism). Rather than using its power to address economic changes in Britain, New Labour seemed to be embarrassed by its old traditional base, looking upon it like an ageing relative in the attic. The party was content to count on working-class votes but reluctant to invest in the training and jobs that would improve working-class lives. When austerity hit in 2008, the marginal improvements felt since 1997 were quickly reversed. Things didn’t get better.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson have positioned themselves as the party of the working-class.  Again, this has a long history as reflected in more than a decade of debates about ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Tory’, debates that Labour has not seriously addressed. In the 2019 election, the Conservatives were surprised at the scale of their victory in previously strong Labour constituencies dominated by working-class voters.  This has encouraged them to announce headline-catching investments in some of these seats, a move that simultaneously shores up that working-class base and sends a powerful message that if nearby Labour seats follow suit and join the Tory fold, they will also gain new resources. This type of ‘pork barrelling’ has generally not been an important feature of UK politics, but it appears to be on the rise. The government’s Future Towns Fund is a good example. Aimed at levelling up deprived constituencies generally, most of beneficiaries have been communities in Conservative held seats. 

What does this mean for the Labour Party and their relationship with the working-class now? In Scotland, progressive politics has for sometime now been dominated by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP has effectively positioned itself as the progressive left-of-centre force north of the border, and those progressive voters increasingly see separation from the rest of the UK and the dominance of Conservative England as the logical next move. In his new book Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, historian Ewan Gibbs shows how the profound deindustrialisation enacted on the Scots by a remote Westminster government after World War II opened up a new progressive front rooted in independence. The simple logic is that progressive policies will only come about through independence.

The other threat to Labour now is likely to come from the Green Party, and this is where class politics may get interesting. Labour has been far too slow in seeing the advantage in aligning itself with environmental issues.  In the past, it was too willing to down play green industry while placating the highly polluting industrial sectors that employed its trade union base. A deeper, more serious reflection would have recognized a progressive, orderly transition to a green economy as a winning opportunity. Such a transition could have created many more good jobs in high tech industry with great training opportunities for Labour’s core working-class base. It is not too late for Labour to make this shift, but it needs to be genuine and profound move rather than a cynical rebadging.

Finally, the Labour party needs to win back working-class voters by being less timid.  The charge from the Conservatives is that Labour is out of touch, southern centric, and more concern with ‘woke politics’ than the politics of work. The Labour party’s base is now wrongly portrayed by critics as metropolitan graduates and professionals.  Somehow this caricature has positioned the party as anti-aspirational for its older working-class voters. The charge is that Labour now holds people back and looks after people on benefits. To regain power, Labour must stand for and invest in working-class aspiration for better jobs, housing, environment, and education. 

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Amazon and the Southern Key

Though expected, the union defeat at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center was a gut punch to the labor movement not only in the United States, but globally.  Amazon workers in other countries had expressed solidarity with Bessemer through direct action, including strikes in Italy and walkouts in France. Hopes were high, even as the ground defeat seemed inevitable. Winning this vote would have been a miracle, and miracles don’t happen in union organizing. 

 Organizers may disagree on some of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) choices. Should they have filed for the election with a bare showing of interest in an expanding unit? Built a stronger in-plant committee? Done home visits beginning last summer? Tried to block or postpone the election as defeat seemed eminent? But there should be no disagreement that entering an election campaign during the pandemic, against the country’s second largest employer, the world’s richest man, and a company that had become essential was a huge mountain to climb.  That’s not second-guessing.  Those are clear, first-order issues.

It’s almost becoming passe to complain about the disadvantages that are baked into the current legal environment for a union certification election under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Although nothing is new about that decades’ long complaint, and certainly RWDSU knew that when they signed the petition, the situation is now arguably worse than ever.  The NLRB itself, designed to be bipartisan, is short several appointees and fully partisan coming out of the Trump administration. 

Recent NLRB decisions and rule-making create new obstacles for unionizing. One rule would have made it harder for RWDSU to avoid an election and try — in a flight of fantasy – to win voluntary recognition. The NLRB ruled a year ago that “Unions that are voluntarily recognized are no longer immune from challenges regarding their majority support for a ‘reasonable period of time.’” Instead, when an employer agrees to voluntarily recognize a union, it must notify employees, who can then challenge this recognition by petitioning the NLRB. Another rule made it harder to block counting votes by filing an unfair labor practice. Now “elections will go forward and votes will either be counted or impounded, depending on the nature of the charge.” Nothing pretty in any of that. A new Board could rewrite these rules, but that will take years.

Bessemer, Alabama would have been a good place to take Amazon’s measure, but it would have needed a different strategy and tactics based on a deeper, longer term commitment to building organization there with a different model.  The history of unionization in this area is rich and powerful.  The unionized steel industry was central in the nearby Birmingham area that used to call itself the “Pittsburgh of the South.” 

When I think about the paths the Amazon union drive didn’t take and the opportunities it missed, I’m struck by how similar the current dilemma in to what was happening almost one-hundred years ago.  In The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, labor scholar Michael Goldfield reexamines the shortcomings of the CIO’s Operation Dixie – the massive organizing drive begun in 1945.  He blames the drive’s failure on the targeting of textiles, then the largest manufacturing sector in the South. He also faults the top-down strategy of appealing to employers rather than workers, relying on the NLRB and the government mechanisms to win. He argues that instead of dividing workers around race and politics, the campaign should have embraced collectivity and able, experienced organizers rather than their affiliations. 

Clearly, this is not an exact match with our current predicament, but it does resonate in some ways.  Goldfield cites numerous organizing successesin the South at the time of Operation Dixie, including isolated victories in the textile industry, which were obscured by strategic and tactical ineptness, and the hopes of cajoling giant employers into agreement. Goldfield argues that had woodworkers, huge at the time, been targeted and organized more successfully, and if biracial success had been exploited more shrewdly, the South could have been organized. 

As with Operation Dixie, Bessemer and Amazon are likely to dissuade Southern organizing when the story should instead offer lessons about how to succeed with different targets and tactics – ones that have led to plenty of successes.  Other industries — home health and day care workers, school workers, and other service worker sectors and private-public subcontractors — have seen successful organizing drives in the past and in the South.  Building unions that underscore racial justice and unity, rather than separatist appeals is also as smart – and effective – now as it was in the era Goldfield studied.

Where these arguments sting most is the reliance on the NLRB and the government. Whether going after the country’s largest employers like Walmart and Amazon, or targeting smaller ones where the field is more level, we are not going to win until we employ a worker-centered and worker-driven strategy. The NLRB’s legalese skews toward employers, and creating public pressure rather than worker heat to bring companies to the table relies too much on the media maze.

To turn union decline around, we need to pick targets where we have leverage or advantage.  If we’re going to go after the big dogs, we have to be prepared to work for years, not months, and focus on a majority strategy that builds power in the workplace, not a campaign strategy that priorities an election.  We need to reduce the emphasis on collective bargaining, and increase the focus on collective action and community issues to build the union as an independent and sustainable force, but intersecting with the employer.

Goldfield argues that if we want to change the situation for workers in America and in America everywhere, the key is organizing the South.  I agree. But if we want to win anywhere, we have to do things differently than we have been doing.  Amazon just taught us all that lesson again in Alabama, but we knew it already. We just have to decide to finally act on what we keep learning, over and over again, the hard way.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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English Football and Working-Class Culture

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 23rd, 1933, Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) played Liverpool in a match at Tottenham’s home ground, White Hart Lane, in North London. About a mile away, at the same time, my grandmother went into labour with my mother. Spurs lost the match 0-3, but whenever my mother talked about the event of her birth, she always included this note about the football match. The proximity of her family home to the Spurs stadium meant she grew up surrounded by football culture, and she never lost her love for the team (although she reserved her strongest admiration for 60s and 70s Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings). She passed this loyalty on to me, and I have always been a Spurs fan. Despite living in Australia now for two decades, I still follow the team’s triumphs and disappointments, and watch the matches on catch-up TV. Occasionally, matches are played at a time when I can catch them live, and that’s always exciting.

Football has long been a staple part of working-class culture in the UK. When I was growing up, groups of kids were always playing football on the concrete play areas on our public housing estate. Informal games also happened in the school playground before and after school and at lunchtimes. There always seemed to be someone in a group who had a ball. In the 70s and 80s, they were generally boys’ games, though. Girls were usually spectators, but we were still football fans. In those days, some of the Spurs players lived locally, and it was always a thrill to spot them. I cut out large ‘THFC’ (Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) letters and stuck them to my bedroom window. When Spurs won the 1981 FA Cup we were ecstatic.

But football has changed a lot since my childhood. It has become a lucrative industry with top teams making huge sums of money from broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals. Players in the English Premier League now earn millions of pounds each year, and owners of the top English clubs are often billionaires or wealthy corporations. Despite the wealth generated by the top clubs, being a fan is expensive. Tickets to Premier League games for Spurs matches cost around £60 ($80), and securing a ticket usually requires a membership fee (very few tickets go on general sale), which increases the cost further. Following the club to venues for away matches requires resources for travel and accommodation. Rail fares are very high, and petrol prices are twice that of the US. Long-distance bus routes can be reasonably priced, but the journeys take much longer. On my last trip back to the UK early in 2020, I was desperate to see the new Spurs stadium. I had heard that it was beautiful and full of state-of-the-art features. I couldn’t get a match ticket, so I took a guided stadium tour. That cost £36 ($50 USD) and included a behind the scenes look at the players’ dressing rooms and a chance to stand at the edge of the pitch.

Sarah at the Spurs pitch

The new stadium is very impressive. I was in awe at the scale and the design. The guide told the group about the many high-tech features such as the retractable pitch. We sat in seats that our favourite players usually occupied, and we saw their shirts hanging in the dressing rooms. But we were also reminded constantly about how much it cost. Construction cost close to a billion pounds, and maintaining the stadium will be expensive. We visited an exclusive dining area where the rich pay premiums to be close to the pitch and watch the players enter the tunnel. And we saw the corporate boxes where companies entertain their wealthy clients.

The stadium sits on the site of the old one, in White Hart Lane in Tottenham, a working-class and a very deprived area. When you leave the stadium, you are on the High Road opposite discount stores, takeaways, and public housing estates. This area saw riots in 1985 and 2011, both sparked by police violence against Black residents. The contrast is stark.

Even though being a football fan requires economic resources, the sport remains a passion for many working-class people. Football is still a way of life and an important aspect of community. Locals feel pride in their teams, share joy when they win, and commiserate together over the losses. This passion has its negative consequences, too, when rivalry sometimes turns ugly (and there is a history of football ‘hooliganism’). Racism is also still evident in the various leagues, and players continue to experience it on and off the pitch.

But the sport also creates positive working-class role models. Beyond players’ sporting prowess and success, many are committed to social justice and improving the lives of young working-class people. Many of the star players grew up in deprived neighbourhoods like Tottenham, so they understand hardship and inequality. Some speak out publicly, such as Manchester United player Marcus Rashford who is leading a campaign to end child food poverty in the UK. In 2020, Rashford criticised the UK government for refusing to supply free school meals for low-income children over the school holidays. He started a campaign to raise awareness and pressure the government. He also talks about the struggles faced by his mother, who raised her family alone.

The passion for the sport and the culture it has created drew attention recently with the announcement of a new European Super League, a break-away competition for elite European clubs that would bring massive income to the teams involved and allow them to tap into overseas markets. Six English Premier League teams, including Spurs, were among the proposed founding teams.

The announcement was met with almost universal criticism from fans who saw the teams as a selling out and betraying fans’ loyalty. Groups of fans protested immediately. They railed against the takeover of their sport by billionaires looking to make bigger profits. To many, the game is entrenched in the fabric of society, so meddling with it would destroy heritage and a sense of local identity. And even the government attempted to intervene. The football governing bodies threatened to exclude the teams and players from local competition and within a few days, the English teams had all pulled out from the proposal.

The outpouring of anger and protest was both applauded by those with interest in the game and criticised by others who suggested that the mobilisation and the energy expended in the protest should target the fight against capitalism more generally. Some asked why these fans seemed so bothered by greedy football club owning billionaires and not by Amazon owner Jeff Bezzos. I’d suggest that the fans who expressed their anger and disappointment at their teams are aware of the huge disparities of wealth and the unfettered nature of capitalism. They see the inequity and exploitation on a daily basis. They might well be working for low wages in an Amazon depot.

But unlike Amazon, football is something they feel belongs to them. The clubs are nothing without their fans, and club loyalty takes time to build. Club fandom is steeped in history and club mythology. Fans knew that without them, the clubs would fail, and so they saw their power in that moment. Protesting about a new football competition was something they could do without fear of losing their job. Maybe their success with this protest will inspire some to join other anti-capitalist groups.

My mother’s life was shaped by hardship caused by a class system that prevented her from fulfilling her potential – even as a football fan. ‘Born within spit’ of White Hart Lane, she didn’t have the means to go to a match. I’m determined to go in her honour the next time I’m in London. And hopefully when I do, Spurs will win. Not that it will matter. Working-class football fans are very forgiving, and once the furore from the Super League dies down, we’ll go back to following our teams and wearing our colours with pride.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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Is Neoliberalism Dead? Class Struggle and a Wealth Tax

It is heartening to see a wide variety of economists and policy wonks declaring the end of neoliberal austerity based on Joe Biden’s actions during his first 100 days as President.  With the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, it looks like the long, long Reagan Revolution may finally be over. Reagan became popular by criticizing “tax-and-spend liberals” for “throwing money at problems,” but now the Biden administration has turned that around. They are proudly claiming the “tax and spend” mantel and rejecting the Republicans habit of throwing money at rich people. 

Reaganomics theorized that tax cuts for the rich would spur investment and generate jobs and faster economic growth, all while paying for themselves. It was clear that no part of that theory worked even before Trump’s 2017 tax cut for corporations and the wealthy proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. What was probably the first tax cut in history to be unpopular produced almost no new investment, and the wealth of the super-wealthy again ballooned.  The American public has had it with throwing money at rich people in hopes they will create some jobs.  Why not have the government tax the rich more fairly and spend that money on creating jobs directly?   

This simple reversal of economic logic fosters hope for a future that is utterly different from the past four decades of economic stagnation, decline, and misery for the vast majority of the American working class.  But so far, while Biden has been creative and bold in the spending part of his agenda, he’s been pretty timid in his approach to raising government revenues by reforming our tax system.

The tax increases Biden promised while campaigning would raise some $300 billion a year. The American Rescue Plan relies completely on borrowed money, which is appropriate for a stimulus plan, and the American Jobs Plan would increase corporate taxes, providing about $150 billion a year (over 15 years).  Biden plans to introduce another public investment plan that will be in the trillion or two range (over 10 years), and the tax increases he promised in his campaign, on personal incomes above $400,000, would provide an additional $150 billion a year.  But even with these substantial tax increases on corporations and rich individuals, Biden’s plans would still fall about $300 to $500 billion a year short of the spending he has promised and proposed.

So far, Biden has refused to endorse a wealth tax as proposed by Senators Warren and Sanders, and without that, he is going to have a hard time paying for all the promises he has made. The Warren-Sanders wealth tax would impose a 2% tax on net wealth over $50 million and 3% on wealth over $1 billion, producing about $300 billion a year in federal revenue.  It would affect fewer than 100,000 taxpayers, a small fraction of our infamous top one percent, and it would not hurt those taxpayers too much.  Since wealth passively produces income, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, for example, would pay a wealth tax of $5.3 billion on his $177 billion net worth, but if he made only a 5% return on his billions in investments (and he’s been doing a lot better than that recently), he would end up with $180 billion after paying his wealth tax. That’s right: Bezos would come out $3 billion ahead for doing nothing. He’d earn even more for whatever work he actually does.   

Thus, the Warren-Sanders proposal is relatively modest, affecting very few people without harming their life prospects, but even such a modest proposal produces a lot of revenue.  So why wouldn’t President Biden go for it?  The arguments against a wealth tax are relatively insubstantial, and Biden has got to know that. My guess is that he also knows that any wealth tax, no matter how modest, will initiate an underground, one-sided class war that will divide his own party, flood Republicans with campaign money, and ultimately be fought out in a Supreme Court that is the mirror image of blatant ruling-class judgeship prior to the New Deal.

The most substantive argument against a wealth tax is that super-wealthy people will leave the country and/or move their money, but the Warren-Sanders bill has installed disincentives to make this less likely.  The least substantive argument is that a wealth tax would be impossible to enforce and administer.  But since so few people would be affected, we could have a half-dozen IRS auditors completely devoted to each ultra-millionaire and still generate $300 billion in revenue.

Some claim that a wealth tax would reduce economic growth and kill jobs, but that ignores the positive effects of government spending.  The negative impact of a tax on the wealthy, and especially on the super-wealthy, is relatively small, while the positive impact on economic growth of almost all government spending, but especially that benefitting lower-income people, is from three to five times greater. 

Finally, some argue that a wealth tax is unconstitutional. Senator Warren has strong scholarly support that such a tax poses no Constitutional problems, but a few arcane legal arguments on the other side may be strong enough to reach the Supreme Court.  And even the strongest Constitutional arguments for a wealth tax are unlikely to move what is now the most business- and investor-friendly Supreme Court since the 1920s.  

And that’s only the most visible part of the underground one-sided class struggle the rich and their allies would wage.  At least some Democrats and many Republicans are dependent on rich donors who will oppose the tax on principle – either because they would have to pay it or, more importantly, because they fear it would inevitably be expanded.  Behind-the-scenes politicking already makes it hard to get Congressional attention for the idea, despite Warren’s and Sanders’ efforts.  But given its popularity among a large majority of the public, a presidentially proposed wealth tax to pay for a host of very popular programs could produce a two-sided, highly public class struggle that can change political dynamics, even for the Supreme Court.

I would not second guess Joe Biden’s political judgment in managing 2021’s vanishingly thin Congressional majorities.  But neoliberalism will not die in the U.S. until we address our wealth inequality.  Since the Reagan Revolution, corporate and personal income taxes have been severely jiggered to distribute money to the rich, and Biden clearly wants to reverse some of that.  But 40 years of redistributing income to the top 1% has led to a juggernaut of wealth inequality that will proceed on its own even if we have fair and progressive corporate and income taxes. Wealth held by the super-rich is where the money is, and if we are unable to tap even a small portion of it, we will have to trim our promises and prospects or raise politically unpopular taxes on the rest of us.  In the absence of a devastating pandemic and economic depression, the power of wealth will eventually be able to nudge, push, and march us back into neoliberal austerity.  If Joe Biden really wants to be a transformational president, he will include the Warren-Sanders wealth tax among his pay-fors, if not this year, then next.

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, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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Sea Shanties and the Pleasure of Work

I thought that the viral TikTok sea shanty trend had run its course when, just before Passover, I saw a link to a video called the “Red Sea Shanties.” Here the Jewish a capella group, Six13, changed the lyrics of various sea shanties to fit Passover themes. Especially catchy is: “what shall we do with the middle matzah?” sung to the tune of “what shall we do with a drunken sailor?”

The “Red Sea Shanties” made me wonder about the viral craze of the sea shanty. What inspired these songs? And why is a 200-year-old genre suddenly so popular?

The song that kicked off this craze is “The Wellerman.” If you haven’t seen the video, do so immediately. I am obsessed with it, and you should be, too! The singer is Nathan Evans, a “postie” (mailman) from the eastern suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland. His performance is sparse and stripped-down, and, yet, full of emotion. There are some harmonies layered onto Evan’s voice during the chorus, but Evans sings the verses a cappella, looking straight at the camera, while beating his fist against the table for rhythm.

With Evans’s thick brogue, it is easy to imagine how the song might have sounded in the 1800s when it was first sung by whalers in New Zealand. Evans uploaded his performance to TikTok in December, and, by mid-January it had been viewed more than 7 million times. Since then, all of TikTok has been bananas for sea shanties—so much so that there is now something called Shantytok.

The lyrics are about a whaling crew stuck in an endless loop of work. The crew finds a “right whale,” the name for the large, slow moving whale, that was so coveted for its bones and oil in the 19th century that it was fished practically to extinction. The crew harpoons the whale, but it gets away, swimming under the boat with the harpoon still stuck in its flesh.

The crew waits for the “tonguin’” to be done, meaning the final capture and dissection of the whale. They also wait for the “Wellerman” to come, the supply ships owned by the British born Weller brothers, who brought the whaling crews their “sugar and tea and rum.” Sadly, the whalers never get their whale, and, therefore, they will never be able to “take their leave and go.”

Sea shanties are part of the venerable tradition of the work song. Shanties were written for specific kinds of work that was performed by the ship’s crew. As work song sociologist Marek Korczynski has explained, there were unique sea shanties for hauling rope, trimming sails, and working on the ship’s machinery. Another scholar has argued that the sea shanties were literal tools, calling them “akin to a hammer.”

“The Wellerman,” ironically, is not really a sea shanty. For something to be an actual sea shanty, YouTuber Adam Neely explains, the song has to have a call and a response, a form that has its origins in African diaspora work music. Shanties usually begin with a solo chant, the “call,” which is followed by the rest of the crew singing their responses while performing a critical piece of labor, such as pulling on a rope at the same time. The call and response of a typical sea shanty is represented surprisingly well by the introduction to Sponge Bob Square Pants, Neely explains.

But for the love of pirates, how did sea shanties become so popular in 2021? As Neely argues, the genre is particularly good for the duet function of TikTok. After Nathan Evans posted his version of “The Wellerman” in December of 2020, other TikTok users added their images, voices, and instrumentals to his post.

Neely explains that sea shanties are based in a musical principle called antiphony, which means, a “responsive alternation between two groups, especially of singers.” TikTok is rooted in antiphony as well, Neely explains, as users take the content generated by others, alter it, and put it back on the platform. TikTok thrives on “responsive alternation.”

Another likely cause of the rise of Shantytok is, that, like those sailors of yore, after more than a year of a global pandemic, we have cabin fever. As The New York Times noted, sea shanties are weirdly appropriate for 2021. Like “longhaul” sailors, we have, “longhaul” COVID19 sufferers.

Ultimately, Shantytok has brought new interest to the phenomenon of manly men who sing. Many of the men of Shantytok are white, but men of African descent have chimed in as well. In addition, the antiphony of TikTok has allowed women to elbow their way into what once was, no doubt, a sacred space of white male labor and song.

Shantytok also reminds us that singing can be a form of work. Becoming a shanty star enabled Nathan Evans to quit his job at the post office, after all.

Finally, Shantytok reminds us that there can be pleasure in hard work, especially work that is done collectively. Whether on the deck of a 19th century whaling ship, or a Zoom call in 2021, the work we do together, heaving and singing, can be jolly good fun.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Why Burnley Voted for Brexit – and Why It Matters

Burnley in the 1960s

Brexit is often presented as reflecting the politics and direction of the United Kingdom as a whole. But this obscures the great variety of opinions about ‘Europe’ in different parts of the UK. It also diverts attention from how the big ‘national’ news story of Brexit grew out of complex local realities, issues, and trends.

Burnley, about twenty miles north of Manchester, illustrates how Brexit played out locally. I worked in local government there, so I observed – and worked on – some of the political and social dynamics that drew many voters in north-west England towards nativist and right-wing populism. In this region, voting to leave the EU was largely an expression of these outlooks, but they had surfaced years earlier. In 2002, Burnley achieved passing notoriety as the first place to elect a group of far-right British National Party councillors.

Burnley developed as a textiles manufacturing centre in the mid-1800s and is still routinely described as a ‘former mill town’. Along with its defining sector of cotton goods manufacturing, people worked in coal-mining and, after the Second World War, in light-engineering and assembly-line production as part of aerospace, automobile, and munitions supply-chains.

Deindustrialisation set the context for the town’s recent political shifts. During the 1950s, nearly 60 per cent of Burnley’s employed population worked in manufacturing. Factory and mill work declined during the 1970s, but those job losses were offset by relatively secure posts in expanding service industries and the public sector. Then, during Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the 80s, manufacturing jobs in Burnley fell from nearly 18,000 (45 per cent of the town’s workforce) to less than 13,000 (36 per cent). This spelled growing unemployment, benefit dependency, and poverty. Government funding cuts took away the council’s ability to be ‘the employer of last resort’. The 1990s saw further decline, so that by 2003, manufacturing employed just 26 per cent of Burnley workers. There was a gendered recomposition of work as thousands of men lost full-time and relatively well-paid posts while women found jobs in the new service-sector. Because most service jobs were part-time, ‘flexible’, and poorly-paid, average household incomes dropped significantly.

The political consequences of these economic and social changes were not immediate or automatic. The political shift in Burnley reflects how people made sense of these changes, and that in turn reflects the explanations provided by local political actors.

The Labour Party had long dominated Burnley politics, holding the parliamentary seat since the First World War (except for a few years in the early 1930s). Its style of running the local council became paternalist – and complacent. When I began working in the town in 1995, a party member assured me that I didn’t have to worry about the influence of any party other than Labour. The only consequential political discussions took place behind closed doors amongst Labour’s movers and shakers.

But meaningful opposition was already taking shape. One of Labour’s few effective communicators had resigned from the party, holding onto his council seat as an ‘independent’, and voicing increasingly right-wing and illiberal views. This man used his proletarian origins (father a coal-miner and mother a weaver) to present himself as an ‘authentic’ voice of the town’s ordinary people. After a few years, a few other councillors followed, leaving Labour after being caught pressurising public officials not to rent any of the council’s houses to Pakistani-heritage families.

This expanded ‘Independent group’ questioned government-funded projects in ‘certain areas’. The racial dimension to their ‘concerns’ was at first coyly suggested and then explicitly stated. Unmet needs in some neighborhoods were contrasted with other small neighborhoods that were included in regeneration programmes – areas that had become ‘mainly Asian’. The local press amplified the myth that ‘unfair’ levels of government funds were ‘going to Asians’. Resentment sells newspapers, and it also changes politics: Independents began winning seats in local elections.

Racialised politics took hold in Burnley in part because the local Labour Party didn’t respond to it effectively. Party members had never handled Burnley’s changing racial profile with any confidence. They didn’t establish or popularise a local sense of identity that included both ‘indigenous’ people and the immigrant workers who started arriving in the early 1960s, initially taking up vacancies in the cotton mills. Burnley Labour’s social base of formerly-unionised workers was still reeling from the redundancies of the 1980s and 1990s. Unemployed, allocated disability benefits, or in much worse jobs than previously, they were demoralised, demotivated, and – quietly – resentful. That made some receptive to the Independents’ ‘explanations’: someone needed to be blamed for what had happened.

The Independents built a new political identity based on people’s sullen sense of being badly done by, a strategy that also enabled voters to see themselves as ‘white’ and ‘patriotic’, people who had once run an empire and held an identity distinct from that of undeserving ‘outsiders’. These sentiments may have long existed at a subterranean level within Labourism, but they were sharpened in the material conditions of deindustrialisation and people’s perception that they were being culturally and politically marginalised.

When Tony Blair and New Labour gained power in 1997, they failed to address the dreadful economic situation. As poverty in Burnley increased, it was one of three northern English towns which saw serious racialised rioting in summer 2001. British National Party (BNP) activists took up themes which the Independents had pioneered. Harking back to a simplified, nostalgic image of Burnley’s past when people had decent jobs and the co-ordinates of everyday life were familiar and predictable, BNP candidates blamed the growth of Burnley’s Asian community for ‘our decline’. Promoting exclusionary, isolationist nationalism as ‘answers’, they won seats on the local council by recasting and warping class resentments into resentments about race. The BNP were always a minority group, and they never won a single vote in the debating chamber, but they held seats on the town council for ten years, even as a series of Labour and Liberal Democrat council leaders and MPs tried to recover the town’s reputation.

The BNP had used the ‘political space’ which Burnley’s Independents had created, giving people a way to understand why Labour had ‘abandoned’ them. They claimed that Labour had ‘become middle-class, more concerned about so-called victims of racism than it is about your living standards and prospects’. 

Then a bigger and better-funded organisation stepped in and expanded the political space which the BNP had opened up in Burnley and a few other towns. Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voiced concerns about immigration and ‘Europe’ in more polite terms than the far-right BNP had ever used. From 2009, UKIP’s growing popularity in several parts of England, and their influence on the Conservative Party, helped pressurise David Cameron into calling the 2016 Brexit referendum. He fully expected to win a majority for remaining in Europe.

Just over two-thirds of its voters supported Brexit, but by now, Burnley no longer stood out as particularly unusual. In 2019, Burnley was one of dozens of ‘traditionally Labour’ constituencies where the largest number of voters supported Boris Johnson’s party because of his promise to ‘get Brexit done’. This marked the first time that places like Burnley had returned a Conservative for 110 years.

Whatever emotional satisfactions some Burnley voters feel as the UK leaves the EU, Brexit will likely exacerbate the town’s economic challenges. The well-regarded left-leaning think tank IPPR North suggests that Brexit will have double the impact on the north of England compared to the south. The EU has generated over ten per cent of the north’s gross domestic product (GDP), compared to just 7.2 per cent of London’s, and the north west’s significant dependence on trade with the European Union now makes the region susceptible to the major economic shifts which are coming.

Decent jobs and stable co-ordinates for everyday life are unlikely to return to this area anytime soon. Burnley’s politics and prospects will continue to be shaped – at least in part – by the consequences of the deindustrialisation which hit the down in the 1980s and 1990s, and the defensive xenophobia which developed in response to this.

Mike Makin-Waite

Mike Makin-Waite is the author of On Burnley Road: Class, race and politics in a northern English town (Lawrence Wishart Books, 2021).

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Bringing Ourselves to Say “Working-Class”

Would it make a difference if this was called the Middle-Class Perspectives blog? Would the writers be discussing the same issues in the arts, in education, in politics, and the relationship between race, gender, and class if we were talking about the middle class. Think about it.

I’m one of those people (like you, perhaps, if you are reading Working-Class Perspectives) who thinks that the working class and the middle class are not the same thing. The terms are not synonymous.

When the news media talk about “regular” people or citizens, they usually mean the middle class. When advertisements sell things, they are likely pitching to the middle class. And, when politicians talk about Americans, they are most often talking about the middle class.

Middle class is a nice catch-all term. For the politicians and media, saying “middle class” plays into the myth of a classless society. It doesn’t speak of inequality, since it envisions a large, inclusive middle, where nearly all Americans can find themselves. Sociologist Warren Breed recognized this reticence to talk about class—as in the “working class”—back in 1958. “The word ‘class’ is almost entirely absent from the media,” he said, because “class, being social inequality, is the very antithesis of the American creed.”

Unfortunately, conceptualizing a big American “middle class,” with only the rare extremes of the poor at one end, and the super-wealthy at the other, papers over a whole lot of inequality of opportunity in the middle, with people weighted down by a racial caste system, gender inequality, geographic inequality, and the lack of transgenerational capital for social mobility.

That’s why it pains most politicians and the mainstream media to say “working class” –  it calls attention to social inequality and calls out the American myth.

Case in point: President Joe Biden, who throughout his long political career has often been called “working class Joe,” seems hesitant to use the phrase himself. Let’s look at Biden in his own words.

In his autobiography Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (2007), he mentions “working class” five times, and “middle class” twice as many times. When Biden does write “working class,” it’s not a subject – the working class – but instead an adjective that adds color to the description: working-class neighborhoods (appears twice), working-class Polish neighborhood, working-class town, and working-class steel town.

He even describes the neighborhood where he grew up in this way: “We were moving to the outskirts of Wilmington, to a working-class neighborhood called the Claymont area, just across the Pennsylvania state line.” So he’s working-class, right?

Maybe not. Before he moved to Delaware, he lived in Scranton, a place that figured into Biden’s first dreams of a presidential run as an adult. In Promises to Keep, he reflects that he thought his origination narrative would help his political image: “It was a beautiful story for Scranton: a kid from middle-class Green Ridge who has a shot (and just the kind they like—long shot) at the Democratic presidential nomination.” So he’s middle class.

But wait! In his March 23 speech in Columbus, Ohio marking the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, Biden offered a somewhat different answer: “I, like many of you, grew up in a middle-class — I guess, technically, lower-middle-class — household based on income.  We lived in a three-bedroom split-level home with four kids and our grandpop living with us.” Here, he avoids calling his family working class, instead describing them as still marginally part of the middle class, perhaps as the way to still connect to “many of you” – his audience, “regular” middle class people.

In Biden’s next book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose (2017), he mentions working class once and middle class 13 times. One sentence captured both terms, as Biden recounted a 2015 speech he gave: “When the middle class does well, everybody does well. The economy expands, and working-class and poor folks have a way up.”

That was the sentiment in naming the Middle Class Task Force of 2009 that then-Vice President Biden chaired. In the throes of the Great Recession, this organization claimed its target was “raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America.” The description used a weasel phrase politicians have fancied since the Reagan era – “working families” – to linguistically sidestep saying “working class.”

Biden’s struggle in articulating concepts of class reflects both how Americans avoid talking about class and our conflicting need to talk about it because class inequality is unavoidably right in front of us.

Economist Michael Zweig suggests another way to think about working class in his book The Working Class Majority: “The working class is made up of people who, when they go to work or when they act as citizens, have comparatively little power or authority.” By that reckoning, Zweig suggests that at least 60 percent of the U.S. labor force is part of the working class.

It’s a subjective measure, but if you are are making an average of $15.50 an hour, lower than median wage in the area, and your boss is – depending on how his stock is valued that the day – the richest man in the world, worth about $182 billion, and is paying an anti-union consulting firm $10,000 a day to make sure you don’t vote “union,” are you in the middle class? That is a question workers at the Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are considering right now.

Joe Biden seems to think the answer is yes. He recently did the most pro-working-class thing any U.S. president has done in decades. In the midst of a labor battle, during the seven-week voting period as over 5,800 workers decide whether they should have the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union represent them, Biden endorsed the right of workers to unionize and pushed back on the company’s efforts to intimidate them. And he opened his remarks by talking about the middle class, saying “I have long said that America wasn’t built by Wall Street. It was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class.”

As he continued, though, it was clear that he was talking about the exact kind of disempowered people in Zweig’s definition of the working class. “Unions put power in the hands of workers,” Biden said. “They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and Brown workers.”

In his short but powerful speech, Biden didn’t mention Amazon, but he didn’t need to. But even in this astonishingly pro-working-class message, Biden didn’t use the words “working class.” He didn’t need to do that either. This time it was clear who Joe Biden was talking about.

The next step for Biden is to reclaim the term “working class.” We can hope the workers in Bessemer and elsewhere win in their battle to unionize and collectively bargain for better (in Bidenese, middle-class) wages and benefits, and safer working conditions. But the desire and need for union representation – because in Zweig’s words, they would otherwise “have comparatively little power or authority”—means the Bessemer workers, like most American workers, will still be working class.

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).

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Southern Black Women Are Key to Alabama Amazon Union Drive

Global capitalism may have met its match. Southern African-American women are challenging Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, and it’s unclear who will be the victor.  Eighty-five percent of the Amazon warehouse workers who are voting on whether to form a union are African-American, and the majority are female.  We’ll know the results of the mail-in ballot election by next week. Win or lose, this battle reveals much about why workers in this country want unions and what happens when they try to form them.  It also reminds us that Black women have long been among the nation’s strongest supporters of unions, in part because collective bargaining can serve as an effective counterweight to structural racism and sexism.

Much of the media attention on the “BAmazonUnion” effort gives the election the unicorn treatment.  “Stunning” wrote one commenter, who couldn’t believe the news that the first major U.S.-based union effort at Amazon was in Alabama. The New York Times dubbed the campaign “unlikely.”  Yet Southern Black women have been leading unionizing efforts like the one at Amazon for more than fifty years, often well outside the media spotlight.  Through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, women and people of color first gained access to jobs and unions from which they’d been excluded. They then drove a new wave of organizing in the 1970s, including at textile factories, automotive plants, shipyards, and hospitals across the South.  

After Black workers forced open the doors of those unions that had been closed to them, African-Americans became the group most likely to be union members. I worked as a union organizer in the Southern textile and apparel industry in the 1990s, and every campaign depended on Black women’s leadership. Much of the work of the union, in fact, didn’t happen on the job. It happened in churches, kitchens, and neighborhoods where women activated their community-based networks on behalf of their union.

Collective bargaining is an equalizer, giving women and people of color a potent tool for countering the kind of structural racism and sexism that we’ve seen in sharp relief during the pandemic.  Black women with a union earn 19 percent more than women who don’t have a union, according to the latest government statistics, and unions help narrow both gender and race wage gaps.  Unionized black workers are also more likely to have employer-provided insurance and pensions than those without unions. 

Equally important, unions give workers more of a voice on the job. Amazon workers struggle for control within the kind of surveillance capitalism that increasingly shapes twenty-first century workplaces. Amazon monitors workers from the moment they clock in, their every movement tracked and optimized according to their scans of merchandise.  Jennifer Bates, a Blue Badge Learning Ambassador at the Bessemer facility and union supporter, says workers walk miles each day within the more than 800,000 square foot facility, watching pallets of merchandise ride the elevators while the company forces them to take the stairs. “We wonder, ‘Am I going to make it through the day because of the demands of the job/’…it’s the way that they have it structured, the way that they speak to us, that makes it so bad,” Bates told Max Alvarez of Working People podcast.  Bates points out that Amazon touts its high wages, but many workers quit the high-pressure jobs before they can take full advantage of the paychecks and benefits. Rather than firing people after the busy season, Amazon often turns up the heat, causing workers to quit.

Bates belonged to a union in an earlier manufacturing job, and she knows the difference a union could make.  She and some co-workers began to meet quietly in the parking lot and then at a local restaurant, building union support outside Amazon’s constant gaze. Once the campaign went public, however, Amazon quickly launched its effort to squash the workers’ organizing.  The company blanketed the warehouse with anti-union literature.  Bates even encountered flyers in the women’s bathroom:  “When you go in the stall, turn around, and squat, you have this big flyer in your face.  It says ‘Let’s do it without the union. Don’t let them come in between our relationship!’ And I’m sitting there thinking, what relationship? We have a relationship with the computer.  We have a relationship to an app on our phones.  What relationship do we have?  But this is what we’re fighting for, a relationship.”

Amazon also forced workers to attend meetings against the union, where, Bates says, the company tried falsely tried to persuade people that they would have to pay union dues.  The company has also employed one-on-one sweat session with workers, pressuring them to vote no. “Every single day, it’s like a stalker boyfriend, that you have to come out the door and look around to see that he’s not there. You’re looking around the corner because here comes Amazon again.  Leave us alone!”

But the challenges don’t come only from the company. The Bessemer workers are trying to form a union using a labor law system that is fundamentally broken, one that effectively strips workers of the freedom to form unions.  Employers routinely break and bend labor law during organizing campaigns, firing and threatening workers, and they face no penalties for doing so.  If the government finds employers guilty of violating workers’ rights during a union organizing campaign, the worst that can happen is that a company must hang a blue and white sign in the break room that says it broke the law. 

The House recently passed legislation that would significantly strengthen labor law.  The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, would ban those mandatory-attendance anti-union meetings, fine employers who break the law, and close loopholes that allow companies to classify workers as independent contractors or supervisors in order to keep them out of unions. It would also make sure that if workers do choose a union, the company can’t drag its feet on signing a first contract.  The bill still needs to make it through the Senate, however, where it is sure to face the filibuster hurdle.

Meanwhile, the women of Bessemer, Alabama have not only taken on the globe’s third-largest company, but they’re paving the way for more organizing among other members of the working class.  More than a thousand other Amazon workers have contacted the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about forming unions at other Amazon facilities.  BAmazonUnion has triggered a fresh discussion about unions that has culminated in President Joe Biden making the strongest pro-union statement since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act in 1935.  “The choice to form a union is up to the workers, full stop,” asserted Biden.  No matter the outcome of next week’s vote count, Black women are once again leading the way toward more rights and a better future for all working people in the U.S.

Lane Windham

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

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The Myth of the Conservative Working Class

Rush Limbaugh, who passed away last month at age 70, was conservative talk radio’s most flamboyant and influential provocateur. Boasting an audience of 15 million, Limbaugh is often credited with persuading working-class voters to embrace a Republican Party whose pro-business, free trade economic policies went against working-class interests. As Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, explained, “Limbaugh was on the forefront of trying to take conservative policies and explain them in a way that appeals to a demographic that typically would not favor the Republican Party.” The result, Wagner suggests, can be seen in “the strength of the Republican party has among working-class Americans.”

But is it really true that Limbaugh, who could be misogynistic and racially inflammatory in his broadcast, appealed primarily to the working class? In fact, as Rick Perlstein has suggested, Limbaugh’s listeners are more aptly described as “the petty bourgeoisie, the Joe the Plumbers, the guys with their own bathroom fixture businesses, the middle managers.”

This case of mistaken identity, of misidentifying people who are actually quite comfortable as “working class,” has plagued coverage of American conservatism for years now. It was a crucial error in how people viewed the participants in the Capitol insurrection. Many of those arrested after the January 6 riot were middle-class business owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists and accountants. So why do so many assume that the rioters—and former President Trump’s supporters more generally—were working-class? We can trace the error back to its grain of truth: the economic displacement that explains why white working-class people are so angry.

Back in the 1980s, displaced workers were treated to disregard, and even victim-blaming, by officials and the media alike. When massive factories closed and moved to China and Mexico, displacing entire American working-class communities, workers were told this was part of a “natural economic order” for which they should have been better prepared. No wonder they became disenchanted and lost faith in the institutions—corporations, the government, unions, and even churches—that had once provided support. And yes, some working-class whites blamed African Americans and immigrants for their declining economic circumstances, even though Black and Latino workers were harmed at least as much and in some ways more than white workers. Over time, no doubt, many did turn to rightwing populism and the conservative media.

But this story misses an important sequel: By the 1990s, some white-collar workers began to see the same erosions in their way of life. Middle-class Americans began to experience what Barbara Erhenreich has called a fear of falling. Those insecurities grew larger and began to explode as a result of the “lesser Depression” between 2008 and 2010, when middle-class families lost jobs, incomes, pensions, homes, and healthcare—losses from which they did not recover.

While overall, the wealthy and the upper-middle-class have made gains over the last 40 years, many middle-class people have lost ground. Middle-class incomes have stagnated, white-collar jobs have become less secure, professional work is now more likely to be temporary or freelance—all while healthcare, housing, and college costs have skyrocketed.

What this means is that in 21st century America, even a stable middle-class income can’t always provide a comfortable life. Middle-class people who grew up expecting to do better than their parents now see their children struggling not to fall behind. Some of the same people who once blamed displaced industrial workers for not having gone to college to prepare for economic change now find themselves wondering how, after “doing everything right,” they can’t seem to get ahead.

Resentment has grown, too. Struggling middle-class voters blame educated elites for saving Wall Street and giving tax breaks to corporations, insisting on the rights of immigrants or the importance of racial justice rather than doing anything to help teachers, accountants, or other white-collar workers, as they see it.

Donald Trump tapped into those resentments. His promise to “make America great again” seemed to promise that the American Dream would again become viable. He promised that reinvigorating manufacturing, strengthening trade policies and reducing taxes and regulations would make businesses profitable enough to protect jobs and maybe even increase salaries. Like some in the working class, many middle-class voters bought Trump’s boasts about low unemployment rates and a booming stock market, despite the fact that during his time in office, the gap between the wealthy and the poor expanded and the share of income going to the middle and working class continued to fall. That he was addressing their grievances at all kept the base satisfied.

And for a tiny minority, these resentments led them to Capitol Hill on January 6. For those who stormed the Capitol, the threats to “their country” today might include Wall Street, the educated elites who dominate the Democratic Party, people of color, and immigrants. All became targets during the insurrection.

Unfortunately, the trend that led to displacement among middle-class Americans is likely to continue. Already during the pandemic, corporations have dumped employees in favor of automation and artificial intelligence, moves that will increase unemployment and deter a strong jobs recovery. The World Economic Forum Survey reports that over 40% of businesses indicated they would reduce workforces and turn to new technology and subcontracted specialists for task-specific projects.

The increased automation will certainly impact the middle and working class. It will accelerate job losses in manufacturing, food service, and retail. Artificial intelligence (AI) will have a greater impact on middle-class professional and white-collar workers. What is particularly important is that new technologies will not influence single industries as they have so often in the past. Rather, they will expand rapidly across multiple industries and occupations.

As workers lose jobs to automation, expect to hear calls for them to retrain. That’s what happened when steel and auto plants closed during deindustrialization in the late 20th century, but such programs didn’t work. Instead of preparing displaced workers for good jobs, they trained some for jobs that didn’t exist, and others for positions that paid less than their old jobs. We’re likely to see the same pattern again as automation and AI reshape the workplace. 

With state and local budgets in crisis, many will look to the federal government. Clearly, the Biden administration’s American Recovery Plan is an attempt to weave a new social safety net to provide economic and healthcare floors for displaced workers and families. But given the scale of the current and pending job losses from the pandemic, automation and AI, such reforms are fingers in the dyke holding back the resentment that led to the attack on the Capitol.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Newsweek.

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Bucket Toilets and Casseroles: Belonging, Mutual Aid, and Working-Class Survival

This past year of the pandemic has, for many, been one of struggle and isolation. So films about single older working-class women dealing with economic and personal challenges might not seem inspiring at the moment. But the insights they provide into how belonging helps people navigate hardship make them worth a look.

Chloe Zhao’s Golden Globe-winning film Nomadland, follows Fern, a 60-something working-class woman who, as she says, likes to work and needs the money. Zhao created Fern as a composite of two of the real older women Jessica Bruder features in the non-fiction book on which the film is based. Like the real Swankie and May, Fern travels the western US, from short-term job to short-term job, living in the van she has retrofitted with a mattress, a propane stove, a bucket toilet, and enough storage space for a few dishes, tools, and clothes. She also fits in a notebook of old slides and a box of old photos.

Like many other nomads, Fern lives in the van because she has lost her house, and she takes on a series of working-class jobs – in an Amazon warehouse, at a campground, on a beet farm – to earn enough to get by. As reviewers have noted, Bruder’s book offers a more political take on the economic changes that have displaced many working- and middle-class older Americans. “In mindset and appearance,” Bruder writes, the nomads “are largely middle-class.” But the work they’re doing now is clearly working-class, and, as A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times review, they “are footloose but also desperate, squeezed by rising inequality and a frayed safety net.”

Zhao may have softened the book’s political edge, but the film emphasizes the idea of community. Most of her characters travel alone, but they survive largely through mutual aid. On the road, Fern finds a mobile, serendipitous working-class community, led by nomad guru Bob Wells, who appears as himself in the film. As he tells Fern, Bob organizes gatherings and helps people learn how to survive on the road as a way of honoring his son, who died of suicide. Instead of letting himself be engulfed by grief, he devotes his life to helping others, creating a sense of belonging for people who have no permanent homes other than the vehicles in which they live. He explains that never says goodbye to anyone. Instead, he says “see you down the road” – and, he insists, he often does. This is true for Fern, as well. As she travels, she keeps reuniting with people she has met earlier, on the job, at nomad gatherings, on the side of a road. Many teach her practical lessons about how to survive, but they also provide support and companionship in a nomadic life.

As Fern, Frances McDormand creates a powerful sense of the character’s grief over the loss of her husband and the life they had together. Fern feels a strong connection to the company town where her husband worked in a gypsum mine, and she values the bonds she forms with other nomads. Twice in the film, she rejects offers of comfortable, safe, warm homes, first by her sister and later by a man with whom she might well have created a sustaining partnership. She chooses the solitude and movement of nomad life.

Fern’s story might seem like a working-class tragedy. If belonging is central to working-class culture, as some scholars argue, then ending up alone, far from one’s home place, would be the worst possible outcome of a working-class life. And if stability is a desirable quality of working-class jobs and lives, then living on the road, working temporary low-wage jobs, not earning enough to cover the cost of repairs when your van breaks down would seem like a nightmare. But Fern’s story is not a nightmare. It is an alternative vision of working-class belonging, one that relies on good will and persistence in day-to-day survival but also friendship and mutual aid.  

As I watched Nomadland, I kept thinking about another portrait of an older working-class woman, Kent Jones’s 2018 film Diane. Mary Kay Place plays a widow who is deeply embedded in a small New England community. When we first meet her, she is delivering a casserole to a friend whose husband is ill. She visits her cousin in the hospital, meets an old friend for dinner, joins extended family members for coffee and commiseration (with a side of familial bickering), and argues with her son over his drug habit while regularly stopping by to bring him food and make sure he’s ok. When Diane gets drunk at a local bar, the owner knows to call her family members, who come to drive her home. Most of the film focuses on actions like that, the myriad kindnesses and struggles that bring people together and sometimes challenge their commitment to each other. This is what working-class belonging looks like – not a joyful, conflict-free round of togetherness but being in each other’s lives, in each other’s business, in good but also complicated ways.

Both films show how the working-class value of belonging isn’t simply a matter of feeling. It’s about survival through mutual aid. In this sense, they illustrate a response to hard times that has helped many get through the pandemic and to survive without power or water due to the recent Southern deep freeze. Most mutual aid probably happens inside informal networks, among family and friends, but over the last year, we’ve also seen efforts organized through social media, like the DC Mutual Aid Network. In these networks, people help each other not by donating to charities or volunteering at the food bank but by bringing food, water, or household items to people who need it or by paying someone’s rent or medical bill.  

Nomadland nor Diane are not upbeat movies. They make clear the strains and hardships of working-class life, and they highlight how aging makes those difficulties worse. They take on some of the most significant hurdles of contemporary life – low-wage work, poverty, drug addiction, aging. Neither offers solutions, nor do they address the politics that enable these problems and fail to address them. We don’t get a Norma Rae moment of working-class women’s agency. What we do get is nonetheless powerful: a clear sense of the resilience of working-class women and the power of working-class community.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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