Precarity Goes to the Movies

Two recent events, vastly different in scale and importance, nonetheless point to the importance of the concept of the precariat, a relatively new coinage for the class of exploited, underemployed and temp workers of the world. The Oscars’ celebration of the South Korean film Parasite foregrounded what even mainstream critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post called a “class war” between the comfortable rich in glossy mansions and the precariat, a miserable underclass who live in Seoul’s gross banjiha or semi-basements.

The other event, the pandemic of the latest coronavirus COVID-19 that, among other horrors, curtailed the yearly—and only–vacation of hundreds of millions of Chinese migratory workers, who would normally travel home to the countryside from the industrial mega-cities in which they are similarly stuffed in overcrowded living conditions in dormitories and squalid apartments.

All over the world these workers of the precariat face remarkably similar working conditions, although they labor under many different titles: zero-hour contracts (United Kingdom), casual employment (Australia), low-hour contracts (Ireland), mini-jobs (Germany), subcontracted labor (India), non-hukuo migration (China), and McJobs or the gig economy (United States). We can hardly pretend that these workers are invisible: they are “illegal immigrants,” fast-food workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, retail clerks, day laborers, landscape workers, migrant workers, child laborers, farm laborers, seasonal workers, house cleaners, nannies, domestic workers, hotel and motel workers, carwasheros, tech workers, adjunct professors, convict labor, recycling scavengers, and so-called “guest workers.”

The precariat are everywhere, a vast global workforce defined by their transitory and tenuous relationship with employers emboldened by declining union membership numbers and the cost-saving outsourcing of labor by corporations and government entities alike. Guy Standing, former director of the Socio-Economic Program of the United Nations International Labour Organization and the leading chronicler of the precariat, examines how their lives are marked by the lack of health and safety regulations, job training, and stable income. As he argues in his 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, the precariat has replaced the traditional proletariat with “a new mass class … characterized by chronic uncertainly and insecurity.” They “consist of millions of people relegated to bits and pieces living, in and out of casual flexible jobs, unable to build an occupational identity.” They are “wanted by the global market system” but are not simply a lumpenproletriat or underclass. They are even more vulnerable because they have no collective voice in their workplace and no short- or long-term job protection.

In the last twenty years, I have studied how the precariat are presented in both feature and documentary films. Using a broad definition of cinema, I have explored not only the traditional genres of labor documentaries and working-class feature films, but also other genres especially relevant to precarious work, such as epidemic cinema and films of catastrophe, as well as other forms of artistic expression, such as video games and films made for art installations and political protests by non-traditional filmmakers. I analyze 300 of these texts in my new book, The Cinema of the Precariat: The Exploited, Underemployed, and Temp Workers of the World (Bloomsbury).

When we consider the visual exploration of filmmakers of radically different backgrounds and intentions, we realize that the precariat has not been so invisible after all. Many of us know, for example, the classic television documentary, Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering televised exposé of the migrant workers’ plight in 1960. That program launched an extended series of television documentaries, from 1960 through the 1990s, that I see as the first series of films about the precariat, though the term had not yet been coined. These films included white, African-American, and Latino migrant workers and farm laborers. At least six major programs, from What Harvest for the Reaper? (1968) through Children of the Harvest (1998), used Murrow’s model of investigative journalism to expose the scandalous conditions of this substantial arm of the precariat and their devastating effect on their families.

The closing years of the twentieth century engendered another kind of massive migration in China and other developing countries, as workers both from within and without urban centers tried to survive austerity programs that eliminated economic safety nets. Between 1970 to 2009, as many as 340 million rural workers were crowded into edge cities and satellite factory towns, working upwards of sixteen hours a day for low pay to generate the Chinese economic miracle of economic growth. Numerous films have chronicled these exploited migratory workers. Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009), for example, follows a single family on a visit home after working for fifteen years in a garment factory in Guangdong Province only to return to find their factory shuttered because of the 2008 world financial crisis.

Other films document how desperate workers in South American countries had no choice but to move into shanty towns among massive garbage dumps to recycle plastics dumped in ever-increasing mounds of trash. For example, Recycled Life (2006) reveals a forty-acre ravine called the Guatemala City Dump, possibly the largest in the world, where hundreds of scavengers, the guajeros (from guaje or “a thing of little value”) recycle millions of pounds of paper, plastic, and metal. In White Train (1993), we see hundreds of cartoneras (the recyclers, literally “the cardboard people”) gleaning the trash of Buenos Aires and transporting their finds on unmarked special trains to the recycling centers.

Films about the recycling of discarded plastics and metals from electronic equipment in China and Southeast Asia and ship-breaking in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh reveal the dangerous and life-threatening tasks the precariat engage in a desperate race to the bottom. Plastic China (2017) focuses on one of five thousand small home factories in the province of Shandong where plastic garbage is transformed into recyclable pellets. On a different and massive scale, workers swarm over discarded ships in select “shipbreaking” ports in the Indian subcontinent, as in Graveyard for Giants (2014). We see Bangladeshi workers suspended hundreds of feet in the air, blowtorching pieces of an old freighter: “Is this a way to live?” one asks the filmmaker.

Looking beyond films that explicitly consider precarious labor, I think we also gain insight on the precariat through film genres and video games that are not so obviously focused on working-class topics. Epidemic cinema has located the spread of diseases among the precariat at least since the 1950s when Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) dramatized an outbreak of plague among the precariat and the lumpenproletariat in New Orleans. Much more recently politically-conscious video game makers have been influenced by traditional filmmakers to offer games in which players have to identify with the precariat to survive or “win.” In the videogame Fort McMoney (2013), modeled on the fracking boom-town Ft. McMurray, Canada, players “walk” around the town, interview workers, and participate in decisions about the city’s future.

The title—and subject matter–of Parasite suggests, like epidemic cinema, that the precariat is a threat to the oligarchy of the 1%, epitomizing the class divide that leaves the 99% struggling for decent pay, health benefits, and job security. The Cinema of the Precariat also devotes separate chapters to the films that demonstrate the 1%’s capitalist drive for profits and economic dominance and that chronicle the rise of alt-labor and the drive to organize the unorganized of the 99%.

While films about the precariat are not new, filmmakers have begun to show the need for new films that will, like Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, make the precariat visible in the 21st century. It seems fitting that the documentary Food Chains (2014) returns to Immokalee, Florida, where Murrow began sixty years ago, to document new organizing drives among migrant labor and to take up the fight for workers’ rights again.

Tom Zaniello

Tom Zaniello is a film and media scholar who has written several books on films about work and class, including Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and RiffraffThe Cinema of Globalizationand The Cinema of the Precariat


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How Polarized Are We?

When I talk with relatives who are not only Trump voters but Trump enthusiasts, I feel pretty damned polarized – especially when I lose my temper and find myself saying some of the things my tribe often hatefully says about theirs.  But as long as we don’t talk about abortion or gun control and tippy-toe carefully around immigration, we share a lot of common ground on a wide range of economic justice issues.  This broad agreement is reflected in survey research that almost never gets reported in the mainstream media.

Worse, that media seems completely unaware of any common ground.

One night during the impeachment trial coverage on MSNBC, for example, as the talking heads were marveling at polling results that showed more than 70% of people supported Democrats’ demands for new evidence and witnesses, Brian Williams quipped that this was astounding in a country that can’t agree that today is Thursday and tomorrow will be Friday.

The polarization around Trump is real, both intellectually and emotionally, but there are a whole bunch of people – not just the Russians and Trump – who have vested interests in keeping us ignorant of how much we agree with each other on economic justice.  It is, in fact, not at all unusual for some 70% of Americans to agree on:

  • Reducing inequality by creating a 2% wealth tax (70%)
  • Reducing poverty by “ensuring that all families have access to basic living standards such as health care, food, and housing if their wages are too low.” (72%)
  • Creating good jobs by “investing $1 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure, including . . . expanded production of clean energy.” (78%)
  • Capping prices on prescription drugs (81%), and
  • Allowing “people who don’t get health insurance through their employer to buy health insurance from a public plan.” (81%)

Numerous other economic policies gain support in the 60-per cent range, including increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit (60%), the Child Care Tax Credit (65%), “food assistance benefits (62%),” and the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (61%).  Even non-Hispanic whites without bachelor’s degrees —  the so-called white working class — support “higher taxes on the wealthy” (74%), “government provided health care” (83%), and “equal pay for men & women” (86%).

So why do our journalists not seem to know about these areas of broad agreement among us?  One answer might be that they, and especially cable news outlets, have a vested interest in reporting conflict rather than consensus.  Conflict “draws eyeballs,” after all.  Then, too, media owners don’t usually pressure journalists to focus more on tax fairness or on spending government money to intervene in failed markets.

Christopher Martin in No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class has another, more complex but complementary, analysis.

Martin documents how media (mostly newspapers then) began changing business models in the 1970s, moving away from attracting a mass audience and toward focusing more strictly on an upscale, more affluent audience.  Media managers thought advertisers would pay more to reach this narrower audience, and they were right.  Martin then analyzes the impact this had on content.  One of his most telling examples involves transit strikes. For a mass audience prior to the ‘70s, stories focused on the strikers, their issues, and their struggles to get by. A decade or two later, when papers were trying to attract a more upscale audience, stories focused on commuters, their difficulties, and how they felt about the transit strikers.  Martin argues that as working-class readers no longer saw themselves, their lives, and their problems reflected in the media, a vacuum was created that was filled by Fox News and other conservative media, which targeted working-class whites.

Martin’s analysis is compelling, but he pays insufficient attention to how this narrow class focus affects educated middle-class professionals, both in media and in their chosen audience.  For one thing, it encourages the educated middle class to think they are much larger and more “normal” than they are.  They tend to believe that most people have college educations, when only about a third  do. They think poor people are a fairly small group who do not work, when 44% of those who work qualify as “low-wage” with median annual wages of $18,000. They also assume that most people have decent working conditions and reasonably fair bosses like they do, when working conditions have been deteriorating for the majority of workers for decades now (see The Big Squeeze and On the Clock).  Journalists might know these facts, but as Martin suggests, they are also aware that their audience does not know them and that it might overly complicate a story to include such details.

The result is that our mainstream media orchestrates a process that allows the educated middle class to talk among themselves, punctuated by commercials for luxury cars and household goods that are beyond the reach of most Americans.  Though other forces are at work as well, this media environment nurtures what Sherry Linkon and John Russo have called a “politics of resentment” focused primarily on elites – a class resentment that, for many whites, reflects anger that the elites “coddle” racial minorities and immigrants.

Despite the media’s investment in the idea of polarization, the 2020 Democratic candidates for president seem well aware that voters actually agree on many issues around economic justice, even those candidates who distance themselves from the Party’s left wing.  But they are campaigning in a media environment that takes its educated middle-classness so for granted that it highlights how inappropriate it is for the President to say “bullshit” in public while failing to note that that same President gave himself an $11 million tax cut.  Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are identified as “far left” in this environment not only because they insist on framing their arguments in terms of class conflict – even though the classes tend to be the 99% versus the 1% — but also because they are articulating a broadly popular message and set of policies that media professionals cannot imagine being popular among the narrow class audience they envision as much bigger than it is.

There is a huge potential for political unity around pursuing economic justice.  A different study with a large enough sample to break out differences among the white, black, and Hispanic working-classes (as defined by education) found a surprising unity among them on eight “economic populist” issues similar to those above.  But that same study found that college-educated folks of all colors had views that were pretty similar. That should encourage the Democratic Party to listen to its left wing, no matter who wins the nomination. Hopefully, Sanders and Warren can convince the media to pay attention to a political universe that is not nearly as polarized on issues of economic justice as it is on who does and does not say bullshit.

Jack Metzgar

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Is There a Working-Class Cable News Channel?

The country just began its long march through caucuses and primaries toward the presidential election in November. How will this political story spin out on the major cable news networks, and what will it look like to working-class viewers?

The stereotypical views of the three major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – are firmly lodged in America’s consciousness. The basic profile goes like this: Fox is on the right, MSNBC is its counterpart on the left, and CNN is somewhere in the middle, but left of center. This view ignores some important differences that have nothing to do with ideology, but we’ll get to that later.

By the same commonsense view, Fox News is the channel for the working class, while MSNBC and CNN both serve over-educated, pointy-headed, upscale, elite liberals. That assumption has been fueled by the relentless marketing efforts of Fox News and its political allies since it went on the air in 1996 under the direction of its owner, conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and its CEO, Republican operative Roger Ailes. For example, if you take the word of Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’s original evening hosts, he’s just a regular working-class guy from Long Island. As he told Politico in a 2017 interview, “The media has a bunch of overpaid, out of touch, lazy millionaires that have nothing but contempt for the people that do make this country great.” Then he added. “I am not one of those people.” Mind you, that’s coming from the top-rated primetime host of the top-rated cable news channel who makes $46 million a year, has homes in Long Island and Naples, Florida and $90 million in additional real estate purchased through shell corporations with government-backed loans.

So instead of listening to Hannity, let’s take a look closer at the characteristics of the cable network news audiences. For context, let’s add the news/information channels CNBC, Fox Business News, HLN, and the Weather Channel along with the big three.

There are two available, if imperfect, data that provide proxies for class: household income and education. Viewer median household income for all of the news and information channels except the Weather Channel falls within the $50,000 to $74,999 range, and the national median income — $63,179 in 2018 – falls within that range.

Most surprising, because it plays against the myth, is that there isn’t a big difference in the median household income of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC viewers. Yes, more Fox News viewers (44.9 percent) are in the under $50K household income than CNN (40.9 percent) and MSNBC (39 percent), but given the stereotypes, you’d expect vast chasms between the channels’ viewing audiences in this regard. Even more interesting is that all three channels – MSNBC included – have a lower percentage of viewers with household incomes above $100K than the U.S. population as a whole. Nationally, 30.4 percent of the households earn more than $100K, but only 27.3 percent of CNN households, 24.1 percent of Fox News households, and 28.9 percent of MSNBC households earn that much. Although Fox News households do earn slightly less than CNN and MSNBC households, the bigger story is that all three networks attract fewer viewers with 6-figure incomes than the nation as a whole.

So what are those wealthier households watching? Fox Business News. Their audiences are the highest earning of all the news and information cable channels. The Weather Channel’s audience get the “blue-collar” title, with the median income of its viewers at just below $50,000 a year.

While education is a poor proxy for class, Fox News attracts fewer college graduates, so on that score it does fit the stereotype of being more working-class. Trump used education as a proxy on the campaign trail in 2016, noting that  “We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” Like Trump, Fox wears its anti-intellectualism like a badge and wields it as a cultural wedge.

That said, the college graduation levels of audiences of all three of the major news networks are below that national average. By 2018, 34.99 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and older had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. The network that attracts the highest rate of viewers with college degrees is MSNBC, but only 34 percent of its audience has that much education. At the very least, the notion that MSNBC or CNN viewers are out-of-touch, over-educated elites does not ring true.

In fact, it’s not household income or education that best describe the difference in the audiences of the cable news networks. It’s race. MSNBC’s audience may not be super-rich or super-educated in comparison to the other major cable news channels or even the profile of the nation’s population, but its audience is the most diverse on cable television – not just the cable news networks, but any cable channel. In the most recent rankings, MSNBC was the top-watched cable network in prime time among African Americans, ahead of such channels as VH1, ESPN, and OWN. CNN ranked No. 8 in cable networks with the most African-American viewers. With Black viewers making up just 1 percent of its audience, Fox didn’t register in the top 10 rankings. Indeed, 94 percent of Fox News viewers are White. Only 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian.

The whiteness of Fox News’s audience is both a product of and a reinforcing feedback justification loop for its anti-immigration and white supremacist views. For example, after racist and anti-Semitic protests by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and counter-protests against them, President Trump commented that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” That kind of talk is shocking anywhere on cable news, except on Fox, where white supremacy is the lingua franca. I could selected any number of examples, but here are two: in 2019, Fox host Tucker Carlson called white supremacy a “hoax” (after a mass shooting motivated by anger at immigrants in an El Paso Walmart that killed 22) and later claimed that immigration “makes our own country poorer and dirtier.” It’s that kind of false statement that makes clear that we can’t describe MSNBC as the lefty counterpart to Fox News. There’s nothing MSNBC does that is this radical or dishonest. MSNBC may have a clear political perspective, but it generally hews to journalism’s rules of truth-telling and verification.

More than household income and education, race animates Fox News. The network may have built its brand on class issues, but it’s class informed by race. Fox News isn’t interested in the entire working class. It’s the white working class Fox News is trying to reach with their political agenda for the 2020 presidential election.

We should, however, put the impact of this in perspective. On a typical day, Fox News’s Sean Hannity has 3.3 million viewers. Meanwhile, the original broadcast networks still run their mainstream evening news programs. Their audiences are much smaller than decades ago, but these programs still draw bigger audiences than cable. More than 22 million viewers watch the news daily on ABC, CBS, or NBC. The stories these networks present, and perhaps especially how they deal with a firehose stream of propaganda and misinformation coming from Fox and the president, will be a factor in the presidential race, too.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.





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The Class Culture War

New York Times columnist David Brooks has proven himself both interested in and repeatedly confused by the working class. A few weeks ago, in a piece arguing that Bernie Sanders is wrong to blame capitalism for economic inequality, Brooks wrote that “Class-war progressivism always loses to culture-war conservatism because swing voters in the Midwest care more about their values — guns, patriotism, ending abortion, masculinity, whatever — than they do about proletarian class consciousness.” He goes on to point out that working-class wages are going up faster than incomes for top earners, which he cites as evidence that capitalism benefits everyone.

As with so many debates about how Democrats could win support from working-class voters, Brooks presents a false choice between class and culture that betrays his inability to make sense of how class works.

Brooks chastises Sanders for misunderstanding capitalism, but Brooks misunderstands how closely class and culture are intertwined. I’ve spent the last 25 years studying that relationship, especially the way economic restructuring didn’t just undermine the social position of working-class people but also brought changes to working-class culture. Many of the “conservative values” Brooks identifies are tied to economic conditions. And class consciousness explains why, after years of stagnation and a huge shift of income and wealth to the richest Americans over several decades, some working-class people are finally gaining a little ground.

In Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, John Russo and I argued that a “politics of resentment” emerged in that community during the years when its steel industry was collapsing. That resentment spread throughout the region during the decade after the mills closed. Some of it was directed at institutions that people had long counted on to serve their interests – business, unions, government, churches, all of which had failed to protect them from the economic and social costs of tens of thousands of lost jobs. It grew as politician after politician made and broke promises to help. It festered as people read national media stories about how deindustrialization was part of a process of “creative destruction” that would revitalize the economy, a claim that in some ways proved true – but mostly for well-educated people on the coasts and in big cities, not for displaced steelworkers.

Resentment is a cultural response to economic struggle, and it has political consequences.  In Youngstown in the early 1980s, it translated into strong support for a mob-connected, crass, political outsider, county sheriff Jim Traficant, who had stood on laid-off workers’ front lawns and refused to let them be evicted when they couldn’t pay their mortgages. Youngstown voters elected Traficant as their congressman in 1984. He served until convicted of crimes in 2002.

Forty years after Traficant’s rise, the politics of resentment have become a national (and in many ways global) trend, leading voters to reject candidates they view as elitist and entrenched in favor of those who promise to challenge and change the status quo. While we don’t think of Barack Obama as benefiting from the politics of resentment, the belief that government needed fresh blood and new ideas drew many to support him, including many white working-class people who, some feared, would never vote for a black man. Resentment contributed to Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, especially after he was heard dismissing “47%” of voters at a high-ticket fundraiser. Hillary Clinton made the same blunder in 2016, famously dismissing Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” while Trump seemed to have successfully channeled Traficant’s populist bluster.

Among the cultural values Brooks identifies as central to the cultural wars is masculinity. I agree that this is an important cultural issue for many working-class men who feel anxious about their place in the world and therefore defensive about men’s roles. But that, too, has economic roots. When industrial jobs that offer good pay and benefits go away, men feel more than just an economic loss. For generations, a key element of masculinity was the ability to support a family. While the family wage has long been a thing of the past, men still struggle with shame and frustration over not being able to be good providers. Equally important, few of the jobs that have replaced industrial work offer men opportunities to demonstrate traditional masculine qualities like strength, toughness, or power over machinery and materials. Contemporary working-class jobs, most of which are in the service sector, pay less – not just in dollars but also in the kind of validation that these men seek.

Let’s consider the other half of Brooks’s argument, too. It’s true that wages for lower-level workers are rising, and yes, the rate of growth these days is faster for lower-income workers than for management these days. That sounds great, but it’s hardly proof that capitalism works well for everyone. Has Brooks forgotten the recent history of economic inequality? maps it all out clearly, showing how the incomes of the top 1% doubled between 1968 and 2017, while poverty rates held steady. Incomes for top earners have soared from around $633,000 annually in 1979 to more than $2.7 million in 2017, while incomes of the bottom 90% — that’s most of us, folks – rose by less than $10,000 a year, all the way to a grand $36,000.

But, okay – things are getting better. Why would that be? It isn’t because of productivity, as Brooks claims. Productivity and pay both increased at about the same rate between 1948 and 1979, but then productivity continued to rise while wages stagnated. A tighter labor market also makes a big difference, though it’s hard to imagine it will be enough to ever make up for the disparities of the last two decades. As the Economic Policy Institute noted in 2018, “while wages are growing for most workers, wage growth continues to be slower than would be expected in an economy with relatively low unemployment.”

Even more important in Brooks’s misunderstanding of working-class politics is his refusal to acknowledge that class consciousness might have had anything to do with wages going up. Since 2014, 29 states and 44 localities have raised the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. And sorry, David, that’s not because bosses don’t “have workers by the throat.” It’s because workers organized to fight for economic justice. The Fight for $15 and dozens of living wage campaigns that led to states and cities hiking the minimum wage offer great examples of class consciousness in action.

No doubt, conservative politics, including opposition to immigration and gun control as well as the anxiety some white Americans feel about the country’s changing demographics – not to mention more overt white supremacism – will play a role in this year’s election. But if Democrats want to win working-class votes, they shouldn’t buy into Brooks’s either/or vision. Instead, they should recognize that what people earn, the jobs they do, the state of their communities, and their values are all intertwined.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

This piece originally appeared last week on the American Prospect blog.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Faith and Work Movement Stops Short of Class

The faith and work movement in the United States is an important expression of evangelical attempts to reconcile the demands of the modern workplace with the values of the Christian faith. In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, “What Would Jesus Do About Inequality,” Molly Worthen argues that in “today’s evangelicalism, this [movement] is where the theological action is.” The subtitle of her piece asserts that “The faith and work movement wants to bend the gospel back toward economic justice.” But how can a movement that ignores class, power in the workplace, labor ethics, and worker solidarity achieve economic justice?

For many Christians on the left, the gospel simply can’t “bend toward economic justice” if the poor and oppressed are excluded. As the gospel of Luke reminds us, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18, NIV). Any “gospel” that fails to prioritize the poor and oppressed is a false one. But evangelicals, particularly in the United States, have traditionally focused on individuals and the need for salvation from sin through faith, not works. The good news of the gospel is for those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. There is no mention of the poor and oppressed.

But Worthen argues that a “different cast of evangelicals” including pastors, academics, and small-scale entrepreneurs “have built a network of businesses, ministries, media organizations, conference programs, websites, and more than a dozen research centers” to take more seriously “all the ways the Bible challenges the exploitations of our new Gilded Age.” She points to principles laid out by the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, which aim to integrate faith and work. According to the Denver Institute, when this integration occurs, work becomes “good work” through which one can gain a sense of what God’s coming Kingdom will look like. Until that Kingdom arrives, the Institute suggests, the faithful must embrace the call to costly discipleship and justice in which one sacrificially serves “the needs of the poor and marginalized in our work and communities.” Service to others seems to be a welcome reminder of one’s general ethical responsibility. Yet the call to discipleship and justice does not address class-based sources for poverty and marginalization. Without recognizing such structural causes, how can the faith and work movement contain what Worthen calls “important seeds” that have the possibility of “transforming conservative evangelicalism”?

Worthen also highlights the work of Tim Keller, pastor of what she identifies as the headquarters for the movement, New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and its Center for Faith and Work. She finds Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor (2012) to be a touchstone of the movement. But a closer look reveals that this book is more like kryptonite than a touchstone for workers who might try to use it in their workplaces. In the chapter “A New Compass for Work,” Keller refers to Ephesians 6 to explain how Paul argues that all work should be done “as if you were serving the Lord.” In Ephesians 6:5-7, Paul urges that “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey, them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Keller acknowledges that Paul also teaches that masters should treat slaves in the same way. His disclaimer that slavery in Paul’s time was not race-based and seldom lifelong in character but rather similar to indentured servitude is hardly reassuring. Keller uses Paul’s teaching to suggest that workers should be wholehearted in their work. They should not perform just the minimum work necessary or work hard only when supervisors are around to watch. Since Christians work for the Lord and not men, Keller explains, their reward is an inheritance from God. As such, work “does not have to be unduly tied to the amount of reward that they get from their masters.” Thus, he argues, Christians “have been set free to enjoy working.”

This claim shows the naivete of Keller and other adherents of the faith and work movement. Enjoying one’s work while subject to wage theft, safety violations, speed ups, and threats of outsourcing is impossible. Such power inequality on the job is a class matter. The absence of workers’ voices in the faith and work movement renders it irrelevant, because it does not account for what workers actually endure on a daily basis. A reckoning with the experiences of actual workers would help the movement unpack a term like “inequality” into identifiable issues that they could then address with specificity. Inequality on the job is not only about pay but includes all the ways that workers are diminished and marginalized.

Keller’s uncritical advocacy of the work ethic is problematic enough. But the union of workplace authority and divine authority that reinforces this work ethic also undercuts the possibility for class-based resistance. Based on this “touchstone” of the faith and work movement, it is hard to imagine an alternative labor ethic that would advocate the authority of workers themselves to create the conditions that shape their day-to-day work life.  Indeed, the faith and work movement stops short of its promise and offers no tools to bend the gospel back toward economic justice. The movement features a number of nation-wide networks that convene conferences, offer seminars, host webinars, and provide resources to pastors and lay leaders. But it is disconnected from actual worker struggles and labor advocacy. It prioritizes “faith” and has a deracinated view of work.

One has to wonder whether movement leaders wish to tie the gospel ever more tightly to its capitalist masters and throw justice overboard as just so much flotsam. The movement in its current incarnation, as well as its earlier ones, is simply unable to free itself from its mooring in neoliberal economic practices.

It is hardly a consolation that Keller was one of the few white evangelical leaders who did not support Trump. After all, even Mark Galli’s valiant editorial in Christianity Today that “Trump Should be Removed from Office” was not based on essential ideological differences with the direction the President wishes to take. In a follow-up article, “The Flag in the Whirlwind: An Update from CT’s President,” Timothy Dalrymple defended Galli and the clarified the magazine’s position in the ensuing controversy. He emphasizes that the magazine is theologically conservative, pro-life, pro-family, and “firm supporters” of religious liberties. He also writes that it supports “economic opportunity for men and women to exercise their gifts and create value in the world.” Phrases like “economic opportunity” and “creating value” reflect a free market ideology.

In sum, the faith and work movement has other work to do, including addressing the deeper questions that its younger adherents are asking about issues such as immigration, LGBTQ rights, and climate change, as Worthen rightly notes. Such issues profoundly shape the workplace and what occurs in a workday. The movement would do well to incorporate these concerns to address a new generation of evangelicals. But it cannot even hope to contemplate solving its core issue of inequality if it ignores essential questions about class and the voices of workers.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College


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The Politics of Pensions: No Bailout for You

Photo by Andrew Rush, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On December 24 last year, the New York Times reported that a multi-billion-dollar bailout of the United Mine Workers Health & Retirement Fund which was slated to go broke in 2023 had been rolled into the $1.4 trillion bi-partisan spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. The last-minute deal will ensure that thousands of retired miners living in some of the nation’s most impoverished communities continue to receive the modest benefits they earned during their years working in Appalachia’s coal mines.

The decision to insert the Miner’s Pension Protection Act into the must-pass budget bill was clearly good news for the 100,000 retirees who depend on pensions that average $595.00 per month. It was also something of a Christmas miracle.

The legislation had been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rob Portman of Ohio and other powerful Republicans who opposed the bailout on “principle” even though thousands of retired miners residing in their states would have been devastated if the fund had gone belly-up. Observers speculate that McConnell, who is up for election this year, was scared into a change of heart after Democrat Andy Beshear was elected governor of Kentucky in November. Donald Trump’s need to throw miners a bone after failing to deliver on his promise to resurrect the flagging but “beautiful” coal industry also played a role in moving the proposal along.

Frankly, we could care less about what melted McConnell’s cold, cold heart—assuming he has one. We’re just happy miners and their families will continue to get their checks. But this incident along with the impending collapse of hundreds of other severely underfunded multi-employer (ME) pension funds, provides a frame for comparing the disparate ways leaders of both major political parties deal with Wall Street and Main Street. You won’t be surprised to learn who gets the short end of the stick.

It’s an easy and disheartening comparison to make. Simply contrast the way the federal government reacted when the financial markets began to meltdown in 2007 to what’s been done to address the pension crisis. In the former instance, Bush, Obama, and Congress met behind closed doors and cooked up the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a more than $6 trillion taxpayer bailout of the big banks, speculators, mortgage brokers, and other miscreants whose criminal behavior, greed, and avarice brought the world economy to the brink of disaster and cost 10,000,000 Americans their homes. Of course, no one who engaged in the criminal activity that Fortune’s Michael Collins and others have identified ever went to jail. They just went out and bought new Maseratis, Gulfstream Vs, and bespoke suits.

Now let’s look at how the feds have dealt with the pension crisis which has been precipitated by the effects of deindustrialization, the sharp decline in union membership, chronic underfunding, poor investment decisions, employer pullouts, lax regulation, and serial bankruptcies. Today,  approximately 1,400 multi-employer plans covering 10.6 million Americans are underfunded by $638 billion. More than 100, including the mammoth Teamsters Central State Pension Fund which has $40.5 billion in unfunded liabilities, could go broke in the next five years. Unless something is done millions of men and women who contributed trillions of dollars in deferred wages to ME plans will, through no fault of their own, receive drastically reduced benefits—if they receive any at all.

Federal officials have floated a number of proposals for dealing with the dilemma.  Most have one thing in common: they punish the innocent victims. For example, Congress and the Obama administration launched a sneak attack against workers and retirees by slipping the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) of 2014 into a must-pass omnibus budget bill at the last possible moment. This “reform” legislation gave ME plan trustees the authority to seek approval from the Treasury Department to reduce benefit levels without seeking prior approval from active workers or retirees.

Shortly after the bill passed, the Central States board asked Treasury for permission to slash benefits by as much as $2,000 per month for current and future retirees. The hundreds of thousands of people who would have been affected were understandably outraged by both the proposed cuts and what they viewed as a betrayal by Congressional Democrats and Obama. That outrage and the resentment it fueled persists to this day, even though Treasury and Special Master Ken Feinberg ultimately rejected the Central States’ application in 2016. Since then more than 25 ME plans covering more than 108,000 workers have sought approval to slash benefits.

There is some good news, however. Earlier this year the Democratic majority in the House passed the “Butch Lewis Act,” which would provide billions of dollars in loans to the troubled ME plans. Unfortunately, the good news ends there because the Senate Republicans who leapt at the opportunity to throw trillions to their Wall Street buddies are adamantly opposed to a taxpayer funded bail out that will help working-class retirees and ensure that men and women who are on the job today will receive promised benefits tomorrow.

Their alternative? Chuck Grassley’s Multiemployer Pension Recapitalization and Reform Plan. Not only will this little beauty result in benefit cuts, it imposes a monthly fee on those greedy retirees who had the temerity to live long enough to collect the pensions they earned. This will teach them.

We have some better ideas. First, a TARP-like relief program for America’s pension systems. If we can afford $6,000,000,000 to bailout the robber barons we can afford to ensure that working- and middle-class families get their pension checks every month. And we’ll even do one better than TARP, which did little to rein-in the excesses that nearly blew up banking system. In exchange for the money, we’d require pension plans to accept tight new regulations that would protect workers and their deferred wages going forward.

Second, we need to reform the bankruptcy laws so that ME plans would be considered secured creditors in line for payment ahead of banks, hedge funds, and stockholders. This is critical because serial bankruptcies were largely responsible for undermining the UMW fund.  Requiring companies to meet their obligation to retirees and workers would go a long way to strengthening plans that have been weakened by corporate greed.

Finally, the Democratic candidates for office should start talking about the crisis, making clear how it impacts hundreds of thousands of people in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – including many working-class voters who abandoned the Democratic Party in 2016. Hillary Clinton ignored David Betras and Leo Jennings, whose “Blue Collar” memo to her campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Ohio Democratic Party offered this advice:

Want to move Ohio’s 50,000 retired Teamsters and their family members to the HRC camp: use them in ads in which they talk about how much they appreciate the fact she will find a way to keep the Central States Pension Fund solvent that doesn’t involve gutting their monthly check and health care benefits…these workers and their family members are scared to death of what may happen and that means they will respond to and vote for the candidate who pledges to fix the problem.

The response from the Clinton campaign: crickets.

The crisis has worsened since then, but so has the opportunity to use it to win working-class votes that could be the difference between victory and defeat in the primary and general elections. We hope it’s not ignored again.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

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


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

Beyond Policy: Why Democrats Need to Show White Working-Class Voters Some Respect

When I heard Hillary Clinton refer to half of Trump supporters as “deplorables” during her 2016 presidential campaign, I knew she would lose. Her comment exemplified the arrogant, elitist, dismissive attitudes that make many white working-class voters suspicious of the Democratic Party. Four years later, as Democrats try to figure out how to beat one of the least popular Republican presidents ever, they’re still trying to get over their deplorables problem.

Political advisers suggest two strategies for winning this year. One says that “demography is destiny,” arguing that Democrats will win because of the increasing power of voters of color, young people, and middle-class whites, especially suburban women. If Democrats can secure votes from these groups, they don’t need to worry about the white working class. After all, this theory suggests, white working-class voters didn’t suddenly shift to the right in 2016. They had been moving in that direction since the late 1960s with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of emphasizing racial resentment. Further, some argue that as more people earn college degrees, the working class is getting smaller.

The second electoral strategy argues that many white working-class voters remain “persuadable,” especially those who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then switched to Trump in 2016. And even if the working class, as defined by education, is declining, they still constitute a significant portion of the electorate, and Democrats have to win support from at least some of them in order to win in 2020.

In 2016, Clinton counted on demographics, apparently assuming, among other things, that she could rely on support from voters of color, younger voters, and women, especially those who were well-educated and suburban. That won her the majority of votes but left her vulnerable in the crucial states where most voters are white and working-class.

Some candidates and pundits today argue that the Party needs a candidate like Clinton – a moderate who can appeal both to voters of color and suburban, mostly white educated women and who won’t scare off older or more moderate voters. They point to Joe Biden’s consistently high poll numbers as evidence that voters are most comfortable with a middle-of-the-road candidate with broad appeal, not a more activist leftist who promises big changes.

But as the conservative National Review asked, “Are Democrats Sure Biden Is Different Enough From Hillary Clinton?” He may seem like a safe option, and he has the apparent advantage of working-class roots. But will working-class voters trust Biden any more than they did Clinton? Should they? In 2016, Biden didn’t challenge Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters. Indeed, he made a similar statement of his own in 2018. Speaking before a liberal audience at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, he referred to Trump supporters as “virulent people, some of them dregs of society.“ While dismissive comments like that may play well to the well-educated, well-heeled patrons of a progressive non-profit, they may also come back to haunt him.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will need to win in states where most voters are white and don’t have a college degree – the measure most polls use to identify respondents’ social class. As pollster Ruy Texiera argues, “even a slight drop among white non-college voters could negate”  any demographic shifts, in part because the states Democrats need to win remain whiter and more working-class than the rest of the country. In Ohio, 60% of voters are white people without college degrees. In Wisconsin, they make up 61% and in Iowa, 66%. More than half of voters in Michigan (56%) and Pennsylvania (56%) also belong to this group, as do voters in North Carolina (47%), Maine (66%), New Hampshire (61%), and Minnesota (56%). While Democrats made gains in these states in 2018, that trend needs to grow.

If the Democrats want to secure the gains they made in 2018 and win the 2020 presidential election, they need to win back over at least some of these white working-class voters. What will it take to do that? Democrats may hope that their attention to policies aimed at offsetting economic inequality – like Medicare-for-All, increasing the minimum wage, and free college — will be enough to carry these voters, but Andrew Levison sees it differently. Writing in the Washington Monthly, Levison claims that Democrats must establish “a basic level of trust.” Levison identifies a strong sense of class consciousness among white working-class voters, one that is triggered when Democratic candidates make dismissive comments about people like them. If Democrats want voters to engage with debates about economic and social policies, they first have to persuade them that Dems respect people like them. That’s the basis for trust.

Senator Sherrod Brown at a 2014 rally

There’s evidence that this is a winning strategy in the success of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. He has been re-elected several times in that increasingly Republican state despite criticism from its conservative media because he wins support from white working-class voters. He gained their trust in two ways. First, he offered plans that focused on them and the dignity of their work, including a plan to “restore the value of work in America” headlined by the point that people are “Working Too Hard for Too Little.”  But Brown also meets regularly with working people, and he doesn’t just tell them what he thinks. He listens to them. So unlike many other Democratic politicians, working people trust him.

Many white working-class voters believed in 2016 that they could trust Donald Trump, but some  seem to be losing faith in the President. In January 2017, about 42% of Americans disapproved of him. Two years later, his disapproval rating has risen to 53.4%. As FiveThirtyEight  reports, “Trump is the most unpopular President since Ford to run for reelection.” Unpopularity doesn’t guarantee defeat, of course, but it’s worth noting that Trump’s disapproval ratings have increased dramatically in battleground states like Pennsylvania (15%), Ohio (18%), Michigan (23%), and Wisconsin (15%) as well as in increasingly purple states like Texas(20%), North Carolina (18%), and Georgia (20%), according to the Morning Consult. All of this will help the Democrats.

But they can’t rely on Trump’s loss of trust if they want to win back the White House. They need to make clear that they understand, care about, and respect white working-class voters. To do that, they have to stop demonizing or dismissing Trump’s supporters as deplorable or as the dregs of society. Yes, Democrats need to offer policies to rebalance economic inequality, but as Arlie Hochschild suggested in Strangers in Their Own Land, the grievances that motivate white working-class voters can’t be addressed only through policy.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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