Talking Class and Race at the Same Time

Most progressive policies have the potential of unifying people around class interests, but a convention in talking about these things often seems to purposely lean against pointing that out. Cory Booker’s baby bonds, all versions of Medicare for All, and the $15 minimum wage, for example, would all disproportionately benefit blacks and Latinxs, a point often highlighted by politicians and in the press, especially the advocacy press.  What they usually don’t say, however, is that though lower percentages of whites will benefit from these policies, very large numbers of them will. What would be wrong with uniformly mentioning that while people of color are disproportionately affected, the largest groups of poor, uninsured, and negative-wealth Americans are white folks?

Maybe candidates and reporters assume that everybody knows this, but I’m pretty sure they do not.  Though I have only anecdotal evidence, I suspect large numbers of white people don’t realize how substantially they would benefit from these policies.  Every time a politician or advocate says proudly that their policy would “especially benefit people of color,” to white folks it can sound like the policy is geared mostly toward people unlike them.  Because whites are still a large majority of the population (67%) and an even larger proportion of voters (72%), this should be seen as political malpractice.  But beyond political pragmatism, there’s a moral and truth deficit to mentioning one but not the other.

Almost any policy, existing or proposed, that aims to improve the economic circumstances of the bottom half of the population by income will end up benefiting larger percentages of people of color (what is meant by “disproportionately”), while the largest group of beneficiaries will be white people.  While whites are under-represented among the bottom half, they are still the largest group as we define our races and ethnicities.  A $15 minimum wage, for example, would benefit the majorities of blacks and Hispanics and only a little more than a third of whites, but of the 60 million people who would benefit, 33 million would be white.

To take a more complicated example, consider this headline from Vox, “Study: Cory Booker’s baby bonds nearly closes the racial wealth gap for young adults.”  The black-white racial wealth gap is huge, and it is clearly tied to a centuries-long history of structural racism that continues today in many forms, including education, housing, and lending practices.  The mean average wealth of white households is nearly 9 times higher that of black households.  What’s more, about 20% of black households have zero or negative net wealth versus only 10% of white households.  But while it may seem paradoxical, more than twice the number of white households have zero or negative net wealth than black households – 7.7 million white households compared to 3.3 million black households. This is simple arithmetic – lower percentages of much larger groups mean more actual people, but most of us can’t and don’t do this arithmetic in our heads.  And, unless it is pointed out, we don’t often infer it as a background fact.

So if Cory Booker says his baby bonds would “especially benefit people of color” in building wealth, is that actually true?  If we look at just those with negative net wealth who would benefit the most from Booker’s means-tested proposal, more than 7 million white households would benefit while only about 3 million black households would.  What is “especially” about that?  Booker assumes that people only go by percentages, and his proposal would indeed substantially reduce the black-white wealth gap in median incomes, but the largest group of beneficiaries will still be white. Booker’s baby bonds scheme reduces not only the racial wealth gap but also the class wealth gap.  Families of color will benefit disproportionately, but white ones will “especially” benefit too.  Wouldn’t being explicit about that make the proposal more attractive, not less, to a big chunk of the two-thirds of the electorate that is white?

Would that be appealing to “white” self-interest?  Yes, in part it would, but it would not appeal uniformly across white income classes, 20% of whom would likely see their benefit from baby bonds as insignificant.  But this is also true of people of color.  By mentioning that a policy “disproportionately benefits people of color,” we might think we’re appealing to the interests of all people of color, but we’re undoubtedly appealing most to those for whom baby bonds could be a generational game changer – a group defined by class, not by race.  Baby bonds benefit almost everybody (up to $126,000 in annual income), but they make the most difference for people of little or negative wealth regardless of race or ethnicity.  Calling out not just how a policy benefits almost everybody, but specifically how it benefits larger numbers of white people at the same time as it benefits larger percentages of people of color is to talk about race and class at the same time – and we need to do more of that.

It feels awkward, because calling white people white can seem provocative.   But if we’re going to divide ourselves into racial groups as we do – white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and other – then we need to stop talking as if all poor people are people of color and all white people have the full array of privileges that come with whiteness.  Though nearly everybody would get it right on a true-false test, well-educated journalists and politicians routinely use “poor” as if it were a racial category and “working class” as if it were wall-to-wall white (and often just blue-collar white men).  This implicit usage not only makes building class unity more difficult, it makes it nearly impossible even to envision.

It also encourages politicians and pundits to pose false dilemmas pitting Trump’s working-class white base against the Democrats’ rainbow coalition, as in suggesting that the Party must choose to “Win Back Trump Voters or Rally the Base?”  It makes it impossible to see that 33 percent of the rainbow are whites without bachelor degrees – the reigning definition of the white working class and the largest single group in the Democratic base.  Dems need class-based policies that appeal across our racial categories, and candidates running for the Democratic nomination have a potpourri of such policies on offer.  But they need to learn how to talk about class and race at the same time.

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 Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple 2000).

 

Advertisements
Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Mexican Workers Pay the Cost of the Immigration Crackdown

Workers install the last iron panel of the border fence segment near Naco port of entry, in Arizona

The crackdown on illegal immigration at the southern border and the increase in deportations are taking a toll on Mexican workers in the United States and Mexico. While strict immigration policy is not a new phenomenon, Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies and incendiary rhetoric exacerbate the situation.

With support from the conservative media, Trump has framed immigration as a “crisis” along the southern border. Warnings that hordes of criminals, rapists, gangbangers, and drug dealers from Mexico and Central America are invading the United States, from both Trump and conservative pundits, encourage people to express their xenophobic or nativist tendencies openly. Trump’s portrayal of undocumented Mexican immigrants as violent criminals defines them as a national security threat, and that has inspired some to take matters into their own hands to weed-out “enemies of the state.” Without a doubt, Trump’s tirades have contributed to the increase of hate crimes. Mexican immigrants of all ages have fallen victim to racially motivated crimes. Many have been run out of towns by locals who deliberately made their lives insufferable. Some towns have enacted laws outlawing landowners to rent to people unable to prove their legal status. Businesses that hire workers illegally in the United States are subject to fines, leading many of them to screen people more thoroughly. Years ago, business owners could get away with hiring an individual without verifying their legal status. Today, the Department of Homeland Security is taking measures to ensure businesses and companies use E-Verify to check whether an individual can legally work in the United States.

All of this creates major challenges for undocumented Mexican workers in the United States, who must navigate in this hostile environment, but it also affects their families in Mexico who depend the money workers send home. Remittances hit a record high of $33 billion in 2018, a 10.5% increase compared to 2017. But those numbers are likely to fall in 2019, as the crackdown on the border intensifies and deportations grow. As a result, millions of families in Mexico will struggle to remain economically solvent in an economy where the urban working class earns just over $5 a day.

Deportation creates additional challenges for those who have lived in the United States for decades and established roots. After years of not being able to move freely across the border, immigrants’ connection to Mexico diminishes, and this presents significant social problems for the Mexican worker on top of financial ones. Many have grown accustomed to their way of life in the United States. Deportees undergo a culture shock and must grapple with unfamiliar laws, norms, and regulations. Many suffer from depression and worry that they’ve disappointed their families. As these feelings increase, so does their desperation to return to the United States –even as that option becomes less accessible.

Crossing the border has become more dangerous and more expensive. The militarization of the border has contributed to that, but it is not the only factor. Gang violence, kidnappings, heat exhaustion, extortion, and rape are just some of the problems migrants are likely to encounter as they move through Mexico and at the southern border. In the 1970s, it cost a few hundred dollars to hire a “coyote” (human trafficker) to smuggle you across the border. Today the fees range between $3,000 and $6,500, sometimes more. Migrants also have to contend with exploitation, threats of violence, and extortion by gangs and drug cartels that have capitalized on the vulnerability of migrants and amassed tremendous wealth from ransoms or forcing them work as drug mules.

Trump’s latest gambit is to place tariffs on Mexican products in order to punish Mexico for not doing enough to clamp down on the flow of immigrants through the country. The United States is Mexico’s third largest trade partner, and tariffs will surely hurt the Mexican economy. Several Republican Party members and economic advisors have warned Trump against enacting the tariffs. Why? First, Mexico lacks the infrastructure and money to adequately deal with the flow of immigrants from Central America through the country. Second, the tariffs will probably cause the Mexican peso to drop ($1 U.S. dollar=$19.55 pesos) and prices to rise, and this would likely increase the number of people trying to get across the border. Nevertheless, Trump tweeted just a few days ago that “Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem.” This is patently false. For the past 18 years, Mexico has been suffering a severe economic downturn, which has been exacerbated by =increased drug-related violence and political instability. Mexico’s unemployment has remained at a steady 4%, but this is cold comfort for the millions of working-class Mexicans who live in poverty. That seemingly low rate does not reflect the decline in wages and the number of hours a laborer must work to earn a decent living. The circumstances are even bleaker in rural areas of Mexico, where the majority of undocumented immigrants call home.

The U.S. economy will also suffer. While the Mexican workers making automobile parts exported to the United States may lose their jobs, American consumers will also pay more to buy cars, since the 5% tariff increase on will be passed on to them. Of course, the U.S. economy is already suffering from Trump’s hardline anti-immigration laws. For example, farmers have long relied on immigrant workers who day in and day out perform the backbreaking job of harvesting produce. But tighter border security, deportations, and racism are causing those workers to leave – or making it harder for them to cross the border. Without Mexican workers, the fruits and vegetables Americans consume are rotting on the ground. Consumers will likely pay more in the grocery store, and farmers will face series financial consequences.

Aside from ending the racism hyperbole about immigration, what should be done? We need to provide the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States with a path to citizenship. That’s what Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro proposed in his immigration reform plan, announced last month. Of course, Castro is not the first to support a path to citizenship. Democrats have mulled over the idea for years, yet have made little headway. Conservatives, on the other hand, have regularly undercut any legislation that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, claiming that this rewards criminals. But providing a path to citizenship is humane and necessary to protect a large group of workers who contribute extensively to our society. They will no longer have to live under the constant threat of deportation. Castro also proposed a “Marshal Plan for Central America to help deter potential-asylum seekers” In theory, this sounds like a good plan, but the history of U.S. economic and political intervention in Central America hasn’t been positive. Moreover, an economic stimulus package won’t solve the problem of gang violence and femicides.

My grandfather, who labored in the peach orchards of Stockton, California, during the Bracero Program, once told me that his greatest regret was not speaking out against injustice for fear of losing his guest worker permit. That restriction would theoretically not exist anymore if immigrant workers are offered a path to citizenship. It could also mean a significant victory for the working-class and labor rights. Immigrant workers could help reinvigorate labor unions, fight racism and exploitation without the fear of retribution, and engage in other political and social activities. A path to citizenship could cure several social and political issues and allow both U.S. and Mexican workers to move forward.

Fernando Herrera Calderón

Fernando Herrera Calderón is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa. He specializes in working-class youth culture, political violence, and urban social movements in 20th century Mexico.

 

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Abortion Is a Class Issue

A #StopTheBans protest in Birmingham, Alabama

The wave of anti-abortion laws sweeping through the United States this spring raises anew the connections between reproductive choice and class. Class inequality makes reproductive choice a province of the privileged rather than a power shared by all people.

Five states have passed bans on abortions after six or eight weeks when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Alabama’s law, passed on May 17, is the most restrictive in the nation, as it makes performing an abortion at every stage a felony offense, with no exceptions for rape or incest. It is tempting to focus only on these deeply alarming legislative developments, because they directly set the stage to overturn Roe v. Wade. But denying access to an abortion has already and will likely be achieved in a less dramatic fashion. Restrictions that progressively and decisively chip away at access and fairness are also very effective. Social and financial resources matter here. The political battle against anti-abortion legislation is also a class struggle.

The economic implications of these anti-abortion legislative efforts are getting attention but none dare call it class. In a recent NPR segment, Jeanne Meyers related the circumstances under which she had an abortion nearly forty years ago. Not being married and unemployed, she recalled: “I didn’t know what I would do with a baby… I was horrified. I had no job. I would have been in no financial position to care for a kid.” Unable to get an abortion in Janesville, her home, she had to travel to a clinic in Madison after having saved up money to pay for the trip north to Wisconsin’s capital. NPR reporter Scott Horsley cited a 2018 study of  “Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States,” based on interviews with 813 women over five years. It shows that women who were not able to get abortions and later gave birth had higher odds of poverty 6 months later than women who received abortions. They were also less likely to have full-time work and more likely get some form of public assistance. Both effects “remained significant for 4 years.” The study concluded that “Laws that restrict access to abortion may result in worsened economic outcomes for women,” an outcome the women expected, since the most common reasons women give for wanting to end their pregnancies are financial, “in particular, not having enough money to raise a child or support another child.”

The class aspect of family size is old news to most families in the United States, but it is rarely discussed. The economics of class can dictate the terms and conditions for family size, especially for those without access to money, resources, and social and political capital. The accepted division between the public and the private, the hallmark of our liberal order, makes it difficult to see these matters clearly.

If the public consists of government, business, and civic institutions, and the private has primarily to do with the family and the home, then it seems readily apparent how decisions about pregnancy or family size can be viewed as private choices. Opposition to restrictions around this choice focuses on perceived rights. In fact, Roe v. Wade was based on an interpretation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment that defined privacy as including a women’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The power of Republican men and their allies in the Christian Right to terminate that right, as this spring’s series of new state laws make clear, underscores the perception that the fight for reproductive choice is solely a gender issue when such choices are also bound by class considerations. The personal is, indeed, very political.

Family life, including the material conditions of social reproduction in the home, are inextricably bound to the political-economic order. This means that the seemingly very private decision to have an abortion or not cannot be separated from elite determinations of capital and resource allocation that favor the few at the expense of the many. Thus, the link between the denial of abortion rights and adverse socioeconomic outcomes is not unwanted but actualy expected, if not deliberate.

Gender and class are not the only dimensions to the anti-abortion legislation, which will likely spread to other states. Elizabeth Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, notes that bills are in process in eleven more states. As Michelle Alexander argued last week in her New York Times essay “My Rapist Apologized,” we must also consider race. During her first semester at Stanford Law School, she became pregnant as a result of rape. When this occurred, her father was unemployed and her mother was working at a minimum wage job. While Alexander’s family wanted to help, they were in no position to do so. She wondered if she should drop out of law school to raise this child. Feeling very alone at the time, Alexander now recognizes that her situation would have been familiar for many black women, who “have the highest rates of abortion in the country, undoubtedly due to the severe wealth gap between black and white families — a gap that holds even among the poor. The white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 in wealth… while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zero.”

Most reports on the latest anti-abortion bills focus on the Supreme Court, but future court decisions might not be about Roe v. Wade at all. Instead, they  could focus on and support state regulations that effectively rule out the practical possibilities of obtaining an abortion. That means that efforts to roll back these laws will have to occur on the state level. A chart from the Guttmacher Institute shows how even existing mandated waiting and counseling periods in many states makes it impossible for working-class and poor women to obtain abortions. The multiple steps needed to “prove” eligibility for terminating a pregnancy are prohibitively expensive because of the loss of income and the added expenses of travel.  If abortion providers are already diminished due to other state regulations or, as in the case of Alabama, women must travel to another state, what realistic chance for healthcare is possible? As Alexander argues, even so-called “rape exception” clauses would most likely entail lengthy and expensive legal wrangling and fees in which the exception is useless.

The juggernaut that the anti-abortion forces bring to this struggle is enormous. Women bear the brunt at the losing end of this fight, but to protect access to abortion, we must address the gritty reality of class and the disparate effects felt by women of color. If solidarity means anything in this debate, it will have to include an activism that is determined and shaped by class and race as well as gender.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Ken Estey, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Doris Day: Working-Class Hero

Doris Day as Babe Williams in Pajama Game

Doris Day was one of the hardest working entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as one of the highest paid female singers/actresses of all time. Many of us probably associate Doris Day with a certain kind of middlebrow wholesomeness and mid-century glamour, but I believe that what made her so successful was her work ethic and her conception of herself as a humble worker—an ethos which had its roots in her upbringing in a German-American working-class community in Cincinnati.

Doris Day was born Doris von Kappelhoff in 1922 into a German-American community in Cincinnati. Her maternal grandfather, born in Berlin, gave up his shares in a wealthy family business in Germany because he refused to be conscripted into the German army. He immigrated to Cincinnati where he started a pretzel factory. As Day remembered, “[m]y grandmother and all their many children, including my mother, worked in the pretzel factory, and my mother’s brothers sold the pretzels on street corners all over Cincinnati.” Her grandfather made enough money from the pretzels that he was able to buy a bakery with an apartment over it for his family.

In 1934 Doris’s mother, Alma, was devastated when her own mother gave the family pretzel business to her brothers—with nothing for the Kappelhoffs. After that Doris’s life was never the same. Doris’s parents divorced and her mother struggled to make ends meet. Still, Alma Kappelhoff was the original “dance mom,” pushing Doris to perform as a singer and a dancer.

Doris was on track to become a successful dancer, but a tragic car accident turned her dreams from dance to voice. She was mentored by a voice teacher in Cincinnati, Grace Raine, who believed in Doris so much that she gave her three lessons every week even though Doris’s mother could afford only one (at $5.00 a week). Raine booked Doris into her first live performance as a singer, at Charlie Yee’s Shanghai Inn, for $5.00 a performance. Doris was only fifteen years old.

Doris became a star at a tender age, leaving her vulnerable to one abusive marriage after another. She married her first husband, a Cincinnati-based saxophone player, when she was 17. He beat her savagely when she was eight months pregnant with her first and only child. Her next husband left her after their wedding night, realizing he didn’t want to be “Mr. Doris Day.” Her third husband, Marty Melcher, married her for her money, got control of it, and left her penniless when he died in 1968. She successfully sued his estate for 22 million dollars. That, plus a successful four year run of The Doris Day Show, gave her the money she needed and deserved into old age.

Doris loved to work. After she threw out her first abusive husband, her aunt asked how Doris was going to survive. “Why, I’ll get a job,” she replied. “All my life I have known that I could work at whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.” Doris recorded “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown’s big band in LA and never stopped working for decades. From her first film in 1948 through to 1970, she appeared in 36 films and recorded numerous chart-topping albums and singles. In the 1960s, her big hits like Pillow Talk made her one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood.

Doris liked the industrialized regularity of movie work, which she compared to factory work: “[T]he one thing that really pleased me about my new career was that it made me a lunch-bucket lady. The bell rings at noon, you go to lunch; the whistle blows at six, you go home.”

She rejected the notion of herself as anything larger-than-life: “I have never thought of myself as a star. I’m a working lady who tries to be as good as she can at what she does. But ‘star’ is a hokey word. I don’t know what it means. If I’m a star then the expert upholsterer who does my couch is a star.”

Ironically, perhaps, Doris’s working-class roots and humble view of herself led to a series of bad financial decisions, including giving her third husband control of her earnings. “When you’ve been as broke as I’ve been,” Day said, “you learn to count your change before leaving [the store]. But even now, with years of what I guess you’d call success behind me, I can’t believe in the ‘big’ money. If it’s change of a ten-dollar bill, I’m fine. But if it’s a deal involving thousands of dollars, Marty has to handle it. I just can’t imagine that much money.”

Day is best remembered for the single, powerful, professional middle-class characters she played in the 1960s in films like Pillow Talk. But we should not forget her infamous working-class role—as Babe Williams in The Pajama Game (1957). The Pajama Game Broadway musical was inspired by a satirical novel about the garment industry published in 1953, which itself was based on the labor strife that had taken place in an Iowa based pajama factory in the early 20th century. When Pajama Game was made into a film in 1957, Doris Day was cast as a sewing machine operator/union grievance steward who was organizing a strike while at the same time falling in love with her supervisor/boss.

Day imbued Babe with her own feisty confidence, sunny disposition, and a little bit of her feminist fire. In the final song of The Pajama Game, “7 and ½ Cents,” Day “figures it out” with a “pencil and a pad” that in twenty years an hourly 7 and a half cent raise will add up to quite a lot. In the penultimate verse of the song she declares: “I’ll have myself a buying spree, I’ll buy a pajama factory, then I could end up having old man Hasler work for me!”

After the end of her fourth and last marriage, Day finally owned a pajama factory of sorts—a comfortable life surrounded by hundreds of cats and dogs that she had rescued. She retired to Carmel, CA, where she became a local and national icon for animal rescue and animal rights. Out of the public eye for most of the last forty years, she finally became the shy, retiring woman she had always claimed to be.

We should remember Doris Day as a working-class hero—an actor who was constantly in motion, always trying to improve her work, and who loved going to work. She was a star, and, finally, at the end of her life, a wealthy one, but she valued the upholsterer’s labor as much as she valued her own, in part because she saw acting and singing as labor. Through Doris Day we can see Hollywood for the industry that it was—and still is.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

This piece is excerpted from Newman’s book-in-progress, How the Fifties Worked: Mass Culture and the Decade the Unions Made. Quotes are all from David Kaufman, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door (2010).

 

 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Digging Deeper in “Trump Country”

The 2018 documentary Moundsville drops viewers into the West Virginia town with no introduction. Instead, the film takes us directly into conversations with local residents, the mayor, a former mayor, retirees, a couple of historians, young entrepreneurs—a dozen or so people from all walks of life.  They talk about the town’s history, the prehistoric burial mound for which it is named, the leading industries over the decades, the boom times, the economic decline since the 1980s, and ideas about the town’s future.  I grew up in the Ohio Valley, about an hour’s drive from Moundsville, so these conversations felt familiar, like spending an afternoon in the local diner.

A central theme is the local economy, including the remarkable number of products that the towns’ workers manufactured in decades past.  At one time, Marx Toys, which employed thousands in its Glen Dale factory (neighboring Moundsville), produced one of every three toys made in America.  Other major employers in the area included Fostoria Glass, U.S. Stamping Company, Allied Chemical, and the Moundsville State Penitentiary.  A short drive away were coal mines, steel mills, and more chemical plants.

Today, Moundsville’s economy—like much of the region’s—looks a lot different.  Many of the mines and mills have shut down.  RV Parks just out of town house out-of-state gas pipeline and drilling crews.  The downtown has a lot of old businesses but also empty storefronts, and the Walmart Supercenter and other chain stores on the edge of town have won over many customers.  Some local entrepreneurs have found their niche in the new economy by, among other things, capitalizing on tourism to the now-shuttered prison and the nearby Palace of Gold (a Hare Krishna community).  But a third of the town’s residents have moved away.

With so many rusting factories, Moundsville could have become just another of the many reports from “Trump Country” since the 2016 election.  Most of those seem to be written by journalists facing deadlines, who parachute into Appalachia, gather a few quotes that support their assumptions about racist provincials, and then head back to the airport.  In her recent book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Elizabeth Catte writes that these reports “share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose.”

Those reports often attempt to construct a single narrative about voters in “Trump Country,” and the makers of Moundsville explicitly position their documentary against such narratives.  The voiceover for one of the trailers for the documentary explains that after the election “every media story about small-town America seemed to focus on the same things: Trump, opioids, and the rusting factory.”  “But,” it continues, “what if you went to a small town and didn’t talk about those things?  What if you simply asked people about their lives without connecting their answers to those larger narratives?”

Indeed, Moundsville does a good job of capturing the joys of life in a small town and highlighting the diversity of voices even in a town of nine thousand by featuring young and old, women and men, and white, African American, and Latino voices.

While this portrait is refreshing because the filmmakers brought empathy and patience to the project, they left out some important, complex, and challenging topics do not lend themselves to restaurant conversations.  While the documentary touches on economic decline, trade policies, and the outmigration of young people, it tends to treat economic change as natural or neutral, not even mentioning the policymakers or policies that facilitated capital migration.  I would argue that one of the greatest accomplishments of the proponents of neoliberalism has been to make their ideology seem like economic changes just happen.  Neoliberals’ free trade policies, cuts to taxes and social spending, privatization, and the elimination of union protections have hollowed out many factory towns, cut assistance to the poor and unemployed, and concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the few.

While some of the participants in the documentary share their memories of Moundsville’s prosperous decades, they don’t talk about how unions enabled workers to address safety concerns and gender discrimination, win fair wages and benefits, bring stability to their families, buy homes, and have discretionary income to spend at local businesses.  While the residents remember those prosperous years by listing employers, they don’t mention the American Flint Glass Workers’ Union, the United Steel Workers of America, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, and the United Mine Workers of America.  I’m guessing that only a few of those interviewed were union members, and as union strength has declined since the 1980s, public memories of the critical role they played in earlier decades have faded.

Also, Moundsville offers only a cursory discussion of race and racism.  A former mayor, who is African American, recalls painful episodes of racism when he was growing up but says that he no longer faces that kind of cruelty.  And the Latino owner of the Acapulco Mexican Restaurant says that racism is still present and that it negatively frames residents’ understanding of immigrants.  We do not hear other residents’ thoughts on the role of race in their town’s history.  While Moundsville avoids the overly simplistic, stereotypical portraits of racist hillbillies that are a common feature of “Trump Country,” the result is to largely ignore race and racism, which are admittedly complex subjects.

Growing up in northern West Virginia, I was largely unaware of racism and associated it most with the use of the N-word, which was only uttered by the crudest students at my school.  It was not until I reached adulthood that I began to realize that racism was particularly powerful when it was unheard and unseen.  Racism has shaped life in these Ohio Valley factory towns in fundamental ways, particularly through discriminatory housing, employment, and education, and sometimes as a result of battles fought decades ago.  These forms of racism are pervasive throughout the United States—no region or social class has a monopoly on it—and institutional racism’s profound effects up through the present need to be better understood.

When we erase subjects like institutional racism, the labor movement, and the rise of neoliberalism, the resulting portrait is incomplete, and things seemingly just happen to people and towns with no understanding of why.  Moundsville is an intimate portrait of a former factory town whose residents are proud of their hometown and working to redefine it, and I appreciate the filmmakers’ hard work and empathetic lens.  Yet, much work remains to help us make sense of the past and present of Moundsville and many places like it.

Lou Martin

Lou Martin is an associate professor of history at Chatham University, a founding board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, and author of Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia.

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

Class, Empathy, and the Green New Deal

Image from the Corporate Mapping Project, which investigates how corporate power is used in the fossil fuel industry

The recent debate over the Green New Deal got me thinking about a lecture I gave in 2018 at the Columbia University Seminar on Energy Ethics. The faculty who attended were mostly environmental lawyers and scientists. I am neither. But they asked me to discuss “The Fragility of the Blue-Green Alliance” – not so much the formal partnerships between union and environmental groups but rather the complex challenges of bridging differences between workers and environmentalists. My remarks were informed by three things: Pope Francis’s Encyclical (2015) on the environment, Laudato Si; my research on working-class communities and economic change; and my frustration with the reporters, liberals, and environmentalists who show little understanding of the experiences of working people.

Our views on climate change reflect our social and economic positions, which in turn reflect multiple factors — class, race, ethnicity, gender, place, and religious and ethical frameworks.  Any discussion of climate change or environmental policies must acknowledge not only that individuals have different stakes in the environment and the economy but that sometimes, those stakes are themselves contradictory. Working-class people and their communities are harmed by both environmental and economic injustices, and they have few economic choices. Solutions that might seem obvious, like ending the use of coal, can come with real costs to workers and their communities, even as they address environmental injustices and climate change.

In talking with colleagues at Columbia, I drew on a local example, from an article in the New York Times, “How Skipping Hotel Housekeeping Could Help the Environment and Your Wallet.” The article described how hotels were promoting opting out of daily room cleaning as a sustainability program, because it reduced the hotels’ use of electricity, water, and chemicals. Customers could earn food and beverage credit by skipping housekeeping. But, I asked, sustainability for whom? As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2014, “green programs” like this were killing jobs and cutting wages as housekeepers lost tips and had to work harder, since fewer workers now had to clean rooms after guests left, but with the same hours as before.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild offers another example in her book, Strangers in Their Own Land.  Hochschild spent four years interviewing people living and working  near the polluted bayous near Lake Charles Louisiana who did not support greater environmental protections that could protect their health and safety. She asked “Why do working-class people support policies that liberals think hurt them?” which she described as the “Great Paradox.” The people Hochschild talked with often sided with the chemical and oil companies that provided local jobs while also polluting homes and bayous. Their beliefs were based on an underlying “deep story” or resentment — but not toward the companies. Rather, people felt they had been marginalized by flat or failing wages, rapid demographic and social changes, and a liberal culture that often mocked their faith and patriotism and assumes they are racist and sexist. Put differently, liberal culture and politicians did not have a real understanding and “empathy” for the plight of working class.

As these examples suggest, creating blue-green alliances requires empathy rather than just judgments. It also helps to have a clear shared enemy. Steve Early describes this kind of alliance in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. He writes about how workers, environmentalists, Latinos, African-Americans, and some progressives in highly polluted Richmond, California, organized a blue-green alliance in response to a major refinery fire. They built a culture of resistance and forced Chevron to spend $1 billion dollars to modernize a plant, making it safe and cleaner for the workers and community while saving jobs. It was this attention to jobs, working conditions, and the environment that enabled the group to build a volunteer-driven political organization. When Chevron spent $3 million to try to get new city council and mayor elected (an amount unheard of in a local election), the blue-green coalition fought back, electing three environmental-friendly city council members and Richmond’s current mayor. As Early states, “It was a clear achievement for class-based community organizing around environmental issues and the importance of politics.”

But Early acknowledges that this type of blue-green organizing is not easy. In fact, a similar blue-green alliance formed after a refinery fire in Torrence, California, came apart when union members faced the threat of job losses. As Early notes, “job blackmail—and fear of job loss—remains a potent check on labor organization behavior involving workers engaged in the extraction, refining, transportation, or use of fossil fuel.” Tension over jobs creates real divides between unions and environmentalists.

Members of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, 2017

To find more comprehensive solutions, we need to start by identifying shared values. A good place to start might be in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, where he asks people to join an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. He speaks to the moral and spiritual challenges of the ecological crisis, its disproportionate impact on the poor, and environmental racism. He also calls for solidarity and shared responsibility and for economic development that will reduce injustice and inequality.

People have begun to take climate change and sustainability seriously, often with great empathy for working people. Interests and investments are growing for projects like greening of buildings and cities, producing green products, and developing sustainable global production networks. Most of these are grassroots efforts, but larger groups and institutions are forming new national and international organizations that link environmental concerns with workplace and economic transformation. For example, the ACW (Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change) connects 25-partner organizations, including unions and environmental groups from seven countries, with 56 individual researchers working on opportunities and obstacles to create a low-carbon adaptations for resources, manufacturing, construction and services where worker agency, environmental concerns, and just transitions are all taken seriously. The model of just transitions emphasizes protecting and even improving workers’ livelihoods (health, skills, rights) as well as substantive community support.

Political leaders are just beginning to engage in this work, though the results so far are mixed. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal (GND), a Congressional Resolution (not a bill), reimagines work in a period of climate change and a transforming economy. The GND offers an ambitious “vision statement” for a decarbonization infrastructure, yet it also provides social protection as just transitions for displaced workers, training for green skills jobs within a broader social safety net. The GND drew howls from elected officials and industry lobbyists, who complained that it was too big, too fast, and impractical. Others suggested watered-down policies that undermined the GND but provided political cover for future elections.

While the House did not vote on GND, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell pressed for a vote in order to embarrass Democrats prior to 2020 elections.  In the Senate, Republicans all voted against the resolution and most Democrats voted “present” — a display of the politics of evasion only slightly less dramatic than Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. If this is how Democrats respond, why should anyone expect workers to be more receptive response from the working class?

But there are signs of change, as some politicians are developing their own plans. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed his own Green New Deal, calling for the second-largest city in the country to have a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Presidential Candidate Beto O’Rourke has proposed new federal policies that would lead to net-zero emissions by 2050 and $5 trillion in spending over 10 years for investments in clean energy and extreme weather preparation.

Energy companies are even getting involved. Worried that they will not be able to control legislation, they are trying to demonstrate their commitment to the environment through family-friendly and alternative energy commercials touting their work addressing climate change. Yes, these same companies had rejected climate science for years. Some, like the Koch brothers, used their financial strength and political clout to disrupt  the building climate and workplace justice movements.

To build a just and inclusive movement to fight climate change and overcome past environmental classism, we need empathy, shared values, and organizing. This is what the Green New Deal promotes. In a short film about the resolution, Ocasio-Cortez imagines a green future that links carbon use with job guarantees that provide workers with good wages and benefits. But the GND’s most important contribution may be its call to build an environmental movement where no one is left behind.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Challenges of Organizing “Gig” Workers

Bike Workers Advocacy Project rally, photo by David Colon

When we think about organizing precarious “gig” workers, the task seems biblical.  The workers may be ready, or not, but the spirit and the flesh are weak. We all bemoan the rise of gig workers. Low pay, few hours, no benefits are some of them, worsened by the uncertainty of a position where you can only work to deliver something being demanded by consumers at a premium you are powerless to control. App companies misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to pass on all of the maintenance and capital costs, aside from web work and marketing, to the workers, avoiding the personnel benefit and equipment costs that are routine and inescapable for regular employers. Worker conditions seem to cry out for a union, but unions have to be wary at answering the call no matter how loud.

A recent “strike” by Uber drivers in Los Angeles illustrates the problem. The company had triggered the strike by increasing its percentage of the fare, thereby decreasing drivers’ pay.  In response, the drivers turned off the Uber application on their phone.  Stated more plainly, they went on strike by simply didn’t respond to any calls or inducements to drive.

Did it work?  Who knows?  How would any of us, whether organizers, curious observers, or company officials, know how to measure the number of drivers protesting in this way versus those who just decided not to drive on any given day or got ticked off and responded to Lyft instead or whatever?  ACORN tried a similar approach in the early 1970s when we were fighting increases by the Arkla Gas Company in central Arkansas. Our “Turn Off Arkla Day!” action got a bit of press, as the Uber drivers did in Los Angeles. But in both cases, the company yawned since there was no way to measure whether the strike affected their cash flow at all.

Organizing gig workers can be challenging, but there’s some good work going on for bicycle deliver drivers in Europe, where companies like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and others have become ubiquitous. Last fall one of ACORN’s affiliates organized a meeting in Brussels that brought together union activists interested in organizing European bicycle delivery drivers with fledgling groups of drivers from a dozen countries from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and others. That meeting highlighted several active organizing projects:

While these examples seem promising, unions clearly lack any real commitment to organize these workers, and the workers have limited leverage. David Chu, who directs the European Organizing Center, a joint project between European unions and the US-based Change to Win federation, told me recently that he hears a lot of talk about organizing gig workers but sees little action in that direction, but perhaps the spirit – and many workers – are willing to organize, but the flesh-and-bones unions are not?

Serious organizing efforts in the United States have been contradictory and embryonic.  Uber in New York City and San Francisco reacted to organizing efforts by attempting to coopt the organizations into agreeing that the workers were not employees in exchange for consultation rights on rule changes and other issues like receiving tips.  More concerted efforts to create a mini-National Labor Relations Board representation mechanism were launched at the municipal level in Seattle, but the organizing effort is currently mired in litigation over preemption by the National Labor Relations Act and the question of employee status.

Local efforts reflect the way companies keep changing their practices, as Marielle Benchehboune, coordinator of ACORN’s affiliate, ReAct, noted recently in Forbes. “What will make the difference,” she suggested, is workers organizing “on the transnational scale.” Perhaps her analysis is correct.  Perhaps a rare global organizing plan could create enough pressure and leverage among these competing companies that could weld a workers’ movement together from the disparate pieces of independent worker mobilizations that are cropping up around the world.

Given the challenges, how much should we invest in organizing gig workers? Labor economists in the US caution that despite all of the hype from Silicon Valley and even some labor officials about the emerging gig economy, it involves a very small percentage of the workforce.  Others, like Louis Heyman in the recent book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream became Temporary, argue that gig workers are just the pimple on the elephant’s ass of contingent and temporary labor that has been hollowing out the American workforce for decades, just as consultants have chipped away at management jobs as well.

I heard something similar fifteen years ago, when I asked a leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress if they were doing anything to organize call center workers in India. He answered that they estimated that there were 30,000 such workers, but there were 450 million workers in India at the time and hardly 9% were organized.  He then shrugged. That’s all he said, but we got the message.  There’s much to be done in organizing the unorganized, and resources and capacity are always restrained, whether in India or Europe or North America.

Is that a reason for not finding ways to organize workers who are attempting on their own to find justice on their jobs? Or is it just another rationale for doing little or nothing?  The one thing that seems clear is that if unions are going to be relevant to the modern workforce and the irregular and precarious forms of work that are being created by technology married to avarice, we must debate and address these challenges. It may be difficult, but unions and organizers need to devise practicable strategies that allow workers to organize, win, and build enough power to force companies to adapt and change.

I wish we had the answer now, because the workers seem ready, but one way or another, we need to figure this out quickly!

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

 

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Wade Rathke | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments