Category Archives: John Russo

Twenty Years of Working-Class Studies

This week, the Working-Class Studies Association will hold its annual conference. This year’s conference is special in two ways.

First, this year the WCSA is partnering with the Labor and Working-Class History Association for a joint conference. With two organizations involved, we expect more than 400 people to attend the Fighting Inequality conference and/or present their work. As always, the conference will include academic papers but also plenaries with activists, artists, and scholars from several disciplines talking about working-class issues. We’ll also have film screenings (in partnership with the DC Labor Film Festival), poetry and music performances, workshops, and a DC Labor History tour. All of that is pretty typical for a working-class studies conference, since the field has always been committed both to bringing more (and better) attention to class within the academy and to connecting in meaningful ways with working-class people and movements.

This year’s conference is also special because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the first working-class studies conference, which we organized with several colleagues at Youngstown State University in May of 1995. That conference helped to create the Center for Working-Class Studies (CWCS), the first of its kind in the US. That more than 150 scholars, activists, artists, and other interested folks came to Youngstown to spend a weekend talking about working-class lives demonstrated need to establish Working-Class Studies as an academic discipline. With support from the Ford Foundation in 2000, the CWCS helped to build that field, including several other centers around the US.

The conference also left us with two big questions that would shape our work at the CWCS. One was inspired by composition scholar Gary Tate, who reminded us of the value of supporting and facilitating other people’s work – an essential form of academic labor. At the conference, Tate spoke with a number of participants about his next project: an edited collection exploring how teachers’ class backgrounds shaped their work in the classroom. Editing a book wasn’t new for Tate. He’d helped develop composition studies through this kind of facilitative labor. Moving forward from the conference, one of the questions we asked ourselves was “How will the work we’re doing help to develop the field?”

That question led us to another: “Working-class studies for whom?” From the beginning, we believed that those of us engaged in working-class studies should pursue two ideals. First, building a field had to be about more than creating a space for our own work. On the academic side, we focused on outreach and organizing, trying to engage colleagues from across the disciplines with research and teaching about class. Even more important, we needed to reach beyond academic work, to ensure that we did not approach the working class merely as the object of study. We needed to collaborate with working-class people and communities, in local unions halls, in our classrooms, in political and organizing campaigns.

We were always concerned that working-class studies could become overly theoretical and distant from working people’s lives. We committed to writing and speaking in accessible, inclusive ways, and we also looked for opportunities to reach beyond academic audiences. Working-Class Perspectives is one result of that effort. We hoped that what we wrote and posted here would reach not only other academics but also workers, students, and journalists. Commentaries from Working-Class Perspectives have led dozens of journalists from print and broadcast journalism to interview our contributors, and the blog is assigned reading in many high school and college courses. In our first year, 2008, WCP had about 7500 hits. In 2014, we had almost 107,000 views from readers in more than 100 countries. One recent post was read by over 10,000 people within three days.

We have good reasons to celebrate this week’s anniversary. We have not done all of the things people suggested at the closing plenary of our first conference. When we asked, “If there was a Center for Working-Class Studies, what would it be doing?” our colleagues generated over 180 suggestions that ranged from basic vocational education to “starting a revolution.” Florence Howe cornered us afterward with wise advice: “pick five.”

At first, the Center for Working-Class Studies was an information clearinghouse and orphanage for academics who thought no one else on their campuses cared about class. Over time, the CWCS Studies helped launch working-class studies as an academic field of inquiry that engages in a wide range of academic and activist work. Along with publishing articles and books, we and our colleagues teach hundreds of courses about class, collaborate with workers and our students to create films and exhibits about working-class stories, work on labor issues and campaigns, help non-profit organizations understand how class shapes their work, and work with unions and other organizations on issues of peace, climate change, and electoral politics.

A few years ago, we announced that the CWCS was closing, but a few of our colleagues at YSU are trying to revive it. While their work is just beginning, our work continues on through the Working-Class Studies Association and the Center Working-Class Studies Legacy Fund,* which helped fund this year’s conference. We look forward to seeing many of our readers at Georgetown University this week, where we’ll talk about all of this work, toast to twenty years of working-class studies, and consider how we can continue fighting inequality.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

Founding Members and Former Co-Directors

Center for Working-Class Studies

*If you would like to contribute to the CWCS Legacy Fund to support the future of working-class studies, please download this donation form.  Thanks for your help.

Guilt by Association: Hillary and the Working Class

As the 2016 Presidential campaign revs up, we’re seeing a political version of guilt by association as Hillary Clinton tries to position herself in relation to the cornerstones of her husband’s legislative agenda: the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994). Liberals and progressives widely recognize that these policies had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. They also had continuing influence, at once contributing to and mirroring current issues and debates involving poverty, incarceration, and trade agreements.

A brief historical summary might be helpful. The VCEA, based on the idea that increased incarceration would lower the crime rate, was part of President Clinton’s attempt to capture the “get tough on crime” zeitgeist. As criminologist Jeremy Travis suggested, the federal government promised increased funding to states that increased punishment for drug offenses, and 28 states and the District of Columbia “followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.” As a result, the number of prisons and the rate of incarceration of the poor, blacks, and Latinos have increased. That may have helped the growing prison industry, but later studies show there was little correspondence between incarcerations and lower crime rates.

The PRWOA was central to President Clinton’s and the Republicans’ goals of trimming the federal deficit but also weaning the poor off of government assistance by cutting welfare benefits for the unemployed. The legislation reduced the amount of time that individuals and families could receive benefits and established work requirements. It also reduced federal funding and required states to decrease welfare caseloads and closely monitor the work activities of welfare recipients. Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which included requirements for job training, GED programs, and subsidized employment opportunities. While the new policy may have decreased the cost of government assistance, it did not reduce poverty. In fact, the poverty rate has grown.

NAFTA aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, protect intellectual property, and established a dispute resolution procedure between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Proponents argued that these changes would reduce poverty and immigration. NAFTA did contribute to increasing trade, which has roughly tripled in the last 20 years, but the trade gap also widened to $181 billion with Mexico and Canada as over 1 million manufacturing jobs moved largely to the Mexican border areas. NAFTA contributed to deindustrialization and the declining standard of living of workers and their families. It was especially hard on residents in rustbelt states, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. It also undermined small-scale agriculture in Mexico and exacerbated the current immigration crisis. As former President Clinton acknowledged during Congressional testimony in 2010, his trade policy “has not worked” to alleviate poverty. He called the policy “a mistake.” On NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, even Forbes was forced to grudgingly admit that, at best, “the trade deal was a mixed bag, a generally positive yet disappointing economic experiment.”

Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton faces the prospect of running against President Clinton’s political legacy. At the same time, the same legislative concerns that gave rise to his legacy are in play again – trade, poverty, and criminalization. Like anyone tainted with guilt by association, Hillary is in the tricky position of distancing herself from a family member without being either disloyal or disingenuous.

In a recent speech, she called for criminal justice reform, including changes in sentencing and social services, increased use of body cameras for police accountability and transparency, and addressing the fundamental unfairness and injustice of the “war on drugs” for African-Americans. Despite all hoopla about speech, it largely repeated the current mainstream debate about the flaws in the criminal justice system. Nor did Hillary acknowledge that the VCEA had contributed to the problem. Republican Rand Paul noted the contradiction, saying her ideas would “undo some of Bill Clinton’s work,” which she had supported. He also noted “the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction doubled” during the Clinton years.

 

In recent years, we’ve heard increasing concerns about increased levels unemployment, wage stagnation, and poverty. While Hillary has expressed a clear interest in wealth and wage inequality, she has not articulated a legislative agenda to address it, not has she suggested increasing social spending or rolling back any of the cuts from PROWA.

The same is true of trade. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides an excellent opportunity to oppose free trade in favor of fair trade. But this would require political tacking given her past support for NAFTA and other trade agreements. As Robert Kuttner has suggested, though, Senators Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and even Charles Schumer have opposed the TPP, providing Hillary with plenty of political cover, and she could increase her populist appeal by opposing it.

Yet Hillary might have an even more difficult hurdle. Even if she repudiates her husband’s political legacy and advances a progressive agenda, will Americans believe her? A recent Quinnipiac University survey of registered voters shows that while most think she had strong leadership qualities (62%), 54% do not view Hillary Clinton as honest or trustworthy. The question of character will be especially important to the working class and African Americans who haven’t forgotten how they were deceived by “slick Willy.”

John Russo

Former Co-Director, Center for Working-Class Studies

 

 

 

 

 

Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

Several weeks ago, I attended the “The American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies” Conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by The American Prospect, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. It was nice to see many old friends with whom I had worked as a Labor Studies Professor for 35 years. It was especially nice see David Moberg, labor journalist at In These Times.

We recalled the many “Labor at the Crossroads” conferences we had attended beginning with the crisis in the steel industry and the beginnings of deindustrialization in the 1970s. Most of these conferences accomplished little and had minimal impact on union leaders who rarely attended and were sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change and the forces arrayed against them. But the program for last week’s conference looked different, and the conference ultimately felt different. As I said to the organizers, the panels and discussions were unusually frank, and some of the best were led by young people, women, and people of color.

Some both within and outside of the American labor movement have pronounced its impending death. But as Lance Compa has pointed out, plenty of successful union organizing is happening in traditional, largely stable industries and companies in manufacturing, transportation, communication, health care, food processing, and the public sector. Further, unions are a potent political force in advancing labor and civil rights in coastal and Midwest battleground states where urban density is the greatest. They have been powerful advocates for minimum wage increases and the expansion of health care for all working people. Taken together, Compa estimated that about 20% of all workers who are able to organize under US labor law are organized. The struggle for labor movement lies with the other 80%, especially those with those who experience unstable wages and working conditions and even those who embrace intermittent employment.

In the past, unions largely ignored these workers, finding them difficult to organize under current labor law and union strategies. But these workers have begun to organize themselves, in some cases with union backing. At the conference, we heard speakers from National Guest Workers Alliance, the Texas Workers Defense Project, the fast food worker campaign, and many “alt-union” organizing efforts involving day laborers, adjunct faculty, domestic workers, home healthcare workers, and regional and national worker centers.

One the most important speakers was Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. The Freelancers Union (FU) wants to organize the 53 million self-employed workers, a growing portion of the labor market as the structure of work is changing. FU researchers found that 40% of these workers were true independent contractors, while another 23% were moonlighters trying to make ends meet. Put differently, the self-employed sector is diverse, ranging from members of the professional managerial class (salariat) to the working classes, and all experience some degree of casualization and/or precarity.

Horowitz believes the labor movement must recognize that both work and individuals are changing in cultural and economic ways. Some people, she argues, embrace flexibility and reject traditional work organizations and consumption patterns. They do not accept the work-spend cycle and are comfortable living with less. Instead of aspiring to home or car ownership, they prefer to rent or share. They seek a fuller life away from work, based on communities, networks, and neighborhoods. Horowitz calls this Freelance 360,which embraces a “new mutualism” that includes building “smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems.” The FU’s goal is to develop sustainable work communities, networks, and co-ops in the growing informal and unstable work environment through “a spirit of collaboration and mutual support” and “building meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities.” This vision of a sharing economy has attracted both interest and critique.

In the last 15 years, FU has organized various networking events as well as an on-line freelancers network to share information, ideas, and potential collaborations. Its website provides important information for freelancers on health-related issues and insurance, taxes, wage rates and fringe benefits, business models, and marketing strategies. Participants also share information on clients. The FU has also published a Freelancers Bible that provides career information and a clever YouTube video that explains what it is trying to accomplish and why.

Some mainstream unionists at the conference may have felt threatened by Horowitz’s remarks. I think this fear is misguided. The FU is not challenging traditional organizing at brick and mortar sites with fixed hours and working conditions. Rather, it is simply suggesting that traditional methods and issues are inappropriate when work has become more informal, flexible, and episodic. Given the history of the labor movement, the tension was not unexpected even at a conference built around experimentation in thinking, organizing, and strategies.

The shift in thinking that FU advocates suggests the value of a broader definition of “working class,” one that includes the precariat along with more traditional workers. Over the last few years on Working-Class Perspectives, Guy Standing, Tim Strangleman and I have considered the definitions, conditions, and issues associated with the growing precariat. In the coming months, we will continue to examine changes in work and the growth of the precariat. For example, Guy Standing will comment on how we might define workers and the labor process in the on-demand economy. Tim Strangleman will look at some corporate origins of the fissuring workplace that has become a source of precarity. Sherry Linkon will consider cultural representations of precarity.

We have not abandoned our focus on working-class life and culture. Rather, we recognize that a growing number people, including many who once saw themselves as part of a privileged middle class, are now experiencing working-class insecurity and have found that they are one job from poverty. And just as we have long argued for the value (and values) of working-class life and culture while also tracing its struggles, we need to examine both the opportunities and costs of the new economy, in individual and political terms.

John Russo

What Pope Francis Can Teach the Democratic Party

Most journalists and political commentators covering papal politics have been consumed with the Church’s recent Synod on the Family that concerned social and religious issues of modern marriage and family life. Some conservative commentators warned that Pope Francis and the Synod itself was sowing “confusion” among the flock, while others praised the Pope for providing a breath of fresh air into traditional Catholic thought. Nevertheless, the Synod brought together various groups in a respectful way to build bridges in an attempt to find a common good. While no decisions were made at the Synod, it certainly laid the foundation for future reform within Catholic Social Teaching on family life.

While consumed with the Synod, the Catholic community, journalists, and politicos missed or deliberately ignored an equally important and much more critical populist speech by Pope Francis at the Conference of Popular Movements in Rome last month that concerned the importance of community organizing and poverty.

In the speech, the Pope praises the conference organizers for their community organizing in getting low-income people and the dispossessed to organize and speak out for themselves. He reminded the audience, “The poor not only suffer injustice but they also struggle against it!” He added that popular movements are necessary “to revitalize our democracies, so often kidnapped by innumerable factors. It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the active participation of the great majorities.”

Pope Francis was critical of both liberal and conservative solutions to poverty (such as some welfare programs) that “go in one direction, either to anaesthetize or to domesticate.” Further, he seems genuinely angry with those who use euphemisms to describe poor people, suggesting that to identify the issues as matters of “segregation” or “disenfranchisement” masks not just the seriousness of the problems but the deliberate injustices they involve. As the Pope puts it, “behind euphemisms there is a crime.”

He noted the special solidarity that exists among the poor and explores its meaning beyond “sporadic generosity.” Solidarity means “to think and act like a community” in “fighting over the structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, housing, and the denial of labor and social rights…and to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacement, painful emigration, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are called on to transform.”

He understands that talk like this will lead some “to say that the Pope is a Communist,” but he dismisses such criticism, saying that his critics “don’t understand that the love of the poor is at the heart of the gospel” and that the “struggle for land, roof, and work are sacred rights.” That is, he grounds his belief in no overriding political orthodoxy but rather in religion and human dignity.

The Synod and speech got me thinking about the Pope’s approach in dealing with difficult issues and what model Pope Francis might provide for the future of the Democratic Party. For example, the recent midterm election debacle has been most often attributed to demographic factors. For example, the poor turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and women and the inability to attract white voters and the shrinking middle class have been the most common explanations for its 2014 electoral collapse. But commentators like Harold Meyerson have argued that demographics alone cannot explain the results of the midterm election nor “save” the Democratic Party. Rather, Meyerson suggests that Democrats failed to provide a clear and consistent message regarding economic inequality and wages that appealed to the struggling poor, working and middle classes, Latinos, African Americans, and millennials. Without a clear economic message, Howard Dean asked unapologetically “Where the Hell is the Democratic Party” and chided the Democratic Party leadership and operatives that “You cannot win if you are afraid!” But afraid of what? My guess is Democrats are afraid of angering their corporate and business supporters by addressing issues of inequality and poverty in any but a timid and incremental way.

This is where Pope Francis’s approach could help. First, the Democrats could follow the Pope’s model and bring together various factions for a serious discussion about the future of the party in moral and ethical terms. In the process, they could engage in community organizing and pursue the common good of ending poverty and inequality. They could also build a measure of solidarity and support on moral terms for those experiencing the injustices, the struggling working and middle class and those trying to help organize the struggles. Put differently, less politically expedient efforts to garner electoral support and more solidarity and substantive reform based on moral and ethical stands grounded in human dignity.

Such an approach will worry many Democratic politicians and their apparatchiks who cower in the face of uncertain polling data and angering their corporate patrons. No doubt, some will join with Republicans and call this “class warfare.” Some will claim that Democrats can’t win using populist themes, especially in red and purple states. But politicians like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio prove otherwise.

Today, Ohio Republicans control all executive-branch positions, the state Supreme Court, 12 of 16 U.S. House seats, and huge majorities in the state House and Senate. Yet, despite the Ohio’s Republican dominance and having $60 million against him, Senator Brown easily won his last election with broad community organizing with a working class and populist agenda that helped carry President Obama in Ohio.

The country is distressed over the level of inequality and the forty-year decline of the middle class, and we’re tired of euphemisms surrounding poverty and austerity. The Pew Research Center shows that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with widening inequality. When given an opportunity to reduce inequality, such as increasing the minimum wage, they overwhelmingly vote in favor, even in historically red states. Now is the time for Democrats to follow the Pope Francis’s iconoclastic approach and develop the type of value-based agenda suggested by Meyerson. That could give new meaning to what it means to be a Democrat.

John Russo

McDonald’s, FedEx, and Shifting Legal Views of Employment

Sometimes seemingly obscure legal rulings indicate major changes in the struggle for social and economic justice. Two recent rulings involving independent contractors and franchise employers could help enable workers and unions to make breakthroughs in improving wages and working conditions.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” of franchisees’ workers and is accountable for their franchisees’ questionable and sometimes illegal actions. Corporations often use franchise agreements to avoid fulfilling legal personnel requirements by shifting responsibilities to franchisees. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, the NLRB decision exposes large corporations who use franchise agreements to potential liability claims.

In a second decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Western California, Washington and Oregon) overruled a District Court and said that FedEx has misclassified employees as independent contractors. Legally, independent contractors can’t be directly supervised, supplied with workspace or tools, or otherwise treated like employees, and because they are not considered employees under Labor Management Relations Act, Section 2. Consequently, independent contractors have limited legal protections and do not have the right to organize unions.

Companies like FedEx misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying insurance premiums, minimum wages and overtime, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. FedEx reduced its labor costs 25% by shifting expenses to the independent contractors. If the Appellate Court decision is sustained and if it is expanded to include the more than 45 class action and individual lawsuits and the 25 state tax and other administrative proceedings claiming misclassification, FedEx could have to pay hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in back taxes, back pay, and various fines. No wonder the business press has said that the decision could have a “seismic impact.”

While these cases won’t be resolved any time soon, they’re important because they reflect changing attitudes toward work and inequality. Both cases evolved within the larger context of deregulation, precarious employment, cost shifting, and the loss of workplace protections over the last 40 years as employers sought to lower labor costs and undermine unions. For example, building contractors have increasingly used subcontractors to evade union contracts. Especially in deindustrialized areas, displaced manufacturing workers who had toolboxes and pickup trucks became part of a pool of independent contractors. This placed pressure on unionized employees and contractors to lower wages and sign concessionary “project agreements.” As a result, wages, benefits, and working conditions all declined, especially in unionized industries.

Other employers and industries turned to personnel and temp agencies. ManpowerGroup became one of the nation’s largest employers by acting as a hiring hall for independent employees and contractors. Kelly Services has become the largest specialized clerical /technical agency. Smaller niche labor market agencies have also sprung up, such as Labor Ready, which provides day labor for construction and cleaning.

Even employers of professionals, who once thought of themselves as models of justice and fair employment, have embraced the use of independent contractors and temp agencies. For example, universities, hospitals, and newspapers have laid off employees and hired subcontractors to do both professional and non-professional work. Many universities treat adjunct faculty as episodic and easily replaceable independent contractors, and they hire subcontractors to handle maintenance, security, and food services.

These recent legal rulings don’t just tell us about changes in work, though. They also suggest reasons to hope that employment conditions will improve in the future. First, because precarious employment has become more common, most Americans probably know someone who has experienced job loss and/or economic injustice. Coupled with newspaper stories and much-discussed books about inequality and with Occupy Wall Street and its references to the 99%, we now have a national narrative – popular and intellectual — about economic injustice, low wages, and unfair treatment at work. Just as state courts overturning gay marriage bans reflect a broad change in public attitudes, these recent employment rulings reflect a change in public awareness, political views, and, to a lesser extent, actual public policies.

Second, the legal cases dramatize the importance of electoral politics. Despite their failings (which have been well documented on this site), Democrats make significantly better appointments to the court and other legal and regulatory agencies than Republicans do. While Democrats don’t always represent the interests of their base very well, their appointments are still more likely to rule in progressive ways than are judges and regulators appointed by Republicans. In the case of the NLRB, for example, the new board members appointed by Obama are more sensitive to worker and labor rights than were earlier members appointed by Bush. No wonder the Republicans have created a logjam over judgeships given the role of justices deciding social and workplace issues. Voters who care about workplace justice should consider the power of these appointments when they go to the polls.

Third, for a decimated and often moribund labor movement, these rulings and the changing attitudes that they reflect provide the groundwork to test new organizing approaches. We see this in the growth of the fast food workers movement and the willingness of organized labor to embrace pre-majority or minority unionism. These experiments in new organizing approaches provide hope that a revitalized labor movement can help provide a voice for workers whether they are unionized or not. They also also provide support and an education in organizing for young and precarious workers fighting for job security and economic justice in warehouses, restaurants, and big box stores like Wal-Mart.

If the FedEx and McDonald’s decisions had occurred in an intellectual, political, and movement vacuum, they might not matter much. But these rulings both reflect and further enable a broader and growing movement for economic justice that could, indeed, be “seismic.”

John Russo

Can Democrats Win the White Working-Class Vote?

Winning greater support among white working-class voters is critical for Democrats in presidential elections, and it often provides a critical margin for Democratic candidates in statewide races.  For example, in Ohio, loss of white working-class support in 2010 resulted in a Republican landslide, but in 2012 a modest level of support among white working-class voters helped President Obama win the state.

Consequently, with midterm elections coming in November, the electoral politics of the white working class has become a central concern for Democrats and their supporters. Last month, The Washington Monthly and The Democratic Strategist held a roundtable discussionto consider the state of working-class politics and what progressives and Democrats could do to gain greater support among white working-class voters.

To tackle the issues, the roundtable organizers asked prominent pollsters Stan Greenberg, Ruy Texiera, and John Halpin to review demographic and polling data.  While many pundits have claimed that the white working class has shifted its allegiance to the Republicans, Greenberg, Texiera, and Halpin found that the shift occurred primarily in the South and Mountain West states. Further, in these red state regions, white working-class support was weakening not so much because of changing political views but because of demographic changes.   Simply put, white working-class support declined because the white working class had shrunk, while other groups that tended to vote for Democrats – those with more education, younger voters, metropolitan residents, secularists, immigrants, and racial minorities – had grown. Furthermore, research showed no growth in Republican support among white working-class voters in other regions of the country. But even though the white working-class has become less important demographically, the pollsters warned, it remains critical in electoral politics. This is particularly true in preventing the election of Republican supermajorities in off-year elections.

The roundtable organizers then asked a group of “leading progressive and Democratic thinkers and strategists” (including two regular contributors to this blog) to answer this question: What do you think is the most important single step progressives and Democrats can take to regain support among white working-class Americans? Here’s what the commentators concluded.

Within the white working class, Harold Meyerson argues, the Federal government has been discredited in response to repeated Republican attacks on programs that supposedly target racial minorities and on the government’s failure to effectively address the long term economic decline of working people. In part, this is due to Republican obstructionism and the resulting political gridlock. But it is also because Democratic candidates have repeatedly promised the working class more than they deliver. As a result, many in the white working class have lost faith in the Democratic Party.

At the same time, contributors argue that white working-class voters support a range of Democratic policies — minimum wage increases, infrastructure projects, trade policies that limit offshoring, bank restrictions, anti-plutocrat tax reform, and support for domestic manufacturing. This suggests that when white working-class people think of themselves in terms of class rather than race or gender, they are likely to support Democratic social and economic programs.

The current economic situation helps in this regard. Some contributors point to white working-class support for the Affordable Care Act in red state Kentucky, where working-class people benefit regardless of their race or gender. In her roundtable contribution, Joan Walsh points out that the economic crisis has been diverse, and this has moderated white working-class resistance to some social programs.  She suggests that so-called “women’s issues,” like family sick leave, have become important economic issues for struggling families, appealing to voters regardless of gender. Likewise, Medicaid benefits are crucial for many working-class families suffering from economic hardship.

One strategy for tapping into the class and economic concerns of the white working class is to “reposition” Democrats on social issues, especially affirmative action and welfare. Republicans have ridiculed Democrats over these and other social issues, suggesting that liberals favor racial minorities and gays at the expense of the white working class.  Richard Kahlenberg suggests that Democrats could gain working-class support by shifting support away from racial preferences in college admissions and employment to preferences for the economically disadvantaged.

Other commentators, however, warned Democrats against simply repositioning themselves or reframing issues. Andrew Levinson explains that “fine tuning of platforms and narratives” has not helped Democrats win or retain support. In fact, he argues, white working-class voters are already suspicious of political rhetoric. All too often, candidates talk the talk during elections but then fail to walk the walk afterward.

Finally, some contributors suggested that the white working class lacks a group consciousness. Community organizations and trade unions have lost their effectiveness as translators of public policy, creating a vacuum that has been filled by the media. As a result, working-class voters don’t hear coherent arguments from the left.  Short-term organizing efforts, as I have noted before, aren’t sufficient.  We need community institutions that do not appear during campaign season only to disappear following the election. At the same time, social and economic discussions during campaigns should not be didactic. Rather, public policy discussions must explain the benefits of progressive policies for individuals rather than addressing them in broad economic terms.

The roundtable didn’t reach a consensus, but it provides thoughtful observations for the Democratic Party to consider for future elections. The key may not be tracking changes among white working-class voters but rather to understand more fully that thewhite working class has always been more complex than the term implies. While Democrats often saw the white working class as a well-defined and reliable part of an enduring progressive coalition, the white working class never saw itself politically as a single group. Today, perhaps more than ever, the working class is diverse, divided not only by race or gender but also by region and religion. If Democrats want to win this November or in the future, they must build a strategic partnership with the diverse working class.

John Russo

Will “Accompanying” Work as an Organizing Principle?

Liberals and progressives have generally seen union and community organizing as the best tools to resist corporate power and provide the working class with a political voice.  But in this era of neoliberalism, these traditional models of organizing have lost their effectiveness.

Unions have continued to lose membership and are fighting among themselves over organizing and politics. Building trades, manufacturing, and public sector unions seem to be going in different directions despite the efforts of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to bring the labor movement together. When direct attacks on labor occur, the labor movement does come together, as we saw in Ohio in 2011. But not always, as in the struggle over collective bargaining in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where some unions preferred pragmatic, self-interested politics that led to distrust and divisions.

Community organizing has also suffered, especially from fatigue.  In 2012, Obama’s mobilization efforts were incredibly effective in organizing women and people of color. This was no small deal given the political attacks on and the 2009 collapse of the preeminent community organization, ACORN, which required activists to build new community organizations, especially around working-class issues like housing and income inequality. These new organizations have succeeded in campaigns around vacant properties and the minimum wage, but overall, community organizing  has become episodic, and it wins too seldom.

This is particularly important for the Democratic Party and its base. As Michael Tomasky predicts, the Democrats’ problem will be motivating voters. The Democratic Party is terrified that in the 2014 mid-term elections its base (African-Americans, Latinos, women, and young adults) will not show up and it will be unable to gain new support from the solidly Republican white working class. The result would be decisive Republican Senatorial and Gubernatorial gains that will be as difficult to unwind as the Republican redistricting of the last three years.

Today’s conversations and reevaluations, especially about community and union organizing approaches, have been occurring across the political spectrum, but we should pay particular attention to some ideas emerging from the old New Left.  In a review of two new books by Gar Alperovitz and my Youngstown colleague Staughton Lynd, David Moberg notes that Lynd has attributed the current political environment to the American Left’s inability to build real mass movements that can pressure politicians. As Lynd puts it, “Obama is a liberal, a good human being, and we have failed him.” Like Lynd, many in the progressive community have given up hope for the kind of Labor or Socialist Party that exists in other countries to advocate working-class issues. His solution is to move beyond the single-issue politics of an earlier era.  Instead, we should seek greater participation in representative democracy with distinct moral overtones.

Perhaps one way of understanding Lynd’s ideas is through Pope Francis’ teachings and approaches to poverty. In a world of so much wealth, the Pope sees poverty as a scandal that demands justice and requires us to bear witness. The Pope’s vision is not merely an updating of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a call to action that echoes the ideas of liberation theologians from the Global South.  Lynd echoes the Pope’s sensibility, using the term “accompanying” rather than “witnessing” in thinking about organizing — a term associated with the Pope’s murdered colleague, El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Pope Francis warns that witnessing is not about managing, instructing, or judging (like “legalists, scribes, and hypocrites”) but rather about listening, accepting, and validating others. Real power is gained by being a role model “with that zeal to seek people, heal people, to love people.”  Likewise, Lynd sees accompanying as avoiding didactic approaches and the often situational ethics associated with organizing. Rather, accompanying involves deep and extended community obligations and committing to “equality, listening, and seeking consensus and exemplary action.” This includes the free interchange of ideas and modeling personal and democratic behavior. This moral approach can help local organizations build real pressure to move public opinion. As Timothy Weaver suggested at a recent Urban Studies Association Conference, it is time to move beyond “the dead weight of pragmatism and feasibility.”

Forget parachuting in community organizers who work hard during the election season only to disappear after the results. Forget about the current servicing model of unionism or  “hot shop” union organizing that never builds real union solidarity. Pope Francis and Lynd believe that community and labor organizing begins where you are and embraces a moral approach, not just organizing tactics. It engenders real participation and not just cooperation.

This approach is already being used effectively. The low-wage worker and Wal-Mart campaigns and strikes may have seemed minimal and episodic as workplace actions. But these same actions have had strong community support (that included religious figures and community groups to provide moral authority) as well as worker involvement.  Both locally and nationally, these efforts have been crucial in moving public opinion around inequality and living wages. In Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative “brings together neighborhood, faith-based and labor groups to build the capacity necessary to create sustainable change in our community.” The MVOC has provided a moral and ethical model for grassroots organizing around economic opportunity, fighting human trafficking, housing and vacant property reform, and food and health care access. This morally-focused model of accompanying has inspired other community organizations statewide, including religious groups such as Ohio Prophetic Voicesand ACTION, various neighborhood associations, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Lynd’s concept of accompanying as an approach to organizing calls us all to organize where we are, and above all, to assert and sustain strong moral claims to justice, equality, and fairness before we get too quickly to the “pragmatic and feasible.”

John Russo