Worker Portraits: Contradictions and Contingency

Paintings and sculptures often represent those with power, not the working class. Yet, a current exhibit at Washington, D.C.’s  National Portrait Gallery, “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying America’s Workers,” not only highlights workers, it also invites us to consider the contradictions of work and how it has changed.  The exhibit covers more than two hundred years, tracing how artists and documenters have viewed workers.

Perhaps because of this historical perspective, the curators seem to define “worker” primarily as “manual laborer,” including factory workers as well as farm hands, newspaper boys, and construction workers.  As this suggests, the exhibit skews toward men, though it does also include a “Jolly Washerwoman” and Gordon Parks’s famous portrait of Ella Watson, his version of “American Gothic.” The exhibit also has some notable gaps. Milt Rogovin’s steelworker portraits are absent, as are contemporary photojournalism by Carl Corey, David Bacon, Steve Cagan, and Michael Williamson.

Dawoud Bey’s 1976 portrait of Deas MacNeil in his barber shop

The dignity of workers and the social value of their labor is a central theme, visible in familiar works like Lewis Hine’s photos of construction workers, a Norman Rockwell painting of a smiling miner, or J. Howard Miller’s famous and much-reproduced “We Can Do It!” poster of the woman who would become known as Rosie the Riveter. Less familiar images also echo this theme, including Dawoud Bey’s portraits of African-American small business owners – a barber and the owner of a barbecue joint — from his Harlem USA series, or Shauna Frischkorn’s striking large-scale portrait of “Kean, Subway Sandwich Artist” from her still-developing series, McWorkers.

The exhibit also captures tensions about work, which, as the opening commentary of the exhibit puts it, “influences how Americans measure their lives and how they assess their contributions to society” but can also be “exploitative, painful, and hard.” A number of images, especially documentary photographs by Hine, Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, and others associated with the Works Progress Administration or the Farm Security Administration of the 1930s, draw our attention to the struggles of the workplace – to child laborers, to poverty, to physical dangers.

Most of the images are portraits, focusing on a single worker rather than their context or the work being done, which reflects the exhibit’s setting in the National Portrait Gallery. These images take workers seriously, asking us to recognize the valor of their labor, their pride and competence, but also to recognize them as people. As the museum label alongside Frischkorn’s photo suggests, her work “brings our attention to the low social and economic status given to fast-food employees. The ‘unattractive and ill-fitting’ uniforms might be designed to make them anonymous, but Frischkorn pushes against this strategy to reveal each worker’s uniqueness.” Yet even as the exhibit encourages viewers to see each worker as unique, the repetition of the serious, determined, often tired look on so many faces makes clear that most working-class labor is physically exhausting and often dangerous.

This sense of work as struggle exists in tension with the idealistic claim of the introductory panel for the exhibit, that work is the “foundation of the philosophy of self-improvement and social mobility that undergirds this country’s value system.” Despite this statement, the exhibit offers almost no images that suggest upward mobility. Instead, we see portrait after portrait of workers who seem determined and resilient, even though their hard work is unlikely to improve their lot in life.

This may be even more true today, as working-class jobs become more contingent and precarious, than it was during the historical periods that are most represented in the exhibit. Danny Vinik summarized the contemporary and future reality of work in a recent article in Politico:

Over the past two decades, the U.S. labor market has undergone a quiet transformation, as companies increasingly forgo full-time employees and fill positions with independent contractors, on-call workers or temps—what economists have called “alternative work arrangements” or the “contingent workforce.” Most Americans still work in traditional jobs, but these new arrangements are growing—and the pace appears to be picking up. From 2005 to 2015, according to the best available estimate, the number of people in alternative work arrangements grew by 9 million and now represents roughly 16 percent of all U.S. workers, while the number of traditional employees declined by 400,000. A perhaps more striking way to put it is that during those 10 years, all net job growth in the American economy has been in contingent jobs.

In many cases, as Vinik’s article makes clear, contingent workers don’t look much different from the full-time employees they have replaced – in fact, they are often the same people. Vinik frames his essay with the story of Diana Borland, a hospital transcriptionist whose $19 an hour full-time job was reassigned to a contractor that paid her by the line, dropping her hourly wages to just $6.36, less than minimum wage. While she was discouraged, Borland found another job, but she worries about her daughter’s and granddaughters’ future. “Where is the American Dream?” she asked Vinik.

“Nine to Five,”

“The Sweat of Their Face” largely ignores changes in work, one piece does make the costs to workers of contemporary capitalism visible. Josh Kline’s sculpture “Nine to Five,” shows a cleaning cart stocked not only with spray bottles and scrub brushes but also the dismembered head and hands of a janitor. The title is ironic, since many janitorial jobs involve evening and night shifts. The piece exaggerates the idea of work as linked with identity, and in the process Kline critiques the dehumanizing effect of contemporary labor conditions.

Among the largest and most striking pieces in the exhibit is a John Neagle’s larger-than-lifesize 1827 painting of Pat Lyon. The almost 94-inch tall portrait depicts Lyon as a blacksmith, standing beside a large anvil in front of a fiery stove, his white shirt rumpled and open at the neck, a heavy leather apron protecting him from sparks, and an almost defiant look on his ruddy face. But it isn’t only the scale that makes this painting so striking. It is the story behind it: according to the online catalog of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the painting, Lyon was  wealthy and successful, which is why he could afford to commission such a large, heroic image of himself, but he asked Neagle to depict him as the blacksmith he once was, telling the artist that he did “not wish to be represented as what I am not—a gentleman.” For many visitors to the exhibit, this image of a wealthy man as a proud laborer is the first work they encounter. It is at once odd and fitting that the first image treats work as an idealized role, not as a real, material and social act.

In the early 21st century, it’s almost impossible to imagine a successful businessman asking a painter or photographer to depict him as, say, a Subway sandwich maker. The conditions of work in the contingent economy not only undermine what the Portrait Gallery calls “this country’s value system.” They also undermine the potential for workers to find pride and satisfaction on the job. That may be one reason Frischkorn refers to her photos of fast-food workers, which mimic the style of Renaissance portraits, as “ironic.” The images emphasize the workers’ humanity in an era when dignity on the job has become out of reach along with expectations that hard work will pay off in “self-improvement and social mobility.”

Sherry Linkon





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

Everybody Knows About Alabama

“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi goddam, that’s it”

                                                   “Mississippi Goddamn” Nina Simone

The Arena Stage production of Nina Simone: Four Women

We saw the play with music, Nina Simone: Four Women, on the same day Simone was named as an inductee to Rock’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That alone gave the play extra meaning. But the experience was made even richer by an unusual convergence of culture and politics: the day before, Doug Jones won a special election in Alabama to become that state’s first Democratic Senator in a long while. While Jones’s prosecution of two of the KKK members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham helped him win support in this year’s election, the bombing also influenced Simone. Along with the murder of Medgar Evans, it inspired her to begin writing protest songs, including what she called her first civil rights song, Mississippi Goddam, in which she angrily exposes the violations of human rights in Southern states and challenges the Civil Rights movement’s gradualism.

Playwright Christina Ham sets her play in the bombed-out church in the days after four adolescent girls were killed there. Drawing on Simone’s 1966 song, “Four Women,” Ham imagines the fear and anger of four Black women with different stories and perspectives, including different class backgrounds and experiences with political activism. The play explores how the women might have responded to the bombing, using dialogue as well as Simone’s songs, including “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”; “Sinnerman”; and “Four Women,” as well as “Mississippi Goddamn.”

The play presents a diverse quartet: the dark-skinned struggling Aunt Sarah; “high yellow” Saffronia, caught between the worlds of her rich white father and her less-privileged African American mother; the prostitute Sweet Thing; and—in place of Peaches, the last of the four women in the song—Nina Simone herself, who rages as she writes the song and argues with the other three characters. Their responses to the bombing and to the battles of the civil rights movement generally reflect their different experiences. Aunt Sarah is cautious about resisting, Saffronia supports Dr. King’s nonviolent and reasoned approach, while Sweet Thing doesn’t think the movement has much to do with her. Through it all, Nina Simone argues for more active, even violent resistance.

The memory of the Civil Rights era also drove opposition to Republican candidate Roy Moore, who  told a supporter who asked him when America was last “great” was during the period of slavery. Many younger Alabama voters, especially African Americans, found comments like this – perhaps even more than Moore’s reported pedophilia – frightening. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said “There’s no state in America where black people recognize the horrors of turning back the clock more than the State of Alabama.” Richard Fausset and Campbell Robertson reported in the New York Times, that Black voters, especially, were “motivated” by concerns about specific policies that Moore might support, but “they also voted out of a more general concern that the country, in the Trump era, was going back to a place best left in the past.”

Those concerns were most visible in the strong turnout among African-American women in Alabama, 98% of whom voted for Jones, as did 92% of African-American men. While more than 60% of younger voters between 18 and 44 chose Jones, white men and women without college degrees – the poll data often used as a stand-in for working class — voted for Moore by over 75%. Among all white voters, only 34% of white women and 26% of white men voted for the Democrat.

While commentators have made much of Black women’s strong opposition to Moore, we would also do well to attend to Nina Simone and to Ham’s version of “Four Women.” In the play, the four women fight among themselves about their own identities and choices. For example, Simone dismisses Saffronia by calling her “good hair,” while Simone and Saffronia both goad Aunt Sara to take a more activist stand. These battles emphasize the way class, education, sexuality, experience, and ideas create points of tension even among people whom others might see as part of a single, well-defined group. That they stand together at the end of the play is not a given. It reflects a hard-won and tenuous solidarity.

What lessons can we take from the Alabama election and Ham’s play about the centrality of race and gender in American politics? The election reminds us that Democratic candidates will not attract the votes they need solely through campaigns focused on economics. They must attend to racial injustice and, perhaps more now than ever before, to sexism. Yet as the play reminds us, discussions of race and gender cannot ignore class. While the conflicts among the women in the play are rooted in multiple sources, education, colorism, and social class are central points of tension.

At the same time, the play suggests the power of a shared sense of injustice and frustration to foster solidarity across differences. As 2017 nears its end, many Americans but perhaps especially women, poor and working-class people, LGBTQ people, and people of color are angry about the injustice of the Republicans’ tax bill and their promises to cut Social Security and other programs that so many people rely on for survival. Many of us are worried about the current Administration’s non-legislative actions – cutting regulations, stacking the courts, backing out of the Paris climate change accords, and more.  And we are frustrated that, so far, Trump does not seem to be paying any cost for his racist, sexist, xenophobic attitudes, much less for his persistent lies.

But will we be able to do what Simone’s four women do at the end of Ham’s play: recognize the our common ground matters more than our particular wounds? Will we let fear and resentment obstruct solidarity? In December, culture and politics came together. What would it take for that to happen again in 2018?

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

A version of this commentary appeared on the American Prospect website.





Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Making America White Again: Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio

Photo by Patrick Breen, The Arizona Republic

Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, was a major set-back for immigrant and human rights activists who fought to remove him from office in 2016. The pardon gives a pass for elected officials and police to violate the civil rights of Latinos, primarily low-wage working-class Mexicans. Trump’s critics explain the pardon by pointing to the President’s history of racial discrimination. For Trump supporters, the pardon is a logical piece of his “Make America Great Again” campaign, which he announced with these now-familiar claims about Mexican immigrants: “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending the best. . . . they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.” Arpaio’s description of his raids as “crime suppression sweeps” echoes this claim, but the court ruled that he had violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead of arresting criminals with outstanding warrants, the raids arrested day laborers and other low-wage workers. Targeting workers in immigration law enforcement and in legislations, such as Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070, is so obvious that industries relying on these workers have joined civil rights organizations in filing lawsuits to stop the rampant racial profiling of Latino workers.

To understand the impact of Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, we have to remember that the foundation for claiming that Mexican immigrants are criminals – rapist and drug dealer – was solidified in the legislation passed after the Oklahoma bombing to deter terrorism, which blurred the distinctions between “alien immigrant” and “criminal.”  In previous laws, being an “alien immigrant” was an administrative violation attached to one’s status upon entering the U.S. without documentation. This category included people who had overstayed their visas or had expired green cards, as well as some other noncriminal circumstances. “Criminal aliens” referred to immigrants engaged in illegal behavior. AEDPA broadened the definition of “aggravated felony” for alien immigrants to include less serious convictions. The third category of alien immigrants are persons the state identifies as posing a grave risk to national security and are deportable as terrorists. By blurring the distinction between undocumented workers and criminals, the 1995 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) provided Arpaio the opportunity to enter center stage in the immigration debate.

Arpaio’s reputation as the “toughest sheriff” was not solely based on establishing a tent prison in the Arizona desert, banning coffee and cooked meals, or restoring chain gangs, but he first pushed the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) toward immigration law enforcement by offering ICE county resources to hold suspected “alien immigrants” and “criminal immigrants” until deportation. The formal partnership between ICE and MCSO allowed local law enforcement to engage in immigration law enforcement. MCSO was not only among the first local police forces to sign a contract with ICE; its agreement was one of the most expansive in the country. Along with obtaining military equipment to set up command centers during immigration raids, the MCSO, along with a volunteer posse, prioritized immigration law enforcement over local responsibilities.

Photo by Patrick Breen, The Arizona Republic

Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies targeted Latinos during traffic stops on the presumption that they had entered the country illegally. This highly selective policing of Latinos cast a wide net, but it primarily targeted day laborers, and it resulted in some arrests of immigrants without documentation and even a few with minor offences. Businesses known to hire Mexican workers were targeted by following drivers to and from work. These raids were publicly reported as “crime suppression sweeps” but generally focused on law abiding alien immigrants. Selective stops of only persons appearing to be of Mexican ancestry reflected popular belief that Mexicans and other dark Latinos are immigrants, not citizens. The MCSO built on this problematic assumption by establishing a hotline for residents to report undocumented immigrants and criminals engaged in trafficking. Arpaio encouraged community support of his immigration law enforcement with ads like this: “HELP SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO FIGHT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION & TRAFFICKING CALL 602.876.4145 WITH TIPS ON ILLEGAL ALIENS.”

A class action lawsuit, Ortega Melendres vs. Arpario, finally ended Arpaio’s career. Plaintiffs in the case identified a wide-range of MCSO policing practices in raids conducted between 2007-2008 that violated the agreement with ICE, such as using pretextual and unfounded stops, racially motived questioning, searches and other mistreatment, and often baseless arrests of Latinos. Deputies and members of the volunteer posse abused the unchecked discretion Sheriff Arpaio gave them, which established the conditions for these violations. In general, Arpaio condoned and participated in circulating racist commentary about Latinos, creating a general cultural of bias in the sheriff’s office. U.S. District Judge G. Murray ruled that practices based on race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 2011, Judge Snow issued a preliminary injunction against MCSO prohibiting further illegally targeting of Latinos. In 2013, the judge mandated changes to eliminate misconduct and future violations of the community’s constitutional rights by the MCSO. Arpaio violated court orders to audio and video record all traffic stops, increase training and monitoring employees, and maintain comprehensive records.

Court monitoring found that Arpaio ignored the order and had not stopped enforcing immigration enforcement. Judge Snow found him in contempt of court and scheduled sentencing for October, 2017. Even though Arpaio was unlikely to do jail time, Trump pardoned him on August 25th.

Over his 24 years as sheriff, Arpaio was accused of numerous practices of police misconduct, mistreatment of prisoners, abuse of power, misuse of funds, failure to investigate sex crimes, unlawful enforcement of immigration laws, and election law violations. Over 2,700 law suits, concerning violations at the county’s prisons alone, were filed against Arpaio in federal and county courts.  The cost of paying law suits fell on the shoulders of hard working taxpayers in Maricopa County. The pardon is not only another step in normalizing xenophobia and hate in immigration law enforcement and a move toward Making America White Again, it also serves to enforce the vulnerability of undocumented workers.

Mary Romero

Mary Romero is a Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University and President-Elect of the American Sociological Association. She has published articles on race, immigration, and law, and her most recent book is Introducing Intersectionality (Polity Press, 2017).

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

#SaveTPS: A Working-Class Struggle

Jessica’s TPS work permit cards

By the time the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced in 2014, I had already benefited from another immigration relief program: Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In January and February 2001, my birth country of El Salvador experienced two earthquakes – a month apart from each other – that utterly devastated every aspect of life in Salvadoran Society. In order to help El Salvador reconstruct and get back on its feet, the United States extended TPS status to undocumented Salvadorans immigrants already in the U.S. I was one of them.  Created by Congress in the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS was meant for people from countries going through environmental disaster and other extraordinary and temporary conditions or confronting armed conflict. Currently, the program is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In the past two months, TPS has come under attack from the Trump Administration. In November 2017, DHS terminated the program for Haiti, and four months later it extended that terrible decision to TPS-protected immigrants from Nicaragua and Honduras. Starting January 2019, an estimated 50,000 Haitians, 57,000 Hondurans, and 2,550 Nicaraguans with TPS status will become undocumented. They will be expected to leave the U.S. Furthermore, TPS was allowed to expire for three black-majority countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone earlier this year. None of them were granted a renewal period as the DHS had done in previous years.

From a working-class perspective, terminating TPS would be catastrophic for workers and families. The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has estimated that 81 to 88 percent of TPS-protected immigrants just from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti participate in the labor market – well above the rate for the total US population at 63 percent. Indeed, many TPS workers have been in the US for so long that they’re now homeowners and entrepreneurs, and so they are very invested in their local economies. For example, Salvadorans with TPS must have continuously resided in the U.S. since the designation date of March 9, 2001 – that’s more than a decade of working legally and paying taxes in the U.S. Furthermore, the Center for American Progress (CAP) calculates that the loss of TPS workers would cost employers $967 million in turnover and reduce America’s GDP by $164 billion over a decade. Of course, working people represent more than just economic contributions, but you’d think that reports like these would influence rational policymakers. But this administration operates with little regard to facts, policy briefs by experts, or peer-reviewed research. Instead, it responds to the worst instincts in our politics, even excusing and allying with white supremacy. This is not rational. It is shamelessly racist.

Rally to Defend Dream Act and TPS on December 6, 2017 in Washington, D.C.. Image from DMV Sanctuary Network

TPS is a racial and environmental justice issue. The program’s primary beneficiaries are Black, LatinX, Asian, and Middle Eastern. We come from Haiti, Syria, Nepal, Honduras, Yemen, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, Somalia, Guinea, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Liberia, and Sudan. All of these nations have historically been at the mercy of imperialist policies – by the U.S. and other countries — that pillage natural resources and do little to promote the well-being of residents, most of whom are people of color. For these countries, TPS was granted on account of either civil strife (usually the reason for Middle Eastern and African countries) and natural disasters (usually the reason for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean) thereby helping these countries rebuild what US Imperialism has destroyed. Thus, TPS is a form of humanitarian relief for civil war refugees and natural disaster victims that is also a form of reparations to formerly colonized working people of the world.

Similar to DACA, TPS beneficiaries like me receive provisional protection against deportation and permission to work in the United States for a limited period of time –no less than 6 months and no more than 18. In order to be eligible, immigrants from TPS-designated countries must be physically present in the U.S. on the date on which the program is designated for their nationality and must continue to reside in the U.S. In addition, the program does not grant permanent legal status in the United States, nor are TPS beneficiaries eligible to apply for permanent residence or for U.S. citizenship. In other words, working-class immigrants can be workers, but not residents let alone citizens.

My TPS work permit has provided me with many opportunities to pursue the American Dream by making it possible for me to join the workforce. It also allowed for me to file taxes – something that I’ve been doing since I was 17 years old. Since attaining full-time employment, I have been saving to purchase a home in Virginia for my mother. This is my greatest dream – the chance to honor my mother’s sacrifice by providing her with a home that she can call her own. Throughout my time living in the United States, I had never thought I’d be faced with the possibility of giving up this dream. Yet all of this changed on November 9, 2016. The morning after, I felt a fear unlike any I had felt before. The right side of my chest hurt, my stomach felt strange. I was hungry, but couldn’t bring myself to eat. I could just think of one thing: if Donald Trump’s DHS Secretary does not approve our renewals, then we’d potentially be forced to return El Salvador. As of today, I have 81 days left on my TPS work permit if the designation isn’t renewed by DHS.

Since the beginning of December, a number of actions have taken place in Capitol Hill to urge members of Congress to save TPS and pass a Clean Dream Act. The deadline for Congress to act is December 22 – the date Congress adjourns for the holidays. The urgency has escalated even more after Congress failed to include protections for immigrant youth in their spending bill fix. If Congress doesn’t act soon, then a number of Dreamers and TPS beneficiaries await deportation and an inhumane removal experience from US society.

As we have seen in recent years, more and more of our working-class brothers and sisters from the global south have had to flee civil war, genocide, economic exploitation, and the environmental effects of climate change – and that will almost certainly continue. Efforts have already begun to eliminate other venues for legal immigration, and the gradual termination of TPS is unlikely to be the end of the assault on immigrants under this Administration. If naturalized and documented allies do not step up to demand a comprehensive immigration reform that makes it easier for all workers, political asylees, climate change refugees, and persecuted people to pursue new beginnings in the United States, then we will forsake our responsibility to whose labor provided the capital to build the economies of developed nations.

Jessica F. Chilin-Hernández

Jessica F. Chilin-Hernández serves as Assistant Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. She is originally from San Salvador, El Salvador.


Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Working-Class Women Unionists on the Front Lines

Sally McManus leading the march against the war on workers, photo by Peter Boyle, Green Left Weekly

On November 16, 2017, thousands of construction workers walked off their job sites to march through central Sydney in protest against laws designed to limit the power of unions in the construction industry. Workers from many unions joined the ‘Stop the War on Workers’ event, united in their collective demand for the right to strike. I was proud to march with my union – the National Tertiary Education Union – alongside my working-class sisters and brothers from the blue-collar unions. Apparently, the media didn’t notice the thousands of workers in hi-vis marching noisily through the streets that day. The mainstream press ignored us.

If they’d been paying attention, they might have noticed how central women were to this protest, as organisers, speakers, and rank and file union members. When I asked a couple of female construction workers why they had downed tools to join the march, they told me they’d ‘had a gutful’ and were ‘fed up’ with their working conditions and were not willing to accept unjust laws that attacked workers anymore. These women, and many others who have become increasingly active and visible in the Australian labor movement, are strong, assertive, and inspiring.

One of the best examples of the power of women’s leadership is Sally McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the umbrella body for unions in Australia. McManus is relatively new in the job, but she has breathed new life into the union movement. This is not an easy task. Trade union membership in Australia has been on the decline for several decades, and government attacks have diminished the power of unions to strike. Going on strike in Australia is a complicated process, with individual workers and unions engaging in unprotected industrial action facing very heavy fines. Media representations of unions have generally been negative, often focusing on some corrupt individuals and descriptions of union delegates on worksites as ‘thugs’. A Royal Commission set up to investigate unions was intended to further reduce public support, but it did not reveal widespread corruption in the labor movement.

In one of her first interviews as head of the ACTU, McManus argued that the rules relating to unions need to change and unjust laws should be broken. She has since headed a campaign to ‘change the rules’ which is being endorsed by many unions. Her influence shows the power of working-class women as organisers and agitators, in Australia and around the world. McManus is an inspiring speaker. Her directness and emphasis on collective action reflects her working-class background and provides an antidote to the individualist nature of neoliberalism. She demonstrates the benefits of having working-class women in leadership positions.

McManus is the public face of the union movement at the moment in Australia, but she is not alone. For example, the New South Wales President of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Rita Mallia, speaks on behalf of workers in the construction industry. Like McManus, Mallia spoke at the ‘Stop the War on Workers’ Rally, and she roused many cheers from the mainly male working-class membership of her union. Mallia has a law degree, but her working-class immigrant background shapes her understanding of blue-collar work and the lives of her members.

Michelle Parkin, a rank and file member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, spoke at the rally, too, talking about a recent campaign at her worksite. A machine operator at an ice-cream factory, Parkin was one of 140 workers facing reductions in pay and conditions when their employer (a large multi-national) applied to have their enterprise agreement terminated. The union fought back, and with the help of the ACTU mounted a successful boycott campaign of the company’s popular products, following the model of another recent campaign against a brewing company. At the rally, Parkin presented the perspective of a female factory worker – challenging the image of the blue-collar workforce as male.

As women move into leadership, they are also expanding the scope of union concerns. For example, women have pushed for unions’ campaigns to include domestic violence leave into workplace agreements and drawn attention to issues like the gender pay gap and sexual harassment at work. These women workers often describe themselves as feminists, which normalises the term among working-class industries and communities.

Working-class women’s involvement in the Australian union movement is not new, but their visibility as the public faces of labor is. In the past, most union officials have been male, but now working-class women are demonstrating their strength, determination, and skills. The union movement has a much better future with more working-class women at the helm.

Sarah Attfield

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Sarah Attfield | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

#MeToo Solidarity

Sexual harassment is both a labor and gender justice issue. After all, the workplace is the epicenter of women’s recent outrage about sexual harassment and assault. Hollywood titans, respected reporters, and celebrity chefs all used their power over women’s paychecks in order to gain power over their bodies. Women (and some men) have responded by speaking out individually, yet their inspiration is decidedly collective; strength in numbers is what’s fueling the revelatory headlines. Women’s #MeToo tsunami, in fact, is perhaps the largest collective labor action of the early twenty-first century.  In order for this riveting social movement to have a lasting impact, #MeToo solidarity must impact more than the elite. Workplace culture and expectations must shift for average, working-class women, too.

Women have been struggling to make the workplace safer for decades. They first made sexual harassment an issue in the 1970s when feminist workers and rape crisis activists united efforts, according to one recent account. By 1980, it seemed there was progress. Under the leadership of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first issued explicit guidelines on sexual harassment. But then Ronald Reagan appointed Clarence Thomas chair of the EEOC in 1982, and he led the agency’s back peddling, well before Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexually harassing her in 1991. Hill endured fraught public scrutiny of her claim, and Thomas’s appointment laid bare how little headway women had really made.

It’s worth examining what has changed to make this workplace issue burn so brightly in 2017.

First, of course, there’s the Trump factor.  Many women were stunned and appalled when Trump won the election despite bragging about groping women. The fact that his opponent was the first viable female candidate made the loss all the more bitter. Millions turned out last January for the Women’s March; their sea of pink pussy hats marked the original #MeToo moment.  Incensed, many women have begun to speak out about the injustices they have kept quiet for too long.

But there are larger historical developments at play. In an era of heightened rights awareness, the Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights movements have led the way, launching fresh and innovative attacks on structural racism well before the 2016 election. Millennials are at the forefront of these fights, waging movements online and in the streets, well outside the traditional civil, labor, and human rights organizations.

Millennial outrage may be providing the energy behind the current tipping point on sexual harassment, too.  After all, millennials are now aged 18 to 35 and so have come into their own in America’s workplaces. This generation of women must hold jobs; few really have a choice.  They grew up with moms who worked, and recent research shows that young people are more accepting of working mothers today than even those in the 1990s. Nearly half of mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinners in their families.  If paid work is something you and everyone else expects of you in life, then it’s all the more intolerable when men routinely make the worksite a dangerously sexualized realm. Millennials just aren’t taking it, and many older women find themselves inspired by these young women’s indignation.

Can women harness the solidarity impulse of the millions of women who posted the #MeToo hashtag? Will millennials finish what earlier generations started and build enduring change on the job?  Their success is far from certain.  Elite and professional women are receiving the lion’s share of the attention, and few long-term solutions are being discussed. An effective social movement on workplace sexual harassment can’t stop there. It must broaden to include women of all backgrounds and should channel the outrage into organizational and legal transformation.

While Hollywood actresses and elite journalists dominate the headlines about sexual harassment, research reveals that working-class women are the most likely victims of workplace sexual intimidation and assault. The Center for American Progress looked at a decade’s worth of EEOC claims and found that waitresses and retail clerks are the most likely to face sexual harassment on the job, followed closely by manufacturing workers and those in health care.  A full 80 percent of restaurant workers deal with harassment on the job, including two-thirds who have to fend off management predators. Women are the most likely to work low-wage jobs where power imbalances are sharpest, and that’s especially true for women of color.

Effective solutions to workplace sexual abuse must empower women on the job, especially young, working-class women who are the most vulnerable. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United is playing a leading role, demanding an end to the sub-minimum wage that leave so many tipped workers vulnerable to intimidation.  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have even joined the group’s crusade, speaking out and posting viral videos on the topic.

HERE Local 1 Members

Union women, too, can demand that their organizations lead the nation’s response on sexual harassment; after all, more than half of the nation’s union members will soon be women. The hotel workers union in Chicago found that well over half of hotel workers reported harassment from guests; their #handsoffpantson campaign demands that management equip hotel maids with panic buttons and ban guests who sexually harass a worker.  After many female janitors in California found themselves alone at night in empty buildings alongside abusive male managers, the United Service Workers West won contract language and a law requiring cleaning and security employers to offer training on sexual harassment.

A union isn’t an automatic defense against sexual harassment. After all, some unions have been at the center of the recent storm. The  SEIU and the AFL-CIO have both ousted top male staff for workplace sexual abuse. Unions also have a fraught relationship to the issue because their duty of fair representation requires them to defend workers accused of sexual harassment, even when another union member makes the allegation.

Nevertheless, women union members can — and should — take a leading role, and sexual harassment is an issue through which they can build power for all working women, not only the 10 percent who hold a union card.  They could take a cue from the millennials’ movement against campus sexual assault, for instance, and partner with the new online group Callisto to build an online tool allowing women workers to document harassment and unite against repeat offenders. They could also convene a big tent coalition of unions, workers’ centers, policy experts, and women’s groups to strategize the next best legislative and policy steps.

Many women say they aren’t surprised by the breadth of the accusations that dominate the news headlines. As the #MeToo hashtag wave made clear, millions have endured this in some form. What’s new is that we are openly recognizing and naming the hidden dangers that women have long navigated at work wordlessly and alone. The #MeToo moment demonstrates collective action’s raw power. The question is whether women will be able to turn their next-generation solidarity into a broad-based and inclusive movement that can win enduring workplace transformation.

Lane Windham

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

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Social Class and Trump Voters

Politico’s Michael Kruse visited my hometown earlier this month to get a look at “one of the long-forgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall.”  Kruse concluded that “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help.  They Still Love Him Anyway.”  The story, based on interviews with nine Trump supporters and one man who voted for Hillary Clinton, is part of a stream of articles attempting to explain why Trumpians have remained so loyal to a president who has failed to deliver on any of his campaign promises so far and, for the most part, hasn’t even tried.  Problem is that about the same time as this spate of articles appeared a well-respected poll showed “Most White Workers Souring on Trump.”

Photo by Scott Goldsmith for Politico

This sounds like a potentially important debate, but it never really becomes important because there is such a confusion of categories, often made worse by a lingering white-trash class prejudice that is sometimes used to resolve the confusion.  Different authors are simply looking at different parts of an elephant while thinking they’re seeing the whole thing.

Kruse, for example, is focused on “Trump supporters,” who are often referred to as “Trump’s base” and who appear to be sticking with him come hell or high water.   References to “Trump’s base” usually refer to “working-class whites,” who are white people without bachelor’s degrees and are generally thought to be a reservoir of racist, sexist, and other deplorable attitudes.  But this class language confuses more than it clarifies.  Whites without bachelor’s degrees voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and they are by far the largest group of Trump voters.  But whites with bachelor’s degrees also narrowly voted for Trump over Clinton.  Only 48% of Trump voters were working-class whites, while 38% were middle-class whites (by education), and 13% were nonwhite.

“Trump supporters” or “Trump’s base” are somewhat smaller groups than “Trump voters,” many of whom voted against Hillary rather than for Trump.  But the larger point is that whether voters or supporters, Trumpians are not all whites without bachelor’s degrees – only about one-half of them are.  The identification of Trump with the white working-class is mostly not true.

When Michael Kruse searched out nine people to represent all of Johnstown, he found one retail worker, one retired nurse, two retired teachers, three small business owners, the Johnstown city manager, and a man who would not identify his occupation.  Kruse pays no attention to who does and does not have a bachelor’s degree.  He very sensibly highlights their occupations, not their formal education. That means that Kruse’s interviewees are much more likely to reflect the complex class make-up of Trump’s base than the convenient belief that only un-college-educated white people would fall for a carnival-barker snake-oil salesman like Trump.   In fact, more than 24 million white people with college educations voted for the guy.

While most reports on votes or polling define the working-class by lack of a college education, others define the working class by income (usually households with annual incomes below $50,000). But that definition of class also doesn’t support the idea that Trump won because of the white working class. Whites from households earning less than $50,000 are less likely to vote than other whites, and in 2016 those who did vote did not lopsidedly opt for Trump.

While education, occupation, and income are all reasonable ways to define a person’s social class, each describes a somewhat different group whose voting behavior is significantly different — despite overlap among these three categories.  This generates constant confusion as different commentators make what seem like contradictory claims about the white working class when they are actually focused on somewhat different white working classes.

This is a legitimate intellectual confusion, especially common among well-educated journalists whose higher educations included little or nothing about class in America.  Less legitimate, and much more  false, is the growing willingness of political writers to use an educated/uneducated class binary among whites to distinguish between Trump voters in suburbs whose basic sense of decency can be appealed to and the Trump base which is seen as a hopelessly ignorant stew of economic nationalists who pine not just for lost jobs and economic prospects, but also for the good old days of patriarchy and white supremacy.  The latter group definitely exists and, as Kruse demonstrates, it is not hard to find examples in places like my hometown, but the educated/uneducated binary does not hold, as at least half of Kruse’s sample likely have bachelor’s degrees and some of the weirdest attachments to the man with orange hair seem to reside in white business owners, not workers.

But there are two other problems with contrasting Trump voters from suburbs to Trump supporters from “woebegone spots in the middle of the country” as if they represented a simple educated/uneducated class binary.  First, about two-thirds of adults who live in suburbs do not have bachelor’s degrees, and therefore, would be classified as working class.  The suburban vote in large metropolitan areas is not synonymous with an educated white middle class – and hasn’t been for decades.  Second, and even more elementary, just because you can easily find Trump supporters in woebegone spots doesn’t mean that all white folks in those spots are Trump supporters, as Kruse’s reporting so strongly implies.

Johnstown offers much more interesting fodder for political analysis than its woebegone-ness.   It is in a swing county that in the 21st century has swung from Al Gore to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Mitt Romney and finally to Trump last year.  As British reporter Gary Younge found in his visit to Johnstown, economic desperation and every kind of decline you can think of accounts for both the area’s swingy-ness and its large number of Trump voters in 2016.  Combining my own impressions with this county-wide voting data, here’s how I’d characterize Cambria County’s citizens:

The largest group among the white working class are non-voters, who either don’t care about politics at all or are disdainful of politicians of all stripes. They simply believe voting makes no difference.  This group is itself complex, ranging from people who keep up with the news and have independent-minded opinions about issues to people who never watch or read much news at all and do not form opinions of their own about current issues.  Among regular voters, there are strong Democrats and strong Republicans, somewhat skewed by race and class, but both groups include people with and without bachelor’s degrees.

But most importantly, Johnstown has swing voters, a group that has been growing larger as conditions in their communities and their lives continue to deteriorate.  This group, along with the Democrats, voted for Obama in 2008, and a sizeable part of it voted for him again in 2012.  But when Donald Trump came to Johnstown and promised to bring back coal mining and steel jobs, there was an enormous swing toward him in 2016.  Given what President Obama had produced – a steady, substantial, but exceedingly slow economic recovery during which their already diminished lives either did not change or got worse – and what Hillary Clinton was half-heartedly promising, the Cambria County swing to Trump had a what-the-hell quality to it that was neither pathological nor irrational.  As a former steelworker who voted for both Obama (twice) and Trump told Gary Younge, “I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in.”

Trump tapped into a large well of hateful resentments that were simmering in Johnstown before he showed up, resentments that so far as I can tell are no more common in the white working class than in the white middle class.  But if you focus on the swing voters, not the Trump zealots, you have to ask yourself what might swing these voters back to a more progressive politics. I suspect these alternative focuses are applicable across the Rust Belt states.

And this is part of the problem with the way reporters and other analysts focus on the Trump zealots as if they are the whole of the white working-class: they encourage Democrat politicians to aim to win over what they imagine as “traditional Republicans” in “affluent suburbs” – folks they hope will be increasingly disgusted by the character and behavior of our president.  That approach may yield some votes. But this merely anti-Trump focus allows Dems to avoid hammering out a governing vision, message, and program that could really make a difference to voters like many in Johnstown – those who are desperately swinging back and forth in the vain hope that voting in the world’s oldest democracy might make a difference in the lives they get to live.

Jack Metzgar    

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments