Racism and the Working Class

When I tell other middle-class professionals who don’t know me well that I’m writing a book about working-class culture, it’s amazing how often they respond approvingly that “white racism” is an important subject.  My reaction, depending on the circumstance, ranges from embarrassment to rage.

It’s frustrating that “working class” reads as all white to so many people who should know better.  And it pisses me off that so many educated people assume that the white part of the working class is either uniformly racist and/or that racism is the most distinctive part of their culture. And it often seems there is a background assumption that little or no racism exists among the educated middle class, that all white racism is contained within the working class.

If there is a common working-class culture across racial and ethnic groups, as I think there is, white racism cannot be part of what is common in that culture, because about 40% of the American working class is not white.  So even if many working-class whites are vociferously racist, racism cannot characterize working-class culture as a whole. Nor have social scientists been able to establish with any certainty that white working-class people are more racist than other whites, let alone measure the difference.  White racism in various forms exists among middle-class professionals. And because they have more power, their racism likely has greater impact than the individual attitudes of working-class whites.

These extravagantly false assumptions are largely based on both educational and occupational snobbery, which plays out in all kinds of ways, some of them inconsequential.  But, as law professor Ian Haney Lopez has documented, they can have a toxic effect on American politics by strengthening racist dog whistles even when you are trying to combat those whistles.

In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Lopez reports on a political narrative project he helped design after the 2016 election.  In an extensive, country-wide set of surveys and focus groups, the project presented several different political messages to respondents.  Researchers found that neither a message focused only on racial justice nor one focused only on economic justice was as popular and as effective against racist dog whistles as a message that combined calls for racial and economic justice – one that presented interracial solidarity as a necessary condition for economic justice.

To understand this, we have to see how white racism in the working class is layered within a class resentment against middle-class professionals, especially those whose exclusive focus on marginalized groups makes them seem unaware that a struggling white part of the working class faces many of the same economic conditions as black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous peoples.  When politicians and progressive advocates focus solely on racial justice, their messages call forth this class resentment. They also stoke fears that citizenship and whiteness may be the only assets these white workers have left.

Similarly, a message that seeks to appeal to broad class interests benefitting people of all races and genders, while attractive, seems to many black and brown people to gloss over injustices that affect only them or that affect them to a much greater degree.  What’s more, colorblind economic populism, while popular among white workers, does not undermine racist dog whistles and their impact among whites.

Paradoxically, when politicians or media commentators denounce the use of dog whistles like “thugs,” “law and order,” and “illegal aliens” – let alone rhyming looting with shooting – the dog whistles actually become more effective. Because most whites do not want to see themselves or have others see them as racist, they hear critiques of this kind of language as dismissive of their legitimate concerns about crime, law and order, and illegal immigration. They resent being labeled as simply racist, and the result is a melding of both class and racial resentments.

Lopez’s research shows that the most effective message went directly at dog whistles but not simply by denouncing them.  Rather, the best message focused on the purpose and effect of the whistles: to make it harder for the vast majority of Americans to see and pursue their self-interest by uniting to confront our economic and political oligarchy.  The winning message explained that attempts to divide us along racial lines undermines any attempt to redress our shared and growing inequalities of income, wealth, and power.  The winning message called for interracial solidarity as the essential requirement for effectively pursuing both racial and economic justice at the same time.

One of the project’s most interesting findings was that the largest group of respondents (59%) embraced an inconsistent mix of progressive and reactionary views – including people who agreed with both a specific progressive view and its conflicting reactionary one.  For example, this majority group, whom Lopez calls “persuadables,” found both racial-fear and racial-justice messages convincing in nearly equal measure.  And this was basically true of all racial groups, as 54% of African Americans and 60% of Latinx found the racial-fear message convincing, compared to 61% of whites.

Lopez concludes: “It’s true that those [persuadables] – most whites and most people of color, too – filter the world through stereotypes and racist ideas.  It’s also true, though, that they simultaneously hold progressive racial ideals.  The job ahead is not to start in educating the broad middle about racism, but to speak to the anti-racist convictions they already embrace.”

Though Lopez does not provide a class breakdown, my guess is that the non-college-educated working class of all colors is over-represented among the persuadables and that middle-class professionals are over-represented among the smaller groups who expressed either consistently progressive or consistently reactionary views.  That guess is based on 30 years of teaching working-class adults of all colors.  In my early years, I insisted on simple consistency as a logical imperative, but I gradually learned that many apparent inconsistencies are not necessarily illogical if you dig deeper, and I came to respect people’s ability to hold what they knew were contrary notions.  I must have heard hundreds of times students saying something like: “I know I’m contradicting myself, but that’s how I feel.  What am I supposed to do – lie?”

College-educated professionals, on the other hand, tend to overvalue consistency and to be much less willing to express contrary notions.  Our earnest efforts to rely on evidence and logic often lead us to neglect how fear and hope are feelings before they are thoughts. Most Americans desperately want racial harmony, I’m guessing, precisely because they have such deep racial fears.

Lopez’s counsel to speak to whites’ anti-racist ideals is important for this moment because it so strongly warns against class-inflected finger-wagging and moral superiority. The inspiring explosion of nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has uncovered a surprising well of interracial solidarity, especially among young people.  As soon as protestors moved from police misconduct to wider issues of racial inequality, they inevitably enter terrain where class inequality merges with racial injustice.  A big part of our endemic racial disparities simply reflects the reality that people of color are disproportionately working class.  We cannot address the magnitude of racial injustice without simultaneously addressing economic injustice, and to achieve economic justice we’re going to need the kind of interracial solidarity that’s been marching in our streets these past few weeks.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

George Floyd and the Costs of Racial Capitalism

George Floyd’s public viewing will be held this afternoon at The Fountain of Praise Church in southwest Houston. A private funeral service will occur tomorrow followed by burial in Houston Memorial Gardens Cemetery about sixteen miles south of Houston’s Third Ward, Floyd’s home for many years. Along with services in Minneapolis last Thursday and Raeford, North Carolina on Saturday, these memorials ensure his life will be remembered. Protests in the District of Columbia, all fifty states, and fourteen countries ensure the manner of his death will never be forgotten.

Another meaningful way to honor George Floyd is to reflect on how he lived his life, including the work he did, paid and unpaid. His work life reflects what many workers experience in this pandemic period — pervasive job losses for some and risky working conditions for others.  Workers of color have suffered disproportionately from both. Floyd’s life and the protests his death sparked reflect the consequences of racial capitalism.

Before he was a symbol, Floyd was  a man known to his family and friends as “Big Floyd” and the “Gentle Giant.”  Much has been made of Floyd’s physical size. But he thought big, too. Even in second grade, at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, he looked ahead with dreams about his life. He wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court judge.” Floyd grew up in  the Third Ward of Houston, in the Cuney Homes where  generations of black working-class families have lived, a housing development named after Norris Wright Cuney, a  prominent nineteenth-century African American businessman and politician in Texas.

The Third Ward, a largely Black working-class area, was also home to Houston’s epic struggle for racial equality. The area includes Emancipation Park, created  in 1872 to commemorate Juneteenth, and the grocery store and luncheonette where Houston’s first sit-in occurred during the Civil Rights movement. The Third Ward was also home to Beyoncé.

After a few years away at college, Floyd returned to the Third Ward, where he began recording with DJ Screw, a central figure in Houston’s hip hop scene. Floyd recorded part of “Sittin’ on Top of the World”: “Welcome to the ghetto, it’s Third Ward, Texas.” Floyd not only made music, he also  customized cars to build in tape decks.

The challenges of living in the Third Ward overwhelmed the opportunities Floyd found there. In 1998, he was arrested on a theft charge. In 2009, aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon landed him in jail in East Texas for four years. But in 2013, he returned home to start anew. He became active in the neighborhood outreach ministries around the Cuney Homes led by Pastor PT Ngwolo of Resurrection Houston. Corey Paul, a rapper, a friend of Floyd’s who was also associated with Resurrection remembers Floyd’s approach to the work: “If it’s God business, then it’s my business.” Floyd helped with set up for ministry events. He was spotted once carrying thirty chairs at once.

Yet Floyd struggled to find work  in Houston. By 2018, he moved to Minneapolis seeking new opportunities. Once there, he continued the ministry of mentoring young people. He also found security work in a Salvation Army store in downtown Minneapolis. Later, he trained to become a truck driver and eventually settled into a combination of truck driving and security work at the Conga Latin Bistro, a restaurant and dance club in Northeast Minneapolis. His boss, Jovanni Tunstrom, said Floyd was always cheerful and had a good attitude. “He would dance badly to make people laugh. I tried to teach him how to dance because he loved Latin music, but I couldn’t because he was too tall for me.”

Floyd held that position for five years until Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order closed down Minneapolis just before midnight on March 27. His job became one of the millions lost to the pandemic in March and April. It was time to start all over again. The day before Floyd died, a friend gave him contact information for a temporary jobs agency.

Floyd’s biography gives us a sense of him as a person, but his work experiences also remind us of how many people struggle in an economy that values flexibility and profit over stability and good pay. In the midst of a pandemic, it is very tempting to engage in nostalgia for a pre-COVID-19 “normalcy.” But such wistfulness ignores how the intertwining strands of white supremacy and capitalist political economy create a virulent racial capitalism.

As Cedric Robinson explains, racialism inevitably permeated the social structures that emerged from capital, including the workplace, the primary site where racial capitalism is materially and painfully experienced. In this health and economic crisis, workers of color suffer the most. Even as the positive May jobs report took experts by surprise with gains in employment for white workers, black and Latinx unemployment rates continued to rise.

The murders of George Floyd and so many others make clear that black lives do not matter under racial capitalism. They are of no consequence at all. The dehumanizing manner of his death leaves no doubt. The Black Lives Matter movement rightly calls for an end to racism and police brutality. This is essential. But the protests cannot stop there.  As the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have amply demonstrated, racial capitalism has long since deemed the bodies of workers of color only fit for whatever capital may have in mind for them. This is especially evident now in the spread of COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry among Latinx workers and among Amazon workers, most of whom are people of color.

As Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor explains “The coronavirus has scythed its way through black communities, highlighting and accelerating the ingrained social inequities that have made African-Americans the most vulnerable to the disease.” Her essay highlights how “the state is failing black people,” but that is not an accident. The state is designed for exactly that.

That is why efforts to suppress the protests – including the military maneuver conducted against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park last Monday to clear the way for Trump’s pathetic photo op — have been so ferocious. Racial capitalism relies on the military and police arms of the state to maintain its version of “peace” and “normalcy.”

The legacy of George Floyd’s life, his contributions to the younger generation, his unpaid and paid labor would have been significant on its own. But his legacy has become bigger that he ever could have imagined. The uplifting of his life in the breath of so many protesters honors “Big Floyd.” And the militarized response has revealed clearly the coiled snake of “normal” racialized violence at the heart of our social compact — and the willingness of the state to support this arrangement no matter the cost.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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

Will Lawyers Stand Up to Defend Working-Class Consumers?

Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. 4.2 million homeowners have placed their mortgages in forbearance. Hundreds of thousands more are in default and have not yet worked out agreements with lenders to fend off foreclosure. Rent, credit card, student loan, and other bills are clogging the mailboxes of working-class families.

While many working-class people feel helpless in the face of all this, socially conscious lawyers can provide a meaningful line of defense, protecting working-class consumers and homeowners and making an honest living in the process.

Both consumers and lawyers missed a similar opportunity during the 2008 recession, when the vast majority of defendants in foreclosure, collection, and eviction cases went without legal representation and many lawyers were unemployed or underemployed. Not only did individual consumers miss the chance to bring consumer protection claims against predatory lenders, they and the lawyers who might have helped them missed the opportunity to reshape the conduct of those bad actors.

My profession mostly stood down in the last recession. One notable exception were
lawyers who graduated from Max Gardner’s Consumer Defense Academy (where I
learned the trade). The overworked lawyers at Legal Aid did what they could, but the private bar has mostly ignored working-class Americans in financial distress. Legal Aid funding has been constantly attacked by Congress, and because many states fund Legal Aid with the interest on attorney escrow accounts, the low interest rates that got many consumers into trouble also undercut poor and working-class people’s access to legal services. Federal law also prohibits Legal Aid from collecting fees from defendants in most circumstances, and that keeps lawyers from pursuing consumer protection claims for their working-class clients.

In many ways this economic crisis could be way worse than 2008. As America’s working class is hurled into the 2020 recession, the Trump administration has disarmed the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and other federal consumer protection agencies. More than ever, working families need lawyers to help them fight back.

Consumers who can’t pay their bills, rent, or mortgage also face some new dangers. More than 60% of mortgages are being collected by thinly capitalized non-bank mortgage servicing companies. National banks realized that the way they handled mortgages during the last recession hurt their reputations, so most have stopped servicing all but the safest and most secure loans. This leaves the 2020 homeowners facing foreclosure in the hands of unknown companies with insufficient capital. Decisions about throwing people out of their homes or modifying defaulted loans will be left to poorly trained, poorly supervised, and poorly paid customer service agents. They will almost certainly do worse than Wells Fargo, Bank of America Citicorp, and smaller regional banks did in the last crisis. And those larger, more sophisticated institutions failed miserably.

If consumers aren’t defended, the pandemic will turn into a housing crisis for working-class families.  Millions could end up homeless and will lose their largest asset.

In Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond lays out a compelling argument that one of the best things society can do to prevent homelessness and to ensure stability for working-class families is to provide them with lawyers if they face eviction. I’m proud to say my hometown of Cleveland has done just that through a public/nonprofit partnership that provides lawyers for every tenant facing eviction. The program will pay and train lawyers to represent tenants who often have defenses to eviction and claims against abusive landlords.

Cleveland’s effort began not a moment too soon. While many places have banned evictions during the COVID crisis, once those stays are lifted upwards of 3 million Ohioans could face eviction proceedings. To ensure high-quality representation, those families and millions more across the country need the support of paid — not pro bono –lawyers.

For all the ways that federal and state governments have undermined protections for consumers, some strong consumer protection statutes remain in place, including some that shift responsibility for legal fees to lenders. From the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act to the Fair Credit Reporting Act to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act and more, literally dozens of policies provide fee shifting remedies. Fee shifting allows working-class people to bring claims without having to pay legal fees, and that makes it easier for lawyers to accept those cases.

Almost 20 years after Barbara Ehrenreich made visible the challenges of working-class life, our clients continue to be “Nickeled and Dimed” every day. Even those who are lucky enough to be current on their rent or mortgage payment face daily abuse from unscrupulous debt collectors, payday lenders, and even their own doctors and hospitals — all seeking payments that working-class people cannot ever afford.

Lawyers need to step up to meet this need.  Those of us who practice consumer law need to train and mobilize an army of colleagues to fight for the working class. Litigating Fair Debt Collection and Equal Credit Opportunity claims or defending foreclosures or evictions may not be glamorous, and it won’t make lawyers rich. But many of us went into law to pursue justice, not wealth. Standing up for the working class in a time of economic crisis gives us a chance to do good while also doing well. And it will let us look at ourselves in the mirror every morning without shame.

Marc Dann, DannLaw

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.

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

Deindustrialization as a Template for COVID-19

A long line of cars at a Mahoning Valley food bank in April

As we wrote in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Youngstown’s story is America’s story. That’s true now as we try to imagine American life after the pandemic. No doubt, coronavirus is a natural disaster that is more contagious, widespread, and deadly than the economic disaster of deindustrialization. But the struggles that Youngstown and similar Rust Belt cities faced after the plant closings of the late 1970s offer a stark warning: the economic crash hitting so many Americans now will have long-term costs. Youngstown’s story also makes clear that we can’t rely on private enterprise or individual effort to fix things.

As leaders debate when and how to reopen the American economy, some have warned that the economic crisis will lead to as many deaths as COVID-19. Our research on the social costs of deindustrialization suggests that although this economic displacement is not as lethal as the virus itself, if not adequately addressed, it will indeed cost lives. After deindustrialization left thousands without jobs, heart disease, strokes, and cancer rates increased in places like Youngstown.

So did mental health problems. A lost job doesn’t just mean lost wages, homelessness, or hunger – important as those material realities are. Laid-off workers also lose important networks and routines. For many, losing a job also means losing a sense of purpose and identity. Combine anxiety, isolation, and self-doubt with fear about an uncertain future, and it’s no wonder so many become depressed or seek relief from drugs or alcohol. As Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s by now familiar study of “deaths of despair” has shown, an uptick in alcoholism, addiction, and depression in the early 1980s eventually become an epidemic of disease, overdoses, and suicides.

Youngstown provides a discouraging glimpse of how the economic devastation of COVID-19 could play out for communities as well. Lost jobs reduce tax revenues, so cities struggle to maintain streets, fight crime, and run schools, libraries, and recreation centers. This disrupts the social networks that enable communities to pull together to address problems.

Deteriorating infrastructure, high crime rates, and poor local schools also pose challenges for attracting new business and investments. Residents and local leaders pursue any new opportunity, competing with other localities and offering tax abatements in exchange for jobs. Too often, the result is disappointing, as Youngstown knows all too well. Companies hire few locals, and they move on as soon as the tax deals end, feeding a cycle of local desperation.

Americans may well, like many in Youngstown, lose faith in government, business, labor, foundations, and even religious institutions. They might also lose faith in themselves. Self-doubt undermined our community, in part because people internalized the blame implied in media stories questioning why people failed to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, fell victim to phony economic schemes, or weren’t sufficiently entrepreneurial.

Youngstown’s story had political outcomes, too. Political resentment about insufficient government assistance, led local voters to embrace political demagogues like Jim Traficant. A few decades later, frustration over the community’s continuing struggles and false promises from too many candidates made this traditionally-Democratic area into “ground zero” of Trump country. The current crisis might also generate political effects that could last for a very long time.

People often ask us, what is the answer for Youngstown? Our response is sobering: this place will probably never fully recover. It will survive, but it will not likely thrive. Will that be true for the U.S. after COVID-19?

The answer depends on how we respond. First, we must recognize how the economic policies and business practices of the last few decades created the economic precarity that makes today’s crisis so overwhelming. A society in which so many people live on the edge is particularly vulnerable, as we have seen in recent weeks.

Second, we must expand social welfare programs to provide not only basic food, healthcare, and shelter but also mental health resources to help people recover from the multiple losses of this crisis.

Finally, we must insist that relief programs rebuild the economy from the ground up. We can’t count on business to act in the best interests of communities or workers. History tells us they will act in the interest of investors. We must create a more just and sustainable economy, and that means prioritizing the security of all, not the wealth of a few.

If we fail to recognize that we have the responsibility not only to protect each other’s health but also to protect each other from the devastation of economic collapse, then Youngstown’s story will yet again become America’s story.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

 

An earlier version of this piece appeared on NewGeography.

 

Posted in Issues, John Russo, The Working Class and the Economy, Youngstown | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“People Ain’t Gonna Come to Work if They Don’t Feel Safe”

If you live in Iowa, you get to see a little bit of how the sausage is made, so to speak, especially if it’s pork. It’s a common occurrence to see long semi-truck trailers on the highways, with round pink hog noses poking out through the metal slots, three levels of about 175 hogs. You can smell the truck before you see it.

In northeast Iowa, the full trucks are all en route to the Tyson plant in Waterloo. Tyson has six pork plants (in addition to beef and chicken facilities) in the U.S. Collectively, they process 461,000 hogs per week. That’s nearly 24 million hogs a year.

In Black Hawk County, Iowa, Tyson is the second leading employer (after John Deere), with about 2,800 jobs. The plant has long drawn Latino, Bosnian, Congolese, Burmese, and Pacific Islander immigrant workers, making Waterloo (along with other meatpacking towns) one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest. Students in Waterloo schools speak 45 different languages.

Triumph Foods pork processing facility in St. Joseph, MO. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA.

The work is hard. Meat cutters often work shoulder to shoulder cutting and packaging meat, on their feet the entire time. A current job description notes “heavy/detailed knife work, stunning, and/or saw operation. May require climbing stairs/ladders. Must be able to lift up to 150 lbs (2 people) and push/pull up to 280 lbs.” — all while working in rooms that can be wet and slippery, with temperatures in some rooms as low as 35-40 degrees or over 90 degrees in others. The average hourly rate is $14.96. Shifts can run 10-12 hours, six days a week.

Large institutions with thousands of people in close quarters are perfect places to spread coronavirus. When COVID-19 hit Iowa in mid-March, I was sent home from my university to teach my classes online. On the other side of the county, Tyson workers carried on, in person at the factory. The situation mirrors the COVID-19 class divisions across the country: many middle-class people get to work from the safety of their own homes, while working-class “essential” workers risk coronavirus exposure daily as a condition of their labor.

The work of meatpacking is rarely in the news nationally, or even locally in the Midwest. Although the top four meatpacking companies employ nearly a half million people, in an industry that generates over $231 billion a year, but their difficult work is nearly invisible, off of the radar of the middle-class-targeted news audience. Stories like the Department of Agriculture’s speed-up of pork processing lines last fall are covered as policy debates and rarely include workers’ voices.

The coronavirus has changed that.

A quick review illustrates how the number of stories about meatpacking has skyrocketed. I searched the Nexis News database for the first four months of this year, using the search terms “meatpacker” and “worker.” There were 718 news stories, and the monthly count grew exponentially during the first part of the year, almost like the virus itself:

Jan. 2020:        14 stories

Feb. 2020:       33 stories

Mar. 2020:      59 stories

April 2020:     612 stories

The framing of the stories has changed, too, as a deep concern about workers and communities spread.

The story of coronavirus in Iowa meatpacking plants blew up in the second week of April, as Tyson suspended production at its Columbus Junction, Iowa facility, with at least two dozen workers infected with COVID-19. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said Tyson would make the decision on when the plant would reopen, and that “they are doing everything they can, not just to protect the employees but to continue a really critical part of our food supply chain.” Meanwhile, in Black Hawk County, at Tyson’s largest pork processing operation, workers who have no paid sick days written into their UFCW union contract began a sickout in mid-April, refusing to work in an environment they called dangerous.

On April 18, fearing an enormous outbreak at the Waterloo plant, 20 elected officials from the area pleaded with Tyson to close the plant until all mitigation efforts could be completed. Tyson did not respond, and Reynolds refused to close the plant, lamenting that shutting down the factory might result in hogs being euthanized.

Finally, on April 22, after worker sickouts, community criticism, and more than 180 Waterloo worker COVID-19 cases and one worker death, Tyson closed the plant. That week, Iowa won the ignominious honor of having the fastest virus spread of any state in the U.S.

Hopes to get ahead of the virus lasted only a few days. On April 26, Reynolds announced her first steps to reopen businesses across the state, dismissing a report by University of Iowa researchers that “a second wave of infections is likely” if prevention measures weren’t kept in place until at least mid-May.

This isn’t just a political story. Local news media across the state are bringing workers’ voices into the mix. Like most news organizations across the country, the Waterloo Courier doesn’t have a regular workplace beat reporter. But Courier multimedia reporter Amie Rivers listened to what people were saying in the community and broke the story of the sickout at Tyson in Waterloo. Iowa AP correspondent Ryan Foley wrote moving stories about people who worked at Tyson plants and died from COVID-19. IowaStartingLine, an online publication, interviewed young Latinos and Latinas deeply worried about their parents who worked in meatpacking plants. Local TV stations and Iowa Public Radio featured stories of workers and meatpacking, too, as did CBS, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC. The New York Times podcast “The Daily” featured a heartbreaking half-hour interview with Achut Deng, a single mother, UFCW member, and Sudanese refugee who contracted COVID-19 at the Smithfield factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Iowa’s meatpacking plants are only part of the story. Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of Payday Report, has literally connected the dots by mapping all of the instances of worker resistance. On his COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, he has recorded 184 wildcat strikes that happened since the beginning of March. The actions, all pandemic related, include Amazon fulfillment workers walking out in Tracy, California; fast food workers striking at 50 stores in Central Florida; and Richmond, Virginia bus drivers conducting a sickout.

On May 5, Reynolds finally released data showing almost 1,400 coronavirus cases at three Tyson plants: 221 in Columbus Junction, 444 in Waterloo, and 730 in Perry, the latest outbreak. The local newspaper headline in Perry read “Jaw-dropping 58% of Perry Tyson workers test positive.” Two days later, the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo reopened with plastic shields spacing workers six feet apart. The day after reopening, Black Hawk County health officials reported that 1,031 Waterloo Tyson plant workers had COVID-19, more than 2.3 times the number of the state’s undercount.

I talked with Samuel Stokes, the UFCW Local 431 union representative/organizer in Waterloo, about how the workers felt about going back. “People ain’t gonna come to work if they don’t feel safe. They don’t care about being fired. They care about their lives and their family’s lives.” He said about half of the workers want to return, and about half don’t. “They just pray that Tyson has their back. If they go back and Tyson is not safe, it will be the same thing all over again. They will voice their opinions.”

It is hard to believe that it has been only about two months since the WHO called COVID-19 a global pandemic. Workers face the double threat of a deadly virus and long-term unemployment that increasingly rivals the Great Depression. There is no magical cure (sorry hydroxychloroquine, UV rays, and bleach), so we may well see more examples of workers and citizens forming a mutual solidarity for their own and their community’s survival for months or years to come.

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Fishing Industry Workers Struggle to Beat Long Odds

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing signs of worry about the food supply. Meatpacking plants have closed due to high rates of infection among workers. Farmers plow crops under and pour thousands of gallons of milk down the drain. Closer to home, grocery workers, now seen as essential, face a higher-than-average risk of contracting the virus.

So far though, we’ve heard very little about the fishing industry or its workers. That might be because reports on the fishing industry tend to replace workers with what they produce, gauging the health of the industry in tons of catch and how demand affects prices. But in concentrating on those numbers, industry portraits erase multiple factors that shape fishing and affect fishing industry workers.

Talk of rising catch hides the depletion of wild stocks, for example, an ongoing problem.  The Gulf of Maine hasn’t allowed shrimping since 2013, and this year it banned any catch whatsoever–even for monitoring–in a last-ditch attempt to save shrimp from extinction in the region.  That follows on the heels of the collapse of cod and cod fishing all along the northeast coast of the United States. Head to the northwest corner of the country and you’ll hear that wild salmon stocks are retreating at a rapid rate, so fishing boats based in Gig Harbor, Washington, now have to make the long trek to Alaska to find fish every spring.

Depletion is tied to a larger and somewhat more abstract concern: the environment. The Gulf of Maine is the fastest-warming body of water on our climate-changing planet, and everyone in the lobster business knows it.  Meanwhile, down along the coast of Louisiana oyster producers tell you that their marshes are disappearing more rapidly than any coastal area in the United States.  Add to that an unprecedented volume of fresh water flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi due to massive rains and run off out of the West and mid-West in 2019.  All this in a fishery still dealing with the impact of the BP Horizon explosion and pollution.

Finally, global socio-economic issues are directly affecting independent fishers. Speaking of lobstering in Maine, National Fisherman’s “Yearbook” notes that after 2018 tariffs, lobster exports to China dropped by 46 percent. Politics, economics, the environment—clearly, the seafood industry involves more than just how much fishers catch.

All of this affects the industry’s workers. As Keith R. Criddle writes in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, we should think about fishing in terms of “conditions that promote social and economic well-being, viable resource dependent communities, and an institutional structure that allows for evolution of socio-ecological systems.”

Fishery workers, like others in the food chain, face new threats because of the coronavirus, which will likely create a long-term disruption in the seafood trade. The prices that fishers were getting at the dock from wholesalers and processors were already depressed by those tariffs.  That problem has now combined with COVID-induced shifts in the public’s struggle to answer what’s for dinner tonight. Seafood may not be a ready answer, even where available.

In response, state governors and legislators quickly began pursuing federal assistance for their community-based seafood industries. But although desperately needed, support for continuing production will not solve other hidden problems.  Like farmers who are forced to dump milk or plow crops under, fishers need to sell what they catch, and that is not happening. Instead, as Keith Decker noted in early April, even lobster, “the highest-value fishery” has seen wholesale prices fall dramatically.

Effects of this virus-induced decline will likely be felt long into the summer as fishers and their communities face a drop in summer travel, a prime market for fresh seafood. That will be a damaging blow to fishing and tourist-focused towns, one not likely to be offset by the opening of state economies.  In short, the ongoing pandemic is combining with long-standing challenges in the industry to add force to a wave building on the horizon–one that will further disrupt the lives of fishers.

Nor can fishers count on the CARES act to provide much help, even though it breaks enormous precedent in allowing self-employed and gig workers to collect unemployment. Those payments are stop-gap at best, and many are being swallowed up by large corporations.  As Robert Vanasse of Saving Seafood notes, the $300 million allotted for commercial fishing is “a large amount of money” but, given the scale of the industry, “it will not go far enough.” Without more aid, Vanasse argues, boats will remain at the dock, and “the downturn could drive thousands of commercial fishers, many of them third- or fourth-generation operations, into bankruptcy and adversely affect coastal communities around the country.”

COVID aside, most of the threats to the fishing industry are not new.  But they are all complicated by another aspect of the industry:  the very independence fishers pride themselves on often means that they suffer when it comes to federal and state aid.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, government relief relied on formulas that often did not match well with the fishing activities of independent producers.  Many small, family-owned businesses were disadvantaged by the very process of assessing damages, a situation not likely to go away anytime soon.

All of which makes clear why we need to consider not just how much fish and seafood is caught but also how lost work affects peoples’ lives.  Numbers alone can’t tell the whole story. For other food industries, we have dramatic videos of milk being dumped and crops being plowed under. News reports regularly remind us that it is not only food but farmers’ livelihoods being destroyed. Fishing families face a similar future, but we don’t have visuals to tell their story. Idle boats don’t carry much dramatic impact. But like many invisible dangers, those worker-less boats are symptoms, physical markers of lives and livelihoods being uprooted and quite possibly damaged beyond repair.

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor of English and Director of the Screen Arts Program at Louisiana State University.

 

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

May Day 2020: Workers in the Pandemic Time

Around the world, the first of May, is generally celebrated as a public holiday.  May Day’s origins go back to 1886, when 300,000 U.S. workers in 13,000 businesses laid down their tools in a general strike, joining 40,000 in Chicago to demand the eight-hour workday.  The Haymarket Square riot, days later, marked these events indelibly.  In subsequent years, labor movements acting in solidarity proposed the date to commemorate these events as the International Workers Day.

Globally, May Day is usually celebrated with marches led by labor unions and the political parties and allies that support them.  May Day 2020 probably won’t be remembered for the marches, if there are any, but for the struggle and sacrifice of workers, many of them newly understood to be essential, others newly unemployed. The fragility of work in an unequal economy has been laid bare in this season of the pandemic.

An ACORN food distribution site in Delhi

ACORN’s union of 45,000 hawkers and street vendors in Bengaluru, India, are mostly daily wage laborers.  To eat that day, they must work that day.  With the country shut down with only four hours’ notice, many were pushed to starvation.  In Delhi, where we run more than a dozen night shelters for migrant workers, overnight we had to organize kitchens to serve more than 7000 meals per day.  In Honduras, our members protested promised food rations were not delivered to our neighborhoods by the government in San Pedro Sula, even as the maquilas in that city’s suburbs suddenly closed, laying off tens of thousands. It’s unclear if or when those plants will reopen. In Lyon, France, our union of security workers went on strike to demand – and win — personal protection equipment to do their jobs. In England, Canada, France, and Ireland, we called for the end to evictions for tenants and a moratorium on rents.

Similar stories can be found everywhere around the world.  The plague joins precarity in oppressing workers globally who are now drowning in the pandemic depression. Is there any good news for workers in this terrible time?  Perhaps.

With workers receiving 85% of their pay in France if still employed, 80% in the United Kingdom, and 90% in Denmark, some countries understand that it pays to support workers before they are unemployed.  Some of that recognition is embedded — too little, too late — in the US Paycheck Protection Program.  A door is opening that we should never allow to be closed.

We have reasons to hope.  A divided Congress provided unemployed workers – more than 22 million of them in recent weeks – an additional $600 per week through the end of July on top of often meager state-determined benefits.  This is a form of temporary national basic income maintenance, potentially changing welfare as we have known it.  For many, the supplement means that unemployment pays more than the normally low wages common in many sectors, forcing companies, supported by the stimulus money, to give bonuses and daily hazard pay to keep essential workers on the job.  At Local 100 United Labor Unions, we are fielding calls from employers asking us to agree to higher wages.  Only months before such requests were triggered by labor shortages. Now it’s because these workers are essential, and they cannot be replaced.  How will this not become the new reality for such work in the future? This is ground that will not be surrendered once the pandemic passes.

Has the pandemic killed gig work or just changed it?  App-based work at Uber and Lyft are in freefall, and Airbnb is burning up its remaining cash.  With the stimulus bill bailing out gig exploiters who have built their businesses on the backs of workers by not paying social security or unemployment, isn’t the argument over now about whether they are employees or independent contractors?  They are inarguably workers today.

Local 100 has a contract for 300 workers with ResCare, the giant service company specializing in government subsidized work, in this case for community homes providing supported independent living for the developmentally disabled.  After ResCare refused to provide PPE or to isolate and pay workers exposed to cases of coronavirus in one of its New Orleans area homes, we filed an OSHA complaint.  The law holds that employers must provide a “safe and healthy” workplace, but health and safety standards generally have become as frayed for workers as the rest of the safety net.  OSHA has been forced to step up in healthcare facilities and commit to investigate the facility with our constant prodding. Whether in healthcare, Smithfield meatpacking in Sioux Falls, GM workers in Detroit, grocery store workers everywhere, will employers be able to avoid real health and safety standards in the future past this moment?  We suspect not.

My niece wrote a recent Facebook post saying that it was the time of year when normally she would find out who her children’s teachers would be in the next school year.  She wrote that she “hoped it isn’t me!”  Daily, applause and pot-banging rings out in New York and other cities around the world for teachers, nurses, and other essential workers, two-thirds of whom across this country are women.  Is there any way we can go back to taking all of this work for granted in the way we did before?  Let’s hope not.

The pandemic has brought a terrible time to the working class of the world, but it has also brought a recognition that workers, not business and the rich, are the essential fabric holding our world and our lives together. It is also the opportunity to make these temporary measures permanent and build the organizations and unions that can make these changes stick. This is the lesson we have to make sure that everyone remembers about May Day 2020.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Wade Rathke | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

COVID-19 Is a Perfect Storm for Women Workers

With a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready, Neyda Sandoval scans a customer’s reward card (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

America’s women workers have been living in a straw house perched high on a cliff, and COVID-19 is the perfect storm.  Though research reveals that men are more likely to succumb to the virus, women will be disproportionately devastated by its economic impacts, and that’s especially true for women of color.  Women have long held the most precarious jobs, made less money, and done the most paid and unpaid caregiving. The coronavirus exacerbates these inequalities, making female workers particularly vulnerable to economic disaster in the months and years to come.

We all cheer for the doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, and others who are taking great risks to keep America safe, healthy, well-fed, and comfortable during the pandemic.  Many of these super heroes are women, including three-quarters of health care workers and 66% of grocery cashiers. One in three jobs held by women are considered essential, and four in ten workers in frontline industries are people of color.

Less visible, however, are the legions of women who have lost their jobs in recent weeks. The last downturn in 2008 and 2009 knocked the male-dominated construction and manufacturing the hardest, but this time, women made up a full 60% of the first wave of layoffs, which hit the service, leisure, and retail industries particularly hard. Many worked for low wages, often for tips, as hotel housekeepers, waitresses, salon staff, child care workers, home health care aides, and in other service and caring jobs.  These were not family-supporting, stable jobs, even before the current crisis.  Will these businesses close for good, leaving many women workers out of a job permanently?

COVID-19 has hit gig workers especially hard, because they, not their employers, shoulder the bulk of the risk of those jobs.  When a crisis hits, these companies have zero legal obligations to their workers, who have no security net. Though we often think of the “gig” economy as men driving Ubers, women make up over half those in “alternative work arrangements,” such as independent contractors and freelancers. A full fifth of such jobs are in health and education.  Though the federal relief bill is supposed to provide unemployment benefits to the huge numbers of independent contractors who are out of work, many are having a hard time accessing these benefits through creaky and overwhelmed state unemployment systems.

Women earn less money than men, and so they have skimpier savings to fall back on in hard times.  Women make only 82 cents on the dollar earned by men, a wage gap that that’s even wider for women of color. Black women earn just 62 cents for every dollar earned by men, and Latinas only 54 cents. This is true even for medical professionals: female doctors are paid 12 percent less than men, and women nurses earn 8 percent less. A life time of lower earnings means that women have a lower net worth than men, a gender wealth gap that creates real-time anguish when jobs and resources are scarce.

For women now working from home, the pandemic intensifies the gender inequities that shape their lives.  Women have long shouldered more of the unpaid caregiving in the home while also doing more cooking and cleaning.  Research reveals that women carry this burden of unpaid household work, no matter their age, race, or family income. With families hunkered down together, there’s now even more work for mother. In many homes, women are often the ones getting the family stocked up in the face of shortages, home schooling kids, and nursing sickness.  That can have troubling consequences: if women have less time to devote to their paid jobs in the work-at-home era, they may lose out on promotions or other opportunities once everyone is finally back in the workplace.

Finally, the pandemic has fueled domestic violence.  Hotlines are lighting up globally as women are locked down at home with their abusers, prompting the United Nations to issue an urgent call to protect women’s safety.  It’s a crisis that won’t end when we all can finally leave our homes. Women who lose their jobs due to the epidemic and its aftermath may long be more economically dependent on abusive male partners.

Though it’s difficult to imagine now, we will soon begin to rebuild our economy. We can do so in a way that closes deep, structural gender and racial gaps and takes women out of the path of future storms.  Let’s start by doing more than banging pots and pans for caregivers and service workers; let’s pay them fairly.  Then let’s move toward guaranteed health care, sick days, secure retirement, and paid parental leave for all people, whether they have a traditional job or not.  A universal safety net will go a long way to improving women’s lives.  Afterall, curing the coronavirus won’t remedy the its larger harm on women workers unless we begin to treat the root causes of gender inequity.

Lane Windham, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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

 

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Crime of the Century: Remembering Sacco and Vanzetti 100 Years Later

April 15th marks the 100th anniversary of the crime that propelled Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into the international media spotlight: the robbery and double murder at the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company Factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Arguably the most famous criminals tried in the 20th century, in a trial that incited a flurry of debates over the manipulation and use of insufficient evidence, questionable testimony, and ethnic bias against defense witnesses, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and spent seven years in jail until their execution on August 23, 1927.

In the 1920s, Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize the failure of American justice, drawing massive outpouring of support, including world-wide protests and a funeral cortege where over 200,000 people lined the streets of Boston. Their story reflects tensions around class, race, and politics that still reverberate in today’s discussions about white supremacy, historical memory, immigrant rights, surveillance, workers’ rights, the Antifa movement, and the right to protest in the name of social justice.

Their story is deeply entrenched in the Italian-American psyche. Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts not too far from the site of their arrest in Bridgewater, I heard my family talk about Sacco and Vanzetti as if they were older, distant relatives. My father and grandmother spoke of them only rarely, in hushed tones over dinner, suggesting a combination of curiosity and fear. Their story highlighted the suppression of labor radicalism and the repercussions of anti-immigration laws, ethnic prejudice, and intolerance during the tumultuous yet formative decades of the early 20th century. Their legacy has long been shrouded in silence—one that has shaped my family’s perspective and, to a larger degree, that of Italian Americans across the U.S.

The banner, pictured here at the Boston Common, used by the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society during marches and events. (2015)

But the story of Sacco and Vanzetti does not belong to Italian Americans alone; the two men have inspired radical resistance in new but familiar ways. For example, the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society (SVCS) works to end “political persecution” and the “scapegoating of immigrants.” The SVCS holds annual public lectures and discussions by scholars and activists about the significance of the case today. In 2015, I attended one of the protests they organized, a march from the Boston Common to the North End (the city’s oldest and a notably Italian neighborhood) directly past the historical marker noting the site where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee met. I was struck by the disconnect between the anarchists holding political signs reading “No to State Repression!” and “Abolish the Death Penalty” and the mildly curious tourists eating at local establishments on Hanover Street. In addition to musical performances, several speakers addressed the fight for international social justice, drawing connections between Sacco and Vanzetti’s struggle and contemporary events, including political prisoners across the world as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement. But the importance of remembering Sacco and Vanzetti seemed lost on the crowd of people walking by, perhaps because people didn’t support the gathering’s overt political message but maybe because they didn’t recognize the names of the two men whose memory inspired the march. Confronting history—even as this march took place on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the story of America’s independence—appeared to be too revolutionary an act.

The plaque in Vanzetti’s hometown, Villafalletto, that reads, “Assassinated by the state because they are anarchists; Your sacrifice reinforces our will to fight.” (2015)

They may not be adequately remembered in Boston, but their hometowns of Torremaggiore and Villafalletto host annual events on “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day.” Family members and activists plan marches, community events, and even revised elementary school curricula to teach younger generations about the case and raise awareness of the persecution the two men faced as immigrants and radicals in the U.S. The Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Association, a political and cultural organization led by Sacco’s grand-niece, Fernanda Sacco, also organizes programs honoring Sacco and Vanzetti. Italy’s reclamation of Sacco and Vanzetti points to a political intervention that emphasizes the intersections among ethnicity, class, citizenship, and activism—difficult lessons learned as a result of the men’s conviction.

 

In the U.S., we largely ignore the history of labor radicalism and political activism. As historian Stephanie Yuhl writes in “Sculpted Radicals: The Problem of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston’s Public Memory,” only a few commemorative markers of this story exist in the U.S. today. Public history seems to forget, she writes, that “Their actions, both violent and nonviolent, addressed very real historical grievances that are an essential part of the complex national narrative that we strive to represent.” The efforts of men and women across the U.S. who organized strikes and labor protests during the early 20th century labor movement—anarchists, syndicalists, and activists alike—ought to be recognized more publicly. So, too, should those walking off the job today, from striking teachers and nurses to the Amazon and Instacart workers who recently protested the lack of appropriate safety equipment and sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic. These activists show us that ordinary people can effect social change.

Such recognition should go beyond physical markers. We could take a cue from Italy and incorporate the study of work and labor action into K-12 education, teaching young people how essential workers are not only in a time of crisis, but every day. Incorporating a working-class studies approach in curricula early on could make ethnic and working-class history more visible. And that, in turn, might encourage us to recognize more fully how the most vulnerable members of society help all of us survive.

The story of Sacco and Vanzetti can help us to remember and understand the more radical side of the Progressive Era. Even before the Great Depression drew attention to economic inequality, they remind us, immigrant labor radicalism was pushing back against xenophobia, precarity, and the decline of unions. As the centennial of their executions looms ahead in the coming years, it is time to reconsider how we remember Sacco and Vanzetti today. They are not just labor’s martyrs. They were part of a growing international working-class movement—one that built upon solidarity and the pursuit of social justice. Honoring their memories can help inspire working-class activism now.

Michele Fazio, University of North Carolina-Pembroke

Michele Fazio is a Professor of English and a former president of the Working-Class Studies Association. She recently won the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence.

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Working-Class People Hold Society Together: Class and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted class inequalities. Commentators in the US, UK, and Australia are acknowledging that working-class people are more likely to suffer as a result of both the virus and the measures put in place to contain its spread.

Workers face increased risk of exposure to the virus because many have no choice but to be in regular face-to-face contact with people who might be infected. Workers in hospitals are at especially high risk, and while the majority of doctors might be middle class, most nurses, care assistants, cleaners, porters, and the people preparing and serving meals are working class. These front-line workers simply can’t stay at home.

Working-class people also have more difficulty accessing health care. In the US, working-class people often lack access to adequate health care, and they might not be able to afford treatment if they can get it. In the US, working-class people are also less likely to have sick pay and may have no choice but to go into work when sick. Existing health disparities put people of colour in the US at far greater risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The UK and Australia have universal health care systems, but there are still discrepancies in access to treatment. In the UK, for example, Tory austerity measures have severely diminished the capacity of the National Health Service (NHS), so the system that cannot cope with the influx of infected patients despite the efforts of NHS workers. And racial disparities exist in these countries, too. Indigenous Australians are also at greater risk from the virus due to the racial gap in health outcomes.

Testing also reflects class inequities. While many working-class people don’t have access to tests, more elite members of society have had no trouble at all in getting tested and receiving immediate treatment. Prince Charles was infected and isolated himself at the royal family’s private estate in Scotland. No doubt he had excellent medical care available. In Australia the health system is less overloaded, but celebrities there have had no trouble getting tested even as others have had requests turned down.

Class differences also make for different experiences of quarantine, social isolation, and the recommended hygiene routines such as hand washing. Middle-class people are more likely to be able to work at home. Most have good internet access and space for at-home leisure activities such as home-gyms or gardens to escape to. Quarantine looks very different for people living in households with little physical space, and many cannot afford or don’t have access to the internet. The shift to online learning for school and tertiary students has really exposed the digital divide. And the guidelines on handwashing can only be met if people have access to clean running water and soap.

Add to all of this the millions of working-class people who have lost their jobs due to new restrictions on “non-essential” busineses. In Australia, the government announced that all bars and night clubs would close, and restaurants and cafes could only serve take out. Overnight, thousands were unemployed. More people were stood down by retail outlets, the travel industry (such as airlines), and other businesses no longer able to operate due to the restrictions or the sudden and unsustainable drop in trade. This sent thousands of people to Centrelink (the Australian social security offices) to apply for unemployment benefit. The system has been unable to cope with the mass applications, and people have been left without any income. The Australian government’s response in the form of a wage subsidy will help some, but not all, of the laid-off workers.

For working-class people, these inequalities come as no surprise. People on low incomes know only too well how easy it is to be down to their last dollar and understand the implications of precarity. Class divisions are only a surprise to people who have never struggled financially or experienced class discrimination.

At the same time, the crisis has shown that working-class people matter. As others have pointed out, society is learning to appreciate workers whose essential labour is usually taken for granted and ignored. Now the middle classes are realising that retail and delivery workers, cleaners, sanitation, and utility and transport workers are the ones who keep society ticking along. Without these workers everything falls apart. Can the same be said for some middle-class professionals?

The pandemic crisis has also shown how important is it for workers to be organised. Unions have played a big part in pressuring governments and industries to look after workers. In Australia, the union movement has been instrumental in arguing for a wage subsidy and pushing the government to extend them to all workers. Unions have also been lobbying big employers and industries to secure extra sick pay, to ensure that workers on casual contracts also have access to sick pay and carers leave, and to demand that  casual contracts be honoured even if workers are currently unable to work. In other places, workers have been calling wildcat strikes to demand safer working conditions or even for the shut-down of their workplaces.

We don’t know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be, but it’s already clear that working-class people are essential for the running of our societies. The crisis is also showing more middle-class people how class works to create and reinforce inequalities, and it’s revealing the failures of the free market and neoliberalism. Whether this will lead to a change in the way economies are organised remains to be seen, of course. If nothing else, I hope this new recognition of the importance of working-class people will shift attitudes permanently.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies

 

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