Notre Dame Cathedral and Questions from a Worker Who Reads (after Bertolt Brecht)

When Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in Paris on April 15, 400 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze. One of those workers was seriously injured, and two police officers were also hurt. Emergency workers risked their lives to remove artefacts from the burning cathedral, but most reports emphasized  the value of the artefacts and artworks rather than the people who saved them. Media coverage of the global reaction to the fire focused on the great sadness many people feel at the potential loss of an iconic building. Catholics have understandably been particularly upset at the loss of the church. In France, the president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised that the Cathedral will be rebuilt, and two French billionaires have pledged millions of dollars towards the repairs. Experts have explained how technology can assist in the reconstruction of the destroyed parts of the building and there has been much commentary on the cultural significance of the cathedral.

As this was all unfolding, I kept thinking about Bertolt Brecht’s 1935 ‘Questions from a Worker Who Reads’. In the poem, the worker asks questions about the people who are missing from stories about famous monuments and historical events – the labourers who ‘haul(ed) up the lumps of rock’; cooks who prepared the feasts for kings; the masses of workers who built, fought, and died for all these important historical figures.

And this is what kept coming back: who built Notre Dame? How many of those workers were injured or died during the construction? Who has been maintaining the cathedral – fixing lights, unblocking toilets, keeping it neat and tidy, answering the phones, serving in the gift shop? What will happen to these workers while the building still smoulders? No doubt, an army of tradespeople will be employed in the rebuilding: will they be paid decent wages and will they be safe at work?

Questions lead to more questions, such as how the reporting on the Notre Dame fire reflects cultural biases based on class and race. Responses to the fire show how certain buildings or places can be attributed more value than others. Some have compared responses to Notre Dame with reactions to the June 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, which housed working class low-income people, where 72 people lost their lives. The fight for affected families to be rehoused and for dangerous flammable cladding to be removed from other social housing blocks continues, but have working-class residents of social housing been treated as less important than artefacts in a famous cathedral?

Destruction of other significant religious or cultural buildings around the world have not received the same attention as Notre Dame, such as the loss of Black churches in Louisiana in April to arson by a white supremacist. While the churches might not be as old as Notre Dame, they are extremely important to the local community, and their destruction as the result of a hate crime is deeply significant. Was there less of an outcry because the affected community are people of colour? The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem also experienced an accidental fire on the same day at Notre Dame, but the fire was not reported on by Western media despite the religious significance of this site, which points to the devaluing of sites outside of the west, as well as the ongoing suspicion of anything Muslim.

For many, Notre Dame is an iconic symbol of the Catholic Church, but for others, it is a symbol of French colonial and imperial power. The outpouring of grief for the lost building has been seen as symptomatic of the lack of concern for the rights of people under colonial rule and the continued impact of French colonialism in terms of racism and discrimination faced by African and Muslim immigrants in France today. Meanwhile, some right-wing outlets were very quick to try attribute blame to Islamic terrorists.

Responses to the Notre Dame fire often emphasize the Cathedral’s age, but in Australia, people seemed less bothered by the potential loss of sacred trees that are just as old. Indigenous activists in Victoria have been fighting to protect 800-year-old sacred trees, including a birthing tree where countless generations of Djap Wurrung people have been born, from a highway expansion. Indigenous people in Australia have experienced many such fights, as their land and sacred sites have been destroyed to make way for roads, mines, and building developments. Some public figures here have suggested that Australia should assist with the cost of rebuilding Notre Dame – an idea that seems particularly galling in the light of Indigenous disadvantage and the continuing gaps in life expectancy and educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Wider suggestions that the cathedral ‘belongs’ to the world (and therefore the world should contribute to the repair fund) insult the millions suffering under austerity measures or experiencing racism due to the rise of right-wing rhetoric (particularly when this hateful rhetoric has a religious basis), or living without adequate housing, nutrition, education, or health care around the world.

I visited Paris as a working-class teenager in the 1980s (after saving for months) and I remember going in to Notre Dame cathedral and admiring the skill of the workers who created the stained-glass windows, the beautiful stone work, the intricate wood carvings. To see the fruits of their labour destroyed is a great shame. But what is the chance that the focus of any rebuilding will be on the workers? More likely, we will hear stories about the value of the artefacts, the use of technology to recreate lost sections, the importance of the building to French history, and the willingness of the powers-that-be to make sure everything is restored.

As we listen to those stories, we should remember that reports on historical places and events are always classed and raced. As Brecht’s worker says at the end of the poem, ‘So many reports/ So many questions’.

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

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Class(room) Warfare

Students protesting outside the courtroom, photo by Joseph Prezioso

The actress Felicity Huffman—along with 13 other parents charged in the college admissions scandal—entered plea deals last week, putting pressure on actress Lori Laughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, to do the same. Prosecutors are hinting that if Laughlin doesn’t accept a deal she could face 20 years in prison, 3 years of probation, and a $250,000 fine.

I have enjoyed EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this scandal and its coverage. It has exploded so many of the lies we tell ourselves about America being a fair and just society—especially when it comes to access to higher education. For those who think about class, this scandal has been like Halloween, Christmas and Easter rolled into one. Journalists and bloggers are using words like class, blue collar, elite and privilege.

Nothing of the actual details of this scandal—the bribes paid, the photos photoshopped, the tests taken by fakers—have shocked me. What has surprised me, however, is that journalists and bloggers have been using this scandal to talk about class and inequality. As sociologist Shamus Khan wrote in The Washington Post, “the true tragedy is that almost all rich families buy their kids into elite colleges by purchasing advantages they pass off as talents, whether by way of sailing lessons or elaborate vacations planned with an eye on admissions essays. We view these vastly overrepresented children of the rich as having earned their spots.” This, another blogger concurred, “is the real scandal.”

These comments point to the many ways that rich people get their kids into college. On the lower end of the scale is all the money many of us are able spend on music lessons, test prep, elite soccer programs, and summer-abroad service project opportunities for our kids—to name a few of the advantages families like mine can afford. At the next level are the parents who can afford to send their kids to expensive and prestigious prep and boarding schools. And, finally, at the top tier, are the parents who can donate tens of thousands or even millions of dollars to college campuses in return for a guarantee of their child’s entry into said college. As many have noted in reporting on the admissions scandal, Jared Kushner’s parents got him into Harvard by donating 2.5 million dollars a few years before Kushner applied.

The Associated Press turned to Richard V. Reeves, whose book Dream Hoarders showed how the upper echelon hoards all the best opportunities for itself. As Reeves commented on the scandal, “[f]or most people outside the elite, these institutions might as well be on the moon. This story just reinforces that, the way in which money buys opportunity in America.”


Writers reveling in this scandal have even pointed out that the origin story for the very word “meritocracy” is a hoax, coined by the British writer in 1958 with his fictional, The Rise of the Meritocracy, a satirical criticism of the concept of meritocracy.

So what gives? Has the chattering class joined the revolution? Probably not.

On the other hand, something has shifted in the American political terrain, and the shift has two origins and three palpable impacts. The first origin is the global financial collapse of 2008. From the early radical critiques of the collapse and the Marx-informed analyses provided by economists like Thomas Piketty, to the new working class-centric language of Occupy Wall Street and the discovery of the 99%, to the now completely normalized presidential candidate proposals such as Medicare for All, universal basic income, and free college, we are gradually becoming a nation that sees inequality for the crisis it is.

The second shift was produced by the election of Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump showed that a populist strain of anti-neoliberalism—nativist, protectionist, bring-industrial-jobs-back, anti-trade, pro-tariff—could be part of a winning rhetoric. At the same time, Clinton’s campaign made clear that a Goldsmith’s, big-Pharma, Tech-sector-backed Democratic candidate would not take radical, pro-working-class positions. Even now many Congressional leaders who are still beholden to the super-rich reject the idea that workers need a living minimum wage of $15.00 an hour (and more).

The first impact of this shift is the resurgence within the American labor movement. Massive strikes, currently of grocery store workers (on strike in the Northeast), graduate student workers at the University of Illinois, Sacramento teachers last week, and the LA Unified School District teachers earlier this year. Corey Robin has called the massive wave of teachers’ strikes across the country the “real resistance” movement in the US today.

The second outcome has been the emergence of politicians who are willing to address class in a way that we have not seen since the 1930s. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one, of course, but there are others, too, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In Chicago, six City Council representatives were just elected with backing from the Democratic Socialists of America. Even the not-much-talked-about presidential candidate Andrew Yang is running his own universal basic income experiment (N=1) in New Hampshire.

The third sign of this shift revealed itself in this admissions scandal coverage: the willingness of ordinary journalists and bloggers to write explicitly about class. While many of us in Working-Class Studies have been doggedly pointing out the presence and importance of class in our academic and public facing work, for many years, it seems, that the rest of the world is finally catching up.

Now, to the barricades!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Will Democrats Reach Rural Workers in 2020?

It should be easy to run against Trump’s rural America record. Aside from his made-for-Fox News rallies, he has little to show for in rural policy except for self-inflicted wounds that risk returning rural America back to the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Trump’s misguided tariff wars and scuttling of NAFTA have exacerbated crop prices that were already slumping, especially corn, soybeans, and wheat. This year, farm loan delinquencies have hit a nine-year high. Since land is the basis for farm loans, another disturbing trend is the fifth straight year of decline in Midwestern farmland values, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which represents a region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states (except for Illinois) that Trump won in 2016. According to the Chicago Fed, this is “the longest downturn since the 1980s” in farmland valuations. And, although unemployment is low in the Midwest, it masks the long-term disinvestment and depopulation of rural locations in the region.

And Democrats should have learned from 2016 that ignoring rural Midwestern states, or assuming their support, is a proven bad approach. As Pulitzer Prize-winning, editorial writer Art Cullen of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times recently noted, “The main problem with Democrats is not showing up in flyover country, and they paid for it with the election of Donald Trump.”

Display from Raygun store, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, March 30, 2019. Photo by Christopher R. Martin

A huge group of Democrats are already showing up in Iowa to compete for the nation’s first caucus next February. On March 29, five of those Democratic presidential hopefuls appeared in Storm Lake for the Heartland Presidential Forum to address their vision for rural America. Julián Castro of Texas, John Delaney of Maryland, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Tim Ryan of Ohio took questions from Cullen, two reporters from HuffPost, and audience members at the more than two-hour event. Of course, showing up is just part of being a candidate. The bigger test is what ideas they have for rural America, including Iowa, which turned to Trump in 2016.

All of the politicians were adept enough to endorse rapid federal aid to the region’s communities ravaged by flooding rivers this spring. They all also suggested some long-term policies to confront the economic malaise of rural areas. Both Warren and Klobuchar proposed confronting big agribusiness. “A generation ago, 37 cents out of every food dollar went into a farmer’s pocket,” Warren said. “Today, it’s 15 cents. And one of the principal reasons for that has been concentration in agribusiness…I want to see the enforcement of our antitrust laws.” Klobuchar hit a similar note about the handful of multinational corporations that control agribusiness. “I think we are now entering what is essentially a new gilded age, and we need to take on the power of these monopolies,” she said.

Delaney, who was the first to announce his run (in July 2017!) and whose commercials have been staples of Iowa television, introduced his “Heartland New Deal,” with proposals for health care, infrastructure (including the popular idea of broadband for rural areas), agriculture policy reform, and especially investments. “I believe in the power of investment,” said Delaney, who made his fortune running investment companies and offered the least imaginative vision.

Castro, like all of the speakers, advocated for local schools and community health care, but most strongly emphasized his support of immigration, which brings badly needed workers to agriculture and slumping rural towns. “We can have a secure border and also be compassionate and recognize the value of our immigrant community.” Castro’s comment was followed by substantial applause from an audience right in the middle of Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King’s district, demonstrating that rural voters aren’t monolithic in support of anti-immigrant politicians like King and Trump.

Ryan, who hails from Youngstown, Ohio, tried to make the urban-rural connection. “How do we get these manufacturing centers and some of these urban centers who have been hollowed out in the last 30 or 40 years, tied together politically with rural American. Same issues – hospitals closing down, children leaving – kids leaving our communities, opiate epidemic, failure to be able to fund our local public services, our local schools,” he said.

Ryan has a point. Some of the answers to the question, “What does it take to enable rural America to survive?” also apply to those hollowed-out industrial centers. Yet all of the candidates at the conference ignored three important issues where federal policy can make a significant difference in both places.

First, an often-overlooked component to small-town health is a post office. In a digital economy, package delivery is essential. Having a local post office literally puts a town on the map. One post office advocacy group counted nearly 1,600 post offices closed from 2008 to 2017, estimating that three-quarters of those padlocked locations are rural. But blighted urban neighborhoods have lost post offices, too.

Aside from deliveries, post offices can offer another function to help working-class towns and urban neighborhoods flourish. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (who missed an opportunity in her absence from the Heartland Forum) has introduced legislation to require U.S. Postal Service offices to offer basic financial services to customers, an idea supported by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. This would expand financial services into rural towns that may have none, providing services like free checking accounts and debit cards to those who cannot afford the fees of commercial banks. Most important for working people is the proposal that postal banks could make small loans of up to $500 at low interest rates, undercutting the exploitative payday lender business and helping the 11 percent of adults who have had to resort to payday loans. This system works in 87 other countries, including Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Singapore. The whole idea may sound un-American to some, but it’s worth remembering that the U.S. had its own post office banking system 1911 to 1966.

Second, the federal government can also help sustain small-town schools, another essential institution for rural towns in Iowa and urban neighborhoods like those in Chicago. In Iowa, school consolidation has meant downsizing from 458 school districts in 1965 to 374 in 2000 to 330 last year and closing many school buildings. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that “Losing a school often spells the end for its town, too. The idea of losing an entire community — a hometown, a childhood, an identity for many — has brewed fear and anger.” A parent from Chicago’s South Side noted a similar effect when her schools closed. “The community was just one family and when the school closed and the building shut down, it shut down our family,” she told WBEZ in Chicago.

Finally, while nearly all of the candidates observed that economy has increasingly left workers behind, none talked about empowering workers with a significant bump in the minimum wage and restoring collective bargaining rights (both important issues in Iowa). Instead, they offered disappointing economic visions like Tim Ryan’s: “embrace” artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing, infuse it into existing industry, “and cut the American worker in on the deal.”

It’s good that Democratic candidates are showing up early in flyover America. But judging from their presentations in Storm Lake, they have a lot of work to do in honing their message for the rural (and urban) working class. Midwestern voters in a faltering economy are going to want more than vague assurances that government and business leaders will “cut the American worker in on the deal.”

Christopher R. Martin

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


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Who Speaks for Us?

Lynne Patton at the Michael Cohen hearing. photo from The Washington Post

Mark Meadows got a lot of flak for bringing Lynne Patton, a woman of color, to the Cohen hearings in an attempt to refute Cohen’s charge that Trump is a racist.  After all, said Meadows, Patton worked for Trump – first for the Trump family and now as an administrator with HUD — so she should know.  Representative Rashida Tlaib had dramatically challenged Meadows in public, saying, “The fact that someone would actually use a prop — a black woman — in this chamber, in this committee is alone, racist in itself.”  With tensions flaring, and Meadows doing what appeared to be a tears-in-the-eyes injured party act, Tlaib hastily retreated, claiming she never meant to imply that Meadows was a racist.  In doing so, she missed an opportunity to explain why deploying Patton as a prop is so egregious.  Since this is something that we face in the general working-class community as well, I thought I’d spend this post talking about what is wrong with making one person represent the totality of a group’s experience, particularly when it comes to political alignments and loyalties.

Meadows might have had a couple of reasons to showcase Patton.   One, a form of tokenism, could be a way of saying “look I have a Black friend, or a Black employee.”  I think we all know about the perils of this.  The other, slightly more subtle reason — and what I suspect Meadows was aiming for — was to use Patton to refute the claim that people of color found Trump and his policies racist.  The implication is that what Patton thinks on the matter (or, tells her white employer to his face, which may not be at all what she really thinks, but let’s put that aside for the moment) represents a sort of black referendum.  We know this is absurd.  But we do it all the time, not only with race, but with gender (“Sally’s OK with my touching her so therefore this cannot be sexual harassment”), and class (more on this below).  The Right is particularly good at picking people out of collectivities and using their individual responses to counter claims of malice, harm, and overall bad behavior.

For a good example of the class version, look at what happened with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  In this emotionally-laded biography, Vance describes what it was like to grow up in poverty, both the good (Appalachian values) and bad (mother’s history of drug addictions, for example).  A New York Times review called it “a tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump.”  The idea that the book could explain the rise of Trump probably helped make it a bestseller.  It was even required reading at many colleges and universities.  Conservatives embraced the book for locating social problems in individual foibles, rather than, structural causes, like say capitalism.  There was a backlash, too.  A lengthy analysis in The American Prospect took Vance to task for the “classless and benign history” he presented.   Others, who had been born and raised in poverty, contested Vance’s interpretations and claims as well.  An op-ed writer in the Washington Post bemoaned the fact that “pundits continue to cite it as though the author speaks for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe that he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.”

And that is the point.  He doesn’t. No one of us raised in poverty or the working class can speak for all of us, just as Lynne Patton and Michael Cohen’s choice of employer does not validate that employer for all blacks and Jews (another exchange between Meadows and Cohen brought this one out).  We each make our own political choices and allegiances.  This is, after all, the insight Marx had when he distinguished between class-in-itself (our collective experiences) and class-for-itself (our political organization).  The latter does not happen spontaneously.  We can raise our consciousness, or not.

That’s why we have to understand that Vance is not only someone raised in working-class Appalachia, the person he writes about in his memoir. He is also someone who has worked for a Republican state senator and to promote capitalism as part of a venture capital firm owned by Peter Thiel.  He is connected with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, for whom his wife clerked.  There has been talk that Vance is considering running for the Senate, as a Republican, of course.  In other words, he is an individual who has made political choices and allegiances in the past and will continue to do so, as do we all.  None of this is to impugn the story he told so well in Hillbilly Elegy, but it does remind us that the stories we tell are always partial.  He stressed some things and left out others, because this reflects his understanding of the world.

I’ve spent a lot of my academic career exploring how working-class people come to articulate their stories and with what political consequences.  Just recently, for example, I wrote here about how the “foreman problem” shows that working-class people do not all share the same politics.  People’s particular work situations can affect how they envision possibilities in the world.  In The Burden of Academic Success, I demonstrated how college students from the working class were forced to make choices about whether they remained identified with their class-of-origin or switched allegiance to the middle-class to which they were moving.  The former I called “Loyalists” and the latter I called “Renegades.”  When Loyalists used we they meant, “people like those with whom I grew up,” while Renegades’ we encompassed the educated middle class.  Loyalists tended to stress structural barriers to entry, the presence of racism and other forms of discrimination, and then necessity of sticking together to make good things happen.  In contrast, Renegades often recounted valiant stories of striving alone, against the odds, in an attempt to better themselves.

I’ve since seen this contrast play out in many different venues.  Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas do not share the same politics at all, despite their similar places of origin.  Not all women are equally outraged at stories of sexual harassment.   J.D. Vance’s presentation is very different from that of many others who struggled out of poverty.  Some of the most far-right conservatives came from humble beginnings.  This did not make them humble, but it may have helped them embrace a story (“anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps”) that resonated with their own feelings of success and escape.  Many others whose lives began in the working class and who were then educated into the middle class have forcefully rejected this narrative, choosing instead to focus on removing obstacles and inequities that still prevent their friends and family from having the lives they deserve.

We usually don’t get to choose who will be used as the representative figure for whatever groups we belong to. Just as African-Americans might not choose Lynne Patton to stand for them, white working-class people might not have chosen J.D. Vance. And no individual story can capture the range of experiences and views of any group. We may be constrained by circumstances, and our cultural identities may push us in one direction of another. But ultimately, we hold the power to make choices about the stories we tell, where we stand politically, and how we envision the future.  Working-class politics are not determined by our bodies or our pasts or even by the cultures from which we come. Politics are about what we do with who we are.

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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The Oppositional Politics of Race and Class in the Brexit Debate

I live in a relatively affluent predominantly white neighbourhood in the South of England. One day in the city centre I am approached by an older white homeless man; he is weaving, unwashed, I can smell alcohol on his breath. He asks me for money and I politely refuse, as I feel uncertain and unsafe. He advances towards me, and says he doesn’t believe I don’t have the money to spare, calls me a ‘Bloody Paki’, and when I refuse again, he protests “why don’t you all go home!”. Apart from this being personally traumatic, it is sadly all too common an experience of people of colour in today’s Brexit Britain.

I am struck by the positional politics of race and class in this example. In many ways I have considerable advantages: I come from an upper-middle class family in India, both my parents had doctorates, I have a stable employment in a privileged academic job. The homeless man is clearly vulnerable to the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment, and potentially substance abuse and mental health impacts from living rough on the streets. Yet my privileged class status is undone through racism, even though class-based inequalities play out in this conversation.

These kinds of racial tensions and everyday microaggressions have become exacerbated since the Brexit referendum result.  Since 2016, hate crimes, xenophobia, Islamaphobia and Anti-Semitist slogans and attacks have increased around the country. The Guardian reported a record five-year increase in race and faith-related hate crime. As Liz Fekete, the Director of the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) observes, the Brexit vote emboldened people and created spaces for ‘floating hate’ to manifest and flourish. Race and racism have been intimately tied with anti-immigration campaigns in the Brexit vote, and these need to be unpacked further. How do these tensions over race and immigration intersect with class, especially given growing attention to the so-called ‘white’ working class?”

We need to take a closer look at both the referendum results and the political propaganda that led up to the Brexit vote. British geographer Danny Dorling’s excellent analysis of exit poll data on the referendum shows  that while the working class did vote Leave, the results were far from homogenous. For example, a notable Southern middle-class vote also supported Brexit. While Dorling’s analysis was based on a six class scheme classification, other scholars such as Swales (2016:2) have arrived at similar conclusions, identifying three categories of Leave voters to be “affluent Eurosceptics, the older working class and a smaller group of economically disadvantaged anti-immigration voters”.

Viewing the Brexit vote as a ‘white working-class’ phenomenon is fundamentally problematic. As Tim Strangleman points out, the polarisation of ‘them’ and ‘us’ in the Brexit debate needs to be understood in relation to the very real isolation of the working class in relation to de-industrialisation and declining industries, especially in Labour strongholds. It is tying these class-based inequalities to a ‘white’ working class category that is the falsehood. As we know, working-class communities in Britain are multi-ethnic, and more importantly, they include women and men, single mothers and families, disabled and able-bodied workers, and people on welfare. The homogenous portrayal of the working class as ‘white’ erases the class-based multi-ethnic solidarities that are prevalent within these communities. As a white cab-driver in London told me about the Punjabi cab driver waiting in a queue for a passenger “oh him! He’s not a foreigner, he’s my mate, he lives in the East End, known him all my life”. Whether race no longer matters when the cab driver is his mate, or whether there is a difference between the familiar ‘other’ who does not pose a threat and the unfamiliar other who does is not clear. Who then is the ‘other’? And how was the anti-immigration campaign so helpful in creating a racist logic for Brexit?

Some useful insights can be gained by analysing iconic imagery of the political campaigning leading up to Brexit. Nigel Farage’s iconic ‘Breaking Point’ poster successfully constructed an image of a homogenous (white) Britain whose national security and sovereignty was threatened by uncontrolled immigration.

The elision of race through a focus on nationhood, or indeed defining Britain as a white nation, became an efficient ploy to simultaneously show solidarity with the disenchanted working class who have long lost faith in government and offer an easily digestible image of unnamed ‘others’ who posed a threat to the British way of life. Images like this define the working class as ‘white’ and disrupt potential alliances between racialized groups and working-class communities. These tactics allowed the Leave campaign to demonstrate leadership by seemingly addressing what the British people want while actually stoking what they fear.

The Leave campaign and the rhetoric it fostered must also be seen in relation to the rise in new populism and the extent to which far right politics have been mainstreamed and how this intersects with other contextual factors such as neoliberalism and the decline in working-class solidarity as well as rising racial tensions. This has given the right-wing press the traction to promote the ‘white working class’ as a political tool, by which “working class men and women now understand and make sense of the real economic pain they suffer through such a racialised frame of white working class victimhood” (McGeever and Virdee, 2018). As Gurminder Bhambra suggests, conflating socio-economic class with race in this way undermines the very distinctive ways in which racism has structured the modern world. This is exemplified through institutional racism as well as everyday racism in people’s lives. It also deflects attention from the deepening of class-based inequalities and the role of austerity in worsening these conditions.

It is not clear what will happen on ‘Brexit day’ (29th March 2019), but we need to be alive to the ways in which racism, racialisation, and class inequalities have been politically engineered in this debate. Those of us who are committed to social justice need to refocus our energies on building consensus and coalitions to tackle deepening inequalities, by challenging such oppositional politics of race and class.

Sweta Rajan-Rankin

Sweta Rajan-Rankin is Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Policy Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, UK. A sociologist and social worker, her research centres on anti-racist activism, disentangling racism(s) in everyday life and intersectional politics of race, gender, and class.

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

Bargaining for the Common Good Comes of Age

Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The week-long strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in January 2019 marked the most significant struggle yet in a movement by teachers and other public-sector workers called Bargaining for the Common Good.  By striking over a long list of community-generated demands and with the support of a dense network of allies, LA teachers moved bargaining away from the union-versus-taxpayer framework into which public employers routinely push such conflicts.  Instead UTLA made itself the spearhead of an effort to reshape LA’s priorities around a common good agenda.  Drawing on several years of experimentation by public-sector unions around the country, and coming hard on the heels of the #RedforEd teachers uprisings of 2018, the LA strike illuminated a significant shift in union strategies, one that holds profound implications for the future of organized labor and the relationship of unions to working-class communities.

Judged by the “pure-and-simple” union standards of a generation ago, the UTLA strike might have been deemed a failure because it did not add a penny to the six-percent raise the LA school board had offered teachers prior to the walkout.  But the strike was anything but a failure. The union fought over issues that went far beyond salaries, issues at the heart of public education and its centrality to the aspirations of working-class Angelenos.

The teachers won commitments from the school district to reduce class sizes by four students by 2021, increase investment in the schools, hire school nurses and full-time librarians, reduce standardized testing and random searches of students, and launch a dedicated hot-line for immigrant families who need legal assistance.  Many of these demands were crafted with allies like the Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and they explicitly challenged the austerity agenda of LA school superintendent Austin Beutner, a wealthy philanthropist and former investment banker who was installed by the LA school board in 2018 despite having no prior experience in education.

The UTLA strike was the most recent iteration in a string of post-Great-Recession public-sector union battles that have consciously attempted to rethink the participants, processes, and purposes of collective bargaining. If mid-twentieth-century collective bargaining was binary, involving only employers and unions, more recent efforts have sought to give community stakeholders a voice at the bargaining table. If traditional bargaining was done behind closed doors and focused on issues like salary, these fights have been waged in public around broader demands. And if traditional bargaining concluded with signed contracts and the demobilization of the union’s membership, these efforts have made bargaining one step in an ongoing strategy of worker and community empowerment.

This approach can be traced back to the depths of the Great Recession, when President Barack Obama’s agenda became mired in the politics of austerity and Tea Party activism was installing antiunion Republican governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and tightening the grip of austerity on all levels of government. In that toxic environment, some public-sector unions began to realize they could no longer do business as usual.

That realization helped elect Karen Lewis and her Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators slate to leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2010.  Lewis and her colleagues immediately challenged the austerity agenda that had been forced upon Chicago schools by aligning the union’s fight with the interests of community allies. Calling for smaller class sizes, improved facilities, and a host of other demands that went beyond wages and other narrowly defined work issues, the CTU staged a precedent-setting strike in 2012, vilifying Rahm Emanuel as “Mayor One Percent.”

The CTU’s success was soon replicated by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) in 2013. It patiently built an alliance with parents and community groups, with whom it drew up twenty-nine bargaining demands, including one insisting that the school district cease doing business with banks that foreclose on their students’ families. After rallying broad community support, the St. Paul teachers won most of what they sought. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT,” explained Mary Cathryn Ricker, the union’s leader. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

A new strategy of alliance-based bargaining emerged from these campaigns. By May 2014, when many of its practitioners convened to compare notes at Georgetown University, the strategy had a name: Bargaining for the Common Good.  Soon it spread beyond teachers’ unions. In 2014, a coalition of unions and community allies launched Fix LA, an effort to break the grip of austerity politics on the city’s municipal services. That coalition exposed the fact that Los Angeles spent more taxpayer money paying fees to the Wall Street firms that marketed municipal bonds than it spent maintaining the city’s streets. Fix LA  demanded that the city use its $106 billion worth of assets, payments, and debt issuance as leverage to “demand better deals with Wall Street,” which would allow taxpayer money to be invested in the community and not transferred to wealthy bankers.

While these campaigns were carefully planned, their groundwork laid months if not years in advance, the teacher uprising of 2018 showed that common good bargaining was also adaptable on the fly—even in states where collective bargaining isn’t allowed. In a shutdown that closed all 55 of West Virginia’s school districts in January 2018, teachers first denounced tax policies that allowed the state’s richest citizens to evade paying their fair share and then refused to return to work until other state employees won the same wage increase they were offered.  Soon thereafter, Oklahoma teachers protested the state’s failure to fairly tax wealthy oil and gas interests, and Arizona teachers demanded that the state enact no further tax cuts until its per-pupil spending on education reached the national average.

In some ways Bargaining for the Common Good harkens back to the origins of teacher unionism and figures like Margaret Haley, leader of the Chicago Teachers Federation at the dawn of the twentieth century.  She crusaded against corporate tax dodgers who collected public subsidies at the same time Chicago was, as Haley put it, “closing the schools, cutting the teachers’ salaries, increasing the number of children in each room, and otherwise crippling the service for want of money!”

Yet if it borrows from labor’s past, Bargaining for the Common Good also represents a creative adaptation to the needs of workers and communities under twenty-first century capitalism.  Financialization, privatization, increasing inequality, and, most recently, judicial attacks on unions’ ability to collect fees from the workers they represent, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision, have undermined traditional bargaining.  Bargaining for the Common Good responds to these changes by recasting unions as defenders not only of their members but the community’s very well being. “In bargaining for the common good, we see great possibilities for a style of campaign that puts forward a vision for the city as well as for the schools,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl explains.

By reframing collective bargaining as a community endeavor advancing broad demands that transcend the narrow wage-hour-and-working-condition economism the predominated in the twentieth century, the Bargaining for the Common Good movement is helping us imagine a revived twenty-first century labor movement.  As teacher unionism continues to boil in recent days—from Oakland, California, to Jefferson County, Kentucky—a common good agenda that unites public workers with the communities they serve is taking clearer shape, and inhibitions against striking that long held workers in check are dissipating.  More workers struck in 2018 than in any year since 1983.

Many worried that the Janus decision would be the final blow to the labor movement, but a new community-centered organizing model suggests otherwise. Not only are unions weathering Janus, they are beginning to find their voice—a voice that has too long remained silent.  Not a moment too soon.

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University.




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Jobs and Medicare for All

You can tell that Medicare for All is becoming a real possibility when it gets a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and when its advocates start seriously raising and addressing the inevitable downsides of the policy.  There is no greater downside to Medicare for All than the 1.8 million clerical and administrative jobs it will eliminate in the insurance industry and in health providers’ offices.

In their nearly 200-page Economic Analysis of Medicare for All, researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts provide a thorough cost-benefit analysis of Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposal (Senate Bill 1804). And for the first time they’ve estimated the likely magnitude and character of jobs that will be lost and have taken a first crack at suggesting what to do about that job loss.  I want to critique their “just transition” program for these workers, but before I get to that, let me first marvel at the level of detail in their analysis.

It’s an important moment.  Medicare for All is no longer just a fine sentiment, but a real policy with all the nuts and bolts and messiness of things that are real.  The PERI analysis is rightly focused on how much the new system will cost and how to pay for it.  They figure it will cost the government about $1 trillion a year above current costs, with nearly 60% of that being paid by employer contributions that will be lower than they are currently paying.  The rest is paid for with a sales tax on non-necessities, a small wealth tax, and taxing capital gains as ordinary income.  In the long-run, though more expensive for the government, Medicare for All will reduce the country’s overall health expenditures by about $500 billion a year. Most of the savings will go to workers and households in lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs.  Plus, of course, everybody will be assured of access to the health care they need – a huge direct benefit to the more than one-third of us who are uninsured or underinsured while providing everyday peace of mind and life-planning stability, as well as more take-home pay, for all of us.

As the study is at pains to point out, however, the transition from the current system, which is both wasteful and of mediocre quality, to Medicare for All will be tricky.  The bulk of the savings comes from the dramatic reduction in paperwork and administration that will result from eliminating private health insurance. But this also means a huge job loss over a 2- to 4-year period – about 800,000 jobs in the insurance industry and a little more than 1 million in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, and other health providers.

The PERI analysis profiles these workforces by occupations, average wages, ages, educational credentials, and racial and gender composition. That analysis shows the median wage in health insurance is $54,400 but only about $39,400 in health care administration, where 92% of workers are women compared with only 55% in insurance.  The level of statistical detail PERI produces on these workers is itself refreshing, and is fairly rare in not treating dislocated workers as after-thoughts at best and chaff at worst – as so many industrial and extractive workers have been treated in public policy in the past.

It is also refreshing that the PERI authors insist on a “just transition” and open up that discussion.  Their program would use ERISA, the federal government regulatory agency for private pensions, to ensure that health insurance companies and providers cannot raid their currently solvent pension funds, thereby guaranteeing all workers their current pension benefits.  In addition, of the 1.8 million displaced workers, nearly 300,000 are 60 years or older and that part of the workforce is treated very generously – they will be paid 100% of their current salaries until age 65 if they choose to retire.

But the rest of the plan, though probably the most generous ever proposed for dislocated workers, is not just enough, and it leaves Medicare for All subject to political backlashes that could be offset by a more thorough program. It leaves about 1.5 million displaced workers, who would be guaranteed one-year’s salary and would receive $10,000 each to pay for education or training and $10,000 each to cover relocation expenses.  This is historically generous, but it is not enough primarily because the American system of training is an ill-coordinated mess about which workers are highly, and rightly, cynical.  In the Rust Belt, for example, so-called Trade Adjustment Assistance training programs have been notoriously poorly funded and have often led not to jobs but to flooded labor markets for specific occupations, thereby pulling down wages in those occupations.  Likewise, the relocation assistance is very generous money-wise, but the U.S. does not have a nationally coordinated employment system that helps workers find out where they might be needed elsewhere in the country.  So, though very generous, the PERI proposal pretty much throws money at displaced workers and tells them to figure out what to do on their own.  Without a nationally coordinated training and employment system, I fear this “just transition” will be rightly seen as merely “buying off while selling out” these workers.  What’s more, helping workers relocate does nothing for the communities those workers are leaving – an issue especially important in places where insurance or health care is concentrated, like Connecticut for insurance and Pittsburgh for health care.

What is needed is a jobs program for these (and other) workers – that is, a systematic effort to create and stimulate job creation.  Here’s where Medicare for All could meet with a now widely discussed Green New Deal, which would create more than a million jobs.  However, these jobs, primarily in construction and manufacturing, are likely to disproportionately benefit men, while the dislocated workers in health and insurance administration are 75% women.

For administrative workers displaced by Medicare for All, we need a plan that matches existing skills with the training needed for jobs that can be productively created.  Maybe House Democrats could commission an audit of the number and kind of government jobs that are needed to greatly improve our government’s functioning at all levels – beginning perhaps with the jobs that would support a competent national system of training and employment.  Or maybe create more positions like those 50,000 Internal Revenue Service auditors who would produce six times their own salaries by tracking down some of the $400 billion in tax fraud and avoidance that occurs each year.  Likewise, most federal and state government agencies are understaffed to adequately perform their jobs, often purposely so because of decades of Republican budget cuts.  And rare is the teachers’ strike today that doesn’t document the crying need for more librarians, social workers, and nurses, as well as for smaller class sizes that would require more teachers.  A 10% increase in government workers at all levels, phased in over a four-year period, would produce more than 2 million jobs.

I have no idea whether an increase of that magnitude would be realistic or desirable, but that’s what an audit of employment needs would provide.  What I am sure of, however, is that even the generous amounts of money provided in the PERI proposal are political liabilities – not only among workers directly affected and their friends and neighbors, but also for all those who are sick to death of hearing about “retraining and relocation” that is almost always nothing but a tragically ineffective sop, something politicians say to make us think they care.  We need plans that provide training for specific jobs that we know are being created, with at least some jobs that can be located in places that need them most.

The Sanders bill and the PERI analysis, pushed by nurses’ and other unions who have built a social movement for health care as a right, are making Medicare for All a real possibility.  But there is still time for them to design a much more just transition for the workers who will be dislocated so that all of us can enjoy better, cheaper, and more secure health care.

Jack Metzgar

Editor’s Note:  An excellent summary of the PERI analysis is available in a video interview with chief author Robert Pollin at Common Dreams.

Jack Metzgar is a retired professor of Humanities from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. His research interests include labor politics, working-class voting patterns, working-class culture, and popular and political discourse about class.  He is a former President of the Working-Class Studies Association.








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