Working-Class Precarity: An Education

Photo by Tapir Girl

The teacher who most influenced me was Raphael Samuel, one of the leading social historians of his time – though I didn’t know that when I studied with him.  Raph, as we came to know him, had chosen to work at Ruskin College instead of a more elite institution. At Ruskin, he taught people like me, who had no qualifications except for the fact that they had worked in industry, during a time in the late 1980s when many students were the victims of corporate layoffs, downsizing, or deindustrialisation. Raph always held a pencil or pen poised over a notebook ready to record the insights of his class. Most of us were flattered to think that what we had to say mattered to him. And it taught me an important lesson: we can always learn something from the experience of others if only we will listen.

I’ve tried to replicate Raph’s willingness to listen and learn in my career as an educator and researcher. It’s especially important in the course I teach every year on the sociology of work. It has at its heart the idea that my students have experience of the very thing they are studying, and that gives them expertise. I’ve drawn on that by asking them to write about their experiences, and they’ve produced some wonderfully rich autobiographical accounts of work offering insight into joy, boredom, power inequality, class, and respect.

This year, I decided to include a session on precarity at work, but I wasn’t sure how to get them talking in the seminar.  To introduce ideas about order and predictability at work, I usually show a film from the 1960s, which provides a historical perspective, but I wanted to get at the contemporary experience of precarity. With some trepidation I threw down the gauntlet, asking my students to find a short clip on ‘precarity at work’. I had hoped they’d find a couple of clips which would stimulate discussion, but I was overwhelmed by a glorious mixture of material that turned up.

The first submission came from Tracey, a mature student with a long work history, who had found a high quality cartoon Precarity Monster made for the Toronto Public Library workers from 2016.  The video explains the links between quality of working life and wider civic life, illustrating how the hollowing out of good jobs damages us all. I showed that first in class, and it got us off to a great start.

Next up were two videos about workers protesting insecure employment conditions due to tendering out labor previously carried out by people working for the company or organisation itself and zero hours contracts, where workers have no guaranteed fixed hours. I was pleasantly surprised when we started to watch Low pay, long hours, which looks at the experiences of outsourced workers such as custodians and security guards at the University of London. This film showed students how the very institutions they were attending were squeezing the pay and conditions of their most marginalised and exploited workers, often people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is at a time when the students themselves were feeling the effect of a raise in annual tuition fees to £9,250 and university heads are awarding themselves eye-watering remuneration packages. Another student showed a clip of a crowd invasion of a Sports Direct Store, a company with a reputation for poor working conditions and the use of zero hours contracts. The film highlights the link between work and our consumption habits.  Many of my students work part-time in similar retail environments and know the arguments only too well.

Both of these employment strategies undermine workers’ ability to organise collectively, and Low pay, long hours projects a positive message about unions, collective action, and the power ordinary workers have to embarrass their employers to begin to do the right thing. Very few of my students have any experience of unions.  Indeed, when I asked for a show of hands, it turns out that I was the only person who had been in a union. This partly reflects their age but also speaks to the kind of workplaces where they are currently employed and expect to be in the future. We discussed at length why this was as well as what I had gained from being unionised and what they would potentially lose over their working life.

I also prepared a new lecture this session on the gig economy, and one of the students brought in a film that linked this type of work and precarity. In Uber Drivers Aren’t Living The American Dream, we follow the story of African-American Uber driver Abraham, a former taxi driver lured into the gig economy by the company’s seductive promises. This film also stimulated lots of discussion about students’ experiences as workers but also as consumers who use these convenient services.

The international makeup of my students also emphasised that precarity takes on different but recognisable forms across the globe.  A student from Singapore brought in a story from home about 85-year-old Ng Teak Boon, an ice-cream-seller peddling his wares on the streets of the city. The clip made clear how precarity falls hardest on the most vulnerable, including those who can’t rely on a social safety net and whose work can be wiped out by bad weather.

My students uncovered a wide variety of films showing the range of precarity and gig economy work, and their films also raised the complex relationship between work, family, community, and wider civic society. Better yet, the film clips stimulated debate and reflection on the contemporary workplace.

This assignment reminded me that many of my students already have more experience of precarity and the gig economy than hopefully I will ever directly have, but it also reaffirmed the lesson that listening to our students, and to young people more generally, matters.  They are the ones living with and confronting the reality of working-class work on a daily basis, and their perspectives provide important insight – especially for those of us who are older – into the study of class and work.

Tim Strangleman

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Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Work | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Time to Make a Deal on the Federal Minimum Wage

AP Photo by Lynn Sladky

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009.  Until last year, when the unemployment rate dropped almost to the level of full employment, wages were stagnant, exacerbating inequality.  In 2018, average hourly earnings went up 3.15% and closed the year with a 3.9% jump.  Even with those recent adjustments, workers still need a federal minimum increase.

The Raise the Wage Act offers the prospect for change.  The bill was introduced in May 2017 by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, but it died in committee in 2018 with 170 co-sponsors, Democrats all.  It proposed a dollar-a-year increase over seven years, eventually reaching $15.00 – more than twice the current minimum.  It would also phase out lower pay for tip-credit workers who are currently frozen at $2.13 per hour as well as disabled worker exceptions.

The Fight for $15 campaign, largely engineered and financed by the Service Employees International Union, has been a key force in defining $15.00 an hour as the goal.  Their work has helped set eight states on the path to establishing minimum wages of between $12 and $15 per hour in coming years, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Washington.  Thirteen cities, including New York City, Seattle, and San Jose, are already at $15 or higher.  While Fight for $15 has created momentum for the new Democratic House majority, today’s leaders should not forget the lessons learned from decades of living wage fights.

On January 18, 1997, ACORN and Local 100, United Labor Unions (then affiliated with the SEIU), presented voters in Houston, Texas with what seemed a radical proposal at the time: a city ordinance to raise the minimum wage to the level of $6.50 per hour for all workers.  Only months before, the federal minimum had finally risen from $4.25 per hour to $4.75.  In a patronizing campaign against us, service industry and general business employers insisted that they understood our demand, but we were going about it the wrong way, and our proposal would cost jobs.  While we won in lower-income and working-class districts, we lost the election 2 votes to 1. In River Oaks, the district where former President George H. Bush lived and voted, we garnered just one vote.

Soon after, ACORN put a similar proposal before Denver voters, asking them to approve a minimum wage of $6.25.  An expensive, blunt force campaign in the final two weeks by the hotel and restaurant association and fast food operators swamped us. Again, we lost two to one loss even as we swept black and brown, lower income, and working precincts throughout the city.

We learned a key lesson from those losses: do the research. In Arizona, Michigan, Florida, and Ohio, we used polling to find out the rate that would gain support from at least 60% of voters. When we did that, even strident corporate campaigns didn’t block our way. Where we couldn’t do polling, we pegged the increase more modestly as a premium above the federal minimum, usually one dollar, which won in New Orleans, Missouri, and elsewhere. Once we learned to propose acceptable target rates, we won many more votes, and no living wage statewide proposition has lost at the ballot box in more than a dozen years. Between 1996 and 2008, we won more than 125 “living wage” campaigns around the country, delivering billions of dollars’ worth of raises to millions of workers. Where we won increases indexed to cost-of-living, like Florida, lower-waged workers continue to benefit.

State and local minimum wage and living wage campaigns have continued in full force and fury.  Approximately twenty states and twenty-three localities now have higher base hourly wage rates than the federal standard, and some 5.2 million workers began this year with a wage increase. Individual bumps in annual pay from $90 to $1300 add up to about $5.4 billion of increased income for workers. This is good news. But workers in twenty-nine states – about 2.2 million people — are still stuck at $7.25 per hour – or less!

It’s time to make a deal.

Reportedly, Democrats believe they now have enough votes to pass something like the Raise Wages Act and demand that the Senate either support, negotiate, or reject raising workers’ wages.  We need to force politicians to finally deliver, whatever the intraparty polarization and squabbles.

We also need to remember the lessons from the past.  In Houston, Denver, and initially New Orleans, we lost support when we proposed raising the minimum 37% over the existing federal standard.  To get to $15 on a fast track would be a jump of more than 100%, doubling the minimum wage.  Pew Research found only 52% support for that big an increase.

It’s just not likely to happen all at once.

Even raising the minimum $1 per year is steep and unprecedented. The last ten-year freeze of the federal minimum, between 1997 and 2007, the raise was seventy cents annually for three years l.  A dollar per year for seven years will be hard to win.

But low wage workers need a deal, and at this point, just about any raise would do. Fifty more cents an hour for a full-time, 2080 hours a year worker is over $1000.  Sure, a dollar would be even better, but any raise would be a godsend. This would be even better if we could finally win some form of automatic indexing for future increases and at least lift the cap on tipped workers’ wages.  Both of those adjustments would be worth paying some real money to achieve at the negotiating table.

Does making a deal hurt the states and cities that are already over the federal minimum wage?  No, indeed.  As President John F. Kennedy argued, raising the minimum wage “lifts all boats,” because workers making $10 or $12 an hour would fight to keep their hourly wages a few dollars higher than the minimum wage. If employers want to keep those workers, they will have to pay more.

Of all of the divisions in the United States now, the wage gap might be easiest to attack.  Even Republicans feel the pressure as the 2020 election comes into view. We need to make it hard for them to defend keeping the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.  They will argue that $15 an hour is catastrophic, and we must be prepared to fight back. Republicans may not like bargaining over a hike in the minimum wage, but other than the stone-cold ideologues, some of whom are in the White House, they will be ready to do so.

It’s time to demand an increase in the federal minimum wage but also to talk realistically about the terms of an agreement.  Lower wage workers must have a raise, and they need it now. We can’t wait for a new President or a new Congress.

Wade Rathke

 

 

 

 

Posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Wade Rathke, Work, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Blaming Workers Again

Working-class people often get blamed for their troubles. They should have planned better, been less demanding, or just been smarter. Those are just some of the judgments that surfaced again in the weeks after General Motors’ announcement late in November that it would close five plants in the U.S. and Canada, leaving thousands of workers without jobs.

While some expressed concern for the soon-to-be displaced autoworkers, many were quick to point fingers. One person commenting on the Washington Post’s story about the announcement wrote that the autoworkers, many of whom had voted for Trump, “deserve what they get.  To fall for the simplemindedness and con-man character of a Trump makes sympathy hard to muster.” Callers on National Public Radio’s 1A  wondered why GM workers hadn’t realized that their jobs were not secure. How could they be so foolish? Others complained that the workers should have been better prepared. Why hadn’t they gone to college or pursued training for some other kind of working-class job?

That blame extended to working-class communities: why hadn’t distressed rust belt and rural communities diversify their local economies, as Pittsburgh or Cleveland had done so successfully? Others suggested that workers should move to where the jobs are. As Eduardo Porter suggested in a  New York Times op-ed about how to address the decline in rural communities, instead of trying to save dying towns, the government should implement policies to help people move to cities with better economic opportunities.

After two decades of tracking both the social costs of deindustrialization and American discourse about the working class, we found all of this beyond frustrating. In the Youngstown area (where we live part of the year), workers at the nearby GM Lordstown plant knew that their jobs were at risk, because the company had already laid off two shifts. But they remained hopeful. While some may have believed President Trump, who told his supporters in Youngstown that the jobs lost when GM laid off its first shift in January 2017 that those jobs would be coming back. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house,” others thought that GM had an obligation to American taxpayers and to its workers. GM is profitable today because of a Federal bailout and state tax abatements, not to mention union concessions that lowered labor costs.

As for the argument that workers should have pursued training so they would be prepared to move to new jobs, blue-collar workers in deindustrialized communities know from decades of experience that retraining programs often fail. Amy Goldstein documented this powerfully in Janesville: An American Story, her award-winning book about how the 2008 closing of the GM plant affected that Wisconsin community. And despite evidence that college graduates earn more over their lifetime than those without degrees, numerous reports make clear that a college degree is no guarantee of a good job. Nor is college an affordable or manageable option for many workers, especially those who work full-time.

The notion that smaller rust belt communities like the Youngstown-Warren area haven’t tried to diversify their economies reflects basic ignorance. Mayors, economic developers, and business leaders in these communities have done almost nothing but try to attract new industries, but – not surprisingly – they have a much harder time doing that than their larger neighbors, which began the battle for economic recovery with major universities, hospitals, and corporate headquarters already in place. And of course, the popular narrative that cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland are booming ignores the continuing struggles of many in those areas and surrounding towns.

Those who suggest that people should simply leave these communities have also not been paying attention. People have been leaving these areas for decades, starting during the early 1980s when the steel industry closed dozens of plants. As Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson noted in their 1985 book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, deindustrialized spurred a significant migration of industrial workers, many headed to places like Houston in search of new jobs in the oil industry. Since 1970, Youngstown’s population has dropped by about 85,000 people. Trumbull County next door, where the Lordstown plant operates, lost about 30,000 people.

Given the long-term economic struggles of the region, we might expect those numbers to be higher, but many people stayed despite the area’s limited opportunities. Why? Because along with deep roots, they have friends and family who help each other get by in hard times, and a poor economy keeps the cost of living low. For many, their most significant economic assets – their homes – are not portable or worth enough to make selling worthwhile. In the Mahoning Valley, people can often get by on part-time jobs and the informal economy of barter and DIY.

But our frustration isn’t simply about judgment and misinformation. It’s about how blaming working-class people distracts us from the larger problem the GM shutdown reflects: a global economic philosophy that deepens inequality, creating prosperity for some at a cost to many others. As Thomas Friedman noted in a recent New York Times column, a “liberal global order” based on “free markets, free people and free ideas” has spread “prosperity around the world” No doubt, global capitalism has improved the economic conditions, if not the political power, of many of the poorest workers around the world, even as many workers are losing ground. While Friedman acknowledged this, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that a growing inequality gap ought to raise questions about whether the free market works all that well. But inequality is baked into capitalism, and its effects have been exacerbated by technologies, policies, and corporate-centered ideologies. While many commentators blamed workers for not being savvy enough to succeed in a struggling economy, few questioned GM CEO Mary Barra’s upfront statement that her primary focus was on “maintaining shareholder value.”

Blaming the working class has long been a default move for elite and middle-class people. Some have faith in the cultural myth of meritocracy. They see their success as a matter of effort and talent and assume that working-class people just don’t have enough of either. For others, judging workers is a way to displace their own anxieties about the uncertain economy. Both project their biases onto the working class and reassure themselves that they deserve their economic privileges.

No wonder working-class people are rejecting mainstream politics, embracing populism, and, increasingly, taking to the streets.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

 

 

 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Global Working Class Fights Back

2018 has seen many working-class people around the world standing up for their rights and pushing back against injustice and inequality. Some of these fights have made the mainstream news in western countries, but many have not. As we reflect on the year that is ending, let’s not forget the struggles of working-class people and the successes of collective action and solidarity. Around the world, people have had enough of corporate greed and government inaction to combat inequality.

The spectacular scenes of protests and police responses on the streets of Paris were broadcast around the world. Crowds of people dressed in hi-vis vests (gilet jaunes) rallying against the French government have sparked much interest. The left have celebrated the gilets jaunes as a working-class movement – people fed up with austerity and regressive taxes, taking to the streets to demand better treatment and equality from the centrist government (although it should be acknowledged that there has been some coopting of the movement by the far right). In Australia in October, the streets were also awash with hi-vis, worn mostly by construction workers who put tools down to join rallies and marches in the city centers as part of a union-led campaign to ‘change the rules’ and allow workers more rights to organize and strike.

Australia has also seen a number of more localized strikes and organization of workers throughout the year, including the notable formation of the First Nations Workers Alliance (FNWA), set up to fight against the unjust Community Development Program — a ‘work for the dole’ scheme targeting Indigenous people in remote communities. Under the scheme, Indigenous people are expected to work for no pay and are penalized if they refuse to do so. They are not covered by occupational health and safety laws and do not receive other work entitlements. The FNWA has been campaigning around the country, creating solidarity with non-Indigenous workers and unions and empowering workers with information about their rights.

Australia’s neighbor, New Zealand, has experienced industrial action this year by public servants, nurses, fast food workers, bus drivers, and cinema workers. For some worker groups, such as the nurses, the strikes are the first to happen in decades.

In the Asia Pacific region workers at South Korean tech giant Oracle have been striking since May over unfair conditions, rates of pay, and rights to unionize. Across China, workers have challenged the state and risked arrest and imprisonment for organizing in workplaces and going on strike. Factory workers (many of whom are migrant workers from rural areas) are demanding an end to unsafe working conditions and forced overtime. Even in Japan, where strikes are very rare, in one town during a dispute over insecure work, bus drivers engaged in industrial action by refusing to collect fares from passengers. A Philippines branch of business processing outsourcing company Alorica was notified of strike action in September due to the company’s attempts to strip rights from the workers’ union. This will be the first strike of call center employees in the Philippines.

South Asia has also seen a series of strikes this year. Tea plantation workers in eastern India staged a strike in August over pay, and in October, Indian Uber and Ola drivers struck to demand higher fares to meet their cost of living. Pakistani port workers have fought back against unfair dismissals and low wages, and postal worker unions in Pakistan have been protesting employers’ stripping of health benefits.

Various African countries have also seen industrial action in 2018. Nurses in Kenya have threatened to walk off the job if negotiations over pay are not successful, and teachers in Kenya recently called off a planned strike to allow for talks with employers. Members of both private and public sector unions in Nigeria called a national strike in September in their quest for a livable minimum wage. The South African National Union of Mineworkers advised workers at the South Deep gold mine to take industrial action after announcements of mass job losses. The right to strike is entrenched in South Africa’s constitution, but recent amendments to labor laws there will make it more difficult to take strike action. A new national minimum wage has been criticized by the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) as too low – and likely to be used by employers as a maximum wage. South African workers took to the streets in April to demand a higher minimum, and SAFTU has pledged to maintain the pressure on the government with more protests in 2019.

Workers in Middle Eastern countries have also been downing tools. In the United Arab Emirates, where strikes are technically illegal, construction workers in Abu Dhabi refused to work until they were paid wages owed. In Iran, steel workers striking over unpaid wages and other issues have faced arrest, and Iranian truck drivers, farmers and railway workers have also staged action in 2018.

Employees in Europe have been fighting against Amazon – choosing the busiest days of the year to stage strikes and speaking out publicly against unsafe working conditions in Amazon factories. Greek workers have been protesting against government plans to restrict industrial action, and German railway workers have been engaged in a national strike over pay. In the UK, cleaners at the London School of Economics finally won their fight to become in-house staff, vastly improving their pay and conditions. This was the result of a ten-month strike led by some of the most marginalized workers in the country. Their union, United Voices of the World, has also run successful unfair dismissal campaigns against retailer Top Shop and a London recycling plant. They also scored a win for cleaners working for a London council in their fight to receive the London Living Wage.

There are many, many inspiring stories of successes and of continuing struggles. Campaigns have been varied as workers have fought for decent pay and conditions, as well as job security, the right to unionize, work safety, and to not be harassed at work (as in McDonald’s worker walk outs in the US). Working-class people are taking action to improve their own lives and to challenge structures that maintain inequality and injustice, and hearing about the actions and success of others helps build workers movements. Stories from around the world show there is still power in unions and collective action. They also highlight the need for global solidarity.

In this season, let’s not forget the many around the world whose work continues throughout the holidays, and let us keep organizing, representing, supporting, and celebrating working-class lives in 2019. Solidarity forever!

Sarah Attfield

 

 

 

 

 

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Trouble in Paradise

On the 8th of November, Paradise went up in flames.  This small town in Northern California held about 28,000 people, many retirees on a fixed budget.  This was not a rich town.  The median household income was $41,000, 94% of the residents were white, and a third of the town was occupied by people who rented their homes.  Less than one-quarter of its residents had a four-year college degree.  In 2016, Donald Trump won Butte County by four percentage points.  It is fair to say that if Chico, the county’s liberal bastion, had not been included in the count, the margin would have been much higher.

I know all of this because my parents lived there.  They fled, like the rest of the town, on that windy rainless morning last month.  It took us three weeks to find out definitively that their house was absolutely obliterated.  Looking at the picture of the property, provided by CalFire, gave the same emotional punch as seeing an empty child’s swing in action or kicked over tricycle with wheels still turning.  All that remained amidst the rubble was half a chimney and a brick retaining wall that my father had built with his own hands, with skills learned from his father before him, a bricklayer by trade.  Everything else was ashes.

The fire that burned Paradise, the Camp Fire, was one of the worst in the state’s history, certainly the deadliest.  The combination of drought conditions and high winds, plus the peculiar geography of the place, located on a ridge that, during the fire operated as a chimney, made this a fast-moving and unusually destructive fire.  At its peak, it was burning a football field every three seconds.  There was seemingly little time between the announcement of a nearby fire and my Dad seeing flames in his backyard.  Thousands of people fled for their lives, 88 at last count not making it, some dying as they drove away or trying to leave their burning cars behind.  When it was over –  and it took weeks to contain the fire – almost 14,000 homes, approximately 95% of all the homes in Paradise, were turned to ash.

I will leave it to others to debate who is to blame for this particular fire.  We all know the bigger answer already.  Warmer climate, attributed to human extraction and use of fossil fuels, is just going to make fires like the one that destroyed Paradise more common.  We are literally setting the planet on fire, and I don’t see any solutions coming down the pike in my lifetime, certainly not in my parents’.

What I do want to address is our response to those in the fire’s destructive pathway.  During the recent gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France, over, of all things, a fuel tax (which would surely decrease the consumption of fossil fuels), graffiti went up all over Paris (you’ve got to admire the French their ability to build barricades and make protests look like protests).  One graffito read “la crise climatique est une guerre contre les pauvres – climate change is a war against the poor.’  I think whoever threw this one up was onto something important.

More than two weeks after the Camp Fire, about a thousand now-homeless people were still camped out in a Walmart parking lot.  I followed the story intently, and one of the things that most struck me about the situation was the total lack of services.  FEMA had no presence there.   Everything was by donation – Comcast provided a hot spot Wi-Fi, local food trucks gave out food, area residents donated clothes and toys.  In other words, people were huddling together and helping each other, with little to no state services.  After the rains came, all these people were displaced to various shelters around Chico.   But no one knew who gave the orders.  Now, more than a month later, FEMA still appears to have no plan on how to get the 28,000 people displaced by the fire into short-term or long-term housing.

Climate change may not be a plot against the working class, but we will definitely face the brunt of its first impacts.  We can take care of each other, as many private citizens seemed to be trying to do in Chico, or we can save ourselves first.  As Evan Osnos reported in one of the most sobering stories of the past two years, some of the wealthiest people in America are choosing the latter option.  These “doomsday preppers” stockpile weapons, build garrisons, buy property in New Zealand (as a form of “apocalypse insurance”), or make arrangements for getting off the planet entirely.  But we don’t need to follow Elon Musk here; we see it closer to home in the renting of private firefighters to save wealthy neighborhoods.  Or the building of a great big wall on our Southern border to keep the refugees of climate change at bay.

Right now, the fears of the wealthy class and the strategies of isolation it has adopted appear to have the upper hand in the shaping of our policy.  We’ve teargassed women and children seeking asylum.  We’ve set up detention camps for teenagers.  We’ve sent thousands of troops to the border.  Most Americans do not agree with these policies, although misleading stories in the media, presidential tweets, and fear itself can always swing people in the other direction.  Many of us were surprised when the Bundy family (Cliven and Ammon) came out this past week criticizing the administration’s border policies. The Bundys are well- known in my parts for their illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.  They are usually portrayed as right-wing libertarians who would happily roll back all federal protections of the environment.  The month-long armed occupation, which protested federal management and control of public land, ended with one death, several arrests, and little jail time for the organizers, sparking outrage among many on the Left.

Ammon Bundy said the presidential characterization of the migrant caravan was “fear-based, and frankly, based on selfishness.”  I think we have to agree with him.  However boneheaded and distasteful the Bundy-led occupation was, it was also a striking example of working-class solidarity.  This was very evident in the footage aired as part of the PBS documentary, No Man’s Land It is also a good reminder that allies can pop up in a number of different guises and places.

Climate change is real and it is affecting us now.  This is no longer news.  According to the most recent government report, “climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities.”  Climate change is a war against the poor.  One could argue that selfishness, greed, and capitalism have got us into this mess.  We may never be able to get out of it.  The human race may not be saved.  But how we choose to deal with its consequences, whether we let the rich build bunkers and fly to the moon, or we work together to protect, shelter, and welcome those hit first, well, that may decide whether we are worth saving at all.

Allison L. Hurst

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ABC Sitcom The Conners: The Struggle is Real

Life expectancy for Americans has fallen to an average of 78.6 years. This is a drop from the most recent estimates—indicating a downward trend that is virtually unheard of in Western countries. A report just released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this “a disturbing result not seen in the US…since 1915 through 1918, which included World War I and a flu pandemic.” The report blames the downward trend on increases in opioid abuse, suicide, and diabetes.

Photo by Eric McCandless, ABC

So perhaps it is fitting that when ABC debuted The Conners, a spinoff from last year’s canceled Roseanne, the writers decided to kill off Roseanne Conner by having her succumb to an opioid addiction—an addiction so secret that even her husband, Dan (John Goodman) was shocked when his daughters started unearthing random bottles of pain pills around the house after Roseanne’s death.

The real life Roseanne Barr is still very much alive, as she reminded her fans when The Connors debuted in mid-October, tweeting, “I’m not dead, b*&%#es.” But it was a tweet last May that killed Barr’s tenure at ABC. She tweeted about President Obama’s close advisor, Valerie Jarrett: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” At first Barr blamed the tweet on the sleep aid, Ambien, and then she claimed that didn’t know Jarrett was African American. Finally, she apologized: “to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me—my joke was in bad taste.” But the damage was done. ABC promptly canceled Roseanne, calling Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.”

Sara Gilbert, who plays Roseanne’s daughter Darlene, and Goodman scrambled to find a way to keep the show alive. Indeed, the Roseanne reboot was Gilbert’s idea in the first place. They were also concerned about the ability of the hundreds of people employed by the sitcom, in front of and behind the camera, to keep their jobs.

Ironically, perhaps, some have argued that The Conners is just as good—and maybe even better—than Roseanne. The show was always an ensemble piece, and every actor associated with the reboot has remained. Even better, D.J.’s (Michal Fishman) African American wife, who last spring was off camera fighting in Afghanistan, is now back from the war (Maya Lynne Robinson), and there are delightful cameos by Johnny Galecki as Darlene’s ex-husband, Matthew Broderick as Jackie’s pompous Halloween date, and Jay R. Ferguson (Peggy’s bearded coworker from Mad Men!) as Darlene’s new boss at a tabloid newspaper.

Michael Schneider writing for Indiewire suggests that without the distraction of Roseanne Barr’s politics the show can go back to doing what it did so well in the 1990s: chronicling the woes of the working class. The Conners struggle with many problems familiar to working-class families: the grief from losing someone to opioid addiction, the additional loss of Roseanne’s income, alcoholism, being fired, being underemployed, being forced to work in crappy service industry jobs because nothing else is available, blue collar jobs that suck, dicey sexual situations in the workplace, and a threadbare house that is falling apart and which has to hold several generations because of finances. The Conners also face less class-specific problems of tween sexuality, teenage sex, divorce, religion, politics, and a multi-racial family.

One of the most interesting consequences of the Roseanne reboot, its subsequent cancellation, and its rebirth as The Conners is that television critics are talking about class on television. These discussions fall into two oddly contradictory threads. Some argue that television has never properly addressed class, arguing, as Pepi Lesteinya did in Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, that television has either long ignored, mocked, or derided the working class in its portrayals. The other thread, which seems to belie the first, is that in the good old days television represented the working class with love, but that now those days are gone.

The truth is more complicated than either of these claims.

First, working-class people have always been featured on network television in greater numbers than we have been able to see as scholars, in part because there are simply too many hours to count, watch, and apprehend. From my own research, I can assert that 1950s television was weird, heterogeneous, ethnically and racially diverse, full of working-class characters and themes, and ideologically diverse as well. While this is not a view in the scholarly mainstream, I have allies for this argument in the scholars who contributed to The Other Fifties: Interrogating Mid Century Icons, and, especially, Horace Newcomb’s chapter, “Meaningful Difference in 50s Television.”

Despite the seeming scarcity of working-class themed television comedies, many such shows have been at the center of a canon of the most watched and re-watched series in television history. The 1950s offered The Honeymooners and The Life of Riley, game shows like Queen for a Day, and variety shows featuring diverse casts such as The Milton Berle Show and The Red Skelton Show. The 1960s and 70s brought dozens of television series about public sector workers (nurses, teachers, cops, and fire fighters) and classics like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, and Laverne and Shirley. Don’t forget the longest running TV series in history, The Simpsons or more recent series such as Two Broke Girls and Superstore. Across these eras, working-class characters, working-class writers, and actors from working-class backgrounds have always been a core staple of the small screen. A quick visual for this comes from Vulture’s timeline of working class sitcoms on network television.

Despite all this attention to the working class, one thing is for sure: television is bad at class struggle. On rare occasions, such as with the 1990s drama WWII era Homefront (1991-1993), unions are portrayed with dignity and realism, but for the most part television either ignores or distorts class conflict. On the other hand, the most consistent theme of most working-class sitcoms, including The Conners, is that it is a struggle to be working class.

In an op-ed last week David Brooks mused about the decline in life expectancy for Americans, concluding that since the economy is currently going gangbusters, that the only thing that can explain the uptick in opioid deaths and suicides among working-class Americans is some strange brew of economics, philosophical rot, and moral decay. But Brooks is wrong. Whatever the GDP might indicate, the American economy has been in decline for working people for a long time—even more so since the financial collapse of 2008. There is no single state in the US in which a minimum wage job can afford a worker a two-bedroom apartment. Inequality is more pronounced than in any time in US history. African American poverty in the South is considered by the UN to be some of the worst anywhere in the world. And as Forbes magazine reported in August, the real economy isn’t booming.

For now The Conners remain on the air, with their lives and their dignity intact, if only just barely. I hope that ABC and its viewers will keep the show on the air long enough for us to keep talking about class and culture—and about class struggle. The struggle is real.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Radio-Active: Advertising and Activism 1935-1947.

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

Class Prejudice and the Democrats’ Blue Wave?

Two days after the mid-term elections, The Washington Post published an analysis under the headline “These wealthy neighborhoods delivered Democrats the House majority.”  That headline is false in several different ways, but it is being repeated among a large group of the punditry because it fits into a class narrative that sees affluent, college-educated white people who live in suburbs as citadels of tolerant decency while white folks without bachelor’s degrees, wherever they live, are wall-to-wall racist and sexist xenophobes.

There is some evidence for that narrative, as whites without bachelor’s degrees (who in electoral analyses are called “the white working class”) are among President Trump’s strongest supporters.  According to nationally aggregated exit polls, they voted for Trump by 37 points in 2016 and for GOP House candidates by 24 points in 2018.  In contrast, “educated whites” gave Trump only a 3-point advantage in 2016 and then flipped to Democratic candidates by 8 points in 2018.

A significant section of the punditry, including many Clinton Democrats, have latched on to this phenomenon to argue that the whole ballgame for the Dems, in 2018’s blue wave and for 2020, is about winning traditionally Republican suburbs while ignoring what’s left of their traditional base in the white part of the working class.  An important political shift is happening in suburbs, where half of all voters live,  but it is only one part of what generated the blue wave, and these suburbs are much more diverse and complicated places than the punditry allows.

The Washington Post analysis, for example, focused on six suburban districts outside Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 while also sending Republicans to the House of Representatives.  All six, along with similar traditionally Republican suburban districts, flipped to Dems earlier this month.  These kinds of districts definitely played an important role in Democrats winning the House, and we should celebrate every country-club Republican who is outraged by Trump’s nationalist mendacity, racist dog whistles, old-fashioned male supremacy, or just plain crudeness.  But these districts are much more complicated than the “wealthy neighborhoods” contained within them, and most importantly, they are only one part of how the Democrats won the House.

Flips within the so-called white working class are proportionately more important.  First, while the GOP won among the white working class this year by 24 points, that is a substantial shift away from the 37-point advantage they gave Trump in 2016.  And because this group of whites represents 41% of all voters, compared with college-educated whites who make up only 31%, that 13-point shift produced some 6 million additional votes for Dem candidates versus the 4 million produced by the 11-point gain Dems achieved among the white middle class.  So unlike the widely cited pre-election prediction by Ronald Brownstein that the Dems’ blue wave would be an exclusively suburban tsunami, shifts toward the Dems among “poorly educated” whites were of greater importance than the shift in the metro suburbs.  In the exit polls, “non-whites,” including Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Others, were about 29% of voters and gave Dems an overwhelming 54-point advantage – both numbers just 1-point higher than in 2016.  As the core of the Democratic base, people of color provide the foundation for any Democratic victory, but the shifts among both kinds of whites in 2018 account for the flip of the House.

Second, along with the dozen or so suburban districts they flipped, Dems also flipped at least 14 House districts that cannot be characterized as “suburban,” let alone “wealthy.”  Nate Silver highlighted many of these as “Obama-Trump” districts because they went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.  There were 21 such districts, mostly in Rust Belt states where there are large proportions of white working-class voters – including 6 in New York, 3 each in Iowa and Minnesota, 2 each in Illinois and New Jersey, and one each in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  Democrats won 14 of them, and that is at least as important as the “wealthy suburban districts” D.C. pundits continue to focus on.

What’s more, even in the traditional Republican suburban districts The Post chose to highlight, wealthy voters were not obviously more flippy than middle-income voters in those districts; those with household incomes in the $50-75k range also “surged” for Dems in comparison to their Republican pasts.  Two-thirds of suburban residents do not have bachelor’s degrees, and the largest group is middle income, not affluent, let alone “wealthy.”  Much of this is apparent from the data The Post authors report and display in various graphics, but they consistently emphasize the role of “the wealthy,” whom they apparently define as households with more than $100k in annual incomes.  According to their own graphic, of the 29 House seats that had flipped to Dems by the time they were writing, only three came from what they define as “wealthy” districts.  What’s more, in the nationally aggregated polls, Democrats failed to gain House votes versus the 2016 Trump vote in only one income category – those with household incomes of more than $100k. The Post analysis is correct in saying that “suburban neighborhoods . . . are trending increasingly left,” but they are wrong to assume that suburbs are uniformly affluent and college educated (or white).

Worse, their analysis tells only one half of the story of the Dems’ 2018 blue wave, and the smaller half at that.  The 13-point shift away from Republicans by working-class whites is important even if it did not produce a majority for Dems nationwide.  The difference between Clinton winning about 30% of that group in 2016 and Obama winning 40% of it in 2008 and 2012 is the difference between Democrats holding power or not.

The exclusive focus on suburbs as if they are wall-to-wall white middle-class professionals, which the influential Ron Brownstein continues to champion post-election, supports a Democratic political strategy that wants to run against Trump’s offensive style and values rather than on a substantive economic-justice program that could move toward renewing the kind of multi-racial, cross-class coalition that was such an important part of the Democrats’ 2008 sweep of executive and legislative power.  In my view, that would be a horrendous strategic mistake.  But worse, and not unrelated, it continues a moral narrative, common among many Clinton Democrats, that implicitly and often very explicitly values people with bachelor’s degrees over those without.  That attitude, as much as any strategic choice, adds toxicity to our already toxic Trumpian environment.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments