Scabby the Rat Down Under

Scabby the Rat and Fat Cat on the Yarra River

Scabby the Rat, a familiar figure on US picket lines, has taken his show on the road. In the past few years, he’s been spotted outside several Australian companies, sometimes accompanied by his pals, Fat Cat and Greedy Pig. Scabby’s journey shows that both anti-labor efforts and working-class feistiness are every bit as global as capitalism and labor.

In Australia, as in the US, trade union membership has declined, and unions have become less visible in the workplace and community. The giant inflatable balloons unions sometimes display outside employer premises echo the long tradition of using trade union banners and other imagery to build solidarity and assert working-class presence. Where earlier images emphasized the value of unions and images of heroic workers, Scabby and his friends focus on a critique of employers and strike breakers. But like so many of the tools unions rely on in fighting for worker justice, these inflatables have become a target for anti-union efforts.

Scabby had his origins in the US in 1990, when he was commissioned by the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers to draw attention to businesses being picketed and send a message to the business owners. The rats, some as big as 30 feet tall, have since been adopted by a number of unions. Scabby has been joined by the cigar smoking Fat Cat with a bag of money in one paw and a construction worker held by the throat in the other. In the US, employers’ efforts to have Scabby deflated have been rejected by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that Scabby is protected by the First Amendment. More recently some union leaders sought to permanently deflate Scabby, arguing that he does not represent the unions new ‘value proposition’. This call was defeated.

Trade union density in Australia has fallen over the last 25 years, and it now stands at only 14.5%. Unions here have been subjected to harsh legislation that restricts industrial action, legally prohibits secondary boycotts or solidarity actions, has reduced the avenues available for workers to obtain pay increases, and enables employers to bargain with employees in the absence of a trade union. Recent efforts also aim to limit what unions can say or show. An Australian Building and Construction Commission code outlines a number of measures to ensure freedom of association in the building industry by barring unions from displaying signs using language such as ‘100% union’, ‘union site’, ‘no ticket no start’ and from calling employees who do not join the union ‘scab’, ‘rat’ or ‘grub’. Workers are also prohibited from putting images or symbols associated with unions on employer supplied equipment, property, or clothing. This includes anything with the union name or the white stars and cross associated with the Eureka Stockade flag. These types of severe restrictions undermine unions’ ability to make themselves visible and take industrial action, and they have prompted some unions to devise new approaches.

One of these is Scabby the Rat, who made his first Australian appearance in 2016 at the Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) picket line. CUB had not renewed a long standing maintenance contract, leaving 55 workers out of a job because they refused to apply for jobs with the new contractor that would have reduced their wages by 65% and imposed non-union conditions such as individual contracts. The maintenance workers set up a picket line and called the replacement workforce ‘scab’, ‘dog’ and ‘rat’ as they crossed the picket line. Australian Courts have ruled that language like ‘scab’ is offensive and abusive, and upheld the dismissal of a mine worker who held a sign with the words ‘No principles SCABS No guts’. Some ten weeks into the CUB dispute, five workers from the replacement workforce applied to the industrial tribunal, the Fair Work Commission, for a stop bullying order, which including a prohibition against calling the replacement workforce ‘scabs’. The Electrical Trades Union sidestepped these prohibitions by unveiling Scabby the Rat complete with a rat trap in front with a slab of CUB beer as the bait. The unions organised a consumer boycott of CUB beer and demonstration in central Melbourne. After six months, the workers were reinstated on their full pay and conditions.

Scabby’s next major appearance was in June 2017 at the Esso UGL dispute at Longford, Victoria. Esso had awarded a maintenance contract for its onshore and offshore gas processing plant to UGL, which in turn outsourced the work to a subsidiary that offered workers 15 to 30% lower wages, reduced annual leave and allowances and gave UGL greater discretion over work schedules. The unions set up a picket outside the plant and inflated Scabby. UGL responded by seeking damages from the unions, claiming that Scabby and the picket signs coerced current and prospective employees not to work and represented anti-competitive behavior that had caused substantial loss to the company. The Federal Court ordered the unions to deflate and remove Scabby and not display any signs saying ‘Don’t be Scabby the Rat’. The Australian Workers Union assistant secretary Liam O’Brien stated that Esso’s distress over an inflatable rat would be laughable if it were not for the fact that workers’ lives had been turned upside down so a multinational could make more profit. Scabby was replaced with the cigar smoking Fat Cat and Greedy Pig, who were allowed to remain on the picket line because they targeted Esso’s corporate greed rather than workers who crossed the picket line. The unions sought to broaden and publicise the dispute by holding a rally outside Esso’s corporate headquarters on the Yarra River with Scabby and Fat Cat taking rides in boats on the Yarra. The dispute still continues after over 275 days.

Scabby still continues to appear on picket lines, but his appearances have been limited by Court orders. He appeared at the Oakey North mine in Queensland to support 190 workers who had been locked out by mining company Glencore for more than 200 days. In a heated dispute, Glencore issued disciplinary notices to 26 workers its alleged had breached the company’s policy on harassment, bullying, and discrimination on the picket line or Facebook. As part of the resolution process the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union agreed not to use the words ‘grub’, ‘maggot’ and ‘scab’ and to deflate Scabby the Rat until the dispute was resolved. In late February 2018, after a seven month lock out, the Fair Work Commission intervened and ordered the suspension of the lockout and picket line for three weeks until a new collective agreement could be voted on in late March.

Scabby has his own Facebook page where unionists share his global exploits. Scabby and his friends Fat Cat and Greedy have become international figures in labour disputes. With them, unions continue to press the boundaries and assert their visibility, relevance, and power in an environment even as legislation and employers work to silence and hide them. In the face of growing inequality and low wage growth, in future unions may be showing more of Fat Cat and Greedy Pig than Scabby the Rat.

Ruth Barton

Ruth Barton is a lecturer in the School of Management at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She is active in the union movement and researches trade unions and industrial regeneration.

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Know Your Place: A New Generation of Working-Class Voices

A literary festival isn’t the obvious place to discuss class, but a couple of weeks ago I found myself introducing a session at my local Faversham Literary Festival on a new book called Know Your Place. Edited by Nathan Connolly and subtitled ‘Essays on the Working Class, by the Working Class’, the book brings together twenty-two writers of working-class origin reflecting on aspects of their lives past and present. Know Your Place was a crowd funded response to a call for that voice to be heard after the publication of another collection on race and ethnicity, The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. The book has received a lot of attention, with reviews and articles in a wide range of media all highlighting the rarity of hearing working-class voices. But even more than that, the book features new, younger voices, often from a mix of ethnicities, and they relate a classed experience quite different from my own and from what we’ve seen in earlier books.

The contributors share a sense of anger about class, the petty vindictiveness of bureaucrats, small but significant injustices. Above all, they rail against the poverty caused by the last decade of austerity. In almost every chapter, the reader is hit by an example of what US sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb long ago described as the ‘hidden injuries of class’, the multiple small ways in which working-class people are taught that their lives are less valuable. Many of the contributors are now successful members of the professional middle classes, yet all still bear the scars of their origin and document powerfully the barriers and hurdles experienced in their varied lives. Know Your Place is refreshing in its clear attempt to represent diverse voices, with attention to  gender and ethnic balance, and it offers new perspectives on what could be well worn themes.

Like all good books, Know Your Place makes you think again about your own life and the experience of class. What struck me most about the collection was how individualised almost all of stories were. The pieces offer very little sense of working-class community, collective help, or organisation.  I noted only one reference to trade unions – through a father’s activity rather than the author’s direct knowledge. Instead, the book presents a group of working-class people facing inequality, and often poverty, on their own. The writers vividly describe the effects of welfare and benefit cuts made over the years, a litany that highlights the erosion of the social welfare world we have lost.

This made me think about the working-class world I grew up in as a school kid, especially as a young worker during the 1980s.  For me being working-class was, and is, something to be proud of, something that infers and confers agency. Looking back now as a sociologist, I can recognise the complex ways in which pride in class was a learnt behaviour embedded, in my case, in the workplace. I don’t remember anyone ever taking me aside and explaining to me how things went on.  Instead I learnt these lessons by seeing and doing, watching the interactions between workers and especially between workers and managers. Now I recognise this as a complex process of desubordination, where the power of managers and supervisors was systematically undermined by the sharp tongues and humour of my co-workers. Intuitively the people I worked with could tread a well-worn fine line between outright rudeness and hilarious banter, and those nominally in charge could do little about it, and they knew it.  Underpinning this relationship was a strong union and equally a sense of entitlement.  Entitlement nowadays comes with a whole lot of negative baggage, but my co-workers knew collectively and individually that they were entitled to things like good and improving conditions of service and the right not to be subject to the arbitrary whim of management. This gave people a sense of confidence, ownership, and above all pride.

The contributors to Know Your Place don’t seem confident in that older definition of entitlement. They have little sense of agency or the ability to resist change or improve their circumstances big and small. I think this reflects a generational shift: many of the contributors to the collection are relatively young, most, I think, in their twenties or thirties. Apart from making me feel old, this generation gap illustrates just how many working-class people now feel isolated. Unlike the men I worked with, who expected their lives to improve, these younger people have only experienced things being taken away or eroded overtime. They don’t have the positive experiences of class, what I describe as the ‘hidden rewards of class’. They have little hope that things could improve or that welfare policies and tax regimes could begin to benefit the less well-off in society.

Know Your Place reminds us of the value of intergenerational dialogue about class and history. Such conversations could help working-class people really know their place as something positive and uplifting. At the end of the session, I asked the audience if they wanted the literary festival to organise another session on class next year and to a person, young and old they all put their hands up. We all need to know our place.

Tim Strangleman


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Billy Graham and the Evangelical Origins of Organized Labor

When I heard over breakfast that Billy Graham had died, the news ricocheted around my mind and stirred up lots of memories. The counter of George’s Diner on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn was just the place to begin reflecting on the surprising connection between Graham’s legacy and organized labor.

I came of age in the early 1970s during one of the high points of Graham’s influence. A friend of Richard Nixon, and rightly criticized for that relationship, Graham’s world-wide evangelistic “crusades” continued apace. In 1973, Graham preached to 3.2 million people in a series of services in Seoul, South Korea. The final service on June 3 drew 1.1 million people, most of whom had traveled to Seoul on foot to hear him. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, it was the largest crusade his team ever organized. Over the years, Graham eventually preached in 85 countries on six continents, reaching 215 million people.

I recall little of his much-lauded preaching. What caught my ear, rather, was Graham’s singular manner of invitation to come forward to receive Jesus. I can still hear the signature hymn “Just As I Am” sung by the crowd as individuals soulfully walked forward. As they did, Graham would assure the soon-to-be-converted and particularly those who had not yet made a decision that “the buses will wait.” While he made no specific reference to class, Graham’s invitation to receive the good news of Jesus was plain and unadorned, suggesting that you didn’t need to be somebody special. All you had to be was who you were and ready to receive God’s grace. In my working-class household, this was a theology everyone could work with. If the way to receive the gospel was just an old bus, so much the better that it would wait!

Neither a prosperity gospel nor a liberation theology, Graham’s message did not promise riches or a revolution, but rather an everlasting reward in heaven. Heavenly rewards have long been the promise of what IWW bard Joe Hill called “long haired preachers.” Such preachers are long on words but short on food: “You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky; work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” American evangelicalism, with Billy Graham at the lead, thus seems an impoverished place to ponder labor issues. But according to Graham, evangelicals did not forsake labor. Rather, labor has forgotten that its very source is evangelicalism itself.

On the Sunday before Labor Day in 1952, Billy Graham preached in the Great Auditorium at the historic Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. Methodist ministers created this “place of respite where ‘religion and recreation should go hand in hand’” in 1869 to get away from the “stresses and pressures of society.” On that day, before the official kick-off of the presidential campaign between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, Graham told his listeners that millions of Americans were anxiously awaiting to hear what the candidates had to say about the grave issues facing them, including the still raging war in Korea. But he also pointed to an apparent bright spot, “the laboring man and his family.” Noting the extraordinary growth of unions in the past fifteen years, he commented that “perhaps fifty to sixty million American people are directly or indirectly connected with organized labor.” Labor, Graham reminded his audience, had become a “dominant economic and political force” with “tremendous power.” He also admitted to his disappointment that church leaders were neglecting organized labor.

Graham was not simply an evangelist; he was also a consummate organizer. His advance teams would work with churches and organizations in a given city or area well before an evangelistic crusade. After Graham’s appearances, the newly converted would then be directed to area congregations while Graham and his team would move on.

Graham couldn’t understand why ministers would always direct his team to industrialists and political leaders but not to labor leaders. Yes, Graham saw organized labor as a mission field. He argued that the church “should be impartial toward the labor union as well as to other economic groups.” One should not “place halos on the heads of one group and horns on the heads of another. We must treat all with equal fairness and try to be neither pro-labor nor pro-capital.” This may seem like a surprising statement from an evangelical, but Graham’s evangelicalism was quite different from today’s Christian Right. And to be sure, Graham the organizer would not want to alienate a potential soul-mine of redeemable sinners.

But I think Graham also had something else in mind in his non-hostile view of the labor movement that day. He was attentive to history, particularly to an ecclesiastical history that traced a whole bevy of reform movements, including organized labor, to the religious revivals of the early eighteenth century. As he told his Methodist audience at Ocean Grove, who might have been eager to hear about their spiritual forebears, “you should remember that the trade union movement started as a result of a great spiritual revival. The heritage that labor unions have comes from the church and from the great Wesleyan revivals of the eighteenth century.” Graham underlines this point later in the sermon: “Our great labor unions of America today owe everything they have and are to the great revival under Wesley.” In the absence of these revivals, Graham emphasized that there “may never have been organized labor as we know it today.” Graham’s position on labor in the early 1950s was not unique among the evangelicals who spoke to social issues in those years, hard as it is to imagine how an evangelical today could be even provisionally favorable to a labor perspective.

The occasion of Billy Graham’s death reminds us that his organizing prowess helped create the evangelical era, but evangelicalism in the United States has evolved over time, with many branches that seem to be going their own ways. Evangelicals once explicitly distanced themselves from the fundamentalists to their right, despite overtures from leading fundamentalists to join them. To be sure, most evangelicals in the 1950s were pro-capital and anti-labor, as they are now. But evangelicalism fills a very capacious tent, and we should not forget those, like Graham, who saw labor as an inhabitant under that canopy.

Graham’s death calls our attention not only to his long ministry but also to the surprising range of his perspective over the years. There is plenty to criticize in Graham, and most of us would rather focus on the future rather than on this highly problematic figure of the postwar era. Yet if we take seriously Graham’s implicit instruction to pay close heed to history, we can imagine that there might be other instructive connections between working-class perspectives and religion. For a labor movement in free-fall, looking backward might be the best way to look ahead.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

Posted in class and religion, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Have Ohio Democrats Learned Anything About the Working Class?

Cincinnati Enquirer, Mike Nyerges

In presidential elections, Ohio has long been a swing state. Its voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, then swung right in 2016 to support Donald Trump. On the state level, however, Republicans have dominated for the past two decades. Only partly due to gerrymandering, they have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats hold only nine of the 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and only a third of the 99 seats in the Ohio House. Republicans have also held the governorship for all but four years since 1990. Progressive U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, now seeking his third term, remains the only Democratic candidate to consistently win statewide elections.

Why has the Democratic Party lost so much ground in Ohio? To a large extent, it’s because they have lost the support of white working-class voters.

As in other Rust Belt states, a majority of Ohio voters are white people without college degrees. Fully 55 percent of the state’s voters belong to this demographic, while only 31 percent are white and college educated. In the polling booth, the gap between those with and without higher education has steadily increased, according to pollster Ruy Texiera. To win in Ohio, he argues, Democrats must “find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.”

After two decades of losses, you might think that the Ohio Democratic Party would have figured that out. But for the most part, it has not. Instead, the current crop of Democratic candidates has focused on critiques of Trump, Kasich, and the Ohio legislature. They’ve raised concerns about gerrymandering and voter suppression, the opioid crisis, Ohio’s pitiful record on women’s issues, and the almost uniformly bad performance of for-profit charter schools. Valid concerns all, but the Democrats running for office in 2018 have offered almost nothing in the way of concrete economic platforms.

The website of gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, for instance, features only biographies of him and running mate Betty Sutton and a button to donate. It’s not as if he hasn’t had time to develop a coherent policy agenda, since he has been planning to run for governor for more than a year. Nor does the website identify any specific plans for addressing Sutton’s “kitchen table issues”: jobs and wages, education, healthcare, and a secure retirement. Cordray has raised considerable money, but he can’t count on his personal story to defeat primary opponents like Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman and mayor of Cleveland.

Kucinich and Senator Sherrod Brown are the most notable exceptions to this pattern. Kucinich’s website provides the most concrete – and progressive — platform in the Democrats’ gubernatorial field. Similarly, Brown’s 77-page white paper, Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America, lays out a comprehensive and concrete program to raise worker wages and benefits, give more workers voice and power at work, improve retirement savings, and encourage workforce investments.  That he released his plan in March 2017, on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, shows that he understands that the Democratic Party needs more concrete economic programs squarely aimed at improving the economic lives of working people.  

What makes Brown a strong candidate is that he doesn’t just talk about protecting good jobs. He has long been on the front lines fighting plant shutdowns and outsourcing and leading Congressional battles over unfair trade and banking laws. On trade, he has crossed party lines to work closely with his fellow Ohio senator, Rob Portman. His regular meetings in all 88 Ohio counties and direct connections with working people have made him even more credible.

Candidates could also find a good model in the strategies recommended by Policy Matters Ohio, a non-partisan think tank. Its recent white paper, “A New Way Forward,” outlines “10 ways to support Ohio’s working people,” such as  protecting the right to organize, increasing the minimum wage, protecting against wage theft, fixing unemployment and workers’ compensation,  and improvements in work scheduling and paid leaves. Like Brown’s and Kucinich’s programs, PMO’s plan clearly aims to redress the economic losses sustained by Ohio workers.

PMO Executive Director Amy Hanauer says the organization has met with most of the gubernatorial statewide candidates. So far, only Kucinich is focusing on the group’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, neither the Ohio Democratic Party nor the other statewide candidates have shown any indication of embracing such strategies. An argument can be made for avoiding issues that could cost the party votes within the white working class, such as gun control. No plausible argument can be made, however, to downplay economic concerns. But even progressive candidates like Kathleen Clyde are largely mute on the state’s economic troubles. Clyde is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Secretary of State. She has taken her cue from state Democratic leaders and is pursuing a narrower campaign strategy focused on “bringing real accountability and transparency to my office and securing and modernizing our elections.” While voter suppression has been a real problem in Ohio, aimed primarily at voters of color (most of whom are also working class), Clyde has yet to connect the economic concerns of disenfranchised working-class voters with voting rights or access.

Why haven’t Ohio Democrats come out swinging with a populist campaign that could appeal to the working class? First, the Party’s leadership is too conservative to mount a persuasive populist campaign. The ODP is also inbred, relying on a relatively small circle of consultants who have been responsible for past defeats. Furthermore, Richard Cordray has chosen to rely on the same strategic campaign communication specialists that mainstream Democrats have typically hired.

The ODP is controlled by David Pepper, who chairs the state party. Pepper is the son of the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, and his close circle includes downstate lobbyists and operatives. This group has shown no affinity for working-class voters or their concerns. After the disastrous 2014 election, in which Democrats lost seats statewide and Kasich was re-elected, the ODP rejected Brown’s suggestions for changes in the Party as well as his choice for state chair. Since then, Brown and the Party have had an uneasy and transactional relationship. Sources close to Brown’s campaign estimate that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the contributions to the state party are tied directly to Brown’s involvement. At the same time, Brown needs the party to help get out the vote.

Former Ohio Attorney General, Marc Dann says Ohio voters reward strong convictions. Dann won the biggest political upset in recent Ohio political history when he defeated Republican stalwart Betty Montgomery for Attorney General in 2006. In an interview, Dann said that successful Democratic candidates like onetime Governor Richard Celeste and former Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn all demonstrated a strong commitment to their political views. And, says Dann, they won elections, even though Ohio’s slightly more Republican electorate didn’t always share their views, because they stood by their beliefs.

Today’s ODP has not nurtured strong candidates like these. Rather, Dann believes, the Party has encouraged more moderate, Republican-lite candidates and worked hard to defeat their more progressive opponents in primaries. “Straddling the middle is exactly the right strategy for Republicans,” Dann says, “but is a losing strategy for Democrats.”

Brown understands that, which is why he’s been the party’s only consistently successful statewide candidate over the past two decades. If Ohio Democrats would learn from his example and understand the appeal of the working-class economics like Brown, Kucinich, and organizations like PMO, they just might break the Republicans’ stranglehold on the state.

John Russo

This commentary also appeared on the American Prospect blog.

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Working-Class People on the Snowfields: Class at the Winter Olympics

Photo by Lennox McLendon, AP

The combination of renewed interest in Tonya Harding (due to the film, I, Tonya) and the winter Olympics made me think of class and sport lately – especially sports that involve snow and ice. Although winter sports might be considered quite ordinary for some who live in very cold climates (such as Norwegians), most require expensive equipment and travel.

Harding’s story illustrates this quite well. She came from a working-class family and trained in an ice-rink located in a shopping mall. Based on the representation of her life in I, Tonya and in documentaries about the skater, she struggled to fit in with her peers because she lacked the cultural and economic capital. Her costumes were home-made, her hair was too big, and her muscular frame lacked the expected look of a figure skater. This doesn’t excuse any involvement she may have had in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan (herself from a working-class background), but Harding’s ‘rough’ ways made her an outsider from the beginning of her career. In many ways she was an imposter in the sport.

Working-class people remain outsiders in winter sports, as the current Olympics show. Watching the amazing feats of the athletes is quite thrilling. The jumping, sliding, and skating at break neck speeds is impressive. But to get to this level, athletes need significant resources. Unlike Harding, most winter athletes have had enough financial support from their families to enjoy regular visits to ski areas, skating lessons, and expensive equipment. Even if a working-class person lived in a cold climate, near ski resorts, what are their chances of spending time there – outside of working at the resort?

I don’t mean to disparage the athletes I’ve been watching on television. Many have had struggles to overcome, and their stories are presented as inspiring. We hear about the years of sacrifice, the grueling training schedules, and overcoming injury. Hard work and determination are celebrated. While these seem like working-class values, a deeper look makes clear that these are stories of privilege. No doubt, Olympic athletes have worked hard, but their success doesn’t demonstrate that ‘anyone can do it, as long as you dream big’. We hear about families moving closer to facilities or forgoing vacations and leisure activities in order to train. Parents have left their jobs to focus on supporting their athlete children. But these sacrifices require money and networks. A parent earning minimum wage on a casual contract can’t leave their job to spend all day at the ice-rink. Most can’t even afford the lessons. And even if a potential Olympian is scouted and sponsored, most working-class families don’t have the means to move closer to a training facility. Plenty of working-class families work hard and have ambitions, but they need capital to realize those dreams.

Why does the lack of class diversity in Alpine sports matter? Will it improve the lives of working-class people to see athletes from working-class backgrounds? Should working-class people just ignore the winter Olympics and stick to watching soccer, football, track and field and rugby league — sports that we might have a chance of participating in? The answer lies in the value of sports in general. Athletic endeavor inspires us.  We love stories of athletes overcoming obstacles to compete, especially when a competitor comes from a background like our own. Sports people can be important role models for working-class youth, especially if they use their influence to speak truth to power. Think Muhammad Ali, Billie-Jean King, Serena Williams, or Adam Goodes  (Indigenous Australian Rules Football player). For a working-class young person, watching someone like them compete in a sport that is outside of their current possibilities demonstrates that working class people belong in all areas of life. And lack of diversity matters overall, a point that is ironically reflected in the praise for the diversity of this year’s US Olympic team. The 244-person team includes ten Black and eleven Asian-American competitors.

Sport is also important for working-class communities. Support for a team brings people together, helping to create and maintain a sense of collective identity. It provides a release from the grind of everyday life and can even provide a livelihood for some working-class people.

The amazing tricks performed by the aerial skiers or the snowboarders don’t represent possibilities for most working-class people. Of course, a few working-class athletes – like Harding – have made it to the Olympics despite the classed odds being stacked against them. But exceptions don’t counter the rule. For the most part, the glamour of the ice-rink, the sparkle of the piste is out of reach for working-class sport fans and remains another of the domains reserved for the middle and upper-classes. It doesn’t really matter whether the working-class kid in inner-city London, the western suburbs of Sydney, or rural America actually wants to take up the luge. The point is that working-class people should be represented across all aspects of society.

Sarah Attfield

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Low Cotton: A Class on Class

Frank Tengle family, photo by Walker Evans, 1936

I have never picked cotton, but my mother has. She is the youngest of seven children, one of only two who finished high school. My granddaddy was a Scots-Irish sharecropper plowing Georgia red clay. He never owned his own home. William Henry Richardson was a sweet man who grew surly when he drank too much whiskey, and that, I was told, was pretty often back in the day. I never knew much about his farming life because he and my grandmother, Annie Mae Phillips Richardson, kept only a small garden of okra, corn, and tomatoes in their twilight years. I remember helping them pick vegetables and watching my grandmother boil or fry them, served up with some crispy-fried Spam and cathead biscuits made with buttermilk and lard.

My ancestors grew up in a South that I, as a suburban latchkey kid, could never imagine—not even when I sat on the porch listening to my granddad’s stories while sipping a 10-ounce bottle of “Co-Cola” and eating a moon pie. Perhaps my curiosity about that murky past is what drew me to study Southern working-class culture. My work has taken me to the archives and to the field, to south Alabama and to the south of France, where I told stories of my native region to an audience of undergrads eager to learn all about this culture that many an American does not know. My work has taught me the power of narrative, serendipity, and introspection.

In fall 2015, I taught undergraduate and graduate versions of a course called Rhetorical Theory and Practice at Auburn University in Alabama. AU was founded as a men’s college in 1856, but it is now a research university with strong programs in agriculture and engineering. Most of our students come from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, but few are well acquainted with the Southern system of peonage implemented after Reconstruction, a system that relied on a non-food commodity: King Cotton. While landowners lived in “high cotton,” white and black sharecroppers and tenant farmers dug themselves a little deeper with every hard-won crop, mired in a system designed to control them.

They were digging themselves into a hole I have come to call “low cotton.” These farmers were subjected to the disciplinary gaze of landowners and “polite society,” thereby objectified and alienated from their work. They sold their bodies and minds for a pittance, eking out a bare subsistence despite sacrificing their families’ security, health, and well-being. How was this system designed, and why was it perpetuated? How were the oppressed able to discover and enact their agency? These are some of the questions my students and I explored. We considered difficult truths, connected grand ideas to humble stories, and reflected on our own positions and perspectives within today’s global, neoliberal economic reality. To help students wrestle with complex and challenging questions like these, I rely on five principles: proximity, primary, past, provocation, and praxis. While these reflect my training in rhetoric, they can apply in many fields and contexts, not only in classrooms but also in union halls and community centers.

They all rest on praxis, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s understanding of the interplay between “action” (practice) and “reflection” (theory). My students read critical theories that enable them to think dialectically about contradictions such as subject-object, mind-body, master-slave, and male-female; to understand texts as cultural productions shaped by hegemony and ideology; and to see how working-class subjects can gain what Freire calls critical literacy, the class consciousness (Lukacs) of organic intellectuals (Gramsci) that enables people to claim agency and act upon material conditions. Students not only study action and reflection, but they also engage in action and reflection: they act by crafting arguments for public audiences, and they reflect in informal class writings about what they learned and how well their writing strategies worked.

Proximity means focusing on local communities and contexts. When we study global economic systems—and we must—we sometimes have difficulty not only in perceiving the scope and implications of systems but also in applying the global to our immediate lived conditions. Proximity also addresses the need to “think globally, act locally.” As a land grant university, Auburn’s mission is to serve Alabamians, and most of our students call Alabama “sweet home.” That’s why I assign readings that portray communities to which students can relate and issues in which they can engage. In Rhetorical Theory and Practice, we read oral histories such as All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten (1974); social documentaries such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941); and historiographies such as Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Depression by Robyn D.G. Kelley (1990). Agee and Evans especially stirred students’ passions. Agee’s poignant prose, coupled with Evans’s compelling photos, puzzled and agonized them. They valued the exacting descriptions of the three Hale County families’ lives, but they found the overwrought prose tiresome at times.  They loved Nate Shaw’s story of his long life. They admired his keen intellect and indomitable spirit. This story shows how working-class people maintain the dignity and resolve to surmount daunting obstacles, embrace community, and practice solidarity.

Primary texts form the cornerstone of course readings. Beginning with first-hand accounts recovers silenced voices, inspires archival and field research, and encourages students to curate and share what they find with broader audiences. We toured Auburn’s Special Collections and Archives. Undergrads wrote articles for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, an online compendium housed at Auburn. We developed a list of topics explored in Hammer and Hoe but not addressed in EoA, including the Alabama Communist Party, Southern Regional Council, labor leaders Hosea Hudson and Angelo Herndon, Southern Labor Review, The Southern Worker, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Students were pleased with these possibilities, but the EoA staff ultimately rejected their manuscripts. Despite this, I will likely use this assignment again, because it gave students practice in professional/paid public writing and addressing a “real-world” rhetorical situation.

Graduate students performed primary research on working-class communities, and I required them to submit their completed work to a professional publication, providing an opportunity to practice key academic skills like reading submission guidelines and writing cover letters. Their projects included a comparative study of Hale County Schools’ technology education in the 1930s and 2010s; an account of working-class community groups struggling to wrest economic control of Phenix City, Alabama from corrupt elites; an examination of how whiteness is displaced as an “unmarked norm” in contemporary working-class literature; and a short story about class consciousness in Knoxville, Tennessee. In each case, students integrated primary and secondary research with original arguments to give voice to working-class subjects.

When we study the past, our ultimate goal is to gain insight into our zeitgeist. As labor journalist Stetson Kennedy points out, “The past, needless to say, has its place; namely, that of drawing conclusions for use in the present and future.”  I supplemented our historical study with definitions of “the working class” and with contemporary arguments by writers such as Mike Rose (The Mind at Work), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), and Linda Tirado (Hand to Mouth). These and other readings help to engage students’ critical thinking about income and wealth inequality, poor health outcomes, poor job readiness, wage stagnation, and immigration.  Instead of despairing, we focus on how to address working-class struggles. While student evaluations suggest that the reading load was heavy and dense, they valued the ideas and projects, which helped them think broadly and deeply about history, cultural identity, and political economy.

I decided upon a provocative topic in order to shock students to think critically about how history, culture, and experiences that seem natural are shaped by ideology. As Sven Beckert insists in Empire of Cotton: A Global History, cotton farming and trading brought on “war capitalism,” which shifted economic power from Asia to Europe on the backs of enslaved people. For centuries, King Cotton helped keep the Global Souths under the thumb of landowning gentry, Northern business interests, and now, international banking cabals and trade organizations—not an easy truth to accept. By focusing the course on the cotton industry, its workers, and its power, I want to provoke students to analyze propaganda, connect the dots of power structures, understand their heritage, perceive origins and manifestations of prejudices, and ultimately, act through speaking and writing to challenge hegemony.

Teaching these courses has also helped me connect my work with my history. On the first day of class, I tell students that my granddaddy was a sharecropper. And I use these five guiding principles to help them understand where they came from and how that knowledge might shape where they choose to go. At the end of the semester, I gave each graduate student a brick from the J.P. Stephens factory ruins in Opelika, Alabama—where Norma Rae was filmed. I keep in touch with several students who have told me they display the brick as a reminder of the course and how it changed their thinking.

Helen Diana Eidson

Helen Diana Eidson is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, whose research deals with working-class rhetorics, social movements, and community literacy. She is writing a rhetorical biography of Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), a folklorist, journalist, and historian whose 70-year career spanned labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements.


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Tax Justice and Class Warfare

When Trump Republicans passed the historically unpopular Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, they continued a 3-decades long GOP effort to reshape the tax code in ways that are hard to reverse.  Relying on what political scientists call path dependency, Republicans have steadily moved us toward a tax system that increases inequality and that makes it harder and harder to sustain most of what the federal government does to fulfill its Constitutional responsibility to “promote the general welfare.”   What they have done would be more appropriately titled the Consolidating the Oligarchy Act.

Republicans are betting that a reasonably strong economy and a series of small tax cuts for almost everybody in 2018 will make them more popular going into this year’s mid-term elections.  If Democrats want to win this fall, they cannot be satisfied to merely attack the GOP’s “tax reform,” the vast majority of whose benefits go to corporations and the top 1% to 5% .  They need their own bold tax fairness plan that frankly taxes the rich to pay for a wide variety of government activities that majorities of the public firmly desire – everything from a long-term modernizing infrastructure program and increased funding for education and veterans to deficit reduction and real lower-income and middle-class tax cuts.  Such a program would be wildly popular (see recent Gallup and Pew surveys), with the potential to win back millions of white-working-class swing voters as well as to regain huge margins and turnout among working-class people of color.

Simply removing the tax code’s bias that favors investors over workers, consumers, and home-owners would provide enough revenue ($300 to $500 billion a year) for a progressive government to really make a difference in working people’s lives and prospects.  And unless we do that, the government will increasingly lack the resources to address any of our problems that cost money to solve, which is almost all of them.  What’s more, systematically advocating how to unrig the tax code would provide Democrats a rich opportunity to reveal how American oligarchs have been buying and renting our government to suit their purposes – especially when contrasted with the Trump GOP’s hypocritical insistence that what they have done is a “middle-class tax cut.”

Pelosi-Schumer-Clinton Democrats will not put forward such a tax-fairness program, because they’re afraid of losing wealthy donors and affluent suburban white voters.  Progressive Dems, on the other hand, have developed such a program over the past several years (see here, here and here), but rather than highlighting tax fairness, they focus on raising revenues as ”pay-fors” for the progressive programs they want to enact.  This may be practical and even honest, but it isn’t the right strategy — not this year and probably not for the next several years.

The negative public perception of the Trump Tax Cut as a give-away to corporations and the rich, along with Trump’s historically low approval ratings, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make raising government revenue into the class-war social justice issue it deserves to be.  What’s more, no single action of the President more concretely illustrates the distance between his rhetorical populism and his actions to enrich himself and his fellow oligarchs. To take advantage of this unique moment, progressive Democrats need to lead with moral arguments about tax justice and pound away at the gross class bias in the very structure of our tax code.  This before addressing the complex economic and fiscal issues involved, where progressive analysis and argument are also well-developed and very sound.

The signature plank in a tax justice platform would be equalizing the tax rates for earned and unearned income, which both the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ People’s Budget and Bernie Sanders’s comprehensive reform plan propose to do.  Currently, people who work for a living pay higher marginal rates than people who get their income from investing rather than working.  Most people do not know this, and when they find out, they are outraged.  In a country where working hard is something like a national religion, especially among the working class of all colors, a tax code that disadvantages work is a moral abomination.  Taxing investment income (capital gains and dividends) at the same rates as income you work for would produce a lot of revenue, but the more powerful political point is how the current code dishonors work and disdains workers.

Progressive Dems also advocate a federal sales tax on the purchase of stocks and bonds (usually called a “financial transactions tax” or FTT).   A potentially huge revenue raiser and, therefore, a key “pay-for,” an FTT also brilliantly illustrates class bias in that consumers pay hefty sales taxes for clothing, shoes, and meals at restaurants, but investors currently pay nothing when they buy stocks and bonds.

Finally, there is the beginnings of a policy discussion about a “wealth tax.”  It is usually not noted, however, that we already have a wealth tax at the local level where home-owners pay annual taxes on property.  What is untaxed is wealth in the form of financial assets.  Again, investors are given a free pass.  As with sales taxes, they not only do not pay their fair share, they don’t pay any share at all.   Proposals for a “wealth tax” are not nearly as well developed in legislative language as the previous two ideas, but this concept provides a useful talking-point for Dems because it illustrates so concretely how the tax code is systematically rigged not only against workers and consumers, but also against “middle-class” home-owners.

The especially transparent class bias of the Trump Tax Cut also provides a unique opportunity to advance other progressive goals.   Given the huge tax cuts for corporations, a $15-an-hour minimum wage just got more affordable for businesses large and small.  Likewise, Republicans can no longer label various mandates on businesses – everything from paid family leave, sick leave, and vacations to the wide array of employer mandates in Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s “Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America” – as the onerous job killers they were before corporate bottom lines were refreshed with mounds of cash.  Likewise, the Act left a lot of special-interest loopholes in the corporate code, and even added some, that Democrats can and should go after.

Most political strategists agree that Dems should not run on a simple isn’t-Trump-terrible program in the 2018 mid-terms.  At least 60% of voters in 2016 viewed our stable genius unfavorably then and knew he was dishonest, untrustworthy, and unqualified to be president, but nearly 1/5th of those voters voted for him anyway!  To win governing majorities, Democrats need to stand for a compelling program that offers hope and change again.  An us-against-the-oligarchs message focused on tax justice has a double advantage in that regard.  It is a unifying values message that has the potential to rally the bottom 80% or 90% across lines of race, gender, and class.  And if successful, such a program would provide the revenue needed to reverse the ongoing American carnage in working-class life that is shared — unequally to be sure — by workers of all races, genders, religions, regions, and national origins.

The Democratic Party does not seem well-prepared to advance such a vision, but the vacuity of mainstream Dems’ Better Deal platform, combined with the spectacular hypocrisy of the Trump GOP’s “middle-class tax cut,” opens the door wide for progressive Dems to offer the kind of realistic, compelling program that has been articulated by Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  The technical complexities of our tax code hide a vicious class war, and Donald Trump has just put a loathsome human face on that war.  Of all the rigged systems our oligarchy has in place, unrigging this one could rally large majorities and then provide the resources to turn the wheel of fortune toward America’s struggling working and threatened middle classes.

Jack Metzgar


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments