How Government Statistics Define the Stories of the Working Class

One of my favorite media criticism works is British journalist and media professor Brian Winston’s “On Counting the Wrong Things.” He argues that the categories we use to count can themselves lead to misleading conclusions. Deciding to count the number of violent acts on television in the 1970s, for example, implied that any depictions of violence are bad. But it didn’t help us consider the meaning of violence, who commits it, and who its victims are.

Getting an accurate count is important, but deciding what to count in the first place may be even more important. This applies to our economic metrics. What we count defines the stories journalists tell, or don’t tell, about work and the working class.

In the U.S., the primary measurement of our economic health is the monthly “jobs report” issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our obsession with these metrics stretches back to the Great Depression, when unemployment rose to 24.9 percent in 1933, making the need for a better way to measure unemployment “especially acute.” The monthly unemployment survey was created in 1940. It became the responsibility of the U.S. Census Bureau in 1942. It has since evolved into the BLS’s Current Population Survey jobs report.

CNN’s Christine Romans, October 8, 2021

On the first Friday of each month, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the BLS releases its “Employment Situation Summary.” The report, informally called the “jobs report,” includes national labor force gains or losses from the previous month and the unemployment rate, each reported for various demographic characteristics. It also notes gains or losses in the labor force, hours worked, and earnings by industry.

It’s a lot of data, but the top story each month, reported breathlessly by the news media every Friday morning, focuses on employment numbers and unemployment rates (and does so despite longstanding concerns that the numbers grossly underestimate unemployment). Whoever writes press releases for the BLS seems to understand the appeal of that data to the news media and puts that information in the first line of the document. The press release from Oct. 8, 2021, began this way:

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 194,000 in September, and the unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage point to 4.8 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

For the rest of the morning, the news media spun the interpretation, issuing the monthly verdict on the economy, often with little nuance:

CNN: Another disappointment: US economy adds only 194,000 jobs in September

New York Times: Jobs Report Offers Little Reassurance on U.S. Economy

NBC: What’s behind the lackluster September jobs report

Wall Street Journal: U.S. Job Growth Falls to Slowest Pace of Year

Headlines aren’t always so direct. The Associated Press and Washington Post offered more complex takes:  

Associated Press: EXPLAINER: 5 key takeaways from the September jobs report

Washington Post: America’s unemployed are sending a message: They’ll go back to work when they feel safe – and well-compensated

As these headlines show, our national fixation on the unemployment rate crowds out attention to almost any other economic measure – including metrics that would tell us more about workers’ experiences. Consider the “quits rate.” As the BLS explains, “the quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.” Because quitting is voluntary (unlike layoffs and firings), this figure can tell us something about workers’ level of dissatisfaction with their jobs, particularly within a certain industry.

Quits rates were in the news recently because the August 2021 quits rate of 2.9 percent was the highest since data were first collected in December 2000. Quits were especially high in the leisure and hospitality sector, at a rate of 6.4 percent. Trade, transportation, and utilities hit an all-time sector high quits rate in August, as well, at 3.7 percent.

The quits rate is released a week after the jobs report each month as part of the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) report, but that report gets almost no attention. Although the quits rate is reportedly Secretary of the Treasure Janet Yellen’s favorite economic indicator, it is rarely used to tell stories about American workers. In fact, a search of the Nexis news database (eliminating any stories about cigarette smoking) finds that in more than 20 years, only 20 New York Times stories used the term. During the same two-decade period, the Times published 3,971 articles on “job report” or “jobs report.”

One major economic metric is not enough. As the quits, protests, strikes, and walkouts over the past few years have illustrated, there is much more to know about our economy than the unemployment rate. A person can have normal temperature but have many other signs of illness. We need better ways to diagnosis our economy, too – especially data that would reveal the fuller experience of working-class people. The BLS could promote other data with the same gusto as the jobs report, and journalists could dig deeper than the easiest economic story of the month.

For example, every month the BLS provides data on average hourly earnings and productivity rates. Why not analyze the two together each month, to track the relationship between earnings and productivity? Why not bring more attention to the monthly rate of women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s? Or the rate of earnings for Black and Hispanic Americans compared with white workers’ wages? What about the rate of workplace injuries and fatalities, or the rate of compensation meeting or exceeding cost-of-living expenses in each region? What about monthly rate of health care coverage and the cost of health care to workers?

I know what some statisticians and journalists might be thinking: This could be boring – the same story every month. Yet, these measures could highlight the many things the working class lacks – opportunity, mobility, fairness, compensation keeping pace with productivity, jobs with living wages. We need to hear the truths of those stories every month. The lack of progress is itself a story. These are some of the things we need to count, to make workers’ experiences visible and keep the powerful accountable.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Blue-Collar Babies: Why America’s Working Class Needs Affordable Child Care

In Netflix’s must-see new series, Maid, Alex (Margaret Qualley) flees a violent boyfriend with her two-year-old in tow, only to discover the gordian knot of being an impoverished, unhoused, single mom. Affordable child care is at the knot’s center.  Alex must have a pay stub to qualify for subsidized housing, but first she must have child care to earn that paycheck. While she scrubs wealthy people’s floors, Alex depends on babysitting from her mentally unstable mother (played by Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie McDowell).  She eventually finds a subpar daycare that accepts her government voucher, but when her daughter gets sick from their mold-infested subsidized apartment, Alex must stay home and forfeit the paycheck.  Maid, based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, brilliantly illustrates how America’s entire social contract is stacked against working-class parents, especially mothers, and how affordable quality child care is an essential fix.

The Biden Administration’s proposed American Family Plan would be a game changer for parents like Alex who struggle to find a safe place for their babies and young children while they work.  Families who earn up to one and a half times their state’s median income would pay no more than seven percent of their income for child care, and the most impoverished would earn free care.  It also would make preschool universal for all three and four-year olds while also raising the pay and training level for preschool educators. 

America’s current level of child care support is laughable compared to that of other industrialized nations.  Rich countries pay on average $14,000 a year to support a toddler’s care; the U.S. pays just $500.  Though this country’s public education system for grades K – 12 set a global standard, the U.S. has long neglected care for children in the years before kindergarten.  How did the U.S. fall so far behind the rest of the world in early child care?  In part, our failure to care for our youngest children is a function of our weird, privatized social welfare system, much of which is provided by employers, like health care.  Most employers never stepped up to fill the child care gap in the social contract, and our government never mandated that they do so.  Why not?

A conservative, anti-feminist movement gutted the prospect for universal child care in the 1970s, just as women were entering the paid workforce en masse. Many women had a transformative vision for how they would balance work and family, according to Kirsten Swinth in Feminism’s Forgotten Fight. Feminists waged a host of legal and policy fights to force business and government to share the costs of family labor.  Universal, community-controlled child care was a fundamental tenet of their movement. The National Organization of Women was a strong supporter of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have created a federally-funded national day care system.  The burgeoning New Right opposed the bill as a new entitlement that would take women out of the home, and they found a vocal supporter in Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, Pat Buchanan. Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing” rather than keeping child care within the family.  Two subsequent attempts to pass similar bills in the late 1970s never got off the ground in the face of such sustained opposition. 

Right-wing discomfort with working mothers is once again at the heart of opposition to Biden’s child care plan, and that may keep America as the global laggard in early childhood care.   Republican Senatorial hopeful JD Vance opposes federal expansion of day care, arguing that children should be at home in family care.  Though Vance doesn’t say this, who typically provides that family care he touts? Women, of course.  In two-parent households, women remain the most likely to adjust their careers to accommodate the family. Meanwhile, 80 percent of single-parent households are headed by women, and a full thirty-five percent of those mother-led families live in poverty.  When conservatives like Vance oppose subsidized child care, they block women from gaining independence and economic self-sufficiency.  

The pandemic revealed that child care is a lynchpin in the economy.  When working mothers left the workforce in droves, especially the women of color who held many of the frontline, essential jobs, many cited a lack of child care as a major reason. Seen in this light, the nation’s “labor shortage” is, in part, a direct result of the child care shortage that we have refused to tackle for more than 40 years. 

Senator Joe Manchin, one of the most vocal Democrats opposed to Biden’s plan, has reportedly called for progressive Democrats to lower their sights and reduce the proposal’s provisions.  He wants them to choose between child care, paid family medical leave, and an expanded child tax credit.  But child care can’t be plucked apart from paid leave and income boosters, as Maid makes clear. In order to escape an abusive relationship and thrive, Alex, needs all these policies, plus affordable housing, supplemental nutrition, and free college.

The Biden American Family Plan, and its early child care and education provisions, would be a lifeline for working-class families struggling in today’s unequal economy.  It’s high time for the United States to make good on its family-first rhetoric and join the rest of the industrialized world in supporting busy working families who are bringing up babies.  

Lane Windham, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Lane Windham is the Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Lane Windham, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Class and Water: Climate-Charged Displacement

Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in August and the historic wildfires in the West and Midwest are the latest reminders that too much water, or too little, will be in the headlines for the rest of our lives. But to call these reminders merely “natural disasters” mystifies the class-relations that structure the built environment. The economically vulnerable are the first to suffer and the last to recover.

Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana, home to oil-industry, seafood, and tourism jobs, lost 10,000 homes. Ten weeks after the hurricane, FEMA will finally deliver mobile homes in mid-November. On October 4, Louisiana opened its Hurricane Ida Sheltering Program to ship mobile homes while it waits on the federal government. Instead, it will probably deliver recreational vehicles, travel trailers and crew barges for temporary housing. Hurricanes and climate-induced disasters reveal the sharp class differences that dictate who will survive and who will perish.

Hurricane Ida’s devastation of the Louisiana coast is only the beginning of what to expect in the coming years. Just last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO, United Nations) released its 2021 State of Climate Services: Water. The forecast is foreboding and it makes clear that the repeated devastation of Louisiana’s coastal working-class communities is just one part of a global disaster. The WMO reports that two billion people are suffering water stress or an unsustainable imbalance of freshwater withdrawal and total available freshwater resources. 3.6 billion people now face inadequate access to water for at least one month per year and by the year 2050, this number is projected to increase to more than five billion. As in the past, the water inadequacies fall heavily on the poor and working class.

Ready access to water, suitable for drinking and washing, is a vital but often neglected topic in climate change discussions. Moreover, responses to global warming such as climate change adaptation, and managing water resources often ignores the disproportionate impact on working-class communities.

According to 2021 State of Climate Services: Water, most countries have started to implement water resource management yet 107 countries remain behind in building the necessary infrastructure to deal with storms such as Hurricane Ida. To meet targets set for 2030, the current rate of progress toward full “Integrated Water Resources Management” would need to be quadrupled at a time when 2.3 billion people lack basic hygiene services. The United States is clearly behind in its public investment to manage water resources and demonstrably lacks the capacity to adequately and speedily meet the needs of communities overwhelmed by flooding.

The risk of delay or inaction on building infrastructure to conserve and manage water is increasing. In the last two decades, flood-related disasters have increased by 134% (compared with 1980 to 1999) and the number and duration of droughts by 29%. Increasingly frequent drought-related disasters have affected 1.43 billion people and promises additional misery and immiseration in the years ahead mostly in the least developed countries.

The 2021 State of Climate Services: Water offers an informative survey of water resources by region, but it does not analyze why infrastructural improvements to water resources are so difficult to attain. It mentions “Least Developed Countries” to signal differences among countries in attainable infrastructural spending. But it does not discuss differences within countries – differences that make clear that resources are not allocated equally. Even in countries with “good” infrastructure, working-class communities often lack resources.

Terrebonne Parish is one example. After Ida, power was down for a nearly a month. As one resident succinctly summed up the situation: “No water, no electricity, so you can’t do nothing.”  In the face of 150 mph winds, it is little surprise the power went out. But for a month? In nearly LaPlace, water has yet to recede from the hurricane. Flood-water management is plainly a key infrastructural matter, and so is the resilience of the electrical grid — or better yet, a complete reconceptualization of the delivery of power.

President Biden’s increasingly embattled $3.5 trillion plan includes massive investments in necessary climate change infrastructure. But such efforts face other challenges, including seemingly unstoppable wealth transfers  to economic elites and brazen thievery of public money. Given that some of this hoarded money is directly related to oil industry profits, getting that money back to pay for the damage and wean ourselves off fossil fuels is not only a common good but common sense.

Yet some workers worry about the economic costs of such a shift. When the French named Terrebonne “Good Water,” they probably didn’t foresee the economic boon of the region’s offshore oil and gas industry. Workers settled there to build that industry and join existing fishing communities. And now workers face the cruel contradiction of this oil industry economy: the working-class jobs that built modern Terrebonne Parish now threaten to undo it. The combined threat of too much flood water and too little fresh water is too much to bear for many people.  Some are wondering whether to call it quits.

Rebuilding Terrebonne Parish and nearby coastal communities is not only about building back better but building back differently. The ever-increasing challenges caused by coastal flooding and the need to ensure adequate freshwater supplies means that jobs focused on rebuilding will be permanent.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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The Multiracial Working Class

One of the questions that you hear regularly in the Working-Class Studies Association is, “Why is the organization so White?”  There are many possible answers to this question, of course. Some of it must surely be laid at our collective doorstep — failures to do the proper outreach, not enough time spent making our spaces truly welcoming and open to all, insufficient attention paid to how “insiders” reproduce ourselves through recruitment and leadership training.  One thing that the organization cannot be faulted with, however, is relevance.  Our focus, working-class studies, is a topic of crucial importance to both White people and the BIPOC community.

But this relevance may not be so obvious to those who are not already engaged in working-class studies, perhaps because they assume that “working class” means “White working class.” It has become increasingly necessary to explicitly aver that the working class, both in the US and elsewhere, is multiracial, because the assumption is so often the contrary.  An organization calling itself the “Working-Class Studies Association,” in today’s circumstances, has to confront this problem. 

Why is this?  One reason could well be long histories of racial exclusion among the organizations that have operated as spokespersons for the working class, such as some labor unions and political parties.  But a lot of the assumption of a White working class is quite new.  Ethnic workers of the 1930s and 1940s might not have been considered “white” by the WASP establishment of the time, though we now see  workers of Irish, Polish, Jewish, and Italian backgrounds as white.  Nixon’s “silent majority” may have included white workers, but it involved even more people from the middle class.  The link between whiteness and working-class status might be traced to the story of a massive shift of previously Democratic White workers who vote for Reagan, which enabled the Republican Party to dominate  in the 1980s. 

But that narrative rests on a false assumption. White workers didn’t swing significantly to the right. In fact, in that election, and in every subsequent election in which a Republican was elected president, White workers, defined as those who held jobs involving manual labor, including service jobs, were about equally split between candidates, as this graph (based on General Social Survey data) shows.  Although many White workers supported the Republican candidate in 1980 (and were somewhat more likely to do so than the population as a whole), more than half still voted for someone else or didn’t vote at all.  It certainly doesn’t look like the Republican party became the party of White workers.

Republican Vote of WC, by race, compared to total vote, GSS data, 1972-2018, compiled and analyzed by author

Even acknowledging the overwhelming political differences here between White and Black workers (the GSS data does not have sufficient numbers of other BIPOC workers), it still seems strange to attribute a wholesale political shift to a group that was split down the middle.    Similar numbers are available for the Trump election years, despite the many stories we have seen in the media.  There is no “White working class” that can shoulder the blame for Trump – his support came from across the class spectrum. So there is really not much evidence of a unified political bloc of a “White Working Class“ that supports conservative candidates. If anything, the move rightward seems to have stopped.

Perhaps White workers identify as working-class more than others?  If this were true, then it would go some way towards explaining why the term “working class” has taken on a racialized meaning.  But the data points in the other direction. 

 GSS data shows that 62% of Black male respondents and 56% of Black female respondents identified as working class, compared to 56% of White Male and 48% of White female respondents.  Looking only at those in traditional working-class jobs, 60% of both White and Black respondents identified as working class.  There is a significant and interesting split in how workers who do not identify as working class identify themselves, with White workers much more likely to claim middle-class status while Black workers are more likely to claim lower-class status.Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS

Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS, 1972-2018 data, analyzed by author

If we drill down into the data even further, White people in the same job categories as their BIPOC counterparts are more likely to identify as middle class.  And those who do are also more likely to vote Republican than workers who identify as working class.  So the whole connection between a supposed “White Working Class” and Republican Party support in the US seems wrong on two levels: White workers are not voting en masse for Republicans, and those who do are much less likely to be identifying as working class.

The question  remains, why do we hear “White working class” for working class?  I would argue it is purely discursive, at this point.  The problem comes from lazy middle-class intellectuals (that is a quote from Bad Religion again) who bifurcate the working class into a White component connected to labor issues and politics and a BIPOC component that comes to mind in discussions of poverty, racism, the criminal justice system, and welfare.  In fact, the majority of people receiving welfare benefits are White, but the media continues to run stories that distinguish a “Black Poor” population from “the (White) Working Class.”  This is all the more problematic because poverty, White or Black, is something experienced by working-class people.  Contrary to these distinctions, I would argue, as would most people who grew up poor, that there are no poor people who are not part of the working class, even if they are unemployed or underemployed at the moment. 

There have always been political candidates and movement leaders who understood this.  Bernie Sanders, for one, was clearly speaking to and for the entire multiracial working class, not a privileged White subset.  In midcentury fights between labor unions and within labor unions about what workers were to be included and represented, Walter Reuther took a strong stance in support of inclusion.  Grace Lee Boggs’s activism in support of the working class always included recognition of and struggle against racism and racial division.  We are yet again seeing efforts to discursively split the working class against itself. We need to fight back against the White Working Class trope and be much more explicit, as an organization, that what we mean when we say “working class” is the real multiracial working class and not a racist caricature.  If this means explicitly naming our focus “the multiracial working class,” then we need to do that. 

All descriptions of class are political.  They don’t merely reflect reality but help create it.  As Bourdieu once noted, ‘class’ will never be a neutral word so long as there are classes. The question of the existence or non-existence of classes and where the lines are drawn between them – who is included and who is not included – is itself a stake in struggle between the classes.  This is a political project.  We must forever and everywhere champion the inclusive meaning of working class.   Let’s not let the racists take our name away from us. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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Accounting for Class

Recently global accountancy giant KPMG made headlines for its new policy on social class and its mission to increase working-class representation amongst its workforce. In what seems like a ground-breaking initiative, the company has set itself the target of increasing the proportion of staff from working-class backgrounds to 29% in its partner and director roles by 2030. I was surprised to read that currently 23% of partners and 20% directors already self-identify as working-class. The KPMG report notes that an internal survey of around 10,000 employees showed that on average these same people were paid nearly 9% less than their non-working-class equivalents. In addition to those self-reporting as working-class, a further 10% either didn’t know or were not prepared to say.

In part the move by KPMG seems to be driven by the embarrassment over the comments by former company chair Bill Michael who claimed on a companywide Zoom call earlier this year that there was “no such thing as unconscious bias”. Michael resigned in the publicity surrounding these remarks and was later replaced by Bina Mehta, who claims working-class background herself and views equality and diversity as central to corporate strategy.

There are a lot of positives to take from this story. First, that there are so many senior people who claim working-class origin is a good thing if it reflects reality. Second, a large corporation actively recognising the issue of diversity and seeking to do something about under representation is to encouraged, and the fact this is about class is all the more welcome. Third, I think KPMG’s approach usefully begins to mainstream the language of class and the label of working-class in popular debates about economy and society.

In many ways these developments are long overdue. For decades large companies ignored underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities as well as working-class people. Often, ingrained structural barriers in recruitment were normalised. Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the elite Durham University, all of the Blue-chip corporations attended the ‘Milk-round’ graduate recruitment events hosted by many of the top UK universities – and they wouldn’t have dreamt of travelling to lower tier institutions nearby. So a system kept self-perpetuating itself generation after generation — elite companies recruited from elite universities who in turn tended to recruit disproportionately from fee-paying schools.  Transparency and acknowledgement of bias procedures has to be a good thing, right?

Well yes and no.  For sure opening up a real space to debate privilege is important, but a recent article by sociologist Sam Friedman should provide a really important check on our enthusiasm. Friedman and his colleagues at the London School of Economics examined the stories people tell themselves and others about their background.  He points out that 47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. More surprizing still is that around 25% of people in such jobs who come from middle-class backgrounds (based on parental work roles) also identify as working-class. Friedman and his colleagues use their own research to make sense of this seeming contradiction by suggesting that many middle-class professionals lay claim to working-class identity as an origin story to boost their own justification for the privileges they enjoy. They ignore parental status and instead reach back to grandparents or even in some cases great-grandparents’ origins to boost their own individual achievement.  This downplays their own structural privileges whilst reemphasising individual meritocratic achievement.

Why does this matter? Should we be concerned if a few privileged professionals want to claim an identity that isn’t really theirs? This reminds me of the classic 1960s Four Yorkshiremen sketch from UK TV where a succession of characters tells an increasingly grim and improbable story about their humble origins, each trying to outdo the previous narrator’s claim of grinding poverty and suffering. But I think this misrepresentation does matter a lot. As Friedman shows, these sorts of claims help to obfuscate the ingrained nature of structural inequality.  By claiming, falsely, to have overcome barriers to success, privilege people effectively blame those not enjoying success for their own condition by citing lack of effort — effectively reinforcing class inequality all the more.

This allows politicians and other commentators who wish to deny those structural factors an excuse for policy inaction. In other words, all you have to do is try that bit harder — a ‘boot strap’ theory of inequality for the 21st century. Middle-class and elite attempts to game the system are of course nothing new. So while we can welcome companies like KPMG paying attention to issues of class, we need to be careful about how these things are measured.  Self-reporting of an identity brings with it issues and unintended consequences. Pride in being from a working-class background is not a problem. It becomes a problem if individuals cynically adopt an identity to mask their own privilege at the expense of others. We need really good data on class inequalities and a nuanced, rather than ideological, account of the role of structural class inequality.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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“Don’t Get Old”: On Ageing and the Working Class

Linda Porter as Myrtle in Superstore

In the US sitcom Superstore (2015-2021), one of the characters, Myrtle, is an elderly store assistant who is often the brunt of jokes due to the slow pace of her work and her overall dottiness. At one point in the show, Myrtle is made redundant and it is discovered that she has a new job collecting cans which requires her to start work at 3am. (It is difficult to be completely sympathetic to Myrtle though as she does also make racist statements).

In complete contrast to the character of Myrtle, are the ageing academics portrayed in the Netflix comedy/drama The Chair (2021). Their jobs are under threat due to dwindling enrolments in their classes which is indirectly blamed on their age (and being out of touch with young students). While both Myrtle and the professors experience age discrimination, the contrast between the reasons for them wanting to work could not be starker. Myrtle has to work – she needs to support herself due to no apparent savings or adequate retirement income. The professors want to work – their work forms an important part of their identity and is tied to feelings of self-worth. They all appear to be financially secure after many years as tenured academics and could afford to retire.

But despite the obvious over-the-top elements of the comedy and scenarios in Superstore, and the occasional slapstick in The Chair, there are elements of truth in the characters’ situations, with a marked increase in people working beyond official retirement ages in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This is due to a variety of reasons such as ageing populations created by falls in birth-rates but also people living longer. As people live longer, the years they are able to work can increase.

For people in professional roles, working beyond retirement age is more likely to be a choice, for the same reasons as those aforementioned ageing professors. Maintaining a work life can be beneficial in terms of feeling valued and keeping the mind sharp. Older people have a lot to contribute to the workforce, and there are organisations that recognise the value of experience brought by older staff members and advocate for their hire.

But for working-class people who need to work past 65 due to insufficient funds for retirement, these extra years of work can be gruelling and exhausting. The nature of working-class work means that is it often more punishing on the body, and alongside this, working-class people are more likely to be employed on temporary contracts, resulting in the need to take on more than one job. For women, this is often accompanied by extra caring responsibilities such as looking after grandchildren for adult working children due to the high cost of childcare.

Poverty in old-age is devastating. The dream of a peaceful retirement is out of reach for increasing numbers of working-class people. In countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, there has been an increase in homelessness in older people. Some older people find themselves unable to pay rent or mortgages. These numbers appear to be increasing particularly for older women who have earnt less than men over their lifetimes and who are more likely to victims of domestic violence (and therefore been forced to leave their home). Not all older people own their own homes or have family to rely on to support them, and the cost of housing in many cities is becoming increasingly unaffordable for older working-class people.

In many ways, class differences are made more acute in old age. Getting old is expensive. As we age, we might need more medical treatment or accommodations made for age-related disabilities. And working-class people are more likely to experience age-related illnesses earlier than high-income counterparts. Some of us will require round the clock care. Access to these essential goods and services costs a lot of money. People with financial means can pay for mobility aids and necessary medicines. They can be sure that they will be cared for, whether in the home by private carers or in suitable and well-resourced aged care homes.

Many elderly working-class people struggle without their basic needs being met. Some mobility aids might be made available on loan by local government authorities or charities, but this depends on where someone lives. Paying for private carers is often out of reach, so staying at home becomes impossible. Some people have access to meals on wheels (or equivalent service), but this might not be free or even available in all areas. It can take months for a place to be available in a public (state-run) aged care home. And the level of care in a care home can vary dramatically due to under-resourcing of this sector.

In Australia recently, a Royal Commission into Aged Care found that the sector is extremely under-funded, with many residents not adequately cared for due to lack of staff. Some of the findings were shocking, and the stories of neglect of elderly people truly heartbreaking. The Commission report recommended increases in funding and improvements in staff patient ratios and staff training.

When my mother became frail due to age-related illnesses, she would sometimes say to me ‘don’t get old’. We would laugh at the alternative, but in her jest, she was commenting on the specific situation. As a working-class woman, she had experienced financial hardship for most of her life. She considered herself lucky though – she lived in secure public housing and had been able to enjoy some years of retirement, which while still very frugal due to her low income, were still work-free.

We do want to live long lives. But as we age, we want to know that we’ll be looked after if we become too frail to live independently. We don’t want to be getting up at 3am to collect cans like Myrtle, but this is a reality for many working-class seniors. The lives and experiences of older people in our working-class communities should be valued and celebrated. Their knowledge should be shared, and their stories listened to. The value of our lives should not be determined by class. We all deserve dignity and respect in old age.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

Posted in Class and Health, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged | 3 Comments

Some Dreamers of the Rusty Dream

In the new Showtime series, American Rust, set and filmed outside of Pittsburgh, PA, and based on the 2009 novel by Philipp Meyer, we see the aftermath of an industrial collapse so devastating that the fictional town of Buell, PA, looks like it’s been bombed, strafed, and ransacked. In the novel, middle aged seamstress Grace remembers how when steel went belly up, the blast furnaces in the town were destroyed with dynamite. Shortly after that, the World Trade Center was blown up, too. “It wasn’t logical, but the one reminded her of the other.”

Both versions of American Rust follow the stunted dreams of Billy, a washed-up high school football star who inexplicably turns down a college football scholarship to Colgate University, and Isaac, a physics genius, who, rather than trying to get into Yale, as his older sister has done, steals $4,000 from his disabled father and plans to hop a train to California. In both versions Billy and Isaac take refuge in the hollowed out shell of Carrie Furnace, run into some bad dudes, and pretty soon there’s a dead body. Police chief Del Harris wants to protect Billy and Isaac from the law, in part because he’s known them his whole life, but also because he’s sweet on Billy’s mom, Grace.

Jeff Daniels, as Buell Police Chief Del Harris, brings a lot of star power to American Rust. He is wry and taciturn and world weary. He acts according to his own moral code. Maura Tierney, as Del’s erstwhile girlfriend and Billy’s mom, Grace, pops and crackles on the screen.

As someone who studies how working-class people are represented on film and television, and who lives just down the road from Carrie Furnace, I’m thrilled to see a show like this come to prestige cable. American Rust has big stars, a talented cast, good writing, gorgeous production values, and relevant themes.

But American Rust is stuck in the past. It’s not really about the working class of today, but, rather, the shattered dreams of the working class of the 20th century. Sherry Linkon, in her book The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, explains how masculinity works in novels like American Rust. Linkon argues that young men like Billy and Isaac, deprived of the surefire path of their fathers’ generation in the factory or the mine, are “lacking economic opportunity,” and because of that, they also lack  a “clear sense of how to be a man.” She argues that Meyer represents the structural problems Billy and Isaac face, but that his characters mostly blame themselves for their tragic demise. While Billy’s “life chances are clearly constrained . . . by deindustrialization,” Linkon writes, “he interprets those limitations in very personal ways.”

Ironically, perhaps, Meyer wanted his novel to be a critique of this tendency towards self-blame. Towards the end of the novel, Meyer writes, “there was something particularly American about it—blaming yourself for bad luck—that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream.”

Showtime’s version of American Rust makes some significant changes to Meyer’s story, but it doubles down on the idea that post-industrial failure is personal. The opening scenes show all the main characters escaping through substances in one way or the other—weighing out prescription opioids, pushing a loved one to take a sleeping pill, drinking a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon out of a can, or crunching ibuprofen, because, Grace explains, she “likes the taste.” These people have given up; they seek relief from pain, above all else. The focus on substance abuse, and, especially, opioids, is one of the ways that Showtime’s American Rust brings the 2009 storyline into the present.

Another change from the novel is the treatment of race. While the novel glosses over Isaac’s Mexican heritage (on his mother’s side), in Showtime’s American Rust, Isaac and his sister are fluent in Spanish, and speak it with each other. In the novel, there is a Chinese cop named Steve Ho, who is repeatedly demeaned as the “fat cop,” and, also, a gun nut. On the television series he has been renamed Steve Park, and he is Korean. Del defends Steve to one of his older white colleagues—just before he fires the older colleague.

Progressive film and media scholars like Barbara Ehrenreich and Pepi Leistyna have lamented that working-class people are a “silenced majority”—invisible, or, if they do appear in popular culture, they are maligned and lampooned. In American Rust, working-class characters are neither invisible nor lampooned. But they are shown to be victims—mainly of their own terrible life choices. Their ambiguous moral code allows them to steal, and even murder, but it doesn’t allow them to act collectively or to confront power in any meaningful way.

American Rust took years to be made into a television series. A 2018 deal fell through, then the Showtime’s filming of American Rust was delayed and complicated by the pandemic. Early reviews by professional TV critics are quite tepid, and I will be surprised if it’s renewed for a second season.

American Rust struggles, in part, because it represents a mostly white and mostly male version of deindustrialization—still downplaying Isaac’s mixed-race identity and his sister’s experiences as a working-class woman attending an elite college. It makes sense to me that Mare of Easttown, with Kate Winslet as the lead and other compelling women characters, including black women, will go down as the more successful of 2021’s rust belt murder mysteries.

In Mare of Easttown, the central mystery is who killed Erin McMenamin? In American Rust, there’s a murder, but no mystery. Or, perhaps, the larger mystery is: who killed the American Dream? No one? Everyone? Two young men who made bad decisions? The terrorists who hit the World Trade Center towers? Whoever it is, it seems that they have gone unpunished, while those of us in the rustbelt must remake our world, our economy, and our dreams, too.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Unanswered Question about the Future of US Labor Unions

Within six months the two men who have led the AFL-CIO for more than twenty-five years, John J. Sweeney and Richard Trumka, have passed away.  In reflecting on Trumka’s sudden passing and the likely transition of leadership within the dominant US labor federation, Steven Greenhouse, the acknowledged dean of labor reporters on the beat for the New York Times, summarized his observations with this telling note: a Gallup poll indicates that  “nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers told M.I.T. researchers that they would join a union if given the opportunity.” Trumka’s challenge was how to get those “who want a union into a union, despite intense corporate opposition.” The question, Greenhouse asked, is whether a new AFL-CIO president would have more success.  

That question, almost more eloquent than Trumka’s obituary, lands with a thud. A hammer blow to the head. In tallying the pluses and minuses of Brother Trumka’s career, Greenhouse had already recorded Trumka’s failure to meet this challenge in the negative column.  Sadly, we also know the likely answer to the question for the AFL-CIO’s new leader, Liz Shuler: a resounding no. The head of the federation, especially as currently constituted, will never have “success” in building mass organization to revive the labor movement.

First, AFL-CIO leaders don’t see this as their job.  Second, even if they did, and, arguably, for a while John Sweeney tried, the federation is not structured to allow direct organizing and certainly not mass recruitment at the scale now desperately needed.

The fact that the AFL-CIO is a federation, a voluntary association of autonomous labor organizations, is both its strength and its weakness.  As a voice for labor, putting all of the various pieces, large and small, rough and smooth, under one roof, allows the federation to speak, advocate, and lobby for both organized and unorganized workers.  But this structure doesn’t make it easy for a federation to act, especially where some level of consensus and veto power can disrupt even the most trivial decisions.  Organizing demands action and always, invariably, requires defense from the leaders at the top and movement, sacrifice, and courage from the rank and file below.

Shuler’s answer to the organizing question is already clear. She offers the standard rationale and talking points. The 10% spent on organizing isn’t trivial. It also doesn’t represent all of the other off-budget support that the federation provides through research, communication, legal support, and, undoubtedly, mainly, the bully pulpit. Furthermore, the AFL-CIO is on record supporting things like the SEIU’s Fight for Fifteen campaign, which cost tens of millions but did not gain a single member. Add to that the fact that her service in the labor movement comes from the IBEW construction side, largely as a seasoned lobbyist, first in Oregon and then DC. No matter how she might evolve, politics is more the cell count in her blood more than organizing.  At 51 years old in the tradition of the AFL-CIO, Shuler could direct the organization for another 25 years, if it survived in any recognizable form.

The missing link that dashes any hope that the AFL-CIO will ever lead a revitalization of organizing and put the “movement” back behind the word “labor” is the recognition that contemporary institutional unions in the US are political organizations more than worker organizations. Though democracy in unions is often only skin deep, leaders still are elected and advance based on their skill at navigating the rungs up the political ladder in their organizations. The unorganized do not vote. Only members vote. Members might like to hear that their union is talking about organizing, but unless it materially advances their own situation or contract, most care primarily about the union in their workplace and how their dues are used to advance their interests. Feelings of class solidarity, dreams of working-class power, organizing the unorganized are all fine and good, but leaders by and large are elected for delivering to existing members not potential members. 

Nowhere is this truer than in the building and construction trades where for the most part the old school is the only school. Their role within the AFL-CIO is outsized compared to their membership numbers. And they exercise their influence conservatively. If the AFL-CIO executive council was weighted by per capita, we would be having a different discussion. If the Building and Construction Trades Council and its member unions, except possibly the Teamsters and maybe the Laborers, were carved out of the AFL-CIO, it would be a totally different organization, and the answer to the question of organizing the 60 million – along with many others – would be very different. In the existing labor federation, political skills are paramount. Shuler’s background fits what many affiliated unions see as the real purpose of the federation, the arena where politics and legislative lobbying fit like fingers in a glove.

The challenge of moving the 60 million who would like a union – or at least some kind of workers’ organization on the job – to become members also faces the limitations of the National Labor Relations Act. AFL-CIO leaders have never been able to make the Act work to help build a mass organization, as evidenced most recently by the defeat at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama. We haven’t organized a single private sector mass employer in fifty years. Not Walmart. Not Amazon. Not McDonalds. Not any of the giant tech monsters. In fact, no enterprise that has more than 10 or 20,000 workers in this entire period has become union.

Yet, no matter the leader and no matter the union, we continue the love-hate relationship with the NLRB without doing the hard work or spending the resources to develop a new organizing model that can organize the 60 million to have power on the job and elsewhere.  It won’t be the AFL-CIO that answers these questions, and as union density decreases and with it the resources to develop a new model and organize the unorganized, it may be impossible for any union to solve this riddle on its own. Certainly, SEIU has tried — and thus far failed. The AFL-CIO and many of its member unions will survive at some level, but organizing the unorganized is our moonshot. We’d like to get there, but it would take more than we have to make the journey. Maybe we’re waiting for our Bezos or Musk to pay the bills and show us the way? Who knows? In the meantime, the question is answered, sadly, and the death watch continues, even if many refuse to change, and we can’t all hear the rattle.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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Fighting Poverty with Classism

Chautauqua’s Hall of Philosophy

I spent part of last week at the Chautauqua Institution, which a friend described as “summer camp for adults.” Its lovely Victorian summer homes, pricey food options, and demographics – skewing older and extremely white – make it feel like a retreat for the educated elite, but its history is not quite so rarefied. As the dozens of houses operated by Protestant denominations indicate, Chautauqua was originally created as a summer gathering place for ministers and Sunday school teachers, high-minded people who might not have been able to afford other vacation options.  A few years after it opened, Chautauqua began to offer one of the first distance-learning programs in the US, a college degree by correspondence, aimed at people “who could not afford the time or money to attend college the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a college education.” The aim was to “show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health.”

That history made Chautauqua the ideal place to hear a talk on poverty by Robert Doar, President of the American Enterprise Institute. While AEI describes itself as committed to “vigorous debate,” not affiliated with any political party, and not taking institutional positions, Doar’s talk made his individual partisanship clear with a number of snarky references to Democratic leaders and leftist analysts. AEI says that its “scholars’ conclusions are fueled by rigorous, data-driven research and broad-ranging evidence.” Doar did provide some thought-provoking data, and much of he said deserves serious engagement. But his argument about poverty reflects some of the same classist attitudes embedded in Chautauqua’s vision of the value of education over “idle pastimes.”

In both, we hear a view of reform that begins with the assumption that middle-class culture is superior and that poor peoples’ problems stem from lack of morals and self-control, not lack of resources or power. This view has a long history, and it has taken many forms. Campaigns against prostitution, the temperance movement, and settlement houses, for example, all focused on persuading and sometimes forcing poor and working-class people to adhere to middle-class ways. Such approaches see poor and working-class people as the problem, not structural inequities, a point Doar made both by defining inequality and poverty as entirely separate concerns and by insisting that poverty was not related to race, even though poverty rates for Black and Latinx people remain more than double the rate for white people.

The assumption that poverty is caused by poor behavior plays out in some of the anti-poverty strategies that Doar advocates, such as policies that require people to work in order to receive benefits or use economic consequences to push for two-parent households. While these programs aim to control how people live, they also reflect some values that are central to working-class culture, which places a high value on work and family. Along with noting the dangers and exploitation of labor, working-class studies scholars have also shown that work can build important connections with others and foster pride – in what work produces but also simply for showing up day after day to support a family. Doar acknowledges all of this, to his credit.

But he couldn’t resist warning about the dangers of “idle pastimes.” Doar cited a study showing that unemployed men spend more hours in front of screens than most other people, “inactivity” that “has negative consequences for these men and negative consequences for our society.” Unemployment men spend about 2100 hours a year on screens, though another study showed that most office workers spend 1700 hours in front of a computer just while at work. It’s hard to believe office workers don’t spent at least another 4000 hours a year online after work hours. But hours reviewing reports or writing emails or teaching classes is virtuous, while time scrolling social media is bad. Doar may well be right, as the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in recent years shows, though most evidence suggests that the people who’ve been most susceptible to those are not living in poverty. Studies of QAnon supporters, for example, suggest that they rely more on social media for new but are also are more religious than most Americans, and they tend to be more financially well-off, and multiple reports have noted that many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were well-off. 

For Doar, the answer to poverty is a combination of work and government funding. When asked about whether this model didn’t simply subsidize business, Doar argued that filling in the gap with various forms of aid was a better solution that higher wages. Aid programs, he explained, require people to register with government agencies, which provide opportunities for intervention, such as counseling. Doar ignores the possibility that needing assistance even while working might undermine the power of work to generate pride. His argument against a living wage? It’s just something leftists want because they take pleasure from “sticking it to business.”

It’s ironic that someone who so clearly espouses Republican positions would take this stance, since it defines government as the answer and intrudes on people’s lives. Republicans have worked hard in recent decades to undermine the very idea that government could ever work well, and they’ve been especially passionate in the past two years about defending individual liberty. Just not when it comes to the poor and working class, apparently.

Doar also called for more attention to the struggles of the middle class, but he did not acknowledge that much of the “government aid” he celebrates comes out of middle-class pockets, through taxes. In fact, he called for a regressive national sales tax, which would ask even more of those in the middle, and dismissed proposals to increase taxes on corporations or the wealthy. Instead, he repeated his claim that any such policies simply reflect Democratic hatred of business. But raising wages and taxing the rich aren’t about punishing business or the wealthy. They’re about reducing the burden on those in the middle while also balancing out growing inequality – a problem that Doar dismissed as unimportant. Indeed, at no point in his talk did he even acknowledge the spike in income for the wealthiest Americans.

Doar closed with a call for bipartisanship that included bashing the Democrats for passing bills with their thin majority. “Whatever it is the Senate Democrats say they want to do” in their budget, he added, it’s “probably not good.” He was especially critical of Democratic policies that give families money without strings, policies that have proven successful and not undermined people’s willingness to work or their morality in many countries. The problem with those policies, I guess, is that they trust people, value the family, preserve individual liberty, and promote a sense of equality.

Among the most interesting things about hearing all of this at Chautauqua was the audience response. Many people applauded Doar’s call for work requirements, though questions about wages and corporate profits drew even stronger cheers. These responses and the setting remind us that people of privilege may not agree about how best to address economic injustice, too often, we base our strategies on our own assumed virtues. That’s not something only the middle class does, of course. Working-class people sometimes think their culture is superior, too – more genuine, more inclusive, more determined. But there’s a difference. While I bristle at the paternalism of approaches that aim to “fix” poor people, the real problem is that the elite have the power to turn their biases into policy.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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

The Downward Path We’ve Trod: Reflections on an Ominous Anniversary

This week marks the 40th anniversary of an illegal strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) that was decisively broken by President Ronald Reagan.  That strike began on August 3, 1981, when more than 12,000 air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration went on an illegal strike after their negotiations with the administration failed to produce an acceptable contract offer.  Within hours, Reagan appeared in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis and Attorney General William French Smith.  If the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, he announced, they would be “terminated,” fired and permanently replaced.  The vast majority of strikers defied his order, and at 11 AM, Eastern time, on the morning of August 5, they were fired. 

In my book, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America, I told the story of this event, the most ambitious and expensive act of strikebreaking in U.S. history, one that I believe marked a turning point in American labor relations.   


Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

On this particular anniversary, I can’t stop thinking about a photograph I included in the book: an image of striking controllers who gathered for a rally at Eisenhower Park on Long Island on the morning they were to be fired. Reporter Jimmy Breslin attended and described how, as the strikers gathered, a federal marshal appeared and handed out copies of the federal injunction that ordered them back to work. They drove him out, chanting “We want a contract.”  When the 11AM deadline for their compliance approached, the controllers and their families held hands and formed a large circle.  Breslin was amazed to see “members of suburban white America,” as many of them were, and military veterans (as most controllers were) gather to defy the law in this way. At “the moment they were supposed to be fired on order of the President of the country,” he reported, “their right fists shot up in the air” in what Breslin called a “Stokely Carmichael salute.”  These folks might be from middle America, Breslin wrote, yet that morning they “were perhaps the only people in the country with the courage to oppose the established order.”

The picture was taken just before the circle formed. It shows black and white controllers and their families bedecked with union buttons, proudly holding their picket signs and an American flag aloft, wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “PATCO: leading the nation with striking results.” They gathered behind an unfurled bright yellow Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, held like a banner between two kneeling strikers. 

Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

We saw the same flag at another turning point event this year, on January 6.  The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was quite prominently displayed during the violent assault on the Capitol that afternoon.  In fact, the flag was so ubiquitous during the insurrection that one appalled newspaper columnist immediately took his flag down off the wall of his office where it had hung for years. 

Created in 1775 by South Carolina politician and slave holder, Christopher Gadsden, the flag had played a prominent role in the American Revolution.  “For most of U.S. history, this flag was all but forgotten,” writes graphic design scholar Paul Bruski.  It began to make a comeback after the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 (which might account for PATCO strikers deploying it 5 years later).  Over time, though, it began to develop “some cachet in libertarian circles,” observes Bruski.  Then the Tea Party of 2009 thoroughly embraced it, and it has been a constant presence at right-wing rallies since. 

On January 6, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag signified something very different from what it had stood for in Eisenhower Park 40 years ago. The contrast has me thinking about the sources and goals of social conflict, the meaning of solidarity, and the terrible toll these past forty years have taken on this country. 

A good part of the damage has flowed from what workers lost after the PATCO strike: a robust capacity to come together to engage in effective collective actions to make demands of their employers.  In other words, the ability to strike.

When PATCO strikers formed their circle in Eisenhower Park, U.S. workers still frequently and confidently wielded that elemental tool of working-class agency.  During the 1970s, workers staged an average of 289 major work stoppages (involving at least 1,000 workers each) annually, slightly higher than the average of 283 during the 1960s.  Workers’ ability to strike played a key role in keeping wages in line with rising productivity.  Not surprisingly, when the relationship between wages and productivity began to slip in the mid-1970s, with wages lagging productivity for the first time in the postwar era, this slippage coincided with a dip in the annual average of major work stoppages, which was fell to 251 in the last three years of the 1970s. But after Reagan broke PATCO, that slow erosion became an absolute freefall.   

Strike militancy declined more rapidly in the 1980s than in any other decade.  Corporate America made sure of that.  Inspired by Reagan’s bold action, a slew of private sector employers, including Phelps Dodge, Hormel, and International Paper, took advantage of the restructuring economy to provoke strikes and then hire replacement workers to force unions into big concessions.  As workers sensed how dramatically the balance of power was shifting, the annual average of work stoppages plunged to only 35 per year in the 1990s.  But the slide didn’t stop there.  In the 2010s the average was 16, and there were only 8 in 2020.  

The PATCO strike isn’t responsible for the entirety of this falloff, of course.  A variety of other structural factors contributed to the long-term decline of U.S. strike militancy.  Yet that pivotal strike provides an historical milestone against which we can measure the costs of U.S. workers’ loss of the ability to defend their interests through collective action.     

One measure is financial. If workers’ wages had kept up with rising productivity during the past 40 years, they would be earning on average $10 more per hour, the Economic Policy Institute recently estimated.  The explosion of income and wealth inequality that has been eating away at the foundations of our politics and culture would have been substantially arrested had workers been pocketing that lost money over the past four decades.    

Yet dollars and cents alone can’t measure what’s been lost. The undermining of workers’ strike power also disabled what was once a vital instrument for building and maintaining social solidarity and for directing inevitable class tensions and social conflict toward democratic and egalitarian ends. Jack Metzgar, a Working-Class Perspectives stalwart, makes an important point about strikes in his stunning account of the mammoth 1959 steel strike, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Metzgar reminds us that the struggle was not ultimately about “pennies-per-hour” as much as it was about “defending the life and prospects” that workers had been struggling to build through the years.  

What happens when workers no longer have the power to stage such a defense? 

On January 6 we got a glimpse of what can grow in the vacuum created by the continued erosion of a robust tradition of workers’ collective action. The insurrectionists were not themselves primarily working-class, as Adam Serwer has noted. They skewed middle-class and included “business owners, CEOs, state legislators, police officers, active and retired service members, [and] real-estate brokers” among their number.  Like PATCO’s strikers, they turned to collective action to challenge “the established order.”  But both the form of solidarity they sought to invoke—deeply infused with white supremacism—and their goals could not have been more different. The insurrectionists weren’t seeking to shut down the air traffic system in order to win fairer treatment at work; they sought to overthrow the very processes of representative democracy.

The different uses of the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in these two pivotal episodes separated by 40 years, makes clear that the diminution of working-class power over that span is the crucial yet often overlooked element that has most imperiled our fragile, multi-racial democracy.  It suggests that we will not be able to successfully defend democracy from those who would undermine it unless we also find ways to empower workers once again to defend their interests effectively through collective action. 

Joseph A. McCartin

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

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Joseph A. McCartin, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , | 2 Comments