Neil Gorsuch and Religious Liberty: Class Dismissed

President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch on January 31 to fill the vacant seat of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court may seem like the answer to a prayer for many in the religious right. In an interview on The Brody File (Christian Broadcasting Network) four days before the announcement of his nominee, Trump rightly predicted I think evangelicals, Christians will love my pick.”  A letter supporting Gorsuch signed by more than 60 evangelical leaders suggests that he is right. Even Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who faced backlash for a New York Times op-ed arguing that Trump does not represent evangelical values, signed on to the statement affirming Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy would meet the vital thresholds of protecting “the unborn, the strengthening of religious liberty, and a dedication to human flourishing — which we believe can only be accomplished by a biblical definition of marriage and family.”

But how does such “strengthening of religious liberty” relate to the concerns of working-class people? Are religious liberty claims class neutral? The Hobby Lobby case offers a useful example, as well as a glimpse of Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy at work.

In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled that the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain, and their corporation itself, are entitled to the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (2000) and the Free Exercise Clause (1791) of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the court, Judge Tymkovich argued that as a “closely held family company” organized with “express religious principles in mind,” it would be a violation of their “sincerely held religious beliefs” and contrary to their faith to be forced to provide what they believe to be “abortifacient” (post-conception drugs to terminate pregnancy) contraceptive services as mandated by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby has over 500 stores and almost 13,000 full-time employees, and Mardel has thirty-five Christian bookstores and almost 400 employees. The owners, David and Barbara Green and their three children, believe that “human life begins when sperm fertilizes an egg” and that it is “immoral” to “facilitate any act that causes the death of a human embryo.” The application of the doctrine of religious liberty here means that the religious beliefs of five corporate owners take precedence over the beliefs and interests of nearly 13,400 workers in 535 stores across the country. Further, the ruling grants religious freedom to the corporation, giving it legal status as a “person” whose rights must be protected as well. The court reasoned that as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires, generally, that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and that “[s]uch corporations can be ‘persons’ exercising religion for purposes of the statute.”

Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion focuses, in particular, on the Green family. Affirming the reasoning of Judge Tymkovich above, Gorsuch emphasizes the importance of the Green family’s religious claims to the exclusion of any other parties, including their entire work force for whom access to low or no-cost contraceptive services could have very favorable consequences, morally, economically and otherwise.

Gorsuch also argues that free exercise claims have long protected “unpopular religious beliefs, vindicating this nation’s long-held aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance.” The concept has its source with individuals and groups with unpopular or underrepresented religious beliefs, as in the the U.S. Supreme Court decision (1963) in Sherbert v. Verner. Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, was fired from Beaumont mill, a textile factory in Beaumont, South Carolina for refusing to work on Sundays because of her religious belief that Saturday is a Sabbath day (certainly a minority view within Christianity). South Carolina denied Sherbert any unemployment benefits. In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sherbert, a ruling that expanded the range of religious freedom claims and the rights of workers to have some defense against encroachment from employers.  But that was 1963 and now it is 2017.

If class is primarily about relationships of power in the workplace, as Michael Zweig has argued, this ruling emphasizes how the workplace can also shape the power one has over one’s body and one’s family well after the workday is over. For Hobby Lobby employees, any religious liberty claim they may wish to make (for instance, a deeply held religious belief that a fertilized egg is not a person) is not even hinted at in the discussion. Gorsuch’s concurrence demonstrates that religious freedom claims are not abstract and universal. They are class bound and can be applied selectively.

As Congress considers Gorsuch’s nomination, legislators should know that corporations will continue to deploy religious freedom claims, and state legislatures will continue to put forward Religious Freedom legislation like the bill then Governor Mike Pence’s signed for Indiana in 2015.  U.S. Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer (D-NY) complained in a recent The New York Times essay that Gorsuch would not answer basic questions and argued that the nominee “owes it to the American people to provide an inkling of what kind of justice he would be.” But Gorsuch has a history – a paper trail – on this matter, including the Hobby Lobby ruling.  We can expect that Gorsuch (and other justices, as well) will dismiss class as a factor when pondering the legitimacy and application of religious liberty claims. Gorsuch’s views about the “strengthening of religious liberty” could have repercussions for the working class well into the future.

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.

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A Working-Class Appreciation for the National Health Service

I have spent a lot of time in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in the southwest of England recently because my mother has been seriously ill. Without the treatment and care she received there, she would not have survived. The NHS is the universal health care system that takes care of millions of people across Britain. Since 1948, British people have had access to all levels of health care through the system and no payment is required at point of service. Individuals contribute to the NHS during their working years through tax and National Insurance payments, and the system also receives government funding. The NHS doesn’t discriminate by class. Anyone can receive treatment, from those with no income at all to the wealthiest. In hospital, my mother is treated exactly the same as any other patient; her very low income has no bearing on the care she receives. Everyone is equal on the hospital ward (although those with a higher income can avail themselves of some extra entertainment services such as pay per use TV).

My mother considers the NHS a marvel. She has used the service since it began, and she is full of appreciation for the treatment she has received from the nurses and doctors as well as the kindness shown by the supporting staff who keep the hospitals clean and the patients fed, among other things. Despite some debilitating illnesses, she has been treated with the utmost dignity and good humour, and this matters to her as a low-income working-class woman. She’s never been looked down on because of where she lives or what she earns. NHS staff show concern for her welfare and suggest ways for her to access services that she can afford once discharged from the hospital. She can relate to the many staff who also come from working-class backgrounds from around the world who, like her, are concerned about the futures of their families. The NHS has saved the lives of millions of poor, working-class people, and for this we are grateful.

But the NHS has been under attack for some time now from the current Tory government, who seem ideologically opposed to the system of universal health care that keeps working-class people healthy and alive. Tories would like to replace the NHS with a system of private insurance and private provision of services that would see hospitals and services run for profit rather than for the benefit of the public. This would be a disaster for working-class people, who would no longer have access to the health services they require.

The Tories have already made significant cuts to NHS funding since they were elected in 2010, and the system is currently experiencing a crisis. There are shortages of beds and of staff, and resources are being stretched to their limits. Patients wait hours to be treated in emergency rooms – known as Accident and Emergency (A&E) in Britain – and non-emergency surgery is being cancelled and postponed. Nursing staff must care for more patients and are run off their feet as they try to provide quality treatment.

Ambulance services are also suffering, with too few crews available to meet demand and increasing waiting times. In some hospitals, patients have to wait on ambulance trollies for hours before they are assessed by doctors in A&E. When my mother was taken into hospital by ambulance, I observed a corridor full of patients waiting to be seen – a backlog that holds up the ambulance crews, who can’t respond to other calls until their patients have been handed over to hospital staff. Patients who can’t afford to ‘jump the queues’ by going to private hospitals and clinics must wait due to lack of adequate resourcing from the government. My mother’s assessment was halted as all the emergency doctors were called in to treat a patient in cardiac arrest. It’s a grim picture: patients suffering and even dying as they wait for treatment.

The true marvel of the NHS are the people who work in the system. Advances in medical science and technology are wonderful, but the most sophisticated treatments need people to administer them and to look after patients on a daily basis. As illustrated by a recent BBC documentary, Hospital, every person who works on the frontline with patients is essential, regardless of what they do. My mother has deep admiration for the doctors and surgeons, but her warmest praise is for the nursing and auxiliary staff who look after her. During her most recent lengthy stay she observed how the nurses managed complicated treatment schedules in wards where there one nurse might be responsible for 8 patients. Nursing assistants took blood pressure readings and monitored patients’ stats, but they also changed bedding and helped patients to wash and to use the toilet. They sat with patients who were lonely or distressed and helped patients locate their glasses or slippers. Housekeeping staff kept the wards spotless and made sure patients had fresh water and good food. The staff displayed genuine care for the patients, and despite being short staffed and overworked, they maintained their professionalism and went about their work with good humour, helping to lift the spirits of patients battling illness and injury.

For my mother, the staff at the busy hospital are heroes, and it saddens her to think of the NHS, the great institution beloved by so many working-class people, struggling under the current government’s policies. She wouldn’t be alive without the NHS, which has remained a constant despite the hardships she’s faced during her life. She knows she can rely on the service, but she never takes it for granted. She thanks the NHS and hopes that those well enough to fight for its continued existence on her behalf will continue to do so until its future is secured.

Sarah Attfield

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Is the Worst Yet to Come for Unions?

With the decline of good paying jobs in the private sector, public employment has been particularly important for working-class people. These state and local workers also provide important public services ranging from street cleaning, to home health to emergency services. Such employment opportunities have benefited African-American workers and their families especially.

This is true even as union membership declines overall. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 10.7% of wage and salary workers belong to unions.  Union membership would be even worse if public sector union membership weren’t more than five times higher (at 34%) than the private-sector rate (6.4%). Like other working-class people, union members, including those in the public sector, have seen both the number of jobs and wages decrease dramatically. The situation is about to get worse as the result of Trump’s election, with the refiling of the Friedrichs case and state Right-to-Work (RTW) initiatives. Both Friedrichs and RTW undermine union membership, which reduces the power of union both politically and in the workplace by taking away the dues money that enables unions to advocate for and protect workers.

Union membership is a working-class issue because it helps workers improve their economic condition and helps to alleviate economic inequality. Even non-union workers benefit from unionization as a result of what economists call “wage pull.” What’s more, public-sector union strength helps prevent private-sector wages from falling further, even as public-sector unions are weakened by the decline in private-sector membership.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved agency fee agreements that cover the costs of union representation without becoming a union member. The Friedrichs case is a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Without agency fees, many unions will collapse economically. They will have less money for organizing, representing, and lobbying for members.

With death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the court was split four-to–four, affirming a lower court ruling that denied the challenge to the agency fees. This is sure to have influenced Trump’s recent nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court as the  conservative justice is  likely to be a deciding vote when Friedrich’s is refiled. Already, conservative groups like the RTW Foundation and US Chamber of Commerce are supporting the resurrection of the Friedrichs case, and the New York Times Editorial Board warns that Gorsuch “spells big trouble for public sector labor unions.”

Currently, there are 27 RTW states, including a number that have strong union traditions. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Ohio all have RTW proposals in the works. Last week in the US House of Representatives, two Republican legislators introduced national RTW legislation.

The effects of RTW laws, especially in combination with attacks on public-sector bargaining, have been devastating. Since Wisconsin banned most public sector bargaining (ACT 10) and passed RTW legislation, union membership has dropped in both private and public sectors from well above the national average to now well below. Nationally, the Service Employees International Union has announced a 30% budget cut over the next year that will include staff layoffs.

Election results show that 24 of the 26 states that, as of November, had RTW policies voted for Donald Trump, along with six non-RTW states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Alaska, Montana, and Kentucky, which has since passed its own RTW legislation.  Conservative organizations like the Allegheny Institute have called the Trump election a “sign that voters have become weary of public sector unions driving government costs and taxes higher than they need to be.” They are urging more state legislatures to pass RTW legislation focused on the public sector.

For many years, public sector wages and benefits were lower than in the private sector. But with deindustrialization, economic restructuring, automation, and the establishment of public-sector collective bargaining, they have finally caught up. In some cases, government jobs are now worth more than private sector jobs, largely because good benefits compensate for lower wages. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that while public workers with higher education earn less than similar private-sector workers, they receive better health benefits and pensions. But this applies only in states that don’t have RTW laws, as the EPI concludes:

Only public employees in states with full collective bargaining make as much as their private-sector peers. In partial collective bargaining states, right-to-work states, and states that prohibit collective bargaining, public employees earn lower wages and compensation than comparable private sector employees, and this low compensation may impede state and local governments from recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees for their many professional and public safety occupations.

No wonder, so many private sector employers have supported RTW legislation.

Beyond improving workers’ financial situations, unions also protect workers by articulating and enforcing labor standards involving wages,  hours, overtime, and subcontracting, that are increasingly in short supply. This is especially important in low wage working-class jobs in the growing service economy. The National Employment Law Project found that the greatest loss in real wages since the end of the Great Recession has been in low-wage occupations such as in food preparation, janitors and cleaners, personal care aides, home health aides, and maids and housekeeping cleaners. It is in these occupations and sectors where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the greatest job growth will be through 2022. Perhaps this is most important reason to fight both state and national RTW legislation.

Put differently, we should fight against cases like Friedrichs and RTW legislation on a moral basis. In Kentucky, the Catholic Bishop of Lexington made a strong moral argument against RTW legislation and support for labor unions. Bishop John Stowe said organized labor supports the common good, arguing that “unions need the support of the workers they represent. The falsely named ‘right to work’ legislation proposed does not in fact create new rights to work, but rather strives to limit the effectiveness and power of the unions.” Just like the recent wave of marches and growing protests that are being framed in moral terms, fighting RTW legislation is a moral imperative.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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For-Profit Colleges: Rough Times Ahead for Working-Class Students

With the promoter of the now disgraced “Trump University” at the helm of the federal government for the next 4 years, we are likely to see for-profit companies playing a bigger role in higher education.  But history shows us that many for-profit colleges can do lasting damage to poor students and families, as well as taxpayers and communities.

During the Reagan administration, for-profit trade schools rapidly expanded across the country.  Federal student aid to for-profit schools jumped from $684 million in 1982 to $4.15 billion in 1988.  Fraud and misrepresentation was widespread in the for-profit sector.  Recruiters used high pressure tactics to enroll students and targeted low-income students and people of color.

Programs were lightly regulated by the accreditors, and many schools closed before students could complete their degrees.  Many of the new programs offered worthless training and credentials and failed to prepare students to find a job in their field of training, and consequently dropout and default rates soared. As Open Secrets has documented, for-profit schools lobbied aggressively for their industry. For example, the parent company to the University of Phoenix was a gold level sponsor of both the Republican and Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Many students victimized by for-profit schools in the 1980s still feel the effects today.  Not only did shoddy trade schools offer inadequate programs in fields like radio broadcasting, truck driving school, or computer repair, they failed to live up to their promises for employment upon graduation.  Students in such programs were less likely to complete their educational program and much more likely to default on their loans.

Those who default also face extraordinary extra-judicial collection remedies implemented by the Department of Education, including having their federal tax refunds intercepted and social security benefits and wages garnished. For working-class people already living on the edge of poverty, the loss of 25% of their net pay or the earned income tax credit can push them off the cliff of homelessness and poverty.

Compounding the financial spiral is a government-sanctioned deal that gives student loan servicers and debt collectors collection fees of 25% of amounts garnished. Many borrowers find it impossible to get out of default even after suffering from years of collections actions.  Even that premium collection fee does not seem to be enough for greedy student loan servicers like Navient, who became the target last week of a lawsuit by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and two states alleging that the company purposefully pushed borrowers into repayment plans that benefited Navient’s profits over the best interests of the defaulted borrower.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education enacted many new regulations to relieve the burden on student borrowers victimized by trade schools.  These include new rules restoring eligibility for Pell Grants to students whose schools closed before they could complete their education and a streamlined process for applying for a loan discharge due to fraudulent misrepresentations by their schools.  The Obama administration also created new flexible repayment plans and made it easier for borrowers who are unable to work because of disability to discharge their federal student loans.

The Department of Education also enacted important new rules to protect taxpayers and students from shoddy for-profit schools, including restricting access to federal student aid for programs with high default rates and low salaries compared with the average debt burden.  The Department also cracked down on accreditors for for-profit schools, which have failed to ensure that programs provide quality education and training.

Unfortunately, much of this progress is at risk under the Trump administration. “Trump University,” an expensive series of get-rich-quick real estate seminars which was recently the subject of numerous fraud suits by former students, bears many similarities to other for-profit education schemes. The nomination of Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate with little experience or apparent knowledge of higher education issues, signals a further erosion for public support of higher education.  In addition, one of  Trump’s first executive orders freezes enactment of new regulations and puts a hold on implementing any that have not yet taken effect.  This includes many important Department of Education regulations, such as the new borrower defense and gainful employment rules. It appears that for-profit higher education programs will flourish again under the Trump administration, likely to the detriment of working-class students and taxpayers.

Emily White and Marc Dann

Emily White chairs the Student Loan Defense practice at the Dann Law Firm in Columbus Ohio and has been selected to edit of the Chapter on Student Loan Law in Baldwin’s Ohio Consumer Law Handbook. Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

On Race, Class, and Two Referendums in Richmond

On election night in November, the success of local ballot measures raising the minimum wage, endorsing election law reform, or calling for other much-needed policy changes produced some political cheer on an otherwise dismal evening.

Such measures may be our best form of resistance in the Trump era, but progressives need to be careful about what questions they put before the electorate locally and statewide. Some ballot initiatives aid movement-building in poor and working-class communities. Others can be political poison, even when the rationale for their adoption is unassailable from a public policy standpoint.

Two initiatives backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in 2012 and 2016 illustrate the point, as I recount in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. The RPA is a multi-racial, working-class oriented membership organization that combines electoral activity and year-round community organizing.  Since 2004, it has fielded 16 candidates in “non-partisan” races for mayor or city council in a blue-collar city of 110,000 that is 80% non-white.

RPA candidates won ten of those elections, Richmond now has a progressive city council “super-majority”—five members out of seven, four of whom are Asian, Black, and/or Latino.  RPA won those seats despite well-financed opposition. Since 2012, corporate political action committees have spent more than $7 million trying to elect business friendly council candidates (mainly African-American and Latino Democrats).

The RPA’s recent electoral success represents a major comeback after a crushing defeat at the polls just four years ago. In 2012, only a few months after a fire at the city’s largest employer, a Chevron refinery, sent 15,000 residents scrambling for medical attention, the RPA campaigned in support of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks proposed by then-city councilor, Dr. Jeff Ritterman, director of cardiology at a local hospital. He had treated hundreds of lower-income black and Latino patients suffering from heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other weight-related ailments – problems that were, increasingly, affecting children and young adults.

To address this public health crisis and discourage soda consumption, Ritterman proposed a modest soda levy that would raise $3 million annually, which would support expanded youth sports programs and health education. Some African-American ministers and public health workers endorsed Ritterman’s Measure N campaign, including Reverend Alvin Bernstine, pastor of Richmond’s Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, who proudly maintains what he calls a “no fry/no soda zone” in his congregation’s social hall. Bernstine invokes the historical connection between sugar plantations and slavery.  “Soda companies have been exploiting black people for too long,” he says, “with products that have no nutritional benefit and no community economic benefit.”

That was not the message delivered by local allies of the American Beverage Association (ABA), the powerful industry lobbyist opposed to the soda tax. The ABA’s high-powered San Francisco consulting firm recruited and deployed teams of paid canvassers, all young people of color in need of a summer job. They distributed hundreds of “Vote No on N” lawn signs in black and Latino neighborhoods. They enlisted Latino grocery store owners and hired former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to deliver an anti–soda tax speech to a big audience of African-American ministers and other NAACP members in Richmond.

Measure N was the wedge issue from heaven. It enabled opponents to depict would-be soda taxers as racist, elitist agents of a local nanny state opposed even to the simple pleasures of an ice-cold Coke. As Richmond’s senior city councilor Nat Bates told the New York Times, “They’re using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us. . . . We’re tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve renamed them ‘the Plantation Alliance.’”  Corky Booze, a council ally of Bates, predicted that the RPA would next try to tax sweet potato pie, candied yams, and cupcakes.

The Contra Costa labor council urged its affiliates to reject Measure N because it might reduce employment for Teamster delivery drivers and bottling plant workers. “We can’t make Richmond healthier with a new tax that takes money out of people’s pockets,” said one union official.

Big Soda’s successful racialization of the Measure N debate put local progressives on the defensive, in a campaign year when they should have been capitalizing on widespread public concern about lax Chevron maintenance practices which caused its catastrophic pipe rupture and fire. On election night, the RPA paid a heavy price for soda tax advocacy. Not only was Measure N defeated in a landslide, but for the first time since Progressives started running candidates, none were elected.

Fast forward to 2016 and a local ballot measure empowering Richmond to regulate rents and require landlords to have just cause for evictions. Hundreds of lower-income African-American, Asian, and Latino tenants signed petitions to get rent control on the ballot, in a campaign initiated by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and strongly supported by the RPA.

No one knocked on more doors to talk to Richmond tenants about rent hikes and other landlord problems than 25-year old Richmond-born Melvin Willis, an ACCE organizer and new RPA steering committee member. Four years earlier, Willis was a somewhat reluctant canvasser on behalf of Measure N. As he recently confessed to the Richmond Pulse, a community newspaper, “I wasn’t necessarily for the soda tax, being somebody who drank soda and was low income.”

Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign—and encouraged by the RPA– Willis ran for an open seat on the city council last year. Only three of the nine candidates supported rent control, including Willis and fellow RPA leader, Ben Choi, a local environmentalist and city planning commission member. Both refused any corporate contributions—the only candidates in the field to do so. But their “Team Richmond” ticket received fund-raising help from Bernie Sanders’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, and qualified for Richmond’s modest program of public matching funs.

An estimated 25,000 people in 9,000 residential units stood to gain from rent control in Richmond, so both RPA candidates campaigned tirelessly among them. On November 8, Willis topped the field, finishing 2,000 votes ahead of RPA foe Bates, who was not re-elected. Choi ran a strong second. Jael Myrick, an incumbent city councilor in favor or rent regulation, placed third. Richmond voters also adopted rent control, by a margin of 14,734 to 8,134.

The lessons of progressive defeat in Richmond four years ago remain relevant to other communities of color where corporate America will defend its turf with renewed vigor during the Trump Era. It seems that business has learned the value of minority outreach from campaigns like the ABA’s anti-soda tax efforts. The New York Times reports that Koch Industries plans to spend millions in its “Fueling Forward” campaign,“ reminding black voters that they benefit most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels and have the most to lose if energy costs rise.”

That game plan looks very familiar. Progressives in minority communities who are trying to make electoral gains, while winning environmental and public health protections, will see more ABA-style propaganda campaigns, utilizing minority front groups. Fossil fuel defenders will try to recast much-needed measures to reduce global warming as “regressive taxation” of poor and working-class people.

Countering these strategies may require local organizational retooling. In Richmond, the RPA responded to its 2012 defeat by becoming more attuned to the felt needs of voters. A younger, more racially and gender diverse leadership cadre was recruited and elected to the Alliance steering committee. RPA also consulted with Richmond community leaders about how to make the group more inclusive and welcoming to new people.

Meanwhile, soda taxers in other cities have learned from the ABA’s 2012 win in Richmond. Just two years later, voters in neighboring Berkeley embraced the idea after an “inclusive effort with a very strong diverse coalition” that avoided the bad “racial dynamics of Richmond,” according to Marion Nestle author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda.

Real grassroots organizations with their finger on the pulse of the community, strong canvassing operations and diverse leadership can overcome corporate campaigns. But carefully picking your fights—where possible—greatly improves the odds of beating far better funded “astro-turf” opponents.

Steve Early

Steve Early was a national union representative for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He was a Labor for Bernie volunteer and belongs to the Richmond Progress Alliance. His book about the political transformation of Richmond, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, was published this month by Beacon Press.

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Every Part of Us Has Parts

One of my first awakenings to the cultural divide between working-class and middle-class ways of seeing and being in the world was John Helmer’s 1974 book The Deadly Simple Mechanics of Society.   Focused on a critique of American sociology, the book documented how routinely the educated middle class sees workers as “deadly simple” and, therefore, incapable of understanding the complexities of a modern society.  But the deeper meaning of Helmer’s title was that educated middle-class professionals themselves had a “deadly simple” understanding of modern society, partly because they are generally blind to the complexities of working-class life and thought.

There are moments when we middle-class professionals, or at least the progressive part of us, recognize our blindness.  Helmer was writing at one of those times, joined in 1972 by Sennett and Cobb’s Hidden Injuries of Class and in 1976 by Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family, as well as by scores of New Left activists who took blue-collar jobs in those days in hopes of learning while doing their “march through the institutions.”  We are again in one of those moments, I think (and hope), based on the Trump Shock we had two months ago.   There is a humility in our oft-expressed concern about “living in a bubble” and in what I take to be a genuine curiosity about who “the white working class” really is and WTF are they thinking.

In the post-election discussion, some confident pundits, like Paul Waldman and Catherine Rampell, have written off white workers who voted for Trump as simply racists, misogynists, and other kinds of deplorables. Others, like Thomas Frank and Christian Parenti, see working-class whites as nearly blameless given corporate Democrats’ arrogant betrayal.  But more often there is an altogether new quizzical sympathy for the white victims of deindustrialization, austerity economics, and deadlocked politics and an openness to learning who they are and why “they” have done this to “us” – that is, why they so overwhelmingly (67% to 28%) voted for an opportunistic billionaire carnival barker who may not be a fascist only because he so completely lacks integrity.

The beginning of wisdom in this exploratory attitude among journalists and scholars is that there is no single answer to that question.  In order to move forward toward building a strong majority for economic, racial, and gender justice, we will need to find relatively simple generalizations that can guide action, but those generalizations need to be based on at least a rough-and-ready understanding of the daunting complexity from which useful conclusions can be drawn.

First, whites without bachelor’s degrees (the reigning definition of “white working class”) are a very large group – about 2/3 of all white adults (18 or older) or about 105 million people compared to 52 million whites with bachelor’s degrees and 82 million people of color both with and mostly without bachelor’s degrees.  In this commonly used breakdown of the electorate, the white working class has been the largest and strongest group of Republican voters since 2000 (though, fortunately for Democrats, most of them do not vote).  Two conclusions should be drawn from the sheer size and voting proclivity of this group: 1) They are too large a group to be ignored or written off.  2) They cannot possibly be all of one mind, with one uniform personality, one lifestyle, and with the very same experience, nor could they draw the very same conclusions from similar experiences.

Though you’d think those two points would be pretty obvious, it is precisely the grasping of these realities that I find new and heartening among the post-election commentary I’ve read.  Both the fuck-them-they’re-all-racists and the they’re-all-decent-people-who-have-been-misled tropes are wonderfully out of fashion among professional commentators at the moment.  In good measure this is based on a recognition that the working class as a whole has many different parts – politically severed by race, ethnicity, religion, and region – and that all of these parts themselves have parts that must be understood, including the especially large part that is white.

Law professor Joan Williams’s immediate post-election rant, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” for example, succinctly lays out some of the key cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions resident in the educated middle class, while also pointing to key differences between the “settled living” and “hard living” parts of the working class – a distinction of life conditions and cultural predispositions that crosses color lines, but that can play out in politically dangerous ways among whites.  Williams concludes that “the biggest risk today . . . is continued class cluelessness” and a “class culture gap” that constricts middle-class progressives from maintaining a consistently strong focus on economic issues that can unify a large majority of working-class voters of all colors.

In a very different vein pollster Guy Molyneux’s “Mapping the White Working Class” divides white working-class voters into self-identified “conservatives,” “liberals” and “moderates” based on focus groups he conducted in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.  What he calls “moderates” is, I suspect, a mistaken moniker for a group who are simply not conventional conservatives or liberals but have a varying mix of views that do not align with these mainstream – and therefore, educated middle-class – political labels.  But Molyneux thinks these “moderates” constitute about 35% of working-class whites and that they might support progressive Democrats with a strong economic justice message. Molyneux doesn’t pay explicit attention to class cultures, but he rings an important cultural bell in his concluding paragraphs:

Many working-class voters (and others) worry that public schools focus exclusively on preparing students for college, while neglecting the equally important task of preparing non-college-bound students for successful transitions into the workforce. . . . .  A set of policies aimed at non-college youth would not just meet an important economic need for working-class families, it would also make an important moral statement that these young Americans matter and have contributions to make.

In addition to these insightful analytic frameworks, there has been a lot of very good reporting on white workers in specific Rust Belt locations.  A lot of it is focused on 2008-2012 Obama voters who voted for Trump in 2016, but the best of it presents a wide range of voices with various views, many of which do not fit into tidy political categories.  Of these, I’d recommend Alec MacGillis at ProPublica and The Atlantic and especially Van Jones’s Messy Truth episodes on CNN.

Jones’s interviewing style is particularly revealing, I think, as he does not hesitate to disagree and argue with Trump supporters as he presents himself as a progressive Democrat who has concluded he must live in a bubble because he cannot imagine why anybody would vote for Trump for anything approaching an honorable reason.  Though predictably TV-edited for conflict and drama, this frank I-am-who-I-am style seems to win a steadily deepening respect from the people he’s talking with, while at the same time eliciting second- and third-order thoughts that reveal complicated, sometimes contradictory, thinking both within an individual and across the small group of individuals gathered for the purpose.  There are no great revelations, but I found this exercise in how richly messy people are, including Jones himself, to be nearly therapeutic.   Jones is black, which adds a special resonance and poignancy to his dialogues, but he’s also an elite middle-class professional who is vulnerably feeling his way outside his class bubble.

One important insight from this early round of Trump-shock commentary and reporting is that the white working class is a very large, diverse, and complicated group – one with people whose thinking is much more complicated than we educated folk tend to imagine.   Some of them live in bubbles, too, and some of those bubbles are impenetrable.  But just as many live a complicated rage that is open to conflicting and contradictory directions.  Listening to and understanding that rage and arguing for a cogent progressive direction for it will take work of many different kinds.  It will help a lot if we middle-class progressives begin with a heavy dose of humility and reflect on how our class position and experience, indeed our college educations, tend to make us unaware and dismissive of other ways of seeing and being in the world.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Working-Class Nostalgia

The first time I presented a paper at an academic conference, I was accused of being nostalgic. My mistake, as my fellow academic pointed out, was that in my bid to find some value in working-class occupational cultures I was guilty of backward looking romanticism. It wasn’t meant to be constructive criticism, but over the years I’ve developed a longstanding interest in the idea of nostalgia which is often attached to working-class life.

So I’ve been especially interested in the ways that political developments on both sides of the Atlantic have involved nostalgia as the backward-looking voters supported Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US.  We may see more of this in France, with support for Le Pen later this year. Charges of nostalgia in these situations refer to a whole range of stances and attitudes, from the more benign sentiments of those who want a return to full industrial employment or desire a greater sense of community to those who more darkly ‘want their country back’, which too often is code for freedom to discriminate. Looking beyond recent elections, we can to detect a backward-looking trend in television, in programmes such as Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Endeavour, or the new Netflix series, The Crown.  In politics and popular culture, many seem to be happiest when living in the past.

However, by using the term nostalgia as a catchall criticism we often miss the complexity and nuance involved, and class often has a big part to play here. Those who study nostalgia note that it almost always tells us more about attitudes toward the present than views of the past. It is precisely because people feel unsettled about their current unstable situation and unknowable future that they seek solace in the comfort of the past. Scholars also point out that nostalgia is very rarely ‘simple’ in the sense that people want to live in the past. They are almost always critical, even reflective, about both the present and the past, and they find something of value in that past that may have been lost.

Finally, while it is true that nostalgia is often portrayed as an anti-progressive, anti-modern conservative emotion, it can also have a more creative, progressive, even radical side. I think it is this aspect of nostalgia that can help us think more critically about working-class culture. Reporters and commentators explain voting behaviour using the familiar tropes of ‘smokestack nostalgia’ and ‘rustbelt romanticism’. But dig a little deeper, listen a little more carefully, and it’s easy to see why people might want to return to the past when industrial workers earned $28 per hour and enjoyed good pensions, health care, and perhaps above all, long-term job security. To be nostalgic for those aspects of the past is not only understandable, it’s completely rational. While these positive aspects of the past may sometimes erase less desirable aspects of history, many workers who mourn the loss of earlier jobs are at the same time critical of the past or the work they may have done. As part of my research, I often interview workers who did routine and mundane jobs. Quite a few have said that they hated their jobs but loved the people they worked with. I remember vividly a former coal miner from the North East of England telling me that he despised the physical labour of the mine but would return tomorrow if he could because he missed the comradeship of those he had worked with.

Here then is the point about nostalgia. It seems to me that we need to listen carefully when people talk about their pasts. Dismissing a desire for positive aspects of a remembered past as romantic, conservative, and anti-progressive is wrong-headed, and it also misses a real opportunity. Surely, we want working-class people to remember what collective action and union shops achieved.  We want people to be ambitious for themselves and their kids.

But above all we need to harness the more radical and progressive aspects of a nostalgia that leads people to ask why. Why is it that industrial working-class jobs paid more in the past than they do now? Why were terms and conditions better in the thirty years of the long boom after World War Two? And why did working-class people in that period enjoy rising standards of living year after year, while today similar groups know only precarity? Once we ask these questions, we can start to argue for a more positive, open, and progressive future. We cannot just leave the past to more reactionary voices who want to capture the negative aspects of nostalgia for their own ends.

Tim Strangleman


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments