Workers, Climate Change, and Useless Stereotypes

As the Biden administration pivots the US from eliminating to increasing social and economic programs, certain priorities are coming forward. The pandemic is at the front of the line, followed closely by Biden’s “other priorities,” among the most notable being, as Maegan Vazquez notes, “health care, immigration and climate change.”

All of these issues could lead to significant changes for workers. Too often, though, all we hear about workers’ responses are generalizations. In reality, their reactions are much more nuanced than stereotypes of the working class suggest. Given the highly politicized, often divisive nature of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, we should listen more closely to what workers are actually saying.

Coal and oil producers, energy workers, and even Democratic politicians have all expressed concern about how climate change policies will affect the economy. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin offers one example of the need to search out nuance, particularly given his opposition to a $15 minimum wage. While he is a strong proponent of fossil fuel use given his state’s economic dependence on coal, Manchin also believes that  clean-energy investments could yield new jobs.

Like Manchin, fossil fuel workers blend climate concerns with livelihood concerns. Witness the recent opinion essay by Michael Patrick F. Smith in the New York Times. Proud of having worked as “a bartender, a stage hand, a guitar player, a junk hauler and a furniture mover” as well as an oil-field worker, Smith does not hesitate to sing the praises of labor and oil. But he is hardly unprogressive in stating what workers in the oil patch need: solutions that unite green approaches and good jobs. Speaking specifically of infrastructure projects to cap old and leaking wells, Smith argues that “Common sense Republicans and Democrats should come together to find . . . win-win solutions to a problem everyone knows we have. This particular plan is as close to a no-brainer as you’ll find in politics: jobs good, leaky oil wells bad.”

While both Manchin and Smith argue for the merits of traditional fossil fuel production, they are also open to popular green approaches, such as solar and wind power generation—a multi-point stance not always visible within today’s polarizing rhetoric. In the New York Times, Dionne Searcey notes the more typical way of framing the discussion: “Wind energy has long been a target of criticism in America, with some opponents blaming turbines for interrupting vistas, taking up land for hunting, or shifting jobs away from the fossil fuel industry. [The storm-caused power] crisis in Texas has provided a new rallying point for some of this political messaging.” The blunt oppositional rhetoric being used during Texas’s grid collapse came from Republican conservatives and their allies, however, not from the likes of worker-focused Manchin and Smith. Contrary to easy stereotypes, they argue not only for more responsible use of fossil fuels but also for green technologies that could create jobs and mitigate climate change.

Workers in other industries also recognize the need to address climate change. Farming and fishing both obviously depend upon the environment. The fishing industry and its workers are already being affected by rising ocean levels, increasingly erratic storm patterns, ocean warming, and salinity shifts – all tied to climate change. Knowing that, when Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse wanted to bring Manchin on board with alternative power sources, he did so literally: he took him onto a fishing trawler. As the trawler captain hosting Whitehouse and Manchin noted, “Senator, this is not my father’s ocean any longer. Things are getting weird out there”

Addressing that weirdness is complex, as are the impacts on workers in the fishing industry. Ostensibly low-impact projects such as off-shore wind power will lower emissions, for example, but they also will create problems for fishers. Some East Coast wind-farms are being planned for highly productive fishing grounds, where maneuvering fishing vessels even in clear and calm weather can prove difficult.

Solutions such as floating platforms anchored far out to sea are not without their own consequences.  The heavy cables needed to anchor them to the bottom, together with the miles of cables required to bring power ashore raise concerns among fin fisherman, crabbers, and lobstermen alike who will have to navigate this web of cabling.

But it is patently unfair and untrue to cast such concerns as unthinking opposition, particularly for people whose livelihood depends upon a healthy environment. In fact, like many workers in affected industries, many men and women in the fishing industry are more informed and sophisticated in their discussions about climate change mitigation than many of those charged with designing policies.

Instead of stereotypical opposition, workers are more likely looking for necessarily complex solutions. National Fishermen magazine, a venue dedicated to addressing the industry from its workers’ viewpoint, recently hosted several webinars on the impact of wind power in particular and climate change policy in general.  Participants represent varied backgrounds and opinions, and their discussions show thorough knowledge of the data and the facts of policy and process.

All of this is not to say that there are no blunt naysayers on either side of the question.  Nor am I arguing for some happy middle ground.  That’s its own over-simplification. No matter the solution, one fact has been established over years of studies and proposals:  workers’ desire to have a voice within climate-change initiatives is legitimate and valuable in creating policy. Generalizations, stereotypes, blunt arguments by or about workers simply aren’t useful or effective in addressing the problems we face.  The best policy solutions will emerge when we engage with and listen to worker concerns instead of buying into simplistic stereotyping.

James V. Catano, Louisiana State University

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Work, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Outage Outrage: Class and the Power Grid

Last week’s Texas-sized climate emergency shows how energy policy decisions are not only about power but also about class. A power line is never just infrastructure. It is also a structure of class power – who counts and who doesn’t, who is denied electricity, and who has power.

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The arctic blast left more than 3.4 million customers with power early last week, but poor and low-income households were especially hard hit. Electricity is coming back on, but the freeze has also caused a water crisis. Abilene temporarily cut off its water supply last Monday after losing power. Water pipes have burst causing major damage to many homes. For families who were already living paycheck to paycheck, this is a final blow. Now wonder many, like  Mayo Hernandez, expressed outrage at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT):  “you going to pay for my burst pipes and groceries that went bad i dont get food stamps and am on the verge of eviction @POTUS – HELP.”

Rather than rising to the occasion, Texas officials are stumbling badly. Gov. Greg Abbott reportedly blamed frozen wind turbines for the outage, suggesting that the Texas outage “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Rick Perry, former governor and energy secretary in the Trump Administration, claimed that Texans would accept being “without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Before Senator Ted Cruz left for Cancun on Wednesday afternoon, he advised his constituents who were left in the cold to “Stay safe and please continue to follow the warnings and updates provided by state and local officials.”

What might seem like the most callous response came from now former mayor of Colorado City, Tim Boyd: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” On a community-based Facebook page,  he wrote to residents, “If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your (sic) lazy is direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish (sic).”

Cold-blooded as this sounds, Boyd is right. It’s all about power. The strong will survive. In Texas, the wealthiest and most privileged residents will be fine (or escape to Cancun). Everyone else is at the mercy of a mercurial and dangerously deregulated energy system. In the wild west, you really are on your own!

The crisis in Texas isn’t just about the vulnerability of the working class, though. It also reflects the investment of those with political power in the idea of the free market. Their decisions about the state’s energy infrastructure, made well outside of public view, did not consider either the rising number of disasters related to climate change or the needs of Texans who live on the economic edge.

Twenty years ago, ERCOT created  a deregulated energy market that allowed it to skirt requirements to have reserve capacity to meet extraordinary grid demands during heat waves, which Texans would have expected, or the kind of unprecedented cold snap we saw last week. To avoid federal regulation, ERCOT has not expanded its capacity to bring in power from other states. In 2019, CPower, an energy management company declared the wisdom of these decisions: “In the two-plus decades since ERCOT’s formation, naysayers in and out of Texas have been watching the Lone Star State with skeptical eyes, waiting for the perfect storm when a lack of forward-procured capacity proves fatal to grid stability.” Well, that perfect storm just arrived.

When the freeze hit last week, ERCOT decided not to go to the energy spot market (suddenly very expensive) and opted for rolling blackouts instead. But for many, the blackouts didn’t roll. They stayed put, leaving people in the dark for days. ERCOT saved itself a lot of money. Texas residents are paying the in lives lost, injuries, and property damage.

In the last few years, ERCOT’s approach gained praise for passing the “stress test” posed by a 2018 record heat wave. That led the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, to tout the Texas plan as a national model for “electric reliability and resilience policy consistent with economic principles.” R Street explained that basing “price volatility”on   “real-time grid conditions” is not “inherently ‘bad.’” We should just “let markets show their stuff.”

But neither markets nor energy policies are class-neutral.  Substandard and poorly insulated homes in Texas proved to be especially vulnerable to the cold. Homeless shelters couldn’t help the homeless stay warm without electricity. ERCOT never factored the needs of the most vulnerable into their decisions about maintenance and resilience measures for their grid. ERCOT’s deregulated energy plan banked on taking chances with the lives of those who had the most to lose.

You might think that a widespread power outage would affect everyone. But of course, not everyone is equally empowered to respond. Residents of San Antonio’s oldest and largest public housing complex, built in 1940 as segregated housing for Mexican Americans, Alazán-Apache Courts, felt the cold acutely through the project’s antiquated cinder block construction, but rhey also had few options.  Ricardo Cruz, who lives there with his wife and five children between 5 and 13 years old, remarked that “I need to take my kids somewhere to keep warm. I don’t know where.” Meanwhile, his wealthy senator, Ted Cruz, took his family to Cancun. The senator later acknowledge that this was “obviously a mistake.” Actually, it was a clear demonstration of what power and privilege looks like when the lights go out. The real mistake was for someone of Cruz’s class and position to show that power so brazenly.

Texas is poised to lead a long overdue national conversation on energy, but not as its corporate supporters want it to occur. Electric grid reliability and resilience can’t be reduced “fair” market principles that favor the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. Reliability and resilience must instead be based on principles of justice and fairness, with the needs of the most vulnerable clearly at the core. To create a more just energy future, policies must be class-powered.  

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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Not Just Viruses: What Epidemic Cinema Teaches Us about Working-Class Vulnerability

Over the last year of the COVID pandemic, we’ve heard over and over that “we’re all in this together,” But the quality (and “quantity”) of public health services for poor and working-class families was an issue before the Covid-19 pandemic. It turns out that working people — especially migrant laborers, hospital workers, teachers, cleaners, deliverers, security guards, fire and rescue teams, restaurant and hotel workers, and retail workers– bear a much greater burden and danger during any kind of epidemic, pandemic, or unnatural catastrophe. And even in the best of times, the vast numbers of underemployed, underpaid, and temporary workers of the world are not ideally situated to survive a pandemic economically or even literally. The precariat has been hit especially hard.

For many years I taught cultural studies film courses on epidemics and catastrophes. For films about the usual epidemic culprits such as viruses or bacteria, I used to concentrate on mainly medical indicators, such as the identification of the pathogenic vector, the geographic origin of the epidemic, the search for Patient Zero (the first victim of the disease), the symptoms of the afflicted, and how the pathogens circulate. We also talked about indicators that went beyond medical matters, especially class, ethnicity, race, and other political questions. We studied ethnic and racial neglect in medical access, the role of Big Pharma in controlling medications, especially pain-killers and vaccines, the tendency to idealize the White middle-class family, and governmental indifference or disbelief in the scale of the epidemic.

Epidemic cinema provides revealing examples of medical practices and social structures relevant to COVID-19. The Hot Zone (2019), a recent TV series about an outbreak of the Ebola virus among monkeys shipped from Africa to a private distributor for research labs in Reston, Virginia, for example, reveals how an epidemic scare alternates between competency and panic. When cases in local hospitals with alarming symptoms begin to appear, government agencies rush to conceal the outbreak while the press struggles to reveal the crisis. Charlatans appear  peddling miraculous botanical cures. The series also shows the research of dedicated medical professionals establishing that the Ebola strain was specific to monkeys not humans.

A documentary, The Polio Crusade (2009), provides a revealing contrast to our current obsession with vaccines, tracing the pursuit of a polio virus vaccine at mid-century. Virtually no government financing for such research was available, so private organizations launched grassroots campaigns (The March of Dimes, for example) to raise money for vaccine research and even such medical equipment as iron lungs. One of the most famous competitions for a successful vaccine was played out between the “live virus” vaccine of Albert Sabin and the “killed virus” vaccine of Jonas Salk.

These examples make clear that epidemic cinema has much to teach us about pathogenic epidemics.  But we can also learn from films about non-pathogenic epidemics, catastrophes that disproportionately affected the poor, the precariat, and the working class. Black and ethnic communities have been especially vulnerable to these. In A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters (1994), Kai Erikson called these non-pathogenic epidemics “a new species of trouble.” These were not accidents, because they are all “produced by human hands,” “involve some kind of contaminant,” and are “chronic.” They gather “force slowly and insidiously,” and they persist because people “have been misinformed” about them. The storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 1977, for example, was not an “accident” but the deliberate misuse of Native American land that led to radioactive contamination.

Films about non-pathogenic epidemics show how they have impacted workers disproportionally, in part because of where they live, where they work, and the nature of their work. Judith Helfand’s landmark documentary, Cooked: Survival by Zipcode, chronicles the terrible heat wave in 1995 that killed 739 mostly African-American residents of one Chicago zipcode. Their housing was substandard, they had little or no access to healthcare, they lived in “food deserts” with no access to grocery stores, and they were afraid to leave their stifling apartments when the outside temperatures reached 107 degrees. Most of these tropes were also common in communities devastated by pathogenic vectors in epidemic cinema.

In the documentary Do No Harm: The Opioid Epidemic (2019), we learn that a non-pathogenic epidemic may be caused by the power of the corruption and greed from Big Pharma that created and sustained the opioid epidemic. OxyContin addiction was facilitated not only by the acute need for a painkiller but also by a calculated campaign by Purdue Pharma (owned by the Sackler family) to convince medical workers to define pain as a vital sign. Purdue even pushed the use of pain threshhold cards (“rate your pain from 1 to 10”)  to facilitate over-prescription of the drug. Research and doctors’ testimonies were deliberately falsified to establish the so-called safety of the drug that in fact resulted in mass addiction and what became known as the opioid epidemic.

Both kinds of epidemic cinema highlight the way epidemics target the precariat, especially immigrants and ethnic/racial minorities, because of governmental indifference or tacit conspiracies to eliminate their rights, sometimes in collusion with Big Pharma, monitored by a corrupt bureaucracy, and directing aid (and vaccines) mainly to White middle-class and upper-class families.      

My teaching and research led me to create a databank of 170 films (a work-in-progress) that includes films with traditional pathogenic causes, such as COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, polio, SARS, Ebola, malaria, and many others, and those that focus on non-pathogenic vectors such as extreme heat waves, lead, opioids, toxic waste dumps, and radioactivity.

An unintended consequence of the current pandemic is to make us more aware of the selectiveness of viral disease. We’re learning that some communities and classes of people are especially likely to be victimized and under-served. The vaccine rollout reveals glaring inequities:  African-American communities that have had the highest death rate often have the most difficulty getting access to the vaccine.  

I have now seen almost a dozen new documentaries and feature films about COVID-19.  As these films begin to circulate more widely, the truth and scandal about the pandemic will both educate and shock viewers. But in the meantime, we need to view and reassess the lessons of the films about non-pathogenic epidemics. Like COVID, they, too, are still with us.

Tom Zaniello

Tom Zaniello is a film and media scholar who has written several books on films about work and class, including Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff, The Cinema of Globalizationand The Cinema of the Precariat

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What the World Needs Now

What the world needs now is some answers to our problems,
… it looks as though faith alone won’t sustain us anymore.
– Bad Religion

Last year was a disaster that many did not survive. Many of us will carry deep wounds for the rest of our lives.  More than two million people died from the global pandemic that we are still struggling to contain.  In the US, unprecedented fires shattered the West, even as nomads from past fires were still seeking shelter and some semblance of a normal life.  Strange weather events continued to wreak havoc across the land, whipsawing Colorado from heatwave to snowstorm in a single day.  The stock market continued to climb, even as millions were thrown out of work. Police shot Black people in the back, without consequences.  Armed militias terrorized peaceful protestors and threatened to kidnap a state governor.  And, to top it off, former President Trump refused to leave office, instead inciting an insurrection at the US Capitol in a vain attempt to hold power.  

All this makes clear that we have been working without effective leadership for a long time.  I don’t mean just Trump, although his failures propel us well beyond criminal territory.  The problems go back to the years after WWII, when a powerful idea of technocratic rule came into play – as both savior and bogeyman.  While the majority of Americans put their heads down and let the experts guide the ship, a significant minority fell sway to paranoid thinking of global conspiracies involving the UN and other unlikely culprits.  After 2008, any remaining  illusions of capable leadership, whether benevolent or malevolent, have been shattered.  It is increasingly obvious that no one is truly in control here.  Even the capitalists can’t get their act together to save their industries. Instead, they  seem to be putting their money into escape plans (to New Zealand bunkers, to Mars). 

In a world gone off the rails, all of our politics seem very tired.  I don’t know if left vs right  explains much about what is going on as the ground shifts under our feet, despite the fact that the two political parties like to point their fingers at each other.  We argue over the word “populism” and bemoan its capture by fascists.  Trumpists call anything they don’t like — even neoliberalism – “socialist.”  Police-loving “patriots” desecrate the US Capitol and wound and kill Capitol Police.  Now truly does seem to be the time of monsters, as a new world struggles to emerge.

It is time, I think, to put aside politics with all its confounding labels and partisanship and think about the world we want to live in.   What does the world need now?   This is not a just a matter of good or bad policies (some of my colleagues have written of these before), but more general thinking on how best to live and work together.  Rather than wait for leaders to save us, we should all think about this. I will start from a premise that has been basic to working-class people for many years.  An injury to one is an injury to all.  Zero-sum politics is a dead end.  We need to recognize our interdependence, not just to each other, but to the planet we inhabit.   So how can we do this?

First, we have to step back and recognize the huge importance moral recognition plays in human life.   For years, the Republican Party has been able to attract voters because they speak in terms of good people and bad people.  “Q” built a party by offering up “evil democrats.”  In contrast, the Democratic Party has talked instead about interests of people and how to meet them.  But one of those interests is surely being a good person.   Like Andrew Sayer, I blame the academic Left a little bit here for ignoring the fact that morals matter in people’s lives.  No society can exist long without some sense of what it means to be a good person. If we cede this conversation to those who speak of evil others, we are left with measuring value solely in material terms, and we are defenseless against those who would exploit us. 

Because money is not the value of all things, the profit motive should not be at the core of many industries and endeavors.  The US Postal Service does not need to make a profit to provide value to us. Those who work in education, healthcare and public service are not in it for the money but rather to do the right thing, help others, and save lives.  Forcing these industries to make money or to think primarily in terms of reducing costs is wrong.  A sane world would recoil at the very idea of running colleges for profit, privatizing prisons, or making money off of prescription drugs.  We need to take money out of politics, refuse to fund for profit colleges and schools with taxpayer money through financial aid and vouchers, demand that our politicians not profit from policies they enact or companies they greenlight, and eliminate the profiteering insurance network from our healthcare system. 

Second, we have to work on creating a structure that allows everyone to thrive.  The Left has long been committed (at least in words) to a strong safety net, but we need to think bigger here.  We should seriously consider universal basic income.  This is an idea that has broad appeal across the political divide.  In fact, it was first championed by the libertarian thinker Robert Theobald in his 1963 book Free Men and Free Markets .  Among other things, Theobald argued that a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) would make the contract between employer and employed a truly free one, removed from dire necessity.  This would be particularly useful in case of poorly paid “service” work (think here of “essential services”).  Republicans grumble that some service workers are choosing unemployment benefits over work, but Theobald would argue that when the work is terrible, even life-threatening, this is a reasonable response.  Bad jobs would disappear for lack of demand.  This is how markets are supposed to work, right?  Not coercive, but free.  A GBI could restructure the economic landscape in favor of workers without government regulations. 

To thrive, we need to survive.  There is no way around it: we need healthcare for everyone, as a matter of collective security at a minimum.  And if we want healthcare for everyone, we are going to have to scuttle employer-provided plans.  In the midst of a pandemic, hundreds of thousands lost their health insurance along with their jobs. That is not good.  We also have to strengthen our infrastructure.  The vaccine roll-out is facing many challenges, but one reason for its failure is that our leaders refused to fund the infrastructure to make it work. Instead, the previous administration expected vaccinations to take place at private pharmacies and doctor’s offices just like annual flu shots.  In a bid to restrict mail-in voting, last year also saw an attempt to defund the US Postal Service.  The new administration should recommit to funding a service that is essential to building connections to each other. We also need to fund universal internet access, not as state-controlled operation as in China, but as a public utility with democratic oversight.  Last, but certainly by no means least, we need to heal the planet, or at least reduce some of our most earth-shattering impacts.

We also have to remember we are in this fight together. This is a lesson working-class people understand well.  Even if you don’t like your neighbor, you have to help her out when she falls (as she does you).  Working-class people can teach us all the value of solidarity.  The enemy is not other people, be they “Evil Democrats” or “wicked capitalists.”  There is just us.  After all, Marx’s nemesis was never the individual capitalist (witness his lifetime friendship with Engels), but the system that ensnared workers and capitalists alike.  

And, finally, what the world needs now might be some good old-fashioned punk music, the kind that helped many of us through the Reagan era when we thought a nuclear bomb would kill us all.  Human creativity that can bring us together.  We’re all going to have to pitch in this time.

Watched the scientists throw up their hands conceding,
‘Progress will resolve it all, ‘
Saw the manufacturers of earth’s debris ignore another green peace call
,

No one could tell me what to do,
They had not the ability to answer me,

What the world needs now is some accountability,
We can’t buy more time because time won’t accept our money,

But faith alone won’t sustain us anymore,
Faith alone won’t sustain us anymore ….

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Water from a Rock: Joe Biden and Working-Class Catholicism

Much hangs in the balance in these difficult days.  The survival of our fragile, still relatively young multiracial democracy is menaced by a tsunami of disinformation and increasingly aggressive white supremacists who are abetted by allies in media and politics.  The health, lives, and livelihoods of tens of millions are threatened by pandemic and the accumulated costs of months of denial, delay, and incompetent government.  And, despite the COVID-induced economic slowdown, 2020 turned out to be the second warmest year on record, pushing us further toward the point of no return that will melt polar icecaps, raise and warm the seas, and unleash incalculable devastation, especially on the world’s poorest.

Which way the scales tilt on those big existential problems will depend greatly on the intertwined fates of three institutions whose futures also hang in the balance at this moment: the embattled Biden administration, the weakened U.S. labor movement, and the deeply divided American Catholic church. 

While Joe Biden won a significant electoral victory, he governs on a razor’s edge, lacking enough unity in his party to expunge that relic of Jim Crow, the filibuster, and pass programs whose scope and ambition are up to the challenges we face.  Contra the misguided New York Times editorial board, we should applaud Biden’s spate of executive orders, even if some should have gone further.  Students of working-class history know that every significant piece of legislation liberating workers was preceded by an executive action. The Emancipation Proclamation presaged the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution; the presidentially constituted National War Labor Board’s promise of “industrial democracy” during World War I laid the groundwork for the 1935 Wagner Act; FDR’s Executive Order 8802 desegregating war industries during World War II paved the way for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  But while executive action can lead to change, lasting victories require laws and political coalitions strong enough to enforce them.  Biden’s coalition is not yet united enough to pass the laws, let alone enforce them.  Yet failing to enact the change we need in this moment would undermine what is left of people’s faith in the ability of democratic government to solve problems.

The fate of the labor movement, too, hangs in the balance.  It played a crucial role in Biden’s election.  Yet it enters his presidency weakened by years of atrophying membership, with the courts more firmly titled against it than at any time since before the New Deal.  Any hope for revival rests on the appointment of pro-union cabinet members like Secretary of Labor designate Marty Walsh, the first former union leader named to that post in nearly half a century. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would finally replace a 74-year-old law that simply no longer protects workers.  But even if Democrats muster the courage to discard the filibuster, their ability to get 51 votes for the PRO Act remains uncertain.  Yet should labor miss this window, it might not survive long enough as a significant institutional force to get another chance at labor law reform. 

Then there is the U.S. Catholic Church.  As E.J. Dionne recently observed, in an earlier era, American Catholic officialdom would have proudly embraced a president who not only identifies as Catholic, as John F. Kennedy did, but who publicly embraces his faith and finds obvious joy, comfort, and meaning from it.  Bishops would have thrilled to see a president draw so clearly on his spirituality to console and lead.  No doubt, many Catholics are proud to see a coreligionist espousing his faith in a way they identify with, but this is apparently not the view of most U.S. Catholic bishops today.  Even as Biden delivered his inaugural address, the leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, José H. Gomez, issued a statement criticizing his stances, especially on abortion.  While prominent church leaders who are more closely aligned with Pope Francis, such as Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, pushed back on that statement as ill-considered, they do not constitute the majority of the conference, most of whom were appointed by Francis’s predecessors.  But Biden’s problem isn’t confined to the bishops.  The internet is awash with homilies by right-wing priests who preached that voting for Biden was a sin, and prominent Catholic intellectuals attack the Biden Administration because, as Princeton philosopher Robert P. George puts it, the administration “won’t say the word ABORTION. . . . They say ‘reproductive health’ but not ABORTION. They say ‘the right to choose’ but won’t say ABORTION.”  Catholicism has always been a house that contained many mansions—it was not for nothing that James Joyce once wrote that “catholic means ‘here comes everybody’”—but rarely has the U.S. church been a house as divided as it is at present.  

Biden framed his campaign as a “struggle for the soul of America.”  To a greater extent than he might have anticipated, though, the fate of both the multi-racial liberal democracy his administration is attempting to bolster and the labor movement that stands in alliance with him might depend on the struggle for the soul of this divided American Catholicism.  Given the history of the U.S. labor movement or the American liberal tradition, we should not be surprised by this, for their fates have long been deeply intertwined with Catholicism. 

America was indeed exceptional in some ways.  One was that the U.S. boasted the largest church-going Catholic working-class of any nation.  As such, Catholics played an outsized role in shaping American labor history. Terence Powderly, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Philip Murray, Cesar Chavez, George Meany, John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, Mary Kay Henry—all of these and many more emerged from Catholic homes to help build and lead America’s unions.  Historically, labor activists tended to embrace ecumenism more than church leaders or theologians. They had to learn how to build a unified movement in a multi-religious workplaces and unions.  They lived  out ideas of ecumenism that would be validated decades later by Vatican II documents like Unitatis redintegratio or Nostra aetate, which pursued Catholic unity with Protestants and Jews.  Labor activists also anticipated their church’s eventual embrace of pluralistic democracy.  They did not need the great Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s 1960 classic treatise, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition to understand that pluralism not only “implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus.”  They had been striving for decades to build such unity from diversity and dissension. 

The Catholic presence in the American working class shaped both the labor movement that Biden frequently extols and the liberal tradition that shaped the world that produced him.  To be sure, the Catholic presence also served as a counterweight to the development of a more radical labor movement, as Marc Karson and others have argued.  But working-class Catholics understood how important the institutions of government, church, and union were to their ability to pursue happiness.  Their instinctive institutionalism—despite its significant blind spots or distortions on issues of racial or gender equality—fostered a logic of solidarity and inclusion that bolstered both the labor movement and pluralistic liberalism in a culture otherwise steeped in individualism and anti-statism.    

It is this inheritance of American Catholicism that now fights for survival alongside multiracial democracy and the labor movement.  Even though Joe Biden’s critics might currently hold the upper hand in the struggle to define what it means to be Catholic, it is Biden who is in many ways a more authentic product of the American Catholic tradition of the past century and a half.  He and his supporters should take comfort in knowing how often in the past working-class Catholics anticipated where their church needed to be on social and political issues and helped lead it to that place.  Whether they are able to do that again may help decide the fate of the Biden presidency, the labor movement, and much more.

Biden loves to quote a line from Seamus Heaney that summons “a longed-for tidal wave of justice” that can make “hope and history rhyme.  But in this moment maybe we don’t need a tidal wave. “Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it,” G-d told Moses as he led his people through the desert.  Moses lifted his staff and did as he was told, and from the rock flowed enough water for the people to drink.  We’ve now spent 40 years in this desert, Joe.  The time has come for you to lift your staff high!  Those who long for hope and history to rhyme, whether they be Catholic or not, religious or not, those who thirst for justice for workers and the poor, those who seek to preserve and deepen our fragile, inclusive, pluralistic democracy, and those who want to save our ailing planet are dying to drink from this living water.  Strike, Joe! Strike!

Joseph A. McCartin, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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

Posted in Class and Religion, Contributors, Issues, Joseph A. McCartin, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Racial Justice, Class Justice

I’ve been feeling kind of white lately.  Maybe it’s some of that white fragility Robin DiAngelo warns us about, but more and more often when I hear somebody say “disproportionately people of color,” it sounds like they’re also saying poor and working-class white people don’t matter.  That makes me queasy — kind of fragile, I guess.  Often it seems the speaker or writer assumes that because Blacks and Latinx are disproportionately affected by unemployment, poverty, police brutality, net negative wealth, COVID-19, and most other negative phenomenon, almost all white people are fine and dandy.  That’s not the case – not even close.  And because I know that not only from statistics, but from my own extended family, it makes me feel my whiteness in a defensive way.

I suspect most speakers who emphasize racial disparities simply want to keep a strong focus on our deplorable history of racism and its continuing effects as we develop solutions to the many economic problems that, in fact, afflict a majority of the U.S. population today.  But by not mentioning that those problems affect huge numbers of whites or that progressive economic policies would benefit whites as well as people of color, they leave the impression either that not many whites would benefit or, worse, that policymakers don’t care what impact a given policy would have on whites. 

For example, here’s how the Peterson Institute’s excellent study, “How to Fix Economic Inequality,” explains the horrific disproportionality of COVID-19’s effect on black and brown unemployment: “In April 2020, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 44 percent of Black Americans reported that someone in their household had lost a job due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared with just 38 percent of white adults” [emphasis added].  These percentages, like many others, clearly highlight the enormity of racial inequality in our country, but why add “just” to the comparative figure for whites?  What impact does that “just” have?  I know for a fact that my working-class relatives do not read Peterson Institute reports, but if they did, that “just” would hurt, and probably piss them off.  How is more than one-third of any group being thrown out of work “just”? 

On the other hand, how would Peterson’s sentence read if we estimated the actual number of households who have experienced COVID job loss?  You’d have to turn it around and say something like: “32 million white households and 11 million Hispanic households experienced job loss, compared with just 7.5 million Black households.” Using numbers rather than percentages makes pandemic-related unemployment look like primarily a white problem, thereby discounting the larger magnitude of minority unemployment simply because as minorities their numbers are smaller.  Using only percentages, on the other hand, emphasizes racial inequality at the expense of larger class inequality.  But we don’t have to choose – and we need to recognize the cost of choosing.

Image from Jobs with Justice

Part of that is an opportunity cost – a lost opportunity to unify larger groups of people across common divisions.  Because people of color suffer economic hardship and injustice at higher rates than whites, a higher percentage of Black and Latinx people will disproportionately benefit from anything we do to address these injustices. But the largest group of beneficiaries will be white.  A $15-an-hour national minimum wage, for example, will benefit more than half of both Black and Latinx workers compared with a little more than a third of white workers. Nonetheless, the majority of workers affected will be white.  By ignoring this basic reality, which applies across a wide range of progressive economic policies, we miss an opportunity for class to unite.

And it’s not that hard to at least mention the impact on white folks at the same time as you highlight disproportionate effects on people of color.  I can remember how Martin Luther King Jr. never failed to mention “poor whites” when talking about political and economic conditions they shared with African-Americans.  That was part of King’s universalist if very Christian morality, but it was also smart political arithmetic.   

This may seem like a fairly minor point, actually just a matter of political rhetoric about acknowledging white workers when they share problems and injustices with people of color.  And I probably wouldn’t notice it or feel aggrieved about it if I were not white and part of a white working-class family many of whom are struggling.  But nothing undermines working-class solidarity in the U.S., in the past and now, like white racism.  Simply denouncing it and calling people nasty names has never and will never work.  Keeping our eyes on common interests across what we call races is probably our one best hope for winning a more just and more fully democratic future.

In that regard, politically and economically, though not morally, class inequality is more important than racial inequality, today and usually.

First, unity in greater numbers has been the principal strength of working classes since the dawn of capitalism.  50 million households of all colors experiencing COVID job loss, for example, is not just a bigger problem requiring a bigger remedy than 18.5 million households of color, it is also a much larger population with a shared political and economic stake in pursuing remedies.  To unify that larger population, we probably need to at least mention all the colors of the people affected.

Second, reducing economic inequality will routinely reduce racial inequalities unless specific actions are taken to interrupt that connection, as they were in some New Deal labor and social legislation in the 1930s.  Such interruptions – based on plantation-class power back then as well as a much more explicit brand of racism – are unlikely today because minorities make up a much larger portion of the population (in some places they are not minorities at all), and they are much better politically organized. In addition,  large minorities of whites today, with and without bachelor’s degrees, are hungry for more racial as well as economic equality. 

Finally, our lopsided levels of economic inequality are now so huge, with so much income and wealth concentrated in the hands of the super-wealthy, that even a relatively modest redistribution of economic resources – say, $2 trillion a year – could improve almost everybody’s lives.  Progressive taxation of our infamous top 1% can provide more than enough to finance dramatic economic transformations for the working class of all colors.  And within those economic transformations, non-economic racial injustices will be more easily addressed when the bottom half of our population is no longer sinking and even most of the top half, no longer so economically anxious.

We do not have to choose between racial justice and class justice.  Racial justice can be achieved within a determined push for economic justice.   And truth be told, racial justice can probably only be achieved within a political economic context that mobilizes the huge numbers of white folks who will benefit from economic redistributions that will disproportionately benefit people of color. 

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Time to Deliver: How Biden Should Respond to the Insurrection

“The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.” –Robert Reich, economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” –Dante Alighieri, inscription on the gates of Hell, The Divine Comedy, circa 1321

For those trying to make sense of the horrifying pictures of our neighbors and friends from all over the United States engaged in an armed attack on the U.S. Capitol one should look no further than a topic familiar to this blog. We have witnessed a decades-long, insidious, and relentless erosion of hope among tens of millions of people who no longer have faith in the American Dream. And as Trump’s rise to power demonstrated, hopelessness undermines trust in government, fosters nationalism, fuels division, and may result in further insurrection.      

Arresting those responsible for the attack on the Capitol and the masterminds of the well-orchestrated insurrection inside and outside of government would be a first step toward restoring that hope. But it is naive to think that declaring a war on domestic terrorists is enough.   President-Elect Biden needs to set aside the conciliatory and centrist instincts that kept both the Man from Hope and the President who promised “hope and change” from living up to their rhetoric. To recapture the imagination of people who have lost faith in government and the Democratic Party, Biden and his party must deliver on big, bold initiatives that address the problems that inspired the insurrection.

A critical first step will sound familiar to readers of our previous WCP posts: the Biden Justice Department must not allow CEOs and corporate officers to walk away scot-free when they break the law. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump all refused to slap cuffs and orange jumpsuits on corporate miscreants. The Sacklers, who touched off the opioid epidemic that has killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, the Wall Street CEOs and speculators who devastated Main Streets in working and middle-class communities across the United States, and the Boeing executives responsible for the deaths of 346 passengers flying in planes the company knew were unsafe — all walked away from deeds that would earn street dealers and con men life without parole or even death. Failure to hold them and other white-collar criminals accountable for their actions has undermined public trust in the judicial system and government itself.

To restore that trust, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland must pursue and prosecute corporate criminals who commit such acts with the same zeal and vigor he used to apprehend, convict, and punish Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The new AG will use his considerable experience and resources to punish domestic terrorists and white supremacists, but he should devote equal attention to the white-collar criminals who have blithely terrorized everyday Americans for far too long. Millions of people who lost their homes since 2008 or their loved ones in the opioid crisis are just waiting for our government to punish the perpetrators of those crimes.

To his credit, President Elect Biden has laid out an ambitious economic stimulus plan that will provide a foundation for the fight to win back the hearts, minds and hopes of working-class America. Income inequality has expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. As unemployment remains distressingly high, 40 million Americans edge closer to eviction, and another six million are about to lose their homes to foreclosure, but Elon Musk’s wealth jumped $150 billion, making him the world’s richest man. Biden can’t make everyone a billionaire, but he can prevent tens of millions of Americans from being kicked to the curb.

By proposing to extend eviction and foreclsoure protections, he signaled a willingness to address the issue closest to the heart of those who have lost hope. He needs to follow through on his promise to provide financial assistance for renters but also landlords, many of whom have also been devastated by the pandemic nightmare. Unlike Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner, who “foamed the runway” on the back end of the last economic crisis for the banks, Biden should focus on easing the landing for homeowners by allowing them to refinance or modify both government-backed and private mortgages. Averting the kind of massive foreclosures and evictions  that we saw during the 2007—2009 housing crisis will not only help struggling Americans but also send a loud and clear message to working families that his administration, unlike Obama’s, is on their side.

Biden also offered a strong first step to make work pay by announcing that he would fight to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at an embarrassingly low $7.25 for a decade, to $15 an hour. But he also needs to fulfill a promise that both Clinton and Obama broke, to make it easier for all workers to organize and join unions by instituting card check recognition, banning the use of scabs during labor disputes, and forcing some unions to end discriminatory practices that exclude women and minorities from membership and access to good-paying jobs.

Biden should also support swift enactment of the Warren/Nadler bankruptcy reform legislation. The last time Congress revised the statute, they turned what should be a financial lifeline for consumers, working families, and small businesses into a noose.  Biden in fact supported the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform that Limited access to filing, left student loans non-dischargeable and made it tougher on those who wanted to repay part of their debts. Why? Because that’s what the big banks and Wall Street wanted. At minimum Biden should push to allow first mortgage loan modifications during bankruptcy and to make student loan debt dischargeable. These changes would provide hope for students and working and middle-class families buried under the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt that is strangling the economy. 

He should also quickly follow through on his promise to create millions of jobs by investing a trillion dollars or more in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.  Somewhere along the line we forgot that not everyone wants to wear a white collar or sit behind a computer. Millions of men and women want to run back hoes, dig ditches, and sling concrete block. They’re not embarrassed because they get their hands dirty doing backbreaking work. They love it, they want to be respected and honored for it, and they would gladly break their backs for another ten or twenty or thirty years if it meant they could grab their share of the American Dream. Working again will make more disillusioned Americans feel connected again to the rest of us. The bonus is that it would be good politics. After all, if Trump had made good on his infrastructure promises, he might still be president. Biden can’t afford to make the same mistake.

As the 2016 and 2020 elections clearly illustrate, members of America’s working and middle-classes, white, black, and Latinx, are fed up and tapped out. After decades of dashed hopes, they are clearly not in the mood for soaring yet empty rhetoric or bilious bluster. That means Joe Biden can’t just talk about his hardscrabble youth in Scranton, PA, he must deliver on his promises and do it quickly if he wants to improve the lives of those with crushed dreams quickly enough to save the republic.

Marc Dann, DannLaw

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Marc Dann, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Will 2021 Bring Positive Change for Working-Class People?

During 2020, Working-Class Perspectives touched on many COVID-related topics and showed how working-class people around the world were being disproportionately affected for a variety of reasons. Contributors showed how the pandemic brought to light the impacts of our reliance on insecure workers to provide the daily needs of societies. In my April 2020 piece, I pondered whether the growing recognition also in the mainstream media of the importance of working-class occupations would lead to any action on job security, wages, and conditions. I also wondered whether the new understanding of what makes an ‘essential’ worker would change attitudes and end the previous disparagement of so-called ‘low-skilled’ work.

Did anything change? Have working-class lives improved as a result of this new understanding? The short answer is mostly not. While journalists have continued to report on the problems faced by gig-workers and those without sick pay or health insurance, and there has been commentary on the ways that insecure work has contributed to the spread of COVID, most governments have not acknowledged that something needs to change.

True, some governments have provided temporary relief to workers furloughed or sacked due to their workplace closing during lockdowns, but none have even attempted to address the unsustainable systems that prop up economies in many countries around the world. And while unemployment and job insecurity have increased dramatically, few have even noted the massive growth in wealth for a small number of billionaires who have profited from the pandemic.

Many bosses have tried to take advantage of the pandemic in order to cut their operating costs, while governments have tried to weaken existing rights. In Australia for example, the government are proposing new laws that would further entrench insecure work, undermine many of the hard fought-for conditions, and reduce rights to unionise workplaces. Billionaire company owners such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon, have increased their wealth by obscene amounts during COVID, with Bezos raking in an extra $74 billion in 2020 to bring his fortune to a staggering $189 billion. Has this meant that their workers have shared in the profits and been treated well? Of course not. Amazon workers in the US reported COVID-related health and safety breaches in the warehouses even while millions of customers around the world were relying on their labour. These lives of these workers have not been valued by their employer.

The lives of front-line health care workers also have not been valued. They’ve been applauded and praised, but many are not getting the new vaccine because of poor planning and organisation. In the UK, health care workers have pleaded with the government to do more to prevent the increasing spread of the virus, but their calls have been largely ignored. Despite the announcement of a new six-week national lockdown there, many lives have already been lost and the rate of infection is soaring.

Working-class people have been let down by their governments, so they have had to help each other. Some unions have advocated for workers to win paid pandemic leave and to shut down unsafe workplaces. In 2020, hospitality workers in Las Vegas won COVID protections including paid leave for quarantining purposes and extended health benefits. Health care and brewery workers ran successful campaigns to form new unions in their workplaces. Transport union representatives in London were able to negotiate with the UK government to ensure that workers furloughed during the pandemic were still paid their full wages. Spanish unions won improved health and safety provisions for supermarket workers. In South Africa, textile unions were able to secure pay for workers during the country’s pandemic lockdown, and the union representing home-based women workers in Pakistan came to an agreement with their local government to register the workers in ensure them access to social security benefits. Union membership is up worldwide since the start of the pandemic as workers realise that they benefit from collective action and solidarity. These heartening stories point to the importance of unions globally.

What does 2021 have in store for working-class people around the world? Will we see more workers acting collectively to demand better wages and conditions? Can the health care, retail, and other service industry workers so relied on during the pandemic use their newly recognised essential worker status to improve their work lives? Is it possible that bosses will understand that securely employed workers means that society will be better equipped to deal with any future pandemics? Or does this now rest on the policies of new governments to come? Will the Biden administration work to improve wages and conditions for American workers? Can the UK Labour Party offer any hope to working-class Britons who are dealing with the pandemic and the consequences of Brexit? Can union members in Australia mobilise  to defeat the proposed changes to industrial relations legislation or will they also need to wait for a change of government? Hopefully some of the inspiring stories from union wins around the world in 2020 can help to motivate workers struggling to organise their workplaces or their communities in 2021.

 2020 was a truly terrible year and 2021 hasn’t shown much promise yet! But while it’s easy to fall back into pessimism, there is much hope to be gained from looking at the strength and resilience of working-class people worldwide. Against the odds, workers have fought back and have joined together to force change. Let’s remind ourselves of these wins and celebrate working-class collective strength. After all, as is plainly clear to everyone now, there is no functioning society without working-class people!

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Sarah Attfield, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Beyond Economic Populism

Predictably, politicos and commentators spent much of 2020 debating why working-class voters supported Trump and how the Democrats could win them back. Although we’ve occasionally contributed to these conversations, we’re also getting tired of them. They tend to envision “the working class” as if it were one group with a well-defined set of interests, and worse, they treat working-class people as a marketing problem. These habits reflect not only the commentators’ distance from the working class but also, for many, a sense of meritocratic superiority to people they view as deluded, foolish, stupid, or even amoral. If we want to improve the lives of the working class, and especially if we want to heal the divisions of American political and public life, we need to reframe the problem.

That should start by resisting any effort to define the working class in any singular way. Simplistic definitions fuel both stereotyping and resentments. Defining based on occupation or income highlights important differences in economic interests, but it doesn’t address the resentments that even many fully-employed, unionized, economically-comfortable working-class people feel in the U.S. today. To define the working class based on the college degree, as many pollsters do, ignores the complex array of forms, amounts, qualities, and outcomes of education. Focusing on one variable, like education, might be necessary in polling, but it erases the relationships among education and occupation, social status, and cultural patterns. Electricians and plumbers may lack college degrees, but their specialized training yields them secure and well-paid work as well as pride in their blue-collar status. Meanwhile, K-12 teachers often have graduate degrees but earn less than plumbers or electricians. If we link class with unions, a common (if outdated) assumption, then we might also note that teachers may be more likely belong to active unions than many industrial workers these days.

One illustration of the problem of simplistic definitions is the either/or debate about how to appeal to “the working class” as a voting bloc: either promote economic populism or talk about racial justice, either embrace the dignity of work or value the dignity of marginalized people. These options suggest that the working class is either white, blue-collar, and struggling economically or Black and Latinx and focused on racial rather than economic justice. If we reject this false choice and envision a working class that includes all of these people, one that might not respond as a bloc to any one political strategy or message, it can seem like we’re ignoring class altogether. Addressing working-class concerns – economic, practical, but also social and cultural – requires more complex thinking about class, culture, and policy.

It doesn’t help that discussions about working-class voters so often focus on how politicians should talk rather than on what they should do. That’s part of why we appreciated the invitation to contribute to a forum in  Social Policy, due out next week,to suggest what the Biden administration could do to help the working class. Simply framing the question in terms of policy rather than politics is a step in the right direction.

We recommended a few fairly obvious actions, starting with getting the coronavirus under control, a concern for everyone but especially for the working class. Even before the pandemic, many working-class people had limited access to good health care, and they were more likely to have underlying medical problems that made them vulnerable to COVID. Contrary to the old blue-collar stereotype, most working-class jobs today are in the service industry, including many of the jobs we now deem “essential” – grocery clerks, nursing assistants, janitors, delivery drivers, postal workers. This has put many workers at risk. Others face economic risks because of lost jobs. To address the needs of the working class, we need to stop the spread of the virus and provide substantial economic relief to ensure that millions of Americans with little or no savings will not lose their homes or go hungry.

To strengthen the economy going forward, the Biden administration should also develop a broader industrial policy that includes infrastructure projects, a buy American program, improved labor laws, improved training opportunities, and a higher minimum wage. All of this will create jobs and improve economic conditions for working people. It can also help address some social problems. Expanded access to health care, improved early childhood and K-12 education, and support for elder and child care could decrease some of the despair that has played out in high rates of drug addition, family violence, and mental health issues for many in the working class.

These are not new ideas, nor are we alone in suggesting them (see, for example, the list from the Economic Policy Institute). But to make a real difference for the working class, Biden and Congress must move beyond talking about these ideas in campaign speeches, as they have done in the past. They need to take significant action.

This will all help, but we need to do more to heal the divisions that leave many in the working class feeling disrespected and aggrieved. That will require a change in attitude from those who so often look down on the working class, smugly certain that they have earned their privileges and are intellectually, culturally, even morally superior to those who are struggling. As philosopher Michael Sandel argues in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, the pandemic makes clear both our mutual dependence and the hollowness of the refrain that “we are all in this together.” We failed to come together, he suggests, because of a combination of unprecedented inequality that separates those who succeeded economically have become ever more disconnected from those who are struggling and a deeply-embedded belief that those on top deserve their success because they have the education needed to compete in the global economy. The winners see themselves as better than the losers, and the losers are all too aware that the winners not only don’t care but actually hold them responsible for their own problems. As a result, neither those on the top nor those on the bottom actually believe that we are all in this together.

Sandel argues that we must reject the toxic mix of professional-class hubris and working-class resentment that has shaped so much of our public life in recent years. That will require more than economic populism. We’ve spent a lot of time this year applauding doctors and nurses but we too often ignore the janitors, medical assistants, teachers’ aides, and food service workers who are less visible and widely underpaid, treated with disdain, seen as less valuable, less smart, less human. Raising their wages is a step in the right direction. Sharing their stories is a good start. Real healing will require a step beyond: to genuine respect.

To serve the interests of the working class, we should learn from the model of Bargaining for the Common Good, an organizing strategy that emphasizes connections between the needs of workers and the needs of communities and in the process builds relationships and collective power.  It is time to embrace policies as well as attitudes and relationships that move us all toward a greater sense that we really are in this together.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Christmas (and Class) Behind the Scenes

I love Christmas movies because they are always about work. Want to see executive fat cats who are forced to work on Christmas Eve? Check out Scrooged, Elf, and The Family Man. Want to see elves being mistreated, overworked, and criminalized? Check out the classic stop-motion animation produced in the 1960s and 1970s by Rankin/Bass, including Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and just about every other Christmas movie that has elves in it. There’s even a movie with an elf strike in it—Elf Bowling the Movie: The Great North Pole Elf Strike (2007).

Want to see Santa Claus worn out from the job? That’s the theme of all of the films in The Santa Clause trilogy that stars Tim Allen. Want to see moms losing their minds from how much work it takes to make Christmas magical? Try Bad Moms Christmas, Deck the Halls (focusing on dads, though), and Christmas with the Kranks. Want to see 19th century boot blacks, butchers, clerks, and chimney sweeps? Check out pretty much any adaptation of Dicken’s The Christmas Carol. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. If you like movies that are about work, and explicitly so, Christmas movies have your back.

So, imagine my delight when a new holiday series caught my eye this December: The Holiday Movies that Made Us. This series is a spin-off of The Movies that Made Us, which itself is a spin-off of The Toys that Made Us, a genius series from Netflix. It’s the perfect series for people who love Christmas movies and movies about work, because it looks at the work of making Christmas movies.

Season 1 includes a behind the scenes look at the making of Elf (2003) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). What I love about this series is that it makes some of the arguments about movie making that I’ve been trying to make for years:

  1. Movies require a great deal of work, most of it unsung and behind the scenes, often done by people who are considered to be working class
  2. Movies are collective enterprises, not the singular vision of a genius auteur
  3. Many of the most commercially successful movies feature working-class characters and/or working-class themes

Let’s take Elf as an example. The Netflix series reveals that Elf was a surprisingly contingent movie, made by a bunch of nobodies whose only claim to fame was a weak personal link to Will Ferrell, who, at the time, was not yet a movie star. We also learn that one of the things that made Elf such a magical, modern day timeless holiday classic is that the crew built a set for the North Pole on an ice rink in Vancouver, Canada. On this set they were able to take the time—and a considerable amount of money—to explore a filming technique called forced perspective. This made Will Farrell, already a very tall 6’3”, look even more gigantic relative to the other characters.

Making Elf required more than 850 workers. This included more than 119 in the art department alone, many of them working in such non-glamourous positions as carpenter’s helper, plasterer, sign fabricator, props maker, and greensman—Hollywood lingo for the person who manages the plants and landscaping in every shot. IMDB also provides a long list of drivers, caterers, loaders, and other bottom-of-the-totem pole positions.

All of these are union jobs to boot. Hollywood is not a working-class utopia, of course. As The LA Times recently reported, entertainment unions have a whiteness problem. In addition, runaway productions—movies made outside of LA—have eroded union power. But Hollywood is still a union town, and the film unions in LA have political clout as well.

The Holiday Movies that Made Us series emphasizes the collective—rather than auteur—nature of film making. In the episode about Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, we learn that the story and figures were based on a few drawings Burton made while working as an animator for Disney. But Burton himself did not direct the film that eventually bore his name; indeed, his name was added as a marketing gimmick for an adult audience after the film tested poorly with children. We also learn that the Nightmare’s original screenwriter spent more time snorting coke than he did on the script, and that the Edward Scissorhands’s screenwriter, Carolyn Thompson, was brought in to save the day, in part because she was then the girlfriend of the film’s songwriter Danny Elfman. Thompson is credited with giving Sally—the girlfriend of Jack, the Pumpkin King—more depth and complexity.

The Holiday Movies that Made Us reminds us how many of these films feature working-class characters and working-class themes. Playing a human who thinks he’s an elf in Elf, Will Ferrell’s character Buddy is coded as working-class. After he leaves the North Pole, where he is humiliated for being a sub-par toy maker, Buddy works as an elf at a department store Santaland. While there, his paranoid boss is threatened by Buddy’s ability to create holiday magic, and he meets his girlfriend, Jovie, who also works as a Santaland elf. (From the series we are horrified to learn that some Hollywood suit wanted to make Jovie’s character into a prostitute.) Buddy also does a short stint in the mail room of his father’s publishing company.

Sadly, the Made Us series enriches one of the pandemic’s more despicable profiteers, Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings. He has a new book out, in which he brags about how often he fires employees if they are not competing at a high level, citing such company mottos as “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Variety called the work environment at Netflix a “culture of fear.” Now that I think about it, Hastings would make the perfect evil boss in a holiday Christmas movie!

Until that movie is made, if you’re a Christmas movie/work freak like me, enjoy The Holiday Movies that Made Us and think about the thousands of unsung underlings who work behind the scenes. And don’t forget all the other invisible workers during the Christmas season. Donate to organizations that are fighting to increase the power of working people. Remember to shop for Christmas gifts that are union made. And spread Christmas cheer by singing loudly – and safely — for all to hear!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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