Counting on Class: The Continuing Appeal of Meritocracy

Neither faith in nor critiques of the idea of meritocracy is new. Michael Young’s famous 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy argued that class privilege and advantage were likely to be amplified as financial and cultural capital passed across generations in families. Each new generation would benefit from existing structural advantage created by their parents and even grandparents. They might be talented individuals, hardworking and driven to succeed, but they would owe their achievements in part to a myriad of inherited class advantages. Young intended the title of his book as a satire, but for many, it seems to promote the ideal of egalitarian opportunity.

A recent rash of books critically revisit the ideas in Young’s now six-decade-old book. In The Class Ceiling: Why it ays to be Privileged, Sam Friendman and Daniel Laurison provide a wonderfully accessible account of contemporary class analysis in the UK, examining the complex ways in which class influences life chances. The authors leaven the numbers with fascinating vignettes from the field showing how successful middle-class professionals are sometimes aware of their own class privilege. As one put it, “I was lucky to have a following wind”. The book does not offer a crude demonization of privilege. Instead, the study gets to the heart of how talent and hard work don’t sufficiently explain how good jobs get allocated. Often times, as The Class Ceiling shows, it’s the lucky breaks that already privileged people enjoy that allow them to achieve yet more success.

Take ‘Mark’ for example, a successful TV executive in his late thirties. Mark relates to Friedman and Laurison his own ‘following wind’. The son of successful educated professionals, he was privately educated before gaining a place at Oxford. While he was at Oxford, Mark’s parents paid for him to go on a holiday to New York to do research for his undergraduate dissertation. He stayed in Manhattan for free in an apartment owned by a contact his father had met on the side-lines of a rugby match.  This same contact then provided Mark with an introduction to the television industry. The upside of the anecdote is that Mark is full aware of his privilege and luck.

The Class Ceiling is peppered with similar tales of advantage and their mirror image, such as the pairing of Nathan and Jim. Nathan’s CV is littered with prestigious roles in TV and film.  He attributes his success to “just working incredibly hard” and “making good decisions” like turning down jobs he didn’t believe in.  As he explains, “No job is worth sacrificing yourself for”. Jim, by contrast, has decided to leave the acting profession after ‘sacrificing’ himself and his career by taking the kind of parts Nathan can afford to avoid. Jim’s working-class origins still constrain him in his forties.  He struggled so hard to get into the acting profession, but the typecast jobs he has to take ultimately end up damaging his career and lead to offers drying up altogether. Class both constrains and enables after all.

The old formula so loved of politicians and defenders of the status quo that success can be reduced to Talent + Hard Work = Success is well and truly nailed by The Class Ceiling and its intimate stories of success and failure, which show how the safety net allows some to take chances and enjoy opportunities.  What emerges is a profound story of wasted, unrealised talent for those from working-class backgrounds.

This theme is picked up in another important recent book, The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. For Markovits, meritocracy isn’t working for either the losers or the winners. For middle-class families, the stress involved in ‘making it’, even for those with privilege, involves constantly monitoring children’s progress, pushing them to excel in a bewildering array of extracurricular activities so that they can compete for the jobs or opportunities in the future. The Meritocracy Trap highlights the effect this has on both parents and their off-spring, creating profound and enduring anxiety and mental health issues. I wrote about my own experience of using middle class cultural and economic capital in terms of my own kids in a previous blog. The solution for Markovits involves radically improving education for all social classes to take away incentives to leverage class privilege in schools and colleges.

In The Rise of Meritocracy, Young described precisely the ‘following wind’ that Friendman and Laurison talk about in The Class Ceiling seven decades later. Sheer talent and hard work wasn’t then, and isn’t now, going to allow those further down the social scale the chances they need to really succeed. One of my colleagues who researches drugs policy has this neat formulation that politicians ‘need to follow the available evidence, not what people would prefer to be true’.  This is also true for commentators who defend the common sense view of meritocracy that talent and hard work will out. In study after study, social scientists repeatedly show that class and other forms of stratification get in the way of merit. Privilege, or the lack of it, shapes individuals’ merit, and it can undermine someone with great talent and commitment, or give someone an extra push. So what do we do in the face of the enduring attraction of meritocracy? It helps to keep repeating the inconvenient truth to anyone that will listen. Books like The Class Ceiling and The Meritocracy Trap help enormously by making complex arguments accessible to a wider public, providing the numbers but also giving names and faces to what those the numbers represent.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Understanding Class | Tagged , | 2 Comments

En Guerre: Populism and a Plant Closing in France

Stéphane Brizé’s En Guerre (At War), released in France in 2018 and in the United States this July, tells the story a car factory closing in Agen, a small company town in the southwest of France.  In this grim and painfully realistic dramatization, viewers witness many of the predictable and formulaic features of corporate industrial relocation, combined with the impending specter of joblessness that looms over the community in question. North American audiences will see many parallels between this film and accounts like Julia Reichert’s documentaries The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) and American Factory (2019), Amy Goldstein’s award-winning non-fiction book Janesville (2017), and the voluminous recent coverage of GM closures in Detroit-Hamtramck and Lordstown.  The uncertain future of the Nissan Sunderland plant in the Northeast of England provides a similar reminder of the present and ongoing turbulence created by transitions in the auto industry.  In this context, En Guerre represents a useful instructional tool, yet from a cinematic standpoint it leaves little room for novelty or surprise.

In the tale in question, German-owned Perrin Industries calls on workers to accept a scheme that would reduce their incomes by paying them for thirty-five hours but requiring them to work forty hours and forego bonuses for the next five years. Despite state subsidies to remain in Agen, Perrin decides two years later that the facility is no longer competitive. While local management offers platitudes like “we’re all in this together,” the company initiates plans to close the plant, displacing its 1,100 workers.  Union leader Laurent Amédéo, a robust and salty family-man played by Vincent Lindon, leads workers in a lock-out, demanding a meeting with the Perrin CEO.  Lindon, like many of the characters, bristles with intensity, conveying the gravity of what is at stake.

The film focuses on the ensuing escalation of this conflict and the thwarted efforts of Amédéo and his comrades.  When Amédéo visits company headquarters in Paris, young company officers tell him that the chairman will not see him and that he should return to Agen, but to “have a great day.”  Government officials are sympathetic but assert that they cannot tell a company not to close with any legal authority.  “We support you and your movement,” the workers, now obtaining a growing measure of media coverage, are told.  At a meeting between the German CEO and the union, the executive exclaims that he loves France – “I own a house here!” ­– before coldly asserting that the workforce is not performing and that if there are no other jobs in Agen then perhaps they should consider moving elsewhere.  When he is assaulted and bloodied by protesting workers, who flip his car as he leaves the premises, the movement to rescue the plant begins to unravel.

En Guerre explores the tough choices union officials and workers must make in the face of impending closures and the fractures in solidarity that threaten to emerge. Brizé probes these questions with vim and sympathy.  But the film too often relies on familiar tropes of neo-liberal capitalism – like executives who explain that “refusing to see market realities is like demanding a whole new world” – that have been parodied in popular media since at least the collapse of Enron and even more since the 2008 financial crisis.  No politician anywhere on the spectrum professes to be a fan of plant closures, even if some actively support the economic model that encourages them.  Merely to critique the callousness of shareholder-driven corporate manufacturers that shift around production is, in 2019, somewhat shallow and banal.  Most of the audience knows this already.

Had Brizé’s fictional car factory not merely been closing but rather relocating to Morocco, then the virtues of the dogged French proletariat might have really been put to the test.  Had workers received the outspoken support of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, again not an unrealistic scenario, then the director would have been forced to confront the political challenges that working-class communities face across Europe in the wake of industrial decline and right-wing insurgency, from Campania in Southern Italy, to Saxony and Brandenburg in Eastern Germany, to the protestant sections of Belfast.  But Brizé does not grasp that nettle, living instead in the moment and process of plant closure, rather than navigating the broader and more complex ways that working-class communities are actors in the political fallout once the initial anti-closure consensus has disintegrated. Some blame corporate executives or national politicians when communities decline, but others point the finger at Central European migrants or Syrian refugees.

Released in France in July 2018, En Guerre debuted just over a year after the election of Emmanuel Macron as the president of the republic, and just months before the commencement of the grassroots gilets jaunes ­– yellow vest –  protests in November.  Initially a revolt against rising fuel prices, the ongoing gilets jaunes movement, which has been fading in recent months, attracted supporters of both left-wing and right-wing parties around a loosely defined collection of mutual grievances: against the wealthy, punitive tax policies, austerity measures, and, yes, so-called “political elites,” including some or all elected officials depending upon whom you ask.  But the totemic subject of their ire was the president himself. Brizé’s sentiments overlap with those of the gilets jaunes.  “The idea of the world that Macron defends is a brutality without name,” he observed in May 2018.

But the vain young president and his bracingly masculine handshakes are quite easy to dislike, and he is widely disapproved of in France, even by many who voted for him in the final round to avert a Le Pen presidency.  Such a diversity of the French population may hold mutual antagonisms, but reach widely different conclusions in identifying the most cogent remedies.  En Guerre provides a fast-paced and energetic depiction of the implications of the free movement of capital within the European Union without engaging with the destructive nationalism that has been unleashed by the numerous demagogues intent on benefitting from such circumstances.

Brizé’s critique of twenty-first century corporate mobility may have been fresh in 2005, but it fails to break new ground in explaining how working-class communities process industrial decline in 2019.  It is wishful thinking to contend that a conversation on job loss can be narrowly defined as a debate on the movement of capital without touching on immigration, too. The internal contests between ideas of nationalism, multiculturalism, xenophobia, and identity, conversations buoyed by a surfeit of false information on social media and the fusion of physical and virtual discourse are as real as and as bound to define the future landscape of a community as those between a German executive and a French union.  The logic of neoliberal capitalism might close down a factory, but a series of angry rallies against fictitious Asian rapists and pedophiles or a brutal attack on a pride parade will ensure that it never re-opens. The European working classes face a multitude of painful political and cultural challenges, and as admirable as Brizé’s solidarity and commitment to the blue-collar worker may be, this is not a time for the romanticism that En Guerre ultimately delivers.

Patrick Dixon, Georgetown University

Patrick Dixon is a research analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and the managing editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

White Middle-Class Racism

What do you picture when someone refers to the “Trump’s base”? If you’ve watched television coverage of his rallies or read any of the dozens of articles in which reporters and commentators try to explain Trump’s appeal, then you probably imagine white people wearing “MAGA” hats and t-shirts chanting “Lock her up” or “send her back” in an arena in a mid-size Midwestern or Southern city. You might assume they include laid-off industrial workers, residents of declining cities or rural areas who view immigrants as a threat, people who spend their weekends at gun shows, and uninsured people who resent the “government intrusion” of the Affordable Care Act.

This image might come to mind when you read that polls show support for Trump increasing when he tweets racist jibes at women of color in the U.S. Congress or calls a black Representative’s district a “rat and rodent infested mess.” While some shake their heads in frustration at these poor foolish dupes, some also feel some empathy. It isn’t their fault they were “left behind” by the global economy or laid low by the exploitations of the opioid scandal. They just aren’t smart enough to see that they’re being manipulated.

As several recent articles have pointed out, this story is wrong – though it’s probably reassuring to educated urban middle class and elites. It suggests that the problem with this country lies somewhere out there, among people who can easily be labelled as racist, xenophobic, homophobic, old-fashioned, and most important, working-class.

If you detect some exasperation here, you’re right. We’ve been talking regularly with reporters about working-class voters – by which they almost always mean whites – since 2007. Then, reporters called to ask whether white industrial workers would vote for an African American or a woman. Now they’re asking why white working-class people would be drawn to Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist, and sexist bravado.

We could say plenty about the complicated relationship between racism and the white working class, but there’s more to the story of white racism. While Trump does attract significant support from the white working class, middle-and upper-class whites are also an important part of Trump’s base. After all, if Trump’s support among Republicans rises after his racist outbursts, that includes the core of the party, and they tend to be whiter, more rural, older, and more religiously conservative than Democrats. They are also at least slightly better off. Democrats win more votes from people with college degrees, the most commonly-used basis for pollsters to talk about class, but they also win more lower-income voters. Republicans take the lead – as Trump did in the 2016 vote – among those with incomes of $50K or more.

So while some of his white working-class fans might respond with open approval to Trump’s racist appeals, it’s also probably true that many of his more educated, better-off supporters embrace it as well. Some might tolerate the President’s nasty remarks because they appreciate his tax cut or his anti-abortion, pro-business Supreme Court nominees. But many of his policies, like his tweets, reflect racial resentments that appeal to a wider range of voters than class stereotypes suggest.

Some appreciate Trump’s racism because it violates social rules they find limiting. As Kevin M. Kruse suggested in a New York Times op-ed, Trump voices the resentment  many white voters – of all classes — feel  about not being able to say what they think about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. They genuinely don’t get why some of what Trump says is racist. Instead, they rankle at the idea that it’s never acceptable for white people to criticize people of color. For many, Trump’s statements reassure them that they are not racist, they’re just not “PC.”

This points to a core problem in discussions of racism: the focus on individual attitudes rather than on structural inequities. To call someone racist is to judge their character. To hate people of color because of their skin would be racist, and only bad people are racist.

Amid discussions about whether or not Trump is racist, we forget that racism is structural. Hating people of color isn’t a prerequisite for investing in a system that provides most white people with better health care, better educations, more power in the workplace, higher incomes, and more opportunities to get ahead and secure a comfortable life. As Richard Reeves argues in Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, many well-educated, well-off people seek out opportunities to pass their privileges on to their children. We don’t think that’s racist. We think it’s good parenting. After Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times commentary arguing that white people’s rejection of school busing in the 1970s and 80s reflected resistance to having their children go to school with black people, several white parents wrote in to insist that they weren’t racist. They just wanted their children to attend a better school. Yet the school in the white neighborhood was likely better because of higher incomes of white families and the higher property values in white neighborhoods, and the children who attend that school deal with less day-to-day anxiety and disruption than those in more challenged neighborhoods.

Those economic conditions reflect racial disparities reinforced by government and business practices. Did white parents create those economic conditions? Not directly, though they probably helped elect the politicians who implemented the policies, and they might not recognize how those policies reinforce racial inequalities and divisions.

They believe in meritocracy.  If the system is fair, as they believe it is, then whatever getting ahead they eked out reflects their intelligence, abilities, and hard work, not a system that is rigged or unequal. They may well see Barack Obama’s two terms as President as proof: if America elected a black man, doesn’t that show that the deserving can rise despite racism? So why should we believe that racism keeps others down?

Yet as a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute shows, African Americans continue to lag far behind whites in every economic category, from education to income to home ownership, unemployment, and incarceration despite their rising education rates and incomes. Perhaps Trump’s white supporters base their vision of the black experience in America on what they see on TV, which today offers more and more positive images of people of color, especially African Americans, than a few decades ago. In recent years, in part because of Black Lives Matter, the rise of white supremacist activism, and anti-immigration efforts, racism and racial inequality have become center stage issues in American politics. Yet during the same period, the white middle-class have seen their wages stagnate, their jobs become less secure, and their children struggle to achieve the trappings of middle-class life. That breeds resentment.

A faith in meritocracy may also explain why instead of blaming corporations or Wall Street for not raising wages or for cutting jobs, many white middle-class voters hold on to the belief that good business principles require companies to make those choices. They worry about how to pay for their children’s or grandchildren’s college tuition but don’t question Republican cuts to state funding for education. They wonder if their children will ever find good jobs or afford to buy homes of their own. Yet they hold on to the hope that they or their children will someday be in a position to reap the benefits of conservative tax policies.

To be fair, Democratic voters also make choices that shore up their economic and racial privilege, though they might be somewhat more likely to wrestle with their decisions or to acknowledge the inequities. Republicans seem more likely to support pro-business policies and tax cuts, while Democrats believe that everyone will do better if we ensure more opportunities for those without their advantages.

Of course, it’s easier for candidates to criticize Trump as a racist than it is to critique structural racism. And dismantling discriminatory policies, from school funding to zoning ordinances, will require hard work that will challenge middle-class and elite voters across the political spectrum. If Democrats want to do more than talk about racist attitudes, they need to take on the injustices built into the system.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

A longer version of this piece appeared on Newgeography.


Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Equality and Electability

In 2015, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg advised Hillary Clinton to run on a promise to “level the playing field” and “rewrite the rules of the economy.”  She didn’t take his advice. Instead, she told voters she would “build on the progress” of the Obama administration and “create ladders of opportunity.”

Professors like me, who get to speak in full paragraphs all the time, can easily dismiss campaign slogans as superficial and manipulative.  But they are organizing principles that can align basic vision with both policy proposals and organizing strategies.  These two slogans still reflect two possible organizing principles for the Democratic Party in 2019-20.  Biden wants to build on Obama’s progress, and Sanders and Warren aim to rewrite the rules of the economy, boldly addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth.  Like Greenberg four years ago, I believe that candidates who articulate a broad left-populist approach will be more electable in 2020.   And as we face a future filled with peril, they are the only leaders who can govern in a way that could repair our toxic race and class dynamics.

Greenberg skewers the “build on the progress” trope by showing how many people didn’t see any progress during Obama’s eight years, both in the economic data and in what people told him in surveys and focus groups.  He thinks this slogan actually moved some people to vote for Trump, who in 2016 seemed to many to be the one offering some hope and change.  Greenberg predicts that Trump will hang himself on the same trope next year, if he isn’t impeached and removed from office before then.

But I think it’s the second part of Clinton’s 2016 message that reflects the real problem: there’s an important difference between aspiring to “ladders of opportunity” versus “leveling the playing field.”  The first emphasizes equality of opportunity, while the second is about equality of condition.  Equality of opportunity aims to give everybody an equal chance to climb a ladder to get one of the limited number of spots on a playing field that is severely titled by race, gender, and class.  Equality of condition is about getting everybody on a level playing field, not necessarily in equally desirable spots but with some substantial narrowing of the best and worst spots and with the worst spots being adequate for a decent and meaningful life.

To get anything close to equality of opportunity, we would have to vote to take away the huge opportunity advantages currently enjoyed by most of the professional middle class.  This is a large group of people and they vote a lot, so no politician will either promise to or do what’s necessary, no matter how much they talk about equality of opportunity in the abstract.

To get close to equality of condition, on the other hand, requires rewriting the rules of the economy by fairly taxing the rich and then greatly expanding social wages – i.e., reducing everybody’s monthly expenses by using tax revenue to subsidize health care, housing, child care, mass transportation, and education.  To finance the expansion of social wages to scale, it’s helpful that a relatively small group of people now have most of our money.  They vote with dollars as well as ballots, but there aren’t very many of them, and as both Sanders and Warren have shown, we can get an enormous amount of money from the outrageously rich while leaving them still very rich.

While equal opportunity is the primary solution and goal for historically marginalized and discriminated-against groups like African-Americans and women, it’s no solution at all for class inequality – and especially not for the top-heavy kind we now have in the U.S.  Having an equal chance to get one of the limited number of spots at the top would still leave most people struggling with poor to mediocre incomes and working conditions.  What’s more, there is no way to achieve equal opportunity unless everybody starts out with some level of equality of condition.

Let’s take jobs, for example.  The equal-opportunity solution is for individuals to get a good education (even if they have to go into $100,000 of debt to get it) so they can then get one of those good professional or managerial jobs in the “knowledge economy.”  Problem is there are not enough of those good jobs for this to work for many people.  Professional and managerial positions, not all of which would count as “good jobs,” represent about two-fifths of all jobs, and the incomes and conditions of the other three-fifths are mostly insufficient and declining in real terms.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest projection, that is not going to change in the future.  In fact, if anything, it’s going to get worse. Of the top 20 occupations estimated to have the largest job growth in the next ten years, the six lowest-paid jobs – five of them with median wages below the poverty level for a family of four – account for the majority of the new jobs.  Fourteen of the top 20 occupations make less than the national median wage of $47,000, and those 14 will account for more than three-fourths of job growth.  Nine of those occupations have medians of less than $30,000 and would thus benefit from a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.  Those nine occupations account for nearly 60% of all the jobs produced by the top 20.  They include food preparation and serving; personal care aides; home health aides; waiters and waitresses; janitors and cleaners; restaurant cooks; laborers and material movers; nursing assistants; and landscaping workers.  These are the primary jobs of the future.  They do not require college educations.  They are not part of the knowledge economy, except that they are the people who feed, clean, beautify, and care for knowledge workers when we’re not working.

No matter how much equal opportunity we achieve, somebody has to do these jobs.  These people are doing work that needs to be done.  It would be great if we could equalize educational opportunity for their children, but they need higher incomes now, unions to represent them now, and social wages that can dramatically reduce their household expenses now.

Most of the rest of the workforce also needs those things, if not as urgently and dramatically as low-wage workers, and what’s more, they know it.  As a Vox headline reported earlier this year, “taxing the rich is very popular; it’s Republicans who have the radical position.”  And while the concept of social wages is not yet part of our public discourse, individual elements of it are also popular.  Majorities may not be for totally eliminating private health insurance in four years, as Sanders and Warren propose,  but very large majorities support various forms of expanded public health insurance like “Optional Medicare-for-all” and “Medicaid buy-in.” Likewise, “two-thirds of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.”  Even larger majorities support paid family leave, greatly expanded government spending on child care and early learning, and large increases in infrastructure spending, though a somewhat smaller majority support the Green New Deal.

On these and some related issues, public opinion is what the mainstream media calls “far left,” and the public is unified on these issues across race and class.  Even the white working class, the mainstay of the current Republican Party, basically agrees with the black working class and the Hispanic working class on these social-wage issues, as do majorities of college-educated folks of all races.  Democrats who run on these issues will beat Trump or any other Republican, and they will be positioned to govern us out of our current morass.  Democrats need to make a big promise and then organize like hell to achieve it.  Building on “progress” that most people haven’t seen for 30 or 40 years won’t do it. It’s time to level the playing field and rewrite the rules of the economy.

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 Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple 2000).


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Religious Freedom: Freedom to Discriminate?

On September 28, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 directing the government “to provide equal opportunity in Federal employment for all qualified persons.” Not only would federal contractors not  “discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin,” they would also “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Freedom from workplace discrimination is essential for everyone. But for working-class employees, and particularly those who face discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and/or sexual orientation, the effects of discrimination are keenly felt. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that it costs business more than $64 billion a year to lose and replace the more than 2 million workers who leave their jobs because of discrimination .

On August 15, the Labor Department released for public review an unprecedented new rule that expands the scope and application of religious exemptions that federal contractors can claim regarding their workforce. This proposed new rule undermines President Obama’s Executive Order 13672 (2014) protecting workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which the CAP calls “the largest LGBTQ-inclusive expansion of workplace protections in American history.” In contrast, the new rule builds on President Bush’s Executive Order 13279 (2002) allowing faith-based and community organizations to prefer individuals of a particular religion when making employment decisions relevant to the work connected with its activities. In general, a religious exemption is an accommodation that allows those who claim one to avoid adhering to a regulation that applies to those who are not religious or do not participate in a particular religious tradition. Many religious exemptions are relatively non-controversial such as the one exempting religious institutions from property taxes. But this proposed exemption is very aggressive as it “covers not just churches but employers that are organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.”

Given that federal contractors employ approximately one-fifth of the entire U.S. labor force, the proposed expansion of contractors qualifying for a religious exemption could significantly alter workplace conditions that workers face on a daily basis. During a recent public comment period, organizations ranging from the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Transgender Equality to the American Bar Association have raised objections and have urged withdrawal of the new rule. Many fear it will tear down the legal barriers that prevent workplace discrimination — and do so using taxpayer dollars. For instance, an employer that claims to have a religious purpose could require that employees adhere to the same religion even if the work involved does not appear to have a religious aspect.  A construction company owned by an evangelical could require its bulldozer operators to be born again. Pregnant and unmarried workers could find themselves without a job if an employer’s religious beliefs prohibited sex outside of marriage. The public comment period for this proposed rule ended on September 16 and it could go into effect unless it is challenged in court.

Many raised concerns about religious exemptions in 2014, when the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could deny employees health coverage for contraception because of the religious objections of the company’s owners. Exemptions that once only applied to non-profit religious organizations could now be claimed by corporations without overt religious purpose. This ruling was deeply problematic for workers who were either non-religious or had a different viewpoint on the relationship of religion and contraception. Some observers mistakenly assumed, despite their disagreement with the decision, that only closely-held family corporations such as Hobby Lobby would gain this freedom to discriminate against workers in this way. But, now, through this back door of a Department of Labor rule, a publicly held corporation acting as a federal contractor could engage in discrimination if it can “hold itself out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose” A corporation could simply affirm that it has a religious purpose in a response to an inquiry from the public or a government entity. For example, a  contractor could claim to have a religious purpose for something as secular as building roads and making a profit.

The new rule could also apply beyond federal contracts, as Ian Thompson, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, notes was true for Executive Order 11246. Workers within a corporation were still protected by its provisions even if they were not specifically working on a federal contract. This new rule will be similarly expansive. That means the new rule could affect up to 25% of the private sector workforce.

Rather than addressing the concerns of religious organizations over federal contract regulations in narrow or specific terms, the Trump-led Department of Labor has adopted the most expansive approach possible to religious freedom protections and exemptions. The rule adds five new bases for religious exemption: “exercise of religion; particular religion; religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society; and sincere.” For instance, the exemption for “particular religion” allows contractors to prefer individuals who share their religion. They could also make acceptance of or adherence to specific religious tenets a condition of employment without sanction by the federal government. In sum, the “proposed rule should be construed to provide the broadest protection of religious exercise permitted by the Constitution and other laws.”

The proposed rule is an extraordinary concession to federal contractors that could use religion, however sincerely or insincerely, to discriminate against vulnerable workers in a precarious and uncertain economy. Working-class LGBTQ laborers are particularly vulnerable to this form of discrimination because of the lack of power that most working-class employees experience at the workplace anyway. Agnostic or atheist laborers could find themselves in the crosshairs of an aggressive manager or employer.

In addition, the proposed rule applies only to employers and not to workers. Freedom of speech has never been a priority for employers. If this new rule passes, will workers within corporations with federal contracts cease to have First Amendment protection for the free exercise of their own religion?

The proposed expansion of religious exemptions shows that the ongoing political fight over the meaning and application of religious freedom is not merely a religious matter. It has become clear that the 1st Amendment clause guaranteeing free exercise of religion can be twisted beyond recognition and then used as a bludgeon against the most vulnerable workers. A characteristic feature of working-class life is the constant struggle for power on the job and access to resources. The mere suggestion that an employer could also exert control over workers along religious lines as well is a chilling one indeed. The new rule might even allow religious justifications for an aggressive anti-union stance. If religion can be used to supersede the rights of workers as individuals, it can also be used to upend the struggle for collective rights and the quest for dignity and power on the job.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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A New Era in Deindustrialization Studies?

Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, have refocused attention on the connections between political events and deindustrialized working-class communities.

Deindustrialization first emerged as an explanatory framework for the wrenching changes underway in the 1970s and 1980s. Out of this economic and political crucible, an interdisciplinary field of research – which we loosely call “deindustrialization studies” – has taken root. Fundamentally, deindustrialization is a process of physical and social ruination as well as part of a wider political project that leaves working-class communities impoverished and demoralized. Forced forgetting is an integral part of this process as mills and factories are demolished, working-class institutions crushed, and areas are recontextualized as something new.

So where is the field of deindustrialization studies today?

The recent conference of the Working-Class Studies Association in the United Kingdom provides us with a unique opportunity to consider where the field is at, as there were no fewer than twelve sessions dedicated to the topic and a healthy scattering of other papers across the program. It might be too early to speak of a “golden age” of deindustrialization studies in the United Kingdom, but the conference suggests as much. So great was its presence, it felt something like being in a deindustrial boot-camp after four days.

Several things stand out to me.

Though there is still plenty of great work on deindustrialization coming out of the United States, the centre of gravity has clearly shifted to Europe. This is remarkable given the centrality of the US to deindustrialization studies until recently. Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America, Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves, Kathryn Marie Dudley’s The End of the Line, Christine Walley’s Exit Zero, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo’s Steeltown USA, among many others, are foundational to the field. But now, an impressive number of British graduate students and recent graduates are working within the deindustrialization framework. I learned of “lost futures” in Teeside, deindustrializing bodies in Clydeside, “environmental classism” in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania, post-redundancy employment for Scottish steelworkers, and post-industrial life in the Kent coalfield. , Interest is also surging in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada.

Most of these researchers come from deindustrialized communities. Many seem to be the children and grandchildren of displaced workers, yet another manifestation of deindustrialization’s half-life. For this reason, perhaps, the field relies primarily on oral history to recover the lived interior of job loss and how this structural violence ripples outward through individual lives, families, and communities. These personal connections help explain researchers’ need to bear witness to the structural violence of deindustrialization and to make it visible to others.

And yet, by conference’s end, four key challenges for the field came into focus for me.

1/ Deindustrialization is not just local: There is a proliferation of local case studies, but very little that is translocal, national, or transnational in scope. Many of these local studies, which have been the “stock in trade” of the new labor history for a generation, according to Jefferson Cowie, are also place-bounded, rather than place-based. For example, one senior researcher new to deindustrialization studies argued near conference’s end that nowhere else than in his study area has the unfolding crisis been as severe. This kind of exceptionalism ignores the scale and scope of the structural violence underway. No place is merely local.

On the flip-side, another stream of conference sessions focused instead on the contemporary politics of class. From what I saw, these papers presented a birds-eye perspective, present-focused and without much empirical grounding to back up the sweeping statements. Many of these presentations were thus disconnected from the lived realities and histories of working people.

Surely, there is some middle ground between the two. Now more than ever, we need to go beyond stand-alone local or regional case studies and make inter-regional or cross-national comparisons. We need to connect local and regional analyses and follow the transnational flow, what Cowie calls the “migratory history” of ideas, people, and capital.

Cowie’s 1999 book Capital Moves, which followed RCA TV production from one locality to the next, represents one way to scale-up our analysis without losing sight of working-class lives. There are others. Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winning book, Chernobyl Prayer, offers a sweeping history of that disaster from the perspectives of those who lived it. It is both heart-breaking and poignant. Almost like a collage, but more purposeful, Alexievich engages with the “big history” of Chernobyl through and with the “little histories” of ordinary people. I can’t imagine a more humanistic approach to the writing of contemporary history.

2/ Focusing on loss only takes us so far politically: Many presentations at the Working-Class Studies conference focused on the profound loss experienced by industrial workers, who used Linkon’s notion of “deindustrialization’s half-life” as a clarion call to study the experience of working-class loss. After four days, I left the conference convinced that as a field of research we need to go beyond loss. To understand the half-life, we need to understand its causes and accompanying politics as well as its effects. How far does the study of loss take us politically?

We’ve seen evidence of this in effects-based collective bargaining in the United States, where unions can negotiate the “effects” of plant closings (with no leverage to speak of) but not the plant closing decision itself. As a field, we need to engage with the wider structures of socio-economic and political power so we understand better the underlying historical forces at work and how we might begin to counter them.

Locally-based research can do this, but we need to engage with deindustrialized communities as something more than objects of research. Christine Walley’s current work with a South Chicago museum, for example, is creatively co-curating public memory projects where family members are reunited with material objects held by the museum – a photograph is taken with them at the relevant site (such as at a former steel mill). It is a beautiful project that can, over time, contribute to what South African oral historian Sean Field calls social regeneration – which becomes urgent in the aftermath of social rupture, when the ties that bind are violently torn asunder.

3/ Beyond the Heartlands: The field of deindustrialization studies is very much focused on single-industry towns of steel, mining, and auto-manufacture where nothing has filled the economic vacuum — places where deindustrialization is still visibly present. Not coincidentally, former “industrial heartland” areas are almost always associated with male proletarian workers who were perceived to be central to the nation during the industrial age. As a field, we need to go “beyond the heartland” (the conference theme this year) and consider deindustrialization in other areas. For example, David Nettleingham invited conference-goers to consider rural areas where this industrial past is largely forgotten. Similarly, a panel of Canadians invited us to look again at metropolitan cities where the effects of deindustrialization are submerged by gentrification rendering the plight of displaced industrial workers largely invisible. Several conference-goers such as Stefan Berger, Jackie Clarke, and Alice Mah spoke eloquently to how deindustrialization unfolded differently across national borders. Such research raises all kinds of questions about the differential politics of deindustrialization.

4/ Race Matters: At the conference, with a couple notable exceptions, deindustrialization focused on white workers, and the scholars and audiences were almost entirely white. This reflects a danger that we are contributing to the coding of the working-class as white. This is an urgent matter given the political struggles sweeping North America and Europe, and the increasing political polarization amongst progressives between those who blame “race” or “class” for Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism. This sets up a false choice between race and class.

For deindustrialization studies, the challenge is not only to recognize that the industrial working class was diverse, but also to consider how industrialism and its spatial restructuring are part of wider structures of racial and class power. The conference keynote by Satnam Virdee on “Race, Class and the Politics of Solidarity” provides us with an inspiring example of how deindustrialization scholars, working across geographic and temporal scales, can proceed.

Much more work needs to be done if deindustrialization studies is going to have a wider impact. I am hopeful as there are signs that a growing number of researchers in the field have recognized the need to engage with the historical roots of our populist moment and the need to undertake transnational or comparative research.  Deindustrialization studies is needed now more than ever.

Steven High, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University

Steven High is Professor of History and the author of a number of books including Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt; One Job Town: Work, Belonging and Betrayal in Northern Ontario; and, (with Lachlan MacKinnon and Andrew Perchard) The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places.


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The News Media’s Blind Spots Covering the Working Class

At midnight on Sept. 15, 49,000 UAW-GM workers walked out on strike at locations across the country, a day after their 2015 collective bargaining contract with General Motors expired and the union declined to extend the provisions of the agreement.

In a statement, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said “While we are fighting for better wages, affordable quality health care, and job security, GM refuses to put hard-working Americans ahead of their record profits of $35 billion in North America over the last three years. We are united in our efforts to get an agreement our members and their families deserve.”

The President promised then punted on saving the GM jobs, and never seemed to imagine that the UAW would later be leading the fight. Given their news coverage from earlier this year, neither did the New York Times imagine the UAW would take on GM.

While the auto industry is increasingly profitable, autoworkers have been suffering. Ground zero of that story is the iconic GM Lordstown plant in northeastern Ohio, which lost the discontinued Chevy Cruze and was shuttered when GM moved production of the revived Chevy Blazer to a Mexican assembly plant.

Beyond its regular reporting, the New York Times committed an amazing level of resources to the story of the Lordstown closing, producing an episode of The Daily podcast on July 5, an episode of The Weekly (on FX and Hulu) on July 7, and an earlier New York Times Magazine interactive piece with photos and text (May 1, 2019).

I have watched The Weekly episode on Lordstown several times, listened to The Daily podcast many more times, and re-read the multimedia piece. I’ve also gone back to review the Times’ 1992-1993 editorials and opinions on NAFTA, the trade deal that eventually caught up with Lordstown and many other manufacturing plants.

The Times’s impressive investment and multiple stories across multiple formats cover the human injury of GM’s boardroom decisions and note that the unwritten rules of the “social contract” have changed. These workers are victims of changing times, and the story is told with drama and great empathy.

Still, this is both a story we have heard before, and, as I discuss I my recent book, the kind of narrative that emerges with the built-in blind spots of a news organization focused on stories for upscale readers, listeners, and viewers.

The Times’ stories are mostly framed as national political stories, even as they acknowledge that the workers they interview are weary of that angle. The Daily makes this clear, stating “There’s got to be some political fallout from [the Lordstown closing]. What is the consequence for Trump in this scenario?” In framing the issue this way, The Daily and The Weekly focus on white, male workers who voted for Trump.

To understand the politics of this and so many other “working class” stories since Trump’s election 2016, imagine that The Daily interviewed a black woman worker from Lordstown who didn’t vote for Trump. The political angle would vanish in such a story. But the national media is more interested in politics than in people. They would rather feature a white male worker who voted for Trump and who now (presumably) struggles with the cognitive dissonance of his beloved president not saving his job. This means ignoring the wide range of people who are working class – including those at this plant.

Conversely, the multimedia piece, featuring interviews and photos by an African-American freelancer, takes a different perspective. Not framed as a political story, it is also the only part of New York Times coverage of Lordstown that includes multiple representations of African American workers and women workers.

“The system” that the Times says is broken extends beyond their limited political framing of the story. It includes a blind spot about the paper’s complicity with that system. The nation’s newspaper of record ran  many editorials in favor of NAFTA in 1992-93, labeling workers and their unions as “protectionist,” and stating that there would be only “a few visible losers,” with “many in low-paid occupations.” The Times’ economics columnist wrote pieces with headlines such as “Job Loss in Pact Is Seen as Small” and “Trade-Pact Fears Seem Overstated,” which supported its editorial position.

In its recent reports on Lordstown, the New York Times fails to acknowledge how its editorial support of NAFTA contributed to what has happened to America’s “losers.” In fact, a number of negative outcomes for Lordstown and the Mahoning Valley extend from NAFTA: the pressure for concessions and givebacks to save jobs, the export of jobs to Mexico (where GM assembly plants grew from one to four after NAFTA), the granting of millions in tax breaks and incentives to keep jobs (but draining needed public funds for schools and municipal infrastructure).

The New York Times failed to be a countervailing power (to use John Kenneth Galbraith’s term) for working people in 1992-93, precisely at the time when it was most needed, as government (with majorities in both parties lined up in favor of NAFTA) had failed to be a countervailing power for working people. Government and the mainstream news media were in the corner of GM and other corporations. No one was in labor’s corner.

Because of this, the Times also failed to recognize the UAW as a solution in their coverage. In the early 1990s, the union was a protectionist loser, and in 2019 it was an institution down for the count, whose members’ only remaining power was their individual ballots for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates with whom they could place their faltering hope.

So, in 2019 there is a poetic justice for the UAW-GM workers themselves, all 49,000 of them, who decided to take a stand and be a countervailing power to the auto industry, despite the lack of support from the government or the news media.

Their audacity elicited a rarity from the pages of the Times a few days later: an opinion piece that avoided framing the UAW’s actions in the politics of Trump. David Leonhardt’s column “Why I’m Rooting for the G.M. Strikers,” in a story long overdue for the working class.

Yes, Lordstown and the working class are political stories, but they are stories so much larger than that, too. They are even stories about journalism itself, and the role it has in “the system” that it often fails to see.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.

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