The Global Working Class in Art House Cinema

The idea of ‘art house’ cinema can be off-putting due to its reputation as difficult and requiring high levels of formal education to be understood and appreciated. But as I’ve stated previously, anyone can enjoy these films, and many focus on the working class.  Some were also produced by filmmakers from working-class backgrounds.  The films I recommend below represent working-class people in nuanced ways, and their authentic depictions of working-class life also provide an important global perspective.

Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming Liang, 2013, Taiwan

Tsai Ming Liang’s films are very slow-paced and do not contain a conventional narrative arc. His stories focus on marginalised characters unable to connect with mainstream society. Stray Dogs is a poetic (but definitely not romantic) treatment of homelessness and poverty, set in Taipei, Taiwan. The film centres on a man and his two children who live in abandoned buildings and scrape by on the man’s earnings from his job holding up real estate signs on busy intersections. The children feed themselves on samples handed out at a supermarket and wash in public bathrooms. Tsai Ming Liang depicts the physicality of hardship and creates a heartbreaking film about the effects of class.


Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold, 2009, UK

Britain has a long tradition of working-class films, including, of course, the wonderful films of Ken Loach that are familiar to many film buffs and working-class scholars. Andrea Arnold’s work is not as well-known.  Fish Tank offers a female-centred representation of working-class youth, with the focus on a young woman trying to create a sense of self-worth despite the odds being firmly stacked against her. The film also offers a very authentic depiction of estate life and culture. Fish Tank, along with Arnold’s short films and her first feature, Red Road (2006), offer honest and hard-hitting films about the experiences of white working-class women.


Two Days One Night, Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014, Belgium

The Dardenne brothers have made a number of excellent films that focus on working-class life. Their films often show characters who are unemployed or engaged in the informal economy. Two Days, One Night tells the story of a woman fighting to keep her job in a Belgian factory.  This is a story of working-class resilience and the power of collective action and is an incredibly realistic portrayal of life at the edges of society.


Boy, Taika Waititi, 2010, New Zealand

Taika Waititi’s film is a nostalgic story set in rural New Zealand in 1984. The main character, Boy, is a young Maori lad who lives with his grandmother and dreams about his absent father returning from jail.  Although it deals with some serious issues, the film is reasonably light in tone and presents a combination of everyday life for the community and events from Boy’s imagination. The location is stunning, but the poverty is still evident, and the film successfully depicts the social and political reality of life for rural working-class Maori people.


City of God, Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002, Brazil

Meirelles and Lund’s film has courted some controversy, with some critics suggesting that it is voyeuristic and employs a touristic lens in its depiction of the favelas (slums) of Brazil. City of God is a fast-paced, slick film that follows many of the conventions of Hollywood gang-related thrillers, but at its heart it is a story of a young man growing up in poverty observing and recording everyday life around him. Some of this everyday life is extreme, and the film doesn’t shy from crime and violence, but overall it is important for its focus on working-class youth and the effects of poverty on children and young people.


Cart, Boo Ji-Young, 2014, Korea

Boo Ji-Young’s film is an industrial tale (based on a real event) set in a Korean supermarket where a group of workers are fighting against unfair dismissal. The film reveals the strength of women working together to fight injustice. It’s a story that would resonate with anyone who has engaged in industrial action or been the victim of an unjust employer. It is also a tale of the constant fight against sexism and ageism faced by female employees.


Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, 2014, France

French film rarely focuses on the lives of French people of colour, but filmmaker Céline Sciamma wanted to make a film that offered a positive representation of young African-French women. Girlhood is a beautifully shot film set in working-class immigrant neighbourhoods of Paris and offers a compelling insight into the lives of young Black women. The film demonstrates both the ways in which the odds are stacked against young Black working-class women in France and also the strong bonds of female friendship.


Peepli Live, Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India

Anusha Rizvi’s debut film is a satirical comedy based on a very serious subject – the deaths of Indian farmers to suicide due to high levels of debt. The film, set in rural central India, focuses on a poor farmer who is persuaded by his brother to commit suicide in order to obtain financial compensation for his family. Despite the satirical depiction of story-hungry journalists and corrupt government officials, Peepli Live also presents a poignant story of rural village life and highlights the ways in which rural Indians are often dismissed and ignored by those in power.


These films all offer the viewer an insight into working-class life in a variety of contexts and each adds to the already rich body of film work that focuses on working-class experience. Despite the variety of different contexts of these films, there are some commonalities that working-class people from across the globe can relate to – the hardship, struggle, and community are recognisable, but the films each provide a better understanding of the specific cultural and political conditions that intersect with class.  I admire the filmmakers’ commitment to telling the stories of those who are marginalised, and we should not underestimate the empowering effects for working-class people seeing their stories on screen.

Sarah Attfield

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Now They Get It: Health, Class, and Economic Restructuring

In the past few months, many commentators have responded to a recent study that shows increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans. Some have suggested that the increase is the consequence of material poverty resulting from economic restructuring and the neoliberal agenda over the last several decades.

Globalization, trade liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and reductions in the welfare state have not only led to downsizing in many industries, they have also reduced wages and benefits, contributing to growing economic inequality. The nature of many jobs has also changed. Work has been intensified, hours have become increasingly irregular, and workers face anxieties about the loss of their jobs and electronic monitoring of their work. These changes leave workers feeling vulnerable and stressed, and that together with anti-union laws and poorly enforced labor laws limit their ability to fight back. As someone who taught courses in Occupational Safety and Health for many years, I am all too aware that these workplace stresses and the limits of workers’ agency are associated with increases in cardiovascular disease, physical and mental disorders, and acute injuries. In other words, while research has focused on increasing mortality rates, changes in work also contribute to increased health problems, which may, in turn, explain the increases in alcoholism and drug abuse that Anne Case and Angus Deaton see as key factors in the rising death rates.

Workplace stress and insecurity are among the “hidden injuries of class” that compound material poverty. As people adapt to changes in and the loss of work, they become more isolated, and, too often, lose their sense of community and self worth. Worse, they internalize insecurity, blaming themselves for problems at work or for not being able to find a decent job or support their families. That people blame themselves should not surprise us, given the persistent ideal of the American Dream, which promises that individual effort will pay off in upward mobility. No wonder people who have lost jobs or who are working hard but still struggling economically see their challenges as a moral failure or character flaw.

For anyone who has studied the social costs of deindustrialization, none of this is news. In the 1980s, Harvey Brenner determined that for every one percent increase in unemployment there were 650 homicides, 3300 admissions to state mental hospitals, 500 deaths by cirrhosis of the liver, 20,000 deaths by suicide. Other studies focused on displaced workers in the late twentieth century showed increases in incarceration, insomnia, headaches, smoking, child and spousal abuse and stomach disorders, not to mention suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. In many ways, the current research shows not a new trend but rather the long-term impact of economic restructuring and neoliberalism on workers’ lives.

What is new is that these patterns no longer seem to apply primarily to the working class. While Case and Deaton note that poorer and less-educated white people had even higher mortality rates, their study suggests that the pattern also applies to the middle class. This may be what most surprised commentators, for whom the report offered dramatic evidence of an important change in American culture. As Paul Krugman suggested, “We’ve seen this kind of thing in other times and places – for example, in the plunging life expectancy that afflicted Russia after the fall of Communism. But it is a shock to see it, even in an attenuated form, in America.” Krugman and others asked how this could happen. In an interview with Vox, Deaton commented that the middle-aged white people in his study had “lost the narrative of their lives.” While this certainly applies for many in the working class, as Sherry Linkon noted in November, it is also true for growing numbers of middle-class Americans who may have been even more invested in the American Dream.

Also new is the racial pattern. In the 1970s and 80s, death rates for African Americans rose, but in recent decades, they have fallen as the rates for whites have risen. Andrew Cherlin suggests that the difference could be explained by people’s perceptions of how they are doing compared with others like them. As Cherlin writes, “It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.” Put simply, if white working-class people see themselves as losing ground, they may be more likely to consider suicide or engage in self-destructive behaviors.

The impact of economic restructuring on material poverty and health has a long history. In the last 40 years, increases in poverty and the declines in the health of the working class were rationalized as “acceptable” losses associated with major economic change. But what has changed is the demographic landscape. No longer are mortality and morbidity issues associated primarily with the working-class and African Americans. Now, job loss and economic insecurity are impacting the middle class and whites.

I’m reminded of an old adage: when poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window. As middle-class whites increasingly experience the kind of economic insecurity that became normal for so many working-class people years ago, some are losing not just love but also their health and even their lives.

John Russo

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Losing More than a Paycheck: Race and Class Conflict in Two New Plays

We often think of deindustrialization as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s, but, as the recent announcement of the closing of the Carrier factory in Indiana reminds us, plants continue to downsize and close, and industrial workers continue to lose their jobs.   No doubt, the decline in manufacturing represents a major economic loss, not only for workers but also for their communities.  But the loss of jobs brings more than the loss of a paycheck.

Two new plays, both by African-American women, highlight the social costs of deindustrialization. Both are set in the early twenty-first century, in factories that are downsizing, and focus on how workers respond to the threat of losing their jobs. In Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, as four African-American Detroit auto workers talk in the breakroom in their stamping plant, they express conflicting views of work, the union, and solidarity.  Similar tensions emerge in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, set in a workers’ bar near a steel mill in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Over the course of a year, workers lose not only their jobs but also long-time friendships and hopes for the future when the company demands concessions, locks out the workers, and brings in new workers, immigrant and Latino-American, who will work for less.

In both plays, African-American workers have made gains in the workplace, only to find themselves caught between solidarity and opportunity.  Each play includes a character who has been promoted to supervisor, promotions that seem to promise not just individual upward mobility but an important next step for black workers, who had to fight for equal treatment with both their employers and their unions.  The two recently-promoted characters think they will be able to fight for, not with, their rank and file friends, but both discover the limits of their power.   In Sweat, Cynthia is assigned the terrible task of standing at the entrance of the mill and turning the workers away, literally locking out her friends.  When Reggie, in Skeleton Crew, stands up to his boss, who wants to push the most senior of the line workers to retire just months before she earns her 30-year-pension, he discovers his own vulnerability as a black man.  Reggie comes away from the argument shaken, certain that his boss has been frightened by his behavior, that he thinks “I’m that nigga.”

Morisseau focuses on African-American workers, while Nottage highlights the interconnections between race, gender, and class.  Sweat focuses on a close circle of workers, black and white, female and male, across two generations.  Two women who started working in the mill in the 1970s became best friends in part because they helped each other deal with the challenges of being some of the first women in the plant.  Yet their experiences are not identical.  While both Tracey and Cynthia remember how proud they were to get the job, for Tracey, who is white, that meant following her father into the mill and continuing a several-generations-long tradition of labor in the family.  In contrast, Cynthia remembers how getting a job in the mill “felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us.”  Both of their sons also work in the mill, but Cynthia’s son, Chris, wants to get a college degree and become a teacher, to continue his family’s path toward the middle class, while his friend Jason sees steelwork as a good and reliable job.

Their friendships and lives are disrupted, first by Cynthia’s promotion and then by the lockout, and loyalties built around gender and class fracture along racial lines. Tracey tells anyone who will listen that Cynthia was promoted because she is a minority, and she eggs Jason on when he starts a fight with Oscar, the Columbian-American busboy at the bar, who has crossed the picket line in pursuit of his own better life.  While Sweat shows how the loss of work undermines solidarity, the play also reminds us that, in the end, no one is likely to win.  By the time the play is done, the mill has closed, and everyone is struggling to get by, but now without the social network that had once been so important.

These plays are striking for several reasons.  Both playwrights use plant closings as a means of exploring inequality and the continuing struggles of the working class, and each was inspired by the writer’s personal interactions but also her political commitments.  Morisseau told the New York Times about meeting a woman in Detroit who was living in her car.  She was troubled to realize that “This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars.”  The program for Sweat describes how Nottage was inspired to write the play, in part, because of an email she received from a friend who was struggling financially.  That message made her realize that “probably most of us are living two or three doors away from someone who is either in poverty or on the verge of poverty, and that’s the nature of the culture we’re living in right now.”

Both plays reflect the writers’ engagement with individuals and communities that had experienced the economic and social losses of deindustrialization. Nottage set her play in Reading because the U.S. Census identified it as the poorest city in the country.  She spent two years interviewing locals, including the locked out workers at a steel mill, and collecting images and stories. For Morisseau, Skeleton Crew completes a three-play sequence focused on black lives in Detroit.  In the program notes for the play, she writes that the talked with experts and United Auto Worker activists, as well as friends and acquaintances, about their experiences with the industry’s decline.  She describes the play as being “about the people behind the unions,” and she acknowledges that “there is more to the auto world than I could ever capture,” but she wants to “salute the story behind the play,” too. By engaging directly and thoughtfully with working-class communities, these playwrights honor the experiences and voices of working-class people.

Finally, these plays fill some problematic gaps in contemporary writing about the long-term effects of deindustrialization.  So many of the Rust Belt novels, stories, poems, and films produced in the last two decades focus on how deindustrialization affected white working-class men, and while there may be good reasons for that (especially the different histories of white and black industrial workers), we need to understand both the ways that deindustrialization has harmed African-American working-class people and how it influences the way race, gender, and class work together and against each other.  Skeleton Crew and Sweat provide both, and they do so in ways that reflect the political engagement and attention to the lived experiences that are central to working-class literature.

Sherry Linkon

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A Date in a Diary

A couple of weeks back I learnt of the death of one of the signalmen I used to work with on the London Underground. Geoff Revell, who died of cancer at the age of seventy-three, had been active politically and in the union since the 1960s. The jungle telegraph of retired and still active underground workers ensured that nobody who had known Geoff was unaware of his passing or the subsequent funeral arrangements. I owed Geoff a lot, although I never really got the chance to tell him. I first came across him when I was a green kid just beginning on the job. I wrote an impatient snotty letter to my union branch secretary demanding to know why that year’s union diary had failed to show. Geoff wrote back a letter explaining patiently that the diaries had not been distributed because of the death of the branch secretary.  He went on to list the various activities and priorities for the branch still mourning its leader, including dealing with hundreds of industrial injury claims and, in the nicest possible way, hinted that my diary could wait. At the end of the letter he suggested that I might want to become involved in the branch in order to lend a hand. I was there at the next branch meeting. Geoff’s response was perfectly pitched, offering a between-the-line rebuke to a stupid kid with the wrong priorities but worded positively enough to get him involved in something much bigger than himself.

By the early 1980s, Geoff was a full-time union representative on the Underground, where he was known affectionately as the ‘Perry Mason of the Disciplinary Board’ because he never lost a case! Stories about Geoff’s interactions with management were legion.  One that stuck in my mind, although I suspect it’s at least an exaggeration, was that he once had the management representatives crying at a disciplinary hearing for a worker accused of stealing.  The worker got off the charge. Geoff embodied working-class pride and confidence.  He was quick witted, incredibly funny, and had a comic’s sense of timing when telling stories, as is clear in a video of him paying tribute to the late RMT leader Bob Crow.

While Geoff was gifted in many ways, he was not unique in the workplace culture from which he sprang. Contemporary accounts of working class identity, both in the UK and the USA, sometimes treat it as damaged, a position that any rational person should aim to leave as soon as they could. But Geoff and people like him made being working class attractive, something that many would want to be.  It was a badge of achievement not shame. I know this was true for me. I spent just five short years on the Underground in the 1980s, but I grew up in those years in a rich and stimulating environment. For at least a few years, I was lucky enough to see and be part of a self-confident working-class culture, it had lots of faults, to be sure, but it was simultaneously enriching and empowering for those who enjoyed it.

We often hear that this positive reading of class in the thirty years after World War II is just nostalgia, a rose-tinted version of the past.  But I think there is a lot more to it than that.  It’s an era that we can look back on for clues for our future. As a sociologist I’ve spent three decades trying to figure out the culture I experienced, but I also ask if it is a culture we can still see. Was it dependent on stable jobs, near full employment, and strong trade unionism? With the erosion of those conditions, have we seen the last of that industrial atmosphere? Or, alternatively, is this type of working-class culture alive and well but hidden from view unless one carefully looks for it? My answer is that while all those factors are important we must not talk ourselves out of believing that change is possible, that individually and especially collectively, we can make a difference in the lives of others.

I was unable to get to Geoff’s funeral and wake, because – perhaps appropriately — I was working. Friends later told me about the way the police had closed streets to make way for the funeral cortège, how the union band had led the procession, and how union flags lined the route to the crematorium. They also described the wake afterwards, where they sang old union songs like The Ballad of Joe Hill and the Internationale and where family, friends and former colleagues shared moving reflections on Geoff’s life.  One story described how, when Geoff had gone into hospital for the final time days before his death, the Junior Doctors were on strike and picketing the hospital gates. The doctor treating Geoff gleefully told him that he at least was not on strike and was able to treat him. Geoff motioned to the medic to come talk to him. After a whispered word in his ear, a visibly chastened doctor walked away, in some versions of the story in tears. So Geoff was reminding people of the importance of solidarity and class to the end.

We need more people like Geoff in the workplace and in our communities.  They won’t be identical to him, and the context they work in will be very different, but as Geoff taught us, we can all make a difference whether by a word in an ear or in a note about a diary. Rest in peace, Geoff. For so many working-class people, you made a difference and will continue to do so.

 Tim Strangleman

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Black Homes Matter: The Fate of Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

“I live here.  I’m from here.  My whole family is here.   We try to stay close together.  This is America.  I’m a Marine, I went to war three times.  I served my country.  It feels crazy not to be able to live in my own area where I grew up,” writes an East Liberty resident in Black Homes Matter, a booklet describing alternative approaches to neighborhood revitalization in the city of Pittsburgh.  Since the Reagan-era shut-down of funding for public housing projects, the lack of decent affordable housing for low-income people has become a crisis in many cities.  San Francisco and Seattle are notorious for pushing out poor and working-class residents, but mid-sized cities like Pittsburgh will be following suit unless city governments have the courage to implement equitable development.

Pittsburgh has been designated the “most livable city” in the US several times in the past decade.  It gets points for its parks and rivers, excellent universities and hospitals, low crime rate, strong family-centered neighborhoods, expanding high-tech economy, and fine dining.  Of course, The Economist and Forbes magazine do not consider how the city’s livability is distributed unequally across lines of race and class.   The facts that we have among the steepest bus fares in the nation, the lowest minimum wages, and high infant mortality among African Americans do not figure in rankings designed to attract tourists and new businesses to the city.

Housing is one of the sharpest of these class-race fault lines, as gentrification accelerates in desirable neighborhoods.  In a city already segregated by race, affordable housing is rapidly being replaced by high-end units for young professionals attracted by the city’s hi-tech reinvention of itself after the decline of steel and other industries.  The former Nabisco factory in East Liberty now houses a Google hub in the Bakery Square mall and “village,” with an LA Fitness gym, Anthropologie store, and high-priced coffee shops.   Its developer received major public funding because the project borders a “blighted” neighborhood, whose mostly black residents have hardly benefitted from the action.  Few local residents are employed by the new businesses in their neighborhood.

East Liberty is also the site of a nearly completed Transit-Oriented Development project along the Port Authority’s east bus-way.  Residents of the 360 new apartments, built by private developers with infrastructure provided by the city, will be able to get downtown in twelve minutes.  Rents in the transit center buildings start at $1,100 a month for a studio apartment.   No units have been reserved for tenants whose income is below the city’s median income, which in Pittsburgh is $37,161 overall, and $21,790 for black residents.  Calculating housing expenses at 30% of income, maximum rents would be $929 and $545 respectively.  In the absence of inclusionary zoning, or other enforcement for equity, there is no room in the attractive new development for even the average city resident, let alone those getting by on much lower incomes.  Ironically, these are traditionally the primary users of public transit.  Pittsburgh is on a course to follow Washington DC, where a recent Washington Post study found that neighborhoods with Metro stops are now majority white, and “the Metrorail system is becoming more inaccessible to minority workers.”

Throughout what was a predominantly black neighborhood, residents are being forced out either through direct eviction from public housing that is being demolished for re-development or because rents have risen beyond their means. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Diana Nelson Jones writes, “Many who are leaving East Liberty can’t find rental housing under $800. Many are having to accept living without adequate services, including transit, outside city neighborhoods where they have earned a sense of belonging. The vast majority are our elders, lifelong laborers and the working poor. Nobody should get sick with stress in the struggle to pay their expenses, then get sent off to the fringes.”  But that is the current reality.  One resident quoted in Black Homes Matter says, “We wasted six months looking for something affordable around here so we finally moved out to Millvale.  I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I get very little sleep.  And I miss my neighborhood.”

As a white middle-class resident of a neighborhood bordering East Liberty, I have benefited from the area’s revitalization.  I shop at Trader Joes and Home Depot and eat at Chipotle and Whole Foods.  I have a choice of three nearby yoga studios.  The house I bought twenty years ago for $50K, with help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority because it was in a “transitional” neighborhood, is now worth upwards of $300K.  My street, which was mixed-race back then, now appears to be entirely white, despite being majority rental.   There’s a deep injustice in the fact that many residents who lived through the period of “blight” in the neighborhood are not here to share in its renewal or in the wealth being generated.  Some residents who stay no longer feel at home: “There are people looking at me like ‘what are you doing here?’  I had my first kiss on that street.”

Along with its “most livable” designation, Pittsburgh is also credited these days for its progressive city administration.  Mayor Bill Peduto, in office since 2014, is listed alongside New York’s Bill De Blasio as a leader willing to tackle structural inequality in his city.  Bakery Square and the East Liberty TOD were initiated before Peduto’s term, and he has recently set up an Affordable Housing Task Force.  A test case will come with the development of the “28 acres,” a vast parking lot between downtown and the largely black Hill District.  This was the site in the 1960s of one of Pittsburgh’s most brutal acts of “urban renewal” – or “negro removal” as activists call it.  8,000 people were displaced and their homes and businesses razed to make way for an arena and parking for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.  The arena has been demolished and the Penguins have relocated, but they still own the land and they refuse to include more than 12% of affordable housing on the site.  With “affordable” defined as 80% of the market rate, even those few homes will be out of reach for descendants of the families that used to live in what was a thriving community.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  On Pittsburgh’s North Side we have a counter-example: a strong tenant council prevented the eviction of more than 300 low-income families from Section 8 housing slated for redevelopment.  Working with the URA and other agencies, Northside Coalition for Fair Housing acquired properties and used a “rehab for resale” strategy to keep people in their homes.  “The result has been higher-quality housing, safer and more attractive neighborhoods, and increased tenant incomes,” according to the Pittsburgh Fair Development Action Group, which produced Black Homes Matter.  The group advocates a range of strategies to resist displacement and support resident control in neighborhoods threatened by gentrification: inclusionary zoning, community land trusts, rent stabilization, tenant ownership schemes.

There is no shortage of successful models from around the country.  In Pittsburgh and other cities, we need the political will to hold private property developers accountable to equitable standards and to include residents in determining plans for improvement of their communities.  Affordable housing and accessible transit are essential to neighborhoods that are “livable” for all.

Nick Coles


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Nick Coles, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Foreclosure Crisis: At the Movies

If you haven’t seen The Big Short, the movie version of Michael Lewis’s fascinating book about the explosion of the housing bubble,you should see it for the entertainment value alone. The film tells an important story with humor, relative accuracy and strong acting.  It is so good that it has been nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. But the film largely ignores the experiences of the homeowners who signed notes and mortgages that backed the securities and derivatives that the film describes.  A decade later, millions of working-class homeowners are still suffering from results of the greed and recklessness so well documented by the movie.

Another recent film about the housing crisis, 99 Homes, released last spring to far less acclaim, details the pain and humiliation many suffered as their lives unraveled trying to make the payments on the predatory mortgage loans that backed those bonds. Payments on loans that never made sense became even more unsustainable when the Wall Street bubble caused housing values to crash, leaving many people with “under water” mortgages in which they owe more on their homes than they were now worth In my law practice, I try to help under water borrowers as they painstakingly work to piece their financial lives back together, stabilize their housing situation, and create a better future for their families.

The next time you walk your dog around the block in Las Vegas, Cleveland, Chicago, Daytona Beach, Toledo, or Jacksonville, keep in mind that it’s likely that the owner of every fourth house you pass probably owes more than the house is worth. Realty Trac reports that, as of the third quarter of 2015, 6,917,673 American homeowners owners are under water. In the Cleveland area, where I live and practice law, 27.2% of homes are worth less than the balance of the mortgage, the third highest rate in the U.S.  Nationally, among homes in the foreclosure process, over 50% of distressed and delinquent properties are significantly under water. With wages stagnant (the Economic Policy Institute pegs wage rate increase at 1.8% since 2000) and no home equity, many homeowners who are not already in default are just one furnace repair or roof replacement away from foreclosure.

Ironically, federal government policymakers have contributed to the lingering problem of under water mortgages. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (which was created by Congress to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after taxpayers bailed them out) still prohibits those two quasi-governmental agencies, which hold many of these mortgages, from reducing principal when they modify delinquent loans. Principal reductions are also prohibited on loans insured by the Federal Housing Agency (FHA), a division of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or those insured by the Veterans Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture. If homeowners can’t renegotiate these loans as the value of their houses decreases, they are even more likely to end out under water.

The Federal Government’s latest solution is to allow Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and FHA to sell pools of seriously defaulted loans to hedge funds at a discount. While the new policy would allow the hedge funds to reduce the principal on loans that they acquire, the servicers working for these investors have shown little enthusiasm for these potentially lucrative but logistically challenging loan modifications.  Instead, they have insisted on liquidating the properties that secure the mortgages.

Working-class homeowners seeking to modify their home loans have been further impaired by the shift of loan servicing rights from the major banks who agreed to clean up their business practices in the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement to smaller hedge fund backed loan servicers like Ocwen, Nationstar, Selene Finance, Fay Servicing, BSI, and others. These mortgage loan servicers operate on smaller margins with an often under-trained offshore workforce who fail miserably at properly re-underwriting distressed loans.

New regulations to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act ( RESPA and the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) promulgated by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau set standards for mortgage loan servicing and create a private right of action for homeowners, and these policies may force servicers to become more responsive.  So far, though, there’s little evidence that servicers will change their practices. Rather, the industry seems to treat the prospect of paying money to persistent homeowners and their lawyers just a cost of doing business.

For those who have been forced from their homes by foreclosure over the past decade, the prospect of being pursued for a deficiency judgment remains. Reuters reported in 2014 that Fannie Mae was among the most aggressive investors in suing former homeowners for the difference between the balance on their loans and the price obtained by selling the property at auction.

The bottom line for working-class homeowners is that the real life consequences of the Wall Street fraud and avarice exposed in the Big Short and poignantly portrayed in 99 Homes will be with us for years to come.

Marc Dann

Marc Dann is Managing Partner of the Dann Law Firm. He specializes in representing clients who have been harmed by banks, debt buyers, debt collectors, and other financial predators,  including a case that he recently argued before the Ohio Supreme Court. He has fought for the rights of thousands of consumers and brought class action lawsuits in both private practice and as Ohio’s Attorney General.



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Organizing Miracles

The problem with collective action is you can’t do it on your own. Massive popular collective action emerges from mysterious movements in the Zeitgeist, but it also requires dedicated organizing that often seems not just unlikely but almost miraculous. When it happens, however, popular collective action can upend immutable social realities, make the impossible probable, and achieve an historic jerk toward freedom and democracy in the most hopeless of circumstances.

I was reminded of this when I visited St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig last St Nicholas Churchsummer. 26 years ago, the city was part of East Germany, the most thoroughly organized system of repression in the string of East European “people’s republics.” A simple 8-panel pamphlet provided by the church takes 2 panels to explain the building’s cobbled-together character as pieces were added, restored, or redone in different architectural styles since the church was founded in the 12th century. In passing, those 2 panels also mention that Johann Sebastian Bach was once the organist and choir director there. The other 6 panels, however, are devoted to explaining the central role the church played as a gathering place for nonviolent protesters in the 1980s, leading to the night of October 9, 1989 when, according to the pamphlet, a “miracle” happened.

For most of the 1980s the church had held Monday evening “prayer meetings” that had initially included a few dozen people focused on planning anti-nuclear protests. Over time the meetings began to attract hundreds as the church welcomed East German dissidents of all kinds, “Christians and Non-Christians alike.” By 1989 Nikolaikirche was filling its 2,000 seats with people unified around both open borders and democratic reform but divided between “We want to leave” and “We’re staying here.”   Against the background of ongoing peaceful revolutions in Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, East Germany was seen as the place where both the peace and the revolutionary processes would end. By September, head of government Erich Honecker was openly threatening “the Chinese solution,” referring to the massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square that May. The evening of October 9 in Leipzig was supposed to be the German Tiananmen.

The “Monday prayers” had become protest demonstrations disrupting traffic on the 10-lane ring road surrounding central Leipzig. These had started with a thousand or so demonstrators, but in the two weeks prior to October 9 they had attracted first six thousand and then ten thousand. Organizers hoped for double or even triple that on October 9. Orders from Honecker were to stop the march at the “Eastern Knot” using “all measures necessary” and to “fight them with no compromises.”

While organizers preached the gospel (and the tactics and mechanics) of nonviolence, they did not gainsay the expectation that violence would be used against them, and government media did more than hint that October 9 would be a final showdown. By mid-afternoon Nikolaikirche had filled its pews for its 5 pm prayer, and thousands more were gathering outside and at other churches nearby. It was a quiet, fearful crowd, by most accounts, punctuated more by nervous chatter than by joy at seeing the numbers gathering inside the ring. Organizers had hoped for 20 or 30 thousand, the government had prepared for “as many as 50 thousand.”   At 6:30, as the crowds pushed onto the ring road off Karl Marx Square and headed north for the “Eastern Knot,” local government officials told East Berlin headquarters that “there are 100 thousand, if not more.” This massive number paralyzed the central government for 45 minutes, leaving the final order to impose the Chinese solution to local officials. They decided not to.

As Honecker planned aerial bombing of the ring road for the following Monday’s demonstration, he was deposed in an internal government coup. A month later the Berlin Wall fell. Shortly after that the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia, followed by others in the Eastern Bloc and eventually in the Soviet Union itself.

The “miracle” of October 9 in Leipzig is not only that the government did not massacre thousands and disperse the crowd, or that the protestors remained nonviolent. To me, the greater miracle is the tens of thousands of individual decisions by those who showed up that night, especially those not previously active, despite the Great Fear the government had tried to instill – or possibly because of it. Why did people not crawl deeper into the repressive holes of their private lives and instead show up to be shot or imprisoned? Was it simply wits-end desperation or a new sense of possibility? Was it a principled decision to stand up for one’s own and others’ humanity come what may or was it simply a desire to be part of the action with plans to run if things went bad?

In Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, contributors analyze Leipzig and 18 other experiences of non-violent “revolutionary crowds” from India and the U.S. civil rights movement to Ukraine (in 2004) and Burma. Co-editor Timothy Garton Ash discerns “an international learning chain” in these experiences, with organizers and activists learning from each other’s successes and failures.  But these studies cannot adequately account for why so many people show up when they do. “I have spent many hours of my life standing in revolutionary crowds,” Ash comments, “and they remain gloriously mysterious. What is it that sways them one way or another? Who is that comes up with the chants that erupt, apparently spontaneously, as the crowd speaks back to the speaker as if it were itself one person?” He calls these “pentecostal moments, when ordinary men and women speak as if inspired.”

EasternKnotMuralOn my visit, I walked the Leipzig ring road and was amazed to see a huge commemorative mural splashed across the Leipzig Marriott Hotel overlooking a ring-road parking lot and facing “the Eastern Knot.”

This crazy mural shows one-eyed expressionless cartoon characters massing on two sides of a broken wall, some escaping in a hot-air balloon, but most are gathered around banners reading “Freedom,” “Democracy Now,” and “We’re staying here.” The more I looked at that mass of cartoonish humanity, the more I was struck by how “gloriously mysterious” such “pentecostal moments” are. The artist, Michael Fischer-Art, must have realized that any interpretation of what people were thinking or feeling during that moment could not have been accurate and would have dissipated the mystery.

What is not mysterious is the “international learning chain” that today’s organizers, professional and volunteer, are employing and advancing to create these moments – or rather to create the conditions that, when circumstances align, can bring masses of people into action to jerk the arc of history toward justice. I’ve been fortunate to be organized by some of them in my time, and they’re a bit of a mystery, too. What keeps them motivated day in and day out to pursue the smallish efforts that might win small victories that just might lead to larger ones? Some are crazy optimists who see possibilities where I see only obstacles, but many are severely realistic with a certain “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” that seems thoroughly unnatural to me.

As I begin a new year with more worried Weltschmerz than I’m used to, I’m glad I spent a few days last summer as a tourist in Leipzig. It reminds me of all those young organizers I know (some now middle-aged) who persist in small groups in hopes of creating larger ones. It reminds me that sometimes their persistence results in pentecostal moments and new links in the learning chain – and sometimes even miracles.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

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