Beyond their caricature of the working class

July 19, 2017

At the Socialism conference in Chicago earlier this month, journalist Sarah Jaffe and author Sharon Smith joined forces to lead a session on "'Rust Belt Reactionaries'? The U.S. Working Class Today." Here, edited for publication, is the presentation by Sarah Jaffe, a journalist for numerous publications, including the Nation and In These Times, and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. You can click here for Sharon Smith's talk.

IF YOU'RE like me, you've probably been really annoyed by a lot of the conversations that have been happening in mainstream political discussion since this election. Particularly about the working class. What is it? Who is it? What does it do? Who did it vote for? We're hopefully going to tackle at least some of these questions here today. And I get to start us off.

Donald Trump did something that Republicans don't normally do, which is he ran left on a few key issues. He talked about getting rid of NAFTA and other bad trade deals that have really decimated working people's lives in a lot of places.

He did that very consciously. He thought about which voters he was going to be able to pick off from Hillary Clinton, and why Hillary Clinton in particular would be vulnerable to losing those voters, and he focused in on that.

In particular, he and Bernie Sanders both focused on one story that broke right in the middle of the campaign--that was the story of a Carrier plant in Indiana where layoffs were announced.

Donald Trump addresses reporters at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis
Donald Trump addresses reporters at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis

The Carrier story was a story that's happened many times in the last several decades. Plant closes down, moving to Mexico or somewhere else, and you have hundreds of workers who are out of their jobs. In the case of Carrier, there was a video of workers hearing this news that went viral.

Donald Trump really homed in on this--despite the fact that all those workers hate Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, who became his vice presidential nominee, in a move that was obviously also about subduing the reactionary anti-choice right.

After the election, I was talking to the good folks at the Nation Institute about what we do now that Donald Trump is president, and I said I wanted to go to Indiana and follow up on this Carrier story.

And shortly after the election, before he was even inaugurated, Trump sort of followed through on his promise to do something about the Carrier plant closing and moving production to Mexico. He and Mike Pence cut a deal with the company that owns Carrier--which is a major military contractor and gets [$5.6 billion dollars a year] in our tax dollars to make weaponry--where at least some of the production at that factory would stay in this country.

The factory, meanwhile, was still losing some 600 jobs. A lot of those layoffs were going to come right before Christmas--Merry Christmas!--but this was Trump's real "Mission accomplished" moment. Everybody remembers when George W. Bush went on the aircraft carrier with his flight suit--this was Trump's version of that.

He rolls in and takes all these pictures with these workers, and if you see the pictures from this plant, you already see that the story we're hearing about the working class is a lie. You see women workers in this plant, you see Black and Latino workers in this plant, all being used for a photo op for Donald Trump.

SO TRUMP goes in and says, "We're going to keep the plant here!" But of course, it turns out that not all those jobs are staying. And when I went a few months after that to see what was going on, there was another plant down the street from the Carrier plant that's also closing, which Donald Trump has not done anything about.

I also happened to be there at the same time as a third plant, where the workers are in the same union as the other two, was on strike. Which I thought was a really gutsy move--you're literally standing on the picket line and looking at a factory that's being shut down, and you're like: "Well, whatever."

I talked to a lot of the workers at all these plants. I talked to some people who voted for Donald Trump, and they had some different stories about why they did.

I was talking to this one guy who voted for Trump, and he's telling me about going to a union training program every year at Eugene Debs old house in Terre Haute, Indiana. This guy has a Eugene Debs pin on his bag, and he says to me, "You know, neither party gives a damn about the working man--maybe we need a working man's party."

There was another guy who was a lifelong registered Democrat, and he says, "You know, I can do four years standing on my head. This guy's at least talking about me, so give him a chance." I talked to another guy who was your basic Fox News viewer, and possibly what a lot of people are thinking of when they say "Rust Belt reactionary."

So these were the stories I was getting, but I also talked to a lot of workers--white workers, Black workers, male and female workers--who did not vote for Donald Trump. The union had endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary and actually stayed neutral in the general election because a lot of members were supporters of Trump.

But with the Trump voters, this is really the story of the working class that we have heard from the media. If they weren't swayed by the racist rhetoric, they weren't bothered enough by it for that to overweigh the fact that this guy at least appeared to be talking about their interests.

THAT'S THE story we've heard--about white, male workers in industrial Midwest cities. But what happens is that class gets talked about as if it's an identity category that only belongs to white men. It's as if Black and Latino people have race, and women have gender, but white men have class.

I probably don't have to tell anyone at this conference that this is a total misunderstanding of class. But that's the conversation that's out there.

Meanwhile, the fastest growing jobs in this country are retail work, fast food and food service, home health care, and registered nurses. These are jobs that are done mostly by women--home care and registered nurses are 80 to 90 percent women. And other than nursing, these are low-wage, non-union jobs. This is what the working class actually looks like now.

After I got back from Indiana, I started chasing a story about retail workers. I went out to Emeryville, California, which is a fascinating little place that we could talk about forever.

I was there because Emeryville had just passed a bill that would give retail workers some say over their schedule. It requires something called predictability pay, which means that if your boss changes your schedule less than two weeks out, they have to pay you an extra hour. And it requires that if they want to send you home early or change your schedule at the last minute, they have to pay you for that.

So this is the new frontier after getting to the $15 an hour minimum wages. Emeryville has the highest minimum wage in the country, and they passed a requirement for sick days. After that, this is what people are fighting for. They're thinking about time, and I'm going to come back to that question at the end.

But while I was working on that retail story, I learned that the famous Homestead Steel factory in Pittsburgh, the site of one of the country's most famous labor battles, is now a shopping mall.

I'm really fascinated by this. I talked to folks with the UFCW in Pittsburgh who represented workers at a Macy's that closed--you don't hear about retail stores closing the way we hear about plant closings.

I also talked to workers at Bloomingdale's in New York City, who have been union for 80 years. The workers at Bloomingdale's had stories that were much closer to the ones I heard talking to people at the union plants in Indiana. These are people who had worked at the store for 20 to 30 years. In some cases, they were second- or third-generation Bloomingdale's workers. This was a life for them, not just a job you have for a couple years.

The story that I've been working on for the past three weeks is about home care workers. Home care workers are under threat right now, not just because the Supreme Court recently ruled that they were only partial public employees; not just because they've never been included in labor laws because of...well, because of racism; but because if the Republicans succeed in gutting Medicaid, many home care jobs will disappear, because something like 72 percent of home care work is funded through Medicaid.

If they slash Medicaid, that would not only cut lifesaving services for tens of thousands of people, it's going to cut tens of thousands of home care jobs--jobs that are disproportionately done by Black and Brown women who are immigrants. And these are low-wage jobs--home care jobs pay an average of a little over $10 an hour.

This relates to the question of infrastructure. Donald Trump is making big promises about "we're going to build infrastructure" and "we care about the working class." They're talking about roads and bridges, and all of that is really important. I live north of New York City, but I take the subway regularly, and it's kind of falling apart.

But we don't talk about the fact that home care work is also our infrastructure. This is all related to the way we talk about who a worker is and what is the working class.

I WANT to circle back to this question of the way we talk about class as something that certain people have and other people don't have. A lot of the articles since the election that have debated whether it was racism or economic anxiety that made people vote for Trump also quibbled about the distinction of what is working class.

A lot of the media are using education as a proxy for class position. That's a problem that I can illustrate by talking about the folks I interviewed at the Carrier plant. I talked to one worker with an advanced degree, I talked to one worker with a bachelor's degree, and I talked to one worker who dropped out of high school and started working at a factory right after that, when he was 17--he had to lie about his age.

All of these guys are doing the same job, making the same wage and are members of the same union. Yet if we're using education as a way to discern what class is, they're all in different class levels.

This isn't to say that education doesn't play a role, but again, talk to the retail workers in Emeryville.

There's a guy who was working at Barnes and Noble and is now an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which is the group that's working on these bills for low-wage workers--and he was finishing an advanced degree while working at Barnes and Noble.

As anyone with an advanced degree can tell you, it's not actually easy to get an academic job anymore. And when you do get an academic job, you may well be an adjunct--where you're basically still a low-wage worker.

So when we talk about these proxies for class, they're not actually accurate. It's actually hard to look at a set of demographics and decide what class is.

THERE ARE a few things we do know about elections and the working class. We know that poor people vote less often. We know that Black voter turnout was notably down. We know that Hillary Clinton won voters who make under $50,000 a year, but that Trump did make inroads in those categories.

And we also know what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said last night: that when 61 percent of the eligible voters vote in a presidential election, that means a whole lot of people are not being served by this whole process--and most of the people who are not being served by this process are poor and working class people.

One of the things that we've talked about a lot since this election is that the Democratic Party strategy right now is to abandon the working class. They are very, very explicit about this being the strategy. On the campaign trail, both Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, and Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York, both said almost exactly the same thing: For every working class voter we lose, we'll pick up two in the suburbs.

But their math is pretty bad. We call them the 1 Percent for a reason--there aren't actually that many rich people to get to vote for the Democrats. But this is the strategy, and you see it with the elections that have happened since the presidential race.

The Democratic Party poured its money into a suburban district outside of Atlanta, because this was the strategy that they've decided on: "We're going to win well-off suburban voters who are going to be bothered by Trump's vulgarity." As opposed to the people who are actually under attack from Trump's policies. We saw how well that worked out.

That's the strategy on one side. The strategy on the other side is just a straight-up assault, as can be seen from the amount of jobs that will be lost under just this health care bill, as I mentioned.

Donald Trump failed, thanks to a lot of protest, to put a fast-food executive in charge of the Labor Department, which was really taking the wrecking crew to the next level. But he's still going to do all sorts of things to destroy working people's standard of living.

This Labor Department isn't going to do anything for working people. We've got cases moving toward the Supreme Court that want to finish up where the Harris v. Quinn decision left off and make the entire public sector right to work.

The National Labor Relations Board was already a mess--it was broken on purpose under a Democratic administration. It's going to be next to nonexistent under a Republican one. University administrators are playing waiting games right now until the NLRB reverses the decision that allowed graduate student workers to unionize.

SO WE'RE looking at a period where we--I say this assuming we all consider ourselves a part of the working class here--are under attack. We then have to understand what the working class is, what it looks like, and where its power is.

I'm going to wrap up by giving you all a question that I want you to think about, and I'm sure that a lot of people here have already been mulling over. We have to think about what the new working class organizations look like in a world where the regime we've depended on since the 1930s is dismantled.

Because that's what's likely going to happen. We are going to have public-sector right to work. We're going to have basically a nonfunctional union election process--which is really what we already have. These things are coming.

We have some ideas--we're in a room where we have a lot of members of socialist organizations. But my question is: What are we building that will actually move forward past this impasse that the labor movement has been at for the last 50, 60, 70 years? I'm going to leave you all thinking about that and hand this over to Sharon.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein

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