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Tamara Draut of Demos is armed and ready to talk about the working class in America. And companies should start listening.



America, 2016—the Joads don’t live here anymore. You remember the Joads, right? Okies trying to escape poverty in the Grapes of Wrath. Neither do all those folks out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—Lithuanian immigrant types working in disgusting meatpacking plants. And Norma Rae is MIA in North Carolina. (If you remember her at all. Sally Field won an Oscar in 1979 for starring as the plucky factory worker— you liked her, you really, really liked her.) Come to think of it, if you’re looking for union-minded, working-class heroes these days in the U.S., you’ll probably have to retreat to a high school library or stream online an old Oscar contender biopic. But a new breed of them is out there. Tamara Draut, vice-president of policy and research at the think tank, Demos, in New York has tracked them down. In her new book, Sleeping Giant, she writes about a 62-year-old black woman who works at Walmart for $12.02 U.S. an hour: “Arlene, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago at the age of 17, today works in a job where she compares the way she’s treated to our nation’s greatest moral stain”—slavery. Only a couple of pages later, she tells the story of a 32-year-old black man literally worn out and on short-term physical disability from stacking pallets for Coca-Cola, a job that has quota demands and only pays 8.4 cents for each case moved; it doesn’t pay for breaks and denies time off for sick leave. Naturally, many of the workers in Draut’s chronicle live in crushing poverty.

Draut was struck by the “erasing of the humanity of people in these workplaces, just the complete lack of respect for them as people, and the complete lack of dignity that they’ve been provided on the job. You know, I talk about in the book that disrespect has really become baked into our working class jobs, and it surrounds people both directly in terms of the way they are often treated by their direct supervisor, to the size of their pay cheque, to the fact that their schedule is subject to change every week, and they’re often not given advance notice, and then to the fact that here in the States we still don’t have it as a federal right that workers should be able to take a certain number of sick days, if they themselves are sick, or if a member of their family is sick.”

And the indisputable conclusion is that massive financial efforts are being brought to bear in the U.S. to keep these people down. Back in the 1920s, a company hired goons to go around cracking skulls with baseball bats; it was union busting in the literal sense of the word (go stream Reds; great movie, won Best Picture, plus it even mentions Winnipeg). But now the term is “union avoidance,” and companies can legally hold their workers in what are called “captive audience meetings” to dissuade employees from signing up with collective bargaining units. Draut says the tactic has been part of the backlash to the National Labor Relations Act, which has allowed unions to thrive, and as she points out in her book, “There were only 100 union-avoidance firms in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, there were 1,000.” There’s a particularly execrable organization in the U.S. that bills itself as a think tank and calls itself the Freedom Foundation, but it happens to oppose a minimum wage and mandatory sick leave and has sponsored an event in the past for ex-Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck. And as the UK’s Guardian reported recently, the group sent its door knockers to the homes of more than 10,000 childcare and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon—just to tell them they can opt out of paying union dues.

At this point, you can almost be forgiven as a C-suite type (almost) for wondering, Why the hell should I care? Well, besides normal compassion, it’s worth remembering that a union also streamlines and channels various processes, which can make a company’s life a lot easier. There’s a big difference between one disgruntled worker going rogue with a loud lawsuit and a formalized grievance procedure that could be resolved in a quiet, negotiated settlement.

Draut, however, can offer an arguably more compelling reason on the big picture economic front, “that unions have, throughout the history of America, been what has allowed us to have a middle class that didn’t require getting a four-year college degree. And I’m actually one of those individuals who grew up in a household where based on education level, neither of my parents had college degrees, but my Dad had a union job at a steel factory, and we had a middle class lifestyle. That is essentially off the table at this point. The blue collar middle class is almost extinct here, and the reality is… we have allowed the erosion of wages and benefits to a point that it is nearly impossible to live a middle class life as an hourly wage worker.”

The whole process, she says, “has been chipping away over time…” While the public argument is that unionization will “lead to job loss and that companies will flee the States to go to states where unions aren’t so prevalent, that’s not the real animating factor for why conservatives really despise unions. It’s really the threat of the political power that gets built when workers belong to a union, and the union gets them engaged in the political process. That’s more of a threat to conservatives then the fact that workers might finally get their rightful share of profits.”

Perhaps they should be worried. For the first time since… well, ever, a presidential candidate can actually call himself a socialist—and actually be taken seriously. But at the opposite end from Bernie Sanders is… Ugh. He Who Should Not Be Named. With the orange orangutan hair, the bluster, the unapologetic racism. Draut believes two strands of populism are happening in the U.S. right now. “Sanders is definitely acknowledging [working class] frustration with a system that has all but ignored their needs for decades, and then Trump is channeling their frustration in a very different and toxic way, which is that he’s given them a scapegoat for their pain and suffering, and he’s serving it out in the form of scapegoating immigrants and people of colour for the state of affairs that the white working class finds itself in.”

I ask Draut how a discussion over unions and worker rights can even start when the term “socialism” has been so demonized in the U.S. “I think the central explanatory factor for why we don’t have…the kind of welfare state that many other countries have, is because we have a very large problem of race in this country, where racism has been used as a wedge to divide the working class, and to create the perception that government benefits are for ‘other individuals’ and not for your hard-working person… And the reason we have such a threadbare safety net, and a less generous welfare state, is because we have a very heterogeneous population, and we have a political system that has exploited racial anxiety and racial hostility, to prevent government from doing what it needs to do to help all of its citizens.”

Nor has the mainstream media been much help. Draut points out in her book as well that the media—far from being shills for a left-wing agenda as Fox News would have it—actually tends to virtually ignore the working class altogether. Exhibit A is a rather nauseating article in the Washington Post in 2009 that you can still find online, headlined, “Squeaking by on $300,000.” The reporter, Anne Hull, without any obvious irony in her copy, wrote about a 47-year-old divorced, Armani-clad woman in Birch Hill, New York: “Being a mother on her own in married suburbia requires courage.” Draut points out that such courage was summoned against a backdrop of “a 4,000-square-foot home on three acres, with a swimming pool. And a nanny who does the food shopping, cooks all the meals, does the laundry and apparently also fixes leaky pipes.”

As the working class is further eroded, she warns of a widening political schism over race. Perhaps, I argue, but blacks make up the majority of incarcerated Americans, and as ex-offenders, they can lose their voting rights in different ways, depending on what state they’re in. Prison is a highly efficient way to disenfranchise voters.

“But there’s a whole movement now that has a large percentage of white support in terms of our Black Lives Matter movement,” counters Draut, “which is really taking on both the neighborhood-level police brutality and oppression, but also the larger systemic inequality that has happened through our policies of mass incarceration, not to mention all of the conservative, Republican attempts to impose restrictions on voting, such as photo ID laws. So we’re seeing the beginning [of what] I am convinced is a really vibrant, new movement that is weaving together economic, racial, and social justice in a way that has not been able to be held together before.”

I remind her that in her book, she labeled herself a cynic. But Draut says it’s hard to remain cynical as people discover that their voice can affect change. “…Once you chase your ability to challenge power and win, you want to keep challenging power and winning, and bringing more of your friends and family along with you. So… the reality on the ground gives me hope.”

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Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.