Civil War reenactment, Baker County, Florida
Since we all know our racist past and modern politics are totally unrelated, I’ll just note that Baker County was Mitt Romney’s second strongest showing in the state, winning it 79-20.
Civil War reenactment, Baker County, Florida
Since we all know our racist past and modern politics are totally unrelated, I’ll just note that Baker County was Mitt Romney’s second strongest showing in the state, winning it 79-20.
The state of mainstream country music is, to say the least, a mixed bag. The Nashville radio formula that has dominated the art form for over twenty years creates same-sounding singers who try to best each other in paeans to fun with the boys down by the creek with their wholesome girlfriends or wives alongside. Of course, a lot of alternative country, whatever that means in 2015, is great, but most of that does not tap into a mainstream audience.
Yet even if much of what comes out of Nashville is bad, perhaps no cultural form provides a better window into the state of the white working and middle classes than country music. For all the music’s current cheesiness, the genre has long represented the yearnings and politics of the everyday whites who listen to it. The demographics may have changed from the rural South in the 1930s to the suburbanites who make its listenership today, but the lyrical content has always intended to appeal to a large swathe of workaday whites, whether Tennessee farmers in 1932, southern migrants to Detroit factory jobs in 1956, or Charlotte suburban residents in 2015.
Most on the left usually ignores country music, seeing it as a mire of right-wing resentment best avoided, shunned, and ridiculed. This attitude betrays snobbishness toward working class people to the sound of the banjos in Deliverance. There’s no question that country music, like the southern white working class where it originated, has a deep conservatism. The banjo player Earl Scruggs was called the only man in country music who voted for George McGovern in 1972; his old partner Lester Flatt was more typically writing songs about hippies with lines such as “I can’t tell the boys from the girls.” From the string band pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson playing a role in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank to the cheap jingoism of Toby Keith and his bro knockoffs, the left has rarely had reason to take country music seriously as an art form that expressed the potential for solidarity.
That doesn’t mean country music hasn’t had its left-populist streaks. Going back at least to Roy Acuff’s “Old Age Pension Check,” a celebration of Social Security that venerates Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the music has occasionally reflected a politics of universal improvement that suggests a bit of class-consciousness. But more often, the politics of resentment has taken over. For all that people have attempted to explain away Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” by saying it tells his father’s side of the hippie story (especially since Haggard was definitely smoking marijuana in Muskogee), “Fighting Side of Me,” his follow-up hit that attacked Vietnam protestors, is just ugly and awful. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the nastiness of the country music response to the protests of the 1960s, which created a whole subgenre of songs dedicated to hating hippies, perhaps personified in Autry Inman’s “The Ballad of Two Brothers,” contrasting an older brother fighting in Vietnam to his worthless hippie brother protesting in the streets, who only learns how he has betrayed American values after the brother dies in Vietnam. During these years, popular country music became a vehicle for expressing white working class contempt for anti-war protestors and hippies, even as hippies such as Gram Parsons broadened its horizons and sympathetic figures such as Johnny Cash complicated its mainstream message.
On a rare occasion, something good both comes out of mainstream Nashville and has an interesting political message. Angaleena Presley’s excellent 2014 album American Middle Class suggests the complexity of how country music politics represent the limits of white political consciousness. How often do we see an album of any genre dedicated to dissecting class in any conscious way? Very rarely. So from a political perspective, this is already interesting. Songs like “Pain Pills,” “Grocery Store,” and “Knocked Up” tell well-crafted stories about the white working class that show great sympathy and sensitivity for everyday people.
But that her album is titled American Middle Class and not “American Working Class” says a great deal, for not even Presley can escape the divisive politics that undermine class solidarity in the United States. The album’s title track opens with Presley’s father, a Kentucky coal miner for thirty years, talking about life in the mines. He explains the hard work, how the companies “make thousands and thousands of dollars” while the workers get almost nothing. He closes by saying “It ain’t no life really.”
How on earth is a poor Kentucky coal miner middle class? The answer is that in this song, as in much of America, middle class actually means “white.” See how Presley frames her father’s words in the song:
Now daddy can’t get his pension or Social Security
worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families
struggle hard and hide it well, you sure ain’t rich and you sure as hell ain’t poor enough to get one little break
’cause everything would collapse
without the hardworking God-loving members of the American middle class
“Worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families.” This line says so much about the problems of class and racial solidarity in the United States. Of course Presley doesn’t mention race directly. No mainstream singer would in 2014. The politics of overt racial resentment are too toxic today. But the lightly obscured politics of race are as powerful as ever. “Welfare” mostly means “black people cashing their welfare checks while rolling up to the store in their Cadillac and then ordering a t-bone steak” has a decades-long history by now. It is worth noting of course that in much of the South there is also a white underclass that also receives the welfare stigma from society and she may well mean those people too, but there’s no way to define coal mining as a middle class job.
Presley is also mostly wrong about what her father’s money funded. That tax money went to a military buildup, the nation’s oversized and racist prison system, servicing the nation’s debt, and replacing the high tax rates once paid by the rich. In 2012, the 1 percent became the richest in recorded history earning 19.3 percent of American income, surpassing the previous record of 18.7 percent, set in 1927, just before this income inequality contributed to the Great Depression. Between 1979 and 2007, the one percent captured 53.9 percent of the increase in U.S. income while average income for our elites grew by 200.5 percent versus just 18.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent. Between 1978 and 2011, CEO pay rose 726.5 percent versus 5.7 percent for workers.
This doesn’t mean the song is wrong or bad. Presley may well be presenting her and her father’s point of view, one typical of much of the white working class. Presley grew up in Beauty, Kentucky. That is in Martin County, on the West Virginia border, deep in Appalachia. Martin County is over 99 percent white. Thirty-seven percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. Despite this, Martin County gave Mitt Romney 83 percent of its vote in 2012, compared to 15 percent for Barack Obama. This was one of the highest votes for Romney in the state, with more than 89 percent of nearby Leslie County voting for Romney being his highest. If these people vote, it’s overwhelmingly for a political party with the open agenda of destroying the social safety net they benefit from at higher rates than most of the country. Even when some of the mine jobs were union, these were not middle class folks; coal mining was always dangerous and not well-paid. But the mythology of the middle class can exist when you see people who are below you in social class. In Martin County and evidently for Presley, that’s largely black people, people who do not live there, who are in Louisville, Cincinnati, New York City. These are the others taking money from the hard working taxpayers of Martin County, even as social services flow into that impoverished place.
This nation has a toxic relationship with class and race. The politics of middle class mythology reinforce the corporate powers that increasingly control our lives. If all whites are middle class–or all whites who include lifelong coal miners left with nothing–then politics that actually promote the interests of the poor are undermined. If the poor consider themselves “middle class,” how do we create institutions that effectively demand a more robust welfare state and worker power? I’m not sure we can until we disconnect popular ideas of class from race. And given the upsurge in racism over the past seven years, we are far from accomplishing that goal.
Hillary Clinton won’t come out and support a national $15 minimum wage. That’s too bad, but probably expected. However, this is the sort of issue where we need to put a ton of pressure on her. This is the value of Bernie Sanders. Even if he doesn’t win, he is going to force her left. If we emphasize this and if Sanders emphasizes it, she is going to have to respond. And given the constant centrist Democratic fear of pushing a high minimum wage, which is hard to wrap your head around given that voters in such Maoist states as Arkansas and Nebraska pass ballot measures to do just that, that response may pay off in the fall of 2016.
Above: A jawbone discovered at a Malaysian human trafficking site
The more one looks into the Obama administration’s reclassification of Malaysia in its human trafficking index, the more disturbed one gets. Malaysia openly engages in widespread human trafficking. This is technically illegal in Malaysia but Kuala Lumpur does nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, the U.S. government does nothing about it in its negotiations with Malaysia because that nation is so key to Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership. The situation has not improved. The Obama administration knows this. And yet its response is to know push for a system that would create meaningful regulations or standards for Malaysia to crack down. The response is simply a meaningless change in classification that does absolutely nothing to fight Malaysian slave labor. I understand that all administrations have to balance a number of morally dubious options at times and make tough choices. But with the TPP, Obama has made decisions that hurts workers on three continents in order to assist American corporations. Both the American and Vietnamese labor movements actively oppose the TPP, while workers without voices such as trafficked labor in Malaysia are completely left powerless through this agreement.
And who are these exploited workers? They are mostly migrants, many from Myanmar and Cambodia and many tribal peoples from around the region who have found their ways undermined by increasingly powerful centralized governments who want to crush their traditional lives. They are often promises jobs in relatively wealthier nations like Malaysia and Thailand and then forced into slavery, where they are often held in cages when they are not working or murdered in lieu of payment.
In the 19th century North, as well as Britain, much of the industrial economy was fueled on slavery in the American South. There, northern industrial investors relied on cotton picked by slave labor in the South. Such a situation was not necessary to expand the northern economy and there were plenty of other labor systems that could have led to cotton entering northern textile mills. But the South was deeply invested in a system of chattel slavery and so long as the money was coming in, many northerners didn’t care. While on a trans-national rather than national scale, this is not so different than the relationship between American companies and southeast Asia today. Several industries rely heavily on trafficked labor. If you are buying frozen shrimp from Walmart, you can pretty much assume slave or extremely exploitative labor systems have produced that in southeast Asia. Yet Walmart does not care. Its executives are the 21st century version of those 19th century pro-slavery industrialists. And the Obama Administration is facilitating the don’t ask don’t tell employment policies of modern capitalism that allow companies like Walmart to take advantage of this human trafficking without having to know too much.
I’m not saying the situations are precisely analogous–obviously there is a big difference between the moral universe of Obama and, say, Franklin Pierce. And there is a difference between chattel slavery as a central feature of the American republic and human trafficking happening in isolated parts of the modern U.S. trade empire. But however he convinced himself to do so, Obama made the decision that he could live with a certain level of human trafficking to get this trade deal passed. And given that said trade deal is terrible for workers at home and abroad, it’s hard to see the moral complexity of that decision. It just seems morally bankrupt. And it makes President Obama complicit with global slavery.
But Menendez and other critics are calling on Congress and the State Department’s inspector general to investigate any move that promotes Malaysia from the lowest level in the U.S. government’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
He said promoting Malaysia would be “a cynical maneuver to get around the clear intent of Congress.”
“They put extra time on the clock for Malaysia to put some promises on paper — we don’t know for sure what they plan to count as progress — instead of taking the time for Malaysia to demonstrate some real action,” Menendez told reporters.
Any undermining of the report is an “incredibly dangerous proposition as it relates to our ability to promote our efforts globally against human trafficking,” he added.
The State Department says the TPP debate won’t affect Malaysia’s grade in the trafficking report.
Oh yeah, I really believe the State Department on this one…. David Dayen:
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the State Department would, at the bidding of the White House, undermine the integrity of a report that shames countries’ indifference to slavery within their borders. But it’s a complete perversion of the logical steps America normally takes to impact other countries’ human rights records. Instead of hitting them with sanctions until they improve — Tier 3 status can lead to withholding of foreign aid — the administration is instead granting Malaysia trade benefits and then hoping for more influence once they’re inside the trading regime. It looks nakedly political, a reward for Malaysia’s involvement in TPP.
Plus, these slaves produce the very goods that would get duty-free access to U.S. markets under the TPP. Forced labor is reportedly high in the agriculture, electronics and textile industries in Malaysia, yet the United States is apparently willing to overlook that to complete the trade deal. So consumers like you and me who unwittingly buy things made in Malaysia could be implicated in the slave trade as well.
Yes it makes sense for Dayen to use the same sort of argument that abolitionists used in the mid-19th century over the implication of everyday consumers in that system of slavery, for our nation has become complicit in a different form of slavery today. Just because that slavery exists far out of our sight does not mean that we aren’t complicit; plus, given media and transportation technologies, we can probably know as many details about modern Malaysia today as the average New Hampshire resident of 1850 could know about Mississippi.
This is the kind of issue that can have some pull with pro-free trade Democrats like Ron Wyden and Patty Murray since they are generally progressive people who do believe in human rights. Is it enough to pull their support away from the TPP? I doubt it, especially since at this point the treaty just need an up or down vote when it is concluded.
Along with his education policy, the Trans Pacific Partnership is the biggest demerit in a progressive evaluation of Obama’s administration. In promoting this policy, he has undermined the American labor movement, made it harder for the world’s population to have access to affordable medicines, undercut workers in the Pacific Basin fighting for their own rights, and reinforced slavery and forced labor in southeast Asia. The corporations are thrilled of course, but Obama has done wrong here, up to the point of being complicit with slavery. Even his greatest defenders must recognize his terrible position on these issues of great moral import.
The systematic sexism inherent in most American work is particularly strong in the building trades, where sexism, work tradition, and popular perception all combine to make women a rare sight to see. Such is the case with being a carpenter:
Ask why so few carpenters are women and the answer is almost always the same: There aren’t enough resources to let women know they can be carpenters, let alone to help them stay in the industry.
“The industry doesn’t market these opportunities to women. Women don’t know anything about them,” Vellinga says. “They don’t know what these jobs entail. They don’t know how much they pay. They don’t know why they should be interested in these jobs. So most apprenticeship programs get very small numbers of female candidates.”
Chicago Women in Trades runs technical opportunities programs to help women understand basic construction skills, such as how to recognize tools and read blueprints, which they can use to secure apprenticeships in trades of their choosing. Run by unions, apprenticeships are the cornerstone of careers in the trades. During that time, apprentices earn a fraction of the salary they’ll receive once they are certified as journeymen. In return, apprentices are recognized as union members, take classes at the union school and receive on-the-job training through working with contractors at construction sites.
At least, that’s what happens in theory. While interest among women in high-paying trades jobs is on the rise—Vellinga reports that her organization’s program orientations sometimes draw over 150 women—few would-be female carpenters actually make it through their apprenticeships to become journeymen, in part because they face harassment and poor treatment.
According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studies, 41 percent of women construction workers endure gender harassment. Ten percent have had their work vandalized, and another 10 percent have faced physical threats. They rarely report this abuse to their supervisors.
“There is that culture of, ‘This is where tough people come to work. And women shouldn’t be here, but since you are, you gotta be tough too,’” explains Lorien Barlow, a New York City-based filmmaker who’s spent the past two years working on a documentary about tradeswomen across the country. “If you do complain, you’ll be seen as the whiner, or the hysterical woman or the one who’s just looking to sue someone for money.”
Just one of many examples of continued sexism in the work force, which does is not an important enough issue in political discourse.
It’s also worth noting that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters has done a decent job in recent years of promoting women in the workforce. Whether that’s really accepted by the rank and file member may be another story.
Above: The Chipotle CEO business model
This is a good discussion on the bogus connection between higher minimum wages and higher prices. The real issue leading to higher prices are CEO salaries and corporate profit margins, not a slightly higher minimum wage.
Chipotle is just the latest company in the city to claim labor costs as the reason for price hikes. It sounds logical. Wages go up 10%, prices of menu items go up 10%. It’s fair, right? But Chipotle co-CEOs Steve Ells and Monty Moran’s earnings in 2014 were $28.9m and $28.2m, respectively. Ells also brought in around $42m in stock options in 2014, yet prices must go up because the lowest paid workers received a $1 raise? This is yet more evidence that executive pay and corporate profit margins must be maintained, at the expense of minimum wage workers.
It doesn’t make sense considering Chipotle’s growth in both sales and profits over the past year. The company saw a 47.6% increase in profits to $122.6m, while sales were up 20.4%, to $1.09bn. Yet, with the company wanting to maintain specific profit margins, prices go up, even when they don’t have to.
Ells and Moran saw their own personal pay increase 15% year-to-year, according to Chipotle’s own reporting – that’s millions of dollars – but sadly, minimum wage debates over the past year have highlighted how companies, from Chipotle to McDonald’s to Walmart, just can’t afford to give their workers a living wage.
Ells and Moran could easily have taken a pay cut, or frozen their income for the year, but instead Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold was clear about what the company wanted:
California, and San Francisco in particular, has a high cost of doing business. In San Francisco, for example, our occupancy costs are about double the Chipotle average as a percentage of sales, and our menu prices there are right around the average for Chipotle restaurants around the country, so increases to wages can have a greater impact than they might elsewhere.
Of course, people largely blame higher prices on lazy workers, supporting the CEOs destroying this country’s middle class in order to buy another ivory backscratcher.
On July 15, 1959, the United Steelworkers of America went on strike to protect its significant victories won after World War II in running the shop floor and empowering its members to live a middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps the most underrated event in American labor history, the steel strike of 1959 touches on many of the key labor issues of the postwar period. Combining the total number workers and length of the strike, companies lost more employee hours than any other strike in American history. It showed the height of worker power in American labor history on the shop floor and through the contract. It also demonstrated how government would still bust strikes when it could, a blast from the past and a foretaste of the future. Yet it also suggested just how far unions had come in American society, given how the USWA overcame these challenges and won. Finally, this was the end of the peak of American labor militancy.
During the 1950s, the nation’s major unions mae enormous gains in wages and benefits for their members. That was particularly true of the United Auto Workers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the USWA. After Philip Murray died in 1952, David McDonald became union president. McDonald is no one’s idea of the ideal union president, particularly given his total lack of charisma. There’s a reason no one talks about him today. But he was good at forcing the companies to open up their pocketbooks in contract negotiations and forcing their hand on shop floor issues. He was irritated that the UAW generally won better contracts and worked hard to make up that gap. During the 1950s, the USWA won significant wage gains, health insurance, pensions, vacation time, and other hallmarks of the working class becoming middle class through union contracts. This often took place through strikes, including in 1946, 1949, 1952, and 1955. A 1956 strike was a major victory for the USWA (and for McDonald’s leadership), leading to big wage and benefit gains.
By 1959, the American steel industry was incredibly profitable, with very little foreign competition having developed by this time. But the companies wanted to push back. Their specific line of attack was to take control of the shop floor through eliminating a section in the union contract that had given workers significant shop floor power through the grievance process. Effectively, the USWA was using the grievance procedure to take away management prerogative to rule at the workplace. This included making it very difficult for companies to lay off workers whose jobs were replaced by automation. While the high wages and benefits rankled the companies, it was the sheer gall of employees to tell them how to run their factories that really infuriated the steel industry. And so the companies decided their target would be the shop floor clauses, with the hope that this was a first step to regaining control over their workers. Less than a month before the expiration of contract, and in the middle of ongoing negotiations, the companies offered a slight wage increase in exchange for union givebacks on scheduling, seniority, staffing, and work standards. The hope was to force the union to strike and then the companies would be willing to give up everything but shop floor control givebacks.
This strategy certainly worked at first. The USWA completely rejected the corporations’ offer. More than 500,000 workers went on strike at factories around the nation on July 15. Steel production declined 90 percent. AFL-CIO president George Meany wasn’t happy with McDonald or the USWA. Being a Cold Warrior first and class warrior second, Meany worried the strike would undermine national security. He really wasn’t in a position to distance himself too far from one of the federation’s most powerful unions, so he gave it a very mild endorsement while pressuring McDonald to settle.
The strike convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to invoke the back to work clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act, forcing an 80-day cooling off period. This then led to the union filing suit in federal court that Taft-Hartley was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court upheld the law by an 8-1 majority. The strikers had to return to work after 116 days on the pickets. Yet the union was able to survive this frontal assault. Kaiser Steel, which had long had been more willing to work with labor than many of the other companies, caved and took out the offending provision while offering a small wage increase. But the rest of the companies held out. Finally, Eisenhower realized the workers would strike again if the companies insisted on the workplace rule provision. He had Richard Nixon tell US Steel chairman David Blough to give up. With the government clearly stepping in on the side of continued steel production, the companies did surrender. The contract created a committee for the union and management to study the issue of shopfloor rights.
One lesson of this strike for us is that the idea that the companies ever really accepted unionization, even at the peak of labor’s power, is a lie. There was never a period where the companies saw unions as partners. Rather, they wanted to crush them and return to the 1920s without union shops. The reason they couldn’t is worker power. Corporations had to make public statements that they accepted organized labor as a partner. These were lies but they also reflected the need to appease that worker power. The corporations may have lost the 1959 strike, but the union was not is a good position to win in the long run. Ultimately, the rise of steel imports, which some have claimed were a result of consumers looking to foreign competition in order to avoid production problems because of these frequent labor conflicts, would undermine both the industry and the USWA. The 1959 strike was the last nationwide steel strike of the era. In the 1962 contract, McDonald did give back quite a bit of shopfloor control and made it easier for companies to let workers go because of automation. He became convinced about that the steel industry was increasingly less competitive and hoped these compromises of worker power would help. They did not. But they did create a rank and file rebellion against McDonald and in 1965, he was replaced by I.W. Abel, a very rare defeat for a major union leader to that point in labor history. But the American steel industry did not reverse its long, slow decline.
Somehow, there is not a really key historical work on the ’59 strike. Hopefully this changes soon. Jack Metzgar’s autobiographical remembrance Striking Steel is however a fantastic book that you all should read.
This is the 151st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
….I forgot to insert this earlier. Dave Alvin wrote a song about the strike. His father was an organizer for the USWA during these years.
Today, the story of Murnau’s death gets a little bit weirder: Der Spiegel is reporting that someone has broken into the Plumpe family crypt outside Berlin and stolen the director’s head.
It is unknown how or when the perpetrators gained access to the tomb, though, notably, the coffins of the director’s brothers Robert and Bernhard were not disturbed. The Plumpe crypt is located in Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf, a large woodland cemetery known for its mausolea and dense forestation. According to local police, the break-in was first noticed on Monday morning.
This is not the first time that someone has broken into the crypt, and, at present, the cemetery’s administrators are weighing whether to permanently seal the tomb or to bury the director’s body separately from the rest of his family to prevent further vandalism. Police have reportedly found wax drippings at the scene, suggesting either a ritualistic element, or that Murnau’s head was stolen by old-timey grave robbers by candlelight.
I have discussed the 1971 New Left dystopian film Punishment Park here a bit before. I’ve mentioned that it is a great leftist film and that the wonderful Paul Motian did the soundtrack. And I think I’ve mentioned the plot–that post-Kent State, Nixon has ordered the rounding up of all the nation’s leftists and sent them to prison camps where they are tried by makeshift tribunals of squares and then forced into Punishment Park, a Mojave Desert training course for cops to kill hippies. This is great stuff. Great. And it is on YouTube. Watch it. Watch it now.
The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is proud to be distributing this year the greatest amount of free Meals and Food Stamps ever, to 46 million people.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us “Please Do Not Feed the Animals.” Their stated reason for the policy is because “The animals will grow
dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”
Thus ends today’s lesson in irony #OKGOP
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