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How the Decline of Unions Radicalized the White Working Class in the Wrong Way


We know that union membership is the single biggest factor in getting white working class Americans to not vote for their perceived racial interests and instead vote to be part of a political coalition that seeks to lift all of us up. The decline of unions has really destroyed this, radicalizing white workers to the right while workers of color tend to stay with the Democratic Party. There’s been a lot of discussion of this since 2016, too much of it mocking “economic anxiety!” upper class liberalism that does not help us understand or fight any of this.

Farah Stockman has an interesting op-ed on all this that complicates our understanding of what is really going on in these communities.

I began to understand why white workers tended to view the closure of the factory — and the election of Donald Trump — differently from their Black co-workers. Over the course of a decade, John had seen his wages sink from $28 an hour to $25 an hour to $23 an hour. After the plant closed, he struggled to secure a job that paid $17 an hour. His declining earning power hadn’t been tempered by social progress, like the election of a Black president. To the contrary, his social standing had waned. Rich white C.E.O.s sent blue-collar jobs to Mexico. But when blue-collar workers complained about it, college-educated people dismissed them as xenophobes and racists.

Working-class white men at the bearing plant may not have wanted to share their jobs with Black people and women. But they had done it. And now that Black people and women worked alongside them on the factory floor, everyone’s jobs were moving to Mexico. It was more than many white workers could take. One white man at the plant quit and walked away from more than $10,000 in severance pay simply because he couldn’t stand watching a Mexican person learn his job. “It’s depressing to see that you ain’t got a future,” he told me. One of John’s best friends volunteered to train. “I don’t hate you, but I hate what you’re doing,” John told him. They never spoke again.

The union reps, nearly all of whom were white, saw training their replacements as a moral sin, akin to crossing a picket line. But many Black workers and women did not agree. It had not been so long ago, after all, that the white men had refused to train them. Black workers had not forgotten how the union had treated their fathers and uncles. Many considered the refusal to train the Mexicans racist. The most unapologetic trainers were Black.

The announcement that the factory would close, the election of Donald Trump and the arrival of Mexican replacements at the plant took place within the span of three months, in 2016, unleashing a toxic mix of hope, rage and despair. In the years that have passed since, the workers scattered like brittle seeds, trying to start their lives over.

Economists predicted that they’d get new jobs — even better jobs than they’d had before. Some did. But most of the workers I kept track of ended up earning about $10 an hour less than they had been making. One started a bedbug extermination company. Another joined the Army. Another sold everything he owned and bought a one-way ticket to the Philippines, determined to make globalization work in his favor, for once. Wally made progress with his barbecue business, until an unforeseeable tragedy struck. John agonized over whether to become a steelworker again or take a job in a hospital that had no union. Shannon stayed jobless a long time, which made her miserable. The old factory continued to appear in her dreams for years.

Of course, for every story like Shannon’s, there’s a story about a woman in India or China or Mexico who has a job now — and more financial independence — because of a new factory. Globalization and social justice have many sides.

But those foreign workers don’t vote in American elections. The fate of our democracy does not depend on them the way it hinges on voters like Shannon, Wally and John. The American experiment is unraveling. The only way to knit it back together is for decision makers in this country, nearly all of whom have college degrees, to reconnect with those of the working class, who make up a majority of voters.

The important point here is that even if you think the white working class is somehow so hopelessly racist that we should just give up on them, they still vote. You still have to have them in your nation. A winning coalition does require some white working class voters. Stockman’s larger point, and I think the larger point she is making in her forthcoming book, is that factories were once sites of protest for social democracy, the civil rights movement opened them up to Black workers at the same time that they were closing and moving to Mexico, and so people see the recent history of work very differently depending on their race. This all rings true to me.

What policy makers have missed in the entire debate on globalization and work is that you have to have real solutions for the people who are displaced. You can’t just handwave this away from 30,000 feet while you talk about things getting better in Bangladesh like you were moving chess pieces across the globalized board. That’s because these people live in your country and they vote too! I mean, remember when leading liberal commenters were calling Paul Theroux history’s greatest monster for suggesting that people in Mississippi complaining about their poverty because their jobs had left for Asia and arguing that MORE jobs should leave because people in Zimbabwe are poorer than in Mississippi. No? Well I give you Annie Lowrey in 2015. Dylan Matthews, Yglesias, Klein, that whole crew was on this talking point before Trump’s election. It was arrogance at the most egregious and just flat out stupid.

It’s most certainly true that globalization and social justice have many sides. One doesn’t have to demand that Bangladeshis lose their jobs so that people in Ohio can work. The economy doesn’t work like that anyway. But you do have to have actual answers for people in Youngstown and Flint and Rockford that aren’t “learn to code” or “move to Texas” or “take out $50,000 in debt for a college degree.” The rise of Trump is partly the result of not having real answers for these people.

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