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Labor's Love Lost
And other notes on nostalgia
Labor Day looms, doubly sad: the end of summer and a holiday more about the past than the present. Forty years ago, at the turn of the 1980s, I wrote a series of pieces for Rolling Stone celebrating a new generation of young, charismatic labor leaders. There was Ed Sadlowski of the Steelworkers in Chicago; Rich Trumka led the Mineworkers and, later, the AFL-CIO. I was working more from nostalgia than clear-thinking; I was writing a biography of Woody Guthrie, besotted by the romance of industrial labor-organizing in the 1930s, a movement that was phenomenally successful. It helped to create the vast American blue-collar middle class that emerged in the 1950s. But its moment had passed.
Sadlowski’s reality was that the steel mills in East Chicago were closing. Much of my second book, Payback, took place in that neighborhood. It was about five Vietnam veterans who served together—and were caught in a brutal ambush—and then came home to the death of American manufacturing, post-traumatic stress, public antipathy and a generally dreary existence. Four of the five lived in the industrial midwest, two in East Chicago. Two died violently. It was a bleak story. And I didn’t pay enough attention to two absolutely essential elements:
The first was that union steelworkers were doing exceptionally well in those days: $18 per hour—the equivalent of at least double that now—plus a boat-load of benefits. Most of them owned their own homes. They had cars, appliances, leisure time, health care. Their middle class battle had been won. But not a one of them—and I interviewed dozens—wanted their kids to become steelworkers. It was noisy, dirty, dangerous work. They wanted their kids to go to college or learn a skilled trade—to become teachers or accountants, electricians or plumbers, to be computer literate. The mills were closing, anyway. Their union’s success had made them obsolete: steel could be produced cheaper elsewhere in the world. The transition would prove exceptionally painful for many of the people I wrote about. They suffered the destruction part of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” But the creativity went off to Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, Boston and Austin.
The industrial unions thus became a reactionary force, trying to hold onto a manufacturing economy past that was no longer tenable. That was my second big lesson learned. Their once-righteous cause had withered into stodgy resentment, their goals myopic. Union recalcitrance made it hard for the US auto industry—for one—to change and keep up with the rest of the world. (Although the takeover of that industry by accountants who were more interested in corporate stock prices than quality automobiles probably played a larger role.)
In retrospect, this may have been the moment when the white working-class began its political shift, from left to right. The unions’ job was to oppose what libertarian neo-liberal economists considered progress, which was globalization. The sense of threat soon metastasized, from economic to social policy. The factories were closing just as the revolution—and major progress—in black and brown, gay and women’s rights began to make its power felt. That revolution included demands for special race- and gender-specific treatment by the formerly disadvantaged. At the same time, there was a new flood of immigrants, after 1965, which kept non-union wages depressed. The “minorities” were coming on just as the white working-class faded.
Blue collar baby-boomers were different from their parents; they were looking for a taste of rebellion, too. And their rebellion was complicated—adopting the styles of the counter-cultural elites but not their politics, adopting their resentment but not their idealism. The elites shed their long hair in the 1970s; the working-class rebelled by growing theirs and adding tattoos. They listened to country music and heavy metal. They didn’t “experiment” with drugs; they used them. Heroin was big in the mills; a protagonist of Payback, a steelworker named Gary Cooper, was a junkie. It was probably inevitable that a right-wing populist version of the counterculture emerged, especially as it became apparent that the affluent baby boomers, the former anti-war and civil rights protesters now gone straight, had little interest in, or sympathy for, the working-class. It should be no great surprise there is debate now within the United Auto Workers, the historic sanctuary of left-liberalism, about whether to endorse Donald Trum in 2024.
And it should be no great surprise, with Democrats belatedly realizing they lost the white working-class through inattention and disdain, that a new consensus is growing this Labor Day about the need to protect and rebuild manufacturing essential to the national security—like a computer-chip industry. Biden has abandoned the free trade policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations. He and Trump are united on China policy, more or less. And I must say this new direction makes some sense, but sanity dictates that a new era of protectionism has to be very carefully monitored and restrained. Catherine Rampell is right about the perils of tariffs:
Biden has said his trade approach is designed to help American workers. Unfortunately, it might well do the opposite, as he had acknowledged back in 2020 when his tariffs were still considered Trump’s. This is especially true with regard to duties on materials or other inputs that get purchased by U.S. firms to make their own products.
For example, the number of Americans who work at companies that use steel as an input (think: automakers or appliance manufacturers) dwarfs the number of Americans employed by steel companies. And yet Trump implemented, and Biden largely maintained, nearly worldwide steel tariffs, jeopardizing the jobs of downstream workers.
This is tricky business. There is no bright line here. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, one of my favorite Democratic politicians, said this about her current mission to China: “If you wanted to put a tagline to the trip…it is: Protect what we must and promote where we can.” Easier said than done. It’s a fool’s errand to try to micro-manage a wildly complicated free enterprise system. But simply allowing capitalism to run rampant and find its most efficient global expression, without considering the social consequences, is foolish, too. I support Biden’s effort to onshore critical industries, like computer chips. I support his efforts to promote cleaner fuels. But I’m very skeptical about the government’s ability to outthink the market.
The sudden coddling of blue-collar America is understandable, after decades of neglect, but the future, for the vast majority of Americans, does not lie in manufacturing. Change is propulsive, disorienting, exponential; it is having an impatient, destabilizing effect on the rhythms of our 18th century democracy. We are on the brink of becoming a much different country.
Carlos Lozada had a lovely piece recently about the difference between Trump’s favorite word “again” and Biden’s “still.” Trump’s word assumes American collapse, Make America Great Again; Biden’s assumes continuity, against the odds: “We are still the United States of America. Both words look backward, perfect for two old guys—but not so good for a nation that will have to transcend if it wants to continue to prosper. Labor Day is about nostalgia, not progress. It has become my least favorite holiday.
And speaking of Nostalgia…
I remain annoyed by the constant inability—or perhaps unwillingness—of Democrats and the liberal members of the media to acknowledge the massive progress of the black community in the past sixty years. The 60th anniversary of the March on Washington offered a grand opportunity for blinkered, sloppy nostalgia like this column by Jamelle Bouie, which accurately remembers the economic goals of the March, and its inspiring leaders like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, but says absolutely nothing about the progress made since then. Indeed, the unwillingness of Democrats and liberals like Bouie to acknowledge progress makes stories like this one, about Biden’s struggle to maintain enthusiasm in the black community inevitable:
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has gone out of its way to highlight its economic accomplishments, which include the lowest Black unemployment rate on record and the fastest creation rate of Black-owned small businesses in over 25 years. It has pointed to social policy efforts, such as increased enrollment in Obamacare and closing the digital divide, as examples of real impacts on the Black community. [Italics mine]
If you ignore progress, people will believe that there hasn’t been any. The fact is, the structural barriers that Rustin and Randolph and King campaigned against no longer exist. Racism still does, of course—it always will in the lizard brains of a minority of lazy, stupid white folks (and in the unmitigated anger of some black folks). There will be outrages like the race-motivated killings over the weekend in Jacksonville, but they’ve become increasingly rare, when compared to the holocaust of anti-black violence that overwhelmed our nation for the hundred years after the Civil war.
There is an unspoken, scandalous failure in the media coverage of the poorest members of the black community. It is the willful disregard of the behavioral problems plaguing the underclass (and a maddening blindness to the fact that similar behavior patterns have spread to the white underclass, so this isn’t only about race, it’s about sociology.) You get sentences like this, in the Times:
51 percent of white people with addiction in their family reported that addicted relatives got treatment, compared with 35 percent for Black families.
And whole paragraphs like these, in the Washington Post:
Black, Native and Hispanic infants have “markedly higher mortality rates” than babies born to White women, according to the National Institutes of Health. Black preschoolers are more likely to be disciplined than their White playmates. Black and Hispanic elementary schoolchildren generally have poorer reading skills than White children, even when controlled for socioeconomic status, a gap that widens as students get older.
Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted and receive tougher prison sentences, according to a Harvard study, and conversely less likely to have a college degree. The median Black family has less wealth than the median White family. And studies show Black Americans are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease and, more recently, covid.
How about some context? Not just the inclusion of good news—like the fact that black college graduation rates have soared, especially among women, while black incarceration rates have plummeted. There is a determined myopia, a refusal to acknowledge the culture of poverty among the black underclass that leads to the disparities catalogued above. How about the fact that upwards of 70% of black children are born out of wedlock? Might that have something to do with the heroic inability of black moms to work their butts off and simultaneously enforce the continuity of care and moral guidance that intact families are built to provide? Yes, there has been progress, even here: teenage pregnancies have fallen significantly in the black community. More black women are waiting until they go to college or build careers before having kids, which is good. But they’re having those kids without live-in husbands, which isn’t. Meanwhile, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites, upwards of 30%, is higher now than it was among blacks when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report about the collapse of the black family in 1965.
Given the fact that there has been a remarkable renaissance of the black middle and professional class—about 50% of the black population—since the 1963 March on Washington, one might well ask why the black underclass, 25% or so of that community, hasn’t followed along. The answer lies not so much with “structural” racism as with inter-generational behavior patterns. The roots of that behavior lie in the savage distortions imposed by slavery, in part; but also in the massive disruption caused by the black migration from south to north—and also in the commercializing of desire that accompanied the age of television, and also in the loosening of moral values that resulted from affluence and advertising (and birth-control technology). The complexity of this tragedy is staggering; ignoring the tragedy, as liberals do, is almost as irresponsible as attributing it to racial inferiority, as the bigots do.
Why won’t liberals and journalists, especially black journalists, write honestly about the problems that stem from a culture of poverty? Why won’t groups like Black Lives Matter acknowledge that black crime matters, too? Why isn’t more attention paid to the lousy nutrition that helps cause so many of the dire health statistics among the poor? Why can’t we say that more poor black kids have behavioral problems in school because they don’t have fathers to discipline and inspire them? Because these aren’t easy problems to solve. The solutions depend more on behavioral change than on government programs. And they are embarrassing problems. In my experience, black friends talk about them in private, but feel traitorous if they mention them publicly. It sounds like “blaming the victim,” yet another disgraceful left-wing formulation. The vast, silent black majority has refused to be victims. They have worked and strived and succeeded; they stay in school and go to church; they should be celebrated but the academic and lifestyle left ignores them—just as it ignored the white working class. There is a pattern here. The right profits from the left’s feckless condescension.
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