Posts from John Russo

Is the Worst Yet to Come for Unions?

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

With the decline of good paying jobs in the private sector, public employment has been particularly important for working-class people. These state and local workers also provide important public services ranging from street cleaning, to home health to emergency services. Such employment opportunities have benefited African-American workers and their families especially.

This is true even as union membership declines overall. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 10.7% of wage and salary workers belong to unions.  Union membership would be even worse if public sector union membership weren’t more than five times higher (at 34%) than the private-sector rate (6.4%). Like other working-class people, union members, including those in the public sector, have seen both the number of jobs and wages decrease dramatically. The situation is about to get worse as the result of Trump’s election, with the refiling of the Friedrichs case and state Right-to-Work (RTW) initiatives. Both Friedrichs and RTW undermine union membership, which reduces the power of union both politically and in the workplace by taking away the dues money that enables unions to advocate for and protect workers.

Union membership is a working-class issue because it helps workers improve their economic condition and helps to alleviate economic inequality. Even non-union workers benefit from unionization as a result of what economists call “wage pull.” What’s more, public-sector union strength helps prevent private-sector wages from falling further, even as public-sector unions are weakened by the decline in private-sector membership.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved agency fee agreements that cover the costs of union representation without becoming a union member. The Friedrichs case is a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Without agency fees, many unions will collapse economically. They will have less money for organizing, representing, and lobbying for members.

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From Paula Jones to Trailer Parks: Journalists’ Class Blind Spots

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

In 1996, James Carville was asked what he thought about Paula Jones’s claims of being sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. He said, “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” The liberal press didn’t respond much to Carville’s comment, but conservative pundits like George Will rallied to defend Jones, arguing that such remarks reflected the underlying disrespect and elitism that many Democrats and especially the liberal media have for the working class.

Twenty years later, after five election cycles, campaign reporters and editors still disparage the working class. For example, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) suggested that organizers of the Republican convention could house Sarah Palin’s “whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula,” a largely working-class community in northeast Ohio. This incensed Pulitzer Prize winner and former Plain Dealer reporter, Connie Schultz, who wrote, “I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’ These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means. Every group has its ‘other.’ For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Clearly, journalists have been having difficulty understanding the politics of resentment that has fueled the Trump and Sanders campaigns, but they also don’t recognize that middle-class voters share in those resentments. As Jack Metzgar has documented, the working class is underrepresented among Trump supporters. But listening to the media you would think that Trump’s support was coming almost entirely from an ignorant and biased working class.

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Now They Get It: Health, Class, and Economic Restructuring

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

In the past few months, many commentators have responded to a recent study that shows increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans. Some have suggested that the increase is the consequence of material poverty resulting from economic restructuring and the neoliberal agenda over the last several decades.

Globalization, trade liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and reductions in the welfare state have not only led to downsizing in many industries, they have also reduced wages and benefits, contributing to growing economic inequality. The nature of many jobs has also changed. Work has been intensified, hours have become increasingly irregular, and workers face anxieties about the loss of their jobs and electronic monitoring of their work. These changes leave workers feeling vulnerable and stressed, and that together with anti-union laws and poorly enforced labor laws limit their ability to fight back. As someone who taught courses in Occupational Safety and Health for many years, I am all too aware that these workplace stresses and the limits of workers’ agency are associated with increases in cardiovascular disease, physical and mental disorders, and acute injuries. In other words, while research has focused on increasing mortality rates, changes in work also contribute to increased health problems, which may, in turn, explain the increases in alcoholism and drug abuse that Anne Case and Angus Deaton see as key factors in the rising death rates.

Workplace stress and insecurity are among the “hidden injuries of class” that compound material poverty. As people adapt to changes in and the loss of work, they become more isolated, and, too often, lose their sense of community and self worth. Worse, they internalize insecurity, blaming themselves for problems at work or for not being able to find a decent job or support their families. That people blame themselves should not surprise us, given the persistent ideal of the American Dream, which promises that individual effort will pay off in upward mobility. No wonder people who have lost jobs or who are working hard but still struggling economically see their challenges as a moral failure or character flaw.

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Deindustrialization, Depopulation, and the Refugee Crisis

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

The refugee crisis facing Western nations has begun to peak both demographically and politically. The United Nations has reported that more than 6.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and Europe, and even nations that until recently welcomed refugees are frantically trying to change immigration policy or protect borders. In contrast, as migration has swelled the population in some places, in others, like the Rust Belt of the United States, depopulation undermines future economic development. Some have begun to ask whether population trends can or should determine policy. The answer is yes.

To understand the significance of depopulation in the Rust Belt, imagine that a plague hit the Midwest and four million people had vanished. What would be the economic consequences for the region, its institutions and for individuals? Deindustrialization has operated much like a plague, and just as with a plague, the long term social and economic costs are substantial. The region can’t “just get over it.” Deindustrialization, and the depopulation associated with it, continues to be a drag on the region both economically and socially.

For example, in Youngstown, Ohio, steel mills began closing almost 40 years ago. The city’s population is now around 62,000, a decline of more than 50 percent since the 1970s. A community once known at the “City of Homes” now has more than 4000 vacant properties. Youngstown’s economic redevelopment program has largely failed. Attempts at economic redevelopment around prisons, fracking, 3-D printing and  casinos have had only limited success, at best. They seem more like examples of the economics of desperation than serious efforts to revitalize the local economy. Appeals by business and government leaders to redefine this as a “shrinking city” and exhortations for the community to exhibit “adaptive resilience” have proven shallow. With little economic growth, such approaches feel too much like cruel optimism.

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Guilt by Association: Hillary and the Working Class

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

As the 2016 Presidential campaign revs up, we’re seeing a political version of guilt by association as Hillary Clinton tries to position herself in relation to the cornerstones of her husband’s legislative agenda: the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994). Liberals and progressives widely recognize that these policies had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. They also had continuing influence, at once contributing to and mirroring current issues and debates involving poverty, incarceration, and trade agreements.

A brief historical summary might be helpful. The VCEA, based on the idea that increased incarceration would lower the crime rate, was part of President Clinton’s attempt to capture the “get tough on crime” zeitgeist. As criminologist Jeremy Travis suggested, the federal government promised increased funding to states that increased punishment for drug offenses, and 28 states and the District of Columbia “followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.” As a result, the number of prisons and the rate of incarceration of the poor, blacks, and Latinos have increased. That may have helped the growing prison industry, but later studies show there was little correspondence between incarcerations and lower crime rates.

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Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

Several weeks ago, I attended the “The American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies” Conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by The American Prospect, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. It was nice to see many old friends with whom I had worked as a Labor Studies Professor for 35 years. It was especially nice see David Moberg, labor journalist at In These Times.

We recalled the many “Labor at the Crossroads” conferences we had attended beginning with the crisis in the steel industry and the beginnings of deindustrialization in the 1970s. Most of these conferences accomplished little and had minimal impact on union leaders who rarely attended and were sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change and the forces arrayed against them. But the program for last week’s conference looked different, and the conference ultimately felt different. As I said to the organizers, the panels and discussions were unusually frank, and some of the best were led by young people, women, and people of color.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together