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Obama and the Working Class


A recent New York Times article (‘Rural Swath of Big State Tests Obama,’ August 21, 2008) described life in the dead mill towns of western Pennsylvania and asked why Barack Obama’s presidential bid was not catching fire there. The article mentioned Beaver Falls, Aliquippa, Raccoon Township, Hopewell, Hookstown. It might have named dozens more. These are devastated places, where, the article points out, ‘Decades of job loss have created a youthful diaspora—you can knock on many doors without finding anyone under age 45. Declining enrollments forced Raccoon Township to close its elementary and middle schools.’ Barack Obama should find fertile ground there for his presidential bid. But he hasn’t. Hillary Clinton defeated him badly here, and his campaign has failed to gain traction since he sewed up the nomination. It seems that the white working class voters of western Pennsylvania are divided between their economic interests and their prejudice.

This account interested me. I am from Western Pennsylvania; I was born in a mining village and grew up in what is now a very dead mill town. I taught for thirty-two years in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which while not quite in the western part of the state, has all of the demographic and social characteristics of Beaver Falls and Ambridge. For thirteen years, I lived in Pittsburgh, the mother of all mill towns.
In my book, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: an Economist’s Travelogue, I say this about Johnstown and Pittsburgh:

The distance between Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is about seventy-five miles. Most of the trip is on Route 22, a dismal and depressing stretch of highway that perfectly mirrors the drab ugliness of much of western Pennsylvania. Gene & Boots Candy shop, Dick’s Diner, Dean’s Diner, Zoila’s Western Diner, Country Kitchen (with ‘broasted’ chicken), Dairy Queens, Crest Nursing Home, Spahr Nursing Home, 7-11s, car dealerships, a strip mine, the Cheese House, motels, strip malls, two adult video stores (a clerk was murdered in one of them, but the killer was never found), the country’s only drive-thru ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ (aptly named Climax), the smallest house I have ever seen, feed stores, Long’s Taxidermy, Monroeville, Murraysville, New Alexandria, Blairsville, Dilltown, Armagh, Clyde, Seward, Charles, bad curves, black ice, fallen trees, wrecked big rigs, school buses stopping on the highway, kids walking slowly to the trailer parks and country shacks, mobile homes for sale, a power plant belching smoke and steam in the distance—not an eye-pleasing scene until you get to the Conemaugh Gap, where the waters raged in the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

When I was young, parts of this highway were three lanes, and you could pass in the middle lane from either direction. If you were traveling east and started to pass a car, you never knew when someone going west might have the same idea. After many accidents, the third lane was converted into a turning lane or a fourth lane added. Progress! Back then, Pittsburgh and Johnstown were steel cities, dirty, yes, but there was work at high wages. And a little pride too. Now both towns are in the rust belt. The famous Homestead Works of U.S. Steel, built by Andrew Carnegie and site of the Homestead strike, where the picketers set the barges filled with Pinkerton strikebreakers on fire with flaming arrows, have been torn down, replaced by an upscale shopping complex. Johnstown’s Bethlehem Steel plant, once the center of the industry’s technological advances, has been sold piecemeal. Train wheels, steel rods, and wire are still made there, but the size of the workforce is a tiny fraction of what it was when I started work in the ‘flood city.’ Hard times have become a way of life. I would wager that there are more drug addicts and alcoholics in Pittsburgh and Johnstown than there are steelworkers. A lot more.

I say much the same about my hometown, Ford City, once the plate-glass-producing capital of the world.

It is true that there is abundant racism in these parts. Hillary Clinton knew this, and she, her husband, and governor Ed Rendell subtly played the race card in the primary election. Rendell said that there were whites in the state who would not vote for a black man. Hillary Clinton said that Obama would have a hard time winning support from ‘white Americans.’ In my fifty-five years in the region, I heard thousands of racist remarks—in bars, bowling alleys, on basketball courts, in college classrooms, in worker education classes, and in the faculty dining room. More than once, someone threatened to beat me up when I challenged such comments. A few weeks ago, my sister was doing voter registration and campaigning for Obama in our hometown. A group of teenagers standing across the street from her spewed out racial epithets.

There is no doubt that a not insignificant number of white working class voters will not vote for a black man for president under any circumstances. Some may vote for McCain, although those interviewed in the Times story had little use for him or for the war in Iraq. Some may go for the Libertarian candidate. Some may not vote at all.
But there is more to the antipathy that some in the white working class in the rust belt have for Obama.

What exactly does Obama have to say to them? Is he going to fight for their lost pensions? Make sure that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation has adequate funds? Is he going to do battle for their health care? Is he going to get the unemployment insurance system fixed? Is it possible to believe that he will go afer all those anti-worker trade agreements? Will he ensure that social security is never privatized? That it be made more generous, as it easily could be? Is he going to reverse the Bush administration’s draconian labor policies? Put people on the National Labor Relations Board who take the purpose of the labor laws—to promote collective bargaining—seriously?

Will he make the Occupational Safety and Health Act a real law and not the dead letter it is now? Will he engineer a public works program that rebuilds the infrastructures of these forgotten towns and puts their citizens to work? Will he look for creative ways to bring these places back to life? Will he do something about public education and get rid of the corporate-inspired and ultra authoritarian No Child Left Behind legislation? Will he fight for college grants for those with little income? Will he bring home the working class wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters from Iraq and Afghanistan? Stop wasting billions of dollars on these criminal wars? Demand that unions be made legal in Iraq?

Obama has failed to say anything meaningful about these matters, and as the campaign drags on, he moves ever further to the right. And if he doesn’t speak to the white working class, how could it be said that he speaks to the black or Hispanic working class either? What about the more than one million black men and women in prison? The gutted and ruined inner cities? The lost manufacturing jobs? The millions of immigrants now being treated as criminals, imprisoned and sometimes tortured before being shipped off to their native lands?

I doubt that we will get much from Obama to inspire working men and women, of whatever part of the country, of whatever age, race, or ethnicity. Now he has chosen a pathetic old hack, Joe Biden, to be his running mate. What exactly has Biden done for workers in his more than thirty years in the Senate? That a man who has been in this elite body (whose members’ stock portfolios have performed better than almost anyone else’s) this long can be called ‘working class’ by Obama himself tell us just how lame U.S. politics are.

It is a shame that some white workers are racist. I chalk most of this up to the abject failure of the labor movement to attack the race issue head on many years ago. But Obama might have won over the voters Hillary Clinton got by pretending she was still a working class woman from Scranton, while she slugged down shots and a beers in local bars. He could have intertwined his hand with the hand of a white worker, like in the emblem of the old Packinghouse Workers union, and gone out on the stump and told the truth about the class struggle. A lot of white workers would have eaten this up.

Between 1980 and 2001, I taught over 1,000 workers in labor education classes held throughout western Pennsylvania—in Johnstown, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Beaver. Most students were white. Some were racist. Some were xenophobic. Some believed their country could do no wrong. I taught them about labor markets, collective bargaining, labor law, labor history, even Marxist economics. We didn’t pull any punches—on race, on war, on capitalism. Most came away enlightened. Would that Obama could have enlightened them too. If his lead over McCain slips further or disappears altogether, we can expect to hear some populist rhetoric from Obama, as we heard from John Kerry as his disastrous bid for the presidency crashed and burned in 2004. But who will believe it now?

MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Yates can be reached at


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Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at He welcomes comments.

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