I live in one of the remaining, unfashionable nooks of Portland, OR, but a stone’s throw (I’ve considered it) from one of the east side’s posher neighborhoods. There, ‘neath the Dogwoods and Japanese Pears, ‘In our America...’ signs nestle -incoherently- withhome security warnings, and placards urging the city to rank it an historic district. Not for posterity’s sake, but to avoid their share of new construction in one of America’s fastest-growing cities.
Needless to say, you can’t celebrate diversity without diverse people. Yet high-earners have prospered, ironically, by pushing the lower-middle class in with the poor and the poor into the red, as they’ve sidle to the Left. ‘In our America’ was a NIMBY reply to Trump’s racist ‘Great Again’. The signs are, themselves, signs of gentrification and growing inequality as so many of us have been priced out of neighboring homes, or of homes, altogether.
And of course, they don’t always sidle. Now every few months police sweep the homeless from that neighborhood to ours. Ours has different ‘signs’ -broken sidewalks, 7-11s, litter. There’s an important distinction between America’s ghettoes and those of the developing world. Their’s grow from migration, as the poor seek opportunity, and hence lack infrastructure, but not resource. Ours’ are the affect of disinvestment; a place to toss the poor.
Twenty years ago, when Union dollars and minority votes still carried the Democratic Party (despite scant returns), most of us spent roughly 1/3 of our income on housing. Today we spend about 40% should we own, 50% if we rent -compared to 17% for those lawn-adorning, high-earners- and twice as many of us live in shelters, cars, or outdoors. (Who’d have thought gifting the closest thing we had to a working-class party to elites would affect the working-class and poor?)
Today, progressive or not, cities divide between boutique urbanity, and what Malcolm X, prior to this era, dubbed ‘internal colonies’. Then tax incentives for new suburban construction functioned againsturban renewal. Hence, on the eve of Civil Rights, policy looked to demobilize the poor. (Now we’ve prisons for that.) Nowadays, austerity doesn’t afford us the state and municipal inputs that built suburbia. So we kick the poor from place to place because it’s cheaper to reclaim,ad hoc, the vitality of the existing, if crumbling, urban sphere. Thus, ironically, ‘rootlessness’ and mass-incarceration share the same, neoliberal source.
Still it’s boggling that a nation so-religiously founded on property rights insists on displacing its poor.
When I left home in the mid-90s my parents sold their house and moved to a trailer park in Florida where they mowed and fixed plumbing in trade for a lot. My dad had been a Union carpenter until he hurt his back putting the roof on a People’ Heritage Bank. His union payed for an attorney when the insurance company tried to short his workman’s comp. That was in the 1984, when Unions collected dues from over 20% of the workforce, twice what it does now. They left in 1994, tailing the migration of high-paying jobs in the North to low paying jobs in the ‘Right to Work’ South that had bled our New England mill town.
A half-century before, a melodious Texas congressman named Vance Muse introduced ‘Right to Work’ laws, because unions forced white workers to side with ‘black apes’. Ironically, his and subsequent union-busting efforts have brought different shades of humans together. (But it hasn’t helped them -including whites- to make a living.)
For example, in 1994, a concurrent migration would bring 12 million -up from about 3.8 prior- undocumented Mexicans to work in America.[i] Not by accident, subsidized US companies dumped a lot of corn in southern Mexico, driving farmers out of business, and north, to the work in the Machiliadores lining their side of the Rio Grande. Within five years half of that production -predominately jobs that had fled America- had forwarded to tax and human rights shelters in China, Guatamala, and Honduras.
Beforehand, Mexico had pushed for an open borders provision, like the EU’s, within NAFTA. Effectively, to grant workers the same rights as corn. Instead, 20,000 (up from 5,000) USBP officers, plus an added 20,000 ICE agents, 6,000 Homeland Security agents, and (pending) another 4,000 National Guard, patrol our border, but nary reduce the flow. Just, instead of passing through cities, we built migrants a gauntlet through the desert, so at least 400 die each year from thirst, drowning in the Rio Grande, or heat exposure. (Now we arrest Americans who give them water, so that number should grow.) And officers shoot or beat to death another 10 or more.[ii]
Determined to make noise about something, Trump’s response is to count them all as criminals. To this end, in April, Jeff Sessions ordered we try everyone we catch, whether from at home, work, or a toe over the border. Any-given day 40,000 immigrants await trial or serve in jail or prison. 2 out of 3 in private facilities.[iii] Caging migrants is a $1 billion and growing industry[iv] 40,000 who will never see the poorest parts of Laredo, Tampa, or Stockton.
Last week Israel, the only nation consequentially meddling in American politics, officiated its Apartheid. Mind, such a thing is only possible with the US meddling even more in theirs. (This deserves its own article.) I mention it here because, while the cases differ, we at least see what the US finds acceptable. And to paraphrase Fredrick Douglas, the level of abuse a people will accept is the amount they’ll receive. Already, deaths in custody, due to abuse or neglegence, child-parent separations, even charges of forced labor have sparked public outrage toward ICE, and Trump, more-broadly.[v] Yet despite protests, the Trump agenda is advancing. A recent Guardian column even claims its outrage that’s fueling his success:
‘On issue after issue the Democratic party has moved to the left, catering to a progressive base outraged at Trump’s election… The latest progressive cause célèbre is for eliminating America’s border enforcement agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice)… An idea like this keeps Republicans united in their support for Trump as it clearly shows how unacceptable the alternative is.’[vi]
No doubt, our Democrats and their essentially-yuppie constituents despise abuse, but their hardly able to judge, since it’s not directed at them. (Besides, anyone with life in them, upon hearing Trumps’ name, would’ve just picked up a rock. -I’ll spare you a glass house joke why they don’t.)
But abuse is something both the American and Mexican working-class know in common. For measure, in 1955 (the year the AFL and CIO merged) there was 1 incarcerated person for every 80 union members in the US. Today those numbers are 1 and 6.[vii],[viii] Moreover, for every 5 union voters there are 2 felons denied the vote. (A felons union could address that.) Hence, labor should take up their cause. Teachers in two states that conspicuously-lack sympathetic politicians, elites, or media outlets just showed us it can happen. But Unions need invoke their roots.
Since NAFTA, the AFL-CIO has increasingly championed immigrant rights to encourage them joining unions. This has included illegals, as a relatively safe and just workplace remains one of its core principles. Where applied they’ve even stayed deportations, thanks to union-supplied legal council.[ix]
The Right likes to point out, unions have a complex, often bitter, record with immigration (though rarely do they mention it’s because companies used immigrant ‘contract-labor’ to break strikes). Thus insist the AFL-CIO’s stance is an act of desperation, ultimately killing unionism to scrounge union dues. Premise being, the two can’t rise together. Strong unions and high immigration inherently conflict, since the bigger (and more desperate) the labor pool, the lower the wages. Plenty on the left buy this logic. Even Bernie Sanders hints at such. Comically, the go to argument revolves around 1970s wage stagnation, when wages declined and immigration rose, without mention this was also the peak of industrial flight -both south to Right to Work states and overseas.
The Progressive Era -at least as disadvantaged a time as now- proves more instructive. Then, immigration and Union strength rose simultaneously. But, importantly, not just as rights in the workplace, but rights to the city.
For example, in Lawrence, MA in 1912, skilled and unskilled men and women of 40 separate nationalities locked arms to protest a pay cut for women, closing production in America’s most-industrial city for most of a winter. The IWW-led strike committee held meetings in 25 different languages. Volunteers from New York, New Jersey, and Vermont harbored their children. (Philadelphians were scheduled to harbor some more, but the Lawrence police beat the kids up on route to the train station.) They made soup, withstood arrests, violence, conspiracies, and freezing cold. And won.
The IWW, among others, not only welcomed unskilled, black, and immigrant labor, but understood labor’s role in meaningful-or-not democracy. Unionsled the Progressive Era fight against prison labor. Not superficially, because it lowered wages. There was little such risk since factories were unwieldy spots to put chain gangs. Rather on principle -that all labor should be paid accordingly, and be a path to self-determination.
A later, general-strike brought all of official Seattle to a halt. For a week in 1919 the AFL, IWW, and other unions effectively ran the city, feeding residents, collecting garbage, and running hospitals, fire houses, and a non-violent police force. Capitalism wasn’t just the banks and factories, it was the very city of Seattle. The mayor called it a revolution and threatened to shoot them. There was power in a Union. Then.
If history holds any semblance at all of the ‘Great Again’ Era, it was the immensely-productive post-war years. Business effectively bought-off unions with better wages and property in exchange for less activism. The AFL’s Civil Rights thrust was decimated by loyalty oaths. (Police and industry thugs had already beaten the IWW to splinters.) More-militant leaders were purged or sidelined (arguably, not by accident, opening the door to corrupt ones). As it had in 1860, the AFL backed curbs on immigration (though, likewise, McCarthy-Era purges were a driver). Sadly, many unions supported Operation Wetback, which in 1954 expelled 2.1 million persons from the US to Mexico (though half were unidentified American citizens). -Loosely the model for Trump’s current ambitions.
But wages aren’t everything–a known during the Progressive Era. The effects were obvious within a generation, when labor did not lock arms with students as they did in France, Mexico, and Japan, and in the non-alligned world, during the 1960s revolts. Membership dropped from 35% to 20% of the workforce within two generations, to 10% by the third.
There was a certain brilliance to the Occupy! Movement as it revitalized that use of space versus dollars to define modern capitalism. The neoliberal guard had imagined themselves skilled-enough to beat us with effuse financial instruments instead of blunt ones. This was acceptable to liberals who found formal segregation unacceptable, but were on the winning end. But as both our infrastructure and our ecosystem decline, land is once again a central concern. As much walls and prisons, as pristinely-manicured lawns. The crisis in our cities and the crisis at our border are the same make.
And just as the Nazis loved thatched-roof cottages but built gas chambers, ‘Great Again’ America is darker than its inspiration, even for working-class whites. Since 2008, speculators have been buying up single-family homes and making them rentals. This year’s tax bill reduced the incentive to buy a home by cutting the tax break. And recently the Supreme Court just sided with a Koch and ALEC hitman trying to bring Right to Work laws to Union-friendly states. So no matter how they feel, Trump supporters are going to share space with every other shade of poor.
‘Zero-Tolerance’ frames how labor rights and issues of space and mobility entwine more clearly than any event since Civil Rights. Let’s not waste it on signs.