Can We Build a Progressive Future If We Dismiss a Large Part of the Working Class?

Jeff Klein (left) with co-workers at GE Lynn, circa 1979. The Steam Turbine division of GE Lynn was closed in the late 1980s and “Building 57,” where the photo was taken, was torn down and made into a parking lot.

I’m happy to be retired. After decades working as a machinist in New England factories and shops, I can’t say I miss having to clock into the job at 7am. I don’t miss the sweaty, dirty and sometimes dangerous work I had to do. And even though I have been fortunate to have jobs mostly in places with collective bargaining agreements, I surely don’t miss working in a hierarchical environment where bosses and supervisors still had too much power.

But there is something I do regret about being retired. That is the daily interaction with working people from different communities, with social and political backgrounds and outlooks often very different from my own. Instead, like most MAPA members, I spend almost all my time in liberal/progressive social and political circles. I now rarely have meaningful contact with people who do the work – often overlooked and disrespected — to make our society function.

I don’t idealize the working class. My co-workers and I were fortunate to have union jobs that were mostly highly skilled and relatively well paid. These workers, who were overwhelmingly white and male, could be selfish and individualistic. They not infrequently expressed racist or misogynist attitudes, though eventually not so much when I was present. They often adopted a kind of narrow patriotism that was tinged with white supremacy and American chauvinism. Many of them had problems with drugs or alcohol.

At GE in Lynn I was called a “commie” for my political views. At the Deer Island plant of the Mass Water Resources Authority a worker who belonged to another union (there were 5 different unions there) assumed a religious affiliation from my last name and once told me he wished they had “a smart Jew” like me to run their local. He thought it was a compliment.

But I also learned the lesson over the years that people could be more than just one thing. At the MWRA, these same workers elected me president of our local for consecutive terms. Together we fought and defeated an attempt to introduce a dual wage structure for new hires which would have affected only a minority of union members. We organized successfully to stop the privatization of the regional water and sewer systems. We won good contracts and defended union members – often people of color – targeted for unfair discipline.

A union member, though influenced by racism, could also stand up to support a fellow worker of color on the job. People who could be very creative in slacking off at also took pride in their skills as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders or plant operators. At the MWRA, these are the people who maintain and run the system that delivers drinking water to millions of Massachusetts homes 24/7 and who made possible the cleanup of Boston harbor. These were the members of my union.

The long-time Vice-President of my local was an Irish guy from the Charlestown projects who, in a kind of Townie rite of passage, was arrested robbing a liquor store. When the judge offered him a choice of jail or military enlistment, he chose the Marines. As a youth, he rioted against court-ordered busing to desegregate the Boston schools. In his mind, he saw this not so much as an expression of racism but an act of rebellion against the liberal elites he understood to run the city. Years later, he became a tenacious and skilled negotiator who was elected president of the union for many years after I retired.

No doubt there were Trump supporters among the members of my union, as there were in many predominantly white working-class communities. We need to ask why. Racism was an important factor, but to my mind that does not explain it all.

Of course, there is a significant core of organized white supremacists and alt-right quasi fascists in Trump’s base, but there were also masses of ordinary white working people — and a not-insignificant number of Black men and Latinos – among the more than 73 million who voted for Trump. Some of them had cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, or for Bernie Sanders in this year’s Democratic primaries.

Admittedly, people like the ones I used to work with represent only a part – and a proportionately diminishing one – of the US working class. Still, they and their families number in the tens of millions. Should we dismiss them entirely as hopeless?  Instead, we should recognize that our failure to communicate effectively with white workers also applies to large sectors of the broader multi-national US working class, including workers of color.

Decades of neoliberal policies by both parties have shattered their hopes for decent secure jobs and a better future for their children. But what they get from Democrats is often condescension and ill-disguised disdain. Barack Obama, who on occasion could show grace and great empathy, once referred this way to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

For those of us who don’t profess religious belief and rarely mix with the many who do, it might be easy to recall the famous line that religion “is the opium of the people.” But we ignore Marx’s preceding sentence that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

We can laugh at “rednecks” on TV and react with self-satisfied disgust when religious people fall prey to huckster preachers or cynical rightwing political operatives. But we forget that sincere religious conviction motivated many northern abolitionists and that Black churches were the organizational backbone of the civil rights movement.

As for guns, yes, there is plenty of nuttiness, sometimes sinister and murderous, around firearms in our country. But for millions of Americans the possession of a weapon is also an expression of defiance toward a state machinery which almost never takes their side. 

When Hilary Clinton spoke of “deplorables,” many understood this as a contemptuous denial of their own humanity.  Acknowledging this does not mean that we should capitulate to the racism or xenophobia often internalized by white workers. It does suggest that we should struggle to challenge misguided beliefs with empathy and understanding for the causes rather than a blanket condemnation of the people holding them.

The Democratic Party establishment has allowed the Republicans, and especially Trump, to mobilize what amounts to class resentment in the service of plutocracy.  Meanwhile, we on the left, with rare exceptions, have failed to offer a message that resonates with or sufficiently motivates millions of working-class voters and non-voters. We rarely encounter, nor have we learned to connect with, many of our fellow-citizens. We don’t know how to talk to the working class.

It is possible that a coalition of African Americans and other people of color, together with college-educated liberals and only a small segment of white workers, can – barely – win some local or national elections. This happened in 2020, though thanks more to the Coronavirus pandemic rather than effective political messaging.

But it is hard to imagine a stable progressive future for our country with many millions of working-class Americans mobilized in angry opposition. At best this will create a political deadlock that frustrates possibilities for the lasting and radical reforms we so desperately need. At worst it is a recipe for civil war.

Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.