The political process in America has become dominated by a clash between the power of big money in elections on one hand, and a deep-seated public hostility to the sway that corporations and the rich wield over government on the other, a clash intensified by the rampant growth of inequality while wages remain stagnant.
At the same time, the racial hierarchy is challenged by minority youth who are no longer prepared to accept being treated as second-class citizens by the authorities and the police. In the universities, the self-assertion of a new generation of students is an important reflection of this social change. African American students at the University of Missouri this week forced two top officials to resign over their lack of response to racist incidents on campus, and the dean of Claremont McKenna College in California also resigned amid similar protests. At Ithaca College in New York State, thousands of students, faculty and staff walked out demanding the sacking of the college president. The protesters accuse him of responding inadequately to racist incidents, including one where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male alumni.
Meanwhile the Fight for $15 campaign is having an impact on the political dialog as it expresses growing discontent over low wages across the racial divide. Its under-reported day of action on Tuesday mobilized thousands of fast food workers who struck their jobs in 270 cities, joining many thousands more who marched on local city halls to demand that political candidates support an increase in the minimum wage if they want the workers’ votes.
Developments like this disconcert white Republicans, whose anger is driven by resentment at the loss of white privilege as well as distrust of government. But the rise of populism in the electorate coincides with skepticism that the leaders of either party can do anything to halt the slide in living standards or jobs. This is why the Republican rank and file is paradoxically supporting outlier candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the presidential primaries rather than the establishment contenders. Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz noted that “a sense of anger” at the decline of the American middle class is common to both Republicans and Democrats, but “the problem is that on the Republican side there’s anger, but it’s basically inchoate.”
Whether or not Trump continues to lead the polls, he has brought to the fore a major gulf between the Republican establishment’s policies and its ageing constituency. His slogans and demeanor resonate with voters like Steve Trivett, a newspaper editor in Florida. who told the Washington Post: “When America was great, our economy was strong. Our economy’s been shipped off to other countries. Can Donald Trump solve that? Hell, I don’t know. Somebody not as flamboyant or egomaniacal might be more effective, but I’m not sure anybody can bring us back. At least Trump gets things done.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was surprised to find that many Tea Partiers and Republicans he met on a recent book tour of the Southern states agreed with his critique of capitalism. “Most condemned what they called ‘crony capitalism,’ by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions,” he said. “They see Trump as someone who’ll stand up for them – a countervailing power against the perceived conspiracy of big corporations, Wall Street, and big government.” While conservative leaders want to cut Social Security and Medicare, a majority of Republican voters, along with the rest of the public, wants to keep them funded or even expanded.
Ironically, this is a major plank of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ platform, along with opposition to corporate control of the political process, but while he has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton into a more populist position, his message of defending middle class living standards is not reaching many African Americans and Latinos who in the main have historically been excluded from the middle class and instinctively turn to a stronger federal government for protection, which they identify with the Clinton dynasty.
In support of the Fight for 15 day of action, Sanders joined employees of federal contractors who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday instead of reporting for work and then staged sit-ins at government building cafeterias. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton tweeted that low-wage workers’ actions are “changing our country for the better.” Predictably, when Republican politicians were asked if they supported a higher minimum wage during Tuesday’s televised debate, they all replied no. But the fact the question was asked at all was due to the presence of hundreds of Fight for 15 protesters outside the Milwaukee venue. After the debate, the Fight for $15 sent out a text message to supporters: “BREAKING: Donald Trump just said: ‘Wages are too high.’ #Fightfor15 response: See you in Nov 2016.”
The core of the Fight for 15 movement is fast food workers who are overwhelmingly black and Latino, but on Tuesday they were joined by FedEx freight handlers, T-Mobile retail employees, Price Rite retail employees, auto part workers and farm workers, as well as employees of federal contractors, home-care and child-care workers and other low-wage workers.
Significantly, the campaign has expanded further into the anti-union deep South and has taken on board the police killing of African Americans and immigration rights. For the first time, protesters in Selma, Alabama and in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Florida, joined the walkouts, together with workers in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Letisha Irby, who works at a factory making car seats for Hyundai in Selma, Alabama, drove 76 miles after her shift to join a protest in Tuscaloosa. She only makes $12 an hour after working at the plant for 10 years. Irby is a supporter of the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize her plant in Selma and have so far not succeeded.
In Chicago, Fight for 15 protesters marched to police headquarters calling for the firing of Dante Servin, the officer who shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd three years ago. And in Manhattan, Juan Sanchez reported that “leaders of the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements joined ranks in a united front with Fight for 15. Their placards proclaimed the new alliance’s slogan: ‘Economic Justice = Racial Justice = Immigrant Justice.’ ‘Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 should be united because in both cases it’s largely about minority people,’ Shawnette Richardson, 43, said.” Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, linked the campaign against police abuse to the Fight for 15, noting it was time to “make the politicians pay attention.”
The convergence of the campaign against low wages with the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements has provoked a rethink of the relation between economic and political struggles. In These Times editor David Moberg commented: “Although SEIU, which has helped to finance the Fight for $15, has been a strong advocate of immigrant and black workers’ causes, it has also—like most unions—seen economic issues as a route to solidarity among workers of all racial or ethnic heritages. But the explosion of concern in black communities over police practices—from profiling to abuse of force—has produced pressure on a group like Fight for $15 to take on a broader agenda. It is also prompting SEIU to examine more deeply how to win white workers’ support for these hot-button issues for its black members, whether it’s crime in their neighborhoods or police misconduct.”
Such a project marks a major expansion of the campaign’s horizons. It could form the nucleus of a new political movement that transcends existing racial and cultural divisions.