Could a New Level of Protests Transform America?

Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe Photo credit: Nation Books and Sarah Jaffe / Twitter
Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe Photo credit: Nation Books and Sarah Jaffe / Twitter

We know people are angry. There is no reason to think that the new administration will quell that anger. In fact, it will likely stoke it. Simultaneously, we have seen new protest movements spring up. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter; from the $15 per hour movement, to newly energized student protests, to renewed union efforts, to the Trump and Sanders campaigns themselves. We seem to be entering a new age of protests and pushback. Some of it is still fuelled by the hangover from the 2008 financial crisis and it is fed daily by economic and technological change. And to the extent that these protests are effective, particularly in this age of instant communications, it could change the fabric of the country.

Nation Institute fellow, progressive journalist and author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, Sarah Jaffe has been observing the cutting edge of all of these movements and in this week’s podcast she talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

We know that a large number of Americans, albeit not the majority, are angry. They feel that the country’s leaders have somehow lost touch with them and their needs, and that somehow the system is rigged against them. In fact, unemployment is it a 10 year low. US manufacturing output has doubled in the past 30 years. The stock market continues to make gains. And US economic growth, while anemic, continues to increase. So what’s going on? Why the disconnect? And where did all the anger come from? And why the pushback from both the left and the right? And where do we go from here?

We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Sarah Jaffe. She’s a Nation Institute Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She’s the cohost of dissent magazines, belabored podcast, and a columnist at New Labor Forum. It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Jaffe to the program to talk about her new book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. Sarah Jaffe, thanks so much for joining us.


Sarah Jaffe: Thank you for having me.

Jeff: As you looked at this and studied this over the years, to what extent is so much of the anger that we see out there, an anger about dislocation, about deconstruction, about the change in institutions and social constructs, how much is really about the economy?

Sarah: Well, I mean you just listed off a whole bunch of economic indicators. And when you think about those indicators, there is growth, there is output, there is those numbers if you look at a graph. They’re going up. They’re going into the pockets of a very small group of people. And for real people, the people who are working in a factory manufacturing things, people who are serving you breakfast when you go to the local coffee shop, your neighbors, the people, the 6 million people who lost their homes in the financial crisis, are not feeling that at all. And if you look at a graph of productivity versus the gains for regular people the two have diverged -Timothy Miller wrote a book about it calling it “the great diversions,” right? If regular people’s gains, income gains, kept up with productivity gains, the minimum wage. If minimum wage kept up with productivity gains, it would be somewhere at $23-24 an hour, and that’s certainly not where it’s at right now. So the facts like the economy as this thing that we talk about as sort of like, I have a Chrome plug-in that referred, that changes markets to dragons, because this is kind of how we talk about the market and the economy, and all of these things as though they’re like a separate thing over here that we have to keep healthy or else it’ll eat us. And it’s eating people. The gains are not going to regular people. So dislocation and all of those things come from people not being able to maintain the lifestyle that they became accustomed to, or that they look around and see other people have it.

Jeff: But there is a broader global framework to all of this, and certainly while there have been gains that have benefited the wealthy, there’s no question about that as we look at it on on a global basis. We see for example that those living in extreme poverty in the developing world, has gone from 42% back in the mid-90s to about 17% or less now. I mean that there have been global gains as a result of all of this.


Sarah: Right, and when you look at global gains, that’s again, the metrics that we’re using here, measure very specific things. So yes, like a poor person in the United States still lives on much more money per day than a poor person in Bangladesh. Certainly, right? You cannot possibly compare. That’s why our country, our companies, keep shipping jobs to Bangladesh, because you can pay somebody much less in Bangladesh because it takes much less to live on. So trying to sort of compare all of these things, and you know my book is about the United States. That’s what I cover. That’s what I know. And for people here, it’s always a question of relatives, right? If you grew up feeling like you’re solidly middle-class. If your dad worked in a factory in Indiana or Ohio, and then that factory closed down and went to Bangladesh, went to Mexico, went to China, and your dad no longer has that job. And the job that you can get now is a service industry job. It doesn’t have a union. It doesn’t have job protection that pays somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 or $10 an hour, as opposed $15 to $20. That’s a whole different world. And that’s a world that more and more people in this country are facing. And when they look around and see politicians in both parties have done basically nothing about it, right? The appeal of Donald Trump, and whether we like it or not, was that he told people he was going to make things better, make America great again. And when you feel like America is not great anymore, is a compelling argument. And he gave people someone to blame. And I happen to think we’re blaming the wrong people. But, he gave people somebody to blame for their problems.

Jeff: I mean the irony of all this is that well, we’ve been talking a little bit about the global aspect of this and the outsourcing aspect, that that’s almost a thing of the past already. I mean we talked briefly, or I mentioned, the statistics in terms of manufacturing output. That output has quadrupled, with significantly less labor required obviously, to do that. If you go into an autoplant in America today, or anywhere in the world, but even in America, the most modern autoplants are operating with less than a third of the number of people that used to be involved in an autoplant. I mean, automation and artificial intelligence are really displacing even more than outsourcing now.

Sarah: You know, I have a funny story about automation. I was working on a story a couple of years ago in Atlanta, or outside of Atlanta where Glock handguns are made, in a factory there. And I got a tip from a friend who knew somebody who was working nights in this plant. And instead of just being a good full-time union job, again, like you used to expect factory jobs in this country to be, he was a temp. And he was working for a temp agency, and guess what the agency was named? Automation. Automation was the name of this company. And I tried and failed to get a comment from this company when I was reporting the story. But you know, there are many things that are contributing to the decline of good solid jobs in this country, right? The fact that a lot of politicians in, again, in the same you know, the states that used to be the manufacturing belt in the country, have now seen sustained attacks on union rights, right? Indiana is the Right To Work state. Michigan is now a Right To Work state. That you’ve seen the use and more and more of perma-temps who make much less money, have no benefit, can be hired and fired much more easily than a worker who has a union contract. Jobs are still being, factories are still closing, and they’re still going overseas. I mean, Donald Trump is bragging about saving a thousand jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana right now, right? Because they were about to close a factory and open one in Mexico. And they’re still, by the way, going to close the factory and open one in Mexico. They’re just going to keep some jobs in Indiana because they got massive tax breaks to do so. Which again, doesn’t solve the overall problem that the wealth is still being siphoned upward into a smaller and smaller, in the pockets of a smaller and smaller group of people.

Jeff: One of the things we’re seeing for example, the largest number, one of the largest groups of blue collar workers still is those that drive trucks. I mean, it’s approximately 3 million people as I understand it. Within 10 years, that number will be reduced by half or less because of autonomous vehicles.

Sarah: Yep. And here is the thing also. We treat all of these things the same way we sort of talk about the economy and the market, as if it’s a dragon over here that’s just going to do what it wants and we just have to keep it happy. We talk about technological changes, that it’s inevitable, and the results of it are inevitable. And obviously, human beings like to invent new things, and we have this constant drive towards innovation, which is, you know, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

If you figure out a way to automate a way to pick up garbage, right, which is one of the most dangerous jobs in this country. Garbage collectors get killed on the job, I think, more than twice as often as police officers. That’s not a fun job. The people who come pick up garbage probably don’t enjoy the picking up garbage part. But in many places, it’s a union job. You have good protection and it’s paid well because it’s a dirty job. If you automate that away, okay, fine. But what you then have to do is figure out what you’re going to pay. How the people who were doing that job are going to survive?

The same with coal mining, which is also a dangerous, really, really unpleasant job to do. But because people fought for years to organize the coal fields, and to make those good jobs, now the places where there were coal mining jobs, people miss them, because they had a solid, you know, they had a solid wage. They had solid benefits. They had a way to raise a family, and now they don’t. And these are questions not of technology or lack of technology. They’re a question of politics, and what we decide, what we’re going to do about that. Are we just going to let people starve because we’ve decided we have better technology now? We don’t need as many coal miners. We don’t need as many factory workers, need as many truck drivers. What are we going to do about that? And it’s related again to the question of who is controlling the power and the money here. And if automating away certain jobs is a way for rich people to just have no labor costs at all, as opposed to minimal labor cost which is what they like to have, then we’re going to have an even more unequal, even more miserable, and even more angry and unstable society than we already have.

Jeff: Some of the disruption addresses what consumers want. I mean, that’s the other side of this equation. I don’t know if you saw the video. It was actually just released yesterday by Amazon about this prototype supermarket. I guess they’re doing the prototype in Seattle, and this is ultimately something they want to roll out where you go into the store, basically you swipe your app as you go into the store and you have your card. You buy whatever it is that you’re gonna buy. You put it in your bag and you leave the store. There is no line. There’s no checkout. It’s automatically charged to you. It’s like an Uber experience in a grocery store, and as you well know, I mean, the grocery clerks union was at one point one of the stronger unions in the country. This isn’t a question of self-serve. This is a question of no-serve. And part of it is, it’s what consumers want.

Sarah: Somebody is still going to have to stock the grocery store. Somebody is still going to have to make sure the products are where they need to go. Somebody’s going to have to maintain the technology. Again, it’s not a question of just like, this is inevitably going to happen. Why is Amazon doing this? Is it what consumers want? I was never given a survey. I don’t know if they’ve got a survey that says what people really want in the grocery store is to never have to talk to another human. Maybe it is. I mean I was really pleased when they started to, having home delivery and takeout food by app, so I didn’t have to call and have a conversation with someone. Sure, that’s fine. But again, the question we should be asking here is not like, should we preserve. I mean a grocery checkout job is not a great job these days. This is not, we’re not talking a full-time 40 hour a week steady job, with benefits, and you know, paid vacation, most of the time. The jobs that they’re going to automate away are the jobs where workers have the least power. And they’re going to. I mean, again, I just, we talk about these things as if they’re just some monster that’s going to come down here and happen, and we can’t do anything about it because we’re just, you know, we are powerless in the face of whatever. No! We’re not powerless in the face of anything. That’s why people are in the street. That’s why people are going on strike. That’s why workers are organizing. That’s why their $15 an hour movement has swept across the country, because people realize that the only way to actually carve a good life out of all of this is to shift the balance of power.

Jeff: I guess the argument is looking about, looking at the larger issues. I mean $15 an hour certainly is an important and a good movement. I don’t think that, you know, we find too many people that we know that disagree with that, but that’s really a short-term solution.

Sarah: I mean, people making a living wage is a pretty long term solution, a pretty long-term solution in the country so far. It’s not a short-term solution when you say, “Okay, if you are going to have people who work for you, you have to pay them a significant proportion of what you’re making.” It’s not a short-term solution unless you’re arguing that jobs are going away tomorrow. I’m kind of here for jobs going away tomorrow. That’s a whole other discussion. And you know again, I am not a futurist. I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen. What I’m saying is, that the course of human development, the course of what the “economy looks like,” these are things that are decided by people. These are things that are decided in offices. They’re decided in Congress. They’re decided in State Houses and City Councils around the country. These are decisions that are made by people for things to go a certain way. And they are decisions that, okay, if we’re going to, again, if we have enough technology that we don’t need, however many million people in America are working age and in good enough health to be working, we don’t need work full-time for all of these people because we have robots to do all of it. Okay, then how are we gonna solve that? And that’s a political question that we need to answer. And the thing that people are saying by getting involved in various social movements now, is that the way we’re doing it now is not working. It’s not working for the majority of people. If it worked for Amazon, that’s great. But ultimately what’s gonna happen if we have a tiny group of people who are very, very rich, and a whole bunch of people who don’t have jobs, is that’s a recipe for a deeply unstable country.

Jeff: Some would argue that those are the bigger issues that we need to be addressing within the political framework and those of the things that are not being discussed at all.

Sarah: People are having these conversations constantly. In fact they’re kind of tired of having this conversation and constantly being asked. Well, you know, if the $15 an hour movement succeeds and they get raises, are they just going to automate away those jobs. Yes, well that’s another problem we have. The problem that we have to solve right now is that people don’t have any power. And the way they have power is they get together and they organize and they make demands. And that’s how factory jobs became good jobs in the first place. And so the fact that, okay, $15 an hour movement brings together a whole lot people who are talking to each other about their working condition, and those people now are in an organization and they know how to reach each other. And okay, so then you raise the wage to $15 an hour in Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York, and you start losing jobs, or your boss cuts back on your hours, or whatever. Okay, and that’s the next problem. But when you are organizing, you’re actually working together with other people. Then you can actually work on solving those problems. But you can’t solve anything if you just kind of sit back and say, “Well, the guys in Amazon are going to decide what our future is.”

Jeff: To what extent does the political discourse need to be talking about these about things, politicians and elected officials?

Sarah: I mean, again, they are talking about this, right? This election was, you know, premised on one guy telling people that he was going to bring back jobs by kicking out immigrants, and building a wall, and overturning trade deals. And well, you know what he actually did with the Carrier plant was exactly the opposite of what was promised on the campaign trail. But he was saying he was going to bring back jobs and, you know, again, his actual plan to do that is nonexistent. But, that was an answer. That was a set of answers to that problem. This was, you know, and Hillary Clinton I would argue lost because she didn’t make these arguments, and she didn’t have a counterargument to this argument that what we have to do to bring back jobs is this, that, and the other thing. And that that’s part of the problem. But you know Bernie Sanders is also making arguments about this. Talking about the need to raise wages. Talking about the need to think about what we do with our trade policy and how that encourages jobs in different places. And these are questions that are deeply involved in our political discourse. And the answer that we’ve been getting mostly have been bad ones – the fact that Obama was continuing to push another massive trade deal that would again increasingly concentrate power in the hands of a handful of corporate executives. During elections, he said while this was a massively unpopular thing to be pushing, really you know, speaks volumes about what people’s solutions to these problems are. But these are conversations that are happening everywhere.

Jeff: To what extent do they need to happen? Sort of brings it back to something we talked about at the beginning. To what extent do they need to happen with a global perspective, as opposed to just what we’re hearing now, this America-first perspective?

Sarah: I mean, now you can’t separate the world at this point, right? There is no sort of closing down borders and shutting everything down the way. And it’s interesting this, as you’re saying, that Trump-ism isn’t only an American-only force. The Brexit vote. Everybody compared the Trump election to the Brexit vote in England. But there are right-wing nationalist movements growing all across Europe. This sort of reaction to globalization, is now the doubling down on nativism in a really, you know, frightening and harmful way, that’s scapegoating immigrants who are mostly the ones who are the most screwed by the global economy, right? And when you have people who are migrating in search of work, that is because there is no work where they’re coming from. And so we really, I just, you know, I can’t stress enough that Donald Trump is blaming the people who are the least responsible for the problem and who are the most victimized by it. And so yeah, to think about fixing trade deals, part of that is in fact you know, workers in this country would actually benefit by better labor standards and regulations in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, in places where the factories that used to be here are going, because if those workers are still cheap and exploitable and you know working in factories that are falling down and burning down all around them, then you know companies have every incentive to go somewhere else, and we all lose. And so yeah,  to challenge the sort of, theTrump arguments that we can just sort of put up walls around America and then it will be great again we do have to think about how we’re actually all interconnected, how the phenomena that are hurting people in Ohio, are also hurting people in Bangladesh, are hurting people in Mexico, are hurting people in Greece.

Jeff: And are you seeing that realization among the people that are organizing, that you write about, the people that are beginning to take action, that are trying to take action

Sarah: You know, the first person that I talked to at Occupy Wall Street was from Spain and she had been part of the Indignados movement in Spain after the end of the financial crisis over there. And she had come to Occupy Wall Street to help people figure out how to set up their movement here. And you know I’ve been, I was in Ireland this past spring for the election and the anniversary, the 100th anniversary of the Easter rising over there, and talking to  people on the Irish-left who had just been organizing around water charges that were being imposed for the first time. Water is paid up over there out of general taxation and they had this colossal movement and resistance to these water charges being imposed because of basically the EU imposed austerity after the financial crisis, again. And they are working with people in Greece and people in Spain. That there is a growing sense that again that the challenge to these nativist right-wing nationalist movements in Greece, they literally have a Nazi party, the third-largest party in their parliament, the Golden Dawn, that this is a problem that is only going to be solved by all of us actually talking about it and connecting and thrashing it out together.

Jeff: Is there some relevance in those organizations and is there some relevance in those that are trying to organize with respect to how fast events move today? That unlike in the past with traditional organizing things today are changing and moving so rapidly it puts an added pressure on the effort to organize.

Sarah: Yeah, and I think we’re seeing also, because of the Internet, because of the same factors that allow Wall Street to make trades at the speed of a millisecond, you can also organize a protest in two hours. You can put out a Tweet and tell people to come somewhere, and you can build these networks in a different way now through technology. And that’s also happening in things like labor organizing. Our Walmart, the Organization of Walmart Workers, just put out an app for organizing that’s basically for Walmart workers to talk to each other about the problems they’re having in the workplace and to be connected to other Walmart workers who are facing the same problems in different stores around country. And this is their attempt again to get to …, there are over a million employees of Walmart in the US, and those employees would have a tremendous amount of power if they were all organizing, connected to each other. But it’s impossible to send one organizer to each Walmart store. Each Walmart employee. But if you could actually figure out ways to connect them faster and connect them to each other so that they can talk to each other about what they need. That would be really powerful. And also I should mention that the Walmart workers have done international solidarity with the workers from Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh, the factory that collapsed, where goods sold in Walmart were being manufactured. And they’ve worked with immigrant workers in Louisiana, guestworkers who were making, packing seafood that was sold in Walmart. And so you do see this, again, this consciousness particularly with retail work, you know, the supply chain for retailers is so international, that again the workers understand that they’re all being squeezed by the same company at the top and by you know a family that has more wealth than the bottom 50% of America. and so when you look at it that way, again, if capital is international, is global. and if, you know, Walmart has its supply chain that’s spread around the world, then the only way to actually have a force that can counter that is to have all of the people who are being squeezed by Walmart work together.

Jeff: What will represent in your view and the view of the workers the people that you talk to, what will represent critical mass? When when will there be a sense that this is something that is not going to go back in the proverbial box?

Sarah: I mean it’s not going back in the proverbial box, but I don’t know what critical mass, you know, what I mean, what would winning look like? It depends. People have racked up things that are actual victories, right? Cities have voted for $15 an hour minimum wage. Workers have won like paid sick days. And a  bunch of people just voted for Donald Trump and feel like they won something. There are very different metrics of winning here, right? It’s you know, a real question of what that actually is going to look like and how you actually get different movements to connect to each other to understand that their struggles are actually basically all against the same small group of people and think about what that power looks like. I mean, does it look like a new political party? Does it look like taking over one of the existing ones and what victory would be? All of history is a product of people’s struggle and it’s going to go on. There’s going to be a moment where it stops. What the financial crisis taught us, if anything, it should have taught us that this idea that there was an end of history after the collapse of the Soviet Union was… claims were wildly inflated.

Jeff: Sarah Jaffe, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Sarah: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from miners (Gregor Maclennan / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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