Monday, September 7, 2020

Author: How the Left Betrayed the Working Class, Revive the Dignity of Work for 'Essential Workers'

For about four years, I have been puzzled.

I have struggled to understand how working class people continue to believe that a millionaire swindler, who cheats on his wives, his contractors and his taxes, speaks for them and what they value.

I wondered that until yesterday which, by what is doubtless no coincidence, was the day before Labor Day.

My eye was caught by a headline in The Guardian, a British newspaper with a left-leaning editorial view, that showed up on my Facebook feed and was posted there by Bernie Lunzer, who, until recently, was the president of my union, The Newspaper Guild.

Photo Filched from The Guardian website
Michael Sandel
The headline read: "Michael Sandel: 'The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit.'"

The sub-hed read: "The philosopher believes the liberal left's pursuit of meritocracy has betrayed the working classes. His new book argues for a politics centered on dignity."

Sandel's new book is titled "The Tyranny of Merit." It's primary thesis, according to the article's author, Julian Coman, is this:

By championing an “age of merit” as the solution to the challenges of globalisation, inequality and deindustrialisation, the Democratic party and its European equivalents, Sandel argues, hung the western working-class and its values out to dry – with disastrous consequences for the common good.
This is how Sandel himself puts it:
"Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising.’ It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.” The recommended way to “rise"  has been to "get a higher education."
Sandel, who is also the author of "What Money Can't Buy," cites a 2013 speech by Barack Obama as epitomizing this type of thinking:
Barack Obama as "moralizing life coach."
“We live in a 21st-century global economy. And in a global economy jobs can go anywhere. Companies, they’re looking for the best-educated people wherever they live. If you don’t have a good education, then it’s going to be hard for you to find a job that pays the living wage.” For those willing to make the requisite effort, there was the promise that: “This country will always be a place where you can make it if you try.”
How many times have we heard this? It is certain no one who has covered as many high school graduations as I have could fail to hear echos of a 100 superintendents' speeches.

I am not one to disparage higher education, although I have been made uneasy over the past few years about how closely this has been tied to career. 

Pedro Rivera visits an engineering class
at Pottstown High School in Freburary.
In February, former Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera was in Pottstown and talked about how important education is to getting a higher paying job. "We need to create the same playing field for every one," he said.

And I found myself asking inwardly, "what about education for its own sake? What about education simply for the furtherance of knowledge?"

That said, not every one is cut out for college, just as I was not cut out to be a carpenter. No matter how many times I measured, I'm sure I would cut wrong. And this after working two summers with a contractor.

My thinking along these lines began in high school. 
Armin Merkle

I had a social studies teacher named Armin Merkle, a man who rode his bike 10 miles to work every day and went to Vietnam, and into battle, with no weapon. A conscientious objector, he carried the radio. That is staking your life to your principles.

He was also a broad thinker and tried to get us to think (and I hate this phrase, but it applies here) "outside the box." Merkle taught a psychology and sociology elective and was constantly irritated by my fellow white suburbanite classmates asking "will this be on the test?"

Why, he asked, are you so worried about the test? The answer was inevitably the same, "so I can get good grades and get into a good college."

"The world needs plumbers you know," he would snap back. "And many of them will make a good deal more money than you."

Flash forward, 37 years and I am standing in the auto shop at Pottstown High School last October covering the revelation of a piece of expensive wheel-alignment equipment, the purchase of which was made possible only through a series of grants and contributions.

"I think it's my generation that screwed up education," Scott Bentley, founder of VideoRay, one of the members of his family donated more than $23,000 toward the $58,000 purchase price, said at the time.

Pottstown High School's new wheel alignment device.
"We told our kids if they didn't go to college, they were a failure when we all know college is not the right choice for everyone. So we had a generation of kids who graduated with a mountain of debt and asked themselves why they went to college in the first place," Bentley said.

"It was not fair to students like this," he said indicating the Pottstown High School automotive technology students who were standing behind him. "And it doesn't help the country. I read recently that more than half the country's plumbers are going to retire in 10 years. What are we going to do then? America needs plumbers."

There it was again. "America needs plumbers." 

And it does. As a homeowner, I would be lost without the work undertaken regularly by my forebearing plumber Dave Hollenbach. He's an interesting man to talk to and has tried, to no avail, to teach me to do some of the simpler repairs on my own. I respect both his work and perspective.

Some may take this thinking as nothing new. But I was taken by Sandel's perceptions about those for whom college was not the right choice, many of whom work in a technical field that requires as much or more training than any four-year-college could ever provide.

Sandel calls the level playing field "a chimera."
Coman writes: "Even a perfect meritocracy, (Sandel) says, would be a bad thing. 'The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,' he says. 'The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.' Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own."

Writes Coman: "A relentless success ethic permeated the culture: 'Those at the top deserved their place but so too did those who were left behind. They hadn’t striven as effectively. They hadn’t got a university degree and so on,' said Sandel. As centre-left parties and their representatives became more and more middle-class, the focus on upward mobility intensified. 'They became reliant on the professional classes as their constituency, and in the US as a source of campaign finance,'" Sandel said.

"Blue-collar workers were in effect given a double-edged invitation to 'better' themselves or carry the burden of their own failure,'"wrote Coman. "Many took their votes elsewhere, nursing a sense of betrayal. 'The populist backlash of recent years has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit, as it has been experienced by those who feel humiliated by meritocracy and by this entire political project," Sandel told Coman.

Which brings us back to the president.

The enthusiasm among some Trump supporters
is palpable.
“I have no sympathy whatsoever for Donald Trump, who is a pernicious character. But my book conveys a sympathetic understanding of the people who voted for him," Sendel says. "For all the thousands and thousands of lies Trump tells, the one authentic thing about him is his deep sense of insecurity and resentment against elites, which he thinks have looked down upon him throughout his life. That does provide a very important clue to his political appeal."

That explains a lot, at least to me.

And now, a spotlight has been shown on those who do hard work for a living and how we value them, or don't.

Suddenly the phrase "essential worker" is everywhere. Sorry, your office is closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the person who stocks the shelves at Giant? The bus driver? The fast food worker? They're essential.

Well you wouldn't know it from looking at their paychecks. One would think a capitalist meritocracy would value those we need as well as those who are well-educated.

Writes Coman: "The only way out of the crisis, Sandel believes, is to dismantle the meritocratic assumptions that have morally rubber-stamped a society of winners and losers. The Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the new appreciation of the value of supposedly unskilled, low-paid work, offers a starting point for renewal. 'This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem. We now realise how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy. We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers,'" said Sandel.

And yet it is those very workers, whose toughness on the picket line and the negotiating table, brought all of us so many of the things we take for granted -- paid vacation; paid sick leave, health insurance, paid holidays and yes, even weekends.

And it didn't come easily.

We can sometimes forget that Labor Day, began as May Day, a commemoration of the people who died protesting inhumane working conditions that rewarded not those who did the work, but those who owned the works.

"On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike," according to a 1993 history of Labor Day posted on the Industrial Workers of the World union and recently posted as a reminder on Facebook by Pottstown's own Ian Lawrence.

It was not until three days later that these protests turned violent.

For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as
they picketed outside the McCormick Reaper Works.

During a speech near the McCormick plant, some two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

The next day, another hastily called meeting ended in violence. As the meeting, which the mayor of Chicago himself described as peaceful, broke up, police arrived and a bomb was thrown into their midst. Police fired into the crowd. Seven civilians and seven police officers died, and about 40 total were wounded.

So yes, it is not an exaggeration to say people died to give us an eight-hour work day; to prevent children from working in mines and dying before they reached 20 years of age. These were all benefits of the labor movement, many ultimately enshrined into law, but only after great effort and sacrifice.

Let us stop taking for granted those who do the work it took a global pandemic to remind us is "essential," and recognize that we all contribute to a free and functioning society in our own way and should all share in the rewards. 

Fair competition does not constitute a just vision of society, according to Sandel, who points to the observation by English Christian socialist RH Tawney as the way forward.

“Tawney argued that equality of opportunity was at best a partial ideal. His alternative was not an oppressive equality of results," Sandel said. "It was a broad, democratic ‘equality of condition’ that enables citizens of all walks of life to hold their heads up high and to consider themselves participants in a common venture."

Have a Happy Labor Day.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful piece!

  2. Was thinking of Mr. Merkle for other reasons today and came upon your piece. Nice! He was in the Times in 1998 for a 1200 mi bike ride he took in Vietnam.Worth looking up as well.

    1. Marc, I did look up the piece while hunting for photos. I ended up using the one from our yearbook.