A Civil Rights Movement for Working-Class People

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Stanley Greenberg’s illuminating Washington Monthly article makes two central points: that Democrats need to do better among white working-class voters if progressives wish to bring about major social change; and that the goal of winning more white working-class voters is achievable if the right appeals are made. I think there is good evidence to support both claims. Indeed, we need something akin to a civil rights movement for working people of all races—both to bring working-class whites back into the Democratic fold, and to resurrect the American Dream.

I. Why the White Working-Class is Necessary for the Democratic Coalition.

Barack Obama won two presidential elections without much support from working-class whites. This development gave rise to the unfortunate belief that the old George McGovern coalition—educated whites, minorities, women, and young people—was the key to Democratic success in an era when the size of the white working-class vote is shrinking.

Greenberg, however, makes a powerful case that “Democrats cannot win big or consistently enough, deep enough down the ticket, or broadly enough in the state, unless they run much stronger with white working-class and downscale voters.”  Obama’s electoral success at the presidential level obscures disastrous results for Democrats down ticket.  Robert Draper, writing in the New York Times Magazine, notes Democrats are unlikely to retake the House until 2022 at best. With Democrats holding only 18 or 50 gubernatorial seats and controlling both houses in only 11 state legislatures, Draper concludes, “Not since the Hoover Administration has the Democratic Party’s overall power been so low.”

Moreover, Democrats need the white working-class to help fuel major action on the nation’s most pressing challenge: skyrocketing income inequality. As Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute notes, it was the great dream of labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph to create a cross-racial class-based coalition to bring about greater economic equality. Instead, with white working-class voters trending Republican in election after election, the Democrats have a largely race-based cross-class coalition that has less interest in challenging fundamental economic inequalities.

II. How to Appeal to the White Working-Class?

How can Democrats today appeal to white-working class voters, who provided solid support from the 1930’s through the 1960s? Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank, suggests that Democrats need not (and should not) turn their back on civil rights advances for minorities but rather expand the progress for working-class people of all races. Frank writes, “The chief political problem for Democrats is not anger at integration but the belief that the Democratic focus on ‘pleasing minorities’ extends to giving them preference for scarce jobs.” He continues, “White working-class and middle-class men have not lost faith in government in general; they have lost faith in the willingness of Democrats to use the power of government to protect them from hurtful economic trends.”

In a similar vein, Greenberg’s research finds than many white working-class voters believe that “jobs don’t pay enough to live on” and that big business interests “give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the
country billions.”

In an interesting twist, Greenberg finds that campaign finance reform—normally thought of as a good-government cause embraced mostly by highly-educated liberals—resonates strongly with white working-class voters.

What specific policies could embody Frank’s call for broadening civil rights to help working people, and Greenberg’s call for restoring our democracy? Throughout much of American history, organized labor has been both the nation’s strongest voice for good paying jobs and the chief counterweight in elections to large business interests. So any policy solution should seek ways to resurrect labor unions, as this nation has done in previous periods of grave economic inequality. While raising the minimum wage is a good first step for moving the poor to the working-class, only unions can help move the working-class to the middle.

What can be done to help workers unionize? While many have given up hope on the American labor movement, looking abroad, it is clear that labor’s decimation at home is not the inevitable result of economic globalization. Other countries, also subject to competitive global pressures, have much stronger labor movements in part because the laws in those nations are much more supportive of union organizing, as Freedom House has documented. In the U.S., weak labor laws allow employers to discriminate against workers who try to organize a union. Employers routinely fire or demote ringleaders in organizing drives, and pay small penalties for breaking the law.

My colleague Moshe Marvit and I have called for making labor organizing a civil right, allowing workers of all races access to strong civil rights penalties when employers discriminate against employees for exercising their rights to unionize. Two Congressmen—Rep. Keith Ellison and civil rights giant John Lewis—have introduced legislation to make labor organizing a civil right.  Similar initiatives could be passed at the state and local level. (Unions could also take steps to better harness the power of technology to promote organizing.)

Making labor organizing a civil right is one important way to giving white working-class voters a direct stake in a civil rights movement for workers and to underline their common cause with black and Latino workers. Americans are rightly proud of the significant advances we have made for civil rights for African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays. It’s now time to complement that progress with a civil rights movement for workers—including working-class whites—to bring them back to their natural home in the Democratic Party.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is coauthor (with Moshe Marvit) of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right (2012).