Michelle Wolf, comedienne, Daily Show alum, and writer, hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You, ahem, may have heard about it.
Wolf, delivering her routine with a wry sort of smile that often belied a caustic tone, was an equal opportunity joke teller, hurling insults mostly at President Donald Trump, but not sparing members of his administration either. Nor were other media and political figures off limits, as Wolf also assailed the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, Michael Cohen, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and the stars of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among others. On top of this, she took the news media community to task for their part in propping up Trump for the sake of their profits and at the nation’s expense.
Before we get to the myriad responses to Wolf’s monologue, which tidily ran under 20 minutes in length, let’s first go over some of the highlights of her speech, as identified by yours truly:
Michelle Wolf began by asserting that her role was to tell jokes, and that she had no agenda or wasn’t “trying to get anything accomplished.” You can question the merits of her statement if you will, but if she came with any “agenda,” it wasn’t apparent by virtue of her barbs aimed in all directions.
Wolf did not dwell on the Trump-Russia situation, except at one point suggesting #45 is in some way compromised by this connection. Otherwise, she professed that she didn’t want to titillate the liberal media among the audience by going on about it, and seemed to express frustration at how this story has dominated headlines and has encouraged discussion panels reminiscent of a bad family argument at Thanksgiving dinner.
That said, Wolf went after Trump. Hard. She called him a “pussy” for not attending the Dinner, and rather than harping on his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—though not letting him off the hook about these qualities either—she made a series of jokes designed to eat away at a key part of his image and truly gall him: that he’s not as rich as he says he is.
Wolf also referenced Trump’s pandering to white nationalists, and surmises the term “white nationalist” itself is a cop out. As she said during her monologue: “Calling a Nazi a ‘white nationalist’ is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend,’ or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man’.”
Wolf expressed the belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached, if only because Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.
Wolf also mentioned Trump’s Cabinet, and joked she had specific comments for its members, but that they keep changing. She quipped, “You guys have gone through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
As mentioned earlier, if Wolf wrote her routine with any sort of agenda, it was political—especially in the feminist sense—but not partisan. She took Hillary Clinton’s campaign to task for abandoning Midwest states like Michigan, and more broadly chided Democrats for their strategic miscues in races up and down tickets.
Indeed, for all her (deserved) criticism of Trump, her particular disdain for women in positions of relative prominence was apparent. She identified Kellyanne Conway as an out-and-out liar who has no business appearing on news channels, she characterized Ivanka Trump, self-professed advocate for women, as “as helpful to [them] as an empty box of tampons,” likened Sarah Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a brutal authoritarian figure and spreader of propaganda. Last but not least, she took a shot at Megyn Kelly and NBC’s handling of her contract: “Megyn Kelly got paid $23 million by NBC, and NBC didn’t let Megan go to the Winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold, and expensive, she might as well be the Winter Olympics.”
Wolf’s harshest words perhaps were aimed at the media, and specifically for the way they’ve taken advantage of Donald Trump’s rise within the sphere of U.S. politics. Comparing their attitude toward Trump like a woman who professes to hate her ex-boyfriend but secretly loves him, she uttered, point blank, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.” For Wolf, this point was one that she sees that members of the media are loath to acknowledge, but bears discussing and repeating.
Wolf’s closing words, underscoring the seriousness of her commentary and serving as a reminder in case anyone forgot (or chose to ignore it): “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” As far as responses to emergency situations are concerned, I’m sure there are those in, say, Puerto Rico who would nod their heads and add their own situations to the mix.
Reactions to the speech have been fairly predictable. Pres. Trump, of course, hated it, calling it “a very big, boring bust.” Takes one to know one, Donald. Sean Spicer called it a “disgrace.” Ditto. Other conservative publications and sites panned Michelle Wolf’s performance, highlighting the opinion she “bombed.” One tends to wonder if they actually watched her performance or simply formed their opinion based on snippets from blogs and their own kneejerk reactions in defense of the President, but this apparently is the state of critical political analysis in our country today.
To be fair, Wolf has had her detractors outside the political right, too. The media, perhaps likewise predictably, have balked at the idea they have helped create the “monster” that is Trump. As someone like Chris Cillizza of CNN and formerly of The Washington Post would aver, he and other reporters have covered Trump to the extent that he has done and said things that no other president/candidate has done, but that Trump, as the “angry id of the GOP,” was on the rise whether the mainstream media gave him the attention or not. That is, while sites like CNN have indeed profited off of Trump’s increased exposure, Cillizza believes this is different from “creating” him.
Other criticisms seem directed at Wolf’s perceived mean streak, particularly in her take-down of Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and Sarah Sanders. In addressing the media and telling various outlets not to book Conway, she joked, “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?” She immediately qualified that she wouldn’t want Conway hurt or killed by the falling tree, just stuck, but the image was enough for some people.
In assailing Pence and his anti-abortion views, a sore spot for many women and people concerned with personal rights, she riffed, “Don’t knock it ’til you try it, and when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Abortion jokes, even for the pro-choice crowd, are always a questionable choice. As for Sanders, Wolf’s comments about her make-up and her resemblance to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale have been branded as unfair and tantamount to bullying, though Wolf professes she was not making fun of Sarah’s looks, but merely her propensity to lie and spin as a buffer between Trump and the press corps. Despite not having an “agenda,” Wolf was clearly not playing to the room, or for that matter, playing nice.
The bilateral backlash to Wolf’s routine has been such that even White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev publicly distanced herself from the content of the monologue, putting forth the notion that Wolf’s remarks were not “in the spirit” of what the WHCA tries to accomplish, that the occasion should be one of civility, and of defending a free press and celebrating great reporting, and not intentionally divisive. In making this statement to fellow Association members, Talev seemed to be indicating a bit of buyer’s remorse, and at one point, after making an off-color joke about her own anatomy, Wolf herself followed it with the perhaps-too-on-the-nose line, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” Touché, Ms. Wolf. Touché.
At the same time, however, Michelle Wolf has her defenders, especially among her comedian brethren. As they contend, Wolf did the job she was asked to do, and if she ruffled a few proverbial feathers, so be it. Their sentiments echo the feelings of some people that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the problem, not Wolf or her “speak truth to power” mindset. For years, critics of this annual tradition have highlighted the oddity of an event designed to champion fearless reporting and freedom of the press and yet encourage reporters and political or otherwise public figures to coalesce with one another.
The mere suggestion that members of the press are in some way complicit in Trump’s political rise or in downplaying his administration’s dangerous propensity to lie is therefore bound to be uncomfortable. To put this another way, and to sympathize with the views of chief New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, maybe the WHCA should just not hire a comedian if they want less controversy, and as he puts it, “send the cameras away [and] have a nice dinner in peace.” After all, there’s nothing obligating the Association to hire a stand-up performer. Why do it if you’re unable to handle criticism in your own right?
Michelle Wolf, for her part, has responded to criticism of her speech by indicating she wouldn’t change a word of it, and that the backlash she’s received from her comments means she was actually in the right. Poniewozik, in his closing remarks, also defended Wolf to the extent that the White House Correspondents’ Association did not:
The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.
As Margaret Talev has made evident by distancing Wolf and her jokes from the Association and its purported mission, she is a comedian and not a member of the press. From where Wolf stands, this is probably a good thing, in that it frees her from any conventions which might prevent her from calling a spade a spade. Still, that the WHCA would publicly disavow the contents of Wolf’s monologue and risk chumming the waters for conservative trolls seems like a questionable stance to take.
It’s reminiscent of when Donald Trump, shortly after the contents of the Steele dossier started becoming public news, shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference, calling Acosta and his employer “fake news.” Looking at this situation retrospectively, it’s not so surprising that Trump would verbally attack a member of the media given his frequent angry Tweets lobbed at the “liberal media.”
At the time, however, it was unnerving to see Acosta shut down by the President and have none of his colleagues come to his defense. Sure, Neil Cavuto and others at FOX News may have been glad to smirk and sneer at CNN for what they perceived as their comeuppance for biased reporting and an overall snobby elitist attitude. But this confrontation foreshadowed the all-out assault Trump has levied upon the mainstream media, and it has ominous implications for the future of news media given Trump’s authoritarian streak and the proliferation of genuine fake news—if that makes any sense.
In other words, if individual members of the press don’t stand in solidarity when freedom of the press/freedom of speech is challenged, it stands to become that much easier to pick them off in the future. Wolf, in laughingly referring to print news as an “endangered species,” punctuated her joke by saying, “Buy more newspapers.” Much as she might disagree with their model, and to stress James Poniewozik’s insights, Michelle Wolf, a comedian with no agenda and not trying to get anything accomplished, recognizes the importance of investigative journalism. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and such explains why FOX News personalities came to CNN’s defense when their rival was besieged by Trump early in 2017. Over a year later, though, it already feels like members of the media/press are less inclined to cross Trump, or in the case of FOX News, are unabashedly biased in his favor. Gulp.
It’s anyone’s guess what Wolf’s performance will mean for the future of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, if anything. Chances are good that the furor over her routine will die down by the time next year rolls around and we’ll be reacting with the usual outrage again, having all but forgotten that dinner’s predecessor. For the media outlets implicated in her speech, meanwhile, it might behoove them to look at themselves in the mirror before putting this episode in the rear view. Given the public’s flagging confidence in the news media, an institution that won’t confront its own accountability may just end up hastening its own decline.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
An excellent piece by Caroline Winter, staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, helps shed some light on just why Nestlé’s use of water resources in the United States and elsewhere has become so controversial. The crux of the article, which explores the production of water bottles at one Michigan plant, the genesis of the company’s experience with bottled water dating back to the 1800s, and the domestic and international demand for Nestlé’s and other companies’ bottled water products, surrounds the monolithic entity’s monopolization of water supplies, either through the promise of economic benefits for communities or due to their desperation for funds. Winter lays out the essentials in a particular passage relating to said bottling plant located in Mecosta County:
The Michigan operation is only one small part of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company. But it illuminates how Nestlé has come to dominate a controversial industry, spring by spring, often going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions. Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no. There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee. In Michigan, it’s $200.
Putting the weak resistance of municipalities, counties, and states aside for the moment, what aids Nestlé in its bid to capitalize on control of water resources are trends involving water consumption. First, there’s the demand, fueled by concern for contaminants in tap water, even though, as Winter suggests, bottled water’s superiority in purity and taste may be overstated (more on this later).
There are also concerns with supply, though, particularly in areas where the infrastructure for water maintenance is poor, thus lending itself to Nestlé’s ability to swoop in and market an alternative that appeals to consumers and government officials alike in that neither feel obligated to fix or rely on public utilities. In addition, uncertainty about whether or not water is a human right, in part fueled by statements of the latter persuasion by company executives, serves to undermine public outrage over the commodification of this resource by Nestlé and its competitors. For those well-versed in the debate over universal health care in the U.S., for instance, such is another iteration of the larger push-and-pull between progressive activists and corporate agendas.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s up to these would-be hosts of Nestlé facilities to decide whether to let the thirsty wolf in the door, so to speak. As Winter tells, the company tends to target areas where water regulations are inconsistent/lax or where it feels it can effectively lobby to weaken restrictions, and while towns in some states have said no to Nestlé, elsewhere and in a majority of cases, the conglomerate has been able to impose its will despite opposition. In perhaps the most disturbing example of San Bernardino, California, for a nominal yearly fee paid to the United States Forest Service, Nestlé has been able to extract tens of millions of gallons of water, even during droughts. So much for the greater good.
The remainder of Winter’s piece is spent reviewing two case studies in the state of Michigan in which residents and environmental activists were or are pitted directly against Nestlé. The results are not too heartening, either, for evidently, when Nestlé wins, they win big, and even when they lose, they still manage to win somewhat. Going back to Mecosta, in 2000, Nestlé purchased the Ice Mountain water brand from Pepsi and relocated facilities there. State and local officials, all too happy to be doing business with Nestlé, offered the company a one-time $13 million tax break. When residents got wind of this, however, they formed a grassroots water conservation group of Michigan citizens opposed to Nestlé opening up shop in their backyards, and enlisted an environmental lawyer to challenge the Swiss multinational in the courts. The outcome? After eight years and $1 million+ in legal fees, the two sides settled for a reduced water-pumping rate and seasonal restrictions. Um, hooray?
More recently, in Evart, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality caught flak for their clandestine near-approval of an application by Nestlé to more than double its water extraction rate. It took a 2016 investigative report by Garret Ellison which appeared on MLive.com to break this news to the public, whereupon people were justifiably and demonstrably distraught. At a subsequent public hearing held by the DEQ on Nestlé attended by upwards of 500 people, numerous speakers assailed the Department’s overall resource management record, notably invoking the Flint water crisis. So too did they question Nestlé’s ability to essentially pay pennies to extract ungodly amounts of water while residents of cities like Flint and Detroit are forced to use bottled water and cough up a disproportionate amount of money for tap water tainted by lead or shut off at times. For all this outward show of dissatisfaction, Winter mentions, the DEQ representatives “shuffled offstage, refusing to comment.”
Accounts of the extent of the environmental impact of pumping increases like the one proposed in Evart imaginably vary depending on the source; in the case of the Michigan DEQ, officials overruled the computer model used to help assess the effects of water consumption in the state, finding its calculations “overly conservative.” Meanwhile, at the heart of this discussion is more than just whether or not 400 gallons a minute is too much, but whether or not large corporations like Nestlé should be able to claim ownership of necessities like water in the first place, “renewable” as they may be. It’s the same sort of right-vs-privilege dynamic that characterizes, again, the health care debate in this country, and which informs principles like the public trust doctrine that reserve certain resources or specified amounts of these resources for public use. For many of us across socioeconomic statuses, it is critical to know that not every bit of land in America is subject to being bought by and sold to the highest bidder.
From a conservationist and environmental standpoint, it’s clear the implications of Nestlé’s global footprint exceed that of exploitation of water resources which threaten to diminish as a result of climate change. After all, this is bottled water we’re talking about here. According to information provided by the company itself on its Nestlé Waters website, the average global bottled water consumption is 50 liters per capita per year. It requires a lot of plastic, to the estimated tune of over 200 billion bottles annually worldwide. It would be one thing if most or all of those containers were being recycled. Domestically, at least, however, if recycling rates have remain unchanged from about a decade ago, we are simply throwing away close to 90% of the water bottles we buy in the United States. To make matters worse, the very production of these bottles expends precious resources. It costs millions of barrels of oil to make the world’s water bottles used for drinking, and three times the water that goes into these bottles is consumed by the process. That’s a lot of pollution contribution for one industry.
At least the product is worth it, right? That is, at least bottled water tastes better and is better for you, right? Perhaps not. On the side of the taste of bottled water vs. tap water, numerous tests have shown people’s inability to distinguish the two, with psychological experts attributing the difference simply to the expectation bottled water will taste better. As for how safe bottled water is relative to tap water, there is also a significant amount of research which suggests the idea that bottled water is a safer and healthier alternative to tap water is propaganda perpetuated by the bottled water industry to sell its product. This is before a recent study by Orb Media found more than 90% of water bottles contain microplastics we are likely consuming as we drink, the health impact of which is uncertain because it hasn’t been studied extensively. By all means, though, enjoy that bottle of Poland Spring.
It should be emphasized that Nestlé, while a leader in bottled water production and a company known for—how shall I put this?—a remarkable zeal for acquisition of water resources and litigation thereafter, is not the only player in the business of marking up and reselling water from people’s backyards back to them. Aquafina and Dasani, brands owned by PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company, respectively, notably created controversy when they were forced to admit that their product is glorified tap water, filtered through reverse osmosis and further purified with the help of minerals or other processes like ozone sterilization. In light of the statistics on bottled water and how much is used or wasted on their disposal and production, however, it’s worse that there is an entire industry responsible, and thus a myriad number of companies of which to ensure their accountability and transparency.
Accordingly, it’s tough to find silver linings with respect to the issue of bottled water companies and water usage. Since Caroline Winter’s piece for Bloomberg Businessweek was published, Evart has apparently denied Nestlé’s request to build a boosting station to augment its water-pumping output. The town’s predictable reward for this? A lawsuit from Nestlé. As for the global proliferation of bottled water, while the news of ingesting microplastics could, in theory, curb consumption, at the end of the day, assuming people have even heard or read these reports, they still get thirsty. Bottled water, in its seeming ubiquity, is convenient for those of us living an on-the-go lifestyle. After all, how many of us frequent fast food restaurants despite knowing how bad their offerings are for our bodies? At the very least, and even if we do care about limiting our plastic consumption, we may, say, forget to bring a reusable water bottle with us when we get to where we’re going. For all our good intentions about living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle, it requires discipline and practice, and for those moments when we falter, Nestlé and its competitors are waiting.
Despite all these obstacles, the conversation about standing up to the bottled water industry (Big Water?) and insisting on repairs/upgrades to our water utility infrastructure as well as preservation of the human right to water—and yes, like health care, this is recognized as a human right and not a privilege—is one we need to be having, especially as access to clean, drinkable water becomes less and less certain here and abroad. Back in May of 2016, in response to a drought at the time, Alissa Walker, in a piece for Gizmodo entitled “Stop Drinking Bottled Water,” addressed the importance of big-picture thinking that transcends scrutiny of individual corporations and municipalities when it comes to this topic:
We can’t stop at the municipal level. We have to think bigger. Eleven percent of the Earth’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. There are people in this country who are currently facing a groundwater contamination crisis. Instead of throwing our Great American Problem at people by the plastic-encased-in-plastic case, we should be focusing on designing and building comprehensive, permanent water systems for every person on this planet. Each bottle of water purchased is a vote against that goal.
Giving up bottled water also means thinking long-term about preserving water security. You may have reservoirs near you brimming over with fresh rainfall right now, but the truth is that the amount of potable water on this planet is growing more scarce every year. The bottled water industry is one of the fastest-growing on the planet. Last year it made $100 billion, an amount that is expected to double within five years. Now consider the fact that it actually takes the equivalent of three bottles of water to make a single water bottle. Every swig from a plastic blob in the name of convenience moves us closer to a world without any clean water at all.
Because like I said before, it’s not about this drought—it’s about every future drought.
Walker is right. Whatever your angle, whether it’s concern for the people of small-town America and others in preserving their way of life, or for the planet’s future, or simply to stick it to big corporations like Nestlé, there is a reason to get invested in this issue. Choose one, and make sure to have your reusable water bottle handy while you do it.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
I consider my father to be an intelligent individual. Before recently retiring, he worked for several decades as an accountant, and toward the end of his gainful employment, he also served as a human resources director of sorts, absorbing most of the functions that a full-time, HR-exclusive professional would for a small business. He is quick-witted, has a good sense of humor, and continually tries to improve himself by challenging himself physically and mentally. With respect to politics, however, I feel his judgment lately is somewhat suspect, especially as it errs on the side of the conservative. My parents are both lifelong Democrats, and at one point, Dad even joked that he would vote for an ax murderer if he were a Democrat rather than a Republican. (My father does not deny outright that he said this, but he does not admit it either, and legitimately or not, claims not to remember this statement.)
With this personal political history in mind, it caused the rest of the family great concern earlier in the 2016 presidential campaign when Dad said he was considering voting for Donald Trump. For someone on the Republican ticket, Trump’s legacy as a conservative was notably lacking, so the idea that the family patriarch would be considering a vote for a GOP candidate was not immediately so alarming. His apparent support for Trump, a grade-A asshole, meanwhile, was. Mom, an avowed believer in Hillary Clinton, if for no other reason than wanting to see a woman become President, belabored the point whenever the election or politics came up. Dad responded by saying that he liked Trump because he was straightforward and “not a politician.” On this note, I agreed that politicians and politics as usual had justifiably driven resistance to “establishment” or “mainstream” figures within both parties, and thereby had helped fuel the billionaire’s appeal. But electing Donald Trump as President of the United States, I argued, was like, because you didn’t enjoy Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, burning down the whole library in protest. Even as a symbolic gesture, a vote for Trump was a vote for hate and a vote against reason and, you know, actually being qualified for one’s intended office.
Eventually, my father began to sour on Donald Trump, not so much because of his intended policies—or lack thereof—but mostly with respect to his denigration of women. As good as any reason not to cast a vote for the man, as far as I was concerned. To wit, I don’t know who Dad voted for this past November. All I know is that since the election and in the months since, every time a discussion of a remotely political nature has threatened to rear its head in our house, he has sought to put the kibosh on it, plaintively asking, “Do we have to talk about politics?” Accordingly, it is pretty rare that my father makes any political commentary unsolicited. (His social commentary is more regular, though no less disturbing, particularly as it concerns anti-feminist attitudes or criticisms of appeals to diversity and political correctness.)
One area where Dad has been notably vocal, though, and a point on which I patently disagree with him, is the subject of unions and other professional organizations. Whether it is because of his experience in the human resources realm or in spite of it, or even related to my mother’s dealings with union representation (Mom is a registered nurse), I can’t say for sure, but suffice it to say, Pops believes unions are “ruining this country.” Harsh words, but Dad is certainly not alone in his antipathy to these organizations. In 2013, Al Lewis, now-business editor of The Houston Chronicle and then-Dow Jones Newswires reporter, Wall Street Journal columnist, and writer for MarketWatch, explored America’s distaste for unions alongside their apparent acceptance or tacit compliance of many with standard operating procedure for corporations and the executives who manage them. Lewis describes the psychology of anti-union sentiment:
Unions…could counter many of the economic injustices that plague America. Unfortunately, unions have lost their power to do so. Union membership in the private sector is down to 6.6 percent of all workers, [a] Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed. In the public sector, 35.9 percent of all employees remain unionized.
This is why, as Americans, we often view unions as a cause of higher taxes. We also are still wondering where the mob buried former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. We sense a more subtle form of institutional corruption in the unions’ alignment with mostly Democratic politicians. We detest the extra layer of bureaucracy unions add to any workplace. And we suspect that it can kill business.
The pension liabilities some companies have amassed in past union negotiations simply blow our minds. And we are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers. So by now, most Americans have decided they don’t want to be in a union, even if the decline of unions correlates to the decline of the middle class.
The perception of union leaders as not merely working with political leaders, but for them or in cahoots with them, certainly would seem to work against acceptance of the abstract concept of unions in the United States, as does the image of the union leader earning a comparatively exorbitant salary next to the members of the organization he or she represents, or unions lobbying for their pensions even with many states and municipalities in a state of financial turmoil. More than mere politics or even morality, however, Al Lewis speaks to implicitly-held theories of leadership and who or what types of individuals are capable of leading groups of workers. “We are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers.”
Right there, we have a sense of the larger and more pervasive attitude toward those at the top of the hierarchy and those forming the base of the pyramid. Those at the top are presumed to have superior management and leadership skills, not to mention acumen in their given field. Those at the bottom are presumed to be deficient in such skills, drones born to follow rather than lead. Especially as it concerns trade professionals, there exists a stereotype of the blue-collar worker as fat, lazy, stupid, or all three. You know the idea—the plumber crouched over his work, his rear-end barely concealed by his briefs and sagging jeans. There is undoubtedly a perception gap when it comes to these two groups, a phenomenon further expounded upon by Lewis to conclude his piece:
Americans hate organized labor, but somehow they do not hate organized management. As the labor unions have declined, professional corporate managers have formed increasingly powerful guilds of their own. They belong to elite groups, such as the Business Roundtable or the Trilateral Commission, to name a couple. Many are even having a little cabal in Davos, Switzerland this week. What? You thought that was about improving the world? This is how they end up on each other’s boards, approving each others’ compensation packages.
In this subtle way, CEOs have built the most successful union in all of history. You ask a company why it pays its CEO so much, and the answer is always because it is what all the other CEOs get paid. All the other CEOs who sit on each others’ boards, that is.
It is the greatest spin job in all of economics and politics. When someone making $943 a week tries to organize, and fend for their own economic interests, Americans have been conditioned to call it socialism. But when someone making several hundred thousand dollars a week does it, they call it free enterprise.
The many, in other words, look up to the few, and as part of this aspirational model, look down upon their present station, or simply down upon those who they believe exist at a lower echelon than them. In the context of unions, when workers organize and try to buck the paradigm of the survival of the fittest paradigm, we have been conditioned to view it as a violation and an aberration rather than the way things should work. As Mr. Lewis intimates, somehow we have been led to associate the activities of professional organizations with greed and excess, or even asking for something undeserved, when executive compensation packages continue to reach obscene levels, even in the face of scandal. Simply put, the American people, by and large, seem to have it backwards when it comes to how they regard the balance of power in our society.
So, yes, likewise simply put, public support for unions has been on the decline, as has participation from workers in those professions who might stand to become or remain members. As of the date of publication of Al Lewis’s article, union membership was down to 11.3% of all workers, a level the author notes is the lowest the United States of America has seen since the Great Depression. Rarely are comparisons to the Great Depression ever a good thing for trends involving employment and labor. This historical perspective alongside current negative feelings about organized labor forms the backdrop for the much-politicized battle over the responsibilities and rights of workers in relation to unions, often correlating with party affiliation. Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall, in an op-ed appearing in The New York Times back in 2014, phrased this succinctly with the very title of his essay, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions.” Edsall elaborates on the depth of the GOP’s war on unions as fueled by stronger conservatives within its ranks:
Republicans are willing to go to great lengths to weaken the union movement, especially at the state level. Even as the strength of organized labor as a whole declines, conservatives view unions that represent public sector employees, in particular, as anathema. They are desperate to gut the power of the 7.2 million organized government workers — who range from teachers, to clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles, to social workers, public hospital employees, meat and poultry inspectors, road workers, property tax auditors and civil servants in general. These are the employees who populate the extensive bureaucracies that the right loathes.
Those familiar with the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few decades should not see this reality as much of a surprise. The GOP has become unflinchingly pro-business in its adoption of fiscally and socially conservative positions, to a fault and to the extent that they have sought to undermine regulations on corporations, other businesses, and whole industries (e.g. banking and finance) because they view them as bad for business. Unions, seen as a constraint of a different sort and emblematic of the type of bureaucracy conservatives always claim to want to bypass, are therefore a prime target for Republican lawmakers and state leaders. Three Republican governors in particular are cited for their anti-labor hostility and posturing in Edsall’s op-ed. The first is Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and early 2016 presidential race dropout. The second is Rick Snyder, Michigan governor, who we now know was a key player in the lead-filled dumpster fire that is Flint’s water crisis. The last is my personal favorite, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose administration engineered Bridgegate and who has gone after the teachers’ union with fetishistic fury. Many people, myself included, would characterize actions taken by all three during their tenures, especially those leading to the crisis in Flint, as reprehensible. Does this necessarily mean that their positions on unions are therefore wrong? Well, no. But let me tell you—it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence either.
Again, the Republican resistance to union participation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Democrats’ failure to meet this war on organized labor in kind, however, is vaguely disappointing, though perhaps not altogether surprising either, if you understand the schism within the Democratic Party between its establishment wing replete with big-money donors, and its progressive wing predicated on grassroots funding and organizing, as well as advocacy for a $15 minimum wage, among other things. Thomas Edsall puts the nature of the Democrats’ weak defense of unions in blunt terms: “If Republicans and conservatives place a top priority on eviscerating labor unions, what is the Democratic Party doing to protect this core constituency? Not much.” In saying as much, Edsall points to the Obama administration’s undermining “of the bargaining power of the most successful unions by imposing a 40% excise tax, which takes effect in 2018, on health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 annually for individuals, and $27,500 for families, in order to finance Obamacare.” These so-called “Cadillac plans,” Edsall continues, intended as a luxury tax of sorts, are seen by labor leaders as threats to health insurance benefits that various unions have had to fight for with executive management of companies. As one labor leader quoted within the piece opines, non-union and union workers alike will be hurt by these plans, with non-union workers in particular at risk of having their benefits slashed and their deductibles skyrocket. To put this in different terms, and as far as labor groups are concerned, with “friends” like the 40% tax, who needs enemies?
It should be stressed that this Thomas Edsall piece was published in 2014, before the rise of Donald Trump. Even then, the Democratic Party was being lectured by Edsall and others to “neglect the union movement at their own peril.” Accordingly, Edsall’s closing paragraphs seem duly ominous, if not presaging the disaster of a Trump presidency outright:
Even when the party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009, Democrats gave a less than halfhearted effort to pass labor’s top priority: legislation that would make elections for union representation easier. Democratic strategists looking toward the future are focused on “the rising American electorate” — single women, minorities and the young, with no reference to labor.
At the same time, many voters in the Republican electorate are themselves middle and low income. In 2014, 67 percent of those who cast Republican ballots earned less than $100,000 in household income; 30.4 percent made less than $50,000. Republicans face their own problems remaining competitive in presidential elections, which will only worsen if they do not strengthen their support among these less affluent voters.
But even with labor unions no longer the force they were — and in fact in part because of their decline — the pressure will fall on both parties to more effectively represent the interests and rights of economically struggling voters, who at some point will refuse to tolerate their eroding income and lack of opportunity.
Translation: people are going to get pissed, and will vote accordingly. In acknowledging this effect, I, in the same breath, acknowledge that there was—as crazy as might seem at first glance—a slice of the American electorate that went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to turning out for Trump in 2016. Their numbers are not insignificant, but as Sean McElwee argues, focusing on this relatively small subset of 2016 election voters obscures the real trend that should be garnering Democrats’ attention, particularly those more entrenched members of the establishment. Where Donald Trump and his campaign succeeded, and where Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and Democrats including Obama have failed to manage, is mobilizing those who should be among their base to the polls. McElwee attributes a large part of this failure of the Dems to their reluctance to make voting rights a priority for various groups, a problem exacerbated by Republicans’ efforts to nullify any inherent advantages with these blocs. He explains:
When Republicans take power, their first priorities are voter suppression and right-to-work, their second is to destroy the capacity of government to aid working families and their third is to turn the government into a patronage machine for wealthy whites. Democrats have failed to understand that in order to win, they must do the opposite. Voting rights must be a priority, and policies should strengthen the ability of working people to organize and mobilize.
“Working people.” Sean McElwee highlights them above any other segment of the Democratic Party’s core supporters, at least traditionally speaking, and references to their “organizing” clearly invokes the importance of unions. From there, or perhaps even concurrently, Democratic leadership must invite workers and sympathetic activist/progressive groups to the table. As McElwee sees the matter, this is the only path forward for a successful Democratic Party, or to quote him directly, “Party elites will have to cede some power to make this happen.” If recent party history is any indication for the Democrats, this is easier said than done.
In terms of the first priorities of the GOP underscored by McElwee in his piece and quoted above, the voter suppression angle probably isn’t that hard to understand. Numerous articles have been written about the “real” voting scandal of 2016: not the closeness of the vote in certain swing states begging a recount, not even the possible hacking of voting machines and other Russian interference in the presidential election, but voter suppression at the hands of Republicans determined to try to widen their advantage over Democrats at the polls, including by limiting opportunities of people of color to vote and creating unnecessary hurdles for them to cast their ballots. (Together with gerrymandering, these are issues of considerable importance that do not get nearly the attention they should.) Right-to-work, meanwhile, is a concept that is likely unfamiliar to the average voter, especially one from a state that does not have such a law on the books. The term “right-to-work” sounds pretty benign in it of itself. Should people have a right to work? Sure, why not? Let’s rubber stamp the bill along and call it a day, shall we?
Not so fast. It would be bad enough if “right-to-work” was a form of euphemistic language—you know, in the way “civil asset forfeiture” is another way of saying “the police gets to take your shit if you’re at all implicated in a crime and without proof of wrongdoing or even being charged.” But it’s more than that—it’s a complete misnomer. Right-to-work has nothing to go with the right to work. The University of Missouri–Kansas City recently featured a profile on right-to-work legislation in the University News, UMKC’s independent student newspaper. First, the editorial defines the term and gives context to the political debate surrounding it:
Right to work legislation prohibits unions from requiring that dues or fees be paid by all employees that it represents. This usually has the effect of weakening labor organization, as unions will have less financial power to fight for higher wages or benefits such as health care. Additionally, so-called “free riders” can take advantage of the workplace protections and benefits without contributing to the unions that acquire them. Conversely, proponents say that job growth increases because businesses prefer to operate in states with right to work laws.
Data can usually be spun by either side to support or reject the claims of the other. There is no firm consensus by economists or statisticians on the effects of right to work, as it cannot be easily isolated from other factors such as variable standards of living or the economic recovery following the recession. In general it increases job growth and in general it decreases wages, all usually in tandem with other pro-business and anti-labor policies. This is a subject where hard, unbiased data is scarce and so the debate devolves into opposing ideological and political arguments. Therefore, right to work legislation probably makes less impact as an economic policy than it does as a political call-to-arms.
This University News profile, whether to be merely diplomatic about the matter, or because it legitimately wants to be cautious because of the purported lack of “hard, unbiased data” on right-to-work legislation, describes its economic impact with an air of neutrality. Still, certain elements of this synopsis scream out to the liberal and progressive reading it and suggest a negative connotation. “Has the effect of weakening labor organization.” “‘Free riders’ can take advantage…without contributing.” “Decreases wages.” “Anti-labor.” Sure, job growth may occur, but seemingly chiefly because companies prefer to operate in climates that are favorable to business and let them take advantage of workers in their own right; job number increases, after all, would mean little when the quality of the positions being added is suspect. However you slice it, that businesses would lobby and Republican politicians would craft policy in favor of right-to-work doesn’t appear to be an accident, especially not in light of the aforementioned war on unions perpetrated by the Republican Party.
This same profile, on the other hand, invokes visions of “danger” as well as cites some guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. in capturing the antipathy held by labor leaders and others toward right-to-work policy. The danger, as the UMKC student staff behind the article have identified, is “in inciting political will to elect those with an interest in supporting big business,” and that it “also attracts those businesses’ donations.” As for MLK, he was downright foreboding about the concept in the abstract. As quoted within the feature:
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.
Leave it to a man assassinated, presumably for his views on matters of not only racial inequality, but income and wealth inequality, to put things in perspective and give the matter its due weight. Even then, King and others saw the importance of protecting labor from the machinations of big business and the politicians who aid and abet corporate attempts to shrink union representation. Sure, they may not have been statisticians with “hard, unbiased data” at their disposal—but perhaps they didn’t need to crunch numbers to see the writing on the wall.
For those who have crunched the numbers, meanwhile, the evidence for why right-to-work legislation is problematic for rank-and-file workers regardless of political or union affiliation is that much more compelling. In 2011, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz authored a report for the Economic Policy Institute on the “compensation penalty” of right-to-work laws, finding that wages, the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance, and employer-sponsored pensions were all significantly lower in states that had these laws on the books. Sure, this is just one study, and the EPI does lean more to the left, but the comprehensiveness of the report alone suggests Gould and Shierholz might be on to something.
The historical implications of right-to-work legislation only magnify its problematic nature. Michael Pierce, associate professor at the University of Arkansas, directly ties right-to-work to the South’s prejudicial past (and sometimes present) and deliberate attempts to disenfranchise Jews and people of color. From his January 2017 essay:
As Kentucky legislators pass a measure outlawing the union shop and Missouri’s General Assembly contemplates doing the same, it is worth remembering that so-called Right-to-Work laws originated as means to maintain Jim Crow labor relations and to beat back what was seen as a Jewish cabal to foment a revolution. No one was more important in placing Right-to-Work on the conservatives’ political agenda than Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a larger-than-life Texan whose own grandson described him as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”
OK, you’re thinking, Vance Muse was just one man from one Christian organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean much. No, but when it inspires whole states, their governors, and their legislators to pursue right-to-work legislation specifically to marginalize unions and their members, this is more than just the trivial misdeeds of one man. Pierce closes his piece with these thoughts:
The Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution. This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans consulted with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.
During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”
In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In both states, few blacks could cast free ballots, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar—it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.
Two things jump out here. The first is that there is a pronounced racist component to right-to-work—even if modern-day conservatives and Republicans downplay that factor. This may be a case of guilty by association, but Rep. Steve King, now-infamous white nationalist, loves right-to-work. Loves it. King loves it so much that he re-introduced legislation in the House to institute a National Right to Work Act. Where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire, and when there’s bad policy with the specter of racism looming, there tends to be Steve King. Just saying. The second is the mentality that connects to the earlier consideration of Americans “hating unions more than CEOs.” Anti-labor, anti-immigrant—it’s all part of the same classist soup that corporations and the wealthy use to depress the working class by turning them on themselves. Divide and conquer—a page straight out of the GOP playbook.
Given the efforts of Republican Party and industry leaders to weaken the rights of labor, in accordance with any number of factors that lend themselves to lower union enrollment numbers and fewer dues being paid, it would seem that the Democratic Party, a party which preaches inclusiveness and fighting for “the little guy,” would exhibit a more robust, if not more cohesive, challenge to the erosion of the bargaining power of the working class amid the erosion of manufacturing jobs. Owing largely to its own moneyed interests, however, the Democrats are currently primarily a fundraising operation, and only secondarily a defender and mobilizer of organized labor, allowing Republicans to undercut them in individual elections such as the 2016 presidential election, as well as threaten their political support from unions by taking labor group endorsements all but for granted. To reiterate the words of Thomas Edsall, however, they do so at their own peril. As Edsall notes, the Democratic percentage among union voters has consistently stayed in the 60% range for the past two decades, Not only is organized labor making up a smaller and smaller part of the general electorate, though, but Republicans continue to win local, state and federal offices despite changing demographics which should favor the Dems. If Democrats can’t even get into office, let alone do something about the strength of unions and their ability to organize, it paints a pretty grim picture for the working class in the United States.
Right-to-work: it has nothing to do with the right to work, nor is it right for workers, union or not. And if nothing is done to form a coalition to resist attempts to disempower unions and those workers who would join their ranks, we could be on our way back to the days and ways of the robber barons sooner than we think—if we aren’t there already.