Sherrod Brown Is Out for 2020, But the Fight for Workers’ Rights Is Not

Kelly Candaele March 8, 2019

Sherrod Brown will not run for president in 2020.(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Over the 13 years I worked as a union orga­niz­er, I used the phrase dig­ni­ty of labor,” most every time I met with work­ers. When it came to risk­ing the wrath of their boss­es by join­ing a union, I found that work­ers cared as much about pride as they did about pay. 

This week, Sen. Sher­rod Brown (D‑Ohio) announced he would not run for pres­i­dent in 2020. He had just recent­ly wrapped up his dig­ni­ty of work” tour across the coun­try, telling audi­ences hard work should pay off.” He decid­ed not to run for a num­ber of rea­sons, but seemed pleased that oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates for the White House were bor­row­ing his work­er-cen­tric themes and approach. Brown had tai­lored his mes­sage to reg­u­lar” folks — fry cooks, nurs­es, con­struc­tion work­ers, peo­ple who were once the polit­i­cal base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party. 

The impor­tance of hon­or­ing labor” has a long lin­eage in the Unit­ed States. The ear­ly Puri­tans and Quak­ers, who set­tled New Eng­land and Penn­syl­va­nia, brought with them a Protes­tant ethos that equat­ed hard work with per­son­al virtue and pub­lic moral­i­ty. Dis­ci­pline, stren­u­ous labor and the hor­rors of idle­ness were val­ues and fears preached from pul­pits, taught in schools and edi­to­ri­al­ized in newspapers.

In his book, The Work Eth­ic in Indus­tri­al Amer­i­ca, 1850 – 1920, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an Daniel T. Rodgers points out that this belief — con­nect­ing work to moral virtue and per­son­al redemp­tion — per­me­at­ed Amer­i­can soci­ety at the time. 

Protes­tantism spir­i­tu­al­ized toil and turned use­ful­ness into a sacra­ment,” Rodgers explained, while at the same time pro­vid­ing ide­o­log­i­cal com­fort to cap­i­tal­ists and the com­fort­able pro­fes­sion­al class as the Unit­ed States entered the indus­tri­al age. If the gospel of work decreed that sus­tained labor was not only a neces­si­ty but also brought you clos­er to God, such a protes­tant eth­ic posed, why would work­ers need the pro­tec­tions of unions or the promis­es of socialism?

As the fac­to­ry sys­tem took hold over the 19th cen­tu­ry, while union orga­niz­ers and rad­i­cals shared the view that there was hon­or in man­u­al labor, they also rec­og­nized the gulf between rhetoric and real­i­ty. Exploita­tion at work — some called it wage slav­ery” — was a cen­tral theme of those who chal­lenged the cap­i­tal­ist system. 

In recent times, near­ly every pres­i­dent, Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can alike, has pro­claimed his belief in the nobil­i­ty of labor.” Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton praised those who worked hard and played by the rules,” assur­ing them that he was a fight­er for their inter­ests. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, mean­while, has jus­ti­fied build­ing a wall along the south­ern bor­der as nec­es­sary to pro­tect hard-work­ing Americans.” 

But despite all the talk of hon­or­ing hard work, blue-col­lar labor­ers have seen their wages stag­nate over the past sev­er­al decades. Cor­po­rate hos­til­i­ty to unions, off­shoring of jobs and anti­quat­ed labor laws has helped reduce pri­vate sec­tor union­iza­tion rates to a dis­mal 6.4 per­cent. Income inequal­i­ty has grown so vast that his­to­ri­ans and polit­i­cal sci­en­tists are spec­u­lat­ing whether democ­ra­cy will be able to survive.

In his book, Can Democ­ra­cy Sur­vive Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism?, jour­nal­ist Robert Kut­tner argues that con­trary to the tem­plate of Karl Marx, work­ers of the world do not nat­u­ral­ly unite. When nation­al economies don’t func­tion fair­ly, or can’t ade­quate­ly inte­grate new immi­grants, they often turn to ultra-nation­al­ist politi­cians with a tal­ent for fan­ning the flames of racism and xeno­pho­bia. Such was Trump’s game plan for win­ning in 2016

Reg­u­lar work­ing peo­ple have defend­ed eco­nom­ic democ­ra­cy before and moved our coun­try in a pro­gres­sive direc­tion. It was the mas­sive strike wave of the 1930s New Deal peri­od that brought eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty to mil­lions and helped legit­imize the idea that gov­ern­ment should play a strong role in reg­u­lat­ing the econ­o­my. The years fol­low­ing World War II wit­nessed the biggest strike wave in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Rather than destroy­ing the econ­o­my, work­ers’ demands for high­er wages led to an era of post-war pros­per­i­ty that did not end until the 1970s. Today, work­ers are again get­ting restive. 

Over the past year, we’ve seen anoth­er mas­sive strike wave. Tens of thou­sands of teach­ers have gone on strike in red states such as West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ken­tucky and Ari­zona as well as Cal­i­for­nia, Col­orado and Penn­syl­va­nia. Hotel work­ers across the coun­try went on strike late last year in eight cities against the Mar­riott hotel chain, march­ing under the slo­gan, One Job Should Be Enough.” And, remark­ably, 20,000 Google work­ers, many in the bas­tion of high-tech and anti-union Sil­i­con Val­ley, walked out of their jobs last Novem­ber to protest sex­u­al dis­crim­i­na­tion by their managers. 

While these strikes have gen­er­al­ly cen­tered on tra­di­tion­al issues of wages, health­care costs and pen­sions, beneath the sur­face there is a desire for respect — a revolt against abus­es of pow­er and affronts to pride. 

We’ll be hear­ing a lot dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son about the dig­ni­ty of blue-col­lar work. For Pres­i­dent Trump, dig­ni­ty is for chumps. He has, so far, suc­cess­ful­ly sanc­tioned rage as the emo­tion­al cement that unites his base. 

Politi­cians gen­er­al­ly pre­fer progress to be man­aged,” planned by experts and rolled out in order­ly stages. The dra­ma of social change is nev­er so tidy. As 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates make their way through the ear­ly pri­ma­ry states, let’s hope that when they praise the dig­ni­ty of labor,” they also under­stand that this dig­ni­ty has been fought for over gen­er­a­tions by work­ers — not hand­ed out by politicians.

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