Forget the Tea Party: The left is waking up

In my city and elsewhere, excessive austerity is revitalizing a coalition that hasn't worked together in years

By Gabriel Winant

Published April 4, 2011 1:01PM (EDT)

You know those experiences that serve as a living example of something you’re studying or reading about? You learn a word’s meaning, and then you hear it everywhere; the natural angling of your bike as you turn around the corner makes sense of a physics lesson, or your grief over a loss is reflected in an assigned novel.

I’m in a Ph.D. program in history. (Just before coming here, I wrote regularly here at Salon.) Studying history means that it’s my job to learn how to look for change in human action over time, to ask a certain set of questions: How does the old die, and how is the new born? What does it look like when change happens? Of course, mostly I read books and listen to my professors and colleagues. Lately, though, I’ve been getting a history lesson up-close.

Last week, I went to a political rally, here in New Haven where I live. (Full disclosure: I was one of the many people who contributed to organizing the protest.) On its face, it was a prosaic thing: people pushing back against cuts to the city budget that would hit their wallets, cut their benefits, speed up or privatize their jobs, hurt their schools, push them from their homes. But I couldn't help seeing it with the historian’s eye that I’m learning to use. And looking at it that way, I saw something I’ve never seen -- or felt -- at a progressive political event in my whole life (and I’ve been to a lot): Something new, being born.

New Haven, as it happens, has long been a place where researchers look to understand power and democracy. In 1961, Yale political scientist Robert Dahl published a classic on the subject, called "Who Governs?" Using New Haven as his case study, Dahl argued that different elites, representing the different interests in the city, balance each other out, producing a more or less democratic outcome. Power, he suggested, was widely distributed enough that nobody could abuse it.

Dahl’s was a rosy picture of another era. Today, New Haven is a city sharply segregated along racial lines. Like most American cities, it grew up around industry -- specifically, shipping, rifles and corsets. And, as elsewhere, the industry is now gone. The docks are quiet, the rifle plant looks like it got hit by an air raid, and the corset factory has been turned into loft apartments. These are New Haven problems, but they should be recognizable to any city-dweller.

Certainly, they looked familiar to me. In fact, these are the issues I came to graduate school to study. I’m interested in how working people have adapted to the decay of the mid-century economy and the political alignment that went with it. Scholars sometimes describe this era in terms of two associated, large-scale social phenomena: "Fordist production" -- referring to the dominant place of unionized, assembly-line mass manufacturing in the economy -- and "the New Deal order" -- meaning the persistent political power of the coalition that remade American politics in the 1930s. The assumption that characterized the 1930s-1970s regime was that mass production and mass consumption depended on each other. For the economy to grow, workers had to be able to buy the things they made -- cars, houses, washing machines. Good wages and trade unions were understood as crucial components of a healthy economy, rather than hindrances to it.

What happened next should be familiar. Global industry recovered from the destruction of the war, and competition ramped up in the 1960s and 1970s. Facing the Toyotas and BMWs of the world, American companies started looking to save however they could. So they reneged on the deal. In the long run, this meant the hollowing out of the economy: instead of a broad middle class, buying the things that it made, we got a super-rich elite, lending money to consumers to buy on credit what they could no longer afford on stagnant wages. Manufacturing disappeared, and service work grew to replace it. Industrial unions withered, inequality soared and cities went into crisis. Welcome back to New Haven -- my post-Fordist home.

At the heart of this impoverished city is an institution that represents exactly what an economy needs to grow today. New Haven is, of course, home to Yale University, an organization specializing in the only sectors that really prosper anymore: education and research (obviously), finance (the roughly $17 billion endowment), healthcare (the hospital) and real estate (Yale, like many wealthy universities, is a major landowner and investor). In an underemployed city, isn't economic growth the order of the day? And, indeed, Yale has come, over the past several decades, to make up some of the gap in employment created by the death of industry, and has driven whatever economic growth happens here, in the dynamic, post-industrial sectors.

But as universities rebuild the new economy, the new economy rebuilds them too, from the inside out. Across Europe and the United States, institutions of higher education are increasingly reliant on casual academic labor -- job-insecure, overworked, underpaid adjunct professors. We graduate students, meanwhile, at research institutions like Yale, are in positions of extraordinary privilege. The resources we have available to do new and exciting work are immense; Yale continues to educate its students as well as any institution in the country, and to turn out exciting research across academic disciplines. But even graduate students feel the pinch of the new economy. Increasingly, universities are run like businesses, and are squeezing Ph.D. programs to produce faster work -- that is, worse work -- in fields like history, philosophy and literature, which don’t turn a buck.

In a place this starkly unequal, it'd be naive to claim that everyone has the same problems. What’s increasingly clear, though, is that the people of this city -- workers (public and private), students and the unemployed, at Yale and in the communities around it -- are in the same fight. Today, we’re stuck in the opposite of Dahl's mid-century utopia: The powerful players cooperate, and the people of the city lose out.

At the municipal level, according to the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE), the city's tax base has actually grown. Yet New Haven is laying off high school teachers, has proposed a benefit cut for its cafeteria workers, and is privatizing custodial services in a move that would lead to a whopping 40 percent cut in janitors’ salaries.

As a major employer in an underemployed area, Yale has the power to hire casual and part-time labor, at low pay. As political scientist Gordon Lafer puts it, "Elite schools across the country have found themselves stranded by history, islands of wealth amid the surrounding poverty." According to Lafer, town-gown relations have not necessarily prioritized the well-being of campus employees or of nearby communities. He cites a 1996 memo written by Yale’s director of operations, referring to one of New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods and advising staff how to avoid paying overtime: "I’m sure we can find a little contractor on the Hill who would be happy to reset a breaker in the dorm, or unstop a toilet … for $50 … if I lived in the neighborhood, I’d do it."

This is a New Haven story. But it’s woven from the fabric of the national economy; the sectors that drive growth redistribute income upward. It’s happening in some form in most cities. If New Haven were New York, Yale would be Manhattan: Rich, famous, powerful and very good at what it does. Indeed, the cores of most urban economies are now made up of the same sectors that Yale thrives on: finance, education, healthcare, research and development and real estate. The jobs that do exist are in the services attendant to these businesses. But the rent is unaffordable downtown, so workers are ejected to outer neighborhoods. Cities, desperate to cut taxes to attract more high-end capital, curtail services in neighborhoods on the margins. Schools are closed, streets fall apart, public transit gets less reliable, and they call it successful urban governance.

The obvious vehicle for pushing back -- the labor movement -- has been crippled by decline and internal division. For the past few decades, as private sector unions have disappeared and public sector unions have clung to life, the gap between the two has threatened to swallow up what remains of the movement. As the only real stronghold of unionism remaining, public employees are denounced as parasites, rather than held up as models for a fair economy. This was the line that the Republicans took during the recent showdown in Wisconsin: why should these workers have it better than the rest of us? And despite the race to the bottom that the argument implies, by and large, it’s worked. Public and private sector unions have been bad at cooperating. Certainly, both have consistently failed to develop a movement with other victims of the hollowed-out economy -- the unemployed, students, neighborhood coalitions.

We have, in other words, all the ingredients lying around for the next grass-roots left, here in New Haven, and likely in every city. We know who will make up this alliance. Yet we’ve been unable to realize it. Somehow, amid a deep recession that exposed the flaws in the new economy, it’s thus far been the right wing that’s monopolized all the grass-roots energy.

A few weeks ago I attended a joint meeting of the unions of Yale University workers. It was just a chance for people to come during their lunch hour and talk about how cutbacks affected them. Several hundred people filled up the lecture hall. I heard janitors and clerical workers at the university describing having to do more work in less time, because their bosses refused to fill open positions; graduate students described theirs fears of running out of time to work and having to face a hostile job market unprepared. We were custodians and building staff, graduate students and clerical workers. We were white, black and Latino; male and female; pimple-faced and gray-haired.

Off campus, New Haven folks have been packing in to town hall meetings to let elected officials have it -- including our Democratic governor and mayor. The budgeting process in New Haven kicked off with a unilateral refusal to consider tax hikes. And, as CCNE notes, the proposed cuts look awfully like a manufactured crisis, jammed through under cover of a recession.

The simmer seemed to boil over last week. A crowd of a few thousand people marched around New Haven, finally gathering in front of City Hall in support of CCNE’s demands. The crowd included city lunch ladies, AT&T employees, steelworkers, high school kids, leather-jacketed Teamsters, clerical workers, grad students in art history and comparative literature, all cheek-to-jowl. I saw a few of my professors in the crowd, marching along with the residents of the substandard housing complex who are demanding an affordable replacement. The members of the crowd on Church Street seemed to speak directly to Dahl's question -- who governs? -- chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose city? Our city!"

John Wilhelm, the president of the UNITE-HERE union -- who was a Yale undergraduate, and cut his teeth organizing workers at the university -- came back to town for the rally. There was something exciting going on here, he told the crowd -- something energetic. "We’re lucky to be alive because there’s a new spirit in this world. You can see it in Wisconsin. You can see it in Egypt. You can see it here." Wilhelm’s right. This kind of solidarity -- well, it just hasn’t happened lately.

If you remember me from when I wrote here regularly, you’ll know I’ve always been a lefty. But it’s always been more about pounding the books than pounding the pavement for me -- more theory than practice. Progressive activism seemed nostalgic for better times, almost pantomime-like. It seemed old. (I don't mean to downplay the heroic struggles of people, in New Haven and around the country. I have healthcare, after all, thanks to the 20 years of organizing work by our unrecognized graduate student union here, GESO. My point is simply that slowly won, hard-fought gains on multiple fronts are important, but they don’t necessarily add up to a movement. Important and exciting are not the same.) Whatever exciting work I could do, I figured, would be in the form of a book, not a struggle.

But here in New Haven, the city’s powerful have done the job that organizers have only been able to accomplish intermittently. They’ve brought together the different communities of the city, each struggling with localized aspects of the same economy, and the same crisis. And -- not that this is the important part -- they got me out on the streets. We have yet to stop the mayor’s budget or win union recognition for graduate students on campus, let alone start reversing the explosion of inequality, here and around the country. But while I read and write about American history over the coming years, I think I’m going to understand a little bit better who governs -- and for how long -- thanks to living in New Haven and being part of this movement. I’m getting some good ideas about the birth of the new.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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