Episode 191: How Media’s Use of ‘The Economy’ Flattens Class Conflict

Citations Needed | November 1, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
55 min readNov 8, 2023


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Writers Strike Fallout: $2B Economic Impact May Be Just the Beginning,” states the Hollywood Reporter. “Looming UAW strike could cost U.S. economy more than $5B in just 10 days,” announced Fox Business. “In a Strong Economy, Why Are So Many Workers on Strike?” pondered The New York Times.

Adam: We are regularly exposed to news media updates on some vague notion of “the economy.” Though it’s never really defined, “the economy,” we’re told, is something that will suffer if work stoppages happen, even though striking workers might stand a chance to reap some economic benefits in the long term. It’s also something that somehow does just fine, even thrives, despite rising homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, and the general stress and anxiety among the public about their ability to afford basic needs.

Nima: Against all of this, pundits still wonder why people in the United States have doubts about the strength of “the economy,” when, by their standards, it’s doing so well. But when “the economy” is at odds with the interests of the working public, what does that tell us about media’s understanding and use of the term? Whose interests are truly reflected in mainline media’s definitions, or lack thereof, of “the economy”?

Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll examine American media’s use of the term and concept of “the economy,” looking at how and why metrics reflecting the interest of capital — like the GDP, the Dow or IMF reports — are positioned as more important and accurate indicators of economic strength than metrics that reflect the needs of the average person, and how “the economy” is presented as a fragile, precious thing that striking workers, protesters and those seeking to interrupt the normal flow of life want to damage at all costs.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Kim Kelly, a journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, the New Republic, the Washington Post, The Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of the new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.

[Begin Clip]

Kim Kelly: “When it comes to ‘the economy,’ for us, the economy is something that happens to us. And, for the folks at the top, meaning, you know, politicians and corporations and the wealthy, the elite, whatever, that’s something that they control, it’s something that they feel very personally, because it’s their money, it’s their profit. Like, all of those billions, all that economic impact, all of these, you know, numbers and things that are bandied about in studies by well-funded think tanks? Like, that is not my business. That is not something that normal people, it doesn’t impact us really in the way that it impacts people that benefit from it. Do. We’re just trying to survive “the economy.”

[End Clip]

Adam: So yeah, this is a spiritual successor to Episode 150: How Economic Jargon and Cliches Make Cruel, Anti-Poor Policies Sound Sterile and Science-y (Part I), back in December of 2021. So, this is obviously a very large topic. We will not be discussing every use of “the economy.” We’ll be discussing it in two specific instances, because it is something that’s thrown around so frequently.

Nima: That’s right, we would be here all day if we delved into every aspect of the way that the term “the economy” is used and exploited in the media.

Adam: One day we will have a Citations Needed Theory of Everything that synthesizes the strong and weak propaganda forces. But, until then, we have to be somewhat discrete here, but it is one of these terms. We’ve talked about this episode for years, because it’s just, like, “the economy.” And it’s like, well, what the fuck does that mean? And, as we’ll discuss later, you know, when you poll people about what the most important topic is, every single year, every single year — and it varies a little bit, it’ll go from 35% to 60% — but every single year, the plurality of people, and sometimes the majority of people, [say] that the number one thing every single time is “the economy,” because “the economy” sort of means various things. It kind of means, in many ways, whatever you want it to mean. It means, I have more money in my bank account, more money in my savings account. My friends sort of feel like they have jobs. It seems like people are getting good jobs. It seems like the restaurant down the street is busy. Do I see homeless people on my way to the subway? It’s a very vibes-based word.

Nima: Are prices of things going up or down? It really has everything. It’s everything.

Adam: Yeah, right. Yeah, inflation obviously is a big factor. It’s a whole, you know, people have written endless tracts about this, namely economists, of what exactly “the economy” means, what it represents. For the purposes of media criticism, what we found fascinating is it really can be this kind of bludgeon that is wielded whenever you want to shut people up. And that’s the framing of this particular episode. We will not be, again, we will not be getting into every single instance of “the economy.” But as this media thingamajig of “The Economy” — capital T, capital E, The Economy — we found it fascinating that it becomes this, because it is so valuable in kind of be shaped into whatever you want it to be, it can quickly be presented as this thing we don’t want to harm, we don’t want to damage, or this thing that we are told is an objective feature of reality, regardless of one’s personal perceptions.

Nima: Yeah, that there’s an economy that we are all just sort of living in, and how we choose to interact with “the economy,” whether we just go about our day and complain to our friends about inflation or not being able to find a job or not wanting to find a job or whatever, that’s the same thing as workers striking for more fair wages, for more fair work environments. These are all kind of wrapped up under this one overarching banner of “the economy.”

Adam: And one thing we found fascinating was this idea that it’s a class-flattening concept. The idea that the poorest person to Elon Musk, that they share an economy, that there’s a sort of common experience. And one thing we wanted to explore in this episode is that there are different economies and different classes of people have different economies with different economic interests. And that because of the inherent tension within class conflict, there are going to be instances, not always, but there are instances in which different economies have different goals, and that they do, to some extent, have a zero-sum relationship. Now, that’s not true for everything, right? I don’t think 30% unemployment serves the poor or the rich, right? I mean, there are things that, there are overlaps, there are commonalities. But there are things that are not commonalities. And one of the things we’re interested in this episode is exploring, when there actually is either direct tension or a mutually exclusive or zero-sum relationship between what is in the interest of working class economy — “economy” — and what is in the interest of the rich.

Nima: So as a way into this conversation, we’re going to focus mainly on how strikes are reported in the media, and how striking workers and union work is often seen as anathema, seen as the enemy, often, of a strong economy, right? What will strikes do to the economy? As opposed to labor being inherently connected with even what any economy means. So, this framing is well-worn. We see it all the time today. The idea that worker actions will disrupt or cripple the economy dates back decades, especially during strikes or potential strikes, when they affected industries relating to major infrastructure, namely coal, steel, rail and delivery services. For instance, in a December 1946 edition, the Salt Lake Tribune weighed in on a coal miners’ strike, arguing that the work stoppage was more economically damaging than a depression or even one of the robber baron-era corporate monopolies. The Tribune stated this,

No monopoly of fifty-odd years ago ever put the restraint on trade or industry — no trust of the plutocratic period ever destroyed competition, along with cooperation — like the coal strike is doing. No depression has threatened the homes the states, the Republic and the world in general. With greater ruin and misery than the United Mine Workers of America obeying the “master’s voice” had been causing their fellow citizens at home and their fellow beings abroad.

Now this sentiment about the coal miners’ strike in the ’40s has stuck with us. Reflecting on that period 30 years later, The Washington Post would call those strikes “a disaster.”

United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis (center) in Pittsburgh, 1952. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Adam: In July 1956, the Christian Science Monitor condemned a major steel strike happening at the time. Here’s an excerpt:

Now comes the steel strike. It is foolhardy to say it will not hurt the economy and the cessation of work hurts the economy that hurts the people who are in the striking Union. It hurts the companies which are not selling steel, it hurts literally thousands of persons who are not in the steel industry, but whose livelihood depends on the purchasing power which stems directly from the steel industry that hurts the communities in which these job holders reside. And when steel prices forced price rises across the board when steel production once again resumes that will hurt consumers in every part of the United States and abroad.

A syndicated United Press International story, republished by the Philadelphia Inquirer in August of 1985, reported a Major League Baseball strike’s allegedly ruinous effects on the local economy. The headline reads,” $35 million loss to region seen.” It would go on to say:

A University of Pennsylvania professor says the Philadelphia area economy could lose about $35 million if the strike by Major League Baseball players wipes out the remainder of the season.

Edward Shils [ironic name], who concluded a study of the effects on the area’s economy of all professional sports teams said yesterday that the estimate was a conservative figure and it assumes the Phillies would not play the remaining 28 home games because of the strike.

None of this happened. The strike which regarded players’ pensions and other labor benefits ended after just two days. Regardless, the source of the study, Edward Shils–

Nima: Shils, folks, Shils.

Adam: — a business professor at University of Penn Wharton School and previously a dental manufacturing executive — one might argue that it’s his job as a Wharton professor and former executive — to oppose strikes. He is not an objective arbiter of what is and what isn’t good for “the economy.” This is consistent with this type of fear mongering around strikes, as you’ll see.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, so this has continued to the present day, as does media’s consistent finger-wagging about strikes and their deleterious effects on “the economy.” Now, we at Citations Needed released a News Brief on this type of coverage about the potential economic repercussions back when there was the possibility of a UPS strike in July of this year 2023. That was just one example, of course, but there are unfortunately plenty more to cite. Like the coverage of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes involving screenwriters and performers. In May 2023, just three days after the WGA began strike, that’s the Writers Guild of America, the Hollywood Reporter ran a piece headlined “Writers Strike Fallout: $2B Economic Impact May Be Just the Beginning.” Again, the strike was just three days old at this point. The subheadline references a previous writers strike and says this, “If the current work stoppage approaches the 100 days of 2007–08, the financial consequences could eclipse the last walkout’s, experts say. After that, all bets are off on who emerges with leverage over time.”

Now, who are the experts then cited in the piece? They come from none other than the Milken Institute, a think tank founded by millionaire securities trader Michael Milken. Now, Milken was arrested for mail fraud and tax evasion and, according to The New York Times, was one of the inspirations for the Michael Douglas Gordon Gekko character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. The one who says “greed is good.” Now the Milken Institute, which happened to be quite chummy with and influential on the Trump administration, surprise, surprise, also blamed the writer’s strike of 2007 of all things for tipping California “into a recession” the following year. If it wasn’t charming enough already, the Milken Institute does not disclose its donors.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987).

Adam: CNBC ran a story in August of 2023, a little over three months after the strike began with the headline, Hollywood strikes have already had a $3 billion impact on California’s economy, experts say: It’s causing ‘a lot of hardship’.” Now, who are the experts this time? A professor of entertainment industry management, a professor of economics, which in the U.S. effectively means a business professor, and the Milken Institute. The $3 billion dollar figure was based on a figure of $2.1 billion from the 2007 strike provided by the Milken Institute. The professor of entertainment industry management, CNBC reported adjusted the $2.1 billion figure for inflation, and “and other factors to come to a new strike-induced loss of upwards of $3 billion for the state of California today.”

NPR raised the stakes the next day on August 10, writing its headline, “Hollywood strikes’ economic impacts are hitting far beyond LA.” Here’s an excerpt:

The strikes are affecting places like Montana — where 1923, a prequel to the show Yellowstone, was set to begin filming in June, before the writers strike halted production.

Tina Buckingham is a casting director for the show. She told Yellowstone Public Radio this and other cancellations have been hard for businesses across the state. “It’s devastating to this industry because it trickles down. All of the food people, the restaurants, the people that would work on the movie. The lumber companies for building sets, the wranglers for the horses, and it goes on and on and on. The amount of money lost is tremendous.

The piece would continue:

Montana attracts big productions with its scenery, but Georgia draws in even more with tax credits. The Motion Picture Association estimates the Film and TV industry brought in $3.5 billion in wages last year for productions there that included popular shows like Sweet Magnolias and Single Drunk Female.

But to be clear, there’s not really consensus among economists regarding the effects of work stoppages, with some noting that there has been a history of exaggerated estimates on “economic losses” resulting from the entertainment industry strikes. Consider the 2007 WGA strike in November of 2007. Right after that year’s WGA strike began, the Los Angeles Times published several stories within the span of a week arguing that the work stoppage would cost the industry and local economy enormous amounts of money.

Nima: Yeah, so for instance, a November 5, 2007, story — which broke news of the strike — stated this: “Both sides are girding for what many believe will be a long and debilitating strike, potentially more disruptive than the 22-week walkout by writers in 1988, which cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.” The following day, the Los Angeles Times repeated that “the last WGA strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million.” A story from just two days later, November 8 2007, noted that “a slowdown similar to the 1988 strike would cost the area more than $1 billion,” an estimate provided by then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The Times didn’t explain really how this number was calculated, but UCLA economist Jerry Nickelsburg wrote in a report in November of the same year, 2007, this:

As it turns out, a close examination of the economic dynamics of the 2007 WGA strike suggests a much more modest and transitory impact on the Los Angeles economy. The impact, even if the strike runs as long as the record 1988 strike, will be about 1/3 or less of the currently accepted one billion dollar estimate.

Nickelsburg continued:

In the 2005 New York City Transit strike initial claims of an impact of $660M per day were later found to be not even close to reality. Why such disparity between initial claims and the actual impact? The reason is that the first broad brush strokes at the cost of a strike focus on the wages which would have been paid to employees were no strike to have occurred and assume for simplicity sake that those affected by the strike take no actions to mitigate the effects. But unlike earthquakes, strikes are very predictable events and those affected do try to mitigate their adverse impacts.

A similar issue arose later, in August of 2023, when reports surfaced that a possible United Auto Workers strike over issues like safety standards and wages would, again, “cost” the economy $5 billion. Some examples from across media — all from the date August 17, 2023 — read like this:

From CNBC: “Looming auto workers strike could cost $5 billion dollars in just 10 days, new analysis says.” Forbes said this: “Auto workers walk out could cause $5 billion in losses to economy, study predicts.” And Fox Business, the same day, said this “Looming UAW strike could cost US economy more than $5 billion in just 10 days.”

Adam: But, as friend of the show / spouse of the show, Sarah Lazare observed for Workday Magazine on August 23rd of this year, the source of the $5 billion figure was Anderson Economic Group, an economic consultancy firm. Lazare wrote:

Anderson Economic Group released a summary of its findings, which states that the losses refer to “potential losses to UAW workers, the manufacturers, and to the auto industry more broadly if those negotiations are not successful before the current contract expires in September.”

Lazare continued:

The losses also assume a strike on all three automakers simultaneously, which Anderson Economic Group’s CEO said was unlikely in a separate media briefing.

The workers would be striking against major auto manufacturers Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors. As Lazare also noted, all of these companies are clients of Anderson Economic Group: Anderson lists explicitly as its clients Ford and GM, as well as a number of Stellantis brands, including Chrysler, Fiat, and Jeep. Despite this, none of the major news sources citing the report mentioned the conflict of interest. Now, of course, this is not to say that there are not disruptions to strikes. Obviously, the point of strikes, to some extent is disruptions. But the big scary economic impact figures are very clearly fed by right-wing think tanks and conflicted “economic groups” who have among their clients these major corporations because their goal is to erode public support for the strike. And the whole logic behind constantly fear-mongering about economic impact, again, assuming that we all kind of share an economy, that the economy shared by workers and the average person is the same as the economy shared by the CEOs of GM, Stellantis, and Ford. The goal is to erode public confidence in the strike, because again, UAW support ranges between 75% and 80%, depending on the poll, and the people who know these strikes could drag on for months are fully aware of this fact, and need to begin eroding public support for strikes, just as they did with UPS, the writers and actors strike, that you have to talk about how this is going to affect “the economy.”

Nima: And you throw out huge, huge numbers, right? You throw out “$5 billion!”

Adam: Ten trillion billion dollars, we’re all gonna die! It creates a ticking time bomb element.

Nima: Bazillions of dollars lost, like what does that even mean? Now, all too often the losses or the harm to “the economy” are foregrounded in media reports. What is rarely discussed are the benefits of strikes to workers. So, strikes do indeed have the potential to benefit “the economy,” because they have the potential to benefit workers. So yes, even if strikes cause short-term hardships — kind of the point — they are designed to create long-term gains — also the point. And again, if even the most conservative economists are factoring in wages as a metric of economic strength than strikes that result in higher wages aren’t actually hurting the economy, they’re doing the exact opposite. Workers with the right to strike, in fact, have clear benefits in terms of pay. For example, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, public sector workers with a right to strike earn between two and 5%. More than those without it, sure, a modest increase, but an improvement nonetheless.

Adam: Yeah, and of course, one would never see a headline saying, “UPS strike could lead to $30 billion in gains for UPS workers,” or “Threat of strike could lead to billions more in the hands of the working class.” Because again, people don’t strike for the lols. They treat these striking workers like their Bond villains who are sort of just kind of destroying the economy because they have an ideological hatred of the economy versus clearly they’re attempting to disrupt the normal flow of economic activity for some long-term benefit. And that long-term benefit is just ignored. And I mean, it’s literally just entirely ignored. There is no sense that these strikes or a potential strike, which can obviously serve a similar function of the strike itself, although the more radical wing of the labor movement would say, “No, you actually have to strike,” which I’m certainly sympathetic to, but that there are economic benefits to the working class and there are economic downsides to the rich, because this is a case where there are mutually exclusive interests, that this is not a win-win scenario, that the second and third yacht, that the CEOs of GM and Stellantis and Ford aren’t buying transfers over to the poor and equals better working conditions more time with your family visiting your son’s softball game, that there’s a actual class tension between those two interests.

Nima: Right, we could see headlines that say, “Strike causes $3 billion drop in yacht sales.”

Adam: Exactly. And that these things are mutually exclusive. They don’t share an “economy.” Which leads us to the second part of this episode, which has to do with how we talk about the economy more broadly, again, as a sort of rhetorical bludgeon to tell people that everything is good or great. Now, we want to tread carefully on this particular topic, because there has been some discussion over the last few months, especially leading up to — we’re sort of impermanent campaign mode, right, at all time, there’s, I think, just like a two-day window when you’re allowed to criticize Democrats, but basically, there’s this kind of rah-rah narrative about the economy’s doing great. And we all need to say how great the economy’s doing for Joe Biden. And what I think this discussion gets a little confusing for people is that people conflate two different things, which is that there’s a steady state problem with the American economy, which has always been around, regardless of who’s president.

A June 20, 2023 editorial from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Nima: Read: that capitalism is harmful.

Adam: That we just don’t really have a meaningful social safety net. We have a web of work requirements, we have a web of impossibility to navigate it, we still have 28 million Americans — 10% of adults — don’t have healthcare, we have depending on how you look at it. Upwards of 60–70 million who are underinsured, we have high rates of relative poverty, with very high rates of childhood poverty, we have all these sort of things which we talked about on the show a lot, which are below the sort of norm of “Western countries” or “wealthy nations,” that we have a lot of poor people, we have very high rates of homelessness. And these are kind of steady state problems with our economy, which leftists have been railing about for decades, versus a question of “Is the economy better under Biden?” versus a counterfactual Trump presidency in relative terms, which is to say, “Are Democrats better for the working class, the “middle class,” relative to Republicans?”

Nima: And that is seen as basically being the answer to “is the economy good or bad?” That’s a way to say that same thing without saying that thing, because you make it partisan, but really, you’re just talking about these grand statements about whether “the economy” is good or bad, or would it be better or would it be worse, hypothetically, without actually dissecting what “the economy” means.

Adam: And that’s basically Joe Biden’s pitch and has been since he began to run for office, which is that he was a caretaker presidency. Which is why everyone sort of assumed it would be one-term where it’s like, we’re going to end the wildfire of the Trump administration and we’re going to kind of go back to the Obama era status quo. Less aggressively neoliberal, right? Like Biden’s not pushing for the TPP. It’s like, let’s just do a steady state. There’ll be more sympathetic to labor. He’ll have a better NLRB, a better EPA, obviously, all that’s true. But there’s not going to be things like a push for Medicare For All, there’s not going to be a push for all those ambitious things we saw in the Build Back Better bill, which was always kind of half-assed. But the existential problems with this country, were not really going to be solved in any meaningful way or that they didn’t really need to be solved. Things that we sort of acted like we cared about four years ago, right, whenever, even like Kamala Harris, were promoting Medicare For All like, that’s all gone, right? Nobody sort of gives a shit about that anymore. Even the things like the public option, which Biden ran on as an alternative, just like never mentioned it, not mentioned it at all, right? And so there’s two conversations going on, which is that like, we still have these existential problems in this country that the Biden administration has ideologically. Again, when Biden ran for office in 2019, he was asked by a reporter, and he said, if you have the votes on your desk, if you have the bill on your desk, and you have the votes in Congress, would you vote for Medicare For All? And he said, ‘No, he said, we can’t afford it.’ So the constraints are not Republicans, or, you know, the sort of Republicans in Congress, which is often what we’re told, I think, to some extent for things like Child Tax Credit, that’s true. I don’t think Biden has any ideological objections to tax credits, right. But sort of big, robust social safety nets he’s ideologically opposed to. And he said no, which is a clear indication that like, this is not the steady state problems, like 28 million people uninsured, which was not solved by Obamacare, by the ACA, that this is not something he’s very interested in really doing anything about. Again, this is 40 years in public service. This is not a mystery. And that when people talk about the economy being bad under Biden, that, to a great extent, they’re talking about the steady state issues, they’re not talking about the relative benefits of a Biden versus a Trump. And I think that’s where a lot of this debate kind of gets bogged down. But it is worth considering how this idea that we have a strong economy, as the economy again, is this class-flattening thing. “Economy for whom?” is the important question and we see this really ramping up, as we tried to get people excited for you know, Biden run in 2024, that it’s time to sort of do the ideological disciplining of the “left” by saying no, no, the economy is great–

Nima: Stop complaining, because that only hurts Democrats, it provides more ammunition to Republican attacks.

Adam: Right.

Nima: But actually, the commentary and analysis of what the economy is, are actually two different things. So, in recent months, we’ve seen pretty egregious examples of the media insisting that the economy is “strong,” while not acknowledging the very real struggles of working people. Again, a way to discipline Democratic talking points, especially in a campaign season, campaign year. But again, what economy are we actually talking about? So, we see Reuters on July 27, 2023, with this headline: “US economy defies recession fears with strong second quarter performance.” The next day, The Hill reported, “Surprisingly strong economy shifts political calculations.” That same week, the Center for American Progress released this: “Seven reasons the US economy is among the strongest in the G7.” Now, Center for American Progress, very closely aligned with Democratic Party politics included this in its assessment of the strength of the American economy in relation to other advanced industrial nations, it said this, “The United States has had the strongest economic recovery measured by GDP,” and also said this “the US labor market has remained resilient with low unemployment rates.” But official unemployment rates, as we’ve discussed on the show before, aren’t often accurate or trustworthy. For starters, they don’t include the substantial number of people who have given up looking for work altogether or are underemployed, for instance, people who work part-time, but would like to work full-time, nor do they account for the quality of the work that people do. In terms of employment numbers, a job as a job as a job as a job without actually understanding if those jobs provide livable wages, or how many jobs people have to work to survive. A 2016 Harvard Princeton study found that 94% of jobs “created” between 2005 and 2015 were temporary and or contract-based. Yeah, I said 94% in that decade.

Adam: But this narrative is at odds with how the majority of people in this country are experiencing “the economy.” A CNBC poll found in March of 2023 that 70% of adults felt financially stressed and 52% saying their “financial stresses has increased” since before the pandemic began in March of 2020. As Jacobin writer and former guest on the show Branko Marcetic wrote in July of 2023,

A different March poll found that 60 percent have no retirement savings account, while 45 percent can’t cover a $1,000 emergency. In fact, a Fed survey conducted in October last year and released in May paints an even more dire picture, with 37 percent unable to even cover one worth $400. According to another, nearly a third of Americans report a net worth of zero or in the negatives, including about a fifth of those aged fifty-nine and older.

A poll released by Provident Bank in March has 17 percent of Americans with no savings at all and an uptick in those who report spending hundreds more per month on groceries. The US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey for June had nearly twenty-seven million Americans reporting not having enough to eat either sometimes or often, 12 percent higher than the same time last year and 4 percent more than even the month before.

Yet, as Marcetic has pointed out, the media wonders why people in the US don’t view the economy as “strong.” And again, we keep coming back to this tension between, well, I think there’s two things here going on. There’s the sort of steady state poverty in this country, which kind of exists regardless of who’s president, right, the sort of existential inequities–

Nima: And regardless of whether the economy is deemed strong or not.

Adam: Yeah, yeah. And then there’s also the issue of the psychological component of having a mini welfare state during COVID that just went away. Again, we had eviction moratoriums that went away, we had UI, which was of guarantee, basically a guaranteed income for anyone who was on the formal economy that we had that went away, we had stimulus checks that went away, we had Medicaid and Medicare expansion that went away, the child tax credit that went away.

Nima: Right, and the child tax credit, which had led to a historic reduction in child poverty.

Adam: Now some of those the White House did fight for, sort of, like the Child Tax Credit, many of which they supported getting rid of, like pretty much anything that was viewed as being a welfare-based system. A sort of ‘sending people money’ form of welfare versus a tax credit, or focusing on their strategy, which was full employment. And so there’s a psychological aspect to kind of having that and seeing that go away compounding that with inflation, even though inflation has gone down quite a bit in recent months, the sort of perception that wow, groceries are way more expensive than they were four years ago is objectively true, and also a psychological aspect that’s kind of hard to get rid of. But partisan media insist on telling people that everything’s great. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in July interviewed University Michigan economics professor and Brookings Institute fellow Justin Wolfers about the US public view of the economy. Wolfer somewhat condescendingly claimed the public’s view the economy was, “at odds with reality.” So let’s listen to that clip here.

[Begin Clip]

Justin Wolfers: People understand the realities that applies to their own lives. But if you’re asking me about the economy, they start looking at through these partisan lenses. And they tell themselves stories that are completely at odds with the reality. And the reality is we’ve got unemployment at a 50 year low inflation declining back to normal levels. I want to add one more that we haven’t talked enough about, inequality is on the way down as well.

[End Clip]

Adam: Yeah, so inequality, it is true, is down a little bit. But of course, homelessness and eviction rates are way up. So it sort of kind of cancels out on people’s minds. Now, to be clear, one of the theories of our show is that the public can be misled on things, right? Like, for example, if you view the public’s perception of crime from the years 1992 to 2018, they thought it rose every year, pretty much with the exception of I think, two years, and it was always, always out of whack with the reality of crime.

Nima: Yes, it is very important. And again, as he said, Adam, kind of one of the main things we talk about on the show about perception and how media narratives, how political posturing really do influence people’s perception.

Adam: So, it’s not as if the public’s perception can’t be out of whack. But to explain that gap, one must show how the media lies about things. Whereas when you prove how the media distorts and lies about crime, it’s fairly easy. I mean, there’s well documented evidence that crime is overemphasized, constantly talked about, obviously, you have things like Law & Order, right? You know, all these propaganda shows that constantly tell you there’s murderers and serial rapists lurking around every corner. You can sort of show how, why the media has a distorted vision of crime pretty clearly, especially when it rose after 9/11 with a constant panic around terrorism. There’s a clear causality. But there really isn’t a mechanism to show how the media broadly is sort of lying to people about how bad the economy is, in fact, it’s mostly the opposite. The “strong” economic stories really dominate the narrative. And this really, I think, begins to delineate two different concepts of what we mean by “the economy” and why the problem with “the economy” is how we measure it. You know, unlike crime, “street crime,” which does have some objective metrics, people are either murdered or they’re not murdered, how “the economy” is doing is a very mushy thing to try to measure, as indicated by this constant beating over your head about the economy, which leads to the fundamental tension between well, whose economy” Whose economy are we talking about here? And there was a really interesting report in The Lever by Stephen Semler, who broke down some of these hardship metrics, which is to say the metrics that affect the poor and working class. By January 2023, there’d been a 37.6% rise in homelessness from a year before in 20 of the largest cities, according to an analysis of data provided by those jurisdictions. This is likely an undercount. City governments don’t usually have accurate counts. And the survey didn’t include Seattle and San Francisco. And as of June of 2023, in some cities, eviction filings were 50% higher than pre-pandemic.

Nima: Yeah, and Semler’s analysis really does dig into more of these kind of financial hardship metrics measured, namely by Americans difficulty with paying or inability to pay their own daily expenses, which rose from 30.8% in 2021 to 39.2%. In 2023, food insecurity rates, according to Semler, rose from 10.1% to 11.3%, during the same period of time. Now, these changes, as we have noted, occurred after the nationwide eviction ban that was issued by the CDC during the pandemic was allowed to expire in August of 2021. And Semler wrote for The Lever in August 2023:

…the following month [by which he means September 2021] extended unemployment coverage with additional benefits and the foreclosure ban ended as well. Then, the enhanced child tax credits, which reduced food insecurity by three percent in households with children, weren’t renewed for 2022.

These pandemic aid programs were allowed to expire in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, as the cost of goods and services, energy prices, and interest rates were all rising.

The result? The number of people in financial distress increased by 29 million and the food-insecure population grew by 6 million from September 2021 to September 2022. Just when people needed extra help, existing assistance was taken away.

Also, after declining amid some early pandemic related social spending, the poverty rate has also increased by 4.6%, from 2021 to 2022. And then again, from 7.8% to 12.4%, by the measure of the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which looks at government programs and tax credits designed to help low income families according to the Census Report. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for children in 2022 more than doubled from the previous year, after the child tax credit was axed.

Adam: So we have this tension between the steady state of poverty, which ticked up in some ways, versus this idea that there’s this economy with full employment. Everyone, everyone talks about employment all the time, low unemployment, 50-year low unemployment, it’s like, yeah, I mean, that’s good. But again, it matters what the quality of the job is, it matters how many jobs you have. It is not the only indicator. And so this idea that “the economy” is this thing for which there is no class divisions or class conflict within the system is a very kind of, it’s a sedative, it’s a kind of way of shutting your brain off and not thinking critically about these deeper issues, these existential issues with the economy. And if there is a genuine tension between these macro indicators that are very popular with economists and these survey-based, outcome-based indications of stress and anxiety, we should have a deeper conversation about why that is. Maybe some of its media fuel, that maybe that’s unwilling to sort of concede, you know, 20–30%. But there is 50–60%, which is actually based on objective experiences and where is that tension? How is that tension between these macro indicators, which again, are very class flattening, or very generic, to a great extent, working class purchasing power? You know, maybe isn’t, but a lot of them are. And how do we reconcile the fact that we do have a democratic ethos, a president, who has been very clear that he’s not interested in these kind of big social programs, ideologically, beyond the sort of the BBB lip service, and whether or not addressing those more existential issues, could maybe help alleviate some of those concerns that he’s divorced from these negative perceptions of the economy, and what it means to have the economy as the same for which we all share — the 335 million Americans all have “the economy,” we all sort of share “the economy” — but there is a difference in economies, there’s a difference between the needs of certain classes. And UAW President Shawn Fain said this, he says, ‘We are not looking to destroy the economy, we’re looking to destroy their economy.’ We’re looking to, sort of, the CEO’s economies. And this idea that there are separate economies is something that I think that if you’re going to readjust your message going into 2024, right, if you’re some, you know, Biden partisan or whatever, that may be you do address the fact that there are different economies, and that those economies have different needs and maybe one is suffering — maybe they’re good, maybe they’re better in some relative terms compared to what a counterfactual Trump administration would be. But that’s not sufficient, that you’re 10%, 20% better than you would have been under the big bad Republicans is not a very compelling message, and that there isn’t just the economy, but there are multiple economies with different needs and they’re suffering in different ways.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Kim Kelly, a journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, the New Republic, The Washington Post, The Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of the new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, which was just published in August 2023 by Simon and Schuster. Kim will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Kim Kelly. Kim, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kim Kelly: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to talk to y’all.

Adam: We’ve been talking to the top of the show for the better part of 30 minutes about the media framing strikes as something that I’ll quote “destroy,” “wreck,” “harm,” “undermine” the economy, or “the economy,” is this interesting idea we’ve been picking apart. Obviously, this is true to an extent. And indeed, it’s kind of the point of strikes in many ways is to kind of disrupt the natural order of things. But lumping together the economy as one kind of singular class flattening entity is kind of an interesting media choice that’s being made the idea that both the poorest worker and the well most highest paid CEO, they kind of all share the economy. But as UAW president Shawn Fain told reporters last month, his goal was to, “wreck their economy,” as in the CEOs that he was combating the billionaire class as he calls them, which is an idea we’re kind of dissecting here. And a frame I think, is actually more useful. Because there’s a reason why groups like the Anderson Economic Group are paid by GM and Ford to do these “$4 billion will be lost in the economy if workers go on strike” stories nonstop, because the idea is you sort of want to erode public support for unions, because everyone sort of feels like they have something invested in this generic idea of an “economy.” I want to begin by talking if you could about, first, this kind of media trope of scaring people about the economy going to shit and the event people strike, and how you view the utility of having this kind of class-flattening distinction and how you view whether or not you think this is a useful way to kind of view labor unrest.

Kim Kelly: I’m really glad that the UAW president Shawn Fain brought that up and really laid out that kind of contrast the tension there. I think a lot of normal people, you know, working class people, poor people, feel when it comes to “the economy,” for us, the economy is something that happens to us. And for the folks at the top, meaning, you know, politicians and corporations and the wealthy, the elite, whatever, that’s something that they control, it’s something that they feel very personally because it’s their money, it’s their profit, like all of those billions, all that economic impact, all of these, you know, numbers and things that are bandied about in studies by well-funded think tanks. Like, that is not my business. That is not something that normal people, it doesn’t impact us really in the way that it impacts people that benefit from it do. We’re just trying to survive “the economy.” Now, that’s a crucial difference. And I think that’s something that just is not recognized by the people that do have that economic privilege and are in those more rarefied circles and have power over us.

Kim Kelly

Well, I’m glad that Shawn Fain brought it up, like wrecking their economy. Like, this strike, the UAW strike, has a cost to the economy $4 billion, allegedly. That’s I think one of the latest headlines I saw. Who will feel that pinch? It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my neighbor. It wasn’t a normal people throughout the country. It’s the shareholders. It’s the C-suite, it’s the people that are expecting to make that money. They are feeling it, they are upset about it. And we’re supposed to care that this is a problem they now have. Meanwhile, you know, I live in Philadelphia, man, we’re the poorest major city. Thousands of my neighbors are unhoused or struggling with addiction or to struggling in general. The fact that the big three lost “$4 billion,” that is not part of our reality. And I think it is very helpful and useful that Shawn Fain just kind of brought it up, this idea that we’re not all living in the same economy, we’re not all trying to survive the same economy. For most of us the economy is a bludgeon. It’s not a tool. It’s not something in which we engage. It’s something that we try to survive.

Nima: So Kim, I love this idea that there are different economies or even that the economy writ large — capital T, capital E — is something to be survived by the working class. But there’s this corollary issue here, right, that the hardship and brutality of strikes themselves don’t mostly fall on, as we’ve been saying, “the economy” but actually is felt by striking workers themselves and their families. Now, as you’ve been talking about your neighbors, and you wrote a whole book on this, I’d love to talk about what you’ve seen, being the hardship experienced firsthand and how this “economic impact” is routinely ignored by the media, right? That workers lives, rather than the economy writ large, are not often discussed. So can we talk about who is actually harmed by strikes that drag on and on, when employers when corporations don’t allow for more worker rights for more worker power? And how would maybe acknowledging this difference in what we understand as “the economy” versus what workers are actually experiencing help reporters and those consuming media actually delineate the harm of, you know, corporate bosses refusing to negotiate in good faith, thereby demanding, really, through that refusal, that strikes go on and on until the demands are met.

Kim Kelly: So here’s the thing, right? When workers go out on strike, they’re not drawing a paycheck. Some of them, in some instances, they lose their health insurance, they’re out in the cold, they’re on strike, they’re not at work. But the people in charge, the people who are refusing to negotiate in good faith, or refusing to meet their demands or refusing to provide them with a safe working environment, they’re still getting paid, they’re still at work. They are not feeling anything, but perhaps varying levels of annoyance or anger at the sheer audacity of the workers for daring to stand up for themselves. Like, to strike is to disrupt, it’s supposed to cause problems, it’s supposed to shut down production. It’s not supposed to be easy for anybody. But the burden falls on the workers themselves. They’re the ones taking the risk. They’re the ones feeling the bite, they’re the ones worrying about paying their bills, they’re the ones who are taking on all of the risk for the hope of a reward. That is the thing, I know during this UAW strike and during so many of the other high-profile strikes we’ve seen over the past couple of years especially, you will invariably hear from “the other side” because the media we love hearing both sides. And the other side is invariably some very angry old white guy with more yachts and more money than god going on Fox News, or going on CNN, and talking about how the workers are hurting the company about how they’re greedy, they’re unreasonable, like they told us during the writers strike. Meanwhile, this man’s making millions of dollars, or perhaps this woman is making millions of dollars, girl-bossing her way into the corporate elite. There’s a disconnect there. When we see headlines about how the strike is hurting companies are hurting the economy. Because you know who’s feeling the pain? The workers who aren’t getting a paycheck, the workers who are walking a picket line for eight hours a day, and hoping that their health insurance doesn’t get ripped away from them. And if it is, hoping that their union is able to cover them while they’re out. There is an example that I always return to because it’s something that became a very big part of my life for several years. And I was just a bit player, you know, imagine how it was for the people actually living through this. But for two years, 23 months, in Brookwood, Alabama, starting in April 2021, 1000 coal miners who were members of the UFW — United Mine Workers of America — were on strike. And, for almost two years, they held the line. They were able to continue existing and living a life because their auxiliary, which is led predominantly by spouses and retirees, were able to solicit donations and launch a mutual aid effort and keep the strike in the news and do everything they could to support their people who were on the picket line. They were lucky, actually, to be part of a union that does furnish its members with strike checks. So they got, you know, a few hundred bucks every couple of weeks, which, sure, Alabama is not Park Avenue, but it didn’t go nearly as far as it needed to for so many people. So a lot of people had to find side jobs. Some of their spouses who had ever worked before had to go to work. It really just shattered the whole fabric of that community. And nobody really cared about that. The people in charge of that company, Warrior Met Coal, they were very clear and explicit about their desire and their plan to starve them out. Local politicians abandoned them. The GOP, for which many of those folks voted, abandoned them. They were just left to starve and eventually they had to go back to work. They’re still trying to get the contract they deserve. There wasn’t an easy, tidy end to that strike. And sometimes that happens. Sometimes strikes don’t work. And who’s left holding the bag? Who’s left having to go back to work under a bad contract? The workers. The people at the top, they’re going to keep getting their bonuses. They’re going to keep making their money. They’re going to keep being able to hold on to this reserve of, sort of, entitlement and opposite-world class resentment at these workers that dared to challenge them and ask for more. It’s the workers who are hurt. The workers who put their lives on the line. I mean, we’ve seen picket line violence. During the Warrior Met Strike, multiple workers were struck on the line by pickup trucks. We’ve seen attacks of this nature on the UAW strike lines. I think hotel workers in the recent strike in LA, they were attacked on the picket line. Like, a strike can be life or death business. No one is doing this for funsies. They’re doing this because they have no other option. And I think that is something that needs to really be fully acknowledged and understood by anyone who is reporting on this. Like, not even empathy, just the understanding that this is class war. This is not just some workers who want a little fifty cents more in their paycheck. This is us against the economy.

Adam: Yeah, well, you have a mouse in your pocket, because I’m not a worker, I’m a podcaster.

Kim Kelly: [Laughs]

Adam: But for the actual workers, it’s good. To be clear, I don’t consider myself a member of the working class because I have a fake email job. I’m wanna talk about the other end of the equation, which is this idea that economic impact of strikes, there’s sort of this impression that I think the average person would get, especially in the lead up to strikes, like UAW/UPS strike recently, that the strikers are kind of Bond villains or like bad guys from Captain Planet who want to just destroy the economy for the laughs. Time and time again, “wreck the economy,” “destroy the economy,” “ruin the economy,” blah, blah, blah. You saw this, especially during the lead up to the rail workers strike and in late 2022 (or potential strike that was thwarted by the White House in Congress), this idea that it’s just going to all be doom and gloom. Now, of course, people don’t strike for the laughs. It’s a calculated risk towards another end. One headline, one never sees is “UPS strike could lead to $30 billion in gains for workers” or “Threat of UAW strike could lead to billions more in the hands of the working class,” or “Potential railroad strike could give workers much needed paid vacation to go to their kids plays and go to funerals and hospital visits.” There’s never a sense of the economic impact of a successful or semi-successful strike. And in many ways, I think it’s kind of born from a general misconception people have that workers rights were handed down to them by, like, Do-Good Protestant bureaucrats in the 1930s, right? There’s sense, like, we completely erase labor history in this country. We’ve talked about this in the show before. Nobody has any idea about the radicalism of the ’10s, ’20s, ’30s. Like, no idea. There was just like a bunch of nice Protestant members of the Roosevelt administration who one day woke up and decided to bestow workers rights. And so there’s no sense that like the struggle has “economic impact” for working people. So, if you could, kind of talk about the asymmetry of this idea that it’s all doom and gloom, and there’s no sense that like this is a temporary form of medication for a larger cure or partial cure down the line.

Kim Kelly: Yeah, I think there’s three little pieces here. The labor history piece, of course, that’s not something that you learned about in school. We don’t learn, unless you go maybe in grad school or in a very specific program or have a really cool school. The lack of understanding of what it took for us to even get here in our current flawed state of affairs. I mean, kids don’t necessarily learn about the Battle of Blair Mountain. They don’t learn about the thousands upon thousands. Ultimately, millions of workers that went on strike, going back to 1824, when young women and girls in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, launched the first factory strike in American history, because they were being forced to work 14 hours a day and take a pay cut instead of their usual 12. Like the amount of work it’s gone into to get us to even this point. It’s wild. I mean, I wrote a whole book about it. Lots of other people that are much smarter and more educated than me have written very good books about it too. It’s really unfortunate that our own history is kind of either kept from us or just not made accessible to us. Because I think if we knew what it has taken, what it took, what people did to get us here, we might feel a little bit more agency over our own economic destinies, right? Like, okay, knowing that someone just like me 400 years ago, told her boss to take this job and shove it might give me a little bit of the boost I need to tell my terrible supervisor to go F himself. And people are surprised when they learn about labor history, about the history of these strikes and these workers and these leaders, by the fact that you know, an anarchist couple led the first May Day Parade in Chicago in 1886 — shoutout to Lucy and Albert Parsons, you know — like, there’s so much throughout our history that is kept from us and, I mean, that’s kind of why I wrote a book about it, right, to make it more accessible, to bring it out into the sunlight.

Three miners with a federal soldier during the Battle of Blair Mountain. (Kinograms via Wikicommons under Public Domain)

But in terms of this issue, we’re talking about the framing in the media specifically, there’s two things at play there, too, right? Like, most of the media, like, especially the corporate media, media, it is not in their best interest to support workers and support unions. Like, they’re making money, they are part of the elite, they do not necessarily care about what poor and working people are dealing with, especially at places where they have a union. I mean, we’ve seen how The New York Times has treated its various unions. And we see the kind of headlines that run at The New York Times. Or The Washington Post, we know who owns that. And that gets a little complicated when you’re in that corporate media space, which also makes it so important to support independent and progressive media, whether it’s Labor Notes, who have been killing it with the UAW strike, or In These Times or The Real News. Like, all of these other options, who understand and who do embrace that framing and do get it. They just have less money and less visibility, because they are more dangerous. And some of it I do think comes down to the class composition in some of these newsrooms, too. Especially when you’re talking about these elite legacy places that tend to dominate the headlines like whether it’s in TV news or in corporate media. I think a lot of the folks who are making the decisions about those headlines are not necessarily going to be sympathetic to workers because it wouldn’t occur to them. Fancy, wealthy, well-educated, like upper-class people don’t necessarily care about what people like me or people on the picket line or people like my neighbors in Kensington are dealing with, it’s alien to them. It’s not in their interest to support what we want and what we need, because it’s diametrically opposed to what they need. There’s just a lack of understanding of unions and their import and class politics and class delineations in those newsrooms. at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, like, I think perhaps a few more people with my perspective in those spaces might shift the balance in ways that will be helpful for the rest of the normal people out there trying to get some goddamn attention.

Adam: Well, that was one of the things about the whole, there was this whole “Trump is gonna go talk to auto workers” media narrative that was completely fabricated and people — to give some context for those listening — Trump announced he was going to like, in a very vague way, go to Detroit to talk to striking auto workers. That was not true. It was never going to be true. Turned out, of course, not to be true. But for about 10 days, the media carried this narrative and some even said he was going to join the picket line, which was never something that they had been saying. No, through osmosis. And everyone said, Well, why, you know, why are they soft balling Trump here, and then you realize that it’s actually very much, it’s about that, yes, but it’s also very much about cultural, institutional elitism in newsrooms about the average auto worker as being a mindless sort of — because again, they perceive them as white, which is, which is not true at all, by the way, the UAW is very much not just white, but again, there’s cultural stereotypes about UAW workers, that they’re all just a bunch of like racist, clapping seals, who just will give in to any demagogue who pumps his fist, rather than a kind of well-oiled union machine that is not going to be fooled by it, and they weren’t fooled by it.

Kim Kelly: That was just so ugly and so infuriating, because it’s, again, I think it’s part of that sort of corporate media project to wear away support for unions by saying, Oh, look, all these unions are just full of reactionary white guys, like we’ve been telling you this whole time. Just ignore the entirety of labor history, and also its present and also any symbols of reality. I mean, the UAW shirt, there’s a lot of white guys with hard hats. They were also, in the ’70s host to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, right, which was led by a bunch of black power activists. And also the Arab Workers Caucus, who shut down the plants, who held wildcat strikes, who held Marxist reading groups, because they were being treated poorly by the white union leadership and the factory bosses, and they push back and they change that culture and that part of that history. But you wouldn’t know that by seeing all of these old Trump picket line auto workers, you know, while they’re out there in the Rust Belt there. You know what those people are? Like, No, you fucking don’t. Because you didn’t talk to anybody who actually works there, you didn’t understand or even try to understand the fact that people are nuanced. And sure if someone has one political opinion that fits into your stereotype, what about everything else they think? The amount of coal miners in the Deep South and Appalachia I know who hate capitalism and are fine with queer and trans folks and are opposed to mountaintop removal, but maybe have a couple other conservative things thrown in there because no one is one thing or the other, everyone is living in the state of gray. But no one’s given them the diner sit-down interview, because that complicates it, that makes it too hard to pick sides. And that’s ultimately, I think, what is being pushed by corporate media, like, the us-and-them and you in their view, you want to be with them. You want to be fancy and wealthy and comfortable too. You want to be part of the economy, you don’t want to have to have the economy done to you?

Nima: Well, so actually, to that point, there’s this constant trope in media and especially, I think when “the economy” is say doing, again “alright,” where not enough credit seems to be due to the, say, sitting Democratic president, right? So on the broader topic of the kind of broad economy, one thing that we discussed a bit at the top of this episode is how many in the Biden camp and broader partisan democratic media are really struggling with the negative public perceptions of, as we’ve been talking about, “the economy,” right, that it is this malign force, and that this seems at odds with their macro indicators, right? What they’re seeing from polling, what they’re seeing that, say, common voter, thinks the economy is doing terrible, it’s their number one electoral issue. And yet, when you look at the data, when you look at research, well, unemployment stats are a certain way, wages are looking a certain way, “the economy,” the way they are understood in these kind of macro indicator methods, seems to be doing all right. And this seems starkly at odds with the media’s then, you know, hearing from say, voters and trying to figure this out. So without dismissing the idea of that the public, that certainly the American public can sometimes have distorted views of reality altogether, we’ve talked about that a lot on the show, don’t want to dismiss that altogether out of hand, and we’ve been talking about the stories that we understand the stories, we hear the stories, we tell how we understand our role in the world, right? So like all that, yes. But does it seem like many of these indicators, right, full employment, relative rise in inflation, purchasing power, don’t tell the whole story and that this category error is causing many of our reporters many of our political pundits to just assume that the bulk of voters, as you’ve been saying are deluded or misinformed or just morons? So, can we talk about how many of these steady state problems in the country, what everything that your book is about, right? Inequality, shortening lifespans, long working hours, and then the work to challenge those, that, you know, all these things that have been highlighted by say, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders campaign, these things are steady state, they don’t go away, even when there are bumps in employment when wages may rise up a tiny bit. So how is labor? How is the labor movement working to circumvent the electoral process? And this horserace understanding of is the economy good? That means Biden’s good, right? Rather, you know, doing that kind of work? And how is the movement really working to push back on that, but also rectify some of these existential issues, the work of labor, in general?

Kim Kelly: So when I think about this type of question, this type of big issue, I think about what a really specific example that I think points to the way that labor kind of should be going and should be thinking more about. Right now, there’s this union called the Union of Southern Service Workers. They’re supported by SEIU, but it’s a fully worker-led effort. And it’s obviously based in the South. And it is predominantly led by black and brown women who work in places like Waffle House and Carl’s Jr. and fast food places, all these places that are seen as very difficult to organize and low wage and low prestige. And, you know, talking to these workers, they know what people think of their jobs, they know what people think of them, and they know what they deserve. And that is why these workers have been launching strikes and walkouts and protests all over the South since they started about like a year and a half ago. And they have been pushing very, very specifically and very, just very intentionally the fact that this isn’t capitalism, this is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s rights issue. Labor and workers rights, it is not just what’s in your paycheck. It is not just having OSHA certified safety regulations in place at your job. It is about what impacts you as a person. All of us have a lot going on. We have identities, we have backgrounds, we have disabilities, we have identities that are being targeted by the state in a lot of cases. They take a much more holistic view to pushing for workers rights and workers respect and workers dignity than I think you would find in any general corporate media op-ed about what’s going on and about the economy. And I’ve seen a lot of that popping up throughout the movement in the time that I’ve been covering it for the past, you know, six, seven years. I think, some union leaders and some unions have really lost their tendency to avoid talking about the elephant in the room, the capitalist thing, you know, the capitalism thing that’s destroying all of us, like, the haves and the have-nots, the 90%, all of this language that sort of became more accessible to people post-Bernie, post-Occupy, this idea that a small handful of people have all the stuff and the rest of us are left fighting for the scraps that suddenly the labor movement has known for a very long time. You know, I think for a lot of people, our heyday was in the Gilded Age when we took on the railroads and the oil barons and all of these big larger than life characters that their descendants now tell us not to worry about what those silly union people are up to. The past is not very far away.

Adam: Yeah, now they all wear hoodies and flipflops and write memoirs and want to be our friends and it’s pathetic.

Kim Kelly: Oh, my God.

Adam: I’ll take Rockefeller any day, the week over a Prince Harry book tour.

Kim Kelly: Yeah. And they had the media on their side. I mean, they’ve all they’ve had the media on their side for a long time, too, because they own it. That’s the whole thing we’ve been talking about, right? But your question about how labor is working to kind of get around the electoral process. It’s interesting, because we, man, for the longest time until they got really involved in labor, I did such a good job of ignoring what the government was up to and I’d only ever been to D.C. for like metal shows or protests. But seeing how kind of interlaced the government’s functions and legislation and some parts of the labor movement are has been really sobering. In some way, it’s very interesting to see places like California where the movement is strong enough to bully those nerds into passing useful things and into scaring the shit out of them when, like Gavin Newsom, they veto things like unemployment benefits for striking workers or they fuck over drivers and workers in the gig economy. Like, it’s interesting seeing in certain places where labor is strong enough to kind of still strike fear to politicians hearts. And it’s also just a huge bummer to see that we’re still stuck under the boot of this government system that can be like, Well, you know what, like, if you strike if you work at the railroad you strike, that’s gonna cause too many problems for us, so we’re just gonna say, No, you can’t do that. And you’re gonna have to swallow that. Like, that is honestly, I don’t, I’m certainly not gonna hand anything to Biden. The one thing he had going for him up until recently was he had done some very helpful things for a labor. And then that railroad they just borked him, like, he’s not coming back from now. You can walk as many picket lines as you want old boy, like, we remember. But he had existential issues of all of this. To circle back to Shawn Fain, I think, the way that he is presenting their thinking behind this strike and the way he is not backing down, about the fact that this is a class war. This is us against them. There are so many more of us than there are of them, them being, of course, these corporations and the feckless politicians and the rich people that don’t want to see us recognize our power or squeeze a couple extra dollars out of their fathomlessly deep pockets. I think that is a good thing. I think he’s doing important work there. And of course, he’s just the leader, the workers on strike — I think there’s about 25,000 of them now — they are the ones really pushing the envelope and keeping this in the public eye and showing what is possible. That is something that I think has really characterized the past couple of years of the movement, with the rise of Amazon and the rise of well, the rise of Amazon Labor Union, and of the Starbucks Workers United, and so many other high-profile campaigns and all these high-profile strikes. I had to shoutout my union, Writers Guild, again, because we whipped their asses, showing people what is possible. That is how you get closer to what we actually deserve. That’s how you get a good contract. That’s how you get a stronger labor movement. It’s a very important moment for labor and all of this talk of “the economy, the economy.” Like, I don’t care about the economy, I care about the working class. And those two things should really not be as diametrically opposed as they are in terms of their interests. But that is the capitalist system that we — somebody — decided was a good idea to try. And when you see the coverage of saying, you know, why do people think the economy’s so bad, we have full employment, we have the purchasing power, numbers, polls, that doesn’t mean shit! I went to Sprouts the other day and, like, my grocery bill was fucking wild. And like, I know how to shop, like things like that. Sure, we see people on Twitter getting screamed out for not shopping properly, like all of this kind of performative, oh, my God, my grocery bill!, but that shit is real, when you only have so much money, and you can buy so much less. And you have still had the same amount of kids and the same amount of needs, that matters. You can do enough polls to fill the Library of Alexandria, but it’s not gonna matter. When someone goes into a voting booth, like yo, this guy fucked up the economy, the economy as I experienced it, which is me trying to survive. That’s all that matters. And until these pundits and these politicians really understand that, they’re gonna keep fucking up. And it’s because none of them know what it’s like to struggle. Maybe a couple of folks in the House of Representatives, there’s a couple folks in there that I think are actually, you know, politicians pretty chill. But by and large, these people do not come from a place of struggle, they do not come from the working class or from the poor. And they lack that empathy and that understanding to see why people are still so mad, when it costs that much to fill up your truck. When it costs that much to feed your kids. It doesn’t matter what some Harvard economist has to say, things are fucked up. And if you’re not going to fix it, maybe the next guy will. And that is the existential crisis facing the Democrats and whoever wants to be in charge of me for the next four years, you know? Like, figure that shit out, and then talk about some fucking polls.

Nima: Well, before we let you go, this has been so great, but before we let you go, would love to hear what you’re up to these days, what we can look forward to where you’re writing. And then, potentially, you know, I don’t know, maybe have you back on at some point, not to talk economy, but to talk heavy metal and the politics of heavy metal.

Kim Kelly: Oh, that’s a whole sting. That is a huge… man. That’s a little bit of a teaser for folks out there I suppose, that don’t really know much about metal, which is the best genre that has ever existed. And one of the most complicated, I am very biased. But yeah, for folks that are interested when I have to say, I’m a freelancer, so, I write all over the place, but I’m gonna start doing a lot more for In These Times, which is exciting, they’re great. They let me get away with a lot. And of course, I still write for Teen Vogue. I’ve been doing a column for Fast Company. And I did just send off the draft for a kid’s version of my book.

Nima: Oh, nice.

Kim Kelly: Which should be kind of cool.

Nima: That’s amazing.

Kim Kelly: I know, it hasn’t been banned yet.

Nima: That’s what we need, we got to combat, you know, PragerU somehow, right?

Kim Kelly: Honestly, that’s kind of the vibe. Like it’s gonna be, oh, man, they won’t make it past the Florida state borders. But it was cool. A big project via In These Times, I did a big report about the current black lung crisis in Appalachia, which is very much a horrible thing that the government could do a lot more about, but has not decided to do. But yeah, there’s a crisis of black lung among younger coal miners in Appalachia. There’s a lot of reasons for that. And right now, there is actually a little bit of movement via MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, they’re trying to push through a rule to limit the amount of silica that a coal miner can be exposed to. And that matters, because that’s what’s killing people. And right now, coal miners are exposed, legally exposed, to double the amount that every other worker in the country is legally exposed to. So, they’re trying to push through something like that they’re trying to get, advocates are calling them to make it stronger. Hopefully something comes of that. I’m going to keep following that for sure. And I just got back from London, where I was doing some research on hopefully my next book project.

John Moore, a miner diagnosed with black lung. (Laura Saunders via In These Times)

Nima: Well, this has been so great. So appreciate you coming on the show. We’ve been speaking with Kim Kelly, a journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics and culture has appeared all over the place, including In These Times, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The Baffler. She’s also the author of the book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, which was just published in paperback this past August. Kim, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kim Kelly: Thank you so much for having me. Solidarity forever.


Adam: Yeah, I think the idea that there’s this, that there’s this sort of general thing we all share. It’s sort of one of those clichés people use those, this anti-politics clichés like, we’re all in the same boat, you know, like, we’re all in the same boat, like, but we’re not. Like during COVID people to say, Oh, we’re doing that, we’re in the same boat. We’re in this together. We’re not though there’s no economy that we all sort of share. Again, there are general things we share, but but to a great extent there isn’t. And those distinctions are what make commenting on this and reporting on this meaningful. And when you when you ignore those distinctions, when you treat the employer and employee as having the same economy. Really what you’re doing this, you’re just trying to scare people, because people project their own meaning onto the word economy, like we talked about, it sort of has 20 different meanings.

Nima: No, exactly. Because you kind of flatten everything into one big term, which is like saying, Look, you know, we all live in the world, like your COVID analogy, right? Like that, just hey, we’re all in this, this is a shared environment, without acknowledging how very different roles are ascribed in that one potential environment. But also like the idea that “the economy” is a thing that exists outside of, like, human action, and human decision, and corporate decisions and workers rights. That’s also, like, a really kind of fascinating aspect to this, that there is “the economy” out there in the world, we’re all just sort of a part of it and how we approach it is then how we read into certain articles in the news, how we decide what jobs to have, how we decide who to organize with, etc. But really, there’s this idea that it just, it would exist, even if humans did not exist, there would still be “the economy.” And like, that’s just not true and obviously, that kind of framework really does do a lot of damage to the idea of, either worker solidarity or even just the idea that there are different interests competing in our world all the time.

Adam: That there’s a game of chicken going on and if one party doesn’t get out of the way, the whole thing’s gonna explode. And the implication is always that the workers need to stop being so greedy and concede since they’re the ones that are said to have a gun, that they’re the first mover, that they’re threatening the economy versus years and years and years of corporate CEOs dragging their feet and not negotiating in good faith, right? That’s not, that apparently does not threaten the economy.

Nima: That is, Adam, actually “the economy.” I think that there are these catch-all phrases that do a lot to just maintain power and ignore the realities that we’re all actually operating under. So, dissecting the term “economy,” I think was a good thing for us to do, but that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded. And, as always, a very special shoutout goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Our production assistant Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 1, 2023.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.