Recipe: Maple Clam Chowder

I’m a finalist in a cooking contest! As my friends know I’m a proud home cook. I make my own stock and spice blends, maintain an herb garden and a whole pantry system.

So when I found out that our local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, has a cooking contest I had to apply. I chose to submit a recipe for “Maple Clam Chowder’ because it’s at once familiar and just different enough to be contest-worthy. (Also, I figured I could submit it as an Appetizer on the theory that that might be a less competitive category.) Why maple? Well, most chowders start with bacon. On a whim, I used maple-cured bacon once and my wife loved it but asked me to kick up the flavor profile with some additional real maple syrup.

I don’t really go by recipes. For dishes I’ve mastered, I go more by color, fragrance and consistency to guide me. For the past few years, we’ve spent our Christmases in Chicago with my wife’s large extended family and I’ve made variations of seafood chowders for Christmas Eve. I ask my mother-in-law to find her largest pot “and I will fill the vessel with chowder.”

I kind of appreciated the challenge of (literally) reducing this recipe and trying my hand at the under-appreciated craft of technical writing.

So, anyway, I’m in the “2018 Staten Island Cookbook” and we’ll find out if my dish wins the category in a few weeks.

Maple Clam Chowder
(serves 4-6 people)

Prep time: 30 minutes (or up to 12 hours)
Active cooking time: 2.5 hours


24 live littleneck clams still in shell
3 strips of maple cured bacon, cut into ½” pieces
6 medium-sized red potatoes, peeled and diced small
2 stalks of celery, medium chopped
1 yellow onion, roughly diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup of fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 ounce of brandy or dry sherry
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
¼ cup of real maple syrup
3 tablespoons of corn starch
12 cups of water
3 bay leaves
½ a cup of heavy cream

  1. Under a running faucet, scrub the clams clean. Submerge them in a bowl with enough cold tap water to cover them while you chop your vegetables and bacon. The live clams are filter feeders and will expel little bits of sand and grit while in the cold water. (Note: if you’ve got the time and inclination, you can do this step ahead of time, refrigerating your clams overnight.)
  2. In a pot, bring the 12 cups of water and teaspoon of salt to a rolling boil. While you’re waiting for the pot to boil, drain the bowl of scrubbed clams. Add the clams to the boiling water. After about ten minutes, the clams will begin to open. As they do, remove them from the pot with a pair of tongs and keep them submerged in cool water until you’re ready to add them to the soup. When the last clam has cooked, turn the heat off the pot. This is now your stock.
  3. In a separate 5 quart stock pot, add the chopped raw bacon and turn to high heat. Cook as you would strips of breakfast bacon, but reduce to medium heat when the bacon begins to brown but well before it threatens to turn crispy (Approximately: four minutes). Add the celery, onion and garlic and continue to sauté for five minutes.
  4. Add the brandy or sherry to the sautéed bacon and vegetables and stir thoroughly, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot.
  5. Pour the stock through a strainer into the pot with the bacon and vegetables. Reserve one half cup of the clam stock to make a corn starch slurry. Bring the pot back to a rolling boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  6. To make your clam starch slurry, add the 3 tablespoons of corn starch to the hot half cup of clam stock. Whisk and set aside.
  7. Add the bay leaves, parsley and corn starch slurry and simmer for 90 minutes.
  8. Remove the clam meat from the shells and chop to your preference. (These are big meaty clams; you might prefer a coarse chop to ensure big bites of clam in the finished meal or you might prefer smaller pieces for an over-all smoother chowder. You do you.) Add the chopped clams to the pot.
  9. Add the maple syrup and heavy cream. Continue to simmer for 30 more minutes.

Company Towns Are Still with Us

On a May morning in 1920, a train pulled into town on the Kentucky–West Virginia border. Its passengers included a small army of armed private security guards, who had been dispatched to evict the families of striking workers at a nearby coal mine. Meeting them at the station were the local police chief—a Hatfield of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud—and several out-of-work miners with guns.

The private dicks and the local militia produced competing court orders. The street erupted in gunfire. When the smoke cleared, ten men lay dead—including two striking miners, the town mayor, and seven of the hired guns.

The striking miners had worked for the Stone Mountain Coal Company, in mines located outside the city limits of Matewan. There, they rented homes that were owned by their employer, shopped at a general store that was owned by their employer, and paid in a company-generated form of “cash” that could only be spent at that company store. When they joined a United Mine Workers organizing drive and struck for better pay, they were fired and blacklisted.

Without a union, a workplace can be a dictatorship. But what if your boss is also your landlord, your grocer, your bank, and your local police? That kind of 24/7 employer domination used to be a common practice before the labor movement and the New Deal order brought it to an end.

Today, however, the corporate assault on unions is leading to the return of the company town. These new company towns are dominated by one large business that owes no obligation to aid in the town’s well-being—quite the contrary, in fact. As was clear in this past summer’s failed UAW organizing drive at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, the ever-present threat that factory relocation poses to a one-company town bends the local power structure to the company’s will. That’s why so many of the newer large factories—like the auto and aerospace plants that have sprung up across the South in recent decades—are located in remote rural areas. That’s also one reason why organizing campaigns in those locales face very steep odds.

ALTHOUGH NEW ENGLAND clothing manufacturers experimented with company housing in the early 1800s, company towns really came into their own during the industrial revolution that followed the U.S. Civil War. They were common in industries where the work was necessarily physically remote, like coal mining and logging. The company simply owned all of the surrounding land and built cheap housing to rent to the workers they recruited. In new industries like steel production, factories were built in areas where land was cheap, and the companies bought lots of it. By constructing housing on the extra land, the companies found a great way to extract extra profit from their worker-tenants. Besides, a privately owned town enabled companies to keep union organizers away and to spy on potential union activity.

Some of the most infamous and bloody labor battles of the 19th century, like the Homestead strike and the Ludlow Massacre, were sparked by the violent eviction of striking workers from their company-owned housing.

Life was even more miserable for workers where the company-store system prevailed. Employers would own and operate a general store to sell the basic necessities to workers, with as much as a 20 percent markup. An 1881 Pennsylvania state investigation into union-buster and future-walking-head-wound Henry Clay Frick’s Coke Company found that the company cleared $160,000 in annual profit from its company store (that would be about $3.5 million today).

Some employers paid their employees in “company scrip,” a kind of I.O.U. that could only be exchanged for goods at the company store. A worker who was lucky enough to get paid in cash could be fired if he or she were caught bargain-hunting at an independent store in a neighboring town. And payday was often so meager and delayed that a worker might have to buy on credit, resulting in the kind of merry-go-round of debt and reduced-pay envelopes that is disturbingly similar to the practices of today’s “payday loans” predators. It’s not for nothing that the refrain of the classic song “Sixteen Tons” goes, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

The rise of unions and the New Deal order didn’t put an end to company towns per se, but companies that gave in to union recognition found less reason to own worker housing. However, companies that remained non-union—particularly in the South—continued to act as landlord, thereby instilling in their workers an additional layer of fear and oppression to keep unions out. Lane Windham’s excellent new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, mentions—almost in passing—that one Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union organizing target, the textile giant Cannon Mills, continued to run a company town into the 1980s. When the company was purchased in a leveraged buy-out in 1982, the new owners quickly decided to sell the 2,000 houses it owned, giving workers 90 days to buy their homes or get out. The town—Kannapolis, North Carolina—finally incorporated and began electing its own city government after three-quarters of a century as a virtual dictatorship.

But Kannapolis’s conversion from a company town to a proper municipality only happened because an ailing firm in a globally competitive industry needed to sell off non-essential assets, and saw little need to be financially tethered to a community. The plant closed its doors for good in 2003, causing the largest mass layoff in North Carolina history.

Not all company towns were ramshackle developments. Some wealthy industrialists developed model company towns in misguided attempts at philanthropic social engineering.

George Pullman made a fortune building and leasing luxury sleeping cars to railroad companies. Pullman’s belief that the public would pay extra money for better-quality rail travel proved correct, and the Pullman Palace Car Company quickly had a monopoly in a market of its own invention. Pullman’s pressing need for new factories to meet consumer demand coincided with his growing paternalistic concern about poverty, disease, and alcoholism in the country’s industrial cities.

The town of Pullman was built on an area south of Chicago, near the Indiana border, adjacent to the Calumet River and the Illinois Central Railroad line. The company already owned some land there, and purchased more to begin construction in 1880. The housing that Pullman built was of much higher quality than what was typically found in working-class neighborhoods in industrial cities. There was green space and tree-lined streets. In the town center, he built a handsome and well-stocked library, a luxury hotel with the town’s only licensed bar, and a grand theater to feature “only such [plays] as he could invite his family to enjoy with utmost propriety.” Casting a shadow over the town was the towering steeple of the massive Greenwood church.

There was no requirement that Pullman’s factory workers reside in his town, and many commuted from Chicago and neighboring villages. But 12,600 Pullman employees did choose to live in his city by 1893. Some were supervisors and social climbers. Many more were young workers who wanted to raise their families in a new, clean environment. By the mid-1880s, the town was gaining a reputation as “the world’s healthiest city” for its low death rate.

Pullman’s undoing was his tendency to run his town like his business. As with his sleeping cars, he owned all the property and leased them to residents. His one giant church was too expensive for most congregations to afford its rent, and his ill-conceived attempt to convince all of the local denominations to merge into one generic mega-church failed. His library charged a membership fee to foster his notion of personal responsibility. Workers avoided the hotel bar and the watchful eye of “off-duty” supervisors, limiting their public carousing to a neighboring village colloquially known as “bum town.”

Pullman’s business sense led him to make a confounding choice for a civic father who was trying to instill middle-class values in his city: The housing, too, was for rent only. His aim was to ensure that housing remained in good repair and attractive, and he charged higher rents to maintain them. Here, Pullman applied his usual belief that the public would pay more for higher quality, ignoring the fact that this particular public—his employees—had little choice when his was the only housing in town.

The Panic of 1893, and the severe economic downturn that followed, presented Pullman with a dilemma. His business slowed to a near halt. Any capitalist who did not also feel responsible for running a city would simply have laid off all but a skeleton crew of workers. In a more traditional company town, the laid-off workers would have been violently evicted by Pinkertons or the local police. The Pullman company reduced its workers’ hours but kept everyone employed on a reduced payroll. Crucially, however, the Pullman Land Trust did not reduce rents, plunging the town’s residents into financial crisis. Many workers fell behind on their rent. Their debt to Pullman had the effect of restricting their freedom to quit. It provoked a strike at the factory.

The strike was soon joined by a nationwide boycott backed by the new American Railway Union (ARU), which was led by Eugene V. Debs. Rail transportation around the country ground to a stop as members of the new industrial union refused to move trains that carried Pullman sleeping cars. The strike was violently crushed by the National Guard and its leaders were jailed. (Debs later said of the experience, “in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.” He emerged from jail a few years later as America’s most prominent socialist leader, calling the strike his “first practical lesson in Socialism.”)

George Pullman died in 1897, resentful of his reputation as a tyrant and of his model town’s ignominy.

Just a few years later, another bored plutocrat decided to build a model company town of his own. Friends cautioned Milton Hershey that Pullman had been a disaster for its owner. Warned that the town’s residents wouldn’t have elected George Pullman dogcatcher, Hershey responded, “I don’t like dogs that much.”

Hershey made his first fortune in caramel, and sold his confectionary for the unprecedented (for caramel, anyway) sum of $1 million in 1900. Although he retained rights to a small chocolate subsidiary, it was more of a local novelty. Prior to the advent of milk chocolate, the sweet was a luxurious treat for the wealthy that would not keep for long journeys by rail to allow for mass production and distribution

Then, like Pullman, Hershey became interested in solving the problems of modern industrial life. He founded the Hershey Chocolate Company to support his town—not vice versa. Hershey worked on a formula for milk chocolate that could be mass-produced, to provide his town with a sustainable industry.

Breaking ground in 1903, the town was located near its own source of dairy farms for his chocolate business. At the center of town was a 150-acre park, featuring a band shell, golf course, and zoo. After ten years, Hershey’s amusement park was receiving 100,000 visitors a year, making tourism a crucial second economic base for the model company town. Hershey built banks, department stores, and public schools. Unlike Pullman, homeownership was a key part of Hershey’s vision and business model.

In a case of history repeating itself, Hershey was rocked by a Congress of Industrial Organizations sit-down strike during the Great Depression. In 1937, 600 workers took control of the factory for five days. Their sit-down was broken up by scabs and angry local farmers who had watched 800,000 pounds of milk spoil each day. They broke into the factory, battering and forcibly removing the strikers.

Thanks to the New Deal order, which saw an activist federal government defending the rights of workers, however, a permanent union presence was eventually established at Hershey (although the company finagled to have its favored representative, a more conservative AFL union, win a collective-bargaining agreement).

The town of Hershey, though by no means the utopia that Milton Hershey envisioned, exists today as a modestly successful tourist trap. The theme park and the still-operating chocolate factory continue to serve as a job base for locals.

COMPANY TOWNS ARE STILL with us. In the 21st century, company towns operate less like Pullman and more like Kannapolis during the years between Cannon Mills’s sale of its company housing and the final closure of the mill. The companies no longer are their employees’ landlord, but because they’re the only major employer for miles around, they still wield extraordinary power.

This past August’s NLRB election defeat for Canton, Mississippi’s Nissan workers, who sought to be represented by the United Automobile Workers (UAW), should put unions on notice that company towns are not some relic from our sepia-toned past, but an essential feature of 21st-century manufacturing employment in the United States.

In 2003, Nissan, a French-owned multinational carmaker now valued at $41 billion, located its sole American auto assembly plant in the tiny town of Canton. The factory employs around 6,500 workers, while the town is home to roughly 13,000 residents.

In the run-up to the union election, Nissan did what almost every employer does. It didn’t threaten to fire union activists, because that would be too obviously illegal. Instead, management merely predicted that the invisible hand of the market would force it to shut down a newly unionized factory and ship all of the jobs out of town. Thusly terrorized, the entire political establishment of Canton, its churches, and the workers’ own neighbors amplified this threatening message to potential UAW supporters.

The company inundated the local airwaves with television ads in which a local pastor compared the ostensibly horrific period before Nissan arrived—when residents were “fluctuating back and forth looking for jobs”—with the good news that Nissan employees can “come through the door knowing the lights are on, the water is running.”

It actually makes sound business sense for multiple competing businesses in the same industry to be located in close physical proximity to each other. There are economies of scale that can be achieved through shared distribution channels, a major airport, a shared community of professional engineering talent, an education system designed to build the bench, and an ecosystem of parts suppliers and other complementary businesses.

It just doesn’t make business sense if you’re trying to operate on a union-free basis. The fact that Chrysler, GM, and Ford workers were friends and neighbors in Detroit and its suburbs helped organizers foster a culture of solidarity that was essential to organizing the auto industry in the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that few new auto factories, foreign or domestic, have been built anywhere near Detroit—or anywhere near each other—for more than half a century is not an accident. It’s not the result of “free trade,” of the tax-cutting “savvy” of Southern politicians, or of some inherent deficiency of the so-called Rust Belt.

It’s the product of a bloody-minded determination by “job creators” to avoid the conditions under which unions are even possible. From the overuse of “independent contractors” to sub-contracting and outsourcing, to locating new factories in small and remote geographies, corporations in America strategically structure their business to avoid the reach of NLRB-certified, enterprise-based collective bargaining.

These business practices make it clear that employers will continue to evade and sabotage any system of labor rights that is tied to individual workplaces, rather than one that applies to entire industries. We will need new labor laws and new models of worker representation to democratize our communities.

[This article originally appeared at the American Prospect.]

The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Has Activists Asking: Should We Revive the Wildcat?

The stunning success of the recent statewide West Virginia teachers’ strike makes it one of the most inspiring worker protests of the Trump era.

The walkout over rising health insurance costs and stagnant pay began on Feb. 22 and appeared to be settled by Feb. 27 with promises from Gov. Jim Justice of a 5 percent pay raise for teachers. Union leaders initially accepted that deal in good faith, along with vague assurances that the state would work with them on a solution to escalating out-of-pocket costs for workers’ healthcare.

Dramatically, rank-and-file teachers refused to end the walkout. Every public school in the state remained closed for nine days due to the strike, until the West Virginia legislature voted to approve a 5 percent pay increase for all state workers as well as a formal labor-management committee to deal with the healthcare problem.

The entire experience leaves many labor activists asking variations of three questions: What is a wildcat strike? Was West Virginia a true wildcat? And should we have more wildcat strikes?

What is a wildcat strike?

Wildcat strikes are job actions led by rank-and-file members in defiance of official union leadership. Why would leaders try to stop a job action that members want to take? The answer, generally, is that the strike is either against the law or in violation of a contractual no-strike clause (and, often, the leaders are in some way legally compelled to discourage it). In either case, workers who strike could be fired with no legal recourse for the union to win them their jobs back. This is a peculiar feature of America’s post-World War II labor relations system.

Prior to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a strike was a strike. It was not uncommon to have multiple unions vying for workplace leadership and engaging in a kind of one-upmanship of job actions. While these actions occasionally produced small gains in pay or reductions in hours, they rarely ended with union recognition—much less signed contracts.

That’s because employers didn’t have to deal with unions. They might have begrudgingly made a unilateral concession to the workers’ wage or hour demands in order to resume operations, but bosses almost never formally sat down with elected union representatives.

The NLRA changed that status quo by compelling employers to “bargain in good faith” with any group of union members that demanded it. As Charles J. Morris documents in his 2004 book, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, the NLRA did not include any provision for certification elections of exclusive union representatives. The framers of the NLRA wrote it for the labor movement that existed at the time: a collection of voluntary associations that made bargaining demands for their members only.

Compelled to bargain with unions, employers quickly developed a preference to deal with only one as an exclusive representative. That way, bosses could have contractual assurance that all outstanding disputes would be settled (or at least channeled through grievance and arbitration procedures) for the period of a contract that also guaranteed no strikes (or lockouts or other forms of industrial actions) would occur during the terms of labor peace.

Under that framework, the wildcat became a unique kind of worker protest. The etymology of the term “wildcat” can probably be traced to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their unofficial symbol, the sabo cat.

Wildcat actions are not common and are rarely full-blown strikes. More often, they are temporary slowdowns or quick work stoppages in a smaller segment of a wider operation. They could be sparked, for example, over a sudden change in work rules or the belligerent actions of a supervisor. Usually, an official union representative rushes to the scene to attempt to settle the dispute with management and encourages the workers to return to their jobs.

Wildcats were more common in the early 1970s, during the last great strike wave in the United States. Those years saw a large number of strikes by teachers and other public-sector workers to win collective bargaining rights. Many of those strikes were technically illegal, but not wildcats as they were organized and led by official union leadership that had few alternatives in the absence of formal union rights under the NLRA.

However, in that climate of greater worker protest, many private-sector workers also went on strike. Many of those strikes were wildcats sparked by out-of-control inflation and intolerable speed-ups. In a sense, workers weren’t just striking in violation of their collective bargaining agreements but against their terms.

The most famous example was the 1972 rank-and-file rebellion at the General Motors factory in Lordstown, Ohio, which has fascinated generations of labor writers. In her 1975 book All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, Barbara Garson captured this illustrative conversation between workers:

“It pays good,” said one, “but it’s driving me crazy.”

“I don’t want more money,” said another. “None of us do.”

“I do,” said his friend, “so I can quit quicker.”

“The only money I want is my union dues back – if they don’t let us out on strike soon.”

In 1972, the factory was churning out Chevy Vegas at a pace that gave each worker 36 seconds to do a minute’s worth of work before the next car moved down the line in the blink of an eye. Workers had taken to acts of sabotage, like throwing a few loose screws in a gas tank, in hopes that the “error” would be caught by quality control and shut the line down for a few minutes of blessed relief.

While the United Autoworkers (UAW) leaders prioritized wages in bargaining—they won an impressive 13 percent increase for their members in the contract that was then in effect—the workers at Lordstown wanted to slow the pace of work. They went on a wildcat strike that lasted for 22 days, until management settled a slew of grievances and agreed to rehire a number of laid off positions in order to reduce the pace of work.

By the end of the decade, the competitive pressures of global trade put workers back on the defensive. The Lordstown plant is still in operation despite multiple threats to shutter it. In a 2010 profile, the New York Times called it one of GM’s “most productive and efficient plants,” and noted that 84 percent of the workers had recently voted to approve concessions during GM’s bankruptcy.

Those competitive pressures, combined with austerity budgets in the public sector, have severely reduced many workers’ living standards. The West Virginia strike may be a sign that these desperate times have turned many workplaces into powder kegs of simmering resentment and desperation.

Was West Virginia a true wildcat?

West Virginia schools have a peculiar framework: no contracts or formal collective bargaining, but a degree of official union recognition—including dues check-off—within a highly litigious tenure and grievance procedure with statewide pay and benefits subject to legislative lobbying. That environment appeared perfectly crafted to sap unions of their potential militancy, assuming the bosses understood they had to provide a minimally-decent standard of pay and benefits. Instead, teachers faced some of the lowest pay rates in the nation, along with rising healthcare costs, which helped lead to their decision to walk off the job.

Because the West Virginia strike happened outside the context of formal, contract-based unionism, Lois Weiner argues in New Politics that it is inaccurate to describe the statewide walkout as a wildcat. “Confusion on nomenclature reflects how remarkable this phenomenon is: we don’t know how to name a movement of workers that is self-organized, not confined by the strictures of collective bargaining,” she writes, continuing, “There is no legally prescribed procedure for ending the strike because the vast majority of people striking aren’t union members and strikes are not legal.”

Given the frontal assault on the entire legal framework of union representation—Janus vs. AFSCME being the massive tip of the gargantuan iceberg—what unionism looks like in the United States is bound to be radically altered in the coming years. Weiner does us a service by breaking the union framework down into its component parts. We need more writers doing this if we are going to have an informed debate about which parts are worth fighting to preserve, and which are overdue for replacement.

Respectfully, however, I would argue that the West Virginia strike was a wildcat. The political dynamics were essentially the same as in the ritualized contract bargaining of the post-war private sector. Union leaders were in the position of “bargaining” with the governor over a legislative fix to pay and healthcare. They took a deal that was reasonable enough in order to demonstrate their own reasonableness to the bosses.

When the rank-and-file rejected that settlement by continuing to stay off the job, the strike became a wildcat. Official union leaders continued to represent the interests of the striking workers and helped harness the continued strike into an even bigger win—all while presenting themselves to politicians as the reasonable negotiators who could help them get the teachers back to work.

That the strike happened in the first place is thanks to a good deal of self-organization among segments of the rank-and-file, aided in no small part by e-mail and social media. Because two unions—affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—vie for members across the state like pre-NLRA unions used to, this rank-and-file rebellion appears to have whipsawed the competing union leaderships into a one-upmanship over who could more effectively lead the strike and claim credit for the win.

This example does suggest one model for a new unionism, rooted in our recent past.

Should we have more wildcat strikes?

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the Janus vs. AFSCME case about how agency fees, which are directly challenged in this case, have historically been traded for the no-strike clause. I’ve been making variations of the same point at In These Times for over two years, but this time it’s created a bit of a stir.

Some commentators are beginning to recognize that an anti-union decision in Janus could spark constitutional and workplace chaos that could make messy protests like the West Virginia teachers’ strike a more regular occurrence.

If deprived of agency fees, it is probable that some unions will cede exclusive representation in order to kick out the scabs, or “free riders.” And one wonders how much longer private sector unions in right-to-work states will continue to slog through unfair NLRB elections in order to “win” the obligation to represent free-riders, instead of embracing Charles J. Morris’ theory that the original 1935 process for card check recognition of minority unions is still operational and demanding “members-only” bargaining.

That trend would inevitably lead to new worker organizations rushing to poach the unrepresented workers left behind. Some would likely compete by offering cheaper dues or by cozying up to management. Others would vie for members and shopfloor leadership by railing against disappointing deals. This will be messy. As in the pre-NLRA era, workplace competition between unions may not produce lasting union contracts.

But it will also make a guaranteed period of labor peace impossible—and that could lead to more strikes like the West Virginia wildcat. Through Janus, right-to-work and the renewed open-shop offensive, the bosses have made clear that they’re not interested in labor peace. Let’s give them what they want.

[This post originally appeared at In These Times.]

Trump is all bluster on trade, but Democrats haven’t shown voters they can do better

[This article was co-written by Erik Loomis.]

Our commander in chief, noted admirer of military parades, might finally have his war: a trade war. Victims will include cheap domestic beer and foreign trade in motorcycles, blue jeans and bourbon. Whether Trump is destroying American manufacturing to “save” it remains to be seen.

Before proclaiming new tariffs on steel and aluminum last week (which he formally imposed on Thursday), Trump loudly initiated a process to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. These stunts highlight a continuing weakness of Democrats hoping for a blue wave in the midterm elections and beyond. Trump’s posturing on blue-collar jobs is a strong contrast to the Democratic Party’s seeming indifference to the working lives of industrial communities.

Trump is known to brag about job creation and take credit for the economic growth generated in the Obama administration, but his big talk is mostly empty. Despite his bluster about saving jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana, the company has continued to move jobs to Mexico over the last year. Yet Democrats have struggled to counter Trump with any agenda on trade or jobs that touches the heart of working-class voters. For example, the earliest version of their “Better Deal” slogan (“Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages”) was killed on Twitter by angry millennials for its victim-blaming implication that going to school for even longer will somehow make everything better.

Only through a vigorous program aimed at creating and protecting good jobs will Democrats build upon their recent special elections victories and win back the working-class voters they need to win in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

So-called free trade was only one of many reasons industrial jobs left these communities. Squeezing more seconds out of every minute and more hours out of every day of the workers remaining on payroll, replacing the rest with machines and shifting production to southern states to avoid the reach of unions arguably claimed more jobs than foreign competition. But coming in the middle of 40 years of this sustained corporate attack on good jobs, NAFTA has become emblematic for many Americans about how the rules of the system are rigged against them.

Adding insult to injury, the solutions that free trade evangelists peddled for how workers should adapt to the loss of jobs that provided decent incomes and retirement benefits have been haughty and tone-deaf. Relocate to where the “good jobs” are, like digital-era Okies! Borrow a ton of money and get a degree in computer science! It’s hard to overstate how furious people are at this kind of blithe disregard for their homes, their communities and their version of the American Dream. The Manhattan Institute’s Aaron M. Renn has noted the “rage of those left behind.” He concedes that arguments for the virtues of continued free trade “have no obvious connection to the daily experience of those living such a precarious existence that they can’t come up with $400 in emergency cash.”

Democrats went into the 2016 elections without a basic understanding about what an absolute curse word NAFTA is in many parts of the country, much to their peril. Most national polls show a narrow majority of voters have a favorable opinion of NAFTA, and college-educated and suburban voters whom Democrats counted on in 2016 seem broadly more supportive. But, according to Public Citizen, when the conversation is shifted to “outsourcing” of jobs, 60 percent hold a negative opinion, “with nearly half intensely negative.”

Trump understood and has exploited this rage by redirecting it at his favorite targets: foreigners and immigrants. The tariffs reinforce the mentality of too many working Americans that their ability to live a dignified life is under attack from nefarious foreigners. Regardless of the complexity of deindustrialization and trade policy, for many voters, this is a fairly simple question over what it means to be an American. Trump tapped into that in 2016 and could again in 2020.

To create an economic populism that can counter Trump while not demonizing foreign workers for American economic problems, Democrats need an easily understood set of programs that workers can believe in. That should start with a push for job creation for working-class people where they live. Young people growing up in Peoria and Youngstown need to have job opportunities in their communities. The original draft of the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act — which commits the federal government to full employment — had a clause where workers could sue the government if they could not find a job. It is worth revisiting the full-employment ideas of the recent past as serious policy proposals for the future.

And there’s no shortage of work that needs to be done. Government investment in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure should create high-paying jobs around the nation. Fighting to prioritize union labor for this infrastructure must be a priority. Building a green energy grid could both mitigate climate change and help rebuild the working class if union workers produced the steel in the turbines, built the energy grid and ran the daily operations.

Similar investment is needed to expand access to child care and elder care. Those could be good jobs, too, as could the millions of existing jobs in retail, hospitality and the service sector — if we raised the minimum wage and fixed our labor laws so that employers can’t run away from union wage and benefit standards. That would be a war worth fighting.

Beyond racial demagoguery, Trump’s approach to saving and creating jobs is all flashy announcements that do nothing to improve workers’ lives, taking credit for jobs and raises that were in motion before him and, of course, massive corporate giveaways. Yet, this could prove effective if voters in key states believe the president is fighting for them. Trump’s “handling” of the economy remains the one bright spot in his national polls. Despite his low overall approval ratings, his reelection prospects will likely revolve around the same small number of critical states as 2016, many of which Trump is targeting through his nationalistic trade agenda.

In an election that is really 50 mini-elections, a Democratic inability to articulate a strong jobs agenda could once again put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, handing him an electoral college win even if he loses by even larger margins in California and New York. This could be true even if Trump’s agenda brings no steel jobs back to the United States — and it almost certainly will not. Moreover, in this year’s midterms, especially with Pennsylvania redistricting creating a number of newly competitive seats, a close race for control of the House could well rest on how Trump’s tariffs play in the steel communities of the Keystone State.

Democrats would be foolish to fall into the trap of offering voters a Trump-lite alternative on jobs. Tax breaks for corporations to “create” the jobs they need to hire anyway, retraining programs for jobs that don’t exist or pay poorly, and breast-beating posturing in front of shuttered factories are go-to’s for too many politicians — and underline much of the Senate Democrats’ current proposal for a “Better Deal” for workers. For the working class to once again identify as Democrats, the party needs to provide real solutions to their communities that center on creating and protecting good jobs where they live and make people believe the government cared about their lives once again.

[This article originally appeared at the Washington Post.]