When Elizabeth Warren addressed some 20,000 whooping fans in Manhattan Sept. 16, she united two categories of voters that have unaccountably been pitted against each other: women and workers.
Gesturing at the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was visible from Washington Square Park, where Warren spoke, she reminded the audience of the catastrophic 1911 fire there. One hundred forty-six mostly female garment workers died in the fire because of inhumane working conditions.
With this schoolmarmish history lesson, Warren deftly reminded audiences that not all women are SoulCycle basics in TUCK FRUMP T-shirts. And not all union members are men caked in MAGA swag and coal dust.
In fact, 98% of working women are wage or salary workers, eligible for support — direct and indirect — from organized labor. And as of 2018, 9.9% of female workers are full-dress union members. The gender gap in union membership is about 1% now, down from around 10% in 1983.
The Triangle fire story is scripture for pro-labor politicians. Indeed, Warren rendered her practiced version of it — complete with jumpers hitting the sidewalk with a “thud” and blood rushing into the gutters — again Tuesday night on MSNBC.
Warren stressed especially the part where Frances Perkins, head of the New York Consumers League and a sociology professor at what was then Adelphi College, leveraged the fire, which she witnessed, to push for better hours, safe working conditions and decent wages for women.
As Labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945, Perkins — an LGBTQ icon whose portrait should hang in someone’s Oval Office — later advocated even more broadly for workers’ rights. As the first woman in a Cabinet position, Perkins became the longest-serving Labor secretary, and ended up defining the post as second in power only to her boss when it came to pushing for income equality, gender equality, organized labor and social justice.
Of course, Warren wants to be the boss. She makes it clear on the stump that, if elected, she will, like Perkins, advance women’s rights and workers’ rights in tandem.
Warren’s deployment of the Triangle parable sets her apart from other candidates. She hammers on the way issues of income inequality, unemployment and workplace abuse (sexual and otherwise) affect all workers, all women, all women workers.
As Warren never fails to remind her crowds, every worker wants better pay, more humane workplaces, better hours. Only the zillionaire Gulfstream set benefits when workers make unfair wages, or work long hours in lousy conditions.
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Warren has built a sturdy logic into her campaign. Not just a “message.” Not a “narrative.” Actual logic, from the days before Reaganomics argued that 2+2 =3. (The 1980s were when, as Warren says of the Gilded Age, “business owners got richer, politicians got more powerful, and working people paid the price.”) By contrast, here’s the Warren axiom: If you work for wages or a salary, you’ll benefit from collective bargaining and higher taxes on the rich.
It’s self-evident. And damn, it is gratifying to hear simple truth from a presidential campaign.
At a time when Bernie Sanders is, with few details, caterwauling about revolution, and Joe Biden is turning to incoherent sentimentalism, logic is a breath of fresh air. And this is especially oxygen-rich air since it also comes in the midst of President Trump’s hysteria and emotionalism, which is suffocating to anyone who still remembers how to reason.
No wonder a recent poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal shows Warren gaining on Biden and ahead of Sanders, with the support of 25% of Democratic primary voters. With her plans and history lessons, she’s got our left brains working again.
Yes, Sanders talks about labor. But he can’t seem to fathom that the unions don’t just belong to food workers, forklift operators and miners in 2019.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionization rates last year were highest in protective service occupations, including cops (33.9%), and in education, training and library occupations (33.8%).
It’s possible people in these occupations look like the bourgeoisie, the dread middle class to Democratic socialist Bernie. Warren makes it clear she believes that what’s greatest about America is the bourgeoisie, and those striving to join it.
Would Warren’s campaign truisms stand up to a sophisticated historical analysis? Perhaps not. But her polished rhetoric is internally consistent, and her middle class is the place where two crucial sets of voters meet: modern women and modern workers.
The rhetoric is also rousing. Where the middle class has historically been represented as complacent — and even complicit with those with far more power — Warren flatters their punk side. Our punk side. She sells the members of the middle class on an image of themselves as Frances Perkins, furious at the disastrous and deadly fire and hellbent on economic and social change.
Warren’s crazy, audacious play just may succeed in uniting the so-called beer vote (lefties who want the fat cats in jail and unions now) and the wine vote (moderates who want Trump out and incremental change). That would be quite a swill.