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Race, Gender, Class: Bishop Barber, Economist Michael Zweig on Poor & Low-Wage Voters in 2024 Election

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Image Credit: Poor People’s Campaign

As the 2024 election heats up, the Poor People’s Campaign has launched a 40-week effort aimed at mobilizing the voting power of some 15 million poor and low-wage voters across the United States ahead of the November election. The campaign’s first major coordinated actions are set to occur outside 30 statehouses on March 2, just days before Super Tuesday. “Statehouses are where the political insurrections are taking place,” says Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The “enormous undertaking” is in response to “an enormous economic and moral problem” of inequality in the United States, he notes, and poor and low-wage workers have the voting power to affect the 2024 elections in every single state in the country. We also speak with economist Michael Zweig, who is a member of the New York State Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign. His new book on inequality is Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the 2024 election heats up, the Poor People’s Campaign announced this month it plans to catalyze the voting power of poor and low-wage workers across the United States. As part of a 40-week operation, thousands of volunteers are working to mobilize 15 million voters, with the first major coordinated actions taking place outside 30 statehouses on March 2nd, three days before Super Tuesday. The voting bloc, described as “the sleeping giant,” could potentially determine the outcome of the elections. Activists say nearly half of U.S. voters are living in poverty or low-wage households.

This is Alabama activist Linda Burns, a former Amazon worker, speaking at a news conference with the Poor People’s Campaign last week.

LINDA BURNS: A hundred eighty dollars a week. One hundred eighty dollars a week. … Amazon let me go because I was helping to organize the union. We didn’t get the union in Alabama. But I’m going to do everything in my power. I’m going to stand in solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in Durham, North Carolina, by Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Here in New York, we’re joined by Michael Zweig, founding director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life, professor emeritus of economics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, where he received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. His new book is called Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism. Bishop Barber wrote the book’s introduction.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bishop Barber, this is an enormous undertaking. As the talking heads in the corporate media networks talk about the strength of the economy and how it’s only getting better, talk about what you’re seeing on the ground and how people are organizing.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, Amy and Michael, we have to have an enormous undertaking, because we have an enormous economic and moral problem. In 2019, before COVID, we had 140 million poor and low-wage, low-wealth brothers and sisters in this country, 43% of the adult population, going into COVID. Coming out of COVID, we now have 135 million. It went down some to about 112 million, then it went back up. It went down because of investments that were made during COVID, but they were not continued. And poverty right now is the fourth-leading cause of death. Over 800 people are dying every day from poverty and low wages. On the ground, people are hurting, people who make less than $15 an hour. We have not had a pay raise, Amy, since 2009. There are 52 million people who make less than a living wage of $15 an hour. We had 58 senators during COVID to vote no on raising the wages of essential workers. We’ve had — even during COVID, we still have 87 million people who are uninsured or underinsured.

And so, we know now there is not a state in this country where, if 30%, 20 to 30%, of poor and low-wage workers who are eligible to vote, that have been infrequent, would vote, that they could not change the outcome of the election. In some states, Amy, you have a situation where you have almost a million poor and low-wage voters who did not vote in the last two elections, and the election was only won, at large, by 10,000 votes or 40,000 votes or 100,000 votes. Poor and low-wage people are saying, “We must move this power.”

So, on March the 2nd, we’re having a launching. It’s not just a march. It’s a launching of a 42-week campaign to mobilize 15 million poor and low-wage voters. We’re going to raise up people in every state that will be trained in every form of voter mobilization, from technology to the old way of just getting and walking on the turf and knocking on doors, to touch these voters, because right now the democracy could literally be changed and saved by the power of poor and low-wage workers. But it’s not just holding onto democracy. We are saying, “What kind of democracy do you want?” We want one with living wages. We want one that ends poverty as the fourth-leading cause of death. We want full funding of public education. We want women’s rights. We want to stop deregulation of guns. We are uniting around those things.

And why statehouses, Amy? Because statehouses are where the political insurrections are taking place. Everything that we have on our flyer for March 2nd, you can either stop or start in a statehouse. We’re challenging both sides of the aisle. And then, on June 15th, we’re coming to challenge the Congress, to launch the summer initiative of this massive mobilization on June 15th. But we must have a massive movement, because we have a massive moral and economic problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Michael Zweig into this conversation. You’re on the New York State Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign, and you’ve written this book, Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism. Can you talk about the fact that, well, Columbia University found only 46% of voters with household incomes less than twice the federal poverty rate cast a vote in 2016, as compared to 68% turnout rate for voters who had a household income more than twice the poverty line? This leads politicians to ignore whole swaths of people. And what you think then needs to be done, and how the Poor People’s Campaign is addressing this, Michael?

MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, my book — thank you, Amy, for having me here today. And, Bishop Barber, good to be with you.

The task, I think, is to understand, first of all, why it is that we have these outrages that cause poverty and that cause the women of this country to lose their agency and lose their right to healthcare, that threaten the environment — all these issues that are brought together and that have a special effect on poor and low-wage workers. These are not just things that just happen or fall out of the sky. They come from the functioning of a capitalist system, in particular, the capitalist system in the United States, sort of capitalism with U.S. characteristics. I think that we need to, as we build our movements, build them with an understanding of what it is that we’re dealing with and what we have to confront in order to address the inequalities, in order to address the injustices that the Poor People’s Campaign is organized to do, is bring together what Bishop Barber has often called a fusion movement, that isn’t just one piece of the puzzle, but all of those things brought together.

And I think that this book, Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism, is a resource to try to get that understanding and to bring it forward, so that we can all be marching together, no matter what our particular movement and particular concern is, that we all echo each other, we all come together in one mighty force. And that is both a political question of mobilization, but it’s also an intellectual question, a question of analysis and political education. And what this book is trying to do is to be a resource for all of that organizing and mobilizing that’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We just heard a low-wage worker, an Amazon worker, talking about why it’s so important to organize, Michael Zweig. In what ways can the labor movement leverage collective bargaining and advocacy efforts against corporate entities like Amazon? Also talk about the significance of the United Auto Workers and what they did in their strike, that led to so much advancement.

MICHAEL ZWEIG: The UAW strike, the autoworkers’ strike, under the leadership of Shawn Fain, was really a watershed moment, I think, in the current labor scene and the current political climate in the country. And I say that because it was, for the first time, a strike that attacked all three major U.S. automakers simultaneously, and it struck each one selectively. And it did that in a way which also brought a public message that the corporate leadership is getting 40% wage increases, 50% wage increases, they’re making millions of dollars a year, and the autoworkers are not getting any piece of that. And so, the task there was to bring forward those demands in a context that made sense to the American people, and, of course, to the autoworkers themselves.

And I think that what was also important is that Shawn Fain addressed the question as a class question. He talked about his workers as working-class people. When President Biden went to the Warren, Michigan, picket line, he talked about the workers are in the middle class, and the union makes the middle class. No, the union makes working people have a better life, and they’re still working-class people. And Shawn Fain understands that and also understands, in the history of the UAW and other parts of the labor movement, that the labor movement, the unions have an obligation to talk about the whole structure of society, to go to the root and go to the core of why it is that they have to fight every day for a better wage and for better working conditions, why it’s unacceptable to have workers paid so low that they have to get food stamps, that they have to get public assistance in order to make ends meet, and the corporations can go ahead and make billions and billions of dollars.

What Shawn Fain and what the rest of the labor movement is coming, I think, to understand is that it’s important to take on the whole range of questions that affect working people, not just at the workplace, but also in their communities. So that means hunger issues. That means issues of women’s equality. That means racial justice. That means the environment. All those questions are questions for working people to address, and to address in conjunction with those other movements that are outside the labor movement, per se, just as those other movements need to pay attention to and take strength from what the labor movement is doing. And that kind of fusion movement, which the Poor People’s Campaign is about, is what I’m trying to get across also in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Barber —



BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: May I? Yeah, we also, though, have to stop using the language “working-class.” Poor. Poor. See part of our own struggle inside of the movement — and I say to Michael and to others — we can’t back up on the language — “poor” — because it’s not used. The poor. The poor working class. Because we don’t use that language, and we fall back into a trap of capitalism by saying “working.” We’re saying poor and low-wage workers. We’re saying workers that every day hustle hard and still live poor and low-wage.

You know, one-third of all poor folk live in the South. One of the movements that actually helped to get to UAW was when we challenged Smithfield in the South, in North Carolina, and won, brought poor, low-wage Black, white, Latinos together in a small, small — to Tar Heel, North Carolina. Nobody ever heard about it. And they said we couldn’t win. We have to go to these states, because what we say, for instance, in the South, we say those are red states, but we don’t know what color those states are, because we’ve not really mobilized. One-third of all poor people live in the South. There’s not a state in the South where if you mobilized 25% of poor and low-wage workers, that it would not change the outcome. In Florida, the percentage is under 3% of those infrequent voters. In North Carolina, it’s under 19%. In Georgia, it’s under 7%. In all over the South and all over the country — in Wisconsin, it’s less than 1%. So, we, even in our language — and we have to say “poor and low-wage workers.” There is not a state in this country we call battleground states, where the margin of victory was within 3% for the presidential election, that poor and low-wage workers don’t make up 40% of the electorate. There is not a state in this country where poor and low-wage workers don’t make up over 30% of the electorate.

This is not just about the system, but it is also about poor and low-wage people grabbing their power and understanding the power that we have not used. Remember, it was Dr. King in 1965, at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, who said the greatest fear of a racist aristocracy in this country would be for the masses of Negroes and the masses of poor white working folk to come together and form a voting bloc that could fundamentally deal with the economic architecture of this country. You know, I’ve just released a book called White Poverty, and it’s looking through the lies and the mythology pushed down by the Southern strategy to literally divide poor and low-wage Black and white people as a way of continuing to exacerbate the divisions of race and class. This is a power move for poor and low-wage folks, poor and low-wage folk, religious leaders and allies.

And lastly, one of the things Shawn did with UAW is he made it a moral issue. He lifted it up and said, “This is not just — it’s a class issue. It’s an issue about working folk. But it’s a moral issue.” And when he framed it that way, it actually helped more people to grab on what he was saying.

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