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When do they shower? I don’t know if I read the question, heard it or found it in the vast collection of random thoughts that flow through my awareness. Regardless, it is a very important political question and one that the Democrats have largely forgotten how to ask. Consider: There are those who shower in the mornings before they dress for the day’s work. They may wear suits or dresses, but they can count on wearing different clothing each day.

Then there are those who come home at the end of the workday sweaty, grimy and ready for a good, hot shower. When they dress before work it will be in the same sort of clothes they wear every working day. These are the people who make almost everything it takes to keep society going. Or they may grow the food and fiber that feeds and clothes the rest of us. These, the nation’s workers, have historically been the backbone of the Democratic Party — the people for whom FDR launched and funded The New Deal. And many of them live in States that in 2016 the party either took for granted or simply ignored. Millions of these after-work shower-ers manned the factories and fields throughout America’s Midlands, and until recently had been the life-blood of liberal politics.

Key to their support was “The National Labor Relations Act of 1935.” This law, the Wagner Act, became the lynchpin affirming the right of labor to share in the nation’s prosperity. As such, it guaranteed the rights of private sector employees to organize unions and be supported by them. While vigorously fought by the political and economic right wing, its enactment became the core of almost every American city’s prosperity, particularly in what is now The Rust Belt. Where you once found healthy middle-class cities and towns, you would have found strong labor unions that guaranteed millions of America’s workers not only a living wage but also decent working conditions. Around the industrialized world, the ability of labor to organize and bargain for a share of the wealth they helped produce has been the core of almost everyone’s prosperity.

While it has never been officially repealed, the Wagner Act has consistently been under attack by America’s conservatives, basically through the Republican Party. Conservatives, having the money and the political power to destroy every advance made on behalf of Americans who shower after work, they have sought to systematically dismantle the gains produced by organized labor. First, there was the Taft-Hartley Act, severely restricting unions’ ability to represent millions of America’s workers. This rollback of worker’s rights was followed by the adoption in State after State of so-called Right to Work laws, which crippled organized labor’s capacity to meet the owners of America’s corporate engines on equal terms. So in recent years, the already rich have gotten even richer and America’s workers have been left behind. In terms of spendable dollars, workers wages have not improved for more than thirty years. The recently passed tax bill has simply added to the inequality.

Having essentially destroyed the labor movement, the owners of our nation’s economic powerhouses realized that their additional wealth lay in the even cheaper supply of labor plentiful in the undeveloped world. So they have moved much of their productive capacity overseas. The empty factories and the withering of the communities they formerly supported are testimonies to this manipulation. The creation of the rust belt is not that the products formerly produced in the abandoned factories are no longer necessary, but that they are now being produced outside The United States with workers being paid only a thin slice of what organized labor once guaranteed  America’s workers.

Having gutted community after their community, wealthy conservatives have now reappeared as saviors of the decimated cities and towns they helped destroy. One must lay much of the blame for the creation of the rust belt on these economic and political conservatives for playing a zero-sum game when they already had most of the chips.

On the other hand, one must also fault the liberals of the Democratic Party for letting it happen. Their defense of the Wagner Act and their failure to support organized labor has been deplorable. In the 2016 Presidential election, and even in the 2018 mid-term election, the Democrats downplayed both organized labor and the states that had been the backbone of liberal progress.

The Party simply forgot even knowing how to appeal to the after-work-shower Americans. Having turned their backs on what had been their most important voting block, in 2016 the Democrats lost the critical states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The effort to reclaim them in 2018 was too little and too late. Whether they will develop ways to appeal to the working people of these areas in time to make a difference in 2020 is as yet unclear.

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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