An interview with Michael D. Yates, the working-class economist
"A small spark can light a large fire. Be that spark."
America in Solidarity, the grassroots working families' advocacy group that I am a member of, puts on two labor celebrations every year, Labor Day and May Day. This year's May Day celebration was hosted at Tacoma's King's Books and featured stories of workers struggling to find fairness in the workplace both in history and today. (To learn more about the event, check out our events calendar at www.americasolidarity.org)
After the event, a man named Michael D. Yates found its description on the King's Books website and decided to plan a stop on his book tour there. Seeing as how the guys was inspired to come to Tacoma because of us, I decided to contact him and get an interview. In the course of preparing for the interview, I read some of his work online, which you can find at the website for his new book, "Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue."
His writings are inspiring. They tell the story of a nation gripped by real-world crises and tumbling into economic destruction and the Ivy-League economists that prefer to live in the fantasy world of neoclassical economics. This man is a rare breed: an economist that cares about people and doesn't subscribe to the soul-crushing notions of the Chicago School and its adherents. He gets it that free trade isn't free, that it facilitates the further breakdown between people and a good life. He understands that conservative economic policies are widening the gap between the rich and the poor. He realizes that the only way we're going to fix this country is if we all work together to change the laws that govern it and the systems of thought that are used to prop up a corrupt model of economics. Like Paul Krugman of the New York Times, Michael D. Yates understands that what America needs is not greater "freedom" in the marketplace, but greater freedom for ordinary citizens to work and go to school and raise their families and to pursue their dreams. In short, Michael D. Yates is a humanitarian.
And he's coming to Tacoma, to share the story of America with us, the people of this fair city. His new book chronicles his latest journey with his wife across the human landscape of this great country. I sat down with him recently to talk about America, the plight of the working class, and his book tour.
TA: Michael, folks who know a little something about labor may have heard of you by reading your book, "Why Unions Matter". Can you talk a bit about that book and how you came to write it?
MY: I had been teaching about unions and labor movements for a long time, both to college students and to working people not in traditional college classes. I had helped organize unions, and I had worked for the United Farm Workers union. I had been a labor arbitrator.
I noticed that there were no good introductions to unions and their role in the US labor movements. I had read an old one written by Leo Huberman, one of the founders of Monthly Review magazine and a labor educator like myself. Inspired by Huberman, I asked Monthly Review Press if they were interested in a book about unions, and they said yes. Hence this book. It has been well-received and used in many labor studies and union short courses and as general reference by working people. I always try to write books that working people can use and also find interesting.
TA: In a recent piece for MRZine.com, "Class: A Personal History", you outline your family story and describe how you came to understand the world in terms of class divisions. Describe briefly for our readers what made you the economist you are today.
MY: I was lucky to be encouraged by my parents to go to college; I was first in my family to do so. I majored in economics by accident. My dad said I had to pick a major so he could fill out a scholarship form. He read down a list, and I stopped him at “Economics.” I really don’t know why. I did well in my classes and found the subject interesting and its traditional exposition elegant. I went on to graduate school and continued to do well. But I was becoming a bit disillusioned with the subject, especially since none of my teachers but one would ever talk about the war in Vietnam or about working people, racism, etc. When the draft started breathing down my neck, I got a teaching job. As I continued to read about the war and about the US history I had never been taught, I found the mainstream economics I had learned to be completely inadequate. I gravitated toward radical economics and since my mid twenties have been a radical economist. As I get older the world seems more and more to fit the radical model.
TA: For your latest book, "Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate", you and your wife traveled the country, seeing it the way so many desperately poor and rootless people are compelled to. Were you surprised by anything you came across in your travels?
MY: First off, there are parts of the US that are more astonishingly beautiful than I had imagined: Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, the dunes and beach at Florence, Oregon, Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, all of Central Park, to name a few. On the other hand, I was surprised to see so easily and clearly what I knew to be true from the data. Lots of people live in cheap motels, out of necessity. Poor people and people of color almost never visit our national parks. White people routinely made racist remarks. There is a chasm between the housing of rich and poor. A resort owner in Aspen urged his workers to live in the woods! One of my son’s employers in Portland stole hours from him. Everywhere people had inadequate and alienating employment. The exurban sprawl is worse than I thought, as is the absolute lack of any urban planning. Waste of space and water are epidemic, especially in our desert cities like Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. I was surprised to see pollution in our national parks. The ecological destruction of Florida surprised me too. As did the sense of loneliness we felt among people everywhere.
TA: In a piece you wrote for the book tour site, you mention your disappointment at the lack of visible worker solidarity and union organizing in America. Was this universal, or did you come across any workers using their voices to make big changes in their communities?
MY: In New York City there were signs of solidarity and fight back, among cab drivers, greengrocery workers, and others. Immigrants in Denver and other ciites engaged in impressive actions. The workers’ center in New York’s Chinatown (Chinese Staff and Workers Association) inspired us. There were peace groups even in small towns like Estes Park and anti-war activities in Portland, Oregon. But really not much sense of an incipient movement.
TA: As an economist, you've seen the country go through major economic changes in the last thirty or forty years. Can you describe what you think is the biggest factor in the decline of the middle class?
MY: The decline of labor unions is first and foremost, some of this due to all out assault on workers by businesses and their government allies and some due to the failure of unions to build effectively on their post WW2 strengths. Labor’s elimination of its left wing was most important here. Unions seem lost ideologically, and as a result working people have no compass and are more easily swayed by right wing and racist ideologies.
TA: What can we as citizens do to rebuild the middle class?
MY: As Mother Jones said, “Educate yourselves for the coming struggles.” Then form or join groups to fight for change. Don’t be taken in by personalities. Every top politician must become more or less corrupted in this country to rise to the top, at least the way thing are structured now.
TA: In my work with America in Solidarity, I meet a lot of workers who want to organize and who want a better life for themselves and their families, but so many of them believe it's hopeless to struggle for better conditions, that the best they can hope for is to hold on to their crappy jobs and get their kids into college so they can get a better life than their parents. Can you give any advice to these poor souls that might encourage them to be more active in the Labor Movement?
MY: See the previous answer! And no matter what the situation, almost no one is completely powerless.
Some people do have courage and will stand up. Other less courageous workers must support these leaders. A small spark can light a large fire. Be that spark.
TA: During your book tour, has anyone asked you any surprising questions?
MY: Well, people do want to know how you get a low rate at a motel! And we do have lots of tips. And someone asked me what advise I would give to those who have little education. Another asked me if it was a good idea economically to own a house. The tour is still young, so I am sure I’ll get a lot of unusual questions. A man in Pittsburgh asked me a technical question about the consumer price index. And a man in Phoenix asked if we had tried to get on the Michael Savage show. I wanted to say that my desire to make my book popular wasn’t so overwhelming that I would go on a show run by a fascist.
TA: I'm working on a book about America's progressive populists, and I have a feeling you might be one of them. What does the word progressive mean to you?
MY: Well, it can be a work with many meanings. After all, Teddy Roosevelt is often said to be one as is someone like the editor of the Nation or Progressive magazine. I think it means or should mean someone who struggles for much greater equality in all spheres of life.
TA: A lot of talk is building among the grassroots of the Democratic Party around free trade issues, universal healthcare, rebuilding Katrina, and other economic populist issues. Do you believe that an economic populist could be elected President in today's political climate? If so, do you see any candidates running that could play that role?
MY: I think a populist could be elected, someone like the old Jesse Jackson. You have to tackle the race issue head on. No currently viable candidate comes to min dthough.
TA: What do you see as the most critical issue for workers and activists in this country to grapple with? What can they do to turn it around?
MY: Rebuilding the power of workers, and being willing to address race and immigration radically and in an egalitarian manner. Building organizations that embrace not just workplace struggle but community and ecological issues is critical.
TA: What's next on your agenda? Are you planning another book?
MY: I have another book just about done-a book of essays and fictional stories, title “In and Out of the Working Class.” The tour will end in Amherst, MA, where I will be a visiting teacher this Fall. After the teaching who knows? Maybe explore the rest of the world.
TA: Thanks so much, Michael. Can't wait to see you at the show.
MY: My pleasure.
So there you have it. A real, honest-to-goodness friend of the people, Michael D. Yates. Come on down to King's Books in Tacoma on Monday, June 11th at 6, and hear what he has to say. Get a signed copy of the book, and help us celebrate the rebuilding of this American labor movement.
And check out Michael's website - www.cheapmotelsandahotplate.org