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Understanding the resurgence of jobs in America's 'left behind' counties

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. This time last summer, President Joe Biden was talking about his run for a second term on what his administration called Bidenomics, a plan to rebuild the economy by creating jobs, fixing aging infrastructure and investing in manufacturing and clean energy.

Well, a series of recent reports show that the Biden administration's efforts have spurred recent job growth in the last three years, most notably in the Midwest and Southeast - so-called left-behind counties, places that experienced decades of divestment. There are several reasons for this growth, most notably the trillions of dollars from the administration's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

A recent report in The New York Times notes that in terms of job growth, left-behind counties experienced three of their four worst years since the Great Recession on Trump's watch but went on to point out that many left-behind counties are also solidly Republican or have moved to the right since Trump first ran.

With us to talk about all of this is David Madland, a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center For American Progress, an independent non-partisan policy institute. He's also the author of "Hollowed Out: Why The Economy Doesn't Work Without A Strong Middle Class," and has written for several publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker. David Madland, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DAVID MADLAND: Thanks very much for having me.

MOSLEY: Well, I want to start by kind of getting in the weeds on what we can attribute this job growth to. So during the pandemic, we know that both the Trump and Biden administrations basically lavished communities with pandemic assistance and forgave loans for business owners. How much of a factor does that play into the job growth that we're seeing now?

MADLAND: I think it's a significant factor. You can see that, especially when you compare how fast the United States recovered jobs compared to most other countries, and especially countries that didn't have related kind of programs where we helped ensure businesses weren't going to collapse. We provided them with money. We also provided individuals and local governments with funds. So I think it's really fair to give a decent amount of credit for both Trump and Biden administration's efforts during the COVID pandemic to continue spending. As people went home and they weren't able to spend, they made sure that the consumption continued.

MOSLEY: And then there's the trillions of dollars from these infrastructure investments, the Job and Inflation Reduction Act. I want to read a stat from the Economic Innovation Group - that's a bipartisan public policy organization. They recently reported that left-behind counties added jobs five times faster in the last three years of the Biden administration than they did in the first three years of the Trump administration. First off, can you actually paint a picture for us on what we're talking about when we say left-behind counties?

MADLAND: Sure. Well, I think the study you're referencing talks about counties that lost population and have lower median household income than most counties. But other studies look at similar kinds of factors. They will say they've lost manufacturing over recent decades, or they've lost population. The basic idea is that they are not thriving. And what this study that you referenced shows, and lots of similar other studies show that in recent years, since 2021, there's been significant investments and job growth in these communities in a stark contrast to what they'd experienced over recent decades.

MOSLEY: Can you give us some examples of the most prevalent type of jobs? - because when I think about manufacturing jobs, I mean, I think about the old days, these well-paid, unionized jobs that sometimes require a skill. What types of jobs are the most plentiful?

MADLAND: In these communities that we're talking about and that have been spurred by the economic investments, most of those jobs, I think are construction jobs right now because we've seen this really big increase in manufacturing-construction spending and big investment. So the manufacturing jobs will likely come in the future. But right now it's the construction of these facilities that is, I think, really driving much of the growth in these areas. The big question that you're sort of alluding to is whether these jobs are going to be high quality.

Manufacturing has traditionally been seen as this, you know, bastion of really good wages and good benefits, but that's become less true over recent decades. In fact, some studies suggest they're not that much better than a fast food job, except for when they're unionized. And there they still have the traditional strong wages and good health benefits and retirement package, and all of the kinds of things that we consider part of a good job. And so that's going to be - I think the real key going forward is about the quality of these manufacturing jobs. A lot of these construction jobs, by the way, are quite good, though.

MOSLEY: And construction of facilities and infrastructure to repair old infrastructure, also semiconductor manufacturing, clean energy - these are manufacturing facilities for the future.

MADLAND: Exactly. And so that's where I take most heart for these kind of initial signs of, you know, manufacturing-construction spending going up, but that is going to lead to much greater growth. So that's the idea behind these investments in infrastructure. It's not just that you're creating jobs building a highway, but that goods and services will be able to get to market much faster, that you're spurring investment and that investment is going to be more productive and more profitable going forward. And much of the investments are in the kinds of industries that we expect to grow in the future. You mentioned the chips, the semiconductors, the green energy. So this is - I feel like our country is being set up to do quite well in the future.

MOSLEY: Many of these communities, though, they're solidly Republican, as I mentioned, and you've written about how workers benefiting from them are basically largely unaware of how their lives have been impacted specifically by the Biden administration. And you give us this example of Tennessee's Blue Oval City electric vehicle battery facility. Can you share what you learned about what happened there?

MADLAND: Yeah, I talked to a lot of workers on the site, and this is this very large facility in rural Tennessee, a couple hours outside of Memphis. It's going to be a big electric vehicle battery and manufacturing construction in an area that had for 20, 30 years, really tried to spur investment, and nothing had happened. Most of the jobs in the area were, you know, very low paying. I talked to these workers, and they'll say, I've got a job doing the construction on the site, and this is the best thing that's happened in my life. I used to have to pay half my bills this week and try to pay half the next week. I, you know, really was really struggling. I didn't even have a bank account. And now these are people, the same people will tell me, I can take my kids on a vacation. I'm trying to buy a house. I have good credit.

So these big steps forward in their lives that you can see from these projects, which are good union jobs, constructing the big facility. Then when I also spoke to them and said, well, how or why do you think this project came to be? This project received many billions of dollars in loans from the federal government as part of these investments we're talking about. It also received significant state funding. And the workers to unanimously said, Well, I credit Ford, which is the big Ford Motor Company as a joint investment there. And then I would probe and push and they'd say, Well, I also credit my union for helping make this happen. I had to keep asking and asking before ever mention any elected officials that had anything to do with it. But their sentiment was, well, if any, elected official had anything to do with it. So I would like that and support them, but I have no idea about this. So I think this suggests one of the key challenges of these kinds of policies will be to understand for workers and the public to understand that there's public policy behind them because this isn't the kind of infrastructure - much of it is not the sort of traditional kind where you see, this is a highway built by the government. And there is a fair amount of that, but a lot of this is private industry that is choosing to invest because the tax credits and the like have spurred them into action. And so they're putting up a ford sign, not a - there's no government sign around it saying, this was your tax dollars at work. So it's a much harder challenge for workers to make the connections to public policy.

MOSLEY: But haven't we experienced that before? Why do you think that the message isn't clear?

MADLAND: We certainly have done some kinds of, you know, tax policy that encourages private investment, but the scale of this is significantly bigger. It's also different 'cause there's - much of the funds go through - from federal government through states, and then the states provide support. So it's like - it's more complicated that way.

And then I think the last thing is you have to certainly take into effect the much larger political context that's going - we've become a much more polarized society. And people are more distrustful of information, especially information that might go against their prior beliefs. And so to convince people that this new funding is coming from a party that they might not already necessarily agree with is a additional hurdle to overcome.

MOSLEY: The experience people are having also varies, though, too, right? I mean, you shared the story of some local farmers in Tennessee who feel like they actually have been adversely impacted by some of these projects.

MADLAND: Yes, of course. There's going to be winners and losers in these projects, and there's certainly some specific people who can suffer some harms. You mentioned, you know, the farmers that feel like they're not getting a fair share for their land. But I think the more, you know, salient question and problem is really about understanding the blame or credit attribution. Who do you credit for this? And is the economy good enough? - because there's multiple signals that, you know, are conflicting. The biggest ones, of course, are that we have really good unemployment figures and just - jobs are plentiful now in the economy, about as plentiful as they've been in 50 years - really good measures.

But, of course, we had significant inflation, you know, 2021 and 2022, and that made people feel poorer. Just now, for the past year, their wages have been growing faster than inflation, but it's taking a - it takes a little while for that to really sink in that, OK, you know, I felt like I had to hunker down, especially - COVID hit. And then my - inflation hit. And they're just now sensing that perhaps their incomes are - and they really are doing better. And I - and that - there's this lag effect that I think is also going to be important to - for people to understand how they're actually doing financially.

MOSLEY: There's also uneven recovery overall - right? - because I'm thinking about places like Flint, Mich., for instance, which lost, I mean, tens of thousands of jobs during the Great Recession. And so it's seen job growth over the last few years, but it really has yet to recover fully. How common is this story around the nation, especially in these left-behind counties?

MADLAND: I think it's the story in lots of communities that have been left behind. They suffered decades and decades of challenges, and just a couple years of growth is not enough to overcome those barriers that they've been facing.

And the - one other thing that's, I think, important to note about this sort of growth in these left-behind communities is it's a big shift from where they were recently, but it's about what's happening in the rest of the country. So the whole country is starting to see these big gains in jobs and investments. But what's new here is that it's also going to these other communities that, traditionally, were not getting things. So it's hard to believe that this is really going to latch on. But what I - the signs I see that it is going to take and that people should be more optimistic than, I think, they are at this moment is other kinds of things.

We have big boosts in new business startups. So the investment's going in, and you see the big manufacturing plant, but then there are lots of other businesses starting nearby. And that's happening across the country but also in left-behind communities. So I take that as a sign of potential future growth.

MOSLEY: Also, I mean, many of these priorities of the Biden administration - clean energy, for instance - they're not Trump priorities. So, I mean, how would a future Republican administration actually impact these initiatives?

MADLAND: Well, there are signs that a lot of the kinds of policies that have been pushed that have created these investments would go away. For example, the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, has voted on many occasions to repeal and eliminate these kind of tax incentives that have encouraged these green energy investments. So that's one sign.

There's also signs of - in Project 2025, which is this playbook for a second Trump administration that former Trump officials have put together, and their sort of banning of the word climate change potential in there, there's elimination - suggesting also elimination of all of these kinds of policies.

I also think there's a big difference in - so President Trump claimed to be a supporter of infrastructure investments, the kind of roads and bridges that were in the Infrastructure Act that President Biden was able to pass. So there's also - even when there's a similar direction, there's the quality of what actually happened. And it's clear that, you know, Biden actually got this stuff passed and done. And so even when there's sort of similarities, there's real differences in the implementation.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs in America with the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress senior fellow David Madland. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO (THE BLIND)")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today I'm talking to David Madland, a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. We're talking about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs and the union movement in America. Madland is the author of two books, including "Hollowed Out: Why The Economy Doesn't Work Without A Strong Middle Class." And he's also written for several publications.

David, you've written about the importance of focusing on not just job creation, but on creating good jobs. And we talked briefly about some of the jobs that are out there - some of them temp jobs, some of them not paying much more than minimum wage. The Biden administration has encouraged many of these companies, though, to go above this legal minimum wage requirement, but why is it just an encouragement when many of these companies are receiving government subsidies and tax deductions?

MADLAND: So the major bills that the Biden administration passed, the infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act, did have some requirements for companies that receive government funds that affect job quality, things like prevailing wage so that a company must pay what the market rate is in the area, and they can't undercut it. And those occur on several kinds of funding within all of these bills, but it didn't apply to all of the funding, and there are sort of limits to what these kinds of standards - there's prevailing wage. There's apprenticeship utilizations.

But these policies don't guarantee good jobs. They, you know, provide an opportunity for them in several sectors, but they don't, for example, apply in construction. They apply in construction, but they don't apply in manufacturing. So what the Biden administration has done is they've implemented the existing policies in the law to the fullest extent. But they also said, well, we're giving out government money, and the policy we want to create is good jobs.

And so they have done things like, well, at least provide a - you know, asking companies to provide a plan of how they might achieve good jobs. They aren't requiring that because they don't have that legal authority, but they are encouraging it and putting their sort of pressure. They've also used the bully pulpit, a fair amount to encourage companies to provide good jobs, and with wages. You even see that with, you know, President Biden going out with sporting striking workers as they are seeking to negotiate with companies and get a better deal.

MOSLEY: Let's talk about unions for a moment because it actually does seem like there's been this groundswell of union growth, but you actually write about how, in spite of growing numbers of workers trying to form union membership, it's stagnant. How and why, especially in the context of these new industries that are replacing these old-time manufacturing?

MADLAND: Yeah, so I like to think of it as kind of the best of times and the worst of times for labor unions right now. The best of times is that public support for unions is near record highs, especially among young people. More than half of all workers say they would like to form a union. If they could. You also have elected officials, more and more, President Biden and the Biden-Harris administration more and more forcefully saying, we support workers and their rights to form unions. And then you have workers on the ground taking more and more actions trying to form unions.

But at the same time, the worst of times is that there's just 6% of the private sector workers are members of unions, which is lower than it's been in 100 years. And that occurs, this huge disconnect between the sort of groundswell of support and the actual members in unions, largely occurs because the law makes it very, very hard for workers to form unions. It allows companies lots of opportunities to threaten and intimidate workers from not joining a union.

And if companies break the law, and, for example, fire a worker, which is illegal, for trying to form a union, there are really almost no financial penalties, so much so that the most thing I'd have to do is post a notice and pay back pay to a worker minus anything that the worker earned in the meantime, and the workers, of course, had to get another job to pay the bills so that they would call these notices their hunting licenses, sort of facetiously saying they really are just the cost of doing business. So we have a broken law that is preventing workers from achieving the goals that they want. The Biden administration has tried to take steps to overcome this. We talked a little bit earlier about these what I would call strings on government spending that were part of the Inflation Reduction Act and the like. But there's only so far those can go.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is policy expert David Madland. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY RILEY'S "JOURNEY FROM THE DEATH OF A FRIEND")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and joining us today is David Madland, a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, which is an independent nonpartisan policy institute. We're discussing the resurgence of manufacturing jobs under the Biden administration, and the grassroots efforts to unionize workers. Matlin is the author of two books, which include "Hollowed Out: Why The Economy Doesn't Work For A Strong Middle Class" (ph), and has written for several publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.

You go so far as to say, I mean, the key to good jobs really is a strong union because a union household has significantly more wealth than a median non-union household, and you write about several examples of how it really comes down to a grassroots effort. Can you tell us about what happened at a battery plant in Ohio that's jointly owned by General Motors and LG Energy Solution?

MADLAND: Yeah. So there's a couple of things going on. This is, you know, a plant that received significant investments from these policies that we've been talking about. And the workers wanted to form a union, and they voted overwhelmingly to do so. But it took a while for them to get a first contract, sort of fight and struggle. And this is - they eventually succeeded and dramatically raised their wages, going from, I think, roughly around 16 bucks an hour to around $30 an hour. And this was part of this much larger struggle that the EUAW has been involved with to try to unionize the electric vehicle manufacturing, because they're - you know, the core of the internal combustion engine has been significantly unionized, but the new industry has been fighting and resisting allowing workers to form unions. And so this is a big step forward showing that it can be done and that the new industries that are getting significant investment can facilitate unionization. The broader points you were raising about why this matters - why does, you know, talking about a union job or not a union job? Well, this can be transformative in a person's life.

You mentioned that research I'd done earlier showing that a typical - the median union household compared to the median non-union household has about twice the wealth. So they - and wealth is kind of all of the sum of assets you have, your bank account, your car, or house, if you have it minus any debts you have, the mortgage, or credit card. And it's the sum total of your financial well-being. And it occurs because of all these things that unions do to make people better off. They help you negotiate higher wages. So then you can have a little bit more that you can put aside. They help you have greater benefits. So you actually have a retirement account. You know, nearly half of workers don't really have any money in their retirement accounts. So you've got the better benefits.

And then the last thing is you have a more stable job. You're more likely to be able to stay on the job and continue earning an income rather than be subject to a maybe more arbitrary firing. And these wages benefits and stability help your ultimate financial position. And that's, I think, really what people are looking for in this economy right now. People have been buffeted by so much. There was a great recession, and, you know, financial crisis in 2008, then COVID, and now people want stability more than ever.

MOSLEY: Unions, as your research has shown, is good for workers. Can it also be bad for business for companies to succeed because they have to pay higher wages and better benefits?

MADLAND: There's a whole lot of research on the subject of a sort of what's the economic impact of unions. And I would say, you know, there's - the general research points that the good things unions do for the economy and for companies is that they boost productivity. So workers are more productive - you know, able to do more with the same amount of resources, largely because they tend to have these sort of more stability in the workplace, so you're getting more experience, but also workers feel freer to voice their opinions and say, hey, we could do things differently, and those often lead to a better economic outcome. So they're boosting productivity. The downside is that company profits tend to decrease a little bit, not always, but that's sort of the general trend. You're getting more for the overall society, but a little bit less for the individual company.

All the other research on whether you have more or fewer jobs, I would say is highly contested and not a general direction, and it really depends on the particulars of the study. But I think the basics are good for workers, good for society, and a little bit worse for the short-term profits of businesses. In the long run, if you have greater productivity, that's good for them as well, but it's - there's the econ, but it's also - I think about power. And the individual employers don't like to give up any bit of power that - right now they have almost dictatorial authority to say, we're going to do X, Y and Z at this moment. If you have workers that unionize, they have ability to negotiate and push back a little bit, and that leads to something that companies don't want to do. There's this famous statement by former head of Walmart who says, we like driving the bus and we don't want to give up the steering wheel. And I think that conveys really what's going on here.

This is, you know, the more about power than it is about the economics because anecdotally, though, I mean, we've heard over the years, companies say, we can't sustain if we have a workforce that's unionized. Our bottom dollar just can't really sustain that type of growth in wages and benefits in the ways that these workers are asking for. What I'm hearing from you is that by and large, there might be a slight loss in profits, but there's a longer tail for success.

MADLAND: Yeah. And in fact, the broader research around these kinds of economic questions, about paying higher wages, is really pretty clear. Most of the time the companies will just plead that the sky is falling. They can't do it. Perhaps the most studied issue under labor economics is the minimum wage. And I think it's a very similar analogy, especially when the first thought of going to $15 in Seattle, SeaTac, which is outside of there, was seen as such a big jump. No way we could ever - businesses could ever - we're going to go to business. They'll make the same claim for smaller increases. But in fact, then well, let's look at it. What's happened? And study after study after study shows, actually, we see minimal to no employment effect. We see the workers doing significantly better.

And the reason this occurs, that businesses aren't going out of business is that actually, there are a lot of things, and I think we're going to get into this later, that higher wages do that are good for the economy. It, for example, boosts consumption. So you have more more consumers out there for causing businesses to have a reason to invest, having consumers. So I think the debate gets oversimplified about the economic impacts. But really, it's a power question. And in the long run, my view is that these kinds of policies and stronger unions are good for all of society.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs in America with David Madland, who is the senior fellow of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET SONG, "WEATHER REPORT")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Madland, a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, which is an independent, nonpartisan policy institute. We're talking about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs and the union movement in America. Madland is the author of two books, including "Hollowed Out: Why The Economy Doesn't Work Without A Strong Middle Class." And he's written for several publications.

I'm really fascinated in the automotive industry and the shift to electric vehicles. You know, the automotive industry has a strong union, I mean, that has gone through decades and decades of work there. That foundation is strong. What do these union initiatives look like in what is now becoming a new industry? And where are we seeing union movement the most active?

MADLAND: Well, we're seeing a lot of attempts to unionize the electric vehicle components of the auto industry, and that's for a couple of reasons. One is it's seen as the growth and the future of this industry. But also, this is the sort of basic fact that new facilities, especially when these are either done by totally non-union companies, either foreign or domestic, or they're done by these joint ventures - so the traditional unionized employers in the auto industry, Ford, GM, et cetera, will create these joint ventures oftentimes for their new electric vehicles facilities. And those start off as non-union. So it creates - in order to get the good union contract, the workers have to mobilize and engage and say, we want to form a union, we want to bargain a collective agreement.

But there still is some organizing in the existing, you know, internal combustion space. There have been long-standing challenges there. The story is that, you know, in the 1940s, after, you know, decades of fights, the workers succeeded in winning a union at GM and Ford and Chrysler and were able to basically dominate coverage for the industry. And the gains of these union contracts - they had about 100% density in union membership in the core auto industry. And they spread out those gains to the rest of American workers. Academic studies will show this was a key piece of building the middle class throughout all of the United States.

But over time, the industry was far less unionized for a whole bunch of reasons. There was the parts manufacturing got spun off, and that was not necessarily as unionized as the core internal combustion. And then you had foreign competitors coming, who started off non-union, and you had GM and Ford also going to the South, which was traditionally non-union. And so you have that basics, and then this new electric vehicle industry coming. And it's really a question of, is there going to be a future for unions, and more broadly, potentially for the middle class here? And that's why I think you have so much at stake with this electric vehicle facility unionization efforts.

MOSLEY: These factories, though, also look a lot different than traditional automotive factories, too. They're smaller. The jobs are slightly different. Does that pose a challenge for unions in, there's not a workforce that's just going from working in traditional automotive factories to then these electric car factories? Or is there?

MADLAND: Well, the thing you're getting at is that manufacturing is a skilled profession. It takes a lot of training, and especially in these electric vehicle facilities, to be able to do the job right. And so there are certain skills that transfer, but additional training is needed for many of the new jobs. The other thing I think you're getting at is, what happens to - you know, do you need the same number of workers? Because batteries are kind of a simpler - not a simpler technology, but they have less parts than an internal combustion engine. There's the potential for less jobs in these electric vehicle facilities.

And that's - one of the other things that's happening here is there's a question about how much of the work in the whole auto supply chain is going to be done domestically. For recent decades, much of that have been shift offshore. But the Inflation Reduction Act and the like have these domestic content requirements and encourage more onshoring of manufacturing. So while the electric - each individual electric vehicle might require slightly fewer workers, if there's more work coming onshore, there is the potential for even growth amongst the unionized workforce in this sector.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, we're talking to David Madland. He's a senior fellow with the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to David Madland, a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, which is an independent, nonpartisan policy institute. We're talking about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs and the growing union movement in America.

Well, David, let's talk a little bit about the Inflation Reduction Act, which took effect in 2022. The goal was to spur labor and workforce training standards and the transition toward clean energy, among other things. And we've been talking about the automotive industry. I want to talk, for instance, about the lithium-ion battery makers who are opening factories near auto industry hubs in Kentucky, as an example, to serve what is a growing electric vehicle market. Can you give us some other examples of the impact that this act has had?

MADLAND: Yeah. We've been talking, I think, about some of the most obvious ones - that there's investments in manufacturing, construction facilities. But these acts also strongly encourage training, as you were highlighting, and especially training for jobs in growing industries. And to my mind, one of the most important things about the kind of training that the - has been encouraged in these policies has been what's known as apprenticeships.

So in some kinds of training, you just go out, and you pay for it on your own, and you hope there's going to be a job at the other end. In an apprenticeship, you - what you do is you go - you are learning. Well, you're earning while you're learning. You get paid to go to school, and you're also on-the-job training. And this combination of on-the-job training and education and then a good job when you are done really is, to my mind, the best result.

It's not only better for the worker who doesn't have to go into debt and has a good job at the end, but also the quality of the training - because these are typically joint union and company programs - is really good 'cause both of those ensure that the quality is high - the union because they want to ensure that the workers are spending their time well and the company 'cause they're getting their money's worth that they're actually going to have highly productive workers when they're done.

And that's a - you know, a big difference from a lot of these fly-by-night operators in training, the - where, again, the worker's on the hook. And they - you know, you've probably heard a lot of these, you know, horror stories where they take on big debt and they get - they don't get a diploma or they get a diploma that's worthless at the end. And anyway, to my mind, this apprenticeship and the strong push in these bills for that is a big improvement.

MOSLEY: We've been talking about this, but I've also heard a lot of criticism about many of the states winning the race, essentially, for clean energy investment - places like Georgia and Tennessee - but those places appealing to companies because of their business-friendly approach. They're not necessarily employee-friendly because they offer tax incentives to attract these companies. But they're making it really difficult to form unions, which protect folks who are then part of these training programs. What's being done to combat that? Are there efforts aside from these grassroots union efforts to combat that?

MADLAND: Well, the most important, as you were alluding to, are the grassroots efforts of the workers to take control and to put pressure and to try to change the system on the ground. That's quite difficult, but it's sort of essential. I don't think you can have effective policy change without that. But also, there has been some policy that has been helpful.

Sort of the key example is this Blue Bird electric bus facility in Georgia, which was - the workers on the ground had been trying to unionize for maybe a decade and had not been successful. But the money in these federal bills - one of the strings on it was a requirement or a - that the companies state whether they are using any of these funds to prevent workers from unionizing. And that - sort of a little bit of pressure and publicity and - at least according to several publications said that helped give the workers a little bit more boost on their side. And then they succeeded in forming a union after failing for quite - a decade.

And not only that - then a year later, after - and just recently, in the past month, they successfully bargain their first collective bargaining agreement, which is the key 'cause you need - to unionize - if workers - a majority of workers need to say they want a union. But then you have to bargain with the company. That's the real benefit from a union - is this contract that provides higher wages and benefits. And so the Georgia workers at Blue Bird were able to succeed.

And we've seen that in several other cases. The - and much of that actually came from the struggles of the workers themselves. The UAW strike that made so much news - part of the contract negotiations there were to make it easier to organize at some of the new facilities - that the companies would take certain steps to make it a little bit easier. And so those are big moves.

At the same time, what's also happening is these states - these anti-union states like Tennessee have been fighting back and saying, we don't want this. We're afraid that this is a threat to our power structure. And they have passed laws to make it much harder for companies that are receiving government subsidies to allow or support a union. So you have this contrast - a stark contrast between what the workers on the ground are pushing for and what federal policy is pushing, but then some of the Southern states are pushing back. And it's a big question of where it's going to go.

MOSLEY: You've been writing for some time about how a strong middle class is the key to fighting inequality overall. You wrote a whole book about it. Can you say more about your thinking, especially in the context of this conversation, about Biden's economic policy?

MADLAND: Yeah. So the idea behind "Hollowed Out" was that for many, many decades, that most economic policy-making was dominated by what was known as trickle-down economics - that you were going to cut taxes for the rich and cut regulations for business, and that, in theory, would spill down to the rest of the public and they would be better off. It failed. It didn't work. And what I argue is one of the reasons I failed as it really misunderstood the idea of what a middle class is and does and why it's so important.

So the trickle-down theory was that eventually you're going to get a strong middle class out of all this economic growth that we're going to create, which neither didn't happen. But instead, I think the better way to view the middle class is not just a good outcome, but it's really a core component of future economic growth. And because what the middle class does is when you have a strong middle class, they can consume goods, and that encourages new businesses to invest, and that helps create this virtuous cycle. That's the reason - really reason businesses invest. It's not just from tax cuts and the like. You need consumers there so that they can have sustainable profits.

The other things that a strong middle class does is it makes government function better. It - the middle class has more power to make government do the things that are in the general public's interest. When the middle class is weak, the extreme elite dominate, and politicians do their bidding. And so you get things like tax cuts for the wealthy instead of real investments that are good for the American public.

The third thing that a strong middle class does is it creates a better culture of trust in society that people feel others are more like them. Instead, we have an extremely unequal society now where we're highly polarized and we don't trust others. We don't think they're like us, but when we're stronger middle class, do you think more people share similar values, which not only is just a nicer, easier, better place to be, it makes your democracy work better because people can cross party lines and do business with each other that way, but also makes business easier because you are less likely to lawyer up and think the worst of the other company. Instead you're more likely to actually want to engage with them and do business. And this is essential to how you make businesses more efficient.

Then the last thing that a stronger middle class does is it helps take advantage of all the talents in the population. When you have extreme inequality, you have less investment and less outcomes for the rest of the public. Education suffers, but also even things like new business formations. Most new businesses come from people with kind of a middle-class level of wealth. The extreme wealthy don't need to start a business. They can just throw some investments on their own. But you need some wealth to be able to start a business. If you're broke, no one's going to loan you money. It's this little bit of wealth that really helps, and you get more of that when you have a stronger middle class.

MOSLEY: David Madland, thank you so much for this conversation.

MADLAND: Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.

MOSLEY: David Madland is a senior fellow and adviser to the American Worker Pr oject at the Center for American Progress. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner about her new novel, which explores wealth and family trauma, or with investigative journalist Richard Behar about his new book about Bernie Madoff and the biggest financial scandal in American history, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to find out what's happening behind the scenes of our show, and get our producers' recommendations for what to watch, read, and listen to, subscribe to our free newsletter at whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW")

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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