What does it mean to be working class?
A multilingual voting sign at the entrance of a polling station in Takoma Park, Md., on November 8, 2016. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

I remember her as a slight white woman with grey hair wearing a faded black cardigan.

She had just cast her ballot and headed for the exit. I thought of all the 80- and 90-year-old women who would be casting their ballots across the country, many of them happy to be voting for the first woman heading a major party presidential ticket. My heart warmed thinking of these elderly women, many of whom were born when women were banned from voting.

She turned to me and began to speak. My mind started hearing, “I’ve waited all my life to vote for a woman.”

But what she said was, “I don’t appreciate my ballot having Spanish on it.”

I just stared both from surprise and from a desire to show I did not agree. “They come here, they should learn English,” she continued.

Again, I stared, but this time the surprise subsided and anger took its place. When she did not get any agreement from me, she said, “Well I just wanted to register that.”

“Consider it registered,” I finally said and turned my back on her.


Later that day, my fellow election judge, a retired detective named Roman, had to assist a Spanish-speaking voter with her ballot. Roman doesn’t speak Spanish but the other judge who assisted this voter did. When judges have to help a voter, there have to be two of them – one Democrat and one Republican. Roman was the Republican judge.

The voter was a young woman, maybe Mexican – maybe in her 30s, with two young school age children by her side. Chicago ballots can be confusing. You have to draw a line from the tip to the end of an arrow next to the candidate of your choice. Although there are directions in Spanish and English, the ballot was long because it included judges, Metropolitan Water District commissioners and a number of other obscure offices.

Plus, there was a second ballot with a constitutional amendment and a number of public questions like fund equity for Chicago Public Schools and paid sick leave.

After the woman finished voting, an affidavit had to be signed by the judges and the voter. I stood next to the ballot box as she fed the two ballots, one at a time, into its thin jaws. I said congratulations and take care. She said haltingly, “It’s my birthday today.” I said, “Terrific. Felicidades,” and gave her the “I voted today” bracelet and one for each of her kids, a popular item among kids of all ages. Especially this election. She smiled, took the bracelet and then her kids’ hands and left.

Roman said something was fishy. “She needed help but she spoke English. Something’s not right.”

I said, “Roman, give me a break. I can say hello, goodbye and thank you in five languages but that doesn’t mean I’m fluent in them.” He remained silent.

Later, I told him it was just his detective nature kicking in. I wanted to keep things on a friendly footing. He told me to help myself to the pizza.

Seeing hate all around

Last month I interviewed a classmate for a news writing assignment. She had gone to the most famous Trump rally that never happened – the one in Chicago last spring – which Trump cancelled due to protests. I asked her about the experience and she told me her entire story. She said that they were told they weren’t welcome, that it wasn’t Mexico.

“And the funny thing is that my family isn’t Mexican, my family is Guatemalan. And, um, my friend is from Pakistan and he didn’t even look Hispanic,” she said in the interview. She said she had gone on behalf of her friends who were undocumented and felt they could not go, worried that they could be arrested and cause huge problems for their families.

She also said something that has haunted me since. After sitting next to a kindergarten teacher in the Chicago Public Schools whose 10-year-old daughter was happy to be there because Trump would make her safe, my classmate said she was shocked at the hate and anger coming from ordinary people.

“These are people you would not expect are Trump supporters,” she said. “These people are all around us and we don’t even know it.”

Class, class, class?

There is a battle now to understand the Rust Belt white working class vote. Did they vote based on class issues? Based on racial animus? Based on misogyny-filled Hillary-hatred?

Writing an op-ed, “Where the Democrats go from here” in The New York Times, Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “Millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own.”

He said that Trump won because he “tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.”

Really? Well, the lady at the poll I worked as a judge was angry. And given that it was in blue, blue Chicago, I would say she was a traditional Democrat. But her anger wasn’t pointed at “wealthy and corporate interests.” She was mad about Spanish being on the ballot.

These kinds of stories of scapegoating others for the unfair economic and political system are everywhere. Like this forklift driver from Zanesville, Ohio, who voted for Obama twice, told The New York Times that she didn’t vote for Hillary because “it would be four more years of nothing getting done.” She said entitlements were a “big deal” for her because she has worked hard and never gotten a handout.

“But there are so many people who live off that their whole life,” she said. “I would say (people of color are fearful now) because they’re not going to get their entitlements. They’re probably afraid they’re going to lose their green card, or whatever they have going to get a free load with.”

Folks, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

By focusing on white economic distress only, without regard to the freedoms that non-whites and women of all races are not allowed to participate in, the so-called teaching moment of, for and by the working class will be lost. (Condemning all Trump voters as irredeemable with an elitist, holier than thou attitude won’t cut it either.)

After all, the Rust Belt is full of Black voters who are really feeling economic and social distress – Gary, Ind., Detroit, Mich., Youngstown, Ohio, to name a few places that have sizeable Black populations. Did they vote for Trump? Were these Black Rust Belt voters among the “millions of Americans” Sanders said defined as voting against the current political and economic system? By and large, no.

Unity, unity, unity

We – as in left, progressive, labor and social justice activists – are going to have to get better at integrating class, race, gender and democratic issues. When you say, “It’s the economy, stupid,” it seems to disregard that democratic issues like pay equity, education, gun violence and police crimes, and reproductive rights are part of the economy.

That the mayors of the nation’s three largest cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – stood up for their sanctuary status is an economic issue. Immigrants do all sorts of jobs that make the economy run. They pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes – sale taxes, payroll taxes, Social Security taxes. Cities are economic engines for entire regions.

Come on people, you all are creative and much smarter than I am. Make the arguments. Connect the dots. Speaking more than one language is an economic issue. It’s also a democratic right. Whether that voter in her black cardigan agrees or not, in order to have economic security we have to have democracy for all. It’s like gravity. It just is. We have to deal with it.


Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.