Sharryn Kasmir, Hofstra University
Photo: Youth leaders of the March Against White Supremacy address protesters on July 8, 2020, in front of City Hall, Reading, Pennsylvania.
What are the prospects for a left alignment in the United States? Whether or not the left in the United States will be able to advance effective struggle and wield power at this critical juncture in our history depends on political capacity in the form of concrete organizations, coalitions, and programs. To address the question in a meaningful way, it is important to consider examples of left alliances in specific regions of the United States.
Reading, Pennsylvania (the county seat of Berks County) and suburban and rural Berks— areas I have studied for more than two and a half years—offer such examples. After decades of deindustrialization and the decline of labor union power in the region, local organizing has created new political and social movement groups. These groups have built alliances and a movement infrastructure that have survived uncertain political circumstances and grown amid the trifold capitalist crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, economic shock, and structural racism. The recent trajectory of progressive political capacity in both Reading and Berks County, including the consolidation of a radical reformist position, offers a window on trends nationwide.1
About Reading and Berks
Reading is a rust-belt city of row homes and red brick factories and warehouses. While many industrial buildings are abandoned, some still house light manufacturing. More than one-third of Reading’s population currently lives below the poverty line. Large downtown storefronts are vacant, despite repeated attempts to revitalize the business district since the 1950s. Yet small corner shops, restaurants, and bodegas energize commercial life, testifying to the fact that immigrants have revived the city. Reading (population 88,000) is ringed by working- and middle-class suburbs, and a few miles beyond those residential developments are the farms and rural towns of Berks County (population 421,000.)
Reading reliably votes Democratic, whereas the whiter and wealthier surrounding areas lean Republican. Berks helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, and Pennsylvania was a key battleground state for the 2020 elections. This political division manifests economic and social disparities among urban, suburban, and rural Berks that were exacerbated from the mid- twentieth century.
Reading is majority Latinx (officially 66.5 percent, but likely closer to 70 percent) with a substantial immigrant population (20 percent foreign-born). Its African-American community is small (9-12 percent). Beginning in the 1960s, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans migrated to Reading. Some had left New York City, especially after the 1980s, when they were displaced by gentrification of their working-class neighborhoods. Others came directly to what was an increasingly Spanish-speaking area.2 Berks County, on the contrary, is majority white, non-Latinx (70 per- cent). Latinx (22 percent) and African- Americans (7 percent) are minority groups in the county. Reading’s poverty rate is triple that of Berks County as a whole.
Reading had been a stronghold of the Socialist Party of America from the 1920s through the 1940s. Socialists won the Reading mayoralty three times from 1927 to 1944 and sent a representative to the State House in the 1930s. They were closely tied to the labor movement, especially to the cigar-makers’ union. Importantly, they nurtured a political and cultural network that linked city and county. But they lost position after the 1930s, first when Roosevelt’s New Deal won over working-class voters to the Democratic Party and second when the Socialist Party split in 1936. Finally, support for the Socialist Party was eroded by Cold War cultural initiatives aimed at changing hearts and minds.3 The urban–rural connections established by the Socialist Party were consequently undermined. The Party officially disbanded in 1962.
The city’s population steadily declined over the twentieth century, and the historical trajectories of Reading and its surrounding suburban and rural environs increasingly diverged. In 1930, the predominantly white working-class population of 110,000 was employed by the Reading Railroad, Berkshire hosiery mills, cigar-making shops, and dozens of metal working and textile factories. Capital flight, first of heavy industry and then of textiles, eroded the city’s industrial base and its union density from the 1930s. The construction of highways and suburbs after World War II further drew industry and workers from the urban center. By 1980, Reading’s population had fallen to a low of seventy-eight thousand; those who remained were on the whole poorer than those who left for the suburbs. The suspension of Reading Railroad passenger service in 1981 widened a growing economic, social, and political gulf between the city and the county.
The area has endured capital flight, especially from the 1990s, as large industrial employers shuttered factories. Powerful industrial unions, most notably United Steelworkers (USW) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), consequently lost membership and position. When automotive partsmanufacturerDanaCorporationclosedits Reading plant, thousands of USW jobs were lost. AT&T’s sale to Lucent Technologies in the mid-1980s meant the immediate elimination of 2,500 union positions; 2,400 remaining workers, most represented by IBEW, faced waves of restructuring, downsizing, and layoffs until the new parent company shut the Reading operation in 2003. Union workers at Hofmann tubing and valve manufacturing in the Berks suburb of Sinking Springs were locked out in 2011 after the USW rejected a proposed 60 percent wage cut. Although workers maintained a picket line outside Hofmann’s gate for years, they did not win back their jobs. Decades of setbacks, plant closures, and punishing defeats beleaguered organized labor in the region. Today, shop- based organizing in Reading/Berks is an uphill battle—workplaces are dispersed, immigrant workers are vulnerable, and unions have been on the defensive for decades.
While the whole county has been affected by the decline in manufacturing, the city of Reading has been harder hit than suburban and rural Berks by the loss of employers, union jobs, and tax base. Capital abandonment cut an irregular path across Berks County, and it deepened the demographic, economic, and political divide between different areas of the county. On this uneven ground, seeded by decades of deindustrialization and progressive differentiation, Trump’s right-wing populism, racism, and anti-immigrant crusade intensified longstanding animosities and conflicts. Yet his presidency also fostered new alliances across ethnicity and race; immigration status; and urban, suburban, and rural environments.
Activist Organizations in Reading and Berks
Since 2016, a growing left in Reading/Berks has been based in three social movement organizations: Make the Road Reading, Indivisible Berks/Berks Stands Up, and the Sunrise Movement. Each of these groups is a branch of a national organization, involved in wider coalitions that address different constituencies, which are themselves diverse. The three local organizations come together in Berks to cooperate on issue-specific campaigns, to co-sponsor events and protests, and to undertake canvassing and get out the vote during elections. All participate in Shut Down Berks, an immigrants’ rights coalition that has fought for years to close a family detention center, operated through a contract between Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the county (at a price of $200 a day per bed). The health risks associated with Covid-19 made the release of Berks detainees more urgent than ever.
Make the Road Reading opened its doors in 2014 to serve Latinx and immigrant working people. Its nonprofit parent organization (founded in 1996 in New York City) has chapters in five states that organize for immigrant rights, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and mobilizing Latinx electoral power. Indivisible emerged in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, when Democratic congressional staffers put together a playbook for taking back power in Washington, D.C. Indivisible groups were quickly formed across the United States. Two white suburban women started a Berks chapter.4 Gearing up for 2020 elections and with the goal of electing progressive local candidates and defeating Donald Trump, Indivisible Berks joined the statewide dues-paying, membership-based Pennsylvania Stands Up. Berks Stands Up members are mostly (although not exclusively) white middle-income suburbanites who fight for health care for all, affordable prescription drugs, and the accountability of county and state legislators. The Berks hub (chapter) of the national climate change organization Sunrise Movement was launched in 2017. Its members are young, multiracial activists, who support the Green New Deal. Sunrise also organizes students on college campuses in Berks.
Racial justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 strengthened some groups in Reading’s minority African- American community. This energized and broadened the left political field. In a city that did not have a Black Lives Matter chapter, a team of four young African Americans who created the DearReading podcast, took on a prominent educational role in issues of structural racism and police brutality. Young people, many who were new to political activism, mounted protests and marches. Arts organizations and LGBTQ+ identified people joined them in the streets, and young women formed Decolonize Reading to oppose the city’s Christopher Columbus statue. Overlapping memberships, personal relationships, and jointly sponsored events have connected these recent developments to each other and to the three more established groups. Their combined efforts have strengthened a progressive social field since 2016.
The Revival of May Day
In the United States, May Day was reinvigorated by immigrant rights groups in 2006 when they staged a national “day without immigrants” action.5 May Day had not been celebrated in Reading for decades—not since the Socialists led festivities. Make the Road reintroduced the holiday in Reading in 2017. In 2019, Make the Road’sorganizerscampaignedforweeksprior to May Day, soliciting owners of immigrant- and Latinx-owned bodegas, markets, restaurants, and nail salons to shut from 10:00 a.m. to noon in solidarity with a scheduled march and rally. One hundred fifty-three businesses pledged solidarity and displayed Make the Road May Day signs in their front windows.
On May Day 2019, people marched through downtown streets, holding placards and banners announcing several groups and causes. Though organized labor was not the driving force for May Day, it left its traces nonetheless. Make the Road members called for a doubling of the $7.25 per hour Pennsylvania state minimum wage. They were joined by Latinx shop owners, middle-class members of Indivisible Berks, and Sunrise climate activists who carried a Shut Down Berks Coalition banner. The president of the United Labor Council and two representatives of the healthcare union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spoke for organized labor. In contrast, the historic industrial unions USW and IBEW were absent, a fact that spoke to their loss of membership and the hollowing out of industry.
With his presence, the Labor Council president signaled his readiness to embrace new organizational actors and leaders and to keep the labor movement in the mix. Some of the new leaders, including Sunrise members, come from labor-identified homes, where union membership shaped family values. They see the Green New Deal as a vehicle for promoting union jobs. Many Make the Road members from the Dominican Republic recall a wave of industrial actions and general strikes in their home country in the late 1980s. The Fight for $15 is the product of a national-level effort that joins unions and social movements, including the SEIU and the coalition Movement for Black Lives.
Although the May Day turnout was modest in size, its notable diversity points to the formidable work of building a heterogenous left in Reading/Berks and to the incipient solidarities this effort implies. This alliance took another form weeks later, during the race for Berks County Commissioner.
The County commissioner race in May 2019 was especially consequential. Three commissioners manage the county budget, preside over publicly owned facilities, and have sole discretion over the ICE contract for the Berks immigrant family detention center. Thus, a simple majority of two votes would suffice to suspend that contract. Two moderates won the Democratic primary. After a persistent lobbying campaign by activists, these candidates agreed to oppose the ICE contract. Sunrise and Indivisible Berks endorsed both of the two winning Democrats and went to work for their campaigns in the general election. Make the Road, on the contrary, withheld support from one of these primary winners—a suburbanite whom they felt was out of touch with the city’s Latinx population—while endorsing the other primary winner, a Reading councilwoman. In the end, the councilwoman lost the general election, whereas the candidate rejected by Make the Road prevailed. As a result, Democrats failed to secure the two-vote majority they needed to close the detention center. Some activists were crushed by the defeat; there were harsh words and hard feelings among Sunrise, Make the Road, and Indivisible leaders, as blame for the loss was exchanged among them.
Some weeks later, the groups mended fences, and all three backed Bernie Sanders in the Pennsylvania presidential primary. Together, they have continued efforts to close the detention center. They held vigils and late-night disturbances at commissioners’ homes and were vocal at county meetings. When Covid-19 struck, these actions went virtual. Three things stand out about activists’ involvement in the commissioner race and electoral politics.
First, young Sunrise members were deeply committed to an unglamorous race, long overlooked except by party faithful and readily described as “unsexy” by their older allies. They plainly demonstrated their dedication to a strategy of effecting change through electoral work. This turn toward electoral work is noteworthy and reflects a broader national trend,notableinthecandidacyofDemocratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. The Sanders campaign won significant electoral victories in primaries in both 2016 and 2020, and it becameachannelforamoretransformational social vision, at the same time as it convinced many that actively contesting power in the two-party electoral arena was both necessary and possible.
Second, the political weight of the left coalition in Reading/Berks was on full display. Make the Road, Sunrise, and Indivisible Berks/Berks Stands Up are hardworking and proved effective at registering voters, canvassing, door- knocking, phone-banking, and getting out the vote. Although the Democrats did not win the two commissioner seats, the race itself showed the on-the-ground person power of these progressive groups. Their pro bono work was a significant resource for modestly funded races and brought with it increased influence for the coalition. Tellingly, candidates for State Assembly and Congress actively pursued their support in 2020.
Third, the organizations stayed the course of their alliance, even in the face of tactical and ideological disagreements that strained personal and political relationships. Collectively, they went on to create innovative organizational forms, such the Berks Mutual Aid initiative to deliver food to needy Berks residents. They responded together to racial justice mobilizing by co-sponsoring demonstrations and virtual panels on police defunding.
Radicalization and Increasingly Bold Agendas
The three activist groups in Reading/Berks pursued increasingly bold agendas, in conjunction with a steadfast commitment to electoral work. As a tactical matter, Indivisible Berks ended its affiliation with its national Indivisible parent in January 2020 and became the Berks chapter of Pennsylvania Stands Up. In doing so, its intention was to be more effective in regional electoral politics and to benefit from the institutional might and resources of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a statewide coalition that set out to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 and to promote progressive local- and state-level candidates across Pennsylvania’s diverse counties. Coincident with its new identity, the leadership of Berks Stand Up became more multiracial, younger, and politically bold. As evidence of the change, the new executive team urged a primary endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
Months later, Berks Stands Up publicly issued a statement supporting the Movement for Black Lives and the agenda to defund the police and to invest in Black and brown communities. The statement, posted on Facebook by a young executive board member, sparked a controversy. Some members objected to the word “defund,” proposing alternate language, whereas others felt it was not the group’s place to revise the Black Lives Matter message. The exchange became heated, but—despite the fray—Berks Stands Up continued to advocate for police defunding and to co-sponsor racial justice protests.
Radicalization also came in the form of education. Shortly after Pennsylvania’s pandemic stay-at-home order was issued in March, the Sunrise Berks hub hosted a week-long training online. Hub leaders taught history, political theory, and organizing techniques. Much of the training was based on new understandings—that deficit spending and fiscal stimulus were good and necessary and that the Green New Deal is a natural outcome of shifts in progressive thinking. To make these points, Sunrise trainers looked back to the Roosevelt New Deal era to bolster the case for an intellectual and policy framework that considers the federal government an active agent of redistribution. They recalled two New Deal programs in particular: the Works Progress Administration’s investment in jobs and infrastructure and the Civilian Conservation Corps’ tree-planting campaign.
One two-hour session addressed Reading’s socialist history, an inheritance that had been erased from popular memory. In reclaiming this history, hub trainers argued that if local politics had once been transformative, they could be again. Given the long silence regarding socialism—not just in Reading/Berks but in the nation as a whole—it is of real consequence that connections between past and present organizing are being explored in the current moment.
Racial Justice and Black-led Organizations
When I began studying Reading/Berks in 2017, there were few Black-led social movement organizations in the area. Reading had an NAACP chapter, comprised mainly of older people, many of whom live outside of the city. The chapter sponsored candidate forums, hosted an annual Juneteenth celebration, and did charitable work in the community. But there was no local Black Lives Matter chapter in Reading or other similar organization to cultivate young activists.
The Black community’s ability to exercise power was partly limited by its small size—it never reached more than12 percent of the population in Reading—and because the community dispersed when working- and middle-class African-Americans left the city for suburban locations as housing markets opened to them after the 1960s. Capital abandonment, urban disinvestment, and poverty beset those who remained in the city. Structural racism and the presence of white hate groups in Berks also played a role in hindering political organizing. In 1969, for example, the House of Soul social center for Black youth, sponsored by the Reading YMCA, was shut down after a white motorcycle gang incited street violence among young people gathered there for an event. These combined forces stalled nascent Black activism in the 1960s and took their toll on the churches and clubs that had earlier nurtured Black community life.6
Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020 sparked activism that brought hundreds to the streets in urban and suburban Berks. These demonstrations announced a new core of youthful, Black leaders, including two young women who organized a well-attended march and barbecue in Reading’s City Park. Two other young women founded Decolonize Reading, with the goal of inaugurating a Black- led youth organization to confront the twin forces of racism and colonialism. They focused on the city’s Columbus memorial, at a moment when monuments to Confederate officers and slave traders were toppled in England and the United States, and the symbolic control of public space was in the national news. While these initiatives are embryonic, they indicate possibilities for Black-led organizations and for a multiracial political movement in Reading/Berks.
Additional developments are noteworthy. Make the Road, Sunrise Berks, and Berks Stands Up co-sponsored a march against white supremacy that broadcast three main demands: defunding the police, shutting the Berks detention center, and removing the Columbus statue from City Park. Speakers testified to painful personal experiences of discrimination against dark-skinned Latinx people. They recounted harassment by the Reading police, read words written by Berks immigration center detainees, and reflected on the Columbus statue’s glorification of colonialism in a city filled with people from the Caribbean and Central America, whose homelands had been ravaged by European expansion. In the process, the voices of community members were heard, raising concerns about racism, economic displacement, the exploitation of immigrant workers, symbolic violence, and police brutality.
When activist groups respond as a collective presence, as they did during the Reading march against white supremacy, they can present a more thoroughgoing social critique than when individual organizations mobilize their own base around their own particular issue. Ultimately, a unified collective agenda would require the development of a systemic critique of capitalism as well as an analysis of structural inequality and an articulation of a broad class- based politics. While no such synthesis was forthcoming on the occasion of that protest, its appearance in the future was imaginable.
Prospects for the Left in the United States
A mounting triple crisis—the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, and structural racism—amplifies long-standing capitalist contradictions. It also opens new ground for struggle. During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the left lacked dynamism and a well-defined unifying project with which to respond. It failed to capture the populist energies generated by the Great Recession. Trump’s right-wing and anti-immigrant authoritarianism, as well as his white nationalism, came on the heels of that failure. But in 2020, the left has built new organizations and alliances. Modest but nonetheless important gains like those in Reading/Berks provide some foundation for a movement for progressive structural change. It is important neither to overstate the progress nor to minimize the challenges of uniting divided social groups—rural, suburban, and urban; racial and ethnic; immigrants and native-born. Nonetheless, in Reading/Berks, there is progress toward a heterogeneous left alignment. Developments there include growing alliances among social movement groups and new Black-led organizations. They also include a commitment to electoral politics and increasingly radical positions on social and political issues.
As this article goes to print, the 2020 presidential election results are only days old: Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the popular vote and enough electoral college votes to become the 46th President and Vice President of the United States. Notwithstanding this outcome, support for Trump was substantial; nationwide, over seventy million people cast their ballots for him.
Biden won by more than eighty thousand votes in Pennsylvania. In Reading/Berks, there was a 2 percent increase in Democratic votes over 2016. This is hardly a resounding victory; here as elsewhere in the country, capturing populist energy proved particularly challenging. Nevertheless, it shows the hard work done by the progressive coalition in Reading/Berks.
In Pennsylvania and other battleground states, social movement groups rightly claim their share of credit for the Democratic victory. As a result, they feel emboldened to pursue a progressive agenda and demand legislative gains. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Berks Stands Up, Sunrise Movement Berks, and Make the Road Reading organized local rallies to protect the vote, and they made known that a Biden administration would merely set the stage for four years of struggle. The groundwork for a strong left coalition is there, but prospects for success hang in the balance in a region and country that remain divided.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
- Sharryn Kasmir, “Prospects for Left Politics in the United States amid Coronavirus and Capitalist Crisis.” FocaalBlog, available at http://www.focaalblog.com/2020/04/21/ sharryn-kasmir-prospects-for-left-politics- in-the-united-states-amid-coronavirus-and- capitalist-crisis/#more-2815. Fieldwork was carried out in conjunction with “Frontlines: Class, Value, and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism,” with funds from the Bergen Research Foundation, the Government of Norway, and the University of Bergen. Hofstra University also provided research support.
- Mark E. Reisinger, “Latinos in Berks County, PA: Migration, Settlement, and Employment,” Pennsylvania Geographer 43, no. 2 (2005):95-118. See also Ismael Garcia Colon’s excellent historical ethnography of Puerto Rican farm migration to the continental United States after 1947, Colonial Migrants at the Heart of Empire: Puerto Rican Workers on U.S. Farms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020).
- Americans for Competitive Enterprise System (ACES) and the Chamber of Commerce tested a program in Reading High School to garner students’ favor toward business. In addition to pro-business curriculum in the classroom, working-class male students were taken to country clubs to learn table etiquette and to form personal connections with business leaders. See Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, “Business Propaganda in the Schools: Labor’s Struggle against the Americans for the Competitive Enterprise System, 1949-1954,” History of Education Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2000): 255- 78. On the Reading Socialists: Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr, “The Socialist Administration in Reading, Pennsylvania, Part I, 1927-1931,” Pennsylvania History 39, no. 4 (October 1972): 417-42. Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr, “Triumph and Disaster: The Reading Socialists in Power and Decline,” Pennsylvania History 40, no. 4 (October 1973): 38-411. Henry Stetler, “The Reading Socialist Experience: A Study of Working Class Politics” (PhD diss., University Microfilms, 1970). Henry Stetler, The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania, 1896- 1936 (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974).
- Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy after Trump (New York: Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2019). Leah Gose and Theda Skocpol, “Resist, Persist, and Transform: The Emergence and Impact of Grassroots Resistance Groups Opposing the Trump Presidency,” unpublished paper.
- Steve Striffler, “The Left, Labour, and the Future of U.S. Radicalism: The Struggle for Immigrant Rights,” New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry 7, no. 1 (2014): 6-15.
- Penn State Berks, “Through the Eyes of Local African Americans: Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement in Reading and Berks,” available at https://sites.psu.edu/localhistories/ books/african-american/. Don Robotham argues that deindustrialization hit Black working-class communities earlier and harder than it did white populations. See Don Robotham, “Populism and Its Others: After Neoliberalism,” in Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism, ed. Jeff Maskovsky and Sophie Bjork-James (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2020), pp. 11-23.Author BiographySharryn Kasmir is chair and professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University and researcher with “Frontlines: Class, Value, and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism,” Bergen University, Norway. She is co-editor of Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor (Berghahn, 2014).