New to the Seattle area, Professor Jacob Grumbach is an addition to the University of Washington Department of Political Science as an Assistant Professor, as well as a Faculty Associate with the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. Professor Grumbach's research focuses broadly on the political economy of the United States. He is particularly interested in public policy, American federalism, racial capitalism, campaign finance, and statistical methods. His book project, based on his award-winning dissertation, investigates the causes and consequences of the nationalization of state politics since the 1970s
Professor Grumbach’s paper on labor unions and racism, “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics” with Paul Frymer, was recently accepted into the American Journal of Political Science.
Outside of academia, Grumbach is an avid fan of 70s funk/soul and 90s hip hop and the Golden State Warriors. Follow Grumbach on Twitter @JakeMGrumbach
What is the focus of your research? Why?
I do a few different things, but how I’d summarize it is public policy and American political economy with a focus on racial and economic inequality. My dad was a family doctor in San Francisco, where I grew up, and his patients were often uninsured and low income. It was very clear from a young age how problematic the US’s healthcare system was compared to other countries, and that was one [reason]. The second is how luck and these sorts of things determine so much of peoples’ ability to get healthcare, so that became a main way I started thinking about it.
At first I was thinking about studying health policy specifically, but then realized that the problems in U.S. health policy are very similar to problems in other areas, like energy and climate policy, taxes, and the welfare state more broadly. Most domestic policy in the U.S. is affected by the same problems, which are unequal influence and democracy. Groups that make money off of the existing system really don’t want to change it in a way that makes it better for everybody.
What are you looking forward to in being a faculty associate with the Harry Bridges Center?
I did my PhD at the University of Berkeley which has a good labor center, but the Bridges Center is especially awesome. On my side it brings together a bunch of scholars and researchers that are doing cool things across different departments in ways that really matter for working people, so it’s great for bouncing ideas and generating new knowledge across these disciplines in ways that are pretty rare.
Then, the ability to bring together rank and file and people on the ground in the labor movement along with this. At my workshare [presenting my forthcoming journal article], people from the labor movement and shop stewards came and brought great insights for my own work on how this actually works in practice -- labor and race, in that particular case -- but hopefully my research can also help them.
Same thing with the grants for undergraduates and graduate students. This is my first year here, but I went to the Awards Banquet and it was really awesome to see undergraduates and graduate students doing amazing projects of all types. Learning about the history of longshore work and organizing in Seattle, organizing around Boeing, [and] organizing around cannery workers. It's very cool to see East and Southeast Asian elements of Seattle’s labor movement history. It’s great to have this organization that brings all these people together and makes our voices much louder collectively.
Can you tell me more about your grandfather and his relation to labor?
[My grandfather] started a newspaper called The Michigan Chronicle. He was an afro-cuban guy who was in Savannah, Georgia. He met my grandma, an African-American woman in Savannah, and they moved up first to Michigan. This is hazy history, but I’m pretty sure he got into Wayne State University in Detroit, and became a civil rights and labor journalist. He started this newspaper called The Michigan Chronicle -- which was a small black newspaper -- and then became the editor of the Chicago Defender, which was a famous black newspaper in the country. He was really focused on movements around integrating labor unions.
This was the moment the Democratic Party was fusing together its alignment with labor unions and with civil rights activists. So, in a place like Chicago, which was kind of a union town… integrating labor unions, black postal workers unions, teachers who were unionized -- things like that really reduced the racial wealth gap, and created, for a while, an interracial labor movment that was powerful and shaped the Democratic Party. Unions like the UAW, which are big in the midwest, ended up being a proponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and marching with Martin Luther King, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
My grandfather was writing articles and being an editor in ways that were trying to help that process move along. There would be some AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, with Hubert Humphrey and also black civil rights activists, and there would be articles about these sorts of conventions, and criticizing southern Democrats who were segregationists, who were both anti-labor union and anti-civil rights. So it was a fascinating time.
Did that influence your interest in labor?
He had a stroke when I was really young, but that’s a big part of my family history. My grandma was an amazing activist in her own right and ghost-wrote a lot of the articles, we imagine. She and I were very close, and she died when she was 100. That entire family legacy definitely did play a role in my interest in [labor].
Why should we be looking into the relation between race and labor? Why does it matter?
A lot of reasons. One is that one of the fundamental challenges for building social democracy in the U.S., something more like a Northern European system of universal healthcare [with] strong unemployment insurance, universal childcare, stronger public education -- a lot of the things that the labor movement is focused on -- is the power of big business and plutocratic interest. Another is that those plutocratic interests can really exploit racism among the mass public. It’s the classic thing, powerful interests use racial conflict to divide ordinary people. W.E.B. Du Bois calls that the psychological “wage of whiteness,” essentially. Powerful interests, big business, mass level opposition to difference, and racism can make white workers feel weirdly wealthier than they are. It can make them feel better than black people and people of color more broadly, and that can prevent them from joining an interracial movement so that everybody would be better off. And everybody would be better off, including those white workers. We see that in the Trump era where he’s able to implement a tax cut agenda to benefit billionaires while still keeping his white working-class base.
Have you been involved in labor activism in the past?
Not enough, so I always give a ton of credit to the real organizers. It’s such a tough job and they’re in a lot of ways morally superior to me, y’know. I think research is really important, but I give it all up to the organizers on the ground who do the hard work. I have interned with UNITE-HERE Local 2 in San Francisco, which was a great experience. And I have participated in a lot of social movements over the years relating often to economic justice and campaigns for universal healthcare, and things like that. We all could be doing more, I’m just so impressed with especially the new generation of organizers who have so much energy. Gotta give it up to them.
What would be your dream class to teach in labor studies?
I’m looking forward to doing an Introduction to Labor Studies type of course that’s broad. Mine would be, given my research background, a more public policy focused class, and one on the incentives facing movements. I’m a political scientist, so I draw a lot on economics as a discipline and, interestingly, economics has been considered a sort of conservative discipline that's not friendly to the labor movement. But times have changed and there’s a new generation of economists and political scientists who are quantitative and draw on economics, like me, that are focused on the importance of the labor movement and building a better economy for everybody.
My class would be on things like incentives toward collective action. What are the challenges and ways that groups like labor unions, especially, can organize effectively? Also, public policy in the U.S., how labor policy works, and policies around the welfare state. Take something like U.S. health policy. Labor unions negotiate over health benefits and contracts, so that’s central to understanding labor in the U.S. Additionally, what would be unique about my labor studies class is a focus on how policy works for workers around different levels of government: local, state, and federal. There is a lot of authority for state governments, and that poses a challenge for labor and may give some benefits to corporations and the wealthy, and pushing back against labor movement policies.