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September 22, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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Two major stories today seem to bring together both the past and the future of the country to chart a way forward.

The first involves a historic workers’ strike. A week ago, on Friday, September 15, after workers’ four-year contracts expired, the United Auto Workers union declared a limited and targeted work stoppage in which about 13,000 workers walked off the job at three Midwestern auto plants. For the first time in history, those walkouts included all three major automakers: workers left a General Motors plant in Missouri, a Stellantis (which includes Chrysler) plant in Ohio, and a Ford plant in Michigan. 

Workers accepted major concessions in 2007, when it appeared that auto manufacturers would go under. They agreed to accept a two-tier pay system in which workers hired after 2007 would have lower pay and worse benefits than those hired before 2007. But then the industry recovered, and automakers’ profits skyrocketed: Ford, for example, made more than $10 billion in profits in 2022.

Automakers’ chief executive officers’ pay has soared—GM CEO Mary Barra made almost $29 million in 2022—but workers’ wages and benefits have not. Barra, for example, makes 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck, while autoworkers’ pay has fallen behind inflation by 19%. 

The new UAW president, Shawn Fain, ran on a promise to demand a rollback of the 2007 concessions in this summer’s contract negotiations. He wants a cap on temporary workers, pay increases of more than 40% to match the salary increases of the CEOs, a 32-hour workweek, cost of living adjustments, and an elimination of the tier system. 

But his position is not just about autoworkers; it is about all U.S. workers. “Our fight is not just for ourselves but for every worker who is being undervalued, for every retiree who’s given their all and feels forgotten, and for every future worker who deserves a fair chance at a prosperous life,” Fain said. “[W]e are all fed up of living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us continue to just scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed. And together, we’re going to fight to change it.”

Fain has withheld an endorsement for President Biden out of concern that the transition to electric vehicles, which are easier to build than gas-powered vehicles, will hurt union jobs, and out of anger that the administration has offered incentives to non-union plants. That criticism created an opening for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to announce he would visit Detroit next week to show autoworkers that he has “always had their back,” in hopes of winning back the support of Rust Belt states.

But for all his talk of being pro-worker, Trump recently attacked Fain, saying “The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.” Autoworkers note that Trump and the justices he put on the Supreme Court have been anti-union, and that he packed the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor laws and union elections, with officials who reduced the power of workers to organize. Before he left office, Trump tried to burrow ten anti-labor activists into the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the panel in charge of resolving disputes between unions and federal agencies when they cannot resolve issues in negotiations. 

Fain recently said: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.” 

President Biden prides himself on his pro-union credentials, and as soon as he took office, he fired Trump’s burrowed employees, prompting the head of the union representing 700,000 federal employees to thank Biden for his attempt to “restore basic fairness for federal workers.” He said, “The outgoing panel, appointed by the previous administration and stacked with transparently biased union-busters, was notorious for ignoring the law to gut workplace rights and further an extreme political agenda.”

Today, in the absence of a deal, the UAW expanded the strike to dozens more plants, and in a Facebook live stream, Fain invited “everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States.” Biden has generally expressed support for the UAW, saying that the automakers should share their record profits with their workers, but Fain rebuffed the president’s offer to send Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior advisor Gene Sperling to help with negotiations. 

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Fetterman (D-PA) have both visited Michigan to meet with UAW workers, but it was nonetheless a surprise when the White House announced that the president will travel on Tuesday to Michigan, where he will, as he posted on X, “join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create. It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs.”

If President Biden is showing his support for the strong unions of the past, Vice President Kamala Harris is in charge of the future. The White House today announced the establishment of a National Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by the vice president. 

Lately, Harris has been taking the lead in embracing change and appealing to younger voters. On September 9 she hosted a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop, and she is currently in the midst of a tour of college campuses to urge young people to vote. She has been the administration’s leading voice on issues of reproductive rights and equality before the law, issues at the top of concerns of young Americans. Now adding gun safety to that list, she is picking up yet another issue crucially important to young people. 

When 26-year-old Representative Maxwell Frost (D-FL) introduced the president today, he said that he got involved in politics because he “didn’t want to get shot in school.”

If the president and the vice president today seemed to represent the past and the future to carry the country forward, the present was also in the news today, and that story was about corruption and the parties’ different approaches to it.

ProPublica has published yet another piece about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s connections to wealthy donors. Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski reported that Thomas attended at least two donor summits hosted by the Koch family, acting as a fundraising draw for the Koch network, but did not disclose the flights he accepted, which should have been considered gifts, or the hospitality associated with the trips. His appearances were coordinated with the help of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the court’s rightward swing.

The Koch family network funds a wide range of right-wing political causes. It has had interests in a number of cases before the Supreme Court during Thomas’s term, including an upcoming challenge to the government’s ability to regulate businesses—a principle the Koch enterprises oppose. 

Republicans have been defending Thomas’s behavior since these stories began to surface. 

Also in the corruption file today is Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who, along with his wife, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with using his influence to advance the interests of Egypt. 

This is Menendez’s second legal go-round: in 2015 he was indicted on unrelated charges of bribery, trading political help for expensive plane flights and luxury vacations. Ten of the twelve members of the jury did not agree with the other two that he was guilty and after the hung jury meant a mistrial, the Department of Justice declined to retry the case. 

That the DOJ has indicted Menendez again on new charges undercuts Republicans’ insistence that the department has been weaponized to operate against them alone. And while Menendez insists he will fight the charges, he has lost his position at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the rules of the Democratic Conference, and New Jersey Democratic leaders have already called on him to resign.

“So a Democratic Senator is indicted on serious charges, and no Democrats attacking the Justice Department, no Democrats attacking the prosecutors, no Democrats calling for an investigation of the prosecution, and no Democrats calling to defund the Justice Department,” wrote former Republican representative from Illinois and now anti-Trump activist Joe Walsh. 

“Weird, huh?”

Notes: 

https://uaw.org/president-fains-big-three-contract-update-ford-proposal-insults-worth/

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/09/22/uaw-strike-shawn-fain-00117091

https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/biden-visit-uaw-strike-would-be-historic-move-by-us-president-2023-09-22/

https://www.npr.org/2023/09/13/1198904929/uaw-unions-automakers-big-3-gm-ford-stellantis-shawn-fain

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/19/politics/fain-trump-detroit/index.html

https://www.npr.org/2023/09/15/1199673197/uaw-strike-big-3-automakers

https://apnews.com/article/labor-union-auto-workers-trump-strike-dfcb805fd4e749b13aaf827e1463da73

https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/15/biden-says-record-profits-should-ensure-record-contracts-as-uaw-strikes-ford-gm-and-stellantis-plants.html

https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/06/uaw-leader-says-strike-would-send-biden-a-message.html

https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/22/uaw-strikes-shawn-fain-invites-joe-biden-to-join-picket-line.html

https://www.nytimes.com/article/uaw-strike-explained-ford-stellantis-gm.html

https://www.axios.com/local/detroit/2023/09/20/fain-deadline-more-uaw-strikes-trump-visit

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/09/21/president-joe-biden-to-establish-first-ever-white-house-office-of-gun-violence-prevention-to-be-overseen-by-vice-president-kamala-harris/

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-announce-white-house-office-gun-violence-prevention/story?id=103394253

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-announce-white-house-office-gun-violence-prevention/story?id=103394253

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/4205746-harris-kicks-off-college-tour-targeting-younger-voters/

https://www.propublica.org/article/clarence-thomas-secretly-attended-koch-brothers-donor-events-scotus

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23989441-us_v_menendez_et_al_indictment

https://www.politico.com/news/2023/09/22/authorities-to-charge-u-s-sen-bob-menendez-and-wife-today-00117590

https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/4218993-menendez-steps-down-as-foreign-relations-chairman-after-indictment/

https://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2017/11/17/menendez-hung-jury-sends-powerful-message-to-government-118599

https://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/05/robert-menendez-trial-senate-new-jersey-242333

https://www.politico.com/news/2023/09/22/authorities-to-charge-u-s-sen-bob-menendez-and-wife-today-00117590

https://www.politico.com/news/2023/09/22/new-jersey-democrats-menendez-indictment-00117693

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/justice-thomas-allies-defend-latest-revelation-tuition-payments-wealth-rcna82850

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/john-eastman-vouching-Clarence’s-thomas-integrity-rcna102466

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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Photo illustration by The Free Press

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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April 15, 2024 Garamond

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