This morning I heard a story on NPR’s The Takeaway about the thousands of really great jobs that are going away in the Southern California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of automation.

"Everything was driverless. You couldn't find people. Nobody. I mean, we were all looking at each other like oh my god, scared as hell. And the employers were saying, 'Well this is the real world guys.'" said James “Spinner” Spinosa, former International President for International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), of a trip to Rotterdam where some of the earliest examples of automated technology were developed.

This caught my attention. My grandfather was a Longshoreman at San Pedro in So-Cal, and though I didn’t inherit his “ticket” – his membership to the union – I do have his pin. Because of that union job, my mom was the first person in her family to go to college and my grandma had health care that saw her through two strokes and allowed her to come to my wedding.

Because of my grandpa’s union job, my family made it into the middle class.

But now, like so many across this country, these jobs are going away and it’s not because there isn’t enough business. It’s because the corporate employers are taking the path that is ruining our economy and our country. They are choosing a model that creates a whole lot of capital in their pockets, and a whole lot of middle class families out of work. (In the Heroes’ Narrative, we’d call that income inequality vs. an economy that works for everyone.)

Which brings me to the importance of a common quest.

The show played a quote from an economist who was making the case for automation:

“To run that much volume through that small space… you’re not going to do it with human beings. Human beings can’t run around and move that. They are neither physically capable of working that hard and that much, but it’s also, really, really dangerous. There is a scale of activity beyond which it is not safe for human beings to be involved.”

So sayeth Walter Kemmsies, Chief Economist at Moffat & Nichol.

I’d like to see him say that to my grandfather’s face.

I’d like to see him tell my grandfather, the hardest working man I ever knew, that the reason his job was going away was because it was going to become too hard for him to do. The idea is absurd, but we can’t win that argument in the weeds of “volume of cargo moving through a small space.” That’s a trap.
Instead, we must rise up a level to values, and that’s what the QUEST is for. We must ask the QUESTion:

Who are we building this economy for? Middle class families? Hard working people like my grandfather, and my mother, whose college job made her one of the first women at IBM and a local business owner who employed a half dozen people?

Or the machines and their corporate owners?

The QUESTion “Who are we building this economy for?” is one that needs a lot of repetition and a lot of volume. It’s a values frame that we need. No single issue or fight can build that frame alone, but it matters to all of us. The ability of middle class families to make it means they can get beyond the brutal concerns of feeding kids today and participate in our democracy. They can insist on social justice, they can make signs that say “Black Lives Matter” or “Climate Justice Now” or “Opportunity is Everyone’s Responsibility” and march and vote and show up. I’m not saying families in crisis can’t do these things. They can. They are. I am so inspired by all the rising up that we are seeing now, all across the country. But it’s so much harder for a family that is on the edge of survival, and it does happen less and that’s the crucial test we are facing in this country, here and now: “Who are we building this economy for?”

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Ella Andrews is a writer, mother, and consultant. She helped found the Heroes’ Narrative project. She is dedicated to using the power of storytelling to build a better world. Check out her work at: