Monthly Archives: September 2011

On Violence and Class Warfare

“Class warfare.”  Lately, it is breaking out everywhere.  The phrase, that is.  Over the last 10 days commentators, pundits, comedians, and, finally, Democratic politicians have gotten into the game.  Elizabeth Warren, the new wonder woman Democratic Senatorial candidate in Massachusetts went viral with her plain-spoken rebuke of the Republicans’ use of the term “class warfare.”  In an amateur video made by one of her volunteers she explained how factory owners benefit from the roads and the schools that the rest of us pay for:  “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.”

And just last Wednesday, in a move that seemed inspired by the popularity of Warren’s Youtube video, Obama gave an inspiring speech in front of a bridge to somewhere — the home districts of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell:  “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘this is class warfare.’ Well, if saying that billionaires should pay the same share in taxes as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare, then you know what? I’m a warrior for the middle class.”  Obama has been urged by dozens of columnists, including Sally Kohn of the Washington Post and Chris Weigant of Huffington Post to take the language of class warfare seriously, and to fight hard on the side of the not-rich.

Why? Because there is a war going on, and the working- and middle-classes are losing.  Last week America’s most widely read economist, Paul Krugman, gave us four reasons why “class warfare” is top down, rather than bottom up.  You can see a great visual distillation of Krugman’s point with this cartoon from Clay Bennet.

It turns out that this kind of class warfare—the kind that comes from the top down — is pretty bad for the economy. You can read from the IMF report that shows the negative economic effects of the wealth gap, or take a gander at new September CIA rankings for income inequality.  The survey is based on the “Lorenz curve,” in which “cumulative family income is plotted against the number of families arranged from the poorest to the richest.”  It ranks the US as 39th worst out of 136 counties surveyed.  The people of Yemen, Pakistan, Poland, Egypt, and Vietnam, just to name a few, suffer less disparity between the rich and the poor than we do.

In the Wealth of Nations, the economist Adam Smith weighed in on the problem of the rich accumulating too much profit.  He railed against the “merchants and masters” who complained about high wages, but not their own high profits:  “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

In the meantime I find the invocation of the term “class warfare” completely fascinating, in part, because, as columnist Robert Mentzer argues, the term “class warfare” actually gets us talking about class.  On the other hand, when the term is used, it is usually referencing some change in wealth distribution, and not actual warfare—nothing akin to real battles, pitch-forks, or heads on a pike.  When was the last time that the working class was organized enough to do any real bodily harm to the capitalist class?

The last time the term “class warfare” was used often and sincerely to refer to a violent revolution by workers was during the Gilded Age in the US and Britain.  The best example comes from the the son-in-law of Karl Marx, Edward Aveling, in a published lectured titled “The Curse of Capital”:

You will ask:  ‘Will you not have a frightful struggle and will it not end in bloodshed?’  Possibly.  I do not know.  ‘Is it not setting class against class?’  Yes;  and Socialists mean to devote their lives to setting class against class.  We preach class warfare.  We hope it may not be a warfare of bullets and steel, but if it is class warfare even this, alas! is possible.  It is a warfare of the labour class against the capitalist class.

 That was some real class warfare being proposed by an English radical at the height of the trade union movement in Britian, in 1884.  But good luck finding similar moments in American history.

Here, most working-class radicals have stayed away from violence.  One of America’s most violent working-class incidents, the Haymarket Affair, took place in the midst of a massive (and, we should remember, successful) national movement for the eight-hour work-day.  After two workers were killed at a protest outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in May of 1886, Chicago anarchists called for a rally to protest the deaths of the slain workers in Chicago’s Haymarket square.  During the rally, which had been calm and peaceful up to that point, someone threw a pipe bomb at a police line.  Police and some of the protesters opened fire, killing crowd members as well as other officers.  Eight anarchists were tried, found guilty, and hung.

Just before he was hung, the anarchist August Spies shouted, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” The Haymarket Affair was one of those moments in which class warfare became truly violent, and from the top-down as well.  Reading the last words of the Chicago anarchists, who were likely falsely accused, poorly tried, and tragically executed, I am led to reflect upon the execution of Troy Davis last week.  After he was killed, my friend Robert Perkinson, who is a prison scholar and the author of Texas Tough, posted a photograph in his facebook feed from the 1930s of a banner hanging out of a window in New York City that read:  A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.

While he was not actively engaged in class warfare, Troy Davis is a casualty in the war on the working class.  His execution is just one more terrible reminder that when class warfare becomes violent, that violence tends to flow from the top down.  As Cynthia Tucker wrote in Grio last week,  “If Troy Davis had been a high school principal or a funeral home director or the proprietor of a soul food restaurant, he probably wouldn’t have landed in the middle of an investigation into a police officer’s murder. Had he been a member of Savannah’s black middle-class, he likely would have been treated with a bit more deference by the criminal justice system.”

For many of us who believe that the death penalty is wrong, and that Davis’s execution was particularly wrong, it has been a sobering week.  We can take some comfort from the fact that the national discourse has turned powerfully and seriously towards class.

As for class warfare, most of us who are fighting with, for, and in the working class are not about to issue—or answer—a call to arms.  But if it is a war of words that is in the offing we have a lot to say.  We will not be silent.

Kathy M. Newman

Teaching Unequal Childhoods

As an adjunct I teach two Working-Class Studies courses – one for adult union leaders and staff pursuing a master’s degree and another for (mostly) traditional-aged undergraduate students.   In both classes I use Annette Lareau’s wonderful study of how child-rearing practices vary by class, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  It’s a great text for parents, but also for anybody who’s ever had child-rearing done to them!

It’s one of those sociological studies where the researcher hangs around a family at home and on the road, taking careful notes about what everybody says and does.  Most of the book consists of case studies of the various middle-class, working-class, and poor families Lareau (and her research assistants) hung out with in an unnamed northeastern city, probably Philadelphia.

It’s not a book students necessarily love and, in fact, some really hate it, but everybody reads it, gets engaged, and comes to class ready to talk about it – including often intimate details about how they were reared and, for those who are parents, how they are rearing or did rear their children.  It’s a high-stakes topic, as everybody realizes that who they are and how they are is strongly influenced by how they were raised – and, of course, even the most exemplary parents easily slip into guilt-trips or defensive bragging about their kids, often in the same sentence.

I’m not going to summarize Lareau’s various findings, except to say that she finds a categorical difference between middle-class and working class child-rearing approaches, and relatively small (though not unimportant) differences between blacks and whites of the same class or between working-class and poor families.  Her first two case studies, of 4th-graders Garrett Tallinger and Tyrec Taylor, present strongly positive examples of each of the categories.

Garrett has two very dedicated parents with professional jobs who are highly engaged with their children, with lots of challenging dialogue and with a demanding schedule of activities their three children enjoy but which are also educational in one way or another.  This concerted cultivation, Lareau says, is characteristic of a middle-class child-centered approach.  Tyrec has loving, though separated, working-class parents who see their parental duties as providing food, shelter, and moral guidance but otherwise leaving their children free to find their own way in life through natural growth.   Whereas Garrett spends little time outside of adult-structured activities with children exactly his own age, Tyrec is much more free “to make his own fun” with children of different ages, both within a large extended family and in his neighborhood, and mostly outside direct supervision by adults.

After students read the first 103 pages, including these two case studies, the very first questions I ask are:

  • Which child-rearing approach makes for a happier childhood?
  • And which child-rearing approach better prepares children to succeed as adults?

I’ve done this with four classes now (two each with adults and late adolescents), and with very few exceptions, students answer as if it were obvious: The working-class way makes for a happier childhood, but the middle-class way better prepares children to be successful adults.

Eventually, the personally high-stakes part of our conversations turns everybody toward Aristotle’s golden mean, resolving to mix a little bit of happiness with a little more adult-prep.  But there is also a recognition of what a tragic situation this is: What kind of society requires us to sacrifice the creative spontaneous joys of childhood so that we can “succeed” as adults?

From there everybody has a different take on nearly everything – including whether it’s such a good idea to “succeed” as adults.  Many do not fit neatly into Lareau’s categories, but an amazing number do.  Adult students who are parents and even some of the traditional-aged students engage in richly dialectical reflections on their parents’ approach and their own.  Many more students in both teaching venues come from working-class backgrounds than middle-class ones, but precisely because the topic is so high stakes, students (who can often be quite harsh in disagreeing with each other) are especially tactful, polite, even delicate with one another.  In general, though Lareau is rigorously and refreshingly neutral on which class culture is better, both kinds of students tend to favor the working-class way.

Lareau’s broader thesis is that schools are excessively and unconsciously middle-class institutions that assume that working-class kids (and parents) arrive not with a different culture, which has its strengths as well as weaknesses, but with cultural deficits that must be filled in and bad habits that must be broken.  This not only puts working-class kids at a disadvantage, but often leads to a conflicted and adversarial relation of both parents and kids toward teachers and, even more so, toward the institution of “the school.”  Among other things, she counsels greater class-cultural awareness by teachers, including learning and teaching how to “code-switch.”

The basically opposite child-rearing approaches are readily recognizable in people’s real-life experience. More contestable is whether they neatly coincide with class positions and whether race and poverty play as small a role as Lareau claims.  These, of course, are issues that make Unequal Childhoods a great text for teaching Working-Class Studies.  More important, however, is how her richly reported case studies personalize class issues and dynamics, allowing both adult and traditional-aged students to see how class plays a role not just in society at large, but also in our own immediate experience, including our hearts and minds.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Fighting for More than A Contract

While Wisconsin drew most of the national media attention as the home front of the battle over collective bargaining for public sector workers, what’s happening in Ohio is every bit as significant and interesting.  Ignoring weeks of protests in the state capitol and around the state, and despite divisions within the Ohio Republican delegations, the Ohio legislature passed Senate Bill 5 in March.  The bill would place tight limits on collective bargaining for most public employees, and it would ban it entirely for college professors (using the language from the Yeshiva Decision that defines us as managers). By June, almost a million people had signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot in November, giving voters the opportunity to overturn the bill – something we can do in Ohio that isn’t an option in Wisconsin.

The petition drive involved unions across the state, as well as community and religious organizations, while local chambers of commerce, businesses, and even the state’s university presidents either overtly advocated for SB5 or insisted on “remaining neutral” and thus passively embraced it .  Those same divisions are playing out as the campaign heats up heading toward November.

For public sector unions, this has been a tough time.  No one wants to make organized labor or collective bargaining look bad right now.  The Ohio Education Association, for example, has encouraged its locals to settle on contracts, no matter how bad, early in the game, and many have complied.

Here at Youngstown State University, we’re living with the political ramifications of this bill right now.  The faculty union, an OEA affiliate, first accepted the recommendations of an external fact finder,   which included small pay raises, a large  increase in our health care costs, and a small cut in pay for teaching summer courses.  We said yes, agreeing to accept what amounted to major concessions, but the Board of Trustees rejected the fact-finder’s report, demanding even greater “shared sacrifice” from the faculty.  Their counterproposal asked for cuts of up to $7500 in a single year for some, though their public statements insisted that most faculty would lose less than $1000.  Much of that loss comes in summer pay, which affects only faculty, not administrators or other staff.  So much for “shared sacrifice.”

Clearly, the upcoming referendum on SB5 has created an especially difficult context for unions.  Some have speculated that the Board of Trustees (most of whom were appointed by Republican governors) is playing hard ball at the request, advice, or encouragement of the Governor or other Republican leaders who hope that a strike by YSU faculty will illustrate the need for this bill. Others are encouraging the faculty to give in to avoid generating public resentment that could lead to a bad outcome in November.  No doubt, every public sector worker in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states with similar laws must be feeling the pressure to make organized labor look good.  But should  we make every concession we’re asked for, in order to show that unions are reasonable and willing to do our part to balance state and local budgets?  If we do that, aren’t we also willingly contributing to the loss of power for workers and for unions?

Some organizers of the campaign to overturn SB5 have encouraged us to avoid making trouble, but I would argue that the situation at YSU offers a great illustration of why collective bargaining is so important.  What’s happening here illustrates just how bad SB5 and similar bills will be for public sector workers.  If we were not allowed to bargain, the administration would have imposed much bigger cuts.  YSU faculty are already the second-lowest paid in Ohio, and under SB5 we’d be solidly at the bottom, with no recourse whatsoever.

At the same time, we illustrate that collective bargaining works, not only for workers but for employers.  After all, our negotiations have already been built around concessions, not demands for increased salaries.  Further, in exercising our labor rights – by going to fact finding, by holding democratic votes on the proposals, by authorizing a strike and ultimately deciding not to strike, by filing unfair labor practices – we are working through a process that protects us even as it limits some of what we can do.  To my mind, we make a great poster child for public sector bargaining.

For an academic activist who is also deeply engaged in teaching, this has been an especially difficult time.  On the one hand, I’m ready to push this fight as hard as I can, because what happens here matters not only for us but for public workers across the state.  On the other hand, the threat of a strike – and that remains a possibility – creates real difficulties for students.  The University administration has already shown that it is willing to put our students at risk in its effort to force even greater concessions from the faculty.  A week before classes were due to start, YSU announced that it was putting a hold on financial aid, claiming that they could not say with confidence when school would start because the faculty had filed a strike notice.  They had never done this before, despite strike authorizations in previous rounds of negotiations or during an actual strike in 2005.  While assuring students of the administration’s concern, YSU had prepared alternative schedules and a website full of information, and they had sent threatening messages to members of other campus unions insisting that they were required to cross the picket lines.  The faculty union refused to play along, and after voting down the administration’s “last best offer,” we decided not to strike.  Instead, we are back in the classroom, working under the provisions of the old contract and trying to continue negotiations.

Some students responded exactly as the administration must have hoped: blaming the faculty and creating a facebook page that included many statements by students vowing to vote in support of SB5 because of this.  But others were not reeled in.  Instead, they organized.  They created a facebook page, YSU Students for Faculty (which now has almost 900 members), but they also held protests, conducted a letter-writing campaign, and challenged the University administration to treat its workers fairly.  They analyzed the administration’s actions and communications, and they have used a wide range of tools, from social media to filing public records requests to showing up and trying to ask questions at a Board of Trustees press conference last week.  They are also working with the campaign against SB5.

As the students have made clear, this is a case where politics are not entirely local.  What happens here may well affect the statewide vote in November, and of course, I hope it will make clear to anyone who’s unsure about the issue that unions are our best, maybe even our only, tool to protect the rights of workers.  But while the dispute at YSU and the debate over SB5 are inherently political, they also serve as learning opportunities.  The discussion among the students — and even on local talk radio — has encompassed why people should vote to overturn SB5, what’s happening to workers and universities across the country, the sad state of the American dream, and the real purpose of a college degree.  Those conversations remind us that the fate of public sector workers – educators, clerical workers, safety officers, health care workers – is not just about our income or benefits.  It’s about the public good.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies