Monthly Archives: November 2011

Ohio Issue 2: A Different Kind of Campaign

This fall, for the first time, the issue of collective bargaining was placed directly before voters.  And when more than 61% of Ohioans voted to protect collective bargaining rights and rejected the arguments of the Governor they had elected just a year earlier and of groups like Citizen’s United, it was the workers who had been central in the campaign who announced the victory.  No politicians spoke on stage at the celebration event that night.  No labor leaders.  No national leaders.  It was instead the workers themselves who spoke the words of triumph at the victory party.  This was clearly a very different campaign.

The resistance began quickly over Ohio Governor John Kasich’s 302-page bill – Senate Bill 5 — that eviscerated public sector bargaining.  The extreme bill went even further than other states had dared to go: it would abolish binding arbitration, outlaw fair share provisions, declare strikes unlawful, and completely eliminate many key issues from collective bargaining, including health care plan design, privatization, and staffing levels. Thousands of public and private sector union members and their allies showed up for rallies and hearings at the statehouse.

After the Governor padlocked the doors of the People’s House and pushed the bill through, over 10,000 volunteers collected signatures on petitions to bring the issue to the ballot.  Those petitions filled a semi-truck that was the focus of a terrific parade, delivering the boxes representing Ohio voters’ commitment to worker justice to the Secretary of State’s office.  The mood was festive, proud, and industrial.  My wife (an AFSCME member), two of my daughters, and I marched behind the lawmakers who had voted against SB5.  The Ohio Secretary of State’s office had to stop the petitions from coming into their office until a structural engineer assured us that the office building floor could withstand the weight of the boxes of justice.

Community support grew throughout the campaign with the help of our Outreach Director Karen Gasper.  Much of that support came from churches across the state.  African-American churches brought their members to the polls for early voting.  A Youngstown Catholic Church sponsored a “Blue Mass” for the police, but the special service soon expanded to include other public servants all dressed in blue.  Many faith-based groups, including Lift Dayton and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cleveland, held educational forums that brought out scores of members and supporters.  Toledo worshipers held a large event to bring those of faith together in their efforts to defeat Issue 2.  The United Church of Christ spoke out forcefully in opposition to SB 5.  The Catholic Bishops posted social teaching on their website to educate Catholics about the issue.

The effort pushed forward to include student organizers on Ohio college campuses.  The bill would have gutted all collective bargaining rights for a large percentage of faculty, even as a potential strike at Youngstown State University and an organizing campaign at University of Akron during the campaign demonstrated the power of collective bargaining in higher education.

Safety forces pulled together to host anti-SB5 events throughout the state.  Rallies were held with incredible turnout rates in rural areas of Ohio.  Harley riders circled the Statehouse on their hogs.  Workers spoke out and wrote letters to the editors.  Elected officials who voted against Senate Bill 5 were especially helpful in many areas of the state, including some Republicans.  It was truly an 88-county campaign of working people and their allies pulling together in unity.

We did face some challenges to that unity. When Governor Kasich and his friends went after voters’ rights, many African-American leaders called upon labor to lead a citizen’s veto against what is being called the “Voter Suppression Act.” While still fighting SB5, a new coalition was built linking organized labor with African-American organizations in ways that I have never seen in Ohio.  SB5 volunteers circulated petitions fighting the voter suppression bill, and what had started as an obstacle to unity became the glue. By Election Day, 93% of African Americans voted to overturn SB5, according to a poll conducted by the AFL-CIO.

Throughout the petition drive and the campaign on Issue 2 (as SB5 was identified on the November ballot), the Ohio Democratic Party stood firmly on the side of workers.  The Party worked hard to collect signatures, recruit volunteers, and get out no votes on Issue 2.  The ODP brought out nearly 5,000 volunteers to add to the ranks recruited by labor and community organizations. It was an impressive effort that demonstrates the values of the Party, even in a nonpartisan election.

Of course, on the ground organizing is only one part of politics today.  The media campaign over SB5 was also worker-centered. Action-packed ads, produced by The New Media Firm, featured Ohio workers, citizens who explained why they valued those workers, and an ad featuring Ohio hero John Glenn urging Ohio voters to stand up for our “everyday heroes” by voting no.

One of those ads featured 78-year-old Marlene Quinn, who told the story of how her great-granddaughter was saved by Cincinnati firefighters.  The other side recognized the power of that story, so they sliced her words and added material to create an ad in which Quinn seemed to support Issue 2.  Thirty television stations pulled the offensive ad with the stolen, remixed story. .  Yet, even as the political firestorm coined “Grannygate” was burning, Governor Kasich expressed his support for the tactic.

The ads and mailers supporting SB5 were, to a large extent, made possible by outside money, though we will never know exactly how much or where it came from. Most groups supporting the bill will not disclose their funders. Undisclosed amounts of out-of-state cash poured in through groups such as Citizens United (the Citizens United) and the Alliance for American Future. The Alliance flooded the state with mail marked with a Virginia return address that was linked back to former Vice President Chaney’s daughter. The Ohio Liberty Council (a Tea Party group), the Republican Governor’s Association, and the Ohio Republican Party also jumped into the fray.

New media also demonstrated the intensity on our side.  The pro-Issue 2 “Building a Better Ohio’s” Facebook page had 4,368 likes and comments from 1,488 people.  Those numbers were dwarfed by the more than 100,000 likes and 10,847 comments on We Are Ohio’s page opposing SB5.  Our new media program yielded incredible support, including over 11,000 contributors.

In the end, more Ohioans cast votes against Governor Kasich’s top initiative than they did for Governor Kasich a year earlier.  It was a blow away election, with workers winning 61.3% of the vote, including the majority of the vote in 82 out of 88 counties. Participation was higher in this off-year general election than in any other in the history of Ohio.

While union members were incredibly supportive, with an overwhelming 86% showing their solidarity against SB5, 57% of independent voters stood with them.  An even stronger message to the Governor is that 30% of Republicans voted against Issue 2.  Indeed, 26% of those who voted for Kasich just a year ago voted no on Issue 2.

Ohio history suggests that the vote on Issue 2 might predict a larger change in the state’s political climate. In 1958 working people were also campaigning for voters to reject Issue 2.  That year, Issue 2 was a Right-to-Work law.  Two thirds of all Ohioans voted against that issue. Voters also tossed out all the elected officials who had supported the anti-union initiative. It was a clean sweep that tamed anti-worker Ohio politicians for years.  But one need not look back 50 years to know how these out of touch politicians might be punished now. Polls show that the majority of voters will punish legislators who continue to press issues that were in SB5, even the more “popular” parts of it.  Just look to this year’s council elections in Cincinnati.  All four council members who had supported Issue 2 lost their reelection bids.  Perhaps Governor Kasich is lucky that he doesn’t come up for reelection until 2014.

It does seem as if he may have heard the voters’ message. The week after Election Day, the Governor might have shown he is changing his approach; he reached an agreement with the largest state union after just a couple of sessions. The agreement freezes wages for three years but restores step increases and furlough days. He also started to talk more seriously about one of his key campaign issues – jobs.

John W. Ryan

John W. Ryan was first elected president of Cleveland area’s CWA Local 4309 in 1981 at age 21 and was later the principal officer of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor; he served as senior consultant to We Are Ohio and is State Director for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

Hollywood and the Working Class

Last week one of the strangest stories to go viral in the first hours after riot police cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park was the fact that dozens of celebrities were tweeting about the raid. Tweets from Alec Baldwin, John Cusack, Chuck D, Russell Simmons and Michael Moore were re-circulated in at least 8,000 news stories, blogs and other tweets. Journalists reported that the celebrity tweets were full of concern and outrage, as in this tweet from Mark Ruffalo “People in Liberty Park were pepper sprayed. Police beat women. Press pushed out so they could not witness the crackdown. Dehumanizing 99%#Ows.”

At virtually the same moment Time magazine mounted a slide show on its website of the five most “colorful” celebrity critics of Occupy Wall Street. At the top of the list was Frank Miller, author/illustrator of 300, Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns who called the protestors “a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.” Also in the top five were Ben Stein, long time Republican-identified star of the game show Win Ben Stein’s Money and All Clear eye solution commercials, The View talk show host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, hyperbolic pundit Glenn Beck, and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

Though this recent news coverage of celebrity involvement in politics is almost parodically superficial, political celebrity is hardly the latest fad. Activism by actors is as old as Hollywood itself . As Steven J. Ross argues in his new book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (2011), the power of Hollywood celebrities to effect real political change dates back to the first red scare in US history, when J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI agents in to investigate left-leaning stars. In 1922 FBI agents reported back to Hoover that “numerous movie stars” were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country.” These actors, the agents reported, were “hatching a plan to circulate ‘Communist propaganda…via the movies.’”

If The New York Times is right (and I hope it is) and Occupy Wall Street represents the legitimate beginnings of the third progressive movement in modern American politics, then Ross’s book is a timely reminder that we should treat celebrities’ involvement in politics seriously. With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross has produced a thoroughly researched, extremely readable, and fascinating account of Hollywood stars, on the left as well as the right, who have used their money, influence, and star power, as well as their considerable organizing and leadership talents to create, sustain, and shape American political movements.

Ross has spent much of his career finding the connections between popular films, film stars, and working class and left politics. His seminal Working Class Hollywood offered the counter-intuitive thesis that working class politics could be found in early silent films, and in this book Ross argued that unions were among the most enthusiastic early adopters of film technology for their cause.

With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross gives us ten engaging biographies of some of the most prominent and political Hollywood stars and moguls, from studio head Louis B. Mayer to Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, George Murphy, Warren Beatty, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For readers like myself who did not grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, the biographies of Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda are especially surprising. In the Jane Fonda chapter Ross explains how Fonda’s momentary lapse in judgment during a trip to Vietnam labeled her forever as Hanoi Jane, but Ross also shows why her long, committed political career should be seen in greater detail and complexity. Fonda was an important foot soldier as well as a leader and strategist for the New Left—an activist more committed to stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors than to becoming a high profile emblem of the cause. Likewise the stereotype of Reagan as an “actor turned politician” does little justice to Reagan’s long, sometimes contradictory, but surprisingly intellectual and well-thought-out transition from the silver screen to the presidency.

But what about Hollwood and the working class? What can Ross’s history of political celebrities tell us about this fragile and fascinating relationship? Ross shows at least three ways that political celebrities have connected to the working class over the last century:1) many political celebrities came from working-class backgrounds and/or had working class sympathies from a young age; 2) many political celebrities have played working-class characters; 3) many political celebrities, both left and right, have understood that their audiences were mostly working-class and have used the populist rhetoric of “ordinary Americans” to explain their political actions.

Of the Hollywood luminaries that Ross profiles, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, and Edward G. Robinson had the most hard-scrabble childhoods. Mayer, born Lazar Meir in the Ukraine, migrated to Canada in the early 1900s,where his father became a junk dealer. For London-born Chaplin, after his parents divorced he was “plunged into the harsh underbelly of Victorian London.” It was there, according to Ross, that the humiliation Chaplin suffered at the hands of condescending reformers and do-gooders was even worse than being cold and hungry. Edward G. Robinson was a Romanian immigrant whose parents sent their sons to America one by one, as they could afford to, after Robinson’s brother Jack was killed in Romania by an anti-Semitic mob. Robinson later attended PS 20 in New York City, living with his family in a “cramped Broome Street tenement flat.” And even stars like Reagan and Warren Beatty, who grew up in relatively middle-class homes, both suffered from having alcoholic fathers. Low down suffering, it seems, lurks in the biography of many a political Hollywood star.

Ross also writes about the way these political stars played working-class characters on the big screen. Ross explains how Chaplin created working-class characters, like The Tramp, who was not content with his station in life, and who even engaged in political struggle, however hilariously. Robinson played lowbrow gangsters throughout the 1930s, and he knew that the gangster motif appealed to working-class viewers who envied the gangster’s material success but who also judged the route the gangster used to achieve it. Belafonte, who also had a difficult immigrant childhood, played a labor leader in the film Island in the Sun (1957). Warren Beatty, who resisted many calls to enter politics as a candidate in his own right, played the radical John Reed, in the epic film Reds. Jane Fonda memorably played Gertie Nevels, the luckless working-class Appalachian mother in The Dollmakers (1984).

Finally, Ross writes about the way that Hollywood’s more political stars understood the classed nature of the film industry’s mass audience, and how some used populist rhetoric to describe their own political choices. Mayer, despite his conservative politics, or, perhaps because of them, understood that the movie industry was built on the “nickels of the working class.” Reagan and George Murphy, from the years they spent appealing to viewers at the box office as “B” movie stars, understood how to craft a message that would appeal to working-class Americans, even if the policies they campaigned for ultimately hurt those same people. “Americans really are conservatives,” Reagan argued on the campaign trail in the 1960s. “They pay their bills, they don’t run big debts.” Echoing this populist note, Arnold Schwarzenegger “warned Democratic and Republican politicians tos ‘do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you’re hasta la vista, baby.’” Likewise Jane Fonda’s China Syndrome is about the way ordinary people rise up against a large corporation, demanding answers as well as change.

The most important lesson of Ross’s book is that when Hollywood stars become political, their rhetoric, and their activism, should be taken seriously. Though Ross certainly leans to the left himself, he admires the sincerity and the skill with which even right-leaning Hollywood politicos have operated. “They worked as hard at their politics as they did at their screen careers,” Ross argues. The “United States would be a far better place,” Ross, concludes, if each of us was willing to work as hard as these emblematic Hollywood luminaries.

But another, more subtle lesson of Hollywood Left and Right is that political movie stars have often understood that the working class—the 60+% of Americans who do most of the difficult and underappreciated work in our country—must be recognized for the productivity and consumer power they possess. From the ranks of the working class, and, especially, from the ranks of working-class immigrants, we have been given some of our biggest entertainers and stars. Their understanding of poverty, suffering, and solidarity can serve as inspiration to the rest of us, whatever our backgrounds.

Kathy M. Newman

How Obama Can Win Ohio

Note: This week’s blog is a repost of John Russo’s column from Friday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times.

The decisive referendum vote to repeal the bill that would limit collective bargaining by public sector unions has changed the political landscape in Ohio. Tuesday’s vote on Senate Bill 5 could and should be a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election. By mounting a direct assault on public sector workers and the unions who represent them, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio may have done more to help Barack Obama win re-election than anything Obama’s political team is likely to do over the next 12 months.

With Ohio’s continuing high unemployment rate (9.1%!, just like the rest of the U.S), it had seemed unlikely that President Obama could win Ohio, and without Ohio, he’d have difficulty getting re-elected. The same factors make re-election a challenge for Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democratic and one of the most pro-labor members of the Senate. But Kasich, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature and outside conservative financers and think tanks like the Buckeye Institute, may have done Obama and Brown a big favor.

Karl Rove described Senate Bill 5 as a much “more extensive reform” to public sector unions than was enacted in Wisconsin, in part because the Ohio version included firefighters and police officers. While the protests in Columbus were smaller and received less national attention than those in Madison, unions and community groups in Ohio organized a ballot initiative with 10,000 volunteers circulating petitions in all 88 counties. Over 1.3 million Ohioans — more than five times the number required to put the initiative on the ballot — signed the petitions.

Despite a large influx of money from conservative organizations like Citizens United, Freedom Works, and Restoring America, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5 by an overwhelming 22 point margin — 39% yes, 61% no (a no vote was pro-union). Democrats and independents voted overwhelmingly against the measure, and, if pre-election polls are correct, 30% of Ohio Republicans also voted to reject Senate Bill 5.

This should be good news for Obama. While Ohio is notorious for swinging back and forth between supporting Republicans and Democrats, its 18 electoral votes are especially important for Republican candidates. It’s almost impossible for a Republican to win the presidential election without Ohio, and that means winning significant support among union household voters.

According to CNN exit polls from the last few elections, union household voters remain a strong presence in Ohio, even after more than three decades of de-industrialization. Twenty-eight percent of Ohio voters come from union households, compared with 23 percent nationally. In 2008, they underperformed for Obama, who won 56 percent of their votes in Ohio versus 59 percent from union households across the country. No similar data exists for the 2010 midterm election, but many labor leaders admit that Kasich beat the Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in part because voters from community groups and union households either voted Republican or stayed home (essentially giving half a vote to Kasich).

If union households in Ohio lost their enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in recent years, Kasich’s actions, together with the national Republicans’ just-say-no politics and kill-Medicare initiatives (like the Paul Ryan budget), have made the Democrats look a lot better than they did in 2010.

It all comes down to math. In 2008, 2,933,388 Ohioans voted (or 51.5%) for Obama, 258,897 more than McCain won. If union households maintain their proportion of the electorate, and if just 1 percent more of them vote for Democrats, they can add 15,700 votes to the Democratic vote and subtract the same number from the Republicans – a swing of more than 31,000 votes. If Ohio’s union household voters increase their support for Democrats by 3 percent – that is, if they match the national average for union household voters – they would generate 47,100 additional votes for Obama, a swing of 94,200 votes. That alone could give the president Ohio’s electoral votes.

But because of Senate Bill 5, we might reasonably expect an even larger shift. A recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that the anger generated by the anti-union bill and the organizing fostered by the effort to overturn it has 70 percent of union household voters planning to support Obama and the Democrats in 2012. That translates into an increase of 219,829 votes for Obama, a swing of almost 440,000 votes. Put differently, a mobilized Ohio labor movement with 742,000 members, including many teachers, police officers, and firefighters who have often voted Republican, will be more likely to vote for Democrats in 2012.

This gives Obama the opportunity to score a big victory in Ohio, but that won’t happen solely on the basis of Senate Bill 5. The president must offer a positive economic vision and a program for economic change. The American Jobs Act – even if it must be pushed through piecemeal — is a good start, as are the president’s recent actions on mortgages and student loans.

Such positions will also help Senator Brown’s chances of re-election, but in 2012, in Ohio at least, the usual pattern of members of Congress benefiting from presidential coattails could be reversed. Brown’s solid support for organized labor, community groups and those who have been most hurt by the continuing economic crisis — positions that resonate with the millions of Ohio voters who overturned Senate Bill 5 — may help Obama more than anything Obama has done will help Brown.

None of this is guaranteed, of course. In order for the battle over Senate Bill 5 to influence the 2012 election, those who have organized so effectively to defend unions must continue to work together. Unions will have to keep educating members and reach out to those outside of the labor movement. They will also have to work closely with community and neighborhood groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which played a pivotal role in community organizing around Senate Bill 5.

None of that will be easy. Competing interests within and between organized labor and community organizations make the coalition very fragile. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is relatively weak in Ohio, and some tensions exist between public and private sector unions. Meanwhile, Ohio Republicans are threatening to put parts of Senate Bill 5 through in a series of smaller bills next year. Without solidarity across labor organizations, the coalition that fought so well against one big bill could fracture. It may be that other issues won’t have the unifying effect of Senate Bill 5. After all, the same voters who overturned that bill approved a constitutional amendment barring the implementation of the individual insurance mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.

But if the organizers of the campaign against Senate Bill 5 can hold together and if the Obama campaign can tap into the anger and solidarity of that fight, Tuesday’s vote could turn out to be the turning point in the 2012 election.

 

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

What Work Is, and Isn’t: Poet Laureate Philip Levine

In between grading student papers, revising my department’s mission statement, taking my son to soccer games, and following the Occupy Wall Street protests, I’ve been thinking about Phil Levine being named Poet Laureate for 2011- 2012.  It’s about time: at 83, he has been writing powerful poetry for five decades.  Nevertheless, in “Voice of the Workingman to be Poet Laureate,” the New York Times quotes the librarian of Congress who made the appointment as saying, “I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.” Clearly, those of us interested in bringing working-class literature into classrooms and to the forefront of the culture still have work to do.  I’ve included Levine’s poems in three anthologies of working-class writing I have co-edited—two with Peter Oresick and one with Janet Zandy—and I teach them every chance I get.

So when I was asked recently to speak as part of a panel on working-class literature sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, I used Levine as one of my examples.  I chose one of his best-known poems, “What Work Is.”  Published in 1991 in the book of the same name, “What Work Is,” like many of Levine’s poems, evokes industrial Detroit where he grew up and worked in the auto plants, in the late 1940s and 1950s.   It begins:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is–if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

Queuing for work, the poem’s narrator thinks he sees his brother ahead of him in line.  But it is another man, a worker whose grin shows the same “stubbornness,”

the sad refusal to give in to

rain, to the hours wasted waiting,

to the knowledge that somewhere ahead

a man is waiting who will say, “No,

we’re not hiring today,” for any

reason he wants.

In the second half of the poem the narrator is flooded with love for his brother, who is not in line because he is home sleeping off “a miserable night shift / at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German”: “Works eight hours a night so he can sing / Wagner, the opera you hate most.”

Looking back across the decades since that day, the poet asks:

How long has it been since you told him

you loved him, held his wide shoulders,

opened your eyes wide and said those words,

and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never

done something so simple, so obvious,

not because you’re too young or too dumb,

not because you’re jealous or even mean

or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,

just because you don’t know what work is.

I admire the way the poem addresses its own question backwards.  What work is gets revealed through what work is not: grinning, singing opera, loving your brother.  Typically for a Levine poem, there’s a resistant dignity in the small acts that keep us human, even when there’s little of that in labor itself, and none at all in being denied work.  You see this dignity in famous Levine poems like “They Feed They Lion,” written in response to the Detroit riots of 1967, or “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” with its classic conclusion: “Not this pig.”

As it happened, my colleague Robin Clarke was on the same ISO panel and had chosen the same poem to illustrate her talk.  Robin also teaches composition and literature at Pitt, but unlike me, she is a poet and so has a different investment in the politics of poetic practice demonstrated by Levine.   This became the subject of lively debate on the panel and with the audience.

Robin finds “What Work Is” beautiful in its evocation of the feeling of standing in that line, but she does not see the poem as an example of working-class literature because it is not part of “a literature of revolution.”  For her this is as much a matter of language as of political content or class position.  That is, the poem speaks through lucid language and carefully wrought lines, from the position of a fully realized humanity that is in fact not possible for most people under capitalism.  In doing so, it betrays the reality of “what it means to be a member of the working class”:

In a poem like Levine’s—which is the dominant mode of contemporary American poetry—the poet becomes the source of redemption, restoring dignity in ways the society itself cannot.  A poetry of the working class—a revolutionary poetry—must demand that its reader demand system change, must show us the wound rather than seem to heal it.

Robin went on to share excerpts from poems by Claudia Rankine and Julianna Spahr that enact this principle.  They do this by staging a formal conflict in the poem itself, demonstrating that the poet is not more in control of language and images “than they or we are in control as citizen subjects.”  This way the reader is not “lulled into submission” by the poem, but, in a sense, agitated by it.

I think a poetry that wants to attend to the reality of working class exploitation can only do so by challenging notions about language, for it is language that transmits the ideology of the 1% day after day on television, from the mouths of our elected officials and all their corporate sponsors . . ..  Our attitude toward language embodies a whole attitude toward reality, and it is this we need to differently imagine.

While we disagree about Levine, I agree with Robin that this is an important political discussion to stage with students in any classroom.   Which is why I see the debate as more than a minor storm in a literary teacup.   The market for poetry may be small—though writers like Levine have helped expand it.   But even in today’s economy, roughly 50% of young people in the US attend college, and most of them will take required Humanities courses.  In these writing or literature classrooms they may encounter poems through which they can critique everyday language and address fundamental social questions.

Asking “what work is,” even in a time of mass unemployment, can lead to asking about how work is allocated, organized, and controlled.  For example, with a shorter workweek, everyone who needs or wants a job might have one—and still have time to learn German, play soccer, or write poetry.  Or, in Marx’s vision of communist society: “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.”

Perhaps Robin and I could agree that a good poem provokes a revolution in consciousness.  Whether such movement in thinking and feeling contributes to larger social transformations will depend on the particular negotiation between reader and text, in the context of a particular historical moment.  Today when I read  “What Work Is,” my responses include gratitude for my relatively secure professional job, a resolution to head downtown for the next OWS event in solidarity with those whose security is being shredded, and a desire to hug my brother when I next see him.

The Poet Laureate has few official duties.  Some have created projects to promote the cultural work poetry can do.  Levine has jokingly proposed “a project in which people would be asked to name the ugliest poem they could think of.”  Whatever he decides to do with his year as the nation’s top poet, I hope he enjoys himself.  He’s earned it.  He knows what work is.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.