Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

The Working-Class Argument for Scottish Independence

On September 18th, the people of Scotland will vote on whether they wish to leave the United Kingdom and become independent, the first time that there has been such a constitutional referendum. This has arisen due to the victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, a pseudo-federal institution with some independent powers over matters of health and education separate from the UK Government at Westminster. Whilst nationalist and class politics rarely go together comfortably, the case for a yes vote in September emphasizes progressive politics rather than bourgeoisie nationalism or Mel Gibson-inspired notions of ‘freedom.’ Working-class radicals are sharing a platform with neo-liberal supporting nationalists because they see the opportunities for the Scottish working class if Scotland gains independence from the UK.

Scottish society isn’t fundamentally different than the rest of the UK. As a region, it shares many similarities with other areas historically dependent on heavy industry, such as the North-East of England and the former mining areas of Wales. On the other hand, Scotland pays more taxes per person than the rest of the UK, oil in Scotland’s North Sea accounts for over a quarter of corporation tax paid in the UK, and cotland’s renewable energy sector has massive potential. Despite this wealth in resources, Scotland’s mortality and poverty rates are higher than UK averages, and Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy of any UK city. Due to UK government attacks on the welfare state, the Scottish working-class are increasingly reliant on charity to put food on their table.

Higher rates of poverty might account for the limited appeal of right-wing politics in Scotland. In the 2010 UK election, the right-wing Conservative Party won just one Member of Parliament in Scotland, out of a possible 59. In Scotland, the centre-right Labour Party dominated the later twentieth-century based on an historical working-class appeal and left-wing politics. But the the British Labour Party has moved further to the right in order to appeal to prosperous voters in the south of England, and the British working-class continue to be hammered. Today, 900,000 more people live in poverty across the UK than in 2010. Labour’s shift to the right was exploited by the SNP, who have repeatedly moved to the left of Labour on a number of social issues, presenting themselves as the most progressive of the main parties in Scotland and winning support from a large section of the working class.

Socialists opposed to independence argue that constitutional change will not necessarily lead to an improvement in the condition of the Scottish working-class. That may be true, but it could protect the few benefits already available in Scotland that don’t exist elsewhere in the UK. Currently, prescription medication and higher education are free in Scotland, benefits not afforded to those in England. The UK government imposed a controversial under-occupancy charge on social housing residents deemed to have “spare” bedrooms in 2012, penalizing the working-class people who rely on social housing.  Following a mass grassroots campaign, the Scottish Government developed a plan to cover the extra charge.

With full independence, Scotland could fully reject the current austerity agenda and take steps to becoming a substantially more equal society than is possible in the existing political system. An independent Scotland would be nuclear-free, with the Scottish Government’s pledge to remove the UK nuclear arsenal from their current base at Faslane, near Glasgow, a position not supported by any London-based party. The Scottish Health Service will continue to be free at the point of need, as the service in the rest of the UK is becoming increasingly privatised. University education will be free, while students in England pay £9,000 per year.

Whilst some prominent Scottish socialists, such as George Galloway, have spoken in against separation, the campaign has support on the Left from several lifelong socialists, including s Tommy Sheridan, Tariq Ali, and Billy Bragg. A range of working-class and left-wing grassroots organisations, such as Radical Independence, The Green Party, and the Reid Foundation, are also involved, demonstrating the appeal of the campaign based on class issues and progressive politics. On the other hand, right-wing and reactionary groups such as the Loyal Orange Lodge, the right-wing populist UK Independence Party, and the fascist British National Party are actively campaigning against independence.

Instead of offering a better future for the working class, the campaign against independence has emphasized the political upheaval that this change would cause over issues of currency, membership of the European Union, international treaty agreements, and other ‘high politics’ which have little impact on the day-to-day lives of the Scottish working-class.

A vote for independence for Scotland is an important step in the country’s working-class struggle. A “yes” vote not only opens up the potential for a radically more progressive Scotland. It also represents the best immediate opportunity to improve the condition of Scottish working-class society. To paraphrase James Connolly, hoisting the St Andrews flag over Edinburgh Castle is not the end result for Scottish socialists campaigning for independence. It is merely a start.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy.


Better Jobs Drive Better Business

Good jobs are hard to find.  Hard jobs – entailing bone-tiring work, low wages, and limited or no advancement opportunities — are all too plentiful.  And in our country that’s been a big and growing problem dating back at least three decades.

HouseholdIncomeSince the early 1980s, job growth — and especially job quality – wilted in the face of intersecting economic, political, and demographic forces.  As usual, the short end of the stick is found in the hands of the working class and lower middle-income households.  Earnings stagnated for these groups as poverty jumped and un- and underemployment took and continues to extract heavy tolls.

These aren’t just statistics for me.  They are also my family story.  My father and two siblings worked for most of their lives in manufacturing.  I made it to college by working a few summers in a local plant.  I took away both a withdrawal card from the Machinists Union and many lessons about work and life.  But my career trajectory changed, and I went to work for a series of state and federal elected officials. This was an “up close and personal” viewpoint on how government – at the state, federal, and local levels – can expand opportunities for good jobs and stronger, more resilient communities.  But lately, I’ve grown pessimistic about the prospects for political or policy changes that might make a real difference.  Gridlock and paralysis spread – perhaps an expected result of a “conservative” governance apparatus.  Politics can be a noble calling and sometimes produces courageous heroes.  But recently, we’ve seen too much ignobility and too little spine.

That’s part of why I left the public sector.  Now I work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, as a program officer in a foundation. Much of my work and that of my colleagues at The Hitachi Foundation focuses on how foundations can use their tools and resources to address challenges and expand opportunities for low wealth individuals, families, and communities.

Most philanthropy targets social, educational, or support services, while others promote policy changes.  A third category aims at organizing or direct action at the worker, community, city, or even national level.  Each has its merits, and the sector makes almost $50 billion in grants annually. But only a fraction of that, about $14 billion, is targeted to the “economically disadvantaged.”  If you divided that into equal shares and only consider the 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., it would only deliver $303 per person each year.  That’s not much of a supplement.

So philanthropy in general and our foundation in particular must focus our efforts.  The Hitachi Foundation is working on the role that good businesses can play in creating many more good jobs and improving opportunities for lower-wage workers to gain earnings and advance.  Many philanthropists, like many in working-class studies, are skeptical of the business world.  But our experience suggests that business leaders are not monolithic in their viewpoints.  If we provide evidence that “good jobs” can generate growth, profits, and happy customers, many more businesses can be spurred to take action that will benefit lower-wage and frontline workers.

Over the past five years, we’ve amassed compelling evidence that some businesses create social value even as they pursue a profitable and sustainable bottom-line.  Before we did the research, we expected that specific HR and training practices would be the generator behind significant gains in earning and career acceleration for frontline workers.  That was true in part.  But we were surprised to see that workers and employers made the largest gains when companies innovated in the products or services they offered, in the methods for producing or delivering good and services, and in HR practices and training programs.  In retrospect, of course, these strategies are interrelated. With new products or services and/or innovation in methods for producing them, there’s a premium on engaging and retaining workers with skills and experience.  And on top of that, the talent and skills grown by workers who are already in the business are often the best and most valuable fit.  All that can yield a larger overall pie that can be shared with workers.  Mutual Gain Bargaining has a history of pursuing similar ends in the context of a labor agreement.  Whether a plant is organized or not, gains aren’t always shared.  But where they are not, the workers’ incentives are poorly aligned with business goals.  Good workers with skills will be more inclined to look for other options and leave when they find them.

In the Good Companies @ Work program, we’ve collected stories of just under 100 firms that attribute their success to their frontline workers. These companies outperform their peers while providing quality jobs and pathways to the middle-class.  For example, Marlin Steel made a dramatic transition from old technology, a product in declining demand, and outmoded methods to become an innovative leader.  This Baltimore firm made baskets for bagel bakeries and stores.  But demand declined sharply according to the company because the rise of low-carb diets. Marlin quite literally “reinvented” their business and that made it possible to shift from making bagel baskets to supplying Boeing.  Today, Marlin has a more flexible approach to manufacturing a different set of products.  In part, they use some advanced technologies such as robotics and laser cutters.  The company did not make a wholesale change in their workforce.  Their core group of workers was with the company before, during, and now after the transition.  The company and the workers did invest in training, and that expanded their ability to manufacture higher quality products with less time from the initial order through design and manufacturing and on to delivery.  Another innovation at the company directly ties  wages of production floor workers to skills.  The more machines and processes they are capable of operating, the higher their hourly rate.  The firm also has a production bonus system that shares profits with workers, who can earn as much as 40% above their hourly earnings by meeting weekly team goals.

Good companies are more likely to generate good jobs.  But we’re not naïve.  Many – maybe even most – corporate or business directors are driven by short-term profit maximization.  But many are not. They bring their personal values beyond the plant gate or office door.  And those values help interest them in offering opportunities to improve wages and working conditions.  But values and motivation take business owners only so far.  We find good evidence that for many businesses, doing the right thing for and with frontline workers is not just consistent with the imperative for businesses to survive and thrive.  In many cases, it is essential to staying profitable and positioning the company for the future.

We will continue and deepen our efforts to help businesses make that connection in the years ahead.  And we’ll share what we’re learning, because we see communication as key to altering the dominant paradigm that profit margins require companies to put the maximum squeeze on labor costs.

Why focus on business to expand opportunity for low wealth, lower-wage people?  Because we believe that it works.  We’ve seen sustainable, profitable models in action. Equally important, business has more resources to create more and better jobs than either philanthropy or government.

Our goals include supporting and fomenting changes inside the plant gate, or with patient care teams, or in other settings. If we can do so that will create progress that is not dependent on the next grant or election cycle.  Neither the public sector nor the foundation world has a good track record for sustained focus and effort.  Causes rise and fall with the next crisis or new opportunity.  But strategies that yield real benefits to the bottom line and the front line, generating economic gains for companies and workers, have the potential to stick, expand, and spread.

Mark Popovich

Mark Popovich is a senior program officer at The Hitachi Foundation.  Following two decades focused on public policy as a staffer, researcher and advocate, he’s spent the last fourteen years working at the intersection of philanthropy and business.

Inequality After Occupy

When the media became aware of the protest centered at Wall Street during the fall of 2011, a predictable line of questioning immediately appeared – whatever in the world are they protesting? “The cause . . . was virtually impossible to decipher,” intoned the New York Times, joining the bulk of the mainstream coverage of the protest in its early weeks, which together professed confusion at the sight of the rag-tag group of occupiers.

Of course, to crib Liza Featherstone, covering the protests for another NY daily, the opposite was closer to the truth: everyone who came near Zuccotti Park knew exactly why the protesters were there.  Given the scale of the economic crisis, Main Street’s bailout of Wall Street, and ongoing oligarchy, the “only surprise [was that it took] so long for the citizenry to take to these particular streets.” The graphic polarization of their chant, “We Are the 99%” made it all the more clear:  it’s the (unequal) economy, stupid.

In the years since the destruction of the occupations, this critique of inequality – one, broad part of what Occupy was all about – has only broadened and deepened in the US.  Occupy should claim credit for getting it on the map, while political iterations old and new have been keeping it there.  Today, the fight against inequality is taking greater institutional shape, and seemingly exerting more leverage, in places inspired by Occupy but moving beyond its initial tactics.

Studying Occupy Wall Street in New York from its inception and through 2012, my colleagues and I traced the “enduring impact” of OWS through various measures, including the ongoing movement participation of core participants and the proliferation of “Occupy after Occupy” efforts – what journalist Nathan Schneider described as a “productively subdivided movement of movements.”

Joining most observers, we noted that Occupy’s impact was most easily traced in the extent to which it had shifted the discourse in the United States.  “Income inequality” was suddenly in the headlines.  We included a graph that showed how frequently the phrase was invoked by the media pre-, during, and post-Occupy.  We found that news mentions of “income inequality” rose dramatically with the outset of Occupy, and in the aftermath remained substantially higher through the end of 2012 (up about a third from pre-Occupy levels).

I ran the numbers again this week, and I have to admit I was surprised by the results.

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

As we’d seen before, in the year after Occupy’s peak, the numbers stayed higher – 30-50% of the pre-Occupy discussion.  But beginning in the fall of 2013, the numbers reached Occupy levels again, and this time rising to over 2000 mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in December 2013 – over 50% more than Occupy’s peak.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this rise. The occupations have gone away, but neither the crisis nor the resistance has disappeared.  Low-wage and precarious workers are at the forefront of the fights today, and they are keeping inequality in the spotlight.  This past fall and winter we’ve seen fast food strikes and the “Fight for $15”; other minimum wage fights around the country; Walmart workers demanding $25,000; university adjuncts organizing and striking.  Workers, unionists and Occupy veterans, through both traditional labor and “alt-labor” organizations are elevating the fights around income inequality and pushing for concrete change.  Tailing these developments, figures from President Obama and the Gap are now simultaneously pushing for (highly inadequate) wage increases.

Media attention to inequality reflects recent electoral shifts as well.  Mayors who ran left were decisively elected in New York, Seattle, and Boston.  (Occupations existed all over the country, but it would be interesting to probe the relationship between those Occupations and new electoral outcomes. Certainly, these three cities were home to sustained and popular occupations in fall 2011.) Labor’s candidates and initiatives did well overall, in the 2013 local election cycle; and in Seattle, Occupy activist and socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council.  While many of the core Occupy activists eschewed electoral politics, we nevertheless see the outlines of their critique emerge in race after race.

As important as Occupy’s inspiration has been as the carrot encouraging these new movements and electoral shifts, the ongoing crisis that working people are experiencing and the desperate straits that unions and other progressives find themselves in provide the stick. . Labor, in particular, has been working hard to shift course for many years.  Occupy’s eruption was a major shot in the arm, but many of the campaigns we see today have their roots pre-Occupy.

However, the energy and audacity in today’s movements are fueled in part by the experience of Occupy (and the organizers who started the occupations and emerged from them). Direct action and prefigurative practices inform many of the efforts that contribute to today’s groundswell, such as the strikes and walkouts.  But unions are also exploring worker cooperatives, community groups and activists are forestalling foreclosures through occupations, and activists are tying collective student debt refusal to the demand for free higher education.

The Occupy activists we spoke with two years ago continuously echoed each other, saying that the movement needs to “take the long view” and remember that change doesn’t happen overnight.  I haven’t spoken with enough of those activists today to know their assessment of the fights they see and are participating in today.  They are not out there, all day, all week, occupying Wall Street – and it wasn’t enough when they were. The scale of necessary social transformation remains daunting, and questions of both strategy and power loom large. But all day, and all week, more people are talking about inequality and directly fighting against it.  And workplace by workplace, franchise by franchise, ordinance by ordinance, council member by council member, co-op by co-op, the struggle continues.

Penny Lewis

Penny Lewis is an Assistant Professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, School of Professional Studies, CUNY.  She is also the author  of Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory.


Work To Do

I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.

The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.

The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the sculpture. The piece matters, but we don’t take it too seriously. Dad named it “Employee of the Month,” which usually gets a laugh.

I say that my brother and I come from a working-class family, even though Dad’s salary as a clock-punching, union-protected, steel mill worker probably put our family financially in the lower middle class in the area of rural western Pennsylvania I grew up in. But culturally, we were working class. Dad worked in the Hot Mill Combustion department at the Armco steel mill in Butler, so the furnaces that melted the steel were his responsibility. His dad worked in the rail yard at the Pullman-Standard rail car mill across the street from Armco, and he worked a second job as a plasterer. Our other grandpa was a truck driver. Our uncle is a carpenter at a state university. The women in our family worked just as hard as the men, mostly as homemakers, and occasionally in the service industry.

I was raised to work hard. My dad’s dad shared stories about (mis)adventures navigating rail cars through the rail yard on his midnight shift at the mill, and then spending the following morning plastering walls and ceilings around town. I’ve helped—well, mostly watched—as my uncle built a porch for my grandparents’ single-wide trailer one Saturday morning. My dad went off to work wearing steel–toed boots, carrying his hard hat and lunch pail. On the weekends, my brother and I helped Dad clear our property, stacking logs as he ran the chainsaw.  Mom kept the house and clothes clean and always had a homemade meal on the table.

I was always good at school, so that’s what I worked at the hardest. But, while I was smart and determined, sometimes I got lost. I didn’t always know how to ask questions or where to go to get the information I needed.  When I encountered difficulties, my family wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to offer suggestions, but they encouraged me to ask questions and not to be intimidated by authority figures. I also benefitted from being a straight white male in a society that often subtly privileges that identity. Often I found my way only because when I was unsure who to ask, I felt comfortable asking everyone.

Then, one semester for a sociology class, I read the article “Moving Up from the Working Class,” by Joan Morris and Michael Grimes. They share interviews with sociologists from working-class families who identified two difficulties in their own experiences. The first was a deficit in cultural capital. Because of their cultural background, the respondents felt they sometimes lacked the social skills necessary to do well in academic settings. The second involved a contradiction: while their parents encouraged them to “do better,” which implied going to college and likely working a job that did not involve manual labor, the parents also advanced a culture that valued manual labor over other forms of work. Manual labor was acknowledged in a way that intellectual or managerial work was not. So, while they had attained good positions in their field, their work often did not feel real or legitimate.  Their stories gave me some perspective and provided some language for me to make sense of my experiences. It also helped me realize how useful sociology can be in helping a person make sense of how their individual opportunities are shaped by their social situations.

Back in college, I told one of my professors, Jim Perkins, about my dad working at the mill. He shared a story based on his experiences in a mill. The story begins at a local bar, when someone states that, “Professors have never worked a day in their life.” The protagonist of the story, like the professor in real life, accepted this as a challenge and spent his summer working in a local galvanizing mill. The rest of the story overflows with images of hard work and calamity, but he was ultimately welcomed into the group of mill workers with a round of shots at the bar after the last shift of his probationary period. I am motivated by the same forces, but in the opposite direction. He was working to show that a professor can be competent and capable in a mill, while also using the experience in his professional work to demonstrate the value of stories. I am working to show that a kid from a working-class family can be a competent and capable academic, while also demonstrating the practical value of academic lessons.

A friend pointed out that the maintenance of masculinity must play a role in how I think of work, and she’s right. Family members will make jokes about how soft my hands are or suggest that maybe I am “afraid” of getting dirty. So when I go home, I’ll do things like run the chainsaw and help my uncle with a project. Ironically, work rules at the university prevent me from actually hanging the sculpture on my office wall myself. This work will be done by a carpenter, someone with the same job as my uncle, not a professor.

When I go home, my family will make good-natured jokes about “the professor” lacking common sense or about academic work being easy. I counter their tales of hard work with my own. I describe the mental grind of preparing lesson plans, leading classes, grading papers, doing research, attending meetings, and advising students. One reason I am hanging this sculpture on my wall is because it expresses the cultural understandings of work I carry with me. I attempt to communicate between both worlds. I understand the accomplishment and pride of physical labor, but I also understand the persistent curiosity and mental tenacity necessary for academic work. When I am having trouble concentrating on reading, or struggling to find the words to write, I think about all the work that my family has done. I think about the clean laundry and homemade meals my mother made, as well as my grandfather driving another ten miles, my other grandfather changing clothes and heading off to a second shift of work, my uncle hammering nails, my Dad fixing a furnace. This sculpture reminds me that this office is comfortable, and that much of the work my family has done was not.

My brother and I were also lucky that our family trusted that we would make good choices about college and careers. It was only after I had lived for several years on a near poverty-level graduate student stipend, and my brother began working towards a Masters in Fine Arts, that our family really began asking about the risks we were taking. There are real risks. My brother and I have both taken on substantial student loan debt. We’re both pursuing advanced degrees in fields that have tough job markets. Neither of us has figured it all out. But we’re both making careful decisions about our career paths, and we’re both passionate about doing our work.

When visitors to my office ask, and sometimes even when they don’t, I’ll tell them about the sculpture and what it represents. And after discussing my family’s work, I’ll return to my own. I am only beginning as an assistant professor. I’ve got work to do.

Colby King

Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater State University who teaches and studies urban sociology and inequality with an emphasis on understanding place as a social structure shaping opportunities.

Adjuncts, Class, and Fear

The biggest obstacle to organizing adjunct (part-time and full-time non-tenure-track) professors, who now comprise 75% of the faculty in higher education, with part-timers working for $2700 per course on average  — is fear.  Most people assume that adjuncts fear retribution for boat-rocking of any kind.  That worry is not unfounded, since examples of such retaliation abound.

However, many adjuncts feel paralyzed by a deeper, unspoken fear, one that is primarily internal and fraught with complexities that Working-Class Studies can help illuminate and overcome.  This fear stems from the tension, well-documented and long-discussed, between adjuncts’ nominal professional status and the actual workplace conditions that place us in the category of the working class.

The intense debate surrounding Duquesne adjunct French professor Margaret Mary Vojtko’s life and death has placed this tension in an unusually prominent light. For many adjuncts, as for members of other professions, talk of organizing instills fear not so much of retaliation but of being associated with the “kind of person” who joins a union.  With titles and work that give the public perception of professional status but without the corresponding income, hanging on to that status becomes critical to maintaining one’s identity.

Professor Vojtko does not appear to have been afflicted with this kind of fear.  Contrary to what the Duquesne administration would have the public believe, she sought out and strongly supported the new union.  Her colleagues and her family, who knew her best, believe that she would have approved of the attention finally being directed at the injustices she and so many other contingent faculty have experienced for decades. Yet a disturbingly high number of the responses to Vojtko’s story reveal that many adjuncts have experienced — or are expected by others to experience — deep shame.   As a result, many adjuncts personalize and privatize the structural and systemic nature of the inequities in higher education.  Naive belief in an illusory meritocracy often obstructs the ability to understand that the academic employment system is not immutable. “I had the privilege of an education and the pleasure of work I enjoy,” goes this script,  “so I should have ‘known better,’ and now deserve the conditions in which I live.”   Variations on this theme include internal and external rebukes for not accepting the economic status quo as supposedly natural rather than constructed.

How can we combat the paralyzing effects of the internally- and externally-imposed fears in order to mobilize adjuncts into organizing and action?

One answer, evidenced by the successful forays of non-academic unions of Votjko’s  Steelworkers  and SEIU into adjunct organizing, has been to “flip the classroom,” to appropriate the language of some of the corporate reform most in vogue. In this approach, faculty indignation that adjuncts are treated as “nothing more” than, for example, fast-food workers (statements that reinforce the class divide) is transformed from denunciation into inspiration — and aspiration.  We begin to see other workers’ material and psychological gains as achievable goals.  We begin to see them as colleagues who are confronting the structural reality we have fooled ourselves into denying.  We allow ourselves to be educated by, as well as to educate, the janitors and fast-food workers of America, who are often our students and sometimes our relatives. This can only be done, like most other organizing, with one-on-one discussions that build trust and relationships as they educate.

For me, the lessons have been quite personal.  Being the granddaughter of an immigrant steelworker from Braddock, PA, was not something to which I gave much thought until I became an adjunct.  Up until then, my experiences as an Asian American woman figured more prominently in my life.   My father had moved successfully from the working class to a solid middle class professional life, never forgetting or turning his back on his roots.  My grandfather, who never finished high school, and my father, who was the first in his immediate family to get a college degree and who worked his way through college without incurring any student loan debt, saw my desire to become a college professor as a logical outgrowth of the family journey.  It validated their faith that higher education was the key element in such a journey.

My grandfather did not live to see me go on to a PhD program.  Nor did he see me get derailed from finishing it and end up in contingent academic employment needing financial assistance from my family because my full-time “part-time” teaching could hardly support a 5-person family with a new baby, a child on the autism spectrum, and a spouse who had lost his own teaching job in the worst economy in the US in decades. I’m glad that my grandfather didn’t have to witness what has shocked my father: that higher education failed to live up to their experience and expectations.

But I am also sad that my grandfather did not live to see me become an activist and organizer for contingent faculty and for the integrity of higher education.  I wish I could ask him about his union organizing in the 1930s, or why he became disillusioned with his union in the 1960s and 70s, and I wonder what he would think about the state of the American labor movement today.  I am glad that I can talk to my father about his professional association and his uncomplicated recognition and appreciation of its function as a labor organization.  And I am very glad, now that I teach mostly working-class and immigrant students at a community college, that I can speak to my dad about what it was like being a working class, “ethnic” student at a college where he was decidedly in the minority. I’m glad that being an adjunct has made me better able to understand the social, political, and economic stresses of my students.

As I work to organize adjunct faculty in Ohio and nationally, my own biggest fear is that any successes we have will erase our collective memory of our adjunct experience and desensitize us to the reality of the least advantaged of our students.  If our efforts re-gild  instead of reclaim the ivory tower, then we will have failed our students and ourselves.

Our success should instead be measured by the degree to which our movement breaks down the academic caste system and promotes respect for those of our students and colleagues who come from working-class backgrounds. It will be successful when organizing efforts, like adjuncts themselves, are no longer on the margins of political activity — or civic education.

Maria Maisto

Maria Maisto is President of New Faculty Majority.

Back-to-School Blues: Moving Kids from Playgrounds to Workstations

The end of summer:  back to school, back to work.  No more play — at least that’s what the usual end of vacation and the resumption of routine mean. Aside from the return of football, play seems pretty low on our to-do lists in September.

But one of my favorite quotes from John Dewey turns that on its head:  “Work which remains permeated with the attitude of play is art — in quality if not conventional designation.”  We play because it’s fun.  We work because we have to.  If we are able to fuse the two, Dewey says, we become artists of a sort, creating and making not out of necessity but out of enjoyment.

Schools today are little concerned with play, fun, or enjoyment.  Whether it’s getting rid of recess or cutting back on art and music, the dominance of test-based accountability in U.S. schools is increasingly driving “non-tested” subjects — music, arts, P.E., drama — out of the curriculum.

And the effects are significant:  often these subjects keep kids engaged in school in ways that math and reading cannot.  Participation in extra-curriculars (like chorus, sports, the school play) is a strong predictor of kids staying in schools.

And these stripped down schools are increasingly the schools that poor and working-class children attend.  It’s not simply because of budget cuts, although those are bad this year.  Instead, a pernicious logic has emerged for the education of children in poverty and the working class. Because schools with higher percentages of students in poverty perform worse on standardized math and reading tests, they need ever more attention to basic skills and test-taking to close the gap.  Given the time squeeze, non-tested subjects are the first to go.

I teach a lot of undergraduates who go on to teach in poor or working-class communities across the nation, and the story they tell is remarkably similar:  Beginning in about January, all attention turns to “drill and kill” routines of test preparation for the tests in May.   In many schools with high numbers of poor and working-class students, test-based accountability has produced stultifying classrooms, even those with talented teachers.

The overweening focus on math and reading test scores to the exclusion of other subjects produces a pale imitation of an education, one in which context, understanding, even love of reading are jettisoned in favor of getting a few more kids over a mostly arbitrary bar.

My objections here aren’t simply a romantic yearning for simpler, stress-free childhoods.  This is about getting schools to fuse hard play and smart work into the art of education.  It happens all the time in top-quality public schools and in private schools.  It comes about through energetic and engaging instruction that captures the imagination and in which teachers have sufficient training, knowledge and professional autonomy to make individualized assessments of what students need. It is, in fact, something that affluent families expect in their children’s education — even take for granted.

International comparisons are enlightening here.  The results from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which tested students’ ability to problem-solve and apply knowledge, indicate that the U.S. performs, roughly, in the middle of the pack of advanced industrial economies.   In math, we score below slightly below average.  When you examine those results by poverty-level, however, a sharp and clear line of inequality emerges:  students attending U.S. schools in which less than 10 percent of students were in poverty scored higher on reading, as a group, than any other country in the world.  In contrast, students at U.S. schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or more scored nearly dead last among all nations.

In other words, U.S. schools with low levels of poverty are among the world’s best.  On the other hand, schools with high concentrations of poverty are among the worst schools in industrializing nations.  In a nation with nearly 22 percent of all its children in poverty in 2011, it doesn’t take much economic segregation to produce a school with 75 percent poverty rates.

A lot of this confirms what research on poverty and test-taking has shown for a long time:  both individual-level of poverty and high concentrations of poverty in schools produce lower test scores.  But test-based accountability as it has been practiced in the U.S. of late focuses on the wrong end of the equation.  Rather than either addressing the poverty of children or their economic segregation in schools, we force poor students in poor schools to undergo mindless test preparation in an effort to overcome their poverty and economic isolation.

The notion of accountability becomes farcical here.  Without attention to inputs — to budgets, curricula, school infrastructure, the class composition of schools — we will have a much harder time improving the quality of education for poor and working-class children.  The fallacy of test-based accountability as a model of school reform rests in its perversion of what an education is.  In its worst forms, it punishes students for their poverty by robbing them of any opportunity for real education.

The next major development on the horizon — the Common Core of State Standards — purports to raise standards for all children, in an effort to make the U.S. more competitive in an international arena. But at the top end of the income distribution, we already more than hold our own.

At the bottom end, expecting test scores to jump solely by raising the rigor of the standards becomes something of a cruel joke played upon children in poverty whose schools face growing class sizes, reduced staff support, and stripped out curricula.  School budgets have been wracked by the Great Recession.  In Philadelphia this year, all guidance counselors have been eliminated at schools with fewer than 600 children, meaning roughly 60 percent of Philadelphia schools don’t have counselors.

For kids with few resources available to them, a counselor can mean having a coat to get through a Philly winter or getting enrolled in an after-school program.  These concerns and distractions take their toll on students and families, but test-based accountability ignores those real-life consequences as it imposes sanctions on schools — and, increasingly, teachers — unable to overcome those challenges.  Of course, those challenges do not confront more affluent children.

Until we can pay closer attention to those inputs and those contexts of learning, the capacity of test-based accountability to improve education for poor children is about as likely as trying to launch Fourth of July fireworks in a thunderstorm.  You could do it, but it wouldn’t be very much fun.

Douglas S. Reed

Douglas S. Reed is an Associate Professor Government at Georgetown University and a 2013-2014 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  He is the author of the forthcoming book Building the Federal Schoolhouse:  Localism and the Education State.




“Transmedia” Conversations: Working-Class Studies and Expanding Audiences

A classic conundrum of academic writing about social class is that its style and concerns often exclude readers who are themselves from working-class backgrounds. As a teen-ager growing up in an industrial area of Chicago, I remember reading a classic sociological text from the 1970s about the steel mill where my father had worked as a shear operator. I hoped the book might offer insights regarding my father, the many generations of my family who had lived in the area, and the larger community that was then in the throes of deindustrialization. I expected to recognize us in the account. I was frustrated to discover, however, that the book used opaque terminology and engaged in debates I had never heard of nor cared about. In short, I resented the fact that it was written about us, but not for us.  Re-reading that classic work now as a professional anthropologist, I marvel at its insights, its sensitivity, and its helpful interventions in academic debates. Yet I remain concerned with the same question: why is it so difficult for academic works to include broader audiences in the conversation?

Of course, the reasons are more complex than I guessed as a resentful teen-ager. It’s not that all academics are snobs or obsessed by jargon, but that institutional structures make it difficult to communicate in a plainer style. Our academic peers judge our work, and they expect us to demonstrate how our work is part of an academic conversation. Being part of that conversation strengthens our thinking, and we, in turn, try to influence colleagues within our disciplines and beyond. The admission price to the conversation, however, is the scholarly apparatus of citations and, often, jargon. Some scholars have, of course, tried to get around these exclusionary tendencies in various ways, from writing different pieces for different audiences to engaging in “outside” forms of activism.  Working-class studies scholars have tried to find a middle ground, using autobiographical storytelling as a writing strategy. Instead of pushing others away, as academic language can do, stories invite people in. Although analysis is often bound up with working-class storytelling, the trick for academics, as Sherry Lee Linkon has suggested, is ensuring that our own storytelling also pushes forward both analysis and theory-making.

I’d like to suggest another possible tool for broadening academic conversations and pushing forward analyses of social class – storytelling across multiple media platforms. My collaborator Chris Boebel and I are currently engaged in one such “transmedia” endeavor, the Exit Zero Project. Although this “experiment” is in mid-stream and its outcome unclear, it has raised questions for us about shifting possibilities for academic engagement in a highly mediated age. The Exit Zero Project has three components: my recently-released book, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago; a companion documentary film, Exit Zero, currently in post-production; and an interactive documentary website we plan to develop in collaboration with the all-volunteer Southeast Chicago Historical Museum. The book and film are set in the former steel mill community of Southeast Chicago and interweave family stories over multiple generations to offer a window onto the long-term social and environmental impacts of “deindustrialization,” the role it has played in expanding class inequalities in the United States, and the ways in which Americans talk – and fail to talk – about social class. The website is intended to foster and broaden this storytelling by using documents, photos, oral histories, and home movies donated by residents to the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum as storytelling prompts to elicit further discussion among area residents, those from other deindustrialized communities, and the general public.

Although “transmedia” work often refers to telling stories across multiple forms of new media, in our case, we’re interested in working across “old” and “new” media and in the process bringing potentially disparate audiences and genres into conversation. A book, a documentary film, and a website linked to a local institution may all tap into different audiences, and we have worked to keep all three pieces connected and accessible. For example, I wasn’t sure if family, neighbors, and other Southeast Chicago residents would find an academic ethnography like Exit Zero interesting, but I wanted them to feel invited to read it. Consequently, even though the book was published by an academic press and written with undergraduates in mind, it places family stories at the center and relegates the academic theory – although not the analysis – to the endnotes.

Although still in process, the initial audience involvement with this “transmedia” project has been intriguing. Just before the book was published, we worked with others to create an informational website for the Exit Zero Project as a whole, and we included an 8 minute trailer for the film. The Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, which has lively facebook traffic among current and former area residents, publicized the site. In response, we began to receive a steady stream of emails and letters from those with ties to the region. Some wrote in response to the film trailer; others read the book and shared their thoughts. On the day the book was officially released, my mother called to report that she’d been startled to look in a storefront window that day and see her hairdresser friend reading a copy.

A few months later, we showed a rough cut of the documentary in Chicago at two screenings – one sponsored by Chicago Working-Class Studies at the Field Museum and one at a local library in Southeast Chicago. The response of many audience members to the “stories” in the book and film has been similar: they feel a need to “witness” their own experiences and want to debate the impact of deindustrialization. What is striking is not that this “transmedia” project is getting out the word about a finished project, but that it has generated discussions that are shaping the project itself. These conversations have included debates about how and why the mills went down, recollections about the tenor of neighborhood life, discussions of the health effects of industrial pollution in the region, and representations of working-class communities and individuals, among other topics, pushing forward our own analysis in the project. Project events are also being incorporated into the cultural style of community gatherings I remember from my childhood rather than more academic ones – with my mom and others serving home-made cookies and coffee and selling discounted copies of the book at the local screening and planning events at churches and community halls. We hope that the museum website will not only be able to harness this engagement and story-telling momentum, but also provide a space for further conversation and knowledge-sharing that has a semi-autonomous life of its own.

For an academic whose previous work circulated only to other academics, the difference in this experience has been striking. While, initially, I hesitated to presume that Southeast Chicago residents would want to engage with this kind of “academic” project, now it seems that people had been waiting for an invitation. Although “transmedia” work clearly has its own constraints (not least, the need for multiple skill sets, often requiring team efforts, and more funding), can the burgeoning number of transmedia projects offer an additional tool in moving our work off purely academic institutional tracks? Can we use it to extend a broader invitation to conversations about social class?

Christine Walley

Christine Walley is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and the author of Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago.

Battlers in Focus: Australian Working-Class Film

As someone with a working-class background, I’m always on the lookout for films that represent the working class people and places I know. That doesn’t necessarily mean people I’ve actually met or places I’ve visited,  just people and places I can relate to as a working-class person. This is why I can watch working -class films from around the world and feel a connection to the characters and their circumstances, even if they are set in Taipei or Paris.

Australian working-class films may work the same way for you, even if you’ve never been here. The films I want to recommend all fall roughly into the category of ‘art house,’ but don’t let this put you off! I’m a great fan of the genre, but I know the slow pace and lack of linear narratives in some art house films can be an acquired taste. Acquired by anyone, I should add. I don’t think you need high levels of cultural capital to enjoy an art house film – just the opportunity to watch one.  I first discovered this kind of film as a teenager, when a friend and I learned that the art house cinema near our work place showed films at discounted rates. Rest assured, the films mentioned here are all compelling and powerful and (quite often) visually stunning.

You might also be worried that these films will be too grim. They do confront viewers with the reality of class experience played out on screen, and some find the social and political reality of hardship sometimes too much to bear.  After all, some of us have experienced firsthand what is represented, and the films become a bit too close to home. These films don’t necessary offer an obvious positive view of working-class life at first glance, but this is because the filmmakers want to show the impact of inequality and disadvantage and life how it is. These films aren’t poverty porn, though. They are nuanced representations of working-class life (including the ugly bits sometimes). They also depict resilience, community, and humor — one of the films is a comedy! I find them empowering and powerful.

Samson and Delilah (2009): Warwick Thornton’s visually stunning and ultra-cinematic film about two Aboriginal teenagers who leave their remote community and head to town. This film shows the legacies of devastating colonizing practices and how a class system imposed on Aboriginal people has led to continuing inequality.

Toomelah (2011): Ivan Sen’s low-budget story about a young Aboriginal boy in country New South Wales. It’s a no-holds barred, hand-held camera portrayal of the boy’s community but the film doesn’t just depict poverty. The sense of community is very strong in this film.

Thornton and Sen are part of a wave of Indigenous filmmakers making their mark on the Australian film industry and gaining attention worldwide. For more on their work and on Indigenous film in Australia in general, have a look at Australian Screen Online.

Head On (1998): Sexuality, ethnicity, and class are explored in Ana Kokkinos’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded. The protagonist, Ari is a young gay working-class man from a Greek background. He has to negotiate his position within these communities, and he does so with the help of plenty of sex and drugs!

Blessed (2009): Also directed by Ana Kokkinos, this film is desperately sad but is ultimately about the power of love and family and the resilience of working-class women. Be warned, though: the ending is absolutely devastating.

Little Fish (2005): Rowan Woods’s film about a recovering heroin addict attempting to find her feet in the working-class suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney. Cate Blanchett is fantastic in this drama – her character faces continual judgement from those familiar with her past.

Kenny (2006): A very funny and affectionate mockumentary from Clayton Jacobson starring Kenny the plumber. Kenny takes on the really dirty jobs (he’s responsible for maintaining portable toilets at events), and his observations of the people (mainly middle class) who use his facilities are wry and insightful.

The Boys (1998): Another intense drama from Rowan Woods exploring the potential negative and sometimes violent side to working-class masculinity. This film is an adaptation of a stage play and is a close-in dialogue driven drama. It’s extremely menacing and atmospheric.

West (2007): Daniel Krige’s tale of two unemployed cousins trying to make their way in the disadvantaged suburbs of western Sydney. This film demonstrates the limited choices for those who grow up in disadvantage. A bit grim this one.

Somersault (2004): A story from Cate Shortland about a teenage girl who runs away from home and finds herself out of her depth in a small country town. This is a beautifully shot and slow paced film.

There are many more fantastic Australian films and a whole history of working-class representation in Australian film (from the very beginning of the industry – you could start with The Sentimental Bloke from 1919). Hopefully this list of films will give you somewhere to start, and you may well develop an appreciation of Australian film, which tends to be a bit neglected even at home.

Sarah Attfield

Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.


Critical Literacy in Working-Class Schools

In her recent post Kathy Newman discusses the lengths to which schools go to improve students’ high-stakes test scores and reminds us that parents’ income is the best predictor of students’ performance on standardized tests.  Nevertheless, when working-class public school students perform poorly on high-stakes tests we say to the teachers, “It’s your fault.  Teach better!”  What we get is teachers who teach worse:  lessons become scripted and rote.  And we say to students, “It’s your fault.  Try harder!”  What we get are students who become even more alienated and less motivated.

Of course, lurking behind the whole issue of high-stakes testing is our faith in the concept of the concept of meritocracy.  Only when meritocracy is rigorously defined and the assumptions underlying it are stated explicitly, does it become problematic.

Meritocracy starts with the assumption that, by and large, all American children start kindergarten or first grade on a nearly equal footing and as they progress through the grades those who are smart and work hard earn good grades are placed in high-status school programs, enter high-status, high-paying professions, and end up with a lot of money, status, and political power regardless of the social status of their parents.  On the other hand, students who are not smart and/or do not work hard earn poor grades are placed in low status school programs, enter low-status, low-paying occupations, and end up with little money, status, and political power regardless of the social status of their parents.

But since most children of affluent parents become affluent adults and most children of working-class parents become working-class adults, meritocracy leaves us with the conclusion that most children of affluent parents are intelligent and hard-working (the logic of merit), while most children of working-class parents are lazy and lack intelligence (the logic of deficit).

There is, however, a better explanation: school success is tied to systematic inequalities that persist from generation to generation.  Working-class children are not as well prepared for primary school as more affluent children, and they often attend different schools or are assigned different classes.  And those who have high SAT scores do not have the same access to higher education as more affluent students with similar or lower test scores.

These are fairly apparent instances of structural inequality, but there are less obvious structural phenomena at work.  Many working-class students see high-status knowledge and cultural capital as useless and even antithetical to their working-class identity.  They develop oppositional identity, defining themselves different from schoolteachers or people like them.  At the same time, the schools generally ignore any sense of importance or entitlement students may have as working-class people. So the students resist teachers’ attempts to teach, and unlike most other students, they often find affirmation for their resistance in their homes and communities.

A modified teaching paradigm ensues.  Teachers give easy assignments and provide step-by-step directions.  Classroom control becomes a paramount concern;  teachers refuse to negotiate with students in fear of losing authority.   Many teachers of working-class students see their mission as producing border crossers—students who believe in meritocracy, are academically inclined, and willingly adopt middle-class values, tastes, and interests. But many working-class students who have these qualities are defeated by structural barriers, while those who succeed are held up as proof that meritocracy works.

Since the 1930s, progressive educators like George Counts have insisted that we cannot have a real democracy so long as we have domesticating education for half the nation’s school children—children of the working class.  Counts referred to empowering education for children of the working class as “progressive education,” but today many teachers who consider themselves progressive educators buy into meritocracy as a valid concept and strive to produce border crossers, rather than empowered working-class men and women.

In 1970 Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed popularized the term “critical literacy” (so called because of Freire’s adherence to Marxist critical theory).  Freire’s literacy programs for adults in Brazil’s slums started with raising students’ consciousness of the structural inequalities that oppressed them and preparing them, largely through literacy,  to strive for justice.  Critical reading (recognizing the author’s bias and so on) has been standard reading instruction for at least fifty years.  It is sometimes referred to as critical literacy, but it falls a little shy of education based on critical theory.  Following Allan Luke, critical literacy as an explicitly political classroom agenda for the education of working-class students, devoted to changing class relations in ways that are advantageous to the working class.  It brings Mother Jones into the classroom, not as a benign topic of study but as an inspiration and model of good citizenship.

The most enduring experiment in critical literacy for school aged children in the U.S. took place not in public schools but in Sunday schools operated by the American Socialist Party.  Socialist Sunday schools served children between age 5 and 14 in many cities, between 1900 and 1920.  Students were exposed to an abundance of working-class poetry, music, theater, and dance.  Visits from labor, community, and political leaders provided them with social capital and encouraged students to have confidence and pride in working-class values, knowledge, and beliefs.  Like Freire’s literacy campaigns, the schools aimed to raise students’ consciousness regarding the structural inequalities that oppressed them and to prepare them to strive for justice. Students were encouraged to cooperate and work hard in public school to acquire high-status knowledge, cultural capital, and high levels of literacy, not simply for their intrinsic value but as sources of power in the social-political-economic arena.  This was later dubbed Machiavellian Motivation.

Students learned that capitalism without an organized, powerful working class produces things like poverty, unemployment, unsafe work, and child labor and that these phenomena cannot be solved through individual effort. They are societal (structural) problems that demand collective solutions.  So instead of quitting a job that doesn’t pay a living wage, students learned that they should pursue collective actions like starting or joining unions.

Critical literacy has found a home in some working-class public schools today, where teachers have designed lessons that reflect the values taught in the Socialist Sunday schools of a century ago.  Consider these examples:

  • A fifth grade teacher organizes a field trip where students interview striking workers on a picket line and then write about what they learned.
  • Tenth grade students studying the forced removal of American Indians from the southeast to west of the Mississippi known as The Trail of Tears share individual accounts of times when they were oppressed because they were youths, females, minorities, and/or working-class.  In a “writing circle” they turn these accounts into a collective narrative of oppression and identify the steps they could take to prevent further oppression, like joining forces with others in the same spot and looking for powerful allies.
  • In a high school where most working-class Hispanic students take “basic” classes while affluent, white students take honors classes, some affluent white students agree to have a Hispanic student “shadow” them and to talk about their plans for after high school.  The Hispanic shadow students then compare the stark differences between their own classes and life expectations and those of their affluent classmates. This gives the Hispanic students a glimpse into structural injustice. It also illustrates Machiavellian motivation: some of the Hispanic students  later push to gain admission to honors courses.

Critical literacy educators, like Socialist Sunday school teachers, endeavor to produce three kinds of  “graduates”:

1) Working-class men and women who have the understanding and motivation to participate in collective action to improve the lot of the working class (in unions, for example)

2) organic intellectuals who are able to get a deep understanding of socialist theory and still talk to workers in a language they can understand

3 ) a particular kind of border crosser—one who will never cross a picket line or become a follower of Ayn Rand.

Critical literacy educators provide working-class students with a new kind of motivation to acquire the language and communication skills and the knowledge that will make them powerful members of a powerful working class.  That is what critical literacy is all about.  I believe students in Socialist Sunday schools would have done quite well on standardized academic achievement tests if they had them back then.

Patrick J. Finn

Patrick J. Finn is Associate Professor Emeritus of Education at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York and the author of Literary with an Attitude:Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest.