Category Archives: Nick Coles

A Tale of Two Cities and Two Activists

Climate change and increasing class inequities are two of the most pressing issues of our time.  How are policies and activism addressing these problems? Two young women working for progressive change in two mid-sized cities offer inspiring models, one from inside local government and the other via grassroots organizing.

Plymouth, a city of around 250,000 people on the coast of Devon about 200 miles southwest of London, is best known in the US as the port from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in 1620.  Once a major naval and commercial port, Plymouth shed population and prosperity as shipyards closed and docks lost traffic.  Western Europe’s largest naval base, HMNB Devonport, sits across the river from the city, but it contributes little to the local economy.

Plymouth’s City Council takes a progressive approach to the city’s social and environmental problems.  A “Fairness Commission” makes recommendations addressing such issues as substandard housing, youth unemployment, isolation of the elderly, ethnic discrimination, cuts in public services, “food deserts,” and disparities in life expectancy between affluent and deprived parts of town.  On the environmental front, Council has established a Low Carbon City Team, “responsible for promoting and delivering plans and projects that will shape Plymouth’s ability to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide resilience to the impacts of climate change.”  Jenny Howard Coles (my niece) is a member of that seven-person team working on projects that connect energy sourcing, land-use planning, and social justice.

For instance, the Plymouth Energy Community advises residents on switching suppliers to lower costs.  It also offers a Solar Share Scheme, a public-private partnership whereby residents can invest in community-owned small-scale renewable energy installations in the city.  Six primary schools have now been fitted with solar panels, and displays inside each building show students how much energy is generated and carbon emissions reduced.  Jenny’s department also supports “self-build” eco-housing on vacant land provided by the Council, working with a community association to offer training in construction and to maintain existing jobs in the building trades.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a population of 380,000, down from half a million before the decline of the steel industry.  It sits at the hub of Allegheny County, a conurbation of around two million.  Despite thriving educational and medical sectors, Pittsburghers still suffer stagnant wages, pockets of high poverty, and steep racial disparities in health and in academic achievement. Also, in spite of its near-total deindustrialization, Pittsburgh still has very poor air quality, due to vehicle exhaust and emissions from US Steel’s Clairton coke works.

After decades of fairly dysfunctional city government, Pittsburgh may be on the cusp of a progressive turn.  For instance, Pittsburgh has the distinction of being the first city in the world to ban “fracking” – the extraction of gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing of underground shale – within city limits, due to a groundswell of protest that has united working-class residents with mainstream environmental groups.   Another vital local movement has been the campaign to save the city’s public transportation system.

As a city of hills, rivers, and congested roads, Pittsburgh relies on mass transit to get people where they need to go.  Yet the region has lost half of its routes since 2006, and now has the second highest fares of any US city.  In response to a threatened 35% reduction in 2010, Alicia Williamson helped found Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), which unites riders with unionized drivers and other stakeholders to “keep the public in public transit.”  This includes advocating for state funding:  Pennsylvania has provided no consistent year-to-year support for two decades.  In a key move of solidarity, PPT has promoted a “Transit Bill of Rights” that includes the right to “living wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and union rights for transit workers,” along with “safe, reliable, environmentally-sustainable, and affordable transit that is accessible to all.”

Years of campaigning were finally rewarded by passage in November 2013 of PA Act 89 providing dedicated funding for five years to Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) and Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.  Significantly, Act 89 does not provide for restoration of services to communities that were previously cut off.  PPT’s efforts can now pivot towards that goal, along with lowering fares, and greening the fleet – investments that will require downtown corporations, many of which operate tax-free, to pay their fair share towards the mobility of their workers and customers.  The key strategy, Alicia says, is making public planning processes more transparent and inclusive so that the system better reflects the needs of the community.

Alicia Williamson and Jenny Howard Coles are both 30 years old, well educated, from middle-class families with working-class roots.  Jenny hails from Bristol, where her mother is a sculptor and her father a former lecturer in special education.  She holds a Masters in environmental and energy studies from the Center for Alternative Technology.   Before signing on in Plymouth, she worked as an event coordinator, handling sustainability issues for major summer arts festivals.  Alicia, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 2006, is from Duluth, Minnesota, where her dad worked for the Social Security Administration and mother was a high school guidance counselor.  She has a PhD in English, having written a dissertation on the sexual politics of novels written by members of the Socialist Party of America, and she has been teaching undergraduates at Pitt for the past eight years.

Both women show remarkable political savvy and capacity for partnership in their projects.  Jenny understands that good ideas generated with groups like the Plymouth Energy Community need to be thought through with the city Planning Department and need to meet EU statutory requirements for sustainability.  She likes the way this leads to what she calls “joined up thinking.”  So, for instance, the Fairness Commission’s recommendation for school meals for all pupils was implemented in a way that met goals for employment, health, and low-carbon in one move: on-site kitchens were re-opened in each school so that meals were fresher and hotter, rather than being shipped from a central kitchen.  And meals were prepared using locally sourced food, thereby supporting area farmers and businesses and reducing fuel used in transport.

In a similar-but-different vein, Alicia is working with and between two powerful institutions – Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC)  – whose interests overlap in some areas and conflict in others.  As a well-informed and independent community group, not subject to the internal politics of either organization, PPT can take positions that push their agendas.  Crucially, Alicia and other staffers have partnered with the union: many ATU drivers are also members of PPT.  They have also won a seat at the table as PAAC begins a new round of planning for a regional transportation strategy.  Pittsburgh is out in front with this kind of partnership.  Although the ATU International is committed to working with riders’ advocacy groups, PPT was the only such group attending the union’s Transit Action Month rally in Washington DC last week.

A key difference, of course, is that Jenny works within local government, in a city where the Council supports its staff in advising community groups advocating for just and sustainable practices.  She has a direct influence on policy and the resources to implement sound programs.  And she has access to data that allow her to assess progress on Low Carbon goals, such as  a 40% increase in bicycle ridership.  When I asked if she gets discouraged about the slow pace of change in the face of massive problems, she says: “It’s difficult, but good work is good work and it feels good to be engaged in it.”  She believes a food crisis is inevitable within ten years, given the impacts of climate change, and wants to help Plymouth develop the capacity to withstand it.

Unlike Jenny, Alicia works from the outside in, drawing on her experience as an activist for social and economic justice, as she pressures entrenched institutions to heed their “public” and meet the community’s needs.  She’s canvassed, petitioned, demonstrated, testified, lobbied, and handled media for the cause.  At the DC Transit Action rally, Alicia shared the stage with the Rev. Al Sharpton.  She was  one of few women and likely the youngest speaker in a roster of seasoned pols and union leaders.  “Public transportation is the backbone of healthy economies, environments, and communities,” she said, thanking the ATU “for making our transit systems better and safer and more equitable.”  When I ask Alicia the same question about discouragement, she says: “I refer to this work as ‘recreation’ in the most profound sense of the word; re-creating our selves and our world together.”

Jenny and Alicia both stress teamwork with communities in their two cities as a source for the energy, fresh ideas, and optimism that sustain them as they address the impacts of climate change and structural inequalities.  In Plymouth as in Pittsburgh, while fully aware of the daunting big picture, they have chosen near-term local issues around which people can unite and witness the positive effects their actions can have.

Nick Coles

Climate Change and Income Inequality

People committed to struggles for peace and justice always have our work cut out for us.  The forces arrayed against us are powerful and determined, and the range of issues and crises demanding action is daunting.  Given our limited time and energy, where and how do we apply them for the common good?  What guides us in deciding?  Life experience and the values we uphold, no doubt, but also our analysis of the present situation.  For me, the two broad concerns that have become most pressing, at least since the economic collapse of 2008, are income inequality and climate change.

These are, of course, twin products of industrial capitalism and its class system.  The rising oceans, killer heat waves, floods, species extinctions, and crop failures we are witnessing on the climate front – like the poverty wages, attacks on labor, bank fraud, malnutrition, and “austerity” in public services on the class front – are inter-related signs of a system in crisis.  Yet the two issues – climate change and income inequality – are rarely linked in a common analysis.

For instance, a recent study by the UK Government Office of Science predicts that, given increasing global population, “by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.”  Author John Beddington adds, “This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events,” without specifying what those events might be or how they will be exacerbated by unequal distribution of the necessary resources.

The just-published fifth assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes a bit further, according to The Guardian’s report:

The volume of scientific literature on the effects of climate change has doubled since the last report, and the findings make an increasingly detailed picture of how climate change – in tandem with existing fault lines such as poverty and inequality – poses a much more direct threat to life and livelihood. (my italics)

One study that does make the link explicit comes from the NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in a report titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.”  When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about this report in his Earth Insight blog for The Guardian, he touched a nerve regarding our “convergent catastrophes,” and generated a storm of commentary.  The study, Ahmed writes, “highlight[s] the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

The HANDY report begins with a review of past collapses of societies – such as the Roman Empire, Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization – to demonstrate that societal collapse is “a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”  Collapse typically entails loss of political authority, breakdown of economic systems, and inability to sustain the population.   Not all societies collapse, of course, but in those cited the cycle of “boom and bust” seems to take about 300 – 500 years.

Noting “widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource use are unsustainable,” the authors apply their analysis of such collapses to the question “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible.”  Explanations for particular cases of collapse vary by time and place and include drought, foreign invasion, earthquakes, technological change, famine, and popular uprising.  But across states and cultures that have collapsed over the past 5000 years, the authors find two common features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).”

Using the HANDY theoretical model, the authors analyze interactions between population and natural resources as these tend towards equilibrium or towards collapse, across three scenarios: 1. Egalitarian society without Elites, which can achieve a “soft landing” to equilibrium;2. Equitable society, with Workers and non-Workers (students, retirees, disabled people), which oscillates a bit but can still achieve a negotiated sustainable equilibrium; 3. Unequal society with Elites and Commoners — “most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” – in which,

Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates.  . . .  However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Good luck with that, you might be thinking – but it is the goal!

The HANDY analysis is mathematical and complex, but two significant points emerge clearly.  One is that technological innovation does not reverse the trend towards collapse:  “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”  For example, greater fuel economies for cars can have the “rebound” effect of encouraging people to drive more and faster, in newer cars.  Current “policy effects,” despite occasional “green” tweaking, all tend towards encouraging consumption as a stimulus to economic growth.

The other point addresses the conundrum: do the leaders of the fossil fuel industries, and the politicians who do their legislative bidding, not know that their activities will make the Earth uninhabitable, for themselves as well as the rest of us?  Well, “it is important to note that the Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners.  This buffer of wealth allows the Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”   This mechanism, the authors believe, may explain the obliviousness of the elites in the face of the impending Roman and Mayan collapses.  But they got theirs in the end.

Although I’ve been concerned here with scenarios of collapse, I am an optimist, still hopeful that the arc of human history does indeed bend towards justice.  I am also a realist, and I sense that the arc is going to need a mighty shove from those of us who still believe we can shape our history.  The fundamental problem we face, as the HANDY study makes clear, is that a sustainable equilibrium of population and resources is incompatible with business as usual under industrial capitalism.  And the difference in the current cycle of boom and bust is that the society threatened with collapse is not Roman or Mayan or even American, but global.  It’s all of us.

Perhaps I ‘ve gone a long way round to affirm the obvious: that issues of economic and social justice are interrelated with issues of environmental justice and climate change, and that we need to keep making those links visible in our activism.   But I find it helpful to have an analysis that explains the linking mechanism and points a way forward, while laying out very clearly the consequences of inaction.

Nick Coles

Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

Nick Coles

Climate Change as a Class Issue

On a Monday morning a month ago I was sitting on the marble floor of the Squirrel Hill branch of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, with a circle of activists protesting PNC’s financing of mountain-top removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia.  MTR causes increased cancer rates and birth defects, as well as massive environmental degradation — not to mention the carbon dioxide emissions and global warming generated by burning the mined coal.  This was one of a sixteen bank occupations organized by the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) to coincide with the Power Shift gathering that drew thousands of climate activists to the city for a weekend of trainings and actions. 

Our small group included a young family, Nick and Rustina and their two children, who spoke tearfully of how their home-place in Clintwood, Virginia, had been ruined by MTR.  The mountain where generations of their coal-mining family had hiked and hunted was razed, the stream where the kids had fished and played now ran orange, and drinking water to their home and the municipal supply was contaminated.  They had moved to Berea, Kentucky, to go back to school and try for a fresh start.  Their story was just one small instance of how the business of what Bill McKibbon refers to as “rogue” energy corporations disproportionately affects working-class and poor people in the US.  Other examples would include urban children’s asthma rates, chemical dumping in poor neighborhoods, nuclear waste on native lands – and the list goes on.


The extremity of the mess we’re in with climate change has become a focus of urgent concern for me — later than it should have, no doubt.  And my recent activist experience and the reading I’ve been doing lead me to see this as a class issue, requiring a class-conscious response.

Let’s look at the scope of what Stephen Emmott, in his clarifying but terrifying book 10 Billion, calls “the unprecedented planetary emergency we have created.”  (I’ll question this culpable “we” below.)   A recent New York Times article on rising sea levels, concludes that “babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity.”  We don’t need to wait for the newborns; adults are witnessing this already in many parts of the world.  Over the last decade we have seen a series of climate crises – floods, droughts, fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, lethal heat waves, ice-melts, species extinctions – attributable to global warming.  Typhoon Haiyan is the latest example, as Yeb Sano, Philippine delegate to the current UN climate convention in Poland made clear, imploring the group to “stop this climate madness.” 

These climate events may be exacerbating the social and political crises we also see: famine, migrations, epidemics, civil wars, land-grabs, and the ratcheting up of security apparatus to protect those whose economic activity is doing the damage.  Combine these climate crises with a burgeoning global population – 10 billion by mid-century, according to Emmott – and we seem to be moving towards a full-blown climate collapse, which will, of course, bring with it economic and political catastrophes of unseen magnitude.

If that is the case – that is, if the calamity we face is global, affecting all of humanity and all other species – what does class have to do with it?  We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we, on a rapidly rising ocean?  Well, put simply, it has to do with who’s steering the boat we’re all in and who’s in line to be thrown overboard.  A class perspective highlights how the consequences of global warming, like everything else under capitalism, are unequally distributed, with poorer populations around the world hit first and hardest.

According to Maplecroft’s 2014 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, the countries most likely to suffer the devastating effects of a overheating earth and rising seas by 2025 include Bangladesh, Guinea-Bassau, Sierra Leone, and Haiti — countries which have little or no responsibility for creating the crisis.  Meanwhile, in the Amazon basin, rain forests are being razed and indigenous people removed to create the arable land to grow the soybeans to feed the cattle to produce the beef to satisfy the now-globalized appetite for hamburgers and thereby enrich the holding companies that own Burger King and other chains.

As reported on page one of yesterday’s New York Times, Typhoon Haiyan has made “climate injustice” a major focus of the UN Climate Framework Convention in Warsaw.   But of course, the effects of climate crises also spread to the developed world and wealthier populations.  This summer’s fires in California burned national parkland and high-end mountain homes.  Superstorm Sandy shocked the affluent out of the illusion of safety.  The most opulent real estate in Miami Beach will be claimed by seawater by mid-century if trends continue.

A class perspective, however, allows us to question the “we” Emmott blames for our planetary emergency.  If by “we” he means his readers — economically secure people in the developed world — then we are indeed implicated by our inequitable and unsustainable level of consumption and pollution, and we have a collective responsibility to take action.  But even “we” relatively affluent Westerners are not the designers of this crisis, and we’re not the ones profiteering on it.  A class perspective recognizes that there are real enemies in this fight, and they are in many ways the old class enemies: the operators of global capitalism.

So this is an issue of the interests of the 99% versus the 1% — our new class vocabulary, which implies an alliance of poor, working, and middle classes against that enemy — if ever there was one.  It’s a struggle for fundamental justice – economic, social, environmental — and as such it needs to be fought with all the weapons of organized resistance we’ve brought to such struggles in the past, and more: legal action, political pressure, marches, occupations, media campaigns, direct action, financial divestment, blockades – the works.  And it is indeed being fought with increasing intensity by activists of all stripes, from pacifist Quakers in the US to those on the front lines of environmental destruction around the world.


In the weeks before the EQAT bank actions I had an email conversation with a senior vice-president at PNC who happened to be a former student of mine (so depending on your perspective, I either taught him very well or poorly).  He defended the bank’s financing of MTR coal companies on the grounds that such extractive practices (he avoids the words “mountain-top removal”) are legal, and regulated, and contribute to our necessary energy supply.   You can imagine my reply: “legal” – yes, but so was slavery, once upon a time, and so were most of the actions of the banks that brought about the economic collapse of 2008; “regulated” – yes, by agencies gutted of staff and clout by austerity measures and right-wing hostility; “necessary” – hardly, coal being exactly the wrong source of energy, if we care about global warming.

He also reminded me that PNC is “everyone’s bank” – operating, I suppose, for polluters and the polluted alike, in egalitarian fashion.  Suffice it to say that PNC is not my bank, and I’m pleased to report that so far $3.3 million has been withdrawn as a part of EQAT’s “Move Your Money” campaign.  A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but I hope a noticeable one.  At any rate, the police who escorted us from the bank after our vigil seemed to understand why we were there.  They took our fliers and shook hands.  Other EQAT activists who had prepared for civil disobedience were arrested and the branch they occupied was closed for business.   They succeeded in disrupting PNC’s business-as-usual and witnessing to the devastation it conceals.  It remains to be seen if PNC will change course or continue financing MTR and other extreme modes of energy extraction.

Whatever the outcome, I came away from the bank convinced that actions for environmental justice can and should be occasions for class solidarity.  That possibility, however, is neither obvious nor easy to act on.  There’s a history of classism within the Green movement, for instance, discussed by our allies at Class Action.  And there has been a conflict between the perceived interests of labor and environmentalists, as Lou Martin explained here in 2011. Such sources of class conflict are now being addressed by groups like the Sierra Club and the BlueGreen Alliance.  And we have many other examples of cross-class organizing and histories of international solidarity to draw upon.  Naomi Klein, whose forthcoming book will address climate change and the growing grassroots resistance, cites Canada’s Idle No More and other indigenous peoples’ movements as sources of hope, inspiring global support.

Emmott concludes his book: “We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.” Let’s do that radical thing and prove him wrong.

Nick Coles

Learning from Teaching about Braddock

As an English teacher, I’m interested in the possibilities for active learning through connecting literature, daily life, and historical change.  But I’m a political animal as well as a professor, and these are urgent times.  So I was struck by a quote from the late labor historian David Montgomery.  In an interview with Radical History Review, he said: “In this country, where the talents needed to run a humane society are all around us, what we need is not a single party but many self-activated centers of popular struggle and a variety of political initiatives.  And all those centers of activity need to learn from history.”

Which has me asking myself: Can the classroom be a site of popular struggle and political initiative, or at least a staging ground for these? How can we, students and teachers, learn from history? And what should we be learning?

I regularly teach a course on Working-Class Literature, and it’s taken various forms over the years.   My syllabus begins:

This course explores a world of writing that has largely been left out of the literary mainstream — even though this working-class literature is often brilliant, shocking, and rich in hidden experience.   The course also offers an opportunity to inquire into a set questions posed by these texts, questions regarding the nature of “work,” the experience of “class,” and the uses of “literature” in our society.

This past spring, I organized the course around a local theme of “Steel, Rust, and Renewal(?)” Along with poetry, fiction, drama, music, and film from Western Pennsylvania, we used the town of Braddock as a case study of cultural representations of working people and historical change.

On the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, Braddock has undergone massive economic and cultural changes in the last century.  Once known as the home of US Steel’s largest plant and of the first Carnegie library built in the US, Braddock’s population dropped from a high of 20,000 around 1950 to about 2,000 today, 66% African American.  The town recently gained new notoriety thanks to a series of Levi’s jeans commercials featuring Braddock and to the efforts of its young mayor, John Fetterman, to revitalize the town through investment in youth programs, arts of various kinds, and alternative businesses including urban farming.

My class studied these changes, including the struggles of successive waves of immigrants, the unionization of the mills, the devastating effects of deindustrialization, and contested attempts at recovery and renewal.  Braddock’s transformations have been well documented in Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace (1941), in the films of Braddock native Tony Buba, in Levi’s-sponsored movies, in the mayor’s “Braddock 15104” website, and in the town’s library, recently dedicated as a National Historical Landmark.  We supplemented these sources with field trips and conversation with Braddock residents.

Towards the semester’s end, several students produced final projects that demonstrated how Braddock and its people can be “read” from the vantage point of the university classroom. Their representations take up and repurpose Braddock’s historical record in ways that are by turns limiting and promising.

Ken, for instance, created a website made up mostly of demographic data and stock photographs.  He framed these in the language of touristic invitation: “Welcome to, your one stop shop for everything you want to know about the wonderful city of Braddock, PA.  Here you will find pages about Braddock’s past, present, and future as well as information about interesting places to visit while in Braddock. Enjoy!”   The website is saturated –  in defiance of the data presented — in an ideology of progress: “The future may not be certain, but many people feel that with a little hardwork and dedication, Braddock will return to its former glory once more.”

Rebecca celebrates what Mayor Fetterman refers to as this “malignantly beautiful place” in a photo-essay titled, “The Art of Rust: Reviving Braddock.”  Taking her cue from the “ruins gallery” on the mayor’s website, she and her friend took pictures of an abandoned church, which they posted on Flickr under the heading “St Cobweb’s.”  In her commentary, Rebecca draws on Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class” to sound a similarly upbeat note for the future: “Braddock is historical and inspiring which attracts the attention of urban explorers.  Urban explorers could be considered tourists from the creative class.  They document urban decay and appreciate it for its beauty despite its neglect. . . . The recycling of this historic city has already begun.”

Kit, whose mother was born and raised in Braddock, produced a family memoir based on interviews and a visit to the home-site. Her narrative celebrates the town as a cradle of the values on which she believes the American Dream was founded: immigrant stock, stable family, hard work, church, and neighborhood.  But Braddock was also the place her mother “couldn’t get away from quick enough: ‘I knew there was more out there, more to the world than our sad, filthy little milltown,’ she says.”  Kit’s final paragraph mixes nostalgic longing with earnest advice for the future:

I know what Braddock is now, I know what it looks like and the sad reality of what it has become.  I’ve stared at the plot of land where my mom’s duplex once stood, the bricked over backyard with weeds poking through where those three sisters once sat laughing in Polish. . . .  I know I’m not alone in having working class roots and ethnic roots in Braddock, Pennsylvania.  I only wish I could have known Braddock as my mother would have known it, as my aunt had known it, and my grandparents, and even my great-grand-parents as they arrived straight off the boat from Poland.  Braddock, like so many other post-industrialized towns in the US is forced to reinvent, or face the reality of completely disappearing.  Braddock must look towards its current working class population to move forward into the future.

Finally, in a sharp piece of media criticism titled “15104 & 501,” Jonathan weighs in on the 2010 Levi’s ad campaign featuring Braddock.  “The campaign, “ he writes, “has had both positive and negative effects on Braddock”:

On the positive side, Braddock has benefitted from Levi’s pledge to refurbish their community center [and] support the urban farming project.  On the negative side of things, Braddock, as the object of a fashion advertisement, is becoming fetishized as a place for “pioneers.”  Although the recent Levi’s campaign has undoubtedly increased the town’s visibility, it has also contributed to a fetishized (and perhaps false) representation of the suffering town as a “new frontier” for the 21st century.”

Jonathan is concerned with how “rust became fashionable,” and — since fashion’s vogues are notoriously brief — what will happen “when that faded image itself fades from public view”?  In contrast to fashion, he proposes “community” as the engine of reinvention: “I think community is what a lot of people in the 21st century are looking to recreate.  Braddock’s revitalization will be seen as a rebirth of community – not of business per se.  Community will be achieved in Braddock with the hard-work and long-term dedication of its residents.”

Because these were end-of-term projects, I didn’t have an opportunity to bring the questions they pose back to that particular class of students, including questions about what is to be done.  I’d like to have discussed the sufficiency of faith in “hard word and dedication,” since it was not a lack of these that led to the town’s demise.  Where do we locate agency in this situation?  Whose responsibility is it to repair and restore: residents, urban explorers, government?

What I mainly take from reviewing their work is a reminder that “the talents needed to run a humane society” are gathered, right there, in our classrooms.  Students are resourceful and hopeful.  They need to be, of course: they’ve got lives to make and careers to build in a world which the powers that be in my generation have messed up for them, a world of which Braddock is just one representative symbol.

While some students want to get as far away from Braddock’s contamination of their dreams as possible, many imagine getting in there and helping to “save” the town.  That they don’t know to do that in relationship with the forces and people – many of whom don’t want to be “recycled”– already at work there is hardly surprising.  But they have ideas and they can envision alternatives to what they see around them.  They seem willing not only to learn from history, but also, some of them, to make it.  And that’s something for a teacher to build on at the start of a new school year.

Nick Coles

Summer Reading: WCSA Award Winners

Each year the Working-Class Studies Association (WCSA) issues a number of awards honoring publications in the field: books and articles, documentaries and dissertations.   A panel of judges identifies “excellent work that provides insightful and engaging representa­tions of working-class life, culture, and movements; addresses issues related to the working class; and highlights the voices, experiences, and perspectives of working-class people.”  The 2012 prizewinners were announced May 1 and offer outstanding examples of this work, across a range of genres: social history, poetry, media criticism, documentary film, and cultural studies.  The working-class people and cultures represented in these projects include Mayan market vendors in Guatemala City, high school football players in a small Texas oil town, blue-collar Baltimore police officers, Dominican-American kids on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and residents of a depressed steel-town campaigning to keep their community hospital open.

The issues addressed by the five prizewinners are current and pressing, including the social costs of globalization and deindustrialization, the collapse of upward mobility, and the possibilities of allegiances across lines of class, race, and gender.  And the writing itself, in these varied accounts, is accessible and compelling, making for some excellent summer reading.  As one of the judges, Peter Rachleff, said of the large stack submissions he read for the C. L. R. James book award:

Every book made a significant contribution to the field of working-class studies, showed dedicated research and original thinking, and inspires the rest of us in the field to maintain our own efforts.  . . . The value of their work reached beyond the chosen subject matter in suggesting questions, analytical frameworks, and arenas for working-class studies, which many of us, regardless of our formal disciplines or fields, might pursue.

The winner of the CLR James Award for a book for academic or general audiences is J.T Way for The Mayan in the Mall: Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala (Duke University Press).   Way, who is now an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Georgia State University, was previously the Director of CIRMA (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica) in Antigua, Guatemala.  His book, which Rachleff calls “a veritable history of the making of the Latin American working class,” uses oral and literary sources as well as archival research to reveal the impacts of “development,” national and US-directed, on the people and neighborhoods of Guatemala City through the 20th and early 21st centuries.  The city’s contrasting street markets and glittering malls, corporate towers and sprawling shantytowns are products and symbols of globalized capitalism, with its attendant class segregations and racial violence.   But Way pays as much attention to the agency of Guatemala’s indigenous working-class people as he does to their exploitation and misrepresentation, including the story of “grass-roots everyday development that built neighborhoods and made them function… and the striving of ordinary individuals to survive even as their efforts defined the life and feel and texture of the land.”

The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing went to Pittsburgh-based Italian-American poet and fiction writer Paola Corso for her collection of poems, The Laundress Catches Her Breath (CavanKerry Press).   The book’s epigraph by Arundhati Roy states, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  Catching one’s breath, though, is a struggle for a low-wage woman in a smoggy steel town, still living at home and doing her father’s laundry.  In the words of judge Jeff Gundy, “Paolo Corso’s laundress is a vivid, richly detailed character, hard-working, chain-smoking, grouchy and smart, memorably imperfect and entirely winning.”  She is also an “Heiress to Air” in a poem Gundy calls “brilliant, a moving tour de force that William Carlos Williams would certainly have loved.”  In the book’s final poem, the laundress “flashes a charge card and her middle finger then leaves her father’s house” to move into “A Well-Ventilated Basement Apartment.”   Mobility, it turns out, is possible, even for her, if not “upward,” at least into freer air.

The Studs Terkel prize for Media and Journalism was awarded to documentary film-makers Tony Buba and Tom Dubensky for their full-length feature We Are Alive: The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital.   Buba has made a number of films about his hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in the Monongahela Valley steel district, a town hit hard by the effects of mill-closings and depopulation.  We Are Alive documents the struggle — in the streets, the courts, the press — to keep Braddock Hospital open after its new owner, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), slated it for demolition.  Jack Metzgar comments:

We Are Alive is my top choice because the analysis is embedded in the story-telling and in the voices of the people documented.  The basic reporting narrative of the fight to save Braddock UPMC is clear, compelling, and engaging from beginning to end.  It also has spirit – not just a spirit of struggle, but of the glories of plainness in working-class life, even when it is creatively zany.   It leaves you not only with knowledge, but also a bit of sly inspiration.

Although the Braddock hospital was torn down (and a shiny new one built in the nearby, more affluent suburb of Monroeville), UMPC now faces broad public censure and a lawsuit challenging its status as a charity, which pays no property taxes while its CEO makes upwards of $6M a year.

The C. L. R. James award for the best article or essay was won by Tim Libretti of the English Department at Northeastern Illinois University.  His article “Working the Case: The Wire and Working-Class Cops on American Television” (in Blue Collar Pop Culture, Praeger) examines the motivations and dynamics of the team of Baltimore police investigating the city’s endemic drug trade.  Whereas much commentary on HBO’s hugely popular show focuses on the corrupt symbiosis between the political system, including the police, and the criminal organization, Libretti explores the possibilities for “non-alienated” labor on the part of individual cops working for the greater good, however compromised. Judging this category, Jim Daniels comments:  “What I admired about Libretti’s piece is that he was getting at a tension that exists in all workplaces—personal ambition vs. the larger good—in fresh, interesting ways.  This essay gets at why The Wire was such a transcendent TV show, and a lot of that has to do with work and class.”

Finally, WCSA honors emerging contributors to the field with the Constance Coiner dissertation award, won this year by Sara Appel, of Duke University, for Football Wishes and Fashion Fair Dreams: Class and the Problem of Upward Mobility in Contemporary U.S. Literature and Culture.   Upward mobility, Appel suggests, is a problem not only because it is now such a diminished possibility for the majority of Americans, but also because of the powerful ideological grip it holds on our national imaginary, including narratives in fiction, non-fiction, film and TV.   Through close readings of a range of current texts, including Terry Macmillan’s stories and the book/film/TV series Friday Night Lights, Appel illuminates an alternative social and cultural possibility: “a hopeful vision of collective accountability” visible in relationships based on romance, sports, education, neighborhood, etc.   Courtney Maloney comments:  “The nimble way [Appel] triangulates between the texts under discussion, her personal experience, and the pertinent economic/political contexts is cultural studies writing at its best.  Most importantly, her readings . . . expanded my thinking about the power of narrative to help us conceive what is possible in our current conjuncture.”

Together these prize-winning projects demonstrate the scope and vitality of cultural and scholarly production in working-class studies today.  Reading them, I was struck by a generosity of spirit and a love of their subject that animates all of them, and each one deepened my analysis and expanded my sense of the possibilities.  These works are sharp and nuanced in their representations of how class operates and how it can be contested.  At their best they show both a clear-eyed gaze on harsh realities and an equally clear recognition of how people who are up against it act in their own interests and care for those around them.   I look forward to seeing what work from 2013 will be honored next year.  The call for submissions will be circulated in September.

Nick Coles

Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

So union density in United States has declined yet again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of American workers now belong to unions.   This compares to 11.8% in 2011, and it’s a long way from the all-time high of 35% in the early 1940s.   The “right to work” campaign is expanding – even to Michigan, of all states – along with “austerity” policies that target working people.   Since Ronald Reagan launched his attack on labor in 1980, when union density was at 20%, real wages have declined along with union membership to a point where we now have a “gilded age” level of income inequality.

In times like these, it is useful to be reminded of what unions can be good for.  A labor history like From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001) explains in readable style what it took to establish unions in the first place, while New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse makes clear in The Big Squeeze: Hard Times for the American Worker (2008) why we need them now more than ever.  Novels, too, can make the case for working people’s rights, through compelling fictional narratives that engage us with characters we care about.  Two Depression-era novels from the Pittsburgh steel district, Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, both in published in 1941, do this particularly well, though in very different ways.

Bell’s book – subtitled “a novel of immigrant labor in America” when it was republished by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976 – follows three generations of a Slovak-American family from arrival in the 1880s up to the unionization of the steel mills in the New Deal era.  Along the way it addresses the Homestead battle of 1892, as well as the great strike of 1919 and the struggles of 1934-37.  Attaway’s is a novel of the Great Migration, tracing the experience of three African-American brothers who are lured north from Kentucky to work the mills during the 1919 conflict.  By this time, eastern European laborers have been admitted into some union lodges, while blacks are excluded and demonized as strikebreakers.

Although Bell’s novel is a family saga spanning fifty years of steel-town history, while Attaway’s focuses on one pivotal year, they have several points of contact.  Both address the dislocations of [im]migration, the hazards of steelmaking, racial/ethnic subjugation, labor strife – and the strength of the human spirit in response to these conditions.  And there are telling coincidences of detail between the two: fourteen men die in the blast furnace “accident” that kills Joe Dubik in 1895 in Furnace and fourteen in the explosion that blinds Chinatown Moss in 1919 in Blood.

But there are equally telling points of divergence.  Bell takes the family as a social ideal and traces its process of Americanization within a known community.  The health of family and community depend on strong representation in the workplaces that dominate life in the steel towns.   Although they are discriminated against as “Hunkies,” assigned the worst housing and the worst tasks in the mill, Bell’s characters grow into a sense of citizenship and belonging.  And they are recognizably white in relation the lowest stratum of immigrants to the steel towns.  Looking back on how Braddock has changed in fifty years, Bell’s aging Slovaks lament the arrival of the “shines” in the First Ward, “brought here to break the strike” in 1919.

Attaway’s characters are rootless single men, focused on survival and what pleasure they can find in the present moment, with the aid of corn whisky, dog fights, and the prostitutes in Mex town.   Only the eldest brother, Big Mat, who has left his wife behind in Kentucky, sees any future for himself in the mill town.  Working steel, “His body was happy.  This was a good place for a big black man to be.”  When the strike starts, however, he lends his strength to the company’s campaign to crush it; as a sheriff’s deputy, he becomes a “black riding boss,” trampling those who have mocked him, including the Hunkies.

From contrasting standpoints, both novels demonstrate how racial division was as much a product of industrial management as steel from the mills, and how this division, reinforced by craft union prejudices and racial exclusion, bedeviled any attempt at industry-wide organization – that is, until the CIO swung into town in 1935.   Dobie, Bell’s third-generation protagonist, understands the racial system: “Once it was the Irish looking down on the Hunkies and now it’s the Hunkies looking down on the niggers.  The very things the Irish used to say about the Hunkies the Hunkies now say about the niggers.  And for no better reason.”  Whereas Bell does not criticize the steel unions for their part in maintaining this cycle of racism, its destructive power is central to Attaway’s story.

Differences in narrative style make it a pleasure to read the two novels alongside each other.  Bell writes with a naturalistic matter-of-factness, leavened with gentle irony, and sometimes with finely pointed commentary.  Of the death of Joe Dubik and his workmates, Bell writes:  “Officially it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent . . ..  In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry.”  His style is also capable of great tenderness, especially in his scenes of courtship, married love, and family losses.  Attaway’s writing, by contrast, crackles and hums with a dark music.  The novel’s first sentence reads: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar.”  But Melody’s healing blues cannot survive the move to the steel towns, nor can it save his brothers Chinatown and Big Mat, who used to love to hear him play in the red-clay hills of Kentucky.

The two novels’ titles suggest not only this contrast in style but also in narrative outcomes.  “Out of this furnace” comes a vindication of the steelworkers’ aspirations and the possibility of a better life for their families.  At the end of Bell’s novel, Dobie, having helped to build what became the United Steel Workers, engages in a nighttime reverie about issues the union could address in the future:  technological unemployment, environmental destruction, anti-worker politics, bosses and “bossism,” and the degradation of work itself.  As he spins this web at the bedroom window, his sleeping wife is pregnant with their first child – completing the picture of productive and reproductive futurity.

The “blood [spilled] on the forge” in Attaway’s novel is not redeemed by any such optimistic conclusion.  The book itself becomes a kind of blues, and any uplift it provides comes from Attaway’s ability to sing it.   Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown do not recover from the combined violence of cultural dislocation, deadly working conditions, and racist labor politics – and they do not understand what has happened to them.  But we, as readers, are invited to develop the consciousness they can’t.  The novel offers us the insight and empathy out of which to draw our own conclusions about the industrial system and the need for racial solidarity in labor.

For me, novels like these suggests that unions can be good for much more than better hours, wages, and working conditions. What they achieved, on the evidence of Bell’s novel at any rate, included a sense of personal dignity and collective strength in the present, and a hopeful vision pulling one forward.   When Bell wrote that in 1937 “the fifty-year struggle to free the steel town was nearly over,” he was claiming that the fight to organize, to be recognized, to bargain implied more than “labor rights” alone; it was a struggle for what came to be called civil and human rights. Conversely, Attaway shows us, in visceral scenes, the damage done, no only when companies and their henchmen engage in violent suppression of those rights but also when unions play into a company’s hands by excluding the unorganized and the “other.”

Most unions today seem to get this – though, for now, they are still on the losing end of the most concerted legal and political assault since the robber barons ruled the roost.  But we would be much worse off without them, and they may be due for a revival.  Read any good labor novels lately?

Nick Coles

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

A Class on Class

I recently graded 32 final projects from my course on working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  The assignment had invited students to use whatever forms of writing or other media would allow them to express what they had been learning in the course and how it applied to their lives.  These projects were (mostly) a pleasure to read, but they also offered insights into the perplexing question of what my students think about “class” and how that may or may not resemble what I think I have been teaching about it.

For instance, family history projects often included stories of hard work and sacrifice paying off for future generations, leading to claims about core working-class values.   “The Struggle from Pain to Pride” was one title, “Working Class Has Class” another.  Some of the workplace narratives, on the other hand, demonstrated powerlessness and exploitation on the job: “Accident at the Mill” and “Late Shift,” for example.  Some of the cultural analysis essays treated class as a matter of “lifestyle,” unrelated to work and readily changeable by choice or circumstance.   In one or two papers, students described class as a system that in fact works: societies need hierarchies and class ranking provides the incentive for upward mobility.

In many projects, there was quite a bit of slippage in students’ use of the concepts “working class” and “middle class.”  This is hardly surprising given that 24 of the 32 students identify as middle class, according to a survey I gave early in the term, on which their choices were poor, middle class, rich, working class, or other.  The 8 who did not check “middle class” nuanced their responses as follows: 4 as “working middle class,” 2 as “poor working class,” and one each for “upper middle” and “99%.”  No-one checked “rich.”

The class terminology I have deployed in my courses draws on Michael Zweig’s analysis in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, the second edition of which was published in January 2012.   Looking at occupations and the economic, political, and cultural power, or powerlessness, of the people who perform them, Zweig identifies three major classes: a US working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%.  In Zweig’s updated analysis, the working class now includes a large number of nurses and teachers, whose labor has been substantially deskilled through corporate management practices.

Of course, class is much more than a position within a structure of inequality.  It is also an experience lived out within a specific set of relationships, as E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class:

[Class is] an historical phenomenon. . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.  And class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born — or enter involuntarily.

The linked ideas that class relations are necessarily antagonistic — based on opposing interests and feelings — and that people are implicated in class experience “involuntarily” are often resisted by my students.  And their sense of being largely middle class may have a lot to do with this resistance.

For even in a course on “working-class literature,” they are likely to share the belief we find everywhere else in the culture: that if there was a working class it is now largely “history,” having been replaced by a vast middle class, with a small sector of the rich above and the poor below.  This is serious distortion of the actuality Zweig describes.  But, as Jack Metzgar has pointed out in his important article “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” the myth of the broad middle class has massive appeal and impressive staying power. As he explains, “The egalitarian ethos inherent in this notion of middleness has been seen as peculiarly ‘American’ and essential to democracy by political sociologists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alan Wolfe.”

It appears again, for instance, in Time magazine’s July 2, 2012 issue, which features a lead article by Jon Meacham on “The History of the American Dream.”  In it Meacham recycles the claim that 90% of Americans self-identify as middle class.   This claim is likely based — Time does not cite its sources — on a finding published in the mid-1990s by democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.  According to Metzgar, the notion of a 90% middle class was thoroughly debunked by S.M Miller in his 1995 article “Class Dismissed,” in which he pointed out that surveys do not usually offer “working class” as a possible self-identification.  Metzgar notes that, when given that option, in surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 46% of respondents identify as working class and 46% as middle class, with 5% “lower” and 3% “upper” class.

The American class vernacular is routinely re-inscribed in popular consciousness during election seasons, as we are seeing again this year.   I just received another fundraising appeal from Barack Obama, urging me to join him in reclaiming “the basic bargain that built the middle class and the most prosperous nation on earth.”  In fact, according to the Legatum Institute’s 2011 index, Norway is the world’s most prosperous nation, if prosperity is defined to include both wealth and wellbeing.   By this accounting the US comes 10th, behind Canada and all the Scandinavian countries.   Whatever the facts, it is clear that the nationalistic concern with being the greatest nation on earth – as if geopolitics is a sport and what matters most is our standing in the league tables – is deeply linked to the myth of the inclusive middle class, and that this class is assumed to have a right, as Americans, to expect increasing prosperity.

As Zweig, Metzgar, and others have pointed out, the trouble with the myth of the vast inclusive middle class within our national imaginary is the resulting disappearance from public view of the actually existing and vastly diverse American working-class majority.   This is in fact the population that has been so battered by the Great Recession and by the neoliberal political and economic tide that fostered it.   These are the “folks” Obama tells me he hears from every day “who are out of work, have lost their home, are struggling to pay their bills, are burdened with debt, are underemployed or worried about retirement.”

In a typically mis-titled article in the November 2011 Atlantic,Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”  Don Peck points out that from 2007 through 2009 employment levels for the professional middle class remained essentially unchanged, whereas 1 in 12 non-managerial (i.e. working-class) white collar jobs disappeared, along with 1 in 6 blue collar jobs.  Meantime, according to Peck, “from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two” dollars — and this effect has only accelerated since then.  On this evidence, it is the working class that needs to be saved, or to save itself.

And yet, in her important new book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011) Kathi Weeks draws this discouraging conclusion about the radical potential of a political critique founded on the concept of the working class:

The problem is that while the oppositional class category of the industrial period—the “working class”— may accurately describe most people’s relation to waged labor even in a post-industrial economy, it is increasingly less likely to match their self-descriptions.  The category of the middle class has absorbed so many of our subjective investments that it is difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.

Given that we always have this uphill battle to establish the salience of the term working class, I’ve been wondering lately whether it is worth the effort we expend, in our scholarship and teaching, in repeatedly pushing the boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll down again.  What’s at stake for us in posing an analysis based upon a more accurate accounting of US class structures and relations?   How viable is such an analysis as a resource for political critique and action in the present moment?  And how useful is it for teaching students about their place in the world and the prospects for their interventions in it — starting with, but not limited to this November’s elections?

Next month, I’ll take up these questions in light of the challenges to class analysis posed by Weeks and others.   In the meantime, commentary from readers would be most welcome.

Nick Coles