Category Archives: Sherry Linkon

Advertising Work

I’m always interested in popular images of working-class life, but like most people, I barely see TV commercials anymore, so it took me a while to notice a recent trio of ads that use work as a marketing theme.  Advertisers use images to sell things, of course, and that’s part of what makes these ads so problematic – and so interesting.

The first ad, promoting Cadillac’s electric car, features actor Neal McDonough talking about how people in other countries think Americans are crazy for working so hard.  He begins outside an upscale home, standing hear a very nice pool, asking “Why do we work so hard?  For what? For this? For stuff?” People in other countries “stop by the café” as they “stroll home. They take August off.”  “We,” on the other hand – presumably not only white wealthy folks like the narrator but most of us – are “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.”  That’s what made it possible for us to go to the moon, and that’s why “we’re the only ones going back there.”  Americans are better, the ad suggests, because of the American dream: “It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.”

While Cadillac rehearses the old myth that anyone can succeed, economists are reporting that few Americans actually live that Horatio Alger storyline.  Upward mobility hasn’t declined, a recent paper showed; it’s been low for decades.  But as the ad makes clear, the myth of the self-made man still has resonance, both for those who might think the ad describes them but even more, I fear, for those who desperately want to believe that “anything is possible.”  If anyone can create their own luck, then the only reason anyone might struggle is that they didn’t try hard enough.  To promote this narrative while economic inequality is growing is cynical, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

The Cadillac ad is easy to criticize, since its message is so clearly problematic.  Two other ads offer more positive images of work and workers, which make them at once appealing and appalling.  Chrysler’s latest “Made in Detroit” Super Bowl ad features yet another white male pop culture icon: Bob Dylan.  In this year’s ad, Dylan touts American creativity and pride, and he encourages us to let Germany make beer, Switzerland make watches, and Asia make cell phones. “We will build your car,” he says, leaning down over a barroom pool table.  The ad features images of cowboys, cheerleaders, James Dean, Rosie the Riveter, old-style diners, and the American highway system, as well as images of auto plants and of Detroit today.  Here, the call to creativity isn’t illustrated by technical innovators but by someone getting a tattoo, by graffiti on a stone bridge, and by Dylan, turning a guitar in his hand, a move that is echoed in a clip from an old industrial film, showing a turning piece of machinery.  Like Cadillac, Chrysler is appealing to American arrogance, but with a more working-class approach.

The last ad appeals even more directly to working-class viewers, in part by focusing on  deindustrialization and manufacturing jobs.   It opens with images of an abandoned factory, as TV host Mike Rowe intones in a voice over, “At one time, I made things, and I took pride in the things I made.”  Then, “the gears stopped turning.”  But, the voice continues, “I’m still here” (ironically, this echoes a song by Si Kahn, “We’re Still Here,” written for a 1983 documentary about Youngstown steelworkers’ efforts to buy and run the mills that corporations had recently shut down – a connection the ad’s authors almost certainly didn’t know about).  As the images shift to someone sweeping an empty factory floor and then to laughing groups of workers, the narrator predicts that “we will rise again, and we will build things, and build families, and build dreams.  It’s time to get back to what America does best. Because work is a beautiful thing.”   It’s an appealing message, one that reflects some core values of working-class studies.  We believe in the power of work, we know what was lost in deindustrialization, and we want to see a return of good jobs that they offer a decent paycheck and a chance to feel proud of one’s work.

Then we see the closing title, showing that the ad is for Wal-Mart, promising to invest in new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  This is just one of several ads Wal-Mart has put out that at least indirectly respond to widespread critiques of its poor treatment of workers.  In others, Wal-Mart workers talk about getting promoted, health insurance, and support for education, leaving out other “benefits,” like advice on signing up for public assistance.  Critics of the Wal-Mart business model and advocates for low-wage workers have viewed these ads with skepticism, but this latest one elicited an even stronger response, probably because Rowe is known for talking about jobs that are dirty, unusual, and traditionally working-class.  He has also formed a foundation to encourage people to pursue skilled trades rather than higher education.  Without talking about class directly, Rowe’s website suggests that working-class jobs can be good jobs, and that’s an important message, especially at a time when so many working-class jobs are so bad.  You can see how some might have expected Rowe to refuse to speak for the company most strongly identified with bad working-class jobs.

In response to the ad, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a non-profit that aims to make the bad working-class jobs a little better, targeted Rowe in a letter-writing campaign. Thousands of people have written to encourage him to meet with Wal-Mart workers and challenging him to rescind what they see as his endorsement of the company. Rowe has posted a series of responses on his facebook page, accusing JwJ of misunderstanding his role – he insists he’s not a spokesman for Wal-Mart – and criticizing JwJ’s tactics.  If you care so much about workers, he asks at one point, why disrupt my Foundation’s efforts to help young working-class people find good jobs – jobs that are, he points out, significantly better than the ones held by the workers JwJ advocates for? Rowe also challenges JwJ: “But even if Wal-Mart falls short, don’t discount the power of a positive message in the mainstream media. We need more good messages around American manufacturing and hard work. . . . Why not encourage more messages around a topic that can actually help your mission and the people you represent?”

Good question. The message that we need more manufacturing jobs is, indeed, a good one – even though today’s manufacturing jobs don’t offer anything like the pay and benefits of the ones people lost when those factories originally shut down.  And yes, we do need more messages that make clear how good jobs improve people’s lives. We also want those images to be used in ways that really do promote workers’ interests.  The problem with the Wal-Mart ad isn’t the way it represents work and workers.  It’s that it uses those images to promote a company that we know contributes to the problems workers face.

Advertising works in part by creating illusions and by manipulating viewers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that advertisers are responding to economic inequality by capitalizing on the longing many Americans feel for economic hope. They know we’re nostalgic for a time when American made things and when hard work seemed to ensure a better life.  They know that we want to believe what the guy in the Cadillac promises – “anything is possible” if only we work hard enough. And they know what we would like to forget: that ads like this work.

Sherry Linkon

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Redefining Grit: New Visions of Working-Class Culture

A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us.  Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.

Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining  “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks.  You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.

Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all.  Quite the contrary.  She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people  to help them succeed.

Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s.  He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position.  That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge.  In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories.  When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.

Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive.  Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration.  Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity.  Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.

But surely working-class family values remain, right?  According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing.  For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy.  That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led  the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships.  They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids.  For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also  managing emotional challenges.

Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views.  Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else.  Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down.  They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant.  Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else.  Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy.  Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.

That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others.  It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits.  They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.

I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening.  The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient.  Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope.  She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.”  While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.”  Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism.  What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?

At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.

The Challenge of MOOCs: Technology, Costs, and Class

College professors these days are in a position very much like journalists were twenty years ago.  Because we believe in the social value of our work, and because we’re intellectually curious and creative, we’re intrigued by the possibilities of technology and alternative pedagogies.  We use online discussions, multimedia assignments, and other digital tools to improve our students’ learning.  Some of us teach online courses, in part because we understand that this can make higher education more convenient for working students, even as we worry that online courses don’t always work well.  Yet many of us are also concerned about how technology will affect our profession.

But as with journalism 20 years ago, the business model of higher education today may not be sustainable.  As journalism moved online, traditional jobs declined and reporters shifted to alternative types of work, often with less pay and job security.  That’s already happening in higher education, where 70% of college instructors are full- or part-time adjuncts. Technology will probably lead to more job cuts, though elite faculty and those best prepared to adapt to new tools may thrive.  New approaches have consequences for students, too.  Some will gain richer, deeper learning opportunities, but others will encounter the academic equivalent of the Headline News channel, full of flashy presentations that don’t provide much substance.

Many educators are worried about new technologies, in part because some policy-makers see new tools as cost savers but don’t seem to care about quality. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially, have some administrators envisioning a more efficient version of higher education, which would, of course, involve fewer faculty. While some professors are excited by the MOOC format, others are organizing against them.  The faculty senate at San Diego City College passed a resolution against MOOCs, while philosophy professors at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who teaches a popular MOOC on Justice, explaining why they were resisting pressure to use Sandel’s MOOC as the basis for a hybrid course in their program.

MOOCs promise free high-quality education to anyone, anywhere.  You can’t afford Harvard?  That’s ok.  You can watch Harvard professors lecturing about neuroscience, health, or American poetry for free. For faculty, MOOCs offer opportunities to share knowledge and gain a reputation world wide, and while many MOOCs rely on the  traditional lecture, others are exploring new strategies for fostering student interaction to promote learning.  In the best models, MOOCs also engage faculty with new ways of thinking about how students learn. For institutions, MOOCs are, for now, largely a public relations project, promoting star faculty and the value of academic knowledge.  But Coursera, Udacity, and other companies that offer MOOCs are actively looking for ways to monetize them, either by charging students for the opportunity to earn credit, sellings ads or sponsorships, or by charging employers for access to data about MOOC students, presumably to identify possible job candidates.

Will MOOCs be good for working-class students? Maybe. MOOCs do provide free access to a version of college education.  Students who want to learn computer programming or statistics may find MOOCs useful.  But these massive courses have massive drop-out rates, in part because many people sign up – as I’ve done myself – primarily in order to browse.  Others who sign up with more serious intentions struggle due to lack of structure, and of course, almost no one in a MOOC receives individual attention from an expert.  Meanwhile, while the working class will be expected to learn by watching video lectures, wealthy students will continue to benefit from face-to-face, discussion-based learning. MOOCs may improve access while also exacerbating the gap between elite and working-class education.

The interest in MOOCs is only partially about what technology can do.  Much of it is about using technology to make college more affordable. In two recent lectures, William Bowen, former president of both the Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, examined the “cost disease” of higher education.  He begins by pointing out that this isn’t a new issue; college costs have risen faster than the cost of living for more than a century.  As Bowen notes, there are many reasons for this, including state funding cuts that shift costs from taxpayers to students.  He suggests that technology can make teaching more efficient and effective.  He acknowledges that new approaches threaten faculty jobs, but he also writes that “faculty involvement in essential.” He even suggests that new technologies could improve the quality of faculty work, making grading less onerous and providing more opportunities to engage meaningfully with colleagues and students.

Improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education through strategic uses of technology won’t be easy, and Bowen acknowledges that it might not work.  But, he argues, we have to try. Higher education has lost not just financial but also political support, in part because our stakeholders — legislators, voters, parents, and students — think that educators don’t care about costs.  That may be one reason that states have been able to cut education budgets with so little political fallout.

But the “cost disease” isn’t just a political matter.  Rising college costs could precipitate another economic crisis.  Student loans now make up the largest category of debt in the U.S.  According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan debt is over one trillion dollars and growing.  That has long-term consequences for graduates, who are juggling bills every month, putting off marriage, and wondering if they will ever have the money or the credit rating to purchase a home.  Those problems, in turn, harm the U.S. economy.

College loans create problems for all but the most elite students, but they may be especially significant for working-class students, who receive less merit-based aid than their wealthier peers, resulting in high “net costs” and more loan debt.  A report by the New America Foundation finds that “colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal to or even more than their families’ yearly earnings.”  But because college is seen as so important, students “take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return.”

If we want to serve working-class students well, we need to take seriously the challenge of making college more flexible and effective as well as more accessible and affordable.

MOOCs may not be the answer, but hybrid courses that combine online and face-to-face learning might help, as will high-quality online programs and a wide range of strategies that enhance learning in traditional classrooms through innovative uses of technology.   It’s hard to know whether the changes will destroy academia, generate new and better alternatives, or some of both. But if we leave the design to the elite, or to business, we’re in trouble, and so are our students.

The challenge is designing the democratic education that MOOCs promise but don’t (yet) deliver. If we are to use technology to create meaningful opportunities for learning, and if we are to make those opportunities work well not only for the elite but also for the working class, we have to participate, critically, in the process.  Of course, technology isn’t the only tool, and some calls for innovation reflect the interests of business “masquerading in the trappings of science,” as Harry Braverman wrote. Our response should reflect our interests and those of our students.  Simply rejecting change won’t cut it.

Sherry Linkon

Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality?

One of the most common solutions offered to reverse America’ growing economic inequality is increased access to education.  President Obama may have started the trend with his call for universal, high-quality preschool, but others have joined the fray.  In March, Ronald Brownstein argued in National Journal that “Education remains critical to reversing the erosion in upward mobility that has made it harder for kids born near the bottom to reach the top in the United States than in many European nations.” On The Century Foundation’s website just last week, Benjamin Landy posted a blog entitled “To Battle Income Inequality, Focus on Educational Mobility.”   

According to Brownstein, colleges and  universities are failing to make those opportunities available, because higher education has become too expensive and doesn’t do enough to help lower-income students succeed. In their 2009 study of college completion rates, William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, showed that lower-income students were less likely to graduate than their wealthier counterparts regardless of where they went to school.

Their study also showed, however, that working-class students did better when they enrolled in more selective colleges, rather than choosing a more accessible public institution, but many working-class students choose less-selective schools.  Many don’t even apply to more elite colleges, for any number of reasons.  In a recent study, Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner suggest that working-class students believe, mistakenly, that it will cost less.  In fact, financial aid programs aimed at increasing economic diversity at elite schools often make such schools more affordable than public schools.  That may be increasingly true as state legislatures dramatically cut support for public higher education, making them even more expensive.

How worried should we be about that?  On the basis of justice, we should be outraged.  We should, as Hoxby and Turner suggest, push elite schools to work harder to recruit working-class students.  We should join the thousands of college students who have organized protests against cuts to public education.  And those of us who are educators should heed Mike Rose’s prescription for addressing the needs of working-class students: “If we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching.”

Still, the idea that more or better college education will “solve” the problem of economic inequality is just silly.  While a college education still provides economic advantages, increasing lifetime income, achieving that benefit is harder than it used to be.  These days, getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee better middle-class job prospects, but it does often bring a lifetime of debt.  Unemployment rates for recent graduates remain high – 53% according to The Atlantic a year ago, and many have taken low-wage, hourly jobs that don’t require a college degree.  Meanwhile, student loan debt has increased to an average of $26,600.  For too many, higher education has become a trap door rather than an elevator.

I’m not suggesting that education isn’t worthwhile.  Far from it.  A good education brings many advantages, only some of which have to do with employment or income. Martha Nussbaum is just one of many scholars arguing that education has value for society. But education simply won’t address the root causes of today’s economic inequality.

First, while state legislatures and business organizations pressure public universities to focus on preparing students for jobs in specific fields, like health care or fracking, the widely-touted “skills gap” turns out to be a myth.  The American economy is not being stymied by a lack of appropriately trained workers.  Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli suggests that we should “Blame It on the Employer.”  He suggests that employers ask themselves a few key questions starting with this zinger: “Have you tried raising wages? If you could get what you want by paying more, the problem is just that you are cheap.”

Second, even when we talk about increasing access or establishing “universal” programs, education addresses the individual, not the system.  Even at its best, education helps some working-class young people prepare to move into the middle class, an outcome that might improve the economic opportunities of those individuals but doesn’t address the broader economic structure.  A thousand well-trained nurses might earn a decent living, but they will work alongside aides, janitors, and clerical workers who don’t. Simply put, moving some people into better paying jobs doesn’t eliminate the low-wage jobs they left behind.

Moreover, we should expect to see more low-wage jobs over time, not fewer, and education won’t change that.  Indeed, as Jack Metzgar and I have both written here, multiple times, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most growth in jobs is in those that don’t require a college degree.  Regardless of how many people get college degrees, too many jobs in the U.S. will continue to pay low-wages, offer little or no benefits, and provide almost no job security. The only difference will be that workers will have more education and, in most cases, more debt.

If we want to improve the lives of low-wage workers and their families, we need public policies that will create more jobs, increase wages (see Metzgar’s suggestion earlier this year for a law requiring productivity sharing), and protect people from the financial ravages that often accompany illness, natural disasters, and other devastating and expensive events.   But how likely do you think it is that our state or federal legislators will create such policies?

The only possibilities for change lie in activism and organizing.  And what does it take to foster resistance and build solidarity?  As our labor studies colleagues might remind us, learning about economic, political, and social processes as well as the history of activism, theories of class, and narratives of oppression and resistance can prepare people to articulate and advocate for their own interests and for the common good.

Hmm, so maybe education is the answer, after all?

Sherry Linkon

Missing Women: Watching The Makers

I watched The Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS last week with a conflicted eye.  No doubt, the documentary about the last 60 years of activism and social change on behalf of women reminded me of just how much my own life was shaped by the feminist movement.  My first act of political engagement was knocking on doors in support of Pat Schroeder’s first run for Congress.  I was twelve.  I wrote my first women’s history paper in 9th grade, in part because I was angry that the textbook said so little about the woman suffrage movement. I learned about domestic violence, women’s health, and activism from Ms. magazine. In college, I marched to take back the night and hosted the weekly feminist collective radio show. I went to the University of Minnesota for my PhD because I wanted to study women’s history with Sara Evans.  A decade after anti-feminist women activists killed the ERA, I was trying to make sense of their views by writing a dissertation about an intelligent, independent nineteenth-century woman who opposed the idea of woman suffrage.  My dissertation committee had one “token” man.  In other words, I benefitted in specific, concrete ways from the battle for equal rights and the expanded choices it secured for women.

But the movement was also geared to women like me, as The Makers reminded me.  As a white child of a progressive, privileged household, I had the cultural and economic capital to view my life as full of opportunity.  I could be proud of my father for hiring the first female commercial airline pilot without thinking about the consequences of his regular contract negotiations with stewardesses, as we called them then.  Like many feminists of my generation, I sang along to songs about women wanting to be engineers but had no interest in that option.  I knew that all women were not the same, of course, but I didn’t think much about whether the movement that had empowered me was doing much for working-class women.

Eighteen years in Working-Class Studies has changed that perspective, and while I appreciated much of the documentary, I was also keenly aware of what was missing. The stories of key battles and strategies, video clips from protests, and even the interviews with women who were put off by feminism all resonated for me.  I was glad to see at least a few stories about working-class women and women of color – a couple of examples of women who sued for workplace rights (including flight attendants), a coal miner’s tale of fighting sexual harassment, Barbara Smith’s explanation of the goals of the Kitchen Table Press.  Yet the film’s primary narrative about women and work, especially, involved the gains women had made in professional jobs – establishing a construction business, becoming a dot-com CEO, working as a television producer – and, ultimately, the struggles white middle-class women face in balancing work and family.

While The Makers does include comments by several women of color and acknowledges the movement’s difficulties with recognizing or advocating for issues facing women who were not white or middle class, it also replicates the movement’s tendency to focus on the needs of women whose goals and expectations reflect their race and class privileges.  Like the women’s movement itself, the film largely ignores the concerns of working-class women. When traditional types of women’s work are mentioned, as in a reference to the growth of the typing pool in the 1950s, the implication is that service work was a temporary way-station, not the type of work that most women still do – perhaps not with typewriters but with computerized cash registers or blood pressure cuffs.  The solution to a telephone operator’s low pay, the film suggests, was not to organize and advocate for better pay for that job but to fight to get a few women access to higher-paying jobs that had been reserved for men. As Karen Nussbaum, founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, notes near the end of the film, the women’s movement should have focused “more on the economic issues of working people.  It should have been about creating an alternative that worked for most women, and that alternative would have included child care, it would have included community services, it would have included after school care where your kids could get cared for by adults.  None of that happened, and I think that’s the great failure of the women’s movement.”  As Nussbaum’s comment suggests, the problem with The Makers may not be the filmmakers’ view but the real history of the women’s movement.

On the other hand, the film leaves out many examples of activism by working-class women and women of color.  Where was Angela Davis, who offered a radical vision that linked race, class, and gender?  Or bell hooks? How about Roseanne Barr, whose hit show started in the same year as Murphy Brown, a show the film celebrates, but provided a funny, realistic, and very political look at ordinary life in a working-class family?  How do we talk about the fight for women’s rights without recognizing the efforts of 9 to 5 or any other labor union  that advocates for the rights of women in the workplace – not just the right to a seat in the boardroom but the right to better working conditions in all jobs?

The Makers reminds us of how much our expectations for and assumptions about women have changed since the 1950s.  It also highlights the threats to women’s rights and opportunities, including the danger that if younger women take those rights for granted, we could well have to fight all over again.  It’s an inspiring film, and the history matters.  It’s also an important reminder that both the movement and the media need to pay more attention to working-class women.  As narrator Meryl Streep acknowledges, “As long as so many women are falling through the cracks, some argue, the feminist revolution will remain unfinished.”

Sherry Linkon

Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

Can Working-Class Women Have It All?

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter generated a tsunami of commentary with her Atlantic cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  According to the magazine’s editors, the article broke records for online readers, Facebook likes, and comments, and it inspired response articles in a number of other publications.  Building on that success, the magazine is running another potentially controversial piece on women’s lives this month, Hanna Rosin’s argument that the “hook-up culture” on college campuses is empowering women.

Both writers acknowledge, in different ways, that when they say “women,” they really mean white middle-class straight women.  Slaughter states directly that she was “writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”  I appreciate Slaughter making this point; too often, when people write about “women,” they don’t acknowledge class differences.

Yet I also can’t help imagining the potentially productive conversation between a woman from Slaughter’s “demographic” and a working-class woman about strategies for achieving work-life balance.  After all, working-class women have always worked, often in jobs that don’t have clear time and space boundaries (home-based piecework, taking in boarders, child care), and the tension between doing your job and caring for your family is one they’ve navigated for generations.

Rosin ackowledges working-class women more directly in her piece, citing a study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton that examined the views of hooking up by college women from different class backgrounds.  They showed that going to college reflects “a classed self-development imperative that discourages relationships but makes hooking up appealing.”  In other words, Rosin suggests, women choose casual sex over committed relationships in order to preserve their ability to, as one young woman put it, “maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with.” Rosin mentions that the working-class women in the study found the hook-up culture “alienating,” but in order to “succeed” in the eyes of their peers, they had to adapt to it.  Those who didn’t were seen as “the dorm tragedies.”  

She also notes, again briefly (perhaps because it doesn’t fit the narrative of her article), that the working-class women “felt trapped between the choice of marrying the disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card – or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable.” In her view, it seems, marrying a working-class man is an inherently bad, even foolish choice.  The only other option she can imagine – or the only one that fits her claim that hooking up reflects women’s increasing power — is embracing the hook-up culture.  Obviously, there’s plenty of open space and many options between those two extremes, including the possibility that an educated woman from a working-class background could construct a fulfilling relationship with an uneducated man with whom she shares a home culture.

Having glibly exaggerated the tensions working-class women might feel with the “classed self-development imperative” of higher education, Rosin blithely treats the Yale business-school students she interviewed as representative of most college women.  In truth, they may be more deeply invested than most college students in the individualistic culture of personal advancement that scholars such as Barbara Jensen have associated with the middle class. So while I give Rosin credit for acknowledging the possibility of class differences among college women, her efforts reflect exactly the kinds of stereotyping and blind spots that Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago.

 Slaughter overtly excludes working-class women, while Rosin addresses their perspectives in highly problematic ways.  Nevertheless, these two pieces suggest an interesting question: what would it mean for a working-class woman to “have it all”?

Given the differences in values between the working class and the middle class (see Jensen’s new book Reading Classes for a good overview, or click here for an earlier version of her analysis), we can probably begin by speculating that “having it all” for a working-class woman would not be about professional success.   More likely, it would be about finding the balance between hours at work and hours at home, keeping a job and a steady income while being there for her kids — pretty much the same challenge that professional women face. 

So what’s the difference?  Choice, for a start. Privileged women are more likely to have the option to stay at home.  Many also have the financial stability and social capital to work fewer hours, to travel less for their jobs, or to choose a job that is more flexible.  Some earn enough to be able to hire help. One reason we don’t hear much about working-class women debating whether they can have it all is that they have few options.  Most have to work at least one job, and they do forms of work that allow them little if any control over their shifts or working conditions.  Many probably have some choice of which job to do, but many do not.  They do the work that is available, under the conditions that exist, and they do the best they can with their families.  So there’s nothing to debate.  

That’s the standard thinking, right?  But it might not reflect the whole story.  In her 2011 book, For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, Sarah Damaske argues that while working-class women cite financial need as their reason for working, they are also motivated by the satisfaction they find at work. Working-class women, Damaske suggests, feel pressure to claim that they work in order to fulfill the needs of their families.  Work may be a source of pride and identity for working-class people, but for women, especially, family roles are even more powerful.  Yet in Damaske’s interviews, working-class women also described their jobs as providing intrinsic motivation.  One woman says that it’s her job that “makes me want to get up and go somewhere.” She and others found work meaningful and enjoyable, just like their middle-class sisters.

For professional-class women, the opposite social pressure may well be in play.  They feel pressured to achieve as much as possible in their careers.  For them, choosing the less-demanding job, or worse, choosing to stay at home, feels like a decision that must be defended, while working-class women feel they must justify working.

Working-class and middle-class women are also likely to have different expectations about family life.  In her research for Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau found clear differences in how middle-class and working-class families approached raising children. The middle-class version emphasized intentional, organized child development aimed at individual achievement, while the working-class model is less ambitious, built around a vision of more spontaneous, organic development.  The middle-class version is also more labor-intensive for parents, requiring constant juggling of children’s schedules of lessons, soccer games, and other activities.  No wonder professional women struggle to balance work and family.  Even with less flexibility and power in their jobs, working-class women may be able to fit work life and home life together more smoothly, because family life involves fewer activities and less pressure for performance.

As this comparison suggests, talking about “having it all” is never simple.  But this much is: gender is classed.  That’s old news in Working-Class Studies, but it’s a lesson all those pundits talking about women have yet to understand.

Sherry Linkon

The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life.  We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations.  Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars.  This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.

But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white.  Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity.  If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.

But it isn’t.  And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort.  From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race.  Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture.  The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.”  As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.

That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies.  It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme.  At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe.  A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion.  Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white.  Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.

And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class.   Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary.  At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital.  As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.

None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works.  Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.

Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white.  Why is it so hard?  Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow).  And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity.  These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.

But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose  work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT).  For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT.  Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.

Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.

New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA.   The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields.  We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies