Category Archives: Class and the Media

60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

For most Americans On the Waterfront is not a politically controversial film—it’s simply one of the best films of all time. Many know that the film’s director Elia Kazan did something shady and some might even know that he testified against his former Communist allies at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). An even smaller group might know that after testifying Kazan took out a full page New York Times ad to justify his decision.

But for the American left, Kazan is one of the worst traitors in American cultural history. When progressive scholars write about On the Waterfront, they draw parallels between Kazan, who betrayed his friends in order to clear his name (and to keep working in film), and Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando], who betrayed the members of his mob crew in order to clear his conscience of the wrong he had done in their name.

Kazan has done much to fuel this interpretation of the film. In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, Kazan explained the parallel between his naming names and Terry Malloy’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission: “When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells as Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ’I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”

But if we reduce On the Waterfront to Kazan’s personal story we lose sight of the real working-class social formation out of which this film was born and overlook the genuine progressive political commitments that led both Kazan and Schulberg to make On the Waterfront despite great obstacles.

The social formation of the postwar docks was rooted in the hiring process known as the “shape up.” It was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning. Arthur Miller, who wrote several plays about the waterfront himself, described the “shape up” as he witnessed it in the late 1940s:

I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day. After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.

On the Waterfront began as a response to these working conditions—not as a vehicle for Kazan’s revenge. The film began in 1951, before the HUAC hearings, with Budd Schulberg, a self-described Hollywood “prince”—a writer who was the son of movie mogul B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg had never met Kazan when he was asked by a small film company, Monticello, to write a screenplay based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic series, Crime on the Waterfront, which had been published in the New York Sun.

Schulberg became obsessed with the waterfront after Johnson introduced him to one of Johnson’s main sources: Father “Pete” Corridan, whom Schulberg described as “a rangy, fast-talking, chain-smoking West Side [priest] who talked the darndest language I ever heard, combining the gritty vocabulary of the longshoremen with mob talk, the statistical findings of a trained economist and the teachings of Christ.” Schulberg continued to obsess about the docks even after Monticello folded and the project was declared dead. After the publicity surrounding Kazan’s HUAC testimony, Schulberg wrote Kazan a letter expressing sympathy for the “vilification he was undergoing,” and, later, after they met for lunch, Kazan proposed they work together on a film about the Trenton Six—six African American youth who had been convicted of killing a white shop owner. Schulberg had other ideas: why shouldn’t the two of them work together on his waterfront film? Kazan agreed.

Though Howard Lawson, a blacklisted screenwriter, described On the Waterfront as the ultimate Hollywood film, the film was quashed by Hollywood more than once. In 1952, when Schulberg and Kazan tried to get Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to produce the film, Zanuck told them, “what you’ve written is exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.” Finally, in late 1952, when they were depressed and about the to junk the film, a washed-up producer, Sam Spiegel, agreed to bankroll it. Filming was completed in 1953, and On the Waterfront was set to debut in the spring of 1954—just in time, everyone hoped, to help the honest dockworkers win an election against the real life “Johnny Friendly” types who controlled the docks.

Throughout the filmmaking, Kazan was inspired by Schulberg’s commitment to the dockworkers’ cause, and he saw Schulberg’s engagement with the subject matter as “passionate and true.” Kazan acknowledged that “Budd had made himself….a champion of humanity on that strip of shore.”

What about Kazan’s engagement? In a much less quoted passage from his autobiography, Kazan explained that his attachment to On the Waterfront came from a desire to show his old lefty enemies that he was the true progressive when it came to representing the working class: “I was…determined to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives and they were not. I’d come back to fight.”

This quote points to another parallel between Kazan and Terry Malloy: they were both fighters. In the final scene of On the Waterfront, Malloy is beaten nearly to a pulp by Johnny Friendly’s goons. He can barely walk. When his girlfriend Edie (Eva Saint Marie) tries to help him, Father Barry (Karl Malden) waves her off. In 1955, the radical British filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, argued that this scene is “fascist.” Malloy, through violence, has simply become the new de facto “Johnny Friendly,” just another tough guy who is ready to rise up and exploit his brethren.

Anderson’s argument shows how judging Kazan for his political betrayal can lead to a misreading of the film. The closing scene isn’t fascist. It’s a scene that uses the language of fighting— specifically boxing. Malloy, a former boxer, is down for the count. If Edie or the priest helps him get up, then he can’t continue to fight. In this metaphorical boxing round he’ll be disqualified. And so he gets up, on his own, which means that the round is over but the match is not. He will live to fight again. Finally, in this scene, Malloy has become the contender he always knew he could be.

If you get a chance to see On the Waterfront this month, in honor of its 60th anniversary, think about this. As much as Terry Malloy might represent Kazan, ratting on his former friends, it is also true that Kazan and Schulberg were trying to rat on capitalism, to call out American business practices as corrupt, and to argue that something drastic needed to done to reform the docks. What Kazan did was wrong, but what happened to American dockworkers in this period, arguably, was even worse. Though the bitterness against Kazan has lingered lo these many years, we in working-class studies should reclaim On the Waterfront as one of the important texts for understanding what happened to American labor in the postwar period. We do so not to redeem Kazan, but to honor the workers that he and Schulberg were trying to represent.

Kathy M. Newman

Summer Reading from Working-Class Studies

A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down.  A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist.  And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.

These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013.  Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.

Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences.   Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago.    Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.

Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.”  One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.”  Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”

Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium.  It will be released sometime in the coming year.  For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.

Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.  Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet.  Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.

Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement.   But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:

you excommunicate us from your classrooms

because we are not your trinity

of science, math and history

we are the intersection

crucified on your standardized “X”

. . . . .

you make lamb out of your flock

sentence them to seven deadly periods

and a hot lunch

 In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:

so the poet left the sanctuary

                  back to the curbside pulpit

                  where pain

                  and worship

                  both have to be louder than the traffic

 

WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.”  One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”

The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.”   The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.”  As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work.   Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism.  The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73.  The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there.   One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.”  Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.”  You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.

The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field.  As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience.  We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.

Jack Metzgar

WCSA Past President

 

 

 

 

Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

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

Paying Attention to the Precariat

As I wrote in October 2012, the precariat – the growing class of insecure workers whose wages and working conditions do not provide economic stability – ought to be getting more attention in American political discourse. I have urged mainstream journalists covering labor issues to use the term, which is increasingly being used in Europe.  Several reporters have told me that they don’t use precariat because readers would not understand it.  Writers think it’s clearer to refer to this group as the underclass or chronically unemployed. Of course, proletariat is verboten for mainstream journalists.

But last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks broke the pattern. In “The American Precariat,” Brooks tries to explain why Americans, who used to be willing to move in order to improve their economic position, are increasingly likely to stay put, even when that means passing up potential jobs.  According to Brooks, some people are trapped by homes that are underwater and workers have little incentive to move, since labor markets are pretty much the same everywhere, a change from the past, when different regions offered distinct opportunities.

But Brooks also suggests that the major reason Americans are staying in place both geographically and economically is a “lack of self-confidence.” Few workers today are willing to risk “the temporary expense and hardship [of moving] because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward.” Brooks also sees evidence that Americans lack self-confidence in declining fertility rates and in more people staying in the jobs they have rather than voluntarily leaving to look for something better.  He also cites evidence from opinion polls showing that an all time low of only 46 percent of Americans report that they expect their economic condition to improve.  “American exceptionalism,” he writes, “is basically gone.”

All of this leads Brooks to the idea of the precariat, “a concept that has been floating around Europe” for which he cites British scholar Guy Standing. Brooks sees Americans embracing an “uncharacteristic” fatalism, something we’d expect to see in Europe, but not here.

More conservative commentators and think tanks should pay attention to the American precariat. Clearly, the growing number of individuals who lack employment security, job security, income security, skill security, occupational security, and labor market security are threat to conservative benefactors. Among other things, the precariat is long past believing conservative promises, like trickle-down economics or the idea that having five jobs by the time they’re 35 gives young workers flexibility and opportunity.

But like Brooks, most conservatives would rather talk about how individuals lack self-confidence than address the real economic challenges facing many Americans today.  Rather than offering substantive policies, some conservatives suggest that moving vouchers would help poor people pursue opportunities (an approach that would also reduce the kind of the concentration of insecure workers that led to Occupy Wall Street). Their analysis ignores how Wall Street and global corporations have changed work practices and benefit structures, stigmatized the unemployed, and championed the loss of public assistance. Moving vouchers and appeals to self-confidence won’t prevent the precariat’s growing resentment toward the 1% and their apparatchiks.

Like journalists, the academic community has been slow to join the discussion of precarity. A few institutions have hosted Guy Standing as a visiting scholar, and some scholars have organized panels on the topic at disciplinary conferences. But two upcoming conferences suggest growing interest among academics. At Georgetown University, the Lannan Symposium Living in a Precarious World will feature writers, scholars, workers, and activists discussing questions such as “How does the struggle to get by shape our lives, our relationships, and our social institutions? How do we challenge the rise of precarity, and what, if anything, does it offer as the basis for resistance?”  Yale University will host a conference in April on the Conditions of Precarity: Life Work, and Culture, focused on how the humanities can provide “the space to describe current phenomena of precarity, situate what is new in the context of a long tradition of human experience and critically engage with this tradition.”  Both events take an interdisciplinary approach, linking the humanities with political and economic analysis. The Georgetown conference also goes beyond academic talk about precarity.  Its opening panel will include adjunct faculty, low-wage workers, and activists organizing in both the formal and informal economy.

Interdisciplinary analysis of precarity should be expanded beyond elite universities, but academics must do more than talk about precarity.  They should also study and collaborate with community and labor groups like the Excluded Worker Movement that is organizing the precariat, including millions of farmworkers, domestic workers, tipped workers, guest workers, and day laborers. It collaborates with other organizations on campaigns to win immediate improvements in the conditions facing excluded workers; to strengthen and expand the labor movement; and to develop a new framework to transform and expand workers rights to organize in the 21st century. Journalists should be covering these efforts, and academics should be studying them and joining them.

In a world in which we are all increasingly expendable and insecure, we need to join forces. The precariat will not be fooled into blaming themselves for lacking self-confidence. If David Brooks does not believe this, he should notice the empty desks in his newsroom.  Better yet, go talk with the many displaced reporters who cannot find work as journalists and have become part of the precariat.

John Russo

Benefits Street, or the Road to Poverty

I got wet last Thursday, very wet.  I was standing on a picket line at my university outside the central administration protesting yet another below inflation wage offer. A one per cent pay raise will mean that my colleagues and I have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of the value of our salary through inflation since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Meanwhile the top pay in the university sector has been rising steadily.  My own Vice Chancellor has been awarded a 1.8% raise this year, but that borders on the hair-shirt compared to her peers where double digit increments are not uncommon.

While comparative pay rates in higher education are obviously important to those of us who work in the sector, the question of pay both at the top and bottom of society more generally has come to the fore in the UK over the last few months. What matters about this debate is how it is rolled up in a whole series of other factors central to the contemporary working-class experience – the link between work, welfare, wealth, and poverty.

In their recent report, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the fact that for the first time on record the majority of those in poverty were in working families, not registered as unemployed or retirees. This trend began to increase in 2003, and the increase in poverty within these working families halted the more general progressive trends to reduce poverty over all. As a result there are more people in poverty in working families than in workless and retired families combined, and that undermines government ministers’ claims that work itself is some kind of silver bullet cure-all for the poor. The problem isn’t simply a lack of work; it’s also about low pay. In 2012, there were around 4.6 million low-paid jobs in the UK, and 39 per cent of these workers were under 30. This means roughly one in six workers in the UK economy lives in poverty.

Low wages contribute to poverty, but so does the structure of contemporary employment, and the JRF report highlights the growth of insecure work and underemployment.  In 2012, an estimated 250,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed a fixed number of hours).  This figure has varied over the years, with a low of 110,000 people on such contracts in 2004.  Drill down into these figures and we find that the average hours worked has declined from 28 hours per week in 2000 to 21 hours in 2012.  Of course, these are averages, with the actual hours worked oscillating one week to another. In addition, 620,000 people who desired permanent contracts are on temporary ones.  They want and need permanent status rather than ‘choosing’ the flexibly of temporary work as a convenient economic lifestyle. These features of the labour market — low pay, in-work poverty, zero-hours, and temporary contracts — are all working-class issues.  All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working-class communities in the past.

Some social scientists in the UK have interpreted these features as evidence of what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘precariat’ (see John’s Russo’s blog about the book here). More recently, UK sociologists Mike Savage and Fiona Devine have developed a widened class schema with a group at the bottom that they also call the ‘precariat.’ In both instances, what unites this new group of disparate people is their common experience of various forms of labor market instability. Their existence has a powerful disciplinary role on others in more secure work. Knowledge that firms might outsource roles to contractors, or off-shore it altogether, leads individual workers and their collective representatives to temper demands for higher wages and better conditions of service.

These findings start to puncture some big holes in the popular political and press accounts of the causes and consequences of the recession. Worklessness (people without work regardless of whether or not they are officially unemployed and drawing benefits) is not the great cause of poverty politicians would have us believe, and intergenerational worklessness – where two or more generations of family members are out of work – is a more marginal issue still. When asked about welfare, most survey respondents think that benefit fraud is a massive problem accounting for large chunks of the welfare bill.  In fact, it represents less than 1% of the total. Surveys also show that most people believe that unemployment benefit makes up the largest share of the benefits budget, when in fact pensions are the greatest cost. The real problem is with the real level of wages and how employment is structured.

Unfortunately, the political and press rhetoric around welfare in the UK is if anything ramping up, with a pernicious demonization of those on benefits. The UK based Channel 4, for example, has come in for a great deal of criticism for its TV documentary Benefits Street, which is based on what the producers describe as one of the most welfare dependant addresses in the UK. They have been attacked by residents of the street, including one couple who had been extensively filmed and who alleged that their in-work status meant they didn’t fit the dependence narrative of the series and were subsequently left out of the program. Listening to a recent BBC radio piece reflecting on Benefits Street, I was struck by the different ways of talking about the people there. While politicians and journalists used the phrases ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘benefit dependent,’ the residents themselves used the term ‘poverty’ to describe conditions in their area.

This rhetorical distinction perhaps holds the key for a more informed and progressive debate about the lives of working people, one where we shift the vernacular from ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefits cheats’ on to the terrain of poverty. Reading Jack Metzgar’spiece a couple of weeks ago about SNAP recipients in the US, I am struck by the similarity in debates about the ‘deserving’ and especially the ‘undeserving’ poor. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians’ reluctance to talk about poverty, its causes and amelioration, creates a vacuum that more reactionary commentators are happy to fill. As the lead character in the HBO show The Newsroom laments, in the past, “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.” Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, we need to shift the vernacular more than ever.  There’s an idea worth getting wet for!

Tim Strangleman

Reading Capital: Books that Shaped Work in America

I teach American literature and media history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and for many years I have taught a course called Capital Fictions—a class in which we examine the ways in which literature shaped, and was shaped by, the US economy at the turn-of-the-last-century. Though I never teach all of the same novels twice, we often read The Jungle, Sister Carrie, House of Mirth, and William J. Weldon’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Of course, as a Marxist/Feminist/Public School Activist at Carnegie Mellon University, I often feel like an outlier—a radical humanist on Andrew Carnegie’s 21st century techno-robotic campus.

So I was pleased, and rather surprised, when I saw that the U.S. Department of Labor—in honor of its one-hundred-year anniversary—is assembling a list of books that shaped American ideas about work. DOL officials, after seeing a 2012 “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at the Library of Congress, were inspired to make a similar call for books about work in order to emphasize the “significant role published works have played in the shaping American workers and workplaces.”

In drawing attention to the DOL’s project on our blog, I am falling into the public relations trap expertly laid by Carl Fillichio, the senior advisor for public affairs and communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. While his book project seems progressive on the face of it, it has also been great public relations, as the mainstream media has done more than a dozen stories on the DOL’s project. Fillichio himself is a capitalist intellectual, coming to the DOL from Lehman brothers, where he was a senior vice president in charge of promoting the firm’s “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

The list of books that shaped American labor is long (102 so far) and eclectic, featuring such classics from children’s literature as Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Doreen Cronin’s radical story of barnyard animals that go on strike, Click, Clack, Moo. Some of my “Capital Fictions” are there, including The Jungle and Sister Carrie. Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, is there (perhaps an odd choice, unless, like me, you decided to pursue the profession of WOMAN WRITER after reading it), along with the poetic Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In addition to some radical works there are some classics that staunchly defend capitalism, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

It is worth asking how books like these have shaped our ideas about work. Take Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. This novel gives us the perspective a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who comes from a small Midwest town to the booming city of Chicago in the late 1800s. Carrie tires quickly of factory work, and we see her struggle to find and keep a job. But then we chart her good fortune as she lucks into a career on the stage. She ends the novel a Broadway celebrity—successful, but still unsatisfied. The novel makes my students wonder: what is the secret to happiness? Is it hard work? Is it good fortune? Is it the ability to buy pretty things? Or is it relationships, education, and a search for deeper meaning?

Another classic on the list is also about turn-of-the-last century Chicago, The Jungle. My students recoil at the story—so grisly it is hard to believe that everything that happens in the novel could happen to a single family. A powerful worker, Jurgis, is brought down by injury and prison time; his strong friend and relative, Marija, is reduced to prostitution after many hard years in the packing plants; Jurgis’s youngest relatives become haggard, and, eventually die from factory work, and Ona, Jurgis’s wife, is raped by her boss and later dies in childbirth. But the students find themselves immersed in Sinclair’s world, and they respond to it with intelligence. When I let them pursue creative assignments, as I did this last fall, one student made a brilliant version of Monopoly based on The Jungle, and another student made a movie trailer for the novel that emphasized the dramatic sweep of the plot.

My students at CMU are from privileged backgrounds, and they often enter the classroom cynical about the plight of workers in the present and uniformed about workers in the past. But I find that through the reading of stories they become more open and more critical—of both the past and the present. Stories like Sister Carrie and The Jungle help to nurture their empathy, give them deeper understandings of place, and allow them to dwell in different times.

What do you think should be on the list? The project is accepting suggestions for additions to its list.

I hope you will agree that we need stories about work in order to understand what work means to us today and what it has meant to us in the past. We also need these stories so can decide what work will mean—and be—in the future. As Karl Marx (none of whose books are yet on the list at the DOL) reminds us, “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

Kathy M. Newman

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

Holiday Steals: Finding the Revolutionary Spirit at the Mall?

I hate shopping malls, but I found myself in one recently, on a family outing to see Disney’s new mega-hit Frozen. But then Frozen was sold out, and so we found ourselves actually shopping at a shopping mall.

I was walking past Wet Seal, a teenage clothing retailer that sells cheap trendy threads to girls and very, very young women. The name is particularly grotesque— suggestive of sex, or, at the very least, something slimy and endangered.

As I passed the store, I saw something that made me stop so hard and so quickly that my sister-in-law almost ran me over: an in-store advertisement featuring a woman against a red background, with her hand cupped out from her mouth, and the phrase “HOLIDAY STEALS” coming out of her mouth in rigid, blocky letters, framed in the shape of a megaphone and pointing towards the store. Wet SealI knew the instant I saw it that it was an homage to the Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko—a riff on his advertisement for books (the original reads “Lengiz, books in all branches of knowledge”). Rodchenko created the ad in 1924 and the woman cupping her hand to yell was Lilya Brik—whom Pablo Naruda called “the muse of the Russian avant-garde.”

RodchenkoRodchenko’s ad, one of the most iconic designs from one of the most revolutionary art movements in world history, was now being used to hail customers as they lumbered through the mall. As one of my facebook friends commented, after I posted the images side by side, the Wet Seal ad was “the very definition of irony.”

We could read this bizarre Soviet style Wet Seal campaign in three ways. The first is the easiest. It could be nothing more than a rip-off—the ultimate pilfering by the capitalist establishment of the revolutionary spirit of early Soviet communist artists. A gross injustice to Rodchenko as well as to the movement he has come to represent.

The second possibility, and this I suspect is closest to what actually happened, is that some Wet Seal designer, fresh out of graduate school, decided to try something cool s/he had learned about Russian Constructivist design and thought it would be a funny wink to folks like me, who were either design hounds or revolutionary art historians or both.

But the final interpretation, and the one I am most partial to, is to read this Wet Seal campaign as a slip of the capitalist unconscious, which in the course of trying to sell things we do not need taps into our desire for real revolution, for real social and economic change. I find it interesting, for example, that the Wet Seal poster heralds “HOLIDAY STEALS” and not “HOLIDAY DEALS.” Is this poster, unwittingly, telling us to enter the store and “steal” what we like?

This utterly counterintuitive way of interpreting Wet Seal’s advertisement is based on Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” published in Social Text in 1979. In this essay, Jameson argues that if something is popular (in this case Wet Seal clothing), and, if we are not brainless automatons, then mass culture must offer something positive to go with whatever repression it is handing out.

Jameson calls this the “fantasy bribe.” He argues that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse….our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.” And what it is that mass culture offers, Jameson asks? “Some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity.”

I am not suggesting that the Wet Seal advertisement injects the revolutionary spirit of the Russian intelligentsia directly into the brain of the mall zombie. But, perhaps unconsciously, Wet Seal is using some revolutionary zeal to sell its products because it knows that many of us crave collectivity and a better world—fairness, equality, jobs for all—the kind of world represented by Soviet idealism (though not necessarily Soviet society)—in the 1920s.

In the last few months we have seen hundreds of protests against low wages, targeting Walmart and fast food corporations, involving thousands of workers and labor leaders, suggesting that our “ineradicable drive” towards collectivity is not just a fantasy. Somewhere, buried deep in the capitalist unconscious is its opposite—radical socially conscious revolution. And sometimes we run across it at the mall.

So keep your eyes open this holiday season. Who knows what other revolutionary messages are hiding out in our cathedrals of consumption?

Kathy M. Newman