Category Archives: Class and the Media

Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

Grime You Can Never Wash Off: Internet Content Moderation and New Frontiers in Labor Exploitation

Scrolling through e-mails and my Facebook news feed one morning last week, I came across two related articles. The first, from Alternet, was about the disproportionate harassment and abuse that women face online. Citing a recent Atlantic exposé on the issue, as well as death threats made to feminist video game critic and “GamerGate” target Anita Sarkeesian, the article underscored the negligence of Facebook, YouTube, and other companies whose content moderators—those employed to flag and delete offensive materials coming across their sites—appeared indifferent to or, perhaps, poorly trained to address the increasing problem of Internet-based violence against women. These moderators, the article mentions, are often “swamped with cases.” But in a tech industry dominated by men at all levels of employment, whether or not a woman is subjected to terrifying forms of online abuse—including, in one case, a Facebook post featuring a woman’s head photoshopped onto a picture of a beaten and chained woman— comes down to “human decision-making” on the part of the people tasked with sifting through the digital garbage.

The second article, from Wired, offered a more detailed look at what Internet content moderation involves. I honestly hadn’t given any thought at all to content moderation as an especially filthy job that, even without the smelly trucks and beeping, is a form of garbage collection. In this case, though, the grime sticks to workers in a way that makes emptying trashcans and dumpsters sound like a dream job by comparison.

Internet content moderation is typical of other outsourced, global forms of labor in that the U.S. relies on poorly paid contract workers from the Philippines to do the vast majority of the work. However, since recognizing what would be offensive requires cross-cultural fluency, most companies have also implemented what Wired reporter Adrian Chen calls a “two-tiered moderation system, [where] more complex screening… is done domestically.” Far better paid than overseas workers—“a moderator for a U.S. tech company can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day”—most U.S. based moderators are culled from the ranks of precariously employed college graduates, many of whom are enticed to take these jobs with suggestions that a more permanent position at Google or Twitter might be on the horizon. In general, however, not only do these better jobs never solidify, but content moderation’s status as labor of the living nightmare variety quickly becomes apparent to employees.

In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild begins her discussion of emotional labor, such as the work of flight attendants, care workers, and others in feminized service occupations, by asking whether there may be a fundamental “human cost of becoming an ‘instrument of labor’ at all” (3). This question illuminates the psychological costs faced by those whose jobs require “[inducing] or [suppressing] feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance” that makes consumers of such labor feel properly “cared for.” This “coordination of mind and feeling” can cause the worker to become alienated from an “aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul—that is used to do the work” (7).

But what if the work demands subjecting oneself to psychological trauma resulting from the continual repetition of horrifying images and sounds? What happens to the “margins of the soul” when a job requires workers to be used in this way?

Chen interviewed a number of former and current Internet content moderators who describe what they experienced on the job, and what they still carry with them. One U.S.-based moderator quit his job at Google when a co-worker exhibited a nonchalant response to a video of a beheading: “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it.” Others, subjected to hours of pornography, report feeling desensitized to the point where they “no longer want to be with their spouses” or, on the other hand, leave work with “a supercharged sex drive.” Many companies ostensibly employ counselors to deal with the psychic fallout from this work, which puts laborers at risk of PTSD much like soldiers and members of specialized police forces, though one former worker claimed to not know anyone who had seen a counselor. “But,” Chen emphasizes, “even with the best counseling, staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll.” After being made to watch a nearly half-hour video of a woman being raped, “blindfolded, handcuffed, screaming and crying,” one Filipino woman content moderator “began to tremble with sadness and rage” (in Chen’s words). Says the woman, who is still doing content moderation work, “I watched that a long time ago, but it’s like I just watched it yesterday.”

As its own devastating aspect of the “heart of human darkness” run rampant on the Internet, online victimization of women is an urgent problem. Yet after reading Chen’s report, I can’t help but feel that the “human decision-making” involved in content moderation is compromised by the utterly dehumanizing nature of the work. The “aspect of self” that many content moderators become estranged from is their own humanity, unable to plug into and feel things they must figure out a way not to feel in order to simply bear the work.

This is not to say that in the male-dominated tech industry, sexism and misogyny aren’t also at play when moderators make that quick decision to either delete or push through abusive content aimed at women. But read in this context, Hochschild’s work provokes us to think about the ways that gender and psychic health intersect in an occupation that requires exposing oneself to trauma as a primary duty of the job. Counseling isn’t widely advertised or used, and a masculine “deal with it” ethos further contributes to the occupational normalization of violence in an industry that, as Chen puts it, “[relies] on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.”

This last observation begs a version of Hochschild’s initial question: if the job of content moderator requires workers to absorb our collective human trauma in order to “protect the rest of us” from the ravages of the Internet, should a job like this exist at all? Should “must expose oneself to violence repeatedly, for days and weeks on end” be an accepted part of any job description? Chen estimates that content moderators “comprise as much as half of the total workforce for social media sites.” Indeed, moderation work is especially insidious in that, unlike labor more typically associated with trauma—sex work comes to mind—it is hidden within an industry stereotyped as the benign realm of particle-board cubicles and sleepy systems administrators.

When we walk down the street, we see waste management workers laboring to present us with a convincing façade of civilized cleanliness. The more thoughtful among us recognize this as the dangerous lie that it is: this waste is never really “disposed” of, only moved out of sight of the privileged. The existence of content moderation work demands that we consider the human costs of maintaining the web’s garbage-free front. If the Internet requires turning human workers into psychic dumpsters for brutalities the rest of us would rather not have cluttering our Facebook and Instagram feeds, then what kind of virtual world are we living in, grime and all?

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Dietrich School Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Working-Class Hero Explains How to Save our “Wounded Colossus”

Bob Herbert had no childhood dreams of becoming a journalist. As he explained in a recent interview, he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in an African American family that he once described as “working-class with a middle-class sensibility.” In the early 1960s he joined the family upholstery business and made good money—enough to buy a coveted Thunderbird while he was still in high school. But then the US government drafted Herbert and sent him to Korea (instead of Vietnam, thank goodness), where he worked in military intelligence. When he returned home, he decided he wanted to be a journalist, and, apparently, (my aspiring writer students will blanch to read this), all he had to do was call the New Jersey Star Ledger. It helped that he was super smart.

Herbert moved up quickly in the newspaper world. He went from the Star Ledger to the New York Daily News, where he was a reporter and then an editor. In 1992, he started an eighteen-year stint writing a bi-weekly column for The New York Times. During this period, he also worked in television, as a founding panelist of Sunday Edition in New York. He was also a national correspondent for NBC in the early 1990s and a regular guest on The Today Show and NBC Nightly News.

Throughout his career, and especially at The New York Times, Herbert became known as a champion of ordinary people, especially working people, black people, women, the impoverished, and the downtrodden. Famed NYT columnist William Sapphire used to tease him: “How are the people doing this week?”

But Herbert did not see himself as on the “working-class” beat or the “race” beat. He was simply writing out of the concerns that he had always had, concerns that grew organically out of his own life experience: “I have always thought about the concerns, desires, and aspirations of working people: poor, middle-class, working-class. Isn’t it funny that we have a separate category for poverty? Aren’t poor people also working people?”

But Herbert was conscious of filling one key gap at the Times. He noticed that for the most part, “the press tended to cover issues and events from the perspective of people in power.” By contrast, he explained, “I always tried to [do the opposite].” Instead, Herbert focused on “the victims of crime, victims of the system, victims of racism.” Anyone stuck with the “short end of the stick.”

Herbert also noticed that newspapers and their readers were practically allergic to talking about class: “We talk very seldom about class is this country, because class is so entwined with race…People are very uncomfortable talking about one for fear that it will lead to the other.”

In 2011, Herbert stepped down from the Times and went to work for Demos, a public policy organization whose name means “the people” and which works for an America “where we all have an equal say in our democracy and…in our economy.” For the last several years Herbert has also been working on a book, which, he jokes, is about the least sexy word in English: infrastructure. Originally titled Wounded Colossus, a reference to Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty poem, “A New Colossus,” Herbert’s book is now called Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.

Infrastructure may not be sexy, but it is fundamental: we depend on the safety of our roads and bridges, the cleanliness of our water and air, the functionality of our energy grid, and the efficacy of our public schools. Herbert argues that we used to take pride in building up our infrastructure, as when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought water and electricity to millions in the South, or when the WPA improved bridges, roads, parks, and trails, or when Eisenhower gave us the interstate highway system we still enjoy today. How did we lose our way? And what has been (and what will be) the human cost?

Losing Our Way tells, as promised, some gripping and intimate stories about people for whom our de-investment in infrastructure has been catastrophic. Herbert introduces us to Mercedes Gordon, a young woman, recently promoted at work and engaged to the love of her life, who suffered life-changing injuries when she drove over the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis as it was collapsing. In telling Gordon’s story Herbert highlights our failure to invest in our roads and bridges, lamenting that we know how to fix them and we can afford to but that “[w]e just don’t.”

We also meet an Afghanistan war veteran, Dan Berschinski, who lost both legs when he and his platoon stepped on a land mine in Kandahar Province. An irony emerges as Herbert meditates on how war impacts our national spending. As the theorist Elaine Scarry has noted, we think of killing as the goal of war. But Scarry argues that the “central activity of war is injuring and the central goal of war is to out-injure the opponent.” Given our devastating wars in the Middle East, with more than 50,000 soldiers wounded, as our veterans age and worsen, the war will cost exponentially more as time wears on. Herbert points out that the most expensive year of WWI compensations payments, for a war that ended in 1918, was 1969!

Herbert ties these very personal stories to a more collective story about a group of parent activists in Pittsburgh, PA, and especially blogger Jessie B. Ramey, who has led the demand for the return of state education cuts on her blog and in the streets since the January of 2012. Herbert explains that the 1 billion in education cuts in Pennsylvania were part of a national trend of education defunding in the wake of the great recession. But Herbert also makes a metaphorical connection between his other stories and the story of education activism. If Gordon and Berschinski lost their actual legs in their devastating accidents, the education cuts, in Ramey’s words, were similarly catastrophic: “They were cutting the legs out from under our system and we knew we had to fight back.”

But how does focusing on the crumbling American infrastructure highlight issues of class? Herbert reminds us that fixing infrastructure problems creates jobs. The New America Foundation, Herbert points out, shows that 1.2 trillion dollars of infrastructure investment would create at least 5 million new jobs—more than all the jobs created since the start of the great recession. Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve lost nearly 30,000 teachers and other school personnel to Governor Tom Corbett’s education cuts.

If you are anywhere within driving distance of Pittsburgh this week, you can see Bob Herbert in person and buy a signed copy of his new book. Herbert is launching his national book tour in Pittsburgh, and those of us who have been fighting for public education, along with many others, will be there to hear his message, and, equally exciting, to see our own movement for education justice featured in his book.

Herbert is one of the few opinion leaders with a national platform who understands that “[o]rdinary people in America are not heard, and that’s insane, when we’ve come through this communication revolution.” Herbert hopes that “readers will see themselves in the stories about people who are struggling, and who are learning how to fight back.”

Herbert’s message is ultimately one of hope: we may have lost our way, but we’re not utterly broken. We can, and we must, through democratic action, make our wounded colossus new again!

Kathy M. Newman

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