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

Our Overeducated Workforce: Who Benefits?

There are two “college jobs” (jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree) for every three “college graduates” (people 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree). What’s more, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this will not change much in the future as low-wage jobs grow somewhat faster than “college jobs,” while “college jobs” grow more slowly than the number of “college graduates.”

This blog has been an outlier in reporting this set of facts – see here, here and here. So while our readers should not be surprised by the recent report of the Federal Reserve of New York that “one in three college-educated workers typically holds a job that does not require a degree,” the mainstream media should be shocked.

Given these facts from official sources, it is a mystery how our leaders can go on and on about our growing “knowledge economy” and the necessity for everybody to go to college so they can get a good job.  One out of three college graduates now is not going to get one of those good college jobs; if everybody gets a bachelor’s degree, then about four out of five will not get a “college job.” It’s just arithmetic. How can President Obama very mistakenly say “the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education” as two-thirds of jobs now and in 2022 will require only a high school diploma or less and most of these jobs pay low or very low wages? How is it that major newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, still have headlines warning of a “shortage of educated employees”?

I don’t usually assume that there’s a conspiracy involved when our elite opinion-shapers purvey a widespread conception that is so out of whack with the facts.  I expect a certain level of class blindness among middle-class professionals (especially at the upper levels) on a wide range of subjects, and my expectations are only rarely disappointed. I think many of my lefty friends are too quick to attribute such mismatches to a kind of all-seeing executive committee of the ruling class that is purposely and systematically purveying propaganda that serves their interests.

But this past year I was interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Schuberth, who convinced me that I was looking in the wrong place for a conspiracy. Since the practical effect of having too many college graduates for the number of “college jobs” is to put downward pressure on the wages of those jobs, I figured any intentional design would require some kind of unwieldy conspiracy among employers. Schuberth, who is a Ph.D. anthropologist, has done some tracking of money flows, however, and she makes a pretty good case that the propaganda that blinds us may be orchestrated by the largest purveyor of college-student loans, Sallie Mae. You can watch her 12-minute doc Poorer by Degrees here. (I am one of the talking heads, but Schuberth’s editing and graphics have made me more lucid than usual.)

Sallie Mae, officially the SLM Corp., donated nearly $1 billion to found the non-profit Lumina Foundation, whose mission is “To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60% by 2025.” Lumina gives money to various media outlets, think tanks, higher education associations, and universities to advance this mission. Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis and Chief of Staff Holiday McKiernan are popular keynoters at gatherings of higher education administrators. Merisotis, for example, told the Oregon Higher Education Symposium that “[e]conomists and labor experts are quite clear” that the existing higher education system is not producing enough college graduates. Likewise, McKiernan emphasized to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that “[e]xperts agree” that “by 2020 65% of jobs in America will require some form of postsecondary education.”

In these speeches when Lumina executives cite “experts” who “agree” and are “quite clear,” they actually refer to only one expert, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which is a major recipient of Lumina funds. Carnevale is also the source for the headline cited above warning of a “shortage of educated employees,” and he was the go-to guy for The Wall Street Journal to attack the NY Federal Reserve study as “wildly inaccurate.”

Carnevale authored a 2013 study, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, that purports to refute the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational projections. BLS is not just an expert on this subject, it’s the premier expert. That does not mean BLS is right and Carnevale is wrong, but it does make it hard to see how Lumina executives can say “experts agree.”

Here’s the disagreement: BLS says the total number of jobs requiring “postsecondary education” of any sort is 33% now and will grow to 35% by 2022 (jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees will grow from 22% to 23%; those requiring associates degrees and other postsecondary credentials from 11% to 12%). Carnevale says the total is now 59% and will grow to be 65% by 2020, but he has an unusual definition of “college jobs.”

Carnevale dispenses with the BLS’s tedious job descriptions based on surveys of more than a million employers. Instead, he uses well-respected public opinion surveys and finds that many college graduates with jobs that BLS says do not require bachelor’s degrees tell surveyors that they are paid more than non-college-graduates doing the same or similar jobs. Carnevale thinks that when this happens, that person’s job should count as a “college job”: “Employers are still willing to pay more for the college degree – a symbol of a worker’s attainment of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that improve productivity.” Thus, if a barista at Starbucks with a college degree makes more than a barista at Starbucks who does not have a college degree, then that should count as a “college job” because the first barista has benefitted economically from his/her college education.

Well, that is one way to look at it, and a very creative one! But I’m glad the BLS doesn’t count that way. The NY Fed didn’t use Carnevale’s approach either, and as a result, found that though college graduates as a whole average substantially higher incomes than those without college, in 2013 one of four college graduates earned $27,000 or less.

You can probably guess how Sallie Mae, the giant of the college-loan industry, benefits from Carnevale’s reading of the need for more and more “postsecondary education” and from the Lumina Foundation’s mission to double the proportion of higher-educated workers. But watch Poorer by Degrees anyway. It paints a disturbing portrait of how some folks make money by exaggerating the American Dream.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

The Culture of Success

This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar on the college novel. We started with This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s bizarre, Princeton-set contribution to the genre. The main character, Amory Blaine, starts life in Minneapolis with many material advantages. But his doting mother is an alcoholic, and his father washes out as a salesman. Amory is a failure: in college he goes on alcoholic benders and then flunks his end-of-the-year exams. This forces him off the editorial board of the Princetonian, and soon after he drops out of college completely.

The novel, which hews closely to Fitzgerald’s own life, also chronicles Amory’s failed relationships, including his relationship with the Southern belle Rosalind, the most Zelda-like character in the novel. Rosalind rejects Amory because she doesn’t want to live like “squaw” on his measly advertising salary of $275 a month (about $60,000 a year in today’s dollars). At the end of the novel Amory takes the rap for a friend who brought a single woman to a hotel (thus violating the Mann act), quits his job, loses his mother and his father figure Monsignor Darcy to death, and, in the last line, he names his only true accomplishment: “I know myself and that is all!”

I asked students in the seminar—11 women and one transgender student, three-quarters of them born abroad and representing perhaps a new global elite—what they thought of Amory’s trajectory. They agreed that he had mostly failed by end of the novel, but they also believed that he had gained wisdom, and that he had become a better person.

I also asked my students to define success for themselves. Their answers surprised me. One wrote that success was “not only academic success.” One defined success as “accomplishing my goals,” but with the caveat that “my goals can vary and not be traditionally defined.” One wants to “have a family and a job I love.” Another wants to learn Chinese, to play the guitar, and to have time for travel, music, and photography. One wants to “do something important.” One wants to “learn to cook.” One wants to find her voice. They wrote words like “satisfied,” “happy,” “friends,” and “family.”

As advocates for working people, how do we define success? Is there a contrast between our definition of success and how my students at Carnegie Mellon University define it? I also wonder about this as a parent when I find myself fighting with my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old—yet again—about tests, homework, and music lessons.

I worry about both my students and my children when I think about how the great recession has made our culture more competitive than ever. Is success for our children defined by striving, sacrificing, foregoing sleep, battling eating disorders, getting yelled at when they can’t focus during their violin lessons, getting the best grades and test scores, needing Ritalin, winning the most competitions, contemplating suicide, participating in the most activities, getting into the best schools, needing anti-anxiety medication, getting a high paying job, and then starting the cycle all over again for their children?

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some stats about college life from the blog Challenge Success: Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. In a recent survey of Stanford students, 12% had suicidal thoughts. According to a 2006 study of students attending two northeastern universities, “17% reported that they purposely injured themselves at some point in their lives,” and 70% of those said that had done so multiple times. In other cases college debt has led to suicide. Even younger teens in the US are buckling under the pressure, such as the three stressed out teens from Newton, MA who killed themselves in the span of just a few months.

What if, instead, we define success like this post, which went viral this summer, on how to give our kids a 1970s style summer? The writer, Melissa Fenton, advocated for the joys of imaginative play, wandering the neighborhood, drinking straight from the hose, doing just OK in school, being curious, watching cartoons, getting lost in a book, riding a bike fast on a dirt path, catching tadpoles, hanging out with friends after school.

What if we defined success in those terms? That kind of success could mean finding an affordable college that’s a good fit, or maybe not going to college at all, wandering the country, traveling the world, growing up, finding one’s path, working with dignity for some reasonable amount of money, and maybe (or maybe not) starting the cycle all over again for their children.

On the other hand, if families like mine—comfortable and certainly middle class— adopt the tenets of “slow parenting,” will my children become lazy, listless, and unfocused? Will they fail to get into a good college—or into any college? Will they end up without resilience, or with a bad work ethic? Will they drop precipitously into the working class?

Then again, would that be the worst thing in the world?

Indeed it might not be. Barbara Jensen argues powerfully for the existence of different cultures associated with working and middle class parenting in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. Jensen argues that working-class families privilege kinship and community over striving and the pressure cooker of high expectations. When I’m being honest with myself I, too, want kinship and community for my children more than I want them to have glorious and exalted careers.

It could be argued that my lament is that of the privileged. Challenge Success, the national organization that raises many of these same questions, is centered at Stanford University, and some of the parenting sessions held there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, attract some of the wealthiest and most successful parents in the country.

But the paradigms associated with middle class success since the great recession, especially in the realm of education, while stressful for families like mine, have been crippling for the poor and the working class. Education reformers, using the rhetoric of “grit” and the tools of testing, standardization, and austerity, have been gutting public schools, creating charter schools that harshly discipline poor black and brown children, and re-segregating public education. Today in the South and the Southwest of the United States more than 70% of public school children are poor.

The rhetoric of “grit” in particular has been used to argue that children who are poor have more experience with failure, and thus more potential to succeed. The truth is something different. Poverty creates a negative climate for learning—from factors such as lack of pre-natal nutrition, to lack of exposure to reading and vocabulary for toddlers, to the way in which the violence and insecurity of poor neighborhoods causes PTSD and rewires a child’s brain. These become staggering disadvantages to overcome within already underfunded and overburdened schools. Poverty, currently affecting 45 millions Americans, doesn’t foster grit. Instead poverty makes it harder to achieve success—no matter how we define it.

So how do we fight for more people to have access to the American Dream and, at the same time, challenge the accepted pathways to that dream? Can we challenge the culture of striving, overwork, and competition that is making our students and our children miserable, even suicidal? We want more people to be more successful, but don’t we also want to challenge the culture of success?

Kathy M. Newman

Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman

McDonald’s, FedEx, and Shifting Legal Views of Employment

Sometimes seemingly obscure legal rulings indicate major changes in the struggle for social and economic justice. Two recent rulings involving independent contractors and franchise employers could help enable workers and unions to make breakthroughs in improving wages and working conditions.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” of franchisees’ workers and is accountable for their franchisees’ questionable and sometimes illegal actions. Corporations often use franchise agreements to avoid fulfilling legal personnel requirements by shifting responsibilities to franchisees. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, the NLRB decision exposes large corporations who use franchise agreements to potential liability claims.

In a second decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Western California, Washington and Oregon) overruled a District Court and said that FedEx has misclassified employees as independent contractors. Legally, independent contractors can’t be directly supervised, supplied with workspace or tools, or otherwise treated like employees, and because they are not considered employees under Labor Management Relations Act, Section 2. Consequently, independent contractors have limited legal protections and do not have the right to organize unions.

Companies like FedEx misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying insurance premiums, minimum wages and overtime, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. FedEx reduced its labor costs 25% by shifting expenses to the independent contractors. If the Appellate Court decision is sustained and if it is expanded to include the more than 45 class action and individual lawsuits and the 25 state tax and other administrative proceedings claiming misclassification, FedEx could have to pay hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in back taxes, back pay, and various fines. No wonder the business press has said that the decision could have a “seismic impact.”

While these cases won’t be resolved any time soon, they’re important because they reflect changing attitudes toward work and inequality. Both cases evolved within the larger context of deregulation, precarious employment, cost shifting, and the loss of workplace protections over the last 40 years as employers sought to lower labor costs and undermine unions. For example, building contractors have increasingly used subcontractors to evade union contracts. Especially in deindustrialized areas, displaced manufacturing workers who had toolboxes and pickup trucks became part of a pool of independent contractors. This placed pressure on unionized employees and contractors to lower wages and sign concessionary “project agreements.” As a result, wages, benefits, and working conditions all declined, especially in unionized industries.

Other employers and industries turned to personnel and temp agencies. ManpowerGroup became one of the nation’s largest employers by acting as a hiring hall for independent employees and contractors. Kelly Services has become the largest specialized clerical /technical agency. Smaller niche labor market agencies have also sprung up, such as Labor Ready, which provides day labor for construction and cleaning.

Even employers of professionals, who once thought of themselves as models of justice and fair employment, have embraced the use of independent contractors and temp agencies. For example, universities, hospitals, and newspapers have laid off employees and hired subcontractors to do both professional and non-professional work. Many universities treat adjunct faculty as episodic and easily replaceable independent contractors, and they hire subcontractors to handle maintenance, security, and food services.

These recent legal rulings don’t just tell us about changes in work, though. They also suggest reasons to hope that employment conditions will improve in the future. First, because precarious employment has become more common, most Americans probably know someone who has experienced job loss and/or economic injustice. Coupled with newspaper stories and much-discussed books about inequality and with Occupy Wall Street and its references to the 99%, we now have a national narrative – popular and intellectual — about economic injustice, low wages, and unfair treatment at work. Just as state courts overturning gay marriage bans reflect a broad change in public attitudes, these recent employment rulings reflect a change in public awareness, political views, and, to a lesser extent, actual public policies.

Second, the legal cases dramatize the importance of electoral politics. Despite their failings (which have been well documented on this site), Democrats make significantly better appointments to the court and other legal and regulatory agencies than Republicans do. While Democrats don’t always represent the interests of their base very well, their appointments are still more likely to rule in progressive ways than are judges and regulators appointed by Republicans. In the case of the NLRB, for example, the new board members appointed by Obama are more sensitive to worker and labor rights than were earlier members appointed by Bush. No wonder the Republicans have created a logjam over judgeships given the role of justices deciding social and workplace issues. Voters who care about workplace justice should consider the power of these appointments when they go to the polls.

Third, for a decimated and often moribund labor movement, these rulings and the changing attitudes that they reflect provide the groundwork to test new organizing approaches. We see this in the growth of the fast food workers movement and the willingness of organized labor to embrace pre-majority or minority unionism. These experiments in new organizing approaches provide hope that a revitalized labor movement can help provide a voice for workers whether they are unionized or not. They also also provide support and an education in organizing for young and precarious workers fighting for job security and economic justice in warehouses, restaurants, and big box stores like Wal-Mart.

If the FedEx and McDonald’s decisions had occurred in an intellectual, political, and movement vacuum, they might not matter much. But these rulings both reflect and further enable a broader and growing movement for economic justice that could, indeed, be “seismic.”

John Russo

Labor Day Reading: New Stories of Work

Labor Day was created in the 1880s as a celebration of work and workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the idea came from either Peter J. Maguire or Matthew Maguire – one a leader in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the other a machinist. Either way, the holiday has its roots in industrial labor and unions, both of which were expanding at the time and have shrunk in recent decades. But changes in work aren’t just about the quantity of jobs. It’s about their quality.

Comments on the shift to a service economy often focus on economic and structural problems. Today’s working-class jobs generally pay less than the industrial, unionized labor of previous generations, and, as a recent series in the New York Times highlighted, uneven schedules and multiple part-time jobs wreak havoc on workers’ lives. But contemporary narratives of work remind us that there is more at stake: today’s jobs offer fewer sources of pride or solidarity.

We can trace the change in contemporary working-class literature. Some pieces emphasize the tedium of factory jobs, as in Tom Wayman’s “Factory Time,” or the way such jobs can leave a worker feeling like a cog in the machine, as Jim Daniels describes in “Digger’s Melted Ice”: “you push two buttons and the press/comes down. Always the same,/so simple you can disappear.” But many classic working-class texts suggest that even when the work is boring and hard, workers feel pride in what they produce and the skills involved. As Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work, working-class jobs are not just manual; they require expertise and judgment. As we learn in novels like Out of This Furnace or Christ in Concrete, knowing how to recognize when molten steel has the right mix of elements or how to construct a brick arch involves knowledge, not just strength. Industrial work can be alienating, but it also leaves workers with a strong sense of having contributed to a large and significant enterprise. In “Last Car,” from her collection Autopsy of an Engine, Lolita Hernandez describes how workers follow the last Cadillac as it moves down the line, crowding in near the end to sign the last engine, proud of their work even as they worry about what lies ahead after the plant closes.

But the satisfaction of work is also social, and workers’ social networks give them at least some power, as Hernandez shows in “Thanks to Abbie Wilson.” After Abbie’s section of the plant closes and she has been reassigned to a janitorial job, she returns to the empty floor where she once worked and re-enacts the process of attaching gaskets to oil pans. In describing Abbie’s performance, Hernandez makes clear that the work can’t be separated from workers’ relationships and the sense of agency those connections provide. Abbie’s former co-workers come to watch her:

And those who observed Abbie long enough were able to see themselves. They were amazed and happy because they all looked so young, energetic, and hopping in ways they hadn’t for years. Abbie waved at them because she knew they were happy to see themselves at their best when struggles with the bosses and each other were at their hottest, when Peanut Man hawked hot roasteds all through the shift, when Sweet Sadie sold her blouses and jewelry, when Red took liquor orders for lunch, when Thanksgiving was one long banquet of tamales and greens, and Dancing John, dressed up as Santa Claus, drove his jitney on the last day of work before Christmas break singing ho, ho, ho we’ll soon be out the doh. (110)

Remembering their younger selves, the workers recall the pleasure not only of being young and strong but also of standing up for themselves against the bosses, an experience of being “at their best” on the job.

Work looks different in a 2010 anthology from Bottom Dog Press, On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work. These stories explore the soul-killing nature of office work, conflicted relationships among workers, and the indignities of low-wage jobs that don’t let a worker sit down for even a moment on her eight-hour shift. Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” considers the limited opportunities for satisfaction in fast food work. While the narrator listens to the assistant manager’s running narrative of her troubled life, and while he eventually helps her through a personal crisis, their relationship remains tense, in part because the job carries different meanings for them. For the assistant manager, it’s a long-term reality, while the narrator is there just for the summer. On the other hand, they share a disdain for the job and for unpleasant customers: “we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.”

In other stories, workers do whatever they must to get by. In M. Kaat Toy’s story, tellingly titled “Any Failure to Obey Orders Will Be Considered an Act of Aggression,” a laid-off social worker now does the jobs “of people she might previously have helped,” busing tables at a restaurant and cleaning hotel rooms. She and her co-workers accept mistreatment from their bosses because, as one indicates, “I’m only in it for the money.” No one at the restaurant or hotel where she works seems to expect satisfaction from the job.

Nor do such jobs offer many opportunities for solidarity, as Dean Bakopoulos suggests in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. In the novel, a retail worker who’s taking a labor history class tries to organize a sit-down strike at the mall on Black Friday, modeled on the Flint strike of the 1930s. The story suggests some key differences between retail workers and their grandfathers, who, Bakopoulos tells us, worked at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge. The clerks work for many different large corporations, most of which are based somewhere else, so even though they share common problems at work – petty store managers, uneven schedules, low pay — they don’t have a common employer. They also don’t see these jobs as permanent, even though they have no other options or plans at the time. Shared conditions of labor and inspiring stories can’t overcome their fear of job loss, so only a few show up for the strike. For them, solidarity means getting together for a drink and a wet t-shirt contest at a bar next to the mall, not organizing or standing together to fight for better working conditions.

These days, Americans are more likely to celebrate Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer than as an opportunity to honor workers, and these stories suggest that the change in the holiday’s meaning reflects changes in work and working-class culture. As we head into September, it might be too late for a summer reading list, but it’s not too late to pay attention to the losses for workers captured in contemporary literature about work.

Sherry Linkon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re Here! We’re Queer! We’re Not Going Shopping!

In 2002, when I was soliciting submissions for the anthology Everything I Have Is Blue: Short Fiction by Working-Class Men about More-or-Less Gay Life, I received this message on a Working-Class Studies listserv: “Excuse me for saying so, but isn’t gay and working-class kind of a contradiction in terms?”

It was such a great line that I ended up using it in the book. Obviously, the short answer is no, but the impulse behind the question isn’t hard to understand. For decades, popular concepts of the “gay community” have so frequently been paired with middle- and privileged-class status markers that “gay” sometimes resembles a brand name. And what about those stereotypes? We’re DINKs, Guppies, trend-setters, gentrifiers. We’re “hyper-acquisitive” and, of course, we have those “high disposable incomes” everyone gets so excited about.

Far from it. Recent studies, in fact, suggest that LGBTQ people may actually be more vulnerable to being poor: more likely to experience food insecurity; more likely, in rural settings and/or among people of color, to be at income risk; more likely than U.S. adults in general to report annual incomes under $30K (39% vs. 28%).

That is, of course, unless you believe in the secret “Better Living Through Homosexuality” fund. You know, the one that provides us with the unlimited financial support we need to enjoy better education, healthcare, and housing; develop superior taste in food, clothing, and culture; and finally quit going to SuperCuts. Of course I’m being ironic, but you might be surprised how many people behave as though they thought such silliness was true.

But the real point is this: If most Americans are working-class or poor (and they are), then most LGBTQ Americans must be as well. And plain facts sometimes get lost in debates over whether to define class through “labor-capital analysis (in the Marxist tradition) or [by means of] occupation, income, and formal education (in the liberal one)”—as University of Massachusetts professor Lisa Henderson put it in Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production. Or, indeed, over whether to “imagine class as fundamentally … a cultural form.”

I had Henderson’s perspectives in mind as I prepared Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers, the recent follow-up to Everything I Have Is Blue: how to place what Henderson termed a “study of queer-class conjuncture” alongside a political, economic, and cultural analysis. But novelist and essayist Dorothy Allison, who has probably done more than any other contemporary queer writer to articulate “conjunctures,” was on my mind as well. As Allison observed in her essay “A Question of Class”:

Everything in our culture—books, television, movies, school, fashion—is presented as if it is being seen by one pair of eyes, shaped by one set of hands, heard by one pair of ears. Even if you know you are not part of that imaginary creature—if you like country music not symphonies, read books cynically, listen to the news unbelievingly, are lesbian not heterosexual … you are still shaped by that hegemony, or your resistance to it.

I’d go a bit further. To be queer, from or in the working classes, and committed both to class solidarity and to full citizenship for queer people often means not solely battling the “one pair of eyes” approach but being caught between what I would call the “traditionalist” working-class organizing/labor-studies camp (which sees the working-class as nearly exclusively blue-collar and views any “oppression” that is not determined by economic relations as bourgeois “identity politics”) and the bourgeois identity politicians for whom discussions of class are antediluvian, irrelevant, and sectarian in the context of the LBGTQ civil-rights “agenda.”

So if contradiction is the issue, there’s plenty to go around.

Fortunately, what there also turns out to be plenty of is a rich body of materials on which to base the kind of study Henderson describes. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of resistance on the part of working-class queer writers, thinkers, activists, and artists to being seen as anomalies and paradoxes.

Modern Family stereotypes aside, in fact, the impact of class and economic issues has long been clear to many of us here in the Homintern. Pride at Work is one example—a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group of labor-union activists (and an AFL-CIO affiliate) born out of a 1974 alliance between the Teamsters and San Francisco gay activists Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk. Together, they pulled off a highly successful community boycott of Coors. Amber Hollibaugh’s Queers for Economic Justice project worked tirelessly for twelve years to build a platform for the poor and low-income queers whose voices are often unheard in the mainstream fight for gay rights. (Sadly, the QEJ project closed in 2014 for lack of funding.) The National Center for Lesbian Rights, meanwhile, recently founded the RuralPride Campaign to increase LGBTQ visibility in rural America and make sure services and resources are accessible to queer people and their families in those areas.

Queer scholars, social historians, and artists in and from the working class take part in the same conversations. I’ll mention just three examples: Kelly Cogswell’s memoir, Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger (founded in 1992, the Avengers were a direct-action group that focused on gender, race, and class); the impressive body of work left behind by the late Allan Bérubé, whose moving essay about his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, “Sunset Trailer Park,” is a classic; and the just-released comedy, Pride, which is based on a true story. In it, UK gay and lesbian activists raise money for the families of Welsh miners during the long National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984. The film hasn’t yet opened where I live, but I’m excited about the conversations it might inspire. I’ve known for nearly my entire adult life that working-class queer people were deeply involved in union building, neighborhood organizing, economic justice issues, and anti-racism work. I wish other people knew it, too.

And that explains why I thought the time was ripe for Blue, Too, a way to bring queer activism and cultural production together with the traditions of LGBTQ and working-class studies. In addition to short stories, performance pieces, and autobiography by twenty writers, Blue, Too includes a study guide that applies working-class-studies and queer-theory approaches to analysis of each contributor’s work. The book also contains an annotated bibliography of more than 500 items (the first-ever attempt to create an exhaustive listing of materials related to queers and class) and an in-depth critical essay that reviews the history and present of working-class queers in literature, media, pop culture, and scholarship.

What emerges from all that are some interesting points of departure. Consider, for example, what LGBTQ and working-class cultural production have in common. Historically, they’ve both been unintentionally overlooked, randomly misinterpreted, or deliberately suppressed—albeit for different motives—and both may need to be reclaimed in order to bring their broadest implications to light. At a deeper level, writing that foregrounds lesbian and gay perspectives, ethics, and consciousness can “queer” assumptions about a heterosexual universe and about the “proper” deployment of sex roles, physical sexual behavior, and gender just as working-class writing can “queer” certitudes about opportunity and class mobility, “natural” social hierarchies, and the dream of liberty and justice for all. They are both—or they can be—subversive.

I’m convinced this is a conversation worth having—within Working-Class Studies and in academia more generally, in reading groups, and among friends. Literature and media, after all, are the propaganda of a culture, and working-class queer people are often propagandized right out of the picture.

Wendell Ricketts

Wendell Ricketts is a writer, editor, and translator; a somewhat-unwilling resident of the hanging-chad state; and, as a university adjunct, a member of the great American “precariat.”