Working-Class Heroes On — and Behind — the Screen

Last week the British Film Institute (BFI) launched a season of screenings on Working Class Heroes at the South Bank in central London. The films selected offer a wide range of film representations of the British working class over the last six decades from classic films such as Poor Cow and Billy Liar in the 1960s through to less well known examples such as Samantha Morton’s The Unloved of 2009.

Class has featured a lot in events held by the BFI this year.  In April, the Institute hosted an event that launched a collection of the Woodfall Films from the 1960s, including classics such as Kes, A Taste of Honey, Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, and Saturday Night Sunday Morning. These were breakthrough productions featuring working-class characters as core participants rather than as bit players to add common, often humorous colour to films. Equally important, they also were often produced or written by working-class talent such as Shelagh Delaney who wrote the novel A Taste of Honey and adapted the book for the film script. She talked about her work and her class background in a 1950s interview, though the clip is dated not so much by Delaney but by the middle-class accent of the interviewer.

The Woodfall films and others from the 1960s broke through class stereotypes and reflected the huge range of working-class life in post-war Britain. Films such as Saturday Night Sunday Morning told the story of an angry alienated bicycle factory worker, Arthur Seaton, played by Albert Finney.  It showed Seaton in his workplace, at home and at leisure and was filmed on location in pubs, clubs, and in real factories in the Nottingham of 1960. In Kes, made towards the end of the decade by Ken Loach, fourteen year old Billy Casper captures, raises, and trains a kestrel hawk as a way of escaping his everyday life. Set in the Yorkshire coalfield, the film reflects everyday life as cold, hard, tough, and unforgiving, a world away from the swinging sixties and trendy London Carnaby Street of popular historical imagination.  Indeed, many of the Woodfall films act as a powerful counternarratives to the idea of the 1960s as some kind of social and economic nirvana.

What matters most about the BFI’s recent attention to class is that it does not engage in cheap nostalgia, safely celebrating the working class from five decades removed. Rather, the BFI seems to have gone out of its way to ask critical and searching questions about the portrayal, reflection, and involvement of working-class people both in front of and behind the camera.  BFI curator Danny Leigh introduced the BFI’s Working Class Heroes season earlier in the year with a thoughtful podcast on class and British cinema reflecting on its 1960s golden age as well as the contemporary situation. One of the big issues in the British arts generally is the way the creators and audience are often white and middle class.  A series of interventions have highlighted the barriers faced by many working-class origin actors as well as directors and script writers. In a recent article in The Guardian, Room at the Top?, Leigh notes the woeful underrepresentation of working-class stories, explicitly comparing the situation today with the legacy of 1960s cinema such as the Woodfall films.

In a revealing interview, working-class actor Maxine Peake discusses the discrimination she had experienced across her career.  She talks about being brought up in a Salford household with very few books or wider cultural capital.  Her breaks came from a drama group at a Unitarian church and the influence of her communist uncle who was a veracious reader and working-class autodidact. Peake tried to get a place at drama school in the UK, but she was rejected many times. She finally won a funded place at the highly prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Peake’s story reveals a combination of commitment, talent, and luck.  She attributes her luck in part to entering the industry at a time when greater levels of funding were available to people from working-class backgrounds.  She also recognises that she has been fortunate in the types and quality of roles she has been offered, which give her vehicles to portray working-class life. This includes playing one of the central parts in the UK version of the television series Shameless, set in the same area in which she grew up. But like Leigh in his article, Peake is less positive about the opportunities for younger actors from working-class backgrounds. A combination of factors have conspired to restrict the talent pipeline, beginning with less funding for the arts generally and a restriction on the school curriculum, which tended to downplay or cut altogether arts subjects. There is also the growth in unpaid internships in arts companies, which tend to favour those with private incomes who can afford to live in arts centres such as London.

The point Leigh, Peake, and others make is that the film industry, and the arts more generally for that matter, are a complex ecosystem where class plays an important part in shaping what gets made and by whom. So while the celebration of working-class film talent in the distant past is crucially important, even more important that a series like the one just opened at BFI shows what is possible when working-class people act in, create, and enjoy films by and for themselves.

Tim Strangleman


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Middle-Class Influence vs. Working-Class Character

“Jesse” is one of a cohort of 80 students sociologist Jessica Calarco observed from the 3rd through the 5th grades and then revisited in middle school for her new book, Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.  Calarco also interviewed the students’ parents. Her research reveals that middle-class children practice “strategies of influence” in school because their parents prioritize academic success, while working-class kids generally follow “strategies of deference” because their parents care more about developing long-term character.

In middle school Jesse lost a homework packet and simply accepted a “0” grade when the assignment was due.  Several weeks later his mother found the packet and made Jesse complete it.  When Jesse turned it in, his teacher “firmly, and a bit incredulously” returned the packet ungraded, saying: “It’s a little too late for that now.  I mean, that [assignment] was like a month ago.”  Here’s how Calarco describes Jesse’s reaction:

Jesse does not look up.  He nods slowly, but he keeps his shoulders hunched forward and his head low.  As Ms. Cartwright heads back to her desk, Jesse glances up at me, his face and shoulders heavy with resignation.  He murmurs quietly, almost sadly: ‘It wasn’t to get a better grade.  It was to make me a better person.’

Jesse later explained to Calarco that his mother had told him to complete the late assignment not to improve his grade but because it was the right thing to do – “to work hard and take responsibility for his actions.”

Jesse is from a working-class family, and Calarco recounts in heart-breaking detail how the working-class kids she observed are disadvantaged in grade school by their inability and unwillingness to push teachers to give them more time on a test, help them with answers, and allow them to turn in homework late. Middle-class kids, on the other hand, often treat teachers’ instructions as but opening statements in a game of negotiating that these kids become amazingly good at as early as the 4th grade.

According to Calarco, middle-class kids are taught to question and negotiate with the authority of their teachers, who are there to serve and help them. They learn that children should ask for help and seek  special accommodations when they need them.  Working-class kids, conversely, are taught to defer to teachers, to do what they’re told, and not to burden teachers with unnecessary questions but to work out their problems on their own.

Calarco argues that it is not only teachers’ own middle-class predispositions that disadvantage working-class students (a “hidden curriculum” noted by other scholars like Annette Lareau), but middle-class kids’ own crafty agency, and their knowledge that they can count on their parents to intervene if necessary, that makes it nearly impossible for teachers to give the same time and attention to working- as to middle-class kids.  In Calarco’s observation, teachers are often frustrated with the demands middle-class kids make on them and appreciative of the working-class kids’ deference and respect.  But the middle-class students are so confident, persistent, and often humorously, good-heartedly creative in seeking attention that as a practical matter, teachers have to give them more time just to get through their day.  This dynamic is further aided by working-class kids’ commitment to not being a bother to teachers and to working out things on their own, and many of them see what the middle-class kids are doing as undignified begging at best or even cheating, which they disdain ever doing.   At a Working-Class Studies conference where she presented some of this research, I asked Calarco whether the working-class kids’ disdain for middle-class negotiating might be based in a commitment to personal integrity.  She said, “Oh, for sure, though nobody used those words, of course.”

As for remedies, Calarco argues against both teaching working-class kids to negotiate better or urging middle-class parents to restrain from teaching their children strategies of influence.  Rather, she advocates for teachers and schools to enforce sharper boundaries against negotiating the special deals middle-class kids are so good at bargaining for and to stick to those boundaries when parents complain and threaten to go to the school board.

I found her arguments for that approach sensible and cogent, but as with many remedies for addressing our growing inequalities, it puts too much responsibility on only one of our institutions and on teachers, whom Calarco so vividly shows want to treat all their students equally and often work ingeniously if unsuccessfully to do so.  I wish Calarco had pulled back a bit to a larger frame that built on one of her most insightful paragraphs:

“All the parents . . . regardless of class or mobility, wanted to support their children’s academic success.  At the same time, parents worried that too much support could undermine their children’s development of good character (i.e., respect, responsibility, and work ethic).  Middle-class and working-class parents alike struggled with how to balance those seemingly competing priorities.  Ultimately, middle-class parents prioritized good grades, and working-class parents prioritized good character.  Both groups, however, made those choices with reservations.”

She doesn’t spell out the reservations, maybe because they’re pretty obvious.  As Jesse’s story suggests, he just wanted to be “a better person,” not to be too much of a bother, and for sure not a beggar or a cheater.  He could do with some negotiating skills, and with some more willingness to speak up for himself so he can be treated more fairly.  But no matter what he does, he’ll never catch up to the increasingly manipulative influencing skills the middle-class kids are developing – partly, and importantly, because neither he nor his parents want him to.  By prioritizing good character, however, he is gradually undermining his academic competitiveness and eventually his competitiveness in a bifurcated labor market that increasingly has only low-wage and high-wage jobs that track education levels.  His parents may sense that, and thus their reservations.  Middle-class parents’ reservations are likely based on the same perception – that if their kids have to sacrifice a little character and integrity to achieve academic success, it will be worth it in the long run because it will improve their chances of getting one of those increasingly rare jobs with good wages and conditions.  But is this really what middle-class parents want: Finagling, transactional grade-hounds constantly seeking competitive advantage so they can find a career, not just a job, a career that may value those same finagling, manipulative transactional skills they’re honing in school?

I doubt that is what any parent wants, but those are the pressures being put on us by the increasing distance between good jobs and bad jobs based on educational attainment.  Parents should not have to prioritize between good grades and good character.  We need to attack our growing inequalities with higher wages and better conditions for all the bad jobs that do much of the work we all depend upon.  In the long run, even most winners can’t really win in a winner-take-all society.

Negotiating Opportunities is full of carefully observed interactions among kids, parents, and teachers nearly all of whom are trying to do their best most of the time. But they’re doing it within a socioeconomic structure where trying to build character and maintain personal integrity can increase your chances of having low wages and lousy working conditions, while in order to gain decent working and living environments and some discretionary income, you may have to trim your concern for character and integrity and to get really good at treating human relationships as simply transactional.

Jack Metzgar

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Labor’s Day, More or Less?

With this post, Working-Class Perspectives celebrates its 10th anniversary. Since 2008, we have published 447 commentaries, and we’ve had more than 950,000 page views from readers around the world. Our pieces have been reposted on dozens of other sites, from Portside to Slate to Newgeography and many more. Thank you for reading, for sharing, and for offering your comments and encouragement. Happy Labor Day!

 * * * * * * * * * *

It’s hard for most of us to recall any period in the last fifty years that we could call the “good times” for labor in the U.S.  Membership density in American unions has been on a steady decline.  The National Labor Relations Board has certified few new unions, and mergers have become common.  Almost none of the major corporate enterprises founded over the last thirty years are unionized.

Legal reversals have followed these declines, and the beatings have been painful. Few were surprised that the Supreme Court ruled that unions could not require members of public sector unions to pay agency fees for bargaining and servicing, though the Janus ruling stung some unions badly.  New York State and Pennsylvania already report 80,000 workers whose payments have ceased, depleting union coffers by tens of millions annually.  The elimination of union security in Wisconsin has been cataclysmic.  Texas will soon eliminate any payroll deductions for any public workers in any jurisdiction.

The cover of Harper’s Magazine’s Labor Day issue for September 2018 asks “Is This the End of American Unions?”  The magazine doesn’t answer the question, but I will: “of course not!”

First, we shouldn’t assume that Janus dooms unions. Few other countries have representation fees for either the public sector workforce or the private sector workforce, yet they have labor unions.  French unions don’t have such provisions.  Nor do Australians. Unions in the United Kingdom lost union shop provisions for all workers under Margaret Thatcher.  Very few unions around the world — from India to Argentina to Brazil to South Africa to the European Union — even have “exclusive” representation.  Yet, all have unions and even labor movements of various shapes and sizes, strengths and weaknesses.

I asked organizers with the largest British unions (Unite, Unison, and the GMB) about how they responded when Thatcher ended their union dues regime.  As they all explained, they decided that instead of fighting to reinstate the old rules, which the public saw as internal and esoteric, it would be smarter to have their members fight for more rights and benefits on the job.  In fact, the GMB organizing director detailed a plan to move the whole union away from even payroll deductions to standing orders, or what we would call bank drafts, so that no one could stop the union.

Some American unions have also thrived by shifting the focus to building worker activism. Rand Wilson, now chief of staff of SEIU 888 and formerly a Teamsters strategist during the great United Parcel Service strike twenty years ago, suggested in Harpers article that the Janus decision may generate “a more activist base” in unions.  That’s how SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana-Missouri-Kansas (formerly United Labor Unions 880 and more recently SEIU 880) survived after losing the ability to collect agency fees in Illinois after the adverse Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn. The impact was serious financially, but not substantive organizationally. Keith Kelleher, the founder, chief architect, head organizer, and recent president of the local union, always made sure that more than 50% of its rolls were full members, and the union beefed up the program even more in anticipation of the decision.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Kelleher detailed the strategy and almost thumbed his nose at the efforts to derail the union.  That success rested on decades of organizing through active engagement of members and leaders in every aspect of the union’s program. Is there any mystery why this is the largest single local union in the Midwest, despite only being founded less than 40 years ago?

Many hold up the Culinary Workers (UNITE HERE Local 226) as the strongest single local union in the country.  When I visited some years ago, I was amazed at their full service, all-in approach to building the union.  Yet Nevada is and always has been a right-to-work red state.   Does anyone think the 60,000 private sector membership of this union reflects anything other than full engagement with workers?

Workers and their unions have risen phoenix-like over and over.  In the last thirty years, more than a half-million informal workers in home health care and home child care have won coverage under union agreements in some of the largest organizing victories since the 30’s and 40’s. In the same period of decline, we have seen a historic victory at JP Stevens Mills, the grape boycott of the United Farm Workers, and the remarkable growth of all public sector unions.  The living wage movement and the Fight for Fifteen have moved workers forward despite extreme opposition at the highest levels of government and amid rising inequality.  Earlier this year, teachers in the deep red states of West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and North Carolina broke out of their classrooms and into the streets, inspiring millions over wages but also, importantly, over classroom conditions and school funding.

As these cases demonstrate, it isn’t the law that empowers workers and their unions. It’s workers themselves. When labor grows, the law tends to support it. When unions are in retreat, the law also weakens, because it can — sometimes faster than we might wish. Action follows reaction, back and forth, but the combustion and boiling heat of struggle by workers is indomitable. If unions are going to survive Janus intact, they must have a base of engaged members. What was passive, must become active. Unions that are unable – or unwilling – to activate their membership will either wither or merge. But the ones that persist will be stronger and more able to face the future.

We should also pay attention a lesson from the more than one-hundred “living wage” campaigns that ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions ran in coalition with other unions and community groups: we can win if we take the issue to the public rather than defining it solely in terms of worker versus boss, union versus company.  That’s because winning isn’t just about a specific vote. In our first forays in Houston and Denver, back in 1995, we lost by 2 to 1 in both cities. But we won overwhelmingly in working-class black, brown, and white precincts, and we consolidated a strong base, building power even while losing.  Our opposition sometimes helped. In Houston, the anti-campaign developed a patronizing “good idea, bad tactic” measure, conceding us the high ground.  In Denver, a class-based effort financed by hotels and restaurants took the low ground, crystalizing the issue for the future.  And we learned from these battles. When we set the living wage number lower to offset the job loss arguments, we won in New Orleans – and then in cities across the country.

We see similar elements in the recent struggles – and victories –by teachers, who were often ahead of their unions in engaging the public, just as the Chicago teachers did so effectively several years ago.  In Missouri, unions won with an initiative to overturn legislation passed by the conservative Republican majority and signed by the Republican governor because they went directly to the people to argue for the merits and fairness of their proposition. Such battles can be risky, but the teachers dared to struggle, and their victory offers a lesson to us all about taking our issues to the people.

If our unions are to survive the legal and political attacks ahead of us, we have to build labor-community coalitions like this everywhere.  This can’t be tactical and transactional.  It has to be permanently strategic and transformative.  The times will never be good for us, but our own work can bend the times in a better direction for our success.  We cannot win on the battlefield laid out for us by corporations and employers.  We have to create our own field where we can even the odds. That requires the full engagement of workers and the public in our fights.

This Labor Day all of us need to think about how to support workers moving forward and unions embracing the future. No sense in whining, when we could be winning. Our first order of business has to be to get to work and make the work matter to workers, their communities, and the larger world where the public is willing to support us — if we are just willing to take the risks and do the work to take our fights to them and ask for their support.

Wade Rathke


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Sorry to Bother You: A Spectacle That Teaches

If you haven’t seen Sorry to Bother You yet, please stop reading this and find somewhere in your town that is still playing the film. SEE IT NOW. If you have seen Sorry to Bother You, I hope you will agree that this is the most pro-union film Hollywood has ever made.

Sorry to Bother You is set in a world so similar to our own that its dystopian futurism seem familiar. The economy is such that many ordinary people have signed lifetime contracts with a company called Worry Free Living, which guarantees them grueling work, crowded shelter, subpar food, and a modicum of free time. In other words: slavery.

Against this backdrop we meet Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a desperate job seeker who is four months behind on his rent and living with his girl friend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s windowless garage. Eventually Cash finds work as a lowly telemarketer at Regal View. A charismatic union organizer (Steven Yeun) inspires Cash and his co-workers to organize, and they stage an uplifting job action on the telemarketing floor, chanting  “phones down” and “Fuck Regal View.”

Cash stands with the union at first. But then, his mentor Langston (Danny Glover) encourages Cash to make his sales calls with a “white voice”—a voice so reassuring that Cash becomes a selling machine. Cash is promoted to “power caller” and moves up to the coveted top floor at Regal View. At the climax of the film Cash crosses the union’s picket line to get to work, betraying his friends. When our hero becomes a scab, Sorry to Bother You seems to be peddling Hollywood anti-union politics as usual.

But instead, the film sides with the union organizer Squeeze, Cash’s girlfriend Detroit, Cash’s best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), and Cash’s mentor Langston—who is with the union even though he taught Cash the secret of the “white voice”—rather than Cash. As Detroit tells Cash, “I can’t ride with you anymore.” Rejected by his pals, Cash finds cold comfort in the palatial home of Regal View CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), where Cash makes a horrific discovery about the sorts of futuristic workers that Regal View is producing in order to further lower its labor costs. Here’s a hint: they aren’t robots.

I won’t give away the extremely bizarre ending, but suffice it to say that Cash returns to his unionizing friends and re-joins their movement. The film’s fundamental argument is that solidarity at the point of production is the most effective way to change the world.

As a scholar specializing in labor films, I came away from Sorry to Bother You with two questions: 1) How did a film this radical ever get made? 2) What does it mean that such a pro-union film is being released now, given the state of the labor movement today?

As Boots Riley, the film’s writer and director explains it, it was very difficult to get Sorry to Bother You to the big screen. Riley, active in the Occupy Oakland movement and a long time rapper/writer/producer for the group Coup, finished the script in 2012. He put it in front of everyone he knew, and lots of people he didn’t know as well. He finally found a fan in Dave Eggers, who saw connections between the dystopian world in Riley’s screenplay and the world he was trying to capture in The Circle. Eggers published the script of Sorry to Bother You on McSweeney’s in 2014.

According to Wired, Egger’s endorsement helped Riley get a grant from the San Francisco Film Society and then an invitation to Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab. In 2016, the project caught the attention of Forest Whitaker’s company, Significant Productions, where Whitaker’s partner Nina Yang Bongiovi started promoting it with investors and agents. Selling Riley, a self-proclaimed communist, wasn’t easy, but Bongiovi kept at it, bringing in financing from more than one investor. When Sorry to Bother You premiered at Sundance this year, Annapurna Pictures acquired it for seven figures.

Riley’s story reflects the changing economics and politics in Hollywood. As entertainment journalist Sharon Waxman has argued, the Hollywood studio era is finally really and truly dead, replaced by digital media companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook. Add to this the growing power of black-owned production companies and the allegations, firings, and resignations resulting from the #MeToo movement, and suddenly the entertainment landscape is becoming more open to films that feature minority lead characters as well as more politically edgy subjects.

Along with finding the right backers, Riley succeeded because he understood the connection between activism and art. All along, Riley knew that he was making art for the kind of people that he was organizing alongside—in migrant farm working communities, in Oakland where he grew up, and in the Occupy movement: “I started out [at the age of 14] in radical movements before I thought that I was an artist. . . .  I think that if you have a passion to have your art be for something more, then what goes along with that is establishing a base, having a community that you answer to, having a community that you represent, having a community that you engage with in a way [other] than through your art.”

In many ways, Sorry to Bother You is out of step with our current moment. Union membership is at an historic low, and the labor movement was recently dealt a terrible blow with the Supreme Court’s Janus decision—a decision that will make it more difficult for unions to recruit members and collect dues. If Kavanaugh becomes our next Supreme Court judge, some predict that we’ll see more catastrophic decisions for labor.

Yet Sorry to Bother You is also the perfect film for the renewed labor radicalism of right now. Earlier this month Missouri voters rejected the anti-labor “right to work laws” in a referendum, numerous red state teachers rose up last spring in multiple massive strikes, and workers across the globe put a small dent in Jeff Bezos’s empire with strikes on Amazon Prime Day. On the political front a newly energized left flank of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) backed candidates have won elections in Pittsburgh, the Bronx, and elsewhere.

This is the kind of activism that Boots Riley would like to see increase.  He advocates strikes, rather than street demonstrations or boycotts, because “that is where the wealth is created.” Riley also likes the pedagogical function of strikes, the fact that they “teach the people involved and the onlookers how capitalism works .  . . .  It’s a spectacle that teaches.”

A spectacle that teaches. I love this notion. If you’ve ever walked a picket line you know how it changes your relationship with your co-workers, your job, and your street—how being out and loud and proud shows your community that you deserve a better deal, and that everyone else does too. At the end of this month, if it comes to it, I’ll be cheering on the on the striking Chicago hotel workers, who just took an overwhelming strike vote, and any other group of workers ready to seize power at the point of production. Don’t be sorry. It’s no bother. It’s the only way we’re going to get our country back.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is Associate Professor of English/Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She is currently finishing a book called How the Fifties Worked: Mass Culture and the Decade the Unions Made. Newman recently curated an art exhibit featuring anti-capitalist art, Marx@200, a portion of which is currently on view at Verso books in Brooklyn, NY.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Labor and Community Activism, Work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Real Government Help for Working-Class People

When I graduated college in 1975, the U.S. was in the midst of a recession, and New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy.  As a student, I’d commuted to Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx from my parents’ house, and I was eager to support myself and get experience in teaching or writing. While I came close to landing a position that fit my background in English and sociology, I  lost to another candidate and never found a good job. Then the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), which  had been signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, enacted a new provision that created jobs in the CUNY system (which served primarily working-class and first-generation students). Lehman College hired approximately 50 college graduates from around the state, including me. It was the equivalent of a WPA for the college-educated.

I’d worked since I was 17, but working full-time in a reading center was my first full-time professional job. I learned how to ask questions and give input rather than just follow directions. I learned how to evaluate students’ needs. . And I was paid a living wage with benefits that allowed me to move out of my parents’ house. After one year, I resigned from my CETA position, and the program itself expired after a couple of more years.  But it helped me develop professional skills, and it convinced me that I really wanted to become a college professor – and that’s what I did.

In my work today,  I see the challenges my students face after graduation. While some have landed jobs in their fields, others have faced long periods of unemployment and even longer periods of underemployment, the all-too-familiar story of post-recession young people. But unlike in the 1970s, there are no government programs designed to address their needs. And this is especially important for graduates from working-class families.  Their degrees don’t neutralize class privilege.  While the data on underemployment and wage gaps tends to focus on black graduates and women, often ignoring class as a category, graduates from working-class backgrounds – across races and genders – encounter significant economic challenges.

Some lack the social capital that opens professional doors for many more privileged graduates. Hard work is often not enough; networking is likely more effective than sending resumes to Working-class students did not grow up among professionals, so they may be uncomfortable in interviews or at recruiting events. And they might not feel comfortable with – or have access to — professional style. The only white-collar workers I knew were secretaries, and I didn’t realize that by dressing like them I was presenting myself as less than professional.

Even more important, working-class people enter the workforce with economic constraints. Like their middle-class peers, many of them have taken out hefty student loans, but most working-class families do not have the savings to support an unemployed adult. Working-class graduates may need to contribute to the family income. So they are unable to take unpaid internships that might boost their prospects or hold out for the right position. They take jobs for which they are overqualified, joining the ranks of the underemployed. For many, the inability to find appropriate work confirms their fears of being found out as imposters. Working-class graduates who are gender non-conforming, people of color, or people with disabilities face double or triple jeopardy.

Now that the unemployment rate is down to 3.9%, pundits are optimistic that struggling young people will be able to get jobs. What’s less clear is whether those jobs will pay living wages. First, while the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, the labor market remains weak. If good jobs open up, those who are underemployed face competition from recent graduates who are, in employers’ view, untainted by years of service work. Further, studies show that wages are likely to remain depressed for 10 to 15 years. The young person who is fortunate enough to get a position that matches their education will still have to contend with wages that have not risen with the supposed increase in labor demand. Some have argued that real wages — a measure of pay that factors in inflation — have in face declined for workers in many industries.

Low wages and underemployment will have long term effects, but the government has done nothing to intervene. The CETA Program was approved and implemented under a Republican president in an era when American people across party lines still believed that government could make a difference, that it could and should intervene to buffer the effects of economic crises. No such legislation was proposed during the Great Recession, even after Barack Obama took office.

Instead of helping working people, today’s Republican administration is proposing cuts or restructuring (another name for cuts) to many programs such as Medicaid and SNAP benefits. It has also tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but it has undercut the program in several ways. Critics of these programs claim that they don’t work. But they do, as my experience shows. Along with participating in CETA, I got food stamps as a graduate student and during a period of unemployment—in total less than 18 months. I was under a lot of stress during those times, but at least I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself.  I’m now on Medicare, which is much cheaper and much more efficient than any private insurance I had in over 40 years. Meanwhile, even though Trump denigrates federal programs, he quickly offered 12 billion dollars of relief to farmers hurt by his tariff policies. Even he recognizes that the federal government can soften economic blows.

The challenge is to create programs that serve the working class across the country – in all regions and regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or dis/ability. Some candidates and legislators are now advocating progressive measures such as free college tuition, Medicare for all, and student loan forgiveness. But no one has proposed a 21st century jobs program for the unemployed and underemployed. Our current Congress would not be sympathetic to such a proposal, but progressives should push the idea anyway.

The millennials who graduated in the years following the Great Recession have been called unlucky. Instead of blaming luck or lack of effort, we should examine the role of the federal government. It is time to revive our national memory of how job programs can address unemployment and underemployment, including jobs that don’t pay living wages. We need to remind people that living wages, benefits, and relevant job experience provide a strong foundation for workers and the national economy.

Michelle M. Tokarczyk

Michelle M. Tokarczyk, a professor of English at Goucher College, is a working-class scholar and poet who has published widely in the field. She has also served as President of the Working-Class Studies Association.



Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Black Working-Class Voices Doing It for Themselves

As a kid I didn’t expect to see myself reflected in a majority of the TV shows I saw or the  magazines and papers I read. It was the same for many children of immigrants in 90s UK. Even though I lived in London and grew up in working-class Tottenham, the media I consumed was white and British.

The only media I could find about people like me were New Nation,  Pride Magazine (I did work experience there for years as a young student) and The Voice,  but not much else could be considered even close to mainstream. Many others started up, like Colures Magazine, but they found it difficult to grow or even stick around. To read more about black people, I turned to TV shows, films, and magazines from the U.S., like Black Beat.

With so few representations of working-class black people, I was ignorant of the social and economic obstacles built against people like me. I lived within the confines and effects of race and class, and yet I rarely confronted it. For example, as a teenager, I could not buy concealer for my darker skin tone from any high street shop, and I could not afford Fashion Fair, the only line made for black skin. So I used my mum’s make-up for special occasions or I just didn’t wear any. It was frustrating not to have other options just because I was black and dark skinned.  It would have helped to read what other people like me had to say about that experience. But without access to stories or voices like my own, I remained inexperienced.

The black working-classes are not taught the importance of our lived experience or to value and work with what we already have. We aren’t taught to search out our talents and potential based on what we study about ourselves. We are not encouraged to learn about tensions or to expose the frustrations and injustices inflicted by the privileged. But we should. Just like the middle classes, we should have the privilege of understanding of our histories. It should be okay for working-class people to tell our own stories and learn from them.

In Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni-Eddo Lodge exposes the ignorance and apathy of black history in Britain. She also encourages  the underrepresented to focus on the development of their journeys and set the tone: “Rather than be forced to react to biased agendas, we should outright reject them and set our own.” If we are to see any changes, the voice of the white privileged male that dictates, skews, and leads all conversations must be challenged.  Like Paulo Friere, Lodge encourages the oppressed to look beyond what is set before them by engaging in dialogue, asking each other questions,  reflecting, and through that process learning.

Photo by Adjoa Wiredu

This is what I have done in my projects, creating work to document and analyse my experiences using social media, citizen journalism, and even research about  interactive Psychogeographic Mapping. To help my development as an artist, I reflect on loopy questions that make my head heavy, all in the hope of discussing the world around me. I question authentic participation and who the work is for.  I post plenty of other questions, too, including about the need for support and why funding schemes supports some projects and not others. I am also interested in the need to archive our activities and how to preserve our processes.

These questions and my personal interest in documentary where art and research meet innovation — like Teju Cole’s Blind Spot — draws me to the uprising of UK  minority voices encouraged at independent publishers. I’m inspired by writers such as Panashe Chigumadzi at Indigo Press, JJ Bola and Robyn Travis at OWN IT, Warsan Shire at Flipped Eye Publishing, Inua Ellams at Oberon Books, Yemisi Aribisala at Cassava Republic. Imprints like Dialogue Books and the new Merky Books are also making this kind of work possible. Most  of these authors are young, black, and from working-class backgrounds, genderqueer and non-binary, or of the diaspora community. They are the voices raising important life shaping questions and exposing the issues we face. And their stories reflect lived experiences.

A growing number of podcasts is helping these writers reach wider audiences. Podcasting offers dialogue, a free audio library, and, crucially, a catalogue of our development, an archive to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. Independent shows like Stance, Mostly Lit, and of course Women Who create modes for exchange. They acknowledge, discuss, and even critique diverse works. They are inclusive in the way that the mainstream is not, discussing a range of texts and popular culture, middle-class and working-class, and providing  common ground for listeners from the same background. For example, during a recent episode of Mostly Lit, entitled All About Love, as the hosts were discussing bell hooks, Derek talked about how his father did not reflect the mainstream father-figure image of a man who is always deeply connected with his children. He shared his personal experience, explaining how  he was not deeply connected to his own father but had not taken the time to understand his father’s own upbringing and heritage. As Derek explained, he may not have understood that there’s another angle to be considered, an experience that many can relate to and should not be dismissed. We all get things wrong sometimes. That’s  part of the journey, and the podcasters make listening to such stories enjoyable  because they are aware of the importance of what they do. For some artists or entrepreneurs, these podcasts are the only recognition their work receives.  As these shows grow, even without the funding and institutional support that they deserve, their popularity prods and confronts the status quo.

We see similar confrontation from some more established personalities, such as  television host, comedian, and author Trevor Noah. In his memoir Born a Crime, he describes how he came to run a music business at school. He uses his experience to question the poor being expected to work miracles or create their destinies when they are not given tools and advice on how best to use them. He writes about working with Daniel, a white boy at school who traded in bootleg CDs.  This “was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from a privileged world to come to you and say,  ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’” Through this story, Noah highlights how working-class people need help to navigate a system built to disadvantage them.

But I see something else in this story: that being in position of always working around the system is in fact working with the system. Fighting and navigating around structures created for a privileged group does not challenge the status quo. That is not the best use of our skills. Instead, we should focus on shifting away from this narrative and reflect on our collective and individual stories. It’s essential not just to get by but to understand and trust ourselves even if we remain on the outside. In the UK these days, reassuringly, my younger self would not need a ‘niche’ magazine to get a ‘fix’ of people who look like and come from the same background. She would have many avenues for work experience, for advice, and for public circles to inspire her. I value this progress and learning about the personal journeys that led to it. I think it’s just the beginning. If we can find ways to share our experiences, we can build our own paths, free of the usual obstacles.

Adjoa Wiredu

Following The Contemporary, a master’s degree at Kent University, Adjoa Wiredu has developed her practice as a multidisciplinary artist exploring relationships between people and the places they live. She is currently working on a site-specific project about music and the elderly, incorporating a multi-media diary, photographs, and prose. Her work is online at




Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Iowa’s Next Election: Bridging the Urban-Rural and Class Divide

Protestors in Cedar Falls, photo by Christopher Martin

My home state of Iowa famously gave Barack Obama a convincing victory in the Democratic caucuses in 2008, the first triumph that launched a young U.S. senator from Illinois to become the first African-American president. Obama ultimately won two terms, and each time Iowans favored him by considerable margins. Iowa was also one of several Midwestern states that famously flipped to support Donald Trump in 2016.

Hillary Clinton won just six of Iowa’s 99 counties in 2016. Trump won the remaining 93, including 31 counties that had backed Obama in the two previous elections. Nationwide, 206 counties in 34 states voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and then flipped for Trump in 2016. Iowa had more than any other state, with 31 pivot counties out of 99. This makes Iowa a useful microcosm to analyze the nature of Trump’s victory. Did Trump win,  as the New York Times’s Nate Cohn reported, because of  “an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters”? Or were there other factors in play?

Cohn’s claim doesn’t seem to apply for Iowa. Only 17 of Iowa’s 31 pivot counties had higher turnout compared to 2012. In 14, turnout declined.  In addition, most of the increases were small — less than one percentage point. Overall – and this must bring him great angst – Trump won Iowa with fewer statewide votes than Obama had in either of his election victories. So, if there was “an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters,” then the wave was not caused by a mass of new people jumping in the pool. It was more like most of the same people wading from one side of the pool to the other.

But Trump did win support in more working-class rural counties. As in the national election, Clinton did much better than Trump in large metropolitan areas, winning just six counties, all among the state’s most populous. All but one of the pivot counties were rural, with populations of 87,000 or less and not among the top 10 of Iowa’s largest counties. It’s clear that the urban-rural divide was a salient element in the Iowa campaign, a pattern similar to what political scientist Katherine Cramer discovered in the adjacent state of Wisconsin (see  her 2016 book The Politics of Resentment).

The urban-rural divide is also a class divide, reflected in income and education. Iowa’s estimated per capita income in 2016 was $28,872, but per capita income is less than that in 77 counties, and Trump won in 75 of them, 28 of which were pivot counties. Clinton won in four of the six urban Iowa counties with higher per capita income. The pattern is similar for education.  25.7 percent of Iowans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and only 11 of Iowa’s 99 counties have higher rates of citizens with a bachelor’s degree. Hillary Clinton won five of those counties. Of the 31 pivot counties, 27 have lower rates of higher education. In other words,  Clinton’s only successes in Iowa were in six major metro counties with higher levels of income and education. Trump won every other county in the state.

Considering the urban-rural status, income, and college education rates of the counties that pivoted to Trump in 2016, Cramer’s idea of rural consciousness seems apt, with its “strong identity as a rural resident, resentment toward the cities, and a belief that rural communities are not given their fair share of resources or respect.” Resources and development in Iowa are increasingly unequal, with most affluence located in Iowa’s two large multi-county metropolitan areas. In the center of the state, Polk and Story Counties run along the I-35 corridor, creating a large metro area that stretches from Ames and Iowa State University in the north to Des Moines and its many suburbs in the south. Similarly, in the eastern part of the state, Linn and Johnson Counties along the I-380 corridor form a district that stretches from Cedar Rapids and its suburbs in the north to Iowa City and the University of Iowa in the south. These “corridors” (and they do market themselves that way) are the wealthiest, most populous, and fastest growing regions of the state, with plenty of government-funded institutions and research, headquarters of the largest corporations, excellent hospitals, and the state’s best sports, recreation, and shopping. These are the areas where Clinton won the most support.

Life can be quite different in Iowa’s more rural counties, where population is falling, school districts get consolidated (so towns may no longer have local schools), access to doctors and quality hospitals lags, new investment is rare, and young adults often move to places like Des Moines or Iowa City to find better jobs. Away from the corridors, the lived experience of personal income, higher education, and the long-term hope for opportunity and prosperity for the majority of Iowa’s rural counties is on a much more feeble trajectory.

These areas, where Trump won, were primed to embrace the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, which  called for drastic change to the economic status quo. If a very unlikely presidential candidate – one made famous by playing the role of super-successful billionaire in a network reality television show and countless movie cameos – shows up and said says to the “forgotten men and women of our country” that “I AM YOUR VOICE,” residents of these areas might well listen to him, despite (or in some cases because) of his lack of experience and subtle racism and misogyny. Trump went all in on the Tea Party discourse and wore the mantle of change.

In comparison,  Clinton’s words about the economy were vague, spare, and unremarkable. In her victory speech late on the night of the Iowa caucus, she said “I know what we are capable of doing, I know we can create more good-paying jobs and raise incomes for hard-working Americans again.” Although Clinton narrowly won the Democratic nomination in 2016, her message of incremental reforms did not give her resounding victories in Iowa and other important states. On caucus night, Bernie Sanders, the change candidate (like Obama before him) spoke directly to those who felt alienated by politics-as-usual: “What Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution.” Sanders’s rhetoric might have attracted more of Iowa’s rural voters, but he wasn’t on the general election ballot November.

Of course, rhetoric might win elections, but results matter afterward. So far, Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court justices may thrill conservative Iowans, but his trade war is already hurting Iowa’s agricultural exports, and he continues to undermine other things Iowa voters care about, including health care coverage, funding for education, infrastructure development, and well-paying jobs. Iowa may pivot again in 2018 and 2020. Recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Polls have found that Iowans favor Democrats for Congress in 2018, and that 68 percent of Iowans will “definitely vote for another candidate” or consider doing so in the 2020 presidential election. To win back the pivot county voters, Democratic candidates will need to connect with issues to rural voters. It is a message already received by the six Democratic candidates for Iowa governor, who made rural outreach a priority. Democratic Congressional and presidential candidates should take note.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of the forthcoming The Invisible Worker: How the News Media Lost Sight of the American Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Communication Studies and Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments