Over the last week, I’ve read a couple of pieces in which elite academics highlight their discovery of the importance of class, both noting how the topic has been neglected by academia and ‘the elite’. In a Financial Times interview with American Law professor Joan Williams, FT staffer Simon Kuper says that Williams’s recent book, ‘White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America’, examines a topic that American progressives have ignored: class. The FT piece came quickly off the heels of an article in Harvard Review entitled ‘Harvard’s Class Gap: Can the academy understand Donald Trump’s “forgotten” Americans?’ In it Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, makes a similar point about the academy’s neglect of all things classed. Both articles are at once welcome and annoying for anyone in Working-Class Studies. Welcome because any attention to class in a mildly sympathetic way is a good thing, right? But it’s annoying to see our research on class once again be ignored, side-lined, or deemed not up to snuff.
But this is also the time of year when the Working-Class Studies Association announces its annual awards. Each year we attempt to find and reward the best examples of work in the field, which collectively show that writing and thinking about class is alive and well in North America and elsewhere in the world. Over five separate categories we recognise the academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists, and creative writers producing exceptional work on working-class life, history, and culture. As past president of the Association, I had the pleasure of organising this year’s awards. I also get the pleasure of announcing the winners.
This year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences was won by Angela Stuesse for her book Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. In their comments the judges described the book as ‘timely, beautifully-written, and deeply researched activism-based ethnography about the poultry industry in the American South.’ One wrote that ‘Stuesse demonstrates how workers are exploited and divided on the basis of racial and ethnic identities within the context of neoliberal globalization’, while another called the book ‘a model of engaged scholarship. Without underestimating the difficulties her research reveals that the basis for inter-racial working class solidarity among African Americans and Latinos in the South does indeed exist in the newest “new” South.’
The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing recognized Workers Write: Tales From the Construction Site, edited by David LaBounty. Full of praise for Workers Write the judges commented that the book ‘gets at the very heart of what working-class art, working-class creative writing, looks like. It comes from varied perspectives, speaks in diverse voices, but both the perspective and the voices have at base an engaging depiction of work and the worker’s life.’ One wrote that
The short stories and poems in this collection are snapshots of the experience of work and its place in a wider social life. Scenes from everyday life, tangible descriptions of work, tales that blur autobiography and imaginative purpose – each story finds its own character through this theme. The writing is consistently good throughout, across a diverse range of styles, highlighting not just the talent of the authors but of the editor’s eye. It is a book that gives expression to working class creativity: its intrinsic relationship to having to hold down a day job and pay the rent, an expression of labor in writing, and a testament to the labor of writing itself.
Another wrote that the collection gave ‘voice to the working class in a clear, authentic way. These multi-genre selections are grounded in the reality of working-class existence.’
This year, the John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences is being given to Diana Garvin for her article ‘Singing Truth to Power: Melodic Resistance and Bodily Revolt in Italy’s Rice Fields’, published in the academic journal Annali d’italianistica. One judge called it ‘An ambitious interdisciplinary and intersectional project that centers the voices of working-class women in Italy during the Fascist period.’ Another described it as
A superb article, indeed one of the most compelling that I’ve read for some time. It is beautifully written, theoretically trenchant, and deeply insightful as it re-presents the archive voices of the Mondine women through a careful and compassionate scholarship that itself speaks truth to power through its account of the women’s singing of truth to the power of exploitative practices of productivity and womanhood under Italian Fascism. As such, this article – of all the excellent material submitted – occupies the unique space of working class studies as I see it: that is, it brings deep and humane attention to the material interconnections of gender, class place and history as they impact on lived experience, and it does so with an impeccable balance of creative awareness, persistently probing intelligence, and scrupulous outrage. Wonderful!
The Studs Terkel Award recognizes projects in Media and Journalism, and this year it went to journalist Gabriel Thompson for his article ‘Dark Meat’, part of a series called The Grind from the online magazine Slate. This series featured a number of excellent pieces, but the judges chose Thompson’s article for its ‘informative and engaging narrative’, which ‘brings home the personal side of poultry industry’s gaming of industrial accident rates and its efforts to increase line speeds via Dept. of Agriculture’s regulatory authority.’ Another noted how the piece ‘Makes the reader viscerally feel the pain of workplace injuries and overwork. Damning of the poultry and insurance companies and the workers’ comp system and OSHA. It illustrates how employers get away with mistreating workers with government collusion.’
Finally, this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation goes to WCSA conference regular Jackie Gabriel. Commenting on Gabriel’s dissertation, ‘Manufacturing Precarity: A Case Study of the Grain Processing Corporation (GPC)/United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 86D Lockout in Muscatine, Iowa’, one judge wrote, ‘I found this study on precarious jobs and precarious workers to be a fascinating and useful take on how job loss and re-employment works in the Heartland. The meteoric rise of the use of the offensive lockout by employers makes this case study of the longest lockout in US history to be especially appropriate for examination. It is a strong rumination on the relationship between workers, local unions and national headquarters.’ Another wrote that Gabriel ‘had produced ‘brilliant work’, and said that ‘this is a classic tale of blue-collar workers being dominated by the power of the owning class, but in this case the workers held onto their dignity and, in the long run, their skills and their rewarding productive labor.’
Congratulations to all those who won awards this year and to the many others nominated for them. We created these prizes to mark the excellent work going on in Working-Class Studies and to make them more visible. Across the five awards, we received forty-five individual nominations. Each of these shows that there is a burning desire to reflect on class experience, inequality, and injustice, and that there is a substantial audience for work on class in varied media. Perhaps the more elite commentators who claim a silence on the topic of class should take the time and effort to discover the rich material reported on and recognised here.