A Movement Moment and a Real NLRB

Finally, it’s a new morning for workers in America.   For at least a brief time, while the Biden administration is alive, even if unwell, and the Supreme Court has not yet brought the darkness and ended our parade, opportunity is bursting out in the most surprising places.  We have a “movement moment” for workers seeking their rights on the job and demanding a union.  Amazingly, we also have a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that has reinvigorated itself with a stiff backbone and finally accepted its mission as protecting workers and their rights to organize.

We all are familiar with the perfect storm that has put the wind to workers’ backs now and is providing leverage to couple with opportunity. The pandemic unveiled workers’ reality and reaffirmed their centrality in all phases of the economy. The labor shortages that have forced some bosses to reckon with the fact that workers are not interchangeable widgets are also creating shortfalls that workers are exploiting. Inflation and shortages have forced wages upward and emboldened workers to take action for more. 

The evidence of this movement moment seems everywhere now. Amazon workers have not only organized in Alabama and New York have won elections and more are pending. Groups like Amazonians United have agitated in another dozen locations on issues inside warehouses, distribution, and delivery centers. Starbucks workers have filed for election in hundreds of stores and are winning most of the elections held to date. Apple retail workers are organizing, as are tech workers at game companies, on-line news platforms, and elsewhere. Google workers have kicked up their heels. 

It’s not just the young, the digital, the hip and the techies. It’s also workers at Dollar General, the ubiquitous store in lower income, minority, and rural communities across the country. Mary Gundel, a Dollar General worker, posted a TikTok voicing her issues with the company. She recently told me that she’s surprised to find herself leading a “movement” of DG workers, though she felt clueless about how to mobilize the “concerted activity” necessary for union organizing, but she also made clear that her emerging understanding and leadership come in part from the “new” NLRB. For once, the Board is actually protecting workers’ rights instead of cowering before the endless manipulations of management.  Part of the credit goes to the new general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, who recognizes that the NLRB should ride this new wave of worker activism, not serve as the dam holding it back. 

Once rare, temporary injunctions against companies have been falling like rain for a change.  Amazon is still stunned and whining about the NLRB filing for an injunction in the case of a discharged Amazon worker before the Staten Island election with the Amazon Labor Union, making it the heart of their election objections.  Earlier the NLRB had consolidated six cases into a national settlement with Amazon, forcing the company to make comprehensive worker notifications and enabling the NLRB to file for injunctions without the delays of a hearing before an administrative law judge.  They filed another one in response to a firing at a Starbucks in Tucson and issued complaints on seven fired workers in Memphis.  This is a sea change.

For labor organizers dealing with rampant unfair labor practices, Gissel bargaining orders used to be the holy grail. A Gissel order forces a company to bargain with the union without an election, based on a Board finding that the company had soiled the laboratory conditions for a fair election by the workers irreparably.The new NLRB is now looking to best that standard by going back to the Joy Silk decision, which the Gissel ruling supplanted, arguing that it should be an unfair labor practice if a union isn’t recognized by the employer once a majority have signed authorizations and demanded such recognition. 

Mandatory captive audience meetings have been a major employer weapon deployed against workers and their unions in organizing drives and election campaigns. The NLRB’s current advisory is that such meetings, if mandatory, are unfair labor practices. That won’t stop all of them, but it will make management lawyers and consultants hesitate to use them too strongly for fear of an election overturn.

All of this is good. How can we make the most of this movement moment? I’ve learned a key lesson from more than 50 years as a community organizer with ACORN and more than 40 years organizing unions with the United Labor Unions, SEIU, and other labor organizations: in times of movement, put the pedal to the metal.  Don’t go slow, go hard!  The moment never lasts as long as you want or need, so you have to do everything you can while the opportunity exists. I think we have every reason to believe that it’s time to push.

Institutional labor may feel that they have to continue to move towards members and contracts, and we should support those efforts. But in this moment, we should also support workers anywhere and everywhere who are willing to engage in collective action to improve their jobs, union or no. A couple of elections at Amazon or Starbucks puts some pressure on their companies, but these are huge operations with hundreds and thousands of locations. Workers are willing and able to take concerted action over their issues right now, and if enough take action, they could increase the pressure for change exponentially. Much as sit-down strikes spread like wildfire in their day, at-work collective worker actions could generate mass organizing. We need to help overwhelm companies with worker action on as many fronts as possible.  We need to keep pushing the NLRB to support workers. 

One way to contribute is by sharing knowledge and resources. We’re taking a small step in this direction by creating an online worker organizing support center using an application that is attuned to individual groups of workers organizing, ActionBuilder. We also have a team of experienced organizers and lawyers willing to handle questions, mentor leaders, and give workers advice.  And we’d love to use our database of 150 million registered voters to help build support for local organizing efforts.  This is a huge opportunity create community-labor partnerships where people work and where they live.

My point is simple.  This movement moment probably won’t last. We all need to do what we can now to stand with workers for a change.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Understanding Class, Wade Rathke | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Paying the Poorly Educated

Joe Biden was right to propose free Pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds and free community college in his initial legislative package, rather than pushing for free public university education and the cancellation of college debt.  All four progressive education initiatives would serve the public good by making education more available to millions. However, policies that promote university education do little to help the working class. They also feed into the false and damaging narrative that college is the right path to upward mobility for most people.

While free public universities could be transformative in the very long term, most of the benefits of this policy would go to higher-income families. They are more likely to live in areas with high-quality K-12 schools, and their children also are more likely to have the kinds of social and cultural capital that are especially advantageous for getting into and succeeding in college.  

Similarly, while forgiving all or some portion of existing student loan debt would likely benefit low- and middle-income young people, who are more likely to have higher levels of debt than their more affluent contemporaries, this too has limited benefit for the working class, because it only helps those who have gone to college. That’s a large group, but forgiving their debts does nothing for the many others who aren’t in debt because they didn’t go to college at all or for very long.

Free public Pre-K and free community college, on the other hand, disproportionately benefit working-class children and adults.  Free Pre-K will not only improve the educational prospects of children, but it also saves families money. For those currently using the cheapest day care, this would save some $10,000 to $15,000 a year – a significant increase in spending power for all income classes, but transformative for low- and middle-income family budgets.  What’s more, for low-income parents who currently can’t afford day care and thus can’t work full time or at all, free Pre-K would allow them to work and earn more in the paid workforce. 

Likewise, free community college would disproportionately benefit low-income adults and young people who cannot go to college full time because they need to work. Community college education includes apprenticeships and other pre-training that is needed for entry into many middle-wage jobs, including in the soon-to-be-expanding building trades.  Free public university would mostly benefit those young people who have more time to take the long road, while free community college is more valuable for working adults who already have work and family responsibilities.   

The class-skewed benefits of these initiatives are relatively complicated, but we should also pay attention to the messages they reinforce.  Prioritizing free college and student debt forgiveness plays into a toxic narrative that has deep roots in our public discourse: that college-educated people are more valuable, more worthy of public subsidy, than the so-called “poorly educated.”  This narrative accepts that college graduates deserve to be paid more, but it also offers a false promise: that the primary way to increase wages and living standards – or more grandly, to restore the American Dream of upward mobility — is for more and more people to get college degrees.  Both these messages are false. The first reflects a nearly impregnable professional-middle-class prejudice, but the second is an intellectual error that, if corrected, could burst a professional-class bubble.

College education cannot be a path for widespread upward mobility because a large majority of jobs in our economy do not require a college education or anything like it.  61% require high school or less and another 11% require an associate’s degree, some college, or other postsecondary education – but not a bachelor’s degree.  Only 28% of jobs in 2020 required a bachelor’s, a far lower percentage than the nearly 40% of workers over 25 who had that degree.

That is why we find so many men and women with bachelor’s degrees as fast food workers; retail salespersons or cashiers; waiters, waitresses or cooks; freight, stock and material movers; janitors and cleaners; and home health care or child care workers.  These occupations are among those with the largest annual job openings , and all of them have median annual wages ranging from $22,740 to $29,510 (that is, less than $15 an hour).

This is a tragedy for college graduates who were told that becoming part of the exam-passing classes would lead to better lives.  But for most people doing those jobs, it probably never crossed their minds that they could go to college.  Still, that work needs to be done, no matter the educational attainment of the people who do it.  The work they do is socially valuable, some of it even “essential,” and those jobs need to be paid a living wage.  To be told that the only way to improve your life conditions is through more (and more) education is demoralizing and, especially for those who work alongside college graduates doing the same work, palpably false. 

Higher education is a circuitous route to improving one’s economic prospects, a route that will not work for at least a third of those who can afford to take it, and a route that is not realistically available for the majority of our population.  If we want to improve wages and conditions, we need to improve them directly, not by producing more college grads.

President Biden’s initial transformative legislative package that got whittled down to Build Back Better (BBB) embodied the understanding that education was neither the answer nor even an important part of the answer for achieving upward mobility.  That initial package included a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the union-empowering Pro-Act that were quickly jettisoned because they could not avoid a Republican filibuster the way budget bills can.  But, equally or even more important, many elements of Build Back Better provided for a series of enhanced social wages that together would have dramatically improved life prospects across the board – none more important than the package of child care subsidies that included universal free Pre-K. 

Social wages explicitly recognize that even with better minimum wages and stronger unions, most wages will not come close to reflecting the collective social value workers provide.  Nor are wages going to be sufficient to provide decent incomes for most people most of the time.  Reducing the cost of health care, housing, transportation, and child care (all of which BBB would have addressed) increases the real incomes of all workers, and it has the most dramatic effect on low-wage workers.

By prioritizing those workers, most of whom do not have college degrees, the Biden package had the potential to pierce the professional-class prejudice that has dominated public policy. Both Presidents Bush and Obama proclaimed that more and better education was the only way to address our savage inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity.  Biden, by contrast, is the first president in memory to actually brag about creating well-paying jobs that do not require any college.

Alas, Build Back Better – let alone the initial, larger version of itself – is dead for now, and the possibility of a truly transformational package becoming law is probably gone for the immediate future.  But a healthy majority of the public and more than 90% of Congressional Democrats supported the core idea of increasing taxes on corporations and the rich in order to transfer money to workers and citizens in ways that could dramatically increase working-class people’s chances for creating better lives.  Hopefully, that support shows a shift away from the idea that education is the only path to improved life prospects.  A public consensus may be developing that even the poorly educated deserve to earn a good living. 

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is author of the recent Cornell ILR Press book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Why Dems Should Act Now on Pro-Consumer Legislation

Democrats and Republicans these days agree on almost nothing. They rely on separate sets of facts and hold wildly divergent world views. Yet they have reached consensus in one area: consumer protection. And that hasn’t been good news for the working class.

Presidents from both parties have repeatedly supported regulations and practices that protect the financial industry instead of the rest of us. In 1999, Bill Clinton supported the Financial Services Modernization Act, which rolled back major banking regulations. Since then, administration after administration has refused to press criminal charges against CEOs, executives, and board members who have committed serious crimes – not even the Sackler family, whose promotion of opioids amounted to a form of murder.

Rather than perp-walking corporate leaders down Wall Street, the Department of Justice under Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden has settled for “corporate” guilty pleas and non-prosecution agreements. For example, while Chase Bank has paid over $36 Billion in penalties related to 196 enforcement actions since 2000, not a single company executive has been indicted or spent a day in jail. To the contrary, the company’s CEO Jamie Dimon has been welcomed into the Oval Office by every president who has served during his tenure at the helm of the nation’s biggest bank.

The only exception was Enron. But its leaders were brought down not by regulators or the DOJ but by journalists and Wall Street short sellers. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice just came in and swept up the pieces at the end.

As Michael Lewis details in The Undoing Project, the destruction of America’s regulatory framework reached its climax during the Trump administration. Soon after taking office, Trump appointees gutted the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau by replacing consumer advocates with corporate lobbyists who had opposed the bureau’s very creation. This scenario was repeated at agency after agency: critical positions were left vacant or were filled by appointees who had clear conflicts of interest. By the time Trump decamped for Mar A Lago, there were very few cops left on the consumer protection beat.  

This handcuffs-off policy leaves working-class families at the mercy of companies who blithely violate consumer protection and lending laws. It also puts ethical, honest business owners at a severe competitive disadvantage to those who cheat.  

While the situation is depressing and disturbing, it does create an opening for Democrats. They have been losing working-class voters since the late 1960s, but their efforts to bring workers back to the party have been undermined by their own policies. Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, and the working class lost jobs. Obama dealt with the 2008 financial crisis by shoveling hundreds of billions in TARP relief to the big banks, but he did nothing for the ten million people who were losing their homes to foreclosure.

We can’t count on Democrats to develop the backbone to prosecute corporate criminals, and strengthening regulatory agencies simply by trying to appoint personnel who are more likely to go after mortgage and student loan servicers, debt collectors, payday lenders, wage and hour violators, and other financial predators is only a temporary fix. In the short time that Democrats control both the White House and Congress, they need to make two concrete moves to protect consumers: eliminate forced consumer arbitration and update antiquated Consumer Protection Laws. 

There has been a crack in the wall of forced arbitration when on March 3 congress passed the long-overdue Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harrassment Act. This bipartisan legislation enables victims of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace to have their claims and disputes decided by a real court, even if they had signed a forced arbitration agreement. Extending that kind of protection to consumer claims would help level the playing field between consumers and cheating businesses.

Congress should also toughen and modernize the statutes governing debt collectors, credit reporting agencies, robocallers, and companies trafficking in our personal information. Not only would such a move protect consumers, it would also be politically popular. Almost everyone except the most extreme libertarians hates these parasites. 

Substantive changes like these would be difficult for future Republican administrations or Congress to undo. Look at the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: while much has changed since it was passed in 1997, the statute hasn’t seen any meaningful revisions. The Biden CFPB has issued a strong rule interpreting it, but that rule could easily be reversed by the next administration. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act hasn’t been meaningfully amended since before cell phones became ubiquitous. In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme court expressed distain for robocalls and all but begged Congress to fix the antiquated law

If Democrats use their control of the federal government to amend and improve consumer laws, they can directly improve the lives working-class Americans. And if they can unite around the cause of financial justice, they might have something substantive to show working-class voters that they are actually on their side.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. He is also a founding partner of Advocate Attorneys. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist. They were part of the team that sued DeWine and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Leo Jennings, Marc Dann, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

We Told You So: On Trade, the Working Class Was Right

It seems impolite to say “we told you so,” but the working class and labor unions were so unjustly maligned more than two decades ago—when they fought the push to expand unfettered global trade—that it seems more than fair to serve some humble pie to global trade’s champions.

With today’s broken supply chain and working-class communities across the nation still struggling from the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, it’s important to look back at the consequential trade agreements a generation ago, when then-President Bill Clinton assured “a future of greater prosperity for the American people.”

Back in late 1999, the World Trade Organization held its Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle. It was the first (and, to date, the last) WTO ministerial conference to be held in the U.S. Others have been held in places such as Singapore, Doha, Cancun, Geneva, and Bali – locations inconvenient for American protesters. Some are hostile to the concept of protest itself.

During the Seattle conference, America’s working class could see the storm on the horizon for the American economy. Fifty thousand people showed up to protest the WTO during its Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 1999 meeting and their presence couldn’t be ignored. It became known as “The Battle in Seattle.” The ranks of protesters included thousands of union members who were concerned that  the lack of global labor regulations would encourage even more multinational corporations to shift manufacturing operations to offshore locations with low-paid workers and few labor protections.

A majority (52%) of Americans supported the protesters in Seattle, according to a national Business Week poll conducted after the conference. In another survey, the same percentage predicted that the future global trade economy would hurt average Americans.

The protests of 1999 warned of what might happen to advance the global trade economy. And the warnings were right. In 2000 the U.S. Senate approved permanent favored nation status for China, greasing the wheels for its accession to the WTO in 2001.

The protesters were also correct that the WTO would not help workers. Despite their occasionally welcoming language about labor standards, or their creation of a working group on Trade and Labour Standards at the 1999 meeting, the WTO ultimately took no action. More than 20 years later, it still has not endorsed any labor standards to aid the working class in this country or in any of the member countries.

Again, we told you so.

A fair appraisal at the time would have revealed what so-called “free trade” agreements were already doing to working-class communities across the U.S. In the 1990s, one only needed to look at places like Edison, New Jersey; Willow Run, Michigan; Decatur, Illinois; Van Nuys, California; Bloomington, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Youngstown, Ohio to see how global trade would destroy the American working class. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote in Globalization and Its Discontents, “The fact that trade liberalization all too often fails to live up to its promise – but instead leads to more unemployment – is why it provokes strong opposition.”

But in 1999, despite the evidence in hollowed-out communities across the country and 50,000 people on the WTO’s doorstep, most politicians and the news media cheered on the neoliberal vision. President Bill Clinton and his administration deployed hopeful (if tired) metaphors like “a rising tide lifts all boats” (previously used by John F. Kennedy) and growing a “bigger economic pie.” But we now know that in the structure of the global trade economy, the yachts have the rising tide to themselves, and the captains of the yachts serve themselves increasingly larger portions of the pie.

The mainstream media was all-in on expanding global trade. An NBC report on the eve of the Seattle conference included a warning of the dangers of China’s unregulated entry into the WTO from John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO. But the story concluded by dismissing critics: “Most experts say getting rid of trade barriers on both sides is a good thing, for American workers and consumers. That no matter what comes out of this four-day meeting, and a lot of analysts don’t think it will be much, world trade has such momentum, almost nothing will get in its way.” Conservative critic Michael Medved made the same point in USA Today on Dec. 7, 1999: “a global economy isn’t debatable—it’s inevitable.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has made a career of rhapsodizing about the global economy, ridiculed the 50,000 protesters on Dec. 1, 1999 as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.”

This Bureau of Labor Studies chart on manufacturing employment in the U.S. from 1939 to 2013 shows what happened next: manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 before falling off a sharp cliff after 2000, when trade with China blew open and manufacturing jobs in the U.S. plummeted.

Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the trade deficit with China alone cost 3.4 million jobs in the U.S. from 2001 to 2017, a period in which a total of 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The EPI noted that job losses occurred in all 50 states, as much as 2.57% to 3.55% of total employment in some states. The working class took the hardest hit, of course. As the EPI study concluded,  “trade with low-wage countries like China is largely responsible for reducing wages by nearly $2,000 per worker per year, for all of the 100 million non-college-educated workers in the United States. Most of that income was redistributed to corporations and to workers with college degrees at the top of the income distribution.”

We’ve encountered the results of that over the last two years. When the pandemic struck in 2020, Americans realized with some shock that PPE (personal protective equipment) like masks, gowns, gloves, and test kits are mostly manufactured in China. With shortages and shortfalls for hundreds of those and other products and supplies, attention has turned to the global supply chain.

In 2004, an extensive study by Public Citizen identified the damage a supply-chain based global economy – supercharged with China’s admission to the WTO – had already caused the working class in the U.S. “The loss of manufacturing capacity and jobs is unprecedented in U.S. history and should be triggering an urgent review of this intensifying trend’s implications for U.S. capacity to produce goods essential for its infrastructure and security needs,” the authors wrote. Last year, the U.S. ran a record trade deficit on goods of $1.1 trillion, meaning the U.S. imported that much more in goods from China and elsewhere than it exported. But, the system of low-cost outsourced labor works well for corporate America: The S&P 500 profits margins in 2021 were a “remarkable” 13%, CNBC said.

From media accounts, you would think the global supply chain is a reality that just simply exists for the good of all consumers. Instead, it is a simple matter of capitalism, designed to deliver the highest profits and lowest labor costs to multinational corporations. It’s a system that was put in place by people in power and their patrons in government.

Last November, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Gary Peters (D-MI) took a victory lap as their “Make PPE in America Act” was signed into law by President Biden. “American people should not have to rely so heavily on foreign countries for personal protective equipment,” Portman said. While he is retiring from the Senate this year, Portman has been around Washington for decades. In fact, as a member of the House of Representatives in 2000, he voted “yes” for the resolution on normalizing trade with China—a vote that led to the export of millions U.S. manufacturing jobs, the ravaging of working-class communities across the country, and today’s broken global supply chain.

Next time, it would be wise to listen to the working class.

We told you so.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

 

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Why There’s More Labor Media Coverage 

It seems like workers and their unions are in the news more than ever lately.  Starbucks baristas, Amazon warehouse workers, John Deere strikers, and even New York Times tech workers, who just unionized, have all starred in the recent swell of labor coverage. The pandemic launched essential workers out of the media’s shadows, making this largely Black, brown, and female workforce much harder for reporters to ignore.  Yet the shift in the media’s coverage of labor has been a dozen years in the making. It started before  the pandemic and even predates the current upsurge in union organizing. Why are we seeing this increase in working-class and labor reporting? And how does it connect with larger shifts in how Americans view class itself? 

For many years, I did media outreach for the national AFL-CIO, so I spent much of my time talking to labor reporters.  When I started at the federation in 1998, there were about 20 reporters on my A-list.  By the time I left, in 2009, there were three. Even in the early days, when the roster was more robust, it was extremely difficult to get stories about workers’ grassroots struggles and protests into the corporate, legacy outlets.  Only two national reporters did any in-person reporting on the 5,000 Avondate shipyard workers who fought a six-year battle to unionize their Navy shipyard in New Orleans in the late 1990s, for instance. 

Police used smoke bombs and rubber bullets against free trade agreement protestors in Miami. 2003. 

Important labor stories just didn’t get covered. Only one outlet covered the massive labor and environmental protests against the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial meetings in Miami.  Police shot at unionists with rubber bullets, clubbed protesters, and tanks lined the streets outside a rally.  I remember watching in shock as tear gas filled the streets next to union retirees.  You probably haven’t heard of this protest, because there was only one brief news story and no in-depth coverage or analysis.  

The issue went beyond the labor beat.  Reporters in general only used the term “working class” during election season, when they dusted it off to track voting trends among white workers without college degrees.  Even the AFL-CIO didn’t refer to workers as “working class” in these years, because it deemed that term more divisive than “working families.”  Though the media still has a long way to go to fully cover the interests and activities of today’s diverse working class, it gives far more attention to working-class issues than it did during my tenure doing press work for labor, even when it doesn’t use the word “class.”  

I couldn’t believe it when so many reporters recently flocked to Bessemer, Alabama to cover the Amazon warehouse workers’ union election. Many thought the vote was unprecedented, given that the media long ignored Southern workers’ union organizing. 

So what changed?  I suspect that the uptick of media coverage of workers and their unions is linked to larger shifts away from a dominant neoliberal consensus and also to changing understandings of class itself.  This seismic shift started after the economic crash of 2008 – 2009, and inspired a new emphasis on inequality that fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.  These events shot holes in many tenets of the neoliberal consensus: that all trade and globalization was good at any price; that shareholder value was the ultimate goal of the economy; that public goods were better privatized; that unions were Luddites who stood in the way of all this progress.  These neoliberal tenets had held for forty years, since the 1970s, but most people’s lived experience did not bear them out.  The idea that the 99% lost out to the 1% rang true for many, and their thoughts on what was fair began to change. 

Young people who entered this economy during and after the financial meltdown of 2008 found a working world that was incredibly different from the one that Baby Boomers and GenXers entered.  They came of age in a time when neoliberal thinking had far less of a foothold and when precarious, contract work was much more normal. They weren’t going to do as well as their parents had, and they knew it.  Young people today are the demographic that is most supportive of unions; recent Gallup polling found that 77 percent of people under 35 favor unions.  

The reporters driving the change in labor coverage are of this generation. Many got their start in the newly-minted digital media platforms, like VICE and Gawker, which they then unionized.  They also began reporting in a time when social media had dismantled the gatekeeping function at the legacy outlets that had long ignored labor. They began bringing their own experience as young people in a precarious economy to their reporting, and they focused in a new way on class.  Many of them were not white men, and so reporters like Michelle Chen, Sarah Jaffe, Kim Kelly, Lauren Kaori Gurley and others, shaped what they deemed newsworthy.  When the pandemic hit, this new cadre of labor reporters showed the virus’s impact on the working class.  Young reporters at digital outlets led the way, and the legacy news outlets followed.  

But it’s not just the reporters who are changing; their readers’ worldview is changing, too. The neoliberal, markets-fix-everything mindset had already taken a hit in the 2008 crash. Then during the pandemic, many middle-class professionals watched from the safety of home as essential workers, largely working-class people of color, braved the virus.  They saw that these workers didn’t get treated better or paid more for their labor, even as housing and living costs continued to skyrocket. Thus, the stories that new labor reporters offered about workers and their experiences found an intense interest among readers.  

The new upsurge in labor media coverage is anchored in fresh awareness about class and its role in America today, a growing understanding that is stripped of the anti-Communism that shaped ideas about class for much of the twentieth century.  It’s not yet clear how fully this working-class renaissance will develop. What is clear is that a new generation of labor reporters is standing ready to report on it. This increased coverage, in turn, may allow the next generation of worker activists to see their own movement’s growth, and that may inspire even more to take a stand.   

Lane Windham, Georgetown University

Lane Windham is the Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and the author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Lane Windham | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Christian Nationalism Is a Class Matter

The relationship between Christian nationalism and class in the United States is less obvious than the racist dimensions of this extremist ideology. Christian nationalism upholds the “natural” order including white supremacy and the “traditional” family with age-old gender roles. But its view of existing hierarchies as “natural” also applies to economic structures. This diminishes opportunities for working-class people to challenge class inequality, distortions in wealth distribution, and unfair working conditions. At the same time, many assume, incorrectly, that Christian nationalism is a primarily working-class movement.

Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s recent book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (2020) provides useful historical context. They dismiss any easy identification of Christian nationalism with evangelicalism or conservative Protestantism. Instead, they view Christian nationalism as a dynamic ideology and a cultural framework that blurs Christian and American identity. It is part of a “complex web of ideologies” that work alongside and prop up other ideologies. It also accommodates a host of conservative political viewpoints, sees the world as undergoing moral decay, and believes that God commands believers to be agents of divine retribution to combat that decline. Further, if the problem is moral decay, then Christian nationalists can “effectively ignore discussions of economic, gender, sexual, or racial inequality.” “Ignoring” economic inequality implies acceptance of capitalistic structures, valuing hierarchy that enables corporations to control workers, and insisting on autonomy from government regulation and scrutiny.

Christian nationalism is deeply embedded in a narrative that America was established as a nation of native born white Christians and should remain so. It transcends the boundaries of evangelicalism, Whitehead and Perry argue, and motivates Americans, not just evangelicals, to support Trump as the “defender of the power and values they perceive are being threatened.” Christian nationalism has broad appeal, far beyond white supremacist groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, widely discussed as responsible for the insurrection. It may explain how Trump managed to gain over 74 million votes in the 2020 election (topping his 2016 vote total by nearly 12 million). In the forthcoming The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Philip S. Gorksi and Samuel L. Perry explain that secular versions of white Christian nationalism also exist with its emphasis on defending “Western Culture” or “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Whitehead estimates that about half of all Americans are “relatively favorable toward” Christian nationalism, which make it possible for some “to take that view even further.” Those extremists who are motivated by anger, fear, and determination to defend the existing order are, Gorski and Perry warn, very dangerous indeed.

We could see the presence of Christian nationalists in the crosses and Christian flags visible around Washington, D.C. in the days leading up to January 6, 2021. Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser and proponent of the prosperity gospel, offered a nearly five minute prayer of invocation at the Save America March that day. Firing up the white Christian nationalists who went on to vandalize the Capitol, she called upon God to give the assembled a “holy boldness in this hour” such that “every adversary against democracy… be overturned right now in the name of Jesus.”

It’s tempting to assume that the crowd inspired by White’s call to “holy boldness” came mostly from the working class, but their demographic profile reflects national patterns almost exactly. The Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) analyzed the participants according to a number of factors, including economic roles: business owner, white collar, blue collar, unemployed, retired. Their analysis found a few notable patterns: 93% of the insurrectionists were white, 85% were male, and many came from counties that lost to Biden and experienced demographic shifts toward non-white populations. However, their report, “American Face of Insurrection,” concludes that the insurrectionists “closely reflect the US electorate on most socio-economic variables and, hence, come from the mainstream, not just the fringe of society.”

CPOST’s designations of “white collar” and “blue collar” (using Bureau of Labor Statistics terminology) offer some insight, however limited, into the class positions of the participants. 43% of the insurrectionists were white-collar and 33% were blue-collar. Comparing this with data on the 2020 electorate, they were more likely to be white-collar than the electorate as a whole (37% of voters are white-collar) but also more likely to be blue-collar workers (like 26% of voters). About the same percentage – 7% — were unemployed as in the electorate as a whole – 6%. Based on this analysis, CPOST argues that the insurrection represents “a new kind of a right-wing movement” that reflects American demographics. Their conclusion is sobering: “far right support for political violence is moving into the mainstream.”

The insurrectionists might be moving into the mainstream, but the working class overall is far more diverse than the blue-collar workers who participated in the events of January 6. That reminds us that the working class has far more to lose with an embrace of Christian nationalism than it has to gain. The mythical and idolatrous character of a “natural order” built on divinely purposed hierarchies to rule our workplaces and our families is a false God. Such structures are not only a dead end but death dealing.

Instead, now is the time for the working class to embrace its intersectional character, build its organizational strength through unions and worker centers, cultivate community partners, foster resilience in the face of climate catastrophe, and renew relationships with its international partners. We can do this but only on the basis of mutuality, accountability, and trust But unfortunately, Christian nationalism has an entirely different vision, a nightmare really, and it is a potent force right now and into the foreseeable future. This makes the vital tasks facing working-class people much more difficult, challenging, and frightening. The unholy trinity of God, country, and capital must be dissolved if working people are not only to survive but to thrive under the banner of solidarity. Our actions will embolden us.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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The Power of Recognizing Higher Ed Faculty as Working-Class

Rutgers University AAUP Rally, April, 2021, photo by Eric Ruder

Just over 20 years ago, Michael Zweig published The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret. At that year’s How Class Works conference at SUNY Stony Brook, academics from history, political science, labor and industrial relations, and other fields debated Zweig’s use of the term “working class.” Some thought it was a throwback to the 1930s or a tip-off that someone was a Marxist. But even at a conference attended by many academics from working-class backgrounds, no one pointed out that academics are working class. Twenty years ago, academia still seemed like a middle-class or even an upper-class job, even though that had started to change in the mid 1970s.Young academics expected that if they did “all the right things,” they would get tenure and live happily ever after.

That expectation was wrong in 2002, and it’s even worse now, as this grim report shows. Nearly 75% of faculty in higher education are precarious workers, more like restaurant and hospitality workers, gig performers, contract healthcare workers, and delivery drivers than the tenured professor. They are hired on a per-class, per-semester basis. They do not control the conditions of their work. They often lack access to offices, professional development, research funds, and opportunities to collaborate with peers or vote in faculty meetings. They may be asked to take on a new course with a week or less warning. Many are told what textbooks to use and what tests to give. They are likely to have to apply for a new campus parking permit or library card every semester. But they also don’t get personal respect. They are vulnerable to management whim, favoritism, harassment, and simple forgetfulness, not to mention a complaint from a single disgruntled student who wanted a better grade.

Many contingent faculty are shocked to realize that college teaching is a working-class job. But recognizing that can be liberating. Thinking about ourselves as “working class” clarifies our understanding of our contingency by helping us identify with the 99% instead of the 1%. It can also inspire us to build alliances to improve our conditions and our industry.

First of all, it helps us appreciate and identify with our students, who are increasingly working class, and like us, probably working more than one job to make ends meet.  We see their problems as our problems and become open to talking about common solutions. In turn they can see more accurately what it takes to be an academic and live the paradox of “love the work, hate the job.”

Second, it helps us understand and appreciate graduate student’s efforts to win the right to be recognized as employees (not “apprentices” on a stipend) who rely on their jobs for living.  Graduate student organizing is one of the hottest areas in the campus labor movement – and possibly in the labor movement overall — these days, with wins coming in from unions like USW at the University of Pittsburgh, UE at University of Iowa, UAW at Harvard and the University of California and SEIU at Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, and American University, just to name a few.

Third, thinking of ourselves as workers can help us understand the value of building campus labor coalitions, organizations that include not just academics but also clerical workers, the trades, transportation, custodial, food service, and technical workers. Such coalitions create power through the interdependency of all the workforces in a college or university.

Fourth, concerns about the working conditions of contingents can form a basis for solidarity with the privileged 25% who are tenured and tenure-line faculty. They usually resist this idea, but the reality of how their work has changed provides a strong argument. Over the worklives of senior faculty, colleges and universities tightened their belts, drained resources from the classroom, built arenas instead of libraries, created freestanding “foundations” that were outside faculty control, and engaged in a series of internet-based shocks like contracting out administrative functions like payroll to IT companies, putting journals on line, shifting classes to Blackboard and Moodle, experimenting with MOOCs, and much more.  At the same time, requirements for tenure-track hiring and promotion were raised, contingent faculty became the majority, and administrative and advising work for tenure-line faculty increased. Some schools hired CEOs to run institutions like businesses.  With all this, tenure-line faculty were progressively cut out of the full exercise of shared governance. All this degraded the institution of higher education, and not just for the contingent majority. These changes affect students, tenure line and contingent faculty, and staff alike.

The good news is that some are organizing for change. Higher Education Labor United (HELU), a new organization that came out of the organizing around College for All, has been endorsed by 117 locals from eight national unions and organizations. HELU uses the term “labor” broadly: its membership includes unions representing clerical, staff, and other workforces as well as faculty.  The leadership team comes from colleges and universities in 29 states. HELU aims to establish a national strategy for higher education, something that the traditional faculty unions, AAUP, NEA and AFT, were never able to cooperate to achieve.

To get this rolling, HELU is convening a free Winter Summit, February 23-27, on Zoom. The conference will feature four afternoons of workshops and several keynote presentations, all focused on three goals: coordinate the surge of higher education worker organizing across the country, develop federal policy proposals to reverse the trends that have damaged higher education over the last several decades, and support politicians who will advance a program of democratizing higher education. Members of endorsing organizations will have opportunities to participate in decision-making.

The vision guiding the young leaders of HELU is broad working-class mobilizing to address the crisis in higher education. To accomplish that, it’s time for faculty see themselves as members of the working class and stand together to fight for change.

Helena Worthen, University of Illinois

Helena Worthen is the co-author, with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Majority in Higher Education (Pluto, 2021).  She has worked and taught as a labor educator and teacher unionist in California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.  

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Studs Terkel’s Working 50 Years On

As I prepared to teach my module on work this year, I realised that Studs Terkel’s book Working celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2022. It’s a book that both reflects and helps to explain working-class life. I first encountered it as a student, and in the passing years Working — or to give it its rarely used full title Working: People Talk About What they Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do – has shaped profoundly the way I think and teach about work.

First published in January 1972, Working is a baggy collection of over seven-hundred and sixty pages, most devoted to the reflections of ordinary Americans about their economic lives. From the Terkel archive, it’s clear that his interest in work was long standing and went well beyond the USA.

I know the book well, but in writing this piece I leafed through it again to think about the changing nature of work across that half a century. I thought it might really be showing its age — after all, fifty years is a long career. Instead, I was reminded how vital Working is. To my surprize, many of the jobs and occupations Terkel asked about in his interviews still exist: receptionists and police officers, spot welders and carpenters, factory owners to waitresses and so on.  For sure, the technology that workers use in their jobs has changed. Few of the people in the pages of Working in 1972 would have seen a computer, less likely used one. But it’s harder than you might think to see obsolescence here.

Working remains fresh because Terkel’s humanity and warmth comes through on virtually every page.  His character as well as his approach to the art of interviewing are artfully captured in his introduction. Just seventeen pages long, the essay sums up for me what is most important about work – people. As he puts it beautifully:

It’s about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

Terkel captures the timeless quality of the profound contradictions of work, especially a worker’s sense of loving and hating work in the same moment. This may be true of all kinds of work, but it seems especially important in working-class labour. In an interview about Working, Terkel described how a meter reader he talked to spoke about the reality and fantasy of his work. While reality demanded that he be constantly vigilant for dogs, he also fantasized about female encounters on his rounds.  As Terkel puts it, ‘it makes the day go faster’.

Studs Terkel’s ability to put his subjects at ease was legendary. I once heard a story about Terkel confronting a burglar in the process of robbing his home one night. The story goes that rather than call the cops, Studs sat the intruder down on his couch and started to interview him about his working life. I’m not sure of the veracity of the story, but I really want it to be true!   

I use Working in many ways in my teaching, most obviously in classes on work. My students warm most to Terkel’s interest in the extraordinary nature of ordinary everyday life. They recognise his ability to see through the shallowness of the dramatic, showier aspects of contemporary life and his interest in the capacity of ordinary people to live their lives. As he says in his introduction:

I realised quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted, were meaningless. Conditioned clichés were certain to come. The question-and-answer techniques may be of some value in determining favoured detergents, toothpaste and deodorants, but not in the discovery of men and women. There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature-at the beginning: the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. The talk was idiomatic rather than academic. In short, it was conversation. In time, the sluice gates of dammed up hurts and dreams were opened.

Terkel is also a model for would be interviewers.  It took me a long time to realise just what a great skill it is to be able to get people relaxed enough to talk about those ‘hurts and dreams’ — especially working-class people.  Middle-class people often seem to feel entitled to be interviewed. They believe they have something worthwhile to say or that their lives obviously matter. By contrast, I’ve lost count of the times a potential working-class person modestly deflected my request for an interview, asking ‘why do you want to talk to me? I’m just a . . . ’.

Since its publication in the early 1970s Working has constantly been in print, but has also spawned adaptations, including guides for using the book in the classroom and Working: A Graphic Adaptation by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle. In the late 1970s, the book was the basis of a musical, and there have also been acting workshops and recently a theatre project in Washington DC staged an updated version that included references to the pandemic.

We need to think more about new forms of work, and interviews can help us do that. Gig workers and others will tell different stories than we find in Working, but at the heart of their narratives, we may also hear similarities. It’s always been important to listen to the voices of those who work.  Sometimes they reinforce our perceptions, but often they confound them in unexpected ways. Almost always, when one talks and, perhaps more importantly listens to what people have to say about their work, we learn about them and ourselves. Above all, we recognise what was at the heart of Studs Terkel’s own working life, the quest for meaning and humanity in all the people he spoke to.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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What bell hooks meant to me

In the final month of a horrible year of many tragedies and too many deaths, we lost bell hooks, a writer, scholar, and activist whose work has had a profound influence on many of us. I want to add my own small heap of roses to the scores of published obituaries and remembrances in circulation, with a personal account of what she meant to me as a working-class academic and scholar of working-class studies.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, back in the early aughts, I was expected to teach for my graduate stipend.  Like many graduate programs, this “opportunity” came with no formal training.  Without guidance, many of us just imitated our image of a know-it-all professor, teaching in a cramped didactic fashion.  But the U of O did provide an optional course called “Teaching to Transgress,” led by a radical librarian associated with its teaching effectiveness suite.  I wish I could remember their name, because this course, taught in the library basement with a misfit crew of lost graduate students from around the university, changed my life. 

Teaching to Transgress was also the title of a book written by bell hooks.  Subtitled “Education as the Practice of Freedom,” the book is a powerful intervention in standard college teaching practices.  With deep acknowledgement toward both the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (who himself passed away as I wrote this piece), hooks teaches readers how to be empathetic and capable teachers of whole human beings.  The course used this book as a guide, as our able “instructor” practiced hooks’s ideas in teaching us.   It was revelatory.  What I learned in that class, from reading hooks and practicing hooks, has made me both the teacher that I am now and the human being that I continue to strive to become.  We were encouraged to talk authentically about ourselves, to contextualize our social locations, to explore our position and experiences within what hooks termed imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.   

The beautiful thing about hooks is that she was profoundly intellectual and theoretically exhilarating while at the same time embracing the personal, or, better, the relational part of being human.  Indeed, she often criticized colleges for teaching students to excise the personal from their intellectual development.  “Within the educational institutions where we learn to develop and strengthen our writing and analytical skills, we also learn to think, write, and talk in a manner that shifts attention away from personal experience,” she argued in a piece about her class location. She embraced all aspects of herself – her blackness, her southernness, her working-class-ness. She taught that theories do not arise from the head, but from our bodies, our lives, our experiences with others.  Differences, of race, or of gender, or sexuality, need not divide us.  It is the system that does that.

Like many others, I responded to her on a visceral level, letting the little girl in me imagine the little girl she often recalls in her writing.  I have embraced my past, as a white girl who grew up poor, and adopted the identity of a “working-class academic” in my scholarship and my teaching practices.  Reading bell hooks made me want to be a better teacher, a better scholar, and a better human being.  She made me realize that teaching and scholarship and humanity are inextricably entwined.  In my darkest days, while serving as department chair or generally witnessing the crass power plays, ignorance, and general incompetence of university administration, I return to hooks and what I learned in that graduate seminar for comfort and sustenance, for a vision of what we mean to each other, and what we can do to nurture each other’s growth and development. 

To honor her memory and the spirit of her teaching, here are just a few of the important lessons I learned from reading Teaching to Transgress:

First, teaching is a performative act.  The classroom is a radical place of possibility.  It need not be boring or one-sided (teacher to student).   Professors are whole human beings engaged with other whole human beings. 

Second, and this is perhaps even more relevant in the Zoom era, we have bodies and faces, and communication (including teaching) happens through these bodies and faces.  I recall a lovely passage where a student waltzes with her before class (it may not be waltzing, but that is how I imagined it) to their mutual delight. 

Third, story-telling can be a powerful way of learning and communicating.  This is an insight shared with critical race theory and the legal story-telling tradition.  It is also embraced by working-class studies

Fourth, we should create the kind of world we want in our classrooms.  We need not recreate the authoritarianism, the racism, the sexism, we experience in other areas of our lives.  This is why I discourage my students from calling me “Dr.” Hurst, and why I wrote an open access textbook for sociological theory that retranslated classical thinkers in a more accessible way and using gender-neutral language (where it did not distort original meanings).  This is what hooks does, making her books welcoming and accessible. She purposely eschews footnotes and show-off citations. It’s also why she did not capitalize her name. 

Fifth, commit to authenticity and embrace the value of claiming our identities in an educational context.  hooks modeled this in all of her work, letting her readers know who she was (black woman from the working class whose educational trajectory has been successful), where she came from (rural South), what motivated her (passion for justice), and where she has stumbled (I’ll let readers discover those themselves). 

Sixth, use theory as a way “to challenge the status quo.” This is how I teach theory to undergraduates, not as something oppressive and confusing, but as something that can help them stand up for themselves and their communities.  Or, as Bourdieu phrased it, as “a martial art, a means of self-defense — you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks.”

And, finally, have a deep compassion for others and commitment to love as a political project.  I see this in all of her work, but I feel it most personally when she talks of her family and her quest for belonging – a very common working-class academic story.  In Teaching to Transgress, she writes about her move to college, “I was desperately trying to discover the place of my belonging.  I was desperately trying to find my way home.”  I can understand how one can love one’s parents fiercely, be protective of them, remain ardently loyal to their world, and yet not ever feel “truly connected to these strange people, to these familial folks who could not only fail to grasp my worldview but who just simply did not want to hear it.”  I suspect a lot of us can feel the import of this passage.

Rereading Teaching to Transgress at her passing, I was struck again by her generosity of spirit.  It is always gratifying when our idols live up to our visions of them.  In the second chapter, hooks addresses the backlash to the movement to embrace cultural diversity in higher education.  Written almost thirty years ago, this section is striking for its (sadly) continuing relevance. In words that still feel fresh, she teaches us that “in all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when mistakes are made.  If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a cultural diverse place.”  We all stumble, but we can all pick ourselves up and learn.  Even Paulo Freire had a “phallocentric blind spot,” acknowledged hooks.

We are living in dangerous and deeply troubling times.  A period of chaos and confusion, when mistakes multiply before our eyes, and the center no longer seems to hold.  I would not argue against anyone who fears the future, who sees only a very long night ahead of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.  But that is even more reason to reread hooks, to remind ourselves of the world we want to create, and the political promise of love.  There can be no love without justice.  But neither can there be justice without love. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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Working-Class Scholars and Activists Bringing Change

At the beginning of 2021, I asked whether life for working-class people would get any better now that everyone understood that working-class people keep societies running. I wasn’t very optimistic about bosses or governments doing much to stem job insecurity or to increase wages and improve conditions, and that pessimism was well-founded. But I also looked forward to more workers organising and taking stands against injustice and unfair conditions, and this certainly did happen, with workers around the world flexing their industrial muscle.

Along with increased collective and industrial action, class is being recognised as a system that creates and reinforces inequality. Working-class people get shut out of certain professional industries and face barriers in some, such as the media and higher education.

What is creating this increasing understanding of how class works? A lot of it is due to the groundwork of scholars and activists involved in working-class studies. Academic and activist work is gaining exposure in the media, and direct references to class and to being working-class are appearing in Australia, the UK, and the US (and I’m sure in other places too, but these are the places I have access to).

Scholars and activists who have a deep understanding of working-class life are fuelling this interest. Working-class background students have been highlighting classism in universities. Students from Durham University in the North of England revealed that their working-class accents had been mocked, and they had faced insults regarding their working-class families. The media accounts brought to light these kinds of bullying and discrimination, and that empowered working-class students to create their own support and advocacy groups, such as the Durham Working Class Students Association.

Academics from working-class backgrounds have also been researching and writing about the barriers they’ve faced while trying to establish academic careers. While it is now quite well understood that academics from all backgrounds face precarity in an increasingly casualised workforce, and that work intensification in higher education has been rampant and mostly unchecked now for years, working-class academics face additional challenges. Dr. Teresa Crew’s papers and book based on her research into life for working-class academics in the UK describes the many ‘micro-aggressions’ experienced. As Crew explains, these ‘hostile encounters’ leave working-class academics feeling insecure, inadequate, and less intellectual than their middle-class counterparts. Such encounters occur because middle-class colleagues have preconceived ideas of what it means to be working class. They focus on working-class colleagues’ ‘deficiencies’ in cultural capital but ignore the additional benefits, knowledge, and experience that working-class people bring to the institution.  

This interest in working-class academics isn’t new. A number of excellent books and articles have explored these issues and experiences, but most have focused on US academics. Crew is one of the few that examines the UK sector. A 2015 book, Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Class, also demonstrates how class intersects with other forms of identity.

The growing interest in class and in working-class life has also led to a number of events organised by academics, writers, artists, and activists outside of the US. In 2019, the Working-Class Studies Association annual conference was held in the UK, its first gathering outside of the US. This sparked interest in other meetings, including a Irish working-class studies conference. In 2020 and 2021, International Working-Class Academics conferences were hosted by a team of (mostly) British academics, and in 2021, British author Natasha Carthew ran a festival for working-class writers.

Can all this actually have an impact on the lives of working-class people? I think so. Academic work gets translated into media articles and social media posts, and these can shift opinions, put pressure on those in power, and lead to change. We have seen this in initiatives from some large companies to target people from working-class backgrounds in their recruitment strategies. And we see it in the recognition that the media are dominated by middle-class people (and in the UK, by privately-educated people). Efforts to counter the lack of working-class people in various sectors can lead to more working-class people being employed in organisations that can change working-class life for the better.

That includes higher education. If working-class people have opportunities for education, then they have more chance of access to the industries and sectors that directly impact on working-class life. To help working-class students succeed, universities should hire more working-class academics, who understand the issues these students face. That, in turn, would prepare more working-class people for careers as writers, and that might encourage publishers and media producers to take on more working-class stories. It’s empowering for working-class people to see themselves represented in books, on TV, in movies, and in the media. Such images also help challenge and change stereotypes when done well.

Increased understanding of class helps everyone. A working-class background (in its many forms) brings valuable knowledge and skills to any institution, workplace, or organisation. So, while I don’t expect the current crop of bosses and politicians to do much to improve the lives of working-class people, I am hopeful that the wave of interest in class and the growing confidence of working-class students, academics, union members, activists, and community leaders will bring us closer to equity and social justice.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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