Why Clinton Could Lose the Working Class in Ohio

Note: As the Republican National Convention gets underway in Cleveland, we’re reposting John Russo’s recent op-ed explaining why Hillary Clinton could lose working-class voters in Ohio and what she would need to do in order to win. The piece first appeared in the Plain Dealer on June 26,2016.

In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tied in battleground Ohio. This suggests a very close race in Ohio in the fall. Economic issues, especially trade, led many former Democrats to cross party lines to support Trump in the Republican primaries. Many who hadn’t voted in recent elections joined them. We’re likely to see a repeat of this in November unless Democrats change their trade policies. None of this should surprise Democrats, especially those in Ohio.

As a professor of labor studies and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University for more than 30 years, I had many opportunities to talk politics with workers there. In 2000, many told me that, after voting for Democrats all their lives, they were choosing guns, gays and God over Al Gore, who had been a primary spokesman for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seven years earlier. In 2002, Northeast Ohio Democrats threw out eight-term congressman Tom Sawyer on the basis of his support for NAFTA, despite Sawyer having a 90 percent voting record on labor issues.

Since the passage of NAFTA, Ohio Republicans have controlled state government save for a brief interlude caused by Republican corruption in 2006. At the same time, two Democrats — Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan, who replaced Sawyer — have been elected and re-elected in no small part due to their opposition to NAFTA and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Clearly, trade policy poses a problem for Democrats and their presumptive candidate. Clinton has been tied to former President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA legislation and its Wall Street proponents. While she has stated that she is against TPP at this time, many Ohioans hear that as weasel words that only contribute to their distrust of Clinton.

It is widely speculated that the Obama administration will push for TPP acceptance in the lame-duck session following the 2016 general election. According to a tweet from CNN’s Dan Merica, Clinton says she will not lobby Congress on the issue. But this will only undermine her credibility and provide Trump with an incentive to continue to demagogue the issue.

In Ohio, about 60 percent of voters in 2012 did not have a college degree, one of the most commonly used (though problematic) proxies for identifying working-class voters. Slightly more than half of them voted for Obama, according to CNN exit polls. But while Obama won a majority of working-class votes in Ohio, he lost among whites, winning only 41 percent of their votes. This suggests that a significant portion of Obama’s working-class support in 2012 came from Ohio voters of color, not white voters. Four years later, the combination of white working-class support for Trump, as we saw in the primary, and expected lower African-American turnout — Clinton is unlikely to inspire the enthusiasm that Obama generated — may swing Ohio’s prized electoral votes to the presumptive Republican nominee.

Clinton needs the support of working-class Ohioans – the very people who have been hurt the most by trade policy. To do that, she needs to stop insisting that trade is good. Her current stance is similar to wooing West Virginia coal miners by touting the benefits of non-carbon fuels. Similarly, she should stop talking about retraining and promising high-tech jobs, which only reminds voters of how hollow such programs have been in the past.

Instead, Clinton should acknowledge that we have lost the trade war and pledge to use every legal means at her disposal to protect American workers and industries from the continued onslaught of imports. This would include initiating trade cases against countries that target American industries by subsidizing their exports, exploiting workers, manipulating their currencies, and polluting the environment.

She should threaten to impose tariffs on every imported product from countries that refuse to implement the same U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations and federal, state and local tax requirements that are imposed on American businesses.

At the very least, Clinton should do more than promise to build a strong infrastructure program. Such a program would put the skills, materials and physical strength of working-class Ohioans to work and improve Ohio’s competitive economic environment. Clinton has identified specific programs but she needs to do more to explain how she will pay for them. Otherwise, her campaign platform will sound too much like an echo of past hollow campaign promises.

Clinton should also stress making college affordable for the working class and those living in poverty. Not everyone wants a desk job in front of a computer, and older workers may not be interested in retraining for high-tech jobs. But they do want more education and training for their kids.

Finally, working people worry about how they will fare economically after retirement. They know that Wall Street oversold 401(k) plans and that traditional pensions are disappearing. Clinton needs to reject Wall Street’s calls for changes in Social Security and offer a specific program to maintain private pension plans without cutting benefits.

If Clinton does not develop a strong and believable working-class agenda, I predict that the Democrats will lose Ohio in November, and that would open the door to a Trump victory nationally.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Defending the Working Class from Financial Abuse

For decades Wall Street’s big banks and the financial services industry have used—and abused–the judicial system to hammer working-class families and erode the American Dream. Left virtually defenseless because they could not afford to hire attorneys to fight back, millions of homeowners and consumers stood by helplessly as they lost their homes to court-ordered foreclosures or had their wages garnished to repay debts they didn’t actually owe.

Now, thanks to federal legislation like the Dodd-Frank Act, aggressive action by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), and rulings issued by federal and state judges, consumers are slowly but surely gaining access to the courts and are now using the judicial system to turn the tables on the financial firms that have run roughshod over them for far too long.

These laws, regulations, and rulings create financial incentives for private attorneys and consumers to take on big banks and predatory lenders. Those incentives include forcing financial firms to pay the attorney fees of consumers who have been wronged, eliminating forced arbitration clauses that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for lawyers to file class action suits against the bad actors in the financial services industry, and making it possible for borrowers to collect significant monetary damages from lenders who violate their rights.

Much like the contingency fee system and class action suits that improved auto safety, forced pharmaceutical companies to remove dangerous drugs from the market place, and held polluters accountable for damaging the environment, the new rules and regulations make it economically feasible for private attorneys to grapple with the teams of high-paid lawyers who represent banks and other lenders. That will bring much needed stability and accountability to the nation’s consumer credit market.

While most of the big banks and traditional mortgage lenders are acting more responsibly these days, because they are bound by consent decrees signed in the wake of the 2007—2008 financial meltdown, new, largely unregulated entities including hedge fund-backed firms like Caliber Home Loans and Nationstar are using tactics as old as the predatory lending crisis itself: moving quickly to foreclosure, losing mortgage paperwork, and delaying or denying loan modifications to terrorize borrowers and toss working-class families out of their homes.

Unfortunately, the ongoing abuses aren’t limited to mortgage lending. Today, millions of people are struggling to repay home equity and other loans they took out as they attempted to keep their heads above water during the great recession. Not surprisingly, predatory debt buyers have purchased those loans from the original lenders and are now using local courts to seek judgments and collect debts that the borrowers may not owe. The debt buyers have been counting on the fact that consumers could not afford to retain counsel to defend themselves. In ruling that Ohioans now have the right to sue abusive debt buyers and the attorneys who represent them, the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court described the problem this way:

A predictable result of debt buyers filing a high volume of lawsuits based on imperfect information is that lawsuits are regularly filed after the right to collect debts has expired or that seek a debt that is not owed; “each year, buyers sought to collect about one million debts that consumers asserted they did not owe.

Like courts across the country, the CFPB is taking action against predatory debt buyers. For example, the agency sued Fredrick J. Hanna & Associates, a Georgia law firm, which it described as a “Debt Collection Lawsuit Mill,” and won a consent entry that prevents the firm from filing lawsuits or threatening to sue unless they can prove that the debt they are attempting to collect is valid.

The CFPB’s willingness to take on predatory lenders, the fact that it is now financially feasible for private attorneys to sue lenders, the enactment of tough new state laws that prohibit unfair and/or deceptive practices, favorable court decisions, and consumers’ ability to seek and secure significant monetary damages from firms that violate the law all combine to create a more level playing field in the credit markets.

The good news doesn’t end there. The CFPB is moving to impose regulations on payday and auto title lenders that will make it harder for the vultures that dominate the industry to exploit consumers. While some have criticized the proposed rules for not going far enough, they represent an important first step toward reining in an industry I fought hard to regulate during my tenure as Ohio’s attorney general.

I’ll be the first to admit that these important changes in the law don’t have the sex appeal of major public policy initiatives like health care reform. But throwing open the courthouse doors to those who have been victimized by big banks, mortgage servicers, debt buyers, and payday lenders and discouraging future abuses will enable millions of working-class families to gain control of their finances and renew their pursuit of the American Dream. And that will, inarguably, have a profoundly beneficial effect on our economy and our society for decades to come.

Marc Dann

Marc Dann is Managing Partner of the Dann Law Firm. He specializes in representing clients who have been harmed by banks, debt buyers, debt collectors, and other financial predators. He has fought for the rights of thousands of consumers and brought class action lawsuits in both private practice and as Ohio’s Attorney General.




Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Working-Class Brexit

I woke up Friday morning to the news that my country decided that it no longer wants to be part of the European Union. With a large turnout of 72% of the eligible electorate, the vote went 51.9% in favour of leaving against 48.1% for remaining – 17.4 million against 16.1 million, in case you wondered. As a result, the clock has begun to tick down on 43 years of British EU membership, creating huge levels of uncertainty. This morning the pound sterling lost 10% of its value against the dollar – the biggest one day decline since 1985 – and a massive £200 billion was wiped off the stock market.

But what was behind this result, which seemed until the eve of poll to be heading towards remaining in the EU? Class was one of the biggest factors. Let me explain. Early analysis of the results shows that if you had a college degree or were young, you were more likely to vote to remain. Geographically, England and Wales voted for Brexit, except for London. Scotland, however, voted overwhelmingly to remain, opening up a very real prospect of another independence referendum and the disintegration of the UK. Many places in England and Wales outside London, often but not exclusively Labour Party traditional heartlands, were amongst the strongest supporters of leaving. This seems to have resulted from a cocktail of resentments against ‘them’, the ‘elite’, the ‘establishment’ or simply the ‘experts’. This resentment has been simmering in these Labour heartlands for decades and predates the banking crash of 2008. Resignation, despair, and political apathy have been present in many former industrial regions since the wholesale deindustrialisation of the British economy in the 1980s and 1990. The election of the Blair -led Labour administration of 1997 masked the anger felt in these areas as traditional labour supporters and their needs were often ignored, while traditional Labour supporters were used as voting fodder. Over the thirteen years of Labour power, that support ebbed away, first as a simple decline in votes, but gradually turning into active hostility to the Labour party. Many embraced the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

This opposition, so skillfully drawn on by the leave campaign, is in part a working class reaction not only to six years of austerity but also to a long and deep seated sense of injustice and marginalisation. Most of the remain side, which was a cross party grouping, didn’t seem to understand this before the referendum and, even more depressingly, doesn’t seem to understand it fully now. A stock characterisation of working-class people who intended to vote leave was to label them as unable understanding the issues, easily manipulated, or worse, racist ‘little Englanders’.

A number of commentators have understood the class resentment underlying the referendum. In his thoughtful video blogs preceding the vote, Guardian journalist John Harris travelled away from the ‘Westminster village’ to the more marginal, often over looked parts of the UK. What he observed was precisely this class demographic of voting intentions, people who were in effect members of what sociologist Guy Standing has called the precariat. Fellow Guardian columnist Ian Jack wrote a similarly powerfully reflective piece linking the working-class vote with deindustrialisation. Both Harris and Jack emphasize the point that for unskilled workers with only a secondary school education, three decades or more of neo-liberalism has left deep scars socially, politically, and culturally, with little hope or expectation that anything would change for the better. In a vox pop radio interview the day before the referendum, a person stopped for their views simply said, ‘The working class is going to get screwed whether we stay or leave, so we might as well leave’.

This sense of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ was heightened by the long line of establishment figures from the world of politics, business, and finance who were trotted out to warn the voters that Brexit would mean Armageddon. Far from helping the remain side, these interventions from the likes of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, and even President Obama merely exaggerated the distance between working-class voters and those who wanted them to vote to remain. Speaking after the official result was announced, UKIP leader Nigel Farage explicitly used the language of class in his celebratory speech, saying that this was a vote of ‘Real people, ordinary people, decent people against the big merchant banks, big business and big politics’.

Many on the progressive left have seen this Brexit result coming and have linked it to a far wider set of issues than those of the immediate problems of the EU. In a video blog two days before polling, Owen Jones linked the marginalisation and alienation felt by many working-class voters and support for populists like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other non-mainstream political movements in Europe. What this all points to is a real rejection of the hegemony of what veteran left-winger Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ that has promoted globalisation and neo-liberalism. In the narrative of the extreme centre, there is no place for those left behind, damaged by the collapse of industries and forced to face the brunt of never ending austerity. Faced with what are viewed as out of touch elites telling an angry electorate that they must vote to remain, there is little wonder that many working-class people opted to vote out. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, over the short, medium, and long term. But one thing is clear: class will play a big role.

Tim Strangleman

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

The Limits to Entrepreneurship: Why Innovation Won’t Solve Poverty

“Entrepreneurship” generates big buzz and the cacophony is enormously positive. Legions of leaders, organizations, and politicians promote entrepreneurship as an alternative pathway to a better life for the poor, disconnected, and left behind.  For example, Steve Case, who made a fortune with AOL, launched a multiyear “Rise of the Rest” campaign with bus tours and “grass roots” campaigns highlighting the “growth of start-up communities in pockets of the country not generally known … for producing tomorrow’s next big companies.”  With a White House sendoff, Case led well-promoted business pitch competitions in Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Manchester, Nashville, and Philadelphia.

House Leader Paul Ryan is mostly the opposite of Steve Case politically.  But Ryan’s economic plan is founded on the idea that growth begins with “the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people.” In response to Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address, Ryan tweeted, “The answer to poverty lies in entrepreneurs and innovators who are actually making a difference, community by community.”

Cultural icons are held up as evidence that entrepreneurship can lead creative young people out of poverty toward the sweet life of luxurious living, fame, and fortune.  Just model yourself on Jay Z!

Can starting your own business rocket someone from the near bottom to near top of the economic pyramid?  It might work for a few lucky, hard working, dedicated, amazing individuals, maybe. Some do indeed generate new economic opportunities for themselves – and, in a very few cases, even for others in their community.  But that isn’t even half the story.  All too often, the results are much less rosy. It’s not a secret: most entrepreneurs fail.  And those with too little can ill afford more loss.

I’ve learned that lesson through years of work as a senior political advisor, campaign organizer, wonkish researcher, and philanthropy innovator. My entrepreneurship “street cred” is based in six original field research projects on entrepreneurship in harsh rural economic climates of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  We traveled light, from rural Iowa during the farm bust following a historic ag-export fueled boom to North Dakota as communities staggered through an inevitable bust after (another) drilling boom.  We visited persistent poverty areas in Arkansas’ delta counties and Aroostook County in noncoastal, northernmost Maine — places that struggled then and now without a glimpse of “boom times.” We searched for entrepreneurs using varied business models, market niches, and means.  We pioneered methods to measure their numbers and their effect on local economies. We also talked with them about their motives, means, advances, struggles, and losses. Since then, I’ve also studied business innovators at different stages of development, learning about their strategies for attending to  their business bottom line while also generating good opportunities for workers and their communities.

For the overwhelming majority of people in or near poverty, “entrepreneurship” is simply a fancy way to spell “hustle” and “bootstrap.”  Few of the great winners of the entrepreneurship derby realize that for many in the precariat, this is the ultimate flimflam in the cloak of artful words and seeming disregard of some pesky facts.

  • Entrepreneurship Is Driven by the Fortunate: According to the Kauffman 2015 Index of Start Up Activity, eight of every ten new entrepreneurs came out of another job, school, or other labor market status.  Only two of ten started their businesses while unemployed.  And those who did were more likely to start companies with lower growth potential.
  • The Poor Have Less to Invest and Can Not Afford Losses: A comprehensive survey by the Federal Reserve yields a clear snapshot of the income and wealth of American households. Less than one third of those with incomes annually under $40,000 could afford to cover an emergency expense of $400 using cash or credit card that they pay off at the end of the month.  The reasons they are so constrained are equally clear.  70% spend more than they earn, and more than half (53%) have absolutely no savings.  Starting a business or keeping one going entails myriad unexpected expenses and reversals.
  • High Failure Rate: According to Fortune, 9 out of 10 new businesses fail.  That is scary enough odds, but the “growth rate” for firms is actually negative. In one recent year, 400,000 business started in the U.S., but 470,000 firms closed. That statistic masks a good deal of human disappointment, frustration, and real personal and financial loses.  Blues singers tell that if you have nothing then you have nothing to lose.  But when it comes to the time, sweat, and funds plowed in to any enterprise startup, the rich are not like the rest of us.  Their opportunity cost calculation is markedly at odds with our experiences.  And for the precariat, this desperate road often deepens losses and dilutes opportunity.
  • Entrepreneurship Is a Declining Force: Start-up activity in the American economy has been on the decline for a good while, though it dropped further and faster when the Great Recession hit and has bounced around the bottom since then.
  • Entrepreneurship Is Mostly White and Male: The groups who have been left out the longest and furthest – women and people of color — are not reaching the “opportunity rung” of business startups. As of 2014, only 37% of entrepreneurs were women, and the gender gap has actually grown over time. While entrepreneurship rates are higher for Latinos and Asians than Whites or Blacks in the U.S., the predominance of whites in our society means that most entrepreneurs are white.
  • The Financial Fuel for Startup Growth is Geographically Concentrated: The Martin Prosperity Institute analyzed the number and value of venture capital deals in 100 metro areas for 2012.  As the map below demonstrates, venture finance concentrates in California, Northeast urban regions, and to a lesser extent the Pacific Northwest.  Venture finance is not the only way to fund entrepreneurship, but it provides key support for promising ideas and businesses to scale for growth and impact. The relative desert in the rest of the country suggests the fuel stations for developing new businesses are harder to find.  Availability is slight to none in those communities where it may be needed most.

Venture capital map










Finally, we need to look beyond the statistics on business startups and get real about the underlying meaning and effect.  When is an Entrepreneurial Start Up Business a Good Business? My experience with new startup owners from a broad slice of society suggests that many are pursuing intriguing ideas.  Some are skilled business managers to boot.  But most are cobbling together survival strategies. Being an entrepreneur means combining resources to support the family’s needs.  A spouse cleans houses and kids help make and sell crafts on Ebay or Etsy.  After the season ends for landscaping work, the father operates a cash-only snow plow service, collects and delivers aluminum scrap to recycling, and picks up a few jobs as a day laborer, waiting to be selected  from a long line of workers available in a Home Depot Parking lot.  Is it a way of life?  For too many, yes.  But it is hardly a living.  And it is certainly far from the security that working long and hard and playing by the rules should yield.  Does their future look bright because they’ve started four or five “new businesses? Hardly.  They barely keep from drowning financially as debt waters rise and income stagnates.

Robert Rich notes that “the dominant American myth involves two kinds of actors: entrepreneurial heroes and industrial drones – the inspired and perspired.” Steve Case and Paul Ryan believe the “inspired” entrepreneurs are the solution to poverty.  Others see hard work and sacrifice – the perspired –as the bootstrap solution for many.  Neither approach confronts the fact that the rules of our economy in this era are sharply skewed towards the wealthy and against all others.  People living in or near poverty face that reality every day.

Mark Popovich

Mark Popovich is a Vice President for Program at The Hitachi Foundation.  This commentary does not necessarily reflect the views opinions of the Foundation Board, Hitachi America, Ltd, or any Hitachi company affiliate.


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Health Class

Late last year, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science documenting the rising morbidity and mortality in mid-life white men and women in America, especially for those with a high school degree or less.  They attributed this increase, a reversal of historic trends, to an epidemic of alcoholism, other drug use disorders, and suicide. Their findings are a wake up call for the US. Not only is something seriously wrong — it’s getting worse.

As a community psychiatrist (that is, one who works in the community providing publicly funded care) in Pittsburgh, I was not at all shocked to read the paper and the several others that followed and found essentially the same thing.  Working both in inner city black Pittsburgh and the more racially mixed Mon Valley, the primary site of Pittsburgh’s once vaunted steel mills, I have seen twenty years of increasing psychiatric burden and disability with what seemed to be a marked increase in mortality — all linked to increasingly fragmented, chaotic families, extraordinary work instability, trauma, violence, and alcohol and substance use.  While human services and health care were clearly in the picture in the lives of many (health care increasingly so with the Affordable Care Act), other critical institutions — steady work, solid education, high qualify day care, stable housing, organized communities – seemed to be less present, casualties of deindustrialization and neighborhood decline.  With the economic collapse of 2008 and the rise of the opiate epidemic, conditions have felt like they are in free fall, with tattered individuals and the remnants of families struggling to hang on.

My day-to-day job is to do what I can to help people find ways to overcome their distress and rediscover their capacities and capabilities to find a way forward. Of course, I don’t do this alone. It requires a team effort to help suffering people recover and manage their illnesses and organize the resources they need to put a life together.  We have some resources to do this, such as the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid in Pennsylvania.  But still the observation of Julian Tudor Hart, a renowned British physician working among the miners in Wales, rings true: the people with the greatest need generally have the least access to resources. Hart called this the “Inverse Care Law.”

For a long time and to this day, this has been the American approach to health care, though the ACA does a bit to address it.  Given this, some Americans may assume that the recent increase in mortality among white folks reflects a lack of access to needed care.

The work of two other Brits, Thomas McKeown and Michael Marmot reveals the inadequacy of this belief.  McKeown made the trenchant observation that it wasn’t health care that made people healthy, but rather the conditions in which they lived. Marmot pressed this observation and, in a series of famous studies of civil servants in the British Government, found that health status was tied in a step-wise fashion with class.  Poor working-class people had worse health then their middle-class colleagues who in turn were less healthy than the highly paid executives.  These findings created a fire storm around the world, but some thirty years later, the idea has finally begun to find its way to the US in the form a focus on the “social determinants of health.” Where people live, their income, the resources available to them, the web of social relationships they experience, all come under this rubric. Health isn’t just about people’s lifestyle — whether they smoke or drink — or about their access to health care. It is fundamentally about the kinds of lives people live and how they are socially structured. Health is profoundly ecological– it reflects the social habitat and physical environment people live in.

This new focus permits us to say that what’s happening to the health and well-being of poor white folks is clear evidence that the life worlds and social circumstances of their lives are falling apart.  Their social habitat is strained, and the strain is showing up in a looming body count.

We could do more to make it easier for people to access the resources they need beyond health care and by tapping into their capabilities and capacities to find ways to flourish.  Steps in this direction include concepts like the “medical home”, an expanded version of accessible team- based primary health care that focuses on people’s well-being over the life course, providing preventive and clinical services, promoting health and connecting people to the resources needed for healthy living. In psychiatry, the recognition that people with psychiatric challenges have untapped capacities to recover — to find meaningful ways to live — is reshaping clinical approaches so they connect with and build on those capabilities. These innovations are all good, but they are woefully insufficient given the scale and scope of what the nation faces.

To achieve what we need to achieve, our society needs to move the conversation about health and well-being upstream, away from a focus on health care alone, and link health and health care with general social policy.  The moves towards “the social determinants and processes of health,” “health in all policy,” “population health,” and “health impact assessments,” backed by a politics of social inclusion, are the ways forward to achieve health and social equity.

The country we create determines the patterns of life and death of the people who live here. It’s not a job just for doctors and other health care providers. We are all stewards of the health of the people of this country. Increasing numbers of people won’t thrive and will die young until we fully embrace this responsibility.

Kenneth Thompson

Kenneth S. Thompson MD is a public service community psychiatrist in Pittsburgh whose career has been focused on improving psychiatric care and achieving health equity.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

2016 WCSA Awards: The Best of Working-Class Studies

As the immediate past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, it was my task this year (and also my pleasure) to organize the association’s annual awards process. As this year’s organizer, I was caught up in the logistical and clerical tasks related to the process, and so it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I considered this year’s award winners as a group of texts. When I finally had the opportunity to step back and think about them as a whole, I noted several threads and connections that reveal that a focus on work (or the lack thereof), workers, place, and protest continue to preoccupy scholars in the field.

The winner of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing is Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, by Mike and Ruth Yarrow, with photographs by Douglas Yarrow, published by Bottom Dog Press. The book is comprised of “found” poems created by the Yarrows based on interviews conducted during the late 1970s with Appalachian coal miners (both men and women) and their spouses. In her author’s statement, Ruth Yarrow explains that the book “is written as found poems because Mike realized that the interviews revealed strong emotions, rhythmic phrases and vivid storytelling skills that could be poetry.” One judge noted that though the interviewees’ voices are edited into poems, “they retain their authenticity and power.”

Great effort is made here to document and preserve the work and the voices of the workers and their families in this time and place. One judge wrote that these poems “beautifully convey life in the mines and on picket lines, showing the eloquence of the speech of working people. These pieces present the poetry of everyday life and present all the pain, resilience, bravery, humanity and aspiration of poetry crafted by poets. This book is a real and lasting contribution to working-class literature.” Another wrote that the book “captures both regional culture and working-class culture in all its emotional complexity through the competing voices.”

Geoff Bright’s “’The Lady is Not Returning!’: Educational Precarity and a Social Haunting in the UK Coalfields,” the winner of this year’s John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences, also focuses on voices from coalfields, but in a different place and from the perspective of the children and grandchildren of former miners. Bright has been doing ethnographic research in communities around former coalfields in the north of England for the past decade, and a central argument of his research is that “the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its aftermath of pit closures are not matters of merely historical interest but are, rather, a continuing—if, more often than not, unspoken—affective context for the lived experience of thousands of young people within Britain’s former coalfields.”

In this piece, Bright is especially interested in community responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher as well as celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 strike. Focusing on young people’s involvement in both, Bright sees evidence of a renewed political consciousness oriented to the future, a consciousness that seeks to come to terms with and work through the social haunting caused by the deindustrialization of the region. Praise from the judges included this assessment: “This essay is absolutely fascinating and breaks new paths, I believe, in developing methodologies for working-class studies scholarship and for comprehending the impact of the horrors and suffering caused by class society over generations. . . .I am thankful for this essay. It was a joy to read. For an academic article, it was a real page-turner.”

The aftermath of deindustrialization is also the subject of this year’s winner of the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism, Christine Walley and Chris Boebel’s film Exit Zero (based on Walley’s 2013 CLR James Award-winning book by the same name). The focus of the film is the collapse of the steel industry in Southeast Chicago, which shaped multiple generations of Walley’s family. The daughter of a longtime steel worker, Walley became a class straddler when she left home, earned her Ph.D. and became an academic, but in this project she returned home to engage in autoethnography.

One judge praised the film for telling a “complex, gripping, and surprising story that makes it clear that deindustrialization, in the forms that it took, and in the ways in which workers were treated, was not inevitable.” Another judge wrote of being “moved by this remarkable combination of family story and its strenuous relationship to deindustrialization. Steel made this family but also tried to destroy it in the end. Nuanced and balanced portrait of a family’s history, [it] avoids sentimentalizing a working class family and community.”

The focus on place represented in the winners of the first three categories extends to the first of two winners of this year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences, Julie M. Weise’s Corazón de Dixie: Mexicans in the U.S. South Since 1910. Wiese’s work is an important corrective to the mistaken notion that Latinos’ presence in the U.S. South is a relatively recent phenomenon; as the title of her book indicates, that presence can be traced back over the last 100 years. Wiese’s book tells the story of Mexican migration to New Orleans, Mississippi, rural Georgia, the Arkansas Delta, and Charlotte, NC.

One judge notes that “At first glance, a reader might be deceived into thinking that Corazón de Dixie is not necessarily a working-class studies text. It is in fact a deeply intersectional history, concerned with ‘the regional and national politics of race, class, and citizenship’ as related to the Mexican-American immigrant experience; the politics of work, and work’s relationship to how one develops a sense of U.S. belonging on both her own terms and the terms of powerful others, resonates from every page of this book.”

The CLR James Award is also being given this year to Ann Folino White for her book Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America. White’s book focuses on Depression-era protest and activism around food and farm policy. Among the many reasons that this book stood out among the nominees this year was for its interdisciplinarity. As one judge noted, “The book has a remarkably inventive and interdisciplinary methodology, and it takes a diverse but coherent look at the multifaceted questions of labor, food production, and the relations of class, race, and gender during the Great Depression, questions that have lasting implications for today’s world.” While there is an extensive historiography on the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, her treatment of responses to the AAA as performance is unique—White herself is chair of the Department of Theater at Michigan State University.

Gregory Rosenthal’s dissertation, “Hawaiians Who Left Hawaii: Work, Body, and Environment in the Pacific World, 1786-1876,” is the winner of this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation. Like many of this year’s award winners, there is a strong emphasis on place in Rosenthal’s study, and like Weise’s, Rosenthal’s work is deeply intersectional. The judges of this award all noted Rosenthal’s focus on the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the 19th century Pacific World. One judge wrote “What I found exciting about this project is the way Rosenthal frames his study of an overlooked piece of working-class culture and history so clearly through an analysis of how class, race, and gender shape and are shaped by work, capitalism, and global interactions. I appreciate, too, Rosenthal’s attention to the classed, raced, and gendered bodies of workers and to representations.” Another judge wrote, “Without ever using the word ‘intersectionality,’ this dissertation deftly shows how class, gender, race, ethnicity and basic power relations were intimately fused yet distinct amid the economic forces of the 19th century Pacific World.” Rosenthal completed his Ph.D. at SUNY Stony Brook and is now Assistant Professor of Public History at Roanoke College.

I invite you to track down and check out these texts; you won’t be sorry for doing so. In an election year here in the U.S., it seems as though everyone has re-discovered the working class, but what these works show is that many of us have been thinking about the lives and experiences of working-class people for some time now, in ways that are complex, nuanced, intersectional, and that make connections across academic disciplines.

Christie Launius, Past President, Working-Class Studies Association, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Working-Class Academics and Working-Class Studies: Still Far from Home?

Academe is a privileged place.  It was designed to serve and continues to be dominated by people from educated, well-off backgrounds.  Its hierarchical rituals and values define the university as separate from and more “refined” than the so-called “real world.” In higher education, people either have or are assumed to desire both the cultural capital and  the professional style of the elite.  Because of this, higher education is not generally welcoming to scholars from the working class, much less to those who view class inequities critically.  Yet as the writers of a series of essays and books published over the past 30 years remind us, working-class academics are not only part of higher education, they also have important contributions to make. Their critiques of higher education helped inspire Working-Class Studies as a field, expanded scholarly understanding of social structures and identities across the disciplines, and shaped pedagogical and support strategies to help working-class students succeed.

My education in working-class life and culture started with conversations with colleagues from working-class backgrounds, and they pointed me to This Fine Place So Far From Home, the 1995 anthology edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law. The essays in the book, together with teaching mostly working-class students, helped me see how academic theories of class played out in very human and personal terms for my friends and colleagues from working-class backgrounds.  They also made me more conscious – at times uncomfortable and at times just aware – of how my upper middle-class family had shaped me.  I knew that my life experience was not as “normal” as American culture pretended it was, but to move from knowing that one is privileged to understanding the perspective of those who are not requires education. I have always been grateful for these books, as I am for the colleagues who shared their stories, for the windows they opened for me.

When I first read this and other early books about working-class academics, including Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, and Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, by Michelle Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay, I assumed that they reflected conditions that were already changing. Foolishly, I thought that things would get better as more working-class people entered the academy.  Worse, I believed that the work many of us were doing in writing, teaching, and advocating about class inequities and cultures would, over time, alleviate if not resolve the tensions many working-class people find in academic life.  I’ve always had Pollyanna tendencies, but my expectation that my profession would become more attentive to and accepting of class differences reflects not only optimism but the limits of my own thinking. Years later, I understand the persistence and embeddedness of both class and classism.

Still, I have to admit that I was surprised, and initially dismayed, to encounter two recent collections of essays by working-class academics – Allison L. Hurst and Sandi Kawecka Nenga’s Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work and “Working-Class Academics: Theories, Mythologies, Realities,” an issue of the online journal Rhizomes, edited by Carol Siegel.  I knew that the problems articulated in earlier collections had not been resolved, and I recognized – in fact, I have made the argument myself many times – that the class in which we grow up shapes people’s perspectives even when material and social positions change.  Nonetheless, my first response when I heard about the latest projects was some impatience.  Haven’t we had this conversation, I thought?

I was especially troubled that few of the contributors to these collections seemed to know or acknowledge that Working-Class Studies existed.  Like the working-class academics and scholars of working-class culture who came to some of the first Working-Class Studies conferences more than 20 years ago, some of the contributors to these volumes seem to feel like orphans, laboring alone on a topic no one else has studied.  One wrote that she knew of no body of research on the lived experience of social class. Reading that breaks my heart a bit, both because I had hoped that younger scholars would no longer feel so isolated and because it suggests that the work many of us have produced over the past couple of decades is either invisible or not valued.

While these new volumes raise questions about the impact of Working-Class Studies, they also suggest three important insights for the field.  First, sadly, even after decades of discussion, higher education remains divided along class lines, and academics from the working class still feel alienated and frustrated.  Indeed, changes in higher education have made the problems worse, as too many working-class academics find themselves caught in part-time or short-term teaching jobs, unable to break through the class barriers that seem to preserve most tenure-line jobs for people from professional class backgrounds.  We also see the class hierarchies of higher education in the struggle of state universities to survive continuing budget cuts and attacks on tenure, even as elite private schools compete to see who can raise tuition the most while keeping acceptance rates the lowest.  Far from being resolved, class divisions in higher education have gotten worse, despite the more visible presence of academics from the working class and efforts to increase and deepen attention to class in both the curriculum and research.

Second, while the new volumes largely ignore the research that has emerged out of Working-Class Studies, their work at once fits well within the ethos and practices of the field and, even more important, they make a significant contribution to it. As in earlier projects, the essays in both Working in Class and the Rhizomes volume often begin with or center on personal narratives, a move that, as I have written before, seems to be a signature intellectual approach for this field.  But like much of the best writing in Working-Class Studies these days, these pieces use experience not as an end in itself but to frame analyses of the social structures, psychological tensions, and discursive complexities of class in higher education. In their deftness in linking theories of class and representation with the lived experience of working-class people, these scholars model a rich and complex approach to the study of class.  A number of the contributors to Hurst and Nenga’s book will be part of a roundtable discussing the book at next week’s How Class Works conference, and I look forward to the dialogue.   I also hope they will feel at home in the field (as a few already do, I think), because we will all benefit.

Finally, these projects remind us of the key challenge that Working-Class Studies faces as a field: our continuing invisibility.  Despite more than 20 years of organizing and publishing, we have never gained the institutional presence of Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Queer Studies, or Critical Race Studies (fields that, it must be said, also struggle for attention, resources, and stability). Working-Class Studies may have faced bigger hurdles than these other efforts, because we do not have an active social movement to help spur institutions to support our work.  But we have also not done enough organizing ourselves. To my knowledge, only one new program has been created in the past five years, the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College. If we want the next generation of working-class academics to feel less vulnerable and isolated, if we want them to recognize ongoing critical discussions about class and to connect with a larger movement of people who share their interests, we need to do better. I don’t have a strategy for doing that, to be honest, but perhaps we can begin by talking seriously with newcomers, like many of the contributors to these new volumes, about how we can all make more significant connections across disciplines and generations.

Sherry Linkon



Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon | Tagged , , | 6 Comments