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

Protestors in Cedar Falls, photo by Christopher Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher R. Martin

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

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Working-Class Pride: Promise or Peril?

Pride in something seems to be a good thing to have. But pride can lead to prejudice. And it can also lead to displacement and erasure. For many, President Trump’s promise on Inauguration Day, that From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,”  feels like an evocation of national pride. Yet as we have seen, when pride asserts the interests of one group above all others, then bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) closely follows.   But should deformations of pride in one place be a reason not to endorse it elsewhere? Or is it always better left in a lockbox? Working-class pride, which may involve pride in one’s work, family, and community, seems unassailable. But what about when that pride makes it “acceptable” to exclude others and celebrate insularity?

How to navigate these two ways of thinking about working-class pride is an urgent political problem and a theological puzzle. We cannot separate them, because the dominant mode of interweaving political and religious claims about the good life in the United States, and elsewhere, has taken a toxic turn. Untamed pride is a threat to any community and wounded pride is a threat to the individual. And wounded pride is too often turned against others.

Pride has a long criminal record in some theological circles. As the Book of Proverbs emphasizes, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble” (Prov. 11:2). Many theologians view pride as the “original sin” —  the source of all the other sins and thus the deadliest one of all. In one widely accepted interpretation of Isaiah 14, the once mighty angel, Lucifer, was the first to rebel against God by boasting that “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God” (Is. 14:13). It was just a matter of time before Lucifer coiled up as a serpent to have a friendly chat by the cooler with Adam and Eve.

Gustave Dore’s “Adam and Even Driven Out of Eden,” 1865

As shop floors go, the Garden of Eden had amenities. A river ran through it, all kinds of trees grew there, and the canteen had good fruit. There were not many work rules except one – don’t eat from the boss’s lunch pail. Yet His food was tempting, and it was such good brain food. Eat this and you could become like the boss. You would understand management, what to do and what not to do. But eating the fruit from the forbidden tree was not good for the working class. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden and on the way out, God intoned, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 17b-19).

Work as a curse, work transformed into toil, toil as a punishment for sin – all of these myths have cast a long shadow on Western ideas about the workplace. The closer one is to the thorns and thistles of daily labor, the nearer one seems to be to the curse that produced pain and sweat and ultimately death. If pride led to these working conditions, then it is hard to take pride in such work. To be sure, theologians have tried to recuperate this dire image of the workplace by claiming that even in post-Fall conditions, we are made in the image of God and still partake in the co-creative and redeeming aspects of daily work. Yet, the workplace remains, eternally it seems, a place of hierarchy, where some have significantly more  power, pay, and prestige than others.

Recent history has made the challenges of working-class pride even worse. Since the early 1970s, the United States has undergone a sustained and seemingly unrelenting resurgence of capital formation and accumulation. All that was solid has melted into air, or so it seems to those in the white working class who relied on once solid jobs to sustain their families and their communities. In a raging sea, much like the prophet Jonah who called out to God only to be swallowed by a huge fish, people look for security. New gods have arisen to address the rusting away of work. Some identify with the whale of neoliberal Mammon and others with the big fish swimming in the Christian Right (that huge current traceable to the fundamentalist Moral Majority from 1979). Some choose both gods – safety in numbers.

When times get tough, the past gets better. Reagan’s classic television ad in the 1984 campaign, “It’s morning again in America,”  and the current mantra to “Make America Great Again” both appeal to a golden past that, if regained, would restore the losses and redress the grievances of a people yearning for renewal. The Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, many of them union members, and now the white working-class supporters of the current administration, seek that older and better era.

What is left after two generations of the ascendancy of the neoliberal economic formation and the Christian Right? White working-class pride rooted in hopes of upward mobility is a chimera, and self-valuation rooted in racism and xenophobia is a monster. For the evangelical working class, a right-leaning theological framework that views poor workplace conditions as a result of human sin appears to correctly characterize the world of work but offers little hope. Stubborn pride in one’s work, never easy at any time, might be an option if one had work or a consistent source of income. These days, working-class pride, has few stable or acceptable sources.

Institutional bases for working-class pride, such as labor unions, have suffered continuous decline. Erosion of control over production and decreased shop floor self-advocacy have become facts of work life. When pride in being working class loses its institutional base and its material foundation in the workplace, members of the working class seek affirmation elsewhere. Instead of working collectively to remake the world, workers are now more likely to focus on trying to escape the working class. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the proliferation of low-paying non-union jobs in the service industries and food production, and the casualization of all that exists offer few opportunities for working-class pride to arise from the solidarity that a community in struggle can promote. Such pride cannot be invoked out of thin air by simply hoping or wishing for it. Instead, it is what can happen when working-class people join together — within unions or in other ways — to take on the conditions of their own lives and work to transform them.

Ken Estey

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This is Your Daughter’s Labor Movement

Teachers protesting in Kentucky, photo from CNN

If there is going to be a revival of the U.S. labor movement, it’s likely that women are going to lead it. Women activists, especially young women of color, are doing much more than resuscitating traditional unions; they’re pushing boundaries that have long constrained labor, and are re-envisioning what workers’ organizations can be and do.  We used to say “this not your father’s labor movement.”  Increasingly, this IS your daughter’s labor movement, or even your granddaughter’s.

Already this year, a tsunami of red-shirted, striking teachers – – mostly female – – swelled the main thoroughfares of some of America’s reddest states, walking out despite the fact that public sector strikes are illegal in many of their states. Then 29,000 nurses in the University of California (UC) hospitals created the largest mass labor stoppage in years in their sympathy strike with 25,000 striking UC workers. Meanwhile, hotel housekeepers, waitresses and female farmworkers continue to boldly claim their place in the #metoo movement, ensuring that working-class women are front and center one of in the most potent workplace-based social movements in recent memory.

Women are on track to be the majority of union members in 2025. That’s a big shift, but it’s only part of the story of why women are poised to lead labor. In fact, women now hold the kinds of jobs that are at the epicenter of the nation’s economy.  In the mid-twentieth century, one in three jobs was in male-dominated manufacturing and agriculture; today these sectors account for only one in eight.  Meanwhile, a full half of our nation’s jobs are in the woman-dominated service sector.

Women are also key to the “gig economy,” a term that falsely conjures up images of men driving Ubers. A recent Harvard study found that women are now the majority of workers in “alternative work arrangements” which includes temps, freelancers, and independent contractors. Some experts argue that a new government report undercounts contingent workers, but even that survey shows that a third of gig workers are employed in education and health services, both of which are female-centric — think adjunct professors, half of whom are women.

Yet women are doing more than holding a large share of the future jobs; they are expanding the range of the workers’ movement’s demands and raising expectations about our nation’s basic social compact.  Current times demand it, because the old social compact is quickly shredding. In the mid-20th century, government-backed collective bargaining not only leavened individual workers’ paychecks – – it undergirded the entire country’s employer-centered social welfare state.  Following World War II, the U.S. chose not to provide universal health care and robust pensions, but instead turned to employers. But it never required employers to provide these social goods. Instead, unions negotiated for much of citizens’ social welfare, through legally backed collective bargaining, and many companies without unions followed the lead of unionized industrial giants.  Unions and collective bargaining thus came to play a key role in citizens’ basic social safety net.

Yet this system was never inclusive. Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, women and people of color didn’t have full access to this employer-based system because they were excluded from the kinds of jobs that were most likely to be touched by collective bargaining — and from some unions. Not only that, women have long remained the most likely to be outside this system because they were the most likely to do our nation’s unpaid work, as mothers and caregivers.

Today, unions and collective bargaining can’t improve social welfare in the way they once did – – too few people can enter into the system. Weak labor law doesn’t support workers’ efforts to form unions, and too few people are even eligible for collective bargaining because they are contractors or contingent workers, job categories uncovered in labor law. Today’s challenge for working people and their organizations is to forge a new, twenty-first-century grand bargain that leverages government support in novel ways to build workers’ social protections, perhaps unhitched from the employment relationship. What’s exciting is that we have the opportunity remake the social compact in a way that serves what feminist social philosopher Nancy Fraser calls “emancipatory ends,” meaning that issues of gender and racial equity can be at its core in a way that they weren’t in the twentieth century.

And it’s already happening. The women-led Jobs with Justice and National Domestic Workers Alliance, for example, are part of the Maine People’s Alliance’s Homecare for All campaign that would create an entirely fresh social welfare benefit. They have gathered the 67,000 signatures required for a November, 2018 ballot initiative that would initiate a new universal in-home care subsidy for Maine seniors and those with disabilities, paid for by a tax on those wealthy citizens’ earnings that are exempt from the Social Security tax.  So not only would this universal benefit free up caregivers, largely women, to remain in the job market, but it also includes higher wages and greater professionalization for the mostly female home health aides who replace them.

Or consider the red-shirted teachers; they didn’t just demand higher wages and benefits.  They demanded more money for students and an end to the right-wing gutting of our schools.  Such calls for more classroom funding aren’t entirely new, points out Jon Shelton, author of Teacher Strike!, which chronicles teachers’ 1970s uprisings. What is unprecedented today, he asserts, is both teachers’ commitment to these demands and the public’s outraged support. Teachers, in fact, have been central to forging “bargaining for the common good,” one of the labor movement’s most forward-thinking innovations.  Bargaining for the common good redefines collective bargaining not as zero sum contest between employer and employees, but instead as a social and economic platform that engages in larger community issues, like class sizes, racial profiling in schools, or municipal debt and spending.

Women’s activism will be especially important if the labor movement must forge a new path in the wake of a negative decision in the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case. This decision could strip public sector unions of the right to require fees in exchange for representing workers, thus eroding public sector unions’ funding base.  A majority of the nation’s public sector workers – – 55 percent – – are women. If unions are to continue as an anchor for the nation’s progressive movement then women like those red-shirted teachers will need to be on the front lines of redefining union membership and renewing connections with members in the decision’s wake.

Women are testing the ground for a new workers’ movement that both rethinks how workers exercise their power and expands the limits for the changes they can win.  Look up from the Trump headlines, look around, and you can hardly miss that they’re already showing the way.

Lane Windham

Lane Windham is author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.  She is the Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership.)  

 

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Relocating the Dream: Working-Class Housing as History and Spectacle

This week marks the beginning of the Venice Biennale – an internationally-acclaimed series of events and exhibitions showcasing the arts and architecture. However this year, one exhibition in particular has been met with a wave of campaigning and protest in Venice and London against gentrification and the social cleansing of the urban environment, its communities and cultures.

Towards the end of 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced that it had acquired a three-storey section of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in East London, currently mid-demolition. The Biennale will be the first time this acquisition is put on display. Completed in 1972, the working-class housing project was a statement piece of British Brutalist modernism by architects Alison and Peter Smithson – raw concrete blocks, 213 homes connected by elevated ‘street in the sky’ walkways. Robin Hood Gardens reflected a 1960s design that projected an ideal of social life and community through new modern structures and ways of living for all, built on the war-ruined spaces of the old. It addressed the need for homes, but it also embodied a vision of social housing, of socialism and, in the words of Owen Hatherley, a ‘fortress-like’ structure for the protection of that dream.

However, like many other post-war housing estates in the UK, Robin Hood Gardens fell into decline. By the 1980s, housing policy and planning was subject to new political imperatives. A lack of continued investment in social housing and the ‘right-to-buy’ movement under Thatcher provided the logistical challenge, while reinforcing an ideological one: the death of the dream of municipal modernism itself. In this vein, its current demolition seems only to highlight the impossibility of the renovation of any part of the site or the vision. Despite numerous heritage organisations and campaigners’ attempts to list the building as an historic monument, the once future-of-living for the working class has been deemed an ‘unliveable’ structure. It is an example of the demolition of the 20th century modern more broadly – including of forms of work, community, and living – that can be seen across the UK as well as in North America and the former Soviet Union.

The preservation of working-class heritage has long been a rallying point of struggle but also a matter of contention. Heritage is a way of celebrating, maintaining, and rescuing landscapes, objects, community cohesion, and ways of life threatened by social, economic, and cultural change. For some, preserving the practices, ideas, and ideals of working-class communities provides an opportunity to halt the process of class-cultural erasure. Others see heritage as the last gasp of a culture now all but gone. To paraphrase the Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, even the best intentioned museums and heritage centres are filled with the objects and stories to which fewer and fewer people have a ‘vital’ relationship. When something becomes heritage, it gains permanence but becomes less present, its appeal derived from absence and loss as much as continuity. Rather than help working-class communities to survive detrimental change, heritage can draw a definitive line dividing the past from the present.

Housing has rapidly climbed up the political agenda in the UK recently, becoming a crucial concern for working- and, increasingly, middle-class people. Housebuilding generally, and social housing construction in particular, has failed to meet growing demand. An inflated market, stagnant wages, and a ‘buy-to-let’ boom over recent decades have put home ownership beyond the reach of many, if not most.

Yet even as prospects for affordable housing and economic stability look bleak, people have begun to look to models from the past in order to imagine a better future. A continued interest in and admiration for municipal housing and its dream, including Brutalist architecture specifically, have found a collective and public face. Popular social media accounts such as This Brutal House, blogs like Municipal Dreams, or films such as New Town Utopia are exploring the UK’s relationship to this architectural and political vision. Instead of romantic recollection, these examples suggest a radically nostalgic rediscovery of a time when progressive ideas of exciting and high quality living for all were part of housing policy. Audiences are drawn by an interest in architectural innovation, political beliefs, and the attempt to configure new alternatives.

The V&A’s acquisition of part of Robin Hood Gardens, complete with both architectural facade and internal living space, reflects its recognition of a vital political and architectural moment, which, the museum has declared, should be preserved for ‘future generations’. Preserving the site also acknowledges the toll that a decline in social housing as an ideal and practice has taken on incomes and life trajectories. (These are perhaps generous readings given that the museum’s current director is the picket-crossing former shadow minister for education Tristram Hunt, who quit his role as a Labour Party MP following the party’s shift to the left).

However, if the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens suggests the inevitable failure of a dream, preserving part of the building in a museum does nothing to dispel or counteract that idea. A curatorial vision of the place of the estate within an art and design history framework displaces, re-forms, and distorts the experiences of those who lived in Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the desires and concerns of those who designed and supported the development. Preserving the site recognizes its significance for working-class people and communities and highlights the plight of social housing today. But turning the structure into an exhibit also defines not just the building but its ideals as history, in which working-class experience is acceptable because it is of the past. This in turn ignores the people whose lives have been displaced in this process. Those protesting the exhibit are standing up against such erasure and proclaiming the future of a dream.

David Nettleingham

David Nettleingham is a Lecturer in Cultural Sociology at the University of Kent, UK. His research explores the roles of memory and narrative in processes of social and political change.

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Class at the Forefront: 2018 Working-Class Studies Association Awards

Since the 2016 election, the working class has been repeatedly blamed in the news for electing Trump, though as many have argued, the issue of class is a far more complicated and often misunderstood category that defies such summary scapegoating.  But instead of ignoring the nuances that inherently define working-class experiences, scholars, journalists, activists, creative writers, and artists in the field of working-class studies have critically examined the subject of class and working-class life, placing it at the forefront of their work.  As past-president and this year’s chair of the Working-Class Studies Association’s Awards Committee, I had the pleasure of assembling works published in 2017 for our five awards.  More than a dozen scholars from nine disciplines reviewed the nearly 70 nominations. On behalf of the WCSA, I wish to extend our deep appreciation to these judges for their time and especially for their thoughtful responses.

The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism brought to light many issues that remain obscured from mainstream news: how contract-for-deed sales impact Chicago’s communities of color, the activism of Oakland longshore workers to combat Trump’s anti-labor agenda, the deceptive practices of guest-worker programs in recruiting foreign students majoring in STEM-master degree programs in the U.S., as well as  personal narratives detailing the demands placed on drivers in a rapidly-changing trucking industry and what it is like growing up as an Arab-American woman in the Rust Belt. In reports on a wide range of workers, from the Carrier furnace plant workers in Indianapolis to the housekeepers working at Harvard University, journalists have documented the ways in which working-class people remain exploited by exploring the intersections among race, gender, region, and class.  Judges agreed that Lizzie Presser’s “Below Deck,” published in The California Sunday Magazine, is a powerful example of investigative journalism detailing the exploitation of Filipino laborers on U.S.-based cruise lines like Carnival, exposing how “labor has been reconfigured and re-racialized in our contemporary global economy.”  One judge wrote, Presser’s piece is a real feat of gorgeous writing combined with painstaking research, and sheds light on the dark side of an entire industry. I was especially impressed by the thoroughness of the reporting, as it was clear that she put in significant time in the Philippines searching out current and former workers, and her ability to sift through what must have been mountains of legal documents, complaints, etc., to emerge with an engaging narrative about a single man that includes so much more.”

This year’s nominations for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences reveal the breadth of our interdisciplinary field with books exploring oral health and social mobility, the resurgence of craft and trade work in today’s post-industrial labor market, the privatization of retirement pensions, U.S. working-class women’s writing in the antebellum period, migrant farmworkers’ work conditions, and how  race and masculinity shaped the early labor history of Cubans in New York. From trade unions and working-class inequality in Palestine during the 1920s and the evolving cultural history of coal mining in Yorkshire to chicken processing plants in North Carolina and the ongoing working-class movement in Turkey, these studies span the globe, bringing the fight for worker justice and equality sharply into focus. Scott Henkel won for his book, Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas, an examination of labor and racial resistance emerging out of the Haitian Revolution through the long nineteenth century. In their comments, judges praised Henkel for “outlining a new approach to the role and potential of collective action and the concept of power to analyze a variety of intersecting class struggles that have traditionally been viewed within distinct racial and gender boundaries,” adding “his interdisciplinary approach combines literary and historical analysis in a way that brings alive the complexity and interconnectedness of a variety of struggles for basic human rights.”  David Roediger’s Class, Race, and Marxism, a collection of recent and new essays, also won in this category.  One judge wrote, “Roediger has spent a lifetime addressing the complexities between the constructs of class and race, and this book is a culmination of what he has discovered over those many years. The introductory essay, ‘Thinking Through Race and Class in Hard Times,’ should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the era of Trumpian politics. Roediger has a writing style that draws one in, even when talking about difficult subjects. This is an important book, with lessons that some may wish to ignore, but at their peril.”

 

The John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences also covered a wide range of material, including the lives of working-class academics, Puerto Rican farm labor migration, the role of Italian radicals in the Mexican Revolution of 1911, and gentrification to name a few. This year’s award goes to Liza Sapir Flood for her essay, “Instrument in Tow: Bringing Musical Skills to the Field” published in Ethnomusicology.  Flood explores “ethnographic methodology in the context of a working-class amateur country music scene in eastern Tennessee.”  As one judge noted, “she fruitfully explores the intersections of class and gender and brings them together in the theoretical framework she uses to analyze her experiences in the field.”  Another offered this praise: “Flood’s essay is an elegant and surprising analysis of a specific ethnographic situation, the nature of ethnography, and the assumptions researchers bring with them to the field. At the essay’s start, a reader is led to expect a study that is relatively traditional in its methodology, but by the essay’s end, Flood has delivered insights about the project’s case study, about the role of a scholar, and about the ends of scholarship itself.”

The winner of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing is David Joy, for his novel, The Weight of This World.  Set in rural Appalachia, the book, as one judge describes it, takes “a raw look at the lives people live when left with very little kindness or opportunity, and few options. It’s a powerful, pointed narrative that’s hard to read, but harder to turn away from.”  Another commented, “The Weight of This World is a testimony to the power of love, friendship, and many hungers leftover from childhood.  Pain bubbles up and spills, entering our senses, not like ash, but like a terrible ache in the jaw-dropping world of these troubled characters.  A master storyteller, David Joy’s on-the-fringe people become visible, so alive their deeds impale themselves into our hearts long after the final page.  It’s a world we’d rather not see, ledgers about settling scores and carrying secrets. It’s a compelling narrative driven by whispers and screams that show our deepest wounds in a night where no mother comes.”

Two awards were given for this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation for their significant contribution in advancing future directions in working-class studies.  The first goes to Steffan Blayney for “Health & Efficiency: Fatigue, the Science of Work and the Working Body in Britain, c. 1870-1939.”  One judge concluded, “Blayney has written a history of a commercial science and professionals’ contribution to managing the worker as a body to be fragmented, controlled, and so optimized for the extraction of surplus value. . . .  this dissertation topic, in its capable, de rigeur execution, suggested exciting paths forward for scholarship.” Simon Lee’s “Working-Class Heroics: The Intersection of Class and Space in British Post-War Writing,” the second winner in this category,  elicited the following praise: “In surveying British working-class ‘Kitchen sink’ literature, Lee finds that post-war British writing expresses a contingency of being in opposition to pre-war working-class solidarity. Paying contemporary theoretical respects to the structuring agency of the manufactured and owned material world, Lee submits a classic contribution to the great Atlantic tradition celebrating the restoration of a universalist cosmopolitan cultural viewpoint, highlighting the freedom and humanity in cultural distinctions.”  

Congratulations to all the awardees and also to those whose work was nominated.  Together, they show how the multi-dimensional and complex field of working-class studies is not simply about the white working class in the U.S., but inclusive of the varied experiences of working-class life and culture both past and present.  Working-class studies draws strength from its intersectional, interdisciplinary, and international focus, and these works explicitly give voice to the working class in ways that are difficult to ignore. As the WCSA prepares to honor these awardees at its annual conference in June, I encourage you to consider adding these titles to your summer reading list.  

Michele Fazio

Michele Fazio is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and is currently co-editing, with Christie Launius and Tim Strangleman, the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies.  Her research centers on the intersections among ethnicity, gender, and class with a particular focus on Italian American labor radicalism.

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The Future of Working-Class Studies

In 2005, John Russo and Sherry Linkon published their edited collection New Working-Class Studies, drawing together a rich array of writers across a range of disciplines. This was by no means the first book that addressed working-class life and culture, but it set down a marker for a field that has developed much further since then by way of the Working-Class Studies Association, its annual conference and journal, this blog, and  many more developments large and small in this vibrant field. Having watched the field grow over the past two decades, we thought it was time to reflect on what has been achieved and which areas might still need to be addressed.  The result is the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, forthcoming in 2019.

We set ourselves some ambitious aims in developing the handbook.  We wanted to create a resource that could serve as a starting point for someone new to the field as well as a text for those already familiar with working-class studies who wanted to teach about class.  But we also wanted the collection to reflect on the roots of the field, its recent work, and where it is going. As editors who have grown through working-class studies over the last two decades, we are especially attuned to the generational aspects of the field and of social class more generally. We come from a middle generation, between activists and scholars who cut their collective teeth in the 1960s and 1970s, the height of the long post-war boom and Fordism, and those coming of age today, in an era marked by precarity and an ever-widening income and wealth gap.  For our generation, our scholarship and political activism are marked by a class in retreat because of job-loss and community breakdown, yet we still have strong memories of the cultures and structures of the past.

Just as our field must contend with the ways that economic change is transforming working-class life, both the working class and working-class studies must continue to engage more fully with gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and other aspects that shape who we are.  We also can’t treat the diversity within the working class as a simple check list of ideas and identities.  Rather, as many scholars and activists have already done, we need to incorporate the insights that have emerged historically from different voices that address class through intersectional, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary analysis. A recent anthology, Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class, by the Working Class edited by Nathan Connolly, illustrates how the complexity of identity intersects with economic and social changes.  The collection includes a whole range of new writers on class, who drew deep on their own very different backgrounds. The book highlights the link between the ethnic diversity of the contributors and their perspectives as working-class people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in different parts of the UK. These millennials had been formed in very different ways, challenging class positions held by previous working-class cohorts. Just as these writers bring perspectives rooted in ethnic identities to Know Your Place, we know that scholars working in race and ethnic studies and similar fields have much to contribute to the working-class studies conversation.  If our field is to succeed and thrive, we must be open to new and different perspectives, including ideas that sometimes make us uncomfortable. Such openness will foster renewal and growth for working-class studies.

We planned the last section of the Handbook of Working-Class Studies to encourage that kind of openness by challenging readers to think about future directions of the field and the working-class more generally.  While we have our own visions, we include a broad range of voices of those who are committed to promoting working-class life and culture and hope that the Handbook will stimulate further dialogue about these matters. We will jump-start the discussion at the upcoming Working-Class Studies Association’s conference in Stony Brook, where we will host a roundtable on the future of the field. If you’d like to contribute but won’t be at the conference, please send your ideas by email.  We will integrate insights from the roundtable and the emails we receive into the conclusion of the Handbook to document the field’s vitality in community engagement, activism, and scholarship internationally.

At the end of their introduction to New Working-Class Studies, Russo and Linkon wrote that  ‘Ultimately, new working-class studies is not just an academic exercise. Rather, we strive to advance the struggle for social and economic justice for working-class people.’ Nearly a decade and a half later, this is still true. Our job is to make sure we remain relevant to our people. We hope you will join the conversation.

Tim Strangleman, Michele Fazio, and Christie Launius

The authors, all past Presidents of the Working-Class Studies Association, are the co-editors of the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Tim Strangleman | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We Need a Working-Class Ranking System

Lists that rank U.S. colleges are everywhere these days.  You can find images of the “most beautiful” or “safest” campuses on Facebook.  Every major news magazine seems to have its own rankings system.  All of this started with US News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” ranking, first published in 1983 and used by generations of college-going students and their parents as the definitive guide.   Even as we are bombarded with these rankings, however, we also hear stories of their flaws.  And although colleges bemoan the distorting effects of the rankings, they willingly submit information to the major ones to be sure they’re included.  And students keep looking at them.

As a sociologist, I’ve always found these lists troubling. There are literally dozens of reasons why. You can’t really quantify the value of education, and the lists often ignore significant differences among types of institutions. Rankings reinforce a competitive urge — among both students and institutions — that is unhealthy, to say the least.  They too often reward schools with prestige. They also encourage colleges to spend money in ways that will improve their rankings but don’t always align with the core educational mission. They are sticky, too – most institutions never move very far up (or down) the lists.

As a working-class academic, however, what rankles me the most is the distorting effects these rankings have on college admissions policies.  Level of ‘selectivity’ is a key metric in U.S. News’s ranking, and this encourages schools to become more exclusive.  A school can lose its position if it is viewed as being too easy to get into.  This is why Princeton was crowing recently about its lowest acceptance rate ever (5.5%).  Similarly, some ranking systems consider average time to complete a degree, a metric that favors colleges with students who don’t have to work, take care of their kids, or worry about debt.  This emphasis on efficiency may encourage schools not to accept lower-income students, who often take longer to graduate because of these concerns. For similar reasons, residential colleges will always outrank commuter colleges.

Now this wouldn’t be quite so bad if policymakers, funders, and state governments were not beginning to use these very same rankings and the metrics they’ve developed to reward and punish colleges.  We should all worry about the impact this will have on schools that serve non-traditional students, low-income students, first-generation students, and students from the working class.  The current craze for rankings may directly impact only the handful of students attending selective colleges, but it is having severe downstream effects on all colleges, especially those struggling to fund higher education for the broader public.  This is why I argue that how we rank colleges is a working-class issue. The time for ignoring them and hoping they will go away has long passed.

We need to start, first, by collectively asking what we want our colleges to do.  Do we want to reward colleges for reproducing privilege (like the “Best Colleges” list), or do we want to reward colleges that transform students’ lives?  And, if the latter, how do we measure such a thing?

A few groups have suggested alternative rankings systems that attempt to correct for some of these distortions.  The Washington Monthly ranks colleges based on their contribution to the public good, one measure of which is how many low-income students attend and graduate.  Others are focusing more on outcomes, such as Raj Chetty, whose approach has received a lot of well-deserved attention.  Using state-level tax records, Chetty and his colleagues compared the median incomes of graduates with their parents. This let them rank colleges by how well they promoted social mobility (for example, moving into the top 10% of earners from the bottom 60%).   And when you look at these rankings, you see that the “best colleges” don’t always do a good job with this — a healthy corrective to U.S. News, which includes absolutely zero information on these issues.

While these alternatives move us in a better direction, I think we should demand a working-class friendly alternative ranking system. We can begin by asking what information working-class people who are interested in higher education need. We can also pursue a more complex scorecard system, like the one proposed by the Obama administration.

I’ve been working on a model for this. The first thing is to look at outcomes relative to where students start. A college that admits students with an average 900 SAT score and graduates them to decent jobs is more successful than a school that admits students with an average 1300 SAT score and does the same.   In my model I created a “lack of privilege” index that considers the percentage of low-income students and students from underrepresented minority groups along with selectivity and test scores. This data factored against the economic returns for each college yields a raw “score” of the impact of each college.  When I run the numbers, Harvard ends up with a score of 21, while UT-El Paso, one of the highest scorers, earns a score of a 109.

Those are raw scores.  I also think it’s important to include items of particular relevance to working-class people considering college.  For example, what percentage of a college’s graduates are unable to repay student loan debt?  And how many students end up dropping out?  When I add these factors in, I end up with an overall score.  UT-El Paso still beats out Harvard.  By a lot.

At this point I make an acknowledgment to reality in that students who are seriously considering Harvard are probably going to be considering other equally selective colleges and not the most open access colleges.  So I decided to compare colleges, and score them, only against those in their own “bands of selectivity.”  You can take a look at what three of these bands look like in included table.

It shouldn’t surprise us that our most exclusive colleges have wealthier students than the most open colleges, but that is perhaps also why their graduates earn higher incomes.  In terms of scores, though, the higher scores are found as one moves down the chart to the most open colleges, and this is because I constructed the system to measure transformational impact rather than prestige.

In my system, MIT (not Harvard) ranks very high among the most exclusive colleges; Rutgers and Texas A&M score high among average colleges; and UT-EL Paso earns its top ranking among the most open colleges.  Within each category, graduates of these four colleges do much better than would be predicted by their test scores and social backgrounds.  I won’t name the colleges here that earn failing grades, but their graduates often struggle to earn enough money to repay the cost of college.

This approach emphasizes where students start instead of just looking at how much money they earn after graduation. Given how important higher education is to the possibility of social mobility in the US today, why haven’t we developed a way to identify which colleges actually contribute to the social mobility of their students?  Perhaps we have not wanted to look too closely, preferring the rosy forecasts of the “average” college graduate.  But we owe our students, especially those who are the first in their families stepping on this path, some real guidance.

Allison L. Hurst

Allison L. Hurst is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University and the author of two books on the experiences and identity reformations of working-class college students, The Burden of Academic Success: Loyalists, Renegades, and Double Agents (2010) and College and the Working Class (2012).  She was one of the founders of the Association of Working-Class Academics, an organization composed of college faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college, for which she also served as president from 2008 to 2014.

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