Teaching Work and Learning from Working-Class Students

It was my freshman year at university, and we were just back from Easter break for the first tutorial of the summer term. The seminar leader, an older middle-class professor, went around the table asking each of us what we had done in the vacation. As I related my four weeks spent working in a big-box electrical retail store on the edge of my home town, I saw his eyes glaze over.  I was a skilled enough sociologist even then to know it was time to let the next student relate his experience.  After all work was ‘boring’, right?  By contrast, my neighbour told of travelling down Egypt’s River Nile buying antiques for his uncle’s shop back home in London. My tutor liked this story, a fascinating and exotic mix that sank my tales of the shop floor without a trace. It was an early lesson in how working-class experience is often discounted at college while that of the middle-class is privileged almost naturally.

I now teach the sociology of work, amongst other things, to students from a mix of social classes and ethnicities. Perhaps one of the few positives about so many students now having to gain paid employment to see themselves through college is that they have lots of work experience; my class is full of shop workers, builders, carers, gardeners, assorted labourers and a multitude of other occupations.  In the initial seminar, I ask students to talk about their working lives. It’s a great icebreaker, and it shows from the start that they have something valid to say about what we are studying.

The assessment for my course is a long essay about almost any aspect of work, including their own experience.  While working-class students often struggle with abstract ideas or concepts generally on their degree courses, they feel more at home with concrete examples rooted in their own lives, and that, in turn, helps them engage with the more theoretical ideas central to the sociological imagination.  Over the years, I have become braver in encouraging my students to reflect on their working lives, workmates, and customers and use this grounded knowledge as part of their essays. Not all the students who try this auto-ethnographic approach manage to pull it off, but more often than not these essays reveal something of real value.

This year I had three great examples, all from working-class women, which I know I will use as examples for future students for years to come. One of the essays reflected on working in a bar. While there was some discussion of pulling pints and replenishing stock, the student focused on the casual everyday sexism of her managers and especially the regulars she served. She offered a litany of examples of comments, wise-cracks, and leers that are part and parcel of an ordinary contemporary workplace. She described how she tried to ignore comments from men waiting to be served, the advice that she might want to ‘cheer up’ after failing to laugh at their jokes, or the older man who called her ‘daughter’ but then ogled her while she bent down to refill the ice box. Her description was shocking and chilling in equal measure. Another student described working in a women’s fashion shop.  She recounted having to face the Monday morning blues and the prospect of another week at work, traveling in on the train, being told by her boss to remember ‘that smile’, and dealing with one difficult customer after another.

I don’t want you to think that these essays were unrelentingly grim, although truth be told they often explored difficult themes. There were laugh out loud points when I had to stop reading, such as  a story about a customer asking for her goods to be put aside to wait for her boyfriend to ‘treat her’ as she had just learnt she was pregnant – and waving the pregnancy test wand in my student’s face! The essays also offered spaces of hope and humanity, such as an essay by a student working as a care assistant at a residential home for seniors. Her story about accompanying her client to the emergency room after a fall was a moving reflection on the stress of having to deal with an adult with dementia while waiting for four hours to be seen by a doctor, only to be looked down on by the medical staff because she was just a ‘carer’ and not a medical ‘professional’. The student felt humiliated by this classed interaction, but she was proud that she had coped with a difficult client for hours with only her wits to help her, especially when the medics reached straight for the chemical cosh to sedate the client – whom they saw as a problem –as quickly as possible.

These personal accounts offer real insight into the contemporary world of work – the petty insults, the repetition and boredom, and the way people simply get themselves through each work day. But these insights also allow us to understand how workers humanise their workplace experience and find meaning, identity, and humour in the most unlikely of settings. These essays reveal both the hidden injuries and rewards of class as well as the complex nature of working-class identity that entwines sham, dignity, and pride.

These essays have also taught me that working-class students’ academic writing comes alive when they are encouraged to explore complex issues through their own experience. They demonstrate that complex abstract ideas can be beautifully illuminated through first-hand accounts and that students who ordinarily struggle with ‘Theory’ can apply it perfectly well when they are given licence to draw on it as they interrogate their own world. I feel proud to have in some way enabled my students to find their voices on my course. Their essays are all their own work, but they can only do this kind of writing if faculty are prepared to listen and value what they have to say. As teachers, we can do more than act as passive if empathetic sounding boards.  We can – and we should — challenge, provoke, and push our students to reflect on their lives in a rounded and critical way. We need to make sure that class matters in what we teach but also in how we teach.  We need to think about how our pedagogic practice enables students to combine raw experience with more abstract concepts to make better sense of their world.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Justice for Hillsborough: Working-Class Solidarity Prevails

“When you walk through a storm,
Hold your head up high.
And don’t be afraid, of the dark,
At the end of the storm.
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark…”

‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, a show tune from the 1945 Roger and Hammerstein musical Carousel, rung out from the steps of an English courtroom on April 26th, 2016, as justice campaigners celebrated a 27 year fight to clear the names of the people killed in one of the worst stadium disasters in British football history. The tune was adopted by supporters of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s as a pre-match rallying song but gained increased emotional significance following the disaster in the match involving Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. A crush on the terraces in the opening minutes of the 1989 English Football Association Cup semi-final resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans and left hundreds injured. At the time, after 10 years of sustained attacks on working-class communities, which Margaret Thatcher’s government described as ‘the enemy within’, compassion for the victims and the search for the truth were of little concern. To appreciate last week’s ruling, we should consider the grassroots campaign by the bereaved and their supporters that forced this process.

At the match on April 15th, 1989, Liverpool supporters were put into ‘pens’ in the stadium, with fences at the front to prevent any possible attempts by supporters to enter the field of play in a ‘pitch invasion’. At 2.50pm, ten minutes before the start of the match, the pens were full to capacity and a crush of people trying to get in began to develop outside the stadium. At 2.52pm, the police ordered an exit gate opened to alleviate this, and thousands more people entered the already full terraces. Six minutes after the start of the match, at 3.06pm, the police ordered that the match be stopped due to the developing crush. Minutes later the situation became a tragedy: a crush barrier collapsed, and as the crush intensified, some could not expand their chests to breathe in. They died of compression asphyxia.

What followed was one of the most extensive cover-ups and miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Minutes after the crush began, South Yorkshire Police had begun to concoct a version of events that would lay the blame fully with the supporters. Witnesses and relatives of the dead were interviewed as if they were criminals. The emerging narrative described the supporters as drunk, violent thugs who failed to comply with police orders to move back and form an orderly queue.

The coverup of the Hillsborough tragedy was part of a sustained attack on working-class communities and culture throughout the 1980s.   The local police knew that their lies would prevail, because of their role in the government’s class war on working-class communities. They had become increasingly militarised during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and they and the Thatcher government had won a number of key battles.

The war on the working class extended to football– the working person’s game. Following a 1985 stadium fire in Bradford that led to the deaths of 56 supporters, an editorial in the Sunday Times called football “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people”. Such rhetoric also appeared after Hillsborough, most infamously in another Rupert Murdoch publication, The Sun, which emblazoned its front page with the claim, from unnamed police sources, of ‘THE TRUTH: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PCs giving the kiss of life’.

The initial 1991 inquest into the disaster recognised some police failings, but it did not question the validity of police and witness statements. The inquest ruled that victims had died by accidental death, a verdict that the bereaved rejected, and many refused to collect death certificates. They argued that responsibility lay with the senior police officers on duty, whose actions amounted to criminal negligence. The British Establishment – across the political spectrum – refused to heed the calls of the bereaved to open a new inquiry. Following the election of the Labour Party in 1997, many hoped that a supposedly left leaning government would lead change direction. Instead, when the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, refused to re-open the public inquiry, the families denounced the Labour government. Following this, the bereaved families established the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to demand the reopening of the public enquiry into the disaster and to offer support to all affected. This grassroots campaign would be instrumental in securing the justice sought for the victims.

The consistent refusal of those in power to reconsider the verdict meant that the police version of events was accepted and regurgitated for almost 27 years. Outgoing London Mayor, Boris Johnson, wrote in 2004 that the city of Liverpool had a ‘victim status’ and had failed to acknowledge ‘even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans’. In 2013, Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, refused to apologise for a letter he wrote to a bereaved fan stating that Liverpool should ‘shut up”’ about Hillsborough and accept that the fans were to blame.

But the city of Liverpool refused to shut up and accept this version of events. The city remained united in their condemnation of South Yorkshire Police, the Government, and their allies in the press. Many across the city continued to boycott The Sun. The Justice campaign maintained a strong public presence.

At the 20th anniversary commemoration service in 2009, local Labour MP and Government Minister Andy Burnham was booed, heckled, and jeered whilst addressing the crowd. It became apparent that this community would not quietly go away. Following this very public shaming, Burnham became the champion of the Justice cause and demanded that confidential documents not available at the initial inquest be opened for consideration, leading to a new public inquest. It became the longest inquest in British history, lasting two years. The panel sat for 300 days and heard from nearly 1,000 witnesses. When it came to its conclusion, the campaigners and the city waited for the two answers that they had fought for 27 years to hear:

Judge: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?”

Jury: “Yes.”

Judge: “Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation?”

Jury: “No”.

Cries of hallelujah, sobbing, and celebration broke out in the courtroom. One of the most sustained cover-ups and campaigns against a working-class community by the British Establishment had ended in justice for the smeared, the dead, the bereaved, and the city of Liverpool.

The Hillsborough story demonstrates that working-class solidarity can ultimately overcome government attacks supported and repeated by the police and the media. The significance of this victory cannot be understated. This rulingprovided immediate impetus to the campaign for a public inquiry into the “Battle of Orgreave” during the Miners’ Strike, when this same police force were accused of acting as an occupying army on behalf of the government and repeatedly attacked striking miners and their families.

The British Establishment during the 1980s, and beyond, used all of its power to tarnish and destroy working-class communities across the country in a campaign of violence and intimidation. The bereaved families of the Hillsborough victims demonstrated that this can be challenged and that solidarity can lead to victory. May it be a beginning, not an end, to success in the many fights for justice in dismantling the myths and lies propagated during this time.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy. He recently spoke with BBC Scotland about the Hillsborough verdict.

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Parts and Wholes: Unpacking Reports of White Working-Class Death Rates

The white working class has been getting a lot of attention lately — not just for how they’re voting in primary elections, but also for dying at increasingly high rates.  As we might expect, a lot of this attention is classist, especially when politics and death rates are discussed together, but even thoughtful and probing commentaries too often confuse parts and wholes, leading to loose generalizations that couldn’t possibly be true.

The discussion of death rates was initiated late last year by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton who found “rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans.”  I suspect one reason their study attracted so many political commentators, including some who tried to link it to support for Trump, was because Case and Deaton define the white working class the same way political analysts do – whites with less than a bachelor’s degree.  The man-bites-dog news value of the study, however, was that it showed death rates of a large group of Americans increasing rather than decreasing. Since 1900 life expectancy at birth has risen from 47 to 79 years, nearly doubling the average American lifespan. So it was big news that the death rates of U.S. whites aged 45 to 54 had increased by 8% from 1999 to 2013.

When Case and Deaton divided this white cohort by educational attainment, however, they found that all of the increase was accounted for by increased deaths among whites with high school educations or less.   What’s more, this group of whites had substantially higher death rates than blacks or Hispanics in that age group, including much higher rates of deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, and chronic liver cirrhosis.

Mortality rates in 2013 for persons aged 45-54, organized from low to high (deaths per 100,000 population)

“Racial”/Ed. Group All-cause mortality Poisonings

(drug OD)

Intentional self-harm


Chronic liver cirrhosis
White non-Hispanic w/BA or more  









Hispanics (all races)









White non-Hispanic w/some college  









Black non-Hispanic









White non-Hispanic w/high school or less  








SOURCE: Compiled from Case & Deaton, Table 1, p. 3.

This was startling news because we are so used to seeing blacks and Hispanics at the bottom of these kinds of lists.  These “racial” minority groups consistently have much higher rates of unemployment and poverty – often double and triple white rates — and lower average incomes and much lower accumulated wealth.  Why would any group of whites be dying at higher rates than minorities, let alone killing themselves or poisoning themselves with drugs and alcohol?

Speculations about causes range from broad-based economic factors to the psychological impact of crushed expectations. A few have even suggested that folks with white-skin privilege are not as resilient in dealing with hard times as blacks and Latinos, and others have claimed that personal morality has “collapsed” in the white working class. These speculations move very carelessly from one white age cohort – those who would have graduated high school between 1977 and 1986 – to the white working-class as a whole.

A confusion of parts and wholes, however, began with Case and Deaton themselves, as we can see in the table above. Whites are by far the largest group, so it makes sense to break them into three parts by educational attainment, but that leads Case and Deaton to compare all Hispanics and all blacks with three separate segments of the white population. It could well be that blacks and/or Hispanics with only high school or less have even higher death rates than comparable whites. We can’t tell because parts are being compared to wholes.

But the reverse is just as important: comparing patterns between white and black, with no recognition of class differences, erases substantial differences in life conditions and life chances among whites. Dividing the white population by education reveals that white-skin privilege may not be all it’s cracked up to be among the largest group of American whites – those with only high school educations or less.

Janell Ross recently provided a thorough rundown of black-white disparities in The Washington Post: “On just about every measure of social or economic well-being, white Americans fare better than any other group. That’s true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That’s true of overall healthhealth insurance coverage ratesquality of health care receivedlife expectancy and infant mortality. That’s true when it comes to median household earningswealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account.” Ross’s bouquet of links, based on very solid sources, documents an appalling degree of racial injustice, especially toward blacks. But, unlike Case and Deaton, these sources all compare the entire white population with the entire black and Hispanic populations, with no internal differentiation. As with death rates, all these disparities might look very different in a five-category comparison like Case and Deaton use. I’m betting, for example, that whites with only high school educations or less have nowhere near the “typical” white family’s wealth of $131,000. Routinely differentiating the white population by educational attainment would not show that we overestimate racial injustice, but it would almost certainly show that we grossly underestimate class injustice.

Differentiating the white part of the population by three levels of educational attainment provides a somewhat surprising profile of the American population, I think, even if it downplays class differences within other racial groupings: 

“Racial” composition of U.S. population, 18 & over, in 2014, with “class” by educational attainment for non-Hispanic whites

“Racial”/ed. Group % of U.S. pop. # in millions
White non-Hispanic total        65.5 156.8
         WNH w/BA or more        21.8 52.2
         WNH w/some college        19.4 46.4
         WNH w/ high school or less        24.3 58.2
Hispanic        15.2 36.4
Black non-Hispanic        12.3 29.4
Asian          5.6 13.4
Others          1.4   3.4

SOURCE: Compiled from U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014

One surprise, I suspect, is that whites with only high school educations or less are the single largest group – nearly a quarter of all Americans 18 and older, some 58 million adults. This is not some small leftover group atypical of whiteness in the 21st century, and if they have high and increasing death rates, that’s not a “pocket of poverty” problem. Combined with much larger percentages of blacks and Hispanics with only high school educations or less, who also likely have higher death rates than what Case and Deaton report for blacks and Hispanics as a whole, they constitute more than 40% of our adult population. These are not canaries in a coal mine – they’re the miners, and the mine walls are collapsing.

It should be obvious that the entire group of whites without bachelor’s degrees, nearly 105 million people (adding those with “some college”), is too large to possibly share a single personality type, a uniform social psychology, or any one political ideology – as so many commentators are wont to assume. Why do critics insist on making judgments about working-class resilience and morality based on a handful of misunderstood facts?

Rising aggregate death rates, and especially those related to self-harm, drugs, and alcohol, are indicators of increasing stresses being experienced by a population. But only about 1/10th of one percent of whites without bachelor’s degrees are killing or poisoning themselves. They tell you nothing about how most people in that population are dealing with those stresses. Within my own extended white working-class family, a small sample to be sure, the addicted and de-moralized are a decided minority, with sometimes dramatic changes across their life stages. The vast majority, given the destabilizing challenges they’ve faced, demonstrate near-heroic levels of personal morality and resilience – and they rightly feel considerable pride in their capacity for “taking it.” If anything, their sturdy commitment to these admirable qualities may undermine their capacity for the kind of broader collective action that could change their fates – fates that could and should require a lot less resilience.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Art for whose Sake? Working-Class Life in Visual Art

A recent article on Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York focused on the huge amounts of money that contemporary art can fetch, and concluded that the monetary value of such art highlights economic inequality and demonstrates that art is a product of capitalism. Members of the public who enjoy visiting galleries displaying these over-priced products are therefore condoning economic inequality caused by capitalism, because their patronage supports the super-wealthy who purchase art as investments.

It’s true that art can fetch ridiculous prices and is treated as a commodity by dealers and some purchasers. And it does seem contradictory that art intended as a critique of society (and of the art world in some cases) could end up as a valuable asset in the vault of a billionaire collector. Regardless of the economic value of art in a capitalist system, people attend galleries and art exhibitions because they find something moving, beautiful, challenging, and thought provoking in the works displayed.

Looking around art galleries today in metropolitan cities, it seems clear though that the majority of visitors are middle/upper-class (excluding the school children who visit the galleries on excursions and some tourists). When I was a child we often visited art galleries in London. This wasn’t typical of working-class families in my neighbourhood, but because they were free, it was a cheap day out. I continued this habit after I finished high school and started a retail job in central London. I would often sit by myself in the National Gallery in front of a favourite painting. I loved art, but as a working-class high school student, I had been told that a career as an artist was unrealistic. Despite this advice, I took art at high school and learnt all I could about art history. I could wander the galleries and feel pleased with myself because I knew the artists and what their works were about. I enjoyed all sorts of art from different eras and genres.

But there was also something missing. Very rarely did I come across a work that represented me, or the people I knew. It didn’t bother me so much when it came to abstract art, because as far as I was concerned, this was about feeling or about a sensory experience. Figurative art was another story. There were the classic paintings and sculptures of rich and important people, still life scenes of opulent objects and interiors, and contemporary figurative art that showed people I didn’t know in fancy looking homes or lounging about doing nothing and looking mysterious (sometimes in the nude).

The art displayed in museums, whether classic and contemporary, rarely features working-class people. When it does, the images can be problematic, such as the European paintings of noble peasants epitomised in works such as Jean-François Millet’s nineteenth century painting Gleaners, which depicts working-class women picking up the leftovers from a harvest in rural France. The painting represents work, but the women are anonymous, and viewer can’t see their faces, so we don’t know how they might be feeling. Australian artist Tom Roberts also painted scenes that romanticized rural workers, such as sheep shearers.

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

British artist L.S. Lowry painted urban landscapes that included scenes of workers at the factory gates, but the workers are treated the same as the other aspects of the landscape. There is no sense from the paintings that Lowry was interested in the actual lives and experiences of the working-class people in his work.

Where is the contemporary art that offers working-class self-representation? I’m not talking about street art or activist art, which does offer interesting and power self-representation. My interest here is in the art deemed as good enough to be presented in a gallery. How many successful artists have working-class backgrounds? Working-class people may visit galleries on school visits at an early age, but could the lack of working-class self-representation in the displays make them feel that art is not for them? Does this mean that young working-class people don’t take up art because they think of the visual arts as something for the middle/upper-classes?

It may be a vicious circle – working-class people see art as not for them, and so they don’t become artists. Of course, a working-class young person who wanted to study art, as I did, also faces practical barriers.  The uncertainty of an artist’s career makes it difficult for young working-class people to take on the debt of a fine art degree. It is expensive to create art. Low-income students can’t afford paint, clay, and other materials. While it’s possible to be resourceful or to salvage materials to make art, artists also need space — a studio or the equivalent, somewhere to make a mess. It seems unlikely that a young working-class person living with their family in public housing would have access to such a space.

British artist Grayson Perry has explored how class determines taste in his work. Grayson is sensitive to how class works in relation to the reception of art, and his art is informed by his working-class background. He suggests that what we might appreciate (in terms of material possessions including art) is a result of unconscious absorption of the tastes of our families and communities. So, if ‘fine’ arts are not considered important, we will follow suit. Perry’s ideas follow from those of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who demonstrated how class is the most consistent marker of taste. Bourdieu stated that middle-upper class people acquire cultural capital, which leads to an appreciation of ‘high’ culture and art. Taste is therefore not neutral and can be used against people, for example in disparaging a working-class person’s preference for a ‘tacky’ sentimental painting over a highly theoretical abstract work.

What sorts of attitudes do working-class people have to art galleries in general? Do they worry that their taste in art might be ridiculed due to lack of the ‘proper’ knowledge? I know my working-class family and friends don’t often visit galleries because they either feel that they won’t ‘get’ the art, or they are dismissive of contemporary art that they think is ‘rubbish’ and could be made by anyone (such as some contemporary abstract or installation works). My brother-in-law was particularly amused by a photo I sent to him of an artwork by German artist Charlotte Posenenske.

1930-1985 Presented 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T12777

Square Tubes [Series D] 1967 Charlotte Posenenske

The work  (part of her 1967 Square Tubes [Series D] displayed in the Tate Modern, London), resembled the air conditioning ducts he made in his factory. The idea of an artist having work considered ‘high art’ that was based on what he did for a trade confirmed his negative attitudes towards contemporary art.

More work needs to be done to look at the ways in which working-class life is represented in visual arts and to consider why such examples might only rarely find themselves in galleries. Art is something that all humans seem to enjoy, but working-class people are often excluded from the production of art and from the pleasures to be gained from viewing.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, Australia

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From Paula Jones to Trailer Parks: Journalists’ Class Blind Spots


In 1996, James Carville was asked what he thought about Paula Jones’s claims of being sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. He said, “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” The liberal press didn’t respond much to Carville’s comment, but conservative pundits like George Will rallied to defend Jones, arguing that such remarks reflected the underlying disrespect and elitism that many Democrats and especially the liberal media have for the working class.

Twenty years later, after five election cycles, campaign reporters and editors still disparage the working class. For example, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) suggested that organizers of the Republican convention could house Sarah Palin’s “whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula,” a largely working-class community in northeast Ohio. This incensed Pulitzer Prize winner and former Plain Dealer reporter, Connie Schultz, who wrote, “I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’ These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means. Every group has its ‘other.’ For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Clearly, journalists have been having difficulty understanding the politics of resentment that has fueled the Trump and Sanders campaigns, but they also don’t recognize that middle-class voters share in those resentments. As Jack Metzgar has documented, the working class is underrepresented among Trump supporters. But listening to the media you would think that Trump’s support was coming almost entirely from an ignorant and biased working class.

Thomas Frank chides journalists for helping to foster a version of liberalism that serves the interests of the wealthy. In his new book, Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People, he argues that the media ignored the economic damages liberal policies inflicted on the working and middle classes.. Instead, he writes, they offered “an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians and the lamentable surplus of ‘affordable housing.’”

Why is it so hard for the media to understand and respect the working class? Brent Cunningham, former editor of Columbia Journalism Review, explains that many reporters have blind spots that make it difficult for them to see anything that undermines the myths of neoliberal economics, individual responsibility, modernity and progress. These attitudes reflect journalists’ own class positionality, Cunningham suggests. For much of the twentieth century, many journalists grew up in working-class neighborhoods and regularly spent time with working-class people. Marilyn Geewax, business editor at NPR, grew-up in working-class Youngstown. She fondly remembers how, when she was a reporter at the Beacon Journal in Akron years ago, the reporters would go out after work and drink “boilermakers” with the typesetters and printers and discuss all aspects of life. As Cunningham says, this connection produced “a strain of journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class.” Today, reporters are more likely to come from middle-class backgrounds, have professional training, and spend most of their time with other educated, professional people. They misrepresent the working class because they don’t know them, spend time with them, or build relationships with them.

To be fair, some journalists recognize their blind spots and want to cover the working class well. When I was asked to speak about the reporting on the working class to the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001, I started by asking why the conveners were interested in class. They said that their editors were angry that they had missed the story of the unrest behind the “Battle in Seattle.” Instead of writing about class perceptions and conflicts, they had presented the protests as “street theater.” When I asked why they found it difficult to write about working class, their answers ranged from basic ignorance to willful self-censorship associated with their own new precarity. On some level, I think, they were simply confused about class and remain so.

No doubt, discussions of social class, especially the working class, are complicated. Not only can class be defined in multiple and sometimes conflicting ways, but it also intersects in confusing ways with other aspects of identity and culture, especially race. That’s part of what makes this year’s populist politics so confounding for many. As Jelani Cobb explained in The New Yorker, American populism has often been driven by both “economic malaise” and “fears inspired by racial progress.” Equally important, he writes, populism reflects “the belief that these two things are synonymous.”

Cobb’s analysis offers a powerful contrast to much of what we’re hearing about class and racism in this year’s election. It helps, of course, that he is also a trained historian. Perhaps what journalists and politicos really need is not a reminder to avoid classism, or even the kind of quick lesson in class that I offered to the Society of Professional Journalists, but a much deeper understanding of the intersections between class and race, the complexity of class identity, and the history of class conflict.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Class














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Happy Valley: Cops, Killers, and Working-Class Community


It begins with landscape, the look and feel of industrial West Yorkshire. The smaller towns nestle in valleys between green hills crossed by dry-stone walls and narrow roads.  The Calder Valley, where the river once powered the woolen mills of Halifax and Hebden Bridge, rises into the South Pennines towards Lancashire.  In these towns, you can look up from the streets and see farm fields or open moorland across the way.  Or you can look down from the tops onto the few mill chimneys still standing, streets of terrace houses curving away round the contours of the land, allotments (community gardens) cut into the hillside.  This is the physical landscape you glimpse in the frenetic opening credits of the BBC/ Netflix contemporary police drama Happy Valley.

The social landscape is another matter.  The show’s theme song, “Trouble Town” by folk-punk artist Jake Bugg, sets the tone:

There’s a tower block overhead

All you’ve got’s your benefits

And you’re barely scraping by.

In this trouble town

Troubles are found.

The Calder Valley is “happy,” in ironic police parlance, because it is flooded with drugs.  Its criminality and addictions are symptoms of deeper troubles rooted in deindustrialization and compounded by decades of neoliberal social and economic policy.  Initiated by Margaret Thatcher and continued under Tony Blair and now David Cameron, this policy entailed the breaking of trade unions, casualization of work, dis-investment in public services, and promotion of free-market opportunism.  In some ways, the drug trade and human trafficking – the major crime patterns in Seasons 1 and 2 of Happy Valley – are direct expressions of this ethos.

Most of young men making minor trouble for the police in Calderdale are working-class lads “off their heads” on “skunk” or “smack.”  They belong to the class of youths known in sociological terms as NEETs: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. The hands-on perpetrators of the area’s worst violence – kidnapping, rape, and murder, including the serial killing of prostitutes – are also young white men, but with particularly chaotic or abusive family backgrounds.  Writing in the Guardian about a recent study showing poor white kids losing ground in school achievement, Paul Mason explains the cultural shift that formed the NEET generation:

A specific part of their culture has been destroyed.  A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid.  It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer. . .  Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave-drivers.

“Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions,” Mason writes. “It crushed a story”: the story of working-class community.  Oddly enough (for US viewers accustomed to lethal and militaristic policing), it is the cops – the best of them anyway, along with other caring adults — who in this TV series enact that lost cultural ethic.  They operate not only to solve horrific crimes but also to restore some of the threads of shared responsibility for the community’s wellbeing. There’s nothing sentimental about this project, however.  Happy Valley is thrilling action TV in which the menace and suspense rarely let up.

Ed McBain, godfather of the American police procedural, quotes Mel Brooks as saying, “The essential ingredients of any hit show are a family and a house.”  In his 87th Precinct series, McBain created “a family of working cops.  Their house is the squad-room; their backyard is the precinct territory.” The Calder Valley police call their territory “our patch” and their house is the Northern Road “nick” (police station) in Sowerby Bridge.   At the moral hub of their extended family, by turns its mother hen and its wild child, is Sergeant Catherine Cawood, played to perfection by Sarah Lancashire.  (Fans of British TV may recognize her from Coronation Street, the perennial working-class soap opera set across the Pennines in Salford).  Catherine is a tough 49-year-old local mother and grandmother with a sharp tongue, wicked sense of humor, deep affection for people in trouble, and a face that both expresses and suppresses feeling in ways you can’t take your eyes off.  Her accent, like most of the characters around her, is broad Yorkshire, which will leave some viewers wishing for subtitles. But you’ll pick up the idiom if you stick with the show.

It’s crucial to Happy Valley’s success as a working-class police procedural that its star is a sergeant in “community policing,” rather than a detective in an elite squad (as in Law and Order SVU).  She’s in the middle of the chain of command, with loyalties tending mostly towards those down the line, especially young women recruits.  The “brass” above her, while not caricatured as feckless, are compromised in their usefulness by the politics of rank and influence, to put it politely.  In most episodes, we see Catherine giving the morning briefing to her charges, beginning with “Now then, you lucky people.”  Then she’s out in the street with the “wooden-tops” (uniform coppers) in a hi-viz jacket dealing with routine disturbances as well as the series’ major crimes — without a gun, it’s worth noting.

Alongside “the nick,” the show’s other anchoring location is Catherine’s home, the terrace house where she lives with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) – a recovering alcoholic and keen allotment gardener – and her grandson Ryan.  As in any good soap — such as, in a different class register, Downton Abbey (where Finneran labored downstairs as the odious Sarah O’Brien) — there’s plenty of “history” in this family.  Catherine’s daughter Becky was a heroin addict.  Raped and pregnant at age 17, she gave birth to Ryan, but hanged herself weeks later.   Catherine’s husband left and her son withdrew in the aftermath of this tragedy, and she took on the raising of Ryan, a skinny kid played by Rhys Connah as both adorable and infuriating.  It is the reappearance of the rapist “father” of Ryan after years in prison that kicks off the first series’ action, links the domestic and police narratives, and makes for intense emotional complexities.  Catherine’s kitchen table and back steps host dramatic conversations over endless cups of tea during which much of the healing and the informal detective work of the show is managed.  Becky’s gravesite in the hillside cemetery at Heptonstall – with Sylvia Plath’s marker nearby, another young mother suicide – is Catherine’s place of retreat and reflection.

I haven’t said much here about the specifics of crime and detection, the narrative arc of Happy Valley’s action, so as not to risk dropping spoilers.  Some critics have complained about the show’s graphic violence.  I don’t find it excessive, since the origins and consequences of physical rage and cruelty are fully explored. It’s important to note, too, that operating above the few psychopathic NEETs who perpetrate the worst violence are older middle-class men who initiate crime while mostly keeping their hands clean — that is until they are inevitably tracked down by Catherine and her crew.  Suffice it to say that writer Sally Wainwright and her excellent cast have produced top-quality drama with heart, edge and purpose — and a working-class ethic at its center.

Nick Coles, University of Pittsburgh

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Class and the EU referendum

On June 23rd, voters in the UK get a say on whether to remain in the European Union (EU). The UK first joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1973, and in a 1975 vote, 67% voted to stay in the EEC. The issue was fairly settled until Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the right wing of his party and anti EU sentiment, promised an in/out referendum in the Party’s manifesto for last year’s General election. The stakes here are high, and no one really knows what the result of a ‘Brexit’ (a neologism for British Exit) would be.

In recent polls, opinion seems fairly evenly divided, with roughly 40% each for staying and going.  While a crucial 20% remain undecided, momentum seems to be with the ‘out’ side. Sentiment towards the EU cuts across party lines in the UK. Broadly speaking, the political establishment want to remain, though significant numbers of supporters, especially in the Tory Party, wish to go.  While initially hostile to the EEC, many on the left and in the trade union movement have come to embrace Europe because of its promotion of progressive labour law and working conditions directives, even though the UK has opted out of many of these.

But what about the question of class in all of this? In many ways, class is a central factor, though it is rarely mentioned in debate or in the mainstream media. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has been a threat to both Conservative and Labour parties, has made immigration central to its campaigns. UKIP draws much of its support from the working-class, especially those who feel marginalised by the political mainstream, and one of the biggest reasons for this is immigration. According to a recent survey, 55% of voters see immigration as the most important issue in the upcoming referendum.  Of course, the issue is being mixed up with the ongoing refugee crisis and the desire of many non-EU economic migrants to come to Britain. This is a difficult and touchy subject for all political parties and for understandable reasons. But immigration was an issue even before refugees began streaming in from the Middle East, because one of the main planks of the EU is the free movement of goods and labour. Any citizen of the EU can choose to live and work in any other member state, and millions of people have chosen to do just that. Migration within the EU, which was seriously underestimated by the previous Labour government, has had very different outcomes in different labour markets. Many eastern and southern Europeans have been attracted to Britain by the promise of relatively high wages, job vacancies, and the fact that English is widely spoken across the continent.

The biggest losers in this migration process have been the indigenous UK working class, who now have to compete with millions of semi-skilled and unskilled workers from across the EU. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that UK workers are being discriminated against by recruitment agencies, the best evidence of this practice comes from a high profile case in the English midlands where local people have been effectively excluded from the 3,000 jobs created at a distribution warehouse owned by sports clothing retailing firm Sports Direct.  The company apparently preferred to recruit directly from Poland. For working-class voters, the EU’s free market in labour appears to be more about big corporate profits than worker mobility.

Immigration has an impact beyond access to employment. It also affects housing, schooling, and a host of other public services. All of these factors raise questions about the long term stability and sustainability of working-class communities. In many areas in the UK, from big cities to smaller towns, working-class people bear the brunt of all of these issues, and this has turned many towards UKIP and away from Labour as their natural home. Brexit begins to look attractive for those most marginalised by the effects of the free market, who also benefit least from the more positive aspects of EU membership. This situation has been confounded for many by the ways in which, after the recession of 2007/8, the EU has liberalised its markets and toned down its hitherto strong commitment to social legislation. Most notably, this has seen the EU in secret negotiations with the US over The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

Nothing about the EU referendum is clear or straightforward. Whatever the result of the ballot, the motivations of voters in terms of class may not be clear. The EU had and still has the potential to improve the lives of millions of working-class citizens across Europe, but too often the interests of big business and social elites trump those of ordinary people.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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