Every Part of Us Has Parts

One of my first awakenings to the cultural divide between working-class and middle-class ways of seeing and being in the world was John Helmer’s 1974 book The Deadly Simple Mechanics of Society.   Focused on a critique of American sociology, the book documented how routinely the educated middle class sees workers as “deadly simple” and, therefore, incapable of understanding the complexities of a modern society.  But the deeper meaning of Helmer’s title was that educated middle-class professionals themselves had a “deadly simple” understanding of modern society, partly because they are generally blind to the complexities of working-class life and thought.

There are moments when we middle-class professionals, or at least the progressive part of us, recognize our blindness.  Helmer was writing at one of those times, joined in 1972 by Sennett and Cobb’s Hidden Injuries of Class and in 1976 by Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family, as well as by scores of New Left activists who took blue-collar jobs in those days in hopes of learning while doing their “march through the institutions.”  We are again in one of those moments, I think (and hope), based on the Trump Shock we had two months ago.   There is a humility in our oft-expressed concern about “living in a bubble” and in what I take to be a genuine curiosity about who “the white working class” really is and WTF are they thinking.

In the post-election discussion, some confident pundits, like Paul Waldman and Catherine Rampell, have written off white workers who voted for Trump as simply racists, misogynists, and other kinds of deplorables. Others, like Thomas Frank and Christian Parenti, see working-class whites as nearly blameless given corporate Democrats’ arrogant betrayal.  But more often there is an altogether new quizzical sympathy for the white victims of deindustrialization, austerity economics, and deadlocked politics and an openness to learning who they are and why “they” have done this to “us” – that is, why they so overwhelmingly (67% to 28%) voted for an opportunistic billionaire carnival barker who may not be a fascist only because he so completely lacks integrity.

The beginning of wisdom in this exploratory attitude among journalists and scholars is that there is no single answer to that question.  In order to move forward toward building a strong majority for economic, racial, and gender justice, we will need to find relatively simple generalizations that can guide action, but those generalizations need to be based on at least a rough-and-ready understanding of the daunting complexity from which useful conclusions can be drawn.

First, whites without bachelor’s degrees (the reigning definition of “white working class”) are a very large group – about 2/3 of all white adults (18 or older) or about 105 million people compared to 52 million whites with bachelor’s degrees and 82 million people of color both with and mostly without bachelor’s degrees.  In this commonly used breakdown of the electorate, the white working class has been the largest and strongest group of Republican voters since 2000 (though, fortunately for Democrats, most of them do not vote).  Two conclusions should be drawn from the sheer size and voting proclivity of this group: 1) They are too large a group to be ignored or written off.  2) They cannot possibly be all of one mind, with one uniform personality, one lifestyle, and with the very same experience, nor could they draw the very same conclusions from similar experiences.

Though you’d think those two points would be pretty obvious, it is precisely the grasping of these realities that I find new and heartening among the post-election commentary I’ve read.  Both the fuck-them-they’re-all-racists and the they’re-all-decent-people-who-have-been-misled tropes are wonderfully out of fashion among professional commentators at the moment.  In good measure this is based on a recognition that the working class as a whole has many different parts – politically severed by race, ethnicity, religion, and region – and that all of these parts themselves have parts that must be understood, including the especially large part that is white.

Law professor Joan Williams’s immediate post-election rant, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” for example, succinctly lays out some of the key cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions resident in the educated middle class, while also pointing to key differences between the “settled living” and “hard living” parts of the working class – a distinction of life conditions and cultural predispositions that crosses color lines, but that can play out in politically dangerous ways among whites.  Williams concludes that “the biggest risk today . . . is continued class cluelessness” and a “class culture gap” that constricts middle-class progressives from maintaining a consistently strong focus on economic issues that can unify a large majority of working-class voters of all colors.

In a very different vein pollster Guy Molyneux’s “Mapping the White Working Class” divides white working-class voters into self-identified “conservatives,” “liberals” and “moderates” based on focus groups he conducted in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.  What he calls “moderates” is, I suspect, a mistaken moniker for a group who are simply not conventional conservatives or liberals but have a varying mix of views that do not align with these mainstream – and therefore, educated middle-class – political labels.  But Molyneux thinks these “moderates” constitute about 35% of working-class whites and that they might support progressive Democrats with a strong economic justice message. Molyneux doesn’t pay explicit attention to class cultures, but he rings an important cultural bell in his concluding paragraphs:

Many working-class voters (and others) worry that public schools focus exclusively on preparing students for college, while neglecting the equally important task of preparing non-college-bound students for successful transitions into the workforce. . . . .  A set of policies aimed at non-college youth would not just meet an important economic need for working-class families, it would also make an important moral statement that these young Americans matter and have contributions to make.

In addition to these insightful analytic frameworks, there has been a lot of very good reporting on white workers in specific Rust Belt locations.  A lot of it is focused on 2008-2012 Obama voters who voted for Trump in 2016, but the best of it presents a wide range of voices with various views, many of which do not fit into tidy political categories.  Of these, I’d recommend Alec MacGillis at ProPublica and The Atlantic and especially Van Jones’s Messy Truth episodes on CNN.

Jones’s interviewing style is particularly revealing, I think, as he does not hesitate to disagree and argue with Trump supporters as he presents himself as a progressive Democrat who has concluded he must live in a bubble because he cannot imagine why anybody would vote for Trump for anything approaching an honorable reason.  Though predictably TV-edited for conflict and drama, this frank I-am-who-I-am style seems to win a steadily deepening respect from the people he’s talking with, while at the same time eliciting second- and third-order thoughts that reveal complicated, sometimes contradictory, thinking both within an individual and across the small group of individuals gathered for the purpose.  There are no great revelations, but I found this exercise in how richly messy people are, including Jones himself, to be nearly therapeutic.   Jones is black, which adds a special resonance and poignancy to his dialogues, but he’s also an elite middle-class professional who is vulnerably feeling his way outside his class bubble.

One important insight from this early round of Trump-shock commentary and reporting is that the white working class is a very large, diverse, and complicated group – one with people whose thinking is much more complicated than we educated folk tend to imagine.   Some of them live in bubbles, too, and some of those bubbles are impenetrable.  But just as many live a complicated rage that is open to conflicting and contradictory directions.  Listening to and understanding that rage and arguing for a cogent progressive direction for it will take work of many different kinds.  It will help a lot if we middle-class progressives begin with a heavy dose of humility and reflect on how our class position and experience, indeed our college educations, tend to make us unaware and dismissive of other ways of seeing and being in the world.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Working-Class Nostalgia

The first time I presented a paper at an academic conference, I was accused of being nostalgic. My mistake, as my fellow academic pointed out, was that in my bid to find some value in working-class occupational cultures I was guilty of backward looking romanticism. It wasn’t meant to be constructive criticism, but over the years I’ve developed a longstanding interest in the idea of nostalgia which is often attached to working-class life.

So I’ve been especially interested in the ways that political developments on both sides of the Atlantic have involved nostalgia as the backward-looking voters supported Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US.  We may see more of this in France, with support for Le Pen later this year. Charges of nostalgia in these situations refer to a whole range of stances and attitudes, from the more benign sentiments of those who want a return to full industrial employment or desire a greater sense of community to those who more darkly ‘want their country back’, which too often is code for freedom to discriminate. Looking beyond recent elections, we can to detect a backward-looking trend in television, in programmes such as Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Endeavour, or the new Netflix series, The Crown.  In politics and popular culture, many seem to be happiest when living in the past.

However, by using the term nostalgia as a catchall criticism we often miss the complexity and nuance involved, and class often has a big part to play here. Those who study nostalgia note that it almost always tells us more about attitudes toward the present than views of the past. It is precisely because people feel unsettled about their current unstable situation and unknowable future that they seek solace in the comfort of the past. Scholars also point out that nostalgia is very rarely ‘simple’ in the sense that people want to live in the past. They are almost always critical, even reflective, about both the present and the past, and they find something of value in that past that may have been lost.

Finally, while it is true that nostalgia is often portrayed as an anti-progressive, anti-modern conservative emotion, it can also have a more creative, progressive, even radical side. I think it is this aspect of nostalgia that can help us think more critically about working-class culture. Reporters and commentators explain voting behaviour using the familiar tropes of ‘smokestack nostalgia’ and ‘rustbelt romanticism’. But dig a little deeper, listen a little more carefully, and it’s easy to see why people might want to return to the past when industrial workers earned $28 per hour and enjoyed good pensions, health care, and perhaps above all, long-term job security. To be nostalgic for those aspects of the past is not only understandable, it’s completely rational. While these positive aspects of the past may sometimes erase less desirable aspects of history, many workers who mourn the loss of earlier jobs are at the same time critical of the past or the work they may have done. As part of my research, I often interview workers who did routine and mundane jobs. Quite a few have said that they hated their jobs but loved the people they worked with. I remember vividly a former coal miner from the North East of England telling me that he despised the physical labour of the mine but would return tomorrow if he could because he missed the comradeship of those he had worked with.

Here then is the point about nostalgia. It seems to me that we need to listen carefully when people talk about their pasts. Dismissing a desire for positive aspects of a remembered past as romantic, conservative, and anti-progressive is wrong-headed, and it also misses a real opportunity. Surely, we want working-class people to remember what collective action and union shops achieved.  We want people to be ambitious for themselves and their kids.

But above all we need to harness the more radical and progressive aspects of a nostalgia that leads people to ask why. Why is it that industrial working-class jobs paid more in the past than they do now? Why were terms and conditions better in the thirty years of the long boom after World War Two? And why did working-class people in that period enjoy rising standards of living year after year, while today similar groups know only precarity? Once we ask these questions, we can start to argue for a more positive, open, and progressive future. We cannot just leave the past to more reactionary voices who want to capture the negative aspects of nostalgia for their own ends.

Tim Strangleman

 

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Now Is the Time: Working-Class Studies in the Trump Era

I watched President Obama’s inauguration eight years ago with colleagues with whom I had been teaching and organizing around issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender for almost two decades.  That America had elected a black man to its highest office felt like confirmation that our work, together with the efforts of so many others, had made a difference.  We knew we were a long way from constructing a “post-racial” society, but surely our country was heading in a more just and progressive direction, right?

My sense of hope dissipated long before November 8th, and like many people, I spent much of the past year struggling to figure out how to respond to the very different atmosphere of today. As we enter 2017, with Trump’s inauguration just a few weeks away, I am still thinking about what this election means for Working-Class Studies.

Obviously, we have good reasons to be concerned.  You don’t need me to recite the litany, from a rise in hate crimes and harassment to the appointment of a Secretary of Labor who opposes not only unions and the minimum wage but the very idea that human workers have value, and much more.  However, both the election itself and what we see so far of the Trump administration also make clear that our work matters more than ever.  Those of us who study, teach, write about, and/or work with working-class people have important work to do, now more than ever.  While we can pursue many directions, I want to suggest three key tactics that we should pursue.

First, we must continue to analyze the recent history and culture of the working class in order to better understand – and help others understand – the multiple factors that have undermined working-class communities and generated ever more resentment and despair, especially among the white working class.  Over the past few years here at Working-Class Perspectives, Jack Metzgar has reviewed an emerging body of research and commentary that denigrates and misrepresents this group, ideas that were reflected in both reporting on and political appeals to white working-class voters. When left-leaning politicos and elite “coasters” comfort themselves by assuming that only the uneducated, foolish working class would support a racist, sexist, xenophobic campaign, those of us who have spent decades talking and working with working-class people must respond.

But we cannot rely solely on historical ideas about class solidarity or even analyses of the costs of deindustrialization, important as these histories are.  We must be prepared to talk about current conditions and challenges. Among other things, that means we must take seriously the significant support for Trump among white voters without college degrees (according to exit polls, he won the support of 67% of such voters). We may criticize the use of this single demographic to define “the working class,” but we cannot ignore the fact that many white working-class people voted for Trump, including many who had supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.  While they had varied reasons for doing so, including a long-simmering resentment of the political establishment, many did not merely accept his angry and divisive language but actually embraced his overt rejection and even ridicule of “political correctness.” Examining conflicts around race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion is not new work for Working-Class Studies, but the events of the past year provide rich if problematic material for further analysis.  Now is the time for us to ask more critical questions and to focus more on the recent past and on contemporary conditions.

Second, we must commit ourselves more fully to addressing non-academic audiences. The focus on white working-class voters has generated significant interest in class as a social category as well as in the long-term costs of deindustrialization and changes in work. It has sparked debates about how working-class culture is responding to economic, social, and political change. This provides fodder for our research, but it also creates an audience for our writing. Yes, let’s continue to argue with and encourage each other as we analyze the economic, social, and cultural conditions of contemporary working-class life.  Now is the time to create a more activist Working-Class Studies that regularly and creatively reaches out to diverse audiences.

Finally, we must deepen our commitment to teaching, because our students will carry forward the work of resistance and social justice.  In our classrooms and offices, we have the opportunity to help (mostly) young people understand how class works and why it matters. Such courses may not change people’s political views, and I’m quite sure that some of the students who have participated in lively and critical discussions in my courses about inequality probably voted for Donald Trump. But some of my former students now work on economic and social justice campaigns, teach the next generation of working-class students, and address inequality through their work in social service organizations.  As teachers, we encourage the emerging sense of resistance and agency that inspires some of our students, and our mentoring helps enable them to carry on the work of social justice.  Now is the time for us to work even harder to prepare our students for the fights that lie ahead.

On November 9, I wrote on Facebook that I was not yet ready to follow Joe Hill’s famous call to stop mourning and start organizing, but my goal – then and now — was to move from despair to action.  We have no shortage of work to do, and, of course, the academic actions I’ve outlined here are just part of that. We should also be marching, organizing, fighting the concrete and specific battles that lie ahead.  Now is the time.

Sherry Linkon

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 Hidden Anxieties of the White Working Class

Donald Trump won the election by what once seemed a far-fetched strategy: energize working-class whites, especially those in rural locales and the Rust Belt. Trump’s economic and cultural appeals to working-class whites have been widely analyzed by the media. He promised to bring back factory jobs. In struggling Appalachian states, he promised to bring back coal. He addressed concerns about undocumented immigrants and terrorism. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, working-class voters responded to his promises; no one else was promising them anything.

But many analysts were still puzzled by his appeal. Why were many working-class voters willing to put their trust in a billionaire businessman from New York City, a place so clearly identified with elites? They don’t understand that instead of alienating these voters, Trump’s lifestyle probably enhanced his appeal. The combination of his performance of masculinity and his conspicuous consumption spoke to fears that working-class voters have not only about economic decline but also about the potential toll of upward mobility. In Trump, working-class voters saw both the promise of economic regeneration, and the possibility that they or their children could move into a more privileged class without forsaking their cultural identity.

Trump’s version of masculinity—angry, blunt-speaking, and indifferent to sensitivities called “political correctness”—reflects a stereotype of working-class men reminiscent of figures such as Archie Bunker from the 1960s sitcom All in the Family and Walt Kowalski from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008). Trump carried himself with a determined swagger and wore a trucker’s cap. While some saw Trump playing a character, as he did on The Apprentice, working-class viewers found him familiar, a man who spoke like people they knew. While working-class voters perceived the East and West Coast elites as looking down on them, they felt that Trump understood and shared their views. In other words, he inspired working-class nostalgia not only for lost jobs, but also for the social status that accompanied these jobs. When these jobs disappeared, the very fabric of working-class communities was torn

Some have argued that Rust Belt residents from places like Pennsylvania or Ohio could easily improve their lives by relocating. This suggestion implicitly dismisses the many family and community ties that bind people to locations, and, as Paul Lauter once stated, working-class people must rise in solidarity with their class or leave it. Further, well-meaning elites don’t understand that a working-class person’s decision to stay put is likely motivated by both personal and economic factors. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that those who moved long distances from their communities of origin were more likely to have graduated from college than those who remained.  A worker with only a high-school education will not necessarily fare better in relatively affluent Maryland than in Ohio. Class mobility, not geographical mobility, is required. As working-class scholar Barbara Jensen has argued, changing classes involves changing cultures and too often devaluing one’s culture of origin.

In their seminal The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb explore how blue-collar men deal with the emotional toll of lifelong unrewarding work.  (Not all blue-collar work is unrewarding, of course, but that’s a subject for another essay.) Knowing they themselves will not advance, they labor for their children’s futures. Middle-class parents also sacrifice for their children, but they usually have more rewarding jobs. To paraphrase Sennett and Cobb, middle class jobs are “models,” working-class jobs are “warnings.” The status of unemployment is a starker warning. In effect the working-class parent must tell his or her children, “Whatever you do, don’t be like me.” If the working-class parent is successful in launching his or her children into the middle-class, those children may look down upon their parents’ lives and values. Anthologies of essays by academics from the working class such as my co-edited Working-Class Women in the Academy and C.L. Barney Dews and Carol Leste Laws’s This Fine Place So Far from Home depict academics from the working class struggling to adjust to the academy’s middle-class culture and remain true to their working-class roots. Academia, like many social and cultural institutions, is predominately composed of middle- and upper-class people who do not understand the working-classes and often disdain them. While many working-class and middle-class people these days worry that their children will fall down the class ladder, many also worry about what would happen if their children do manage to move up.

Enter Donald Trump, an extraordinarily wealthy man with about 500 businesses around the world. He talks and behaves like one of the guys, one of the white working-class guys. Working-class voters saw Trump as speaking to them, not down to them. He seemed like one of them, just one with more money. His promise to revive blue-collar jobs was likely read as a promise to preserve working-class values and cultures. Trump embodied the possibility that working-class people, or at least their progeny, could rise in income without changing their values and behavior. They needn’t join the ranks of the elites.

I am not negating Trump’s appeal as a political outsider at a time when Americans affiliated with both parties were disillusioned with elected politicians. Neither am I minimizing the suffering of Rust Belt working-class whites or the fear that Trump’s election sent through many communities. I also think we should be concerned that so many voters, including many from the working-class voted for a man who regularly made racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic statements. These votes are extremely unsettling, at the very least.

But if we want to understand white working-class voters’ support for Trump, we have to unpack not only their economic anxieties and political resentments, but also their cultural fears, including their concerns about the costs of elusive upward mobility.

Michelle M. Tokarczyk

Michelle M. Tokarczyk is a Professor of English at Goucher College who has published widely in Working-Class Studies.

 

 

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Culture, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Everyday Encounters:  Antagonism in the Sharing Economy

Much has been written about the growth of the sharing economy where information technology, such as mobile apps and automated software facilitate interactions between businesses, individual workers, and customers. Proponents argue that the system provides greater access to goods and services at lower prices while reducing costs for employers and independent contractors. They also claim that, in the gig sector of the sharing economy, workers gain flexibility because they determine their own hours, tools, and working conditions while raising potential earnings.

Regardless of whether we buy these claims about benefits to workers, there are numerous signs that the sharing economy creates antagonism between workers and customers. The apps and automated systems that underlie these new work structures require both workers and customers to rely on technology, yet the systems are often faulty and poorly designed.  While these systems promise transparency and trust, they also create tensions. For example, such systems unfailingly include algorithmic performance assessment of service industry workers. As technology writer and software engineer Tom Slee has argued, “Rather than bringing a new openness and personal trust to our interactions, [such shifts are] bringing a new form of surveillance where service workers must live in fear of being snitched on, and while the company CEOs talk benevolently of their communities of users, the reality has a harder edge of centralised control.”  The increasing antagonism resulting from the perpetuation of inequality among “stakeholders” has received insufficient attention.

Service industry workers have long operated as the front-line interface with customers, having to respond to complaints about company practices that they don’t control. Now service workers have even less control due to structural and technological platforms.  When platforms fail, inconveniencing and frustrating customers, workers have little power to resolve disputes.  At the same time given the dependence on technology and lacking access to customer information, they cannot build relationships with customers over time. Indeed, it is almost impossible to contact the same customer service representative twice, so consumers then become obliged to give the same information over and over again. The interactions between customers and workers often predictably devolve, generating frustration, impotence, and anger on both sides and voiceless workers  subjected to performance review by customers following interactions. Dependence on technology estranges service workers from customers, undermining the possibility of finding satisfaction on the job because of increased misunderstandings and conflicts.

Just as proponents ignore the way automation undermines the quality of work, they also misrepresent what the sharing economy offers to consumers. Although they claim that automation generates a high degree of efficiency and autonomy to customers, they overlook time-consuming administrative inefficiency and poor customer service.  For example, in the gig sector, where a few companies dominate particular markets, companies have little reason to worry about consumer rights. No doubt this contributes to the increasing conflicts and complaints associated with technology and social media in air travel, banking and other financial institutions, cable television and communications companies, insurance and health firms, and universities.

To make matter worse, customers in the sharing economy must go to great lengths to seek basic information and answers to queries. Even when customers succeed in reaching customer service representatives, they are often treated with robotic indifference or a stilted hyper-courtesy that barely conceals institutional disdain. Customer service representatives often speak in a language of faux-camaraderie that couches authoritarian directives as suggestions as in the ubiquitous “Why don’t you go ahead and. . .” Corporations exacerbate the problem by pairing this passive-aggressive treatment with service fees and other administrative charges, so that customers are not only treated poorly, they pay for that privilege.  This problem affects less educated and less well-off customers, especially, who may have less access to or experience with technology and the Internet and are less able to afford fees or phone charges.

Some companies will not make themselves available at all, having developed bureaucratic systems that cultivate inaccessibility. For example, Amazon has refused to engage with customers directly by phone. Other companies have trained call center employees to repeat marketing mantras and to speak like machines giving pre-scripted answers that may or may not match a customer query. These bureaucratic obstructions, including automated customer service and phone banks and the outsourcing of customer service “chat” and email services, only deepen the antagonism of customers toward corporations and their intermediaries.

The antagonism generated by these practices affects working- and middle-class people far more than it does the elite, who often enjoy preferential treatment through concierge services in hospitals or all business-class airports.  Such VIP/concierge services help elites navigate organizations, technology, and services, while most customers must work harder to gain access to restaurants,  hotels, sports and other entertainment events, and a range of other services and sites.  As Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction has noted, “The privileged, we’ll see time and again, are processed more by people, the masses by machines.”

Non-elites unable to “opt-out” of the antagonistic service economy may find consolation in the techno-future conjured up by Amazon Go, which showcases the pleasures of never having to interact with other humans at all. In glossy ads for what Amazon deems the “world’s most advanced shopping technology,” checkout is eliminated – as are retail clerks — as shoppers employ an app that simply charges them for the items they select.  Privileged relationships with commodities dominate the scene in an ad in which hardly anyone speaks to or even looks at anyone else.

In the past few months, commentators have explained support for Donald Trump in the US or  “Brexit” in the UK as expressions of populist rage.  One source of that rage may well be everyday encounters of the kinds sketched here.  If working-class people feel like they don’t matter in contemporary capitalism, that may reflect the challenges of working in the sharing economy, with its low wages, limited autonomy, and inherent conflicts, but also the challenges of an antagonistic service culture that mounts daily micro-assaults on people’s dignity and rights.

Diane Negra, University College Dublin
John Russo, Kalamanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University

Diane Negra is Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin.

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

I, Daniel Blake and The Power of Working-Class Story Telling

Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake (2016) was hard for me to watch. I left the cinema with a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes. It was a visceral experience that brought back memories of my own family’s struggle. The knot become tighter as I realised that the experiences I remembered from the 1980s are now being lived by a whole new generation. Nothing has improved.  In fact, things are worse.

The film tells the story of Daniel Blake, a carpenter who has been forced to stop working due to ill health.  He is subjected to uncaring bureaucratic systems as he tries to obtain Employment and Support Allowance (disability benefit) and finds himself deemed ‘fit to work’ despite his ill health. At the Jobcentre (welfare office) he meets a young single parent, Katie Morgan, who has her welfare ‘sanctioned’ because she is late for her appointment. She got lost because she was unfamiliar with the city to which she has just been forced to move, but her excuse is rejected and her payments cut.  Katie was moved from London to Newcastle upon Tyne (400kms from her family and support networks) because there was no available public housing in London. Daniel and Katie strike up a friendship and try to support each other. At all turns they are thwarted by draconian and punitive systems. Loach shows the absurdity of these systems and how they affect people’s lives with gut wrenching realism.

 

The story is familiar to many people.  Working-class people in the UK have been devastated by austerity measures, and reports suggest that many people have become seriously ill or even died because of welfare sanctions or being told they are fit to work. Activists have been protesting against austerity and lobbying politicians, but still people cannot feed themselves and their families, heat their homes, or purchase necessities such as sanitary products.  Poor and working-class people continue to suffer.

Loach’s film offers an important fictional account of the impact of austerity, and it has resonated with a wide audience in the UK. The film has been talked about across many platforms and even mentioned in Parliament, and it has inspired criticism of the system of Work Capability Assessments. Guides have been published on how to navigate the benefits systems. I, Daniel Blake has also reached a large and diverse audience, including not only the usual middle-class art house film audience, but many working-class people as well, some of whom attended  ‘pay what you can’ community screenings of the film. Working-class audiences have welcomed the film, and the characters of Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan have taken on a symbolic value.  Many see them as representing the thousands of working-class people suffering due to Tory policies.

I, Daniel Blake is not the only recent activist film about the human cost of austerity.  The London-based group Inside Film produced a short documentary about people who use food banks, featuring actual users of the food banks who explain why they need the extra help and reflect on the consequences of their poverty and how welfare sanctions have contributed to their difficulties.  These documentaries are constructed specifically to empower the people in the films while also informing those on the outside.

 

But in the case of I, Daniel Blake, fiction seems to have had a particular power, and more than the documentaries, it has generated a great deal of empathy in audiences, in part because of some key emotional moments. The screenwriter, Paul Laverty, and Loach have used film’s ability to create affect (emotional and/or sensory responses) expertly, and it would be difficult to imagine any audience member not being affected by these scenes. For those of us who shared some of the experiences depicted in the film, these scenes are almost too much to bear. One scene caused me to sob involuntarily. For viewers with no idea of what life might be like for single parents or someone who is unemployed, the film provides a taste of the struggle – for a moment the audience is forced to feel what it’s like and this is powerful indeed.

The film is not without its critics.  Some in the conservative press (unsurprisingly) dispute the veracity of the film and suggest that its representation is exaggerated. But working-class critics have also expressed concern that the film focuses on ‘respectable’ working-class people. Because he was a hard working skilled worker prior to his illness, Blake is represented as deserving of our sympathy. One critic suggests that this reinforces rhetoric around the deserving and undeserving poor. People who adhere to bourgeois notions of respectability by working hard, staying sober, and keeping themselves ‘nice’ deserve sympathy, whereas ‘feckless’ individuals who refuse to work, or drink too much, or spend money they don’t have on luxury items deserve neither sympathy nor assistance. I understand the concern and agree that films should represent working-class life in all its various forms, and I also acknowledge the limitations of Loach’s films (they tend to focus on white male protagonists). But I, Daniel Blake is an important film because it has created sympathy and brought audiences much closer to understanding life for people who are struggling due to austerity measures.

For many people, myself included, Ken Loach is a cinematic hero. His large body of work has shown a lifelong commitment to representing working-class life. Loach has been making films for decades, and I, Daniel Blake demonstrates that film has the potential to affect change. I hope that the story of Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan resonates long after the film stops showing at the local cinemas.

Sarah Attfield

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Deindustrialisation, Deregulation, and Division: The Case of Shirebrook and Sports Direct

Deindustrialisation has ravaged areas of the English North and Midlands, areas that are also some of the hardest hit by successive governments’ programs of austerity since 2008. A recent study claimed that the hollowing out of industry in these areas and its replacement with low paid, insecure work enabled by a severely deregulated labour market has meant that many people have been redirected out of the labour market and onto incapacity benefits. Those who employed must often work in chronically low-wage jobs with their meagre earnings topped up by state-funded tax credits. This transformation of the labour market has been largely overlooked by press and politicians alike, who instead problematically blame a lack of work ethic and migration affecting work chances and lowering wages.

Such rhetoric pits working-class groups against one another rather than challenging the root cause: the quality of employment and the wider political environment. Little wonder, then, that these areas were at the centre of debates about alleged ‘white working-class’ victims of uncontrolled immigration in the lead up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. One such place is, Shirebrook in Derbyshire, which has received migrant workers from Eastern Europe and where racial tension has been stirred up by the tabloid press.
Shirebrook was a small agricultural settlement until the shafts of Shirebrook Colliery were sunk in 1896, transforming the village almost overnight. It grew from around 600 people to 11,000 by 1911, and the population remains about the same to this day. The colliery company dominated the town, providing many of the facilities needed in the growing community, including a hotel, shops, and a miners’ welfare institute; amenities, including water and electricity; and leisure activities such as allotment gardens, colliery cricket and football clubs, and a brass band.

When it closed in 1993, the colliery still dominated the town’s economy, providing the vast majority of male employment, a story repeated across the region. Closure was devastating for Shirebrook, and the community suffered from the usual litany of deindustrial problems, including concentrated joblessness, declining levels of amenities, physical isolation, severe health problems, petty crime, and substance abuse. By 2001, Shirebrook was identified as one of the most deprived towns in England, qualifying it for investment from the government’s Neighbourhood Renewal Fund to facilitate the redevelopment of the former colliery site. This was a mixed blessing, however, because as part of this regeneration Sports Direct, a sports-goods retailer, acquired land and built its headquarters and warehouse on the site in 2005. Sports Direct is now the largest employer in Shirebrook, with over 3000 people working there.

Sports Direct’s employment practices have become a poster child for much that is wrong with contemporary work in the UK, with the company facing intense scrutiny from the Unite trade union and the Guardian newspaper, leading to a Parliamentary Select Committee investigation. Of the staff employed at the Shirebrook headquarters, only 200 are directly employed by Sports Direct with permanent contracts, leaving 3000 employed through employment agencies. Workers must agree to highly restrictive conditions, such as long periods where no work is available and the obligation to accept work when it is available. Workers are guaranteed just 336 hours per year, equating to a little more than 8 weeks’ work. Agency workers are effectively on zero-hour contracts for the rest of the year, with no guaranteed income, both Sports Direct and the employment agencies legitimise this practice as offering both the worker and the client ‘flexibility’. This flexibility only works in one direction. The agencies gain flexibility by contracts that don’t obligate them to offer any assignments beyond the 336 hours, but if workers refuse any assignments offered to them, they can be sacked. This leaves the agency workers in a precarious position, which is compounded by the fact that most are Polish migrants who have limited networks of support available to them.

Sports Direct also uses a ‘six strikes and you’re out policy’, where agency workers could be disciplined for minor offences, such as excessive toilet breaks, chatting, or being off work because of illness. Workers had no chance to defend themselves if they have been wrongly accused of a misdemeanour because challenging supervisors’ decisions ran the risk of reducing their hours as a punishment. So the employer has yet more power over the agency workers, enabling them to discipline or dismiss workers and control how many hours they work. The investigation also uncovered accusations of sexual harassment, dubious health and safety records, and stringent security measures that required employees to spend excessive amounts of time at work – unpaid — to be searched after clocking-out and before they were allowed to leave. As a result, they earned less than minimum wage.

Sports Direct has revised its employment practices since the Parliamentary Select Committee investigation, stopping zero hour contracts, ending the six strikes policy, and also relaxed security measures. This is a step in the right direction, but is some way from a satisfactory outcome. The warehouse workers are still employed by agencies and remain on the same overly-constraining contracts. Most of the workers are migrant labour ,who are overrepresented in this type of poor quality work, characterised by low wages, unpredictable hours, and easily disposable personnel.

Regrettably, there appears to be little solidarity between the migrant workers at Sports Direct and the more established British residents of Shirebrook. Despite sharing similarly precarious positions in the deregulated and deindustrialised neoliberal economy, the Polish workers have frequently found themselves being blamed for the issues faced by all the residents of Shirebrook, a view propagated by the right-wing tabloid press. It would seem that the category ‘white working-class’ does not stretch to the white working-class Polish migrant workers at Sports Direct.

This story is typical of many former industrial towns, in the UK and beyond. It offers a object lesson in the consequences of replacing industry with precarious work, especially for workers and their communities. The conditions in Shirebrook and similar communities will only be effectively challenges when ‘the working class’ includes people of all backgrounds.

James Pattison

James Pattison is a PhD student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, UK.

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