Some Dreamers of the Rusty Dream

In the new Showtime series, American Rust, set and filmed outside of Pittsburgh, PA, and based on the 2009 novel by Philipp Meyer, we see the aftermath of an industrial collapse so devastating that the fictional town of Buell, PA, looks like it’s been bombed, strafed, and ransacked. In the novel, middle aged seamstress Grace remembers how when steel went belly up, the blast furnaces in the town were destroyed with dynamite. Shortly after that, the World Trade Center was blown up, too. “It wasn’t logical, but the one reminded her of the other.”

Both versions of American Rust follow the stunted dreams of Billy, a washed-up high school football star who inexplicably turns down a college football scholarship to Colgate University, and Isaac, a physics genius, who, rather than trying to get into Yale, as his older sister has done, steals $4,000 from his disabled father and plans to hop a train to California. In both versions Billy and Isaac take refuge in the hollowed out shell of Carrie Furnace, run into some bad dudes, and pretty soon there’s a dead body. Police chief Del Harris wants to protect Billy and Isaac from the law, in part because he’s known them his whole life, but also because he’s sweet on Billy’s mom, Grace.

Jeff Daniels, as Buell Police Chief Del Harris, brings a lot of star power to American Rust. He is wry and taciturn and world weary. He acts according to his own moral code. Maura Tierney, as Del’s erstwhile girlfriend and Billy’s mom, Grace, pops and crackles on the screen.

As someone who studies how working-class people are represented on film and television, and who lives just down the road from Carrie Furnace, I’m thrilled to see a show like this come to prestige cable. American Rust has big stars, a talented cast, good writing, gorgeous production values, and relevant themes.

But American Rust is stuck in the past. It’s not really about the working class of today, but, rather, the shattered dreams of the working class of the 20th century. Sherry Linkon, in her book The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, explains how masculinity works in novels like American Rust. Linkon argues that young men like Billy and Isaac, deprived of the surefire path of their fathers’ generation in the factory or the mine, are “lacking economic opportunity,” and because of that, they also lack  a “clear sense of how to be a man.” She argues that Meyer represents the structural problems Billy and Isaac face, but that his characters mostly blame themselves for their tragic demise. While Billy’s “life chances are clearly constrained . . . by deindustrialization,” Linkon writes, “he interprets those limitations in very personal ways.”

Ironically, perhaps, Meyer wanted his novel to be a critique of this tendency towards self-blame. Towards the end of the novel, Meyer writes, “there was something particularly American about it—blaming yourself for bad luck—that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream.”

Showtime’s version of American Rust makes some significant changes to Meyer’s story, but it doubles down on the idea that post-industrial failure is personal. The opening scenes show all the main characters escaping through substances in one way or the other—weighing out prescription opioids, pushing a loved one to take a sleeping pill, drinking a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon out of a can, or crunching ibuprofen, because, Grace explains, she “likes the taste.” These people have given up; they seek relief from pain, above all else. The focus on substance abuse, and, especially, opioids, is one of the ways that Showtime’s American Rust brings the 2009 storyline into the present.

Another change from the novel is the treatment of race. While the novel glosses over Isaac’s Mexican heritage (on his mother’s side), in Showtime’s American Rust, Isaac and his sister are fluent in Spanish, and speak it with each other. In the novel, there is a Chinese cop named Steve Ho, who is repeatedly demeaned as the “fat cop,” and, also, a gun nut. On the television series he has been renamed Steve Park, and he is Korean. Del defends Steve to one of his older white colleagues—just before he fires the older colleague.

Progressive film and media scholars like Barbara Ehrenreich and Pepi Leistyna have lamented that working-class people are a “silenced majority”—invisible, or, if they do appear in popular culture, they are maligned and lampooned. In American Rust, working-class characters are neither invisible nor lampooned. But they are shown to be victims—mainly of their own terrible life choices. Their ambiguous moral code allows them to steal, and even murder, but it doesn’t allow them to act collectively or to confront power in any meaningful way.

American Rust took years to be made into a television series. A 2018 deal fell through, then the Showtime’s filming of American Rust was delayed and complicated by the pandemic. Early reviews by professional TV critics are quite tepid, and I will be surprised if it’s renewed for a second season.

American Rust struggles, in part, because it represents a mostly white and mostly male version of deindustrialization—still downplaying Isaac’s mixed-race identity and his sister’s experiences as a working-class woman attending an elite college. It makes sense to me that Mare of Easttown, with Kate Winslet as the lead and other compelling women characters, including black women, will go down as the more successful of 2021’s rust belt murder mysteries.

In Mare of Easttown, the central mystery is who killed Erin McMenamin? In American Rust, there’s a murder, but no mystery. Or, perhaps, the larger mystery is: who killed the American Dream? No one? Everyone? Two young men who made bad decisions? The terrorists who hit the World Trade Center towers? Whoever it is, it seems that they have gone unpunished, while those of us in the rustbelt must remake our world, our economy, and our dreams, too.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Unanswered Question about the Future of US Labor Unions

Within six months the two men who have led the AFL-CIO for more than twenty-five years, John J. Sweeney and Richard Trumka, have passed away.  In reflecting on Trumka’s sudden passing and the likely transition of leadership within the dominant US labor federation, Steven Greenhouse, the acknowledged dean of labor reporters on the beat for the New York Times, summarized his observations with this telling note: a Gallup poll indicates that  “nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers told M.I.T. researchers that they would join a union if given the opportunity.” Trumka’s challenge was how to get those “who want a union into a union, despite intense corporate opposition.” The question, Greenhouse asked, is whether a new AFL-CIO president would have more success.  

That question, almost more eloquent than Trumka’s obituary, lands with a thud. A hammer blow to the head. In tallying the pluses and minuses of Brother Trumka’s career, Greenhouse had already recorded Trumka’s failure to meet this challenge in the negative column.  Sadly, we also know the likely answer to the question for the AFL-CIO’s new leader, Liz Shuler: a resounding no. The head of the federation, especially as currently constituted, will never have “success” in building mass organization to revive the labor movement.

First, AFL-CIO leaders don’t see this as their job.  Second, even if they did, and, arguably, for a while John Sweeney tried, the federation is not structured to allow direct organizing and certainly not mass recruitment at the scale now desperately needed.

The fact that the AFL-CIO is a federation, a voluntary association of autonomous labor organizations, is both its strength and its weakness.  As a voice for labor, putting all of the various pieces, large and small, rough and smooth, under one roof, allows the federation to speak, advocate, and lobby for both organized and unorganized workers.  But this structure doesn’t make it easy for a federation to act, especially where some level of consensus and veto power can disrupt even the most trivial decisions.  Organizing demands action and always, invariably, requires defense from the leaders at the top and movement, sacrifice, and courage from the rank and file below.

Shuler’s answer to the organizing question is already clear. She offers the standard rationale and talking points. The 10% spent on organizing isn’t trivial. It also doesn’t represent all of the other off-budget support that the federation provides through research, communication, legal support, and, undoubtedly, mainly, the bully pulpit. Furthermore, the AFL-CIO is on record supporting things like the SEIU’s Fight for Fifteen campaign, which cost tens of millions but did not gain a single member. Add to that the fact that her service in the labor movement comes from the IBEW construction side, largely as a seasoned lobbyist, first in Oregon and then DC. No matter how she might evolve, politics is more the cell count in her blood more than organizing.  At 51 years old in the tradition of the AFL-CIO, Shuler could direct the organization for another 25 years, if it survived in any recognizable form.

The missing link that dashes any hope that the AFL-CIO will ever lead a revitalization of organizing and put the “movement” back behind the word “labor” is the recognition that contemporary institutional unions in the US are political organizations more than worker organizations. Though democracy in unions is often only skin deep, leaders still are elected and advance based on their skill at navigating the rungs up the political ladder in their organizations. The unorganized do not vote. Only members vote. Members might like to hear that their union is talking about organizing, but unless it materially advances their own situation or contract, most care primarily about the union in their workplace and how their dues are used to advance their interests. Feelings of class solidarity, dreams of working-class power, organizing the unorganized are all fine and good, but leaders by and large are elected for delivering to existing members not potential members. 

Nowhere is this truer than in the building and construction trades where for the most part the old school is the only school. Their role within the AFL-CIO is outsized compared to their membership numbers. And they exercise their influence conservatively. If the AFL-CIO executive council was weighted by per capita, we would be having a different discussion. If the Building and Construction Trades Council and its member unions, except possibly the Teamsters and maybe the Laborers, were carved out of the AFL-CIO, it would be a totally different organization, and the answer to the question of organizing the 60 million – along with many others – would be very different. In the existing labor federation, political skills are paramount. Shuler’s background fits what many affiliated unions see as the real purpose of the federation, the arena where politics and legislative lobbying fit like fingers in a glove.

The challenge of moving the 60 million who would like a union – or at least some kind of workers’ organization on the job – to become members also faces the limitations of the National Labor Relations Act. AFL-CIO leaders have never been able to make the Act work to help build a mass organization, as evidenced most recently by the defeat at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama. We haven’t organized a single private sector mass employer in fifty years. Not Walmart. Not Amazon. Not McDonalds. Not any of the giant tech monsters. In fact, no enterprise that has more than 10 or 20,000 workers in this entire period has become union.

Yet, no matter the leader and no matter the union, we continue the love-hate relationship with the NLRB without doing the hard work or spending the resources to develop a new organizing model that can organize the 60 million to have power on the job and elsewhere.  It won’t be the AFL-CIO that answers these questions, and as union density decreases and with it the resources to develop a new model and organize the unorganized, it may be impossible for any union to solve this riddle on its own. Certainly, SEIU has tried — and thus far failed. The AFL-CIO and many of its member unions will survive at some level, but organizing the unorganized is our moonshot. We’d like to get there, but it would take more than we have to make the journey. Maybe we’re waiting for our Bezos or Musk to pay the bills and show us the way? Who knows? In the meantime, the question is answered, sadly, and the death watch continues, even if many refuse to change, and we can’t all hear the rattle.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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Fighting Poverty with Classism

Chautauqua’s Hall of Philosophy

I spent part of last week at the Chautauqua Institution, which a friend described as “summer camp for adults.” Its lovely Victorian summer homes, pricey food options, and demographics – skewing older and extremely white – make it feel like a retreat for the educated elite, but its history is not quite so rarefied. As the dozens of houses operated by Protestant denominations indicate, Chautauqua was originally created as a summer gathering place for ministers and Sunday school teachers, high-minded people who might not have been able to afford other vacation options.  A few years after it opened, Chautauqua began to offer one of the first distance-learning programs in the US, a college degree by correspondence, aimed at people “who could not afford the time or money to attend college the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a college education.” The aim was to “show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health.”

That history made Chautauqua the ideal place to hear a talk on poverty by Robert Doar, President of the American Enterprise Institute. While AEI describes itself as committed to “vigorous debate,” not affiliated with any political party, and not taking institutional positions, Doar’s talk made his individual partisanship clear with a number of snarky references to Democratic leaders and leftist analysts. AEI says that its “scholars’ conclusions are fueled by rigorous, data-driven research and broad-ranging evidence.” Doar did provide some thought-provoking data, and much of he said deserves serious engagement. But his argument about poverty reflects some of the same classist attitudes embedded in Chautauqua’s vision of the value of education over “idle pastimes.”

In both, we hear a view of reform that begins with the assumption that middle-class culture is superior and that poor peoples’ problems stem from lack of morals and self-control, not lack of resources or power. This view has a long history, and it has taken many forms. Campaigns against prostitution, the temperance movement, and settlement houses, for example, all focused on persuading and sometimes forcing poor and working-class people to adhere to middle-class ways. Such approaches see poor and working-class people as the problem, not structural inequities, a point Doar made both by defining inequality and poverty as entirely separate concerns and by insisting that poverty was not related to race, even though poverty rates for Black and Latinx people remain more than double the rate for white people.

The assumption that poverty is caused by poor behavior plays out in some of the anti-poverty strategies that Doar advocates, such as policies that require people to work in order to receive benefits or use economic consequences to push for two-parent households. While these programs aim to control how people live, they also reflect some values that are central to working-class culture, which places a high value on work and family. Along with noting the dangers and exploitation of labor, working-class studies scholars have also shown that work can build important connections with others and foster pride – in what work produces but also simply for showing up day after day to support a family. Doar acknowledges all of this, to his credit.

But he couldn’t resist warning about the dangers of “idle pastimes.” Doar cited a study showing that unemployed men spend more hours in front of screens than most other people, “inactivity” that “has negative consequences for these men and negative consequences for our society.” Unemployment men spend about 2100 hours a year on screens, though another study showed that most office workers spend 1700 hours in front of a computer just while at work. It’s hard to believe office workers don’t spent at least another 4000 hours a year online after work hours. But hours reviewing reports or writing emails or teaching classes is virtuous, while time scrolling social media is bad. Doar may well be right, as the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in recent years shows, though most evidence suggests that the people who’ve been most susceptible to those are not living in poverty. Studies of QAnon supporters, for example, suggest that they rely more on social media for new but are also are more religious than most Americans, and they tend to be more financially well-off, and multiple reports have noted that many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were well-off. 

For Doar, the answer to poverty is a combination of work and government funding. When asked about whether this model didn’t simply subsidize business, Doar argued that filling in the gap with various forms of aid was a better solution that higher wages. Aid programs, he explained, require people to register with government agencies, which provide opportunities for intervention, such as counseling. Doar ignores the possibility that needing assistance even while working might undermine the power of work to generate pride. His argument against a living wage? It’s just something leftists want because they take pleasure from “sticking it to business.”

It’s ironic that someone who so clearly espouses Republican positions would take this stance, since it defines government as the answer and intrudes on people’s lives. Republicans have worked hard in recent decades to undermine the very idea that government could ever work well, and they’ve been especially passionate in the past two years about defending individual liberty. Just not when it comes to the poor and working class, apparently.

Doar also called for more attention to the struggles of the middle class, but he did not acknowledge that much of the “government aid” he celebrates comes out of middle-class pockets, through taxes. In fact, he called for a regressive national sales tax, which would ask even more of those in the middle, and dismissed proposals to increase taxes on corporations or the wealthy. Instead, he repeated his claim that any such policies simply reflect Democratic hatred of business. But raising wages and taxing the rich aren’t about punishing business or the wealthy. They’re about reducing the burden on those in the middle while also balancing out growing inequality – a problem that Doar dismissed as unimportant. Indeed, at no point in his talk did he even acknowledge the spike in income for the wealthiest Americans.

Doar closed with a call for bipartisanship that included bashing the Democrats for passing bills with their thin majority. “Whatever it is the Senate Democrats say they want to do” in their budget, he added, it’s “probably not good.” He was especially critical of Democratic policies that give families money without strings, policies that have proven successful and not undermined people’s willingness to work or their morality in many countries. The problem with those policies, I guess, is that they trust people, value the family, preserve individual liberty, and promote a sense of equality.

Among the most interesting things about hearing all of this at Chautauqua was the audience response. Many people applauded Doar’s call for work requirements, though questions about wages and corporate profits drew even stronger cheers. These responses and the setting remind us that people of privilege may not agree about how best to address economic injustice, too often, we base our strategies on our own assumed virtues. That’s not something only the middle class does, of course. Working-class people sometimes think their culture is superior, too – more genuine, more inclusive, more determined. But there’s a difference. While I bristle at the paternalism of approaches that aim to “fix” poor people, the real problem is that the elite have the power to turn their biases into policy.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Work, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Downward Path We’ve Trod: Reflections on an Ominous Anniversary

This week marks the 40th anniversary of an illegal strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) that was decisively broken by President Ronald Reagan.  That strike began on August 3, 1981, when more than 12,000 air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration went on an illegal strike after their negotiations with the administration failed to produce an acceptable contract offer.  Within hours, Reagan appeared in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis and Attorney General William French Smith.  If the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, he announced, they would be “terminated,” fired and permanently replaced.  The vast majority of strikers defied his order, and at 11 AM, Eastern time, on the morning of August 5, they were fired. 

In my book, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America, I told the story of this event, the most ambitious and expensive act of strikebreaking in U.S. history, one that I believe marked a turning point in American labor relations.   


Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

On this particular anniversary, I can’t stop thinking about a photograph I included in the book: an image of striking controllers who gathered for a rally at Eisenhower Park on Long Island on the morning they were to be fired. Reporter Jimmy Breslin attended and described how, as the strikers gathered, a federal marshal appeared and handed out copies of the federal injunction that ordered them back to work. They drove him out, chanting “We want a contract.”  When the 11AM deadline for their compliance approached, the controllers and their families held hands and formed a large circle.  Breslin was amazed to see “members of suburban white America,” as many of them were, and military veterans (as most controllers were) gather to defy the law in this way. At “the moment they were supposed to be fired on order of the President of the country,” he reported, “their right fists shot up in the air” in what Breslin called a “Stokely Carmichael salute.”  These folks might be from middle America, Breslin wrote, yet that morning they “were perhaps the only people in the country with the courage to oppose the established order.”

The picture was taken just before the circle formed. It shows black and white controllers and their families bedecked with union buttons, proudly holding their picket signs and an American flag aloft, wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “PATCO: leading the nation with striking results.” They gathered behind an unfurled bright yellow Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, held like a banner between two kneeling strikers. 

Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

We saw the same flag at another turning point event this year, on January 6.  The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was quite prominently displayed during the violent assault on the Capitol that afternoon.  In fact, the flag was so ubiquitous during the insurrection that one appalled newspaper columnist immediately took his flag down off the wall of his office where it had hung for years. 

Created in 1775 by South Carolina politician and slave holder, Christopher Gadsden, the flag had played a prominent role in the American Revolution.  “For most of U.S. history, this flag was all but forgotten,” writes graphic design scholar Paul Bruski.  It began to make a comeback after the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 (which might account for PATCO strikers deploying it 5 years later).  Over time, though, it began to develop “some cachet in libertarian circles,” observes Bruski.  Then the Tea Party of 2009 thoroughly embraced it, and it has been a constant presence at right-wing rallies since. 

On January 6, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag signified something very different from what it had stood for in Eisenhower Park 40 years ago. The contrast has me thinking about the sources and goals of social conflict, the meaning of solidarity, and the terrible toll these past forty years have taken on this country. 

A good part of the damage has flowed from what workers lost after the PATCO strike: a robust capacity to come together to engage in effective collective actions to make demands of their employers.  In other words, the ability to strike.

When PATCO strikers formed their circle in Eisenhower Park, U.S. workers still frequently and confidently wielded that elemental tool of working-class agency.  During the 1970s, workers staged an average of 289 major work stoppages (involving at least 1,000 workers each) annually, slightly higher than the average of 283 during the 1960s.  Workers’ ability to strike played a key role in keeping wages in line with rising productivity.  Not surprisingly, when the relationship between wages and productivity began to slip in the mid-1970s, with wages lagging productivity for the first time in the postwar era, this slippage coincided with a dip in the annual average of major work stoppages, which was fell to 251 in the last three years of the 1970s. But after Reagan broke PATCO, that slow erosion became an absolute freefall.   

Strike militancy declined more rapidly in the 1980s than in any other decade.  Corporate America made sure of that.  Inspired by Reagan’s bold action, a slew of private sector employers, including Phelps Dodge, Hormel, and International Paper, took advantage of the restructuring economy to provoke strikes and then hire replacement workers to force unions into big concessions.  As workers sensed how dramatically the balance of power was shifting, the annual average of work stoppages plunged to only 35 per year in the 1990s.  But the slide didn’t stop there.  In the 2010s the average was 16, and there were only 8 in 2020.  

The PATCO strike isn’t responsible for the entirety of this falloff, of course.  A variety of other structural factors contributed to the long-term decline of U.S. strike militancy.  Yet that pivotal strike provides an historical milestone against which we can measure the costs of U.S. workers’ loss of the ability to defend their interests through collective action.     

One measure is financial. If workers’ wages had kept up with rising productivity during the past 40 years, they would be earning on average $10 more per hour, the Economic Policy Institute recently estimated.  The explosion of income and wealth inequality that has been eating away at the foundations of our politics and culture would have been substantially arrested had workers been pocketing that lost money over the past four decades.    

Yet dollars and cents alone can’t measure what’s been lost. The undermining of workers’ strike power also disabled what was once a vital instrument for building and maintaining social solidarity and for directing inevitable class tensions and social conflict toward democratic and egalitarian ends. Jack Metzgar, a Working-Class Perspectives stalwart, makes an important point about strikes in his stunning account of the mammoth 1959 steel strike, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Metzgar reminds us that the struggle was not ultimately about “pennies-per-hour” as much as it was about “defending the life and prospects” that workers had been struggling to build through the years.  

What happens when workers no longer have the power to stage such a defense? 

On January 6 we got a glimpse of what can grow in the vacuum created by the continued erosion of a robust tradition of workers’ collective action. The insurrectionists were not themselves primarily working-class, as Adam Serwer has noted. They skewed middle-class and included “business owners, CEOs, state legislators, police officers, active and retired service members, [and] real-estate brokers” among their number.  Like PATCO’s strikers, they turned to collective action to challenge “the established order.”  But both the form of solidarity they sought to invoke—deeply infused with white supremacism—and their goals could not have been more different. The insurrectionists weren’t seeking to shut down the air traffic system in order to win fairer treatment at work; they sought to overthrow the very processes of representative democracy.

The different uses of the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in these two pivotal episodes separated by 40 years, makes clear that the diminution of working-class power over that span is the crucial yet often overlooked element that has most imperiled our fragile, multi-racial democracy.  It suggests that we will not be able to successfully defend democracy from those who would undermine it unless we also find ways to empower workers once again to defend their interests effectively through collective action. 

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

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MIA: Workers, Working, and Workplaces

Hacks is like most stories about creative work:  It avoids really showing any.” 

B.D. McClay, New York Times Magazine

B.D. McClay’s epigram works like any good hook:  it grabs your interest.  So here is another: “In order to entertain audiences, most films about workers avoid really showing much work.”

Oscar-award winning Nomadland provides a ready example.  Many find the film (based on Jessica Bruder’s book of the same title) a poignant portrayal of the struggles of its aging, migratory subjects.  That’s not surprising: creating individual characters for viewers to identify with is what Hollywood does best.  Unfortunately, that also means the actual work and the underlying systems that Amazon uses to structure and foster itinerant labor are a secondary emphasis at best.

Which raises an interesting issue.  Given the very large impact of film on attitudes toward labor and laboring, what happens when film does present a more direct experience of what workers actually do?  Three non-fiction films about the fishing industry offer some answers:  Drifters (1929), Pescherecci (1958), and Leviathan (2013).  Together they offer a brief overview of methods for portraying work, and they also help us think about a common format of reality television: the fishing program.

Directed by John Grierson, Drifters immediately established a central strand in documentary as a whole and, more to the point, films that address workers and working.  Like Granton Trawler (1934), Drifters was made in the now-classic documentary style of Grierson and his era. Such films are visual records of the activity they capture, often mainly silent, with any voiceover or accompanying soundtrack used primarily to foster viewer interest and understanding. 

At the same time, Grierson’s films also established the audience’s primary role within this particular non-journalistic documentary mode:  passive viewing and learning. This shifts audience response from individual identification to communal association; viewers are encouraged not to see themselves as singular questers occupying a workplace but as members of a unified working community.  Grierson aimed to encourage a civic — perhaps collective if not outright socialist — attitude toward workers and the enveloping society.

Vittorio De Seta follows Grierson while also reducing the overtly pedagogical bent of Grierson’s formula.  Known as a realist filmmaker, De Seta displays the mid-century belief that the clearest representation of the real, not to say the true, is found in simply recording what is before the camera and letting viewers form their own opinion.  As in observational or direct cinema, De Seta’s non-intervention in Pescherecci’s world of fishing lets the ‘real world’ simply unfold. Workplace sound and conversation allow the narrative to progress in what seems to be direct linear time.  The drama — such as it is — results from workers interacting with the larger natural environment (there is a storm) and the narrower world of their workplace.

De Seta’s work and workplace are also ethnographic in their own way. As in his mining film Surfurara, the workers perform their labor in front of the viewer, while mundane scenes of eating and sleeping in crowded holds provide a sense of the communal nature of the work. Individual characterization takes a decidedly back seat.

Both films thus emphasize not individual workers but how work forms and fosters interaction.  At the same time, their basic approaches also reduce some of the emotional connection between viewer and subject that Hollywood manages so well.  Working and workers are equally present, but their action is still more observed than engaged.  The space between viewer and screen inherent in cinema may be less than in a Grierson film, but the gap is still larger than that created by identification with a primary figure.

Film can create other connective bridging, however, as Leviathan makes clear.  Deeply uninterested in character-based representation, Leviathan makes full use of a highly experimental, non-narrational mode that is better experienced than described (see the trailer). Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, the film eschews almost all character development along with any readily noticeable narrative point-of-view or progression, preferring instead to highlight the visual and auditory experience of trawl-fishing. Together Leviathan’s soundtrack, cinematography, and editing serve to disorient and immerse an audience in an auditory and visual experience of the workplace, including not only fishermen, fish, gulls, but also sea, weather, and the very machinery that underpins the activity.  Individual point of view disappears, along with the usual character identification pursued by most narrative films.  In their place is pure environment.

In its experimentation,­­ Leviathan aims for immersion not into a community but into a sensory experience.  The response is much more visceral, more physical, as the viewer is bodily connected to the film in ways beyond fictional identification or non-interventionist observation. Interestingly, it establishes a form of connection that points to yet another possibility for portraying work:  the highly popular fishing genre most readily identified in Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch

The appeal of shows like Catch lies in blending action with characterization as viewers follow individuals and their stories across episodes.  But the reliance upon character once again gradually overshadows the action of work.  The physical labor of fishing becomes an often-repeated visual trope, a dramatic but repetitious activity which eventually fades into the background.  Viewers ultimately focus on traditional masculinist drama and tensions among predominantly male characters.

A more useful example of representation of work and workplace immersion might be Discovery’s less action-oriented Dirty Jobs. Running for eight seasons on Discovery, and in various forms for several years after that, Dirty Jobs offers both visceral experiences of work and identification with a heavily emphasized character, Dick Rowe.  Importantly, it also offers much less aggressive drama than many action-oriented series like Catch.  And it appears to be popular among workers in what is often broadly called “skilled labor,” even as many of the dirty jobs often delve into work and workplaces that do not seem to fit Department of Labor classifications.

That popularity returns us to our original question.  Does Dirty Jobs dual emphasis on working and character raise awareness of actual work conditions and the systems underlying labor?  The answer to the first part of the question is fairly easy: yes. The answer to the second is more mixed. Dramatizing work, whether communal or individual, does not adequately answer the question of how to portray the highly complex systems underlying most work. For better or worse, Hollywood’s ultimate answer to that issue is, of course, more characterization. After all, what film doesn’t benefit from having a recognizable villain?

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

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Biden and Social Wages

If Biden’s American Family Plan becomes law as he proposed it, my grand-niece Harri will finally have a “modest yet adequate” standard of living based on a new commitment from the federal government to provide social wages.

Harri is a 30-year-old single mother of two, one 3-year-old and one in school.  As an assistant manager at Walmart, she makes about $47,000 a year, but about $8,000 of that goes for day care for her preschooler.  She recently started getting $550 a month in a Child Tax Credit (CTC), but that’s just a temporary boost for the next year that was part of the Democrats’ March stimulus package.  If the Family Plan becomes law, she’ll get that CTC money for another five years and her preschooler will get free pre-K public education, freeing Harri from paying for day care.

Add it all up, and Harri’s income will be topped up by $6,600 and she’ll be saving $8,000 a year on day-care costs.  She’ll go from having $47,000 a year in reported income to having $53,600, but with the absence of day-care costs, her real spending income will be enhanced by $14,600, a 37% increase.  Where she lives, in central Pennsylvania, the Economic Policy Institute figures that with no child care costs, she would need about $49,000 to have a modest yet adequate standard of living. Harri will have a little more than that.  $53,600 will not provide her with a life of luxury, but the magnitude of that change should be transformative for Harri and her children.

Harri will get more than parents with fewer kids or fewer pre-schoolers, but she’ll get less than parents with more kids or more than one preschooler.  The point is that the combination of the CTC and public pre-K (plus an additional program where parents of one- and two-year-olds will pay no more than 7% of their income for day care) will make a dramatic difference in most parents’ and children’s lives.  It is often said that the CTC by itself will cut child poverty in half.  But the whole combination will do much more than that for many more families, including those who are not poor but struggle to get by.

Beyond its variety of impacts on different American families, Biden’s Family Plan is a breakthrough commitment to the concept of social wages, a concept that has even wider application.  Along with other Biden initiatives, there appears to be a firm Democratic recognition that most workers are paid too little in market wages to get by and that the government has a responsibility to change that.

Social wages are different from the commonly (and loosely) used phrase “social safety net.”  Safety-net programs, like unemployment compensation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are for people who have fallen on hard times for one reason or another.  Like a net, they keep people from falling farther by providing temporary income until they can get back on their feet. 

Social wages, on the other hand, are more permanent, less means-tested, and available for much larger groups of people.  They either subsidize essential workers by increasing their pay or reduce costs of common goods and services.  Among Biden’s various plans, for example, are wage subsidies for home care and day care workers who now average $23,000 and $22,000 a year respectively.  Obamacare subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit do this for a broader group of low-wage workers.  Many cities with strong labor movements, like New York, have long had reduced transit fares and rent control to keep costs affordable for low- and moderate-wage workers, though better-paid workers benefit as well.  In the postwar years, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union established cooperative housing and even a non-profit bank to reduce their members’ and other workers’ cost of living.

Increased income or reduced costs increase human freedom by providing a higher standard of living that gives people the chance to choose how to spend money, not just struggle to pay the bills.  Harri should have nearly $4,000 in discretionary income if the Family Plan becomes law, something she has never had before.  Disposable income is your income after taxes, and almost everybody has some.  Discretionary income is the income you have left after all your ordinary expenses are met, the money you can actually choose how to spend.  It’s anything over that modest yet adequate amount that the Economic Policy Institute has estimated for your family in the place you live.

Biden’s Family plan will affect my niece’s family and its prospects much more than it will for many other families.  A family with one school-age child, for example, will get only $250 a month with the CTC and no savings for child care.  Or, a single mother with two children, like Harri, will get the same amount in CTC and in child-care savings, but because she earns only $20,000, she’ll end up with a mere $26,600 and free day care – no longer in official poverty but still a long way from a modest but adequate income.

But the concept of social wages is just as important as the specific result of any particular program.  It means that the federal government accepts its responsibility to make sure that “nobody who works full time should live in poverty.”  It also represents the transfer of money from our super-wealthy to workers who make less than a modest but adequate living.  Biden proposes to pay for his plans with increased taxes on corporations and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year – though it would be even fairer if the Walton family had to pay Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax on their $247 billion in wealth since Harri and her co-workers helped produce some of that.

I’m as surprised as anyone at how sweepingly progressive Biden’s initiatives are, but none of them came full-blown from the head of Biden.  They are all programs that have been developed and advocated for by progressive activists and academics in opposition to a seemingly impregnable public commitment to neoliberalism – all that movement and electoral politics of the past several decades, all those Fight for $15 actions and the doors Berniecrats knocked on.

As an academic I am especially inspired by the intellectual work that contributed to this process.  Efforts to establish “modest but adequate” levels of family income, for example, had begun in the postwar period by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – at a time when unions represented one of every three workers and that Henry Wallace aspirationally dubbed “the century of the common man.”  That statistical series was ended in the early years of the Reagan administration, signifying that the federal government no longer gave a shit about what was adequate for common people.  A decade or so later, a more sophisticated effort to establish adequate income levels was undertaken first by Wider Opportunities for Women and then by the Economic Policy Institute.  The Reagan administration didn’t want us to be able to measure how inadequate most family incomes would become.  But now we know, and we have one of our political parties at least rhetorically aspiring to adequacy.

The fate of Harri and her kids and millions like them will be determined in the next few weeks as the Democrats cajole, negotiate with, and debate each other about what will be in the final budget reconciliation bill.  Let’s hope they do enough to decisively turn the page on four decades of neoliberal indifference to the people who do essential work we all depend upon.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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Infrastructure “Deal”? No Deal for Workers and the Climate

The long-awaited infrastructure bill is slowly coming into focus. Last Thursday, President Joe Biden stood alongside of Republicans and Democrats to announce that “We have a deal” — $579 billion in new federal spending for roads, broadband, electric utilities, and other infrastructure.  Emphasizing the bipartisan compromise, Biden said, “I think it’s really important we’ve all agreed that none of us got all that we wanted.”    

That’s for sure. Clearly some parties got more of what they wanted than others. When Biden announced his America Jobs Plan in March, it raised great hopes for many and concerns across the political spectrum. For instance, Republicans panned the proposal because it would reverse some provisions of their regressive 2017 tax package to create a fairer tax code. Business owners got what they wanted in the compromise. Instead of corporate tax increases or a wealth tax, the compromise will be funded by  vastly overdue efforts to go after corporate tax evasion and high earner tax cheats. They should have been paying their share all along. And the mega-billionaires who avoid paying any income taxes at all whistle while they invest and go on their merry way.

Workers lost out on several counts.  The original American Jobs Plan called for $2.3 trillion in spending across the economy to buoy spending on everything from highways, bridges, ports, and transit systems. The compromise version will fund some but not all of that.

Workers and their families also lost the $400 billion included in the original proposal to “solidify the infrastructure of our care economy.” The original proposal would have improved access to affordable home or community-based care for aging relatives and family members with disabilities. The plan also explicitly acknowledged how caregivers are disproportionately women of color and the lowest paid workers in the economy. Workers would have benefitted from new jobs, higher wages, stronger benefits, and the opportunity to join a union and bargain collectively. Their families would have benefitted from better quality of care. The compromise drops all of this.

Biden’s original proposal would have permanently linked infrastructure spending with climate change measures, but the compromise upends a carbon-free energy future – and the millions of working-class jobs that would have built it. The compromise bill is a smaller, more targeted infrastructure package than the original American Jobs Plan – a plan that the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activist movement to stop climate change and create jobs, argued fell far short of the $10 trillion needed over the next decade to transform the economy and rescue the planet.

The proposal in the original American Jobs Plan also called for creating a very modest Civilian Climate Corps to encourage a “new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience and advancing environmental justice.” According to Sunrise, the $10 billion originally proposed would provide just 10 to 20,000 jobs per year. By contrast, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps employed 300,000 per year.

In April, Senator Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a more expansive plan,  the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, that would have employed 1.5 million Americans to work on “clean energy, climate resilience, environmental remediation, conservation, and sustainable infrastructure projects, while providing education, training, and career pathways in good union jobs.” It would cost $132 billion.

As Markey reminded listeners, the Green New Deal is not just a resolution but a revolution that would put “jobs, justice, and climate action central to our political system.” On June 28, a mobilization of activists from the Sunrise Movement will conduct a “large, escalated action”  in Washington to protest the paltry sum in the bipartisan bill. They will urge a bold infrastructure package with a fully-funded Civilian Climate Corps.

Climate change is inherently a class matter. As we saw in Texas in February, the effects of climate change, even unexpected and devastating cold, are always disproportionately endured by those with the least capacity to escape or bounce back. Yet the working class also has the most to gain from measures to address climate change. A true win-win, well-paying secure jobs right now represent a profound investment dedicated to solving problems before they occur. The transfer of intergenerational resources is impossible if every generation is constantly rebuilding from the last climate disaster.

The original American Jobs Plan was already a disappointment for many who had hoped for a once in a lifetime opportunity to permanently link climate change prevention and mitigation with a new generation of jobs centered on the working class, funded by a fair tax system. However, it was a start in the right direction. Biden’s bipartisan package is clearly not a multi- generational victory for workers, the climate, or a country unraveled by decades of disinvestment. Neither changes in tax policies nor investments in caring for families nor climate change-related jobs survived bipartisanship. With this compromise, we are left with Biden’s hollow words that “It reflects consensus. The heart of democracy requires consensus.” If there is any consensus, it is driven by the interests of the ruling class, and the compromise bill represents   one more example of union and movement proposals making it just far enough to Washington to die in the crossfire of a messy legislative process stacked against working-class interests. A worker-led, job-empowered, climate-safe future requires a different kind of consensus. And we are still fighting for that.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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America’s Cross-Class Romance with Mare of Easttown

K

In the waning days of the great pandemic of 2020-2021, something surprising happened: the nation fell in love with Mare of Easttown, a depressing television series about a burned out town, an unsolved murder, and, as the Saturday Night Live parody nailed it, a “grizzled lady detective,” named Mare Sheehan, played with astonishing verisimilitude by Kate Winslet.

The show has become a national addiction. As one Buzzfeed culture writer swooned, “my favorite thing is actually my own obsession with it.” Week by week fans have tweeted their guesses about whodunnit. There have also been memes. For many, Mare of Easttown was over way too soon.

It’s pretty weird, actually, that America fell in love with such an ugly town and such an unlovable cast of characters. Mare is unkept and rude. We’re not sure how good she is at her job. Her mother (Jean Smart) is rude, too, calling Mare “stupid” and “idiotic.”

Mare’s ex-husband exudes a fuzzy bear likability, but, for at least one episode, we’re pretty sure he’s the killer. Mare’s best friend Lori is married to a guy who is cheating on her. Mare’s African American friend Beth has a brother who is a heroin addict—and who steals from her. Mare is investigating the murder of a young woman, Erin McMenamin, who, when she was still alive, lied about who her baby’s father was.

The list of unlikables goes on and on: there’s an arrogant author who is courting Mare, a taciturn, African American Chief of Police, a naïve younger cop who has a crush on Mare, a town mother who hates Mare for not solving her own daughter’s disappearance, and another Mare-hater who throws a gallon of milk through Mare’s living room window.

Perhaps what has made Mare of Easttown so popular is its lovingly crafted portrayal of a very specific place—the exurbs of Philadelphia located in Delaware County. According to HBO’s behind the scenes featurette, producers sent pictures of people in line at Delco Wawas, an iconic East Coast convenience store chain, to the show’s costume designers. Kate Winslet says she left her show clothes balled up on the floor of her trailer overnight and was not allowed to comb her hair. For extra realism, she muted her British accent and worked arduously on her DelCo accent.

The hyper-realism of Mare of Easttown was brilliantly satirized by Saturday Night Live. In its faux trailer for a series called, “Murder Durder,” poking extra fun at the accent (durder = daughter), the SNL team displayed wicked insight into how journalists TV reviewers write about shows like Mare of Easttown: “’Highly accurate’ says The Delco Daily.” “The writers clearly Googled.” Then a faux quote from The New York Times: “So authentically Pennsylvanian. I’m assuming.”

Unlike many of the superfans of Mare of Easttown, I found the hyper-realism of the series distracting. Winslet seemed strained and at times even contorted in the role. Worse, many of the working-class portrayals seemed almost like a sort of minstrelsy, using “class face” instead of blackface.

At the same time, I certainly love to see movie stars of Winslet’s caliber looking their age. As one of my friends quipped, “give us more competent middle aged mothers on TV.” Winslet looked like a real woman, rather than a movie star. Winslet wanted her character’s bit of “bulgy” belly to show during her sex scene with Guy Pearce. Winslet wouldn’t let the marketing folks airbrush the posters for the series with her face on them. “Put the wrinkles back,” she instructed. Likewise Jean Smart, playing Winslet’s mother, asked the costume department for padding to make her look bigger than she is.

Here’s another possible explanation for the appeal of The Mare of Easttown: we are drawn to the show because the characters are dealing with the same struggles so many of us are facing—especially as we claw our way into the fifteenth month of the pandemic. For example, Mare’s African-American friend Beth is distraught when she can’t save her drug addicted brother. Though Beth makes several attempts, her brother dies alone, in a house in which the heat and the electricity have been shut off, with a needle in his arm. The soon to be murdered young mother, Erin, can’t afford the ear operation her baby desperately needs. Unemployment is epidemic. There are too many guns, and too many guns drawn. No one prepares healthy meals in Easttown –except for the local date night joint, Easttown is a food desert. Mare’s daughter-in-law has to work two jobs to afford her apartment, and her son nearly dies when she falls asleep giving him a bath. Mare’s son commits suicide—after having struggled with depression and mental illness for many years.

Easttown is not really a specific town in Pennsylvania. Easttown is Everywhere, USA. Its residents are underpaid. They can’t afford healthcare. They are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They suffer from generations of family trauma, mental illness, gun violence, and, in a few cases, rape, and incest. Though one of the plot lines sensationalizes stranger danger, in Easttown you are most vulnerable in your own home.

Mare of Easttown also relates to the year-long conversation we’ve been having about policing since the murder of George Floyd. In many ways, it is a sneaky piece of “copaganda”—cop + propaganda—a genre as old as television itself, that reveals the cop characters to be the most complex, real, and sympathetic people in stories of crime and struggle. Mare is a mess, but she’s the character we’re most interested in. And, as so often happens in copaganda, a working police officer from the real-life town of Easttown, PA, was hired as an advisor to the show’s creators.

Perhaps unintentionally, then, the show makes an argument for the core claim of Black Lives Matter: defund the police. Mare of Easttown misses an opportunity to talk about the larger systemic reasons why the residents of Easttown are so miserable. Instead, the series locates the evil done in a dozen damaged men—and the women who cover for them. It doesn’t accuse the real criminals in our current system—the billionaires, the cops, the anti-labor law makers, and the healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. Instead, Mare of Easttown tells us, dejectedly, that a pretty good cop is the best we can expect.

But what if real change came to Easttown? Imagine something like what Alec Karakatsanis defines as abolition: “transforming a mindset of individualized blame and punishment into a society that invests in the kinds of bonds and relationships that not only effectively prevent harm but that also enable meaningful accountability when harm does occur. It’s about whether to accept structural violence or to create truly safe places to live, learn, and love.”

Don’t get me wrong; if there’s a second season, I’ll be watching. But I would love to see the series break out of some of its generic conventions and offer a vision of justice for Easttown — and for us all.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Announcing the 2021 Working-Class Studies Association Awards

It is my honor and pleasure to share the winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s annual awards. 

The books, articles, essays, stories, and media nominated for our awards this year show a great diversity. Looking at this list of award-winning pieces reminds me of the rightness of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s comment in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation: the “working class is female, immigrant, Black, white, Latino/a, and more. Immigrant issues, gender issues, and antiracism are working class issues” (216). The works we recognize with these awards reveal the richness of working-class history, like Detroit’s Black working-class music; working people’s struggle against reactionary politicians, represented in slurs like “slaggy mums”; and we can see new futures for the field, like Poor Queer Studies.

Many WCSA members volunteered their labor and talents to serve as judges. This is significant, time-consuming work, and I appreciate it very much!

The winner of the C.L.R. James Award for Best Book for Academic or General Audiences is Sarah Attfield, for Class on Screen: The Global Working Class in Contemporary Cinema. As the award judges write, Attfield’s “ambitious survey” demonstrates that “Working-class representation in film matters.” Class on Screen “offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich analysis of the representation of the global working class in contemporary cinema.” The book examines over 150 films from around the world released between 2000 and 2019. Attfield presents them in “thematic chapters on work and unemployment, culture, immigration and diaspora, gender and sexuality, and race, and discusses in a concise, lucid, informative, and insightful manner.” The book demonstrates “the cosmopolitan nature of the contemporary global working class and even suggests the potential for greater internationalism in the future. Class on Screen will undoubtedly be of enormous interest and value to all those concerned about working-class culture and  representation in film during the global era.”

The Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for books by writer(s) of working-class origins or work that speaks to issues of the working-class academic experience goes to Matt Brim, for Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University. The award judges write that this is “exactly the sort of work that the Ryan & Sackrey Award was intended to honor. One of the main insights of writing by working-class academics is that class is imbricated throughout our academic institutions; that there is no ‘escape,’ there is only erasure (mostly at elite institutions that can afford this).  […] This is a book full of insights and powerful personal anecdotes and one that makes an important argument: ‘Poor Queer Studies’ can ‘galvanize interclass [anti-racist] cross-institutional queer formations that do not rely on a unidirectional, aspirational model of progress’ (3). We can remake our institutions so that they serve all of us, and this is one great example of where to start.”

There are co-winners of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing: RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music, edited by Jim Daniels and M. L. Liebler, and also Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Judges write that Respect “is a gorgeous book of poetry and lyrics rooted in the diverse, working-class soul of a city” and “an amazing feat.” A collection of poems and songs about the music of Detroit, Michigan, Respect “embodies itself, it riffs off its own subject; it pushes the boundaries, between poetry, music and history, and dissolves the boundaries between exposition and experience. And RESPECT delivers its messages right to the heart; deep in the heartbeat of the blue soul; and to the complicated tangles of the curious mind.  This book […] sings to you, cries with you, plays with you.  It promises to love you, crooning softly, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ But, watch out! Because then it pelts rivets into your head: ‘And the people rise in anger/And the streets begin to fill/And there’s gunfire from the rooftops/ And the blood begins to spill.’”

One judge describes Winter Counts as an “important narrative of a sector of the working class that is far too often forgotten.” The novel “is part crime-fiction, part anthropological exposé of American Indian life on Reservation land (Rosebud, South Dakota), part love-story and part existential-reckoning.  It is a rocketing page-turner with depth, guts and soul. . . . From revenge to redemption, this novel is a wild ride with a smooth landing that quietly educates.” Another writes that Winter Counts “is pathbreaking in its portrayal of indigenous and working-class life.” Judges praise its attention to the “small details of class” and suggest that it deepens our “understanding of class, colonization, and two-world living as a nation within a nation.”

The winner of this year’s Russo & Linkon Award for Best Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences is “Slaggy Mums: Class, Single Motherhood and Performing Endurance,” by Katie Beswick. Judges write that the article “offers an elegant and intriguing study of performance writing by working-class mothers.” Beswick considers the “historical context of a classed and gendered insult by introducing ‘slaggyness’ and how the working-class mothers stage and perform their experience of endurance.” Another judge notes that “Slaggy Mums” “carefully attends to the subtle ways that the slaggy mum figure is racially codified: despite nearly always being presented as white, the chav mum is a degraded white woman, one who is racially suspect in large because of her widely assumed sexual availability to men of color and lower- or working-class white men.”

This year’s Studs Terkel Award for Single Published Articles or Series, Broadcast Media, Multimedia, and Film in Media and Journalism goes to “Protesta Per Sacco & Vanzetti,” by Joseph Sciorra. A judge writes that the piece includes “extensive research into the songs related to the men’s arrest, trial and executions,” a case they compare with the death of George Floyd. “The balm for xenophobia is knowledge, but the challenge is to bring people to that table. I’m there.” Also, a judge writes that Sciorra has “preserved a vital record of American anarchist history, giving credit to the working-class reproductions of this period’s emotive sounds and sensations of this historical moment.” The essay’s “focus on Italian language items provides an explicit example of working-class experience across languages, cultures, and people.”

There are also two winners of the Constance Coiner Award for Completed Dissertations: Lindsay Bartkowski’s “Figuring Women’s Work: The Cultural Production of Care and Labor” and Michelle Gaffey’s “Subjects of Economy: Social Documentary Poetics and Contemporary Poetry of Work.” Of Bartkowski’s dissertation, judges praise its “sweeping account of representations of what comes to be known as ‘women’s work’ from the antebellum period to the contemporary world of service work.” The study “demonstrates how myths have persisted over time, and breaks those myths down to examine the reality behind the alienating world of social reproduction and the harsh details of labor often assigned by gender.” Another writes that “Bartkowski’s project is laudably ambitious and important.” Bartkowski’s “attention to rethinking the ideology of separate spheres and the distinction between the public and private spheres in understanding women’s work is really interesting.”

Judges write that Michelle Gaffey’s dissertation, “Subjects of Economy: Social Documentary Poetics and Contemporary Poetry of Work,” “attempts to redefine documentary itself, and to redirect our basic understanding of how words, images, style, form, and media combine to structure our understanding of working-class life and of solidarity.” The project “embodies many aspects of the field’s ethos. Her focus on memory-work and her argument that the texts she reads enact textual solidarity are central concerns to the field of working-class studies.  She pays careful attention to the role of the writer/poet/photographer and the ethics of representing the suffering of marginalized groups […]. In short, this project makes a key contribution to the field of working-class studies.”

So again, congratulations to all the winners, and to the writers, thinkers, poets, singers, truth-tellers and radicals whose work was nominated. This work represents the best of our field–happy reading!

Scott Henkel

Scott Henkel is past-president of the Working-Class Studies Association, the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in the Humanities, and associate professor in the departments of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming.

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Re-Placing Class: Community, Politics, Work, and Labor in a Changing World

The global Covid-19 pandemic has brought working-class issues back to the front page, as researchers, journalists, activists, and workers debate workplace safety for frontline employees, the tattered social safety net, wages, child care, and a whole host of issues affecting working-class people around the globe. In fact, the crisis has afforded the opportunity to question the very essence of work, labor, wages, and working conditions. 

At the Working-Class Studies Association, we take these issues very seriously. Our annual conference, which will take place (mostly) virtually from June 7 through June 10, 2021, is an ideal place to learn, discuss, debate, and examine these issues, and much, much more. The conference, which kicks off at 10AM on June 7, features over 50 panels, roundtables, presentations, plenary talks, and performances by over 150 academics, activists, researchers, and performers from across the globe. Registration is only $25.00, and you get access to all events and presentations. So join us and explore topics from working-class literature to the history of social movements to the sociology of class.

The full program is available on our website. We hope to see you there!

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