Faith, Sin, and Seeking Justice in the Lives of Working-Class Men and Women

In his new book, Justified By Work, sociologist Robert Bruno shows us that religious faith matters for the working-class men and women of Chicago-area congregations-Christian, Muslim, and Jewish–by infusing their lives with meaning, shoring up their sense of identity, and providing them with a charter that gives them no alternative but to act justly in every sphere of life. The livelihoods of these men and women continue to be subject to the devastating effects of workplace injustices. While some might define these injustices as sin, many of the workers Bruno interviewed generally did not. Perhaps because of this, they tend to refrain from taking up some form of social action against workplace injustice.

Bruno unabashedly lays out for readers the place, meaning, and power of religious and moral concepts in the everyday lives of these working-class believers. In “Missing God’s Best” (ch. 3), Bruno highlights the faith concept of sin. Resisting the temptation to tidy up his data, he reveals instead the confusion and the ambivalence working-class believers feel in defining sin and extending its scope beyond the personal. They end up bifurcating moral wrongs into the category of personal sin or that of secular and nonpersonal injustice. “Somehow devout believers could readily describe a corporate act as unjust, not right, and not fair or appropriate, but still not sinful. They were not, however, so ambivalent about their own personal behavior” (105). “Conceptions of sin are deeply personal. Sin is subjectively felt” (114).

Justified By Work primarily is about how working-class people think about and use faith to find meaning, though it also examines whether faith-particularly naming and responding to sin-is a key determining factor behind social activism. The respective Jewish, Muslim, and Christian charters give their adherents no alternative; they demand followers to seek justice actively (Micah 6:8). Bruno’s working-class adherents believe this with all their hearts, but, in the case of Christian congregants, for example, “only a fraction (9.4%) have ever participated in anything that remotely resembles an act of social protest” (80).  He adds, “With few exceptions, congregants of all faith traditions responded to employer injustice more like bystanders than followers of Christ, Allah, or Hessham” [sic] (92).

What stands in the way of acting justly in the workplace? Some possible explanations include:

1) The socially divisive factors of race, class, ethnicity, religious denomination, and gender can inhibit workers who suffer the same injustices from coming together and acting for their common good.

2) The fear and potential costliness of confronting big, wealthy, and powerful employers and the institutions that serve them.

3) The American core value of individualism often results in hurting the individual workers who tenaciously cling to it.

4) The “idea of an ‘institutional sin’ or ‘sinful context’ was alien to most of the working-class believers [Bruno] spoke to” (111).

5) The tendency “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”-that is, to acknowledge authority even when it acts against one’s own interest.

6) The working-class conceptions of God and their theology of justice. Trusting that a just God will bring justice in his own way and time may keep believers from acting on their own. Still others believers prefer a merciful God to a God of justice.

Yet there is another possible explanation to consider: If believers follow the general culture by viewing sin as those intentions and actions judged as wrong by God but largely accepted by society, as is the case with many injustices in the workplace, then perhaps workers may be reluctant to define these actions of companies and bosses as “sin.” If shrinking wages, poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and disappearing retirement funds, for example, are categorized as injustices but not sins, does this somehow remove the obligation to act? Workers are conflicted about this.

Finally, is Bruno moving beyond communicating how workers view sin to suggesting that sin can serve the social sciences as a useful analytical term that covers all the moral failings of everyday life-including the sphere where working-class men and women spend most of their waking hours and which affects the length and quality of their lives? To redeem this term for interdisciplinary discussion, it is helpful to know that what has been translated from the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek into English as the word sin were the words or phrases of everyday life that were used to say something about moral failures involving human relationships. (see Robert Priest,”Christian Theology, Sin and Anthropology”).

Robert Bruno offers another way that the conceptual barrier between sin and injustice can be taken down. Rather than desacralizing the concept of sin, as proposed above, or, better, alongside such a desacralization, the labor of working-class men and women can be undertaken as sacred or religious. If work itself was sacralized and, even more, treated as having a part to play in the process of salvation (e.g., “faith without works is dead”) or building God’s kingdom on earth, would people of faith be more likely to respond actively to workplace injustices?

Paul Gordiejew

Reporting from the Ground Up

A few months ago, we wrote about Kelli Cole, a journalism student at Youngstown State University, whose senior project is an investigation of why there is such performance disparity between two public high schools in our area.

East High School’s students are mostly African-Americans from poor families, while Boardman has mostly white students from middle- or upper middle-class families. A few Working-Class Perspectives readers expressed interest in what she found.
Kelli learned that it’s not about the money spent to educate students. Both school districts spend nearly the same. It’s not about the quality of the teachers, either.  It’s about the armed guards who greet students in the hallways at the predominantly African-American school, and it’s about the police cars who routinely circle the parking lots. And at the white school, it’s about the pep assemblies, and the science club, and the band’s reputation as one of the best in the state.

Simply put, what Cole found is that it’s about expectations and perceptions. One student at the African-American school told Cole that officials expect students to perform poorly and so they do.

She wrote:

The students point out that there are other factors that play a part in the school’s lack of success on the annual report card.

Sitting in a corner of the cafeteria after lunch, three East students discussed why their urban school does not do as well as their suburban counterparts.   Curtis Woods, a senior in advanced placement classes, says, “As kids in a Youngstown City school, we get looked at as being unruly.  [Teachers] treat us like we all have parole officers.”

Just as Woods finished speaking, a teacher began yelling.  The faculty member shouted to Woods and two other students who were still sitting in the cafeteria, “Get to class, now!”

Woods and the other two who were talking to a student reporter told the teacher
that the principal had given them permission to stay in the cafeteria for the
interview.  The teacher wasn’t interested in their explanations and continued to yell until the students agreed to leave.

Later, the teacher apologized to the student journalist, saying if she had known who she was, she would not have acted in that manner.

Minutes later, a student was walked to the principal’s office inhandcuffs.  That student was just one of three disciplined between lunch and the end of the school day.

One police officer was heard yelling as a student walked out of the main office. “No, no, no! Right here!” shouted the officer. The next instructions from the police officer were for the student to ‘shut up.’

East High Guidance Counselor M.J. Brown said that approach is often necessary in order to maintain a safe and educational environment.

Cole would have never heard any of this had she just picked up the phone and interviewed the officials.  Instead, she spent numerous hours actually talking to the students and observing what she saw in the hallways.

That type of reporting differs from the standard stories that are often written about school districts and test results. She actually talked to students instead of merely relying on statistics, school administrators, and politicians.  Kelli’s on-the-ground work allowed readers a unique perspective on two different school systems and gave them a way to draw more complete conclusions.

This kind of reporting -referred to with the cliché “shoe-leather” reporting  — is, we believe, the only really effective way of covering those  who are disenfranchised.

Brent Cunningham, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, has been working with us to develop a reporting workshop for students focused on covering working-class people and economically struggling communities.

In explaining his support for this workshop, Cunningham wrote:  “The press has a duty to try (even though it will always fall short of the goal) to represent all the people of this country in all their complexity, not just those with whom journalists share economic and cultural touchstones. In fact, it is even more crucial that the press help the country understand-in a deep and  nuanced way-those segments of the population that lack the ability to consistently  represent themselves in the public sphere.”

We believe Cole’s reporting, based on standing in school hallways, interviewing dozens of students, and listening and observing, demonstrates the effectiveness of this type of a direct approach to journalism.

This approach is crucial for effectively covering working-class people and issues, who are often labeled with stereotypes. Cunningham says that the working class has been “shoehorned by well-meaning reporters and editors into a stereotype-think Archie Bunker-that hasn’t been true in any broad sense for decades.”  These stereotypes stand in the way of developing full stories and, in fact, often allow for inaccurate stories to be produced.

Like Kelli Cole, reporters need to walk the hallways, hear the students, experience the pep rally, and see the guards.  It’s our job as journalism educators to teach the next generation how.

Journalism educators need to do what we used to do: stress the basics. Teach students to leave their desks and their computers. Remind them about the value of face-to-face interviews. Explain how Internet reporting, while helpful, is no substitute for seeing and experiencing.  Stress the importance and value of everyone’s story.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Can Labor Mount a Comeback?

The changes so evident in many aspects of American life appear to favor the resurgence of a powerful labor movement. How likely, in fact, is that to occur?

Union leaders like John L. Lewis, George Meany, and Walter Reuther once helped shape American economic and political life. Labor’s halcyon days are not about to return anytime soon — if ever — but after three decades on the defensive and still lacking in household names, the labor movement is poised to recapture a share of its former clout.

Three distinct developments have created the potential for labor’s revival, starting with an incoming administration friendlier to unions than any since LBJ’s time. Not only does Barack Obama have few policy differences with organized labor, politically he owes much to unions that spent well over a quarter-billion dollars and enlisted more than a quarter-million volunteers on his behalf. And labor leaders like Rich Trumka, Gerald McEntee, Jim Hoffa, and Andy Stern worked quietly to ease the concerns among working-class whites that had been so evident in battleground states during the primaries.
In addition, after years in which public attention focused on external security threats, it’s now aimed like a laser on the economy, including jobs, trade, pensions, health care, and, more broadly, the gulf between the rich and the working class.  These issues are labor’s bread and butter, and the recent financial meltdown only raises the stakes.
Finally, polling shows that Americans feel the pendulum has swung too far toward the corporate side. And, for the first time, a majority says their children won’t fare as well as they have.

The initial battlefield where these political, economic, and attitudinal shifts will likely come into play involves the Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama co-sponsored as a senator. The bill is a priority for labor, which views it as key to organizing in the workplace. But while a major political effort on its behalf might seem a no-brainer for a pro-labor administration, Obama’s first priority will be to repair the economy, requiring measures for which he’ll need the business community’s support. He might prefer to focus on sweeping actions where consensus exists, rather than push a narrower issue sure to spark a scorched-earth business reaction.
Moreover, labor has not made much of a public case for EFCA, while opponents have for months run ads mocking it as a payback that lets union “bosses” intimidate workers into supporting a union while depriving workers of the secret ballot. This PR blitz, only recently joined by labor, misrepresents what the proposal does and leaves out the broader context. A labyrinthic union election system, replete with opportunities for employer intimidation, currently makes it harder to form a union in this country than in other western democracies. Look no further than the tens of thousands of workers annually awarded back pay by the National Labor Relations Board because they were improperly fired or disciplined for exercising their legal right to form a union.

As union leaders grapple with EFCA, they’ll encounter some of the labor movement’s broader challenges in exploiting a promising environment. Whether labor ultimately survives as a serious force depends in part on how it navigates a dual set of demands.
For starters, labor needs to distinguish between its immediate legislative goals and long-term survival, and mesh the two. It will do unions little good to force a quick battle on EFCA if they lose in the Senate, or to prevail at the cost of then being told by the administration to get lost for six months. Some moderate Republicans would welcome a compromise on the bill, perhaps on the secret ballot or mandatory mediation provisions. But labor’s political instinct long has been to burrow down every two years, pour resources into phone banks and other logistical activities for Democratic candidates, and then fight like crazy for pro-labor legislation. Unaccustomed to having allies atop all branches of the federal government, labor should resist the urge to capitalize immediately and instead figure out how to press its agenda without hurting itself and those very allies by overreaching.

Equally important and perhaps more difficult, labor must improve its ability to communicate. Labor’s criticisms about media unfairness are justified, but unions would benefit from less complaining and more action. Unions have provided scant information to combat the notion that they’re irrelevant to today’s economic realities, when just the opposite is true. It’s no coincidence that the working class has been reeling for years as labor has been weakened, nor was it an accident that the time of labor’s zenith, from the late-1940s to the mid-1970s, marked the greatest expansion of the American Dream. But labor won’t reverse its fortunes unless people connect the dots between their mounting economic anxieties and labor’s decline. From labor’s perspective, the pounding — largely unfair — the United Auto Workers union has taken on the auto bailout discussions doesn’t augur well.

If labor can display some political deftness and also find its public voice, the country might witness something nearly forgotten – a resurgent American labor movement ready to play a major role in the nation’s life and restore balance to our industrial relations system.

Philip Dine, author of State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence.

The De Facto Unemployment Rate: 25.12%.

Ever since the early 1980s, residents of the Youngstown area have always been skeptical of government’s official unemployment rate. In 1982, the official unemployment rate hit 24.9% but declined to around 12% in early 1984. The Ohio governor and city officials praised the dramatic decline, but local residents knew that rate failed to account for workers who had given up looking for work, were working part-time, or had been forced into early retirement. In a report commission by the State of Ohio, the YSU Urban Studies program found that “real” unemployment rate was over 18 percent or about 1.5 times higher than the official rate.

Given the “shock” over the most recent unemployment numbers, it is worthwhile to take another look at the figures in light of Youngstown’s experience. But first we need some definitions of various categories of unemployed people, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a comparative study done by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  Attention class!

Officially unemployed– Persons who worked less than one hour during the nationally determined reference period (one week), looked for work during this period, and were available for work during this period.

Marginally attached workers – Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for work and who have looked for a job sometime in prior 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

Discouraged workers – Persons not is labor force who are available for a job and who have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months)

Underemployed -Persons who would like to work full time but are not able to do so for economic reasons such as unavailability of full-time work or reduced demand for hours by current employer

Excess disability – Persons who are excluded from labor force because of sick leave or early retirement

Government programs – Persons receiving government subsidized or government provided programs. For example, low wage workers receiving Earned Income Tax Credits

Prison and jail populations – Persons not in labor force because of incarceration.

Now using these definitions and information for the current employment reports, we can begin to make estimates of the “de-facto” unemployment rate.

The official unemployment rate in December was 7.2%, an increase of .4% from the preceding month and a 2.4% increase since the National Bureau of Economic Research officially designated start of the recession in December of 2007. (These academic economists could not decide that we were in a recession until last month). To this we can add individuals who are marginally attached to the workforce (1.2%), discouraged (.4%), or who are underemployed (5.2%). The latter figure is of particular concern as some companies reduce workers’ hours in order to avoid layoffs. This was borne out in the current employment report where the average hours worked declined to 33.3 hours.  The next step for struggling employers will be layoffs. Anyway, if you’re keeping track, our de-facto unemployment rate is up to 14%.

From here it gets statistically more difficult. But using the approach taken in the Center for Economic and Policy Research study, we can estimate that 6% of the potential labor force consists of people who have been forced to retire or are on sick leave, and those whose work is being subsidized by the Federal Government is at 4%. Both of these are conservative figures given the high levels of plant and office closings and buyouts in the past year.  Together, they add another 10% to the de-facto unemployment rate

Finally, prison reform advocates have long suggested that incarceration levels are a direct response to economic conditions. This is especially important in a country that has such high rates of incarceration; according to a 2003 British study, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  If we count incarcerated people among the unemployed, that adds another 1.48% to our de-facto unemployment rate for a total of 25.12%

Unemployed 11,1087.2%
MarginallyAttached 1.908(1.2%)
Discouraged 642(.04%)
Underemployed 8038(5.2%)
Excess disability* Est.(6.0%)
Government Programs* Est.(4.0%)
Subtotal 23.64%
Prison Population 2.300(1.48%)
Total 25.12%

So what does all this mean? It is what “Main Street” not “Wall Street” has been saying for a long time. The economy is bad, real bad, and it’s getting worse for working families. It is particularly difficult for those who have given up looking for work because they have been left behind by economic change and technology, working-class people whose only hope for the future is in jobs with short job ladders and poor pay. Not only have they been forgotten, but they have erased from official unemployment reports.

To make matters worse, over the last 20 years, business and economic reporters and/or commentators have been, at best, Pollyannaish and at worse flaks and con men when comes about talking about the real situation for working- and middle-class Americans. The media has only recently begun to reassess the economic situation as journalists and pundits have tried to make sense of the mortgage crisis, financial failures and scandals, widespread layoffs and the growing economic crisis.

We count on policy makers and the press to provide accurate information to help us understand and address the economic crisis.  The more we know, the better prepared we can be, as individuals and as a society, to respond effectively.  This is especially true in light of the recent debate over whether we are in a recession (mild or severe) or on the brink of regional and/or a national economic depression.

Youngstown’s unemployment rate still among the highest in the nation after 25 years, and now the whole country has begun to know what Youngstown has known for a long time.

John Russo

Working-Class Education and Economic Stimulus

Claiborne Pell, the man largely responsible for the creation of the Pell Grants program that has helped so many working-class students afford to attend college, died on Thursday.  Pell Grants are more important these days than ever.  As a recent series on PBS’s The News Hour reported, increases in tuition and fees – up 375% since 1980 according to Learning Matters, the producer of the News Hour series – combined with (and in part due to) cuts in state funding for higher education are making it harder and harder for lower-income students to get a college education or to benefit fully from that education.

As many scholars have noted, higher education has not always been welcoming to working-class students, and unequal primary and secondary schooling puts many of them behind from the beginning.  Combine unequal preparation with cultural tensions about higher education  – working- and poverty-class students often feel conflicted about whether they should even go to school, and many find the culture of higher education alienating – and just going to college can be a major challenge.

But these days, a college degree is increasingly seen as equivalent to what a high school diploma once was: the entry ticket to any kind of decent job.  Combine that with escalating costs, and the result is incredible pressure on working-class students, poverty-class students, and their families.  They face several key questions and problems.

First, how should they balance the cost of taking on student loan debt against the value of the degree?  While conventional wisdom says that education is always worthwhile, the costs of higher education make it a serious gamble.  This is especially true in tough economic times, when even the most successful graduates are likely to find it difficult to secure a good job.  Even if the degree leads to employment, paying off college loans can put graduates in a financial vise.  As Nan Mooney reported on Alternet in November, some fully-employed graduates find themselves spending a significant portion of their monthly income in loan payments.  For those who, in this struggling economy, don’t find good jobs, the risks are even greater: failure to keep up with student loan payments can undermine a young person’s credit rating long before they even attempt to buy a home or new car and thus have long-term consequences.  Going to college is supposed to help individuals improve their economic condition, not get them stuck in what Mooney terms “college loan slavery.”

On the flip side, the cost of education creates a paradox that I see in my own classrooms every semester:  working to pay tuition (in order to avoid taking on so much debt) means that many students struggle to find time to study.  Too often, students who come to college from mediocre high schools or out of vocational tracks – which is more likely to be true for working-class students  than others – often don’t have college-level reading and writing skills.  They need more time than better-prepared (usually middle- and elite-class) students to complete assignments.  But because they lack financial resources, they need to work more.  A report by the American Council on Education reports that, not surprisingly, students with lower household incomes work more than wealthier students .  For too many, the result is that they don’t learn much. Without adequate time to read assignments, work thoughtfully on papers, or study for exams, some working-class students squeak through college, maintaining GPAs just high enough to keep from being suspended and learning only a fraction of what they might if only they had time to really focus on school.  For these students, college is more about getting the credential than about getting an education.  The credential matters, but the lost opportunity for learning is frustrating to students and professors.

Put these realities into the context of the current economic crisis, and we’re facing some tough questions.  If education is, as most seem to agree, the key to both individual economic improvement and economic growth for communities, states, and the nation, then shouldn’t state and federal governments do everything possible to ensure that students can not only attend college but do so without taking on crippling debt and under conditions that foster real learning?  The answer might sound obvious, but nothing is obvious in tough economic times.

I believe in education, but as I think about the challenges facing working-class students, I sometimes find myself wondering which is better for the working class: college credentials or blue-collar jobs for people without degrees?    How can states and the federal government best stimulate the economy and support working-class families?  Should we fund education or create new jobs repairing roads and bridges?  Provide college grants or bail out American industries?  Ideally, of course, we’d do it all.

Sherry Linkon