Working-Class Cool

Is it “cool” to call yourself “working class”?  Maybe, in bohemia, it always has been, but when I stumbled across two online projects out of Brooklyn, I was intrigued.  What should we think about their use of “working class” as a marker for cool?

Working Class Magazine is a slick online publication that promotes artists and low-to-the-ground lifestyles in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was started by a group of New York transplants in their twenties, including the managing editor, Megan Martin, who came to New York from San Francisco, where she worked as an editor for an arts magazine and attended journalism school.  After trying to freelance, explained Martin via telephone from her day-job, she “got fed up and decided to start my own magazine.”  Martin admits that her own family background is not working class and the name of the magazine is not related to any explicit “working class” content.  “It seemed very catchy,” she explained.  “Without this name we might not have received the attention we have.” The magazine only just started to receive modest advertising revenues, which Martin hopes to use to compensate Carol King, who currently designs the magazine for free.

Martin, who also works part-time as a bartender, may not see herself as working class, but certainly the creative workers who donate all of their time and a fair amount of their own money to publish Working Class Magazine are not rolling in dough.  The current issue, the “Free Issue,” is a kind of anthem to scrimping.  One article examines things you can get for free on Craigslist, including opened boxes of Tampons and only-just-expired cans of food.  Another article shows, in true DIY fashion, how to rehab a chair found on the street.  The design of the articles is arty, but the information might come in handy if you live in New York on an annual income of under $35,000 without benefits.

That’s the situation that Rebecca Lando found herself in when she decided to start an online TV show, Working Class Foodies, which promotes gourmet eating on a budget.  She and her boyfriend, who both work in the New York film industry, had some connections at Next New Networks, which was adding a food channel, Hungry Nation TV, to its impressive lineup of online TV networks (most notably, $99.00 Music Videos and

Lando wanted to be in front of the camera, but her boyfriend wanted to stay behind it, so Lando called up her brother, Max Lando, who was living with their parents in Sarasota, Florida, and had a background in theater.  They filmed the first 24 episodes of Working Class Foodies last fall, and they are now in the middle of their second season.

Working Class Foodies shows viewers how to make delicious, seasonal dishes for as little as $4.00 per person.  They pledge to keep all of the dishes they make under $8.00 per person, but the meal price-tags often go much lower.  In a recent episode Max made bluefish with rosemary, lemon, and garlic, while Rebecca made mussels steamed in beer.  The siblings sometimes engage in playful banter, but the focus is really on the food, and the food they make looks really good.  Also, refreshingly, the Landos cook in a “real” kitchen—a small Brooklyn apartment kitchen to boot.  No marble counter tops or racks with thousands of dollars of cookware here.

The Landos are passionate about local, organic, fresh food.  They told me that the title of their show doesn’t really refer to a historical, blue-collar working class.  Instead, the label “working class” is their shorthand for the project of making delicious food affordable and approachable.  They have taken some flack for the label.  “In one of our first reviews,” Max explained, “they called me out for studying poetry in college, saying that I couldn’t be working class.  But, really, they just missed what we were trying to do.”

Rebecca and Max grew up in Pittsburgh before their family moved to Florida, and they admire the blue-collar history which marks city of their birth.  Interestingly, Pittsburgh is also embracing the kind of food that they prepare:  “Pittsburgh has a bigger slow food movement than New York,” said Rebecca.

It would be easy to dismiss Working Class Magazine and Working Class Foodies as inauthentic, poser projects—the work of a bunch of hipsters using the ironic “cool” of being legitimately downtrodden to market their projects.  But I see something more hopeful and more interesting.

First, I see an opportunity to expand the definition of what it means to be “working class.”  Surely these young, creative workers, who earn low wages and have neither benefits nor job security, have much in common with waitresses, janitors, and retail clerks, despite the difference in education and social status.  As hundreds of thousands of Americans who once thought they were solidly middle class find themselves getting by on much less, why exclude them from the coalition of progressives fighting for better wages, health care, and social services?  As these groups gravitate to the label working class, perhaps some commitment to working-class politics might follow?  It’s worth a try.

Second, these hipsters might have something to offer the rest of us on a budget.  A recent kafuffle over a group of twentysomethings who used foodstamps to shop at Whole Foods suggests that some might resent the mash-up of taste and class. But shouldn’t we promote healthy eating on a budget, instead of ridiculing it?  And is it so wrong to want to be fashionable—even beautiful—when you’re struggling to make ends meet?

In the end, if underpaid urban hip-types want to use the label “working class,” I’m OK with it.  As far as I can tell, they qualify.  Now, if I can just score an invitation to dinner!

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

Unions, Democrats, and Working-Class Interests

The labor movement has historically been the most effective representative of working-class interests.  The short list of labor’s achievements include ending child labor; establishing the eight-hour day and minimum and “living” wages, unemployment insurance and workers compensation, occupational safety and health standards; securing health care, sick leave, vacations and pensions; and helping create legislation to outlaw job discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, and older workers.

Union members receive 15% more wages on average than non-union workers, are 19% more likely to have health insurance, and are 24% more likely to have an employer sponsored pension. Despite the clear correlation between overall compensation and union membership, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that union membership has dropped in most states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 12.3% of wage and salary workers belong to labor organizations. This amounts to drop of almost 9% over the last 25 years. The greatest declines in unionization rates have occurred in private sector and non-agricultural employment, including manufacturing and construction.

The decline is significant enough that it is undermining the labor movement’s ability to advance the interests of working people. The real strength of the labor movement has now moved to the public sector; public employees now constitute more than half of all union members. Perhaps because they now dominate the labor movement, public sector unionists have come under attack recently, and some expect membership levels to drop as a result of the current economic crisis, as schools, cities, and other public employers cut the work force in response to declining tax revenues.

Union membership has declined for a number of reasons, including globalization, changes in workplace organization (ie. subcontracting, offshoring, lean production), the growing proportion of part-time and contingent jobs, employer hostility, legal and political opposition to labor unions, and the ineffectiveness of business unionism to provide improvements in wages and benefits.

Overall public support for labor unions has also declined.  The Pew Center for the People and Press found recently that favorability ratings have fallen sharply in recent years.  While 58% of those polled in January 2007 viewed unions favorably, by 2010 only 41% held that view.  Negative views increased, from 31% in 2007 to 42% by 2010.  Importantly, the Pew study found declines in union favorability occurred at similar rates across most demographic groups. Further, a recent Gallup poll found that 51% feel that unions hurt the general economy more than they help it.  Only 39% saw unions as favorable to the economy.

While the labor movement remains vocal and active on the political front, declining numbers and shrinking public support are undermining labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, which has historically relied on organized labor as the core of its support.  In the past two years, almost every political initiative by organized labor, from support for a public option in health care to labor law reform to simply naming of new members to the National Labor Relations Board has been all but ignored or put on the back burner. In turn, labor support for the Democratic Party has become lukewarm and fragmented at best.

What will the Democratic Party look like without the labor movement at its center? Two visiting international scholars at the Center for Working-Class Studies believe that it will come to resemble comparable political parties in the UK and Germany. Sociologist James Rhodes suggests that like the British Labor Party, Democrats will abandon organized labor and working-class issues. Geographer Eva Viertlböck thinks that, like the German Social Democratic Party, the Democratic Party will break apart as labor unionists and former working- and middle-class supporters move to the ends of the political spectrum.  Michael Lind, writing for Salon, sees something similar. He suggests that labor unions are unlikely to regain their position at the heart of liberal politics. Instead, he believes that liberal interest groups and social elites using new technology will replace unions as the new core of liberal politics and the Democratic Party. That is, the Democrats will become a party that practices the “politics of charity” instead of the “politics of solidarity.”

None of this bodes well for working people. Despite attempts by organized labor to organize the unorganized both politically and institutionally, working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice.  In some cases, they are supporting groups that seem antithetical to their needs but capture their anger.  In the last year, one of the questions I was asked most frequently by reporters is “Does the working class support the Tea Party Movement?”  While it is difficult to determine how actively working-class people are involved, it is clear that some do support the movement, and that support may be growing.

Given the demographic declines and shifting political landscape, the labor movement needs to become more closely aligned with various social and economic justice movements.  These groups share with organized labor the growing sense of economic vulnerability, frustration with government, and the shredding of the nation’s social safety net. Labor unions must move beyond workplaces issues, openly support the interests of all working people, and engage in community organizing on both local and regional levels.  Put differently, it must refocus its energy and  mission and return to its traditional role of advocating for all working people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The House is on Fire

A few weeks ago, Charlie Rose facilitated a discussion about the perils of the U.S. national debt among a thoughtful, articulate group of one politician, two businessmen, and two economists.  Except for a brief discussion of the bond market, I was able to understand the various points of view about how menacing the projected growth of the debt is and the various things we might do about it.  Though tilted toward business-class conservatism, Nobel economist Paul Krugman ably presented a progressive view, and I found the conservatives thoughtful and sensible.

I came away from this discussion among what Rose likes to call “the smart people” convinced that we must address our ballooning debt sometime in the next decade or so.  I also came away wondering why the smart people are not devoting similar attention to the President’s budget projections that unemployment will remain around 10% (using the official rate) the rest of this year and not drop by much after that.  It strikes me that this is like carefully discussing cracks in the foundation while the house is on fire.

It’s not that the panelists were indifferent to unemployment.  Continuing high unemployment is one of the major contributors to our growing national debt.  When people are out of work, they don’t pay income taxes, reducing government revenues, and they don’t pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, bringing those entitlement programs’ long-term fiscal problems at us sooner rather than later.  Likewise, nobody in this group, not even the guy from the often shrilly conservative Peterson Institute, spoke against the need to increase social-safety-net spending such as unemployment insurance and food stamps in order to reduce some of the suffering among the unemployed.

But while not indifferent to unemployment, they conveyed no sense of emergency.  They didn’t seem to realize that the house is actually on fire and even if the fire is not spreading as dramatically as it was last year at this time, letting it smolder indefinitely will eventually destroy the house, even if it doesn’t reignite and burn the house to the ground.

This is why a recent story in The Atlantic, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” is so important.  Though much of the information and analysis in the article will not be new to readers of Working-Class Perspectives, it reaches the right audience: Charlie Rose’s “smart people.”  The author, deputy managing editor Don Peck, is a certifiably smart person himself who writes in a clear, compelling but relatively understated way.  The article has already gained a lot of attention among leading opinion-makers and, therefore, has a shot at generating a sense of urgency about what Peck very convincingly shows is “a slow motion social catastrophe.”

Peck is not predicting a second dip to the Great Recession.  He simply accepts White House projections of persistently high joblessness as the economy keeps “recovering.” Rather, he explains what social science investigation over the past half-century shows about the devastating long-term consequences of such sustained unemployment – its impact on individuals (even after they go back to work), on families, communities, and the nation as a whole, even the majority of those who stay employed through it all:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just  beginning.  Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades.   Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.

The article is all the more effective, in my view, because it does not lay out its own or report others’ strategies for reducing unemployment.  Instead, Peck focuses on convincing us of the depth, extent, and urgency of the problem.  It’s like a 9-1-1 call reporting “the house is on fire,” and urging us, in Peck’s concluding words, “to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.”

The American labor movement has been making that 9-1-1 call to the White House for several months now, and not getting through.  Unions in coalition with the Center for Community Change and the National Urban League are backing variations of “A Five-Point Plan to Stem the U.S. Jobs Crisis”.   The plan would create (or save) more than 4 million jobs.  Though it would add $400 billion to the federal government deficit this year, it would be paid for over the next 10 years by a small (1/2 of 1%) tax on stock trades and other financial instruments — a tax initially proposed more than a decade ago to discourage speculative investment of the sort that led to the financial meltdown in 2008.  In other words, the tax is probably a good idea anyway, would be paid only by investors, and it would allow job creation now to reduce the national debt in the long run. Economists from the AFL-CIO and its rival Change to Win met with White House economists to advocate for this program about the same time as Don Peck’s article appeared.  The response, I’m told, was “politely dismissive.”

As a Chicagoan who roots for our home-town heroes, I’ve been especially forgiving of Barack Obama.  Most of his critics seem to me to underestimate the level of difficulty Obama has faced given the character, severity, and timing of the Great Recession, the anti-functional rules of the U.S. Senate, the complexity of health care economics, and many other things.  But it is not difficult for a U.S. President to prioritize a house on fire over a crack in the foundation.  Part of the President’s job is to set the agenda for what gets public attention.  By establishing a bi-partisan commission to address the national debt while presenting a budget that basically says double-digit unemployment is acceptable for the next couple years, the President is making errors of both mind and heart.  It also seems like really dumb politics.   Pick up the phone, Barack, the house is on fire.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies