We’re On to Something: Reflections on the WCSA Conference

From June 22 to 25, 2011, around 230 people attended the conference of the Working-Class Studies Association, held at the University of Illinois-Chicago.    The conference was chaired by Jack Metzgar, a regular blogger on this site, and organized by the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies.   The conference theme of “working-class organization and power” reflected the urgency of the present moment when not only are public sector unions under attack, but also the very idea of the “public” as a shared set of social resources is being undermined by cutbacks or privatization.   Conference plenaries on organizing in Wisconsin, food justice, and the “corporatizing” of public schools explored these topics from multiple perspectives.  Panelists included teachers, parents, labor leaders, researchers, community organizers, a social worker, a farmer, and food service worker, along with academics.  Each panel both analyzed the challenges and described actions being taken to tackle them, in an inspiring demonstration of the unity-in-diversity necessary to carry our common work forward.  (The full conference program is available online.)

In this post I want to offer some reflections on the conference and on what it suggests about this formation we call “working class studies.”  But first, a little institutional history.

The first working-class studies conference in the US was held at Youngstown State University in 1995, and it continued to meet there every other year through 2005.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, which was founded in 1995 at YSU by Sherry Linkon in English, John Russo in Labor Studies, and several colleagues.  Since then, the WCSA conference has traveled to St Paul Minnesota in 2007, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Chicago in 2011.  In the meantime, in 2002 the Center for Study of Working Class Life, founded by economist Michael Zweig, began holding conferences in even numbered years at the State University New York – Stony Brook.    The sixth of these conferences on “How Class Works,” which also function as annual meetings of the WCSA, is planned for June 7 – 9, 2012.  (The call for proposals is available on the Center’s website.) The Working-Class Studies Association itself was launched in 2004 at the Stony Brook conference, with the aim of building a broader network “to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.”

These strands of WCSA’s work  – research into working-class issues, attention to education about class, and a focus on organizing (labor, political, community) – were fully present at the Chicago conference, along with another strand that has become salient at WCSA gatherings: cultural production in the forms of photography, film, poetry, music, and so on.   For example, a “Hard Times Poetry Slam” demonstrated the people’s art of slamming, now popular worldwide, which made its start in Chicago’s neighborhood clubs.  Another plenary, “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” celebrated the work of a remarkable photographer who died January at age 101, with an exhibit of his work and a lecture by Janet Zandy at a packed gallery on Michigan Avenue.

A key feature of working-class studies from its beginnings has been interdisciplinarity, the way it draws not only on activism and art, but also on work from all the academic fields in which class can be productively studied.  One example of the benefits of this approach came in the session “Visualizing Work, Class, and Place,” a roundtable discussion of Derrick Jones’s eloquent and haunting film “631.”  This short documentary centers on the house where the Jones family lived, in the largely Black south side neighborhood of Youngstown, now decimated by the effects of deindustrialization.  In addition to the filmmaker, the panel featured historian David Roediger, geographer Carrie Breitbach, and Cultural Studies professor Kathy Newman, each of whom offered a response to the film, reading it within the terms of their discipline.

For instance, Roediger noted how the film corrects a silence in New Labor History about the interior lives of workers, Breitbach observed how landscape can be read to illuminate social justice issues, and Newman drew on her knowledge of film history to notice the horror-movie elements of footage inside the now-burned-out house.  Listening to these readings of his film from three perspectives, Jones commented, “We need this interdisciplinary focus because what we are creating is like a community, a neighborhood.  We each have skill sets that are needed to build it up.”  Or, as one audience member put it:  “The disciplines together expose the full humanity of the story, which is not only about one family, but lots of people, and the demise of a town.”

As at any conference, much of the pleasure and the learning comes around the margins of the official program of panels and plenaries, as people from all over the US, and several countries beyond, eat, walk, talk, and sometimes sing together.  One evening, for instance, I found myself playing guitar and swapping songs with a group that included miner-poet Rab Wilson from Scotland, who recited Robert Burns and sang a US truck-driving ballad; Italian scholar Cinzia Biagiotti, who sang “Bella Ciao” and Joe Hill songs; psychologist Barbara Jensen from Minnesota dueting with Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action on feminist folk-standards; and nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner from Ohio, who shared her haiku.   Of course, the fun and camaraderie of this “wayside learning” can’t really be communicated.

But other forms of knowledge from these meetings can and should be shared between conferences.  Although the WCSA has decided for the time being to hold off starting its own peer-reviewed journal, members at the WCSA business meeting are committed to developing the association’s website as a space for informal publishing and conversation, including conference papers, blogs, videos, and linking to social networks.

In this connection, let me insert a membership plug here:  If you like what you are reading in the Working-Class Perspectives blog and especially if you attended the recent conference, consider supporting the Association’s work by becoming a member (you can join online at the WCSA website). As a member you will be eligible for a discounted subscription to New Labor Forum, the interdisciplinary journal with which WCSA has an editorial partnership.  You will have access to our website, including the Working-Class Notes newsletter and book reviews.  And you will help make future conferences like the event in Chicago possible and affordable.  As a member, you’ll be the first to find out where it will be held and to get the call for proposals.

The 2011 conference concluded with a general assembly on “the future of working-class studies.” It was a rich and lively discussion, and specific suggestions will be taken up by the Steering Committee and reported on in the Fall edition of Working-Class Notes.  As a brief preview, broad questions raised included:

  • how to develop the international reach of working-class studies
  • how to foreground issues of poverty, along with labor, in the field
  • how to work more consciously at the intersections of race, gender and class
  • how to use our institutional know-how to set up new centers of working-class studies.

Why?  Because we’re onto something.  The fact that the working class constitutes a social majority is no longer “America’s Best Kept Secret” (to borrow the title of Mike Zweig’s key book on the subject), and the increased recognition of working-class struggles and cultures owes a lot to pioneers in our field like Zweig, Metzgar, Zandy, Russo, Roediger and Linkon, among many others.

As some at this conference argued, the key to a just and sustainable future for all of us may lie in the alliance of a clearly and inclusively defined working class with a professional middle class that also sees its interests opposed by a small capitalist class (or corporate-political elite, if you prefer) which has been conducting a very conscious class war from above for the past thirty years.  Globally, this capitalist class has been busy grabbing up the planet’s land and resources, converting the global proletariat into a “precariat” of impoverished casual labor, fueling (and denying) climate change, and undermining the democratic processes designed to give the rest of us a voice and vote over these matters.  So yes, we have our work cut out for us, but on the evidence of the Chicago working-class studies conference, this modest sector of the broader movement is up for it.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

This entry was posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Understanding Class and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to We’re On to Something: Reflections on the WCSA Conference

  1. Sara Appel says:

    Nick is so right– WE really are “on to something,” and I think maybe the most important revelation I came away from this year’s conference with is a sense of the potential power of the “we” that we so graciously became. Not that this becoming “we” was and is always seamless or without necessary conflict and disagreement. For instance, two of the panels that I attended wound up in heated Q & A debate over the meaning and value of the terms “privilege” and “social movement.” Folks wondered, ARE these the terms through which we want to invite (or provoke) dialogue about class– and if so, how do they, or should they, function? In the “futures” conversation at the end, we also had to think about the meaning of “Working Class Studies” itself; if, as someone suggested, Working Class Studies is synonymous with “white academic” in the minds of many, how do we go about confronting a problem that has broad implications for the future of the field? The very fact that we, as a group, were unwilling to accept taken-for-granted or simple definitions of concepts at the heart of the way we’ve come to talk about class speaks to our shared sense of the urgency– as Betsy Leondar-Wright so eloquently discussed in her contribution to the “Working Class Majority” panel– of creating a common language through which to give voice to issues that clearly matter to us all. So often, it seemed, our political or ideological “differences” turned out to be not differences at all, but more a matter of learning to speak the same language. Our commitment to figuring out how to “translate” our shared visions, goals, and investments to one another across generational divides– or race and gender divides– made the conflicts that we did have exciting and productive rather than hostile and divisive. So thank you all, very much, for this!


  2. Kathy Newman says:

    Thanks, Nick, for your thoughtful reflections on the conference! It was a wonderful program (thanks Jack!) and it was wonderfully curated and organized (thanks Maria and staff!). I learned so much, met so many awesome people, and I increased my knowledge of and appreciation for Working Class Studies. One of the highlights for me was the panel on the Wisconsin uprising with Will Jones and an engaging panel of activists. It renewed my hope that ordinary people can shape the course of history in the US. I second Nick’s invitation to the blog readers to join the WCSA and attend next years conference!


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