I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.
The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.
The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the sculpture. The piece matters, but we don’t take it too seriously. Dad named it “Employee of the Month,” which usually gets a laugh.
I say that my brother and I come from a working-class family, even though Dad’s salary as a clock-punching, union-protected, steel mill worker probably put our family financially in the lower middle class in the area of rural western Pennsylvania I grew up in. But culturally, we were working class. Dad worked in the Hot Mill Combustion department at the Armco steel mill in Butler, so the furnaces that melted the steel were his responsibility. His dad worked in the rail yard at the Pullman-Standard rail car mill across the street from Armco, and he worked a second job as a plasterer. Our other grandpa was a truck driver. Our uncle is a carpenter at a state university. The women in our family worked just as hard as the men, mostly as homemakers, and occasionally in the service industry.
I was raised to work hard. My dad’s dad shared stories about (mis)adventures navigating rail cars through the rail yard on his midnight shift at the mill, and then spending the following morning plastering walls and ceilings around town. I’ve helped—well, mostly watched—as my uncle built a porch for my grandparents’ single-wide trailer one Saturday morning. My dad went off to work wearing steel–toed boots, carrying his hard hat and lunch pail. On the weekends, my brother and I helped Dad clear our property, stacking logs as he ran the chainsaw. Mom kept the house and clothes clean and always had a homemade meal on the table.
I was always good at school, so that’s what I worked at the hardest. But, while I was smart and determined, sometimes I got lost. I didn’t always know how to ask questions or where to go to get the information I needed. When I encountered difficulties, my family wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to offer suggestions, but they encouraged me to ask questions and not to be intimidated by authority figures. I also benefitted from being a straight white male in a society that often subtly privileges that identity. Often I found my way only because when I was unsure who to ask, I felt comfortable asking everyone.
Then, one semester for a sociology class, I read the article “Moving Up from the Working Class,” by Joan Morris and Michael Grimes. They share interviews with sociologists from working-class families who identified two difficulties in their own experiences. The first was a deficit in cultural capital. Because of their cultural background, the respondents felt they sometimes lacked the social skills necessary to do well in academic settings. The second involved a contradiction: while their parents encouraged them to “do better,” which implied going to college and likely working a job that did not involve manual labor, the parents also advanced a culture that valued manual labor over other forms of work. Manual labor was acknowledged in a way that intellectual or managerial work was not. So, while they had attained good positions in their field, their work often did not feel real or legitimate. Their stories gave me some perspective and provided some language for me to make sense of my experiences. It also helped me realize how useful sociology can be in helping a person make sense of how their individual opportunities are shaped by their social situations.
Back in college, I told one of my professors, Jim Perkins, about my dad working at the mill. He shared a story based on his experiences in a mill. The story begins at a local bar, when someone states that, “Professors have never worked a day in their life.” The protagonist of the story, like the professor in real life, accepted this as a challenge and spent his summer working in a local galvanizing mill. The rest of the story overflows with images of hard work and calamity, but he was ultimately welcomed into the group of mill workers with a round of shots at the bar after the last shift of his probationary period. I am motivated by the same forces, but in the opposite direction. He was working to show that a professor can be competent and capable in a mill, while also using the experience in his professional work to demonstrate the value of stories. I am working to show that a kid from a working-class family can be a competent and capable academic, while also demonstrating the practical value of academic lessons.
A friend pointed out that the maintenance of masculinity must play a role in how I think of work, and she’s right. Family members will make jokes about how soft my hands are or suggest that maybe I am “afraid” of getting dirty. So when I go home, I’ll do things like run the chainsaw and help my uncle with a project. Ironically, work rules at the university prevent me from actually hanging the sculpture on my office wall myself. This work will be done by a carpenter, someone with the same job as my uncle, not a professor.
When I go home, my family will make good-natured jokes about “the professor” lacking common sense or about academic work being easy. I counter their tales of hard work with my own. I describe the mental grind of preparing lesson plans, leading classes, grading papers, doing research, attending meetings, and advising students. One reason I am hanging this sculpture on my wall is because it expresses the cultural understandings of work I carry with me. I attempt to communicate between both worlds. I understand the accomplishment and pride of physical labor, but I also understand the persistent curiosity and mental tenacity necessary for academic work. When I am having trouble concentrating on reading, or struggling to find the words to write, I think about all the work that my family has done. I think about the clean laundry and homemade meals my mother made, as well as my grandfather driving another ten miles, my other grandfather changing clothes and heading off to a second shift of work, my uncle hammering nails, my Dad fixing a furnace. This sculpture reminds me that this office is comfortable, and that much of the work my family has done was not.
My brother and I were also lucky that our family trusted that we would make good choices about college and careers. It was only after I had lived for several years on a near poverty-level graduate student stipend, and my brother began working towards a Masters in Fine Arts, that our family really began asking about the risks we were taking. There are real risks. My brother and I have both taken on substantial student loan debt. We’re both pursuing advanced degrees in fields that have tough job markets. Neither of us has figured it all out. But we’re both making careful decisions about our career paths, and we’re both passionate about doing our work.
When visitors to my office ask, and sometimes even when they don’t, I’ll tell them about the sculpture and what it represents. And after discussing my family’s work, I’ll return to my own. I am only beginning as an assistant professor. I’ve got work to do.
Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater State University who teaches and studies urban sociology and inequality with an emphasis on understanding place as a social structure shaping opportunities.
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While I enjoyed / empathized with the article, I continue to be a little flummoxed by the seriously muddied concept of the working class. In one sense, I suspect pure working class is very tiny in a developed economy — probably 5% or less. My conceptualization is historic — that 500 years ago there were only two significant classes; the landed gentry, whose incomes came from rents on the land they owned; and the peasantry, whose incomes came from hard physical labor working that land. That gradually there grew a “middle” class in between these two: Members of this class did not have substantial inherited land whose rents would support them; they had to work for a living. But they worked more with their minds than with their hands; They were artisans who knew how to work iron or clay for example, or merchants who knew where they could procure goods cheaply and where they could sell them dear, or teachers who knew how to read & write. By this conceptualization, none of King’s immediate ancestors (or mine) were truly from the peasantry — in substantial degree their living came from their employing what they knew (e.g., carpentry, or knowledge of the care & feeding of a melt furnace). Perhaps I would be more at ease if I (you?) conceptualized “working class” as “lower middle class”. That, of course, aggravates our ability to understand, for now we’re acknowledging that this may all be on a continuum from High%-Physical-Labor + Low%-Knowledge on up to Low%-Physical-Labor + High%-Knowledge — that is, that there may not be distinct, “hard-edged” classes
Marx defines labor as a commodity because it is bought and sold on the market place like any other commodity in capitalism. This labor force is a direct outgrowth of the need of capitalists to produce commodities. Commodities are not just goods but they are also services. Thus, the concept of a middle class, lower class, professional, blue collar and white collar are not real class distinctions. All these groups must sell their labor in order to earn a living. They are all working class. These distortions put forward by social scientists and perpetuated by the capitalist media help divide the working class so that people in these groups perceive their economic interests to be in conflict with each other. Capitalism benefits greatly by this class division.
But by the same token, aren’t all members of this broad working / middle class also capitalists? Isn’t one of the distinctive characteristics of the middle class a willingness to delay gratification? To invest in their future? Particularly, to invest effort, years & money into an education? Indeed, it is common to refer to this as “human capital.” And I believe education has usually been considered the best single correlate for social class.
I would submit that these middle class workers enjoy two income streams; a labor income stream and a rents-on-capital stream. The accountant, for example, gets paid to (literally) push the pencil, but the majority of his/her income is coming from the rent his/her employer is paying for his/her knowledge. (And if, heaven forfend, he/she should have a stroke and lose all that knowledge — but still be able to push the pencil — his/her wage would drop precipitously to whatever aimless pencil-pushing might be worth.) Also, those with highly specialized (read, “scarce”) knowledge — think Federal-tax accounting consultants — can rent it at very high hourly rates.
Many others in this working / middle class largely achieve these dual labor + capital income streams by saving up their (predominantly) labor wages and becoming small scale capitalists: E.g., the truck driver who eventually manages to buy his/her own rig and become an independent owner / operator. Or the carpenter who takes over a foreclosed fixer-upper and, with a lot of sweat-equity, becomes a landlord. The barber/hairdresser who buys out his/her retiring employer and now has his/her own shop. The college professor, who socked away a small percent each month in TIAA/CREF and now has a million dollar portfolio.
I agree that we probably do ourselves injury by perceiving the economic interests of others to be in conflict with our own. But I suspect greater amity between labor and capital would also be to their mutual benefit. This is a cooperative / joint-product, not a zero-sum, activity.
Thank you for your reply.
1)There is no question education generally is of great benefit to working people because workers usually acquire skills making them much more marketable as a commodities in the labor force. This can predictably lead to far greater income, a far more comfortable way of life and more economic choices. Poor people who are poorly educated, hold low wage jobs or who have no job at all, covet the rewards of education no less than so-called “middle class” persons. It is highly misleading to suggest that such persons belong to a different class because they appear unwilling to delay gratification. If many of these people really believed they had chance to get a good education they would seize upon it in a minute. If these people sometimes appear to make choices based on short term considerations rather than long term considerations, it is most likely out of desperation and the belief that they have no other options. This does not separate them from the working class as a whole. Far from it. They still must of necessity sell their labor in the capitalist marketplace. Likewise, becoming more marketable in the labor force does not mean you cease to be a member of the working class either. Both of these constructions are false.
2)All the wages paid for labor come out of capital. If you haven’t, I recommend you read Marx’s “Capital.” Rent on capital is merely another form of wages to the accountant (worker). Wages are provided by employers in all kinds of ways. They do not have to be provide on an hourly basis. The knowledge of the accountant is no different than the knowledge of the welder or the plumber. Each worker brings a unique set of skills, training, and experience to their job. This knowledge may be in high demand in the capitalist marketplace or it may not be. High demand skills and knowledge usually translate into high paying jobs in the capitalist economy because capitalists are willing to pay more to get them. Thus like any other commodity, the price for labor is governed by the laws of supply and demand.
3)It is indeed possible for a few within the working class to rise into the ranks of small business. Marx referred to the small business class as the petti bourgeoisie. The numbers of workers able to achieve this are very small. This class will most often identify its class interests with the giant capitalists but this is not always the case. Its class identification can be conflicted. Ultimately however, the interests of working class economic democratic control are not served by the working class aligning itself to the petti bourgeoisie.
4)Capitalism creates the internal contradictions that lead to its demise. The only cooperatives that make sense are worker owned and controlled cooperatives. Such coops do exist in our own economy and work very well but that is comment for another time.
My grandfather participated in the 1936 sit-down strike in the auto industry. My grandmother participated in organized efforts of the wives of strikers to provide aid to the striking workers in the plants. During the organizing for union recognition, my grandfather was beaten up more than once by anti-union thugs. These were my grandparents on my mother’s side. My grandfather on my father’s side was also an autoworker and a member of the U.A.W. My grandfathers never attained better than an eighth grade education. As a young man, my father was also an autoworker and a member of the U.A.W. In the early 1950s he was blacklisted in Detroit and Flint for his “radical” union activism and could not find a job. All these people are gone now. The only family records we have now are the photos and written accounts of what was left of their legacy. I am trying to build a family tree on Ancestry.com so that no one living in the family will forget what they left to us.
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Actually, I was repelled by just the thesis of the pot; I prefer a British working-class label for those who work hard: Rate-Busters.
But equating being a worker with working hard is certainly a position the capitalists must love.
Nice zinger, Carrol. Ask any ace salesman or expert factory pieceworker what his extraordinary efforts have netted him. Managements are at first delighted, then suspicious and resentful, of the worker who surpasses expectations.
Working hard on your own account, either as a proprietor or hobbyist, is a different story.
I’m proud of your essay my friend. Of course I would have suggested some edits just like the old days but I’m going to have my students read it in my inequality class next semester.
Reblogged this on Conditionally Accepted and commented:
Here is a great post by Dr. Colby King that reflects on his experiences in academia as a scholar from a working-class background. Check it out at https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/