As Donald Trump and his ilk on the world stage strip labor protections and human rights under the guise of faux populism, writers, workers, artists, and activists have refused to submit to the chicanery. An international crisis requires an international response. Enter stage left: “Working-Class Studies Beyond the Heartlands,” the Working-Class Studies Association (WCSA) conference happening this week at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. At this first WCSA conference held outside of the United States, 250 delegates from 20 countries will bear witness to the past, present, and future of working-class life, labor, culture, and community, refusing to let dignity be downsized.
A cornerstone event at the annual conference is the Awards Dinner honoring work in the field. As past-president and chair of this year’s Awards Committee, I was honored to assemble fantastic works published in 2018 for consideration for our six awards. On behalf of the WCSA, I extend our deep appreciation to the scholars, poets, and professionals from multiple disciplines who took time to review and offer meaningful comments on the nearly 40 nominations. Their invisible labor deserves recognition.
The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism reveal the power of text and media to engage and inspire people across time and space. Judges agreed that Rubén Vega and Irene Díaz’s Memorias Culturales de un Pasado Industrial, a “film that inspires,” was the winner. The film offers a powerful example of work that excavates a usable past. As one judge explained, it “beautifully weaves the stories of more than a dozen local artists in Asturias, Spain, to create a compelling and provocative documentary about how the history of the mining industry and labor protest has shaped the landscape.” Another wrote that the collective memory captured in the film gives new meaning to industrialized space “beyond nostalgia,” reclaiming past struggles and their relevance in the present. The project offers a “living testimony of artistic expression devoted to the memory of working-class history and culture where, in telling their own story, in their words, they resist the narrative of silence and erasure.”
The 2018 nominations for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences reveal the breadth of our interdisciplinary field and its transnational reach with books exploring, among other topics, the history of occupational health and safety, social protest in South Africa, activism in Chicago, strategies for dismantling racism, comic book representations of working-class life and labor, Mexican migration, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) workers, sexual violence in the workplace, the art of resistance on five continents, dockworker solidarity in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, international struggles for economic justice and civil rights, and late twentieth-century British working-class writing and community publishing. These books signal our collective strength in the fight for workers on the job and off. Sherry Lee Linkon won for her book, The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing about Economic Restructuring. In this “inventive and pathbreaking” study, a judge wrote, Linkon offers a “bold intervention into the scholarship on working-class literature and culture.” In examining contemporary working-class literature, Linkon “succumbs to neither nostalgia/celebration nor cynicism/condemnation. Instead, the book reveals the intelligence, courage, tenacity, and creativity of many of those who live and labor in the ‘rust belt.’” A judge concluded that the book’s “graceful and intricate close readings of texts . . . elaborate class in deeply human ways and on multiple levels, exploring, for example, the meaning of work or loss of work, beyond just the economic hardship and pain.”
The John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences also covered a wide range of material, including opioid use and the decline of union affiliation, industrial identity and sense of place in the UK, labor union membership and organizational utility in South Korea, the meaning of work in The Walking Dead, depictions of class in Victorian fiction, and the literary activism of a Jamaican fiction writer. This year’s award goes to Peter Cole for his essay, “Durban Dockers, Labor Internationalism, and Pan-Africanism,” published in Choke Points: Logistic Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain. A judge described Cole’s essay as “A far-ranging—if pithy—examination of how black dockworkers around the world (and throughout time) have set aside their own immediate concerns to use collective action in support of other people of color, especially in Africa.” The article is “accessible and engaging for broader audiences” and offers hopeful lessons about “ways of resisting global capital and violence.” Another judge wrote that the essay’s particular strength lies in “the conversation it creates between workers and global capitalism. Workers are often discussed as non-agentive cogs in ever-expanding networks of neoliberal global flows, but Cole offers a case study that inverts this narrative” and will inspire others “to investigate other kinds of ‘chokepoints’. . . where workers have the potential to exercise agency and where unions are relevant.”
Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that “[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.” The collection is “one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,” and it reveals “the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.” Another noted “Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist” to reveal “the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.” The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, “the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.” Another praised “[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.” A third described Learning to Heal as “the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.”
The submissions for this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation signal that the field is advancing in productive directions, including deepening study of class and education and new forms of work. In her winning project, The New Entrepreneur: Worker Experiences in the Sharing Economy, Alexandrea J. Ravenelle brings much-needed attention to the gig economy. A judge commented that in-depth interviews with TaskRabbit workers, Uber drivers, and AirBnB hosts enable Ravenelle to show “that many of today’s gig workers are working under 19th century conditions.” The dissertation is “a compelling read, and essential for mounting a resistance to the erosion of worker protections.” Another judge appreciated how the project “reveals the ways in which work, and life more broadly, has become precarious for many.”
The winner of this year’s Jake Ryan Award is Didier Eribon, for his book Returning to Reims. The award honors Jake Ryan, a co-editor of Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, the first known working-class academics anthology published in the United States, The award recognizes writing by someone of working-class origins that speaks to issues of importance to the working-class academic experience. A judge explained that while the French writer and scholar Didier Eribon is best known for his work on Foucault and queer/gay issues in France, in this book he “comes out as working class, something that he says was incomparably more difficult than coming out as gay.” This “tells the reader so much about the significance of class for the French intellectual elite despite a radical class history in the country.” Eribon’s book “brings working class scholarship to a French audience and moreover brings together a discussion of class and sexuality that is long overdue.” A second judge appreciated how Eribon “faithfully represents the working-class experience, while also taking careful steps not to purport to speak for the working class, often questioning the motives of those who do.” They also noted how “the book grapples with identity and the meaning of home, particularly when that home imposes insult and stigma.” Returning to Reims is “masterpiece of memoir and critical theory.”
Congratulations to all the awardees and those whose work was nominated. Their work shows the depth and urgency of working-class studies. The rich array of disciplines, methods, theories, and practices of this field will also be on display at this week’s conference and a fringe festival organized with the Gulbenkian Theatre. Conference Sessions and public-access events, including poetry readings, performances, workshops, a lecture, and a film showing, will explore working-class lives and cultures, promote dialogue, and inspire action.
Terry Easton is an associate professor of English at the University of North Georgia. He has published essays on workers such as day laborers, coal miners, and deaf children. His 2016 book, Raising Our Voices, Breaking the Chain: The Imperial Hotel Occupation as Prophetic Politics, documents struggles for affordable housing development in Atlanta since 1990.