Category Archives: Sherry Linkon

Where Does the Working Class Fit in the Knowledge Economy?

I recently attended a meeting with a “knowledge management” expert who wants local leaders to help her team create a “knowledge index” of Youngstown. She was enthusiastic about helping the city tap into local resources for community development. The information provided by the knowledge index, she told us, would allow local residents to make choices about the kind of future they want to create here. When I suggested that Youngstown’s real problem is long-term unemployment and poverty, she explained that the “industrial economy” is over. We’re now in the “knowledge economy,” and opportunity rests on information and technology.

This is hardly a surprise. We all know that manufacturing is no longer the core of the U.S. economy. Even as some factory jobs rebound, wages and benefits for those jobs have fallen significantly. Some of the decline in manufacturing is tied to the knowledge economy, as automation enables increasing productivity with ever fewer workers. Still, knowledge has not entirely erased production. Autoworkers and steel fabricators regularly use computers at some of Youngstown’s larger employers, including the General Motors Lordstown plant.

The service sector is even more important, but many of those jobs are also low-skill and low-wage – even if they are part of the knowledge economy. The customer service work at local call centers clearly involves technology and information, but at Infocision, which employs more than 1000 people in the Youngstown area, wages start at just $9.50 an hour. Many service jobs have little connection with the knowledge economy, and as Jack Metzgar and I have discussed before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most growth in jobs outside of the knowledge sector – personal and home health care aides, fast food preparation, janitors. These jobs can’t be done by machines or moved to a place with cheaper labor, but they offer lousy wages and minimal benefits. And promoting the knowledge economy won’t help these workers.

The problem isn’t only that the knowledge economy ignores many workers. It also erases working-class knowledge. Most definitions of the “knowledge economy” exclude the kinds of interpersonal or embodied expertise that are central to industrial and service jobs. As Mike Rose argued in his 2004 book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, waitresses, hairdressers, welders, and other blue-collar workers don’t use only their bodies on the job. They make decisions, use specialized tools and terminology, and interact strategically with customers and co-workers. As Rose writes, their work represents “agency and competence.” Such knowledge is difficult to trace or quantify. When the knowledge management expert asked me how we could document and preserve industrial knowledge – an important question – I thought immediately of Rose’s study, which relied on interviews and observations. Such knowledge isn’t likely to show up in data sets. Capturing it takes time and effort.

Perhaps ironically, that kind of knowledge is making an appearance in the latest trend: makerspaces. Downstairs from where we met to discuss the knowledge index is the Oak Hill Collaborative’s makerspace, where, according to the Collaborative’s Executive Director Pat Kerrigan, retired welders and electricians regularly come together with teenagers and younger adults to design and build everything from clothing to generators. Such spaces are popping up in cities around the country. They’re also the hot new thing in education, as creative, hands-on learning is touted as a promising pedagogical model. Educause, the national organization that promotes technology in education, argues that makerspaces provide “zones of self-directed learning” and “support invention, provide the ultimate workshop for the tinkerer and the perfect educational space for individuals who learn best by doing.” If we value such embodied learning, then we ought to view industrial workers as central to the knowledge economy.

But we don’t. The idea that the knowledge economy has replaced the outmoded industrial economy suggests that blue-collar workers are stuck in the past or simply irrelevant. A knowledge economy implies that those with less education are less valuable and therefore less deserving of decent wages, benefits, or good working conditions. Worse, this notion blames workers for making poor choices. In the knowledge economy, if you don’t go to school, then it’s your fault that you can’t get a good job.

Of course, those who do go to college aren’t necessarily guaranteed better jobs. In a recent article on “The Frenzy about High-Tech Talent,” Andrew Hacker cites a 2014 study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research showing that 28 percent of engineering graduates and 38 percent of graduates in computer science were either unemployed or worked in jobs that didn’t require such degrees. As computer scientist Norman Matloff told Hacker, all those warnings that companies needed more workers with high-tech skills actually reflect employers’ desire to lower wages, not a real shortage of workers.

Meanwhile, alongside the industrial, service, and knowledge economies that all leave workers struggling economically, many working-class people have created an alternative economy. As anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe told Derek Thompson in a recent article on “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic, we’re seeing the end of “a particular kind of wage work.” Instead, Woodroofe has found, people rely on informal networks to barter goods and services and arrange for short-term jobs. Many reject the idea that a good life involves upward mobility or consumption. They value self-sufficiency. They have, as Thompson writes, “made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency.”

This, too, reflects a kind of working-class knowledge that does not appear in most discussions of the knowledge economy, in part because those conversations often emphasize economic development, which always implies improvement, if not growth. While some have suggested that the knowledge economy will improve the quality of work life by giving workers greater satisfaction and flexibility (which they may not value as much as their employers do), planners and development agencies often disregard the potential of the alternative economy. That might be because, as Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige argue, writing about the urban agriculture movement in A Detroit Anthology, such efforts are part of a social and economic revolution that challenges capitalism.

As my colleague explained at that meeting, “knowledge economy” is the term that economists have coined to describe the contemporary era. While it has its uses, especially in describing the sometimes intangible economic activity of software development, the financial sector, business services, and education, the term captures only part of the economic landscape. The “knowledge economy” leaves out the working class, consigning industrial workers to the past and service workers to the margins. It may also blind development experts to working-class knowledge that deserves more, not less, attention.

Sherry Linkon

Twenty Years of Working-Class Studies

This week, the Working-Class Studies Association will hold its annual conference. This year’s conference is special in two ways.

First, this year the WCSA is partnering with the Labor and Working-Class History Association for a joint conference. With two organizations involved, we expect more than 400 people to attend the Fighting Inequality conference and/or present their work. As always, the conference will include academic papers but also plenaries with activists, artists, and scholars from several disciplines talking about working-class issues. We’ll also have film screenings (in partnership with the DC Labor Film Festival), poetry and music performances, workshops, and a DC Labor History tour. All of that is pretty typical for a working-class studies conference, since the field has always been committed both to bringing more (and better) attention to class within the academy and to connecting in meaningful ways with working-class people and movements.

This year’s conference is also special because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the first working-class studies conference, which we organized with several colleagues at Youngstown State University in May of 1995. That conference helped to create the Center for Working-Class Studies (CWCS), the first of its kind in the US. That more than 150 scholars, activists, artists, and other interested folks came to Youngstown to spend a weekend talking about working-class lives demonstrated need to establish Working-Class Studies as an academic discipline. With support from the Ford Foundation in 2000, the CWCS helped to build that field, including several other centers around the US.

The conference also left us with two big questions that would shape our work at the CWCS. One was inspired by composition scholar Gary Tate, who reminded us of the value of supporting and facilitating other people’s work – an essential form of academic labor. At the conference, Tate spoke with a number of participants about his next project: an edited collection exploring how teachers’ class backgrounds shaped their work in the classroom. Editing a book wasn’t new for Tate. He’d helped develop composition studies through this kind of facilitative labor. Moving forward from the conference, one of the questions we asked ourselves was “How will the work we’re doing help to develop the field?”

That question led us to another: “Working-class studies for whom?” From the beginning, we believed that those of us engaged in working-class studies should pursue two ideals. First, building a field had to be about more than creating a space for our own work. On the academic side, we focused on outreach and organizing, trying to engage colleagues from across the disciplines with research and teaching about class. Even more important, we needed to reach beyond academic work, to ensure that we did not approach the working class merely as the object of study. We needed to collaborate with working-class people and communities, in local unions halls, in our classrooms, in political and organizing campaigns.

We were always concerned that working-class studies could become overly theoretical and distant from working people’s lives. We committed to writing and speaking in accessible, inclusive ways, and we also looked for opportunities to reach beyond academic audiences. Working-Class Perspectives is one result of that effort. We hoped that what we wrote and posted here would reach not only other academics but also workers, students, and journalists. Commentaries from Working-Class Perspectives have led dozens of journalists from print and broadcast journalism to interview our contributors, and the blog is assigned reading in many high school and college courses. In our first year, 2008, WCP had about 7500 hits. In 2014, we had almost 107,000 views from readers in more than 100 countries. One recent post was read by over 10,000 people within three days.

We have good reasons to celebrate this week’s anniversary. We have not done all of the things people suggested at the closing plenary of our first conference. When we asked, “If there was a Center for Working-Class Studies, what would it be doing?” our colleagues generated over 180 suggestions that ranged from basic vocational education to “starting a revolution.” Florence Howe cornered us afterward with wise advice: “pick five.”

At first, the Center for Working-Class Studies was an information clearinghouse and orphanage for academics who thought no one else on their campuses cared about class. Over time, the CWCS Studies helped launch working-class studies as an academic field of inquiry that engages in a wide range of academic and activist work. Along with publishing articles and books, we and our colleagues teach hundreds of courses about class, collaborate with workers and our students to create films and exhibits about working-class stories, work on labor issues and campaigns, help non-profit organizations understand how class shapes their work, and work with unions and other organizations on issues of peace, climate change, and electoral politics.

A few years ago, we announced that the CWCS was closing, but a few of our colleagues at YSU are trying to revive it. While their work is just beginning, our work continues on through the Working-Class Studies Association and the Center Working-Class Studies Legacy Fund,* which helped fund this year’s conference. We look forward to seeing many of our readers at Georgetown University this week, where we’ll talk about all of this work, toast to twenty years of working-class studies, and consider how we can continue fighting inequality.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

Founding Members and Former Co-Directors

Center for Working-Class Studies

*If you would like to contribute to the CWCS Legacy Fund to support the future of working-class studies, please download this donation form.  Thanks for your help.

The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.

 

This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.

 

Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.

 

More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.

 

To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

What Works — and What Doesn’t — about Obama’s Free Community College Proposal

In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama will once again argue that higher education is, as he put it in a preview video, “the key to success for our kids in the 21st century.” To increase access, he has proposed to make community college free for two years for students who are “willing to work for it” by maintaining a 2.5 GPA and attending school at least half time. Along with helping “our kids” go to college, he notes, the program would give adults “the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.” The concept is modeled on the Tennessee Promise, which is in turn based on a tnAchieves, a private scholarship program that supported almost 12,000 students in its first six years and led to a dramatic increase in the number of degrees awarded at participating schools.

Obama’s proposal recognizes two realities: that money is a barrier to entry into higher education and that community colleges play an important role in helping poor and working-class people prepare for jobs that require specialized training. Reducing the cost of going to community college and encouraging students to enroll in programs that lead to better jobs can move some people from precarity to stability.

Not surprisingly, critics pounced on the plan. Some argued that community colleges have a poor track record on graduation rates and on successful transfer to four-year schools. Such claims assume that low graduation rates reflect institutional failure, not the challenges and complexities of students’ lives – including working enough hours to pay tuition. Community colleges could do a better job of helping students graduate, perhaps by decreasing faculty teaching loads so they could give more attention to individual students. That’s hard to do if you’re teaching five or six courses a semester. Mentoring programs also help. Part of why tnAchieves succeeded is that along with free tuition it provided one-on-one mentoring and required students to engage in community service.

But to argue that getting more people into community college is a bad idea because too few of them will complete a degree assumes that graduation is the only thing that matters. Is having a degree better than not having it? Almost certainly, but having some college education is also better than having none, especially if students can get the education without going into debt. If a free tuition program brought more students into community colleges without setting them back financially, that would be a gain for those students even if many of them never graduated. College is not only about gaining a credential, after all. It’s about learning, and students can and do learn even when they don’t finish a degree.

Arguments about graduation rates also rely on data about completion of Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees, but community colleges also offer certificates in a wide range of technical areas, providing targeting training for real jobs. For many students, such targeted programs offer the best opportunity for improving their employment and earnings opportunities, and if students could access these programs for free, rather than being lured into over-priced and often under-performing for-profit schools, fewer would fall into the financial trap of student loan debt. Of course, the threat to the for-profit sector is one reason some conservatives reject the proposal: as Forbes magazine warned, the proposal would “move us toward a public monopoly.”

Some critics have suggested that making community college free will attract middle-class students who could afford to pay tuition. As a Washington Post editorial asked, “If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers?” That’s a legitimate concern, though education commentator Richard Kahlenberg argues that bringing more socioeconomic diversity into community colleges represents a socioeconomic version of Brown vs. Board of Education for higher education. It could reduce the “separate but unequal” class segregation of higher education, in which poorer students attend community colleges and better off students go directly to four-year schools. He also suggests that bringing more middle-class students into community colleges would give those schools more political capital, since “programs for poor people tend to be poorly funded. And as the community-college student population has grown poorer, so has the ability to garner adequate educational resources.”

The debate continues, both in support and opposition, but most commentaries ignore two key problems. First, as Jack Metzgar and I have written here several times, while higher education usually does improve the economic opportunities for working-class individuals, it’s an inherently individual fix that ignores the larger problems that drive economic inequality: low wages for the majority of jobs, which require little or no education, and declining wages for almost everyone, including college grads. A College Board report touting the economic benefits of higher education includes a chart showing that for most workers, regardless of their education, wages have declined in real dollars since 1971. In a few categories – women with Bachelor’s degrees and men with advanced degrees – wages in 2011 are about what they were in 1971. Everyone else has seen a drop, including about a $10,000 fall for men with four-year degrees. So while Obama, the College Board, and others are right that people improve their earning potential by getting a degree, such aspirational rhetoric too often distracts us from the larger and more challenging discussion of how to ensure that all workers earn a decent wage.

 

The other problem is simpler and more significant: the proposal will probably never become policy. It will cost an estimated $60 billion over ten years, and one-fourth of funds must come from the states. Neither the current Congress nor state legislatures will allocate that kind of money to higher education. According to the American Council on Education, state funding of higher education declining, and if the trend they traced starting in 1980 continues, “average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059.” So much for making college free, or even affordable.

Despite all of this, I’m heartened by the debate over Obama’s proposal, because it’s doing exactly one thing that Kahlenberg suggests is needed: bringing fresh attention to the sector of higher education that serves the most working-class students. Some of that attention is critical, but the discussion raises important questions about the purposes of education, the interests and needs of poor and working-class students, and the challenges and potential of our working-class colleges.

Sherry Linkon

A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon

Labor Day Reading: New Stories of Work

Labor Day was created in the 1880s as a celebration of work and workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the idea came from either Peter J. Maguire or Matthew Maguire – one a leader in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the other a machinist. Either way, the holiday has its roots in industrial labor and unions, both of which were expanding at the time and have shrunk in recent decades. But changes in work aren’t just about the quantity of jobs. It’s about their quality.

Comments on the shift to a service economy often focus on economic and structural problems. Today’s working-class jobs generally pay less than the industrial, unionized labor of previous generations, and, as a recent series in the New York Times highlighted, uneven schedules and multiple part-time jobs wreak havoc on workers’ lives. But contemporary narratives of work remind us that there is more at stake: today’s jobs offer fewer sources of pride or solidarity.

We can trace the change in contemporary working-class literature. Some pieces emphasize the tedium of factory jobs, as in Tom Wayman’s “Factory Time,” or the way such jobs can leave a worker feeling like a cog in the machine, as Jim Daniels describes in “Digger’s Melted Ice”: “you push two buttons and the press/comes down. Always the same,/so simple you can disappear.” But many classic working-class texts suggest that even when the work is boring and hard, workers feel pride in what they produce and the skills involved. As Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work, working-class jobs are not just manual; they require expertise and judgment. As we learn in novels like Out of This Furnace or Christ in Concrete, knowing how to recognize when molten steel has the right mix of elements or how to construct a brick arch involves knowledge, not just strength. Industrial work can be alienating, but it also leaves workers with a strong sense of having contributed to a large and significant enterprise. In “Last Car,” from her collection Autopsy of an Engine, Lolita Hernandez describes how workers follow the last Cadillac as it moves down the line, crowding in near the end to sign the last engine, proud of their work even as they worry about what lies ahead after the plant closes.

But the satisfaction of work is also social, and workers’ social networks give them at least some power, as Hernandez shows in “Thanks to Abbie Wilson.” After Abbie’s section of the plant closes and she has been reassigned to a janitorial job, she returns to the empty floor where she once worked and re-enacts the process of attaching gaskets to oil pans. In describing Abbie’s performance, Hernandez makes clear that the work can’t be separated from workers’ relationships and the sense of agency those connections provide. Abbie’s former co-workers come to watch her:

And those who observed Abbie long enough were able to see themselves. They were amazed and happy because they all looked so young, energetic, and hopping in ways they hadn’t for years. Abbie waved at them because she knew they were happy to see themselves at their best when struggles with the bosses and each other were at their hottest, when Peanut Man hawked hot roasteds all through the shift, when Sweet Sadie sold her blouses and jewelry, when Red took liquor orders for lunch, when Thanksgiving was one long banquet of tamales and greens, and Dancing John, dressed up as Santa Claus, drove his jitney on the last day of work before Christmas break singing ho, ho, ho we’ll soon be out the doh. (110)

Remembering their younger selves, the workers recall the pleasure not only of being young and strong but also of standing up for themselves against the bosses, an experience of being “at their best” on the job.

Work looks different in a 2010 anthology from Bottom Dog Press, On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work. These stories explore the soul-killing nature of office work, conflicted relationships among workers, and the indignities of low-wage jobs that don’t let a worker sit down for even a moment on her eight-hour shift. Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” considers the limited opportunities for satisfaction in fast food work. While the narrator listens to the assistant manager’s running narrative of her troubled life, and while he eventually helps her through a personal crisis, their relationship remains tense, in part because the job carries different meanings for them. For the assistant manager, it’s a long-term reality, while the narrator is there just for the summer. On the other hand, they share a disdain for the job and for unpleasant customers: “we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.”

In other stories, workers do whatever they must to get by. In M. Kaat Toy’s story, tellingly titled “Any Failure to Obey Orders Will Be Considered an Act of Aggression,” a laid-off social worker now does the jobs “of people she might previously have helped,” busing tables at a restaurant and cleaning hotel rooms. She and her co-workers accept mistreatment from their bosses because, as one indicates, “I’m only in it for the money.” No one at the restaurant or hotel where she works seems to expect satisfaction from the job.

Nor do such jobs offer many opportunities for solidarity, as Dean Bakopoulos suggests in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. In the novel, a retail worker who’s taking a labor history class tries to organize a sit-down strike at the mall on Black Friday, modeled on the Flint strike of the 1930s. The story suggests some key differences between retail workers and their grandfathers, who, Bakopoulos tells us, worked at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge. The clerks work for many different large corporations, most of which are based somewhere else, so even though they share common problems at work – petty store managers, uneven schedules, low pay — they don’t have a common employer. They also don’t see these jobs as permanent, even though they have no other options or plans at the time. Shared conditions of labor and inspiring stories can’t overcome their fear of job loss, so only a few show up for the strike. For them, solidarity means getting together for a drink and a wet t-shirt contest at a bar next to the mall, not organizing or standing together to fight for better working conditions.

These days, Americans are more likely to celebrate Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer than as an opportunity to honor workers, and these stories suggest that the change in the holiday’s meaning reflects changes in work and working-class culture. As we head into September, it might be too late for a summer reading list, but it’s not too late to pay attention to the losses for workers captured in contemporary literature about work.

Sherry Linkon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon