Steinbeck and the Refugee Crisis

“No home no job no peace no rest”
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

As a British immigrant to the US, one key difference I notice between me and most Americans is that I did not read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. Actually, an informal survey reveals that some acquaintances settled for the Cliff Notes or the movie of John Steinbeck’s epic tale of Oklahoma farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s for the false promise of work and plenty in California — rather than the 600-page text.

Having read it, I’m wondering why The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best-known novel of working-class life in the US, featuring on most top 100 lists of great American literature and earning Steinbeck a Pulitzer and eventually a Nobel Prize. What does it say about poverty, dispossession, migration, and survival in capitalism’s global hub that made it required reading for the nation’s youth?

A 1940 reviewer offers what has become the standard schoolroom answer: “It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.” This is uplifting – and it has a basis in Ma Joad’s famous claim that “We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on” – but it is less than half the story. And its implication that this is a uniquely American drama is at best anachronistic and at worst nativist: are the Joads “authentic” because they are white?

Since the novel is still on the curriculum, what are its assumed lessons for today? Might it speak to the global refugee crisis now unfolding, when masses of poor and working-class people are on the move, fleeing violence, famine, and environmental degradation in their homelands. Most of the migrants in the news are from war-torn Syria and North Africa. In the future most will be climate refugees (as many as 200 million by 2050, in some estimates) driven out by desertification, sea level rise, and “extreme weather events” like floods and typhoons — or the drought and dust storms that displaced the Okies.

In Reading the Grapes of Wrath (2014) Susan Shillinglaw draws the connection: “the Syrian picture seems not unlike the story of 1930s croppers in Dust Bowl Oklahoma at the mercy of California agribusiness.” Citing Thomas Friedman’s “Without Water, Revolution,” she notes the combination of anti-small-farmer politics and severe long-term drought as elements in the “lethal ecological mix” fueling that regional war.   The livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders were wiped out and the countryside evacuated. Assad’s tyranny and US military support for regime change have only made matters more desperate.

Europe is the current front-line of the escalating clash between relatively prosperous nations and those seeking refuge. On August 27 2015 — just one day in what has been a deadly summer for migrants worldwide — 71 people, mostly Syrians, including a family with four children, were found decomposing in a refrigerator truck abandoned by a highway in Austria. Another 200 refugees — from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Syria — drowned off a capsized fishing boat near the coast of Libya. The Mediterranean has claimed at least 2500 migrants’ lives so far this year.

A year ago, the US was the headline-grabbing locus of the refugee crisis, with 68,000 children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, detained entering the US without their parents and without immigration papers. Donald Trump promises to build a steel fence along the 2000 miles of the US-Mexico border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the US. Not to be outdone in nativist fantasy, rival candidate Scott Walker also calls for a wall between the US and Canada. These proposals are popular with self-described “white nationalist” voters, suggesting that, as Trump’s advisor Roger Stone likes to say, “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.”

Steinbeck thought otherwise. Preacher Casy, a lead character in Grapes, “love[s] people so much, I’m fit to bust.” The novelist invited readers along on the Joads’ exodus in part so that we too could come to love them, their human peculiarities, their togetherness, their will to survive. And this is the appeal typically celebrated in the novel, from the earliest reviews to the most recent commentary. As Shillinglaw puts it, this is “not a novel of social reform” but “a message to the human heart,” provoking “empathy for working people.” But is this all the novel offers, and is it enough?

Steinbeck had more in mind, as he later wrote: “these migrant people with their clear thrust are destined to be a large determining factor in the imminent social change. And I love them for it.”   Surely the “clear thrust” Steinbeck admired in his characters includes the “wrath” of his title: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy.” This anger is directed at the people and the power structures responsible for the economic catastrophe which combined with “extreme weather” to make them refugees and keep them impoverished.

The Grapes of Wrath is profoundly critical book. It blasts the interlocking systems of land ownership, finance capital, and political cronyism that dispossess the farmers. It shames the isolating self-interest of the owners and bankers (“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’”) and the violence of their associations. And it demonstrates the consequences in pillaged farmland, decimated families, stillborn babies, and starving parents.

Equally clear in the narrative is the migrants’ “thrust” to do more than survive: the determination to push back against those systems and push forward into making a life of dignity in a place of their choosing. This is the essence of Tom Joad’s parting pledge to Ma as he goes on the lam near the novel’s end. If, as Casy told him, “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one,” then dead or alive, Tom says “I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom speaks versions of these words – with their obvious resonance for our era of extreme inequality and police killings — in the coda of John Ford’s 1940 movie of the novel, and in the final stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Perhaps the enduring thrust of the story is the call to “be there,” to supply the missing response to the “imminent social change.”

We see one answer today in the groundswell of support by ordinary people across Europe for welcoming and hosting the migrants, while their governments discuss quotas and border enforcement, and some build razor-wire fences.  In this crisis, food, shelter, safety, and a human greeting are great gifts, as were the resettlement camps that welcomed a lucky few Okies in 1930s California. But Steinbeck’s novel also provokes other responses: a clear understanding of the forces driving out the refugees, as well as a vivid grasp of the meanings of home and homeland — and the trauma of being uprooted from them.

Nick Coles

Class Meets Climate in Barbara Kingsolver’s Fiction

“In American life,” wrote Meridel LeSueur in the 1930s, “you hear things happening in a far and muffled way.” She was referring to the labor conflicts of the time, but she also suggests that awareness of class division and conflict has always been muffled by a national ideology of competitive individualism. Today, despite instant mass communication, climate change, too, seems to be happening in a far and muffled way. Except when it comes roaring ashore like Super Storm Sandy, our responses to a rolling catastrophe are subsumed in the daily business of getting ahead or getting by. Or awareness is actively muffled by climate deniers’ disinformation. Of course, LeSueur implies, good writing can pierce the veil of ideology and make large themes like class and climate vivid and consequential.

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior does that and more: it explores the connections between class and climate in a way that is rare in North American fiction. It’s the story of a Tennessee farm family coping with the effects on their livelihood of a depressed economy and weird weather patterns. The protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow, a twenty-something stay-at-home mother of two with an urge for “flight” from her marriage and possibly towards a college education. The book’s culture is intensely local. We get to know Feathertown and its people, the Turnbows, and their farm intimately.

At the same time, Kingsolver creates expanding circles of connection and consequence, linking local and global effects of climate change. She also dramatizes the discourses — science, religion, politics — that claim to interpret these effects. At the novel’s center, intertwined with Dellarobia’s story, is the anomalous migration of millions of monarch butterflies to the hills above her house. Local evangelicals hail the arrival of these amazing creatures as a sign of God’s blessing. Scientists see their attempt to winter in Tennessee as a symptom of a biological crisis, jeopardizing more than the butterflies’ survival.

“The problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract,” writes Michelle Dean in Slate. Indeed most climate fiction is sci-fi, setting the calamity in future worlds. But Flight Behavior shows changes happening here and now. On the Turnbow’s sheep farm persistent rain has saturated pastures, spoiled the hay crop, and messed up lambing season. A neighbor’s orchard has failed to produce, roads have been washed out, and worse flooding is on the way. Like the marks of the Great Recession on the novel – sketchy employment, second-hand shopping — these events are based in actuality. Torrential rains and a deadly “1000 year flood” hit Tennessee in 2010.

Kingsolver’s one leap into speculative fiction is her invention of the butterflies’ mis-migration to southern Appalachia.   Monarchs still make the trip to Mexico, though their winter habitat in the mountains of Michoaclán is threatened.   Heavy rains on those mountains produced flooding and landslides that destroyed the town of Angangueo, killing at least thirty people — also in 2010. Kingsolver further connects events in Tennessee and Mexico through the immigration of the Delgado family from Angangueo to Feathertown, where the father works as a day laborer. Through a series of halting exchanges between two working-class families on the front lines of climate change, we get a glimpse of the larger disaster, across continents. These biological and economic migrations, beautifully narrated by Kingsolver, illuminate deep links between environmental degradation and increasing social precarity.

Slate reviewer Dean, though skeptical of a novel’s capacity to instruct on such issues, acknowledges “Kingsolver’s frankly exceptional skill at rendering the smaller human dramas that result from the big, societal themes she’s embracing.” These dramas are enacted in witty conversations, often between people of different classes. Sometimes they talk past each other, as when an earnest eco-campaigner tries to get Dellarobia to sign his “Sustainability Pledge,” which includes a commitment to “fly less.” She has, of course, never flown at all. In fact Dellarobia’s “life-style” is involuntarily about as low-carbon as you can get in the US. Nevertheless, she is informed, ”You people need to get on board” the green agenda. The prevailing local view of climate problems — “Weather is the Lord’s business” – also comes in for some acerbic satire.

Beyond skewering the relatively easy targets of liberal elitism and hick superstition, Kingsolver stages some lovely scenes of differently classed characters actually talking together. They challenge and inform each other, especially about class positions and attendant belief systems. Taking her first job since waiting tables as a teenager, Dellarobia works as a field assistant in the makeshift lab of entomologist Ovid Byron, a university professor visiting Feathertown to study what may become a major species extinction. He is stumped as to why the locals don’t believe in climate science or value the knowledge produced by a college education. She explains how class works: “I’d say the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed around.” While Team Camo gets “the right to bear arms” and “taking care of our own,” she says, “the environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us.” Ovid replies, “Drought and floods are not worries for farmers?”

Dellarobia realizes he “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that ties up people like her in the day-to-day.”   The novel gives us more than an inkling of that great slog, but it also pushes Ovid beyond his credo that “All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.”   Dellarobia teases out his grief at what they are witnessing, his yearning to intervene. In a scene of high tragi-comedy, Ovid finally unloads on a glossy TV reporter for pretending that there’s still a “debate” about climate change. Without getting heavy-handed about it, the novel urges both the responsibility of scientists to put what they know in terms people can grasp, and the responsibility of journalists to report what science shows us.

Reviewers of Kingsolver’s novel mostly comment either on her treatment of climate change – some finding it deft and others preachy – or on her treatment of rural poverty – some finding it empathic and others condescending. They don’t notice the skill with which she is narrating the connections between the accelerating climate crisis and the struggles of people, mostly poor and working-class, living with its effects.   For that achievement, Flight Behavior is a worthy fictional companion to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It is also provides a highly entertaining and provocative reading experience.

Nick Coles

University of Pittsburgh







Climate of Change: Students, Naomi Klein, and the People’s Climate March

I was one of the hundreds of thousands filling the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014. I was there with a dozen students from my freshman composition course, in which we are reading and writing about climate change and what we can do about it. One thing they wanted to do was march – something only a couple of these eighteen-year-olds had done before. So I procured a university van, found sleeping space at a Quaker Meeting House, and drove us to the Big Apple. (Another fifty Pitt students chartered a bus to get there.) In the van we had Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, which is the central text for our course, though I can’t claim it got much attention during the trip: the students spent more time chatting, napping, texting, DJ-ing, and singing along than studying.

Klein is far from alone in pointing out that unless we transition rapidly from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet and our lives are imperiled by atmospheric warming, ice melting, oceans acidifying and rising, resource depletion, and extreme weather events resulting in floods, fires, and droughts. Scientists, writers, and actors from James Hansen to Bill McKibben to Leonardo DiCaprio have made this case with conviction. We also know, as Klein carefully explains, that it is technically and economically feasible to supply 100% of the world’s energy needs with water, wind, and solar power by 2030, if we had the necessary political will and collective vision to mitigate carbon emissions and avert catastrophe.

What is new and powerful in Klein’s project is indicated in its subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. She unfolds the essential contradiction between capitalism’s imperative for ever-increasing extraction of resources and consumption of goods and the climate’s requirement that we give up digging, drilling, and burning, and learn to live on less. This entails not just alternative energy but a deep ideological and structural change, away from the dominant “free market fundamentalism” of our era. This is, as she puts it, “the revolutionary power of climate change.”

In making this case, Klein addresses the “bad timing” whereby the climate crisis — which requires a collective response from an informed public and national governments — has emerged in the era when ascendant neoliberalism has undone government regulation, privatized the public sphere, promoted personal greed, subverted democratic processes, and, for good measure, mounted a massive disinformation campaign about the effects of globalized capitalism on the climate. She argues for the role of government in “planning and banning,” and in reviving public ownership and local power generation. But she also makes clear that moving “beyond extractivism” – an economic system based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth – to a system based on stewardship and shared resources requires not just policy and legal changes but “confronting the climate denier within”: our overindulgence in the goods capitalism delivers. We need to accept and promote “degrowth.”

While “degrowth” is the prescription for affluent industrialized nations, vast swaths of the world’s population already have less of the food, clean water, and energy they need to live on. Many of the poorest nations are also on the front lines of the climate catastrophe, having contributed least to the carbon emissions that are causing it. “Climate justice,” then, implies class justice: supporting efforts at development, especially in the global South, that meet local needs sustainably and equitably, rather than following the “pollute first / clean up later” model of the industrialized North (and most recently China) with its severe inequalities in wealth and life-chances. Klein argues that the prime culprits in overheating the planet should make payments, generated through carbon taxes and other redistributive schemes, to the poorer nations most affected. Payments to keep their carbon in the ground could be invested locally in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and in preparing for the climate disasters headed their way. In all of these initiatives “the overriding principle must be to address the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.”

I hope This Changes Everything takes its place alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century as one of the key books of the decade, since it illuminates the other side of the capitalist coin brilliantly – not only its generation of ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, but also its depletion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” for human and all other species. Reading her provides a powerful experience of connecting the dots, getting the full picture of what we’re up against and the full scope of the necessary and possible transformation.

In making her case for this [re]evolutionary transition, Klein critiques the false hope represented by several “green” trends: the alliance of some environmental groups with corporations to get them to change their ways, the intervention of green billionaires whose bottom line always trumps their environmental leanings, and delusional geoengineering schemes for seeding the oceans, blocking the sun, and such.   Real hope comes from the resistance of front-line peoples across the transnational climate conflict zone she calls “Blockadia,” as well as from from divest-and-invest campaigns, and the many alternative economic and energy projects she outlines, from Nigeria to Bolivia to Germany to the tribal lands of US and Canadian indigenous people.

Her account of these campaigns and initiatives is a pleasure to read. Klein tells stories and explains complex issues with the lucidity of the best non-fiction authors, combined with the passion of a muckraking journalist. She is an impeccable researcher, but she is willing to be a visionary also, claiming the right to “dream in public” – as she shows many other people doing in the book. For instance, in oil-soaked Louisiana where coastline is rapidly succumbing to ocean rise, Anne Rolfes, founder of the environmental justice Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says: “There once was an institution in this part of the world that had economic, social, political control, and people thought it couldn’t be beat. But slavery was brought down, and the oil industry can be, too.”

Klein argues ultimately that it will take a mass social movement to achieve the twin goals of averting climate catastrophe and living on the planet more equitably. She concludes that Abolitionism provides the closest model for the struggle we need to be about, precisely because of the depth and scope of the economic, social, and political changes required and the intense resistance to be expected from those with most to lose. The ideology of extractivism relies on a relationship of ownership and exploitation of the earth and its resources which mirrors slavery’s relationship to the subjugated human body and its labor.   I don’t know how many of us chanting in the streets of New York — “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” — quite grasped that we are engaged in what Klein calls the “unfinished business of liberation.”

But my students, carrying their homemade signs and surrounded by a mass of wildly diverse peers on the march, sensed they were part of something powerful and hopeful. Here’s a sampling of their written comments about it:

  • “While we were marching with 311,000 other people through the streets of NYC, our collective power seemed immense.”
  • “I have never seen such unity, passion, and energy in such a quantity.”
  • “People from all over the world came together to fight for what they love, for what we all have in common.”
  • “The People’s Climate March is only the beginning in my eyes. If change does not happen soon, the people of this Earth will continue to speak out and take action.”

In that struggle, I’m glad they have a book that provides the critical analysis and the models of change we need in this “decade zero” for the climate.

Nick Coles










We’re Here! We’re Queer! We’re Not Going Shopping!

In 2002, when I was soliciting submissions for the anthology Everything I Have Is Blue: Short Fiction by Working-Class Men about More-or-Less Gay Life, I received this message on a Working-Class Studies listserv: “Excuse me for saying so, but isn’t gay and working-class kind of a contradiction in terms?”

It was such a great line that I ended up using it in the book. Obviously, the short answer is no, but the impulse behind the question isn’t hard to understand. For decades, popular concepts of the “gay community” have so frequently been paired with middle- and privileged-class status markers that “gay” sometimes resembles a brand name. And what about those stereotypes? We’re DINKs, Guppies, trend-setters, gentrifiers. We’re “hyper-acquisitive” and, of course, we have those “high disposable incomes” everyone gets so excited about.

Far from it. Recent studies, in fact, suggest that LGBTQ people may actually be more vulnerable to being poor: more likely to experience food insecurity; more likely, in rural settings and/or among people of color, to be at income risk; more likely than U.S. adults in general to report annual incomes under $30K (39% vs. 28%).

That is, of course, unless you believe in the secret “Better Living Through Homosexuality” fund. You know, the one that provides us with the unlimited financial support we need to enjoy better education, healthcare, and housing; develop superior taste in food, clothing, and culture; and finally quit going to SuperCuts. Of course I’m being ironic, but you might be surprised how many people behave as though they thought such silliness was true.

But the real point is this: If most Americans are working-class or poor (and they are), then most LGBTQ Americans must be as well. And plain facts sometimes get lost in debates over whether to define class through “labor-capital analysis (in the Marxist tradition) or [by means of] occupation, income, and formal education (in the liberal one)”—as University of Massachusetts professor Lisa Henderson put it in Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production. Or, indeed, over whether to “imagine class as fundamentally … a cultural form.”

I had Henderson’s perspectives in mind as I prepared Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers, the recent follow-up to Everything I Have Is Blue: how to place what Henderson termed a “study of queer-class conjuncture” alongside a political, economic, and cultural analysis. But novelist and essayist Dorothy Allison, who has probably done more than any other contemporary queer writer to articulate “conjunctures,” was on my mind as well. As Allison observed in her essay “A Question of Class”:

Everything in our culture—books, television, movies, school, fashion—is presented as if it is being seen by one pair of eyes, shaped by one set of hands, heard by one pair of ears. Even if you know you are not part of that imaginary creature—if you like country music not symphonies, read books cynically, listen to the news unbelievingly, are lesbian not heterosexual … you are still shaped by that hegemony, or your resistance to it.

I’d go a bit further. To be queer, from or in the working classes, and committed both to class solidarity and to full citizenship for queer people often means not solely battling the “one pair of eyes” approach but being caught between what I would call the “traditionalist” working-class organizing/labor-studies camp (which sees the working-class as nearly exclusively blue-collar and views any “oppression” that is not determined by economic relations as bourgeois “identity politics”) and the bourgeois identity politicians for whom discussions of class are antediluvian, irrelevant, and sectarian in the context of the LBGTQ civil-rights “agenda.”

So if contradiction is the issue, there’s plenty to go around.

Fortunately, what there also turns out to be plenty of is a rich body of materials on which to base the kind of study Henderson describes. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of resistance on the part of working-class queer writers, thinkers, activists, and artists to being seen as anomalies and paradoxes.

Modern Family stereotypes aside, in fact, the impact of class and economic issues has long been clear to many of us here in the Homintern. Pride at Work is one example—a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group of labor-union activists (and an AFL-CIO affiliate) born out of a 1974 alliance between the Teamsters and San Francisco gay activists Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk. Together, they pulled off a highly successful community boycott of Coors. Amber Hollibaugh’s Queers for Economic Justice project worked tirelessly for twelve years to build a platform for the poor and low-income queers whose voices are often unheard in the mainstream fight for gay rights. (Sadly, the QEJ project closed in 2014 for lack of funding.) The National Center for Lesbian Rights, meanwhile, recently founded the RuralPride Campaign to increase LGBTQ visibility in rural America and make sure services and resources are accessible to queer people and their families in those areas.

Queer scholars, social historians, and artists in and from the working class take part in the same conversations. I’ll mention just three examples: Kelly Cogswell’s memoir, Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger (founded in 1992, the Avengers were a direct-action group that focused on gender, race, and class); the impressive body of work left behind by the late Allan Bérubé, whose moving essay about his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, “Sunset Trailer Park,” is a classic; and the just-released comedy, Pride, which is based on a true story. In it, UK gay and lesbian activists raise money for the families of Welsh miners during the long National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984. The film hasn’t yet opened where I live, but I’m excited about the conversations it might inspire. I’ve known for nearly my entire adult life that working-class queer people were deeply involved in union building, neighborhood organizing, economic justice issues, and anti-racism work. I wish other people knew it, too.

And that explains why I thought the time was ripe for Blue, Too, a way to bring queer activism and cultural production together with the traditions of LGBTQ and working-class studies. In addition to short stories, performance pieces, and autobiography by twenty writers, Blue, Too includes a study guide that applies working-class-studies and queer-theory approaches to analysis of each contributor’s work. The book also contains an annotated bibliography of more than 500 items (the first-ever attempt to create an exhaustive listing of materials related to queers and class) and an in-depth critical essay that reviews the history and present of working-class queers in literature, media, pop culture, and scholarship.

What emerges from all that are some interesting points of departure. Consider, for example, what LGBTQ and working-class cultural production have in common. Historically, they’ve both been unintentionally overlooked, randomly misinterpreted, or deliberately suppressed—albeit for different motives—and both may need to be reclaimed in order to bring their broadest implications to light. At a deeper level, writing that foregrounds lesbian and gay perspectives, ethics, and consciousness can “queer” assumptions about a heterosexual universe and about the “proper” deployment of sex roles, physical sexual behavior, and gender just as working-class writing can “queer” certitudes about opportunity and class mobility, “natural” social hierarchies, and the dream of liberty and justice for all. They are both—or they can be—subversive.

I’m convinced this is a conversation worth having—within Working-Class Studies and in academia more generally, in reading groups, and among friends. Literature and media, after all, are the propaganda of a culture, and working-class queer people are often propagandized right out of the picture.

Wendell Ricketts

Wendell Ricketts is a writer, editor, and translator; a somewhat-unwilling resident of the hanging-chad state; and, as a university adjunct, a member of the great American “precariat.”

Missing Women: Watching The Makers

I watched The Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS last week with a conflicted eye.  No doubt, the documentary about the last 60 years of activism and social change on behalf of women reminded me of just how much my own life was shaped by the feminist movement.  My first act of political engagement was knocking on doors in support of Pat Schroeder’s first run for Congress.  I was twelve.  I wrote my first women’s history paper in 9th grade, in part because I was angry that the textbook said so little about the woman suffrage movement. I learned about domestic violence, women’s health, and activism from Ms. magazine. In college, I marched to take back the night and hosted the weekly feminist collective radio show. I went to the University of Minnesota for my PhD because I wanted to study women’s history with Sara Evans.  A decade after anti-feminist women activists killed the ERA, I was trying to make sense of their views by writing a dissertation about an intelligent, independent nineteenth-century woman who opposed the idea of woman suffrage.  My dissertation committee had one “token” man.  In other words, I benefitted in specific, concrete ways from the battle for equal rights and the expanded choices it secured for women.

But the movement was also geared to women like me, as The Makers reminded me.  As a white child of a progressive, privileged household, I had the cultural and economic capital to view my life as full of opportunity.  I could be proud of my father for hiring the first female commercial airline pilot without thinking about the consequences of his regular contract negotiations with stewardesses, as we called them then.  Like many feminists of my generation, I sang along to songs about women wanting to be engineers but had no interest in that option.  I knew that all women were not the same, of course, but I didn’t think much about whether the movement that had empowered me was doing much for working-class women.

Eighteen years in Working-Class Studies has changed that perspective, and while I appreciated much of the documentary, I was also keenly aware of what was missing. The stories of key battles and strategies, video clips from protests, and even the interviews with women who were put off by feminism all resonated for me.  I was glad to see at least a few stories about working-class women and women of color – a couple of examples of women who sued for workplace rights (including flight attendants), a coal miner’s tale of fighting sexual harassment, Barbara Smith’s explanation of the goals of the Kitchen Table Press.  Yet the film’s primary narrative about women and work, especially, involved the gains women had made in professional jobs – establishing a construction business, becoming a dot-com CEO, working as a television producer – and, ultimately, the struggles white middle-class women face in balancing work and family.

While The Makers does include comments by several women of color and acknowledges the movement’s difficulties with recognizing or advocating for issues facing women who were not white or middle class, it also replicates the movement’s tendency to focus on the needs of women whose goals and expectations reflect their race and class privileges.  Like the women’s movement itself, the film largely ignores the concerns of working-class women. When traditional types of women’s work are mentioned, as in a reference to the growth of the typing pool in the 1950s, the implication is that service work was a temporary way-station, not the type of work that most women still do – perhaps not with typewriters but with computerized cash registers or blood pressure cuffs.  The solution to a telephone operator’s low pay, the film suggests, was not to organize and advocate for better pay for that job but to fight to get a few women access to higher-paying jobs that had been reserved for men. As Karen Nussbaum, founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, notes near the end of the film, the women’s movement should have focused “more on the economic issues of working people.  It should have been about creating an alternative that worked for most women, and that alternative would have included child care, it would have included community services, it would have included after school care where your kids could get cared for by adults.  None of that happened, and I think that’s the great failure of the women’s movement.”  As Nussbaum’s comment suggests, the problem with The Makers may not be the filmmakers’ view but the real history of the women’s movement.

On the other hand, the film leaves out many examples of activism by working-class women and women of color.  Where was Angela Davis, who offered a radical vision that linked race, class, and gender?  Or bell hooks? How about Roseanne Barr, whose hit show started in the same year as Murphy Brown, a show the film celebrates, but provided a funny, realistic, and very political look at ordinary life in a working-class family?  How do we talk about the fight for women’s rights without recognizing the efforts of 9 to 5 or any other labor union  that advocates for the rights of women in the workplace – not just the right to a seat in the boardroom but the right to better working conditions in all jobs?

The Makers reminds us of how much our expectations for and assumptions about women have changed since the 1950s.  It also highlights the threats to women’s rights and opportunities, including the danger that if younger women take those rights for granted, we could well have to fight all over again.  It’s an inspiring film, and the history matters.  It’s also an important reminder that both the movement and the media need to pay more attention to working-class women.  As narrator Meryl Streep acknowledges, “As long as so many women are falling through the cracks, some argue, the feminist revolution will remain unfinished.”

Sherry Linkon

Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

So union density in United States has declined yet again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of American workers now belong to unions.   This compares to 11.8% in 2011, and it’s a long way from the all-time high of 35% in the early 1940s.   The “right to work” campaign is expanding – even to Michigan, of all states – along with “austerity” policies that target working people.   Since Ronald Reagan launched his attack on labor in 1980, when union density was at 20%, real wages have declined along with union membership to a point where we now have a “gilded age” level of income inequality.

In times like these, it is useful to be reminded of what unions can be good for.  A labor history like From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001) explains in readable style what it took to establish unions in the first place, while New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse makes clear in The Big Squeeze: Hard Times for the American Worker (2008) why we need them now more than ever.  Novels, too, can make the case for working people’s rights, through compelling fictional narratives that engage us with characters we care about.  Two Depression-era novels from the Pittsburgh steel district, Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, both in published in 1941, do this particularly well, though in very different ways.

Bell’s book – subtitled “a novel of immigrant labor in America” when it was republished by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976 – follows three generations of a Slovak-American family from arrival in the 1880s up to the unionization of the steel mills in the New Deal era.  Along the way it addresses the Homestead battle of 1892, as well as the great strike of 1919 and the struggles of 1934-37.  Attaway’s is a novel of the Great Migration, tracing the experience of three African-American brothers who are lured north from Kentucky to work the mills during the 1919 conflict.  By this time, eastern European laborers have been admitted into some union lodges, while blacks are excluded and demonized as strikebreakers.

Although Bell’s novel is a family saga spanning fifty years of steel-town history, while Attaway’s focuses on one pivotal year, they have several points of contact.  Both address the dislocations of [im]migration, the hazards of steelmaking, racial/ethnic subjugation, labor strife – and the strength of the human spirit in response to these conditions.  And there are telling coincidences of detail between the two: fourteen men die in the blast furnace “accident” that kills Joe Dubik in 1895 in Furnace and fourteen in the explosion that blinds Chinatown Moss in 1919 in Blood.

But there are equally telling points of divergence.  Bell takes the family as a social ideal and traces its process of Americanization within a known community.  The health of family and community depend on strong representation in the workplaces that dominate life in the steel towns.   Although they are discriminated against as “Hunkies,” assigned the worst housing and the worst tasks in the mill, Bell’s characters grow into a sense of citizenship and belonging.  And they are recognizably white in relation the lowest stratum of immigrants to the steel towns.  Looking back on how Braddock has changed in fifty years, Bell’s aging Slovaks lament the arrival of the “shines” in the First Ward, “brought here to break the strike” in 1919.

Attaway’s characters are rootless single men, focused on survival and what pleasure they can find in the present moment, with the aid of corn whisky, dog fights, and the prostitutes in Mex town.   Only the eldest brother, Big Mat, who has left his wife behind in Kentucky, sees any future for himself in the mill town.  Working steel, “His body was happy.  This was a good place for a big black man to be.”  When the strike starts, however, he lends his strength to the company’s campaign to crush it; as a sheriff’s deputy, he becomes a “black riding boss,” trampling those who have mocked him, including the Hunkies.

From contrasting standpoints, both novels demonstrate how racial division was as much a product of industrial management as steel from the mills, and how this division, reinforced by craft union prejudices and racial exclusion, bedeviled any attempt at industry-wide organization – that is, until the CIO swung into town in 1935.   Dobie, Bell’s third-generation protagonist, understands the racial system: “Once it was the Irish looking down on the Hunkies and now it’s the Hunkies looking down on the niggers.  The very things the Irish used to say about the Hunkies the Hunkies now say about the niggers.  And for no better reason.”  Whereas Bell does not criticize the steel unions for their part in maintaining this cycle of racism, its destructive power is central to Attaway’s story.

Differences in narrative style make it a pleasure to read the two novels alongside each other.  Bell writes with a naturalistic matter-of-factness, leavened with gentle irony, and sometimes with finely pointed commentary.  Of the death of Joe Dubik and his workmates, Bell writes:  “Officially it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent . . ..  In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry.”  His style is also capable of great tenderness, especially in his scenes of courtship, married love, and family losses.  Attaway’s writing, by contrast, crackles and hums with a dark music.  The novel’s first sentence reads: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar.”  But Melody’s healing blues cannot survive the move to the steel towns, nor can it save his brothers Chinatown and Big Mat, who used to love to hear him play in the red-clay hills of Kentucky.

The two novels’ titles suggest not only this contrast in style but also in narrative outcomes.  “Out of this furnace” comes a vindication of the steelworkers’ aspirations and the possibility of a better life for their families.  At the end of Bell’s novel, Dobie, having helped to build what became the United Steel Workers, engages in a nighttime reverie about issues the union could address in the future:  technological unemployment, environmental destruction, anti-worker politics, bosses and “bossism,” and the degradation of work itself.  As he spins this web at the bedroom window, his sleeping wife is pregnant with their first child – completing the picture of productive and reproductive futurity.

The “blood [spilled] on the forge” in Attaway’s novel is not redeemed by any such optimistic conclusion.  The book itself becomes a kind of blues, and any uplift it provides comes from Attaway’s ability to sing it.   Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown do not recover from the combined violence of cultural dislocation, deadly working conditions, and racist labor politics – and they do not understand what has happened to them.  But we, as readers, are invited to develop the consciousness they can’t.  The novel offers us the insight and empathy out of which to draw our own conclusions about the industrial system and the need for racial solidarity in labor.

For me, novels like these suggests that unions can be good for much more than better hours, wages, and working conditions. What they achieved, on the evidence of Bell’s novel at any rate, included a sense of personal dignity and collective strength in the present, and a hopeful vision pulling one forward.   When Bell wrote that in 1937 “the fifty-year struggle to free the steel town was nearly over,” he was claiming that the fight to organize, to be recognized, to bargain implied more than “labor rights” alone; it was a struggle for what came to be called civil and human rights. Conversely, Attaway shows us, in visceral scenes, the damage done, no only when companies and their henchmen engage in violent suppression of those rights but also when unions play into a company’s hands by excluding the unorganized and the “other.”

Most unions today seem to get this – though, for now, they are still on the losing end of the most concerted legal and political assault since the robber barons ruled the roost.  But we would be much worse off without them, and they may be due for a revival.  Read any good labor novels lately?

Nick Coles

The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon