Category Archives: Working-Class Culture

‘Struggle Street’: hard-hitting documentary or middle-class voyeurism?

A new Australian television show, Struggle Street, has attracted much controversy and commentary. The three-part documentary was commissioned by the public broadcaster, SBS, and made by KEO films. The production company’s web site describes Struggle Street as an ‘observational documentary’ that will provide an ‘insight into the experience of those who’ve been dealt some of the worst conditions to start their lives’ and ‘provoke not just a change in public perception, but a debate about the direction of public policy as well’. The show is set in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt and focuses on a number of working-class people experiencing poverty. Mount Druitt has a reputation of being ‘rough’ due to its concentration of public housing, and the western suburbs of Sydney have been marginalised due to their geographical distance from the metropolitan centre and their working-class demographic.

The controversy occurred after the broadcast of a promotional trailer. Some of the show’s participants contacted their local area mayor to complain about how they were depicted in the trailer. The mayor, Stephen Bali, attempted to put a stop to the show’s airing and staged a protest outside the headquarters of SBS. Bali described the show as ‘publically funded poverty porn’ and ‘rubbish’ television. To assist in making his point, a fleet of garbage trucks joined him outside the SBS offices. The mayor (who also had the support of Unions NSW) claimed that not only were the participants being portrayed in a negative way, but the show’s production team had engaged in unethical behaviour and he accused them of staging scenes and misrepresentation. While SBS did agree to pull the promo video on the request of participants, the network’s head of program content, Helen Kellie, defended the show, and it was broadcast as scheduled.

In part because of the protest, the show attracted much interest and debate. Multiple news items, reviews, and commentaries have been written on the show, and it is now one of SBS’s highest rating programs in recent years.

So is it ‘poverty porn’, as suggested by the mayor, or a serious observational documentary intended to create debate and effect change, as stated by the creators? And what happens when we view the show through a working-class lens?

I find the term ‘poverty porn’ problematic, in part because it diminishes the real experience of the participants. I prefer ‘middle-class voyeurism’, which describes both the production and the reception of the show. The show was created by the same company that produced the British series Skint, which also garnered criticism due to its portrayal of working-class poverty in the UK. It could be suggested that the middle-class producers of Struggle Street are exploiting their working-class subjects in order to advance their own careers. After all, the participants are not paid for their time, and the producers do not seem to be offering any long-term assistance to the neighbourhoods depicted. The show is most likely to be watched by middle-class viewers (who are the main demographic of public broadcasters), and most reviews and commentary appear to be written from middle-class perspectives. We see this when KEO’s director of programmes, David Galloway, compares the setting of Struggle Street to that of his previous production River Cottage Australia (which is a cooking show set in a ‘historic and picturesque village’). He describes the two shows as ‘heaven and hell’ and states that people ‘end up’ and are ‘lumped’ in Mount Druitt, making the area sound like a dumping ground for the poor.

The first episode of Struggle Street was very interesting. The participants reveal their struggles with unemployment, disability, homelessness, drug addiction, and lack of formal education. They are candid and generally unselfconscious. Their efforts to make do and try to provide for themselves and their families reveal the social and political reality of working-class life and poverty. They also demonstrate working-class resilience, resourcefulness, and the importance of community as they provide assistance to each other. The show includes working-class humour and philosophical discussions of daily life. As such, it provides important insight into the effects of poverty on working-class Australians. Rather than operating as voyeurism, Struggle Street has the potential to help viewers understand these effects. For those who have lived in poverty, the show validates their experiences and stories, even though some middle-class viewers may not recognize some of the nuances of that experience.

After the show aired, responses ranged from support for the aims of the show by those who believed it offered a glimpse into the lives of marginalised people, to concerns about its potentially exploitative element. The show was described as ‘brutal and raw’, ‘powerful and poignant’ and ‘required viewing’. It was also described as reinforcing stereotypes and being bad reality TV (rather than documentary) that contained a caricature of Mount Druitt that was unrepresentative of the area as a whole. Most positive reviews agreed that the narration was intrusive and judgmental and the soundtrack distracting and clichéd.

What I found most interesting is the almost complete absence of class from the discussions. Apart from one negative piece (written by an academic) that suggested that ‘class is a taboo topic’ (and also criticized the show for its ‘abjectifying images’ and ‘class racism’), no one mentioned the class system that creates poverty. Commentators used terms such as ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, and ‘hardship’, and although some mentioned government policies that lead to cuts in local services, almost no one acknowledged structural class inequalities.

The discussion was even worse on Twitter. Some tweets reflected the reviews and commentary by journalists, but others mocked and attacked the participants of the show with classist and derogatory remarks. For example, one suggested that a person receiving government benefits should not be able to afford a mobile phone. Some Tweeters from western Sydney attempted to distance themselves from the participants, claiming that not all people from Mount Druitt were poor. This sentiment appeared in some of the published commentary as well. Some community leaders were quoted as disappointed with the ‘hopeless’ tone of the show, which ‘undermines all the good work we do’ and reinforces stereotypes. This points to the politics of respectability, as working-class people who are in employment distance themselves from the unemployed and poor.

For all the controversy, there is a place for observational documentary that focuses on the lives of working-class people. Their stories need to be told on working-class terms, though that in itself can be hard to define. While some of those featured in Struggle Street initially complained about how they were represented on the show, two of the show’s main participants, Ashley and Peta Kennedy have stated they are pleased with how the show highlighted their struggle.

In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that. Instead, they must collaborate with middle-class filmmakers, and that means there is always the potential for exploitation and sensationalism of working-class experiences for the sake of entertainment. The participants of Struggle Street deserve to have their stories told, and if they are unhappy with their portrayal they should have the right to make these concerns heard. The key, and the challenge, is ensuring that working-class people have control of their stories.

Sarah Attfield

 

Putnam’s Poignant Folly: Empathetic Blaming

Robert Putnam graduated from high school in 1959 in the small Lake Erie town of Port Clinton, Ohio, and for his widely-praised book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis he revisits some members of his high school class to illustrate what life was like for those who grew up and started careers and families in the years 1945 to 1975 – what Putnam calls the “postwar boom” and in France is known more spectacularly as “the Glorious 30.” He very poignantly contrasts those glory years with grim portraits of life in Port Clinton today. What was once a supportive small-town warmth where standards of living were improving and opportunities were expanding for almost everybody has become a town divided between gated communities in a narrow strip along the lake and an excluded and much larger working-class community that ranges from destitution to quiet desperation.

I grew up during the same period as Putnam in a similar, if much larger, town that has experienced pretty much the same fate, though rather worse and without a lake from which to be excluded. It’s hard for folks of my generation to avoid experiencing what some contemptuously call “smokestack nostalgia,” as if what we are nostalgic for is the smokestacks and the “solid particulate matter” they emitted onto our homes, cars, and bodies.

More than a little nostalgia is justified, however, for those three decades if you focus on the right things, which Putnam usually does not. When Putnam graduated from high school in 1959, for example, real median family incomes in the U.S. had increased by more than 40% in the previous ten years and would increase by another 40% in the next ten years. Poverty was decreasing from 32% of the population in 1949 to 11% by the end of the Glorious 30 in the early 1970s. Real wages for production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled during the period, and the income gap between black and white families narrowed by 10 percentage points.

In contrast, by all these measures nothing has substantially improved since 1975, and much has gotten worse, much worse. “Back in the day,” for example, the top 10% got only about 1/3rd of all income, but they get one-half now, and the famous 1% got about 10% of income then, while today their share is 22%. Income taxes were steeply progressive (with top marginal rates ranging from 70% to 90% through the 1970s), and because unions were strong, the benefits of productivity growth were shared with workers, sharing that ended in the mid-1970s.

Putnam is aware of most of these numbers, and of their impact on people’s lives, as he details the disastrous decline in “upward mobility” that has put “the American Dream in crisis.” He is also aware that there are two kinds of upward mobility – the “rags-to-riches” kind that he calls relative upward mobility and the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” kind that he calls absolute upward mobility. Both kinds are desirable and both are declining. Putnam’s folly is to focus exclusively on relative upward mobility, which leads him into discussions of working-class family forms and parenting styles as root causes of the crisis in the American Dream.

Relative upward mobility occurs when over a lifetime some people move up from a lower to a higher income class – usually measured in quintiles; because there are always five quintiles by definition, in order for some to move up, others must move down. Relative mobility is about “careers open to talent” and equal opportunities for everybody to get to the top. It is key if you want to have a meritocracy. Absolute upward mobility, on the other hand, occurs when real incomes and standards of living increase across the board for everybody (or almost everybody).

Think of the common phrase “getting ahead.” It can mean getting ahead of others (relative upward mobility) or it can mean getting ahead of where you were before regardless of whether you passed anybody in the process (absolute upward mobility). Putnam’s exclusive focus on the former leads him astray because, as he more or less inadvertently shows, absolute upward mobility is very probably a necessary condition for increasing relative upward mobility – as that’s what happened during the Glorious 30 and is not happening any longer.

By contrasting well-crafted and moving portraits of upper-middle-class and poor working-class families in Oregon, Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania, as well as in his native Ohio, Putnam is able to show the overwhelming range of disadvantages children in these poor families face.   And he is able to make a strong case for the need for public institutions (especially schools) to provide “compensatory funding” to improve these children’s chances of getting ahead. But in doing so, he not only gives up on the working-class adults he portrays (most of them in mid-life), he gently and empathetically blames them for their children’s fate.

If they would just get married before they have children, stay married, and then raise their children with the “concerted cultivation” approach middle-class parents use, they could improve their children’s chances of success. There may be a case to be made for this point of view, but Putnam undermines it by getting carried away with his middle-class paternalism, suggesting at various points that hugging their children more, having dinner together, and using time-outs instead of spanking would help to equalize poor and working-class kids’ opportunities.

By focusing on equalizing opportunities without equalizing incomes, Putnam hopes to improve poor and working-class kids’ chances of succeeding in our “knowledge economy” – which for Putnam means getting a college education and a job that requires that education. Problem is he seems to have no idea that when today’s 12-year-olds graduate from college, only 1 out of 4 jobs at best will require a bachelor’s degree. What about the other 75% who do work that needs to be done but who are paid increasingly low wages and whose jobs are more and more precarious in every way you can think of? Putnam gives them an empathetic literary hug, but otherwise is silent.

Putnam’s folly is to think that we can achieve greater equality of opportunity without addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth – that is, without drastically reforming our tax system so that investors are no longer privileged over people who work for a living, and without dramatically raising wages, especially at the lower end, regardless of how much education workers have and whether they are good, bad or mediocre parents.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Reclaiming Football for the Working Class

The campaign for employers to raise wages in the UK had an important victory last week: football clubs in England’s Premier League agreed to pay a ‘living wage’ to full-time, permanent staff, following a deal worth £5.14 billion with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports and BT to screen live matches for the next three years. That some of this astronomical TV revenue will benefit the communities in which football clubs operate recognises the continued significance of class in the grassroots campaigns of football supporters. Despite such success, the notion that football in the UK is the ‘people’s game’ requires more than a piecemeal pledge to pay workers a fair wage. The sport has become increasingly gentrified and ordinary people have been deliberately demonized and priced out of attending football, once a cultural ritual in working-class communities.

Football in Britain has historically been the bastion of male working-class culture. The professional sport has its roots in factory towns and cities of the north of England. Some of the UK’s most successful football clubs were the product of industrial communities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Newcastle, with some formed from works teams. Huge stadiums were built to accommodate an overwhelmingly working-class fan base, with Glasgow once home to the three largest stadiums in world football, including Hampden Park, originally designed to hold over 180,000. For many male workers, watching their football club – or their country – was the cornerstone of social life. But that has changed drastically over the last thirty years, because ticket prices have made regular attendance something that only a certain strata of society can afford.

We shouldn’t be overly nostalgic about this, since some positive changes have occurred in the British game over the past three decades. Stadia, once little more than tin sheds with wooden planks for seats, have been transformed into safe and accessible spaces for supporters. A number of fatal disasters at football demonstrated that cramming tens of thousands of fans into cramped, poorly policed terraces could not continue. Hooliganism – once rife at football grounds across the UK – has been largely eradicated from within grounds due to regulations on design and security. The image of British football as a dangerous environment, associated with violence and shocking levels of racism has been largely transformed (although instances still occur).

To achieve this increase in safety, football clubs, the state, and the police have deliberately priced the working class out of attending matches and gentrified the sport. When British football experienced its darkest days of the 1980s, supporters took the blame. This was particularly evident in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. During an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest, a crush in the terraces resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters. Liverpool represented the polar opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain: it was working-class, Labour voting, and trade union supporting. In part because of that, the British elite and the media systematically blamed the Liverpool supporters for the tragedy, describing those involved as drunk, out of control hooligans determined to cause trouble, attack police, and pickpocket the dead. Only in the last few years has the extent of the cover up become fully apparent as families of the dead have fought for justice. It took until March 2015 for match commander PC David Dukenfield to admit that it was the police – not the Liverpool fans – who opened an exit gate that directly caused the crush.

Hillsborough, and the demonization of supporters, was the catalyst for change in the British game. A report on the disaster recommended that stadiums become fully seated, with standing outlawed in the top two English leagues. The Football Supporters Association opposed this, arguing at the time that clubs would use this as a reason to increase ticket prices. As they predicted, the cost of attending football has consistently increased at inflation-bursting levels. In the English Premiership, the cost of tickets rose by 1,000% between Hillsborough and 2011. Had football admission prices followed standard inflation, a match day ticket to watch Manchester United should have cost £6.20 in 2011; instead, the cheapest ticket was £28. In 2014, a BBC Cost of Football survey found that the average cost of going to football rose twice as fast as the cost of living in the previous three years. Football is no longer a cost-effective pursuit of the working class. It is now reserved only for those deemed responsible – and wealthy — enough to attend.

Despite such attempts to gentrify the support base in English football, organised supporter campaigns continue to emphasise issues of class and community. The Football Supporters’ Federation, for example, has demanded that clubs make £20 tickets available at all matches, and supporters have campaigned for clubs to pay a living wage to their employees. Success has been limited. Clubs have little incentive to reduce prices, and the Premier League’s living wage agreement does not apply to contracted staff, which represents the vast majority of those working in stadia on match days.

In order for football to once again provide an arena where the British working-class can congregate based on the ritualistic passion of sport, the entire governance of the game has to change. British clubs should consider the German model, where football is run for the mutual benefit of clubs, supporters, and the national game. In German football, supporters must own over 50% of the football club, giving ordinary fans a majority stake in all aspects of its organisation. This creates a substantially different mind-set: the President of Bayern Munich explains that “We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody.” In the German Bundesliga, the average price of a match ticket is £10. Achieving anything similar in the UK requires continued pressure from supporters to make the game more affordable, as well as acceptance that the reaction to Hillsborough was largely motivated by the demonization of the working-class rife under the Thatcher administration. But it also requires acknowledgment that debates about the peoples’ game are also, often, debates about class.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy.

The Culture of Success

This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar on the college novel. We started with This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s bizarre, Princeton-set contribution to the genre. The main character, Amory Blaine, starts life in Minneapolis with many material advantages. But his doting mother is an alcoholic, and his father washes out as a salesman. Amory is a failure: in college he goes on alcoholic benders and then flunks his end-of-the-year exams. This forces him off the editorial board of the Princetonian, and soon after he drops out of college completely.

The novel, which hews closely to Fitzgerald’s own life, also chronicles Amory’s failed relationships, including his relationship with the Southern belle Rosalind, the most Zelda-like character in the novel. Rosalind rejects Amory because she doesn’t want to live like “squaw” on his measly advertising salary of $275 a month (about $60,000 a year in today’s dollars). At the end of the novel Amory takes the rap for a friend who brought a single woman to a hotel (thus violating the Mann act), quits his job, loses his mother and his father figure Monsignor Darcy to death, and, in the last line, he names his only true accomplishment: “I know myself and that is all!”

I asked students in the seminar—11 women and one transgender student, three-quarters of them born abroad and representing perhaps a new global elite—what they thought of Amory’s trajectory. They agreed that he had mostly failed by end of the novel, but they also believed that he had gained wisdom, and that he had become a better person.

I also asked my students to define success for themselves. Their answers surprised me. One wrote that success was “not only academic success.” One defined success as “accomplishing my goals,” but with the caveat that “my goals can vary and not be traditionally defined.” One wants to “have a family and a job I love.” Another wants to learn Chinese, to play the guitar, and to have time for travel, music, and photography. One wants to “do something important.” One wants to “learn to cook.” One wants to find her voice. They wrote words like “satisfied,” “happy,” “friends,” and “family.”

As advocates for working people, how do we define success? Is there a contrast between our definition of success and how my students at Carnegie Mellon University define it? I also wonder about this as a parent when I find myself fighting with my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old—yet again—about tests, homework, and music lessons.

I worry about both my students and my children when I think about how the great recession has made our culture more competitive than ever. Is success for our children defined by striving, sacrificing, foregoing sleep, battling eating disorders, getting yelled at when they can’t focus during their violin lessons, getting the best grades and test scores, needing Ritalin, winning the most competitions, contemplating suicide, participating in the most activities, getting into the best schools, needing anti-anxiety medication, getting a high paying job, and then starting the cycle all over again for their children?

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some stats about college life from the blog Challenge Success: Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. In a recent survey of Stanford students, 12% had suicidal thoughts. According to a 2006 study of students attending two northeastern universities, “17% reported that they purposely injured themselves at some point in their lives,” and 70% of those said that had done so multiple times. In other cases college debt has led to suicide. Even younger teens in the US are buckling under the pressure, such as the three stressed out teens from Newton, MA who killed themselves in the span of just a few months.

What if, instead, we define success like this post, which went viral this summer, on how to give our kids a 1970s style summer? The writer, Melissa Fenton, advocated for the joys of imaginative play, wandering the neighborhood, drinking straight from the hose, doing just OK in school, being curious, watching cartoons, getting lost in a book, riding a bike fast on a dirt path, catching tadpoles, hanging out with friends after school.

What if we defined success in those terms? That kind of success could mean finding an affordable college that’s a good fit, or maybe not going to college at all, wandering the country, traveling the world, growing up, finding one’s path, working with dignity for some reasonable amount of money, and maybe (or maybe not) starting the cycle all over again for their children.

On the other hand, if families like mine—comfortable and certainly middle class— adopt the tenets of “slow parenting,” will my children become lazy, listless, and unfocused? Will they fail to get into a good college—or into any college? Will they end up without resilience, or with a bad work ethic? Will they drop precipitously into the working class?

Then again, would that be the worst thing in the world?

Indeed it might not be. Barbara Jensen argues powerfully for the existence of different cultures associated with working and middle class parenting in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. Jensen argues that working-class families privilege kinship and community over striving and the pressure cooker of high expectations. When I’m being honest with myself I, too, want kinship and community for my children more than I want them to have glorious and exalted careers.

It could be argued that my lament is that of the privileged. Challenge Success, the national organization that raises many of these same questions, is centered at Stanford University, and some of the parenting sessions held there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, attract some of the wealthiest and most successful parents in the country.

But the paradigms associated with middle class success since the great recession, especially in the realm of education, while stressful for families like mine, have been crippling for the poor and the working class. Education reformers, using the rhetoric of “grit” and the tools of testing, standardization, and austerity, have been gutting public schools, creating charter schools that harshly discipline poor black and brown children, and re-segregating public education. Today in the South and the Southwest of the United States more than 70% of public school children are poor.

The rhetoric of “grit” in particular has been used to argue that children who are poor have more experience with failure, and thus more potential to succeed. The truth is something different. Poverty creates a negative climate for learning—from factors such as lack of pre-natal nutrition, to lack of exposure to reading and vocabulary for toddlers, to the way in which the violence and insecurity of poor neighborhoods causes PTSD and rewires a child’s brain. These become staggering disadvantages to overcome within already underfunded and overburdened schools. Poverty, currently affecting 45 millions Americans, doesn’t foster grit. Instead poverty makes it harder to achieve success—no matter how we define it.

So how do we fight for more people to have access to the American Dream and, at the same time, challenge the accepted pathways to that dream? Can we challenge the culture of striving, overwork, and competition that is making our students and our children miserable, even suicidal? We want more people to be more successful, but don’t we also want to challenge the culture of success?

Kathy M. Newman

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading from Working-Class Studies

A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down.  A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist.  And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.

These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013.  Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.

Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences.   Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago.    Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.

Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.”  One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.”  Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”

Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium.  It will be released sometime in the coming year.  For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.

Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.  Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet.  Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.

Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement.   But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:

you excommunicate us from your classrooms

because we are not your trinity

of science, math and history

we are the intersection

crucified on your standardized “X”

. . . . .

you make lamb out of your flock

sentence them to seven deadly periods

and a hot lunch

 In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:

so the poet left the sanctuary

                  back to the curbside pulpit

                  where pain

                  and worship

                  both have to be louder than the traffic

 

WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.”  One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”

The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.”   The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.”  As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work.   Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism.  The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73.  The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there.   One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.”  Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.”  You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.

The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field.  As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience.  We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.

Jack Metzgar

WCSA Past President

 

 

 

 

Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies