Shakespeare and Working-Class Students: The Value of Irrelevance

In these tough times for higher education, English departments almost routinely begin each year reviewing grim reports of decreasing numbers of majors.  This sparks hand-wringing, soul-searching, and the inevitable conclusion that we must “market ourselves better” to show the “practical” applications of an English major—and to make our offerings more “relevant.” A sub-committee is often formed, and faculty toss around ideas about how better to ‘brand’ English.  These conversations take place all over the country, at all kinds of institutions, but for the public access university, funded according to how many students not only enroll but also complete, these numbers matter.  These universities also serve the majority of first-generation and working-class students. .

Yet, as a former working-class, first-generation college student turned academic, this privileging of practicality, what our administration calls “relevant education” (as in career focused not culturally relevant) has long given me pause.  When my department had that conversation recently, I suggested that instead of going down this road one more time, perhaps we could “brand” the English major as driven by passion rather than practicality.

You can imagine the response: colleagues scoffed at my apparent naiveté (or stupidity) in suggesting that we market ourselves by highlighting our irrelevance.

But I want to make the case that irrelevance — that is, the pursuit of knowledge with no discernable practical application, or even blatantly personal connection — is critical for providing working-class and first-generation college students with the intellectual skills that will ultimately afford them real mobility. Irrelevance has also become less and less available to students like ours. The value of irrelevance become clear in a workshop I recently I co-organized at The Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting with Sharon O’Dair, one of the sharpest critics of class, status, and the profession that I know. “Working-Class Shakespeare(s): Shakespeare in Class and Class in Shakespeare” explored the implications of Shakespeare as synecdoche for literary studies and “literate culture” more broadly, why Shakespeare matters for working-class students, and what this means in for pedagogy and critical practice.

Participants, almost all of us academics from working-class backgrounds, contingent faculty, graduate students, or, a combination of these, many working at regional, second-tier, and access institutions, took up a series of questions: Does your institution have a discernable class and/or status ‘marker’ (i.e. selective, access, open admissions, etc.)? Do you teach students whose class differs from yours?  If so, how do you negotiate that difference?  Does such difference affect your learning expectations and outcomes for your students? Your pedagogy?

Amid the varied responses, an interesting thread emerged: an uneasy awareness that, given the institutional pressures of publicly funded institutions to graduate as many students as possible, faculty work expectations at access institutions, and the preparation and work pressures of students, working-class and first generation students often learn a different kind of Shakespeare than their counterparts at elite institutions.

Participants carefully discussed how working-class students oftenattend college in order to get out of the “working class” – economically for sure, but also culturally.  The seminar left me with a new understanding of how many of us at regional, access, and even flagship institutions, may have unintentionally internalized what is, ironically, a classist paradigm—that our students are only here to get jobs, and narrow skills training is the best way to get them.

The seminar discussions further revealed that, for some, educating working-class students means teaching differently from how we might teach the sons of lawyers or stockbrokers. We want to validate the perspectives from which many of us  come and accommodate the pressures our students face. This is well and good, and even politically and/or morally right, but it can sometimes also lead us to avoid rigorous methodologies, which in turn could hamstring those we aim to propel forward. Several participants said they felt pressured to teach less theory, for example, or to relax writing assignments or adjust grading criteria, all in the name of helping students complete their degrees and thus improve their economic opportunities.  Of course, working-class students (like most students) do see college as a vehicle for upward mobility, but many also see college as a means of feeding their intellectual curiosity, and this is often more precious to them than to students of privilege.

We aim at practicality and relevance in a well-intentioned effort to bring our working-class students into the fold, but our attention to practicality and ‘where our students are’ may hamper their capacity for real, dynamic social mobility. The real critical and intellectual value of literary study is that it develops curiosity and appreciation for what seems completely irrelevant.

Ironically, it’s these irrelevant and impractical thinking habits that might just provide the “skills” students need to become leaders in an interconnected, increasingly complex, global economy. In a recent piece, Scott L. Newstok says the best advice for students transitioning from an overly tested, standardized, primary education to college is to think more like Shakespeare. Newstok argues that, while the early modern education Shakespeare would have received was constraining by today’s standards, its emphasis on ways of thinking allowed Shakespeare and others to thrive as collaborators, innovators, and critical thinkers. Newstok suggests that “the best way to prepare for an unforeseen future is to learn how to think intensively and imaginatively,” citing, among others, Abraham Flexner’s notion of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.”

I love Newstok’s piece, not only because I’m a Shakespearean but for  the ideals it embraces. Yet, as any English major knows, audience matters. Newstok’s treatise is adapted from an address to students at Rhodes College, a selective liberal arts college, with an annual price tag of $44,942. So while Newstok extols the virtue of liberal education at Rhodes, the state administrators who govern public access institutions in many states, like Ohio, would certainly view his message with skepticism.

Ohio’s public education policy has increasingly entrenched inequality and reproduction of a status quo that, as Eric Alterman explains, treats college as a business, while appearing to “want a docile proletariat who will work for them, without unions or any hope of upward mobility.” Institutionally, the bifurcation of vocational preparation and intellectual enrichment fosters an educational class division, as access publics become stringently focused on the former, while elites and selective colleges foster the latter. This division, coupled with the application of the neoliberal consumer paradigm to the public institution, ultimately damages working-class students, who overwhelmingly filter into these institutions where they become  the victims of class inequity that reproduces stratification and exclusion. As the public system by default reproduces class structures that prepare one group (students at elites and private colleges) to lead, and another to (my students) to follow.

Faculty, too, become victims in this neoliberal model. In the top-down, bottom-line, business model, faculty are disenfranchised from governance and distanced from their intellectual work by a never-ending series of accountability tasks dictated by middle management, who are themselves often responding to demands that they prove the relevance and efficiency of state universities.

Relevance and practicality by definition assume a norm, a status quo, and those of us who were drawn to the academy and to Working-Class Studies because both seemed to have the potential to challenge hegemonic systems of inequality, must always remain watchful that we are not internalizing the imperatives of a ruling class, even as we hope to weaken its grip.

Tim Francisco

Tim Francisco is the Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and a Professor of English at Youngstown State University.

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Fighting the Money Mongers

The recent debacle involving the corporately sanctioned illegal churning of consumer  bank accounts by Wells Fargo reminds us of how difficult it is for consumers to access reliably ethical banking services. With easy access to the kinds of information most of us work hard to keep private, like social security numbers, Wells Fargo and its employees violated the relationship that is supposed to be created between the bank and its customers when we entrust them with our money and our information.

The scandal also shows how recent legislative and judicial developments make it virtually impossible for consumers to fight back through the judicial system. Those challenges are even greater for poor and working-class consumers, who often can’t afford the ordinary fees charged by major banks, much less the cost of hiring an attorney to fight back if they are mistreated.  Banks like Wells Fargo almost never face criminal prosecution or lawsuits over their actions.  If my neighbor walked into Wells Fargo and opened a credit card account in my name, and if I found out about it, he would probably be arrested and criminally charged. Both Wells Fargo and I would also likely sue him. Yet Wells Fargo did just that, and despite recent hearings in which members of Congress grilled CEO John Stumpf, the bank probably won’t face any serious legal consequences.


While at least one federal prosecutor has opened an investigation, the Washington Post   reports on how difficult it will be to make a case stick against the executives of the bank who clearly orchestrated the scam.  Bringing a civil case against Wells Fargo would be even more challenging. Wells Fargo, like almost every financial institution in the country, includes in its customer contracts draconian and comprehensive arbitration clauses and class action waivers that have become standard procedure in consumer contracts ever since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their use in ATT v. Conception in 2011.  As a result, Wells Fargo customers who have been victimized have been prevented by courts from banding together to bring their relatively small individual claims by way of class action.  Instead, they forced to have their claims heard not by a jury of their peers but by an arbitrator chosen by rules of Wells Fargo’s design – and that can be expensive.

These challenges combined with a culture of exploitative fees and business practices by banks are among the reasons why, as of 2014, 17 million Americans, mostly working class and poor were unbanked — they do not have bank accounts at all.  They rely on payday lenders, title loan providers, or check cashing stores for their banking needs, and they pay more for such services. They also face the same problematic contracts that make it so hard for bank customers to seek justice, but in the case of payday lenders, those obstacles are linked with openly and intentionally exploitative business practices. Angry as we may be about the Wells Fargo story, this systematic exploitation and disenfranchisement of the poor and working class should make us even more furious.

Surely better regulations could protect these vulnerable consumers, right?  In Ohio, we tried to do just that. During my tenure as Ohio’s Attorney General, I conducted hearings across the state that gave payday lending victims the opportunity to tell their stories. They talked about how they had been driven to financial ruin, lost homes, cars, jobs, and sadly, hope for the future. Their testimony was so shocking and heart-rending that the General Assembly passed and Ohio voters affirmed a law that capped the interest rates payday lenders could charge. Yet once again the vultures who own and operate the industry, protected by class action waivers and arbitration clauses and assisted by their lawyers and lobbyists, found a loophole in the law that enabled them to charge interest rates as high as 300% on short-term cash and auto title loans. Despite the legislation, payday lenders in Ohio and across the nation have continued to bring new products to market that entrap desperate and/or unwitting borrowers in virtually inescapable cycles of debt.

But the fight isn’t over. Two recent initiatives by the Federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) may serve to level the playing field for working-class consumers.  First, the CFPB has in proposed rules that would prohibit mandatory arbitration clauses that deny groups of consumers their day in court. The Wells Fargo scandal should provide some momentum toward the passage of such reasonable restrictions.

Even more important, the CFPB has proposed an aggressive set of rules to regulate the payday lending industry. The proposed regulations would end payday debt traps by requiring lenders to ensure borrowers have the ability to repay their loans and cut off repeated debit attempts that rack up exorbitant fees.  The new regulations would cover payday loans, auto title loans, deposit advance products, and certain high-cost installment and open-end loans.

While consumer advocates ranging from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the Southern Baptist Conference don’t believe the rules go far enough, they are a significant and important start. Under federal law, interested parties have until October 7 to comment on the CFPB’s proposals. The industry has already organized its forces and is submitting statements denigrating both the regulations and the rulemaking process.

If the legal abuses and exploitation of working-class consumers angers you, then you are also an “interested party,” and you can add your voice to the process.   Log in to and submit your comments, or you can email a statement to, or send a letter to Monica Jackson, Office of the Executive Secretary, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 1700 G Street, NW., Washington, DC 20552. All submissions should refer to Docket No. CFPB-2016-0025 or RIN 3170–AA40. If you’re not sure what to say, visit, where my office is posting a model statement.

I’m devoting considerable time and resources to campaign on behalf of the proposed rules for two reasons. First, the financial industry will never stop fighting to preserve its ability to earn huge profits by exploiting and cheating desperate consumers. Second, the decades-long war the payday lending industry has waged against working families must come to end.

Marc Dann

Marc Dann is Managing Partner of the Dann Law Firm. He specializes in representing clients who have been harmed by banks, debt buyers, debt collectors, and other financial predators. He has fought for the rights of thousands of consumers and brought class action lawsuits in both private practice and as Ohio’s Attorney General.


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Who is Shameless This Election Season? One TV Show’s Challenging Depiction of the Working Poor


Since the 2016 Presidential race began, pundits have been scrambling to understand what is apparently the most inscrutable segment of the Trump voting bloc: disaffected white working-class middle-aged men who feel they have lost gender and race privileges along with their economic security. Journalists have helped make J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash bestsellers, as Jack Metzgar noted here last week. While it’s heartening to see studies like these get their due, media discussions still tend to rely on stereotypes and to define the white working class by their now infamously “deplorable” beliefs. While Vance and Isenberg historicize this group’s grievances, Showtime’s Shameless take a different tack: skewering the typecasting of those with the least direct voice in the mainstream press.

In the series, adapted from the popular UK version about a (largely) white working poor family headed by an alcoholic father, the Gallagher clan and their rowdy Chicago South Side neighbors provide an alternate, if somewhat controversial, representation of urban poverty that relays intricate truths about surviving everyday life on the economic fringes.   Shameless PR AdIn fact, the show’s most recent promotional materials have, in true Shameless fashion, exploited the election backdrop. One features actors William H. Macy (Frank), Emmy Rossum (Fiona), and Jeremy Allen White (Lip) posed somewhat menacingly in Fourth of July garb against an American flag, with the tag line “Screwed in the USA.”   The video version adds a commentary, with Macy noting tongue-in-cheek, “It’s an election year, so we’re doing this patriotic thing,” and Rossum cracking “it’s got Americana, summer, the in-your-face aggressive Gallagher vibe.” But a commercial for Season 7 puts another spin on this message: beneath the scrolling line “This Fall, every American voice will be heard,” a clip of Frank appears, drunkenly singing the national anthem from a jail cell. This time the tag line notably changes: “We’re so screwed.”

Parsing out the “we” in this claim is one of the many challenges posed by this complex, often outlandish portrait of an in-your-face family in distress. Is Shameless, as John Hendl argues, a flashy bit of “white trash porn” to titillate Showtime’s presumptive entitled viewers who like their comedy smart and edgy but also feel a sense of cultural superiority? An “empathetic” glimpse into welfare offices, chaotic classrooms, ERs, and family court that shows how those with “a voracious appetite for self-preservation” make do, as Washington Post critic Hank Steuver proposes? Or a refreshing tribute to embracing “the luck you got” (series’ theme song title), from staff writers who have experienced similar childhoods? Who, precisely, are the “screwers” and the “screwed”? Shameless runs with the most outrageous class stereotypes only to turn them inside out, foiling any election pollster or social commentator seeking convenient demographic labels.

The show’s blended “tragicomedy” or “dramedy” format helps to underscore its broader defiance of pat narrative formulas, staid moral stances, and static categories. As scholar Glen Creeber points out about the UK version, Shameless resists both documentary realism and laugh-track humor, the twin defaults of many film and TV depictions of the white working class. Its nuanced treatment of bipolar illness, which affects both Monica, the absent Gallagher mother, and Ian, the second eldest son, similarly captures poverty’s extreme lows and highs (the latter often courtesy of cheap liquor, drugs, and sex). Both noisily crowd the screen in every story arc, matched by equally manic pacing and camera work.

That said, Shameless clearly relishes making its characters into a spectacle that becomes most sensationalized in their enjoyment of all things sexual. Ian begins the show as a closeted pre-teen who has sex with men of all classes and types but soon falls for the local homophobic bully, Mickey Milkovich—who is also closeted. Their fraught evolving romance, which goes public, has become a fan and LGBTQ community favorite (with its own hashtag, “Gallavich”). Fiona has immediate, unapologetic sex with every man she dates and younger brothers Lip and Carl match that behavior from a young age. African-American next door neighbor Veronica, who began the series as an enterprising, self-styled internet porn star, has inventive sex with spouse Kevin, a white fellow barkeep at the Alibi Room. While such depictions risk indulging another frequent caricature of both the white and black “lower” classes—hyper sexual, excessive bodies and appetites—the show has also been viewed as “remarkably sex-positive” and a frank (no pun intended) exploration of sex as “free” entertainment (Steuver). Linda Tirado echoes this exact sentiment in her autobiographical Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America: when you’re scrounging for change to take numerous buses to get to your crappy job(s), she comments, it is no small comfort that at least “sex is completely free.” Even fourteen-year-old Debby feels compelled to lose her virginity and ‘rapes’ her passed out boyfriend in order to get pregnant (much to Fiona’s dismay). This is an entirely different, yet just as legitimate, form of ‘Americana.’

At the same time, the Gallaghers frequently take on mind-numbing, demeaning, and occasionally dangerous paid work when they can get it (or stand it): removing toxic waste; working construction; operating an unlicensed daycare center in their home; waitressing; erotic dancing (Ian, at a gay club); selling office supplies; bartending. Lip, somewhat in denial about his Ivy League-level IQ, takes a highly checkered path to college but does eventually work as a TA at the University of Chicago. Daddy Frank, however, also trains his children to engage in illegal money-making schemes such as stealing and selling drugs, falsely claiming disability benefits, cheating on welfare claims… the list is breathtaking. (Last season, he panhandled on the streets by claiming that his half-Black step-son, Liam, was an “African orphan.”) Yet only Carl serves as Frank’s true protégé. The others mostly express disgust about his unparalleled narcissism and exploits. They bemoan their “Gallagher genes” as much as they tout the “Gallagher way.” Frank has some of the cleverest lines, but the joke is usually on him. Fiona, particularly, keeps trying to create a stable home through conventional means and eventually throws her father out. Even within this single family unit, divisions splinter any tidy portrait of “the” urban poor. The Milkoviches down the street serve as the bleakest version of that demographic, complete with a brutally violent, sexually abusive father. Their situation never gets played for laughs; if anything, it demarcates a line that should never be crossed in this neighborhood’s value system. Even within these few South Side blocks, then, class identity across family and community appears fragile, rather than cohesive.

Yet the Gallagher children have undeniably inherited one key trait from their father: cynicism. Suspicious of bromides, pre-packaged ethics, or political parties and slogans, they absolutely see a “rigged” system and are proud of their resourcefulness by any means necessary. As Lip states matter-of-factly early on in the series, “there are only two ways for the poor to make money: steal or scam it.” They’re unashamed of their rawness — their frantic grabs at pleasure as well as survival — but they don’t really believe in collective power. They see how deprivation, exhaustion, and humiliation can not only beat down the “screwed” individually but cause them to turn on one another.

That’s precisely why none of the Shameless crew would fall for Trump’s pandering. They’d mock him as the biggest “screwer” of all who profits ‘shamelessly’ from the very system keeping them right where they are. (Also see Creeber on the characters’ disaffection from politics.) But perhaps their efforts to be bold, loud, visible can provide some insight into his supporters’ most extreme and repugnant responses to their own varied experiences of disenfranchisement. Tirado’s book serves as another illuminating source: “The problem I have isn’t just being undervalued—it’s that it feels as though people go out of their way to make sure you know how useless you are.” We need political leaders who truly recognize, rather than exploit, this feeling. We need to give working poor people a genuine reason to participate in what Tirado calls the “luxury” of “civic engagement.”

Pamela Fox

Pamela Fox teaches women’s and working-class literature and culture at Georgetown University.  She has written about British working-class novels, American country music, and most recently, Jackie Kay’s transracial adoption memoir writing.



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White Trash, Hillbillies, and Middle-Class Stereotypes

During election years white people who do not have bachelor’s degrees (the increasingly common definition of “the working class”) become both a somewhat exotic who-knew-they-were-here-and-in-such-large-numbers object of discussion and a target for freewheeling social psychologizing. Thus, it is more than a little refreshing to see two books attempt to tackle the more exotic side of Donald Trump’s beloved “the poorly educated.” White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by LSU historian Nancy Isenberg, is a progressive-leaning account of the disdain shifting groups of white workers and vagrants have suffered throughout U.S. history. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by Silicon Valley executive J.D. Vance, is a politically conservative account of Vance’s rearing by a drug-and-alcohol-addicted mother, rough but loving grandparents, a wonderful sister, a reliable aunt, and the U.S. Marines. Hillbilly Elegy is by far the better book.

I found White Trash disappointing primarily because it pays almost no attention to actual trashy white people, nor is it anything like a “history of class in America.” Instead, it traces how certain groups of whites have been disdained and blamed across 400 years by a variety of “better classes” from plantation and factory owners to politicians and TV producers. Much of the early history is interesting and insightful. The concept of trash, for example, comes from the English who saw most of their emigrants to the colonies as “waste” and “refuse” whose leaving would help purify the motherland. I particularly liked the chapters on the democratizing classism of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, very different class visions but historically complementary. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive history of upper- and middle-class prejudice against low-income, poorly educated whites – that is, a history of classism, not a history of class or of the actually existing people in the “white trash” class – then you will find this book rewarding.   But if you want some insight into the roots of trashy white people you know and love (and sometimes hate or at least need to avoid for a while), then J.D. Vance’s Elegy is the book for you.

The core of this memoir is Vance’s mother, her string of husbands and boyfriends who were Vance’s stepfathers-in-residence, along with his grandmother and grandfather whose constant fighting when his mother was a child undoubtedly had something to do with his mother’s inconstancy in every part of her life, especially as a parent. Vance’s evolving reflections on these and many other members of his extended family in Ohio and Kentucky are complexly developed with a straightforward clarity, both from the point of view of a child trying to make sense of it all at the time and from the perspective of a Yale Law School graduate who is trying to figure out how he succeeded in liberating himself from “a family and culture in crisis.”

Vance gives the bulk of the credit to his grandmother and grandfather, who actually did most of his rearing. One of the joys of the book is how Vance shows people changing through the different stages of their lives, sometimes dramatically and often for the best, and this ultimately is the source of hope Vance finds by the end of the book. The violent fighting between Vance’s “Mamaw” and “Papaw” that his mother had grown up with, for example, had stopped by the time they were looking after Vance. He heard second-hand all the stories of shouting, throwing things, physical fighting, and the time Mamaw set Papaw on fire in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, but he witnessed little of their discord himself. Besides being his primary source of unconditional love, they came to be savvy moral guides for Vance and much of the rest of the family. Vance, now 31, eventually learned to reject some of this guidance – especially the hillbilly honor culture that so readily leads to physical, verbal, and relational violence – but he shows how complexly situational their moral thinking became in concrete situations they helped him negotiate. At the time he finished the book, his mother was still “using,” and when he holds her responsible for the life she has lived and the horrible mother she was for him and his sister, he does so in the vague but not vain hope that she might one day achieve the sobriety she has been chasing and abandoning all of her adult life. After all, Mamaw and Papaw went from attempted murder to loving parental grandparents and steady moral beacons.

Hillbilly Elegy has become a bit of a cause celebre among traditional (now mostly anti-Trump) conservatives like The Weekly Standard and David Brooks for its polemical “it’s-their-own-damned-fault” conclusions about the white working class. But Vance’s sweeping generalizations take up very little of the book. They pretty much simply recycle many of the “white trash” stereotypes that Nancy Isenberg shows have a 400-year history predating the existence of the USA, but they are also wildly inconsistent with Vance’s unsparing but affectionate portraits of his family members.

Toward the end of the book Vance uses the royal “we” to excoriate the culture of both hillbillies and the white working class as a whole:

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse . . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. . . . . We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness. . . . . These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

These generalizations fit Vance’s mother, some her boyfriends, and a handful of people he observes in various working-class jobs he has had, but they do not fit his own accounts of most of the people in his family. Even the drunks and those who are much too quick to throw a punch (women as well as men) work hard when they can get steady work – Papaw, for example, was a lifer at Armco Steel in Middletown. And as far as we can tell, his sister and her husband, his aunts and uncles, his biological father, and most of the people he sketches seem to live creatively within their modest means.

J.D. Vance’s heartening struggle to “overcome” his “modest background” by achieving professional middle-class status and income is artfully rendered in Hillbilly Elegy, but his generalizations about hillbillies and the white working class are not just hasty and overdone. They reflect the kinds of prejudiced stereotypes he learned in college and law school and in the world he inhabits today. The fact that they are so spectacularly out of sync with the actual people he portrays is testimony to the power of those stereotypes, common among well-educated liberals as well as conservatives. Fortunately, Vance has not yet overcome all his trashy white background when telling nuanced stories about the complicated people who inhabit his life and memory. I’m hoping he never will.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies  

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Solidarity, not Division: Understanding London’s East End

The East End of London has a long history of working-class community. It has been a place of industry, where the river Thames and the river Lea have provided work for many people. The area attracted many immigrants, including workers from Africa since Tudor times, sailors from China, former slaves from America, French Protestants facing religious persecution in the 1600s and Irish weavers working in the textile industries. There have been Jewish communities in the East End for centuries, too. The twentieth century saw an increase in immigrants from the former British colonies, including South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. Not only has it been a place to seek a livelihood, but it has also been a place of refuge.

One side of my family hails from the East End and North East London, so I have a strong personal connection to this part of London. My ancestors worked in the local industries and on the river. We might not technically be ‘Cockneys’ (in that we weren’t all born within earshot of Bow Bells), but we are Cockney by nature. Family gatherings would include a raucous ‘knees-up’ (dancing and singing) and traditional local fare of jellied eels. We’re a working-class family who have lived in East London for generations.

So I was interested when I came across a recent short BBC documentary called Last Whites of the East End. I was disturbed by the title, which suggested that white people in the area are somehow endangered – an odd idea and potentially a racist one. This racism was confirmed when I watched the show. The documentary focused on residents of Newham, one of the poorest working-class boroughs in England. The filmmakers interviewed a number of working-class residents about their experiences of living in the East End and the decisions of some of them to leave the area. The majority of the subjects were white, though they also included one man of Bangladeshi background and one man of white and Afro-Caribbean heritage.

The narration of the documentary presented a racist agenda, describing the neighbourhood as at ‘tipping point’ with the ‘lowest white population in the UK’. It also noted a ‘dwindling cockney community’ who were in danger of disappearing in the face of increased immigration. Some of those interviewed were moving outside of London, to places like Essex, so they could live in areas with larger white populations. Some described themselves as ‘traditional East Enders’ and lamented the loss of the old community. They spoke of local services being shut down and the closure of the local pub. The film presented the interviewees as embodying white racism and a fear of the other, highlighting their reluctance to build bridges due to perceived differences. As one young white woman explained, they wanted to ‘stay with their own’.

But there were many contradictions in the documentary, too. It included an elderly white woman, who was preparing to leave her home and move out of London, not due to her fear of her Muslim neighbours (as implied by the narration, despite the fact that she was obviously upset to say goodbye to her Somali neighbour), but because she was elderly and alone and wanted to move closer to her daughter. Like many of her neighbours, she had once been a new arrival to the neighbourhood, moving there from the north of England. The two people of colour in the film both spoke of their connections to the local area and their identification as East Enders. Like their white neighbours, they pointed to the changing environment, but I’d suggest that the changes they were criticising were not tied to the latest influx of new immigrants.

Instead, they are matters of class. Gentrification and austerity are disrupting the lives of the working-class residents of the East End, not immigration. Housing has become too expensive, and government funding cuts are squeezing local schools and health services. Interviewees complained about the closure of a club which wasn’t just a local pub but also a community centre that elderly residents relied on for social events and to reduce isolation. Some white people are leaving, but, as I’ve seen with some friends and family members, that’s for financial reasons. They can purchase bigger properties if they sell their London homes, or they can pay less rent by moving to areas outside of London with smaller populations and less pressure on local services. And of course, not all of those leaving London are white.

The documentary downplays this part of the story. It also downplays the working-class solidarity that connects residents despite their differences. Residents of the East End share the experience of hardship and struggle, and this shared struggle has a very long history. The East End has a tradition of political radicalism and collective action. East Enders have looked after each other during tough times and shown a united front against hostile external forces. Famously, in 1936, the local community stood up against a group of anti-Semitic fascists who wanted to march through a Jewish area. The confrontation, known as the Battle of Cable Street, was won because the community put their bodies on the line to keep the fascists out. The same community rallied during the Second World War and looked after each other during the bombing raids of the Blitz. More recently, local people have been supporting each other and engaging in collective action in the face of forced evictions as local public housing is sold and redeveloped for private profit.

If the ‘traditional East End’ is disappearing, that isn’t because some working-class white are moving out of London. Working-class communities are not made up of just white people, and I’ve certainly never known a London that was mono-cultural. Yes, there are racist white working-class people. But the East End of London is a diverse and dynamic place, and always has been. It has also been a place of solidarity and struggle. The filmmakers chose to emphasize division instead of showing how East Enders act collectively, and it cast immigrants as a threat, when the real threats facing this community are austerity and gentrification.

Sarah Attfield

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Poverty and Precarious Work

Given that many working people are also poor, Labor Day is good time to talk about poverty in the United States. But in this election year, with so much with emphasis on jobs, we should look especially at the relationship between poverty and the changing landscape of work and economic insecurity.

The organization and composition of work has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. Technology, globalization, financialization, and neoliberalism have changed the structure and experience of work. From 1950 through 1980, Fordism dominated economic life, and mass production in large factories and offices linked economic growth with material improvement for most Americans. But the Fordist organization of work was often fragmented, highly controlled, and mind-numbing. It counterposed stable employment and alienated labor.

Fordist production began to change in the 1980s with development of the less hierarchical, flexible production systems that included computer aided design, just-in-time inventory control, total quality management, leaderless work groups, downsizing, and subcontracting leading to corporate restructuring. No doubt, these new systems produced cost savings, improved efficiency, and made the quality of work life better for some while also expanding consumer goods and services for many Americans. Soon government organizations followed suit, embracing the neoliberal principles of restructuring and dramatically altering the delivery of public services and downsizing public sector employment.

In the most recent version of neoliberal economics, we’ve seen a rise in contract and informal labor, often called the “gig economy,” “crowdsourcing,” or the “1099 economy.” Work today includes not only short-term contracts and uncertain schedules but also systems that pit workers against each other as they bid to do specific, often small-scale jobs for the lowest pay. The best known example is Uber, which seems to point to a future in which workers provide their own workplaces and tools and trade a fair amount of self-regulation for insecure incomes.

Neoliberals believed that changes in the organization of work associated with economic restructuring would propel economic growth that would, as the saying goes, “lift all boats.” That didn’t happen. Rather, we’ve seen wages and benefits decline for working people in both private and public sectors – as we’ve heard about throughout this year’s presidential election, from candidates from all parties.

Instead of rising, many boats began to sink. Several decades into economic restructuring and neoliberalism, the poverty rate in the U.S. is higher than it’s been since 1960. More than 146 million Americans live in poverty today. More than 100 million receive some form of public assistance, including about 46 million who receive food stamps. As The Economist reported recently, the poverty rate here is “higher than that of almost any other developed country.” High poverty rates mean that many people go hungry, struggle to pay for housing, and have very limited access to health care.

Those living in poverty include many who have jobs. The Pew Research Center has estimated that over 20.6 million people — 30% of all hourly, non-self-employed workers 18 and older — earn something close to the minimum wage. To get by, many of these low-wage workers rely on Federal welfare. While a number of factors contribute to these high poverty and welfare rates, low-wage contingent work – the conditions fostered by economic restructuring and neoliberalism – plays an important role. Put simply, changes in work contribute to poverty.

Moreover, the continued informalization of work and contingent work relationships will likely exacerbate poverty and growing marginality. Guy Standing argues that we should consider the unemployed, underemployed, and the anxiously employed as a new class – The Precariat. They are, he argues, largely disconnected from traditional mechanisms of upward mobility or stable employment, and they increasingly depend on government support. No doubt some appreciate being freed from Fordist work arrangements. They may be willing to accept contingent work arrangements, work longer hours, or and receive Federal stipends in exchange for more independence.

But there is some evidence this attachment to contract work may be waning. A recent study by Deloitte found that 67% of those doing contract work would choose not to if they had the opportunity and less than half were satisfied with their overall experience. The study also showed that almost half of employed workers believed that they would suffer economically as independent contractors. While 41% understood that contract work provided greater flexibility (especially women) compared to full-time employment, more than half preferred full time employment with a steady income.

As we celebrate this Labor Day with end-of-summer sales and barbecues, we should not forget that the holiday was originally meant as a “tribute to the contributions workers have made.” We should not forget how much has been lost – strong unions, stable employment, the promise that a hard worker could support a family, and the hope for upward mobility. In this era of precarity, with so many working people experiencing poverty, some for the first time, we should re-embrace worker solidarity as well as the simple idea that workers deserve both economic security, a livable wage, and respect.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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Why Evangelicals Matter to the Labor Movement

Conventional wisdom tells us that all evangelicals must be anti-union because they are theologically and politically conservative. Therefore, you might assume, labor has nothing to gain from the sixty two million adult adherents of evangelicalism in the U.S. Yet evangelicals were at the forefront of many progressive movements in the nineteenth century, such as abolitionism. Today, evangelicals play leading roles in issues of climate change, immigration reform, torture, and human trafficking. Some are also active in the labor movement.

To understand why, we need to look beyond the Moral Majority of the 1970s to the history of evangelicalism. I bet you didn’t know that, according to evangelist Dr. J. Edwin Orr, “the first trade union was formed by evangelicals as a protest against low salaries.” Orr had in mind the six Tolpuddle martyrs, Methodist and evangelical, who attempted to form a union in Dorchester, about 130 miles southeast of London. They were arrested and transferred to an Australian penal colony in 1834, but evangelical activists successfully fought to secure their release.

In keeping with this legacy, the 2004 NAE publication “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” argues that a good government “preserves the God-ordained responsibilities of society’s other institutions, such as churches, other faith-centered organizations, schools, families, labor unions, and businesses.” Unions have a positive part to play in public life, even for evangelicals.

It also helps to have a clearer sense of what it means to be an evangelical, a topic adherents have debated among themselves for years. Just this past October, the NAE and LifeWay Research issued a jointly sponsored report that emphasized that evangelicals are people of faith who should be defined by their beliefs and not by their politics or race.

So what beliefs lie at the heart of evangelicalism? In short, the Bible is the highest authority for belief. There, evangelical Christians are taught to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as savior. Christ’s death on the cross removes the penalties for sin. Trust in Jesus Christ alone as savior makes it possible to receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. Around 30% of Americans hold these beliefs, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Contrary to media representations, evangelicals include many African-American Protestants, even though they are often “separated out of polls seeking to identify the political preferences of evangelicals.” Evangelicals also include many working-class people, members of unions, and others who are sympathetic to unions.

I found powerful evidence of this in interviews that I conducted with African-American evangelical workers, members of then Local 369 of the IAMAW, in the aftermath of their 2009 strike against Moncure Plywood in central North Carolina. Their views suggest creative avenues for future labor evangelicals, if that spark ignites. For example, evangelicals have an especially acute sense of God’s personal presence in every aspect of daily life. One member, Charles Raines, saw no distinction between being on strike and being a faithful Christian. Raines has been a member of nearby Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church since 1981 and a skilled worker on nearly every phase of plywood production since his first day on the job in June 1968. His pride in his work at Moncure Plywood was unmistakable. His theology of work argues that one has to “earn his living by the sweat of his brow, you don’t work, you don’t eat” – a deft combination of verses from the Old and the New Testament.

Unions also “work,” in Raines’s view, by making a tough job doable at the plywood factory. When the firm was sold to new anti-union owners, the workers hit the picket line. Raines argued that the picket line can be equated with the Church itself: “We’ve already heard of the phrase where there is unity there is strength, where two or three are gathered in my name, He will be in the midst. If God is in the midst of something, you got to be strong.” Raines invoked the Bible verse that describes what’s necessary to form a church – a small collection of believers who gather in the name of Jesus to invoke his presence. God was in the midst of Local 369: “I know that he had our backs, because when people come together like at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came in like a mighty rustling wind, everyone was of one accord, they received the Holy Spirit, tongues, so when people get together, believers, and pray about a thing, God is in it, because he can’t go back on his word.” Raines used a story from the New Testament to reinforce his point that God was in the midst of their resistance, blessing and supporting that work.

Working-class American evangelicals have much to contribute to the labor movement. Their theology of work is undergirded by the doctrine that everyone is created in the image of God. They teach that we are all co-creators with God to make the world a better place as we also look forward to its ultimate redemption on the basis of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Just the thought of it is dizzying, but evangelicals really believe this even as they recognize the dire effects of sin on the workplace. If anyone believes it is possible to bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, it is your evangelical co-worker. The way in which that will occur may be unfamiliar and may well be uncomfortable in many ways. But it is unlikely that any revival of working-class prospects or the labor movement is possible in the United States without the involvement of its millions of evangelicals.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.


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