Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy (Part One)

Revolutionary changes are taking place in the global labor process, creating new labor relations while expanding the ranks of the precariat. Informed observers predict that within the next decade, one in every three labor transactions will be done online as part of the “on-demand,” “sharing,” “gig,” or “crowd labor” economy.

New words are creating a new vocabulary of work and labor, often meaning something quite different from what they might imply. As I have explained elsewhere, whereas labour has exchange value and is usually remunerated, work consists of many activities that are productive or reproductive that mostly have use value, although many are done out of necessity because we are obliged to do them. We will overcome the confusion, but it may take time.

Essentially, the emerging labor process revolves around three entities: (1) Rentier corporations (labor brokers), which control the technological apparatus, the apps; (2) Labor “requesters”, the middlemen; and (3) Taskers, those who do the jobs. The apps and smartphones are the equivalent of the old labor hall, without the bustle that at least indicated the bargaining position of brokers and laborers. Taskers are basically piece-rate workers, but they should be distinguished both from employees, who are covered by labor law and collective bargaining, and the self-employed. Taskers come in three forms, each posing challenges to those concerned with the world of work.

First, in the on-demand – or, more cruelly, ‘concierge’ – economy, labor-broking corporations are bypassing old forms of market transaction, connecting final customers with taskers who supply services, such as taxi driving, bed-sharing, food delivery, shopping, legal advice, or medical care. These service providers (or errand boys or “task-rabbits”) should be distinguished from workers, since the broker treats them as self-employed, thereby excluding them from entitlements or protections that the state supposedly grants employees.

On-demand taskers must be available at most times of day and night or risk losing income or future opportunities. Unlike the classic proletarian employee, they own the means of production, in the form of a car, apartment, bicycle, machine tools, or whatever. And they do not have fixed or even known hours of labor. They must do a lot of work-for-labor, work neither compensated nor even recognized as work. They must wait around, unable to devote themselves to other activities in case the iPhone calls them to do a task.

On-demand taskers are usually isolated, without bargaining power. They are in a buyer’s market, having to accept a price set by the buyer. While many may feel “grateful” for the opportunity to earn a little, they must bear all the risks – accidents, ill-health from stress, loss of friendships, non-payment, repairs to vehicles or tools, replacement of stained carpets, health insurance, and so on. They face constant uncertainty — of income, tasks, costs, and personal comforts. And they are in constant competition with other unknown taskers.

A second type of tasker is part of the crowd-labor pool, an expanding phenomenon already involving over 12 million people, a third in the USA. Here, labor intermediaries are pivotal. Direct producers contract with a brokering corporation, such as Amazon Turk, ODesk, or eLance, which in turn utilize requesters to sub-contract tasks to successful bidders — taskers — from a potentially global crowd-labor pool. This involves a Dutch auction, in which requesters announce on line that so many such-and-such tasks are up for bid, to be completed within a stipulated period, and that bidding will close within, say, five days. Often the requester announces at the outset a maximum price or piece-rate, and taskers then bid each other down. Taskers can bid to undertake as many tasks as they think feasible at a price they think is right for them. At the end, requesters select from the lowest bids. So, somebody in Boston can be bidding against someone from Bangalore, Dakar, or Manchester. This is invidious, because the most insecure will tend to bid the lowest.

Because crowd-labor taskers do not know how many people are bidding or where they are, they may easily believe competition is more intense than it is. For the broker, that is ideal. But tasks may turn out to be more complex or time-consuming than taskers had been led to believe, resulting in even more self-exploitation. Many worry about their ability to finish tasks on time or satisfy the quality demanded, especially when they have no means of seeing what others are achieving. And in practice they have no means of redress should the broker decide not to pay or to delay payment on some pretext.

The larger the global crowd-labor pool, the easier it will be for brokers to impose demands and penalties on individual taskers. For instance, if a requester in New York unilaterally decides that a tasker in Dakar did not do something well enough and refuses to pay, the solitary tasker probably will not be able, or be confident enough, to try to recover her money. The scope for scams is enormous.

A third type of tasker is someone hired as a nominal full-time employee but who is on a zero-hours contract. This growing ruse involves paying only for the hours they are actually required to labor. They must be on stand-by at all times and travel to and from workplaces without compensation, often not knowing if they will get work or for how long. Over 1.4 million people in the UK are on such contracts.

All these taskers face insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, and lack of control over time. They have no fixed hours or workplaces. Unlike workers in the industrial time regime, where life could be measured in blocks of time, they live in a tertiary time regime, in which labor and work blur into each other, without payment for downtime, waiting, retraining, networking, and so on. They have illusion of freedom while also feeling that they are under incessant control. This is debilitating, with psychological consequences that we have only begun to explore.

The process depresses wage rates, whether taskers are paid on a piece-rate or time-rate basis. The decline is greater than is measured, since much of the tasker’s work is unrecorded, including time for rest, preparing, and waiting. The process also increases the precariat’s volatility of earnings, leaving them without non-wage or state benefits.

Driving down wages in general creates even more profits for the broker corporations. In this respect, Uber has set the bar for ruthless opportunism, and in spite of protests by licensed taxi drivers, it is operating in over 200 cities in 51 countries. It is decimating the ranks of licensed taxis, and depressing the earnings of taxi drivers. Critics fear that once Uber has succeeded in marginalizing taxis, it will raise its rates, especially in surge periods.

The process also accentuates the dismantling of occupational communities. Occupational guilds defined working life for hundreds of years, setting standards, codes of ethics, means of training, and sources of social protection. They stood against the market. The neo-liberal agenda hinges on dismantling them, and the on-demand economy is both a consequence and an accelerator of that. The costs include loss of occupational ethics and routes of social mobility through professions and crafts

The on-demand economy also reverses a capitalist mantra. Instead of capitalists, or firms, owning the means of production, they are ‘owned’ by the precariat. The former maximize profits through patents and other forms of intellectual property. They draw investment from venture capital, which thrives on short-lived, high rates of profit.

The precariat in this zone is isolated, in permanent competition with each other. The atomization drives down wages and transfers risks, hazards, shocks, and uncertainty onto the precariat. Taskers have minimal means or opportunities to coalesce.

Dangers for taskers include under-insurance, due partly to the difficulty of working out the risks with any insurer, especially where the potential insurer could not presume that the supplier would be properly qualified or be able to take due care.

The “sharing economy” has a cultural dimension, as well. When someone “shares” for money a car, apartment, or utensils, they convert zones of privacy and use value into alienated commodities with exchange value. It is an instance of the “Lauderdale Paradox,” in which the act of commodification is one of privatization that contrives scarcity of space or time.

These forms of labor intensify the pressure to commodify one’s life. It is a sad way for the precariat to respond to adversity, intensifying self-exploitation. It is how those experiencing declining wages and living standards cover up the decline, for a while.

In the upcoming weeks in Working-Class Perspectives, I will consider what can be done to improve the long-term income and economic security of taskers and the precariat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.

Divestment Days and the “War on Coal”

Next weekend, February 13 and 14, hundreds of cities around the world will witness actions as part of Global Divestment Days, calling for an end to fossil fuel addiction and a transition to a clean-energy future. The Fossil Free coalition coordinating these events grew out of the massive People’s Climate Marches (PCM) on September 21, 2014. Divestment campaigns, urging individuals and institutions (churches, universities, unions, banks, and city governments) to withdraw investment dollars from extractive industries, emerged as a key strategy intended to unite students, workers, and people on the front lines climate change.

In an op-ed the day of the March, Desmond Tutu connected the movement for climate justice with the anti- apartheid struggle, which had been aided by a widespread divestment campaign: “Reducing our carbon footprint [has] emerged as the human rights challenge of our time. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither.”

Justice, then, requires that those with the capacity should act in solidarity with those most affected, moving our money, if we have investments, and pressuring those who control the flow of capital to do likewise: “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the. . . human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Three months before the PCM, citing “a moral obligation to act on climate,” President Obama had given the movement some hope with new EPA regulations limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rules mandating an average reduction of 30% by 2030 were a significant departure because they aim to mitigate impacts of coal burning not only on local air quality but also on global warming. If they are implemented as intended, they could deliver cleaner air and water to local communities, mostly poor and working-class, living near power plants, while also showing US willingness to reduce the causes of climate disasters that have already cost thousands of lives in the poorest regions of the world.

The new rules were met with howls of protest from climate deniers, industry executives, and coal-state politicians, charging Obama with waging a “war on coal.” Thousands of union miners and their families took to the streets during the EPA’s public hearings in Pittsburgh, denouncing the regulations as job killers. Their protest was organized by the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and industry lobbying groups, along with the United Mineworkers of America and other labor unions.

In testimony at the EPA hearings, former Teamster activist Mel Packer attributed this unholy alliance of long-time class enemies to the miners’ anger and fear in the precarious post-2008 economy: they have seen horrendous job losses, their small towns impoverished, and all the social ills that come with a sense of having no future. “They, like everyone else displaced in this Wall Street ‘recovery’ but working class disaster, need jobs, good jobs with dignity, union protection, and living wages. Jobs that leave us with some sense of pride at the end of the shift, knowing we somehow contributed to the common good.” However, he cautioned, “That ain’t gonna come from the coal companies.”

In fact, contrary to the industry line about “Obama’s war on coal,” most job-losses across the coalfields predated the new EPA regulations and happened as a consequence of decisions made in coal company boardrooms. These included a shift from labor-intensive “room-and-pillar” underground mining to fully mechanized long-wall mining and surface extraction, including mountain-top-removal (MTR) with its devastating effects on human health and the natural environment. As a result, the “coal state” of West Virginia saw employment in mining shrink to 27,000 jobs by 2014, while poverty is higher and life-expectancy lower in communities near MTR sites. And it is no coincidence that those surface mines usually run non-union, reducing the UMWA’s membership and clout.

The hard truth is, though, that in a state like Kentucky, which generates 90% of its electricity in coal-fired plants, job losses in coal are unavoidable, since many old plants cannot be adequately retrofitted. In fact, the future for coal faces a much greater threat than either the EPA’s regulations or the industry’s job-killing mechanization. Saving the planet requires essentially that we stop digging the stuff.

The Guardian recently reported on a study published in the journal Nature, estimating that about 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must be left buried if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. The study also indicates exactly which fuels must remain in the ground, primarily those requiring extreme modes of extraction: Canadian tar sands oil, much potential shale gas, and, of course, coal, “the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Globally, 82% of today’s reserves must be left underground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of coal reserves” must remain unburned.

A “just transition” to a clean energy future, then, requires that we not only divest from fossil fuels but also reinvest in renewables and in training displaced workers for the new economy. Groups like Appalachian Transition work to develop local wind and hydro generation, solar installations, and building retrofits for energy efficiency, as well as jobs in forest and watershed reclamation. As Nick Mullins puts it in his Thoughtful Coalminer blog, not only would this transition “give people good steady jobs outside of the coal mines–it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, satisfy many environmental concerns, and even give us that national energy security everyone keeps talking about.”

The students who initiated the campus divestment movement understood the necessity to both “divest and invest.” They explicitly framed their campaign as a “solidarity tactic” with workers and others most affected by extractive industries. At Swarthmore, for instance, they founded the Mountain Justice organization after a spring break study trip to mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. Student Stephen O’Hanlon expresses the resulting strategy with typical idealism: “As institutions of higher education, we can leverage our economic and political capital to not only transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but to create a more equitable society in the process. By divesting, we can undermine the fossil fuel industry’s social license, thereby threatening their bottom lines. Through reinvesting, we can actively promote the world we want to see.”

This cross-class solidarity approach has spread to hundreds of campuses, with its most recent success at the New School in New York City. Pittsburgh’s Divestment Day rally and teach-in, Friday February 13, are organized primarily by students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in alliance with traditional peace and justice organizations, union and environmental activists. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in the most mined and fracked corner of western Pennsylvania, will teach us about “living on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry,” while students crank up pressure on their universities to divest from climate-destroying fuels and invest “like Appalachia matters.”

Nick Coles

Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

Several weeks ago, I attended the “The American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies” Conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by The American Prospect, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. It was nice to see many old friends with whom I had worked as a Labor Studies Professor for 35 years. It was especially nice see David Moberg, labor journalist at In These Times.

We recalled the many “Labor at the Crossroads” conferences we had attended beginning with the crisis in the steel industry and the beginnings of deindustrialization in the 1970s. Most of these conferences accomplished little and had minimal impact on union leaders who rarely attended and were sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change and the forces arrayed against them. But the program for last week’s conference looked different, and the conference ultimately felt different. As I said to the organizers, the panels and discussions were unusually frank, and some of the best were led by young people, women, and people of color.

Some both within and outside of the American labor movement have pronounced its impending death. But as Lance Compa has pointed out, plenty of successful union organizing is happening in traditional, largely stable industries and companies in manufacturing, transportation, communication, health care, food processing, and the public sector. Further, unions are a potent political force in advancing labor and civil rights in coastal and Midwest battleground states where urban density is the greatest. They have been powerful advocates for minimum wage increases and the expansion of health care for all working people. Taken together, Compa estimated that about 20% of all workers who are able to organize under US labor law are organized. The struggle for labor movement lies with the other 80%, especially those with those who experience unstable wages and working conditions and even those who embrace intermittent employment.

In the past, unions largely ignored these workers, finding them difficult to organize under current labor law and union strategies. But these workers have begun to organize themselves, in some cases with union backing. At the conference, we heard speakers from National Guest Workers Alliance, the Texas Workers Defense Project, the fast food worker campaign, and many “alt-union” organizing efforts involving day laborers, adjunct faculty, domestic workers, home healthcare workers, and regional and national worker centers.

One the most important speakers was Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. The Freelancers Union (FU) wants to organize the 53 million self-employed workers, a growing portion of the labor market as the structure of work is changing. FU researchers found that 40% of these workers were true independent contractors, while another 23% were moonlighters trying to make ends meet. Put differently, the self-employed sector is diverse, ranging from members of the professional managerial class (salariat) to the working classes, and all experience some degree of casualization and/or precarity.

Horowitz believes the labor movement must recognize that both work and individuals are changing in cultural and economic ways. Some people, she argues, embrace flexibility and reject traditional work organizations and consumption patterns. They do not accept the work-spend cycle and are comfortable living with less. Instead of aspiring to home or car ownership, they prefer to rent or share. They seek a fuller life away from work, based on communities, networks, and neighborhoods. Horowitz calls this Freelance 360,which embraces a “new mutualism” that includes building “smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems.” The FU’s goal is to develop sustainable work communities, networks, and co-ops in the growing informal and unstable work environment through “a spirit of collaboration and mutual support” and “building meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities.” This vision of a sharing economy has attracted both interest and critique.

In the last 15 years, FU has organized various networking events as well as an on-line freelancers network to share information, ideas, and potential collaborations. Its website provides important information for freelancers on health-related issues and insurance, taxes, wage rates and fringe benefits, business models, and marketing strategies. Participants also share information on clients. The FU has also published a Freelancers Bible that provides career information and a clever YouTube video that explains what it is trying to accomplish and why.

Some mainstream unionists at the conference may have felt threatened by Horowitz’s remarks. I think this fear is misguided. The FU is not challenging traditional organizing at brick and mortar sites with fixed hours and working conditions. Rather, it is simply suggesting that traditional methods and issues are inappropriate when work has become more informal, flexible, and episodic. Given the history of the labor movement, the tension was not unexpected even at a conference built around experimentation in thinking, organizing, and strategies.

The shift in thinking that FU advocates suggests the value of a broader definition of “working class,” one that includes the precariat along with more traditional workers. Over the last few years on Working-Class Perspectives, Guy Standing, Tim Strangleman and I have considered the definitions, conditions, and issues associated with the growing precariat. In the coming months, we will continue to examine changes in work and the growth of the precariat. For example, Guy Standing will comment on how we might define workers and the labor process in the on-demand economy. Tim Strangleman will look at some corporate origins of the fissuring workplace that has become a source of precarity. Sherry Linkon will consider cultural representations of precarity.

We have not abandoned our focus on working-class life and culture. Rather, we recognize that a growing number people, including many who once saw themselves as part of a privileged middle class, are now experiencing working-class insecurity and have found that they are one job from poverty. And just as we have long argued for the value (and values) of working-class life and culture while also tracing its struggles, we need to examine both the opportunities and costs of the new economy, in individual and political terms.

John Russo

Getting Angry about Class

Still the enemy within posterA great new film is out in the UK just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The dispute was incredibly divisive three decades ago and continues to be so. When Margret Thatcher died last year, no group celebrated harder than the former mining communities that were devastated in the wake of the strike and the mass closure of the then publicly owned industry. The right wing press and members of the political elite expressed disgust and outrage at the joy with which her demise was greeted. They seemed to believe that the naked class hatred shown to the miners, their families, and communities in the 1980s should now be all forgotten. Well, they weren’t forgotten, and if anything the anger felt in the former coalfields burns just as brightly by those who remember it. Independent filmmaker Owen Gower has said that one of his motivations in making Still the Enemy Within was to show a younger generation why Thatcher was so hated and why the dispute still matters. The title of the film is a reference to Thatcher’s branding of the miners as the ‘enemy within.’

Still the Enemy Within charts the year long dispute over plans to close many economically viable pits, a strategy deliberately designed to provoke the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into going on strike. It has long been known that this dispute was deliberately engineered by the Thatcher government to break the strongest element of the working class and trade union movement in the UK. The Conservatives had nursed a deep seated grudge against the miners for their contribution to the downfall of Edward Heath’s Conservative Government in 1974. The strike lasted for a day or so shy of a full year, a year that witnessed unprecedented working-class solidarity across the country but failed to realize greater industrial and labor party support. The miners were effectively starved into submission by a combination of poverty, hunger, police brutality, and a wider range of state power – both legal and illegal. UK government papers released recently under the 30 Year Rule revealed the extent of illegal action deployed at the time.

Much of what the film shows was not new to me. I cut my political and trade union teeth as a young railway worker in London during the strike. I remember the ever present miners collecting donations with their buckets and bright yellow ‘Coal Not Dole’ sticker badges. Ironically, Thatcher’s power in the 1980s and the level of anti-union macho management that was unleashed in the wake of the miners’ defeat persuaded me to give up my job and go to college. I met miners who like me were on a pre-university access course in Oxford alongside other workers being pushed out of their industries at the time. I went to Durham University, at the centre of what had been a huge coalfield, and there I met a former Durham miner – let’s call him Pete – whose life had been turned upside-down by the strike. Still in debt in 1990 five years after the strike had ended, Pete was one of a wave on miners who left the industry and went into higher education. One evening after several beers, Pete recounted some of the events of that year and in particular instances of police brutality meted out on, or more usually off, the picket line. Once, he was arrested and placed in cuffs with his hands over the front seat of a police van. Pete thought this strange, he told me, but then he realized what was to happen as a police officer hit him repeatedly in the face with his truncheon. Pete was a very funny man with a wry sense of humor. Through half closed eyes he looked at the officer and said “I bet you really enjoyed that, why don’t you have another go”. He did. Pete, laughing while he spoke, said it was the most stupid thing he had ever said or done as he showed me the photographs taken of him by his lawyer at the police station after he was charged.

This combination of dark humor, bitterness and anger is well represented in Still the Enemy Within. Indeed, I felt a mixture of real anger and sadness throughout the showing. In the Q and A session with the director after the screening, most of the audience also reported feeling angry. The film mixes archive film and still photography with more recently recorded interviews with former miners and their families. The most poignant scenes are of a former miner walking around a landscaped abandoned pithead reflecting on both that period of possibility three decades ago and the current policy of austerity and cuts. The film’s greatest strength is that it is narrated by people from mining communities, who lived through the strike. It seems increasingly rare to hear working-class voices, dialects, and accents in British media. Their bitterness and anger was clear, but so was their humanity and the kind of humor that Pete had.

When I looked around at the audience, I noticed that it was mainly, but by no means exclusively, made up of an older generation. To have an adult memory of the strike, you have to be in your late forties, and most were older. There was an interesting debate in the Q and A about intergenerational solidarity and how important it was for a younger generation to learn lessons from the miner’s strike, in particular about class. Though the film is rated for viewers 15 or older, I had thought long and hard about whether or not to take my ten year old son to see the film with me. I decided against it, and I now regret that I didn’t, because Still the Enemy Within tells a story about class we all need to remember — or learn for the first time.

Tim Strangleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sherry Linkon

Stereotyping White Working-Class Voters

Analysis of the Democrats’ 2014 electoral debacle has again turned toward their chronic and worsening “problem with the white working class.” For the most part, pieces like those in Mother Jones, Slate, The Nation, and even Thomas Edsall in The New York Times have rightly blamed Democrats for failing to offer a compelling progressive economic program that would appeal to non-college-educated whites (as the “white working class” is defined in this ongoing discussion). But while these writers all end up with a healthy emphasis on the deteriorating conditions of working-class life (in all its colors), they and others also rely too much on simplistic social-psychologizing and implicit assumptions that are either false or grossly exaggerated.

Even when commentators avoid blatant negative stereotyping, the cast of the discussion implies that middle-class whites are much less “racially resentful” and completely free of racism based on their voting patterns. Nobody says this outright, but college-educated whites (“middle class”) are generally assumed to be more enlightened than those without a bachelor’s degree (“working class”). If voting for Democrats is taken as a measure of enlightenment, this is a little bit true, but only a little bit. In 2012 middle-class whites gave President Obama 42% of their votes while working-class whites gave him only 36% — a six-point difference, which widened to seven points in 2014 U.S. House races.

Even so, the gaps are typically much larger when we look at differences among white voters by gender (9 points in 2014); region (in 2008 Southern whites of all classes voted from 17 to 22 points less Dem than those in other regions); income (where whites making less than $50,000 a year typically vote more Dem than those making more than that); and religion. In 2014, only 26% of white Protestants voted for House Democrats, 12 points less than white Catholics, and about 40 points less than whites who identified themselves as Jewish or as having no religion. Why is there no discussion of what’s the matter with white Protestants, who are still about 40% of all U.S. voters and much more Republican than working-class whites? Cultural and economic conservatism, often accompanied by “racial resentfulness,” are present (and absent) in all white demographics, and the variation by class is likely less than by gender, region, income, and religion.

Another implicit assumption in these discussions is that the white working class was once the solid base of the Democratic Party. While in Rust Belt and West Coast cities that was probably true, nationally whites without bachelor’s degrees have given Dem presidential candidates a majority only once since 1948 (in 1964). And that makes them no different from all white voters, who have given Republicans clear majorities in 12 of the last 19 presidential elections. Thus, while there have been twists and turns over the past 60 years, in general only between 35% and 45% of the white working-class nationally has voted for Dems (see p. 70 of Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy). Though one of the downturns in white working-class support for Dems was in 1968 and 1972, the dramatic narrative that a racial backlash in those years permanently turned a strongly progressive white working class into Fox News conservatives has no basis in electoral statistics.

More problematic is the social-psychologizing in these articles. Here, these writers contend that “many” working-class whites see Democrats as concerned only about the “welfare poor” – the numbers of which these whites greatly exaggerate, while often assuming equally inaccurate racial profiles — and not about regular “middle-class” working people like them. These anti-welfare, anti-undeserving-poor attitudes are widespread among working-class whites, but in my observation, they are also prevalent among middle-class whites, though perhaps with a little less passion. But they are routinely contested within conversations among working-class whites, who have an array of practical, moral, and religious arguments against these views though they sometimes share the same misinformation. To focus exclusively on one strain of thinking without reference to the other presents a singular white working-class “mentality” that is a stereotype, regardless of the careful phrasing (using “many” rather than implying “all”) and the degree of contextualizing empathy the writer might express for that mentality.

A large third of working-class whites vote solidly Democrat no matter how bad the Democrats are, and as Ruy Teixeira has pointed out, these voters are an important part of what he calls “the Obama coalition,” providing nearly as many raw Dem votes with their low percentages as either blacks or Latinos do with their much higher percentages. Another larger third is solidly conservative and Republican. But this leaves a small third of what Andrew Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.” These are what union organizers call “the persuadables” and political organizers, “swing voters.” They are key to moving the overall white working-class vote from 36% for Obama in 2012 to above the 40% he won in 2008 – a level at which Dems would have a permanent majority, assuming continuing maximum black turnout, growing Latino turnout, and roughly stable levels of Democratic support among all minorities as well as middle-class whites.

I have followed the internal debate among Democrats about how to attract more white working-class votes since Teixeira and Joel Rogers first raised it in their 2000 book, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. In my judgment this discussion has been a net positive in urging Dems to focus strongly on a progressive economic program to win a larger proportion of working-class whites. Even though Dems have not maintained that focus since the 2008 presidential primaries, and they abandoned it altogether in 2014, the discussion around how to win a larger share of non-college-educated whites has helped keep progressive Dems in the intra-party discussion that influences Democratic politicians.

But now that the debate has reached a broader progressive media that is attempting to explore the (singular) “soul” of working-class whites, I fear it will rapidly begin doing more harm than good. A better focus for slicing and dicing the electorate would be the white vote as a whole, with all its gender, regional, income, and religious as well as age and class differences.  More important, however, and more difficult to sell to Democratic politicians in the Hillary Clinton mode, is debating what would be a bold enough progressive economic program to give white, black, Latino and Asian workers (with and without bachelor’s degrees) a reason to turn out and vote Dem.

The AFL-CIO has gotten out early for 2016 with its recent National Summit on Raising Wages and a laundry list of 35 policies for doing so. That seems to me the right focus, but from that laundry list Dems need a few big policies to emphasize – policies that can be thoroughly explained and argued for within a larger economic narrative about the unjust causes of income inequality and the damage it is doing to our economy and almost everybody in it. That would be a far more interesting and fruitful search than pundits looking for a shared social psychology among the tens of millions of workers who share nothing but a lack of both bachelor’s degrees and melanin.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

The US has its ‘white trash,’ the UK its ‘chavs,’ and Australia has the ‘bogan’ — a white Anglo-Celtic man or a woman from the working class. Characterized as uncouth, uneducated, unsophisticated, mainly interested in drinking cheap beer, swearing, smoking, listening to loud rock music (such as AC/DC), the bogan favours ‘low brow’ fashion such as mullet haircuts, thongs (flip flops), and tracky dacks (tracksuit pants). I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with this clothing or music taste, but the bogan stereotype reinforces negative perceptions and is generally used to ‘other’ working class people.

The bogan is almost universally a figure of ridicule, and to call someone a bogan is generally seen as an insult (despite the fact that some people define themselves as bogans). In Australia there appears to be free reign to call people bogans and to evoke the stereotype without criticism. This casual classism generally goes unchecked, and while there have been some criticisms of the stereotype, they are still thin on the ground. Chris Gibson suggests that bogans are ‘a soft base, a soft punching bag’ and this is why the mocking of white working-class culture through the bogan generally goes unchecked. The bogan stereotype flourishes in Australian comedy television. While it could be reclaimed and used by working-class people in subversive ways, I don’t think this has occurred as yet in Australia. Instead, the bogan figure remains the comedic device of mainly middle-class creators. The TV bogan also confirms middle-class prejudices about working-class people and allows the middle class to retain superiority.

Bogans are usually depicted as ‘uneducated’ and ‘unsophisticated’ by choice and this arguably makes it easier to dismiss the role of class structures. The impact of class is reduced to an aesthetic, with no acknowledgement of the structural and political sources of class, such as how the accumulation of cultural capital may be affected by limited education opportunities.

Current Australian television offers two main types of bogan representation: the aspirational bogan and the ‘bludger’ bogan (lazy and scrounging). The first is portrayed as someone who has accumulated wealth through trades, small business, or (more recently) working in the mines. Aspiration and attempts to be ‘classy’ are mocked. The aspirational bogan is also depicted as ‘cashed up’ and spending money on showy ‘toys’ such as hotted up utility trucks, large household appliances, expensive jewellery, jet skis, and so on.

A very successful Australian TV show Kath and Kim (2002 – 2007), mocks aspirational working-class characters. The characters were created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley who also play the mother and daughter roles. The humor is parody. The speech, mannerisms, clothes, and behaviours are intended to be read as working-class and are ridiculed. Both Kath and Kim use words out of context and mispronounce words. For example, Kim famously states that she wants to be ‘effluent’ rather than ‘affluent.’ Turner and Riley claim the parody is affectionate, but for me, as someone from a working-class background who still mispronounces words, I find the mockery offensive. This is not to say all working-class people find the show unfunny, but I’d argue that it reinforces class stereotypes. Kath in particular is a stereotypical non-threatening, simple (but kind hearted) working-class woman.

The opposite representation of the ‘bogan’ is the poor, welfare dependant, and vulgar type. In this stereotype, individuals con the system by claiming unemployment benefits or disability benefits fraudulently. They are depicted as petty criminals and as unkempt, uncouth, sexually promiscuous and negligent parents.

Comedy writer Paul Fenech represents extreme versions of the ‘bludger’ bogan in his series Housos. This show is set on a housing commission estate – ‘housos’ (pronounced ‘house-ohs’), is a derogatory term for people living in public housing. The characters are all unlikable. They are violent, constantly drunk or drug affected, unable to care for their children, lazy, and dirty. Viewers are invited to laugh at their ‘antics’ which involve attempts to cheat the welfare authorities or evade the police (and often end up in a neighbourhood brawl).

At risk of being labelled a ‘wowser’ (having no sense of humour), I can’t watch this show without getting angry. I grew up in public housing and the negative stereotypes depicted in the show reinforce the audience’s limited understanding of life in public housing. While I’m not suggesting that there is a more deserving, ‘respectable’ working class, the constant references in Housos to welfare cheating, laziness, and dysfunction masks the real effects of poverty and disadvantage. In this show, characters seem to choose to be unemployed and to depend on government benefits, allowing the audience to dismiss the real concerns of those living in poverty in run-down public housing. This show doesn’t depict the financial and psychological struggle and hardship of unemployment, lone parenting, or life on low wages, and it ignores the strong sense of community that exists in many public housing estates.

Fenech has gone one step further with his reality comedy TV show Bogan Hunters, a show searching for Australia’s ‘best’ bogan. Deeply exploitative Fenech presents the show in character (as Franky from Housos, alongside two other characters from Housos, Kev the Maori and Shazzer the single mum). They meet so-called bogans (who are not actors) and encourage them to behave in stereotypical ways for the camera. The problem here is that many of the subjects are vulnerable. Some state on camera that they are unfit for work due to psychological conditions. Fenech and his team make them objects for ridicule (while adopting an anthropological tone) and always maintain the upper hand.

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for satire based on working-class experience, but I’d like to see comedy that is written from a working-class perspective (there have been examples elsewhere, such as The Royle Family from the UK). Working-class people’s experiences are not homogenous, and stereotypes are dangerous. We can be critical of our own communities, but surely it is possible to be critical while also creating comedy that offers nuanced representations and serves as a critique of class systems? This is where satire comes in. Not to mock the vulnerable and marginalized, but to reveal the effects of the system on people’s lives.

Sarah Attfield

Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.