Redefining the Working Class

Once again, a presidential election is bringing renewed interest in the working class, especially the white working class.  Are they a racist bulwark of Trump support? Will they support a Clinton, after NAFTA and welfare reform? Do they represent a populist backlash against neoliberalism? As Jack Metzgar suggested last week, in the face of such discussions, we need to consider just who  we are talking about.  What is the working class, and how is it changing in the twenty-first century?

Historians have argued that the working class was formed through industrialization, which generated changes not only in economic structures, working conditions, social relations, and politics, but also in culture. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, economic restructuring has again brought fundamental changes, including the rise of neoliberalism.  Those changes together with the economic crisis of the last decade have expanded the working class, but the working class is also changing.

While some would argue that class is an objective term, and being working class is a matter of economic relations regardless of self-identification or attitudes, class has always involved both economic conditions and culture.  Yet while the traditional definition of the working class as those who sell their labor, who do not “control the means of production,” remains relevant, it is also somewhat problematic in the current economy.  No doubt, many people work in jobs that fit this definition easily, but neither the taskers who sell their labor in small chunks to varied “owners” nor those who sometimes choose the apparent self-control of freelancing over what they see as the drudgery and false security of traditional jobs fit easily into this model.

Even on a purely economic basis, class structure and conflict no longer fit this traditional model. As Guy Standing has suggested, the emerging class structure is increasingly based on insecurity. Whether the “precariat” represents something different from the working class or an emerging set of conditions shaping working-class experience, there is no doubt that in the contemporary economy, increasing numbers of people face increasingly precarious employment and income.

On the cultural side, established definitions of class are also problematic.  We make a first mistake in understanding the working class when we try to define it in any simple or singular way. Too often, references to “the working class” imply white, male industrial workers.  Yet the working class has always included men and women of all races, ethnicities, and sexualities, who work in a wide range of jobs at factories, farms, stores, offices, and homes.  Within this large and multifaceted working class, individuals and groups have rarely defined themselves solely in terms of class, and the working class has fought bitter battles across divides of race, gender, and nationality.

For all their diversity, working-class voters have enough influence that pundits and pollsters want to track their views, and to make that manageable, most rely on a single marker: college education.  But here, too, traditional definitions of the working class don’t work as well as they once did. A college degree may be a lever into better lifetime earnings and thus, presumably, into the middle class, but it does not provide any guarantees.  As a recent study showed, people from lower-income families gain less from a college degree than do those who come from more affluent families, even if their parents also went to college. And even those who secure good jobs based on college degrees face so much debt and so little job security that the undergraduate degree has lost much of its power as a launching pad into the middle class.

Two recent books point to important cultural changes in the working class.  In The New Class Conflict, Joel Kotkin argues that the nature of class struggle is changing.  It now pits a wider range of elites, including oligarchs, technocrats, bureaucrats, the media, and academics, against both the struggling middle and the working class. Class struggle also plays out geographically, between urban and suburban communities, and generationally, between the young and the old. Especially hard hit are millennials who are saddled with low incomes and high student loan debt.  As a recent report found, millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify themselves as working class. They are leaving cities in their 30s, because they can’t afford housing in gentrifying areas, and, Kotkin argues, they are also increasingly alienated from the political process.

Jennifer Silva agrees that millennials from the working class are alienated, a trend she attributes to the failure of the American Dream and the obstacles that keep many of them from acquiring the markers of adulthood.  In an economy that puts homeownership and stable employment out of reach, Silva argues in Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, younger working-class people have embraced a “therapeutic model of selfhood” built on self-sufficiency and overcoming personal traumas. This worldview differs dramatically from the model of working-class culture described by Barbara Jensen and Jack Metzgar, which values belonging over individual achievement.  But the trends Silva documents may provide additional evidence that we are seeing some merging of the middle class and the working class. While this reflects the proletarianization of the middle class, it may also be that the working class is adopting more middle-class values of individualism.

Silva writes that younger working-class people are buying into the “cultural logic of neoliberalism.” They not only “embrace self-sufficiency over solidarity,” they also “blame those who are unsuccessful in the labor market.”  They distrust institutions and reject the idea that racism creates real obstacles for people of color.  They survived in a bad economy and they think others should as well.

As Silva argues, this attitude “has profound personal and political consequences.”  We’re seeing the resentment and blame that she identifies in comments from supporters of Donald Trump. Others, including Kotkin and Thomas Frank, have explained Trump’s popularity in these terms, reading his political success as evidence of economic frustration.

The problem, as we have noted in several previous election seasons, is that defining “the working class” as the class of racism, xenophobia, and resentment reinforces outdated notions of who is working class. “The working class” includes only angry displaced whites, whom media reports describe as forming Trump’s base but who also make up much of Bernie Sanders’s base.  But it also includes the frustrated millennials who are more likely to support Bernie Sanders and African-American, Latino, and other people of color who seem to be turning out in support of Hillary Clinton.  If the media and politicos believe that the working class holds the key to this year’s election, that’s good news.  Now it’s time for them to pay attention to all of the working class, in all its diversity.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo
Georgetown University

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Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong

Most of the time the white working class is invisible in the U.S.  But during elections there is a flurry of attention to this “demographic” among political reporters and operatives, and as a result, also among the millions of us who read, listen, and watch their reporting, analyses, and endless speculation about who is ahead and behind and why.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon since 2000 when Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers first revealed that  a large chunk of the American electorate is white and working class.  As it has migrated from social scientists, with their “operational definitions” and facility with math, to pundit world, however, loose stereotypes and class-prejudiced assumptions have been growing exponentially.   It’s becoming a low-level one-sided cultural class war where what Nadine Hubbs calls “the narrating class” blithely assumes that working-class whites are “America’s perpetual bigot class.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Connie Schultz noted how many reporters and columnists associate Donald Trump and his pal Sarah Palin with white working-class ignorance and bigotry.  A Cleveland Plain Dealer writer, for example, complained: “Thanks to Trump, the entire Palin clan is now back in the spotlight they so crave.  Come July, Republican National Convention organizers should house the whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula [Ohio].”  As it happens, both of Schultz’s grandmothers lived portions of their lives in trailer homes in Ashtabula, and she commented that “since Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’  These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.  Every group has its ‘other.’  For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Unlike Schultz, most of the narrating class are from solidly middle-class backgrounds with little or no experience of working-class people of any color, but in my reading it is relatively rare to see outright classist remarks like the one Schultz quotes.  Rather, for the most part class-prejudiced assumptions are based on professional middle-class ignorance and misunderstanding.

Take the assumed popularity of Trump among the white working class, for example.  There appears to be supporting evidence for that. According to Brookings, for example, in a national survey 55% of “Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support Trump are white working-class Americans.”  But this does not mean what Brookings thinks it means.  Among all adult whites, nearly 70% do not have bachelor’s degrees (the definition of “working class” used here).  This means that at 55%, the white working-class is under-represented among Trump supporters.    Conversely, unless Trump is getting much more minority support than reported, his supporters are disproportionally college-educated whites.  They make up 30% of the white population, but they are at least 40% of Trump voters in the Brookings survey.

There are two reasons for this kind of error, this one by a highly respected D.C. think tank.  One is simple ignorance of class demographics.  The bachelor’s/no bachelor’s binary is widely used to separate whites into two broad classes, but many analysts and reporters have no idea of the relative sizes of these two groups in the overall population.  They routinely assume that most white people must be college-educated professionals like themselves and the people among whom they live and work.

The other reason for this kind of error is based solely on the assumption that white people who have graduated from college are less racist, less anti-immigrant, less anti-feminist, less homophobic, and generally more tolerant of diversity than people who have not.  As a college professor, I very much hope this assumption is valid, but I could find no solid evidence that it is.   At least in political commentary, the question is never asked, and you have to wonder why not.

Here’s where Nadine Hubbs’s Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music is so helpful.  She shows how an educated white “narrating class” tends to see working-class whites are “ground zero for America’s most virulent social ills: racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Hubbs traces this to a Southern tradition of “white elites placing the blame for racial violence on poor whites as early as the turn of the twentieth century.” Hubbs quotes Patricia Turner, who has dubbed it “the fallacy of To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is the “notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens.”

This class-based blame-shifting (“It’s not us, it’s them!”) actually supports racist and other systems of oppression.  As Hubbs points out, the well-documented institutional racism that involves banks denying mortgages, employers not hiring blacks, and landlords refusing and/or exploiting black renters is not generally carried out by poor and working-class whites, but by white middle-class professionals.   By casting intolerance and bigotry as the unfortunate/misguided attitudes of “poorly educated,” “low-information” white voters, we white middle-class professionals deflect attention from those well-entrenched institutions within which we work, institutions that systematically deny opportunities to a wide range of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and class.

This usually plays out in political reporting and analysis more subtly than in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is no less class-prejudiced.  Articles like “The truth about the white working class: Why it’s really allergic to voting for Democrats” use extensive polling data to explain why working-class whites are so strongly Republican, but they fail to mention that “the” white middle class is also “allergic to voting for Democrats,” if a little less so.   Even when writers explain how working-class whites’ “racial fears and anxieties” are based in their deteriorating living standards and working conditions, they inadvertently deploy the bigot-class framework.  By not asking whether and to what extent there might be some “racial fears and anxieties” among the white middle-class as well, these analysts assume, and expect their readers to assume, that there’s not any!

Based on my own observation and experience of both working-class and middle-class whites, my guess is that there is more bigotry and intolerance in the working class, and as I have said, I have an occupational bias in hoping that’s true.   But it’s not a slam dunk.  When I actually try to count heads from my direct experience, the only thing I’m sure of is that bigotry and intolerance are present and absent in both classes.  And as part of the narrating middle class, I recognize how comforting a blame-shifting bigot-class narrative can be as we witness the Republican front-runners advocate torture and carpet bombing while fulminating against Mexicans, Muslims, and New York values.   But we should be aware that this one-sided narrative protects our class from scrutiny and thereby supports institutional forms of exclusion that bite harder and more systematically than inappropriate sentiments and bad attitudes.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

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The Global Working Class in Art House Cinema

The idea of ‘art house’ cinema can be off-putting due to its reputation as difficult and requiring high levels of formal education to be understood and appreciated. But as I’ve stated previously, anyone can enjoy these films, and many focus on the working class.  Some were also produced by filmmakers from working-class backgrounds.  The films I recommend below represent working-class people in nuanced ways, and their authentic depictions of working-class life also provide an important global perspective.

Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming Liang, 2013, Taiwan

Tsai Ming Liang’s films are very slow-paced and do not contain a conventional narrative arc. His stories focus on marginalised characters unable to connect with mainstream society. Stray Dogs is a poetic (but definitely not romantic) treatment of homelessness and poverty, set in Taipei, Taiwan. The film centres on a man and his two children who live in abandoned buildings and scrape by on the man’s earnings from his job holding up real estate signs on busy intersections. The children feed themselves on samples handed out at a supermarket and wash in public bathrooms. Tsai Ming Liang depicts the physicality of hardship and creates a heartbreaking film about the effects of class.


Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold, 2009, UK

Britain has a long tradition of working-class films, including, of course, the wonderful films of Ken Loach that are familiar to many film buffs and working-class scholars. Andrea Arnold’s work is not as well-known.  Fish Tank offers a female-centred representation of working-class youth, with the focus on a young woman trying to create a sense of self-worth despite the odds being firmly stacked against her. The film also offers a very authentic depiction of estate life and culture. Fish Tank, along with Arnold’s short films and her first feature, Red Road (2006), offer honest and hard-hitting films about the experiences of white working-class women.


Two Days One Night, Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014, Belgium

The Dardenne brothers have made a number of excellent films that focus on working-class life. Their films often show characters who are unemployed or engaged in the informal economy. Two Days, One Night tells the story of a woman fighting to keep her job in a Belgian factory.  This is a story of working-class resilience and the power of collective action and is an incredibly realistic portrayal of life at the edges of society.


Boy, Taika Waititi, 2010, New Zealand

Taika Waititi’s film is a nostalgic story set in rural New Zealand in 1984. The main character, Boy, is a young Maori lad who lives with his grandmother and dreams about his absent father returning from jail.  Although it deals with some serious issues, the film is reasonably light in tone and presents a combination of everyday life for the community and events from Boy’s imagination. The location is stunning, but the poverty is still evident, and the film successfully depicts the social and political reality of life for rural working-class Maori people.


City of God, Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002, Brazil

Meirelles and Lund’s film has courted some controversy, with some critics suggesting that it is voyeuristic and employs a touristic lens in its depiction of the favelas (slums) of Brazil. City of God is a fast-paced, slick film that follows many of the conventions of Hollywood gang-related thrillers, but at its heart it is a story of a young man growing up in poverty observing and recording everyday life around him. Some of this everyday life is extreme, and the film doesn’t shy from crime and violence, but overall it is important for its focus on working-class youth and the effects of poverty on children and young people.


Cart, Boo Ji-Young, 2014, Korea

Boo Ji-Young’s film is an industrial tale (based on a real event) set in a Korean supermarket where a group of workers are fighting against unfair dismissal. The film reveals the strength of women working together to fight injustice. It’s a story that would resonate with anyone who has engaged in industrial action or been the victim of an unjust employer. It is also a tale of the constant fight against sexism and ageism faced by female employees.


Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, 2014, France

French film rarely focuses on the lives of French people of colour, but filmmaker Céline Sciamma wanted to make a film that offered a positive representation of young African-French women. Girlhood is a beautifully shot film set in working-class immigrant neighbourhoods of Paris and offers a compelling insight into the lives of young Black women. The film demonstrates both the ways in which the odds are stacked against young Black working-class women in France and also the strong bonds of female friendship.


Peepli Live, Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India

Anusha Rizvi’s debut film is a satirical comedy based on a very serious subject – the deaths of Indian farmers to suicide due to high levels of debt. The film, set in rural central India, focuses on a poor farmer who is persuaded by his brother to commit suicide in order to obtain financial compensation for his family. Despite the satirical depiction of story-hungry journalists and corrupt government officials, Peepli Live also presents a poignant story of rural village life and highlights the ways in which rural Indians are often dismissed and ignored by those in power.


These films all offer the viewer an insight into working-class life in a variety of contexts and each adds to the already rich body of film work that focuses on working-class experience. Despite the variety of different contexts of these films, there are some commonalities that working-class people from across the globe can relate to – the hardship, struggle, and community are recognisable, but the films each provide a better understanding of the specific cultural and political conditions that intersect with class.  I admire the filmmakers’ commitment to telling the stories of those who are marginalised, and we should not underestimate the empowering effects for working-class people seeing their stories on screen.

Sarah Attfield

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Now They Get It: Health, Class, and Economic Restructuring

In the past few months, many commentators have responded to a recent study that shows increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans. Some have suggested that the increase is the consequence of material poverty resulting from economic restructuring and the neoliberal agenda over the last several decades.

Globalization, trade liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and reductions in the welfare state have not only led to downsizing in many industries, they have also reduced wages and benefits, contributing to growing economic inequality. The nature of many jobs has also changed. Work has been intensified, hours have become increasingly irregular, and workers face anxieties about the loss of their jobs and electronic monitoring of their work. These changes leave workers feeling vulnerable and stressed, and that together with anti-union laws and poorly enforced labor laws limit their ability to fight back. As someone who taught courses in Occupational Safety and Health for many years, I am all too aware that these workplace stresses and the limits of workers’ agency are associated with increases in cardiovascular disease, physical and mental disorders, and acute injuries. In other words, while research has focused on increasing mortality rates, changes in work also contribute to increased health problems, which may, in turn, explain the increases in alcoholism and drug abuse that Anne Case and Angus Deaton see as key factors in the rising death rates.

Workplace stress and insecurity are among the “hidden injuries of class” that compound material poverty. As people adapt to changes in and the loss of work, they become more isolated, and, too often, lose their sense of community and self worth. Worse, they internalize insecurity, blaming themselves for problems at work or for not being able to find a decent job or support their families. That people blame themselves should not surprise us, given the persistent ideal of the American Dream, which promises that individual effort will pay off in upward mobility. No wonder people who have lost jobs or who are working hard but still struggling economically see their challenges as a moral failure or character flaw.

For anyone who has studied the social costs of deindustrialization, none of this is news. In the 1980s, Harvey Brenner determined that for every one percent increase in unemployment there were 650 homicides, 3300 admissions to state mental hospitals, 500 deaths by cirrhosis of the liver, 20,000 deaths by suicide. Other studies focused on displaced workers in the late twentieth century showed increases in incarceration, insomnia, headaches, smoking, child and spousal abuse and stomach disorders, not to mention suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. In many ways, the current research shows not a new trend but rather the long-term impact of economic restructuring and neoliberalism on workers’ lives.

What is new is that these patterns no longer seem to apply primarily to the working class. While Case and Deaton note that poorer and less-educated white people had even higher mortality rates, their study suggests that the pattern also applies to the middle class. This may be what most surprised commentators, for whom the report offered dramatic evidence of an important change in American culture. As Paul Krugman suggested, “We’ve seen this kind of thing in other times and places – for example, in the plunging life expectancy that afflicted Russia after the fall of Communism. But it is a shock to see it, even in an attenuated form, in America.” Krugman and others asked how this could happen. In an interview with Vox, Deaton commented that the middle-aged white people in his study had “lost the narrative of their lives.” While this certainly applies for many in the working class, as Sherry Linkon noted in November, it is also true for growing numbers of middle-class Americans who may have been even more invested in the American Dream.

Also new is the racial pattern. In the 1970s and 80s, death rates for African Americans rose, but in recent decades, they have fallen as the rates for whites have risen. Andrew Cherlin suggests that the difference could be explained by people’s perceptions of how they are doing compared with others like them. As Cherlin writes, “It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.” Put simply, if white working-class people see themselves as losing ground, they may be more likely to consider suicide or engage in self-destructive behaviors.

The impact of economic restructuring on material poverty and health has a long history. In the last 40 years, increases in poverty and the declines in the health of the working class were rationalized as “acceptable” losses associated with major economic change. But what has changed is the demographic landscape. No longer are mortality and morbidity issues associated primarily with the working-class and African Americans. Now, job loss and economic insecurity are impacting the middle class and whites.

I’m reminded of an old adage: when poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window. As middle-class whites increasingly experience the kind of economic insecurity that became normal for so many working-class people years ago, some are losing not just love but also their health and even their lives.

John Russo

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Losing More than a Paycheck: Race and Class Conflict in Two New Plays

We often think of deindustrialization as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s, but, as the recent announcement of the closing of the Carrier factory in Indiana reminds us, plants continue to downsize and close, and industrial workers continue to lose their jobs.   No doubt, the decline in manufacturing represents a major economic loss, not only for workers but also for their communities.  But the loss of jobs brings more than the loss of a paycheck.

Two new plays, both by African-American women, highlight the social costs of deindustrialization. Both are set in the early twenty-first century, in factories that are downsizing, and focus on how workers respond to the threat of losing their jobs. In Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, as four African-American Detroit auto workers talk in the breakroom in their stamping plant, they express conflicting views of work, the union, and solidarity.  Similar tensions emerge in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, set in a workers’ bar near a steel mill in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Over the course of a year, workers lose not only their jobs but also long-time friendships and hopes for the future when the company demands concessions, locks out the workers, and brings in new workers, immigrant and Latino-American, who will work for less.

In both plays, African-American workers have made gains in the workplace, only to find themselves caught between solidarity and opportunity.  Each play includes a character who has been promoted to supervisor, promotions that seem to promise not just individual upward mobility but an important next step for black workers, who had to fight for equal treatment with both their employers and their unions.  The two recently-promoted characters think they will be able to fight for, not with, their rank and file friends, but both discover the limits of their power.   In Sweat, Cynthia is assigned the terrible task of standing at the entrance of the mill and turning the workers away, literally locking out her friends.  When Reggie, in Skeleton Crew, stands up to his boss, who wants to push the most senior of the line workers to retire just months before she earns her 30-year-pension, he discovers his own vulnerability as a black man.  Reggie comes away from the argument shaken, certain that his boss has been frightened by his behavior, that he thinks “I’m that nigga.”

Morisseau focuses on African-American workers, while Nottage highlights the interconnections between race, gender, and class.  Sweat focuses on a close circle of workers, black and white, female and male, across two generations.  Two women who started working in the mill in the 1970s became best friends in part because they helped each other deal with the challenges of being some of the first women in the plant.  Yet their experiences are not identical.  While both Tracey and Cynthia remember how proud they were to get the job, for Tracey, who is white, that meant following her father into the mill and continuing a several-generations-long tradition of labor in the family.  In contrast, Cynthia remembers how getting a job in the mill “felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us.”  Both of their sons also work in the mill, but Cynthia’s son, Chris, wants to get a college degree and become a teacher, to continue his family’s path toward the middle class, while his friend Jason sees steelwork as a good and reliable job.

Their friendships and lives are disrupted, first by Cynthia’s promotion and then by the lockout, and loyalties built around gender and class fracture along racial lines. Tracey tells anyone who will listen that Cynthia was promoted because she is a minority, and she eggs Jason on when he starts a fight with Oscar, the Columbian-American busboy at the bar, who has crossed the picket line in pursuit of his own better life.  While Sweat shows how the loss of work undermines solidarity, the play also reminds us that, in the end, no one is likely to win.  By the time the play is done, the mill has closed, and everyone is struggling to get by, but now without the social network that had once been so important.

These plays are striking for several reasons.  Both playwrights use plant closings as a means of exploring inequality and the continuing struggles of the working class, and each was inspired by the writer’s personal interactions but also her political commitments.  Morisseau told the New York Times about meeting a woman in Detroit who was living in her car.  She was troubled to realize that “This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars.”  The program for Sweat describes how Nottage was inspired to write the play, in part, because of an email she received from a friend who was struggling financially.  That message made her realize that “probably most of us are living two or three doors away from someone who is either in poverty or on the verge of poverty, and that’s the nature of the culture we’re living in right now.”

Both plays reflect the writers’ engagement with individuals and communities that had experienced the economic and social losses of deindustrialization. Nottage set her play in Reading because the U.S. Census identified it as the poorest city in the country.  She spent two years interviewing locals, including the locked out workers at a steel mill, and collecting images and stories. For Morisseau, Skeleton Crew completes a three-play sequence focused on black lives in Detroit.  In the program notes for the play, she writes that the talked with experts and United Auto Worker activists, as well as friends and acquaintances, about their experiences with the industry’s decline.  She describes the play as being “about the people behind the unions,” and she acknowledges that “there is more to the auto world than I could ever capture,” but she wants to “salute the story behind the play,” too. By engaging directly and thoughtfully with working-class communities, these playwrights honor the experiences and voices of working-class people.

Finally, these plays fill some problematic gaps in contemporary writing about the long-term effects of deindustrialization.  So many of the Rust Belt novels, stories, poems, and films produced in the last two decades focus on how deindustrialization affected white working-class men, and while there may be good reasons for that (especially the different histories of white and black industrial workers), we need to understand both the ways that deindustrialization has harmed African-American working-class people and how it influences the way race, gender, and class work together and against each other.  Skeleton Crew and Sweat provide both, and they do so in ways that reflect the political engagement and attention to the lived experiences that are central to working-class literature.

Sherry Linkon

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Date in a Diary

A couple of weeks back I learnt of the death of one of the signalmen I used to work with on the London Underground. Geoff Revell, who died of cancer at the age of seventy-three, had been active politically and in the union since the 1960s. The jungle telegraph of retired and still active underground workers ensured that nobody who had known Geoff was unaware of his passing or the subsequent funeral arrangements. I owed Geoff a lot, although I never really got the chance to tell him. I first came across him when I was a green kid just beginning on the job. I wrote an impatient snotty letter to my union branch secretary demanding to know why that year’s union diary had failed to show. Geoff wrote back a letter explaining patiently that the diaries had not been distributed because of the death of the branch secretary.  He went on to list the various activities and priorities for the branch still mourning its leader, including dealing with hundreds of industrial injury claims and, in the nicest possible way, hinted that my diary could wait. At the end of the letter he suggested that I might want to become involved in the branch in order to lend a hand. I was there at the next branch meeting. Geoff’s response was perfectly pitched, offering a between-the-line rebuke to a stupid kid with the wrong priorities but worded positively enough to get him involved in something much bigger than himself.

By the early 1980s, Geoff was a full-time union representative on the Underground, where he was known affectionately as the ‘Perry Mason of the Disciplinary Board’ because he never lost a case! Stories about Geoff’s interactions with management were legion.  One that stuck in my mind, although I suspect it’s at least an exaggeration, was that he once had the management representatives crying at a disciplinary hearing for a worker accused of stealing.  The worker got off the charge. Geoff embodied working-class pride and confidence.  He was quick witted, incredibly funny, and had a comic’s sense of timing when telling stories, as is clear in a video of him paying tribute to the late RMT leader Bob Crow.

While Geoff was gifted in many ways, he was not unique in the workplace culture from which he sprang. Contemporary accounts of working class identity, both in the UK and the USA, sometimes treat it as damaged, a position that any rational person should aim to leave as soon as they could. But Geoff and people like him made being working class attractive, something that many would want to be.  It was a badge of achievement not shame. I know this was true for me. I spent just five short years on the Underground in the 1980s, but I grew up in those years in a rich and stimulating environment. For at least a few years, I was lucky enough to see and be part of a self-confident working-class culture, it had lots of faults, to be sure, but it was simultaneously enriching and empowering for those who enjoyed it.

We often hear that this positive reading of class in the thirty years after World War II is just nostalgia, a rose-tinted version of the past.  But I think there is a lot more to it than that.  It’s an era that we can look back on for clues for our future. As a sociologist I’ve spent three decades trying to figure out the culture I experienced, but I also ask if it is a culture we can still see. Was it dependent on stable jobs, near full employment, and strong trade unionism? With the erosion of those conditions, have we seen the last of that industrial atmosphere? Or, alternatively, is this type of working-class culture alive and well but hidden from view unless one carefully looks for it? My answer is that while all those factors are important we must not talk ourselves out of believing that change is possible, that individually and especially collectively, we can make a difference in the lives of others.

I was unable to get to Geoff’s funeral and wake, because – perhaps appropriately — I was working. Friends later told me about the way the police had closed streets to make way for the funeral cortège, how the union band had led the procession, and how union flags lined the route to the crematorium. They also described the wake afterwards, where they sang old union songs like The Ballad of Joe Hill and the Internationale and where family, friends and former colleagues shared moving reflections on Geoff’s life.  One story described how, when Geoff had gone into hospital for the final time days before his death, the Junior Doctors were on strike and picketing the hospital gates. The doctor treating Geoff gleefully told him that he at least was not on strike and was able to treat him. Geoff motioned to the medic to come talk to him. After a whispered word in his ear, a visibly chastened doctor walked away, in some versions of the story in tears. So Geoff was reminding people of the importance of solidarity and class to the end.

We need more people like Geoff in the workplace and in our communities.  They won’t be identical to him, and the context they work in will be very different, but as Geoff taught us, we can all make a difference whether by a word in an ear or in a note about a diary. Rest in peace, Geoff. For so many working-class people, you made a difference and will continue to do so.

 Tim Strangleman

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Black Homes Matter: The Fate of Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

“I live here.  I’m from here.  My whole family is here.   We try to stay close together.  This is America.  I’m a Marine, I went to war three times.  I served my country.  It feels crazy not to be able to live in my own area where I grew up,” writes an East Liberty resident in Black Homes Matter, a booklet describing alternative approaches to neighborhood revitalization in the city of Pittsburgh.  Since the Reagan-era shut-down of funding for public housing projects, the lack of decent affordable housing for low-income people has become a crisis in many cities.  San Francisco and Seattle are notorious for pushing out poor and working-class residents, but mid-sized cities like Pittsburgh will be following suit unless city governments have the courage to implement equitable development.

Pittsburgh has been designated the “most livable city” in the US several times in the past decade.  It gets points for its parks and rivers, excellent universities and hospitals, low crime rate, strong family-centered neighborhoods, expanding high-tech economy, and fine dining.  Of course, The Economist and Forbes magazine do not consider how the city’s livability is distributed unequally across lines of race and class.   The facts that we have among the steepest bus fares in the nation, the lowest minimum wages, and high infant mortality among African Americans do not figure in rankings designed to attract tourists and new businesses to the city.

Housing is one of the sharpest of these class-race fault lines, as gentrification accelerates in desirable neighborhoods.  In a city already segregated by race, affordable housing is rapidly being replaced by high-end units for young professionals attracted by the city’s hi-tech reinvention of itself after the decline of steel and other industries.  The former Nabisco factory in East Liberty now houses a Google hub in the Bakery Square mall and “village,” with an LA Fitness gym, Anthropologie store, and high-priced coffee shops.   Its developer received major public funding because the project borders a “blighted” neighborhood, whose mostly black residents have hardly benefitted from the action.  Few local residents are employed by the new businesses in their neighborhood.

East Liberty is also the site of a nearly completed Transit-Oriented Development project along the Port Authority’s east bus-way.  Residents of the 360 new apartments, built by private developers with infrastructure provided by the city, will be able to get downtown in twelve minutes.  Rents in the transit center buildings start at $1,100 a month for a studio apartment.   No units have been reserved for tenants whose income is below the city’s median income, which in Pittsburgh is $37,161 overall, and $21,790 for black residents.  Calculating housing expenses at 30% of income, maximum rents would be $929 and $545 respectively.  In the absence of inclusionary zoning, or other enforcement for equity, there is no room in the attractive new development for even the average city resident, let alone those getting by on much lower incomes.  Ironically, these are traditionally the primary users of public transit.  Pittsburgh is on a course to follow Washington DC, where a recent Washington Post study found that neighborhoods with Metro stops are now majority white, and “the Metrorail system is becoming more inaccessible to minority workers.”

Throughout what was a predominantly black neighborhood, residents are being forced out either through direct eviction from public housing that is being demolished for re-development or because rents have risen beyond their means. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Diana Nelson Jones writes, “Many who are leaving East Liberty can’t find rental housing under $800. Many are having to accept living without adequate services, including transit, outside city neighborhoods where they have earned a sense of belonging. The vast majority are our elders, lifelong laborers and the working poor. Nobody should get sick with stress in the struggle to pay their expenses, then get sent off to the fringes.”  But that is the current reality.  One resident quoted in Black Homes Matter says, “We wasted six months looking for something affordable around here so we finally moved out to Millvale.  I had to buy a car to commute back here to my job and then I had to take another job to pay for the car. I get very little sleep.  And I miss my neighborhood.”

As a white middle-class resident of a neighborhood bordering East Liberty, I have benefited from the area’s revitalization.  I shop at Trader Joes and Home Depot and eat at Chipotle and Whole Foods.  I have a choice of three nearby yoga studios.  The house I bought twenty years ago for $50K, with help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority because it was in a “transitional” neighborhood, is now worth upwards of $300K.  My street, which was mixed-race back then, now appears to be entirely white, despite being majority rental.   There’s a deep injustice in the fact that many residents who lived through the period of “blight” in the neighborhood are not here to share in its renewal or in the wealth being generated.  Some residents who stay no longer feel at home: “There are people looking at me like ‘what are you doing here?’  I had my first kiss on that street.”

Along with its “most livable” designation, Pittsburgh is also credited these days for its progressive city administration.  Mayor Bill Peduto, in office since 2014, is listed alongside New York’s Bill De Blasio as a leader willing to tackle structural inequality in his city.  Bakery Square and the East Liberty TOD were initiated before Peduto’s term, and he has recently set up an Affordable Housing Task Force.  A test case will come with the development of the “28 acres,” a vast parking lot between downtown and the largely black Hill District.  This was the site in the 1960s of one of Pittsburgh’s most brutal acts of “urban renewal” – or “negro removal” as activists call it.  8,000 people were displaced and their homes and businesses razed to make way for an arena and parking for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.  The arena has been demolished and the Penguins have relocated, but they still own the land and they refuse to include more than 12% of affordable housing on the site.  With “affordable” defined as 80% of the market rate, even those few homes will be out of reach for descendants of the families that used to live in what was a thriving community.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  On Pittsburgh’s North Side we have a counter-example: a strong tenant council prevented the eviction of more than 300 low-income families from Section 8 housing slated for redevelopment.  Working with the URA and other agencies, Northside Coalition for Fair Housing acquired properties and used a “rehab for resale” strategy to keep people in their homes.  “The result has been higher-quality housing, safer and more attractive neighborhoods, and increased tenant incomes,” according to the Pittsburgh Fair Development Action Group, which produced Black Homes Matter.  The group advocates a range of strategies to resist displacement and support resident control in neighborhoods threatened by gentrification: inclusionary zoning, community land trusts, rent stabilization, tenant ownership schemes.

There is no shortage of successful models from around the country.  In Pittsburgh and other cities, we need the political will to hold private property developers accountable to equitable standards and to include residents in determining plans for improvement of their communities.  Affordable housing and accessible transit are essential to neighborhoods that are “livable” for all.

Nick Coles


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