Class at the Intersectional “Crash” Site: Scenes from Orange is the New Black

Since it never expresses itself in quite the same way in any two individuals’ lives, class needs to be thought about from an intersectional perspective, as its own vector of situated experience. Lawyer and critical race studies scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s classic metaphor frames intersectionality as the site of a traffic accident, where “[discrimination] may flow in one direction, or it may flow in another. If an accident happens… it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them” (63). In its own vehicular flow, and in conjunction with other “cars” carrying their own oppressive cargo (racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.), how does class contribute to the harm of those vulnerable at the “crash” site?

We must also consider the potential for solidarity-in-difference among those who are not hit by the same vehicles. As a scholar (and fan) of popular culture, I went looking for texts featuring representations of difficult, messy encounters between differently situated intersectional subjects who nevertheless must turn to one another to weather the effects of systemic harm. The Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013-present) offers some especially fruitful material through which to think about how class can operate within such uneasy yet necessary confrontations.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) establishes the commonality of its large ensemble of diverse characters through a physical site of confinement: Litchfield Penitentiary, a fictional upstate New York women’s prison. Here, prisoners from various backgrounds—WASP princesses and working-poor Latinas, Korean immigrants and radical leftist nuns—find themselves answering to the same shrill cry of “Inmate!” when the prison’s under-trained guards hand out disciplinary “shots” for minor infractions. In terms of the legally disempowered status of the women found there, Litchfield provides a concrete example of Crenshaw’s “crash” of intersecting forms of oppression.

In OITNB, the struggle to find solidarity-in-difference is represented as a necessary result of prisoners’ constricted relationship to choice. The punitive point of incarceration, after all, is to take away one’s agency. For instance, even as prisoner Gloria gains respect and a sense of purpose when she serves as Litchfield’s head chef, the institution is quick to remind her that empowerment is an illusion. When a guard orders her back to the kitchen in the middle of a visit with her son, she breaks down in tears. Under such conditions, crossing the threshold of their differences to “team up” allows the women of OITNB a way to increase their range of choices and better resist mass incarceration’s dehumanizing imperatives.

One storyline from Season 3 provides an especially complex representation of not only the interpersonal and counter-systemic struggles typical of attempts to “team up,” but also of why a strong intersectional analysis must not fail to “see” class at the crash site. Discovering that she and transgender prisoner Sophia both have teenage sons, Gloria asks Sophia if her wife could give a ride to her son, Benny, on visiting day. Though this arrangement is initially amicable, class and gender quickly emerge as dual points of conflict among these women. Sophia, married and from a middle-class family with a house in Yonkers, is more class-privileged than Gloria, a single mom whose kids live with relatives in the Bronx. Gloria, on the other hand, enjoys the cisgender privilege that Sophia lacks.

That Sophia and Gloria are both women of color from groups pathologized as “criminally” poor— Sophia is black and Gloria, Latina—allows class a place of sharp focus in the narrative, particularly as their growing animosity is heightened by anxiety and guilt over the implications of their teen sons’ Invested in an image of her family’s middle-class respectability that has been compromised by her own crime (credit card fraud), Sophia worries about her son, Michael, becoming a “thug,” a code word for “black criminal” that she uses during her arguments with Gloria. Gloria, on the other hand, is less concerned with respectability and more with whether Benny meets a tangible goal representative of a life that won’t be defined by poverty and incarceration: graduation from high school.

The conflict between Gloria and Sophia is catalyzed when Michael, ostensibly under the influence of Benny, begins using the “F-word” during visiting hours. Sophia angrily confronts Gloria, ordering her to tell Benny “not to curse [around] my Michael.” Gloria is furious at what Sophia is suggesting—“You think my son is your son’s problem?”, she fumes—but feels helpless since Sophia has threatened to cut off Benny’s ride unless her son cleans up his language act.

Sophia’s classism, heightened by her anxiety about the racialized “cultural” implications of her family’s possible downward mobility, begins to show. During a phone conversation, Sophia’s wife, Crystal, mentions that she caught Michael making out with a girl in his room, to which Sophia responds, “Maybe it’s not a good idea [Michael] spends so much time with Benny… he’s from a rougher neighborhood, a different culture.” But in a moment of remarkable intersectional nuance, Crystal shoots down Sophia’s suggestion; “No, this isn’t about Benny– this is about Michael not rushing into sex and respecting women.” She further presses Sophia, “Did you tell Michael that he should find an insecure girl for practice?”, referencing an earlier scene when Sophia did in fact encourage such behavior. Here we are reminded that Sophia, despite being a transgender woman, is hardly immune to internalized sexism.

Although Sophia apologizes to Gloria following this phone call, their conflict escalates again when Michael, sans Benny, is arrested for assault. In her haste to scapegoat Benny for her son’s newfound “thug” behavior, Sophia revokes Benny’s ride. Gloria’s ensuing resentment over losing access to her son functions as a catalyst for her transphobia. During a bathroom encounter, Gloria accuses Sophia of “taking Benny away” from her, seething, “I’m a ferocious, pissed-off real mother. But you wouldn’t know nothing about that, would you? Because you ain’t nothing real.”

Antagonized, Sophia pushes Gloria into a wall. It’s only a matter of time before a multiracial cabal of transphobic prisoners, using Sophia’s “attack” on Gloria as an excuse to inflict violence, beats Sophia severely. Compounding her injuries, the out-of-touch prison administration sends Sophia to the dreaded “SHU” (Segregated Housing Unit) ostensibly to keep her “safe,” representing one of the many ways that transgender prisoners remain unprotected amidst an overlay of interpersonal and institutional violence.

The show portrays Gloria and Sophia as more-or-less equally at fault in their mutual conflict. But as Sophia passes by Gloria while being escorted to the SHU, Gloria’s averted eyes emphasize her complicity in contributing to Litchfield’s deeper oppression of an especially vulnerable prisoner. Despite having stewed in a dangerous concoction of transphobia and perhaps justified anger, Gloria did not wish for Sophia to wind up in the SHU. No prisoner wants to contribute to mass incarceration’s ability to exercise its dehumanizing power.

OITNB makes a bold representational statement by allowing the conflict between Gloria and Sophia to be driven in part by Sophia’s classism and racialized class anxiety, insisting that we spend time considering the place of class at the intersection. A weaker move would have been to sanctify Sophia in her multi-faceted vulnerability. Instead, by making class visible at the crash site, the series leaves viewers with a complex sense of how an interpersonal “crash” of prejudices can foreclose the development of the solidarity necessary for the disempowered to protect themselves from systemic harm.

Sara Appel

 

Sara Appel is a Visiting Scholar in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Losing the Narrative of Their Lives

A study released a few weeks ago, conducted by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, documented a significant increase in the death rate among the white working class in the US, much of it due to suicide and substance abuse. In one interview about the report, Deaton suggests that the reason for the increase is the increasing economic insecurity this group faces. As he told Vox’s Julia Bellus, they have “lost the narratives of their lives.” Not surprisingly, op-eds flew right and left about this report, from Rod Dreher in The American Conservative and R.R. Reno in First Things to Paul Krugman in the New York Times and Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post. This study is the latest contribution to an expanding public discussion about changes in white working-class culture, which Jack Metzgar has traced in a series of posts here about books by Andrew Cherlin, Robert Putnam, and others.

As both Ross Douthat and Krugman note in their New York Times columns responding to the study, the rising death rate cannot be explained solely in economic terms. Douthat rejects the claims of some conservatives, including Reno, that the report reflects the consequences of liberal policy and moral decline, arguing that we must recognize that “stagnating wages” play a part in changing social patterns. But, he argues, what matters most is how economic changes have left white working-class people with “a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied you.” As Krugman puts it, they were “raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.”

While, as Metzgar has pointed out, recent studies of white working-class culture often begin with problematic assumptions, they nonetheless (and sometimes inadvertently) make clear that economic restructuring has social consequences that extend far beyond the factory floor or corporate offices. We are rightly concerned not only with what this means for income inequality and social justice but also for the quality of people’s lives and the way working-class experience translates into politics. As Dreher argues, we can draw a clear connection between the “dispossession” of the white working class and the popularity of Donald Trump. The “politics of resentment” that John Russo and I traced in Youngstown twenty years ago seems to have become a national pattern.

If we want to understand the social and cultural patterns fully, I would argue, we must consider not only the material conditions or social structures that shape economic experience but also how people interpret those experiences and construct their identities in response to them. We would do well to attend not only to statistical evidence but also to stories, which provide insight into how people experience and make sense of economic and social changes. This is the kind of insight that literature can provide. By representing the social world through the stories of individuals, fiction, especially, can help us understand what large-scale change looks and feels like on a personal, subjective level.

The long-term effects of deindustrialization – what I refer to as its half-life – have generated not only measurable social patterns like rising death rates but also a growing body of literature. If you want to understand the “lost narrative” of contemporary working-class lives, you might well begin with these books.

In Coal Run, by Pennsylvania writer Tawni O’Dell, we meet a character who exemplifies the lost sense of self as well as the addiction, anger, and self-destructive behavior reflected in the rising death rates. Ivan Zoschenko is a former high school and college football star who has returned to his home town, where the last of the local mines is about to shut down. He feels like a failure, especially in comparison with his hard-working miner father, who taught him the importance of finding a sense of purpose through one’s work. Working as a deputy sheriff, Ivan mediates domestic disputes spurred by the town’s economic struggles, and in the process he reconnects with his working-class community and gains a renewed sense of purpose and belonging.

Philipp Meyer offers a less hopeful story in American Rust, which follows two young men in a former steel town, both struggling to figure out their futures. One, known as the smartest kid in his high school class, dreams of escaping his hometown, studying astrophysics, and working at a research institute, but as the sole caregiver for his father, who was seriously injured in an accident in the steel mill, he cannot bring himself to leave. His dream remains beyond his reach. His best friend, Billy Poe, can’t even imagine a future for himself, and when he is jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, he gives up. In his eyes, “this place had been waiting for him. There were those who had capabilities and those who didn’t and even in his glory days he had known it, known they would figure it out one day, a bullet he would never dodge.” Meyer’s characters are younger than the middle-aged white working-class people whose death rates Case and Deaton tracked, but they display a similar sense of hopelessness.

Indeed, deindustrialization literature suggests that – as Jennifer Silva found in her study, Coming Up Shortyounger working-class people have inherited a feeling of being at once trapped and betrayed, though often with a fuzzier idea of exactly how they have been let down. Two contemporary novels focused on workers in service jobs highlight this well. In Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, we follow restaurant manager Manny DeLeon through his last shift at a suburban Red Lobster that is about to close. He takes pride in his work, but that provides only partial compensation for the conflicts he experiences in his interactions with both the corporation and the other workers, yet he sees no other options for himself.

Finally, one of the most entertaining but also troubling novels I’ve read about contemporary working-class life is Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör. Designed as a mock-Ikea catalog, the novel highlights the soul sucking working conditions of corporate retail through the encounters of the “partners” (sales clerks) of Orsk, an Ikea knock-off, with a horde of zombies. The zombies were imprisoned on that site in the 1830s, when it was the Cuyahoga Panopticon, run by a sadistic warden who believed that hard labor was a “moral treatment that will mend your degraded minds,” while also generating profits for him. While readers may laugh at the line drawings of torture devices like the Alboterk treadmill desk, complete with spikes and shackles, the novel also critiques the limitations that working-class people face when working conditions are exploitative and wages stagnant. As the main character laments, “for all the fighting, all the struggle, all the scrimping, and saving, and double shifts” of recent years, she never has enough money to buy gas and food, and she is always in debt. Rather than recognizing the external causes of her difficulties, however, she internalizes the situation and accepts her fate, believing that this is what she deserves, what “she’d been born to do: wear a uniform and work a register. . . . to answer phones in call centers, to carry bags to customers’ cars, to punch a clock, to measure her life in smoke breaks.”   Reading this novel, it’s easy to understand why some might turn to drugs and alcohol, or even to suicide.

Among the most troubling insights from these novels is this: most of these novels focus on characters who are younger than the subjects of Case and Deaton’s study, which suggests a disturbing pattern as the next generation of working-class people come of age. High rates of addiction, depression, and suicide may well continue as some struggle with what has become a long-term “dispossession,” while others accept low expectations as a new normal, as Silva observed in her study. Like the protagonist of Horrorstör, working-class people may come to believe that low wages, poor working conditions, and perpetual struggle are what they deserve. And that is the stuff of tragedy.

Sherry Linkon

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Russell Brand: The Usefulness (or Not) of a Working-Class Celebrity Activist

I recently attended Russell Brand’s stand-up show, ‘Trew World Order’ in Sydney, Australia. Brand provided his usual bawdy comedy alongside anti-capitalist and new-age spiritual messages. At the end of the show, he gave a plug for a number of local causes, including that of public housing tenants facing forced evictions from historic Millers Point in Sydney, a public housing project that the New South Wales state government wants to sell to private buyers. He also made a surprise visit to Millers Point, and the tenants were grateful for the publicity his visit brought. Brand is no stranger to public housing activism. He has supported groups such as Sweets Way Resists in their fight against redevelopment of their public housing estate in North London, where he organised a sleepover occupation protest which helped to bring the issue into public consciousness. Brand’s involvement in these issues seems to have been welcomed by most of the housing activist groups.

Celebrity activism is not new. Hollywood has a history of actor activism, and more recently in the UK, stars of television and stage, such as Benedict Cumerbatch, have shown their activist credentials.

Brand does divide people, though. Some commentators have applauded his turn towards activism and see him as an important figure in social justice issues. Others have dismissed him either as an attention-seeking celebrity or as an irritating idiot. Brand might not appeal to everyone, but I think the majority of dislike is class-based. He has been mocked for his accent, his lack of restraint, and his lack of formal education. Brand often uses long words and is criticised for being pretentious as a result. His status as an auto-didact, or even an organic intellectual, is not often celebrated. When a middle-class or upper-class commentator uses a long word, it is expected and accepted. When a working-class background person uses the same words, they are ridiculed.

It is true that Brand does sometimes appear to take over and speak for the people he is supporting, and this could be frustrating for activists wanting to talk about their issues on their own terms. And some of his commentary has been arguably misguided or counter-productive. He famously stated in an interview prior to the most recent British general election that voting was not useful, and this may have influenced some working-class people (particularly young people) to not vote, which was against their interests.

Brand also doesn’t always acknowledge his privilege – particularly his white privilege. In an episode of his YouTube web series The Trews, he suggested that anti-austerity protestors should show some love for the police in order to bring them into the fold. This might be fine for a white man with resources to fight police charges, but not so easy for people of colour who are subject to police harassment. This demonstrates a level of naivety and the cushioning effects of his fame and fortune.

Despite this, the class-based criticisms of Brand point to the threat he poses as a working-class background celebrity activist. His fame allows him a platform and his popularity among his fans means many people listen to what he says and are potentially influenced by his views. At the Sydney show, fans cheered at his mention of causes which mainly affect working-class people.

The mainstream media is very middle-class. Journalists and commentators tend to be privately educated. There has been a ‘gentrification of the left’, and few working-class voices are heard in politics and the media. Most Left-wing commentators are middle or upper class and despite their good intentions and commitment to social justice causes, their voices dominate. There’s much to admire in the work of Owen Jones, for example, but his social and educational capital means he is not likely to be ridiculed due to his accent or choice of words.

When Emma Watson made her gender equality speech in the United Nations she was applauded for her restraint and simple eloquence. When Brand speaks he is accused of being verbose. The combination of working-class accent and intelligent speech is one that seems to particularly irk middle-class commentators across the political spectrum. Brand has the kind of visibility and fan adoration that most political commentators or journalists will never experience. Dismissing him as a narcissistic loud-mouth is arguably a way to silence him and to diminish the working-class causes he has championed.

Brand is a comedian, and comedy is a powerful weapon. Comedy can educate, enlighten, and empower. Comedians often speak truth to power, and a celebrity comedian with a political message for working-class people has the potential to be quite powerful indeed. Brand deserves the same respect as middle-class commentators. His ideas should be discussed, debated, and even dismissed at times. But not because he doesn’t have the benefit of an expensive private education or a university degree or because he is loud (or ‘mouthy’ as English people say). He has as much right to occupy the public sphere as any Oxbridge or Ivy League graduate. Brand might not be responsible for starting a working-class revolution, but he might just inspire some of his working-class fans to get involved with politics, to join activist groups, to demand social justice.

Sarah Attfield

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Class War and Tax Policy

If the 2016 Presidential election were to be decided simply on economic policy – which it won’t be – Democrats should win easily. The Trump-Carson clown show aside, even those whom The Economist deems the “serious and electable” Republicans are proposing Reagan-style “supply side” tax cuts that will balloon an already large federal debt while showering money on the top 1%, greatly increasing income inequality. If public discussion paid attention to the details, neither of these would be popular with voters.

Getting into the details, however, is very tricky for both political candidates and the media, especially the broadcast media on which most people rely. Too much detail and people get lost or bored, but merely tossing slogans back and forth confirms the already convinced on each side, but does not energize them. You don’t have to go very deep, however, to expose the gaping holes in Republicanomics. Better yet, you can find the data to do so on the web, without too much effort.

The controversial CNBC Republican Presidential Debate made some progress in this direction when John Harwood cited a report from the Tax Foundation indicating that Senator Marco Rubio’s tax plan would give the top 1% an increase in after-tax income almost twice what it would give to middle-income taxpayers. Harwood then raised this challenge to Rubio: “Since you’re the champion of Americans living paycheck-to- paycheck, don’t you have that backward?”

Rubio responded that Harwood had his facts wrong, which led to a fact-checking flurry among political reporters, including a debate between the Tax Foundation, which Harwood described as “nonpartisan” but is actually a business-backed think tank, and Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), which is progressive and labor-backed. Here’s CTJ’s analysis of the impact of Rubio’s plan on various income groups:

CTJChar

This simple table provides an enormous amount of valuable information, including the first column’s breakdown of average incomes by quintiles. Harwood’s question was about “people in the middle of the income scale,” the three middle quintiles with average incomes between $31,800 and $84,800 – that is, predominately “working class” by most definitions. They would get 29% of Rubio’s total tax cut (as calculated from the last column above), while the top quintile would get 65%, with more than half of that going to the top 1% by itself. So Harwood was right on his facts. The top 20%, let alone the top 1%, are clearly not people living paycheck to paycheck. Why cut their taxes at all?

Rubio’s response, however, is even more interesting. He didn’t answer the challenge about “people in the middle” vs. the top 1%. Instead, he claimed that “the greatest gains, percentage-wise, for people, it’s gonna be at the lower end.” CTJ’s analysis confirms that “percentage-wise” this is true – the bottom 20% would increase their take-home pay by 13.9% versus “only” 12.5% for one-percenters.  But look at column two: the working poor would get $2,168 a piece while those in the top 1% get $223,783. Even more telling is that of the total $12 trillion in tax cuts Rubio is offering over ten years, $4 trillion would go to the top 1% and another $3.7 trillion would go to the next 19%. In other words, while Rubio focuses his rhetoric on “helping the working poor” and “people living from paycheck to paycheck,” he is actually proposing a massive redistribution of after-tax income to the top earners who are already taking a disproportionate share of pre-tax income.

The debate over Rubio’s plan is also waging across several blogs, starting with an article on the VOX website that used CTJ’s “Average Tax change” dollar figures to critique the distributional effects of Rubio’s plan. The Tax Foundation took exception to this, claiming that “standard practice among the tax policy community” is to report “the distributional effects of tax changes” in only one way – “as a percentage of adjusted gross income” (CTJ’s third column). It argued that reporting “tax changes in dollars can lead to some wacky results.” But this corporate-funded outfit doesn’t seem to like the last column of CTJ’s table either (“Share of Tax Cut”), even though it is also a percentage, not a dollar amount. The Tax Foundation’s argument is dressed up in methodological jargon, but it is simply a sophisticated case for “lying with statistics.”

People who don’t like numbers often say “you can get statistics to say anything you want,” and that’s simply not true, or at least it’s no more true about statistics than about any kind of facts. “Lying with statistics” does not rely on falsifying facts – that’s just outright lying. Rather it involves focusing on one fact or one set of facts without providing other facts that would put your fact in a different light. The Tax Foundation wants us to focus only on the fact that Rubio’s plan increases the working poor’s income slightly more “percentage-wise” than it increases the top 1%’s. It doesn’t want us to see that this somewhat smaller percentage yields $220,000 more per individual or $4 trillion for the top 1% as a group. Why should we not know this? And, what is “wacky” about it?

While the Tax Foundation is more than ready to defend the “distributional effects” of Rubio’s tax plan, it is concerned about the government debt it and other Republican “tax reforms” would accumulate over ten years. Rubio’s is second worst in this regard (second only to Trump), but all are troubling, and the Tax Foundation provides a handy chart that summarizes the red ink each of the tax plans forwarded by Republican Presidential candidates would leave for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pay.  Remember, this is the same party that shut down the government and threatened to not pay our bills unless President Obama agreed to balance the budget.

This is one reason Republicans should be easy to beat in 2016, that is if Democrats and the media keep a strong focus on economic issues. Even a business-class outfit like the Tax Foundation abhors increasing the national debt, as do many traditional Republicans, including working-class whites in the Midwest, East, and West. Giving away $220,000 per person every year in tax breaks to the rich while we do not have enough money to repair our bridges, roads, and sewer systems or reduce average class sizes in our public schools — or to spend new money on anything else – will not be popular with the general public. Public opinion surveys show large majorities want higher taxes on upper-income people in order to reduce income inequality. (See George Lakey’s recent post, “Activists need to realize that most Americans actually agree with them.”)

Despite its problems, Rubio’s plan does offer at least two ideas that Democrats should take seriously: giving about $2,500 a piece to the 60% who actually are living paycheck to paycheck and especially the refundable tax credit for the bottom 20% that distinguishes Rubio’s from all other GOP tax plans. Democrats could embrace these ideas while also, in high dudgeon about “fiscal responsibility,” propose to pay for them by increasing taxes on the top 5% or so. This may not fit well with the justifiably ambitious spending plans for other programs that all three Democrats would pay for with tax increases primarily on top-earners. But it would be dandy for exposing the dynamics of the class war Republicans have been so successfully waging in the tax code since Reagan.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

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Action for Justice: The Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Earlier this fall, Working-Class Perspectives affiliated with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.  The Initiative reflects one of Georgetown University’s core ideas, as University President John J. DeGioia stated during his 2001 inauguration: “For Georgetown, the service of justice means engaging harsh realities head on.” In order to advance Catholic social teaching as it relates to labor and worker justice, the University launched the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI) in 2009.  Under the leadership of labor historian  Joseph A. McCartin, we engage questions of workers’ rights and the future of the labor movement. Grounded in Georgetown’s commitment to just employment and Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers, our mission to develop creative strategies and innovative public policy to improve workers’ lives in a changing economy translates into many actions: teaching, mentoring, challenging, building bridges, and incubating projects that forward the respect of labor and dignity of workers.

First, we teach. From encouraging students to take labor-related courses to advising their research in issues affecting the working poor, the Kalmanovitz Initiative guides the educational experiences of many undergraduate students at Georgetown. We emphasize the role of the intersectionality in labor history and economic justice, racial justice, and working-class studies. Our teaching also extends beyond the classroom into the realm of popular education. In collaboration with DC Action Lab, we sponsor organizing trainings where students learn campaign strategy, tactics, power mapping, and some other crucial elements of successful organizing efforts. Facilitated by local grassroots activists Virginia Leavell and Sam Miller, our student discuss the aspects that make a group a strong and effective vehicle for change on the community, especially developing a strong, sustaining group that can withstand leadership turnover. In short, these trainings are designed to stress the power and value of community organizing to undergraduate students.

Second, we mentor and support the next generation of student activists and social justice advocates. Under our sponsorship, Clara Mejía Orta traveled to Immokalee, Florida to join students at  the Student/Farmworker Alliance’s annual Encuentro in fall 2015. Encuentro is an annual convening of students and young people in Immokalee, Florida where they learn about the food justice movement and reflect in solidarity with farmworkers. Now an organizer for the Houston Area American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Citlalli Álvarez worked as an Organizing Summer intern with our community partner DC Jobs with Justice. Even more, we also mentor and guide the next generation of public servants. In summer 2015, after two years of serving as the program manager at the Kalmanovitz Initiative Vail Kohnert-Yount joined the US Department of Labor as Special Assistant in their International Labor Affairs Department. Sarah David Heydemann who served as Administrator as well as Program Advisor and is now studying law at the Northeastern University School of Law and was recently awarded the Michael Weiner Scholarship for Labor Studies. Truly, our alumni are a part of an invaluable network that actively introduces Georgetown students and recent graduates to the labor movement.

Third, we challenge current labor practices through academic research and synergetic engagement with labor organizations, non-profits, academic associations, and community partners. This summer, the Initiative released two key reports and hosted and co-sponsored two important labor gatherings. The first report,  “Unpredictable, Unsustainable: The Impact of Employers’ Scheduling Practices in DC,” addressed retail and restaurant/food service scheduling practices in Washington, DC. The second,  “Just Employment in Action: Adjunct Unionization and Contract Negotiation at Georgetown University,” discussed Georgetown University’s contract with its union of adjunct professors and how the University followed its own Just Employment Policy enacted in 2005. Both of these reports have been widely featured in The Washington Post and Chronicle of Higher Education. The release of these two reports followed the two conferences we hosted earlier in the summer:  Fighting Inequality, the joint conference of the Labor and Working-Class History Association and the Working-Class Studies Association; and fifth annual national Labor Research and Action Network conference. By supporting impactful research, and working to convene people with various affiliations, we promote unique problem solving collaborations between different groups and individuals.

Subsequently, we support sabbaticals for labor activists to allow them time and support to develop new ideas. Notably, our 2012 Practitioner Fellow Michelle Miller researched historical precedents for alternative organizing models, which culminated in the creation the digital platform dedicated to workplace advocacy, coworker.org. She recently moderated a Town Hall with President Barack Obama at the White House Summit on Worker Voice. Likewise, our 2011 Practitioner Fellow Edgar Aranda-Yanoc investigated alternative grassroots and social media strategies to enforce wage theft judgments. Currently engaged in the leadership the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, Edgar continues to advocate on behalf of migrant workers. Thus, we encourage the transformation of their ideas into action by providing activists a place to retreat from their day to day routine.

Last but not least, we incubate programs that address the problems of the working poor. Our current project is the Jesuit Just Employment Project (JJEP), which seeks to advance campus employment practices that reflect our shared values of dignity, respect, and justice. Prepared in conjunction with the Harrison Institute for Public Law, the model aligns employment practices with catholic social teaching and jesuit values. Not only does the model provide for a living wage, but it also respects the right of employees to unionize as well as it guarantees a safe and dignified workplace. It also ensures access to community resources such as the library, bus shuttles, and ESL courses for all campus workers. With Pope Francis calling to the end of an economy of exclusion, the JJEP could not be more timely and more pertinent.

None of our work would be possible if we weren’t constantly building bridges of solidarity with other organizations. Our partners include the The Harrison Institute for Public Law whom we collaborate on projects addressing worker strategies, procurement and human rights; the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching & Service (CSJ) with whom we collaborate on our alternative break program Worker Justice DC; the Employment Justice Center, the Organizing Neighborhood Equity – ONE DC, and DC Jobs with Justice with whom we work on economic equity, ongoing worker justice campaigns, and advocacy projects; the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access (CMEA) and the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP) who actively refer their students (many the first in their families to go to college) to work with us. In sum, together we combine all that we are to engage in solidarity with workers and promote a just and more inclusive economy for all.

Jessica F. Chilin-Hernandez

Jessica F. Chilin-Hernández serves as program advisor and administrator to the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. She is originally from San Salvador, El Salvador.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Remembering to Forget: The Loss of Working-Class Industrial Jobs

One of the problems I regularly encounter teaching undergraduate students sociology is their use of the term ‘post-industrial’ in their essays, by which they often mean that countries like the UK no longer have industry or the jobs that went with it. I have to point out that the UK still has around five million industrial jobs out of an active labour market of over thirty million workers. OK, it’s not the seventeen million workers that once populated the mines, factories, shipyards, and other plants when Britain was the workshop of the world, but it does represent a substantial number of predominately working-class jobs.

Ironically, the general public, politicians and journalists have recently been reminded of Britain’s industrial present by the announcement of a string of closures in what remains of the UK steel industry. I think many had assumed that steel was already part of industrial history, given that it attracted virtually no attention — until now. Politicians and journalists group expressed collective surprise that there were still 30,000 steel workers employed in the sector, albeit down from over 200,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s. London journalists have been dispatched to the less well travelled parts of the kingdom to file stories lamenting closures in the North East of England, Scotland, and Wales where some 4,000 highly skilled workers will lose their jobs. And that is, I think, one of the important dangers of the neglect of working-class employment. While much attention is paid to retail work, distribution hubs, and call centre employment, we have forgotten the restructured parts of heavy traditional industry, which has tended to specialise in high-tech value added manufacture. For example, the steel industry has concentrated on advanced high quality production, and the aero-engine sector is a world leader. Again, this has led to a skewed representation of the working class as exclusively low paid, low skilled workers, or worse, people who rely on benefits. In such representations working-class life is denuded of its agency or simply constructed as a problem.

The most high profile of the steel industry casualties has been the Redcar plant on Teesside in the North East of England, situated at the heart of an already depressed economy. This is despite significant recent investment to the tune of half a billion pounds pumped in by its latest Thai owners, SSI. The local community, with regional and national support, has waged a high profile campaign to save the works. It seems highly unlikely that any of the 2,000 plus steel jobs directly supported by the plant will be saved. The 1,000 contractors who also labour at the site will also lose their positions. The works injects an estimated £70 million into the local economy directly in wages, with the multiplier effect of jobs and services increasing it economic impact considerably. Process workers at the plant were earning between £30-40,000 per year, considerably above the national average and light years away from local wages for semi and unskilled positions. These were good skilled working-class jobs, and the area will miss them badly.

The coverage of the closures reminds people that there is still an important industry in the UK that is both high-tech and vital for the continued existence of other industries. The ability to make a commodity as fundamental as steel has massive implications for other sources of employment in advanced industries. The closure of one plant has a wider impact, as well, in the knowledge infrastructure of an industrial district or region – the teaching and training supporting apprenticeships, the design workers involved in creating new products, and the component manufacturers and maintenance workers required to service the plant and machinery. Snuffing out one set of jobs fatally undermines the others.

The Conservative government has effectively washed its hands of responsibility for the future of the industry. To be fair, ministers point to the lack of demand for steel coupled with overcapacity in world markets and the dumping of vast quantities of Chinese steel. But they have also cynically blamed the high energy costs UK manufactures face and pinned these on environmental levees. The targeting of ‘green taxes’ and other progressive environmental programs has been one of the defining features of the new fully Conservative administration since its election in May, one which also has profound implications for good working-class jobs. The administration has encouraged the fracking industry to explore the English countryside in search of shale gas and signed agreements with the Chinese government to build new nuclear capacity with huge public subsidies. Both actions effectively undermine the future of green energy. Around the same time the steel announcements were made the government closed a consultation on a proposed 87% cut in subsidies for the nascent solar industry just as it is about to achieve a sustainable critical mass. The solar and wind energy industries are UK success stories with something like 2 million homes powered by solar alone, 8GW installed in the last five years from a zero base. At times last winter close to 20% of the UK’s energy needs were supplied by wind power. The industry’s leaders have labelled the decision to cut subsidies ‘obscene’ and ‘ideological’, and the Solar Trade Association warns that the move could cost as many as 27,000 existing jobs.

While some of the existing environmental jobs are highly skilled graduate level positions, not working-class jobs, many are just the kind of high paying skilled working-class jobs that would off-set some of those lost in places like Teesside. Indeed, while “green collar” jobs are often labour intensive and skilled, they also rely on high tech manufacturing. The wind industry requires huge amounts of sophisticatedly made steel, for example, a connection that policy makers don’t seem to understand. Political ignorance of industrial sectors and their long term requirements often leads them to decisions that undermine good working-class jobs, both those with long histories or potentially bright futures.

Tim Strangleman

Posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Tim Strangleman, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Discourses of Power: Black Lives Matter and Adaptive Resilience

 

Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn renewed attention to racial inequality in the U.S. While a number of the incidents that have sparked the movement occurred in deindustrialized cities – Baltimore, Cleveland, and outside of St. Louis – commentators have not highlighted the connection between discussions of continuing discrimination against African Americans and the ongoing challenges of the legacy of economic restructuring. Yet neoliberal ideologies that value business growth and profit over the quality of life of workers and communities play significant roles in both.

When we pay attention to the way neoliberalism undermined working-class communities, we too often focus only on the white working class. But as the dozens of news stories about Detroit’s economic struggles makes clear, those same policies had an even more devastating effect on the black working class. In Detroit, discussions of post-industrial decline, the value of “Black Lives,” and economic development converge. The auto industry once offered good jobs, with solid wages and benefits, and that created a strong middle class. Yet African Americans, who now make up the majority of the city’s population, had just barely gained entry to that middle class before economic restructuring literally moved that opportunity out of reach. As Thomas Sugrue has argued, when the auto industry moved its plants to the suburbs, business benefited while black workers struggled.

Economic restructuring devastated the community, and while racial conflict played a role, Detroit’s failure to recover has generated both puzzlement and judgment. Too often, critics blame the city’s continuing economic struggles on its residents, sometimes invoking racial stereotypes. According to a Huffington Post list of “11 Stereotypes Detroiters Are Tired of Hearing,” some critics suggest that that Detroiters are lazy/uneducated/apathetic, and if they actually cared, they’d make their city better.” While this statement is not overtly racialized, it is part of a broader pattern of blaming Detroit residents – most of whom are African-American. Ted Nugent claims that “pimps, whores, and welfare brats” are responsible for Detroit’s problems. In some cases, critics do get even more specific and place blame on the city’s largely black institutional and governmental leadership.

While some of the debate about Detroit is rooted in discussions of racial inequality, much of it centers on problems of Rust Belt redevelopment. Here, we see a different, but related, problem in the way outsiders explain the continuing difficulties that plague not only Detroit but many other Rust Belt communities: blaming residents for holding on to the past and failing to adapt to new economic conditions. On the one hand, when these communities survive intact, they are valorized for demonstrating “adaptive resilience.” Rather than holding on to the past or resisting economic and social change, residents have adapted to new circumstances. Those who criticize deindustrialized communities for their “destructive nostalgia” blame the victims, focusing attention on working-class communities rather than on the policies and ideologies that led not only to plant closings but also to economic development plans that either ignore the needs of low-income neighborhoods or attract businesses that turn out to offer little real opportunity to most residents. They also ignore the potential of community memory as a basis for resistance.

Those who praise communities for their “adaptive resilience” also place responsibility for economic development on residents and seem to want to erase history. Such arguments rely on ahistoric positivism, emphasizing the value of always moving forward, including – in many cases – embracing the neoliberal claim that attracting and adapting to new businesses is the key to survival, even when new forms of work pay less, rely on disruptive labor “flexibility,” and otherwise undermine the community cohesion necessary to foster resistance. Of course, communities that don’t recover can then be easily dismissed as “incapable of adaptive resilience,” as political scientist Thomas Greven noted sarcastically after hearing some of the explanations of Detroit’s continuing struggle.

Here, again, we see the value of connecting the Black Lives Matter movement with discussions about the challenges of revitalizing post-industrial cities. While the movement has engaged activists and citizens with an important structural analysis of race, it could perhaps deepen its critique by including an analysis of how policies and ideologies that always prioritize the interests of business have been central to impoverishment in black communities.

We need this kind of analysis among politicians, too. In responding to the question, “Do black lives matter?,” Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders missed an opportunity to discuss the impact of economic restructuring on the lives of the black working-class. Instead, he emphasized the need for reform of immigration and criminal justice policies and the vague promise of more education and jobs.

While Sanders is right that the black working-class needs jobs, and while attracting jobs is often an element of economic development strategies, the most vulnerable residents rarely see many benefits. As David Harvey has suggested, the channels and landscapes of neoliberal power frequently adhere to very familiar lines of race, class, and gender. But Black Lives Matter reminds us how little attention we pay to the economic and social struggles of urban areas. Instead, poverty and destitution are normalized. As critical theorist Judith Butler has suggested, Black Lives Matter “states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been realized.” No doubt, Black Lives Matters, along with the Occupy Movement, has had impact on political rhetoric. Both Republicans and Democrats are talking about inequality to one degree or another.

Still, it is the owners and managers of global capitalism who are shaping American urban areas. By successfully injecting neoliberalism into the thinking of economic development specialists and scholars, they coordinate economic development and urban planning. While ideas about austerity and the free market are increasingly in disrepute, they continue to surface in discussions of urban redevelopment.

The one way to end this practice is to make visible the undercurrents of neoliberalism in both economic development and racial injustice. As Michel Foucault made clear, power is everywhere and the discourse of power must be confronted.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments