Transnational Reach: 2019 Working-Class Studies Association Awards

As Donald Trump and his ilk on the world stage strip labor protections and human rights under the guise of faux populism,  writers, workers, artists, and activists have refused to submit to the chicanery. An international crisis requires an international response. Enter stage left: “Working-Class Studies Beyond the Heartlands,” the Working-Class Studies Association (WCSA) conference happening this week at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. At this first WCSA conference held outside of the United States, 250 delegates from 20 countries will bear witness to the past, present, and future of working-class life, labor, culture, and community, refusing to let dignity be downsized.

A cornerstone event at the annual conference is the Awards Dinner honoring work in the field. As past-president and chair of this year’s Awards Committee, I was honored to assemble fantastic works published in 2018 for consideration for our six awards. On behalf of the WCSA, I extend our deep appreciation to the scholars, poets, and professionals from multiple disciplines who took time to review and offer meaningful comments on the nearly 40 nominations. Their invisible labor deserves recognition.

The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism reveal the power of text and media to engage and inspire people across time and space. Judges agreed that Rubén Vega and Irene Díaz’s Memorias Culturales de un Pasado Industrial, a “film that inspires,” was the winner. The film offers a powerful example of work that excavates a usable past. As one judge explained, it “beautifully weaves the stories of more than a dozen local artists in Asturias, Spain, to create a compelling and provocative documentary about how the history of the mining industry and labor protest has shaped the landscape.” Another wrote that the collective memory captured in the film gives new meaning to industrialized space “beyond nostalgia,” reclaiming past struggles and their relevance in the present. The project offers a “living testimony of artistic expression devoted to the memory of working-class history and culture where, in telling their own story, in their words, they resist the narrative of silence and erasure.”

The 2018 nominations for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences reveal the breadth of our interdisciplinary field and its transnational reach with books exploring, among other topics, the history of occupational health and safety, social protest in South Africa, activism in Chicago, strategies for dismantling racism, comic book representations of working-class life and labor, Mexican migration, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) workers, sexual violence in the workplace, the art of resistance on five continents, dockworker solidarity in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, international struggles for economic justice and civil rights, and late twentieth-century British working-class writing and community publishing. These books signal our collective strength in the fight for workers on the job and off. Sherry Lee Linkon won for her book, The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing about Economic Restructuring. In this “inventive and pathbreaking” study, a judge wrote, Linkon offers a “bold intervention into the scholarship on working-class literature and culture.” In examining contemporary working-class literature, Linkon “succumbs to neither nostalgia/celebration nor cynicism/condemnation. Instead, the book reveals the intelligence, courage, tenacity, and creativity of many of those who live and labor in the ‘rust belt.’” A judge concluded that the book’s “graceful and intricate close readings of texts . . . elaborate class in deeply human ways and on multiple levels, exploring, for example, the meaning of work or loss of work, beyond just the economic hardship and pain.”

The John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences also covered a wide range of material, including opioid use and the decline of union affiliation, industrial identity and sense of place in the UK, labor union membership and organizational utility in South Korea, the meaning of work in The Walking Dead, depictions of class in Victorian fiction, and the literary activism of a Jamaican fiction writer. This year’s award goes to Peter Cole for his essay, “Durban Dockers, Labor Internationalism, and Pan-Africanism,” published in Choke Points: Logistic Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain. A judge described Cole’s essay as “A far-ranging—if pithy—examination of how black dockworkers around the world (and throughout time) have set aside their own immediate concerns to use collective action in support of other people of color, especially in Africa.” The article is “accessible and engaging for broader audiences” and offers hopeful lessons about “ways of resisting global capital and violence.” Another judge wrote that the essay’s particular strength lies in “the conversation it creates between workers and global capitalism. Workers are often discussed as non-agentive cogs in ever-expanding networks of neoliberal global flows, but Cole offers a case study that inverts this narrative” and will inspire others “to investigate other kinds of ‘chokepoints’. . . where workers have the potential to exercise agency and where unions are relevant.”

Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that “[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.” The collection is  “one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,” and it reveals “the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.” Another noted “Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist” to reveal “the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.” The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, “the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.” Another praised “[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.” A third described  Learning to Heal as “the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.”

The submissions for this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation signal that the field is advancing in productive directions, including deepening study of class and education and new forms of work.   In her winning project, The New Entrepreneur: Worker Experiences in the Sharing Economy, Alexandrea J. Ravenelle brings much-needed attention to the gig economy. A judge commented that in-depth interviews with TaskRabbit workers, Uber drivers, and AirBnB hosts enable Ravenelle to show “that many of today’s gig workers are working under 19th century conditions.” The dissertation is “a compelling read, and essential for mounting a resistance to the erosion of worker protections.” Another judge appreciated how the project “reveals the ways in which work, and life more broadly, has become precarious for many.”

The winner of this year’s Jake Ryan Award is Didier Eribon, for his book Returning to Reims. The award honors Jake Ryan, a co-editor of Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, the first known working-class academics anthology published in the United States, The award recognizes writing by someone of working-class origins that speaks to issues of importance to the working-class academic experience. A judge explained that while the French writer and scholar Didier Eribon is best known for his work on Foucault and queer/gay issues in France, in this book he “comes out as working class, something that he says was incomparably more difficult than coming out as gay.” This “tells the reader so much about the significance of class for the French intellectual elite despite a radical class history in the country.” Eribon’s book “brings working class scholarship to a French audience and moreover brings together a discussion of class and sexuality that is long overdue.” A second judge appreciated how Eribon “faithfully represents the working-class experience, while also taking careful steps not to purport to speak for the working class, often questioning the motives of those who do.” They also noted how “the book grapples with identity and the meaning of home, particularly when that home imposes insult and stigma.” Returning to Reims is “masterpiece of memoir and critical theory.”

Congratulations to all the awardees and those whose work was nominated. Their work shows the depth and urgency of working-class studies. The rich array of disciplines, methods, theories, and practices of this field will also be on display at this week’s conference and a fringe festival organized with the Gulbenkian Theatre. Conference Sessions and public-access events, including poetry readings, performances, workshops, a lecture,  and a film showing, will explore working-class lives and cultures, promote dialogue, and inspire action.

Terry Easton

Terry Easton is an associate professor of English at the University of North Georgia. He has published essays on workers such as day laborers, coal miners, and deaf children. His 2016 book, Raising Our Voices, Breaking the Chain: The Imperial Hotel Occupation as Prophetic Politics, documents struggles for affordable housing development in Atlanta since 1990.

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Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Neoliberal globalization presents many challenges to labor organizing. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can threaten to close plants when workers request better wages, and executives can even pit their own workers against each other, going back and forth between plants to get local managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. Labor, too, has become more mobile. Increased migration can bring new workers into a settled labor force, sometimes cutting wages and changing working conditions. Corporations can then stoke divisions across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to undermine the solidarity necessary to organize.

A map of labor actions around the world, from the Building and Wood Workers International

Labor faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected world. But globalization may have opened as many doors as it has closed. At the most basic level, online communication provides tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a transnational strike a century ago. And digital media allows workers to see and hear each other, sharing stories that can foster global solidarity. That will become even easier over time, as translation software improves. Globalized capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness.  Unions have used globalization to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.

When corporations expand their operations across national border, unions may gain new leverage points for organizing. The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since 1984 when the company was founded, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organizing, but workers didn’t listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management had tried to use its transnational status to play workers against each other, but instead it was confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike. But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts, as demonstrated in a successful campaign by US college students against sweatshops in the apparel industry, focused on worker organizing in Honduras. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and bolster demands at the point of production.

Globalization has also given rise to new organizing structures, as unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. Already in the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global Union Federations) had begun to respond to the expansion of multinational corporations by forming World Company Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’ Foundation, World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.

By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from promoting voluntary “codes of conduct” with multinational corporations and adding “social clauses” (including labor rights) to trade agreements to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labor solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labor standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 GFAs had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.

Labor always need to develop new strategies, tactics, and organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing modes seen as no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global solidarity around the turn of century. They called into question labor’s “special status” alongside the state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a transnational player, so, too, would the trade unions need to “go global.”

A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In 2008, the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational. Now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalization of the shipping industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de Zeevaart, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers. In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as leaders embrace the possibilities opened up by globalization.

Further, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role, integrating migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

Despite such bright spots, transnational labor organizing still faces many contradictions and pitfalls. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers, including an informal and precarious global labor force, makes it harder to mobilize for action. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be addressed head-on.

In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, such as the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labor’s agenda. Indeed, a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons make clear that broader concerns should form its backbone. The tradition of labor organizing known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback. Making that tradition transnational could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.

Ronaldo Munck, Dublin City University

Ronaldo Munck is the author of Rethinking Global Labour: After Neoliberalism (Stanford UP 2019). He is a professor of political sociology and an active trade unionist.


A longer version of this article was published on the Great Transition Initiative website.


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Can the Working Class Trust the Democrats?

Two years ago, we compared the opioid epidemic to the mortgage crisis that nearly cratered the global economy, noting how both were caused by corporate greed. Recent reporting in the Washington Post and other media outlets reveals an important difference between the two: unlike the regulators who were blithely ignorant of what was happening in the financial markets, officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) knew exactly how many opioid pills were being distributed in the U.S. and where they were going. They simply chose to do nothing about it even though DEA investigators and line attorneys were pushing to hold at least one major drug manufacturer responsible for fueling the deadly epidemic.

The Obama administration’s decision to let drug company CEOs and managers off the hook runs parallel with its refusal to prosecute the big bank and brokerage officials who ignited the mortgage crisis. This eagerness to place Wall Street above Main Street is the key to solving the mystery that has confounded pundits, pollsters, and prognosticators since November 8, 2016: why did so many blue-collar and working class voters abandon the Democratic Party and vote for Trump?

In our minds, it’s all about hypocrisy, broken promises, and dashed hopes.

Let’s be realistic. From opposing the Wagner Act, to imposing the Taft-Hartley Act, to proposing right-to-work laws, to firing striking air traffic controllers, to embracing free trade, to supporting anti-worker policies too numerous to mention in this space, Republicans have never hidden their disdain for working people and unions or their love for the rich and corporations.  When a voter casts a ballot for a GOP candidate, they know what they’re going to get.

Conversely, since 1932, Democrats have positioned themselves as advocates for working men and women. For most of that time, they attempted to keep the promises they made. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, all proposed and implemented policies that strengthened workers’ rights and created the opportunity for more and more Americans to grab a piece of the American Dream.

And then came the “Man from Hope,” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, AKA President “Hope and Change.”

When we looked back at all the times these two dashed the hopes of everyday Americans, we weren’t surprised that blue collar and working-class voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What’s surprising is that it took them so long to head for the door. By 2016, they were tired of being screwed over by Democratic presidents who promised one thing but delivered only repeated blows to the working class’s collective solar plexus.  Trump’s ability to recognize and exploit that fatigue along with his opponent’s refusal to acknowledge that Clinton and Obama had made mistakes carried him to victory.

A quick trip down memory lane validates our thesis. During his 1992 campaign, Clinton vowed to reform America’s health care system and outlaw the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes. Those promises energized a labor movement that had been demoralized when Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and was being crushed at the negotiating table by rapidly rising health care costs. Union members turned out in droves and fueled Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

How did he repay them? Not by reforming health care or banning the use of scabs. Instead, he passed and implemented NAFTA, put former Goldman Sachs co-chair Robert Rubin in charge of the economy, and fought tooth and nail to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act.

Anyone who doubts that these actions had any effect on the 2016 election should consider all the hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs that NAFTA erased across the Midwest. In the Mahoning Valley, it wiped out Delphi Packard, General Electric, RG Steel, and other firms. The people who worked for those companies and their families haven’t forgotten who fought for and signed the pact that erased thousands of good jobs–and they almost certainly took note of the fact that his spouse was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2016.

NAFTA-based job cuts were still fresh wounds for many voters in 2016. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, thousands of workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin lost their jobs due to foreign competition and thus qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance programs between October 2015 and September 2016. They would have been particularly susceptible to Trump’s anti-NAFTA message in the run-up to the election.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall, which was enthusiastically supported by then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, set the stage for the mortgage crisis that cost millions of Americans, many of them working-class, their homes. Rubin saw no danger in deregulating the financial markets, only opportunity–for himself. He resigned his post at Treasury to accept a top job at Citigroup just days after the Clinton administration placed its stamp of approval on the repeal.

As some candidates in the most recent Democratic presidential debate had the temerity to point out, Barack Obama’s betrayals of the working class were every bit as egregious as Clinton’s – maybe even worse.

Those betrayals began with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Cobbled together by Treasury Secretary and Robert Rubin acolyte Tim Geithner in the wake of the financial crisis, TARP funneled billions of dollars to banks and financial institutions but directed very little to middle- and working-class homeowners who were left holding shreds of what had been their piece of the American Dream.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was another slap at working families. The drafting and negotiating process was dominated by private insurers and Big Pharma. Single-payer health care advocates weren’t just excluded from the deliberations, they were derided and chided. In the end, the ACA, which did feature some much-needed reforms, was a boon for health insurers and the pharmaceutical industry, which managed to stave off efforts to give the government the power to bargain drug prices. As a result, working-class families are still being squeezed by rising health care costs and skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs, including insulin.

The administration’s decision to support the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 (MPRA) enraged workers and retirees. The legislation gave the Treasury Department, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, and the Labor Department the power to approve unilateral cuts in pension benefits. Throughout 2015 and 2016 thousands of retirees covered by the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund feared that their benefits would be reduced by thousands of dollars a month.  While the cuts were shelved temporarily, retirees continued to harbor resentment toward the Democratic president who signed the bill.

Two more episodes that demonstrate his disdain for the working class: Obama’s support for the Trans Pacific Partnership, another trade agreement opposed by organized labor and his failure to insist that GM commit to retaining jobs in the U.S. in exchange for the bailout that kept the company out of bankruptcy.

View all these incidents from the perspective of a workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas, families who lost their homes because of corporate greed, the thousands of people who live in communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic, or retirees whose pensions are in jeopardy, and it’s really not hard to understand why so many working-class people voted for Trump in 2016. To riff on the old adage, Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a couple dozen times and I’m voting for Trump.

In order to prevent a repeat of 2016, the Democratic presidential candidates must admit that Obama and Clinton took the party in the wrong direction, a case Matt Stoler made convincingly in the Washington Post in January of 2017. Unless they are willing to repudiate the policies that drove a wedge between the working class and the party, they won’t be able to undermine Trump’s core message to this critical constituency: that Democrats have abandoned them.

A clear break with the past combined with a credible economic message that convinces working men and women that they can once again trust the Democratic Party to fight for their interests is the path to victory in 2020.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.


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Why the Democrats Need to Talk about Race AND Class

Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

In their response to President Trump’s racist tweets telling them to “go back to where they came from,” the four female congressional representatives dubbed “The Squad” tried to shift the debate. Instead of battling over whether the tweets and the subsequent “Send Them Back” chant count as racist, and instead of yet another round of media amazement at the president’s bad behavior, the Squad called for renewed attention to policies aimed at addressing inequality. Too many of their Democratic colleagues, however, including most of those running for president, took Trump’s bait, condemning the president and defending the Squad’s honor as citizens and women of color.

They’d have done better if they had taken up the Squad’s real cause: pursuing policies that address injustice as an intersectional challenge.

The field of candidates for the Democratic nomination is almost twice the size of the senior seminar on working-class literature that I’ll be teaching in the fall. That may seem an odd comparison to make, but if the candidates understood the concept at the heart of my class, they might have recognized that instead of treating race, immigration, and the economy as separate issues, they have to do it all at once. They need to understand, as do voters, that the challenges we face are intersectional.

In “Class at the Intersections,” my students and I will dig into the complex and contested relationships between social class and other categories of culture, identity, and inequality. Intersectional analysis emphasizes that no one is just working-class, or female, or straight, or white. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term 30 years ago as part of an argument that black women were not protected by anti-discrimination laws that focused on race or gender. Because the discrimination they faced was intersectional, they needed legal recognition as women of color. In my course, we’ll focus on how working-class people are never defined only by their class. If we want to understand their perspectives, we need to consider how they are also shaped by race, gender, and other social categories.

If the Democratic class of 2020 read Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” they might see that we cannot make progress if we define injustice as rooted in any single category. But that’s exactly what too many politicians and pollsters do, and the media often echo these perspectives in their stories about voters. The problem may start with polling, which sorts people into neat categories, highlighting how black voters or working-class voters or women see particular candidates or issues. But a single voter could be all of those things. Candidates would do well to realize that a black, college-educated, Christian woman isn’t defined by any one part of her identity, nor are her political preferences. There’s a good chance she’s concerned not only about affordable health care but also the racial wealth gap, the high rates of maternal mortality among black women, and debates over abortion rights. This might seem obvious, but the way many of us talk about voters often underpins inaccurate characterizations—like assuming a reference to “working class” means “white working class,” or that most poor people are black.

Just as no candidate can win election by appealing to any single constituency, so candidates can’t win by appealing to voters based on only one aspect of their lives. They must find ways to speak to the multiple affiliations that shape voters’ views. This might mean not just talking about raising the minimum wage but also noting how it could benefit a diverse range of workers, including the women and workers of color who make up a significant portion of lower-wage and service workers. It might mean critiquing mass incarceration not only as a problem of racism in the justice system but also in terms of its economic impacts.

But intersectional politics is never that simple, as another reading from my class reminds us. David Roediger’s historical analysis of how working-class identity has been shaped and enabled by racism presents a very different version of intersectionality and raises particularly challenging questions for both my students and the presidential candidates. Roediger reminds us that while the working class is racially diverse, it also has a troubling historic investment in whiteness. Of course, racism is not remotely the sole responsibility or property of the working class, but it has helped to shape American working-class identity. That’s part of why it’s so hard for politicians (and the rest of us) to address class and race together.

This is an old problem, and as Roediger reminds us—perhaps inadvertently—tensions around class, race, and gender have been shaping presidential politics for years. He notes early in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness that analyses of “recent” elections have focused on the working class, especially white working-class men, a pattern that was as common when the book was published as it is today.

Nearly 30 years later, we still assume that politicians and policymakers must choose between race and class. They can emphasize inclusion and discrimination, or they can advocate for “working people,” which, as Roediger notes, “often presumes whiteness (and maleness).” Some pundits argue that Democrats must present a strong economic platform in order to win back working-class voters lost to the Republican party over the last few decades (not only to Trump but going back at least to Nixon). On the other hand, some academics and activists argue that class-based politics have too often left behind people of color and reinforced racism, while others insist that political discourse has largely ignored class divisions among African Americans, presenting “black lives” as if they were all the same. Yet, as Roediger argues in his 2017 book Class, Race, and Marxism, “lamentably vague class talk” and “nebulous talk about racial justice” too often just negate each other.

What we need is political discourse and—even more crucially—political action that fully embrace the interconnections between race and class, without ignoring the difficult history of that relationship. It isn’t enough to acknowledge the challenges of fostering an inclusive society, as Pete Buttigieg advocated in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign in May. While he may be right that “what every gay person has in common with every excluded person of every kind is knowing what it’s like to see a wall,” framing the issue in this way reinforces the idea that gay people are white, male, middle-class citizens. Nor is it sufficient to note, as Representative Tim Ryan did on the PBS Newshour, that the workers whose interests he foregrounds are “white, black, brown, gay, straight.” Such gestures to inclusion don’t challenge the problematic idea that “working class” means “white people.”

Intersectional politics requires more overt attention. More critical thinking about intersectionality might help candidates imagine the possibility of inclusive, intersectional justice and political discourse that actively challenges our habit of dividing voters into neatly separate categories.

I’d love to hear candidates not only address economic and racial injustice but also acknowledge how these two problems feed each other. I want candidates not only to point out that workers are diverse but also to challenge voters to reject any politician and question any commentator who promotes the idea that we need to pay special attention to the concerns of the “white working class.” I’m listening for the candidate who makes clear that we cannot protect democracy, create opportunity, or address injustice without addressing all of who we are—as a country, as communities, as workers, and as voters.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

This piece originally appeared on The American Prospect.

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What is a “Working-Class Academic”?

Last week, a law professor from the UK was profiled by The Guardian.  In the article, Geraldine Van Bueren, the daughter of a taxi driver and bookkeeper, discusses the need for people like her to come out publicly.  She has formed a group to that end.  Confusedly, however, she has named that group the “Association of Working-Class Academics,” the same name that a group of us, mostly US-based, have been using since 2008.  When Van Bueren’s story hit the virtual newsstand, our AWCA Facebook page was inundated with new likes and comments thanking Van Bueren.  We quickly responded, linking to her piece in The Guardian, explaining the confusion, and welcoming the attention.  We also reached out to Van Bueren, who was quite gracious and apologetic.  The whole situation reminded us of the need for better coordination, organization, and cross-pollination.  It has also prompted me to share some of our history, explain the term “working-class academic,” and spend a little time sharing the strengths of those of us who so identify.

In 1984, two professors, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, published Strangers in Paradise, whose subtitle, “Academics from the Working Class” pioneered WCA concept.  A nice review in The Insurgent Sociologist summarizes the importance of this volume.  For the first time, professors from poor and working-class backgrounds testified about the dislocating experience of moving between classes.  The book inspired many others to share their own stories, and several more collections of autobiographical writing followed, including Working-Class Women in the Academy by Michelle Tokarzyk and Elizabeth Fay (1993), This Fine Place So Far From Home by C.L. Barney Dews and Carline Leste Law (1995), Class Matters by Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek (1997), Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Tracks by Stephen Muzzatti and Vincent Samarco (2005), Resilience by Ken Oldfield and Gregory Johnson III (2008), and Trajectories by Jane Van Galen and Van O. Dempsey (2009).  This collective work has inspired generations of WCAs not only to tell our stories but to think more clearly and critically about class, class mobility, and the promises and perils of higher education in an unequal society.

I myself stumbled upon Strangers in Paradise while a graduate student in the early 00s.  This led me to an active listserv of “working-class/poverty-class academics” and, eventually, to the formation of the Association of Working-Class Academics in 2008.  A collective history of our attempts to organize WCAs can be found in The Journal of Working-Class StudiesIn 2015, AWCA formally merged with the Working-Class Studies Association, and we continue as a formal section within the larger organization.  Anyone interested in joining is encouraged to do so!

But you may be asking “what is a working-class academic?”  Why does it matter that some professors have working-class backgrounds?

You may be familiar with the exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, where Hemingway answers Fitzgerald’s claim that the very rich are different with a curt and devastating reply: “Yes, they have more money.”  Fitzgerald’s explanation makes clear that the difference isn’t just about money. The class you grow up in shapes your character and attitude. The very rich, he says,

possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in way that, unless you were born rich, it is difficult to understand.  They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.  Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.  They are different.

In a similar way, growing up poor also marks a person.  Although as the so-called smart kid in my neighborhood, I always felt a little different, my sense of alienation from school did not really begin until I went to college.  I was caught between two worlds, a stranger in paradise, and all those other clichés that are nevertheless quite accurate.  It was not until I found a group of people with similar experiences, the working-class academics, that I finally felt at home.

Growing up poor or working class and then becoming a tenured professor gives one a unique purchase on the world.  For one thing, we don’t know anyone.  We have no connections with academia or the professional world in general.  Anonymity has its privileges.  Because it took so much to get where we are, we tend to be brave (sometimes stupidly so), barging in where no one like us has gone before, often uninvited.  We are risk-takers, but this is made easier by the fact that we don’t know the rules of the game, so we don’t play by them.  We can color outside the lines, when necessary.  Not having any ancient prejudices or customs, we are not held back by them.  Related to our anonymity, our braveness, our outsider status, we can speak our mind.  And we do.  Often.

Working-class academics work hard.  Granted, so do many of our more advantaged colleagues, but we think of work differently. Working hard is meant to be difficult (physically demanding, rather than mentally engaging, as with middle-class work. And we don’t mind getting our hands dirty.  This is also about expectations.  Years of training and observation of our families’ lives have led us to expect discipline from the boss.  We can balk at this, and often do, but we are not surprised by dickishness from above.  I guess what I am saying is that we don’t hold entitled views.

Although we had to be pretty smart to get where we are now, we don’t attribute our success to it, because we know too many other smart people who are still working at the QuickMart or bussing tables or cleaning houses.  We know luck played a big part in where we ended up.  This, too, makes us feel less entitled than some of our peers, but it also allows us to see things from a more objective, less personal, perspective.  We hold nothing sacred.  We have a better purchase on reality than many of our peers.  All of this makes us deeply suspicious of abstractions that ignore context.  We want to know where people are coming from, especially when they say things about the state of the world or possibilities for the future.  We have a practical bent, preferring to say what we mean rather than hiding behind a label or polite obfuscation.  This also means we prefer to study and teach subjects that matter in the “real world,” often running away from those areas of academia that appear too theoretical, abstract, navel-gazing.

In all these ways, we are different from too many of our peers.  We are still operating in the margins of academia.  For now, many individuals still stumble upon the WCA concept, as Geraldine Van Bueren has done.  I cannot count how many times I been at a conference (sociology, education, labor) where a WCA in the audience “comes out” during Q&A.  Most of the time, this is treated as a one of a kind experience – never shared before, never spoken of since.  It should not be.  We are here.  Please find us! To paraphrase John Lennon, A working class [academic] is something to be.”

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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Why Can’t It Be Like That Now? Remembering What We Had and Could Have Again

‘But why can’t work be like that now?’ my colleague Julia asked when I told her about my research into the former Guinness brewery at Park Road in West London. After working on the project for the best part of a decade and a half, it’s sometimes difficult to sum up quickly. Over that time, I’ve looked at thousands of photographs, scores of staff magazines, and hundreds of documents, and I’ve talked to dozens of workers. But Julia’s question cut straight to the heart of the book.  She got the point straight away, unlike some of my academic colleagues, who have been skeptical about the appreciation the brewery workers I spoke with expressed toward Guinness.  Perhaps this is because they have not had blue-collar jobs.  But I have, and when I worked on the London Underground, I appreciated the conditions that unions and previous generations had won for me, so I recognise what the brewery workers I wrote about valued in their work.

The book describes the conditions that workers had enjoyed at the plant from the end of World War II through to the early 1980s. Along with earning decent wages and good pensions when they were relatively rare features of blue-collar life in the UK, Park Royal workers also had access to a range of sports facilities and cultural activities onsite, subsidised by the company itself. On top of that, Guinness had hired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the premier architect of the day, to design the buildings. The grounds were laid out by some of the top contemporary  landscape gardeners, who planted hundreds of different tree species and thousands of shrubs. All this not because the company had too, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, because they wanted to.

Some academics view these conditions as manipulative management practices. After one presentation at a university in North America, a visiting German scholar told me that they were ‘merely simple propaganda’, while others have described that these conditions as ‘crude ideological control devices lulling workers away from their revolutionary mission’. Such responses ignore the complexity and nuance of workers’ experiences and perspectives, but they also miss why the story of Guinness matters for us now.

I think a lot about the contrast between what corporate strategy looked like in the years after World War II and now. When I ask students in my sociology of work courses to reflect on their work experiences, their stories sometimes make for grim and even disturbing reading or hearing. Most are in their late teens or early twenties and work predominantly in-service jobs such as retail and, increasingly, coffee shops. They ‘enjoy’ very different working conditions, including internationally known brands limiting them to six-hour contracts to avoid having to pay for statutory breaks mandated by weakened employment law.  They describe the abuse from customers frustrated at waiting those extra seconds for their beverage because the company has pared down staffing levels to a minimum. My students also tell me about the training packages they must complete at home rather than getting paid to train in the workplace.

When I talk to them about my Guinness research, I feel a mixture of emotions.  I feel guilty that I am showing what their parents — or really grandparents — thought of as ‘good work’.  Am I rubbing their noses in their own situations, highlighting unobtainable riches they will never enjoy? But I also believe that it’s important to describe the working conditions of the past so that we can understand where we have been and why we are where we are now. Work now looks very different than it did in the past for many people, but those changes have occurred because of structural shifts which are often deliberate choices made by corporate and political actors. Equally the ‘good jobs’ of the past exemplified by those at Guinness came about because of a set deliberate decisions and actions taken by employers, politicians, trade unions, and grass roots workers.

Reflecting on my own guilt about parading ‘good work’ in front of younger people reminds me of a seminal moment in the process of interviewing soon to be laid off workers at the plant. I will never forget one interview I did with a Guinness worker. At the end of a long session, the interviewee came out with pure gold (after I had turned the microphone off, as was so often the case). Reflecting on his early working life at the brewery in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said, “Can you imagine what we used to have here?” The interview had drawn up a whole series of memories and reflections on a working life, his benign contract, the sports and social clubs, the vertical integration of the site, and the workplace camaraderie. The tone of disbelief in his voice was vivid, as if he had enjoyed some illicit pleasure and even remembering and admitting enjoying those features of working life was somehow wrong. He seemed to have a profound sense that the conditions of work in the past, and indeed the other forms of corporate investment, were illegitimate extravagances that were bound to end sooner or later. He spoke for many of his peers in voicing an obituary for a lost world of work.

Perhaps what is more striking is just how deeply neoliberal ideology has penetrated our collective consciousness, to the point where it has completely delegitimized a more expansive, progressive, and humane vision for capitalism. In short, contemporary culture and politics seems to have restricted our imaginations so completely that we cannot see alternatives to the current state of affairs.

And this is why I was so gratified when my colleague ‘got’ the point of my book: in studying the past we chart both what we had and what we have lost.  But we also ask critical questions as to why, not so long ago, ordinary working-class people could enjoy conditions at work that gave them dignity, confidence, and hope that their lives were getting better, decade by decade, and that the children’s lives would be better still. It poses questions for all of us as workers, as voters, stock holders, and citizens: why is treating workers well seen as a cost on the balance sheet to be controlled rather than the right thing to do?

Tim Strangleman, Kent University

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Is ‘Doing Your Best’ Ever Enough When You Are Working Class?

In 2016, I wrote about how Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake illustrated the impact of the draconian British welfare system on working-class people. Watching that film was a visceral experience, so much so that I still can’t bring myself to rewatch some scenes, such as one in a food bank. Loach’s latest film, Sorry We Missed You (2019), produced the same response; I left the cinema feeling angry and sick in the stomach. Once again, the characters could be members of my family. And Loach’s new film again confirms the terrible mess created by years of Tory rule, austerity measures, and neoliberalism. Sorry We Missed You is heartbreaking to watch.

Loach has created another uncompromising story that works as a parallel piece to I, Daniel Blake. They are set in the same city, and the story worlds could easily coincide. Whereas I, Daniel Blake focused on the absurdity and cruelty of the rules around claiming government benefits (welfare), Sorry We Missed You highlights the exploitation of workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ and the impact of funding cuts and privatisation on local council services and the National Health Service. The film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), Abby (Debbie Honeywood), and their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jae (Katie Proctor).

As they often say, they are trying to do their best. They work 14-hour days, have no time together or for the family, and are struggling to stay afloat. Ricky has left the building trade due to the downturn in available work, and he decides to ‘go it alone’ by working as a parcel courier for a fictional dispatch company. The idea is sold to him as a way of starting his own business as a franchisee, to be his own boss and control what he earns. The work requires a van, which he can either can hire for £65 a day from the company or buy himself. He takes out a loan to buy his own after selling Abby’s car to meet the down payment. He starts the job in debt, and the debts increase when he has to skip work for family reasons and is fined by the company, who hold him responsible for the value of goods that are stolen and for broken company equipment. Instead of working for himself, he realises he is beholden to the company’s rules, without any of the benefits of being an employee. He gets no sick or holiday pay, and he is responsible for his own insurance (both for himself and his vehicle). Ricky’s plight is terrible – he is forced to work long hours to simply repay his debt before he can actually start earning. The hours lead to fatigue and unsafe working conditions. But as the manager of the parcel depot makes clear, the customers don’t care whether the drivers are so tired they’ll fall asleep at the wheel. They are only interested in how quickly their delivery will arrive. Ricky is exhausted and unable to think clearly, and the toll on his health builds throughout the film.

Meanwhile, Abby’s day starts at 7:30am, when she begins her rounds as a carer – preparing breakfast for elderly and disabled ‘clients’ (a term she hates) and getting them washed and dressed. Her day ends at 9pm after she has helped her clients get ready for bed. By the time she is home, it is too late to spend any time with her own family. The scenes depicting Abby’s work are particularly heartbreaking. As a contract carer, she works for an agency on a zero hours contract and is allocated limited time to spend with each client. Abby wants to help the elderly and vulnerable people, but the only way she can give them the care she thinks they need is to sacrifice time with her own family – using her unpaid breaks to spend more time with clients. All of this affects her wellbeing, and it reflects the impact of budget cuts to local authorities and the push to privatise and outsource. Local authorities’ budgets have been slashed to the bone, so they cannot provide the in-home care required by elderly and disabled people in the community. Abby’s clients are sometimes left soiled and in distress as they wait alone between carer visits.

I experienced this first-hand when my mother became infirm prior to her death in 2018. She was too frail to take care of herself, and she relied on neighbours (I live on the other side of the world). Despite being completely reliant on government benefits and having no assets (she lived in public housing), the only care available would have required her to pay a local outsourced provider for help with preparing meals, getting up in the morning, and going to bed. The service cost £15 an hour – money she didn’t have. After she experienced several hospital admissions and worsening health, I spent hours calling and emailing the local social services. An in-home care package for her was approved a few days before her final admission to hospital (where she passed away).

All of the carers who visited my mother were wonderful. Just like Abby, they did their best. They were paid minimum wage and did all they could to make my mother more comfortable. They listened to her stories and brought in treats from the shop, but they were working in a system that relies on unpaid caring (from family and neighbours). When a family cannot provide the necessary 24-hour care, like Abby’s clients and in my mother’s case, the over-stretched carers cannot provide the levels of care needed to maintain dignity and quality of life.

Like Loach’s earlier film, Sorry We Missed You provides another punch in the guts. It’s hard to imagine how much longer people like Ricky and Abby will be able to continue ‘doing their best’. Millions are suffering due to austerity measures and unfettered neo-liberalism.Hopefully, Loach’s film will spark some change.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies


Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment