Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Russo

Getting Angry about Class

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Strangleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sherry Linkon

Stereotyping White Working-Class Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Attfield

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

Worker Coalitions and Organizing around Public Transit

I first got involved in transit-related activism in 2010 through my support for organized labor. A major public funding gap threatened the solvency of Pittsburgh’s public mass transit system, and—in line with so many recent attacks we’ve seen on public-sector unions—the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was taking the brunt of the blame for the projected 30% cut. The myth of the “overpaid” bus driver as an excuse and scapegoat for draconian government austerity measures was hardly unique to Pittsburgh (see, for example, Oregon, Madison, and New York). The gross exaggeration in such accounts of the $100K-per-year driver is beside the point. It’s a line of classist rhetoric that depends upon invoking a sense of meritocratic rage against decent compensation for workers who are perceived to be “unskilled.” Most frustratingly, it shows how easily workers can be divided against one another in a climate where most accept neoliberal economic scarcity as a given.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) was founded as a coalition of riders and drivers to fight rampant layoffs, service cuts, fare hikes, and privatization while building solidarity among the working people who operate and use transit. Indeed, public transit is essential to Pittsburgh’s urban labor force, and over half of all workers in the city’s major employment centers use it for their daily commute, accounting for 86% of all ridership. Service cuts were tantamount to job losses not only for drivers but also for many riders. And yet, the same riders often did not see union drivers as allies in the fight to save their service, lower their fares, and improve the system as a whole.

PPT sought to open the lines of communication and understanding among all people whose livelihoods depend on mass transit. In so doing, we also hoped to reframe the cultural conversation about nationwide transit crises as a funding problem rather than a spending problem, as an issue of human rights and shared needs rather than of profitability, austerity, or “welfare.” Transit workers, users, and supporters came together to draft our core beliefs statement, the Transit Bill of Rights, which the President of the ATU’s Local 85 boldly recited on the marble staircase of the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg before we delivered it with 5,000 signatures to Pennsylvania’s then-governor Tom Corbett.

Now, one major transportation funding bill later (an act, I might add, that passed in spite of a Republican administration and majority in the state legislature), PPT offers a strong case for the power of worker coalitions to change not only the conversation but also the policy around public transit to better serve working people.

The unlikely success of this statewide lobbying effort was a substantial victory, but PPT’s most exciting organizing efforts have taken place after that campaign. Since the passage of the bill that secured most of their jobs, drivers continue to participate in PPT, and the ATU’s support for the organization has not flagged. In the big picture, the ATU International has become an increasingly progressive and activist union in recent years, spearheading events like Transit Action Month. PPT was invited to speak at the concluding D.C. Rally as a representative of the type of union-community coalitions encouraged by the International’s leadership. However, PPT seems unique in its close and enduring collaboration with Local 85.

Since our transit agency has adequate funding to maintain existing service for the time being, we’ve been able to focus on how to improve both our (still woefully insufficient) system—down from 235 routes in 2006 to only 101 today—and our own organization. Specifically, PPT’s current campaigns have emerged out of thinking about how to work together with people at a local level to ensure we all have a meaningful voice in public transit planning processes. In its first few years, PPT led several mass demonstrations and marches against service cuts, but only a handful of committed activists participated in our day-to-day organizing. Now, PPT has begun working with communities to identify their specific needs and help mobilize their own community-led efforts to meet them.

PPT had tried similar tactics in the past, but the response was discouragingly minimal and quickly petered out, making the effort impossible to maintain with our limited resources. Unions are one of the few sources of support available to working-class movements. The volunteer hours of rank-and-file members have made a significant difference for us over time—even more than funding or other forms of institutional support (which often come at a price). Transit workers’ involvement is absolutely central to the success of PPT’s grassroots campaigns. Operators who used to drive routes that were eliminated or who live in underserved communities have taken a lead in identifying neighborhoods and residents that are in dire need of service and have the will to fight for it. Their inside knowledge of the system and relationship with regular riders has been instrumental in mobilizing transit activism.

Rallying with 1000 union members to call for federal transportation funding was an exhilarating moment of movement building, but the most powerful thing I’ve seen as an organizer is members of PPT and Local 85 sitting around folding tables in a borough building auditorium brainstorming with their neighbors about how to bring service back to our communities that have been cut off.

These conversations shape the vision and identify concrete priorities for more inclusive and equitable public transit. To its credit, Pittsburgh’s transit agency has been soliciting public feedback and involvement much more than in the past, but those outreach efforts tend to reinforce the divide between riders and drivers by posing community members first and foremost as customers in a business rather than co-owners of a public service. (For instance, an advisory panel including many finance experts recommended “hospitality training” and improved “service attitude” to “enhance customer experience.” At the report presentation, the panel’s chair noted this as an especially economical improvement since “a smile doesn’t cost a thing.” I doubt that drivers—faced with increasingly demanding routes and passenger loads—agree.)

Public transportation has traditionally had an “image problem” insofar as it was seen as a vehicle of necessity rather than choice. Now that it’s hip to be green and live in cities with compact land use rather than commute from the ‘burbs in gas-guzzling SUVs, public transit is getting a cultural makeover. In the process, mass transit systems sometimes fail to serve those people who have no other option. The focus on innovative infrastructure, like Bus Rapid Transit and transit-oriented development, tends to prioritize those already best served by the system and exclude many dependent riders. Instead of making life better for all residents, transit-oriented development often heralds gentrification that leaves working-class people in a paradoxical bind: they cannot afford to live in places that lack good access to public transportation, but they also cannot afford to live in places that have it.

The riders and drivers of PPT have pushed against such priorities that leave the working class stranded. Public transportation is more central than ever to social, environmental, and economic justice. Worker coalitions organizing locally can help build the cultural movements we need to initiate systemic changes and strengthen public control of resources that are crucial to more sustainable and equitable futures.

Alicia Williamson

Alicia Williamson is a founding member of and former organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She now works as a freelance writer and editor in the UK. You’re invited to sign on to The Transit Bill of Rights!

A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon