‘Struggle Street’: hard-hitting documentary or middle-class voyeurism?

A new Australian television show, Struggle Street, has attracted much controversy and commentary. The three-part documentary was commissioned by the public broadcaster, SBS, and made by KEO films. The production company’s web site describes Struggle Street as an ‘observational documentary’ that will provide an ‘insight into the experience of those who’ve been dealt some of the worst conditions to start their lives’ and ‘provoke not just a change in public perception, but a debate about the direction of public policy as well’. The show is set in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt and focuses on a number of working-class people experiencing poverty. Mount Druitt has a reputation of being ‘rough’ due to its concentration of public housing, and the western suburbs of Sydney have been marginalised due to their geographical distance from the metropolitan centre and their working-class demographic.

The controversy occurred after the broadcast of a promotional trailer. Some of the show’s participants contacted their local area mayor to complain about how they were depicted in the trailer. The mayor, Stephen Bali, attempted to put a stop to the show’s airing and staged a protest outside the headquarters of SBS. Bali described the show as ‘publically funded poverty porn’ and ‘rubbish’ television. To assist in making his point, a fleet of garbage trucks joined him outside the SBS offices. The mayor (who also had the support of Unions NSW) claimed that not only were the participants being portrayed in a negative way, but the show’s production team had engaged in unethical behaviour and he accused them of staging scenes and misrepresentation. While SBS did agree to pull the promo video on the request of participants, the network’s head of program content, Helen Kellie, defended the show, and it was broadcast as scheduled.

In part because of the protest, the show attracted much interest and debate. Multiple news items, reviews, and commentaries have been written on the show, and it is now one of SBS’s highest rating programs in recent years.

So is it ‘poverty porn’, as suggested by the mayor, or a serious observational documentary intended to create debate and effect change, as stated by the creators? And what happens when we view the show through a working-class lens?

I find the term ‘poverty porn’ problematic, in part because it diminishes the real experience of the participants. I prefer ‘middle-class voyeurism’, which describes both the production and the reception of the show. The show was created by the same company that produced the British series Skint, which also garnered criticism due to its portrayal of working-class poverty in the UK. It could be suggested that the middle-class producers of Struggle Street are exploiting their working-class subjects in order to advance their own careers. After all, the participants are not paid for their time, and the producers do not seem to be offering any long-term assistance to the neighbourhoods depicted. The show is most likely to be watched by middle-class viewers (who are the main demographic of public broadcasters), and most reviews and commentary appear to be written from middle-class perspectives. We see this when KEO’s director of programmes, David Galloway, compares the setting of Struggle Street to that of his previous production River Cottage Australia (which is a cooking show set in a ‘historic and picturesque village’). He describes the two shows as ‘heaven and hell’ and states that people ‘end up’ and are ‘lumped’ in Mount Druitt, making the area sound like a dumping ground for the poor.

The first episode of Struggle Street was very interesting. The participants reveal their struggles with unemployment, disability, homelessness, drug addiction, and lack of formal education. They are candid and generally unselfconscious. Their efforts to make do and try to provide for themselves and their families reveal the social and political reality of working-class life and poverty. They also demonstrate working-class resilience, resourcefulness, and the importance of community as they provide assistance to each other. The show includes working-class humour and philosophical discussions of daily life. As such, it provides important insight into the effects of poverty on working-class Australians. Rather than operating as voyeurism, Struggle Street has the potential to help viewers understand these effects. For those who have lived in poverty, the show validates their experiences and stories, even though some middle-class viewers may not recognize some of the nuances of that experience.

After the show aired, responses ranged from support for the aims of the show by those who believed it offered a glimpse into the lives of marginalised people, to concerns about its potentially exploitative element. The show was described as ‘brutal and raw’, ‘powerful and poignant’ and ‘required viewing’. It was also described as reinforcing stereotypes and being bad reality TV (rather than documentary) that contained a caricature of Mount Druitt that was unrepresentative of the area as a whole. Most positive reviews agreed that the narration was intrusive and judgmental and the soundtrack distracting and clichéd.

What I found most interesting is the almost complete absence of class from the discussions. Apart from one negative piece (written by an academic) that suggested that ‘class is a taboo topic’ (and also criticized the show for its ‘abjectifying images’ and ‘class racism’), no one mentioned the class system that creates poverty. Commentators used terms such as ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, and ‘hardship’, and although some mentioned government policies that lead to cuts in local services, almost no one acknowledged structural class inequalities.

The discussion was even worse on Twitter. Some tweets reflected the reviews and commentary by journalists, but others mocked and attacked the participants of the show with classist and derogatory remarks. For example, one suggested that a person receiving government benefits should not be able to afford a mobile phone. Some Tweeters from western Sydney attempted to distance themselves from the participants, claiming that not all people from Mount Druitt were poor. This sentiment appeared in some of the published commentary as well. Some community leaders were quoted as disappointed with the ‘hopeless’ tone of the show, which ‘undermines all the good work we do’ and reinforces stereotypes. This points to the politics of respectability, as working-class people who are in employment distance themselves from the unemployed and poor.

For all the controversy, there is a place for observational documentary that focuses on the lives of working-class people. Their stories need to be told on working-class terms, though that in itself can be hard to define. While some of those featured in Struggle Street initially complained about how they were represented on the show, two of the show’s main participants, Ashley and Peta Kennedy have stated they are pleased with how the show highlighted their struggle.

In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that. Instead, they must collaborate with middle-class filmmakers, and that means there is always the potential for exploitation and sensationalism of working-class experiences for the sake of entertainment. The participants of Struggle Street deserve to have their stories told, and if they are unhappy with their portrayal they should have the right to make these concerns heard. The key, and the challenge, is ensuring that working-class people have control of their stories.

Sarah Attfield


We’re Here! We’re Queer! We’re Not Going Shopping!

In 2002, when I was soliciting submissions for the anthology Everything I Have Is Blue: Short Fiction by Working-Class Men about More-or-Less Gay Life, I received this message on a Working-Class Studies listserv: “Excuse me for saying so, but isn’t gay and working-class kind of a contradiction in terms?”

It was such a great line that I ended up using it in the book. Obviously, the short answer is no, but the impulse behind the question isn’t hard to understand. For decades, popular concepts of the “gay community” have so frequently been paired with middle- and privileged-class status markers that “gay” sometimes resembles a brand name. And what about those stereotypes? We’re DINKs, Guppies, trend-setters, gentrifiers. We’re “hyper-acquisitive” and, of course, we have those “high disposable incomes” everyone gets so excited about.

Far from it. Recent studies, in fact, suggest that LGBTQ people may actually be more vulnerable to being poor: more likely to experience food insecurity; more likely, in rural settings and/or among people of color, to be at income risk; more likely than U.S. adults in general to report annual incomes under $30K (39% vs. 28%).

That is, of course, unless you believe in the secret “Better Living Through Homosexuality” fund. You know, the one that provides us with the unlimited financial support we need to enjoy better education, healthcare, and housing; develop superior taste in food, clothing, and culture; and finally quit going to SuperCuts. Of course I’m being ironic, but you might be surprised how many people behave as though they thought such silliness was true.

But the real point is this: If most Americans are working-class or poor (and they are), then most LGBTQ Americans must be as well. And plain facts sometimes get lost in debates over whether to define class through “labor-capital analysis (in the Marxist tradition) or [by means of] occupation, income, and formal education (in the liberal one)”—as University of Massachusetts professor Lisa Henderson put it in Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production. Or, indeed, over whether to “imagine class as fundamentally … a cultural form.”

I had Henderson’s perspectives in mind as I prepared Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers, the recent follow-up to Everything I Have Is Blue: how to place what Henderson termed a “study of queer-class conjuncture” alongside a political, economic, and cultural analysis. But novelist and essayist Dorothy Allison, who has probably done more than any other contemporary queer writer to articulate “conjunctures,” was on my mind as well. As Allison observed in her essay “A Question of Class”:

Everything in our culture—books, television, movies, school, fashion—is presented as if it is being seen by one pair of eyes, shaped by one set of hands, heard by one pair of ears. Even if you know you are not part of that imaginary creature—if you like country music not symphonies, read books cynically, listen to the news unbelievingly, are lesbian not heterosexual … you are still shaped by that hegemony, or your resistance to it.

I’d go a bit further. To be queer, from or in the working classes, and committed both to class solidarity and to full citizenship for queer people often means not solely battling the “one pair of eyes” approach but being caught between what I would call the “traditionalist” working-class organizing/labor-studies camp (which sees the working-class as nearly exclusively blue-collar and views any “oppression” that is not determined by economic relations as bourgeois “identity politics”) and the bourgeois identity politicians for whom discussions of class are antediluvian, irrelevant, and sectarian in the context of the LBGTQ civil-rights “agenda.”

So if contradiction is the issue, there’s plenty to go around.

Fortunately, what there also turns out to be plenty of is a rich body of materials on which to base the kind of study Henderson describes. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of resistance on the part of working-class queer writers, thinkers, activists, and artists to being seen as anomalies and paradoxes.

Modern Family stereotypes aside, in fact, the impact of class and economic issues has long been clear to many of us here in the Homintern. Pride at Work is one example—a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group of labor-union activists (and an AFL-CIO affiliate) born out of a 1974 alliance between the Teamsters and San Francisco gay activists Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk. Together, they pulled off a highly successful community boycott of Coors. Amber Hollibaugh’s Queers for Economic Justice project worked tirelessly for twelve years to build a platform for the poor and low-income queers whose voices are often unheard in the mainstream fight for gay rights. (Sadly, the QEJ project closed in 2014 for lack of funding.) The National Center for Lesbian Rights, meanwhile, recently founded the RuralPride Campaign to increase LGBTQ visibility in rural America and make sure services and resources are accessible to queer people and their families in those areas.

Queer scholars, social historians, and artists in and from the working class take part in the same conversations. I’ll mention just three examples: Kelly Cogswell’s memoir, Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger (founded in 1992, the Avengers were a direct-action group that focused on gender, race, and class); the impressive body of work left behind by the late Allan Bérubé, whose moving essay about his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, “Sunset Trailer Park,” is a classic; and the just-released comedy, Pride, which is based on a true story. In it, UK gay and lesbian activists raise money for the families of Welsh miners during the long National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984. The film hasn’t yet opened where I live, but I’m excited about the conversations it might inspire. I’ve known for nearly my entire adult life that working-class queer people were deeply involved in union building, neighborhood organizing, economic justice issues, and anti-racism work. I wish other people knew it, too.

And that explains why I thought the time was ripe for Blue, Too, a way to bring queer activism and cultural production together with the traditions of LGBTQ and working-class studies. In addition to short stories, performance pieces, and autobiography by twenty writers, Blue, Too includes a study guide that applies working-class-studies and queer-theory approaches to analysis of each contributor’s work. The book also contains an annotated bibliography of more than 500 items (the first-ever attempt to create an exhaustive listing of materials related to queers and class) and an in-depth critical essay that reviews the history and present of working-class queers in literature, media, pop culture, and scholarship.

What emerges from all that are some interesting points of departure. Consider, for example, what LGBTQ and working-class cultural production have in common. Historically, they’ve both been unintentionally overlooked, randomly misinterpreted, or deliberately suppressed—albeit for different motives—and both may need to be reclaimed in order to bring their broadest implications to light. At a deeper level, writing that foregrounds lesbian and gay perspectives, ethics, and consciousness can “queer” assumptions about a heterosexual universe and about the “proper” deployment of sex roles, physical sexual behavior, and gender just as working-class writing can “queer” certitudes about opportunity and class mobility, “natural” social hierarchies, and the dream of liberty and justice for all. They are both—or they can be—subversive.

I’m convinced this is a conversation worth having—within Working-Class Studies and in academia more generally, in reading groups, and among friends. Literature and media, after all, are the propaganda of a culture, and working-class queer people are often propagandized right out of the picture.

Wendell Ricketts

Wendell Ricketts is a writer, editor, and translator; a somewhat-unwilling resident of the hanging-chad state; and, as a university adjunct, a member of the great American “precariat.”

“Let’s Get To Work” — on the Weekends!

I started following Ed Schultz, the beefy, loud mouthed, pro-labor MSNBC anchor on Twitter a year ago last spring, when Pennsylvania education cuts were starting to reverberate across the state, forcing thousands of K-12 schools to cut art, band, music, drama, and science programs. Right around this time, the Pittsburgh Opera decided to give Governor Tom Corbett a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the arts, and Pittsburghers staged a raucous rally to protest Corbett’s award and to bring attention to the cuts. Schultz caught wind of the statewide crisis and helped to focus attention on it by giving it ample coverage on his show.

Schultz, occupying the coveted 8:00 PM slot for two years, from 2011 to 2013, was the only MSNBC host who seemed to be following the school cuts as closely as I was. Watching Schultz I had the feeling—one I rarely get from the mainstream media—that he was speaking for me and the thousands of other “little people” across the country who were losing their jobs, their homes, their schools, their unions, their homes, their healthcare, and their dignity in the wake of the great financial collapse of 2008.

During his education coverage last spring, I watched The Ed Show almost every night, but over the course of Schultz’s tenure at MSNBC I didn’t watch as often as I should have, and now I feel bad. In March of this year Schultz announced he was moving to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays later in the spring. He claims that he “raised his hand” for the assignment, but it’s hard to believe that he would give up a prime time weekday slot, voluntarily, for a weekend gig.

Schultz, admittedly, doesn’t look or sound like a lot of the other hosts on MSNBC. He’s 59, barrel chested, and a former football player. He was an All-American quarterback at Minnesota State University in the 1970s, played as a free agent for the Oakland Raiders, and had a short stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada. In 1982, Schultz became a sportscaster for KTHI-TV, in Fargo, North Dakota, and started calling the radio play-by-play for North Dakota State University football games. He didn’t broadcast his political opinions until the 1990s, when he started adding political commentary to his sportscasts. Then, he started broadcasting “on location” in economically depressed American towns. Oddly, Schultz stayed No. 1 in his market for 10 years, “despite the fact that [his] political views changed radically—from conservative to progressive—during that time.”

As Schultz tells it, his second wife, a nurse named Wendy, was the one who brought him out of what he describes as his “right-wing darkness.” She introduced him to homeless people and veterans where she worked, and she encouraged him to meet with struggling Dakota plains farmers face to face. By 2009, Schultz had a successful radio show, The Ed Schultz Show, on the Jones network.  MSNBC first tapped him to host a 6:00 pm show, then a 10:00 pm show, and then moved him to the coveted 8:00 pm slot when Keith Olbermann left in a blaze of rage and bluster.

During his time at MSNBC, Schultz has put his foot in it at least once. In 2011 he called Laura Ingrahm a “right wing slut.” He quickly made an on-air apology and took a week off the air, without pay, as penance. But most of the time, Schultz has been a rare champion of the working class, taking his anchor desk to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan as these rust belt states have fought off attacks from Scott Walker, the Koch Brothers, and the Ohio supporters of SB 5, a severely anti-union bill that was signed into law and then reversed by Ohio voters—with the help Schultz’s powerful 8:00 pm newscasts. As Schultz explained in an interview with the AFT, “we’re . . . staying focused on the plight of the workers, on outsourcing, privatization, the loss of collective bargaining rights, cuts to wages, on the attacks on workers, and working on solutions that will help the working class in this country.”

Was Ed Schultz sidelined, or did he go willingly? There are conflicting accounts. This blogger speculates that Schultz was pushed out because he could not make a dent in audience attracted to the Bill O’Reilly Show, Fox’s 8:00 PM behemoth. But according to The Daily Beast, it was Schultz’s idea to move to the weekend. He still does his radio show every day, and he told his boss at MSNBC, Phil Griffin, that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, who has recently undergone treatment for ovarian cancer, at their home in Minnesota.

Ed Schultz’s replacement is no slouch—the eggheady Nation-affiliated Chris Hayes, who created a loyal following for his weekend show, Up with Chris Hayes, over the last two years. The charm of Up was that Hayes interviewed small groups of super smart people about things they had written books about, and then wowed his audience with his ability to understand everything that his guests were saying, weave it together into a narrative, and, sometimes, cut people off and referee.

Hayes is also not completely alienated from the working class. He explained to Politico that he “grew up in the Bronx,” the son of a teacher (his mother) and a community organizer (his father). In 2012, his brother worked as a paid organizer for the Obama campaign. “I come from a working-class background,” explained Hayes. “My first job was as a labor reporter for a socialist newspaper in the Midwest, called In These Times.” Hayes insists that he has a “genuine awe and admiration” for Schultz’s focus on working-class and labor issues, and he says wants to continue the conversation that Schultz started.

But Hayes has more of a challenge ahead then just paying homage to the working class. Hayes’s Up formula of intelligent conversation with learned professors, sitting Congressional representatives you’ve never heard of, and double or triple the number of women of color and/or gay and lesbian guests than we see on the other networks, might not play well in prime time. Hayes simply will not have as much time to talk, or to listen, as he did before. As Inside Cable News argued, the secret formula that made Up so great “is nontransferable.” Will Chris Hayes find a new way to be the bleeding-heart brainiac—in 47 minutes—that made Up so watchable?

Part of the problem here may be one of demographics. Did Ed Schultz attract an older, bluer-collar, and less affluent audience than Chris Hayes did? Does Hayes, with his fashionable specs, wry humor, and baby face (he’s only 34), represent the kind of affluent, college-educated viewer that MSNBC wants to attract? Is the working class in the US in decline—so much so that they are not even sought after as an audience for the only liberal cable news outlet on the dial?

Regardless, the MSNBC staff is probably scrambling over at Hayes’s new show, All In, because its ratings have not been great—worse than what Schultz used to pull in. But as political blogger Jason Easley has argued, MSNBC has “time on its side.” While FOX might continue to dominate with older, more conservative viewers, cable news viewers are getting younger, and more progressive, with every passing year.

In the meantime, if you miss your daily dose of the pro-labor grizzly bear, Ed Schultz, check out The Ed Show online or at 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday. Schultz claims he will use the freedom of his new schedule to spend more time on the road, talking to the working-class people he continues to see as his special cause. And he still starts every show with his signature tag line “Let’s Get to Work.”

Kathy M. Newman



News for the Consumer Class

It is no surprise to readers of newspapers – or readers of this blog — that newspapers contain little coverage of labor and working-class economic issues. Although I’d hesitate to say there was ever a “golden era” of labor coverage, there was a time not too long ago when newspapers regularly reported on the activities of labor unions – contract negotiations, strikes, and community activities.

The shift away from more active labor reporting came in the late 1960s, when the newspaper industry started to employ the tools of the growing consumer research industry to target “quality” demographics – that is, more upwardly mobile readers, with higher education and higher incomes.  Although we like to think of journalism as a democratic practice, by the 1970s it served only a select group of consumers.

We can track the consumer shift in newspapers in Editor & Publisher, the leading trade journal where newspapers placed advertisements to sell their audience to national advertisers. The main commercial message of U.S. newspapers in the mass-market era of pre-1970s was simple: they had lots of readers who earned good wages in America’s booming industry and could buy advertisers’ products.


For example, this Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph ad from January 6, 1940 instructed advertisers to “Hitch Your Budget to a Boom.” The indicator, according to the ad, was that “Pittsburgh industrial electric power sales are up 45%.”  The equation was simple: “More electric power means more buying power; for more electricity, used by industry, means more production, more employment, more wages, more money to spend for your products.”

By the 1970s, the Editor & Publisher ads make clear, newspapers shunned the mass working-class audience. Newspapers decided that delivering wage earners to advertisers wasn’t enough; they wanted to deliver “quality” consumers to their advertisers.

ClevePD9May70_p23You can see this new tone in an ad for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the dominant newspaper in the famously working-class city. The May 9, 1970 ad featured a drawing of a young, fashionable woman on a black and pink striped chair.  The design’s flattened image, bold color, and wavy stripes style echoed George Dunning’s 1968 animated Beatle’s film fantasy Yellow Submarine. The visual image of the ad makes a break with the past (earlier ads rarely portrayed a select group of readers visually), and the text of the ad makes the break with the Plain Dealer‘s mass readership, too: “Our readers are the first people – affluent moderns who are the first with new things for better living.  And who find where to buy them first in The Plain Dealer.”

LAHer-Ex11Apr70_insfrntFor some newspapers, like the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the afternoon competitor to the morning Los Angeles Times, the shift from its mostly working-class readership to becoming “the rich man’s newspaper” was swift. In an April 11, 1970 full-page Editor & Publisher ad – with a stereotypical “rich man” image of a suited, cufflinked, and pinky-ringed executive in a leather chair peering out from the stock exchange pages – the newspaper seemed overjoyed to target a new audience.  The ad read, in part:  “Suddenly, we find ourselves in the money. For about two years we’ve suspected a circulation shift toward richer readers. Now it’s official… This calls for a fresh look at the whole Los Angeles market.” The tagline was “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, where the money is.” (Ironically, union jobs helped to create better-compensated readers in LA and across the country.

We can see the shift to consumerism in newspaper stories, as well. By the 1970s, the tone of articles about labor began to take a consumer perspective across all the mainstream news media. For example, consumers, not workers, became the central narrative figures of strike coverage. Instead of describing strikes primarily as disagreements over collective bargaining, stories cast them as being about how strikes inconvenienced consumers– transit systems immobilized, goods in short supply, services delayed.  With the new focus on consumers, newspapers let their labor beats wither and die. Today the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are the only top newspapers in the country with a dedicated labor beat reporter.  Starting in the late 1960s, most newspapers across the country added a “workplace” columnist, who covered life in the preferred office cubicle environment, and covered topics like workplace romances, office parties, and what to wear on casual Fridays. This is the predominant kind of “workplace” coverage today.

Of course, one could argue that a lot of general news readers became television news viewers by the 1970s, which is true. But TV, which welcomed mass audiences, didn’t provide the same level of labor and working class coverage. No national news network had a dedicated labor beat reporter, and few local TV stations covered labor and working class issues on a regular basis.

The transformation of journalism’s target audience away from citizen/workers to citizen/consumers created two big “blind spots” for journalism when it comes to working-class issues. First, labor journalism is nearly nonexistent. Over the past several decades, some stories have examined the shocking levels of income inequality, but no consistent beat covers labor or working-class issues.  The occasional stories that do appear lack any sense of continuity or content.  It’s not unlike the sports pages covering the Super Bowl game, but without reporting the entire season’s worth of the games leading up to it. How could one appreciate the Super Bowl story’s magnitude?

Second, stories that do get reported often reflect a consumer point of view. Anji L. Phillips of Bradley University and I have tracked this in reports on the 2012 bankruptcy and shutdown of Hostess Brands. (We both had Hostess facilities shuttered in our communities in Iowa and Illinois.)  From a journalistic point of view, it’s a tragic and fascinating story of a major national corporation and employer. One might expect the Hostess Brands story to delve into the very checkered managerial history of Hostess, with leveraged buyouts, a slew of acquisitions, a revolving door to the CEO suite (six CEOs in a decade!), union concessions, underfunded pensions, two bankruptcies in 10 years, hedge fund investments, lax accounting, and poor product development.  In many ways, Hostess Brands could have been a story that exemplified the excesses and shortcomings of American business since the 1970s.  Instead, the main interpretive frame of the closing of Hostess Brands, and the loss of 18,500 jobs, cast it primarily as a consumer story.

I don’t fault journalists for using the Twinkie as a “hook” for getting the audience into the story (about 90 percent of the national news stories in 2012 we analyzed did this). But, I do fault journalists who made Twinkies the main frame of the story (about 50 percent of the stories did this).

The consumer framing of labor news always ends up badly for labor unions, as their position gets lost in the emphasis on consumers. For example, even though Hostess workers’ labor unions made big concessions worth $110 million a year and lost 10,000 jobs in the first bankruptcy of 2004-2009, more than 60 percent of the 2012 news stories blamed the union for the Hostess closing. From the news media framing of the story, only the union’s resistance to more contract concessions stood between consumers and a continuing supply of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos.

Given that the news will not likely change the way it’s been covering labor for the past 40 years, an alternative is for labor communicators to use the consumer frame themselves.  A big factor in success of the UPS strike of 1997 was workers leveraging their relationships with UPS consumers.  The same could have happened in the Hostess case.  Eric Blair in Labor Notes suggests how this might have worked:

At Hostess, whose products are iconic American brands loved by millions, a campaign to safeguard Twinkies from private equity vultures might have had the dual impact of winning public support for the workers and angering management by interfering in its relationship with its customers. The fact that consumers started hoarding the famous snack cakes during the Bakery workers’ strike suggests the potential.

This could be the way forward:  workers as the advocates, not enemies, of consumers.

Christopher R. Martin

Martin is Interim Head and Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa.  He is the author of Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media (Cornell University Press) and is working on a book about news media coverage of labor in the twentieth century.

This American Strife: What Happened To The Working Class In The Mike Daisey Retraction?

On March 18, the popular public-radio program This American Life issued an unprecedented retraction of the now-infamous episode in which performer Mike Daisey recounts his supposedly firsthand experiences of exploitative labor practices at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that produces Apple products.  The issue was not that Daisey had misrepresented the company’s labor practices.  Instead, the concern was Daisey’s misrepresentation of his interactions with Foxconn workers.  A full explanation of the inconsistencies in Daisey’s story and the subsequent fallout can be found in the retraction itself, in which both Daisey and TAL host Ira Glass suggest that Daisey’s theatrical untruths serve a broader existential truth, namely that Apple conceals from view the kinds of inhumane and unjust employment practices to which Daisey supposedly gives a human face.  The situation raises several issues related to the ethical standards of theater and journalism, particularly how these standards apply to depictions of the working class.

Public radiophiles have been buzzing for weeks with the revelation of these fabrications, but what has gone largely overlooked and uncommented on, despite write-ups from outlets as diverse as Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post, is how Daisey’s own business practices— the concealment of fact, the smoothing over of complexity in order to form a sleek, streamlined narrative— mirror those of the company whose exploitation he claims to have “outed.”  No doubt Apple understands the centrality of narrative to its marketing success more thoroughly and successfully than any other contemporary corporation.  Suppressing the unpleasant reality of its production practices, Apple peddles a lineup of sleek, minimalist products expressive of an existential “truth” for the consumers who buy them.  We buy iPhones, in other words, not because they have the fastest download speed or the largest screen of any phone on the market— in fact the iPhone remains stunningly behind in both of these categories— but because Apple has wrapped the phone, like all its products, in a narrative of which we want to be a part, a narrative of youth, fashionability, and cleanliness.  (It is one of the damning ironies of the company that one of the adjectives most often used to describe its products, assembled by workers who often work 24-hour shifts in dust-choked factories, is “clean.”)

While Apple conceals its outsourcing of exploitative working conditions in order for its consumers to preserve an image of themselves as socially-conscious global citizens, Daisey conceals actual working conditions in China in order to create the “clean,” streamlined narrative that we, as theatergoers and consumers, want to hear.  Daisey’s stage-performance works not because it peddles an objective glimpse behind the curtain of Apple’s business practices, but because it sells us the story of our lives that we desire, a narrative of ourselves as committed, well-meaning liberals.  Daisey’s story does implicate us in a system of social and economic exploitation, but its ultimate effect is to numb us to this complicity by reassuring us that we somehow transcend this exploitation simply by knowing about and acknowledging it.

In this respect, Daisey’s show is the theater version of the “slacktivism” that so often clutters our News Feeds with links to “KONY 2012” or Mother Jones graphs of American income distribution.  This kind of slacktivism may indeed be consciousness-raising, but it gives us a false sense that we are taking real action toward addressing the root causes of the problems these links point to.  Not only should we acknowledge the limitations of working-class slacktivism, we should also endeavor toward action in the real world of protests, picket lines, and legislation.  It is not enough, in other words, to post links in support of the working class, especially if we’re doing it using products, including the MacBook on which I write this, that undermine the sentiment behind those links; from the beginning, this kind of protest participates in the very practices it condemns.  And this is the genius of Daisey’s show, that it allows us to feel outraged— and self-righteous and angry and indignant and betrayed— but has the added bonus of permitting us to take no real action against the source of our outrage.

This is not to say that conditions at Foxconn, or at any other factory in China, are more pleasant than Daisey makes them out to be.  Workers, to cite an example from Apple’s own supplier standards, are often pressured to work 60-hour weeks on “sped-up” assembly lines at wages low enough to ensure a marginal profit for the corporations that employ them.  Between January and November 2010, a wave of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen prompted the company to install suicide-prevention netting around its buildings after 14 workers hurled themselves from the factory roofs.  And workers at an Apple factory in Turkey, who sometimes work 30-hour shifts, have been instantly fired for attempting to join a union, even after sustaining workplace injuries that could have been avoided had Apple taken basic safety precautions.  Recently, the Fair Labor Association issued its own critical report on Foxconn labor practices, noting widespread worker dissatisfaction with these kinds of abuses.

At the risk of apologizing for Apple, however, examining the intricacies of these situations— for example that thousands of workers “voluntarily” enroll at these factories, which offer some of the “best” jobs in China, or that Apple is merely one offender among thousands in a globalized system of labor abuse— requires the kind of time and detail that would disrupt the gripping narrative that Daisey constructs.  And in constructing this narrative, he misuses the working class in a manner similar to, though less severe than, Apple’s own mistreatment of its workers.  By fabricating his encounters with the workers of Shenzhen, Daisey transforms human individuals into cogs in the machine of fiction, mere characters designed to plug a hole on the assembly line of rising and falling action.

Even This American Life‘s “retraction” of the Daisey episode ends up oversimplifying, if not ignoring, the working class with which the story began.  In issuing its own quasi-apology for misleading its listeners, TAL wraps itself in the narrative we’ve always wanted to hear from our journalists, the narrative that, despite increasing pressure from a host of complicated factors, journalists continue to hold themselves to a higher standard of truth.  We need only look at the fabrications of a Jayson Blair or a Michael Olesker— or any program on Fox News for that matter— to understand how dangerous this narrative can be.

To its credit, TAL does not defend Apple, but nor does it attempt to interview a single worker at Foxconn or contextualize the experiences of those workers within the bigger picture of the globalized economy.  And while it discredits Daisey in order to prop up its own ethical stance, the show fails to point out that Daisey’s analysis remains an accurate, if mishandled, assessment of the working class both at home and abroad.  Indeed, TAL‘s apologetic hand-wringing conceals how the show utilizes Daisey and the abuses on which he “reports” to paint itself as a bastion of journalistic integrity, while ignoring, like so much American journalism, the broader systemic injustice of which those abuses are a part.  The narratives of both Daisey and Glass employ the working class, like Apple, as a mere tool to bolster each entertainer’s professional reputation.  As consumers of these narratives— and of all popular media in which workers’ voices remain suppressed, mediated, or misrepresented— we should recognize that the true narratives of the working class can only be constructed by workers themselves.

Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kempf is an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana Institute of Technology, and will be a 2012-2014 Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

A Visit to the Food Pantry

I went to visit my daughter today to the food pantry.  It’s my first time ever. It’s twenty-five degrees outside and sunny.  We arrive before 9:30 AM, already the line is fairly long leading to the three-bay garage building.  My daughter seems to be feeling her way, not really sure how to proceed.  Yesterday during our phone conversation she told me, “You sit in the car, drive   through and they load everything in your car.”  But that’s not really the way it happens.

For a long time we wait in the cold, not really moving, and she has to be at work by 11:00 AM.  She rarely calls, so I want to share the morning with her no matter what she’s doing. Regularly, my husband takes food to our small town’s pantry, but I’ve never been there.  I don’t go.  I don’t offer to work there either, and I could.  I really could.

Inside this whale’s belly my daughter and I struggle to speak.  These days everything I   say makes her feel defensive.  I believe she has depression, maybe she dislikes her life and displaced anger is not uncommon.  What mother wants to see her child’s arms flailing?  It is difficult for both of us.

My eyes are open and looking into the faces of America.  The elders are here.  Some with their scarves and hats and mittens, and others, like me, dressed wrong for this weather.  At the parking lot’s perimeter, there are odd pieces of cast-off furniture: a brown corduroy couch, loveseat, mismatched dressers, and a nice old-lady chair letting the shade sit there first and then the sun.  To our left there’s a box of knit caps – in Appalachia, we called them toboggans — for babies.  Off to the right, there’s a table of coats with a “one per family” sign printed with a black sharpie on a piece of cardboard.  A big swell of odd clothing lies on a picnic table by the shed, and folks constantly look sideways as they pick through it.  Milling around there’s a heavyset woman with her little boy in a toboggan with a red-face and camo sweatshirt, which is not nearly warm enough for this morning.  A small boy in a tan raincoat carries a pair of white tennis shoes he found on the table to his mother, and there’s a bag of broken glazed donuts being passed down the line.  Everyone is welcome to eat as many as they want.  It feels like communion.  Yes.  Our faces shine in the light, and we are, however slowly, making our way to the altar.

My daughter knows she must not miss work.  I point to the man who seems to be in charge.  I say, “Go tell him you have to go to work, and ask if I can stand for you and get the food.”

All this time she has struggled to think of things to say to me.  I’m just sort of numb.  Up since 6:00 AM, I’ve already scrubbed floors, started laundry and picked up a house suffering from clutter.  She tells me, “Did you hear about the boy on his bicycle at the lake last night?  He was hit and killed.  They are reopening Natalie Wood’s case after thirty years.”  Really?  I want to say, but I’m quiet.  Why must death always be at the center of our lives?  Last week didn’t I go to three funerals?  Wasn’t one of them a good friend to my daughter?  A good-hearted man with a terrible disease, only forty-five years old and gone

forever.  She leaves the line to speak with the man in charge.

“Let’s go Mom; I’m taking you home for a scarf and gloves.  You can get your car.  He said it’s okay for you to get the food.”  I nod and move out of line.  In silence we walk to her car.

She tells me, “I’m leaving the apartment unlocked.  These are the only keys we have.  Here’s a paper you will need to get the food.  I love you Mom, and thank you, thanks for doing this.”  A sound comes into her voice I have not heard forever, she leans over, and gives me a kiss.  “I love you,” she whispers.  “Live well,” I answer.

Now, I must remember the way back to the food pantry.  I forget one turn and wind up near the railroad tracks.  I turn around.  When I see the chicken house sign, I know I’m on the right path. But I have lost my place in line.  This is the story that keeps   happening to all of us, but didn’t I read somewhere the last shall be first?  And that white-haired man in his warm green coat, didn’t I hear him tell a tall boy wearing an orange knit hat, “Yes, yes you can stand for your grandma and your mother.”  And didn’t that boy grin at me saying, “They had to go to the car.  My grandma is old and my Mom has a neurology disease. She has MS.  She can’t stand too long.”  I saw his grandmother’s pale face under her stocking cap, watched her wobbly gait steadied on the arm of her daughter who is younger than me.

In our long line there’s not one person of color because this is the north end of our county, but I know ten miles down the road people are waiting/wanting/hoping the wind may die down and quit blowing them like leaves.  Odd sizes of baby diapers sit under a sign that says, “Please do not take for relatives or friends.” You must think only of yourself.  These are the rules for survival.  Everyone in line knows the rules, but one package of diapers doesn’t have a size marked.  Like a crystal ball, mothers lift it up and try to guess its mystery.

Against the gravel, I stomp and stomp my feet. Without thinking, I am learning this new dance.  About twenty people have arrived since I went to get my own car.  I check to be sure the paper my daughter gave me is in my pocket.  For her scarf and gloves, I am grateful.  The newcomers are mostly women.  Elderly. White hair, walkers, and canes.  Oh Lord, I think, who will carry their food inside when they get home?  I step out of line, go to the place where first we started.  “Do you remember me?  I was just here with my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Yes, I remember you.  You were with the woman in a black coat.”  And the tall boy in his orange knit cap nods and smiles.

“Well, would you mind if I step back into line here?  I have to get my mother-in-law to physical therapy by noon.”

“Sure.  Jump right back in here,” the woman replies.

A first-grade boy swings the bag of broken donuts.  He stops in front of us.  “Want a donut for a penny?” he asks.  His mop of brown hair and grin are contagious.  We start laughing. All of us.  It ripples up and down our line.  “An entrepreneur,” I comment.  The woman behind me says, “Yes.”  Our laughter and this cold, hurting air starts an old man’s chronic cough.  We watch him struggle.  We hear his phlegm rattle and somehow it chokes us all.

We are about twelve feet from the white door.  A lady in a mauve coat opens it every so often and says, “Three of you may come inside now.  Bring your numbers.”  I think of heaven. I think of all the people who must wait their turn.  People here are not grumpy.  Lord, they are pleasant.  All these volunteers who have been here for several hours setting this up and the woman with black-rimmed glasses who checks me in with her big ledger, the woman who saw my I don’t know what to do next look and leaned closer to ask me, “Is this your first time?”

“Yes, yes.  It’s my first time.  I’m here for my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Julie.  Julie Brown.”

There’s a box with note cards she thumbs.  It looks like my recipe box.  “Here she is.  Now, just find her name in the book.  Sign her name with your initials after it.  Give me your number.”  She sounds like my second grade teacher, and I do just as I’m told.

My number is four.  There are four people in my daughter’s family.  Two of them are children.  “We have another four,” a man yells to his co-workers in the back of this huge unheated garage.  And bags of food are placed into a deep plastic wheelbarrow.  My number four lies in there too.  It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot at a quarter casino machine.  A man pushes my wheelbarrow toward the produce.  Cabbage, green peppers, onions, acorn squash, apples and ten pounds of potatoes get carefully loaded.  Someone hands over a big frozen turkey, a small roast, juice drinks.  Another voice tells me to take a jug of laundry detergent.  Every voice is cheerful.  The wheelbarrow aches under its weight.  “Lead the way,” the man smiles at me.

“The tan Chevy, over there,” I say, choking on something I can not name.

His cheeks flush from the cold, and both our bifocals help us to see everything more clearly.  Together, we lift and load what has been given into my car.  “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” he says.  “God bless you, all of you,” I tell him.  Our words stir the air like church bells calling us back to something we once knew and must never forget.

Jeanne Bryner

Jeanne Bryner is a poet, a former emergency room nurse, and a community affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies

Working Labor Back into the News

In her last post, CWCS affiliate Denise Narcisse looked at the Pew Center’s latest research on the digital divide in America and noted the ways in which digital deprivation for poorer and working-class families amounts to a form of social and economic disenfranchisement.

To be sure, one of the most serious implications of the digital divide is the barriers to information lower income and working-class citizens need to fully participate in the political and social spheres of their communities and of the nation. But, even if working-class and poor Americans were to gain regular access to digital news and information sources, I wonder what kind of news and information they would find. For as traditional commercial news organizations migrate to the web, too many are replicating the structures and agendas that have elided the experiences and interests of the poor and working classes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It is certainly not news to note that commercial mainstream news media abandoned the working class quite some time ago.  The reasons for this desertion are numerous and widely cited: advertisers increasingly want to appeal to more affluent readers, reporters and editors no longer come from working-class backgrounds, and corporate media ownership encourages an ethic of business.

These factors, combined with the steady downsizing in newsrooms that began long before the crisis of competition with online news, resulted in the replacement of substantive issues stories in mainstream commercial media (the sources relied upon by most working-class people according to Nielsen) with cheap-to-produce stories about celebrities and scandals. For example, The Pew Research Center found that in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq, that Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith received more extensive coverage than the war, noting that, “During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered.”

One result of this is that Americans who rely solely on commercial media for political knowledge and hard news are being denied critical information and analyses of the national and international events that may ultimately affect their daily lives.

In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols cite a recent study by a group of communications researchers that finds Americans with a high school education or less who rely on commercial media for news, score just above the 20th percentile in political knowledge of international and right at the 40th percentile for domestic hard news, compared to the next lowest group, British news consumers, who score just above 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. For McChesney and Nichols, the data suggest that American “commercial media systems tend to marginalize the poor and working class,” endangering the very purpose of a free press system.

Furthering the disenfranchisement of the working class is the skewing of coverage of workers issues, part of the mainstream media pursuit of an affluent consumer base designed to appeal to advertisers.

McChesney and Nichols cite Christopher Martin’s benchmark analysis, Upscale News Audiences and the Transformation of Labour News, which documents the emergence of news coverage targeted at an “upscale” readership, in which he charts the shift in labor coverage in the U.S. and Canada evidenced by content analyses of coverage of transportation strikes in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. Martin chronicles the movement in news accounts of the strikes from accounts of legitimate disputes between workers and management to tales of inconveniences suffered by the majority of consumers using transportation services. For Martin, this reconfiguration of news is related to the increasing consolidation of media and its adoption of the practices and ethic of big business, and this adoption is apparent in the narrative frames, and even in the language, in which the strikes are presented, notably in the commonplace phrasing that management makes “offers” while unions make “demands” or, as Mc Chesney and Nichols observe, “Poor and working-class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people” (51).

And, while the burgeoning economy of online news sites and blogs has led to increased awareness of working-class lives and struggles (as evidenced by this site) these issues often remain relegated to specialized sites and targeted user searches. Many mainstream sites still foreground the business beat at the expense of the labor beat and the former rarely represents the interests of the latter in a way different from what Martin describes. And too often, when working-class people are featured in mainstream accounts, they serve as anecdotes or catchy narrative leads to pave a colorful path to the “experts,” the real sources for the story.

There are of course, exceptions. Some excellent examples of stories that chronicle the lives and issues of working class Americans have emerged in the major dailies, particularly since the start of the Great Recession. Anne Hull of the Washington Post has written about the struggles of working class Americans with precision and detail, and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports on the complexities of labor, economics and politics in a way that connects policies with people.

Yet, with the opportunities of the internet and the demand for news organizations to reinvent themselves comes the opportunity for the profession to further rediscover its working-class roots and mission– if news producers can see both a means and a benefit for undoing the damage, for as John Nerone notes in a 2009 article for Journalism:

The past half-century of neglect leaves a lot to overcome: the media have worked hard to encourage ordinary people to think of themselves as consumers rather than as workers, and to regard any overt appeal to the working class as not just biased but old, dreary, and boring.

Nerone believes, however, that there exists potential for news organizations to reconnect to their working-class readers, and that because traditional filters and gatekeepers are falling away in the new media economy, that such a reconnection is not only possible but beneficial, because in today’s economy, more and more people self-identify as workers. Indeed, with the most recent Labor Department data showing that 80 percent of the economy is tied to the service sector, Nerone may be on to something.

If news outlets continue to try to rely on advertising for revenue, which Nerone believes is probable, but McChesney and Nichols do not, then in theory, news sites can rely on advertisers who now recognize the importance of reaching the working-class, an appealing proposition, particularly for local news outlets, which many agree might be best positioned to carve out a niche in the online economy. In fact, People magazine has recently begun developing stories about working class people, telling CWCS co-director John Russo, that they understand that most of their readers are working class women.

Endorsing this rather optimistic view, Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review lists the five most important beats for a local newspaper/newssite, and included in this list is the Labor Beat:

We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?

For both Niles and Nerone, the resurgence of the labor/work beats would, at a local level, help to refranchise working class news consumers. And, if these stories were done in a way that explains the relationship between state, national, and international policies and the everyday lives of the working citizens, news sites could do much to return to the mission of journalism and to remedy the deficits in democratic participation.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies