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

The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

In a semi-sympathetic article about unions organizing professional workers, a Chicago Tribune/Los Angeles Times reporter last month provided the following, colossally wrong, picture of American workers: “Professionals account for 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 15 percent in 1977.”

It’s true that “professional and related occupations” have grown a lot in the past 35 years when they were, as reported, about 15% of the workforce.  But today they are about 22% of the entire workforce (including part-time workers) and 24% of full-time workers – not 62% or anywhere close to that!

If nearly 2/3rds of all U.S. jobs were “professional” – with its connotations of well-paid autonomy at work, requiring high levels of education — the median annual salary of American workers would be in the $50,000 range instead of the $30,000 range.  And that would mean that income inequality would be dramatically reduced – from the top 10% getting half of all adjusted gross income now to them getting maybe only a quarter.  It would also be likely that 2/3rds of the adult population would have bachelor’s degrees vs. less than 1/3rd now, and it would mean that many more entry-level jobs would require that degree.  Now only 20% of jobs require a bachelor’s and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that isn’t going to change much in the next decade.

In other words, this report turns the American job structure upside down.  Michael Zweig’s most recent analysis of occupations, for example, finds that The Working Class Majority is now 63%, slightly larger than a decade ago.

This is a huge reporting error, and it’s clear in the context that it was not a typo.  I emailed the reporter, calling attention to the error, but haven’t heard back, and there has been no printed correction.   Factual misreporting like this occurs all the time in American newspapers, especially at second-tier outfits like the Tribune. Economist Dean Baker provides a delightfully smart-ass (and clear) daily blog, Beat the Press, that calls attention to errors of fact and reasoning in the top tier of newspapers – and he is never at a loss for material.  But there is often a pattern to these errors, one that reflects the limited worldview and social experience of both reporters and the “upscale” audiences advertisers encourage them to address.

Though I have rarely seen numerical misreporting of this sort, most mainstream and elite discussion of “the knowledge economy,” its “knowledge workers,” and “the creative class” clearly assumes this kind of disproportionate misunderstanding of the jobs most Americans actually do.  Likewise, President Obama’s repetitive (and uncontested) insistence on the need for everybody to go to college so they can do “the jobs of the 21st Century” must be based on a similar misunderstanding.  (For more detail on this see previous Working-Class Perspectives blogs by Sherry Linkon and me.)

The conspiracy-minded could make a good argument, I think, that our elite opinion-makers and leading politicians are deliberately lying to us in order to flood the labor market with college-educated workers who can then be paid less and bossed around more because their supply is so much greater than the demand for them.   But the scope and scale of such a conspiracy makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.     My guess is that the spectacular magnitude of this particular reporting error reflects the increasingly extreme class segregation of American life – not only in residential life, as dramatically documented in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, but in social interaction and experience.  Besides, it is almost comforting to think that our ruling class and its elite professional middle-class opinion-makers actually know the truth and are hiding it from us — rather than to realize that the captains and crew of the ship of state are navigating with such a faulty map of the actually existing American people and the work we do.

How could they, the “data-driven” best and brightest, be so woefully misguided?  Here’s my guess:

Imagine the children of two professional workers – a doctor and lawyer, for example, or a university professor and an accountant – who go to one of the many excellent public schools in the dozens of affluent (not rich-richy, just comfortably “middle class”) suburbs around most American cities.  Their highly dedicated parents schedule them for a wide variety of activities that cultivate social and cultural skills while insisting on their getting good grades in school.  These children, both the” over-achievers” and the just-plain-achievers, then go on to one of the better colleges and universities, which are populated for the most part by the offspring of professional workers from affluent suburbs like theirs.   Assuming they have done well in college, upon graduation these young people get entry-level professional jobs from which they launch careers that, like their parents, are both high stress and high reward.   After some years enjoying life in the city, they marry, have children and move to a suburb with an excellent public school.

This may be a bit of a caricature, but it is by no means uncommon.  Even adding some complexity, it will be very difficult for such people, particularly the high-achievers among them, to understand that America is mostly populated with people who are very unlike them.  Yes, there may have been working-class and even poor kids in their high school or at college, but they are a relatively small minority.  Likewise, at work they are aware of clerical workers and maybe even the janitorial staff as they leave work in the evening, but that’s not where their focus is as they go about their daily work routine.   At restaurants and in other leisure activities, they interact with non-professional workers, but they hardly notice the ones who are not directly serving them.   Everything in their lives fosters the illusion that their lives are “typical” or “normal” and that poorly paid nonprofessional workers who get bossed around are a small and declining group.

These professionals may be conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats.  They may be arrogant, self-absorbed, status-anxious climbers or large-spirited, generous and even nurturing leaders and mentors who do volunteer work among “the less fortunate.”  But what is there in their lives – in their direct observation and experience – that would challenge the idea that we are a “knowledge economy” full of well-educated knowledge workers?   And if they were a reporter, a copy editor, or a well-educated reader of the daily press, what would make them slap their heads in disbelief at the idea that a substantial majority of American workers are “professionals” like them?   Not much – and especially when our elite institutions of cultural production and reproduction (media, universities, politicians and their staffs) are peopled by folks with similar life trajectories who naturally recycle and confirm these professional notions of their own disproportionality.

Zweig’s The Working Class Majority is subtitled America’s Best Kept Secret, and despite the substantial attention the book received more than a decade ago, its recent new edition justifiably retained that subtitle.   But it and all the other work of Working-Class Studies are up against formidable cultural odds.  If the captains and crew of our ship of state are navigating with a terribly faulty map of who we are and what we do, only a large-scale and sustained mutiny can break through the professional bubble.  Hopefully, the newly protesting Walmart retail and warehouse workers and the spreading intermittent strikes of fast-food workers may be the beginnings of such a mutiny.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies


Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

The Creative Class Joins the Working-Class

How is the so-called creative class faring in the ongoing economic crisis?  In three books published in the first decade of this century, Richard Florida argued that America’s future lay in metropolitan regions with a high density of “sexually diverse,” cultural, professional, and high-tech workers whose creativity would attract capital and spur future economic development. Recently, in articles in magazines like and The Atlantic, critics have been debating whether the creative class is undergoing the same economic transformations as the working class.

 Undaunted by the economic crisis and the subsequent, continuing jobless recovery, Florida continues to suggest that the answer to post-industrialization lies in the continued migration of the so-called creative class to a few cosmopolitan urban areas. The transformation in economic geography would produce winners and losers both individually and regionally based on the ability of communities to develop and attract human capital. His Martin Prosperity Institute has contributed to a report ranking nations on the basis of their investment in innovation and technology.  Of course, all of this reflects Florida’s neo-liberal view that such changes are part of the “natural economic order,” and he has consistently attempted to normalize the new emerging economic order.

But despite Florida’s claims, the creative class is not necessarily winning in the current economy.  Like industrial workers before them, they are being affected by the past 30 years of neo-liberal economic reforms characterized by deregulation, marketization, and liberal trade policy that yielded significant corporate profits from the subcontracting, outsourcing, and the casualization of work in unskilled and semi-skilled industries. As the past decade has made clear, corporations and governments have used those same strategies to make employment for skilled workers, including those in the “knowledge industries,” increasingly precarious.

This has been aided by a different model and language of work, drawn from the so-called “creative industries” — those areas where employees, often in the arts and more recently higher education, were willing to give up stable employment in hierarchical organizations and embraced – or at least accepted – contingent employment involving self-directed, entrepreneurial, and cognitive labor. Florida provided much of the language and rationale for that shift, and his ideas had an significant impact on public discussions of economic development and urban renewal. Further, his view had great currency with the growing ranks of mobile, privileged, educated workers who were willing to embrace the high-risk/high reward employment/worker model.

But Florida had relatively little to say about the real working lives of members of the creative class and the changing organization of work produced by the changes he predicted. In fact, as Scott Timberg argues in, the new creative class now shares the same working conditions as many on the other end of the labor market, especially those in the service sector that makes up the majority of today’s working class.  These conditions include uncertainty, temporary or intermittent employment, working in multiple jobs, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified.  Creative workers, like many in the working class, are isolated from protective legal employment laws and are less likely to have benefits such health insurance, retirement plans, or paid sick leave. Put differently, young educated people, so popularly identified with the creative class, are suffering the same conditions as working and middle class families and could become what Business Week reporter Peter Coy has called a Lost Generation.

As work has eroded and become more episodic, not only does the creative class share the economic conditions of the working class, that group also now shares the working-class’s sense of alienation from American politics and antagonism toward the economic elite who have gained so much ground over the last decade. You need to look no further than the growth of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  On the streets of New York and in cities around the country, you see highly educated  young adults joining with displaced working- and middle-class people who believe the American Dream has become nightmare. They have been joined by public and private union members including 300 airline pilots marching in full dress uniform. All are rallying around their shared position as part of the 99% of Americans – a loose coalition much larger and more diverse than any single class.

What brings them together is a politics of resentment that is fueled by growing understanding and anger over the increasing economic inequality in the U.S.  While OWS has focused on Wall Street and government plutocrats, it is expanding and multiplying like an amoeba, in different directions politically and geographically. The issues driving people to occupy not only Wall Street but Public Square in Cleveland and a public park in Kansas City and a dozen other locations are not identical.  Each local group works independently, and they are focusing on issues ranging from the economy and war to agricultural and environmental policy,

As Kathy Newman said in Working-Class Perspectives last week, one of the great things about the OWS movement is its inclusivity. This should not be unexpected. Like the many middle class Americans, the creative class now shares the employment and economic conditions of working people and has shed their sense of difference and superiority over the working class. They now understand that despite the façade of self-direction and creativity, their economic position is every bit as uncertain and unfair as that of many retail, food service, and health care workers.  Just where this new amoeboid politics of resentment goes is anybody’s guess. But we can hope that it will become even more directed at those who are responsible for shaping the current national and global economic conditions that has now engaged and enraged so many people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Movin’ on Down: CMT addresses the Working Class

Country Music Television (CMT) aired a new sitcom last Friday, January 28th, to voluminous pre-media coverage—most of it positive.  It is called, surprisingly, Working Class, and it stars blonde amazon Melissa Peterman as Carli Mitchell, a twice-divorced mom with three children whose slacker (yet metrosexual) brother lives with her as well.  She works at an upscale grocery store (a lá Whole Foods) with the incomparable Ed Asner —  a long-time real-life Socialist and everyone’s favorite crusty boss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Peterman had her last starring role was the “other woman” on the Reba McEntire’s single-mom sitcom Reba.  She is definitely the best thing about the show. She has something almost Sarah-Palin-like in her way with words:  she can deliver withering sarcasm with an apple-pie smile, and she can be, at once, blustery, confident, mildly desperate, and disarmingly appealing.

Carli works at the deli counter of a grocery store, so she probably earns about $10.00 an hour, which cashes out to about $21,000 year.  Can she really support three kids and her younger brother in the suburbs of Chicago on $21,000 a year?  Especially if her ex-husbands are as deadbeat as she suggests?  $22,050 is the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.  Perhaps this show should have been called Working Poor?

Of course, we don’t look for realism from our sitcoms, but we do hope for funny.  There is a lot of economically driven humor in the first three episodes.  In the opening scene, for example, Carli surreptitiously waters down a gallon of milk while leading her children in a bowed head “gratefulness visualization” exercise.  When her son catches her he complains, “Hey, I’m a growing boy.”  She retorts, “Well, stop, we can’t afford it.”

The most relevant series of economic jokes take place in the second episode, when Carli’s oldest son has to make an emergency trip to the dentist.  At first she tries to talk him out of his pain: “My insurance doesn’t kick in at the store for another month.  Is it really that bad?”  Her son replies:  “It hurts to blink.”  She then tries to pay for the fillings with a check that she post dates for 2012.  The deadpan African American dental assistant/office manager says:  “I can’t accept this.  Even though you wrote ‘please’ in the memo line.”  Carli begs:  “Do you have some kind of payment plan?”  “Yes.  The dentist performs the service.  You pay.  That’s the plan.”

The least funny jokes are those about sex and sexuality, like when Hank Greziak (Asner) leers at Carli while she towers over him, or  when the dentist who makes unbearable puns tries to exchange his dental services for sex with Carli.  These jokes suggest that Carli’s best chances at social mobility will probably come from how she uses her sexuality.  In the first two episodes she turns down a marriage proposal from a financially stable high school chum as well as a less permanent arrangement offered by the goofy dentist.  In the third episode her dead-beat ex-husband shows up loaded with gifts that he was able to buy with the bank account of his new bride:  an oil magnate played by Reba McEntire.  They even buy Carli a new bed.  The suggestion is clear:  in order to move up Carli is probably going to have to spend some time on her back.

Does the show have any genuine working class roots?  The show’s creator, Jill Cargerman, argues that she created the show from the wellspring of class resentment that she harbored while growing up in a Chicago suburb.  “‘My mother moved us to [Chicago’s] northern suburbs,’ she says.  ‘Very much as Carli does in the show, to give us the advantages of the schools and the community and the community support that we hadn’t — that she hadn’t had growing up….It seemed like everyone else had more than we did, and only now do I realize that I was probably a little bit of a brat and that my mom was kind of a hero.”

At its worst, Working Class is a Reagan-era “couch and kitchen” sitcom.  One preview quipped,  “It’s kinda like ‘Roseanne,’ only more Republican.” And if that ragged couch in Carli’s living room looks familiar it may be because the pilot for the show was filmed using cast-offs of from Hollywood’s dumpsters.  As New York Times reporter Joe Rhoades explains, “In an even more radical cost-cutting move [CMT Senior Vice President] Mr. Johnson did not order full pilots for the CMT sitcom scripts — all domestic comedies — he was considering, including ‘Working Class.’ After reading 350 scripts and deciding on the 4 he liked best, he ordered second scripts of each show and then, instead of pilots, shot what amounted to 15-minute screen tests with prospective casts, using leftover sets from failed pilots that other networks were about to throw out — interchangeable living rooms and kitchens — where actors from all four shows could shoot their scenes.”  The show does feel a bit scrapped together. Only the quality of the show’s stars (especially Peterman and Asner) allow it to rise above the predictable treacle of the genre.

While most critics writing before the debut of Working Class last Friday found the show to be funny and timely, others, like TV critic Matt Roush, were decidedly negative:  “Playing off the nostalgic vibe that worked for TV Land’s silly sleeper hit Hot in Cleveland, but working with a much emptier hand, Working Class is intended mainly for exhausted working stiffs willing to kick back on a Friday night with something that already feels like a rerun. They have my sympathy.”

CMT does have “working stiffs” in its sights.  As CMT Senior Vice President Ben Johnson explained, CMT’s audience consists of mostly “C and D counties,” or, in advertising speak, rural areas with population concentrations of 40,000 or less.  Johnson also called the CMT audience “working class” and “blue collar.”

Why is this interesting?  If there is one place where the myth of a “classless” America is completely busted it is in the demographic mapping departments of Madison Avenue.  When it comes to advertising and marketing the language about class is blunt; class divides are honestly discussed and minutely tracked.  Of course, no one ever advertises to a working class demographic with the hope of making those viewers more class conscious, but isn’t it bizarre that if we want a frank picture of how much Americans make per year, what they buy, what kind of mobility they might have and how they see themselves—that Madison Avenue and Hollywood can provide us with some of our most reliable data sets?

I close with a plea to Working Class to use more of Ed Asner.  When he gets to be biting and sarcastic (as opposed to lecherous and gnome-like) he is a joy to watch.  He is an interesting choice for the show since he is certainly not beloved by the Tea Party wing of the CMT audience.  Numerous right wing websites have attacked Asner for his outspokenness on Socialism and other progressive issues.

But if Working Class takes off, it may be because it can appeal to a broad spectrum of people who work for a living and who, like me, are stunned by how much food our kids can plow through in a week, who ask our dentists for payment plans (like I did last week), and who struggle to make ends meet on far more than $22,000 a year.  The question of our current era may not be can we preserve the middle class, but can we prevent the working class from becoming the working poor?  And, as we know, there is nothing funny about that.

Kathy M. Newman