Category: From Center for Working-Class Studies

Class and the Dignity of Work

By Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

In the week before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown announced his “Dignity of Work” tour, with events in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and his home state, Ohio. The tour placed the working class at the center of Brown’s potential bid for the U.S. presidency in 2020. The legacy of King’s unwavering support for workers and unions lies at the center of Brown’s message, as Brown makes clear by quoting King on his website: “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”

Deep springs refresh the enduring idea that work has dignity, a source that could inspire workers to stop the relentless assaults on their lives and their labor. While we may not think of “dignity” as a religious concept, it has many familiar religious and theological dimensions that resonate with how many workers think about their work and their own work ethic. Brown’s message draws not only on Reverend King but also on his mother’s Lutheran faith and Pope Francis’s emphasis on the dignity of labor.

At the heart of these ideas is an understanding of work as a calling.  As King said, just before the more familiar claim that no work is insignificant, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” The idea that work is a “calling” is rooted in Martin Luther’s Reformation idea that all workers have a vocation, and that God places everyone in a station in which they undertake their labor. This defines work as not just a product of an economic arrangement but as central to the created order. These ideas about work, which we can trace through the half-millennium journey from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., may echo through much of the next presidential campaign.

But however we might welcome attention to the dignity of work, this way of talking about work does not directly address the precarious character of the contemporary workplace in this age of automation, outsourcing, “gig” employment, deregulation, and union busting. Brown’s potential candidacy will not reach uprooted workers if it does not reckon with the unrepentantly neoliberal economy in which this work occurs. Merely repeating the phrase “dignity of work” without thoroughly upholding the dignity of workers risks romanticizing work to the peril of those who actually perform it.

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Blaming Workers Again

By John Russo and Sherry Linkon

Working-class people often get blamed for their troubles. They should have planned better, been less demanding, or just been smarter. Those are just some of the judgments that surfaced again in the weeks after General Motors’ announcement late in November that it would close five plants in the U.S. and Canada, leaving thousands of workers without jobs.

While some expressed concern for the soon-to-be displaced autoworkers, many were quick to point fingers. One person commenting on the Washington Post’s story about the announcement wrote that the autoworkers, many of whom had voted for Trump, “deserve what they get.  To fall for the simplemindedness and con-man character of a Trump makes sympathy hard to muster.” Callers on National Public Radio’s 1A  wondered why GM workers hadn’t realized that their jobs were not secure. How could they be so foolish? Others complained that the workers should have been better prepared. Why hadn’t they gone to college or pursued training for some other kind of working-class job?

That blame extended to working-class communities: why hadn’t distressed rust belt and rural communities diversify their local economies, as Pittsburgh or Cleveland had done so successfully? Others suggested that workers should move to where the jobs are. As Eduardo Porter suggested in a  New York Times op-ed about how to address the decline in rural communities, instead of trying to save dying towns, the government should implement policies to help people move to cities with better economic opportunities.

After two decades of tracking both the social costs of deindustrialization and American discourse about the working class, we found all of this beyond frustrating. In the Youngstown area (where we live part of the year), workers at the nearby GM Lordstown plant knew that their jobs were at risk, because the company had already laid off two shifts. But they remained hopeful. While some may have believed President Trump, who told his supporters in Youngstown that the jobs lost when GM laid off its first shift in January 2017 that those jobs would be coming back. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house,”others thought that GM had an obligation to American taxpayers and to its workers. GM is profitable today because of a Federal bailout and state tax abatements, not to mention union concessions that lowered labor costs.

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Middle-Class Influence vs. Working-Class Character

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Retired Professor of Humanities, Roosevelt University in Chicago

“Jesse” is one of a cohort of 80 students sociologist Jessica Calarco observed from the 3rd through the 5th grades and then revisited in middle school for her new book, Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.  Calarco also interviewed the students’ parents. Her research reveals that middle-class children practice “strategies of influence” in school because their parents prioritize academic success, while working-class kids generally follow “strategies of deference” because their parents care more about developing long-term character.

In middle school Jesse lost a homework packet and simply accepted a “0” grade when the assignment was due.  Several weeks later his mother found the packet and made Jesse complete it.  When Jesse turned it in, his teacher “firmly, and a bit incredulously” returned the packet ungraded, saying: “It’s a little too late for that now.  I mean, that [assignment] was like a month ago.”  Here’s how Calarco describes Jesse’s reaction:

Jesse does not look up.  He nods slowly, but he keeps his shoulders hunched forward and his head low.  As Ms. Cartwright heads back to her desk, Jesse glances up at me, his face and shoulders heavy with resignation.  He murmurs quietly, almost sadly: ‘It wasn’t to get a better grade.  It was to make me a better person.’

Jesse later explained to Calarco that his mother had told him to complete the late assignment not to improve his grade but because it was the right thing to do – “to work hard and take responsibility for his actions.”

Jesse is from a working-class family, and Calarco recounts in heart-breaking detail how the working-class kids she observed are disadvantaged in grade school by their inability and unwillingness to push teachers to give them more time on a test, help them with answers, and allow them to turn in homework late. Middle-class kids, on the other hand, often treat teachers’ instructions as but opening statements in a game of negotiating that these kids become amazingly good at as early as the 4th grade.

According to Calarco, middle-class kids are taught to question and negotiate with the authority of their teachers, who are there to serve and help them. They learn that children should ask for help and seek  special accommodations when they need them.  Working-class kids, conversely, are taught to defer to teachers, to do what they’re told, and not to burden teachers with unnecessary questions but to work out their problems on their own.

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Real Government Help for Working-Class People

By Michelle M. Tokarczyk
Professor, Goucher College

When I graduated college in 1975, the U.S. was in the midst of a recession, and New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy.  As a student, I’d commuted to Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx from my parents’ house, and I was eager to support myself and get experience in teaching or writing. While I came close to landing a position that fit my background in English and sociology, I  lost to another candidate and never found a good job. Then the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), which  had been signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, enacted a new provision that created jobs in the CUNY system (which served primarily working-class and first-generation students). Lehman College hired approximately 50 college graduates from around the state, including me. It was the equivalent of a WPA for the college-educated.

I’d worked since I was 17, but working full-time in a reading center was my first full-time professional job. I learned how to ask questions and give input rather than just follow directions. I learned how to evaluate students’ needs. . And I was paid a living wage with benefits that allowed me to move out of my parents’ house. After one year, I resigned from my CETA position, and the program itself expired after a couple of more years.  But it helped me develop professional skills, and it convinced me that I really wanted to become a college professor – and that’s what I did.

In my work today,  I see the challenges my students face after graduation. While some have landed jobs in their fields, others have faced long periods of unemployment and even longer periods of underemployment, the all-too-familiar story of post-recession young people. But unlike in the 1970s, there are no government programs designed to address their needs. And this is especially important for graduates from working-class families.  Their degrees don’t neutralize class privilege.  While the data on underemployment and wage gaps tends to focus on black graduates and women, often ignoring class as a category, graduates from working-class backgrounds – across races and genders – encounter significant economic challenges.

Some lack the social capital that opens professional doors for many more privileged graduates. Hard work is often not enough; networking is likely more effective than sending resumes to monster.com. Working-class students did not grow up among professionals, so they may be uncomfortable in interviews or at recruiting events. And they might not feel comfortable with – or have access to — professional style. The only white-collar workers I knew were secretaries, and I didn’t realize that by dressing like them I was presenting myself as less than professional.

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The Royal Family and Their Working-Class Fans

Sarah Attfield Center for Working-Class Studies

With babies, engagements, and impending weddings, the media have a never-ending supply of stories about the British royal family. While most focus on the younger members, the Queen is never too far away. Various anniversaries are marked with pomp and circumstance, and commentators speculate about what will happen when the Queen passes away (or abdicates). Television dramas feature the royals, too. The life of the young Queen Victoria has been fictionalized in Victoria, and the Netflix hit The Crownfocuses on the life of Elizabeth II from her marriage onwards.

Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, I encountered the royal family every day. We learnt all about the kings and queens at school, and each school assembly we sang the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. Portraits of the Queen hung in every official space, and around each corner of London was a royal reference – streets  named after monarchs, pubs called the ‘King’s Head’ or the ‘Royal Standard’. We went on school excursions to Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge on the edge of Epping Forest, where the guide explained that the magnificent wooden staircase in the lodge had been wide enough for the queen to ride her horse up the stairs. We were suitably impressed. As a very young child, I was taken to the Tower of London to marvel at the Crown Jewels and to watch the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Many people in my neighbourhood were big fans of the royals. They would comment favorably on the Queen’s latest hat or praise Princess Anne for being so ‘hard working’. My mother loved to tell us about meeting the Queen and Prince Phillip during her time in the Women’s Royal Airforce (she worked as a switchboard operator in the 1950s), and she was immensely proud of her inclusion in the Queen’s Coronation parade in 1953 (she appears for a few seconds in some of the newsreel footage). All of this impressed on me the importance of the royal family, and like many working-class children, I was uncritical and unquestioning.

In 1977, Britain celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne) with street parties and bunting galore. My public housing estate organized a free concert and party for the residents, most of whom joined in, wearing red, white, and blue and waving tiny paper flags. It was at this party that I had a revelation. Before the concert started, a resident placed a stereo speaker in their apartment window and played the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ at full blast. This song had been banned from the airwaves, but everyone knew about it because it had been featured in newspapers and on TV news. Standing there in my red, white, and blue outfit, I suddenly saw through the charade. We were celebrating the Queen’s reign on a public housing estate – how far from her life style could we be? From that moment on, I was cynical about the royal family, questioned their purpose, and later (as a political teen) saw them as representing the massive inequality I witnessed all around me.

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Becky and the Grind

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author

Becky’s aunt had given her $300 to catch up on her electric bill so the power would not be turned off in her apartment.  But when Aunt Millie checked with the electric company, the outstanding bills had not been paid.  Becky had spent the $300 on something else, maybe something more important than electric power, but probably not.  Regardless, Becky had lied to Aunt Millie and, thus, had crossed a moral Rubicon that raised doubts about whether her extended family would provide any future financial assistance, which she often needed.  Worse, it was a huge lapse in her usually fierce self-respect and familial reliability.   As aunts and uncles talked it over, they debated “cutting her off” vs. “how to get her turned around.”

Now in her late thirties, Becky had grown up poor and had struggled since she got pregnant in high school, but for most of her life she had been exemplary in turning her lemons into lemonade.   In better times and in a better place, her exertions and street-wise savvy would have been enough to get her a better life.  She had finished high school while raising her daughter and working a variety of low-wage jobs, some requiring a 90-minute commute on a string of buses.  Her daughter, now in college on a scholarship and loans, had been the center of her life, and she had been a mother we all admired for her grit and determination – her gutsy interventions in schools and the various bullshit jobs she endured.  Her latest job, however, had been as an off-the-books home care worker for an elderly man to whom she got very attached; when he died recently, she had to do her grieving while being unemployed and ineligible for unemployment compensation.  Worse, she had injured her shoulder lifting the old man from bed to chairs and back again, and now she needed an operation that Medicaid would pay for, but she wouldn’t be able to work for months while she recovered.

Becky’s own mother and father, now separated, were both too poor to be much help financially, though they tried to help out in various ways when they could.  Collectively the extended family had the means to help Becky fill some of the gaps for a while, but they might not do that if they couldn’t count on her to keep her word and do what she had promised.  The aunts and uncles had seen others of Becky’s generation fall under the weight of the daily grind of working dead-end jobs that didn’t pay enough to reliably put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  One wrong move and you could fall into a downward spiral of cascading personal and financial problems.  Just the threat of living on that edge was stressful enough to drive many into alcohol and drugs for temporary relief – which, of course, always made things worse, making multiple wrong moves more likely, if not inevitable.   Becky’s brother, for example, had pretty much succumbed to the grind a few years after high school, and how he gets by now nobody wants to know.

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Have Ohio Democrats Learned Anything About the Working Class?

John Russo Visiting Researcher, Writer, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University

In presidential elections, Ohio has long been a swing state. Its voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, then swung right in 2016 to support Donald Trump. On the state level, however, Republicans have dominated for the past two decades. Only partly due to gerrymandering, they have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats hold only nine of the 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and only a third of the 99 seats in the Ohio House. Republicans have also held the governorship for all but four years since 1990. Progressive U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, now seeking his third term, remains the only Democratic candidate to consistently win statewide elections.

Why has the Democratic Party lost so much ground in Ohio? To a large extent, it’s because they have lost the support of white working-class voters.

As in other Rust Belt states, a majority of Ohio voters are white people without college degrees. Fully 55 percent of the state’s voters belong to this demographic, while only 31 percent are white and college educated. In the polling booth, the gap between those with and without higher education has steadily increased, according to pollster Ruy Texiera. To win in Ohio, he argues, Democrats must “find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.”

After two decades of losses, you might think that the Ohio Democratic Party would have figured that out. But for the most part, it has not. Instead, the current crop of Democratic candidates has focused on critiques of Trump, Kasich, and the Ohio legislature. They’ve raised concerns about gerrymandering and voter suppression, the opioid crisis, Ohio’s pitiful record on women’s issues, and the almost uniformly bad performance of for-profit charter schools. Valid concerns all, but the Democrats running for office in 2018 have offered almost nothing in the way of concrete economic platforms.

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Budgets and Values: How Republican Cuts to College Loan Forgiveness Will Harm the Working-Class

Tim Francisco Director, Center for Working-Class Studies

This summer, a Pew Research report attracted significant attention in media, policy, and academic circles because it revealed that for the first time, a majority of conservative Republicans believe college is hurting our country. The report reflects a political climate that is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-institutional. While it may not be surprising, the poll suggests that college and class are becoming increasingly stratified and polarized in our national conversations and in public policy.

According to the study’s authors, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year.” The number of Republicans without a college degree who believe universities help America dropped 20 percentage points in just the last two years. The decline for Republicans with a degree was 11 percent. That’s a point worth repeating: this dramatic decline occurred over a period of only two years – about the life cycle of the presidential primaries and campaign, and it appears among both college educated and non-college educated respondents. It is striking that this trend does not apply to Democrats, 72 % of whom say universities are good for the country.

This study has spawned many debates and analyses over what the findings mean. Is this a reaction to highly publicized free speech struggles on campuses that have become a staple of conservative media? Or is it due to presidential candidates’ escalating anti-intellectualism? Or does it stem from increasing college costs and debt with little certainty of economic return? I’d argue that all of these causes contribute.

A more important question is this: how might this pervasive Republican anti-higher education sentiment shape policy, and what consequences might this have for working-class college students and other vulnerable populations?

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The Precariat: Why a Basic Income is Vital

Guy Standing Research Associate, University of London

We are in the midst of a global transformation orchestrated by powerful financial interests espousing an ideology of market liberalisation, commodification, and privatisation. The global market system they advocate increases economic and social injustice, including widespread precarity. In the face of this transformation, how can we create new systems of regulation, distribution, and social protection to achieve a more just society?

Central to the transformation has been the owners’ control of physical, financial, and intellectual property from which they overwhelmingly benefit. Unlike the post-war period when shares of income going to capital and labour were roughly stable, in today’s globalised economy, the income distribution system has broken down irretrievably and the share of rentier capital – that is, income from rents, trusts, and subsidies rather than production or trade — has risen sharply.

This economic transformation has enormous implications for a growing class, the precariat. I define this group as a class because it has distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution, and relations to the state. And it is the precariat that will define the counter-movement in the global transformation.

The precariat faces a life of unstable, insecure labour. As we have seen with Uber, Task Rabbit, and other new non-traditional work structures, casualization has been extended by indirect labour relations in the ‘concierge economy’, while online crowd labour in platform capitalism and on-call contracts has spread. Within the next decade, a majority of transactions may be of this type, as labour brokers and apps become more ubiquitous. The old relations of production, built around direct employer-employee relationships, may become the exception.

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Equal Opportunity Is Not Enough

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author

We middle-class professionals are a crafty bunch, especially our intellectual elite.  One of our cagiest moves recently involves our expressions of concern about increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  While eloquently expressing how guilty we feel about our privilege, we never come close to suggesting that some money be moved around.  “Redistribution” is either not in our vocabulary or “something we need to discuss,” which is our standard way of ending discussion by putting it off to an indefinite future.  But our craftiest move is how we routinely slip and slide in our discussion of the inequality of money (which is what income and wealth are) into ways to improve equality of opportunity.

Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It is a reductio ad absurdum of this crafty slip sliding, but Reeves makes two important contributions.  First, he widens the target from the top 1% to the top 20% of households.  Second, he inadvertently demonstrates the absurdity of applying equality of opportunity to income classes and of understanding social mobility as simply about equalizing opportunities to be in that top 20%.  Worse, though a generous soul gently tweaking our class privilege, Reeves ends up recommending that the primary solution to equalizing opportunities is for our class to improve “human capital development” in the working class, including “home visiting to improve parenting”!

As misguided as I think Reeves is, Dream Hoarders is well worth reading because he pulls together a lot of recent research on how professional-middle-class privilege is being passed on across generations to such a degree that the U.S. has become an “hereditary meritocracy.”  In doing so, he shifts the focus from merely the top 1% of households whose average income tops $1.6 million to a much larger group ranging down to $121,000 a year (in 2016).  This is the top 25 million households, whom he rightly says are “the single most dangerous constituency to anger” because we are “wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting bloc.”  While often humorously chiding his own behavior, he shows the wide range of ways middle-class professionals use our social and cultural capital to improve the chances of our children and grandchildren ending up in that top 20%.

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Union Matters

A Billionaire with a Truly Bottom-Line Moral Code

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Some advice for billionaire investment fund manager Tom Barrack: Don’t give any more lectures on morality. Last Tuesday, this long-time Donald Trump pal — and chairman of his inauguration — did a bit too much moralizing. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Barrack called the hand-wringing over Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the savage murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi “a mistake.” After all, he noted, “we have a young man and a regime that’s trying to push themselves into 2030.” We ought not, Barrack added, try “to dictate” the Saudi “moral code.” The pushback would be quick and massive. On Wednesday, Barrack apologized, but didn’t, news reports noted, “retract praise for the crown prince.” One possible reason: Barrack’s investment fund has tanked of late, its share price down by over half. Barrack has raised over $1.5 billion in bailout aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He may be hoping for still more.

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Let's Talk About Wealth

Let's Talk About Wealth