Category: From Center for Working-Class Studies

Counting on Class: The Continuing Appeal of Meritocracy

Tim Strangleman Professor, University of Kent

Neither faith in nor critiques of the idea of meritocracy is new. Michael Young’s famous 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy argued that class privilege and advantage were likely to be amplified as financial and cultural capital passed across generations in families. Each new generation would benefit from existing structural advantage created by their parents and even grandparents. They might be talented individuals, hardworking and driven to succeed, but they would owe their achievements in part to a myriad of inherited class advantages. Young intended the title of his book as a satire, but for many, it seems to promote the ideal of egalitarian opportunity.

A recent rash of books critically revisit the ideas in Young’s now six-decade-old book. In The Class Ceiling: Why it ays to be Privileged, Sam Friendman and Daniel Laurison provide a wonderfully accessible account of contemporary class analysis in the UK, examining the complex ways in which class influences life chances. The authors leaven the numbers with fascinating vignettes from the field showing how successful middle-class professionals are sometimes aware of their own class privilege. As one put it, “I was lucky to have a following wind”. The book does not offer a crude demonization of privilege. Instead, the study gets to the heart of how talent and hard work don’t sufficiently explain how good jobs get allocated. Often times, as The Class Ceiling shows, it’s the lucky breaks that already privileged people enjoy that allow them to achieve yet more success.

Take ‘Mark’ for example, a successful TV executive in his late thirties. Mark relates to Friedman and Laurison his own ‘following wind’. The son of successful educated professionals, he was privately educated before gaining a place at Oxford. While he was at Oxford, Mark’s parents paid for him to go on a holiday to New York to do research for his undergraduate dissertation. He stayed in Manhattan for free in an apartment owned by a contact his father had met on the side-lines of a rugby match.  This same contact then provided Mark with an introduction to the television industry. The upside of the anecdote is that Mark is full aware of his privilege and luck.

The Class Ceiling is peppered with similar tales of advantage and their mirror image, such as the pairing of Nathan and Jim. Nathan’s CV is littered with prestigious roles in TV and film.  He attributes his success to “just working incredibly hard” and “making good decisions” like turning down jobs he didn’t believe in.  As he explains, “No job is worth sacrificing yourself for”. Jim, by contrast, has decided to leave the acting profession after ‘sacrificing’ himself and his career by taking the kind of parts Nathan can afford to avoid. Jim’s working-class origins still constrain him in his forties.  He struggled so hard to get into the acting profession, but the typecast jobs he has to take ultimately end up damaging his career and lead to offers drying up altogether. Class both constrains and enables after all.

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Equality and Electability

Jack Metzgar Professor Emeritus, Roosevelt University

In 2015, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg advised Hillary Clinton to run on a promise to “level the playing field” and “rewrite the rules of the economy.”  She didn’t take his advice. Instead, she told voters she would “build on the progress” of the Obama administration and “create ladders of opportunity.”

Professors like me, who get to speak in full paragraphs all the time, can easily dismiss campaign slogans as superficial and manipulative.  But they are organizing principles that can align basic vision with both policy proposals and organizing strategies.  These two slogans still reflect two possible organizing principles for the Democratic Party in 2019-20.  Biden wants to build on Obama’s progress, and Sanders and Warren aim to rewrite the rules of the economy, boldly addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth.  Like Greenberg four years ago, I believe that candidates who articulate a broad left-populist approach will be more electable in 2020.   And as we face a future filled with peril, they are the only leaders who can govern in a way that could repair our toxic race and class dynamics.

Greenberg skewers the “build on the progress” trope by showing how many people didn’t see any progress during Obama’s eight years, both in the economic data and in what people told him in surveys and focus groups.  He thinks this slogan actually moved some people to vote for Trump, who in 2016 seemed to many to be the one offering some hope and change.  Greenberg predicts that Trump will hang himself on the same trope next year, if he isn’t impeached and removed from office before then.

But I think it’s the second part of Clinton’s 2016 message that reflects the real problem: there’s an important difference between aspiring to “ladders of opportunity” versus “leveling the playing field.”  The first emphasizes equality of opportunity, while the second is about equality of condition.  Equality of opportunity aims to give everybody an equal chance to climb a ladder to get one of the limited number of spots on a playing field that is severely titled by race, gender, and class.  Equality of condition is about getting everybody on a level playing field, not necessarily in equally desirable spots but with some substantial narrowing of the best and worst spots and with the worst spots being adequate for a decent and meaningful life.

To get anything close to equality of opportunity, we would have to vote to take away the huge opportunity advantages currently enjoyed by most of the professional middle class.  This is a large group of people and they vote a lot, so no politician will either promise to or do what’s necessary, no matter how much they talk about equality of opportunity in the abstract.

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Censoring the Working Class

Kathy M. Newman Carnegie Mellon University

Does the first amendment work the same for all Americans? What kind of freedoms do working people have to read, look at, and say what they want? The subject is on my mind this month as I gear up to host a series of Banned Books Week events in Pittsburgh.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 when First Amendment crusader and super librarian Judith Krug was asked by the American Booksellers Association to organize some events highlighting controversial books. The ABA had noticed a sharp increase in the number of challenges made to books in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Krug’s initiative was so successful that Banned Books Week is still going strong at 37 years.

While it is extremely rare in modern American history for a book to be banned or censored by any branch of the US government, organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) track the hundreds of challenges that individual citizens—frequently in their role as parents—make to public libraries, school libraries, and books included in a particular K-12 curriculum. A typical case is the most recent challenge to the Harry Potter series at a Catholic school in Tennessee. The popular books were removed from Nashville’s St. Edward Catholic School library because the school’s priest claimed that they encouraged children to cast evil spells. You can see the most frequently challenged books of 2018 here.

A quick perusal of the ALA Banned Books site shows that books featuring working-class characters and/or politically left/radical messages frequently find their way onto the banned and challenged list. This is because, as banned book scholar Emily Knox has argued, “banned books are diverse books.” Popular books by and/or about women, people of color, LGBTQ and working-class people are more at risk of being challenged and banned.

Possibly the most famous case of book banning in American history involves involved John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—the pitiful story about a family of “Okies” displaced by the 1930s Dustbowl who migrated to Kern County, CA to work in the orchards. In 1939, despite the fact that Grapes of Wrath was a best seller, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to ban the novel from the county’s libraries and schools. An intrepid librarian, Gretchen Knief, tried to fight the ban. Though she failed, her efforts resulted in the creation of a Library Bill of Rights which has protected many other books from a similar fate.

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Across the Border: Teaching Service-Learning as Labor Activism

Michelle Fazio Associate Professor, University of North Carolina

Summer is already in full swing and with that comes the promise of fresh, local produce available at community-supported agricultural (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets. North Carolina, ranked as the leading producer of tobacco and sweet potatoes according to the USDA, has long held the position of being one of the highest-producing and diversified agricultural leaders in the U.S. Many of my students who live in the rural Southeast region of the state come from farming backgrounds themselves and, as a result, have a strong understanding of what it takes to run a family farm.

However, my students, like most consumers, are far less familiar with the realities of the over 150,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents who labor each year on these farms, contributing to billions of dollars in North Carolina’s economy. These individuals—both H-2A (temporary agricultural workers) and undocumented immigrants—remain invisible to most and are the second lowest paid workers nationwide, making on average $11,000 per year. Without access to overtime, sick leave, workers’ compensation, or the ability to fight wage discrimination, farmworkers have the fewest workers’ rights in the nation, yet, as we know, their labor hand-picking food feeds the world.

Farm work is dangerous work. According to Charles D. Thompson, Jr. and Melinda F. Wiggins, farmworkers suffer from many job-related illnesses due to prolonged exposure to sun, heat, and pesticides and often have limited access to drinking water in the fields. Unsanitary living conditions, including inadequate toilet facilities, also result in multiple occupational hazards that range from dermatitis and Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) to respiratory illness and repetitive work injuries. Farmworkers are also extremely isolated from other communities and face food insecurity, lack access to pre-natal care or health care for children, and suffer from depression.

These matters were exacerbated by the devastation caused by last fall’s Hurricane Florence, which flooded the Southeastern corridor for weeks. As NPR reported, fear over Trump’s anti-immigration policies and inflammatory rhetoric frightened farmworkers away from seeking much-needed food and medical assistance. The severe flooding left many out of work and in need of shelter, but workers were either unable to leave their camps because of their remote location or did not qualify for assistance. Fortunately, local non-profit agencies devoted to promoting migrant farmworker justice, such as the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFwM) and Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), answered the call and provided bottled water and other supplies. They also initiated a fund-raising campaign to support the rebuilding of homes and additional services for the workers and their families.

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Jobs and Medicare for All Bargaining for the Common Good Comes of Age

Joseph A. McCartin Director, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor

The week-long strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in January 2019 marked the most significant struggle yet in a movement by teachers and other public-sector workers called Bargaining for the Common Good.  By striking over a long list of community-generated demands and with the support of a dense network of allies, LA teachers moved bargaining away from the union-versus-taxpayer framework into which public employers routinely push such conflicts.  Instead UTLA made itself the spearhead of an effort to reshape LA’s priorities around a common good agenda.  Drawing on several years of experimentation by public-sector unions around the country, and coming hard on the heels of the #RedforEd teachers uprisings of 2018, the LA strike illuminated a significant shift in union strategies, one that holds profound implications for the future of organized labor and the relationship of unions to working-class communities.

Judged by the “pure-and-simple” union standards of a generation ago, the UTLA strike might have been deemed a failure because it did not add a penny to the six-percent raise the LA school board had offered teachers prior to the walkout.  But the strike was anything but a failure. The union fought over issues that went far beyond salaries, issues at the heart of public education and its centrality to the aspirations of working-class Angelenos.

The teachers won commitments from the school district to reduce class sizes by four students by 2021, increase investment in the schools, hire school nurses and full-time librarians, reduce standardized testing and random searches of students, and launch a dedicated hot-line for immigrant families who need legal assistance.  Many of these demands were crafted with allies like the Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and they explicitly challenged the austerity agenda of LA school superintendent Austin Beutner, a wealthy philanthropist and former investment banker who was installed by the LA school board in 2018 despite having no prior experience in education.

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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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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work

Union Matters

Labor Wins

From the AFL-CIO

On Tuesday, the labor movement drove historic wins for pro-worker candidates like Governor-Elect Andy Beshear in Kentucky and new legislative majorities in Virginia. Not only did union members come out to vote in droves, 270 union member candidates were elected to public office last night and counting. This adds to the total of more than 900 union members elected up and down the ballot in last year’s midterms, a product of the Union Member Candidate Program launched by the AFL-CIO just two years ago. The share of union members who won in the 2018 midterms is two-thirds. The program will continue through 2020 and beyond, electing even more union members to public office. 

“Our efforts recruiting, training and supporting labor candidates have led to the passage of pro-worker legislation from coast to coast and everywhere in between,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

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