Working-Class Studies as we’ve constituted it in the Working-Class Studies Association never aspired to lead a working-class movement that would change the grinding inequalities of class power, resources, and opportunities in the U.S. But we have hoped to provide educational aid and comfort to such a movement by changing the discourse about class both in American higher education and among the broader public. At the moment prospects may seem dim both for a working-class movement and for changing the discourse about class into one that recognizes and even celebrates the existence, culture, and potential power of working-class people. But the prospects are not so dim as they might seem, and it helps to remember how bad things used to be. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different.”
Looking back, I remember the late 1990s when I first discovered Working-Class Studies by going to a conference at Youngstown State University. I was in the final stages of publishing a book where I insistently referred to a current-day “working class” (and not just a class that had existed back in the days before almost everybody became “middle class”), and every time I used the term it felt like I needed to provide a rationale and argument for doing so. In speeches and casual conversation, I was constantly asked to define what I meant by “the working class,” and whatever definition I came up with tended to be picked apart for its lack of precision. I eventually stopped using any definition and just listed a string of examples of undeniably working-class jobs – and then threw the definitional challenge back at my challenger, asking them to define what they meant by “middle class.” This was an effective rhetorical response, but still I wondered why the mere use of the term ”working class” seemed to engender such defensive resistance among educated middle-class folks. I had some (mostly nasty) speculations at the time, but I’ve stopped thinking about it because it’s been a while since I’ve encountered that kind of resistance. Now I can use the term, with shifting definitions and meanings depending on the context, without being challenged.
Though still not widely used in mainstream (educated middle class) discourse, “working class” can now be used there without the kind of defense required coming into the 21st Century. This is partly the result of a series of books since 2000: most importantly, Michael Zweig’s The Working-Class Majority (2001), New Working-Class Studies edited by John Russo and Sherry Linkon (2005), American Working-Class Literature edited by Nick Coles and Janet Zandy (2006), and now Reading Classes by Barbara Jensen (2012). All of these have been nurtured and given a broader audience by Working-Class Studies. But there are other streams of academic work that have contributed to the consciousness of a working class. One such stream includes the work of disciples of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu like Michele Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men (2002) and Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods (2004). Another is the discussion of why the white part of the working class doesn’t vote more Democratic engendered by Joel Rogers’ and Ruy Teixeira’s America’s Forgotten Majority (2000).
These works, and many others published in this still young century, make compelling and substantive arguments that any understanding of American society that does not include a large and important working class is seriously distorted. That idea now has traction in academia. Not so long ago it didn’t.
Just as important for the awareness of a working class is that it has long had a kind of underground existence outside mainstream discourse – namely, in the working class itself. Since 1972 when the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) began asking the question, some 46% of people have consistently identified themselves as “working class,” about the same as self-identify as “middle class.” What’s more, in a 2006 favorability survey by the American National Election Studies, “working class people” were seen more favorably than all 30 other groups on offer – including “middle class people,” “poor people,” “business people,” and “rich people,” in that order.
So some progress has been made on making the working class visible in academia and in the broader public. How about the prospects for a broad and powerful working-class movement? If you look just at union membership – which is lower as a percentage of the workforce than it has been in about a century – prospects look very dim indeed. But precisely because unions are under attack visibly and palpably as they have not been for more than 50 years, other forms of worker organization with new tactics and strategies are sprouting like weeds across the American landscape. There are the big highly visible events – the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, the Chicago Teachers Strike, and the political mobilization of minorities and young people to elect Barack Obama twice. Now there are the Black Friday strikes by Walmart workers across the country, including earlier quickie strikes at Walmart warehouses. Workers centers have spread, organizing mostly immigrant workers who have now upped their game substantially with many new direct-action organizing campaigns, particularly around restaurants and the food chain. Domestic workers, car washers, cab drivers, retail and fast food workers are organizing campaigns for higher wages, respect, and improved working conditions without being formally certified as unions under the National Labor Relations Act.
Many of these non-traditional campaigns started on their own, but now have important union support. Others are arms of progressive unions who are using their resources (money and people) to train and organize workers to take action here, there and everywhere on non-workplace as well as workplace issues – most prominently, living wage campaigns and direct action to stop homes from being foreclosed. Anything that organizes working people to defend themselves, protest, or advance their interests is fair game because the goal, for now, is to develop grassroots leaders, organizing skills, and a vibrant culture of organized collective action.
It’s not clear what role Working-Class Studies can play in this new upsurge of worker organizing, but we now have a bit of space in academia to work with. And it’s a discussion we urgently need to have. We will foster that discussion at our June 12-15 conference in Madison, Wisconsin, under the theme “Fighting Forward.” See you there.