Our June 2013 conference in Madison, “Fighting Forward,” was co-chaired by the Labor and Working Class Studies Project, who were active in the February 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin Capital building. This massive direct action followed Governor Scott Walker’s decimation of collective bargaining rights for public teachers in Wisconsin. As we saw in the WCSA’s opening plenary in Chicago that same year, the yearning and frustration that erupted in Madison has wound its way into a host of groups organizing throughout Wisconsin against corporate greed. Public protest has continued at and around the Capital building in Madison, despite a recall vote that left Walker in power. LWCSP invited the Wisconsin Solidarity Singalong that led an inspired concert/sing-along at the conference. They have sung on the steps of the Capitol every workday at noontime since the occupation. The Labor and Working Class Studies Project also held an awards ceremony for the local people most involved in this on-going effort. I felt privileged just to be there, celebrating their work; remembering the inspiration they gave me back then, and newly impressed with their ongoing organizing efforts (ie: their conference plenary on cooperatives and collectives). As WCSA member Lita Kurth pointed out in a Tikkun blog, this is a group that sprang out of defeat as much as victory, and has persevered now for two and a half years. Tenacity is a requirement for social change, and we are grateful to the LWCSP for their example.
What does the idea of fighting forward mean to working class studies? In essence, this was the question discussed in both in the large-group evaluation at the end of the conference and in written conference evaluations. With some of our initial organizers on the verge of retirement, we face what conference-goers called the “graying of working class studies.” A special session was also convened at this conference by some of our most committed younger WCSA members concerning the future of working class studies. Fortunately for all of us, several of them are on our Steering Committee and are already dragging working class studies into the twenty-first century with the creation of an online archive of working class studies. But a few people can only do so much. We need a new generation of working class studies scholars and activists.
New Working Class Studies will reach its 20-year mark in 2015, when our conference will be at Georgetown University, organized,–in part–by Sherry Linkon and John Russo, former directors of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working Class Studies. These two threw the first working class studies conference in 1995 at YSU. The conference was entitled: Working Class Studies/Working Class Lives, I saw it in The Nation magazine and it changed the next twenty years of my life. Being a full-time community and counseling psychologist, and only a part-time college instructor, I had not been to an academic conference outside my own university for over a decade. But this emerging movement drew me like a bee to honey.
In 1995, waiting for the puddle-jumper from Pittsburg to Youngtown, a friendly woman asked me if I was on my way to the conference (because I was reading The Nation). We then sat together on the plane and chatted. To my surprise, she appeared on stage that night as the keynote speaker. She read a wonderful piece called, “Traveling Working Class” that brought tears to my eyes. Yes, the friendly stranger was Janet Zandy. At the end of the conference I gave her my paper, “The Silent Psychology” on the off chance she might actually read it. Within a week or two she sent me a letter praising the piece, and later helped publish it in Women’s Studies Quarterly. In this world, she was a star; this brand new world where no one had ever heard of me. But she was, as were Sherry and John, kind and generous, welcoming me into this exciting new field that echoed my own intellectual passion: making the real lives, work, and cultures of working class people visible to the rest of society.
Now, 18 years and one full-length working class studies text later, here I am. As president, my job is outreach. Those early conferences I attended were a model of what working class studies can be: a multi- and inter- disciplinary field that welcomes folks of all academic disciplines and others that care about working class lives. I was surprised, in those early conferences, to see how labor studies folks, English professors, feminists and women’s studies scholars, GLBT academics, African-American scholars and activists, actors and play writers, visual artists, writers of fiction, musicians, and almost everyone else, was welcomed.
What is the future of working class studies? In evaluations of our last conference, people bemoaned the lack of scholars of color, of young folks, how too-separate and un-integrated the different sessions seemed, of the need for more consciousness about gender dynamics (even in sessions that were mostly women, a young Canadian presenter reported, the majority of “air time” was taken up by male voices). The future of working class studies needs all of these people. We have built it, but will they come? Only, I suspect, if we can also let a new generation have it–if we can let younger scholars and activists refine and design working class studies in their own 21st century ways.
A few years back we had an interesting plenary on the reasons for the lack of mass labor organizing. In a stuffed-to-capacity panel after the plenary, many of the same labor scholars and activists continued the discussion of what is to be done, and especially the paralyzing effect of racism on organizing. When the session closed, the room cleared out almost entirely. That left three young women at the table up front and a tiny handful of listeners for the next session on organizing. Two panelists proceeded to tell stories of their groups’ organizing, respectively, thousands and tens of thousands of people in their home states (Maine and Vermont). The third young woman, who chaired and had organized the session, was a labor organizer from Oregon who had been organizing crowds of hundreds for some time.
As the excellent presentations recounted many tales of successful mass organizing—including unemployed union guys; complete with colorful multi-ethnic photos–a fair number of the same labor guys that previously populated the room and plenary opened the door to check out the panel It was striking that in every case—seven to nine men–they popped their heads into the room, saw the three young women at the table up front quietly turned on their heels and exited.
A new generation of working class studies and activists will only lead us forward if we listen to them.
I want to invite young people to tell their knowledge and share their activism. I also want to invite more GLBT people, people of color, independent scholars, women’s studies scholars, and activists of all stripes to our 2014 conference at SUNY Stony Brook. These are not our only important constituencies, but they are in the minority. Other groups are already well-represented (such as labor studies folks, full-time academics, and 50 to 70 year-olds). I am especially sorry to see that GLBT representation has fallen quite a bit since those early days; especially with the premature death of outspoken GLBT and working class activist Felice Yeskel. This is regrettable not only for its own sake but because gay rights have become the defining civil rights issue for young people in the age of Occupy.
I am the first independent scholar to be president of the WCSA. I also want to acknowledge the independent scholars in our midst and to thank them for their continued commitment to working class studies. To do the work of working class studies, they heave the rest of their lives onto the back burner. While academic workers often get “credit” in their jobs for their working class studies work and their efforts and achievements may move them ahead in their academic profession (but not always!), for independent scholars the opposite is usually the case. Our dedication to working class studies takes us away from our usual work, and lives, usually to the dismay of the people in those jobs and lives. But a base in the world of non-academic work informs both the content of our working class studies as well as the way we write about it. Independent scholars, you know who you are. What you may not know is how important your real-world perspective is to working class studies, and how often your sessions are praised in evaluations.
What makes these people special is similar to what distinguishes most of the academic work in working class studies from traditional academic work: the brave notion that we can strive to be public intellectuals that speak in plain language about complicated things. We come together to study working class life in its own context and to promote the interests of working class people. We talk across academic disciplines to promote insightful and intelligent public conversation on social change for all working people. If we continue to develop—and spread—this conversation, we can change our society for the better.
I believe our movement needs to grow beyond the two to three hundred participants that seem to be our standard. We need more public intellectuals and activists, and particularly the motivated, civic-minded, often spontaneously-organized young people who have emerged as serious social change’s best hope in the 21st century. Let us steer a course back toward the diversity our early organizers worked so hard to promote.
I can’t do outreach alone. I need the help of each and every one of you. Please help now by inviting people you know to consider submitting proposals for presentations at our next conference, or to simply attend our next conference. Thank you for the opportunity and privilege of the WCSA presidency. And please, Be in touch!