The sun gods smiling approvingly, yesterday I went today to the Labor Day Parade. As it was Labor Day, I asked people one general question, what does the term “working class” mean to you?
At the parade was Stefan Cohen, long time social studies teacher at SOTA and now the Director of the Career in Teaching Program. Last year, in How do union teachers teach about unions?, Stefan and I — talking and marching in the parade simultaneously — had an extended conversation on how classroom teachers might address their own union membership when teaching, for example, American Labor History. (Both Stefan and I are members of the New York State Teachers Union.)
As for the label “working class,” Stefan believes the lines of class boundaries are increasingly blurred. Historically, the working class was equated with manufacturing or manual labor. Historically, as a teacher, Stefan would be considered firmly within the professional class. For Stefan, within today’s political and economic alignments, the position of the professional teacher falls more within the broad category of working class. To me, this means if education is the product, then teachers are increasing positioned outside — rather than within — the means of production, as Karl Marx would say, like the alienated proletariat.
If proletariat is too strong or misleading a word to describe teachers, over the last thirty years in higher education, colleges and universities have seen the “Proletarianization of the Academy.”
In still increasing numbers, colleges and universities are staffed with poorly paid adjuncts and non-tenured faculty for whom the educational system often feels like the factory assembly line. Recently, graduate students gained a Supreme Court decision validating student unionization. These student workers are pushing back against the same trends Stefan sees in the secondary school system.
I also spoke briefly with Dan DiClemente, President of the Board of Education Non Teaching Employees (B.E.N.T.E). Dan agreed that RTA members and BENTE members both could fairly be called working class — a term Dan says most BENTE members use proudly.
Asking Dan about school administrators, he said the issue was not so much income or title but how administrators perceive themselves and act. The constituency of the RCSD is mostly working class. Dan says if administrators identify with and are wholly committed to the needs of their constituency — as opposed to thinking they are better or above — he sees them as “working class.”
I spoke most at length with Thomas Warfield, assistant professor in NTID’s Cultural and Creative Studies Department, founder of PeaceArt International and a Board Member of the Rochester Area Community Foundation. I had never met Thomas before, but knew of his work and of his Uncle William. Thomas’s conversation is a mixture of the analytical academic, the playful and imaginative artist, and someone who through his work knows well the realities of urban poverty.
I told Thomas about the various comments to the question; “what is the working class?” Several had rejected labels outright or wanted to define the working class as anyone who worked.
Initially, Thomas didn’t like labels, adding that “working class” felt outdated, like Marx’s categories of labor and capital. At the same time, Thomas cautioned against social constructions (like the ones I heard) that make everyone — or almost everyone — working class. If everyone is working class, then no one is.
As Thomas said, we do all have human commonalities. On yesterday’s sparkling late summer afternoon, for example, we were all living in Rochester. Nonetheless, everyone occupies a specific space within the economic system.
For example, given Thomas’ status and income as a college professor, it would be misleading to call himself working class (nor does he). Objectively, Thomas is clearly a member of the professional elite (well, as a college professor, the semi-elite).
Thomas does agree with Marx that our free market, capitalistic system aligns the economic classes against each other, competitively and often antagonistically — even if terms like labor and capital may be outdated.
People might not articulate their experience as class struggle, but Thomas says people feel the conflicts churning away in the system, often the more painfully the lower is one’s place.
We both agreed that rejecting labels outright or blurring them beyond recognition or imagining a common identity where everyone is a worker glosses or papers over economic reality and political conflicts. For example, this kind of thinking siphons off the power of those graduate students pushing back against their positioning in the educational system.
As we talked, Thomas persuaded me that asking about the working class was not the most illuminating path. Better to elicit responses to more concrete, visceral terms: white collar vs. blue collar. Thomas pointed to the tv series White Collar.
In the series, the message of the show is that “White Collar” is where you want to be. The “Blue Collars” have their subversive moments, but ultimately the Blue Collars are represented — as another tv reality show star might say — as the losers. We might not like the message, but the show — with its stark white vs. blue — reveals that people may identify (negatively and positively) with labels more than they say.
We briefly touched upon cultural identifiers of class. To degrees, Thomas inhabits the rarified world of dance and ballet. In that world, mostly wealthier suburbanites attend the ballet (though as Thomas says, they might also go to a hip hop show at MuCCC).
As we looked around at the labor organizations, most people were probably not theater or ballets goers. Part of the reason is cost — tickets and the “right” clothes are expensive. At the same time, “Blue collars” might feel they don’t belong at the “highbrow” ballet. If there are distinctions and labels Thomas could erase, highbrow ballet vs. hip hop would be one.
Thomas also pointed to another pernicious example of over labeling and classification. Thomas is involved with various anti-poverty initiatives. Too often organizations dictate from above: the professionals “down” to the working classes.
As much as Thomas believes in the organizations, they will only succeed when driven by people’s own definitions of what opportunity and fulfillment mean. Thomas says we can’t fix societal problems and conflicts from only one side. All sides must come together regardless of, or in spite of, the labels and differences.
I also met Tony Micciche, 26th District County Legislator. In On the electoral road with Rachel, I extolled Tony’s legendary canvassing abilities, dubbing him the CanMan.
Tony said I had been accurate in my numbers — 16,000 doors knocked in his first campaign — and he loved the nickname. Tony was proud to talk about his working class background, saying he was the only legislator who has been a union member for over 40 years.
Speaking of Rachel — The Electoral Road and Rachel’s Rebel Roots — she was there. So too was Melissa Barrett for our 6th photo op as our paths have crossed during her campaign. see On the electoral road with Melissa Barrett
Just like the parade paparazzi one 100 years ago, my goal was to get interesting SNAPS. So — hey it’s a free country — Rachel and Melissa were parade paparazzi props for my montage: Scioeastmainculver. The montage is not an endorsement for either candidate.
ON THE MEMORIAL DAY PARADE