How Class Works 2004
An Interview with Michael Zweig

by Brandy Baker
May 9, 2004

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Professor Michael Zweig is the director of The Center For Working Class Life at SUNY Stonybrook. The Center will be holding their How Class Works 2004 Conference between June 10-12. Below is my e-interview with Professor Zweig about the conference and the new academic field of working class studies.

Brandy Baker: How did the idea for this conference originate? What went into making this happen, and what do you and others involved hope to accomplish by having the How Class Works Conference this summer?

Michael Zweig: Plans for the How Class Works conference originated around the time I finished writing The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret (Cornell University Press, 2000). I wrote the book to help bring class more clearly into focus in this country. In 1999, when the writing was almost finished, I went to a conference of the Center for Working Class Studies (CWCS) at Youngstown State University in Ohio to present some of the ideas and information from my book and I met people involved in the emerging field of working class studies. The CWCS organizes conferences every other year in odd-numbered years and they focus on the humanities and issues of representation of class in literature, film, and the culture more broadly. I am an economist and have many colleagues in the social sciences at SUNY Stony Brook who are also interested in class analysis. So I came back from Youngstown eager to pull together a group of people at Stony Brook to build working class studies. We came together in fall 1999 as the Group for the Study of Working Class Life and began to organize a series of programs and activities. We organized the first How Class Works conference and hosted it at Stony Brook in June 2002 (the full program for that conference is also on our website, as well as the conference report ).

Following the success of that conference and our other programs the University approved the establishment of the Center for Study of Working Class Life to continue to develop working class studies through a more permanent institutional framework. I am the director of the Center but you will see on our website that we have many faculty and staff from a wide range of departments associated with the Center and our events are always cosponsored by one and often several other departments or programs on campus.

The How Class Works - 2004 conference coming up June 10-12 is the second in what we plan to be a series of bi-annual conferences. We circulated the call for presentations widely through electronic and paper distribution and received over 160 proposals. Our conference program committee reviewed all the proposals and put the conference schedule together as you see it posted on the website. Now that we have the program together we are getting the word out and asking people to register and come. We are again sending electronic notices out and distributed 5,000 brochures to people who might be interested.

We hope that the conference will be a valuable place for discussion and learning about how class works to shape our lives - to understand class as a real social force, not just a theoretical or ideological point. We want to develop working class studies by doing intellectual work in the context of the social movements of working people, much as Black Studies arose in the context of the civil rights movement and Women's Studies arose in the context of feminist organizing in the 1960s and 70s. We ask the academics to ground their theoretical work in the lived experience of class, and we ask labor and other social movement activists to go beyond telling war stories to sum up lessons learned about class from their practical experiences. The conference is unusual because it is interdisciplinary and because it brings together academics and social activists in this combination of theory and practice.

BB: You pointed out that Black Studies came out the civil rights movement and Women's Studies out of the feminist movement. Both of these fields emerged when the movements that spawned them were strong. But union membership has dropped to 8%, which means that over 90% of the working class is non-unionized. Can Working Class Studies flourish in such a climate?

MZ: 8% of the private sector labor force but 13% of the combined private and public sector labor force. That's about 16 million people, which is still a lot of people and a significant force even though losing power because the corporate elites have been waging relentless class struggle for decades under conditions increasingly unfavorable for working people. Many unions are actively organizing and confronting the power of capitalist resistance. Some campaigns achieve national standing, like the successful UPS strike in 1995 and the recent unsuccessful southern California grocery workers strike.

But unions are not the only way workers organize. There are almost 200 worker-rights organizations across the United States in immigrant communities. These organizations defend workers outside of collective bargaining but very much as part of social movements of working people.

Because class is a question of power, class is a relationship. One cannot have power alone or in a social vacuum. This means that to understand working class experience one must understand all other classes in society and how they interact. Likewise, to understand the life of the middle class (professional people, small business owners, and managerial/supervisory personnel) one must place their experiences in the context of dynamics between the capitalist and working classes. Working class studies reports on other classes much as Women's studies has something to say about men and Black studies about White people.

One important feature of working class studies is that it addresses the lives of all working people, not just the traditional labor studies focus on collective bargaining. Working class studies addresses the full range of economic, social, political, and cultural experiences of working people. Class dynamics shape much of our social life, not just at the workplace. Changes in the distributions of income and wealth, the absence of health insurance for 45 million people, the war in Iraq, campaign finance and other corporate/government connections, concentration of media and the shaping of the news offered by the media, outsourcing, privatization of education and social security, the new Medicare law and prescription coverage - these are issues that millions of people care about and each of them is shaped by class dynamics. Significant social movements address some of these. Working class studies has something to contribute to and much to learn from all of these social movements in addition to traditional union campaigns.

BB: Almost half of the advisory board at the Center for Working Class Life at SUNY Stonybrook are members of the labor movement. And in your report on the conference for How Class Works 2002, you document the presence of academics, students, and both unionized and non-unionized workers. This is a stunning success considering that not only is the United States racially segregated, it is segregated by class. And while people from the middle class and capitalist classes see positive reflections of themselves in their culture, working class and poor people are rarely shown, and when they are, most often, their images are brutally caricatured. How do you think that the work from the field of Working Class Studies and the How Class Works Conference can challenge this?

MZ: The experience we have had at the Center for Study of Working Class Life has been that academics and labor activists can have conversations that are interesting to both when the discussions are grounded in and have respect for the lived experience of class. We ask academics to ground their theoretical [work in lived experience and ask workers] to go beyond telling war stories to sum up lessons from their experiences that tell us something about how class works as a dynamic force shaping lives and policy. In this way we try to bridge the gaps that exist between the working class and the professional/academic sections of the middle class.

We have also found that addressing issues of class brings together people of all races, genders, and ethnicities on campus. Events sponsored by the Center often draw the widest mix of people seen at events of any type on campus - White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, men, women, senior and junior faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, professional staff, secretaries - all in the room together listening and engaging with the subject and with each other. That has been one of the most extraordinary and unexpected results of the Center's work on campus. I think this reflects the fact that class operates in all these communities, and that re l pull together people from all these different communities in an attempt to understand their own experiences and those of others in similar situations.

One point we emphasize in our programming is that there is no single, uniform experience of class independent of racial, gender, and sexual experiences. A White worker will experience working class life differently from a Black or Hispanic or Asian worker, and each of these differently from the others; men differently from women; gay differently from straight. It is also true that there is no uniform experience of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation unaffected by class divisions within those groups. So we try to explore these intertwining experiences along various dimensions of power in what we call "the mosaic of class, race, and gender." The wide diversity of participants in our events testifies to this mosaic as people from all different parts of the community come together when the question is class.

You ask about how working class studies can challenge the disappearance of the working class from the culture, either by total absence or by demeaning caricature. This is a hard problem. Even now, after nearly fifty years of the civil rights movement and perhaps 35 years of conscious attention to the portrayal of Blacks in the media, racist practices are deeply present on television, in film, and in other parts of the popular culture. One part of the mission of working class studies is to address the representations of class in the popular culture, analyze them, critique them, develop more truthful and complex portrayals. If this intellectual work is done in connection with a powerful workers movement, there is some possibility that media representations may change for the better. But a strong workers movement may also generate a corporate media portraying workers as less-than-fully-competent people manipulated by nefarious radicals. In the end I think it will be up to the workers themselves to create the culture and truthful self-representation required to overcome mainstream media portrayals, and it will be up to the workers' movements to create the outlets for these works.

BB: Your report on the 2002 How Class Works conference shows an international presence at the conference as well. What can we here in the United States learn from the working class cultures of other countries?

MZ: Many people comment on how undeveloped class awareness is in the United States compared with other countries, like Britain or Germany, where class distinctions are openly acknowledged. But the United States has a long and violent history of open class warfare, and class distinctions are increasingly being denied by New Labor and social democracy in Europe. The denial of class in Europe comes with the same assault on worker living standards as we have experienced in the U.S. So I think that when we look we see that the U.S. experience of class is not so different from other countries, although of course the particulars are different.

One thing we can learn from international comparisons is that workers face similar challenges in all capitalist countries. We see that globalization is not some international system distinct from our domestic economy but an extension of the same class dynamics across the globe. We see, for example, that it is not Chinese workers who are taking away our jobs, but Chinese capitalists, working together with American capitalists, both seeking to make maximum profits in an economic system that does not simply disregard worker interests but is actively hostile to them, in the U.S. and China alike.

The How Class Works - 2004 conference has accepted presentations from people of eleven countries. The Working Class Studies Association (which will have its founding meeting at Stony Brook on Thursday afternoon, June 10, just hours before the class conference begins) will be international in its membership and scope of activity. The opening plenary session of the How Class Works - 2004 conference Thursday evening is titled "The Working Class with State Power in a Neo-Liberal World" and will feature trade union leaders from South Africa and Brazil, from COSATU and the CUT, bringing lessons of the most highly developed worker movements in the world. Yet they face problems all-too-familiar to American workers and workers everywhere.

For more information on the How Class Works 2004 conference and on Working Class Studies, visit the website of The Center For Study of Working Class Life: www.workingclass.sunysb.edu 

Brandy Baker, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, can be reached at: bbaker@ubalt.edu
Michael Zweig
can be reached at: michael.zweig@stonybrook.edu