/Class: A Personal Story

Class: A Personal Story

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cadogan-pennsylvania-coal-mine I was born in 1946 in a small mining village in western Pennsylvania, about forty miles north of Pittsburgh, along a big bend in the Allegheny River. The house in which I lived during my first year of life had neither hot water nor indoor plumbing. It was a company house, and my grandmother had purchased it for $1,000 from the mining corporation after the town had ceased to be a company town, thanks to the United Mine Workers. A small coal stove in the living room heated the entire house.

My grandmother came to this town in the mid-1930s to be close to relatives after her husband died. She and her two children—my mother and my uncle—lived in the small, tarpaper-shingled house, and she eked out a living in a place with few job opportunities for women. Most of the miners were Italian; Italian was more or less the town’s lingua franca. Miners everywhere show unusual cohesion and solidarity and have often been among the shock troops of labour movements. The common ethnicity of these miners deepened their fraternity. However, mining is men’s work, and Italians were typical Latin male chauvinists. Women were to raise children and take care of the household. My ’grandma’s parents had taken in boarders, and grandma had learned women’s work, including helping to stir the enormous batches of polenta made every day to feed the men. Now she had a hard time finding work. She cleaned the town doctor’s house, took in laundry, and mended clothes. She and her children got jobs unloading dynamite at the mine site.

There was a degree of spontaneous class consciousness in the village. During the Great Depression, everyone was in the same boat: poor and in need of work. People were generous with one another; when beggars came to the door, the miners fed them. When the union arrived, the men were nearly unanimous in their support. During strikes, no one scabbed. The Catholic Church exerted a conservative influence, but priests in poor towns are often sympathetic to workers and their families. The town’s physical isolation helped to insulate workers from the hegemonic forces at work in the larger society. Italians already had a long history of radical agitation in the United States, strengthened by the strong prejudice they faced.

Both my mother and grandma developed some sense of belonging to the working class. However, this was not a consciousness that would lead to collective actions. Their main concern was their immediate family. After her children were grown, grandma took a number of jobs. She was a cook on a tugboat that pushed barges loaded with steel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. She worked as a governess for the very rich in Manhattan and Pittsburgh. She cooked in a restaurant. She understood the inferior position of wage labourers. But only individual acts of rebellion were available to her, as when she shamed the rich woman who employed her, saying that she didn’t work for her because she liked her but because she needed the money. The strict and oppressive gender division of labour she had seen and experienced since childhood made the kind of solidarity that builds a labour movement unlikely. Of course, my grandma was not alone in this. Tens of millions of women then could have helped create stronger labour movements than the ones actually built and, unfortunately, the same is true today.

The Second World War brought the mining village out of the Depression. It also helped to assimilate many Italian-Americans into the more conservative American mainstream. After the war, nationalism and anti-communism became much stronger, and individual acquisitiveness began to replace the more communal life of the pre-war era. The union of mineworkers became a place where a few miners could move up the economic ladder. As the national union declined and lost its militancy under the corrupt leadership of Tony Boyle, the local’s leaders became Boyle stalwarts. Within a few years, the mine itself was closed, and miners and their children began to move from the town or found work at other mines, in construction, or in factories up and down the river. People renovated their houses; the one in which I was born was one of the few remaining with its original tar-paper shingles. The townsfolk gradually joined the post-war mainstream, gaining some in material goods but losing most of the collective character of the earlier village.

What values did I assimilate from the mining town? This is a complicated question. The working class solidarity always shown by underground miners seeped into my consciousness, as did the ethnic clannishness of the Italian immigrants. This meant a certain distrust of anyone with money and authority and anyone outside the community. But these incipient seeds of class consciousness were counteracted by other more troubling feelings. Mining towns in the United States were typically owned by the mining companies, and the companies exerted a near totalitarian control over the residents. They owned the houses, the only store (the infamous “company store”), all utilities, the schools, the library—everything. They had their own private police—the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania—sanctioned by state law. The climate in such a town is one of perpetual insecurity and fear, emotions compounded by the danger of the work in the mines. While such authoritarian rule generates anger and hate, it also gives rise to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Misery is one’s lot in life. There must be something wrong with us. Those in power must have special abilities and powers we don’t have. We deserve our fate. Organized religion contributes to this sense of helplessness and shifts attention away from material conditions and toward God and the afterlife.

Poverty and social isolation added fuel to the fire of fear. People lacked self-confidence and had deep-seated feelings of inferiority. When kids from the village went to the high school in the factory town three miles upriver, they faced a mocking condescension. They had the wrong clothes. They were greasy “dagos.” They were “dumb coal miners.” Some, like one of my cousins, reacted with rage; he hung a teacher from a third floor window for calling him a dumb coal miner. But others took it to heart and were scarred forever.

It is difficult to overstate the power of fear and poverty in shaping how working men and women think and act. Fear of losing a job. Fear of not finding a job. Fear of being late with bill payments. Fear of the boss’s wrath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt. I inherited these emotions. I have a PhD and have always had a job that brings forth instant respect from others. Yet, I lack confidence and am anxious in the face of authority. I can confront the powerful in a group, even if I am a leader of it, but as an individual, I hate any kind of confrontation with authority and always wonder if I have the right to confront. I prefer to remain in the background, to be invisible.

As working-class men and women are sucked into the capitalist milieu, they try to make sure that their children do not end up like them. They sacrifice so that the kids can exit the working class and become entrepreneurs and professionals. This can have painful results. If the children are successful, they may come to be ashamed of their parents, and their parents may come to resent them. These feelings may never be explicitly stated, but they will show themselves in sometimes not so subtle ways. A successful child who marries a person from outside the working class will hesitate to visit home as often as in the past. Children might blame parents for not giving them the advantages their spouses, new friends, and coworkers take for granted. Parents will be proud of their successful children, but at the same time might resent their children’s new lifestyles, which stand in sharp contrast to their own. A child’s big house, professional spouse, fancy car, and the grandchildren’s private schools seem to mock the way they themselves live. I remember arguing with my father. He said to me, “You read too much.” I shot back, “If you’d read a book once in awhile instead of getting all your information from television, maybe you’d be better off.”

Ambivalence marks the emotions of the working class. In a society where worth is measured by money, the lack of money signifies a lack of worth. However, daily life, including religion, tells workers that there is more to a person’s character than money. It also tells them that money is often tainted with corruption and violence. There is a man from the mining village who became wealthy. People love to talk about how he was one of the poorest persons in the town and now owns many businesses and several mansion-like homes. He is a friendly fellow and generous to his family and friends. On the one hand, those who “knew him when” now bask reflectively in his glory. It is quite a thing to get invited to his house, and those who are will regale you with descriptions of the grounds and furnishings. However, not far below the surface, there is a sense that this man has come by his money illegitimately. If you suggest that perhaps, given the nature of his businesses, he was involved with organized crime, most people will not vehemently deny this. Wonder, jealousy, admiration, hatred, all mixed together in a confusing brew. The rich may be, in one interpretation, God’s chosen, but then again, it is more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Attitudes toward work are also ambivalent. Most working-class employment sucks, and everyone knows it. And it is impossible not to be aware of the tensions existing in every workplace or to see that most bosses want only your labour and as much of it as they can get. So workers cut corners, pretend to be working, and find unproductive ways to kill time and make the work day go faster. Yet, work is a natural human endeavor, and even the most menial job requires some ingenuity. So workers want to do a good job at the same time that they know that doing so will not necessarily be to their advantage. Doing a good job certainly did not make the job a good one, fit for a human being. My father took a dim view of slackers, but he was not above “lifting” small items from the shop that might be useful at home. I felt much the same way when I was a full-time college teacher. As our work became more alienating, many of us began to cut corners—refusing to give essay examinations, shortening classes, especially the long evening lectures, and getting the “take-a-day” flu as often as we dared. I didn’t like to see teachers slacking even though I could understand it and even though I did it myself.

The attitude of working-class youth toward school mirrors their parents’ ambivalence toward success and work. Schools are oppressive places, and kids naturally rebel against the agents of this oppression: teachers and administrators. When I was in school, most boys were destined to be future factory workers. Only a few were deemed mentally fit to succeed in college. In the minds of most pupils, these few were the enemy as much as were the teachers. “Ordinary” students knew instinctively that they were not going to “succeed,” so they built defense mechanisms to make this understanding less painful. It was not “manly” to do well in school. Physical toughness was the mark of a real man. A scholar was like a girl, who could be smart but wasn’t likely to succeed in any event. At the same time, the “brains” had to be respected; the success of the few was the other side of the coin of their “failure.” A student who did well could be admired and hated at the same time. From the point of view of the rulers of the economic system, the schools have been great successes. Only a few working-class youth are needed to fill the relatively few skilled labour slots in the workplace. The values absorbed by the rest of the working-class boys and girls will fit them very well for the work they will do and make it difficult to blame anyone but themselves for their failure to escape their class.

When I was two, my family moved from the mining village to a small house on a farm about three miles east of the factory town where my father worked. We had hot water but still had to use an outhouse. Dad often walked to work; it would be a couple of years before we got a car. Three years later, my parents took advantage of the government-backed home loans that were so important to the development of the white suburbs and the demise of urban, working-class culture. There was another child now, my sister, and the four of us moved into a three-bedroom house with modern conveniences on a large lot. This is where my four siblings and I grew up. There weren’t many houses nearby when we moved, but over the next two decades, a few hundred more were built as workers began to live the “American Dream” in the post-war “American Century.”

The town was small, not quite 10,000 residents at its peak, but it housed the biggest plate glass factory in the world. There was also a large pottery, right next to the glass factory. The city of Pittsburgh was a centre of glass manufacturing, and the owner of the town’s factory was the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Everyone just called it “PPG.” The factory was many blocks long and took up in width what would have been the town’s first two avenues. Inside, there was a workforce divided along several dimensions. Most of the workers were relatively unskilled, but there were a significant number of craft workers, some of whom still made glass without assembly line mechanization and some of whom were tradesmen, such as carpenters, millwrights, and electricians. The workers were mostly men, but there were large numbers of women in certain departments, like the one in which optical glass was examined. There were also black workers, who, as was typical in northern factories, were locked into unskilled jobs with little chance of advancement. There were no Asian workers and few Hispanics.

Until the workers unionized the plant in the late 1930s, the company ran the town; it was as much a company town as the mining village. But it was larger and more complex. There was a more nuanced class structure: not just workers, foremen, and absentee owners, but also shopkeepers and professionals.

Reflecting divisions in the workplace, the townspeople were also divided. While nearly everyone in the mining town was Catholic, people in the factory town practised many Protestant faiths as well. There were a few Jews, mainly shopkeepers and professionals. Catholics faced a certain amount of discrimination in that they were unlikely to become top managers in the glass plant; these slots were reserved for those in the mainstream Protestant denominations. Anti-Semitism was widespread, although Jews were, for the most part, tolerated. They couldn’t join certain clubs and they were called vicious names, but at the same time, they were grudgingly admired for their economic success.

The ethnic and racial makeup of the town most differentiated it from the mining village. There was no “melting pot.” Whites were rigidly separated from blacks, but whites themselves were not a uniform group. Besides religious differences, there were important ethnic splits. Those with northern European ancestries were more likely to hold supervisory positions in the plant, and there was considerable bigotry expressed by them against Italian-Americans and those from Eastern Europe. These prejudices were aligned with religious animosities as well, since the Anglo-Saxons were typically protestant, and the “Hunkies,” Polacks,” and “Dagos” were Catholic. I remember my father disdainfully telling me how the kids in these groups had their heads shaved for the summer. It was not uncommon for parents to discourage their children, especially their daughters, from dating anyone from the “wrong” ethnic groups.

Too much should not be made of ethnic (and religious) differences, however. Even by my early childhood, these had begun to break down, and cross-ethnic marriages were common. Inter-ethnic class solidarity was evident in the glass workers’ union, both in strikes and in the union’s internal politics. For many years, the president of the local was an Arab-American, who rose to become a national officer.

The one divide that was never breached was that of race. There was a small black community in the town, segregated at the southern or “lower” end. People there had their roots in the rural south and had, for the most part, come north in the great migration following the First World War. Many of the men found work in the glass factory and pottery, though always in the least skilled and most onerous jobs. While white persons did associate with their black townsfolk—some poor whites also lived in the “lower” end, whites and blacks played sports together, there was no segregation in the schools—close relationships were rare. Black workers could not aspire to union office, nor could black citizens hope to win local political office. Racial epithets were always ready to come out of the mouths of white persons. It was a rare conversation in bar or club that did not include these. A fair number of whites seemed obsessed with black people, never missing a chance to denigrate them or blame them for whatever the whites perceived as bad. It was definitely taboo for whites and blacks of the opposite sex to socialize too closely, much less date or marry.

What effects did life in the factory town have on class consciousness? In many respects, these were the same as in the mining village. Workers generally disdained their bosses but had the same ambivalence toward “a fair day’s work” as did the miners. But the factory had a more complex hierarchy of jobs than did the mine, so workers could aspire to better jobs, including the job of foreman or first-level supervisor. Since the company had some control over who got the jobs covered by union contract and complete control over who became a supervisor, a worker might think that it would be better not to oppose the company too overtly or militantly. The company could also use co-optation to weaken class solidarity, draining off the most thoughtful workers into management.

The factory town also had a range of small businesses, and a worker could aim for the petty bourgeoisie. My uncle once opened a small restaurant with a fellow worker in an effort to escape the factory and be his own boss. My father had hopes of becoming a radio repairman and later took a correspondence school course to learn drafting. This kind of thinking and acting, while easy to understand, also sapped class consciousness.

As with the miners, the Second World War profoundly affected the ways in which workers thought and acted. On the one hand, the factory men came home from the war unwilling to tolerate the corporate despotism their fathers had suffered before unionization. They struck and filed grievances and won more control over what went on at work than they ever could have imagined before the war. I well remember the two summers I worked in the plant. My grandfather, a time-study engineer, got me a summer job while I was in college. I did mostly clerical work, cataloguing accidents and analyzing accident reports to see where and when they were most likely to occur. Many children of workers got such jobs, and the company found this a good way to recruit local college kids into management (as with the miners, parents had mixed feelings about this but in general were proud to help their children to get out of the working class).

My job was housed in the fire department—the factory was large enough to have its own. The firemen were typically on-call and often had few regular daytime duties, so they spent a lot of time drinking coffee and talking. The atmosphere was casual, and the supervisors never, while I was there, told the men to do anything. The union officers, themselves full-time union staffers (drawing pay from the company), stopped every day for coffee. The firemen moved around the plant freely and were good sources of gossip that might be useful to the union. The union president was a gruff man with one arm; he had lost the other to a grinding machine. The vice-president was a dapper man, a superlative bowler and pool player, and a chronic gambler. Conversation ranged freely from football pools to ongoing disputes with management. I was impressed with the degree of freedom the workers and the union officers had, the product of long years of class struggle after the war in which most of them had fought. Without using the word in a sexist way, I would say that the war had made them “men,” and they demanded to be treated as such.

On the other hand, the war and its aftermath locked most of these workers into mainstream America. Wars are always about getting people in one country to hate those in another. If this can be done once, it can be done again; all that is needed is for the state to declare a new enemy. After the war, the new enemy was the Soviet Union and, by implication, all radical thinking and acting. It was no accident that the labour movement was held up as an entity infiltrated by communists and further, that  workers would have to repudiate the reds in their unions if they were to maintain membership in U.S. society. War gets people used to obeying orders issued by the state, and this habit of mind worked to good advantage from the employers’ perspective when they strove to regain the power they had lost during the heyday of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). Workers who insisted on trying to deepen what the CIO had achieved before and during the war—greater control by workers of their workplaces, a weakening of racism, solidarity with workers in other countries, the beginnings of a social welfare state—were simply declared enemies of the state, on a par with the defeated Germans and Japanese. The workers in my hometown, never especially radical to begin with and deeply influenced by the war and by the Catholic Church, bought into the new patriotism of anti-communism wholeheartedly and, in the process, never seized the opportunity to use the new union strength to deepen their class consciousness.

To help workers embrace the Cold War, the government initiated a variety of programs aimed at giving them a greater material stake in U.S. society. The most important of these was the subsidization of home mortgages. Millions of working class families bought homes on the cheap, usually away from the cities and towns in the new and more isolated and diffuse suburbs. Home ownership came to define the “good life” for workers, and the constant care and worry that had to be devoted to home ownership left workers with little time for anything else, except perhaps to sit around the television every night to live through the characters on the various drama and comedy shows. An enormous amount of propaganda was devoted (and still is) to the wonders of owning a house and the satisfaction to be gained by living in one with a family whose members were devoted to one another. This and the array of consumer goods needed to maintain a home were all that workers needed to be happy. My parents bought our house in 1950. For them this represented both a bold move and a declaration that they were part of the “American Century.” Their lives devolved away from work and class solidarity toward a more limited and insular family life.

Subsidized home ownership was restricted to whites, who often signed covenants in which they obligated themselves not to sell their houses to minorities. The denial of home ownership to blacks further separated the races and made interracial solidarity all the more unlikely. When I was twelve years old, I took a very large paper route, with more than one hundred customers scattered over a five-mile set of interconnected roads. Every customer lived in a single-family house; no one rented. I had no black customers.

The impact of living in the factory town on my consciousness came mainly through the schools. Like everyone else, I was in school for thousands of hours during my most formative years, so it was impossible not to be influenced by what I was and was not taught. In retrospect, it is fair to say that, in terms of what went on in the town and in the larger society, the schools were in one sense a mirror image and in another way a fantasy world. Working-class boys and girls have always been cannon fodder for society’s least desirable jobs, and the schools did their best to make this appear inevitable. The few with high IQs, as evidenced by their scores on tests which were designed not to measure anything of relevance about us except our skill at taking such tests, were placed in special sections and given an opportunity to escape our class or at least move into its upper reaches. The rest were consigned to courses that would prepare them to take the orders and perform the mundane tasks necessary to produce the mass consumption goods that would make them happy. It was understood that we were in our section because that is where our intelligence objectively placed us, and, for the most part, we believed this. I have no doubt that the teachers believed this as well. Not only did this separation of “smart” from “dumb” make it unlikely that students would develop a sense of solidarity, but as it became part of our self-consciousness, it also made us believe that we were ourselves responsible for our fate. I was in Section One because I was superior; you were in Section Seven because you were inferior. I would go to college because I deserved it, and you would go to the factory for the same reason. I would show the world that class was not a barrier to success. You would show everyone that you were just too lazy to deserve what I got. The fact that the kids in the lower sections were more likely to be poor and black reinforced class and race stereotypes. Teachers did nothing to discourage any of this.

The schools I attended never told us the truth about the world in which we lived, and it is in this sense that I say that they were fantasy worlds. There were two parts to the lies at the heart of my education: what the teachers told us and what they did not tell us. They told us that the United States was a kind of paradise on earth and that other countries were either inferior or evil. They told us that Christopher Columbus was a great explorer and discoverer. They told us that the people decided through their votes how the nation would be governed. But of far greater importance was what they did not tell us. Nothing about racism, nothing about American Indians, nothing about the misery foisted upon the poor nations and peoples of the world by the rich ones, nothing about progressive social movements. Nothing about the factories that dominated our town. Nothing about unions, despite the fact that nearly every man in town belonged to one. Nothing about the arts except the Shakespeare of Julius Caesar and a few other “safe” writers. Nothing but clichés and trivialities about the rest of the world. Nothing about capitalism. I cannot today remember a single inspiring lesson from my teachers. Some were nice; a couple of the science and math teachers were smart and gave us a decent background in these subjects; most were harmless. But none were scholars, and none gave me insight into the political economy that makes the world go ‘round.

My high school was a public school. Before I went there, I attended a Catholic school. Here, ignorance reigned supreme, and the main goal was to suppress thinking and desire and encourage blind faith. Obedience, fear of authority, guilt—these were the staples of a Catholic education.

Naturally, some students rebelled again such an insipid education. However, most rebellion just reinforced the social outcomes the schools were established to guarantee. Rather than demand that we be taught something relevant and useful to our making a good life for ourselves, boys and girls rebelled by cutting classes and refusing to do any work at all. This led to poor grades and evaluations by the teachers and a ticket to a dead-end working class life.

After high school, I left the factory town for good, first to attend college and graduate school and then to take a job as a college teacher. I got out of the working class, at least the industrial worker part of it. But my class background and consciousness, such as they were, followed me.

When I became a professor, I encountered new ambivalences. Professors have not historically thought of themselves as workers; if anything, they have thought themselves superior to workers and more closely aligned with society’s elites. Though professors might disdain the bourgeoisie, they would no doubt prefer to dine with a successful businessman than a ditch digger.

So here I was in an elite job, fulfilling my parents’ hope that I wouldn’t be a factory worker. But I was among “colleagues”—an odd word for me—who had little knowledge of or sympathy with working people. If I was to succeed on this new job, I would have to take on the habits of mind and behavior of the other professors, thinking and acting in ways alien to the lives of my parents and the residents of my hometown. I would have to dress differently. I would have to curb my instinct to use words like “fuck” and “asshole.” I would have to adopt a more impersonal style of speech. In a word, I would have to behave myself.

College and graduate school had taken off some of the rough edges of a working-class youth, but they had not prepared me for what I encountered as a professor. There were enough boys like me in college, so I could act pretty much as I did at home. It was exhilarating to be in a school where I didn’t have to apologize for being smart and eager to learn, and where I was thought to be a diamond in the rough. In graduate school, I stayed to myself and hung out with friends from my hometown, which was not far away. I never learned to act like a professor.

I disliked my new environment, and I didn’t fare well at first. I enjoyed teaching, especially since so many of the students were from working-class families. The college was located in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a famous old steel town, best known for the great flood of 1889, caused by the neglect of the dam at a private retreat of Pittsburgh’s business elite. Johnstown was my hometown writ a little larger; when I arrived there in 1969 there were more than 12,000 steel workers at the enormous Bethlehem Steel plant and the smaller one owned by U.S. Steel. The students were a lot like me, and I felt that I could teach them some of the things I wished I had been taught. The teachers and the administrators were another matter. They seemed alien to me, pretentious and disconnected from the real world. I had to stay because I would have been drafted and very likely sent to Vietnam if I quit. But I couldn’t imagine ever liking the place or prospering there. My colleagues and I didn’t speak the same language. I remember one of them saying, in response to something I said that betrayed my class background, “Well, you can take Mike out of Ford City [my hometown], but you can’t take Ford City out of Mike.”

Although I didn’t think much of the college, I was proud to be a professor. My parents wanted me to get an education and a professional job and sacrificed so that I could. And I didn’t want to live in my hometown or work in the factory. By nineteen, I knew that I wanted to continue studying, and by the time I began to teach, I had gone far beyond my parents and nearly all of the townspeople in terms of what I knew. My values, too, were different than theirs. I had scrapped religion and patriotism. This created some tension and some guilt. I tried to live in both worlds. The college hired some good teachers in the early 1970s, and I became friendly with them. They seemed more knowledgeable and sophisticated—I took crash courses of self-education in music, literature, and art so that I could hold my own in conversations. Then I would go to my parents’ home on weekends and go to the racetrack with friends and my father’s factory buddies. This was my way of saying that I was still a regular guy.

One of the best things about being a college teacher is that you have time to read and reflect. And teaching is the best way to learn. You cannot explain ideas to others unless you know them well yourself. The war in Vietnam had forced me to think about my beliefs. The drug-sodden and shattered friends returning to my hometown from the war belied the propaganda of the government. My own life and that of my students put the lie to the mainstream economics I had learned and was teaching. I couldn’t ignore this. Once you embark upon an intellectual life, you want to know why things are happening and you want to make sense of your own life.

By accident, my thinking was given a jolt that changed my life. I describe it in an essay later, so won’t repeat it here. I never taught the same way again. After that day, I moved steadily to the left and became a radical, which helped me find a way back to the working class. To see the profound and systemic inequality in my society meant that I had to try to change things. Intellectual understanding is a form of hypocrisy if it isn’t matched by action. If I was no longer a member of the working class, I could ally myself with it, actively. I could help workers to organize unions. I could help them with individual grievances. I could teach workers. I could abandon traditional academic professional development and write for workers. I could even try to re-conceptualize professors as workers, something that became easier as I witnessed teaching becoming more like other jobs as administrators began running the colleges like businesses and treating the professors more like replaceable employees.

*This  essay is from my book, In and Out of the Working Class (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2009).