White Shirt, Blue Collar | The Nation


White Shirt, Blue Collar

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Walkowitz has deftly linked therapy to the conservative retreat. But in the process he tends to conflate Freud's theories with the conservative uses of them, to demean the value of psychotherapy to the poor and to take a fairly standard leftist line on the perils of consumerism. Although most poor people need decent incomes, not mental rehabilitation, poverty does make some people sick, just as stress and neurosis drive many professionals to the therapist. The benefits of psychotherapy should not be reserved for those with the ability to pay. If the ability to pay for these and other elements of the good life is to be labeled "consumerism," we need more of it. If, to the dismay of critics, higher income results in the creation of more "working middle class" people, maybe we can get back to some of the pressing issues of late capitalism: how more of us can achieve the good life and have the time to enjoy it.

About the Author

Stanley Aronowitz
Stanley Aronowitz is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of The Knowledge...

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By the sixties private-agency social work had merged with individual psychology, but to address the great migration of black and Latino poor to urban areas that were deindustrializing, public welfare bureaucracies recruited tens of thousands of caseworkers to handle the burgeoning caseload resulting from mass unemployment. In the process, a new hybrid of worker and professional was being formed. Welfare departments hired virtually anyone with a bachelor's degree, many of them young men seeking to avoid the draft. The credential was less than that of a professional but more than that of a clerk. The caseworker was offered a low salary, an impossibly heavy caseload and almost no workplace amenities.

In New York the dormant Social Service Employees Union (SSEU), now affiliated with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, was suddenly infused with thousands of new members determined to change their own and their clients' living conditions. But in Walkowitz's words:

The legacy of the enhanced professionalism of the 1950s made the middle-class social workers who organized a new radical social worker union in 1961 fundamentally different from their 1930s predecessors. Their commitment to fighting for clients' rights promised to strengthen the bonds between Jews and blacks in New York City's [welfare department], but their allegiance to a professional ideology ultimately fatally undermined their ability to resist divisive managerial attacks.

Unlike its predecessors, which organized on an industrial basis, the new union formed a craft organization and left the recruitment of maintenance and clerical workers (most of whom were black and Puerto Rican) to others. Still, between 1964 and 1970, SSEU conducted two widely publicized strikes, both of which incorporated client demands. For a brief moment the mobilized rank and file acted and talked like radical trade unionists. But hobbled by its own professionalism, sectarian splits and attacks by its parent union as well as by City Hall, it was unable to maintain an independent course, and many of its most talented activists departed for other venues.

Class is as class does. Even though ownership and control, or the lack of it, may be the necessary condition for what it means to be part of a definite socioeconomic class, how people describe themselves and how they act often trumps this objective definition. Professionalism is not only a system of beliefs and values, it is also a set of practices that places its agents on the employer's side of the class divide. As Walkowitz argues (but only tacitly), the ambivalence of the working-middle-class position is resolved mostly by credentialed labor's political will to act on its political and economic interests rather than on loyalty to management. As corporate America increasingly defines credentialed labor as temporary and contingent rather than as respected professional service, many are helping to build a new and unconventional labor movement. Walkowitz's book is a major contribution to understanding this project.

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