White Shirt, Blue Collar

White Shirt, Blue Collar

In 1992, as the United States wallowed in recession, presidential candidate Bill Clinton began to use the term “working middle class” to describe millions of Americans who were being hurt by the


In 1992, as the United States wallowed in recession, presidential candidate Bill Clinton began to use the term “working middle class” to describe millions of Americans who were being hurt by the restructuring of the American economy. This apparent oxymoron referred to two distinct groups: the mass of well-paid unionized industrial workers who in the post-World War II era were able to afford houses, late-model cars and their kids’ college tuition but were now suffering permanent job losses; and the growing professional and technical classes who were experiencing a steep decline in their status. The plight of the blue-collar workers was a familiar story. But it was harder to grasp that the professionals, too, began to feel the economic squeeze and, perhaps just as important, were coming to know what it meant to be a closely supervised employee rather than one who expected to enjoy work autonomy. Many discovered that their pay as much as their working conditions was deteriorating. And some were unexpectedly suffering from the epidemic of downsizing.

By the middle of the nineties the future of the middle class had become a hot political issue and a labor question. For example, the fastest-growing sector of the labor movement was that of unions of physicians, nurses and academics, especially graduate assistants in major universities; and Microsoft, the hugely successful software company that nevertheless had installed a two-tiered system for computer professionals, faced an AFL-CIO organizing drive. However, we have no vocabulary to explain the sudden appearance of class issues among those groups that have been the embodiment of the American belief in social mobility.

When referring to class we are usually content to speak in terms of the growing “inequality gap” and in other descriptive euphemisms. Some identify class oppression with the very poor in images derived from films like The Grapes of Wrath or understand class as a subcategory of racism. Others cling to a stereotypical version of the industrial worker and never seem to notice that while still formidable in the US and world economy, under the knife of technology and corporate restructuring blue-collar production jobs are declining in both absolute and relative numbers. The growth occupations–now one-sixth of the labor force–are those in the production and distribution of knowledge and information. We loosely describe them as “professionals” and imagine that they are comfortable in their middle-class identities. But we have trouble explaining why many of them act like “workers” when they join unions and even strike for higher salaries and more control over their work.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the public’s and the labor movement’s misperception of the plight of professionals was the air-traffic controllers’ fiasco in the summer of 1981. By striking against the federal government, the relatively well-paid controllers violated federal law and their own collective-bargaining agreement. Many, both in and out of unions, who find professional unionism anomalous wondered why they walked out. The issue was not so much wages as the nerve-racking working conditions. The confusion enabled President Reagan to fire 11,000 of them amid their own union’s and the AFL-CIO’s failure to make its case in the court of public opinion. Consequently, the union was broken, and it took years to mend. Yet, as books like Grace Budrys’s When Doctors Join Unions have shown, the reasons that professionals organize embrace salary issues but are also fundamentally linked to their feeling of degradation. The essays in Will Teach for Food, edited by Cary Nelson, discuss this combination of factors that has led to the astounding rise of more than thirty graduate-assistant unions during the nineties at major public and private universities.

In his new book, Working With Class, historian Daniel Walkowitz provides a complex but readable account of the development of social work, one of the large and important professions whose history, in many ways, foreshadows what other professions are now experiencing. Walkowitz constructs his book around the metaphor of identity crisis: the conflict between the social worker’s gradual recognition that she has “much in common with workers everywhere” and her hunger for professional status, which she sees as the route to freedom from insecurity and subordination on the job. While Walkowitz helps us to understand social workers’ use of professional ideology to enhance their income, he exposes the consequences of this choice: Social work tends to become part of the problems it wants to solve.

Social workers may be considered the prototype of the double consciousness of the working middle class. Since the turn of the twentieth century, most professionals have worked for salaries, and social workers are no exception. They expect their credentials to earn them autonomy at the workplace–the ability to make independent judgments concerning their clients’ best interests. Yet, they are typically subject to work rules imposed by management and can be disciplined for breaking them. As Walkowitz observes, social workers yearn for another of the perquisites of true professionalism: to live well. Unfortunately, their pay allows for few amenities.

Drawing on established literature on how American economic development since the Civil War has never “solved” the persistence of widespread poverty, Walkowitz tells the story of how private philanthropy attempted and ultimately failed to address the problem with an army of upper-middle-class volunteer women who, prior to the 1880s, were the heart and soul of the social services. Overwhelmed, private philanthropy and public social welfare agencies replaced “Lady Bountiful” with a new army of salaried workers. They were usually badly paid and, for this reason, tended to be women. They aspired to professional status, but the employing agencies resisted this demand. As Walkowitz shows, like some clergy, social workers in the first decades of the twentieth century were obliged to take virtual vows of poverty and commonly worked long hours for substandard pay. During those years they were likely to remain single. Together with teachers, many women among them were cast in the role of the dedicated spinster and were married only to their vocation and their clients.

One of the most vivid stories Walkowitz tells is that of the social workers’ long and hard fight to win professional status. Inevitably, they had to endure comparison with physicians, lawyers and professors. The prestigious 1915 Flexner report on medical education found that social workers, “possessing no special skills, could never become ‘true’ professionals.” In order to bid up the price of their labor, social workers established degree programs that could exclude the uncredentialed from practice. A century after its emergence, social work is still struggling for professional recognition and living standards comparable to similar occupations. The line worker who provides direct services to clients is all but donating her services to the agency that employs her. In today’s market, to go to school full time and obtain a master’s degree she must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to complete the standard two-year program. Upon graduation she is likely to be offered less than $30,000 a year to start. Many spend half their working life paying back loans. Walkowitz links this dire state of affairs to gender. Social work has always attracted large numbers of women, who today account for 75 percent of the field. In fact, their salaries compare badly with those of their sister professions, for example schoolteachers, who after 1970 entered unions en masse and are now the most organized sector of the country’s working population.

Walkowitz offers a trenchant critique of the trajectory of social work. With some exceptions, social work remains a policing occupation. But in two rare moments, the thirties and the sixties, many social workers were at the forefront of reform: They identified with movements such as the black freedom struggles and defined themselves as part of the radical labor movement. Social workers combined their own struggles with those of their clients. Inspired by Communist leadership in the fight for a massive public relief program in the early thirties, they formed the Rank and File Movement, which was at the cusp of these struggles. They formed their own unions, especially in New York, where Local 19 managed to organize social workers in nearly every Jewish welfare organization despite the opposition of philanthropic leaders, many of whom were prominent Jewish manufacturers, merchants and bankers.

The cold war interrupted the forward march of social-work unionism. Like other locals that were under Communist leadership, Local 19’s parent, the United Office and Professional Workers of America (UOPWA) at first refused to sign the Taft-Hartley provision that required union officers to sign a non-Communist affidavit as a condition for protection under the National Labor Relations Act. As a result, employers were no longer required to maintain collective-bargaining relationships with the local and began to discharge and otherwise harass its activists. Management encouraged anti-Communist unions to intervene. By the time UOPWA agreed to sign and force retirement of the Communists among its leadership, Local 19 had been decimated.

Walkowitz’s sympathies are plainly with the CP-led unions. He convincingly shows that by promoting their working-class side and by achieving genuine power through union organization, the party and its activists began to overcome the debilitating effects of social workers’ professional class identity. Although sharply critical of the mainstream labor movement for its collaboration with the cold war, he disputes accounts that ascribe the decline of the left in the labor movement exclusively to McCarthyite repression. For Walkowitz the Communist left bears some responsibility for its own demise:

[The Communist Party] fought hard and well, establishing the principle of trade unionism in social work. But to Jewish agency staff, who provided the core of Rank-and-Filers, the troubling positions of the Communist Party [on the Nazi-Soviet Pact] and the tendency of some prominent union leaders to genuflect before them began to drain the political energy and resonance of the “proletarian” ideology from the identity of the professional worker.

The demise of proletarian ideology among social workers was, according to Walkowitz, assisted by two important postwar developments: the dramatic rise of consumer society and the introduction of a vast clinical practice based on Freudian psychoanalysis, widely disseminated at precisely the moment of the raging anti-Communist labor wars. Under the influence of the new therapeutic practice, it was not long before professionalism returned with a vengeance. These influences reinforced tendencies–deeply embedded in the older casework–to pathologize the poor, thus undermining the idea that the socioeconomic system produced poverty. In a curious reversion to prevailing nineteenth-century belief, the poor themselves could again be blamed for their condition–with not laziness but mental illness needing treatment.

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.

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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