Weekend Armchair: UC Press Staff’s Recommended Labor Day Reading

Happy Labor Day! In celebration and solidarity of the strides made for worker’s rights, and of the struggles that laborers continue to face today, we’ve prepared a list of suggested UC Press titles. For this recommended reading list, we polled a selection of Bay Area book aficionados—UC Press staff, that is!—on their most recommended titles on labor and the labor movement.

Read on, and please enjoy this long-awaited edition of “Weekend Armchair”!

On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South by Vanesa Ribas

I first read On the Line in pre-release galley form on a plane en route to the American Sociological Association’s 2015 meeting; subsequently, I spent the whole conference (and many months after) ruminating over it, especially Ribas’ observations on ‘prismatic engagement’ and the averse effects of racial triangulation. Now more than ever, we need to listen to the voices of immigrant workers and working class people of color, and Ribas’ ethnography brings them—and their relationships to each other—into the forefront.

—Danielle Rivera, PR and Marketing Assistant


In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte by David Bacon

Never have I thought about how the food at my table got there until seeing David Bacon’s photos. It was the first time that I really saw the farmworkers who feed us—tired eyes, calloused hands, and the small living quarters that they’ve made home. Despite the backbreaking work and the miles between them and their families, they’ve created a community that helps other communities flourish. It’s heart-wrenching, hopeful, and eye-opening.

—Chris Sosa Loomis, Senior Marketing Manager


America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson

I’d not previously heard of Fred Ross or known of his trailblazing work as an activist, and was initially drawn to this fascinating book by its title, as I too aspire to be a “social arsonist”—an appealingly incendiary alternative to today’s prim and proper “change agent.” Reading through Gabriel Thompson’s superb biography and social history, I learned that the renegade Ross truly walked it like he talked it, managing the labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s depiction of the hardscrabble settlement in The Grapes of Wrath, and later crossing paths with a young Cesar Chavez. Antifa protesters would do well to read up on Ross and adopt his effective organizing tactics.

—Steven Jenkins, Development Director


The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild

This book is high on my list of next-to-read UC Press books. As the desk and exam copy liaison, I see a lot of requests for this title for university courses and have always been intrigued by the concept of human emotion as emotional labor and how that is manipulated in the work force.

—Pauline Kuykendall, Coursebook Outreach


Nightshift NYC by Russell Leigh Sharman and Cheryl Harris Sharman, photography by Corey Hayes

Nightshift NYC was the first UC Press book I read after starting working at the Press. The book is an exploration of the lives of people who work all night long in New York City. You can’t have a city that doesn’t sleep without people who stay up all night to keep the lights on, transportation moving, and the stores, diners, and watering holes open. For those of us who work a 9am to 5pm job and sleep at night, it is a fascinating and well written look into the lives of people whose work is mostly invisible to us.

—Deb Nasitka, Systems Development Manager


Sal Si Puedes (Escape if You Can) by Peter Matthiessen

This has been on my to-read list for a while, but I still haven’t gotten to it. Maybe this is the weekend! It’s the legendary Peter Matthiessen writing about the great labor movement leader, Cesar Chavez, and it’s a classic of the history of the labor movement in the United States. Well worth spending some time with.

—Erich van Rijn, Interim Director



The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli

Before reading The Big Rig, I’d never really considered the working life of a long haul trucker. Somehow I associated the profession with freedom and flexibility. On the contrary. Steve Viscelli reveals how poorly paid and demanding the work is, how exploited truckers are, and how few options drivers have to improve their working conditions or pay. His book draws on many hours of interviews and observations, but his first-hard accounts are particularly compelling: “I had spent 16 hours driving through traffic, delivering and picking up freight, and waiting, but I would only be paid for the 215 miles I drove. At 26 cents per mile, I had earned a grand total of $56, or $3.50 per hour.”

—Kate Warne, Managing Editor

Introducing A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. These seven things, according to Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, have made our world and will have an unmistakable impact on its future. Bringing the latest ecological research together with histories of colonialism, indigenous struggles, slave revolts, and other rebellions and uprisings, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things demonstrates that throughout history, crises have always prompted fresh strategies to make the world cheap and safe for capitalism.

Read on to find out a bit more about each of the authors, and click here to read the first chapter of the book for free on our website.



Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.

Law and Order and the Last Great Strike in America

by Ahmed White, author of The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America

Several weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, millions of Americans have skipped work, walked off their jobs, or otherwise demonstrated in protest of his policies. Many others are planning to do so in the weeks ahead. For those of us who study strikes and protests, these developments are at once thrilling and portentous, particularly in light of the peculiar place that strikes occupy in our country’s history. For most of American history since the late Nineteenth Century, it was quite a normal thing for people to go out on strike. In 1937, for instance, over 7 percent of American workers went out on strike; in 1946, that number reached 10 percent. Even as recently as 1970, almost six million men and women spent some time out on strike. But recently strikes have been exceedingly uncommon with only a handful each year. Even most union members have never been on strike.

Why are strikes so uncommon? The reasons are complicated, but one important thing stands out. The strikes of the 1930s and 1940s, especially, were extremely effective. They built the modern labor movement, upheld the New Deal against reactionary attacks, and ensured the foundations of the postwar political system. But precisely because they were so effective, the strikes were the targets of relentless counterattack by powerful business interests and their allies in government. At first, the dominant response to strikes in this period was a rather simple and venerable one. Strikes were considered presumptively illegitimate and often met with naked force, only crudely justified by law. Put into practice, this approach left probably 200 workers dead in the 1930s alone. However, later in that decade, even as some of the most violent strikes were still unfolding, the approach to strikes was rebuilt around the notion that, while the right was guaranteed by federal law and the U.S. Constitution, it was far from absolute and had to yield if strikers were violent or coercive. Although superficially reasonable, the real import of this new approach was to make the kinds of strikes that promised to be effective also the most costly for strikers and most likely to be found unlawful. And not because only disorderly strikes could be effective, but because even the anticipation of coercion or violence on the part of strikers was enough to justify arresting them, firing them, enjoining their picket lines, and using lawful force against them. Nor was the fact that strikers might have been provoked to act in these ways much of an excuse. The most notable example of this new approach can be found in one of the most tragic episodes in the history of protest: the 1937 “Little Steel” Strike, in which steel companies and their allies killed at least sixteen strikers in order to break a strike which they had caused, and yet paid almost no penalty for doing so. So it was that the repression of strikes was brought in line with modern notions of law and order.

Of course this all happened a long time ago, in the unique context of the labor movement and the labor law. But the approach to the law and politics that underlie it are broadly established in American law and provide the basis of an important caution to anti-Trump protesters who may not be familiar with this story. That caution is this: These protests may never be particularly effective. So far, their effects seem pretty modest and the response to them relatively mild. But if they do succeed in challenging powerful interests in government and business, they are not unlikely to become the target of a campaign of repression which will paint them as irresponsible enemies of the social good, regardless of how protesters have actually comported themselves. The history of striking in America tell us that you can bet on that.

Ahmed White is a Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His scholarship centers on the intersection of labor and criminal law and on the concept of rule of law.

Trump’s American Dream: You’ll Have to Be Asleep to Believe It

By Victor Tan Chen, author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy

While there are many reasons why Donald Trump won the election, it’s clear that the movement of the white working class away from the Democratic Party had something to do with it. Given that this demographic seems to have put Trump over the top in the Electoral College, what do we expect his administration’s policies to do for this group—and for the working class (which, importantly, is increasingly nonwhite) more broadly?

First, his proposed tax plan will dramatically increase income inequality in this country. It will be a windfall for elites—particularly the richest 0.1%, America’s corporate executives and Wall Street financiers—who already have rewritten the rules of the economic game to favor them. Meanwhile, it will punish millions of low-income and single-parent families by stripping away some of their tax deductions. (Ironically, the white working class that broke decisively for Trump has been increasingly falling into this latter camp.)

Second, labor unions—historically, a voice for ordinary workers and an engine of greater economic equality—will take a hit. The Republican Party will accelerate its nationwide push to enact state “right to work” laws—which, shockingly, now hold sway in states where unions once thrived, like Michigan. They will likely put forward a national version of “right to work.” Trump’s Supreme Court appointee will hold the decisive vote in the coming court battle over efforts to further weaken public-sector unions, whose growth in recent decades has been a rare bright spot for organized labor in this country. The person he chooses will undoubtedly side with the rest of the conservative majority to allow nonmembers to freeride—partake of the benefits won by these unions without contributing anything from their paychecks in return. As I argue in my book, labor unions were essential in creating the “moral economy” that reigned in America in the years after World War II, when workers without much in the way of education could organize, collectively bargain for high wages, and persuasively lobby for pro-worker policies—in the process, securing a degree of middle-class prosperity. Further declines in union membership and government social spending will also erode the institutional foundations of a valuable support and retraining system that today’s workers will sorely need if they are to adapt to a quickly changing economic landscape.

On the other hand, Trump’s efforts to shame companies into keeping jobs in America could bear fruit. One of the problems that American workers face is that norms among business leaders have changed, so that not only is extravagant executive compensation no longer seen as unseemly, but downsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring have become standard operating procedures. The presidential bully pulpit can be a potent weapon—as abrupt changes in norms about gay marriage following Obama’s about-face on this issue showed. In a similar vein, it is conceivable that Trump’s in-your-face approach to foreign affairs will give the administration some leverage in future negotiations over global trade deals. All this said, I am generally pessimistic about Trump’s ability to win back many of the good manufacturing jobs that have been lost to trade—mainly because automation has eliminated even more of those jobs. Technological change, and not foreign competition, seems to be the chief threat moving forward, with even middle-class jobs for well-educated workers likely to be automated away in the years ahead. But any comprehensive strategy to deal with the potentially massive net loss of jobs—such as enacting a universal basic income—will get no traction in a Republican-controlled Congress. Likewise, America’s trading partners now hold a stronger hand than they did when deals like NAFTA were brokered. Within this changing world order, trade wars are not likely to turn out well for the US economy.

In my book, I argue that a crucial reason that unemployed Canadian workers do not fare as poorly as their American counterparts is the single-payer healthcare system up north—which means that an unexpected trip to the hospital, for instance, won’t saddle them with a hefty bill. (Surviving without a job often amounts to having the luck to avoid these sudden income shocks—and health insurance, by definition, insures against those shocks.) With Trump in the presidency, I’m less sanguine than many commentators are that Obamacare can survive in any substantial form. Without the need to overturn a presidential veto, Republican lawmakers can pursue a variety of strategies to either roll back its various measures or indirectly starve them of funding. Of course, some Republicans are having cold feet at the moment about taking away the insurance of millions of Americans. But gerrymandered congressional districts mean that many of them won’t pay much of a political price for their votes, and in any case the ideological extremism of today’s Republican Party is such that fear of being primaried from the right will likely outweigh fear of any general-election backlash.

The conclusion of my book makes the case for a politics of grace—a push, led by social movements, to move society away from the unrelenting and unforgiving culture of success and status-seeking that now prevails, and that debases the self-worth of the working class above all. Unfortunately, the Trump administration will likely advance the exact opposite set of values: a politics of vengeance and domination. Short-fused, mercurial, and unable to control his fury over the tiniest slights, Trump seems driven more by a desire to settle scores with those who oppose him than any core ideological commitments. In his pronouncements from the bully pulpit, he has made it clear that he is about America “winning”—as he personally, through his attainment of extravagant wealth and fame, believes he has done. But the pursuit of a Trumpian American dream of materialism and self-interest will take us even farther from the civic-minded ideals of the early republic. As rising inequality stamps out opportunities for rags-to-riches stories of success, and the Trump administration’s promises to working people prove to be worthless, that narrow dream of national greatness may, in fact, take on another, darker meaning: as George Carlin put it, “It’s called the American dream ’cause you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Victor Tan Chen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the founding editor of In the Fray magazine. He is the coauthor, with Katherine S. Newman, of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.

Home to Roost: Activist Research in the Deep South

by Angela Stuesse, author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

9780520287211Set in Mississippi, my new book, Scratching out a Living takes readers into the chicken processing plants and surrounding communities in the Deep South to explore how new Latinx migration is transforming the region. But I came upon this project—upon the South—quite accidentally.

I hadn’t worked there previously or been focused on food or workplace justice, though I had been interested immigrant communities’ political mobilization. More importantly, I was committed to collaborative research that could both help us better understand lived social problems andcontribute to addressing those conditions. Specifically, I was trained in activist research at a time when my mentors were beginning to build the case for politically engaged scholarship that was in conversation and explicit political alignment with those people most closely affected by—and actively organizing to change—the social problems under study.

The idea of an anthropology that could simultaneously shed light on relations of inequality and be used as a tool by marginalized communities seeking social justice led me into dialogue with a budding coalition of folks in rural Mississippi—immigrant and civil rights advocates, labor unions, faith leaders, employment justice attorneys, and poultry workersgrappling with questions of worker justice within the context of new Latinx immigration into the area’s chicken plants.

I began by spending a summer in Mississippi with them, asking how research might advance their work to help immigrant and U.S.-born poultry workers improve their wages, working conditions, and quality of life. I quickly realized that there were more obstacles than resources for organizing workers across the differences of race, language, and citizenship that divide them, and I spent the better part of the next six years there alongside a budding workers’ center, trying to understand, explain, and help poultry workers overcome those challenges to building their collective power.  The book essentially tells this story.

The story begins with the founding of the poultry industry amid vast relations of racial inequality. I trace the entrance of African Americans into the plants, their history of struggle, and the industry’s recruitment of Latinx immigrant workers to gain greater control over the labor force. I consider the racialized reception of these newcomers and examine they myriad ways in which their presence in the plants has complicated efforts to organize workers. The story concludes with an exploration of the workers’ center’s efforts to bring workers into dialogue across difference. In the postscript I reflect upon my experiment in activist research, and I’ve been excited to see people are using it to talk with students about the promises and challenges of politically engaged methodologies.

Folks who are interested can watch a two-minute video trailer and learn more about the book at AngelaStuesse.com. There they will also find a free teaching guide. In addition to questions meant to stimulate synthesis, analysis, and reflection, the guide also contains a list of resources—films, art, and interactive websites—and ideas for action. It is my hope that readers’ engagement with the ideas in this book will lead them to explore further the challenges of immigration, race relations, labor exploitation, and community change, and to take action on these issues to make their campus, their city, their country, and our world a better place.

At this year’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Angela Stuesse will participate, along with politically engaged anthropologists Christen A. Smith and David Vine, in Activism and Anthropology: A Book Reading and Dialogue About Race, Immigration and War. To be held at the Minneapolis Central Library, this session will explore the connections between these authors’ recent books in order toidentify and build connections between #BlackLivesMatter, Black liberation struggles in Brazil, labor organizing in the U.S. South, immigrant justice, and the anti-war movement.

When sharing on social media, please be sure to use the #AAA2016 hashtag!

Stuesse (NS)Angela Stuesse is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Learn more about Dr. Stuesse here: www.angelastuesse.com/bio/

A Different Kind of Broken Windows Theory

By Adia Wingfield, co-author of “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” (found in Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World)

When we think about work, it’s easy to imagine someone sitting at a desk, working with their hands, or doing some other sort of immediate task. But the fact is that the nature of work is changing, with many aspects of it becoming increasingly invisible to customers, supervisors, and even other workers. Retail workers do the aesthetic labor of dressing and presenting themselves in a manner that is consistent with the store’s image. Call center workers provide labor that is never seen by those on the other end of the phone. And significantly, there are racial underpinnings to the way that much of this invisible labor operates.

My coauthor Renee Skeete and I write about this in our chapter “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” out now in Marion Crain, Winnie Poster, and Miriam Cherry’s anthology Invisible Labor. We make the argument that these organizations are undergirded by largely unseen “racial tasks” routinely performed by workers of color. These tasks vary depending on where workers are situated in the organizational hierarchy, but they usually involve maintaining systems of racial segregation and white advantage. Workers at the top levels of an organization complete racial tasks such as maintaining an organizational culture or conforming to norms that otherize workers of color. Those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy may find that racial tasks become less centered on establishing culture and more focused on maintaining and upholding physical structures that subtly (or overtly) reinforce racial messages.

Take the case of Corey Menafee, an African American dishwasher recently fired from Yale University for breaking a stained glass window. On its surface, this appears to be a story about simple vandalism and destruction of property. But the window Menafee broke was a stained glass window that depicted an image of slaves picking cotton, in a dining hall named for a white supremacist who supported slavery, on a campus where racial tensions were high after students of color cited repeated of overt hostilities that rose to a boiling point when a residential dean suggested minority students simply ignore white peers who dressed in blackface for Halloween. This broader context highlights the way that racial tasks vary depending on a worker’s role in the organizational structure, as well as the ways these tasks reinforce whites’ superordinate position relative to people of color. Maintaining a physical structure that depicts an overt image of black inferiority is an example of the sort of racial tasks with which those at the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy may be charged. As Menafee describes, his frustrations with doing this task on a routine basis eventually reached a breaking point.

Renee Skeete’s and my chapter in Invisible Labor discusses other similar examples of racial tasks. One key argument that we wanted to make here is that the existing models for work do not necessarily include the ways that there are aspects of labor which are racialized, covert, and often overlooked for people of color. We theorize racial tasks as implicit requirements that are expected of these workers, and often go unnoticed unless they are not completed—such as when Corey Menafee broke the window. In order for workplaces to become more equitable, they will have to take into consideration not just the ways that racial disparities exist in certain professions and occupations, but also how workers of color take on additional responsibilities in the form of racial tasks.

Adia Wingfield is a Professor of Sociology at Washington University. She specializes in research that examines the ways intersections of race, gender, and class affect social processes at work. In particular, she is an expert on the workplace experiences of minority workers in predominantly white professional settings, and specifically on black male professionals in occupations where they are in the minority.

The Big Rig

by Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Your book is about trucking, but the trucking industry is huge. How do you study a whole industry?

I started by getting a job as a long-haul trucker. The book, like the research, begins with that experience and follows the career of a typical driver from initial recruitment, through training, working as an employee and then becoming an independent contractor. At each stage the book puts the experiences of individual drivers into the larger industry and historical context, including deregulation. But when I entered the industry I really had no idea what I was getting into. That turned out to be the perfect way to start the project because that’s how nearly all workers enter the industry and it really helped me to understand what these workers were experiencing and how employers were able to shape those experiences to their advantage. After learning to drive, I spent months crisscrossing the country delivering freight. Once I had a good sense of the job in the particular segment I was in, I started interviewing lots of drivers with more experience and in different kinds of trucking. Those interviews really opened my eyes as more experienced truckers helped me see that what I had experienced as a new driver was just one particular way of trucking. From there I did interviews with managers and owners and statistical analyses using secondary survey data. Then I gathered historical and other primary sources to understand changes in the industry over time. I looked at absolutely anything I thought might help me understand the industry and that’s what eventually allowed me to contextualize what I had experienced in my fieldwork and learned in the interviews and explain the structural conditions that produced the experiences of drivers today.

So what did you find? What can we learn from studying trucking?

Well, I went into the project knowing that trucking used to be a really good job and now it is a really tough one where people work the equivalent of two or more full-time jobs and sometimes barely earn minimum wage. Despite that, some of what I found out was still shocking. I met lots of workers who had become independent contractors and were responsible for all of the expenses of their trucks who sometimes didn’t make any money at all for a whole week. They were working 70-80 hours a week for free! And many of them were trapped by legal contracts that held the threat of tens of thousands of dollars in debt over their heads if they quit. They were literally debt-peons. As the research progressed I eventually learned that employers and third-parties working for them have created a whole network of information sources and consultants that convince workers to become contractors. It’s like a giant labor market confidence game and workers are the marks. The bigger take-away is that we can’t ignore the power – true class power – that employers have vis-à-vis labor in today’s largely unregulated labor markets. It’s real, it’s important, and we can’t understand the remarkable rise in inequality in the US without taking it into account.

Some of the stories of what happened to drivers in your book are heart breaking. What can be done to stop these employment practices?

Some of the stories are heart-breaking and there are many, many more that didn’t make it into the book. And unfortunately the same thing is happening to tens of thousands of workers right now – and not just in trucking. I see myself as a public sociologist so I very much hope that my book will help shine a light on the consequences of these practices for workers and the public. There are important challenges happening, including two class action lawsuits that have relied on my research. Beyond lawsuits, there are lots of particular things that could help, like paying truckers for all the work they do rather than just the miles they drive. And we can stop subsidizing through various programs and grants the cost of training new workers for some of the worst employers who have the highest rates of worker turnover. But in the end we have to address the imbalance of power between workers and employers. In the past truckers had a powerful union to represent and negotiate for them. Today most of them are protected only by our skeletal labor regulations and, frankly, these regulations don’t do much to protect these workers. We need to strengthen the laws around independent contracting so that workers are treated fairly. And we need to make those laws and the rights of workers simple and straightforward so workers understand and can act on them without the need of legal specialists and distant courts or regulators.


Steve Viscelli is a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. In addition to his academic research, he works with a range of public and private stakeholders to make the trucking industry safer, more efficient, and a better place to work. To learn more, please visit: http://www.steveviscelli.com/.

May Day for Media Workers

May Day, “International Worker’s Day,” is a curiously un-American holiday. Celebrated by labor groups and political parties outside the United States, it began in 1890 as a global day of solidarity to commemorate those who lost their lives in Chicago’s Haymarket Square while demonstrating for an eight-hour workday. Haymarket, a symbol of labor’s rising activism, also sparked America’s first major “red scare,” a political backlash that created tensions within the U.S. labor movement and hived it off from its counterparts around the world. That legacy is still with us, as most American labor organizations 9780520290853continue to frame issues through the prism of national interest. Even in Hollywood, labor groups describe their most pressing challenges in terms of “runaway production,” which is industry parlance for out-sourcing. Consequently, many workers fail to grasp the larger set of forces that is killing jobs, intensifying workplace pressures, and undermining creativity. They also have a hard time making connections between the challenges they face and those confronted by counterparts overseas. Interestingly, the situation isn’t so different in Bollywood (Mumbai), Nollywood (Lagos), and Prague, as demonstrated by two dozen scholars in Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor, a newly released UC Press volume that’s also available through the Luminos open access platform.

As these scholars show, motion picture production practices in cities around the world are growing more closely aligned under the pressures of media globalization and corporate conglomeration. Distribution protocols and audience behaviors are also converging. Although these transformations offer fresh opportunities for media makers and their fans, they also open the door to managerial strategies that exact a heavy toll on workers and make it difficult for them to organize and respond. Interestingly, one of the most widely shared complaints is about the long workdays that run well past the eight-hour limit advocated by Haymarket demonstrators more than a hundred years ago!

A demonstration by VFX workers outside the 2013 Oscars when “Life of Pi” was winning the special effects award only two weeks after the company that made the effects went bankrupt and the workers were fired. Learn more here.

Precarious Creativity provides a window into the everyday lives of film, television, and video game workers, while also offering a critical perspective that makes connections and comparisons across the globe. Essays also reflect on the prospects for labor activism and transnational organizing. We are therefore delighted to have the opportunity to release it on the Luminos open access platform where it is already reaching a global audience. Only weeks after publication Precarious Creativity has been accessed by readers in Nigeria, India, and the Czech Republic; and it has generated a bit of buzz stateside as well, even in Hollywood.

So here’s to May Day, and to greater awareness of the diverse yet interwoven challenges facing media workers around the world!

curtin_photoMichael Curtin is the Duncan and Suzanne Mellichamp Professor of Global Studies in the Department of Film and Media Studies and cofounder of the Media Industries Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His previous books include The American Television Industry; Reorienting Global Communication: Indian and Chinese Media Beyond Borders; Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV; andDistribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digitial Future of Film and Television.


eca5eb6b9121c94762157af75cda5077-bpfullKevin Sanson is a Lecturer in Entertainment Industries at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is coeditor of Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television and Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, & Sharing Media in the Digital Era and is part of the founding editorial collective of Media Industries, the first peer-reviewed open-access journal for media industries research.


Skills of the “Unskilled”

By Jacqueline Hagan, co-author of Skills of the “Unskilled”: Work and Mobility among Mexican Migrants

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Chicago.Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Tuesday, August 25th. 

Which fallacies surrounding “unskilled” migrant workers do you especially seek to dispel through your book? 

Each year tens of thousands of international migrants with little schooling or formal credentials migrate to the United States and labor in industries and occupations upon which much of the U.S economy rests. Dominant theories of migration, labor, and human capital have largely ignored the experiences of skill acquisition and labor market mobility of these migrants, who are quickly categorized under the shorthand “unskilled” and deemed to be trapped in dead-end occupations at the bottom of the labor market. Needless to say, many of these migrants face exploitative conditions, legal uncertainty and receive inadequate compensation for their work. While numerous critical contributions to the scholarly literature have described and analyzed these precarious work conditions, in this book we have taken up the task of challenging the notion that migrants with low levels of formal education are “unskilled” and experience little or no economic mobility in their work and migration careers. We dispel the fallacy of the unskilled migrant by identifying the skills they acquire throughout their lives and across countries and social contexts—what we call lifelong human capital. We then identify mobility pathways associated with the acquisition and transfer of technical and social skills across the migratory circuit, including reskilling, occupational mobility, job jumping (brincando), and business formation.

9780520283732What implications do your findings have for future migration policy, in both the U.S. and Mexico?

Our findings have implications for the migration policies of both the United States and Mexico. There is a fundamental mismatch in current U.S. immigration policy that gives preference to “skilled” who rank high on traditional human capital attributes, such as years of formal schooling, and restricts the entry of “low-skilled “ migrants, a classification that ignores the high level of informal skills and working knowledge they bring to labor markets, especially in industries such as construction that have been partially vacated by the native born but traditionally characterized as very skilled. And while the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform has temporarily closed some opportunities to bring attention to the skills that so called “unskilled” migrants bring to U.S. labor markets, we believe our work, especially the skills classification scheme we developed and feature in our book, can inform the efforts of migrant advocacy groups, economic and social justice organizations and foundations, and bi-national institutions dedicated to workforce development and migrant and worker rights.

We also contend that similar programs can be implemented in Mexico to recognize and take advantage of the skills migrants bring with them upon return. Sizeable return flows are a long and persistent characteristic of the Mexico-U.S. migratory system. The great recession, stepped up enforcement, and a policy of mass deportations have impacted patterns of return migration to Mexico. While target earners might have decided to weather the recession and prolong their stay abroad, many others had no choice but to return due to forced removal by U.S. authorities or fear of incarceration. Although return migration declined between 2006 and 2010, the number of those removed from the United States increased significantly. During this period, approximately 1.2 million Mexicans were removed from the United States. According to Mexico’s census data, nearly one million individuals had returned home between 2005 and 2010. The Mexican federal government has a long history of building programs to serve Mexicans abroad, facilitate their social integration and encourage their remittances. In this context, it is notable that the Mexican government has not developed policies to reintegrate returning migrants to local and regional labor markets and to harness the skills acquired in the United States and transferred back home. Our research suggests that the Mexican government would be well served by supporting self-employment ventures and reintegration programs that recognize the enhanced skill sets of return migrants. For example, Mexico’s federal and state authorities could jointly develop employment information centers to screen return migrants, identify skills and match them with potential employers.

Through researching for Skills of the “Unskilled”, were you able to discover any areas you would be interested in exploring in the future?

Lingering research questions remain. Will those return migrants who have successfully transferred skills stay in Mexico? Will these return migrants continue to experience mobility within the Mexican labor market, especially in pronounced pattern of business formation? If so, what are implication of return migration and business formation for local development? Will those who acquired new skills in the United States but were not able to successfully transfer them back home be compelled to emigrate again? To tease out these complex questions, we returned to Guanajuato in summer, 2015, five years after we implemented our survey, with an eye towards understanding how family, life cycle processes, labor markets, and state and local institutions have shaped the lives of the return migrants and how they in turn have shaped their local economies. Once we have analyzed the data, we plan on drafting an epilogue to a new edition of “Skills of the “Unskilled:” Work and Mobility among Mexican Migrants. Stay tuned for the update!

Jacqueline Maria Hagan is Robert G. Parr Distinguished Term Professor of Sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests include international migration, labor markets, gender, religion, and human rights. She is author of Deciding to Be Legal and Migration Miracle.

Cut Loose

By Victor Tan Chen, author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy

This guest post, originally published by Virginia Commonwealth University News, is posted in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Chicago. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Tuesday, August 25th. 

How would you summarize the central argument of “Cut Loose”?

“Cut Loose” is about long-term unemployment and how it has changed in recent years. The book draws from my interviews and observations of unemployed autoworkers in America and Canada. It’s important to remember that the auto industry helped build a strong middle class in this country in the time after World War II. Autoworkers had good-paying jobs. They were represented by powerful unions. They symbolized a distinct way of looking at success: an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude that said, “Let’s lift up everyone at the same time.” And that was a prevalent viewpoint back then. For example, the American public used to overwhelmingly approve of unions. That’s not the case anymore.

Today, it’s more of a go-it-alone mentality, even among the workers I got to know. It’s about, “I get an education, I work hard and get the skills I need, and then I become successful.” It’s not about, “I join a union and see everyone’s wages and quality of life go up.” And for the unemployed, this individualistic perspective worsens their feelings of self-blame. You see this especially among my American workers. As their unemployment drags on, they start to feel regret for the bad decisions they made — decisions that had to do with not getting more education, not preparing for changes in the economy. They feel like losers, frankly, in a society that values winning at all costs.

What was it about the story of autoworkers that you felt helped explain what is happening in the U.S. economy?

Autoworkers are kind of like the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future bundled into one. Everyone knows the story about what happened in this country in the 1980s: factories closed, workers got laid off, communities fell apart. Free trade, automation, and policy choices did in the American factory worker. Well, now the rest of us are experiencing this reality. The highly educated are better off, but even they aren’t immune to having their work sent overseas or automated. Today, hospitals send radiology scans to doctors in India to analyze. Lawyers have their document review handled by computer programs. There are more temp workers, independent contractors — and, in academia, adjunct professors. Unions and other collective approaches to improving the circumstances of ordinary workers have dwindled away. So, in a way, the shut-down factory is a symbol for what white-collar workers like you and me are facing today, decades after the first waves of downsizing began.

On the flip side, even workers like the ones I interviewed are having to be savvier about getting new jobs. They have to mimic what white-collar workers have had to do for a while now. They have to search for jobs online rather than calling people. They have to have a snazzy resume even to get in the door. In the booming service sector in particular, they have to be relentlessly cheerful and enthusiastic and a team player. To get a good job today, you need education, you need smarts and creativity, you need to be flexible about when and where and how you work, and so on.

So the situation of my unemployed autoworkers helps us to explain the past, present and future of our economy. They represent a distant past of equality and solidarity. They speak to us about what is happening today, as white-collar jobs get outsourced and offshored. And they suggest what the future will bring, as the number of good jobs disappears and as competition ramps up for everyone.

9780520283015The subtitle of the book is “Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.” Can you give an example or two of the unfairness you see in the U.S. economy?

The economy has changed in ways that favor the wealthy. Incomes for the middle class and working class have barely grown, even though the average American worker is much more productive. The typical family makes less than it did in 1999. Meanwhile, life is getting more and more golden for those at the top. Income inequality is at unprecedented levels. Wealth inequality is almost back to the extreme levels we had during the 1920s — it’s like we’re living in the time of “The Great Gatsby” again. That’s partly because things like education and skill matter more in a global economy, but it’s also because the wealthy game the system.

First, they stamp out competition. Professionals block people from joining their professions so that they can keep their own salaries high. Wall Street changes the ways its income is taxed and kills efforts to regulate the risky ways it makes money. Second, the children of these elite workers have a leg up in the race. So much of the success you have in your schooling and your career depends on social class, and the cultural sophistication and connections that come with class. Meanwhile, the middle class and working class no longer have the strong labor unions or strong social movements that championed them in past generations. Today, just 11 percent of the workforce are members of unions. It used to be a third.

Even though many people think today’s economy is more or less a meritocracy — “I rise based on how much education I get and how much work I put in” — the reality is what I call a stunted meritocracy: a ruthless meritocracy for those below, but something entirely different for those at top.

“Cut Loose” is something of a call to action. What do you propose should be done, from a policy or political perspective?

I have three suggestions. First, policies do matter. In Canada, universal health care and generous job retraining programs make it much easier to cope with long-term unemployment, which is psychologically wounding and destructive to relationships with spouses and children. Support for working families, especially single parents with children, goes a long way to help the kinds of households hit hardest by unemployment. Canada also has more in the way of rules of the road for corporations — for instance, laws requiring companies to provide severance pay. In all these ways, America could improve its policies and do right by workers who have devoted years to an economy that no longer seems to be working for them.

At the same time, there are limits to policy. For one thing, policies that are good on paper aren’t necessarily implemented so well. There are budget shortfalls. There are sluggish and inefficient bureaucracies. Government needs to be smarter about how it provides help. The Canadians have one particularly good model for doing this. At their government-funded “action centers,” the staff are former workers at a company that is experiencing layoffs. Those peer helpers are often better able to reach and assist their co-workers than strangers at a government agency. There’s a personal stake and a personal bond.

But, more broadly, I don’t think we can focus on changing policies alone. There needs to be a change in the overall culture as well — a culture that stands in the way of any forceful and sustainable attempt to improve the situation for workers and the long-term unemployed. In America, we judge relentlessly. It’s a whole culture of constant performance reviews. From the time you start school to far into your career, everything you do is measured and evaluated.

I think this is fundamentally unhealthy for our society and it contributes to this self-blame that is so harmful to the long-term unemployed. The way they look at it, they didn’t live up to the standard. I’m not religious, but in talking about cultural change I take inspiration in the Christian notion of grace: that everyone is saved by God’s grace, not just the deserving. What I suggest is that we promote an attitude of acceptance and nonjudgment. There’s enough wealth to go around for everyone to have a decent quality of life, even if we have a reasonable amount of inequality. But the fact that we think some people don’t deserve that quality of life stands in the way of providing for everyone. To change that culture, we need a social movement along the lines of previous broad-based movements — during the Civil Rights Era and Progressive Era, for instance — that can help society move beyond overly self-centered ideas about success and fairness.

What sort of research went into this project?

The book is based on interviews and observation I did in Detroit, Michigan, and in Windsor, Ontario [Canada], during 2009 and 2010 — the tail end of the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. I wanted to compare how people experienced long-term unemployment in the United States and Canada. And I wanted to compare apples to apples: I looked at similar kinds of workers, who worked for the same companies in the same industry, as well as similar kinds of households, which were working-class in terms of their education but middle-class in terms of their incomes. The idea was to focus intently on the policies and cultures on either side of the border, and examine in a scientifically rigorous way how and why they made a difference.

How did you become interested in this topic?

Unemployment has been a lifelong interest of mine. Some of my most vivid memories from childhood are of my father being out of work. He was a civil engineer who worked on building nuclear power plants. After the Three Mile Island disaster, that industry died out. My father was eventually laid off, and he really struggled to find another job. It didn’t help that he was an immigrant from Taiwan who didn’t speak English well. For years he worked as a janitor and livery cab driver because he couldn’t find something in his area of training. His inability to find another good job had a deep effect on me and the rest of my family.

I personally went through a bout of unemployment, too. I lost my first job after college — it was a temporary position and I got passed over for a permanent position. It was a tough experience to go through. I remember being in great pain from a back injury and yet not having the health insurance to pay for all of the treatment. My family helped pulled me out of that predicament, but I know many other people don’t have those sorts of advantages. When I became an academic, I wanted to better understand what unemployed workers of all kinds were going through. I wanted to go beyond the statistics and really get to know their lived experiences, and hopefully do something to help them.

What will you be working on next?

I’m working with Jesse Goldstein, another sociology faculty member, on a study of entrepreneurship at VCU and the Greater Richmond area. As I discuss in my current book, students and professionals nowadays are dealing with a tougher job market, and a college degree is no longer a guarantee you’ll get a good-paying job at a large corporation. Well, starting your own business seems like one way to adapt to that economic reality, and that’s the subject of my next book. VCU is doing a lot to promote entrepreneurial learning, and the city itself is booming and full of startups and entrepreneurial energy. It’s a good time to study how and why the economy is moving in this direction, and what it means for students here and workers everywhere.


Chen, Victor Tan

Victor Tan Chen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the founding editor of In the Fray magazine. He is the coauthor, with Katherine S. Newman, of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.