Last year the nation was consumed by a presidential race in which the Republican candidate was all-in on corporations and CEOs while the Democratic candidate tried to shift some of the focus to workers and middle class families who unfortunately have born the brunt of the Great Recession, which for many of them is still a daunting reality that may not end anytime soon.
In 1913, William B. Wilson, who was appointed by then-President Woodrow Wilson (no relationship) became the first Secretary of Labor. He came to the U.S. at age 8, then a year later he works as a “breaker boy” in the coal mines. By age 14, he is secretary of his local union. He helps found the United Mine Workers and serves as secretary-treasurer. He represents Pennsylvania’s 15th District in the U.S. Congress. A champion of the eight-hour workday and jobs for women and minorities, he plays an important role in our World War I victory by mobilizing an effective workforce for defense production. (Source: DOL)
Workers versus employers
Is America pro- or anti-worker? In a nation where individual liberty and rights are ballyhooed by fundamentalist defenders of the constitution, by most contemporary accounts, workplace standards like safe working conditions, the ability to form a union and bargain collectively, accessing retirement and health benefits that are affordable and durable nearly always take a back seat to lowering corporate tax rates, catering to the interest of shareholders and giving businesses loopholes and special treatments any worker can only think possible by dreaming about them.
One sign that the plight of workers and their families haven't moved forward, and may be moving backward, arrived in the news that Youngstown State University cut loose the Center for Working-Class Studies, a small operation who can trace its roots back nearly 18 years.
Then, with financial support from the Ford Foundation, the Center, which had conducted a series of conferences over the years, expanded its programming. As John Russo and Sherry Linkon wrote in their farewell announcement of the demise of the CWCS earlier this week, workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.
YSU created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies. Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.
CWCS was responsible for creating an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations.
Opinion polls were conducted and journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities were helped.
YSU defunds CWCS
As Russo and Linkon put it, YSU "left us." The administration at YSU, they said, was not willing to provide continued funding. "Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work," the duo wrote, adding, "They chose not to do that."
They opine that their visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision. The official version, as they state, is that resources had dried up.
Their blog, started in 2008, will continue to offer commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.
Moreover, a legacy fund will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.
Russo and Linkon said the ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, "will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley."
In a call to action that echoes what President Obama said often at his rallies last year, "don't boo, vote," Russo and Linkon recall what labor folk hero Joe Hill advised decades ago: don’t mourn, organize.
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