Labor Studies Review of Missing Class

laborstudies     By Steve Early

Review of Betsy Leondar-Wright. Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures. Ithaca, NY: Cornel ILR Press, 2014. 282 pp. $79.95 (cloth) and $21.95 (paper).

As Program Director for Class Action (www.classism.org), Betsy Leondar-Wright has helped that ten-year-old non-profit group provide training and advice to many different social justice organizations grappling with “class differences” within their own ranks. Wright and her fellow educators in this field believe that deeply ingrained cultural attitudes and beliefs, based on society’s ranking of people according to their economic status, family background, education level, and occupation, can be problematic, even among those working to reduce inequality. Yet, dealing with class, often remains a progressive movement taboo—even when manifestations of “classism” adversely affect relationships between organizational leaders, members, staff, or funders and hinder their achievement of common goals.

In Missing Class, Leondar-Wright draws on extensive personal experience as a social movement trainer and consultant, plus her academic research into the dynamics of social class. While a doctoral student at Boston College, the author was able to do field interviews with activists from twenty-five left-of-center groups in five states; her methods included taping and later analyzing the transcripts of nearly one hundred organizational meetings. Her book is filled with telling scenes of awkward, sometimes dysfunctional, interaction between working class people, at various income levels, and the products of “a professional-middle-class (PMC) background” [1] or wealthier upbringing.

The social movement functioning examined in Missing Class is extremely varied and detailed. While the actual organizations studied by the author are cloaked in protective pseudonyms, she categorizes them by the broad and recognizable “traditions” reflected in groups that are community-based, professional advocates for the poor, “progressive and non-profit,” “militant, anti-imperialist,” “anarchist,” or part of “the labor movement.” [64] Most of the author’s illustrative real-life scenarios do not involve cross-class conflict or hostility so much as “class sub-groups operating from two different playbooks and thus accomplishing less.” [2] The challenge of getting more people into the room and on the same page, more of the time, is not unfamiliar to labor educators working with unions to expand their community ties.

Leondar-Wright’s book includes an instructive chapter on “Activating The Inactive”—an objective shared by all membership organizations trying to increase their strength and effectiveness. Wright shows how bad group process and misguided notions of “leadership” can inhibit the performance of an ad hoc committee, a local union branch, or a multi-issue campaign. She skillfully dissects the common meeting behavior problem of a few people “talking long, talking often,” while others sit in silence. [184] She also describes how some internal communication difficulties may be attributable to class-based speech differences, including the use of “abstract generalizations” as opposed to “concrete vocabulary.”  [152]

Based on her detailed observations, the author suggests ways that voluntary associations can become more hospitable to new recruits lacking self-confidence or political experience, narrowly defined, but who have other skills, abilities, and personal connections invaluable to real movement building.  As the author argues:

“The essence of movement mobilization is transforming people from passive to active, from being unwilling to speak up to being outspoken. Until that transformation process happens, newcomers and socially marginalized people, as well as simply shy people, can find activism intimidating; they may struggle to find their voice and their sense of inner power” [122] 

Leondar-Wright’s Missing Class is, by far, the best book available on the touchy subject of “classism” since her own previous work, Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle Class Activists, and Fred Rose’s incisive 1999 study, Coalitions Across The Class Divide: Lessons from the Labor, Peace, and Environmental Movements, also published by Cornell. Like Rose before her, the author illustrates what bridges the class divide—and what doesn’t— within left-liberal groups and the broader, more diverse coalitions we need to alter power relationships in the U.S. “No single movement tradition, and no one activist culture has all the elements needed for building a mass progressive movement,” she notes. Those which draw on “the best of each will have a better shot at building powerful cross-class movements in today’s daunting political environment.” [232]

(Steve Early is a former organizer for the Communications Workers of America.)