Working-Class Socialization Among Oshawa Autoworkers:
The Hidden Injuries of Class Revisited

Reuben Roth, OISE/UT

  Warm-up Questionnaire:

  1. What radio station do you listen to most? (This is a 'dummy' question designed to relax and acclimatize the respondent)

  2. Do your parents work for a living? OR Does (or did) your parents (or dominant care giver) work for a salary/wage/commission in order to obtain an income/the means of subsistence? Yes/No

  3. If the answer is "NO" (and they didn't work for a wage) then do/did they own their own business or live from profits invested in a business or the stock market?

  4. Are they involved in ownership of a business?

  5. If the answer is "YES" (and they do work for a wage/salary) then do/did they supervise other workers?

  6. Do/did they receive an hourly wage or a weekly/monthly/bimonthly salary?

  7. Thinking of this person, categorize their occupation: blue collar, white collar, professional, sub- professional, other.

  8. What social class would you say you belong to?

On Socialization (defined) and Agency

Socialization is at once the name for a process and the name for the ideological  manipulation that we all undergo in order to survive and perform in an orderly fashion in a particular society. According to Michael Mann (1970) socialization is the set of "internalized norms, values and beliefs" which both constitute and legitimate a particular society.

That said, I generally agree with Prof. Salaff ('s syllabus) that "people construct different meanings and create behaviour within boundaries and limits" - which is an acknowledgement of human agency and is one of a number of determining elements in the production and reproduction of real life.

In other words, we each maintain some individual articulation - some choice or 'agency' - which despite the mode of production in our society (industrial capitalism) - allows for some variation within limits in how we behave in society.

And yet these forms of behaviour are still mediated - if not ultimately determined - by our social surroundings: our communities, schools, workplaces and other representative organizations - as well as other factors which formulate our identities: our social class, ethnicity, race and gender, (among others). These are still only several among a wide variety of possible factors which fundamentally govern what we do and how we behave.

Here I will examine working-class socialization (via the book "Hidden Injuries"), Middle class (dominant) images of the working-class ("Deconstructing Stupidity"), The Working-Class Learning Strategies study and I will intersperse these with a view of the economy, Marxist/conflict theory and oral history technique.

I will finally address some of the social institutions which also function at the same time as socializing institutions within our particular social system: communities, schools, workplaces/jobs and - in the context of working-class organizations of socialization - trade unions.

Working-Class Socialization Among Oshawa Autoworkers: The Hidden Injuries of Class Revisited

The manual working-class and "deconstructing stupidity"

Too obvious, you might argue, then the working-class are those who don't know how to choose the right wine, speak too loudly in public places, use poor grammar, don't respect recognized institutions (like universities) or even (shudder) appreciate the sacrifices that come with trying to attain a university education in the evenings after a long day at work.

These are cultural stereotypes of the manual working-class which may be recognizable through media images. Moreover, a cultural definition suggests that class can be picked up and dropped in a Pygmalion (Eliza Doolittle-like) fashion. These stereotypes are a kind of story that sociologists call 'cultural stories' -- or 'social constructions'-- in this case the social construction says that say working-class people are stupid. People from the working-class have been demonized and portrayed as inferior (stupid) for a very long time.

"[m]any mechanisms have been created in this rigidly defined, class-structured society to keep poor people in our place ... one ... is the constant ... image of the worker as stupid. Growing up, I attached "stupid" to workers and "smart" to executives. This didn't happen because of a weird personal quirk. It resulted from force-fed images and words of TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and movies. Any TV show with working-class characters, first, "The Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy," then "All in the Family," ... highlighted the stupidity of bus drivers, factory workers and plumbers. ("Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker" Joanne Kadi, 1996: 48-9)."

Deconstructing "stupidity"

My Method/Theory

I use a neo-Marxian conflict approach with some influence by Max Weber

Both Marx and Weber focus on power relations

Weber: market relations is key focus

Marx: production relations is key focus

Marxism is unfairly labeled as "structuralism" or "overdeterminism"

Marx: 1. the economic mode of production of a society, to a large degree, determines the relations among people;

Marx: 2. besides fundamentally determining the structure of relations among people, the prevailing mode of production determines the superstructure of prevailing ideas among people (e.g. dominant ideology, religion, legal, political and social institutions, etc.).

BUT classical Marxist theory isn't without its serious limitations, as David Livingstone (1996) noted:

 "While Marx's central research project was a profound critique of capitalist production, he remained encapsulated within the prevailing bourgeois mode of thought in several ways. "Marx as well as subsequent orthodox Marxists and most critical Western Marxist intellectuals have operated from a Eurocentric world view which has regarded European civilization as the dynamic core of global life. ... a persistent anthropomorphist bias within Marxist thought, particularly in taking human mastery over the physical environment for granted ... Marx also remained a captive of "malestream" thought, particularly in his failure to appreciate either the value of household and child- rearing labour or the connection between property relations and the patriarchal dominance of men over women. In all of these respects, sympathetic critics have at least begun to correct the defects of Marxism." (Livingstone, 1996).
Marx claimed we inherit the productive forces of our ancestors - and therefore the raw materials for our social systems - along with this legacy we are encoded with our material (and social) relations just as surely as we are inscribed with our own DNA.

Marx wrote: "Hence it necessarily follows that the social history of men [sic] is always the history of their individual development, whether they are conscious of it or not" (Marx, 1846)."

"What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men's [sic] reciprocal action. Are men [sic] free to choose this or that form of society? By no means. Assume a particular level of development of men's [sic] productive forces and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption. Assume particular stages of development in production, commerce and consumption and you will have a corresponding social system, a corresponding organization of the family, of social orders or of classes, in a word, a corresponding civil society. Assume such a civil society and you will get a political system appropriate to it, a system which is only the official expression of civil society ... It is superfluous to add that men [sic] are not free to choose their productive forces - which are the basis of all their history - for every productive force is an acquired force, the product of former activity. ...(Marx to P.V. Annenkov, Dec. 28, 1846).
Some general observations on the economy (yes it bores me too):

No longer do I have to explain the importance of economics in our lives.

During the 1960s and 70s (when I was a teen) questions involving economics were important to only a very small number of people, mostly 'politicos' who had an interest in overthrowing what they warmly called 'the system' (capitalism).

While we've learned about the importance of the economy and its relevance to our everyday lives, we've achieved this in the most draconian way.

Today 'The Economy' looms like a vague threat over our heads, to wit:

Even in good economic times 'The Economy' is discussed as though it's about to collapse on our heads. So most of us tune out. But - while we don't deny the importance of 'The Economy' today - we don't actually acknowledge some fairly obvious facts about it, like for instance, the nature - or the name of the economy in which we currently live.

That name of course is 'capitalism', although I hasten to add that the theorist and critic most slandered by the use of the term 'capitalism' - Karl Marx - almost never referred to it in this way. Instead Marx referred to capitalism as "the capitalist mode of production," preferring to regard it as simply a technical term. This is quite different from the picture painted of a fiery radical spitting out the phrase in a hateful manner. It was just another mode of production and would pass eventually and give way to the next mode of production, and that's all. It was just a technical term for a particular phase of human development.

In an aside, let me (quote): "... remind those who may be inclined to treat Marx as a mere revolutionary or hot partisan that he was more than that. He was a doctor of philosophy from a German university, possessing the hallmark of the scholar. He was a student of Greek and Latin learning. He read, besides German, his native tongue, Greek, Latin, French, English, Italian and Russian. He was widely read in contemporary history and economic thought. Hence, however much one may dislike Marx's personal views, one cannot deny to him wide and deep knowledge - and a fearless and sacrificial life. He not only interpreted history, as everyone does who writes any history, but he helped to make history. Possibly he may have known something (Charles Beard, American Historical Review, October 1935 in Monthly Review, vol. 19, no. 7)."

I'll bet that the majority of you are probably wondering where this talk of a class society comes from. I'll bet that you don't believe that Canada is really part of a class system or that Canadians are discriminated by their class standing. "Class" is a dirty word in our society, and that's an incredible shame. You may not believe that I'm really addressing you, or your lives in any relevant way at all. By denying the existence of class, we rob ourselves of a valuable analytical tool that explains much that goes on around us in daily life.

Class structure plays a pivotal role in social analysis. The job of class analysis isn't simply to understand class structure and its effects, but to help us analyze the relations and interconnections among these elements and their consequences as they're related to other aspects of social life. Using the Marxian method class is a relation that's dependent on your relationship to your own life and how you feed, shelter and clothe yourself.

Oral History:  A Defense

 I would like to add a word in defense of the use of the oral history method used here.

 In "The Voice of the Past" oral historian Paul Thompson urges his readers to choose an interview method which falls between the "so-called box ticking questionnaires" which reduces the interviewee's responses to "monosyllabic or very short answers" and the other extreme, not so much an 'interview' at all, but as a free 'conversation', in which the 'person', 'tradition-bearer', 'witness', or 'narrator' is 'invited to talk' on a matter of mutual interest.

"The truth is that it takes great deftness, and a well-chosen informant, to be able, like George Ewart Evans, to get outstanding material while remaining 'relaxed', 'unhurried,', and giving the informant 'plenty of time to move about ... Let the interview run.  I never attempt to dominate it.  The least one can do is to guide it and I try to ask as few questions as I can [...] Plenty of time and plenty of tape and few questions."

 "Great deftness" aside, the questions asked should be based on the knowledge of what each participant may relate in advance of the interview, based on solid research, experience of the subject and respect for the respondent.  While a middle approach is the method used here, I would rather err in allowing a 'free hand' to the views of the interviewee in the hopes that it may at best uncover new information not previously expected and at worst establish an air of mutual respect, good rapport and, hopefully, open dialogue.

 Paul Thompson's book remains a wonderful resource and a generous appendix has hundreds of lifehistory questions that can be used or adapted in a survey questionnaire (these are called "interview schedules in the social sciences).

Working-class Learning Strategies (WCLS) study

 The research I discuss here has been conducted since late 1995 with auto-assembly workers at the General Motors (GM) car and truck assembly plants in Oshawa, Ontario. All the workers interviewed for this study are members of the GM unit of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, Local 222.

A team of researchers conducted thematic, oral-history interviews with CAW Local 222 members using a oral life-history questionnaire, within a participatory-action research model.

These interviews provide both a detailed account of workers' out-of-institution, everyday learning experiences and a backdrop to the cultural life of working-class auto assembly workers.

We are currently in the process of additional data-gathering via an interview schedule which attempts to determine the established forms and expressions of class-consciousness and demonstrated outcomes - where they can be shown - the views of working-class 'common sense' versus schooled knowledge and the array and diversity of working-class (male/white) cultural-learning activities among these workers.

WCLS study was designed to document the full range of informal, out-of-institution learning, with a focus primarily on unionized working-class members and their families.

For the purposes of this study, 'formal learning' is defined as credentialized education which takes place within an institutional setting; 'non-formal'  or "further course-based, continuing education"  occurs within the classroom but outside of the institutional public education system; and "informal learning" takes in all other forms of out-of-classroom learning -  generally uncertified and therefore unrecognized by both institutions and individuals.

 It's this last category, informal learning which is most valued by the working-class people I've interviewed.  While they recognize the importance of formal credential-based education (and send their kids to university to attain this), they also value what is often labeled as "street smarts" even more.

 This is an unusual feature in our society.

 Historically, until the [economic] auto industry boom ended in the mid-to-late 1970s, Oshawa and area workers could opt to leave school before completion and join the auto industry's workforce with little or no formal education. Heron writes that in the period prior to World War I:

 "Few working-class parents in Hamilton apparently saw secondary schooling as a valid avenue for upward mobility for their children (Heron, 1995)."

 Historically, as long as there was readily available work, manual workers could thumb their noses at the formal education system with impunity.

Oshawa's GM workers are no exception to this rule.

 Thus, until the economic slowdown of the mid-1970s (or, alternately, the end of the lengthy post World War II economic boom), GM workers have customarily been recruited directly from high school. As shown in Curtis et al. (1992), class-based streaming within the public school system places working- class students in educational programs with stunted, vocational, curricula -- and a virtual guarantee that they will not attend college or university. After school they are shepherded into dead-end, semi or unskilled, often low-paid employment.

Actual Lifehistory Interview Excerpt:

In a case in point, this respondent commented that his parents supported his decision to leave high school before completion in order to obtain work at GM. One wonders whether someone outside the proletarian universe would also take such a course. In fact, the answer is usually 'no'. Keep in mind that this respondent was thirty when interviewed and so his experiences vis a vis high school too place in the mid-1980s. Always keep the context of society and time foremost in mind and avoid abstraction:

Respondent: "No, no.  They kind of let me just feel my way through it.  You know, they would certainly try to make sure that I was doing my homework and so forth.  By the time I was in high school, there was no controlling me then.  I was gone.  I was doing what I wanted but ...I've often thought whether they did push me enough.  At times I thought, you know, when they didn't they should have probably been a little more stricter when it came to my schoolwork.  I can't blame them for that. It's ... you know, [only] I can .. control that.

Interviewer: Did you parents sort of try and push into, you know, college ...?

R: No they didn't.  I can remember .... I think it was about a year after I was in the Motors and I applied to Centennial [College] for electrical engineering and my parents actually came to me and said "Look your track record in high school wasn't that good and I think your making a mistake here."  I listened to them then. That was one of the only few times that I can remember them ever influencing me in any way.

I: So their advice was ...?

R: Not to go back to school.

I: To stay at GM.

R: Yeah.

Social class - and all that jazz

I imagine that the majority of you are probably wondering whether discussion of a class society in Canada remains relevant today. If you share the viewpoint of the majority of Canadians, you probably will not believe that a class system exists in Canada, nor that Canadians are actually discriminated by virtue of their class standing. You may presume that I'm not really addressing you or your lives in any significant way at all.

Despite these predominant beliefs, the evidence shows otherwise; while most Canadians mistakenly report their belief that they donot live in a society stratified along the lines of class (cite), the predictive effect of social stratification by class is still the most potent force in our lives. For example, a recent study has shown that the sons and daughters of working-class fathers are most likely to end up in working-class occupations (CSAA, 1998; Statcan, 1996?).

Lillian Rubin (1976) notes that while the concept of embourgeoisement has remained a popular and persistent ideology among American social scientists, it is refuted by a fact that spans two centuries: "the sons of working-class fathers generally became the fathers of working-class sons." A Statistics Canada paper published in 1996 entitled The Intergenerational Income Mobility of Canadian Men confirms that this fact has remained a constant in Canada, even today. The research study found that:
..there is considerable intergenerational income mobility in Canada among middle income earners, but that the inheritance of economic status is significant at both the very top and very bottom of the income distribution. About one-third of those in the bottom quartile were raised by fathers who occupied the same position in the income distribution. In fact, the income advantage of someone who had a father in the top decile over someone who had a father in the bottom decile is in the order of 40%. (1)

Much effort is expended daily to convince the members of advanced industrial societies that the social, political and material differences between the major social groups has all but vanished. This is why, despite the empirical evidence which has been subjected to repeated testing for generations, average Canadians persist in the belief that 'class is dead'. This may be cited as proof, some contend (like Mann), that hegemonic ideas, the ruling ideas of society (no matter how wrong) are still very much alive.

A sectarian view of social class structure might insist that class is plainly defined by one's "relationship to the means of production," and nothing else. These adherents hope to simply pose the question: 'do you sell your labour in order to survive?' If the answer is affirmative, then your objective class position is that of a member of the proletariat  - like it or not - or so the sectarian logic goes. This oversimplification closes the door on questions that have confounded theorists for generations.
That a denial of the existence of social class  -  which is easily countered by overwhelming evidence -  can only be further proof that the ideas of a ruling elite are constructed outside of the boundaries of society; outside of people's actual lived experiences. After all, hasn't anyone here noticed this discrepancy in other spheres? For example, in terms of proclamations of gender or racial equality in the face of a contradictory lived experience.

"Class" remains a dirty word in our society and that's an incredible shame. By denying the existence of class, we rob ourselves of a valuable analytical tool that explains much that goes on around us in daily life. And class structure plays a pivotal role within class analysis. The job of class analysis isn't simply to understand class structure and its effects, but to help us analyse the interconnections among all these elements and their consequences as they're related to other aspects of social life. Using the Marxian method, class is a relation that is dependent on your relationship to your own life and how you feed, shelter and clothe yourself.

How do you feed yourself? Do you own your own manufacturing operations? Do you buy and sell your own factories? Do you owncapital as an individual (mutual funds don't count)? Or, perhaps you work in your own store, maybe you construct knick-knacks that you later sell in your store? Or do you sell your labour, perhaps employed in an office? a bank, a factory, a store, a restaurant? The key is not whether you work as a professional, salesclerk, white, pink or blue-collar occupation, but whether you can provide yourself with daily sustenance by living from your inheritance, your property, your holdings or whether you are in fact forced to sell your labour because you lack any other rational means of survival. On the freedom that people have to choose or leave their class, G.A. Cohen wrote:

"Some would deny that workers are forced to sell their labour power, on the ground that they have other choices: the worker can go on the dole, or beg, or simply make no provision for himself and trust to fortune. It is true that the worker is free to do these other things. The acknowledgment that he is free to starve to death gets its sarcastic power from the fact that he is free to starve to death: no one threatens to make him stay alive by, for example, force-feeding him. But to infer that he is therefore not forced to sell his labour power is to employ a false account of what it is to be forced to do something. When I am forced to do something I have noreasonable or acceptable alternative course. It need not be true that I have no alternative whatsoever. At least, usually, when a person says, 'I was forced to do it. I had no other choice,' the second part of the statement is elliptical for something like 'I had no other choice worth considering.' (Cohen, History, Labour and Freedom, 256)

In a 1970 study, sociologist Michael Mann posed a set of questions which aimed to discover the extent to which "internalized norms, values and beliefs [my emphasis] ..legitimate the social order," and whether these norms, values and beliefs constituted either a 'true or false' consciousness (1970: 425). 'Normative acceptance' by the working-class was distinguished from 'pragmatic acceptance' and occurred when "the individual internalizes the moral expectations of the ruling class and views his (sic) own inferior position as legitimate (1970: 425)."

Mann characterized the traditional Marxist approach as one where "normative acceptance is 'false' in the sense that it leads workers to ignore their own true interests (1970: 425)."

In his study, Mann showed that "false consciousness" indeed has a scientific basis in fact, that there is a conflict between "dominant and deviant values taking place within the individual (1970: 436)." Moreover, he singled out the school system as one of the operative players in the socialization process (1970: 436) and suggested that:

"..we can see agencies of political radicalism, like the trade unions and the British Labour Party, struggling against their opponents' ability to mobilize the national and feudal symbols to which the population has been taught to respond loyally in schools and in much of the mass media (1970: 437)."

Mann concluded that the liberal democratic state's most typical form of coordinated socialization does not attempt to alter values. Instead, the common form of class socialization tries to "selectively sustain those norms and values that hinder the proletariat from deciphering the reality it experiences (1970: 437) [my emphasis]."

The American political theorist Ralph Miliband (1969) claimed that the shallowness of capitalism's 'democratic proclamations' are relatively easy to expose. This is the case largely because there exists in capitalist democracies an obvious discrepancy between the message which hegemonic efforts seek to disperse and the everyday realities which confront the majority of the working-class - where these efforts are primarily aimed. He writes that:

"The message [of capitalist hegemony] speaks of democracy, equality, opportunity, prosperity, security, community, common interests, justice, fairness, etc. These are the promises of capitalist democracies, be they liberal or social democratic. What is apparent however, are the glaringly obvious discrepancies between the empty promises of capitalist democracies and the delivered result: The reality, on the other hand, as lived by the majority, is very different, and includes the experience of exploitation, domination, great inequalities in all spheres of life, material constraints of all kinds, and very often great spiritual want (Miliband, 1969).

This sentiment goes a long way towards describing why it is that working-class people often exhibit what Marx called 'false consciousness'. False consciousness appears to the outsider as an appropriated form of consciousness, often exhibited by cross-class collaboration or the scapegoating of the destitute and disenfranchised. False consciousness is used to explain the subservience and accommodation of working-class people. The problem is that false consciousness assumes a unitary 'true' interest as being obvious to those who are in the know. Meanwhile those on the savvy end of this unequal equation 'tsk' and moan "if only people would see their own enslavement." In contrast to this position, Seccombe and Livingstone write:

"[a]cting as individuals in the short term, the oppressed often have more to gain from pleasing their masters than from antagonizing them. Subordinates usually have an immediate stake in preserving the relationship with their oppressor (1996: 141)."

After all, is it not the shop foreman who doles out the daily work-tasks, both easy and difficult? Does the supervisor not decide who shall have overtime? From this point of view the decisions which are often categorized as being against one's own class interests suddenly take on a new dimension. From a subordinated, working-class perspective this appears to be simple common sense.

Work as a socializing element

We are what we do. Our mode of employment forges and casts a person's own sense of identity. Almost without exception we continue to identify ourselves with either our paid occupation or the organization for whom we're employed. The seemingly simple question "who are you?" often elicits an answer related more to one's employment or organizational affiliation. There's a significant difference when, at a social occasion, you respond "I'm a student at U of T," or "I'm a programmer at Microsoft." Occupational role also plays a part in your response, "I'm a corporate V.P." gives a rather different impression than "I'm an assembly-line worker at G.M."

We measure what we can measure, and this often means that a rich and complex phenomenon is reduced to one dimension, which then becomes prominent and eclipses the other dimensions. This is particularly true of "work," which is often defined as "paid employment." The definition conforms with one readily measurable aspect of work but utterly ignores its profound personal and social aspects and often leads to a distorted view of society (1973: 2) Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. MIT Press).

"... [T]he type of work performed has always conferred a social status on the worker and the worker's family. In industrial [North] America, the father's occupation has been the major determinant of status, which in turn has determined the family's class standing, where they lived, where the children went to school, and with whom they family associated - in short, the life style and life chances of all the family members (1973: 4)."

We can modify this statement somewhat by co-determining the social and class standing of a family by adding the sum of both the father and mother's occupations, but even this [neo-Weberian trick] has debatable significance.

Viewing work in terms of pay alone has also produced a synonymity of "pay" and" worth," so that higher-paid individuals are thought by many to have greater personal worth than those receiving less pay. At the bottom of this scale, a person without pay becomes "worthless." The confusion of pay with worth is a result of historical events and traditions apparently rooted in the distinction between 'noble and 'ignoble' tasks. History ought have been otherwise and garbage men, for example, in recognition of their contribution to health, might have been accorded monetary rewards similar to those received by physicians (1973: 3).

To work without pay in the home is considered akin to not having "a job" - and not to have a job in our society is the equivalent to lacking something basic which is valued by one's peers. Generally speaking, the workplace is at the cores of personal evaluation (1973: 5). It's where your personal esteem is constantly on the line, and where every effort will be made to avoid reduction in self-evaluation and its attending sense of failure. Not much has changed since 1964 when Erich Fromm wrote:
Since modern man experiences himself both as the seller and as the commodity to be sold on the market, his self-esteem depends on conditions beyond his control. if he is successful, he is valuable; if he is not, he is worthless (Fromm, Erich. The Heart of Man, Harper and Row, NY: 1964.)

The Working Class Learning Strategies (WCLS) Project Revisited: 'Stolen' Labour:

One socializing element among assembly workers is the reluctance to 'do oneself out of one's own job' also termed "restriction of output" by sociologists (see Michael Burawoy's discussion of this term in "Manufacturing Consent".). The following quote speaks to the reluctance of lineworkers to do 'their best' when their best will undoubtably be taken -- without any thanks. This is sometimes called 'stolen labour' by advocates of workers' rights.

In an example of stolen labour, can be found in the experience of the WCLS respondent below, who was involved in extensive re-training at the community college level. Although this participant attempted to use his knowledge of computers as leverage toward obtaining more fulfilling employment at General Motors, he found his skills used but not acknowledged by GM management. In the following example the respondent describes an incident during the initial pilot -- or preproduction -- stage of auto assembly where his knowledge of computer spreadsheets was first recognized by a group leader as unique:

"[Ten years ago] ... they found out that I had computer knowledge, My group leader ... gave me a stack of papers, he said "you know, I only need these two pages ... can you just print them for me?" So I just created a spreadsheet ... printed them out ... [on] only one page ... he went to the meeting ... [where] everybody had this stack [of paper] ... and everybody said "where'd you get it?" ... "I have a friend who does it..he's on the floor, he's working with us." ... they said "well, we need somebody who can do all this work." ... during the pilot I measured all these cars in a specific area. ... gathered all that information, put it on a spreadsheet, charts, and by the end of the pilot had it ready for the engineer to hand it in for presentation ... the engineer he took my name [off] and he put his name on it.-- O3ARR2.A96
After this bitter experience -- and several like it -- the respondent claims to have decided that he will no longer share his knowledge of computers with others at General Motors, although he does acknowledge that he gratefully receives several hours per week away from his assembly job in order to "help" his supervisor keep up-to-date records of overtime on his computer -- a task his supervisor should in fact be performing. This respondent's thorough familiarity with computers has been exploited many a time by his supervisors, with no (monetary) recognition for his efforts. Since his is not a skill which is reimbursed by management, this respondent has refocussed his efforts outside General Motors and he now feels that his current attempts toward his second community college certificate in the field of computers may eventually provide a 'soft landing' in the event of a layoff. In other words he has surrendered the possibility that GM might one day reward him for his knowledge and proffer him employment commensurate with this knowledge. After several attempts at advancement within General Motors, he acknowledges that his education is "wasted" there. In fact this respondent claims there are no assembler jobs which require formal education of any kind whatsoever:
"As far as education goes, I don't know ... the job itself, as I said, anybody can do it. The person I'm working with he has a chemical imbalance, he's still doing the job. Sometime he doesn't know who he is, where he is, and I have to work with the man and I feel sorry for him. He crows like a rooster and then sometime[s] he act[s] like a horse, he goes in up-and-down yo-yo moods, but he does the job. It does not affect doing the job. Sometimes you have to tell him whose turn [it is] to do what, but he does the job. The job itself does not require education ... when I say education I mean, I look at it as average education ... above average [education], it's .. wasted there's no way that you can use it." --O3ARR2.A96
There is no advantage to demonstrating to GM management that one's knowledge of the assembly process is a broad and deep one. In fact should management get wind of that particular information, the only 'reward' for the worker would be the further intensification of the job and the 'honours' associated with that: more and harder work. This speaks to the 'learned helplessness' of workers as a survival mechanism in the assembly line wilderness. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. One interviewee, a tire room worker, revealed that workers who expect to be chosen to 'move up' to a new job (generally one more desirable than their current job) must self-train and do this during their relief breaks and lunches periods. This has evolved into the current practice where workers discuss the job-tasks with the operator who is leaving the job. This 'exiting' worker in essence trains the interested worker even before his current job becomes available. The advantage to the exiting worker is, in a parallel to Mark Twain's character Tom Sawyer, that a coterie of free labour performs her job duties while that lucky soul, leaving for greener pastures, sits by and supervises her potential successors.

"That's a $25,000 cup!": Tightening Labour Markets and Worker Rebellion

The Working-Class Learning Strategy interviews took place shortly after a massive January 1995 lineup of 26,000 GM applicants in Pickering, Ontario (which lies twenty minutes west of Oshawa). Potential GM applicants responded to General Motors' advertisements, in what were previously unimaginable numbers, during two of the coldest January days in a decade. Desperate to 'share the wealth' enjoyed by current GM employees, this event was noted in some way by almost every WCLS respondent interviewed. One respondent summarized his own in-plant experience and the almost daily use of the "Pickering army of the unemployed" threat by shop floor management to intimidate workers who fall out of line:

"I mean in our times right now ..with General Motors, you say something [they] say "Hey, you don't like it there's 30,000 people were lined up and freeze their butt to get in here." "You can't do it, somebody else can do it." --O3ARR2.F96
In light of what they viewed as a deliberate, manipulative and inflammatory act, respondents keenly sensed their dispensability and feelings of job insecurity. This took place during a tense lead up to what was viewed as an inevitable strike against GM in the Fall of 1996. The themes of anger, insecurity and a belief that GM was not dealing fairly with workers, were perhaps the most persistent during these Working-Class Learning Strategies interviews. At the same time, workers also have contradictory feelings of their power -- particularly during pivotal, collective events such as strikes and sitdowns.

The atmosphere of unease, reinforced by the memory of thousands of eager applicants ready to assume GM jobs, often made for a resentful and angry group of respondents. One interviewee was agitated enough to make the claim that General Motors planned to eliminate the CAW from their Canadian plants. He cited a cluster of North American auto plant closings and the enormous two-day lineup as a signal of certain conspiracy:

"..[T]here's so many things that have gone wrong lately that I have to question why, and I still ... haven't found a reason for it. Twenty-five thousand applications were taken in Pickering, General Motors ... ahead of time which plants are going to be idled or closed, and so ... and therefore should be well aware that there would be a massive pool to draw employment from, and yet took twenty-five thousand [sic] applications in Pickering. I have to question why." --O2ARR2.J96.
In addition to the 'Pickering lineup' GM unintentionally fed workers' anger when the corporation distributed (black) coffee mugs to all of their unionized, hourly assembly workers in celebration of GM's announced record annual profit of $6.9 billion (US). The mugs, imprinted with the inscription "On track...In the Black," (a reference to GM's newfound fiscal solvency) were in celebration of General Motors of Canada Ltd. [which] broke the record for annual profit by a Canadian corporation [my emphasis] with a $1.391-billion tally that helped the parent company set a record high of its own. (2)

GM Canada's contribution to its parent corporation's coffers was well out of proportion to the size of its market or workforce. The in-plant reaction was furious and the 'gift' only added fuel to the fire. One respondent informed me that he received his cup "the same day they had published that they had made 6.2 [sic] billion dollars profit." (3) Unfortunately the intended effect was lost on Oshawa's workforce who calculated the 'true' cost of the now-famous coffee mug, with an almost instinctive understanding of surplus value:

"Everybody say[s] "Oh, that's a 25,000 dollar cup!" If you figure it out, that's what it is. Well, you take the 6.2 billion and you split it into the people who get the cup, that's how much it is. --O3ARR2.F96"
 Even this WCLS participant, who freely admitted that he was not generally supportive of unions, vehemently cited his reaction to the gift -- as well as the not-so-quiet revolution as expressed by lineworkers departing home for the day:
"They want [to] insult me? Go ahead. Insult me. But don't insult my intelligence. ... The reaction was..everybody was pissed. ... Everybody ... smashed them [mugs] ... just outside of the parking lot." --O3ARR2.F96

While smashing a coffee mug may not be a revolutionary act, it is at least indicative of a generalized feeling of being "ripped off". This was expressed by an elected Local 222 Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) delegate, Barry Grills, when he wrote the following in the Local 222 newsletter. Note too, that in an affirmation of the relative sophistication of Local 222 activists' ability to analyze and distinguish social class, three distinct parties are characterized here: GM upper management, including Canadian President Maureen Kempston-Darkes, GM workers and GM supervisors:

"This is embarrassing. What a slap in the face to all of us on the shop floor. What did the president of GM Maureen Kempston Darkes receive, a new mug? How about the rest of management? A mug? I think not!! You can rest assured they wouldn't settle for just a shiny black mug! Why would they think we should settle for one. I have heard the supervisors received a substantial bonus. Was it their constant intimidation that made this enormous profit or was it the dedicated hard work of the members in this sweatshop that attributed to this? We all know the answer. (4)"
That "the answer" did not even need to be outlined by Grills, but only hinted at, is a measure of how these feelings among GM/CAW workers are universally understood -- assuming of course that the universe in question is that of the auto plant. Here we see evidence of working-class culture not generally reflected in the popular press -- evidence of a true subculture sometimes called a 'social union movement' or, in sociological circles, a 'social network'. It is worthy to note that these feelings are voiced in friendlier, less public venues such as the local union newsletter, and not the popular press. Grills followed up with some suggestions as to where the General Motors 'mug money' may have gone:
"Maybe they could have taken this money and put it towards new employees' [sic] to help the members on the shop floor who are overworked and susceptible to work- related injuries. Or maybe they could have used it to pay their fair share in taxes. (5)"
Union activist John Grills not only provides a humane suggestion which would be helpful to his workmates, in the CAW tradition he propels the issue away from those of narrow shop-floor interests and connects General Motors' profits to broader societal questions of unemployment, workplace injuries and responsible levels of taxation -- the latter a matter which GM workers are sensitive to, as they themselves are generally in a position of high income relative to others in their class.
The cup smashing affair, the 21-day Fall 1996 strike and the ensuing GM North plant occupation are indicative of a culture of resistance within this working-class community which is comparable to the cultural forms and sentiments that sensitive ethnographers have previously found expressed both within other working-class communities and among working-class kids in school. (6)

These sentiments contributed to the extremely strong support from Local 222 members during the Fall 1996 strike where issues of job outsourcing and mandatory overtime were the principal concerns. The feeling of being "ripped off" probably fostered the GM plant occupation which took place in direct reaction to GM's threat to remove crucial parts dies from the plant. (7)
As soon as word of the plant occupation spread, Local 222 members from across Oshawa flocked to the North plant gates. I joined them outside the North plant gates during a tense day where apprehension met elation. During the course of the day, many striking workers jumped over the plant gate to join their mates inside. An act which may baffle outsiders, this action remains indicative of a unified common culture and shared economic understanding. In this case, workers won their demands and returned home that evening. The strike was considered a significant union victory and the North Plant takeover was the pivotal turning point.

The North Plant occupation provides an illustration that there is a world of difference between the comfortable, established society outside and this working-class community with shared, deeply-held values which require that, on occasion, its members step outside of society's comfort zone.

As the WCLS interviews generally demonstrate, Local 222 is one of the most concentrated and well-organized working-class communities in the country. At this particular union local, and more generally within the CAW, there is more extensive engagement of political education than in virtually any other Canadian union (8).

Unions as democratic vehicles of the working-class and legitimate communities of interest

The trade union is a social organization founded with the emergence of industrial capitalism by people who shared a concern to improve working conditions and wages. It became the mandate of labour unions to challenge established conditions in pursuit of greater economic justice for members.

Many union locals constitute communities of interest in the sense that they are social organizations of people in immediate contact based on shared territory, economic life and language, as well as a common working class culture (see Newman, 1993; Martin, 1995).

In North America unions have always had a public image problem. Union membership has remained a minority of the workforce, with about 30% of working-Canadians unionized and 15% of U.S. workers belonging to a union. Although unions engage in a variety of community-building activities, the mass media have in general ignored these and instead focussed on critical, out-of-the ordinary events such as contract negotiations, disputes between unions (as seen by the recent disputes between unions representing employees of Canadian Airlines and Air Canada) strikes, plant takeovers and other episodes which mark class-based opposition or resistance. Within the university, progressive intellectuals have often been the strongest critics of labour leaders (see Mills, 1948; Gaspasin and Yates, 1997).

It can be argued, however, that no other social organization offers as much potential to transform advanced industrial societies such as ours. Labour unions can appeal to the interests of the vast majority of people (and cross the boundaries of gender, race and ethnicity) because they are intimately linked with the work activities that are still necessary to our subsistence and central to all our identities.

Moreover, trade unions are among the most democratically-structured organizations, because:

 1. trade union leaders are regularly elected and subject to recall by their membership,

 2.  regular general membership meetings provide real opportunities for interested workers to present alternative motions to the entire body, this is in contrast to shareholders' meetings in the corporate context, which provide little opportunity for real input into corporate policies, and

3. trade unions generate sufficient resources from members' dues to construct and sustain organizational vehicles for popular social change, including their own independent educational programs.

The potential of labour unions to change society should not be idealized. But their potential to transform industrial societies should never be dismissed in the face of persistent exploitative relations of capitalist production continue to exist and while most workers and their families remain prone to work intensification, job loss and the degradation of communities and environment.


Wally Seccombe and David Livingstone (1996) argue that "under capitalism, integrated subordination and economic marginalization are two sides of the proletarian condition (1996: 142)." Read that quote again slowly, because it says that people are economically and socially exploited and they live it and know it and are reminded of it daily. That's quite a different notion than we usually hear. We generally avoid talk of class or substitute it with talk of unions. But workers simply make the best of a poor set of options under these dehumanizing conditions.

GM workers, as outlined here, underline Paul Willis' [and Eli Chinoy and others'] obvious point that assembly-line work is repetitive and unfulfilling. I found that in order to relieve this boredom workers at this research site (GM) tend to look elsewhere in order to realize their ambitions and fill their lives with meaning.

Not only are these 'multiple intelligences -  not recognized culturally or symbolically but their lack of value is communicated economically. Working-class knowledge is not valued and consequently there are few, if any, financial rewards for this intelligence.

Moreover, there exists a wide range of 'unacknowledged knowledges' which exist on the assembly lines of GM. In general, workers at GM prefer to pursue their education informally. Key to this decision is the anti-institutionalism they learned as schoolchildren.

One outlet is Oshawa's key union local, CAW Local 222, which remains one of the largest, most concentrated and well-organized working class communities in Canada. At this union local, and more generally in the CAW, there is extensive engagement in political education. Union programs have produced hundreds of labour activists within Oshawa's auto plants. Local 222 has perhaps the most extensive array of labour/union education programs in Canada.

Paul Willis tells us that we should "recognise the strict meaninglessness and confusion of the present proliferation of worthless qualifications," he recommends that we "should recognise the likely intrinsic boredom and meaninglessness of most unskilled and semi-skilled work" and he reminds us that we should "recognise the contradiction of a meritocratic society and educational system where the majority must lose but all are asked in some way to share in the same ideology (1977: 188)." The first point relates to Livingstone's (1998) assertion that:

"[t]he oversupply of educationally qualified people on the job market has been disguised by employers' inflation of credential requirements, as well as by scantily based imputations of persistent specific skill shortages and general expressions of dissatisfaction with the quality of job entrants (1998: introduction)."
Of course, the education system must stop serving the economy, a perverse relation when viewed from the right end of the telescope. But the granting of institutional credits for informal experience, both on and off the job, has the potential to earn the respect of workers and, in turn, degree-granting institutions.

Working-class learning has been devalued for too long. An attempt to reclaim working-class knowledge as an indigenous learning culture must begin with a view towards redefining working-class forms of subordination as something more than the oversimplified notion of 'false consciousness'.

In closing, Richard Johnson writes: " is crucial to establish the effects of a deepening subordination of labour in production on the forms of the reproduction of labour especially, of course, the production of new generations of labourers (1979: 100)." This is where the next step in a broad study of working-class forms of culture and learning must be located.


1. Miles and Heisz, 1996. Statistics Canada website.
2. Greg Keenan.  "GM Canada sets profit mark:  New high for Canadian companies of $1.391 billion helps U.S. parent post record."The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 31 January 1996, Metro ed. B1.
3. WCLS Respondent O3ARR2.F96.
4.  Barry Grills. "Mug Is A Slap In The Face," The Oshaworker  March 1996, 24.
5.  Grills, 24.
6.  See especially Willis, 1976; Dunk, 1991 and Scott, 1998.
7. See Traill video, 1997, in author's possession. This is a home-videotape made by a Local 222 GM member who set himself the goal of documenting the 1996 strike. Hundreds of workers purchased copies of this tape as a memento of the strike when they returned to their jobs.
8. For further evidence, in addition to the October 1996 Fabrication Plant takeover, see "GM workers sit until they get meeting" (Oshawa This Week, August, 9, 1998). This article describes a recent sit-in at GM Canada's national headquarters by thirty Local 222 shop-floor representatives who were frustrated at their failure to schedule a union-management meeting. I believe this is indicative of a radical union culture not necessarily found at other CAW locals.