We Do The Work And We Can Bring Down The System: A Q&A With ‘Working Class History’

“Centering class is pivotal because it is the working class who keep the system running, yet that society is also based on our collective exploitation.“

// A Works Progress Administration worker receives his paycheck, 1939
(Courtesy of the National Archives)

“You can’t charge a person to work for you. They’ve gotten away with this in the sex industry for decades. I’ve been a stripper now for 26 years… They call it ‘stage fees’ or a ‘mandatory tip out.’ They have various titles, but don’t be confused. It’s literally wage theft.”

TThat’s Antonia Crane. She was a dancer at the Lusty Lady peep show in North Beach, San Francisco for over a decade. And she was part of something extraordinary.

Against all odds, in an industry that‘s renown for predatory managers, racist policies, workers’ rights violations, and plagued by not-so-latent stigma and policing of women’s bodies, pleasure, and autonomy, the dancers of the Lusty Lady unionized in 1997 before buying the whole club in 2003 and establishing a worker cooperative as well.

“The money that it takes to be an entertainer is colossal…They’ve gotten away with this for 30 years or more, charging women to dance. It has to do with this, for lack of a better word, tip mentality, which is that, you’re my product, so I get half of what you are making out there.

“How does this make sense? It’s because it’s women’s work. It’s because it’s women doing the work that they feel entitled to our bodies. This is about feminism. This is about a system that has historically exploited us. The system has to change. The way to change it is to unionize.”

Lusty Lady workers, marching on May Day 2008 in support of San Francisco dock workers.

Crane’s story is all part of Working Class History’s podcastEpisode 20: The Exotic Dancers Union to be exact — and I wanted to surface this particular story because America is currently in the dark throes of a long-time reckoning.

The Great Resignation and the overturning of Roe mark an unmistakable milestone in our collective awakening, a simultaneous push-back against capitalist subjugation and the system’s attempt to deepen its control. This chapter will have a human cost that is yet to be tallied, but will be dear. It will come in blood. In bodies.

And while the Lusty Lady ultimately collapsed after 40 years of business (inherited financial duress and a rapacious landlord spelled its final demise) the dancers’ success serves as a testament to what we’re capable of.

The good news is that history is riddled with this kind of courage, camaraderie, and relentless hope.

Working Class History — a sprawling multimedia project run entirely by volunteers — is about “all of those who have fought for a better world,” not the rich or the powerful, but the angry and the brave.

I reached out to WCH because I felt galvanized by their storytelling — by their history lessons, by their archival photography, by their book, and by their vision of looking back so we can learn how to move forward. In the spirit of the collective, they wanted to answer as such.

Here’s what Working Class History had to say about our shared history of struggle, resistance, and what the hell we can do to forge the future we deserve.

What does ‘Working Class’ mean? To you, to the labor movement, to the current socio-economic hierarchy we find ourselves?

First, I think it’s important to realise that there are multiple definitions of ‘class’ that are useful for different things: so sometimes people use ‘working class’ as a sociological category, which they define in different ways, usually using some combination of wealth, education etc.

Other times it’s more like an identity, to do with people’s lifestyle and cultural tastes (and these can often be linked to the previous definition). These can both be useful in different ways, like looking at how income inequality affects educational achievement or health problems for different groups, or how people behave in different social circles.

Another way of thinking about class (and, in our opinion, the most important) is as a way of understanding society, how it came about, how it functions and how we can change it.

So our current, capitalist society — which it should be remembered as only been around for a little more than a couple of hundred years — came about as people were violently forced off communal lands, deprived of independent means of survival and so forced to sell their labour to wealthy business owners to survive.

In Western Europe, rafts of repressive laws were then introduced to force people to become wage workers, and people resisting were arrested, tortured, mutilated and even executed.

This dispossession of the vast majority of the population was then spread overseas through violent colonialism. Indigenous peoples were torn from their land, many were abducted and enslaved, and genocides took place around the world by the colonial powers.

So today, a big majority of us are born into a situation where we do not own our means of survival. So our only way of surviving is to sell our ability to work for others, who do own that property — land, factories, offices and so on.

On top of wage work in the workplace, a huge amount of unpaid work has to be carried out as well, predominantly by women in the home and in caring for current, past or future wage workers (meaning mostly spouses, elders and children).

And while many commentators speak of the working class typically referring to white, male, workers, in reality the global working class is predominantly made up of people of colour, over 50% of whom are women, and which is as diverse as the world population in terms of ethnicity, race, gender identity, sexuality and so on.

Despite all the myriad divisions within our class, from employer to nationality to immigration status etc, we all share this economic reality from this historic dispossession. And we share a common interest in terms of the central conflict within capitalist society.

Which is that employers want us to work longer hours, for less pay. And by contrast, we all want to work shorter hours, for more pay. We share a common, collective self-interest. And a lot of effort is put in by governments, employers, the educational systems and media which they control, to try to obscure this basic fact, and encourage us to squabble amongst ourselves.

// On this day, 26 May 1944, a general strike broke out in Marseille, Vichy France. Metalworkers, public servants and transport workers joined a stoppage of shipyard workers the previous day, demonstrating in front of the City Hall demanding “bread!”. The strike remained unbroken until the Gestapo had arrested 15,000 workers — but the crackdown was short lived as Marseille was liberated soon after.

Why is centering the working class experience pivotal in understanding where we’ve been and where we’re going? How does it inform, evolve, influence and bolster the movement?

Centering class is pivotal because it is the working class who do all the work which keeps the system moving: from driving the trains to looking after children and the sick and elderly, to producing and distributing all the products we eat, wear and use in our daily lives.

Yet, while it is us who do the work that keeps society running, that society is also based on our collective exploitation.

As such, workers are in a uniquely strategic position whereby not only are we exploited by this society, but as the people who do all the work, we also have the ability to bring it to a halt — and transform it.

This is important for movements because, without it, they can find themselves building alliances with groups that have conflicting interests.

Indeed, most of the history of the Labour Party in Britain (and, to be honest, social democracy in Europe more generally) has turned around this basic fact: that while organisationally it was sustained by the working-class movement, structurally it has always contained and mediated between different, conflicting classes (leading to everything from disavowing strikes in the 1920s to promoting wage restraint in the forties and seventies, not to mention working-class participation in various colonial wars).

So understanding class is important because it helps movements think about the concrete interests influencing different groups (employers, politicians whether right and left, etc). And, most importantly, that politics isn’t about convincing people who have conflicting interests to us, but tipping the balance of class power. And how do we do that? Well, our aim is to show some examples from history!

Where do you think we are in our current Working Class history?! What issues will define this day and age?

As workers, in most countries of the West we are still living in a period of profound defeat. From a position where, in the US and UK for example, workers built a good amount of power on the job in the 1960s and 70s, and managed to win pretty good wages, social safety net etc.

Then in the 1980s came the neoliberal assault, led by politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which broke up workers’ organisation and set in motion a downward slide in real wages, rising unemployment, increasing wealth inequality and the erosion of social safety nets.

We are living in a period where we are now much more atomised than in the past. If you think, much of the current generation of workers have grown up and entered the workforce without ever having experienced the powerful working-class movements of the past so social change can seem much more difficult to imagine.

We need a generation-wide relearning of labour movement values and practices.

That said, there have been a lot of self-organised struggles which have pushed forward struggle in recent years. The most famous would probably be the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw major uprisings across the United States and resulted in a real sea-change in how many people approach the question of policing and the state.

Struggles around Indigenous sovereignty have also had great successes in recent years, with a report saying indigenous resistance had averted around 25% of US and Canadian emissions, which is particularly important now given the climate crisis.

Young people have also been crucial in these struggles, not just BLM but also around trans rights, opposition to ‘Don’t Say Gay’, the climate strikes, Starbucks unionisation etc. They’re having to learn the lessons from the old movements and translate them to new conditions.

// On this day, 10 May 1904 Dutch cellist, conductor, lesbian and anti-Nazi resistance member Frieda Belinfante was born in Amsterdam. During the German occupation she joined the resistance and began forging documents for people hiding from the Nazis and their collaborators.

The important thing will be whether they — and those of us who aren’t so young anymore! — can take the energy from those big explosions of protest and turn them into real power in our everyday lives, where we live and work: when bosses, or landlords, or the police, or the mayor want to change something about our lives, are we organised enough to stop them? And if we aren’t, what do we need to do to be organised?

One last thing: when I talk to my more negative friends about the situation we all find ourselves in, I always say that the working class has been pronounced ‘dead’ multiple times throughout history and often by self-professed radicals.

Engels once said that nowhere were people less resistant than East London; a few weeks later, a major strike of so-called ‘unskilled’ women workers in East London saw the spread of huge strikes across Britain that one huge gains and transformed the labour movement.

The mechanised loom was supposed to have killed off the organised working class, then the assembly line, then fascism was supposed to have crushed it and then the welfare state was supposed to have bought it off. Each time it came back as a political force, albeit different from the last time, and in hindsight each time it was always obvious why and how it had happened.

Now we are in a new situation of a global working class after a period of historic defeat. But, it should also be remembered that in 2019, just before Covid hit, there were major protests and uprisings in Chile, Bolivia, Haiti, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Greece and France.

Is that decisive proof of the historical mission of the proletariat? No. But it does suggest that it’s still all there to play for.

What’s giving you the most hope in terms of workers’ rights? What is the most troubling?

There are definitely positive things going on right now. Like the wave of self-organised struggles of low-paid cleaners and other workers, mostly migrant workers of colour in London, in new grassroots unions like the United Voices of the World.

Or the explosion of organisation and protest against white supremacist police violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other Black people in the US like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

// On this day, 19 May 1925, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, was born in Omaha, Nebraska. “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Even as the struggle on the streets died down, millions of people were inspired by it, and, seeing that maybe such radical societal change wasn’t going to happen so quickly, large numbers of workers in the US, often led by Black and other workers of colour, have started organising themselves in workplaces. In industries where workers have previously been unorganised, like big tech, Amazon, Starbucks and the like.

But at the same time, there are dark clouds on the horizon too. Increasing numbers of working class people are questioning capitalism, at a time when it is literally threatening the continued existence of human life on this planet. And so in parallel with this, we are seeing increasing efforts from media outlets and politicians to encourage working class people to turn against one another instead.

By generating panics and fear of our fellow workers, like trans people, migrant workers and history teachers. This is helping feed a global resurgence of fascism and neo-nazism.

It’s worth remembering that in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in the last century, when the working class really threatened the power of the rich and big business, their governments resorted to fascism to protect them.

And if they need to, they will try to do this once more.

From where you’re standing and thinking and reading…what can people do to combat apathy and contribute to the grassroots movement of pushing back against exploitation and late-stage capitalism?! How can we help underpin the efforts of the working class?

I would say the main thing for people to do would be to sit back, think about your own life situation, the issues you face, and think about how you can start coming together with other people affected by the same issues, to start to collectively do something about them.

So it could be something like not getting adequate breaks at work, or an environmentally destructive project in your community, or a vital local service facing cutbacks.

Don’t wait for some politician or union to come in and do things for you, because they probably won’t.

And even if they did, their interests are not necessarily the same as yours. Try to get together with your co-workers or neighbours directly and start planning out what you might be able to do.

What’s coming down the pipeline for Working Class History? Where are you going next?

Apart from a load of new podcast episodes, the main thing we are working on right now is building a powerful, interactive web app and map containing all of our stories of working class organisation and resistance. The map in particular will serve as a repository of digital historical markers, in many cases for the kinds of events and people who will never get an official marker. We hope to launch these later this year.

Do you have a favorite episode that the podcast explores?

It’s hard to say really. On a personal level, my favourite is probably our episodes 21–24, about the Columbia Eagle mutiny.

We speak with a former US merchant marine, Al Glatkowski, during the Vietnam war, who together with his colleague Clyde McKay, hijacked their ship full of thousands of tons of napalm destined for US forces, and sailed it to neutral Cambodia.

Apart from it being a great tale of bravery and resistance, it’s also just a fantastic story full of unexpected twists and turns, and illuminating to see the sorts of things which happen when individual ordinary people get involved in big global events which get reported around the world by entities with differing political agendas.

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Katie Tandy

Katie Tandy

writer. maker. editor @medium.com/the-public-magazine. Former co-founder thepulpmag.com + The Establishment come for adjectives stay for justice