[Marxism] Michael Yates book review
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 8 09:02:53 MDT 2009
In These Times
Culture » September 7, 2009 » Web Only
In and Out of the Working Class
Radical economist and labor educator Michael Yates moves beyond the
classroom to examine—with striking honesty—his own life.
By Seth Sandronsky
For decades, Michael Yates has been challenging and critiquing
capitalism in books, articles and classrooms. But Yates—radical
political economist, associate editor of The Monthly Review and author
of Why Unions Matter and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the
Global Economy, among other books—has never delved into the politics of
his own past.
Until, that is, Yates wrote In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter
Ring Publishing), published earlier this year. In this new book, Yates,
63, writes in the tradition of Douglas Dowd, a radical political
economist whose Blues for America: a Critique, a Lament, and Some
Memories, spans most of the 20th century. Yates’ arc is the post-W.W.II
era: his youth, adolescence and adulthood.
In fiction, non-fiction and “creative non-fiction,” Yates writes of
laboring people such as himself immersed in everyday life, in
households, schools and workplaces. Two pieces of fiction book-end the
volume: A male youth wrestles with the siren call of gambling in the
opening “The Year of the Strike,” while “A Lucky Man” closes the
collection with a portrayal of an adult blue-collar worker seeking his
fortune at the race track.
Together, the two stories poignantly illustrate the risk-taking
character of working-class life, where the wagering of resources offers
a measure of relief. But it is always back to work, in all its cold
In and Out of the Working Class’ (explicitly) autobiographical essays
begin in Yates’ working-class community of Ford City, in western
Pennsylvania, where a plate glass factory offered union employment to
the Yates family. Class intersects with gender and race during Yates’
adolescence in the 1950s, when labor unions were strong enough to
improve working people’s living standards. He paints realistic and
sympathetic portraits of his family, foes and friends in these
Yates is strikingly honest about performing in a minstrel show as a
young teen. Under a teacher’s direction, Yates and his caucasian male
classmates blacken their faces and mock African-Americans in dress and
speech. “Racism was such a fact of life that it was taken for granted,”
he writes. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact he grew up in a place
far short of racial justice, Yates becomes a warrior in the fight
against skin-color and gender prejudice.
A logical growth of Yates’ dissent is his involvement with minority
Americans enmeshed in the huge U.S. prison-industrial system. His essay
on teaching in prisons offers illuminating views of his locked-down
students, who have a strong desire for education. Yates learns with and
Though Yates moved beyond his first job as a factory laborer to become a
professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, he
never forgets his roots. He moves up and out, but not away, from the
consciousness of people who labor for a living.
Crucially, In and Out of the Working Class never sugarcoats the working
class, even as Yates highlights a social and economic system that spawns
their alienation and exploitation. This is a major theme of his book, a
recurrent problem that Yates deals with by supporting and forming bonds
of solidarity with labor unions. As an activist academic, he does just
that, helping low-wage service workers on campus to form a union.
At one point in the late 1970s, Yates is the United Farm Workers’ lead
researcher. Oppressed farm workers and their allies forge first-ever
contracts with growers and packers, but tragically, their gains are
rolled back over time. Yates unpacks the harsh realities of such lessons
and brings fresh viewpoints to the farm workers’ movement. Hint: one
legendary idol has clay feet.
Yates writes movingly of hometown friends back from the jungles of
southeast Asia as shattered shells of their former selves. This
gut-punch to his senses deepened Yates’ distaste for the status quo of
capitalism, racism and sexism. As the black freedom and anti-Vietnam War
movements grew during the 1960s, he dives into radical economic
theory—including Karl Marx’s critique of capitalist production—and never
As inequality rages in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, his
political economy courses become less popular with his working-class
students, which alienates him. Eventually, after beginning to write
books and educate union workers, Yates leaves academe disillusioned.
Does his journey of activism and criticism end? Not a chance. What he
does next—travel the country with his wife for six years while at times
taking menial jobs to understand life in America—is further proof that
Yates is one of the most unusual and uncompromising political observers
of our time. In and Out of the Working Class is a great addition to his
already impressive ouevre.
Seth Sandronsky is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the
Atlanta Journal Constitution, Race and Class, Review of Radical
Political Economics, Sacramento News & Review and Z Magazine, among
other publications. He lives and writes in Sacramento, Calif., and can
be reached at ssandronsky at yahoo.com.
More information about the Marxism