[Marxism] Michael Yates book review

Louis Proyect 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 
coming-of-age pieces.

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 
from them.

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 
looks back.

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.

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