A Conference at SUNY-Stony Brook - 2003
By Michael Zweig, Convenor
Group for the Study of Working Class Life
Department of Economics
State University of New York
Stony Brook, NY 11794-4384
The How Class Works conference, held at SUNY Stony Brook June 5-9,
2002, was a success in a number of ways
and has set the stage for further developments
in working class studies, especially in the social sciences.
The principal accomplishment was bringing together a diverse group
of people to discuss a broad range of issues concerning class
two hundred and fifty people attended, including the more than one hundred
and forty people
who presented their work in forty-seven sessions. [The full program is
available on the “conference” pages of our Website, http://www.workingclass.sunysb.edu
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first U.S. conference based in
the social sciences to be devoted to issues of class.
A remarkably diverse group not often found together pursuing a common
agenda attended the conference
. Most were based in academic institutions but there
were also many participants active in the labor movement. Each of these groups
was unusually diverse internally as well.
Academics included senior scholars with international reputations,
younger faculty, graduate students, and a few undergraduates
, including a panel of
working class community college students from rural Upstate New York reporting
their experiences learning about class and their own lives in a sociology
course. Faculty came from elite Ivy League colleges and major public universities
as well as four-year colleges and community colleges. Three scholars were
in their eighties; the youngest presenter was twenty. Speakers came from six
SUNY campuses (Albany, Binghamton, Cortland, Geneseo, Old Westbury, and Stony
Brook). Scholarly work represented seventeen academic fields: American studies,
anthropology, architecture and planning, art, black studies, communications,
economics, education, English literature, history, labor studies, linguistics,
political science, psychology, clinical medicine and public health, sociology,
and women’s studies. Independent scholars, public intellectuals, and
community activists also attended and presented their work. Six sessions were
devoted to exploring the pedagogy of class - presenters discussed various
strategies for teaching about class to students from different class backgrounds,
based on experiences in a range of educational settings.
In addition to the academics, a number of people from the labor movement
attended, some as speakers
. They came from private and public sector unions
and from non-union worker organizations – elected officials, staff members,
and rank-and-file workers. Labor organizations present at the conference included
the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME),
American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Postal Workers Union (APWU),
Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), Communications Workers of
America (CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Solidarity Center
of the AFL-CIO, South Carolina AFL-CIO, Transport Workers Union (TWU), Union
of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!), Workfare Media
Initiative, and the Workplace Project. The closing conference speaker was
Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade
Unions (COSATU), who made a special trip from South Africa to attend.
In addition to South Africa, participants came from Australia, Britain,
Canada, and all over the United States
. They were Asian, black, Hispanic,
and white, with men and women in roughly equal numbers. The demographic and
occupational mix of participants suggests how attention to class can bring
together a diverse array of people concerned with common issues.
The conference included several cultural events, among them two performances
of Playback Theater (NYC) and a poetry reading. A photography exhibit displayed
images taken by workers in several projects of Unseen America, including some
by immigrant Latino workers on Long Island. Six documentary films were shown
with the filmmakers present to participate in discussion with the audience.
On their conference evaluation forms, participants said they welcomed the
opportunity to address issues of class and appreciated the cultural events.
The one aspect of the conference that drew consistent and strong criticism
was the on-campus housing in Roth Quad dormitories. Many who stayed in the
dorms complained about the lack of soap and blankets, broken elevators, keys
that didn’t work, and cold and dirty rooms. On a positive note, conference
evaluation forms often commented favorably on the “interdisciplinary
nature of topics and participants’ backgrounds [and] networking with
others interested in my research area but from different disciplines” and “the
mix of academics and practicing unionists on panels.” The conference
showed that attention to the lived experience of class can be a catalyst
for work in which intellectual investigation is grounded and experiential
are informed by social and intellectual context
The conference was the product of the collective efforts of the Stony
Brook University community, with significant contributions from outside sources
. On campus, the Group for the Study of Working Class Life organized
the conference. Members of the program committee were Ruth Benzvi (Economics),
Fred Gardaphe (European Languages and Literature), Jacqueline Smith (Sociology),
Nancy Tomes (History), Olufemi Vaughan (Africana Studies), and Michael Zweig
(Economics). The Office of Conferences and Special Events, the Department
of Student Union and Activities, and the Departments of Economics and Theater
provided essential logistical support. President Shirley Strum Kenny, Provost
Robert McGrath, Vice-President for Research Gail Habicht, Dean of the College
of Arts and Sciences Robert Liebermann, Dean of the Graduate School Lawrence
Martin, and Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
(CELT) David Ferguson provided financial support that brought in the plenary
speakers and Playback Theater (NYC), allowed the conference to hire fourteen
Stony Brook graduate students from six departments to work as staff and have
access to all events, and made it possible to record and transcribe many of
the presentations. Thirty-two Stony Brook faculty and professional staff from
seventeen departments and programs served as chairs of conference sessions.
The University Bookstore set up and staffed a mini-bookstore on the conference
site where participants had access to books by the presenters and other relevant
titles at discount prices. Many conference attendees expressed appreciation
for the bookstore.
Outside grants of support came from anonymous, Polly Howells and Eric Werthman,
and United University Professions (Local 2190, American Federation of Teachers – NYSUT – AFL-CIO,
representing 27,000 faculty and professional staff throughout the SUNY system).
The American Center for International Labor Solidarity, AFL-CIO, provided
material and logistical support to bring Zwelinzima Vavi to the conference
The conference has set the stage for further developments in working class
studies. The following steps are already underway.
The Website http://www.workingclass.sunysb.edu
will continue to host
the conference program with links to presenters so anyone can find available
papers from the conference and engage presenters in further dialogue. Links
will be posted on July 15, 2002.
Cornell University Press has expressed serious interest in publishing a
book to be called How Class Works, derived from conference presentations.
I am collecting and editing submissions with the hope that the book will be
available by December 2003.
I am continuing to work with Danny Schechter of Globalvision, an independent
television production company, to make a documentary film on class. Globalvision
sent a film crew to the conference to document sessions and conduct interviews.
The conference provided useful footage as well as leads to other appropriate
During the 2002-2003 academic year the Group for the Study of Working Class
Life will extend its programming to the Stony Brook Manhattan facility while
continuing to sponsor a range of events at Stony Brook. We plan to work closely
with labor education centers and labor organizations in New York City to sponsor
activities that complement and enhance their work.
We have already reserved space at Stony Brook for the second How Class
Works conference, tentatively planned for June 3-6, 2004. We hope that a review
of this year’s conference evaluations will help us to have an even stronger
event next time. We will continue to encourage new work in the field, especially
in the social sciences, through our programs and through the call for papers
for the second How Class Works conference. Our work complements that of the
Center for Working Class Studies (CWCS) at Youngstown State University in
Ohio, where the emphasis is in the humanities and major conferences occur
every second year in odd-number years. We also hope to work with others around
the country to develop regional conferences and centers of working class studies.
We will continue to seek funds from campus sources and from interested
persons and institutions off campus. We will help Stony Brook faculty, graduate
students, and professional staff find the financial and intellectual support
they need to create new knowledge in the field and to develop more nuanced
understandings of class. Issues of class are becoming increasingly salient
in the world around us. We are confident that the experience of the first
How Class Works conference, and the newspaper, radio, and television coverage
it engendered, augur well for future growth in working class studies.