Photo by the author: A working class childhood (c. 1959)
BY NANCY HARDING
I grew up in the working-class coal mining communities of the South Wales Valleys in the UK. My parents left school at 14, my father became a coal miner and my mother a very frustrated housewife. Cleanliness was god in the Valleys, and my mother (keeping the home clean was women’s work) broke the rules of that god. My six younger siblings and I grew up in a dirty house and we went hungry two or three days every week. We think now that our Mam was depressed and just could not find the energy to cook a meal and grab a mop, bucket and duster to clean the place. The worst part of the experience, my adult self realised, was the stigma. Stigma comes at you, it seems, from nowhere. You somehow know the unwritten rules and the unspoken norms governing what is ‘respectable’ (‘respectability’ was highly sought in the Valleys) and what is not. Its experience provides an important lesson.
After I left school I worked, in my late teens, on the production lines in a factory. The work was dull, repetitive, mind-sapping and very poorly paid. We did ‘piece work’, that is, we were paid only for the number of ‘good’ condensers we produced. We sat in rows, hunched over machines, clicking a counter for each condenser we laboriously assembled. Supervisors walked the aisles checking we wasted no time talking to each other, and we had to raise our hands to seek their permission to go to the toilet. Management and machines together tried to control our every move. I had learned as a child to despise management: managers interfered in efficient working and slowed production through their general ignorance. As a young adult I learned to despise them because they reduced humanity to the status of machines.
But it was that very community that had stigmatised me as a child that rescued me as a young adult. In our snatched meal breaks and in the joyous tumbling out of the factory at the end of the shift there was dignity and respect: it was something each young woman in that workspace accorded to all her co-workers. I see you, we seemed to say to each other. I do not see an appendage to a machine, a sloth, a person who lacks all self-control. I see another vibrant young woman, full of life and full of promise. I see someone who may break the rules and run wild and free, or who may run for office, become a leader, even (this was my dream) go to university. We saw women who would raise the next generation, care for the older generation, love and be loved, laugh and cry and be ‘fully human’. There were rivalries, dislikes, petty insults, the joking could be cruel and humiliating – this was no utopia. However, these rivalries proved we were not cogs in oily wheels but real, live human beings.
‘The management’s’ Hobbesian belief that control must be imposed on ‘uncivilised’ workers was and remains part of a class system that dictated we were uncouth, unintelligent, that our pastimes and desires were inferior to those of our ‘betters’. We working class people were taught to feel shame: one is not good enough, not clean enough, not polite enough, does not enjoy the right entertainments or understand the right things. That shame creeps into the soul. This is where the lessons of my childhood stigmatisation reverberate.
Workers, schooled from infancy in stigma, in who to despise and how to despise, are highly sensitive to the imposition of hierarchies of ‘dignified’ and ‘undignified’ at the workplace. They know that ‘dignity’ is not a straightforward concept: one can be treated with indignity in one context (by those who think they are superior) but at the same time feel dignified in another context (by our peers). While workers deserve to be treated as ‘full dignified humans’, dignity itself cannot be granted by management. Management may not themselves be respected by those who are supposed to (but often don’t) look up to them. Management has to earn respect from workers and perhaps, through this, there may be more dignity in the world.
Nancy Harding is a Professor in the School of Management at the University of Bath. You can read more about her work here.