Workers on a Bata production line in 1933. Photo via Bata Information Center, Tomas Bata University in Zlin.

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Sociologist Katerina Nedbalkova on the lives of Czech factory workers and the need to revisit the concept of class. From Respekt.

“Compared to the previous regime, the working class is not being cared for any longer … Manual laborers themselves are aware that what is appreciated today is higher education,” says Katerina Nedbalkova, a sociologist at Masaryk University in Brno and author of the recently-published book Ticha drina – Delnictvi a trida v tovarne Bata (The Silent Daily Grind: Workers and Class at the Bata Factory). The state of the contemporary working class is something she has done her best to capture through research into the Bata footwear company’s last working factory in Europe, located on the outskirts of Dolni Nemci, a village near Zlin, the town where Bata got its start. She has repeatedly returned to the factory in the past four years, spending a full week each time working alongside the regular employees. This method, above all, helped her win the trust of people who at first had no interest in being interviewed for her research. Among other matters, she has captured how these workers see their own positions in society, what their view of inequality is. She also examines the concepts of class and of manual or rote labor, concepts she would like to see make a return to the discourse of both lay people and professionals. 

“The people at the factory were not ashamed to speak of themselves and others as ‘manual laborers,’ but at the same time they replaced that with terms such as ‘ordinary people’ or ‘people like us,’ ” she says.

Your aim was to capture the character of today’s manual laborers – and as you say, that became a more difficult task than you had imagined. Why did you choose the Bata factory in Dolni Nemci for this? 

I never imagined it would be easy, but that’s because it never is easy for someone to enter an environment that is socially unfamiliar. My age was similar to most of the factory women, which may have been an advantage. I had good luck because the director there, who is also a peer in terms of age, was accommodating from the beginning, open, and we came to agreement quickly. It was more difficult with the people on the factory floor, it was not quite clear to them what exactly I was doing there and what would come of it, and when I asked them whether I could interview them for my research, often they did not want to speak with me. They refused by saying they did not know how to speak in professional terms, or that they had not worked there long enough, even though I did my best to explain that none of that mattered. From the beginning the director aided me by giving me tips about people who might be accommodating. It worked best of all when they saw me work alongside them over a longer period of time, the situation as a whole was more natural then. We’re working together, and as we do so it’s suddenly possible to talk about different matters, or to agree to interviews after work.  

During your research, you always worked in the factory. What was your workday usually like?

I arrived at the factory after 6 a.m., reported to the foreperson, she assigned me to jobs that were necessary, or she moved me around during the day. Also, thanks to her, I had an opportunity to take turns with others in different environments, to join a group where I otherwise would not have been able to spend so much time because I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I did my best to watch what was happening around me, how conversations went, how the people did their jobs, how they commented on each other’s work. At these times I arranged interviews with them after work. 

In the introduction to the book you get right to the idea of the bankruptcy of the category of class, a term which has gradually disappeared from the vocabulary of both lay people and sociologists. Why is this?

I wouldn’t say the category of class is disappearing, but that different sociologists have different interests in relating to it. The legacy of the previous regime undoubtedly has something to do with this, class rhetoric was used abundantly then and manual workers were not spared it either. The working class was meant to become the flagship of positive social transformations taking us to a classless society. For that reason, some sociologists, or social scientists more generally, began to have concerns about that category, to approach it with a certain reserve. The same thing was projected into lay people’s discourse – this can be seen, for example, in job advertisements using different names for manual labor positions.     

From its Czechoslovak beginnings, Bata expanded to become one of the world’s biggest shoe makers. This company shop is in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo by Fred Inklaar via Flickr.

Has there been no turnaround?

The book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by an economist from France, Thomas Piketty, brought inequality back into the view of Czech and global sociology. In his introduction he states that the sociologists have abandoned the category of class to the economists, that we have given up on it, and I agree with him, somewhat. Although, as I write in my first chapter, in Czechoslovakia, from the 1960s and 1970s, class was analyzed through research into stratification. This approach is framed by the concept of a naturally-occurring distribution of people into classes that differ depending on ability, education, and qualifications, and this is what arranges the fair operation of a society. In other words, those who study a lot will find themselves better jobs, make more money. Whoever has lower educational achievement will end up poor, and that’s in order. The class perspective on the rightness of that is one of the perspectives that, in my view, could be criticized or revised.    

What are we depriving ourselves of by not speaking about class?

By not speaking about class, or by reducing it to the perspective of stratification, we are depriving ourselves of a view that would facilitate comprehension of the classes and the tensions between them – and also the fact that class difference involves different visions of the world, chances that differ when it comes to advancing one’s interests. That conflict was named by Karl Marx, of course, and Max Weber said this as well.

If you speak about class and conflict in the Czech Republic, won’t a certain worldview automatically be attributed to you?

That’s a comparatively sensitive point: If a person begins working with these concepts in our country or references Marx, who is, in our department of sociology, perceived as embodying the approach of classic materialism, then that person is labeled a Marxist or neo-Marxist. In my book I also refer to him, but more loosely, as somebody who facilitates the identification of inequality in the power relations among people and social groups. However, what is more interesting to me are the American anthropologists and sociologists who espouse him. Marx is more fitting for the analysis of epochal transformations, not for the analysis of a concrete environment and its functioning, or interpersonal relations, or people’s perceptions of their world, which is what I have been concentrating on. […]  

A recent Czech project that worked with the category of class was Czech Radio’s series “Rozdeleni svobodou” (“Divided by Freedom”). According to their categories, 40% of people here can be described as threatened or distressed, but you see those designations as stigmatizing. What label would you use?   

I don’t want to become the most-quoted critic of that research, because it contributed a lot of good and the class debate was enriched by it: It pointed out that class does not just relate to the economic sphere, or to a labor market position, which is what research into stratification typically does, but that it also relates to the cultural and social spheres. “Divided by Freedom” looks at different attributes of lifestyle, different kinds of capital, and that’s important. It demonstrates that differences among people do not just develop from disparities of income, but are associated far more with asset inequality. It’s a big difference whether you pay for rental housing or whether you’ve acquired or inherited an apartment. My critique of it was not about terminology, although I do notice that the higher classes are called by more flattering names there. Rather, I found it odd that they claim no elites exist in the Czech Republic; I would dispute that. I think that as sociologists we should show our work more, when we do research, to be clear on how we made such decisions or chose these category labels. [Pierre] Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant call this class “on paper,” when sociologists, albeit while attempting the greatest precision, assign such categories to people. In reality, however, classes do not behave or form themselves according to such schemas, they are made by the actions, every day, of human beings, and by their thinking.

[Transitions editor’s note: “Divided by Freedom” breaks down Czech society into three major classes according to their possession of economic, social, cultural, and human capital: the upper middle class (34% of the population), lower middle (47%), and lower (18%).]

You also write that social scientists usually concentrate on the middle class because it is closer to them and that they do not know how to be just as sensitive when researching the working class. Is there a way to change that, in your view?

I hoped to spark such a discussion by writing this book. I feel that sociologists should make more of an attempt to look at things from a perspective other than their own, a less obvious perspective. That would bring a revision of what we consider to be an interesting research subject in the first place. To a certain extent it makes sense that sociologists find the problems that are also burning issues for them to be the most interesting. However, I think a class perspective, investigating inequality, can be projected into many subjects that we usually study in sociology – for example, different generations living together, the family, health, or migration. Whenever I attend a conference, I have the impression it would be possible to apply that perspective at almost any time, but most of the time I don’t see that happening.  

What is the state of the working class today compared to before the 1989 Velvet Revolution? 

Compared to the previous regime, the working class is not being cared for any longer, not in practice and not symbolically, on the contrary, it’s been pretty much forgotten, marginalized. This can be seen in different ways. Manual workers themselves are aware that what is appreciated today is higher education. They are able to detach themselves and see that where they are standing, within the framework of this stratified structure, is more toward the bottom. In many cases they are not being paid enough. Some people at the Bata factory feel a certain nostalgia toward the previous regime – their perception is that previously, a job meant more stability, certainty, more of an opportunity to secure one’s living. Currently they’re losing those certainties.

Are there any careers that fall into the working class besides the ones that we typically think of?

We’re only now getting used to the idea that the working class is not just associated with manual labor, but also includes jobs in the service sector, for example. We can consider supermarket cashiers to be such workers. It’s necessary to add that we are seeing more and more women in such positions – not in heroicized, traditional jobs like mining, glassblowing, or foundry work – but in caregiver or service jobs. Call center employees could be considered this kind of worker, for example. All these people could fall into the category that is replacing that of the manual laborer or that sometimes overlaps with it – precarity. Such positions are associated with significant uncertainty and slim prospects for career advancement. […]

The interview transcripts with these workers reveal the generational transformation of the view of work. Was that as strongly apparent in the workplace as well?

The generational perspective is related to understanding what manual work involves. The conviction predominated that younger people are no longer willing to tolerate it, while the older people accept it as a natural part of life. I recall that lady told me that youngsters just want to sit down and lace up the shoes and have no interest in learning to do jobs that require more qualifications. Generally, there were not many younger people at the factory, the number of employees under 30 could be counted on the fingers of one hand, most people there were my peers, closer to 50.     

Is there a difference between the perspective on hard work of people in the factory and the way mainstream society views it?

I’d say we tend to associate hard manual labor with something undesirable; we don’t want to have a job that involves rote work. I recall hearing my mother’s partner, who is a bricklayer, say many times that if he had been a better learner he could be sitting in a warm office and he wouldn’t have to be plugging away, in other words he wouldn’t have to do outdoor physical work in the freezing cold or hot weather. That means the person who does such labor isn’t “good enough” for anything else. However, I have the feeling that in the factory, that was not the perception. People used that word [drina, drudgery, the daily grind] all the time, but they frequently used it in a positive sense, with pride in doing something useful, in staying on their feet, in performing the same task over and over. And they also used it in the sense of being delighted that the workday was over. It’s difficult to do a job for a long time if you don’t like it at all, if you hate it. It’s necessary to rewrite the experience into something good, something that I like. And they were able to do that. Bourdieu calls that the culture of necessity, when we have no choice but to like what we have and to find the positive in it. […]

How do people in the factory understand their position in society and how do they perceive the way the system and society approach them?

They perceive their position through the education system, on the one hand, the call for higher education; they perceive that in that regard they’re at the bottom, figuratively. I recall an interview with construction workers where one told me he is “de facto that bottom.” When I asked whether that is how he feels, he explained that he just said it for my sake. People from different groups in society are frequently able see themselves through the eyes of another person, for example, through my eyes as a sociologist. At the same time, they rebrand their position for themselves into something positive, as knowledge worth having – as we all do. The people at the factory were not ashamed to speak of themselves and others as manual workers, but at the same time they replaced that with terms such as “ordinary people” or “people like us.” They saw a difference between themselves and the other classes in society when it came to authenticity and sincerity, they considered themselves to be more genuine. Western surveys of working-class environments have revealed something similar. […]

Klara Zajickova is a journalist at the Czech weekly Respekt, where this article originally appeared in longer form.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.