Why are so many white-collar professionals in revolt? | Gabriel Winant | Opinion


Professionals – those consummate rule-followers – are in revolt. Across the United States, the last several years have seen a marked uptick in social protest and workplace organizing among the ranks of the credentialed. And just in the last months, this gradual rising trend has accelerated rapidly. Why are our white-collar workplaces suddenly seething?

Part of growing up in an unequal society is learning how you’re supposed to relate to rules. At the top and the bottom of society, rules are either optional or mandatory. Elites break rules at their pleasure. Marginalized people follow rules because they have to.

But in between, it’s traditionally been the professionals who most deeply internalize and embody dominant social norms and codes of conduct. Just think of how we use “professional” as a term of praise, meaning appropriate, competent, and reliable. The very concept of the “profession” is closely related to the idea of “vocation”: a quasi-religious calling that brings its own ethical code, often in the form of an oath that the practitioner is required to “profess”—hence the name.

More than just following the rules most diligently, it’s professionals who are supposed to convey and enforce the rules. Teachers, social workers, lawyers, nurses—these are the people who tell others how to conduct themselves.

But it’s now among teachers that rebellion has spread most quickly. Following on West Virginia’s successful teachers’ strike in February and March, educators have walked off the job in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina.

Nor is the trend limited to primary and secondary education. Graduate workers at the University of Illinois spent two weeks on strike in late February and early March. At Columbia University, graduate workers spent a week in April on strike, following a 93% strike vote (nearly matching the 99% of their counterparts at the New School).

At Harvard, after a landmark pro-union vote this spring, graduate workers have just brought the university to the bargaining table – a watershed moment in higher education. Organizing campaigns are underway on many more university campuses, including recent victories for postdocs at the University of Washington and graduate employees at Georgetown University.

Much the same is happening in health care, the other giant sector of professional labor. At Albany Medical Center in New York, nurses voted two-to-one to unionize in April. An organizing drive has recently begun at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. And an astonishing 53,000 workers at the medical centers of the University of California went on strike in May after a 97% vote for a work stoppage.

Professionals are not wholly unique. After all, all workers exercise judgment; every job requires skill, recognized or not. But autonomy from management has traditionally been an explicit part of the job description only for the credentialed. The reason, in fact, that professionals are such rule-followers is exactly because they must behave reliably to be trusted with this autonomy.

Yet in recent years, this white-collar autonomy has been eroded. The testing regime imposed on public schools has routinized teaching. Nurses do paperwork rather than spend time bedside, and hospitals are systematically understaffed. The rise of contingent academic employment has eroded scholarly control over teaching and research—gutting the academic freedom once at the ethical core of the profession. Declining profits and intensifying competition for clicks have had a disastrous impact on journalistic working conditions, driving a wave of organizing across digital and print media.

Traditionally, professionalism has been politically disabling. Its logic is individual and meritocratic rather than collective. It promotes the identification of the worker with the work. When workers cannot draw the boundary between themselves and their work, they may lose the ability to criticize their employers for taking advantage of them. They even may lose the ability to see themselves as workers at all. This is a recipe for fear of collective action.

So when professionals seek to represent their interests, they’ve often tried to avoid conflict. A century ago, when the professions first emerged in their modern forms, virtually every one of them had a debate over how best to advocate for themselves. Should they organize themselves on a guild model and advance their interests by seeking to control credentialing and to influence public policy? Or should they pursue collective workplace action? In either case, who got to participate?

Today, for example, two organizations represent American teachers. The older, the National Education Association, was founded on the guild model, and led by school and college administrators. Then, in the early twentieth century, teachers protesting the “factoryizing” of schools split away to form the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union. In a famous 1904 speech called “Why Teachers Should Organize,” Margaret Haley explained that teachers’ struggles for humane schools were “part of the same great struggle [as] the manual workers.”

In this period, there existed many different types of skilled work. Some, like teaching, we would recognize as the ancestors of today’s professions, but others were forms of skilled manual labor now long-gone. Skilled craftsmen controlled production processes in many industries, which gained them security and status. Before he became a union leader and the country’s leading socialist, for example, Eugene Debs was a railway fireman, a skilled craft that earned him the position of a leading citizen in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. People like Debs could easily consort with journalists, doctors, lawyers, and other such proto-professionals, who had not yet elevated themselves into a distinctive, superior social layer.

Unions also went through brutal internal debates in this time over very similar questions to those facing the emergent professions. Should they confront their employers, or should they try to control access to jobs? Should they limit themselves by skill, race, and gender? Or should they organize everyone in an industry—or even the whole working class?

The division we now take for granted between workers and professionals only emerged historically as skilled workers of all kinds sought answers to these questions. People we now call professionals were those who figured out how to protect their autonomy and privileges through the guild model, and we know them today as doctors, nurses, lawyers, and teachers. On the other hand, the old aristocrats of labor—the iron puddler, the machinist, the printer—are largely or entirely vanished now.

Those skilled workers who became professionals bought themselves a century of respite, but they made themselves the political accomplices of the capitalist elite in exchange. Now capitalism has turned on them. What Margaret Haley called “factoryization” has returned with a vengeance, and professionals must decide again what to do.

When skilled manual laborers came under such pressure a century ago, they eventually realized their best course was to make common cause with the unskilled masses. They had to reach across exclusionary lines of race, ethnicity, and status long held as sacrosanct. But when America’s great industrial unions formed in the 1930s, they were led in large part by skilled craftsmen displaced from their privileged positions, who had finally been driven to join with their lowlier workmates. In doing this, skilled workers were compelled to reimagine not just their strategies and alliances, but who they were themselves.

The very identity of professional is a historical invention, an ideology rather than a reality. Like privileged Victorian craftsmen, professionals will have to trade in the distinctions that separate them from other workers for the commonalities that join them if they want to turn the tide. Remarkably, they seem to be awakening to this urgent necessity—perhaps just in time.

  • Gabriel Winant is a historian and writer completing a PhD at Yale University. He is working on a book on the Rust Belt and the rise of care work



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