The Hans Sigrist Foundation

Prof. Dr. Jennifer Klein, Yale University

An Interview with the 2014 Hans Sigrist Prize Winner

HSF:      Congratulations on being selected as the Hans Sigrist Prize Winner for 2014!  What sparked your interest in the field of history itself?

Klein:      After college, I was working in a very different kind of job.  I was, believe it or not, working in New York City law enforcement as an investigator.  I started to realize that in order to get at the political and the social issues that underlay the problems of corruption in an urban economy, that historical investigation would take me there.  Merely prosecuting individuals didn't enable us to understand how people made the decisions that they did and why they took the actions that they did, how they were working within certain constraints, and yet, could take action that changed the outcomes. Instead, at root, these are historical questions. They not only enable us to get at the big picture of political economy and social change; ideally, such historical research would help us think about what would make a more just society today, and how we could build that going forward.

Often, people think of historians as people who are stuck in the past.  Whereas, I actually felt like the kinds of questions that you could raise through historical research, for example, in my case, looking at the New Deal, which set up so many of our modern social policies and economic policies, would enable me to explore those questions for today.  Then, on a more personal level, I love archival research.  I love doing the research, am fascinated by the documents.  I remember moments where I would be going through the archives, and I would call up my father and say, "I saw a letter, and it had Franklin Roosevelt's signature on it", or I would get really excited about something I had found.  So, there was also something about the tactile act of looking at those records and seeing what people had to say that I found exciting as well. I do not think you get that just through the social sciences.

Finally, I think, it is not enough to simply have a model and then pluck out of the past what will fit that model and assume that is a predictive model.  I think you have to really build a case historically through the evidence and let the evidence tell you.  That doesn't mean that narrative is not an analytical mode of understanding what happened, but you do have to build from the evidence.  

HSF:     And specifically, how did you get interested in precarity?

Klein:    On the question of precarity, I started off in my first book, looking at the questions of economic security and how it is that workers and families could build some kind of project for economic security. Writing about health care, social security, and pensions, my historical investigations enabled me to uncover a wider range of ideas, possibilities, and institutions that workers and social activists actually had, some of them quite progressive, that got lost and that people do not know about.  One of the things I found while writing my book on health insurance and pensions, was that people in the 1930s and 1940s had some very good ideas about how to organize health care. When those lost out, not only did we lose possible programs, but we also lost the ideas and the kind of democratic control embedded in community or labor health care programs that are not there in the forms of commercial insurance and private insurance that employers in the United States opted for.  What became precarious about that was that benefits ended up being attached to employment.  Whereas a welfare state is meant to compensate for the insecurities of the labor market, the United States constructed a system that basically replicated those same insecurities of the labor market.  Further, these benefits were premised on a model of employment that mainly corresponded to the experience of white men.  So, while they received both the public benefits of the welfare state and the private benefits of core-sector employment, millions of other people - women, African Americans, Latinos - did not have any direct claim upon health benefits or private pensions. The inequalities in that private system have remained in place.  It has continued to be the case that women are less covered by the private system, African Americans are less covered by it, and Latinos are less covered by it. The private system of benefits hit its peak in the mid-1970s, and has only reversed course since then.  It is not as though we are moving towards egalitarian or universal coverage.  Far from it!  

HSF: Can you tell me about your most recent project?

In terms of my recent project, I was a fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in health policy. I was working with political scientists and sociologists, and we started a reading group on long-term care.  I found that everybody approached the questions of long-term care from the perspective of the users, the clients of care, and what their needs were. Consequently, the scholarly and policy literature mainly addressed the workers in so far as they were a problem for the consumers of the care: for example, "Oh, the workers are unreliable.  The labor market is unstable."  As a labor historian, I wanted to be able to look at those questions historically and structurally: "Why is it an unstable labor market?" and "What is the experience of providing care from the point of view of the women who are actually in the workforce?" "Why has care work continued to be a low-paid, feminized and racialized occupation and labor market?" That is where I could contribute to this debate as a labor historian. The research also revealed that what we might perceive as private labor taking place in the private space of the home was in fact an occupation continually shaped by the state. This raised another essential question: what has been the role of the modern state in creating a particular low-wage labor market and maintaining the insecurity of care labor jobs over time?

HSF:    That's fascinating.  I was very interested in some comments you made about how those workers fit into the modern economy versus industrial workers in the modern economy, with outsourcing and so on.  

Klein:    In the U.S., care workers, if we just think about home-based care workers, are a workforce of almost two million people.  If we look at the broader continuum of people who are involved in what Eileen Boris and I call the care work economy - nursing home aides, hospital workers, counselors, social workers, hospital workers of various sorts, personal care attendants, child care providers - that is truly a vast and rapidly growing workforce. Yet in American political culture, whenever we have an election season and politicians and parties want to talk about the concerns of "the worker," they still tend to hold up a particular kind of iconic worker - the auto worker, the steel worker, the male worker - when in fact, there are far more women in the home care workforce than in auto and steel combined. They indeed represent the new workforce: in terms of the type of labor, the growth trajectory, and the fact that new immigrants are filling these jobs.  Throughout the recent recession, where jobs have shrunk in a number of sectors, the jobs in this precarious home care sector have only continued to grow.  I think you can say the same in terms of hotel work, cleaning work, and food service.  These are all jobs that have traditionally been jobs that were precarious, often non-unionized (or de-unionized during the 1980s), and were outside of that structure of private social benefits and labor law.  

There is a global dimension to this too. There are care workers who are on the move throughout the global economy: going from the Philippines to Italy, or from the Philippines to Switzerland, or from Jamaica and Africa to the U.S.   I think they are the workforce that is expected to pick up the work of the privatizing welfare state.

There is still a tendency to act as though women's history is marginal and women's labor force experience is marginal. But when we think about care work, this ties into all of the central challenges faced by Western European and North American countries right now: the aging population, the ability of the medical sector to prolong life, the future of universal health care, the disability rights movement, immigration, and the future of the labor movement. Women's labors, once seen as marginal, therefore, are actually central.  

HSF:      Based upon the comparative research you have done and speaking with others in other countries, do you think any country has it right?   Are there solutions that should be borrowed from certain countries?

Klein:      Well, I believe that Germany has a good social insurance system now.   Japan has tried to some degree, but it needs to be part of social insurance.  I think that every time we act as though we do not have the solution, we forget that social insurance works, and it is quite effective; social risks can be planned for.  To expect people to shoulder long-term care as a private burden is absolutely unreasonable.  Almost a century ago, the U.S. and other industrial nations agreed on the recognition that, everybody would reach a point at which he or she could no longer be earning income in the workforce; therefore, if we plan for it, we can provide pensions.  We have to start thinking that way regarding long-term care for a couple of reasons. Statistically, if you live beyond the age of 65, at some point, you will have chronic illness, or will need care; we can plan for that by pooling the risk and doing that in a socialized way.  Second, I think that the assumption cannot be that it is going to be on the backs of cheap labor, because then you just have another impoverished population.

HSF:    So, switching a little bit to the theme of the Hans Sigrist Prize, what do you think that the prize money will do for you in terms of what you can do for your research?  Are there things you are hoping to be able to accomplish that this will help you with?

Klein:       Oh, absolutely!  Believe it or not, we do not normally get that much research funding.  So, I see two things most immediately.  One is resuming the archival research that I would like to do; I have some new things that I am interested in looking at.  Second, I am hoping to plan a conference.  My plan is to discuss it with my graduate students, and define a cutting edge theme that we can organize the conference around. It will be thrilling to bring prominent voices to campus. Moreover, if we could connect scholars with workers' groups and other advocates pursuing legislative, legal, and workplace changes to counter economic precarity, those would be fruitful and exciting endeavors for all of us.
One of the new projects I have wanted to do research on involves the way in which certain labor, people and places come to be seen as disposable, as waste, within capitalism.  I am planning to begin with a case study in southeastern Louisiana, where there are chemical plants and hazardous waste sites, including a cancer cluster where women had been getting cancer at a higher rate. Women began to organize community groups to challenge the chemical companies' practices. Further, as I looked into it, I found in this very same area, there was a women's prison, a psychiatric hospital dating back to the mid-19th century, and a leprosy hospital colony. Between 1974 and 1982, three more prisons were built within this small radius of space. As has been the case in my previous work, I'm investigating how social and economic processes are linked. In this case, I want to think about the politics of creating waste and acting as those people are disposable and pushing them to the margins, examining these as linked forms of social and economic marginalization.

The other thing that is interesting about this area is that it was an area where many African Americans lived, and it also had some strong free black communities. These were places - even within the American South - where black people had traditionally owned land, yet interspersed with large plantations. Over time, the large plantations sold out to the chemical companies.  This produced a pattern of small blocks of black-owned land or communities sandwiched between large chemical and oil companies. So I am also interested in what creates a landscape, how a landscape is racialized, and then how it creates certain forms of social and economic waste and a sense of disposability and precarity.  Here, these African-Americans had land, so they thought that is what would give them stability; yet it turns out that they end up in the middle of this chemical corridor, with no escape, living lives of medical/health and economic precarity.  It is a new project, at an incubative stage so those are just formative questions I have as I get started.

I will also continue to do my work on social benefits, as I get asked to write pieces on social benefits and policy.  I just did a recent piece for an international volume that is a comparative volume on the uses of social policy language and terminology and how it shapes our understandings of the policies.  For that, I was able to write about gender and security. Moreover, Eileen Boris and I have contributed to legal briefs for court cases concerning home care workers.
In my first book, I wrote about security: how does a society, polity or group of activists create a politics of security, how does that become a broadly supported ideology of security that people believe in,  and then how does it get challenged and subverted?  In my second book, we started off with insecurity - a job hidden in the home, excluded from national labor standards and labor law, and denied any social benefits. We then uncovered the processes through which women could come to recognize themselves as workers who had agency and could create a way to improve their working conditions, their pay, and the standard of care received by clients.  Indeed, it has been an on-going struggle just to get their labor recognized and valued as real work.

HSF:    I was interested in your findings, about why you think home health workers' work sometimes was not considered real work by the different laws that were passed, and by the population. Why was it undervalued?

Klein:      I think it was due to three things.  I think it is partially the labor: these are tasks that have traditionally been done unpaid by female family members, wives, daughters, or mothers. So there is the assumption that these are labors that should be done as responsibilities, or as duties, out of love and family obligation. The other factor is the site of the home itself and the fact that the home has remained outside of the legal definition of work. The home is continually constructed as a private space, even though, in fact, the market has intervened in the home for quite a while, for centuries really, and waged labor has taken place within the home. Not only has the market intervened in the home, but the state has as well.  Still, there is an ideological, and legal, construct of the home as a private space; it has to be protected as private space - often under patriarchal rule - and the state has no business intervening.  In fact, it is a place of work. Not only do the workers need to recognize themselves as workers; the people who employ domestic workers, often women themselves, have to recognize that they are employers.  They often do not see themselves as employers. But, if you open your home to waged labor, then it means that is a space where labor standards apply or should apply. Finally, the labor and the site have been stigmatized through association with slavery and servile labor.
I just participated in a conference recently that was organized by New Haven Legal Assistance and the National Employment Law Project on "wage theft," looking at the various places in which immigrants and other workers do not get paid.  In some places, they have to clock out and then work more hours, or they work overnight and do not get paid, or in the home, they are working and not getting paid. I see my work as a contribution to that struggle and I'm part of what they are doing. For example, there is an attempt to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in Connecticut, so I testified before the state Legislative Committee on Labor. Four states in the U.S., including New York and Massachusetts, have passed one of these laws. I've given lectures to and with union organizers, rank and file workers, and home care agency owners and visiting nurses. I've been on the picket lines with nursing home workers. I like to see myself as a person who is also out there working on these issues with other people.

HSF:      So, it is not just history, it is also alive right now?

Klein:    The point is to put our scholarly work on gender, labor, and economic security into practice and help people figure out how they can build the alliances that will overcome the precarity of this as both a job and as a social welfare benefit that people need.  The historical research now can demonstrate that in particular places and moments in time, previously isolated home care workers formed successful alliances with senior citizens groups or disability rights groups; at other times, those were completely unstable alliances, because the state makes people afraid, pitting groups against each other and creating the impression of a zero-sum game: if wages improve,  you will lose your hours of care or you won't be able to get your benefits.  The policy assumption has been that only through cheap labor can we provide sufficient care.  It leaves the workers impoverished, but it also downgrades the labor, making it in turn seem unworthy of public funding. This produces a vicious downward spiral that leaves families on both sides of the equation insecure. Instead, we need to forge alliances, showing how their interests are interrelated: better care and better working conditions as tied together, because if you devalue one, you devalue the other.  It's become even more urgent now, because the federal courts in the U.S. have begun to strip away some of the labor rights so recently won by these women.

HSF:    I know you have only been at the University of Bern for a few days, but have you enjoyed your visit so far, and has anything surprised you about Bern?

Klein:    I've never been to Switzerland before, so to me it had been a place that existed in books or articles, whether childhood books, or later scholarly books, or magazine and newspaper articles. The walking tour of Neuchatel and Bern was fascinating. It completely appeals to my historian's brain to walk the streets and market galleries of these medieval towns, seeing all the fountains, walls, buildings, clocks, even shutters!  I teach an U.S. Urban History course at Yale, which spans the 1870s-present. To be here, however, one truly gets the sense of the broad span of urban living and political economy in human culture. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to teach a lecture in Professor Studer's course. The students were great. They listened attentively (especially given that it was a lecture in their third or fourth language!) and asked compelling questions, seeking ways to connect the U.S. story with what they had been learning about Switzerland or other parts of the world. I also had the opportunity to meet in smaller gatherings with graduate students and learn about the work they are doing on welfare state, social policy, and labor issues. The graduate students at University of Bern are doing fantastic work-on old age support, on women's activism in the 1970s - that will shape the field in years to come.  Dinners and lunches with the Prize Committee members and Foundation officials enabled us to engage in cross-disciplinary conversations

I am very excited to be honored in this way, and to be here. Participating in this international symposium with scholars such as Professor Brigitte Studer, Professor Pat Thane, Professor Martin Lengwiler, Professor Eileen Boris, and the other people at the conference enables us to engage in a vigorous and imperative conversation about the similar issues faced by women, who are key breadwinners and whose labors are central to the economic trends within each nation and across the dynamic global economy. The conference is an ideal mix of scholars across the generations. We've been able to bring our particular investigations of the history of gender, social benefits, and inequality in each discrete nation into dialogue with each other and illuminate significant patterns of convergence or divergence - wrestling with the balance between structure and agency. We could think about the consequences of gendered citizenship. With the social democracies of the post-World War II era being questioned and the welfare states going through transitions, being part of this international conversation is both a rich and timely opportunity, and I look forward to further applying it in my research.