Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike - And Quaker Class Narrowness

I still hope to create another post about testing leadings, but the topic on my mind today is the recent New York City Transit Strike. As of today, the Transit Workers Union (Local 100) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have reached a tentative contract agreement that is to be submitted to the union members for a vote. The actual strike, as everyone knows, was ended last week when certain demands by the MTA were taken off the table.

Since I was not at Meeting for Worship last Sunday (the first time in a loooong time that I missed it), I haven't had any opportunity to discuss the strike with local Friends or to learn what their take on it is. I doubt that there is any one position that all of us adhere to, and I don't think there needs to be. Personally, I am very sympathetic with the union. I recognize that the strike was economically damaging to many people, including the transit workers themselves and also including some folks whose circumstances are even worse than those of the transit workers. For that reason, I can well understand why a person of good will could consider the strike unjustified. Yet I can't bring myself to put all or even most of the blame for the strike on the union. It seems evident that the leadership would not have exposed itself to heavy fines or its members to punitive loss of wages if they didn't feel there was a desparate need to take a stand.

The MTA made extreme last-minute demands on the union, thus precipitating the strike, but for some reason absorbed almost no criticism from the press and none at all from the mayor or governor. Instead, the mayor and governor swaggered and threatened and insulted in public, while hypocritically resuming talks (thank God) in the background. Meanwhile, where is the public anger at the erosion of health and retirement benefits throughout our society? Or - for that matter - at the demeaning treatment transit workers and many other workers routinely receive from high-handed management rigidly enforcing nit-picking regulations? This week's Village Voice has some good articles about the latter.

But the reason I wanted to post about the strike on this Quaker-related blog is that it has sharpened my awareness of the narrow spectrum of social and economic classes included in our Quaker Meetings. Some Friends may have favored the strike, and some may have opposed it or resented it. But no Friend in New York, as far as I know, has an intimate acquaintance with the issues derived from having actually been a transit worker. Among the 500 or so Quakers in New York City, I don't believe that any are transit workers (or cab drivers, or telephone linemen, or fire fighters, or deli-counter workers, or people in the garment trades, or bank tellers, or ... you get the idea). I don't believe this is purely a matter of chance. Consider the following rough calculation of the chances are that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would not include any members of the transit union.

1) Assume there are a total of about 10 million New Yorkers. (I haven't checked the actual census figures, but I believe this is in the ball park. Corrections are welcomed).
2) Assume there are 33,000 members of the transit workers union local 100. (This figure has recently been quoted in the press).
3) Dividing 33,000 by 10 million, the chance that a single New Yorker, chosen at random, is a member of the Transit Workers Union is .0033 (33 ten thousandths). Therefore the chance that a single New Yorker chosen at random is NOT a member is 1 - .0033 = .9967
4) The chance that 500 New Yorkers chosen at random are ALL non-members of the transit union is therefore approximately .9967 multiplied by itself 500 times, or .9967 to the 500th power. According to my calculator, that comes to just a hair over 19.15%. In other words there is a less than 20% chance that a random collection of 500 New Yorkers would include no members of the Transit Workers Union. (I realize that this calculation is not quite accurate. I have neglected the fact that each time a person is chosen the pool of ten million shrinks by one and the probabilities for the next selection alter slightly. The impact of that simplification is small and the difficulty of doing the math correctly is a little beyond my grasp).

What is the purpose of this calculation? Frankly, I had hoped before I did it that it would come out differently and would show that the absence of transit workers from our Meetings is only due to random chance and to the fact that there are so few Friends in such a big city. Even after doing it I thought briefly "Oh, less than a 20% probability isn't such a long shot. Maybe it's just chance after all." But then I thought of all those other categories of working-class folks mentioned above and reflected that all of them are either unrepresented or grossly under-represented in our meetings. What are the chances of that? Let's face it, for all our talk of "inclusion" and "universalism" we are a pretty narrow sect and it isn't just because of chance.

What is the real cause of this narrowness? And what could be done about it? I don't know.

But I think I know some of the things that are not the real cause.
  • It is not because Quakerism is a subtle, profound faith for intellectuals (it isn't).
  • It is not because working-class people are prejudiced against us.
  • It is not because working-class people are too busy to worship.
  • It is not because working-class people reject peace.
  • It is not because working-class people can't stand silence.
  • It is not because God wants it that way.

Many of the first venturers into the Quaker faith were people of "low estate" in the world. They were unusual people because of their convictions, but not because of their social class or income or education. Perhaps they were "narrower" than us because their views were more definite and "dogmatic". They were not models of racial inclusiveness, as African-American scholars among Friends have recently begun to point out to us. But when compared to Friends today in the Meetings I know about they seem to have been much more accessible to a whole spectrum of social and economic classes. They were a "great people", not an elite.

Comments are - as always - welcome.



Blogger Zach Alexander said...

I wish I had something deep (etc.) to respond to this, because I think it's really important, but nothing is coming. But I still wanted to at least voice that 'the Friend speaks my mind' (that we should be concerned about this).

8:42 PM, December 28, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...

A historical irony is that the Friends who have "diversified" Quakerism the most are those who tend to have fewer worries that they are diversified enough (that being, Evangelical and pastoral Friends who introduced Quakerism through missions work). Those Friends who worry the most about diversity tend to be the most homogenous of all the branches of Quakerism (that'd be us liberal Friends).

Glad that thee raised this point, Friend.

10:01 PM, December 28, 2005  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Rich,
As the son of a municipal worker married to the daughter of a BellTel lineman, it's been hard for me not to notice the class lines in Quakerism. Thanks for the post.

It's not a new phenomenon: my dad's family was involved in the Pennsylvania coal industry (Irish immigrants who went to work for the coal railroad) and it was kind of weird when Julie & I went touring a restored mining town last year to see the owner named Brinton. I feel a certain ethnic disloyalty even hanging out with Quakers sometimes.

My working theory is that East Coast Quakerism became an ethnic group as much as a faith and that the last fifty years has seen us become a kind of self-selecting demographic sub-culture. You can see the phenomenon measuring all sorts of identity divisions: not just class but race and education. Most liberal Friends now are convinced, which means we haven't inherited this class structure.

I have to think that if we really believed what we say we believe we'd be reaching out more. We have all sorts of unwritten norms that have nothing to do with faith. If we cared less about our cultural sensitivies and more about sharing the good news (which is the same good news if you're a transit worker or university professor) then we'd see our meetinghouses fill up.

But how many East Coast Friends would really be that comfortable seeing a darker, more working class meeting that now has five times the membership and doesn't feel like the cozy oasis where we "recharge" ourselves for the coming week?..

12:01 PM, December 29, 2005  
Blogger Unknown said...

It is not because Quakerism is a subtle, profound faith for intellectuals (it isn't).

Are you so sure of this? Certainly not in 17th century England that spawned us -- but in 21st century North America?

7:04 PM, December 29, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Well... we might not have transit workers of whom we are aware... at the moment, but, look, here you have to coal worker's sons who are Quakers... my dad dug coal as a teen during the depresion... and I went to work at the age of nine, so, well, we are in part made up of workers... by the way, when I had a job, I was teamster.

11:33 PM, December 29, 2005  
Blogger Nancy A said...

Last month, when our meeting was talking about moving to a new location in a residential neighbourhood, some of the older Quakers thought it would be a "loss" to move away from the university setting. This illustrates the pro-intellectual bias in many Friends that David mentioned. Interesting enough, none of the under-50 Friends supported this idea, and, ironically, none of our new members have ever been university students or profs. So the pro-university position has nothing to do with outreach.

Liberal Quakerism has become a religion for introverts. I don't think there's any getting around that. Introverts get their energy from within, not from without. So they don't need big hymn sings, tambourines, sermons, and big events. But we have to recognize that the majority of the population is extrovert, and they do need all that. So already that limits who we can appeal to.

I think the main reason Quakers have become an intellectual enclave is our resistance to doing true outreach in our communities. The only people who find us are those who do their own research. And only certain types of people do research.

Moreover, the others who don't (do research or find us) find this lack of outreach very strange, like a quiet hostility to newcomers.

Personally, I find intellectualism wearisome. I wish Quakers were more down to earth.

8:43 AM, December 30, 2005  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

OMG, don't get me started!! (It's too late.) I won't take the space here to enumerate the number of class-related snubs I've seen or heard about among Friends.

One such snub deprived us of a working-class smoker (*gasp!* - yes, he smoked, but many of the nonsmokers drank like fish).

A working-class woman struggling with Catholicism was another brief visitor, snubbed in part because of her enthusiasm.

A husband and wife who wanted to do door-to-door evangelism were told, "Perhaps you'd be happier elsewhere." This, in a meeting that had shrank to one-third of its size in fifteen years!!

A meeting made its bathroom off-limits to those coming to get boxes of food.

More pet peeves. (Sure feels good to get these off my chest.) ... Meetings whose rhetoric, however well-intentioned, makes it clear that poor people, low-income people, people of "other" races, addicts and members of addiction recovery groups, are not part of THIS fellowship, even when they actually are.

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was an Elim Fellowship pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

For the nnnnth time, this sort of meditation has led me to the question: If I see so much incompleteness, why do I stay among Friends? Because I'm deeply convinced that Quaker discipleship is the most authentic way of being Christian that I've been led to. And the inhibitions and compromises that keep this authenticity under wraps are wearisomely familiar to me because ... I share them! Finally, every meeting for worship is a new opportunity to confront those inhibitions and take another step toward greater faithfulness for myself and my community.

1:01 PM, December 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a great deal confused as to what you mean by putting people in classes based upon their occupations. I grew up in small town Iowa and now live in Denver, so perhaps you are describing something familiar to those whose origins are the East Coast.

Perhaps you could list the typical occupations of those who *are* Quakers in New York? I think I might find that helpful.

5:26 PM, December 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say I try to attend Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. We are a working class family. Sometimes we don't have money on the Metrocard to make it -- sometimes it's just too hard, to afford (barely) to live in NYC means living far away from the fancy expensive neighborhoods of the Meetinghouse. If I miss a bus on Sunday, there isn't another one to get me there on time.

And I do feel out of place. Welcome and cared about (they have done so much for me and my family) but out of place. I don't feel like they can identify with the working class like we are. And we are a union (ironworker) family, too.

But the transit strike made us hungry. The transit strike made us angry. I don't like the MTA but I don't like the TWU either -- they want given to them what so many other working class people work for, what so many other union people pay for. They made so many people suffer for their demands, and made people go hungry.

I might also add that the Quaker elitist schools don't help (with making the working class feel comfortable). Not only are they out of reach of so many (their tuition is more than my rent, and if all my children were to go it is way more money than we gross, much less take home), but they penalize families with stay at home parents. I couldn't afford to work a regular job if I wanted to -- but apparently when figuring out aid at Brooklyn Friends, they will put down what they think a stay at home parent would make if they just got off their lazy butts and got a job. Even if the family felt it was in their best financial/emotional/spiritual interests to have a parent home for the children. The Quaker schools, how many Quaker children go? And even if we got scholarships, how hard would it be for my children, so poor in comparison, to be in school with children who have so much?

If we were Jewish, or Catholic, I bet we could find a Yeshiva or Catholic School that would get us in. They do find it important to educate their children in a faith based school. For Quakers, it seems to be just another prep school, albeit a liberal and open one.

7:33 AM, December 31, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

This post certainly seems to have stirred up some interest! Everyone who has responded has said or asked something important (or both).

Of course Lorcan is right that we have some "workers" and even more children of workers who are Quakers. My own father was a construction worker and my mother worked at various times as a garment worker, a canning factory worker, and (before her marriage) as a live-in housekeeper. Both were very intelligent people, though my mother never went to college and my father did not finish high school. They were also both very earnest about their faith. They were Methodists, and were supportive of me when I became a Quaker. It has to be said, though, that on the few occasions when they actually spent time with Quakers they tended to be ill-at-ease.

Also, I wasn't trying to imply that the Quakers in NYC are all or even mostly fat-cats. There were a few stockbrokers in 15th Street Meeting when I first attended and at least one of them was a very sound and weighty Friend who I liked very much. But I don't know of any stockbrokers today.

I'll try my best to answer Isabel's question about who the Quakers in NYC are, though I have to admit I haven't done any surveys. There are several lawyers, a number of teachers (mostly NOT in the public school system), some college professors, some people involved in media, some social workers, some doctors, not any nurses as far as I know, though I might be wrong, lots of artists, musicians, actors (not in general a well-heeled set), and a number of people in information services. I am myself a "Senior Business Systems Analyst" according to my business card (though a few of my Friends acquainted with my fondness for talking have suggested that B.S.A might actually stand for something else).

I very much agree with Nancy A that "I think the main reason Quakers have become an intellectual enclave is our resistance to doing true outreach in our communities. The only people who find us are those who do their own research. And only certain types of people do research." Outreach is a tricky issue for us Friends. It is commendable up to a point to avoid being pushy and self-promoting about our faith. But the flip side of not inviting people in is that we avoid being challenged and stretched by others' insights. So what starts out (at least in our own estimation) as diffidence about imposing on others morphs into complacent ignorance about what we might gain from and learn from others.

Johan's comment "I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class," also resonates with me. I think it relates to Beppe's point that "the Friends who have 'diversified' Quakerism the most are those who tend to have fewer worries that they are being diversified enough" and to Martin Kelley's comment that " If we cared less about our cultural sensitivies and more about sharing the good news (which is the same good news if you're a transit worker or university professor) then we'd see our meetinghouses fill up."

Poor Quaker's post spoke volumes and I thank her or him for commenting. It's quite possible that Poor Quaker's take on the transit strike is more typical of the "working class" than my own. (Which doesn't mean that I am reversing myself, just that I recognize we all have class biases: even "radicals" and would-be pro-labor professionals). Incidentally, although I call myself the Brooklyn Quaker and I live in Brooklyn, I am a member of 15th Street Meeting in Manhattan rather than Brooklyn Meeting and I am not personally acquainted (as far as I know) with Poor Quaker.

The role of Quaker schools in all this another huge topic. I know that the Quaker schools in New York are trying to be "inclusive" culturally, racially, and even economically. I don't have a solid sense of how well they are succeeding, but I know that their tuitions are astronomical. I know of several Quaker parents who could not afford to send their children to these schools. I also know that our schools are considered by non-Quakers to be highly attractive "exclusive" private schools with demanding admissions standards and this frankly troubles me. I sometimes think that Friends could be of more service to our surrounding communities if we would contribute our buildings and resources to the public school system - and maybe try to help improve that system - rather than creating new private schools.

2:55 PM, December 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings all,

I found this two-year-old post by doing a google search on 'quaker working class'. It's one of the only pertinent sites I found.

I'm writing because I took George Lakey's "Quakers and Social Class" workshop at Gathering this year (2007, River Falls, WI) and I'm looking to talk with other Quakers about social class, especially to Quakers who are either working class or grew up working class and who also feel like an odd duck among Quakers. I grew up working class and discovered in George's workshop that I've internalized much of modern Quaker's middle-class and owning-class tendencies. This, for me, has been much like discovering in my early twenties the depth to which the patriarchy had affected my life.

I'm starting a google group for working class Quakers or Quakers who grew up working class. Email me if you're interested in joining at njeanneburns at

I have heard of some of you because my partner writes the blog The Good Raised Up.

I hope someone reads this!

:-) Jeanne

7:11 PM, July 30, 2007  

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