September/October 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 6

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Meet the 2016 ASA President: Ruth Milkman

Sarah Jaffe, Fellow, The Nation Institute

Ruth Milkman

For Ruth Milkman, being a sociologist is about doing research that speaks to the issues of the day. That mindset has led her to crisscross the country, from the East Coast to California and back again, to dig into historical archives to uncover the struggles of women workers during the Great Depression, to hang out in factories with autoworkers trying to save an industry being dismantled, to follow immigrant janitors as they disrupted an entire city, and to trace the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street uprising. And now, it has led her to the presidency of the American Sociological Association.

It was Milkman’s commitment to public sociology, to making social change and calling out injustice through rigorous academic work that inspired Kristen Schilt, now Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Schilt studied under Milkman at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), and noted that for many people, the tension between wanting to change the world and wanting to be a committed scholar can be difficult to manage, but in Milkman she had a mentor who helped her find a way to do both.

“Ruth combines the rigor and high standards for critical thinking that’s demanded of somebody who works in the academy with a real world outlook,” says Dan Rounds, a former student of Milkman’s at UCLA who is now Deputy Director of Legislation, Policy, and Research at the California Workforce Investment Board. Milkman, he notes, encourages students to get involved, an outlook that served him well in academia as well as in the public policy position he now holds. From Milkman, he says, he learned that “Objectivity is not about having no opinion, it means that you form your opinions based on solid evidence. It doesn’t mean you sit on your hands.”

I have experienced this firsthand as a journalist who covers labor and social movements, I have relied on Milkman repeatedly as an expert source on issues from the beginnings of the Fight for $15 to intersectional feminism in the Black Lives Matter movement. Her support for my own work has been valuable; I can only envy her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and Murphy Institute in the CUNY School of Professional Studies, where she combines rigorous theoretical work with hands-on field research on the daily doings of the labor movement.

Her colleagues admire her generosity, her constructive criticism and her commitment to economic justice; her current and former students value her always-honest advice and support for their work both within and without the bounds of academia. I have no doubt that Ruth Milkman’s time as President of the ASA will push the field to have even greater impact.

Inspirations and Beginnings

Returning to New York in 2009 was something of a homecoming for Milkman, whose parents were both born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents and both educated at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, where they met. Milkman herself was raised in Annapolis, MD, where her father taught at the Naval Academy, and credits her mother’s progressive politics for helping shape her—especially when it came to labor issues. She recalls a trip to New York with her mother to visit her grandparents: “We were going to go shopping and there was a picket line in front of the store,” she says. “I still can picture this shopping bag they were giving out, it said ‘ILGWU: Don’t buy Judy Bond blouses.’ and so my mother said ‘We’re not going in there!’”

In Annapolis, Milkman says, she felt like an outsider, a feeling she also credits with bringing her to sociology. She learned to study what was going on around her, noticing things that other people assumed were normal—a feeling that later helped her understand the immigrant workers who have been the subject of much of her research.

As an undergraduate at Brown, she created her own major, a sort of women’s studies degree before women’s studies was considered worthy of its own department. She valued the freedom that Brown allowed to do such a thing, a freedom she also found in her graduate work at the University of California-Berkeley. “Both of them were places where you could define your own agenda,” she says.

She was drawn to Berkeley in 1975 because of the political activism that occurred there. Though the explosiveness was mostly gone by the time she arrived, she became involved in feminist and leftwing activism there. She also worked on the journal Socialist Review, learning from her colleagues, who met weekly to read and debate papers submitted for publication there.

At Berkeley, her interdisciplinary approach to sociology was welcomed, and she delved into archives to create what became her dissertation and then the book Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II. At the time, gender was not nearly as large a part of the scholarly work as it has become. But what might have been a liability she managed to turn into an asset when students began to demand feminist studies. Labor studies too was less popular when she began her research than it has since become. “When I was starting, I felt like I was on the edges but the great thing about sociology is that it’s so eclectic, it includes so many things, it’s a big tent,” she says. “That’s always suited me.”

When she finished her doctorate, she immediately looked for jobs in vibrant urban environments, and found her first home at CUNY’s Queens College. “I’m a CUNY girl from beginning to end,” she says with a smile. At Queens College, she discovered a love for teaching adult students that has carried over into her work at the Murphy Institute.

Right in her Backyard

From her time at Queens College onward, Milkman has found research subjects making history on her doorstep. She credits this to luck, but it also requires a knack for realizing what is going to be significant.

For instance, her work on the auto industry in Gender at Work led her to reach out to the workers at the General Motors factory in Linden, NJ, where the United Auto Workers members were struggling against concessions, and to organize a field trip there for her students in 1982. That course and that field trip led to years of research and eventually to her book Farewell to the Factory: Auto Workers in the Late Twentieth Century.

Then, just after she was recruited to UCLA in 1988, the Justice for Janitors campaign erupted. “How could you not get interested in that?” she says. “It became a huge part of my life for a while.” That research led to an ongoing fascination with immigrant workers, particularly Latino immigrants, and the militancy and dynamism they have brought to the U.S. labor movement. It also led to another book, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement, and an edited volume, Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California.

In 2001, Milkman became director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE), a position she held until 2008, which brought her into conflict with the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his first year in office Schwarzenegger used his line-item veto to cut just one budget item from the University of California system—her institute. The fight against Schwarzenegger would continue every year that he was governor, and nearly every year the IRLE managed to get its money back in the budget. Running the institute, Milkman says, “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was extremely intense but I learned so much.”

Mentoring Students

Milkman’s love for teaching graduate students (and learning from them) led to another project, one that began in California and was later replicated in New York. She, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro brought together students with interests in labor and helped connect them with worker centers and other labor organizations to do fieldwork. Each student produced a case study, and these became chapters in their co-edited book, Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy.

Milkman’s mentoring style, the way she can lift up the work of her students while also pushing them to do better, has always been valuable to her students. “Much of my mentoring style I learned from having been a student of Ruth’s,” Kristen Schilt says. The value of the reading groups that Milkman created, and her invitation to the students to her home for discussions helped build trust. “She’s managed to take a feminist community-oriented sense of politics and bring it into her academic work,” Schilt says. teaching students while not making them feel lesser.

When Milkman returned to New York in late 2009, to a job at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, she decided that a similar project to the Working for Justice book would help her learn more about what had been happening within New York’s labor movement since she had left more than 20 years earlier. With Ed Ott, she assembled students from the Murphy Institute and the Graduate Center and put together a two-semester course with the goal of having the students produce articles for a similar book. That book, New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement, came out last year.

“Those projects were a way of lifting up the research that graduate students do and finding a way to collectivize it and focus it on a particular topic,” Milkman says. As with so many times before, she found herself in the right place at the right time,. The groups that included her students were embedded flourished and, in many cases, became national organizations. For example, the Fight for $15 was born in New York while the book was in progress.

And then there was Occupy. Milkman recalls the total devastation among labor people after Scott Walker’s attacks on unions in Wisconsin, and the elation that many felt when the Occupy encampment in Manhattan’s financial district spawned similar camps across the country. “It just felt so compelling to me, and I wanted to document it somehow,” she says. She moved quickly to find collaborators and apply for funding, but the NYPD was a little bit quicker and evicted the occupants of Zucotti Park two days after the funding came in. She and sociologists Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, her Murphy Institute colleagues, nevertheless put together one of the first published studies of the movement, which has been widely cited in both popular media and scholarly publications.

Of working with Milkman, Lewis says, “She has this fantastically broad and ambitious vision for all the projects she embarks on, and the tenacity and intellect to make them all happen. You can rely on her; Ruth always does what she says she will do. If she can’t do something she’ll say so, and—as is more often the case—when she takes anything on she sees it through to the end.”

Occupy also brought Milkman to study the so-called Millennial generation, a subject of her current work. “If we are in a new movement moment, as some people think, they’re it. So we’ve got to pay attention to what they’re about.” As always, she is learning from her students as they learn from her.

Changing the Field, Changing the World

Over Milkman’s career, she says, that there’s been a convergence between the type of work she has always been interested in doing and the direction of the field of sociology. She’d never expected to win election as ASA president.

But it shouldn’t be that surprising, as her work has been influencing people inside and outside of the academy, even shaping public policy, for decades. She co-led a 2009 study of wage theft and other labor violations in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which was widely covered in the media and helped bring public attention to the issue. Another recent research topic, paid family leave is the focus of a 2013 book Milkman co-authored with economist Eileen Appelbaum, Unfinished Business. It will likely be a major issue in the 2016 presidential election, as Democratic candidates vie to put forward the best paid leave plan.

California’s paid family leave bill was one of the last bills signed into law before Gray Davis was replaced by Schwarzenegger. The law didn’t take effect for a couple of years, though, setting up the perfect opportunity for researchers to collect baseline data and to conduct follow-up studies. She and Appelbaum took up the project, and now, she gets almost more calls about that research than she can handle.

With the family leave project, Milkman is returning to her gender studies roots. A collected edition of her articles is due out in spring 2016. On Gender, Labor, and Inequality assembles her articles on gender published over the years and features a new essay comparing women’s experiences in the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

“I have always thought that the whole point of doing this work is to share it with the world,” Milkman said when I asked about her accessibility to people like me, outside of the university. “Many academics feel like it cheapens your work somehow but I’ve always wanted to have a broad audience for whatever I do; if people are interested I’m thrilled.”

Milkman’s attitude has served her students well both inside and  outside the academy. Rounds says, “Ruth’s more activist public intellectual bent helped me recognize that I could apply those [research and critical thinking] skills outside of the academy.” Through the Murphy Institute, Milkman’s students wind up scattered throughout the labor and activist world, helping to create the movements that she continues to study and that inspired her theme for the 2016 ASA Annual Meeting, “Rethinking Social Movements: Can Changing the Conversation Change the World?”

Milkman considers her current position as Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center and Research Director at the Murphy Institute—the perfect combination for her, teaching doctoral students in an open environment, lots of politically-oriented people, and a deep involvement in labor studies through the Murphy Institute’s master’s program.

“I have these great colleagues and instant access to the New York labor movement, so it’s perfect. I’m very lucky,” she says.

But those of us who’ve worked with Milkman think that we’re the lucky ones. Stephanie Luce concludes, “Not only is she immensely supportive of junior scholars such as myself, but she also continues to be the role model of an engaged academic.”

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