Examining ‘Invisibility’ Among Blue-Collar Workers
Growing up in a small working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, Brandi Perri didn’t know many people who had attended college. She came from a multi-generational family of custodial workers—a life she thought she was meant to continue. Yet, her educational journey took many twists and turns, culminating in a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now, she has accepted a position as an assistant professor of sociology at MassBay Community College.
Though Perri's family viewed custodial work as a good, stable field of employment, they wanted to open up other opportunities for her and sent her to a college-oriented Catholic high school. But she struggled in high school, where she never felt like she fit in. These difficulties continued through her early attempts to finish a college degree. Perri first attended an art school in upstate NY. During that experience, she recalled, “I was working a full-time job in the kitchen while studying and had a really difficult time succeeding in school. I felt very uncomfortable in my classes. I remember in an art history class, the TA called on me and I didn’t know the answer, so I never went back.” Perri had a hard time relating to the other students and professors and ended up dropping out of multiple programs.
Fortunately, this changed during her third attempt at higher education at Austin Community College in Texas.
There, she said, “The instructors spoke to me with respect and were interested in what I had to say, even if I wasn’t necessarily a model student. Their engagement and care boosted my confidence.”
Reading about social class and the differences between working-class and middle-class students in educational settings helped me understand my own experience.
Perri transferred from community college to SUNY Purchase, where woman’s studies and sociology courses opened her eyes to understanding herself and her community. “Reading about social class and the differences between working-class and middle-class students in educational settings helped me understand my own experience,” she said. She also connected with instructors, some of whom had full-time jobs in addition to teaching. Suddenly, the goal of becoming a professor felt attainable to her. She earned a bachelor of arts in women’s studies and decided to pursue an advanced degree, studying the very thing that shaped her childhood: custodial work.
After seeking advice from some of her undergraduate instructors and applying to multiple Ph.D. programs, she landed at UMass Amherst as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Ultimately, there were professors at UMass doing the type of research I wanted to do. They were folks I really wanted to work with.”
At UMass, Perri used her deep-rooted background as a janitor to shape her research and give her an edge in connecting with a community of cleaners. Her thesis is titled, “Unseen workers? Rethinking who and what is invisible in the blue-collar workplace.” She believes it to be one of the most in-depth social science studies done to date on custodial workers.
Over three years, Perri conducted more than 2,000 hours of participant-observation of janitors at an urban public high school while cleaning alongside them. Though the crew knew she was a researcher, her distinctive background helped her gain their trust. “I think it definitely helped the crew accept me because I had a similar background and could pull my weight cleaning.” She also conducted 50 in-depth interviews within the whole cleaning system, including janitors, repairmen, boilerman, and managers.
During her time at the high school, a corporate takeover began, leading to many changes, with minimal and confusing communication to the crew. The main takeaway of Perri’s research is that despite an apathetic front displayed by many of the workers, “They really do care. They’re withdrawing and they don’t want to participate in union activities or engage with their coworkers about changes taking place because they feel powerless in the corporate system.”
“I found that instead of the workers being invisible, the corporation is invisible, and that harms workers, especially those who have been marginalized. Folks are aware that they are being disrespected but feel powerless to do anything to change the system,” Perri added.
She noted that workers experienced disrespect differently: “I use intersectionality to talk about the ways that individuals, based on their gender identity, race, education, skills, and how they’re able to counter these negative slights, either feel disempowered or empowered to speak up or resist harmful experiences in the workplace.”
“These workers are not occupying an invisible space. The corporation actually is invisible. As its power increases, this apathetic front is increasing because workers really don’t know what is happening.”
Perri said her research suggests that having extra financial support available to train new or temporary employees would help empower workers and increase their likelihood of success. She also recommended expanding opportunities for workers to act collectively and developing systems to help them feel more comfortable talking to colleagues and their unions about what is going on.
Perri defended her thesis in August 2022. In fall 2022, she will begin teaching at MassBay Community College as an assistant professor of sociology. An experienced teacher who has already designed and taught 10 classes at UMass Amherst and Greenfield Community College, Perri has received awards in recognition of her teaching, including the SAGE Teaching Innovation Award in 2019 and the Best Teaching Assistant Award in 2018.
Perri also received the 2020 Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) Beth B. Hess Memorial Scholarship, and has received funding from the UMass Amherst Graduate School and Social Science Research Council. She has vowed to use her education to make campus experiences more accessible for working-class students, through teaching and mentorship.
“I try to create an environment where students feel comfortable to speak up and ask ‘dumb’ questions,” she said. “My pedagogy is flexible, and I build in systems where students can participate in different ways, to see their own experiences through a sociological lens.”
This story was originally published in August 2022.