Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace

Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace

Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace

Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace


The Great Recession punished American workers, leaving many underemployed or trapped in jobs that did not provide the income or opportunities they needed. Moreover, the gap between the wealthy and the poor had widened in past decades as mobility remained stubbornly unchanged. Against this deepening economic divide, a dominant cultural narrative took root: immobility, especially for the working class, is driven by shifts in demand for labor. In this context, and with right-to-work policies proliferating nationwide, workers are encouraged to avoid government dependency by arming themselves with education and training.

Drawing on archival material and interviews with African American women transit workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Katrinell Davis grapples with our understanding of mobility as it intersects with race and gender in the postindustrial and post-civil rights United States. Considering the consequences of declining working conditions within the public transit workplace of Alameda County, Davis illustrates how worker experience--on and off the job--has been undermined by workplace norms and administrative practices designed to address flagging worker commitment and morale. Providing a comprehensive account of how political, social, and economic factors work together to shape the culture of opportunity in a postindustrial workplace, she shows how government manpower policies, administrative policies, and drastic shifts in unionization have influenced the prospects of low-skilled workers.


As a San Francisco Bay Area native, Mary grew up with Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. While riding AC Transit buses to school, she often wondered what it would be like to operate the large buses and whether she could ever become a bus driver. In her late thirties, Mary, who once thought she was too petite for the job, overcame her fears and took the wheel. This was just under six years ago.

Like many East Bay area bus drivers, who prefer to be called “transit operators,” Mary began as an operator for WestCAT, a small Bay Area transit company based in Pinole, California. The company and its entry level jobs help workers gain access to the experience needed to qualify for a better paying position with a large mass transit company. Mary worked for WestCAT a few years before she became aware of job positions with AC Transit. She was an ideal candidate. Unlike her friend, another applicant who had a recent accident on her work record, Mary knew the WestCAT routes, had a clean record, and had earned positive reviews of her work as a transit operator. WestCAT, however, paid very little and offered no opportunity for advancement, so she could not have been more thrilled to learn, after six to eight weeks of interviews and tests, that she had landed an AC Transit job.

Besides working as an AC transit operator, this mother of two adult children says that she has a second job—taking care of her mother. Mary’s mother lives in her own apartment and can cook for herself, but needs help with other daily living needs, especially when her gout and arthritis flare up. When she has to work, Mary pays her sister to help make sure that her mother has what she needs for the day and gets what she needs from the store. On her days off, Mary cleans up her mother’s home, handles her affairs, and takes her mother to doctor appointments. She also gives her mother daily showers because a recent bathtub fall made her mother afraid to shower independently. Mary’s mother doesn’t like the idea of her daughter attempting to juggle work and the responsibility of taking care of her. She knows that Mary works a lot and doesn’t want to be a bother to Mary. And though Mary does not mind taking care of her mother, she acknowledges that she doesn’t “have a life.”

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