Who Lost the Working Class? | The Nation


Who Lost the Working Class?

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The first is rooted in the world of work. Halle identified five basic characteristics of "blue collar" jobs in the factory: physical labor, a relatively dangerous or dirty environment, boring or routine tasks, close supervision and limited opportunities for upward mobility. Although some white-collar jobs share some of these features, Halle found that this cluster of characteristics did produce a distinct social viewpoint and identity. Although the men did not usually define themselves as being working class, they were virtually unanimous in describing themselves as "workingmen" with problems and interests common to others like themselves.

About the Author

Andrew Levison
Andrew Levison is the author of two books about American workers, The Working-Class Majority and The Full Employment...

Although this occupationally based class consciousness is often seen as limited to the approximately 20 percent of American workers employed in traditional manufacturing, it actually influences a far larger group. There are almost 19 million white men employed in manual, blue-collar jobs in America today, in contrast to about 16 million white men in managerial and professional occupations and another 9 million in lower-level white-collar jobs. Thus, about 45 percent of employed white men still work in essentially manual jobs rather than white-collar occupations.

This occupationally based identity as "workingmen" does create a distinct perspective. Ronald Reagan, for example, was widely viewed as antilabor by workers in the chemical factory, despite his popularity in other areas. However, when Halle turned to studying workers' attitudes related to their neighborhoods and communities, he found that this working-man's perspective did not carry over from the workplace. He noted that neighbors on the streets where workers lived were generally not all blue collar but rather a mixture of blue and white collar, including, in one typical case, a storekeeper, an elementary-school teacher, a real estate agent, a gas station owner and a salesman. Workers also did not see their neighborhoods as distinctly working class but rather as situated somewhere "in the middle" between slum or ghetto areas below and "nice" or "fancy" neighborhoods above.

In consequence, it was entirely reasonable for these workers to view themselves as "middle class" or "middle American" when thinking about their homes, neighborhoods and communities. Thus, what appeared to be two distinct identities, "workingman" and "middle American," Halle revealed as different perspectives between which workers would shift, depending on the context and situation.

Halle identified a third perspective that also influenced workers' political views--a national identity they felt as Americans but one that was closely linked with a populist identity as "the people" or "ordinary citizens" whose interests were often opposed to that of national elites from business, the government or academia--elites who were seen as "running the show" or "calling the shots" over various aspects of their lives.

One task Halle did not directly attempt, however, was to define the basic values that workers held and to determine how those values affected their political views. In the national political debate during the 1970s and 1980s, "middle American values," "mainstream values" and "family values" were frequently invoked and were generally defined to include both support for the work ethic and traditional family norms as well as a range of conservative or quasi-religious views on a wide range of moral issues. In many such discussions, it was often simply assumed that these represented key "working-class values" as well. But this obscured the more important question--was there actually a set of values that could be considered distinctly "working class" in character, that represented a distinctly working-class worldview?

One of the most sophisticated recent attempts to answer this question appeared in the recent study The Dignity of Working Men, by Princeton sociologist Michèle Lamont. She recognized that asking workers to choose their most important values from a prepared list would essentially force their replies into a predetermined mold that had little to do with their real-world thoughts and feelings. Lamont used instead open-ended and nondirective questions. She interviewed 150 blue-collar workers, black and white, in the United States and in France, and compared them with middle-class people in both countries. Her questions asked workers to describe people similar to them and people who were different, people they liked and disliked, and those to whom they felt superior or inferior. Follow-up questions probed why they felt as they did, spontaneously eliciting a complex pattern of moral judgments and values. Both work and family did indeed emerge among the blue-collar workers' core values. But the real significance lay in how those were perceived.

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