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Who Lost the Working Class? | The Nation

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Who Lost the Working Class?

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It was not only materially that blue-collar workers benefited from the New Deal. In the 1930s working people had a positive image in the national culture, and working-class values were generally treated with respect. From the poetry of Carl Sandburg to films like The Grapes of Wrath, ordinary people were portrayed as equal in intelligence to the ambitious and the wealthy, and morally superior as well. Manual labor was shown as a dignified occupation and those who did it as capable of living a rich and rewarding life. Within the growing trade-union movement, trade unionism was seen not as a device for insuring individual economic security but as a great moral and social crusade. As Silvio Burigo's local union paper proclaimed, "This great influx of workers into the unions of America is one of the great inspirations of our time.... It is emancipation before our eyes." In national politics blue-collar workers were respected as the heart of the "Roosevelt coalition," an alliance that also included racial and ethnic minorities, middle-class liberals and significant sections of the rural population in a coalition for social progress and reform.

About the Author

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

In the 1950s, however, all this changed. On TV shows, leading men wore suits and came home from offices, not factories, while the occasional blue-collar protagonists who did appear were treated as buffoons. Being a "success" in America came to mean being something superior to a factory worker, and those who could not find upward mobility from manual labor bore a subtle stamp of inadequacy and failure.

The consequences of this redefinition were profound. For one thing, it caused American workers to lose the conviction that the way to improve conditions was through collective action and to internalize the notion that they were individually responsible for their economic fortunes. If they were not better off or more secure, it was entirely their own fault. Rubin, both a sociologist and a practicing psychotherapist, is extraordinarily deft at capturing the subtle ways this negative self-image and sense of failure affected the inner lives of blue-collar workers.

At the same time, the trade-union movement changed from a crusade to an institution, one rarely mentioned outside the business pages of the national press. The men like Burigo who ran its local branches found themselves increasingly isolated; virtually every new plumber's apprentice in the apprenticeship program Burigo ran for the local union was the son of a close friend or relative.

Finally, the redefinition of workers as part of the middle class during the 1950s made specifically working-class problems disappear from the national agenda. As Rubin notes, "If the popular political language denies the very existence of a sector of the population, their needs aren't likely to be taken into account." She also makes the critical point that the redefinition of workers as middle class also "renders them and the particular problems that beset working-class life unnamed, therefore invisible, often even to [the workers] themselves."

This ideological transformation would have had tremendous long-term consequences under any circumstances. But during the mid-1960s two major social trends converged to place working-class America at the heart of a sociological "perfect storm."

On the one hand, the black protest movement began to target job discrimination and segregation in housing. Freedman is extraordinarily evenhanded in portraying the gradual collision between the insular world of Silvio Burigo's apprenticeship program and the dedicated black activists like the ex-Marine and son of a steelworker, Earl Forte--a collision neither man desired but neither could control. Freedman continually steps back and describes the larger social forces at work as he depicts the increasing wave of blue-collar incomprehension and then anger at the ghetto riots, growing welfare rolls and deterioration of public housing.

At the same time, an equally profound antagonism was growing between blue-collar workers and the college educated, as workers' children fought and died in Vietnam while the college-aged children of the middle class remained largely exempt. When college students then became the leading force in the growing peace movement, it seemed to workers a betrayal of their own children, who were risking their lives on the frontlines.

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