Ode to Blue-Collar Working Class Heroes

“There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill”
 —John Lennon, Working Class Hero

In July both the Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions concluded. Each party, their supporters, speakers, and candidates have driven stakes, describing in detail— some more than others — their position on the issues, their plans for the future, and identified who their party represents, or not. The Republicans embraced fear, law and order, and promised to “Make America Great Again.” The Democrats expressed optimism for the future and reaffirmed that America is already great, in fact, in the words of Michelle Obama, “This right now is the greatest country on earth.” And as a people, we are “Stronger Together.” 

Illustration by Seymour Chwast

Illustration by Seymour Chwast

One area of common ground for both parties was their appeal to the common man (and to some degree the common woman — at least for the Democrats). The Republicans led by Donald Trump believe they are the voice of an underrepresented class of voters, the blue-collar working class heroes.  According to polls, the mostly white, predominately male, sometimes unemployed workers were displaced by immigrants, and abandoned by corporations who moved factories to Mexico and headquarters abroad to avoid taxes. Unfair trade deals, especially with countries like China, are responsible for the malaise of America.

Let's_Make_America_Great_Again_buttonTrump and the RNC designed their recent convention based on Richard Nixon’s Republican Presidential Convention. Trump’s campaign also borrowed Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan. Lately, at Trump rallies I’ve seen an increase in signs reminiscent of Nixon’s campaign appealing to what he identified as the Silent Majority. Rick Perlstein, an historian who has written multiple books on conservatism and the Nixon era, including Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, described the term from a speech Nixon made on November 3, 1969, “the idea that there are two kinds of Americans — the ordinary middle-class folks with the white picket fence who play by the rules and pay their taxes and don’t protest and the people who basically come from the left.”

Silent Majority

Democrats too are courting the middle class, but instead of just promising to put the middle class back to work, they plan to raise the minimum wage to approach a living wage, and ensure equal pay for women, provide affordable health care, opportunities for a college education and training for all people without saddling them with lifelong debt. Most important, invest in the future by providing children a quality education and guarantee working families access to affordable childcare. Lastly, protect a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive life and body.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives on stage during the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. . / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives on stage during the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. . / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Blue-Collar Working Class Roots

Before I worked in the information and service industries, this baby boomer from a manufacturing city, Racine, Wisconsin, hailed from generations of hardworking people, men and women who worked with their hands, first on family farms, and others who emigrated from Europe, moved to the city, and toiled in factories and in maintenance and custodial jobs. The expression, “a hard day’s work,” was earned everyday by my ancestors and immediate family.

As I was growing up grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and parents worked in factories which manufactured everything from car mufflers, to sewing machine motors, farm implements and tractors, lawn mowers, and garbage disposals to parts for vibrators (see the Vibrator Story). Early in my own working career, I worked for Jockey Menswear, International in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a textile and apparel mill and factory when I was newly married (see both the poem and monologue: Maria from the Sewing Room, see reading list below). My husband, Frank, worked at Anaconda American Brass. Yes, in the late 1960s we were hippies and protesters for civil rights and against the war, and then in the early 1970s we became the working class heroes John Lennon sang about.

Standard Electric Works Factory, 1313 12th St.

Standard Electric Works Factory, 1313 12th St.

A few years later, Frank and I moved so I could return to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I must admit as I’ve written in other reminisces in this blog, I was not a disciplined student. I worked part-time in a health food store while attending school. One day I asked myself if I wasn’t in school was there a trade I wanted to learn. As an academically-tracked student I never felt like I took enough art classes, and I always wanted to learn about printmaking, so I opened up the yellow pages (an anachronism today) to silk-screen printing, called the first printer on the list, Advertising Creations, and a week or so later I was hired as a printer. Read more about the sign industry Signs of the Times.

For a number of years I learned a craft and enjoyed working with my hands. At the end of the day my hands were full of ink and I smelled like the lacquer thinners and chemicals I used all day. After work, I’d shower, scrub my hands raw, and take a catnap which I earned every day. Soon my people and customer skills were channeled into account sales and my career in printing sales and purchasing, graphic design, publishing, business development and public relations was launched. I often missed the days when I worked with my hands. I never took work home with me except the ink on my hands.

Where Politics and People Converge

What I found interesting about the speakers from both presidential conventions were the appeals made to the blue-collar working class voters.  Donald Trump and the Republicans have been courting this demographic, as noted earlier, primarily the mostly white, predominately male, sometimes unemployed workers with high school educations.

Donald Trump, Jr. in his speech about his father tried to portray him as a working class hero, a blue-collar billionaire, an oxymoron if I ever heard one! All his children talked about going to job sites, and being mentored by their father. If my memory serves me, he always showed up in suits and at most was required to wear a hard hat, and sometimes would grab a shovel in his hands only for a groundbreaking. I can’t recall ever seeing him roll-up his sleeves, or ever wear a blue collar.

The Democratic speakers also reference blue-collar working class roots. Elizabeth Warren talked about her father who was a custodian. That caught my attention. Both my own father and brother worked most of their careers in the Unified School District in my hometown of Racine. My father, Richard, cleaned classrooms, gymnasiums, and cafeterias and trained over 300 custodians for the school district. My brother, Rick, was classified as an engineer, responsible for the maintenance, inside and outside of the schools he worked in, also managing custodial and maintenance staff.

Vice President Joe Biden, sometimes referred to by his Washington DC. colleagues as “Middle- Class Joe” talked about his roots in Scranton, Ohio. When talking about Donald Trump his sound byte from the convention: “I’m not trying to be a wise guy here,” Biden said, “Think about everything you learned as a child, no matter where you were raised. How can there be pleasure in saying ‘you’re fired?’ He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That’s a bunch of malarkey.”

Hillary Clinton talked about her father’s early career in Scranton, Pennsylvania, working at his father’s Scranton Lace Company, learning the textile printing trade.  Hillary’s mother, Dorothy Howell, escaped from her dysfunctional family at the age of 14 during the Great Depression and found a job working as a $3-per-week housekeeper, cook, and nanny. This story reminded me of my own mother who began working outside of the home at age 14 working as a housekeeper and cook, caring for a woman, Mrs. Hoeschele.

Years later my mother was a working mother in between giving birth to and raising six children beginning in the 1950s until her retirement. Mom worked for a small motor factory in Racine, Motor Specialty, which employed mostly women on the assembly line, because they were very skilled with their hands and earned less than their male counterparts. Mom would talk about “the girls on the line” who for many years she supervised and who considered her their friend and mentor. When Hillary talks about “equal pay for equal work” and “equal pay for women” she’s talking about generations of women like my mother and me.

Bansky Stencil Mural

Bansky Stencil Mural

How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Blue-Collar Working Class

We’re left with two versions of the blue-collar working class, the Republican version (in my view) is characterized by disgruntled, displaced workers who believe they are overtaxed and underrepresented, that their jobs are moving overseas or they are being replaced by illegal immigrants. To be fair some degree of that is true. The Republicans promise their jobs will be protected, manufacturers will return to the US, and illegal immigrants will be prohibited from entering our country. Taxes will be lessened and pay will increase.

The Democrats (in my view again) support hard-working middle class families and strive to provide equal pay for equal work, affordable health care and childcare, raise the minimum wage to achieve a living wage, improve trade laws and overturn Citizens United so that people, rather than corporations, influence legislators, governing bodies, and elections. Lastly our children, the next generation, should receive the best education, including tuition-free or affordable loans, so that when they begin their working careers they’re not saddled with insurmountable debt.

In my view America’s blue-collar working class is “both/and.” We are both disgruntled and hardworking and proud. We are underrepresented, overtaxed and support unions and represent the rank and file. We are unfairly paid, pay more than our share of taxes and organize and support programs and politicians who raise all workers from poverty and discrimination. Some of us may only have a high school education and we are worldly and educated on the issues. We may harbor prejudices and we work for change and equality for all people. Some of us are older and whiter and we collaborate with younger generations and people of all races, ethnicities, and religions. We are Republicans and Democrats and Independents. And, in the end, most of us are here because of the generations of immigrants who preceded us.

What is our responsibility as citizens regardless of age, race, class, gender and gender identity, sexual preference, ethnicity and religion? It’s pretty simple — get educated on the issues, keep a vigil watch on our politicians and government, go to the polls and vote, and to quote the Democrats, “Stand Together.”
Keeping Watch

Additional Reading 

Working Class Hero

Working Class Hero (Song)

Blue-Collar Worker

The Silent Majority

Make America Great Again

Hugh E. Rodham

Dorothy Howell Rodham

Why the American Working Class Supports Trump

Who Are These Trump Supporters

From Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!

Maria from the Sewing Room (Poem)

Maria from the Sewing Room (Spoken Word Monologue)

The Vibrator Story

Labor Day: May Day in September

Signs of the Times

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