Warming Up to the Working Class

When John Russo, Sherry Linkon, and other faculty at Youngstown State University initiated Working-Class Studies as a field in the mid-1990s, it was virtually impossible to use the term “working class” in public discourse.  We were a “middle-class society,” with all but a few rich people and poor people in that one ubiquitous class. This was a point of considerable national pride.

It was both pleasing and a bit unnerving, therefore, to hear so many people throwing around the term “working class” during last year’s presidential election.  As Carl Bloice at Black Commentator pointed out, it was often assumed that the working class in question was all white and usually male.  Bowling was pitted against basketball, beer against wine, NASCAR against golf – as if everybody knew what they were talking about.  But at least it was possible to use the term, and the actual multiracial, multi-gendered working class occasionally got some attention paid to its interests.

One of the interesting pieces of research produced by political scientists studying white working-class voters was overlooked during the election.  Larry Bartels’s very useful Unequal Democracy reports in passing on a “feeling thermometer” where people are asked how warmly or coldly they feel toward a long list of different groups (p. 137).

Working-class people outpolled middle-class people, poor people, and rich people by 5 points, 9 points, and 22 points, respectively.  What’s more, working-class people outpolled every other group presented.  With a temperature reading of 82.3, the working class was more warmly considered than women, older people, the military, and young people – the next most warmly considered groups – as well as The Democratic Party and labor unions (both by 24 points), big business (by 26 points), and The Republican Party (by 28 points).

I wonder if those Democrats and labor leaders who prefer usages like “middle income,” “working people,” or “working families” have seen this temperature survey.  They’ve bent over backwards to avoid using the term “class” unless it is preceded by “middle.”  As Bartels declares, “Given the frequent characterization of America as a society that exalts the middle class, it seems remarkable that most Americans express even more positive feelings about working-class people than about middle-class people” (p. 138).

Why do people of all classes, genders, ages, and colors feel so warmly about “working-class people”?  I don’t know, but given how confused Americans are in using class language, it would be worth further investigation.  One thing such investigation would almost certainly uncover is that the reasons for warmness vary by class.  There is a working-class set of connotative meanings that is different from the middle-class set.

For example, from the early 1970s – when the notion of America as a proudly “middle-class society” was probably at its peak – until its most recent survey in 2006, the National Opinion Research Center has found that about 46 percent of respondents self-identify as working class, while another 46 percent self-identify as middle class.  During most of this period, the term “working class” was virtually banned in public discourse, often seeming vaguely unpatriotic during the Cold War, and yet it is likely that the overwhelming majority of working-class people (whether defined by occupation, education, or income) identified as working class.  I taught working adults during all of this period, and though my students were influenced by the “middle-class society” discourse all around them, many routinely used the banned term with accuracy-and pride.  That is, many defined themselves and their world as outside middle-class society, and of those, most were proud of and glad about that (though admittedly more so in the ’70s and ’80s than now.)

Working-class pride has two general sources, in my observation.  One is the belief that they are the people who actually do the work and get things done, the ones the world really depends on.  Not simply that there are many more workers than managers, but rather a pride in being on the ground “where the rubber meets the road” and the knowledge and wisdom that derives from that.  Though often associated with men who make things, this pride is also common among women clerical, retail, and other workers who often express amazement at how little understanding managers have of “the real world” they participate in on a daily basis.  This source of pride often comes with a certain negative stereotype about middle-class professional and managerial workers, which is not likely to be a source of middle-class warmness about working-class people.

The other source of working-class pride is more about cultural connotations of working-classness that are shared in great measure by working- and middle-class people.  My guess is that connotations of being honest, sincere, down-to-earth, straightforward in speech and manner, and of not “looking down” on anyone or “putting on airs,” or “caring (too much) about what other people think” are all attributes that make even the most compulsively achievement-oriented middle-class professional feel warmly about working-class people.

Those are my guesses, and it would be interesting to hear others’.  In any case, it is good to know that not only is the existence of an American working class finally being recognized, but that it is warmly considered by damn near everyone.

Jack Metzgar

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4 responses to “Warming Up to the Working Class

  1. Jack Metzgar makes some important points in his discussion of how the working class is perceived in the US. The term “working class” is both misunderstood and antiquated. In the past, socioeconomic status (SES) was divided into four or five categories, one of which as “lower and working class.” This view placed working class careers near the bottom of the financial ladder. It’s becomiong clear, however, that this distinction is no longer an accurate depiction of the income or skillset associated with people who work with their hands. The results of the National Opinion Center cited above indicate that many working class people consider themselves to be middle class. As well they should. I am a building contractor, which places me in the workig class. Based on my income, however, I am middle- to upper middle class, as are the plumbers and electricians I work with. I also have a college education, another of the cirteria for middle class status. So, who am I?

    Rather than thinking in terms of “class,” which brings with it the myriad of problems pointed out by Mr. Metzgar, it may be more productive to divide the work force into those who do physical work with their hands and those who don’t. As a litmus test, ask yourself, “Do I sweat when I am working?” Or perhaps, “Do I get paid to exercise, or pay a fee at the gym? It’s not so much a class issue, and it is the style of work that you choose to do.

    I have heard some discussion that the lines between professional and working class are becoming blurred due to the fact that many of the new “middle skill” jobs require a relatively high degree of training on computer controlled equiptment used in fabrication and assembly of consumer products.

    I think we need to develop a new way to discuss these distinctions in working style.

    One last comment — the website that I am developing, workingclasspride.com is due to launch in late December.

  2. this overeducated immigrant with a distant
    socialist background lacks a certain cross-cultural
    perspective in the otherwise most welcome and
    highly overdue discussions on class I had the
    pleasure to read in this website. It’s understandable that an institution at YSU concentrates on the Mahoning valley first, and fans out only later over the industrial northeast and then the rest of America, but I think it would
    be enlightening to compare any one of these scenes with what can be found in northwestern
    Europe. This, I think, could give some insight into relation between class, race, and societal problems such as crime and family disfunction.
    In the 1970s these were generally discussed in
    terms of race in the US, while the exact same problems were connected to class in Europe.
    I found that disorienting.

  3. In my favorite labor book ever, Striking Steel, Jack Metzgar puts an artist’s detail and a son’s lament to the questions of working class culture he raises here.

    And since the presidential campaign, the pride of being working class has really revealed itself in my union, he Teamsters. Folks of all political persuasions use the term wonderfully and proudly.

    Thanks for this blog. It will be circulating amongst my colleagues at the IBT.

  4. Who is this brilliant man Metzgar?? ;-^ } (That’s a joke as we have worked together a lot.)

    I have noticed that my cousins, though they work working class jobs, call themselves middle class, but my aunts and uncles (their parents) all proudly and clearly identify themselves as working class. The difference, besides the anti-working class bias brought on by anti-communism in the 50′s that Jack mentioned, is that they remember working before, and after, unions were put in place (by them!). The difference, more basically, is that my aunts and uncles are proud to be working class, it was not a put-down but a term of pride for them because, as Jack mentioned, they saw themselves as doing the “real” work. As a child I saw them as mighty beings who could do anything. How did these unbelievably strong, hard-working, and resourceful folks ever get relegated to “loser” status in America? I am glad America is waking up, it’s not a moment too soon…

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