Over the weekend The Daily Kos highlighted a cartoon from Tom the Dancing Bug (cartoonist Rueben Bolling) that responded to Bill O’Reilly’s election night claim that Obama’s win signaled the death of traditional America. According to O’Reilly, “the demographics are changing, it’s not a traditional American anymore.” Bolling wondered what would happen if Barack Hussein Obama traveled back in time to the world of Leave it to Beaver. In this imaginary scenario, Obama tells the Cleavers of his plan to raise the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, reduce the gap between CEO pay and that of the lowest paid employees, and bolster the social safety net. The “Beave” and his family point out that those features were already in place in their traditional 1960s America. “Golly, mister,” the Beave exclaims, “I think you’re bringing back traditional America.”
I do, too. I am writing a book about how workers and unions were represented in 1950s popular culture. In Striking Images: Labor Unions on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s, I argue that workers were represented in popular culture more often, and more positively, than we remember. This is, in part, because union membership was at its highest point in U.S. history (roughly 35% of all US households). Unions were also active, not passive. There were more than 30,000 strikes over the course of the 1950s. In other words, union membership was traditional.
For example, in 1965 Eisenhower, declared that “the protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.” Rachel Maddow once quipped about Eisenhower’s relatively liberal policies that she was “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”
As we return to a more traditional America, how are ordinary workers being represented in popular culture? This is a question we often ask on this blog, and we make our share of withering critiques, as Susan Ryan did when she addressed the phenomenon of “extreme work” reality television and how workers are being exploited in front of and behind the camera.
But there are some other more positive, and possibly even authentic ways in which workers are being represented in popular culture. Here’s a quick run down:
Striking workers are back in the news. Thanks to the massive (and largely successful) Chicago teacher’s strike and a well-organized blitz of Black Friday job actions at Walmarts across the country, the mainstream media has been covering strikes with more sympathy than in years past. Do a search for “Black Friday” and “workers” and more than 2 million hits pop up. While some of the coverage of Black Friday’s job actions underplayed the overall impact of the Walmart actions, other headlines suggested the range and the power of the strikes which took place in more than 100 cities in 46 states.
The Ed Show. Ed Schultz, the one time sports broadcaster and conservative shock jock now spins his blue-collar bluster in a more progressive direction on MSNBC every weeknight at 8:00 PM. Schultz starts every show with the tag line “Let’s get to work.” If you were watching The Ed Show last week you would have seen coverage of the raw deal that Hostess workers were given in the Twinkie show down, a piece about the unionization of exotic dancers, a report on a union on the rise in Phoenix, Arizona, and an exposé on what Walmart really pays its workers. You won’t find this much working-class related news in video form in one place anywhere else.
Blue: America at Work and Blue: Portrait of an American Worker. In a coincidence of naming, two photographers of the contemporary American labor scene have titled their projects “Blue.” Ian Wagreich’s Blue: America at Work was “kickstarted” in August and includes stunning black and white portraits of American workers in industrial settings. The photographs are visually gorgeous, and they are as much as about aestheticizing the industrial landscape as they are about giving a voice to individual workers. They remind me of Charles Sheeler’s arresting photographs of the Ford River Rouge plant. Waigreich’s work photographs are currently on view (until December 10th at Washington D.C.’s Art Museum of the Americas in a show called “On Labor”). Photographer Carl Corey’s photographs from his collection Blue: Portrait of an American Worker are in color, and provide a more literal “close up” of the workers themselves. One of Corey’s goals in taking these photographs, as he explained in an interview with The Wooly Pulpit, was to advocate for American workers: “my hope is awareness will breed support for the American Worker.” The workers look proud, even stoic, and the photographs remind me a bit of the classic worker portraits taken by Milton Rogovin.
Current TV’s profile of the American worker. During the lead up to the election, Current TV posted a new worker profile every day for 30 days. Thirteen of the workers profiled were women, and 10 were African American, Latino, or Asian. The jobs covered included cop, firefighter, graphic designer, bus driver, Boeing mechanic, bartender, CPA, nurse, farmworker, and web developer. The profiles included detailed interviews, includingquestions about union membership and political leanings. Though not all of the workers profiled were working class, the interviews echoed common themes. Everyone who had health insurance was grateful for it, and everyone who did not have it wanted it. When asked “what is the one thing you could change about your job if you could,” almost everyone wanted better pay and/or benefits. One of the most inspiring quotes came from the Boeing mechanic, Monico Bretana, the highest paid union worker in the group: “I would have to say that I’m a working guy; I work for my money. Just like everybody else, I just want to be treated fairly, I just want to have a decent living wage, decent benefits to cover me and my family, and the union has provided that for us. And I want people to know that unions are not what people perceive anymore. We’re here to help the middle class, we’re here to help maintain a good living standard.”
Now doesn’t that sound sort of like the 1950s? Of course, I don’t want to go back to the 1950s altogether. I don’t want to go back to Jim Crow America, or Operation Wetback America, or Mad Men America. But when it comes to taxes on the wealthy (can we get the marginal tax rate back to the 1950s rate of 91%?), the tradition of union membership, and images of proud, beautiful blue-collar workers, I would be happy to go back in time.
Kathy M. Newman