Where’s the Working-Class Web?

While Working-Class Perspectives aims to reflect the interests and experiences of working-class people, in truth we spend more time talking about the working class than listening to actual working-class voices.  But, it turns out, finding working-class voices online isn’t easy.

About a year ago, a reporter from the MinnPost called me to ask why so few working-class people have created websites about how to do things like plumbing or electrical wiring.  He noted that many creative professionals were writing blogs about how to manage their freelance writing, graphic design, and web development businesses.  He was frustrated that he couldn’t find a good site that would show him how to do things like fix a broken toilet, and he wondered why blue-collar work wasn’t more present online.  His theory was that working-class people lacked the education to use the web.  I suggested that the story might be more complex than that.  Plumbers might not view their work as anything worth writing about, or they might not see writing as either useful or enjoyable.  And maybe they’d rather we hire them to fix our backed-up toilets and clogged sinks.

While I was frustrated by his assumptions, he’s not wrong to note the relative invisibility of the working class online.  You’ll find good informational sites run by labor organizations, and several academic organizations, like the Center for Working-Class Studies, make resources available on working-class culture.  But after these listings a Google search on “working class” leads mostly to commercial ventures that use the term to denote something about their style.

A few sites do offer workers’ voices, though most are run by either cultural institutions or unions.  Take, for example, Working Stiff, a short-lived web project that collected workplace diaries, offered advice to workers on how to stand up for their rights at work, and even offered a “stress-o-meter” to help you measure how tough your job was.  It was a project of PBS’s  Web Lab, from more than a decade ago.  Not exactly a working-class operation, but a genuine and interesting effort to create a space for workers’ voices.

You can hear workers’ voices on some labor websites.  Change to Win, for example, has a page of worker testimonials about workplace issues.  Here, as in many of the websites that include statements from or interviews with workers, there’s an overt agenda – not worker expression for its own sake.

Some poetry websites includes poems about work, but again these are largely sponsored and created by more middle-class cultural institutions.  Poets.org has a great online exhibit on work poetry, “Overhand the Hammers Swing,” put together by Philip Levine.  One of my favorite poets of work, Tom Wayman, has some pieces online, and this week, with the latest mining disaster in West Virginia, is a good time to search out the poems of Diane Gilliam Fisher, who’s Kettle Bottom takes us deep into the lives of miners from the first half of the 20th century.

All of this, of course, defines “working class” entirely as a matter of work.  And as I told the guy from the MinnPost, it might not be that working-class voices are absent from the web.  They may just not be labeled “working class.”  Since people rarely use the term to define themselves – except in relation to their work – we don’t find websites about working-class family life, neighborhoods, churches, or community groups when we search for that phrase.  That doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

Here’s a good example.  A few weeks ago, my friend Ben mentioned that he had found a YouTube video about the history of a house and family on the south side of Youngstown.  631 tells the story of how a family made a home by renovating a run-down house in the late 50s and how, over time, as the community and the family struggled economically, they lost it.  The video features family photos and interviews, and while family members make a few references to their jobs, no one ever uses the word “class.”  Nonetheless, the film shows how class, race, and place together shaped this family’s life.  And I’d never have found it if I went looking for something on that theme.

You can find additional images of working-class life, created by working people, thanks to the multiple versions of unseen america, a photography project organized originally by Bread and Roses, the cultural branch of the Service Employees’ International Union local 1199.

Obviously, the web isn’t the only place to hear working-class voices.  The best place to look for workers’ voices, other than at a neighborhood bar or church basement, is in print.  For example, New City Community Press collects oral histories and organizing writing projects involving working-class people in writing and creating images of their own lives and getting them into print.  Bottom Dog Press has published a number of individual volumes of prose and poetry as well as several terrific anthologies about working-class life.  The Blue Cubicle Press also publishes worker writing, including a journal, Workers Write.

But that still leaves me wondering: where are the working-class voices online, the stories not just about work but about daily life, family, and neighborhood?  At the Center for Working-Class Studies, we already have links to a number of websites and museums, though most reflect the work of either academics or labor unions.  I’d like to add more links to websites, images, and videos created by working-class people about their own lives, so let me put the puzzle in your hands.  What are you seeing out there?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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13 Responses to Where’s the Working-Class Web?

  1. andrew m says:

    He’s complaining that working class people don’t have the education to set up a web page. He’s the one who can’t fix his broken toilet, who needs the education?

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  2. Bart says:

    Sherry, et. al.;

    I believe one of the answers is written about here in these comments, but not pointed out – working class, blue collar, whatever term you choose, primarily learn and teach orally as opposed to literally. That is to say, they use story telling and they do it out loud. So videos would be the method of choice for these (us) folks.

    I find all kinds on youtube.com, but lubbidu has it right – why do this with time and resources that are precious to them in other areas? The truth is, many are definitely passionate about their craft and they make “how-to” videos. I have been watching at least one a night lately on, of all things, making dovetail joints and drawers (it is a hobby I will enjoy).

    So I think it comes down to learning and teaching style, perhaps a mix of tech challenge and then perhaps some stage fright. I for one realize I need to make podcasts and videos available as well. As tech savvy as I am, I for some reason postpone doing that, even though I bought the equipment months ago.

    Okay, so now you guys are gonna make me do it!

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  3. Sherry Linkon says:

    lubbidu–

    Oh, how I wish you’d been on the phone with that guy — you put this so much better than I could. Thanks —

    Sherry

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  4. lubiddu says:

    He was frustrated that he couldn’t find a good site that would show him how to do things like fix a broken toilet, and he wondered why blue-collar work wasn’t more present online.

    Hmmm…let’s see. I can buy an expensive camera, use time I don’t have after work (I’m a single mother) to take pictures of “how-to” projects, so that a person with more wealth and financial stability than I have can learn enough aspects of my trade so he won’t hire me and I can stay unemployed longer. Hmmm….now, why wouldn’t I want to do that?

    (and frankly, to follow that with an “oh, those blue-collar types just aren’t very web-savvy” is adding insult to injury.)

    Because make no doubt about it….there is still insult and still injury. We aren’t really seeking to do outreach work.

    I don’t use the web to promote my work. I work out of a hiring hall. When I’m unemployed, I sign the book, and I get called to go to work. I fucking LOATHE the idea of resumes, networking, job interviews—-I think the hiring hall is one of the greatest inventions of humankind.

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  5. Jeanne says:

    I’m with Bob here–he said what I was thinking as I read the whole post. And I think he makes one of the generalizations you can have about most working class people–when we retire, we don’t set up a pipe fitting outfit in our basements the way middle class people look for post-retirement opportunities to do more of what they did in their careers. My neighbor, Mr. Overstreet, didn’t look for a beverage truck to drive after he retired.

    And he certainly wouldn’t write about it or create a youtube video about how to do it better. Unless of course he was paid to do so on the clock.

    If middle class people want to know how to do plumbing or woodworking, they should pay a working class person to teach them. And not expect to get it FOR FREE.

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  6. Bob Price says:

    I worked at GM on the line for the better part of 32 years and the work just wasn’t interesting to me. It was a means to an end and the end was security for my family. I did follow the literature about assembly work. I still remember Studs Terkel’s “Working” and could quote from the Playboy article “Blue Collar Sabatuers” (yes, we read the articles) but for the most part, we left it behind us when we punched out.

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  7. Oh, and about the working class web. Perhaps us working class people don’t look at ourselves in the same way that people outside the class, especially academia, does. So you might not find many websites dealing with working class as a concept. Working class people are wide and varied, and unless you want to focus upon one subset of working class it is hard to categorize all of us. I think there is a stereotype of working class as being someone who works in a manufacturing or service based industry, punching a timeclock and voting the straight Democrat ticket. That does not represent the vast majority of what I consider to be working class.

    Internet Forums are great places to interact with working class people who gather together in their fields of interest. Heavy Equipment Forum, Contractors forum, Practical Machinist, steelheritage.org, Railway Preservation News, all are forums which I participate in and are utilized mainly by people whom I consider to be working class.

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  8. Sherry, there is a museum of the working class being built three miles from you. I created the Tod Engine Heritage Park a decade ago with the goal of preserving a slice of Youngstown’s industrial heritage by saving some examples of the equipment used in steelmaking and placing that equipment in the proper context of a mill building. This museum was my brainchild, and I have been blue collar my entire life. The volunteers who have helped with its construction are all blue collar working class people as well. It is unique in the US. Nowhere else has a group of working class people teamed up to commemorate their heritage such as what we are doing right here in Youngstown.

    Even though the Heritage Park is not officially open yet, many times former steelworkers have stopped by, telling stories of what it was like to work in the mills, their experiences etc. I love those visits, as I always learn a bit more about our industrial heritage and what it was like to work in our area’s industrial plants. I can’t wait to see what will happen when we officially open.

    I think there is a great opportunity for the CWCS to team up with the Tod Engine Heritage Park. I invite both John and yourself to pay us a visit. I’m usually at the site on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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  9. Jack Labusch says:

    Ethnic-interest periodicals?

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  10. Talytr says:

    Hi Sherry, don’t forget about the intrinsic distrust the working class has about sharing too much personal information. And yes, I realize that’s a generalization. Here is an anecdote, I can remember as a child a moment when my father admonished me against jotting down my address on an entry card “you don’t know what they’re going to do with that information” he warned. I would venture to say that an alarmed cautiousness toward sharing deeply personal information is a value of the working class.

    I love looking for the ‘folk’ in the background of photos or videos that people share on-line. In the background of an LOLcats photo, there may be a bureau in a living room with a sleeping bag rolled up under it, a stack of magazines, or a muffin tin used as a feeding tray. It’s there, cultural historians just need to use a finer sieve.

    It’s there,

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  11. Sherry Linkon says:

    Ned, that’s exactly my point. We can find working-class voices only when we look through the lens of work. I know there’s more out there, but how do we find it? I haven’t figured out a way to search for it, because all the other stuff doesn’t use “working class” as a keyword.

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  12. Ned Hamson says:

    I think you view of the working class may be too bound up in class definitions, working and labor issues. Working class people who work in traditional union and craft type jobs are all over the web talking about hobbies, gaming, music, sports, politics. You were looking for activity and sites covering only one aspect of their lives – work. There is more to a working class life than work – just like everyone else.

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  13. John Russo says:

    One place to look are music videos on YouTube. Here is a good example by the Dropkick Murphys

    Like

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