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