Working Christmas

I am a sucker for Christmas. I love decorating the tree, filling my children’s Advent calendar, wrapping presents, baking cookies, watching Christmas specials on television, hosting holiday parties, and making and sending my annual Christmas card.

But there is another reason I love Christmas that has little to do with my personal traditions. I love it because during this season iconic Christmas characters (like Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty) as well as pundits, preachers, and journalists engage in some surprisingly frank discussions of work, capitalism, and the working class.

Let us start with Bass/Rankin classic, Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, which first aired in 1964. Some have argued that it is an allegory for the Cold War, with the Bumble representing the Soviet Union, who is tamed by the ultimate American Yukon Cornelius. Others have argued that Rudolph represents the “Red Scare,” which is interesting, because Burl Ives (the show’s narrator, Sam the Snowman), was blacklisted in 1950 in the anti-communist smear pamphlet Red Channels. Unfortunately, Burl Ives cooperated with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) when he told them that he used to attend union meetings with Pete Seeger in order to “stay in touch with working folk.”

My recent viewing of the Christmas classic suggests a slightly different take. The elves in Rudolph are apparently happy on the job. They sing: “We work hard all day/But our work is play.” Hmmmmm. This is the essential myth of the Christmas elf, right? Making Christmas toys is work, but the work is play.

On the other hand, not everyone who wants to work is allowed to work in Rudolph’s world. Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer is a story about workplace discrimination. Hermey the elf, played with what we now interpret as a “gay” voice, doesn’t fit in with the other toy-making elves. Is he discriminated against for being gay? Or because wants to be a dentist? In his signature song he says, “You can’t fire me, I quit.” Rudolph is similarly cheated out of a chance to work for Santa, and all because of his shiny red nose.

Workplace discrimination in Rudolph has a gendered component as well. Rudolph’s mother and his girlfriend Clarice are told by Donner and Santa that looking for Rudolph is “man’s work.” The misfit toys are also deprived of a chance to serve as joy filled bundles on Christmas morning because they have manufacturing defects. Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius rescue the misfit toys by convincing Santa to give them as gifts. Even the Bumble is simply an underutilized employee. When Yukon Cornelius tames the Bumble he explains: “I’ve reformed the Bumble. He wants a job! Look what he can do!” At the sound of these magic words the Bumble tops the Christmas tree with a star.  Indeed, conflicts over imports and fair trade (the embargo on toy imports in Santa Claus is Coming to Town), work stoppages (Santa’s “sickout” in The Year Without a Santa Claus), and working conditions (the life of a clockmaker in The Night Before Christmas) are at or near the center of almost every one of the Bass/Rankin holiday productions.

And how about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol? If ever there was a workplace holiday tale, this is it. Scrooge is a miser who nearly drives his clerk’s family to the poor house. My favorite adaptation of the tale, Scrooged [1988] starring Bill Murray, hits all the right working-class themes. Murray plays a television executive who fires one of his employees, Eliot Loudermilk, in the first scene. Loudermilk goes on to become homeless and comes back to terrorize Murray’s Christmas Carol production with a shot gun. The character of Bob Cratchit is transformed into the character “Grace Cooley,” Murray’s executive secretary. The awesome African American actress Alfe Woodward plays Grace as a single mother who brilliantly makes up for her boss’s shortcomings.

In recent months the character of Scrooge has been called upon to describe the “1%” who control much of the wealth in the US, as identified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. When Jay-Z marketed OWS t-shirts but declined to share any those profits with the movement, a group of artsy jokesters made a statue of Jay-Z in the form of Ebenezer Scrooge.

After Scrooge, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is most often associated with the figure of the miserly malcontent. Just last month President Obama told a rally in Ohio that he hoped Congress would extend the payroll tax rather than play the role of “Grinch.” Shockingly, the now extremely beloved original animated version of Dr. Suess’s popular children’s book, animated by Chuck Jones, was turned down in 1966 by 25 potential television sponsors. Jones remembers that even he was surprised when the show was finally sponsored by the Foundation for Commercial Banks. Jones speculates that the bankers must have missed the moment when the Grinch realizes that “perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store.”

Each of these Christmas stories highlights the plight of the downtrodden, the outsider, or the misfit, what Jones called the “slave” or the “reindeer dog” in the Grinch tale. But how far does that critique extend? While Scrooge and the Grinch eventually realize that the “true meaning” of Christmas cannot be bought, when these tales are rebroadcast on television they are sandwiched between dozens of commercials for cars, cell phones, diamonds, slippers, gloves, and video games. Linus may end The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with a passage from the Bible describing the angel telling the shepherds about Jesus’s birth, but you can buy the Deluxe Peanuts Christmas Holiday Specials at Costco right now for under $30.00. I did last month.

In the end, though, the icons of Christmas are highly plastic and can be easily mutated to call for social change. In Denver this month Occupiers were invited to participate in an “Elf Revolt.” The facebook page Occupy Christmas has been active since early November. References to Christmas elves on strike, Scrooge, and the Grinch abound in humor blogs and labor coverage during the holiday season.

And, as much as Fox News broadcasters worry about the “war on Christmas,” the rest of us know that the real war on US soil is being waged by the super rich on the working and middle classes. And we know that on December 26th it is back to work for those of us who still dream of a merrier, more equal society that could bring us glad tidings and figgy pudding 365 days a year.

Kathy M. Newman

The Diversity of the White Working Class

The recent firestorm of debate stirred by Thomas Edsall’s New York Times report of a behind-the-scenes plan by “Democratic operatives” to “explicitly abandon the white working class” reveals more about the degraded state of political journalism than it does about either Democratic operatives or the working class.

Edsall is a highly respected member of the political punditry who has made a good living covering and analyzing American politics for more than 30 years.  So you’d think he’d know that three items in his lead paragraph are spectacularly false:

  • The “Democratic operatives” referred to as hatching the abandonment plan, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, are not employed by the Democratic Party and are, in fact, part of a diverse group of independent Democratic analysts who are seeking to influence the party’s, and especially President Obama’s, 2012 election campaign.  They are influential, but their views are countered by many others, most of whom pay no attention whatsoever to a “working class.”
  • Teixeira’s and Halpin’s new paper, The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election, not only does not advocate that the Dems abandon the white working class, but systematically weighs the importance of the white working-class vote in the 12 most important battleground states in next year’s election.  Indeed, as Edsall must surely know, Teixeira, writing with various co-authors over the past decade, has done more than any other political analyst to call attention to the existence of a “working class” in our supposedly “middle-class society.”
  • Finally, there is this howler:  “For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly severe losses among white voters.”  How could Edsall not know how wrong that is? According to his own newspaper’s  comprehensive report of exit polls since 1972, while us white folks have been strongly Republican in presidential elections for decades, we are substantially less so than we used to be.  From 1972 through 1992, for example, whites voted for Democratic presidential candidates only 36% on average, but from 1996 through 2004 the average was 42%, and Obama got 43% in 2008.  Indeed, in the ten presidential elections from 1968 through 2004 white men (the most Republican of demographic groups) on average voted 35% for Dems, but gave Obama 41% of their vote in 2008. Continuous electoral losses for sure, but the opposite of “increasingly severe.”

These are all pretty big mistakes for a political pro.  Edsall’s misreading and mischaracterization of Teixeira and Halpin is probably willful – in order to argue against a straw man or, cable-news style, simply to get attention.   The confusion about white voters, on the other hand, is likely the result of sheer ignorance shared by many in his craft.

In their new study Teixeira and Halpin break down the projected 2012 electorate into three parts:

  • People of color (blacks, Latinos, Asians & self-identified “others” of all classes), an increasingly large proportion of the electorate that should constitute 28% in 2012.  This group gave Obama 80% of their vote in 2008, thereby overcoming a 55 to 43% McCain majority among white voters.
  • The white middle class (whites with at least a bachelor’s degree), also a growing portion of the electorate that should be 36% of all voters next year.  47% of this group voted for Obama in 2008.
  • The white working class (whites without a bachelor’s degree), a declining group in the electorate that should also be 36% in 2012 – the first time in American history that these two groups of whites will make up equal proportions of voters.  In 2008 the white working class nationally gave Obama only 40% of its vote.

Teixeira and Halpin are optimistic about the long-term future of Democrats as we move toward a “majority minority” population by 2050, with people of color (the strongest Dem group) increasing their share of the electorate with each election cycle and the white working class (the strongest GOP group) decreasing its share.  Another demographic reason for optimism, according to Teixeira and Halpin, is that the “millennial” generation (people now aged 10 to 33) has been a strong Democratic group thus far and will also grow over the next several election cycles.  Whites aged 18 to 29 in 2008, for example, were the only white age group that gave Obama a majority – 54%, while whites aged 30 and up voted Dem in the 41-42% range.

While long-term demographics favor Democrats, stagnant economic growth and high unemployment go strongly against them in 2012.  Getting to 270 measures these demographics against economic conditions and Obama’s approval ratings in the 12 battleground states.  This is the part of their analysis that is the most complex and interesting, as each state is perversely unique in how these variables play out.  Michigan, for example, has one of the largest white working classes in the country (52% of the electorate in 2008), but they voted against the national trend, giving Obama a majority of their votes in 2008, but the white middle class in Michigan did not.  Today Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (11.1%), but people in Michigan (all classes and colors combined) give Obama a well-above average job approval rating of 50%.

Going state by state and region by region, you get a different picture of the white working class and of the white vote in general.  It turns out that whites, including the white working class, are a lot more diverse politically than the national numbers indicate.  All national numbers – including everyday poll numbers — are distorted by just how one-sidedly Republican white voters are in the South.  Since 1980 white southerners have voted in the low 30s for Democratic presidential candidates, while white voters in the rest of the country have been trending up toward the high 40s.  Indeed, whites in the Northeast have given Dems a majority in the last four presidential elections, while whites in the Midwest and West voted 47% and 49% respectively for Obama.

For an extreme example of how diverse white working-class voters can be, consider this: in 2008, 57% of them voted for Obama in Massachusetts compared with only 9% in Alabama.   Besides Michigan and Massachusetts, 12 other states had white working-class majorities for Obama in 2008: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

The broad patterns that Teixeira and Halpin assert do apply in most states, and the terms of their analysis are interesting and insightful in every state.  They do not do enough, in my view, to emphasize the diversity among white voters and especially among working-class whites – by state and region, by age, by religion, and by whether they are in a union household or not.  But their state-by-state analysis illustrates again and again what a wildly, quirkily diverse group working-class voters are.  And unlike the various pundits who have been commenting on their work, they never purport to guess at what “the white working class” thinks and feels because they know they’re not all Archie Bunker and his wife Edith and that some folks have been a-changin’ in the past 30 years.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

A Visit to the Food Pantry

I went to visit my daughter today to the food pantry.  It’s my first time ever. It’s twenty-five degrees outside and sunny.  We arrive before 9:30 AM, already the line is fairly long leading to the three-bay garage building.  My daughter seems to be feeling her way, not really sure how to proceed.  Yesterday during our phone conversation she told me, “You sit in the car, drive   through and they load everything in your car.”  But that’s not really the way it happens.

For a long time we wait in the cold, not really moving, and she has to be at work by 11:00 AM.  She rarely calls, so I want to share the morning with her no matter what she’s doing. Regularly, my husband takes food to our small town’s pantry, but I’ve never been there.  I don’t go.  I don’t offer to work there either, and I could.  I really could.

Inside this whale’s belly my daughter and I struggle to speak.  These days everything I   say makes her feel defensive.  I believe she has depression, maybe she dislikes her life and displaced anger is not uncommon.  What mother wants to see her child’s arms flailing?  It is difficult for both of us.

My eyes are open and looking into the faces of America.  The elders are here.  Some with their scarves and hats and mittens, and others, like me, dressed wrong for this weather.  At the parking lot’s perimeter, there are odd pieces of cast-off furniture: a brown corduroy couch, loveseat, mismatched dressers, and a nice old-lady chair letting the shade sit there first and then the sun.  To our left there’s a box of knit caps – in Appalachia, we called them toboggans — for babies.  Off to the right, there’s a table of coats with a “one per family” sign printed with a black sharpie on a piece of cardboard.  A big swell of odd clothing lies on a picnic table by the shed, and folks constantly look sideways as they pick through it.  Milling around there’s a heavyset woman with her little boy in a toboggan with a red-face and camo sweatshirt, which is not nearly warm enough for this morning.  A small boy in a tan raincoat carries a pair of white tennis shoes he found on the table to his mother, and there’s a bag of broken glazed donuts being passed down the line.  Everyone is welcome to eat as many as they want.  It feels like communion.  Yes.  Our faces shine in the light, and we are, however slowly, making our way to the altar.

My daughter knows she must not miss work.  I point to the man who seems to be in charge.  I say, “Go tell him you have to go to work, and ask if I can stand for you and get the food.”

All this time she has struggled to think of things to say to me.  I’m just sort of numb.  Up since 6:00 AM, I’ve already scrubbed floors, started laundry and picked up a house suffering from clutter.  She tells me, “Did you hear about the boy on his bicycle at the lake last night?  He was hit and killed.  They are reopening Natalie Wood’s case after thirty years.”  Really?  I want to say, but I’m quiet.  Why must death always be at the center of our lives?  Last week didn’t I go to three funerals?  Wasn’t one of them a good friend to my daughter?  A good-hearted man with a terrible disease, only forty-five years old and gone

forever.  She leaves the line to speak with the man in charge.

“Let’s go Mom; I’m taking you home for a scarf and gloves.  You can get your car.  He said it’s okay for you to get the food.”  I nod and move out of line.  In silence we walk to her car.

She tells me, “I’m leaving the apartment unlocked.  These are the only keys we have.  Here’s a paper you will need to get the food.  I love you Mom, and thank you, thanks for doing this.”  A sound comes into her voice I have not heard forever, she leans over, and gives me a kiss.  “I love you,” she whispers.  “Live well,” I answer.

Now, I must remember the way back to the food pantry.  I forget one turn and wind up near the railroad tracks.  I turn around.  When I see the chicken house sign, I know I’m on the right path. But I have lost my place in line.  This is the story that keeps   happening to all of us, but didn’t I read somewhere the last shall be first?  And that white-haired man in his warm green coat, didn’t I hear him tell a tall boy wearing an orange knit hat, “Yes, yes you can stand for your grandma and your mother.”  And didn’t that boy grin at me saying, “They had to go to the car.  My grandma is old and my Mom has a neurology disease. She has MS.  She can’t stand too long.”  I saw his grandmother’s pale face under her stocking cap, watched her wobbly gait steadied on the arm of her daughter who is younger than me.

In our long line there’s not one person of color because this is the north end of our county, but I know ten miles down the road people are waiting/wanting/hoping the wind may die down and quit blowing them like leaves.  Odd sizes of baby diapers sit under a sign that says, “Please do not take for relatives or friends.” You must think only of yourself.  These are the rules for survival.  Everyone in line knows the rules, but one package of diapers doesn’t have a size marked.  Like a crystal ball, mothers lift it up and try to guess its mystery.

Against the gravel, I stomp and stomp my feet. Without thinking, I am learning this new dance.  About twenty people have arrived since I went to get my own car.  I check to be sure the paper my daughter gave me is in my pocket.  For her scarf and gloves, I am grateful.  The newcomers are mostly women.  Elderly. White hair, walkers, and canes.  Oh Lord, I think, who will carry their food inside when they get home?  I step out of line, go to the place where first we started.  “Do you remember me?  I was just here with my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Yes, I remember you.  You were with the woman in a black coat.”  And the tall boy in his orange knit cap nods and smiles.

“Well, would you mind if I step back into line here?  I have to get my mother-in-law to physical therapy by noon.”

“Sure.  Jump right back in here,” the woman replies.

A first-grade boy swings the bag of broken donuts.  He stops in front of us.  “Want a donut for a penny?” he asks.  His mop of brown hair and grin are contagious.  We start laughing. All of us.  It ripples up and down our line.  “An entrepreneur,” I comment.  The woman behind me says, “Yes.”  Our laughter and this cold, hurting air starts an old man’s chronic cough.  We watch him struggle.  We hear his phlegm rattle and somehow it chokes us all.

We are about twelve feet from the white door.  A lady in a mauve coat opens it every so often and says, “Three of you may come inside now.  Bring your numbers.”  I think of heaven. I think of all the people who must wait their turn.  People here are not grumpy.  Lord, they are pleasant.  All these volunteers who have been here for several hours setting this up and the woman with black-rimmed glasses who checks me in with her big ledger, the woman who saw my I don’t know what to do next look and leaned closer to ask me, “Is this your first time?”

“Yes, yes.  It’s my first time.  I’m here for my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Julie.  Julie Brown.”

There’s a box with note cards she thumbs.  It looks like my recipe box.  “Here she is.  Now, just find her name in the book.  Sign her name with your initials after it.  Give me your number.”  She sounds like my second grade teacher, and I do just as I’m told.

My number is four.  There are four people in my daughter’s family.  Two of them are children.  “We have another four,” a man yells to his co-workers in the back of this huge unheated garage.  And bags of food are placed into a deep plastic wheelbarrow.  My number four lies in there too.  It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot at a quarter casino machine.  A man pushes my wheelbarrow toward the produce.  Cabbage, green peppers, onions, acorn squash, apples and ten pounds of potatoes get carefully loaded.  Someone hands over a big frozen turkey, a small roast, juice drinks.  Another voice tells me to take a jug of laundry detergent.  Every voice is cheerful.  The wheelbarrow aches under its weight.  “Lead the way,” the man smiles at me.

“The tan Chevy, over there,” I say, choking on something I can not name.

His cheeks flush from the cold, and both our bifocals help us to see everything more clearly.  Together, we lift and load what has been given into my car.  “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” he says.  “God bless you, all of you,” I tell him.  Our words stir the air like church bells calling us back to something we once knew and must never forget.

Jeanne Bryner

Jeanne Bryner is a poet, a former emergency room nurse, and a community affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies