Restoring Traditional America

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

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6 Responses to Restoring Traditional America

  1. Jack Metzgar says:

    Thanks, Kathy, for opening this Golden Age discussion and for the cornucopia of links to some really great stuff. “The 1950s” (as if there was just one and the same decade for everybody) has an emotional resonance like few others — as people line up for and against it. The other decade that lines people up with love and hate in their hearts is, of course, the one that followed — “the 1960s.” Nobody wants to go back to either of those decades in their entirety, but the fact is they are connected, and those iconic decades are the heart of a Golden Age from 1947-1973 when real wages increased about 2% every year for production and non-supervisory workers (that is, the vast majority of workers). Call me “consumerist,” but that kind of steady increase in wages and living standards has an enormous impact on people’s lives — including, their willingness to fight for their rights and a better life. And, as Kathy points out, what makes those decades Golden is the way collective action by masses of ordinary people blossomed — first labor, then blacks, then women, then gays, then . . . on and on. Fred Anderson thinks it was all about the monoplist position of American capitalism at the time, but I’m guessing a virtuous cycle of grassroots collective action and rising real wages and standards is what we can learn from that Golden Age — and seek to emulate going forward.


  2. Unfortunately, the 1950’s which we look back upon so fondly, may have been an anomaly. I think the major thing we overlook is that we had just bombed Europe & Japan flat during WW II. Consequently, if you were anywhere in the world and wanted to buy something — let’s say an automobile — you just about had to buy it from the Americans: We had the only auto plants that still had two bricks standing on top of each other.

    That meant that, in practice, we were monopoly sellers to the world. And it’s nice to be a monopolist — you can sell just about any piece of (expletive deleted) you choose to make and you can sell it at extortionate prices. The customer has no choice except to buy it from you or do without.

    Hence American managers signed some _very_ generous contracts with American unions during that period. After all, why endure the unpleasantness of a strike when we can just pass our absurdly high costs through to the helpless customer?

    Unfortunately for us, the Europeans and the Japanese (and eventually, much of the rest of the world) got back on their feet. And we were no longer able to work the monopolist scam — now we had competitors. (And, those competitors necessarily had _new_ , state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, while ours often dated from the 1920’s.)

    We are probably _still_ trying to downshift / to adjust to that new competitive reality.

    And we have to hope that another World War isn’t in the cards. With modern missilery, this time we wouldn’t escape unscathed anyway.


  3. YinzerThing says:

    Thanks for your terrific piece, Kathy. I worry a lot about the decline in public perceptions of unions and unionized workers – even in “blue collar towns” like my own Pittsburgh. The simple drop in the proportion of people represented by collective bargaining agreements doesn’t tell the whole story – a large number of working people themselves now seem to actually believe that unions are more evil than good (how often do we hear about unions being greedy, getting overly generous pensions and benefits, and allowing people to work under cushy conditions while obstructing progress). I hope that these new representations in popular culture that you have identified help to change that perception – or at least shift the conversation.


  4. Kathy M. Newman says:

    Point well taken, Patrick. I agree that the 1950s record of the labor movement has been checked on the question of racism and other isms, too. Two thoughts, though. One is from my own research in the archives of the ILGWU. The union was sued by the NAACP in 1962 for protecting discrimination against black workers in the garment shops, but I’ve read training documents that were designed to help ILGWU organizers teach their own members about racial tolerance. I was impressed that the union knew it had a problem and seemed to be taking steps to do something about it. The other thought is a comment a friend of mine made when she was doing research for her book on Civil Rights photography. She said that she found a lot of the photographs for her book in union archives. Here’s a link to her book. Thank you so much for taking the time comment.


  5. 1950’s America was not the good old days, as racism was rampant in the labor movement. In the railroad industry, African Americans were not allowed to belong to any of the major railroad unions, other than the Maintenance of Way, which was the “gandy dancers,” union and only as a laborer. The Brotherhoods of Railroad Trainmen, Conductors, Engineers and Firemen had in their constitutions, whites only clauses.

    The BRT did not eliminate this clause until 1960, and this caused a class action lawsuit by African American Baggage Handlers on passenger trains against the BRT for denying them representation. This legal action was continued and dragged out until the late 1980s by the BRT and its successor organization, the UTU, United Transportation Union, who finally settled it.,

    The UTU was sued along with the Norfolk & Western Ry., for discrimination by African American railworkers at Norfolk Terminal, Norfolk, VA. The lawsuit (Rock vs Norfolk & Western) stemmed from the N&W redesignating the African American railworkers in the Barney Yard or the coal piers at Lamberts Point, from “Car-Riders,” to Brakemen. The Black railworkers rode the coal cars off of the hump at the Barney Yard, stopping them with the handbrakes in the class yard of bowl yard. The other yard was the freight yard, and all of the workers there were White, as the work was cleaner and less dangerous too.

    The Black railworkers won the lawsuit and forced the carrier and the union to arrange the seniority roster in Norfolk Terminal by the hiring out date of the workers. This rearrangement gave the Black workers the edge for the first time in history, as the median seniority date for Black workers was older than the median seniority date for the White workers. This caused a lot of unrest among the white workers as they found that high seniority jobs in the freight yard that had been theirs before, now had black workers on them. These changes came about not by Labor taking initiative, but by the Black workers taking legal action against the White dominated Rail management and Rail Unions and forcing change.

    The other idea is that in the 1950’s, the chance that a Black man would be allowed in the neighborhood that the Cleavers lived in, was slim and none.Even the most progressive unions, the UAW, had to be sued by their Black members to force them to allow the election of Blacks in leadership roles in that union. Organizations like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement by Black workers in Detroit, came into being because of the White domination of the UAW and the resulting disenfranchisement of Black workers in the workplace and in the union hall. White workers who had come north to work in the auto factories brought Jim Crow with them and installed it in the workplace and union hall, most times with the aid of the company.


  6. Pingback: Restoring Traditional America | Working-Class Perspectives « Tony's Pedantic X

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