Saturday
Jul142012

Working class people

Unless working people in cities and on farms keep working, no one eats, no one can shop at Costco or Walmart for groceries or a new TV, no one can fill the gas tank to drive anywhere. Buses don’t run, tractors don’t plow, trucks don’t haul, airplanes don’t fly. 

In the 1930’s, when the USA was an industrial and agricultural nation, the output of working people in the US was largely confined within the borders of the United States. Identifying the working class was much more obvious and led to industrial workers organizing themselves for better wages and working conditions, and in the next decade, to delivering the industrial might that won the war in Europe. 

Since 1980 with new technology in communication and financing, industrial and farm work has spread around the world. Industrial work—outsourced piecemeal to India and China, the Philippines and Korea thirty years ago—have become whole industries. In February, 2011 Apple’s Steve Jobs answered President Obama, who asked about bringing jobs back to America by building iPhones in the United States, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”  The infrastructure to build them in North America no longer exists. 

The industrial workforce to build them is no longer strictly local. Beef and corn may come from Iowa or Argentina, electronic gadgets designed in Silicon Valley are built in Thailand, Taiwan and China and shipped around the world. Meanwhile, US workers assemble Japanese, Korean and German automobiles in eight central and southern states plus California. The world is getting smaller. 

Who are the working people everyone depends on? Obviously, they are most of the population, the hourly and salaried workers, and homemakers. They work for a living, deliver products and services, raise their kids and care for their elders, whether or not they get paid for their work. 

Defining working class can be tricky. It’s easy to set up a working class vs. owning class tug of war. But, since the purpose of this site is to find common understanding and bridge barriers between classes, we’ll focus more closely on the distinct characteristics of each group, rather than emphasizing the conflicts. 

Working people are described here by their origins, influences, values and behaviors. Also they are described by their contribution to the economy, and to a lesser extent by their income. 

Definition of working class background comes out of our shared personal stories. The elements begin to appear in the listening, and the telling. Each person is unique and different. At the same time I expect to see some common themes: cooperation with others, feelings of isolation from each other and inferiority to wealthier people, stepping up to leadership and hesitation to take it, self-confidence in skilled areas, and lack of confidence in less familiar areas. 

At times in my life I’ve been many kinds of a worker, usually for someone else who hired me. I drove a tractor tilling fields. I served in the Army in Europe managing radio sites during the cold war. I built scenery and ran a scene shop, directed plays and managed a touring theater. With other carpenters I framed concrete forms and walked high steel in Houston. I painted houses, crafted furniture and remodeled homes. I delivered newspapers, set pins at a bowling alley, and sold computers. I was a typesetter, while I also published plays and books. I taught electric utility linemen to use computers and write lesson plans, so they could teach new trainees to be linemen for the power company. I taught grade school students, corporate employees and organized information technology teams. Right now, I’m learning to write a blog on social class (a lifelong interest).

But, a definition is more than the jobs we’ve done. It’s the assumptions we make, the values we hold and the ways we behave toward ourselves and each other.

Once a new friend and I were driving from Chicago to attend a meeting in downstate Illinois. We decided to get to know each other by telling our life stories on the way. The operative question was, “Where were you born, and what happened next?” I drove while he told his story. Five-and-a-half hours later he’d gotten to age 18. We both knew more details about his growing up than we could have imagined. Incidents from early childhood, school, friendships, parents and teachers that impacted him. His successes and struggles, and how those things influenced the person he is today.

On the way home he drove and I told my life story, getting only to age 17. Who would have guessed we could find so many details, and how fascinating it was to share and hear each other! 

For years the experience of that trip formed a bond for each of us. We became good buddies overnight. We both knew each other so well that we could be each others’ allies. When either one of us got into trouble in our lives the other could help him find a way out. 

Postscript:

As this writing project continues I will share stories, some in interviews, others written by contributors to this site. Keep reading, keep writing. As time goes by we should all get a clearer picture of who we are, who those others are, and how we can build bridges across old barriers of class. Our origins, and the events that impact our lives will become clearer and more meaningful. 

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Reader Comments (1)

It's taking shape, David! I like what I've read so far. I have a lot more reading to do.

Keep writing!

Harv

July 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHarv

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