Working Class Values
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
“People in my neighborhood don’t like the phrase ‘working class.’ The guys I grew up with, their mothers mostly didn’t work back in those days, and their fathers didn’t go to college. But they were proud, and if you asked them what they were, they were middle class.”
–Joe Biden, video presentation at the Democratic National Convention
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad about Joe Biden. Barack Obama was my first choice for the nomination, John Edwards my second (who knew?). I liked Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, and Richardson as potential presidents, not so much as potential candidates. I would have supported any one of them who won the nomination, and any would have been fine with me as the VP nominee.
But what Biden said about the working class in his video Wednesday night insulted me and a bunch of other working class people I know. It also disappointed me on several levels. I don’t think it’s worth my time writing to him about it, so I’ll tell you and then I can get it off my mind.
Some years ago, at potluck lunch with a bunch of people who considered themselves religious liberals, my husband referred to himself as a working class man. “Why do you put yourself down that way?” one of the people asked. My husband was too stunned, or too polite, to answer. I’m the mouth in our family, so I told her — politely, I hope — that “working class” is not an insult. It’s a fact.
I grew up in my grandfather’s house, with my parents and two sisters. My parents had lost their entire $500 in savings when the banks closed in 1929. That would be $6,400 now. At the time $500 was about half the price of the kind of Philadelphia row house my grandfather owned. My parents never got back to the point where they’d saved enough for a down payment on a house of their own until about the time I left home in 1954.
We were working class people. My father was a printer. My grandfather had a little machine that took the stuff mothballs are made of and pressed them into the shape of a little bottle. While they were hot, he stuck the hook part of a metal hanger into the bottle so it could hang on the bar in a clothes closet. When the bottles cooled, he went out and sold them door to door.
Before the Depression people didn’t talk about class, but everyone knew where they fit in. There were the homeless people, usually migrant families; the poor; the working class, who did the hard stuff, working with their hands and their backs; the middle class – shopkeepers, small business owners (not small like the SBA defines small, but just big enough to support a few families), teachers, doctors, and men who managed rich people’s businesses. Then there was the upper class, whose lives never got near ours, even when we worked as their servants.
The depression leveled things out for all but the upper class. The middle class was in some ways worse off than the working class. There was nobody to buy from the shops, there were few businesses to manage, people desperate for doctoring paid with fresh eggs or by taking in their family’s laundry. At least working class women could clean houses and office buildings, working class men could work for the county cleaning up along the sides of roads. Since the country’s opinion leaders couldn’t admit that the middle class had fallen, economically, to the level of the poor and working class, everyone had to be considered part of the middle class. To say otherwise would be to admit a great defeat. Now, no one knew where they fit in, but people still didn’t talk about class. The subject had become taboo, except among far-left intellectuals.
Today, when some sociology professor with a grant sends a bunch of graduate students out with a questionnaire, 85 percent of Americans define themselves as middle class. Sure they are. And all the children are above average.
I don’t know which of the candidates in this year’s primary campaign first started talking about the working class as a group apart from the working poor. I was delighted that people were again recognizing the existence of the working class, even though before long Hillary Clinton discovered her working class creds (as if), pretending to knock back a shot (of Crown Royal, for crying out loud) and hoist a beer mug. Obama talked about working class people at a fundraiser and was maliciously misquoted (and will be again this fall, no doubt.)
Still, there seemed a chance that working class people might be recognized for what they are – the wheels that keep this country moving. So when Biden dissed the working class, I felt foolish for having hoped that a Democratic win would bring workers to a position of dignity.
What disappointed me about Biden’s video remarks on how people in Scranton felt about being called “working class” was that it is a steaming pile of cow flop. In the first place, nobody called them working class. Nobody talked about class at all. And if you asked a man what he was, he’d answer with what he did. He’d say, I’m a janitor, a millwright, a farmer, a punch press operator. And he’d say it with pride. For working class people life is work, and work is the source of dignity.
When a plant closes and a working class person loses a job they’ve worked at for years, it’s more than an economic loss. It’s a loss of identity, personhood, dignity. Training someone for a new kind of work is a necessity, but our leaders should never forget that training is only a financial solution. Training doesn’t ameliorate the grief over the loss of one’s co-workers, the sense of belonging somewhere. When you stop getting a paycheck it’s like the world stops saying you deserve the air you breathe.
It also pissed me off that Biden said women “mostly didn’t work back in those days.” Working class women worked 18-hour days back then, cleaning, cooking, doing the wash – often by hand – minding the children, anticipating their men’s physical and emotional needs so the men didn’t have to think about what they needed. Food, clean clothing, and all the rest of it was always there for them. During the war, women worked in factories and then came home and did the housework, too. Listening to Biden say they “didn’t work” was like traveling back in time. He should know better than that by now.
I think Biden has some making up to do, with working class people and stay-at-home moms. He can do it. There’s time. But if he can’t do it honestly and with humility, he’d better not do it at all. They may live in cities, some of them, but working class people know a pile of manure when they smell it.
Posted on August 30th, 2008 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Filed under: Uncategorized