Today I watched John Sayles’ Matewan for a class on the media and social inequality. The film, which is based on real events, takes place in West Virginia in 1920 and details a group of coal miners’ struggles to unionize and mount a strike in the face of brutal tactics by the owners of the coal mine. It’s an important film b that references the early years of American cinema when hundreds of films were made about labor vs. capital, and because it’s a document of a largely forgotten struggle in this country to attain workers’ rights like a decent minimum wage, the eight-hour day, and affordable health care.
At least the eight-hour day is still common.
It also stars one of my favorite indie-folk singers, Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, before he became the mountain hunk he is today.
The film made me question what it means to be working class today. In 1920 it was fairly easy to define what working class was, since many of its members worked in the factories and mines that still existed in this country before most of them were farmed out to cheaper spots around the world. These workers had to fight hard for the few rights they had, and today’s workforce owes what protection it has to them. Union members were often politically left-wing, even radical and socialist, and for good reason mistrusted the intentions of the owning class that viewed them only as replaceable labor. Millions of Americans were proud to belong to the working class and to fight for its interests against the government and its allies, the owning classes.
But other than Wal-mart, McDonald’s, and other large service-oriented companies, the nature of working people in America has changed. Although business constantly find novel ways to exploit workers, few of us are virtual slaves to the interest of huge companies that charge us rent for our homes, fees for our uniforms, and throw us into environments that literally might get us killed.
I’m careful to note that few of us face these situations. It’s been well-documented that, for example, slaughterhouse workers face terrible risks in their line of work.
But for most members of the “working class,” that label means something different now than it did 80 years ago. In fact, it can mean almost anything from waiting tables to working in a hotel to working in a gas station or working as a teacher. There is no definition that really sticks anymore. If there is, please tell me about it.
My class got into a heated discussion about this tonight, mostly because most people didn’t really agree with what I just wrote above, and most (if not all) people readily identified as working class. I realized that I don’t, and when it was suggested that maybe I think it’s a bad thing to be working class it got me thinking. I still maintain that I don’t have negative connotations with the label “working class,” but I’m curious why I’ve never applied it to myself. I’ve always thought of myself as “solidly middle class,” the word solidly always modifying the label. The question is, of course, how to we identify with a class — culturally or economically? I’m not about to go there in this post, especially since we live in a country whose dominant discourse actively rejects use of the c-word at all, so things get complicated very quickly.
So why aren’t I working class? Or am I? Does it matter either way how we label ourselves? As I tried to stress in my class, these are rhetorical questions, asked in order to more deeply explore these issues. I argued tonight that I, and everyone else in the room, have options available to me, that I could choose to get an MBA if I wanted to, and that I have a moderate amount of control over the course of my life, rather than, for example, leaving it up to the plutocrat who owns the local coal mine.
But am I just a middle-class wannabe? If we can’t figure out what working class is, what the hell is middle-class?
Maybe those of us who make it a habit to label things should do away with these labels, labels that describe an economic system that has radically shifted since the first half of the 20th century. By and large, Americans don’t do the producing anymore. We’re a nation of consumers, so why not call the former working class the consuming class? Most of us consume away our whole lives, trying to attain something that is never attainable while working a mindless job. And that brings with it a unique set of problems separate from those faced by workers in the past.
Instead of raising our shovels in protest, we should be hurling the Starbucks lattes at people’s Hummers. That’ll show ‘em.