You Aren’t A Working Class Hero
There are few things that really bother me as much as self-professed working-class heroes. These are the folks on your timeline who carry on about their long hours, their hard work ethic, occasionally make fun of people who don’t do the same jobs they do, and generally enjoy a kind of smug superiority. Particularly over other working-class folks whose views on life, politics, and workplace solidarity differ from their own.
These are the folks who carry on about protesters needing jobs so they won’t have time to protest. These are the folks who insist they’re the real backbone of America. They dismiss unions as promoting little work for a big paycheck. And they make sure everyone knows the world will stop if they decide not to go to work.
Except, of course, it won’t.
On the contrary, such self-promotion earns these people exactly nothing at all. The may feel good about themselves, but they won’t get a bigger paycheck. Their supervisors may pat them on the back, but when the ACA is repealed, their healthcare is going to cover less for a whole lot more money. They may flaunt their moral superiority over all the rest of the layabouts in the world, but when budget cuts come around, or the factory moves to Mexico or Thailand, they’re going to be just as unemployed as everyone else. With far less to show for it.
The thing is, the myth of the working-class hero plays on American themes – that hard work is a goo in and of itself and brings with it rewards; the myth of the powerful individual facing a hostile world and surviving, even thriving; the myth that organized labor is a long con looking to separate workers from their wallets in order to benefit a few – which makes it difficult to counter even with facts. The appeal is so basic, so much at the heart of how we see ourselves as Americans, it becomes difficult to resist.
Like most myths, however, these old American myths contained far less truth than they claimed; with changing social relations, they are functionally meaningless now. Setting aside the reality that the myth of the self-made American ignored pretty much everything else going on the world even as it was being propagated, now it’s impossible to be a successful individual without help from others. Whether it’s municipal ordinances governing where businesses can and can’t operate, through local street and sidewalk maintenance, to the local police force up to and through workplace hour, safety, and pay regulations that keep our workplaces safe physically and financially, not a single person working today has made themselves who they are.
And all those pesky things like maximum hours legislation, minimum wage laws, the weekend, health and retirement benefits – these exist because of unions. People died to make sure their fellow workers would live better, be safer, and have better overall living conditions. And if you want to work more than 40 hours a week, these laws make sure you’re justly compensated for that work. It doesn’t prevent you from working more. It prevents you from being underpaid.
Setting oneself up as a paragon of working-class American virtue does one thing only: it makes those who do feel better about themselves, morally superior, somehow. Your bosses will encourage you to feel good about yourself at the expense of others so they can ignore overtime pay rules. They’ll use your own smugness against you, denying you benefits and continuing to keep your wages low, while constantly sending you notes thanking you for your example. You won’t be any better off. You’ll just have a bunch of paper to throw out.
I’m actually quite tired of self-professed working-class heroes who go around flaunting their alleged virtue for all the world to see. Businesses exploiting a meaningless myth in order to drive wedges between and among workers keeps everyone down. And the heroes themselves? They get nothing. Their pay is still low. Their jobs are still as vulnerable as everyone else’s. They work without any real guarantees their benefits will be there for them. Solidarity isn’t just a word from 1980’s Poland; it’s a goal towards which all workers should strive in order to benefit everyone.
Just because your boss pats you on the back doesn’t mean that same boss won’t exploit your smugness for his or her own benefit. Just because you have all sorts of letters and notes thanking you for your service won’t save your pension when the company decides to save money around the time you decide to retire. Being a working-class hero benefits no one. Not even you.
So get over yourself and start thinking of your fellow workers. We are all in this together. Even if not everyone knows it.