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When Class Disappears

American liberals, even American radicals, have more in common with the Reagan right than they do with us. All of them, the whole bunch, are middle-class, Emersonian individualists. Emerson, Thoreau, all of these guys are scabs. Lane Kirkland is outside the American consensus in a way that even Abbie Hoffman never was.

—Thomas Geoghegan, Which Side Are You On?

Let Them Eat Pizza

It’s a Thursday afternoon in May 1996, nearly 10 months into the Detroit newspaper strike. The city’s downtown, where the offices of the Detroit News and Free Press are located, is a dead zone of boarded-up skyscrapers, vacant lots, and empty, litter-strewn streets. Down in the shadows in front of the Detroit News building, underneath the wall on which an inscription proclaims the paper an “Unrelenting foe of privilege and corruption,” members of the six unions on strike against the newspapers are joined by union workers from across the city, assorted city councilmen, and a smattering of religious figures to sing “Solidarity Forever” and watch as this week’s volunteers block the entrance to the News’s internal parking lot, undergo ritual removal by a squad of Detroit police, and get hauled off to jail. In the bright sunshine on the roof of the News building 30 feet above, professional strikebreakers from the Vance International security company look on. Were it not for their black uniforms, the thick-necked, sunglassed, and short-haired Vance guards could be actors from a beer commercial. They’re certainly jolly enough: For them, the union doings appear to be rich comic spectacle. They smirk and joke. They chew gum in uncanny synchronization, their powerful jaws moving up and down in unison. And although one of them occasionally lifts a video camera to capture the moment for company lawyers, they’re mainly here to provide a living tableau of public indifference.

It’s not a coincidence that the most important labor struggle of the mid-Nineties is taking place in the information industry, and specifically within the smiling newspaper empires of Knight-Ridder, publisher of the Free Press, and Gannett, genius producer of both the News and USA Today. Labor is becoming invisible here, and the strikers know it. Most of them are Detroit lifers; many are second- and third-generation newspaper workers, with strong feelings about journalists’ blue-collar social position. Talking with them below the photos of newspapermen past in the Anchor bar or at the offices of their pugnacious strike paper, the Detroit Sunday Journal, one begins to suspect that they might be the last of the hardened, rooted, class-conscious species of journalists that defined American literature for most of the 20th century; that the strike has, among its many other effects, served rather efficiently to weed people of exactly this type out of the journalistic workforce. Within a week after the strike began, Gannett and Knight-Ridder management had replaced them with an army of footloose gannettoids, interchangeable information workers who can be flown into any city on a moment’s notice. While the scabs’ city reporting (and, naturally, labor reporting) leaves a bit to be desired, they have had few problems cranking out the lifestyle features that draw the gaze of suburban readers. In the glazed world the info-conglomerates are building for their readers, the old newspaper workers serve about as much purpose as the buildings that once stood in the vacant lots across the street from the News offices. Class is disappearing from both the journalistic workplace and the public culture of this most class-conscious city.

In February 1997, the strikers made an offer to return to work unconditionally (at press time, only a handful have been taken back) and newspapers around the country have quickly decided that the time is finally right to cover the Detroit newspaper strike. When it comes, though, their reporting is wrapped in a mythological package so uniform and so smugly confident of the direction in which civilization is heading that it reminds me of the black-clad Vance guards on the roof of the News building, filming and chewing. Hear the new breed of journalists confront the big questions: What is labor? Why, labor is a relic of the deluded Thirties. What are strikes? Why, strikes are sad.

The Chicago Tribune’s version, which appeared on page one on February 24, is positively at war with the idea of causality. It introduced its readers to the subject not by discussing the issues at stake but with a soft-focus enumeration of “the often-overlooked wounds when labor and management can’t agree.” There was a certain “complexity of emotions” brewing in Detroit, the Tribune reported, including “bitterness,” “anguish,” and an occasional bright patch of understanding (of strikers for scabs, naturally). The Strikes Are Sad theme permitted the Tribune writer all sorts of personal-relationship metaphors. “Friendships have been broken,” he noted. He likened the struggle to “a troubled marriage, where both spouses have said too many damaging things to simply forgive.” He quotes a striker who says that “people have become like enemies.” The article concluded with these statements of random cosmic misfortune: “It’s a real tragedy,” and “Why did it have to happen here?”

Since the Detroit newspaper strike was just a bit of bad luck for both sides, neither the means by which management forced its employees to the wall nor the immediate issues that precipitated the walkout back in the summer of 1995 are important enough to merit more than one sentence in the Tribune’s accounting. Other facts have to go unremarked altogether: For instance, that Gannett is a notoriously anti-union employer regardless of what city they’re in; that newspaper management has often boasted about what the strike has allowed them to accomplish; that Detroit civic leaders, including the mayor and the archbishop, have been outspoken on the side of labor in this dispute; and that the whole thing was only made possible by one of those legislative gifts that the federal government has been showering on media conglomerates for the last 10 years (in this case the “Newspaper Preservation Act,” which was interpreted in 1989 in such a manner as to permit a joint operating agreement, or federally sanctioned monopoly, between the two competing papers). So sanitized is this species of labor reporting that when the Tribune writer finally decided to flex his head and do some analysis, the best he was able to come up with was that favorite of indeterminacy fans everywhere, a series of “contradictions” (one of the Detroit papers was pro-labor before the strike; though the strike is supposed to be over, it really isn’t), none of which are even marginally confusing to anyone who’s followed the story.

“Unions are obsolete / Strikes are sad” is the industry standard.

The Tribune’s desire to deny the Detroit events’ larger significance is almost palpable—and it’s an especially interesting maneuver given the Trib’s own union-busting past. But the Tribune is hardly the inventor of this kind of journalism. Check out the Reader’s Digest rendering of the Detroit story, a nasty bit of moralizing that concentrates almost exclusively on the damage strikers did to cars and windows in the happy Detroit suburb where the newspapers are printed. Even though it’s openly hostile to the strikers, the Reader’s Digest concludes its coverage by summoning up sentiments identical to those in the Tribune article (although here they come from the mouth of a manager, not a striker): “anguish,” broken friendships, and regret over the strikers’ mulish refusal to stop “living in the past.” To describe labor conflicts as personal and unhappy but fundamentally without causes that outsiders can understand is simply the way we think about the subject these days. “Unions are obsolete/Strikes are sad” is the industry standard, like “Eternal China” and the curious notion that the Balkan peoples have been at war basically forever.

The strike-as-heartbreak narrative is so meaningful to culture-industry management that it has already become a centerpiece myth in the great showplace of consensus: advertising. “Strike Break” (no kidding, that was really its title), a Pizza Hut commercial from a few years ago, presents the now-orthodox vision of organized labor so concisely and realistically that, were it not for its more-conspicuous-than-usual product placement, the ad could easily be substituted for TV news strike coverage. The scene: Anyconflict, U.S.A. Outside the plant, striking blue-collar exotics wave signs and hubbub noisily. Up in their offices, beleaguered managers, like the concerned parents of a runaway teenager, wait for the workers to come to their senses. “I thought we were friends,” one executive moans. Not to worry, sir! By having a Pizza Hut delivery truck intervene with a cache of hot pies for his disgruntled employees out on the picket line, he is able to salvage the situation. Everyone knows how going on strike can build up a real hunger, right? And sure enough, the workers drop their flimsy “On Strike” signs in a rush for the pizzas, then look up gratefully to the benevolent corporate provider in the window above. Who needs negotiations, contracts, or unions themselves when friendship, the glue that really holds industry together, can be reaffirmed at the cost of a few pizzas?

The labor movement may be waking up from its Cold War coma, but in terms of the nation’s official myths, it might just as well have gone on sleeping forever. In the millennial dreaming of the businessman’s republic, labor’s critique, with all its intimations about social class and workplace democracy, no longer makes sense. For contemporary American media-makers, complacent with an almost unprecedented world-historical self-assurance, the market is the only appropriate matrix for understanding human affairs. Business is life; management is government; markets are democracy; entrepreneurs are artists. And the more directly these principles are stated the better. Using a style only slightly less propagandistic than the official art of Stalinist Russia, serious journalists join with TV commercials to lead us in worship of the great executives. It is speculators, mutual-fund managers, and Federal Express, we are told, who create wealth, and the business pages teem with tales of wise blue-collar investors who have accepted the market for the universal-prosperity machine that it is and transferred their faith from union to broker. Fast Company, a magazine that, to the great acclaim of advertising industry pundits everywhere, has successfully merged rock ’n’ roll hip with managerial efficiency, offers up a manifesto baldly equating office work with society and announces that “corporations have become the dominant institution of our times, occupying the position of the church of the Middle Ages and the nation-state of the past two centuries.” Jerry Maguire understands human relationships as questions of more or less honest salesmanship; French advertising executive Jean-Marie Dru writes that “people perceive countries as they do brands.” Is this a great time or what?

As market-worship becomes the monotheme of official economic commentary, class disappears. Yes, individuals might suffer some species of discrimination in the workplace, but labor’s more universal claims against management will not be part of the settlement. The objective facts can be recited easily enough: The New York Times once regularly ran meaningful labor reporting, as did business publications like Fortune; neither bothers today. Most daily newspapers once had writers or editors who worked the labor beat; almost none do now. As late as the 1960s, newspapers could assume that the issues and specialized language that were part of labor coverage were familiar to readers, that people knew why unions existed and what they did, that unions were a normal part of working life, and that, worst of all, readers had some personal interest in the fate of workers elsewhere. Now writers routinely address whatever labor questions they think it appropriate to raise in the specialized language of investment authorities (How will this affect the company’s dividends? Its share prices?) or by passing them by altogether with the condescending usual: Unions are obsolete, strikes are sad.

You can see the consensus of forgetting even in odd places such as the New York Times’ March 12, 1997 story on Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, which framed her career as a Horatio Alger tale of hard work paying off but overlooked entirely her opinions on the issues facing workers. Or in the ordinarily canny Michael Lewis’s bizarre declaration in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine that “hostility to the market” is a form of elitism and that “only two classes of citizens” still exist that are “antimarket snob[s]”: artists and aristocrats. Or in the patently bizarre explanation given by the CEO of an Ohio-based manufacturing concern for why his company had moved so many jobs to a low-wage, union-hostile Southern state: “Unionism is going down because corporations have changed their views,” he told the New York Times. “We empower our people now.” Or in Swing magazine’s inventory of the pet causes of a dozen or so politically engaged Generation-X pop music and TV stars: Four go out for voter registration; two have made a stand for both animal rights and the environment; the homeless and freedom of speech turn the well-coiffed heads of one apiece; and the magazine even finds a star who has made that selfless commitment to “leadership training.” It finds none are interested in workplace anything, even in foreign countries.

Labor unions continue to exist, of course. When one considers the millions of workers unions represent, the millions more who would like to be represented by them, and the vast millions in whose interests they act, it’s easy to conclude simply that contemporary journalists are doing their jobs poorly. In fact, they’re only doing them ideologically, and according to the great archetypes of our time, they’re doing them correctly. Business has captured the high ground of normalcy; unions only make sense as a troublemaking special interest. The troubles and battles of working people only sound through to us as meaningless pulses from a distant universe, as personal grudge-matches between those too stupid or too resentful to get aboard the incredibly liberating and fulfilling pleasure-train of information capitalism. They inhabit, in Tom Geoghegan’s accurate phrase, an “anti-world. The black, sulfurous, White Sox anti-world. The South Side. The secret world of organized labor.”

Let Them Eat Lifestyle

It’s not that Americans deny the existence of social conflict. In fact, we’ve got our hands full these days, and with a most exciting battle: a full-on “culture war,” a pitched struggle for lifestyle liberation from the dark forces of dance-floor prohibition and church-herding authoritarianism. We’ve got commentators who are ready to paint the entire history of the century in terms of our glorious, irresistible progress toward full enjoyment of lifestyle, with only a few brief interruptions in the unhappy Thirties and Cold War Fifties. We’ve got an entire academic pedagogy devoted to the notion that symbolic dissent—imagining, say, that the secret police don’t want us to go to the disco, but that we’re doing it anyway—is as real and as meaningful, or, better yet, more real and more meaningful than the humdrum business of organizing and movement-building. We’ve got a whole phalanx of cultural critics who are ready to declare victory for the lifestyle left, to describe the defeat of Bob Dole as a great victory in the war against stodginess. But most importantly, we’ve got an enormous segment of corporate America that has declared its “radicalism” and is busily inventing all sorts of colorful new products that will free us from mass society.

It’s this last point that’s most important. The culture war is a contest largely fought out between square corporate ideologues and hip corporate ideologues. According to legend, labor proved its unfriendliness to the lifestyle cause back in the Sixties and removed itself treasonably from the struggle to found irony nation. The result, 30 years later, is that our serious cultural conversation looks a lot like our daily newspaper strike coverage: Labor is just not in the picture; the culture war never leaves the confines of the free-market faith. Its more far-sighted partisans, like Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, have given up the pretense altogether, correctly understanding the cozy cultural combat of recent years as little more than the victory dance of American capitalism. Where the business order goes, the culture war follows. Like the fight between Coke and Pepsi, the culture war is the American Way, extending its noisy battles over whatever local concerns are this year’s target of the new global order and transforming dissent into yet another prerogative of affluence.

The tradeoff between lifestyle and labor has been so direct that it’s hard to imagine that these two features of contemporary American life—one triumphant, one in total eclipse—aren’t connected in some cosmic fashion. It’s as though the revolutionary legacy of the Sixties somehow effaced the revolutionary legacy of the Thirties; as though workers had to be put back in their place so that rebel lifestylers could take their pleasure properly; as though urban deindustrialization had to happen so the rest of us could enjoy our authentic-proletarian conversion lofts in peace.

We’re all in the company union now, our needs for social justice served without having to go outside the system.

The culture wars have also helped to make plausible the otherwise bizarre fantasy common in contemporary management theory: that information-age capitalism has made moot what the Victorians gently called “the social question.” Ad-man Dru suggests that by means of “disruption”—his dramatic term for strategic attacks on social convention—lifestyle marketers have permanently replaced the extra-corporate left altogether. For Dru audacity is more than just the quality we admire in such figures as Martin Luther King, George Bernard Shaw, and Robert Kennedy—it’s the secret to brand success. Dru blithely presents a catalog of successfully disruptive brands that says more about the decline of the labor left than a dozen PBS specials about Rush Limbaugh: “The great brands of this end of the century are those that have succeeded in conveying their vision by questioning certain conventions, whether it’s Apple’s humanist vision, which reverses the relationship between people and machines; Benetton’s libertarian vision, which overthrows communication conventions; Microsoft’s progressive vision, which topples bureaucratic barriers; or Virgin’s anticonformist vision, which rebels against the powers that be.” The Body Shop owns compassion, Nike spirituality, Pepsi and MTV youthful rebellion. We used to have movements for change; now we have products.

Before the practice was outlawed by the Wagner Act in 1935, manufacturers commonly set up in-house pseudo-unions that made great displays of addressing workers’ concerns while allowing management to avoid the costly concessions that a real union would demand. While the Republicans’ best efforts have proved insufficient to revive the company union (the “Team Act,” which would have done so, was vetoed by President Clinton in 1996), the principle has been successfully extended to society as a whole: We’re all in the company union now, our needs for social justice served without having to go outside the system. Lifestyle capitalism comes complete with its own social justice and its own “revolution.”

In the Thirties, the steel industry promulgated what it called “the Mohawk Valley Formula” to discredit and suppress organizing efforts. A PR campaign of the old school, the scheme combined a barrage of anti-union propaganda (emphasizing words like “agitators” and “law and order”) with fantasies of “Citizens Committees” and loyal, prosperity-minded workers, and an overwhelming display of private police power. Today’s equivalent might be called, in honor of Nike, the Beaverton Formula: First, move your tennis-shoe manufacturing operation to the union-free and largely invisible Third World, where you can enjoy maximum “flexibility” and pay your compliant menials starvation wages courtesy of the most barbaric of all possible regimes. Second, hire the hippest of all possible advertising agencies to fetishize your products as tools of “empowerment” and “revolution” and thus make them appealing to exactly those Americans whose world has been shattered by the departure of operations like yours to the union-free South and Third World. Third (optional), build mini-museums to your seamless, self-feeding marketing vision, equating your company with human civilization generally; enjoy the plaudits of that greatest culture warrior of them all, Advertising Age, which recognizes you as “marketer of the year,” the brand that no longer needs to speak its name.


page9-01Let Them Eat Pepper Gas

How different is all this from the days when the Tribune covered labor by screaming for the execution of the Haymarket defendants? We suspect it’s still true, as John L. Lewis said at the start of the great organizing drive of the 1930s, that shooting people down in the streets is no longer a permissible response to union efforts. But lesser gradations of coercion are certainly still acceptable, and while calling for blood might not allow the makers of national opinion to feel as noble as they’d like, the implications of their kinder, gentler understanding of work are substantially the same as they were 100 years ago: Unions fly in the face of everything that is modern; strikes are inexplicable and tragic. The global-market ideology may gleam with the promise of new technology, but otherwise its smugness about the direction of history is as ancient as the great American fortunes. The differences between the ideologies of culture baron and robber baron lie mainly in the identity of history’s guarantor: technology rather than the Great Chain of Being; chaotic excellence rather than moral order; fractals rather than human nature.

Meanwhile, the classic labor reporting of people like Mary Heaton Vorse, John Reed, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, James Agee, and Ruth McKenney seems more distant than ever. Technically excellent though we might recognize their work to be, we have trouble appreciating the infinitely less sexy culture war in which they campaigned. Classical labor reporting was beautiful modernist stuff: It sought to blend the bluntest, ugliest facts of all with the most infectious of human aspirations, to derive the transcendent from the mundane, distill the noble from the base. For today’s culture warriors, the faith in the written word held by the classic labor writers must seem a little ingenuous, if not downright embarrassing. And although it is closer to us chronologically than the mow-’em-down writing of the 1880s, classic labor reporting seems to us, like unions themselves, a thing of the naive, unimaginably distant past. Books like the U.S.A. trilogy, Industrial Valley, or The American Jitters lack the ironic cushioning that contemporary audiences are said to demand. Nor do the republican universalism or the moral certainty of an even earlier generation of labor writers seem possible anymore: For us the millennial phrases of Ignatius Donnelly and John Swinton or the fire-breathing second generation abolitionism of the Populists might as well come from another planet.

Photo by Daymon J. Hartley

But it’s useful to turn the equation around, to look in these works for a key to the absences and silences that have made the culture wars of our own time so curiously weightless and consequence-free. If this nation of rebels ever comes around to actually confronting its owners, labor reporting in the classical style is something we will certainly see again. Certain assumptions of the social reporting of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties are worth noting as both sources of the genre’s meaning and tendencies forbidden by the pseudo-warring camps of the information consensus.

Classic labor writing is grounded in an acute awareness of history, of how things have got to their current state, and of how people benefit or suffer from the deeds of their ancestors. It’s no coincidence that the only good writing on labor being done today is historical. To cover a long-running strike is to encounter a similar attitude instantly. Even at a time when the market is said to have abolished history and turned us loose in a context-free universe, militant unionists are among this country’s last non-academics to retain a notion of pastness, of inheritance, and of cataclysmic historical rupture. Granted, the past they celebrate is often understood romantically and sentimentally, but in the contemporary cultural climate, their insistence on memory is nothing short of radical.

While information-age orthodoxy insists that the world is becoming increasingly transparent and visible, the labor writing of the mid-20th century returns again and again to the theme of hidden history, of what Geoghegan calls a “secret world.” As smugness is the narrative principle of writing about the marketplace, so a feeling of grappling with invisibility animates writing about work and social class. The facts of working life are something we have to “discover” again and again, much as Americans “discovered” poverty in the early Sixties by reading Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Labor is the inscrutable fist thrust through the floor of the grand ballroom in the famous 19th-century cartoon; it’s the hideous and literally underground land of toil described by Donnelly in Caesar’s Column. Classic labor reporting is addressed to us almost as dispatches from a parallel universe, from a hidden America where rules of civility and democracy do not apply. Whether it’s John Reed describing events at Paterson or James Agee writing about the sharecropping South, labor reporters automatically assumed that their readers would have heard nothing or only the most distorted versions of events in those places. In a time when cinematic cynicism toward the government, the military, and authority generally is at a sort of all-time high, this aspect of classic labor writing can only become more and more appealing.

The power to change our lives is a role we reserve exclusively for business.

As a rule, advertising, the highest form of information-age cultural production, intentionally avoids discussing where products come from. In a time in which, we are told, style and image transcend all—both for corporate marketers and ourselves as consumers—essays like Edmund Wilson’s long description of the brutal facts of automobile production in “Detroit Motors” come across as nothing short of revelation. For a writer in the 1990s to produce such a piece—insisting upon the inherently local, inherently material facts of work in an age when the only journalistic game in town is to wax blissful about how the cyber-universe is eclipsing the analog world— would be almost willfully contrary.

Most important, though, is the notion of human agency. Classic labor writing clings almost obsessively to the possibility of transformation, the feeling that the conditions that determine people’s lives are things we can control. This is the feature that made the genre so powerful, and also the feature most noticeably absent from contemporary reporting on the subject. Although the ideology of the culture trust insists that these are the most democratic times of all (since there’s entertainment available now for every conceivable demographic), we seem to have lost altogether the sense of democratic possibility that animates unionism. Even those who are sympathetic to the victims of downsizing (and, hey, who isn’t?) understand workers as victims, not as historical actors capable of reversing the whole thing. Things that happen to us are accidental; things that happen in the economy as a whole are inevitable. Wages are stagnating even while the economy grows? Well … the market works in mysterious ways. Economics is something we complain about; the power to change our lives is a role we reserve exclusively for business. Louis Adamic entitled his 1931 history of class conflict in the United States Dynamite; a contemporary treatment of the subject would be called Tears.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in October 1994. The workers at A. E. Staley, a corn-processing plant in Decatur, Illinois, have been locked out of their jobs for over a year by their employer, a teamwork- and theory-touting multinational conglomerate. In the course of the year they’ve been joined on the picket lines by strikers from Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone, the town’s two other major industrial employers. The global economy has dropped the bomb on this once-complacent blue-collar city. But still I had been surprised when I was told all this by a friend in Springfield; I had seen nothing about it in the Chicago newspapers besides the standard tragedy tales. The issues in Decatur are as compelling as they can possibly be: Workers at all three plants are in danger of losing the eight-hour day, the reform upon which the American labor movement was founded, and with it any hope of leading a normal life outside of work. And the situation is also maddening: Without help from above, the rank-and-file Staley workers have mounted a campaign marked by innovation, careful planning, and even genius, but their international union has made no secret about its reluctance to support them. Nor has Secretary of Labor Robert Reich raised a finger to help them win their fight. Wanting to save only their jobs, they have taken on two powerful enemies at once. Staley has locked them out and sends pepper-gas-spraying goons after them when they protest before the plant; union hierarchs, threatened by the specter of rank-and-file activism, want no more to do with them than their employer. Two years later, their struggle having ended in defeat, many of the Staley workers will accuse their international of undermining their campaign and engineering their capitulation.

But in late 1994 the battle for visibility is at its height, with billboards proclaiming Decatur a “war zone” appearing on major highways and locked-out Staley workers touring the country as “road warriors” to spread the word about their experiences. On this Saturday afternoon, 15,000 union workers from around the country have arrived for a march through Decatur in the hopes that by sheer numbers they can reclaim this city, give this struggle a prominence that is impossible to ignore.

Before heading back to Chicago, we stop for dinner at a Decatur Denny’s, whose only other clientele is a gaggle of drunken Decatur high schoolers wearing whimsical hats. When the Denny’s manager, an efficient fiftyish fellow in clip-on tie and name tag, hustles out to clean our table or to tell us why Denny’s can’t cook a hamburger rare, he is the object of some hilarity at the kids’ table. They pelt his back with fries as he hurries here and there.

This is sordid, depressing stuff. But there are important qualitative differences between his predicament and that of the Staley workers. He inhabits a clean orange world free of labor struggles, union halls, and pepper-gassing by cops. But it’s also a world free of history and meaning, free of the kind of the energy and friendship we had seen in the streets of Decatur that day, and, most importantly, free of the sense that the city was something you had made, that the future was a question you were answering. Do we want to be a postindustrial country? Do we want to entrust our lives to the whims of the market? Once, these were things we would have decided for ourselves; sitting alone at Denny’s reading USA Today, they are none of our business.