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The Uncertain Future Of The Working-Class

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The Uncertain Future Of The Working-Class

Hillary Clinton greets workers at Munster Steel in Hammond, Indiana, United States, April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

A best-selling sports book, The Boys in the Boat, describes the unlikely path of working-class blokes to gold-medal glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. There’s lots about rowing, but what struck this reader most was author Daniel James Brown’s account of the tough lot of laborers in the Northwest during the Great Depression.

This is a Seabiscuit story starring humans instead of a horse. What the University of Washington rowing team had in common with the unpromising small stallion was their status as rugged Westerners who, through grit and brutal work, bested the fancy athletes of the East.

These were men who worked all day and into the night with their hands. They farmed, mined, fished, logged. They lost fingers. They grew their own food with their hands and, for entertainment after dinner, used their hands to make music on guitars.

One heard echoes of Jack London’s youth as a “work beast” two generations before in Northern California. At age 13, the future novelist put in 18-hour days at a cannery. London never overcame his rage at having been forced into unremitting toil for dirt wages.

One of the boys in the boat was Joe Rantz, who, even as a champion rower, never got over his feeling of being “utterly disposable.” Rantz’s family moved away, telling the young teen not to join them. Rantz carried trays up and down hills to a cookhouse to put breakfast in his stomach.

The Depression was as depressing in Seattle as everywhere else. How did guys such as Rantz get through? A combination of resolve, work ethic and government programs. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, Rantz lucked into a job laying asphalt for the new Olympic Highway. He also found work on another federal project, the Grand Coulee Dam.

The hardships facing today’s distressed working class don’t hold a candle to the life-and-death struggles these men faced. Nowadays, working Americans have far higher expectations regarding quality of life. But men who work with their hands these days seem less hopeful.

There is nothing Donald Trump can do to stop the automation of factory work. And a sloppy renunciation of trade agreements would kill far more jobs than it would save, economists say.

The Boys in the Boat is, at bottom, a history about a sport. But the stories suggest at least two plausible ways to enhance economic security for blue-collar America. One, noted above, is a giant federal program to build and fix the infrastructure. Trump campaigned on that. Whether small-government conservatives so opposed to stimulus spending will let that happen remains to be seen.

The other follows the trajectory of George Pocock, the master builder of racing sculls. A product of the English working class, Pocock learned boat building from his father. The art of turning trees into sleek sculls didn’t require a university-type education, though in many ways, it took a far more advanced skill set.

Pocock derived enormous pride from his work. For him, the product was all, and he would not make more boats than he could make with perfection and beauty.

“No one will ask you how long it took to build,” he said. “They will only ask who built it.”

Mass-market sculls, as with other boats, have since moved to plastic. But there remains a cultlike devotion to the wooden works of boat-building art. As long as it lasts, there will be a need for the Pocock type of boatmaker.

Likewise, there remains a dedicated clientele for handmade furniture and guitars and sweaters. The labor going into these products must be paid for, and the laborers must be paid well. Skilled hands can do a lot more than tap at screens.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Hillary Clinton greets workers at Munster Steel in Hammond, Indiana, United States, April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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  1. carole.carey November 29, 2016

    After 5 years I abandoned my previous job and I never felt better in my life… I started working online, over a website I discovered on-line, for several hrs a day, and I profit now much more than i did on my old job… My last month paycheck was for Nine thousand bucks… Great thing about this job is that now i have more free time with my kids…

    1. Budjob November 29, 2016

      Carole,Could you please give me the website you are utilizing? Thank you.

  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth November 29, 2016

    We’ve become so comfortable in our lives here in the West that many of us have lost the ability to adapt and change course when faced with obstacles. If luddites and their philosophy had held sway over humanity, America and Europe would not have efficiently put technological advances to full use, nor would they have modified educational institutions to change curricula to meet the changing times brought on by more contact with peoples all over the world. More favorable environmental resources and cooler climates had contributed in the earlier years to more time for reflection, which contributed to bringing ideas conceived in the abstract to a reality in the physical realm.
    Unfortunately, we’ve picked up a lot of bad habits along the way, like contentment with self-gratification and a fast-food style of living, becoming more insular courtesy of a stifling conservatism—resulting in loss of ingenuity and initiative, settling for the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again, watching excessive amount of TV or using our mobile devices, and building up a mental inertia preventing many from wanting to learn new skills and adapt to new requirements.
    This is what plagues America and has caused a paralysis of will to take action, along with a profound dulling of a spiritual motivation to improved one’s mental outlook. Conservatism is uniquely qualified to exacerbate such paralysis, especially when applied to day-to-day social interactions with one’s environment and fellow human beings. Conservatism is a drag on the abilities of humans to adapt and change, and now has extended its paralyzing tentacles into the minds of average blue-collar workers and others, making its victims afraid of change and new experiences.

  3. yabbed November 29, 2016

    There are no manufacturing jobs coming back. We cannot make the $1 flashlights the Trump voters buy at the Dollar Store. We’re not going back into the manufacturing of textiles or electronics. Coal mining isn’t going to exist again. Robots make automobiles now, not union workers on the assembly line. Trump lied to you.

  4. RED November 29, 2016

    Uh say what? Is Froma suggesting that the solution to our problems is making hand made guitars and boats? Jeebus, I hope not, ’cause if that’s the extent of our media’s ability to think critically, especially the media of the left that are supposed to be critical thinkers, we are most certainly doomed!

    1. jmprint November 30, 2016

      Is critical thinker code word for “greedy bastards”?

  5. Mama Bear November 29, 2016

    I honestly feel sorry for the Trump followers who put their faith in him when he promised he would bring their factory/steel mill/coal mining jobs back…and of course when they heard that they also heard $25.00/hour plus great health care and a terrific pension…and somehow still expect to go to Walmart and buy a jacket for under $15.00.
    I do, I truly feel sorry for the way he preyed on their hopes, fears, and ignorance. I just wonder how they will react, what they will do when one by one those promises are broken, their government safety nets are torn apart, their Medicaid and Social Security is reduced, their cigarettes taxes gone thru the roof….what will they do then? That is actually more frightening to me than the fact that I am a Jewish female, my son a gay man and we are two of the “hated” class the Banonionites and Dukeites want to rid the country of.

    1. I Am Helpy November 29, 2016

      seriously, why feel sorry for bigots?

      1. Mama Bear November 30, 2016

        I have compassion, maybe an overabundance of it, but if I didn’t then I would be just like Trump or any other psychopath.

        1. jmprint November 30, 2016

          Exactly, and we cannot let them turn us into what they are.

  6. Jon November 29, 2016

    I have a friend who makes guitars. Very good top of the line guitars which sell for more than the average person is willing to pay for a guitar. While his guitars are beautiful works of art and sound and play as well any Fender or Gibson on the market and sell for less money than theirs of similar quality, the work is painstaking and demanding. He is an artist at his craft. I couldn’t do the quality of work he does if I had 100 years to do it. I doubt there are many others who can match or exceed his work or even produce a guitar that is half the quality of his guitars. Bottom Line: He isn’t going to get competition from many, if any, working class folks.

  7. johninPCFL November 30, 2016

    Missing from the Trump claims is the reality that automation and innovation are greater job killers that offshoring. Robots weld cars together now, paint them, and make many of the subassemblies bolted into them. Those semi-skilled jobs are not coming back, because they never left. They were extinguished.
    I have a friend on the east coast of Florida who owns a circuit-board assembly plant. His pricing is competitive with Chinese imports. His facility is heavily automated with automated assembly machines, conveyor transports, bare board auto-loaders, etc. His shop today produces three times what it did in 2000 with half the staff. He doesn’t hire unneeded personnel and doesn’t use unskilled people – those jobs were extinguished.
    Coal sales are down for the last several years because fracking made oil and gas cheaper than coal. Were there new regulations imposed when it was found that the Sago mine disaster was preceded by hundreds of safety violations the year before? No. How about when the Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed over 30 miners and it was found that Massey Energy had 1300 safety violations logged in the previous two years? No. Were new regulations imposed when the fly-ash ponds in North Carolina were dumped in the local rivers and streams? No. In short, new regulations haven’t killed the coal mining industry – cheaper energy from other sources has.
    Buggy whip making jobs disappeared with the advent of the automobile. They were extinguished.


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