Labour of love

The Unmaking of the American Working Class

Reg Theriault <em>New Press, 211pp, £15.95</em>

Around the middle of the 20th century, when my father was working night and day to escape from the blue-collar working class, Reg Theriault decided to stay. His mother, a fruit-picker, pushed him towards college, but after flunking out of an engineering course, he settled briefly in English literature, only to return to "fruit tramping" and then a longshoreman's life. This decision passes without much comment, but there is never any doubt it was the right one.

There is plenty of pain and difficulty in Theriault's memories of life on the docks and in the fields of the American west. But there was also much pleasure, not least that of being on the move. Fruit-pickers, who could still recall their anarchist heritage, loved the tramping life. Longshoremen could, and perhaps still can, apply for a permit to spend a few months at another port. "For me it was a good feeling," he writes. "I'm leaving town, heading for a new place, new people, and a job is waiting for me when I get there."

Camaraderie was another attraction of the old-style, blue-collar workplace, a culture Theriault describes as a "gabfest". Talk goes on "constantly, and the conversation can cover just about every topic imaginable". Camaraderie often shades over into its harder-edged version - solidarity. When Theriault has to raise $2,000 overnight to bail out a son who has been arrested on a fruit tramps' picket line, old friends and fellow workers dig deep into their pockets, no questions asked.

With the talk came politics or, beyond that, a culture of egalitarianism and vigorous participation. Among the longshoremen, Theriault reports, "almost everyone, including most of the rank and file, were seriously caught up in politics, both in the union and the world outside". A few longshoremen, notably the long-time union president Harry Bridges, were Marxists. But most were simply doing what Marx had witnessed among 19th-century European industrial workers: imagining how their power in the workplace might some day be extended to the larger world.

In an indirect way, what made the old-style blue-collar jobs pleasurable also made them untenable from management's point of view. Workers who support each other, and who have a conscious history of class struggle, are in a strong position. By striking repeatedly over the years, the longshoremen had brought their average pay up to above $77,000 per year by 1998. Their rising pay helped inspire the squeezing of the longshoreman population with the introduction of containerised shipping. And on the farms, the introduction of tough-skinned tomatoes and other fruit de-skilled the work of picking and packing, which could then be left to machines and underpaid immigrants.

Theriault knows he is vulnerable to the charge of being nostalgic. "We are urged," he writes, "to get on the side of history and quit revering sweat." However, he insists, it was not history but "economic class warfare" that depopulated the docks. And anyway, what's wrong with a little nostalgia? After all, the recent past offered so much more to the blue-collar worker.

The Unmaking of the American Working Class does not extend to its "remaking", during the past two decades, to include short-order cooks, janitorial workers, hospital aides and floor clerks. These jobs are not inherently less dignified than the old forms of industrial labour, but their occupants have been pounded down to a level of servility that would appal a self-respecting longshoreman. The unions have been beaten back with the help of a $2bn-a-year, union-busting industry. Independent-minded individuals are routinely weeded out through pre-employment drug and personality testing. Mobility is discouraged. As for the workplace "gabfest" - a growing number of employers have instituted rules against "talking".

The new, post-industrial, working class could learn a great deal about pride, defiance and solidarity from the old working class. Theriault's wry, unsentimental reflections are an excellent place to start.

Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is Nickel and Dimed: undercover in low-wage USA (Granta)