What the American Working Class Really Looks Like
What’s wrong with the white working class? They’re racists, for one thing, economically frustrated, and now channeling their frustration through the erratic megaphone of billionaire Donald Trump. At least that is the diagnosis of the liberal punditry, most of whom live a few economic strata north of the working class and are unlikely to know any genuine blue collar people other than the UPS delivery man.
The crowd that gathered for this year’s annual Labor Day picnic in Ft. Wayne offers an entirely different picture. First, it is not white. It is white, black, brown, and Asian, with an energetic sprinkling of recent immigrants—not all of them documented, as least not yet. The Ft. Wayne Workers’ Project embraces all with equal fervor in a way that confounds traditional trade unions. Employed people—postal workers, fast food employees, part-time teachers and technical workers—are welcome. But so are the unemployed and “anxiously employed.”
What unites them is not ideology; in fact, the crowd contained both Trump and Clinton supporters. What unites them is the notion of solidarity, of a community of people standing together to confront common problems, such as corporate domination of the public sector and the dwindling supply of jobs that pay a living wage. And one of the best ways to build solidarity across ethnic and cultural lines is by sharing food and good times. There’ll be plenty of other chances for confrontation and picket lines. For now, there’s beer and tacos and Burmese home cooking.
Rev. Isaac Fincher, who serves the community of 11 Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Wayne, says he wants people to know that unions are for all people and political affiliations. “The word is out that the union is just for Democrats only,” he says. “That’s the biggest lie. The union just want everybody to have a decent wage. We’re talking about a livable wage for everybody.”
Tyler Gardiner, an electrician who is volunteering for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1393 out of Indianapolis, blows up balloons to pass out to children. “We work in a profession that’s never going to be taken over by a robot or a computer, and you got to have people that are willing to show up for work every day,” Gardiner says. “Coming out here and handing balloons to kids, maybe they’ll see this is something they want to do.”
Gwen Brown retired from Magnavox, which makes military defense electronics, after 34 years with the company. “I love Bill Clinton,” Brown says. “But what he did with that NAFTA agreement, took all those jobs away. I was fortunate my husband nor I was never laid off. We need to bring these jobs back. My heart just goes out to the kids.”
Cody Vincent moved to Fort Wayne four months ago after losing his housing. “I’m trying to look for work, but that’s been hard being homeless,” he said. With the presidential election pending, he has hope for a brighter future. “Out of all of [the candidates], I think Trump would be the best.”
Crystal Pruitt says she’d like to clean homes if she could get hired to do so, but she has little experience, which causes roadblocks.
Richard Merren, who founded the Labor Day picnic in 1982, leads the partygoers in bingo. “There are two kinds of heroes in the United States,” Merren says. “Those that go and defend our liberties and those that made it possible for us to have an organization like this. Because you know we’ve got the 40-hour week, overtime, holidays, vacation. That wouldn’t come without unions.”
Lesley Quarles, who works in computer parts manufacturing, says he’s frustrated by his wage. “I can’t even buy one of the parts that I make,” he says. While at the Labor Day picnic, he registered to vote and says he felt inspired to run for office “because we don’t have enough people fighting for us. [The politicians] are all fake. They don’t care about us. I care about us because I am us. We need people like us to represent us.”
Mi Kyaiksoi Non, who moved to the United States from Myanmar seven years ago, shares vegetarian samosa-like food with picnic goer Loretta Childers. “We want to show our Burmese tradition of food,” Non says. Non, who works as an interpreter for the crime victim unit for Allen County, says she has been able to make a good living and to secure good educations for her children in Fort Wayne.
Roberto Sanchez says he helps register voters every presidential election year. He says, “I’m a volunteer for the Democrat Party, and I’m trying to register young voters, Latino voters for Hillary.”
Jose Luis Ojeda, who was born in Dallas, Texas, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1942. His parents, who had come from Mexico to do migrant work, found jobs there picking apples, sugar beets, and tomatoes, and never left. Ojeda, who worked as a machine operator for 32 years, volunteers for United Way as a union representative. “I’m a union person,” Ojeda says. “Union people volunteer. That’s what we’re here for: help the members and help the community.”
Judy Justice, a former school counselor and member of a teachers union for 19 years, kisses her two-year-old grandson Meridian Justice-Ketlehut. “The labor market is improving,” she says. “I think Obama has done a nice job. You’re seeing more people working, houses are going up and being sold, the economy seems to be doing better. In our family of five kids, everyone’s working.”
Barbara Ehrenreich is the founder of EHRP and author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America; Bait and Switch: On the (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream; Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America; and numerous other books.
Alyssa Schukar has been a visual journalist for ten years, five of which were spent at a newspaper in the Great Plains. Based in Chicago, her main focus is examining how our surroundings shape our communities and individual experiences. She also teaches photo and video journalism at Columbia College Chicago.
Co-published with Fusion.