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A liberated laborer describes American labor

September 29, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

In addition to many recommended books that I "just must" read, I get books in the mail that are expected to be read promptly.

Some really do turn out to be good. One recent surprise by mail was "Deer Hunting With Jesus," which, at first glance, appeared to be a joke. Author Joe Bageant is a colorful writer and had a very plausible explanation. In rural Virginia, where hunting was as common as breathing, hunters carried "Devotions For Deer Hunters" along with their guns, to read in the silence of the woods.

While this is a very personal account of how working class people live from day to day in the region around Winchester, Va., there is much that could also apply elsewhere in the United States.

Bageant, to certify his own labor credentials is coarse and more than generous in the use of four letter words. He is also irreverent about the work of fundamentalist preachers and their power over the lives of those less educated persons.

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Returning to Winchester, after an absence of over 30 years, gives Bageant a chance to take note of changes in working class conditions over that period. He reports that living conditions are worse then before. "Here, nearly everyone over 50 has serious health problems, credit ratings rarely top 500, and alcohol, Jesus and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape."

NASCAR races, television and country music are added later. Maybe Joe is given to overstatement, over-generalizations and stereotyping - but this depends on one's point of view.

According to Bageant, the working class residing in that area of Virginia is staunchly conservative politically, tending to vote Republican. They also are anti-union and oppose progressive legislation. Religiously they prefer the Pentecostal and radical Baptist churches that emphasize literalism and end of world prophecy.

The economy of the region has been hurt by large layoffs. One of the big employers of labor was Rubbermaid, which experienced huge reductions in its labor force because of the continuous pressure from a superstore to reduce the cost of products made by Rubbermaid. Eventually, Rubbermaid refused to reduce costs and the store opted for another supplier. Rubbermaid closed down many of its plants and reduced the labor force in those that remained open.

Author Bageant spends considerable time in a formerly friendly diner, the Royal Lunch, where he chats with old friends and can interview any promising source of news. They continue to be wary of liberals and are uncomfortable in the presence of intellectuals. Joe surely must sense that he is seen as a traitor to his class.

Joe's conversion to modernity was complete. He earned several degrees, became a writer and editor, uses big words and views fundamentalism as a source of "dumbing down" the education of working-class children. Why he came back to quiz and psychoanalyze the regional labor force must be a mystery when it is remembered that those who experience upward mobility may not remember who was left behind.

Bageant attributes the traits of self-reliance and independence favored by the working class there to their Scots-Irish origins. They were born to continuous border warfare between the English and their ancestors.

While in Ireland they were treated as unwelcomed squatters. In America they were fierce antagonists toward the native-Americans who regarded all of them as intruders. Small wonder, then, that struggles with management were part of the ongoing will to survive.

When globalism is added to the usual difficulties faced by the laboring class, the prospects of the future carry concern. Many are victims of circumstances beyond their control as well as habits and values residing in their social environment.

We have all been witness to the effects of economic trends which leave working class people in most undesirable situations.

Employees have been pressured into buying company stock even though management was well aware that the stock was becoming worthless.

Some employees have watched their life savings in company retirement plans end in default.

Outsourcing to cheaper labor in third-world countries is becoming customary. The list goes on, making it unlikely that labor will see better days. Joe Bageant's book may not be a "must" on the reader's list but it is a reminder that we owe proper respect to those who do the hard and dirty work that must be done.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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