Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


The Invisible Working Class


Blogger Bageant reveals the bleak prospects for Virginia’s working class, using Winchester as his laboratory. Why don’t elites care?


Besides apples, Winchester in the extreme north of the Old Dominion is known for producing eclectic personalities who make an impact. One was Harry F. Byrd, the orchard owner who turned state politics into a tightly-wound, one-party system. Another was Patsy Cline, the irrepressible bad girl whose powerful voice defined country music in the late 1950s.


Now there is Joe Bageant -- blogger, journalist and socialist-leaning gadfly. A Winchester native, Bageant grew up working class. His deer-hunting dad changed oil at a gas station. But Bageant was bored being home after the Navy during the Vietnam years. So, he set off on a decades-long, Timothy Leary-like hippie trip to the West, gaining a reputation as a writer and social observer with a Gonzo style similar to Hunter S. Thompson.


Years later, in 2001, Bageant and his third wife returned to apple country where he wrote extremely candid blog entries about characters in his home town. What he saw is deeply upsetting. The mostly white, working-class stiffs in the area had slipped badly in many ways – health care coverage, wages and personal debt – although they didn’t seem to realize it. They are fast becoming an indentured servant class, 21st Century-style, with no hope of advancement.


Bageant’s blogs caught on. “Someone called me up and offered me six figures to put this all in a book,” Bageant told me on the telephone. His effort, “Deer Hunting with Jesus, Dispatches From America’s Class War,” was recently published by Crown Publishers. I had seen the book at a store and was caught by the cover flap calling for progressives to understand “the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks.”


“Hot Damn!,” I thought, “What a real-world antidote to the Economics 4.0 mumbo jumbo I read in Bacons’ Rebellion, where the underclass doesn’t seem to exist.”


Indeed, many elite commentators on social issues certainly ignore working or poor folk. When urban-guru consultant James A. Crupi, for example, got $150,000 for a report on Richmond, he barely noted that about one-fourth of city residents live below the poverty line. Hardly any poor people were interviewed by Crupi, but the usual crowd of rich-o West Enders sure were.


Virginia’s elite is not alone in failing to see what the potent cocktail of managed care, NAFTA, CEO hubris and lots of other things has done to working people, who arguably have done more to make this nation a success than any other group. As Robert B. Reich, the labor secretary in the Clinton Administration, writes in his new book, “Supercapitalism,” the wealth gap in the U.S. is now at its widest part since 1929.


Meanwhile, the rich get richer. In 1968, the CEO of General Motors took home pay and benefits that were 66 times that of GM workers. By contrast, in 2005, the CEO of Wal-Mart earned 900 times to pay of the average employee, Reich notes. For the working class, it is death by a thousand slices of cuts in benefits and pay rates that actually backslide when inflation is factored in.


The fact that Bageant is a son of blue collar Winchester gives him credibility and the historic perspective to compare. “Things were not as bad in 1970,” Bageant told me. “A guy going to the lumber mill could buy a small house and have health insurance.”


Not any more. The security blanket started to unravel in the 1980s when corporate executives cut back on medical benefits to save money. Managed care came into its own with its ruthless billing systems that drove poorer folk in to bankruptcy. For proof, Bageant cites a 2005 Harvard study that found that 50 percent of all bankruptcies were wholly or in part the result of medical expenses. That’s a 2,200 percent increase since 1981.


The beauty of  Bageant’s book is that he puts human faces on forgotten people, albeit with a droll humor that regularly goes over-the-top. One of them is Dottie, a 59-year-old, 300-pound woman who regularly belts out Patsy Cline songs at a local karaoke bar. Dottie started working when she was 13 and married at 15. She had to stop working several years ago due to poor health.


He writes: “True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken. And she is slowly going blind to boot. Trouble is, insurance costs her as much as rent. Her old man makes $8 an hour washing cars at a dealership, and if everything goes just right they have about $55 a week left for groceries, gas and everything else.” When she applies for public assistance, the local social security workers deny her application, saying she’s able to work.


In example after example, Bageant finds more Dotties. Some are the workers at the local Rubbermaid plant, where Bageant once worked briefly in the 1960s. Rubbermaid used to be a highly-regarded firm that paid a fair wage. But buyouts and the global economy changed that, he writes.   Newell, Rubbermaid’s owner, almost shifted an expansion to Mexico a few years ago until local and state officials prevailed with baskets of corporate goodies.


Bageant writes: “Before NAFTA, we had a history of state leadership hiking its skirts and winking at any miserable Yankee sweatshop coming down the pike on its way toward Alabama or Mississippi or Latin America. So it was not too surprising in 2002 when Governor Mark Warner proudly proclaimed that Virginia had “Beat out Mexico,” in scoring 240 additional Rubbermaid jobs at the 900- employee Newell Rubbermaid Winchester plant.”


Bageant continues: “A Rubbermaid flak remarked on ‘Winchesterians’’ dependability and unquestionable work ethic otherwise known as anti-unionism and the willingness to take benefit cuts on the chin and keep grinning.”


“So Rubbermaid employees, in the true spirit of southern Protestant self-worthlessness, being ‘grateful for the blessings God bestows every day’ are grateful for Rubbermaid just being in town,” he writes.


Why is trashing the working class considered acceptable? Bageant believes that it is because of the intellectual conceits of today’s conservative chattering classes and their justifications for ending what they dub the “Welfare Society” (or the “Liberal Plantation,” if you read Bacons Rebellion).


Bageant explains: “We first started hearing about the average Joe needing to take complete responsibility for his condition in life, with no help from the government, during the seventies, when Cold War conservatives Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz dubbed themselves ‘neo-conservatives.’”


Abandoning its working class roots, the Democratic Party has become a party of elites in its own right. Democrats' lack of understanding – or even caring – means Republicans go unchallenged as they spin social theory after theory justifying why it is perfectly OK if the working class gets shafted by phenomena completely beyond their control, such as the global economy or managed care. Universal, government health care, mind you, is anathema. Don’t even bring it up.


To be sure, Bageant is too savvy an observer to simply blame ruling elites for everything. He bemoans that some in the white working class are simply too stupid to do much about their downward trend. As their circumstances deteriorate, they grasp fundamentalist religion, or, more incomprehensibly, George W. Bush. Their political discussions rarely get beyond a few code words. They have little economic savvy.


Some examples: Too many in the Winchester working class got suckered in the now-popped mortgage bubble. Plenty threw caution to the wind. Sleazeball brokers ignored their bad credit and sold them adjustable mortgages they now can’t afford. Many are just a pay check or two away from foreclosure. In one case, Bageant writes, a couple took out a too big mortgage for a too big house. Why? It was close to their favorite taco stand.


Bageant writes: “Nothing says high school – or junior-college educated and earning in the mid-thirties like a $16,000 GM Sierra in front of the one car-garage. Poorish with seven credit cards. And nothing says igner’nt and po’ like a house trailer with a $39,000 dual-wheelie HP GM classic version of the same damned GM Sierra parked in the drive.”


Mindful of zingers like that, I asked Bageant the obvious question. Are you like Thomas Wolfe in “You Can’t Go Home Again?” He laughed and said no, he’s been writing frankly about local folk on his blog for seven years. They are used to him now.


-- November 26, 2007

















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)