This article is reprinted with permission from The Fragments Project.
I have a recurring fantasy that goes something like this:
I am eating breakfast at a diner in my hometown in Macomb County, Michigan, when I am approached by a journalist. This journalist is writing an article about political sentiment in blue collar swing districts, or something nebulous and overdone like that. He asks me for a quote and I respond by delivering an awful, Sorkin-esque monologue about how corporate greed shuttered our factories, how billionaires stole our wages, and how both parties consistently fail to meet the needs of the working class. Then, I tell him to fuck off. Everyone in the diner cheers as he slinks back into his rental car and drives away.
It’s not my proudest admission, but if your community became a national scapegoat every four years, then you would probably have cringeworthy daydreams about telling off reporters, too. For an embarrassingly long time, I based my opinion of Macomb on articles written by self-righteous liberals or faux-populist conservatives, both of whom made assumptions about the area that were objectively false but fit so well into the paradigm of “Middle America” that it would have been too inconvenient (or worse, nuanced) to disclose the truth. It wasn’t until I moved back to my hometown to work as a community organizer that I realized just how many of these accounts were cherrypicked and distorted by people who probably wouldn’t bat an eye if the entire Midwest slid off the face of the earth tomorrow. Pundits don’t care that the diverse, blue collar southern half of Macomb County voted decisively for Biden in 2020, or that the stereotypical Trump voter lives north of M-59, where the median household income is higher (sometimes much higher) than the state average. Those details only complicate the predominant narrative that the working class in the US is overwhelmingly white and conservative — a narrative that is cynically deployed by pundits and politicians in service of stomping out progressive ideas like a lit cigarette. After all, who can refute this random guy we interviewed at a Home Depot who thinks raising the minimum wage is a bad idea? Never mind the fact that he owns a chain of used car dealerships and drives a $45,000 truck — he’s working class because he smokes Newport menthols and wears flannel.
If there is anyone who is angrier about the media’s treatment of the working class than I am, it is probably Maximillian Alvarez, creator and host of the aptly-titled Working People, a podcast “by, for, and about the working class today.” (Disclosure: In These Times has a partnership with this podcast and syndicates its shows.)
I met Max at the University of Michigan when I was an undergrad and he was a PhD student. At the time, I was agitating against the University’s mistreatment of low-income students and my friend suggested we consult with him on strategy. The meeting went like this, more or less:
Us: “We want to yell at the administration.”
Him: “Sounds good, have fun.”
From that short encounter, a friendship was born. Since then, Max has invited me on his podcast three times, and even asked me to write a (tragically paywalled) article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the myth of meritocracy — a real test of faith considering I was in my early 20s and my political analysis was still very much a work in progress.
All of this is my way of saying that I am grateful to him for believing in me when my only real credential was my anger.
It is Saturday afternoon and Max, who also serves as Editor-in-Chief at the Real News Network, is taking a much-needed break from interviewing hog farmers who are battling CAFOs in rural Wisconsin. Over the next hour, within the glitchy confines of Zoom, the two of us unravel the nuances of working class life and the responsibilities of those who depict it.
“Everyone has a unique story,” Max begins. “Everyone has really interesting life experiences and thoughts to share.”
Working People debuted in 2018 with all of the forceful idealism of a project that fully understood its own significance. The premise was simple: Each episode would focus on a different person, profession, and life story. “Working class” would be loosely defined, challenging listeners to put their prejudices aside and construct their own definition of the term, ideally one that includes themselves. Over time, these humanizing conversations would forge the kind of solidarity necessary for a mass movement.
With all of the show’s righteous ambition, Max admits that the first few episodes were a bit heavy-handed.
“My introductions were like 20 minutes long,” he jokes, “because I was so idealistic and I really wanted to communicate to people: ‘This project is important and I want to tell you why!’”
As the show went on, Max learned to step back and let the stories speak for themselves. Now, three years after its inaugural episode, Working People has evolved into a beautiful examination of humanity and the persistence of dignity in some of the cruelest and most demeaning corners of a late-capitalist world.
“I had to kill myself on overtime to get close to $1300 or $1400 [every two weeks],” recounts Terrill Haigler, a former sanitation worker featured in Season 4, Episode 19. “When I say ‘kill myself,’ I mean an extra 40-45 hours. That’s an extra five hours a day.”
“There’s so much stigma against fast food workers,” says Burgerville employee and union organizer, Drew Edmonds, in Episode 29 of Season 2. “Every time there’s a minimum wage campaign it’s all about ‘well those fast food workers don’t deserve a raise.’”
“The work that we do is inherently isolating,” says Vanessa Bain, a full-time gig worker interviewed in Episode 10 of Season 3. “There is no real centralized workplace, and that’s something that benefits these companies, that we don’t get to talk to each other very often or ever in person.”
At times, the show can feel a lot like listening to a coworker vent, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. When I bussed tables, the only time I felt even remotely human was on my cigarette break, when the cooks and servers would gather near the dumpster behind the restaurant and exchange stories about shitty customers and bad tips. It was the only way to stay sane, entertaining your coworkers with an uproarious retelling of an experience that was, at the time, deeply humiliating and degrading. Similarly, when Max’s guests describe some of the more demoralizing aspects of their jobs, you can sometimes hear the animation in their voices. Though it may seem counterintuitive to anyone who hasn’t worked a service job before, complaining about — and finding humor in — poor working conditions can be the ultimate exercise of agency (next to forming a union, of course) for workers who feel limited in every other facet of their professional lives. In that way, Working People is kind of like the smoky breakroom of the podcasting world.
While the guests alone distinguish Working People from other left-wing podcasts, which typically (and often appropriately) bring in academics, journalists, and professional activists to elaborate on their subject matter, the show’s other discerning feature is its willingness to delve deep into the life stories of its interviewees as a necessary prerequisite to understanding their professions and political views. At its core, Working People is a podcast that cares about workers and values what they have to say. Unfortunately, those qualities make it an anomaly in the contemporary media landscape.
“The capitalist media has a fundamentally impossible job,” Max explains, “which is to convince an entire population that the levels of inequality and injustice that are features of the system we live in are natural and inevitable.”
Impossible as their job may be, that doesn’t stop them from trying. Media depictions of working class people as uneducated, lazy, or even downright cruel, all feed into the narrative that those on the bottommost rung of the economic ladder deserve to be there. Obscured by the illusion of a predetermined social hierarchy, economic inequality can persist without question.
“The media [reduces] the complex lives and humanity of working people,” Max explains, “into these reductive terms that comfort the comfortable and allow people to continue believing that we exist where we are because we want it, or our individual choices have put us there, or we’re too stupid…to want what’s good for us.”
One of my college professors, Dean Hubbs, referred to the media elite as the “narrating class” and the term has always stuck with me. Journalists in the US are, by and large, predominantly white, and most come from economically privileged backgrounds — but in spite of this, we still trust them to tell us who the working class are and what they need. Unsurprisingly, the media often takes advantage of our misplaced faith by framing the needs of the wealthy as good for — even desired by —working people.
Take, for instance, this Politico article from 2019, which speculates about the fate of working class jobs under a single payer health care system.
“If the health care system were actually restructured to eliminate private insurance, the way Medicare for All’s advocates ultimately envision it,” the article reads, “a lot of people with steady, good-paying jobs right now might find themselves out of work.”
Quotes from a steel mill worker’s daughter, paired with striking photos of the Pittsburgh skyline, really hammer home the feeling of blue collar desperation. Against the backdrop of a swing state, the whole thing reeks of the kind of pseudo-folksy grift that allows people like J.D. Vance to dress up a ruling class agenda in coveralls and call it Appalachian wisdom. Questionable intent aside, at least the author bothered to actually interview working class people, unlike a Forbes article from earlier this year, titled ‘Raising The Minimum Wage Hurts The Most Disadvantaged.’ Check out this bullshit:
“To understand why minimum wage hurts the most disadvantaged, you must imagine the person who is having trouble getting hired at a job paying $7 per hour or higher. They may not have had a job ever or have had one only in the past year. Their communication skills may not be adequate or they may not be fluent in the language. They may not have finished basic schooling. They may not have learned to follow instructions, show up on time, or diligently complete tasks they don’t like. It is difficult for the privileged to envision someone without adequate job skills, let alone hire them… Alas, because we can’t imagine working for minimum wage, we think everyone can easily earn more than minimum wage.”
Look at that weaponization of privilege discourse! Bravo, sir!
The media’s ongoing exclusion of working class voices makes articles like the one above seem perfectly reasonable. After all, if you, like the average Forbes reader, have spent a negligible amount of time interacting with working class people beyond those who are being paid to serve you, then how do you even begin to refute these characterizations? While this sort of bad faith punditry, which uses the working class as a Trojan horse for ruling class ideology, is something Max hopes to challenge with Working People, sticking it to the ghouls at the Wall Street Journal is far from the only political function of the show.
When Max first started interviewing workers, he did so with the goal of supporting a strong working class movement that is both rooted in and driven by a sense of shared humanity. I know the podcast-to-revolution pipeline is probably more of an ideal than a reality at this point, but in the death spiral of late capitalism, any medium that humanizes an exploited underclass makes the job of an organizer profoundly easier. Speaking from my own experience, community organizing is all about relationships, and in the absence of free food, the most effective way to convince someone to attend a meeting, sign a petition, vote a certain way, or join a union is to forge a genuine connection with them. As obvious as this may sound, you can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t already see as human, and media depictions of working class people that serve to justify inequality and champion the economic priorities of the elite are supremely dehumanizing. It is hard to empathize with your fellow workers when they are constantly portrayed by an out-of-touch third party source as reactionary, lazy, uneducated, and violent — and without that baseline empathy, there can be no solidarity. By allowing workers to share their stories on their own terms, Working People is actually helping to create the conditions for collective action.
“If we’re going to build the sort of political movement we need to build,” Max says, “then we’re never going to get there until we start to reconnect with one another on that human level.”
Throughout our interview, Max makes it abundantly clear that he does not, under any circumstances, want to speak for the working class. However, with so few working class voices in the media, he is frequently asked to do just that. In the last few minutes of our conversation, Max makes the case that more people need to step up and interview workers — I mean really interview them, not just pull a quote or a soundbite — so that their representation can be as far-reaching and authentic as possible.
“You should feel the absences of all of the people who I couldn’t talk to and you should go fill those absences,” Max implores his listeners.
When working people are not given space to tell their own stories, someone with a larger platform (and more money and power) will always step in to fill their silence. Sometimes that person is a venture capitalist from Ohio who parrots AEI talking points about individual responsibility and moral decay; sometimes it is a political leader who resents the progressive faction of their own party; and sometimes it is a business mogul and TV personality who will say anything to get elected. Too often, the people who claim to speak on behalf of the working class have something to gain from supplanting all of its nuance with a narrative that corroborates their own political views. Though not all of us have the platform to elevate the stories of working people, we do have the ability to listen to workers, to be in relationship with them, and to challenge questionable interpretations of who they are and what they need. For those of us who are on the ground organizing, these undertakings are not optional; in fact, they are essential to building the kind of coalition needed to create a kinder, more just world. If Max’s thesis holds, then the more time we spend listening to people’s stories, the more invested we will become in our shared humanity, which is the cornerstone of any successful working class movement.
“We are going to need to build that solidarity with one another,” Max says, “and the way we do that is by retraining ourselves to see one another as human beings, and as human beings, recognize that this world is unlivable and that we deserve so much better.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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