It’s sometimes said that the value of manufacturing work is exaggerated, and that we should just get used to the idea that most jobs are now in service industries — which is probably true. But unionized manufacturing work gave a sense of community and meaning that more atomized, more modern, more service-based work struggles to do. It doesn’t matter that many of those old jobs were boring, or brutally repetitive, or dangerous, or made workers sick — or, like coal mining, all of those things simultaneously. In the 1937 speech where Franklin D. Roosevelt called for “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” he stressed that “the overwhelming majority of our population earns its daily bread either in agriculture or in industry.” Hard manual work created tangible products, and that tangibility was part of what made the work seem meaningful. Miners and autoworkers, laborers in the clothing and electrical and transportation industries, had a social cohesion based on the fact that they worked and sweated and lived and suffered together, creating a tangible product that seemed to them imbued with national, even world-historical, significance. I won’t pretend that I wish I did that kind of work, but I envy the feeling of cohesion and solidarity shared by people who do.
The danger is that a class identity founded on collective labor is replaced by an identity founded on resentment, further destabilizing our politics.
John Lancaster, “On Money”, The New York Times Magazine (18 December 2016), 23.