What Work Is

Joe Biden honors the dignity of the American workforce.

By Jo-Ann Mort

Democratic politicians give speeches to union audiences all the time. So what was different about the one that Joe Biden gave recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan? For Biden, not much. It was a typical Biden speech—about the economy and a shout-out to the essential workers in the audience made up mostly of meatpacking and grocery store workers from UFCW Local 876.

But, there was something more. Empathy. Insight. Biden possesses an empathy for blue-collar workers because he comes from a similar background. He is the first non-Ivy League or elite college graduate potentially to serve in the White House from either party since Jimmy Carter. Even the losing Democrats of recent years hailed from the elite halls of ivy, with former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of State John Kerry bringing a patrician whiff of duty to their personae.

How ridiculous and ironic that Donald Trump tried to humiliate Biden at that brawl of a first debate, or so Trump thought, by saying that Biden’s university record was less than excellent and proclaiming that Biden attended “Delaware State.” Actually, Biden graduated from the University of Delaware and then Syracuse University Law School. Biden isn’t embarrassed by this pedigree. He’s empowered by it. And, besides, as we all know, Trump purchased his own Ivy League degree, by paying someone to take his entry test and with a donation to the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania from his father.
This is from an earlier speech by Biden:

How could a guy who went to a state school be president?…[Y]ou close the door on me because you think I’m not good enough, guess what? …I’m going to bust down that door. My guess is that a lot of you feel the same way about a lot of slights you have had because of our ‘standing.’ I say it’s about time that a state school president sat in the Oval Office because you what know? If I’m sitting there, you’ll be sitting there too.

In many ways, Scranton, Pa., Biden’s childhood town, is a deindustrialized Midwestern city plopped at the edge of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. When Biden talks to workers about living on the financial edge, he knows from where he speaks.

“I see you because  I see the world from where I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A lot like Grand Rapids,” he said. “It’s filled with an awful lot of good people busting their neck every day [to] do the right thing for their families.”

The Grand Rapids speech, billed as an economic speech, was mostly Biden’s economic stump speech (“the largest single month increase in long-term unemployment since we started keeping records in 1948…”).  But it was also something more. There were tender mentions of what it means to feel like an invisible, under-appreciated worker. It’s these very workers who have been at play in recent elections, shifting between the Democratic and Republican columns. Many are the workers who resent an elite that has also been represented by those at the very top of the Democratic ticket as well as the Republican one, even if Democratic policies are friendlier to workers than a Republican plan.

I’ll never forget my own discomfort, as a former union staffer, when I sat in a large audience with textile and garment workers, listening to a speech by then-Senator Al Gore who was excoriating the audience members for their tobacco use. This didn’t go over very well in a group of workers, many from the South, whose economy was dependent on the shrinking tobacco market.

As important as Gore’s argument was, it was also tone deaf, evidenced by the silence in the hall where the senator and his staff had expected applause. I can’t imagine Biden making a similar mistake.

Sometimes empathy overrules policy. Put another way, policy doesn’t matter when the politician doesn’t have insight. It’s why populists of the left and the right can triumph, playing to emotion rather than to policies.

Biden is no flame thrower. We know that. But he has an ability to appeal to a blue-collar workforce because he knows in his gut what it means when one or both parents have to relocate for work, and what happens to the soul of a person when she loses her job. He tells this personal story:

My dad’s constant refrain after he lost a job in Scranton when there were was no more work and he had to move to Delaware. He moved away for a little over a year and came back every weekend to see us….He used to use this expression. He said, ‘Joey, a job’s about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community…’ It shaped my whole life.

These were his people growing up. Even when he served in the Senate, he was always one of the poorest members. For many years he commuted back and forth between his home in Wilmington and the Senate because he was a single parent. He gets the rhythm and tone of an audience filled with workers on the edge.

Families split apart like his was because one parent or partner has to seek work out of state. “[P]eople like the dedicated elementary school teacher from Lordstown, Ohio, whose husband, when Lordstown shut down, accepted a transfer to  Kentucky, eight hours away, each direction, in order to be able to keep his health care and his pension…” Biden, later in his speech, mentioned that this was a GM auto plant worker of which he was  speaking, but he really didn’t need to. The audience was composed of those who know once iconic auto factories by the names of the towns scattered through the Midwest: Lordstown, Youngstown, Highland Park. These factory towns were the markers of every aspect of their lives.

The work done in these mammoth factories provided self-worth to the workers on the line. And when the work dried up, if their kids didn’t join the military, they went to state universities and colleges, community colleges and vocational schools, all at the heart of Biden’s plan to make higher education affordable.

The former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, born in Detroit, worked in an auto plant to help support his education. He was the poetic troubadour of the American worker. In his poem “What Work Is,” Levine writes:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is…

Biden knows what work is.

The COVID pandemic has brought a lot of handclapping and namaste-style thank yous for the frontline workers who kept us, and keep us, fed and alive during this pandemic. It was Biden’s audience here, the members of the UFCW local, the “meatpacking and food processing plants, grocery store workers…”

There was something quietly stirring in Biden’s voice when he closed his remarks with a promise to them. He was speaking in a congressional district that had been voting Republican, to voters who felt dissed by a Democratic elite.

Let me close by saying this. I know a lot of people around here are tired of feeling overlooked and disrespected. I get that….I’m asked many times in recent years, how did we get to a place where people who stock our shelves, pack our food, teach our kids, like my family, take care of my wife, take care of our sick, who race into burning buildings and pick up the garbage off our streets, who did, how do we get to the place where you all think we don’t see you anymore or most importantly hear them [sic]? That has to change. I know it can. I come from those neighborhoods.

Biden’s  line—“how do we get to the place where you all think we don’t see you anymore or hear [you]….”  is a stunning—even haunting rebuke of his own party’s policies, as well as that of the opposition.

Jo-Ann Mort is a member of the Dissent magazine editorial board, and writes frequently about progressive issues, with an expertise in areas related to progressive Judaism and Israel. Her last article for Democracy was "What Work Is."

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