How "Roseanne" reruns can make progressive activists more effective

Lately I've been watching the "Roseanne" show on TV Land, and just like when it first came on in 1989, it feels like home. From the afghan on the back of the old sofa to the concerns about layoffs, the Conners remind me of the blue collar family I grew up with.

As a nonprofit professional and activist, I spend much of my time around people from higher up the class ladder. I've met great people doing all kinds of important work. Along the way, though, I've sometimes heard things about blue collar workers - often in discussions about economic justice - that sound more like pity than "solidarity."

"We need to help people or they'll end up having to do [blue collar job]."
"How can you expect those people to care about doing a good job? That looks so boring."
"Sure, that new store will bring jobs to town, but who'd want those?"

It makes me wonder what they'd say about my dad the school custodian, my brother the forklift driver or my mom the "cleaning lady."

There's a difference between advocating for better pay, benefits and working conditions and turning your nose up at how people make a living. There's also a difference between promoting education and career options and pitying those who have blue collar jobs by choice or by need.

When progressives try to build alliances with working people, especially to get a bill passed or make change at the ballot box, those attitudes get in the way. For thirty years conservatives have been capitalizing on the perception that liberals are patronizing and out of touch.

"Roseanne" embodies the things I wish more progressives understood.

  • Blue collar folks typically value hard work, family and community - and loyalty.
  • Government assistance programs are important for those who are struggling, but ultimately most people just want decent jobs.
  • One route to those jobs is through unions. Support for unions varies tremendously among blue collar workers, but too often unions get left out of progressive political discussion. (One great episode has Roseanne telling off a politician over his plan to give big anti-union companies tax breaks and leave workers with "scab wages" and higher taxes.)
  • People can enjoy jobs that don't sound very exciting or challenging. Or they may dislike the job, but still take pride in their work.
  • For most people, work is just how you pay your bills, not how you find fulfillment. 
  • Jobs that might not seem desirable to ambitious white collar professionals can be gold for blue collar workers, like working for a utility company or the government (usually stable work) or getting a union job. And the trades have provided many workers with a solid living.
  • People may want their kids to have more options than they do, but that doesn't mean they're ashamed of where they are. And some may envy what money brings those who are better off, but they don't necessarily wish they had the same lives.
  • Workers may be frustrated with their job or financial situations, but they're not helpless or in need of rescuing. They understand their situations and have plenty to say about what would make their jobs and their lives better.

Let me put it this way. If the idea or message wouldn't fly at the Conner kitchen table, then it's time to rethink it. You want Roseanne Conner with you, not against you.

  1. gravatar

    # by Anonymous - February 12, 2011 at 10:15 PM

    Great post!