Not long ago, one of the best things you could ever say about someone was that he was a real blue-collar guy.
But the term has become stigmatized in the year since Donald Trump was elected president.
As laudable as the blue-collar way is, the working class has lately become more closely associated with racism and extreme nationalism, especially in a year of tiki-torch marches and build-that-wall rallies.
“We’re in a moment of change about the phrase ‘blue collar,’” said Temple University sociologist Judith Levine, an expert on poverty.
Certainly, there remains a great deal of pride and dignity connected to being blue collar, defined as a person who doesn’t have a college degree and who works in a manual-labor job.
For example, it’s a high compliment to call a professional athlete blue collar, regardless of how many millions he makes. Such a person is known for working hard, getting his uniform dirty, being devoid of affectation, never styling after hitting the home run.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is often celebrated for that sort of mindset, the kind of team-first player who hands off the ball in a reverse, then lowers his shoulder to block defenders. “He’s a blue-collar guy with an incredible work ethic and passion,” his coach, Doug Pederson, once said.
What greater benediction could there be, especially in this city?
Philadelphia is the home of large, tribe-like neighborhoods of people with rough hands gripping lunch pails.
Within the city, U.S. Census figures show that around 29 percent of people 25 and older have a college degree or higher, meaning that more than two-thirds of Philadelphia could be considered blue collar. By comparison, more than 31 percent of all Americans in the same age group hold degrees of B.A. or higher.
That means there’s a rich, shared heritage among strength-from-struggle Philadelphians.
“A blue-collar guy goes to work every day not so much for self-benefit, but to do what work needs to be done,” said Chris Lai, 39, a Philadelphia police officer assigned to South Philadelphia who lives in Mt. Airy with his wife and two children. “He works harder to make things better for others he works with, and people respect him at his job.”
All true, said Renata Giansante, 24, a bartender at For Pete’s Sake, a popular gastropub in Queen Village.
“I’m blue collar, and I date a blue-collar guy, and he works his butt off, same as me,” Giansante said.
“I’ve worked since I was 13.”
As the lives of blue-collar workers have become less stable, Trump has given voice to that instability, remaining popular with blue-collar America because he’s adopted the tone of white working-class resentment. He uses the term to describe a fed-up person tormented by the status quo.
“God save us all,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Trump said at a campaign event, ‘I consider myself in a certain way to be a blue-collar worker.’”
What Trump taps into is a still-churning pool of anger stemming from blue-collar people being left behind when the economy switched from manufacturing to knowledge and service jobs starting in the 1970s.
“There was an honor to being in a blue-collar job when someone could work and buy a house, have a pension, live a secure life,” Levine said. “And now, with well-paying blue-collar jobs going or gone, there’s a threat to the dignity of the blue-collar guy.”
Once, coal miners were considered tough guys who risked their lives providing for their families. Now, so many are synonymous with idle men living in gray, dying towns.
But blue-collar people don’t tend to blame business leaders for allowing natural gas to surpass coal. And they don’t fault capitalism for off-shoring and automating jobs, said Matt Wray, a Temple sociologist who writes about white culture.
Instead, many denigrate immigrants and other groups for bringing on their failing predicament, Wray said.
“They’re blaming blacks, feminists, liberals, city folks, intellectuals,” he added. “They say affirmative action makes whites lose out. Or Asians are cutting the line.
“And Trump has mastered the rhetoric of their resentment, portraying whites as victims.”
To be sure, blue-collar people aren’t the only white people blaming other races in America, Wray said. And don’t forget that lots of educated, white-collar whites voted for Trump; the median income of a Trump voter was $76,000, he said.
It’s important to know that not all blue-collar people buy into Trump’s worldview, said Larry Kulp, 66, owner of Woodstown Music in Salem County, and a former foreman at a Maryland steel firm.
“To me, Trump doesn’t know anything about blue-collar people,” Kulp said. “I’m put off by his lack of civility, his willingness to say ‘It’s not your fault, it’s the other guy over there of another color.’ He uses certain aspects of blue-collar as a way to manipulate people.
“He’s done nothing for me.”
Donny Smith, 51, a salesman and president of the Mayfair Civic Association, believes that despite its fall from grace, the term “blue-collar guy” still has resonance.
“They’re the ones who get things done,” Smith said. “I can fix stuff in my house, in my car. You’re running out of people like that.”
And he said with a laugh:
“We have too many lawyers anyway.”