Terms: Blue Collar and Working Class

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The term “blue collar” dates to 19th century Europe, where manual laborers in industrial settings often wore blue-colored shirts and overalls. There was a practical reason for the color choice; blue clothing is good at hiding dirt, thus it continues to be a popular color for workers even today. Back then, the color contrasted with the white shirts worn by office workers and shopkeepers.

In the United States, with the decline of manufacturing on the East Coast and Midwest, the term blue collar has increasingly become synonymous with Southern white, low-wage workers, especially by the media. But if you live in a “blue collar” neighborhood anywhere in the country, it usually means folks who don’t make a lot of money, regardless of their occupation.

The term has fallen out of favor, especially in academia, in favor of “working class.” Working class is generally a broader term that includes not only manual laborers but also low-paying workers in the service and retail industries. It has a formal history with socialist movements and the work of Karl Marx, who viewed history and the development of capitalism through the lens of conflict between the high and low social classes.

Thus the two terms are not quite similar, but describe similar communities. But I suspect that most people with blue collar backgrounds use the older term to describe themselves rather than the newer one. As the son of a gardener, I still think of my background and old neighborhood as blue collar.

And personally, I’m also not too keen on the new term, working class; it seems divisive, as if implying that everything else isn’t doing “real” work. If you’ve ever known someone in a white-collar situation work themselves nearly to death on weekends and the middle of the night to get a project completed, I think you’ll realize they’re hard workers too.

But since it’s now the most widely used term, and describes the broadest community, working class is the term we’ll generally work with on this site. But I still have an affiliation and affection for “blue collar,” thus it’s in the URL (and DNA) of this site. Whatever the term, the group spans the nation and includes over half of the U.S. population. Professor Michael Zweig calls this group “The Working Class Majority.”

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