04/29/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Preserving the 'Working Class' Identity

At times, it seems like American culture works methodically to erase working-class experiences, workplace relations and stories of worker organization from popular memory. In the 1970s, the writer Paul Cowan discovered this tendency in a particularly poignant way. After reading about the heroic 1912 Lawrence textile strike, Cowan set out to track down Camella Teoli, who, as a 14-year-old textile worker had become one of the most famous participants in the historic "bread and roses" strike. Camella became a cause célèbre in 1912 when she recounted to a congressional investigating committee how a power loom had caught hold of her hair and partially scalped her and almost took her life. Her testimony made headlines around the country, elicited sympathy for her fellow strikers, and helped them win their demands. When Cowan looked for her 60 years later, he discovered that she had recently died but that her daughter still lived in Lawrence. When Cowan finally met Camella's daughter, she was surprised to discover that her mother had been a striker in 1912 and that she had once testified before Congress. She didn't know the story behind that bald spot that her mother had always carefully fixed her hair to cover for all those years. Cowan was depressed to discover how much of the memory of the historic 1912 struggle was lost between generations.

It isn't difficult to imagine why Camella Teoli didn't talk much about her past with her daughter. Memories of poverty, humiliation, conflict and discrimination that workers like Camella so often carried with them were sometimes too painful to recount. Talking about her association with the radical Industrial Workers of the World might have proven embarrassing in the years after the IWW was repressed for its radicalism by the U.S. government. And, like many working-class parents, Camella might have tried to shield her children from the harsh experiences of her life even as she struggled to make a better life for them.

Understandable personal decisions like these made by generations of workers, many of whom were marginalized by their immigrant status, become all the more significant in a broader culture that systematically functions to obscure the realities of social class. Many Americans don't like to acknowledge the existence of a working class. While politicians of all stripes celebrate the "great American middle class," even union allies tend to shy away from using the term "working class," preferring instead references to "working families." To even mention class risks being accused of waging "class war."

In such an environment, the preservation of working class identity and labor culture requires conscious, intentional effort. Pete Seeger, whom we lost to old age earlier this year, certainly understood this. For more than seven decades, the bard of American folk music worked to preserve in melody the voices and experiences of everyday people, their struggles and triumphs, their dreams and defeats -- most of all their humanity. Thankfully Pete's lifelong mission lives on. As the films and performances of this year's D.C. Labor FilmFest and the new D.C. LaborFest will show, many are dancing along in their own way in Pete's footsteps. In image, word, song and story they are keeping alive a democratic spirit woven deeply into working lives being lived all around us even now. To paraphrase Pete, this art has a hammer.


McCartin is an expert on U.S. labor, social and political history. A professor at Georgetown University's History Department, he directs Georgetown's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; his most recent book is "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America." This essay was written for the program book for the 2014 D.C. LaborFest, a month-long celebration of labor arts and culture during the month of May, anchored by the 14th annual D.C. LaborFest. Details and complete schedule at