My father was a machinist at a steel factory for 29 years. A white male who wore a hard hat to work, carried his lunch in a pail and washed his dark blue uniform at the end of every day, the metallic and earthy smell lingering in the laundry room. He was America’s hero, part of the brawny working class who soldered, heaved and secured America’s industrial might in the world, earning the pride and respect of our nation.
That working class is dead, Detroit’s bankruptcy providing a blunt symbol of its demise. My father died just a few short months after America’s motor city metaphorically did the same. By the time I arrived at his bedside, his care was focused on keeping him comfortable. Around the clock, I watched as a fleet of health care professionals tended to my dad in his final days. There was the nursing assistant who delicately changed his bandages, the four young men responsible for moving him from one bed to another and the respiratory therapist who helped keep his breathing stable.
The people who surrounded our family in those last days represent the new working class – one that doesn’t make things, but rather serves people. Unlike my father’s working class, today’s home health workers, janitors, retail salespeople and fast-food clerks are more female and more racially diverse — and they mostly work without the support or protection of a union.