Sep 5, 2022

Blue Collar, White Collar, We’ll Take The Seventh Collar

Some Labor Day Thoughts

By Ed Goldman

I’ve always thought of freelance artists—writers, painters, composers, sculptors—as being more blue- than white-collar workers.

Granted, we’re not assembly-line workers, mechanics or gardeners. But we’re certainly not executives. We generally don’t delegate the work we do. 

Edgy Cartoon

Formalism Defined

Now, I can see why artist Diego Rivera’s supervising a group of students as they executed one of his monumental frescoes might seem to be an exception—that he’s working as a chief executive muralist, not as a staffer—but relatively few creatives get into the position of being a hands-off artist (or if you prefer, a hand-off artist, as in, hand it off to someone else).

Actors and orchestra musicians serve the material they’re handed and led through by the director or conductor of what they’re performing. I imagine the directors and conductors could be seen as the white-collar workers in these circumstances but they’re usually very engaged in creating the product, not sending it to a lab and simply reacting to what gets put together by the gang in R&D.

My dad was a blue-collar guy for his first career: two decades as a New York City firefighter. In his second career, as a claims adjuster for the Bekins Van Lines moving company in Southern California, he was a reluctant white-collar guy, wearing a dress shirt and squirming under a necktie he was constantly loosening. This caused one of the company’s district bosses, visiting my dad’s office, to issue a memo about the “unprofessionalism” of a loosened tie (in an office that no customers ever came to, it should be noted; so who was supposed to be impressed by the staff’s professionalism?). Even so, my dad, who grew up in the Depression and fully understood the divide between management and labor, tightened his tie back into a chokehold. At least until the district boss left the building. This is where the expression about someone “leading a life of quiet desperation” could have originated—or would have if Henry David Thoreau hadn’t coined it in the 1860s, declaring, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (If you’re feeling especially playful, you can turn this around to become “Desperate men spend their lives leading Masses.” But enough about the beleaguered Catholic clergy.)

According to the website Robin Hood—which I’d never heard of until I embarked on this quixotic quest I frequently call Today’s Column—”The terms ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ first appeared in the early 20th century to describe workers based on the color of the shirts they wore.

“Blue-collar jobs are those that involve manual labor, like construction or assembly-line workers. They often have lower earning potential and fewer education requirements, though that’s not always the case. White-collar roles are traditionally desk jobs, like attorneys or secretaries. Highly educated office workers fall into the category of white collar, but so do less-educated and lower-paid employees that also work in offices.”

—Okay, this wasn’t especially helpful. What can you expect from a website named for a disgruntled landowner-turned-bandit? Besides, should we be getting garb-color judgments from a guy like Robin Hood, who dressed in forest-green leggings and accessorized them with a feathered hat? 

Perhaps there should be another segment of labor called rainbow-collar. Discuss when fully woke.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).