Blue collars turn white

Baltimore Glimpses


MEMO to the New York Times:

In your recent coverage of Queen Elizabeth's visit to Baltimore, you referred to us as a "blue-collar town." The reference is unfortunate. It doesn't happen to be true (though it once was). Old reputations die hard, and with friends like the Times, Baltimore's reputation as a blue-collar city may take decades to die.

You are stuck in the 1950s. Those were the days when it seemed as if everybody in Highlandtown was "working down at the [Sparrows] Point." And at General Motors, Maryland Dry Dock and Continental Can. There were so many Baltimoreans working in these smokestack industries that their lifestyle gave Baltimore much of its tone. We were the city where people sat out on white steps, drinking National Boh, relaxing after they'd washed the "payment."

That may have been who we were. That is not who we are.

If you take simple arithmetic, you can see how the balance has shifted.

According to the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, which tracks such things, the Baltimore work force in 1989 was made up of about 321,000 men and women. That force broke down this way: 100,400 (31 percent) were in blue-collar jobs -- machine operators, truck drivers, material handlers, all kinds of factory-type laborers; 158,600 (49 percent) wore white collars -- professional, semi-professional, high-tech, service personnel, sales, administrative support. (The remaining 62,000 were in farming and other miscellaneous occupations.)

The fact is, then, that in the Baltimore of 1991 there are many more white-collar workers than blue. The fact is, Johns Hopkins University is now the largest employer in Baltimore.

Where then, Hon, did all the blue collars go? Many died. Too many others are out of work; many are drawing unemployment. Some, but not enough, are being retrained. Those so-called blue-collar communities have the highest unemployment rates in the entire region. Highlandtown bars where boilermakers are the No. 1 seller aren't doing the business they used to.

The winds of change are blowing through these old smokestacks, and you need not be a numbers person to feel it. What's more, the sons and daughters of those blue-collar workers are no longer replacing them in the assembly line; they are going to the community colleges and becoming dental technicians and lab assistants.

All of which takes us back to the New York Times and everybody else who still thinks of Baltimore as a Joe and Jane Six-Pack kind of town. We may still drink beer, but it's more likely to a yuppie foreign brand.

Or white wine.

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