Mike Rowe’s Dirty Job

Mike Rowe wants Americans to get interested in blue-collar jobs, but for all the wrong reasons.

Arthur Rothstein / US Farm Security Administration

Dirty Jobs is a television show in which host Mike Rowe visits and profiles people across the United States who do dangerous and overlooked work. Roadkill removers. Sewer inspectors. Those who dive into filthy water to scavenge for golf balls.

But it’s not just for kicks, Rowe insists. After several seasons, the host has become inspired enough to take his economic message beyond cable.

Through the mikeroweWORKS foundation, allying with companies like Caterpillar, he provides scholarships for people interested in training for skilled trades — not just to promote his brand, but to advise the poorly paid and unemployed. Corporate sponsorship notwithstanding, it appears to come from the heart. Rowe admires workers who don’t just get paid well but derive genuine happiness from creating something, fixing something, or doing the work others think is beneath them.

In interviews and in his brand Profoundly Disconnected, Rowe asserts that Americans have been taught that the proper path to a good job and a good life is through education, with the punishment for doing otherwise a future of grueling, unrewarding physical labor. Welders, electricians, and other blue-collar workers have been so stigmatized that people otherwise inclined to join these professions are instead aimlessly looking at classifieds or stringing together unfulfilling office jobs while paying off mountains of student debt.

There’s certainly a kernel of truth here: For those without degrees or job training, the American economy provides few options other than low-paying service sector jobs or soul-crushing clerical work with middling benefits. The twin scourges of deunionization and slack labor markets have left many workers with little pay or workplace power.

But Rowe isn’t concerned with the actions of business leaders, or government officials, or broader economic forces. To him the problem is the American worker herself, who is either indolent or unwilling to take the gross, dirty, hazardous jobs that are available. It is not policy that needs reforming, but people. Rather than shifts in global capitalism and the decay of the welfare state, the lack of well-paying jobs stems from the devaluation of hard, physical labor.

Rowe’s ire also extends to the regulatory state, especially the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The government has hindered job growth, he says, by forcing employers to put safety before production. Instead, he believes in a “safety third” system that lionizes the virtue of hard, often dangerous, work.

Perhaps Rowe would like to explain his “safety third” idea to the family of Adam Weise, one of the eleven incinerated on the BP Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico; or the relatives of Steven Harrah, one of the twenty-nine miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia; or Joseph Graffagnino, one of two New York City firefighters who fatally asphyxiated in the infamous Deutsch Bank building fire across from the World Trade Center. Each joined a long list of workers treated as disposable, the victims of lethal accidents in worksites where safety was an afterthought. If Rowe cared more about them, he’d support the unionization that improves workplace safety — both through standard-raising contracts and the enforcement of OSHA regulations.

Nor is Rowe incensed by the policies that actively keep new workers out of blue-collar jobs and reduce the pay of existing workers. His show could have easily interviewed life-long electrical workers on strike at Verizon, who saw their benefits slashed even though their company boasted whopping profits, or publicized how machinists had to do the same at Boeing, whose revenues are underwritten by tax breaks, defense contracts, and the Export-Import Bank.

Did he go in outrage to Tennessee, where dedicated former workers are struggling to make ends meet after profitable companies like Philips moved production to Mexico? Civil rights activists lobbied and litigated for years to end the rigged testing at the New York City Fire Department that not only reserved these coveted-but-dangerous jobs for whites, but for the children of incumbents. Rowe is either ignorant or unwilling to acknowledge this. He doesn’t decry the attacks on public sector unions, either, despite the fact that their membership includes the sanitation workers he often lauds.

“It would seem irresponsible to encourage your child to take up some of those jobs if it’s not clear that there’s a future there,” as economist Heather Boushey says. “You’ve spent decades decimating this industry so it’s not surprising people aren’t that excited about it.”

In the short-term, the alternative is obvious: we have to redirect funds toward building infrastructure, such as new public housing, alternative energy, high-speed rail, all things that benefit ordinary people and create jobs for the unemployed, as well as rebuilds the public sector which over the decades lifted blue-collar workers into material comfort.

But instead of this simple solution, Rowe idealizes freelancer, a kind of samurai without a master, compelled by nothing but his own desire to work. He glosses over the reality of contractors, who often lack health and retirement benefits. And yet, Rowe isn’t calling for more autonomy, but for the working class to stop thinking of themselves as humans and start thinking of themselves as commodities. He encourages craftsmen to travel to where the work is — for example, in the new drilling fields of North Dakota — as if everyone is able to simply pack up and move at a moment’s notice. The message here is that we must sacrifice our health, our families, and our agency in order to make a living.

In one particularly venomous Facebook exchange, Rowe took to task a detractor who complained about corporate welfare, characterizing the complaint as blame-shifting and wimpy. Reminiscent of the “I am the 53 percent” media campaign, it’s a convenient attack on anyone who wants to make demands on either the state or corporations.

It also allows Rowe to have it both ways. He can be a champion of the working class, forgotten and besmirched, and still exculpate the guilty parties: capitalists and their political allies. He can praise those who take grimy work, while lambasting the supposedly lazy ones who won’t. But at its core, the cultural critique Rowe offers only provides cover for the continued exploitation of workers.