American workers are feeling it right now. Fueled by dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions and empowered by a labor shortage, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August alone. Thousands are out on picket lines. Strikebreakers, meanwhile, are struggling. John Deere’s slapstick attempt to replace striking factory workers with salaried staff ended remarkably like The Office’s episode of the same conceit, with wrecked machinery and an increased appreciation for factory work.
Add to the fray Mike Rowe, who has made his career celebrating a particular idea of the working class. The former Dirty Jobs host is back on television this fall with How America Works, a Fox Business affair halfway through its 10-episode first season. Like his earlier shows, Rowe says his newest project profiles the kind of labor that “makes civilized life possible for the rest of us.” While How America Works reprises Rowe’s favorite themes of grime, danger, and masculinity, the new show is notable for two reasons: It focuses specifically on “infrastructure” and “essential industries” at a time when the words are political flash points, and it represents the culmination of Mike Rowe’s decade-long turn to populist conservative.
We start on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island with Papac Alaska Logging. No longer hosting on-camera, Rowe narrates the sawing, bucking, trucking, and barging necessary to pull logs from the remote temperate rain forest. As in most reality shows depicting blue-collar work, educating viewers takes a back seat to dramatic narratives about deadlines that always feel contrived. But it’s interesting to watch these people at work, especially when all the dull parts are edited out. The skill of the workers and difficulty of their jobs in the first six episodes—from truckers to trapeze artists to roller-coaster technicians—is on full display. But How America Works’s real interest is in industries, not the working conditions of the people who make those industries possible. “If oil is the lifeblood of our country,” Rowe says in episode 1, “and steel is the bones, then wood would be, I don’t know, the muscles, the tendons? Anyway, it’s important.”
What about the actual blood, bones, and tendons of the workers? The closest we get is a few lines from logger Joey Linderborg, who casually mentions multiple skull fractures and broken ribs. His salary, health insurance, or any job-site safety training he received are never addressed. And what will happen to Linderborg when he’s not able to high-step fallen timber for 12 hours a day? Is he being trained to pivot to something his body can take? And what about the public infrastructure—health and childcare, social security, public roads and ports—that the industry relies on? Questions like these have always been outside of Rowe’s purview—and pointedly so.
If the timing for a show about infrastructure feels political, it is. Democrats are trying to pass a trillion-dollar public works package, the debates around which have often devolved into arguments about the definition of the term infrastructure. It’s clear which camp How America Works falls into. Rowe recently told Maria Bartiromo that the show’s goal was to remind Americans of “what infrastructure really is.” Six episodes in, that includes lumber, oil, waste, electricity, fish, and, somewhat oddly, entertainment. While no one would argue with the inclusion of landfills and the Hoover Dam as critical infrastructure, many of the episodes, like one on the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino (owned by Trump Hotels business partner Phil Ruffin), read as pro-business propaganda. Add in the episode’s repeated references to “mandates,” but never the coronavirus itself, and you get messaging that’s perfectly in step with the network that airs it.
Rowe has been peddling similar labor politics since Dirty Jobs first aired in 2004. Along with fellow Discovery hit American Chopper, Dirty Jobs helped launch the blue-collar reality TV phenomenon of the 2010s. (Logging, trucking, and commercial fishing—my old line of work—are evergreen favorites.) For eight years, as knockoffs proliferated on cable, Rowe crisscrossed the country profiling sewer workers, coal miners, roadkill collectors, chicken sexers, and other jobs that would film well. To the show’s credit, the occasional conservation worker assigned to clean up the mess of extractive industries was featured, too. But the workers profiled on Dirty Jobs were overwhelmingly white and male, embodying the mythical Joe Sixpack. While such people do exist, the type of dirty and hazardous labor performed by immigrant workers rarely appeared on Dirty Jobs. Care work, which is also dirty and dangerous, and relegated mostly to women, was practically nonexistent onscreen. And service work, now dominant for the American working class, certainly doesn’t fit in Rowe’s picture.
Despite the politics betrayed by these omissions, Rowe played his Dirty Jobs role pretty straight. Flash points like unions and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rarely came up. Animosity between worker and boss was limited to a few dumb jokes. Rowe’s only allegiance was ostensibly to “the shovel”—his outdated synecdoche for labor—and for some middle-class viewers, it probably did achieve its purported goal of dignifying undesirable jobs. As a teenager, I used to watch Dirty Jobs with my dad, who labored in factories and on construction sites. What made the show entertaining to blue-collar folks like him was Rowe’s bumbling persona. Watching his ham-handed attempts to complete even the most basic tasks seemed to vindicate workers and refute the Republican con that “unskilled labor” deserves low pay, though Rowe now uses that same lie in arguments against the minimum wage.
By the time the show was canceled, in 2012, Rowe was a trusted voice in American entertainment. But two weeks after the show’s final episode, he surprised fans by appearing onstage with Mitt Romney at a campaign event in Ohio. Maybe sensing a misstep, Rowe explained that he’d been invited to chat with the candidate about his economic ideas, and only after he arrived (and apparently wandered onto the stage) did he realize it was a campaign event. More conservative alliances followed, as did more Mr. Magoo-like explanations on Rowe’s blog. Each time he takes up with a polarizing figure—like, say, by auctioning off a Donald Trump bathrobe before the 2016 election, or recording a talk for Prager U—he reiterates that he’s actually nonpartisan. He’ll work with anybody to help make work cool again, even if their ideologies actively harm the people Rowe claims to support.
In 2013, Rowe cozied up with Charles Koch on the MikeRoweWORKS foundation, an organization Rowe founded to invigorate interest in the trades and close the skills gap that received so much attention during the recession. Rowe’s scholarship program seems to have been genuinely good for many of the 1,200 recipients, and teaching teens to think critically about the impacts of student debt is a fine cause. The other ideological goals, however, are suspect. For example, the skills gap that Rowe has been discussing ad nauseam since 2009 is largely a myth. While pandemic recovery has created some pent-up demand for trade workers, the United States doesn’t usually have a shortage of tradespeople; it just doesn’t usually have a glut of nonunionized tradespeople to suppress wages, as is the case in retail or higher education. It’s no wonder, then, that Koch has an interest in Rowe’s foundation, as it works toward the same end-goal as the Koch Brothers’ 50-year war on unions.
Rowe’s own thoughts on unions are tough to suss out. He’s been in several, including SAG-AFTRA, and has maintained on his blog that he’s not anti-union; but at the same time, he’s written that, “as a believer in the individual, I will always support a person’s right to make the best deal he can in his/her industry.… Let the larger law of supply and demand sort it out.” (Separately, he has stated that he resented being forced to join unions in the past.) While Rowe’s always used circumlocution to skirt controversy, his comments line up with the logic behind right-to-work laws—a favored right-wing anti-union measure. And nowhere is Rowe’s fealty to business owners more apparent than in the bonkers SWEAT Pledge, a cub scout–esque certificate curriculum that makes workplace submissiveness feel contractual. (Its name is an acronym for “Skill and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo.”) Among the tenets of the pledge: Workers should be grateful to be Americans, “There is no such thing as a ‘bad job,’” their safety at work is no one else’s responsibility, and other libertarian talking points that amount to Suck it up, buttercup.
In recent years, Rowe’s podcasting and social media presence has situated him somewhere between lifestyle guru and culture warrior—like Joe Rogan without the drugs or Jordan Peterson with a few friends down at the mill. The same schtick is now evident with How America Works, only Rowe’s effort is buoyed by the Fox media machine. Take episode 5, on fracking for oil in Northwestern Pennsylvania. While the episode betrays a conservative slant, the real ideological work happens in the content surrounding it on Fox. On the day it ran, Fox Business interviewed the owners of the same oil company featured by Rowe with the headline, “Pennsylvania oil and gas driller warns they ‘won’t survive’ as Biden takes aim at industry.” That was linked alongside a preview of the episode and a separate clip of Rowe arguing with Biden’s decision to halt the Keystone Pipeline, putting oil workers out of a job despite the fact that Americans still needed petroleum for their “yoga pants” and “the plastic on the keyboard that allows people to type their angry letters to me.”
Rowe has also filmed a Dirty Jobs reboot for Discovery, expected to launch sometime in the coming months. One wonders how he will portray American labor in its current, volatile state. Conservatives have been hard at work trying to convince the public that lazy millennials and Democratic handouts and lockdowns are hurting our economy, and Rowe’s bootstraps messaging would fit right in.
Ultimately, Rowe became a blue-collar mascot because media consumers were given so few options. Pop culture is still short on working-class representation. As flawed as Dirty Jobs was, it was the most representation that labor had on TV through the deindustrialization and growing social inequality of the late Bush, early Obama years. Sitcoms had pivoted to salaried office work, and medical dramas rarely made room for custodians or low-level care workers. Rowe saw a gap, and he filled it. I remember watching the early seasons of Dirty Jobs unaware of the sneaky conservatism, and feeling proud of the kind of work my family did, that they were as watchable as football players or newscasters. Years later, when I told people I worked in the fishing industry, they’d often respond with excited references to shows narrated by Rowe. While the representations weren’t usually accurate, it still felt good to know that people were interested in the work I did. A more diverse cast of workers deserves that recognition, but exposure without support is ultimately just voyeurism. In Rowe’s case, it might be something worse, actively promoting a picture of work that’s at odds with workers’ real interests.