Declining Political Clout Of U.S. Working Class
link to www.theguardian.com
The Guardian view
Class issues Opinion
Is this your image of the working class? You need to update it
No longer shuttered away in a factory, today's working class is interwoven into nearly every aspect of American society. But we don't really hear much about it
Wed 9 May 2018 06.00 EDT
Last modified on Wed 9 May 2018 09.27 EDT
'The declining political clout of the working class and the concomitant degradation of working-class living standards impacts all of us.' Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/EPA
My father was a steelworker, the epitome of the person you likely conjure up when you hear someone described as "working class". White, male, hard hat and lunch pail, steel-toed boots and a dark blue uniform he'd bring home at the end of every shift and promptly throw in the washing machine. The earthy, sweaty, and metallic smell lingered in the laundry room after he closed the lid.
He taught me how to play basketball, badminton and throw a decent baseball as well as how to fix a flat tire. Most importantly, he gave me the grit and resilience -and some might say, hard-headedness - to make my way from a blue-collar upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, to create a life and career in New York City. My dad was the last generation of working-class heroes - the men who soldered, heaved and secured America's industrial might in the world, and as a result earned the pride and respect of our nation.
But men like my dad no longer epitomize the working class today.
Put simply, the working class shifted from 'making stuff' to 'serving and caring for people'
As the manufacturing footprint in the working class has shrunk, so has the white male archetype that has historically defined the working class. Today's working class is more female and racially diverse - with whites comprising less than 60% of the working class, down from nearly 9 out of 10 in 1970. Similarly, two-thirds of working-class women are in the paid labor market, up from less than half in 1970.
Sign up for Guardian Today US edition: the day's must-reads sent directly to you
Put simply, the working class shifted from "making stuff" to "serving and caring for people" - a change that carried significant sociological baggage. The long-standing "others" in our society - women and people of color - became a much larger share of the non-college-educated workforce. And their marginalized status in our society carried over into the working class, facilitating the invisibility and devaluing of their work.
No longer shuttered away in a factory, today's working class is interwoven into nearly every aspect of our lives. It's the black woman in a caretaker's smock wearing special comfort shoes and a name tag above her heart. It's the white man in a uniform (which he had to pay for) who punches in each day and restocks the shelves of your favorite big-box giant. It's the Latina home healthcare aide who cares for your mom, the janitor who empties your office wastebasket, the woman who rings up your groceries, and the crew who fix the bumpy freeway you take every day to work.
Fast food workers join a nationwide protest for higher wages and union rights in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Yet despite how interwoven this new working class is in our lives, we don't really know or hear much about it. Its members' concerns don't shape the national agenda or top the headlines in major newspapers. Their stories aren't featured in sitcoms, dramas, or movies. Roseanne got a 21st century reboot, but no such luck for Good Times or Sanford and Son or Alice.
Today, disrespect is baked into working-class jobs in a capitalistic worldview that considers workers as merely costs to be minimized. And that cost-minimization plays out in the form of low pay, miserly benefits, unstable schedules and an overall withholding of dignity by society for their hard and important work.
The declining political clout of the working class and the concomitant degradation of working-class living standards impacts all of us, from pedigreed professional to warehouse worker. Why? Because the philosophy that allows employers to schedule their hourly workers week to week, with little advance notice, is the same philosophy that allows employers to expect their salaried workers to be "on" 24/7, responding to emails and taking conference calls that disrupt family and leisure time.
The policies that stripped away our factories are the same policies that are now yanking professional jobs out of the country. The political hostility toward people who are down on their luck and need help buying food is delivered by the same politicians who drastically cut higher-education funding.
Go fund yourself: crowdfunding is now an essential part of America's safety net
The three biggest threats to the professional middle class are the same culprits behind the degradation of the working class: deregulation, "trickle-down" economics, and antigovernment activism. These forces hit the working class first and hardest, but they inflict plenty of damage on the middle class too.
But forging a new working-class solidarity will require an end to an effective and damaging political strategy: evoking racial anxiety among whites to splinter the working class. From Bacon's Rebellion to Trump's Make America Great Again, conservatives have historically pitted struggling white Americans against enslaved and then working-class black Americans to gain political power so they can write the rules in a way that enriches the white and wealthy, and disadvantages struggling people of all races. It is truly a tale as old as time.
'I'm tired all the time': what the minimum wage feels like, seven days a week, no days off
But the new working class isn't sitting on the sidelines. From the Fight For $15 to the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter, movements of, by and for the working class are ascending and winning. In the 2016 elections, voters passed ballot measures raising the minimum wage in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. The Fight for $15 movement won a $15 minimum wage hike in California, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, SeaTac and Washington DC.
All told, what began as a scrappy band of fast food workers walking off their jobs in New York City in 2013 has won over $62bn in raises for 19 million workers, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The working class has had a boot on its neck for three decades. While it has borne the brunt of the assault on workers' rights, all of America has suffered as a result. That's why the concerns and aspirations of this new working class must be the starting point for rewriting our economic rules. That means putting the needs of America's wage earners—black, brown, white, immigrant, male and female—at the center of our politics, not invisible in the margins.
Tamara Draut is vice-president of policy and research at Demos and author of Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America's New Working Class
The New Working Class
It's not just men working factory jobs in the Rust Belt—and it never really was.
By Sarah Jaffe
February 22, 2018
More than a year into Donald Trump's presidency, political commentators continue, despite all evidence to the contrary, to depict his political base as the "white working class." Articles on his supporters seem almost entirely devoted to baseball-capped Middle Americans in declining industrial towns who believed the president's campaign-trail promises to bring back coal, or steel, or keep the Carrier plant jobs in the country.
There are problems with this image of the U.S. factory worker as he—and it is generally he—is depicted. First, in American factories, the workforce is far more diverse than the Rust Belt narrative would have it. The Carrier plant, site of Trump's triumphant deal that, in fact, resulted in hundreds of workers still being laid off, had at least as many African American workers as white, and there were plenty of women laboring there, too. More important, those industrial workers who supposedly put Trump in office (a dubious assumption) have never made up the entirety of the working class or even its majority. These days, only around 11 percent of the working class are white men in industrial jobs.
Although the "narrative makers" may have missed it, the working class has changed. Those who used to occupy its fringes—hotel housekeepers, retail clerks, and home care aides—are now its majority. Today, home health care is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, projected to add over a million new jobs to the economy in the next ten years. Retail jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, currently make up 10 percent of all employment.
These jobs have always been important, but as automation and outsourcing have decimated manufacturing, the relative significance of service work has increased. Manufacturing employment peaked in 1953, at around 30 percent of jobs; now it is the service industry that dominates. An earlier era of political thought dismissed these workers politically, and that thinking still holds in many quarters: In the Supreme Court's 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision, Justice Samuel Alito deemed home care workers only "partial" employees, a separate category of worker altogether.
Service workers have, of course, been in unions for many years. Their presence has in fact fueled what little growth unions have seen of late. But workers have also found effective ways to pursue their interests outside of the old union model. In one telling example, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. workers were able to force Andy Puzder, the unpopular former CEO of the two chains, who has faced allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, against his company as well as him personally, to withdraw his nomination for Secretary of Labor.
Those who used to occupy the fringes of the working class—hotel housekeepers, retail clerks, and home care aides—are now its majority.
This change in the composition of the workforce has the potential to redefine traditional alliances in the United States. Already, unconventional partnerships have formed across different groups: Walmart workers, restaurant workers, and domestic workers have organized and joined with community groups and movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives. These alliances also take into account the importance of unpredictable scheduling, social isolation, safety concerns, and gendered and racialized expectations of who is "naturally" inclined to service work.
One continuing political problem for the working class is that it remains difficult to measure it properly. Most estimates rely on flawed data. As Tamara Draut noted in her book Sleeping Giant, political surveys rarely capture occupational data, and many researchers still use education as a defining characteristic of class and a proxy for increased income. That no longer makes sense in a country in which average earnings for adjunct professors, who often have Ph.D.s, run around $20,000 per year, the same as for a home health care worker. But pollsters have yet to adjust—and politicians still listen to them.
Beyond the flawed data, the real issue is whether either of the two U.S. political parties has any interest in advancing the goals and needs of the working class as it actually exists. Trump's political persona—or at least those aspects of it unrelated to self-aggrandizement, naked cash grabs, or global belligerence—was built on the idea that he could turn the GOP, as banished Trump-guru Steve Bannon put it, into a "worker's party." But the workers he purported to speak for—the white, male ones—were just a fraction of the entire working class, and while their problems are real, they continue to receive outsize attention. Meanwhile, there has been some movement since the election away from a purely corporate Democratic Party—advocacy for the $15 minimum wage laws, paid sick leave, and new enthusiasm for single-payer health care—but right now, despite everything, the working class and its discontents still largely fall outside the two parties we have.
To understand the U.S. electorate in 2018 and beyond requires a new understanding of the working class as a shifting, re-forming entity with distinct political demands—demands that present opportunities that have nothing to do with Trumpian economic anxiety or nostalgia for a long-gone economic mythology.
Sarah Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books).
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion