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|Whatever Happened to America’s White Working Class?
Whatever happened to America's white working class? It's not that it has disappeared, though in a US driven by the American Dream, many workers refuse to acknowledge their status, and instead see themselves as middle class. Identifying oneself as a worker can often be viewed as an admission of failure - the placing of a ceiling on one’s capacity for success and mobility in American society. The dominating idea is, if only we asserted our individual wills and were clear about our future goals, countless promises would be within our grasp.
But seeing themselves as middle class is an insufficient explanation to explain why the influence and power of what I call the working class has radically diminished over the last four to five decades. The decline can be seen in the precipitous fall in union membership. For example, in 1983, union workers made up about 20% of the workforce, but by 2010, they represented less than 12%. One reason among others for the drop in union membership has been the waning of mass industries, partially because it has become harder to compete with cheaper manufacturing costs abroad. The result is that we have become primarily a service economy, dominated by badly paid, non-union workers like Wal-Mart’s employees.
Before going on I should admit that I have been a union member all my working life, and for a while an activist when my union (PSC - college teachers) gained recognition many years ago. My union, no United Auto Workers, still provided its members with a decent salary scale, protection of academic freedom, a relatively effective grievance machinery, and solid pensions. I also know that because of collective bargaining, union workers have traditionally earned 15% to 20% more than their non-union counterparts, who depend on the largesse of their employers.
Among the remnant that still remains unionized, a majority are now government workers - firemen, policemen, hospital workers, and teachers, et al. (And many of these are really lower-middle or middle class and would recoil at being defined as working class.) In fact, in 2009 the 7.9 million unionized public sector workers easily outnumbered those in the private sector, where labor’s ranks shrank to 7.4 million, from 8.2 million in 2008. A group of newly elected Republican governors like the confrontational, intimidating Chris Christie of New Jersey, and the constantly-fending-off-charges-of-corruption Rick Scott of Florida have seized the moment to attack the unions’ rights and benefits, and even destroy their right to bargain collectively.
Yes, some unions may have gained special retirement deals over the years. But if some reduction in union benefits may be a necessity to help balance state budgets - it’s they are the ones supposed to make sacrifices, while the wealthy remain untouched. Increased taxes on the wealthy have been placed off the table, and local and state government (let alone the federal government) treat the moneyed as a privileged and protected class. In this Alice in Wonderland world it’s the public workers who have been turned into the symbols of avarice, not the hedge fund managers and financiers, whose overreaching helped cause the recession, and who predictably continue to garner outsized bonuses and incomes in a system heavily weighted in their favor. We live in a country arrogantly dominated by the corporations, and a majority of a supine public passively accepts their rule, (the public seems more interested in the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial than in Republican political machinations) and some even endorse it.
When did the working class last have power in this country? A readable and very perceptive book, by Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press) traces the rise and slow descent of the working class from 1935, (from that moment of infinite possibility when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the labor guarantees of the Wagner Act) through 1982. But the book’s emphasis is on the 1970s, a time that Cowie sees as the turning point - when the hopes of an American working class - that should never have been seen solely reduced to a flag-waving, pro-war, hard hat stereotype - might have been realized in struggles over control of work (e.g., wildcat strikes, and rank and file movements); or on the other hand it could have been its last hurrah, the point where the New Deal hopes were finally destroyed.
However, in Cowie’s words, by the second half of the 70s, “the promise of a working class revival turned out to be more of a swan song,” or “death rattle.” Real earnings began to decline, and global restructuring, oil shocks and inflation, deindustrialization, and anti-unionism dominated, as worker militancy shrunk in the new economic climate. And Cowie writes that when rank and file workers supported Reagan in 1980, the populist right had become pre-eminent in “offering cultural refuge to blue collar whites.” The country has gone through many changes since that, but the working class has not reemerged for liberalism to build a political base on since the 70s. We can only dream of a reconstructed, socially conscious working class to surface, but at the moment, those prospects are truly dismal.