Every semester I ask my freshmen students at the state university where I teach to write a brief paragraph about who they are and how they define their families in terms of anthropological and sociological constructs of "race," ethnicity and socioeconomic class. What I find interesting, and also troubling, is that almost all of them when selecting a "class" label say they are "middle class." Some use modifiers like upper-middle, or middle-middle or lower-middle, but it is rare to find any that use the term "working class," though the majority are only first or second generation attending college, and most come from families where the parents are neither business owners nor management—nor are they well off financially.
When we discuss "social class" few have ever heard of either Karl Marx, or Weber (status), except those who are exchange students from Eastern Europe. One semester I had a student ask me "which one of the Marx brothers was Karl?" He wasn't joking.
None can define "means of production and distribution." None have ever been able to discuss concepts like "right to work states" and few have parents that are union members.
I wish that Bertell Ollman’s board game "Class Struggle" was still around.
I've come to believe that this "fuzzy middle" myth that has no real meaning in relationship to power hierarchies or dynamics is probably one of our greatest obstacles against working for meaningful change and redistribution of wealth. In the context of social stratification here in the United States, the categories of upper, middle and lower class are devoid of links to actual labor but seem to only reflect consumerist ideals. Class and status have become muddled. You are what you consume or drive.
To make matters more difficult, "race" has deeply embedded class connotations that are almost caste-like. So when the term "worker" is used along with code like "blue collar" to describe a sector of the population we almost automatically visualize "white worker," excluding those blacks, latinos, native americans and asians who are a large part of the U.S. labor force. Whereas when we say "poor" or "welfare" images of blacks and browns come to mind. "Immigrant" is the dog whistle for Mexican or "illegal" and few think of agricultural workers as foundational to our survival. A far cry from the days when we on the left supported the organizing struggles of the United Farm Workers.
Politicians from both parties invoke "Main Street" daily in an appeal to voters from this fuzzy middle. Only since the revolt in Wisconsin have we begun anew to frequently employ rhetoric invoking and defending the rights of "workers" to organize and protect their labor.
Who is a worker?
Sociologist Michael Schwalbe, in his short Primer on Class Struggle, defines workers as:
everyone who earns a wage or a salary and does not derive wealth from controlling the labor of others. By this definition, most of us are workers, though some are more privileged than others. This definition also implies that whenever we resist the creation and enforcement of laws that give capitalists more power to exploit people and the environment, we are engaged in class struggle, whether we call it that or not.
I often wonder if we are still in the grips of the chilling effect of the McCarthy era—where "labor" and "worker" and "working class" as terms became symbolic of communism and socialism and the left and were to be stamped out of the American psyche.
We still have 22 states in the U.S. that are defined as "Right to Work" states—an oxymoron if there ever was one. The AFL-CIO has defined this as "The Right to Work for Less."
To set the record (and the name) straight, right to work for less doesn’t guarantee any rights. In fact, by weakening unions and collective bargaining, it destroys the best job security protection that exists: the union contract. Meanwhile, it allows workers to pay nothing and get all the benefits of union membership. Right to work laws say unions must represent all eligible employees, whether they pay dues or not. This forces unions to use their time and members’ dues money to provide union benefits to free riders who are not willing to pay their fair share.
Right to work laws lower wages for everyone. The average worker in a right to work state makes about $5,333 a year less than workers in other states ($35,500 compared with $30,167). Weekly wages are $72 greater in free-bargaining states than in right to work states ($621 versus $549). Working families in states without right to work laws have higher wages and benefit from healthier tax bases that improve their quality of life.
Unions and union movements which provided the impetus for so much of our socioeconomic support network were repressed, shoved and pushed aside in the rush to the middle and a dream of white collars.
It is the rare high school curricula that teaches U.S. labor history. Even less understood are the contradictions within that history which involve the tangle of "race." Perhaps, because I was a member of several "unity movements" of people of color during the 60s and 70s, and knew some of the organizers of other groups, I realize that we still have more work to do on that front.
Case in point: the history of The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).
Since its publication in 1975, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying has been widely recognized as one of the most important books on the black liberation movement and labor struggles in the United States.
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying tells the remarkable story of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, based in Detroit, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, two of the most important political organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.
A. Muhammad Ahmad provides a similar historical analysis online in The League of Revolutionary Black Workers: A Historical Study:
Black workers involvement in large numbers began during the first imperialist war, when there was a shortage of laborers and Detroit was becoming the center of the auto industry. In 1910, there were only 569 Blacks out of 105,759 auto workers. During the war, thousands of southerners, both Black and white migrated to Detroit in search of work, By 1930, there were 25,895 Blacks among the industry's 640.474 workers.
The southern whites who migrated to Detroit brought with them racist attitudes. The large Polish minority who made up a large proportion of the work force in the auto plants began to display the same prejudice against Black workers after the southerners came. The auto industry was one of the last major industries in the United states to hire large numbers of Black workers. Blacks were excluded from regular jobs in most auto plants. Until 1935 only the Ford River Rouge plant hired Black workers in large numbers, Black workers who did work in auto plants were confined to janitorial work or to the unpleasant back-breaking foundry jobs that white men did not want. Except in the Rouge plant, they were barred from skilled work.
One of the films from the 70s I suggest my students screen for discussion is Blue Collar directed by Paul Schrader, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto.
Some unions have stepped up to the challenge, especially those representing large numbers of people of color and women, workers who were ignored for many years by mainstream unions. Among them are groups like Domestic Workers United, which is part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Domestic Workers United was founded in 2000, by members of Kalayaan/Women Workers Project of CAAAV, in collaboration with Andolan Organizing South Asian Workers. Filipina domestic workers who are members of CAAAV's Women Workers Project began outreach to domestic workers from the Caribbean and Latin America in 1999, after having done two years of advocacy for individual domestic workers who were underpaid or abused by their employers, because they saw the need for industry standards and a voice for all domestic workers, particularly those who were not being organized. Early on, Andolan members and Women Workers Project members supported one another's work, and worked together to build DWU as collaborative project to build the power of the domestic workers movement. Today, DWU organizes workers from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America, and coordinates with the other domestic workers organizations through the NY.
While we are on the subject of domestic workers-just in time for the opening of "The Help", which I'll be discussing criticisms of next week-we should all take the time to support the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights:
The role of gender, and its intersections with race, ethnicity and class in the workplace, has often been described as the "pink collar" sector.
A pink-collar worker is employed in a job that is stereotypically considered to be women's work. The term distinguishes these jobs from the blue-collar worker, a worker in manual labor, and the white-collar worker, a professional or educated worker in largely office positions. Pink-collar jobs usually pay a significantly smaller amount of money than blue-collar or white-collar jobs
Ironically many of the aspirants to white collardom would do better financially and in terms of benefits if they joined with the colored-collar sectors that are unionized. On a private college campus near me, the maintenance staff is union-SEIU 1199-with job protection, and the skilled tech staff are not-garnering lower pay and less job security.
The creation of the fuzzy middle class, eschewing manual labor and unions and pursuing the suburbia of places like Levittown, was made possible by the GI Bill after WWII and took place during the rise of the Cold War. That Cold War which posited a battle between free market capitalism and "godless" communism resulted in witch hunts here at home and the ultimate rise of the global hegemony of economic inequity, with the harsh repression of any opposing developing states.
We are now faced with the unraveling of the mythology created to siphon off solidarity with class warfare and must embrace what was spurned in pursuit of picket fences and two-car garages. In the process, the moniker of "working class" should become our badge of courage—as long as we also fight to make that class a rainbow coalition.
I was elated to see the launch of Daily Kos Labor. I am a union member, albeit of one (the UFT) whose members have more privilege than many, and which has too often fallen into the snares and lures set by elites.
I will continue to identify with and work in coalition with factory workers, domestics, agricultural field workers and enforced workers who are incarcerated.
I'm not fuzzy middle. I'm working class—and proud of it.