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What is the Working Class?


Far too often in our imaginations and in our media, we imagine the working class as a white man, probably with an out of fashion mustache, in a union jacket inside a steel mill. Or some such variation of this. This has led to the definition of “real workers” and thus “heart of America voters” being the same white guys in Pennsylvania who voted for Trump, as per 10,000 articles since November 2016. This should drive us crazy, but we also need to remember how deep this is in our culture and in our minds. Take labor history. Even among activists, most labor activism people remember is that of white men. Briefly taking the point that whiteness is fluid out of the equation, it’s almost all white men, in today’s definition of that word: Haymarket, Homestead, Pullman, the IWW, Flint and the CIO. And for that matter, the Hard Hat Riots, which play a way outsized role in liberal memories of labor, considering it was a couple of union locals in a couple of places. But that’s the point–it’s certain types of white men that make up our shared history of the labor movement. The only prominent exceptions to this rule are the United Farm Workers and the Memphis sanitation strike, and that only because Martin Luther King died supporting it. Moreover, the most prominent moment in our public history of labor that features women is probably the Lowell Mill Girls, but few people can talk about their protests or actions or are even aware of them. The number of labor actions prominent in American leftist or liberal memory that feature women of color as the primary component is exactly zero. To some extent this makes sense, as unions were as racist and sexist as any other institution in the United States over most of American history. But again, that then goes back to how we conceive of the working class, how we conceive of labor, and how we conceive of history.

Sarah Jaffe has a great piece on this problem in the present that is well worth your time.

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.

She goes on to discuss the potential political fallout of all of this. I agree that the Democrats don’t quite get what’s going on here either and that they struggle to articulate a solid agenda for the working-class as it is–women of color, service industry workers, people in communities with no economic hope and high opioid rates, immigrants, adjunct professors and graduate students. Part of the problem is that the idea of the proper working class goes back a very, very long time and is so ingrained in our political culture and our historical memory that rethinking the whole structure of it is really hard.

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