The Working Stiff Journal
Vol. 2 #6, August 1999
by Jackie Dana
For too long we workers—those who do work for others—have been brainwashed by our corporation-driven society to be ashamed of what we are.
In 1999 it’s hard to find someone who takes pride in being “working class.” Most people structure their whole lives to escape the treacherous confines of the working class, to become the supposedly more respectable and comfortable “middle class,” seeing the label as more important than the substance.
Many of us believe the myths promoted by our politicians that we are better off than our parents and grandparents, that the standard of living is better than at any other time in the past century, and that the efforts to improve working conditions, pay, and benefits are largely unnecessary.
Now that we’re all “middle class,” and now that proportionately fewer people work in factories or mines, unions are presented as some anachronistic holdover from the unwashed past. The working class has become a thing of the past.
Or has it? The fact is that the situation for the majority of workers has been steadily worsening, despite all the news about the booming economy. Corporations are making record profits, but the workers are not seeing dividends for their efficiency. Wages have not kept up with inflation and costs of housing and medical care, among other things, have grown so high that they are escaping the reaches even of people with full-time employment. And the reason there are fewer factory jobs is not because we’re all becoming middle class but because all those jobs are being sent overseas, to places where corporations can pay workers even less than they paid them here.
Statistics demonstrate that the rich are getting richer every year while the so-called middle class is shrinking. According to the IRS, the combined income of the top 1% of families is greater than that of the bottom 50%. The US Census Bureau estimates that in 1996 approximately 41.7 million Americans had no health insurance and another 40 million had only limited coverage. From 1979 to 1995 the number of hours worked per person per year in the US increased by 47 hours, while it actually declined by over 200 hours in other industrialized countries such as Germany and Japan.
Most Americans, particularly those under 40, do not have the same standard of living as their parents. Fewer people can afford to buy homes; college educations even at less expensive schools require substantial loans; and credit card debt is spiraling out of control. Workers are being exploited at a record rate, yet it seems that fewer and fewer people recognize this fact. Indeed, many people eschew the concept of “working class” and believe that the language of class divisions and class struggle is outdated.
It’s about time we reclaim the concept of working class and remind ourselves that there is no shame in being a worker. After all, despite the labels, the vast majority of Americans are workers who earn a salary or a wage or a commission. We must work to survive, to pay our rent, to buy food, to get medical care, to pay for a car or a bike or the bus. Most of us are not born into wealth—we must earn it. We have no investment income or inheritances to support us, and no company profits.
We should accept our role and position in the economic system without shame, and recognize the inherent value of our work and strive to find a way beyond the exploitation. Otherwise, as someone at The Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University states, we shall lack “awareness, meaning, and sources of pride in [our] work, aesthetics, cultural sensibilities, and lives.”
As part of reclaiming our identity and pride as workers, we should also stop being apologists for management in all its forms, for we do not share the goals and needs of those who employ us. Management will do what it can to make each workplace as efficient as possible, getting the most production out of the fewest workers for the lowest wages.
The money that is “saved” in an efficient workplace becomes profit and goes into the management/owners’ pockets, not to the workers. Layoffs squeeze higher productivity out of the workers who remain, who are then forced to prove themselves rather than face the next round of pink slips. And as many of us are starting to realize, reducing health care and other benefits is another way of squeezing more money out of the employees.
Meanwhile, as management does what it needs to create profit, workers have a different goal. For the employee, work is a means for survival. Many of us feel pride in our jobs but find that management’s ever-increasing demands make solid products or high-quality service all but impossible.
Workers are often constrained by rules that make work burdensome and unpleasant, and they rarely have opportunities to suggest meaningful changes to their workplace. In that regard, we must look out for ourselves, to make sure our wages, and those of our fellow workers, are sufficient and fair representations of the effort and responsibility that is expected of us, and that our workplaces are safe and comfortable places to complete our tasks.
It is time that we workers again stand up for ourselves. This isn’t a radical suggestion; it is a logical one. We do not need to undermine our employers, but we should not allow ourselves to be exploited and then brainwashed into believing that is okay.
In unions, in our neighborhoods and schools, and in the workplace itself, we need to demonstrate that we are proud of being working class, and that we, as a class, will no longer suffer in silence. We will demand a living wage, better housing, more insurance, affordable education, and an end to corporate dominance.
When we do it with one voice, we WILL be heard.
The Center for Working Class Studies has many suggestions for further reading and research at their Working-Class Bibliography at http://as.ysu.edu/~cwcs/BIB.html
The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.