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The Rulers Have Spoken: Workers Are Irrelevant And Can Be Ingored

January 29, 2011

A MATTER OF TERMINOLOGY

If you ask Americans to classify themselves as “upper class”, “middle class,” “working class,” or “poor”, almost everyone will choose to label themselves “middle class,” even though their income may be below $15,000 a year or over $500,000. This overly loose definition is highly misleading.  Historically, if you must sell your labor power, your work, your skills (physical or intellectual)  to someone else in exchange for wages or a salary in order to earn  your living,  you are by definition a member of the working class whether you know it or not. (Originally “middle class” referred to the businessmen, merchants, bankers, who were a  “middle”  class only in the sense that they were  in the middle between the hereditary aristocracy–the titled  nobility–and the common workers and peasants).

RECENT AMERICAN HISTORY

The popular classification of almost everyone as somehow “middle class” has glossed over the reality of the hard and bitter fate of the working class in America over the past thirty years.  Between 1946 and 1980, working people in America demanded and got a bigger share of the pie.  Standards of living increased significantly. Skilled tradesmen, often through their unions,  earned good wages, substantial benefits, and some measure of basic job security. But changes undermined that in the thirty years since 1980. Part of that was due to structural changes in the world economy and American manufacturing  businesses exporting jobs to Third World countries to take advantage of the cheap labor there.  Part of it was due to government lack of foresight, complacency, and indifference to what was happening and where it was leading. And part of  it was due to aggressive union-busting, exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers union and open contempt and hostility for any organization that attempted to speak for and defend American workers.  Around that same time, the Democratic Party, traditionally appearing to be  the party of working class people and the  defender of the poor and downtrodden, also abandoned working class America. Until then, to be “liberal” or “progressive” or “left” meant to be an assertive defender of the working class, the poor, and despised minorities. For complex reasons I won’t pretend to fully understand, they abandoned this role in the 1970s and ever after.  Now “left-wing’ seems to mean pro-gay marriage, or pro-“green,”  in favor of alternative energy, and  strongly environmentalist. Whether you or I approve of this is less important than that we recognize and acknowledge it as a significant  change.  I myself have nothing against any of those four positions. I just want to point out the conspicuous absence of working class and organized labor concerns.  They have disappeared from the agenda of “the left” it seems.  This has created the situation where the right-wing Tea Party types have been able to capitalize on “populist”, working class frustrations and anger, even though they have nothing real, nothing concrete,  to offer them and are financed and controlled by their corporate sponsors &  masters.

THE CONSEQUENCES

As a direct result, income inequality in America has skyrocketed to previously unimaginable levels, levels  like those in Third World Countries.  Income has been dramatically redistributed upwards.  David Gay Johnston, whom I cited in an earlier post, showed that working class income in America, adjusted for inflation, has only grown a  grand total of $303  in twenty-eight (28) years, 1980-2008 while productivity has skyrocketed and the wealth of the rich has skyrocketed. Not even $11 per year for the last 28 years.  And that was before the Crash of 2008 really hit!  It’s much worse now. The burden of what we are calling the Great Recession has fallen entirely on the poor, the working class, and the poorly paid segment of the middle class.  There has been no recession for the wealthy; they are richer than ever right now.  Meanwhile the common people suffer. Not only is there almost 10% unemployment but that statistic is based on the number of people applying for unemployment benefits. It doesn’t count those who don’t  bother to apply because they know they’ll be turned down. It doesn’t include those whose benefits have run out, or people working intermittently, or part-time,  say, 5  hours one week, 8 hours the next, none the next and 10 the week after that, who desperately wish they could work a steady 40 hours;  it doesn’t include those who’ve given up searching after years of rejection and failure; it doesn’t include people subjected to seasonal layoffs,  like school cafeteria workers.  It doesn’t inlcude those who’ve had to take big pay cuts and loss of health insurance and other benefits  to have a job at all.  The real unemployment rate is more like 25%.

WHO SPEAKS FOR THE WORKING MAN AND THE WORKING WOMAN?

I didn’t hear it either from Obama’s State of the Union Address,  or from his critics either. Obama gave another intelligent, judicious, thoughtful speech about technological innovation, education, and investments in alternative energy  in the future.  But America is hurting and they want something NOW.  the banks and giant corporations got their bailouts. Where’s the help for the lower-income  60% or 70%  of the American people?  The President still seems tone-deaf  to their suffering in a way FDR was not. Yes,  his proposals, if enacted, sustained,  consistently  maintained, and  adequately funded (four big  ‘ifs’), will pay off  30, 40, 50 years down the road–but what about now?  His opponents’ proposals–the Republicans, the Tea Partiers, the Libertarians, have nothing better to offer, if they even have anything to offer except lying nonsense and empty clichés, anything that realistically  speaks to the suffering, the frustrations, the fears, the pressing needs of American workers.   Newly elected Senator Rand  Paul (Rep-KY) openly declares he wants to smash any remaining unions in America, leaving working people completely at the tender mercies of unchecked, predatory, and  rapacious corporate greed. At the mercy, that is,of the same forces whose reckless, fraudulent  behavior created this disaster we are all being forced to live  through.

It appears that the government and the mainstream media both have decided the people who work for a living in America are no longer  important, are either silent or need to be silenced.  With labor unions undermined and smashed, and the Democrats abandoning them, working people no longer have a voice in America. Having no more loot or clout, they can be safely ignored, as if they didnt’ exist.  Working class America has been effectively disenfranchised.

No one in government seems  interested in changing  that.  I suspect  only a genuine  grass-roots movement can.  I guess we better read our Saul Alinsky and our  Howard Zinn again. That was the point (it seemed to me) of  Zinn’s   People’s History of the United States: change starts from below, and when mass movements become strong enough, government and industry gives in and accepts  those changes.  Later, most history books portray those hard-won rights as bestowed from above,  handed down as a gift  by benevolent  rulers,   reversing the causal sequence of events.

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