Labor Pains

Tamara Draut doesn’t mince words. “The working class has had a boot on its neck for three decades,” she writes in her new book, Sleeping Giant. Working-class Americans, she says, have endured a bruising descent into economic hardship and instability. The good blue-collar jobs that fueled postwar American prosperity have all but disappeared. The service-sector work that now accounts for most job growth typically pays low wages, offers few benefits, and requires erratic schedules that wreak havoc on family life. With some justification, Draut compares the struggles of today’s working class to those of the early industrialized labor force. Sleeping Giant is her sharp, insightful account of the long, painful decline of the American working class, as well as a manifesto laying out its prospects for political renewal. While Draut’s diagnosis of what has gone wrong is compelling, her optimism about the political challenges facing US workers often seems less well-founded.

Much of Sleeping Giant covers well-trod territory. Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a liberal think tank, defines the working class as all participants in the labor force who lack bachelor’s degrees. These workers are concentrated in retail, fast food, health care, and other service occupations—what Draut refers to as the “bargain-basement economy.” The median wage for working-class people is $15.61 an hour—a figure that becomes even more meager when you consider the staggering amounts of money these workers lose to wage theft (uncompensated overtime, shorted paychecks, and the like). One survey showed that workers in just three cities—Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles—lost $3 billion to wage theft in one year.

In addition, working-class people often lack paid time off from their jobs, and they frequently struggle with work schedules that vary from week to week, making it difficult to manage child care and other nonwork responsibilities. Meanwhile, bosses make sure that these inflexibly scheduled jobs are variably classified, so as to minimize employer obligations to cover worker benefits. The rise of subcontracting and temp work, together with the rampant misclassification of full-time workers as independent contractors, means that employers can evade legal responsibility to pay for basic protections like short-term disability and Social Security.

Draut’s many interviews with struggling workers put a human face on these problems. Their stories are by turns moving and infuriating. There’s the warehouse employee, on short-term disability because his knees and back are already giving out at age thirty-two, whose employer refuses to accommodate him by transferring him to another job, despite a doctor’s note. There’s the thirty-four-year-old bank teller, making only $12.57 an hour after five years on the job (up from a starting wage of $11), who is surveilled and written up if she doesn’t mention customers’ names three times per transaction. One poignant story involves a fifty-four-year-old Walmart worker who is sure that if its CEO knew more about how the company’s scheduling practices were upending its workers’ lives, he would make changes—and is stunned when this turns out not to be the case.

B E M/Flickr
B E M/Flickr

Why have the working conditions and economic prospects of working-class Americans declined so precipitously? Unlike many conservative commentators, Draut does not blame weakening family structures or workers’ own moral failings. Nor does she follow the lead of most mainstream economists and shrug fatalistically before the insecurity wrought by an increasingly globalized economy, or by technological changes that favor more highly educated workers. Instead, she focuses squarely on the role of politics and institutions—and particularly on the collapse of the American labor movement.

She points out that the benefits of labor unions extend far beyond the gains in wages they win for their members through collective bargaining. Unions provide political education for their members, turn out voters, and lobby for policies that help ordinary Americans; as Draut notes, the AFL-CIO was responsible for developing the health-care policy that later became Medicare.

Historically, unions have also played an indispensable role in ensuring that American workers reap their fair share of economic growth. But rates of union membership have plummeted. In the mid-1950s, one-third of all American workers belonged to a union; by 2015, that figure had dwindled to 11 percent.

Changes in federal law helped speed labor’s decline, in particular the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which, among other things, enabled states to pass right-to-work laws that effectively cripple closed-union shops. Union-busting campaigns became increasingly aggressive and sophisticated. Corporate-friendly trade policies accelerated the outsourcing of jobs overseas.

Other forces served to undo the foundations of the postwar labor economy. By the ’70s, the leaders of corporate America had begun to panic over a series of trends that, in their view, betokened their declining power. Threatened by a nationwide wave of strikes in the late ’60s and early ’70s, new consumer and environmental regulations, and an “inflationary spiral” that was cutting into profits, the private sector began to fight back. Conservative think tanks were founded to fund aggressive new free-market-propaganda initiatives, while business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce embarked on unprecedented lobbying and legal offensives. Corporate pacs mushroomed as business sought to reassert its dominance over the political process. Radical free-market conservatives took over the GOP during the Reagan years. In the ’80s, the Democrats, too, turned sharply to the right on economics.

Together, both parties pushed for economic austerity, welfare reform, “free” trade, deregulation, and other policies that have severely damaged the well-being of working-class and middle-class Americans alike. The dominance of moneyed interests in politics has become overwhelming. One recent study found that the preferences of average citizens have “little or no independent influence” over the policies our government adopts. In this political environment, working-class citizens have become demobilized. Lower-income people are increasingly less likely to vote than the more affluent.

Draut tells a depressing tale of working-class decline and disempowerment. Nevertheless, she is cautiously hopeful that American workers may yet revive their flagging fortunes. She argues that “there is more working-class solidarity right now in the United States than in any time since the 1970s, and on almost every measure this new working class is much more progressive than its college-educated counterparts.” Even the white working class, supposedly a bastion of reaction, veers left on economics: 70 percent believe that our economy “unfairly favors the wealthy,” and nearly 80 percent say that the corporate relocation of jobs overseas is responsible for America’s economic problems. Other surveys reveal a sharp division over economic issues along class lines, with lower-income Americans far more sanguine about government action in the economy than their higher-income counterparts.

But the obstacles to working-class political renewal are formidable. One barrier, Draut argues, is the American tendency to “pathologize struggle,” and to blame persistent inequalities on “the erosion of individual morals” rather than structural economic forces. Another thorny issue is race. Unlike some pundits on the left who write about class, Draut is honest about the ways racial divisions complicate working-class solidarity. Today’s working class is strikingly diverse. One-third of its members are people of color, 17 percent are immigrants, and two-thirds of working-class women are in the labor force (up from about half in 1980).

But this diversity presents a serious challenge for a working-class political movement. The New Deal–era programs that aided workers, such as the GI Bill, excluded many people of color by design, which is what made them politically viable. When nonwhite workers began to receive these benefits in the aftermath of the civil-rights era, public support for them declined. Today, open expressions of racism are much less common than they once were, but racial resentment and xenophobia abound. Evidence for this runs deeper than the outbursts at a standard Donald Trump rally: That same poll that showed the white working class’s support for progressive economic policies also found that 60 percent of respondents believe discrimination against whites is at least as important a problem as discrimination against people of color.

As is so often the case in popular books about disturbing political problems, Draut’s later chapters are considerably more upbeat than her earlier ones, and offer some hopeful solutions. We hear about grassroots campaigns to move the struggle of the working class back into the center of our political economy: the movement for a $15 minimum wage, the Black Lives Matter protests against police abuse and mass incarceration, and the young immigrant activists known as the DREAMers, together with union-led campaigns for paid family leave, paid sick leave, and domestic workers’ rights. Many of these groups have won gains for workers at the state and city levels. But as heartening as their efforts are, they are wholly incommensurate with the scale of the problem.

Ultimately, the working class needs sweeping political changes at the national level—what Draut refers to as a Better Deal. Her book appears to have been written with an eye toward influencing the 2016 presidential election. She calls for “a serious debate” that “can at least start with consensus that the scale of the challenge will require transformative change and not just tinkering around the edges.”

Surprisingly, we are having that debate. Primary season has seen the startling success of two candidates with a strong populist bent: for Republicans, the billionaire Donald Trump, and for Democrats, the socialist Bernie Sanders. Trump wants to build a wall at the Mexican border and ban all Muslims from entering the US, but he also denounces the outsourcing of jobs and defends Social Security. Sanders thunders against economic inequality and the “rigged economy” and calls for breaking up the big banks. Both candidates are doing especially well with working-class voters. Steep as the challenges ahead may be, Draut’s slumbering giant is showing signs of awakening.

Kathleen Geier is a Chicago-based writer who has contributed to The Nation, The Baffler, the Washington Monthly, and other publications.