On this Labor Day, I have an important discovery to announce. No, it’s not Proxima b, the nearest planet to our solar system. My discovery is this: there is an American working class!
And it exists right here in Connecticut. In fact, 62 percent of the population is working class. Because it’s not about income, it’s about power. Most of us have no control over what we do. The corporate elite (under 2 percent) make those decisions for us.
Yes, this recently identified group has been mislabeled for decades, as the middle class, the lower middle class, blue collar workers, or the working poor. Or the “poorly educated,” to quote Donald Trump.
With the stunning Brexit vote on June 23, pundits started to use the term again. It was the “angry working class” that upended the British government’s plans. Working class became synonymous with ignorant bigots.
Then, quickly on the heels of the Brit earthquake, political analysts in the U.S. dusted the description off, too. Now, the Trump phenomenon can be blamed on “white working class men.”
Apparently, it is now okay to use the term and not be painted as a Red, fomenting “class warfare.”
Why did the working class disappear for so long? Because of the grand myth that every American can enter the so-called middle class, usually defined by what you have: a good home, good education, comfortable life style and lots of debt.
As SUNY economics professor Michael Zweig has written, class is more a matter of power than income. He calls the working class “America’s best kept secret.”
A machinist at Pratt & Whitney and a secretary at Travelers Insurance Company are members of the working class. So are the community college adjunct teacher, the nursing home aide, and the building cleaner at your office. The Waterbury Brass Mill mall sales clerk and the fast food server also fall into the same group.
All these jobs have common characteristics. The workers have little control over their jobs, what they do, and how fast they do it. They don’t supervise anyone, they don’t decide how much has to be produced. If their jobs move overseas, or to Boston (we’re looking at you, General Electric), it’s a decision the CEO makes, not them.
The corporate elite, in contrast, are the decision makers. They largely determine trade policy, welfare reform, environmental decisions, and global economic trends. This is a very small group, but they have a lot of clout. The middle class, with about 36 percent of the population, are professionals, managers, and small business owners, squeezed between the other two groups.
Why is it important to make these distinctions? Because we can’t fix the problems faced by our country (and our world) if we don’t understand the class dynamics behind them. I learned long ago that class consciousness is knowing which side of the face you’re on, and class analysis is knowing who is there with you.
So, let’s take General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and his predecessors as an example.
Angry that Connecticut is losing businesses? In January, Immelt announced GE was moving its corporate headquarters and 800 jobs from Connecticut to Boston. Then, he axed another 100 jobs and pulled $1.6 million a year in property taxes.
Blame Governor Malloy all you want, but the company’s track record shows that GE’s owners have no loyalty to American workers. GE has recently moved hundreds of GE jobs from Michigan to China. One hundred jobs from Texas to Hungary. Three hundred fifty jobs from Wisconsin to Canada. Even when the company opens new American facilities, the numbers don’t compare to GE job growth overseas.
Concerned about the environment? The GE masters of the universe have made their corporation fourth on the list of top 100 biggest U.S. polluters. The dangerous General Electric nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan were built after GE directors expanded into the nuclear business.
Disgusted by urban poverty? These corporate men determine the economic policies of our cities. Even before Jeff Immelt arrived, General Electric bosses laid off 20,000 workers in Bridgeport, a once-thriving industrial city.
How about the national economic recovery? In 2011, Immelt was named the chair of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The Council’s impact on the economy was underwhelming. This ‘jobs creation czar” has overseen the loss of 27,000 General Electric jobs in the U.S. since he took over in 2001.
Worried about an unstable world? General Electric is one of the globe’s biggest defense contractors. Weapons production has always been good for business. Peace means layoffs, in GE arithmetic. A bigger U.S. military may not actually make us safer, but it means more secure markets for GE sales.
None of these problems are the result of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” They arise from the profit/loss decisions of CEO Jeff Immelt and his buddies. Remember, the corporate elite aren’t invisible, they just want you to think they are.
As Professor Zweig writes, “Identifying class forces accurately is an essential starting point for more effective politics to turn back the right-wing tide that has swept across the United States with growing power” for the last 50 years.
When we identify ourselves as working people with common interests — the working class — it’s easier to determine our political targets and the possible solutions that can benefit our families.
It’s a good starting point if we want to make every day Labor Day.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History project.