Can the 'New' Working Class Be a Force for Change?

This book review appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America By Tamara Draut (Doubleday)

There is a classic sociological distinction between workers who are politically conscious of their economic class and those who are not. Leftist theorists have spoken of the difference between “class in itself”—an objective category defined by a worker’s relationship to capital—and “class for itself.” The latter concept refers to a class having become consciously aware of its own exploitation, and its workers actively fighting to overcome it. Karl Marx alluded to the distinction in his early work The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). We can understand how the political economy works by studying class in a seminar room. Unjust economic and political conditions only change, however, when a class aggressively acts for itself.

Without using those words, Tamara Draut puts the “in itself”/“for itself” distinction at the heart of her valuable book, Sleeping Giant. The sleeping giant is the new, low-wage, post-manufacturing and post-mining American working class of caregivers, retail workers, office underlings, and supply-chain personnel in distribution and trucking. Draut argues that the giant may be ready to awaken and become a powerful source of social change. But she is an honest enough analyst to provide evidence that makes this contention less than certain. And the disjunction between the hopes of this self-proclaimed pessimist and her optimistic class analysis is a tension that runs throughout the book.

Via historical and social science research and interviews with dozens of workers and activists, Draut covers a lot of ground in a short book. Draut situates herself as the fortunate daughter of a unionized steelworker who retired after 29 years on the job “with a nice pension and a gold tabletop clock.” The labor movement of that earlier era, concentrated in manufacturing, mining, and transportation, enormously benefited its mostly white membership and their families. The new working class is overwhelmingly non-unionized and lacks the other workplace protections of a union contract. Draut describes her father’s dying days in a hospital and juxtaposes his own working life with the often low-paid health-care providers caring for him—members of the new American working class.

Draut notes that manufacturing is now down to 13 percent of the workforce (it’s actually about 8 percent), down from about 25 percent in the 1980s. Union density is under 7 percent in the private sector. Draut’s own definition of “class” is the reasonable one, though contested, of basing it upon education—thus employees without bachelor’s degrees are “working class.” The latest figures would put this at a bit over 60 percent of the workforce. And within that working class is what Draut says is its essence, composing about 25 percent of the workforce, and including most of the fastest-growing, albeit low-paying, jobs in the country.

This new working class is disproportionately composed of people of color and women. These workers include care providers like nurses’ aides and home health-care workers who tend to the sick and the elderly; retail workers; food preparers and servers; maids and housekeepers; day laborers; warehouse workers and the truck drivers who deliver goods to those warehouses; secretaries and other office workers who facilitate the “careers” of the professional and managerial college- and post-college-educated; and the building services people who clean those offices. These are the jobs that, as she puts it, are “feeding, serving, caring, and stocking America.” She doesn’t mention another characteristic, but it’s an important point that has political implications: These jobs, unlike manufacturing jobs, are not directly at risk from globalization; hotels, hospitals, warehouses, and fast-food outlets can sometimes close, but they cannot be moved, as part of an overarching business strategy, to Mexico, China, or Vietnam.

Draut does a great job of describing, with miniature case studies, the many varieties of structural disempowerment that businesses have designed to ensnare these workers. The jobs are already poorly paid, with lousy benefits and little opportunity for advancement. But, in addition, employers further diminish workers with practices such as wage theft, by misclassifying employees like truck drivers as if they are autonomous independent contractors like white-collar consultants; “just in time” scheduling, which, at companies like Walmart, cuts hours with little notice from employees so as to respond to subtle shifts in customer traffic; and sub-contracting and franchising, which insulate major employers like McDonald’s from responsibility for wages and working conditions.

Relying upon the work of historians Nelson Lichtenstein and Kim Phillips-Fein, and political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Draut races through a competent outline of the rise of the labor movement in the 1930s and the power of postwar labor, which, at its peak, represented about a third of the non-farm workforce. Business elites and conservatives in Congress curbed labor power with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Still, labor dominated the policymaking apparatus of the Democrats and was the Dems’ principal voting bloc. In 1964, a mostly white union membership gave 86 percent of its vote to Lyndon Johnson. (Today, labor provides only about 60 percent of its much smaller voting bloc to Democratic presidential candidates.) The critical inflection point was the countermovement of business interests and conservative politicians during the 1970s, when resources devoted to business lobbying increased overwhelmingly and labor law reform failed to pass during the Carter administration despite a Democratic Congress.

The decline of unions also corresponds with a labor market that, in the wake of the civil-rights and women’s movements, is more open to women and minorities than ever before, yet remains highly stratified by race and gender. As Draut argues, the gender segregation of the labor market matters because, as with many of the jobs noted above, “any job that is performed primarily by women pays less than a similar job performed primarily by men.”

Draut sees a surge of working-class activism throughout the country epitomized by the “Fight for 15” movement, supported by SEIU, which has indeed, in just a few years, pushed cities, states, and even bête noire Walmart to raise wages for the working poor. But she also points to many smaller insurgencies around the country, such as the Texas Workers Defense Project (WDP), which, in one of the most anti-labor environments in the country, has improved pay and working conditions, first for minority construction workers, and now, with some success, in solidarity with unionized white construction workers.

Most of her stories are primarily about workers of color, but she also includes a discussion with a white Teamster based in Atlanta, Ben Speight, who has learned that black workers are more likely to militantly organize than are their white counterparts. (A few years ago, I was a guest on Speight’s radio program.) As with many of Draut’s examples, however promising, there is a question of scale. The WDP, for example, has roughly 5,000 members in a state with almost 700,000 construction workers. It is funded partly by foundations. This demonstrates the value of a “liberal elite” for progressive change, but it also leaves WDF and similar organizations vulnerable to the changing whims of its funders.

The book is mostly well grounded in careful research, but sometimes Draut is more wishful than persuasive. At one point, she has to concede that, despite the serious health and safety problems that continue to plague American workplaces, workplace deaths declined by two-thirds between 1970 and 2013, in a workforce that increased by about 65 million jobs during that time. There is a paradox in these figures that readers need to engage. In fact, the decline in often-dangerous manufacturing and coal-mining employment, brought about more by productivity increases than globalization, is probably responsible for this encouraging trend. Wealthy, advanced societies do less and less dangerous work—even if the jobs still done are inadequately regulated.

She argues, in a passage that is, tellingly, not sourced, that a watered-down version of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—the so-called “card check” bill that would have facilitated union organizing and shielded it from the campaigns of anti-union employers—“had a chance of passing the Senate” but didn’t get a vote because President Obama asked the Senate’s Democrats to wait to consider the bill until the end of the health-care fight. I worked in the labor movement during this time and, while some people imagined that the bill could have passed, there were eight to ten Democratic senators who would never have voted for it—recall there were then two Democratic senators from Walmart—Arkansas—alone. These Democrats would have kept the bill far short of the 60 votes needed for passage. The one Republican who sought compromise, Arlen Specter, soon became a Democrat.

The ironic truth is that when labor is strong, it doesn’t need the state to intervene so much on its behalf. That’s why labor leaders in the 1950s, like Steelworkers legal counsel and later Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg believed, naïvely if understandably, that labor did best when the courts and legislatures left it alone to resolve differences with management. But when labor is weak, as it is now, it lacks the political and economic juice required to win its own battles, much less to pass remedial legislation on its own behalf.

EFCA was worth a try, but there was never a chance that unions were going to persuade pro-business Democratic senators in low-union-density states like Louisiana, Virginia, Nebraska, let alone Arkansas, to vote against the pathological hatred of their business donors for unions, and support a law that would have made it easier to organize. A more promising avenue to assist passage of such a bill, when political conditions allow it, would be to continue to pressure Democrats to abolish the super-majority filibuster.

Throughout the book, Draut returns to what is her greatest fear—that despite the encouraging signs that this new working class is on the move, she is not certain “whether the racial, ethnic, and gender divides that have impeded solidarity can finally be dismantled.” She notes that polling shows that the less financially secure are the most worried about the economic impact of immigration. She accuses Republicans of having “deliberately used race to pursue their broader objectives of shrinking government and deregulating the economy.”

Thus, this new working class—largely de-unionized, less prone to vote or otherwise participate in politics—remains less than fully “for itself.” Draut movingly sees agency in the shoots of activism from immigrant and African American workers and ancillary movements like Black Lives Matter. But she is more prone to invoke structural forces and (correctly) to cite the deliberate manipulations of conservative reactionaries when describing the passivity and, worse, outright racism of white workers.She is right to be worried. And she wrote this book before the rise of Donald Trump. We understand now, if we didn’t before, how significant it is that the social democracies of Western Europe were constructed when their populations were almost entirely homogeneous. Today, right-wing parties in several countries, with much stronger labor movements than that of the U.S., wish to maintain nativist social welfare states and reject a broader social solidarity. In the United States, we know from the rage so many white working-class people have toward Obamacare—even some who have benefited from it!—that the historical weight of racial and ethno-nationalism is a great burden. Donald Trump’s campaign for president is an effect, not a cause, of this widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who, justifiably, think they’ve been screwed, but see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their distress. Draut reminds us time and again that a solidarity is painstakingly being built, but from a movement of the new working class that is “primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants.” It has the support of what I have called the new “laborism” of mostly white, college-educated union staffers and other urban, professional leftists, but less so of the white working class itself.

Alas, in these cases, too, people make their own history, but not always in the humane ways we would hope—working-class agency isn’t always a positive social force. The weakness especially of private-sector unionism is critical here because, as Draut notes in a perceptive aside, when unions wane, “what’s also lost is the civic participation and political education unions provide.” While unions don’t guarantee interracial and ethnic solidarity—again, see Western Europe—they are, as of now, the only organizations we have that, in their normative goals and often their actions, encourage just that.

It is impossible to know if these antagonisms are merely the “morbid symptoms” that inevitably accompany the gestation of a new world. Tamara Draut is a sure and compelling guide to the circumstances of the new working class, which are profoundly unjust, and to its possibilities, which are already evident. But for now, it looks as if the sleeping giant is rolling over and stretching its underutilized muscles, and hasn’t yet jumped out of bed to greet the dawn.

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