The War on the Working Class

For the last month, the attacks by Republican governors and state legislators on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have dominated national news.  The target is not just these unions but on the labor movement in general.  But state bills barring or restricting collective bargaining are just one battlefront in a growing war on the working class – a war that will have consequences for the middle class, as well.

Of course, this isn’t a new war.  Unions and the working class have been under assault since the 1970s, when companies closing plants in places like Youngstown explained their abandonment of American industrial communities as “economic necessity” because American workers were too expensive.  In the 80s, Ronald Reagan led one of the first governmental battles when he fired air traffic controllers in the PATCO strike.  During the 90s, labor regulations made organizing unions increasingly difficult, and employers began to rely more on contingent and part-time workers and to outsource even supposedly secure middle-class jobs. At the same time, deregulation and tax policies helped income inequality grow ever larger as programs to aid the poor were dismantled – by a Democratic president, no less.  Business practices encouraged lowering wages and reducing benefits – moves that many workers, including those in unions, accepted out of fear of losing their jobs altogether.  During the economic crisis of the last two years, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost jobs while corporations stockpile some of the largest cash reserves in history.  Think we’re exaggerating?  Billionaire Warren Buffet doesn’t think so.  He’s said that there is a class war going on in America and that his side is winning.

Despite Federal investigations that clearly lay the blame for the economic crisis at the foot of banks and the finance industry, the working class has become a scapegoat for the country’s economic and social problems.  Like commentators once said of Reagan, business and finance interests seem to be coated with Teflon.  Overwhelming evidence of their responsibility for the financial crisis slides right off.  Former Lehman Brothers exec John Kasich blames public workers, not the financial industry, for Ohio’s crisis, while in Wisconsin, the Koch Brothers are funding Scott Walker’s effort to blame workers for a budget shortfall that he just increased with yet another big tax cut.

Until recently, the attack was largely cultural as journalists, politicians, and commentators focused on exaggerated versions of working-class culture as the source of a variety of social ills.  During the 2008 election, we were told repeatedly that the working class was too racist to vote for Obama, and that claim of rampant racism was all too easy to reprise as the Tea Party started disrupting town hall meetings about health care.  Those ideas held even as Obama won the election and research showed that most Tea Party members were not working-class.  We hear it in the debate over education: if only poor and working-class parents spent more time reading to their kids, we would be more competitive against those well-educated Chinese.  And now it’s about the economy: if only those greedy public workers would stop insisting on getting affordable health insurance and reliable pensions, the rest of us could pay lower taxes and businesses would like us better – maybe they’d even bring jobs back to Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, or Michigan.

As states and the U.S. Congress are formulating budget bills, the attack is ramping up, and the ground is shifting.  It’s no longer enough to misrepresent or denigrate the working class.  In order to balance budgets that have been seriously skewed (or screwed) by huge tax cuts, mostly to the wealthy, our leaders say we need to cut services.  States are cutting back on health care programs for the poor, slashing funding for education (Walker’s budget for Wisconsin cuts $834 million from K-12 schools), and raising user fees on things like car registration and college tuition – regressive funding strategies that take a much larger bite out of the household budget of poorer families than of wealthier ones.  The budget bill passed by House Republicans cut funding for health care for poor women and reduced funding of Pell Grants, and Obama joined the fight by cutting heating assistance to the poor.

With these moves, the war has shifted from rhetoric to daily reality.  The result will be ugly.  Cuts in education at all levels will reduce both the quality and accessibility of education.   Cuts in health care will increase incidents of medical problems and could increase the birthrate among lower-income women who would no longer have easy access to the most reliable forms of birth control.  The attacks on public unions will lead to an immediate decline in household income for thousands of families and, in the longer term, less secure retirements.  Increasingly, older people will struggle to get by on reduced pensions.  The result will be increasing demand for state services such as Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs, as well as increases in homelessness.

Meanwhile, the working class and the middle class are losing their voice in the democratic process.  That’s true in the workplace, where both unionized and non-union workers have fewer opportunities to help shape working conditions and both feel increasingly vulnerable to being fired on a boss’s whim.  And it’s true in electoral politics, where the primary national organized voice for the poor, working-class, and middle-class, the labor movement, will lose political influence as unions lose the ability to protect workers’ rights.

No one knows yet exactly how the majority of Americans, who support collective bargaining for public sector workers and who view governors like Walker and Kasich negatively, will respond when these bills finally pass and take effect, or when state and federal budgets undermine opportunity for those who already have fewer resources and options.  Will Americans stand together to protest, as so many have done in Madison and Columbus, and if so, will those protests be any more effective in changing policy than what we’ve been seeing?  What will it take to get us to stand up for social and economic justice, not only for teachers and firefighters but for everyone in the working class and the middle class?  To move us to demand the reinstatement of the American dream? How much will we take before we engage fully in the class war?  The time is now.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-class politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The War on the Working Class

  1. Pingback: Capitalism: an Economic System Which Creates Income Inequality | The Public Slate

  2. FierceBuddhist says:

    Today in Chicago US Uncut held an action. One person was so moved the went into Bank of America to close their account. When asked why they said it was because BoA was not paying taxes. They were then told they could not close their account. More abuse of power and another salvo against the Middle Class


  3. michael lisi says:

    This will not end soon and the splitting of the middle class will soon turn into trying to split unions against one another. By trying to amend these bills to include and exclude certain unions, like police and fire, and also attempting to “reclassify” some union employees, faculty, they are trying to split hairs to make this law stick to someone, anyone, so they can make their point. Once it does, if it does, they won’t stop until they have divided and conquered all union employees. Since doing any of this will eventually require a statewide vote, at least we have time and numbers on our side. As mentioned in a recent NYT article, “WE”RE ALL BADGERS NOW!”.


  4. Pingback: When’s the revolution? | Tim Ryan For President

  5. Tim Francisco says:

    Great post–couple this with the media’s insistence on adopting the rhetoric of the neo-cons, i.e., it’s the public sector versus the “taxpayers” (as if public employees aren’t also taxpayers) and the Tea Party’s wholesale adoption of an ironically “Socialist” mentality that screams “If I don’t have it neither should you” and the conditions are ripe for decimation of the working class. What I cannot understand, is why, instead of arguing that public employees should shoulder the same “sacrifices” as the private sector, no one is talking about why the private sector is sacrificing at a time when corporate coffers are more flush than ever.


  6. Hey Now says:

    Well, weather or not they are racist, Obama did not win because of any working class white vote. He won only because 96 percent of blacks voted for him and a large percentage of Latinos. The president only won 43 percent of the white vote. He won less than half of the white working class vote. In short, race still trumps class for whites. The white working class and people of color in the working class cant and wont come together until white workers refuse to continue to cling to skin privilege.


  7. I found this article particularly unsettling because it makes it difficult to ignore what is going on. I, too, feel a sense of urgency in the need to take some sort of action to help the public realize what is going on. Our government is for sale, thanks to lobbyists and the supreme court ruling on campaign contributions, and it is being purchased by the privileged class at expense of the working- and middle class.
    Here’s a suggestion. We need to create a recognizable name that has a sound byte resonance and organize demonstrations to let our political system know that this is not acceptable. I’m a baby boomer and was part of the peace demonstations in the 60s. I think public demonstrations are the only way we can end the war on the working class. Perhaps the name should have “middle class” or “working class” in the title because Americans feel warmly about both. This is not a Republican or Demoncratic party issue — both parties are ineffective in changing the system. It’s about guaranteeing a quality of life for everyone and having a secure financial system. Maybe we should petition to have the working class listed as an endangered species.
    Here are some suggestions: The Working Class Party, The Middle Class Party, The Fairness Party, The Common Party. Anyone else have suggestions?
    Thanks to John and Sherry for putting it all together.


  8. Pingback: The War on the Working Class-Time to “engage fully in the class war” | California State Workers-Class Struggle Militants

  9. Pingback: The War On The Working Class: Wisconsin Is Not About Public Workers Alone « Chicago Labor & Arts Festival Blog

  10. Alisa says:

    Halleluliah! I can’t help but turn off NPR each time focus shifts to WI. All this baiting of unions makes me sick.

    Thanks, John and Sherry for saying what needs to be said.


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