Fred’s Focus: Who Has the American Working Class’ Back?

For the last three and half decades, American workers have largely been on their own. With the exception of labor unions, they have had no go for broke champion to help them navigate through the political scene.

Yes, the Democratic Party has been a long time ally of American workers. Acting in concert, the party and unions pushed successfully for Medicare, social security, decent wages and working conditions. Some argue that this alliance in effect created the middle class.

That alliance, however, has frayed considerably in the last few decades. In his new bookListen, Liberal, Thomas Frank argues that Democrats have largely abandoned America’s blue collar workers. The party is now devoted to the interests of what Frank calls an “academic professional class”- the doctors, teachers, and accountants. Intelligence and political savvy are equivocated.

Frank argues that big time trade deals, promoted by Democrats and Republicans alike, have destroyed millions of American manufacturing jobs. Rising globalization has put our workers at a serious disadvantage with workers in emerging nations. American workers are left alone while the interests of businesses are prioritized.

The inequality scholar Branko Milanovic argues in Global Inequality that the hard numbers show the biggest winners are the 1% of the richest nations. And the biggest losers? These are the middle and lower income workers of rich nations such as the United States.

It’s all about money. Pulitzer winner Hedrick Smith writes in Who Stole the American Dream? that business and trade groups spent $28.6 billion on political lobbying from 1998 through 2010 while unions spent $492 million- a 60-to-1 advantage.

Working class votes were once paramount in support of the Democratic Party. But this is no longer true. No Democratic Party presidential candidate has won the white male vote since 1964. That vote consistently goes to the GOP, which gives workers lip service in issues such as guns, abortion, and oftentimes reinforces prejudices against immigrants and minorities. The DNC obviously feels it can win the presidency without working class votes and so it devotes few resources to these voters.

So who are the working class Americans and where do they work?

A half century ago, there were many ethnic Americans, Eastern Europeans, Italians, and Scottish-Irish. They worked in manufacturing jobs, the mines, and ultimately were civil servants. Their income from the end of World War II kept pace with rising incomes for all Americans.

None of the above is true any longer. Tamara Draut, Vice President for Policy at Demos, defines the new working class in Sleeping Giant.

Working class jobs today are largely in fields such as retail sales, caregiving, laboring, and similar occupations. Low wage workers, Draut describes, are much more racially diverse than they were decades ago.

The median hourly working class hourly wage today is $15.61, a full $1.30 less than 1980 adjusted for inflation, Draut writes.

Draut makes the important observation: “today’s working class is more black, Latino and female than it was in the industrial era. And that very fact– the diversity of this new working class–is a major reason why it has been so easy to ignore, dismiss, and marginalize.”

American workers have been on their own and now they are fighting for their fair share of American prosperity. Groups like Patriotic Millionaires support and fight for a $15 minimum wage. Traditional politicians are being pushed left by citizen groups. Unions such as Communications Workers of America and Service Employees International Union, are taking creative and aggressive positions. The tides are changing.

American workers’ fight for justice is a battle for the fulfillment of opportunity and fairness- it is a battle for the American Dream.

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