This will be the first Labor Day since America rediscovered its working class — or, more accurately, one part of its working class. If there was any consensus in the aftermath of last November’s election, it was that elites had lost touch with working people. Yet 10 months later, most commentators still get the working class wrong.
We hear a lot from pundits about working-class white men, conjuring images of blue collars, hard hats and simmering resentments expressed through votes for Donald Trump.
But in reality, America’s working class is largely female and disproportionately black and brown. Service jobs now outstrip those in manufacturing; the jobs with the highest-projected job growth are typically female-dominated working-class jobs such as nursing, home health care and food service. Significantly, the majority of members of the working class do not see President Trump as their defender.
Post-election analysis overlooked both the complexity and creative energy of the nation’s working class. Increasingly, working people are organizing a new kind of workers’ movement that combines traditional unions with organizations that build worker power beyond the weakened collective-bargaining system.
In fact, we may stand on the cusp of a new surge of worker activism unlike any the United States has witnessed since the 1970s. Historians have missed that pivotal decade’s working-class promise, instead painting it as an era of division and defeat. School-busing riots seize center stage in their tale, as do highly visible male construction workers beating up Vietnam War protesters.
This story isn’t wholly wrong, but it’s incomplete. The focus on a hard-hatted “silent majority” obscures the millions of workers who were part of a newly diversified working class in the 1970s and who actively organized unions. How we understand working-class people and their politics, both in the past and today, matters deeply for how we perceive the causes and solutions for the nation’s economic divide.
White men haven’t been the epicenter of the working class since the 1960s. Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, women and people of color finally gained more access to jobs at the economy’s core. Once this diverse group of workers got those jobs, they demanded unions. A half-million working people per year voted in private-sector union elections in the 1970s, pushing for the full economic security that came with a labor contract.
Employers, however, manipulated aging and outdated labor laws to thwart their efforts. Even unionized industrial employers began to resist new organizing in the 1970s, backed by a vastly expanded anti-union consultant industry.
Globalization and mechanization eroded union membership, but so too did the fact that workers couldn’t win union representation over employer opposition. In the 1940s, workers won 80 percent of their union elections. By the late 1970s, employers had the advantage, winning more than half of these elections and blocking workers’ access to collective bargaining, a key economic equalizer. Union membership has since continued to slide — a mere 6.4 percent of private-sector workers today have a union.
As unions declined, so did our nation’s democracy. After all, organized labor devotes tremendous energy and resources to getting voters to the polls. Groundbreaking research by sociologist Jake Rosenfeld reveals that since 1984, election-day turnout among private-sector union members without a college degree has been seven to 11 points higher than that of similar workers who aren’t union members.
Unions also educate their members on economic and political issues, and so counterbalance the temptation among workers to let divisive cultural issues determine their votes. That is especially true among white union members, who tend to vote more conservatively than do union members as a whole. Far fewer working people today are privy to these kinds of workplace conversations than in unions’ heyday.
Unions’ shrinkage also fed the nation’s growing economic divide. Researchers find that between one-fifth and one-third of wage inequality is due to the drop in union membership since the 1970s.
Today’s key working-class concern isn’t whether Trump saved a few manufacturing jobs in Indiana. The most burning question seems to be off his radar entirely: How can the majority of working people build better lives when jobs are so bad and unions are so weak?
Poorly paid part-time jobs are the new norm, especially in the service and retail sector. Workers often find that they are legally considered independent contractors — and therefore unprotected by labor laws — even when they drive the same truck route each day, or sweep the same office floors. Also excluded from labor law protection are the millions in the gig economy. And when “protected” workers try to form unions, employers routinely fire, harass or threaten them.
Yet despite these challenges, America’s diverse working class is even now building a new workers’ movement, often far outside the media spotlight. It’s different from the 20th-century labor movement, which consisted of traditional unions alone. Workers today are blending unions with new organizations that experiment with innovative ways to circumnavigate the nation’s broken labor-law system.
Women and immigrants lead these worker centers, public wage campaigns and occupation-based organizations, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Such groups make creative use of public opinion, wage and hour laws, and tried-and-true community organizing tactics to rebuild workers’ economic security, even within the changed 21st-century workplace. Without ever engaging in collective bargaining, New York restaurant workers have used this array of tactics to win sick days, and Massachusetts domestic workers have won a “bill of rights” guaranteeing overtime pay and fair treatment.
Workers still want unions. Witness the upsurge of unionism on university campuses, where adjunct faculty, graduate employees and food-service workers are all demanding their right to bargain collectively.
Working people also are pioneering entirely new ways to raise wages and win benefits, often leveraging the power of local government. Sixteen states and localities have approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour since 2013. San Francisco, Seattle and New York City have all enacted fair-scheduling rules to protect certain workers from erratic shifts and insufficient hours. Unions, worker centers and community groups have banded together to buoy these wins.
Much depends on the success of such experiments. In the 20th century, we learned that healthy democracies require economically secure citizens. For a generation, we have witnessed the erosion of both. This Labor Day, working women and men are increasingly fighting to reestablish a basic economic foothold. Yet their struggle will remain largely invisible to us as long as we fail to see today’s working class in all of its diversity.