Memphis sanitation strike, 1968
The Working Class
The U.S. working class is the majority class in the U.S.A. In 2010, it had 144 million members and was about 94% of the workforce. Another ten million people were self-employed, the majority working without employees. Almost all workers produce or distribute non-agricultural goods and services; only 2-3 million work in agriculture.
The past 30 years have seen the rapid development of a world economy, a world capitalist class that controls the world economy, and a world working class. American workers are part of an increasingly integrated global workforce of 2.0 billion non-agricultural and 1.3 billion agricultural workers. As capital migrates to developing countries with lower wages, U.S. workers face huge challenges to defend their jobs and standard of living. They often find more success when they unite with foreign employees of the same company.
The working class is struggling to understand how to become a “class for itself” and successfully resist the powerful hegemony of big business in the life of the country. This chapter sketches key features of the U.S. working class and its challenges in this era.
The U.S. Working Class Today
The first decade of the 21st century saw a steady weakening of American workers’ bargaining position with employers, beginning even before the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The recession hit American workers hard, and recovery (mid-2012) has barely begun. Important indices demonstrate the decline before the recession and during. Thus, U.S. Census Bureau data show that the real (adjusted for inflation) median household income for working age households fell 3.4% from 2000-2007 and then another 9.3% from 2007-2010. Employer-based health insurance coverage fell steadily, from 65% to 60% to 55%. And, the number of Americans without any health insurance rose from 36 million to 45 million to 50 million.
The “American Dream” has become more like a nightmare for many young workers, who join the workforce in a continuing flow as the elderly leave in a continuing flow. The new generation suffers from depression-level rates of unemployment and low wages. The official (understated) youth unemployment rate in mid-2011 was 18%. Among white youth it was 16%; African-American, 31% (!); Hispanic/Latino, 20%; and Asian, 15%. Young workers start work with real wages (adjusted for inflation) much lower than their older siblings received. During the past 11 years, entry-level wages for high school graduates fell 17% for young men and 10% for young women, and rates for college graduates fell 8% (young men) and 6% (young women).
The feminization of poverty has also increased in the past decade. In 2010, female-headed households (woman plus children) were 20% of all households, and one-third of these single-earners live in poverty. Women workers continue to be a source of super-profits as the full-time earnings of year-round women workers were only 77% of their male counterparts.
The decade also saw a worsening of the glaring gaps between the poverty rates of white workers and other workers caused by racist employment and education practices. The poverty rate for all children (under age 18) grew to 22% in 2010, up from 18% in 2007 and 16% in 2000. The respective rates for white children were 12%, 10%, and 9%. Among Black children, the rates were 39%, 34%, and 31%; Hispanics, 35%, 29%, and 28%; Asians, 14%, 12%, and 12%.
Immigrant workers, another important source of renewal for the working class, also face an especially difficult situation today. They now make up 16% of the U.S. workforce, up from 5% in 1970. They bring widely varied experiences, values, and political views – as workers, peasants, self-employed, and employers – and as war refugees, economic refugees, victims of religious and political persecution, and pilgrims in search of higher standards of living.
11 million of the 40 million immigrants do not have legal status and live in the shadows, without rights or protections. The government deports them when it finds them in roundups at job sites and highway search points, and when police stop their cars for minor traffic violations. In 2011, the government deported 400,000 immigrants.
“Outsourcing” has become a major employer organizational practice, to subcontractors in a “production chain” and to staffing agencies. These offer temporary, contract, long term, permanent, and temp-to-permanent positions. Two of the largest are Adecco, which employs 750,000 workers daily and has 100,000 client companies, and Manpower, which employs 3.5 million workers per year and has 400,000 client companies.
Apparently contradicting the process of expansion of the working class discussed above, employers are forcing millions of employees to be self-employed and “off the books” workers. In reality, they remain employees since the employer controls what the worker does and how s/he does it, requires attendance at specified hours, and provides workspace and equipment. This practice enables employers to avoid payroll taxes (social security, workers compensation, unemployment insurance), minimum wage, overtime, insurance, vacations, and sick days.
Challenges for American Workers
Every class needs its own economic organizations, political parties, and ideological institutions to organize, unite, inform, and lead it. The U.S. working class has organized some of its members into unions (economic organizations), which are workers’ means of uniting against their employers. However, employers have mainly destroyed private sector unions in the past 30 years, so that only 7% of private sector workers were union members in 2011. Private sector unionism was non-existent in most areas of the country. Overall, the percentage of employees who were union members fell from 22% to 11%. Public sector unionism, while under severe attack, remained at 37% of the government workforce in 2011. Collective bargaining agreements covered just 16.1 million workers in 2010.
Ideological institutions such as union and political schools, research institutions, and media are tiny and suffer from lack of funding.
Political parties are the instrument for uniting and leading a class in political matters. The U.S. working class has been unable to organize its own (substantial) political parties. Two parties that promote capitalist interests, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, have dominated elections for many years. Unions generally try to protect workers’ interests by supporting more-or-less pro-worker candidates in the Democratic Party. Workers split their votes between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Many workers vote for “the lesser evil,” candidates, but advertising and spin reporting influence all votes.
This chapter shows that the working class faces huge challenges. To the extent that it finds ways to build these complementary organizations, it will become a “class for itself.”
Was Marx wrong when he wrote: “The working class is the gravedigger of capitalism?”
 2010 US Statistical Abstract 2012, Table 586. Civilian Population—Employment Status: 1970 to 2010; Table 603.
 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: http://unctadstat.unctad.org.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 1959-2010, Table
 Bureau of Economic Statistics, Economic News Release, “Table 1. Employment Status of the Civilian Non-institutional Population 16 to 24 Years of Age by Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity, April-July 2011.”
 Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief 327, Mar. 7, 2012, “Entry Workers’ Wages Fell in Lost Decade,” L. Mishel.
 Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance, Tables A-5, B-2, and B-3. Data on women and poverty rates.
 US Statistical Abstract 2011, Table 589.
 Dept. of Homeland Security, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
 US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Members - 2011,” January 27, 2012.