As US politicians romanticize doomed manufacturing jobs, the new working class is suffering

Made in America.
Made in America.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith/File Photo
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My dad was a machinist at a steel factory in Middletown, Ohio. He worked there for 29 years before accepting early retirement, leaving the job with a nice gold table-top clock and a generous pension. He was the fifth generation of Draut’s to work at the plant, and the last. Operating today with a fraction of the workforce, the steel factory no longer dominates my hometown economy the way it did when I was growing up.

Today, politicians of both parties promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. But as much as it pains me to say it, these efforts are misplaced. Instead, we desperately need to direct our attention towards improving the jobs of the new working class—the legions of fast food, retail, health care, and janitorial jobs who now form the backbone of our economy. These are jobs that can’t be outsourced to China, Vietnam, or India. While America’s public intellectuals wax eloquently, and even idolize, the innovation and ideation done by tech workers, the reality that most Americans actually work in a bargain-basement economy remains on the margins of contemporary political discourse.

Four in ten private sector workers do not have any right to a paid sick day. Close to one in five workers has an erratic schedule, subject to change on a weekly basis. Many occupations that will add the most new jobs to our economy in the next decade will require little to no education beyond high school—where wages hover below $12 an hour for the most part, and the work is done disproportionately by women, Latinos, and African Americans. These are jobs such as fast food prep, retail sales, home health and personal care, secretarial positions and janitorial and cleaning services. This is the economy of today and tomorrow—and yet the presidential campaigns of both parties remain remarkably aloof to this reality. Today, the United States has one of the highest percentages of working people earning low-wages—one out of four employed Americans—of 26 advanced countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The degradation of living standards for the new working class didn’t just happen overnight, however. Rather, it is the result of a tightly orchestrated plan by the nation’s political and corporate elites to undermine what they see as government meddling and overreach in the market.

Men like my dad heaved and hoisted America’s great prosperity during the 20th century. And they were rewarded and respected for it. From the 1940s to the mid 1970s, America was booming: the smokestacks were billowing, the cars were rolling off the assembly lines, and people who were at the bottom of the income scale saw their pay grow more rapidly than those at the top.

Meanwhile, labor and the civil rights movements were pushing America to make good on its promises of equality and freedom. Unions representing about one-third of America’s workforce organized their members, creating a strong political bloc that gave decades of presidents the political backing for a strong and active government.

But to business elites, the power of labor, along with environmental and social policies, represented a direct threat to the free enterprise system.

So big business stole a page from labor’s playbook, and began organizing. The chief architect behind the rise of organized business interests was Lewis Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer who later became a member of the US Supreme Court. Just two months before he was nominated by president Richard Nixon to the Court, Powell wrote a memo to the Chamber of Commerce outlining an attack plan for Big Business. Powell argued that this attack required aggressive and determined political mobilization.

It didn’t take long for Powell’s vision to be implemented—the number of firms with registered lobbyists in Washington DC and the number of corporate PACs both ballooned in the 1970s and 80s, far surpassing those employed by labor unions.

Big Business also received a major helping hand from the Supreme Court itself. In 1976, the Court found that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. That premise, that money is free speech, has been used time and time again by the Court to unravel commonsense limits on how money can be spent in elections.

Today, economic clout is easily translated into political clout. And the working class pays the steepest price. Research by the political scientist Martin Gilens proves that “the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” When the policy preferences of the affluent and the working class diverge, the affluent win. And that political advantage is most pronounced on economic policy.

At the same time that America’s corporate elites were getting organized and fighting back against big labor and active government, the Republican Party was developing its own political strategy to shrink the federal government, an entity they had longed viewed as a fundamental threat to free enterprise. That strategy, still in full operation today, was strategic racism.

Race as a modern day political tactic began with Nixon’s Southern Strategy in the 1968 presidential race. The Republican Party made the politically savvy calculus that they could pick up conservative, white Democrats in the South with dog whistle politics and racially charged positions. Most importantly, they realized they could undermine whites’ support for government in a post-Civil Rights era by racializing those who benefitted from government programs.

Enter Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.” Even Democrats got in the game, with Bill Clinton pledging to “end welfare as we know it.” Newt Gingrich’s labeling of president Obama as “the food stamp president.” And GOP representative Paul Ryan’s conception of the safety net as “hammock, that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.”

As we gird ourselves for what is likely to be the nastiest general election campaign in recent United States history, racism and sexism are poised to be the twin planks of Trump’s pitch for the job. He’s running on promises to bring back those high-paying factory jobs, and on a plank of anti-immigrant xenophobia designed to exploit racial anxiety about a changing America.

But who’s speaking to the new working class, those who feed, care, clean, and stock America? No one.

Through movements like The Fight for $15, this new working class—which is much more racially diverse and female than my father’s working class—is staking a claim and making demands. But so far, neither political party is speaking about their experiences, their dreams or their aspirations. Donald is all about angry white men. Bernie is all about inequality and Wall Street. Hillary is offering lofty promises to rebuild “the ladders of opportunity.”

This is an election that is sure to defy old rules and traditions. It’s time we redefined “working class” and put this terminology back into the political lexicon and at the center of the liberal agenda. It’s time this new working class got a better deal.