From firstname.lastname@example.org Sun Sep 3 17:11:33 2000
'Working-Class' Majority Needs a Hero
By Michael Zweig, Newsday, 1 September 2000
AL GORE raised a ruckus when he went populist at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles last month. Ever since, he's been attacking tobacco companies and oil, insurance and pharmaceutical giants. Voters seem to like it, giving his post-convention poll ratings a boost. News commentators and media pundits have more often expressed shock bordering on outraged disbelief that he would resort to "class struggle" politics, as though the term alone is enough to discredit the point entirely.
But it's true. There is indeed class warfare in this country. The problem is, only one class seems to know it-the class that has been winning for the last three decades. Between 1972 and 1997, as unions lost power, the real earnings of nonsupervisory workers (after taking inflation into account) fell about 20 percent, even though their productivity continued to rise. Family income has stayed level only because more family members are working, and for longer hours. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the new wealth created in the Reagan years went to the top 1 percent of households, while the bottom 80 percent ended up worse off because of a sharp rise in their personal debt.
In the past three years, tight labor markets have finally led to increases in real income for workers. But even in the Clinton-Gore boom, worker incomes are rising more slowly than worker productivity, so income and wealth continue to grow ever more unequal. In 1980, a typical major corporate CEO made 42 times the income of an average production worker. In 1995, it was 141 times. By 1998, it was 419 times.
This is not simply a case of "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This is a case of the working class taking it in the neck while the capitalist class goes to the bank. By working class, I mean people who have little control over the pace or content of their work and who aren't supervising other workers. That's 62 percent of the labor force.
If we understand class as a question of power rather than income or lifestyle, we see that America is not a "middle-class society." With the capitalist class amounting to just 2 percent of the labor force and a middle class of professionals, supervisors, managers and small business owners amounting to 36 percent, this is a society with a working-class majority.
Campaign talk about "working families" obscures the existence of classes in this country even as it hints at an appeal to working-class people. Al Gore talks a lot about fighting. But whom are we supposed to fight? Not just three or four industries that damage us as consumers. The problem for working people is again to find ways to limit the power of the capitalist class, the class that for 30 years has systematically damaged them as workers. That's how we won Social Security, union protection and shared prosperity in the past.
The middle class has an interest here, too. Small business owners and professionals closely connected to the working class, like teachers, nurses and social workers, have lost ground along with the workers they serve. Those, many fewer in number, who serve the capitalist class, like high-end lawyers and accountants, have prospered. Most middle-class people would benefit from a strong working-class political movement.
After decades of media talk about the middle class, and a disappeared working class, Al Gore's reference to "working families" comes at a time of renewed AFL-CIO organizing and student campaigns against sweatshops. Many people were caught off guard by Gore's rhetorical move to the left, away from the now-traditional fight for the middle, but we should welcome this as an opening to explore the realities of class life in America.
Who among the current crop of presidential candidates is best equipped to lead the country on behalf of the working class? Is it really Al Gore? Could George W. Bush possibly make the case, or whoever emerges from the Reform Party debacle? Is it Ralph Nader? How can we start again to create working-class politics? The presidential campaign traditionally gets serious after Labor Day. Will a real working-class hero please step forward?
Michael Zweig teaches economics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and is the author of "The Working Class Majority: America's Best-Kept Secret.