I got my all time favorite t-shirt from the AFL-CIO online store. It’s black with red lettering and reads, “Kicking Ass for the Working Class.”
The “Kicking Ass” part appeals to my Southern roots, experiences like going to the Pittston Miners strike in the rural mountains of southwest Virginia in 1989.
Richard Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers (UMWA), sent Cecil Roberts, now president of the UMWA to lead the effort. Ninety-nine miners occupied Pittston’s Moss 3 coal processing plant, in a dramatic effort to stop the company from cutting health care. Workers, union members, community groups, people of faith, women’s groups and students of all races and nationalities came from all over the country, and the world, to establish Camp Solidarity. It was a kick-ass moment.
But what I really like about the t-shirt is the “Working Class” part. Some prefer the term “middle class.” When labor folks talk about “restoring the middle class,” or “fighting for the middle class,” and the like, they most often mean working class. It’s easy to understand why middle class has come into popular usage. Big business and the far-right scream “class warfare” every time union workers fight for their rights. Just like they yell “socialism” whenever we talk about public spending for the public good; like the public option in health care.
If we could get one senator’s vote for every time some Fortune 500 CEO called the Employee Free Choice Act “class warfare,” the bill would have passed unanimously a week after it was introduced. Of course, when the same CEOs spend millions for union busting, to slash wages and benefits, to close plants and ship jobs overseas, that’s just “the cost of doing business.”
Class warfare-baiting, like red-baiting is plain and simple bullying with deep roots in the history of anti-labor attack. In great periods of struggle for workers rights in this country, “working class” was the word. Communists, Socialists, IWWs, Knights of Labor, the CIO and labor leaders of all political stripes, all spoke of the working class.
Some are shy about using the term working class is because it implies class struggle. But class struggle is not the same thing as class warfare. Class warfare implies violence and aggression. (Nobody in their right mind likes warfare, except those who profit from it.)
However, class struggle is real. People have class interests based on how they make their living. The bankers, the factory owners, the insurance companies, make their outlandish fortunes by doing anything they can for higher profits. Most often this takes the form of squeezing their employees, avoiding taxes, and fighting against any kind of public regulation of their business.
Workers, on the other hand, better themselves by organizing and fighting for decent wages, working conditions and social programs that use our tax dollars to help everyone.
Eight years of George Bush’s big business, anti-labor policy is a big factor in the current economic crisis. So we see in real time what happens when that corporate class gets the upper hand. In contrast when the working class successfully struggles to raise living standards and bring the bottom up, the overall economy thrives.
So, what difference does it make what term we use? Terminology is probably not the biggest deal. Still, it matters.
“Working class” is a much broader, more inclusive idea than “middle class.” Working class unites those who have good union jobs and decent living standards with the minimum wage worker, with the unorganized, the unemployed, the young first time job seeker, the homeless, the poor and those who suffer discrimination and oppression in our society. Like Eugene Debs put it, “… while there is a lower class, I am in it … .” Middle class isn’t so clear. For the rich it is a handy way to divide. As financer Jay Gould once put it, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” That starts by trying to make one half of the working class think it is better than the other half.
I think working class is a much better way to describe the AFL-CIO convention now going on in Pittsburgh. Labor has moved beyond seeing itself as mainly interested in so-called middle class wages and working conditions for its members. Rather more and more labor sees itself as champion for all of the working class. This explains labor’s focus on organizing, workers rights, and on health care for all. It’s why unions fight on living wage laws. It’s why labor confronts racism and all forms of discrimination. It also explains labor’s lead on immigrant rights, on environmental and green job issues, and on many other broad social issues.
I’ve got no quarrel with working-class folks who prefer the term middle class. But the truth is we are locked in a fierce class struggle, made much worse by the current economic crisis. It’s time to speak plainly. The working class needs kick ass program, organization and action to unite the many against the greedy profiteering few.
Scott Marshall, firstname.lastname@example.org, chairs the Communist Party’s labor commission and edits its blog, Labor Upfront