Joining the middle class in 2007

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, negotiating for thousands of grocery workers in Southern California, won a stunning victory in July, approving a new union contract that reversed the unfair two-tiered system they had been forced to accept back in 2004. Now, there’s “only” a six-month waiting period before workers and their families qualify for health coverage. And they received a relatively decent wage increase. No doubt the commitment that thousands of ordinary consumers made to honor picket lines, if a strike happened, helped lubricate the negotiations.

One longtime Ralphs supermarket worker was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Hopefully this will encourage people to join our profession in what is now a middle-class job again.” Other commentators, from the L.A. County Federation of Labor, from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and from elsewhere, also emphasized that grocery workers now have “quality jobs” that are “critical to the future of our region’s middle class.”

Sociologists in the United States have used the term “middle class” to define almost everyone in America. It’s a not very subtle way of emphasizing the “classless” nature of American society. Oh, yes, some may have three homes and a yacht, while others struggle to choose between the rent and their pills, but we are all “middle class.” Lower than middle class would be the unemployed, the homeless, welfare recipients, the incarcerated, the truly down and out — but as soon as you get a job, even at minimum wage, presto! — you are back in the comfortable “middle class.” Just make sure you don’t get fired for trying to organize a union, and at all costs avoid a family health catastrophe!

Such terminology is not helpful to us who are trying to make sense of America today, and to make us a stronger, better educated, healthier, and more egalitarian, democratic country. By embracing the term “working class,” that Ralphs worker would make clear that his place in America is alongside every autoworker, every hotel worker, every nurse, every farm worker, and every teacher, and that collectively they have a class interest as opposed to (and most viciously opposed by!) their corporate bosses.

More than that, it is just possible that workers in America might see that their class interests are best served in alliance with workers of other countries too, in this increasingly globalized economy, where industry follows cheap labor in the “race to the bottom” that characterizes our age.

If I protest against “middle class” blurring of social distinctions, I also say this: When we refer to the working class, let us not exempt its lower strata, the down and out, unemployed, welfare clients and homeless, who are always dangled before our eyes as examples of what will happen if we don’t go along with industry’s demands.

The most important issue facing that Ralphs worker is neither her/his raise, nor the waiting period for health care. The main issue is consciousness — to begin thinking not like a member of the “middle class” but of the working class — and to start demanding what working people in every other nation already have or are struggling for themselves: vacations, universal health care, great schools, adequate housing, good public transportation systems, workplace safety and protection of the environment, etc.

There is no shame in being a worker, no need to disappear behind a “middle class” curtain. Let us turn our victories into real power through every means at our disposal — the ballot, petition, demonstration, organizing more people into unions, and the strike if necessary. As Ralph Chaplin, our beloved old Wobbly poet, put it in “Solidarity Forever”:

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold. We can bring birth to the new world from the ashes of the old. For the Union makes us strong.

Eric Gordon has written a biography of composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored the autobiography of composer Earl Robinson.