Renewing the Working Class American Dream

Terrance Heath

David’s post about the working-class vs. the professional ideal, brought to mind a few news articles, a boatload of memories, and a few thoughts about renewing the working class American Dream David spoke of. (After all, if there is more than one America, there has to be more than one American Dream. Right?)

The first article, from February of this year, focused on Detroit’s loss of manufacturing jobs in the face of automaker’s payroll cuts.

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A new round of cutbacks by Detroit’s automakers carries a larger message – that America’s manufacturing workers are under new pressure in jobs where labor unions had once been able to command middle-class wages for assembly-line jobs.

…”Those jobs are going and they’re not coming back,” says Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. In part, he says, manufacturers see moves such as the job buyouts as “a path for them to become low-cost producers by elimina

…But as worker productivity surges forward around the world, the balance of power has shifted. America’s heavy industry isn’t producing the number of jobs that it used to.

The US lost 3 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2006, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, citing figures from government reports.

Meanwhile, the average hourly earnings of manufacturing workers have grown more slowly than pay in service-sector jobs, even though productivity has risen much faster for manufacturing workers.

“All of US manufacturing is competing on a global basis,” says Michelle Krebs, senior editor of Edmunds’s AutoObserver.com, which tracks the car industry.

Though the next one — titled “The Wage That Meant Middle Class” — about the decline of the $20/hour wage, seems to imply the same attitude towards blue collar work that David addresses (blue collar jobs as a stepping stone to middle class status, and presumably white collar work, for the next generation), I can’t help thinking that’s still part of what’s contributed to declining status of blue collar work and the unfamiliarity of most Americans with the principles David referenced.

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Leaving aside for a moment those who have lost their jobs, what of those who still have them? Once upon a time, a large number earned at least $20 an hour, or its inflation-adjusted equivalent, and now so many of them don’t.

The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction.

Americans greeted the loss with anger and protest when it first began to happen in big numbers in the late 1970s, particularly in the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania. But as layoffs persisted, in Pennsylvania and across the country, through the ’80s and ’90s and right up to today, the protests subsided and acquiescence set in.

Hourly workers had come a long way from the days when employers and unions negotiated a way for them to earn the prizes of the middle class — houses, cars, college educations for their children, comfortable retirements. Even now a residual of that golden age remains, notably in the auto industry. But here, too, wages are falling below the $20-an-hour threshold — $41,600 annually — that many experts consider the minimum income necessary to put a family of four into the middle class.

And the third article focused on the fact that there are fewer “good jobs” for workers without college degrees.

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The steady loss of “good jobs” by less-educated workers has left them more vulnerable to recession than at any time in nearly 30 years, and signs are mounting that a recession is either already here or coming soon.

High-school dropouts and even high-school graduates who lack specialized job training have seen their already limited employment prospects steadily decline during America’s decades-long shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy.

Not long ago, Americans who were unable to attend college could count on finding local factory jobs after high school. The lucky ones landed in muscular industries such as aviation, steel and automobiles, while others found work on assembly lines building durable goods.

These and other “good jobs” were the signature byproducts of a robust economy that once was the envy of the world. The jobs provided stability and decent wages that allowed families to buy homes, provide for their children and retire in modest comfort.

…Since then, however, the economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs — 52,000 in February alone. Among them were many of the 3.5 million “good jobs” lost from 2000 to 2006, according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR.

As those jobs disappeared, many blue-collar workers were forced to take jobs with far less pay and benefit security.

Put it all together, and there’s a reason to think that there are are just fewer and fewer examples of the value and dignity in “attaining social status through farming, small-business development and factory work,” as David wrote, and I suspect that’s why too many of us have no reference point for it. 

My dad didn’t work in a factory. He worked in a power plant, which I guess is close enough. He walked out the door each morning wearing work boots, a safety hat, and carrying a lunch pail. And he didn’t spend his work days sitting behind a desk. Before marrying my dad in 1955, my mom put herself through cosmetology school, and opened her own beauty shop in an extra room built on to her parents’ home. That room was later converted into a bedroom, and when we visited my grandfather years later I could see the worn areas in the floor where my mom stood behind the chair and moved back and forth from her her tools (back then, a hotcomb and heating element).  And my grandparents? Sharecroppers. So I do have a point of reference reference for all David mentioned in his example.

But how do we change our present reality? There are fewer and fewer factory jobs to be had, and we are pretty far along in a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy that has replaced good jobs with good wages and good benefits with jobs that pay considerably less and often come with fewer benefits or none at all.

Discussing all of the above with a colleague a couple of months ago, I suggested that in order to get out of the economic mess we’re in, we’d have to return to some degree of a manufacturing economy, even if not at the same level as in the past. But he countered that the globalization genie was out of the bottle, and even as other countries enacted environmental and labor laws that make them less atrractive to corporations seeking cheap labor and low-to-no regulations, there will always be other desperately poor countries willing to take any jobs, at any wages, and under any conditions.

So, if he’s right, how do we change that?  First, there’s no simple three- or four-step solution that will solve all of these peoblems, but there are ways we can begin addressing some of these problems. The reality is that working-class Americans have experienced a decline in their standard of living as blue collar jobs with decent wages and benefits are lost, and workers shift into service-sector jobs that pay less and carry fewer benefits. We can begin to address that through a health care plan that guarantees coverage to everyone. That would restore a degree of dignity to Americans who work hard and spend more and more of their wages on health care but are still under-insured, or the growing numbers of the unemployed joining the ranks of Sara pointed out, that would even encourage more people to start their own businesses, or go back to a school and retrain for a different career, rather than clinging to any job that offers reasonable coverage.

We can begin to address this by putting education within reach for more families, and especially the families of high-achieving low-income students — whose college enrollment rates are lower than high-income students with lower achievement scores. We can address it by focusing on career and technical education for students who are not college bound, and create jobs for many of them right in their communities, if we invest in fixing our crumbling infrastructure, instead of leaving it to the same Wall Street firms that helped bring us the credit crisis.

Speaking of infrastructure, we can begin to address this by envisioning and building a green economy, that creates growth and

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