Forget Your Middle-Class Dreams

When it comes to workplace organizing, there's no such thing as a “privileged” worker. You’re either with your coworkers or you’re against them.

Journalists at work in a news office, circa 1930. James W. Welgos / Archive Photos / Getty

In 1932, a group of left-wing intellectuals formed the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, a campaign to back the Communist Party’s William Z. Foster and James W. Ford for president and vice president, respectively. Toward this end, the League produced a pamphlet, titled Culture and the Crisis: An Appeal to the Writers, Artists, Teachers, Physicians, Engineers, Scientists, and Other Professional Workers of America. In it, they appealed to these “brain workers” to join “muscle workers” in the fight for a new world. Noting white-collar workers’ immiseration — “There are teachers in the bread lines, engineers patching the sheet-iron sheds in the ‘Hoovervilles’” — the pamphlet articulated a dividing line for this group. Their choice was “between serving either as the cultural lieutenants of the capitalist class or as allies and fellow travelers of the working class.” There are two sides, it argued. Pick one.

Although Foster and Ford did not go on to win the election — they received 102,785 votes — the pamphlet marked an early theorization of white-collar workers’ class position in the United States. Michael Denning, in his book on the era, designates the pamphlet as ground zero of US Western Marxism. Considering their own place within a stratified capitalist society, the authors behind the pamphlet pointed the way forward: white-collar workers — as evocative an image as “brain workers” is, it’s a fib to pretend manual labor doesn’t require a brain, so the phrase will have to remain lost to history — should be allies and fellow travelers of the working, industrial class.

But if selling one’s labor for a living, being compelled to do so by the threat of starvation and to keep a roof over one’s head, makes one a worker (at least, so long as one does not have disciplinary power over other workers, which complicates the matter) then why, exactly, don’t the teachers and engineers count as actual workers, rather than merely their allies? As it turns out, it didn’t take long for one of the pamphlet’s signatories to argue exactly that. Rejecting the earlier formulation, Lewis Corey, in his 1935 The Crisis of the Middle Class, argued “the mass of lower salaried employees and professionals are not ‘allies’ of the working class, they are part of the working class and its struggle for socialism” because of their “economically proletarian condition” and “the necessity of their labor under socialism,” among other things. While these workers may not have it as bad as blue-collar workers, that’s irrelevant. At the will of capital, they labor, they hunger, they sweat. Thus, they’re workers.

Were it only that simple.

Which Side Are You On?

Last Thursday, shortly after news broke that Kickstarter employees are unionizing, Gizmodo published a memo sent by some of the company’s senior employees to the entire staff regarding their concern about unionizing — an “extreme” action, as they characterize it. Some of their concerns are reasonable — the authors say they hadn’t been reached out to by those leading the organizing drive which, if true, isn’t a thorough way to go about that process (though they also say some workers feel “harassed” by the recruitment drive, meaning either they all had, in fact, been spoken to, or this is a very uneven organizing drive) — but one deserves particular attention, as it will only proliferate as bosses catch on to its uses. They write,

Forming a union is a great tool — for marginalized workers. Unions are historically intended to protect vulnerable members of society, and we feel the demographics of this union undermine this important function. We’re concerned with the misappropriation of unions for use by privileged workers …

Although the argument — unions are good, but they’re not for us, and, somehow, us unionizing undermines unions — is unusually explicit, it’s not an unheard-of objection in white-collar organizing drives. During such campaigns, this concern is sometimes voiced by well-meaning people — those earnestly raising it do so because they believe the conditions of life at the bottom of society are unacceptable. But unions, so the thinking goes in this country where caricatures of the working class run rampant, are for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder — they’re for factory workers; for manual laborers; maybe they’re for low-wage service workers. But teachers, engineers, graduate students, journalists? Those are middle-class jobs. Surely, such workers should be grateful not to be down there, in the muck of poverty. In fact, it’d be greedy to want more than they have. Who are they to claim the mantle of working class? Unfortunately, this perspective has one, and only one, practical effect: keeping people from throwing their cards in with the working class, from demanding better lives and a seat at the table.

Building power for blue- (and pink-) collar workers requires building working-class power everywhere. Unionizing one workplace makes it easier to unionize another. It builds up unions’ coffers. It strengthens a culture of unionism, something desperately in need of a comeback when union membership in the United States stands at a lowly 10.7 percent. Plus, at their best, unions are vehicles for building working-class power as a class, rather than just interest groups looking out for their members’ interests — we’re far from that vision of unionism, but we won’t get anywhere near it without rebuilding the labor movement. We need more unions, not less.

While the popularity of “middle class” as a self-descriptor has declined, millions of working-class people continue to think of themselves as middle class. People feel lucky, be they actually well-remunerated Kickstarter workers, waitresses, secretaries, or anyone else who knows someone else who has it worse. “I support unions, sure,” they say, but it’s a problem for those people over there, not us, right here. Yet no matter the intent, pitting workers’ interests against each other is good for one side, and one side only: that of the boss. Those are the two sides, there is no middle. Pick one.

The Political Stakes

Not unlike the League’s portrait of teachers in bread lines in the early 1930s, there has been a veritable avalanche of writing on how the middle class in our current era is “squeezed,” or “losing ground,” with news outlets regularly reporting on the worsening living conditions of those technically in the middle class (by one reasonable definition, that means households earning between two-thirds and two times the country’s median income, or $42,000 to $125,000 in 2016). One New York Times journalist pointed out the disappearance of the phrase “middle class” from 2016 electioneering, noting that it now induces stress and anxiety as Americans fear falling out of the middle class, making it a dud on the campaign trail. With the apparent leftward turn of the growing crop of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, this trend is likely only continuing.

That makes sense: those within the middle class, as defined by income, are struggling. Indebted to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, be it in student loan, credit card, or hospital debt, many of them struggle to keep their homes, if they have one, and may not even have the savings to absorb the burden of a medical emergency. Much of the so-called middle class, and millennials in particular, have never known job stability, and feel the threat of layoffs and further impoverishment hanging over their heads every day. With the average cost of day care — $9,589 annually — now more expensive than in-state college tuition, and college tuition more expensive than ever, very few people live comfortable lives. As Anat Shenker-Osorio put it in the Atlantic, “It appears that the middle class may in fact be the new poor.” But with Pew Charitable Trusts finding that one in three American families have no savings at all, it doesn’t just “appear” that much of the middle class is poor: it is reality.

It’d be one thing if this were only a linguistic quibble, but there’s a reason Communists were arguing over it in the thirties — it has organizing stakes. Rather than being merely useless, “middle class” and its ideological trappings represent a positive obstacle to political engagement. If you’ve experienced dire poverty, or have loved ones in it still, it’s natural to feel grateful to make anything above minimum wage — or even guilty at having evaded such a fate. That move to guilt stops political activity in its tracks. There may be no more demobilizing an emotion.

If you feel guilty for what you have — be it health insurance, an office job, or a roof over your head — knowing as you do that it could be worse, you might hesitate to demand more. If you associate unions with factory workers and you don’t work at a factory? Well, you might believe it isn’t right to organize with your coworkers, even if wage theft, sexual harassment, or racist discrimination is rampant at your workplace. If class is solely an identity,  not a relationship to those around you and the productive apparatus, then who are you, the nurse, the graphic designer, to claim the same identity as a coal miner? The only logical conclusion is to count your blessings.

There’s a reason we need to return to the old terms, the ones that refer to one’s place not relative to the rest of the US, or global, population, but relative to capital.

In other words: we are all working class now.

Class Matters

Of course, I don’t mean all of us. Ours is a society of workers and bosses. The capitalist class — bosses — is our opposite. They make a living off our labor, or from dividends from our labor, or from inherited wealth (that which their parents and grandparents took from our parents and grandparents). There are landlords, too — they make a living extracting rent from property, claiming the exclusive rights over a piece of land and charging us for access. And managers, while not capitalists, retain disciplinary power over their subordinates, which puts them in a distinct position as well.

But for everyone else who is compelled to sell their labor in exchange for the freedom not to starve? Welcome to the working class.

Now, this isn’t to elide differences within sections of the class, to equate industries as varied as logistics and nursing, telecommunications and software engineering. Terry Eagleton wrote that “men and women do not live by culture alone; the vast majority of them throughout history have been deprived of living by it at all, and those few who are fortunate enough to live by it now are able to do so because of the labor of those who do not,” and he’s still right. A lot of white-collar jobs are, to the average person, preferable than their lower-paid counterparts in, say, the service or manufacturing sector — and easier on the body too. While my friends in the building trades make better money than me, and insist I’m a sucker for pursuing white-collar work, I’m thrilled to have a job that doesn’t requires being on my feet all day, flat-footed person that I am.

And although the distinction no longer correlates particularly neatly with income, some jobs have higher status than others, and many of those who do higher-status work will have certain reactionary ideas about power. If the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class, well, having social ties to the elite, or having gone to the same schools as them, may strengthen the hold of some of those ideas, producing, for example, backward understandings of the rigidity of the US class system (Hey, I know several rich people — clearly some people can get rich. Maybe the rest just aren’t working hard enough.) Whether you call people that fit this description the “professional-managerial class,” as Barbara and Jon Ehrenreich put it, or inhabitants of “contradictory class locations,” in Erik Olin Wright’s phrasing, they will have to be argued against. Some won’t be convinced; they’ll side with the bosses, serving, in the words of the CP comrades, “as the cultural lieutenants of the capitalist class.” So be it; can’t win everyone to your side. Fortunately, you don’t need to.

This argument shouldn’t be mistaken for a blindness to the difference in workers’ power across industries — truck drivers and teachers, carpenters and Kickstarter employees have different amounts of leverage against capital, and it’s a distinct conversation altogether to talk about what sectors are best positioned to build power for the working class as a whole. Logistics, transportation, and manufacturing workers can inflict particularly high costs to capital if they withhold their labor. Educators and nurses have shown themselves to be willing to strike, and to do so on behalf of the broader public, in recent years — that makes them critical sectors. We can hold those facts in our heads, along with the knowledge that those facing the toughest working conditions (in part thanks to negligent labor law and a carceral state) — fast food workers, domestic workers, sex workers — have a pressing need to organize, and require solidarity from the entire working class, while welcoming those who once thought themselves middle class into the struggle to build class power.

Everybody Needs a Union

The majority of millionaires think of themselves as middle class, and so do people whose mothers “counted pennies in a sandwich bag for lunch money.” When a term signifies such wildly different things, it’s worth asking what purpose it’s serving. And I can tell you: it serves to demobilize people, to keep them from organizing. In short, it helps the rich, not the poor.

The era of “middle class” security politicians wax nostalgic about (bracketing the fact that it only existed for a rather narrow segment of disproportionately white, male Americans) came from workers, organized into unions, demanding a bigger cut of the profit workers created. Many of us don’t have those unions anymore. Which means? If you want a better life, you need to organize to win it. The ruling class doesn’t hand security to workers; we have to take it.

Now, by this point, those who believe that working class is a morally imbued identity, rather than a relationship to capital, are shaking their heads, groaning about its gentrification. But categorizing people as “workers” isn’t gradational, based on income, nor is it a judgement on their moral or ethical value — after all, working-class people are simply people; they can be as shitty as anyone else. While “working class” can be an identity (almost anything imaginable can be an identity these days, and that’s fine), that’s neither here nor there: either one sells one’s labor to survive, or one does not. To insist on cutting off white-collar workers from recourse to collective action is the logic of anti-union ideologues. (Or, as an iron worker on the picket line of the recent Columbia University graduate workers’ strike said when I asked him about arguments that graduate students don’t “deserve” unions since they may go on to make good money and their work isn’t the most physically grueling: “Every worker needs a union.”) Class society exists — we are merely pointing it out.

While there’s been a lot talk lately of the proletarianization of white-collar work — and rightly so, given the increasing erosion of working conditions — this is not new, and those unionizing their white-collar workplaces are not adherents of some millennial fad. This country’s radicals were theorizing about this in the thirties, after the Depression — a clarifying moment, when the trappings of status were revealed to be paper thin, the dream of the middle class an obfuscation, and obstacle. Huh, sounds familiar.