College-Educated Workers Will Continue to Play a Key Part in Labor Organizing

In recent upsurges of working-class organizing among teachers, nurses, Starbucks baristas, and Amazon workers, college-educated workers have played central roles. That won’t change anytime soon.

Starbucks employees wait for results of a union vote count, on December 9, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. (Eleonore Sens /AFP via Getty Images)

It’s too early to declare that labor is back, but it’s clear that something is stirring among America’s working people.

Some of this can be explained by contextual factors that make union organizing more rational and less risky, like rising inflation and a very tight labor market. But workers don’t automatically organize in response to such conditions. In many cases, a group of workers willing and able to take the lead — what labor organizers call a committee — needs to push and prod their colleagues to take collective action. At Amazon, Starbucks, and other employers, these committees have attracted workers from different social backgrounds. But one thing that stands out from the current bump in organizing is just how many of these workplace leaders seem to be young, well-educated, and politicized.

A recent New York Times report by Noam Scheiber zooms in on this phenomenon, calling it the “revolt of the college-educated working class.” Among the people the piece profiles are an REI worker with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education; a Starbucks worker with a bachelor’s in music education and a master’s in opera performance; and an immigrant Amazon warehouse worker with a PhD in public policy.

These situations are increasingly common, reflecting the contradiction between steadily growing educational attainment and an employment structure whose fastest-growing occupations don’t require much beyond a high school diploma. A college degree is often regarded as the credential separating an ill-defined “professional-managerial class” (PMC) from the working class, but this is an increasingly false dichotomy. As higher education continues expanding, the “college-educated working class” will simply be, in many cases, the working class itself.

An Educated Proletariat

The mass expansion of educational attainment is one of the key social-structural developments of the last half century. In 1960, less than 8 percent of the US population had a bachelor’s degree or more, while barely more than 40 percent had attained at least a high school diploma. Today, high school graduation is nearly universal, while the proportion of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree steadily increased to nearly 38 percent by 2021. When you take people with associate’s degrees and some college but no degree into account, the share of Americans with some kind of postsecondary education rises to over 63 percent.

Educational attainment is not, however, evenly distributed across the population. Differences in the level of educational attainment are related to age, and the youngest cohorts have the highest levels of educational attainment.

Over two-thirds of Americans aged twenty-five to forty-four have at least some college, while over 40 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, as illustrated in the chart below. Even so, it is worth noting that the single largest group in each age cohort, including those sixty-five and older, has at least a bachelor’s degree.

(US Census Bureau)

Of course, aggregates like these don’t tell us anything about their composition. Fortunately, the Census Bureau publishes data on educational attainment across a number of different characteristics, including industry and occupation. This data shows that the share of employed civilians who have had at least some postsecondary education reaches 70 percent, with 45 percent attaining at least a bachelor’s degree. In the three largest industries by employment share — wholesale and retail trade, educational and health services, and manufacturing — at least 60 percent of employees have had at least some college, as indicated in the table below. In educational and health services, which has been at the leading edge of labor militancy in the United States in recent years, the share of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree rises to 61 percent — the second highest rate of bachelor’s completion, just behind information workers.

There are only two industries where less than half of employees have had at least some college: construction and agriculture. While construction is the fourth-largest industry by employment, agriculture is one of the smallest, with just 2 percent of the total.

(US Census Bureau)

Since occupation and industry don’t always neatly mesh — one can have a professional job in the manufacturing industry, for example — it is worth taking a look at educational attainment by occupational group as well. This data is illuminating in a number of ways. As the table below shows, the occupational structure has shifted extensively from blue-collar to white-collar and service occupations. Nearly half of all employed civilians are in professional, management, business, and financial occupations, and the level of educational attainment in these groups is very high.

In the remaining eight occupational groups, at least half of the workers have had at least some college in four of them, including service, office and administrative, sales, and installation, maintenance, and repair. The most heavily blue-collar occupational groups have some of the lowest levels of educational attainment, but their respective employment shares are relatively small and have been shrinking for decades.

(US Census Bureau)

To be clear, I do not mean that workers in these kinds of blue-collar occupations are unimportant to today’s labor movement. While their numbers have shrunk, they are often strategically located in the circuits of production and distribution (e.g., Amazon warehouse workers) and are potentially capable of leveraging such structural power to make gains for themselves and others. The point here is that someone with a blue-collar job and no more than a high school diploma is not necessarily representative of the average working person anymore, and they have not been for some time.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes data that give us an even more detailed view of educational attainment by specific occupations. While it is true that substantial majorities of workers in a wide range of unambiguously working-class occupations (e.g., janitors or fast-food cooks) don’t go past high school, many people in working-class occupations do.

Some level of postsecondary education is nearly universal among teachers, nurses, and other types of education and health care workers. This is to be expected, but relatively high levels of educational attainment can also be found beyond these fields. As of 2018–19, at least half of the workers had at least some college in decidedly working-class occupations like waiters and waitresses, tool and die makers, childcare workers, security guards, subway and streetcar operators, retail salespersons, postal service mail carriers, bartenders, customer service representatives, and bank tellers, as well as first-line supervisors in production and food service.

While some of these occupations are white collar or in the public sector, many others are not, and a large proportion of them are insecure and poorly paid. As older workers with lower levels of educational attainment age out of the labor force, the proportion of relatively well-educated workers, particularly those who have completed bachelor’s degrees, in these and other occupations is only going to keep growing.

The composition of the working class has changed dramatically along with sectoral shifts and educational expansion; our conception of the working class needs to change with it.

Cultural Clash or Organizing Problem?

One of the leaders of the first successful Starbucks organizing campaign is Jaz Brisack, a twenty-four-year old Rhodes scholar who was profiled in the Washington Post earlier this year. Brisack has prestigious educational credentials, but the baristas she organized with were not too dissimilar. According to the profile, most of them “were in their mid-twenties; many were the first in their families to attend college and were saddled with five- and six-figure student loan debts.” In short, they were exactly the kinds of people who flocked to the Bernie Sanders campaigns and are filling the ranks of the new left in the United States and around the world.

In rich capitalist democracies, ruling classes maintain their position less through coercive domination and more through processes like “transformism.” Antonio Gramsci used this term to describe how a ruling class can maintain its position not by keeping newcomers out but by a process of “gradual but continuous absorption . . . of the most active elements” of the nonruling classes — those who might win a Rhodes Scholarship or be the first person in their family to go to college, for example.

In another time, perhaps, people like Brisack or her fellow union baristas might have been hoovered up into a proper professional-managerial class with fundamental loyalty to the status quo. Instead, they’re finding themselves stuck in crummy jobs that don’t match the skills and credentials they’ve attained, often at great cost, and reading organizing manuals by dead Communists. As Gramsci would have put it, this is a social order whose capacity to exercise intellectual and moral leadership is in crisis.

Despite all this, some on the Left argue that this layer of progressive college-educated workers stands in the way of mass working-class politics. These arguments tend to be framed in putatively Marxist or materialist terms, but in many respects they’re fundamentally about cultural conflict. Workers with relatively high educational attainment tend to combine left-wing views on economic issues with progressive views on the family, gender, sexuality, and race. Workers without college degrees share similar views on economic issues but also tend to be relatively more conservative on sociocultural questions.

One way to deal with this dilemma is to scorn “PMCs” as carriers of an alien bourgeois-libertarian culture into the labor movement. This is similar to the line of attack the far right uses against so-called “woke unions” that back progressive candidates and policies in the political arena. This sows divisions among working people and within the Left, which is exactly why the Right pushes it so aggressively. We on the Left should not be in the business of doing their dirty work for them.

A better way is to treat this as an organizing problem involving different segments of the working class that can be solved through persistent and patient work. The committee that led the organizing drive at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse is, by all accounts, a motley crew that managed to overcome potential divisions by race, national origin, age, and residence. Some of them have advanced degrees, but those credentials have clearly not saved them from the widening gyre of proletarianization.

As one of the Amazon worker-leaders put it, “Amazon doesn’t allow people of differing education levels to become separated. . . . It was the way we were able to unite people — the idea that we’re all getting screwed.” That’s not a bad place for a new workers’ movement to start.