The new face of the U.S. working class

What should be most important to progressives?  The fights by women, African-Americans and Latinos against oppression based on gender and sex?  Or the fight by wage-earners against exploitation by a tiny minority of corporate executives and wealthy investors?

I recently finished reading SLEEPING GIANT: The Untapped Potential and Political Power of America’s New Working Class by Tamara Draut (2016, 2018), in which she argues these fights are the same fight, on behalf of largely the same people.

Wage-earners today, she said, are disproportionately female and people of color.  Some of the fastest-growing job categories are in food service, health care, education and personal service—jobs historically held by women and people of color.

Many of them, maybe for this reason, are historically low paid and outside the protection of labor laws.

The only way today’s workers can defend their rights is by means of solidarity across racial and gender lines, which means fighting against racial discrimination and sexual harassment as strongly as fighting for a higher minimum wage or universal health care.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a pro-labor think tank, is the daughter of a steel worker.

Her dad did hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, which caused him to die of lung disease.  But he earned a union wage that enabled his family to live in their own house, take vacation trips and send Tamara to  college.

Working people still do hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, but fewer and fewer of them earn a union wage.

In fact, the percentage of American workers represented by unions is lower than it was right before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  The law is less and less favorable to unions.

Large companies increasingly operate through chains of franchises and subcontractors, under restrictive agreements that do not allow leeway to increase pay or provide benefits.

Nine out of 10 food service workers tell pollsters they’re subect to wage theft—being short-changed on wages or being forced to work off the clock. One in five don’t work regular shifts; they don’t know from week to week when they will work.

One of the workers Draut interviewed for the book was “Damon,” a 32-year-old African-American man who was out on disability from his job in a Coca-Cola warehouse.

He was a “puller,” which meant that he put together orders for delivery on trucks by manually stacking cases of Coca-Cola on pallets.  He was paid by the number of cases he moved each shift, at the rate of 8.4 cents per case.

On each shift, the pullers are given a quota, the number of cases they must move each shift, and they are not allowed to leave the warehouse until they make their quota.

“Because we get paid on commission, I go out hard,” he said.  “I put my body on the line.  In order to make a good living pulling cases, you got to be fast.”  He told Draut he typically finishes his shift in six to seven hours. but most of his co-workers take eleven to twelve hours.  One died of a heart attack while pulling cases.

Another was “Myrla,” a Hispanic home care worker in suburban Chicago.  She earned $110 a day taking care of elderly patients in their homes.  Some suffered from the effects of strokes, some from dementia, some from Parkinson’s disease.  She cooked and cleaned, she bathed her patients and took them to the bathroom, she made sure they took their medications and did their exercises.  Since she was a live-in worker on call 24 hours a day, her pay came to $4.58 an hour.

Then there was “Rhonda,” a 36-year-old white woman who drove a truck for C&K Trucking at the Port of Savannah, Georgia.  Supposedly an independent contractor, she pays all expenses needed to keep the truck running, including the chassis, which she doesn’t own.

“They basically treat us like sharecroppers on wheels,” she said.  “We show up every day and are given assignments—I’m not sure how much more of a definition of an ’employee’ they need to treat us like one.”  She is paid $40 per container that she moves.  In 2015, her gross income was $60,000.  But after deducting all expenses, her take-home pay was $19,00.

The premise of Tamara Draut’s book is that if these diverse workers join forces, they would be like an awakening giant, with the power to transform labor-management relations as well as politics.

Historically, the American electorate has divided more along racial, ethnic and religious lines than along lines of economic class.  Some writers argue that the vertical lines dividing race and gender are more important than the horizontal lines dividing the rich and professional classes from the poor and the working classes.

But, as Lambert Strether of Naked Capitalism pointed out, the dividing lines are really diagonal lines.  The worst and lowest-paid jobs historically have been held by African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants or women.  Race and gender have been proxies for social class.

Draut cited public opinion polls that indicated that on questions of racial equality, Americans are divided more by race than by economic class.  But on bread-and-butter issues, the overwhelming majority of Americans differ with the wealthy minority.

The polls indicate that:

  • 87 percent of the general public believe that the federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to.
  • 78 percent believe that the minimum wage should be high enough that no family with a full-time worker falls below the poverty line.
  • 78 percent believe that the federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so.
  • 71 percent believe tht the government has an essential role to play in regulating the market.
  • 68 percent believe that government must see to it that no one is without food, clothing or shelter.
  • 68 percent believe that the government in Washington should see to it everyone who wants to work can find a job.
  • 53 percent believe that the federal government should find jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment.

But only 27 percent of the general public believe that spending on domestic programs like Medicare, education and highways should be cut in or to cut federal budget deficits.  That seems like the basis for a program Draut calls a Better Deal.

She wrote about workers organizations such as Fight for $15, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, the Workers Defense Project in Texas and Casa Latina in Seattle; human rights movements such as Black Lives Matter and United We Dream; anti-racism drives in the Teamsters Union, the Communications Workers of America and the AFL-CIO itself; and political movements such as Jobs With Justice, the Working Families Party and the New Virginia Majority.

To that list i’d add the new Poor People’s Campaign, the revived Democratic Socialists of America and Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution.  These disparate organizations aren’t necessarily all alike, but they are moving in the same direction.

The original edition of this book was published in early 2016, when it seemed to Draut (and also to me) that Hillary Clinton would be the next President.

Donald Trump’s victory, however, did not reflect an upsurge in racism among white working people, as Draut seems to think.  It’s true that Trump’s victory has encouraged racists and misogynists to come out. but he received basically the same vote as Mitt Romney did in 2012.  Hillary Clinton last because of a falloff in the Democratic vote among all groups.

I take the moral to be that working people—white, black and Hispanic, male and female, native-born and immigrant—will support candidates who truly represent their interests.


Fastest Growing Occupations Ranked by Percentage Held by Women.

Secreterial / Administrative Assistants, 95 percent

Registered Nurses, 89 percent.

Office Clerks, 81 percent.

Cashiers, 74 percent.

Waiters and Waitresses, 70 percent.

Customer Service Reps, 66 percent

Food Preparation: Serving Workers, 65 percent.

Retail Saiespersons, 52 percent.

Janitors and Building Cleaners, 34 percent

Hand Laborers and Movers, 19 percent

Fastest Growing Occupations Ranked by Percentage Held by People of Color

Janitors and Building Cleaners, 52 percent

Cashiers, 49 percent

Hand Laborers and Movers, 46 percent

Customer Service Representatives, 42 percent

Food Preparation: Serving Workers, 40 percent

Waiters and Waitresses, 39 percent

Office Clerks, 38 percent

Retail Salespersons, 36 percent

Registered Nurses, 28 percent

Secretarial / Administrative Assistants, 26 percent

Source: Sleeping Giant

The above figures are for 2015.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 37 percent of the U.S. labor force consisted of people of color, including white Hispanics, in 2014.


Demos | A Equal Say and An Equal Chance for All.

As US politicians romanticize doomed manufacturing jobs, the new working class is suffering by Tamara Draut for Quartz.

America’s New Working Class Demands Respect by Tamara Draut for

America Can’t Survive Like This: “We need a Better Deal for the working class” by Tamara Draut for Salon.

What Will It Take to Wake Up the ‘Sleeping Giant’ of the New Working Class? by Shaun Richman of In These Times.

This Is Your Daughter’s Labor Movement by Lane Windham for Working-Class Perspectives.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

With Unemployment So Low, Why Are Wages Stagnant? by David Schultz for Counterpunch.

Home Depot Employees Are Hot, Thirsty, Harassed and Poor by Hamilton Nolan for Splinter

‘Jaw-Dropping’ Report Reveals Rampant Wage Theft Among Top US Corporations by Jessica Corbett for Common Dreams.

Labor Force Characteristics By Race and Ethnicity, 2014 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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One Response to “The new face of the U.S. working class”

  1. electqualfiedmiddleclass Says:

    Good blog and review. Please see my blog to start anew political party to represent the middle class,

    Liked by 1 person

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