The American Working Class Dilemma

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

For the past 125 years, Labor Day has been a time to celebrate the relevance, and political power, of the American working class. As recently as the 1990s, organized labor’s big day was an important milestone on the political calendar, particularly for Democrats.

But in recent decades, America’s working class has had precious little celebrate. In contrast to the conditions that prevailed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the incomes of lower quintiles surged by roughly 40%, five times faster than the top echelon during the past four decades, those in the bottom 80% have enjoyed no consistent gains. Meanwhile union membership — the key to working class political power — has plunged from 28% in 1954 to 11% today.

The devastation extends beyond economics. A detailed 2017 study, “When work disappears:  manufacturing decline and the falling marriage-market value of men,” shows that when towns and counties lose manufacturing jobs, fertility and marriage rates decline while unmarried births and the share of children living in single-parent homes rise. More of the working class, both white and minority, are also experiencing elevated rates of obesity, and rising incidents of what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair.”

A constituency up for grabs

Clearly, the working class has reasons to be alienated, and from both mainstream political parties. They have certainly been volatile. Working class whites were critical to the election of President Trump in 2016 but dissatisfaction with the president, particularly among working class women, helped Democrats to an impressive win in the mid-term election.

As recently as the 1960s, working class voters — then by far the largest part of the electorate — formed the core of the Democratic Party. That is certainly not the case anymore; roughly 40% of union members, including a majority of white males, voted for Trump, the best GOP Presidential performance since Reagan. When Trump lambasts free trade and China, he may alienate much of the corporate elite but the message appeals to people and communities that lost, according to one labor backed group, 3.4 million jobs between 1979 and 2017 to the Middle Kingdom.

In 2016, Trump won all the states with the largest percentage of working-class votes, while Clinton easily captured those with the most “creative class workers.” Trump does best with those who work with their hands, in factories, the logistics industry and energy; these working class voters, notes a recent study by CityLab report, are those who repair and operate machines, drive trucks and operate our power grid.

More important, Trump has a case to make with these workers, as real wages for blue-collar workers, even in services, are now rising for the first time in decades. His policies on energy clearly favor well-paid , often unionized people who operate the nation’s wells as well as factory workers who benefit from lower energy prices. Of course, if Trump’s blunderbuss trade policies backfire, he may lose some of this support.

The Precariat and the new Left

Some progressives suggest it’s time to abandon the working class, and rely instead on educated millennials, minorities and professionals as well as globally oriented businesses. And to be sure, white working class voters  are in decline, down 5 percent as a share of the vote just since 2014, but they still constitute two-fifths of the total.

But others, notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, see potential in the growing numbers of people who work not as long-term employees, but on short-term contracts, with few benefits and no union representation. Research reveals that 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States labor in this manner.

Often described as the “precariat,” these workers may see government as the only solution to their insecure employment status. The typical Uber driver is not the one seen in ads, the middle-class driver picking up extra cash for a family vacation or to pay for a fancy date; most depend on their “gigs” for their livelihood, and without much success. Nearly half of gig workers in California subsist under the poverty line. In ultra-expensive places such as Silicon Valley, many conditional workers live in their cars.

Unlike workers with steady pay and benefits, those in the precariat — many of them young, lacking good prospects and often socialistically minded — have little to protect. Whether they work for McDonald’s or Uber, they lack health insurance, company backing for further education or any influence on corporate decision-making. A policy agenda of “Medicare for all”, cancelled student debts and forcing companies to put workers could have considerable appeal to such voters.

Which party wins the working class in 2020?

Appealing to the precariat, however, also poses a challenge to the democratic establishment, many of whom, including several top Obama aides, work at firms such as Uber and Lyft . Some of these notional progressives consider what they call the “sharing” economy as “democratizing capitalism” by returning control of the working day to the individual. Yet for most gig workers there’s not very much democratic or satisfying.

The new working class activism also may move to drive the party further, even disastrously, to the left. Some labor activists such as Chicago’s teacher union leaders recently traveled to Venezuela’s disastrous leftist regime, and expressed their admiration and solidarity. This is not a good role model to sell to the electorate.

Similarly, the Green New Deal, may be seen as a direct shot at the jobs of aerospace, car and construction workers. The notion of providing a guaranteed income — one feature of the measure — even to those who choose not to work is unlikely to prove popular among those who do.

But even if the Democrats go off into a Marxist fantasyland, Trump could still lose a large portion of working class voters, notably women turned off by his boorish behavior. Latinos, heavily represented in blue collar professions, notably in the service fields, construction, logistics and manufacturing, have done better under President Trump but his nativist tendencies — however exaggerated by a hostile media — may prevent him from harvesting these gains. Latino voters may be most hurt by progressive policies that inflate the cost of housing and energy, but may have a hard time supporting someone who seems to consider their entire community a burden to the nation.

All these complex factors suggest that working class voters likely will still be up for grabs by the time we celebrate Labor Day a year from now. These ordinary Americans may be ignored or even disdained by the plutocratic classes in both parties, but their votes may well determine which party wins the White House next year.

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