Unions and the middle class: What’s in a name?

Defending the middle class has become a central theme in labor’s fightback. In this context it is clear that we are talking about saving good paying jobs with good benefits and working conditions. We are talking about union rights and union jobs that have historically moved large numbers of working people on to a better standard of living.

Defending good paying jobs, benefits and union rights is at the heart of the fights going on across the country. State by state and nationally, big business, the financial sector and the right wing are going all out to drive down the living standards of millions. Middle class standards set by the labor movement are upward pressure on wages and working conditions for all workers. So attacking public workers and collective bargaining rights are ripe targets for those who want to dump the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of working people.

But somehow, middle class seems too limited a concept for the fight ahead. Middle class seems to me to lag behind the level of struggle we already see the labor movement leading. Let me be clear, some folks have a kneejerk, leftist reaction to the term “middle class,” as not scientific enough. I’m not one of them. I think popular usage is important.

Having said that I think “working class” better describes the fight we’re in today.

The current thinking in labor is that unions have to champion all working people – organized and unorganized. In addition, much of labor is engaged in organizing some of the lowest paid workers in the country. This includes immigrants, youth, seniors, women and especially workers who face discrimination and racism. These are folks who are often forced into the worst jobs around. Further the labor movement is increasingly trying to organize the unemployed and the underemployed.

Put these folks together with those in better paying union jobs and you have a broad sweep of the working class. What is it that all of these working people have in common that makes them a class? They all depend on their own work for a living. They (we) all have the same interest in the current economic fights. We all need the right to join a union and bargain collectively. We all need to defend and preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We all need to fight for job creation and protecting the unemployed. And for sure readers can add to this list of common interests and needs for workers and their families.

But above all, we need unity to win against the incredible array of corporate, rightwing economic and political power that wants to turn back the clock on the working class. The unions alone cannot win this fight. The middle class alone cannot win this fight.

To win we have to fight just as hard for the homeless family that lost their jobs as we fight to stop unions busting. We have to fight just as hard for unorganized farm workers getting cheated out of their sub-minimum wages as we fight to organize higher paid public workers trying to form a union. We have to put forward a working class program that represents every worker and every working family.

In this context “working class” is a term that most of the non-union, the poor, the unemployed, and the low paid folks in this country can identify with. Certainly all would aspire to a middle class existence but many millions don’t see themselves that way and aren’t sure that anyone speaks for them.

One last point: Part of the hesitancy to talk working class is surely based on a hangover from the past. The last time corporate and rightwing forces tried as hard as they are today to rollback the gains of labor, they used redbaiting as a major tool. In the attacks of the 1950’s it didn’t matter if you were a socialist or a communist or not. If you stood for economic and social justice you were branded. So too with any language that sounded even vaguely Marxist – like class struggle.

Today the crazy right calls our President and any other progressive a socialist for taking any kind of a stand with working people. The Chamber of Commerce types yell “class warfare,” whenever workers stand up for their rights or demand that the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Hypocritically they call their attacks “deficit reduction” or “sound fiscal policy.”

Divide and conquer, and scare tactics have always been their stock and trade. Unity has always been the lifeblood of the working class. An injury to one is an injury to all.

We Are One!

Photo: Scott Marshall/PW


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.