How America’s Working Class Was Abandoned

The struggles of labor are over, lessons from the past are not important, and we’re all together in this crisis, right? Yet the middle class is sinking, the lower class remains stuck at the bottom, with 46.2 million people living in poverty, an historic high. And the one percent are off-shoring everything.

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true

Or is it something worse?”

— Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

 

by Tom Lowe

 

I’ve been thinking recently about something that has puzzled me for a long time: How America’s working class got lost in the 20th Century. They lost their identity and history, letting themselves be screwed by their bosses, while being conned into taking the blame.

Over two generations, they have forgotten how the very poor working class, often with immense sacrifice, became respectable and thought of themselves as middle class. Along the way, they lost the ability to defend themselves, their fellow workers, and their community.

Their success is one of the foundations of the post-World War II boom. The survivors of the Great Depression and WWII were able to gain for themselves and their kids a piece of the American Dream. But, somewhere in the transition from tenement to suburbia, their shared history went down the memory hole.

Looking back, it was a great time to be a working stiff in America in the 1960s. Driving home after an honest day’s work to the house you own in a nice suburb, relaxing after dinner with your family in front of the new color TV, life feels very good. You’re certain that when the kids finish school at that new community college, they’ll have even better lives. The union just got everybody a raise, and better retirement. They promise that next time, health insurance will be the big issue. The company is expanding next year, so maybe your neighbor’s younger daughter can get a job in the office.

That stuff on the news about Vietnam and Civil Rights sounds worrying, but it’s a long way from here. The American Dream as everyday life.

What was forgotten was how organized labor made it happen. Their dream of justice was made real through the struggles of Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debs in the 1880s, John L. Lewis and the Reuther brothers in the 1930s, and George Meany, uniting all of organized labor under the AFL-CIO. By the 1960s, their basic goal — gaining recognition from society that workers were full citizens with the same rights to fair treatment as anyone — had been achieved.

Then, beginning in the 1970s, came our season of discontent, adeptly exploited by corporations to their profit, leading to Reagan Democrats and now, the Tea Baggers.

The mix of Vietnam, Watergate and recession (over oil prices being raised by the producing nations) made for a feeling of crisis and confusion. That made maintaining community and solidarity hard, and worker’s rights easier pickings for the boss.

One place to get a sense of how it felt is listening to Bruce Springsteen’s music over the past 35 years. He speaks for those who fight the nation’s wars and then end up abandoned in their homeland when the war is over. He sings for the Vietnam vet in “Born in the U.S.A.”

“I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”

“The River” is an anthem for blue-collar youth who face a legacy of vanishing jobs and fading hopes.

“I got a job working construction
for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work
on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care.”

In “My Hometown,” Springsteen sings about the factories and stores that have closed for good, or been relocated overseas, resulting in the loss of stable community.

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to
come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and
they ain’t coming back
to your hometown, your hometown”

In “American Land,” Springsteen sings an epitaph for the dreams that led hardworking immigrants on a journey to Ellis Island. Their work helped to build the railroads and factories, and some gave their lives for this land: “They died building the railroads, worked to bones and skin.” Now politicians are “trying to keep down” the hardworking people that built this land.

“I docked at Ellis Island in a city of light and spire
I wandered to the valley of red-hot steel and fire
We made the steel that built the cities
with the sweat of our two hands
And I made my home in the American land

The workers built this land, yet unions and workers rights are under attack. Detail from La Pena mural, Berkeley

 

“The McNicholas, the Posalskis, the Smiths, Zerillis too
The Blacks, Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
The Puerto Ricans, illegals, the Asians, Arabs,
miles from home
Come across the water with a fire down below

They died building the railroads,
worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories,
names scattered in the wind
They died to get here 100 years ago, they’re dyin’ now
The hands that built the country
we’re all trying to keep down.”

Joan Walsh’s new book, What’s the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was, talks about how some members of her own working-class, Irish-American family remained Democrats with liberal values while others became Nixon-Reagan Republicans. In an interview with Andrew O’Hehir at Salon.com, she described how social and economic pressures led many members of the white working class to abandon their own class interests and become conservatives.

Walsh not only asks why working-class people left the Democratic Party, she also analyzes why the Democrats abandoned the working class and turned away from the economic populism practiced by FDR and JFK.

In the interview at Salon.com, Walsh said, “When we’re talking about why the white working class left the Democratic Party — well, the Democratic Party left the working class around the same time. The Democratic Party drew the conclusion that government was being blamed for all these problems and so they were no longer going to be the party of government. They moved away from economic populism and greater inclusion, and they began courting business. They ceded the argument to Republicans, they joined the deregulation brigade, they signed on to the argument that entitlements are a problem and we’ve really got to cut Medicare and Social Security. So the Democratic Party was no longer the party of working-class people and working-class ideas.”

I dissent from the conventional wisdom of the moment, that “Boomers” have screwed it up for everyone else. Whatever sweet dreams they still entertain lie, with everybody else’s, “in pieces on the ground.” Claiming otherwise is buying into the justification for attacks on “entitlements” and “Social Security going bankrupt.”

Some of the best hypocrisy on this came out of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, appointed by Obama in 2010. The chairs of this were Alan Simpson, who had been a Republican Senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff starting in 1996, and is currently on the Boards of Morgan Stanley, General Motors and Facebook.

After hearings that got them dubbed the “Catfood Commission,” because of the emphasis on cuts to Social Security and Medicare, the partisan divisions among the members resulted in no official report. However, Simpson and Bowles did issue a “report” calling for changes to reduce Medicare payment costs, raising the Social Security eligibility age, reducing federal pensions, cutting student loans and, of course, reducing the corporate tax rate.

One member of the commission was Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, who now is famous for the “Ryan Plan,” which would abolish Medicare and Medicaid, repeal Obamacare, cut taxes yet again for the 1%, and, by the reckoning of the Congressional Budget Office, increase the deficit. This won him accolades among what Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman sarcastically calls “Very Serious People,” and his selection as the vice-presidential candidate.

This is how the Great Recession is being addressed by “the Villagers”— the D.C. insiders and their media pundits. Playing the “we are the real victims” card — right next to the race card — has been the corporate media’s way of absolving their masters of responsibility since the era of America’s own Richard the Third, Dick Nixon.

So, this is just history, right? The struggles of labor are over, lessons from the past are not important, and we’re all citizens together in this crisis, right? Try telling that to Chicago teachers or Wisconsin public employees. They’re facing, and making, history daily. And they are likely to have a lot of company soon.

From what I read, the mid-20th Century middle class is sinking, the lower class remains stuck at the bottom, with 46.2 million people living in poverty, an historic high. And the one percent are off-shoring everything — including themselves. As I see it, there aren’t any easy endings, or solutions, in sight — just a hard landing to survive.

This is an expanded version of a column that Oakland writer Tom Lowe originally wrote for the blog, “Moristotle — A sometimes ironic celebration of life on earth.” Many thanks to Morris Dean at Moristotle. See their blog at moristotle.blogspot.com

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