My father was a machinist at a steel factory for 29 years. A white male who wore a hard hat to work, carried his lunch in a pail and washed his dark blue uniform at the end of every day, the metallic and earthy smell lingering in the laundry room. He was America’s hero, part of the brawny working class who soldered, heaved and secured America’s industrial might in the world, earning the pride and respect of our nation.
That working class is dead, Detroit’s bankruptcy providing a blunt symbol of its demise. My father died just a few short months after America’s motor city metaphorically did the same. By the time I arrived at his bedside, his care was focused on keeping him comfortable. Around the clock, I watched as a fleet of health care professionals tended to my dad in his final days. There was the nursing assistant who delicately changed his bandages, the four young men responsible for moving him from one bed to another and the respiratory therapist who helped keep his breathing stable.
The people who surrounded our family in those last days represent the new working class – one that doesn’t make things, but rather serves people. Unlike my father’s working class, today’s home health workers, janitors, retail salespeople and fast-food clerks are more female and more racially diverse — and they mostly work without the support or protection of a union.
As women and people of color became the new face of the working class, their longstanding second-class status in our society has contributed to the invisibility and marginalization of today’s working class. Today, disrespect is baked into working class jobs. From unstable schedules to low pay to wage theft, employers impose punitive workplace policies that place the blame for a low quality of life squarely on the worker. In the new bargain-basement economy, workers are costs to be minimized, their dignity and value forsaken for maximum profit.
Nine out of 10 fast-food workers say they have experienced some type of wage theft, when employers illegally withhold wages by not paying overtime, forcing workers to work off the clock or not giving workers a full paycheck. In 2012 alone, $993 million was recovered in stolen wages thanks to the combined efforts of government officials and private lawyers. That’s nearly three times the amount of money stolen during robberies in the same year.
I’ve been talking to members of the new working class as part of the research for my new book, Sleeping Giant. The people I’ve spoken with take pride in contributing to the success of the company they work for and the happiness of their customers. They also expressed a common desire for more respect. As a general laborer for Coca-Cola put it, “We’re making them billions of dollars. Why are we being treated like something you step on in the grass?”
The disrespect that the working class has faced on the job for decades is now trickling up to the professional middle class. For example, roughly half of all college faculty members are only employed part-time. While it used to be that college faulty members consistently earned a middle-class salary, today’s adjunct professors often end up living near or below the federal poverty line.
Today’s professional class face a near-constant expectation to be “on-call” 24 hours a day, ignoring the needs of their families so they can respond to emails at all hours. Tech workers’ jobs are increasingly at risk of off-shoring. After his second lay-off, Rick, a 45-year-old computer engineer, was forced to train his foreign replacement as a condition for receiving his severance pay.
Unless the new working class reclaims the economic and political authority once enjoyed by the mostly white, blue-collar working class of the industrial era, anyone who is not truly affluent will remain living on a precipice of economic anxiety and insecurity. Why? Because the same philosophy that has decimated living standards for the working class is responsible for the weakening of the middle class.
An economy based on disrespect that ignores the needs of workers and their families is not sustainable. We need to address the root cause of these destructive policies to create prosperity that is widely held. We need a new, Better Deal for the working class. We need to invest in people and rebuild our infrastructure. We need to provide high-quality child care for every infant and toddler. We need to transform our current bargain-basement economy into one where all jobs pay a decent wage, labor laws are actually enforced and workers are paid exactly what they are owed.
This is the Better Deal we all need. The alternative — to sit back and watch as the needs of most Americans go unaddressed — simply cannot be an option.