"Look, a blue collar bar! Oh, Smithers, let's go slumming." - C.M. Burns
There is a revealing contradiction underlying Tamara Draut's new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America. Right in the introduction, she starts describing an American working class that is less Archie Bunker than whatever Archie's female, minority equivalent would be if network TV ever made shows about such people. But her language makes it very clear that her audience is anything but working class:
No longer shuttered away in a factory, today's working class is interwoven into nearly every aspect of our lives. It's the black woman in a caretaker's smock wearing special comfort shoes and a name tag above her heart. It's the white man in a uniform (which he had to pay for) who punches in each day and restocks the shelves of your favorite big-box store. It's the Latina home health aide who cares for your mom, the janitor who empties your office wastebasket, the woman who rings up your groceries, and the crew who fix the bumpy freeway you take every day to work. Yet despite how interwoven this new working class is in our lives, we don't really know enough about it.[p1-2]
The "you" and "we" in the above plainly do not refer to that perfectly diverse cast of workers. And that's sort of the point. Working class people, defined largely but not entirely as those without a four-year college degree, aren't the target audience for lefty policy books. Bridging that gap is Draut's main task, and as the college educated daughter of a factory worker who grew up to do her labor at a liberal think tank, she has her feet in both the world of her subjects and the world of her audience.
Near the end, in one of the most moving passages of a book that has several of them, she recounts how America did right by her. Decent schools created real opportunities that she was in a position go for, and all of it was paid for by honest jobs that were available without expensive degrees or a network of chummy school ties. It's the American Dream in action: mom and dad work, and their child goes to school, saves up, and makes it with a white collar job in the big city. Their granddaughter, growing up in a house with two college educated parents, will have even better opportunities.
As Draut makes clear, however, it's a story that's getting rarer as the working class becomes ever more squeezed. She identifies a three headed monster of "economic neoliberalism", "entrenched corporate power", and "pervasive and stubborn racial, ethnic, and gender oppression", that has put the majority of working class Americans in an impossible bind.
Today's ordinary workers are repeatedly told both explicitly and implicitly that they must help themselves (neoliberalism), all while the traditional avenues of doing so through decent schools that lead to union jobs are being closed off (corporate power), and against a systemic tide of official and unofficial discrimination in the form of a racist criminal justice system, gendered work expectations (complete with lower pay), and all kinds of systemic political disenfranchisement.
Draut's chart that I tried not to maul too badly whilst scanning. Yes, pay gaps are real and are basically theft.
Draut is both a keen policy analyst and an economical story teller, so Sleeping Giant is built around explanations of systemic problems that she then illustrates with the sometimes sad and always difficult working lives of modern America. There's Erika, a bank teller, who has to maintain her "professional" wardrobe at her own expense, is subject to arbitrary scheduling that makes her life chaotic and impossible to plan, and still has to meet sales quotas for new products:
For example, Erika must say each customer's name three times during each transaction, must always offer at least one product, and must be sure to invite the customer back. "It gets a little tricky and a little weird, especially when customers are in a hurry, to say all those things. 'Hey, Mr. Jones, okay, Mr. Jones, thank you, Mr. Jones,' and the customer is looking at you like 'Why do you keep saying my name?' Literally, customers are irritated and they want to go on their way and don't want to hear your speeches and sales pitches."[p33-34]
The bank, of course, doesn't care about its customers irritation or Erika's conversational dignity. They just want her to sell stuff, and they'll go so far as to send "secret shoppers" to make sure their tellers are reciting the script.
Then there's Nancy, who works at Walmart and has done everything she can to fight back against low wages, insane scheduling, and benefit cuts. She was selected to visit Walmart's annual corporate gathering (headline entertainment includes the likes of Tom Cruise and Hugh Jackman), where this happened:
As part of the show, Bill Simon, then CEO of Walmart, opened the floor up to associates to ask questions. When one associate received a condescending response to his complaint about how hot the stores were in the summer, it was the last straw for Nancy. She felt she had to get in the line to speak, but she was overcome by anxiety. She prayed for the Lord to give her a sign that she should speak up, which she got when Bill Simon pointed to her and said she'd get the last question. So she began talking about the changes in working conditions, focusing particularly on the new scheduling practices. As she spoke, the three thousand-plus associates began clapping in support, and when she finished, they gave her a standing ovation. Bill Simon was not too happy, quipping, "I guess we're having fun now" when Nancy finished speaking.[p67-68]
First of all, good on you, Nancy. Secondly, fuck you, Bill Simon. Finally, does anyone besides sociopathic executives, accountants, and MBAs really think these are healthy or sustainable ways to run a business?
Erika has to repeat her customer's names like a stalker because some putz - very far removed from the teller counter - wanted an increase of a quarter percent in revenues from auto-loans or something. Nancy can't make plans more than a week in advance because her hours can be changed on a whim by someone (or some algorithm) that has never had to work a dehumanizing "just in time" schedule. That Simon and his ilk find these complaints annoying rather than alarming tells you everything you need to know about what little regard they have for the people who actually do the work that pays for big Hollywood names to show up at yearly corporate victory parties.
And then there's Dion, who's getting screwed not only by his two (fast-food) employers, but by our great American system as well. Dion's daughter was born with a damaged heart, which surgery failed to fix. She died before turning three. Dion missed work for two years, racked up debt doing so (including medical bills for his daughter's ultimately failed care), and is now back working low wage, irregular shifts seven days a week to pay it all off.
I'm going to repeat that, because it is wrong on every level imaginable: this man works two jobs to service debt he incurred paying for doctors who failed to save his baby daughter. Reasonable (non-sociopathic, non-MBA) people might ask 1) why anyone should be able to incur debt caring for a sick kid?, 2) why quitting jobs is the only way a parent can spend time with such a child?, and 3) why anyone should have to work two damned jobs in the first place?
A big part of the answer, to which Draut dedicates an entire chapter, is that no one in a position of real authority cares in the least about working stiffs like Dion. Influential media organizations - peopled almost entirely by college grads - can barely see past their nameplates in D.C. or New York. Congress and its staff are overwhelmingly white, educated, and male. And housing and schools have become so segregated that the only interaction most middle and upper class people have with their (mostly browner) fellow citizens in the working class is to wonder why the bank teller keeps saying their name.
Draut is hopeful that her sleeping giant is awakening to its massive political power. And there are signs of optimism, most notably the continuing success of the Fight for $15 campaign that was a laughingstock just a few years ago but has today put uncountable billions of dollars into the pockets of workers. Being a policy analyst, she naturally has a set of bullet points that, if enacted, would indeed do wonders for everything from political participation to basic human health.
See all those negative numbers? They need to go up if we're going to have a nice country.
Whether those things are on tap in an election year when Walmart's CEO has the Democratic nominee on speed dial and the House is very likely to stay Republican no matter how many dumb tweets Donald Trump sends out is another matter. But Sleeping Giant isn't an election book, nor should it be. Decent wages at union jobs took decades to achieve, just as it took the Bill Simons of the world decades to undermine them. Her optimism isn't justified because victory is at hand, it's justified because a Democratic coalition that can press forward on multiple fronts at once without giving ground elsewhere - Draut's giant - is undeniably stirring.
Sleeping Giant is book that aims to wake it up a bit faster. It's for politically engaged people who aren't waiting tables or changing bed pans, but who might have the influence or media juice to help those who do. Read up, editors, reporters, and bloggers, it's your fight too.