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Est. April 5, 2002
September 21, 2017 - Issue 712

Who Destroyed the Working Class?

"Over many years, the rich and the corporations
have used every other institution to destroy the
power of unions and, therefore, the power of workers. 
They have used the courts, the state legislatures,
the Congress, the education systems,
television, magazines, and newspapers."

For once, the New York Post got it right, when last week it ran a story about the steel-producing Mahoning Valley of Ohio, where 40 years ago, thousands of workers showed up on a bright fall day to find out that they were no longer needed and were being permanently laid off.

Just like that: One day, one notice, and the entire force of 5,000 workers at Youngstown Sheet and Tube was out of work with no prospects of ever finding a job that would allow them to earn the same level of pay and standard of living. But that wasn’t all there was.

According to the Post, “Within the next 18 months, US Steel announced that the nation’s largest steel producer was also shutting down 16 plants across the nation including their Ohio Works in Youngstown, a move that eliminated an additional 4,000 workers here. That announcement came one day before Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. said they were cutting thousands of jobs at their facilities in the Mahoning Valley, too.”

What followed was a mass exodus of jobs and people from the region, according to the Post, such that, “If a bomb had hit this region, the scar would be no less severe on its landscape.”

The question is whether that fateful day could be marked as the beginning of the end of the working class, the class that had progressed to a considerable period of good pay and benefits and stable communities to one of destruction of the entire class.

Even though many mark the demise of a healthy working class as beginning on the day that Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and destroyed their union, the Post, according to the headline on Sept. 16, was “the day that destroyed the working class and sowed the seeds of Trump.”

Whether the demise of the working class is reckoned from that day in Youngstown or in Reagan’s America of 1981, the effect has been the same. The people who work for wages, and that’s the bulk of Americans, have lost what little power they had in the nation’s economy. They could not stop the exodus of well-paying jobs in manufacturing, when the means of manufacturing were owned by giant corporations that cared little about the workers and the communities in which they were located, and took their economic substance to other countries that were producing steel and other basic industrial products at much lower costs. Their profits soared and that’s all they would look at until today.

It does not matter whether the demise of the working class is set in 1970s Ohio or Reagan’s 1981 America, those who rule America have been hammering at the strength of workers for generations, but increased the effort many fold since World War II. How have they done that? By chipping away at the structure of the only institution that gave workers power: unions. Over many years, the rich and the corporations have used every other institution to destroy the power of unions and, therefore, the power of workers. They have used the courts, the state legislatures, the Congress, the education systems, television, magazines, and newspapers.

How that has happened has been analyzed from many perspectives over many years, but the result is always the same. The working class has seen its standard of living reduced, then stabilized at a level much lower than it was 40 years ago and it has been done by removing the power that workers have in the workplace, a union contract. Statistics from numerous academic and government research studies have shown that wages and household income have seen economic stagnation for the working class over the past 40 years.

Within that period, a black steelworker was interviewed at the site of one of the biggest industrial complexes in the U.S., the Sparrows Point steel and shipbuilding plant in Baltimore, Maryland. He was speaking of the hardship of being in a union in a time of continuing racism, in both the nation at large and in the union. Despite the conditions for black workers, he said, “A bad union is better than no union.” The significance of that perception was not lost on the powers that be: the union made his work possible and tolerable and provided him with a relatively high standard of living.

By the 1970s, the good times were coming to an end for the working class. Corporate America and the rich who run the country ramped up their attack on workers and the way to do it was to prevent them from making common cause with their fellow workers, through destruction of their unions and the union movement. All the while, though, they protested that they were just against union “bosses,” not the workers. They went at it with a vengeance and brought the union movement to its current state: About 11 percent of all workers are in unions and only about 6 percent of workers in the private sector are in unions. Compare that with 35 percent of all workers in unions in the 50s and 60s.

According to the Post story, the Midwest Center for Research, a study showed that a steelworker in the late 1970s had an average income of $24,772.80, while today, the medium household income in the Mahoning Valley is just $24,133, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The politicians’ advice was that workers should move to where the jobs were and the advice today is pretty much the same. Workers who are fired or permanently laid off are told to move to places like Texas, Florida, or some other location where there might be lots of jobs, which pay half or one-third of their previous wage.

What’s as interesting as what happened to the people of the Mahoning Valley is that the New York Post seemed to be somewhat concerned about the fate of the working class. Ordinarily, a paper like the Post, a paper that is well off on the political right, is not concerned at all about working men and women, especially not concerned about the fate of unions, workers’ only grip on power (as short a grip as it might be). The Post’s concern may reflect the worry that Corporate America is beginning to have about the disparity in wealth between the top wealth-holders and the rest of us. A society and economy with that great a gap will not prosper long and, as always, those on the bottom 30-40 percent of the income ladder suffer the most.

Many of the workers and their families who were devastated by the closures of plants all around voted for Trump, according to the Post. They did it, because he promised jobs and promised to make America great again, just as he promised to bring back thousands of jobs in the coal fields, even though coal is arguably the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and has been on its way out for years.

If democracy in the workplace is the key to democracy in the nation (and it it), the likelihood that democracy will be realized in the U.S. in the near future is remote. The Trump Administration has found and continues to find nominees to key positions in the government who are hostile to workers and their fight for democratic rights on the job. This has happened with Trump’s appointment of the secretary of labor, the judiciary (including the U.S. Supreme Court), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and myriad other positions, where the occupant of the job should be fighting for workers and their families and communities. Instead, the president’s appointees are fighting to keep the working class down and to cause their condition of 40 years ago to stagnate.

If, as the Post declares, the working class has been killed off in terms of participation in the body politic, there won’t be far to go for the entire nation to head in the same direction, because, like it or not, most Americans work for a paycheck, for wages, and without their participation in the system, the nation cannot stand. That’s what is beginning to worry Corporate America and the rich. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
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