Labor Advocate Online

No Middle Ground
by Bill Onasch

This is the second of three installments that began with In Give-Back Leap Frog, UAW Surges Forward

I ended the first installment of this article, which reviewed how the UAW regime has been transformed from pace-setter for improved living standards to prime facilitator of give-backs of past gains, with the promise of a second part exploring what can be done to halt and reverse this new trend. Since I wrote that in early November some heated debates arose about the “Middle Class.” I decided to insert commentary on this timely paramount issue in this installment, deferring planned remarks on more general questions of working class strategy to a part three coming soon.

Remedial Class
Michael Hiltzik recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

“Occupy Wall Street and its coast-to-coast spinoffs captured the headlines in 2011, but the economic debate it helped trigger should reverberate deep into 2012. That's the debate over the future of the American middle class. Rarely has its economic plight been an explicit issue in a presidential election, but candidates on both sides of the partisan divide are poised to make it the centerpiece of their campaigns in the coming year.

“President Obama, delivering a theme-setting speech December 6 in Osawatomie, Kan., called the coming campaign ‘a make-or-break moment for the middle class.’ Mitt Romney, the once and possibly future Republican front-runner, consistently identifies the middle class as the chief victim of Obama's economic policies.

“Yet so far the lionization of the middle class has been largely rhetorical. The year just past was one in which the stagnation of income and wealth for the great majority of Americans continued — indeed, bit so deep that it helped fuel the Occupy movement taking as its constituency the ‘99%,’ those left behind by the continued gravitation of economic bounty toward the top 1% of U.S. taxpayers.”

As an award winning economic and financial journalist, Hiltzik undoubtedly knows classical definitions of class are based on relationship to the economy. The “Founding Fathers” of the USA tried to build a new world power based on peaceful coexistence of two economic models–venerable chattel slavery and emerging capitalism. Their differences proved to be irreconcilable and ultimately were resolved through a bloody Civil War. In case you didn’t hear–the capitalists won.

As a result there are two principal classes in America today–capitalists and wage workers. The tiny capitalist class owns or dominates most of the economy and are presently the undisputed ruling class, effectively controlling all levels of government.

The working class is the big majority of society and does most of the work in the economy.

There are, of course, many who don’t neatly fit in to either of those categories–family farmers, small scale proprietors, self-employed contract workers, etc. But this diverse grouping has no common denominator and plays no independent role. Though sometimes squeezed between the principal classes they are not, however, the Middle Class about which we hear so much.

Changing Nomenclature To Protect The Guilty
Like the Holy Ghost, the Middle Class relies on faith rather than empirical verification of its seemingly immortal omnipresence. By definition, it also brings to mind other Gospel assurances that the poor will always be among us–as will be the rich.

But the Middle Class is not the product of Prophets. The term came in to vogue in the post-World War II period as a result of joint promotion by employers, government, media–and a hardening Cold War union bureaucracy. It was a declaration that America had moved beyond class war and inequality, a celebration of social mobility. Both boss parties perpetuate this myth because it is needed more than ever as they each advance unprecedented transfers of wealth from working people to the One Percent.

As they have done since the beginning of the Cold War era of “partnership” with employers and government, most of the mainstream union officials follow the line of their boss party of choice in also continuing to champion a Middle Class--now hardly visible to the naked eye.

As we noted in the first installment, millions of organized workers did achieve dramatic improvements in living standards well in to the Seventies–while many of the unorganized, especially workers of color, remained in or on the edge of poverty even during the best of times.

The adoption of the amorphous Middle Class designation tended to blur, and ultimately obliterate genuine class consciousness previously more common among workers–the indispensable first step in preparing defense of our class interests. The consequences of this identity loss have been devastating.

Are We One–Or Some?
The social gene controlling class awareness, recessive for generations, can be activated by external stimulus. The most impressive class action in 2011 was the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol, accompanied by numerous mass demonstrations, in solidarity with state public sector workers under attack. Many, if not most of the participants in this mobilization were not union members and many were unemployed or low wage workers. They had no direct stake in the fight going on in the legislature but they were glad to see somebody finally standing up for themselves and generously pitched in to help in countless ways.

Soon after, the AFL-CIO sought to follow up on the broad public sympathy for the Madison struggle with a wide variety of workplace and local public events known as We Are One. By and large, these April actions that involved hundreds of thousands were positive. But the old myths don’t die easily.

The very first We Are One event in my home town of Kansas City was hosted by IBEW electricians in the parking lot of a training center jointly operated by the craft union and the electrical contractors association. The main IBEW speaker cautioned the audience, that was mainly made up of members and families of his union, not to listen to those who call you working class. “We are Middle Class!” he reminded them, skilled workers who are preferred by good employers. One of those “good” employers, after getting a man-hug. also gave We Are One greetings to the crowd.

Certainly not all union officials are so crass in renunciation of the working class while warmly and literally embracing the boss--but neither is this a rare isolated example.

There are some other good people in the labor movement, that I highly respect, who still think it is useful to focus agitation around defense of the Middle Class. Union workers are justifiably proud of what they have won over the years and many are convinced it is only their unions that prevent them from being pushed in to the ranks of the working poor, they argue.

While perhaps true as far as it goes this seems a curious argument to me. Of course, we should support fights against give-backs. But that’s not what the perpetuators of the Middle Class myth are doing. The first installment of this article documented that the Middle Class auto worker is being steadily euthanized with the advice and consent of their union leadership. Solidarity House is One with the Boss in replacing those once envied with Tier 2, paid far below the average wage in manufacturing. They are not unique. Sub-tier new hires at General Electric earn the princely sum of twelve dollars an hour and are frozen out of the pension plan. The Steelworkers, Machinists, Teamsters, and nearly all of the once mighty unions that formerly delivered the Middle Class goods to their members are making even more shameful deals.

A long time friend and author of several labor history books, Paul LeBlanc, recently contributed a piece to the Indypendent, an online alternative paper immersed in the Occupy movement. Entitled The Ancestors of Occupy, LeBlanc well situates Occupy’s place in the historical long march, with many detours, of the working class and our allies in struggle against what Occupy calls the One Percent. He recalls the unambiguous declaration of the preamble of the founding constitution of the American Federation of Labor in 1886,

“A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if [they are] not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”

Even these most conservative pioneer craft unionists recognized the primacy of class struggle.

No, our unions were not built around carving out a Middle Class in society. They will not survive committed to such a promise they can no longer keep. Better days in the future are possible--but the good old days are gone for good.

Our anthem Solidarity Forever doesn’t begin, “when the union’s inspiration through the Middle Class shall run.” The next time you clasp hands in its ritual singing to conclude an event reflect on some of its passages’ powerful message once better understood,

All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong

Granted, it will take more than our unions alone to accomplish the goals in the Wobbly Ralph Chaplin’s lyrics. I’ll take up my views on needed coordinated struggles in other arenas as well in the next installment. But, for sure, we will go nowhere fast if we don’t understand and explain the differences between Them and Us. There’s no middle ground.

January 1, 2012

About the Author
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.

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