The New American Working Class: a Source of Inspiration for All Digital Labourers

Laetitia Vitaud

The phrase “working class” is not much in use anymore as it is associated to a supposedly outdated political vision of the economy. Most journalists and politicians now use the phrase “middle class”, which is conveniently devoid of any political dimension — and devoid of any meaning actually. Yet wealth inequalities have increased tremendously in the past four decades: the least you can say is that the “middle class” (whoever they may be) have not taken the lion share of the wealth created by the economy. The less the media spoke of a “working class”, the weaker and poorer they became!

Wealth distribution is the result of corporate and social contracts that are anything but static and natural. They are the product of power struggles that are political by nature. To regard those contracts as a given is to deprive workers of their political leverage. For nearly 50 years the negotiating power of the workers has been shrinking as the industrial sector has nearly disappeared. Outside their unionised industrial and public sector strongholds, workers have lost political conscience, influence and wealth. Are service sector workers and digital platforms labourers doomed to insignificance and powerlessness?

No! In itself digital does not necessarily bring about precariousness, contrary to what Neo-Luddites like to claim. Digital can be used in all sorts of ways. Good or bad. Digital is not even the issue. The issue is politics. It is to make the working class political again. You can start by using the phrase “working class” again: a group that has a political conscience, common interests, and the will to organise and stand united to leverage its power. Then digital can help multiply and spread a movement faster and more strongly than ever before in history.

In the US, new workers movements have recently achieved tremendous success. For the first time in over four decades, the fate of the precarious service sector workers has improved noticeably. In many states and many companies, these movements have fought for and sometimes obtained higher minimum wages and better working conditions. Despite Donald Trump’s victory (whose administration will not defend the introduction of a high national minimum wage), these movements are poised to become stronger in the next few years. And most of all, they are an endless source of inspiration for workers across the world, be they digital or not, independent contractors or salaried workers.

How much a worker takes home is the result of a contract

Corporations create value. It is a corporation’s natural purpose to do so. But the way that value is distributed varies through time. There are basically 4 parties to a corporate contract: 1. the shareholders (those who own the company) ; 2. the executives (those who run it) ; 3. the employees (those who labour to produce the products or services that the company sells) ; and 4. the customers (those who buy from the company).

Throughout history the influence of each of these parties has changed, depending on political institutions (those in turn depend on the lobbying power of each party), market evolutions, the degree of globalisation, cultural evolutions… Often one party formed an alliance with another to wield more power. During the post-war boom years, a combination of factors made it possible for executives and employees to form a strong and durable alliance to capture a big chunk of the value.

In the fordist system, influential unions had a strong negotiating power and made sure employees took home their fair share of whatever value was created. However, it doesn’t mean that deal was not the result of power struggles. Nothing was ever given the workers without fights. As Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers for more than 2 decades, and one of history’s most influential union men, once said:

Our fight is essentially a fight to make democracy work. Democracy is not something that is abstract. We have the practical job as organized labor, as the vanguard of the democratic progressive forces of this nation, of forging the weapons with which we are going to fight and the tools with which we are going to build. Nobody else is going to do the job that must be done unless we in the American labor movement give leadership and directions in that struggle.
– 11th UAW-CIO Convention, Nov. 9, 1947

Walter Reuther (UAW), one of the most powerful union men of all times, knew that nothing was ever ‘given’. You have to go get it!

Influence is a construct. It takes years to build it. It takes coalitions. It takes storytelling. And it can never be taken for granted.

Something went wrong when the industrial sector nearly disappeared

Much has been written about the waning power of unions and the disappearance of the industrial working class. Put simply service sector workers, among whom domestic workers and cleaning women, never wielded the same political power as the mostly white mostly male industrial workers. Not only was it more difficult for a geographically disparate workforce working in homes and different small companies to bargain collectively (you may already see where I’m going with digital, here!), but the female and African-American workers were also intentionally discriminated against by powerful political forces. As Tamara Draut writes in an exciting new book titled Sleeping Giant:

“When the working class shifted from ‘making stuff’ to ‘serving people’, it brought with it lots of historical baggage. The long-standing ‘others’ in our society — women and people of color — became a much larger share of the non-college-educated workforce. And their marginalised status in our society carried over into the working class, making it easier to overlook and devalue their work.”

Those who served others never won the same bargaining power. In the South in particular, many domestic workers and cleaning personnel were Blacks, the descendants of the ‘house slaves’ of antebellum years. Franklin Delano Roosevelt intentionally excluded them (domestic workers and field workers) from the groundbreaking Social Security scheme he created in 1935. They were not to get their fair share of anything because the democrats needed the political support of the southern racists to create the new institution. To make things better for industrial workers, they had to leave out service sector and agricultural workers.

So, as the industrial sector progressively went extinct (or nearly extinct), the working class was increasingly composed of a disparate group of women and racially diverse individuals who had no history of political influence. The extinction of the traditional industrial working class meant workers would lose their political power. Service sector workers started out burdened with a discriminatory legacy that would prove hard to overcome. Power could not simply be shifted from industry to services…

Because the new service sector workers were weak from the start, all the other parties (shareholders, executives, customers) lobbied politicians to weaken them further, which is how it became nearly impossible for them to start organising. While the typical GM worker was a strong force in the 1960s, the typical Walmart worker was a disenfranchised weakling in the 1990s. Traditional unions, almost exclusively busy with industrial workers, would become waning organisations of middle-aged and elderly white men. (In Britain, the under-35s, who are almost 40% of the workforce, account for less than a quarter of trade union membership. The figures are nearly the same in the US).

But the working class is now making a comeback

The emergence of newly organised service sector working class is precisely the subject of Tamara Draut’s Sleeping Giant. With new movements like FightFor15, Black Lives Matter, OURWalmart etc. she believes the working class is making a comeback as a political force.

For the first time in decades, the lowest-paid are organising for better pay and better work conditions. There is more working-class solidarity than “at any time since the 1970s”, she writes. OURWalmart—an association of Walmart workers who fight for better working conditions at stores across the country—and the Fight for $15 are two movements that have brought about considerable change.

Walmart decided last year to give millions of employees a raise—which, for the largest employer in the nation, does have quite a bit of an impact. Following the strikes and demonstrations organised by the Fight for $15 movement, the state of New York State decided to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour (by December 31, 2021). It has led to higher wages for workers all across the US as similar legislation was passed in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco.

With OURWalmart and the Fight for $15, the major unions have dusted off their playbook and recommitted to Labor’s historical mission of ‘organizing the unorganized

The particular challenges of organising the unorganised

For a formerly completely unorganised and disparate group, organisation does not come easy. Plus the barriers to organisation are huge. Many of the ‘independent contractors’ of the new economy are in fact highly dependent, but categorised as ‘independent’ for the sole purpose of stopping them from organising and becoming a political force. The misclassification of workers as independent contractors includes many of the lowest-paid jobs (janitorial workers, truck drivers, etc.) who are thus deprived of benefits and the right to join a union. Many companies use the system simply to avoid paying payroll taxes and healthcare benefits to workers who should be regular employees.

Who exactly should be classified as an independent contractor? According to the IRS, somebody is an independent contractor when the firm paying for his or her work has direct control over the result of the work provided, not over what work will be done and how it will be done. True independent contractors, such as realtors and freelance graphic designers (to give just two typical examples), are self-employed and responsible for finding clients on their own. One could say the definition actually excludes a lot of today’s supposedly independent workers…

The new working class finds other particular challenges to organise in that the working conditions are so disparate and sometimes so extreme that they make organisation nearly impossible. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 17% of the workforce has an unstable work schedule, which wreaks havoc on their lives and their budgets. These schedules are a major subject for movements like Fight For $15. Starbucks baristas forced into ‘clopening’ need more than a raise.

The Fight for $15, which now includes retail, fast-food, and airport workers, adjunct faculty members, and home care workers, isn’t just about a pay raise. It’s about bringing back basic decency and humanity back to the workplace. (Sleeping Giant)

Last but not least, worker power is all the weaker when there are more actors to negotiate with. The franchise model that concerns a large number of low-paid workers is making things worse: “the franchise model has devolved into a tale of big brands squeezing more profits from their franchisees under draconian operating procedures, with franchisees in turn squeezing out their profits by cheating workers out of pay.” (Sleeping Giant)

Going digital: the new ways of organising

It is not easy to reach janitors who work nights, home workers who drive alone and virtual workers who never leave home. Top-down doesn’t work. The more disparate the group, the more tricky it is to foster solidarity. The more unequal and unevenly distributed the work schedules, the harder it is to organise. Starbucks baristas find it hard to make Starbucks end ‘clopening’ even after raising a lot of awareness on the issue. Though clearly raising awareness is a good start.

Tech is helpful when atomised workers start to effectively use tools that allow them to connect and compare notes. “When couriers for the UberEats food delivery service went on wildcat strikes this summer, they communicated and co-ordinated through a private instant message group they all accessed on their phones” (Financial Times). Many activists are only now exploring how best to deploy tech to help them win their battles. And there are abundant tools to achieve that. (See O’Reilly’s report on Serving Workers in the Gig Economy.)

Some movements like ROC United have found new ways to raise awareness. With social media, they have reached their goals faster and more effectively than a traditional union would have in this case. These movement are not unions, they are modern-day lobbying organisations that rely on a new alliance between employees and customers.

(The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) is a not-for-profit organization and worker center with affiliates in a number of cities across the United States. Its mission is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s low wage restaurant workforce. Its tactics and strategy have drawn fire from business groups and restaurant industry lobbyists. Wikipedia)

Organising today doesn’t mean quite the same as organising yesterday. It may now mean different things, like raising awareness and creating an alliance with the customers, as ROC United successfully managed to do (watch the video above!). The very definition of a union is being revisited: strictly speaking, the Freelancers Union is not really a union, yet it has been influential in changing the fate of all independent workers, raising awareness, offering adequate insurance, etc.

In the UK, a small union, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) represents low-paid migrants and workers in the ‘gig economy’. It has enrolled many new members and risen awareness. It relies on crowdfunding to help finance its initiatives. Today it is fighting to make sure Brexit will not deprive these workers of all their rights (EU law meant more protection).

Conclusion

The digital-age working class in reinventing worker organisation, particularly in the US. For the first time in decades inequalities have stopped rising, as President Obama recently announced.

A new corporate contract will have to be negotiated. But nothing will come peacefully to those who sit idle and wait longest. New terms can only be negotiated after relentless struggles.

Though Trump’s agenda will not be favourable to the interest of the working class, it may have that paradoxical effect energising it into action.

Going digital and going freelance does not mean being doomed to exploitation. If we play our cards right, it can come with empowerment!

Laetitia Vitaud

Written by

I write about #FutureOfWork #HR #freelancing #craftsmanship #feminism Editor in chief of Welcome to the Jungle media for recruiters laetitiavitaud.com

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