American Notebook: Are Workers Middle Class?

American Notebook: Are Workers Middle Class?

Are workers becoming “middle class”? Is Fortune correct in describing workers as a “salariat” rather than a “proletariat”? A belief is spreading among social scientists and unionists that in their middle age unions are becoming middle class. But an evaluation of a number of sociological studies suggests that the extent of “middle-classization” among workers is, to recall Mark Twain’s comment on rumors of his death, “grossly exaggerated.”

We shall deal here with three arguments for the view that workers are becoming middle class: 1) objective conditions of life no longer distinguish workers from the middle class; 2) workers have the same desire for success that middle-class people have; and 3) the homogenization of attitudes and values which occurs in a mass society obliterates class differences.

1) Objective Conditions
For many craft workers income levels are good, especially when compared to those of lower white-collar employees. Yet the wages of large groups of workers, in the South, in New England, and in “sick” industries are still very low; among workers who suffer most from discrimination—Negroes, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans —poverty is often extreme.

Many wage earners work far more than a forty-hour week; indeed, high earnings in manufacturing industries are due largely to time-and-a-half overtime. And about one worker out of twenty “moonlights”—that is, holds more than one job. Nor should we forget that the “high” wages in manufacturing are not really so very high: an average weekly pay in 1959 of $90 is not a luxury income if one considers present prices and taxes.

Unemployment occurs more frequently among wage-earners than among white-collar workers, especially during the kinds of recessions we have come to know in recent years. In the steel industry between the middle of 1956 and the fall of 1958, semi-skilled workers had a 20 per cent, and unskilled workers a 25 percent drop in employment; but no office employees were laid off during the same period. Workers always have a nagging fear of unemployment, for even during boom times many plants shut down temporarily or are closed because they cannot compete with newer, more efficient factories. Daniel Bell has reported that “the most bitter complaint of auto workers is that they have no way of knowing, from one week to the next, how many hours they will work in any given week; through the year, a man may get as many as twenty ‘short work weeks’.”