WCP: Bringing Ourselves to Say “Working-Class”

Joe Biden speaking into a megaphone at a campaign rally.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Posted in News Working-Class Perspectives  |  Tagged

President Joe Biden recently did the most pro-working-class thing any U.S. president has done in decades: he endorsed the right of workers to organize. Yet, as Christopher R. Martin points out in this week’s Working-Class Perspectives (new window), even as Biden argued that unions benefit workers, he could not bring himself to refer to them as “working class.” As Martin suggests, it’s time for politicians — and the rest of us — to reclaim that term.

Would it make a difference if this was called the Middle-Class Perspectives blog? Would the writers be discussing the same issues in the arts, in education, in politics, and the relationship between race, gender, and class if we were talking about the middle class. Think about it.

I’m one of those people (like you, perhaps, if you are reading Working-Class Perspectives) who thinks that the working class and the middle class are not the same thing. The terms are not synonymous.

When the news media talk about “regular” people or citizens, they usually mean the middle class. When advertisements sell things, they are likely pitching to the middle class. And, when politicians talk about Americans, they are most often talking about the middle class.

Middle class is a nice catch-all term. For the politicians and media, saying “middle class” plays into the myth of a classless society. It doesn’t speak of inequality, since it envisions a large, inclusive middle, where nearly all Americans can find themselves. Sociologist Warren Breed recognized this reticence to talk about class—as in the “working class”—back in 1958. “The word ‘class’ is almost entirely absent from the media,” he said, because “class, being social inequality, is the very antithesis of the American creed.”

Unfortunately, conceptualizing a big American “middle class,” with only the rare extremes of the poor at one end, and the super-wealthy at the other, papers over a whole lot of inequality of opportunity in the middle, with people weighted down by a racial caste systemgender inequalitygeographic inequality, and the lack of transgenerational capital for social mobility.

That’s why it pains most politicians and the mainstream media to say “working class” –  it calls attention to social inequality and calls out the American myth.

Case in point: President Joe Biden, who throughout his long political career has often been called “working class Joe,” seems hesitant to use the phrase himself. Let’s look at Biden in his own words.

In his autobiography Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (2007), he mentions “working class” five times, and “middle class” twice as many times. When Biden does write “working class,” it’s not a subject – the working class – but instead an adjective that adds color to the description: working-class neighborhoods (appears twice), working-class Polish neighborhood, working-class town, and working-class steel town.

He even describes the neighborhood where he grew up in this way: “We were moving to the outskirts of Wilmington, to a working-class neighborhood called the Claymont area, just across the Pennsylvania state line.” So he’s working-class, right?

Maybe not. Before he moved to Delaware, he lived in Scranton, a place that figured into Biden’s first dreams of a presidential run as an adult. In Promises to Keep, he reflects that he thought his origination narrative would help his political image: “It was a beautiful story for Scranton: a kid from middle-class Green Ridge who has a shot (and just the kind they like—long shot) at the Democratic presidential nomination.” So he’s middle class.

But wait! In his March 23 speech in Columbus, Ohio marking the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, Biden offered a somewhat different answer: “I, like many of you, grew up in a middle-class — I guess, technically, lower-middle-class — household based on income.  We lived in a three-bedroom split-level home with four kids and our grandpop living with us.” Here, he avoids calling his family working class, instead describing them as still marginally part of the middle class, perhaps as the way to still connect to “many of you” – his audience, “regular” middle class people.

In Biden’s next book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose (2017), he mentions working class once and middle class 13 times. One sentence captured both terms, as Biden recounted a 2015 speech he gave: “When the middle class does well, everybody does well. The economy expands, and working-class and poor folks have a way up.”

That was the sentiment in naming the Middle Class Task Force of 2009 that then-Vice President Biden chaired. In the throes of the Great Recession, this organization claimed its target was “raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America.” The description used a weasel phrase politicians have fancied since the Reagan era – “working families” – to linguistically sidestep saying “working class.”

Biden’s struggle in articulating concepts of class reflects both how Americans avoid talking about class and our conflicting need to talk about it because class inequality is unavoidably right in front of us.

Economist Michael Zweig suggests another way to think about working class in his book The Working Class Majority: “The working class is made up of people who, when they go to work or when they act as citizens, have comparatively little power or authority.” By that reckoning, Zweig suggests that at least 60 percent of the U.S. labor force is part of the working class.

It’s a subjective measure, but if you are are making an average of $15.50 an hour, lower than median wage in the area, and your boss is – depending on how his stock is valued that the day – the richest man in the world, worth about $182 billion, and is paying an anti-union consulting firm $10,000 a day to make sure you don’t vote “union,” are you in the middle class? That is a question workers at the Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are considering right now.

Joe Biden seems to think the answer is yes. He recently did the most pro-working-class thing any U.S. president has done in decades. In the midst of a labor battle, during the seven-week voting period as over 5,800 workers decide whether they should have the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union represent them, Biden endorsed the right of workers to unionize and pushed back on the company’s efforts to intimidate them. And he opened his remarks by talking about the middle class, saying “I have long said that America wasn’t built by Wall Street. It was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class.”

As he continued, though, it was clear that he was talking about the exact kind of disempowered people in Zweig’s definition of the working class. “Unions put power in the hands of workers,” Biden said. “They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and Brown workers.”

In his short but powerful speech, Biden didn’t mention Amazon, but he didn’t need to. But even in this astonishingly pro-working-class message, Biden didn’t use the words “working class.” He didn’t need to do that either. This time it was clear who Joe Biden was talking about.

The next step for Biden is to reclaim the term “working class.” We can hope the workers in Bessemer and elsewhere win in their battle to unionize and collectively bargain for better (in Bidenese, middle-class) wages and benefits, and safer working conditions. But the desire and need for union representation – because in Zweig’s words, they would otherwise “have comparatively little power or authority”—means the Bessemer workers, like most American workers, will still be working class.

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).