Protections for the Working Class Have Vanished in America

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Jerome Braun is an independent interdisciplinary scholar. He is co-editor of the anthology "Alienation and the Carnivalization of Society" (Routledge, 2011).

Abandoned storefront in Washington D.C. The partially obscured graffiti on the door reads "Don't Just Vote Get Active." Credit: Wikipedia

In the midst of the political season leading to the 2012 presidential election, it is striking how little discussion there has been on working-class issues, other than the too often banal discussions of how the unemployment rate is too high.. Usually the only solutions offered are that this problem will resolve itself, or a plan to apply the band-aid of unemployment compensation and other palliatives in the short-run, and nothing in the long-run.

Much like the Tory Party of eighteenth-century Britain, the Democrats have become the party of the cultural elite, and much like the Whigs of eighteenth-century Britain, the Republicans have become the party of the economic elite -- though there is much overlap between the two, in that many powerful groups want their lobbyists to play both sides of the fence. While the Republicans claim they want to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, and for the poor who want to themselves become entrepreneurs in order to work their way out of poverty, they're actually better at helping the Wal-Marts of the world than the mom-and-pop stores -- those that still exist, anyway. The Democrats, on the other hand, act as if the American economy is fully mature. This means they offer the poor the hope that their children can go to college and work for a Fortune 500 company, or the subcontractors who serve them, and if this doesn’t help, as a last resort they can go on welfare. Between these two extremes there may be other alternatives but you'll need a magnifying glass placed on the Democratic and Republican Party platforms to find out what they are.

Past Democratic presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt had their wealth, but it did not come from a lifetime of social climbing and playing up to the rich so that they could afford to represent the interests of people who were different, and certainly a lot poorer, than them. In recent generations, however we have had Democratic presidential candidates who went to Ivy League schools, then spent most of their earning years utterly dependent on social climbing and gaining the good graces of the rich folk. These are the people who finance their political campaigns, and are often responsible for much of their income as well. When they leave their political careers behind, they once again are dependent on the largesse of the rich for much of their income. Republican presidential candidates in many ways have had similar careers, dependent on the good graces of the very rich, both before and after they entered politics -- and of course Mitt Romney, in addition to being born into great wealth, made hundreds of millions in the private sector, before ever running for office.

Both major-party candidates, in their pronouncements on public policy, may attempt to discuss the worthiness of the rich for their positions of power, or the lives of the working class while they are living their working-class lives, not merely those few who escape them through social mobility out of them. However, the atypical examples of a few working-class people who enter the ranks of the wealthy have become the stock and trade of the press -- with their focus more on entertainment than on analysis -- and our political class, with a few exceptions, tends to go along with this.

The reformer president Woodrow Wilson succeeded in passing the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act to curb unfair trade practices, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and an income tax. Child labor was curtailed by the Keating–Owen Act of 1916, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1918. He also had Congress pass the Adamson Act, which imposed an eight-hour workday for railroads. But after World War I there was no will among either Democrats or Republicans to put any further teeth into enforcement of anti-trust legislation or of legislation that would markedly help the economic power of the working class such as through strengthening labor unions. The weak purchasing power of the working class as well, as weak protections against stock fraud and the overall stock market bubble, resulted in the market crash of 1929. More impressive gains were achieved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression, when he sponsored the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act (which established the rights of workers to organize unions), and the Fair Labor Standards Act which established the minimum wage. But after World War II, the political will to defend the working class again became much weaker. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, admittedly passed by overriding President Harry Truman’s veto, imposed limits on labor’s right to strike, particularly jurisdictional strikes and wildcat strikes, and allowed states to pass right-to-work laws that weakened the ability of unions to add new members. Though this law had some public support because of the union movement‘s overuse of strikes after the war, the net effect was to weaken the union movement. The federal government went on doing very little to prevent intimidation of pro-union workers by management, and of course very little to stop outsourcing and offshoring. This has resulted in a union movement that is now about as weak as it was during the 1920s, and a working class in general whose economic position is in roughly the same place.

After World War II, the British public tossed out Winston Churchill's Conservative Party and elected the Labour politician Clement Atlee in his place. Atlee pledged to create a modern welfare state, and he followed through (it's a testament to the continued popularity of Atlee's reforms -- including the National Health Service -- that he was rated by British academics as the greatest prime minister of the twentieth century, edging out Churchill by a considerable margin). In the U.S., on the other hand, both major parties ended up running away from the innovations of the 1910s and 1930s. Instead of a genuine pension system, instead of cheap and effective health care, instead of cheap college education for those that will benefit, instead of emphasizing health and safety issues in the workplace, instead of mandatory vacations and overtime, both parties merely now offer a march into the past -- the Democrats being satisfied in many ways with America as it was in the 1920s, and many of the Republicans preferring a return to the 1880s. Is that progress?

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