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The Struggle to Stay Middle Class

How a years-long assault against public workers has created a new solidarity

Mark Makela/Getty Images

The most significant political legacy of the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession could turn out to be the ongoing shift in the way Americans understand their class position.

The bursting of the housing bubble—which entailed a collapse in home values and a flood of foreclosures—and spiking unemployment led millions of Americans to realize that their “middle-class” lives were just a paycheck or two from evaporating. The acute crisis has stabilized, though many of the jobs lost then have not returned, replaced instead with lower-wage, lower-stability positions.

Now, in the midst of widespread strikes and unrest among public-school teachers, The New York Times draws our attention to another aspect of 2008’s legacy: the decline of job quality for public employees. But there is little in the Times’s coverage to connect the dots between slashed wages, disappearing pensions, and second jobs to make ends meet and the wave of bipartisan austerity that swept state governments during and after the recession, along with the accompanying attacks on public-sector unions.

“[G]lobalization and automation aren’t the only forces responsible for the loss of those reliable paychecks,” the Times writes. “So is the steady erosion of the public sector.” The Times notes that state and local employees are the smallest share of the American civilian workforce since 1967. Yet these forces are presented as if there were no humans behind them, as facts of nature rather than facets of a particular political ideology intent on reducing the power of labor. The destruction of the American middle class didn’t just happen. It was deliberately done.

Making public-sector jobs worse was an intentional strategy, as Thomas Frank noted in The Wrecking Crew, going back to the George W. Bush days. It was part of Grover Norquist’s stated goal of shrinking government to the size at which it can be easily drowned in a bathtub, and for far too long much of the news media neglected to ask Norquist who would be drowned when that happened. Politicians insist that shedding public-sector jobs will somehow improve the economy, but it has had precisely the opposite effect for most people.

As Frank pointed out, “One of the results of government being a ‘good’ employer was to put competitive pressure on the private sector to be ‘good’ also; by changing all that, by minimizing what government offered its workers, conservatives reduced that pressure. Like Reagan’s termination of the air-traffic controllers, these strategic degradations of federal labor signaled to employers nationwide that the days of job security and benefits are over.”

And so elected officials like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker didn’t just fire public employees—they deliberately made their jobs worse. Walker kicked off the anti-union wave in 2011 by weakening the collective bargaining power of public employees, and the Janus case at the Supreme Court could finish the job, with union opponents aiming to bar unions from collecting fees from non-members. Walker and his ideological compatriots have used divide-and-conquer tactics that paint public workers as overpaid leeches on the taxpayer, never mind that they are almost certainly underpaid relative to the private sector, and many of them do not receive Social Security. Public workers were the new “welfare queens” by 2011, a racist and sexist depiction made possible by the fact that the public sector was the best place for black workers to find a foothold in the middle class, and where women more than men tended to work.

Walker’s efforts resulted in immediate lost wages and lousier working conditions. Teachers reported new and arbitrary rules about their out-of-work activities and clothing choices, and other workers even reported restrictions on when they could use the restrooms. The teacher uprising now in progress has been fueled by a decade of such policies, where employers demand not just work for less, but also more control on the job.

There are some signs, though, that the power of so-called “small government conservatism” might be waning. Paul Ryan, its face in the House, is exiting Congress stage right, no doubt off to either lobby or think-tank for more shredding of social safety nets, lowering of public-sector wages, privatization of public goods, and tax cuts for billionaires.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump soared through the Republican primary promising to create jobs, to put people back to work. Yet in Trumplandia, some jobs matter more than others. Trump’s speeches not only focus on private-sector work but a particularly gendered kind of work. Elly Kugler of the National Domestic Workers Alliance noted to me in the summer of 2017, “He colors some jobs pink and some jobs blue, even though there are women in the manufacturing sector and men in the care sector. They took a bunch of jobs in manufacturing, colored them blue and then x-ed everything else out as a job.”

Trump is not alone in this—we hear endless paeans to the declining middle class as factories and coal mines close. The devastation wrought by these closures is real, and Trump has done little to help (and even abets the destruction of unions that have been most willing to take his side). But the lack of similar attention to public employees—particularly the ones in caring fields—has meant that our picture of economic decline has been skewed, our understanding of the middle class flawed.

What we thought of as the American middle class was built on the back of union jobs in both public- and private-sector employment. Many of those jobs should more properly have been understood as working class. When unions began their gradual four-decade slide in the 1970s, working-class families were propped up by more women entering the workforce, and then by debt: second mortgages, credit cards, and student loans to move up the socioeconomic ladder into the white-collar professions.

As people had to work more and harder to keep up their lifestyles, what Barbara Ehrenreich memorably called the “fear of falling” (the “status anxiety” that has been noted in Trump voters) tightened its grip. The markers of success, as I wrote in my book Necessary Trouble, the suburban home and the degree, became instead milestones making middle-class security impossible.

As a result, we’ve seen a return to protest tactics of the past, as well as increased interest in unions, even in fields, like journalism, where social capital was previously assumed to make up for low wages. We have also seen, on the right, a new middle-class respectability bestowed on white nationalism, as white people seek someone to blame for their changing status. That white supremacists are exploiting the fear of falling to recruit new members is a reminder that getting the story right matters.

But the most significant shift in American politics has not, in fact, been a drift into the arms of white nationalism or reaction. It has, instead, been that more and more people are identifying as working class. Beyond ticking a certain box on a survey, they are coming to an understanding of what we used to call class consciousness. As I write this, graduate students at Columbia University—one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning—are on the picket lines, walking side by side with building trades workers.

That’s perhaps the most striking thing about the teacher rebellion: It is premised not on middle-class respectability but on working-class solidarity and militancy. Teachers are demanding raises for their colleagues, for, as Arizona teacher Noah Karvelis told me, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and the people in the front office. They pack bags for their students who need food for the weekend, and in return, those students and their parents have marched alongside them. And they struck, in West Virginia, wearing red bandanas, a salute to the mine wars of the last century.

It is, after all, that struggle that built the thing we called the middle class in the first place. It is the most hopeful sign we’ve seen since Trump’s election.