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America’s Best Kept Secret

Second Edition

Michael Zweig




Preface to the Second Edition



1. The Class Structure of the United States

2. What We Think about When We Think about Class

3. Why Is Class Important?

4. Looking at the Underclass

5. Looking at Values—Family and Otherwise

6. The Working Class and Power

7. Power and Globalization

8. Power and the Government

9. Into the Millennium


Preface to the Second Edition

This second edition brings to the reader the latest data available in mid 2011, data that confirm the findings of the first edition. Some examples are new, while original examples that remain appropriate continue to be included. The structure of the book is unchanged, but individual chapters reflect new developments and findings.

Chapter 1 confirms the original finding that the working class is the majority in the United States. But while the overall percent of the labor force in the working class remained essentially unchanged (63 percent in 2010 compared with 62 percent in 1996), changes in details suggest two offsetting trends. The percent of the labor force engaged in traditional working class occupations has declined, particularly among clerical, precision production, and craft workers, as well as operators, fabricators, and laborers. At the same time, traditional middle class occupations among administrative, managerial, and professional titles increased their share of the workforce. Taken together, these trends would suggest that the working class is shrinking as increasing numbers of people have left working class jobs to come into positions of authority in the growing middle class. But that is not the case.

During this time period significant changes have come to the professions. As described more fully in chapter 1, traditional middle class professions like teaching and nursing have come under the discipline of corporate management in substantial numbers, resulting in a class shift within the professions. When we take into account the growing fraction of teachers, nurses, and other professionals who once had the autonomy and authority that made them part of the middle class, but who have since been subject more closely to the type of supervision characteristic of the skilled working class, the overall fraction of the labor force in the working class has remained virtually unchanged. The unchanged percent of people in the working class masks these two important developments: the disappearance of many traditional working class jobs and the simultaneous deterioration of the working lives of the professional middle class. Each of these contributes to the widespread sense of insecurity as the U.S. workforce moves further into the twenty-first century.

Several other new developments appear in subsequent chapters. While poverty has continued to inflict much suffering since the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation, and increased after the 2008 financial crisis, poor people have largely disappeared from mainstream political conversation. Chapter 4 examines the continuing burden of poverty, but looks at the ways many politicians, pundits, and media outlets have substituted immigrants for the poor as scapegoats for social ills, and as false targets for popular anger and frustration.

Chapter 6 newly introduces several social norms that flow from working class values, norms that provide concrete goals for specific policies that would advance the interests of working people. Chapter 7 now includes discussion of the global financial crisis in 2008–2010, new international government and economic relations, immigration to the United States, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which have occurred since the first edition appeared. In chapter 7, and in chapter 1, I consider the steady internationalization of class, whether among the capitalist class or the working class.

In chapters 6, 8, and 9, I look at changes that have taken place in the labor movement since the early days of John Sweeney’s leadership of the AFL-CIO, when the first edition appeared. Chapter 9 now also presents a more detailed history of the rise of corporate power in response to labor’s advances during the New Deal and 1940s and 1950s, especially following 1970.

Developments in the Internet have already made obsolete the listings in the original printed Appendix. In its place, you can find links to relevant organizations on the book’s website,, which also presents study guides for each chapter.

In preparing this second edition I have become sharply aware that almost everything it addresses is in the process of continuous development. Our economy and broader society are moving targets that cannot be properly described in a particular state over any length of time. While underlying class dynamics change only slowly, except in rare moments of radical social upheaval, the manifestations of these dynamics appear in new ways every year, if not almost every day. The rapidity with which circumstances change can make it more difficult to discern the more stable underlying class dynamics that largely drive events. Clarifying these underlying dynamics is the purpose of this book.

Updating and elaborating our understanding of this ever-changing presence of class must be a collective undertaking of continuous investigation, writing, and debate. As this book is used in classrooms, union halls, study groups, and community centers, I hope that students, working people, faculty researchers, and others involved in these issues will continue the work of updating and deepening our understanding of class based on the study of new data and examples. I hope their results will be presented and debated at Working Class Studies Association conferences and other gatherings of labor-oriented people, and published in popular venues and professional journals as working class studies becomes an accepted part of our public dialogue. Together we must come to better understandings of how class works to shape our life experiences, and how our knowledge of class can help us influence history to the advantage of working people.


In planning and writing this book I have benefited from the insight, experience, and challenging ideas of many people. For their interest and encouragement, and for their time taken for discussion, reading and commenting on various drafts of this second edition, looking up information, and helping me find my bearings in this material, I thank Joe Berry, Ron Blackwell, Jim Borbely, Ross Borden, Gene Bruskin, Jeff Crosby, Fernando Gapasin, Penny Lewis, Stephanie Luce, Maria Maisto, Jay D. Mazur, Jack Metzgar, Rachel Micah-Jones, Dennis O’Neil, Steven Pitts, Warren Sanderson, Heidi Shierholz, Craig Smith, Megan Smith, Ralph Tricoche, Luis Valenzuela, Victor Wallis, Kris Warner, Devon Whitham, and Anne Wiegard. Robert Sauté provided invaluable research and helped me think through some thorny questions. The State University of New York at Stony Brook granted me a year’s sabbatical leave that made it possible to do this work. My thanks also to the staffs of Stony Brook Manhattan and the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at the City University of New York for providing me with stimulating and productive work environments.

I continue to be grateful to all who helped create the first edition of this book: anonymous reviewers for Cornell University Press, Doug Andersen, Stanley Aronowitz, Ruth Ben Zvi, Mike Bianculli, Keith Cummings, Debra Dwyer, participants in the Economic Policy Institute Friday seminar, Frank Emspak, Bill Fletcher, Elaine Fuller, David Gold, Ted Goldfarb, Paul Groncki, Eduard Gros, Barbara Haber, Elaine Harger, Doug Henwood, Takashi Kamihigashi, Barrie Kelly, Eugene Kelly, Glen Koster, Marta Kusic, Judith Lang, Les Leopold, Jon Levine, Robert Lepley, librarians at the Tamiment Collection and Business and Social Science Reference Desk at Bobst Library of New York University, Theresa Li Cascia, Jay D. Mazur, Larry Mishel, Ruth Misheloff, Christopher Mittendorf, Stan Nadel, Jim O’Brien, Bertell Ollman, Dennis O’Neil, Greg Palast, Paddy Quick, Michael Reich, Jimmy Rich, Sumner Rosen, Elissa Sampson, Warren Sanderson, Elisabeth Sawyer, Danny Schechter, Bill Scheuerman, Michael Schwartz, Barbara Silverstone, Jane Slaughter, Roland Spant, Bill Tabb, Nick Unger, Dick Wheeler, and Gekee Wickham. Kathy Chamberlain offered wise counsel from the earliest days of this work to final editing of both editions. Fran Benson, my editor at Cornell University Press, believed in this project at an early stage. Without her support, you would not be reading this book.

In the late 1970s, I came to know Jimmy Scales, a young man who worked in the industrial world of northern New Jersey. He was a union activist with a clear understanding of the need to build a broad working class movement. When out of work he helped organize the unemployed and people on welfare. He got a warehouse job in New York City in 1980 and was a rising leader in District Council 65 as it was merging with the United Auto Workers. He had uncommon curiosity, insight, and humor, and we would talk at length about many of the ideas that have come to be included here. Jimmy died in 1981, still in his twenties. As I wrestled with writing this book, I sorely missed the chance to continue those talks. I dedicate this book to his memory and his work.


Some years ago, a newspaper comic strip pictured a campus radical proclaiming his solidarity with the class struggle, only to be ridiculed by his professor, who dismissed him with a sharp retort: The only classes in this country are in schools! This remark pretty much sums up the conventional view of class in the United States: it doesn’t exist.

This book challenges that view. It is about classes, but not the schoolroom kind. It is about social classes and class relations in the United States that not only continue to exist but, as readers will discover, exert tremendous influence over all of us.

When I talk about class, I am talking about power. Power at work, and power in the larger society. Economic power, and also political and cultural power. As I explore the class structure of the U.S. economy, I will be describing the contours of power that operate in every aspect of society, to the benefit of some, to the burden of others.

We all experience class, in different ways we are treated, in different lifestyles, in different parts of town. Some people are called high class, others low class, depending on their table manners, how loudly they talk in public places, or their choice of movies and magazines. One place where class is pretty sharply defined is in the sky. In the 1980s and 1990s, airlines rearranged their planes in ways that mirrored what was going on in the rest of society. The first-class section, serving a tiny minority of passengers, expanded. The seats became more comfortable, the food more sumptuous. Meanwhile, in the back of the plane, coach class got more crammed and even the peanuts disappeared.

Some aspects of class are more openly acknowledged than others. In this book, I explore aspects that are usually overlooked or denied, especially the way classes are structured by economic power. This book makes three basic points:

First, economic classes exist in U.S. society. I will describe who is in them and measure their sizes. It will become clear that the United States is not a mostly middle class society. We will see that the working class is the majority.

Second, class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work, and think. Class is not just an abstract idea to score debating points. We will come to understand a wide range of important issues very differently when we look at them through the lens of class.

Third, class has great influence on politics—electoral politics and the more general contests of power that operate throughout society. This is true whether we recognize classes openly or not. By looking at issues through the lens of class, we can be clearer about what is at stake, and begin to see the potential for profound political realignments during the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

It is ironic that Americans pay much less attention to class than Europeans do, since American history is so full of violent armed conflict between workers and their employers. These conflicts are more widespread and more recent than anything in the history of European industrial relations. From the general strike of 1877 to Telluride and Bloody Harlan, from the GM workers’ forty-four-day sit-down strike in Flint to more recent strikes by miners at Pittston’s coal operations in southwest Virginia, by meatpackers in Minnesota, and by thousands of workers in the war zone of central Illinois, classes and open class struggle have been a persistent presence in U.S. history, up until the present day in Wisconsin and wherever public-sector workers are under attack.

Despite this history of intense class conflict, the most common myth about classes in the United States is that a vast middle class contains the overwhelming majority of our people. In this view, a small group of rich people lives at the top. Some are successful business leaders with names like Forbes, Rockefeller, Gates, Trump. Some are glamorous sports and entertainment stars, the Kobe Bryants and Lady Gagas of the world. As the saying goes, the very rich are different from you and me.

The dominant myth also recognizes a social fringe of poor people below the great middle class, sometimes called the underclass. The poor are at the lower margins of society, pictured as different, lazy, damaged, scary enough so that we want to stay out of their neighborhoods. The poor are beneath the supposed vast middle class, who work hard and play by the rules, making a life through hard work and sacrifice.

The trouble with this story is that it hides an important reality. By looking only at income or lifestyle, we see the results of class, but not the origins of class. We see how we are different in our possessions, but not how we are related and connected, and made different, in the process of making what we possess.

Certainly a relatively few rich people do sit at the top of the income distribution, and a relatively small number of people are at the very bottom, with most people somewhere in between. But where to draw the lines—what is rich, what is poor, what is middle—is largely arbitrary. And just looking at a person’s income doesn’t tell us anything about how the person got the income, what role he or she plays in society, how he or she is connected to the power grid of class relations.

I define classes in large part based on the power and authority people have at work. The workplace engages people in more than their immediate work, by which they create goods and services. It also engages them in relationships with each other, relationships that are controlled by power. A relative handful of people have great power to organize and direct production, while a much larger number have almost no authority. In a capitalist society such as ours, the first group is the capitalist class, the second group is the working class.

The great majority of Americans form the working class. They are skilled and unskilled, in manufacturing and in services, men and women of all races, nationalities, religions. They drive trucks, write routine computer code, operate machinery, wait tables, sort and deliver the mail, work on assembly lines, stand all day as bank tellers, perform thousands of jobs in every sector of the economy. For all their differences, working class people share a common place in production, where they have relatively little control over the pace or content of their work, and aren’t anybody’s boss. They produce the wealth of nations, but receive from that wealth only what they can buy with the wages their employers pay them. When we add them all up, they account for over 60 percent of the labor force. They are the working class majority.

There is also a middle class, of course. It includes professional people, small business owners, and managers and supervisors who have authority over others at work. But the middle class is only a little more than half the size of the working class. Instead of seeing them as people with middling income, we will see them as people with middling authority. The middle class is caught between the working class and the capitalist class.

We can understand the economic, political, and cultural role of each class if we see it in terms of its relationships to the others, in the textures of social power, rather than simply as income category or lifestyle. This way—with power laid bare—the abstractions of class come to life.

Class is one of America’s best-kept secrets. Any serious discussion has been banished from polite company. But classes exist anyway, and the force of events is bringing class back into focus. We will be looking at the circumstances that have hidden an awareness of class, and at those that are now giving new urgency to recognizing class once again. More and more, reality is poking through the myths and revealing the shape of class power. We will see how class is involved in the issues that have dominated economic and political life in the United States over the last forty years. For each, we will see that the issues have played out in a way that has strengthened the power of the capitalist class, degraded the life of the working class, and caught the middle class in the middle.

We will see that the dramatic increase in inequality is not just a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, as the media often portray it. Our society’s growing inequality of income and wealth is a reflection of the increased power of capitalists and the reduced power of workers. This basic change in circumstances forms the backdrop for much of the political debate of recent decades.

Class has its foundation in power relations at work, but it is more than that. Class also operates in the larger society: relative power on the economic side of things translates, not perfectly but to a considerable extent, into cultural and political power. These forms of power in turn reinforce, adjust, and help give meaning to classes. Our discussion of class will go beyond production, to search out its implications in the broader society as well.

Over the last four decades the working class has experienced lower real incomes, longer hours at work, fewer protections by unions or government regulations, and inferior schools. Politicians have responded by presenting targets for the anger and frustration of working people and much of the middle class. We have been told that poor people are the reason for hard times, ripping us off and draining us dry through welfare. We have been told that immigrants and workers in other countries are willing to work cheap to take our jobs away. We hear that taxes are the cause of our predicament, that teachers, firefighters, police, and other public sector workers are greedily gobbling up our resources, and even that government itself is the problem, not the solution. And on top of these policy angles, we have been preached a tale of moral decay, in which our problems stem from the decline of family values. These targets have determined the main direction of public policy in recent decades. As we look at each in turn from the standpoint of class, we will see how each has intensified the attack on working people and strengthened the hand of the capitalist class. Far from solving the problems working people face, these policies have made working people worse off, and—by confusing the issues—helped to alienate the broad electorate from the political process.

The sooner we realize that classes exist and understand the power relations that are driving the economic and political changes swirling around us, the sooner we will be able to build a new politics that engages people by wrestling with reality. The potential power of an openly working class politics is one of the most exciting and difficult issues of the twenty-first century.

This book concludes with a discussion of the potential for working class power. We will consider the moral foundations of working class politics, which are in sharp contrast with the so-called family values agenda that has substituted lifestyle for economic justice as the subject matter of ethical debate. We will see how the raw individualism of the capitalist marketplace calls for a response based on very different values, values that are central to a working class politics: recognition of mutual responsibility, fairness, human dignity, and democracy, in place of self-interest run wild into greed. We will look at new attempts to develop working class power based on these values, in the union movement and in connection with other social movements.

Serious discussions of class are always controversial. Talk of the working class and the capitalists brings to mind the old days of factory life and Karl Marx. In this postindustrial service economy, steeped in mass consumerism, many people believe that the working class is surely a thing of the past and Marx irrelevant. In chapter 1 I will explain why class continues to be relevant even when some workers carry briefcases instead of lunchboxes. As for Karl Marx, anyone in the last 150 years who has thought seriously about class owes this pioneer of class analysis an enormous debt. Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged his positive significance as one of history’s great thinkers when it featured Marx in the first of a series of articles on Thinkers Who Shaped the Century.¹

My purpose, however, is not to discuss the pros and cons of Marx’s analysis, but rather to examine America’s experience in recent decades. My belief in the importance of class analysis rests on its power to make sense of the world, this world, now. An understanding of class can help us interpret what is happening in society, and what we might do to make things better for the great majority of people. I try to make the case to readers who may be skeptical, but who will approach the question with the world as their testing ground.

This book is an attempt to help reopen the discussion of class in America. In such a discussion, we will need to hear the voices of a great many people who do not often speak in public: working class people. I hope this book will stimulate a wide debate among workers, and also among academics, professional people, and all who are concerned about justice. I hope they will bring the experiences of different classes to bear, teach one another, and clarify the questions. The understanding of class that comes from this discussion can help us get to the bottom of what is ailing us and build the social movements needed to make life better for working people. Because class is a question of power, understanding class can add to the power of working people.

The working class began to experience a decline in its quality of life in the early 1970s. At that time, a book appeared with the same title as this book, The Working Class Majority.² In it, author Andrew Levison made a strong case for the existence of the working class and its political importance. But the book appeared at a time when interest in the working class was fading among traditional liberal allies. The working class was rapidly disappearing from public view. Unfortunately, Levison’s book has long been out of print.

I hope that in this book, the one you are reading, the theme can be renewed in a social climate that will be more open to it. This book and Levison’s have different structures and scopes, but the underlying points remain the same: the working class is the majority in the United States, and it is long past time that we all recognize that fact, explore its implications, and act accordingly.



What Are Classes?

I first learned about class growing up in Detroit and its suburbs. Long before I knew what classes were, I experienced them. Before I had the words and concepts, I saw for myself profound differences in different parts of town.

I went to grade school and junior high in Detroit with the children of autoworkers. For high school, my classmates were children of top auto executives in suburban Bloomfield Hills. My parents had found a house in one of the first subdivisions in the area, a corner of one of the finest public school districts in Michigan, where huge estates stood in sharp contrast to the housing I had known before. Other differences soon emerged. The auto plants closed on the first day of deer hunting season so thousands of workers could head into the woods of northern Michigan, but fathers in Bloomfield Hills took their kids hunting for moose in northern Canada or on safari to Africa. A high school boy I knew in Detroit who killed an old woman was put away, but a small group of my new classmates who beat a truck driver to death by the side of the road on a lark received barely two weeks’ social probation at school. Whether we are aware of it or not, even when we don’t have the words to explain it, the American experience is an experience of intense class difference.

A population as large and diverse as ours contains many divides. In recent decades, we have arrived at better understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, helping us to make progress toward overcoming discrimination. But as public awareness of these issues has developed, knowledge of class differences has all but disappeared.

It wasn’t always so. At the end of the nineteenth and far into the twentieth century, newspapers were filled with stories of pitched class struggle. General strikes. The army called out to put down rebellious workers. Mass picketing and factory occupations in the course of union organizing drives. In cartoons, fat capitalist plutocrats with cigars in their mouths and dollar signs for eyes were denounced as enemies of ordinary people.

More recently, the general view has been that class, if it ever was important, is a thing of the past. No one argues that capitalism is a thing of the past, of course. Instead, we often hear that the relative decline of manufacturing and the tremendous growth of service industries have changed the basic facts of life in capitalist society. The relative decline of blue-collar factory employment and the rise of white-collar service jobs is supposed to show that the working class is history. The fact that we no longer see pitched battles between masses of workers and squads of armed goons hired by a company to kill union organizers is taken as proof that class struggle is over, that we’ve outgrown that sordid past. In short, the conventional wisdom is that postindustrial society is not industrial society.

True. But also not true. Life in the United States today is dramatically different from life thirty or sixty or a hundred years ago; many of the changes do correspond with changes in the economy. Yet much remains the same. A call-center worker today can tell you stories of speed-up and harassment by supervisors that equal anything reported by her grandfather who worked on the auto assembly line. And both are just as adamant about union representation. A temp services bookkeeper today is as subject to the whims of his employer as was the garment worker at the