At a time when much of the country identifies as being middle class regardless of income, the term “working class” is used as a euphemism for poor people, many of whom work in service sector jobs characterized by low pay, part-time hours, no benefits, and general instability. Just 50 years ago, “working class jobs” referred to skilled and physically demanding work. The blue-collar workers who held those jobs earned a middle-income wage that paid for a mortgage, a family car, often a boat or recreational vehicle, and sometimes a vacation home. Those jobs have largely been replaced by low-wage service sector employment.
During the pandemic, another euphemism emerged as business and media characterized some forms of work as “essential” to justify demands that people to continue to work in conditions that placed them at risk of Covid-19. If medical professionals could be called essential workers in a pandemic, the same cannot be said of millions of service workers who were required to work with inadequate protections, sick leave, or health care. The nation called low-wage workers essential yet treated them as disposable.
In the 21st century, our use of language has effectively scrambled class-based identities among workers even as 35% of households have so little economic security, they are unable to pay for an unexpected expense of $400. The erasure of workers’ interests is normalized in large and small ways. Consider that every major metropolitan newspaper in the country has a business section, yet none has a workers’ section. For decades the needs, interests, and perspectives of workers have been treated by newspapers either as irrelevant or as commensurate with those of business. It is both a mundane and a striking omission of class-based interests.
Systemic class exploitation is masked by the discourse of the American Dream which advances the myth that everyone has a chance to succeed if only they work hard enough. Class prejudice runs rampant when structural inequalities are reduced to personal characteristics. In short, struggling workers and the families they support are blamed for being poor, no matter how hard or how long they labor. If being stuck in a lifetime of low-wage work was the consequence of personal deficiencies, rather than structural design, we wouldn’t have millions of families in the same sinking boat.
In 2022, it is still acceptable for successful businesses to refuse to pay a living wage to their workers. If we are to turn things around, the nation needs sustained and honest public conversations, actions, and policies that address the realities of economic exploitation on which business success too often depends. It begins with creating a language that captures the experience of class-based violence as it exists today.