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Who Are the 99%? Part II: The Working Class

Second of four-part series
Analysis by Masao Suzuki |
November 29, 2011
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Editor’s note: This is the second article of a four-article series. The first article was titled, “Who are the one percent?” This article describes the working class, who make up most of the 99%. The next article will be about the rest of the 99% who aren’t part of the working class. The last article will talk about how the history of racism and national oppression is important to understanding what is behind the 1%-99% divide and how the 1% enriches itself while maintaining its privilege and power.

San José, CA - Despite heavy police repression and negative coverage by the corporate-dominated media, the Occupy movement continues and has even grown in places that saw some of the most outrageous police brutality, like the University of California at Davis. The strength of the Occupy movement comes from the fact that over the last 30 years, almost all the fruits of economic growth have gone to the 1% who benefit from the rise in corporate profits at the expense of working people’s wages. The next 19% have broken even, with their incomes just keeping pace with rising prices. And the lower 80%? We have lost ground, as wages fail to keep up with rising prices, the retired have higher health and dental costs and poor people suffer from more and more cuts and restrictions on their government benefits.

This bottom 80% of the population owns only 7% of the income-producing wealth and almost all have to work for others for a living. Those of us who have to work for others and who do not own the means of production make up the working class. The working class makes up about 80% of the population, but is not the same as the bottom 80% by income. There are a number of self-employed and small business people who are not ‘workers,’ yet still in the lower 80% of income. There are also some working class households with two highly paid workers who manage to earn enough to get into the top 20% of household by income.

The importance of the working class is that our interests stand in opposition to the interests of the top 1%. While the top 1% reap income and wealth from record levels of corporate profits, the working class suffers from unemployment, cuts in health care and retirement benefits, and the falling purchasing power of our wages. While the top 1% enjoy massive tax cuts, the working class suffers from cuts in public education, social services and attacks on government workers, as in Wisconsin. While the top 1% and their politicians plan for wars abroad to protect corporate profits and access to resources, it is the sons and daughters of workers who have to do the fighting and dying.

While the working class in the United States makes up the vast majority of the population, there are also large economic differences among workers. The best-off workers have higher incomes, relatively stable jobs and more control over their own work because of their skills, strong unions, or both. This group would include skilled trade workers like electricians, and other semi-professional, college-educated workers like nurses and teachers, skilled clerical workers and some unskilled workers with strong unions, like longshoremen. This upper part of the working class would also include better-off seniors who have both a pension and Social Security, who have paid off their homes, and who have enough income enjoy their retirement.

The upper part of the working class makes up about a fifth of the total population and about a quarter of the working class, but have more influence than other workers through their participation in unions, parents, civic and neighborhood organizations. They see themselves as ‘middle-class’ and often has a middle-class lifestyle, usually owning a home, having health insurance and some retirement savings, and usually are able to send their children to college. Most can take vacations and many have vacation homes.

At the same time this group has also felt the economic crisis. Many have gone for years without a raise while others have been laid off. Their home values and retirement savings have fallen and they have been paying more and more for health insurance. They are often working harder than ever, trying to do the work of their colleagues who have been laid off or retired and not replaced. Some sectors of this part of the class, such as nurses and teachers, have been relatively militant in the fight back against the efforts by the 1% to put the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of workers.

There is a larger group of workers that are not so well-off, put not poor or near poor either. Their incomes are lower the better-off workers, they have less control over their work, but most have full-time, permanent jobs. This group would include many semi-skilled workers such as some construction and manufacturing workers, many clerical workers, auto mechanics and truck drivers. These workers are the middle part of the working class, and make up about 45% of the class and 35% of the total population.

While this group aspires to a middle-class lifestyle, many have had big setbacks in the last few years. With less savings that the better-off workers, they are living paycheck to paycheck and are just one layoff, illness, or divorce away from losing their homes to foreclosure and/or having to declare bankruptcy. They see what has happened to their friends, neighbors and relatives who have lost their jobs, their homes, and their health and worry about the future.

Many in this middle part of the working class have had to cut back on health care, vacations, eating out, or recreational activities. Many retired workers fall into this category, with not quite enough to cover their expenses and have to turn to reverse mortgages or selling their homes to make ends meet. These workers don’t think that they can afford college for their children and see their neighborhood schools taking big cuts or even closing altogether.

Last, but not least, there is a lower-part of the working class that is poor or near poor. Nearly 25% of the population, or 30% of the working class, fall into this category and their numbers are growing. Their jobs are low-paying and are often temporary or part-time. Many are working two or even more jobs to try to make ends meet. Many receptionists, cashiers, retail sales people, childcare workers, cleaners, waiters and waitresses, cooks, home health aides and caretakers of the elderly fall into this category.

The lower part of the working class also includes the million of unemployed and jobless workers who have given up looking for work and are not included in the government’s count of unemployment. There are also many disabled, single parents, and poorer seniors who depend on government benefits that aren’t enough to keep them out of poverty. This includes many homeless, both those living in the streets or cars, and an even larger number who have to depend on friends or relatives for a couch to sleep on.

While a minority of the working class, this lower part is growing in numbers as the economic crisis drags on with continued high unemployment and more and more cuts in government services. Not only former middle working class, but also people who used to be in the upper part of the working class and even a small but growing number of managers and professionals are finding themselves applying for food stamps, lining up at food kitchens, and getting government and charitable help in ways that they would have never thought of a few years ago. This part of the working class is hardest hit by the economic crisis.

While the last article in this series will cover the issue of racism and national oppression, it is important to mention here that because of the historical inequality between whites and others (African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians), these groups that I call oppressed nationalities are more likely to be found in the lower strata of the working class, and less likely to be in the upper strata. For example, as many as 45% of African American workers can be found in the lower part of the working class, as opposed to less than half as many, or about 20% of white workers. At the same time, only about 15% of African American workers can be found in the upper strata, about half of the 30% of white workers who are in the upper part of the working class.