I love me my union (National Writers Union / UAW) and I love me my union talk (Sisters & Brothers; continue the struggle; Solidarity), but the mainstream unions have become infected with language I find unbearable. And rude. And inaccurate. Let me confine myself to two glaring examples:
The Middle Class
I spent my youth dissecting class using Mao’s models. How many evenings did my revolutionary collective sit around deciding whether school teachers were part of the new working class despite their college education; whether mom & pop stores (i.e. petit bourgeois) were more aligned with the working class than the middle class; how to distinguish between the experience of a working class person going to college (loans and scholarships) and privileged people going to college (parental checkbook).
Now my unions are trying to call everyone “middle class.” Like if you have a union card you belong to the middle class. Factory workers? Truck drivers? Nurses? All middle class, say the union leaders. So who is working class, in their eyes, I wonder. Does it leap from lumpen (poor) to middle class to the ruling class?
Although now that I think about it, when was the last time the union people talked about the ruling class? You hear about the “wealthy” but you hear nothing about the owning classes. The term “ruling class” contains a political observation – that the “wealthy” have power and use that power to control our lives. A lottery winner could be wealthy – but that doesn’t make them ruling class. Let’s use language that is more precisely descriptive and helps us pinpoint who is on which team.
Why debase a term and therefore an identity – working class – that we should instead be infusing with pride and energy? Why debase a concept of the fighting workers in favor of the language of the capitalists? I cannot imagine getting all hopped up at a demo yelling, “Middle Classers of the World Unite.” In fact, perhaps this is American exceptionalism. This is distinguishing “our” working class from those of other countries. I refuse to buy into the myth that if your union gets you decent wages and conditions, you are thereafter part of the middle class. To the contrary, it just means that the working class is scoring victories. But of course, those days seem very long past.
This is a nonsensical notion. It takes me back to pre-union days when whole families would toil as near-slaves in the fields, in the dankness of feudal workshops or in poor countries’ industries where unions have yet to win child labor laws or 8 hour workdays. Why would we talk about working families instead of workers? What about workers who are single?
The politicians have adopted this phrase too. I’ve written many times about the shock I experienced when the then-acting-Governor of Massachusetts went on TV immediately following the 9/11 attacks to promise that she would protect “Massachusetts families.” Ah, excuse me? I’m a resident, a citizen, a tax-payer and I am most emphatically not a member of a Massachusetts family. So do I have to sit outside the bomb shelter?
Obama too is always going on about fighting for middle class families. This is offensive to non-family folks. Besides, a huge chunk of his constituency is working class and another chunk is poor. What about us? Does he mean to include us in that rhetoric as if it were a compliment? “Middle class” is never a term I have seen shouted to the roof-tops. It is not a unifying concept bringing together people in a movement. It was once, perhaps, a state for working class folks to aspire to – with all its promises of education for the kids and a mortgage in the suburbs and a few bucks invested in mutual funds. But now impossible tuition fees, incomprehensible education loan systems, the evaporation of many scholarships, foreclosures of homes, investment rip-offs on a world-wide level and massive unemployment have surely by now erased those dreams.
Workers of the world unite. What more could you lose?