Soundbites: Bringing Dignity to the New Working Class

Toni Johnson spoke with Tamara Draut of Demos about her new book, the shifting demographics and conditions of the working class and upcoming work from Demos.

This is Toni Johnson with Soundbites. I'm here today with Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy and Research for Demos and author of the book, "Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America." Hi Tammy.

Hi. Thanks for having me.

Can you talk a little bit about what is this book and what drove you to write it?

Sure, I'd be happy to. I'm a working class kid. I grew up in a household where my dad was a machinist at the steel factory, and my mom worked at the local orthodontist’s office in an administrative position. We lived a middle class life. We were part of a now extinct group called the blue-collar middle class. We owned our own home. Well, my parents owned their own home. We always had food in the fridge. We always had health insurance. My dad had a pension plan. We also had the nice things in life like going on a vacation every year. It was modest, we drove thirteen hours to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but that's where we went on vacation. Then most importantly, they were able to send me to college. They were able to send me to college without me going into debt and without me having to work more than a summer job.

I wrote the book because that kind of economic security is no longer available for the new working class. I think there are couple reasons for that. One is that the jobs of the working class has fundamentally change. We went from making stuff to serving people. When you think about that and think about the kind of labor and the kind of work that has long been valued in our society, it's always been brains at the top, then brawn and then serving or caring for people. So the type of jobs changed, but also the “who” doing those jobs changed.

We now have many more women in the working class who are in the paid labor force and the working class. As more and more whites have gotten college degrees at a much greater pace than African Americans or Latinos, we have a working class that is becoming more and more black and brown. I think those two things have really helped steadily marginalize this new working class. They don't go off to factories by and large. They're in our homes, caring for our children or the elderly. They're fast food workers, they're retail workers [or] they're warehouse workers. They're in service occupations. I wanted to write about how much we have lost as a nation when we let this new working class really become invisible in our culture and in our economy.

You said in your book, "It feels like the working class are the lepers of society, needed to carry out the economy to hold it and make it strong but disregarded when it comes to our needs." Can you talk a little bit about, how do we flip that? What are the things we need to do to change that?

That quote is actually from a young man I interviewed. One of the things that time and time again I heard from the people I interviewed was exactly that. This feeling that they're not valued in our society or for the work they do in our economy. They get that signal from all corners. They get it from the way politicians talk about how we pathologize struggle in this country. They get it in terms of the way they're treated on the job. We have abusive scheduling where your schedule can fluctuate from week to week with little advance notice, or you can be asked to work overtime on a dime. We have wage theft that is rampant in many of our service sector jobs. Not to mention low wages and often no benefits.

There's this very strong countervailing, short-term capitalism that is pushed by the financial markets, that really disincentivizes corporations from doing the right thing.

I say in the book that disrespect is really baked into today's working class jobs. A lot of that has happened, I already talked about the changing nature of work and the fact that the kind of jobs we have now have long been devalued. But also because we have lost some of the countervailing institutions, which were primarily labor unions. My dad was a unionized steel worker. Those jobs weren't good jobs until they became union jobs. That has to be part of what we talk about in returning some economic and political power to this new working class. We like to think that unions are this dusty anachronism that have no place in today's shiny, tech, gadget economy, but the reality is there's no reason why it's more challenging, but unions shouldn't need to be part of the solution.

Recently several CEOs have raised the wage floor for their workers outside the "Fight for $15." The most recent was Chase pledged to raise the wages something in the neighborhood of three dollars an hour for bank tellers, who you mention in your book as making a salary I think most people would not expect of a bank. That's 18,000 people, mostly whom are women, mostly whom are a minority. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of what's going on?

I think two things are happening. It's great that we're seeing a spate of voluntary wage increases. First it was retailers, Target, Walmart, the Gap and then McDonald's. That's great, but I think the real credit here goes to the "Fight for $15" because I think that employers are by and large trying to stave off greater increases through legislative change. That's smart politically, but the thing that I think is slowly changing is that it's also smart economically. There's all kinds of studies, not only studies, theoretical studies, like Zeynep Ton who has done a lot of empirical analysis that shows that companies that pay their workers better have higher sales per employee, all of that stuff. She's documented that Costco kicks the pants off Sam's Club, which is owned by Walmart, in terms of sales per employee, retention, all of that stuff. But Costco has taken a beating by investors on Wall Street.

There's this very strong countervailing, short-term capitalism that is pushed by the financial markets, that really disincentivizes corporations from doing the right thing. Which is actually the right thing for workers but also the right thing for their bottom line because it really does save them a lot of money in terms of turnover and retraining, but also in terms of just getting better performance. People do a better job when they feel like you actually care that they're there, and that they have something to contribute to the health of the company. Giving them a decent wage goes a long way in saying that.

One of the things that I think is interesting about the work that Demos does, I think maybe two years ago, you did some research on what would've happened if Walmart had given its dividend to workers instead of to shareholders. I think one of the unique things about you as a think tank is you're not just thinking about policy levers. You're thinking about the role of the narrative and other aspects of making change. Can you just talk a little bit about what's next for Demos? What are you guys up to?

Yeah, I'd be happy to. I think I'm really excited about the work we're doing at Demos. One, I feel like the political moment we're in, where issues of political, economic and racial inequality are at the forefront of our nation's debate right now, calls us to be on your best. Those were the issues that we were founded on.

We're focusing on, one, trying to win the biggest new investment for America's most diverse generation in history, and that is returning the United States to a system of debt free public college. That's been the system up until the mid-1990s, and since then, we've done this radical shift where all of a sudden, paying for a state college or a university has become more the responsibility of kids taking on student loans as opposed to the responsibility of society. We have one candidate who is pushing a return to debt free college. We see our job as building momentum for that, because we do think that this is a fundamental part of the social contract that is broken and has left us in a place where whether you go to college, the type of college you go to and whether you complete is so determined by whether your parents went to college, by the color of your skin and by the size of your wallet. We really want to undo that and signal that this nation cares about this new, diverse generation that's coming of age.

That's one of our really big initiatives. The other things that we're working on, we see climate change and addressing climate change as one of the biggest economic development opportunities we will have in terms of finally addressing and finding revenue to create high quality jobs. To bring wealth to low wealth communities that have long been excluded from the prosperity of the previous decades. We are looking at how do we take what we need to do to save the planet, and at the same time, really use it as a real economic development engine with some real goals around racial equity.

My last question. Paint us a picture. We are in this unique moment, it feels very turbulent. What does the world look like if we succeed in righting the ship, in creating a more prosperity sharing place where the new working class enjoys the benefits of being not just working class, but middle class, and that there are less people in crisis in the United States and in the world?

I think about it in a couple of different levels, and I sketched this out at the end of the book with how it would change for one family. The difference that if we really change the way we think, because fundamentally what this is about is as a nation, what do we think we owe each other? Who's an American? What do we owe all of the people in this country? I think at an individual and family level, it's no longer experiencing day after day of degradation and a lack of dignity. We have families who, I ask them, what would you do if you had a little bit more money? "I'd be able to buy my daughter's school pictures. I'd be able to buy coats for my kids. I'd be able to every once in a while take my wife out to a nice dinner." Little things that actually make working worth it.

Work is a means to an end. So many people work really hard and get very little benefit from their labor. I think that would be one. And every person in this country feeling like they are valued and that we care about their well-being and the well-being of their children. And then from a policy standpoint, that we finally, one, sever the connection between parenthood and poverty, which is so tightly correlated in this country, but not in any other advanced nation. We've made a political choice that starting a family is for many people a pathway to poverty, and for most people, at least a pretty downgrade in their economic circumstances. We'd have paid family leave. We'd have child care.

Then in terms of power, we’d have more workers who could actually if they want to, nobody's forcing them, but if they want to unionize the workplace, they could do that. Finally, our nation's politics would not be so tightly dominated by a handful of wealthy interests and corporate interests. Where people would actually feel like they have some influence over the decisions that impact their lives. Most people today, rationally, don't think that's the case and don't think that people who are in elected office really care about what they're dealing with in their day to day lives.

Well, thank you. It's been an honor.

Thank you Toni. Good to be here.

For, this is Toni Johnson.

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