Enduring Malaise: How the De-Unionization of the American Workplace Turned the Working Class into the Working Poor

Tammy Wilder

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Writer's comment: When I began reading the two texts I chose for this assignment, Rivethead and Nickel and Dimed, I had intended on writing what I thought would be a relatively straightforward comparison of the authors’ experiences as members of the working class during the 1970s and the 1990s. What struck me as I read further was how Hamper’s and Ehrenreich’s work experiences significantly differed from one another in ways that seemed to reveal a great deal about American labor trends of the last 35 years. In trying to comprehend what had happened within the overall shift from manufacturing jobs to service work that had, by the 1990s, so substantially weakened the ability of the working class to take home decent paychecks even when the economy was strong, I concluded that the simultaneous decrease in union representation had a major impact. I’ve long had a personal interest in how to improve the lives of the working poor, and writing this essay allowed me to be able to place the frustrations of the modern low-wage worker within a broader context. Coming from the working class town of Aberdeen, Washington, where nearly every adult I knew was in the union, and as someone who spent her twenties toiling away at countless minimum wage service jobs, it also helped me to better understand the forces that shaped me.

—Tammy Wilder


Instructor's comment: This essay is prime evidence of why I believe Tammy Wilder to be one of the best students I have ever taught. The paper—assigned in a large, 200-student lecture course—required the students to write an essay comparing a secondary and a primary source on an issue in post-1945 U.S. history. The students could choose books on the women’s movement, civil rights movement, Vietnam War, or labor movement. It is easy for students to fall into the trap of writing a descriptive rather than an analytical essay. Tammy, however, not only avoided this problem but came up with a persuasive and provocative analysis of the decline of organized labor in the United States. I was so impressed by her work that I agreed to supervise her extended, individual research project the next quarter on the black power protests at the 1968 Olympics. I only wish that I could persuade her to attend graduate school!

—Kathryn Olmsted


In 1979, President Jimmy Carter, addressing the profound sense of malaise felt by many Americans during the late 1970s, urged them to simply “have faith in each other . . . and faith in the future of this nation.” The faith he asked of people at the time would become increasingly difficult for the working class to sustain in the decades that followed. The 1970s ushered in an era of escalating disparities between the rich and the poor, as the poor got poorer and more members of the working class found themselves living below the poverty level. Even during the brief periods of relative economic prosperity that would come in the early 1980s and 1990s, millions of working class Americans found it more and more of a challenge to provide for their families, much less to establish a foundation for upward mobility. Not only would their faith in one another be tested as employers increasingly enforced sharp distinctions between management and labor and advanced those who showed more loyalty to management than to fellow workers, but also their faith in the future of the nation would be challenged by the stark reality that having a full time job no longer guaranteed or even contributed to the opportunity to avoid or emerge from poverty. It is not insignificant that a trend toward the de-unionization of the American workplace has accompanied the increasing disparities in income, education, and health care between the wealthy and the poor. The shift away from well-paid unionized manufacturing jobs to non-union, low wage service work in the past twenty years has allowed profit-minded employers, who in this era of globalization have little incentive to provide their non-union employees with strong measures of job, health, or financial security, to increasingly exploit and repress the working class. Through the compelling stories of Ben Hamper and Barbara Ehrenreich, we are able to see how this trend has served to discourage the working class from having faith in their neighbors and hope for their own futures.
      Ben Hamper began working at General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan, with the belief that the job was his birthright. For decades the factories in Flint had provided relatively secure and well-paid, although dangerous and typically tedious, jobs for a large percentage of residents, including Hamper’s father and grandparents. The labor strikers against GM in 1937 had ultimately secured for later generations more employee control in the company, with their demands for commensurate pay rates, overtime pay, benefits, seniority rights, and safer working conditions. In Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, Hamper tells how he obtained a job with GM just as the mid-1970s recession eased and demand for new cars and trucks was on the rise. GM’s prosperity during 1977 translated to more income and security for its beleaguered workers, largely as a result of prior union negotiations:

There was the time-and-a-half money. There was the second-shift premium bonus, and there were frequent cost of living adjustments. It seemed like every time I turned around the paymaster was stuffing another wad of currency into my waist-band. . .
. . . Demand was so high that the corporation would have surely had us working on Sundays if our local union agreement hadn’t prohibited it. (Hamper 44, 45)

Even when GM began to lay off its workers in 1979, largely as a result of foreign competition and task automation, unemploy-ment insurance, union supplemental pay, and Carter’s Trade Readjustment Act provided them with adequate means to support themselves until GM rehired them (73). Following the economic policies established by the Reagan Administration, however, neither corporate prosperity nor governmental goodwill would again reach the pockets of the working class. By the time Reagan took office in 1980, manufacturing jobs such as Hamper’s had already become vulnerable, though Reagan’s new fiscal policies sparked vigor in the trend. In pre-vious decades, according to William H. Chafe, in The Unfinished Journey: American Since World War II, jobs requiring skilled labor had expanded at a rate far below that of unskilled, service-oriented work (434). A rise in the automation of skilled, well-paid work, a relative proliferation of low wage unskilled jobs, increasingly sharper distinctions between management and labor, and the calculated employer efforts to “displace workers, destroy unions, and limit, whenever possible, labor participation in management decisions” all led to a surge in worker discontent (434). Productivity and overall union membership declined while addiction and absenteeism swelled among the ranks of the working class (435). Yet even with their job security severely threatened by constant layoffs and reassignments, the union retained for employees such as Hamper some measure of control and recourse to unfair management practices. As a result of union-negotiated laws regarding seniority, a vindictive manager’s attempt to deceptively place him in an unwanted job failed when Hamper demanded that his “committee man” negotiate his position (Hamper 107). However, the representation of the worker in negotiations with management was being gradually eliminated as an available recourse to exploitation as the trend toward de-unionization continued into the mid 1980s and 1990s. Morale deteriorated with Reagan’s policies; the emotional investment employees had in their jobs was replaced by fear and alienation. The faith in the system that had provided their parents with a measure of security had been thoroughly shaken.
      A brief respite from economic crisis occurred in 1983 with a short term payoff for employers; yet, according to Chafe, the policies that had appeared to be working and had created some optimism certainly did not benefit those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum the same way they benefited the already well-off (461). Thus emerged a significant trend in U.S. eco-nomic history: corporate prosperity and a rise in the American standard of living without a simultaneous increase in the real incomes of the working class. In fact, the wages of American workers actually declined over the course of the 1980s as em-ployers began to chase higher profit margins by attempting to decertify unions and by moving their businesses into the suburbs or to non-unionized countries such as Mexico where they could operate unencumbered by strict environmental or labor regulations. As Hamper glibly explains, “Sooner or later we were all gonna scrape our heads playin’ limbo with the equator” (166). The dwindling number and relocation of well paying union jobs forced workers to accept lower wages in one of the growing number of non-unionized service jobs that had materialized closer to home. The wages were so low that half of the new jobs created actually placed workers in poverty at the same time that employers and owners experienced economic growth (Chafe 472). The rich were prospering on the dire financial situation of the decreasingly unionized working class.

By the time of the Bush Administration of 1988–1992 and the subsequent Clinton Administration, union membership had declined as the disparity between rich and poor grew. As William Chafe explains, The 1980s and 1990s brought the most radical reallocation of wealth and income in the twentieth century. The richest 5% of families benefited enormously from Reagan’s tax cuts and growth of the economy. The top 1% saw their wealth skyrocket. At the same time, the bottom 20% saw their share of the national income and resources dwindle, while even the middle class suffered a relative loss of income. (522)

Globalization, especially as manifested in the passage of Clinton’s North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, had made it easier for corporations to relocate overseas and had increased the competition from newly productive players in the global marketplace. As a result, the job, health, and financial security of the American working class plummeted, as did the oppor-tunities for the already destitute to emerge from poverty. By the late 1990s, the policies that contributed to keeping the working class poor were well established and had become institutiona-lized with programs like welfare-to-work, which relieved the government of some of its obligation to assist the poor by mandating that welfare recipients get jobs or risk losing their benefits (525). As Barbara Ehrenreich discovered, the non-union jobs available to the unskilled work force barely provided them enough resources to survive on, much less to lift them out of poverty. In 1998 Ehrenreich, a well-educated journalist, went on a quest to discover how someone working at less than $8 an hour (which is 30% of the working population) could survive when it took close to $9 an hour just to afford a one-bedroom apartment, not including child care, transportation, and other essential expenses (3). Her journey, chronicled in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, could hardly be equated with the genuine bleakness experienced by the majority of the working poor, as the hearty bank account and well-paying job that were hers to return to upon completion of the project, and even the too-often rarity of a working automobile, provided her with the kind of safety net that millions of working people lack. Still, even though it is unfortunate that it took a token adventure of an upper class white journalist to reveal to the world what millions of people have intimately known their whole lives, her compelling ground floor glimpse into a system in which 67% of those who requested emergency food aid were employed helps explain how the trend toward non-union service work that began in the late 1970s has proven destructive to the working class faith in the possibility of a better life (219).
      The kinds of minimum wage jobs that Ehrenreich took, such as waitress, housecleaner, and Wal-Mart clerk were not only demeaning and physically exhausting, they also failed to provide a foundation from which to move upward on the financial scale. Ben Hamper, during his tenure as riveter for GM, had observed the tendency of laborers to get stuck in their jobs: “We belonged. There were really no other options—just tricky lies and self-soothing bullshit . . . we weren’t going anywhere. That pay stub was like a concrete pair of loafers” (48). In his view, he and his co-workers were immobilized by the promise of consistently strong paychecks and unemployment insurance during times of layoffs. By the time Ehrenreich began her foray into low wage service work, the reasons for getting stuck in one’s job had changed. Rising transportation costs and a growing distance between residential areas and the workplace has severely limited the mobility of poor workers; they tend to take and stay at jobs that may pay less because the ones that pay better seem impossible to get, and this is especially pronounced among parents who have child care needs (205).
      In addition, as the cost of health care has increased and employer-provided health insurance has decreased, workers with medical bills, often due to injuries sustained on the job, can easily slide into more debt. Housing is another major obstacle solidly in the way of a better life for poverty-stricken employees. As Ehrenreich discovered, the cost of housing makes it difficult to make ends meet, especially as housing prices have risen while salary levels for unskilled work have remained stagnant. She explains that “since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work” (199). Of course, the wages earned at these kinds of jobs are spent on everyday survival and do not allow for much opportunity to save up—for example—for a deposit on an apartment or a car, and certainly not for a mortgage on a home. The fact that a full-time job in the non-union service industry, or even two jobs, cannot provide any adequate measure of finan-cial security, and that those holding such jobs are living in their cars or motel rooms and requesting emergency food aid, as Ehrenreich was forced to do, proves that the ability of the working class to achieve financial stability is rapidly diminishing. It is unreasonable to expect that they would continue to have faith in a system that has placed them in poverty and doesn’t seem to want them to get out. Working class solidarity and faith in fellow workers has been equally tested over the years. In Hamper’s time, laborers were routinely advanced when they expressed their loyalty to management as opposed to solidarity with their fellow workers. Hamper, in his typically colorful fashion, explains how GM “would promote a boot-licker whose allegiance could be twisted by power and money, clear his rap sheet, and send him back to his home base as a kind of in-house spy” (207). The practice fueled resentment and mistrust among workers and contributed to the sharpening distinctions between an increasingly imper-sonal management staff and the employees. Fortunately, union employees like Hamper had some recourse to unjust management practices with their ability to call on their union representative to assist them in discussing a problem or filing a complaint. By the late 1990s, this practice of pitting employees against one another had flourished among service-oriented corporations and the interpersonal barriers between managers and workers had become more rigid. Without unions to represent them, workers are now left on their own to negotiate problems, yet in the modern workplace the employer holds all the power. Employees are understandably reluctant to approach management with a problem since they can be fired for just about any reason at a moment’s notice, or, less dramatically, have their hours cut or their shift changed at the will of management—with no recourse at all.
      Corporate employers, of course, prefer it this way and have gone to great lengths to keep the workplace union-free. Among more obvious measures, such as overt threats and terminations of potentially organizing employees, places like Wal-Mart have instituted strict no-talking rules among em-ployees in their stores. Ehrenreich explains that rules against talking “make it hard to air your grievances to peers . . . or to enlist other workers in a group effort to bring about change through a union organizing drive, for example” (209). Large business owners have also adopted the widespread use of generic personality tests in place of salary-negotiating interviews that assess a potential employee’s inclination towards organizing and their willingness to, among other things, turn in their co-workers for minor infractions, remain loyal to management, and essentially willingly suspend their own civil liberties. In addition, without union rules regarding seniority and commensurate pay, for example, workers in the same organi-zation are in competition with one another for arbitrarily assigned shifts and hours. When management gets to decide who will work, when, and for how long; and when it can change the rules every week if it wants, employees are forced to deal with one another in order to change shifts or coordinate time off. This sets the stage for misunderstanding, resentment, and disunity. Unions provided some measure of solidarity among workers in manufacturing jobs such as Hamper’s. Without such unity the modern workplace has become more internally competitive, less fair, more demeaning, and all of the power has shifted to the employer who, under the laws of capitalism, is concerned with equity and contentment only as they relate to the bottom line. In a globalizing era when unskilled workers can easily be replaced as soon as they appear troublesome or too expensive, and a hefty profit margin can be well maintained even without providing workers with a living wage and decent working con-ditions, the solidarity among the working class, now the working poor, has weakened.
      Carter’s 1979 ”malaise” speech likely resonated with the millions of people who were feeling the economic pinch of the 1970s. Unfortunately, the faith that he asked of those people would not be restored in subsequent years, even during times of prosperity. Ben Hamper and Barbara Ehrenreich have shown us that a destructive trend in American labor and economic history was far from being the responsibility of lazy, unmotivated workers and poor people, as some have argued. The disparity between rich and poor increased as the rich attained more wealth, the middle and working classes lost it, and the already poor lost hope that they would ever get it. The decline in union membership that accompanied the rising disparities cannot be regarded as incidental. Deliberate attempts to bust unions and the growth of jobs in industries that have gone to great lengths to avoid the unionization of workers has contributed greatly, and perhaps even in the main, to the inability of the working class to avert and the poor to emerge from the increasingly repressive and exploitative ties of poverty.



Works Cited

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Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness . Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York : W.W.

      Norton and Company, Inc., 1988 (first ed. 1899).