The “middle class” myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today

(Credit: AP/Darron Cummings)

Let me tell you the story of an “unskilled” worker in America who lived better than most of today’s college graduates. In the winter of 1965, Rob Stanley graduated from Chicago Vocational High School, on the city’s Far South Side. Pay rent, his father told him, or get out of the house. So Stanley walked over to Interlake Steel, where he was immediately hired to shovel taconite into the blast furnace on the midnight shift. It was the crummiest job in the mill, mindless grunt work, but it paid $2.32 an hour — enough for an apartment and a car. That was enough for Stanley, whose main ambition was playing football with the local sandlot all-stars, the Bonivirs.

Stanley’s wages would be the equivalent of $17.17 today — more than the “Fight For 15” movement is demanding for fast-food workers. Stanley’s job was more difficult, more dangerous and more unpleasant than working the fryer at KFC (the blast furnace could heat up to 2,000 degrees). According to the laws of the free market, though, none of that is supposed to matter. All that is supposed to matter is how many people are capable of doing your job. And anyone with two arms could shovel taconite. It required even less skill than preparing dozens of finger lickin’ good menu items, or keeping straight the orders of 10 customers waiting at the counter. Shovelers didn’t need to speak English. In the early days of the steel industry, the job was often assigned to immigrants off the boat from Poland or Bohemia.

“You’d just sort of go on automatic pilot, shoveling ore balls all night,” is how Stanley remembers the work.

So why did Rob Stanley, an unskilled high school graduate, live so much better than someone with similar qualifications could even dream of today? Because the workers at Interlake Steel were represented by the United Steelworkers of America, who demanded a decent salary for all jobs. The workers at KFC are represented by nobody but themselves, so they have to accept a wage a few cents above what Congress has decided is criminal.

The argument given against paying a living wage in fast-food restaurants is that workers are paid according to their skills, and if the teenager cleaning the grease trap wants more money, he should get an education. Like most conservative arguments, it makes sense logically, but has little connection to economic reality. Workers are not simply paid according to their skills, they’re paid according to what they can negotiate with their employers. And in an era when only 6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, and when going on strike is almost certain to result in losing your job, low-skill workers have no negotiating power whatsoever.

Read more at Salon

4 thoughts on “The “middle class” myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today

  1. Too many people in this country have been turned against unions. We have a political party dedicated to destroying what workers fought and died for….unions.

    The Volks Wagon plant in Tennessee is a perfect example of Republicans intervening in the vote for a union. I hope VW does something about it.

    They softly threatened to build a plant for their SUV project somewhere other than TN. I don’t know if they’ll follow through, but it was an odd event for sure…..a company advocating for a union. Wow!

    The need for unions may spring up again. The unemployment numbers are looking good in spite of a congress that won’t pass an infrastructure jobs bill, which is disgusting.

    I hope the GOP gets blown out of the water in 2014. It’s about time the workers of America stood up and demanded what they need to live a decent life.

    Democrat leaders need to grow a spine and force these issues into the public forum. IMO

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great comment, bluebirdsister. I agree that Republicans should get thrown out of office in November… But their propaganda campaigns have been fairly effective. There are still too many working class Americans who believe that the Republican Party represents their interests.

      Like

  2. A big part of the problem also, is that so many good-paying, middle wage jobs have been sent overseas, and outsourced. We have lost textile, toys, plastic, metal, you-name-it production jobs that provided living wages and benefits to millions of people. While the jobs were here, many of the fast-food and service jobs remained at lower wages because the majority of those workers were high school students, or perhaps spouses who did not always need higher wages. Now, middle aged, seniors, and heads of households are competing for those jobs, along with students. A person who survived prior to this with their manufacturing job, now needs two or three jobs to pays the bills. And not all of those jobs we lost were higher union-wage jobs either. There were people in regions who did fairly well with $12-$14 per hour wages. Corporations have been given tax breaks for transferring jobs, and tariffs have been lifted on imports. It’s not an easy solution, but I totally understand why workers need and want higher wages. Even more pressure is put on the food service workers, now. They are on their feet all day, made to do several tasks at the same time, and are even timed. They need people who support them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for that nice comment, jodydh13. The most insidious diseases are those that progress slowly and unobserved. In a very real sense, the decline of the America middle class has had such a pathology. Younger Americans need to understand how their opportunities and potentials have been gradually undermined over the last several decades by the greed of others. My father, for example, who had far less of an education than I, returned home from serving in the army during the Korean War and landed a job as an executive for a major American company. Young women and men returning home from Afghanistan today are lucky if they can even find a job that pays enough to afford a modest lifestyle. “We support our troops!” No, really, Republicans support Wall Street, and Wall Street is doing better than ever. It isn’t torches and pitchforks time just quite yet, but it is well past the time for the fat cats to get a clue. The jig is up. It’s time to make nice with American workers.

      Liked by 1 person

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