I’m working class – and you probably are too
The only war is class war
From the Saskatoon Co-op strike at the beginning of 2019 to the ongoing lock-out of Unifor 594 members, the past year in Saskatchewan has seen workers across the province hit the picket lines by the thousands. Their grievances have run the gamut from wage freezes to two-tiered wage structures to threats to pensions.
These failures at the bargaining table – and any strike or lockout, regardless of the final outcome, is a bargaining failure – have shone a spotlight on the struggle facing workers in the province. And they also raise some important questions: who is a worker, and who belongs to the working class?
In the years that followed World War II, the middle class became aspirational in a way that it had never been before. Although class mobility had been increasing incrementally after the Industrial Revolution, it was the post-war years that made a middle-class life something truly attainable for people whose families had long been working class.
Wages for labourers rose to the point that people like my grandparents – who grew up in poverty and worked in manual labour and health care – could buy property and set aside enough money for a proper retirement. They were members of the mythical middle class.
But this myth of hard work lifting people from the working class into the middle class has not been for the benefit of the working people. It has been for the benefit of the ruling classes, who have had great success in driving a wedge between members of the working class, convincing us that those of us who work at a desk are different from those of us who work with their hands who are different from those of us who work as nurses and teachers and bus drivers.
By convincing workers – those who work for wages or salaries (this includes all workers except those in self-regulating or specialized professions such as lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, and engineers) rather than living off of the profits of investments or inheritances or land ownership (this means landlords, but not farmers, unless those farmers own the land but do not work it themselves) – that some workers are different from others, the ruling class has busted our union.
In order to form a cohesive labour movement, to have the kinds of job actions that bring results not just for one particular union or local, but for broad swathes of society, we need to have a cohesive class consciousness. That is, I, as a student and a journalist, need to recognize that I belong to the same class as you, a cashier, and as your brother, a public servant, and as your mom, a teacher, and as my friend Paul, a barista.
It is not how much we earn from our wages and our salaries that determines our class, but rather that we work for wages and salaries at all.
But by convincing us that we can “leave” the working class and become a part of the middle class, simply by having earnings that exceed a certain amount, or by owning a home, or any other marker that is used as a signifier of the middle class, the ruling class has succeeded in tempering our power.
Observing the public discourse about the locked-out refinery workers has been a great example of this cleave. Complaints about the high wages refinery workers make, or about how they shouldn’t complain because at least they have a pension in the first place shows how effective the ruling class’ propaganda has been at pitting workers against each other.
It should not be “well I don’t have this wage, this pension, this benefit, so neither should they, or if they do, they shouldn’t ask for more” it should be “they have this wage, this pension, this benefit, and I should have too, and I’m going to fight for it, and they should join me in that fight as I will join them in theirs.”
I am a worker, and you probably are too. And the only power we have to make our working lives better, to ensure a retirement, to ensure we don’t spend one third of our lives working, to ensure that we have all the necessaries of life and more – that we have bread, and roses too – is to recognize ourselves in one another.
Picketing workers are not our enemies – no matter how aggravating or inconvenient their job action may be for us. It is not the unions and the workers who are being greedy – it is the owners and the overseers who demand more labour, more profit, more time. It is they who are insatiable, and as long as the working class remains divided, isolated, and even unaware that we are the working class, it is the ruling class who wins. And they have won enough.