Book Review: Will the American Working Class Rise Again?

Sleeping Giant by Tamara Draut

For too many people in this country, the American Dream is a distant memory, something their parents aspired to, but which is now beyond their reach. Today, if you are working man or woman, you often find yourself toiling long hours for low pay in near poverty.  Even the college educated are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as they leave school and enter the work world with extremely high debt burdens and facing an anemic job market.

What do you do about it? In “Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America” Tamara Draut provides some useful historical perspective.  Draut is Vice President for Policy and Research at Demos, a progressive “think tank” that advocates for political and economic equality.

Her book, published in the Spring of 2016, just as the presidential election was heating up, recounts a history in which big business launched a counter attack on the liberal activism of the late 1960’s and 1970’s by setting up think tanks and Super Pacs and flooding Washington, DC with high-paid lobbyists

The union movement was eviscerated starting in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. The law banned Communists from union leadership positions; established the principle of “right to work;” allowed workers to “opt out” of paying dues; banned secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes, and gave employers the power to hold anti-union meetings in the workplace. In later years, deindustrialization combined with the rise of the service sector made it increasingly difficult for unions to organize.

Meanwhile, what labor protections remained on the books have (and continue to be) largely unenforced.  Draut recounts how big companies in the ever expanding service sector routinely exploit employees by hiring mostly part timers and not paying benefits. Other companies require “on demand” scheduling and encourage off-the- books work to meet unrealistic production quotas.

The decline of the unions was abetted, according to Draut, by a Democratic Party which, beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, began appealing more to college educated whites on high-brow issues such as environmental justice, largely turning its attention away from bread and butter economic concerns of working class voters.

For their part, Republicans cleverly exploited the division by appealing to racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, particularly in the South. The rift caused an historic realignment of the political parties with many working class whites and union members switching their allegiance to the Republican Party.

Draut’s book is well written and thoroughly researched. It contains many personal antidotes illustrating how misguided policies can affect the lives of ordinary Americans struggling to make ends meet. She also offers a number of familiar, common sense policy proposals including raising the minimum wage, revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure and reforming the electoral process.

At times, however, the book seems a little starry-eyed about the potential role of working class Americans and the resurgence of the unions to help turn things around and bring about change. The “Sleeping Giant” (i.e., the working class) awoke alright, but in doing so it seemingly reignited the politics of division and despair, scapegoating immigrants and people of color and electing Donald Trump.

To really bring about change in this country, Progressives must rally Americans of all classes and income groups who understand that an economy that rewards wealth and depresses wages for ordinary Americans is ultimately doomed to fail, and everyone loses, rich and poor alike.

Is the Democratic Party up to the task? Can it reform itself? Can it educate and motivate voters on the inherent dangers of economic injustice, broaden its appeal, transcend class and racial divisions and effect positive change?

Can we tear down the wall of big money donations, entitlement and privilege that so characterizes today’s Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders started to show us the way. He may not have succeeded this time, but he blazed a trail.

This was an election so profoundly negative in tone and substance that tears at the very fabric of American Democracy.  At its core, Draut’s book is a much needed antidote to the post -election blues. It reminds us that after more a half century of struggle, we are in this for the long haul, and that there’s hope for a better future.