Episode 91: It’s Time to Retire the Term “Middle Class”

Citations Needed | October 23, 2019 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, and a reminder there’s about 47-48 little mini-episodes for patrons only that we’ve done throughout the last two years. You can always go back and listen to those. They’re called News Briefs. They’re a little more hot take-y, but some of them I think have aged like fine wine.

Nima: “Building a wall won’t save America’s crumbling middle class,” Elizabeth Warren tells us. “Sanders healthcare will raise taxes on the middle class,” a CNN headline reads. “There’ war on the middle class,” a Boston Globe editorial laments.

Adam: The term “middle class” is used so much by pundits and politicians, it could easily be the free space in any political rhetoric bingo card. After all, who could oppose strengthening, widening, and protecting the middle class? Like “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights”, the term “middle class” is an unimpeachable, unassailable label that evokes warm feelings and a sense of collective morality.

Nima: But the term itself, always slippery and changing based on context, has evolved from a vague aspiration marked by safety, a nice home, and a white picket fence into something more sinister, racially-coded, and deliberately obscuring. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, for instance, insists that middle class “isn’t a number. It’s a value set. It’s about the issues that matter to every American family: a good education, economic opportunity, access to quality, affordable health care.”

Adam: But his use of qualifiers — “opportunity,” “access,” “affordable” — gives away the game. The middle class isn’t about concrete, material positive rights of good housing and economic security — it’s a capitalist carrot hovering over our heads telling us that such things are possible if we only work harder. The quote unquote “middle class” of the past 30 years, largely propped up by massive amounts of debt, is far more about the promise of comfort and security than the reality of it. On this week’s episode we’re going to examine the history of the term middle class, how it codes for whiteness and cishet normativity, offends no one, says little and ultimately works to serve the rich and obscure class conflict.

Nima: Later on the show we’ll be joined by union organizer, scholar and author Jane McAlevey. She is a Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center and her third book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy, will be released early next year.

[Begin Clip]

Jane McAlevey: The idea that like we’re supposed to get caught up in some vernacular of using middle class it’s just not useful in a real organizing context because it reinforces divisions the employers want to drive and a goal of a good union organizer is to erase those divisions and unify the entire working class together against their bosses.

[End Clip]

Nima: The term “middle class” heard throughout media regardless of the time of year or what year it is, really tends to spike right around presidential campaigns and just political campaigning in general. It’s a catchall term that winds up appealing to apparently everyone, because everyone sees themselves in the middle class, that is kind of leveraged by politicians throughout campaigns to have this, ‘I’m speaking for you. I’m going to work on behalf of you.’ This term “middle-class” is a ubiquitous feature of the American political lexicon and punditry.

[Begin montage]

Female Speaker: The middle class, the, increasingly feels the squeeze despite doing everything right, despite working extremely hard.

Elizabeth Warren: Quite specifically, middle-class taxes will go up.

Chuck Schumer: The wealthiest Americans and wealthiest corporations make out like bandits. While middle-class Americans are left holding the bag.

Mitt Romney: We’re going to rebuild the middle class in America.

Savannah Guthrie: My question to you is, will taxes go up for the middle-class in a Sanders administration?

Trish Regan: The middle-class has been squeezed and they are revolting at the ballot box.

News anchor: And we also look at wages in the Bay Area, what a new survey reveals about the middle-class.

Donald Trump: But it’ll be great for the middle-class. It’s going to be a tax reduction of 10% for the middle-class.

Male Speaker: As somebody who’s been responsible for the erosion of middle-class jobs in this country is a fight over definition.

Joe Biden: Wall Street bankers and CEOs did not build America. You build America. We built America. Ordinary middle-class people build America.

Barack Obama: The Republicans say they didn’t want to raise taxes on the middle class. I don’t wanna raise taxes on the middle-class, so we should all agree to extend the tax cuts for the middle-class. Let’s agree to do what we agree on, right.

[End montage]

Source: The University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant survey of 1,002 randomly selected adults nationwide, Jan. 22-Jan. 28, 2013

Adam: Yeah. The article that ‘everyone thinks they’re middle class and isn’t really’ has been written a thousand times. This is something observers have noted for decades. So there’s a Fast Company article in April 2019 that notes that quote: “There is little consensus on what middle class really means, but everyone certainly wants to be middle class: Nearly 70% of Americans consider themselves middle class, but only about 52% would qualify based on income.” And so I used to have a screenwriting professor in college who called it “generically original,” which is sort of the ultimate goal of good pop writing. Right? Sort of generically original. This is the definition of generically original. It’s sort of significant enough of a term to where, okay there’s a middle class, by definition there’s a lower and upper class, so it’s kind of meaningful. But when 70 percent of Americans consider themselves in that class, then the term doesn’t really mean a lot cause you’re not drawing meaningful distinctions between the two.

Nima: And so there are broad ranges of trying to actually define numerically based on income, based on wealth, based on all these factors, like what would constitute a middle class so that when that term is used it actually means something. But these numbers range from, say, a three-person household earning $45,000 a year all the way to a household earning nearly $150,000 a year. Within that entire range people assume or kind of self describe themselves as middle class, but even further people who make half a million dollars — if not more — also see themselves as being part of the middle class. Oftentimes because of where they live, how they live, Keeping Up With the Jones, never feeling like you have enough money and so extreme wealth is not even seen as being part of the upper middle-class — let alone the upper class or the rich, wealthy class — but as still seen by so many Americans as still just holding on to the middle class.

Adam: Yeah. So the term middle class is typically used in the context of quote unquote “saving the middle class” or “protecting the middle class.” The idea that we need to protect or save the middle class is the basis of most kind of liberal bourgeois institutions from the Brookings Institute to the Urban Institute to CNN. The centering of the middle class as the atomic unit of moral interest is very common. So there’s a Bloomberg editorial from 2015: “How to Save the Middle Class.” There’s an Atlantic article from 2016: “What Would It Take to Save the Middle Class?,” which is made up of Center for American Progress.

Nima: Elizabeth Warren talks about this a lot. It’s kind of her entire schtick. So she wrote a book on this very topic: This Fight Is Our Fight. She’s written an op-ed for CNN co-written with her daughter called “Building a wall won’t save America’s crumbling middle class.” There’s a 2014 book by Peter Barnes with this title: With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough. And MIT economist Peter Temin wrote a book in 2016 called The Vanishing Middle Class. So we always hear about the middle class being squeezed or burdened or disappearing, vanishing, which just leads to these savior tropes that candidates really lean into.

Adam: What’s notable about the concept of middle class is less so what we’re talking about when we talk about it, it’s more about what we’re not talking about. So when people talk about a shrinking middle class or middle class is under siege, what they’re really talking about is elevated levels of poverty.

Nima: Right. Not being able to pay for your life.

Adam: Yeah. They’re talking about an increase in debt over burdened by medical bills, student loan debt, right? But this is a sort of negative evocation. People don’t want to talk about negative things. So instead of talking about, to draw a really crude analogy, if there’s a flesh-eating virus that’s taking over Brooklyn, and I get up on a podium and I don’t talk about how we deal with the flesh-eating virus, but I say, how do we protect Manhattan from the flesh-eating virus? I’m putting a positive spin on the idea of protecting some good, some sort of moral normative good, as opposed to addressing the flesh-eating virus, which for this hacky analogy is itself poverty and an increase in poverty and an increase in precarity, whose name we’re not really supposed to say. So it’s sorta like generational conflict, right? Which we talked about with Adam Conover, which it’s actually not that it’s per se wrong, it’s that when you’re talking about it, you’re not talking about what you really want to or ought to be talking about. It’s the ultimate filler phrase. It’s generically original. It’s sort of like, ‘oh, well, obviously the middle class needs to be saved’ because going to object to that? But if you say, we need to alleviate poverty — whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa — now you sound like a Bolshevik.

Nima: Right, exactly.

Adam: And it’s a far less hostile, more palatable, more rich-donor-appeasing or non-threatening version of how you talk about poverty and poor people in this country.

Nima: So to show how this manifests, as Adam you just said, donor-pleasing phraseology, the thing that’s not going to get anyone’s hackles raised, that checks will keep flowing because you know what, you’re just helping the common American, right? The middle class, the backbone of American prosperity and success and strength. And so we gotta get that back, right? That’s the America that needs to be great again. Like it’s basically saying the same thing except when it’s used by democratic candidates. It has that slightly different tone but really does a lot of that legwork. So for instance, presidential candidates like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, they all evoke this middle class term a lot to project a sense of populism. That is populism gesturing toward the white professional class as well as their ultra wealthy donors. This populism though, of course, is pretty empty, right? So most candidates are comfortable talking about the restoration of the middle class, but less comfortable talking about anything having to do with working class or as we’ve said, the actual driver of all of this: poverty, let alone capitalism.

Adam: So the researcher and co-writer of this episode, Julianne Tveten, did a Twitter search of the leading 2020 candidates use of the word middle-class and their use of working-class, poverty, and the poor. Which we think serves as a sort of a good proxy for their general political rhetoric. So, uh, we’re going to do a quick breakdown of that. So, as of early October 2019, Joe Biden has used the term middle class 52 times. He’s used the term working classes zero times. He’s used poverty, poor and homeless 14 times. But these are usually couched in platitudes like “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.” They’re not meaningful references to poverty or the poor. He’s used the word billionaire and millionaires one time and he’s used references to wealthy 17 times and this is mostly in the context of criticizing Trump’s tax cuts.

Nima: Elizabeth Warren has made 39 references to the middle class, zero to the working class but 21 related to the poor, poverty, homeless and even homelessness. She’s made 32 references — again, these are Twitter references through early October — 32 references to millionaires and billionaires and more than 40 references to the wealthy.

Adam: Her common line is the “wealthy and well-connected” as sort of the enemy. Bernie Sanders has used the term middle class 32 times, he’s used working class 28 times, he’s made over 90 references to poverty and homelessness and over 80 references to millionaires and billionaires and 40 references to the word wealthy.

Nima: On the other hand, Kamala Harris has made 58 references to middle class but only two to working class. 38 references to poor and homeless, only two to millionaires and billionaires, one reference each. The millionaire reference incidentally was celebrating a quote “self made millionaire” and she’s made seven references abstractly to wealth and the wealthy.

Adam: Pete Buttigieg, our final candidate here, has a somewhat shocking number. He has referenced the middle class once. He’s never referenced the working class. He has referenced the poor, poverty and homelessness six times. He’s never referenced billionaires and millionaires and never referenced the word wealthy. So amazing this guy has managed to run a presidential campaign for over a year and has never pretty much mentioned the idea of class as something that exists, which of course is probably why he has the most billionaire donors —

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Adam: Of anyone. But the point of this breakdown is that what you see is that for people who are considered more centrist, you have an overreliance on middle class versus working class, which is a term that isn’t really used at all by anyone in any meaningful way, but Sanders, Bernie Sanders’ kind of quasi socialist background would indicate, but I think these numbers reveal, especially within the context of Joe Biden and Peter Buttigieg, that middle class is the ultimate sort of non-phrase. It’s how you gesture towards populism without the mess of actually having to draw up contrasts, which is really, again, what the sort of value of middle class is. It permits you to look like you’re fighting for someone who isn’t the rich without necessarily drawing up nasty things like poverty or poor people or the idea that wealth is mutually exclusive, which is, I think really the ultimate, one of the ultimate sort of bottom line issues with middle class is that it avoids the idea that things are mutually exclusive, that there’s an adversarial relationship between two competing classes. Middle class is sort of the ultimate, we can all sort of get it, have it all and kind of get along, which is not coincidentally the kind of ethos behind Pete Buttigieg, it’s Obama 2.0 right? Like Wall Street’s gain is not our loss. We can all win.

Nima: Right. Rising tides.

Adam: Which is yeah, a pretty discredited concept. But rich people love to hear. They want to hear democratic politicians talk like that because then they have basically a very hardcore right-wing party and a soft right wing party to choose from, which is ideal.

Nima: And so basically it is removing from any discussion, the actual, let’s say villain of the story. You just get to make platitudes, but you don’t actually investigate the origins of any of these real problems unless it’s just vague like, costs are too high, but there is no investigation. There’s no interrogation of why or who is making those policies. So like when people are hurt by the lack of workers’ rights, by having absurdly expensive healthcare, no retirement security, no child care, these things are like seen as these problems that need to be fixed. But it’s never expressed really in these phraseologies and using the middle class oftentimes why this is the case, who is actually responsible for this, and like Biden does this kind of better than anyone. Quotes like “I’m running for president to restore the soul of this nation, rebuild its backbone — the middle class, and unify all Americans.”

Adam: The middle class is backbone. It’s backbone. The middle-class. Come on, Nima.

Nima: “This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, or hedge fund managers. It was built by the American middle class. It’s time we recognize that. We’ve got to build an economy and a tax code that rewards work, not just wealth.”

Adam: You know, there’s no way, there’s no sentence, there’s no political rhetoric that cannot be improved by replacing middle-class with working class or the poor or the, you know, the working poor or whatever sort of term you want to use. The middle class just takes all the fire and meaning out of that statement because again, so many of the management of the CEOs in the kind of underlings and the Pinkerton classes consider themselves and are statistically speaking middle class.

Nima: Well that’s the thing, right? So when you have, as we referenced earlier in the show, when you have so many people, such a gigantic percentage of the population, like upwards of 70 percent assuming. self perceiving that they are part of what is known broadly as the middle class, they’re always being talked to, but the policies don’t actually have to reflect anything that’s going to help them specifically. It’s just so broad that you’re like, ‘oh yeah, no, totally me, because I’m in the middle class.’

Adam: Because when a class is defined by a set of comforts rather than an inherently antagonistic relationship between two mutually exclusive classes, it takes all the teeth out of politics. Because then we’re sort of tweaking capitalism. We’re not really talking about two forces combating each other. So the manager at Home Depot, who makes $60,000 a year and a wage worker at Home Depot makes $35,000 a year, even though the relationship is necessarily adversarial, one controls the schedule, one can fire and hire, one can sexually harass them. The other cannot do any of these things. The other is subject to the whims of the manager with very little rights and no union representation, that those two people, those are both middle class. They’re in the same class of people when they’re absolutely not in the same class. They have wildly different relationships with capital, but middle class creates a world where they’re all just buddies and they’re gonna go watch the football game afterwards, which is again, I think the sort of broader ideological project behind that. It’s a flattening of differences in the Marxist sense of class, which I think is not perfect, but it’s a pretty good approximation of what real class is.

Nima: We are going to talk just a little bit about the origins of the term middle class. It may have first appeared in the 1740s in a James Bradshaw pamphlet called “A Scheme to prevent running Irish Wools to France.” So immediately having an economic interest of course. And so it contrasted the clothing and possessions of the lower, middle and richer classes. About a hundred years later though Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto discuss the disintegration of the quote “middle class” and its absorption into the lower classes — or of course as they use the term proletariat — as inherit members of that proletariat class. So this would happen, basically they wrote because as members of these so-called middle class became less valuable to capitalists, they would then move down, move downward clearly away from the bourgeoisie toward the proletariat, the workers. And so in The Communist Manifesto — it’s kind of a core tenet of Marxist theory — Marx and Engels wrote this quote:

“The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”

Adam: According to Christopher Petrella, who teaches at American University School of International Services and Ameer Hassan Loggins, who’s a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, they wrote an article called the quote “‘Middle Class’ is a White Racial Construct.” It was used in a 1908 acceptance speech by then President Elect William Howard Taft in 1908 use the notion of middle class to make the case against independence of the Philippines. He said, quote, “There is no farming or middle class tending to build up a conservative, self-respecting community, capable of self-government…It is quite unlikely that the [Filipino] people, because of the dense ignorance of 90 per cent [sic], will be ready for complete self-government and independence before two generations have passed…” Middle classness as a sort of concept here as evoked very early as a, as a sort of disposition, as a bourgeois capitalist mentality, that if you don’t have it you’re not worthy of independence and Liberty.

Nima: Not only that, but this Taft quote is actually so imperial and racist that to kind of see the origins of the usage of the term, we need this class of people that is educated and understands democracy and can do what’s right, do what America deems good enough to allow for an independent government as opposed to what Taft says is the current reality in his estimation of the Filipino people: “the dense ignorance of 90 percent.” And so to set this up as a stupid classes versus the shining middle class that can build a nation.

Adam: The term really took off an earnest in the seventies and really kind of peaked in the eighties in its current iteration. There’s a 2015 article by Derek Willis in The New York Times that rather sort of uncritically talked about the rise of the middle class as an ordinary American term, but it details the history of its popularity. In 1984, Walter Mondale during a presidential nomination acceptance speech said quote “Four years ago, many of you voted for Mr. Reagan because he promised you’d be better off. And today, the rich are better off. But working Americans are worse off, and the middle class is standing on a trap door.” So here you have this idea of precarity, this idea of like your one bill away from being poor. ‘I’m going to protect you from that fear and the people that are currently poor, well, fuck them.’

Nima: Well, right, because we don’t want you to fall through the trap door and be with them.

Adam: Right. Even though that trapdoor could be eliminated if we just got rid of poverty. But that’s neither here nor there.

Nima: And so in the early ’90s you saw this both with Bush and Clinton. H.W. Bush, Bush I, used it during a nomination speech quote “My opponent says America is a nation in decline…Maybe he hasn’t heard that we are still the world’s largest economy…You just won’t hear that inflation, the thief of the middle class, has been locked in a maximum security prison.” Clinton in ‘92 said, “I am a product of that middle class, and when I am president, you will be forgotten no more.”

Adam: The term peaked in the late seventies, early eighties and then kind of tapered off, but it’s still very popular. One thing we have to talk about is the ways in which middle class also grew in parallel with the suburbs and suburban sprawl and how the middle class became the signify home ownership.

Nima: Basically the American Dream. It’s the same catch-all term.

Adam: Yeah. You can have economic security, a home, a car, and that everyone can have that which is noble in theory, but in practice, and by the way, it’s not too dissimilar to promises made by the Soviet Union. Right? The idea that everyone can live in comfort. The question is, what system do we use to get there and whether or not that ideal is actually achievable without having an adversarial relationship to capital, or is it sustainable vis-a-vis the environment? That’s a separate fucking show.

Nima: (Chuckles.) Right. Well, this all goes hand in hand and I mean when you look at terms like the middle class or specifically American dream, they’ve really changed very little over time, right? They’re still deployed for the same reasons in much of the same ways. The term American dream was actually coined in James Truslow Adams’ 1931 book The American Epic, which defined the dream as quote “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” This “according to ability” part was eventually sort of dropped from the phraseology, but the term came to mean quote, “a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful.” And so that’s why you see the media kind of just continuing to run with this. The LA Times in late 2015 had an article: “Middle-class families, pillar of the American dream, are no longer in the majority, study finds.” CNBC from just earlier this year, in 2019, an article originally headlined “More middle-class families say American Dream is out of reach.” Right around the same time USA Today published an article called “Is the American dream dead? Middle-class families aren’t so optimistic.”

Adam: So yeah, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that the term is obviously heavily racialized and its baggage, the rise of the quote unquote “middle class” in this country that even people like Bernie Sanders and oftentimes Elizabeth Warren will refer nostalgically to this glorious time of the middle class. That was a very specific definition of middle class that obviously excluded anyone who wasn’t white. And to a large extent excluded people who were Jews and other minorities and obviously people who didn’t fit a very specific definition of heteronormativity. So there’s a great article. which we’ll link to, which we referenced earlier, called “‘Middle Class’ is a White Racial Construct” by Loggins and Petrella that breaks down the development of the term middle class and how it’s rooted in white supremacy aside from the Taft quote, which basically said it was a white person concept pretty explicitly that the Filipinos were too ignorant to be middle class, there was a 2017 Institute for Policy Studies report that found that while middle class black families’ wealth had dwindled in the last 30 years, wealth among middle class white households was up 10 percent. So there’s been this middle class wealth gap between black and white that is a holdover and a result of decades of policies that have excluded black people from the concept of middle class.

Nima: Right. So enslaved people, enslaved Africans, were explicitly prevented from building and passing on wealth onto their children and grandchildren, of course, with federal asset policies exacerbating these huge gaps. The racial wealth gap continues to be a huge problem, but as Adam was saying, it’s all born of policies that have been in place and compound each other. So, for instance, the 1862 Homestead Act provided 1.5 million American families with about 246 million acres of land, but with little exception, by and large, this land went to white families. They qualified for obtaining this acreage through the Homestead Act and Loggins and Petrella say that, quote, “Today, a staggering 46 million U.S. adults can trace the core of their families’ wealth to assets originally secured on an expressly racially discriminatory basis from the Homestead Act, a figure that constitutes close to twenty percent of the entire adult population living in the United States.”

Adam: That’s a statistic that Nick Estes referenced in our previous episode. And then of course, just before World War II the Federal Housing Administration put the full faith and credit of the federal government behind private home mortgages. As they note this racist category explicitly omitted non white people up until about the mid 1960s when there was efforts to get rid of that. So according to the authors 98 percent of FHA loans went to white people. So the backbone of the quote unquote “middle class” that a lot of people idealized as, as I’m sure most of our listeners already know this, but it is completely built on whiteness and white people.

Nima: Yeah, redlining explicitly said that loans were safer and better when given to white people in white segregated neighborhoods and that they were really risky and just should not be given out, loans should not be given out if neighborhoods had immigrants or black people or poor people, and so like this was set up from the start, the New Deal, really credited with creating the middle class, but also at the same time exacerbating this huge gap and creating so much more poverty. In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act intending to provide a safety net for millions of American workers by guaranteeing them an income after retirement. However, it explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic laborers. Jobs that traditionally, historically, especially during Jim Crow, went to Black Americans.

Adam: Right. Not a coincidence, so we don’t have to beat it over your head too much. But the idea that there’s like this shrinking or black middle class is in many ways, especially when you include debt, is effectively non-existent in any meaningful sense. And so when we talk about middle class necessarily it codes racially a certain way. Now there’s not any polls that have asked people how they, what race or sexual orientation for lack of a better term is evoked by the term middle class. I would be willing to venture to guess that it is largely perceived as a white concept. But this is one of the beauties of the term. It’s sort of so vague that you can kind of project what you want onto it. And when people talk about defending the middle class or fighting for the middle class, it evokes a very specific heteronormative and I think largely white image over the kind of the generic ideal American dream. And that presents its other problems because we’re not even name checking who we are really fighting for, we’re not fighting for poor people, for Latinx immigrants, trans people like there’s, you know, people mock the left for sort of going through and name checking these groups, but there’s a reason why they do it and they do it because so often their identities are laundered through these non terms like middle class. If you can’t name specifically the groups and people you’re fighting for, then you can’t really fight for them.

Nima: To discuss this more we’re going to be joined by union organizer, scholar and author Jane McAlevey, a Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center and McAlevey’s third book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy, will be released early next year. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Jane McAlevey, union organizer and author. Jane, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jane McAlevey: Totally happy to be here. Thank you.

Adam: I’m excited to talk to you. You have a lot of experience in this field. In fact, it may be a little bit beneath your pay grade to dissect the word middle class. But I do think it opens up a lot of questions that I’m excited to get into. So in your experience as an organizer, what is the tension around the concept of middle class been as the sort of thing that’s being centered in the primary messaging? I know that some people have argued that it’s kind of an inoffensive and popular concept and that labor and people who are messaging labor should embrace it and the left more generally, and there are people who say, well, it sort of obscures the poor and the working class. What is your experience with these kinds of semantic battles to the extent they’ve existed and what do you think they sort of reveal about how people on the left and people in labor target their message, for lack of a better word?

Jane McAlevey: I think about message as something that relates quite deeply actually to ideas, right? To like the world of ideas. And so as a labor organizer, it definitely disturbs me for us not to talk about the really poor people in poverty. But I’d say that that’s, as an organizer, that’s less of an issue. The issue that has confounded me is that since I believe in building what we think of as sort of industrial power, meaning all the workers who work for one employer in some ideal world that I exist in and actually organized in, should belong to one big organization, if not seriously coordinating across multiple unions, working for one employer and actually club up, team up so that they have maximum power to be able to extract from their employer that which they need, right? To have a decent quality of work life and to have a decent quality of home life. And the imposition of the word middle class complicates that, right? Because it begins to immediately reinforce the idea that some of the workers who work for an employer, who have very little control over their work lives or their home lives or their schedule or anything, are somehow above or different than other sets of workers who work for the same employer. And so to put a point on it, at some point, you know, I used to organize janitors, I organized childcare workers, I mean, you know, I’ve spent a lifetime doing work with many different kinds of workers, but the workers that I have spent the most time, both helping to form unions and then building really strong unions and then winning contract campaigns, have been healthcare workers. And I really was brought into this work in a way where we understood that every worker eligible possible who could form a union together in a hospital say, that that was the best way to build worker power. So that means that we’re messing around with highly skilled, quote unquote “skilled” by some definition that’s usually not ours, but like someone who’s highly educated carrying certifications and degrees, let’s say a brain, you know, a neuro nurse or a cardiac nurse and trying to have that worker in the same negotiations — in the same union actually — with the dietary unit, with the housekeeping unit, with every single worker who works for a single hospital employer. Hospitals are such a microcosm of America. They are so racially stratified, like the dietary unit, which is literally usually in the basement, right? That’s who makes the food in a hospital, is generally black in America. Then you move to the custodial unit that’s basically Latino. Then you move to like mid-level nurses and technicians and they’re Asian from some original Asian background. Then you move to the registered nurses right? And they tend to be more white and the higher the level of the nurse, the more white. So you’ve got a racialized class gendered workplace where you’re actually trying to teach workers how to build power. So the thing that we spend a lot of time doing in the beginning, the boss is running a message that the nurses are too good for the janitors and the custodians. You know what I mean?

Adam: Right.

Jane McAlevey: So that management team is running a wrap that’s fundamentally about dividing these workers from each other. And from my life as an organizer, I spent a lot of time explaining to custodians, to registered nurses, to the cooks that it takes a whole hospital to heal a patient. The idea that like we’re supposed to get caught up in some vernacular of using the middle class. It’s just not useful in a real organizing context because it reinforces visions the employers want to drive and a goal of a good union organizer is to erase those divisions and unify the entire working class together against their bosses.

Nima: The term middle class both seems to divide and conquer while also flattening a lot of divisions, which I think you were just speaking to. Can you just unpack how it becomes dangerous and then difficult to organize when there are these terms, these flattening terms like middle class that are really white-picket-fence propaganda to see the divisions then wash away in one way, but also create new divisions in other ways?

Jane McAlevey: Yeah. So just sticking to the one example and then let’s come back to like the meta way I think it’s really dangerous. So in every hospital campaign where I’ve approached the work as a whole hospital approach to the work — because that’s how workers have any chance of having maximum power — the boss would definitely drive the idea that the registered nurses and the high level techs were middle class workers who were deserving of something more than the rest of the workers, right? That’s division number one. And again, it’s highly racialized. They’re just using class as a, they’re trying not to say you don’t belong in the union with all the black people and all the Latinos, right? Maybe the Filipinos and the Asians and the white people can be together but not the rest of you. So first of all, there’s racial coding in our use of the terms poor working class, poverty, middle class, upper class, you know, so there’s racial coding in here too, which we need not ignore cause it’s so damning and so true. So again, to try and get workers to understand that it doesn’t actually matter how the boss delineates who you are, that your best shot at actually winning a really strong contract, whether you’re a high level registered nurse or whether you’re someone who cooks food, that by the way, if you cook the wrong food for a, you know, a patient who can’t have sugar and you have sugar in the meal, you kill them. I mean that’s a pretty important job in my opinion, right? Like what is the cook in the basement doing in the context of hospital food? It’s actually really urgent. So, and then I just think in terms of society, it has the flattening effect because a big part of the problem in the United States of America is that if you ask almost any person ‘what class are you?’ They’re going to say middle class. And they are people who have no control over their lives. They’re struggling, they’re working two full time jobs just to be able to afford a babysitter maybe once a month. I mean the idea, like what does it even mean? Right? It’s like an absurd construct that works on the outside of workplace organizing to level the idea that we’re all middle class, which is just a bunch of shit. And then inside of a worker campaign it serves as a really useful weapon that the boss deploys against the workers. So for me, what was interesting was from the very earliest years that I became a full time trade union organizer working for the national AFL-CIO back in the nineties, you know, way back, the way back machine, and I remember very early on being brought into a meeting to look at the latest polling about how in the Voice @ Work Campaign — that was like the rebuilding of the trade union movement allegedly after 1996 at the AFL-CIO — the organizers would be brought in to look at polling, to listen to what words worked best. So in the early iteration it was that we all had to use the word middle class, that all workers believe they’re middle class, that we should use that word. You know, and a whole bunch of us in the room were like, yeah, okay, that’s actually not the conversation that we want to have (laughs) like building power in America. But this was like, there’s like triple offenses in here. There’s the role of the pollsters in the United States, who I never have very kind words for it. It’s not a personal thing, you know, dear pollster, it’s not personal thing if you’re listening. It’s an institutional problem that the pollsters have invaded, not just the Democratic Party of course, but they’ve also the very same pollsters often pollute the discussion in most of the national unions because they come in and they act like winning the election every four years, the president, is the same thing as building a working class movement to build power in this country and change the dynamic of who has power, right? And they’re just completely different. So to me, when pollsters hear something that might be useful so that we know what people think, that the whole point of organizing is to help people come to a different understanding about who they are and who the boss is and the power that they have to build to overcome the dire shit straits that they’re living in in the United States, America, where they are most decidedly not whatever the image is of middle class. So this was just maddening. By the way, it later got to, I kid you not and by now I was at a different, I was working for the national union I worked for for many years, I was gone from AFL-CIO and by the early two thousands upholsters would come in and tell us, by the way, guess what other words we couldn’t use — besides working class, we were told not to use the word working class.

Nima: Why is that? Do they explain why?

Jane McAlevey: This is for real. No, ‘cause yeah, that wasn’t an aspirational term and we have to use aspirational terms.

Nima: Right.

Jane McAlevey: So middle class polled better. So we were instructed to use the word middle class and then it got really even more absurd because then, by 2006 I was in a national meeting, might have been late 2005, where a group of consultants a pollster brought in to tell us another set of words we couldn’t use and guess what the next word was that didn’t poll well and that the union organizers shouldn’t use? Just take a guess.

Adam: Poverty? The poor?

Jane McAlevey: Union!

Adam: You can’t use union? Wow.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Jane McAlevey: Union! We had to use the word “association” —

Adam: Oh wow.

Nima: Oh that’s good.

Jane McAlevey: Because association polled better than union.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: I’m curious who’s funding and supporting these, uh, these pollsters. I imagine it, and I imagine the Democratic Party apparatus were the ones because this is, yeah, this was, I know that the AFL-CIO especially got more overtly corporate in the nineties.

Jane McAlevey: By the two thousands it was like literally we were just, so this was SEIU, national meetings at SEIU by the beginning of this century the absurdity of the pollster messaging was that we couldn’t use the word union, that we should just talk about workers forming associations together.

Adam: The most clever thing you can do in politics from 1995 to 2015 was to appropriate Republican ideas and try to outflank them from the right and act like you just cracked the DaVinci code.

Nima: Right like labor Chambers of Commerce —

Adam: You really hack the system.

Nima: Polled really well.

Jane McAlevey: Yeah.

Adam: The most efficient way of scoring a basket was to give the ball to the opponent and then hold them up to the rim.

Jane McAlevey: Right, exactly. There you go.

Adam: I want to talk a little bit about this idea of class as a set of comforts or images of middle class quote unquote “security” versus class, which is defined by its relation, its antagonistic relationship to another class.

Jane McAlevey: Well also, right, but remember we were banning the use of the word working class were banning the use of the word unions as union organizers and more importantly we were banding the idea of class conflict, right?

Adam: Exactly.

Jane McAlevey: I mean that is what was underneath this. This was a period when I was disciplined for allowing workers to take strike votes.

Adam: Right.

Jane McAlevey: Right? By the national union because at the time someone named Andy Stern had decided that strikes were no longer a good image for the SEIU and the healthcare sector.

Adam: Which boggles the mind. But this all falls under the purview of like the sort of middle classness as an inherently non antagonistic relationship where this sort of manager, the general manager of a Home Depot makes $85,000 a year and the person stocking it at 3:00am makes $35,000 a year and they’re both considered kind of middle class. It’s a signal of your kind of theoretical comfort. Right? But I want to switch gears here to talk about how this obscures poverty, which I think is related to this. In the 2016 debates, I did a study for FAIR, when I used to write for them, that found that the words “poverty” and “poor” were not the center of any questions of any of the debate moderators in the nine Democratic primary debates in 2015 and 2016 wheras the word “middle class” was used dozens of times. I actually lost track at around 40. So not only does middle class, of course flatten class conflict of what I think it also does, and this is the perhaps the more cognitive dissidence massaging factor here, is that it doesn’t really talk about poverty or poor people. So could we talk about the ratio of poor people from this genericness of middle class and why that’s so immediately effective for people who want to maybe appeal to a certain donor base within the Democratic Party?

Jane McAlevey: Oh, god. I mean this is a target rich environment for conversations. So I will say there is a certain, the donor class, the actual donor class which reaches into both who contributes to political campaigns but also sort of the philanthropic class, I mean, the truth is in some perverse way they’re very comfortable with poverty, right? Like they want to think that they’re doing this thing called “poverty eradication.”

Adam: Well, right. Poverty and the kinda like the way that people at Davos talk about “inequality,” they put it in sort of scare quotes as if someone like inspecting a house for insects will tell you like you need to be careful of this thing or that it has some potential problems but not in any sort of like, poor people are not the agent being centered in the conversation as such. Does that make sense?

Jane McAlevey: That’s right. Yeah. No, definitely not. Yeah. But it’s also like it makes them feel better if they feel like they’re doing something called “poverty eradication.” I was always like, what is that like? Are you just moving people out of the country to like an island or, yeah. So it’s like a construct of the philanthropic community. So they actually are very comfortable with that word because what they avoid when they’re, when they focus on poverty eradication or lessening inequality or the main thing that they’re never doing is talking about how workers actually build power, right?

Adam: Which is through labor organizing.

Jane McAlevey: Exactly. Exactly. So it gets us back to like the trade union question right? Like, how do workers actually club up and build some power to actually extract some, you know, as I like to say, I’ve never met a serious CEO or serious boss who actually offered anything meaningful to the workers. They were forced to surrender, you know, if they could be forced to surrender, the only way they gave up and shared more was because they were forced to surrender through pretty serious action on the part of workers who are all part of the working class. Right? In class struggle. I mean I think that the leveling effect, to me, it’s even deeper. First of all, something that I was always struck by that Frances Fox Piven talks about in poor people’s movements is how in the United States more than any other country really that we know of, the poor in the United States are really socialized and taught to believe that if you are something called “poor” that it’s your fault, that you are less good, that you are not deserving of whatever that thing is called being middle class and now we get back to the obscuring term about what middle class means. That there’s something wrong with you if you can’t reach the middle class, which as you say could be $35,000 an hour warehouse worker or it could be an $80,000 an hour manager for, you know, Home Depot or whatever, the same firm. But the truth is even like I think even at $15 an hour, which puts you at about $31,000 and change, to be honest, in many parts of this country that’s poor, like that’s just, you’re poor. Part of my critique of the $15 an hour campaign has been like the fight for something that gets us to poverty still. If you’re sitting in Los Angeles where I am right now, or San Francisco or New York or Chicago or fill in the blank, right? That is, living on $31,000 let alone raising a family on $31,000 is going to be a hell of a challenge if you’re in any significant urban area in the country. If you’re in, you’re in the middle of whatever Tarheel, South Carolina, it might be different, but not in most of the US. So I think that it helps make poor people feel more destitute when they realize everyone else is this thing called middle class and they’re not like, it reinforces the idea that there’s somehow broken people, which I don’t believe for a nanosecond. Right. I believe there’s like this massive downward pressure, structural pressure and so many people in the US so I think the word is dangerous. I don’t use it. I don’t like using it. I think it’s not a helpful construct. If what we’re trying to do is help people understand the only choice they have to improve the quality of their work life and their home life and their kids life and their retirement possibilities is build absolute power against the employer class, then the idea of the middle class is dangerous and unproductive to the broader project of how do we actually help workers understand. It massages down. Like this idea that there’s the 1 percent and the 99, I have to say as an organizer, it’s a little frustrating in that concept too because it’s really more like 90/10 for one thing. And the real objective is, it’s a nice slogan, but what organizers are focused on is how do we actually build supermajorities uniting together to actually manifest something like the 99 percent against 1 percent or the 90 percent against the 10 percent in more real terms, like how do we actually, like if the working class is really more of about 90 percent where they have no control, whatever, in their lives, how do we actually manifest those numbers? It makes no sense but to do anything but help them all understand we’re basically in the same lodge, right? So.

Nima: So talking about messaging, there is messaging that can be effective or in what you’ve said already deemed ineffective — ‘don’t say union when you’re a union organizer.’

Jane McAlevey: Ever. Yeah, no, that was a bad, bad word.

Nima: And we’re not going on strikes because god forbid we actually leverage the power we have.

Jane McAlevey: Right.

Nima: But when say in a national political campaign, when you have certain candidates say those a little further to the left, like Sanders, and to some extent Warren, railing in speeches against millionaires and billionaires, mentioning poverty, mentioning homelessness, but also frequently throwing in this idea of middle class, this concept throughout their more populist pitch. Do you see this in any way as being anything purely than shitty political tactics or is there a broadening of what that could mean that actually might be useful, at least in a short term political campaign that may get us to a place that is maybe potentially less shitty?

Jane McAlevey: Yeah, well I’m not gonna ding Sanders or even Warren probably for using the words that the pollsters are shoving into their face 99 million hours a day. Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t bother to pick that apart in the context of a short term campaign, which is what a presidential race is. It’s very different for me than like what does a union organizer do and building larger power. But you know, so I think they’re using it aspirationally. If I were them though, I would still be pushing back on it. I mean, I think when you want to be aspirational, right? If you’re trying to raise people’s expectations that they deserve something more, I believe in raising expectations, that’s like part of what we do. Workers aren’t going to bother to fight unless our expectation is raised that they can actually do better by clubbing up and fighting together against their employers. So, but for me, when I’m in a more open arena, like let’s say running it like doing today, like working on political campaigns from a union perspective, I think it’s fine to say like, I’ve invoked the American dream. So I will say that I’m more comfortable saying something like, hey, throw out what the American dream meant in this country. And people will say the core idea, right? That your kids will do better than you. There is nothing wrong with saying that. You know, the right to home ownership. You know, the right to feed your kids and have decent quality public schools. So if a candidate like a Sanders or a Warren throws out the idea of the American dream, that’s less offensive to me as an organizer than seeding the idea that the middle class is useful. Like I think there are different ways to raise expectations and I would put very specific word choices on them. What I would hope for from the more populous candidates in the campaign is that they would use more specific language that reflects what they really mean, which is the ability of American workers to level the playing field against the corporate bosses in the United States. The ability of the American workers to dream that they might have the right to retirement, to raise the grandkids who are coming up beneath them and that their children might actually have the right to do just a little bit better then whatever it is they did. I think it’s not hard to wrap messaging around either the idea of the American dream or even more so to break it down into a handful of aspirational ideas. Do you think you should have the right to retire? Yes or no? Do you think you should have the right to get decent, affordable healthcare in this country? Yes or no? Do you think..? I don’t think you need to add on, therefore we should have more middle class people. I just think that’s cheap and bullshit.

Adam: Right. Cause one is sort of a material thing you’re getting the other is this vague kind of thing. And I think that’s really what we’re talking about. Cause, you know, look, quality education, economic security, owning a house, general peace of mind, right?

Jane McAlevey: The right to retire, right?

Adam: Which appeals to 99 percent of people. People like, yeah that sounds pretty nice right? As much as angsty people who grew up in the suburbs like me rebel against them and their worst places to be on earth. Right? And I think that’s sort of really what you’re talking about. And I think the middle class takes that sort of aspirational idea and then projects it onto a cohort, a political, a meaningful political cohort that simply just can’t and doesn’t exist.

Jane McAlevey: And it’s also like it gives you the impression you can, like if you just go to get an undergraduate, you know, BA, you’re going to suddenly be in this thing called the middle class and it’s not helpful because one, it’s generally not true anymore and two, it’s sloppy. What good organizers do is focus very specifically on specific sets of ideas and aspirations by engaging with workers about what is it they want to change. And for us it comes back to what’s going to take for you to build power, cause we got to get to the word power, right? The word power is central to what has to happen in this country because to level the abuses that corporations and the super rich are waging against the vast majority of the United States, it’s going to take power. And so getting sidelined by some obscure conversation about like middle class? It’s just, I literally can think of no part of the use of the term that’s actually helpful. Like if I want someone to feel aspirational, I’m going to ask them a series of questions about what they think they and their families deserve in this life. And they’re not going to say, ‘I want to be middle class.’ It’s not what workers say.

Nima: I’m desperate to be in the middle (laughing) class.

Adam: It also obscures over the fact that to the extent to which they do get middle class status, without labor power it’s extremely precarious and built on cheap credit.

Jane McAlevey: That’s right.

Adam: If the economic recession taught us one thing it’s that if it’s not built into labor power than it is, at best, a temporary status.

Nima: Well, this has been amazing, Jane. Before we go, what are you working on right now? And also maybe can you tell us about the book that you have coming out early next year?

Jane McAlevey: Sure, yeah. Of course. The book is about why we need power, why workers in this country need more power. It’s called A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy and it is a rather fierce defense of the idea that no magic word works and that the only thing that’s gonna work in this country is seriously rebuilding working class power — and by what you know what I mean by that word working class, it’s all the workers united together against the employers — and at the moment I’m focusing right now in California for the next couple of years working with the education unions in particular and helping them to pull up in what we call civic leadership to essentially figure out how we can go from having work-site power to how we can have a more robust, effective precinct-based operations so that workers may aspire to do at the voting booth what they do in a strike, which is go all out united together in one fight and win.

Nima: Well, that is amazing. That’s an amazing place to leave it. Thank you so much for joining us, union organizer, scholar, author, Jane McAlevey, Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center, and as she just said, her third book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy will be released in early 2020. Jane, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jane McAlevey: My pleasure. Pleasure to be here. Thank you.


Adam: Jane McAlevey has been doing organizing for decades. She’s forgotten more this morning and we’ve ever known. I do think the dissection of middle class is a gateway into a ton of other questions and then I think her disgust of the term does —

Nima: Right. It disgusts her, which makes me feel better that we are also disgusted by it.

Adam: That’s true.

Nima: Like, oh, okay. There was something there because she has been doing this for so long in such incredible ways and really understands the dynamics of power and how language works. Yeah.

Adam: The number one thing required in any kind of labor organizing is urgency. And no word kind of dampens urgency more than middle class. It’s sort of, just saying it puts me to sleep. It’s sort of, there’s no good guys, there’s no bad guys. There’s just like, you know-

Nima: Yeah, it’s just like this palliative nothing.

Adam: Yeah. It’s generically original.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. So that will do it this time around for Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. As always, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and please do, if you are considering it, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. A very special shout out, as always, goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and writing for this episode by Julianne Tveten. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, October 23, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.