The Working Class Majority:
America's Best Kept Secret
Chapter One: The Class Structure of the United States
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
In this chapter you will find out what social classes are. Based on the definitions, you will see how big each class is and who is in them. You will also learn something about the relationships among different classes, and the ambiguities about class that operate in U.S. society today. Questions in each section will help develop your thinking about the issues. Talk about the questions with friends or co-workers before coming to any conclusions.
What Are Social Classes? (pp. 9-15)
Social class is based on power. We often think of class in terms of different incomes or life styles, and it is true that those differences exist. But the basis of class differences is in the different amounts of power people have, at work and in the larger society.
Q 1.1: Income and power are obviously related. In your workplace or community, can you identify some people who make a lot of money but who have no real power at their workplace or in the political scene? Who are they? What kind of work do they do? Can you identify some people with a lot of power, at work or in the community, who don’t make much money compared with most people who have little power? Who are the people who have both power and money? What can you say about the relative importance of income and power in understanding how your workplace or community is actually organized? Based on your investigation, what can you say about the relative importance of income and power in understanding class?Power can be visible, as when a supervisor has authority over a workforce. But power can also be invisible, when it operates through the “rules of the game” that we take for granted and obey because “that’s the way it is.” Invisible power is transmitted in the culture, in the education system, and in the occasional visible application of power to discipline people who think or act in ways that challenge the rules. To understand how class operates in society, we need to look at the ways visible power relations, usually at work, are reinforced by invisible power in the larger society.
Q.1.2: We often think about class in terms of income, life style, or status. Make a list of your class attributes (or those of your parents) in these terms, or others important to you, and write down what they tell you about your class position. Who else in your workplace and community is in the same class as you in these terms? Now think of your class situation in terms of power. How does it compare with your first conclusion? Now who else is in the same class as you? In a different class? What does this tell you about the implications of thinking about class in these different ways?
Q.1.3: Can you think of a way in which the public education system contributes to the invisible power relations that reinforce or make “natural” the visible lines of power at work (see pp.11-12)? Can you think of a way that education undermines visible power? Do the same for television programming.Looking at class in terms of power lets us see the relationships that operate in society and helps us understand how we fit into those relationships. Chapter one gives a detailed account of the three classes that make up U.S. society. Each class is distinct from the others but related to them. People in each class have many differences among themselves, yet they share a place in the social power grid that gives them a particular class position.
Q.1.4: Does it makes sense to separate business owners who work next to their employees and manage them directly into a different class (the middle class) from business owners and executives who are removed from production and manage the work process through middle management (capitalists)? Explain your thinking and any experience you can draw upon to illustrate your point.The Middle Class (pp. 20-28)
Q.1.5: If a worker owns stock in the company he or she works for, does that make the worker a capitalist? What if the worker owns shares in many companies and regularly trades on the Internet? Explain your answer and indicate what it tells you about class and its relation to ownership.
Q.1.6: Look at the background of the most important and powerful people in government and cultural institutions in your community. What are their connections with business? With unions? What does this tell you about how class operates beyond the workplace?
Q.1.7: Take one of the book’s examples of the life of the middle class (see pp. 20-28) and see if you can find a similar dynamic in your workplace or community. Describe the situation. As carefully as you can, describe how the power issues in the situation place the middle class people in the middle.The Working Class (pp. 28-34)
Q.1.8: Class is a question of power, not occupation alone. Interview some building trades contractors in your community –people who run a small plumbing or carpentry or electrical business – who have also had experience as employees in the same trade. Is the difference in their work environments important to them? How do they describe the differences? What does this tell you about class?
Q.1.9: For your workplace or school, make a list of the different occupations or job classifications. Which are working class? Which middle class? How many people are employed in each, and what does this tell you about the class composition of the labor force around you? How many people in the business or institution are top-level executives?Ambiguities of Class (pp. 34-37)
Q.1.10: What does the class structure of your workplace or school, as revealed in Q.1.6, tell you about how power flows in the organization?
Q.1.11: For the different classes in the labor force around you, what is the racial and gender composition of each? Within each class, there are differences among jobs by income and status. Are there patterns of employment within classes around you that separate people by race and gender? What does this tell you about the relationships among race, class, and gender?
Q.1.12: If you have a union where you work, how does it change the power relations? Do workers in unions get enough power to change their class position so they become middle class or capitalists?
Q.1.13: Do you know a family in which there are two job-holders in different classes? How do the differences play out in their lives? What percent of families whom you know are in this situation?Useful links for this chapter:
Q.1.14: Do you think school teachers are in the middle class or the working class? How do you explain your conclusion? What about nurses? What about the foreman where you or your mother or father works?
Q.1.15: In addition to class, we all have identities in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and different personal interests, like sports or gardening. Think about people in the same class as you? How do the differences within your class in terms of other identities influence your thinking about these other, different people? Are there times when these differences have been, or could be, less important when compared with the similarities of class? How would that work? On the other side of things, how does the existence of class differences within your other identities influence the connections you feel with others of a different class? Be as specific as you can, using your own experiences wherever possible.