“In truth, we’re as class-conscious in our own way as people were in Victorian England. Only we’re less confident, less comfortable with it, more willing, in fact, to go to extraordinary lengths to convince ourselves that we’re immune to such distinctions.”
There was an experiment conducted by sociologists some years ago that endeavored to gauge people’s sensitivity to “class.” The experimenters set up two cars – a shiny new Cadillac, and a beat-up old Ford station wagon – at a traffic intersection. The drivers of both cars were instructed not to move when the light changed to green, but to wait for the car behind them to honk their horn.
Then they timed how long it took for the motorist behind each vehicle to begin honking. The results were revealing. The experimenters found that the overwhelming majority of motorists began honking at the “poor” car almost immediately. By contrast, these same motorists waited, on average, more than twice as long before honking at the “rich” car.
So what did this prove? Well, because the experiment was done pseudo-scientifically, it didn’t really prove anything. It was what it was. But if we want to extrapolate and go out on a limb, we could say that it exposed people’s deep-seated contempt for those of lesser economic means and, by extension, those belonging to a “lower class.”
After all, it can’t be denied that instead of cutting the guy in the beat-up car a little slack, the drivers did the exact opposite. By honking their horns they engaged in the automotive equivalent of scolding, of chastising another driver, and, significantly, they did it far quicker to the “poor” person than to the “rich” one, thereby revealing a sense of class superiority.
Would it be wildly reckless to suggest that what was displayed in the traffic experiment is the same dynamic underlying the public’s disdain for groups like janitors, nursing assistants and sanitation workers when they seek higher wages?
When people drive by and see striking janitors marching in front of an office building, carrying placards and demanding $14 dollars an hour, they don’t automatically root for these workers. Rather, they tend to be annoyed or disgusted by the unseemliness of the public spectacle. Unskilled workers demanding $14 (which, by the way, if they work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, computes to $29,120). How dare they?
Yet, when these same people read about hedge fund managers making, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year through the exotic and complicated manipulation of euros, dollars, yen and what have you, they don’t so much as bat an eye.
We’re willing to give the wealthy investment banker every consideration, but when it comes to people who work for a living – who do something we can actually understand, such as mop an office floor – we look down on them. And this is more than simply “rewarding” one for having put his college degree to work. It’s a class judgement.
The extent to which people resist this notion, who adamantly deny that class distinctions exist in the United States, is as astonishing as it is disappointing. People bristle when you mention “class.” To many, it smacks of an ideology vaguely Marxist in nature. It’s as if admitting that class distinctions exist somehow detracts from our heroically egalitarian Land of Opportunity image.
But, in truth, we’re as class-conscious in our own way as people were in Victorian England. Only we’re less confident, less comfortable with it, more willing, in fact, to go to extraordinary lengths to convince ourselves that we’re immune to such distinctions, because deep-down we think class divisions are somehow un-American. (Didn’t Tocqueville make this same observation?)
In any event, this bias is something that labor unions such as AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) routinely encounter in their negotiations with management. The recent 5-day strike AFSCME called against the University of California (which occurred in late July) is a prime example.
The union had been working without a contract for almost a year before resorting to their symbolic strike. It should be mentioned that these AFSCME members aren’t fiery-eyed radicals or militants; they’re not the Longshoremen, for crying out loud. They didn’t want to shut down. Indeed, the decision to stage their 5-day walk-out was made, more or less, reluctantly, out of desperation.
Incredibly, AFSCME wages are so low, that nearly three-quarters of the union membership qualify for food stamps or other government assistance. Moreover, the union is not seeking a gold-plated contract; it’s merely seeking a decent one – one that will take full-time workers off the poverty rolls.
To no one’s surprise, the UC regents don’t see it that way. While college administrators have no problem justifying their $600,000 a year salaries, they can’t bring themselves to pay their own employees a wage adequate to keeping them off welfare.
The reason they won’t offer a higher wage isn’t because the UC system can’t afford it. Rather, the reason they won’t offer it is because they don’t believe these workers and their families deserve it. Let’s put it another way: In the eyes of UC administrators, these workers deserve to remain poor. And if that ain’t class warfare, what is it?
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com.