Who are ‘the workers’?

The National Labor Relations Board ruled on Aug. 23 that teaching and research assistants at private institutions of higher education have the right to organize unions and collectively bargain with the universities that both employ and educate them. The ruling was on a petition filed by graduate student unions affiliated with the United Auto Workers at both Columbia University and The New School demanding recognition.

In effect, the government has finally recognized these workers as workers.

This is not only a victory for the teaching assistants and research assistants who have struggled hard to win the right to organize, but a confirmation that the working class is much broader than often acknowledged. Many people still think of students and teachers at colleges as somehow elite and separate from the working class.

But on a national average, 50 percent of college instructors, including TAs and RAs, are part-time, low-wage workers. At Columbia, TAs are required to teach for some part of their graduate studies. They are paid $1,800 per semester, per class, to prepare and teach classes and discussion sections, read and grade assignments, hold office hours, and run labs for undergraduates. Colleges depend heavily on TA and RA labor to fulfill instruction at pennies for wages.

These overworked and underpaid teacher-students, who are multinational and multigender, are exploited labor, like the rest of the working class. Their successful NLRB challenge refutes the concept that it is only white men who are the backbone of the working class in the U.S.

That notion is outmoded and just plain wrong. Yet it appears repeatedly in the media, especially when they characterize those who support Donald Trump. How many times have we heard that Trump’s base of support is “white workers”? Yet polls show that Trump supporters have an average household income of $72,000 a year, well above the national median of $53,657 reported by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2014.

The other factor the media invoke to claim Trump’s supporters are mainly workers is their level of education. According to this line of reasoning, being working-class is determined by whether or not you have gone to college. This also is a totally outmoded concept.

Working-class families, Black, Latinx, Asian, Native and white, immigrant or born here, struggle hard to send their kids to college. These days, college is not mainly a choice about what job to train for. In many situations, it is a requirement for employment, including some factory work.

When this writer got her first real job in the late 1950s, she didn’t have a college degree and didn’t need one to find work as a lab technician in a hospital. In those days, on-the-job training was widely available. You got paid while you learned.

Not any more. Today, even though new technology has simplified many aspects of these jobs, anyone applying for a medical technician’s job needs a college degree. Nowadays, the median annual salary for a med tech’s job is $38,970.

For most young people, to get the degree to get that job means being unavailable for full-time work for a year or two or more, spending tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars on education, and going into debt.

So, are young people not workers because they’ve gone to college or because they are in graduate school for an advanced degree?

In fact, they reflect the U.S. working class as a whole, which has become increasingly multinational, increasingly female, with more LGBTQ people out at the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, of the almost 149 million people employed in the U.S. at this time, nearly half — 46.8 percent — are women, while 11.7 percent are Black, 5.8 percent are Asian and 16.4 percent are Latinx.

The most active, militant section of the labor movement has been in those occupations where women and people of color are concentrated, like education, health care and food service. But a lot of white men work in these jobs too, and very few of those workers like Donald Trump.

This is the dynamic edge of the multinational, multigender working class in this country. It is moving to the left, not the right. The Trump movement, if it can be dignified as such, is a reaction to this progressive trend. It is led by a billionaire and may rope in angry, bigoted whites who are looking for a rich savior. But it offers nothing to the working class.

The rising struggle being mounted in the courts and in the streets by low-wage workers — like exploited teaching and research assistants — is what will bring working-class victory.