A War Worth Fighting

My father grew up on Gordon Avenue on the South Side of Fort Worth. After high school at Trimble Tech, he apprenticed in the construction industry and became a journeyman electrician. In the 1970s he earned an average of $40,000 a year.

It was a fair wage, a good wage. The average price for a new home was $50,000. The average price of new car was $4,500. Gas was 57 cents a gallon. A bottle of soda pop ran 35 cents, and you could get 5 or 10 cents back if you returned the bottle. Being as an electrician was a great way to make a living.

Today, the average journeyman electrician still makes approximately $40,000 a year, but the average price for a new home is $100,000 and the typical price for a new car is $20,000. Gas is about $3 a gallon and soda pop is $1.75 a bottle. Working as an electrician is no longer a great way to make a living.

The wages for many of the blue-collar, middle-class jobs in construction, manufacturing, and the service industries haven’t changed much in the last 40 years, but the prices for what they build, produce and service have tripled and quadrupled.

Why does everything cost so much more even though the folks who are doing most of the actual work don’t make any more than they did 40 years ago?

Well, it’s obviously complicated. The price of the materials has risen along with cost of the fuel required to transport goods. Then there are higher insurance costs and, in some cases, pension plans. But a significant percentage of the increase of the costs of products, goods and services in general can be traced to folks who do very little if any of the actual work. I call them the CEO or MBA class.

While wages for so many of us have remained stagnant, theirs have increased by a thousand or even more. Where they used to earn 10 times what the average man or woman on the line or in the field used to earn, many of the fat cats now make hundreds of times what that worker earns. And their salaries continue to increase as they break up unions or ship our jobs overseas.

The well-heeled apologists for these new robber barons would have us believe that middle-class unions and blue-collar collective bargaining rights are the reason the price of everything except our wages has gone up—but the real reason is the class they serve. Corporations have to pay our executioners—I mean their executives—well. Their steely lack of conscience is invaluable. They keep boards of directors happy and don’t let common decency or antiquated notions of loyalty, shared struggle, or fair play get in the way of the bottom line.

It no longer pays to be a craftsman; it’s more important to be crafty. Pride in your work isn’t profitable; quantity trumps quality. Every Wal-Mart in America is a testament to middle-class expendability. Where there were once millions of mom-and-pop shops where the employees knew your name, there are now thousands of big-box shops where Mom and Pop earn minimum wage as “greeters.” The individual items we buy there are cheaper but our collective quality of life is also greatly cheapened.

Tomorrow, you and I will be earning the same or less while the CEO/MBA class steals more. Their kids will coast through the finest private schools and expensive universities while ours will be lucky to graduate from intentionally understaffed public schools and even luckier to struggle through the only colleges we can afford.

How long will the sparsely privileged meekly accept the world according to the agents of their own disfranchisement? How much longer can we afford to elect these upper-class lackeys? What’s it going to take to stop us from kissing the hands that slap us?

The Republicans of late have taken to accusing President Obama of class warfare. Can they not see that the middle class has been suffering in the trenches of class warfare for years?

Any CEO who makes hundreds of times more than the man or woman doing the real work has middle-class blood on his or her hands. Any CEO who allows manufacturing jobs to be shipped overseas is spilling blue-collar entrails. And every big-box store that monopolizes Middle America digs a thousand blue-collar graves.

Class warfare has been waged against the middle class for years. It’s time our assailants faced the consequences.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..