Whoa, amigo … where you been? I’ve been waiting on your American Dream article. Should I sit myself down and prepare for your thoughts about the often mentioned but rarely encountered phenomenon referred to as the American Dream? Well, dear friend, yes, you should sit yourself down, and I’d suggest more nourishments than normal. That statement cries out for recognition, amigo. Are you hinting at a lengthy “chat” that I must endure before understanding your thought trend? Yes, yes, that’s an accurate statement. There are many layers of the onion one must expose before truly understanding why the American Dream now resides in solitary confinement, and is allowed out of its cell, periodically, for political rallies as an attention grabber and vote securer. Whoa, that’s a mouthful, writer-san. What do you really mean? I’m not sure if the American Dream as defined in the nineteen-fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties really exists for the blue-collar, lunch-pail American worker anymore. I believe it’s presently more akin to an urban legend than it is to a cultural reality. Much more on this later, compadre. More so, I believe every two years, naïve and/or fraudulent politicians drag the poor concept out of its cell, pretty it up, and take the American Dream on the campaign trail with them, hoping to win votes by promising to unshackle the iconic, cultural goal and bring it back into the light of day. Amigo, that’s a whole lot of negativity packed into a couple sentences. Where’d that come from? Simply put, suppressed guilt, dear friend. I watched the clubbing of the American middle class and did nothing to stop it. What could you have done, amigo? Good question, compadre. One thought comes to mind, quickly: we marched in the streets in the sixties and seventies to bring about Black equality and to stop overt American imperialism. We should have marched in the streets in the eighties to stop large corporations from taking a wrecking ball to our country’s middle class and the American Dream lifestyle that they enjoyed.
I heard that marching band again, amigo. Are we on our way? Yes and no. That’s not a good start, writer-san. Sounds somewhat contradictory. Could you reply with a more confident, reader-friendly statement? Well I’d like to, but there are a few qualifiers to acknowledge before we can really get into the “meat” of the article. You’re not listening, amigo. I am, I really am. Now just bear with me for a few more minutes. I see you’re comfortably seated, with nourishment at hand. Buckle up. We’ve a long and winding road ahead of us. Love that phrase, writer-san. As do I, compadre, as do I.
First qualifier: As the article’s title suggests, the loss of the American Dream has much to do with Trump’s base. A large segment of his voting bloc falls into the undereducated, high school diploma or less, category. Historically, this group has made up the lion’s share of the blue-collar demographic. Fifty years ago, it was mostly a white, socioeconomic stratum. The blue-collar workers of today are represented by all ethnicities. In this article, unless noted otherwise, when I refer to the middle class, I’m referencing the undereducated, white, blue-collar segment of this social class. Trump’s political rhetoric has appealed to this group. This white segment, in recent history (1950 to the 1980s), when they left school, had the likelihood of getting a living-wage job and its associated American Dream. The possibility of this happening now, for the most part, does not exist.
Second Qualifier: The Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities for all practical purposes, were never part of the American Dream equation. Systemic racism kept their participation at a minimal level. Of course this is unacceptable, but my article does not attempt to address this issue. It focuses on explaining the “who, what, and why” of Trump’s undereducated, middle class, voting bloc.
Third qualifier: Trump’s complete base is a smorgasbord of people and personal philosophies: Which person or group is the most influential? Is it the far-right fringe group looking for a fascist leader? Is it conservative businessmen and women who believe the Dems will tax away their profits? Is it the racist who’s afraid the tables just might get turned? Is it big industrial players who want all federal regulations to go away? Is it the average conservative who believes in the conservative mantra that states, “Dems will take all your guns and personal freedoms away from you”? The best answer is Trump’s base is a huge, conservative stew, flavored with all of the above. For the sake of this article, I’d like to focus on Trump’s conservative, undereducated, white, blue-collar demographic as being his most significant, most populous ingredient and/or voting bloc; we could liken them to the meat and potatoes of our stew. Why focus on this group? Well, for one, I believe these Trump followers have suffered incredible losses over the last fifty years, and their plight along with all Americans in the same economic stratum should be improved. Second, and most importantly, I believe this demographic, with focused and appropriate aid, can be steered away from the far right, aka Donald Trump, and become open to a democratic, unified, and inclusive America.
I’ll offer a word of caution here. For some, it will be hard to feel sympathetic toward Trump’s white, undereducated, blue-collar voting bloc. I totally understand your position. Please try, for the sake of this article, to shelve your biases, and view my writing in an impartial manner. If we can see this demographic’s journey, we’ll better understand their anger and frustrations with the American system, and be in a better place to help them improve their lives; the ultimate goal, as I already mentioned, is getting them to once again believe in the democratic process, and moreover, believe in a unified, inclusive America.
Fourth: This fourth qualifier allows for a reader’s choice of sorts. For those of you who liked “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in elementary school, this option will feel familiar. The writing you’re presently addressing is an historical, informative piece that is very academic in nature. If I’d written this article for a college professor, there’d be footnotes, ibids, and all the other sundries associated with research papers. Thank God those days are way back there in the rearview mirror. In examining and confirming what my memory suggested, I used numerous sources to endorse my long-held beliefs: data from the Department of Labor, newspaper articles, and academic papers. Please forgive me: I also used some information from Wikipedia sites. Most of the numerical statistics come from all the aforementioned sources. A quick sidebar: those of you who occasionally deal with insomnia, and haven’t found a suitable remedy, listen up; I promise that if you would just read a few Department of Labor publications before bedtime, your sleep issues will become a distant memory. Straight up … guaranteed cure. Anyway, back to where we started. If you feel that reading about corporate paradigm transitions and the union busting that occurred in the eighties is “old news” to you, you might want to jump ahead to the last four or five pages of this article. For those of you nodding your head in agreement to what’s been suggested, a word of caution: I certainly felt knowledgeable about what occurred in the eighties to the American middle class. After all, I had a front row seat. After researching for this paper and delving into the era’s history with critical optics, I unearthed much that was new to me. You “conspiracy theory” advocates will find that some of the shoveled dirt just might float-your-boat. Okay, I feel better now that I’ve given some of you a free pass to this article’s last few pages, and much more comfortable about continuing on with describing the history and causal factors behind Donald Trump’s avid and angry undereducated, white voting bloc.
Fifth … Whoa, amigo … enough with the qualifiers. Do you expect anyone to read this article? If’n you do, you’d best be getting to some substance here. Well, like I said, this a complex … Yeah, yeah … we heard about the onion layers and all that. Get to peeling, writer-san. You are so correct, compadre. I’ve probably covered all the disclaimer ideas. Is the “probably” a rhetorical type idea, amigo, or an exclamation of uncertainty? It’s rhetorical, yes rhetorical. We can definitely move on. I’m holding you to that statement, writer-san. Okay, compadre, this ride and its cars are ready to fly: recheck your seat belt, hands in the air, and let’s roll.
The “Good Ol’ Days”
Historically, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what made America so different from most other countries was its large middle class. This phenomenon was made possible for many reasons: Huge natural resources were abundant. Christian denominations championed hard work. The industrial revolution was in full swing producing plentiful jobs. In my opinion, the most influential factor encouraging the robust middle class our country enjoyed was the many wealthy families in America who believed that a healthy middle class would provide the best workers and most stable citizenry. The Rockefellers, Kennedys, and Fords were several such families who championed the American middle class. Their influence on American business and how it dealt with and perceived its employees cannot be overstated. Our country’s middle class hit its zenith in the twentieth century from about 1950 to roughly 1985. During this time, the term American Dream was synonymous with the middle class and its associated, blue-collar demographic.
The term American Dream, simply put, described a lifestyle which became synonymous with the middle class families of the aforementioned era. Specifically, these families consisted of the breadwinner, usually the father figure who held down a living-wage job. His significant other was the domestic caretaker of the house and their children. That was the basic family dynamics. Once all the children reached school age, the “lady of the house” would, likely, take on an hourly wage job to add extra income to the household. (Wow! What I just wrote is so unimaginable for most Americans in this day and age.) Now, keep in mind that Trump’s present base has fifty-, sixty-, seventy- … year-olds in it who were a part of this cultural phenomenon. Back to our history lesson. On the economic side of the American Dream, the monies earned by the male, household figure, provided immense security to the Family. A living wage back in the fifties through the early eighties provided enough wealth to pay for all the monthlies, a family home, the family cars, family vacations, all the medical bills a growing family would incur, and all the college expenses the children would amass. It also provided discretionary monies, which often allowed for a savings account. Sometimes, but not always, families used second mortgages to help pay for college expenses. Also, Dad’s living wage, via savings and/or investments, would provide an income safety net for the couple’s golden years. By the time most middle-class families retired, they were nearly, if not completely, debt free.
I can imagine the exclamation uttered by the Millennial or Generation Z reader after interpreting the above description of the American Dream. It would go something like, “What the hell has this writer been smoking?”
I can totally understand the disbelief and suspicions one might harbor upon hearing what was just described as the American Dream. So I’ll provide some factual data to, hopefully, dispel any younger generational doubt regarding how the above could actually happen. First, let’s look at actual wages and benefits a high school–educated adult could expect from a union job. I chose the “union job” category because of how these wages tended to buoy all paychecks, particularly during the era of interest which is 1950 through 1980. (Also, later in this article, union jobs, in particular, are noted when discussing how the American Dream was finally sent packing.) Excuse my sidebar … Back to the narrative. In the seventies, a senior International Sawmill Worker, yard laborer, could expect $26 an hour, with time and a half for overtime. Plus, full medical coverage for the family, two to six weeks’ paid vacation, and a pension which he and his employer paid into. Without overtime, this equates to roughly $55,000 a year. During the same time, a senior teamster member could expect almost the exact wage and benefit package as described for the sawmill worker. They received roughly $55,000 a year with benefits. My data comes from personal experience; during the sixties and seventies, I worked with mill workers and teamster members and garnered the above information by conversing with the older employees that I knew.
Wow! We all know individuals who would, presently, give their first born for such wage and benefit packages. Even more remarkable is that the above packages were enjoyed by undereducated individuals, high school graduates and/or drop-outs. Throw into the mix the cost of living differences between then and now, and the economic superiority of the union wages from the seventies as compared to the average wages earned today is astronomical. Let me depict a few examples to fortify what was just said: A new Volkswagen Beetle in 1970 sold for about $2,000. Its counterpart, today, sells for about $30,000. A pair of Levi 501s sold for about $4. Now, you expect to pay about $45. The price tag for a four-year college or university degree, back then, (take a seat, younger generations, and maybe hold onto something stable) was about $10,000. That price includes tuition, room and board, books, and a little weekly spending money. Now, well, sadly, it’s about $100,000. “Holy, jumping bejesus! What the hell happened?” I feel your pain, youngsters. One more example, this one targeted for the forty- to fifty-year-olds. The cost of a custom-built, 2100-square-foot house in 1970 was about $21 a square foot. Now, you’d be lucky to get such a home built for $200 a square foot. Writer-san, I get it. Things were a lot cheaper back then. What’s your point, amigo? Well yes, dear friend, what exactly is my point? You know, compadre, you’re making me get a bit ahead of myself with your inquiry. Yes, yes, my point … okay, my point, simply put, is in the fifties through the eighties, America’s blue-collar middle class, due to good wages and low consumer prices, had a much healthier and more stable lifestyle as compared to present-day conditions. What happened in the last forty years to this demographic’s economic strength should be a national embarrassment, one that is never forgotten nor duplicated. The remainder of this article defines and illustrates this theme, providing crystal clarity regarding how and when middle class America’s economic stability was derailed and train wrecked. Well put, writer-san. Your concise verbiage and noted article direction calmed me down, along with my meditative breathing, and I’m ready for more of your history lesson.
Your interruption, compadre, although, somewhat untimely, provides a nice segue into the next portion of this article’s historical journey. Remember, we’re trying to understand why Trump has such a large, angry, avid base. Well, the undereducated, blue-collar voting bloc that supports Trump so emphatically was thrown under the bus by corporate America, starting back in the early eighties. Many Trumpers, those in or near their seventies, literally had living-wage jobs yanked out from underneath them by corporate America in the eighties, and these good-paying jobs never came back.
Corporate America Brings Out the Hatchets
The circumstances by which this employment theft happened and the consequential story about how the American middle-class workers lost their living-wage jobs is as sad and frustrating as any that I’ve witnessed during my lifetime. It cries out for recognition and reconciliation. To understand what happened, the post-WWII corporate America paradigm must be explained. After the war, the US economy had to transition back to a peacetime business model, one that targeted the American consumer and not war armaments. Production once again focused on appliances, automobiles, electronics, and all the other products the basic consumer and American household required. Factory production revved up and along with its expansion, so did the abundance of jobs. In the process, corporate America chose to develop a regional economy that focused on trade with Canada and Mexico. US businesses also continued trading with our WWII European allies. In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, as the years progressed, wages and benefit packages became better and better. Worker unions in the United States, by bargaining for larger wage and benefit packages, year after year, greatly aided our country’s blue-collar, middle-class economic level and stability.
As the western industrial countries were transitioning from war economies to peaceful economic models, so too were the larger emerging world countries. India and China began developing manufacturing sectors that competed with the West. These economies could produce merchandise for less because of their inexpensive labor force and/or corporate models that relied on government assistance. At some point, prior to 1980, the big corporate players in the United States, behind closed doors, sitting in rooms dimly lit by Tiffany lamps, while sipping brandy and smoking Cuban cigars, made a decision that would forever change the lives of the United States’ middle class. They decided that American corporations needed to join the “world economy” and go head-to-head with those countries that had cheaper labor pools. A new American corporate business philosophy was created: the United States entered the “Global Economy” paradigm. How was this accomplished? American corporations began to outsource jobs to countries with cheaper labor forces and began busting up the labor unions that had helped create the American middle class and its brother, the American Dream. By doing this, they could lower finished product costs by utilizing a less expensive workforce and thus become competitive with the emerging nations.
How could American workers lose the wage packages and incomes that had taken decades to create and maintain? The answer to this is complex. First, and foremost, corporate America had to desire such a change. By choosing the “global economy and marketplace,” they needed cheaper labor costs. Second, US corporate leaders decided that company profits and shareholder dividends were more important than the American workers and their families’ well-being. (How yukky is that, dear readers?) Third, a politically friendly environment was needed for such a business model transition to succeed. Ronald Reagan’s influence during the eighties provided such an arena. I’m not sure how much Reagan truly understood about his presidency. Historians have discussed dementia regarding his tenure, and this might explain how Reagan, the previous president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union that represents the film industry’s employees, would become the initiator and champion of the union-busting movement. But, that’s what he became. By breaking up the air traffic controller union in 1981, he set the stage for a government friendly to union dismantling and everything that followed.
As the eighties progressed, Corporate America revved up offshoring jobs to cheaper labor pools and gave the boot to union workers. Outsourcing jobs became a standard procedure for many industries. Easy peasy … For instance, GE would simply state their refrigeration subdivision couldn’t compete with foreign manufactures because of their high labor costs, and after setting up the needed production plant overseas, they’d shut down their refrigeration facilities in the States, thus causing lost jobs and incomes for all those displaced workers.
Upon reading this article’s description of union busting and jobs being sent abroad, one might question why undereducated blue-collar workers didn’t rebel against corporate America’s disregard for their well-being. Simply put, Big Business did and does a great job of blaming others for its treacherous ways. Corporations didn’t say, “We’re throwing you blue-collar workers under the bus because of your large wage demands.” No, no … Their PR personnel repeatedly stated that huge, government, corporate taxes and cumbersome, costly federal regulations were driving them overseas. Big Business continually said that they had no control over taxation and federal regulations. In the public arena, they figuratively threw their arms into the air, demonstrating their frustrations and inability to protect the American middle-class worker from Uncle Sam, and exclaimed their hands were tied. Big Business adamantly claimed the only option left them by the Democrats and “Big” government was to lower labor costs.
Corporate America has spun its narrative about the need to reduce labor costs, hence, production expenditures, year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation for some fifty years. Like any good propaganda machine, their message is relentless and doesn’t deviate. “Big government and the Democrats destroyed the American middle class and the American Dream with excessive taxation of our country’s businesses and unnecessary corporate regulations.” Every two to four years, during political races, this same mantra is repeated over and over again. In the interim between electoral races, conservative talking heads continue this message ad nauseam. Undereducated white blue-collar workers have totally bought into corporate America’s “blame game.” Democrats have not been able to effectively rebut Big Business’s blame-shifting propaganda, and consequently, the ruse continues.
I stated earlier how the unions were attacked, weakened, and/or busted to help businesses lower production costs. One could ask, “Was it really that big of a deal to dismantle the union labor system? How much did it really hurt the American middle-class worker and the American dream?” These questions are worthy inquiries, and should be addressed. A few good statistics and examples will do just that. Let’s start with some general union membership data. In 1960, there were approximately 184 different unions in America with a participation of roughly 18 million laborers. One in four American laborers, at this time, were unionized. By 1980 this proportion would reach one in three American workers being union members. This next point is relevant when comparing 2020 union statistics to those from 1960. In 1960, our fair land’s population was roughly 180 million people. Now back to union membership facts. In 2020, there were only 78 unions left in America and the membership numbers had dropped to 14 million. Obviously, a lot of union busting has occurred since 1980. If you consider that our country’s population is now roughly 330 million people, you’d expect a whole lot more union workers, but when taking note of how few unions survived the corporate purging, the lesser union membership is understandable. Now, approximately one in ten American workers belong to unions. Another statistical fact puts an interesting twist to the union stats that I’ve just portrayed. In 1960, the lion’s share of union membership belonged to the private sector: millwrights, sawmill workers, truck drivers, meat-packing employees, shipyard workers, longshoremen, electricians, carpenters … Union membership today is mostly found within the public sector: this group consists of teachers, municipal employees, first responders, such as firefighters and police officers, government workers … When one considers this shift, it becomes apparent how few undereducated laborers are in unions.
Before I roll out some specific vocational, union membership facts such as wages, then and now, I’d like to share some pertinent facts about immigration laws, which in my opinion helped aid in the dismantling of America’s unions. You conspiracy theory advocates may appreciate this information. Also, this information is relevant to our article’s theme, which focuses on the “who, what, and why of Trump’s base.” During Trump’s presidency, it became apparent that many of his supporters were biased and prejudiced against the BIPOC community. The next couple paragraphs will shed some light on these biases.
One of the most effective union-busting methods was to completely shut down a plant or factory for a period of time, and then reopen by hiring nonunion employees at a much reduced wage. It worked time after time. To succeed, this technique requires a willing, unemployed labor group to step up and accept those lower-paying jobs. The US corporate model always kept about 4 to 5% of the country’s workforce in the unemployed category. Such a phenomenon was very helpful for agricultural harvesting and other seasonal production. This group of laborers, during the union-busting era, partly became the employees who replaced those workers jilted by corporate America. The perennial unemployed, however, were only a portion of those needed for rehiring. The other groups of workers were provided by the national immigration acts of 1980 and 1986. The Refugee Act passed by Congress allowed about one million Asians to legally immigrate into the United States. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 presented about three million illegal, Hispanic, US residents a legit path to American citizenship. Some data suggests that the relevant number of Hispanics affected by this act was closer to five million individuals. These two demographics added a large group of laborers to the American workforce. The Hispanic population had already been utilized by corporate America, especially in agriculture, but now with their legitimization, these laborers felt comfortable in branching out into other jobs and vocations. One thing both ethnicities held in common was the value of work and an appreciation for weekly paychecks. These two groups helped break the unions by becoming part of the new labor force hired by closed plants and factories. (The Hormel meat packing plant strike of 1985 and 1986 demonstrates this phenomenon completely, and I’ll briefly touch upon this episode later in the article.) The Asian immigrants and newly legitimized Hispanic workers were eager for regular employment and willing to accept the reduced wages offered them by reopening previously unionized factories and plants. Voilà, there you have it: the formula by which union membership and their high wages could be dismantled. All the equation needed for success was a ready workforce willing to replace fired union members, a group receptive to reduced wages. The perennial US unemployed workers with the addition of Asian immigrants and the recently legitimized Hispanic workforce offered just such a labor unit.
I mentioned earlier that the next two paragraphs would shed light upon the prejudice of Trump’s base toward Asians and Hispanics. Well, there you be. The above provides an obvious narrative as to why the undereducated American laborer harbors anger toward these ethnicities. Is this anger really justified? I don’t think so, but again, this article is not about right or wrong, it’s about understanding where Trump’s base “comes from.” The older people who advocate for Trump lived through the union-busting era. They lost good-paying jobs and watched people of color take their place and work for reduced wages. This fact, among others, created the animosity we now see from them regarding people of color. They passed on their experiences and anger to their children and grandchildren, creating a multigenerational demographic with similar biases and attitudes. We must also remember the far right’s continual mantra proffered on a daily basis by conservative talking heads, journalists, and politicians that blame all the problems faced by undereducated Americans upon the “left,” big government, and people of color. This particular voting bloc, the undereducated blue-collar worker who favors Trump, has been bullied and lied to for forty to fifty years. It’s not hard to realize how deeply their biases and prejudices are entrenched.
How severely damaged was the white middle class by union busting? It was significant. Today’s undereducated families attempting to reach the American Dream have both adults working, and even with both partners employed, they are up to their ears in debt. Many families can’t allow for retirement because of this enormous debt. Let me describe a few examples of the “before and after” union wages in regard to several specific vocations to help illuminate just how much was lost to the undereducated white laborers. You’ll recall from a previous paragraph the senior yard laborer sawmill worker’s wage and benefit package. They received $26 an hour with medical completely paid for by their employer and a retirement pension paid into by both parties, employee and employer. In 2020, these same yard laborers can expect a top wage of $20 an hour, shared costs for medical, and a retirement package comprised of a 401k account paid into, again, by both parties. The sawmill worker has slipped backwards, significantly in both their wage and benefit packages. My previous example portraying a teamster, long haul, tractor trailer driver and their wage and benefit package showed a senior driver averaging about $55,000, or $30 an hour. In 2020 after corporate attacks and manipulation of this union, a senior teamster driver can expect $22 an hour and a greatly weakened benefits package. Again, this vocation, like the sawmill worker, has lost significant ground when comparing wage and benefit packages from the seventies to today’s present packages.
Present-day workers in the above noted vocations have lost considerable buying power because of their reduced wages. It is abhorrent to me that such a situation exists: literally, workers today in many vocations, those not serviced by “minimum wage,” are being paid less than their counterparts of forty to fifty years ago. This is unconscionable, and when you consider the “cost of living” now as compared to then, you really begin to understand the inexcusable nature of this phenomenon. All of this backsliding occurred because corporate America changed its marketing and “bottom line” philosophies in the seventies and eighties: First, American business decided to join the global economy, which required it to reduce costs. They chose to achieve this by reducing labor costs. Second, a new business modus operandi was discussed and accepted by corporate boards. This new working order stated that business operations functioned solely for corporate and shareholder profits. One can’t forget the “hands off big business” approach fostered by the Reagan administration when determining how and when the backsliding occurred. Without this political “look the other way” environment, corporate America could never have pulled off its “hatchet job” of the middle class. Because of these three concepts, a perfect storm was created that threw the undereducated American worker under the bus.
Amigo, compadre, am I sensing an article closure drawing near? Please answer with an affirmative. My concentration abilities are waning, along with my at-hand nutrients. Well, yes and no. Not the answer I wished to hear, writer-san. A simple “yes” would have been perfect. There is more to be discussed, dear friend. My outline shows another historical example to be noted, a quick look at affirmative action and other sundries, a conclusion to the history section of this article, then a section devoted to how we can help Trump’s white undereducated voting base turn their lives around and begin creating a meaningful life for themselves, one that will allow them to once again believe in democracy. Okay, writer-san. I see that a break is required by myself in order to finish this marathon. Of course, dear friend. Get up and stretch. Take the dog for a walk, replenish your supplies. This article will await your return. Gracias, amigo. I’ll return in a moment, ready to hear more about Trump’s base and how to steer them toward a more centered, less angry path.
I’d like to offer up one more example of union busting before we transition into the reconciliatory portion of this article. This one perfectly illustrates all that has been discussed regarding union busting. A quick sidebar, please. When I decided to write this article, I felt knowledgeable about how the American Dream was undone. After all, I had witnessed, firsthand, its destruction. Of course, over time, one’s memory can rearrange details into an inaccurate representation of the past, and this piece, in particular, since it covers a period from roughly 1970 to the present, could certainly have been fraught with such misrepresentation. I solidified the accuracy of this writing by researching most all of the article’s significant pieces and/or any part which I felt uncertain about. In doing so, I discovered many facts and details which caused “Oh, yeah?” type moments.
Reading about the Hormel meatpacker’s strike of 1985 through 1986 was one of those “oh yeah?” moments. This strike, as I mentioned, perfectly depicts what my article has discussed. After reading about this tragic and ruthless corporate maneuver, I felt like simultaneously, crying and hitting something. How any human entity, such as a business, could knowingly force their fellow countrymen to endure such pain, anger, frustration, and humiliation, all for the sake of corporate profits, is totally beyond my comprehension. Here’s a synopsis of the Hormel strike. Wages had stagnated for Hormel meatpackers for nearly a decade. When contract negotiations reopened, the union asked for a raise and management offered a cut in hourly wage. Other factors played into the negotiations, such as working conditions, but the bottom line was management offered a reduced wage package. Due to an impasse in negotiations, the plant was shut down and when it reopened, management offered returning workers reduced wages. During the negotiation period, the small town of Austin, Minnesota, was engulfed and embattled by the antagonistic arbitration proceedings. As the negotiations continued, neighborhoods became fractured mini-battlegrounds because of the various stances individual families adopted toward the negotiation process. The town witnessed strikers being beaten by police, the National Guard called in to restore order, curfews, and at times, ruthless chaos. When all was said and done, about 500 of the Hormel plant strikers returned to work for less money. They were joined by about the same number of Hispanic immigrants. This total number of employees allowed the plant to reopen. Austin, Minnesota, changed drastically because of the unsuccessful strike. In 1985, the plant workers and the town of Austin was comprised, mostly, of white, undereducated, blue-collar workers. Now, in 2020, the demographics of Austin and its plant workers have completely changed. People of color hold the lion’s share of the plant jobs, and the town’s homes are mostly occupied by the same ethnic groups. In finalizing the “Hormel story,” I’d like to offer a note about wages and employee demographics regarding the meatpacking industry. In 1980, the average wage garnered by meatpackers was $13.50 and the employee ranks were nearly 100 percent white. In 2018, the average wage was $13.76 and most of the vocation’s employees were people of color. I guess one could say, “At least the wages haven’t gone backwards.” Even with that slight positive notation, the overall reality of the average meat processer’s wage is abysmal. If you factor in how forty years’ worth of inflation has weakened this wage, you begin to see how dreadfully dire the average meatpacker’s economic reality is.
Trump’s backers know of these 1980s radical plant closures, and subsequent rehired workers, which going forward, labored within weaker unions if in unions at all. They also know about the reduced wages such activities always produced, and that often people of color replaced some of the previous white workers. Their continued misplaced anger toward the Democrats and the BIPOC communities can be explained because of the relentless far-right, conservative dialogue that squarely places the blame on the “left” and their allies for the undereducated white middle-class worker’s misfortunes.
Executive Orders from the Sixties Set the Table
Does losing living-wage jobs and the American Dream completely explain Trump’s conservative, irate, undereducated following? For many people this act by itself would, certainly, have been enough, especially with all the finger wagging toward the villainous Democrats. But, there’s another chapter to the story that precedes, chronologically, the one I just discussed, and needs to be fully illuminated before the complete narrative can be understood. This history lesson begins in the sixties and is a direct result of the civil rights actions of that decade. Much of America watched the civil rights movement of the late sixties and seventies with a certain amount of trepidation. To some white Americans, it meant that Black Americans would soon be competing for their favored jobs. This competition was not welcomed. The fear of job losses was further exacerbated by Affirmative Action executive orders signed in 1965 and 1967. These executive orders were meant to give muscle to the Civil Rights acts that had just been legislated. The 1965 executive order required all federal departments and agencies and companies employed by the federal government to have the BIPOC demographic gainfully employed within their ranks in a proportionally appropriate manner. The 1967 executive order introduced gender into the equation, stating that women needed to be properly represented within these realms, also. The far right immediately attacked these executive orders as being un-American because they gave advantage to one group over another. (Yes, you heard me. OMG! Does one smell hypocrisy in the air?) The unflinching racists simply said these orders were anti-white and totally unacceptable. For decades now, conservative talking heads and writers have been debasing these executive orders as being undemocratic and examples of how Dems have systematically been dismantling the white American middle class. Throw into the mix the 1972 legislation that created Title IX (in academia, women’s sports must have the same prominence as men’s sports,) and the undereducated middle class perceived an avalanche of democratic, executive laws and congressional legislation designed to dislodge their economic stability and their predominant position in the middle-income job market. Title IX was mostly an “insult to injury” type irritant to Trump’s ancestral base. It didn’t drastically hurt their economic position like the 1965 and 1967 executive orders did, but remember, in this era, men were the family breadwinners, and any advantage given to women was considered threatening to their economic stability. One can’t dismiss the predominant sexist/chauvinistic beliefs held by many men of this period as another reason for their disdain of Title IX. One more development from this era needs to be mentioned: Pell Grants came into existence. These monies were considered to be biased and un-American by the right because they favored the lower classes and in particular, the BIPOC demographics. The US government created Pell Grants in 1965. These grants were designed to help people with limited monetary resources gain access to college degrees. In theory, Pell Grants were available to any low-income person, but in practice, when first introduced, they mostly went to the BIPOC demographic. Once again, the conservative talking heads and writers called foul, and the undereducated white laborers were a ready audience for such dialogue.
All of the above, Affirmative Action, the Executive Order of 1967, Pell Grants, and Title IX were perceived by Trump’s ancestral base as threatening, and they had a decade and a half to fume about them before the eighties arrived, bringing with it an era of union busting. How much could one demographic take before they became uncontrollably angry toward their perceived tormentors (the Dems) and irrational in their behaviors and beliefs? I think those of us who’ve lived through these times have witnessed the answer to this quest
There you be … the “who, what, and why” of Trump’s base laid out in a somewhat logical fashion. I enjoyed coining the term “Trump’s ancestral base” because his base is all about past perceived attacks upon the undereducated white middle class, as well as numerous less significant irritants, one after another, piling up and creating a road block, causing their historical caravan to detour into less stable economic conditions. The phrase “less stable economic conditions” doesn’t adequately describe the severity of this demographic’s loss. They had their legs cut out from underneath them by corporate America and for the most part, an ignorant, irresponsible American government. This voting bloc’s buying power, today, is a minuscule fraction of what it once was, and basically, just allows them to pay their monthlies and not much more. The American Dream, with its adornments of owning your own home, economic stability, affordable college degrees, and retiring with a comfortable income and most importantly, debt free, is simply a myth to most undereducated blue-collar workers. Those living-wage jobs this demographic once held, allowing for such economic security, are long gone. Those that still chase the American Dream do so by incurring huge amounts of debt. The conservative older voters, and their children and grandchildren, know about the losses the white, blue collar worker has endured during the last half century. Granddad and grandma have passed down the story of their personal losses and their entire demographic’s losses via oral history. They’ve mentioned immigration acts that flooded America with workers willing to toil for less. They’ve shared stories about union busting and horrendous strikes that tore their community apart. They’ve talked about executive orders and legislation that favored the BIPOC demographics over the white undereducated population. Because of these shared memories, and politicians who ransom the return of living-wage jobs and the American Dream for votes, we now have an angry and confused uneducated voting bloc. Generation after generation of conservative, white, lower-middle-class and lower-class voters who at one time made up a large white middle class have been frustrated and angered by their economic position and lack of improvement. Like that snowball, rolling down the mountain’s slope, picking up volume as it goes, transforming into an avalanche as it crashes toward the valley floor, so has Trump’s undereducated white base’s anger grown. Year after year, decade after decade with the aid of conservative talking heads and writers continually agitating the waters, this group’s anger has snowballed until now we see their rage expressed toward the left and those who favor it.
Back into the Light of Day
When I began writing the rough draft of this article, I had no satisfying ending in place. The compiling of information required to fortify my original thoughts and in some cases, delete previous perceptions, helped construct a positive end game. And, after discussions with my wife and friends and more contemplation, I feel confident that the suggestions I’ll offer you, now, are worthy of your consideration.
Creating better-paying jobs in America will take time. Some of my suggestions would help workers, especially young workers, get better wages right after high school. There’s nothing better for an ailing demographic’s pride and hope than seeing their children and grandchildren receiving preferential treatment from the “powers that be.” This factor could cause some Trump supporters to immediately leave the fold. Others of my suggestions will require time before they will bear fruit, especially those thoughts directed toward corporations and big business. In any scenario, it will take decades for a viable blue-collar middle class to once again “hold court” in our fair land. The following suggestions, I believe, will greatly aid in the resurgence and reestablishment of a strong middle class and the American Dream.
First: The present corporate American paradigm, “Business and shareholders’ profits come first. Damn the guardrails, full speed ahead, and anyone in our way, look out,” has to change. There must be a corporate philosophical transition from what exists presently to a worker-friendly, family-friendly, and community-friendly business paradigm. If this does not occur, there will be no resurging, strong, American middle class. How can such an entrenched business model be replaced? Well, first, from every American household’s rooftop, a mantra stating the above theme, “worker, family, community first,” needs to be shouted out, loud and clear. Second, those politicians who refuse to accept this worker-oriented position need to be voted out of office, and those corporations that disagree with such a stance need to be boycotted. Of course this corporate dogma transition is easier said than done, but it’s time to get a-going. With the American working class insisting upon such a transition, it’s totally possible.
I believe a new worker-friendly nation is a distinct possibility. My enthusiasm is buoyed further by the latest generation of corporate leaders. Let me explain. When the Rockefeller, Ford, and Kennedy families’ political and corporate influences waned, a corporate power vacuum of sorts developed for a brief moment. It was quickly filled by more aggressive, profit-oriented entrepreneurs like Warren Buffett, who were mostly concerned with company bottom lines and not so much the workers who allowed for that. This transition was not beneficial for American middle-class workers, but more recently, we’ve seen new, wealthy capitalists come into their own. This group includes players like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. They, I believe, are much more open to reviving the American middle class.
Second: While we’re viewing corporate America’s possible contribution to the resurrection of middle-class America, let’s look at another arena within which their influence could be helpful. It’s time, actually way past time, for US businesses to stop treating third world countries in the Americas and their citizenry as lesser entities, only to be used as cheap labor and as a marginal marketplace for American goods. This racist reality is an embarrassment, totally dysfunctional, and honestly, hampers the success of our national business interest. More on that in a moment. What needs to happen in these emerging, third world countries is American corporate investments. These monies should target avenues that bolster the working-class wages. The ultimate goal would be the creation of a viable middle class in all these countries. A middle class with buying power. I mentioned above, “more on that later.” Well, there it is. We need a healthy middle class in our southern, neighboring countries with the discretionary money provided by such a socioeconomic level. Their buying power would strengthen our own export economy, allowing for more jobs in America, and if done properly, allowing for more jobs with better pay. I’m not an economic theorist or strategist, and I’m sure the naysayers within these groups, after reading my comments, would be shouting, “Impossible! Can’t be done. Never will be done.” To their remarks, I’d respond with this: our present economic ties with our southern neighbors appear to be half-baked, business models at best, which slightly help us and do very little for the participating emerging countries. It’s time for American businesses to move away from this inefficient, one-sided arrangement, and begin to help develop a middle class in our southern neighbors.
Third: A quick fix for many blue-collar laborers would require big business to take a portion of their annual profit and shift it into increased wages for their employees. This is totally possible because of the huge amounts of “black ink” our businesses’ accumulate annually. Here are some, recent, industry corporate profits as derived from government statistics. These figures come from 2018 and 2019 records: Oil industries, $11.8 billion. Airlines, $26.4 billion. Automotive (worldwide) $94.05 billion. Agriculture, $83 billion … It’s time that a portion of these profits are turned back into the companies as increased wages. All of these businesses will talk about how expensive research, development, and marketing are until the cows come home to milk. Bottom line, most of these businesses have been keeping the stock market very active over the last few years by buying back their own stocks and in general, playing the market extensively. Corporate America needs to stop stuffing their portfolios with “good buys” and begin reinvesting in America’s blue collar, working class by creating better wage scales and benefit packages. They need to create that economically stable, middle class the Kennedys, Rockefellers, and Ford families of the early twentieth century realized was best for a strong, healthy, and viable America.
Fourth: I believe another business goal needs to be created in our country, one that focuses on the production of high-end, quality products, much like the system West Germany developed after WWII. Up until roughly 1980, West Germany focused on creating products of superior quality and marketing them to upper middle class and upper class buyers. West German merchandise like automobiles, optics, flatware, cutlery, audio/stereo equipment, furniture … were world renowned for craftsmanship, dependability, and durability. German companies charged consumers a hefty price for their superior commodities and consequently could pay their workers good wages. Interestingly and totally understandably, unemployment in West Germany at this time was roughly one percent. This was much lower than their other Western world counterparts. After German reunification, the unified German corporate paradigm changed somewhat, and it now mirrors more closely the US business model.
The United States’ corporate world should remember the success Western Germany achieved with its post-WWII economy and duplicate it. They should ramp up the production of high-end products and best their competitor’s similar commodities. “American made” should be synonymous with the world’s best high-end, well-made, durable, and dependable products. This philosophy would allow for increased profits and if addressed properly, would allow for better wages paid to American laborers.
Fifth: Our country’s secondary education system needs to discard its singularly formatted, college-bound curriculum and develop a two-pronged instructional approach that offers both college-bound classes and a strong technology curriculum. This approach would provide students who are not interested in higher education, upon completion of high school, a jump start toward living-wage employment. With our existing education model, those students who don’t go on to college end up in retail and service industry jobs. These kids work for minimum wages and become the first to be laid off and the last to be rehired in unstable economic times. Our young people deserve much more than this. Selling burgers to each other is a dead-end, fruitless lifestyle.
I’m presently enrolled in a welding class at a small, coastal high school. Because of this school’s partnership with a local community college, its students have access to a large array of technology classes. They have at their disposal an automotive shop, a welding shop, and a “Three D” fabrication table, as well as available trade classes like carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. Also, small engine–repair classes and basic woodworking classes, like cabinet production, are taught. All American high schools should have access to these classes, and the vocational courses I’m suggesting should not simply be electives. They should be required programs. Each student, upon graduation, should have taken a wide variety of vocational classes and/or bundled several courses into a discipline and completed that course of studies.
Sixth: Education, education, education! The quickest way to help our undereducated labor force is education. High school vocational training should start the process. The process should culminate at the community college level. To make this transition possible for all Americans, community college should be free. National, state, and municipal governments should all help pay the bill. Corporations and wealthy financiers should also pony up revenues for this endeavor. After all, this host of financial backers will benefit greatly from a well-educated American blue-collar workforce. Upon completion of a vocational course of studies, the graduated community college student should have in hand credentials accepted by all corporations and small businesses. He or she should be allowed to jump into a job with good wages and benefit packages immediately upon graduation
My treatise describing how the American Dream was lost, and how this action helped create Donald Trump’s avid and irrational voting base, is nearing its end, dear reader. Before completing my rambling, let me state one more qualifier. Oh no, amigo! You’re not thinking properly. Please consider the mental state of those readers who are still with you. Compadre, dear friend, this one last qualifier must be shared. Bear with me. The American Dream from the fifties through the eighties that has been described herein, in all likelihood, will never again be duplicated. So much has changed in the last fifty years. For example: most young couples with children today would not feel comfortable in the Leave it to Beaver, Ward and June Cleaver household of that early era. Women today, wish to be, and rightly so, equal players in household dynamics and economics, and would never feel comfortable in June Cleaver’s role. Unfortunately, what I’m seeing, and we’re witnessing this as I write, are households that have two wage workers pooling their money, and in so doing, are still, barely making it. Our country’s hourly workers need better entrance level wages and in general, just plain better wage opportunities. This must improve. Like I said, we, as a nation, cannot be satisfied with many of our workers selling burgers back and forth to each other. This is an abysmal waste of innate intelligence and talent.
For all you dear readers who have completed this marathon with me, I wish to extend my sincerest words of thanks. If I could, I’d give each of you a hug and a much deserved participation award. Knowing where Trump’s base has journeyed is the only way we can truly understand them. With this knowledge, we should be able to help them live a better life, one without feelings of betrayal and illogical anger. In my opinion, if we do not amend and fix this demographic’s lifestyle, the unified, inclusive, democratic America that I believe in will never exist.
I mentioned earlier that this article was not about the BIPOC demographic and truly, it was not, but there are many members of the BIPOC community who dwell within the lower middle class and/or lower class stratum that much of this article described. They too must be part of the middle class’s resurgence. We must all be observant and vigilant, making sure that no ethnicity is left behind as the American middle class and the American Dream are reborn.
Amigo, you’ve outdone yourself. I had to take numerous breaks to make it to the finish line. Do you think anyone else survived your marathon? I’m not sure, compadre. Honestly, I barely did. Maybe the email responses and the like will give us some perspective as to how many readers crossed the finish line. Hey writer-san, I heard as you wrapped things up that marching band thing, again. Did you hear it, too? No, dear friend. Once again, I heard “Imagine,” my go-to melody. Where to next, writer-san? I can only speculate. Ah, I see, amigo. This statement allows for much wiggle room, doesn’t it? Ha, ha, ha … yes it does. I’m not getting much past you, compadre, am I? No, amigo, your actions have trained me to always take notice of even the simplest passage of words. Well, I’ve been thinking about the BLM movement and where it’s going. My friends and I have continued our weekly rallies at Highway 101 and Laneda Avenue. Participation numbers have dwindled, but the overall response by passersby has continued to be positive and reinforcing. I’m wondering if our little group’s loss of participants mirrors the national narrative; also, I’m thinking about writing several articles with particular Oregon themes. If this is the case, I’d like to apologize now to my reading audience that does not dwell within Oregon’s borders. Although, sometimes regional situations can have much broader, analogous extensions. Hopefully, this will be the case with my Oregon pieces. Amigo, we’re all a little weary at this point, and you’re rambling. Time to wrap ’er up, writer-san. Well, I didn’t want to leave you, compadre, with a vague … Wrap ’er up, amigo. Andale … Certainly, dear friend, certainly. Once again, dear readers, thanks for your companionship on my writing journey. Be safe, stay healthy, hope for the best, and accept nothing less …