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What is the Working Class?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “working class” is used in a wide variety of ways, some of which are controversial. Some people view the term as a pejorative insult, for example, while others adopt is as a symbol of personal pride. The precise definitions of the term tend to be a bit nebulous, thanks to shifting ideas about labor, politics, and socioeconomic class.

Essentially, members of the working class work in unskilled or semiskilled professions for wages that are typically low. Typically, the work environments are distinguished by very rigid schedules with penalties for workers who run late or slack on the job, and they are often organized in a very hierarchical way, with a clear delineation between workers, managers, and employers. The term also includes dependent family members of someone working in such an industry.

Some examples of traditional working class jobs include factory work and basic agricultural work. In both of these industries, people receive basic and simple training for their jobs, although in some cases they may have addition qualifications, and the labor is often very physical, repetitive, and grueling. Many people associate things like heavy, functional clothing with people in this class, leading to the slang term “blue collar,” in a reference to shirts worn by factory workers to conceal grease stains.

Some people consider all members of the working class to be part of the proletariat, a socioeconomic class defined by Karl Marx. According to Marx, the proletariat consisted of individuals who sold their labor power in exchange for wages without ownership or control of the means of production. Others reject this definition.

Some people associate this class with decreased access to education and a general lack of learning and refinement. Others with a more prideful attitude about the working class might use members of this class to illustrate a society's core members, suggesting that without the hard work of laborers, society would collapse. Discussions of social mobility often include this class as well, with people arguing that in the best of societies, people can start out as laborers and end up as factory owners.

Many people associate the labor movement with the working class, perhaps because these ordinary people were among the first to agitate for labor rights and increased worker protections. People who are interested in labor politics may choose to spend time among this class so that they can understand the complex issues involved.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon161314 — On Mar 19, 2011

I disagree with some of you. Labor unions are not inflationary. Hedge fund managers are inflationary. Lifelong employees don't deserve pensions? That's ridiculous. I suppose that none of your spouses deserve any inheritance, either. I mean, they are only a lifelong partner right?

Moldova wrote about stagehands in New York City. Prevarication, pure and simple. I have a very good friend who is a union stagehand. In fact, he's a Lead Man (slightly higher pay), and his wife has to work full time. Their home is only worth about $400,000 in Massapequa, NY. Oh, and he has no family members in the trade

I am a proud member of the IBEW Local Union no. 3 in NYC. Our dues are $398.00 a year. That's just a bit over $1.09 a day. Not hundreds of dollars per month. I sense a lot of propaganda going on here, and not many facts from all of you.

Did you know that the average construction worker has a seven times greater chance of being killed on the job than the police and fire departments, combined?

Electricians are amongst the highest paid in the construction trade. In NYC we earn $49.00 per hour (as of 2011), with health and dental benefits, 401K, and pension. However, this isn't typical. In the Broward County area of Florida, they earn about $22 an hour with no 401k. In Miami, it's a dollar more.

Nobody in the labor sector is getting rich (except maybe the employers; mine comes to the job site in a chauffeur driven limo. No lie), so the next you're complaining about the unions, go live in your back yard with no electricity, running water, blankets, clothes, all the things that you cannot create from you natural surroundings, then tell me how good your life is without labor. Oh, and you don't have a job, because there's no building, desk, computer, electric etc.

Labor is the driving force of the world economy, no matter what. Without labor all other positions would be eliminated. So next time you get that pay check, remember labor built the printer that printed that check, and the paper mill that produced the paper, that built the bank, and printed the money that you're so greedy to keep for yourselves. Like it or not we're here, and we just want to earn a decent living.

By Moldova — On Jan 15, 2011

Comfyshoes-I agree with you. I think that unions destroy every sector of the American economy. They really have destroyed the American public school system because you have bad teachers that cannot be fired in most states because they are protected by the unions.

These unions are bankrupting our country as well as creating a sense of entitlement among the working class in America that is not healthy.

For example, in Local One, a union in New York City in which people are only offered membership if they have had family members affiliated with the union previously earn an average yearly salary of $242,000 a year as stage hands. The highest paid workers earned over $400,000 a year to essential work as a stage hand in musical productions.

This is outrageous that a stage hand earns what a highly qualified doctor does. This is best example to show how out of control these unions are. While being a stage hand is considered a working class profession, clearly the wages for this position certainly do not.

If we did not have unions and the market dictated what a person would earn, this would never have happened as the wages would be more in line with the aggregate demand as it should be.

By comfyshoes — On Jan 14, 2011

Sunshine31-I know that companies try to contain the spread of unions by offering higher wages so that the working class employees would decide against joining a union.

This is a smart strategy because unions require their members to pay dues that can be a couple of hundred dollars per month which is a lot of money for a future promise of job security and higher wages, when a company is offering you higher wages without the added dues.

I know that the working class here finds the unions attractive but in some states like Florida the unions have no power so it is really a waste of money.

For example, the teachers union in Florida require the teachers that participate to pay several hundred dollars a month in order to be associated with the union. However, even though the union argued for an increase in wages, the state declined because of budgetary constraints.

In fact, many teachers were laid off because the state budgets needed to be cut. So clearly the union was powerless in Florida which makes joining an organization like this pointless.

By sunshine31 — On Jan 14, 2011

Many of these companies are having to pay out pensions to workers that are no longer producing. For example, General Motors had to pay out $5 billion dollars in pension benefits which puts it fleet of cars at a severe disadvantage because some of its competitors do not have this problem and can be more competitive.

Also, competing firms can offer more aerodynamic cars and innovative designs as well as provide additional jobs for American workers. Because of the increasing demands of the unions in the past, many of these union contracts are becoming smaller and smaller because companies cannot compete.

By cafe41 — On Jan 13, 2011

Anon110906-I respectfully disagree with your assertion that the writer does not distinguish between the working class and the owners of production.

The article is written in a concise manner that really illustrates what the concept of working class actually refers to and does not group Warren Buffet among them.

The working class in America are the blue collar workers and are very closely related to union jobs or jobs with a high degree of structure. The American working class participates in a union as a measure to ensure future wage increases and job security.

While this may have been the intent of the unions in theory the actual results are disastrous for American companies.

By anon110906 — On Sep 13, 2010

The definition you have given for working class is not correct. According to your definition, Warren Buffet and a worker in his firm- both are working class. So it is not correct. A person can be called as belonging to working class on three conditions.

01. A person should not possess a production instrument (which are popularly known as factories, other instruments used for production)

02. He should produce for the owner of production instruments- not for himself. It means the entire production should belong to owner of production instruments.

02. He should live only on selling his labor to the owner of production instruments and receive the money in the form of monthly wages or daily wages to sustain he and his family.

If these three conditions are fulfilled, that working person is called worker, the class to which he belongs is called working class.

The person who owns production instruments, who engage the workers to work on production instruments for production and who enjoys all the results of production are called bourgeois. So don't confuse the readers by giving misleading meanings.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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