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Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class: Beyond the Degradation of Labor

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The fortieth anniversary of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital is the occasion here for a reassessment of his work as a whole. Braverman’s analysis of the degradation of work is shown to have been only a part of a much larger argument he was developing on the structure of the U.S. working class. Building on his pioneering empirical research into occupational composition, a new empirical assessment of the structural evolution of the U.S. working class over the last four decades is provided, throwing light on current problems of unemployment, underemployment, and socially wasted labor—and the rights of labor.

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  1. See the Statistical Appendix for a listing of the specific occupations composing each category. It is worth noting that the sample used to calculate median wages is restricted to those counted as officially employed. Similarly, the sample used to calculate unemployment figures is restricted to the official labor force. Given the large number of labor force dropouts in recent decades the unemployment figures for 2000 and 2011 must be taken as a conservative approximation, since the official definition of the labor force artificially lowers unemployment rates. This is also the case with median wages, which are inflated to some extent by high unemployment and significant numbers of labor force dropouts in low-wage occupations.

  2. Median wages for these workers declined from $52,454 in 1970 to $35,088 in 2011.

  3. For these occupations median wages declined steadily from $23,643 in 1960 to $18,576 in 2011, while unemployment stood at 7.4 percent in 2011.

  4. Unemployment has always been high among agricultural workers, averaging 13.4 percent from 1980–2000. However, by 2011 the unemployment rate had jumped to 18.2 percent. Meanwhile, median wages have been flat since 1970, averaging $12,514 for the entire period.

  5. This is evidenced by the fact that the most significant growth within this group occurred among “Gardeners and groundskeepers,” whose numbers increased from 192 thousand in 1960 to 1.5 million in 2011. Another important aspect of this group is that workers in the occupation, “Farm workers,” decreased from around 1.5 million in 1960 to 800 thousand in 1990, but then started to increase again, growing to 1 million by 2011. This is suggestive of an important change in the nature of farm work, and it is subtle changes like these that most likely account for the unusually high percentages in 1970 and 1980. In other words, in our data these two decades most likely include a substantial number of workers in the growing worker occupations that were 36 still in a period of transition, but pinpointing the gradations of this transformation would be impossible to capture with any degree of accuracy using extant Census occupational data.

  6. Median wages for this group of sales workers peaked in 1970 at $45,706; they have since declined continuously, sitting at $30,134 in 2011.

  7. This occupation is not very large in absolute terms but it has grown rapidly, from 54 thousand in 1990 to 439 thousand in little more than two decades. Meanwhile, median wages declined precipitously, standing at a mere $10,320 in 2011—less half the median wage level of 1960 and 1970. Unemployment has also remained persistently high since 1980, averaging over 11 percent.

  8. See for a list of higher-level occupational categories.

  9. Note that wage figures (cited in the text) are for the previous calendar year. Conversion factors are taken from Sahr (2013).

  10. This last occupational group had to be modified using the OCC variable (which changes each year) because the OCC1990 occupation, “Supervisors and proprietors of sales jobs” (code 243), was inadequate. First, the occupation includes managers for 1960 (OCC code 254, “Floor men and floor managers, store”); second, the label, “Supervisors and proprietors of sales jobs” (used in 1980 and 1990) suggests that owners of sales establishments or franchises are included. This problem was clarified somewhat when the occupation was split into two for the 2000 Census: “First-Line Supervisors of Retail Sales Workers” (OCC code 470 [2000] and 4700 [2011]) and “First-Line Supervisors of Non-Retail Sales” (OCC code 471 [2000] and 4710 [2011]). In the 2000 and 2011 samples, median wages are significantly higher (nearly double) for supervisory workers in non-retail sales occupations. However, excluding the supervisory workers in non-retail sales is not an option because the category does not exist in 1980 or 1990 (there were no observations in 1970). To construct a consistent occupational grouping we used the following procedure: first, cases for 1960 were dropped; then, for the remaining years, the IND1990 variable was used to restrict observations to the Retail or Wholesale Trade Industries (codes 500 to 691). This proved effective in removing the highest income earners from the OCC1990 category, as the examples below demonstrate.

  11. Unfortunately, even some CPS variables were not available for all years, so the totals for 1960 and 1970 for Marginally Attached, and 1960 for Non-working Poor, had to be estimated based on the trend of previous years. Consequently, the estimates for these years must be approached with caution.

  12. Variable EMPSTAT (codes 20, 21, or 22).

  13. Variables: LABFORCE; and POVERTY (codes 10 or 21).

  14. Variables: POVERTY (codes 10 or 21); and AGE.

  15. Variable WANTJOB (codes 2 or 3).

  16. Variable WHYPTLWK (codes 10, 60, or 80).

  17. Variable IND: 1971-1982: code 737, “Employment and temporary help services”; 1983-2002: code 731, “Personnel supply services”; 2003-2013: code 7580, “Employment services.”

  18. It is worth noting that returning students may be significantly underestimated, even apart from the fact that some returning students may have been counted in previous layers. This is because it was only possible to use the “Activity when not in labor force last year (part-year workers)” variable (ACTNLFLY code 30), rather than the much more appropriate, “School or college attendance” variable (SCHLCOLL). The problem being that the universe for SCHLCOLL was restricted by age (16 to 24 years) until 2013, when the age ceiling was pushed up to 54 years. When the SCHLCOLL (codes 3 or 4) variable is used for 2013, the estimate of individuals 25 and older attending college or university full- or part-time comes to 1,077,484; using the ACTNLFLY variable, the estimate is only 230,159—a difference of just under 850 thousand.


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Correspondence to R. Jamil Jonna.

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Jonna, R.J., Foster, J.B. Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class: Beyond the Degradation of Labor. Employ Respons Rights J 26, 219–236 (2014).

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