The middle class illusion

Posted on June 8, 2021

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When the SA Airways pilots’ union takes on the government in the labour court on July 15, the issues raised should go far beyond the fact that the pilots — locked out of work since May 2020 — have not been paid for more than a year. The case may also bring into focus what was once dubbed the “scab clause” in the 1995 Labour Relations Act that allows for the use of “replacement labour”.

The SAA Pilots Association (SAAPA) went on strike after most members were locked out of the collapsing airline amid a swirl of corruption allegations involving management. The union then took the former chair of the SAA board, Dudu Myeni, to court where she was declared a delinquent director having been found to have been “dishonest, reckless, and grossly negligent” in her SAA role.

The issue of non-payment at SAA has echoes for the public sector unions who are awaiting a constitutional court decision on the fact that the government has refused to pay an agreed increase for 2020. In both cases, it has been widely — and wrongly — implied that the workers involved are overpaid, greedy, selfish and even unpatriotic.

SAA pilots, are part of a higher paid category because they are highly qualified and take on life and death responsibilities for passengers. But, across the board, they earned less than the global average — and certainly less than senior managers in the public service. Pay started at R28,000 a month and the average was R57,000, with the top notch, for a pilot with the highest qualifications, at some R90,000 after perhaps 25 or more years experience.

What this argument about pay rates has brought to the fore is the whole question of social class. If you are an honest, hard-working individual with an income of more than R50,000 a month and you own a house — even if bonded — and drive a late model car, are you middle class, with interests different to other wage earners?

The answer should surely depend on where the money comes from. If your income derives from serving the profit-driven interests of a boss, whether in the public or private sector, you are — objectively — a member of the working class.

But that does not mean that, in your own mind — subjectively — you may feel that you do not share the interests of workers; that you belong to a level above the common herd, that you are middle class.. But that is usually only so long as you still have a job and a better than average salary.

That image of yourself can change very rapidly if you lose your job and income and discover how parlous your economic and social situation is. Then the objective reality may hit: you are a worker, employed and paid only so long as the boss needs you.

This harsh truth has been made even. more abundantly clear to many more once quite affluent workers in the wake of soaring unemployment, exacerbated by the arrival of Covid-19. The range of job losses also explodes the myth that skill and income alone elevates workers to a class that no longer shares the interests of all wage earners.

Whether wages are paid weekly, based on an hourly rate, billed as casual or zero hours labour or called a salary paid monthly, with or without bonuses or commissions, an employee, serving the interest of a boss, is, objectively, a worker. And it makes no difference whatever the gender or ethnicity of the worker or the nature of the work done.

There also seems to be a common reason why many workers, better paid because they possess perhaps scarce skills and experience needed at a particular time by bosses, regard themselves as being middle class. They tend to see themselves on an apparent betterment trajectory, halfway — or more — up an illusionary ladder leading to everlasting affluence and happiness.

The idea that such a ladder exists has for generations been used as an enticement to workers with specific skills needed at a particular time by the owners and controllers of business and the economy. But in the past 50 years alone many believers in this ladder, have suffered rude awakenings: aspirant members of the middle class or what is known in some quarters as the “labour aristocracy” have suffered massive job losses across a range of now largely digitised and automating industries.

In a South African context, this situation is complicated by the legacy of apartheid and the continued racialisation of the political, social and economic discourse where the need for transformation is real. But the arguments remain valid. When workers at whatever level of earning, and in whatever industry, demand their rightful due, especially regarding pay, they can expect to be labelled in unsavoury ways by their bosses and their public relations machines.

But common adversity can also provide the impetus for that core value of trade unionism: solidarity. For example, retired, retrenched and other former SAA pilots have. rallied to the union to provide a fund to help the remaining 360 SAA pilots —there were more than 800 in 2010 — many of whom are in. danger of losing their homes

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