Posted by Jay Livingston
The last time I heard anyone talk about “the workers” was in Paris in 1976. A Hungarian student I met there was interested in Freud, but in Hungary it was hard to get books on psychoanalysis. Publishing resources (all government operated) were mostly devoted, she said, to books for the workers. She was not a strong supporter of the government, but she did say that it had made life better for the workers.
What struck me was the way she used that phrase, “the workers,” without a hint of ironic quotation marks, even when she was expressing some intellectual disdain for them. To me it sounded quaint, like something out of a past I had heard of but didn’t really remember. In America, we have workers, of course. Everybody works. But we do not speak of “the workers.” That definite article would imply that they are a distinct class, a group with interests that are different from those of other groups. The Redsox, the Dodgers; the faculty, the students.
“The workers” also implies that social class is based on relation to the means of production. That’s not a thought that comes easily to Americans. When I ask students about social class, the first thing they mention is income, but when I ask for other aspects of class, long before someone mentions occupation, the responses run to “lifestyle” choices – consumption not production.
I was reminded of the absence of “the workers” recently when my colleague Vikas Singh noted this sentence in a student's paper on alienation: “We, the customers are alienated from one’s own labor.” “Alienated customers”? Was this a slip of the pen? Or was it, as Vikas thought, an indication of how far we have come in conflating “consumer” and “worker”?
To see what has happened to “the workers,” I ran the phrase in Google nGrams, and just to check on American exceptionalism, I compared the British and American corpuses.
There’s a more recent trend in what we call people who work. They are still “workers” (though not “the workers”), but that term is fading. More and more they are “employees.”