October, 2001

The Wealthy Autoworker: Representations of Working-Class Consciousness Among the Unionized Workers of General Motors Canada

Oshawa Autoworkers: Social Integration or Classic Alienation? Oppositional Class Consciousness Among the Unionized Workers of General Motors

Introduction: The Major Question Under Examination

Among the popular explanations for the extinction of 'class action' (1) during the latter half of the 20th century (and the early 21st) is that social inequality in the Western world has largely been alleviated, or at the very least is well on its way to being vanquished. Consequently, it is argued, the potential for mass rebellion is not considered close at hand (for example, see Bell, 1960). This explanation - twinned with the persistent myth of ever-expanding opportunities within capital (2)assumes that socially-integrated viewpoints can easily be held by members of the working-class whose material conditions lie above the socially-constructed norm, while class subordination and exploitation (3) still exist. The widespread belief that changing material conditions directly creates 'false consciousness' is expressed by former Oshawa MP Mike Breaugh as follows:

If they are an hourly-rated worker..they're going to be making good money by anybody's standards, sixty five to seventy five thousand, in that range. If they are a skilled tradesman [sic], then they will be much in demand and they will probably be into six figures. These are people who have at least two cars - brand new - probably got a boat, probably got a camper, probably got a cottage. These people are concerned about how they accumulate wealth, how they hold onto it; taxation is a big problem.. (Mike Breaugh, Oshawa NDP MP, 1990-1993 on "The House" CBC Radio One broadcast, July 24, 1999).

Breagh's assertion is intended as an explanation for the demise of working-class support for the social democratic NDP (New Democratic Party) during the 1980s. He claimed that the withdrawal of Oshawa autoworkers' electoral support for democratic socialism was due to the ideological shift directly generated by their relative affluence. Thus, it is alleged that a change in class consciousness occurs when the proletariat have gained monetary concessions from their employers and subsequently spend these earnings on a multitude of consumer goods (see for example Ehrenreich, 1989) and a more middle-class lifestyle *(cite). This glut of unrestrained consumerism erases the line between the working and middle-classes in the process ofembourgeoisement.

The current study is an attempt to gauge, primarily via measured responses to a series of questionnaire queries and semi-structured interviews, the current level of working-class political and social consciousness among unionized autoworkers, and whether this labour aristocracy has seen their traditional oppositional consciousness subverted and transformed into forms of social integration via the process of embourgeoisement. The groups under study here are composed of unskilled and semi-skilled automobile assemblers and skilled trades workers, all of whom are employed at the General Motors of Canada (GM) plants in Oshawa, Ontario. All the subjects under study here are members of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, Local 222. 

The Group Under Study: Oshawa Autoworkers

Oshawa autoworkers' employment in a capital intensive industry provides them with several major advantages relative to their counterparts in other regions of Canada, no matter what the sector or industry. Due to the historic accumulation of collective gains generated through their union, these workers have sufficient discretionary income to gain monetary and non-monetary advantages for themselves through incremental contractual gains. 

Oshawa autoworkers generally earn considerably higher than average hourly wages (current Assembler rates are $26.56 per hour) and enjoy a relatively lower cost of living due primarily to the combination of a relatively high wage, lower housing prices and automobile costs (4). The former is due to the local real estate market's comparatively low prices (relative to major Canadian metropolitan areas and Oshawa's close proximity to Toronto) and the latter is due to a contractually-negotiated employee discount on GM vehicles. According to a recent Statistics Canada report (August 10, 2001) the average median total family income of Canadian families was $48,600 per annum, while the highest median family income is found in Oshawa at $62,500 annually. Additionally, a 1999 Statistics Canada survey reported that the median total income of individuals in Canada was $22,400 with the highest Canadian annual median employment income located, once again, in Oshawa at $29,700 (The Daily, Statistics Canada, August 15, 2001). Even the lowest classification of Oshawa assemblers earn, on average, approximately $57,500 per year (without overtime) not including non-monetary benefits. Still, this annual wage compares quite favourably to the Canadian average income of $25,196. Consequently it is an easy matter to claim that Oshawa autoworkers have access to more discretionary income than many of their peers in Canada. These workers are the most highly-paid group of manual industrial workers in Canada and can accordingly be described as a 'labour aristocracy'.

The Labour Aristocracy and the Struggle Between Lenin and Mann: 

In this study I juxtapose V.I. Lenin's analysis of 'trade union consciousness' or 'trade union economism' (1905) against Michael Mann's essential defence of organized workers' 'grab' for pecuniary interests as one of the very few possible concessions that can be wrested from the owners of capital. On Lenin's tirade against trade union economism, Seccombe and Livingstone (2000) wrote 

In What is to be Done, Lenin made the distinction between economic (or trade union) consciousness and class political consciousness. The former was generated by the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power ... the latter originated outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers ... in the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government (2000: 109). 

Lenin viewed shop-floor battles between management and labourer as too isolated from the political sphere to develop a wholly politically-conscious proletariat. To stimulate this condition - and see the development of a proletarian revolutionary consciousness- he contended that workers must be exposed to other class actors and state political oppression in many walks of life. According to Seccombe and Livingstone this was deemed a precondition for a "far-reaching transformative (or counter-hegemonic) consciousness, which is well-informed about, and empathetic with, the striving of oppressed groups (2000: 110)." The key point here is that the Leninist view of the potential for working-class consciousness contends that the likelihood of a working-class social and political revolution is dead due to the purely economic focus of labour unions. In Lenin's 1905 account, the union movement's economist focus misled the proletariat who taking this path would reach only a "narrow, self-limiting form of oppositional consciousness (2000: 110)" which was considered insufficient to spark revolutionary upheaval. This postulated revolution, long-postponed in the Western world, hypothetically awaits the consequences of inequality to wear down the tolerance of those considered its greatest victims.

Almost seventy years later, in a direct repudiation of Lenin's position, British sociologist Michael Mann wrote

[i]t is now evident that the almost exclusive preoccupation of trade unions with economism is not a mere case of 'betrayal' by their leadership: it is rooted in the worker's very experience, and he reinforces the union's position. Normally confronted by an employer who will budge on economic but not on control issues, the worker takes what he can easily get and attempts to reduce the salience of what is denied him. Though this leaves him partially alienated, it does not place him, as it were, 'outside' the structure of capitalist society, but rather compromised by it. Hence he grasps neither the totality of society nor alternative structures (Mann, 1973: 32-33). 

Mann brought the debate back to working-class experience of exploitation and class-based oppression - both rooted in Marx's original conception of class.

I will argue that the set of conditions which Lenin characterizes as a betrayal of working-class interests by their trade unions, is in fact a matter of taking the line of least resistance within the structural confines of capital, taking what capital easily has on offer to a group of highly-motivated, well-organized workers in an advanced industry. Most writers have already acknowledged that Marx's predictions of the fall of capital were optimistic (see for example Crompton, Fantasia, Giddens, Livingstone and Seccombe). I plan to develop the notion that far from taking on the 'false consciousness' of the dominant ideologies of capital, advanced industrial workers make a rational calculation about the maximum material gains that might be extracted from their employers while still retaining a highly developed sense of class consciousness. **defence of trade unionism posed against Lenin's left-sectarian arguments. 

The goal of capital accumulation would be an affirmation of embourgeoisement - the acceptance of one of the major tenets of an advanced market economy. This is the edge that provides the optimal conditions for embourgeoisement, and that is why one litmus stick to be used for evaluating Oshawa autoworkers' class consciousness is their discretionary income and what is done with it. In this study I will try to determine whether the advantage provided by their discretionary income is used to pursue capital accumulation or acquisition of consumer goods. 

While some might contend that the accumulation of consumer goods is a vehicle to escape the alienation of their repetitive work, Chinoy (1955) argued that the American autoworkers in his study saw progress in their career as "the progressive accumulation of things as well as the increasing capacity to consume (1955: 126)." (5) Additionally, there is little doubt that assembly line work is degrading and alienating and who could blame these workers for spending their discretionary income in an attempt to engage in reproduction activities? 

The following questions are chief among those under examination here:

In order to ascertain the level of class consciousness it will be assumed that if autoworkers attempt to utilize their relative economic advantage to escape their class boundaries, then their class solidarity is relatively low. (6) An important related issue to is the question of cause-and-effect; because it asks whether capital accumulation leads to a shift away from a proletarian consciousness and toward middle-class consciousness. This 'accidental' conversion constitutes the chief condition for embourgeoisement. Therefore, intent becomes an important part of the equation. Among the generalizations for the makeup of working-class consciousness are the following postulates:
  3. Autoworkers, aware of their condition of exploitation and subordinate class status, are indifferent to it and unreservedly exhibit support for capitalism and the bourgeoisie. At the same time they are also aware of their economic advantage relative to other members of the proletariat and they attempt to catapult themselves or their children into a higher class position via small business ownership, capital investment vehicles, improved educational opportunities for their offspring, etc.

4. Autoworkers are aware of their condition of exploitation and subordinate class status. Although they are aware of their subservient class position, they feel that they are unlikely to effect any meaningful social or political change both as individuals and collectively. Thus they accept the status quo and their fate within it. They may not support capital but feel that they have few realistic choices and may as well share in the rewards of their comparative economic status. They are also cognizant of their relative economic advantage as the highest paid of all industrial, manual wage-earners. Accordingly they use their class-based organizations to maintain their relative advantage in terms of economic compensation, working-conditions and politics (typically via state regulatory policies). In short, they use their economic advantage in the marketplace to enjoy the fruits of their labour. They participate in capital accumulation and consumerism, rationalizing that they may as well share in their relative successes within capital. 

The first two positions are, of course, gross oversimplifications which are considered the leading contenders and opposite sides of the 'false consciousness' coin. False consciousness is posited when the second condition exists, which in turn must mean that the first position is the 'true' fundamental consciousness and the latter a 'false' overlaid consciousness which is externally imposed by the dominant bourgeois ideology. However these two positions and the related byproduct 'false consciousness' are not the only possibilities, although Marxist sociologists (**) have suggested that the third position - unqualified support for market capitalism - is in fact false consciousness, it can also be viewed as a tactical, and logical, response to the overwhelming global power of advanced capitalism. At the same time these autoworkers clearly have a degree of economic superiority when compared to other members of their class. As discussed in Chinoy (1955) catapult themselves or their children into a higher class position via small business ownership, capital investment vehicles, improved educational opportunities for their offspring, etc. 

The variable of awareness of one's object class position, versus non-awareness, is a key factor in this study. The term 'class consciousness' is used here in its Marxian sense and refers to the condition of the proletariat having become aware of its objective class position in relation to that of the bourgeoisie, as well as the proletariat's historic role in the transformation of capitalism into socialism - known as 'class for itself'. The condition of 'class in itself' refers to a collection of workers sharing a common class position but with no collective awareness - that is, a lack of awareness of their objective class position (Abercrombie et al., 1988: 38). Awareness of one's own class position is key to class action - the decision to act in unison, as a whole, on behalf of one's own collective group, rather than to act on one's own behalf as an individual. Of course there is also the possibility that there are a multitude of positions between these two points. 

A major distinction between General Motors employees (and CAW 222 members) and others in the (now shrinking) manual industrial and service worker class, is the differential level of wages among these groups of workers. This in turn means that the level of discretionary income GM workers retain after living expense is a key distinguishing factor. My research question focuses on this discretionary income and what these people do with it. Specifically, I ask the following:

My chief hypothesis is that Oshawa autoworkers will exhibit a comparatively high degree of working-class solidarity and group consciousness. Moreover I believe that this group will also exhibit strong tendencies toward the attainment of consumer goods, in what some might term middle-class aspirations, but is in fact an outward (and often awkward) imitation of middle class norms. I contend that autoworkers will generally demonstrate the former tendency when they are labouring collectively among their own at work (and while directly exposed to conditions of exploitation and subordination) and the latter tendency when they are at home in their community and in commercial life (shopping). Thus these workers will exhibit differing tendencies in their workplace, versus their residential and commercial communities.

I would resist labelling these contrasting characteristics either under the thesis of 'false consciousness' or a 'disjuncture' thesis. In the latter case I contend that the term 'disjuncture' is simply a recast version of the Marxian 'false consciousness' thesis, which argues that working class consciousness has been appropriated by the dominant ideology. The term 'disjuncture' points to a break between two positions and is defined as follows "a sharp cleavage: DISUNION, SEPARATION. (the xx between theory and practice> ... [The Merriam Webster Dictionary, 1990]." In this case, with regard to class consciousness and intergroup solidarity, what are the two positions which are disunited and separated in the minds of Oshawa autoworkers? Where does the disjuncture lie? This label assumes that these workers either have a disposition to see the overthrow of capitalism or a proclivity to the maintenance of capitalism. But what if neither of these positions is in fact correct? 

My hypothesis is based on the actual daily lives of autoworkers and contends that these workers have the ability to pursue both of these contradictory tendencies at the same time. This proposes that neither a revolutionary path nor a purely accumulative course is necessarily the case. But operating within a mode of industrial (or post-industrial) capitalism, the term 'disjuncture' leads one to believe that these workers are operating under the (false) illusion that they can conduct their affairs within the rules of capital accumulation or that they are indeed able to overthrow capital in a class-based social revolution. It poses a choice between one of two absolutes, neither of which is necessarily correct.

I will argue that a conjecture of disjuncture oversimplifies the complexity in autoworkers' lifestyles. These workers in fact can and do exhibit working-class solidarity and antagonism toward those in dominant class positions. At the same time they can accumulate small amounts of capital - albeit in a limited manner, especially when compared to those in upper-class echelons. Thus there can be no disjuncture, no break in consciousness, because there is no exclusive predisposition to either position. From the autoworkers' own standpoint they are quite capable of balancing these two - as well as other - positions without any apparent contradiction. While at work they face their exploitation, and naturally they resent it. Thus they behave in a manner that is antagonistic toward their oppressor (or their oppressor's agents). However, in the marketplace (as consumers) or in their families and residential communities, other features of life rise to the surface and the antagonistic relations cease. In fact, interview evidence shows that autoworkers distinguish themselves from service sector workers (generally working at a comparatively lower wage), store clerks and "burger flippers" (who are often women or teenagers earning a minimum wage). 

The Proposed Theoretical Standpoint

Among the components of the Marxist dialectic is the concept of the 'unity and struggle of opposites' - an idea that Marx and Engels borrowed from Frederick Hegel and saw expanded in Engels' work 'Anti-Duhring'. Counter to the positivist view that things are always one thing or another, this concept embodies the dialectical notion that things can contain within them two opposing tendencies at the same time. It is postulated that there is a struggle between these two opposing forces until they are resolved in a 'unity of opposites'. This heralds the emergence of a synthesis - a new tendency which is still unknown. As Shirokov (1937) explains:

The exponents of the [..] conception proceed from the standpoint that everything develops by means of a struggle of opposites, by a division, a dichotomy, of every unity into mutually opposites. Thus [for example] capitalism develops in virtue of the contradiction between the social character of production and the private means of appropriation ... (1937: 135).

The premise of a 'unity and struggle of opposites' suggests that autoworkers may be undergoing a dialectical change, that they do not embrace only one tendency or another, but embody within them two opposing tendencies at the same time which will become the basis for further change. Exactly what will emerge from this struggle is still subject to speculation.

Devine's (1992) reassessment of Goldthorpe et al.'s mid 1960s study found that the social character of production extended into the family and the geographic community without interfering with the private means of appropriation. Much as I expect to find in this study, Devine's respondents had aspirations which centred on sustaining and improving on the material comfort and standard of living of their immediate family, to wit: "'[b]ettering' themselves and their families was a dominant aspiration of all the interviewees (1992: 207)." Devine also found that while her respondents aimed for "improved levels of domestic comfort (1992: 209)" their values were not solely individualistic, but that a community of solidarity existed. Devine generally found plenty of evidence for solidarity rather than individualism, that workers in 1990s Luton did not lead singular lives but enjoyed the friendship and support of their extended families, geographic neighbours and workmates both on and off the job. I expect to find a similar pattern among Oshawa's autoworkers, who I expect will exhibit friendship patterns which will see workplace relations extend into the community (see Livingstone and Roth, 1998) alongside an extended kinship network.

In what way does this dialectical twist relate to my hypothesis? My hypothesis presupposes that working-class autoworkers will exhibit both working-class (oppositional working-class solidarity, contra-capital) tendencies and apparently middle-class aspirations (primarily viewed as support for privatized market capitalism). In Mann's, as well as Abercrombie et al.'s (1980) conception, people act in ways which appear to support capitalism because they cannot imagine an alternative (Mann, 1973) and because the prevailing social realities of market capitalism and their place within it constrains them from doing anything other than agreeing to their circumstances and accepting their fate. This is an acceptance of the fact that one derives economic and material benefits from one's job and not simply a response to an all-embracing, hegemonic ideology. 

I believe that autoworkers in fact rationalize both tendencies but when they are at labour in the workplace, their prevailing disposition is to oppose the domination of their supervisors and managers and in the solidarity and cocoon of their peers they feel their social power and use it.

Using an historical materialist framework, I will apply Michael Mann's (1973) redefinition of the Marxist conception of working-class consciousness. Mann states that Marxists were traditionally vague about the nature of dialectics and the clear delineation of the components which make up working-class consciousness and he stressed the need to distinguish clearly among the four main elements implied in the conception of proletarian class consciousness as follows:

Mann closes his typology of working-class consciousness by declaring "true revolutionary consciousness is the combination of all four of the above elements (1973: 13)." I plan to test Oshawa autoworkers' conceptions of class by applying these four elements (identity, opposition, totality, conception of alternative) to my analysis of autoworkers' responses to my survey questions.


As I have already noted, this study will employ a mainly closed-ended questionnaire which was distributed to General Motors assembly and trades workers between May 2000 and January 2001. A small number (N=5) of deeper, semi-structured interviews has also been conducted, to determine workers' attitudes on a number of issues related to the question of class consciousness and embourgeoisement. The likelihood is that an additional number of similar interviews (N=5) will be conducted at a later date.

Approximately six-hundred and fifty (650) survey questionnaires were randomly distributed, by CAW 222 education committee members, to GM car and truck-assembly plant employees at their workplace over a nine-month period. More than eighty questions were asked in a nine-page survey instrument. 

Survey questions were aimed at obtaining background demographic data, including an extensive section on formal and informal education and a basic employment history. As is the case with many of these questions, I will attempt to see whether there is a correspondence between autoworker's responses and those from a general population sample (the OISE survey). Many questions focus on respondents' objective views of whether they live in a class stratified society, and if so, what their subjective position within a class society might be. Almost two-thirds of the survey questions are focussed on obtaining as clear as possible an impression of both objective and subjective class positions and workers' views on a range of social and political issues, including their provincial voting patterns over the past three Ontario elections. While this study is not intended to be an exercise in psephology, it is hoped that respondents' overtly political sentiments will uncover whether there is unity or division between their stated general political sympathies and their voting patterns. Specifically, I will attempt to discover whether autoworkers exhibit support or opposition to market capitalism in all spheres of their lives, or whether there is a divide between their views of their roles as family members, producers, consumers in their various communities. Placed alongside these data are respondents' replies to questions focussed on their views of their trade union, union education programs and participation in the political process and their own union activity. 

Included in this survey instrument are several sensitive but important questions on respondents' own activities in some of the recent strikes, plant takeovers and wildcat strikes which have taken place in Oshawa (notably a plant takeover in 1996 and wildcat strikes in 1999 and 2000). As Fantasia (1988) has asserted, the formation of U.S. trade unions and the organization and upkeep of strikes, plant takeovers, rank-and-file insurgent groups and other action-oriented activities workers undertake within unions can be activities with transformative potential. He says these activities help to simultaneously produce and voice working-class consciousness and solidarity in "a process largely impervious to the standard sociological survey (1988: 11)." Granted, Fantasia concedes that these are not necessarily 'revolutionary' activities, designed to (or even capable of) overthrow(ing) the social order, but he forcefully asserts that "analyses of class consciousness should be based on actions, organizational capabilities, institutional arrangements and the values that arise within them, rather than on attitudes abstracted from the context of social action (1988: 11)." A survey of Oshawa autoworkers can help to empirically test this question both in the abstract and concrete. 

Ascertaining autoworkers' views of whether divisions in Canadian society exist and, if so, where they are located, is another key to empirically determining whether these respondents's views differ substantially from a general population sample. Thus, seven Lickert-scaled questions on current social issues patterned against the OISE survey have also been administered to this sample of autoworkers.

A series of ten carefully-selected questions on job security, prospects for advancement and use of workers' discretionary income were also asked in order to determine the key question of whether these autoworkers use their market advantage to catapult out of their current class position. Responses to these questions will be paired with an additional three questions on autoworkers' desire to run a self-owned business and whether in fact any of these workers are also self-employed outside their GM jobs, another key determinant of embourgeoisement.

The distribution of questionnaires was undertaken primarily by elected union representatives, with the exception that 200 of the 650 questionnaires were distributed by the author. Respondents were asked to return completed questionnaires by mail, using an enclosed stamped envelope which was addressed to the University of Toronto. Ninety-eight (98) completed responses were eventually received, for a response rate of approximately fifteen percent. Data was compiled and analyzed via SPSS software. The sample was designed to be as representative as possible of the plant population, with an estimate of approximately seven percent women working in the various plants, it was decided to distribute the questionnaires in such a way that an over-representation of female respondents was obtained. Similarly, an overrepresentation of skilled trades employees was also attempted in the distribution of questionnaires. 

This study is concerned with current conditions of class consciousness and discretionary income within the following economic and political context, as laid out by Livingstone (Livingstone in Corman et al., 1993: 14): 

The elements which determine the composition of a social class and the distinguishing features of each of the major classes are of interest, but only within a general contextual discussion. In terms of group affiliation, there is no doubt that using virtually any measure, the homogeneous group under study here falls within the category of the manual industrial working-class. Therefore there is a reduced need to delve deeply into a debate over what category of social class this particular group of people belongs. OISE Survey data, which will be used in this study as a comparative foundation, is divided into nine categories (Table 1) and splits Wright's category of 'workers' into two distinct groups: 'service' and 'industrial' workers. According to Livingstone, industrial workers in Ontario have seen a decline from 24 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 1996. Although Livingstone (1999) has adapted elements of Olin Wright's class schema (Wright (1997: 99) is based on U.S. census data since 1960) he has done so with the caveat that Wright tends to:

... conflate technical and social divisions of labour in identifying some employee class locations ... in particular, respondents' self-reports in this survey about the degree of authority and autonomy they exercise in their jobs have been used as primary criteria to identify managers, supervisors and professional employees. 

Of particular interest here is that the proportion of those identified as 'workers' (as distinguished from 'skilled workers') in the OISE eight-class schema has been on the decline from 58 percent in 1970, to 54 percent in 1990 (employees in other categories such as 'expert managers' and 'professional employees' have seen an almost twofold increase). 

Problems Anticipated:

Among the major problems I expect to confront are the following: 



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1. 'Class action' refers to conscious, class-based social group activity which is counter-hegemonic in character (cite either Fantasia or Mann).

2. The theme of deserved economic opportunity is best illustrated in, for example, the 'Horatio Alger' stories For example, see The "Rags to Riches Story": An Episode of Secular Idealism in Bendix and Lipset (1966).

3. In this study I use Wright's (1997) definition of class exploitation as outlined by the following three measures: (a) the material welfare of one group of people causally depends on the material deprivation of another; (b) the causal relation in (a) involves the asymmetrical exclusion of the exploited from access to certain productive resources; (c) the causal mechanism which translates exclusion (b) into differential welfare (a) involves the appropriation of the fruits of labour of the exploited by those who control the relevant productive resources (Wright, 10)."

4. These are typically two of the most expensive consumer purchases made in the course of one's lifetime.

5. Chinoy also said that advancement in the informal hierarchy on the assembly line was also deemed as advancement, even though it lacked greater responsibility and no additional demands in terms of job skills. Seniority was also not distinguished by these workers from promotion on the job.

6. The use of their economic advantage in itself says little of workers' collective class consciousness, which Fantasia (1988), among others, would claim as something that might take place only during collective interaction such as walkouts, strikes or plant takeovers.