From the beginning, the New York Hospital Workers—Local 1199 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—projected an exceptional image among American labor unions. Its first strike for recognition in May 1959 came at a time when many longtime admirers of the CIO were noticing signs of decline in American unionism as a social movement. Union membership in bluecollar industry had, as Daniel Bell wrote in 1958, substantially reached its upper limit, while the explosive service, sales, and whitecollar sectors were proving all but impenetrable to organizing efforts. The bottom rung of
the economic ladder, that “other America” holding vast numbers of unemployed and unskilled workers, experienced little contact with organized labor. And within unionized basic industry, industrial relations had largely become a tame, routinized affair.
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