When Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in 1976 he launched his new product with a declaration that New York was “a newspaper town again.” The Newspaper Guild, under pressure to grant Murdoch wage and work rule concessions, responded by distributing buttons declaring, “New York: A Union Town Still.” The implicit defensiveness of that move— a major union has to remind people that this is a union town?—underlines the state of labor in New York. Even here, in one of the cradles of American unionism, there has been both serious erosion and a dramatic shift in the base and nature of union power.
To be sure, the Guild’s button emphasized what is still an important truth: for all its economic troubles and internal strife, the labor movement holds a strategic position in the city’s life and politics. It is the one institution straddling the great divide of modern New York. More than the church, political parties, or media, the unions, or at least certain of them, bridge divisions of race and class that are the city’s crucial social challenge. They are the most significant force with both a presence at the centers of power and strong ties to the city’s poor who are clients—welfare recipients, schoolchildren and their parents—or even, in low-wage occupations like health-care attendants, members of unions themselves....
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