Union Town

Union Town

Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II
by Joshua B. Freeman
The New Press, 2000, 393 pp., $35

I’m sitting here in sunny California poring over short-term rentals in downtown Manhattan. My wife stops short at a luxury loft on Lespinard Street (a good spot for “sightings” of Robert DeNiro and such, the ad says). Lespinard Street, she says, that’s where Sam’s place was. Sam is the long-dead husband of my wife’s Aunt Lil. After World War II he was a small-time jobber in rented space on Lespinard. Just imagine, my wife says, remembering Sam and his cronies playing pinochle on a slow day, Lespinard Street . . . a hot New York address. Countless New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers have experienced a similar moment, and every one of them must have framed some kind of theory accounting for his or her version of why DeNiro, and not Sam, now figures on Lespinard Street. But it’s actually hard to put one’s finger on the crux of New York’s transformation.

That’s what Freeman does in this engrossing book. He puts his finger on the city’s working class. In a general sense, of course, this cannot be news to readers of Dissent. Ken Burns’s recent series on PBS produced a lot of grumbling for being clueless about labor’s role in New York history (not by me: I quit after twenty minutes of skyline shots and breathless commentary). But Freeman’s argument is more specific. He contends that New York’s character at mid-century was determined by the cultural and political dominance of its working class. The erosion of that power, Freeman suggests, most accounts for the new New York that I read about in the West Coast edition of the New York Times.

In making that case, Freeman gets a strong assist from the new labor history. It is, of course, a cliché by now that the new labor history is no longer new. But it is hard to imagine Freeman writing this particular book without a sensibility about class and culture that derives from the great historian of the English working class, E.P. Thompson. When Herbert Gutman became Thompson’s American champion some thirty years ago, it seemed as if the main thing was to stop writing trade-union history. What Gutman really meant was that historians should stop writing about unions in the dry institutional terms of the long-dominant Wisconsin school. In fact, unions always figured in Gutmanesque scholarship, for the very good reason that unions were an important—sometimes the only—entry point into a working-class world the new labor historians wanted to explore. Freeman’s book is written in that tradition. It is mostly about the New York labor movement but conceived, in the spacious mode of Herbert Gutman, as at once product and shaper of a richly layered urban world.

It has often been said about the new labor history that it never really got out of the nineteenth century, where, by intensive study of local communities, the evidences of working-class life could be uncovered and analyzed. The further one moved into the twentieth century, the harder the enterprise became until, with the advent of national collective bargaining after World War II, it petered out and, insofar as historians write about the recent era, they do so in the older institutional vein. How else are we to describe the relations between General Motors and the United Auto Workers? But New York was different.

The concentration on consumer nondurables; the crowded industrial districts, with their loft buildings and tiny workshops; the webs of contractors and subcontractors; and the persistence, at least in some trades, of highly skilled craftsmen working alongside less skilled and more poorly paid operatives—all of which characterized blue-collar New York at the end of World War II—bear an uncanny resemblance to industrial New York a century earlier.

So, as if he were back in that earlier age, Freeman could still aspire to follow E.P. Thompson’s example and learn how “New York workers, at many times and in many circumstances, thought and acted in ways that stemmed, at least in part, from their structural position in the economy, with important consequences for them and their city.” Freeman’s subject is his second advantage: he is writing, as he says, about a non-Fordist city in the age of Ford.

In the final analysis, of course, the credit has to go to Freeman himself. New York is a big subject. It would have been all too easy, prudent, to carve out a manageable part of it (to write, for example, a companion piece to his excellent book on New York transit workers), but then Freeman would have given away his central theme, whose essential requirement is that the city be seen whole. Seeing it whole, however, is no defense for seeing it superficially, or imperfectly. The astonishing thing is Freeman’s mastery of the many strands of modern New York history, some of them murky (like the left-right splits of the McCarthy era) or still contested (like the Ocean Hill teachers’ strike of 1968) or dauntingly technical (like the fiscal crisis of the 1970s). On all these matters, Freeman offers succinct accounts that are models of expository writing. And finally, what in my book is the biggest danger, he never loses his way amid all the beckoning byroads of his subject. The book is marvelously shaped around the question that Freeman has posed: what happened to New York’s working class over the past half century?

The answer falls naturally in three parts, beginning with an accounting of where labor stood at the opening of the postwar era. Consider the numbers. Of 3.3 million employed New Yorkers in 1946, 2.6 million were wage workers, and of these, roughly half held manual jobs. Manufacturing accounted by far for the largest numbers (970,000 jobs), then port-related work (400,000), construction (144,000), and the remainder in the service sector. New York was not only a blue-collar town, but highly unionized by the end of the war. The paralyzing strike wave that followed it demonstrated labor’s muscle and claim to be heard at City Hall. Every mayor from William O’Dwyer in 1946 onward took heed. What was distinctive, however, was not labor’s power, which was briefly ascendant everywhere after the war, but the progressive tilt it took in New York. Working people there were mostly renters, Freeman notes, and hence unmoved by fears about property values and taxes that made Detroit auto workers, for example, so easy a target for reactionary politicians. On the positive side, New York’s population was heavily immigrant—half Catholic, a quarter Jewish—and ethnic identity intersected with work, neighborhood, unions, and politics to create particularly strong class solidarities. Not least, the left was big in New York. Communists led key unions, controlled the CIO central labor council, and, via the American Labor Party, figured prominently in New York politics.

The upshot was what Freeman calls a social democratic polity, manifested initially by rent control, the nickel subway fare (a dime after 1948), the unrivaled array of health, educational, and cultural services offered by the city, and, in the Quinn-Ives Act (1945), the most advanced anti-discrimination law in the country. Freeman is not shy about New York “exceptionalism.” The social democracy it was building, he asserts, “had more in common with postwar European norms than with politics in contemporaneous United States cities.”

The second phase of the story, coinciding with Robert F. Wagner Jr.’s long tenure at City Hall from 1954 to 1966, marks the golden age of New York unionism. While nationally organized labor peaked around 1954 and then began its long decline, the New York movement was just entering its best years. Implicit in this disjuncture is a challenge to the current academic orthodoxy that associates labor’s loss of dynamism with the purge of communist-dominated unions in the McCarthy years. Why don’t we find that effect in New York? Because, Freeman suggests, while the anticommunist onslaught was as fierce there as anywhere and left as much wreckage, the people and their ethos remained, resurfacing “in the most likely and unlikely places” and sparking the New York movement long after the shattering of the Communist Party itself. A signal instance was drugstore workers’ Local 1199, which left its CIO parent union in 1948 rather than comply with Taft-Hartley, yet a decade later scored the key victory at Montefiore that opened the way for the unionization of the city’s low-paid, mostly black and Hispanic hospital workers. Local 1199 would never have succeeded without the massive support of other unions, mobilized in particular by Harry Van Arsdale, the recently installed head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Central Labor Council. Van Arsdale is a surprising figure, an old-line craft unionist (Electrical Workers, Local 3) who, when the time was ripe, rallied to the vision of a socially progressive, racially inclusive movement. For Freeman, Van Arsdale represents a second, mainstream source of New York’s trade-union vitality in the golden age. The third source was the city’s public employees, who became strongly unionized during the 1960s and, via the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and District Council 37, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), emerged as major players in municipal politics. It was indeed in politics that their clout was most conspicuously on display, although, as the liberal Republican mayor John V. Lindsay discovered when he tried to rein them in after 1966, they were entirely capable of taking to the streets to enforce their demands.

Not for a moment, Freeman makes clear, was this time of triumph not shadowed by trouble. Most fundamental were the structural changes eroding labor’s blue-collar base. In percentage terms, New York manufacturing had actually been shrinking ever since the Great Depression. In the mid-1950s an absolute decline set in, reducing manufacturing jobs by a quarter by 1970, with no bottom in sight. Much of this decline, especially in the needle and metal trades, stemmed from plant closings, but elsewhere, as on the docks and in press rooms, automation did it. In the meantime union solidarity was being steadily eroded by the migration of better-heeled workers to the outer boroughs. The ironies of winning apply everywhere, of course (including, neoclassical economists might say, to job flight), but there was a special pungency in the fact that a prime conduit into the middle class for New York workers was via the union-sponsored co-op housing that constituted one of the triumphs of the city’s social unionism. A second, now forgotten triumph of the postwar years—a community health care system based on union medical centers and prepaid plans like HIP (Health Insurance Plan)—was undercut by the dispersion of union members and their preference for free choice, although the fatal blows were surely struck by organized medicine and the private insurance industry. The New York movement was being overtaken, finally, by a civil rights revolution that it at once welcomed and yet evaded. That the International Ladies Garment Workers Union gave liberally to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did not compensate for the fact that black and Puerto Rican women filled the organization while Jewish white men ran it; or that, for all Van Arsdale’s fine words (and good deeds), the construction crafts remained closed to black workers.

The onset of the third period, when the movement’s promise definitely faded, Freeman locates in three discrete events: the Ocean Hill strike of 1968, pitting Albert Shanker’s UFT demanding due process for dismissed teachers against African-American parents demanding control over their segregated, failing schools; the attacks by construction workers on antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street in the spring of 1970, epitomizing the backlash that fractured the labor movement and making the hardhat a new symbol of working-class conservatism; and the fiscal crisis of 1975. The first two did not so much test labor’s power as the spaciousness of its social vision; the aftermath in fact was a burst of labor militancy brought to a halt only by the economic collapse of 1973. The fiscal crisis, on the other hand, was pre-eminently about power. Indeed, in Freeman’s incisive telling, it resembled a coup d’état, with the money men seizing the chance to displace the municipal unions as the arbiters of power at City Hall. That didn’t quite happen because in the crunch it was union pension funds that rescued the city. But New York’s social democratic ethos expired, killed by an unrelenting austerity imposed on its public services and by a new politics of meanness personified by the arrival of Mayor Ed Koch in 1977. The municipal unions, while intact, were now permanently on the defensive. And in the meantime New York’s transformation into a gentrified center of global finance and commerce went implacably onward. In 1946, according to an expert cited by Freeman, as many blue-collar as white-collar workers could be found south of 61st Street; no longer. Freeman captures this truth nicely in the puzzled response by New Yorkers to a 1998 demonstration by forty thousand construction workers against nonunion building sites. Did such people still exist?

Freeman’s book succeeds splendidly as historical narrative, a bit less so as historical argument. In particular, the relationship between the city’s class composition and expiring social democratic ethos is elusive. After all, unionized shop workers were replaced by unionized service workers and public employees. The New York movement actually lost little ground numerically and represents today roughly the same proportion of workers as in its best years. So why did it become incapable of defending the social democratic polity? Freeman has much to say by way of explanation, but not about why, or whether, the fact that New York was no longer a working-class town mattered.

Now that I’m in the complaint department, let me voice my main objection to this book: there is not enough of it. Freeman starts around 1945 and sets his face resolutely forward. But of course working-class New York did not begin in 1945. There is a rich and wonderful history of the previous half century to be told. Freeman has given us Volume Two. What we need now is Volume One.

David Brody is a labor historian and retired professor at the University of California.

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