Five Borough Report June 2003
Working Class New York and the
Joshua B. Freeman
In the decades after
World War II, labor unions brought a measure of prosperity and security and
a sense of entitlement to tens of millions of Americans across the land.
Unions brought higher pay, nicer homes, decent medical care, and retirement
in comfort and dignity. Politically they acted as a liberal force (at least
on domestic matters), protecting and in limited ways extending the legacy
of the New Deal. But what labor accomplished, impressive as it was, fell
short of the hopes and dreams many Americans had when the war ended,
expressed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights and
the CIO's People's Program, with their calls for full employment,
universal, government-guaranteed health care, affordable housing, racial
equality, and checks on corporate power, a social democratic program rooted
in shared sacrifice and a commitment to communal responsibility. As things
turned out, corporate power increased in postwar America, as a more
prosperous but individualistic way of life grew out of the Cold War,
suburbanization, mass culture, and free market ideology.
The New York Way
New York City took a
different path. New York workers and their allies put in place a far more
extensive web of social benefits than elsewhere. This New York social
democracy, which encompassed housing, health care, education, the arts, and
civil rights, was intensely urban in its origins, strategies, and beliefs.
Integral to it was the labor movement, a civilizing force in a city
dedicated to wealth and power, and one that remained relatively strong even
as unionism elsewhere weakened.
New York's exceptionality
had mu1tiple roots. The fact that the vast majority of New Yorkers
were outsiders in a country and a city in which white Protestants
controlled the most important levers of power and wealth helped sustain a political
culture of dissent and struggle, an openness to ideas and movements outside the
The structure of New
York business facilitated labor power and liberal reform. Small New York
employers might fight particular unions, but they had neither the
wherewithal nor the inclination to launch an antiunion movement. In some
industries, employers came to depend on unions for a flexible supply of
skilled workers. Meanwhile, the small scale of most New York businesses
left it up to unions and left-liberal professionals to take the lead in
developing benefit programs, which they did in pathbreaking ways.
The End of Exceptionalism
working-class New York's progress down a road not taken by most of the
country halted. Nationally, Cold War anticommunism checked the power of
labor and all but destroyed its left wing. In New York, some left-wing
unions managed to survive, and a few, like 1199, even expanded their influence.
But almost across the board, labor abandoned radical, utopian, or social
democratic rhetoric, spurning even the language of class.
By the 1970s, shifting
residential patterns and changing housing and health economics had reduced
the ability of the labor movement to serve its members and their families.
Internal disputes over racial integration and foreign policy and over who
should wield power further robbed the movement of momentum. Soon after came
the fiscal crisis, which proved more damaging to New York social democracy
than the Cold War. Beneath the cover of assumed economic necessity, a
wholesale shift in power and normative values took place.
In many respects, the
city had become less exceptional. Like everywhere else, brand name
consumption and culture reigned, with the once raunchy Times Square turned
into a benign amusement center where locals and tourists attended Disney
shows and bought food and souvenirs at restaurants and stores owned by
Disney, Warner Brothers, ESPN, and other national corporations. As in much
of the country, the politics and culture of racial and ethnic identity
seemed to overwhelm outlooks and mobilizations resting on class
While in some respects
New York had become more like the rest of the country, the rest of the
country in some respects had become more like New York. Nationally the most
robust economic growth occurred in the service industries, while manufacturing
declined in relative importance. And within the manufacturing sector, many
companies turned away from the standardized, mass production methods for
more flexible approaches of the sort long characteristic of New York.
Slowly and unevenly, the United States moved toward the ethnic and racial
diversity long present in New York.
The Persistence of Working Class New York
By the end of the twentieth
century, working-class New York no longer had the dominant role it once
possessed in shaping the social organization, politics, and sensibility of
the City. But New York labor had proved remarkably stubborn, balking at
leaving history's stage. Its persistence, and its continuing vitality,
perhaps augur well for the new century. Working-class New York represents
America's past, a survival from the days when most Americans made or moved
things for a living, from when social ambitions were large and class
conflict openly acknowledged. But it also may represent America's future,
the future of a country that has come to look more like its largest city.
Working-class New York may still have more to contribute to American
--Excerpted from Working Class New
York: Life and Labor
Since World War II, The New Press, NY,