The Five Borough Report


Five Borough Report   June 2003


Working Class New York and the Nation


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 national mainstream.


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


Eventually, 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 identification.


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 democracy.


--Excerpted from Working Class New York: Life and Labor

Since World War II, The New Press, NY, 2000

June 2003

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