Working-Class New York: Life and Labour Since World War Two 
by Joshua Freeman.
New Press, 393 pp., $35, May 2000, 1 56584 575 7
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After a period when it mainly conjured up images of street violence and urban deterioration, New York is once again America’s number one tourist attraction, and neighbourhoods long in decline are undergoing remarkable revivals. To be sure, a few blemishes mar the renaissance: the periodic killing of unarmed black men by the police, for example, or the persistent failure of the public school system. Census statistics, moreover, reveal that nearly all the benefit of the 1990s boom has gone to the richest fifth of the population. Always a city of ‘Progress and Poverty’ (the title of Henry George’s bestseller of the 1880s), New York today is more polarised economically than anywhere else in the US – a fact explained in part by the decline of the labour movement.

Joshua Freeman’s Working-Class New York chronicles the events from 1945 to the present that have turned America’s quintessential union city into one in whose political and cultural life labour is only a shadowy presence. A major contribution to understanding the city’s past, Working-Class New York is also a milestone in American labour history. As in Britain, there was a remarkable transformation in this subject in the two decades after 1965. Inspired by the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, American scholars redefined a field which had been almost exclusively taken up with the history of trades union to encompass working-class life and culture outside the workplace as well as within it.

Practised primarily by historians who came of age during the 1960s, the ‘new labour history’ tended to focus on heroic moments of change and struggle – artisans resisting industrialisation or militant workers creating the Congress of Industrial Organisations during the New Deal. Race and gender became considerations, and traditional accounts in which class was the sole operative category were rethought. Like other academic impulses, it eventually waned. Today, American labour history has fallen under the spell of cultural studies, and a doctoral student is likely to write about images of masculinity in Hollywood’s depiction of blue-collar workers.

Freeman’s work synthesises the best of the old, new and newest labour history, while avoiding the parochialism that has plagued each of them. He uses union history to tackle the large questions often ignored by recent studies, such as the fate of postwar liberalism and the roots of de-industrialisation. His book deals imaginatively with race (gender gets short shrift), but does not reduce class relations to a matter of personal identity. It brings to life the city’s cultural activities, taking one into music and dance halls, out to the beaches of Coney Island and to the municipal theatre at City Center, where working-class families attended performances during the New York City Ballet’s golden age. But Freeman does not see working-class culture as a surrogate for politics. The book also breaks new ground in two ways: it deals with the period since World War Two, when organised labour has been a declining force in American life, and with New York City, where work takes place in countless small manufacturing establishments and white-collar offices, not in the mass-production factories on which most historians of 20th-century labour have concentrated.

Working-Class New York begins with an evocative portrait of the now forgotten city that emerged from World War Two. In the words of John Gunther, New York in 1945 was ‘incomparably the greatest manufacturing town on earth’, a city of garment, printing, electronics and many other small firms producing specialised goods. It was also America’s largest port, handling one-third of the country’s international trade. The working-class presence was highly visible in Manhattan, site of over half a million manufacturing jobs, and in the sprawling neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, populated largely by Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants and their children. New York was home to more than a thousand private-sector unions, and because New Yorkers did not cross picket lines, labour enjoyed enormous bargaining power. Freeman reminds us that business life was crippled by the postwar strike of 15,000 elevator operators and doormen, and by a walk-out of tugboat workers that forced the closure of schools, theatres and restaurants for lack of coal and fuel oil.

Even more remarkable than labour’s economic clout was its political mobilisation. The war had empowered the labour movement throughout the country, and nowhere more so than in New York. The city witnessed innumerable political rallies, parades and political campaigns, for causes ranging from ‘Negro freedom’ and colonial independence to the continuation of wartime rent controls and the establishment of a national health system. This was Popular Front politics at its best, bringing together Communists, socialists, liberals and labour in the struggle to extend the New Deal into a fully-fledged welfare state, and to bring within its purview the non-whites often excluded from Roosevelt’s programmes.

The Popular Front soon faded nationally but retained its vitality in New York. Even as Republicans won control of Congress in 1946, ensuring that Democrats would have to concentrate on defending New Deal programmes rather than expanding them, New York began to create its own mini-welfare state. Freeman is at his best when he describes the enormous expansion of the municipal and union-financed systems of health and housing. In 1950, New York had 22 municipal hospitals; no other American city had more than three. The city launched a major programme of middle-income housing just as the federal government was promoting suburbanisation by means of home loans, highway construction and mortgage insurance, and in the two decades after 1945 unions built nearly 40,000 co-operative apartments.

Central to this postwar Popular Front culture was the Communist Party, a significant presence in the city’s unions and electoral politics. The Communists Peter Caccione and Benjamin Davis got the second and fourth highest number of votes in the city council elections of 1945, and the Communist-influenced American Labor Party elected Vito Marcantonio, perhaps the most left-wing member of Congress, to the House of Representatives.

Historical writing about the American Communist Party has yet to outgrow its Cold War origins: one would think that the key issue is whether 20 or 200 of its 100,000 members passed sensitive information to the USSR. Freeman shows that, in New York, espionage was much less important than fighting for tenants’ rights, racial justice and public housing. The Party was responsible for giving a powerful social-democratic edge to the labour politics of the city.

On the other hand, New York was also a centre of anti-Communism and, like unions throughout the US, New York’s were torn by dissension once the Cold War began. In union after union, anti-Communist groups, often allied with the Catholic Church and veterans’ organisations, succeeded in expelling Communists. When they failed, they set up rival organisations that won recognition from the national AFL and CIO. Yet, in one of his most original chapters, Freeman shows how the Old Left managed to ‘snatch a degree of victory from its awful defeat’. Since Communists and anti-Communist liberals actually agreed on most domestic issues, if not on foreign policy (a point frequently ignored in histories of the era), many Communists were able to resume their labour careers and even retain leadership of certain unions after ‘often superficial rituals of renunciation’.

Cold War battles did not destroy labour militancy in New York, as seems to have happened elsewhere in the country. Labour in the city reached the zenith of its power during the mayoralty of Robert Wagner Jr (son of the senator who had drafted the New Deal measure recognising workers’ right to collective bargaining) between 1954 and 1966. Elected with strong labour support, Wagner extended the right to unionise to municipal workers, and presided over a vast expansion of housing, health and education programmes. The unions, meanwhile, launched new organising drives, most prominently the battle that brought thousands of health and hospital workers into the newly formed Local 1199.

Social democracy in one city, however, could not remain immune to the economic forces and political turmoil that affected the larger society. Two national developments of the 1960s – deindustrialisation and the black revolution – undermined New York’s distinctive political culture and labour economy. Automation and the flight of industrial establishments to far-flung parts of the country eroded its manufacturing base. The national trend towards deindustrialisation was given added impetus in the city by the real estate moguls, financiers and urban planners, who wanted to rid Manhattan of manufacturing and shift the main business of the port to New Jersey, as part of a plan to reposition New York as an international centre of banking, finance, advertising and entertainment.

Thus the construction of the World Trade Center – the ‘twin towers’ that now rival the Empire State Building as a symbol of the city’s energy and grandeur – was heavily promoted by the Rockefellers (Nelson, Governor of New York, and his brother David, head of the Chase Manhattan Bank), partly because it promised to raise real estate values and create new office space by displacing hundreds of small enterprises. Meanwhile, the Port of New York Authority rebuilt the docks across the Hudson River while allowing New York’s to deteriorate. By the early 1970s, much of the waterfront had been abandoned and blue-collar workers formed less than 30 per cent of the labour force. At the same time, working-class communities dispersed as urban renewal and public works projects – the Cross Bronx Expressway, Verrazano Bridge, Lincoln Center and the like – uprooted thousands of working-class families and thousands of others left their old neighbourhoods for the suburbs.

Even at the peak of its influence, as Freeman observes, the labour movement lacked the political and economic power to challenge this reinvention of the city. Labour, moreover, was divided against itself. Building trades union welcomed every new demolition and construction project, whatever its effect on the jobs of other unions. Black militancy fractured labour along a different fault line. The city’s Popular Front politics had always included a powerful interracial component; well before the rise of the Southern civil rights movement, New York had witnessed struggles for equality in employment and housing, as well as for desegregation. It was no coincidence that a New York team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke major league baseball’s colour bar in 1947, by signing Jackie Robinson. But housing and schools remained largely segregated, and many unions were racially exclusive. In the building trades, jobs passed from father to son, and efforts to give apprenticeships to non-whites met fierce resistance. Even the garment workers’ union, led by old-time socialists, refused to allow any positions of authority to its growing black and Puerto Rican membership.

The 1960s did see an expansion of unionism among non-whites, especially public-sector employees and hospital workers. But the pivotal event where labour and race were concerned was the 1968 teachers’ strike, which pitted one of the city’s most powerful unions (its members and leaders mostly Jewish) against black demands for community control of education. Even today, that battle remains a Rorschach test for New Yorkers who lived through it, with whites, especially Jews, recalling little more than threats of violence by black nationalists, and blacks still outraged by the racist appeals of the union president, Albert Shanker.

By the end of the 1960s, in a political manifestation of Newton’s third law of motion, every action seemed to produce a countervailing reaction. Black militancy produced white backlash. Maintaining the city’s hospitals, schools and low subway fares, coupled with better pay and benefits for unionised city workers, led to higher taxes and increased municipal debt. The dramatic expansion of the welfare rolls produced resentment against those who seemed to be living off the labour of others. Into this volatile situation burst the New York fiscal crisis, a watershed in the history of labour and of the city.

‘Working-Class New York’ packs an enormous amount of information into fewer than 350 pages of text. Indeed, the book’s principal flaw lies in its attempt to cover so much ground so quickly. Freeman, for example, does not say nearly enough about the racialised issues of street crime and welfare, and how these helped to shatter the older sense of a common working-class culture, setting white against non-white and working class against ‘underclass’. Nor does he investigate the recent remaking of the city’s working class, as immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe have flooded in, reclaiming abandoned neighbourhoods and infusing the local culture with their own experiences and traditions. Excessive brevity is not a complaint usually lodged against historians, but Working-Class New York would have benefited had Freeman been allowed another hundred pages or so to develop his ideas in the second half of the book.

The problem begins with his account of the fiscal crisis. By 1975, the city was more than $11 billion in debt. With the country in a recession, federal aid declining, the first oil crisis driving up prices, and the tax base shrivelling because of deindustrialisation, bankers declared they would no longer sell the city’s bonds. New York faced bankruptcy. Two years earlier, the Marxist economist James O’Connor had published The Fiscal Crisis of the State, a prescient book which argued that severe retrenchments in social services were inevitable because government could not meet the cost of the expanded welfare state. Freeman does not cite O’Connor’s book and unfortunately, devotes less attention to the structural financial imbalance than to the political uses to which the crisis was put. He is certainly correct, however, that it offered a golden opportunity to labour’s enemies to undo many of the gains working-class New Yorkers had achieved in the preceding quarter-century.

Having led the country in social democracy, New York now pointed the way towards Reaganism. The ‘solution’ to the crisis entailed a drastic reduction of the workforce, severe budget cuts for schools, parks and the subway system, the end of the century-old policy of free tuition at the City University, now vastly expanded because of ‘open admissions’, and cutbacks in garbage collection, roadworks and the maintenance of public facilities. Internally divided and on the defensive nationally, labour did not challenge the prevailing analysis that blamed the city’s problems on a bloated public sector and looked to a reduction of business and individual taxes to attract new investment.

Eventually, municipal services were more or less restored, but the ideological seachange catalysed by the fiscal crisis continues to shape New York’s politics. Public schools, hospitals and the City University, once sources of pride, have been persistently underfunded and are now widely perceived to be second-rate (or, what is worse, institutions primarily for non-whites). The essential premise of the social-democratic city – that New York deserved the best public services – has been replaced by the sense that this is a luxury the city simply cannot afford.

Labour remains a major presence. One third of the labour force still belongs to a union, more than double the national rate, although the most influential unions are those of municipal workers, not private-sector employees. Strikes are rare, and the days when the city government and business leaders regularly consulted the views of labour are long gone. Mayors Koch and Giuliani, who have governed the city for most of the past twenty years, owed little to organised labour. Last December, Giuliani obtained court orders threatening bus and subway workers with severe reprisals if they went on strike when their contracts expired, effectively bludgeoning the union into submission. No union leader or labour politician enjoys anything like the mass following of Mike Quill, the former head of the Transit Workers’ Union. Two years ago, when 40,000 construction workers marched across Midtown to protest about the use of non-union labour on building sites, they were seen by local white-collar employees as invaders from another planet. One tabloid headlined the event ‘Hunk Heaven’, suggesting that the protesters’ main attribute was not their membership of the working class but their aggressive masculinity, a counterpoint to the sexless world of the organisation man.

Throughout the Western world, the forward march of labour has been halted. Working-Class New York offers a masterful chronicle of this process in the capital of the capitalist world. The book resists temptations to nostalgia, although a certain romanticism occasionally slips in. (Only infrequent users of the subway are likely to share Freeman’s view of the 1970s graffiti plague as a harmless form of artistic expression.) At a time when the media would have one believe that the typical New Yorker is a young professional or millionaire, the book places labour where it belongs – at the centre of the city’s recent history.

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