Manufacturing in Manhattan

Eric Foner

  • Working-Class New York: Life and Labour Since World War Two by Joshua Freeman
    New Press, 393 pp, US $35.00, May 2000, ISBN 1 56584 575 7

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.

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