Look for the Union Labor


You may remember having your patience tried by Ric Burns’s recent PBS documentary about New York City. Not by the length of the multipart series, but by its tireless triumphalism. How many times, and in how many ways, could we endure being told that New York is the greatest city on the face of the earth? Labor historian Joshua Freeman, author of the nontriumphalist Working-Class New York, and of a previous study of the transport workers union in New York, does not believe that all of history’s roads lead to Times Square. His book is about New York exceptionalism, and it provides a very useful way of explaining how the good, proletarian city—the city of public affluence, co-op spirit, and union prowess—morphed so rapidly into the heartless, yuppie city of private gain. The rise and fall of this workers’ demiparadise, or Moscow-on-the-Hudson, as neocon wags termed it, has never been narrated so lucidly. Best of all, his poignant account of pre-yuppie Gotham portrays a labor movement that once saw itself as an urban movement, actively engaged in building a better city, as opposed to simply protecting jobs or negotiating wages in return for productivity.

In a landscape that never hosted steel mills, cotton mills, or auto factories—the standard smokestack iconography of industrial activity—New York still had more manufacturing jobs, by 1947, than Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles combined. In the dense street-and-subway culture of the city’s industrial districts, hosting tens of thousands of small firms, not large Fordist factories, financial elites had to rub shoulders with the workers whose labor directly generated their profits. After 40 years of massive industrial flight, all that has changed. In the New York of global finance capital, elites dine off prole labor in other countries, and have no need to be familiar, in any way, with the local entrepôt of working people. Freeman believes the city is “less civilized” as a result. Needless to say, this understanding of civility is quite remote from the street-cleaning mentality behind Mayor Giuliani’s crusade against civic disorder.

Traditionally, civility is something we are supposed to learn from our betters. In Working-Class New York, it is a support system devised by working people to better their lot. Between the late 1930s and the mid 1970s, Freeman argues persuasively, the city’s trade unions created a welfare polity much closer to European social democracy than to anything in America. Workers enjoyed shorter hours (an average 38-hour week in the 1960s), while organized-labor power ensured progressive policies at City Hall: rent controls, low transit fares, free college tuition, and open enrollment. Unions sponsored and built mammoth co-op housing projects, where as many as 120,000 people lived by 1970, a number equal to a quarter of all public housing residents. Clinics, health centers, and medical systems operated by unions also provided a humane alternative to the privatizedfee-for-service model. Because they are less well-known, Freeman gives a generous account of these feats in housing and health care. He might have gone further, for his picture of labor as a master-builder and active provider of worker welfare explodes the neocon myth that New York liberalism was a lavish handout at taxpayers’ expense. In fact, it was the dues of union members themselves that built a large part of the city’s welfare state.

White male workers benefited most, at least before suburban outmigration. With the rise of public employees unions, dominated by African Americans and Puerto Ricans, and inspired by civil rights activism, labor’s baton was passed on, often grudgingly, by whites who resisted every inch of desegregation. For Freeman, the infamous revolt of the con-struction worker “hardhats”—stereotypes of unreconstructed masculinity—against antiwar student protesters, hippies, women, and minorities is striking evidence that, by 1968, “the generosity of spirit once characteristic of working-class New York seemed to have shriveled.” Yet the hardhat tantrums might just as easily be evidence that Freeman’s golden age of humanitarian solidarity, built around the scaffolding of white male bonding, was always more shaky than he lets on.

The meanest season was yet to come, after the city’s fiscal crisis of 1975, when bankers and financial elites staged a coup and promptly put to the sword many of the achievements of the past three decades of urban liberalism. In retrospect, the carnage visited on the city’s public sector was the original test case for the structural-adjustment policies and austerity measures imposed on populations across the world by the IMF. The fiscal crisis also knocks some of the wind out of Freeman’s sails, and his post-1975 chapters have a more perfunctory feel to them, as labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum, Albert Shanker, Stanley Hill, Dennis Rivera, John Sweeney, and Sandra Feldman parade through the pages, alternately jousting and sweet-talking with mayors, developers, and financiers. So acute is the sense of loss and decline that the task of describing the city’s new working class, deeply altered in composition and outlook, cannot draw the author’s panache in the same measure as the glory days of the ILGWU.

Yet New York exceptionalism endures. In the early 1990s, we learn, a million New Yorkers still carried a union card, about the same number as 40 years earlier, and almost twice the national percentage. In the face of persistent disclosures of mob payoffs, employer kickbacks, stuffed ballots, and rampant corruption among the aristocracy of labor, why are workers still looking to unions as their best shot at economic justice? Working-Class New York attests, with verve and passion, to the debt owed by labor to the legacies of New Deal liberalism. But labor’s recent revival has been driven primarily by rank-and-file insurgencies and a thirst for union democracy that is transforming the often authoritarian institutions of the liberal era. If this grassroots movement continues to thrive alongside labor’s new coalitions (like the steelworkers’ current love affair with antisweatshop students), we may soon need to add a new chapter to the history that Freeman covers so brilliantly here.

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