Workingman’s Blues

A few years back, the Los Angeles Local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union opened up the books to accept applications for 3,000 casual stevedore jobs. The positions paid well enough—about $28 per hour—but, as casual jobs, there were neither guarantees of regular work nor any benefits. Over 300,000 people applied. It was clearly a step up for a major percentage of the LA area’s physically fit, U.S. citizen/legal resident, drug-free blue collar workforce.

There was a time when someone with those qualifications (well, actually, you didn’t even have to be drug-free), could graduate high school or get discharged from the military on a Friday and start work in the steel mill on a Monday. If they didn’t like it there, they could hire into the auto plant on a Tuesday. There was a time when getting laid-off didn’t mean a near-permanent loss of income and career prospects. There was a time when going out on strike didn’t mean risking everything that you worked for.

I missed this heyday moment by a year or two. By the time I got my first full-time job in 1972, things were already beginning to turn to shit. Plant closings and permanent reductions in force were becoming part of the landscape and the country was about to be rocked by an oil crisis and a series of increasingly severe recessions. I was too late for the steel mill/auto plant thing but you could still fairly easily get a living wage job in a cookie factory or a warehouse and not worry too much about how you would survive if the plant closed or the boss fired you for being a smart ass. I traveled the country in the mid-70’s working a series of light construction and cannery jobs—many dispatched from union hiring halls or state employment agencies—that are being done today by undocumented immigrants at close to the same actual wage (not adjusted for inflation) that was prevalent back then.

Like many others who came of age during the civil rights, anti-war and social movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s, I expected that the revolution would shortly come to the workplace. We would soon break out of the confining terms of the post- World War II social contract. The very nature of work would be redefined, as our increasing productivity would begin to blur the lines between work and leisure. Workers would use their strategic position in the economy to leverage change around a wide range of issues ignored by the traditional labor movement.

Instead, I have spent most of the subsequent years as a labor activist trying to defend and restore this much-derided post-war social contract. In many ways, that first job was the best job I ever had. Blue-collar incomes peaked in 1973 and have never returned to those levels. By nearly every other standard of working class well being—from the affordability of housing to access to healthcare and higher education—things were much better for working people 30 years ago than they are today.

Things didn’t get to be this way by accident. After World War II, the U. S. economy was the strongest in the world. And the U.S labor movement emerged from the war years with a solid record of expansion and improvements. While never an equal partner in the relationship, labor was at least taken seriously by both management and government. Despite a sharp anti-labor reaction in the late 1940’s leading to the passage of the Taft-Hartley bill and the use of anti-communism to purge the labor movement of its radicals and dreamers, the labor mainstream had every expectation that conditions would continue to improve for workers.

To a large degree, they were right. For many years, we could win things at the bargaining table that workers in other countries had to fight revolutions or build political parties to achieve. In the process, aspirations that our movement had previously claimed as a right for all Americans—like health care, retirement security and the right to a job—became redefined as benefits provided by specific employers in the context of specific labor agreements.

Much has been written about the inequities of this “private welfare state”. From the very beginning, millions were excluded from the deal. Women and people of color were the primary participants in the “second tier” of employment (and unemployment) that never provided the security promised under the new social contract. From the start, most employers never really accepted that the labor movement was to become a permanent part of the social order. Many pioneered sophisticated employment strategies that matched or bettered union wages and benefits in order to prevent union organizing and limit the overall expansion of union power. Of course, as most of the conflicts and aspirations of the working class became privatized in fragmented collective bargaining procedures, the labor movement inevitably lost much of its vision and vitality. With that, it lost its ability, and its right, to mobilize millions of working people around an anti-corporate agenda.

But this narrative tells only half the story. While much can be said about the failure of vision and retreat from principle in the 1940’s labor movement, it would be grossly inaccurate to blame the post-war social contract on venal, corrupt and reactionary union bureaucrats. This contract enjoyed broad-based popular support. Workers fought long and hard to establish its terms and protect it against encroachments. People died for it. Families went hungry during long and bitter strikes. The history of the labor movement in the ‘40’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s is filled with a whole lot more conflict then many academic observers care to admit. Truth be told, I’m not so sure that if I was sitting across the bargaining table from General Motors or Standard Oil in 1948, that I wouldn’t have accepted the deal for my members. An entire generation of working people experienced unprecedented economic security. The gap between the rich and poor narrowed. Working hours decreased. People bought homes, sent their kids to college, took real vacations and retired in dignity. When you ask working people today what kind of world they’d like to create it sounds amazingly similar to the world that many workers lived in the 50’s and 60’s. (And please don’t write those nasty letters; I carry no brief for the racism, patriarchy and environmental degradation that also characterized this era).

Along came the 1970’s. The added stimulus of Vietnam War production put the post-war expansion on steroids and led to an extraordinary demand for labor. The legacy of the 1960’s civil rights and other social movements fed a new assertiveness among workers. The growth of inflationary pressures created new tensions. The number of strikes skyrocketed. Many were “wildcat strikes” led by young radicals in defiance of a union officialdom who often appeared to act as if their main job was enforcing the “social peace” portion of the postwar labor deal.

But capital never accepted this deal as permanent. At the same time that young working class radicals were dreaming about rewriting the whole social contract (joined by a slew of former campus radicals affiliated with a veritable alphabet soup of Marxist organizations), big business was drawing up plans of its own. And those plans sure didn’t include a world in which “the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.”

The latter part of the 1970’s was a time of crisis and retrenchment in the whole global economic system. As they say, crisis is opportunity. Capital needed to break out of the restrictive national structures that limited its mobility and its capacity to organize all of human activity around the rate of profit and return on investment. While the press, academic and political worlds were distracted fighting increasingly silly and irrelevant culture wars, a profound realignment was taking place in economic power relations. Corporations began to take the offensive around a wide range of policy, regulatory and legal issues. They quickly learned that, once they abandoned the premises and niceties of the post-war social contract, the labor movement had pretty much become a paper tiger. We had lost the only weapon that had brought them to the table in the first place—the capacity to create widespread social disruption.

We in the labor movement didn’t know what hit us. In 1981, I stood on the National Mall with half a million of my union brothers and sisters in solidarity with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strikers who had just been fired and had their union busted by Ronald Reagan. While we marched, we watched the planes take off and land at National Airport just across the river. We’ve been pretty much standing on the same Mall ever since.

We didn’t see it at the time but, looking back, it is clear now that the 1970’s was a time of fundamental re-orientation of the terms and conditions of working class life. Just as the story of the 1930’s holds the key to understanding the post-war Golden Age, so the 1970’s are crucial to the understanding of the rising inequality and the political impotence of the U.S. working class over the past 30 years.

Jefferson Cowie says that the working class died in the 1970’s. His book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class attempts to capture the texture and feel of working class culture and politics in the 1970’s and to explain how and why the long post-war period of working class prosperity ended and a new Gilded Age emerged in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, Cowie leaves us with an imperfect and often ahistorical picture of that crucial decade. Like the television series That 70’s Show, the book evokes a picture of the 70’s as a quaint time with a cast of characters that are sometimes sweet and sometimes disturbing but who have very little in common with contemporary issues and concerns. An aura of romantic defeat hangs over the whole enterprise.

Cowie does a good job showing what it felt like to be an alienated blue collar worker and how the passions of the 60’s bled into the fabric of working class life. What he doesn’t really convey is how the sense of having both individual and social might empowered workers and scared the crap out of the bosses. In the early 70’s, people could really tell the boss to take this job and shove it. 200,000 postal workers could walk out on an illegal strike, face down the National Guard and win. African American workers could successfully challenge racially-based occupational hierarchies. Women could earn enough on their own that they could free themselves and their children from abusive relationships and “pin money” jobs. And, for a while at least, it appeared that the bosses couldn’t do a damn thing about it except suck it up. Like the U.S. military in the last days of Vietnam, there was a massive breakdown of discipline on the shop floor of almost every major industrial workplace.

Likewise with politics Cowie does a good job showing how the New Deal agenda got sidetracked in fights over busing and other social issues—first with the rise of George Wallace populism and the appropriation of its symbols by Nixon and then in a pissing contest between the AFL-CIO and the “new politics” folks around the McGovern campaign. These diversions resulted, in Cowie’s view, in the defeat of major labor legislation like national healthcare and labor law reform and, in a preview of the symbol-over-substance politics of Clinton/Obama, a multi-year campaign to win the passage of a toothless Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill that never put one worker back to work.

What’s missing in this perspective is how much—throughout the entire ‘70’s—working people expected the government to respond to their needs and concerns. Its hard to believe now after 30 years of neo-liberal orthodoxy but the 70’s was still a time when people expected their government to develop policies to provide secure employment and decent standards for everyone. If meat prices were too high, somebody better damn well do something about it. If gasoline was scarce, the government better find out why and make sure it is fairly distributed. And, in many ways, the federal, state and local governments continued to deliver. The early 70’s was a time of broad expansion of the regulatory state, including the passage of landmark environmental and health and safety legislation (the OSHA Act, as Cowie points out, was actually the product of Nixon’s “hardhat strategy”). Governments acted to directly control prices and organize production in ways that were beneficial to working people. While unions of the time universally denounced the various anti-inflation wage-freezing schemes of Nixon, Ford and Carter, the fact that there was an apparent bi-partisan consensus that government had a role in determining the division of income between wage labor and capital is almost inconceivable in these post modern times.

The defeat of George McGovern was, in Cowie’s view, the beginning of the end for a strongly influential labor voice in national politics. He sees it as a bit of a tragedy with the AFL-CIO self-destructively clinging to its role as insider kingmaker and the McGovern forces botching the opportunity to build a winning strategy based on economic populism. But he underplays the greater tragedy of the rise of a “new politics” divorced from class issues, unbeholden to real constituencies and easily accommodating itself to the interests of capital while promoting the lifestyle concerns of suburban social liberals. Many of the original victories of neo-liberalism emerged from this milieu whose proponents, claiming to advance the interests of the “consumer,” began in the latter 70’s a process of “deregulation” that resulted in the impoverishment of literally millions of truck drivers, airline workers and telecommunication workers. (Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade: How the U.S. Traded Factories for Finance in the 70’s lays this process out in brutal detail.)

For a guy whose earlier book Capitol Moves: RCA’s 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor is a masterful exposition of the impact of corporate decisions on working class community, the capitalist class is strangely absent from Stayin’ Alive. He tends to view the growing employer resistance to fairly innocuous reforms such as the watered down Carter labor law reform bill as merely an opportunistic grasping for advantage in the give and take of negotiations among elites. But something more fundamental was afoot as capitalism entered into a period of profound crisis in the later 70’s. Whether this crisis was caused by a falling rate of profit brought about by excess global industrial capacity, a falling rate of productivity caused by a newly assertive working class or, as Judith Stein’s more nuanced version would have it, the tension between traditional Keynesian macro-economic polices and a free-trade regime that shifted investment abroad and made the U.S. market a dumping ground for the mercantilist economies of Europe and Japan, a neo-liberal consensus on its solution began to emerge.

Unions had no place in this solution nor did governments that were strong enough to introduce any effective constraints on capital. Market discipline would be reasserted by any means necessary. Failure to place this dynamic at the center of a narrative about the death of the traditional working class is like looking at a corpse with a knife in its back and asserting that it probably died because of all the junk food and cigarettes it consumed. (Though the case could certainly be made that it was so distracted by the junk food that it didn’t see the knife coming until it was too late. Certainly United Auto Workers Union President’s Doug Fraser’s belated 1978 epiphany that the business community has “chosen to wage a one-sided class war” falls in that category.)

And Cowie’s book is certainly filled to the brim with artery-clogging cultural tidbits. All of the familiar tropes that one could glean from perusing a stack of 1970’s era Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines are included. Everything from the All in the Family TV series to the Rocky movies and the Bruce Springsteen concerts are mined for meaning and substance. It is certainly refreshing to be reminded of a time that took the cultural representation of working people’s lives so seriously and Cowie uses them to evoke a powerful sense of time and place. But these cultural productions are, at best, pale representations of a living, breathing working class in all of its complexity. They say more about the perceptions, insecurities and ideologies of those who produced, financed and distributed them then about their purported subjects.

Worse, they work to perpetuate the stuck-in-amber, death-of-the-working-class theme. There’s no way to get to here from there. Cowie’s muse throughout the book is the autoworker Dewey Burton who himself was a bit of an artifact created by the New York Times. The Times interviewed him every couple of years in the 70’s and early 80’s—usually around election time—in a “pulse of the workingman”-style story. The interviews track his progression from a Humphrey Democrat to a conflicted George Wallace supporter to an eager Reagan Democrat to a disillusioned cynic realizing all too late that Reaganism began a process that led to the destruction of his way of life and the closing of the auto plant where he worked. Cowie tracks him down in retirement, alone and isolated in Florida. The working class life he knew, says Dewey, is “gone and it’s not gonna happen again.”

But Dewey better hope that there is some life left in the working class if he wants to continue to receive his retirement medical benefits from Ford. His son is living in a world shaped by the decisions and struggles of the 1970’s. And surely a public worker in Wisconsin could benefit from an understanding of how the industrial working class was defeated in the “one-sided class warfare” of the 1980’s.

Cowie’s implication of a lack of continuity between past and present is nowhere more mistaken than in his dismissal of the long-term impact of the 1970’s rank and file insurgencies. All of the big fights are there—the Mineworkers for Democracy, the Sadlowski campaign, Lordstown, Farmworkers uprising, Women Office Workers, and the Revolutionary Union Movement— noble in their defeat, leaving little in their wake. He is particularly dismissive of the New Left caucuses that sent their members into the 1970’s workplace to build for a revolutionary transformation.

It is true that the revolution never happened. And many of the left “colonizers” turned out to be horse’s asses and went back to law school after a year or two on the job. But today’s labor movement was born in the cauldron of the 1970’s. As Steve Early points out in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, many of today’s union staffers and leaders came to the labor movement from radical campus politics. More importantly, the labor movement would not have made it into the 21st Century without the fighting spirit that was recovered in the rank and file movements of the 70’s. Without Miners for Democracy, there would have been no victory in the Pittston strike. Without the rise of Teamster insurgent movements, the mob would have run America’s largest union into the ground and the AFL-CIO would not have embraced new leadership in 1995. Without the techniques of public and corporate campaigns honed in the J. P. Stevens, Farah and Farmworkers fights, unions would never have survived the war of attrition waged against them in the succeeding decades. Over half of the membership in the current labor movement can be attributed to the explosion in public worker organizing that took off in the decade. The 1970’s is not a closed book. We’re living with its consequences every day.

And that’s the real tragedy of the 1970’s. It’s the last time that we, as a working class, had real power and we blew it. We had them on the ropes and they ended up beating the shit out of us. Our old leaders were so enraptured by the illusion of power that they let real power slip through their fingers and spent the next twenty years trying to get back to a seat at a table that no longer existed. Those of us who opposed them thought that the liberal/labor consensus was permanent when, all the while, the ground was shifting beneath our feet. No new class-based political movement came together. Workers remained divided and fragmented: waging a militant and visionary fight one day, succumbing to apathy or racist vituperation the next. When the smoke cleared, a new global order had emerged. It was a world that none of us would have imagined at the beginning of the decade.

Cowie uses the movie Saturday Night Fever—the quintessential 1970’s disco film—as the central metaphor for the 1970’s. John Travoltta plays Tony Manero—a working class disco king from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Tony and his friends “have no lives. Dancing’s all they got.” Their desperation plays out in increasingly self-destructive ways. The movie ends with Tony taking the subway into Manhattan to join his girlfriend in a borrowed apartment with the accoutrements of what will soon come to be called the yuppie lifestyle. “Their old blue-collar community is relegated to some forgotten past to which neither they nor the viewer will return.”

That’s where Cowie leaves us. It would have been nice if he found out what happened to Tony’s friends or gone back to take a look at the old neighborhood. I bet it’s still there, even though they stopped making movies about it.

From March, 2011