Working-class New York

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 14 08:26:26 MDT 2000

New York Times, May 14, 2000

Local Heroes
New York's working people, a historian argues, are the key to the city's
singular stature.

Related Link  First Chapter: 'Working-Class New York':


New Yorkers consider their city an exceptional place, unique in the nation
as a center of commerce, culture, finance and entertainment. (Make it in
New York and you can make it anywhere.) Rarely, however, has someone
claimed that the city's working people are in fact the key to its
exceptional stature. This is precisely what Joshua B. Freeman asserts. In
''Working-Class New York,'' Freeman, an associate professor of history at
Queens College, argues that the strength of organized labor and its
continued political influence in the three decades following World War II
were largely responsible for the rise of a social democratic politics that
made the city special. The presence of organized labor, Freeman says, even
gave the city its ''cultural greatness.''

''Working-Class New York'' actually comprises two books. The most
compelling story explores efforts on the part of organized working people,
in close connection with liberal politicians of both parties, to provide
affordable housing, health insurance and decent jobs as the city's economy
underwent a formidable transformation in the postwar decades. While little
that is dramatically new is revealed here, Freeman's account is an
important reminder that social policy is not made simply by political elites.

Far more problematic, however, is the book's other story, Freeman's attempt
to understand the meaning of these efforts. This story's villain is an
elitist ''hegemonic liberalism'' that used means both fair but more often
foul to crush the social democratic impulse. Two stand out particularly.
The anti-Communism of the 1950's, he argues, deprived the labor movement of
effective leaders, leaving the unions with little alternative but to
gravitate toward ''the liberal center.'' Twenty years later, the city's
fiscal crisis allowed financial leaders to implement ''a general
corporatist approach'' that reduced city jobs and services.

The book's heroes, in turn (this really is a ''friends and enemies'' type
of book), are the Communist and independent leftists who envisioned a labor
movement ''winning and wielding social power.'' It's a heady tale, to be
sure, but one that is fundamentally flawed.

It would have been valuable, given its importance to his central argument,
for Freeman to distinguish between liberalism and social democratic
politics. Similarly, one looks in vain for an explanation of Freeman's
praise for Franklin Roosevelt while dismissing liberalism, the New Deal's
reigning political philosophy.

In addition, Freeman is often unrealistic. To argue that the revival of the
Labor Day parade in 1981 (following a 13-year hiatus), together with the
unsuccessful mayoral candidacy of State Assemblyman Frank Barbaro, a son of
the old left, ''testified to the continuing institutional strength of New
York unionism'' suggests a fatal penchant for symbolism over political
substance. But this is part of the book's pattern: the only unmitigated
good noted in organized labor comes from those with ties to a left
heritage. That may be comforting to some, but it is profoundly misleading.

Despite its title, actual working people are not the subject of this book.
While Freeman explores in loving detail the positions of a few left-led
unions with a combined membership of less than 40,000, he blithely
dismisses Catholic anti-Communist demonstrations, some as large as 50,000,
as simply a manipulative creation of New York's Roman Catholic archbishop,
Cardinal Francis Spellman. In an analysis of a city that was 50 percent
Catholic, with a large, multiethnic and organized Catholic working class,
this strains credibility. A sustained examination of the political and
social activities of working people in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and
South Brooklyn, Harlem, the Lower East Side and elsewhere would have
revealed men and women whose own, often militant, commitments frequently
diverged from the leaders and causes Freeman so romanticizes. That story
still awaits its historian.

(Nick Salvatore teaches American history at Cornell University and is
writing a biography of the Rev. C. L. Franklin.)

Louis Proyect
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