FW: What happened to the U.S. working class?

Craven, Jim jcraven at clark.edu
Mon Sep 10 17:26:52 MDT 2001

For discussion purposes; sending this does not imply endorsement of the

Jim C.

If I Had a Hammer
Whatever Happened to America's Working Class?


September 2 2001; Los Angeles Times


Nothing so astonishes us--the professional middle
class--as a visible working   class. To the media
(both news and entertainment), to most urban and
suburban   professionals, workers are like
wallpaper: always around us, seldom noticed.   When
they do emerge from the background, we are amazed:
Where did they come   from? Were they there all

On a June day in 1998, 40,000 construction workers,
protesting the hiring of a nonunion firm to erect
a new government building, blocked Madison Avenue in
midtown Manhattan. The media's reaction, Queens
College professor Joshua B.   Freeman tells us in
"Working Class New York," his groundbreaking history
of   post-World War II New York, was to cover the
story as if the city had been   occupied by some
exotic new species. An editor at New York magazine
called the   workers "an invading army"; the Daily
News marveled at the politically   incomprehensible
spectacle of hard-hats battling the cops; the New
York Post, in its inimitable high-minded fashion,
described the demo as "hunk heaven," a   runway, 20
blocks long, of virile proles modeling the latest in
work shirts. A   similar astonishment greeted Los
Angeles' janitors when they took to the streets for
their epochal strike in the spring of last year.
Normally among the most ubiquitous and least-noticed
of workers, suddenly the janitors became the
noisiest and most obtrusive, parading down
boulevards, holding up traffic for   half-hour
intervals, chanting slogans, banging drums. The
strike was a four-week Dickensian morality play
pitting L.A.'s poorest residents against some of its
richest. As many middle-class Angelenos came to
understand the battle, the most astonishing sight of
all was their response: Blocked in traffic, emerging
from their cars, shaking their fists and shouting,
not in anger but in support. But always, their first
reaction was a shock of recognition: "These must be
the   janitors. The bit players have become
protagonists. The white noise is speaking   to us."

It has been almost four decades since Michael
Harrington forced Americans to   acknowledge the
existence of poverty in our midst in his classic
work, "The   Other America." We were the first
nation in history, he argued, to have an
"invisible poor." Since then, we have always had
with us a visible poor; poverty is a state and a
problem that the government and society recognize as

Since then, it's the working class that has
disappeared as a construct, though   clearly not as
a reality. All America, we are told, is divided into
three parts: rich, middle class and poor. In one
poll after another, about 90% of Americans identify
themselves as middle class because they almost
invariably are given just those three categories
from which to choose. When presented with a fourth
option, however, that 90% splits in two: 45% call
themselves middle class and 45% working class.

But that fourth option is seldom presented in
polling or anywhere else. Except   for cop shows,
the working class has vanished from prime-time TV;
the   outer-borough New York of Ralph Kramden and
Archie Bunker has given way to the   Manhattan of
"Seinfeld" and "Friends." Television newscasts
generally ignore   labor stories even more than they
ignore other real news, while the number of   labor-
beat reporters on major newspapers continues its
decades-long decline. In   America, the working
class is out of mind--so out of mind that it's out
of   sight.

Just in the last year, however, unions have finally
begun to receive their due   in our understanding of
modern American history. For the last several
decades,   the consensus among historians of all
ideologies was that unions entered the   American
chronicle during the '30s, grew ossified,
bureaucratic and (some of   them) corrupt in the
'50s and dwindled to insignificance by the '80s.
Acts 1 and 3 of this saga don't need any
rectification, but the historians' treatment of Act
2, it is increasingly clear, has been so wrongheaded
that it has missed the central point of unions'
contribution to American history.

That contribution, quite simply, was the creation
after World War II of the   first genuine mass
prosperity in the history of humankind. The one
period of   union strength in American history,
roughly the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s,
overlaps precisely with the only period in United
States history when wealth was widely shared, when
working-class incomes rose as steeply as middle-
class incomes. The real weekly wages of
nonsupervisory workers increased by 62% from 1947 to
1972; since '72, they have not again been nearly so
high. Moreover, the period when American workers
made their greatest gains was 1945 to 1960, a time
when workers first won pension plans and health
insurance (and, some of them, cost-of-living
increases) from their employers, regular increases
in the minimum wage and unemployment compensation
from the government, and moved into the first mass-
produced decent housing the world had known. This
was, not coincidentally, also the time when unions
represented roughly one-third of all nonagricultural
workers; they have not been nearly so large or
powerful since.

To understand how unions wrought this distributive
revolution in postwar America requires us to revisit
and re-envision the key decade in that revolution--
the 1950s. To speak of the '50s and revolution in
the same breath, of course, is to run counter not
just to the official version of American history but
to virtually every version of American history. To
the right, the '50s were a time of business
preeminence ("What's good for General Motors," said
the head of General Motors in 1955, "is good for the
USA"), social tranquillity, patriarchal authority,
stay-at-home moms and sound family values we'd do
well to emulate today. To the left, it was a time of
purging of the communist left from liberal
institutions (unions particularly), of McCarthyism,
mass conformity, Cold War hysteria and stultifying
dullness--the bad decade against which adolescents
and young adults justly rebelled in the '60s. To the
center, left and right alike, the '50s were
America's "Ozzie and Harriet" inter! val--after the
tumultuous '30s and '40s, a nap time for America.

So it comes as a shock to learn, in Jack Metzgar's
"Striking Steel," that there   were more strikes
during the "good gray" '50s than there were during
the   "sit-in" '30s, the "in-the-streets" '60s or,
indeed, any other decade in   American history.
"Striking Steel" is a brilliant combination of labor
history,   family memoir and historical meditation
that takes as its starting point   Metzgar's
puzzlement that what should be viewed as a mega-
event in labor   history--the 1959 steel strike, the
largest work stoppage in U.S. history, which saw
more than 500,000 workers stay off the job for 116
days--has fallen into a historical black hole.
Despite its scope and importance, the '59 strike
figures nowhere in any labor history or history of
the decade. Indeed, Metzgar has surveyed every major
history of the postwar United States--18 of them--
and finds only one that offers more than a passing
note about the decade's strikes.

When labor appears at all in these accounts, it is
to be chastised as corrupt or (when the historian is
progressive) conservative. When the historians turn
to the creation of mass prosperity, surely the
decade's single most important   social fact, they
leave unions out of the equation. Mass prosperity,
well, just   kinda happened.

Part of the problem is that unions were so large,
powerful and socially   legitimate in the '50s--in a
1958 Gallup Poll, 76% of Americans approved of
them--that their strikes and bargaining victories
did not require the desperate, and more dramatic,
measures that invested the strikes of the '30s and
the civil rights campaigns of the '60s with such an
obvious theatrical and moral grandeur.

Drama demands visible conflict, and the '59 strike
had little of that. Though   the United Steelworkers
didn't even have a strike fund in 1959, virtually
none   of its half-million striking members crossed
the picket line, nor did management even consider
recruiting strikebreakers. Clustered in Pittsburgh
or Chicago's southern suburbs, in mill towns like
Bethlehem or Johnstown, Pa. (where Metzgar grew up),
the steelworkers dominated their communities, or
effectively were their communities. Many shopkeepers
extended them credit and, through their union, they
had amassed enough political clout and community
bona fides that the local civic establishments
supported them, too.

The United Steelworkers struck the industry in 1946,
'49, '52, '56 and '59, and, though the first of
these strikes saw some real clashes, thereafter
these were somewhat routinized affairs. The '59
strike took so long to settle because   management
had planned to outlast the strikers and force the
union to relinquish its coequal power over changing
work rules. In the end, the workers outlasted the
companies and returned to work victorious.
Thereafter, until the industry crumbled in the early
'80s, the workers' power was such that management no
longer sought to provoke them, and they were able to
win further advances without having to strike at

The cumulative effect of these postwar steel
strikes, and the contemporaneous   strikes and
bargaining victories of the United Auto Workers and
other unions,   was a massive redistribution of
wealth and power in America and, at the time,
press accounts of these battles dominated the news.
Today, writes Metzgar,   "[a]ccording to the
standard conception of American history, none of
this   happened, or could have happened.... The
organized working class and its unions   get
'disappeared' from postwar American history because
they don't fit. To   recognize and remember a
working class with distinct interests would require
the professional middle-class to recognize our
values and interests as related to our class rather
than as the social norm to which everyone should

To remember what the working class did in the 1950s,
moreover, would require   labor historians--almost
all of them literal or spiritual children of the
'60s   left--to validate, at least in part, the
decade against which they defined   themselves. In
Metzgar's case, rethinking the '50s also involves
coming to terms with his late father, a Steelworkers
Union grievance official at the Johnstown plant who
was also a domineering pain in the ass to virtually
all who   encountered him. "Striking Steel" is, in
this sense, an unusually cleareyed   entry in the
"Greatest Generation" genre, but it is much more
than an act of   filial piety. It is a signally
important contribution to American economic
history and a companion volume to such
contemplations of memory and history as   Norman M.
Klein's "The History of Forgetting." Above all, it
is an important   addition to the small but growing
collection of books that challenge our   prevailing
views of the '50s: Alan Ehrenhalt's "The Lost City,"
a study of   Chicago in the early years of Richard
Daley the First; Maurice Isserman's "If I   Had a
Hammer," a consideration of the '50s left; and
Freeman's magisterial work   on postwar New York.

>From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, New York's
unions exercised more power on their home turf than
those of any other city, but it was a different kind
of power than the kind that Metzgar outlines. Giant
industrial unions like the United Steelworkers or
the Auto Workers were able to wrest a kind of
privatized welfare state from their equally giant
employers. There were no such giant employers in New
York, save the city itself; New York's largest union
for the two decades following the war was the
International Ladies Garment Workers   Union, whose
200,000 in-city members were spread across many
hundreds of firms.

What the unions were able to do was to use their own
resources and their   considerable political clout
to create a hybrid but genuine social democracy in
one city. Levittown, for instance, was only one
part--the private-sector   suburban part--of postwar
New York's housing boom. Unions themselves erected
tens of thousands of new housing units throughout
the city during those years   and pressured the city
to erect tens of thousands of its own. Freeman
figures   that fully 21% of the 785,000 housing
units built in New York between 1946 and 1970 were
in either union or public projects. During the '50s,
the city's unions established their own health-care
centers--precursors to nonprofit HMOs--that enabled
a million New Yorkers access to probably the first
preventive medicine they had ever known. In 1962,
midway through the 12-year mayoralty of the largely
forgotten Robert Wagner, the city, at the prodding
of its unions, even enacted America's first and only
municipal minimum wage, though the courts soon
struck it down. Replete with communists, ex-
communists, socialists and social democrats, New
York labor envisioned and realized a social unionism
much more far-reaching than that of any other U.S.
city or state.

In time, however, social democracy in one city met
the same fate as socialism in one country. Many
businesses relocated to cheaper climes (compelling
the Ladies' Garment Workers to accept low-ball
contracts in New York in an ultimately futile
attempt to reduce the job flight), while the city's
banks forced a massive rollback in municipal
services during the fiscal crisis of the mid-'70s.
As it did in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, the
middle began to fall out of the economy of New York
in the '70s. The vast number of immigrants who've
gone to the city in the last two decades encounter
an economy with a badly shrunken manufacturing base,
forcing many of them into low-wage service sector
jobs and some into the city's nouvelle sweatshop
sector. With union power greatly weakened, the low
end of New York manufacturing bears some grim
resemblances to the sweatshop economy of 100 years

Between the corporate welfare states that industrial
unions forced their   employers to create and the
municipal welfare state that New York unionists were
able to erect, a third model of union-made
prosperity also sprang up in postwar America.
Confronting a sector with literally thousands of
local and regional employers, inflicting upon their
members a union with little or no internal
democracy, the postwar Teamsters, under Dave Beck
and the elder Jimmy Hoffa, built themselves into not
only the nation's largest union but also one that
delivered good wages and benefits. They did this,
according to Barnard College historian Thaddeus
Russell in his new Hoffa biography, "Out of the
Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American
Working Class," chiefly because, by the very nature
of trucking, they had far more jurisdictional
conflicts with other unions than any of their
counterparts and therefore had to deliver the goods
to their members lest they defect.

But "Out of the Jungle" is an oddly maddening book.
Focusing chiefly on Hoffa's   two-decade career in
Detroit before he assumed the Teamster presidency in
the   late '50s, it recounts with a studied academic
detachment his various organizing techniques--from
his brilliant use of worker boycotts (the drivers
wouldn't truck nonunion goods, the warehousemen
wouldn't unload nonunion trucks) to his consistent
employment of violence (bombing recalcitrant
employers, beating up members threatening to
defect). The book's villain, amazingly, is Hoffa's
fellow Detroiter and postwar America's greatest
union leader, United Auto Workers President Walter
Reuther. By pursuing a vision of industrial
democracy, which occasionally entailed a cessation
of inter-union competition, Russell argues, Reuther
left the trucking field to Hoffa and his ilk, giving
them a free hand to create an undemocratic and at
times unresponsive union.

This breathtakingly perverse thesis is actually
contradicted by several crucial   points in
Russell's own narrative. First, one key to the
Teamsters' successes in Detroit was that the UAW,
far from competing with them, actually had a de
facto nonaggression pact with Hoffa. Second, after
the expulsion of the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO in
1957, it was Reuther who wanted the federation to
raid its members; he was thwarted in this design by
the AFL-CIO's old-line president, George Meany, who
was nobody's idea of an industrial democrat. Third,
the Teamsters wouldn't have required so much
external prodding to craft decent contracts if Beck,
Hoffa and the gang had created a union with some
accountability to its membership. (This is not to
say that inter-union   competition can't be a spur
to organizing. The ongoing rival organizing
campaigns of the Service Employees International
Union and the California Nurses Assn. are yielding a
large number of good, first-time union contracts in
California hospitals.)

The other peculiarity in "Out of the Jungle" is the
absence of Hoffa from much   of the book. Focusing
on the inter-union competition and on the presumably
nefarious doings of Reuther & Co., it fails to tell
with any clarity the story   of Hoffa's rise within
the union and conveys hardly anything about this
most   vivid of trade union personalities. Jimmy
Hoffa may be the most famous   disappeared person in
American history, and damned if he hasn't
disappeared   again, this time in the middle of his
own biography.

The past that Metzgar and Freeman (brilliantly) and
Russell (shakily) relate to   us isn't distant, but
it sure seems like a foreign country. The moderately
prosperous and clearly visible working class of
postwar America--and in order to become and stay
prosperous, a working class must be visible,
organized, large, assertive--has vanished over the
last quarter-century. Union membership, once at 35%
of the national work force, now is an anemic 13%.
Working-class incomes, in decline since the '70s,
ticked up slightly in the last couple of years,
largely because of the effect of a full-employment
economy on the lowest-paid workers, but with
unemployment upward bound, those incomes will likely
resume their descent.

In the last few years, a handful of major unions
have endeavored to turn these   trends around. Under
brilliant leadership, both the Service Employees
International Union and the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees Union have   had major
successes organizing and winning good contracts for
a range of   workers, many of them immigrants in
low-wage sectors. In Los Angeles, last   year's
striking janitors--members of a statewide local in
the Service Employees   Union--won themselves a 26%
raise over three years; and L.A.'s hotel and
restaurant union locals were the generative force
behind both L.A.'s and Santa   Monica's
groundbreaking living wage ordinances. All these
efforts have been   greatly aided by the political
clout of the L.A. County Federation of Labor,
which, since Miguel Contreras took the helm in 1996,
has been the single most   dynamic and effective
force in local elections (though it took a bath in
this   year's L.A. City Council and mayoral races).

At first glance, L.A.'s union movement today may
seem a match for postwar New   York's. L.A.'s new-
model labor movement is probably the nation's
foremost   advocate for immigrant rights in much the
same way, for example, that New York   unions took
the lead in backing the civil rights movement of the
'50s and '60s   (and immigrant rights in earlier
decades). The fundamental difference between   the
two cities' movements is one less of vision than of
numbers: New York's   unionization rate in the
decades after World War II was a good deal more than
twice that of L.A.'s today. Los Angeles may be home
to the nation's largest   manufacturing sector but,
with the departure of aerospace and auto plants,
that   sector is almost entirely nonunion. Without
larger numbers, it's hard to craft   truly expansive
union social programs, even such desperately needed
ones as the   creation of union-backed affordable
housing developments.

Indeed, without a larger union movement, it's hard
to envision a viable Los   Angeles. A 1996 study for
the state Assembly Select Committee on the
California   Middle Class found that 66% of L.A.
County residents lived in households with   annual
incomes of less than $40,000 (40% in households with
less than $20,000),   while just 26% of the
households had middle-class ($40,000 to $100,000)
annual   incomes. The last few years of low
unemployment have doubtless produced more
heartening figures, but not much more heartening.
New data from last year's   census show California
ranking next to last among the states in its
percentage   of middle-income residents. Another new
census report says that 18 of the   nation's 25
cities with the greatest residential crowding per
housing unit are   in California, almost all of them
working-class suburbs of L.A. The three most
overcrowded areas in the U.S. are East Los Angeles,
El Monte and Santa Ana,   where, it's reasonable to
conclude, two and three immigrant families live in
units built for just one, or 10 and 12 immigrant
workers are camped out in a   single apartment.

That's a far cry from postwar L.A., the nation's
leader in homeownership, where   union workers
gobbled up new housing tracts as soon as they were
built.   Rebuilding a Los Angeles, and a United
States, where working-class living   standards
approximate that postwar level is an absolute
impossibility so long as workers remain unorganized
and invisible. We need a lot more janitors taking to
a lot more streets.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American
Prospect and political   editor of the L.A. Weekly

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