City Lit: Union City

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At mid-century, New York City was blue-collar paradise. Mere weeks after World War II ended, 250,000 employees stayed home from work to support an elevator operators’ walkout. Later that year, a tugboat workers’ strike so crippled the city that President Truman stepped in for damage control. Thrust into the spotlight for valor on the battlefield and in wartime manufacturing, the working man had won the ear of America’s power brokers. Along the way, he influenced public policy and popular culture from affordable housing to civil rights, from The Honeymooners to All in the Family.

Enter Joshua B. Freeman, an urban scholar at New York University. Freeman picks up his narrative history at the apex of labor’s power in Gotham and traces its decline, the roots of which lay in labor’s own misguided strategies. He argues that by pursuing narrow short-term gains, crossing powerful foes and championing social mobility, Big Labor went from a major political player to an armchair quarterback.

The tragedy does have its triumphant moments. Labor’s housing program, for example, created the “greatest and least known achievement of working-class New York.” Spurred by a postwar apartment shortage, unions banded together with the government to build 40,000 units of cooperative housing over three decades. Yet they were built on an unstable foundation, as local and federal slum clearance policies and the whims of master builder Robert Moses punished the city’s most abject.

Such noble causes gone south dominate Freeman’s tale. Consider labor’s complicity in shaping health maintenance organizations, arguably the worst compromise since the Louisiana Purchase. Initially, New York’s high concentration of left-leaning doctors helped labor build a beachhead of union health centers. Organizers lost the medical establishment’s support, however, when they pushed to unionize hospitals and nursing homes. In Freeman’s words: “Labor had pointed the way to the future, but had lost control of the throttle before the train of history arrived.”

Freeman’s narrative train makes dutiful stops at conventional stations, winding his way through the Cold War, the tumultuous 1960s and the fiscally tight 1970s. Each episode frames labor struggles in the context of larger political trends. The result is a valuable primer on New York union struggles and a handy refresher course on postwar urban society.

The McCarthy era poisoned New York’s unions: Municipal workers were forced to take loyalty oaths, and Cardinal Spellman organized cemetery workers under the banner of anti-communism. The Vietnam War pitted “longhairs” against “hardhats” and further distanced Labor from its progressive roots. When a thousand students rallied on Wall Street to protest the war, a band of construction workers stepped in to break heads.

But the watershed in the Fall of Labor was the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Prompted by government fathers, a cabal of financiers clamped down on the ailing municipality. When that failed, the city turned to the federal government. But the New Deal was over. President Gerald Ford shrugged off the appeal, condemning the city’s profligate social spending as the root cause of its fiscal woes.

Desperate not to be blamed for the city’s bankruptcy, municipal union leaders agreed to invest the bulk of their pension fund assets–some $2.5 billion–in the city’s high-risk bonds. But while labor helped bail out the city, it lost its footing. Some 25,000 employees were laid off in the first three years of the crisis. Later the city shed 63,000 jobs–a quarter of the municipal workforce–between 1975 and 1980.

Labor also failed to anticipate the future. In Freeman’s analysis, unions interpreted the postwar economy in Luddite terms. As heavy industry left New York and “automation hysteria” swept the nation, the city’s unions panicked. While some envisioned a reduced work week, most feared that machines would snatch jobs from people. The latter proved prescient, and anxious labor leaders traded future jobs for present security.

Unfortunately, Freeman examines labor from the distant heights of academia. At the book’s outset he rails against Gotham’s literati–from E.B. White to Willie Morris–for excising the working man from their sketches of postwar New York. Freeman’s textbook prose is no better. The reader can’t see the sweat on the laborer’s brow, or grasp the cruelty of his working conditions. And references to popular culture–presumably intended to spice up this bland dish–are stilted. Freeman on Seinfeld reads like Alan Greenspan on Puff Daddy.

Above all, Freeman’s tale follows organizations, not individuals. Charismatic characters occasionally emerge, including the pugnacious Harry Van Arsdale, Jr., who cut his teeth organizing hospital workers, and Abraham Kazan, who launched new housing projects. But rank-and-file workers remain statistics.

Working Class New York is an eulogy for a bygone social movement. Freeman retains some hope for the working class, a stubborn group “balking at leaving history’s stage.” But just as telling is the fact that the popularity of the West Indian parade in Brooklyn, held annually on Labor Day, has prompted unions to reschedule their own march.

Keith Meatto is a writer for Mother Jones.