Red, White, and Blue Collar

The working class became more diverse in the 1970s—but we can’t wish away the fact that it declined as well. A response to Jennifer Klein.

By Jefferson Cowie

Tagged Labor

The talented Yale historian Jennifer Klein, in an otherwise supportive review [“Apocalypse Then, and Now,” Issue #19], took me to task in the last issue of Democracy for having an “exclusively male” definition of culture in my book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. In criticizing my approach to questions of how class works in the United States, Klein went so far as to call my use of masculinity and class a “tautology.”

That tautology, I would argue, is the nation’s, not mine.

Anyone interested in the slippery questions of class in America needs to grapple with Klein’s argument. She points out that I fall into the trap of talking about white guys as a false proxy for the working class in a decade in which profound changes were underway that created the “new” working class. The women’s movement, the new social upheavals in the workplace, the rise of the service sector, and the debates over affirmative action all contributed to the blossoming diversity of the working class in the 1970s. “[T]he health-care sector became one of the largest employers of women, with millions of new jobs in hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, home health agencies, and non-profits. African Americans, women, and Latinos flooded into unions,” she argues. “The predominantly female, immigrant, and African-American working class and labor movement of today has its roots in the 1970s.” Indeed, how could I possibly portray the decade of diversity as the decade of white guys?

That’s because in America, class is as much about perception as reality. Beyond a doubt, the working class and its institutions became integrated in the 1970s as women and minorities not only gained access to better jobs, but unions also changed who they represented. That transformation is magnificently documented in Nancy MacLean’s exploration of the “revolution” in occupational diversity, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. And, undoubtedly, any future working-class identity will be constructed out of the struggles of immigrants, women, and minorities. It is simply impossible to argue against that.

Yet there was a dual movement in the 1970s that we need to place at the center of the historical analysis: Accompanying the rise of occupational diversity was the collapse of class as a significant point of political and cultural identity. In other words, along with integration came decline. We need both discursive streams if we’re going to get anywhere, and celebrating the former without lamenting the latter is foolhardy. (Some nuance is called for as well: We have to be able to talk about diversification and decline and the diversification of decline without blaming diversification for the decline.)

Occasionally we manage to discuss rising inequality, but we never discuss what causes it: the maldistribution of class power. Today, we live in a society in which class as structure is everywhere and getting more severe, but class as an issue of identity is almost nowhere. What complicates matters is that I am not talking about the material reality of class relations as much as I am trying to understand how we think about ourselves as a society. In the case of how the public conceptualizes the working class, there is a big chasm between reality and perception. And when it comes to American history, distorted cultural assumptions will almost always trump complex reality.

Stayin’ Alive is about the history, practice, and failure of an idea (and an ideal): the last days of a society in which class (in its pale, male version) was included as part of its understanding of itself. It is also about the rise of other forms of identity that had taken root in a society that stopped thinking about inequality. With a nod to the era’s cinema, allow me to break my argument down into “five easy pieces”:

Piece One: The term “working class” is by any objective and fair measure a gender-neutral, multi-racial collective. Always has been, always will be. From the Lowell mill girls to the racialized immigrant workers of the early twentieth century to the black workers of the Great Migrations, the working class has always been a thing of extraordinary diversity. Our discursive world should be filled with working-class blacks, working-class women, working-class Latina/os, working-class men, working-class whites, etc. But it’s not. As I will argue, there’s diversity in our present state of civic life, but, sadly, there is no working class.

Piece Two: Unfortunately, objectivity has nothing to do with it. Taking cues from gender and race studies (and ditching generations of sociologists’ attempts to rigorously define “the” working class), in Stayin’ Alive I chose to explore how the term “working class” is socially, economically, culturally, and politically constructed and deconstructed in any given period. As historian David Roediger and umpteen other scholars have shown, the American “working class” has been historically constructed to be white and male. This is the tragedy of American labor history, and therefore the tragedy of American politics.

Piece Three: In the 1970s, a host of challenges beset the already limited and fragile white and male definition of “working class.” As I argue in the book, there was the possibility and hope of expanding the term in the civic imagination to include a more capacious and honest understanding of the term in the 1970s, but the idea of the working class itself collapsed (largely due to the intransigence of those very white males and their leaders to moving beyond their one-time great leap forward in major industry and organizing service occupations and embracing the new social movements). To paraphrase Bob Dylan, any working class not busy being born is busy dying.

Piece Four: Just as race and gender became important axes around which politics turned in the 1970s and beyond, class as a central way of understanding civic life all but completely dissolved during the decade as the economy soured, industry declined, questions of culture trumped economics, and business regained control of politics. The “psychic meltdown” of white-male working-class identity took the category of class down with it, leaving the rising salience of women and minorities with little public class identity to which they could appeal. This left a very gendered and racialized, but classless, understanding of occupational and political life—not just for women and minorities but white guys as well. Consider for a moment the central importance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to occupational life and the growing irrelevance of the National Labor Relations Act. Working-class identity became a lot of things (racial, cultural, national), but collective, inclusive, and economic were not among them. Most significantly, white guys chose their own brand of identity politics—often based on defensive resentments that risked tipping into belligerence.

Piece Five: On the back of this problem rode the massive levels of inequality we have today. The wealth pyramid may be more diverse than ever, but it is also as unequal as it was during the days of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. So, yes, the occupational world is extraordinarily diverse today, but it provides less space for questions of class than in any other time since the Industrial Revolution. That is why I picked up on Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb’s term “the inner class warfare” from their 1972 classic, The Hidden Injuries of Class, to describe the new paradigm. The anxieties of class migrated inward and became psychological, buried far from the external confrontations with power that once defined them.

So I have to scratch my head when Klein refers to the “working class and labor movement of today.” I can see working-class people in the glory of their diversity everywhere, but I find that they barely exist in terms of how we think of ourselves as a society. Since the 1970s, we’ve had a hole in our civic imaginations.

The term “working class” was a useful and empowering piece of the vernacular that’s gone missing—and with it a sense of shared fate and collective destiny. And that’s the problem. If we put the term “working class” into an intriguing technological toy that lots of people are playing with these days, Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can track the occurrence of the term “working class” in American English books published in the last 100 years. What we get is a term whose use rockets up in the 1930s as the New Deal and the Congress of Industrial Organizations do their thing, then recedes in the postwar era, and then shoots back up, peaking around 1978, before tumbling back down to pre-New Deal-era levels. The latter part of that graph, the meteoric rise and fall, is the story that I’m trying to tell. The working class is out there, and it is indeed diverse, but we’re not talking about it.

Stayin’ Alive is, mostly, about white guys (though not nearly as much as one might believe from Klein’s review), and it is about class as a masculine construct. But let’s be clear: I’m identifying a problem, not endorsing one. It was the failure to diversify the idea—not the reality—of the working class in the 1970s that makes for the tragedy of labor history. As The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott (raised by someone rather sensitive to issues of gender, the noted labor and women’s historian Joan Scott) explained in a recent review essay, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” “race and class tend to be treated as mutually exclusive concepts, rather than as strands in the same contradictory knot.” As intellectuals, we can see the contradictory knot. As a polity, however, we only discuss the separate strands.

That’s why Jerry Wurf of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is the Cassandra of the 1970s. Almost every idea he had to revivify the labor movement was consistently voted down by two dozen other union heads on the AFL-CIO executive council, who chose not to see the brewing crisis. As Wurf prophetically explained about labor’s clinging to the white, male, industrial sectors in 1974:

We can stand pat as a movement that represents a declining percentage of the workforce, and watch our influence over national direction slip away. Or we can make ourselves more relevant to the needs of workers in a postindustrial society, and become an even more substantial voice in the shaping of the future than in the past. If labor is weakened, society is more likely to close out the poor and the powerless whom labor seeks to represent.

So, as Klein reminds us, the diversity of the public and health-care sectors is alive and well. But so are low pay, vulnerability, and fragmented political power. The unions that represent these sectors are sinking slowly but steadily, quarreling over who gets what piece of the wreckage as the whole thing goes down. Here Klein partially falls into the labor insider’s problem, where the latest union developments and victories are all the buzz—but rarely placed in a context of long-term decline. Get outside of the labor world, and it’s frightening how quickly these issues fade to irrelevance. And anyone celebrating the public-sector unions of today because their membership has actually grown over the last few decades better figure out how a non-union, contingent, part-time, low-wage, third-class private sector is going to be able to pay for a first-class public sector. It’s not looking good.

If I were reviewing my own book, I’d ask a slightly different question than does Klein: What does the subtitle, Last Days of the Working Class, mean? Does it mean the final throes of a white, industrial, male paradigm and the hope for a more honest and pluralistic rendering of the working class? Or does it mean the final defeat of the “labor question”—one of the central animating issues of modernity—now vanquished and fading into the postmodern, late-capitalist haze? Let’s hope for the former—but there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.

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Jefferson Cowie is associate professor of history at Cornell University’s ILR School, and the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class and Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. A version of this essay was published on the Stayin’ Alive blog.

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