Jefferson Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell, has written a book on the pivotal events of the 1970s as the New Deal coalition shattered and Thomas Frank’s “Great Backlash” took hold : Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.
Today he writes a Labor Day Op-Ed for the New York Times, reflecting on his findings:
The ’70s began on a remarkably hopeful — and militant — note. Working-class discontent was epidemic: 2.4 million people engaged in major strikes in 1970 alone, all struggling with what Fortune magazine called an “angry, aggressive and acquisitive” mood in the shops.
Most workers weren’t angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs. Pundits often called it “Lordstown syndrome,” after the General Motors plant in Ohio where a young, hip and interracial group of workers held a three-week strike in 1972. The workers weren’t concerned about better pay; instead, they wanted more control over what was then the fastest assembly line in the world.
Newsweek called the strike an “industrial Woodstock,” an upheaval in employment relations akin to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The “blue-collar blues” were so widespread that the Senate opened an investigation into worker “alienation.”
But what felt to some like radical change in the heartland was really the beginning of the end — not just of organized labor’s influence, but of the very presence of workers in national civic life.
When the economy soured in 1974, business executives dismissed workers’ complaints about the quality of their occupational life — and then went gunning for their paychecks and their unions as well, abetted by a conservative political climate and the offshoring of the nation’s industrial core. Inflation, not unemployment, became Public Enemy No. 1, and workers bore the political costs of the fight against it.
Do you have one momentous bad decision on the part of a union leader, or a Democrat, or any political leader, when you look back at the complex ways that this all fell apart, and say, “This one was really bad.” Could you pick just one?
I think you pinpointed it already, and that’s the 1972 decision by organized labor, after all the convention rules changes (to open up to women and minorities), to destroy McGovern. Because that solidified a moment. It said, “We can’t work with the unions,” to the left, and to the women’s movement and the rest. It said organized labor is just about guys like George Meany, and Mayor Daley, it’s really the same monster, we can’t deal with them.
And that creates a natural alliance between the New Left and the New Democrats, who were much more sympathetic to important issues of diversity. But when unions came around, those leaders wouldn’t be interested. So I really think that’s the bad blood, because if you go back to ’68, when Martin Luther King is assassinated, that was a terrible tragedy, but also, what a moment it was, where the unions and the civil rights leaders stand shoulder to shoulder for the Memphis sanitation workers strike. And then, by ’72, everybody’s out.