A City That Worked
The results were not always those hoped for. Eventually, politicians would exploit city residents' own resentments and insecurities and portray unionized municipal workers as greedy and selfish. And the 1968 teachers' strike, whose welter of racial, political, ethnic and class elements Freeman renders with sensitivity, "rent the civic body, creating wounds that remained raw decades later."
As the rising economy of the sixties gave way to the economic stagnation of the seventies, New York's working class lacked its old cohesion, political heft and dynamism. Then the fiscal crisis of the mid-seventies opened the door to a monetary conservatism, and a narrowed social vision became the conventional wisdom. The public sector was demonized and corporations exalted as the new guarantors of social good. Once, in social democratic New York, men of massive ambition like Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Moses consulted with labor to build their monuments in the public sector. Later, in a global economy increasingly dependent on finance, real estate and business, the city was left with the corporate vanities of Donald Trump.
Working-class New York has never been the same. The loudmouthed but bighearted Ralph Kramden gave way to the sullen, suspicious Archie Bunker. Public institutions, like the City University of New York, grew shabby from disinvestment. And during the 1980 transit strike, Ed Koch showed that a Democratic mayor could score political gains by being an anti-union cheerleader.
New York still has a working class--one dramatically more multiracial than that of 1945--but its political and economic clout are diminished and it is unable to present itself as the city's majority. Racial and ethnic diversity, and new patterns of residence and consumption, have created new lines of identity and allegiance that weaken old class loyalties. Late in the eighties the Central Labor Council's Labor Day parade in midtown Manhattan lost out to the West Indian American Day Carnival, held on the same day in Brooklyn, as a focus of attention from television and politicians. Eventually the union parade migrated to another weekend. But all was not lost: Several unions, their West Indian union members free from conflicting loyalties, began to manifest a stronger presence at the carnival.
Still, when workers take to the streets, today's New Yorkers have trouble recognizing them. Freeman masterfully recalls the day in 1998 when 40,000 construction workers jammed midtown to protest the use of a nonunion firm in the construction of a subway communications center: "A New York magazine editor, commissioning an article about the demonstration, described them as 'an invading army,' an odd description for a group which probably had a higher proportion of native New Yorkers and in-city residents than the advertising, media, and corporate executives working along Madison Avenue whose lives they momentarily disrupted."
While Freeman refuses to bow to a new order where the market is king, he recognizes that the arrival of the new way was powered by engines that will not shut down soon. Deindustrialization and the market ethos have changed the city where the New Deal order was uniquely grand and enduring. Still, New York's new immigrant workers could become a significant force if they conclude that the city is not delivering on the American Dream. If that day comes, they can build on the history chronicled in Working-Class New York.
When New York was a hotbed of small-scale manufacturing, its workers pioneered ways to create hiring halls and networks of benefits that compensated for the absence of one big employer who could pay for everyone's health insurance. The lesson should not be lost on today's freelancers. The growth of a visibly multiracial, multiethnic city suggests the possibility of a New York that helps to lead the rest of the nation into a transnational future. Past generations' negotiations of ethnicity and class--even allowing for their more flawed engagement with questions of race--suggest ways to forge particular routes toward common goals. The blend of radicalism, street smarts and internationalism that invigorated the city's working class in previous generations can still be seen in the Taxi Workers Alliance, whose South Asian, West African and Haitian membership shut down the city's exploitative yellow-cab industry in 1998.
Unions and working people are a battered but enduring presence in New York. Freeman's history delivers an appreciation of their past achievements, a sober sense of the obstacles they face today and grounds for believing that the story of Gotham's working class and the quest for a just and humane city are not yet over.