A City That Worked

A City That Worked

The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises.


The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises. New York was a metropolis with a strong manufacturing base that gave it economic muscle and a seaport that gave it a gritty yet cosmopolitan air. Its people were largely immigrants and the children of immigrants. Their sensibility, "savvy, opinionated, democratic," in the words of historian Joshua B. Freeman, "helped set the tone of the nation in the postwar years" through labor leaders such as Michael Quill of the Transport Workers’ Union and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

In a lucid, detailed and imaginative analysis, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, Freeman shows how the city’s working class, in alliance with leftists, built an urban social democracy that enriched many lives before it fell to the forces of global economics and domestic politics. Anyone who wants to understand the changing fortunes of working people and the left in the nation’s largest city should read this book. In Freeman’s view the mortal blow to this city on a hill was not McCarthyism but the fiscal crisis of the seventies, which undermined New York’s miniature welfare state.

The fiscal crisis and the new politics that followed ravaged the public institutions that working people depended on, enshrining a lean and mean city government instead of one that helped cushion the inequalities of the market. "Public institutions once attractive to all sorts of New Yorkers," Freeman writes, "became subnormal institutions of last resort." As a result, all New Yorkers–but, most important, working people–live in a metropolis defined by stark inequalities.

The New York of 1945, Freeman argues, was fortified by a red subculture. The Communist Party, legitimated by the Popular Front and wartime antifascism, and represented everywhere from unions to the city council, held substantial power. In the late forties and fifties, this alignment shuddered under the blows of the cold war and McCarthyism. Classroom by classroom, block by block, union by union, Communists were driven to the margins of public life in New York City.

Nevertheless, as Freeman shows, New York’s political culture remained open to former Communists. Whatever the disagreements of Communists and liberals on international issues, on domestic questions–national health insurance, civil rights, the need to preserve the New Deal–they shared much common ground. For those who were willing to throw off what Freeman calls "the dead weight of Soviet allegiance," there was room for maneuver and even success.

In his effort to salvage the best of the New York Communists’ legacy, Freeman verges on understating the role of non-Communists, liberals and socialists in Gotham’s exceptional political culture. And the transition from Communist to post-Communist activism was not always as smooth as he suggests, either. The Communists, Freeman writes, believed in "class rule–or at least in their own rule in the name of the working class–both as a theoretical and practical matter." From the standpoint of democratic socialism, this perspective raised the fear of a party substituting itself for a democratic majority–and worse. Ex-Communists who became independent radicals or staunch liberals often had to confront such inheritances as part of a process of sorting through which ideas were worth keeping from their party days. The process was not easy, and the getting of wisdom after leaving the party could be as valuable as lessons learned in it.

Freeman’s larger point stands, however. Thanks to the work of radicals, liberals and unionists, from the late forties into the sixties working-class New Yorkers enjoyed the fruits of a unique urban social democracy in union health plans, government-subsidized housing and superior public institutions such as parks and schools. Working-Class New York is masterly in its analysis of the human, political, legislative and institutional foundations–and contradictions–of this state of affairs.

Beneath surface appearances, though, the apparently stable blocs of power that supported the New York way were beginning to realign. From the 1940s into the 1960s, more than 2 million white New Yorkers left the city, dispersing formerly cohesive working-class communities. Meanwhile, African-Americans and Latinos settled in Gotham in similarly transforming numbers, only to find discrimination and a changing economic order that prevented them from gaining the same political and economic power as their white working-class counterparts. From the fifties to the eighties, New York shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy. The city that emerged offered fewer decent jobs to people who worked with their hands.

Freeman–who is both critical of and affectionate toward the working class–shows how disputes within and between unions undermined efforts to respond to the emerging postindustrial order. Manufacturing unions saw no benefit in urban development that destroyed factories. Building trades unions, on the other hand, thrived on construction (and resisted the racial integration of their membership). In the name of keeping jobs, garment unions moderated wage demands–which ultimately reduced the wages of unskilled workers overall and placed Puerto Rican and African-American workers in a terrible bind as they entered the garment industry. Sometimes initiatives to benefit one group of workers hurt another, as when slum clearance to create public housing drove poor people from their homes without creating alternative housing for them.

Yet the sixties, instead of signaling a departure of working-class people from the city’s political stage, were a decade of protest and strikes. Insistently refusing to treat race and class as mutually exclusive phenomena, Freeman shows how African-American newcomers to the city, overwhelmingly working-class in their occupational and economic status, waged a civil rights movement of their own. At the same time, the growing unionization of city workers brought labor militancy to social workers’ offices, hospital wards and classrooms–and a dramatic improvement in the wages and living standards of city workers.

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.

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