Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
By Jefferson Cowie
New Press, 2010
Reviewed by Steve Early
I was a big fan of Cornell University Professor Jefferson Cowie’s previous book. Many workers—at least those in industrial unions—could easily relate to its subject matter, the demise of domestic manufacturing due to overseas outsourcing. In Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, Cowie follows RCA’s shift of production from Camden, New Jersey to plants in Bloomington, Indiana and Memphis, Tennessee, and then down to Mexico. A decade ago, when I was organizing education programs for CWA members at the Cornell ILR School’s conference center in Ithaca, we invited Cowie to speak about Capital Moves to a group of shop stewards, including some from manufacturing locals. They were captivated by his account of how corporate globalization affected different groups of workers, here and abroad, in similar fashion. His runaway shop history was a useful tool for classroom discussion about trade liberalization and the capital mobility, on steroids, that has now left Mexico with its own empty factories.
Cowie’s new book, Stayin’ Alive, has been much applauded by fellow academics. It recently received the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Merle Curti prize for the best work published last year “in American social or intellectual history.” According to the OAH, Cowie “moves nimbly between popular culture, campaign and electoral politics, and social science debates to offer a compelling and devastating account of what happened to the working class in the 1970s.” However, if I were still bringing CWA activists to Cornell—for whatever training is now available there in the wake of recent staff cut-backs—I’d be much less inclined to unleash Cowie on a captive audience of local union organizers. After all, they do have to get up the next morning and “keep hope alive,” as Reverend Jesse Jackson used to instruct labor audiences, both black and working-class white.
According to Cowie’s latest work, blue-collar workers weren’t just victims of a runaway shop trend in the 1970s. They actually experienced their “last days” as an entire class! The existence of a working class remains kind of a sine qua non for anyone who is still trying to sign up new union members (unless, of course, all of our future recruits are to be found in what the AFL-CIO, with imprecision similar to Cowie’s, calls “the middle class”?). For those still on the frontlines of class warfare today, what Cowie’s publisher touts as “the definitive account of the fall of America’s working class” (emphasis added) is grim reading indeed, since its message seems to be that organized labor’s struggle for a better America was defeated thirty years ago. So why bother to fight back, Madison-style, today?
Academics and journalists long ignored the significance of the 1970s—the decade in which, Cowie argues, “the postNew Deal working class” lost its footing and never regained it, due to the forces of deindustrialization and deunionization. In the U.S. history section of bookstores, the Seventies were sandwiched in, rather thinly, between the much-chronicled era of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and social unrest (aka “the Sixties”) and the well-known period of conservative backlash in the 1980s dubbed “the Reagan Revolution.” But this gap in “periodization” has been remedied now, for better or worse, by a minibook publishing boom. Last November, one reliable bellwether of cultural trends, the Nation, devoted an entire cover story to “That Seventies Show,” a review essay by Rick Perlstein covering fifteen books, including Cowie’s, that analyze the era from various angles. Perlstein managed to miss four more—Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right, by Dominic Sandbrook; Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s, edited by Heather Ann Thompson; The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism, a reader edited by Dan Berger; and Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s, co-edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am both a contributor to Rebel Rank and File and a participant in some of the labor struggles recalled, quite differently, in that book and Cowie’s. Stayin’ Alive is certainly sweeping in scope, often well written, and replete with colorful pop culture references to music, movies, and TV shows that dealt with workers in the Seventies. But the author’s account of key union reform struggles launched during that decade is selective, at best, and tinged with cynicism that verges, at times, on smug condescension. At the macro level, there’s little to disagree with in Cowie’s analysis of long-term economic trends or his illuminating portraits of the Nixon and Carter administrations and their respective relationships with organized labor. The author’s account of labor’s National Labor Relations Act reform campaign thirty-three years ago under Jimmy Carter is a tale of disappointment that will be quite familiar to workers’ rights activists who just had the same experience with President Obama. When Carter was elected in 1976, “the labor law reform bill of the AFL-CIO’s dreams” (p. 291) was even more ambitious than the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). It included repeal of Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act— which opened the door for “right-to-work” states—and mandatory union recognition based on card check. As Cowie writes:
In the summer of 1977, Jimmy Carter endorsed the principles of labor law reform, but in its most tepid form…The AFL-CIO agreed, having learned its lessons from a long string of previous failures at labor law reform from the forties through the sixties…. The unions learned that they would prefer anything to nothing, so three core provisions were dropped—14(b), card check, and the honoring of a previous union contract among recently acquired firms (p. 292).
The AFL-CIO, which then represented more than 20 percent of the workforce, got “nothing.” Labor might just as well have lobbied for what it really wanted, rather than first “bargaining with itself” and then being defeated anyway by a GOP filibuster in the Senate. (In 1978, the Democrats had more than sixty Senate seats, plus a few moderate Republican allies more willing to support labor law reform than the Dixiecrats still among them.) At least this time around, card check was central to labor’s version of EFCA—until that key provision got traded away behind the scenes, in another burst of crackpot realism, circa 2009, for what ended up being “nothing” again.
In my experience, which included Carter-era labor law reform advocacy as a national union staff member in Washington, D.C., workers’ struggles in the 1970s were not quite the vessel of the damned and doomed that Cowie makes them out to be today. As the author notes, there was “a national epidemic of industrial unrest in the first half of the 1970s.” Hundreds of thousands of workers “fought with supervisors on the line, clogged up the system [of industrial relations] with grievances, demanded changes in the quality of work life, walked out in wildcat strikes, and organized to overthrow stale bureaucratic union leadership” (p. 7). Some of these fights did, in fact, lay the groundwork for continuing left-labor activism involving blue-collar workers, many white-collar ones, and younger indigenous militants, still very much alive and kicking today as part of grassroots networks like Labor Notes.
In his profiles of “old-fashioned heroes” who led rank-and-file revolts in the United Mine Workers (UMW) and Steelworkers, Cowie seems intent on proving instead that workplace militancy in the 1970s left “little trace” or “[little] lasting institutional presence in the labor movement.” This contention only holds water if you conveniently ignore, as he does, the rank-and-file insurgency with the most durability and organizational impact—the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Founded in the mid-1970s, TDU was, ultimately, far more of a political force in the Teamsters than either the Miners for Democracy in the UMW or Steelworkers Fightback (the 1976-1977 campaign organization of the United Steelworkers’ presidential candidate Ed Sadlowski), which Stayin’ Alive devotes many pages to dissecting, with the help of mainly secondary sources. In 1991, the Teamsters reform movement played a central role in Ron Carey’s election to the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) presidency, in the union’s first-ever democratic vote; by the mid-1990s, the “new Teamsters” was helping to topple the conservative leadership of the AFL-CIO in the federation’s first contested election in one hundred years.
Stayin’ Alive’s sole reference to this parallel (and much cross-fertilized) “democratization movement” in the Teamsters occurs, only in passing, during a lengthy discussion of the film Blue Collar—Hollywood’s rendition of shop-floor tensions, union corruption, and racial conflict in the auto industry. TDU itself is never mentioned, either in the text or the notes. Cowie’s book is supposedly a comprehensive period history. But there is far more in Stayin’ Alive about F.I.S.T., a clunky Jimmy Hoffa-inspired feature film starring Sylvester Stallone, than there is about the real-life Teamsters and their actual union, past or present. Cowie is clearly a Bruce Springsteen fan and lover of films (like Saturday Night Fever) that were far more entertaining than F.I.S.T. But a reader might ask: if you’re a labor historian, not a rock critic or movie reviewer, why does the depiction of blue-collar workers by Hollywood (and even Springsteen’s stirring ballads about union men) warrant more attention than 1970s-inspired struggles within the nation’s biggest blue-collar union that eventually had a real impact?
The political lessons and organizing experiences from the ‘70s were not simply forgotten or discarded. Despite the setbacks and defeats suffered by the working class as traditionally defined—predominantly male blue-collar workers in heavy industry—there was still a “working class” at the end of the 1970s. Over subsequent decades, veterans of labor insurgency during that era continued to promote progressive causes and ideas within the labor movement, organize union reform campaigns, establish alternative labor education and media projects, and support successful workplace organizing and community-labor coalition building that contributed to union leadership changes at various levels. The union democracy and reform activity of the 1970s still has influence today in the form of lasting institutions that were created back then, like TDU, not to mention the structural changes that were imposed upon some unions through bottom-up campaigns by their own reform-minded members.
As even Cowie admits in his conclusion, there is in America today an even more “post-New Deal working class,” the product of our “postmodern, global age.” It includes millions of immigrant workers, displaced from their home countries by civil conflict or the economic forces unleashed by free trade, whose own insurgent impulses were on display in the largest political strikes in recent U.S. history, during the spring of 2006.
Even in some past bastions of racism, sexism, and patriarchy—labor sins that much preoccupy Cowie—“the times they are a-changin.’” What an irony it is that, in the Teamsters today, a leading challenger for the union presidency is none other than Alexandra (Sandy) Pope, a product of 1970s labor insurgency, in both the private and public sector (and, of course, a leading member of the unmentioned TDU). Hardly a “one-dimensional working-class hero,” of the sort that Cowie is prone to caricature and trivialize, Pope is a leftleaning Hampshire College drop-out, a former truck driver in Ohio, and a one-time executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, who served with distinction at Teamsters headquarters under Carey. She now leads a Teamsters local in Queens, New York that’s been very active in defending the rights of the foreign-born. Yet Pope—one of only sixteen female principal officers in a union with more than four hundred local affiliates—somehow managed to have the gender-neutral appeal (not to mention the “Born in the USA” street cred) necessary to sign up fifty thousand Teamsters co-workers on her nominating petitions last year.
Forgive me if I’m cherry-picking here—“optimists of the will” tend to do that—but I think there’s hope yet for America’s battered working class, old and new. It’s just sad to see that some of labor’s academic historians—and it doesn’t have that many—spend so much time at the movies, with their headphones on, trying to figure out which way the wind is (or has been) blowing.