Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class – Review (Part II)

George McGovern’s loss had meant an end to New Left politics as a factor within the Democratic Party, but New Deal progressivism still retained a certain degree of vitality.  While the AFL-CIO might have found McGovern culturally suspect, they certainly still stood in favour of the working class and retained considerable influence within the Democratic Party.  At the same time, the Ralph Nader-style insurgency into the establishment (which was more conservative than much of the New Left) won a number of victories following the 1972 election. As Cowie states:

Nixon may have been trying to romance the New Right worker of the day on cultural grounds, but he also had conceded a great deal of actual policy to liberals.  Between 1969 and 1974, the federal government passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act Amendments, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Noise Pollution and Control Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Campaign Finance Amendments, and the Employment Retirement Income Security Act.  Liberalism was still very much at full tied even if this was mostly focused on corporate regulation rather than redistributive policy (230).

By the end of the decade even these more conservative elements of the Left would either be fighting rear-guard actions or in complete rout.  How did this happen?  The story should be a familiar one to readers of the literature on neoliberalism, such as that of David Harvey.  The logics of capital, of empire, and of class struggle asserted themselves in powerful ways, bringing the working class and the New Deal establishment to its knees.  To a large extent I have already addressed the broader political economy of this story in a previous post, so I will concentrate here on those points which Cowie’s focused discussion of 1970s politics reveals.

There were two factors that contributed to the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the mid-1970s.  The first was inflation, which in fact had two main causes – the first was the rising cost of materials (most famously exemplified by the oil shocks), and the second was a profit squeeze caused by rising wages among the working class.  A debate over which of these two causes were more important in causing inflation raged among the establishment during this period.  The second main factor that contributed to the rising dominance of neoliberalism was a greatly increased amount of capitalist class solidarity, which was in fact brought into being by the shock of the various Nader-lead legislative victories of the early 1970s.  Indicative of the sentiments that this wave of legislation had evoked was a 1975 Fortune magazine article that declared that the laws were “putting the cuffs on capitalism” (230).  As the solidarity of the Left splintered and the promising efforts of the early 1970s flagged, the solidarity of the capitalist class grew, and the neo-liberalism of ideologues such as Milton Friedman combined with the Nixon-style “New Right” to form a powerful new force in American politics.  The confusion of the working class reached new levels of intensity as the world seemed to spin ever further out of control around them.  As Cowie states when discussing the popular culture of the period:

In the end, the major storyline of the seventies white, male working-class identity was about failed linkages with youth movements, about racial and cultural backlash, about vigilantism, and about insurgency.  Mostly, it was about how these centrifugal forces lead not to an image but a breakdown, not a unity but a social deconstruction, not an idea but a reaction.  The remains of the working-class hero of the 1930s were pulled apart into its fragments in the early 1970s, and, rather than leaving a single figure, it left disarray.  In no piece of popular culture was the psychic meltdown of blue-collar identity more evident than in the film, and the reality that made it, of Dog Day Afternoon.  The lead character, a blue-collar bank robber play by Al Pacino, is sexually confused and economically vulnerable, incompetent, alone, and, above all, doomed.  When his mess of a life becomes a spectacle, he just keeps repeating, ‘I’m dying here’ (200).

At the same time that the working class was in disarray, the capitalist class rallied around its new “vanguard party” – the Business Roundtable (232).  As Cowie argues:

By the end of 1976, just before the inauguration of a new Democratic administration, Business Week declared the Business Roundtable to be ‘Business’ Most Powerful Lobby in Washington.’  Liberals and labor would try to rebuild working-class power through economic planning, labor law reform, and plans for national health insurance and industrial policy, but the combination of the liberals’ incapacity, the obstacle of inflation, and waning power of unions, allowed business to pull ahead in the beltway class struggle.  Labor, unprepared for the onslaught of business lobbying, tended to see the Business Roundtable as a ‘terrible conspiracy’ by the end of the decade.  George Meany derided Roger Blough’s mission to keep wages down as coming from a man who ‘drew $916,000 in wages his last three years at U.S. Steel.’ Yet, he noted, ‘If he were to succeed, America would become a low-wage country.  The progress of America has been made on high wages.  Now, as far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have inflation than deflation because I know the difference. [Meany was a former plumber]’ His sardonic remarks turned out to be prophetic (232).

Alongside the  Business Roundtable worked the new corporate Political Action Committees (PACs), who quickly outgrew the once formidable influence of the AFL-CIO – by 1978 there were “784 corporate PACs plus about 500 trade association PACs, as compared to only 217 pushing labor’s agenda” (233).  These PACs managed to effectively buy the loyalty of once pro-labour politicians among the Democratic Party, contributing greatly to its long-term neoliberal drift.  Not content to capture Washington, the capitalist class sent its forces out to the workplaces of America, implementing increasingly sophisticated union-busting strategies lead by anti-union consultants.  As Cowie describes:

Union busting became a sophisticated big business, with mass market seminars and crash courses, anti-union law firms that pushed workers into legal quagmires, industrial psychologists who tooled with the hearts and minds of the rank and file, consulting firms that walked employers through every step of an organizing drive in order to defeat it, and trade associations that customized each step for a particular industry. ‘At one time I think the unions had it all over business in terms of grass-roots activity,’ explained an official from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce [another massive corporate lobby group].  ‘That is now reversed.’  The AFL-CIO reported, ‘Almost gone are the days of the Pinkertons, the blacklist and the yellow-dog contracts.  In their place stands a man in a three-piece suit, sporting a briefcase and perhaps a Ph.D. in industrial psychology or a law degree.  He is the labor relations consultant’…As a researcher for the Machinists noted after infiltrating a seminar on working union free, ‘Our enemies now wear button-down collars and Brooks Brothers’ clothes…Their goals are not different from those whose 19th century industrialists who espoused the Gospel of Wealth and gave American labor history such names as Haymarket, Homestead, and Pullman…This is not a game, it is a war and the side which attempts to play fair and follow the rules is going to end up the loser’ (234).

The final two great battles of the war over the New Deal were fought during the Carter administration, following Nixon’s Watergate disgrace.  These were that to implement the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which sought to make good on FDR’s promised Economic Bill of Rights, and that to reform labour law so that union organization could further expand.  The real goal of these two pieces of legislation was to unite the racially divided working class in a new vision of solidarity and prosperity.  Cowie is astute in pointing out that while the struggle of the working class and the struggle for civil rights were (and are) ultimately one, they were legislatively divided into two separate bodies of law that pit the cause of unions and the cause of minorities against one another.  This was a legacy of the New Deal itself, which was in turn a legacy of generations of racism.  As Cowie states:

Class and race are fundamentally intertwined social identities, mutually constructing each other, marbled together into a sociological whole, but a whole that has proven to be one of the most elusive identities in American history.  White working people have typically chosen their race over their class; black workers have generally expressed themselves through a politics of racial oppression that has had more traction in American politics than class…Although race and class are lived as a unified social reality, the separation between labor rights and civil rights is hard-wired into postwar policy.  The two legislative landmarks that shape occupational justice are the NLRA (1935) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964).  The former held out the right to form unions during the Great Depression and delivered immigrant Europeans to a sense of economic and political citizenship during the New Deal period.  The latter created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the black freedom struggle, which prohibited employment discrimination by race, sex, creed, or national origin.  A coherent labor market policy would confront both collective economic rights and the right to non-discrimination, but the two pieces of legislation were products of separate struggles, separate policy traditions, and separate judicial spheres.  And they were often in an unfortunate zero-sum tension.  As Paul Frymer argues, the two acts are products of ‘two vectors of power,’ and the failure to build a strong and diverse labor movement was not a product of isolated individuals or events, but was ‘the outcome of a political system that, in its effort to appeal to civil rights opponents, developed a bifurcated system of power that assigned race and class problems to different spheres of government.’  The two acts, and the trajectory of the movements that gave birth to each, tended to institutionalize the divisions rather than build bridges between them.  By the 1970s, the division was growing into an unbridgeable chasm (237).

The victories of the New Deal always contained within them a monstrous compromise.  They won unionization and better conditions for northern white men, but in order to secure the support of the racist Southern Democrats  the New Dealers excluded “agricultural and service workers” (i.e. black and female workers) from the benefits of their progressive legislation (237).  When the civil rights struggle came in the 1960s, it had to fight against the institutions built upon this racist compromise, leading to the vicious internal divisions of the working class during the 1970s.  Humphrey-Hawkins and the labour reform of the Carter era attempted to create a dialectical synthesis of these two struggles, leading to “an interracial class identity” (236) and a new New Deal for all Americans.  Cowie describes this last hurrah of the New Deal as follows:

Advocates of full employment and labor law reform, in ways both separate and overlapping, hoped that these policies would create a unified national labor market-overcoming competition by race, gender and region that was threatening the economic foundation of postwar liberalism.  The Humphrey-Hawkins Act would guarantee planning for full employment, which would mitigate the divisiveness of of inter-racial competition for jobs in the midst of record unemployment.  Full employment offered a firmer economic foundation for the otherwise divisive calls for racial equality and diversity.  Labor law reform would not simply breathe new life into the deflated power of the Wagner Act but would help unions to organize new categories of workers in areas like the post-civil rights South – a region to which jobs were rapidly draining from the unionized Northeast – as well as in the service sectors replacing shuttered industry…As Monsignor George Higgins – Pittsburgh’s famous ‘labor priest’ – hoped, ‘The struggle to achieve a more human economic order will not be fought along racial lines but will be defined by broader class interests’ (263).

Why did this New New Deal never happen?  I will answer this question and consider the implications of Cowie’s book in the final section of my review.



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3 responses to “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class – Review (Part II)

  1. It’s funny you’re posting this just at a time when I’m nearing the end of “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”

  2. Where is your final section of your review on Cowie? The first two parts were interesting. I’m curious as to your take on the “implications of Cowie’s book.”

    Best regards.

    • I never got around to writing the conclusion of this article, but I am going home in September, and I can go pick up my copy of the book then and write my conclusion. Certainly with Detroit having just declared bankruptcy, and the rate of strike hours in the US having plunged to almost invisible numbers the story of the “last days” of the working class remains a relevant one.

      Thank you for your comment.

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