On September 29, Joshua Freeman,author of "Working Class New York: Life and
Labor Since World War II" joined Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC book club
to talk about his book. An edited transcript of the conversation, which
includes audience participation, is posted below.
The next in-person meeting of the Reading NYC Book Club will be on
Wednesday, October 27, the 100th birthday of New York's subway system.
To commemorate the date, Peter Derrick will discuss his book Tunneling
to the Future, about the massive subway expansion that changed the
system in the early 1900s.
Future Selections: We now have a tentative schedule for the rest of
2004. Click here to see -- and purchase -- the books.
Sign up for Gotham Gazette's NYC Book Club.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: With us today is Joshua Freeman, author of Working Class
New York. A good place to start, I thought, would be the attacks of
9/11. About a month and a half after the attacks, you wrote an article in
"The Nation" about how 9/11 changed the perception of the working class
in popular culture.
JOSHUA FREEMAN: I was struck after September 11, 2001 how visible the
groups that I had written about, particularly blue-collar workers who
were victims in the attack, became suddenly visible in our society. Many
of those who died in the attack in the Trade Center worked in
restaurants. And in the days and weeks after September 11, as the work
on the site unfolded, the construction workers, the transit workers, the
fireman, all the different groups were seen, quite appropriately, as
The events gave a high profile to groups who had been eclipsed in our
images of New York by both the big money New York - the Wall Street New
York - and young, yuppie, middle-class, hip New York, like on the
television show "Friends."
Frankly, I'm not so sure it had any long-lasting effects. In the
planning of construction of the city, the usual cast of power brokers
ended up calling the shots - the governor, Wall Street executives, the
art critics. Culturally, I'm not sure how much that effect has remained,
except the uniformed service workers. The fireman, and the police too,
have retained a special place in the city. I'm not sure if this will be
an episode that had a long lasting effect or not.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: How has the economic aftermath of 9/11 affected the
lives of working people?
FREEMAN: There's no question that this was a big hit on working class
New Yorkers. New York has become so attuned to the financial industry,
that the economic downturn that followed the attacks also affected
people who live off financial economy. Back office workers, people who
work in the restaurants that Wall Street workers eat in, people who wash
the cars, and nannies - were devastated. The attack was a blow to the
city, and I think the city is still in some ways behind the rest of the
country in economy recovery.
On the other hand, the city is resilient. Right now, New York has the
biggest population in its entire history. A lot of that is a result of
immigration, and a much of that is immigration is working class people.
IS THERE STILL A WORKING CLASS?
GOTHAM GAZETTE: In your book you talk about the erosion of the idea of a
working class. Today, people generally think of themselves in terms of
income groups: low-income, middle class, or upper class. People classify
themselves in terms of how much money they make, not what type of work
they do. I'd like to hear what other people say about that, if they
agree that most people don't identify with being working class anymore.
CHRIS LANESE: People today would rather say "I'm middle class." It
PETER DERRICK: Americans don't like to talk about class. Working people
want to be called middle class, even though it would probably be in
their economic interest to be called working class.
Sven Beckert wrote a book called the "Monied
Metropolis." He talks about the rise of the American bourgeoisie, the
people who control the wealth in America and the large corporations.
They basically grew up in New York. He makes the point that by the
1900s, they basically controlled the American economy - the Fricks and the
Carnegies, and all the big
industrials were in New York.
They did, as you said, look down their noses at the working class. But
they also realized at a certain point that they would be in trouble
politically if they flaunted their power and their wealth too much.
He said it at the end of the book, since the turn of the last century,
the bourgeoisie that really owned the country tried to convince the
majority Americans that they didn't really have any power and tried to
get Americans to look at themselves as middle class as a way to
deemphasize the whole class structure in society.
As a labor historian, what do you think?
JOSHUA FREEMAN: This is a fascinating subject. I think that Americans
have been very ambivalent about manual labor. There's one tradition,
republican with a small 'r', that ennobles manual labor.
But I think you're absolutely right there is a tradition, most
pronounced in the South, but also in the North, that associates manual
labor with degradation. At its most extreme, it's associated with
slavery. People want to disassociate themselves from it.
At the same time, the heirs of Sam Walton
for example, or Bill Gates,
don't present themselves as plutocrats in the way that
Henry Clay Frick did. None
of them build these estates. Yes, Bill Gates spends a lot of money on
his house, but it's private. It's not such a display of his wealth. I
think some of that does reflect the lingering democratic influence of
the New Deal and their fear of being an obvious target.
Actually, I think you see less of that in New York. Park Avenue, and
places in Westchester and Long Island are still pretty darn ostentatious
in their exhibitions of wealth.
Another point, there was a study 20 years ago of oil refinery workers in
New Jersey that found that these guys - white, blue collar workers -
called themselves working people, working men, in the context of their
jobs, but when asked outside of their jobs they called themselves middle
That's the kind of complicated self-identity, which was bifurcated. On
one hand, it's workingmen who go back all the way to the nation to being
noble and the qualities of manual labor. On the other hand, they're
homeowners, property owners, and middle class.
MICHAEL MISCONE: The nomenclature is very opportunistic. When you want
to be romanticized, you're a working stiff. It's got the mythology of
the cowboy almost. Certainly when it's for union negotiations and wage
increases, you're a working stiff. But when it's time to present
yourself to society, you defer to another identity. I think people use
whatever label would be to their advantage in a particular instance.
PETER DERRICK: Why is there such a difference in Europe where people
talk about the ownership class and the working class? In America, it
gets pushed together.
FREEMAN: The United States - beginning with the American Revolution -
had elements of an ideology of equality among certain groups. There was
an early granting of the franchise to all white men, so that people of
economic power had to deal with the system, which they didn't
There is also greater mobility in the United States. One of the things I
talked about in the book was that the strong class identification in New
York came in part from the existence of neighborhoods where people lived
in tight sets of social relationships with church, work and schools.
That is exceptional in American history because you have such a high
geographic degree of mobility in this country. New York has got less
mobility because of the real estate market. But eventually, even in New
York those kinds of neighborhoods became less common and those kinds of
identifications weakened as a result of a geographic mobility.
You can think of class in two ways.
One is mechanically; everybody moves in a certain income group or has a
certain kind of job. But I don't think that gets you too far.
The second way is to think of classes as created. That's the traditional
function of private schools, country clubs, and the wedding pages in The
New York Times. They are institutions that gave a sense of belonging to
a certain social world. The upper class is constantly creating and
recreating itself. The admissions policy of Harvard University is
precisely about this issue. Who gets in? Who does not? And what are the
criteria? How do you create a sense of "us"? And that's still an ongoing
WORKING CLASS VIEW OF WAR
How do you explain the differing views of "hard-hat" workers toward the
war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq?
FREEMAN: I think you have to be careful when you make generalizations.
There are millions of people who work in construction or other kinds of
industries who think of themselves as "hard hat" jobs. And I think many
Americans would be surprised to learn that polling data in the late
1960's and 1970's found that working people were more likely to oppose
the war in Vietnam than wealthier or middle upper-class people.
With the Iraq war, I am struck with how much more quickly labor unions
as official bodies have expressed their skepticism of the Iraq war as
opposed to the war in Vietnam. In Vietnam, there was very little dissent
from unions until late in the war. But in the last six or eight month,
big American unions have officially passed resolutions very skeptical of
the war. That does not get much publicity.
And even working class families are voicing their opposition to the war.
There's a high school in Long Island called Brentwood High School and
three of its graduates have been killed either in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The parents of the latest victim are just scathing about the war. That
kind of openly stated denunciation of the war by family members of
soldiers, to me, it seems much more open today.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: The perception that continues among a lot of New Yorkers
is that everyone in Manhattan opposed the war in Iraq, whereas people in
Staten Island were in favor of it. But it seems that since September 11,
the image of Ground Zero has been used to try to encourage people to
support both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
FREEMAN: I agree. Whatever you think of President George W. Bush, his
people are good at certain things. They created the right image with the
president standing next to firemen and hardhats at Ground Zero. But I'm
not so sure it's been completely successful.
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT NEW YORK'S WORKING CLASS?
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Your book starts with the end of World War II where you
mentioned that the neighborhoods in New York lent themselves to forming
a strong working class. What else is there in New York that has made it
become the exception to the rest of the country?
FREEMAN: There are a few things that I know that if I was doing this
again, I would think harder about. One is - how much was New York an
exception? I took it for granted, implicitly and sometimes explicitly,
but I'm no longer quite as convinced that New York was as exceptional as
However, there were some things about New York that were unusual. Having
tight-knit immigrant neighborhoods was not something that was unique to
New York, though it was certainly true in New York. Another thing that I
think was important was the low level of property ownership among New
York workers. That didn't give them the split identity, whereas in
places like Detroit and Los Angeles, workers even very early on had high
levels of homeownership.
New York also had tremendous radical traditions going back to
Henry George and the
progressive era and an influx of immigrant radicalism from the Jewish,
and to the large extent Italian and Puerto Rican, communities. These
traditions had a class-based way of seeing the world and saw their
mission as promoting a working class identity. They actively worked for
GOTHAM GAZETTE: So you don't think New York was such an exception in
having a strong working class culture?
FREEMAN: After the book was done, I read someone's doctoral dissertation
about Milwaukee, and it turns out that they had a lot of things - a very
active labor movement, they too had a active social tradition, this one
coming out of the German community, and they actually had socialist
mayors. Minneapolis had a pretty strong tradition. If New York was an
exception, there were other exceptions, too.
The general permeation of society by labor and working class culture was
perhaps more widespread in Northern cities. It did not happen in the
whole country, but maybe I overestimated about how much of an exception
New York was.
IMMIGRANTS AND THE WORKING CLASS
PETER DERRICK: Can you talk a little bit about the working class today?
I don't think anybody would have predicted that what happened over the
last 25 years would happen. In,1980, you would see the loss of over a
million manufacturing jobs in New York City, the rise of what people now
call the underclass, a large number of very poor people of Hispanic and
Black origins. The city seems to be split. The construction workers who
are left don't move to Queens, they move to Nassau County or Rockland
County. You get this bifurcated city, where everyone is worried how will
its economy survive. Then you get this massive wave of immigration from
all over the world since the 1970s. Now over half of the city is either
foreign born or the children of foreign born, sort of the way it was in
1910. Those people seem to be working class, but it's unclear to people
like myself who have tried to follow it, what they're working at.
They're not in government, they're not in construction, and they are not
in manufacturing. How are they making their living?
JOSHUA FREEMAN: I wish I knew more about this. First of all, it's not
completely true they're not working in manufacturing.
PETER DERRICK: It's only about 300,000 jobs.
FREEMAN: Yes, it's small, but it's still there. And that's almost all
immigrants. Certainly in the service sector, you have a decent number of
immigrant workers, and even low-end construction, for instance
demolition, is immigrant.
I live in Inwood, in upper Manhattan. These days, when they're redoing
fire escapes, they're non-union, non-licensed crews. It's like the Wild
West, they don't even have scaffolding licenses. The idea that you could
have freelance people, outside the law, outside the union structure, in
Manhattan, doing construction is amazing. So there are immigrants
working in these industries - service, small enterprise.
One of the differences is that the immigrant groups who come into the
city in the 1980s and 1990s arrive after the fiscal crisis, and after
the defeat ideologically of the world I was writing about. They don't
really expect much from politics. They don't enter politics and the
civic realm with a set of assumptions that an earlier generation of New
York workers might have had. It just doesn't occur to them that you
could turn to the state for these kinds of functions. There's this
private quality - yes, they may be new to the city, maybe they are
illegal and want to keep a low profile - but they kind of have accepted
the norm of the privatized society.
I'm also struck by how quietly and quickly so much can happen. There's
something like 500,000 or 600,000 Mexicans living in the city. It's an
astounding number, it happened extraordinarily quickly, transforming
these historic neighborhoods in Harlem overnight. People know it on some
level, but it hasn't registered. Who knows where this is going to go?
MICHAEL HALPERT: I do. Eventually they're going to legalize them, and
eventually they'll be the new minimum wage workers.
FREEMAN: A lot of workers who come to New York come from much more
politicized societies to America, and they bring tradition that may in
the long run lead to quite significant change, we don't know yet.
Especially I think of Latin America and Central America.
PETER DERRICK: Do you think that many of the new immigrants who come
here - Indians, Koreans, Pakistanis - come here with money and
education, and that that may be the difference between recent and
FREEMAN: Yes. The 1965 Immigration Reform Act was one of the most
important laws of the 20th century. It does a lot of things, like
limiting overtly racist immigration law, but it also gives priority to
people who have certain types of skills, money, businesses, and family
Prior to 1965, when we're looking at immigration, it's entirely working
class. Now, that's not true. There is a very large middle class strata -
take Koreans for example - people who had been middle class, often had
high levels of professional training and education before they came to
the United States. And they are very different. But I also think it
varies from national group to national group.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: For immigrants who have specifically working class jobs,
how good has New York organized labor been in getting them on board?
MICHAEL HALPERT: Immigrants? They're too low on the radar.
FREEMAN: That's not completely true. It's often true, but there are some
exceptions, and the big exception right now is the people who are about
to go on strike: the building service employees union, which has a lot
of immigrant workers in it. The health care industry has also been
organizing immigrant workers. But there are huge areas of the economy
and parts of the city where immigrants are below the radar screen of
organized labor, such as retail, service jobs, and restaurants.
Restaurants are complicated, because high-end restaurants and hotel
restaurants are unionized.
MICHAEL HALPERT: But they have low-end workers too.
FREEMAN: But some are unionized. If you look at who died in the World
Trade Center, which I did do, you look at Windows on the World workers -
in fact, if you look at brokerage firm workers - you have a huge number
of immigrant workers. Windows on the World workers were unionized and
building service employees were unionized. But then many restaurants, of
course, are not unionized; the vast majority are neighborhood
I think organized labor recognizes this problem, and they have made some
initiatives, even some successful initiatives in this direction, but the
scale of the effort does not correspond to the challenge.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Can you contrast the way recent immigrants compare to
the 1950s when many more blacks and Puerto Ricans were coming into the
FREEMAN: It was a different economy, for one thing. Obviously there were
still a large number of manufacturing jobs in the '40s and '50s.
Although that was on the verge of declining, it hadn't yet declined. So
there were opportunities to get into these industries that Puerto
Ricans, for example, particularly in manufacturing were able to take.
African Americans went into civil service jobs and many of these were
unionized areas. So these were groups that were able, particularly
African Americans more than Puerto Ricans in some ways, to lock in
certain kinds of economic gains through job opportunities and
One of the statistics that I ran into when working on this book that
just absolutely blew me away was my discovery that the average family
income in Queens of African Americans was higher than white Queens
residents, which is an astounding thing. This is south Queens and it's
civil service and health care workers. They're unionized. It's an
amazing success story in a lot of ways.
On the other hand, a lot of the areas they were entering were also
beginning to contract .
I think Puerto Ricans in particular suffered this way. They were
recruited to come to New York in the '40s and '50s to work in these low
wage-manufacturing industries, some of which were unionized, like
jewelry and garments. But just as they were in the position where they
might move into more skilled jobs, as Jews and Italians began to leave
them, the industries themselves started to close. And they didn't get
Of course, Puerto Ricans and African Americans are citizens. They're
migrants but they come with full political rights and that's also a
difference because they can get involved and they do to some extent in
pursuing their interests, but also working class interests in the
political arena in a way that's harder for other immigrants.
LABOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS
GOTHAM GAZETTE: How did the labor movement and the civil rights movement
FREEMAN: That's a story I tried to write about in the book. It's a very
complicated story. In some cases unions acted as job monopolies that
used their power to exclude African Americans from job opportunity,
which was obviously true in the construction industry and other
industries.. The bagel makers union was probably as bad as any
construction union that ever existed in restricting membership to
basically children of existing members. Bagel making now is entirely
non-union I'm sure, but it was once a very heavily unionized industry.
So at one extreme you had the use of unions as a weapon of exclusion.
At the other end, you have the strong commitment that many New York
unions had to the civil rights struggle both outside New York, in the
south, but also in some cases, here in the city itself. New York State
had an anti discrimination law on employment starting in 1945. The
federal government didn't have that for another 20 years. I don't know
if it was enforced but it was an official commitment.
Of course, one group that was a critical linchpin in this was black
trade unions. And this was a group that has really not been given their
due I think—people like Philip Randolph, who's based in the city, and many less known people who were
critical in the '40s, '50s and the '60s in pushing both the union
movement to become more committed to civil rights, but also in pushing
the civil rights movement to issues of job opportunity and economic
The 1963 March on Washington was originally called a March for Jobs and Freedom; jobs came
first. That march grew out of the efforts of black trade unionists.
People like Martin Luther King, Jr. then picked it up. And many trade
unions here in the city sent huge delegations of whites and blacks to
So, I think there was a very intimate connection. Clearly there's a lot
of bitterness in the black community against those unions that not only
did not support, but that resisted civil rights.
It's a complicated story but I think as social sectors go the trade
union movement did better than most institutions. It did better, for
example than Ivy League colleges or country clubs, or other institutions
that were much slower to accept civil rights. I think trade unionists
like other people often have broader visions. And some of them were very
progressive and they were committed to the idea of racial equality.
I think there were also trade unionists in this country who were
committed to the idea of white supremacy. In Birmingham, Alabama, some
of the key organizers of the resistance to civil rights were trade
unionists. Trade unionists did discover that blacks were more likely to
join unions than whites. To this day, that is still true. So in that
sense there was a pragmatic pay off as well.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Why are blacks more likely to join unions than whites?
FREEMAN: I think this also goes back to a discussion we were having in
the beginning, that African Americans have been less prone to buy into
the notion of individual advancement, individual mobility, individualism
than European Americans, for historical reasons. So I think there's a
kind of cultural notion of mutualism that's stronger in the black
community. And organizational life is in some ways richer in the black
community than at least in parts of the white community.
In embracing trade unions, blacks are also confronting a very long
tradition of discrimination in the trade union movement, which was not
as strong here as in other parts of the country, but blacks joined trade
unions that at some point in their history kept them out. As late as the
1950s there were unions in the United States that by constitutional
provision refused to allow African Americans to join.
LABOR'S ROLE IN THE FISCAL CRISIS
GOTHAM GAZETTE: In terms of the fiscal crisis in New York in the 1970's,
you write about how many people saw it as an opportunity to roll back
social liberalism in America. But the one thing you didn't really touch
upon was how much you thought that these policies did or did not
contribute to the crisis.
FREEMAN: You've hit me on a sore point because you're right, I really
I think there was a very broad definition of government function at the
time - radio stations that played classical music were owned by the
government, hospitals were run by the government, and free college was
paid for by the government. And in particular, federal programs like
welfare couldn't be sustained over the long run on the local tax base.
There were a whole series of government administrations starting with
the late Robert Wagner years and the
John Lindsay years and the
Abe Beame years when rather than having to really fund government,
you simply borrow the money and hope you can make it through the next
week. It works for decades and eventually stops working and the banks
don't want to lend you money any more.
In that broad sense, I think, labor did contribute to that.
However, I would reject the narrow arguments that were made at the time
- that municipal pensions caused the fiscal crisis or that firemen were
paid too much. That I think is actually not the case.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: What is your view of Mayor John Lindsay? (Read a
book discussion on a biography of Lindsay)
FREEMAN: I wrote fairly harshly about him in some ways. Particularly
from the point of view of labor and a view of white, working class New
York, he did display some patrician attitudes that were contemptuous of
low and working class culture.
On the other hand, there was something refreshing about his notion that
government could be an experiment in democracy. He was a strong
supporter of the civil rights movement at a time when that was not
politically advantageous. He tried to confront some of these fiscal
issues. Lindsay did get the city income tax, which was a wise step
forward in developing a better financial base for the city.
So I don't think it's fair to blame Lindsay for all of these problems.
I think these problems were primarily structural, not his personality.
Lindsay has gotten a bad shake. To me it's amazing that he is one of the
most looked-down-upon mayors in modern New York history. He left a lot
more behind than other mayors have.
I think New York still does have structural problems, part of which has
to do with state politics. Some of it has to do with the continuing way
that much of the country views New York, which goes back to the 19th
century. There is a view that what is good in America is not New York.
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