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Working Class New York: Book Club Chat

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 heroic.

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.


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 sounds better.

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 class.

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 automatically dominate.

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 process.


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.


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 I thought.

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 that.

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.


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 previous immigrants?

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 connections.

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 restaurants.

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 city?

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 unionization.

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 the opportunity.

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.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: How did the labor movement and the civil rights movement interact?

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 opportunity.

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 that march.

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.


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 should have.

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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