New Books Examine the Trajectory of Labor in the United States in the Seventies
Beyond nostalgia for polyester leisure suits, disco and “Charlie’s Angels,” the ’70s are emerging as a subject of serious historical investigation. In paticular, a number of recent works have called attention to the troubles of the labor movement in that decade. Economic conditions worsened as the U.S. faced competition from European and Japanese industry and rising oil prices. The rift between unions and the legacies of the movements of the ’60s — anti-war, feminism, environmentalism, Black power — hindered concerted action against the political shift to the right. The result was a historic setback for labor under the Reagan administration, and a turn towards finance which created the terrain on which we now struggle. Among the new books that shed some light on this period are:
“Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies” written by Judith Stein, history professor at the City University of New York. Although her main points sometimes get buried in the details of this history, primarily focused on economic policy-making, Stein’s argument that morally gratifying anti-corporatism at times obscured discussion of how to save U.S. industry may be worth considering by the Occupy Wall Street generation.
“Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below During the Long 1970s” edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner and Cal Winslow. This collection highlights revolts led by workers. Although not widely discussed these days, a strike wave rocked the U.S. in the early ’70s, often led by rank-and-file against the wishes of the union leadership. Reviewing the book on ZNet, John Borsos praises in particular Frank Bardacke’s “examination of the United Farm Workers from the ground up which captures the power of the farmers at the point of production in establishing a power base. This is set in relief with the union’s bureaucracy that developed an independent power base from the national, liberal support and backing generated by the boycott apparatus.” He concludes that “one is struck by how the entrenched union leadership was too weak, compromised and conservative to fight employers, and yet institutionally strong and motivated within their own organizations to either co-opt or ruthlessly squash the workers’ rebellion.”
“Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class” authored by Jefferson R. Cowie, professor of history at Cornell. Cowie includes considerable cultural history in his discussion of the challenges faced by the working class in the period. Writing in New Politics, Steve Collatrella praises the book for transcending the current academic sub-specialties that have undermined labor history, declaring that the book “might be the most groundbreaking and original national history of a working class since E.P. Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’.” Collatrella mildly faults the book for its adherence to the “somewhat arbitrary border of the calendar line” between the ’70s and ’80s, which means the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981 is not included, despite its relevance. This brings us to our final book in this survey.
“Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America” written by Georgetown history professor Joseph Anthony McCartin. While, as noted above, the PATCO strike occurred in 1981, the life-span of PATCO, which forms much of the content of the book, from its founding in 1968 to its decertification in 1981 might be a useful definition of “the long 1970s.” The defeat of PATCO truly marked the end of an era when labor unions were relatively confident of their role, even if subordinate, in U.S. political life. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Bryan Burroughs explains that McCartin blames the strike and its failure on overreaching by the union (not everyone on the left would agree with this interpretation, to say the least. Indeed, having read about two thirds of the book, I am not sure it is an entirely fair summary of McCartin). When Reagan fired the strikers, the public applauded. The story resonates with the challenges unions have faced over the last 30 years connecting their demands to a sense of the greater public good.
The 1970s are not a happy time to ponder for those sympathetic to working class struggle. The strike wave of the early part of the decade did not result in a lasting increase of power for workers in relation to union bureaucrats or employers. And the period ends with the historic defeat of the PATCO strike. The energies of the struggles of the ’60s, including anti-war, feminism and African American struggles, persisted in the new decade without connecting to the working class. But as economic struggle returns to the foreground with the “fantastic success” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps it is worth looking back to understand what happened and increase the odds of a more positive resolution this time.
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