Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Report: "Working Class New York," by Joshua Freeman

The narrative in Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War IIgrows less interesting along with the declining labor movement it chronicles.

That's no criticism. After all, Joshua Freeman did not write a novel, rather penned an important nonfiction and academic effort that tells the story of New York through its workers.

"Working Class New York," is wonderfully done and demonstrative, at every turn, with the author's passion for his subject.

But, for labor enthusiasts, the end can't match the beginning for excitement.

In the early chapters, the poesy of labor reigns as the Hatters, Printers, Furriers, Elevator Operators, Milliners, Bakers and Tugboat workers, representing a rainbow of crafts and productive industries, bring the world's mightiest city to a halt through mass strikes driven by the underlining goal of reorganizing society itself.

Freeman's analysis of New York's economic structure, and how it created a textured union movement unequaled in the rest of the country, is fascinating and as much a love letter to the unions as to Gotham itself.

Indeed, the author frequently asserts that the city's best face was the lined countenance of the laborer or craftsperson enlightened by their recognition of a shared destiny, on the shop floor and front stoop, with similarly situated souls.

"Working Class New York," meticulously follows the labor movement's progress and retrenchments, starting with its halcyon days in the post-war 1940s.

It makes no bones about the powerful impetus communist politics played, and the subsequent loss of energy that coincided with the reds being chased out of American labor.

Freeman illustrates how the union movement reflected changes in the city as it lost manufacturing jobs and embraced the financial and service-based industries.

His mapping of municipal unionism's rise has less of a workerist flavor and more of what the departed Allan Bloom called the "Nitzscheanization of the left," as ethnicity and cultural issues consumed unions' internal power struggles and drove their industrial strategies.

And the book details how the decline of labor in New York reflected its nationwide losses as the country grew more individualistic and market-oriented in the 1970s and '80s.

Freeman's chapter on how financial types used The Big Apple's fiscal crisis in the late 1970s to undermine and rollback the unions' hard-earned, and unique urban social democracy, is must-read for anyone interested in those dynamics affecting the American workplace for nigh on a generation now.

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