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Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class Hardcover – September 7, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

There is no question that recent decades have been tough times for the so-called working class. The decline in power and influence of organized labor, foreign competition in industries like automotive and steel, and the shift to a service-oriented economy have eroded the chances for many workers to maintain the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle. Cowie charts this decline in a wide-ranging survey that moves from factory floors to union halls to the upper levels of corporate, union, and government bureaucracies. To his credit, Cowie doesn’t allow broad themes to obscure the price paid by individual workers, and the testimonies of those who saw their economic position being squeezed is both disturbing and moving. Cowie’s sympathies are obvious, and this is far from a balanced account. From the auto plants to mines to farm fields, he shows workers victimized by corporate greed and distant union and government officials. Still, as a portrayal of a decade that saw a great shift in the status of millions of people, this work is a valuable piece of social history. --Jay Freeman


“…so fresh, fertile and real that the only thing it resembles is itself…You just have to read it. It establishes its author as one our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience. It corrals all the generational energies coursing through the centrifuge of post–baby boomer ‘70s scholarship and churns them into the first compelling, coherent statement I’ve read of what happened in the '70s…Cowie's accomplishment is to convey what this epic cheat felt like from the inside.”—Rick Perlstein, The Nation

“If you want to understand how we got here—how the Democrats’ New Deal coalition shattered in the 1970s, and why progressives are still picking the shrapnel out of their political hides—you must read Stayin' Alive. A fun read with cultural insight…Cowie is impossibly fair.”—Joan Walsh, Salon.com

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: The New Press; First printing. edition (September 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565848756
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565848757
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #458,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Metzgar on October 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is an exhilarating combination of political, economic, and cultural history written as if somebody besides a history professor might be interested. I turned 27 in 1970, and though only semi-conscious of all the things that were going on as covered in Stayin' Alive, I lived the decade and experienced what Jefferson Cowie calls "the last days of the working class" almost exactly as he portrays it. There is still an American working class, and by any sensible social science definition, it is still a substantial majority of all the people who work for a living. What was lost in Cowie's "last days" was the possibility of a "vibrant, multi-cultural, and gender conscious" reorganization of a working class capable of effective collective action as a class. Cowie sometimes argues, sometimes merely "suggests," and sometimes simply assumes that a "New Popular Front" of working-class unity was possible in the early years of what finally got tagged as the Me Decade. How this possibility was lost through a complex causal web involving the rise of the New Right, the limits of the New Deal, stagflation, Viet Nam, as well as white guys behaving badly in the face of racial and gender cultural revolutions is what Stayin' Alive both documents and mourns. The book is sometimes a downer because it is a story of worthy hopes dashed, but in telling that story it renews the possibility, or at least the idea of it, and that should help a new generation recover it as it steps into history downstream from the "sound of things falling apart" in the `70s.

Jack Metzgar
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jefferson Cowie's Stayin Alive is, to my mind, the best book on the seemingly endless decline of workers' power and influence since David Mongomery's 1987 The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, (1865-1925). By the 1970s, American workers had lost even the pretense of any control over their work places. Moreover, the personal conservatism and anti-intellectualism of the American blue collar work force made them easy prey for the opportunistic, crass and grasping political right who make the world safe for insatiable corporations. I turned 21 in 1970 and I belonged to a building trades union since I was 18. I am of course white and I had relatives in the union, the only prerequisites for admission in those days. I was an apprentice for 5 years and obtained a fantastic education, for free. The local union I worked out of in Houston was the largest building trades local in the world, employing more than 14,000 craftsmen. Like all unions, or any other institution for that matter, mine was corrupt and probably still is. Because Texas is a right to work state, all building trades unions were systematically destroyed by the oil and chemical companies in the early to mid-1970s. The corrupt big unions are long gone, but gone too is the blue collar middle class.
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Format: Hardcover
Stayin' Alive attempts to analyze the story of the 70's. It does so by swinging back and forth between politics, economics and the popular culture; sometimes in an extremely dry and dreary fashion and in others presenting a clear picture of what and why events happened the way they did. Dewey Burton is used throughout the book as the typical blue collar disgruntled worker, as he was also used by the `New York Times'.
There are 15 pages devoted to Bobby Kennedy, going back to the 60's, but there is a lack of real connect to the 70's . In fact most of the book is very pessimistic, full of despair and the American way falling apart.
Where the writing shines is in the description of how the culture, music, TV, (i.e. All in the Family) and movies, (Easy Rider - "A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.") reflected the pessimism and disconnect between the classes during the decade. For example Merle Haggard's comment after playing at the Nixon White House, "I didn't expect the crowd to be as receptive as a Texas honky-tonk's, but I didn't expect them to be embalmed either."

The ideas of Milton Friedman and the abandoning of Keynesian economics and the conservative movement of the working class right are well explained , as is President Carter's idea that something was very wrong with the American psyche and what and how he attempted to cure it. The current events of the decade are also well integrated.

Much of the book jumps back and forth between what and how the 70's was the decade where everything, even Elvis fell apart. It would interest those who want to learn more of this decade, American history, economics, the culture and the political changes that led to the era of Reagan politics.
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Format: Paperback
Jefferson Cowie's informative and provocative history of working class America does what a good history book should do - enlighten the present. For the book traces how Americans discarded their class identity and embraced cultural identity. Culture remains the buzzword of the 21st century; it's a highly prized commodity. Look at any progressive leaning online magazine such as Slate or Buzzfeed and the cover page will showcase articles on the newest trends in racial, gender, and sexual identities. Class, in most cases, plays a peripheral role in these discussions.

Economists overwhelmingly agree that the wealth gap in America widened considerably over the past decades. While the economic collapse in 2008 brought class issues back for a brief period, reaching its apogee with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the moment ended with a whimper. Cowie, a history professor at Cornell, who I'm sure is sympathetic to the left, does take the left to task for abandoning the working class to their fate. This is a complex story.

When the 70s kicked off the time seemed right for a rejuvenated labor movement, one poised to build upon the triumphs of FDR's New Deal. A new generation of workers brought a "Sixties" attitude into the ranks of labor, often putting them at odds with post-war labor leaders who maintained a patronizing attitude towards their fellow members. The leadership believed workers were content simply with higher wages and benefits. And yet a restlessness grew among laborers. Blue collars wanted more control over the means of production, chances for advancement, and most important of all - dignity.

In 1968 the political fault lines shifted dramatically.
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