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Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II

4.0 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1565847125
ISBN-10: 1565847121
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this absorbing and beautifully detailed history, Freeman charts the postwar rise and eventual fall of Manhattan working-class life and culture: "a story of massive movements of population and industry, tenacious struggle for rights and equality and ongoing discrimination and inequity." In 1946, 2.6 million men and women (out of 3.3 million employed) were working-class or blue-collar workers, many belonging to strong unions. By 1960, "white-collar workers outnumbered blue-collar two-to-one," yet on the average grossed less income. An associate professor of history at Queens College, Freeman ranges widely--from television shows like The Honeymooners and films like On the Waterfront to city planner Robert Moses's massive restructuring of New York's physical landscape; Cardinal Spellman's red-baiting of unions; the role of rent control in building and sustaining working-class neighborhoods and identities; and the role of the city in promoting opera and the arts for low-income and working people. His nuanced discussion of organized labor forms the backbone of the book, supplemented by a vivid and moving portrait of ethnic, immigrant and white culture and communities that no longer exist. Strong narrative drive, attention to detail and historical insight make this a superb addition to studies of postwar culture, urbanology and labor history. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Freeman (history, Queens Coll., CUNY) has written a comprehensive history of New York City's working people and their trade unions from the immediate post-World War II years through the late 1990s. In his view, the culture, styles, and world outlook of working-class New Yorkers played a great role in shaping the city's social, economic, and political structures as well as set the pattern for the moral and aesthetic fabric of the city and the nation it influenced. Over time, though, the city's working people and their institutions were unable to check a series of developments that led to their marginalization. The anti-Communist purges of the 1950s decimated the ranks of unionized labor and eroded its idealism. Unfortunately, the writing is pedestrian and sometimes cluttered with excessive detail. Recommended for labor and New York City collections of academic libraries.
-Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: New Press, The (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565847121
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565847125
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #604,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Well written and engaging, but union-centric, incomplete and progressively more biased.
Working-Class New York is a book with a lot of strengths, especially several of its earlier chapters. The chapters in Part I, about NYC's industrial and political exceptionality, help one understand how much blue collar work New York once had, and how exceptional that blue collar work was. Freeman also has good material about the uniqueness of NYC unions themselves. For instance, in no other American city did unions take it upon themselves to building housing for their members as NYC unions did.
Freeman's chapter on the loss of NYC's manufacturing jobs "A Useful and Remunerative Job" is also very well done. Several unions, like the ILGWU, adapted to deindustrialization by gradually giving back the benefits and salaries they had worked so hard for over the years. Other unions attempted ultimately futile mass action techniques reminiscent of the Great Depression, like when the United Electrical Workers staged a sit down strike at American Safety Razor, planning to leave NYC for Virginia.
Despite its strengths describing the stories of unions, I felt Working-Class New York was missing a lot in the areas of culture, politics, and ethnicity. Those subjects are not ignored, but if you want to learn about what working New Yorkers did when they weren't on the job (or on strike), this book will not satisfy you. There is little about non-work socializing, the white backlash, and egregiously little on ethnicity. Freeman has stuff about working-class New York on tv, like the Goldbergs and All in the Family, but nothing about what working class New Yorkers themselves were watching.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is balanced and strongest in its discussion of the 1940s through the 1960s. After that period, however, the author tends to see the politics of the city as a battle between the good guys in white hats versus the bad guys in black hats.
Freeman's shallow, tendentious treatment of New York's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, for example (perhaps the most important event in the second half of the twentieth century for New York), allows him to portray it as a mere excuse for mean spirited, right-wing attacks on labor's gains. According to Freeman, the good guys (labor and its allies) sought to defend their eminently reasonable and necessary social-democratic policies, while the bad guys (lawyers, investment bankers, etc.) used the purported budgetary problems as an excuse to roll back social welfare policies. Even those unfamiliar with New York, however, will realize that generous social welfare programs, combined with strong municipal unions and pervasive political patronage is, at the very least, expensive. If you want to go that policy route, you have to be willing to pay for it-you can't just borrow money forever. But even that limited degree of complexity is more than Freeman presents.
For Freeman, recent New York politics is as simple as "social democracy" for the people versus right-wing "ideologues." For that reason, to take but one example, the treatment of recent immigration is egregiously shortchanged.
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Format: Paperback
The narrative in "Working Class New York," grows 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, of 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.
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A fascinating, in-depth look at an exciting time in NYC history. It is well-written.
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