A labor historian traces political and cultural forces that turned the 1970s into a swan song for the American working class.
Cowie (History/Cornell Univ.; Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheaper Labor, 1999, etc.) opens this rich but overlong book with an account of the many strikes and other signs of labor revival in the early ’70s, when young, hip miners, steelworkers and others engaged in insurgencies reflecting widespread rank-and-file dissent. In that hopeful time, Rolling Stone hailed Eugene Debs–like steelworker Eddie Sadlowski as an “old-fashioned hero of the new working class” when he made his failed bid for union leadership. By mid-decade, the United States was wracked by stagflation, Watergate and the continuing failures in Vietnam, and had begun making a watershed transition from the optimism of the New Deal to the diminished expectations of the present. As organized labor’s power waned, the concept of a unified “working class” shattered and blue-collar whites took cultural refuge in Ronald Reagan’s populist-right affirmation of God, patriotism and patriarchy. With incisive discussions of the era’s popular culture, Cowie shows how the working class’s evolving struggle to find a place in the eventful decade was evinced in music (Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” Bruce Springstein’s “Born in the U.S.A.”), films (Joe, Saturday Night Fever) and TV shows (All in the Family). By the end of the decade, writes the author, the cry of “I’m dying here,” made by Al Pacino playing a blue-collar bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, could be seen as a lament for the disarray of blue-collar identity, writes the author. By 1980, the TV show Dallas, featuring amoral oil baron J.R. Ewing, was America’s favorite, and “a Reaganesque cross-class alliance” united “white worker and rich man in common cause—to repeal the 1960s.” Packed with interesting stories, Cowie’s book explores all the complexities of blue-collar yearning in the period and shows how the post–New Deal working class, whose needs the country had once addressed, became America’s forgotten workers.
An authoritative analysis that will appeal mainly to students and scholars.