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

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Overview

More than any American city, New York in the years after World War II laid out an idealistic and equitable path to the future. Ordinary workers and a dynamic labor movement helped make New York the envied model of liberal America and the scourge of conservatives everywhere: union wages and benefits, cheap and easy-to-use mass transit, affordable public housing, and healthcare for all.

Working-Class New York is the moving story of the creation by workers and their allies of a local social democracy, one that was remarkable in its ambitions and achievements, and in the way it came crashing down. A grand work of cultural and social history, Working-Class New York is a chronicle of a dream that died but that may yet rise again, and a celebration of the sophistication, energy, and inventiveness of ordinary New Yorkers.

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Editorial Reviews

Eric Foner
[P]laces labor where it belongs—at the center of the city's recent history. —London Review of Books
Mike Wallace
Gotham will never look the same again.
New York Times Book Review
Freeman's account is an important reminder that social policy is not made simply by political elites.
Robin D.G. Kelley
Wonderfully readable.
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 Cahners Business Information.\
Eric Foner
[A] masterful chronicle...Working Class New Yorkis a milestone in American labour...Freeman's work synthesizes the best of the old, new and newest labour history, while avoiding the parochialism that has plagued each one of them.
London Review of Books
Ross
Working-Class New York attests, with verve and passion, to the debt owed by labor to the legacies of New Deal liberalism. But labor's recent revival... If this grassroots movement continues to thrive alongside labor's new coalitions we may soon need to add a new chapter to the history that Freeman covers so brilliantly here.
The Village Voice
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565847125
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 9/1/2001
  • Series: History
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 692,517
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


A Non-Fordist City in the Age of Ford


On September 24, 1945, barely three weeks after the end of World War II, the main business districts of New York City ground to a halt. For a week over a million-and-a-half workers milled around the streets or stayed home. Mail and railway express delivery halted, and federal tax collections fell by eight million dollars a day. This estimated one hundred million dollar loss to the economy stemmed from a strike by fifteen thousand elevator operators, doormen, porters, firemen, and maintenance workers employed in commercial buildings.

    In an era when automated elevators were a rarity, elevator operators played an indispensable role in high-rise cities. Their strike, after a prolonged dispute over whether or not building owners would accept contract recommendations made by a War Labor Board panel, revealed the power of New York labor as the postwar epoch began. "The normal routine of thousands of professional, financial and manufacturing establishments," the New York Herald Tribune reported, "was at a near standstill in the world's financial and business capital." Hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers, executives, clerical workers, mailmen, deliverymen, and tax collectors could not or would not walk up dozens of flights of steps to reach their shops or offices. The garment district completely shut down as a quarter of a million members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW), the Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers, and the Fur and Leather Workers stayedout of work, following "an unwritten law" to respect picket lines. The militance of the strikers made wholesale use of strikebreakers impractical. When the owners of one insurance company building tried it, twenty-year-old Evelyn Wensel, a striking elevator operator from the Bronx, slapped and punched her replacement, leading to the walkout's first arrest. After five days of mounting economic damage, Governor Thomas E. Dewey pressured both sides to declare a truce and accept his appointment of an arbitrator, who ultimately dictated settlement terms favorable to the strikers.

    The building workers' walkout commenced a yearlong series of strikes that touched the lives of virtually all New Yorkers, part of the greatest strike wave in United States history. Nationally, in 1945, 3.5 million workers struck, topped the next year by 4.6 million, over 10 percent of the work force. In New York, the breadth and complexity of the labor movement gave it access to multiple pressure points capable of crippling the city.

    New York strikes during the year after the war included a weeklong walkout by ten thousand painters; a four-week strike by seven thousand members of the American Communications Association that disrupted telegraph communication into and out of the city; a 114-day strike against the Brooklyn-based Mergenthaler Co., the largest maker of linotype equipment in the country; and a series of trucking strikes culminating in a September 1946 walkout by twelve thousand Teamsters that led to empty grocery store shelves and factory closings. Sprinkled among these clashes were a myriad of smaller confrontations: a strike of Times Square motion picture projectionists, a lockout of thirty Newspaper Guild members at Billboard magazine, a walkout by eight hundred Brooklyn and Manhattan bakers.

    Some of the largest clashes took place on the waterfront. On October 1, 1945, almost immediately after the building workers' strike, stevedores at six Chelsea docks walked off their jobs to protest a proposed contract their union president, Joseph P. Ryan, had negotiated with the New York Shipping Association. Their wildcat strike quickly spread to thirty-five thousand members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) throughout the port. Ryan's proposed agreement failed to address many worker demands, including modifications in the shape-up system for hiring and a weight limit on sling loads, which had increased greatly during the war. Equally important, workers wanted more say in their union. Many ILA locals rarely met, Ryan recently had been designated union president for life, and corruption and thuggery was widespread.

    At first the strikers had no organization, no spokespeople, not even formal demands. But with the help of the Communists—a dockside presence, particularly in Brooklyn—they soon formulated demands and selected a leadership. Realizing that the contract he negotiated had become irrelevant, Ryan pressed the employers to grant new concessions while urging the longshoremen to return to work.

    After two weeks, the dockworkers began to drift back to their jobs. With the strike effectively broken, negotiations between the ILA and the shipping association resumed. Eventually an arbitrator granted the workers a larger wage hike and better conditions than in the contract Ryan had negotiated, but not a limit on sling loads, the issue that helped set off the walkout.

    Just four months later, labor turmoil in the port resumed when 3,500 tugboat workers walked off their jobs. Like elevator operators, tugboat men held a strategic place in the life of New York: in addition to docking large vessels, they moved freight back and forth across the harbor, including barges that delivered 65 percent of the city's coal and 95 percent of its fuel oil. With fuel supplies already low, their midwinter strike raised the specter of buildings without heat, closed industrial facilities, and a grinding halt of the transportation system. Newly-inaugurated Mayor William O'Dwyer declared it "the worst threat ever made to the city."

    The tugboat workers' strike raised a question affecting labor relations throughout the country: what would be the postwar relationship between wages, prices, and profits? During the fight against the Axis, the federal government had controlled wages and prices. Through most of 1946 it kept some price controls in place to check anticipated inflation. The tugboat owners, like many employers, wanted assurances that they would be allowed to raise their prices to cover increased labor costs before they granted substantial wage increases. By contrast, the labor movement and federal government argued that most employers could raise wages without raising prices and still make a healthy profit.

    With bargaining at a standstill, on February 6, 1946, the third day of the strike, President Harry S Truman seized control of the struck tugboats. The strikers, unimpressed, voted two-to-one to remain off their jobs. With fuel shortages looming, O'Dwyer took drastic action. First, he ordered that outside advertising lights be turned off, temperatures in most buildings be lowered to sixty degrees, heat be shut off on subway and trolley cars, and that no fuel be delivered to schools or amusement places. On February 11 he went further, ordering all schools, stores, libraries, museums, theaters, restaurants, and "business and industrial establishments" closed. Policemen, dispatched to subway stops, railway stations, and ferry terminals, urged the public not to enter midtown or downtown Manhattan. The next day, according to the New York Times, saw "the most drastic disruption in the city's life since the Civil War draft riots." In imagery seemingly taken from a film noir, a World-Telegram reporter wrote that "tugstruck New York's millions ... struggled to do all their accustomed little things while a dreadful, unnamed power held them in its grasp. An air of unreality hung over the city. Incidents took on a staccato, dream quality; sharply etched, touched with hysteria, cockeyed." The next day the tugboat strike ended when both sides agreed to the mayor's proposal that they submit their differences to a board of arbitration.

    In late 1945 and 1946, as local labor conflicts buffeted New York, massive national strikes captured headlines throughout the country and sparked fierce debate in Washington over whether or not unions had accumulated too much power. Most struck national corporations operating large-scale facilities, a type of plant uncommon in the city. Of the 750,000 steelworkers who walked off their jobs on January 21, 1946, only 12,500 worked in the New York area and fewer than 2,000 in the city itself. But a national strike of copper workers did have a strong presence in New York. The bulk of the 6,000 strikers who worked in New York-area copper plants lived in the city. Furthermore, most of the copper companies had their headquarters in Manhattan.

    The fight against Phelps Dodge was especially rough. In an effort to keep operating its plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey—just across the harbor from New York—the company brought in scabs by boat from Brooklyn. Anthony Anastasia, brother of mob leader Albert Anastasia and the power behind several Brooklyn ILA locals, supervised the operation. New York City police boats escorted strikebreakers to the plant and shipments of wire from it. The strikers had boats, too, leading to fierce fighting in the harbor. In the course of the eight-month strike, Mario Russo, a veteran and father of four, was killed on an Elizabeth picket line, and numerous others were injured. In a final calamity, while folksinger Woody Guthrie sang to an Elizabeth rally marking the end of the strike, a fire in his Brooklyn apartment killed his four-year-old daughter.

    And so it went. In early 1946 a three-week strike against the "Big 4" meatpacking companies idled over two thousand workers in the city and forced many retail butcher shops to close. A nationwide railway strike in May halted New York's extensive commuter rail system. Then, in the fall, New York harbor was again shut down by a seventeen-day national shipping strike. Less than two weeks later came yet another shipping strike, this time by licensed engineers and deck officers. In 1946 alone nearly a quarter of a million New York workers took part in walkouts, with 9 percent of the nation's strikes taking place in the city. Only during the strike wave that followed World War I did more New York workers walk off their jobs.


At the end of World War II, New York was a working-class city. In 1946, of the 3.3 million employed New Yorkers, less than 700,000 were proprietors, managers, officials, professionals, or semiprofessionals. The other 2.6 million men and women neither owned the businesses for which they worked nor had substantial authority over their operations. They were, to use an old-fashioned term, proletarians. By themselves they made up one-third of the city's population of nearly eight million. Along with their husbands, wives, and children they were a clear majority.

    The size, strategic importance, and demonstrated power of the working class allowed it to play a major role in determining what kind of city New York would become in the postwar era. When the war ended, the city stood on a cusp of history. "All the signs," Jan Morris later wrote, "were that it would be the supreme city of the Western world, or even the world as a whole." Seeming miracles of technical and social modernity abounded, from the television industry, then just getting started, to the United Nations. Yet as obvious as the future was the past. In a city where the largest, most advanced warships and passenger liners in the world regularly docked, fish still got delivered to the Fulton Fish Market in sail-powered boats. Horse-drawn wagons remained a common sight, delivering or selling coal, laundry, milk, vegetables, and fruit. In a city where sophisticated defense electronics got designed and built, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Bellevue Hospital still operated on DC current. One police precinct had gas lights. In a city where preliminary work for atomic fission had been done, potbellied stoves were being sold for home heating, and ice blocks were delivered for home refrigeration.

    Culturally, socially, and politically, blue-collar workers loomed larger at the end of World War II than at any time before or since. During the war they had been courted and celebrated as key to the Allied victory. Everywhere Americans looked—in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, and at the movies—blue-collar workers were heroically portrayed. The sense that they finally had come into their own was not just the product of official and unofficial opinion makers; as the war ended, manual workers had tremendous élan, a self-confidence growing out of the successful unionization campaigns before the war and their strategic position, steady work, and rising income during it.

    At the end of World War II, roughly half of New York's wage workers made, moved, or maintained physical objects for a living, everything from corsets to skyscrapers to aircraft carriers. In 1946, 41 percent of the employed labor force consisted of craftsmen, operatives, laborers, foremen, and kindred workers, the occupational groupings usually considered blue collar. Another 12 percent were service workers, many of whom performed manual labor: domestic servants, firemen, janitors, elevator operators, and the like.

    Manual workers could be found in many settings—driving trucks, constructing buildings, cleaning hospitals, unloading ships—but the largest number by far worked in manufacturing. As John Gunther wrote in his 1947 best-seller, Inside U.S.A., New York City was "incomparably the greatest manufacturing town on earth." In 1947 over thirty-seven thousand city establishments engaged in manufacturing, employing nearly three-quarters of a million production and 200,000 non-production workers.

    The centrality of manufacturing to the New York economy undoubtedly surprised many readers of Gunther's book (as it surprises many now), for the common image of New York was just the opposite. As a wartime Regional Plan Association (RPA) study noted, "A visitor to Manhattan seeing the tall office buildings dwarfing all other structures, and passing no huge steel mills with blast furnaces belching fire and smoke as in Chicago or Pittsburgh, or giant automobile factories as in Detroit, or long cotton mills as in New England or the South, might easily conclude that New York was mainly a region of white-collar workers supported by wholesale trade and banking." But the RPA study found manufacturing "the chief support of the New York Metropolitan Region."

    New York had been a major manufacturing center since the earliest days of the republic. In 1950, 28 percent of the city's employed workers were in manufacturing, two points above the national figure. The percentage of the city workforce employed in manufacturing had been declining since 1910, when it had peaked at just over 40 percent. However, except during the 1930s, the actual number of manufacturing workers in the city had risen each decade of the century. When World War II ended, New York manufacturing was at an all-time high.

    In 1950 seven of the nation's ten largest cities had a higher percentage of their workforces engaged in manufacturing than New York did. Nonetheless, in absolute terms New York City had a goods-producing economy unprecedented in size, output, and complexity. In 1947, New York had more manufacturing jobs than Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Boston put together.

    The sheer size of the New York metropolitan area—in 1950 more than one out of every twelve Americans lived there—accounted for some of the distinctive characteristics of the city's goods-producing sector. The New York market for capital and consumer goods was so large that manufacturing strictly to supply local needs was a huge enterprise. Four of the largest manufacturing establishments in New York City were local newspapers, while more than twenty-two thousand New Yorkers made bakery products, largely for local consumption. Even in the case of New Yorkers producing goods that sold nationally, a substantial part of their output was consumed in the region.

    The large local market gave a competitive advantage to New York firms in many industries, from hatmaking to linotype equipment, and contributed to the extraordinary heterogeneity of local manufacturing. A 1959 RPA study by Edgar M. Hoover and Raymond Vernon reported that "the pervasive impression of the Region's manufacturing economy is one of diversity—diversity of product, of process, and of environmental needs," a characterization seconded by many observers. In the immediate postwar years, Brooklyn alone had pencil and chewing gum factories, sugar and oil refineries, a naval shipyard, several large pharmaceutical plants, many machinery making companies, a kosher winery, and the world's largest producer of leis. Hoover and Vernon reported that firms in 420 of the 450 industrial categories used by the Bureau of the Census could be found in the region.

    For all its diversity, New York did not simply mirror the national economic structure. Far from it. The region dominated many small manufacturing industries, from umbrellas to scientific instruments, but of the seventeen largest manufacturing industries in the country (measured by employment), New York was heavily represented in only one, apparel.

    In 1950, 70 percent of New York City manufacturing workers made non-durable goods (generally consumer items meant to last three years or less). By contrast, nationally only 46 percent of manufacturing workers made nondurables. 340,700 men and women—over a third of the city's manufacturing workers and a tenth of its total work force—made apparel or related products. Another 119,200 were in printing and publishing, and 98,300 produced food or beverages. These three groups—apparel, printing and publishing, and food—together accounted for over half of the manufacturing employment in the city and 16 percent of all jobs. Other manufacturing industries each employed only a small fraction of the city's blue-collar workers, but some, by any standard other than New York's, were themselves large: electrical equipment and supplies (52,600 employees in 1950), nonelectrical machinery (31,800 employees), chemicals and allied products (42,300 employees), and leather and leather products (37,400 employees).

    Across this spectrum of manufacturing were some common characteristics that distinguished New York City from other centers of goods production. One was the small size of the typical establishment. In 1947 manufacturing establishments in the city employed an average of twenty-five workers, less than half the national average of fifty-nine. Counting only production workers, city manufacturing shops averaged twenty workers.

    This low average reflected the rarity of large factories. One 1947 survey located only 348 plants with 500 or more workers in the entire New York-northeastern New Jersey metropolitan area, with most outside the city proper. It also reflected the presence of a vast number of tiny enterprises. Half the metropolitan-area manufacturing establishments had fewer than ten employees. In the city proper, 11,773 had fewer than four employees, including a quarter of all the garment shops and a third of all printing and publishing establishments.

    The smallness of New York manufacturing enterprises was not simply a matter of industrial mix. The industries most heavily represented in New York tended toward small-scale operation, but even within given industries New York shops generally were smaller than their counterparts elsewhere. The average New York garment shop, for example, had only twenty employees (including seventeen production workers), in contrast to the national industry average of thirty-five. Nonelectrical machinery shops employed an average of eighty-six workers nationally, but only twenty-eight in New York. Household furniture makers averaged forty-seven workers nationally, eighteen in New York. Printing and publishing was something of an exception: the average New York establishment was considerably larger than those elsewhere. But this was because New York was a major center for white-collar publishing jobs; if only production workers are compared, the difference becomes negligible.

    The scarcity of land, its high cost, and zoning regulations limited New York City factory size. But more basic was the concentration of New York firms on custom or "small batch" production. Most New Yorkers who manufactured things either made one-of-a-kind products, such as fine jewelry or specialized machinery, or items such as blouses or stock certificates that were produced in only modest quantities in any particular style, size, or version. Although custom or small batch manufacturing was not necessarily small-scale—shipbuilding, for example, except in wartime, was a made-to-order business—in general establishments that made nonstandard goods were smaller than mass production facilities.

    The New York region had some mass production plants, mostly outside the city. Typically these utilized a very detailed division of labor, a high degree of mechanization, many special purpose machines, the mechanical transfer of goods along a sequential path of assembly, work pacing through assembly line timing or other technical means, and a high ratio of semiskilled operatives to skilled workers. Right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, for example, in Edgewater, N.J., sat an assembly plant of the Ford Motor Company, the firm that had virtually invented mass production (originally known as "Fordism"). Its rival, General Motors, had assembly plants in nearby Tarrytown, N.Y., and Linden, N.J. Westinghouse and General Electric employed over thirteen thousand workers in the New York area, mostly in northern New Jersey, many in mass production processes. Even in Manhattan there was some mass production. Emerson Electric Company made radios and televisions on the West Side until 1950, when it moved its operation to Jersey City. Benson and Hedges had a cigarette factory on Water Street. But such plants were the exception, not the rule, together employing only a small minority of New York's manufacturing workers.

    Firms doing custom or small-batch production—more typical of New York manufacturing—generally had a less developed division of labor, used less specialized equipment, and employed more highly skilled and versatile workers than mass production companies. They also tended to use nontechnical means to set the pace of work, such as piecework (which was widespread in the garment industry). However, there were wide variations among such firms, even when making similar products. After World War II, for example, a growing number of garment shops abandoned traditional "tailor work" for "section work," which entailed a more extensive division of labor and required a less-skilled workforce. Still, in 1950 there were almost as many skilled blue-collar workers in New York City as there were semiskilled manufacturing workers, while in Flint, Michigan, the center of General Motors' mass production empire, there were only about half as many.

    Versatility—as much or more than low unit price—was a key to success in New York manufacturing. In some cases versatility was a trait of individual businesses. In other cases it was a trait of constellations of firms, each of which in itself might be quite specialized. For example, the apparel industry was not really one industry but many: women's dresses, women's blouses, men's and boys' suits and coats, children's dresses, millinery, fur, corsets, knitted outerwear, men's neckwear, and so on. Within each of these sectors were jobbers, who designed and sold apparel and sometimes cut the needed material; contractors, who made apparel from material and specifications given them by others; and manufacturers, who performed both functions.

    Contracting was more prevalent in New York than in smaller apparel centers, where manufacturers were more prominent. Its great advantage was the flexibility it provided in a seasonal, boom-bust industry dependent on the vagaries of fashion. Rather than having to maintain manufacturing facilities and a workforce sufficient to meet peak needs, jobbers made samples and then, based on orders actually received, contracted for most or all of the production. Contractors, in turn, tried to ensure steady business by developing relationships with many jobbers.

    Contracting allowed even small companies to produce a vast array of styles of apparel by dealing with highly specialized firms that marbled the industry. If embroidered blouses became fashionable one season, for example, jobbers and manufacturers, who might not know how or be able to afford to set up their own embroidery operations, could send work out to specialized embroidery firms, which at other times might work on bedspreads or skirts.

    Many types of firms supplied, serviced, and profited off of the apparel industry. There were button companies; sewing machine dealers; factors and bankers; truckers; textile, thread, and box suppliers; and fashion models and salespeople (since New York was the industry's sales as well as manufacturing center). These ancillary industries made it possible for apparel makers to start up with minimal capital and avoid large investments in equipment, space, or supplies.

    For manufacturers to be able to make use of what economists call "external economies"—wholesalers, subcontractors, and service firms performing functions that otherwise would have to be done in-house—they needed to be close together to allow the cheap, rapid transfer of material and frequent face-to-face communication to deal with the problems that inevitably arise when new products are made. This was why New York manufacturers tended to congregate in compact industrial districts. An astounding half million manufacturing jobs were clustered in Manhattan south of Central Park. These constituted over half the manufacturing jobs in New York City and well over a quarter of those in the twenty-two-county metropolitan region. Manhattan had more manufacturing jobs than any other county in the country, with the exception of Cook County, which contains Chicago and its suburbs.

    Some sections of Manhattan housed manufacturing of all kinds, for example the area known as the Valley before being dubbed SoHo. But more typically, particular industries clustered in particular neighborhoods. The garment district—the center of women's and children's clothing design, sales, and manufacture—occupied eighteen blocks of loft buildings bounded by 34th and 40th Streets and Sixth and Ninth Avenues. The fur district was nearby. So was the millinery industry, which was so concentrated that 15 percent of the country's entire millinery output came from a single building at 65 West 39th Street. Men's clothing was made between 14th and 26th Streets, while undergarment manufacturing took place downtown, along lower Broadway.

    Commercial printing operations clustered in several Manhattan districts. Those that specialized in financial and legal printing congregated near City Hall; those that served the retail trade and bulk mailers settled in the West 30s, near the main post office; and those that serviced the advertising industry and corporate headquarters positioned themselves on the East Side above 42nd Street. Generally these shops were small and did work requiring close consultation with customers, short production runs, or fast delivery. They subcontracted out much of their typesetting, photoengraving, and binding, and depended on nearby type, ink, and paper houses to enable them to create products of almost every conceivable design and color without having to maintain large stores of supplies. Some large printing companies had plants in Long Island City, the Bronx, or Newark, where land was cheaper than in Manhattan but still near enough to allow customer contact.

    The Queens and Brooklyn shores of the East River and the Inner Harbor lodged a whole series of industrial neighborhoods—Long Island City, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bush Terminal. Along Newtown Creek, on the Brooklyn-Queens border, were Maspeth and Woodside. Many establishments in these areas required water access or large sites or engaged in noxious activities, for example, shipyards, chemical processing plants, and sugar, oil, and copper refineries. But there were numerous food processing, machine building, box making, furniture, paint, and electronics plants in these areas as well. Meat processing plants sat on the West Side of Manhattan, while slaughterhouses and tanneries bunched in Turtle Bay on the East Side until the United Nations displaced them.

    Of course, not only manufacturing firms clustered in specialized districts. There was an insurance district, a diamond center, a wholesale flower district, several wholesale food districts, a leather district, and booksellers' row (the center of the used book trade). Wall Street was synonymous with finance; Madison Avenue with advertising.

    The industrial geography of New York, divided as it was into specialized economic zones, imparted a particular character to the city's economic life, labor relations, and even its culture. Areas like the garment district or the diamond district were chock-full of restaurants, cafeterias, bars, clubs, employment agencies, and union halls where employers and workers exchanged information, sought work or workers, socialized, organized, and developed shared ideas about life, work, and politics. Managers and workers—even owners—often identified more with their trade than with a particular company. The constant exchange of ideas, techniques, and personnel within industrial districts helped generate, attract, and retain firms that survived through flexibility. Any thing, person, or idea that a company might need to make a particular product usually could be found nearby. But while the industrial districts provided economic advantages for custom and small-batch producers, they had disadvantages for bulk producers.

    It was almost a rule of New York manufacturing that as soon as a product became standardized and began to be sold in large quantities, its production was moved out of the city, and often out of the region entirely. Companies engaged in predictable, high-volume production of standard goods did not need the external economies that industrial districts provided: they could afford to have specialized in-house services, maintenance operations, and extensive inventories of supplies. Also, as production became routinized, they no longer needed access to a large pool of skilled workers. For firms that competed on the basis of price rather than the uniqueness of their products, speed of delivery, or quality of workmanship, the high unionization rate and high costs of labor, land, rent, taxes, energy, and shipping in New York became significant locational disadvantages.

    Take electronics. Since the days of Thomas Edison, New York was a pioneer in the development and manufacture of electric and electronic components and equipment. In their early stages of development, making these products required the close collaboration of scientists, engineers, and highly skilled workers, all of whom could be found in large numbers in New York. But with standardization, jobs moved away. The city had been an early center of electronic tube manufacture. However, once tubes were no longer made in small batches by skilled craft workers (usually men) but on assembly lines by less-skilled workers (usually women), companies moved their operations to New Jersey and beyond, where they could find cheaper space, better rail connections, and lower-cost labor. Similarly, until the mid-1920s, New York was a major center of radio manufacturing, generally by small firms, but as radios became standardized, larger firms with larger factories became dominant, and the industry began moving elsewhere.

    The disadvantages of the New York area—especially the city proper—for mass production meant that the region was significantly underrepresented in the industries that grew most rapidly during the first four decades of the twentieth century, including the automobile, petroleum, and rubber industries. New York was largely a bystander as a giant complex of industries developed to manufacture, fuel, and otherwise accommodate motor vehicles, a complex which at its height employed one out of every six American workers. In short, New York was a non-Fordist city during the age of Ford. This was true on the level of consumption as well as production: in 1950 there was one car in New York City for every 6.9 residents, in contrast to one for every 3.8 people nationally.

    New York's manufacturing sector of 1945 in some respects looked more like its manufacturing sector of 1845 than contemporaneous centers of mass production like Pittsburgh or Detroit. The concentration on consumer nondurables; the crowded industrial districts, with their loft buildings and tiny workshops; the webs of contractors and subcontractors; and the persistence, at least in some trades, of highly skilled craftsmen working alongside less skilled and more poorly paid operatives—all of which characterized blue-collar New York at the end of World War II—bear an uncanny resemblance to industrial New York a century earlier. But the New York manufacturing economy of 1945 was not simply atavistic; while it contained many archaic elements, it also had some strikingly advanced ones.

    Electronics components again furnish a good example. While it was true that by 1954 standardized tube production had largely left the region, nonstandard tube production had not. In fact, more area workers than ever before—some twelve thousand—were making tubes, generally specialized, highly sophisticated devices. A similar situation prevailed in electronic end-products. After World War II, New York was not a major center for mass market consumer electronics, but it was for scientific, industrial, and military electronics, which tended to be the cutting edge of the industry. Some of this work was done in New York City proper—during the 1940s, for example, several companies made radar devices in the city—but increasingly it was concentrated on Long Island, which also was a major center for military aircraft production.

    The manufacture of diverse products in short production runs using versatile equipment and personnel—what some economists call "flexible specialization"—was neither less modern than mass production nor inevitably doomed by it. Rather, it was an alternative system that, depending on the product involved and the particular economic, social, and political circumstances, might be more or less efficient and more or less profitable than mass production. For workers, it had both advantages and disadvantages.

    Many workers found flexible production jobs more rewarding than Fordist production. Machinists making complex equipment, for example, faced an ever-varying series of challenges that called for skill, experience, and ingenuity. Cutters in the apparel industry had to mobilize dexterity, strength, and know-how to maximize the number of garments that could be made from a given stock of material. But diversity of product did not necessarily mean challenging work. A lathe operator in a furniture factory might help produce small batches of furniture in varied sizes and styles, but if a separate setup man prepared the lathe for each new run, as was often the case, the lathe operator experienced little difference between making numerous identical parts (Fordism) or small batches of different parts (flexible specialization). Likewise, while blouse or skirt styles might radically change from year to year, the tasks of a sewing machine operator under the section work system remained essentially the same, day after day, year after year.

    Many small New York manufacturers were technically primitive. The typical New York dress or blouse company during the mid-1950s was capitalized at only about twenty-five thousand dollars. Few could afford to buy advanced equipment or experiment with new methods. Many small manufacturers survived only by squeezing labor as hard as possible. The small firm size, continual search for credit, intense competition, rocky labor relations, and need for timely deliveries characteristic of so much New York manufacturing opened the door for organized crime, which played a major role in clothing, paper box, leather goods, and a number of other industries.

    Short lead times and small production runs often meant seasonal employment. Production of fur garments and women's clothing, for instance, was keyed to annual selling seasons. In 1950, operators in the women's coat and suit industry averaged only thirty-eight weeks of work in Manhattan and thirty-five in Brooklyn. The toy and cosmetics industries sold a large percentage of their annual output during the Christmas season; after holiday production came slack periods with extensive layoffs. Some workers, particularly women who were second breadwinners in their families, liked annual layoffs, when unemployment insurance, which in effect subsidized seasonal industries, gave them continuing if reduced income. But for many workers seasonal layoffs meant sojourns working out-of-town or in other industries, such as taxi-driving or longshoring, or severe economic hardship.

    Which workers experienced the positive side of flexible specialization and which the negative depended in part on gender and ethnicity. Apparel cutters, for example, were almost exclusively men and, except in poorly paid, nonunion "cut-up shops," almost exclusively white: Jews and Italians in clothing, Jews and Greeks in fur. Section work, by contrast, was largely done by women, in the postwar decades mainly Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans.

    In 1947 women made up 38 percent of the manufacturing production workers in New York City (compared to 26 percent nationally), including 56 percent of those in the apparel industry. Among men there were two skilled blue-collar workers (in 1950) for every semi-skilled manufacturing operative, but among women there were nineteen operatives for every worker in a skilled blue-collar job. Although government skill classifications do not always correspond to actual job content, clearly there were radically different occupational structures for men and women. This contributed to a huge disparity in remuneration: in 1947 male manufacturing production workers in New York City earned a weekly average of $67.58, women an average of $42.92.

    The tendency for flexible production and inequitable labor market segmentation to go hand in hand was even more evident in construction than manufacturing. Like the apparel industry, the construction industry maintained a high degree of flexibility through the extensive use of subcontracting. Its workers produced custom or semi-custom products, which continually presented new problems that could be solved only by drawing on training, past experience, and a creative cast of mind. Of the 144,000 New Yorkers who worked in the construction industry in 1950 (including in office jobs), fewer than 4 percent were women. Furthermore, the industry was overwhelmingly white (in a city that was over 9 percent African-American), with nonwhite workers largely restricted to positions as laborers or hod carriers. Many trades had literally no journeymen who were not white men.

    In postwar New York, then, the world of the versatile, all-around, highly-skilled industrial worker still flourished, largely as a result of a concentration on flexible production. But it did so, essentially, just for white men. Most female and nonwhite workers, and many white men as well, inhabited a world of subdivided, semiskilled labor. For them, the difference between batch and bulk production mattered little in their daily tasks.


Manufacturing was just one part—though the largest—of the goods production and distribution complex at the heart of the city's economy. In the early nineteenth century, New York rose to national dominance not as a manufacturing center but as a commercial hub. New York's superb natural harbor and its links westward via the Erie Canal and, later, several trunk railroads made it an ideal entry and egress point for goods and people. Much of the city's manufacturing sector arose as an adjunct to trade: building ships and barrels for transporting goods, providing luxury items to the merchant elite, and processing trade commodities, such as raw sugar.

    By the mid-twentieth century, manufacturing had come to dwarf trade as a source of employment. But New York's port—by far the largest and most important in the nation—still was vital to the city's economy. In the late 1940s, one-fifth by weight and one-third by value of the country's maritime imports and exports went through New York.

    The Port of New York was vast; within a twenty-five mile radius from the Statue of Liberty nestled more than 750 miles of developed shoreline. During the immediate postwar years, the New Jersey side of the Hudson housed cargo handling facilities in Port Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken, but most of the port's cargo—75 percent as late as 1960—was handled in New York City. The West Side of Manhattan had the greatest concentration of deepwater general cargo piers in the world. It also housed most of the port's passenger ship facilities. In Brooklyn, miles of docks, warehouses, and shipyards lined the shore. Staten Island had more of the same, on a more modest scale. Extensive lighterage and carfloat operations crisscrossed the harbor and the rivers that flowed into it, compensating for the poor rail connections between various parts of the port, particularly between New York City and the Jersey railheads.

    Local officials estimated that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, 400,000 workers were dependent on port activities. About a quarter were directly involved in marine transportation, including 14,000 sailors and deckhands and 36,000 longshoremen. Another 40,000 worked in port-related trucking, railroad, and warehouse operations, and over 30,000 in ship construction and repair. The rest worked for import-export firms, in foreign banking, marine insurance, or admiralty law, or in material handling, refining, and manufacturing operations closely tied to the port.

    The flow of goods, people, and ideas through the port gave working-class New York an unusual worldliness. Sailors returned from sea with firsthand accounts of the rise and fall of fascism, the devastation of World War II, the turmoil in the colonial world, the spread of Communism, the outbreak of the Cold War. Mere proximity to the waterfront brought whiffs of exotica. From his days in Brooklyn Heights, Truman Capote remembered seeing "Crane-carried tractors and cotton bales and unhappy cattle sway above ships bound for Bahia, for Bremen, for ports spelling their names in Oriental calligraphy." Foreign sailors drank and talked with the longshoremen, truckers, and native seamen who frequented the bars and flophouses on the perimeter of the port. The port made New York the country's great immigrant city, a city of unparalleled human diversity. An entrepôt from its founding, mid-twentieth-century New York had strands running through its port connecting it to places, people, and ideas truly foreign to most of America.

    Distributive activities, of course, were not restricted to the harbor. In 1948, New York City had over 35,000 wholesale establishments, employing 315,000 workers. One-fifth of the wholesale trade of the entire country took place in New York, and in many product lines the majority of all sales took place there.

    As one would expect, there was great variety within this vast landscape of buying and selling, which included everything from Manhattan's famed Fulton Fish Market to national sales offices of giant manufacturers. Mostly, though, the field consisted of highly competitive small shops. Over half the wholesale establishments in the city had three or fewer employees; fewer than five hundred had one hundred employees or more. In part because most shops were small, there was unusually close contact between white- and blue-collar workers. A typical wholesaler might have buyers, salesmen, clerical workers, warehouse employees, and processing workers all in the same location. Women, who held most of the clerical positions, made up a quarter of the wholesale workforce.

    Wholesale trade had a culture of fast talk and sharp deals. Top salesmen could earn a very good living. But for most workers, wholesaling was the "measly manner of existence" that Biff Loman described in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949). "To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella."

    Retail trade could be worse. In 1948, New York City had an astounding 104,000 retail establishments, one for every seventy-six residents. Over a half million New Yorkers worked in retail trade. Roughly 10 percent were employed by department stores, which housed some of the largest congregations of workers in the city. In 1947 twenty-one department stores and fifty-one other retail establishments employed at least five hundred workers. At the other extreme were the tens of thousands of neighborhood groceries, butcher shops, vegetable stands, pharmacies, and candy stores, many tiny family operations. The nearly one hundred thousand "active proprietors of unincorporated businesses" in the retail sector included numerous members of what C. Wright Mills called "the lumpen-bourgeoisie," earning at best a modest income by working physically exhausting and emotionally deadening hours and exploiting their own family members. (Bernard Malamud captured the cramped agony of this life in his novel The Assistant.) Also in retail trade were 134,000 New Yorkers who worked in the city's more than 18,000 "eating and drinking places."


As important as goods production and distribution was to New York (in 1950 it accounted for three out of five jobs), it was in relative decline during the postwar years. Another economy, which operated alongside it, though smaller when World War II ended, grew over the following decades. It consisted of the finance, government, and service industries. Rather than dealing in tangible goods like ships, cookies, or corsets, this world centered around intangible forms of property, such as insurance and stock; on the creation of rules; and on the provision of services.

    The centrality of administrative and service industries to the local economy stemmed, in part, from the city's world position. By 1945, New York was, as historian Thomas McCormick put it, the "central metropolis" of the capitalist world system, the "dominant city that acts as the coordinating point and clearing house of international capital." As the center of international finance and headquarters of 140 of the nation's 500 largest industrial corporations, New York was the site of unprecedented economic power. The leading local businessmen were the most important economic decision-makers in the world. What they decided, and what happened on local financial and commodity markets, affected the lives of billions of people.

    In 1950, 242,000 New Yorkers—7.4 percent of the employed workforce—worked in finance, insurance, and real estate. What most people meant when they said Wall Street—securities firms; commodity brokers, investment companies, and the stock and commodity exchanges—employed surprisingly few workers, under 30,000. Banks had twice and real estate firms over three times that number on payroll. The insurance industry employed 76,000 New Yorkers, the majority women. In the late 1950s, Metropolitan Life alone had 15,000 workers at its home office on Madison Square, dwarfing any local manufacturing enterprise. Such massing of white-collar workers, most doing routinized work, was not unusual. The images of the emergence of mass society in New York—for example, in King Vidor's brilliant 1928 movie The Crowd—were not of workers on an assembly line but of rows and rows of clerical workers engaged in seemingly mindless, interchangeable, soul-deadening labor.

    Over 580,000 New Yorkers worked in service industries, a catchall category for enterprises that did not primarily make things. They ranged from teachers and hospital workers to employees of advertising agencies, automobile repair shops, and corporate law firms. Women constituted the majority of professional and personal service workers; men dominated entertainment, business, and repair services. Because New York was a culture capital, it had an unusually large number of men and women who provided "entertainment and related services," 50,000 according to the 1950 census. Nearly a quarter of a million people provided "personal services." They included 75,000 women and 4,000 men who reported their occupation as private household worker, a quarter of whom lived with their employer. A much larger number of New Yorkers—1.7 million, 99.7 percent of whom were women—reported their occupation as "keeping house." However, because they were keeping their own houses, and not receiving wages for doing so, statisticians did not consider them part of the labor force.

    Finally, in 1950, 87,000 New Yorkers worked for the federal government (just over half were postal workers), 9,000 for the state government, and over 220,000 for the municipal government, which was, by far, the city's largest single employer.


The sheer size of New York, and the complexity of twentieth-century life, meant that at the end of World War II the great metropolis's economy was extraordinary in scope and diversity. Yet compared to a half-century later, the degree to which its diverse parts were physically and socially integrated is striking. Take a look at the wonderful photographs by Andreas Feininger of New York during the 1940s. Over and over again his images include both soaring office towers, where power and paper were manipulated, and gritty work sites where blue-collar labor took place. In the 1940s it was almost impossible to look out of a skyscraper window and not see men engaged in physical labor, be it pushing racks of clothes in the garment district, floating railroad cars across the harbor, or maneuvering trucks full of printed material, toys, or machine tools through the congested streets of Manhattan. When financiers and lawyers and marketing men left their offices they rubbed shoulders in the streets and subways with the secretaries and clerks and elevator operators with whom they shared their buildings and the furriers and typographers and waitresses and warehousemen who worked nearby.

    At the midpoint of the twentieth century, to a far greater extent than at its end, producing, distributing, selling, and financing goods and services were, in New York, geographically proximate processes. Clothes were often designed, modeled, sold, financed, made, and distributed all from the same building. In the early days of television not only were the network's financial and administrative offices located in New York City, most of their shows were produced there as well. New York-area television stations and advertising agencies employed thousands of performers, authors, directors, producers, and scenic workers. Nearby, over 6,000 workers made television sets or their components, 10,500 workers sold them, and 5,000 mechanics serviced them.

    The long-run history of capitalism entails the abstraction of value out of and away from the labor process, separating mental labor from manual labor and the circulation of money from the distribution of things. Central to the story of postwar New York were the different fates of goods production and symbol manipulation. In 1945 a bifurcation of the economy already was evident. Still, just blocks from Wall Street, where paper symbols of property—securities, bonds, and commodity futures—were traded, there were wholesale markets for butter, eggs, cheese, tea, coffee, and spices where not just the ownership of those goods but the goods themselves were exchanged. As the postwar era dawned, the sounds of tugboats and the smell of freshly-roasted coffee beans still penetrated the corridors where bankers and businessmen accumulated money and power on a scale unsurpassed anywhere in the world.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Chronology xi
Introduction: What Made New York Great xiii
Part 1. Proletarian City
1. A Non-Fordist City in the Age of Ford 3
2. Working-Class New York 23
3. Labor Days 40
4. The Rise of a Social Democratic Polity 55
5. The Cold War in New York 72
Part 2. Labor's City
6. Big Labor 99
7. "A Decent Home" 105
8. "Adequate Medical Care" 125
9. "A Useful and Remunerative Job" 143
10. Goodbye Molly Goldberg 167
Part 3. Strike City
11. Freedom Now 179
12. Municipal Unionism 201
13. "A Man by the Name of Albert Shanker" 215
14. Longhairs and Hardhats 228
15. The Fiscal Crisis 256
Part 4. Trump City
16. Global Dreams and Neighborhood Realities 291
17. Hanging On 306
18. The Ghost of Class 326
Conclusion: New York and the Nation 334
Acknowledgments 338
Notes 340
Index 397
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