Review: Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

By Jefferson Cowie.

New Press, 2010, 480 pp.

The 1970s was a time of enormous cultural, political, and social upheaval all across the spectrum of American society and has been the subject of many an academic study. Everything from bell bottoms to disco to Watergate is still a subject of fascination for Americans even only vaguely conscious of that enormously influential decade. Jefferson Cowie, Professor of Labor Studies at Cornell University, in his recent book Stayin’ Alive has waded into this decade with a unique perspective, less precociously written and read about; the state of working people, generally, and the labor movement, specifically.

But Cowie’s learned study of the cultural and political trends of the 1970s does not just begin with the Summer of Love and end with the election of Ronald Reagan. Interweaved throughout the book is a constant reference to the stirrings within the labor movement itself, both at the leadership and rank-and-file level. George Meany, longtime president of the AFL-CIO, plays a central role as a barometer of where many of the old school heads of Organized Labor stood with regard to both the social and political movements of the day.

Cowie draws a distinct line between the opinions and aspirations of the union leadership versus those of the membership. Indeed, Cowie spends much of the book following the various union democracy movements formed during the late sixties and early seventies.

Cowie takes a particular focus on Miners for Democracy (MFD) of the United Mine Workers and Ed Sadlowski of the United Steel Workers. The MFD was born out of one of the most horrifying acts in Labor History; the murder of Jock Yablonski, his wife, and daughter. The story has become an infamous one for those involved in the trade union movement (even outside the UMWA). Yablonski was a dissident leader within the Miners who sought to unseat John Lewis’ heir apparent Tony Boyle, who ran the international like a dictatorship, with many kickbacks for himself and his fellow leaders. Yablonski ran for the presidency in one of the ugliest union elections of the time. The Boyle administration routinely stuffed ballots and intimidated known dissidents into inaction. In what is now understood to be a completely fraudulent election, Boyle “won” two thirds of vote against Yablonski.

Yablonski appealed to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards for help, but was left to fend for himself. His attempts to warn the Labor Dept. of the threats against him, a violation of Section 610 of the LMRDA, fell on deaf ears.

On the night of December 31, 1969, Yablonski was murdered in his home along with his wife and daughter. Fueled as the Miners For Democracy were prior to the election, the killing of one of their own put a special fire in their belly to prepare for the 1972 rerun of the fraudulent election. This time, the Department of Labor oversaw the entire plebiscite, making certain little outright election fraud could be committed.

Sadlowski, meanwhile, was a young and precocious unionist with the United Steel Workers Union, coming from Ohio. Unlike Yablonski, who was 37 years his senior, Sadlowski was a man of his time; a staunch unionist but also steeped in the ways of the 1960s. Unlike more parochial members of the USW and other unions, Sadlowski saw the central importance of race to the problems faced by trade unionism. It was not enough simply to fight on behalf of the guy who looks like you and lives in your neighborhood; you had to reach out the minority workers in the steel factories, as well. Though Sadlowski would ride a wave of discontent in District 1 to ascend to the presidency, the momentum of said wave could not get him the presidency of the international.

Particularly relevant to the those involved with issues of union democracy is the lack of recourse working people had in the incipient years of MFD, Sadlowski, etc. On the one hand, working class folks were dealing with pressure from above via government or a rejuvenated corporate sector set on diminishing the power of organized labor. On the other, unionists were often enough being misused by the very people who were supposed to protect them from those overwhelming forces

The theme then, broadly speaking, is alienation. Alienation from a political system mired in corruption and polarization, from a culture unreflective of the common man’s values, and (most relevant to advocates of union democracy) from the civic pride and solidarity provided by a truly responsive labor union. The machinations of a George Meany or an Arnold Miller may not have been reprehensible per se, but they may also have been done to avoid the input of the union membership rather than promote it.

In this sense, for the labor movement, the murder of Jock Yablonski and the victories of MFD and Ed Sadlowski were heavily embedded in the major political and social tumult of the 1960s and 70s. Yablonski, much like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy, tried to hold his own against an engrained system that shut down the voices of those who would seek to improve it. Sadlowski, likewise, shared much in common with the nascent leaders of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements while harkening back to the grassroots labor activism of the Great Depression. Cowie manages to capture both the dynamism and tragedy of these union democracy movements and contextualize them as part of a larger trend in 1970s.

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