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Understanding 'The Last Days of the Working Class'

Jefferson Cowie provides back-story to current political maneuvers

Apr. 6, 2011
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­­As the assault on organized labor continues in Madison, protesters and observers alike have had great difficulty in explaining why many members of the state's working class voted for Scott Walker back in November—and why some still support him even after his manic attempts to get rid of collective bargaining for public sector employees. Why would working people support a politician whose core beliefs and policies seem so anti-worker?

To begin to answer this timely question, one would be wise to read Jefferson Cowie's excellent Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press). Cowie, a labor historian at Cornell University, gives us the back-story to the drama unfolding in Wisconsin. If you really want to understand why the working class is in such dire straits in the 21st century, you have to go back to the '70s. Cowie argues persuasively that it was during this era that many within the working class came to care less about economics and more about social issues. And there was a cadre of predominantly Republican politicians ready to take full advantage of such a development. From George Wallace to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, these individuals were able to speak to both the collective resentment of white workers while also tapping into their desire to escape the confines of the working class.

In many ways, this story has already been told by countless historians: New Deal Democrats came to turn their back on the party that they believed had embraced the hypocrisies of 1960s-style liberalism. There was a distinct racial element to this rejection—and Cowie does not shy away from showing how race mattered during the "last days" of the American working class. But he is also quick to point out that racism must not be seen as the only factor at play here. Yes, politicians such as Reagan played on racial resentment. But he also offered voters a positive vision of America, a populist vision that could, he claimed, once again provide one the opportunity for self-improvement. Yet, in what perhaps becomes the greatest legacy of the 1970s, Republican politicians were able to convince working people that government only hindered such a process. You could do better, they would say—it's just that the state kept getting in the way.

Social issues, economic insecurity and growing anti-government sentiment were used to create a language that employed the symbolism of work but did not address the actual conditions or benefits commonly associated with labor (and actually obscured the fact that both income inequality and the power of large corporations were increasing at this moment). Thus, President Nixon was able to contrast the generalized work ethic of his "Silent Majority" with the supposed laziness of both hippies and welfare recipients. And cuts to government spending? They became the ways to curtail undeserved rewards. Government had to do what all workers had to do during the decade: learn how to be thrifty.

It is this language that Scott Walker has learned to employ with great success. Like his predecessors, he has contrasted the individual work ethic of his put-upon followers with the behavior of the 14 Democratic Senate members who "fled" to Illinois (they need to come back, Walker repeated incessantly, and "do their job"). And who can forget Walker's brown-bag lunches during the gubernatorial campaign, a powerful symbol of both thrift and working-class solidarity? Yet, as Walker was highlighting his blue-collar roots, he was also taking thousands of dollars from the billionaire Koch brothers.

It is such incongruities that Cowie's book helps us better understand. If nothing else, Stayin' Alive allows us to see that politicians like Walker are nothing new. In fact, we may be able to read him as a part of the broader war against organized labor in America. By the end of the 20th century, private sector unions were almost completely decimated, setting the stage to go after public sector unions. In a country with such a recent history—and with politicians like Walker in charge—we are all now members of an imperiled working class.


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