Category Archives: Labor

My Rating:
5.0 rating


An absolutely brilliant book. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working class expertly describes the transition of the working class in America from it’s zenith as a powerfully cohesive labor movement after WWII, through its fragmentation as economic, social and political factors put stress on that cohesion,  to what can now arguably be called a post “working class” period in our history.

Incredibly dense, but incredibly readable Jefferson Cowie expertly weaves the different strands of social, cultural, economic, and political change that eventually caused the virtual death of the labor movement and its place as the spokesman for working class, into compelling narrative. What is beautiful about this book is that it is so tightly organized that despite the enormous amount of information Cowie throws at you, you never get lost.

It is clear that Cowie feels the end of the working class as a cohesive force in society is a bad thing, but he spares no punches in placing much of the blame on the unions and workers themselves. As they moved further from the heady days after WWII, unions began to grow content and bloated, unwilling to rock the boat lest they lose what they had already won. In many cases unions grew corrupt and bureaucratic, with many of its leaders more interested in accumulating power than in revitalizing and expanding their unions.

He is also critical of workers unable to resolve issues surrounding the politics of identity. Union membership often resented the inclusion of heretofore excluded groups including blacks, Hispanics, and women. Rather than try to incorporate them into the union structure and modify it to accommodate this new reality, they withdrew into resentment and apathy, eventually forming the core of the group known as “Reagan Democrats.”

On the other hand Cowie spares no criticism for politicians more interested in preserving and expanding corporate power than looking out for the workers that allowed those corporations to thrive in the first place. Eventually workers, tired of having both the government and corporations working to defeat them, became apathetic, and rather than try to find a new paradigm under which they could organize and regain some of their lost agency, became more interested in looking out for their own interests…forming the core of what became the “me generation” of the 1980s.

I especially enjoyed Cowie’s weaving of pop culture into the narrative, looking at movies, TV and music as reflections of this change. From Archie Bunker to Merle Haggard to Bruce Springsteen to Devo to Tony Manero to Norma Rae pop culture is often very prescient in reflecting what was going on in the wider culture. Cowie brilliantly includes this in his analysis.

I am not doing the book justice here, it really is one of the most effective and brilliant works on American History that I have ever read.

Highly, highly, highly recommended!

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Bucket Source (Francis Parkman Prize for American History and Biography)
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My Rating:
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My Rating:
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