Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. By Jefferson Cowie. (New York: The New Press, 2010. 464 pp. ISBN 978-1-56584-87
Jefferson Cowie, has taken the movies and music of the 1970s and blended it with the history of the period to create a very readable book on the decline of blue collar labor in the United States and how that changed the culture of the labor force even outside the workplace. Cowie shows his reader that this decline was spawned in part by the economic downturn of the 1970s, but also how the decline of the previously powerful labor unions stopped a well paid middle class workforce in its tracks. Cowie also shows how the outsourcing of jobs and the entry of women into the workforce changed its face forever.
This narrative centers on the average industrial worker who at the time would have been male, probably a union member, and one who was trying to find some semblance of order out of the radicalism of the 1960s. For that man, it was unlikely they would have had a college education, so the changes in promotion and hiring practices created a stagnant workplace environment from which they saw no escape. Additionally, as Cowie shows, the unions themselves were experiencing internal melt downs as Joseph Yablonski was killed in a professional murder for hire by his opposition and the struggle for the “aristocracy” of the upper crust ofunionization became its own small gang war beneath which the union worker became the forgotten man.
Cowie shows his reader that this turmoil of change was felt throughout the entire culture as he brings in evidence of this upheaval in everything from movies to music. As the culture began to change, it was the disco era which became the model for escapism and this is not lost on Cowie. He firmly implants the disco era where it belongs as the work hard/play hard playground it became. In this, Cowie shines. He shows how this transition from the hippies ran a direct line through the disco era and out the other side through singers like Bruce Springsteen and television shows like “All in the Family.” Cowie connects this line well into the Reagan years by showing President Carter as ineffective on labor issues, but Reagan as having appeal for the masses as a spokesmodel of sorts for their discontent with traditional liberal governmen.
This book is primarily for scholars, but those who lived in the tumultuous 1970s will find this writing of their lives very interesting. Cowie’s ability to pull in cultural references also makes this book a wonderful piece for cultural, non-labor related studies of the period. However, this book is not without some minor faults. He discusses the “Disco Sucks” uprising as if it were a pervasive denial of the disco party movement, when in fact, it was more of a shift from a singular expression of escapism into more of a sum of its parts. For instance, the “Disco Sucks” era was also parallel to the new rise in popularity of modern country music for many in Appalachia as they learned to express themselves in a more modern cultural environment. The black population’s move toward breakdancing occurred during that time as well. So, the “Disco Sucks” movement itself was actually a smaller part of a whole, rather than the main event as Cowie seems to indicate. Also, since Cowie is focusing on organized labor, much of his book is placed in the urban industrial centers. Though he mentions the more outlying steel mills and coal mines, he never truly delves deeply enough into them, preferring to stay in the cities where clubs, movie theaters and concerts are more prevalent in order to make his correlations between them all. While that is not a terrible flaw, it does tend to exclude large parts of the labor force about which he speaks.
Otherwise, this book is an interesting look into the upheavals the work force experienced during the 1970s. It was a truly unsettling and tumultuous time, especially for the unionized workers, and Cowie shows that well. Culturally, this is reflected in the entertainment and escapism venues, and Cowie does not disappoint in this area either. However, Stayin’ Alive is truly a gem in showing how the rise of labor could not withstand the economic downturn that collapsed it during this period and that capitalism as it was known in the United States from the time of the end of World War II had come to an end.