On the state of the unions, working class in New York and the culture of the rich. Interview with Joshua B. Freeman.

Joshua B. Freeman is a professor of History at Queens College (CUNY). He is the author of In Transit, Who Built America?, Working-Class New York. He lives in New York City.

“Certainly Obama is much more supportive of the unions than George W. Bush was. But this trend towards a greater inequality is global, and has been going on for forty years now. New York City, despite the fact that has a long social welfare tradition, has among the greatest inequalities in the entire country. Probably not because there are so many poor people – but because there are so many rich people. And although the NYC union movement is the strongest of any city in the country, it’s also losing power and membership, especially in the private sector. And this because of the change of the kind of job here, the decline of manufactory, but also the growth of .. those trends are continuing. Obama appointed some people in the National labour’s relations that were very progressive. But that doesn’t translate very much into social change.”

K.R.: Working side by side in restaurants with so many immigrant workers, one of first, immediate sensation I had was the need of something very specific, very concrete: the need of being organized. People work way too much and way too hard.

There has been a huge amount of experimentation in New York – and nationally – with alternative forms of organization, including the Restaurant Opportunity Center, which grew out of the effort to help the survivors from Windows of the World, after the 9/11 attacks. At one level its all very exciting. At another level it’s unclear if it’s gonna end up changing people’s lives. You see with the fast food workers struggle, which is also very exciting – don’t get me wrong – and it’s raising the issue of low wage workers, income inequality in the national agenda. That’s fabulous. But, will some sort of resilient ongoing organization for these workers can really confront corporations? I don’t know. There’s an imbalance between corporations and working people that is so great. And I don’t think Obama’s election is going to change it in anyway.

Do you think pressure bottom-up for a radicalization of the struggle has dropped in the last few years, with the election of Obama? (and with the important exception of Occupy, for example)

There is no substantial organized Left in the United States. And that’s a huge hole. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that. First of all, Occupy was a very big exception. Then there’s a lot of struggle about individual and collective issues: schools, take care centres, hospitals, etc.. People are politically active. Sometimes they use no-electoral methods: demos, sit-downs. These things are totally taken for granted. Now, Bill  De Blasio got arrested for protesting the Long IslandHospital’s closing. And he’s a mainstream politician. I think about the Working Families Party, even if it’s not a left wing party its’ not trivial.

New York and America have long been in what I call an anti-utopian era. There’s very little projection of what an alternative way of organising could be. I am not talking about a fundamental break with capitalism, but certainly in the response of the fiscal crisis, forty years ago, the most extreme conversational point was traditional Keynesianism. That was the furthest. Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz now have some influence. And these are powerful people. But there’s not real discussion. Why do not take over the banks? Why not restore the banking systems? On a local level you every candidate for mayor on the Democratic side. But there’s a very little discussion of what kind of  city we want. It’s all a very defensive or incremental kind of political conversation.

What do you think about De Blasio?

On paper his positions are the closest to mines – that doesn’t mean he’s gonna be a good mayor! He’s not a charismatic guy and  but he sense that the extraordinary wealth in this city hasn’t been distributed. There is a sentiment of felt injustice among his followers that is important.

What I felt as predominant, in the last twenty years of New York politics, is the winning approach of pragmatically combining strategic needs in the organization of the city and advancement in public safety and civil rights.

Well, the biggest beneficiary of the decrease of crime has been working class people. We must not forget that. Working class’ life has been revolutionized in New York. Thompson for example has a very mixed message about stop and frisk because he knows his backers are the biggest beneficiary as well as the very victims of the stop and frisk. But the trend has been global. And a few things Bloomberg has done were right: encouraging manufacturing, for example. But there’s been so little discussion really on using all the city tools to reduce inequality.

In one of your books you wrote: “While in some respects New York had become more like the rest of the country, the rest of the country, in some respects, had become more like New York.”

New York is a more boring place. Even this Brooklyn hipster thing, you know, so much of this is well-off people. It’s so difficult to try anything. For the majority of people is so hard to get started in the city. I have kids in their twenties, and it’s just so hard. The rent is so ridiculously high, and everything is instantly co-opted, within two seconds.

There’s so much talk about gentrification among my peers, but the interesting thing is how the word itself seems to have a complete different meaning for different classes. One night, when I was working in a fancy Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, Bloomberg showed up and said to the owners: “Thank God gentrification arrived in this place.”

Yes, absolutely. For many, many people gentrification is a positive idea. I’ve lived for many years in an Upper Manhattan neighbourhood that had very little amenities, and for so many long-time residents there’s been an improvement. The real alternative to me is non-market affordable housing. If you see Chelsea, they can’t make it homogeneously gentrified, because you have public housing, big union-sponsored co-ops, and so you have low income people who are not gonna kicked out of their place. So you can have a coexistence of gentrification and diverse population. Because the heritage that you have of these earlier moments of social welfare, and unlike the rest of the country in New York those things have maintained. Public housing is not great housing, but a mix of market and non-market housing is very important to define the culture of the city. Three months ago there was a big discussion in the Bloomberg administration when they wanted to built market housing in a park lot!

 The cultural influence of the rich: think about Sex and the City or, more recently Girls. It is a trend that can be changed, or we should accept the disappearance of working class from the cultural industry?

Well, it’s complicated. Culturally, the modern rich are pretty uninteresting — even compared to old industrialists. They didn’t really set the cultural tone of the city. Certainly they contributed to cultural institutions, with funding and financing, but it’s a pretty blend group. On the contrary, think about the influence of hip-hop culture, think about the Barclays Center. Girls is interesting, because it gets some moments in describing trust-fund hipster. But surely, there’s no interest in the people of Roosevelt Avenue. It’s invisible. With some exceptions – occasional bursts. The whole mexicanization of New York occurred in a sort of stealth way. People still think East Harlem is Puerto Rican.

I wrote this piece on The Nation on the state of the working class in New York, and one of the things I pointed out, using hurricane Sandy, it’s how that exposed these different layers who are usually invisible. When the Upper East Side shut down it wasn’t because it was flooded but because most of the service workers could get there because the subway was shut down. So many rich people had to care of their own children, they had to cook their own meals, there were no doormen.  The absence during a disaster made rich people a bit more aware of an entire social group.


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