the change in working class voters in the 1970s -- 4/27/23

Today's encore selection -- from Stayin' Alive by Jefferson Cowie. In the 1970s, cracks began to appear in the hold that the Democratic Party had on working-class voters, a hold that began with the New Deal:

"At only twenty-six years of age, sporting long sideburns, slicked back hair, and mod striped pants, autoworker Dewey Burton could barely contain his rage over the state of politics or his frustration with his job in the spring of 1972.

"Dewey loved nothing more than customizing and racing automobiles, transforming old parts into dazzling metallic-flake creations, but he could barely tolerate his job at the Wixom Ford plant just outside of Detroit where he felt sentenced to a trivial role in assembling them. Satisfied with his pay, he was part of a widespread movement across the heartland fighting the mind-numbing tedium of industrial production. Reflecting the broad dis­content on the floors of the nation's factories, some of which grew into open revolt, he remarked, 'I hate my job, I hate the people I work for. ... It's kind of stupid to work so hard and achieve so little.'

Dewey Burton with his wife and son at their Detroit home.

"Politically, Burton identified himself as a committed New Deal Demo­crat, but he was livid over plans to bus his son across Detroit in order to conform to the Supreme Court's idea of racial integration -- policies driving his politics quickly to the right. Like the nation as a whole, Burton was sim­ply being torn in too many directions at once. He was a figure in transition, the type of person journalist Pete Hamill had in mind when he wrote 'The working-class white man is actually in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the double standards and short memories of professional politicians, hypocrisy and what he considers the debasement of the American dream.'

"Dewey Burton may not have been the typical disgruntled worker of the 1970s, but the New York Times believed that he came pretty close. He proved to be an able ambassador to the newspaper's professional middle-class readership interested in the increasingly exotic state of disaffected blue-collar America. He first surfaced in a New York Times article on industrial discontent at the Wixom plant in 1972. Shortly thereafter, a reporter selected him to explain to an incredulous readership the reasons for northern workers' support for back­lash populist and presidential candidate Alabama governor George Wallace, to whom Burton had turned because of his opposition to busing. The New York Times returned to interview Dewey during the fall 1972 campaign, the 1974 midterm elections, and the presidential contests in 1976 and 1980. Smart and well spoken, Burton had a demeanor that merged proletarian and mod, greaser and beatnik into a synthesis of optimistic sixties unrest and claustrophobic seventies resignation that would be hard to sustain as the decade unfolded. As a result, Burton noted, 'I received my fifteen minutes of fame four times.'

"The media attention lavished on workers like Burton was part of a broad blue-collar revival in the 1970s, as working-class America returned to the na­tional consciousness through strikes, popular culture, voting booths, and corporate strategy. Making sense of what Newsweek called the 'far-ranging, fast-spreading revolt of the little man against the Establishment' bordered on a national obsession. Fortune, along with countless other magazines and tele­vision news features, recognized the workers of the early seventies as 'restless, changeable, mobile, demanding' and headed for 'a time of epic battle between management and labor' given the 'angry, aggressive and acquisitive' mood in the shops. As many big contracts expired, inflation ate up wage gains, and workers challenged the rules of postwar labor relations, the country wit­nessed the biggest wave of strike activity since 1946 (which was the biggest strike year in all of U.S. history). In 1970 alone there were over 2.4 million workers engaged in large-scale work stoppages, thirty-four massive stop­pages of ten thousand workers or more, and a raft of wildcats, slowdowns, and aggressive stands in contract negotiations."



Jefferson Cowie


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


The New Press


Copyright 2010 by Jefferson Cowie


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