Monday, February 14, 2011

Blue Collar: The Working Class Against Itself

As Cowie makes clear in Stayin' Alive, the story of the 1970s is in many ways the story of the working class and what to do with it in a time of massive political, economic, and cultural change. The concerns, problems, and aspirations of working people inevitably bled into the popular culture of the era, which abounded with widely varying representations of the working class. It's no coincidence that many of the enduring cultural productions of time - All in the Family, Saturday Night Fever, Rocky, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, Norma Rae, the music of Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard, among many others - revolved around the trials and tribulations of working class life in a period of transitiion.

In my last post, I noted that the 1972 Lordstown strike best captured the rebellious blue collar spirit of the early 70s. Paul Schrader, a veteran of the New Left who made a name for himself for writing the Taxi Driver screenplay, saw in Lordstown a rich source of material for his blistering 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic turn. But by the time Schrader wrote Blue Collar, the optimistic mood of the early 70s gave way to a profound pessimism about the future, and this shift is reflected in the film. As Cowie observes:

The original Lordstown dispute contained all the variables of the new labor politics: youth, inter-racial solidarity, and protest against the quality of production rather than the quantity of compensation. In the hands of filmmaker Paul Schrader, the event was reinterpreted from one of hope and agency to one of the bleakest meditations on blue-collar America ever made...Schrader believed that the film was an exploration of the 'self-destructiveness' of workers who 'attack the organization that was supposed to defend them [their union]. And how that kind of dead-end mentality is fostered and engendered by the ruling class in order to keep the working class at odds with itself'...In a complete inversion of 1930s proletarian drama, however, the working class is in the midst of meltdown, not unification...If we accept Blue Collar as more allegorical than literal, the confusion of identity, the questions of agency, and the dissolution of the limited racial solidarity make it one of the more succesful explorations of working-class identity of the decade."(p. 334-337)

The final moments of the Blue Collar trailer posted above capture the vengeful, inward looking mood that came to define working class life to a significant extent in the final years of the decade. Keitel and Pryor, whose characters were great friends on and off the job earlier in the film, grab their tools and lunge at each other in a murderous fury as the voice-over intones, "The American Dream - if you're rich, you can buy it. If you're anything else, you gotta fight for it." The scene echoes a line by columnist Jimmy Breslin quoted by Cowie on p. 6 of Stayin' Alive. As the economic horizons of working people, black and white, began to shrink, the result was a "'Battle Royal' between 'two groups of people who are poor and doomed and who have been thrown in the ring with each other.'"


Anonymous said...

Does the book happen to include an epilogue or postscript that talks about the new generation of automobile factories set up in the U.S. applying Japanese manufacturing principles? In that philosophy, I thought workers were held in higher esteem and had more decision-making power - they aren't just serfs.

Chris Maisano said...

The book doesn't really talk very much about that topic because Cowie is concerned mostly with the death of the New Deal working class during the 1970s at a fairly broad level. He doesn't talk about specific industries in too much detail during the course of the book.

As for Japanese-style production techniques, while many people (and surely the companies themselves) have touted them as a humane alternative to the old Fordist model of assembly line production, the rhetoric of worker participation tends to mask the real goal of such schemes, which is to get as much work out of the fewest number of workers as is humanly possible. That's why the system is known as "lean production." See Toyota and the Myth of Quality, an article written last year when accelerator problems with its popular Corolla forced a massive recall. It provides a good introduction to the subject of lean production and why it is not as humane as some people say it is.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the goal of "lean" is to eliminate waste. I guess that could be construed as eliminating people, but is it worse or better to have at least some people employed being productive and respected for their efforts than no one employed at all?