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

4.05  ·  Rating Details  ·  372 Ratings  ·  52 Reviews
An epic account of how middle-class America hit the rocks in the political and economic upheavals of the 1970s, this wide-ranging cultural and political history rewrites the 1970s as the crucial, pivotal era of our time. Jefferson Cowie’s edgy and incisive book—part political intrigue, part labor history, with large doses of American musical, film, and TV lore—makes new se ...more
Hardcover, 488 pages
Published September 7th 2010 by The New Press (first published August 17th 2010)
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Craig Werner
Jan 18, 2012 Craig Werner rated it really liked it
One of the most significant and flawlessly executed works of history/political analysis I've read in a long time. Dividing his attention roughly equally between economic, political and cultural history, Cowie tells the tragic tale of the demise of the American working class from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It's a story of lost opportunities, poor decisions, and occasional heroic if ultimately futile resistance. He doesn't sugar-coat the internal problems of the labor movement (though I'd ...more
May 07, 2012 Cole rated it it was amazing
To be brutally honest, the first two chapters of this book put me to sleep. I despised the beginning, it wasn't even that bad, I believe that the flow of it and myself were not jiving. And just when was ready to write it off, this book completely hooked me. I've met junkies that were less addicted to their drugs than I was this book when I finally was hooked. And I logically know why.
Jefferson Cowie completely answers the question that has been stagnating around this country for the last forty
Bill Talley
Dec 26, 2012 Bill Talley rated it really liked it
I had often felt that the Democratic party received a 100 year reprieve from the loss of its Southern wing in the 1970s. Now I have an idea why. The thesis of this book, in my opinion is that the labor movement lost steam for three reasons: 1 they failed to include minorities and women among their ranks during their heyday, groups that could have helped insulate them from the attack on unions by business in the 70s, relying instead on white working men to continue to be the backbone of the count ...more
Sep 24, 2010 Andy rated it really liked it
A really excellent, insightful overview of the splintering of the New Deal coalition in the period between Nixon and Reagan, through the prism of the blue-collar worker. Sympathetically written, without going easy on anyone. Cowie does a great job in particular of connecting popular culture to the broader political environment without seeming flip: there's even a half-chapter on the early works of Devo in the context of blue-collar Akron.

If you're the sort of person that reads every book about t
Ilya Gerner
Jul 12, 2011 Ilya Gerner rated it it was amazing
Unemployment is high, gas prices are kinda high, a reactionary political movement is afoot, and there’s a Democrat in the White House, so by the conventions of lazy historical analogy it must be the late 1970s again with Barack Obama reprising the role of Jimmy “Malaise Forever” Carter. Except these analogies obfuscate more than enlighten, doing an injustice to a decade when New Politics met the old New Deal and everything went to hell. If you’re interested in labor history, working-class politi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Reading like the operational outcome of Perlstein's _Nixonland_, this study follows the breakup of the old New Deal Coalition through economic pressure, internal problems of the unions, identity politics and generational fractures and the deliberate leveraging of those issues to push working-class whites to the populism of George Wallace or the Moral Majority. Although Cowie's epilogue linking this to the political ancestry of Joe the (Turns Out He's Not Really A) Plumber is a little forced, the ...more
Hani Omar
Oct 13, 2011 Hani Omar rated it it was amazing
Beyond the bell bottoms, butterfly collars, and ruffle tuxes, lay perhaps the most unintentionally consequential decade of the modern era. There are a lot of common tropes of the 70s, but only now is the utter decimation of the American manufacturing sector getting its proper due. Cowie attacks the issue from every available lens: politics, economics, foreign policy, race, and (most enjoyable) popular culture towards one of the most exhaustive and engaging surveys available on the subject.
Feb 18, 2011 Johanna rated it really liked it
Well written but depressing history of the decline of the working class in the 1970s.
Feb 19, 2011 Antonia rated it really liked it
"Workers lost their union cards in the seventies just in time to pick up their credit cards for the eighties." "By shifting to the right, [the Democratic Party] gave ideological ground to the opposition, especially by conceding that high wages, full employment, and deficit spending caused inflation.... In the name of short-term political gain,... they discredited their own [macroeconomic] policy history and therefore their future."

A fantastic exploration of the profound political and economic sh
Dec 02, 2011 Jonny rated it really liked it
This is a fantastic exploration of the culture and politics of the 1970s and how the concept of the American "working class" was never able to transcend the labor/liberal political coalition and image (i.e., white men with lunch pails at their industrial factory job) that made the New Deal so politically successful from the 30s until the early 70s. Cowie finds thinkers that articulated a new conception of class that included a synthesis of race and gender, but those ideas gained prominence as Am ...more
Aug 30, 2012 George rated it it was amazing
From a labor perspective, this is an incredibly depressing read, as it shows grass-roots risings vastly more powerful than anything we have today being not so much defeated as simply running into the sand. And it does a disservice to American punk by reducing it to the Ramones (apolitical) and a one-sentence nod to the Dead Kennedys (political). But, so far, very informative (just keep the valium handy).

I think the most fundamental question Cowie raises (albeit implicitly) is whether post-New De
Nov 28, 2012 Nils rated it it was amazing
Brilliant book. Starts slow, with a lot of inside-baseball detail about the coming apart of the labor movement in this country in the 1970s, against the shoals of post-60s cultural fractures on the Left (in a hutshell: white working class hatred for hippies and blacks), macroeconomic crisis (stagflation), institutional corruption (or at any rate perceptions thereof), and political revanchism (read: Reagan). The book really hits its stride in the last third when it then uses this broad panorama t ...more
Oct 17, 2012 Karen rated it really liked it
This book is a cultural & political history of the working-class American. It goes from the rising incomes & optimism of the New Deal to the political & economic upheavals of the 1970's. It attempts to explain the economic inequalities & depressing expectations of present day working men & women. It is written by a prize-winning historian of labor in American history. I found this book well-researched & highly interesting. I, also, thought it was very depressing as it exp ...more
Jan 12, 2011 Deidre rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"It is August 1974, the month of Nixon's resignation. An old-fashioned labor-liberal refuses to cross a picket line at his workplace, single-handedly shutting down production for a month. "It's a matter of principle for me," he says. "I simply refuse to work with anybody who takes money to do a union man's job while that man is on strike.... I could no more go into a building and work with scabs than I could play handball in church." His co-workers were liberals too, but of a newer type. "I don' ...more
Dan Petegorsky
Oct 10, 2010 Dan Petegorsky rated it liked it
This is really two books in one: a history/analysis of the decline of the working class and the labor movement in the '70s and the crafting of and implication of Richard Nixon's strategy to bring the white working class into the Republican fold; and a tour of the reflection of the American worker in the popular culture (especially music and film) of the time.

For me, at least, the first was far more engaging and insightful than the second: fresh with insights and, unfortunately, close parallels t
Feb 12, 2012 Denise rated it it was amazing
This is the most important book I have read in the past year. Cowie connects the many forces – economic, organized labor, political and cultural – that led to our current War on Workers. He documents how class consciousness, starting in the 1960’s, became forgotten, undermined or co-opted. An accurate and compelling history – though a little unbalanced when he addresses the role of punk music – I don’t think Joey Ramone was very representative. In the political realm, it is astounding to conside ...more
Daniel Kukwa
Jul 20, 2012 Daniel Kukwa rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm torn with this book. I want to like it far more than I do...but it gets far too bogged down in its historical labour analysis for its own good. It makes for one hell of a fantastic thesis, but an occasionally trying read. I'm fascinated by the decade in which I was born, and several books have arisen lately to examine it under a variety of microscopes. "Stayin' Alive" tries to be too specific AND too broad...the end result being first rate scholarship, but a runner-up in the enjoyability swe ...more
Eric Gilliland
May 17, 2015 Eric Gilliland rated it it was amazing
Jefferson Cowie's informative and provocative history of working class America does what a good history book should do - enlighten the present. For the book traces how Americans discarded their class identity and embraced cultural identity. Culture remains the buzzword of the 21st century; it's a highly prized commodity. Look at any progressive leaning online magazine such as Slate or Buzzfeed and the cover page will showcase articles on the newest trends in racial, gender, and sexual identities ...more
Aug 23, 2014 Ed rated it liked it

3 stars.

I liked this book. I may someday reread it. Cowie condenses about 15 years' worth of newspaper clippings into his "history" of popular culture & politics. I was, however, very put off by the overlong length of his chapters, and by their invariably bland nonjudgmental conclusions.

Cowie's views on specific events and their meanings are often difficult to discern, though he's presumably in favor of the good & opposed to the bad. He too often wants to refine himself ouf of his narr
Jack Wolfe
Jan 05, 2015 Jack Wolfe rated it it was amazing
When Cowie says "Last Days," he isn't kidding. The book argues that the whole idea of an American working class, one that could act as a politically unified whole, was an abstraction borne out of the New Deal, and given how thoroughly capitalism has trumped all other democratic concerns since the 70s, said class ain't coming back anytime soon. So this book is, in a word, sad. Like, impossibly, infuriatingly sad. It's about a special moment in history that was ruined by a tricky combination of co ...more
Nov 06, 2011 Holly rated it really liked it
Cowie has created a history of the rise and fall of the American working class, beginning in the 1930s and ending in the 1970s. He includes economic, political, and cultural data, and while he makes a convincing case on both the economic and political fronts, his cultural analysis feels cherry-picked. Overall, an incisive history of the decline of the labor movement in the 1970s.
Nov 20, 2010 Gina rated it really liked it
Just started this one yesterday. Fascinating sociocultural account/labor history of the 70s that's helping me understand why we are where we are now. Inspiring but sad to read about how powerful organized labor used to be. Everyone seems to be after us (me and my fellow union members, as well as any non-rich people)these days. Read it and weep.
Sep 21, 2014 Jim rated it it was amazing
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 strand
Gary Sandusky
Carefully documents the role of the Nixon brain trust in developing and practicing many of the ideas about values voters. They essentially discovered that their party could wedge labor by appealing to culture and values in contrast to the prevailing wisdom about financial self interest.

good read - well documented.
Apr 26, 2011 Paul rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-u-s-history
Understanding that this is a book predominately about the white working-class, it is a phenomenal work. A total pleasure to read and as Cowie does, effortlessly goes between high political history of labor law reform and intelligent analysis of what "Rocky" can tell us about changes in racial dynamics in the USA.
Apr 05, 2011 Dan rated it really liked it
Shelves: labor
Pretty brilliant examination of 70's working class economics and culture. Moves beyond the simple stereotypes and offers a new way to think about the fall of the unions, the Nixon era, Disco, 70's movies, and even Devo.
Quite readable and highly recommended.
Aug 23, 2012 Bill added it
excellent! In the midst of the struggle for civil rights, rights for women, gay rights etc....a large segment of the population began to feel alienated. The blue color class watched their jobs, their unions in short their way of life change and disappear.
Bob Simpson
Jun 16, 2012 Bob Simpson rated it really liked it
The title is somewhat misleading as the working class still certainly exists, but it sure doesn't look like it did in the 1970's. The book is entertaining and very informative. Highly recommended
April Helms
I have really mixed feelings about this one. If I could do half stars, I'd give it 2 1/2, based on the effort taken in research. On one hand, it is very well researched, and covers a breadth of information about the high point and fall of American unions. The book includes unusual and interesting tie-ins with the union spirit of whatever year he is covering to the movie and music scene, as well as the political climate. The book has just about everything but the kitchen sink- and that might have ...more
Andy Mitchell
A fascinating overview of labor history in the 1970s. The struggles which private-sector unions faced 30 years ago are the same struggles public-sector unions face today.
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Jefferson Cowie is the Andrew J. Nathanson Professor in the ILR School at Cornell University. His work has also appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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“The full employment advocates’ optimism, even if genuine, could not possibly have been more misplaced, as the context of the Carter administration’s other actions in the fall of 1978 quickly revealed. Almost simultaneous to the passing of the full employment bill, Carter announced a three-part anti-inflation strategy that included restrictive fiscal and monetary policy, voluntary wage-price guidelines, and regulatory reform—almost all of which cut against the spirit of the original Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. Congress, for the first time since it went Democratic in 1932, passed a tax cut not to redistribute wealth but to give relief to the upper middle class, suggesting a very new mood among Democrats more broadly. With inflation climbing into the double digits in 1979 (topping out at 13.5 percent in his last year in office), Carter had, according to Herbert Stein, “assumed the look of a conservative in economics.” 0 likes
“Much of the cultural divide over abortion grafts readily, but not perfectly, onto tensions over class. Of a large survey of pro-life and pro-choice activists, 94 percent of pro-choice women worked outside of the home, and half of them enjoyed incomes that placed them in the top 10 percent of all working women in the nation. Many were in the most affluent percentiles in the country. In contrast, 63 percent of pro-life advocates did not work outside of the home (and those that did were unmarried). The personal income of pro-life women activists was very low, if there was any at all. The story was similar in terms of education and occupation. Where pro-choice women tended to be well-educated professionals, pro-life activists tended to be housewives or in traditional female occupations. For working-class families, “ family values” was not a political slogan but a belief in sacrifice, fate, belonging, character, and the sanctity of parenthood.” 0 likes
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