That ’70s Feeling

TODAY we celebrate the American labor force, but this year’s working-class celebrity hero made his debut almost a month ago. Steven Slater, a flight attendant for JetBlue, ended his career by cursing at his passengers over the intercom and grabbing a couple of beers before sliding down the emergency-evacuation chute — and into popular history.

The press immediately drew parallels between Mr. Slater’s outburst and two iconic moments of 1970s popular culture: Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from the 1976 film “Network” and Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 anthem of alienation, “Take This Job and Shove It.”

But these are more than just parallels: those late ’70s events are part of the cultural foundation of our own time. Less expressions of rebellion than frustration, they mark the final days of a time when the working class actually mattered.

The ’70s began on a remarkably hopeful — and militant — note. Working-class discontent was epidemic: 2.4 million people engaged in major strikes in 1970 alone, all struggling with what Fortune magazine called an “angry, aggressive and acquisitive” mood in the shops.

Most workers weren’t angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs. Pundits often called it “Lordstown syndrome,” after the General Motors plant in Ohio where a young, hip and interracial group of workers held a three-week strike in 1972. The workers weren’t concerned about better pay; instead, they wanted more control over what was then the fastest assembly line in the world.

Newsweek called the strike an “industrial Woodstock,” an upheaval in employment relations akin to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The “blue-collar blues” were so widespread that the Senate opened an investigation into worker “alienation.”

But what felt to some like radical change in the heartland was really the beginning of the end — not just of organized labor’s influence, but of the very presence of workers in national civic life.

When the economy soured in 1974, business executives dismissed workers’ complaints about the quality of their occupational life — and then went gunning for their paychecks and their unions as well, abetted by a conservative political climate and the offshoring of the nation’s industrial core. Inflation, not unemployment, became Public Enemy No. 1, and workers bore the political costs of the fight against it.

Though direct workplace confrontations quickly dropped off, the feelings that had fueled them did not. Analysts began talking of an “inner class war” — more psychological than material, more anxious than angry, more about self-worth than occupational justice.

“Something’s happening to people like me,” Dewey Burton, an assembly-line worker for Ford, told The Times in 1974. “More and more of us are sort of leaving our hopes outside in the rain and coming into the house and just locking the door — you know, just turning the key and ‘click,’ that’s it for what we always thought we could be.”

Johnny Paycheck, a country singer, understood. Throngs of working-class people may have gathered around jukeboxes to raise a glass and chant the famous chorus to his most famous song, but they knew that his urge to rebellion was really just a fantasy: “I’d give the shirt right off of my back / If I had the nerve to say / Take this job and shove it!”

Similarly, in “Network,” Howard Beale, a TV news anchor played by Peter Finch, became famous as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” But while he and his audiences may have been yelling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” the tag line was more a psychological release than a call to arms. After all, at the end of the film, Beale, already in suicidal despair, is murdered by his employer for meddling with the system.

The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

Occasionally a rebel shatters the silence. Like Steven Slater, though, they get more publicity than political traction. Many things about America have changed since the late ’70s, but the soundtrack of working-class life, sadly, remains the same.

Jefferson Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell, is the author of “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.”


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