Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1970

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1970


On May 8, 1970, 200 unionized construction workers attacked an anti-war march in the wake of the Kent State shooting a few days before. The so-called Hard Hat Riot placed an image in the American mind of right-wing workers opposed to social justice that sadly remains far too prevalent today.

Unfortunately, the actions of a small number of unionists are used 44 years later as evidence of why unions can’t be trusted by otherwise progressive people. Although the national AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, the reality is that the union movement is very ideologically diverse and was so even more at that time, when there were many more unions than the present. Many union members and union leaders opposed the Vietnam War. Many had fought there and came back bitter. Others fought there and were die-hard supporters.

But the building trades have long been bastions of conservatism in the labor movement, whether the United Brotherhood of Carpenters not endorsing a Democratic candidate for president until 1964 (and mostly not endorsing Dems today) or the Laborers supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are exceptions to this–the Painters tend to be quite a bit more liberal. But the building traders generally supported the war. That was especially true of Peter Brennan, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice-president of the state AFL-CIO. Brennan was moving significantly to the right in these years, around Vietnam and other issues. Hating hippies was pretty easy for Brennan.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State University, leading to the largest protests of the war. Protests continued after the Kent State massacre. New York mayor John Lindsey ordered flags to be flown at half mast to honor the 4 dead. On the morning of May 8, hundreds of young people gathered at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan for a protest. Brennan coordinated construction workers to attack them. The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.

Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway. The construction workers, carrying American flags and patriotic slogans, singled out the men with the longest hair and beat them. They began tearing up nearby buildings as well as the attacks verged nearly out of control. One of the first things the construction workers did was to raise the flags back to full mast, a direct rebuke to Lindsay, who many saw as unmanly and cowardly for kowtowing to antiwar protestors and hippies. About 70 people were sent to the hospital, mostly students but including 4 policemen. Brennan claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration by workers sick of hippies desecrating the American flag. This was an obvious lie.


Throughout the rest of May, building trades workers continued to rally. On May 20, the rallies became officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, with 100,000 people festooned with flags and signs reading “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Support Nixon and Agnew.” Construction workers in St. Louis held similar rallies. Very quickly, the hippies began distrusting labor unions as part of the corrupted establishment. In the 1971 hippie dystopian film Punishment Park, about a world where the hippies are rounded up, tried in kangaroo courts, and then given the option of fleeing from the army for their freedom in the eponymous park, one of the key figures on the courts is a unionist, masking his evil in vague language of workers’ interests but in fact just being a tool of the man. Such images of labor unions became all too common on the American left, sometimes not without reason, as we see in this post.

But again, it’s important that we today push back against “labor” being pro-Vietnam. Polls showed that manual laborers were more opposed to the war than the college-educated. These were not public sector unionists or industrial unionists or even all building trades unionists. This was a small sector of labor. Moreover, what galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. There were lots of tensions at work here, but they were more complex than presented at the time. And they are basically irrelevant today. People talking about this today with any relevance to the present might as well pull any event from the American movement 44 years ago. It would be relevant if American labor unionists began beating Occupy protestors or environmentalists rallying against Keystone. But even if such a horrible thing happened, it would be one very labor union acting very badly, not all of organized labor. We need to recognize this and place it in context of who is the problem here. In 1970, it was the New York building trades and their ambitious hippie-hating leader, not the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America.

Of course Richard Nixon thought of all this was great. All his talk about “law and order” did not apply at all to rioting construction workers. Nixon repaid Brennan for his actions by naming him Secretary of Labor. Brennan continued in the job into the Ford Administration. Ford replaced him in 1975 whereupon he returned to his old post in the Building Trades Council. Brennan died in 1996. Congressmen Peter King, a man wrapped up in the politics that drove Brennan nearly a half-century ago, saluted him for “standing up to the antiwar protesters who tried to take over our streets.”

Bits of this are taken from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the American Working Class, although he doesn’t talk about this event much. Joshua Freeman’s “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations” from the Summer 1993 issue of Journal of Social History was also used. I understand that Penny Lewis’ recent book is quite good on this history, but I have not read it.

This is the 105th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • MAJeff

    The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la Tea Party.

  • What a strange country we are to actually have right-wing labor unions.

    • Ralph Wiggum

      I’m not sure it’s a purely American problem. One-third of trade union members voted for Thatcher in 1979 when she ran on an openly anti-union platform (she got 44% overall). The leadership of British trade unions has almost always been broadly left wing.

    • I responded to this the other day when this post first appeared, but my response appears to have been lost. So, abbreviated version:

      The notion that the building trades unions are conservative is seriously outdated. Sure, they back Keystone. And the major union with the longest, most progressive history of being right on almost everything and providing major support for the civil rights movement, the UAW, has regularly opposed raising CAFE standards and regulations for clean air. Even AFSCME, one of the most progressive public sector unions, is often on what most of us would consider the excessively law-and-order side of things, since they represent a lot of prison guards.

      Today, the trades are a lot less white than they were in the 1960’s. Their membership isn’t as drawn from the same families, parishes and neighborhoods as they were in the past. They’re typically on the liberal side of almost all debates–pretty sure, for instance, they opposed the Iraq war, which is a huge contrast to the 1960’s, when almost every union, trades and non-trades, backed the Vietnam war well in to 1968 (which is why Reuther took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO, which they didn’t rejoin until 1980). And find any segment of white males who aren’t overwhelmingly gay and don’t have PhD’s who vote more reliably Democratic than white building trades members.

      In fact, I don’t think a single building trades union endorsed Bush either time. The Teamsters didn’t endorse either time, over Gore’s positions on free trade, but they regularly and vigorously support most Democrats. And the only trades union I can remember doing a dance with Bush was the Carpenters, who themselves are mostly estranged from the rest of the building trades unions and are often in conflict with them over organizing, contracts and jobs. Compare that to public sector unions in, say, New York, or New Jersey, and see how often they dally around with Republicans. I think in NYC the public sector unions as a whole aren’t much more Democratic than are the Building Trades.

      • Although, one place where you might say there are rightwing unions are the cops. Not everywhere, to be sure, and some cops are represented by the Teamsters or SEIU or AFSCME and are thus were all under the AFL-CIO until the break about 8 years ago and still work with the rest of the labor movement. But independent cop unions or the FOP or the other cop unions often take a “we’re looking out only for ourselves” approach. Some places they’re great, but they’re the most likely to endorse Repubs or regressive legislation.

        • Chris

          IIRC, cops’ unions have a nice cushy dealing with union-busting Republican politicians where the union-busters agree to write in exceptions to their laws for the police union, and the police union supports them in exchange.

          • Sometimes, yes, but not everywhere, and not always. But when they’re crappy, the exceptions are often tangled in. But when they’re not under attack on labor stuff–and they operate differently in endorsements for executives with whom they have to negotiate and legislators who typically have a less direct effect on them–they’ll often go on get-tough-on-the-bad-guys BS. Another dynamic is that while their leadership is often strongly gun-control oriented, especially in big cities, their members (particularly the white cops in the burbs and rural areas) are often NRA types.

            • Barry

              “Sometimes, yes, but not everywhere, and not always.”

              Yes, and that’s why the GOP failed in Ohio. They could have written exemptions for police and fire unions, gotten their support, and then crushed all other unions for the foreseeable future. Members of the police/firefighters unions would not have cared, and enough would have voted GOP to make them at worst a net zero for the GOP.

              In Wisconsin (AFAIK), the GOP did, and succeeded.

        • Anna in PDX

          Law enforcement unions are a weird exception to a lot of things. They are just fundamentally different than other types of unions. This is not just cops but also prison guards, etc.

      • These are good points.

      • JL

        There can still be some social conservatism there. In my neck of the woods we saw this most recently with the union endorsements in the Markey vs Lynch Senate primary.

        I agree that there’s more liberalism (and even radicalism) in some of the building trades unions than they’re given credit for. I’ve seen the IBEW march for the Robin Hood Tax (giving disgusted looks at bystanders yelling at the march to “Get a job!”). The local carpenters’ union visited Occupy Boston and liked it enough to build it an information booth that wasn’t constantly ready to fall over. The local ironworkers (do they count as building trades?) seem to have their share of radicals.

        • Lynch endorsements weren’t because of social conservatism. That was probably irrelevant. What was relevant was Lynch is a tradesman and former official in his union who had a perfect labor voting record. That’s sticking with one of theirs.

          • Another Holocene Human

            Lynch endorsement was about not giving a shit about women workers because their leadership is still male dominated.

            Lynch is a crook AND a troglodyte on women’s reproductive rights (among other issues).

            The Boston Carmen’s Union’s COPE committee endorsed him even though there are lots of women drivers who, as workers and many of them parents and sole providers, need appropriate reproductive care. It’s a working class Catholic town and 99% of Catholic women who’ve been heterosexually active have used BC in their lifetime (but don’t tell the bishop). And the Carmen’s Union was big in Occupy Boston and overall fairly progressive.

            The most successful unions have the oldest, most entrenched leadership that has the most ossified attitudes.

            A LOT of anything from boomer to older GenX men out there who listen to Lou Dobbs/Hannity/O’Reilly/Rush and other xenophobia pumpers, believe “they took er jobs” and other conspiracy theories, dismiss women workers’ concerns or actively resent them (ie, people who think they outta be paid more than someone who uses their FMLA–much younger workers don’t think this way).

            • Have you spent any time at a building trades meeting? Or in a building trades hall?

              • Another Holocene Human

                I spend a lot of time at IBEW hall. The Carpenter’s Union had to sell theirs. Why do you ask?

                And what do building trades have to do with ATU–ATU is NOT a building trades union even if it is ex-AFL!!!

                • What does it have to do with building trades? Did you forget the first sentence of your comment, and that it was a blanket statement about what union leaders care about?

                • Another Holocene Human

                  You’re the one moving goal posts around, maybe that caused all the blood to rush from your brain. Yes, I generalized from one union, a union, BY THE WAY, with considerably more diverse rank and file (though not leadership) than the unions you so fulsomely defend here.

                  Personally, I don’t see where there’s any excuse for backing Lynch. But there are still a lot of men in the labor movement who think women’s reproductive rights don’t matter and aren’t a labor issue. Fuck them.

                  Btw, what is so gloriously pro-labor about welshing on your student loans? Lynch is nothing but a greedy moocher who lives off the people he claims to support.

                • Maybe you should recognize that trying to get things right and be accurate isn’t always a defense of something, it’s just thinking clearly and not tossing sweeping generalities.

                  Also, since you evidently never learned this, “excuse” and “explanation” aren’t the same thing.

                • Vance Maverick

                  Never let it be said that the left knows how to get its act together.

          • Bruce Vail

            Quite right about Lynch.

            Unlike Markey, Lynch has always been a reliable pro-union vote. He was also chairman of the Post Office Committee, so he earned the friendship of the postal unions.

            • Too many people who want to take a critical pose mix up their issues when it comes to labor. I don’t think Lynch was the right person to endorse for a whole bunch of reasons. But it’s myopia or lack of perspective to understand that while there weren’t enough good reasons for most people to choose him over Markey, there were still some good reasons to endorse him. Those reasons don’t mean they agree with Lynch on everything, or even most things, but if you’re in the building trades, of course you’d probably rather have Lynch there. Also, you know Markey is going to do whatever Markey is going to do. But you may sometimes need Lynch to stick out his neck for you–as, you point out, with the postal unions–so an endorsement may be a way of banking further goodwill.

              Also, an endorsement doesn’t mean they went to the mat for him. It’s possible they knew Markey was going to win, so an endorsement and a $5K check but no serious activation and no serious political pressure on other organizations and constituencies is a way to not offend Markey but still do right by one’s union sister or, in this case, brother.

      • I can speak for building trades unions in Calgary Alberta, and tell you that they are solidly right wing.

        But I can also say they are increasingly fed up with conservative governments. They see this as a betrayal of conservative values by corporate fat cats, however, not as a failure of conservative ideology.

  • Alex O’connor

    Prof Loomis is appears the link meant to connect to the archive is inoperative

  • For those who don’t know NYC: the corner of Broad and Wall is also the site of the New York Stock Exchange and, in 1970, J. P. Morgan and Bankers Trust.

  • Bill Murray

    Unfortunately, the actions of a very small number of unionists are used 44 years later as evidence of why unions suck by otherwise progressive people.

    Is this action really cited much for this purpose. I hadn’t heard of it until today.

    i would have guessed Meaney peeing all over McGovern in 1972 would be a much bigger deal in evidence why some unions suck

    • cpinva

      I assume you’re young.

      “I hadn’t heard of it until today.”

      it was only plastered on every front page, of every newspaper in the country, as well as being the lede, on every network news program.

      • Bill Murray

        I was 8 years old when it happened, so I’m not young. Assuming makes an ass out of u and me. I’m not saying it wasn’t plastered on the front page of my hometown South Dakota newspaper and the lede on TV, but I don’t remember it and it hasn’t been brought up much since then in anything I’ve checked out (and I have looked for this sort of stuff fairly regularly). I remember Meany/McGovern very well, but then it was 2 years later and McGovern was pretty big in my part of South Dakota.

        • Jhoosier

          Well, I’d heard of it, and I’m only 34. But there are plenty of other things I’m totally ignorant of that people talk about like it’s common knowledge.

        • cpinva

          really, this is it?

          “Assuming makes an ass out of u and me.”

          definitely need to buff up on your “witty” retorts, because this is just sad.

          I was 15 at the time, but living 30 miles south of DC, so I was probably both a tad more aware, and much more immersed, by virtue of parents who kept up, and both paper and visual national news reportage being very prominent in the area. not your fault you lived in a place far removed, physically and (probably) psychologically from what was going on in the greater world.

    • JL

      I’ve heard it cited for this purpose, but I don’t think direct citations are as common as it having given a lot of progressives a bad taste in their mouth about unions, who then passed the negative impression of “Unions are hippie-punchers who hate social liberals” (a common enough stereotype, more so by far among my mainstream-liberal friends than among my radical friends) on to new generations, even if the details were lost.

      • Aimai

        Its usually not glossed as “unions beat up hippies” but “hard hats beat up hippies.” The fact that they were union is secondary to the idea tha tthey were hard working amurkans in blue collar jobs. I’d be surprised if many people on the right remember that they were union people. The last time I saw it referred to, btw, was Megan’s fantasizing that some hard hats would take out the anti war protestors right before the Iraq War with “a two by four.”

        • In general parlance it’s “hardhats.” But DLC-types have loved talking about it being union members because it helps them in their intra-Dem war on behalf of their Wall St and corporate funders.

        • JoyfulA

          It was hardhats beat up on antiwar protesters. It wasn’t unions beat up on hippies.

    • Another Holocene Human

      I feel like unions do plenty to piss off others in the liberal coalition even now.

      The Keystone XL thing. Some guys even turned out to our CLC meeting (ain’t seen ’em since) to shill for that thing. CLC is dominated by leftie environmentalist types and also, too, apparently they were unaware that there were reps from a transportation union in the room while they slagged on railroads.

      The BART-airport extension. A use of public money so gross that the community near it filed the first ever environmental justice complaint on a transit project since the law was enacted. A big construction project to move a few thousands suits to the airport on rail rather than a shuttle bus while cutting tons of service from the fixed route buses poor people depended on to get to their jobs. The building trades unions were just looking for a payday, no matter who it hurt.

      Don’t forget all the pork in new transportation bills to build highways that nobody wants any more, not even the dumbest states. Cry about the Koch bros until it’s time to take their money, then it’s all “this is how the game is played” and “we need a seat at the table”.

      IBEW and IUPAT are awesome but unfortunately there are still building trades unions who think that the rest of the progressive coalition should just unthinkingly back them no matter how much their positions hurt others and get super resentful when, no, nobody wants anything to do with them.

      And at least in the South the building trades unions remain very segregated to this day. By gender, language, and race. This isn’t true in bigger cities, but the degree to which this is true in the hinterlands is just depressing.

      Service industry unions are much more mixed and their politics reflect this. They tend to be lower paid, higher %age of foreign born members, younger, etcet.

      • JL

        The other side of that is that unions have done a lot, and continue to do a lot, that is in tune with the wider left. The pay gap between men and women is less for unionized than non-unionized workers. The first unions to push for antidiscrimination clauses around sexual orientation in their contracts were doing so back in the ’70s, and a lot of unions are supporting ENDA right now. The Teamsters supported Harvey Milk back in the day, and the maritime cooks’ and stewards’ union was extremely progressive toward gay and bi people even way back in the pre-WWII days. I’ve been seeing increasing collaboration between unions and pro-immigrant activists. National Nurses United is generally an awesome left-wing coalition partner.

        There’s problems as well, which you bring up, I just wanted to point out the other side to this.

        • I love the story of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. It had originally been founded in the early 20th century for the purpose of keeping Asians out of those jobs. But in the 1930s radicals took over the leadership positions and pushed for racial integration. Several leadership positions were held by blacks and by relatively openly gay men. They fought for and won a contract that only allowed members to be fired for not meeting the terms of the contract, as a means of protecting their gay members from being fired for being gay. The banner in their union hall, in the 1940s, read “Red-baiting, race-baiting, queer-baiting is anti-union.”

          I’ll give you one guess as to what happened to them in the 1950s.

          (This was from memory, so I could be off with the details.)

  • Just thought you should know that there’s pharmacy spam in the RSS feed for this article.

  • somethingblue

    What a sad, twisted little man Peter King is. I imagine a reality version of Huis Clos starring him, Bill Donohue and Phyllis Schlafly.

    • toberdog

      That is weirdness beyond my poor capacity to describe, or even comprehend.

      Which I think is a compliment.

  • This was lower Manhattan in 1970 — I believe many of these union members were working on a little neighborhood construction project called the World Trade Center…

    • That’s quite a connection somehow. Resonant, although I can’t say quite what the resonance is.

  • ChrisS

    open italics somewhere …

  • Vance Maverick

    Repeated text, a block starting with “Around noon”.

    • Vance Maverick

      Sorry, the start of the repetition is “Brennan coordinated construction workers”.

      • FlipYrWhig

        The whole paragraph above the image is repeated text.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Thx for the fox, Erik.

          • FlipYrWhig

            Dammit, FIX, not fox.

            • Lee Rudolph

              The fox is in.

              • Joseph Slater

                What does it say?

  • This post seems to be slanted to the right…

    • rea

      I wonder if I can be the hero that puts a stop to this? Let’s see . . .

      • rea

        Nope–close italics tag didn’t work . . .

    • Autonomous Coward

      slanted to the right

      What do you expect from a site that ignores the obvious reality that we could have nationalized the hospitals in 2010 but OBAMA NEVER EVEN TRIED?

      Ew, now I just feel dirty.

      • DAS

        I hereby award you one internet. I trust you are aware of its traditions?

        • Autonomous Coward

          All of them.

  • Creature

    I remember the KSU riots- participating in some of the ‘street actions’- but I was not there for the shootings. I was in high school, and led some of my classmates in an impromptu protest at school that day. I got threatened by some other students- who are probably TeaBaggers now- but I was a pretty good street fighter, and meet the challenge. My father, a UAW member, told me that the building trade unions and the Teamsters were ‘goddam Republicans’, and hoped I wouldn’t take that career route (I didn’t). It wasn’t until later in the day we learned if the shootings. I expected some sort of tragedy, as the cops working the street riots were extremely vicious. Jim Rhodes AKA asshole, showed his true colors throughout that whole mess. I’ve never trusted any of the ‘goddam Republicans’, or their syncophants since.

    • Another Holocene Human

      UAW had its start as a true radical union. Thanks for sharing this story.

      • Actually, no, it didn’t. It started out as an AFL union, but John L Lewis supported the Reuther contingent and brought them in to the CIO, and eventually Reuther built up power within the union and he became president in time for WWII.

  • Sorry about the formatting problems. Between this and the spam people getting and not only including spam code but publishing the thing 3 days early, this post has been replete with more problems than the American labor movement in the early 70s.

    • Vance Maverick

      It’s not done yet — there’s still the block of repeated text.

    • Another Holocene Human

      My dad grew up in the Chicago area which as you know was a hotbed of all sorts of youth radicalism in the late 60s and had friends who were big lefties and believed the revolution was around the corner. They attempted to go into trade unions to radicalize the proletariat with rather demotivating results.

      By the 70s, my dad had friends who had dropped out of school to join trade unions because at that time the pay and prospects were better with a blue collar. (He then had a family and moved far far away so I don’t know the post-Reagan update.)

  • kathleen

    Kent State and its aftermath is one of the events of this terrible time that mean I will never, ever, ever vote for a Republican. I don’t care if they bear the stigmata and spend all their time and resources feeding orphans (they probably made the money they use for the food killing off the orphans’ parents with toxic waste.)
    I remember our local paper wrote an editorial the next day, in effect saying “that’s what you get when you have an unruly protest” and I wrote a letter to the editor saying they “sounded like the Tory press commenting on the Boston Massacre” which, to their credit, they printed.
    On an entirely unrelated note, you may like to know that unless it’s on a boat, a flag flies at “half-staff.”

    • Vance Maverick

      Erik’s posts reliably bring out the language peevers, though Scott is much more careless. Half-staff is “more correct” in a sense, but half-mast is not wrong.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: A Digest - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

  • Rob in CT

    I was born in ’76, and had never heard of this.

    However, I *did* pick up a general vibe of “working class folks weren’t/aren’t exactly progressive” from somewhere (working class doesn’t necessarily equate to unionized, I know, but there used to be a stronger connection). I can’t really nail down what it was, but I definitely learned that.

    One possible source was encounters as I was growing up with “working class” people (quotes, because what I mean is “people my mind coded as working class”) – family, friends, etc., who were more likely to display bigotry. This may have meant they were actually more bigotted (as is easy to assume), or it may just have been that they weren’t as good at hiding it (or didn’t care to).

    The other possibility is media. Movies (though no specific movie springs to mind) or TV shows (the only thing that comes to mind is Archie Bunker, though I don’t recall whether unions were referenced in All in the Family).

    Third and final possibility: the politics of immigration. “They took our jobs” was pretty heavily mocked/derided. Oh you lost your job? Whatsamatter? Can’t compete with the immigrants? Loser! [VERY loose translation of what I remember the message being in the late 80s into the 90s]

    • sparks

      Third and final possibility: the politics of immigration. “They took our jobs” was pretty heavily mocked/derided. Oh you lost your job? Whatsamatter? Can’t compete with the immigrants? Loser! [VERY loose translation of what I remember the message being in the late 80s into the 90s]

      Much heard in Silicon Valley, where they’d play H1-B immigrants off citizens. I remember Usenet fights about that.

      • Works both ways, initially in the opposite direction. Now it’s more “they come here and take our jobs,” but the initial anger was “our jobs were sent over there.” And the latter had and continues to have a lot of truth to it.

        [Sincerely, a native Detroiter]

    • Chris

      I was born in ’76, and had never heard of this.

      However, I *did* pick up a general vibe of “working class folks weren’t/aren’t exactly progressive” from somewhere (working class doesn’t necessarily equate to unionized, I know, but there used to be a stronger connection). I can’t really nail down what it was, but I definitely learned that.

      I think this is one of these stereotypes that the powers-that-be like to encourage to divide liberal demographics. It sounds like the oft-cited notion that “blacks/Latinos/Asians are socially conservative!” and really a Republican demographic if only the poor misguided brainwashed souls would just realize it.

      Absent this interpretation are things like 1) even if those demographics have a higher rate of conservatives, there are a hell of a lot of people in them who don’t fit the bill – blue collar whites can be gay just like anyone else, blue collar women if anything are more likely to need abortions, or 2) what they think is proof of “conservatism” may actually not be – those demographics may be more likely to go to church than your average college student, for example, but those churches are just as likely to preach social and economic justice as rail against abortion and gay marriage.

      The notion of working class people (or blacks or Latinos or Asians) being naturally conservative or at least antiliberal sounds like wish fulfillment masquerading as conventional wisdom. Kind of like “America is a center right nation” or countless other such memes.

      • Anonymous

        This trope has been reinforced by removing income and occupation from the definition of ‘working class’ whites and women and minorities from the ‘working class’ all together. In many of the surveys/polls over the last 15 years ‘working class’ is basically defined as white males without a college degree. There is also a continuing, though generally more honest, mislabeling of the the white working class on the Democratic side. The WWC is often portrayed as hopelessly conservative, when as Levison and others have pointed out, they tend to be overwhelmingly traditional but not conservative.

        • I agree that Levinson does good work that’s insightful and refines categories and terms. But I’d add that if you’re going to talk about white who are working class it’s necessary to distinguish between WWC Southerners and WWC in the rest of the country. Democrats can and often do get the votes of the latter. We’re not now and probably won’t for a long time be competitive with the former.

  • DAS


    rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam.

    is very true. There was a lot of resentment toward privileged “hippies”. And if you had no choice but to send your sons to war, you would naturally end up supporting it as a psychological defense mechanism.

    However, I think you are being too quick on the draw with your follow up of “they are basically irrelevant today”. They are quite relevant!

    Of course, there is the historical aspect: the Vietnam war helped drive a wedge between white working-class “New Deal” Democrats and upper-middle class Progressive/Liberals due to the dynamics you cite (and I think the complexity of the tensions was appreciated at the time, although I wasn’t alive then, so maybe I am wrong), which wedge was used to start undoing the New Deal. The resulting economic troubles caused the status of white working class males to lessen at the same time as women and minorities started to do better. And this coincidence helped establish the zero-sum game thinking that continues to this day in the Tea Party, et al.

    But these sorts of tensions continue to this day: can working class people afford (time and money) organic produce and time-intensive home cooked meals? Yet, this is to some people (and is presented by our oh so helpful media as) the sum total of what liberalism is about. And if you are working 2+ jobs to stay afloat and don’t have money for locally sourced produce or the time to cook kale chips with stir fried arugula (and then time and energy to clean the dishes), what are you going to think about pushes for healthy eating or sustainable farming practices?

    • When I talk about relevance here, I meant specifically the issue around whether labor can be trusted in progressive movements because of this one event. Certainly class-based divides and issues of privilege that bubbled up in this event are still quite relevant, yes.

      • PSP

        Was it ever “because of this one event”? Mind you, I was 6 at the time, but I’ve always thought this was just symbolic of the break up of the New Deal coalition between ’68 and ’74 or proof that Archie Bunker* was real.

        The gap goes back at least to Humphrey and Daley publicly supporting Vietnam (despite private doubts/opposition) and George Meany et al hippie bashing all through that period and continues on through McGovern’s campaign.

        From the reviews I read, that whole history is the subject of your source. Another reminder to get that book.

        *My personal evidence that Archie existed was my grandfather. A machinist, he loved the show and thought Archie won every argument with Meathead.

  • JL

    There is little that I can add to this post (“Nice post! Informative series!”), but given the persistence of the image of unions attacking protesters, I can talk a little about attacks on protesters.

    The following people or groups of people, other than agents of the state, have committed or threatened violence against recent protesters/protests where I was personally involved in the protest:

    – People in suits (I assumed that they were financial workers, given the surroundings) near One Chase Plaza in Lower Manhattan, on the first anniversary of Occupy, who tried to push a temporary construction-site wall onto protesters. They weren’t strong enough to do more than rock it and startle people, and fled when people saw them. There is a video of this, with me looking tentative and confused about what is happening (which I was; I did not understand what was happening until the guys in suits fled).

    – A few Tea Partiers (in a protest/counterprotest situation), shoving and trying to rip signs from LGBTQ people who were counterprotesting their rally because Scott Lively was speaking at it.

    – A group of drunk college bros who stormed into the Occupy Boston camp one night at around 3am, barged into a tarp-covered area of tents where about a dozen people had been sleeping, and started smashing their stuff, causing a brawl that resulted in a homeless protester kid from Southie getting arrested for pulling a knife on the bros when he saw them beating his friends.

    – A Bank of America security guard, standing on the sidewalk outside the BoA, threatening to punch me as I walked by myself with my medic stuff toward a rally happening a couple of blocks away, at the NATO Summit 2012 protests.

    – One of Rahm Emanuel’s neighbors lurking in the bushes as people marched on Emanuel’s house and then pegging a marcher in the face with a frozen egg (also NATO 2012).

    – A Republican delegate at the 2012 national convention shoving a protester while crossing the street.

    None of these people are labor unions. I mean, labor unions not engaging in violence against demonstrators is a rather low bar, but my point is not only about who isn’t but who IS. All of the people that I listed here are either fairly privileged or (in the case of the security guard) acting as agents of privileged institutions. If I were doing more direct action environmental work (especially in, say, Appalachia) I might see more tension with blue-collar folks, but even in that world, I think the most harrowing story I’ve heard involved white-collar TransCanada higher-ups egging on police.

    • Another Holocene Human

      Today it’s more about voting/endorsements. You rarely hear about conservative unions or union members engaging in violence unless it’s the last gasps of the mobbed up unions.

      My experience with protests and such is that union members want to keep their jobs so they are absolutely the last people to suggest engaging in violence. Right wing violence has been somewhat socially discredited so you don’t see tea partiers and so on suggesting violent actions. They have billionaire backers, anyway, and the police will dole out all the violence they need on their behalf.

  • Nick

    Erik, have you written about Nate Smith in Pittsburgh? An amazing civil rights leader who fought for the integration of the Building Trades there as a card-carrying Operating Engineer. I saw an amazing film about him a few years ago called “What Does Trouble Mean?”. Smith died just over 3 years ago.

    • Never even heard of him. Thanks for the links!

  • Barry

    Erik: “…hat galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protesters who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. ”

    Absolutely wrong. Those same guys have only very rarely had a problem with Mr. GOP Chickenhawk.

    • Polls at the time showed higher levels of anti-war opposition among the working-class than among the college-educated.

      • Anonymous

        College educated adults were twice as likely to be hawks than the “uneducated” and their opposition to the war trailed both those with a high school education and grade school education throughout the war. By the time a majority of the college educated opposed the war, opposition was at nearly 70% of the high school educated and close to 80% for those with a grade school education

  • Badbuzz

    When considering the causes and significance of this you should not forget that a lot of people are really excited about getting the opportunity to beat someone up with impunity.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History, May 8, 1970: In the so-called “Hard Hat Riot”, unionized construction workers attacked an anti-war march in the wake of the Kent State shooting a few days before | Amateur-Science()

  • Joe B.

    I’ve always found Pete Hammill’s 1969 article on the problems white working class voters had with living in NYC pretty useful for contextualizing the Hard Hat Riot.

    New York Magazine, April 14 1969

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: September 23, 1969 - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

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