White-Collar Workplace Activism in NYC—A Review of “The Making of the American Creative Class”

Clark, Shannan. The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Stephen Petrus

As the middle class increasingly shaped consumption habits and social practices in America in the 1950s, it became the subject of scathing critiques in scholarly and popular sociological accounts alike. In White Collar: The American Middle Class (1951), C. Wright Mills argued that bureaucracies were crushing the spirit of middle-class Americans and causing them to become “politically emasculated and culturally stultified.” David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd (1950), a landmark study of modern conformity, contended that postwar society was defined essentially by the market orientation of a consumer culture and that Americans were becoming “other-directed,” or governed by external norms, likes, and dislikes in their communities. In his bestselling book The Organization Man (1956), William H. Whyte observed Americans in corporations losing their traditional rugged individualistic ethic and embracing a collectivist attitude that placed faith in the ability of organizations and groups to solve problems. These accounts, name-checked in undergraduate history survey courses for generations, continue to dominate the popular perception of the middle class of the 1950s.

Lost or slighted in these classic critiques was the rich history of actual workplace activism of white-collar workers, as Shannan Clark illustrates in The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism. Focusing on white-collar workers in New York City in the print and broadcast media, in advertising, and in industrial design, Clark assesses their organizational efforts and political engagements during the Fordist era of the mass production of goods from the 1910s through the 1970s. But the heart of book concentrates on white-collar unionism in the 1930s and 1940s and the political reaction against labor in the postwar period. Clark’s trenchant analysis of the collective action of the creative class enriches our understanding of the New Deal and the Popular Front and early Cold War reactionary politics. Hardly a monolithic entity of automatons in gray flannel suits, culture workers often resisted the demands of their employers for greater productivity and labored in solidarity for better working conditions.

White-collar workers like these often organized for better working conditions, claims Clark. Erik Calonius, “Commuters on Subway” (1973), EPA/DOCUMERICA, National Archives.

Clark adeptly shows the myriad ways that culture workers responded to the Great Depression and World War II. In the wake of economic collapse, a small minority became militant and identified with the radical segments of the working class. Others supported the liberal aims of the New Deal, though they recognized their distinct status as an emerging class of culture workers in burgeoning white-collar industries. Still others established professional advocacy associations that developed into unions and ultimately became part of the CIO. Many in advertising agencies became critical of the culture of consumer capitalism and advanced alternative branding and marketing content in support of goods made by unions in outlets such as Consumers Union Reports, PM, In Fact, and Friday. The war accelerated union organizing, though the political environment limited the range of collective action. Clark excels at documenting the organizational efforts of the Newspaper Guild, the United Office and Professional Workers of America (UOPWA), the Radio Writers Guild (RWG), and the Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA), illuminating the development of a left-liberal coalition in the 1940s inspired by Popular Front ideals and principles.

Taft-Hartley diminished unionization among culture industry workers, as it did their industrial analogues. Wilbert Holman Blanche, “Commuters Entering the Terminal of the Staten Island Ferry” (1973), EPA/DOCUMERICA, National Archives.

During the postwar era, the culture industries faced repression after Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and began investigations into alleged Communist subversion into unions. The media and entertainment industries were distinct targets of HUAC. The broad narrative is familiar but the particularities are striking. The UOPWA, whose members worked in book and magazine publishing, motion pictures, radio and television broadcasting, popular music, architecture and design, and the graphic arts, especially suffered during the Red Scare. Clark chronicles the dissolution of local unions affiliated with the UOPWA. The consequences of postwar labor repression were profound. For example, the demise of white-collar unions made it difficult for the creative class to resist the departure of a large segment of the broadcasting industry from New York to southern California in the 1950s.

Though the labor trends that Clark analyzes could only have taken place in New York, the nation’s media capital, the story is frequently disconnected from the city’s political culture, particularly during the Great Depression. New York was at the vanguard of the national labor movement, and unions were a vital part of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s coalition. The book is vast in scope and exhaustively researched but occasionally the granular level of detail tends to overwhelm the mosaic of the narrative line. Nevertheless, this work is the definitive account of the efforts of the culture industries to fight for better working conditions and create a class identity in mid-twentieth-century New York.

Stephen Petrus is Director of Public History Programs at LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College. In 2015, he curated the exhibition Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival at the Museum of the City of New York and co-authored the accompanying book, published by Oxford University Press. His next publication will be “The Lights Are Out on the Mean Streets: Lou Reed’s ‘Dirty Blvd.’ and Inequality in New York City,” to be published in From the Bowery to the Bronx: A Cultural History of New York Through Song (Intellect Books, 2022).

Featured image (at top): Office workers wait at Battery Park to board the Staten Island Ferry. Wilbert Holman Blanche, “Commuters at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Lower Manhattan’s Batter Park Area” (1973), DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, National Archives.

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