Dan Foose HIST 301J March 7, 2011 Class Tension and the “Hard Hat Riot”

On May 8, 1970, lunch hour on Wall Street took a violent turn as student protesters demonstrating against the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State University shooting were attacked by hard-hatted construction workers, leaving about seventy people injured.1 The images presented by media were dramatic and polarizing, much like those of the war itself. To some observers, the “hard hats” were true American patriots, defending their way of life against the destructive force of the counterculture. To others, the rioters represented the worst aspects of the white working class, prone to violence and manifesting unwavering support for an unjust war.2 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the press and academia began to pay more attention to the situation of the so-called “silent majority” – those white, working-class, “forgotten Americans” for whom President Richard Nixon claimed to speak – as the white majority voiced its discontent with the spirit of change that typified the 1960s.3 Many working-class whites were concerned with the state of their nation for a number of reasons; not least among those the perceived lack of patriotism and respect for “the Establishment” expressed by the country’s youth. The hard hats, like many other white, working-class Americans, felt that the sometimes violent protests against the war on college campuses exemplified this decay in American values.

1 2

Homer Bigart, New York Times, May 9, 1970, “War Foes Here Attacked By Construction Workers” New York Times, unknown date, letters to the editor in response to Richard Rogin, “Joe Kelley Has Reached His Boiling Point,” New York Times Magazine. June 28, 1970., republished in Overcoming Middle Class Rage edited by Murray Friedman. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970. 3 For example, on October 6, 1969, Newsweek ran a 44-page “Special Report on the White Majority”.

see Fred J. “Hard-Hats: The Rampaging Patriots. president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Labor and the Vietnam War. See Rogin and Francis X. Labor and the Vietnam War. that the rioters were directed by businesssuited men associated with the right-wing newspaper Graphic. 7 Foner acknowledges the racist tendencies within the building trades unions. members of the construction trades unions are nearly absent from the examples of anti-war sentiment within labor that Foner provides. 6 Foner dedicates the fifth chapter of U. not all unionists were in favor of the escalation of the war or opposed to the leftist idealism of the youth.4 Marxist labor historian Philip S. June 15. which had lower pay scales than the other construction trades.6 However. citing a report by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Clines. “Unity of Labor and Campus” to the collaboration between working-class unionists and the mostly middle-class student protesters. 4 There is evidence. Foner. or as a conspiracy by right-wing interests to further the division between the working-class and the radical youth. 1970. was particularly outspoken in his support for American policy in Indochina. U.7 That the workers represented by the Building Trades Council were so strongly opposed to student protest indicates that there may have been some aspects of construction worker culture that predisposed them for such behavior. 1970. reported on in Wall Street Journal. several of the hard hat demonstrators have stated that they acted willingly.” The Nation. did not support the war to the extent that their senior leadership wanted the public to believe. presented by contemporary liberal commentators.5 Though George Meany. both in support of workers’ rights and in opposition to the war. Anti-war protest within the labor movement came primarily from industrial workers.Foose 2 The violent incident of May 8 and the subsequent peaceful pro-war demonstrations by construction workers in New York City can be viewed as either the organic expression of this working-class discontent with the left. May 21. May 19. Foner draws from Cook’s account in The Nation to discredit the pro-war demonstrators.S. Foner supports the latter thesis. noting that 75% of black workers within the building trades were represented by the Laborer’s Union. 1970 “For the Flag and for Country. who were more likely to be women or minorities than the disproportionately white and male construction workers. Foner points to numerous cases of unionists and students standing in solidarity. They March” 5 Philip S. 1989. arguing that many within American organized labor. However. . including those represented by the building trades. New York Times. Cook.S. New York: International Publishers.

This 8 Joshua B. Freeman argues that the white-male-dominated and highly sexualized work culture within the construction trades played a role in the “hard hat riots” as “real men” sought to defend their country from those who disrespected her traditional values. Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. The hard hats viewed the long-haired protesters with the same disgust with which they viewed the protester’s parents.Foose 3 Social historian Joshua B. 1993). pp.10 According to Freeman. Freeman. p. This class consciousness led to the construction workers’ discontent with student unrest. “Hardhats: Construction Workers. Chapel Hill. “Hardhats”. This separation fosters a high level of fraternalism within the building trades that is conducive to violent mass action such as that on May 8. Manliness. viewing themselves as a unique class of people separate from both the professional middle class and the industrial working class. including surveys and profiles of the workers who participated in the riot of May 8. 1993. See Christian G. 9 Interestingly. construction workers reveled in their popular conception as sexist and uncivilized. 733 . I will draw from a variety of primary sources. paying particular attention to the role resentment of the professional class felt by the hard hats may have played. “Hardhats”.” Journal of Social History Vol.8 Freeman argues that a culture separate from that of the rest of society existed within the building trades because building tradesmen work much more independently of supervision than most other workers. with the intention of making their recruits more violent. 725-744. 26.9 Freeman argues that unions and employers supported this fraternalism. p. 1970 and the peaceful pro-war demonstration of May 20 that same year. feeling that the professional class as a whole did little useful work in society. 4 (Summer. 732 11 Freeman.11 This paper examines the motivations of the hard hat demonstrators. and rejected middle-class decorum. [exact page number to be inserted here (it’s in chapter 3)] 10 Freeman. the military fostered a similar culture in its enlisted men. and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations. as separated and sexualized as that of the hard hats. No. p. Appy. believing that workers who felt like brothers to each other would be more productive. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press. 1970. Little historical examination has focused primarily on the hard hat protesters.

were driven by their cultural identity as working-class patriots to show support publicly for the government’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. and this paper is mostly in accord with that argument. 1969 and in Robert Coles (with photography by Jon Erikson). a pluralities of the whites interviewed believed that black people had a better chance to get well-paying jobs and reasonably-priced housing than people like themselves. While Foner’s argument that the demonstrators were coerced into action by their unions and employers has a certain appeal to those who wish to believe in constant solidarity between workers and middle-class liberals. thereby expressing long-held anger at what they perceived as a decline in the moral values of hard work.Foose 4 paper adds to the discussion of these events and their placement in the broader debate about the Vietnam War. Freeman’ argument that the pro-war workers acted as they did due to a cultural distinction among those in the building trades. working-class Americans felt alienated by the social change that typified that decade. many white. . tied to the growing working-class discontent with the left. Oct. many white workers had some sympathy for them. despite the fact that many working-class whites believed that blacks actually had it better than them in many regards.13 The highest levels of vitriol were reserved for student protesters and liberal college 12 General summaries of the attitudes of the “silent majority” can be found in “The Troubled American: A Special Report on the White Majority”. 6. 1971. “Forgotten Americans” By the end of the 1960s. who resented student anti-war protesters’ draft-exempt status and contempt for patriotism. The Middle Americans: Proud and Uncertain.12 Despite their often prejudiced attitudes towards blacks. These “forgotten Americans” felt that the demands of minorities and the radical youth had become too extreme. 13 In the public opinion poll referenced by the Newsweek article. Sixty-five percent of respondents believed that blacks had a better chance to “get financial help from the government when they’re out of work” than people like them. sacrifice and love of country. The pro-war “hard-hat” demonstrators. Boston: Little. it is more likely that the sentiments expressed by the hard hats were genuine and that a real cultural and political rift existed between wealthy liberals and the working class. has considerable merit. Brown and Company. Newsweek.

24-5. WI: University of Wisconsin Press.Foose 5 professors. however. will be cited properly on final draft) 20 Ehrenreich.18 The hard hats. 732. “Joe Kelley” offer specific.15 To one autoworker. See Barbara Ehrenreich. and Rogin. and Freeman.14 In the eyes of many white. 1969. p. working-class Americans. most likely born into affluence. pp. 16 These sentiments were expressed by an autoworker in Coles. 46. It should be noted. 137. New York: Pantheon Books.21 The standard of living expected and taken-for-granted by the middle and upper classes was still an unobtainable ideal for many blue-collar families. Eighty-five percent of whites. Blue-Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working Class Tavern. Madison. viewed both the student protesters and their parents disdainfully as “non-producers”. and almost sixty percent of them felt that the actions of student protesters were unwarranted. 1969. 1989. Managerial employees were particularly disliked. it was these radical. p. in one survey. that many radical academics (the “Old Left”) disliked the New Left. criticizing them as selfish. p. 131 21 Ehrenreich. 131 . E. believed that college demonstrators were treated too leniently by authorities. 136-7. as a manager’s job is to tell a worker how to do his (usually a job the manager could not do himself). 1975.20 A college-educated person. If the discontent with 14 15 Newsweek. 19 Ehrenreich. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. October 6. anecdotal evidence of these views being expressed. like many other working-class whites. 64. 41. (exact page not remembered. un-American “snob professors” who were spoiling higher education by encouraging their “snob-students” at “snob-colleges” to “make a lot of noise and look queer”. Also. was more likely than someone who had not attended college to characterize American society as too materialistic. p. Newsweek. p. LeMasters. 17 E. Appy.17 From the perspective of many working-class men. Working-Class War. 18 Ehrenreich. white-collar professionals were essentially paid to be know-it-alls. 44.16 Many “working men” felt that the rich and the professional middle class contributed little to society. and Ehrenreich.19 The seeming disdain with which the middle-class viewed their own affluence also riled working-class Americans. liberal academics were elitists who wanted to tell the working man what he should do and how he should feel. October 6.

9%. Working-Class War. Many of those working-class men 22 23 Appy. than those who had not attended college. Fewer working-class young men obtained health-related exemptions than their middle-class and upper-class peers. and in 1968. In 1970. as full-time college students. this number was 15. around fifty percent of all draftage men had attended college for some period of time. In 1966.9%. In 1967. p. “Our Boys” There was another. due to the perception in working-class communities that avoiding the draft was a dishonorable and cowardly act. much less likely to be drafted than young men who did not attend college. but only around twenty-five percent of all Vietnam veterans had any college education. 25-27. this percentage was 15. . A collegeeducated man was less likely to serve in the military. 26. Working Class War. more personal reason for the hard hats’ resentment of youth protestors. 14. either through the draft or through enlistment. There are a number of economic and cultural reasons for this discrepancy.Foose 6 society expressed by the youth counterculture was an outgrowth of the privileged upbringings of its participants. See Appy. as they had neither the knowledge that such exemptions existed nor the economic means and social connections necessary to obtain them. a dream for which the working class was still striving. A number of changes in military policy caused a jump from around sixteen percent in 1968 to twenty-six percent in 1969. when deferments were more readily available. Fewer working-class men of draft age had a desire to “dodge” the draft than wealthier young men. then the discontent felt by the hard hats and others like them can be seen as disgust with the lack of respect shown by the counterculture to “the American dream”.22 Before 1969. Those youths who were protesting the war on May 8 were. as it played a role in the perception of college students by many working-class Americans as spoiled and derelict.23 This difference in educational attainment is significant enough to warrant attention. p.6% of Vietnam veterans had attended at least one year of college by the time of separation from the military. the educational attainment of Vietnam veterans was even lower.

Baskir and William A.26 Anti-war literature promoted this means of draft avoidance. draft24 25 Appy. 1978. but those who had the knowledge that medical exemptions existed. pp. 33-35. those who did not attend college were at a disadvantage in accessing the people and information necessary to avoid the draft. and some anti-war activists (referred to by Baskir and Strauss as “draft counselors”) specialized in assisting draftees in acquiring exemptions.Foose 7 who had the desire to attend college had to attend part-time and work through their education. very often could avoid induction. 26 Baskir and Strauss. Knopf. p. Strauss. 46. In addition to medical deferments. the War.25 Since the Selective Service Act allowed draftees to select the location of their pre-induction examinations. In addition to being more susceptible to the draft. and the Vietnam Generation. In their book Chance and Circumstance. Working-Class War. 27 Baskir and Strauss. p. Baskir estimate that ninety percent of those who had the means and knowledge to request medical exemptions were granted them. one of the easier ways to avoid the draft was to obtain a medical exemption. 34-8.24 Many relatively benign but still disqualifying ailments were not often detected in the routine medical exam given to all draftees. Lawrence M. . myriad options existed for avoiding combat service. putting them at greater risk of conscription due to the fact that educational deferments for parttime students were not available. Chance and Circumstance: the Draft. 43. Some three-and-a-half million men were exempted due to physical or psychiatric conditions. William A. New York: Alfred A. 38. Strauss and Lawrence M. due to a lack of economic opportunity and the thought that being drafted was inevitable. and the means to obtain a written confirmation of such a condition. knowledgeable draftees who could afford to travel could choose more lenient pre-induction locations to increase their chance of being granted exemptions. workingclass men were more likely to voluntarily enlist in the armed services than their wealthier peers. For those of means.27 As the anti-war movement was primarily centered on college campuses. Outside of educational deferments. pp.

being drafted seemed inevitable. 34 33 Francis X.32 In newspaper interviews. While sixty-two percent of all enlistments by students who had attended college were draft-motivated.33 At the peaceful 28 29 Baskir and Strauss. “For Flag and For Country. those with personal connections were more likely to be admitted. They March”. excitement. 30 Appy. and more than three times more likely to volunteer because the military offered them better career options than civilian life. Working-Class War. only thirty-one percent of all enlistments of those who had not graduated high school were. in other words.49. and new experiences”. Clines. the hard hats often brought up the fact that they themselves had served (in Vietnam or elsewhere) or had family members serving in Vietnam. reprinted in John Helmer. 44. 31 Helmer. While a few enlisted men (around six percent) joined the military out of patriotic sentiment. More working-class young men enlisted in the military voluntarily than their collegebound peers.Foose 8 eligible men with connections to important people could avoid fighting by joining the reserves or the National Guard. rather than be placed in one by the government. to get military service “out of the way”. New York Times May 21.31 Nearly seventeen percent of enlistees said that they joined the military to “fulfill [their] military obligation[s] at the time of [their] choice”. Department of Defense Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel as of November 1968. 1970.000 more college graduates were inducted in the Guard and reserves than were inducted into all five active-service branches.28 As the waiting lists for the National Guard and the reserves were long. p. New York: Free Press. p.29 To those who did not have the means or desire to avoid it. p. p. neither of which was mobilized in the war after 1968. In 1969-1970. 34. Bringing the War Home: The American Solider in Vietnam and After. 1974. People who had not attended college were more than twice as likely to volunteer in order to learn a trade and “for the travel.30 Nearly thirty percent of all enlistees in 1968 enlisted in order to choose their own branch of service. a little under half of all enlistments in 1968 were draft-motivated. . 34 32 Helmer. 26. p.

Working-Class War. “Hardhats”. building tradesmen have a unique work culture separate from that of the working class. a number of signs carried by the hard hats read “support our boys” or something similar. “Employment and Earnings: January 2007” p. The hard hat riot could occur as it did due to the fraternal.36 As they are today. For example. difficult work was described as “bull work.38 On the aggregate. U. about eight percent of workers employed full-time in “construction and extraction occupations” were women. American construction workers in 1970 were overwhelmingly male. 265 and “Employment and Earnings: April 1970” p. the culture of the construction worker became highly sexualized. men are more likely to commit violent acts than women.Foose 9 rally on May 20. 51 38 Freeman.35 They viewed the actions of anti-war student protesters. 41 Appy. Working-Class War. 41 36 Freeman. “Hardhats”. a specific sociocultural identity.S. 726 . a minuscule measurement was a “cunt hair”. Freeman examines this culture in detail and concludes that the riot was an expression of “hardhatism”. This sexualization is evidenced in the very language used by construction workers in their within their trades. “Bull Work” Because they work much more independently than other workers. p.34 To many of the hard hats. 1970.” while easy work was described as “tit work”. p. and it is possible that the lack of a 34 35 Appy. p. 37 In April 1970. especially those actions which denigrated the symbols of the country they loved. while a particular wire-shaping tool was referred to as a “bull’s dick”. this expression was quite literal. hyper-masculine nature of construction worker culture which predisposed the hard hats to violent group action.37 As a result of this male-dominated work environment. Department of Labor. five percent of workers in the “contract construction” industry were women. Joshua B. as an utter disrespect of the sacrifices being made by fellow workingclass Americans. In 2007.

42 Many hard hats were themselves veterans. Working-Class War. 42 Appy. 731 41 Appy. together with its dangerous nature. This fraternalism was also encouraged by construction companies. was encouraged by the military as a way to make soldiers more capable of violence.40 As in other male-dominated organizations. The fraternal bonds between construction workers were evidenced in the names chosen for their unions. 728 Freeman.43 The male-dominance of the construction work environment increased the tendency for militantism in the hard hats. . “Hardhats”. and their military experiences likely influenced their behavior. facilitated an esprit de corps among construction workers that furthered social cohesion among building tradesmen. hazing behavior. p. and it is implied by the author that Kelley was inspired by his past service to act against the anti-war protestors. a considerable degree of hazing occurred within the construction trades. who felt that socially coherent workers were safer and more efficient. their organization was heavily influenced by the fraternal movement. carried out by drill instructors. Chapter 3. which frequently contained the word “brotherhood”. p. such as college fraternities and the military. During the Vietnam War. 39 40 Freeman.39 Building trades unions openly supported and encouraged construction workers to see each other as brothers. 43 In Rogin. Joe Kelley expresses pride in his own military service. “Joe Kelley”. Working-Class War. This sexualization and masculinization of construction work.Foose 10 female presence on construction sites in Manhattan facilitated the hard hats’ decision to attack students on Wall Street. When construction unions were first formed in the late nineteenth century. as social cohesion within a labor union increases its efficacy in achieving its goals.41 The culture within the military was similarly sexualized and focused on cohesion and conformity. Chapter 3. “Hardhats”.

. middle-class liberals. would carry forty-four states and initiate a political re-alignment that would polarize the two major parties. The cultural division between middle-class liberals and the white working class played a key role in the New Deal order’s ultimate dissolution. northern whites as a key constituency.Foose 11 The hard hat riots grew organically from the tension caused by the innate disconnect between the professional middle class and the working class. This divide was furthered by the perception among the white working class that civil rights and welfare legislation. From 1932 to 1980. promoted by white. which included blue-collar. The hard hats were further angered by the fact that the student anti-war protestors were less susceptible to the draft than their friends and family. The hard hat demonstrations are indicative of the political shift that would see the dissolution of the Democratic majority. Ronald Reagan. disproportionately benefited minorities. American politics was largely dominated by the Democratic “New Deal Coalition”. a conservative who appealed to “the common man”. In the 1980 presidential election.

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