The ‘Hard Hat Riot’ Was a Preview of Today’s Political Divisions


This was something genuinely new, and raw. Even jaded viewers tuning in to the network news on May 8, 1970, must have been shocked to see helmeted construction workers waving enormous American flags and chanting “All the way, U.S.A.” as they tore through an antiwar demonstration in Manhattan’s financial district — all of it just days after four students had been shot dead by National Guardsmen during a peaceful protest at Kent State University in Ohio.

Pummeling anyone in their way, the workers kicked and beat demonstrators, battering them with their hard hats. News cameras shakily recorded the workers as they stormed the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street. One of the workers, upon reaching the top, delivered a vicious right hook to a demonstrator, dropping him to his knees, just below the statue of George Washington.

As they jubilantly raised their flags over the crowd and burst into a chorus of “God Bless America,” the mass of workers seemed, from a distance, to have restaged the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima. “It damn near put a lump in your throat,” said Joe Kelly, an elevator builder who was working on the World Trade Center. Cliff Sloane, a student interviewed later that month by The New York Times, felt differently. “If this is what the class struggle is all about,” he said, “there’s something wrong somewhere.”

Today, the chaotic scene looks like a harbinger of current divisions, which have only become deeper with the recent public health crisis and economic tailspin.

Back then, it looked like proof of something John Lindsay, New York’s mayor, had said earlier that week: “The country is virtually on the edge of a spiritual — and perhaps even a physical — breakdown.”

Lindsay’s remark came two days after the Kent State shootings, six days after President Richard M. Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia and five years after the deployment of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, where some 50,000 Americans had already been killed, with no end in sight. At home, there were racial uprisings in cities like Newark and Detroit, students occupied universities, women protested the Miss America pageant, and gay people fought with police at the Stonewall Inn.

Amid the turmoil, the “non-shouters” of Nixon’s “silent majority” thundered to life. The “Hard Hat Riot,” as it came to be known, created new visibility and possibilities for a right-wing populism that shaped American politics for decades to come. As the ground of white working-class identity shifted from economics to culture, it appeared that the new class war would be waged not against the old corporate robber barons but the impudent snobs of the cultural elite.

“Family life, some form of religion and patriotism — that’s how you get a proper understanding and respect for these matters,” said the second-generation dockworker and military veteran John Cooke about the nation’s divisions. Working men like Cooke felt silenced in the noise of the ’60s. They resented the erosion of the patriarchy, the rise of moral permissiveness and affirmative action programs meant to integrate their historically white union shops. To them, the social contract lay in tatters, torn up by liberals, a meddlesome government, and demands from African-Americans and coddled college students.

The workers weren’t alone in their sentiments. A poll released weeks after the hard-hat incident showed that Americans thought “campus unrest” was a bigger problem than the Vietnam War.

As Cooke put it, “Protest is the only thing that works today.”

After winning the battle for Federal Hall, the hard hats rampaged across Lower Manhattan. They marched to City Hall, where the flag was flying at half-mast to honor the dead at Kent State. A postal worker who had joined the fray managed to climb onto the roof and raise the stars and stripes to its proper, prideful position. When city officials returned it to half-mast, the workers rushed the building, leaping over police barricades and running over the hoods of cars.

Fearing a disaster, officials raised the flag back to full mast. Running battles continued at Pace College (now University), where workers broke into buildings and smashed windows. They punched and kicked antiwar students who curled up on the ground to protect themselves. Some 70 people were injured, and six were reportedly arrested.

In the days and weeks that followed, lunch time became patriotic protest hour, as marches continued. The ranks of the hard hats grew from hundreds to thousands, and sympathetic office workers joined their midday marches. They demanded more support for the war and less coddling of subversives, carrying signs that read “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Love Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, His Wife, and Reagan.”

These demonstrations culminated on May 20, with a march staged by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York that drew a crowd estimated at 100,000 people. “Flags, fervent oratory, patriotic tunes and a river of yellow, red, and blue hard hats” flowed down Broadway, beneath a blizzard of ticker tape, The Times reported.

Peter Brennan, the leader of the building-trades unions, summarized the us-versus-them logic of the march. “We’re the fellas who build this country,” he said. “We’re the fellas who build the hospitals when they need ‘em, when they get sick. We build the bridges and tunnels for them to get around in. We build the schools that they want to burn down.”

Antiwar groups, already angry and bewildered by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s support for the Vietnam War, saw a labor movement that no longer stood at the forefront of social progress, with workers vehemently defending the establishment — “Karl Marx upside down,” as the saying went. A letter to The Times asked, has “trade unionism’s just and single-minded pursuit of a living wage created among its members a pigheaded insularity that borders on fascism?”

Nixon, however, saw political opportunity. “Pete Brennan’s people were with us when some of the elitist crowd were running away from us,” he said. “Thank God for the hard hats!” Nixon’s administration had been working on a “blue collar strategy” to shift white working-class voters to a “New Majority,” and his aide Pat Buchanan believed that the white workers “who gave F.D.R. those great landslides” were in rebellion against the “intellectual aristocracy and liberal elite who now set the course of their party.”

Six days after the rally, Nixon hosted the leaders of the building trades at the White House. They honored him with a hard hat inscribed with “Commander in Chief.”

For all of its drama, however, the hard hat revolt was not a wholesale shift in working class identity. The building trades were among the most conservative unions, and even though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. endorsed the war effort, Vietnam divided the labor movement just like it had the rest of the country. The working class was becoming more diverse than ever by the 1970s, as women and people of color filled new roles in the work force, and the service sector began to overshadow manufacturing. Less a complete rightward transformation of “the” working class, the hard hat protests represented its political fragmentation into smaller and more resentful pieces.

Still, there were consequences. In 1972, Nixon ran for a second term against George McGovern, a Democratic Senator from South Dakota. McGovern was one of the most pro-labor major-party candidates to date, but he was also an antiwar candidate and allied with the new social movements of the sixties. Nixon beat him in a landslide, winning a majority of the working-class vote, by several measures. The following year, he made Peter Brennan his secretary of labor.

Jefferson Cowie is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.”


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