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Precarious City: Marginal Workers, The State, And Working-Class Activism In Post-Industrial San Francisco, 1964-1979

  • Author(s): Martin, Laura Renata;
  • Advisor(s): Frank, Dana L;
  • et al.

This project investigates the effects of San Francisco's transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy on the city's social movements between 1964 and 1979. I re-contextualize the city's Black freedom, feminist, and gay and transgender liberation movements as struggles over the changing nature of urban working-class life and labor in the postwar period. I argue that as San Francisco was increasingly emptied of its white ethnic industrial work force, working-class life became more economically and socially precarious. People of color and poor women, queer, and transgender people continued to live and work in the city throughout the 1960s and 70s, but their relationship to the formal economy was rendered unstable by lack of steady access to waged labor. Unemployment, non-unionized informal and illegal employment, and unwaged work increasingly came to define the experience of being working class in San Francisco.

An analysis that centers precarious forms of labor must not expect labor struggles to look like those of the unionized industrial sector. In post-industrial San Francisco, labor struggles often took the form of conflicts not with employers but with state agencies and institutions that regulated the uses of urban space and access to resources such as social services and public housing. I explore these themes in a number of case studies, each of which examines points of contention between precarious working-class groups and state institutions. I discuss the struggle of working-class women to secure access to welfare funds and public housing as compensation for their reproductive labor; the efforts of civil rights groups to win job training and employment for African Americans through city War on Poverty agencies; the organization of gay and transgender sex workers to fight heightened police harassment tied to the growth of the tourism sector; the effects of redevelopment on retired industrial workers; and the escalation of conflict between police officers and unemployed African American youth during the second half of the 1960s.

Finally, I locate the increasing precariousness of urban working-class life during this period within the framework of a new post-industrial spatial regime. The uses of urban space that were necessary for working-class survival came into conflict with the needs of government officials and a rising group of business elites, who sought to redevelop the urban environment in ways compatible with new economic growth sectors. Poorer sectors of the working class increasingly came into conflict with a whole web of state institutions and agencies being mobilized to transform urban land use patterns.

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