Aspects of Re-proletarianization: The Boston Busing Crisis is an edited version of the same paper I presented to The Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) on June 6, 2013. The basic problem posed in this paper, and one currently contested among the Left in works like Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class and Bromma’s Worker Elite is: How does one define the labor aristocracy, if it exists? What are their motives? Are they part of the proletariat or are they a class alien to revolution? I decided to expose how a labor aristocracy constitutes itself, reproduces itself, and operates politically on an empirical level, using the history of the Boston Busing Crisis as a matrix to discuss this concept.

Note, since 2013, my thinking has evolved on the concept of a worker elite — I no longer think the labor aristocracy is a worthwhile political concept. Class struggle traverses the working class in every social formation. The fact that groups of workers are often relatively privileged doesn’t deserve a special term: ‘aristocracy’. The name, ‘labor aristocracy’, evokes a moralist theme of corruption, as if the working class, a pure revolutionary subject, was derailed from its historic mission through the influence of invisible surplus value generated by some stereotype of a third world worker. Anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, anti-Muslim violence in India, among other explosions of class fratricide, proves that the working class has never had a purity of mission by way of their ontological standing within capitalism. Only politics, not the automatic unfolding of the working class’s supposed material interests, can form a revolutionary subject, for lack of a better term. Furthermore, there is some disagreement as to whether finance capital in Boston played a supportive role in desegregation or merely acquiesced to the demands of the mass movement. Additional research is necessary to really untangle the interests and political practices of each class involved in the busing period.The achievement of this paper is in describing the labor aristocracy politically, as a formation generated by a chance encounter — the mass migration of Irish to Boston, who filled labor shortages in the trades and eventually ousted black workers and politicians from their positions in the erstwhile progressive and abolitionist city of Boston — rather than one predestined by the advance of finance capital and capitalist-imperialism.

Aspects of re-proletarianization: The Boston busing crisis


In 1974, Judge Garrity, in accordance the Racial Imbalance Act, ruled that Boston’s schools were both de jure and de facto segregated. Judge Garrity charged that Boston’s School Committee willfully contributed to segregation through racist employment practices, school re-districting and backtracking on open enrollment policies. The following decade of so-called “forced busing” witnessed the majority of Boston’s Irish and Italian working class uphold white supremacy, barely concealed through the principal demand to continue “neighborhood” schooling.

Between 1971 and 1972, South Boston High School exceeded capacity at 676 students whereas Girls High, a black high-school, was 532 students under capacity. Ironically, South Boston High School maintained a college attendance rate lower than the integrated Dorchester High School. Although an exception to the general trend of overall neglect and underperformance of predominantly black schools, the relative academic success of Dorchester High School indicates opposition to busing exceeded strict economic demands for “quality” education.  Anti-busing advocates presented two faces: moderating their image in support of a metropolitan solution to integration while simultaneously mobilizing working class whites in mass organizations which employed the consistent use of terror against black students. If quality education was absent in neighborhood schools, a term anti-busing advocates mythologized, why the overall hostility of the white working class to busing?

There are two divergent theses commonly held on the question of militant white resistance to busing. The first thesis argues that the bourgeoisie utilized de-segregation to foster racial animosity to derail a unified, class-wide rebellion against a generally failing educational system. Adherents of the “divide and conquer” analysis, like Columbia University’s J. Brian Sheehan, understand desegregation as an ideological trojan horse for the finance bourgeoisie’s urban renewal plans to re-shape the city for urban professionals employed within the economy of “New Boston.” Sheehan controversially views the decisive split in the working class as the political result of a united front between the black petit-bourgeois, organized in the NAACP, and the finance bourgeoisie. Sheehan argued that the NAACP desired not only to establish black professionals firmly within the municipal and professional sector, but, also, wary of impoverished black migrants from the south, pursued busing as a means of protecting real estate value in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The second thesis, argued by a minority of Marxist-Leninists within the New Communist Movement , relies on the concepts of white supremacy, examining the overall material differences between Irish, Italian and Black proletarians in the city and placing onus for the strife on an Irish and Italian labor aristocracy, fundamentally rooted in the trades and public sector.

Both theses regarding the Boston busing crisis are partially true. The monopoly finance bourgeoisie of Boston, using desegregation as a platform, did reorganize the entire Boston Public School System on an explicitly corporate basis. Additionally, both the NAACP and the monopoly finance bourgeoisie welcomed urban renewal projects. However, it is also true that the Irish working class built an extensive patronage system within Boston, monopolized the teaching workforce in the public school system along with associated administrative and janitorial positions. Additionally, the Irish and Italian working classes monopolized city government, willfully enforced segregation in public housing and public schools, and staffed the majority of municipal jobs.

Boston’s white working class feared re-proletarianization and constituted a labor aristocracy in the properly Leninist sense. The labor aristocracy, Boston’s organized predominantly Irish working class, are best understood politically, with a unique class consciousness, distinct relations to production and reproduction and interests divorced from both the proletariat and the financial bourgeoisie. Busing and desegregation threatened to undermine the advances that Boston’s white workers made through exclusionary struggle, consciously securing privileges at the expense of black workers. During the early 1960s and 1970s, Boston’s labor aristocracy hindered the transition of Boston from a (although beleaguered) manufacturing and industrial city to a so-called “global city” of the 21st century. The target of de-segregation for the bourgeoisie was not the entire working class, in a bid to cripple public education through liberalizing the public school system, but specifically Boston’s entrenched, decades old labor aristocracy. The Boston Busing Crisis can be understood as a struggle between four classes, often coupling and decoupling in alliances as the struggle continued: Boston’s labor aristocracy, Boston’s Brahmin financial bourgeoisie, the black petit-bourgeoisie and the black working class.

An understanding of Boston’s white labor aristocracy requires first an articulation of its formation and the manner in which it excelled in procuring material benefits for the class, followed upon by dissecting the methods of struggle adopted by Boston’s labor aristocracy to forestall busing, while also connecting these practices to the interests of Boston’s financial bourgeoisie.

The development of Boston’s white labor aristocracy

As a city, Boston’s economic landscape has always been controlled by the Brahmins, a collection of families descended from original Anglo-Saxon settlers. The first Brahmin families, the Lowells, Lawrences, and Appletons intermarried and industrialized New England. These families accumulated Capital through the slave trade.

The slave trade underwrote the transformation of Boston into an industrial city. However, between 1837 and 1845, Boston underwent a labor shortage resolved by the Irish famine of the late 1840s and early 1950s, where Boston received a large number of impoverished Irish immigrants.

As Boston was a centre of abolitionist activity, Black Bostonians generally fared better than Blacks in other northern cities. A law in 1865 forbade discrimination in public places and the barriers of prejudice were lowered. Additionally, in 1866 two African Americans were elected to the state legislature.  Irish immigrants and established Black workers competed over now scant positions in municipal, industrial, and maritime work. The advances Black Bostonians made evaporated as the Irish quickly came to monopolize two-thirds of the labor market in the 1880s, often through violence.

The infilling of the Back Bay and Fenway neighborhoods required mass employment of semi-skilled labor. By the late 1880s, nearly 5% of the Irish workforce was able to break into the tightly controlled craft unions dominated by Yankee workers on this basis. Eventually, in collusion with local Irish politicians who represented a primarily working class base, the Irish consolidated control over the labor movement. An estimated 100 out of Boston’s 755 man police force were now Irish, over-representing their own numerical weight within Boston.

As the Irish became the majority of Boston’s teachers, firefighters, patrolmen and streetcar conductors, they formed employee associations. In 1898 and 1907, teachers started the Boston Teachers Club, the Elementary Teachers Club, and the Russel Fire Club.

The Irish continued to make strides during the interwar period. Irish captured almost the entirety of city government. In non-segregated labor unions, only 55 of the 347 elected offices went to Jews, Italians, or African Americans. In the late 1930s, as part of an urban renewal plan to create “zones of emergence” for Boston’s skilled proletariat and middle class, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) built a 1,116 unit housing project in South Boston. BHA representatives, primarily Irish, awarded residences to an entirely Irish constituency.

While the Irish working class consolidated control over city government and the labor market, Boston’s Brahmin bourgeoisie dominated state government. The formation of the Irish labor aristocracy in Boston did not proceed from Yankee benevolence. Indeed, when the Irish political machine secured Boston during the interwar period, Yankee finance capitalists responded with a freeze on large-scale building activity in order to erode the tax-base of an insurgent city government that often collided with big bourgeois interests. Boston governance was unique in the sense that the Irish working class dominated urban politics while the Yankee bourgeoisie principally derived their power from management of the economy.

The Irish working class in Boston became a labor aristocracy proper because it’s entire existence depended upon a clear hegemony over municipal resources and exclusionary practices. The yankee bourgeoisie, while often struggling against the Irish labor aristocracy, was amiable to this state of affairs while blue collar jobs were in demand especially during World War II when the Brahmins relied on an organized Irish workforce to produce munitions and build ships in Charlestown.

How Boston’s Labor Aristocracy Sustained Itself As a Class

Boston’s labor aristocracy re-produced itself as a class primarily through the educational system. Since 1905, The Boston School Committee consisted of five members elected on a city-wide basis. Note that the Boston School Committee was entirely white and predominantly Irish until 1975, when John D O’Bryant became the first African American to secure an election to the School Committee.

In the early 1960s, the Boston School System employed 7,000 people and many Irish-Americans depended on the Boston School Committee for labour contracts, jobs as custodians, teachers, clerks, and administrative personnel. At the time of busing, the Boston School Committee reserved 92% of the budget for employment and consciously hired individuals who adhered to the anti-busing movement.

In two particularly illuminating incidents during the busing crisis, the Boston School Committee “obeyed” Judge Garrity’s ruling on implementing safety procedures for bussed Black students by promoting a lead janitor John Doherety to the position of “lead public safety official” and granting him a $4,328 raise. Furthermore, The Boston School Committee and then Superintendent Fahy proposed a 250 member “safety committee”, to be staffed entirely by recommendations by the School Committee itself. In essence, the Boston School Committee was the principal lever for the labor aristocracy’s reproduction as a class not only for currently employable Irish-American workers, but also for pupils emerging as subjects of this institution.

As Irish-Americans were deeply embedded in manufacturing, construction, and municipal work, a tightly controlled school system which reinforced these employment objectives was necessary. The Boston School Committee, for example, intentionally expropriated funds from black neighborhoods and even overcrowded white schools in order to cement a “white coalition.” When the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 was passed, the Boston School Committee complied by adopting an “Open Admissions” programme which guaranteed voluntary busing. However, the Boston School Committee utilized the open admissions program to advance segregation within the Boston. White students utilized the open admissions programme nearly as much as black students in order to escape integrated school districts. Black students applying for transfer were often bussed miles past nearby white schools to attend predominantly black schools. In addition, the Boston School Committee spent $275.47 per student in predominantly white schools but only $238 per student in predominantly black schools.

The fury of Boston’s white labor aristocracy towards busing can now be understood. Quality education was not essentially the problem. South Boston High School was barely educational. The Boston School System actively reproduced the labor aristocracy as a class- a burgeoning nearly all-white teaching force, administrative staff, and patronage machine, intimately connected to the trades and overall city government.

Busing, in context

After World War II, the New England Textile Industry crashed and the Charlestown Navy Shipyard closed. Between 1950 and 1957, available employment in manufacturing only increased by 2,200 new positions. As Boston became a center for electronics production, out of state professionals migrated to Boston. The most significant expansion in employment came in trade, finance, professional and non-profit services. Between 1940 and 1950, professional and technical categories of employment experienced a 34.6 percent gain while the non-profit sector experienced a 55 percent gain.

Boston became an exclusively financial city. By the 1970s, Boston’s brahmin financial bourgeoisie managed more than 81 billion dollars. By 1972, Boston’s finance bourgeoisie managed 50 percent of the entirety of the mutual fund’s industry 58 billion dollars.

It is within this context of restructuring production where the NAACP’s interests, who struggled since the early 1960s to have de facto segregation recognized within the Boston School System, coincided with Boston’s brahmin elite. Indeed, in the early 1960s, the Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination ruled against the NAACP ‘s claims of Boston’s de-facto segregation.

In the early 1950s and 1960s, a select group of finance bourgeoisie called the “Vault” met to discuss the restructuring of production in Boston. The “Vault” consisted of Gerald Lakeley, head of the real estate firm Cabot; Lloyd Brace, Chairman of the First National Bank of Boston; Charles Coolidge, chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor John Collins and Boston developer Edward Logue. While Mayor John Collins proved to be more reliant on the Irish labor aristocracy as his power base, the “Vault” initiated a series of conferences at Boston College to discuss the state of the economy in Boston. These series of conferences, initiated by the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie but also including prominent Irish petit-bourgeoisie, released the Teele Analysis. The Teele Analysis stated that Boston was confronted with difficulties created by deep-seated racial, religious and political cleavages. More importantly, this new alliance of the Irish petit-bourgeoisie and the Yankee finance bourgeoisie worried that an ethnically defined public school system geared towards the reproduction of industrial, manufacturing, and municipal workers actually served to prevent the establishment of a “New Boston” powered by the revolution in communications and electronics. In particular, Boston city planners required a renewed tax base and needed to make public schools and residence palatable to an emerging professional class which continued to use Boston’s public services but reside in affluent suburbs like Brookline.

Restructuring created two agencies, The Boston Residential Authority and ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development), which, although intimately connected through shared appointments, enacted a public distance. The BRA was responsible for the demolition of the West End and the development of the abandoned Charlestown Navy Shipyards. ABCD was responsible for acquiring grants from the Ford Foundation for the restructuring of the Boston School System explicitly “as a business”, as long as at least partial desegregation was accomplished.

It is within this framework that the democratic demands of the masses of African-Americans for quality education and the finance bourgeoisie’s plan to restructure Boston intersected. The “Vault” and the finance bourgeoisie definitively established that Boston’s entrenched labor aristocracy represented the primary contradiction which arrested economic liberalization.

In the early 1960s, unemployment for the total population of Boston was 4.9%, for African Americans it was 7.9%. The median family income for the entirety of Boston was $5,747 while for non-white families the median family income stood at $4,235. It was within this context of limited advancement for African Americans that school desegregation became a pressing issue and, furthermore, during an economic downtown, the Irish labor aristocracy was insistent on monopolizing it’s enduring, but dwindling forms of employment.

A brief outline of the busing crisis

In 1963, the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and Citizens for Boston Schools released studies which determined that de facto segregation existed in the Boston Public School System. Children in predominantly black schools were performing at lower levels and furthermore cost statistics revealed that children in predominantly black schools received reduced funding. The NAACP advocated a one day school boycott to protest segregation in the Boston Public School System. Then Governor Endicott and Edward Brooke, State Attorney General, intervened and guaranteed the NAACP a meeting with the Boston School Committee. The NAACP demanded that the School Committee acknowledge publicly that “de facto” segregation existed. The School Committee refused to acknowledge “de facto” segregation, fearing that an acknowledgement would break federal laws on discrimination and result in the federal management of the School Committee. The NAACP proceeded with a one-day boycott on June 19, 1963, where one quarter of black students stayed out.

In 1965, the Racial Imbalance Act was passed which gave the state power to direct the school committee to come up with plans for desegregation, advocated two-way busing, but only on a voluntary basis. Between the fall of 1968 and the spring of 1971, parents or students organized boycotts and walk-outs at a number of public schools. It was further revealed that the School Committee was busing white students past black schools and rejected the busing of black students to white schools even in the case of overcrowding, in which case busing was previously permitted. It is within this context that Judge Garrity ruled in 1974 that Boston was both de facto and de jure segregated.

After 1974, the bourgeois legal system was in full command of de-segregation and encapsulated local authorities. The Boston School Committee intentionally submitted proposals which would not meet the desired quota to resolve racial imbalance and furthermore openly led violent demonstrations through the establishment of a mass organization called ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights.) The Boston School Committee made no preparations, logistically or otherwise, for the implementation of Phases I or II of busing. Judge Garrity  forced the Boston School Committee to hire one new black permanent teacher for each white permanent teacher hired, established Racial-Ethnic councils in every public school affected by busing with a bi-racial composition and placed South Boston High School into receivership because of violent incidents.

In South Boston, there were three white labor aristocracy groups primarily responsible for violent actions against black students and against black tenants at the Columbia Point Housing Projects: ROAR, the South Boston Information Center, and the South Boston Marshalls. ROAR was essentially the ‘legal’ public face of the anti-busing movement. The South Boston Information Center was an activist network which organized residents on a block by block basis and the South Boston Marshalls, with ties to the lumpen proletariat, acted as a paramilitary organization which enforced discipline not only against black students but also against white detractors that, while still fundamentally anti-busing, questioned the need for violence. Violent incidents which erupted across the Boston School System were usually connected to political directives emanating from the various splinters of the anti-busing movement. In general, the anti-busing movement was a highly centralized collection of organizations, staffed by cadre which overlapped with city government, engaging in both legal and illegal work.

The decline of the Irish labor aristocracy

During the busing crisis, moderate anti-busing parents in South Boston adopted two strategies. Many highly-skilled laborers or manufacturing workers quietly left the city for the suburbs.  According to Formisano (2004), “white flight could account for at least half of the total white loss from the schools during 1974 to 1980.” Others sent their children to parochial schools in the Boston area, even though Cardinal Medeiros issued directives to Catholic Schools not to accept students which would aggravate racial imbalance. However, “it is generally accepted now that substantial numbers of students avoided desegregation through enrolling in the Catholic school system.”

Today, South Boston Public School appears less segregated than 1960s and 1970s. As of 2000, there were 1689 white students and 1809 students enrolled in South Boston public schools. But, upon further inspection, there is still a logic of segregation at work in South Boston. 4,393 residents of South Boston are enrolled in either private or public schools offering K-12 programs. This means that close to 72% of school-age residents are white, but, only only 43% of whites are enrolled in public school at any level. As of 2000, there were only 54 non-white students enrolled in private school, meaning that 97% of non-white residents of South Boston attended public school. Black students in South Boston are disproportionately represented within South Boston High School given their numerical minority as residents.

According to the 2010 census, South Boston acquired 1,201 more white residents, however, these white residents were primarily professionals in the FIRE sector and not historically rooted in South Boston as an ethnic community. Low-income Black, Latino, and Asian migration to South Boston exploded in the last decade as the South Boston housing projects continue to be desegregated. South Boston is a neighborhood that, while still majority ethnic Irish residents, is highly divisible. There is a hegemonic white ethnic enclave that prefers to send their students to private school and therefore lacks the ability to reproduce ethnic identity, community control and levels of patronage which pervaded the community in the 1970s.


There is an extensive history to the Irish labor aristocracy in Boston, their class consciousness, modes of reproduction and political struggles. Yet, the Boston Busing Crisis serves as a fulcrum of contradictions emerging in Boston. The restructuring of the economy along “post-Fordist” criteria necessitated the liquidation of the Irish labor aristocracy politically rather than economically, which was partially accomplished already through the post-war downtown. Surely, desegregation through busing can be seen, in some respect, as a failure. Boston’s schools continue to be segregated. Judge Garrity made a number of compromises with the Democratic Party “patronage machine” in limiting desegregation to South Boston, Charlestown and Hyde Park while leaving East Boston untouched. Similarly, the “Master’s Plan” compromise vacillated on reciprocal busing of white students and left private schools untouched. However, the primary goal of desegregation for the financial bourgeoisie was not formal bourgeois democratic rights for African-Americans in Boston Public School System, although that was accomplished as a secondary task within the multiclass coalition, but the political liquidation of the labor aristocracy in Boston.


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