Power And Culture Essays On The American Working Class

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date: 13 March 2018

American Labor and Working-Class History, 1900–1945

Summary and Keywords

Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.

Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.

The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.

Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.

Keywords: labor and working-class history, labor movement, trade unions, class, Progressive Era, World War I, World War II, radicalism, capitalism, race and ethnic relations, legal history, political history, New Deal

Workers and the Rise of Corporate America

American trade unionists entered the 20th century battered by a series of savage defeats which, by 1896, brought the end of an era when millions of Americans had joined mass movements seeking alternatives to corporate-dominated, wage-labor capitalism. Labor reformers’ post-Civil War dream of emancipating American laborers from the wage system and their hopes for the creation of a producers’ republic based on principles of cooperation and commonwealth had been shattered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. The wind had been stolen from the spirit of unionism in the all-important steel industry at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead mill in 1892, and from industrial unionism on the nation’s rail lines in the defeat of the 1894 Pullman strike and boycott. Finally, the Republican Party’s defeat of the Populist-Democrat fusion in the presidential campaign in 1896 ensured that the vast majority of wage workers and farmers would not have the support of their own national political party.

Ascendant corporate leaders had been emboldened and empowered by much of the public’s revulsion against the labor-related violence of the late 19th century. The forces of “law and order” at the local, state, and federal levels came to the aid of business in strikes and lockouts during the “Age of Industrial Conflict.” Business also won the crucial legal conflict over the definition of “freedom” in the workplace and in employment markets. Court injunctions against labor activity were ubiquitous in the wake of the 1894 Pullman boycott, and case law privileged employers’ prerogatives at all turns. In the eyes of the law, Americans generally—with the exception of married white women—had a responsibility to work, but their sole right at work was the right to quit. Furthermore, legislators paid less attention to workers’ welfare than they did to subsidizing the growth of American industry or sustaining their own political power, all too often lining their pockets with the graft that ran rampant in that period of fantastic growth. Lawmakers had taken the first steps toward regulating trusts and moderating the worst forms of corruption, but those efforts were generally weak, and the nation’s courts ensured that employers’ power in the workplace would be virtually unchecked.

Great changes were taking place, yet Americans generally believed that even more change was needed if the republic were to survive and thrive in the industrial era. In the workplace as much as in surrounding communities, Americans feared the implications of this new era of global economic expansion. Political and ideological violence may have been rare, but when violence broke out, it both stigmatized and divided labor groups, even as it brought swift reactions from local police, private detective firms, and state and federal officials.1 More broadly, a general fear of the revolutionary changes taking shape in everyday life inspired both a broad-based progressive reform impulse, shared by many American workers, and a renewed American radicalism, as well as the forces of reactionary repression and business conservatism that sought to stamp out what many saw as the real possibility of mob action and socialist insurgency.

The labor violence and economic upheavals of the late 19th century had been horrific enough to convince many powerful Americans that reform was necessary. In 1898, Republican president William McKinley, who would be assassinated in 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, appointed the United States Industrial Commission to study the causes of labor violence. At the same time, a broad group of largely middle-class and elite Americans, soon to be known as Progressives, set out to document and then ameliorate the worst forms of corruption in the economy and politics, and to soften the edges of the new industrial system by making workplaces, consumer products, and neighborhoods safer and healthier. There was no single Progressive Era social movement; rather, reformers sought everything from antitrust legislation, shorter working hours, and safer workplaces to bans on child labor, protective legislation for female workers, and reforms that would clean up manufacturing and the political process.

These top-down reform efforts—efforts that emphasized the need for greater efficiency and order in the economy and at the workplace—would be deeply ambiguous for workers. But they reflected an important move away from the commitments to Social Darwinism and laissez-faire principles that had defined the Gilded Age. Progressive reform itself could become a form of social control. Workers were subjected to intense moral campaigns, the Americanization efforts of both well-intentioned settlement house workers and less salutary anti-immigrant vigilantes, and the institution of “scientific management” regimes fostered by Frederick Winslow Taylor, Elton Mayo, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. One reformer’s vision of order and efficiency often became a reality of social control for workers.

For most workers, the greatest fears derived from the accelerating changes at the workplace that were well underway by the turn of the century. The mechanization of industry and employers’ drive for efficiency had long been forcing workers to do more specialized task work and robbing them of the control over their work many had enjoyed in systems of craft production. There were benefits as production skyrocketed across the economy. Whereas the pick miner in a coal shaft produced 2.5 tons per day on average, the fully mechanized open pit mines of the 1930s produced 16.2 tons per worker per day. In 1919, Henry Ford’s assembly line produced four times the output per worker per hour than the industry had produced in 1910. Simultaneously, the kinds of occupations Americans held and their experiences at work changed dramatically, not always for the worse. Gangs of day laborers were transformed into legions of semiskilled workers running transportation and equipment handling machines. Skilled, independent workers in iron and steel production became semiskilled machinists and repair technicians. These mechanized factories also required the development of a whole new set of tool-and-die makers. Overall, there was an upward leveling effect of mechanization. Between 1910 and 1930, the proportion of unskilled workers in industrial work fell from 36 to 30.5 percent, the semiskilled rose from 36 to 39 percent, and the skilled increased from 28 to 30.5 percent.2 Not everyone benefited, of course. Black men, when they were not stuck in sharecropping or tenant farming, were generally relegated to the hot, heavy, hard jobs, and most black women were forced to accept the long hours and lack of independence in domestic service.

The 20th century also saw what one historian has described as the “degradation of work.”3 The dream of the United States as an independent producers republic, which had inspired Americans from Thomas Jefferson to the Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s, had long been dead. As early as 1877, two-thirds of American workers were wage laborers, with little hope of opening their own shops or owning their own farms. By 1940, no more than one-fifth of the population of the United States were self-employed.4 Wage labor—underpaid, demanding long hours, and subjecting workers to dangerous conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century)—had become a permanent condition.5 Not only were the benefits of the wage economy unequally distributed, but the very nature of work became both more demanding and less satisfying. A profound contradiction emerged that arguably continues to shape workers’ lives in the 21st century: “The scientific-technical revolution and ‘automation’ requires ever higher levels of education, training, the greater exercise of intelligence and mental effort in general,” which is accompanied by “a mounting dissatisfaction with the conditions of industrial and office labor.”6

Despite their shared circumstances and some success in building a diverse labor movement in the early part of the century, American workers entered World War I perhaps more divided among themselves than at any other point in the nation’s history. Nativism was on the rise, and workers were divided by skill, craft, race, gender, and region. Industrial employers took advantage of workers’ fears and their internal divisions. On one hand, some corporate leaders developed systems of “welfare capitalism,” voluntarily providing marginal benefits to workers in order to stifle their dissatisfaction at work. On the other hand, business leaders and their allies in politics and the press played workers of different backgrounds against one another in order to undercut the possibility of shared militancy. It would be difficult, even for the most privileged workers, to fight for a place in the system.

Fighting for a Place in the System

With a significant economic recovery underway in 1897, American labor leaders began a new organizing push, primarily through the American Federation of Labor (AFL), railroad brotherhoods, and various unaffiliated unions. These organizations largely excluded racial minorities and women, and this model of organizing sought to come to terms with, rather than to transform, corporate dominance of the industrial economy. Nonetheless, the leaders of these unions and their largely white, male rank and file won critical victories and increased the AFL’s membership from 264,000 in 1897 to 1.6 million by 1904. Moreover, as the historian Julie Greene has shown, it is easy to overstate the apolitical character of the AFL’s “pure and simple unionism.” In addition to “bread-and-butter” contractual issues, the Federation actively pursued political influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is true, however, that the AFL assumed that trade unionists would speak for all American workers in the political sphere.7

The AFL sustained the power of craft workers in the construction and transportation trades, while also beginning to win benefits for some more skilled industrial workers. The railroad brotherhoods exerted significant, if informal, political influence through allies like Theodore Roosevelt in the Republican Party.8 Even mineworkers—who had a reputation as the most violent and militant of unionists, and who had, indeed, fought many labor wars—had gained enough leverage to cause President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate between the workers and the mine owners in a bitter 1902 anthracite coal strike.

Many, though hardly all, employers had initially accepted the rise of the AFL, even going as far as voluntarily recognizing unions and forming the National Civic Federation, a coalition of labor and business leaders seeking cooperation in the economy. By 1904, however, employers had grown frustrated with the demands of union contracts and workers’ increased militancy, and they began to hit back. They increased the use of “yellow dog contracts” to force workers to sign agreements that promised they would not join a union. Employers divided workers by national origin and regularly employed strikebreaking replacement workers. The National Association of Manufacturers embarked on a concerted “open shop” drive; the forerunner of today’s “right-to-work” laws, these were campaigns by employers and their political allies to ensure that workers in a unionized shop did not have to belong to the union. This protection of workers’ right to contract as individuals amounted to a thinly veiled attempt to undermine all organized labor, as unions could not afford to represent workers who were “free riders” on the backs of their union member coworkers. In 1913, the open-shop drive climaxed in an actual labor war in the Colorado coal fields, as the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company pushed for ever greater production and at one point destroyed a workers’ camp in Ludlow, Colorado, killing eleven children and two women in the attack (see Figure 1).9

As a result of such attacks on organized labor, membership in unions actually dropped in 1905 and remained stagnant for the next five years. Yet the booming economy before and during World War I increased labor’s power: the AFL’s membership increased by approximately 800,000 between 1910 and 1917, and organized labor as a whole grew to 4 million by 1920.10 The membership also became increasingly diverse in terms of skill level and occupations. These were important gains for workers, but they remained limited in no small part by the failure of the AFL to imagine an alliance with the vast majority of unorganized workers.

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Figure 1. “Slain Miner and One of His Fighting Comrades.”

Photo by Bain News Service, Forbes Camp, Ludlow, Colorado, May 3, 1914. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3034-14), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-15854.

Radical Alternatives in the Progressive Era

Workers frustrated with the exclusionary practices and political moderation of the AFL could turn to an embattled world of labor radicalism which was going through something of a renaissance after the defeats of the 1880s and 1890s. American radicals—led by the socialist Eugene V. Debs and an eclectic band of militants that included Mother Jones (Figure 2), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Big Bill” Haywood, and Lucy Parsons, among others—pushed for more radical and immediate change through the Socialist Party, insurgent industrial unions in mining and textiles, and through the Industrial Workers of the World.

Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party of America (SP) quickly emerged as a powerful political force. Within a decade the SP had built more than three thousand local branches and forty-two state organizations. Dozens of candidates affiliated with the new party won municipal and county elections on town squares stretching from Texas through Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the party’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, won 897,000 votes in his run for the presidency in 1912 and more than a million votes for president in 1920, while he was in prison after being convicted of sedition during World War I.

In the 1910s, garment workers in New York City and Chicago organized unions in the industry for which the term “sweatshop” was coined. Although workers suffered oppressive conditions in sweatshops, they were isolated from the rest of the workforce, and they could not take action directly against the manufacturers. But as manufacturers moved production to larger factories in order to produce standardized clothing and to distance themselves from the increasingly negative reputation of sweatshops—spread by Progressive reformers—the larger shops also brought unskilled workers out of their relative isolation. Working conditions did not necessarily improve in larger shops, but opportunities to build worker solidarity presented themselves. Employers attempted to maintain divisions among workers, separating them by ethnicity and gender, and by offering “bonus pay” to the most productive workers.

After years of suffering, garment workers organizing came in quick surges: the “Uprising” of 20,000 in New York City in 1909, another strike of 60,000 workers in New York City in 1910, a 1910–1911 strike of 40,000 workers in Chicago, and the movement for unionization and reform after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in March 1911 (Figure 3). Together these actions reinvigorated the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and created the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. In one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. labor history, the young immigrant garment worker Clara Lemlich took the stage from AFL leader Samuel Gompers, who had refused to call a strike. Speaking in Yiddish, she called her fellow garment workers to action. Within two days, approximately 20,000 workers from 500 factories were on strike. By the 1920s, the tens of thousands of members of the ACWA and the ILGWU had won the closed shop, higher wages, shorter working hours, and better working conditions. These events also revealed the politicization of immigrant women in the industry and showed that immigrant workers could be organized, contrary to much AFL commentary. Along with the United Mineworkers, the garment workers forged a new model of unionism, demonstrating that a pragmatic industrial unionism could succeed as well as the more hidebound craft unionism of the AFL. In this, the new unions were important exceptions to the rule of non-socialist craft organizing of the era.11

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) created another key, if short-lived, bastion of American labor radicalism. Founded in Chicago in 1904, the IWW took inspiration from a group from the Western Federation of Miners who had been radicalized during a series of violent strikes in Idaho, Montana, and Colorado. Rallying around their shared distaste for the AFL’s conservatism and exclusionary practices, the IWW sought to create “One Big Union” of all workers regardless of skill level, race, ethnicity, or gender. Emphasizing the necessity of direct action and workers’ control of the workplace, they called for an end of the wage system and workers’ ownership of the means of production. The “Wobblies,” as the members came to be known, tapped into and inflamed the radical spirit of many of the most marginalized workers. The IWW thus backed its demands for the fulfillment of workers’ needs, the bread of daily life, with the threat of a radical sensibility at least rhetorically committed to revolution. (see Figure 4).

The preamble to the IWW’s 1908 constitution declared, “A struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”12 The IWW’s revolutionary vision inspired many miners, loggers, and migrant agricultural workers in the West, as well as unorganized industrial workers in the East. Together, they built a lively workers’ culture with hundreds of songs collected in the Little Red Songbook. IWW membership peaked at 600,000 in 1916, riding a wave of important victories and broader socialist sentiment. Most famously, in the 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts, IWW leaders joined with local workers to strike against wage cuts and many years of low wages, long hours, dangerous working conditions, and terrible living conditions in the communities surrounding the factory. The IWW sustained a thread of American radicalism that otherwise might have been lost. The Wobblies’ radical critique of capitalism, their at least rhetorical support for direct action tactics such as sabotage, and their unswerving commitment to interracial organizing among all men and women carried these principles on through the relatively conservative first three decades of the century. The IWW also sustained the idea of industrial unionism, which was a minority strain the AFL’s organizing efforts, emphasizing that workers ought to be organized across all skill levels in a given industry.

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Figure 2. “‘Mother’ Jones and Her Army of Striking Textile Workers.” Peirce & Jones for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, Philadelphia, PA, 1903.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, digital ID: LC-DIG-ds-07713.

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Figure 3. “Photograph of Police Officers, Civilians and Victims on the Sidewalk during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” March 25, 1911.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Photographs, 1870–2004, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (#6040083).

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Figure 4. “I.W.W. Hat Card.” Bain News Service, New York, NY, April 11, 1914.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3017-30), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-15713.

Obstacles to Organizing in the Progressive Era

During the Progressive Era, the American Federation of Labor claimed to speak for all American workers. Still, with few exceptions, the AFL consisted largely of skilled, white, male workers, and focused its strikes, lawsuits, and limited political activity on maintaining those workers’ craft privileges.13 Its leaders also discouraged any organizing efforts not under the banner of the AFL, treating them as “dual unions,” or as enemies seeking to undermine the AFL. Furthermore, the federation’s leaders refused to engage in the broad political work that would have allowed them to challenge the anti-labor decisions of the courts or the narrowness of Progressive Era reforms.14 Such a closed, jealous, and litigious world of labor was hardly a beacon for the growing ranks of new immigrant and American migrant workers entering the deskilled factories of the North.

The limits of the Socialist Party’s gains also became clear soon enough. In the electoral arena, the SP never managed to reach the status of a viable third national party. The SP may have maintained a significant base of voters—as shown in Debs’s 1 million votes in the 1920 presidential election—but their efforts ran headlong into the anti-radical repression during and after World War I and the deeply conservative Republican ascendancy of the 1920s. Moreover, to the extent that Socialist politicians, such as Victor Berger and his allies in Milwaukee, made gains toward practical reform, they also distanced themselves from the more radical class politics of much of the American left. The Socialist leader Morris Hillquit denounced Berger and his allies as “sewer socialists”—sticking them for constantly bragging about how good Milwaukee’s sewer system was, even as they had failed to push forward the larger class struggle. Similarly, when socialist trade unionists rose to the leadership ranks in AFL unions, their pragmatism emerged. “Time and time again,” concludes the historian David Brody, “once they had acceded to office, Socialists began to act—if they did not always talk—like any other trade unionists.”15 Accommodation to established centers of power, however justifiable it may have been for Socialist activists in particular political contexts, added to the effects of internal divisions and repression of the left in limiting the SP’s radical challenge to American political and economic systems.

The IWW—in part because the Wobblies had some success, and in part because they sustained an unflagging rhetorical radicalism—also became the target of government and vigilante repression. Wobbly activists leading “free speech campaigns” faced club-wielding police officers and were whipped and even tarred and feathered by vigilantes throughout the West. During World War I, 1,200 miners suspected of being aligned with the IWW in Bisbee, Arizona, were rounded up, forced onto a freight train at gunpoint, and abandoned in the desert without food or water for a day and half before a nearby military commander arranged for their extradition to New Mexico. At the same time, the federal government raided IWW offices across the country and convicted hundreds of Wobblies for antiwar speech. In the end, the IWW became one of the driving forces behind the rise of the American Civil Liberties Union and the push for protections of free speech during and after World War I, but the Wobblies could not save themselves from this repression. By the end of the war, with many of its leaders imprisoned, deported, or having fled the country, the IWW was unable to sustain itself as an institution.

Still more obstacles stood in the way of mass labor organizing in the first decades of the 20th century. Chief among them were the racial and ethnic divisions that ran through the shop floors of American industry. Historians have examined in great detail the intraclass racism that blocked white workers from acting in ways that would have been truly class-conscious. Between the late 19th century and World War I, tens of thousands of black workers gained access to unions, some all-black but some biracial in organization. Yet unions often acted as agents of division; some included racial exclusion clauses in their constitutions, while others gave lip service to solidarity while declaring that, in practice, black workers would undercut the wages and opportunities of white workers. For their part, recent black migrants from the South, the majority of black workers in the factories, alternately feared or despised the “white man’s union.”16

White workers and union leaders used episodes of black strikebreaking as evidence that black workers were inevitably the opponents of labor progress. Whites’ descriptions of black workers represented a powerful, if contradictory, mix of racist notions of black inferiority and fear of black physical superiority. Black workers, they feared, could outwork white workers, and black workers would do it on the cheap. In 1901, the AFL defended itself against accusations of racism, arguing that “the antipathy … some union workers have against the colored man is not because of his color, but because of the fact that generally he is a ‘cheap man.’”17 But by 1905, the division between white and black workers had become so pronounced that AFL chief Samuel Gompers (Figure 5) declared, “If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred worse than any ever known before will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any such way.”18 Not surprisingly, black leaders felt differently. The black political leader Ida B. Wells praised strikebreakers as “men who proved their value by risking their lives to obtain work,” and she endorsed “the constitutional right of all men to earn a living and to protect themselves in the exercise of that right.”19

Workers and labor reformers also struggled to organize during one the most conservative eras in United States judicial history. In its 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York (198 U.S. 45), the United States Supreme Court overruled a New York law limiting hours for bakery employees. Rather than being necessary to protect the welfare of the workers, the court found that such hours legislation amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to regulate business, and “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract.” With this reading of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, the Court would go on in subsequent years to constrain workers’ rights and legislative efforts to reform the industrial system. In 1908, for instance, the Court upheld what were known as “ironclad” or “yellow dog” contracts, which forced individual workers to sign an agreement not to join a union in order to secure a job. Also in 1908, the Court found that labor boycotts of employers had been banned by the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In fact, there were more antitrust actions brought against union activities than business combinations until the Clayton Act of 1914 attempted to exclude union activity from the regulation of commerce, declaring that “the labor of human beings is not a commodity.” In 1911, the Court banned consumer boycotts, and in this period it also upheld blacklisting of union organizers, the constitutionality of company towns, and employers’ use of civil lawsuits to resist interference in their businesses. Even when the Court did support the constitutionality of reform measures, as in the 1908 Muller v. Oregon (208 U.S. 412) case allowing for limiting the number of hours women could work, the judges did so by appealing to the notion that women were the weaker sex and had special responsibilities in the home. The justices found support in the “widespread belief that woman’s physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil.”

The Supreme Court’s antagonism to any limits on the individual’s “liberty of contract” ran counter to legislators’ gradual rewriting of state and federal law. The U.S. Congress regulated child labor in 1919 and instituted a system of workers’ compensation in 1916, while twenty-five states passed workers’ compensation laws between 1911 and 1921. State and federal officials also formally began investigating workers’ safety, especially after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City in 1911 created widespread outrage against the factory owners’ willful refusal to protect their workers from dangerous conditions. The 1926 Railway Labor Act required railway industry employers to engage in collective bargaining and banned discrimination against unions in the railway industry (this was expanded to airlines in 1936). The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act required construction contracts with the federal government to specify a minimum or “prevailing” wage for workers under that contract. The 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act for the first time provided protection for workers’ rights to organize, banned yellow dog contracts, and outlawed the use of court injunctions in nonviolent labor disputes. By 1932, then, in the face of much judicial resistance, legislators had responded to growing public alarm by initiating a revolution in labor law that would come to fruition when the Supreme Court upheld the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

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Figure 5. “Samuel Gompers—Federal Commission on Industrial Relations, New York, New York,” 1915.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3361-1).

World War I and the Hope for Industrial Democracy

World War I provided an unprecedented opening for unions to make gains and for workers who had traditionally been excluded from industrial work to enter the nation’s factories. The federal government spurred a national mobilization of the workforce and economic resources, while coordinating industrial planning. Although the government went so far as to take over the railroads, the federal intervention in the economy hardly represented wartime socialism. Instead, the government relied on industry leaders who acted as “dollar-a-year” men, voluntarily aiding in the planning of the wartime economy, and it ensured profits for industry with cost-plus contracts. In essence, the federal government forged a larger role in managing the economy with the primary goal of efficient war-related production. This managed economy also facilitated the private accumulation of capital for employers and benefited masses of workers.

Why was this a boon for unions and workers? In the first place, the wartime economy required labor peace. Therefore, the federal government facilitated the formation and growth of unions. At the same time, the wartime economic boom required many new workers. With the end of European immigration and the draft of white men into the military, women and African Americans found new opportunities. The long-term consequences of the war differed sharply for women and men. Women’s industrial experiences proved to be a largely temporary phenomenon. The war did help to provide the necessary impetus to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. But the war did not lead to major changes in gender roles; gender lines in the workforce reemerged after the war, and the popular image of the liberated “flapper” in the Roaring Twenties remained a decidedly minority experience.

For African Americans, the war sparked a major demographic, economic, and political transition. Between 1915 and 1918, nearly 500,000 African Americans migrated from the South to northern cities, with another 700,000 following in their wake during the 1920s. The Great Migration, as this movement of black southerners to industrial cities has been called, began a process that not only transformed the lives of the migrants but also fundamentally changed the populations and politics of major American cities.20 World War I-era migrants built modern black urban communities in places like New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, and Detroit’s Black Bottom. Out of these communities would grow civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black nationalist organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the first major black labor radicals and trade unions. In the 1920s, Harlem was especially fertile ground for black working-class politics. As African American artists and writers created the Harlem Renaissance, black socialists and communists spoke on soapboxes on New York City’s streetcorners and helped popularize a black class politics. Building on the longstanding activism of Hubert Harrison and others, people like A. Philip Randolph who got their start in the 1910s would help build a nationally powerful, labor-based civil rights movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Business Decade

World War I seemed to offer an opportunity for workers to improve their position in the economy. Workers, in fact, gained a great deal in real wages and political power during the brief period of nearly full employment during the war. Yet unions’ efforts to institutionalize their place in an “industrial democracy” were roundly defeated in a series of strikes between 1919 and 1921. In 1919, alone, more than 4 million workers—approximately one-fifth of the workforce—went on strike. A general strike of 60,000 in Seattle, Washington, a strike by nearly the entire police force in Boston, Massachusetts, and a national steel strike of 350,000 workers in Pittsburgh and beyond (Figure 6) are representative of the broad scope of the strikes by workers fearful that they would lose what they had won during the war and facing the prospect of a severe postwar recession. In each case, the workers lost, and they ended up more divided than before, and more desperate for jobs at virtually any wage. Moreover, the entrenched economic conservatism of the federal government and popular culture not only marginalized labor unions but also celebrated the spirit of innovation, speculation, and acquisitive individualism of the “business decade.”

The benefits of the business decade were deeply unequal. To many Americans, the 1920s seemed to promise the unending expansion of the American economy. Consumer goods proliferated. The number of telephones doubled, by 1930 about half of Americans had indoor toilets, and Henry Ford refined assembly line production, allowing many working families to own a car. Yet the expansion of the consumer economy depended on an equal expansion of the consumer credit economy; Americans bought their radios and other modern wonders on installment plans. Moreover, even with the greater availability of credit, full participation in the consumer economy remained a dream for most. As the economic historian W. Elliot Brownlee notes, “Only one family in six owned an automobile, only one family in five owned a fixed bathtub or had electricity in its home, and only one family in ten had a telephone.”21 As importantly, while the automobile and other manufacturing industries boomed, core American economic sectors lagged far behind. Workers in these “sick industries,” including agriculture, mining, and New England textiles, were facing depression conditions well before the stock market crash in 1929.

Unions declined sharply in the 1920s under pressure from a conservative attack. Employers promoted an “American Plan” that celebrated the democracy of the open shop and that associated organized labor with un-American economic systems. Companies also promoted “welfare capitalism,” providing workers with benefits such as home loans, group insurance policies, stock options, and regular sponsorship of sports teams all in the name of reducing costly labor turnover and improving industrial harmony. Perhaps most importantly, some four hundred firms created Employee Representation Plans, or company unions, which sought to promote worker allegiance to the company and to provide a kind of pressure release for workers thinking about organizing in their own interests. Welfare capitalists sought to prevent unions from ever rising again, and for a time they succeeded. The number of strikes receded dramatically, and union membership declined. The success of unregulated markets and welfare capitalism, however, was short-lived, and the mass unemployment, poverty, and insecurity of the 1930s would help spark the greatest surge in union members in U.S. history.

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Figure 6. “Pittsburgh Strike [1919 Strikers Demonstrating in Car].”

Photo by Bain News Service, 1919. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-5005-13), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-29279.

The Crash and Its Immediate Aftermath

On October 24, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” traders on the New York Stock Exchange shed 16.4 million shares of stock, causing a drastic decline in the overall value of stocks. From a high of 381 on September 3, 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ultimately fell to a low of 41.22 on July 8, 1932. Approximately five thousand banks failed between 1929 and 1933. Industrial production declined by over half between the crash and the middle of 1932. By that year, unemployment soared to between one-quarter and one-third of the total labor force. Things were not much better for those who managed to hold onto employment: wages fell 50 to 75 percent in the early years of the Great Depression. Economic sectors that had been struggling in the 1920s saw conditions only worsen; farm income declined by 60 percent, and one-third of famers lost their land in the 1930s. The industries that had driven the prosperity of the 1920s were now failing; by 1932, the automobile industry was producing at only 20 percent of its capacity. The stock market crash laid bare the underlying weaknesses in the U.S. economy and created mass unemployment, poverty, and insecurity.

President Herbert H. Hoover responded to the crash much more energetically than previous presidents had in similar crises, but his efforts were too limited to meet the depth of this one, in part because he remained steadfastly committed to voluntaristic, optimistic, Progressive-style interventions. Hoover moved to shore up public confidence while also supporting business leaders’ efforts to protect their financial interests. As Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon advised his fellow capitalists to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” Hoover assured the nation that the “fundamental business of the country was sound,” and asked for voluntary cooperation from corporate managers to maintain employment and wages. As realization of the deepening crisis dawned on him, Hoover also increased federal funds for public works, moved to cut taxes, and requested private agencies, as well as state and local governments, to provide relief to the approximately 7 million unemployed by 1931. Arguing that direct unemployment relief was a “dangerous” suggestion, Hoover instead created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which provided loans to businesses and banks in the hope that greater corporate stability would strengthen the economy.

President Hoover’s limited, top-down response to the crisis aggravated widespread anxieties and led to a new level of popular unrest. Destitute Americans living in shantytowns (Figure 7), popularly known as “Hoovervilles,” clearly blamed the president for their condition. Thousands of Americans joined in organizing for relief from the federal government. In unemployed organizations, spearheaded by socialist and communist organizers, Americans demanded monetary relief and reinstalled tenants in their apartments when they were evicted. The most important protests and strikes of the 1930s were still years away, but the unemployed organizing of the early 1930s played an important role in increasing popular militancy.

In 1932, a group of 22,000 World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C., to demand that the U.S. Congress pay them the bonuses they had been promised for their service in the war. For weeks thousands of veterans camped on Anacostia Flats, within sight of the Capitol, while President Hoover and Congress refused to pay the bonuses. Finally, the president sent the U.S. Army to break up the “Bonus Army” camps. Generals Douglas McArthur, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower led the operation. Photographs and newsreels showed tanks rolling through the streets of the nation’s capital, and current U.S. soldiers setting fire to tents occupied by the heroes of World War I, and they contributed to Hoover’s loss of public support as the 1932 election neared.

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Figure 7. “William A. Swift, Once a Farmer, Now a Resident of Circleville’s ‘Hooverville.’ When he Returned from the War He Went West. “Made awful good money jobbin’ around.’”

Photo by Ben Shahn for the Farm Security Administration, 1938. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-USF3301-006408-M5), digital ID: LC-DIG-fsa-15603.

Workers and the Changing State during the New Deal

By 1932, Herbert Hoover had become by all accounts the most unpopular person in the United States. In contrast, New York’s governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought his optimistic paternalism to the national public, projecting confidence and campaigning on the promise that he would bring “Happy Days Again.” As governor, Roosevelt had experimented with unemployment relief and public works programs that became popular among New Yorkers. Yet he came to the presidency with no immediate or comprehensive solution to the nation’s economic troubles. Instead, the New Deal represented a series of experiments which, though they did not pull the nation out of the depression (only economic mobilization for World War II would do that), still dramatically transformed the American economy by creating a new welfare state, strengthening unions, and affirming the economic importance of government action as a source of both spending and business regulation.

The Georgia Historical Quarterly


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Coverage: 1917-2013 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 97, No. 4)

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ISSN: 00168297

EISSN: 2169852X

Subjects: History, American Studies, History, Area Studies

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