The politics of laborers have made them a vital and vibrant part of American history. One has only to study the underlying political causes of the first labor movements to understand why. Few will doubt that one of the most important parts of labor history occurred with the working-class experience in Chicago from the 1920s to the late 30s. During this era, many workers petitioned the government and employers for changes. Some groups of those workers were successful and others were not. Lizabeth Cohen, in Making a New Deal, takes a different approach from traditional labor historians. She examines the effects that ethnic workers had on the successes and failures of the earliest labor movements.
Though striking workers were not endemic to Chicago, labor historians who begin their research in that city will be getting one national story (Cohen, 7). There are several reasons why Chicago is a logical beginning. In many ways, the nascent laborers of Chicago set the groundwork for the numerous benefits contemporary workers have. Earlier labor movements, like so much other history, were centered in Chicago (Cohen, 7). It just so happens that extraordinary political changes in labor took place during the interwar period, and Chicago was the largest industrial city in America then (Cohen, 7). Because Chicago was replete with ethnicity, it is also possible to conduct comparative labor studies. Finally, other than New York, no city had as many strikes as Chicago (Cohen, 12).
By 1919, America had its first major strike in which four million peopleor one in every fiveAmericans participated (Cohen, 12). These workers sought to protect their jobs and to solidify their wartime wages. One tool for doing so, of course, was the strike. Another was organizing a political party. Although local, futile, and ephemeral, a new political party was formed with the sole purpose of incorporating change into the common laborers working environment. Its candidates had no success in local elections; the party foundered. In fact, the 1919 strike was deemed a failure on the whole (Cohen, 13). Reasons for the failure abound, such as the Red Scare tactics of government, employer combativeness, and the AFLs ambivalence about organizing non-craft workers into unions (Cohen, 13). In Chicago, there was one other significant reason why the labor movements throughout the 1920s failed. Chicago was inundated with ethnic workers who were not unified. Despite their failure, the ethnic workers of that time became the precursor for great advances in labor. Knowing that, it is even more interesting to read about the affects of ethnicity on the earlier labor movements.
Chicago industry consisted heavily of steel towns and packing towns. Immigrants lived in those towns, but there were also immigrant neighborhoods where they worked in garment factories and did other light industry (Cohen, 17). The steel towns, packing towns, and immigrant neighborhoods were geographically and culturally insular (Cohen, 21). Technically, their isolation from one another was why the first striking workers of Chicago failed, but to sum that abortive labor movement in one sentence would do injustice to labor history.
The Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) began to nationally organize the steel mills in 1918 (Cohen, 39). With assistance from the American Federation of Labor, the CFL formed the National Committee for the Organization of Iron and Steel Workers, which combined twenty-four steel unions. The new organization could not raise enough funds, had poor organizers, and neglected to incorporate leaders who spoke foreign languages (Cohen, 39). Labor leaders not attempting to bond ethnic workers early on was a mistake. Employers knew well beforehand that ethnic workers were more likely to become intransigent than non-ethnic workers who worked under the same miasmal conditions (Cohen, 40). Some employers even hired detectives to create animosity among their ethnic employees (Cohen, 41).
Employers also used racial prejudice as a weapon against employees who were contemplating a strike. Blacks comprised ten to twelve percent of the steel workers in Chicago before the first major strike, yet blacks roles in the earlier unions were limited (Cohen, 42). Most of them lived too far away from the union meeting halls to attend. Still, white union leaders made no good faith efforts to include them. The result was that after the 1919 steel strike began, employers had no difficulty hiring 40,000 blacks nationwide and 8,000 in Chicago as strike breakers (Cohen, 42). The strike collapsed first in Chicago. Soon after, it failed nationally as well.
Whereas the steel strikers failed in only a few months, the packing strikers held out a few years. Packers were still unsuccessful and for many of the same reasons that caused the steel strike to collapse (Cohen, 43). One dissimilarity, though, was in the labor experience of blacks. Packers had learned from previous strikes that they needed black support to make their unions successful (Cohen, 45).
That unions needed an united ethnic front could not be proven more convincingly than when workers in the garment industry succeeded with its unionization in 1919. Jews were well-organized and held many of the union leadership roles throughout the needle industry of Chicago (Cohen, 47). The Jews openly courted Poles, Italians, and blacks with literature that was published in foreign languages where necessary and encouraged them to take officer positions (Cohen, 48). Consequently, clothing workers gained shorter hours, increased wages, and an established arrangement for reviewing complaints of all laborers within the industry (Cohen, 48). The strikers in the clothing industry did not have to battle with such large national foes as did the steel and packing industries, but ethnic unity was still necessary for their success. Laborers needed better unity, because in the late 1920s and early 30s, they were dealing with President Hoover and a federal government who were strong advocates of big business (Bernstein, 265). The government could frequently be seen issuing sanctions against picketing, rejecting requests for union marches, coercing immigrant strikers with deportation threats, and ending demonstrations with police force (Cohen, 51).
Most unions by 1920 accepted that they had to increase ethnic cohesion among their organizations. Ethnics had an incredible bond with one another, and the bond was not created just because of people naturally wanting to be with similar people. In 1920, ethnic organizations began to offer charitable benefits to further increase ethnic solidarity (Cohen, 60). Ethnic associations were made stronger when they began offering life insurance. People still clung to mutual benefit societies and fraternal associations despite greater ease of getting life insurance from their employer (Cohen, 70, plate 8). Job stability was scarce in the 1920s, so when a person lost employment, he also soon lost his insurance. Ethnic benefit associations, therefore, offered stability.
Banks were not blinded by race or ethnicity issues. World War I caused ethnics to rely heavily on banks. Ethnics during this time bought war bonds and used banks to transfer money to relatives in other countries (Cohen, 76). The commercial banks had great success with ethnic workers, so the ethnic business community began pursuing ethnic customers. It was not long before immigrants could go into banks that had tellers who spoke their native language (Cohen, 81). The business community was augmenting ethnic solidarity. Businesses were so successful that when one Jewish bank almost closed due to capital shortage, local Jews joined forces in order to keep the bank operational (Cohen, 82).
By the mid-1920s, consumerism spread across America with a slightly homogeneous culture. Even though unemployment was high, the 1920s became known as the prosperity decade because consumerism escalated so much. It should be no surprise that ethnics participated in mass consumerism. After all, they were the mass production workers that made mass consumerism possible.
Stores were a significant part of consumerism, and they helped create a mass culture. Just like the banks, the stores became central institutions that kept ethnic bonds growing throughout communities (Cohen, 110). Immigrants patronized their own ethnic stores because many believed that American nationals would gouge prices on store items. It was also more enjoyable talking to merchants who spoke their foreign language.
Mass consumerism allowed chain stores to expand incredibly in the 1920s, but they had no similar success in the ethnic neighborhoods (Cohen, 112). Ethnic merchants were personal with their customers and they extended credit with relative ease. The chain stores had a cash and carry policy that was to cumbersome for immigrants (Cohen, 112). Competition among the chain stores forced them into the ethnic neighborhoods by the 1930s, though. As a result, ethnic merchants began mimicking the chain stores. They had to carry some of the same products and also ran some of the same ads (Cohen, 119). Some even joined forces with the chain stores, and that surely did not increase ethnic ties. According to Cohen, though, the chain stores moving into ethnic neighborhoods accelerated mass consumerism (Cohen, 119). One might wonder if the ethnic merchants giving way to chain stores weakened ethnic bonds?
If not for radio, the withering away of corner grocery stores might very well have attenuated the link among ethnics. In the very least, radio helped make American culture more homogeneous. Ethnics used the radio to disseminate news, religious sermons, and a few entertainment programs in their foreign language (Cohen, 135). Italians even heard Mussolinis messages from time to time, but the radio was more important to the labor movement. The Chicago Federation of Labor created its own radio station (Cohen, 136). It was completely supported by its listeners, who were mostly union members. By the 1930s, a homogeneous mass culture gave ethnic workers more things in common with their co-workers of different ethnicity and race (Cohen, 157). Ethnic workers, in other words, were becoming more American.
Employers took heed of the methods that ethnic leaders used throughout the 1920s. Originally, employers believed workers had to be coerced to work and had to respect the authority of the manager outright (Cohen, 160). Employers knew they had to keep their ethnic workers separated, but when they could not break the ethnic bond, employers turned to welfare capitalism (Cohen, 163). The tool businesses used to implement welfare capitalism was industrial democracy, which purportedly brought workers and their bosses together so that they could better settle their differences (Cohen, 171). Actually, industrial democracy was a method for isolating workers as individuals by redressing grievances on an individual rather than collective basis (Cohen, 173). Wage incentives, promotions, pensions, sick pay, and paid vacations were all a part of welfare capitalism. However, most of the ideas implicit in welfare capitalism were duplicitous rather than beneficent to workers. The underlying goal of employers was to banish competitors for workers loyalties and more basically to individualize the relationship between management and labor (Cohen, 165). Furthermore, welfare capitalism theoretically was supposed to make workers more dependable and loyal (Cohen, 170).
The government was also considering giving benefits to people, so the businesses thought welfare capitalism would not only deter future governmental regulation, but it would also forestall a tax hike (Cohen, 182). Workers widely participated in the welfare programs, but welfare capitalism failed more than it succeeded. While real wages might have increased during the 1920s, the increase came from drops in prices (Cohen, 186). Workers, therefore, probably did not feel grateful to their employers. High unemployment and a series of economic rises and falls in the 1920s made welfare capitalism a failure for the most part. It succeeded slightly in that workers were finally convinced, and came to expect, that a fair employer was a paternalistic employer. That is, once employees had a taste of benefits provided by employers, they continued to expect the benefits from other employers when they switched jobs. What is more, by separating ethnic employees and intermingling them with non-foreigners, workers carried a renewed organizational ethic into the 1930s. Welfare capitalism, which was supposed to make the employee more dependent on the employer than on his community, backfired for the business community.
The 1930s were infamously abysmal. Ethnic benefit societies, banks, and stores all failed everywhere. Local merchants, foreseeing bankruptcy, had no choice other than to limit or stop completely the use of credit (Cohen, 235). Restrictions on credit had to strain local ethnic bonds because ethnics now had to pay either weekly or immediately for their purchases. Churches, which were another source of linking ethnic residents to one another, had to cease most of their charitable programs; consequently, many people stopped attending church (Cohen, 227). All the institutions that seemed to keep the ethnic community tight-knit basically failed. There was no one else to turn to for assistance except the government.
With Congress still controlled soundly by the Republicans, there had to be some structural changes before the government could become a friend of the worker. Prohibition laws, believed by ethnics to be discriminatory, aroused many new voters for the Democrats. Also, Chicago had a significant number of immigrants who felt as though they belonged to the Democratic party. More immigrants were eligible to vote nationally in the 1930s than in the 1920s, and they did vote. A Republican Congress was supplanted with a Democrat one, and workers everywhere believed they were responsible (Cohen, 258). With a new president at the helm, ethnic workers were provided with federal relief programs that had once been given to them by their community (Cohen, 268). The center piece of the relief was Roosevelts New Deal.
While Lizabeth Cohen portrayed the New Deal as successful, it should be noted that Barton Bernstein claimed otherwise. Roosevelts National Recovery Administration proffered legislation for minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers rights in order to form unions (Bernstein, 268, 3). The NRA legislation appeared extremely beneficial to workers on the face of it. Bernstien, however, believed the legislation did not supply workers with many advantages (Bernstein, 269, 2). According to Bernstein, the NRA favored businesses so much that it reaffirmed and consolidated their power at a time when the public was critical of industrialists and financiers (Bernstein, 269, 3). The New Deal aided the upper and middle class, but it provided tangential benefits to the lower class (Bernstein, 282, 1). Finally, unemployment was still over seven million in 1937; by 1939, it was nine million (Bernstein, 278, 1).
Cohen took a different view of the New Deal. Jobs were created as a form of relief at first, but by 1935 the federal government was a permanent job provider (Cohen, 278). With the Republicans soundly defeated by Democrats in 1934, Congress started passing legislation that clearly favored workers. The National Labor Relations Act fully institutionalized the governments commitment to workers rights (Cohen, 302). The new National Labor Relations Board had the power to protect workers from being fired for joining unions.
Bernstein thought the New Deal was inconsequential to the lower class. If that were so, it was a consequence of the government trying to make its beneficiaries feel guilty about the government supporting them (Cohen, 271). Wages from the federally-provided jobs were kept low purposefully in order to discourage dependency on the government (Cohen, 279). The federal government trying to dissuade people from becoming permanent dependents might not seem noble, but the Democrats of the 1930s obviously had some insight on what future problems could be caused by a welfare state. Their attempts to make the welfare state short-lived were futile, however. The Great Depression and the NRA did not cause workers to rebel against the government. Indeed, the opposite occurred. One legacy of the 1930s is that workers, and many other social classes, expected the welfare state to remain even after the Great Depression ended.
The better organization, new unity, and new expectations of workers overall, not just ethnic workers, gave unions a much better standing in politics during the 1940s. At least one in three Chicago manufacturers was a member of some union (Cohen, 292). Union leadership knew how to and did thwart the divide-and-conquer tactics of businesses. Legislation was more pro-worker, and striking became easier. Workers, no longer getting major benefits from their community, made greater demands from their employers in order to complement those benefits provided by the government. They were getting much of what they sought with relative ease after 1942. A legal pattern for addressing grievances had been set for the workers of today.
Cohen adequately shows why ethnic workers should not be avoided in the study of labor history. She assiduously takes the workers of the 1920s and 30s out of their working environment and also examines them in a social setting. Using that method, Cohen proves that the ethnicity of certain workers is just as important as other traditional factors in studying labor history. Her work, consequently, will also be of significant use to political and social historians. While not an intention of Cohen, she shows that democracy was alive and well in a polyglot city. Lizabeth Cohen demonstrates in Making a New Deal that magnificant feats can be accomplished when ethnic prejudices are set aside and Americans come together.