Previously on this site, I published a rather short book review on Lizabeth Cohen’s “Making a New Deal”. Much like I enjoyed reading the book twice, I’ve enjoyed writing about it twice. In what ways were workers united and divided before the Great Depression? How did labor gain and fail to advance under the New Deal legislation? Here’s an analysis of Cohen’s “Making a New Deal” that should answer both of these central points that were prevalent in her thesis.
Workers in the American labour system prior to the Great Depression lived in a society that had complex interrelationships carved into the actual streets they lived upon. Corporate workplaces had harsh environments; conflict-ridden neighborhoods were built upon socioeconomic discrimination; political endeavors were tainted with propaganda-influenced puppeteers; and an industrial complex changed the life of workers right before a generation’s eyes.
Making a New Deal by Lizabeth Cohen focuses on the harsh climate of sociopolitical and economic turmoil that workers in Chicago underwent during the so-called luxurious decade that predated the largest economic depression in American history; and it can be argued that workers were unified in their misery and in the platforms of political efforts, but were far too divided by overt discrimination to succeed until the New Deal legislation.
Cohen identifies three of these main divisions as skilled vs unskilled, white vs black, and native-borne vs immigrant. Other divisions were rooted in religion and gender; but every major division shares one similarity: reliance on community.
In 1919 alone, more than seventy percent of the workers in Chicago earned their wages from businesses that had at least one hundred employees on their payroll. Of this seventy percent, almost one-third of them worked in environments that employed well over a thousand employees at a time. These workers are unified in misery, working for Big Corporations and massive giants such as U.S. Steel and International Harvester.
With such poor working conditions compared to the present day, one would assume that workers would be unified to improve their sense of misery. This assumption, much like the tall-tailed ‘popular folklore’ of the period, would overlook the reality of the situation. The workers of Chicago may have felt the same overbearing, authoritative grasp of big business, but they were isolated and divided amongst each other in more ways than they were unified.
The period between 1919 and 1939 was heavily affected by social and economic change; and one of the main divisions among workers would be between those who were skilled and those who were not. Prior to 1919, skilled workers in Chicago attempted to create their own demands for better working conditions. Employers, in an attempt to shut down the pushes for unionism, found it easy to replace these skilled workers with mechanization and unskilled men. With industrial and machinery changes hot on the trail of for-profit mass production, the “skills” that were once necessary to create goods became relatively obsolete, making it so that immigrants “from Southern and Eastern Europe” with little to no industrial skill could ‘take over’ the workforce with less to say about the amount of pay they would receive for their labour. These unskilled workers were seen as less likely to strike out or make militant demands, as they were easily replaceable in a city filled with workers looking for jobs; and, for the most part, many pre-depression attempts at unionization found themselves falling short of success.
These workers found themselves isolated in neighborhoods, which were (as referred to by Lizabeth Cohen in her introduction of Making a New Deal) “fragmented by ethnicity and race”. Workers, separated from their fellow working men according to their initial ethnicity, had an ‘Us vs Them’ complex that big corporations took advantage of. Through Cohen’s research, many primary sources show us that some workers were aware of this now-easily-recognizable division:
The bosses think that because we are different color and different nationalities we should fight each other. We’re going to fool them and fight for a common cause – a square deal for all.
This “square deal for all” would come later; and although this individual is correct in their assertive placard, it seems as if most workers lost their goals for better work ethics in translation for the time being. Some workers, as shown by the above statement, could be identified as ‘self-aware’, but it would be several years before mass culture would come around to begin the unification necessary to push for a successful political platform; and employers capitalized on this complex! In fact, one of the largest employers – Harvester International – had a “divide and conquer approach” that manipulated the wants and needs of worker union attempts. One of these plans declared that workers could in fact have representatives, so long as they were citizens of the United States; but it just so happened that more than half of the workers under Harvester’s plants in Chicago were foreign born, with a majority being far from naturalization.
The consumer economy of capitalism capitalized on the ethnic differences among immigrants, too. People within the neighborhoods of urbanized Chicago felt more comfortable around those who they could share with – customers usually “shared” their ethnicity with their local grocer or butcher, and lines would rarely get crossed unless tensions heated up over sales or gossip. These localized, ethnicity-based stores perpetuated a division amongst workers that shoehorned themselves into them through both socialization and dietary traditions.
Any individual merchant who ‘dare’ try to escape the invisible lines between suburban subsections would quickly find themselves out of business; one Jewish grocer who opened in a predominantly-Irish community nearly faced bankruptcy and was forced to enter the wholesale industry that was slowly encroaching on the system of localized business. This could portray a second unifying factor: once this ethnic-foundation of consumer loyalty in the working environment collapsed with the eventual takeover of chain stores, people found a new ‘market’ (please appreciate the pun) to mingle with other cultures in ways they weren’t able to before. Movie theatres and the technological stimulation from radios would also take focus in ‘blending’ these divisional lines. Unfortunately, this “mass consumption revolution” went over the heads of working-class Chicagoans until the Great Depression emerged from the ashes of the 1920s.
Cohen essentially continues her central argument on how the collapse of the industrial economy positioned these Chicagoan workers to make demands in the New Deal; but the point remains that prior to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression. Once the 1920s were over and the mass consumption of chain storefronts, movie theatres, and radios awakened the slumbering giant of labour, the divisions mended to the point where working-class men and women could make demands in a crushed economy that had never worked for them in the first place. The immigrant, labor, consumer, and communal economies of 1919-1939 morphed from divisional confrontations to a situation in which every man was suffering. Stores allowed peoples of different colour or ethnic association to intermingle, and thus ‘see’ into communities that they had never been able to see into before. Even if these people didn’t quite associate themselves with their fellow man, they associated themselves with people who lived in communities other than their own.
Cohen particularly targets how the “six family tragedies” identified in her work “typified” the experiences that thousands of workers dealt with during the early years of depression…it did not matter whether an individual was black or white or anywhere in between, everyone crashed in the sinking boat of capitalistic greed towards the end of the 1920s. Industrial workers may have had been ‘hardened’ by economic downturns prior to the 1930s; but the ‘unprecedented’ magnitude of the situation brought doubt to the people of Chicago (and the rest of America as well).
The inability to keep up with mortgages, rent, and other forms of bills went further than the hardships of this decade. One should be able to focus on how the physical structures of life – the relationships between institution and individual, the ethnic communities (such as churches and the aforementioned stores), and societal organizations all faced new predicaments in this timeframe; and the industrial workers of the time had to look “beyond” those invisible lines etched across the streets to find support for their families.
When the New Deal came in, it did nothing more than slap a Band-Aid on the bloody wound of American corporatized capitalism; and one could even argue that Roosevelt – despite the constant ‘socialist’ antithesis that had been correlated to the Red Scare of 1919 – merely saved capitalism from its own clutches and created a weak antidote to the poisons washed adrift into the stains of workers’ rights before and during the Great Depression. Very similar to how Cohen titled her sixth chapter, Workers Make the New Deal what it ended up being. I, along with many other historians, would label the idea of the New Deal becoming the saving grace for an industrial working class as yet another historical myth. The federal government may have expanded to become a more modernized stylization of Democracy under the New Deal, but the setup of the entire system created was “half-hearted” at best. The New Deal was improvisational, inconsistent, politically cautious, and short-term-focused – it failed to make key social transformations (ie. the redistribution of wealth) and was a total let down to progressive workers that pushed for it.
The timeframe of 1919-1939 had a chance to create the foundations for truly radical, transformative New Deal-esque upgrades in American socioeconomics and politics. Clouded with distinct divisions that were pawned by employers, workers failed to be unified for the rights of all until it was too late; and when the Great Depression came around, they were thrown several great bones that distracted them from gaining what the labour movement was truthfully about. Yes, many of these workers gained incredible coalitions and had some great victories under the New Deal. Blacks, comparative to whites, received limited benefits that they did not have prior to the experiences of the Great Depression; welfare programs such as Social Security managed to help more middle-class peoples; and labour unions got the national recognition that they rightfully deserved. No longer were working-class men considered terrorists or socialists if the desired basic, modern working rights.
But, this national recognition can be claimed to be the foundation for the modern-day issue with many labour unions: as state charters (the whole lack-lustered ‘compromise’ initiative of the New Deal), the once transformative and radical programs that sought to completely reorganize the American workforce was forced to become more obedient – less willing to rock the boat in fear of losing funding, recognition, or bureaucratic reprehensions – after only receiving scraps of what was left over from their goals. I would personally make the argument that many of these workers sought out to run a 26k marathon, lacked the proper training, and fell flat on their faces after the ten-minute mark.
Workers were united in misery, united in their own pockets of ethnic upbringings and cultural communities prior to the mass consumption of culture brought on later than the designated timeframe. The majority of them worked for corporations and in industries that focused more on profits and industrial politics rather than the rights and lives of their workers. As the economic problems of America reached lows that were never thought possible, these workers gained a “unity/bond of friendship” – as all religions, races, ethnicities, and cultures experienced the institution of family in tough times. There was no “simple formula” to unify these people; but the “insecurity” of losing employment and in return harming their families – along with the mingling aspects that came from chain stores, later movie theatres, and the birth of radio – seemed to do a great job at ‘unifying’ workers to focus on New Dealism. Localism transferred over to a national level, after all.
Unfortunately for them, they missed the mark of what truly could have happened under Roosevelt’s administration, albeit they did make strives and gains along the way. As Cohen ends her work, so shall I: workers were able to build a successful movement (specifically with organizations such as the CIO), but it is clear as day that they were denied the end-goal of their movement. They settled for a better, but still imperfect, capitalistic America.
All of these citations are towards Cohen's "Making a New Deal."  Page 44  Pages 13-16  Page 2  Page 3  Page 13  Page 45  Page 47  Page 110  Page 111  Page 118  Page 136  Pages 214-218  Page 238  Page 267  Pages 272-274  Page 346  Pages 350-51  Page 368