Making a New Deal

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Lizabeth Cohen. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990,2008. pp. 526. $24.99. Paper: ISBN 0521715350.


Making A New Deal focuses on the ways in which Chicago’s’ industrial workers created a self identity and then used that individual and collective identity to participate in local, regional and national cultures. Lizabeth Cohen explains how ethnic identity was malleable and adaptable and she looks at mass culture to emphasize her point that these workers had agency and they were both producers and consumers. Using a quasi case study approach, she shows us the workplace, the consumer culture, and especially how the New Deal affected these workers. This social history gives us a bottom up look at the New Deal that is fuller picture of peoples daily lives than previously existed.

Specifically, Cohen wants us to understand, “the significance of mass consumption, the nature of racial and ethnic identity, the social underpinnings of civic engagement, the fate of welfare capitalism, and the gendering of unions and the welfare state.” (p. xxvi) As other critics have pointed out, the gender issue is more complex and perhaps more difficult to source than the consumer culture that is Cohen’s forte. Arguably, Chicago is really the only choice for this type of study starting with the living conditions in the stockyard workers homes and the distinct neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves, like Chicago’s Black Belt. In this ‘new era’, ethnicity came in terms of religion and in the form of self help associations, which is important as these will ultimately be replaced by government programs.

The biggest change for these workers comes in the form of chain stores, nationally distributed products, radio, movies, and advertising. Cohen reminds us that these things were often encountered through a local or ethic lens or mediator (p. 157) and by the end of the era they were household norms. Radio is an excellent example where workers listened to national and local programming and unions sponsored specific shows aimed at winning union members. In her chapter ‘Contested Loyalty at the Workplace’ Cohen shows how workers reacted to the welfare programs and paternalism of the company. Using work stoppages and slow downs, workers were able to gain agency and control over an immediate supervisor and often over management in general. Despite the small victories, the Depression loomed large and workers moved along a continuum from welfare capitalism to the welfare state. Radical groups lost some of their appeal and the Democrats won local elections based on new agendas. Roosevelt became a figure of respect despite the questionable intent of some reform programs, and it was in the union struggle that most workers found a voice.

The CIO worked to win new members and companies like US Steel saw large numbers of workers organize while the NLRB helped ensure that the workplace was more, but never fully, open. The strikes and labor clashes were being driven by these same laborers and they were being supported by both the local and the national. In addition, the union helped integrate some of the neighborhood establishments and helping to support the family. It is here where Cohen sees the connection to women’s roles, noting that packing plants were composed primarily of women. Cohen has painted a full picture of the Chicago working class and their lives, describing how cosmopolitan and sophisticated these workers became during their struggles.

Commentary, Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

Lizabeth Cohen has written a great deal about the rise of consumer culture in America and she has revised her introduction for this second edition. Cohen responded in Labor History to her methodology for supporting her claims and making broad based interpretive claims, Specifically, she was criticized for trying to expose the thinking of workers based on her sources such as surveys, etc. I side with Cohen that using purchasing choices and oral histories and survey results form a very valid way to make educated arguments about communities of people. She also responded that her treatment of Blacks did not take into account the limited opportunities of a racist culture, she counters and I agree that by making mainstream choices, Blacks were clamming a part of corporate America and showing their aggregate buying power, a tool they would later use as a form of protest. As she notes, she is a ‘lumper’ historian as opposed to a ‘splitter’ historian – this is not a form of consensus, rather it is an idea that creates homogeneity and then looks at divergence from it. The historiography is richer for it and Cohen’s Consumer Republic will reflect this idea even more fully. This is also a very different look at the New Deal than Jordan A. Schwarz’s The New Dealers’ Power Politics in the Age of Roosevelt (ISBN 0679747818) the difference between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ histories. Aside form the sourcing and approaches and her treatment of gender, Cohen’s work is more focused and attentive to the role that work and the workplace played in peoples lives.

As social history, we tend to focus on the family and the consumer culture without making relationships between choices and events, for example, Cohen reminds us shopping was an important activity and that by looking at the chain stores, we can see how the local ethnic stores had to fight to survive and how they and the chains competed for ‘charity tickets’. By looking at the shop records and union membership, Cohen reminds us that the world of work permeated the workplace and in turn the workplace permeated the home. The rank and file may have lived different lives but the shop floor brought them to a common culture and goal. Because of changes in technology and new programs like time management and efficiency workers had to work together and welfare capitalists also tried to get them to share common recreation and interests like professional sports. (p. 204) Radio also became a unifying factor and this is really an excellent treatment and analysis of a local media specifically targeting working class audiences. This kind of analysis helps us to understand the world that these workers made and the different messages being broadcast both literally and figuratively to them.

After all, these workers were interested in better working conditions and that brought them to the union movement and put them at odds with their employers. The federal government mostly in the form of Roosevelt and he as figure that passes legislation in favor of the union organizers, a totally different kind of reform or Progressivism. While its hard to argue with election results, Cohen looks at photos and speeches that show how willing people were to put their politics on display. The chapter reveals how workers found common ground in union women’s auxiliaries, newspapers, picnincs, outings, sports teams and other activities. Also noteworthy is that some Chicago institutions were integrated because of this activity. The role of ‘relief’ also gets long treatment in this work as a recurring theme and one that causes workers great ambivalence, especially ethnic workers who preferred their local support systems. In the triad of workers, business and government it is the workers who fared the best fro Cohne’s analysis. Recall that she is interested in how identity shaped the events and culture of the New Deal Era and in its many manifestations he has discovered the agency of the working people. As the title indicates, this is the world that workers made, they are given the credit for adopting and adapting to the New Deal.

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