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. 544 pages. $24.

Contents

Summary

In the late teens and early 1920’s, Chicago ‘had more strikes than any other city besides New York.’ (12) These strikes failed to bring about major changes in industrial workplaces. In the 1920’s, it was difficult for workers to successfully unionize. Over ‘half of the white men and over a third of the white women in manufacturing and mechanical industries in Chicago were foreign born.’ (13) Workers looked to ethnic institutions, as ‘protector against poverty, illness, and death’ or vehicles ‘toward security and prosperity.’ (94) Workers found support and community among fellow immigrants in their neighborhoods. Workers often shopped and conducted business with others of similar ethnicity. They dealt with banks, stores and purchased insurance from those of similar backgrounds. Their social and cultural activities tended to be community centered. Workers were unable to find common cause with those of different backgrounds or race.

Lizabeth Cohen believes historians have ‘overlooked the obstacles ’to concerted activity ‘within workers’ own ranks.’ ‘Isolated in local neighborhoods and fragmented by ethnicity and race, workers proved incapable of mounting the unified actions necessary for success.’ (13) In the early 1920’s, ‘only a small percent of industrial workers were native-born whites of native parents.’ (17) Black Chicagoans were not involved in unions in the 1920’s. Cohen studied five Chicago communities; old immigrant neighborhoods, the Southwest Corridor, Packing Town, the Black Belt and Southeast Chicago. Important industries were International Harvester, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, the Armour and Swift meat packing companies, U. S. Steel, Wisconsin Steel and other steel companies, and the garment industry.

Working conditions were far from ideal in the twenties. There was some organizing activity initiated by workers. More significantly, management made efforts to forestall collective action. They moved in the direction of ‘welfare capitalism.’ They established work councils, initiated job ladders and wage incentives. Employers offered sickness benefits, insurance and stock plans. Companies also mixed different ethnicities in the work place and organized social activities to build company loyalty. Job security remained a problem. According to Cohen, workers ‘rarely found conditions at work the panacea that welfare capitalists promised.’ (186) The long term effect of welfare capitalism was to teach workers that ‘capitalists could act morally under the right conditions.’ (209)

The Great Depression was a watershed for workers in Chicago industries. There was widespread unemployment in Chicago. Community resources, including various ethnic and religious groups, could not cope with the economic crisis. Community businesses, mostly small, were vulnerable to failure. Workers were willing and perhaps even desperate to seek new approaches to solve their problems and provide security. Working people in the 1930’s joined with those of other ethnicities and races, including black workers, to support the Congress of Industrial Organization organizing efforts.

Cohen uses a wide variety of source materials including company archives, private papers, information from the famous Hawthorne study at the Western Electric plant, and a wide variety of secondary sources. Like all writers about attitudes of large groups, such as the Chicago workers, Cohen has a fair amount of conjecture in her assumption that attitude changes made unionization succeed. Obviously, the turmoil and disruption of the Great Depression in itself was sufficient reason for willingness to try new solutions. M. Linhart January 27 2006


Making a New Deal is a social and labor history of industrial workers—largely in Chicago—between 1919 and 1939. Cohen’s question is how it was possible and what it meant “for industrial workers to become effective as national political participants in the mid-1930s, after having sustained defeats in 1919 and having refrained from unionism and national politics during the 1920s.” (8) She argues that industrial workers defined their own New Deal as they negotiated their relationships with their ethnic and racial communities, welfare capitalism, expanding mass culture, increased governmental intervention in industry, and union organizing tactics. They moved from the isolation of ethnic and racial enclaves to unite in collective action as workers, and through this collective action, they became “effective national political participants.”

According to Cohen, the failures of the labor movement in 1919 occurred because of the inability of workers to transcend cultural boundaries and because of the power of the government-backed employers. The 1920s subsequently became a period of mediated change. Ethnically-based institutions such as banks, welfare organizations, insurance companies, and food stores altered their business practices in order to compete with the welfare capitalism of big business and the growth of competing, non-ethnically based commercial interests. Although the decade appeared static in terms of labor organization, institutional control was contested space and workers interaction with and response to employers, and community institutions laid the groundwork for a proactive response to the Depression and the New Deal.

Then, too, workers increasingly shared common experiences as they interacted outside their communities and participated in a growing common American culture. The Depression, itself, became a major shared experience. Their class-based, collective participation in the New Deal was supported, in part, by a sense of entitlement, the weakening of ethnic institutions as the government increasingly stepped in to protect workers homes and jobs, and a sense of a personal relationship to the government and politicians as government agencies supported to workers movements against industrial management.

Commentary

Mary Linhart, Spring 2006

Cohen discusses the effect of the wider world and mass culture on ethnic and racial identity in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Mass culture influenced workers away from ethnic loyalties and towards a willingness to accept and support unified efforts. She mentions, but does not emphasize, that by the 1930’s, ethnic communities would have inevitably become less cohesive as immigrants became more American with the passage of time. The second generation, more fluent in English, could hardly have been expected to maintain intense loyalty to neighborhood institutions that their parents had.

Although Cohen emphasizes the attitudes of the workers and their new willingness to organize in the 1930’s, the CIO, with a sizable Communist membership, vigorously pushed unionization. Cohen implies that the average worker did not care about Communism but was willing to allow Communists to work for their benefit. Cohen concludes the CIO was successful in the 1930’s because workers’ mindset had changed. Cohen believes the efforts of management in the 1920’s at organizing local work groups and social activities developed attitudes that pushed ethnic workers in the direction of independent unions in most industries. (Western Electric at Hawthorne and Wisconsin Steel at Deering Point were notable exceptions.)

Chicago workers never abandoned capitalism. During the 1930’s, they organized to achieve a balance of power in which they could insist upon the right moral climate that would ensure fair treatment which they believed was possible under welfare capitalism. Through common experiences, workers were more capable of ‘unifying against employers who long had tried to defeat them by dividing them.’ The CIO ‘’built on the new common ground with organizing strategies designed to unite workers even further.’ (313)

Like both Leuchtenburg and Brinkley, Cohen paints a grim picture of the Great Depression and the willingness of people to accept government assistance. Interestingly while she discusses the impact of radio on the workers, she ignores both Huey Long and mentions Father Coughlin only once. Apparently they had no impact on Chicago workers. Workers generally supported the policies of the New Deal that provided government benefits and jobs. They threw their support behind ‘an activist welfare state concerned with equalizing wealth and privilege and a national union movement of factory workers committed to keeping a check on self-interested employers.’ (365) They became staunch Democrats and supporters of Roosevelt and the welfare state.

In the long run, as Cohen notes, the choices the workers made in the 1930’s did not work entirely to their benefit. ‘By choosing to carry on their struggle through the Democratic Party and the CIO, workers became tied more than they ever intended to the status quo. What resulted was ‘worker investment in a political party, a welfare state, and a union movement that rarely proved as responsive and democratic as workers had originally hoped.’ (366) M. Linhart January 27 2006

Lee Ann Ghajar, Fall 2005

Making a New Deal is a social and labor history of industrial workers—largely in Chicago—between 1919 and 1939. Cohen’s question is how it was possible and what it meant “for industrial workers to become effective as national political participants in the mid-1930s, after having sustained defeats in 1919 and having refrained from unionism and national politics during the 1920s.” (8) She argues that industrial workers negotiated their own New Deal through as they negotiated their relationships with their ethnic and racial communities, welfare capitalism, expanding mass culture, increased governmental intervention in industry, and union organizing tactics. They moved from the isolation of ethnic and racial enclaves to unite in collective action as workers, and through this collective action, they became “effective national political participants.”

According to Cohen, the failures of the labor movement in 1919 occurred because of the inability of workers to transcend cultural boundaries and because the power of the government-backed employers. The 1920s subsequently became a period of mediated change. Ethnically-based institutions such as banks, welfare organizations, insurance companies, and food stores altered their business practices in order to compete with the welfare capitalism of big sbusiness and the growth of competing, non-ethnically based commercial interests. Although the decade appeared static in terms of labor organization, institutional control was contested space and workers interaction with and response to employers, and community institutions laid the groundwork for a proactive response to the Depression and the New Deal.

Then, too, workers increasingly shared common experiences as they interacted outside their communities and participated in a growing common American culture. The Depression, itself, became a major shared experience. Their class-based, collective participation in the New Deal was supported, in part, by a sense of entitlement, the weakening of ethnic institutions as the government increasingly stepped in to protect workers homes and jobs, and a sense of a personal relationship to the government and politicians as government agencies supported to workers movements against industrial management. What seems to work in this book?

I think a strength of Making a New Deal is the focus on the agency (ugh, red flag word) of workers and upon the diversity of this agency. Cohen discusses different culturally-based modes of interaction within different immigrant communities and among immigrant generations and between immigrants and institutions. Poles, for example, strengthened the ethnic base of the Catholic Church in their communities, in spite of efforts from the church hierarchy to create an American Catholic Church. Italians, on the other hand, for the most part simply rejected institutionalized religion and merged rituals of the church with secular community traditions. Cohen differentiates as well between the relationship of blacks and whites to employers, to union organizers and to changing mass popular culture and consumerism and traces changes over time.

Cohen's fusion of cultural, social, and labor history

What doesn’t seem to work as well?

Cohen seems less in control of her sources in her discussion of moral capitalism. She bases her conclusion that the workers were “very much ideological in their goals, in part, on the nature of worker demands, e.g. the fact that they did not demand a fundamental redistribution of power, but only equity—equal pay for equal work, an end to job discrimination on the grounds of age, race, or gender, seniority in the face of favoritism. (315) The quest for gender and racial equality, at the very least, is highly debatable, and her evidence doesn’t seem to support departing from a standard interpretation that when women, for example, might be allowed to fill the same jobs as men, it was to the advantage of male workers that women receive equal pay simply to prevent women from replacing them at a lower salary.

How it fits with other books?

Making a New Deal intersects well with David Kennedy’s Freedom from fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 ((New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Kennedy provides the political superstructure within which Cohen’s industrial workers functioned. Particular juncture occurs with Cohen’s analysis of class as Kennedy states, “A heightened sense of class consciousness did indeed emerge in the United States in the Depression years, but it was of a stubbornly characteristic American type. It did not frontally challenge existing institutions but asked—demanded—a larger measure of participation in them.” (322)

Cohen and Kennedy both raise questions about the radicalism of the New Deal, and each makes the point that the New Deal was a “reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system.” (Kennedy, 380). Kennedy concludes that perhaps the New Deal’s greatest achievement was bringing immigrant communities into the Democratic Party as the New Deal made room for industrial unions. Cohen would argue that the workers themselves accomplished that integration as they found common ground among themselves and organized to confront inequities. (Cohen, 365) But she points out as well, that American workers remained committed to the status quo; that is, they worked through an established political party—the Democrats—and union organization. The New Deal was not about the radical overthrow of capitalism or institution of new formats of government. It was far more cautious, even as it shifted the fulcrum of power and participation. ]]]](leeannghajar)

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

In this work, Cohen tries to provide a bottom-up look at the way the New Deal changed unionization and the daily lives of Chicago’s working class. While she is careful to differentiate between ethnic minorities and African Americans, Cohen argues for an overall improvement in he ability to organize and thus an improvement in working conditions by 1940. Although she states that ethnic minorities resisted wholesale assimilation, she feels that new forms of mass culture in the 1920s and early 1930s, along with changes in the ethnic/racial divisions of the workplace, contributed to a shared experience which in turn strengthened the labor movement in Chicago.

As Cohen herself admits, however, it was not just the growth of shared radio programs, movies, and recreational experiences that changes the attitudes of working-class ethnic Chicagoans. Generation plays an important role in her overall argument. Many of the union members and Democratic voters of the 1930s were born or at least raised in the United States, were therefore more likely to be eligible to vote, to have experienced the tension of being the child of immigrants, and be generally more open to some of that shared culture than a previous generation. It is not that the unionized workers of 1938 were a completely different population than the unsuccessful strikers of 1919, but nor were they the exact same group. Cohen's construction of shared experience, whether within an ethnic or racial group or class, sometimes leads her to spend less time than she might on the differences. Although she acknowledges generational differences, I think it might be more important, particularly when it comes to voting activity, than she seems to acknowledge. She also only introduces gender when it best fits into her overarching narrative. While she acknowledges the impact of ideas about "family" on the gendered experience of workers who joined the CIO, she doesn't fully explore the way gender might have played into experiences of the mass culture she considers so important to creating a shared experience.

Despite these occasional losses of nuance, Cohen's bottom-up reading of the New Deal works well when paired with something as decidedly top-down as Schwarz's New Dealers. Her focus on the way the New Deal changes the daily lives of working people balances out the elite, power play focus of Schwarz's all-male Washington leaders.

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