Title: Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939
Author: Lizabeth Cohen
Categories: Social History, Labor History, New Deal, Industrialism, Mass Culture, Welfare Capitalism, Welfare State
Time Period: 1919-1939
Lizabeth Cohen writes a city-based study of Chicago's industrial workers during the 1920s and 1930s. She first charts the labor landscape of the 1920s, where a weak labor movement chagrined by failures of 1919 strikes broadly accepted the tenets of welfare capitalism, in which employers played a paternalist role of welfare providers. Corporations attempted to pacify workers by emphasizing their individuality and providing for somewhat superficial benefits: took away power from individual foremen (rise of scientific managers), wage incentive plans, benefit programs, offered stock ownership in company, company sports, picnics, and by splitting up ethnic groups in the workplace. Cohen argues that many of these measures eventually ended up backfiring - for instance, splitting up the workplace resulted in more working-class solidarity across ethnic lines, while more broadly workers came to expect these benefits as legitimate responsibilities of an employer (would give their later demands legitimacy when employers couldn't provide them).
Outside of the workplace, workers in 1919 were fragmented along ethnic, religious, and racial lines. They relied on local/ethnic institutions such as welfare agencies, mutual benefit societies, banking institutions, and church parishes. As the 1920s progressed, many of these local institutions often took on more standardized and national characters - for example, ethnic banks having to obtain a state charter in the late 1920s. This highlights the interplay of local and national forces, which coalesces for Cohen in the role of mass culture and consumption. Instead of "Americanizing" workers, Cohen argues that the penetration of things like movie theaters, national products in stores, and radio during the 1920s was often limited and mediated in their transmission to working class via neighborhood and ethnic institutions. Movie theaters, for instance, often maintained an ethnic make-up, while neighborhood stores remained the distributors for national products. The one major difference in this arena were black laborers, who embraced mass consumption as a way to create a vibrant black urban culture.
The Depression of the 1930s brought a crisis in the faith of Chicago's industrial workers in traditional and local sources of authority (ethnic institutions, employers, etc.). Drawing on the tradition of welfare capitalism of the 1920s, workers instead turned to two sources for benefits they used to rely on employers for: the federal government and labor unions. Cohen argues that workers actually retained an allegiance to capitalism as a system, but instead argued for the importance of moral capitalism - of a system that equally provided for people and where welfare was expected. In national politics, workers increasingly supported the Democratic party and FDR and the broader creation of an activist welfare state. Cohen notes that workers did not feel ashamed of accepting government aid, but instead due in part to their earlier experiences of welfare capitalism, expected it. Within the workplace, their changing attitudes fostered the rise of the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO) and heavy unionization. Cohen emphasizes the agency of rank-and-file laborers in building the movement rather than skilled union leadership, and notes the rise of a "culture of unity" that tried to level divisions based on ethnicity, race, age, or gender (although she notes that it simultaneously enforced a traditional patriarchal gender hierarchy). Finally, Cohen argues that mass culture, rather than de-politicizing Americans, actually fostered a common working-class culture based around common experiences such as listening to radio programs and served to transcend older ethnic divisions.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Centrality of worker agency (reorientation in attitudes and behavior) rather than outside leadership
- "Welfare capitalism" of 1920s leads to worker-driven "moral capitalism" of 1930s, and within that a full-fledged "welfare state"
- In 1930s don't reject capitalism, but want to strengthen federal government and labor unions (as replacements for older institutions)
- Mass culture actually helps politicize workers during 1930s
- Local support structures based on neighborhood, ethnicity, and employer gives way to more national support, primarily government, labor unions, and mass culture
- Crisis in authority in traditional leaders and institutions during Depression (ethnic institutions, employers, etc.)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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