The working class in the Great Depression

THE FOLLOWING two pieces, written by the celebrated author Frances Fox Piven, are the introductions to the newly-published Haymarket Books reprints of Irving Bernstein’s classic works on the U.S. workers’ movement in the 1920s and 1930s, The Lean Years and The Turbulent Years.

The Lean Years 

WITH THE onset of the Great Recession of 2008, many observers began to look back to the era of the Great Depression for the lessons that period could offer about our ongoing economic and social troubles. And there is no better way to begin the search for lessons than in a reading or rereading of Irving Bernstein’s two-volume masterful history of the 1920s and 1930s.

Bernstein’s project in these volumes is to write nothing less than a comprehensive history of American workers during the climactic decades that transformed the country. He approaches his task with a zeal for the facts that we associate with the best of investigative reporters, following each lead wherever the trail leads, and I think it is this radical empiricism that makes his work so valuable and so enduring. He wants to know everything that bears on the experience of working people, and he draws his sense of what is significant broadly from the social sciences. So we learn a lot, about the changing demography of the working class, shifting patterns of settlement as European migration slowed and internal migration from farm to city increased, about changes in wages and hours and overall employment, the new developments in production and the organization of work, about speedup and the often suffocating influence of small-town churches in league with employers, about company towns organized like plantations and factories seeded with employer spies and goons, and about the paralysis of the unions and the voting patterns of workers. These are all relatively conventional “variables” in descriptions of the working class. However, Bernstein’s zealous empiricism leads him to go beyond the usual material to provide a detailed and wide-ranging survey of worker resistance that took unconventional form in mob actions, demonstrations, self-help efforts, and strikes.

Of course, no one can simply be an empiricist, a compiler of the facts and nothing but the facts. Obviously, judgments have to be made about which evidence is to be gathered, where to search for it, how to assess its reliability and how to order, present, and interpret it. Inevitably, the researcher, whether investigative reporter or historian, approaches his subject with a philosophy and at least the rudiments of a theory. Bernstein did have a philosophy and a theory. Broadly, he belonged to the school of historians we call progressives, meaning simply that he thinks there is a forward direction to our history, that we are getting better and wiser and as we do, we improve and reform our social institutions.

In particular, Bernstein believed that with intelligence and good will, we would reform our industrial and capitalist system. He worked at the University of California’s Institute of Industrial Relations and imbibed deeply the gospel of labor experts associated with the reform labor policies of the New Deal. One pillar of the faith had to do with government protection of workers from the instabilities of markets and the contingencies of biological frailty. The social policies that were advocated included unemployment benefits, old age and sickness and disability insurance, and cash assistance to those who were orphaned, or blind, or disabled. Another set of ideas had to do more directly with the governance of industrial relations, and was directed particularly to securing stability and balance in the sphere of production. Bernstein entitled chapter one of The Lean Years “The Worker in an Unbalanced Society,” and by unbalanced he meant an imbalance of rewards particularly as wages fell and unemployment rose after the collapse of 1929, and an imbalance of power in the workplace. The imbalance of power was the more fundamental condition for it not only enabled employers to press down hard on wages, but it left workers with little recourse against hard and unsafe working conditions, against the speedup (or the stretch-out as it was known in the textile industry), or simply against the capricious and arbitrary boss or foreman. The solution constituted the second pillar of the faith, government regulation of wages and hours and working conditions, and government protection of the right of workers to organize.

In this first volume, Bernstein carefully traces the experience of working people from 1920 to 1933, from the years of the roaring twenties through the trough of the economic collapse that began in 1929 up to the swearing in of the Roosevelt administration. As in our own time, the market collapse was preceded by a period of boom and speculation that produced huge fortunes for a few, and a culture that celebrated fabulous riches and excess. But money, booze, jazz, and flappers notwithstanding, the decade also brought hard times to many workers. Mining, agriculture, and textiles were in a slump, and the workers in these sectors bore the hardships that resulted. The first worker protests of the era erupted out of the desperation of hard-pressed Southern textile workers who had only recently left impoverished tenant farms and mountain villages for the textile mills and found themselves ground down by exhausting work for long hours in filthy mills and for pitiful earnings. (It was of course this vulnerable labor force that drew textile manufacturers to the South, sometimes from as far away as Germany, so globalization is not really new.) The mill workers finally rose up early in 1929. But their strikes were ultimately crushed by the conditions that have always thwarted unionism in the American South, the religiosity and xenophobia of Southern communities, state and local politicians ready to ally with employers, the easy resort to violence, and the feebleness of the efforts of national unions to organize under these conditions.

Over the next four years, the poverty and unemployment that afflicted the South spread across the country as the Great Depression took its toll in rapidly rising unemployment, wage cuts, worsening working conditions, evictions and foreclosures, and even cases of actual starvation. But most observers saw little evidence of a spirit of rebellion. Bernstein quotes Louis Adamic in December 1931, when unemployment was soaring, “I have a definite feeling that millions of them, now that they are unemployed, are licked.” (435) “Workers on the way down,” says Bernstein, were in no mood to improve, far less to reorganize, society.” (436)

In other words, viewed from afar, most of the people who were suffering the hardships of the Depression were depressed and even ashamed, ready to blame themselves for their plight. But the train of developments that connects changes in social conditions to a changed consciousness is not simple. People, including ordinary people, harbor somewhere in their memories the building blocks of different and contradictory interpretations of what it is that is happening to them, of who should be blamed, and what can be done about it. Even the hangdog and ashamed unemployed worker who swings his lunch box and strides down the street so the neighbors will think he is going to a job can also have other ideas that only have to be evoked, and when they are make it possible for him on another day to rally with others and rise up in anger at his condition.

Bernstein is too much the empiricist, too much the detail man, to ignore the growing if scattered evidence, even in the early years of the Depression, of defiance and protest. His historical account is distinctive for the attention it gives, both to the episodes of mobbing and rioting that marked the early years of the Great Depression, and it is also unusual for his effort to chronicle the efforts of radical organizers to escalate or channel this defiance, and this despite his general disapproval of those radicals, especially those who were communists.

From time immemorial, hungry people have mobbed and looted food from local markets, and they did this again in the early years of the Depression, although no accurate accounting of these episodes exists if only because the merchants whose supplies were taken feared that calling the police would lead to the press coverage that would only encourage more episodes. Prodded by desperation, people also flocked to unemployment demonstrations, often organized by communists, and usually (and often not without reason) labeled riots by the press. Beginning in 1929 and 1930, crowds assembled, raised demands for “bread or wages,” and then marched on City Hall or on such local relief offices as existed.

In the big cities, mobs of people used strong-arm tactics to resist the rising numbers of evictions. In Harlem and the Lower East Side crowds numbering in the thousands gathered to restore evicted families to their homes. In Chicago, small groups of Black activists marched through the streets of the ghetto to mobilize the large crowds that would reinstall evicted families. A rent riot left three people dead and three policemen injured in August 1931, but Mayor Anton Cermak ordered a moratorium on evictions, and some of the rioters got work relief. Later, in August of 1932, Cermak told a House committee that if the federal government didn’t send $150 million for relief immediately, it should be prepared to send troops later. Even in Mississippi, Governor Theodore Bilbo told an interviewer: “Folks are restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi, some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I’m getting a little pink myself.” Meanwhile, and also in the summer of 1932, farmers across the country armed themselves with pitchforks and clubs to prevent the delivery of farm products to markets where the price paid frequently did not cover the cost of production.

Before much of this desperation was registered in the mass media or in the musings of intellectuals, it was registered in the voting booths. In the election of 1932, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency, and a Democratic majority to the Congress. It was one of the infrequent great realignments of American electoral politics. Still, no one could be sure of its significance. After all, the Democratic platform of 1932 was not much different from the platforms of 1924 and 1928. In fact, the election did usher in a new era, although it was not the election alone. Rather it was the complex and intricate dynamic that ensued between political leaders and the aroused populace with whom they now had to contend. The New Deal that they created together is the subject of The Turbulent Years, the second volume of Bernstein’s magisterial study.

The Turbulent Years 

THE TURBULENT Years is the second volume of Irving Bernstein’s history of the era of the Great Depression. It describes a brief period when American workers were on the move, on a scale that had never been matched before, and that has not been matched since. From the textile villages of the South to the auto plants of Detroit to the docks of San Francisco to the truck depots of Minneapolis to the tire plants of Akron to the steel mills of Pennsylvania, and even to the dime stores and movie houses of Main Street America, across the country and in industry after industry, workers marched and rallied, mobilized in walkouts, sit-downs, and street battles. The movement created real power, enough power to change the American industrial capitalist system, and to change it for the better. The changes unfolded in the workplaces where workers learned that by shutting it down they could force the hand of the boss, and even win the right to unionize.

The changes also unfolded in politics. Always in the American past worker insurgencies had ultimately been defeated by the armed force of the state and the hostile rulings of the courts. The movement of the 1930s not only stayed the coercive hand of the state, but actually won a series of legislative victories that made the state the protector of workers in their perennial battles with employers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not gained office as a champion of labor rights, and he had withheld his support from a bill proposed by Robert Wagner, the senator from New York, that would place government authority behind collective bargaining. The strike movement and the economic repercussions it threatened forced FDR’s hand. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, FDR signed it, and shortly afterward the Supreme Court accepted it. In the American experience, this period was the high point of labor power.

Bernstein’s meticulous research into the complex developments that contributed to the mobilization of workers in the 1930s provides an unparalleled account of the swiftly moving worker politics that gave us the New Deal. The key leverage of workers during the Great Depression was their ability to shut it down, to stop production and by doing so jeopardize the manufacturing systems that in the end depended on worker subordination and cooperation. As the workers’ movement escalated, wages increased, and working hours fell, and this despite a new dive in the economy that began in 1937. The biggest and most virulently anti-union corporations in America were suddenly ready to recognize unions, in return for the regularization of production that they hoped unions would ensure. After the Supreme Court ruled that the NLRA was constitutional in a much-awaited decision, FDR called Congress into a special session to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act establishing minimum wages and maximum hours.

The rationale for the landmark NLRA of 1935 dealing with collective bargaining was that giving workers a voice in industrial relations would regularize management-worker relations and bring industrial peace. In time, unionism did go far to doing that, but at a great price in labor power, although this was not quickly evident. The big corporations struggling to contain worker insurgency were ready to accept unions, on condition that the new unions would take responsibility for preventing the walkouts that were disrupting production. The union contract was key to the new labor regime. Once a union had been certified by an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union negotiated contracts that made the union itself responsible for ensuring un?interrupted production. There was probably not much choice, because this and only this was the reason that management had been brought to the bargaining table. Nevertheless, although we are getting ahead of Bernstein’s story, this labor victory also tamed the movement that had been responsible for the victory in the first place.

For about twenty-five years after the Second World War, big corporations were willing to live with unions. These were the years when the American economy ruled the world. But gradually as the Western European and Japanese economies recovered from the destruction of the Second World War, international competition began to erode the profit margins of American corporations, and business leaders grew impatient with big labor. Beginning in the late 1970s, and prodded by both the pressures on profits generated by intensified international competition, and by the opportunities that internationalization represented, big employers in the U.S. created a propaganda apparatus of think tanks and policy institutes, and deluged the media and the Congress with arguments and data that purported to prove the truth of the neo-laissez faire (or neoliberal) analysis. This was nothing less than an ideological campaign to revive the nineteenth century idea that markets were governed by a species of natural law that could brook no interference, whether from government regulation or from worker-employer compacts. At the end of the twentieth century, neoliberal doctrines made the same claim, albeit on an international scale. And admittedly, there was at least a superficial plausibility to the argument that accelerating international trade and competition for investment was beyond the reach of governments.

The strategic offensive was not waged with words alone. Big employers launched a campaign against unions, which they claimed made them uncompetitive in the new international economic environment. New union organizing efforts were fiercely resisted, and some employers even filed for decertification of unions that existed. Contract negotiations became occasions for demanding worker givebacks instead of ceding pay or benefit increases. Union-busting firms that had disappeared after the 1930s were reinvented, now staffed by lawyers and public relations experts instead of detectives and goons. Meanwhile, employer exit threats escalated, and this too was facilitated by globalization, as illustrated by the fabled corporate ploy of hiring trucks labeled “Mexico” to pull up to the loading docks of plants where unionization was afoot. Or workers in one production site were “whipsawed” against workers in another. Then there was the restructuring of work associated with lean production, which in practice often meant increased reliance on insecure or precarious employment, including part-timers, temporary workers, and contracting out, all of which contributed to the employer clout gained from the threat or reality of exit.

Business leaders also became increasingly aggressive and successful in enlisting government in their battle against unions. A series of changes in government policy reflected and enhanced the employer offensive by increasing labor market insecurity, and by rolling back long-standing labor rights. The NLRB had been inaugurated in the mid-1930s as a tribunal to protect the collective bargaining rights of labor. Over time, NLRB decisions tilted more toward employers, and by 1980, tilted sharply toward employers. In 1981, the president himself became the lead union buster with Reagan’s flamboyant decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. At the same time, income support programs, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare, and Social Security, came under assault with the consequence that benefits have been steadily chipped away for forty years. The curious Janus-faced policy of permitting high levels of immigration (at least until recently when Republicans seized on the issue to make political points) while denying immigrants access to social welfare benefits highlights the goal of loosening the labor market.

The second Bush regime was especially aggressive. The administration’s assault on union rights began almost the moment George W. Bush assumed office. In February 2001, the new president issued executive orders that ended labor-management partnerships in the federal government, barred project-wide collective bargaining agreements on federally funded public works projects, and required federal contractors to post notices advising workers of their right not to join a union.

Similarly and almost immediately, the administration slashed the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, repeatedly sought increased funding to audit and prosecute unions, and announced plans to put up to 850,000 federal jobs up for bid to private contractors. After the planes hit the towers on September 11, national security became the favored argument for rolling back labor rights. In December 2001, only a few short months after 9/11, the president appointed a Presidential Emergency Board and imposed a sixty-day ban on job actions by the 15,000 machinists at United Airlines. In October 2002, he directed the Department of Justice to seek a Taft-Hartley injunction to end an eleven-day shutdown of the West Coast docks. This was the first time in American history that a president in effect allowed an employer to lock out workers, and then rewarded the employer with court-?ordered government intervention. It was also the first time the Taft-Hartley Act has been invoked since 1978.

The direct assault on unions by government decree continued. On January 7, 2002, the president issued an executive order revoking union representation for employees working in a number of divisions of the Department of Justice, presumably on security grounds. In June of 2002, another executive order stripped the nation’s air traffic control system of its designation as an “inherently governmental” function, opening the door to privatization and threatening the representation and bargaining rights of 15,000 controllers. Then in the fall of 2002, Bush threatened to veto the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security unless it stripped the 170,000 federal employees of the agency of their civil service and union protections, and the administration prevailed. In January 2003, the administration issued a directive denying collective bargaining rights to the 60,000 newly federalized airline security screeners, invoking the war on terrorism to justify the move, and it also terminated the collective bargaining rights of workers at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

Can American workers recover? Could a movement comparable to the upsurge of the 1930s arise again, in the wake of the Great Recession? I write these words in early 2010, when commentators are searching for parallels between the turbulent 1930s and our own era. After all, the provocations are certainly similar. Once again, inequality is soaring, along with unemployment rates, foreclosures, and evictions. Of course, much else has changed, and a workers’ movement today would reflect those changed circumstances. In the 1930s, it was mass production workers who were the backbone of the protest movements. Now much of America’s manufacturing has moved abroad, the factories, mines of the industrial era, and the neighborhoods they nourished, are emptying, and even the infrastructure that once supported manufacturing has been allowed to decay. Most Americans work in service sector jobs, and many of those workers are women. Still, do these changes mean that workers no longer have power?

The usual wisdom about neoliberal globalization argues the inevitable decline of labor power as a reflection of the great expansion of investor opportunities for exit from relations with any particular group of working people. With the click of a mouse, capital can move to low-wage and low-cost parts of the nation or the world. This is the familiar argument that globalization expands the reserve army of labor and weakens the market leverage of workers everywhere. But the contemporary service economy in the United States also depends on the cooperation of workers whose efforts are meshed together in far-flung systems of communication, transportation, production, and investment. The very arrangements that make exit easier also create new and more fragile interdependencies. Outsourcing is two sided. On the one hand, it loosens the dependence of employers on domestic workers. On the other hand, it binds them to many other workers in far-flung and extended chains of production. And these chains in turn depend on complex systems of electronic communication and transportation that are themselves acutely vulnerable to disruption. The old idea that logistical workers located at the key nodes in industrial systems of production had great potential labor power has in a sense been writ large. Many workers, those who run the far-flung transportation systems, or the Internet, or are lodged at all the points in vastly extended chains of production, as well as the workers in “just-in-time” systems of production that the Internet has facilitated, may have potential logistical power, and more forceful logistical power because they are capable of causing such widespread disruption.

Neither is it true that governments and the voter publics to which they are connected are as helpless in their relations with a mobile capital as depicted in the familiar argument about globalization. Corporations continue to be significantly rooted in the nation-state, and they also depend as they always have on governments to provide much of the infrastructure and regulatory framework that investors require. Moreover, the international agencies that are sometimes said to be replacing this function of nation-states are themselves the creatures of national governments. So, maybe working people do have power, even in a postindustrial economy.

To be sure, contemporary observers see few signs of the kind of mass protests that characterized The Turbulent Years among those hard hit by economic crisis today. An article in the January/February issue of Tikkun asks “Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, jobs, families and the American Dream?” Or, writing in the winter 2010 issue of Dissent, Kevin Mattson says that unemployment, wage and benefit stagnation, massive mortgage defaults, and rising homelessness “have renewed a sense of what it means to get the blues.” But this was also the dominant view of the national mood during the run-up to the election of 1932. In the earlier volume, The Lean Years, Bernstein quotes a New Yorker editorial on June 25, 1932, “Our vegetable garden is coming along well…and we are less worried about revolution than we used to be.” True, here and there people protested, sometimes furiously. But overall, people seemed simply weary or defeated.

But not for long. There are many lessons to be learned from The Turbulent Years, but perhaps the most potent is that the popular moods and understandings that fuel protest movements can change, and change rapidly. We should hope for this in our own time, and we should do more than hope. We should work to make it true.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John