US workers during the Depression

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a fine of more than $87.4 million on BP North America Inc. for “failure to correct [the] potential hazards faced by employees” that had been uncovered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This set an all-time record for penalties set by OSHA on any company—dwarfing the previous one, from 2005, of a mere $21 million, imposed after an explosion at a BP refinery killed 15 people and injured 170 others.

Since last fall, BP has gone on to bigger things. A tone of moral indignation has been heard lately (on Capitol Hill, for instance) regarding those OSHA violations. But why the outrage? It’s just business. As long as risk to the company’s workers can be translated into a calculable expense, decisions will be made on a rational basis. With an eye on the bottom line, the company can decide whether or not to install adequate equipment to protect either workers or the environment.

Or not to protect them, as the case may be. Profit is profit, and the ocean has no lawyer. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Of course, events might have unfolded very differently if the people working on the offshore rig had decided to shut production down when the company pushed them (once again) to cut corners and ignore danger signs. Every time I see a picture from the Gulf of Mexico, I wonder about that. But when politicians or people in the mass media discuss the situation, work stoppage by BP’s employees is one possibility that never comes up.

The very idea seems almost unthinkable. It is easier to get mad at how flagrantly BP ignored safety violations than to imagine labor acting outside the established framework of government regulation and corporate decision making. Maybe BP can afford this failure of the imagination—but I doubt the planet can, at least not forever.

So it’s a good time to have a new edition of Irving Bernstein’s two studies The Lean Years (1960) and The Turbulent Years (1969). Originally published by Houghton Mifflin, they have just been reissued in paperback by Haymarket Books and offer, between them, a classic survey of how American workers fared during the 1920s and ’30s. SPOILER ALERT: They tended to do best when they had the confidence and the willingness to challenge their employers—and not just over wages. Bernstein, who at the time of his death in 2001 was an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, makes clear that control over working conditions was usually also at stake.

What sets Bernstein’s work apart from the usual run of scholarship on American labor history at mid-century was his strong interest in the life and activity of non-unionized people—including those working in agriculture, or leaving it behind for new kinds of employment in the case of African Americans leaving the South. And Bernstein wrote with grace. He had a knack for the thumbnail biography of ordinary people: There are numerous miniature portraits embedded in the epic. He was sensitive to the changes in mood among workers as they faced the boom of the 1920s (which passed most of them by) and the agony of the Depression (which hit them hardest). In many cases, they blamed themselves for their misery. The possibility of joining forces with others to change anything took a while to sink in.

The new paperback editions come with introductions by Frances Fox Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who draws out Bernstein’s argument on this point:

The train of developments that connects changes in social conditions to a changed consciousness is not simple. 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.

Quoting that passage gives me pause—for Piven, a former president of the American Sociological Association, has in recent months been the focus of intricate theories about how Barack Obama was using ACORN to impose martial law on gated communities. Or perhaps ACORN was using Barack Obama to that end. In any case, she has been involved in some quite nefarious activity, such as encouraging poor people to vote.

No doubt this will make Piven’s endorsement of Irving Bernstein’s two books seem particularly worrying. Only someone in the Tea Party (a well-funded movement organized by professional lobbyists) is supposed to “rally with others and rise up in anger at his condition”—not an unemployed person who wants work and decent health care. Furthermore, protesters ought to direct their rage strictly at the government, and never at private enterprise.

I suppose the late Irving Bernstein will end up as a box in the big flow chart of cyclothymic, pseudopopulist political discourse. It seems like a matter of time. But if you read his books, something eventually becomes clear. He thought the New Deal had saved capitalism and made it more fair. He was not fond of the Communists, who expected the Depression would work to their advantage. Before writing his labor histories, Bernstein specialized in collective bargaining. (Aside from publishing books on the subject, he served in arbitration disputes.) The Turbulent Years is dedicated to Clark Kerr—the president of the University of California system and a major target of the radical student movement in the 1960s.

In short, when Bernstein wrote with sympathy about the strikes and street fighting of the 1930s, it was not out of an instinctive combativeness but from a sense that people do these things because they have been left no choice by “an unbalanced society” (to borrow an expression he used to describe the United States on the eve of the crash of 1929). If his book sounds almost revolutionary now, that is a sign that the ordinary frame of reference for political judgment has skewed so far to the right that reality is standing sideways.

I contacted Frances Fox Piven to ask her opinion of this assessment. “Bernstein definitely thought of himself as a centrist, but a reformer,” she told me.

He was quite contemptuous, for example, of ideologues on the Left in the 1930s. But he was never contemptuous of workers themselves, and his respect and empathy for workers forced him to pay attention, even respectful attention, to the strikes and sit-downs and demonstrations they undertook during the 1930s. One of the consequences of the rise of a turbulent and aggressive labor movement was to open up normal politics, to move the political culture to the left. The civil rights movement had a similar consequence thirty years later. It is chastening to observe that in the absence of mass movements from the bottom (and the Tea Party is not a movement from the bottom) that our politics reverts to a kind of default position in which business interest groups have outsized influence.

If a sufficiently “turbulent and aggressive” spirit had prevailed among the people working for BP just a few months ago, those five million barrels of crude oil might never have surged into the Gulf of Mexico.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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