Book Review - Making a New Deal
Lizbeth Cohen's book Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 tells the story of those people in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s who labored in factories and manual labor positions. The book starts off with the 1919 wave of strikes that occurred among labor forces and continues through the next two decades, showing the ways in which the Depression and the New Deal affected industrial workers in Chicago. A durable union movement was created from the ashes of these economic hard times, with workers throughout the city coming together to support each other. According to Cohen, "this book is devoted to explaining 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"1. The purpose of the book was to answer the question, "Why did workers suddenly succeed in the thirties as both CIO trade unionists and Democratic party faithfuls?"2
Cohen's thesis is that "Working-class Americans underwent a gradual shift in attitudes and behavior over the intervening decade and half as a result of a wide range of social and cultural experiences"3. Effectively, due to the diversity that was experienced as a result of the many different cultures and ethnicities that came together to perform the manual labor for Chicago's infrastructure and manufacturing, it was possible for deep-seated prejudices to change and for people to work together as one, in solidarity, to get the things that they wanted. The daily lives of the workers played an incredibly important part in the creation and success of these labor movements; all of their activities, from their own cooperation to their reaction to the welfare capitalism that was displayed by their employers, helped to form the resolve that would lead them to successful unionizing.
These factors all started with the 1919 fall of unions, where workers went on strike immediately after World War I, leading to an economic repression. Cohen, instead of talking in depth about the rise of Communism, the AFL and its craft bias, and other outside attributes, she focuses on the specific man-to-man obstacles that people had to overcome back then to come together. "Isolated in local neighborhoods and fragmented by ethnicity and race, workers proved incapable of mounting the unified action necessary for success"4. This makes the book much more personal and hard-hitting, as it keeps the emphasis strictly on the workers and the aspects of the environment that they could actually influence.
There were deep racial lines in the workforce of the 1920s, particularly between Polish Chicagoans and other races, including Mexicans, blacks and Italians. Management helped to emphasize these racial lines by bringing in Mexicans and blacks to break strikes, painting them as the enemy. As a result, people who were native to Chicago were naturally wary and distrustful of people of other ethnicities. This kept them from unifying as a single force, keeping them divided and powerless. Cohen uses this particular aspect of the Chicago workforce experience as a heavy component of what compelled them to eventual success, as a "successful strike in the future would require a work force more capable of coordinating on a national level and more unified ethnically and racially"5.
Once this problem of racial tensions and divisions is realized, Cohen takes us through the various ways in which these disparate forces needed to unite. First, the New Era's credo of "welfare capitalism" had a lot to do with it; this new initiative meant that "the enlightened corporation, not the labor union or the state, would spearhead the creation of a more benign industrial society"6. As a result of this, New Era businesses set about improving conditions for their workers as the means for creating more docile, cooperative labor. While these initiatives were meant to be good for the workers, they instead were primarily meant to prevent labor unions from forming by removing any reason workers would need to form.
This blew up in their faces, due to the CIO boom that occurred in the 1930s. Due to all of the unifying initiatives that they did, including social events and Americanization of all workers, the labor force as a whole managed to form close ties and overcome racial tensions to work together and get along. "Thanks to welfare capitalists, ethnic provincialism was breaking down at the workplace, as it was in the real world"7. Welfare capitalism was providing the means by which Chicago workers were coming together as a single, unified people, instead of being divided by race.
Cohen concludes her argument by stating that "having lost faith in the capacity of their ethnic communities and welfare capitalist employers to come to the rescue, Chicago's industrial workers had found new solutions. By the mid-1930s, they, and their counterparts elsewhere in America, were championing an expanded role for the state and the organization of national-level industrial unions"9. With their newfound solidarity, Chicago workers had been able to organize themselves into a labor force that was unified in purpose and in its demands, offering a powerful piece of leverage - give in to their demands, or the factories close. No longer would they stand by and become frustrated as their livelihoods were taken away from them bit by bit; they had torn down racial lines and opted to get what they wanted together. Their activism paved the way for the establishment of large labor unions and "an activist welfare state concerned with equalizing wealth and privilege"10.
Overall, Cohen's presentation is very interesting and intriguing, providing an interesting perspective on the New Deal by painting it from the view of the common worker. They were the ones who truly "made" the new deal, as the title implies; the Chicago laborers were the people who carried out the work, and as such they needed to be compensated fairly for it. Cohen's primary argument, that class consciousness was prevented by the pervasiveness of racial barriers, is interesting and provides a bold story that changes the attitudes of the laborers as a force of nature. According to Cohen, ethnic workers in the Chicago labor force "used mass culture to create a second-generation ethnic, working-class culture that preserved the boundaries between themselves and others. That they felt alienated from their parents' world did not necessarily mean that they forsook it for a nonethnic, middle-class one"11. In this way, she denotes a more personal narrative in addition to the group effort to gain workers' rights during the Depression.
Cohen, as one of the foremost historians in the subject of 20th century American politics, is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject matter, having spent years of research into the attitudes and beliefs that circulated around the Chicago labor force in the early 20th century. The result is an exciting, interesting presentation that revolves around two levels of conflict: the workers against themselves and then the united workers against the corporations. It combines class warfare with race warfare in a way that is both triumphant and historically accurate, making for a fascinating way to learn about this unique aspect of American culture and history.
Cohen's evidence comes from historical accounts, statistics, and financial reports that stem from throughout the era of the 1920s and 1930s. The anecdotal and historical evidence that she acquires allows her book to be well-informed and as accurate as possible. This provides a measure of believability when she describes just how bad it got in the 1920s during the Great Depression.
This book is a fantastic way to more accurately understand what was going through the minds of people in that era. In those days, immigration was still booming in America; combined with the Great Depression, the lower class had plenty to worry about. Between the loss of existing jobs and what jobs were left being taken by new immigrants who would work for less, the existing native workers were understandably upset, and would think negatively of other races. However, with the changing cultural times, and the widespread effects of the New Deal, it became clear that what was needed was to come together for the common interest.
With the help of welfare capitalism and the tearing down of racial barriers, the unionizing of Chicago laborers helped usher in a new era of understanding and cooperation - at least as far as it was mutually beneficial. While there were (and are) still many steps to take in that direction, Cohen's book gives us an indepth look at just how far the people of the early 20th century had come towards that end.