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Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1990)

por Lizabeth Cohen

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This book examines how it was possible and what it meant for ordinary factory workers to become effective unionists and national political participants by the mid-1930s. We follow Chicago workers as they make choices about whether to attend ethnic benefit society meetings or to go to the movies, whether to shop in local neighborhood stores or patronize the new A & P. Although workers may not have been political in traditional terms during the '20s, as they made daily decisions like these, they declared their loyalty in ways that would ultimately have political significance. As the depression worsened in the 1930s, not only did workers find their pay and working hours cut or eliminated, but the survival strategies they had developed during the 1920s were undermined. Looking elsewhere for help, workers adopted new ideological perspectives and overcame longstanding divisions among themselves to mount new kinds of collective action. Chicago workers' experiences as citizens, ethnics and blacks, wage earners and consumers all converged to make them into New Deal Democrats and CIO unionists.… (mais)
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In Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Lizabeth Cohen argues that the external influences of the 1919 Red Scare and 1935 Wagner Act “by no means tell the whole story” of industrial workers’ political participation in the 1930s and “that their effectiveness in thwarting or encouraging workers’ efforts depended as much on working people’s own inclinations as on the strengths of their opponents or allies” (pg. 5). Her book contends “that what matters most in explaining why workers acted politically in the ways they did during the mid-thirties is the change in workers’ own orientation during the 1920s and 1930s” (pg. 5). To this end, she argues, “Patterns of loyalty to ethnic organizations, welfare agencies, employers, stores, banks, and theatres, to say nothing of more traditional kinds of allegiances to political parties and unions, revealed the choices that workers made in living out their lives” (pg. 8). Cohen’s history thus alternates between macro and micro level examinations, using Chicago as its source based on Cohen’s assertion that the Depression affected all areas in the United States equally, but that Chicago has a good source of records.
Examining the immediate post-war neighborhoods of Chicago, Cohen writes, “Mass production workers and their families, whichever of these five communities they lived in, shared an orientation to ‘localism,’ both cultural and geographic. Race, ethnicity, job, and neighborhood served as boundaries, nor bridges, among industrial workers in Chicago” (pg. 38). Due to this, Cohen counters other historians’ arguments that mass culture broke down these boundaries. She contends, “Mass culture – whether chain stores, standard brands, motion pictures, or the radio – did not in itself challenge working people’s existing values and relationships. Rather, the impact of mass culture depended on the social and economic contexts in which it developed and the manner in which it was experienced, in other words, how mass culture was produced, distributed, and consumed. As those circumstances changed by the end of the 1920s, so too did the impact of mass culture on Chicago workers” (pg. 101). Giving the example of radio, Cohen writes, “Workers discovered that participating in radio, as in mass consumption and the movies, did not require repudiation of established social identities” (pg. 138). Employers, however, actively sought to undo this ethnic solidarity as they recognized the threat it posed to the factory system.
Cohen describes employers as playing ethnic groups against each other. She continues, “More importantly, when employers tried to isolate workers from each other and orient them individually toward the company, they intended that no kind of peer community, ethnic or interethnic, would intervene. Employers wanted workers to depend solely on the boss” (pg. 167). They did this through the creation of welfare capitalism, encouraging workers to join factory insurance plans and fostering a sense of communal loyalty to the business. There was one drawback. Cohen notes, “Although employers failed to realize it, their determination to mix ethnic groups in the factory broadened the new alliances that output restriction had created among workers” (pg. 202). And, even in the worst of the Depression, workers “were unwilling to jettison capitalism” (pg. 209). While they remained committed to capitalism, workers in Chicago realized the ethnic and religious associations were not up to the challenge.
Cohen writes, “As their troubles increased and they exhausted the informal networks available to them, Chicago workers looked, as was their habit, to the ethnic- and religious-affiliated community institutions that had long supported them in good and bad times. When the Great Depression made it harder for workers to hold jobs, to pay bills, rents, and mortgages, and to cope emotionally, they looked for salvation to their old protectors” (pg. 209). When those groups could not help, workers “advocated the strengthening of two institutions to rebalance power within capitalist society: the federal government and labor unions” (pg. 252). Though “the American welfare state born during the depression turned out to be weaker than that of other western industrial nations such as England, France, and Germany,” Chicago workers quickly came to depend on New Deal programs (pg. 267). Furthermore, “Workers were all the more enthusiastic about the government’s new role in employment because their bosses deeply resented the state’s intrusion into matters they considered their own prerogative” (pg. 282). This led workers to bring “their experiences with welfare capitalism and the depression directly to bear on their struggle for a union” (pg. 321). Cohen concludes, by the 1940s, “workers’ ethnic loyalty did not so much disappear with this reorientation as change. Rather than ethnic communities and their leaders actually delivering independent services to members through welfare and benefit organizations, banks, and stores, by the late thirties they served as mediators between their members and mainstream institutions” (pg. 362). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Jul 10, 2017 |
Making a New Deal is more than a big step in the right direction. What Cohen achieves is a coherent, persuasive explanation, from the bottom, up, for the loyalty of working people to the CIO and the New Deal Democratic Party. In the process, she describes how workers moved from a local, ethnic orientation toward a more cosmopolitan, national outlook suffused with class interests. By refusing to read back a clear trajectory toward integration and conservatism and instead crafting her analysis on the basis of workers' own experiences and values over two crucial decades, she has not only illuminated a whole range of problems and moved us toward a new periodization. She has also restored much of the drama to what is afterall a pretty good story.
 
Lizabeth Cohen's treatise, elegantly constructed and coherently argued, contributes substantially to our understanding of the social and labor history of the interwar years. Readers will be informed and instructed by it. Given the scope of the study, Cohen displays remarkable awareness of the distinctive histories of Chicago's ethnic communities, skillfully interweaving in her narrative ethnographic details that illuminate the lives of individuals, families and communities. She has been resourceful in tapping sources which allow plain people to speak for themselves: oral histories, letters written to FDR, community studies.
 
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This book examines how it was possible and what it meant for ordinary factory workers to become effective unionists and national political participants by the mid-1930s. We follow Chicago workers as they make choices about whether to attend ethnic benefit society meetings or to go to the movies, whether to shop in local neighborhood stores or patronize the new A & P. Although workers may not have been political in traditional terms during the '20s, as they made daily decisions like these, they declared their loyalty in ways that would ultimately have political significance. As the depression worsened in the 1930s, not only did workers find their pay and working hours cut or eliminated, but the survival strategies they had developed during the 1920s were undermined. Looking elsewhere for help, workers adopted new ideological perspectives and overcame longstanding divisions among themselves to mount new kinds of collective action. Chicago workers' experiences as citizens, ethnics and blacks, wage earners and consumers all converged to make them into New Deal Democrats and CIO unionists.

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