Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: New Deal, Labor, Race, Ethnicity, Welfare Capitalism, Consumerism, Technology, Popular Culture.

Published in 1990, Lizabeth Cohen's first book, Making a New Deal, is a path-breaking study of Chicago laborers during the '20s and '30s that worked to upend many of the traditional historical interpretations of consumerism, ethnicity, and labor. Beginning with the organizing failures of the strike wave of 1919, Cohen attempts to glean how workers in Chicago came together during the Depression and New Deal to create a strong and viable union movement. As she puts it, "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. Why," Cohen asks, "did workers suddenly succeed in the thirties as both CIO trade unionists and Democratic party faithfuls?" (5)

Why, indeed? Cohen's conclusion: "Working-class Americans underwent a gradual shift in attitudes and behavior over the intervening decade and a half as a result of a wide range of social and cultural experiences. Daily life both inside and outside the workplace and factors as diverse as where workers turned for help in good times and bad, how they reacted to their employers' 'welfare capitalist' schemes, and whether they were enticed by the new chain stores, motion picture palaces, and network radio shows or preferred the comfort of more familiar ethnic associations all are important in analyzing how workers' politics evolved." (6)

As noted above, Cohen begins with the disappointments for labor in 1919, when the national strike wave that followed the end of the Great War led to severe repression and little gain for American workers. While paying attention to such external factors as the Red Scare, management repression, and the craft-bias of the AFL, Cohen is more concerned with the barriers to united effort within working-class life in 1919. "Isolated in local neighborhoods and fragmented by ethnicity and race," notes Cohen, "workers proved incapable of mounting the unified action necessary for success." (13) In other words, Polish Chicagoans eyed their Italian and Hungarian co-workers -- and particularly black and Mexican fellow laborers -- extremely warily, while native-born American workers grumbled loudly about the rising immigrant population. These ethnic tensions were often exacerbated by management, who brought in black and Mexican workers as strikebreakers and instituted "divide and conquer" wage cuts that aimed to split native-born skilled workers away from the union movement. In sum, whether the industry was steel, garments, packing, or agricultural tools, it became clear that 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." (43)

Welfare Capitalism. So, how does this unification of varying ethnic workers occur? Ironically, according to Cohen, some of the credit must go to the New Era creed of "welfare capitalism," which aimed to create a culture in which "the enlightened corporation, not the labor union or the state, would spearhead the creation of a more benign industrial society." (161) In other words, businesses of the New Era created a number of programs to benefit their workers' daily lives, from company picnics and baseball games to wage and stock incentives to experiments with Industrial Democracy. Welfare capitalism was initiated for a number of varying reasons: partly to increase company morale, partly because it was the right thing to do under the virtues of New Era industrialism, and partly (if not mostly) to forestall the threat of unions or the federal government encroaching on businessmen's turf in the name of the worker.

But, alas for the czars of industry, this last motive backfired tremendously. Rather, welfare capitalism helped to create the conditions for the CIO boom of the Thirties. For one, management's attempts to break up ethnic groups on the shop floor, "Americanize" workers, and foster company cohesion through "forced fun" social events worked to dissolve the rigid ethnic boundaries that had divided workers in 1919 and instead helped to foster an interethnic coalition of laborers, now working and playing together for the first time. "Thanks to welfare capitalists," concludes Cohen, "ethnic provincialism was breaking down at the workplace, as it was in the real world." (211.) For another, welfare capitalism set an expectation level of what laborers could and should expect from their employers, expectations that were dashed by the onset of the Depression, when welfare capitalist programs became the first victims of the rising flood of red ink that drowned corporate ledgers the nation over.

Ethnic solidarity and consumerism. The class solidarity inadvertently encouraged by the rise and fall of welfare capitalism also found a corollary in the spread of mass consumption. In 1919, Chicago's workers relied upon their ethnic neighborhoods for both entertainment and sustenance - they read ethnic-language newspapers, shopped at the corner store, and, when hard times befell them, went to small ethnic-owned banks, neighborhood mutual benefit societies, or possibly the Catholic Church for aid. And at first, the rise of consumerism and mass culture served to strengthen these ethnic ties. Workers listened to Old World music on their radios and phonographs, saw films at small theaters in their own neighborhoods, and obtained credit from their local grocer. In sum, "whether they were were ethnic workers who eased into mass culture through the local store, neighborhood theater, and ethnic radio program or black and young workers who refashioned commercialism to their own needs," Cohen notes (against the standard interpretation of an all-homogenizing consumerism), "mass culture would not make them feel any less Polish, Jewish, or black or any less of a worker." (158)

It is interesting to note in passing the unique position of black workers to the encroachment of mass culture. "Because assimilation into the mainstream was possible for white ethics," writes Cohen, "they used mass culture to stave it off by keeping their own culture alive. Ethnic records, like stores, theaters, and radio programs, set out to reinforce traditional culture in the face of threatening alternatives. Racial discrimination, on the other hand, kept blacks from the same opportunities, and pressures, to assimilate. Given that very different context, black jazz recordings, or black employment in chain stores, became a vehicle for making a claim on mainstream society that racism had otherwise denied. Mass culture, which offered ethnics a conservative retreat, became in the hands of blacks a way of turning blacks' vulnerability and dependence on mainstream society into a demand for respect." (156) Cohen returns to this intriguing relationship between consumerism and civil rights in her second book, A Consumers' Republic.

Yet, as with welfare capitalism, while consumerism might not have initially harmed ethnic communities, the Depression assuredly did. For one, hard times caused a rash of small, ethnic bank failures - "By the time of the national bank holiday in March 1933, 163 of the 199 Chicago banks located outside the Loop had closed their doors." Similarly, ethnic, neighborhood, and religious relief organizations quickly became overwhelmed by the number of workers in need of assistance. "For the Catholic Church hierarchy quite blatantly, and for other groups more subtly, "the Great Depression presented a challenge to their authority...It did not take long for clients, agencies, and civic leaders alike to recognize that the traditional voluntary approach to relief was floundering in an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude." (222-223) Finally, the Depression also caused the collapse of hundreds of small shops, theaters, radio stations, and businesses and paved the way for the increased emergence of chain stores - "By the mid-1930s, working-class people were finding more chain stores near their homes and patronizing them more frequently." (237) Moreover, "[e]ntertainment on the radio by the mid-1930s also tended to be less local and more national in origin." (327) This critical shift in consumer outlets further homogenized workers' experiences and encouraged them to think outside their own ethnic group for services, aid, entertainment, and common cause.

Thus, Cohen concludes, "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, where championing an expanded role for the state and the organization of national-level industrial unions." (253) With the ethnic connections that had sustained them previously in clear disarray, workers now turned to the CIO, the Democratic Party, the New Deal, and each other during the Depression. In other words, "during the 1930s American industrial workers sought to overcome the miseries and frustrations that long had plagued their lives neither through anticapitalist and extragovermental revolutionary uprisings nor through perpetuation of the status quo of welfare capitalism but rather through their growing investment in two institutions they felt would make capitalism more moral and fair -- an activist welfare state concerned with equalizing wealth and privilege and a national union movement of factory workers committed to keeping a check on self-interested employers." (365)

Besides offering a compelling "bottom-up" perspective on the formation of the New Deal (hence, the title), Cohen's book also deserves note for complicating two standard historical arguments, (1) that ethnicity represents a barrier to class consciousness and (2) that consumerism creates mass culture hegemonically. Rather, Cohen suggests that "ethnic communities and their leaders," such as ethnic Democratic Clubs, came instead to serve "as mediators between their members and mainstream institutions [and] proved to be crucial conduits providing new members and resources to the CIO." (362) Similarly, as noted above, Cohen argues that young ethnic workers "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." (147)

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