Alexis Oustinoff

March 6, 2003

Lizabeth Cohen “Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939”

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 544 pages.


Cohen’s book, which began as her dissertation and is written as such, aims to explain how industrial workers who were powerless in the 1910’s became politically active by the 1930’s and what that involvement meant to them and to national politics. She states that she will argue how much of this difference can be attributed to outside factors and how much is attributed to their own desire to implement change, but in the same paragraph acknowledges that in the course of her research she has discovered that it was so much more than politics to these individuals and they capitalized on the power of the union to catapult the Democrats into their role as the party of the working class union members.

Cohen uses Chicago as the basis of her study because she feels it is representative of other industrial cities but with the diversity lacking in a New England mill town. She focuses on three industries, steel, agricultural implements, and meatpacking but offers statistics and data for other industries in Chicago. The book starts in 1919 which was a tumultuous year in Chicago with a recession which turned into race riots and labor strikes and the failure of a Labor Party to have any real effect on local or national level politics offers a place of embarkation for Cohen’s story.

A third of the book explains the various ethnic groups and their respective neighborhoods and jobs of the 1910’s. Labor issues, housing shortages, and immigration reform in the early 1920’s worried many ethnic leaders that their communities were losing their ties as people were becoming more “Americanized”, living in diverse neighborhoods, changing their names to more pronounceable versions and adopting American culture. In response many leaders tried to increase ethnic pride by encouraging the celebration of holidays and create clubs and organizations to teach their languages to their children, provide assistance to the destitute or elderly and those moving from other areas or the homeland, and take on charitable roles which would become more important as the decade wore on.

By  the end of the 1920’s many immigrants and first generation Americans had been pulled away from their usual preference of local ethnic shops, banks, fraternal organizations, and amusements in favor of new chain stores, federal banks, movies, and radios. While their ethnic counterparts may have provided comfort and pride, the national banks were federally insured and would not falter at the tremendous rate of local banks and offered Liberty bonds and other investment opportunities previously unavailable to these ethnic communities. Chain stores brought new products and standard brands made popular through advertising but Cohen points out that many ethnic communities were not overwhelmed by these options and merely integrated them into their lifestyle if they reflected the neighborhood with the exception of African-Americans who were rapidly buying into this new American culture as they were permitted to. Much to manufacturer’s dismay, many immigrants did not buy the latest products and favored a mentality of savings as even in the best of times industrial laborers could be out of work a month or more a year. Often the reason for buying new items was because of ethnic ties, rather than for eschewing them as Italian families would save up to by a phonograph to listen to Italian operas for example. Not all products had such connections, however, and most of the chain and department stores like A&P or Sears Roebuck in Chicago in the middle of the 1920’s were in middle and upper class neighborhoods.

The next section deals with employer- employee relations and how the balance has shifted from an employer’s market before the war to an employee’s market after the war which is aided by the increased demand for manufactured goods and therefore labor. In what Cohen sees as “welfare capitalism”, the major factories are beginning to understand how much job turnover and workplace contention are costing them and in a paternalistic movement are instituting policies to keep their employees happy with things like wage incentives, vacation plans, pensions, stock ownership, and benefits packages. The foreman style factory is out. There was no longer an overseer who reports to management and ruthlessly drives the employees. Factory positions that require repetitive output were tested to see what the average output would be for a shift and workers who exceeded that rate would be paid a premium for that output with a portion going to the supervisor. By guaranteeing a base salary plus the potential for premium pay, workers were more efficient than when there was pressure to restrict out put by fellow employees and slow downs in hopes of extending work. Cohen argues that individualizing wage scales also allowed increased mobility in the corporation and began rewarding loyal employees with promotions and benefits which lead to more job security. Employers were threatened by strong ethnic ties as they were responsible for the much of the militancy in 1919 and competed with the factories for allegiance. They often provided social outings, musical performances and other forms of recreation in hopes of reducing dependency on ethnic organizations for such things and degrade the power of those groups. Chicago’s manufacturers also saw their “welfare capitalism” as a means to avoid a welfare state and the threat of increased government intervention in their affairs.

Despite such improvements in compensation, workplace conditions were not improving. Hours were still long and many had to work on Sundays at peak times. Efforts for pay raises were often met with resistance by management and many who had bought into their company plan were selling their stock despite company urgings to hold on to it. Many employees would change positions several times had no real loyalty to the company. Workers became empowered by the welfare capitalist system and had used the programs offered to their advantage and had begun to expect those offerings as part of the job rather than as perks and when their boss wasn’t able to help in a time of need the employees went elsewhere for what they needed. Cohen turns this ability of employers to be benevolent into “moral capitalism” which would shape the union movements in the 1930’s.

The section on the depression brings the first two sections together as the demand for manufactured products go down and workers loose their jobs and then their houses that they had bought with mortgages and cars on credit. Many retreat back to their ethnic roots for solidarity and assistance. The ethnic charities become the last resort for many families’ survival. But these organizations were hit as well as their local banks faltered and real estate and stock investments crashed.

Only in the final three chapters or third of the book does the political angle emerge. In the early 1920’s  many immigrants or first generation American were not interested in politics at the national level as so many of their needs and interests were met at the local level, either by their community associations, ethnics groups, or for a time, their employers. But during the depression these groups were not enough to provide for those in need and people began looking elsewhere for answers. First and second generation immigrants are almost two-thirds of Chicago’s population.  Many had not voted in presidential elections in the 1920’s but by 1936, 65% of Chicago voted Democratic. Part of this is due to Czech politician Anton Cermak who becomes mayor and unites many ethnic groups by being the “ethnic” candidate who talked like them and whose name was strange. Other allegiance is based on new deal reforms instituted by Roosevelt which seem obvious such as saving their homes with the Home Owners Loan Corporation. When that protection had run out, many of the rank and file union members and local associations, protested, lobbied and demanded real benefits.

Cohen does mention the possibility for Socialism and Communism being a real threat during this crisis, although she downplays the importance. Class becomes the defining line in politics at this time. The different ethnic groups coalesce and income becomes the voting line rather than ethnicity. Cohen’s chapter titled “Workers Make a New Deal” would be better titled “Workers Force a New Deal” as she does little in the way of offering evidence that these workers actually participate in the creation of the New Deal reforms as opposed to voting them in. Cohen claims their involvement as a voting bloc earned them more political capital that otherwise would have gone towards the working class but hundreds of thousands of Americans were experiencing similar hardships that she offers no alternative to. Short of resurrecting a labor party which had previously failed there does not seem to be much of an alternative to the Democratic Party for these workers.

            The laborers use what gains they had received in the “Welfare Capitalism” of the 1920’s as a stepping stone for what they wanted to see as basic working conditions and formed a host of unions in the mid to late 1930’s. CIO and other union leaders made sure that the previous ethnic barriers were torn down and membership in the unions was skyrocketing beyond what had been achieved in the previous labor movements. The rank and file members felt that they had worked hard for America and deserved state welfare support and that unionizing would be the way to ensure those demands were met and ultimately created powerful labor unions.

            Cohen includes a large portion of cultural and social history that while interesting on its own, eclipses the briefer sections on the New Deal and union activism. The section on the depression glosses over the fact that a lot of these workers were unemployed and it is hard to make demands when work is very hard to get at all and coverage of the early 1930’s is limited. On the whole, the work is well researched and extensively end noted and indexed.