Making a New Deal

Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1910-1939 by Lizabeth Cohen

            Somewhat ironically, the extremely difficult economic times of the 1930s saw the American labor movement realize its greatest successes. Previous decades had seen labor make brief gains that were quickly washed away in a flood of economic disaster, vehement employer opposition, and working class divisions by race and ethnicity. But during the Great Depression and the New Deal things changed, worker solidarity increased and energetic new organizers of the CIO were able to make sustained gains only dreamed of in earlier decades. Lizabeth Cohen seeks to explain this radical reverse of labor’s fortunes by closely examining the lives of workers – of all races, ethnicities, and genders, inside and outside of the workplace – in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s.

Cohen’s explanation of labor’s reversal of fortune has three elements: the Great Depression, the rise of mass consumption among workers, and the CIO. In Cohen’s assessment the Depression smashed to pieces the elements of working class life that had worked to prevent the development of a unified working class culture. Before the Depression “working class families had depended for their welfare needs on informal networks and formal organizations of their ethnic communities and less reliably on their welfare capitalist employers.”[1] They lived in homogenous ethnic communities and patronized their local entertainments and shopping. Economic catastrophe destroyed or significantly damaged this economic and cultural infrastructure of working people’s lives.

This created the economic and cultural space for the second aspect of Cohen’s explanation to take root: mass consumption by the working classes. With the working classes’ traditional economic and cultural outlets reeling from the Depression, working people turned to the only option left standing: mass culture. Working people began for the first time, in large numbers, to patronize “movie palaces,” chain stores, and other bastions of American mass culture. Traditionally this move is scene as a roadblock to working class organizing for “the assumption that mass culture was by definition homogenizing, depoliticizing, and ultimately a tool of the ruling class to control the masses.”[2] Cohen turns this argument around and argues it was this embrace of mass culture created the cultural space for the CIO, the final element of her explanation, to move in and organize the working classes in mass. Working class people for the first time had developed new identities that expanded beyond their ethnic or racial loyalties and included a shared experience of mass consumption. The CIO was able to use this as a cultural base to build a sense of broad based working class solidarity and “a culture of unity.”

The CIO’s ability to create and organize “a culture of unity” was remarkably broad in the 1930s. The CIO was able to not just transcend ethnic boundaries but racial ones as well.  While white and black working class unity did not survive the turmoil of the post-war period, Cohen notes that it is important to note the unity that was created in the 1930s, however fleeting it might have been. The only group that was mostly excluded from this new “culture of unity” was women. The CIO’s organizing strategies proved to be patriarchal and while women served as important symbols in the movement, in actual practice they were marginalized.

Cohen ends her narrative in 1939 with the coming of the war, thus excluding from her narrative the set backs to unity among ethnic whites and African-Americans and Hispanic works of the war years and afterwards. This is a purposeful intellectual move on her part, for she is trying to stress the innovation and potential of this period, in contrast to the darker years of the 1920s and earlier. This decision, however admirable, does open the book up to being criticized as an examination of a brief period that was all sound and fury but ended up signifying nothing. That said, Cohen’s book is a powerfully argued and a very convincing account of working class organizing during the Great Depression.

TIE-IN: In her stress on the move towards a political economy of consumption – as opposed to reforming capitalism – Cohen lines up well with Alan Brinkley’s The End of the Reform. Her account of the 1930s hooks up well with that in Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union, especially with its stress on the possibility of a working class “culture of unity” which cuts across racial and ethnic lines.

[1] Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 362.

[2] Cohen discusses this traditionalist Marxist/materialist argument in: Ibid, xxii and passim.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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