The Turbulent Years

A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941

“A broad panorama in brilliant prose.”
American Historical Review

From the birth of the CIO to the sit-down strikes that helped to organize the auto industry, the 1930s have come to define the high point of labor militancy. In this groundbreaking work of labor history, Irving Bernstein uncovers a period when industrial trade unionism, working-class power, and socialism became rallying cries for millions of workers in the fields, mills, mines, and factories of America.

To be sure, contemporary observers see few signs of the kind of mass protests that characterized The Turbulent Years among those hard hit by economic crisis today. . . . But this was also the dominant view of the national mood during the run-up to the election of 1932. . . . True, here and there people protested, sometimes furiously. But overall, people seemed simply weary or defeated. But not for long. There are many lessons to be learned from The Turbulent Years, but perhaps the most potent is that the popular moods and understandings that fuel protest movements can change, and change rapidly. We should hope for this in our own time, and we should do more than hope. We should work to make it true.
—From the new introduction by Frances Fox Piven

About the author

Irving Bernstein (1916–2001) was a distinguished labor historian and teacher. He earned a PhD at Harvard University where he studied with Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. He taught from 1948 to 1986 at UCLA, doing research at the Institute of Industrial Relations and teaching in the Department of Political Science.

Frances Fox Piven is the author of several books on the social history of the Great Depression, including Regulating the Poor and Poor People’s Movements, co-authored with Richard Cloward. More recently, she has written The War at Home, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, and Keeping Down the Black Vote.


"it's a good time to have a new edition of Irving Bernstein's two studies The Lean Years (1960) and The Turbulent Years (1969)…[that] offer, between them, a classic survey of how American workers fared during the 1920s and '30s. SPOILER ALERT: They tended to do best when they had the confidence and the willingness to challenge their employers -- and not just over wages.…What set Bernstein's work apart from the usual run of scholarship on American labor history at mid-century was his strong interest in the life and activity of non-unionized people -- including those working in agriculture, or leaving it behind for new kinds of employment, in the case of African-Americans leaving the South. And Bernstein wrote with grace. He had a knack for the thumbnail biography of ordinary people: There are numerous miniature portraits embedded in the epic. He was sensitive to the changes in mood among workers as they faced the boom of the 1920s (which passed most of them by) and the agony of the Depression (which hit them hardest). In many cases, they blamed themselves for their misery. The possibility of joining forces with others to change anything took a while to sink in."
—Scott McClemee, Inside Higher Ed


The Turbulent Years was published with the support of the Jon Kelley Wright Workers' Memorial Fund. To learn more about this project, visit